Saturday, January 16, 2010

Juliana Comes Alive, Acoustically

For the last several days, I have been listening to my monthly mix CDs again, trying to decide what I thought were the best songs of the year. When I got to some from Juliana Hatfield’s latest album, I had to eliminate her from consideration because the songs were good, but not quite good enough for a “Best Of 2009” mix. That’s not to say she isn’t a great songwriter or hasn’t had some phenomenal songs before, but none of those recorded tracks got played over and over on the car’s CD player on my way into work. They were a bit wan and too mellow and I didn’t find myself humming any of them late at night and wondering why that song was stuck in my head. For instance, right now I have “Stand Or Fall” by The Fixx running through my head because I just heard it a few minutes ago plus it’s an awesome song. Earlier in the day, I kept repeating the lyrics “Take just a little of my mind, subtract it from my soul, add a fraction of your half and you see it makes me whole. Nothing can divide a heart plus a heart.” At first I didn’t even know what song I was singing but then I realized it was “Mathematics” from Little Boots, a song I’d been listening to three days ago. The chorus was catchy enough that it rose from my subconscious to create my current earworm. Oddly enough, that isn’t even the song that is going on the yearly compilation. So you can see why Juliana didn’t make the cut this year. She had nothing as memorable as some of her past greats My Pet Lion or Houseboy or even Dumb Fun.

What was unusual though was how my thoughts drifted back to her concert in February. For days after that show, I was actually humming one of her songs but it was all because of the concert, not the album she was promoting. At the time, I hadn’t been to a concert in awhile and I hadn’t been to a great concert in an even longer time. I was beginning to think I was over the whole idea of concerts. Why pay $50 or more and waste a whole evening just to hear some self-absorbed rock star perform lackluster versions of songs over a bad sound system? I can stay home and play the album on my stereo and have a better, cheaper experience. Then I went to Juliana’s show and it reminded me of everything I love about concerts.

I sometimes forget how good a live music show can be. In this case, the whole experience was inspiring and out of the ordinary. The surprises started long before the show did. I happened to check Juliana’s website to see what she was up to and saw that she was performing two shows, opening for Bob Mould. One was someplace near Boston, where she lives and the other was at the Birchmere, about 5 miles from where I work. That got me wondering. First of all, it has been quite awhile since Juliana was an opening act. Also, if you were only going to do two shows, why would one of them be here? Did Bob Mould need an opening act at the last minute? Were they friends and she was doing him a favor? Did she just really like playing in this area? Was she coming here for me, despite the fact that we’ve never met and she doesn’t know who I am? Okay, I ruled that last one out pretty quickly but I did enjoy the coincidence that brought her to a venue so close and convenient for me.

Tickets for the show were $40, a bit pricey since I only wanted to see Juliana. Still, I bought a ticket because I owed it to her. For whatever reason she was playing her, I felt that I needed to support her since she is no longer on some big record label that pays all her expenses and supports her career. She was either doing this because she needed the money or she was helping a friend or she wanted to play for an audience. Regardless, I was in. As an added bonus, I would get to hear some Bob Mould, an underground favorite from the bands Husker Du, Sugar and his own solo work.

The day of the show I got there early so I could claim my table because the Birchmere is an open seating, food-serving venue. I got a space pretty close to the stage and with good sightlines. I ordered a cheeseburger and read my book while waiting for her to go on. A bit later, s solitary person wandered up on stage and plugged in a guitar. No, it wasn’t a roadie or a tech. It was Juliana. She did a minute or two of sound check and then launched into her part of the show. She opened with “Shining On”, a respectable but not fantastic song from the new album “How To Walk Away” then moved on to one I didn’t recognize- something with lyrics like “Never go back” and “I did a stupid thing.” Next was “Slow Motion” from a few albums ago then she stated that she was currently recording a new album and these next two songs would be on it. The album would be acoustic, recorded in her house and she was trying them out tonight. She launched into “I Picked You Up” after that intro. Juliana came up with the idea for the second song, Butterflies, when she had a dream about walking into a field full of butterflies. She wondered what it would be like to be flying around freely like a butterfly, without a care, enjoying their short life.

