Archive forOctober, 2002

JERRY CAN’T GET NO SATISFACTION, YADDA-YADDA-YADDA

I saw the Jerry Seinfeld documentary Comedian yesterday afternoon. It’s a bit slight, but I found it more engrossing than I thought I would. Seinfeld comes off as believably devoted to the art form of standup, albeit the kind of devotee that takes private jets from gig to gig.

Post-Lenny Bruce, comedy and rock n’ roll have been compared to each other frequently; Saturday Night Live, with its mix of sketches and rock performances, only cemented the parallel. But watching Comedian helped me hone in on how comedy is a distinct form from rock-era music, and it’s all about the writing. What’s killing Seinfeld, in his quest to blow up his old act and start back at square one, isn’t getting reacquainted with smoky dive clubs or getting reacquainted with the practice of selling material to an audience. It’s the material itself – if you think coming up with new variations on eight notes plus sharps and flats is hard, try coming up with new snarky observations on airplanes and sex.

After his smash sitcom went off the air, Seinfeld did an HBO special, I’m Telling You for the Last Time, in which he made a big deal about retiring his old material. These were the jokes that had gotten him through everything from early Caroline’s gigs, to his first appearance on Carson (and his 10th), to the bookends of Seinfeld itself. I remembered thinking at the time, when I watched the promos for the HBO show: “Is it that big a deal? Isn’t it a good thing, that he’s retiring all this stale material?” To answer my own questions: Yes, and yes, but good luck replacing it. As Seinfeld wanders through the clubs in Comedian and encounters his peers (Chris Rock, Jay Leno, Colin Quinn, Robert Klein, Mario Joyner), you can tell they’re sort of bemused – and terrified – by the challenge Seinfeld has created for himself. No regular, beating-the-brick-walls standup gives up all of his material in one shot. It would be like the Stones giving up “Satisfaction.”

Or worse. The more I watched Comedian, the more I realized dropping a lifetime of standup material á là Seinfeld is like the Stones dropping “Satisfaction” and “Honky Tonk Women” and “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” and “Start Me Up” all at once and trying to tour exclusively behind the songs on Mick’s last solo album. And even then, the Stones would probably find a way to make it work, not because they’re the Stones, but because rock n’ roll expects, even demands novelty (which explains the presence of four new songs, however limp, on the Stones’ just-released greatest-hits album). Yes, it’s been said that a rock act can make a career out of one hit song, but most rock and pop acts continue to try to produce all-new collections of songs regularly. The old favorites will always be trotted out for a concert or played the most on the radio, but to remain viable, any rock act has to keep producing new material.

Comedy, in a sense, is like a freeze-dried version of jazz. The material emerges in its finished form only in performance – but then, unlike jazz, that particular, nuanced performance has to be frozen in its best form and reenacted at that level night after night. What Seinfeld was giving up when he tossed his old material in 1999 wasn’t the jokes. It was the delivery, the pauses, the hand gestures, the turns of phrase that sold the jokes to a crowd. A jazz album may capture Miles Davis doing an incredible version of “So What,” but there might have been a better version in a smaller, unrecorded gig months or even years later; at the very least, each version of “So What,” because of the nature of jazz, would be different. By contrast, a journeyman comedian will have the exact timing of a joke down and repeat it over and over again. What keeps it from being pure theater – or what makes it like rock, not jazz – is that the material is exclusively theirs. You can’t do a show of “standards” in comedy unless they’re your own. No standup ever does a collection of Bill Cosby’s or Richard Pryor’s greatest hits, much as they might like to; a Chris Rock standup gig has to consist of material written by, honed by and tailored for Chris Rock. Those comedians that do rip off material aren’t noted for their clever way with “covers,” the way Aretha Franklin improved Otis Redding’s “Respect” or Run-DMC did a killer version of Aerosmith’s “Walk This Way”; they are called thieves.

There are pros and cons to each approach. In rock, we suffer through albums of new material by acts long past their prime who should really only be touring with their old hits. In comedy, a comedian in his prime is doing all hits. On the other hand, in comedy, catching Jerry Seinfeld on two talk shows back-to-back means you’re likely to hear some of the same jokes, and they won’t be funny the second time around. Seeing a favorite band twice back-to-back produces nothing but pleasurable recognition when they play their best songs.

I basically respect Seinfeld for trying to move on but find myself a little flabbergasted by the standup format after watching Comedian: Isn’t honing the same 45 to 60 minutes of material night after night mind-numbing? When you finally perfect the material, doesn’t delivering it make you feel like an automaton? Obviously there are comedians who successfully work in new material. But comedy will never have a Madonna, someone who totally surprises you with a new approach every few years and makes it work. At best, standup comedy by a veteran is like a reunion of Simon and Garfunkel: The pleasures are easy and you can sing along, but not only did it stop trying to be innovative a long time ago, it may never have been that innovative in the first place.

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MAYBE HE’S JUST LIKE HIS MOTHER – SHE’S NEVER SATISFIED

Eminem’s movie 8 Mile comes out in a couple of weeks, and the soundtrack comes out today. Like his latest album, The Eminem Show, which has dominated the charts since its release in May, the soundtrack is expected to top the chart with huge sales. It could well end up ruling right through Christmas.

In years past, there have been other soundtracks that have dominated the charts at the holidays, when record sales are typically highest. In almost all cases, the smash soundtrack is one where a pop star is crossing over to act in a movie. In 1992, the Whitney Houston-dominated Bodyguard soundtrack owned the season and even, at one point, set a one-week sales record, moving over a million copies just before Christmas (the record has since been eclipsed). Houston also dominated December 1995, when she costarred in Waiting to Exhale and its soundtrack – actually a diva-studded affair with only a couple of Houston cuts – topped the charts for just over a month. Even in the ’60s, soundtracks were popular stocking stuffers: Elvis Presley’s Blue Hawaii dominated the charts for 20 weeks at the end of 1961, and the Beatles’ A Hard Day’s Night topped the album chart in the summer of 1964 and stayed there almost through Thanksgiving. In almost all cases (except for Houston in Exhale), the soundtrack album was bigger than usual because of pop-image synergy: each musical act starred in a film whose plot thinly veiled the act’s real-life persona.

