A Rational Conversation: Amoeba's Music-Doc Obsessive John Garcia Searches For Meaning in 'Sugar Man''s Oscar Win...
A Rational Conversation is a column by editor and writer Eric Ducker. Every week he gets on iChat or Gchat or Skype or whatever with a special guest to examine a subject that’s been on his mind.
Searching for Sugar Man, the film about the musician Rodriguez’s unexpected and devoted following in South Africa, entered this past weekend’s Academy Awards as the favorite to win for Best Documentary Feature. It ended up getting the Oscar, defeating films about a Palestinian family in the West Bank, Israel’s secret service agency, the AIDS awareness movement in the 1980s, and the epidemic of sexual assault in the U.S. military – heavy stuff all around. Music provides steady subject matter for documentaries, but rarely do these films receive the critical attention of Searching for Sugar Man and its level of awards-getting is kinda insane. Ducker spoke with John Garcia, Head of New Product Buying of Amoeba Music in San Francisco about music documentaries, and Searching for Sugar Man's place in this subgenre.
Eric Ducker: Do you follow the Oscars and the lead up to it, and all the politicking that goes on?
John Garcia: To some degree. I usually hear about the fierce competition and backbiting that goes into the larger categories, but not so much for the smaller categories like Best Documentary.
ED: Were you familiar with the films that were nominated for Best Documentary this year?
JG: I was familiar with them, but as it turns out, the only one I ended up seeing was Searching for Sugar Man.
ED: When did you see it?
JG: I saw it last fall. There was a special screening that Sony Classics set up here in San Francisco, which they presumably also did elsewhere.
ED: I know that it was the only nominated film that you saw, but do you think it was Oscar-worthy?
JG: I had not thought about it in those terms when I saw it. I knew some things about Rodriguez before I saw the film, and had heard the reissues of his albums. He even played at the store here a few years ago. But the story and they way it was told drew me in. And while I was not thinking about the Oscars when I saw it, I could see that aspects of the story – the humility and underdog status of the protagonist, and the way they slowly revealed the details of his life – would be something that would appeal to Academy voters.
ED: Do you think it’s surprising that a music documentary received this much attention?
JG: Yes, it is unusual. The first music documentary that won an Oscar was in 1969, twenty-something years after the category was created. There have been precious few nominees since then, much less winners. But, certainly the story with Searching for Sugar Man was unique and managed to capture people’s attention in an almost word of mouth kind of way.
ED: What won in 1969?
JG: It was a documentary on the pianist Arthur Rubinstein called Arthur Rubinstein – The Love of Life; the winner the year after that was Woodstock. That was it until 1986, when Artie Shaw: Time is All You’ve Got about the jazz clarinetist tied with another movie.
ED: Searching For Sugar Man is an interesting documentary because it could have been part of this micro-genre about fringe-y musicians with cult followings-like The Devil and Daniel Johnston, or You’re Gonna Miss Me about Roky Erickson. Instead, I think the director Malik Bendjelloul did a smart thing in terms of getting attention and creating broader appeal for it by not really focusing that much on Rodriguez as a person; he comes off more as kind of a spirit, or mythic figure. I wonder if the documentary presented a more complex picture of him, would it be as loved by as many people?
JG: I knew Rodriguez was still alive, but the way they talked about him prior to his appearance in the window built suspense about what we might discover next. They even prepared us for the fact that he may have truly met a tragic end. Rodriguez’s taciturn nature certainly placed the onus of telling his story on others who were more than eager to do so. This story also reminded me a bit of the documentary Jandek on Corwood, about the obscure Texas artist, Jandek. He released a series of mostly solo recordings featuring his eccentric singing and guitar playing, but the albums had very little info beyond the titles and a P.O. box. Jandek never played live, and had only done two interviews at that point. He was also kind of a ghost in his own story, but the film did not garner massive buzz. I’m not sure that it had much of a theatrical lifespan; I was aware of it only as a DVD. But after it came out, Jandek perversely started doing limited gigs for the first time ever. Come to think of it, the Nick Drake documentary, A Skin Too Few, which came out many years ago, had those spectral qualities, too.
ED: A lot to of the criticism I’ve read of Searching for Sugar Man, and that I’ve had myself, is often qualified with, “I love Rodriguez’s music, and he deserves the attention this will bring him “ before finding issue with the director’s approach and the South Africans who did the “searching.” Every documentary is dependent on how the story is told or framed, but since Rodriguez doesn’t have a strong presence within the film, that really becomes obvious in Searching for Sugar Man.
JG: Yes, there was a vague sense they were doing him a favor. Rodriguez’s non-appearance at the Oscars ceremony seemed to complete that picture; he was not even mentioned until the very end. But the film was skillful at both creating and spoon-feeding the viewer’s curiosity about the subject. I guess that’s worth something.
ED: Did you think it’s strange that there was no real indication in the film that all this searching was happening in the late 1990s until they showed the camcorder footage of him in South Africa and it was time-stamped with the date?
JG: Yes, that did seem odd. Do you imagine that part of the story may have been “enhanced,” shall we say?
ED: Yeah, that felt pretty manipulative to me. But it did help make more sense out of why a journalist in South Africa was having such a hard time figuring out that Rodriguez was alive. Nowadays, with the Internet being what it is, they could have come to that conclusion much earlier and easier.
JG: Yes, documentaries like this are going to be harder to make in the future. They would be over in about five minutes.
ED: Anvil! was talked about as a potential best documentary nominee a few years back. I wonder if it would have happened if there was an even more triumphant ending.
JG: That’s probably what would have made all of the difference. Also, as colorful as Anvil were/are, they’re scruffier than the Academy would like. That is one reason the Lemmy documentary would never have had a shot either.
ED: What are some of the best music documentaries you think have been overlooked through the years, regardless of the Academy’s usual tastes?
JG: I thought the A Tribe Called Quest documentary, Beats, Rhymes & Life, was really good. Also, the Bob Marley documentary, Marley, told his story (nearly) warts and all. There is a great documentary called My Name Is Albert Ayler from 2007 about the late, great saxophonist whose death remains a mystery; that never seemed to get adequate distribution or notice. The same is true of a more recent film, Sunny’s Time Now, about the irascible avant-garde jazz drummer, Sunny Murray, who played with Ayler, John Coltrane and others. The only way to get that film is via mail order from its distributor in Luxembourg. I think it had some European theatrical distribution that quickly evaporated. It might have something to do with trying to sell the soundtrack of what some would consider “difficult” music. Still, they are great stories. Going way back, despite certain reservations, I always thought The Last Waltz should have gotten more formal recognition. But then concert films seem to have no shot whatsoever.
ED: Aside from Woodstock.
ED: I love The Last Waltz, even knowing the backstory about Robbie Robertson’s eagerness and Levon Helms’ displeasure. I think The Decline of Western Civilization is amazing, but the idea of that getting industry acceptance in 1981 is insane.
JG: Yeah, Decline certainly had a checkered past. The screening I saw of it on the UC Berkeley campus was interrupted by a bomb threat. The Decline of Western Civilization Part II: The Metal Years has always been a bit of a guilty pleasure. It is not a musical genre I am into, but I always get really empathetic towards some of the folks in the film once you get passed the bravado. I liked the Minutemen movie We Jam Econo a lot, too, for different reasons.
