Archive forSeptember, 2003

THE MAN IN BLACK AND WHITE

    I’m pleasantly surprised by the amount of press coverage Johnny Cash’s death is generating. But I also wonder how much his overemphasized “comeback” has to do with it.

It’s been weeks since Johnny Cash doffed his earthly black garb for heavenly white robes, but there’s no way you could have forgotten him. The press coverage has been enormous and, frankly, higher-profile than I would have guessed or hoped. In addition to scads of newspaper eulogies and TV tributes, Cash made the covers of Time and, fittingly, Rolling Stone – inexplicably, Johnny, a country and rock legend, never made the cover of the rock bible during his lifetime.

Of course, Cash richly deserves all the attention. “Icon” is a word thrown around pretty casually these days, but Cash really was one, an inimitable figure who encapsulates the 20th Century as wholly as – perhaps better than – Frank Sinatra.

Johnny Cash’s death was one of the least surprising in music history. I doubt I’m the only one who saw the heartbreaking footage of him at the funeral of his wife, June Carter Cash, last May and quietly bet that Cash would follow his legendary missus before the year was out.

As if the stage couldn’t be better set, this year Cash was also the subject of the most intense, if accidental, farewell tribute ever. His latest single, a cover of Nine Inch Nails’ dirge “Hurt,” became a minor radio hit last spring and a major MTV hit; the video (quite simply one of the greatest ever made) featured a broken, morose, mesmerizing Cash reflecting on his life as images from his storied career flashed by. The video was nominated for a slew of MTV awards, but when Cash didn’t make the awards show, the public received its final hint that Johnny was not long for this world. So the press had ample time to prepare its coverage – it’s as if the research had been done for them. All of which explains why the Cash tributes were so thorough.

Celebrity deaths routinely generate an avalanche of press coverage, much of it out of proportion with the stature of the deceased luminary. (I believe it was The Onion that offered the all-too-real headline, “Co-Star on Family Ties Killed in Plane Crash; 250 Others Also Confirmed Dead.”) Media outlets fall over themselves to tout the passing of anyone even semi-famous, and it usually takes a few days or weeks to weed through the media coverage and accurately gauge a dead celebrity’s stature.

Rock deaths, in particular, are also measured by a more precise cultural barometer – the charts: a deceased act’s latest album or best-of inevitably sees a massive sales boost. (This instant-postmortem phenomenon rarely happens with movie stars, who usually don’t have a movie in theaters at their moment of death, and whose body of film work can’t be easily summarized on video.) Just this year, CDs by Barry White, the Bee Gees (Maurice Gibb) and Warren Zevon flew up the Billboard album list the instant their deaths were announced. Two years ago, Aaliyah’s plane crash happened so soon after her latest album’s release that the hit-bound record shot to #1.

As for Cash, two of his albums stormed up the charts in the days after his passing. A formerly low-selling hits package, The Essential Johnny Cash, made its first appearance on any chart last week. More impressively, his latest studio album, American IV: The Man Comes Around, reached a new peak, just outside of Billboard’s top 20 – Cash’s highest chart rank in nearly 30 years.

The Man Comes Around is the fourth studio album by Cash since his 1994 “comeback.” That year, American Recordings, the first record in a series produced by Rick Rubin, came out and galvanized the attention of rock journalists and hipsters, who had all but forgotten that this legend still walked among them.

It didn’t hurt that American Recordings was actually a stellar record – a dark, moody collection of murder ballads and folk dirges, some penned by contemporary artists like Beck and Glenn Danzig. I myself fell in love with the record (my second-favorite that year, behind Guided by Voices’ Bee Thousand), and I must confess that, sucker for hype that I am, the album succeeded in giving me a newfound appreciation for Cash.

The thing is, much like the wildly overhyped Tony Bennett “comeback” of the ’90s, the Johnny Cash comeback was insider-ish and mostly illusory. I was not emblematic of a trend. Millions of young people did not “discover” Johnny Cash in 1994, no more than they did when he’d sung on a U2 song the year before. American Recordings didn’t even make the top 100 of the album chart, and until recently, none of the American albums ever went gold. (The Man Comes Around finally did this year – Cash’s first gold album in three decades.) As for “Hurt,” it never crossed over to any major radio formats, and the only MTV award it won was for its cinematography; most of that night’s awards went to the likes of Good Charlotte. Thousands of kids have gotten a history lesson on Cash this year, but I doubt many of them invested time or money in his records.

