Underneath the music business we see on television, at the Grammy’s, on the radio and in the big arenas, there is a vast long tail of two-bit gigs, recordings that never left the garage, and a thousand nights of songs hurled against an indifferent crowd. In that context, musicians, many as talented or more so than the ones who rule the airwaves, become human accessories. Under certain common circumstances, visible in any juke joint or tavern down the block, the music form the guy playing in the corner becomes no more than a kind of coaster you set a beer on.
If you look up from your conversation and actually see the guy in the corner, I mean really see him, you might wonder why in the world he does it. Schlepping the equipment into a room that smells like seven day old tap beer, or worse, and then tuning up while people cast sidelong glances, hoping he won’t play so loud that they can’t have a decent conversation. Those first few songs, when the crowd is probably drunk and the musician is not – yet – a kind of battle ensues. The loudmouths in front who shout “Freebird,” sometimes freighted with irony and sometimes in dead earnest. The bar floozy who wobbles in close, clapping out of time and singing along with a tune only she knows. The hipsters, arms crossed in back, smirking at a working musician.
On some nights, there will be real actual fans or at least people open to the artist in front of them and a mutual spark will occur. Part way into good song, even the louder ones will begin to shut their pie holes and listen, and the room, indifferent for much of the evening, will actually give it up when the song ends, whistling and clapping. Even then though, the magic may not last and the crowd will subside back into itself, leaving the guy in the corner alone with his songs and his guitar.
A silent tick of the clock will come and the people with jobs, kids, cars that work and houses they own, will tap the bar table in front of them and say, “I’m out.” By the end of the night, the musician might be left with a few stragglers who have none of those things and end to intermittent slow claps. A few mercy drinks from the bartender, and then it’s time to coil up the cords, put the guitar in a battered case and haul the amp.
So pity the poor working musician, whose nightly task yields enough bucks to make it to the next gig. There is no health insurance, no calling in sick, no vacation days. There is only — and this is for the lucky ones — a promise of many more nights of same.
Except when those people go home from the bar, maybe one or two of them whistling or humming a song they heard, many will then stare down their own lives. Making or selling crap no one really wants, working for people whose job it is to keep them in harness, and raising kids who keen for more no matter what they are given. When 7 a.m. alarm goes off, they wake up in a house that owns them, get in a car owned by a bank, and go to a job that whose owners could send their job off-shore with the flick of a pen. Whether they know it or not, or admit it or not, they probably work for some rich jackass they never met who probably was born on third base.
Meanwhile, what of the guy in the corner, the one whose guitar bears the scars of more than 5,000 gigs. What if, instead of going to their jobs, they stopped by his cozy house inNortheast Minneapolisfor a coffee. There he is with his dog, the coffee pot is on, and if the Gods allow, a cute waitress that served both you and him drinks the night before. He is waking up slowly, noodling a few songs, re-tuning his songwriting guitar. He spends a little time on the computer lining up his next few gigs and then gets on the phone to work out a little recording he has planned. His day, his life, belongs to him, and when evening comes, he will strap on the guitar, check the mike and the battle will begin anew.
Now who is the fool, who is wasting their life?
Civilians, if they are lucky, will get to the end of the road, and will have managed their way through the job, the mortgage, the college bills and the credit cards to a crabbed retirement in a town they have grown to hate. The luckier ones will immerse themselves in golf, or watching sports, or yelling invective at the politicians on their television.
Meanwhile, the musician will warm himself by the bonfire of all he has done, all he has seen, all the glories that have floated into his ear, propelled by the thump of a kick drum and a plucked guitar.
What if that guy in the corner had handed a tape to Bob Dylan, slipped Jerry Garcia some mushrooms, taught Bruce Springsteen a riff, and played in front of 20,000 people atTexasstadium on national television? What if he had made and re-made bands that created magic, knocked the roof off bars, and jammed with some of the biggest names the business had ever conjured. What if that guy had written songs that any one would be proud to play, songs full of real people and real meaning? And consider that he might have accomplished many of childhood dreams. Gigging in New York and Los Angeles, playing a sold out solo show at the now destroyed Guthrie Theater, and playing in a tribute to Woody Guthrie at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame with any number of rock and folk royalty.
