SXSW: Serendipity, Baby

March 21st, 2011

cap.jpgThe best things that happened at SXSW were the least-expected.

Like bumping into then recruiting a former colleague to join me at a live taping Marc Maron’s hilarious “WTF” podcast (where he called the seminal music fest, “The Hipster Alamo”).

Or wandering into the premiere of “Outside Industry: The Story Of SXSW,” a fantastic documentary that ably and entertainingly tracked the festival from its ragtag origins to its super-sponsored present.

Or getting woefully lost running around Town Lake only to blunder onto I-35, then up and around the State Capital.

The best, though, was my random but validating conversation with Duff McKagan.

I was in the Austin Convention Center’s Panelist Green Room with VH1 News Supervising Producer Warren Cohen, Rolling Stone’s Deputy Editor Nate Brackett, and Pitchfork Editor-In-Chief Scott Plagenhoef, when the former Guns ‘N Roses guitarist sauntered in.

I tried to talk casually with Scott as McKagan meandered over to our table, asked if he could sit down, then introduced himself.

He was rail-thin, wearing skinny jeans, a white t-shirt, and silver chains alongside his SX badge. When he found out about our panel’s subject (“Music News: Fresh, All-You-Can-Eat, Or Re-Heated” or what I came to call jokingly “Corporate Music News Still Sucks”), he became visibly animated.

“I’ve been writing a column for The Seattle Weekly and, man, nobody responds to the print edition. But The Internet, wow!”

He then proceeded to tell us about how he stopped anonymous commenter bullying by wading into the conversation himself. Web 2.0! As we all walked off to our respective panels, he said, “Yunno, what you guys do is really work!”

Scott and I laughed all the way to our panel. Validation!

In the end, as I sat at the Austin airport next to Strokes front man Julian Casablancas (who described his previous night’s performance as “sensory overload”) waiting for my oft-delayed flight, I wasn’t sure what to make of any of it, quite.

Except that a whole lot of people really, really love music. Which is good enough for me.

* * *

My SXSW By The Numbers

72 Hours Spent
19 Miles Run
16 Beers (5 Lone Star, 5 Red Stripe, 3 Shiner Bock)
9 Gatorade (12 oz)
7 Odwalla Complete Protein Bar
6 Performances (Yuck, Odd Future, Sleigh Bells, 2 Door Cinema Club, Wiz Khalifa, Foo Fighters)
5 Panels (Corporate Music News, 360 Music Video, Music In The Cloud, Welcome To The Music Business, The Future Of Music)
3 Elevator Pitches (Gowalla, Cooliris, exfm)
2 Kellog’s Breakfast Bar (Blueberry)
1 Documentary (“Outside Industry: The Story Of SXSW”)
1 Podcast Taping (Marc Maron’s WTF)

Neil Diamond’s Sequin-Spangled America

March 14th, 2011

neil.jpgI was way out on the edge of The Bronx when the ominous sound of cellos rose in my headphones.

The New York City skyline was like Oz in the razor-wire distance, miles beyond the massive, concrete Bruckner Expressway, past fields of industrial oil storage tanks, rows of rusted railroad tracks and blocks and blocks of empty warehouses. The street was salt-bleached, windswept, and empty, save a lone security guard on smoke break. Bowery Bay shimmered in the pale, late-winter sun.

A church bell peeled three times as the strings swept upwards and held a measure, finally yielding to the steady gallop of a classic rock set up: guitar (nothing but downstroke), bass (steady on the root), and drums (all toms, no snare).

“Far! We’ve been travelling far,” that distinct outer borough baritone bellowed in my ear. “Without a home, but not without a star.”

“America” is neither Neil Diamond’s finest recording nor best song. Despite authentically heartfelt platitudes of “Solitary Man,” “Hello Again,” and “Love On The Rocks,” though, it may be his most-personal and most-universal all at once. It’s certainly his most-rousing.

“We huddle close,” this second-generation, 20th Century Man sings in ernest baritone. “Hang on to a dream.”

The 70-year-old singer, songwriter, actor, producer, and King of All Sequins will be welcomes into The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame at tonight’s The 26th Annual Induction Ceremony, and for good reason; he is as much a crucial swatch of fabric in the Great American Quilt as he is wrapped up in it. What’s more, he is the quintessential songwriter, who — with deep hooks, memorable melody and introspective yet universal lyrics — sings of what rock writer David Wild describes as “a deep sense of isolation and an equal desire for connection.” What could be more American?

Neil Leslie Diamond’s parents, Akeeba and Rose, were descended from Russian and Polish immigrants. His father was a dry-goods merchant in Brooklyn. Diamond took up guitar after seeing Pete Seeger perform at summer camp he was attending as a teenager. He graduated from Abraham Lincoln High School, and enrolled at NYU. A chance encounter with the Brill Building songwriting team of Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich led to a contract with Bang Records. In 1966 he recorded his first album, featuring hit singles such as “Solitary Man” and “Cherry, Cherry.” Shortly thereafter The Monkees recorded several of his songs, including the 1967 megahit, “I’m a Believer.”

