Karma Co.

September 11th, 2011

(Originally appeared here. Check out http://www.we-support-local-music.com for other great local bloggers.)

A long time ago, when the world was young, there was a guy named Russell Wolff. Russell was this amazing ball of energy from, um, maybe Philadelphia – he moved up to Boston and immediately became one of my favorite pop songwriters. His album “Karma Co.” is everything you want from a pop album – whip-smart, great production, great songs, lots of attitude, and the chops to back it up. He became Liz Carlisle’s producer, and they left town to seek their fortunes, and they showed up in the Boston area to perform once or twice, and then…crickets.

This always fascinates me. Where do these people go? How could someone I thought was the bee’s knees just…vanish? Before the Intertubes, we were left to wonder. Now, on the other hand, well, just Google “Russell Wolff”. Kinda takes the mystery out of it, but one day, I was sitting in front of my computer, balancing my checkbook and rockin’ out to “Karma Co.” (it’s great checkbook-balancing music, I’ll tell you), and that’s exactly what I did. And there he was, big as day, hangin’ out in Nashville! And he’s done lots of cool stuff! And there’s an email address! And, of course, I couldn’t resist.

And, of course, he wrote back, and, of course, like everyone else in Nashville who isn’t on the stage of the Grand Ole Opry, he’s starving, but he’s loving his life. Now, I’m glad that Russell is loving his life, and I’m sorry he’s starving. But there’s a part of me that says that Russell has let me down, because I want more “Karma Co.”, dammit.

I mean, Russell’s music is mine. That sounds insane, doesn’t it? He wrote it, he recorded it, he performed it, it’s his, no question about it. But there’s that little voice in my head – and I’m betting that you have it too, for some author, musician, playwright, somebody – that has glommed onto this particular snatch of creative energy and laid a claim to it, that somehow has a wire directly into my lizard brain. I want more. I need more. And the fact that “Karma Co.” was the last full-band music that Russell recorded makes me sad – for the world – and mad – because I want more.

Now, I know that Russell doesn’t owe me a damn thing. He’s already given me a gift. Fifteen bucks isn’t a lot of money to pay for karma. But it’s a drug. I am, I guess, addicted to “Karma Co.”

This is the fan speaking. Art is designed to connect, viscerally. And the wars that are fought over copyright, nowadays, are fought, at least in part, over the ownership of the connection. We consume these things – we’re encouraged to consume them, they’re fed to us, by television ads, billboards, flacky articles in breathless magazines – and then the fight begins. Can I remix my favorite U2 tune? It’s mine, dammit. It was playing when I met my first girlfriend, or when I lost my virginity, or during that astonishing beach weekend where all ten of us watched the sunrise and bared our souls.

But it’s not ours. The music does not belong to us, legally. The artist does not belong to us. There’s a television series now called “Game of Thrones”, which is based on a book in a series by an author named George R.R. Martin. And a while back, my wife observes, fantasy writer Neil Gaiman was asked by a fan of Mr. Martin about the inordinate amount of time that Mr. Martin was taking in producing his next book, and Mr. Gaiman famously said, “Look, this may not be palatable, and I keep trying to come up with a better way to put it, but George R.R. Martin is not your bitch.”

Heaven knows that if one of my fans buttonholed me at a gig and demanded to know where my next album was, I’d either assume he was joking or wasn’t really interested in preserving his previous investment in orthodontics. I mean, I’ve been working on it. Really. Leave me alone. It takes money, and rehearsals, and the sort of time that people with ailing and elderly family members don’t really have. And I hate being in the studio, and my voice isn’t having the greatest year, and – just – no. As thrilled as I am that you like my music – as delighted as I am that you came to hear me – I am not your bitch.

And Russell, in turn, is not my bitch, either, as much as it grates on me to admit it. It’s crazy that I can hold these two contradictory thoughts simultaneously – I demand that Russell record another album, and I’m appalled at the thought that anyone would demand another album from me – but the fan and the musician occupy different parts of the lizard brain. You’ve all probably read those interviews with famous actors who find themselves tongue-tied in the presence of their professional idols – yes, it could be marketing flackery, but I believe it. The consumer and the creator are different beasts, living side by side within us.

After all my gnashing of teeth, it turns out that Russell is in the middle of writing a song a day for the entire year, to raise money for a friend of his with cancer. That might feed my jones for a while – but you know how addicts can get.

Just Some Guy

September 11th, 2011

(Originally appeared here. Check out http://www.we-support-local-music.com for other great local bloggers.)

I recently participated in a salon.