I bring all this up for fear that some of the column inches Cash is earning are motivated by demographics-obsessed editors, who’ve decided that his recent pop-culture currency makes his death somehow more marketable to people under 40. (Rolling Stone, in particular, with its virtually monthly Britney and Justin covers, seems to focus on people under 20 these days; I’d love to have been at the meeting where they decided to risk newsstand sales and let Johnny have the cover.) The media has created the image of Johnny Cash, comeback kid, which is something of a laugh – Cash’s comeback was a success artistically, but not commercially. Call me cynical, but I think it’s fair to say that if he’d died in 1993, before his first American album, Cash might have received about the same level of coverage as, say, Robert Palmer. Or at best, John Ritter.

If this supposition of mine is true, well, screw it – the joke is on the editors. Cash deserves all the honor that’s coming to him, and if it took a media-created late-’90s comeback to make it happen, then I say, go media hype. Johnny Cash’s image in the Zeitgeist has finally been affirmed.

In the late ’70s, when I was a kid, Johnny Cash was a punchline. My cousins and I used to use his name in Mad-Libs when we needed a funny name of a celebrity. I’m pretty sure I’d heard “Ring of Fire” by then, but to a kid, that flamenco-fied pop hit only made Cash funnier.

As I got older, I learned more about Cash’s legacy at Sun Records and hell-raising ride through the ’60s, from juke joints to jail cells. No teenager who sees Jim Marshall’s famous picture of Johnny at San Quentin flipping the camera the bird can be any less than shocked and thrilled.

What thrilled me even more about Cash as I learned his music and story was his effortless poise. As you get to know that voice, you love its cadence and develop this weird respect for the self-awareness behind it. “Hello, I’m Johnny Cash,” was, of course, the man’s signature line – but what amazed me the more I heard it was its combination of boldness and humility: Cash stood tall, but he offered you himself guilelessly. There wasn’t a shred of bravado in the line.

What finally sealed Cash’s stature for me was his appearance at a tribute concert held in his honor in 1999. Johnny wasn’t guaranteed to show up – only two years earlier he’d been diagnosed with a rare form of Parkinson’s that often left him homebound in the final years of his life. An array of country and rock stars performed covers of his material, all expecting that Cash might only see the show on tape later – if he made it out of bed at all. Then, suddenly Johnny appeared onstage, Lazarus-like, decked out in his trademark black, while the house band played on. The crowd went wild, but Johnny just loped up to the microphone and looked the audience square ahead: “Hello, I’m Johnny Cash.”

That two seconds was one of the greatest live moments I’ve ever seen, suffused with witty understatement, delicious irony and dignified grace. It was followed by a couple of songs, but I already felt I’d seen the night’s great set piece.

Here, at last, is what none of the eulogizing press will tell you: Cash became a legend by being himself. Sure, the music lives on – but so does the man, seared into memory. Being Johnny Cash was his greatest performance.

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HERE’S LOOKING AT YOU, KID

    I’m starting to think I actually prefer movies that don’t bring the couple together at the end.

Emily and I saw Lost in Translation this weekend with a large group of friends. Believe the hype: it’s first-class. Sofia Coppola finally proves she can direct, Scarlett Johansson more than holds her own, and Bill Murray is affirmed as the best comic actor of his generation. It’s got good music – excellent incidental tunes from Air and a killer, hopelessly romantic karaoke scene. Plus, it really is a comedy: we, and those sharing our packed theater, laughed ourselves silly. It’s the loveliest, all-around best movie I’ve seen all year.

Then again, believe the detractors: not that they’re right about the movie per se (my normally-beloved movie columnist Jeffrey Wells can go take a flying leap). But they are correct in warning moviegoers of wandering plotlines, meandering storytelling and a fuzzy final-act resolution. You either buy into this movie’s worldview or you don’t.

I’m not dropping the world’s biggest spoiler when I reveal that Murray’s and Johansson’s characters don’t end the movie riding off into the sunset together. No howls of protest, please – if the 50something Murray and the 18-year-old Johansson (playing a 22-year-old) had actually pulled a Woody/Soon-Yi, you would’ve heard something by now. It’s sensible that these two characters – each married, and separated by nearly four decades – don’t end up in flagrante, lest the audience let out a collective cry of “Ewww.” I had read enough reviews of, and hype about, the movie that I knew this going in. Even if you’ve read less than I have, you probably sussed this out, too.

Trust me, it doesn’t matter. What makes Lost in Translation so captivating is wondering how Murray and Johansson are going to work out their feelings for each other and make the time they have together special anyway. It’s actually suspenseful – you know they’re sharing a moment of evanescence, a perfect set of unrepeatable circumstances in which they’re overseas, unattached, unmoored, under-loved, and you want to get to the end to figure out how they’re going to make it fulfilling.

