Raider of the Lost Arts
It’s Thanksgiving, 1976, and you’re lucky enough to be at San Francisco’s Winterland Ballroom for The Band’s farewell concert extravaganza. They’re in more than fine form, bowing out at the very top of their game as they burn through some of their classic self-penned repertoire accompanied by a small orchestra and several well-known guests. The list of cameos is an embarrassment of riches: Bob Dylan, Van Morrison, Muddy Waters, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, Dr. John, Ringo Starr, and Ronnie Hawkins to name a few, all contributing something emphatically satiating to this once-in-a-lifetime bill. Martin Scorsese shot the whole thing with the tender care of a besotted acolyte, along with interviews and three vignettes filmed on an MGM soundstage (including The Band’s most well-known hit “The Weight” featuring the Staples Singers, and “Evangeline” with Emmylou Harris), and it arrived in theaters as The Last Waltz to wide acclaim two years later. It might be the best concert film ever made and ought to be required viewing as a paragon of authentic, soulful music written and performed by insanely talented and versatile singer/multi-instrumentalists for a grateful audience. The Library of Congress certainly thinks so, having selected it for National Film Registry preservation in 2019.
One of the film’s highlights––if not the highlight––is Van “The Man” Morrison’s segment. He comes out, diminutive, balding, portly, and sideburned in a chest-baring spandex jumper, and just absolutely kills the self-penned “Caravan” with his powerhouse voice and phrasing. He’s no Justin Bieber––in fact, with the possible exceptions of Robbie Robertson, Rick Danko, Emmylou Harris, and Joni Mitchell, everyone in the film could be considered at least slightly homely––but you can feel his song piercing your heart like an arrow, sensing no falseness inherent in his histrionics or strident presence as he belts out, “Turn it up, that’s enough, so you know it’s got soul.” He humbly exits the stage before The Band can properly end the song, mic dropped literally and figuratively, audience and artist alike emotionally uplifted, everyone having fulfilled their side of the live-music equation in spades.
Fast forward 40-plus years to the (insert name here) festival. There’s a woman on stage, (insert single name or inane pseudonym here), model-hot, Autotuned, flanked by dancers, and “performing” (in quotes because you can’t tell if it’s live or Memorex) a shallow, unbelievable song about infatuation or empowerment or being ridiculously young or dissing haters or partying or whatever along to a pre-recorded and/or digitally generated backing track in front of a vast, tranquil sea of elevated cell phones. This starlet du jour probably didn’t write any of the lyrics or music—or made such a miniscule contribution as to be ineffectual. In fact, it was most likely churned out by a professional songwriting team adhering to a strict formula, a series of chord changes, textures, and dynamic shifts that have been proven to consistently elicit certain desired emotional responses, and ad nauseam-repeated melodies (“hooks”) specifically designed to stay in your head forever. All of which supposedly compel the consumer to buy or stream the song in digital form for a pittance. All of which can also be found in most other contemporary pop artist’s songs.
Less than a quarter mile across the festival pitch, there’s a gigantic second-stage tent with DJ (insert password-esque monicker here) performing within. He’s occasionally twisting knobs and pushing buttons as a prerecorded track of indeterminate origin plays over the massive PA, and when the big dropout-buildups occur he pogos animatedly in an attempt to pump up the crowd, like he’s actually creating the sounds himself in that very moment. And he’s treated as a rock star in his own right, even though he’s not doing much more than curating a mass listening experience like some kind of cult leader. There’s no expertise involved other than overseeing a seamless flow of music with occasional, self-imposed interruptions, yet this guy is being paid somewhere in the range of the upper four figures, maybe even five––probably more than the female described above––to entertain the festival goers, who are so unengaged they might as well be elementary school kids on a field trip at a modern art museum.
