Archive forOctober, 2003


    Radiohead have made the great leap to arena headliners, and they’ve redeemed my favorite album of theirs from its critics.

Last week I caught Radiohead at Madison Square Garden. I found myself with an extra ticket, and Emily, an intermittent Radiohead fan, came along. It was Emily’s first concert ever at the Garden – or, for that matter, at any venue that big. Taking in the spectacle of 20,000-plus people packed into the arena, she asked, “When did Radiohead get this big?”

I had a hard time coming up with a satisfactory answer. In a way, I’m as dumbfounded as Emily is. Radiohead’s tours just keep getting bigger; it’s not out of the question that they could be playing stadiums in a few more years. (Dave Matthews, watch your back.) Off the cuff, I theorized to Emily that Radiohead’s 1997 hit album OK Computer was the juncture at which the band made the great leap. But then I had to admit that OK Computer sold over a long, slow period, and the band sure wasn’t selling out hockey arenas in 1998. Radiohead’s two long-delayed follow-up albums, Kid A (2000) and Amnesiac (2001), debuted high on the charts, but they confounded fans, divided critics, produced no radio hits and willfully messed with the band’s guitar-rock legacy. So it’s hard to say those records made the band an SRO attraction.

How exactly did Radiohead get here?

Radiohead have been crowned Most Important Band in the World by more than one pundit, but what separates them from, say, Björk is that they’re beloved by masses of people who have no use for “weird” music. People who love their rawk love the band, and unlike Nirvana, who were creeped out when baseball-cap-wearing frat boys started thronging their shows, Radiohead seem to have made peace with their type-A fans – while never playing down to them. At a Radiohead concert, you’ll get your wish for a “Karma Police” singalong, but not before you’ve been assaulted with squalls of feedback. You’d think that this sort of show would have an upper limit of mass appeal.

There’s really no point of reference for Radiohead’s popularity. U2 successfully executed a huge change-up in their sound in the ’90s, but they were already an arena-level act. R.E.M. grew gradually into arena rockers, but the trajectory of their sound and their pop profile accreted steadily from album to album. As for Radiohead’s career, if it were a diagram, the trend line would have more than one sharp angle.

Radiohead is one of the few ’90s bands to survive the conglomerate-era major-label system. (Arguably, only Weezer can compare.) Simply put, their label, Capitol, allowed them to fail: when Pablo Honey, their debut, got trashed by critics and produced no follow-up to the hit single “Creep”; when the sophomore album The Bends looked dead on arrival but was championed by legions of rock fans, even while it wasn’t selling; when OK Computer took more than a year to go platinum, relying on – how passé! – critics to get it there. Here we are, a decade after “Creep,” and only Radiohead is selling out the Garden. If there’s one band that bears out my long-held theory that the music business will only produce new, long-term superstars when it sticks through their fallow periods, it’s this one.

The trick for any group reaching this stage of a career is staying true to the small-rock ethic that got them where they are, while incorporating the grand gestures of the arena. For ’90s-era acts, which often arrived steeped in irony and cynicism, this is an especially tough transition; just ask Billy Corgan. Then again, there are acts that have pulled it off. I watched Beck execute the trick in the late ’90s, moving from tongue-in-cheek irony on his Odelay tour to big-rock earnestness on the Mutations and Midnite Vultures tours, while retaining his loveable goofball persona. Radiohead appear, finally, to have mastered this split-personality trick, too.

I wasn’t so sure they had it worked it out the last time I saw them. I first caught Radiohead in 2001, on a gorgeous summer night at Liberty State Park (a small New Jersey island a ferry ride away from Battery Park). That gathering of thousands, sprawling as it was, felt smaller and more hipsterish – sort of like a one-act Lollapalooza. It was also in keeping with Radiohead’s reputation as mercurial performers; they put on a great show but focused heavily on their then-recent album, Amnesiac, the prickliest album in their catalog. And speaking of prickliness, Thom Yorke, true to form, didn’t look like he was having a phenomenal time.

This year’s Radiohead tour, if the show I caught is any indication, is a completely different beast. It’s heartening when you observe an act you like stepping up and handling larger crowds. The music filled the cavernous Garden amply, thundering with old-fashioned rock muscle. The lights were moody and dramatic but not garish. The show made the best use of JumboTron screens I’ve ever seen – the band and crew found a way to employ them artfully, using odd camera angles, juxtaposing live images of the band and repeating computer art into a kind of twisted video collage. And, not incidentally, Yorke actually seemed to be enjoying himself, dancing around the stage, flirting with his microphone stand – occasionally, even the audience – and singing his ass off.