If you’ve ever had a fling on spring break or on a vacation, Lost in Translation will make perfect sense to you. Or if you’ve had a mad flirtation with someone for a brief, preset period – someone I know once spent a week in a friend’s bridal party making imaginary love with another, unattainable person in the party – you’ll understand. The unfulfilled longing, frustrating as it is, is more thrilling than fulfillment with that impossible person ever could be. It’s the feeling I used to get when I’d hear the Cure song “Just Like Heaven”: it made me a bit nostalgic for a crush I had in high school; she would’ve been a lousy girlfriend, and I didn’t miss her so much as I missed the mad, impossible ardor I once had for her.

Speaking of high-school crushes, Coppola’s film has more than a little in common with Wes Anderson’s Rushmore – and not just another great Bill Murray performance. Rushmore has been praised for its warmth, wit, acting and style, but I have yet to see a review mention how perfect the ending is.

In Anderson’s film, Murray’s character’s crush is fulfilled, but the hero’s crush isn’t – teenage wunderkind Max Fischer gets practically everything he wants, except the older woman he loves. That’s as it should be. But in the final scene, with a wordless gesture, the woman telegraphs to Max that under different circumstances, the boy could have been her man.

What makes Rushmore’s ending great is what makes Translation’s great: the two people at the heart of the film express admiration, respect and passion for each other in ways that both defy movie convention and play within the circumscribed rules of their attraction.

My parents saw Translation this weekend, too. When my Mom and I spoke about it last night, she called it, admiringly, “a moral movie”: she was pleased to see that the characters kept their dignity by not succumbing to their worst impulses.

I don’t know if I’d use that term – it makes the movie sound more puritanical than it is – but I think Mom’s on to something. Lost in Translation respects its audience by respecting its characters. It’s not just the old adage that actors are often sexier when they keep their clothes on. It’s that some of life’s best moments don’t feel like a romance novel, they feel like a great pop song: breathless, fleeting, frozen in time.

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LETTING THE DAYS GO BY

    A few words on birthday music traditions, old and new.

Today’s my birthday, and I’ve finally broken with an old tradition.

Since I turned 16, I have begun my birthday the same way: playing the Beatles’ “Birthday” over and over and dancing around my room/dorm/apartment until I finally get sick of the song. This is usually around the fifth play or so, although as I’ve gotten older, three plays has been enough. Sixteen was when it started, because 1987 was the year I bought my first copy of the Beatles’ White Album. Family members, classmates and roommates have tolerated this quirk of mine for more than a decade and a half.

I am 32 today, exactly double the age I was when the “Birthday” tradition started. (Gulp.) So this seemed like as good a year as any to eliminate a habit I, frankly, have outgrown. Besides, I doubt my lovely wife-to-be would tolerate so much incessant Beatle-listening in one morning, even if it is one day a year.

Being a sentimentalist, I couldn’t eliminate a tradition without trying to start a new one. Hence, The Birthday Mix, already compiled and ripped to my iPod. This time, the Beatles’ immortal ditty is just the lead-off track to a more complete mix:

1 Birthday The Beatles
2 Making Time Creation
3 It’s My Party Leslie Gore
4 Birthday The Sugarcubes
5 Alive Pearl Jam
6 Once in a Lifetime Talking Heads
7 Add It Up Violent Femmes
8 Best Imitation of Myself Ben Folds Five
9 Watching the Wheels John Lennon
10 This Will Be Our Year Zombies
11 Ooh La La The Faces
12 Forever Young (1973 acoustic version) Bob Dylan

This is obviously a work in progress – I threw it together in under an hour this morning. Some of the songs are more overtly about birthdays, or aging, than others. Indeed, one of the songs called “Birthday” – the Sugarcubes’ – is so impressionistic, it barely has anything to do with a birthday at all; but I love it anyway.

A big theme is days or years going by, even if the song isn’t about aging, exaclty – hence the inclusion of the Femmes’ manic classic (”Day after day/I will walk/And I will play”) and, of course, “Once in a Lifetime.”

I included some obvious favorites, like the Dylan, but tried to avoid aging-related songs that have either become radio schlock (Rod Stewart’s “Forever Young”) or grown tiresome (the Beatles’ “In My Life,” which I can only enjoy as part of the Rubber Soul album nowadays).

I’ve played this mix several times today, and I really like it – not just the songs themselves, which are basically comfort food, but the flow from one tune to another. Twelve songs seemed like plenty to start, but I envision it growing in years to come, as I think up additions and add them between birthdays. But I’ll only play it for myself on 10 September – or on a friend’s birthday.