ED: People are having this argument about Argo right now, especially in comparison to Zero Dark Thirty, but do you think Searching For Sugar Man will have a growing audience and lasting impact past right now? In ten years, will people consider it a great documentary, or even a great music documentary?
JG: I’m not sure it will be regarded as a classic even within its genre. Looking at it from the perspective of the marketplace, Rodriquez’s sales of his reissued albums saw a huge spike, particularly on vinyl, around the time of the movie’s release; then the soundtrack came out, and that was another big seller. Part of the interest there was the fact that it contained “new” material. When the DVD came out a few weeks ago, however, its sales were marginal. They have been steady, but there was not a great surge to own it. In fact, since the Oscars, we have sold one copy of the soundtrack and zero of the DVD.
Barry (The Baker) Auguste
February 2013 marks the 30th anniversary of the filming of Joe Strummer’s film-directing debut, the short black-and-white movie Hell W10 – a crucial but underexplored event in the history of The Clash. Therefore, we’ve enlisted Barry (The Baker) Auguste to tackle the subject – you might remember his previous article here. As one of the band’s beloved roadies, The Baker served as a key insider from The Clash’s 1976 beginnings until the classic lineup’s demise in 1983; as such, he’s eminently qualified to suss out the real deal behind Strummer’s little-seen cinematic debut like few others – after all, he was there. To that end, The Baker joins up here with Strummer confidante/collaborator Derek Goddard to look back at their time working on the film and, more importantly, consider the prophetic omens it signaled for the iconic, groundbreaking punk group’s legacy.
Some three decades ago this month, the members of The Clash, those of us in their crew, and the band’s closest friends found themselves standing in the freezing cold of Ladbroke Grove, filming a movie entirely directed, conceived, and paid for by Joe Strummer. Hell W10 was a personal project for Joe, which initially plays like a simple, unpretentious home movie. But hidden beneath the surface of its archetypal cops-and-robbers plotline, Joe was cleverly caricaturing the true-life roles of everyone in the band, making the film a prime example of art imitating life. In truth, the “Last Gang in Town” was unknowingly having its last soirée, and that was clear from Hell W10, both in front of and behind the camera.
Derek Goddard drumming with the Soul Vendors at The Tabernacle. (Photo courtesy of Esperanza Romero.)
Derek Goddard had played drums with Joe Strummer in his side group the Soul Vendors alongside old pals Richard Dudanski and Mole from Joe’s pre-Clash pub-rock outfit, The 101’ers; he recreated this gang of players from his past to get back to basics at a time when he was totally disillusioned with Clash co-leader Mick Jones’ production excesses on the group’s 1980 triple album Sandinista! and seeking to escape from the scathing reviews it received from the British press. For three years running during the early ’80s, the Soul Vendors played every New Year’s Eve at The Tabernacle in London’s Powis Square, ringing in each year with a set of pounding vintage ska, soul chestnuts, and old 101’ers tunes. In February 1983, having just returned home to the U.K. from a U.S. tour with The Raincoats, Derek got a call from Joe. “Meet me in the Warwick Castle tomorrow,” Joe intoned mysteriously. “I thought it was a gig,” says Derek. “ I’d assumed that I would be going straight into a musical project, having played with Joe previously, including a week of rehearsals and the three live gigs with the Soul Vendors. Then I realized it was for a movie he was making. I was told that the film was going to be played during a live performance – it sounded like an interesting idea, combining sound, visuals, and multi-media. There was no script or plotline, except what was in Joe’s head.” There was actually a fair amount of ambiguity surrounding the final outcome of this filming; Joe played his cards very close to his chest. Looking back now, I think he was valiantly trying to keep the group working as a unit, whilst learning new skills and having a great deal of fun in the bargain.
Derek was cast as the barman at a shebeen, who happens to be a close friend of the hero character, Earl, played by Clash bassist Paul Simonon. Likewise, Mick Jones starred as the villain, Mr. Socrates, with his guitar roadie, Digby Cleaver, naturally cast as one of his mob, playing one of Socrates’ drivers. Joe cast himself as the all-powerful police chief, while Richard Dudanski played one of the gangsters. “Next to Mick, Richard was one person who seemed to be dressed for the part,” Derek notes. Another member of the road crew, Sean Carasov, played one of Earl’s accomplices. Sean’s character in Hell W10 ends up as an unsung victim, which proved a weirdly prophetic vision: Sean later became known as “The Captain,” a visionary A&R man, Internet provocateur, and enemy of Scientology who died of a tragic, mysterious suicide in 2010. That wasn’t the only odd foreshadowing. When Kosmo Vinyl was set as Socrate’s’ double-crossing consigliere, little did we know how right on the nose that choice was. As Kosmo was seemingly to all eyes Mick’s man at the time, it made for an all-too perfect match: just as in the plot, in reality Kosmo had already covertly switched sides long before, skillfully and surreptitiously serving as Joe’s right hand, a situation that would come to a boil not long after Hell W10 was completed.
The haphazard production team, also comprised of close Clash associates. Mark Salter (brother of Gaby Salter, Joe’s then-girlfriend and mother of his children), served as the cameraman along with Nick Enfield and Alex Chetwynd, helping on lights and equipment. Marc also played Joe’s police sidekick, during which times another friend, Julian Hunt, became cameraman. Gaby also served in the role of continuity supervisor: I remember Joe bought her a Polaroid camera, and she would constantly take pictures of all the scenes. Being one of the Clash’s regular crew, and on retainer, I naturally volunteered my services. Apart from appearing briefly in one early scene set in the shebeen, I spent the next few weeks transporting lights and props to locations in and around Ladbroke Grove in the “Baker-mobile,” setting up scenes, and even engineering a special effect – my first and only – involving an eyeball on a spike.
“I went down to where they were shooting, and the first thing I saw was Paul banging Digby’s head against an old Jag!,” Derek remembers. “I have to say, we had a lot of laughs behind the scenes. Instead of using props, Joe used real drinks, so every time we did a take, everyone got more drunk! The girls couldn’t stop giggling, and we’d run out of film to keep doing takes. It was a shambles sometimes, and Joe would get short-tempered – which made us laugh all the more. The funniest scene for me, though, was when the gangsters come out of the pub and I drive my bike into the bollocks of the top don. We had to do it again and again, with each take more hilarious than the last. He pulls a gun out on me and I go all Bugs Bunny.”
I too remember those times where we could not stop laughing, like when we covered a stripped-down Ray Jordan – the band’s security chief – with oil and had him smash a television with a sledgehammer. Meanwhile, the fight scenes usually got out of hand. One of the best scenes was the fight scene with Digby, set at the Electric Cinema in Portobello Road; it was one of the last scenes to be shot, and turned into a mad boozing party (in fact, we were running out of alcohol every hour). At times, Digby found it unexpectedly hard to take Joe’s direction. “Joe wanted everything over-acted, just like an old black-and-white movie – really obvious,” he told me.
“The surprising thing was to get thrust into a part in a movie,” Derek notes. “I had never done any acting before except in school, but I knew the film was going to be like an old Buster Keaton silent film, so I pretty much went along with it, and acted according to the way I thought people did in those days.” The production wasn’t all fun and games, however, as Derek recalls. “As we were finishing up, I had begun to wonder what it was all about,” he says. “Towards the end of the shoot, I thought that would be the best time to talk to Joe about playing music, or at least go into the studio and go over some numbers. Joe’s reaction was, 'Music? I hate music!’ I know Joe was sometimes tongue-in-cheek, but there was something in him that seemed immersed in what he was doing with that film.”