The king of this phenomenon – his soundtrack topped the charts for a full six months in 1984–85 – was Prince. Though A Hard Day’s Night was easily the better movie and The Bodyguard was higher-grossing, Purple Rain created the modern template for rock-movie crossover, in that it concocted a half-real, half-fantastic legend and let the music play a larger-than-usual role in defining the legend. The Beatles were already revealed and defined by the time their film debut hit screens; and Houston may have played a reclusive pop star in her film debut, but The Bodyguard revealed nothing about her life (nor pretended to), and its signature song, the Dolly Parton-penned “I Will Always Love You,” was a decade-old ballad not even written for the movie. Purple Rain caught everyone by surprise because both the film and its songs defined Prince in one stroke. Even though the movie was a flattering, at times absurd version of Prince’s life, it seemed more revealing than it was, and fans ate it up. It was an ingenious approach – and whether Eminem, a.k.a. Marshall Mathers, realizes it or not, it’s exactly the template that he’s following.

A couple of critics who’ve had advance previews of 8 Mile have already pointed out the movie’s structural similarity to Purple Rain: widely admired pop star from small, previously undocumented musical subculture stars in fictionalized, self-aggrandizing version of own life. Prince’s mid-’80s Minneapolis, hotbed of quirky synth-funk, equals Eminem’s late-’90s 8 Mile section of Detroit, hotbed of battle-rhyming hip-hop.

These are appropriate, if facile, comparisons, but the moment I realized what Eminem and director Curtis Hanson were up to was when I heard the music playing behind the first 8 Mile trailers this summer. “Cleanin’ Out My Closet,” from the already-released Eminem Show album, was featured prominently in the trailer and served as a sort of preview single for the movie. You may have heard it on the radio by now: “I’m sorry Mama/I never meant to hurt you/I never meant to make you cry/But tonight, I’m cleanin’ out my closet.” These lyrics – so broadly similar to Prince’s “When Doves Cry” it’s almost comical – are actually the politest words in the song; Eminem spends most of the verses delineating the many ways he blames his mother for the pain in his life. The song would be just the latest ignominious addition to the canon of Complaint Rock that has dominated the radio for the last half-decade (cf. Korn, Limp, Papa Roach, etc.), except Em’s laid-back, contemplative flow and Dr. Dre’s percolating backing track give “Closet” a cool-headedness that belies the lyrics. More important, like “When Doves Cry,” the song borrows elements directly from the artist’s life and recasts them cinematically – big enough for any listener to project themselves into – without actually revealing much about the artist’s deeper emotions at all. We relate to Marshall Mathers’s defiance and anger, the way we empathized with Prince Rogers Nelson’s defiance and confusion, but “Eminem” and “Prince” remain larger than life, unattainably cool.

The current single, “Lose Yourself,” is Eminem’s “Let’s Go Crazy,” a more upbeat track whose first job is getting people into theaters and second job is exhorting them to let loose. The first single proper from the soundtrack, “Lose” is already a bigger hit than “Cleanin’” was, racing to #2 on the charts. It better represents the movie because it showcases a victorious Eminem, rocking a crowd, marshaling their mania for his own catharsis – the movie’s ultimate theme. In the “Lose Yourself” video, and in the latest ads for the movie, Em commands his Detroit audience with the same bravado Prince exhibited in front of the crowd at Minneapolis’s First Avenue in his filmed performance of “Let’s Go Crazy.” (Back in ‘84, though “When Doves Cry” was the bigger and more acclaimed hit, “Let’s Go Crazy” was the song featured in all trailers and commercials for Purple Rain.) All “Lose Yourself” needs is Em reciting a “Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today for this thing called life” intro, and the parallel would be perfect.

No word yet on whether 8 Mile sports a closing gospel ballad a la the song “Purple Rain.” And I have no idea if, in the movie, Em tricks costar Brittany Murphy into doffing her clothes and bathing in the waters of Lake Minnetonka. (Can you swim naked in the Great Lakes?)

It’s easy to get glib with these comparisons, and to be sure, there are some significant dissimilarities between 8 Mile and Purple Rain – mostly in Eminem’s favor: his film boasts an Oscar-caliber director in Hanson (L.A. Confidential, Wonder Boys) and an Oscar-winning costar in Kim Basinger; Prince made do with hack director Albert Magnoli and where-is-she-now costar Apollonia Kotero. More significantly, Em needs this movie now less than Prince did in 1984 – His Purpleness was at that time an acclaimed pop act with several hits under his belt but no #1 smashes, his zeitgeist-defining cultural contributions yet to be made. Eminem has pretty much been casting the zeitgeist in his image for three years now. Conversely, that means that 8 Mile will produce less of the pleasureable shock of emergence than Purple Rain did in 1984. A star was born, Slim Shady, back in 1999, and our boy’s already all grown up by now. But to film critics and movie audiences who don’t watch MTV, Eminem’s new project will probably come as something of a revelation.

There’s at least one way in which Prince has Eminem clearly beat: no way are D12 any match for Morris Day and the Time. I mean, I’d like to hear Mathers’s hometown crew try to top “Jungle Love.” Oh-ee-oh-ee-oh!

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I STILL HAVEN’T FOUND WHAT I’M LOOKING FOR

In her latest post, “Smily” has done an expert job summarizing our weekend trip to Las Vegas, in terms of aesthetics and diversions. Please read her LiveJournal for an eloquent rundown.

