A Heartwarming Autobiographical Confessional Story of Personal Growth and the Overcoming of Fierce Obstacles and Adversity against Overwhelming Odds on the Path to Artistic Glory and Fame beyond Imagining
The effective confessional autobiography is something few people can pull off convincingly. It’s a tricky tightrope to walk–do jokes diminish it? Does a tone of humility make it sound false? Is there too much self-importance in it to be effective? But whatever the consequence, which may involve people typing “fail” onto a computer somewhere, I think I’m gonna have to attempt a little bit of it. Because in a few days (at least a week ago, by the time this sees the light of computer screens across the internet), my first viola teacher will be 100 years old, and the reaching of an age one can, without grammar-fascist reprisal, type in numeral form (instead of spelling it out in words) is a pretty significant event.
The natural impulse in describing one’s childhood, I think, is probably to begin with a description of the hometown. But I’m discarding that straight away as being too Garrison Keillory. Suffice to say that I now live in Los Angeles, in an apartment with an infant shrieking from the next apartment over, and I used to live in Montana, where most of the shrieking was coming out of my chosen instrument. When I was ten years old, I was lucky enough to live in a place where the school system had a decent orchestra program. My ten-year-old brain immediately sensed that orchestral musicianship was the most obvious route to worldwide fame and riches beyond imagining, free cocktails at exclusive parties thrown by the cultural elite, and food that didn’t come from a microwave oven, so naturally I signed up. I had to choose an instrument, and after hearing Berlioz’s Harold in Italy, I decided to choose the ginger stepchild of the orchestra–the one that even the bassists and tuba players had jokes about. It wasn’t just that I was uncool enough to be in the orchestra; I picked arguably the uncoolest of all the instruments in it. Not even uncool enough to be cool: the viola sprints through uncool, races past cool, and arrives solidly back at uncool again.
But whatever! At ten, my thumb-thick tortoiseshell glasses and favorite pink polo shirt were more than enough to ensure my place in the Pantheon of Uncool. No point in worrying about the subtle gradations. We’re talking about ART here, not reality-show stardom. So with my status affirmed as a social and musical pariah, I needed a teacher. (more…)
That’s right, this is a topic that requires not one but two columns of material. When last we left Get Set Go and New MaximumDonkey, they were leaving Seattle, city of rain and hamburgers, and driving inexorably east into the gathering storm…
Missoula, Montana: Hoagieville
In high school, I had friends who worked at Hoagieville, so it was a frequent lunch destination for a doe-eyed, scrawny, slightly less cynical Eric Summer who had a complexion like undercooked lasagna. I never had much money for lunch, so I had to restrict myself to cheese fries most of the time. But the world-weary, adult (strictly in the physical sense), gainfully employed version of me, revisiting the old hometown, was delighted to see that not only was Hoagieville still standing right where I left it, but that I could now afford to eat a Steak Like Nick Likes and some cheese fries! And maybe a milkshake! How is it that I don’t gain forty pounds while we’re on tour?
Arvada, Colorado: The D-Note
This is where we played most often in the Denver area. It’s a restaurant-bar that hosts live music, perfect for our needs. The Brick House Pizza is excellent. It has, like, BBQ sauce and bacon on it, which are two of my favorite food groups. The beer selection is totally decent, and there are richly deserved drink tickets for the band.
In discussing our Colorado shows, I’d be remiss not to mention The Mumbles, with whom we nearly always play when we’re in the area. They’re a great XTC-and-Elliott-Smith-influenced power pop band. Really nice guys. Our shows with them are always among the best-of-tour.
Bethlehem, Pennsylvania: J’s Steaks & Subs
As everybody knows, Philly Cheesesteaks are the perfect food. Though we’ve never played in Philadelphia, to my recollection, there was a tour in which we played at Musikfest in Bethlehem. Jeremy from New MaximumDonkey is from Bethlehem (he also has a beard—write your own Jesus joke here: ________________________________________) (also, his dad runs Musikfest), so he’s pretty dialed-in as to where the good cheesesteaks are. Both times we went to Bethlehem, I had some sort of pizza cheesesteak from J’s Steaks and Subs. I tend to pick one thing I like and stick with it. The pizza steak thingy is goooooooood.