Following the filming, Joe, Marc, Gaby, and I spent many weeks in a small editing studio just off Shepherd’s Bush Green. As Gaby said to me, “We lived and breathed that film for a few months, and it was a very happy, creative moment in time.” There, we learned how to splice film, intercut frames, and fade to black; it was a fascinating learning experience (and one in which Joe obviously had a keen interest in for the future). Alas, I had to stop work on the movie when The Clash received an offer to play the US festival in California. I was tasked with finding a new drummer as soon as possible, as Topper Headon had been fired the year before. The band’s original drummer, Terry Chimes, took over for the rest of 1982; I had been Terry’s drum tech in 1976 (when he was known as “Tory Crimes”) and I found myself in that position yet again upon his return. (After Terry left for the last time, I had to find and audition Pete Howard, who served as The Clash’s drummer from April 1983 until the group’s ultimate demise in 1985.)
Derek and Paul examine the weapons at the shebeen
After Hell W10 was finished, Joe denounced the movie, claiming it was “shit.” However, not much of what Joe did was for nothing. For me, the endearing quality of the film remains the poignant, atmospheric bleakness of the street settings – the roving camera montages moving around the streets of Ladbroke Grove, eerily reminiscent of the scenes of decay and poverty in Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (an enormous influence on Joe). The amateur, handheld style of the movie conveys an overwhelming, brooding sense of the times in Thatcher’s Britain; still, Joe’s playfulness spills cleverly right through the celluloid, without resorting to outright comedy set-ups.
In reminiscing about the making of Hell W10, I suggested to Derek that art sometimes imitates life – that what was being portrayed in the movie was directly related to events in The Clash’s existence. Derek laughed at the thought. “If art imitates life, it’s interesting that there was no one alive at the end of the film,” he said. “There’s a big shoot-out gang fight where everyone bites the dust in a muddy field. After that scene, I asked Joe to sort out my dry-cleaning bill, and he did! When everyone found out about that, they all submitted their dry-cleaning bills, too!”
To me, however, the movie holds much deeper meanings – and very observable Freudian undertones, as everything that’s captured on camera is to Joe’s specific design. It’s noticeable that the female characters in Hell W10 have no real agency, or play any meaningful part in the narrative; they’re merely portrayed as throwaway characters, devoid of any intelligence or significance. Whether this was Joe unwittingly imprinting his own male-centric state of mind onto the movie or not is unclear, but the entire piece plays like an episode of The Sweeney, with women consigned to serving as mere plot devices. The racially charged comments in the movie’s captions are also entirely consistent with Joe’s ’70s street-vernacular style – he was constantly referencing “wops,” “nips,” and “Greeks” in his lyrics. This all provided a further glimpse, perhaps unintentionally, into Joe’s anachronistic worldview and confrontational nature.
Derek behind the bar and The Baker waiting to snag a bottle, with Paul Simonon’s then-girlfriend Pearl Harbour standing at the shebeen
Digging down to the subliminal messages contained within the film, there are also clear indications of what was really happening consciously and subconsciously back then with The Clash. Joe was cleverly caricaturing the true-life roles of everyone in the band – in short, in Hell W10 he gives us a premonition of the events to come.
Joe’s character – decidedly not a protagonist – wasn’t an accident. His police chief obviously has mixed emotions in the movie – upholding the law, but colluding with the enemy at the same time: he’s eager to collaborate with the bad guy, and yet willing at a moment’s notice to turn him in. He doesn’t seem to know which way to jump. Synchronicity does not occur in a vacuum.
Mick and Paul, meanwhile, played the main protagonists – with Mick’s role as the baddie and Paul’s role as the hero correctly portraying the tensions of the period. At the time, Mick was seen as the villain in all things by most of those around, and certainly in Joe and Paul’s eyes. Unfortunately, the real villain in the true-life drama, the band’s then-manager Bernie Rhodes, does not appear in the movie. Instead, Kosmo Vinyl played Mr. Socrates’ consigliere: it was a role he very much fashioned for himself within the band. Kosmo proved presciently typecast considering his role in the group’s real-life drama that unfolded later that year, as one of the motivating forces ousting Mick from The Clash.
At the end of the film, Mr. Socrates and his empire are wiped out; by September of 1983, that would also be the case in real life. Mick was terminated from the band: that moment would prove “the most unkindest cut of all,” knowing they had all plotted the scene in advance. Friends and acquaintances were forced to choose sides, and it would be years before many of those same individuals felt comfortable enough to associate socially or professionally. Seen in this light, it’s easy to view the film merely as an externalization of Joe’s subconscious inner perspective; in reality, he was giving us all the clues as to what was going down via a classic, cozy British whodunit. Band, crew, and friends performed the various roles of suspects, villains, and heroes; all the audience had to do was join the dots.
Bernie Rhodes is noticeable in his absence from Hell W10: he’d in fact dismissed the whole project as trite nonsense. After Mick was sacked, Bernie made a power grab for leadership and the production of the band’s music in his absence; eventually Joe and Kosmo came to realize they’d been fooled yet again by Bernie’s manipulation of the situation. But away from Bernie’s overbearing influence, making the movie was a last chance for the band and their friends to indulge in one final episode of boyish fun before everything fell apart.
It proved a chapter of the story, however, that couldn’t be revisited until fairly recently. “The original film was all destroyed when Delane Lee in Wardour Street closed down,” Gaby explains. “We had moved, so we never received the letter asking if we wanted to make other storage arrangements. The film as it is today was made from a working editing copy that mysteriously fell into someone’s hands and turned up on a list of Clash film material submitted by a production company that wanted to make a Clash compilation video some years later.”
Indeed, the film reels were lost for years (supposedly), and eventually “just turned up” (a miracle) at a market stall in 2002 – right in time for inclusion on a Clash DVD box set, and coincidentally just months before Joe’s death. Viewing Hell W10 anew, with so many years in between and allowing for a bit of perspective, makes for a most curious, elegiac lament indeed.
It would be easy for Richie Hawtin to remain on cruise control. If the techno titan’s first outing with 1993’s Sheet One (under Hawtin’s alter ego, Plastikman) were his only contribution to electronic music, he’d still be remembered fondly. As is the case with many producers, one landmark album is never enough, but even in that regard Hawtin has continued to explore new territories as an innovator of live performance, entrepreneurship (as founder and head of the important M-nus, and beyond), and now, education in regards to spreading and preserving the culture of electronic music.
While at the forefront of the digital revolution in DJing, Hawtin’s invested interest in the future of electronic music has arguably ruffled a few feathers. A denizen of Detroit’s second wave of techno, now currently based in Berlin, Hawtin has become both a global ambassador of the genre and one of its keen mavericks. He’s largely become associated with the minimal techno of the early 2000s, a moment that was unquestionably important, yet, for whatever reason, remains somewhat divisive. Likewise, Hawtin’s insatiable hunger for new methods and mediums has positioned him as a supposed polar opposite to the reactionary vinyl purist attitude of DJs such as Theo Parrish and the like. However, rather than getting too caught up in a debate that would label him as some sort of “defender of digital,” Hawtin has continued to explore the possibilities that have followed his notoriety. His recent college tour, “CNTRL: Beyond EDM,” found Hawtin and some of his cohorts setting off across North America on a surprisingly traditional journey. Their goal was simple: expose the next generation of electronic music fans to the diversity of the scene.