(Smily is awfully diplomatic in her description of the exurban Vegas wasteland in which my Aunt Rita and her husband Bobby have settled. I will say, since they’re my family and I’m allowed to be brutally honest about them, that the Vegas subrubs are creepily characterless and not my cup of tea. I’m glad Rita and Bobby are happy, and god knows one’s housing dollar goes further out there; but to me, the Vegas suburbs are what happens when bad town planning happens to good people.)

If Emily sounds a little exhausted in her post – well, it’s the jetlag. But it’s also, I think, the natural response to prolonged exposure to Las Vegas’s merciless overstimulation. Indeed, I don’t know where to begin to critique Vegas as a pop-culture mecca; kitsch and ephemera are so deeply rooted into its identity as a city, I feel like deconstructing it would be like writing an essay on the wetness of water. In any case, I did make a couple of observations…

  • Vegas wishes the ’90s never happened. With rare exception, the music I heard all weekend was an unironic tribute to the Reagan years. I heard more Phil Collins in three days in Vegas than I’ve heard on the radio in the past year. And when I say Vegas has an ’80s jones, I don’t just mean the city’s tastes stop in 1989; they also don’t go back further than 1980 – I didn’t hear any Sinatra, disco or even Wayne Newton as we wandered from hotel to casino to theme restaurant to audio-suffused walkway. And I didn’t get a sense that this was nostalgia – unlike New York, which is currently strip-mining the ’80s for throwback club music and snarky fashion accents. In Vegas, when you hear Michael Jackson’s Siegfried and Roy theme song playing at the end of the Teutonic tiger tamers’ show, you can be fairly assured it was playing there 15 years earlier.

    The obvious explanation is that the ’80s were a Vegas kind of decade, a shameless Dynasty-and-Gekko era well suited to a place where more is more. Except I think we all know by now that, in terms of shameless greed, celebrity worship and irrational exuberance, the 1990s were not that different from the preceding decade. So why isn’t Vegas celebrating the days of Britney and Backstreet and Melrose Place? I think there’s actually a subtler, but more basic, reason why the ’80s feels right to the tastemakers in Vegas: it was the last time America had a mass culture, before micro-demographic radio and 200-channel TV rent us asunder. When your guests come from all over the country, why alienate Garth Brooks fans by playing Lauryn Hill? Why irritate ‘N Sync-loving teenagers with soccer-mom-friendly Michael Bolton? Why scare ’80s Madonna fans by playing ’90s Madonna music? In Vegas, it’s still Morning in America(TM).

  • A new generation of Vegas performer is being anointed. It’s still five months away, but the debut of Celine Dion at Caesar’s Palace for a multi-year stint is being advertised, oppressively, up and down the Strip. Dion’s chest-thumping yell-singing is a no-brainer for Vegas enshrinement, but there also seems to be a certain breed of erstwhile bad boy that Vegas is getting comfortable with – an upcoming double-bill of Aerosmith and Kid Rock was getting heavy advertising all weekend. Still, when it comes to performers, Vegas doesn’t need its boys to be too bad: ensconced at the MGM Grand is ’80s heartthrob Rick Springfield, starring in the lavish production EFX Alive, which I’m sure will make his old General Hospital following swoon.
  • Vegas is suffering a severe Elvis shortage. Okay, admittedly, we didn’t make it to a quickie casino wedding chapel, but aren’t Elvis impersonators supposed to be wandering Vegas’s streets like cops on the beat? We saw one, count him, ONE jumpsuited-and-muttonchopped doppelganger all weekend, setting up a forlorn take-a-pictue-with-the-King stand in front of New York, New York. He dutifully posed for a shot with my cousin Joanne, but a day later, when Emily and I happened to wander by his spot again, Elvis had not only Left The Building – he was never to return. I know his big chart comeback has made him hot again, but you’d think the King would think twice before letting down his faithful Sin City fans. After all, 50,000,000 of them can’t be wrong.

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THE RETURN OF THE LIVE ALBUM

I’ll be offline for a few days – Emily and I are joining a bunch of my cousins for a three-day trip to Las Vegas (eek!…more to come on that when we return). But before we head off to the airport, in the limited time I have, I thought I’d share my latest record review. It will be published in a couple of months in CMJ New Music Monthly, a magazine for which I’ve been a regular writer for just under a decade.

I was fortunate enough to be assigned a double-review this month, comparing the latest live albums by Hayden and Ben Folds. It’s funny – the “contrast n’ compare” thing was such a pain in high school and college, but in my postcollegiate life I get a charge out of writing this way. Anyway, I get enough mileage making connections between pop-culture ephemera that have nothing to do with each other; so it’s a pleasure to compare two things that at least have the live-album format in common.

See y’all next week. Vegas, baby!

* * * * * * * *

HAYDEN, Live at Convocation Hall – Badman/Hardwood

BEN FOLDS, Ben Folds Live – Epic/Sony

In rock, the live album has undergone two distinct phases: the virtuoso ’70s, when sprawling, noodly live LPs defined classic and art rock; and the “unplugged” ’90s, when MTV’s back-to-basics concept quickly became ornate and slick. With both approaches exhausted, two new live albums – from Tin-Pan-slacker Ben Folds and low-fi folkster Hayden – make the genre viable again by blending virtuosity with fan-embracing intimacy.

Hayden’s Live at Convocation Hall is a throwback – it’s a double-album. What’s also charmingly traditional about it is the fact that it documents just one performance, in Toronto last March, with little apparent editing – even the goofiest audience shout-outs remain (including a marriage proposal from a guy). You’d call it Hayden Comes Alive!, but Hayden live is hardly flashy; the Canadian sleepyhead plays mostly unaccompanied and sticks to the languid cult-folk that has become his trademark. The show may well be too stylistically consistent – though Hayden’s songs draw on the arch rock of Sebadoh or Pavement, a newbie approaching this recording might think him the saddest bastard ever to bum out a crowd. Contrarily, that’s the very thing that enraptures Hayden’s fans: as he straps on guitar and harmonica Dylan-style, or settles quietly behind his piano, his career is refracted through a tenderly intimate prism. The show perks up at the encores, which include Hayden’s panoramic theme to the movie Trees Lounge and an eerily perfect cover of Neil Young’s “Tell Me Why” that only underscores his resemblance to Canada’s greatest rocker. Hayden may seem level-headed and wry in his onstage patter – topics include bad vacation photography and his carousing cat – but this is gig as therapy, verbal outpouring coupled with performance restraint.

