in which the naked chimp is unmasked, his machines debugged, and his bugbears debunked

Monday, March 26, 2007

Roots Music Festival (singer/songwriter/strategist)

People become music makers for lots of reasons. For some, I’m convinced it’s the posture they like – they dream of an image of themselves rocking out on stage, mic or guitar in hand, faced by a teeming horde of screaming teens, and that’s enough to drive them to be their own hero. For others, it’s all about the equipment: playing music just gives you an excuse to horde, cherish and discuss obscure pedals, drum machines and so forth, which you then get to ‘spot’ in your favourite records. The whole of techno is just that, for some people.

Some people even love music for its own sake (shocking, isn’t it). But they’re always the minority, and usually not musicians. Seriously, hang out with fangirls, blog geeks, radio DJs or maniacal collectors (think John Peel) and you will know the difference. But although these strange people do exist, they’re a relative minority compared to those who are into air guitar and rare guitar. But to these two neck strokers, and the music lovers, I’d like to add a fourth category, for whom it’s not a matter of fretting, getting or feeling the groove. A group of people for whom, I guess you can say, it’s all about the skin flute.

That’s right kids, no pussyfooting. For some people, music is a mating strategy. Musical means, carnal ends, no accident. Lead singers, superstar DJs (if there are any left) – these are all just ways for ugly, undomesticated clap-toting ego-maniacs to sink the pink under the cover of rhythm and melody. But yank off the blanket, and the truth is laid bare. Basically, the ‘lead singer’ thing is a boomer hangover, and the DJ myth was always mostly that. The former’s rockist golden age expired with the likes of Jim Morrison’s leather pants and Michael Hutchence’s belt. And being a DJ – well, it’s more about the drink cards really, isn’t it? Does anybody really want to see your record collection? Undoubtedly yes, but not the kind of people who want to see the dilznitch. It’s not a sexy obsession, really. No, if music is a mating strategy, then its smoothest user is that other son of sin, the singer/songwriter.

S/Ss are canny, cunning muthas, and their mating strategy is subtle and mind-bogglingly effective. For starters, that’s because your average S/S presents a face to his/her audience that says, ‘I’m all about the lyrics man, and the pain of love.’ Their whole persona positions them as a person uniquely sensitive to the middle parts of fortune, in touch with some kind of heart-stopping, cosmic tide of romance. ‘Listen to me and you’ll hear peals of bells and a chorus of angels, I’ll sweep you away.’ Don’t let ‘em fool you. All that sighing, all that tinkling in your ear, that’s their ding-a-ling, you ning-nong.

I live next door to one of these guys, and I know how he operates ¬¬– I live with the consequences of thin walls and sharp ears. A tradesman by day, Mr S/S returns home of an afternoon, gulps the heads of a few glasses of Coopers, then sits down with his guitar and sharpens his licks. Strangely, I never hear him preparing food… But then around eight, he leaves the house, and presumably goes out to gig and jam around the northern suburbs. A few hours later (by the time I’m done staring at the flashing LEDs on my cherished machine), Mr S/S returns home – but never alone. Sitting in the passenger seat of the ute that pulls into the drive, you see her: a doe eyed, sandal-wearing undergrad dreamboat who dresses like the café-tanned offspring of Erykah Badu and Ani di Franco – hey, I’m sorry if it’s your sister. For her, a romance that started with Ben Harper or Jack’s Johnson at the Byron Bay Blues and Roots Festival is about to continue, only this time without BB and his blues.

You know it’s on when you smell the spliff smoke and the nag champa. Then the guitar comes out: a few chords, a shy song… then giggles, swiftly degenerating into a chorus of wailing, and much gnashing of teets. It works, every time. This dude has got his shit locked down, seriously. I reckon he jams about three times a week. There’s not a DJ, a plank-spanking axe-grinder or a drummer (hah!) on earth who’s got a mating strategy as sorted as this one.