Comprised of panel discussions, technology workshops, and performances, “CNTRL” served as a sort of primer for newer fans. The tour explored the themes, history, and issues that might be seldom encountered by the current EDM scene that values “the drop” above all else. While this new brand of arena-ready electronic music has record label executives clamoring to quickly establish an EDM branch, Hawtin remains steadfast in his commitment to the original intent of the music. Regardless of its recent popularity, electronic music has survived through various iterations and obstacles. This is a scene that values integrity, artistry, and adaptation, from the revolutionary proto-electro synths and drum machines of Kraftwerk to the bedroom experimentation of Chicago acid house. Though he does not claim to be completely representative, Hawtin does have enough of a stake to defend the music from being pigeonholed and eventually brushed to the side as just another cultural trend. To that end, he’s continuing his educational evangelism: at the upcoming SXSW conference, he’s set to have a frank conversation with Deadmau5 entitled Talk. Techno. Technology that will surely raise both hackles and awareness – watch your Twitter! He’s well qualified for that role, considering he continues to simultaneously exist as both a historical eminence and one of the most forward thinkers in electronic music, period. That’s why The Daily Swarm caught up with Hawtin while on the last leg of his “CNTRL” tour to discuss the initial moments and music that profoundly affected him as an artist.
The Daily Swarm: What gave you the idea to do your first lecture tour?
Richie Hawtin: I feel that electronic music is at another whole stage of its development right now, especially in North America. I think the continued success and expansion of electronic music is achieved by talking about it. People need to understand that this scene is rich and diverse.
The Daily Swarm: When was the first time you heard the term, “EDM,” and how has the definition changed since then?
Richie Hawtin: I heard “EDM” only two years ago, maybe a little bit longer. The idea of electronic dance music already kind of pigeonholes the whole idea of what we’re trying to do. This music is made for clubs. If you’re dancing, that’s a beautiful and incredible thing, but after 25 years or longer, this music has a much more diverse sound: this music is for everyday life. It’s for all different types of emotions and situations – that’s why we titled this tour “Beyond EDM.” We want to make people aware that this music goes beyond any one genre, specifically in North America where EDM has become very much associated only with the likes of Guetta and Skrillex and Deadmau5. There’s much more than that typical, or more commercial, sound.
The Daily Swarm: What was going through your mind when you were first formulating a distinction between what is “underground” and what is “mainstream?” You’ve experienced this earlier in your career, but how is the debate being rehashed currently in North America?
Richie Hawtin: I think underground music comes from the heart. It’s very pure: there’s no real reason to make that music except for a belief that this is what you want to do. It just kind of pours out of you. I think commercial music is made for commercial reasons, beyond just that feeling, beyond that you just want to make it for yourself. I think a producer or musician makes underground music for his or her own satisfaction; then you release it and it takes on a life of its own. Sometimes it becomes quite large and big, but commercial music is much more connected to manufacture. It’s music made for a specific reason – reaching the masses – and perhaps for more financial than creative or emotional reasons.
The Daily Swarm: How do you want your “Beyond EDM” tour to benefit people who are maybe experiencing electronic dance music for the first time?
Richie Hawtin: We don’t necessarily want to preach a history; we just want to open the doorway so people can discover the diversity of electronic music on their own. I actually think we’re in an incredible time in the history of music, where the younger generation is much more open to diversity than we were when we were coming up. For us, it would’ve been incredible to wear a badge of being the kid who knew everything about one genre. I think kids nowadays want to wear a badge and be knowledgeable about multiple genres. I think this generation wants to know more. The majority of the kids want to go beyond EDM, and we’re here to help them with that journey.
The Daily Swarm: What was your first experience with electronic music?
Richie Hawtin: In 1979, when I was nine years old, I had a disco birthday party. My birthday cake was a record player, and my aunt gave me a record called Disco Direction. On that record, there was a lot of very typical pop disco tracks, but one of those tracks was called, “Crunch,” by the Rah Band. You listened to this track, and it was so out there, so spacey, so synthesized. A lot of disco records at that time were still more soulful, but this was completely instrumental – it sounded like music from a science fiction movie like Star Wars. Later on, of course, I met Derrick May. I had all these pivotal moments with Detroit techno and Chicago acid house, but I think that record… I just used to play “Crunch” over and over and over again. I used to dance to it in my bedroom by myself. Pure analog fucking rhythm and bass!
The Daily Swarm: What was your first time visiting Detroit like?
Richie Hawtin: Luckily, when I was growing up in Windsor, Ontario, it was 5 – 10 minutes away from Detroit, just with the river separating the two cities. It was like, most people in Windsor – kids and parents – didn’t go to Detroit. At that time in 1979 – 1980, it was the murder capital of America, and people were just honestly scared. Fortunately, my parents were open to going to Detroit, going to the suburbs, going to different malls, and going with my dad to hobby shops. Basically, my parents went to Detroit because it had more to offer than what we could find in Windsor. So, that’s what Detroit became to me later as I started to get my own car and driving out there with my friends. We wanted to go resale shopping. We wanted cool vintage clothes. We wanted different records than the ones that we could find in Windsor, so we went to Detroit. Detroit always offered me more than what I could find in Windsor. It was a new horizon.
The Daily Swarm: What was your first drum machine?
Richie Hawtin: I had a couple of different drum machines – R8’s, and Boss Drum Machines that I was playing with. It wasn’t until I got my hands on a TR-909, though, that I really felt pulled into the whole music-making process. After that, I really started to develop my own sound. I remember the day I had my hands on a 909 for the first time was in London, Ontario: I was with my ex-partner John Acquaviva at his studio and he was like, “Check that one out.” I turned it on, and as soon as I started programming beats, I started to hear the rhythms and syncopation of many of my favorite Detroit records, like those from Kevin Saunderson, Derrick May. It was like, “Wow, that’s the sound I’ve been searching for, that’s the sound of the future.” I think I just sat in front of that machine for months, programming and making beats and learning it inside out. It became kind of like an extension of my body.
The Daily Swarm: Can you remember the first DJ set you witnessed that inspired you to become a DJ/producer?
Richie Hawtin: I used to go out a lot, just dancing and going to all the parties – to places like the Majestic Theatre and St. Andrew’s Hall, watching people like Blake Baxter, one of the early Detroit techno guys. I used to dance to him a lot, and he always had a very eclectic sense of music: he’d play industrial, as well as some hip-hop and techno. He was always inspiring; I’d get on the dance floor and dance for hours. So, I think he’s one of the most important guys that I saw, but the most important person I ever heard was while listening to Detroit Radio WJLB, listening to a mix show called “The Wizard.” I used to tune into that five days a week. It was on around 9, 9:30 at night, for 15 or 20 minutes. I would just sit there with my mouth open, probably not breathing, just listening to how many records he went through, and how he smashed things together. Luckily, I was able to witness him after I started DJing. I had this moment where I was doing a club in Windsor, Ontario, and I talked the owners into bringing Jeff Mills over to do a performance. We didn’t really get that many people: it was kind of a bomb, they lost money, but I sat in the DJ booth next to Jeff, watching him play, looking at the records he was playing, how he was playing them, and what the records were. This was another hugely important moment for my career.
The Daily Swarm: What was it like performing as Plastikman for the first time? It must’ve been nerve-racking, pioneering that kind of performance.