I’m sure, for some of you, I’ve just conjured up an ancient Palmolive commercial, with Madge softening your nails with dish detergent (seriously, how is it that she was never fired?) – and now, I’ve just sent the rest of you to YouTube to view some ancient 70′s pop culture, and you’re thinking, man, how old isthis guy, anyway? – but let’s get back to the salon, by which I mean something like the Algonquin Round Table, except with folk musicians (and stop it with the Google searches for a minute and just listen up, you young whippersnappers, you).

This salon was entitled “Open Mikes in Boston: From Club 47 to the Cantab”, and it’s one of a series of salons organized by the New England Folk Music Archives, hosted by Scott Alarik , charming performer, author of the book “Deep Community”, and former folk music critic for the Boston Globe. These salons are all open to the public, and feature selected panels of knowledgeable and presumably engaging people having, and leading, a vigorous conversation on the selected topic. This particular salon featured Betsy Siggins, founder of the New England Folk Music Archives, former executive director of Club Passim and one of the people behind the original Club 47; Geoff Bartley, virtuoso musician and long-time host of two open mikes at the Cantab LoungeDon White, renowned funny songwriter and performer, now host of his own open mike in Lynn; and me. The event was on June 1, which you might recall as the Night the Tornadoes Came, so Don never made it in from Lynn and we just about outnumbered the audience; but that’s not the point, really. Actually, that’s not the two points, really.

The first point is: I’m pushing 50, and I’m telling you, listen to your elders. Not me, silly – everybody else there. The dirty little secret of music – well, life, actually – is that nothing much changes. Human beings are human beings: flawed, talented, ambitious, humble, greedy, generous, short-sighted, wise. We tamed fire; we invented the wheel; we learned to farm; we tamed steam and coal; we harnessed the power of information, through writing, movable type, wires, radio, and now digital data; and at every step, our strengths and weaknesses have led us to glory, tragedy and everything in between. This is what makes history fascinating: it’s all about us – in fact, it could be about you and me. Read Barbara Tuchman’s “The March of Folly” if you don’t believe me. And listening to the stories about open mikes past, from the 60s and 70s and 80s – way before my tenure on the open mike scene – well, the same egos, the same tensions, the same pressures, the same virtues have been with us all along. I wasn’t much for history when I was in high school, and I’m still not a big fan of “back in the day”ism; but while digital production and distribution have really, really changed music, they haven’t really changed musicians.

So you owe it to yourself to go listen to people who have been doing this for a while. They’re wiser, at the very least due to the brute accumulation of experiences; they’re probably more patient; and they’ve had more time to master their craft. I heard Geoff Bartley do a fairly new song at the Amazing Things open mike the other night (a rare treat, like a presidential visit). It was a protest song, based on an old Quaker hymn called “How Can I Keep From Singing” (which I have never heard, or heard of). And what Geoff did with it, well, I’ll tell you, it sounded timeless; it could have been written in 1850, or 1960, or yesterday. It was that good. You don’t learn how to do that overnight. And you don’t learn how to do that without knowing your history.

The second point is: me? Why me? What am I doing on the same panel with that list of comparatively illustrious folks? I’m just some guy. Because we’re all just some guy, here in our heads. It’s like not having the guts to ask out that hot guy or girl back in high school, when at the same time the hot guy or girl was thinking, “Why doesn’t anybody ask me out? What’s wrong with me?” You can’t see yourself, ever.

But I’m apparently not just some guy. Scott Alarik thought of me out of the clear blue sky, which means he thought of me. Because he’s seen me perform. Because he was one of the performers at “How to Raise Your Own Voice”, the event that Susan Master and I hosted at First Night 2004. Because I host a listing of the open mikes in the New England area on my web site. Because he and I both play Gurian guitars. In other words, because I’ve been, well, around.

Do not, do not underestimate the importance of hanging around. Because 95% of life is Just. Showing. Up. Being on time. Acting prompt and courteous and keeping your clothes on at the relevant moments. Listening. Eventually, you meet people. You hear things you haven’t heard before. You make a tiny contribution that takes on a life of its own. You do something memorable (and I’m not talking YouTube, “America’s Funniest Home Videos”, TMZ.com, front page of the New York Post memorable). You become, well, part of history. Someone who’s been around for a while. Someone who might have something interesting to say at a salon, maybe.

It’s been said that history is one damn thing after another, but that’s not exactly right; history is one damn thing happening because of another damn thing. This is the way our lives go; and this is the way history is made. And this is the way just some guy becomes one of the elders. Just by hanging around.

So go hang around somewhere. Something will happen.


May 14th, 2011

(Originally appeared here. Check out http://www.we-support-local-music.com for other great local bloggers.)