For Folds, the last two years have been about stripping down – breaking up Ben Folds Five, recording an official solo album, and embarking on two gradually more intimate tours. The second one, the sideman-less “ben folds and a piano” tour, is documented on Ben Folds Live, which is already more labored than Hayden’s album because it compiles cuts from a dozen gigs. Remarkably, the result is seamless and natural, a credit to Folds’s unforced virtuosity on the ivories and easy rapport with a crowd – on “Army,” he makes up for his lack of a brass section by conducting the audience in singing the sax and trumpet parts. Only a crowd of Folds-heads could pull that off, but as much as Live is an homage to the devoted fan, the album – unlike Hayden’s – might actually be better appreciated by the uninitiated, as it collects a mix tape’s worth of Folds’s best songs: BFF’s greatest hits are included (Folds finally explains the backstory of the hit “Brick”), and the best tracks are rescued from Folds’s two spottiest albums, the broody Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner and the intermittently great Rockin’ the Suburbs. Highlights include a guest vocal from Cake’s John McCrea and an effortless cover of Elton John’s “Tiny Dancer.”

It’s ironic that both Folds and Hayden, unplugging themselves ’90s-style, throw in covers that nod to the ’70s – a time when earnestness, not sardonic wit, made a rock show great. >>>Chris Molanphy

Datalog: Limited-edition Folds includes free DVD
File Under: On-stage, stripped-down.
R.I.Y.L.: Live Rust, Songs in the Attic, The “Royal Albert Hall” concert.

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NEWSSTAND-FRIENDLY UNIT-SHIFTER

The new issue of Newsweek has just hit the stands, and the late Kurt Cobain stares back at you from its cover. Entitled “Cries from the Heart,” the article is an “exclusive” peek into what the magazine calls “the Kurt Cobain Diaries” – journal scribblings about to be released to the public in the form of a hardcover book.

In a week when Americans are quaking in their shoes about Iraq, North Korea and the D.C.-area sniper, a dead rock star gets top billing from a major newsweekly. Riverhead Books, the publisher of Journals (as the book is titled), must have negotiated an embargoed exclusive with Newsweek months ago, on the condition that Cobain’s diaries get cover treatment timed to the book’s release. Good thing the United States didn’t invade Iraq last week. In a way, though, it’s strangely appropriate: As he did a decade ago, Cobain plays best to Americans when the country is in a funk.

In the eight years since Cobain’s death, the music press and most rock fans have placed Nirvana alongside Elvis and the Beatles in the pantheon of rock icons. But, mercifully, we’ve been subjected to little actual product-flogging by the keepers of Cobain’s legacy: DGC/Universal Records, his Nirvana bandmates and, of course, Courtney Love. But with the recent settlement of a backlog of lawsuits between the three parties, that’s about to change. A greatest-hits CD, cloaked in black and bearing the zen-like title Nirvana, will be released next Tuesday. Journals, the rights for which cost Riverhead a cool $4 million, will be in bookstores the week after that. Consider this Newsweek cover the warning shot: the Nirvana unit-shifting has begun.

Also begun is the inevitable hand-wringing by critics and fans, over the disconnect between all this commerce and Cobain’s intentions. You can even see it in Newsweek, in the introduction to the diaries by rock writer and Nirvana-lover Lorraine Ali; while she goes through the motions of proclaiming Cobain’s brilliance and setting up the excerpts, she all but apologizes for the hype, wondering in print about the wisdom of repackaging Cobain’s private thoughts for public consumption: “There’s no way that Cobain intended all these entries to end up on somebody’s coffee table.” Implicit in all the public complaining and worrying is fans’ firmly held belief that the inability to accept mass popularity killed Cobain. Perhaps anticipating the criticism, widow Love has made statements puncturing the image of “Saint Kurt,” telling the press – during her long court and P.R. battle with Nirvana bandmates Dave Grohl and Krist Novoselic – that Kurt was ambitious, and that the idea that Cobain never, ever wanted to be popular is hogwash.

Maybe Kurt has something to say about all this.

Reading the excerpts in Newsweek, I was most struck by how dated Cobain’s words sounded. Cobain may be the voice of his generation, but if so, it’s a voice from a very specific instance in that generation’s emergence. Cobain’s words are ardent beliefs from a different mini-epoch, the era of political correctness: “I like to feel guilty for being a white, American male,” Cobain writes, and you’re inclined to believe him. The old stereotype of Generation X – cynical, disgusted, unambitious – has long since been debunked, but like most stereotypes, it held a kernel of truth. For many, coming of age in the early 1990s meant self-abnegation – not just toeing the line on feminism and multiculturalism but living a self-questioning life that regarded all concepts of mass culture and cultural hegemony with deep suspicion. Kurt Cobain lived that life unabashedly; frankly, he made P.C. rock avatars like Michael Stipe and Moby look like shameless publicity whores. In an age of MTV Cribs and pop-star self-regard, Cobain’s attitude must seem awfully quaint.

As I read the journal excerpts, I decided to throw on some of Nirvana’s music. Rather than fall back on the totemic Nevermind, I pulled out Incesticide, the oldies-and-singles collection DGC released in 1992 in the wake of Nevermind’s thunderous reception. I wanted to hear the music, but the real reason I thought of Incesticide at that moment was its liner notes. Cobain wrote the rambling essay that fills the CD booklet at the height of his band’s still-fresh breakthrough. Prior to his 1994 suicide note (read aloud by Courtney Love) and, now, the release of Journals, it was the closest thing to a Cobain brain-dump ever shared with the public.

