Tuesday, September 20, 2011

What’s Wrong With Cover Bands

     You’ll notice I didn’t add a  question mark to that title. If you play in a band with at least 75% of your own material, then this article will not apply to you. But- if you play in any band with more than 25% of your material begged, borrowed, or stolen, then consider that it does. 

     It’s become a trend apparently (although certainly not limited to), amongst Baby Boomers of the Beatle generation, to form “tribute bands” dedicated to playing the songs of some favorite band. In many cases, these groups rely on a lookalike (or two) vocalist (or guitarist) soundalikes (ditto) or equipment copycatism to draw their audience- usually from the fanbase of the original band. (You must have an Alembic bass if you wish to emulate Phil Lesh, for instance!) Not only that, but of necessity, for the most part, these groups must play the music of the original band just as closely as possible to the record.
     There are some few exceptions to that, of course. Some bands like sticking to the original arrangements, but take chances as to chosen material. Others (like the DSO) like to play a set list from some particular concert. They may play it their own way, yet, they’re still not playing their own music. Groups like The Sun Kings, Grapefruit Ed, Highway 61 Revisited, like to play on the lookalike penny-whistle with the soundalike vocals, others (like Jerry’s Kids) rely on the copycat instruments with copycat tone format. None of them, it seems to me, particularly, have anything of their own to say.

     Whatever they are saying, someone’s said it better, before, best. When I hear these people I usually don’t hear more than the original band’s inspiration. I would much rather hear music inspired by the Grateful Dead's style and approach than listen to attempts to recapture their geist. It can't be done.
     I once sat in with a bunch of kids who wanted to form their own “Dead cover” band. These were kids who’d never even seen Garcia perform during his lifetime, and their ineptness of approach to certain songs really showed it, too.  I left scratching my head, as I’m sure they did as well. “Why don’t we play something fun, like Casey Jones, or something?” I asked, thinking I’d get some commonality. Nope. Oh well, being fifteen or more years older has its own virtues…
     But for myself, I could have had I wanted to, taken that road myself. However I know I have my own light to guide me. I do play a large percentage of cover songs, but only sprinkled through a set which is a majority of my own (or arrangements of folk idioms in the public domain). Sure, I grew up listening to a lot of Grateful Dead. I absorbed a lot through osmosis. I know that obviously Jerry Garcia was an influence on my own guitar style, however, he was never the only influence on it, and while I probably can’t help sounding something  like Jerry, I will always be doing my damnedest to sound more like myself. And expressing my voice through my style in my own way. The harder you work at sounding like yourself, the more chances you have of being something unique. Damned if I would ever make “sounding like Jerry” be a priority over sounding like, or being like me.
     Nor would I ever consider playing in a band playing nothing but other people’s songs.  Unless you're Bob Dylan, don't bother me with it.
     It’s a nice place to start, but it sure ain’t the ball of wax, baby. I’d rather be a choice than an echo. My feeling is that, cover bands do get into it just for the money. But as Garcia himself once said, “if you get into music to make money, money is all you’ll make.” There was a man who understood the difference between music as life and making a living at music. If cover bands had anything of their own to say, then, they’d be saying it. The fact they aren’t leads me to feel that they just can’t.
     If you are following someone elses' star, then you probably haven’t even got one of your own. You who are reading this, who disagree with me because that’s where you’re at (you know who you are!) -and your band hasn't yet even written enough for a full set of its own– stop standing on the shoulders of giants, and show some backbone. Otherwise, you’ll always get grief from people like me, who’ll just do as we’ve always done- ignore you.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

It Might Have Been Pearl Harbor

      “Hey, they took out the Pentagon!”

     Those were the first words I heard rubbing my bleary morning eyes the morning of September 11, 2001.  I was living in the worst situation I had ever been in in my life- a subsidized bedbug-ridden and flea-trap hotel in the heart of the Inner Mission in San Francisco.

     Curious, I turned on the television, only to see a jet airliner rushing toward one of the two World Trade Center towers- seen from street level, the plane smacked into the tower- one other was already on fire, and the next thing the television showed was dust roiling up the street and hundreds running for their lives. A live reporter ducking back inside a store to be out of the way of the dust cloud.

     It took a bit of time to realize exactly what had occurred. Apparently, groups of hijackers had set out to hijack several airplanes in US airspace and sent them in different directions- two had hit the WTC, one had just hit the Pentagon, where the news cameras showed a big chunk like a piece of pie bitten off a Pop Tart- and over Pennsylvania, another plane being piloted by the best friend of an old high school friend of mine was also now being driven into the ground…

     My father had lived for a decade or more on and off in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, as a construction consultant to various socially beneficial projects of the Saudi monarchy. After his time spent with the San Francisco District of the Army Corps of Engineers, he had been hired on by a group called Parsons, and had spent his time flying back and forth, every year or two, to his home in Santa Rosa. He had become interested in the culture through the writings of T.E. Lawrence, and yet, had often written me letters complaining  “you really ought to see all the stupid laws they have here.” My two adoptive sisters accompanied him- they didn’t enjoy it much there either.