A life where the best part is shooting boogie golf with an indifferent group of friends on a public course in a third-ring suburb doesn’t sound quite so great now.
What if that guy had made his way inMinneapolis, one of the coolest music towns on the planet, and recorded, jammed and showed up for the best of his cohort? Don’t even start about the number of benefits, special shows and gorgeous outdoor gigs. And let’s not get into the girls and women along the way, because you might begin to weep.
What if that guy, the one few were paying attention to the night before, is actually someone who has trouble buying a drink in any bar because there is always someone who saw that “one show” at the Union Bar with a rocking band or caught an inspired solo show at the Dakota? What if our lone loser in the corner, is actually a hero, a man who cast off the mundane blandishments of every day life and went for it, pushing his music and his career as far as it would go?
It would be easy to envy him if he got all the cash and prizes, if the fickle gaze of the music business landed on him for more than a second and the tape he played for John Hammond Sr. got him signed to a big label. But even though he shot for the moon and missed – Paul Metsa will tell you that one of the upsides of obscurity is that you never go out of style – he still ended up a star.
Anybody who knows Paul Metsa will tell you that for a folk singer, he always had the rock star thing down. He had the leather coat, the sunglasses, the skinny jeans and the stunt hair from jump. Paul mastered the art of the entrance, whether it was for a big gig or the morning walk of shame into a bar, from the very beginning.
Let me say it plain. I knew a few rockers in my days inMinneapolisas a young working reporter and have met many famous ones since, and I always loved running with Paul Metsa. Literate to a fault, the owner of dark, heh-heh repertoire of observational humor, and remarkably open to the next caper, Paul always carried a barrel of monkeys in his back pocket.
I have seen Paul at the height of his powers. I was there the night he played the Guthrie, taking his wireless guitar up to the top tier of that secularly sacred space and wailing as all heads turned. I have seen him get a notion playing solo at Nye’s Polonaise when something sort of kicked in and he leaned into song in a way that made it jump, morph and elide. I’ve seen him work a stage patter that would make Loudon Wainwright or John Prine seem quaint and watched him close a sudden date with a pretty fan in under five minutes. As our mutual friend Fast Eddie would say, that boy can talk more shit than a landlord on rent day. Who else could come up with a 30 year retrospective on time-served in theMinneapolismusic scene – “Skyway to Hell” – and sell out the Parkway Theater?
And then there’s the songs. Not to start a brawl, or disrespect Paul, but my favorite Metsa song of all time is also my favorite Christmas song, a supposed throwaway for a promo album for a shopping center. You can keep your “White Christmas,” every year when the season arrives, “Christmas at Molly’s” hops on the playlist and stays there. “Pass the malt … and the … mistletoe … It’s almost Christmas Day.” It’s Paul at his best as a writer and performer, a voice dipped in theIronRangesinging out long and strong in a simple, unadorned arrangement, pushing out words that ring truer and deeper as they go. I defy anyone to listen and decide they still hate Santa Claus and Christmas.
There are many, many others. The poetics of “Stars Under the Prairie,” the overt political jeremiad of “Ferris Wheels on the Farm,” the historical mysteries of “Jack Ruby.” His roots as the grandson of a barkeep in a brutally cold working town come through both bare-knuckled and sweet in “Virginia” (Check that guitar son), “St. Louis County Fair,” and “59 Coal Mines.”
One of Paul’s charms is that he was not only a student of music, but a true fan. Yes, he was a bit of purist about the blues, and he could be a pain in the ass during a set from a foofy folk singer, but in the main, he loved music the same whether he was at the mike or clapping on the woman or man who was doing same. I have hooted along with him when Doug Maynard wailed, Paul Westerberg screamed, or Prudence Johnson killed it. He was anything but a snob around music, an omnivore who had his own style but was capable of admiring the work and approach of others, in part because he knew what they made look so easy was actually brutally hard.
It would be a lie of omission to say that, like so many other artists and musicians, Paul didn’t make it a bit harder than it had to be. I would marvel along with the crowd when he hit the stage at the Cabooze and killed it, but I was the only one that knew we had been on a three day run with only cat naps in between visits to a guy called Mr. Microwave who made batches of a special smokable potion that could make angels turn against their better natures.
