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It’s my last day in Memphis; Tuesday, October 14, 2008
This is a short post since I only spent half the day in Memphis before heading out to Nashville (also, my memory is getting a little fuzzy. I need to write these posts sooner after they happen.)
1. The Memphis newspaper doesn’t have a lot of comics. In fact they have hardly any comics at all. Only Crankshaft, Peanuts, Frank & Ernest, and Born Loser. By far not the best selection. They all fit on about a quarter of page in the classifieds section! Although, they were in color, which I found strange for a Tuesday.
2. The Sun Studio tour is not much better than Graceland. I’m sure to anger some people by critiquing the sacred Sun Studio, but I got to admit it fell a little short of what I was expecting. The tour guide was cute, but her delivery reminded me of a radio disc jockey (nearly causing debilitating flashbacks to my 14-hour-no-iPod-drive down from Minnesota). They covered a lot of history about the recording facility and walked us through a museum-like exhibition of old recording equipment and clothing encased in glass. Most of the tour centered around Elvis and the tour guide actually provided more historical information than the computerized headset did at Graceland. I think at this time I was experiencing a little Elvis overload, and was really wanting her to get to the Johnny Cash part of the tour, so I wasn’t pay too much attention. I found watching the other people on the tour to be WAY more interesting than the tour itself (at least so far, we were about 20 minutes into it). At certain times the tour guide would wave a remote control in the air like a magic wand to summon some old recording she was referencing in her presentation. These were usually Elvis recordings (some of his earliest). As the music played through hidden speakers more than a few of the other tour participants started tapping their feet, which lead to: hip gyrations, which lead to: air guitar playing, which lead to full on lip synching and actually singing along out loud (strangely, in Dutch accents). These people were obviously really enjoying the tour. I talked to one of the guys later, he was wearing a bowling shirt adorned with flame, and a sticky looking pompadour. He said he and his wife and friends had come from the Netherlands to see Memphis and Nashville. I mentioned that I was also a visitor and was originally from Minnesota. I tried, and failed, to describe Minnesota’s geographic position in relation to Memphis, Canada, The Great Lakes, New York, and Seattle. Finally I just said it was where Bob Dylan was from. His eyes lit up, he started nodding, and began singing Tangled Up In Blue.
3. The Stax Museum is WAY better than both Graceland and Sun Studio. It was getting late in the day, and I still had a 4 hour drive to Nashville, so I thought about skipping Stax altogether. Of all the music tourism to do in Memphis, Stax was the one place I heard the least about. Looking at the map I figured I could hit Stax on my way to the highway and still make it to Nashville at a decent time. So I went.
The original Stax recording studio and record label offices were in an old movie theatre. The original building was torn down but a recreation of the space was built in another building which now houses the museum, and a music academy next door. As I’ve mentioned before, the city of Memphis won’t be winning an beauty contests anytime soon, and the location of the Stax museum may have been why I didn’t hear about it. It’s not really near anything. It’s just on a residential street in a rather rundown part of town. But they do have ample free parking in back, a luxury neither Sun Studio or Graceland had (the parking at Sun Studio was not ample and the parking at Graceland was not free).
There are no cameras allowed in the Stax museum so I can’t show you any pictures (they had me check mine at the door), you’ll just have to take my word for it, and see how cool the museum is yourself. The place is self-guided so you get to wander around at your own pace and look at the exhibits you want and skip those you don’t. There is a lot of audio on the first half of the tour, and a lot of it competes for your attention which is a bit distracting. Once you get to the reconstructed recording studio all that changes. The studio houses the original recording equipment and was said to have been built using the original blueprints from the movie theatre that originally housed Stax. Stepping into the theatre space feels as though you’ve left the museum and are actually there. The acoustics are such that all ambient noise is sucked away, leaving only the sound from actual studio takes by Booker T and The MGs, Issac Hayes, and other Stax artists, coming through the studio monitors. It really is as if you are actually there listening to the play back of these historic records.
