Saturday, March 24, 2012

What It Means to Be a Twenty-First Century Digital Boy

It is an age that has moved beyond irony and anachronism.  Most culture today--particularly musical--looks backward even as the technology of media formats hurtles blindly into a not-so-brave new world.
     The age of the rock star is over.  Some superannuated veterans still stalk arenas and stadiums, but they are generally not being joined by their proteges and epigones.  Aging baby boomers who long ago stopped listening to new music crowd arena rock concerts demanding to hear decades-old songs the way they've always heard them while using brief interludes featuring a token new song or two as a convenient opportunity to get another beer and/or release the last ones from their clogged systems.  (While listening to then-new material from Paul McCartney's Off the Ground album, released on the cusp of his New World Tour, Howard Stern facetiously referred to the tracks as "concession stand music".)  The relatively few young and relatively young people who can afford to attend at today's arena concert prices will likely be unable to afford to see their friends play at the local club the next night, driving the final nail into the rock star age's coffin.  ("If you spent two-hundred dollars on Springsteen tickets, how do you justify going to a club the next weekend?  And if the clubs are closed, where is the next generation of live bands coming from?" rhetorically asked Springsteen friend and biographer Dave Marsh many years ago now.)  The narrowcasting that accompanied the rise of the Internet and new media and fall of the major record labels and brick-and-mortar stores  further removed the new century from the old as every consumer now has (studio, if not live) access to (destined-to-remain) obscure artists from all over the globe via CD Baby, Amazon, Facebook, and (the last time I checked) MySpace.
     The content of the culture these new world men and women produce and consume is generally derivative and/or unlistenable, though there are increasingly common, encouraging exceptions (the 1990's trend of deemphasizing melody in popular music seems to be waning).  The failure of modern education as well as  the inexorable and ineluctable effects of modern culture on the modern attention span have ensured that there are fewer thoughtful, artful innovators and even fewer potential audience members for them, especially on the national level.  Teenagers starving for such complex melody, instrumental skill, and general quality flock to the music of their parents (e.g., Iron Maiden) and grandparents (e.g., The Beach Boys).  They may be unaware (as I was for a long time)  that there are contemporary artists worth seeking out if one knows where to find them, they may be unwilling or unable to see the artists live in clubs and theaters (where they inevitably play, today), or perhaps they succumb to old-fashioned peer pressure.  (Most people are sheep.  That has changed little throughout the centuries.)  Concomitantly, advanced technology has made equipment (including recording equipment) and distribution channels more accessible and affordable.  Cinema, in accordance with the dumbed-down culture, has degenerated into remakes, sequels, comic book adaptations, etc.  The rise of digital cable and high-definition television has brought back the 3-D trend of the 1950's just as the music industry devolves back to its 1950's setup of small labels and small venues.  Those who still read are gravitating to "E-readers" but seem to be filling their screens with old works (while writers either starve or become lawyers so they can afford the plasma television and arena rock concert tickets).
     It can be difficult to keep track of the anachronisms and absurdities of an anachronistic and absurd culture.  Capitol Records remixes and re-remasters decades-old recordings for already-dated compact discs and the compressed, tinny sound of mp3's and computer speakers while promising new artists like Best Coast revel in the warmth of vinyl (David Letterman held up the vinyl edition of their self-titled album when they performed on his show).  The arena, once the stomping ground of youngsters and contemporary hits, is now the province of the aged while up-and-comers, some as good as some of the best to ever grace an arena stage, eke out a living in clubs.  To paraphrase Frank Zappa, jazz no longer just smells funny--it is now dead.  (And classical music only survives in film scores.)  But at least there are encouraging trends in the world of popular music (artistically if not commercially).  Literature (excepting some thematically-oriented detective fiction writers) and cinema (excepting the occasional art film that doesn't wallow in naturalistic malevolence) seem entirely dead.  (I predict a theater revival similar to the vinyl revival as cinema increasingly becomes a gimmicky graveyard for overused stories, characters, and ideas.)
     With an archive full of old writings and a succession of upcoming live events that demand some kind of reporting and assessing, I thought it was time to find a home for thoughts, essays, and reviews that didn't fit on my other weblog.  I have the privilege of living in the midst of a theater and club scene that still soldiers on at this late date (with brick-and-mortar options many others don't have); I have access to both repertory cinemas and streaming Netflix; and I have a five-in-one stereo that plays records (including 78's), cassettes, CD's, and mp3's (as well as the old-fashioned radio).  (While I will never let go of celluloid and vinyl, it is gratifying and convenient to view and listen to "new media" along side of them.  A digital exclusive Dream Theater live "album" emanates from my computer speakers as I type this.  While I am a Dream Theater fanatic, I've never been able to listen to it before since I wasn't a Spotify user.  I still don't have an E-reader, but I expect that might change within a few weeks.)  As a aficionado of classics and the classical who still searches far and wide for the occasional gems that still get produced and performed, nothing artistic (if I may use the term in this century of non-art and anti-art) is off limits.
     The convergence of old and new has perked up an dormant interest in contemporary culture (especially music) that I previously thought was completely devoid of interest.  This space will try to put the bewildering chaos of twenty-first century culture into some kind of perspective.  And while I don't like to spoon-feed readers and spell everything out, the title, while descriptive, is also symbolic of a rejection of a dichotomy between art and entertainment.  It is an amalgam of two different song titles: one an artsy, brainy, complex, extended progressive rock dirge; the other a terse, stylish, simple piece of pop ear candy.