We were not angels. Far from it. I can remember one morning when we pulled ourselves out of Tony the Hat’s basement, a lair inSouth Minneapoliswhere the coke wrap was thick and many unrealized plans and dreams were worked to a nub. We went to the CC bar inSouth Minneapolis. The morning light was brutal and we ducked in, glad to be back in the womb of darkness. Some woman had brought her young child for breakfast on a bar stool and he took a look at the three of us and said, “Those are bad men, mommy.”
No, we were not bad guys, just a little moronic. Tony was a bit of a gangster, but had a heart with capacity and ferociousness of a lion. Paul and I were dilettantes who tipped over into some chronic habits, me much more so than Paul. But I will say this. If you stay up too long, drink too much, and ingest too many dry goods, you are bound to tire of the company around you. I never got tired of Paul. He brought gallows humor to the game at hand, laughing as we wobbled our way to the end of the run. He saw us for the fools we were at the time and never pretended otherwise.
And there were many times in between. I regret none of the bad pool playing and brown liquor we put away in backroom of McCready’s before it burned down. Party hopping with Paul after the bar close was and probably still is – I live inNew Jerseynow – a stone gas. Musicians, so full of articulation and vividness on stage, frequently shrink when they step off the riser. When Paul wrapped up a gig, he got more interesting, not less, because a person who read the paper, talked about ideas and engaged in the civic matters at hand. He was both a Ranger and a student of the world who had been places and done things, so he backed up for no one in an argument.
And for a supposedly slacker, Paul never let it rest, whether he was booking acts at Famous Dave’s or working his next gig. I say no to outside writing stuff because I have a day job as a reporter that keeps me plenty busy, and, as much as I love Paul, was not anxious to take on an intro to a book. But Paul didn’t drop me an e-mail and cross his fingers. He called up, did the ask in an honest and direct way. It’s hard to say no to Paul. That’s why four decades into putting his hands on a guitar, he still eats by plucking at it. Every break he got was the result of relentless industry and yes, self-promotion, which every working musician needs to get his arms around.
The book you are about to read is an epic van ride through music history that is no less vivid for the fact that it didn’t end up in rock stardom. The story, as you will see, has a bit of Prince Hal to it. The charming, good times guy who found himself under a bar table, picked himself up, dusted off, and then took over the world. Except the “took over the world” part.
Paul, ever the rock star, has yet to achieve rock stardom. He has the records – “Whistling Past the Graveyard,” “Mississippi Farewell,” “Lincoln’s Bedroom” and a bunch of others – but knowing Paul, there is not tons of loot stashed away from all those gigs he has done. So the hustle continues. The book. The digital record label he christened where you can buy his duet album with Sonny Earl, “No Money Down.” The website that hosts the words and music to “Second Avenue Sunset.” He runs like he is being chased, which he is in a way. A day job in the hands of Paul Metsa would be a scary, awkward thing.
And make no mistake, if the money is right, or just the mood, he will come and plug in. Paul is, and always will be, a working musician. And if a couple of know-nothing punks wander into his gig and wonder who the hell the guy in the corner thinks he is, they have no idea what they are talking about. This cat under the stars has lived countless lives, some of them borrowed, some of them spent, and has seen things their cramped, quotidian lives will never know.
Music, anyone will tell you, is something that will nourish your soul, while the business part will suck it out with equal force. Paul explains as much in “Whistling Past the Graveyard”: “The faith that will save you will also break your back.” All in, within the four corners of the book you are about to read and life it etches, that seems like a fair trade. That guy in the corner? This world has exacted its price, but it’s equally true that he has it by the balls.
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Here Comes a Regular: Candy Crowley
Tonight is the night that a little girl named Candy born in Kalamazoo, Michigan and raised in St. Louis will be have grown up to moderate a debate between the Leader of the Free World and the guy who wants to take his job. Is this a great country or what?
Candy Crowley , 63, is a veteran political reporter for CNN, host of the network’s Sunday morning talk show, and tonight, the first woman in over twenty years to moderate a presidential debate. She ended up in the spotlight the old fashioned way, grinding it out on the hustings of various campaigns for the last three decades. For years, the live shot at CNN on big political nights has left the meticulous confines of the studio and found Ms. Crowley, out among the delegates, at some distant campaign event or outside in a scrum at campaign headquarters. In doing so, the camera has always found a regular looking person who is remarkable at her job.
