Thursday, May 18, 2017

Chris Cornell and the Post-Show Letdown

Jeebus. When did this website turn into a bunch of reminiscences about dead musicians and friends? Life seems to be gunning for all of us. You'd think we're all not going to make it, in any sense.

Chris Cornell was the Real Deal. This is a guy who had a voice like a dirty Los Angeles angel, could play guitar like Ziggy, and wrote songs that managed to be both hooky, weird, and heavy. Even Rush couldn't manage all that.

Cornell's band Soundgarden went from indie darlings to major-label successes. Cornell's good looks gave the band the final thing they were missing, allowing them to roll on with the rest of the Grunge Class of The Early 90s: Nirvana (singer Kurt Cobain, dead), Alice In Chains (singer Layne Staley, dead), Mother Love Bone (singer Andrew Wood, dead), and Stone Temple Pilots (singer Scott Weiland, dead). PS Most of them are dead from drugs and/or complications from same. Don't do drugs.

But like pretty much every act that manages to "make it" to the big time, the big time eventually runs out on you. You can dodge the Smack Reaper, but you can't dodge the fickle Fan Reaper.

One day your new records stop selling. Eventually your old ones stop selling, too. Your band breaks up. Maybe you go solo. If/when that doesn't work, maybe you try to start a new band. To prove that it wasn't a fluke, or that you've still got it, or just because you're bored and have no idea what else to do with your life.

Then the entire genre you work in stops being cool. The kids are all listening to some new shit you don't understand. Maybe you try to update your sound with a hot producer. This almost never works, but again, what are you going to do? This is your career. You have people to take care of.

Maybe you saved enough money that you can just retire early and wait until the inevitable happens, and 20 years after you were first big, the Thing You Do starts being popular again. You get the band back together. You hit the road and play your old songs to old fans.

And I tell you what, it feels really, really good at first. When you get back on stage and start ripping through the hits, you remember how good it can be. There are still some hot people out there in the audience, and they seem reasonably interested in hearing a new song or two. Everybody's excited. YOU'RE BACK, BABY.

But after every show comes the Big Letdown.

It's well-known among performers. Being on stage is like a drug, and the comedown is terrible. It's depressing, hollowing, dark. Part of why bands string out long tours is to push off that comedown as much as possible. Sooner or later the show ends, or the tour ends, or both.

After the show, you're back in your hotel room, sweaty and tired and alone. Once you're at a certain age, you're almost certainly too smart, too married, or too scared to get tangled up with groupies. You just want some food and maybe a drink and a good night's sleep.

So you're there in your hotel room, by yourself. Maybe you look in the mirror and notice your thinning, graying hair. Or wrinkled skin. Or your paunch, which just don't seem to be going away no matter how much cardio you do or how few carbs you do. You wonder if your fans notice, too.

Your back hurts. You wonder if you're going to make another record, and if the best you can hope for is that people say it is "better than they expected" it to be.

That's all on top of whatever other damage you're carrying around by then, whether it's bad tattoos or bad memories or a bad childhood or bad relationships or all of the above.

Most people don't become musicians and artists because they're well-adjusted folk with stable lives and mental well-being. They do it because they're messed up in one or more ways, and making the art and finding validation in crowds of strangers is how they get by, if not get paid.

I can't say for sure why Chris Cornell took his own life. Or why my friend Gary did. Or Michael Hutchence. Or Michael Jackson. Or (arguably) Prince. Or any number of other people and musicians and artists you've never even heard of.

But I can imagine some scenarios, and I may have had a few long nights of staring into that black mirror myself, hoping that something would change in me or that someone would change me. And realizing it just wasn't going to happen.

The Show Must Go On. Until one day it just can't.

Thank you for the music, Chris. I miss you already.