I wasn’t knocked out by either song but they had glimmers of something interesting so I’ll wait for that album (“Peace And Love”) to come out before passing final judgment. What I did love though, was the way she engaged the audience in the show, giving us background about the songs and trying out new things. She didn’t just stroll onstage with a band and limp through some well-worn songs. She was here by herself, playing new stuff that hadn’t come out yet, recasting stuff from “How To Walk Away” in a semi-acoustic mode, going back to previous albums, not for hits but rather for things that fit in with her solo theme for the night. The next five minutes really brought home the things I love about Juliana and how concerts should be entertaining and unpredictable. After “Butterflies” Juliana said she had a cold and she apologized for her voice. In her little girlish voice, she croaked out “I’m usually a better singer.” The crowd gave her a big “Aww.” Yes, her voice was a bit off but she was still delivering the goods, despite her protestations. Then to drive the point home, she dives into “Cover Me”, doing a pleading, longing take on the Bruce Springsteen song.

Next was a plaintive, wrenching version of “So Alone” from the current album. At one point, it was almost a shriek. You knew that she felt so alone and didn’t know how to handle the feeling. I still didn’t like the song but it was a powerful delivery. In fact, much of this night Juliana wasn’t playing any of my favorites of hers. I don’t mean hits, because she hasn’t had official hits in a decade, but I was looking for some of my favorites from her recent and under-appreciated albums. For instance, I would have loved to hear “Sneaking Around”, “Dirty Dog”, “My Pet Lion”, “New Waif” or hopefully “Just Lust”- my favorite from the current album. Instead, she was playing the songs I usually skipped over once I’ve absorbed the album but somehow Juliana made me enjoy and appreciate these mongrel songs of hers. She did it again with the next two songs, a concert cover staple called “Baby Gets High” by Madder Rose and then her own “Law Of Nature”, a supposed highlight from “How To Walk Away.” I still don’t know what she did on “Law Of Nature”, but that is the song I was humming to myself for several days afterwards. It was mostly just a repetitious chorus but whatever spin she stuck on it got lodged in my brain. Playing the album again doesn’t cause the ditty to stick in my head. It was just the show that did it. One thing that may have contributed to my enjoyment of the song was how she got this look partway through the song and interjected a comment “Oh wait, I have to do something” right before she broke into a couple choruses of “Take the Skinheads Bowling” by Camper Van Beethoven. She is definitely a music fan as much as she is a musician.

I was also highly amused by some other little touches she added to the night’s experience. After she finished playing “So Alone”, she talked to the audience for a couple minutes. She said the song was from her new album. That comment got some enthusiastic claps. She said she also had a book out, which garnered some more clapping but not as much as before. Then she said she did her first Twitter today, which caused a massive silence. I swear you could have heard crickets chirping. Apparently, absolutely no one knew she had tweeted. The next day, I signed up on Twitter and followed her feed which turned out to also be very entertaining and enlightening. She’s a fascinating woman. Her first tweet was about a train conductor. Proving what I said earlier, she is not a cog in a record company machine. To get to the show, she grabbed her guitar case and hopped on the train from Boston to Washington DC. The train conductor saw the guitar case and asked her if she was a musician. She confirmed that she was and they started talking about guitars. The conductor said that he had 88 guitars. Juliana wondered how you would respond to that. Do you ask him where he keeps them? She said that she only has 10 guitars and she’s even thinking of getting rid of some of those.

After that diversion, she gets back to playing and pops out a song called “Sunshine” from the “In Exile Deo” album. It has lyrics about how “white chocolate is my drug of choice.” What an adorable thought. It’s those offbeat things that make me love going to her shows. It turns out that was the last song of her set so she thanks the crowd, unplugs the guitar and walks off stage. She played for about 40 minutes and it cost me $40 to attend so it was roughly a dollar a minute for the show. She played none of my favorite songs, had no other band members with her onstage and sang with a cold so she had a diminished voice yet I can’t think of any minute that wasn’t worth the dollar I paid for it. She made it a great show solely by her performance. She rekindled my appreciation for live music in the span of 40 minutes. I remembered that it’s about the performance as much as it is about the songs.

This point was driven home a few months later when I saw a 1980’s nostalgia type tour. Crowded House opened with a short, modest but competent set, followed by Wang Chung- one of my favorite groups in college. They played all their hits but only got interesting when they changed things up a bit and got a bit jazzy. Then Berlin blitzes the stage. They play their hits, they play their new songs and they play some unusual covers (“Somebody To Love”?) Terri Nunn, the only original member left in the band, mesmerizes the crowd. She draws them in through her voice, her sincerity, her commitment and even, later on, by walking around the aisles while singing. She absolutely owns the stage until she finally concedes it ABC. They are a band I really liked as well. They played their hits, some new things and some covers. They sucked though. They were missing the vital ingredient that Juliana Hatfield and Terri Nunn had. They didn’t bring anything to a live venue that made it worth going out for. ABC put on a show but didn’t create an experience. So even though Juliana didn’t make the year-end compilation CD, she contributed something more important to my enjoyment of music this year. She made me appreciate the alchemy it takes to make great music.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Actual Books