Vice President Joe Biden may have been shooting for the Regular Joe award during the last debate, but Ms. Crowley’s presence in the thick of the debate is the triumph of the regular, forgive me, guy. Ms. Crowley is a hard worker who applies the tools of her craft rather than five dollar words, to get the job done. She went to a couple of colleges you never heard of and took the old school route up the ladder to become only the second woman in history to host a presidential debate.
Ms. Crowley may be a vegetarian who is fond of meditation – sorry to burst your bubble there – but she takes a meat-and-tatties approach to political discourse that ends to take some of the wind out of the gasbags around her. Both campaigns are said to be worried that she will not just direct traffic at the town hall debate at Hofstra and they probably should. Anybody who has seen her work over the years – she is the queen of the simple, direct question – would not expect her to sit like a box of rocks while the candidates answer any old question they choose to.
She’s been doing politics since Jimmy Carter was president and it shows, succeeding in a business where how you look seems so much more important than what you know. Ms. Crowley is well coiffed and all that, just not the gossamer creature you generally see on television. (People tend to objectify broadcast personalities, especially who don’t fit with some template of a television host, but that didn’t work out so well for a guy who went off on a local anchor in La Crosse for being to large to be charge.
Ms. Crowley spent six years as a stay-at-home mom, but has still had time to visit all 50 states as a working political reporter. She has very little appetite for spin and has been known to cut through her share of it, as James Rainey pointed out in The Los Angeles Times. After the President seemed to phone in his answers from a very great distance in the first debate, Obama advisor David Axelrod suggested that he had done a good job.
“He seemed listless, he seemed like didn’t want to be there. He — and Mitt Romney seemed like he showed up to play, and the president bought his ‘C’ game. What — what’s going on here?” she asked.
You have to love that. “What’s going on here?” minutes after the president’s curiously disengaged performance. It was the same question on the lips of most of the people who watched the debate, which is part of why it will be fun to watch Ms. Crowley run the show tonight.
The now ancient routes to credibility of toiling for small magazines and newspapers in menial jobs has been wiped out, replaced by an algorithm of social media heat and blog traction.Every reporter who came up in legacy media can tell you there come-to-Jesus moment, when an editor put them up against a wall and tattooed a message deep into their skull that if they showed disrespect for the fundamentals of the craft, they’d soon not be part of it. Nobody ever did that for Mr. Lehrer, even after repeated questions were raised about his work.
Mine went like this: I was off to a quick start in journalism while working for a weekly in Minneapolis in my mid-20’s.Deborah Howell, then editor of The St. Paul Pioneer Press noticed and offered me a job. In the midst of it, I saw her at a journalism awards dinner where I was swanning about, having won a few local prizes that year. She walked up to me and said “You wrote about our publisher this week and screwed up the spelling of his name. I’m putting your job on the spike.” (Ms. Howell, a cusser of epic proportions, put it more dynamically than that, but you get my drift.)
I got quietly drunk the rest of the night, muttering into my glass about the injustice of it all. But I did not forget what she said. In retrospect, she had done me a big favor by reminding me that recognition would be good for nothing if I shaved corners.
She went on to a big career in journalism and we had coffee in the Times cafeteria near the end of 2009, sharing some laughs that the likes of me would be sitting there. She left soon after on a trip to New Zealand for a trip and died in a tragic accident. A piece of mail arrived a few days after I got word, a note from Ms. Howell mailed from her trip. “I’m proud of you,” was all it said.
I think she was less impressed by my current job than the fact that I had managed to master the fundamentals of the craft: Don’t cheat, do your best to get it right, and be of service to readers, not your brilliant career.
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“Out of the Game”
Released May 1
Rufus Wainwright has always chosen musical ambition over accessibility, reasoning that compromise is for sissies. But there is a gesture of invitation to “Out of the Game” that reflects a willingness to use the vernacular of pop music to pull listeners into lush, rarified place.