     But my father had remarried to a woman who thought the Saudi culture was just absolutely wonderful. Hiding inside her hijab, she could be escorted places on the arms of a man, and driven here and there like a princess. Our system of justice, she was fond of saying , was inferior to theirs, “because it’s swift.” Maybe heads getting lopped off, and hands getting stumped, appealed to a woman who didn’t hold to one particular country as a citizen- as a "dual citizen"- a subject of the United Kingdom and the United States, it was often impossible for me to tell whether she was a Patriot or a Tory. Obviously, the  Hitlerian type of justice available and administered to the average Saudi didn't offend her in the least.

     On September 11th at the time of the incident she was at her gynecologist, and so was my Dad, waiting outside. I was able to reach him within an hour or so, and he gave me his impression. Certainly both of us felt sick to our guts at the things unfolding on the television. As it came out that the hijackers were indeed, extremist pro-sharia jihadis, we got a little chance to smirk at the mindset that sent them off to meet Allah. Certainly having heard my stepmother’s ludicrous opinions years earlier, and putting up with her taunts about my own war-resistance, now I had something I could toss back in her face as needed…

     The next few days were interesting of themselves. I was working at an environmental lobbying group, where most of the colleagues were ten to twenty years my juniors. Their reactions ranged from “horrible and sickening” to outright laughter (on the part of one New Yorker) at the idea of thousands of other New Yorkers so disastrously deluged. As though it were little more than a disaster movie playing out in real life.

     “What is it about you New Yorkers, makes you 'don’t give a f about your fellow human beings'-?” I fumed.

     Another colleague mused it “was all our fault”, another felt "chickens were coming home to roost” and “oh, we’ll fall, alright.” I couldn’t believe it. The United States had not been attacked in such a fashion since the War of 1812 (Pancho Villa doesn’t really count, I had a grandfather who rode against him,  and he was small potatoes compared to the Bin Laden Gang). Others at the office, being chronic Bush-Haters, would find their own reasons to say things which were characteristically PC – in a situation where PC seemed damn irrelevant. Being human & Earthling seemed a lot more important than being American or any other kind of polity.

     I had not been a Bush-Hater. While those kids in the office just months before were beside themselves with laughter at the thought of the President choking on a pretzel, I was not amused. “You really want Dick Cheney for President?” I asked, “because that is just what you’d get.” I never hated George Bush, no. I did feel hella sorry for him, (although pity is a much better word for it). However, being as intellectually challenged as he was, as well as a mediocre personality,  surrounded as he was by puppet masters like Cheney, who obviously called most of the shots.
I even thought “Wanted: Dead or Alive” was a decent approach to the Bin Laden Problem. We didn’t yet know that Bush would wimp out on that promise to the American people, by letting Bin Laden go when they had him cornered in Tora Bora a year later.

    But I hoped they’d track the guy down, handcuffed and hogtied, put him on trial in New York City, and frog march him off to the Electric Chair, or, failing that, that he might get hauled up, stuffed into a black sack, by a crane hoisted over the Ground Zero spot and pilloried via megaphone with the taunting voices of Hilary Clinton, George Bush, Mayor Giuliani, and Governor Pataki. Then perhaps sent off to Sing Sing to rot without much but bread and   water, anonymous and forgotten. Martyr to nobody, reviled and discarded like the evil wretch he was.

     But neither of those things happened. Instead, a lot of other things did, and we got: two wars that have given the country a three trillion dollar deficit, a dozen imprecations to our civil liberties, from the way we travel about our own country, to the denial of even the most minimal legal representation within the Gitmo facility for the perps, and a lot of other things I don’t even care to mention, they all seem so ludicrous. But worst perhaps in my mind, the fact representatives of the United States government and military took part in torture... The lessons of Nuremburg have been lost on succeeding generations of American leaders, apparently. Patriotism being the first refuge of scoundrels, it’s easy to see them for who they are, for the faces they showed that day, and in the months and years that followed.

And in coming months, as America made the unprecedented move of firing on and invading a country that had not acted belligerently upon it (Iraq); at least one of my office colleagues also made a remark to the effect that the war in Afghanistan was- on some level, “a war for music” – something I wholly agreed with... Who would want to live back in the dark ages, in an age where joy is suspect, where women aren’t even allowed the opportunity to go to school to learn the simplest things? Where radios are as suspect as they were in Vichy France? The Taliban were truly evil, we concurred. And while it might have been a fight for “feminist ideals”, you sure didn’t see too many “feminists” signing up to go and fight it, even if it was their war to win. War being the stupidity of the human race that it is, at least people were learning from the lessons of Vietnam- that there might be a great many good things worth dying for, indeed a lot more worth fighting for, but- in the end, there’s nothing worth killing for.