Just outside of the studio room is a hallway which showcases every record ever produced by Stax and its affiliates. It’s 50-60 feet long and 12 feet high with album covers displayed edge to edge on both sides of the hallway. It took me 20 minutes to walk the entire length of it! I was amazed. Turning the corner reveals a similar display but with every 45 single ever produced by Stax. Again, 20 minutes. Very few places exist that house such a comprensive collection music that proved to be so influential to music for the subsequent 40 years!
Last but not least is Isaac Hayes’s blue and gold Cadillac. It rotates on a turnstyle as the gold trim reflects light back into the room. It’s like a 2.5 ton disco ball. I cannot describe it, it must be seen to be believed.
4. Always end on a high note. So there were some ups and downs in Memphis. Some surprises and some disappointments. But, all in all I learned a lot. And it felt good making that 4 hour drive to Nashville, with Sam Cooke, Ted Hawkins, and Sir Mix-a-lot.
It’s my first full day in Memphis; Monday, October 13, 2008.
1. Walking in a new city is the best way to get a feel for it. I actually learned this when I was traveling in Europe. Granted European cities tend to be more pedestrian friendly than American cities, but I still think it’s the best way to really see what a city is all about. I believe this for two reasons; one, I already spend so much time driving around in a car when I’m in my own city it just doesn’t feel that different if I spend to drive around in a new city. And the differences are what’s important, they make it feel like a vacation. Two, when you’re sitting in a car the world moves around you. There’s less of a sense of you moving through the world. Probably because it’s/you’re behind glass, and because you don’t pay attention to the world as much when it’s zipping past at 30-40 miles an hour than if you’re out for a leisurely stroll. You get to see some of the details in the city. The signs. The condition of the sidewalk. The frequency of auto-body shops (Memphis has more auto-body shops than any other city I’ve been in) If you pay attention to these details you can construct a mental picture of the city that’s more than just the photos in the tourist brochures and GoogleMaps.
That being said I headed downtown. In taking a quick stroll around the downtown area I realized that there’s not much to the Memphis downtown area. A few sandwiches shops 2 sports stadiums and Beale Street, and that’s about it. I headed east away from downtown through a light industrial area which included a Wonder Bread and Hostess factory with some rather tired and uncommunicative employees on smoke break out front. They wore white smocks and hairnets and looked as if they wished to be somewhere else. I also came across a bar by the name of Kudzu’s. It wasn’t open but they had a board with the live music schedule posted out front. There was no music that night but I made a mental note that if they had live music it couldn’t be that bad and I should stop by later in the evening.
2. If you want to find local music you first need to find the local record shop. I walked and walked and walked, marveling at the handmade signs on Madison near the hospital, and kept on walking until I got to the midtown area. I stopped for a burger at t local bar and kicked myself afterwards when I walked past a BBQ joint literally a block further down Madison. I wasn’t that hungry but I stopped for a pork sandwich anyway (with slaw of course). I kept walking until I got to Shangri-La Records. It had been reccommended to me by my friend Brian who urged me to go there and pick up the Kreature Comforts, Low Life Guide to Memphis. The place did not disappoint. They had a very impressive selection of 45s and old show posters, of which I purchased several. I also got a good tip on the local music scene. Just around the corner was the Hi-Tone. I had seen it listed on some of the old show posters and was eager for directions. The clerk also pointed out a place called P&H Cafe on Madison. I had walked past it on my trek to Shangri-La. (it was just west of the Piggly Wiggly) “You probably didn’t realize it was a bar. It usually looks condemned during the daytime. Or at least abandoned.” Thanks!
3. Graceland has weird hours in the fall. I got back to my hotel around 3pm and urgently needed a shower (I got caught in the rain on my way back from Shangri-La, and had shielded my new show posters with my body as best I could but they still got a little wet.) After a quick shower (I’ll spare you the towel story) I grabbed the brochures I’d picked up in hotel lobby, and tried to decide what I’d do next. Sun Studio? Stax Museum? Graceland? And it was then that I realized that Graceland was only open until 4pm on Mondays in October and was CLOSED ON TUESDAYS!!! If I was going to see it (and how can you go to Memphis without seeing Graceland?) I had to leave immediately!