Richie Hawtin: It was definitely nerve-racking because it was something new. I had been used to DJing and playing other people’s records, but getting up in front of people and creating your own music right in front of them was quite nerve-racking. One of the things I loved about making electronic music is that I could do it by myself in the basement of my parents’ house, away from people – nobody watching, nobody telling me what to do, or criticizing me, just my machines and I. Then, to go and take that feeling in front of a crowd was exhilarating in the end, because I was able to really play with the people. I could re-program drum lines and synthesize live and tweak my 303s and really see when I turn one knob, what kind of impact that would have on the crowd and the feeling of the night. I would say those early Plastikman shows really inspired me to take control of my DJ-ing and integrate effects and drum machines. That kind of evolved into Decks, EFX & 909 and how I DJ today with four turntables and drum machines. It’s very closely related, my DJ shows and my live shows. It’s a sweet spot in between.
The Daily Swarm: What drove you to initially create different aliases for your music?
Richie Hawtin: I think many people in electronic music have many aliases in the beginning because you’re testing out things. I had States of Mind, I had F.U.S.E., and I had Circuit Breaker. This was kind of my searching, experimental phase where I was like, “What is the Richie Hawtin sound?” As I honed in on that, I started to get rid of different pseudonyms. Then, when I was in the studio in ’93 working on a new F.U.S.E. album, which was my main moniker at that moment, I started to create this kind of acidic long-form album, which became Sheet One. As I finished it, I knew it was a departure for me. I had found what I had been looking for – this certain sound, this groove, this atmosphere. That’s why it needed another pseudonym. I wanted people, as soon as they saw the album cover, to know it was a Richie Hawtin project, but that it was a departure from what I’d done before.
The Daily Swarm: This past summer, you established your first residency on Ibiza with your Enter night, which included a sake bar concept. What do you find so intriguing about sake culture?
Richie Hawtin: What I love most about Japanese culture, dining, and drinking sake was the ritual behind it; how it brought people together, the ritual of pouring for each other to bring people into deeper conversations and for the community. I think Japanese culture has always resonated with me, the kind of yin and yang of high-tech society, with heritage and tradition. Sake embodies all of that, especially when you start to learn about the heritage of these 19th-generation families brewing their own particular brand, using technology to grow that kind of industry. It’s very much like a small cottage industry of electronic music.
The Daily Swarm: I’m really interested in your synthesis of visual and auditory stimuli. Can you recall the first piece of visual art that really spoke to that connection for you?
Richie Hawtin: That would easily be my first experience with an Anish Kapoor sculpture. I felt very much in line with what Anish was trying to accomplish, playing with depth, space, and time. The ability to walk around his sculptures and participate and engage with them compared to, say a Mark Rothko, allowed me to walk around physical space that resembled the musical ideas in my head. Much of my ideas – stripping down things to the bare minimum sonically – represents architectural points in space and time. Just engaging in an Anish Kapoor is, for me, like a physical engagement with some of my work.
The Daily Swarm: Electronic music lost a pioneer recently in Peter Namlook. What was it like collaborating with him for the first time?
RH: The first collaboration with Peter was a beautiful experience, really laid back and relaxed. I was in Frankfurt for New Year’s Eve with Sven (Väth) and the whole gang, and on the 2nd of January 1994, we went over to Pete’s house. We had never met before; previously, we’d just talked on the phone and communicated. I was playing his records, and he was a big fan of my work, so we went over to his house and stayed three or four days. He cooked great, crazy food like chocolate chicken, made coffee in the morning, and we just made music. It was so relaxed and easy, and so much fun. Especially with the first record, everything flowed so effortlessly. We were just hanging out with the machines, living and breathing in the studio together.
The Daily Swarm: What was your reaction when you first heard about GEMA and its potential to put a major damper on Berlin nightlife?
Richie Hawtin: GEMA and the whole situation with publishing and the legalities of public performance in Germany has always been a hotbed of discussion. You can’t even watch half of the stuff you want to watch on YouTube in Germany just because of the laws and regulations. I think right now there’s a huge outpouring of support to try and go beyond what the legislation is trying to do. Will it change the landscape in the end if it passes? It will, but I don’t see it destroying the landscape. Clubbing, in Berlin specifically, has so much financial support and grows from the music industry. Something will come together to make sure that it survives. Berlin didn’t all of a sudden become a cool city. Since the early 1900s, Berlin, in between the wars, was always a gateway to the East. It was always a melting pot of vaudeville and theater, of culture. Berlin looks within to that culture and that society of acceptance for growth and financial stability. I think there will be a way forward in the current situation.
The Daily Swarm: When was the first time you thought about leaving North America for greener musical pastures?
Richie Hawtin: I was looking at apartments in London in ’94 – ’95 and spending so much time there, but I was so connected to the Detroit scene with my inspirations and parties. I didn’t see that being a possibility, especially because it was a really vibrant scene in North America for electronic music at that point, but in the late ’90s and early 2000s the scene really took a hit. We saw it was harder to find like-minded people who were enjoying electronic music as a lifestyle. It was also harder to find gigs to travel to within North America; there was a constant momentum of flying back and forth over the Atlantic nearly weekly. There were months, if not years, where Thursdays or Wednesday nights I would fly to Europe; on Sundays, I’d come back and would try to be in the studio for a couple days, try and catch up with my friends. It just became really exhausting to connect, and stay connected, to like-minded people. Around that time, Berlin had become a melting pot of new artists, and rent was cheap. There was a lot of momentum with the electronic-music scene in Germany, a whole surge of new producers like Ricardo Villalobos and this whole new minimalistic sound, which I was very in tune with. It just seemed like that was the moment to go. I think it helped regenerate and kind of gave a second wind to many North Americans who left to go there; it’s kind of sustained and allowed their careers and pathways to grow. Now, we have to come back and help re-sow the seeds for the next generation.
A Rational Conversation: Rob Harvilla on D'Angelo, My Bloody Valentine, and the Phenomenon of the Long-Overdue Album...
A Rational Conversation is a column by editor and writer Eric Ducker. Every week he gets on iChat or Gchat or Skype or whatever with a special guest to examine a subject that’s been on his mind.
With the recent release of My Bloody Valentine’s new album m b v and D’Angelo’s upcoming LP supposedly being 99% done, we could see at least two of contemporary music’s most long awaited, highly anticipated albums come out in 2013. (Hopefully this news got to you before you passed out from holding your breath.) But even if a seriously delayed follow-up full-length does eventually come out, how does putting off a release date for a decade or two shape the perception of an artist’s career and the music itself? Can being the punchline to endless Chinese Democracy jokes ever be transcended? Ducker spoke to Rob Harvilla, Senior Managing Editor at Rhapsody, Contributing Editor at SPIN and former Music Editor at The Village Voice to get his thoughts on the phenomenon of the long-in-hibernation major musical statement.
Eric Ducker: Since it’s been 22 years since Loveless, there’s been plenty of time for people to discover it, even if you didn’t catch the first wave. At what point did you start anticipating, or hoping, for a follow-up?
Rob Harvilla: I can’t claim to be a superfan, and I guess I can admit I figured it was never gonna happen. After, say, 20 years, it all gets a bit absurd. And after Chinese Democracy, I figured records like this are probably better off as nonexistent myths.