Given that he has both penned operas and taken on Judy Garland’s legendary 1961 Carnegie Hall gig, Mr. Wainwright still opts for the big gesture, but this time he teams up Mark Ronson, a DJ and producer – Adele, Amy Winehouse, Christina Aguilera – to anchor his well-earned diva status in a musical context of the familiar. “Out of the Game,” Mr. Wainwright’s seventh album, is warmed up by nods to Laurel Canyon pop, Brit glam rock, and the sort of Elton John of it all.
“Out of the Game,” the title track, winks at orientation by saying, “I’m out of the game, been out for a long time,” with a Boz Scaggs soul-and-swing amble that runs smack dab into a chorus that shows Mr. Wainwright’s signature, the theatrical ability to run a scale on his way to the big note. You can take the boy out of the opera, but you can’t take the opera out of the boy.
For all his orchestral conceits, Mr. Wainwright, as anybody who has seen his shows will tell you, is a very serious singer who is not shy about flashing his voice. But backed here by the Dap Kings, among others, there is a warmth to the proceedings, a willingness to sell a chorus that will probably surprise his purist fans and invite some new people to the party.
Sean Lennon and Nick Zinner of the Yeah, Yeah, Yeahs, the record actually includes a kind of dance track in “Bitter Tears,” but much of the rest runs on rails of doo-wop/girl group harmonies that Mr. Ronson has updated successfully for many contemporary artists.
As in his father’s records, there are messages here in musical bottles for family members living and dead. “Montauk” is an invitation to his young daughter to come and visit her two fathers – Mr. Wainwright announced his engagement to Jorn Weisbrodt, a German arts administrator – who will be married there this summer. And on “Candles,” the torch is lit for his departed mother, Kate McGarrigle, with a sad, elegiac observation against a Celtic backdrop about churches that “had run out of candles.”
Older Than My Old Man Now,”
2nd Story Sound Records
Released on April 17
With so many of his contemporaries penning autobiographies, Loudon Wainwright, who was once billed as “the next Dylan,” knew and understood the imperative. Given that his father was a famed columnist for Life magazine and Mr. Wainwright has always known his way around words, that might have been a way to go, but he made a record as a summary of his textured past instead.
“Older than My Old Man Now” takes “death and decay” – his words – as a chief preoccupation, so it could be a long dreary trip, but Mr. Wainwright’s penchant for drollery, along with very significant musical assists from some of the offspring and ex-wife’s he’s singing about, gives the record a light touch that nonetheless occasionally cuts deep.
Produced by Dick Connette, who also collaborated on Mr. Wainwright’s 2009 Grammy-winning “High Wide & Handsome: The Charlie Poole Project”, this outing includes comic curios befitting the man who rode “Dead Skunk in the Middle of the Road,” most notably in the form of Barry Humphries, a.k.a. Dame Edna Everage, who duets with Mr. Wainwright on “I Remember Sex.”
But more often than not, Mr. Wainwright checks the rear view mirror, surveying the roadkill, wreckage and glories of a life that saw more than a few lane changes and crashes. Chaim Tannenbaum, Mr. Wainwright’s musical sidekick for years is represented, including Matt Munisteri on banjo and guitar, Erik Friedlander on cello, Paul Asaroon on piano and Tim Luntzel playing bass. While many folk artists sing about the troubadour life, Mr. Wainwright, at least on this record, talks about what happens when he comes home. The civil war that is family life for many of us comes into very acute relief on “All in a Family.”
That so and so did such and such -
How can you love someone so much?
Forgive, forget, and finally see
The forest from the family tree.
He’s accompanied by his daughter and frequent road companion Lucy Wainwright Roche on the song, one of the many appearances of his offspring on a record about the nuclear aspects of family life. Conflict is rendered directly and remarkably on “Days that We Die,” with a spoken word intro written by Loudon Wainwright Jr., Mr. Wainwright’s father, and then sung by Mr. Wainwright and his son Rufus, a pair that have had their differences and but share an artistic and constitutional stubbornness.
You’ll never change, neither will I -
We’ll stay the same ‘til the days that we die.
I’ll never win, neither will you -
So what in this world are we gonna do?