Welcome to another installment of my occasional feature, Sam’s Book Corner, where I rise from my sofa and not actually review a book I’ve just finished. This time, we’re talking (or not talking) about “Marshall McLuhan: You Know Nothing of My Work!”, a biography by Douglas Coupland, a writer primarily known for the novel “Generation X”. McLuhan, of course, is the Renaissance scholar turned media critic most famous for terse, gnomic pronouncements like “The medium is the message”. Coupland plays this biography relatively straight, although there’s nothing really straight about the genre-busting nature of McLuhan’s scholarship. He’s commonly regarded as the prophet of the Internet age – but as Coupland articulates pretty clearly, his prophecy is more Biblical than some would care to admit.

And with that, we turn to electronics repair.

I have this digital organ. A Korg CX-3, for you aficionados out there, an original one (which they no longer make), not the reissue (which they also no longer make). I bought this organ, used, in 1987 or so, around the time I joined my ska band, Agent 13. I love this instrument – it sounds exactly like a Hammond B-3, right down to the drawbars and the rotary effect. I don’t use it much anymore, but it deserves to be cared for (as much as I ever care for anything, but that’s another, slightly humiliating, story).

And at the moment, it’s a bit broken. The particular problem isn’t important; what’s important is that it’s not in the appropriate shape to help me record my next album. So I asked my pal Jason Benjamin where I should take it, and he recommended a particular guy at a particular shop, and I gave him a call, and after some negotiating and haggling, he volunteered to take a look at it for me. And when I brought it into the shop, he went into the back room, and when he returned, he said, “This is the only reason I agreed to try to fix this for you”, and handed me a 30-year-old repair manual for the CX-3.

Artifacts like this – well, for a certain subset of geeks, it doesn’t get any better. It was yellow, and a bit dog-eared, and the staples had fallen out, but this repairman had hung onto this manual because,  well, it’s invaluable. He used to repair a lot of these instruments,  and while he doesn’t see them much anymore, he kept it around, just in case. And it got me thinking.

We live in an age of pure information. Everything that can be reduced to digital data, pretty much has been. You can use CAD software and three-dimensional printers to create all sorts of wacky things. Music has slipped the bounds of physical media and escaped into the ether. Video is a click away – either to view your favorite band, or upload a video of your own performance. The barriers to information exchange – at least in democratic societies – have essentially vanished.

It’s important to realize that this is a change. It’s neither virtuous nor evil, neither good nor bad. It has its advantages and its disadvantages, depending on who you are and under what circumstances you’re interacting with it. And we tend to focus a lot on the advantages – but for some of us who lived before the revolution, there’s something missing.

Take that manual, for instance. Sure, nowadays I can download any damn PDF I want to, and get manuals for all sorts of obscure devices – I can review user manuals for devices I haven’t even bought yet, which is a boon, I can tell you. But they’re not artifacts anymore. The paper doesn’t yellow, the staples don’t fall out – there’s no rarity, there’s no sense of history in the object itself, there’s no story to how it got to be in this particular set of hands at this particular time. The physical history of the information is gone.

And the treasure hunter in me feels this loss pretty dramatically. Used record and CD stores aren’t interesting anymore when virtually every song ever recorded is on iTunes for 99 cents. I know where to find everything – it’s easy. There’s no challenge, there’s no hunt, there’s no joy of discovery, and there’s no physicality or history to the object itself. There’s no physical or social aspect to the act of browsing. It’s just me and a terminal and the universe of bytes.

Don’t get me wrong – the digital revolution has been very, very good to me. I’m in love with digital photography and digital audio recording. But while the frictionlessness of YouTube and Facebook make it possible to bypass the bloated and arbitrary corporate staircases to fame, they’ve just replaced it with a different sort of arbitrariness, a different set of skills to master (search engine optimization instead of cocktail party banter, for instance), and ultimately, the claws of capitalism find a way to seize hold of those channels as well. And while I can find just about any book I’ve ever wanted, online at Powell’s or Amazon, it’s not better than encountering it in a dusty, uncurated corner in a Harvard Square basement – it’s just different: a different set of actions, using different muscles, different senses, different notions of time. It changes the experience, and there’s nothing wrong with preferring the old experience.

Some of you might be tempted to remind me that some people miss the flicker of the gaslight flame, or the whir of the plane propellors, or the smell of horse manure from the carriages, or, less nobly, the invisibility of gays, the silence of women, the easy profit of slaves. But this is just cherry-picking; or, more accurately, feces-flinging. It trades on the trope that progress is positive, rather than engaging with the question in any honest way.

And this trope is dangerous. I encountered, the other day, someone selling, on eBay, a CD containing a scan of an original Gurian guitar catalog. Not the catalog itself, but a digital facsimile. Now, the only reason it’s a facsimile is because the original was a physical object; but it’s telling that the lifespan of this digital copy will likely be significantly shorter than the original (which our seller is keeping, by the way). File formats keep changing; disk formats keep changing. Part of me fears this dystopic moment when an electromagnetic pulse destroys the last digitized copy of the Gutenberg Bible, just a short time after we discard the original because “in digital form it will last forever”.