Returning to the Garden one week after a Fleetwood Mac show was, for me, a study in contrasts: where I was among the youngest attendees at the Mac concert, I was definitely smack-dab at the average age – maybe even a bit older – at the Radiohead show. The place was packed with 20somethings. This was not exactly the meat-and-potatoes crowd you’d find at a U2 show. But it wasn’t all hipsters, either: from older fans who hear echoes of Pink Floyd in Radiohead’s space-rock, to rocker-boys (and gals) who came to throw up fists, if not devil horns, a nice range of rock fandom was represented.

For me, the highlight of the show was the set list, because it vindicated an opinion of mine that I’d come to believe was well outside the mainstream: it focused heavily on Kid A. So help me God, at least two-thirds to three-fourths of that maligned 2000 album got played, and I am almost positive Kid A selections outnumbered those from any of Radiohead’s albums – even their current one, hail to the thief, which you’d think would be the focus of a 2003 concert. Imagine if U2 went out on tour right now and drew half their set list from Achtung Baby, ignored much of their most recent album and played only two songs from The Joshua Tree.

I adore Kid A. Just liking it as much as I do sets me apart from many Radiohead admirers. The follow-up to the widely adored OK Computer, Kid A was primed to be the band’s Achtung Baby, the change-up record that redefined the group – and brought fans along. But to many listeners, Kid A may as well have been their Metal Machine Music; a great number consider it unlistenable, atonal, meandering. In a now-infamous, article-length review of the album in The New Yorker, no less than High Fidelity author Nick Hornby savaged Kid A as being “self-indulgent” and accused Radiohead of a “failure of courage.” Obviously a number of fans and critics came to the album’s, and the band’s, defense, but the perception of Kid A as That Difficult Failure persists. A recent Blender roundup of mini-reviews surveying the band’s career rated Kid A not much higher than the band’s lame debut Pablo Honey.

To me, Kid A is like a warm bath, a deeply felt tone poem. Its noisier moments are of a piece with its more melodic ones, and the album has a tonal unity that none of Radiohead’s records enjoys. Anyone who’s heard even two tracks by Aphex Twin or the Orb has no right calling Kid A difficult; indeed, Kid A is a lot more approachable than much of the electronica we see on TV commercials or hear in clubs. There’s also no excuse for oldster rock fans like Hornby to hate the record. Frankly, there’s so much vibrato-heavy keyboard on it, I’m shocked that Who fans and Floyd fans don’t love it more. (I hate Floyd, but even I can hear the Dark Side of the Moon echoes.) Bottom line, Kid A is the only Radiohead album ripped in its entirety to my iPod, and it’s the only record by them that works for me as a complete piece, start to finish. Yeah, OK Computer fans, you read that right; what’s it to ya?

So imagine my delight when the band sprinkled its Garden set with songs like “Kid A” and “How to Disappear Completely” and “The National Anthem” and “Morning Bell” (the Kid A version, not the Amnesiac verion, thankyouverymuch), and even saved “Everything in Its Right Place” for the final encore set. It seemed like a concerted effort by the band to rescue their redheaded stepchild from lifelong scorn – and with three years passed since the album’s release, the timing was right. Whether you listen to Kid A regularly or never played it again after October 2000, hearing these songs translated for a crowd of thousands in a giant shed is a revelatory experience. My favorite track from the album, “Idioteque” (”Women and children first…This is really happening, happening”), was arguably the show’s highlight, moving from wiry tension to clattering rock and encapsulating the band’s strengths in five minutes flat.

Emily likes Radiohead’s soundscapes, too, but she’s not a fan of Thom Yorke’s voice. Yorke is big on the wordless falsetto croon – a showy vocal shtick that rock fans weaned on Bono innately love but which, to Emily, is like fingernails on a chalkboard. (Have I mentioned how much she hates U2?) “It’s like the guy from Coldplay,” she says. “His vocals seem to say, Look at meeeee!

I respect Emily’s opinion – I’m more enamored of Yorke’s artistic leadership than his voice, truthfully – but I find it ironic that we’re now talking about Thom Yorke ‘03, showy frontman, rather than Thom Yorke ‘97, tetchy hipster. It’s not like Yorke just recently became an obnoxious egoist – the guy had a big head and a superior attitude from day one. But the man who once shrank from fans and sang about “How to Disappear Completely” is now projecting to the cheap seats, dominating the JumboTron. It should creep me out, but instead, I’m sort of happy for him. A band this big needs someone outsize fronting it, and it’s about time Thom Yorke grew up and really ran this band – not like a moody dictator, but like a benevolent capo.