     It (the September 11th attack) also spawned a lot of needless paranoia. Bob  Dylan once wrote a song called “Let Me Die In My Footsteps”- back at a time when everyone in the US was ready to run for a bomb shelter as soon as those Godless Soviets sent over their “nukular” missiles. I think the advice given there and then holds just as well and true today... Don’t be afraid to walk around in your own country. Chances are any terrorist cells here are mainly (primarily) composed of tenderfeet who couldn’t find their way around it as they could a paper bag. Don’t let them intimidate you- that, after all, is exactly what they want! Live your life, love your loves, make your day worth remembering. Even if (the odds are a lot less than the possibility of your being hit by an asteroid, or a Yellowstone mega-eruption) you did manage to become the victim of  a terrorist plot, at the least, in some way (and it is the most cynical fashion!) you could feel you had “died for your country.” (I’ve always hated that expression. Nobody “dies for their country, they get murdered for it!) You won’t lose your good karma, I guarantee it.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Flogging Bohemia Back To Life

     During the spring of 1972, I used to sit in my upstairs bedroom at my parents’ house and muse on the idea, wouldn't it be so nice if I could go and get in on the next big center of Bohemia? Where might that happen to be? St. Louis? Philadelphia? New Orleans? Minneapolis?

     It was obvious to myself and friends that the Haight-Ashbury and SF weren’t what they used to be, if even they ever had been. Scott MacKenzie’s silly song had made certain of that. One morning, in the winter of 1970, my best friend and I walked from Hunter’s Point, across the entire city, ending up at the Great Highway. On our way we passed through the Haight.

     If there had ever been a “flower power renaissance” there, it certainly didn’t show it. Wan, sad faces we’d encounter, vacant storefronts, dog shit and decay were the legacy of the Summer of Love. No, it sure wasn’t happening  here, Mr. Jones.

     But to look at  the Haight now, you’d wonder, if it weren’t somehow now stuck between the two extremes. A very vocal mercantile class had come along and filled the street with ‘head shops.” Half of them dedicated to the sale of Arabian nargilehs, over-priced bongs, and low-cost cartons of discount cigarettes. The rest seeming to be up-scale, up-cost eateries, The Gap, or varying extremes of neighborhood food marts. There’s a couple of bars or three that have ridden out the storm, still at their same locations.  But on a weekend, it takes on the character of an old grey lady reliving better days, as crowds of younger tourists pack the sidewalks and shop at the numerous nostalgia hawkers.

     Bohemia never really recovered, in San Francisco. The recording industry, which had actually given it the biggest impetus toward the title of “capital of the world” in the year between June 1967 and July 1968, had dried up and fled by mid-1973. In its place had come high end real estate development. Flats that had been available at reasonable rates were jacked up past the affordable limits of young wallets. In their place, came families with secure incomes, and even money to burn.

     A strange continuity however lingered, in an uneasy alliance between (some of the) older hippies and the younger new wave and punk crowd, in North Beach. If the hippies had had the Avalon, the punks now had the Mabuhay Gardens. Certain people liked to best insert themselves wherever they might, and for them, the shouting matches between the  Jerry Garcia Dead Heads, lined up at the Stone across the street, and the punk rockers lined up outside the Mabuhay on Broadway, could be humorous to observe.

     I know of at least one older cat that tried to bridge the gap between the beats, the Hippies, and the Punks. A refugee of the old Minneapolis folk scene that gave the world Bob Dylan, he rested on his laurels as “the guy that turned on Bob to weed & Woody Guthrie.” We are even still friends, (of a sort). And he’s still flying his freak flag.

     But that’s a problem, for me. For one thing, the hippie scene in the city never got much done. The punks would probably agree on that. After all, if the hippies really “won” their revolution, why are we still arguing over whether or not  pot should even be illegal? And that horrid little Scott MacKenzie song, I know of not a single other Native San Franciscan who even likes it. Other songs actually caught the mood of the era a lot better (to name but three- Brown Eyed Girl by Van Morrison, 8:05 by Moby Grape, and San Franciscan Nights by Eric Burdon and the Animals).

     Because, on and on they came, the teenage nomads, drawn by the promise of “gentle people with flowers in their hair.” The flowers in the graying ponytails of the aging hippies had long faded. The kids are of a younger, tougher, meaner and more streetwise generation, and the sidewalks often littered with smack and meth syringes. The kids sell 1/8th ounce bags of weed for $60 at the same spot hippie dealers sold full ounces for $5 or $10. You can tell that certain values have not survived the cut.