But there is also a stubborn attachment not only to the truth, but to the truism that holding hands with those that you love is light years better than going it alone. It sort of goes without saying that he’d do it again, but Mr. Wainwright says it anyway on “I Want a Double Life,” a back-and-forth with Ramblin’ Jack Elliot.
I led a double life in public and private.
I want to lead it again - I’m not gonna deny it.
<p>Given the state-of-play in media, it comes as no surprise that we are ending the week after the tragedy in Tucson chattering about a YouTube video. But the web video that turned heads wasn’t the inchoate rantings</a> produced by the alleged gunman, but a seven-minute stab at a brand of
YouTube Webvid statemanship by Sarah Palin, the former Governor of Alaska and a leader of the conservative moment.</p>
<p>The video and its ubiquity serve as a reminder that certain kinds of leaders and/or celebrities don’t need the permission or the trappings of the mainstream media to get a message out. While Ms. Palin has no allergy to cameras, she generally avoids taking questions</a>, in part because, she says, they generally arrive with a big side dish of bias. </p>
<p>Given her media skills and notoriety, Ms. Palin has been able to hack her own route to the people, most recently on Wednesday, when she chose to respond to the tragic events in Tucson. Under attack for a campaign piece that utilized cross-hairs to highlight contested districts, she pushed back. And in her case, the time in front of the camera was bound to go viral in epic ways because people care what’s on her mind and the media ecosystem, new and old media alike, stood ready to rebroadcast whatever she had on her mind. </p>
<p>But while having the means to occupy national attention on your own terms is a very powerful weapon, it can be a dangerous one as well. Ms. Palin spoke to the world on Wednesday from her home in Alaska, but the subtext of message that came across, like so many of the videos on Vimeo and YouTube, was highly personal: That the attacks on her after the attacks in Tucson were somehow just as important, just as worthy of discussing.</p>
<p>Once the president spoke later that night, it was clear that the friction-free new media world that allowed Ms. Palin to widely publish with the push of a button — no networks or phalanx of advisors required — actually allowed her to step in front of a speeding train.</p>
<p>The framers of the Constitution, oft-cited by Ms. Palin, would no doubt be pleased that citizens and politicians alike can mount a digitally enabled soapbox and say what they want. It is, by any measure, a civic good because speech in all its forms contributes to the common interest and understanding.</p>
<p>But just because it’s good for the republic doesn’t mean that it ended up being good for Ms. Palin or her causes this week. It’s great that she could, like so many other people who have something to say, simply turn on a camera and begin speaking. But the absence of protocols in self-publishing, of checks and balances built into the mainstream apparatus, only served to allow give Ms. Palin the means to self-inflict significant damage to her reputation. Her timing — hours before the President was scheduled to speak at a memorial — and her message (see “blood libel” turned into a case study in saying the wrong thing at the wrong moment. Given President’s speech was well-reviewed by conservatives and liberals alike for its conciliatory, measured tone, Ms. Palin’s edgy message came off as narcissistic and off point to many. </p>
<p>Ms. Palin looked composed and spoke with conviction, but the set and setting seemed remarkably wrong. By broadcasting from her home in state distant from Arizona with a flag and a lapel pin, the exercise seemed more like a video bulletin from a government in exile. And say what you want about all the ridiculous trappings of mainstream media, a person just sitting in their house and talking to a camera with no hint of an audience arcs to the millions of other videos that clog YouTube, very much the opposite of state-craft. </p>
<p>The event in Tucson that the president spoke at had it’s tonal problems — was it a rally or a memorial? — but Mr. Obama was able to transcend those issues because he is the president, after all, and while all of the pomp and ceremony that preceded his speech seemed like a bit much, it was expected that he would console and reassure a nation. Politics aside, that’s his job. Ms. Palin, on the other hand, was not required to weigh in and seemed to be speaking out as an act of self-defense. </p>
<p>She reminded during the video that the people had spoken in the last election, so it was time to “shake hands and get back to work,” a phrase that served most as a reminder that she had quit her last job in government, as governor of the state of Alaska. Gven that she was issuing self-produced, self-serving videos on a day of a national memorial service, people could not be blamed for wondering that perhaps she, like a lot of people uploading video to YouTube, has a little too much time on her hands.</p>