In the Incesticide booklet, Cobain is already straining against a fame he doesn’t feel he deserves. He tells the story of a trip to the U.K., where he tried to find a copy of a “very out-of-print” album by the Raincoats. He failed to find it but, after returning to the U.S., was sent the LP by the shop owner he visited, who knew a member of the band. He doesn’t clarify in his essay whether his newfound star status resulted in this perquisite, but his fame clearly didn’t hurt. Pleased but somewhat creeped out by his good fortune, Cobain writes:

    It made me happier than playing in front of thousands of people each night, rock-god idolization from fans, music industry plankton kissing my ass, and the million dollars I made last year. It was one of the few really important things that I’ve been blessed with since becoming an untouchable boy genius.

    […]It was as rewarding as the last Vaselines show in Edinburgh. They reformed just to play with us in their home town, probably having no idea how exciting and flattering it was for us (and how nervous we were to meet them).

The pièce de résistance of the essay is Cobain’s closing thought, on an infamous incident in which two teenage boys raped a girl while singing the lyrics to the Nirvana song “Polly” (”Polly wants a cracker/Think I should get off her first”). Cobain calls the duo “two wastes of sperm and eggs” (he even uses P.C. epithets, adding “eggs” to the common “waste of sperm”) and shares a thought which probably sounded offhand at the time but now seems prophetically self-aware: “I have a hard time carrying on knowing there are plankton like that in our audience. Sorry to be so anally P.C., but that’s the way I feel. Love, Kurdt (the blond one).” A year and a half later, his audience of plankton having grown exponentially and saddened him profoundly, Cobain felt pained enough to kill himself.

There’s a temptation, in reading Cobain’s self-penned thoughts, to coddle the “untouchable boy genius” by overpraising his sensitivity, as if it excuses an act as pointless as suicide or lends gravity to music that’s heavy enough as is. There’s also a temptation to extrapolate on Cobain’s thoughts and assume that the acts of commerce carried out in his name would have deeply saddened him. Had he lived, a Nirvana greatest-hits CD and box set probably would have come out eventually. And even if his journals never would have seen print, a media-frustrated Cobain might well have taken refuge in writing a book, the way his hero John Lennon did to escape the headlights of fame in the ’60s. There’s also no way of knowing whether a Cobain rescued from suicide would have gotten happier and adapted to the late-’90s culture of relentless, dot-com-fueled optimism, like his wife or his bandmate Dave Grohl; or whether, like Alice in Chains’ Layne Staley, he would reject and recede from the culture and be brought down by drugs – self-medication as a more gradual form of suicide.

In the end, the commodification is all. There will be a lot of noise in the media in the weeks to come, as a book publisher attempts to recoup an outsize advance and a record label tries to market a “big fourth-quarter holiday release” (i.e., a Radio Friendly Unit Shifter, to use Kurt’s own hated term). But how Grohl, Novoselic and Love sell Nirvana’s legacy over the long term will define how well they stay true to Cobain’s memory.

Also available on the Newsweek website is a link to the music video for “You Know You’re Right,” the long-awaited, storied song that was Nirvana’s final completed recording. It’s a fierce, uncompromising song, but it doesn’t find Cobain straining for any larger significance – it has none of the anthemic quality of “Teen Spirit,” none of the openly emotional grace of “All Apologies.” Frankly, it sounds like many of the mid-period tracks from Nirvana’s last studio album, In Utero, and had it appeared on that record it likely would have been enjoyed but not seemed terribly remarkable. In a way, it’s Kurt Cobain’s inadvertant final statement, to fans still looking for the deeper meaning: Enjoy this, but don’t look too hard…it’s irrelevant. As always, Cobain’s music says more than marketing – or even his own words – ever could.

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F-TO-THA-IZZAMILY, V-TO-THA-IZZALUES

It sounds more than a little surreal: Snoop Dogg, notorious pothead rapper, a man who could star in a Bluntman and Chronic movie all by himself, has foresworn drugs and booze and gone totally clean. And frankly, I’m a little annoyed at him.

It’s not that I don’t respect Snoop’s personal decision – as he ages, continuing to actually live the life of “rollin’ down the street, smoking indo, sippin’ on gin and juice” would probably end badly. The problem is that I don’t buy Snoop Dogg, who once rapped “Ain’t No Fun (If My Homies Can’t Have None),” as a kid-friendly entertainer. Snoop’s decision is undeniably a personal one, but it comes off as late-stage careerism. Worse, it makes a mockery out of the contortions free-speech advocates go through on behalf of all musical artists – especially the ones who, like Snoop, test the limits of that freedom in their younger years.

It’s expected that once-rebellious artists will soften as they age; the Eddie Murphy of the 1980s and Raw mellows into the Eddie of Dr. Doolittle 2. But rappers seem to be doing some serious edge-removal on themselves lately. LL Cool J is openly bragging about the lack of cuss words on his new CD, and he has just branched out into writing children’s books. Ice-T, who nearly brought down Time Warner’s stock price in 1992 by releasing the hardcore anthem “Cop Killer,” now stars in scripted, semi-edgy network TV shows and doesn’t record anymore. Even Ice Cube, erstwhile nigga wit attitude, is focusing more intently on his PG-13-rated movie career, fueled most recently by Barbershop, a hit movie that is only offensive or provocative if you’re an aging civil rights leader.

Why am I so annoyed at all this? Am I buying into the old gangsta mythos, feeling that rappers aren’t worth my time unless they’re providing vicarious, nihilistic thrills? Shouldn’t I embrace any move by hip-hop away from its celebration of empty bacchanalia and needless violence? Yes, but only if it’s an act of conscience on rappers’ part, not an act of contrition. I don’t want formerly provocative artists apologizing for their old ways just so they can become more palatable to the public in old age. I don’t just feel this way about rappers; Prince, my favorite artist of the 1980s, proceeded in the ’90s to resolve the God-versus-carnality dichotomy in his work in favor of God, renounced his earlier work and has became a no-cursing, no-libido bore.

