Jeff Mangum, BAM, 1/19/2012

Jeff Mangum has created a unique catalog of songs that resonate with a troupe of wilting-flower intellectual Americans. He keeps his songs scarce, instilling the pre-digital value of songwriters in the eras without recording devices. Bottled-up and pickled in the cold shed he cracks the jar open on seldom occasion. Each time the vinegar grows ever dim, the sweetness fades, the brine stings less. I’m not sure if Jeff likes these songs anymore, but he seems to know there’s a proud-hearted audience that is decreasingly half-desperate for them.

These earnest sons and daughters with crisp-cuff jeans above their pale ale workshoes are crafting their lives upon grass-fed hopefulness. These kid-faced mid-life professionals secretly loathe the ironies of middle-class rewards, but hang the vinyl above their beds. Finding solace in the soft-faced muppets, they pray with all their secular might for a truth found within the cracked guitar tonks of Mangum’s photomatic broken-youth parables. They hope their live viewing of his near-pantomime performance will free them from the irritation of their destabilized generation.

In Jeff they see an available ideal, the soft hero. They find their salve through an album and a half of decade old songs, sung by a man quiet enough to allow intrigue in his bio. Maybe if they sing along, especially when he asks, they’ll scrape the genius from his air. In an era where the value of nearly everything is churningly reinvented, the decay of these songs is painfully obvious. Two years ago the audience would be standing, singing at the top of their lungs. At this event, we all sat in theatre chairs and half-sung self-consciously. Next time we’ll put him in a glass case and kiss the surface.

The songs are good. I wish Jeff the best, but wish even more that he’d write new songs. Still, more importantly, the songs he sang last Thursday night are songs that dance upon the string theory within our cells. They mingle with neutrinos that are older than stars and gape at our bones from amidst the eldest vibrations. My grandkids will like these songs. Eons ago there were apes who would find magic in these songs.

Over the piles of time, songs have formed-up within cultures, combined like chemistry, and followed the math of notes and time. Uniform audiences warmly gawk at the modest majesty of a lonesome figure. Sitting, surrounded by sound-making tools that only they can play in a special way.

Like the slow salt-loaded waves on the moonless sea, these songs have seen their crest. They’ll soon be stacked within the basement boxes of polaroid portraits, cheap plastic school trophies, and mom’s love letters to a man who wasn’t her husband.

Anthony Bourdain, Chicago Theatre, Saturday April 24th.

Anthony Bourdain is a hero of mine. An anti-hero who through transparency, honest opinion, and self-effacing truths, points out a plan for the road less traveled. Bourdain’s irreverent, vice-laden history, sudden plucking from the kitchen bowels of NYC, and gradual shift towards international enlightenment, is gut-punching inspirational.

Growing up outside of New York City I was enamored with the old-school lower east side musician-artist-poets who scraped by through odd jobs, wits, and selling everything they owned. Every chance I had I’d scramble downtown (or to Hells Kitchen), to seek them out, to soak up their vibe, and to learn there were many more paths in life than the straight and narrow one.

Bourdain is one of these folks all grown up, and not only did he survive, he’s thriving. I don’t think he’s an anomaly, he made an effort and chose a good turn in the road. There are bunches of these old-school NYC underground peeps, doing their thing, sticking it to the man, and flying under the radar. Their turns have been less fortunate, but no less enthralling or insightful.

Bourdain mentioned in his live performance at the Chicago Theatre this past Saturday that his success was both a mix of luck (for which he is extremely grateful) and determination (he worked hard to publish the book that opened the door to all else), but his plan is mostly accidental. He knows his current situation is magical, and he’s milking it for all its worth; without pretense, and with ample glee.

During the show Bourdain told a great deal of behind the scenes stories that were funny and expectedly harsh of his fellow TV foodies, but there were a few aspects that struck me solid. What set with me the most was his yearn to share his own experiences with the hope to influence the greater good. It’s micro-buddhism in a way, maybe a distant cousin. Here’s a person that walked a path, made a decision to alter the path, and from the alteration found a new appreciation for the people of the world AND a need to share that appreciation so that we too can learn to do so as well. That’s profound. He’s my hero.

Here are a few pearls I gleaned from his show:

Keeping It Real
Always on the mind of the underground folk, the pain in life is finding the balance between passion and success. Nobody from the underground wants to be a sellout. But what does that mean? Should we all look to the Dischord house as the beacon of truth? Bourdain seems to have had this internal twist and awoke with a new objectivity. “Was smoking crack keeping it real? Was selling books on the street for dope keeping it real?” He’s doing the best he can to keep a good thing rolling, and within it he’s found a concerted balance between his personal goals for the show and finding the angles to help pay to reach them. “Yes, we have product integration, you’ve all seen that, that’s how we can keep making the show…but I also have total creative freedom.”

Subvert McDonald’s
Discussing his role as a father to a 3 year old Bourdain suggests there is no beating the ubiquity of McDonald’s through rationalization. He cynically suggest we wean our children from Ronald’s grasp by injecting fear into the experience. To speak of Ronald is hushed tones just within earshot of our children as an evil character who kidnaps children. To take an old and grime-laden scrubby, dip it in chocolate, wrap it in a McDonalds’ wrapper, and leave it on the counter for our kids to find. “That’ll stop their craving.” Though he’s being incite-ful, he’s not wrong. If parents are going to fight to keep their kids away from fast food they need to find clever ways to counter the fast-food impulses that weed their way into the minds of babes.