The last part of an answer clicked into place last week while I was eating at a restaurant that was way out of my league. The reason I knew it was out of my league was because the waiter came over to let us smell the truffles in case we were thinking of ordering them as part of our meal. Now if I’m ordering wine, I know what I should do when given the opportunity to smell the wine. I’m supposed to sniff inside the wine glass to absorb the bouquet and make comments about how oak-y or fruity the wine is and how it has hints of rose petal or notes of black currant. I am completely at a loss though as to what I should do when a waiter thrusts a small bowl under my nose and suggests I smell the truffle root cradled on a bed of pebbles in the bowl. What smell should I be searching for? Is a good truffle one that has an earthy, root-y smell? A savory vegetable quality with hints of pig snout? I just don’t know. Then we are informed that if we want the truffle, shaved in thin slices at our table, it will be $55 a serving. That was when I knew I was a bumpkin who wandered into a high-class Italian restaurant. That didn’t stop me from staying to enjoy a meal though. In fact, I wasn’t even the only one of our group to feel slightly discombobulated. All four of us saw something on the menu that made us ask, “What is that?” Leona knew a couple of the items but still was stumped on some others. Before we made our selections, we put the waiter through several rounds of “What is this thing here?” Eventually we got the menu decoded and everyone got something that sounded tasty. I opted for the penne pasta with lobster meat and an encrusted pecan salad to start, partially because I knew what all the words meant. Of course the salad was 6 leaves of Bibb lettuce next to a smear of dressing, a slice of goat cheese and a sprinkle of pecan pieces, thus confirming the pedigree of the restaurant.

It might sound like I’m mocking the Villa Mozart, which I am not, not really. Everything was delicious and was meant to be savored for its’ distinct and subtle tastes. I would highly recommend the place even if you don’t have a discerning palate. It was that good and aside from the truffles, the prices were reasonable. During our delicious meal, Leona, David, Elizabeth and I conversed about various things. Since just the day before I had been asking someone about books that made an impact on them as a kid, I thought I would bring up the topic in this group because we were all voracious readers. I wondered what books had stuck in their memories since childhood. Did they read the “typical” books that kids read? Did they read for fun or for knowledge? It turns out that the answers were as diverse as the group. Leona couldn’t remember too much of what she’d read as a kid but remembered reading Nancy Drew books while she was in high school. David read Conan The Barbarian at the same time he was reading other books way beyond his grade level. Elizabeth was reading Oscar Wilde even though she didn’t get all the references and innuendos the first few times she read him. She also mentioned that she would read whatever happened to be on the bookshelves of the place where she was house-sitting. That’s when the last part of the answer slid into place in my brain.

The question had been there for a while. It was a simple “What if” kind of question. How would I feel if books disappeared? I mean the actual physical book itself, not the words themselves conveyed in some other medium. Newspapers are going extinct before our eyes. News is still being produced but it is getting to people through channels other than black ink on large pieces of paper thrown on your doorstep or flower bed every morning. People are getting their news from the online versions of newspapers and from television and Wikipedia and, God help us, from Twitter and Facebook. The page count for newspapers has shrunk, advertising revenue is way down and subscriptions and circulation totals are quickly declining. The same type of scenario has happened in the music industry and now the beginnings of that trend are appearing in the book world. If the book itself went away, how would I feel since I could still get the words elsewhere? The stories, characters and plots would remain intact and I could delve into them on my Kindle or my Nook or my iPhone or my computer.

So far my stance has been one of opposition with a slight bitterness as well, whether I’m referring to newspapers or CDs or books. I like the idea of options. If I’m on the Metro heading to the National Zoo, I might want to read a magazine during the ride and then throw it out when I’m done. I don’t want to lug my Kindle along and have to haul it with me as I walk from the monkey house to the tiger pit to the aviary to whatever you call the elephant’s patch of dirt. If I’m at work and want to get a bit of news to start the day, I’ll check online instead of buying a paper. If it is Sunday though, I want to spread out all those pages on the tabletop and look through the coupons and comics and editorials and movie reviews and columns while I eat breakfast. Pancake syrup and computers don’t go well together. If I’m listening to music on the way into work, having it come through the XM satellite radio is fine. I also like putting a bunch of MP3s on a flash drive and taking them over to where I’m going to play poker. Sometime though, I want to look at the lyrics while the music plays. I want to check out the album cover and see if I missed a clue “proving” Paul really is dead. If I’m soaking in the bathtub, I want to hold a paperback book in my hands- I don’t want a computer precariously perched on my chest. Especially if it is a bubble bath, although since I’m a guy I certainly wouldn’t be taking a bubble bath. Nope. Some chick might be though and it would be even more dangerous for her to delicately balance a computer on her possibly ample, and therefore unlevel, chest. Options are good.

