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Notes From The Flip Side: 09.02.2007

"What are the criteria to write a review of a concert for a popular magazine? A knowledge of music theory? A history of the band members' origins? A versing in the genre of music they play? A familiarity with their influences? Without these you don't have a review, you have an opinion. Yet how much of modern criticism is unabashedly that?"

Rian Johnson

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Modern Criticism + My Asshole = Metric Tons Of High-Velocity Crap Spewage.

First off, Rian Johnson's "Brick" is an amazing movie, especially if you think high school felt like a prison camp and that you weren't paranoid because the teachers, administrators and tidy little fascists stalking the halls to maintain order really were out to get you (my suspicion was confirmed when one over-zealous asshat told me not to wear a Ramones shirt that said "Hey Ho Let's Go" on it again because it encouraged prostitution - after being threatened with a parental lawsuit less than 30 minutes after he issued that directive, the school overturned the ban).

With that said, I'm afraid I have to disagree with Johnson's ideas about music criticism, primarily because they suggest that music criticism can be reduced to some form of empirical analysis based in quantitative methods; in short, that understanding music theory will somehow help you grasp the finer points of, say, the first Nirvana record. That a history of the band members' origins may be relevant to the review (and while it may be, it's equally true that people may have joined a new band in order to play a different style of music entirely). That you need a versing in the genre of music which is at issue (and I can't argue too much with that one). That you must have a familiarity with the band's influences (which really only means that even MRR wants nothing to do with you - "What are your influences?" basically became the question never to ask as a result of their interview guidelines from some years back).

I beg to differ that the absence of these elements automatically reduces a review to an opinion. As I've said before, I have little truck with postmodernism / poststructuralism except for reader-response theory; the idea that a creative work exists in a vacuum until completed by a reader is a compelling one and that the perspective a reader brings to the work adds multiple layers of complex meaning. After all, it can easily be argued that an artist is doing little more than clapping with one hand unless an audience observes / participates in the creative work (and frankly, you don't even want to know what this site constitutes these days). This idea isn't new; a large number of the musicians interviewed for this site have expressed some semblance of it, most of them saying something along the lines of having a meaning they intended, but wanting to leave a song general enough that anyone can listen to it and find meaning in it that applies to their own life.

And besides, the suggested criteria are fucking boring. I've argued that for a while.

Who cares about another endless list of former bands or influences? That shit just fills space without saying anything meaningful, and whoever claimed that writing about music is like dancing about architecture was right ... except that modern dance may allow for a more critically meaningful interpretation of architecture than writing provides for music. Seriously - go listen to Isis' "Panopticon" or "Oceanic" and try to make sense of either album through any of the lenses Johnson suggested, much less all of them.

While some sort of theoretical and practical background in a musical discipline may be useful for critical purposes, it is often just as likely (particularly in the case of rock and roll) that an academic foundation may hamstring any worthwhile critical efforts because music is inherently emotional. While it's possible to intellectualize it to death, that strips all the fun out of it for anyone who actually cares about the notes resonating and reverberating between their ears. Sometimes, G-C-D is just G-C-D and no amount of attempting to make sense of a band's background, influences or genre will make it more than three chords played in 4/4 time.

And I'm way more than okay with that.

On Refraining From Marginally Clever Raymond Chandler Quips.

Back in the mid-1990s, I occasionally wrote for a magazine called Mean Street (hence, the title of this bit ... I can never remember writing for them without thinking "Down these mean streets, a man must go," not because of anything the magazine did - the editors and publishers were unusually open to ideas and approaches and I can't remember ever reading one of my stories and thinking "What the fuck did they do?" - but because Raymond Chandler is pretty much permanently stuck in my head).

These days, I can't even remember what I wrote about - I'm pretty sure I wrote about Heavy Vegetable at some point and something about the Delta 72 might have found its way into print. It was a pretty fluid process for me - I don't think I ever wrote any cover stories (those were largely dedicated to bands that would make people pick up the magazine while the editors tended to ask me what I wanted to write about and thus my 400-word pieces on bands I believed in could be found elsewhere) but I had fun and had the chance to talk and work with some of the people who seem to have formed the new vanguard of contemporary music journalism, including staff at the All Music Guide, MTV and the San Francisco Chronicle; folks like Aidin Vaziri, Jennifer Vineyard, Waleed Rashidi and Ned Raggett.

Of course, I'm so far removed from anything resembling music journalism these days that I have a better chance of crashing the gate at a show to get an interview than I do of getting a publicist to return my calls on those rare occasions when a band has done something intriguing enough to make me want to talk with them instead of sending 100 pithy words to Razorcake. See, all of the fine people listed above (whose musical opinions I respect, even if I don't always agree with them) focused on making a living at this whole rock crit / music writing thing.