Which brings us back to McLuhan. McLuhan really was a Luddite – Coupland thinks that he hated the modern world, and the mistaken impression that he endorsed the new media society was a misinterpretation of his critical, value-free eye. McLuhan, for all his impenetrable aphorisms, saw through this trope, or, perhaps more accurately, discarded it as propaganda, as wrapping paper for the phenomena he was really interested in studying: the individual as she interacts with the changing media experience, for good or ill.

But while McLuhan could subjugate his disdain for the sake of scholarship, I can’t disengage in any comparable way. I love my digital recorder, but I hate the hard disk as jukebox; I love Craigslist and free commentary on the Intertubes, but I hate the decline of of the broadsheet newspaper. The world has changed – not improved, not deterioriated, just – changed.

Someday, the drawing of the capacitor that has strangled my CX-3 will be eaten by earthworms; and someday, that digital copy of the Gurian catalog will be struck by a camel-back-breaking cosmic particle, and descend into the realm of static. Something – something – will kill them both. And decades from now – hell, maybe even next year – my fondness for the broadsheet newspaper will be as transparently quaint as, oh, pining away for the days of the town crier. My experience – at this point in time, at this conjunction of media – will be gone, the tensions resolved, and history will be rewritten by the technological victors – but the lens of history is necessarily distorted, and it’s the moment that McLuhan was really interested in. There are billions of us living through this, just as there were millions of us living through the invention of movable type. And McLuhan was one of the first modern scholars to recognize that this experience – this engagement with ways we interact with the world – was worthy of study.

Music and the Renegade Tradition

March 30th, 2011

(Originally appeared here. Check out http://www.we-support-local-music.com for other great local bloggers.)

Welcome to the second installment of my occasional feature, Sam’s Book Corner, where I rise from my sofa and not actually review a book I’ve just finished. I began back in October, with a not-actual-review of Steve Almond’s “Rock and Roll Will Save Your Life”.  This time, we’re talking about Thaddeus Russell’s “A Renegade History of the United States”, which is worth a read if only for the chapter which describes the Jewish domination of professional basketball in the first half of the 20th century. Yes, indeed, in case you’re not aware of this, we’re naturally gifted athletes – at least that’s what they were saying at the time…

Mr. Russell’s book is something of a provocation – at least, he’s not really intending that we take the thesis at face value. The idea is that what cemented American freedom was not the Founding Fathers, or the pioneers, but rather the parade of scofflaws, indolents and hedonists who challenged the ongoing Puritanism that this great country was founded on.  The drunkards during the Revolution, the gangsters in the 20′s, the drag queens at Stonewall – these are the ingredients, he writes, of American freedom.

Now, this isn’t completely nuts. It’s hard for me, perhaps as a child of the sixties (not really, but close enough for folk music), to appreciate how robust the tradition of moral scold is in American history. The title track to my pal Chris Pahud’s first album, “Morton’s Return”, is about one of the incidents Mr. Russell talks about: how a man named Thomas Morton founded a non-Puritan settlement north of Plymouth which featured intolerable levels of debauchery (read: any enjoyment of anything at all). So the Pilgrims marched up to Quincy, with guns, and shut it down, thereby establishing a long American tradition of legal and extralegal enforcement of the moral virtue of not enjoying things. From the Puritans to the Women’s Christian Temperance Union to Prohibition to the Hays Code to Tipper Gore and her explicit warning labels, normative America has always been about hard work, bland food, uninspired sex, and the connection between leisure time and the Apocalypse.

But the thing that really jumps out at me, as a musician, is the extent to which music – allmusic – is part of this “renegade” tradition. It seems to have started with dancing – after all, dancing is a horrible, dirty activity which occasionally involves touching a member of the opposite sex (well, whatever sex you happen to be interested in), which will lead immediately to venereal disease and the collapse of the Republic. It also meant that you weren’t working, and of course our country is built on hard work – never mind the fact that our economy seems to be driven almost entirely by blockbuster movies, snack foods and Internet pornography. The sin of spending money on leisure, especially leisure that would lead to other sorts of enjoyment – and get your mind out of the gutter, there – see, that’s exactly what I mean, there’s nothing wrong with having your mind in the gutter – no, actually, it’s not even the gutter, the problem is thinking that it’s the gutter in the first place – and here we are, in 21st century America, where white people still have no idea what to do with their bodies, pretty much all the time.

It’s hard to imagine how what I do, as a songwriter, is subversive or a challenge to the status quo. But I benefit from years of folks who did exactly that – the slaves who refused to yield to their circumstances of toil; the ragtime composers who made their livings in the lobbies of whorehouses; the jazz musicians who played for gangsters in speakeasies; Elvis Presley, who died as a joke but started out as someone so shocking that he could only be shown on television from the chest up; the anti-war music of the sixties. Not a single one of these people aimed for mainstream America.