That last piece of the answer that clicked in my head during dinner was the realization that holding something in my hand, something that wasn’t ephemeral, allowed me to create a sense of community and sharing. A common theme in those examples of tangible products I just mentioned is how they could all involve sharing. If I’m done with my magazine as I head to the monkey house (or “home” as some wise-ass might suggest), I can give it to you and you can read it to see what Lindsey Lohan has been up to. If you like the out-of-print Johnette Napolitano CD I’m playing, I can loan it to you. When I’m done with the book I took with me on the camping trip, I can give it to someone else who was eager to read the latest Dan Brown book but can’t afford to shell out $10 for the Kindle e-version because they have been laid off from their job at the auto factory so they don’t even own a Kindle. If I only had e-versions of all these items, that makes a difference. I’m not going to lend you my e-book reader because then how will I be able to read something? I’m not going to buy a second one just so you can borrow one. I’m going to tell you to get your own and go download the book or magazine. If you liked a song I was playing I suppose I could send you the MP3 file but then I’d have to log onto the computer, start an email and then send it to you for you to open and load onto your device. If our marriage is a bit shaky, poring over the Sunday paper’s crossword together might be a good icebreaker activity for the day that would not work if each of us were in separate rooms doing it online.

If I happen to be at a party or, more likely, visiting someone’s house (because I’m shy- large groups of strangers scare me) I always find myself looking at the bookshelves or CD racks to see what they are into. If I see books I like, I know I’m probably in the company of a kindred spirit. I might start a conversation with them about certain books or ask their thoughts about something discussed in one of them. After I saw a copy of Into Thin Air on someone’s bookshelf, I ended up reading it and it started a year-long ongoing conversation with someone as we talked about Mt. Everest or new mountaineering books or new theories about what happened to George Mallory (and then we found out the likely- and sad- answer when we hit the Mallory exhibit at the National Geographic Museum.) If I see an unknown artist among a bunch of CDs I know and like, I’ll probably give the band a try or at least put it on the stereo at the party/house-visit. These are all things that build bonds between people. Shared interests allow you to connect quickly. I don’t think, however, a host would be that eager to make friends with me if I went over to their computer, logged on and starting looking through their files to see what music or books they have on their hard drive. I’m also not going to take their cell phone out their pocket and start scrolling through it to see what pictures or songs are on it. Instead, I’ll have to resort to commenting on their rug or saying how nice their wallpaper is. I don’t know anything about rugs. They are a functional item that you wipe your feet on or, if you have too much money, you hang them on a wall. In fact, if we did start talking about rugs or wallpaper for any length of time my leg would start to twitch and I’d be glancing towards the bar. Please keep your bookshelves! I don’t want to talk about rugs at a party. I want to check out the titles on the book spines, look at the dust jacket’s cover, maybe even look over your DVDs. Just no wallpaper conversations or I’ll have to slap you.

Also CD, much less LP, album cover art is dead and book dust jackets will soon join them. E-book readers aren’t even in color right now and they don’t currently have the resolution necessary to replace drawings, pictures or art that might appear in illustrated books. I have several copies of some James Bond books because whenever I see one that has a different cover on it and it is cheap enough, I’ll pick it up. Sometimes I pull out the books just to look at the covers. David and I both recalled being kids and reading an illustrated edition of The Swiss Family Robinson. There were full-color pictures in the books and even definitions, drawings and other marginalia on the sides of the pages. That was the first book I have a conscious memory of. It’s also the first (and only?) book that my father read to me. It was a book, and a memory, that had a major impact on my childhood- how I perceived things and what I looked for in a story. Sharing an actual product helps build a sense of community and togetherness that you can’t get when you sit in your room, with your headphones on, staring at a computer screen.