Soundgarden's best qualities are all on display in "Fell On Black Days", perhaps my favorite song by them, and sadly prescient. And by the way, this is a live in-studio performance, not a recording. Hear how great Chris was:

Whatsoever I've feared has come to life
Whatsoever I've fought off became my life
Just when everyday seemed to greet me with a smile
Sunspots have faded and now I'm doing time
Now I'm doing time
'Cause I fell on black days
I fell on black days

Whomsoever I've cured, I've sickened now
And whomsoever I've cradled, I've put you down
I'm a search light soul they say
But I can't see it in the night

I'm only faking when I get it right

'Cause I fell on black days
I fell on black days

How would I know
That this could be my fate?

So what you wanted to see good
Has made you blind
And what you wanted to be yours
Has made it mine

Don't you lock up something
That you wanted to see fly
Hands are for shaking
No, not tying, no, not tying

I sure don't mind a change

'Cause I fell on black days

How would I know
That this could be my fate?

I sure don't mind a change

...and here's Chris doing one of his solo songs, the deep and powerful "Can't Change Me". People think this is a song about resilience. But it's really about resignation. He's NOT happy that he can't be changed. He's lamenting it. Again, solo, live, one take. There aren't too many people with these kinds of skills.

Now there's one fewer.

Monday, November 07, 2016

Freedom and Expression

Look, I don't "do" politics. I ain't the brightest tool in the deck, for one thing. Also, my manager tells me it ain't good for business.

But still. Gotta few things I gotta say.

If you haven't done your homework, you really shouldn't be voting. Just don't. Don't grab someone else's guide, or blindly vote a party ticket.

Except for one thing: Vote for Hillary. If you vote for the other guy, you're saying you don't believe in a bunch of core American things. I don't have time to go into it.

More important: Beware of any political party that wants to restrict what you can say and what words you can use, what you can do in your bedroom, how you can rock, how you can pray (or not pray), what kinds of thoughts are acceptable.

You should be free to say and do what you want. That doesn't absolve you from social responsibility and consequence (if you're an asshole, don't be surprised if people point and say "that person is an asshole!"). But the choice should be yours.

The right is pretty bad about this, particularly the wing that wants to prohibit all the good stuff in the bedroom.

But I'm old enough to remember when Al Gore's wife (and the rest of left) was crusading against music, and the fantastic supergroup coalition of Frank Zappa, Dee Snider, and John F'ing DENVER convened to fight 'em. (They...and we...lost, but what a fight it was).

There's always some group wanting to clamp down on what you're allowed to say, what's OK to say, and what's cool. Stay vigiliant, stay loud, stay free.

Stay maximum new wave.

But seriously, go vote. For Hillary.

Monday, October 31, 2016

Hits, Writs, and Rip-Offs: "Influence" and Creativity

It is said in HOLLYWOOD that "where there's a hit, there's a writ". Meaning any time you succeed, some whack job starts complaining they had the idea first, and you're ripping them off. It's an evergreen business, and if I'd been smart, I would have gone to lawsuit school and gotten rich off of that instead of learning to play guitar and the difference between square and sawtooth waves.

Bruno Mars and Mark Ronson
Mark Ronson likes to mine the past for inspiration. He's been pretty outspoken about how he listens to old records and frequently tries to emulate them. Not straight-up copying, but copying the vibe. Like all musicians, he's got a deep appreciation for, and encyclopedic knowledge of, music.

Talented dude, and his production and skills resulted in great albums for acts including the late, great Amy Winehouse and the still-great Duran Duran.

He supposedly recorded like 3 complete versions of "Uptown Funk" that didn't work before the version he did with Bruno Mars blew up and became a hit.

So of course, Mark Ronson and Bruno Mars have been sued over "Uptown Funk". Again. (This Pitchfork article sums it up well).

The meat of the argument is copyright violation. There's some bad knowledge that "8 notes in sequence" have to be lifted. This isn't exactly true. It's a lot more complicated. But basically you should be somewhat original when it comes to composition (there's absolutely NO middle ground on sound recordings, though. If you use any tiny sample of someone else's record, you are infringing).

Given all the ambiguity, and how weird music is to begin with, there are always accusations of "you're copying my song" when what is really meant is "that sort of feels like what I did". This is also aggravated by musicians constantly listening to each other and the market and trying to figure out what's popular or will be popular. (Hint: It's very similar to what already is or was popular, except when it's not).