And it doesn’t matter whether I think my own material is subversive – there’s probably someone out there who’s thinking it for me. If Mr. Russell’s thesis is right, I don’t have to be a war protester or a free-love advocate; my very existence is a threat to American values.

After all, I haven’t worked full-time in almost thirty years, because I love my music and my peace of mind more than I love the idea of working. And just in this past year, I wrote a song called “I Ain’t In It For The Money”, which not only challenges the employment status quo but also features a grammatical bastard child right there in the title. I’ve written songs that refuse to pass judgment on divorce, sex outside marriage – you name it, I refuse to be a moral scold about it. In fact, now that you mention it, I can feel the fabric of society shredding around me even as I write this.

If there is a moral here – well, I suppose we should call it an “amoral”, given the circumstances, but you know what I mean – it’s that somewhere, somehow, there’s always going to be someone or something out to get you. It may be your own fear, or your own unwillingness to rattle the cage, or your concern about being ostracized or mocked, or even a very real concern about being jailed, or worse. Art isn’t innocent. It requires us to sacrifice a bit of ourselves, to expose our neck to the knife – in ways we may not even be aware of. You may cause an uproar without even knowing it; you may start a revolution without intending to; but it does no good to backtrack after the fact, or to hold yourself back beforehand. We are all artists, after all – enjoying music is as much a skill as creating it, after all, and I’ve known concertgoers that invest far more energy in, and are far more knowledgeable about, what I do than I am. And if Thaddeus Russell is right, art, either making it or enjoying it, is one of the things that challenges American Puritanism – and makes us more free.

Green Acres

January 30th, 2011

(Originally appeared here. Check out http://www.we-support-local-music.com for other great local bloggers.)

It might have been a warm spring night, the sort of night where the moon seems to glow and promise drips from every budding tree. It was a party, a community dance, maybe, on the second floor, perhaps, of a grand old hotel in a small town in the center of  Massachusetts. It might have been in 1965-era Technicolor, the colors garish and brilliant, like new toys.

Who knows what the occasion was – veteran’s benefit, May Day, a municipal election. But there he was at the piano: play a song, toss off a witty remark, play another song. He loved being the center of attention – the town librarian, Tony Randall on the set of Green Acres, married to the sharp-tongued, take-no-prisoners town clerk; Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire, opening about as far off Broadway as you can get.

I was not at this party – it was long before I met Jim Sullivan. But I can see it – just like all the folks at his funeral could see it, vividly, knowing Jim and his love of the stage. He was an artist, an actor, a raging egotist, a generous mentor, and one of the most maddening men I’ve ever met. And he was my father-in-law, until the middle of October, when one morning he wasn’t feeling too well, and the next evening he was dead.

In many ways, life and the limelight were not particularly kind to Jim Sullivan. He aspired to be a great poet – he even nominated himself (there’s that ego, there) for the Pulitzer Prize – but recognition studiously escaped him. His wife died far too young. Parkinson’s eventually robbed him of his hands, and his ability to drive, and thus his spotlight. But in many other ways, he was as successful as any of us could ever dream. The town of Barre was his canvas – everybody, but everybody, knew him; he was omnipresent in town government, veteran’s affairs, social and intellectual life. He wrote a poem for the Barre Gazette every single week, just about, for thirty years or so – the last one appeared the day after he died. Life gave him a small pond, and he was as big a fish as they’d ever have.

Artists beget artists. His son is a newspaperman and a novelist; his daughter is a writer. His daughter hates the limelight, she says – yes, she bristled at her father’s egotism, and doesn’t want to be like that, but man, I’ve seen her work a room. It’s in her blood – she can’t fight it. And I – well, it seems that there’s this gesture that Jim made with his finger when he was holding forth that I can reproduce, almost eerily, as if I inherited it from him. He was a ham; I’m a ham.

Live performance is an ephemeral thing. Most performances aren’t recorded, in any way, except in our memories. They happen, and they’re gone. But the impact they have on people can last for decades. They’re fragile, weightless, but yet, at times, as substantial for the witnesses (and participants) as a rock.

My wife misses her father terribly, in good ways and in bad. In his illness, he was the center of her attention for almost a year. But the town of Barre has the luxury of missing him in those ways that recall the beauty and the impact of that night on the second floor of the grand hotel. Each of us, as an artist, has a chance to have that sort of effect on an audience; and each of you, the audience, has a chance at that memory, if you put down your book, put on your coat, and join the party.

Can Rock and Roll Save Your Life?

December 20th, 2010

(Originally appeared here. Check out http://www.we-support-local-music.com for other great local bloggers.)