I welcome your ideas for additional songs. Really good suggestions would be an excellent gift. Not to mention helpful – I’m sure I’ve forgotten something obvious. I’m so old now, my memory isn’t wasn’t it used to be.

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FIRE SALE

    Universal’s announced CD price cuts aren’t motivated by generosity, and they come with enormous strings attached. So what? It’s the first time in two decades that a major label has admitted that CDs are too damned expensive.

It’s been completely overshadowed in the last couple of days by the RIAA’s stomach-turning lawsuits against music-sharers, but the jaw-dropping news of the past week for music-industry insiders is Universal’s announcement of compact disc price cuts. Called “JumpSTART,” the label group’s new arrangement with retailers will set “suggested retail” for most albums at $12.99 – that’s the full price – and set wholesale prices at a level that will allow stores to sell discs at $9.99 and make a profit.

This is excellent news for consumers, but it’s kind of like President Bush belatedly grumbling that he’s willing to work with the U.N. Metaphorical gun to its head, Universal is finally acting, as the bad news keeps piling up.

U is doing what it, and the other four majors, should have done long ago. (No word yet on when or if Sony, Warner, BMG or EMI will follow suit, but a Billboard article this week says they will likely stay put and watch Universal’s moves until after the holidays.)

The bottom line: there’s no excuse for CDs being priced at nearly an Andrew Jackson, especially with some two-hour DVDs selling for less than $15 retail.

Launched in 1983, the CD is now 20 years old, but everyone agrees it should have been selling at the $10 mark somewhere around its 10th birthday. Unlike a quart of milk or a new car, music is not an “essential” purchase that should track inflation; like a VCR or a PC, it should benefit from economies of scale and get cheaper. Indeed, back in the ’80s, when CDs were introduced at $15 retail – more than 50% higher than the going rate for an LP or cassette – we were assured by the labels that the shiny disc could get cheaper as its sales volume increased. It never did. The irony: CDs are now actually cheaper for a label to produce, wholesale, than a vinyl album ever was.

What changed, gradually, was the labels’ business model: though hits always paid for the duds in the music business, the labels grew tolerant of more duds being paid for by the same hit record. These costs explain how CDs stayed over $15 and got more expensive as the ’90s progressed.

The labels also reimagined the industry to make it more like the movies, front-loading promotion to emphasize “street date” and ensure a big opening, then allowing the album (which soon over-relied on its one good single) to languish in the ensuing months. We all know intuitively that an album is not a movie – a film entertains or inspires us for a couple of concentrated hours, while most albums provide background accompaniment to our road trips, dinner parties and gym workouts. But the industry wanted us to think of CDs as “events” and consume them that way – at the price of two New York City movie tickets.

Arguably, it took the consumer a full decade to catch on to these dubious business practices, and it took computer technology to empower them to fight back. Finally admittting the consumer has them over a barrel, Universal has cried uncle. I applaud them for at least being the first major label willing to cry uncle.

However, the more wary party in this New Deal are the music retailers. If you care at all about being able to shop somewhere other than Wal-Mart for CDs, this will matter to you.

As I explained in a LiveJournal post nearly a year ago, dedicated music retailers, from Tower to Newbury Comics, have been fighting the big-box retailers and losing. The recent elimination of the labels’ minimum advertised price (MAP) guidelines – judged by U.S. courts to be collusion and, hence, illegal – have left the music shops vulnerable, as Wal-Mart and Best Buy are free to price CDs below cost. The cudgel the labels used to use to enforce MAP was cooperative advertising dollars – the ads you see on TV or your Sunday paper promoting a specific album and saying, “On sale this week at Tower!” The labels make regular payments to both big boxes and music shops for these ads. The music-only shops, especially, rely on these co-op dollars to remain profitable in these deathly times for music sales.

Universal’s CD price cuts come with a catch for retailers: the elimination of co-op ad funds. Little of the mainstream press coverage over the past week has made much of this, but in the industry, it’s a big deal. Stores that sign up for the JumpSTART program must foresake co-op adveritisng funds from Universal and hope that increased sales of now-cheaper CDs makes up the difference.

It’s unsurprising that Universal would ask the retailers to give something back in exchange for the price cuts. And to be fair, Universal is taking on a similar risk with this program: even with the elimination of their co-op costs, they must sell scads more CDs to make up the revenue lost to the price cuts. But that doesn’t make it any nicer for the music chains; they may feel even more disadvantaged against the well-capitalized big boxes, which could conveivably shrug off the labels’ co-op funds.