This isn't new. Every. Single. Musician. does this: copies other musicians. Hell, every artist does this. Every human.

In fact, if big successful bands were mean and/or had more lawyers and free time, they could make a very small fortune by going around and nailing all the up-and-coming bands that are ripping them off right and left trying to hop on the bandwagon. (If they'd been smart, RHCP and Jane's Addiction could have made a mint from early-90s Los Angeles). But that's sort of punching down, and not worth it, because most musicians have nothing to sue for.

But the upward suit, of the nobody or dead star's "estate" against current hitmaker/star? All good. And this has become a big deal in the last few years. I think it's because of a few factors:

1) The continuing decline in music industry revenues means that old bands (or more frequently, their "estates") are seeking new sources of revenue, so they're going after the crummy new acts taking what little money is available.

2) Studio technology and internet knowledge have made it easier than ever to find cool stuff from the past and figure out how to superficially and near-exactly replicate it (see also: the extreme hype around the "Stranger Things" 80s synth soundtrack, Adele, etc.)

...and you can do it without sampling, which as we all know was the subject of many lawsuits both valid and stupid.

Anyhow, let's listen to a few of these. Here's the Bruno Mars/Mark Ronson jam:

Now here's "Young Girls" by Collage, from 1983:

Like Mark Ronson, I am an artist who dissects, copies, pastiches, and, uh, collages for a "living". Yeah. There are clear similarities. Clearly Ronson and Mars heard this and said "let's do one like that".

So you get a similar tempo. The big bass hit on the one. The razor-sharp Strat chords. The vibe.

But what about the Gap Band? They sued over the same song, claiming it was close to their own "Oops Upside Your Head" from 1979:

...or this song, "Funk You Up" by The Sequence, also from 1979?

The Gap Band won. The Sequence chose not to file. Does that mean Collage should also be sued by The Gap Band and The Sequence? (For what it's worth, I think Collage has a much stronger case than either of the other two bands.) I mean, I don't really hear what The Gap Band is so upset about.

There are a whole grip of early 80s electro-funk soul tunes which are also amazing and also likely sources of inspiration. When you listen to a playlist of this stuff, what starts to strike you is not "what a spectacular range of creativity" but rather "wow, this all sort of sounds like the same song. It's a really GOOD song, but..."

You start to see how every scene and genre in pop music is variations on a theme, usually empowered by some new piece of technology, whether it's a Moog bass synthesizer, a vocoder, a Fairlight CMI, ReCycle, the Sherman Filterbank, the Akai S1000 and MPC, or Antares AutoTune.

I digress.

The last time this happened, it was Miguel's "Adorn" vs. Marvin Gaye's estate. This is because "Adorn" is pretty much "Sexual Healing", but not as good, and also because Marvin Gaye's "estate" are a bunch of litigious jerks.. Hear for yourself:

You already know "Sexual  Healing", but c'mon it's so good:

Here's Miguel's bad Xerox:

It's beyond obvious that "Adorn" came out of the gang in the studio saying "we should make something like 'Sexual Healing'", and then they did the dumbest possible thing: They made something that literally sounded like "Sexual Healing".

It's also super-obvious that "Adorn" sucks.

They copped all the right sounds: 808. Synth bass. Organ-y synth for chords. But they left out some crucial ingredients.

For one, while Marvin Gaye's lyrics for "Sexual Healing" aren't exactly Bob Dylan-level, they're passable, internally consistent, and have a few good moments (the "I got sick this morning..." verse, for example).

"Adorn", on the other hand, is pretty dumb throughout, and like most modern pop songs, flits from one idea and metaphor to another, without any intention whatsoever. 

Most importantly, while Miguel is a technically fine singer, he is no Marvin Gaye when it comes to delivery. As caveman as "Sexual Healing" can be (it's basically a song that says "I'm horny, so fuck me before I lose my shit" and literally says "no, masturbation's not good enough"), Gaye's singing totally sells it in a non-creepy way and makes it loving, tender and even hot.