Me? I went downwardly mobile and tried to hit rock bottom. I quit writing about music in any sort of seriously professional way (or even half-assedly professional for that matter) back around 1997 because I was tired of finding quotes and taking things out of context only to try to summarize conversations in 20 column inches without putting words in people's mouths. (Yes, you can translate that as "What a lazy bastard!" if you want.) I only wanted to do transcriptions, to capture exactly what happened as it happened with no bullshit, no misquotes and no drama about what went down or whether someone said something. If it's in the transcript, it's on the tape and it happened that way. Think of it as the journalistic equivalent of Dogme 95, trying to find the essence of the moment - the true, pure heart of the interaction between a fan interested in the origins, processes and results of a musician's work and the person who created the work in question. Some years back, I even started taking the step of letting the interview subjects see the transcript before publication so that any miscommunication could be clarified. For me, it's become less about getting a scoop or a juicy piece of gossip that's utterly irrelevant to anything about the music than getting it right; these days, it's all about publishing something definitive that stands by itself to capture where an artist is at the moment of the interview.

I suppose you could also read this to mean that I basically turned into a pretentious douchebag who didn't want to tarnish those moments by subjecting them to any editorial process. I wrote somewhere that I started Sick To Move because I was tired of leaving out great ideas just because I couldn't fit them in the space I was allowed; when I quit journalism for good, I focused on the totality of the piece - the entire interview as a holistic entity unto itself which was its own ideal form and a perfectly realized moment in the space-time continuum documented for posterity and blah-de-blah - and never looked back. It's not that I ever looked down on those courageous people who stuck with writing about music as a professional calling - it just wasn't what I wanted to do because I would have wound up hating music if I had to wake up every day and strap my love into a critical bed of Procrustes and start chopping until it something that someone else thought it should be.

I had worked for editors and become an editor. I wasn't working my way back up some other ladder and jumping through someone else's hoops for the sake of paying more dues that someone thought I needed to toss into the hat.

So what in the ineffable whatever and all is the point of this blather?

Ned Raggett wrote a great piece about why My Bloody Valentine's "Loveless" is the one disc he would be stranded on a desert island with.

That's all.

Yeah, I'm narcissistic, solipsistic, etc. Whatevs.

Pass The Jug Around.

Hilly Kristal, founder of CBGBs, has died.

People like him make me want to open a bar with a PA.


I'm sure at one point, all this shit was easier, or at least seemed like it. Or maybe I should just stop shooting my mouth off at any given opportunity (which I'm sure most of my friends would agree with, even though it would be much less entertaining).

So here's my issue.

My back has been hurting like a motherfucker lately. To quantify that, hurting like a motherfucker means I have to plan what I do and when I do it so that errands and appointments which require me to drive fall as close to me waking up as possible. After a few hours, the spinal cord stimulator, while still effective, doesn't really allow me to drive much and I'm falling back on painkillers which prevent me from driving.

As a result, I tend to schedule physical therapy, doctors' appointments and so forth for the morning. I wake up, hop in a hot shower and grit my teeth. In some cases, I have to do these things regardless of pain - for example, physical therapy hurts but not doing it allows my muscles to degenerate and atrophy which only exacerbates the situation. In short, I go out to hurt worse and then come home, knowing I'll have to repeat this exercise every other day for the foreseeable future to prevent actually getting worse.

Naturally, this makes going out for anything - coffee, stamps, checking the post office box, etc. - more difficult. The farther I travel, the more I hurt. Even driving across town is difficult these days.

And this is where things get complicated.

See, I'm trying to be an ethical shopper. I'm trying not to buy goods from companies which use sweatshop labor, I'm trying to buy vegan and so on and so forth. I also live in a small town in Illinois with a population of about 100,000 when school is out of session. Even when it is in session, this isn't much of a college town despite the 40,000-some college students running around, because most of them go to ISU which is a quintessential state school with fraternities and parties. The townies vs. gownies debate doesn't really come into play here because so few of the college students demonstrate the stereotypical liberal arts mindset that thinking of this as a college town is a mistake. And thinking of the amenities like those that you might find in a college town is a mistake too.

And all of this has munged together into a gigantic clusterfuck because I needed to buy some shoes for physical therapy so that I wouldn't have to exercise in socks anymore. Instead of going to Wal-Mart or Foot Locker (or some other shoe store in the mall), I went to Meijer which, to the best of my knowledge, doesn't have any of the problems I usually look for when trying to be an ethical consumer. Meijer stocks a wide variety of vegetarian and vegan foods (Whole Foods doesn't exist here) and so I'm used to their market more than their clothes, but I've also wound up at Meijer at 3 a.m. when I needed something for my quilting that couldn't wait until morning, so I'm a bit used to buying things besides produce there.