But it gets better, because every single one of his ‘victims’, they’ll never grudge him his irregular tunings. In fact, they’ll be back there at the Wesley Ann the very next week, all of them, listening with rapt attention – cos they all think those heart-rending, sensitive words about the love that just ‘didn’t work out’, they all think it’s about them. Roberta Flack’s ‘Killing me Softy’ may well be the perfect song to describe this. But what Roberta didn’t realise was that she was sitting in the audience with twelve others who’d experienced the same practiced stabbing.

And here’s where it’s foolproof for Mr S/S, too, because for him, every lady he uses and loses that he sees in the audience, they just remind him of him, of his prowess, the power of his music to woo, and the tragedy of all those beautiful romances he had to sacrifice at the altar of his genius. The least he can do, for all those who he boofed and piffed, is to immortalise them in song. So you see? It goes on, forever. Listen to any of these guys, or witness the undead fitness of either Buckley to reduce grown women to a puddle of goo (lest we forget, Jeff Buckley’s ‘Grace’, the ‘textbook’ of this strategy, was number two on JJJs ‘Albums of All Time’).

But the thing that really ties a bow on all this is the net effect: a whole audience of people, nay, a whole scene, all convinced they’re drawn together by the love of the music, all listening to hear the failures of their love lives, which are (in fact) nothing to do with them, and everything to do with the S/S’s narcissistic reflection upon himself. It’s a mating strategy that’s not only devastatingly effective, it hides its true nature behind the veil of music, and then thrives through what it hides, generating a festival’s worth of sighs. No wonder the S/S’s grand ‘second theme’ is injustice, that’s the punchline. But shh, the singer’s about to strum. So it all (bl)ends perfectly. The S/S gets the girls, the audience gets to feel good about having been used, and we can all pretend we’re there to listen to music. A perfect roots festival, indeed.

© Peter Chambers 2007

Monday, March 19, 2007

[S]i[gh] Robot (Do humanoids dream of electric peepz?)

‘The future’ has proven itself to be a junkyard, littered with dead-ends and unfulfilled promises. Jetpacks, hovercars, salvation and/or destruction by alien intelligence (who, it turns out, couldn’t give a rats about us apes) – even those air skateboards from Back to the Future II. As it turns out, time travel is implausible, and space is actually cold, boring, and nausea-inducingly vast.. And am I the only one who considers NASA a wasteful extravagance? The coolest thing that ever happened in the space program was that nappy-wearing psychpath astronaut Lisa Nowak. Who cares if whitey’s on the moon, really? So the future’s over-rated, and space is boring, sure. But more than those two, the most striking imaginative cul-de-sac, the grandest ‘battery failure’ of the past’s futures, has been the death of the robot imagination.

In a recent ‘Slices’ DVD interview, Underground Resistance’s Mike Banks talked movingly about the impact of hearing Kraftwerk as a kid: “When we were kids and we listened to Kraftwerk, we thought they was robots. We figured ‘Hey man, this is some cool shit’ and the guys was robots. We never thought ‘black Kraftwerk’ or ‘white Kraftwerk’ – it was just ‘Kraftwerk’. And the shit was funky and it permaeated the inner city.” It’s cute imagining ‘lil Mike dreaming of robots, but boyish chuckles aside, what’s so touching about the comment is the bitter, metallic taste it leaves in my all too human mouth. Fact is, we gave up dreaming of a future filled with electro-hearted robots in the mid ‘80s.