The retailers who’ve spoken to Billboard and the like have understandably mixed feelings about the Universal program. Co-op dollars represent a sizeable chunk of their bottom line, and there’s no guarantee that CD sales will fill that hole. There’s also nothing to stop the big boxes from dropping their loss-leader prices even further – to, say, $6.99 for a full-length CD.

Retailers also realize that, to the average joe, the value proposition between the music business and the consumer has been irrovocably damaged: record buyers have grown wary of filler-laden albums. Don’t consumers now believe most major-label CDs are not worth buying at any price?

Still, some retailers – including Newbury’s widely respected Mike Dreese – have publicly applauded Universal’s move, with an “About friggin’ time!” tone in their voices. I warily join them. Pricing CDs below $10, however belated a move, is a necessary one. As long as the industry is in mortal pain anyway, it might as well try on some new business models.

My secret hope is this: that industry-wide CD sales will continue to drop, but Universal’s will drop less. This would be the perfect scenario. The other labels would be compelled to follow Universal’s lead, but all five labels, U included, would still have to address the larger issue – the music business is truly broken, and deep, institutional change is needed to fix it.

I’ve said this before, I’ll say it again: the music business does not fit into the multinational conglomerate model. Artists need to be permitted to grow and build audiences organically, the way they used to when all of our current stadium-filling acts were coming up. Consumers should be allowed to buy music flexibly – on the Internet, one song at a time if they like, not unlike the days when young 45-buyers graduated into becoming adult LP-buyers. In short, the art needs to come back into the music business, at which time the commerce will surely follow.

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ROCK OVER LONDON, ROCK ON CHICAGO

    Being a music “outsider” will only take you so far. But Wesley Willis is whupping Batman’s ass in heaven.

Wesley Willis

That loud, strange sound you heard last week – the one that roused you from sleep one night and made you mutter, “What the hell is that?” – was the sound of a large, gravelly-voiced man arriving at the pearly gates. You can’t be too sure, but you coulda sworn the voice was singing something like this:

    You really whoop a llama’s ass.
    You really whoop Saddam Hussein’s ass.
    You are my special heaven.
    I love you a lot in the long run.
    ST. PETER!!!
    ST. PETER!!!
    ST. PETER!!!
    ST. PETER!!!

Perhaps the most beloved figure of ’90s “outsider” music, Wesley Willis succumbed to a lifetime of health problems last week at the age of 40. Willis was a Chicago-based, self-styled punk rocker and a functioning schizorphrenic, who played accompanied mainly by a Casio synthesizer. About the best eulogy article I’ve read so far appeared in The Washington Post.

Willis’s songs generally consisted of repeated/shouted lines – usually the title of the song, which was often named after a rock star or personality with whom he was momentarily obsessed. He ended most songs with the phrase, “Rock over London/Rock on Chicago,” and a line from a TV jingle, such as, “Folgers – good to the last drop.” Some claimed that his utterly untutored, raw rock made him one of the true remaining punks. His best-loved song bragged that he could “whup Batman’s ass.”

It would be absurd for me to write some over-flattering eulogy for Willis: I’ve never seen him live, only own some of his songs as downloads, and basically agree with most people that he was more interesting than talented. What’s sort of amazing about Willis is that he became as well known as he did – he was the subject of an MTV profile in the mid-’90s, and he even briefly recorded for a major label, Rick Rubin’s American Recordings (further proof that the post-Nirvana record business was, for a short time, a strange and interesting place).

What I loved about Willis was that he was something of a pop-culture savant – his interests tended toward alt- and indie-rock figures, not pop stars. My favorite memory of Willis was a short clip MTV showed of him playing his latest composition, “Steve Albini,” about the hipster indie-rock producer of Nirvana and PJ Harvey. The chorus, natch, consisted mainly of Willis howling, “Steve Albini! Steve Albini! Steve Albini!” I had no idea that the indie-rock enfant terrible had such a mellifluous rock-chorus of a name.

For an instant introduction to Willis’s lyrical approach, check out the Wesley Willis Song Generator (scroll to the bottom of the page), which makes me convulse with laughter. Some rock critics have asked the ethical question of whether laughing at Willis’s stream-of-consciousness lyrics meant laughing at the clearly mentally ill Willis or with him. But the guy was so damned funny – he sang about llamas, for chrissakes – that not laughing just seems ascetic to me. If Snoop Dogg can go to the grave someday, proud of having created Snoop-Dizzle-fo-shizzle language, I think Wesley can rest easy having taught the world how rock can whup a donkey’s ass.

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