I made it just in the nick of time. Paid my 28 bucks (AAA members get a discount) and got in line for the tour. Now, in the months before I left for Memphis I had a conversation with my buddy Neal about Graceland. “Don’t get the VIP tour.” he cautioned me. “All it is is a different bus that drives you across the street to the mansion. It’s not worth the extra money.” He was right, I’m glad I just bought the platinum package.
4. Graceland is small. It’s the size of a single family starter home. I guess I was expecting something as grand as The King’s hallowed persona. I enjoyed Graceland but wasn’t overly impressed. I’d still recommend it even for non-Elvis fans. I must also pass on a few questions to ask the staff while you’re on the tour of the Graceland mansion (these were passed on to me by my friend Wendy) 1. Continuously ask who did the interior decorating. “Who pick out that monkey statue?” “Do you think this carpet goes with those drapes?” When the security staffer answers “I dunno.” relpy: “I bet Elvis did.” 2. Ask where you can TCB (Take Care of Business). 4. Ask about the divorce (it’s not mentioned at all on the tour).
5. Tapes rock. After completing my Graceland experience I swung by the Am Vets Thrift Store (which was recommended in my Kreature Comforts guide) to do a little record digging and general thrifting. I found the record section and pulled a few good ones out, Sugar Hill Gang (beat to shit), Munich Machine, and a few religious records. Right next to the record section was the cassette tape section. It was at this point that I remembered my fucked up iPod and my lack of driving music. I quickly found a Sam Cooke/Ted Hawkins dub which became my savior and soundtrack for the rest of the trip. I also found Sir Mixalot’s first album, but I didn’t listen to it as much. I started to think about how this tape (the Sam Green one) had been kicked around for so long and had actually survived pretty well, even without a case. I was impressed with the stability of the format, and the even sturdier format of records. Needless to say this greatly informed my view of digital music evidenced in What I Learned In Memphis, Day 0, and is something I’m sure to return to in future postings.
6. Always know the difference between an uncomfortable situation and a dangerous situation. Uncomfortable situations are good. Dangerous ones are bad. But often times there’s little or no distinction made, or we confuse the two. One of the great things about traveling is forcing yourself into those uncomfortable situations. Eating new foods. Seeing new sights. Going to new places. And often times it’s a little uncomfortable. But you always come out of it glad that you did it. It’s even great to get uncomfortable in your own city. There’s bound to be stuff you haven’t tried before and places you’ve never gone.
I used to be really good at this. Living in a foreign country for a year kind of forces you into being uncomfortable. But lately I haven’t been doing enough new stuff. I’m not uncomfortable enough. And I actually miss it. On the way back from Graceland I passed a BBQ joint by the name of A&R BBQ. I had read about it in my Memphis guide and was eager to eat as much BBQ as I could. But as I drove by I made all the excuses for not stopping. “It looks dirty.” “There’s some homeless people hanging out in the parking lot.” “They might be closed.” “The neighborhood is pretty rough.” 2 blocks later I make a u-turn and head back. “What kind of chicken-shit excuses are these?” I ask myself. This is what traveling is about. So what if you’re uncomfortable, it helps with personal growth and other bullshit! So I pulled into the parking lot, walked in, and ordered a pork sandwich with slaw, a side of potato salad, and a Sprite. And it was pretty damn good. I didn’t die. I didn’t get sick. I didn’t get mugged. I was just a little uncomfortable for while.
7. Mondays suck for live music. There just wasn’t anything happening. There was a show at the Hi-Tone that I wanted to see, but I wasn’t planning on going down there until 10. So I watched a documentary about Nixon for an hour or two at the hotel.