ED: Let’s take it back a few steps. Now that you’ve worked in the music-related industry in some capacity for over a decade, do you still anticipate follow-ups? Or are you just like, “I’ll evaluate them when my ears are actually hearing them,” and skip the whole fanboy mode of getting excited between releases?
RH: I find I usually get burned by fan mode, unfortunately. The last record I was actively mega-psyched about months in advance was the new Titus Andronicus. The Monitor is my favorite record in forever, and even though I suspected it was insurmountable, I still got a little too emotionally invested. And it’s not like Local Business was terrible, but it wasn’t anywhere near the same thing. So, yeah, I try to maintain a clinical, “professional” air. A lot of times I don’t even listen to singles prior to an album’s release. I don’t know why; sometimes it’s just to be obstinate. With My Bloody Valentine, for superfans, I don’t think anyone was like, “This is obviously going to be awesome.” There were, to put it mildly, low expectations given the laboriousness of it all.
ED: Do you think there has been overcompensation in the positive response, given the fact that it’s not outright awful as some feared it might be?
RH: Probably initially, sure. I felt bad almost, the way everyone had to insta-review that record. No record benefits from that approach, but m b v particularly is hilariously ill suited for it. They took 20 years to make it; you took 20 minutes to review it. But of course, I understand why that was necessary, and some folks – Michael Robbins for SPIN was the one I worked on, and Mark Richardson’s for Pitchfork was great too – did that well. But yeah most of the insta-reaction was: This Doesn’t Suck! Whew! And two weeks later, y’know, it’s actually pretty great, and doesn’t feel nearly as belabored and cursed as you’d expect.
ED: Do you think that, in the long run, My Bloody Valentine will be remembered more for the influence of Loveless, or the fact that they took 22 years to release a follow-up?
RH: I think Loveless will always overshadow everything, including their spending 20+ years being overshadowed by Loveless. But I do think they did it – they made a record, if not superior, then certainly worthy of that lineage. I’d love to read alternate-universe reviews of m b v if it had come out in 1995, like any old follow-up.
ED: It’s interesting how much context comes to define our understandings of music. Is there anything about m b v that makes it so it couldn’t have come out in 1995?
RH: No, and thank god. Imagine if they’d thrown dubstep wobbles in there, or whatever.
ED: It would be awesome if Kevin Shields basically recorded this exact album in 1995, and for the past two decades or so he’s been adding on timely things like Akon verses, or DJ Shadow-esque samples – but last month he was like, “Fuck it,” deleted all the files and just put out the original version
RH: Exactly. Ringtone-rap choruses, dance-punk cowbells, Dipset cameos, ska breakdowns… I almost said “chillwave fugues,” but, well
ED: Do you think over time Guns & Roses will be remembered for what they did in the late 1980s and early 1990s, or the fact that they waited two decades, and spent millions of dollars, to put out Chinese Democracy – which, I think it’s safe to say, was not well liked.
RH: Nah, I mean, Appetite for Destruction is forever. Certainly the waste and acrimony and dissolution – no one will completely forget that, either; but even the few artists with bigger highs and lower lows – Michael Jackson, say – the highs still win out. If m b v had been awful, it wouldn’t have “tainted” the legacy of Loveless or anything – it just would’ve generated a week or so of Twitter jokes and then everyone would move on. It’s a quietly triumphant coda, as opposed to a loudly inept coda, but it’s still just a coda.
ED: So you think this is it for a long time? The gates aren’t open, and we won’t get a new album in two or three years?
RH: That’s certainly possible – a second coming resurgence like, say, Mission of Burma’s. But I’d politely advise you not to get your hopes up. We might want to quit while we’re ahead. Though I guess they could’ve done that long ago.
ED: Do you think there will be a new D’Angelo album by the end of the year?
RH: Yeesh. I mean I guess that’s the next “Don’t Get Your Hopes Up” white whale. That and Detox. I would not bet on that happening, but that’s absent any insider info one way or the other.
ED: I think we’ll get a D’Angelo album. Detox, I don’t think that will ever happen.
RH: D’Angelo is weirder – pre-reunion MBV/Kevin Shields had more or less disappeared. Theoretically, Shields was off somewhere being perfectly happy and well-adjusted and fulfilled, but just outta the public eye to a large extent. Whereas D’Angelo got arrested and gained too much weight and did other sorts of Internet ridicule-triggering things. So I’m not sure why this year is more likely than last year after him appearing at Bonnaroo and such. But trying to project normal internal logic on a record like that is way beyond naive at this point.
ED: I’m more aware of the music world chatter when Voodoo came out than Loveless, but my understanding is that Loveless was pretty critically beloved when it first came out, and other than “Untitled” and its video, reaction was kind of mixed for Voodoo. Over time it seems like people decided Voodoo is a classic soul record, rather than that it being an instantaneous thing. I’m not sure how or if that changes the expectations for its follow-up.
RH: That’s true, and a lot of that I’d put down to Loveless being, shall we say, more immediately familiar to the Average Rock Critic Pantheon Decider’s ears than Voodoo. I can’t decide if it helps or hurts the follow-up in the last year or so of critic-driven R&B Wars. Probably helps. The enormity of Loveless’ influence was more immediately obvious. Not to say Voodoo is the lesser album, but it did take longer to permeate. But now I’m curious: Voodoo was #6 Pazz & Jop in 2000, and Loveless was #14 in 1991 with only a month or so to absorb. So clearly critics dug both records immediately, but I’d still say Loveless was upgraded to mythic status faster.
ED: Another interesting example of this long awaited/ highly anticipated album phenomenon is Neutral Milk Hotel. People would flip out if Jeff Mangum released a new album, but unlike the other artists we’ve discussed, I don’t think he’s ever actually given a public indication that there will be a follow-up.
RD: Record-wise, that’s one even superfans are content to let alone. Mangum was way more of a “Will Anyone Ever See This Dude’s Face Again?” situation. I saw a Mangum show in Oakland a full year or so after that resurgence had started, with a packed theater full of super-amped people. It was a nice moment. I don’t think anyone there either expected or cared to hear anything new, necessarily. It’s weirdly perfect the way it is. That moment doesn’t feel duplicatable.
ED: With people talking about the album format being phased out – which I don’t think will ever totally happen – do you think we’ll still have this idea of the long-awaited album in, say, ten years?
RH: I don’t think the album is ever completely going to die, no. If D’Angelo put out one great song a month for the next two years, we’d still find a way to vote for the accumulated playlist the next time there’s a Pitchfork “People’s List” sorta thing.
ED: What if Frank Ocean doesn’t put out another album for ten years? Will people who are 19 years old now care?
RH: I think so. All the critical noise leaves me with an incomplete sense of what young people think of that album, but there is the threat of a recluse thing with him. His Grammys appearances were cool but odd, like he was waving both hello and goodbye. He’d be a really good gnomic/mythic figure – one inscrutable Tumblr post every three months or so.
ED: When do you indulge your fan mode side? Are there any overdue albums you’re interested in hearing?
RH: In terms of reunions/reformations, the Holy Grail for me has always been Talking Heads, which is almost convenient in the finality of it never happening. There’s no room for hope there, which is a weird sort of blessing. I can’t think of an actively long-threatened record that I’m sitting around waiting for.
ED: They’re not nearly on the level of Talking Heads, but I’m curious to hear what an Avalanches record would sound like now.