“Rock and Roll Will Save Your Life”, by Steve Almond, may not be the funniest book I’ve ever read about being a music fan, but it’s close. In this entertaining memoir, Mr. Almond takes us on a tour of his adult life viewed through the lens of Drooling Fanaticism, his term for the pure, hopeless note-crush that the musically talentless have on the musically talented. I’m pleased to say that I laughed out loud several times, and subjected my wife, She Who Must Be Taunted, to the oral presentation of multiple passages, even though she is almost certain to read the book herself and I, regrettably, am a terrible out-loud reader, with the rhythm of a stalled subway car and the timing of an asthmatic whale.

Alas, although this essay begins as a review, it is about to veer off into navel-gazing, since you can easily obtain this book at your local bookstore or Kindletorium, but far less easily gaze into my navel. See, Steve’s experience is a pure one, and mine is not. I could have been him – it would have been easy. And the extent to which I disagree with him – insofar as he has any thesis at all in his book – is the extent to which I failed to be him, for which I am exceedingly grateful.

I recently wrote, in my newsletter, that my desire to be a rock’n’roll star came to me late at night, during a portentous midnight conversation in the dark, as I camped out on the floor of a friend’s bedroom. It really was that sudden, and it wasn’t any more realistic than the hero worship of Mr. Almond’s Drooling Fanatic. I don’t think I was in love, at the time, with anything different than the average music fan: the desperate need for life to mean something more than it actually does, the quest to tease some sort of operatic significance out of the pedestrian everypersonness of our lives: love, family, ecstacy, death. Unlike Mr. Almond’s Drooling Fanatic, I was a musician already, with a reasonable amount of talent; like the Drooling Fanatic, however, I was still on the outside looking in.

And I remained there, for a long time. I took out an ad in the Phoenix and attempted to join a band which featured a drummer with a kit larger than my bedroom, and got kicked out of that band, ostensibly, because I didn’t have a car – but I’m pretty sure it was because I was a wannabe dweeb. I met a doomed siren named Scott Mastro and miserably failed to even realize that I was a corner of a love triangle with a female musician who was almost as damaged. I presented my own derivative, sappy, overly obvious material on the stage of the Nameless Coffeehouse, to little or no effect. I failed to join a band that I had actually heard of, which was completely reconstituting itself around the original guitarist and a bass player who had “moved beyond the music into the image”. I joined, and managed to stay in, a joyful ska/pop band called Agent 13, which ultimately imploded after six years in a matter of a few hours. I hid in graduate school and wrote a ton of songs. And yet, still, I was on the outside looking in.

What finally kicked me in the ass – and this is a story I’ve probably told elsewhere – was a lunch I had with Peter Mulvey, right before he left town to become Peter Mulvey. I met Peter at a songwriting circle in Porter Square (one of the only two people I knew, on first listen, that they were going places, and I’ve been right both times), and I was fortunate enough to become an acquiantance – not quite a friend, since I was a bit too old and a bit too embarrassed about everything to meet Peter as an equal, but an acquaintance nonetheless. And on this day when we had lunch, he was telling me about his trials and tribulations in the music business and I looked at him and realized: as far as he knows – because I’d met him after my band broke up, after I’d started to hide – as far as he knows, I’m just this guy who’s always going to be bitching about not getting out of his own living room.

If Steve Almond were writing about this lunch, he’d have the good sense and talent to turn it into a whole book chapter. I don’t have that kind of space, or his patience for narration. But this was a seminal moment – when I realized that I could either be on the outside looking in, with a hero worship of the musician’s life, or I could do it. Unlike Mr. Almond, I had the choice – and almost fifteen years later, I’m almost, almost, happy with how it’s turned out.

No, I’m not a star. No, I don’t make my living at it. Yes, I’ve learned about the horror of the music business from the inside – from watching friends work their way through it, from watching the people above me on the ladder stand on that same damn rung of the ladder forever, even as the ladder grows taller and keeps trying to shake them off. I’ve been on the other side of those moments where the room is empty, and you’re playing, and that’s what you do, and maybe there’s someone in the room, one person, who sees your genius, and maybe there isn’t, but all that matters is that you get up there and do your act and eat your burger and pack your gear and go home and put your head on the pillow and think, yep, I was great tonight. Too bad nobody saw me.

Every day, a great musician falls in the forest. Sometimes there’s someone like Steve Almond to hear him; sometimes there’s not. But on this side of the Drooling Fanatic divide, the music burns differently – when it comes out of us, in a murmur or a torrent, in military rows or as a filthy rabble, it reminds us that we have the ability to be that hero to ourselves. I’ve lost count of the times that I’ve played one of my old songs and thought to myself, “Damn, I’m good at this”; and that’s less than a step away from saying “Damn, I wish I’d written that”. The enormity of knowing what it’s like to make the Drooling Fanatics among us feel that way is something we can appreciate because we’re less than a step away from being Drooling Fanatics ourselves.