In his forty plus year career, Diamond has released thirty lps (not including compilations or live albums, most notably his seminal “Hot August Night”), and delivered 37 top forty hits. Despite selling some 115 million records sold worldwide — including 48 million of which in the U.S. where he is the third most successful Adult Contemporary artist ever behind only Barbra Streisand and Elton John — Diamond is typically thought of as uncool, easy-listening, elevator music. True, his signature hip-shaking, sequin-laden swoon fests haven’t helped. Nor, for that matter, did his string of duets with Streisand.

Oddly enough, though, that’s when I met him. His late-seventies LPs, “You Don’t Bring Me Flowers” and “September Morn,” were in heavy rotation on my parent’ faux-wood Magnavox hi-fi system. Diamond’s five-times platinum “The Jazz Singer” was one of just a few headphone escapes as the sturm und drang of my parent’s divorce swirled around me, . Those swollen string sections, buoyant melodies and dramatic, emphatic growls were welcome relief. Years later, well prior to becoming a New Yorker myself, my mother dragged me to see him at Madison Square Garden. I was a teenager, so complained the whole time. But more than just singing along under my breath, I wanted to be him there in the center, there in those sequins, splashed in the spotlight.

Still, pop culture is relentless. It moves fast, and it moves on. And it leaves cruel simplifications in its wake. But reducing Diamond to sequins, spotlights, and “Heartlight” (his 1982 pean to “ET: The Extra Terrestrial”) misses the point. Through reinvention (“Headed for the Future”) after reinvention (“12 Songs”), and rediscovery (Urge Overkill’s “Girl You’ll Be A Woman Soon”) after rediscovery (the Red Sox’s seventh inning stretch), Diamond is, at his core, the consummate singer/songwriter. He is a man and his guitar. He is a well-worn voice. He is a traveling salvation show. He is the sound of America alone with its star-sequined dreams.

I am, I cried
I am, said I
And I am lost
And I can’t even say why

Welcome home, Neil.

* * *

This post originally appeared on Brian Ives’ No Expiration Blog.

When A Moment Changes Everything

March 6th, 2011

nyc.jpgFor weeks now, I’ve been listening to David Gray’s “When A Moment Changes Everything” on near-repeat fully expecting to get hit by a bus, pushed in front of a subway, or catch a stray bullet at any instant.

It’s a simple, hooky, perfectly David Gray kinda’ song with a propellant beat, ascending melody, and the sort of broadly opaque lyrics that invite projection.

“The stolen glances broken threads,” he sings. “The vision looming in our heads. The years spent running parallel to everything that might have been.”

It’s just uptempo enough for a good run or (given my demographic) pre-work psych-up, especially with its drone-like coda, “C’mon, c’mon, c’mon, c’mon, c’mon, c’mon” both passing and pushing the increments on second hand.

Of course, nothing major has happened in the intervening weeks — nothing perceptible, anyway. The impossibility of measuring cause/affect is, of course, that everything is causal.

I was nearly six miles into my weekly long run Saturday, deep into The Bronx east of the Bruckner Expressway just a few blocks from the bay. I’d wanted to snap some evidence of this unknown, industrial New York for miles, but the hulking oil depots and fort-like recycling centers were well-festooned with signage prohibiting photography. Pushing further north still, I spotted a bridge over the railroad tracks, and slowed to debate its crossing; I could scarcely see across it, and wasn’t sure where it led.

I pushed across, and began descending a long, salt-bleached avenue towards a narrow sliver of chain-linked bay front with a glistening view of Riker’s Island. As I drew closer, I made out a lone security guard pacing in front of a refinery gate, dashing my hopes to snap a photo and generally ratcheting up my paranoia. I turned down my iPod, waved, and said hi.

“Lemme axe you something,” he said in his finest Bronx brogue. “How long you been running?”

“Today?” I asked. “Or ever?”

“When’d ya’ start?” he followed up.

The guy was short and round and rabidly consuming his cigarette. I grew self-conscious of my black tights.

“Well, I’m almost forty,” I said (jumping the gun six months, but trying it on for size). “I imagine I’ve been running for fifteen years or so… since I was twenty-five.”

“Man,” he said looking down at his cigarette, “I’ve been tryin’ to quit these things for years.”

“Oh yeah,” I said. “I did both for a while.”

“Yunno, I used to drink and drug but kicked that. Now I been thinkin’ I should start runnin’ maybe help get off these things.”

We talked a while, me stretching, him pacing. I told him that I remembered feeling like I had an anvil on my chest back when I smoked, and how that had lifted, and then encouraged him to sign up for a short, local race six months out and set a goal. The entire conversation was under two minutes. I never broke a sweat. And I never snapped a photo.

But as I jogged back up towards that bridge, the song came on, and I thought of something Mister Rogers always said: “There is something of yourself that you leave at every meeting with another person.”

Who knows what moment changes everything, or anything at all. Maybe we can’t ever know. But what if they all do, and we make choices accordingly? Then what?