That’s why I have the bitterness about the possible disappearance of books and other products. I don’t like having an option taken away from me. I feel like I’m losing some of my rights as a consumer. Heck, a few months back, Amazon even went into the Kindle readers and withdrew a book they thought they didn’t have the copyright to. That wouldn’t have happened if it were a physical book sitting on my shelf. Suppose your computer crashes? You’ve lost that product and have to buy it again. I guess you could back it up on another system but some people aren’t that conscientious. My brother-in-law has four backups in multiple locations across the country but that’s just him. I only have one external hard drive back up and it’s in the same place as my computer. A house fire would screw me. Lots of people don’t even save a long document or email they are working on until they finish writing it. I learned that lesson the first time a storm knocked out the power to our office but invariably when the power goes out, someone screams, “I just lost everything I was working on!” Actually they shriek it like a 12-year old girl who didn’t get Jonas Brothers tickets which just makes it even more amusing to me as I sit in the dark silently laughing to myself about those novices.

Luckily, hard drive crashes don’t happen that often and house fires are even less frequent than that so my actual books will still be around for a good long while. Also, if the power goes out because of a storm or a terrorist attack or because a zombie plaque wiped out the staff at the power plant, I can still read at home by candlelight or in the sunlight while I’m sitting in the park. (Although if it is a zombie plaque, I probably won’t go to the park.) I can take a magazine to the beach, or on the camping trip. My book will join me in the bathtub. If it is a 700-page hardcover Harry Potter book, I can even use it to cave in the head of some zombies when they finally break past my barricaded door. Can an iPhone be used as a weapon? I don’t think so. Furthermore, any of those tree-huggers who argue that real books kill trees never mention how much environmental damage is done while generating the electricity that keeps computers and electronic equipment running. There is no such thing as an electricity tree. The power has to come from somewhere. Coal is being burned, oil is consumed, dams and power plants are built. Power is expended somehow, regardless of the medium you use. Once a book is printed though, it is around for a long time. Everyone has books from decades ago. Books get been passed around for others to enjoy. When you are tired of a book, you can give it to someone else. You can donate it to a library or charity. Maybe it’s a rare comic book so you can sell it to a collector. The worst case scenario for a book is that you throw it in the trash and take it to the dump where is rejoins the environment because it is biodegradable. Computers aren’t. You can mulch your garden with John Grisham but not with your MP3 player. In some cases, books have even outlasted the trees they came from. The Guttenberg bible is one of the rarest books in the world because it was one of the first books ever printed on a printing press but there are still copies in existence. That was more than 400 years ago. Do you think those particular trees would still be around if they hadn’t been turned into bibles? Nope. Not unless Guttenberg was using sequoia paper and redwood pulp.

So that random comment, while I was at the Italian restaurant trying to decide if the vase of sticklike objects the waiter set on the table was edible, helped me figure out my stance on the benefits of technology. I like technology, don’t get me wrong. I’m waiting for the day when walls are in fact really ginormous (a real word now- it was added to the Oxford dictionary last year) screens and I can watch TV on the kitchen wall when I cook. I want to be soaking in the bathtub and read a “book” that is displayed in a huge font on the wall underneath the showerhead. I want music to surround me as I sit on the sofa and I can read the lyrics on one wall while another one shows the corresponding video and another shows pictures from the album cover and I control it all with a wave of my hand. Oh and I can’t wait for the day when someone invents a radio that floats alongside me as I walk around the neighborhood so I don’t have to carry it along or even wear headphones. See, I want my media, my connections, my devices to be 100% available wherever I am. Until this happens, I want options. I don’t want to be dependent on electricity in order to consume ideas and stories and music. I don’t want to get electrocuted while using it in watery places. I don’t want it to crash in the middle of using it. I want to share it with others. I want to talk about it. I want to see it and be able to touch it if I so desire. I want it to be permanent. I like the tactile feeling of books. I like the smell of the paper and the artistry of the pictures and the covers. I like being able to squash a bug with my magazine. I like cutting a comic out of a newspaper and posting it on the fridge. I like versatility and options. You can grasp your cold, nondescript, plastic Kindle in your hand if you like. I’ll even do it too sometimes. All I ask is that I can also hold an actual book in my hand if I want to. The ideal technological world in my head is nowhere near reality at this moment so don’t take away any of my current choices until you can replace them with something better.

Now if you will excuse me, all this talk of hypothetical bathtub soaks with a good book has actually made me want to do it for real. From the way I kept bringing it up, you’d think it was something I did everyday. In truth, it’s one of those pleasures I think of frequently but don’t actually do that often. I just like the concept of a warm, soapy bath and a good book. While I’m pruning up in the tub, I will contemplate the next big question. Were those sticklike things in the vase really thin breadsticks or something else? I ate some and I still can’t be sure. Maybe the waiter was just too polite to tell us rubes that we ate the table’s centerpiece.