One of the few things the record industry does right these days – and I know they don’t do it solely for artistic reasons – is stand firm against political pressure to expand record-stickering programs. I have never had a problem with basic ratings or heads-up parental-advisory stickers, but as the papers are currently reporting, Washington is still after the industry to spell out the exact nature of the “explicit” content on stickered CDs. The movie industry recently caved in to doing this, and if you’ve heard the titters at your theater when trailers come on and the audience is told a film contains “intense fantasy violence and sexual suggestiveness,” you know how absurd this system is. Applying such provisos to music seems even sillier to me – how can you describe the violence or lasciviousness of music in clinical terms? If we can barely agree on what lyrics are are explicit, how can we hope to set up categories that delineate what makes a song “too intense?” If a Sade record with booty-shaking bass makes you and your girlfriend horny, is that a “sexual situation?”

The industry and free-speech advocates are fighting a good fight to keep the restrictions on music reasonable, which means defending a system that allows artists with potty mouths or sick-as-fuck imaginations to have a forum alongside Kenny G. It means letting Eminem say some pretty horrific things and still have his CD available at record stores nationwide, not just because we have a First Amendment, but because it’s fair to balance parental warning with non-ghettoized content. (Look at what’s happened in movies with the NC-17 rating, which should delineate serious adult work but – to most studios, theater owners and Blockbuster – might as well be porn.) An Eminem CD needs a parental-advisory sticker, but telling me the guy curses a lot and fantasizes about violence on the CD gives me no clue that the real downside to letting my kid hear it unattended might be its misogyny or homophobia. We keep the system the way it is, amid political pressure, because even Eminem at his most reprehensible deserves to be heard and judged sui generis.

But, just for the sake of argument: What if Eminem hinted that when he hits 35 or 40, he’s going to dial down the bad words and the deranged themes and become a Saturday-morning-worthy kiddie act? It’s his right, of course, but it would beg the question, “Why did we, those who defended your right to express yourself, go to all this trouble if all you were doing at age 28 was being provocative temporarily? Was free speech just a career move?” It’s been said that nowadays, popular musicians have to plan every phase of their careers: e.g., start out recording, take a guest spot on TV, cross over to movies, age gracefully with a return-to-roots record later, etc. (You can expect Will Smith’s “comeback” CD in about three to five years, at the moment everyone’s forgotten he was ever a rapper.) So is the provocative phase a career move too, now? Do rappers now go into the business thinking, “I’ll rap about bitches and gats for the first five years; downshift to milder rap, start singing and win a Grammy by 27; and then be rapping the National Anthem in the World Series by my mid-30s.”

For all his hedonism, Snoop was always the cuddliest, least fearsome of all the ’90s rappers. If anyone in hip-hop was going to soften, gracefully, it would be him. I just hope he appreciates all the hell he caused when he and Dre were testing the limits of free speech in 1994 and leaving others to deal with the likes of Calvin Butts and Joe Lieberman.

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LABEL TO ARTISTS: YOUR MOVE

A few weeks ago, I wrote a post here about the latest struggle to make legal music downloading a reality. As I noted, the labels are finally, if half-assedly, exploring music downloads as a serious business model, but the artists are withholding rights to their songs. It’s a classic chicken-and-egg question: Are the artists balking because the labels are stiffing them on digital-rights terms, or are the labels having a hard time making a business out of this because they can’t get the artists to release enough songs to make legal downloads viable?

The former, probably – but at least one label is leveling the playing field. Today HITS magazine reported that Universal, the largest major label, has announced a new download policy that basically gives the artists what they want: a royalty rate comparable to what they make on physical CD tracks, and the elimination of most of the bullshit charges that labels love to slip into contracts to bilk their artists.

For example, one charge Universal’s new policy eliminates, “the 20% new media deduction,” is an old label favorite – they used it in the ’80s to fund the creation and expansion of the compact disc. That’s right, artists largely picked up the tab for the CD. It was years, long after the shiny discs were established as the industry’s primary sound carriers, before this “deduction” from artists’ royalties for the “new” format was eliminated. It’s even more evil that the labels tried to slip this charge into their digital-rights terms in the first place; the consumer is already sold on MP3s – how are downloads “new media?” No wonder the artists are keeping one hand on their wallets when negotiating with their corporate benefactors. But amazingly, the new Universal policy seems like a genuine artist-friendly move.

The Universal moguls aren’t doing this out of the goodness of their hearts, of course. It’s the final parry in their battle to make PressPlay, the website they launched with Sony, the leading music download service of the future. Neither PressPlay nor its rival, AOL Time Warner’s MusicNet, is doing much business yet, but the jockeying for a download-rich future is already well underway. Last week, Universal announced that rival label group BMG had agreed to add their music to the PressPlay pool; BMG was formerly affiliated only with Warner/MusicNet. So PressPlay now has the edge, having secured content from four out of the five major labels (Universal, Sony, BMG and EMI) versus MusicNet’s three (Warner, BMG and EMI).

Now, this new Universal download-terms policy may give the label – and, by extension, PressPlay – the edge with artists, as well. The question is whether the artists will come around to letting their music be downloaded.

Well, the other question is whether consumers will pay for downloads at all. But now that record-industry lawsuits have shut down all the good, user-friendly peer-to-peer music sites (e.g., Napster, AIMster, AudioGalaxy – and KaZaA is probably soon to fall), we may actually be rooting for the labels to create something worthwhile. They’ve killed our fun – the least they can do is come up with something content-rich to replace it.