I’d also like to note that I don’t give a tinker’s damn about the “authenticity” of a cheesesteak. Food regionalism has always seemed like bullshit to me. Just cook some steak, put it in a bun, and put some cheese and onions on it. What’s the big deal? I don’t care if it was notarized by the mayor of Philadelphia or not. It tastes good.
New York: That Deli Right Around the Corner from the Knitting Factory
Yeah, I don’t know the name of this place. Can’t be bothered to look it up, either. But this is where we usually eat when we play at the Knitting Factory in New York. You can’t miss it. You know where the Knitting Factory is in New York City? Just go down the street, turn one direction or the other, and it’s right there. It’s a beautiful combination of proximity, sandwiches, and $38 packs of cigarettes. Well, that last bit is slightly exaggerated. They probably aren’t more than about $25 per pack. But the sandwiches are really good. They have different kinds of mustard and everything. I think one of ‘em has sun-dried tomatoes or something. Just trust me; the sandwiches “rock,” in the parlance of our times. OK, this entry was quarter-assed at best, but this place deserves at least a fractionally buttocked mention just because we’ve been there so many times.
The South: Barbecue
You know how sometimes if something goes badly, people say “and that’s when it all went south”?
Yeah, there’s a reason they chose “south” for that expression and not, for instance, “northwest.” It just happens that every time we go to the southern states on tour, that’s when the shows start not being very good anymore. This is a generalization; there have been some southern shows that have been a lot of fun, but generally, once we hit Florida, the shows trend suckward. I don’t want to insult or offend the people of this run-down religious-themed amusement park of a region (because I’m too tired)—good honest hardworking people, salt of the earth, blah blah blah. Whatever. The people are fine, and some of them are even really cool; they just don’t go see live music. I’ve lived in Kentucky and Florida long enough to know that there’s one thing that saves this draconian backwater hickhole: the restaurants here specialize in the barbecuing of various meats and the slathering of them with sundry tangy sauces. I can’t really narrow it down to one restaurant; they’re all over the place, and they all help get us through this Tennessee Williams-Deliverance portion of the tour. Again, I have no idea what the hell Dylan eats for this 2000-mile stretch.
The South: Waffle House
OK, two things save the south. The first is the barbecue, and the second is Waffle House. It’s not necessarily that the food is great (although some of it is; I really loved the chocolate chip waffle with chocolate syrup and whipped cream on it); it’s that it’s everywhere. Whenever you need food in the south, even if it’s at 3 a.m., and the van’s broken or stuck in the mud, or someone in one of the bands has just killed a prostitute or a hobo, there’s practically always a Waffle House around. And there’s something about chocolate waffles and bacon sandwiches and hash browns with all sorts of onions and mushrooms and jalapenos and junk all over ‘em that makes it seem like everything’s gonna be just fine. Even when it clearly isn’t.
Jeremy doesn’t like Waffle House. This is forgivable because he provides us with cheesesteaks (see above).
Honorable Mention: Convenience Stores
Of course, it wouldn’t really be a tour without stopping for gas. This provides me a time to smoke while everybody else runs off to take care of their various bodily functions. Also, convenience stores usually contain a healthy array of beef jerky (the underappreciated workhorse of the touring diet), jalapeno Pringles, and Chex Mix to give you that much-needed protein-and-saturated-fat boost necessary for good freeway driving. Actually, I’d postulate that maybe 50% of the eating on tour is done out of shiny cellophane bags and cardboard tubes.
For further information on GSG/NMD tour shenanigans, including why Dave killed the prostitute, Star Wars fixations, and Benny’s extraneous body parts, see the Tour Documentary DVD included with the fourth Get Set Go album ( Sunshine, Joy & Happiness: A Tragic Tale of Death, Despair and Other Silly Nonsense)! Or, to experience this enviable, glamorous rock and roll lifestyle firsthand, just stuff yourself into a van with seven or eight other people and drive around the country for a month!