Tokyo was always the place to go and dream of robots – this is the city, after all, that created Astro Boy. And just like ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ was set in the improbable recent past of six years ago (a year marked by a lot of things, but not by jealous, vengeful robots named Hal 9000), so Astro himself was meant to have been born in 2003, in Takadanobaba, of all places. Takadanobaba might sound like the name of an ‘end of level’ boss to be defeated in a Nintendo game, but it’s actually a faded, glum, crowded inner-city Tokyo area between the glowing, glistening metropolii of Shinjuku and Ikebukuro – a place on the tracks between two cities and that’s fallen into the cracks between two mutating, sprawling neon, concrete and silicon realities of the future. They’re realities that are both bleak and entertaining, but whilst the ATMs and ticketing machines do talk to you in a friendly way (more than the locals, at any rate), there are no robots. And especially three clicks down in ‘Baba. It’s the last place you’d expect to see robots created. Middle-aged hookers, undergraduates and obnoxious beer-toting English teachers sure, but not robots. That’s just the happo-shu talking.

But Astro, with his 100,000 horsepower, his jetboot legs and his all-powerful arse-mounted lasers, does survive in Takadanobaba, as a ghostly presence whose spectre haunts the walls of the underpass on murals, and in the jingle, programmed to the melody of the theme tune, that greets the arrival and departure of the trains running north-south between Shinjuku and Ikebukuro. On a cold, rainy Saturday night, between the vomited ramen and backlit signs advertising Irish theme pubs and massage parlours, it’s a forlorn melody. But with your eyes closed and your headphones on, even the most jaded robot-loving commuter could still lose themselves in Tezuka Osamu’s visionary comics, or the high-tech soul of UR, dreaming of Kraftwerk dreaming of robots. Even in ‘Baba. Until the fateful day I saw Kraftwerk’s robots come alive in Tokyo. That was the day my own robot imagination came to dust.

I caught a monorail over Tokyo Bay, to an island reclaimed for the future (from garbage). We went past Sega’s ‘Joypolis’, and saw a father and daughter being jiggled in a simulated ride, wearing ‘VR’ goggles and huge, sharp-toothed smiles. The gig started on time, and Kraftwerk delivered a hyperefficient summary of their greatness, without smiles or interruptions. All the classics, accompanied by an integrated visual presentation, played beautifully – the whole show slickened by the streamlining of digital technology, delivered on three laptops (revealing an imaginative superhighway that has led somewhere). But then, as the climax of the stage show, Kraftwerk unveiled their robots. What were they? Torsos, with jerky metal arms and showroom dummy heads styled after the faces of the group’s present lineup. It was kitsch, it was cute, it was gutting. It did unto my robot dreams ‘Rockin AB’ from the Simpsons’ ‘Duff Gardens’ episode did for hip-hop, democracy and alcohol marketing, all in one break-down. It crushed them, like an empty can.

A robot future was a better future – Mad Mike talks in the same interview about how Kraftwerk came and ‘hi-teched’ the mindset of inner-city Detroit youth, giving the first-wave of techno innovators a dream of a brighter world. But the robots, and their future, never came – Detroit, Takadonobaba – the revolution never happened, then it returned as a cute setpiece in the middle of an erstwhile junkspace. No wonder techno floundered – they were no longer able to dream. Back to you, Mike: “We need some hi-tech motherfuckers to come through. Until that, kiss my ass.”

Originally published in Inpress, March '07
© Peter Chambers 2007

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Loving Desiré… or the Marquis du Sadé?! (from The Loneliest Pillow to Use Less Objects)

Okay, let’s start with a three diva mix: get Grace Jones ‘Pull up to the Bumper, Eurythmics ‘Sweet Dreams’ and Sadé’s ‘Smooth Operator’. Alright, ready? Mix… ignore the clashes, that’s natural. They’re just getting to know each other. Okay, likee?

I want you to create this ungodly union of chanteuses, because I want you to think about desire. No, not Desiré – she’s been laid up with a cracked pipe. I’m talking ‘bout desire, fool. Let’s start with Grace Jones’ ‘Pull up to the Bumper’, by way of laying out the first principle: if you’re gonna want something, it has to be within range. Does anybody want the moon? You can try, but you’re not going to be able to use it, have it or be it. But we’ll get to that. Point is, (s)he has to be in firing range if (s)he’s gonna pull your trigger, dig? You have to be able to pull up to the bumper, baby, if you’re gonna drive it in between. In the same way, how much does seeing a beer in a hand, a cigarette in a movie or a hand in a glove make you want to ‘get all up in that’? Isn’t that what’s so dangerous about eBay, that it brings things that would otherwise be unobtainably ‘far’ (even if they’re in the garage next door) into the minimum desireable distance?