Steps For Peace
Bourdain ran through a list of behaviors he wishes more Americans followed when traveling abroad. He carefully noted that before he was hired to do his first show he barely traveled at all. That at the start of his travel career he looked at the catalog-type tourists with disdain, and that now he wishes to rescue them from the bull-horn tour-guide, to set them free into the hearts of cities where tourists fear to tread. Here’s his list:
– Be grateful. Having an American passport is a gift, our ability to travel is extremely fortunate.
– Be polite. We are representatives of our country when we travel, show your best face.
– Dress appropriately. When visiting holy sites, make sure you dress accordingly, no bikinis.
– Show a little respect. Don’t demean the citizens of the country you are visiting, they’re more like you than you think.
– Get the customs right. Learn what’s appropriate and do it.
– Accept meat and liquor from strangers. Be open to meeting people, don’t shut yourself off from the culture. The best experiences will happen through the graciousness of people.
– The Grandma rule: accept the food and no matter what, eat the meal and tell the host that the food was delicious.

And finally, not a wisdom, but a great presentation technique…

Turn On The Lights, Open The Floor
At the end of his monologue, Bourdain turned on the house lights and opened the floor to questions. He spent the last 20 minutes of his stage time fielding and answering questions from all over the theatre. Some were about Zamir, others about favorite foods and places for the best street food. My favorite was when someone asked how often he become sick from eating all the new foods. He honestly answered, “About 75% of the time I’m a little sick, but not always sure if its the food or because of my alcohol intake. If anything I spend a little more time on the [toilet]…but nothing ventured, nothing gained.”

Thanks Anthony for keeping it real.

Built to Spill, Vogue Theater, 09/23/10

The alt-rock-wave rose in the 80’s, crested in the early 90’s, then sloshed down and inundated the realm of big hair sugar pop. For a while it washed the dull platitude of pop gunk from the psyche of the restless, pensive, self-reflecting post-punk generations. For a while the music led, the bands were our families. They were our spelling bee champs, un-pretty and nervy on stage, playing with more grit than talent. Plucking words from the TV dictionary to paint rough pictures of who we are, why we’re here, and why it’s all really messed up.

“What about Canada, It’s paradise with pines and ice…they never lock the doors at night, and kiss those wars goodbye,” Doug Martsch of Built to Spill sings at us from within the blue specked lights of the Vogue stage. His grey beard is a surprise to me. I reach to my own face, feel the late stubble, and wonder if mine would look the same. The band, like many from the dawn of the alt-rock-revolution, has become a mirror, a satellite, and a reminder for all things once angrily new and now matured into unexpected forms. Since when is Built to Spill a “jam band?” Who are these kids making bootlegs like we’re at a Dead show? Wait! Did the band just play a Dead song? Doug nods to the band mid-song, slight-smiles over his shoulder as if to say, “see, told you so, kids like the Dead.”

Doug doesn’t really sing at us, he breathes us all in, ingests the era, our ilk, and prisms it into worded ribbons that flow from the hole in his head. His weary preacher face, his inside eyes, seek past us and into the parallel histories the books don’t tell. The answers are not for alt-rockers alone, though it cuts my heart a little to think Built to Spill and the String Cheese Incident might have fans in common. This is my band! It’s my music! When did it become anybody’s music? Why shouldn’t it be? Isn’t that what the alt-rock revolution wanted?

“You were wrong when you said everything’s gonna be alright…You were right when you said it’s a hard rain’s gonna fall…”

Doug hunches on his wire-hanger shoulders, his head bobbles up, his chin trying to escape from his neck. He could be shouting up at a parent, a teacher, any authority. He clamps his eyes shut, tilts his bare-balding head on an slick angle as if the observatory within his brain has identified a new star just slightly to the left. He sucks the air in but sends the words out. His mouth a black spot beneath his beard, his voice a strained crackle, a collected Tarzan of skinny geeks who use their smarts to outwit the dumb demons.

“I wanna see it when you find out what comets, stars, and moons are all about. I wanna see their faces turn to backs of heads and slowly get smaller. I wanna see it now.”

Don’t kick sand in my face. I’ll press this pedal and noise you the fuck back to where you belong, on a cereal box, behind shrink wrap, on a bathroom wall. See, I have a band now. See, look at the audience, it’s everybody, not just the alt-rocker mafia, it’s your children. They don’t listen to you, they listen to me and I’m going to tell them the truth about the fucked up world you’ve left for them.

“I can’t be your apologist very long. I’m surprised that you’d want to carry that on. Count your blemishes. They’re all gone. You can’t. Putting them back on I can’t see your response. Like they’re waiting for your guard to fall. So they can see it all and you’re so occupied with what other persons are occupied with and vice versa…

And you’ve become…what you thought was dumb.”

I’m all confused about the Pixies show (Chicago, Aragon Ballroom)

The Pixies owe us nothing. The elder siblings of our alt-rock post-punk revolution, we look to them, yearning for the brilliance of the late-80s surge of misfits, outcasts, and town criers who led us away from stadium rock and tight pants and towards the emotional sleeves of wheat paste, second-hand duds, and endless cigarette monologues. Their mix of mind-opening lyrics and whine-high instrumentation was the minstrel music, the bang anthems, for a few generations of college-smarty-pants who sought a less than hardcore way to be edgier than the mainstream lives they would soon live themselves.