Being able to do it makes less of a difference than you might think.

You Can’t Learn Performance In Your Living Room

August 28th, 2010

(Originally appeared here. Check out http://www.we-support-local-music.com for other great local bloggers.)

The other night, I was channel surfing – no, it’s not practicing, but my thumb does get a workout, so maybe it counts – and I happened across a half-hour Comedy Central presentation featuring a comedian named Myq Kaplan. This, frankly, astonished me, because the last time I saw Myq Kaplan in person – and I concede that this was several years ago – he was telling jokes at the Club Passim open mike, and, well, he was not, um, funny.

Now, one of the lovely, if slightly demented, things about the folk acoustic open mike scene is that, as my old pal Ken Batts liked to point out, everyone’s good – in other words, we’re too polite not to applaud. It’s like cosmic background radiation – there’s a level below which the applause never goes. That’s nice, and supportive, and welcoming, but it’s also planned. You can plan applause. You can think to yourself, “Well, I’ll give him an A for effort, even though it’s clear that he only took up the glockenspiel yesterday afternoon, perhaps on a dare”, and you’ll calibrate your applause appropriately, but it’ll still be applause.

Not funny, however, can’t hide behind a smattering of polite laughter. You can’t plan laughter. It doesn’t happen. And my primary memory of Myq Kaplan is watching him for five minutes, dying, as they say, in a room occupied mostly by his voice and the occasional cough (followed at the end, of course, by polite applause). Which is why I was kind of astonished to discover that, several years later, Myq Kaplan is a riot. His timing is splendid, his facial expressions are scrumptious, his stage persona is well-crafted, and his jokes made me laugh fairly hard.

How in the world did this happen? Well, it happened because Myq Kaplan stood on stage at Club Passim and died, among other things. There ain’t no substitute for learning in public – none. A few years ago, I wrote a song called “The Band That Never Was” – good song, no room for it in the rotation, don’t perform it much. But it pretty much captured the essence of the “hell, I could do that if I tried” school of performance:

I got blisters on my fingers from the pull tabs on the soda cans
I got carpal tunnel syndrome from waving at my imaginary fans
The pressure’s more than you can know
That’s why we’re mostly incognito
We have parts to learn and songs to write
Maybe we’ll do it tomorrow

I’ve been performing solo since 1997. And in the beginning, I’m absolutely certain I sucked. (Back then, of course, I was convinced I was a genius, but, well, you live and learn.) But I kept getting on stage, over and over, until I became the epic master of stagecraft you see before you today. And sure, it’s had a lot to do with great advice I’ve gotten along the way, but all of it – all of it – happened because it happened in public. After a while, you learn what works and what doesn’t; which rules to follow and which rules to break; when the audience is right and when you are (and yes, sometimes the audience is wrong). But you can’t learn that in your living room (unless your living room is regularly occupied by random strangers).

So the next time you’re at an open mike, or you’re at a coffeehouse and an open mike erupts around you: yes, you’ll hear the glockenspiel guy. And you may be tempted to provide nothing more than a cosmic background radiation level of applause. But for all you know, you may be listening to somebody who will turn into me, or Myq Kaplan, or Lori McKenna. So be generous.

PROs and cons

June 20th, 2010

Today, my friends, we explore the follies of youth, overripe expectations, and the extent to which we musicians end up with the short end of our own damn stick.

Many years ago, when I was a young, impressionable musician, I joined BMI, one of the three performance rights organizations (PROs) in the United States. Hey, I was going to be a star, right? Gotta have someone to collect all those dollars from my airplay. I received my contract, which I signed forthwith, and set out to become the star I was bound to be.

Now, PROs in the United States are globally unusual, for two reasons: first, there are more than one of them, and second, they decline to collect playlists for live performances, but rather use another formula – say, airplay – to determine the distribution of live performance fees. And third – although I have no idea whether this differs in other countries – they pay their agents on commission.

Let’s consider, now, if we might, the fetid consequences of this particular arrangement of things. First, if you’re a venue, and you have music, you have to pay fees to all three PROs. Because the chances are that the artists you present or play on your stereo are performing songs by songwriters represented by all three PROs. Second, if you’re an agent of said PRO, your motivation is to mislead the venue, because the higher their fees, the higher your salary. Third, if you’re a member of one of these PROs, the venues you play at are liable for paying fees to that PRO – yes, they owe fees for your performances of your own music – unless you issue a separate license to that venue, which you wouldn’t be doing unless the venue wasn’t paying any fees to the PROs – a license which, by the way, you have to forward to your PRO, which, if the venue was not paying PRO fees, might be interpreted as a hostile act.