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EVERY FAN HE SCREAMS AT, HE SCREAMS AT FOR YOU

If you’re a fan of much-hyped country-rock golden boy Ryan Adams, as I am, you’ve probably experienced this: You tell someone who’s never heard of him, “I’ve been enjoying the Ryan Adams CD lately,” or, “I went to see Ryan Adams at Roseland last night,” and they respond, “BRYAN Adams? The Robin Hood song guy? Ecch – he sucks.” You explain. Your friend is relieved, clued-in. Much laughter, much rejoicing.

Apparently, this has become a big enough problem that Ryan Adams himself is getting fed up with it. And last night, at a Nashville concert (at the legendary Ryman, no less), he took it out on a fan.

What a twerp. Even the character in Office Space with the unfortunate name Michael Bolton would behave better than this. Ryan A. can’t help his name, and the fan at the show who yelled out “Summer of ‘69!” was clearly being a smartass, but stopping a concert to bawl out a fan is beyond unprofessional; it’s childish and rude to everyone else who paid to see the show. If Jerry Seinfeld can deal with hecklers, Adams can find a way to let comments from concert-goers roll off him – even those who allude to lame Canucks with soundalike names.

See, this is why I try not to let my opinion of music get sullied by the behavior of its prima donna creators. I’d have to throw out about a third of the CDs in my collection.

I haven’t heard about a public rock-concert meltdown this bad since Fiona Apple wigged in front of a NYC crowd and prematurely ended a show when her monitors went out.

Wait – Adams has broken up with Winona Ryder, right? Is Fiona still dating Paul Thomas Anderson? We gotta get those two kids together!

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WEEKEND FROM BKN TO QNS

I’m slowly catching up on a couple days’ worth of LJ posts – a few projects, both personal (reading On the Road for Emily’s book club) and business (some new writing assignments) kept me away for a while.

Columbus Day weekend was low-key but pleasant, marked mainly by a visit to Brooklyn by Smily’s mum. Emily had a variety of activities planned or semi-planned for her, and I took part in one day’s worth – Saturday. We decided, after making fun of it for months, to make the trek into Queens to see MoMA QNS. Like most New Yorkers, we waited until an out-of-towner visited us before we went and saw something we’d secretly been wanting to see all along. (This is how New Yorkers get around to seeing things like the Statue of Liberty, because otherwise we wouldn’t be caught dead there.) Emily also managed, through a MoMA-employed friend, to get us in gratis.

MoMA QNS is the Museum of Modern Art’s temporary exhibition space in Astoria, Queens. It will be MoMA’s main exhibition space until 2005, when the massive renovation of its midtown Manhattan headquarters will theoretically be complete. It’s a smaller space and harder to get to, and you can tell the MoMA people are desperately trying to make the place – a converted staple factory in a dank neighborhood – feel edgy and hip.

Emily and I have been making cracks about MoMA QNS because, well…it’s called MoMA QNS (we pronounce the second word “kwuuns,” with exaggeratedly closed lips). This is just the dumbest abbreviation ever. I was explaing later in the day to Emily and mum that the name reminds me of an old sketch Ben Stiller did for the MTV Movie Awards a couple of years ago, in which he plays Tom Cruise’s little-known stunt double. Stiller portrays the man as a pathetic suck-up who desperately wants to be Cruise; he shows up for work on all of Cruise’s films, even though no one asks him. The real Cruise appeared in this sketch and was a good sport, as Stiller sat next to him in an identical outfit and did a dead-on Cruise impression, smarmy smile and all. My favorite moment in the sketch is when Stiller’s Cruise-manqué tries to reminisce with the real Cruise and says, “Hey, man, remember back in ‘83 when you and me were hangin’ out on the set of T-P-S?” To which Cruise replies, “What’s T-P-S?” Stiller: “Y’know, Taps.” Cruise: “Well then, why don’t you just say ‘Taps‘? It’s shorter than saying ‘T-P-S.’” The Stiller character hangs his head in shame; he’s been caught using a hipster abbreviation for a movie title that doesn’t need abbreviating. Anyway, the MoMA people seem just as desperate for trying to make the perfectly serviceable borough name Queens into the bullshit information-age hipster abbreviation “QNS.”

What made our visit to QNS (okay, I’ll stop now) disappointing, besides Saturday’s relentless rain, was the limited offerings at the museum. They’re between special exhibitions right now, and so all there was to see was a permanent compilation of most of the museum’s greatest works. It’s a glorious hodgepodge, but with no central theme, it feels a little empty; never have I consumed so many great artworks in such a small span of time and felt so underwhelmed. The permanent exhibition’s uninspired title is “To Be Looked At”. It would be like calling a new five-star restaurant “To Be Eaten.”

Frankly, if the MoMA people really want to give this exhibition some hipster zing, they should advertise it the way I kept picturing it in my head: as a KTel-like greatest-hits commercial. I can see it now. Two women walk through a vast, cavernous museum, passing a Monet, and one says to the other, “This is beautiful, but why is it so far away from that Picasso?” Other woman: “Gosh, I wish we could have all our favorite modern, postmodern and pop artworks in one collection.” Loud voiceover booms: “NOW YOU CAN! Come visit MoMA QNS for all your rockin’ modern art faves!” Yellow text begins scrolling up the screen: “You get ALL these masters in one big room: PICASSO! CEZANNE! VAN GOGH! WARHOL! LICHTENSTEIN! POLLOCK! ROTHKO! ROUSSEAU! and if you take advantage of this special offer, we’ll throw in a replica of Marcel Duchamp’s Bicycle Wheel [echoey voice: “The wheel really spins!”] ABSOLUTELY FREE! How much would you pay for all these artworks? 500 million dollars? a billion? Well, they can all be yours at MoMA QNS for the fabulous one-time-only low price of just $12.95! That’s right – $12.95! Operators are standing by – come on down!!!!!”

Later on, back in Brooklyn, Emily, mum and I went with Emily’s roommate Beth to a bar that reopened in our neighborhood. Formerly called Finn, the place had been closed for months, first by a city ordinance (never a good sign) and later for extensive renovations. Saturday happened to be the grand re-opening, now under the name The Red Room, so called for its garish new orangey-red exterior. To celebrate, the place was doing an open bar for two hours. Who can pass up free drinks?