8. Always know the difference between an uncomfortable situation and a dangerous situation. I know I’m repeating number 6 but it’s relevant to another situation. (Keep in mind this is all in the same night) After I got bored with Nixon I headed out to Kudzu’s, the bar I had passed earlier in the day. I pulled up and parked the Buick right in front on the deserted city street. Emboldened by the A&R BBQ experience I walked right up to the front door and tried to open it. It was locked. Hmm. Maybe this place really was closed. There wasn’t even anyone inside. As I was walking back to the car the front door opens and a guy pops his head out. “Hey. You wanna come in?” I guess they were open. As soon as I got inside the guy locks the door behind me, and in an instant I replay “A Bronx Tale” in my head, specifically the scene where the bikers are getting rowdy in Sonny’s bar and he asks them to leave. And when they tell him to fuck off he locks the front door saying “Now you can’t leave.” and eight mafiosos barrel out of the back room with baseball bats. The guy at Kudzu’s must have read the expression on my face because he tells me, “Don’t worry. It’s just a precaution. A few of the bars in the neighborhood have been robbed in the past few days.” Sometimes that line is so thin you don’t know where the uncomfort starts and the danger begins.
They guy at Kudzu’s turned out to be a really cool dude. He was a studio musician and recording engineer. Said he’d done a lot of work at Sun Studio. We talked music for a while before I headed out to the Hi-Tone.
The Hi-Tone kind of threw me. It LOOKED exactly like what I was looking for, but wasn’t really what I was expecting. It was only open until midnight. I got there at 10.30 and walked in during the middle of the headliner’s set. I did get a break on the cover charge because they were almost done but it was still 10 bucks! I think on a weekend it definitely would have been the right place to be, but not on a Monday (See item 7).
So I ended up at the P&H Cafe. The guys there were super cool, but it was open mic comedy night. Enough said. (The best joke of the night: “So I just found out I have cancer. I decided: fuck it, I’m going to keep it.”)
BTW, you can find all the pictures from my trip on my Flickr set.
It’s Sunday, October 12th, 2008. It’s 837 miles to Memphis. I have no iPod. It’s 7am and I’m cranky. Hit it.
1. It pays to tip the barista. For reasons I can’t remember I stopped by my place of employment in downtown Minneapolis before I hit the highway. Knowing I was going to need my usual couple cups of coffee in order to be coherent enough to navigate the highway I stopped by our local coffee shop. The same coffee shop my co-workers and I go to in the morning when we don’t want to wait for the auto-drip in the office. There’s only one other customer in the coffee shop when I walk in at this early hour on a Sunday morning. I approach the barista behind the counter (one of the same baristas that serves my co-workers and I when we don’t want to wait for the auto-drip) and she informs me that they don’t open until 8am. It’s 7:30. I give a sigh of dejection, and she tells me if I want to hang out for another 5 minutes while the regular brews she can give me a cup for free since she hasn’t even opened the till. I tell her that would be wonderful and drop a dollar in the tip jar, as I do everytime I buy coffee from her. I call her my enabler as I leave, but she either doesn’t hear me or doesn’t get the reference.
2. Gas station coffee sucks. My first cup wasn’t enough and I had to stop outside of Waverly, Iowa for another fix. I should of gone for the GasCap (gas station cappuccino).
3. Commercial radio sucks. Not having a functioning iPod and not having the foresight to bring a couple tapes to play in the Buick I am forced to listen to local commercial radio the ENTIRE way. First I listen to Radio K until the signal dies somewhere around Lakeville. Then I find MPR, which I listen to until I get sick of their condescending attitude (which I never noticed before, but then again I’ve never listened to it for more than an hour at a stretch.) I bounce around and pull in some classical which I really enjoy until I realize it’s making me tired and I’ve only been on the road 3 hours! (Eleven more to go!) Around hour 4 my optimism takes over and I scan the local airwaves for something listen-able. Find nothing. Silence for another hour. This cycle continues for pretty much the entire trip, but I start to see a pattern in the radio stations. All the commentators on NPR sound the same (Kai Rysdall is that you?) Every major city has a hard rock station. Correction THE hard rock station. I am now convinced that there is only one. The DJs are all the same. The playlists are all the same (“If I hear that new Kid Rock song I’m going to drive straight into that tree.”) And those annoying sounds they play between the songs are all the same. You know, the ones that are supposed to sound like lighting bolts kicking you in face? Someone should compile a comprehensive collection of these sounds from hard rock stations from all over the country and release a record, I think it would be pretty interesting, if not totally unlisten-able.