Now, don’t get me wrong – people deserve to be reimbursed for the performance of the music they write. So says the copyright law in the US, which I’m actually kind of supportive of, at least I would be if the copyright maximalists would crawl back under the rock they oozed out from. But – ahem – people deserve to be reimbursed for the performance of the music they write, which is most emphatically not happening. Because the formula for distribution of live performance fees is based on airplay rather than actual song lists, Taylor Swift is being reimbursed for the performance of the music I write. Which is, unsurprisingly, not cool. Unless you’re Taylor Swift.

So imagine, today, being a small coffeehouse. Like, say, Somethin’s Brewin in Lakeville, MA, one of my favorite venues – at least until it stopped presenting live music. Imagine having long, rude, unpleasant discussions with PRO agents who insist that it’s up to you to prove to them that their music isn’t being presented at your venue. Imagine your fury when you discover that Sam Bayer, a local fave, doesn’t even receive the fees you’re paying for his performance. Imagine being complete, utterly, irretrievably disgusted.

Ironically, it seems, BMI was founded as a less odious alternative to ASCAP, and, again ironically, pioneered fees based on a sampling of actual live performances. Today, they’re no better than the rest of them. My contract doesn’t let me quit BMI except during a window that occurs every two years (and yes, I’m told by a reliable lawyer that it’s enforceable); I don’t get reimbursed for my live performances; I can’t waive my performance fees except by tattling on the venue; and I can’t even vote to change BMI, because, although its board is elected by its members, the votes are allocated according to  – you guessed it – airplay.

So if I want to play at Somethin’s Brewin, I’m hosed until I can quit, next September. It’s not that the club is doing anything illegal – like I said, they’ve stopped doing live music – it’s just that they’re not interested in the hassle of trying to convince BMI that they’re not doing anything illegal. So we’ve lost another venue, and BMI and ASCAP and SESAC don’t collect any fees at all from that venue – and nothing is, in case they haven’t noticed, less than some sort of negotiated fee rate – and their agents don’t get any money, and the songwriters they represent don’t get any exposure there, and I’ve lost a stage that I really like – it’s just a win-win situation all around.

There’s no reason for me to belong to a PRO. None. There’s no reason for just about any of us to belong to a PRO. For the vast majority of original singer/songwriters, gig income and album and download sales will be the only dollars they ever see from their music; even if you get a bit of airplay, you’ll never see a dime from it. Had I actually thought about this, and understood my music career clearly, it would have been obvious to me – but no, I had to succumb to the lure of lucre.

Especially without a waiver for my own performances, my contract with BMI is just a boat anchor. I’m simply fodder for them – a number they can point to when they call the tiny coffeehouses to shake them down. There’s only one word for the PROs nowadays: thugs. And I’m ashamed to have them represent me.

So lemme tell you why we’re here.

May 7th, 2010

So I’m an acoustic performer in Boston, Massachusetts. I’m pretty damn good, frankly. And several years ago, I hired a pair of performance coaches – yes, you can hire performance coaches – named David Fishken and Buffie Groves, and it was a splendid use of my money, because I learned immense numbers of things from them, and because David said, “Sam” – he said – “you should make the most of your talents. Write a newsletter.”

And so “Sam Bayer’s Low Notes” was born. And I yammered on charmingly about all sorts of things – my songs, my view of life, the nature of art in America, etc. And life was good.

Except that one day, I wrote a column called “Dan Blakeslee Is Better Than Me”, in which I talked about, well, why I thought Dan Blakeslee was better than me. Don’t ask me why I thought this was a good idea, but I wasn’t thinking too clearly, because one of my fans wrote me and said, pretty bluntly, “Um, I didn’t subscribe to this newsletter to hear about Dan Blakeslee. I want to hear about you.”

Here’s what I forgot: my newsletter, like every moment I spend in a club where I’m going to be on stage, is a performance. I don’t get to be me – I get to be “Sam Bayer”, whoever that person is, the gracious, expansive guy who gets on stage with his percussionist and charms and delights the crowd with pithy observations and high-energy, funny acoustic music, the guy who smiles and shakes your hand and thanks you for coming. Yes, I’m “Sam Bayer”, and I mean it all, every word of it – but it’s exhausting to me.

Me, well, I’m shy and misanthropic and desperate for company and oh, so obsessively introspective about virtually every moment I’m on stage. I worry about my voice, my patter, my timing, whether anyone’s listening – I love it, but it’s nerve-wracking. And I can tell you this, my fellow sausage-makers – but the audience really doesn’t care.

So I promised my loyal readers that I’d stop. No more Low Notes about how sausage is made. But I still need that outlet. So welcome to Inside Baseball.