Among the revamped bar’s new accoutrements is a zippy-looking new jukebox device. I say “device” because it’s not a traditional jukebox per se, but a glowing, wall-mounted touch-screen that theoretically controls a wealth of hidden, probably computerized music tracks. I say “theoretically” because I tried to make the device work that evening, but it was not yet operational, notwithstanding its already hyperactive screen (”PLAY ME NOW!”). The owner confessed that it wasn’t really wired for sound yet.

I slumped back to our table and told the disappointed group that we wouldn’t be able to make our contribution of musical taste to the new Red Room. This prompted a discussion on music. Beth confessed that she was planning to get a copy of the new smash Elvis Presley greatest-hits record, Elv1s 30 #1 Hits. She said she needed an Elvis best-of but admitted she had also been wooed by the CD’s ad campaign, which plays up The King’s status as rock’s first rebel (”Before anyone did anything, Elvis did everything”). Emily’s mum chimed in to confirm that Elvis was indeed a pop-culture explosion when he appeared in the mid-’50s. This was like someone pushing the “Dispense Music History Now” button on my forehead, as I launched into a long Q&A with Beth on what pop-music was like before Elvis, how it changed during his early reign, and how it turned schlocky after he entered the army. I was riffing on pre-Beatles music history, talking about the strains of music that dominated American pop-culture during the dead zone of ‘58-’63 and how it set the stage for the music revolution to come.

Emily and her mum indulged me – I guess it’s best not to stop me when I’m on a roll like that. Meanwhile, the bar filled up, and the lonely jukebox-device flashed and whizzed quietly in the background, begging to be played, wishing for hipster status of its own.

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MURDA INCORPORATED

Reviewing the item I posted yesterday on Chuck D and rap’s history, I realized that my brief rundown of the last five years’ “splintering array of regional crews” left out the hottest hip-hop crew of the past year: Irv Gotti’s Murder Inc. (Ashanti, Ja Rule, Fat Joe, Charli Baltimore, etc.).

That got me thinking about the etymology of that name – wondering to myself, “Hmmm…where have I heard ‘Murder Incorporated’ in a pop context before?”

Then I remembered where. And I thought, wouldn’t it be funny if…

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For Immediate Release

11 October 2002

BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN TO REMAKE “MURDER INCORPORATED” WITH MURDER, INC.
“Boss” meets “Gotti” – Will Produce “Illest Thing to Come Out of Jersey Since Tony Soprano”

ASBURY PARK – Jon Landau, manager of rock legend and Columbia/Sony Music recording artist Bruce Springsteen, announced today that they were teaming up with leading hip-hop producers Murder Inc. to create a remake of Springsteen’s single “Murder Incorporated.” Both Mr. Springsteen and Murder Inc. impresario Irv “The Inc.” Gotti were on hand for the announcement, held on the boardwalk in front of former rock club The Stone Pony.

“Today, we announce the meeting of two titans of modern music,” said Mr. Landau. “The Boss and I are thrilled to work with Mr. Gotti, the man behind so many radio hits over the past year, including ‘Foolish’ by Ashanti, ‘What’s Luv?’ by Fat Joe featuring Ashanti and ‘Always on Time’ by Ja Rule featuring Ashanti. In addition to hearing Ashanti sing on our record, we look forward to hearing the variety of ‘ill beats’ Mr. Gotti has assured us he has conceived for this groundbreaking reinterpretation of Bruce’s work. At last, this critically acclaimed but little-remarked song from Bruce’s 1995 Greatest Hits album will get the recognition – and sales – it deserves.”

Mr. Landau announced that the song would be retitled “Murda Inc. (Bling Bling 2003 Mix)” and credited to Irv Gotti presents The Inc. featuring Ashanti, Ja Rule, Charli Baltimore, Cadillac Tee and Bruce Springsteen. He noted that Bruce himself would sing “a few lines” of the song, while the bulk of the tune would be handled by Murder Inc.’s stable of artists. Ashanti is expected to sing the chorus, and the bridge will feature a Ja Rule rap, Mr. Landau confirmed. The E Street Band’s original backing track will be sampled, remixed and “reimagined” for the Murder Inc. version.

“The track will be hot, no doubt,” commented Mr. Gotti at the press conference. “We gonna take those wack-ass E Street beats and make ‘em off the hook. I got my girl Ashanti in the studio right now, laying down her line, ‘Murda, Incorporated, boy – it’s about us, the way you kill me.’” Mr. Gotti sang the melody for the assembled crowd, nodding his head in time with an imagined beat.

“Trust me, it’s dope already,” Mr. Gotti added.

Asked to comment on the reinterpretation of his song, which he originally conceived during the 1982–84 sessions for his landmark album Born in the U.S.A., Mr. Springsteen said: “I don’t know, Mister, what they got planned for my record, but Jon tells me it’s going to sell across this great, hard land of ours. I’ll tell you, sir, I don’t know much about how you get a song on the radio nowadays. But I suppose Irv knows a thing or two about ‘phat beats,’ whatever they are, and that’s one thing I ain’t got much of now.”

Mr. Landau and Mr. Springsteen could not confirm rumors that the recording session would include a meeting between E Street Band saxophonist Clarence “Big Man” Clemons and Murder Inc. recording artist Fat Joe.

The “Murda Inc.” single is expected to be featured on an upcoming compilation, Born to Remix, a collection of Mr. Springsteen’s songs reinterpreted by Sean “P. Diddy” Combs, Dr. Dre, and the Neptunes featuring Jay-Z. Mr. Dre’s “(Don’t Sleep on My) Brilliant Disguise” has already been selected as the second single from the CD, which will be released in time for the holidays.

Press contact:
Sony Music/Office of Thomas D. Mottola, (212) 555-SONY

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