A Postcard from California: Alan Jardine's Record Release Party

Renascent Beach Boy Alan Jardine (and his "Friends") ostensibly held a record release party at The Roxy Theatre in West Hollywood, CA Tuesday night.
     "Ostensibly" is the appropriate term as the new disc, A Postcard From California, was not available for sale at the merchandise stand (where only free raffle tickets were available), and the setlist was overloaded with Beach Boys songs (popular and, delightfully, obscure).  For once in the digital age, however, "record" was accurate: free vinyl records were distributed at the door as partygoers filed out of the world-famous venue.
     While none of Jardine's fellow Beach Boys was present (at least on stage), his backing band included stalwarts of the Boys' touring and recording entourage, viz.: bass guitarist Ed Carter, drummer Bobby Figueroa, and multi-instrumentalist Billy Hinsche (Carl Wilson's ex-brother-in-law).  (Unfortunately, former touring band member and Billy Joel sideman Richie Cannata wasn't there for some reason.)  Jardine's sons Matthew and Adam sang with their father (more than adequately, with one exception), and two competent sidemen rounded out the lineup, playing all of the solos.  Several members of the Boys' extended family (including a certain famous actor) joined the band at the end of the show.
     Since it was light on new material (and only one of the three new songs really impressed), the seventy-nine minute set was most notable for the obscure Beach Boys songs that fans will be unlikely to hear on the much-hyped 50th anniversary reunion tour this summer.  Al dug deep into the Boys' catalog and dusted off hardcore fan favorites written by himself and others.  While he had to pass a few tenor vocal parts to his sons, the elder Jardine's voice is remarkably robust for his age (which the aforementioned actor remarked upon at his earliest opportunity).  (An abstemious lifestyle and the right balance of use and rest has paid dividends.  Al's visage may have changed, but his voice--high range excepted--has not.)
     In this age of unregenerate nostalgia, it was encouraging to see and hear Jardine present the old obscurities in a context of relevancy.  The devastating semi-drone and seemingly anti-welfare Surf's Up album track "Lookin' At Tomorrow (A Welfare Song)" was succeeded by a comment that the job-seeker's lament was more topical today than ever (certainly more than the time of its release, 1971), and the boisterous "Honkin' Down the Highway" (from 1977's The Beach Boys Love You, one of the most inexcusably underrated albums by a major artist in rock history) segued into the brand-new "Drivin'."
     The only letdowns were the nostalgic (and ill-conceived) encore, when too many Wilsons crowded the stage (The Honeys--look them up--are always welcome, but they can't be heard when Uncle Jesse, Carl's sons, and everyone else are drowning them out), and the transposed, flat "Wild Honey" (proof as much as anything else that Carl Wilson can never be replaced).
     Given the strength and vigor of Jardine's voice, he will be a valuable asset to whatever artistic success comes of The Beach Boys' tour.  Perhaps he can use that as leverage during tour rehearsals and insist on including some of the rarities on the list below when a recalcitrant Mike Love demurs.  It would be unwise to count on it, though.

Alan Jardine and Friends
Al Jardine: rhythm guitar
Matt Jardine: percussion
Adam Jardine: percussion
Billy Hinsche: keyboards, guitar on "California Saga," harmonica on "Help Me, Rhonda"
Ed Carter: bass guitar
Bobby Figueroa: drums
Jared Dalley: lead guitar, banjo
Tom Jacob: keyboards
John "Uncle Jesse" Stamos: drums on "Surfin' USA"

A Postcard From California Record Release Party
The Roxy Theatre
West Hollywood, CA
Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Set [lead vocalist(s) in brackets]
You're So Good to Me [Al]
I Can Hear Music [Matt]
Heroes and Villains [Al]
California Dreamin' [Al and Billy]
California Saga (On My Way to Sunny Californ-i-a) [Al]
Sail On Sailor [Billy]
Lookin' at Tomorrow (A Welfare Song) [Al]
A Postcard From California [Al]
Don't Fight the Sea [Al and Matt]
Honkin' Down the Highway [Al]
Drivin' [Al]
Wild Honey [Matt]
God Only Knows [Matt]
Sloop John B. [Al and Adam]
Wouldn't It Be Nice [Matt and Al]
Good Vibrations [Matt and Billy]
Help Me, Rhonda [Al]
Surfin' USA [Matt]

Barbara Ann [Matt]
Fun, Fun, Fun [Matt]