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

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