But the thing about all these triggers is, they fool you. There’s real wisdom in that Tiga song… seriously. ‘I know, you’re gonna want me/but when you want me/it might be, a different story.’ It’s true. You see your object, and suddenly you think you want it. See a beer, want a beer. No problem. But no. In most cases you don’t want ‘the beer’ you just want satisfaction (and like Mick Jagger said…) And the closer you get to enjoying your object, the less you care about it – does the man who is already inches into his melon give two hoots about the bruised feelings of the fruit? Likewise, we see smoke, we think we want smoke, but the closer we get (and once we get lit), we don't want smoke, we want the satisfaction we get from it. We want nicotine. You can take this thought for a walk in all sorts of disturbing directions…

So much for things you want to use. Yeah, okay, there are things you want to ‘have’. Nobody wants to ‘use’ a painting or a rug. Ever heard of a rug user? That’s ‘cos only losers use rugs. Point is, some things you mostly own. For inanimate objects, this is usually unproblematic – neither a knife nor dildo cares whether you stick them on your mantelpiece or into your neighbour. So having or owning ‘things’ isn’t a problem. But people are different – and this is where it gets tricky. We use each other as objects, but we expect to be taken as, well, people – subjects. You might just ‘use’ your boyfriend, but he wants you ‘be’ with him. Or ‘have’ sex ‘with’ him (as opposed to just do it to him). The Spice Girls ‘Wannabe’ is a whole pop song dedicated to this fundamental confusion. They sing ‘If you wanna be my lover’, but in actual fact, what they want (what they really, really want) is to ‘Huh, I wanna huh’, ie, use their lover. If the usin’ is sweet, then, and only then can we talk about having their lover. First the dildo, then the dinner date, then you can share your wad, and maybe even bare your soul.

In some intimacies, this object to object relationship is a no brainer boner – beat sex is the quintessential example. But even then, talk to a withered old queen whose wild yesterdays have given way to teary moments and solitary crying jags while listening to Frankie’s ‘Power of Love’ and you’ll see – you might have been young and thought you just wanted to use ‘em, but you found out, all too late, that you wanted to have ‘em. Nothing’s lonelier than a pillow you have to bite all on your own. So what’s to be done about this… ?

The moment you step foot in any bar or club, it’s a muddy thing, desiring people. You pick ‘em up to satisfy your objective needs (cue Eurythmics). ‘Some of them want to use you/ some of them want to be used by you/ some of them want to abuse you/ some of them want to be abused’ and so forth. But then they call you, and want dinner. Your object gets all icky and ‘human’ on you. One minute you’re frequenting the booty clubs, the next four years you and somebody's daughter raisin' y'all own young'n as Outkast might say. So she pumps a few out… then she pumps your best friend, and leaves you with the kids, a thank you note, all her Sadé CDs and a suspicious discharge. Smooth Operator indeed. The humpire (ex hump turned vampire) strikes back. You then discover very quickly that you thought you wanted to use her (you wanna Huh, you wanna Huh), but actually, you needed to have her. She thought she wanted to have you, but actually she just wanted to use you. And now, there are these little things called kids, who in a very real way are you…. dear, oh dear.