RH: There’s one that hasn’t quite lapsed into punchline status yet. I’m not actively following that. I figure the Internet will inform me if I ever need to thaw out my actual excitement. But the excitement is definitely there.
ED: You think?
RH: Sure. The funny thing about My Bloody Valentine is that for Loveless to have affected you in any way at the time, you are minimum early 30s now. And probably older! Whereas with D’Angelo and The Avalanches, they’re aging quickly, but it’s not quite to the point yet where it’s impossible for a young person to understand what a big deal they were at the time – The Avalanches in a way smaller sense, but still Loveless got so ingrained in “alternative rock” that it’s hard to understand now how revolutionary it was then.
ED: That might be true, but Loveless is one of those records that people keep pointing you back to. And if you keep reading about No Age or whoever name-checking My Bloody Valentine, you’re going to check it out, even if that just happened last year. And even if it doesn’t sound revolutionary, it’s still a jamming record. Two years ago I worked in an office with two young women who are well-versed in music and they had no idea who The Avalanches were. After I showed them the “Frontier Psychiatrist” video, they didn’t seem that much interested in learning more. But I think those guys are talented musicians and musical thinkers, so I’m curious to see what they can, or would, create in the current landscape.
RH: I certainly don’t think anyone picked up where Avalanches left off, but what they lose then in influence they gain in mystique. But maybe you’re right: 13 years is certainly long enough for the moment to have passed. Trying to explain that record’s charm to a 14-year-old is an amusing proposition.
ED: It’s funny to think about a 17-year-old kid who discovers Loveless two years from now, then says, “This is cool, I wonder if they have any other records?” Then they just download m b v without any of the anticipation or baggage. It becomes not just one but two cool albums with crazy sounding guitars.
RH: Exactly. I think that’s great, and maybe even ideal. I don’t think the context of m b v turned out to really affect it, or help it. Whereas Chinese Democracy sounds like 20 years’ worth of failed GNR records stacked on top of each other.
Ian F. Svenonius
Supernatural Strategies for Making a Rock ‘n’ Roll Group is the new book authored by one Ian F. Svenonius, a true countercultural provocateur of the American indie underground. Svenonius rose out of the fabled Washington, D.C. punk scene with his group Nation of Ulysses (you can see him having an illuminating chat with D.C. punk godfather Ian MacKaye here). However, that ensemble, along with Svenonius’ other band efforts like The Make-Up, Weird War, and Chain & the Gang, always proved difficult to pigeonhole, designed to challenge orthodoxy, musical and otherwise. Indeed, throughout his notoriety, Svenonius has proven an evangelist for truly alternative views that reflect punk/indie’s roots linking dada, Situationism, and the D.I.Y. 'zine diaspora.
Supernatural Strategies for Making a Rock ‘n’ Roll Group, recently put out by the great independent publisher Akashic Books founded by Svenonius’ fellow D.C.-bred peer Johnny Temple of Girls Against Boys, is actually Svenonius’ second tome, following his iconoclastic first book The Psychic Soviet published in 2006 by the legendary indie imprint Drag City. In Supernatural Strategies…, Svenonius applies his maverick thinking cap to elucidating the essence of the pop narcotic, with typically incendiary, absurdist, and incisive results. While we are loathe to quote press releases here at The Daily Swarm, we couldn’t deny how succinctly this passage summed up Svenonius’ recent literary effort: “The book outlines the significance of group names, live concerts, vans, sex, drugs, band photos, records, record labels, recording studios, and all the other bugaboos which serially feature in group life. It explains the future relevance of groups and the strategies that groups can use to successfully understand and embody their destinies, historic roles, and responsibilities. It is a must-read for anyone who is alive in the early portion of the new century.”
To bring attention and investigation to Svenonius’ distinct point of view, we present here this exclusive excerpt from Supernatural Strategies… – the chapter simply entitled “Drugs.” Please note: the opinions expressed here are exclusively that of Svenonius – and perhaps a bunch of other people who aren’t dumbasses with blinders on…
Because the only story that Americans are supposed to find fascinating is drug use, groups are often pressured to ingest copious amounts of substances that are arbitrarily illegal. This, or so the hope goes, will weave a legend. Meanwhile, so-called “drugs” are credited with much of human creativity over the past millennium—particularly during the rock ’n’ roll period. This creates all kinds of problems with publishing, which is one of the group’s primary sources of income. Don’t let drugs get the credit that is due to you.
Still, drugs are central to the identity of many groups since they are contraband and therefore secret, strange, macho, and highly personal. They’re a natural fit for the modern group, which wants to be a kind of private club or cult of the anointed. If you choose to be a drug group, some things to consider are which drugs will be in vogue during your ascent and what kind of music will be appropriate to serve as the soundtrack to their usage.
Predicting drug trends could be an enormous asset for a group, akin to a stockbroker knowing how to play the market effectively. If one can be associated with the resurgence or popularization of a particular drug—as Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg were with the marijuana vogue of the early 1990s, or as the Grateful Dead was with LSD—hits needn’t be produced and the music can become a tertiary concern.
The ascendency of a particular narcotic as the “it” drug of one or more subcultures shouldn’t be difficult to guess if one maintains an awareness of geopolitical trends. Since the availability of narcotics in the USA is controlled by the government and its allies in organized crime, covert military actions and assassinations provide a clue as to which part of the world the substances will be coming from. With the war in Southeast Asia as a catalyst, a feature of the late ’60s and early ’70s was the enormous volume of heroin flooding US streets, imported by the CIA in conjunction with the Indochina-connected Corsican underworld, a.k.a. “The French Connection.” Heroin from the Golden Triangle (Laos, Burma, Thailand) was transported care of the CIA’s own airline (Air America). It was also sometimes couriered on regular army planes, hidden in the bodies of dead GIs. Most heroin was sold directly to GIs during their time in Vietnam, but the surplus made it stateside, with devastating effects. “Smack” quickly spread into the mainstream US pop and rock music genres.
Cocaine enjoyed enormous popularity in the ’70s and early ’80s in conjunction with the war against the Sandinistas and the CIA sponsorship of South American juntas in Argentina and Chile. The coca plant supplied “the company” with liquid cash for teaching torture techniques to South American police state bogeymen against labor leaders, artists, Communists, foreign exchange students, and whoever else they arbitrarily fingered. Stateside, the white powder’s proliferation helped shape the music, lifestyle, and loose morality of the disco years.
The cocaine high is sociable, sexual, and anti-intellectual, but can lead to paranoia, megalomania, insanity, worship of material luxury, and garish costumery. Cocaine enjoyed a resplendent comeback in the ’00s due to “Plan Colombia,” the US’s intervention on the side of the right-wing government in that country’s coke-fueled civil war. Cocaine’s resurgence led to the sellout vacuity of early twenty-first-century “indie rock,” and the aesthetic of braggadocio, vulgarity, and amorality typified by that generation’s rap stars.
Occasionally a new drug is introduced with great success, like the CIA’s own LSD revolution, which transformed the ’60s anti-war movement into a schizophrenic, mystified fuzzball, as well as the same organization’s crack innovation, which rehabilitated the wealthy’s use of cocaine by creating a poorer, tawdrier cousin. Crack’s proliferation amongst the lower classes provided the pretext for a money-making “War on Drugs” which enabled a highly profitable prison-building boom and a new level of police repression against the impoverished. Now, however, the fad for pharmaceuticals has bumped the predictable drug cycle out of whack. The old drugs are largely unnecessary since doctors aggressively and legally dope any stubborn, interesting, or unusual person into passive conformity. This has been a crisis for the architects of the Afghanistan War (2001–), which was contrived in an attempt to corner the heroin market.