There’s always been something a little grifty and inauthentic about the music business, that “shallow money trench where thieves and pimps run free and good men die like dogs,” as Hunter S. Thompson supposedly had it. “Dancing about architecture” is truly as good an explanation as any in terms of trying to quantify such an ethereal, subjectively experienced commodity, and when it comes to peddling aural art in the modern era, it’s akin to selling oxygen. We all say we can’t live without it, and it’s everywhere, and it’s essentially free (at least in digital form). And we wouldn’t really know we needed it unless it suddenly disappeared. So, we take it for granted and accept what’s presented to us without question or complaint, almost like a bribe, even though it may be utter anathema to our spirits.
The labels––or what’s left of them––have been playing it ultra-safe for decades now, basically trying to rig the game and cash in on a formula, though one could say that’s mostly the way it’s been from the beginning. Exploiting artists is at its core the very nature of the music industry; they’re in it solely to make money, whereas an artist just wants to freely create and have the results heard and appreciated by as many people as possible, build a lasting legacy, and hopefully make some kind of living––if not a killing––while they’re at it. Somewhere along the line, outlandish compromises get made during the transmogrification process from artist to commodity, generally by the artists, who are basically no more than glorified employees in perpetual debt to the record company (or rather, the empathy-bereft corporate conglomerate that owns the record company).
Demands are constantly made of the artist-as-indentured-servant to keep their output as commercially viable as possible or to continue cranking out hits like the last one, though these constraints are by and large aesthetically detrimental to an artist’s work and to their resulting believability. And the talent usually kowtows, because at the onset of their careers they’re virtually unknown and need the label’s considerable resources to mitigate that condition through obtrusive ubiquity (purchased overexposure, for the Google-averse). Together they are tasked with injecting the artist straight into the middle of the current cultural zeitgeist via said overexposure (otherwise known as fame), which vets them in the consumer’s mind and compels listeners to buy the product, no matter how watered down and compromised it may be in relation to the artist’s true vision.
It’s not necessarily an ideal scenario for the creation and distribution of authentic, soulful music, nor does it currently seem to be the right cultural climate for it. The transition popular music has undergone in this century feels akin to the slow but steady shift from practical to CGI special effects in the movie industry; as a result, it’s difficult not to feel like these pop stars are now green-screen acting, trying to sing to nonexistent subjects using atrophied imaginations in front of distracted, sedate audiences suffering from the same condition. One feels inclined to pity the younger generations for this, that these glitzy new robotics and diluted pantomimes are all they can expect from their creative peers to help them forge a collective cultural identity in this crisis era. But one could just as easily pity the rest of us as well, having come up in such genuinely satisfying, erstwhile cultural periods, for being forced to consistently, persistently, and embarrassingly dig back down through the dirt of the receding past to unearth the diamonds that speak most honestly to our authentic hearts.
One reluctantly has to recognize that women, who have triumphantly eclipsed men in zeitgeist prominence, will be predominantly associated with the dubious music of this time. No one would ever suspect that Lady Gaga was a superlative pianist from listening to most of her recordings or watching her live (her stellar Oscars performance in support of A Star Is Born notwithstanding). One has to wonder how she would have manifested in a previous era, when her prodigious vocal and instrumental skills might have been put to better use in service of an image that rings truer to what she really is as an artist and performer. But then who knew Aretha Franklin was so good on the ivories in the era of Nina Simone and Ray Charles, or that Amy Winehouse was competent on guitar? What other talents are discarded or compromises made in the process of shoehorning recording artists into the modern entertainer’s persona? Does Adele get autotuned too? Even Taylor Swift put down her acoustic guitar and overtly declared her intention of going full-on pop a few years back…was that a rebellious reinvention or a compulsory concession? Falseness and attention-mongering are so endemic now that even when someone seemingly genuine like Lizzo comes along––an overweight, flute-playing rapper! It still comes off like a “look-at-me!” gimmick, even as one marvels at how hard she must have fought to claim her rightful place in this wildly superficial industry.
Of course, there are still authentic, soul-brandishing torch bearers waiting out the digital storm under the freeway overpass of the mainstream, like the Haim sisters, First Aid Kit, Lake Street Dive, the Wood Bros., Jack White, maybe Greta Van Fleet and Wolf Alice and Billie Eilish, along with so many lingering, once magnificent bands from bygone golden eras limping feebly through nostalgia tours. But they’re mostly lonely, aesthetically compromised boats idling futilely on endless, plastic-rife oceans of sound, subsisting through plain old-fashioned touring and occasional late night TV performances in front of mostly older fans.