4. Arkansas sucks to drive through. Granted it may not have been the best idea to drive straight through to Memphis, but it made sense at the time. That being said, the last 2 hours are a straight burn through the cotton fields of Arkansas. I was warned about this from a friend before I left, but thought nothing of it (“I’ve driven through nothern Indiana!” I thought, “How bad can it be?”) Bad. Not only is it dark out (so I can’t even look at the non-existent scenery) but there is a smell. I can’t describe it really. It’s just a smell. Vaguely animal, vegetable, and mineral all at once. And it changes every 15 minutes. Needless to say I was very happy when I crossed the bridge into Memphis, Tennessee.
5. Beale Street is overrated. I was staying at the King’s Court motel in downtown Memphis, which is only a few blocks from Beale Street. I pulled in dropped my stuff in the room and headed out for a drink. (It is now approx. 10pm) I knew Beale Street was within walking distance so I headed out on foot. After a strange walk past the Greyhound station, and offers of both drugs and prostitution I reached Beale Street. Finally! My vacation can begin. After a short walk down Beale I realized that it was little more than Las Vegas’s Freemont Street Experience™ with blues musicians. The immediate vicinity was very clean and well policed while just a few short blocks in any direction meant certain death (Ok, that’s an exaggeration, but I like the way it sounded. And I wanted to see if you were still paying attention.) It was very clear that music tourism was a major income generator for the city of Memphis and major efforts were made to make select parts of the city ‘comfortable’ for visitors while other parts were barely tended to and rife with questionable activity. After 3 whiskey cokes at the Blues Hall on Beale I resigned to go to bed and to make an effort to find some authenticity in the city the next morning.
Over the next couple weeks I’ll be recapping my roadtrip down to Memphis and Nashville in a series of ‘What I Learned’ posts. The trip was 5 days long and I’ll be doing a post for each day, as there was too much to learn to fit into one post. Our story begins the day before I left, Saturday, October 11th, 2008.
1. I’m becoming less trusting of technology. Regular readers of The Siren know about my love of vinyl records. While I’ve been very tolerant of digitally formatted music, it’s beginning to try my patience. I’m not saying I dislike it, not at all. (The Siren surely would not exist if it weren’t for the abundance of digital music the the internet.)
I was getting all my ducks in a row the day before I left, and one of those ducks just happened to be updating my iPod with all the hot new jams I’d downloaded since I last updated (almost a year). As I was attempting to update, iTunes gives me an error message, something about not being able to read or write from the disk. So I decide to reformat to the factory settings. This means that all of the data and songs on the iPod will be lost, which was ok with me since I had them all backed up on my computer. No problem. Well, even after the reformatting I get the same error message. I try banging it on the desk a few times (I heard from Tony that this works sometimes. No luck.) Finally I give in and decide on two things, one, I’m not driving 14 hours to Memphis without bringing some music, two, I need a new iPod (as evidenced by my first decision). So I walk down to the local Target Everything Emporium, spend $160 on a new nano. While I’m at Target I also purchase a radio tuner/car charger for the nano, thinking it a good idea since I’d be on the road all day on Sunday. Get the nano back to the office, plug it in and load it up with hot new jams. Once the nano tells me it’s charged I unplug it and it goes black. The little fucker won’t stay charged. I leave it plugged in over night to no avail! Sonnuva! I also find out that the cigarette lighter in the Buick doesn’t work, making my radio tuner/car charger absolutely worthless. My options are to go to Target early the next morning, exchange it, charge it for a couple hours, load with hot jams, and then hit the road. Or, say “Fuck it. Fuck Apple and their shitty iPods. Fuck Target and their shitty iPods. Fuck the hot jams. I gotta be on the road at 7 am it to make to Memphis on time!” (I’m pretty distraught at this point) So I said “Fuck it.” and listened to local radio the whole way. (more on that in the next post)
While my frustrations here have more to do with Apple than anything, it still underscores a very important take-away (to use a dumb-ass marketing term), if you can’t see your music, consider it disposable. If you can’t see the grooves, the tape, or the instruments, forget about it. That music will cease to exist in the very near future. That music will leave no molecular trail when it leaves this plane of existence. Sure it’s possible to download it again, but do you really want to do that? You might as well think of your iPod as a little tiny cardboard box of LPs, that box that you left in your parents basement that disappeared forever. Remember that box? Did you really go out and buy all that music again? Maybe. But probably not. And what about the rare stuff? The stuff you can’t find on MP3 or (chuckle) CD? Sure you can back it up, but that music has to live in two places in order to stay viable. Two machines, and the iPod doesn’t count because you can’t pull your music off of it. For the average Joe Six-String that means having a computer and an external hard drive, or two main machines. And keeping them both updated.