     Bohemia, as such, never made a reappearance at least in the USA. There was no second wave, after the acid movement of the late 1960’s. There was no other breakout, anywhere else in the country. Instead, San Francisco stood holding up its freak flag for so long, it became the icon  of a now moribund spirit. The Grateful Dead- it’s well-argued- carried it on the road with them, everywhere they went, and as Garcia once said “Nobody's ever understood us but us. And we just kept on playing.” And meanwhile, the values of the dominant culture, it may be argued, not only re-emerged barely dented, but co-opted even the GD into a “safe escape” for those with a yen to experience ‘a hippy trip.”

     I’ve often said, you can beat a dead horse to water but you can’t make it think. Which is why I feel any efforts to bring back a Bohemian spirit (in the USA at least) are genuinely doomed. I really doubt that a good dream can be flogged back to life, when two generations past, you can see that it was barely taken seriously to begin with.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

The Bells at Mimi Farina's Funeral

     April of 2001, and the world was yet pacific, and hopefully heading into a new millennium. Mimi Farina, the younger sister of Joan Baez, had just passed away the week before. I am the sort of person who rarely goes to funerals other than for friends and family, and so for me this was the first time to ever attend one in any third-person reference. However, I felt that a gentle soul such as hers deserved my respects. There were a lot of things I felt were passing from the world with her.

     In the first place, it would have been unlikely for me to be attending had it not been for the influence of her husband Richard on my early life. Dick (as friends called him) had been one of the most promising literary lights of the mid-sixties, cut down in his prime on the very day of his celebration and welcoming into that world- on Mimi's 21st birthday, he was attending a party in honor of the publication of his first (and only) novel, Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up To Me. He went out on a spin as the passenger on a motorbike driven by a friend, to score a bottle or two more of wine for the party, which was well attended and apparently, enough fun that it demanded a little more libation. The motorcycle ran off the road on the Coast Highway not far from the party- Richard was killed, and Mimi herself recalled hearing the distant ambulances. Dick never made it back to the party, which would take an overcasting pall. Great promise cut off mid flight- such sometimes is fate.

     As I was saying, his influence on my own life- I had come across a collection of his songs and poems in my sophomore year in high school, and those led to an exploration of the albums that Richard & Mimi had made for Vanguard. They featured a wonderful guitarist named Bruce Langhorne- his own guitar work being quite influential on my own developing style. The songs also featured Richard's dulcimer playing- up to that point, I think he was really the only person I'd ever known of who played one. Jean Richie, and Laura Allen, were names I'd get familiar with later on, but Richard was the very first. The dulcimer was always accompanied by Mimi's guitar work, which couldn't be described as "Hendrix-esque"- not the least! But was always spare, elegant, and to the point. Sometimes, simple works better than spectacular.

     That interest eventually led to my own picking up the dulcimer - at least for  a few years- as I was already into banjo, auto-harp, and an occasional borrowed moment on a friend's mandolin. Joni Mitchell would take the instrument to a new popularity in a couple of years, but at the time I discovered Richard and Mimi, she was strictly a 12-stringer. Almost all of the instrumentals featured on The Best of Richard and Mimi Farina- the album which piqued my interest then- are still melodies I live with and enjoy. But the thing I loved most of all was Richard's poetry. Songs like Raven Girl, The Falcon, A Swallow Song, and Another Country conjured images of exotic people and places. They're still as vivid as they seemed then. Like Phil Ochs, he could veer down the blind alley of the topical song, but when he did, even then, the poetry was to the point as well. Bold Marauder and Michael, Andrew and James were both excellent jabs at the Ku Klux Klan... and racist mentality. Maybe the poetry was the point- certainly more so than it was with Ochs.

   I shared a pew with Greil Marcus, the Rolling Stone critic. There were a lot of folks there- Her famous sister, of course, spoke for some time, and brought some well-needed laughs to the crowd. You could tell that Ms. Farina had been a force of nature in her own way- all her work with the Bread and Roses charity performance group had given her many supporters, whom probably would have not come to notice her otherwise. But then, the aura of Joan no doubt brought many of these other people to the event as well.
The service ended with a tape of her laughter echoing through the church, and you could tell, few people were sitting through the entire thing with dry eyes.

   Most notable for me however, was when it all ended, and people were filing out. Bells were ringing, light, happy, joyous bells, as though a dove had been set free to soar the skies above the city. It was a crisp cold spring day, clear and not hardly a cloud in the sky, and the bells sounded like falling spring water to my ear. Life goes on, as go on it must. One life leaves us to join the ancestors, and somewhere, some new soul is crying forth in birth. The bells spelled happiness, they didn't know how to spell sorrow.