The ’60s and ’70s were unparalleled in their widespread advocacy of authentic commercial music produced by real artists who were there simply because they had the honed talent and uncanny ability to blood-from-a-stone draw from normal life experiences (at least pre-fame) in service of the songs, not necessarily for their ringer looks or micromanaged image. Bands and individuals on both sides of the Atlantic became iconic in a way that didn’t excessively compromise their identities as real people or besmirch the records they produced. Even the Monkees—Hollywood’s prefab-four answer to the Beatles––knew how to sing, play their own instruments, and write songs. Punk rock railed against plutocratic oppression in politics and culture even as the ever-derided disco produced some of the most timeless music of any era. Progressive rock, jazz, and fusion have continuously and steadfastly expounded on commercial music’s possibilities, and new wave capitalized on combining studio production’s lavish digital potential with classic underlying works. Even the Police, anointed kings of the new wave who were initially written off as ersatz punks, delivered the goods with one-of-a-kind punk-jazz-reggae-inflected standards, disposing of their metaphorical if-you-can’t-beat-‘em-join-‘em spiked dog collar and safety pins even before the genre showed up toe-tagged on an autopsy slab.
Things degraded a bit from there until the early ‘90s, when grunge––specifically Nirvana and Kurt Cobain––signed the pink slips of a slew of out of touch, hedonistic hair metal bands with the insouciantly brutal pop-punk masterstroke of Nevermind. The album broke the already burgeoning dam of Seattle’s true-blue music scene and flooded the popular plain with a wave of darkly sincere, Generation X soul bearing that has yet to be matched, let alone surpassed.
No discussion of grunge-era authenticity would be complete without a mat-facing-east, we’re-not-worthy bow to FUGAZI, who are hands down the most authentic band in the history of recorded and performed commercial music. Even the Clash had faltered by the end, succumbing to rock star infighting and drug abuse, but FUGAZI never wavered from their walk-the-talk straightedge ethics, unabashed liberal politics, generous good-cause support, and we-jam-econo infrastructural and touring paradigm. They turned down bona fide offers from any and all blood-smelling major labels during their ’80s and ’90s heyday and refused appearances and interviews with corporate music publications and network shows, opting instead to operate DIY-independently under their self-owned Dischord aegis and limit their press presence to independently-run zines and public access TV. If there were a Mount Rushmore monument dedicated to music industry integrity, and with more than a hefty honorable mention to Ani DiFranco, FUGAZI’s would be the four faces etched thereon.
Authenticity is a rare-to-nonexistent commodity amid the current circumstances, when the artist’s principal goal is not to honestly earn and maintain your adoration and patronage of their genuine art, but to instead hold your attention long enough to garner your favorable button pushes, subscriptions, and shares through their phoned in presentations of second-hand music that has been digitally produced to within an inch of its soulless life. Eras in which music has been all but completely devalued––and supplanted––by technology, and wherein it is now inextricably intertwined and livelihood-dependent on other media (movies, TV, video games), don’t produce full-fledged artists willing to devote precious time to learning their craft and developing their instrumental and vocal talents to the utmost. Generations raised in a solitarily overprotective yet overstimulating cultural climate that robs them of the kind of character-building, in-person, real-life relationships and shared hardships that lead to better art, that subsequently spurn their collective potential for rebellion in favor of unlimited individual distractions, generally don’t have the impetus––let alone the balls––to speak their subverted truth (such as it is) to anyone face to face, never mind on stages or records.
So do yourselves a favor in the meantime: go home or to a friend’s place if there’s a dearth, put a vinyl platter of classic music on the turntable, crank up the volume as high as you can stand, and listen––LISTEN––as the very real needle connects with the inward-spinning groove through a dozen tunes that will blow the accrued dust and cobwebs off the electric light of your neglected soul. And hope against hope that you’re still alive with functioning ears when the weather finally begins to change.