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    A few thoughts on the release of my first book, the occasion of my first book party and the surreal feeling one gets when worlds collide.

Among the many passages I love in Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity (both the book and the film) is the party Rob Gordon’s girlfriend throws – against his wishes – to announce the launch of his micro-indie record label. Rob tries, unsuccessfully, to put the kibbosh on the party, to be held at a nightclub:

    “It’s just…the whole thing is just blown way out of proportion. It’s just a three-song CD – it’s a single. It’s just…it’s…not a big deal.”

To which Laura, his girlfriend and the party organizer, replies:

    “It’s just that you’re making something. You – the critic, the professional appreciator – put something new into the world. And the second one of those things gets sold to someone, you’re officially a part of it. Congratulations, Rob.”

I thought of this passage repeatedly last Thursday night, at a party thrown for me by my colleagues from Gargiulo+Partners, celebrating the release of my book, Kurt Cobain: Voice of a Generation.

Before I continue, let’s get some announcements out of the way. After a few shipping delays, the book is finally out. You can buy it now at Barnes & Noble’s website, and copies are being shipped to SuperStores nationwide as we speak; within a week or two, you should be able to buy a copy at any Barnes & Noble. Thanks to all those who have asked when they could get one.

For those who haven’t heard the story, last winter, I was commissioned by Barnes & Noble Publishing, a small subsidiary of the large book retailer, to write a coffee-table book about Kurt Cobain. It’s basically a short biography of Kurt, accompanied by dozens of photos, each with a chunky caption. Under a tight deadline, I cranked it out in about two months. It’s only 96 pages, and because of B&N’s cut-out-the-middleman strategy, it retails for – no joke – $9.98. Needless to say, it’s not a book for scholars, Nirvana experts or indie-rock hipsters. There’ve been New Yorker articles longer than this book.

So you can understand my trepidation when Diane Gargiulo, head of Gargiulo+Partners and my day-job boss, told me months ago that she intended to throw me a book party. Like Rob Gordon with his little record label, I wasn’t opposed to having my little project acknowledged; I just didn’t want anybody blowing it out of proportion. Rob probably would have felt better about a party when Top Five Records had released a few full-length albums, and I might have felt better if this was my second book – and about three times longer. I thought, after her initial burst of excitement, that Diane would cool on, or think better of, the party idea, and we’d get too busy to do it. But she insisted, and I’m egotistical enough that I played along.

Cobain party invite

    The invitation to the party. (For a bigger view, click here.)

The other thing I love about the High Fidelity vignette is that Laura, Rob’s girlfriend, works at a law firm and plans to invite her colleagues, senior partners and various muckety-mucks to the party. Rob isn’t just freaked that someone is celebrating his tiny project with a big bash; it’s the worlds-colliding horror of corporate types and indie-shop snobs mixing, a stew of bespoke suits and bedraggled jeans.

I don’t talk much about Gargiulo+Partners on this blog. I am proud of and thankful for the work I do there – God knows it makes my writing career possible – but there’s nothing rock n’ roll about it. We’re a strategic communications consultancy, less than a half-dozen people, and we provide writing, “messaging” and marketing for financial firms and other corporate entities. It’s pretty high-level and more than a little esoteric. Startup financial firm needs PR messages, a logo and a new website? Consumer company making a major acquisition and preparing new marketing? Major bank needs help writing quarterly and annual reports? We’re there.

When Diane proposed the party, I told her, straight up: “Look, I’m touched, but it’s a book about a junkie grunge rock star who offed himself. I mean, are you sure this will mix with our client base?” Diane – an opera fan, regular WQXR listener and all-around first-class lady – had certainly heard of Cobain but didn’t even know any Nirvana songs. Nonetheless, she felt that having a published author on her small team was nothing but a credit to her firm, and, like a proud mother hen, she wanted to tell the world.

I am ashamed to say I rather underestimated Diane’s coolness. She found our party spot at the Chelsea Hotel, which couldn’t have been more perfect: classy enough for clients, artsy enough to have hosted generations of writers, plus a down-and-dirty rock n’ roll past. The party invitation, conceived by a great design firm with whom we work closely, was extremely clever and praised by everyone we sent it to, from investment bankers to my editors. The designers even managed to work in the book’s cover art – no mean feat. In all of these decisions, I am proud to say, I had no input whatsoever.