Sometimes, innovation can create drugs on a grassroots level. Project Pat’s famous “sizzurp” is one example of a homemade drug. The Ramones championing airplane glue is another; and Donovan’s “Mellow Yellow,” the smoking of banana peels, is a third. These brave souls were unwilling to submit to the CIA-Mafia’s prescription for dependency and created their own mind-altering agents.
The drug your group takes will represent an aesthetic decision rather than a penchant for the drug itself. Groups’ identities are often closely linked to various drugs, and the group with no ideas or personality can often enlist a drug to give it one. Heroin begets a doomed, devil-may-care, street-poet personality for the group, and the lifestyle precipitated by addiction to it will give them an instantaneous, easily defined image. Cocaine groups are typically “gonzo” expositions of sweat, enthusiasm, and hyperbole. Marijuana groups are droning, somewhat introverted, unintelligible paranoids. Alcohol is by far the prevalent addiction for groups since the rock industry is a junior tentacle of the alcohol industry. Groups, along with flat-screen TVs, video poker, and disc-jocks, are most often utilized to distract and placate bar patrons.
Record production is a kind of drug-making. Record collectors are addicts and the narcotic effect of pop music is widely recognized. The different sorts of music and various formats are different types of drugs with very different effects. Rock ’n’ roll in the ’50s and ’60s was proliferated via 45 rpm records, which were cheap and disposable, and gave the listener a euphoric high for a few moments, followed by an urge for something which was exactly the same and yet novel, different. The rush from a 45 was analogous to the feeling produced by crack cocaine. Due to the compulsive desire for more and more, the 45 era was a golden age of music in terms of sheer volume of good songs and dynamic groups (just as the crack era was a golden age for government-encouraged addiction), but the records were required to be extraordinarily concise. Each song was expected to deliver either a novel noise or a sensual thrill within a few seconds of the needle hitting the vinyl. Otherwise the base-head listener would be scrambling for a new platter.
The 45 was largely abandoned when it was replaced with actual cocaine, massively proliferated in the ’70s. Or perhaps the explanation is vice versa: cocaine was used by addicts as a stand-in drug when the industry abandoned the 45 format.
LPs or “long-playing “records, were more akin to a marijuana high. Double albums were heroin.
Meditative, at fifteen minutes a side, long-playing records were for “deep” listening. The sides could careen up and down in mood and create drama and narrative. The most successful LPs were ones like Hot Buttered Soul or James Brown: Live at the Apollo, records which transported the listener to an unusual scenario. Double albums (such as Ummagumma, Freak Out!, and Blonde on Blonde) promised total immersion and were in vogue in the late ’60s, coinciding with the height of heroin chic. CDs and iPods are from the pharmaceutical era of mandatory drug use. They swirl, swish, and splatter in the periphery, creating an atmosphere but never demanding or requiring focused attention.
While drugs used to be about “taking a trip,” “expanding horizons,” “destroying the ego,” or “exploring consciousness,” modern drugs (AdderallTM, Xanax©, Klonopin®) are about making “wrong” things—such as supposed personality disorders—“right.” They are correctives, designed to help the user conform to normative social behavior and work modes by ironing out hard-to-take behavior. Accordingly, modern groups are loath to have personality, being formalistically obsessed with copying the Jesus & Mary Chain, the Ramones, the Stooges, or some other group. Inspired by the pharmaceutical drugs, they want to be “right” in their decisions, correct in the way they sound, like something an influential Internet magazine has said was important. This is why they slavishly ape institutionalized forms.
Capitalism’s business models and economy are based on addiction. New models of automobiles, new styles in clothes, new sounds, new films, up-to-date telephones, “refurbished” kitchens, and so on. Drugs are just one more aspect of enforced compulsion and dependency on consumer goods. Groups are attempting to create a taste for their sound, which becomes a habit—an addiction of a sort. Designing a popular sound is akin to designing a drug. A “hit” record is feeding a compulsion for a particular, magical sound. For the listener—once hooked—no other sound will do. Follow-up hits by hit-makers are often sound-alikes, designed to scratch the itch begat by the artist’s last monster disc. James Brown’s string of similar “popcorn” songs (“Mother Popcorn,” “Lowdown Popcorn,” “Let a Man Come in and Do the Popcorn,” etc.) are just some of the countless examples of songs which addressed an audience’s fiendish desire for a very distinct aural sensation.
The Internet is the most profound drug and one which has become an enormous influence on music. Internet addiction isn’t just socially tolerated—it is aggressively encouraged. It leads one to a state of constant distraction, the desire for incessant stimulation, and an unquestioning trust in and worship of the authority of a monolithic “web.” For these addicts, all answers to all questions are found from a single source—the “Wikipedia.” This monolith is a dreadful public work, which—like an ethereal version of the Egyptian pyramids—is labored on incessantly by uncompensated, fanatical zombies. The Internet drug drives its fiends to create more and more of their addicting substance—the Internet itself. They construct new web pages, “links,” and what they call “content,” all of which make their “webmasters” and other debauched Internet overlords wealthy beyond comprehension.
Groups who stop taking drugs replace them with coffee addiction or other obsessive behavior, which they flaunt in a macho display they call a “work ethic.” This is a guilty impulse borne of the desire to “make up for lost time.” Drugs are time-consuming and once one is not taking them, it becomes apparent to the former user how many years were used up with what is essentially an expensive version of sleeping late.
However, group members who are encumbered with a guilt complex for their “bad behavior” needn’t fret. Without a drug habit, a fast-moving rock memoir is nearly impossible to write. Both for the teetotaler and for the substance abuser, drug addiction is the socially prescribed outlaw lifestyle. Hollywood makes glamorous films about it and its victims regale each other with stories of their wild years’ heroism in closed meetings. As opposed to bestiality, shoplifting, wife swapping, political activism, or grand theft auto, drugs represent a malignant social behavior that is institutionalized, validated, and actually beloved by our society. Ever since the founding of Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous, addiction has become the neat packaging of mankind’s struggle with temptation, betrayal, genetic programming, mortality, and sin—something everyone “gets” and relates to. Drugs also touch on social obsessions such as class, morality, and race. Meanwhile, Americans in particular love a redemption story. In fact, as evangelical Christians—either latent or actual—they demand one and they won’t trust you if you aren’t so equipped.
A group history of drug abuse is a tool to achieve this kind of comforting narrative arc. It’s retold again and again in documentaries and fictional stories. Addiction to drugs is America’s official vice and the pat explanation for so many “broken” lives. Those who have dead-end existences without a handy “habit” aren’t victims. They’re just lazy losers, degenerates, and possibly mentally ill. They certainly aren’t sexy. The addict is different. The drug user, with his or her officially designated “bad” and “outlaw” life choices, is the “sin-eater” who absorbs governmental inadequacy, social neglect, dead-end job markets, domestic abuse, horrible schooling, and existential angst, as well as the wrongdoings of their societal peers.
In a sense, mourning drug use and the wasted talent or broken families thus begotten is just hand- wringing over mortality itself. The drug user’s explicit pissing away of her time is a salve to the nonaddict’s conscience and also an erotic reminder of impending doom.