Saturday, October 13, 2007

Merry go, merry go, merry-go-round

Just watched Derailroaded, a 2005 documentary about Larry "Wild Man" Fischer. I'd never heard of the movie until the Sundance Channel aired it a few months ago, though I was vaguely familiar with Fischer, mainly from his association with Frank Zappa (a musician I have never really seen the appeal of, no matter how much I feel I should) back in the late 1960s. As the film reveals, they had a pretty major falling out the night Larry threw a bottle that landed very near the head of young Moon Unit Zappa, which almost ended the life of the future "Valley Girl" singer.

All the movers and shakers of the "outsider music" scene make appearances, with the curatorial/sane perspective provided by Irwin Chusid, Dr. Demento, Barnes & Barnes (I had completely forgotten that my childhood surrogate Billy Mumy was half of the "Fish Heads" duo), Mark Mothersbaugh of Devo, and Weird Al Yankovic, while there are also brief glimpses of Daniel Johnston and Wesley Willis. (No word from the Legendary Stardust Cowboy.)

There's no way to resist comparing the film and its subject to The Devil and Daniel Johnston, which I wrote about here. Both depict men suffering with mental illness and obsessed with pop music who are embraced--some would say exploited--by "real" hipster musicians who help them release albums and send them on a bumpy road to cult stardom before their charm wears off and they become extremely difficult to deal with. Both men veer from moments of club-circuit notoriety to periods of near-total breakdown. You're never quite sure whether to laugh at or cry over what you see onscreen (well, sometimes it's easy to know), and you're forced to think about the huge gulf between observing these eccentric people from afar and actually having them in your life, calling you several times through the night every day for seven weeks until you have to change your phone number. There's even a Brian Wilson-inspired moment in each film; in Derailroaded, it's Fischer's awkward, moving cover of "In My Room," a song whose dark subtext he clearly understands. By coincidence--or one of Larry's wild conspiracies--both films came out in 2005, so it's hard to say one is ripping off the other. They're more like variations on the same theme.

I feel uncomfortable ranking them, but I must say that Devil strikes me as the stronger film, just as there seems to be more depth to Johnston's music and visual art than Fischer's. (On the other hand, the latter's "Merry-go-round" song is pretty damn catchy.) Both are worth your time, if you're interested in issues of creativity and mental illness, or in the music industry's ability to make a spectacle out of pretty much anything, no matter how tempting it might be to look away.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

The Rainbow Connection

Try to forget, whydoncha, that it has been a mere 10 months since my last post here. Believe it or not, I've been trying all spring and summer to find some appropriate occasion to relaunch this blog, reasoning that once I start this thing up again, it will be that much easier to return to it, and while there have been plenty of possibilities--concerts, album purchases, holidays, going-out-of-business sales, and so on--none of them have managed to stick. So I'm choosing The Day After the Release of the Latest Radiohead Album. Sure, a lesser blogger might adopt something as pedestrian as the actual release date, and plenty of 'em did, but you expect more from me by now, and I accept the challenge. Now that everyone else has moved on to something else, I am here to weigh in on this whole crazy phenomenon:

1. First and foremost, I really like the album, based on two and three-quarters listens. I like it a lot.
2. I would be excited about a new Radiohead album even if it were just coming out as a plain old CD in the plain old way. When Hail to the Thief came out, I was right there at my favorite store at midnight, a 45-year-old in a sea of 20somethings.
3. Even so, this whole pay-what-you-want approach is just pretty damn brilliant. I love the questions it raises about art and commerce, for starters. A performance group I am part of strives to provoke similar discussions when we charge "your hourly wage" for our shows--but then we are reaching about 30 people a night, not several million. This is one case where the bigger the canvas, the more interesting the artwork.
4. A friend of mine who is not a Radiohead fan but does know a thing or two about the music industry views the pay-what-you-want experiment as purely a marketing gimmick that has nothing to do with art. I beg to differ: it may well be a publicity stunt (and an effective one at that), but it also works as a conceptual art piece, and is wholly of a piece with the band's M.O., not only in terms of business (I am reminded of the time they toured with their own big-top tent as a portable venue rather than deal with traditional arenas), but also the thematic content of their music (lotsa lyrics about the fate of the individual in a soulless corporatized environment; recurring juxtaposition of samples and electronic beats/noises with Thom Yorke's achingly human voice).
5. Another friend and I found it amusing that neither of us knew the titles of any of the songs yet, so we had to say things like, "I like track 4 a lot" and "Yeah, tracks 1 and 2 are so bombastic that track 3 really comes as a change of pace."
6. Lots of folks who don't really follow music have been hearing about this album via tech podcasts, business publications, news stories, and the like. I've been wondering what the hell they're going to make of such weird noise when they seek it out.
7. To all those netnerds who downloaded the album for free, then bitched about the low bitrate: this is how you say thanks when somebody gives you a present?
8. Then there's the snarkier-than-thou attitude that sneers at the whole idea of everybody listening to the album and then posting "insta-reviews" to their blogs, but I kinda like that part. As a guy with zero interest in Harry Potter, I've been missing out on the chance to experience the same pop culture artifact at the exact same time as everybody else. (I've always been intrigued by stories about the day that Sgt. Pepper came out and was played on a whole bunch of radio stations around the world in its entirety.) And I'm digging the notion that everybody--professional critics, self-appointed critics, megafans, casual listeners--was on a level playing field on Day One.
9. Fun bonus feature: Check out this handy track-by-track collection of videos documenting concert performances of the new songs.
10. Did I mention I like the album a lot?

OK, now that I've broken my silence, I'll do my best to get back into the virtual swing of things. Plenty to say, in due time, about what I've been up to when I haven't been up to blogging here, what I'm listening to, and all that jazz. For now, digging that album.