Still, as the party approached last Thursday, I found myself second-guessing everything. What would I wear? A book about the king of grunge can’t be feted in a suit. (I ended up going for a sort of Queer Eye take on grunge.) What about the music? Kurt played hard rock and loved punk; would the Melvins, the Stooges and the Pixies sound right at a swank cocktail party? (I ended up giving the DJ some mellower CBGB rock and lots of Nirvana Unplugged.) To say nothing of the wide array of guests: not just clients were invited – also my family, friends, editors, music-industry contacts, even my beloved high school English teacher. We had upwards of 100 people.

Picture your biggest-ever birthday party, one that encapsulates your entire life – maybe you’ve even had one. Think about the sheer array of people at that event, and the queasy mix of excitement, sheepishness and mild horror you feel seeing them all in the same room. I can’t speak for Emily, but it must be a bit like what she felt when I gathered her hometown friends, college friends, term-abroad friends, roommates and coworkers for her 25th birthday last year. It’s a feeling she and I will probably have together at our wedding next year.

Now imagine that queasy-happy feeling compounded by the realization that these people are here to celebrate not just you, but this thing you did, which they’re all so excited to talk about. To paraphrase Rob’s girlfriend, you – the critic, the professional appreciator – put something new into the world, and people want to see it and touch it and discuss it and, very soon, buy it. You want to downplay it, set expectations much, much lower because people are just too excited. I told so many people at the party, “It’s just a coffee-table book – I mean, it’s basically Kurt Cobain for Dummies,” that my former roommate Craig pulled me aside at one point and, rightfully, lovingly, scolded me for belittling my book.

I suppose many authors have this self-deprecating feeling about their first book and first book party. But Rob Gordon and I share a special kind of sheepishness: the built-in awkwardness of the diehard rock geek. Rob says at one point in High Fidelity that records are “fetish properties,” and obsessing over them is like a devotion to pornography; millions have the affliction, but few want to talk about it. A party like this is, more or less, a strange sort of coming-out.

I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have a phenomenal time. I drank too much, nearly lost my voice and embraced so many people, I’m surprised Emily didn’t find lipstick on my collar. My cousins Josephine and Loretta, to whom I dedicated the book, were really surprised and touched, and my parents were proud. Emily rounded up stray friends in the VIP area and kept them entertained. College friends chatted up colleagues, and former J.P. Morgan colleagues who hadn’t seen each other in years were reunited. Diane gave a touching, poised toast, and I gave a little speech; everyone laughed at my opening joke. I signed a few books, and everybody made me promise to sign copies later. I joked with clients and friends alike that after the party, we should take a room in the Chelsea, get stoned and throw a TV out the window.

I found out the morning after the party that Courtney Love had just been arrested, that very day, for drug possession. Despite what many Cobain fans feel about his widow, I don’t wish ill on Courtney. (I just want her to take good care of Frances Bean Cobain and not sue me.) But I must say, the timing was ironic. Here I was, worried that our highfalutin party wouldn’t be true to the spirit of Kurt or of rock hedonism. And there was Courtney, handling the hedonism for us.

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    With one hand tied behind their collective backs, Fleetwood Mac put on a surprisingly good reunion show. But that’s easy when you’ve got the nimble fingers of Lindsey Buckingham working for you.

I dragged myself over to Madison Square Garden the other night to catch “An Evening with Fleetwood Mac” with fairly modest expectations. I was among the youngest concertgoers there, and I was dreading a wobbly night of warmed-over nostalgia. What I got instead was a vibrant, energetic performance from a bunch of 50somethings who could’ve phoned it in – especially one 55-year-old guitarist who rocked like Jack White’s big brother.

Word to the wise: I finally figured out that any concert billed as “An Evening with…” – especially featuring an oldster act with a large Baby Boom fanbase – will have no opening act, start very punctually and go for hours. It’s a good-value kind of show, even at nearly $100 a ticket. And only bands with decades of material can attempt it.

Fleetwood Mac certainly fills the bill. I didn’t fully appreciate it until seeing this show, but they really have amassed one of the more impressive back catalogs in rock. Even excluding their late ’60s–early ’70s period as an all-British blues act – before Californians Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks turned them into pop stars – few bands have managed to contain such an array of pop styles, song tempos and personal idioms: from Nicks’s loopy fantasias, to Buckingham’s dark, ornate pop, to Christine McVie’s lovelorn paeans. Somehow, the signature backbeat of drummer Mick Fleetwood and bassist John McVie unifies the songs; but it’s still easy to pick out the three songwriters’ personalities. Arguably no major rock act, Beatles included, boasted such a prolific trio of writers.