I’m not sure why I even read music reviews anymore. I think there’s a secret website somewhere containing about five phrases you’re supposed to draw from if you’re writing a music review, and the phrase I’d put first on my list of “If I See This Again Somebody’s Gonna Get Castrated” is this one:
“…nothing particularly new here…”
It’s this phrase (and permutations thereof), more than any other, that suggests to me that somebody is probably almost willfully missing the point of something. It’s one of those snarky blogger-phrases that just reek of presumed superiority (number two on my list is “self-indulgent,” because if you’re Making Something, who the fuck else are you going to indulge?). Digression aside, let me explain something, and maybe I’ll boldface it to make sure everybody gets it: There is nothing substantially new in popular music. There may be elements that are new to the genre, but that’s about as much as you can hope for. And that’s fine! I like it that way! The point is not necessarily to be innovative. The point is to be fun to listen to.
I mean, does anybody honestly think for a moment that before (for instance) Nirvana, nobody in the history of creative musical endeavor had ever thought of alternating quiet sections with loud ones? Ever? Maybe nobody had done it quite that way in that style of music before. I’d allow that. But that device had been around for hundreds of years before Kurt Cobain got to it, I assure you.
And let me just add that I emphatically do not want to meet anybody who sets out on some grand quest specifically to become a revolutionary. The one example that springs to mind of somebody who actively set out to revolutionize music is Richard Wagner. And although he was incredibly rare in that he actually accomplished what he set out to do, he was by all accounts a terrible prick.
What all this is leading up to, really, is a discussion about the band Secret Powers. Secret Powers is a band fronted by Ryan “Shmedly” Maynes, who was in the band Arlo (who I know I’ve mentioned before), although I first knew him from the Electrolites, his first post-Arlo band. Anyway, Shmed moved to Montana a few years ago (to my hometown of Missoula, by bizarre coincidence) and got Secret Powers off the ground with former members of other bands there.
The reason I brought up the “nothing new” issue is because I read a review of the Secret Powers album, Explorers of the Polar Eclipse—it was a glowing review, actually—that used that nauseatingly bloggy phrase to describe the album. It’s true that Shmed’s songwriting and production borrow elements from his favorite bands (among them the Beatles, the Beach Boys, Jellyfish, and ELO). But it’s done in such an obviously gleeful and celebratory way, and with such masterful craftsmanship, that to even mention it is to miss the point of this band. More than anything else, and all influences aside, the songs on Polar Eclipse are seamless exaltations of the pop form. It’s everything that’s good about a genre, all at once, done up in layers upon layers of keyboards, guitars, and multi-part vocal harmonies, performed by people who clearly love what they’re doing. To dismiss something like this as “nothing new,” even if it’s meant as part of a compliment, is to misapprehend the whole point of this style of music. It’s not supposed to solve mysteries of the human condition, or deconstruct forms, or plumb the depths of emotion. It’s supposed to make you enjoy being alive for three or four minutes.
If one wanted to oversimplify (and one does at the moment), one could divide melodic/harmonic movement into two types: 1) the type that surprises, and 2) the type that goes exactly where you want it to at just the right time. In my head, these are labeled as the “Whoa!” and the “Fuck yes!” categories, respectively. Secret Powers are good at both. I remember an Electrolites show a few years back where my fellow Get Set Go member, Jim, said something like “I can’t believe people don’t pay Shmed millions of dollars to write these melodies.” This accessible melodic emphasis is true of Secret Powers as well, and I was glad to see that a few Electrolites songs were reconstituted for Polar Eclipse. Especially “Counting Stars.” I could probably go on for pages doing comparisons and analyses and being offensively academic about it all, but I’d rather just say that Secret Powers is a real real good band and recommend that everybody get their album.
I think it’s time to bring my remarks to an anecdotal close now. I was re-reading The Salmon of Doubt the other day. It’s a collection of previously unpublished writings by Douglas Adams, on all sorts of different subjects, and it’s very entertaining. There’s a bit in his introduction to P.G. Wodehouse’s Sunset at Blandings that struck me as being particularly germane to this topic (oh holy shit have I ever wanted so badly to use the word “germane” in a sentence):
“…exploring variations of familiar material is what musicians do all day. In fact, what it’s about seems to me to be wonderfully irrelevant. Beauty doesn’t have to be about anything.”
Sure! P.G. Wodehouse’s stories are about butlers and comically deviant members of the idle rich. Secret Powers songs are mostly about girls and use chords common to the pop genre. But both transcend what they’re about and manage to be enormously entertaining examples of artists joyously practicing their craft.