Ain't nobody playing Marvin Gaye on radio, and Miguel sold 500K copies - GOLD! - on the strength of his Gaye-giarism. Plus the Gaye people did pretty good in wailing on the also-terrible "Blurred Lines" for similar crimes.

These suits are not uncommon. Led Zeppelin just got hit by some band that claims Zep "stole" key pieces of "Stairway to Heaven". I can't remember the band's name, and neither can you, because even if Zep did cop the vibe, the forgotten band didn't actually write fucking STAIRWAY, Led Zeppelin did.

George Harrison got sued over "My Sweet Lord". He lost the suit, and then bought the rights to the song that won.

Perhaps the best and best-known of these suits is from the 80s (of course), and that is Huey Lewis and The News' 1982 smash "I Want A New Drug" vs. Ray Parker Jr.'s "Ghostbusters" theme from 1984.

This case was particularly notable because, unusually, BOTH of these songs were huge chart-topping smashes, endlessly played on radio at the time.

Here's "I Want A New Drug":

...and here's "Ghostbusters":

So what happened? Huey Lewis won, and big time. Part of this was that Lewis had been approached by the Ghostbusters producers, who said "please write us a hit song for the movie". Lewis was busy (writing hit songs for "Back To The Future") and he passed.

So the producers then went to Ray Parker Jr. (why???) and said "hey, can you write us something for the movie kind of like 'I Want A New Drug'?" and Parker said "sure thing".

Kaboom. Documented. Done. Payment made. Also a pretty obvious and hacky copy. Parker is a very gifted guitar player, but that is some lazy songwriting (to say nothing of his somnambulent "singing"). Didn't matter. Was still a big hit.

And Parker had some literal payback when Lewis broke the confidentiality agreement around the settlement many years later and Parker sued him.

But if you look at radio play these days, well, they're still playing "I Want A New Drug". You'll maybe hear "Ghostbusters" during Halloween and everyone will groan and say "can't you just play 'Monster Mash' again?"

Sorry. let's wrap up here.

Thing 1, the plaintiffs: There's a reason you haven't heard most of the songs claiming to be "ripped off" by the bigger hits. And that is because those songs weren't hits.

When you go back and listen, compare them to the hits, you can hear why. Mostly they're boring. Sometimes they have good vibes or a decent hook but the rest of the song is just lame or uninspiring.

The argument made in court is frequently "look, if this song was any good, it would have been a hit on its own. Whether my client listened to it or was inspired by it or not isn't the question. It's 'did my client infringe?' Success isn't illegal."

And it's true. Copping a vibe isn't illegal. Copying more than 8 notes is. Unauthorized sampling is. Most of these suits are sour grapes squeezed by resentful bitter old musicians and the lawyers who fight for them.

Even if you write a great riff, if you can't figure out what to do with it, don't be too upset if someone gets close to it and does better. There's only 12 notes, and only a few ways they go together without sounding weird.

Thing 2, the defense: There's a bigger issue here. There's an inverse relationship with how closely you duplicate an inspiration and how vital, useful, or necessary your own work is. 

The closer you get to making a perfect copy of someone else's work, the more your own deficiencies or differences will stand out.

I go back to that Miguel track and I don't think "wow, Miguel is so good". I think "Marvin Gaye was great, and Miguel is a bad karaoke impersonator who was afraid to do a straight-up cover because he knew he couldn't compare."

I listen to "Uptown Funk" and I think "this is obviously derivative of 80s electro-funk-soul, sounds like a million other songs, BUT there's something about how Ronson and Mars did it that feels fresh and fun RIGHT NOW. Probably won't hold up as a classic, though...because it's not really adding anything."

If you're going to put on someone else's leather jacket and credibilty, you need to add something of yourself, put your own spin on it, highlight something we didn't see. At the very least make us look a that old stuff with fresh eyes, not just nostalgia. 

"Talent borrows, genius steals", said Picasso. And by that he meant "if you're going to cop someone's steelo, best do it so well it becomes yours." Or else.