What’s the solution? Well, you can just do as Pulp Fiction’s Vincent Vega advised: ‘Go home, jerk off, and forget all about it.’ In this way, you’re being, using and having yourself in one convenient flick of the wrist. When you think about it, it’s one of the only possible ways of having an intimate human relationship with very little chance for misunderstanding or objectification – but then again… what if you end up thinking it’s more than just a little romancing the bone? Who are you going to blame? What if it’s crap? What if you’re horny… and you won’t put out? The breakup could be Bobbitlike in its horrors. Hmm, maybe there is no solution. So just remember kids, remember. Keep your eyes open, and your ears. Listen very carefully to her Sadé records, before you end up owning them, along with the harpie’s herpes and little baby Grace. And if you end up hearing ‘to have and to hold’ when all you wanted was ‘to use and to lose’, don’t let me say I told you so. Wise man once say: those who go out planning to use objects may all to easily become a used object themselves.

Originally published in Inpress, March '07
© Peter Chambers 2007

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Jeff Mills Live at the Liquid Room (1995) Screenings: Mon-Sat 2:30pm (babes in arms); 5:30pm; 7:30pm ; 9:30pm (Sat only). No free list.

One night in Paris I saw a very strange thing. A super kooky horror show, performed by enthusiastic undergrads in underwear. No, it wasn’t some blood orgy of the damned being performed at midnight in the Jardin du Luxembourg (that happened later, after the absinthe kicked in). No, this was a real horror show, The Rocky Horror Show: screened in English, with French subtitles, and ‘performed’ in time-honoured fashion by the students. It actually went beyond causing bawdy snorts to provide snickers that really satisfied.

Anyone who’s been to a similar performance of Rocky ‘Orror or the Blues Brothers (anywhere in the world) would know that it’s an experience utterly unlike watching a ‘normal’ film. At a conventional screening, the majority of viewers are seeing the action unfold for the first time, and the rest can just bloody well keep their fool mouths shut. But the pleasure of watching these cult films, like that of The Young Ones or Monty Python’s Life of Brian, is sharing the recognition through repetition, of knowing *exactly* what’s coming up and being able to quote whole scenes in character: ‘No ma’am, we’re musicians’; ‘We know you’ve got a telly, we detected it!’; ‘I’m Brian and so’s my wife!’ And so on. It’s all about the state of anticip… pation.

Film is full of theses ‘traditions’ – so why haven’t we ever extended this idea to the clubs? Imagine going to hear Jeff Mills Live at the Liquid Room performed so that it was neither live nor at the Liquid Room, but in a small auditorium with a group of people drawn to the event because they, like you, love and cherish these and other classic recordings. We could sell overpriced glowsticks, talc and coke in the foyer. You could even have a complete dance routine worked out in advance. As a matter of fact, I always harboured the desire to do a dance like Public Enemy’s S1-Ws in time with Jeff’s classic mix. This, finally, would give me the opportunity to bust it out. Hmm…

Prog-heads could do listening parties for Dark Side of the Moon, and the Flaming Lips’ four disc opus Zaireeka apparently has to be heard in this way, as any combination of each of its four discs played simultaneously reveals a ‘new’ album. But imagine a club that, like a cult cinema, did nothing but offer listen-ins of classic mixes. Unlike a ‘normal’ nightclub, you’d know exactly what was coming up. No more disappointing internationals past their prime, no more trainwrecks – all killer, no filler. And none of you ‘89ers can claim it ain’t what it used to be. The power of surprise and the sense of an epic unfolding is gone, sure, but in its place is the power of anticipation. That, and a complete displacement of the Ego behind the decks. It’d just be you, your mates, and the music that brought you together in the first place.

This has been going on unofficially for years – at house parties, in cars, among sofa surfers on many a stupefied Sunday. So why not make it official? Before the advent of film, plays and variety shows were the most popular form of audio-visual stimulation (outside the boudoir) – but cinemas offered a way for people to see Errol Flynn’s tacklebox without having to squint, or even lose an eye. In light of the availability of all the necessary technology and a presumed audience, we have to seriously wonder why we have failed to make the parallel invention for music.

Originally published in Inpress, February '07
© Peter Chambers 2007

The Author

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PC is an animal of the antipodes believed to be related to a gibbon.