And since they were on sale, I bought a pair of Chuck Taylors since they were leather-free.

Completely forgetting that they were owned by Nike and that I've been grousing about Nike and sweatshops for ages, and that - apologies aside - I'm still miffed about Nike cribbing a Minor Threat album cover for an advertisement.

And this is my quandary.

See, people in Chicago can head to any number of stores which sell vegan shoes that aren't made in sweatshops but, right now, making that drive is a sketchy proposition for me since driving across town hurts. Hell, I could order them online from No Sweat Apparel if shoe sizes actually had any meaning for me (and they don't - I wear anywhere from a size 10 to a size 13 depending on where the arches are), but the simple fact of the matter is that shoes - for me, anyway - are the single hardest article of clothing to buy, online or off. I can't buy them based on length or width - I have to buy them based on the arch positioning.

And so I went out to a local Wal-Mart competitor to buy vegan shoes because I don't know of any independent businesses in the area selling vegan shoes (and I actually called manufacturers to find out whether they had retailers in the area) but wanted to keep my money in the community only to remember that the only vegan shoes commonly sold in this area are made by a company that has profited from sweatshop labor. And as nice as Nike's reports and efforts are, I still see weasel words ... and I wonder why Nike can't write these reports in plain, simple English which lets everyone know what they've committed to and when they've committed to do it.

I'll sum up my reaction succinctly:


What's a conscious punk to do when trying to do the right thing results in more ethical conflicts? What is the solution when corporate machinations and combinations work to prevent or, at best, inhibit or confuse ethical consumption? I mean, I just need a simple pair of cruelty-free shoes that don't depend on kids in sweatshops for their manufacture, but they have to fit and I can't readily drive 200 miles round-trip for a pair of sneakers (which, arguably, would have a greater negative impact on the environment than just buying the fucking things here and swallowing a point of principle or two).

Oh, what a tangled web we weave when first we practice to believe in principles.

And unfortunately, the only up-to-date information I can find on this particular issue comes from Nike. The recent reports from anti-sweatshop organizations date back to 2004 and earlier, clearly predating some of Nike's initiatives to reform its contract factories, so how is a concerned consumer supposed to be able to see both sides of the issue? Yes, I have the time to read Nike's reports and ask for a translation - as a college-educated former consultant with a strong business and marketing background, I should be able to understand this nonsense, but it's so well-cloaked in euphemisms and acronyms that I might as well be reading "1984." What about the people who don't have that time? And where are the opposing viewpoints?

After all, I might have the time to read this report, but I don't have the ability to travel to Vietnam, Indonesia, Turkey or any other potential contract factory location to independently verify the information. As such, I'm essentially being asked to take Nike at its word, and trust doesn't come easily for me on an individual level, much less on the level of for-profit organizations.

And all this agonizing over something so seemingly trivial reminds me of talking to vegetarians who refuse to travel because they might inadvertently be served food with some sort of animal broth or stock. This is what a friend of mine calls analysis paralysis - there's so much information to sort through that no one makes a decision because it's just too easy to keep thinking about the information instead of doing something. So, instead of staying at home, terrified at the thought of eating a bowl of noodles with fish broth when I'm trying to do my best as a vegetarian, I go out in the world so that people can see that being a vegetarian doesn't mean being so picky about food that you can't eat anything

And, knowing that I did my level best to buy cruelty and sweatshop-free shoes, after muddling through Nike's social responsibility report to see how that company is monitoring its contracted factories to ensure that workers get paid and aren't abused, after trying to gather as much information as I could and agonizing over a stupid pair of shoes that sat in a box for almost a week while I tried to piece all this together, I ripped the tags off and put them on my feet.

I'm not thrilled with where Nike was, but they seem to be making progress and apparently they've fallen off of most monitoring organizations' radar screens ... and besides, the shoes are cruelty-free. That doesn't give them a pass to give up improving, but - given my situation and relative lack of ability to go find a better option - this will have to do.

The Summer Of My Discomfort.

Still writing for Furious Seasons. Still raising hell. Surprise.

If you're looking for trouble ...
Hey, look! The AP says everyone is on drugs!

Now Playing:

The Waco Brothers. Sadaharu. The Bomb. Saxon Shore. Caspian. The National.

Now Watching:

"Thank You For Smoking"

Just Finished:

Warren Ellis, "Transmetropolitan"; Alan Moore, "The League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen" and "Promethea"; Bill Willingham, "Fables"

Now Reading:

John Barth, "Giles Goat-Boy"

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Last modified on Wednesday, March 26, 2008