Except that one-third of that triumvarate is gone. Christine McVie, writer of scads of hits including “Say You Love Me,” “You Make Loving Fun,” “Over My Head” and “Little Lies,” decided to sit out the latest tour. She’s earned a break: McVie arguably kept Fleetwood Mac together and viable through most of the ’90s, sticking through the absences of both Buckingham and Nicks at various periods and writing what few minor hits the band still had. She’s the proverbial soldier who held down the fort while her comrades went off on far-flung adventures, and understandably, she’s tired.

That the show goes on without her could either be a travesty or a triumph. So many veteran bands hit the road without a key member and embarrass themselves – artistically, if not commercially. From the Doors trying to tour without Jim Morrison to Styx touring without Dennis DeYoung, there’s something fundamentally creepy about seeing a band limp through its hits with a presence unmistakably absent. Even a fully reunited group can feel pretty half-assed. In an excellent New York Times piece this week on Simon & Garfunkel’s latest “farewell” tour, critic Jon Pareles argues that all veteran bands “should be allowed one reunion, no more. If things work out and the reunited band becomes a going concern, so much the better.”

So it’s to the Mac’s credit, not only that they’re a going concern (they released a serviceable album, Say You Will, last spring), but that onstage, they almost made me forget about McVie. And that’s a credit to their song catalog, which is so deep that losing nearly a third of it, including some massive hits, didn’t hurt that badly. When you’ve got Buckingham compositions like “Go Your Own Way,” “Never Going Back Again,” “Second Hand News” and “Tusk,” and Nicks’s voluminous hit parade (”Dreams,” “Gypsy,” “Rhiannon,” the solo hit “Stand Back”), you can fill an evening not just capably, but winningly.

Unlike the Stones, who arguably could have broken up after their first decade and ended up with most of their essential material, hanging around for three decades has arguably benefited Fleetwood Mac, who continued to pen worthwhile material into the ’80s. Their ’90s material was pretty erratic, but it did help spawn their acclaimed, hard-earned 1997 reunion.

Actually, the guy who deserves the most credit for keeping the Mac flame alive in the ’90s is, oddly, Billy Corgan. “Landslide” was a forgotten folk-pop ditty from 1975’s Fleetwood Mac before Corgan covered it for a Smashing Pumpkins odds-and-sods collection, Pisces Iscariot, in 1994. Now probably the most-played Mac song on the radio – adult contemporary stations play it more than even “Dreams” – the song was never released as a single, never charted, and never even received much airplay before Corgan dug it up. It’s now Nicks’s signature song: the centerpiece of the 1997 Mac reunion, a hit cover for the Dixie Chicks and everyone’s favorite part of the tour. She sings it unaccompanied, save for Lindsey’s guitar – a sappy performance, but you’d have to be a hardass not to fall for it.

Nicks looked good at the show (my uncle, always blunt, said she looked like she’d lost some weight). Her voice isn’t what it was – like Elton John, she’s adjusted her old songs down to a lower register. But she held up well. I run hot and cold on Stevie – for a lot of Mac fans, she’s the main event, and you can’t deny that list of hits she’s written; but she can be an insufferable narcissist and dippy pseudo-hippie. She also often sounds like she’s making up lyrics on the spot; I’ve heard “Rhiannon” a million times and, swear to God, she sang maybe one-third correct lyrics onstage. Still, Stevie has learned some humility and is a survivor, and she now has great rapport with ex-boyfriend Buckingham.

For me, Buckingham has always been the main event. And for the first time in a long time, he seemed genuinely happy to be in Fleetwood Mac. He was simply awe-inspiring – one of those mind-blowing, didn’t-know-he-had-it-in-him performances you just don’t expect from someone going to the trough on a reunion tour. The guy plays like he has four hands – he did “Big Love,” his oft-forgotten, dumbly titled late-’80s hit, by himself, playing lead and rhythm simultaneously and not only redeeming but catapulting the song into a kind of manifesto.

Amid the polished players of Mac, who rock well but basically stick to their arrangements, Buckingham is the endless kid, offering his little nightly rebellion. I swear only Jack White of the White Stripes plays with this much sweaty abandon these days.

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