Category Archives: San Francisco Bay Guardian

The Boring, Beautiful Future

boring futureThis was written in 2000, as Napster and a variety of online music sites were shaking up the business. SF Bay Guardian Arts Editor Tommy Tompkins and I would get together for lunch pretty regularly after I went to work full-time for listen.com, and we’d talk about what was happening to the music business. So it made sense that eventually he asked me to write him a longish piece on it all. Nothing too embarrassing below, I don’t think, almost a decade and a half later, which isn’t too bad, when pontificating about what the future will or won’t bring. The week this ran I got an email from Hillary Rosen, the much-vilified head of the RIAA at the time, telling me she liked my article and liked Negativland. I think my only reply was, “Please don’t break the Internet.”

The music business has witnessed so many stunning developments in the past few weeks that this very sentence will probably go out of date before I finish typing it. One minute Metallica’s suing Napster, then before you can say, “What dickheads!” they’ve collected the names of over 300,000 Napster users they accuse of illegally trading Metallica tunes. A few days after a federal judge rules that Mp3.com’s Beam-It feature violates copyright laws, the company announces a new subscription service for classical music lovers, and five minutes after THAT Universal and Sony decide they, too, will develop a subscription-based service for people seeking downloadable music on the internet. Continue reading

Good Guys And Bad Guys

camper headline

Back in 2000, Camper Van Beethoven announced a string of gigs — their first after breaking up rather unceremoniously almost a decade earlier. This was a big enough deal in the Bay Area that the Chronicle, the SF Weekly and the Bay Guardian all devoted features to the band’s shows at Slims. I can be kind of competitive, so I was quite pleased that my wife overheard a guy at the show behind us telling his friends the Guardian’s was by far the best. I was at the bar when that happened, but when I returned the guy told me I didn’t have to buy drinks anymore that night, they were on him. Compliments and free beer — it’s all I really want in life.

Let’s make one thing very clear: Camper Van Beethoven, semi-legendary college radio darlings turned ambitious major label art rockers who abruptly called it quits in the middle of a European tour ten years ago, are not reuniting. Four of the five core members will be playing old Camper songs together at Slim’s on February 10th and 11th, but they’re not reuniting. Oh, and there’s another Camper album coming out soon, on the revived Pitch-A-Tent Records. But the band’s not reuniting. Okay?

Jackson Haring, who used to manage Camper Van Beethoven and now manages Cracker, the more commercially successful band CVB front man David Lowery formed in the early nineties, wants everyone to know that “Cracker isn’t breaking up.” The publicist at Virgin Records stresses that the Slim’s performances are Cracker shows, with, like, special guests. And Lowery himself says that while he’s looking forward to playing with his ex-band mates again, “I don’t want to get carried away with it.” Continue reading

Universal Tour Diary

Itour diary headline can’t remember now what set me off, but I know this 1998 piece for the SF Bay Guardian was inspired by reading a particularly boring and pointless tour diary earlier that year. Steve Albini and Henry Rollins really wrote the only ones of any enduring interest to me, but both achieved it by seeming to be particularly horrible people.

Tour diaries are like Haiku: it’s a lot harder to write a good one than you think. Perhaps that’s because most rock tours are mind-numbingly routine: the food always sucks, the van keeps breaking down, promoters continually rip you off, you get laid occasionally and drunk all the time. Touring can be a lot of fun, but it’s not a particularly profound experience. Then again, maybe tour diaries are so feeble simply because most of the people writing them are rock musicians, and rock musicians are kind of stupid. Continue reading

This Machine Thrills Fascists

I wasmermaid ave 6 24 98 — and remain — blown away by the odd collaboration between Billy Bragg, Wilco, and Woody Guthrie’s ghost. This was my initial review the month the first batch of tunes from that collaboration came out.

There aren’t any precedents for Mermaid Avenue. It’s sort of a Billy Bragg album, except that Wilco is backing him, and they’re singing songs they all wrote with Woody Guthrie, who died when these guys were kids.

There’s a relatively simple explanation for how the whole thing came about: Woody’s daughter, Nora, commissioned semi-famous British protest singer Bragg to compose music for some of the hundreds of lyrics her father wrote but never recorded. The lyrics, handwritten and typed by Woody, included dates and places of composition, and occasionally a brief explanation of what he was up to. Whatever music or melodies he intended for them, however, he kept in his head. Perhaps a little nervous about his thick East End accent, Bragg enlisted American roots poster-boys Wilco to help him out.

It’s a little harder to explain why the results are so incredible. Continue reading

Hopelessly Devoted: Cult Bands

I cult coverwas drawn to cult acts long before I was in one, so I’m pretty sure my fascination with the phenomenon has less to do with trying to figure out my own personal place in the musical cosmos than it does with trying to figure out why so few people seem to like the same music as my friends and I (or why no one seems to like music as much as my friends and I do).

The great thing about writing for Tommy Tompkins at the Bay Guardian in the ’90s was that he was always willing to hear me out whenever I felt as though I’d had some kind of epiphany at a show that was worth turning into a piece. This one from ’97 came after I was underwhelmed by a Jazz Butcher gig at Great American Music Hall an old college buddy had convinced me I’d love.

Definitions of cult bands vary, but here’s a fairly reliable test: if you ever encounter an inexplicably long line for a band you’ve never heard of, just say something like, “Oh yeah, I’ve heard of this group. Aren’t they some kind of a cult band?” The angrier the crowd becomes, the more heated their denials that their beloved band is anything like obscure, the more inventive the epithets they hurl at you as you run away, the more likely that you were right after all.

That test works in reverse, too, as I found out when I dragged a friend to see the Mekons. I mean, I never thought of the Mekons as anything other than the best band in the world. Who else could introduce a number by saying, “Here’s a song off our last book,” and mean it? Only the wonderful Mekons. This was in September, in New York, and I had the good fortune to be in town the same night the Mekons were passing through. I was one of many happy drunks in the audience, admiring my luck, loving the band, and I turned to share my shit-eating grin with the old friend I’d convinced to join me.

And I saw something impossible: she was bored. Continue reading