The Apple iPod debuted in 2001. That’s only 7 or 8 years ago! People are still buying records from 50 years ago. Tapes from 20 years ago. And so I ask you to take any MP3 you have right now and project where it will be in 20 years. Upgrade to upgrade. Machine to machine. Crash to crash. Think it will survive 20 years? Who knows? We’ll see. All I’m saying is that there will be no MP3 dollar bins. Think about it.
That’s it for this installment. (A rather fiery one at that.) There’s much more to come. I haven’t even gotten on the road yet, so be patient.
I had been super excited to see BMSR for a long time. They’ve become one of my favorite bands as of late, and as luck would have it they were playing at one of my favorite venues, The 7th Street Entry. I was flying out to see my good friend Tony Venne (of TonyVenne.org) in Baltimore the next morning so I wasn’t able to get too rowdy. Here’s what I learned:
1. The Entry isn’t as loud as it used to be, or I’m losing my hearing. This scares me a little bit. It’s possible that the years of working around loud trucks, bobcats, metal shops and the like, coupled with all the live rock shows I’ve seen are catching up with me. So I think it’s time to go out and purchase a pair of rock and roll earplugs.
2. A lot of good looking girls go to The Entry. At least there were a lot of them there on Thursday for the BMSR show. I realized this in retrospect after spending a long weekend in Baltimore, a city which has a shockingly low supply of attractive women. DC and New York must have a stronger gravitational pull.
3. The spirit of Michael Jackson lives on in a white dude in a leather jacket with a beard like Jesus. I didn’t get his name, but he was tearing the place up with his Jackson-esque pops and locks during the opening act of Mux Mool. It was humorous and a bit impressive to watch. There was also another guy dancing. Right in front of me. And I mean RIGHT in front of me. He was being crowded off to the side of the floor by White Michael’s wild moves. This guy’s moves were much tamer than White Michael’s although I was a bit scared that his close proximity to myself would result in an unfortunate collision and the spillage of beer. I felt compelled to share my thoughts on dancing at rock shows (granted Mux Mool is more techno-dance than rock) which you can find in this earlier Acme Siren post but it seemed a bit like overkill. I’m thinking of just printing up some little cards to hand out for next time.
4. I’m getting older. This is in addition to the (possible) hearing loss. During they’re set BMSR projected toy commercials from the 80s behind the stage. Gazing at commercials for Mad Balls and M.U.S.C.L.E. Men I slipped into a stupor of nostalgia and envy. It was becoming difficult to listen to the band. I was hearing the music, but it became secondary to the toy induced flashback I was having. I had wanted those toys so bad, but my parents would never buy them for me (a fact for which I am grateful now), and it seemed like everyone else had them, or more of them, or something better. All I had was a cruddy Walkman and a shit-ton of paper and pens. Thanks.
On the whole I’d say the show was really pretty good. It must be difficult to take the strangeness and mystery of a band like BMSR and put it on stage. It’s a bit like trying to describe an abstract expressionist painting to someone over the phone. While the music and the visuals are easy enough to grasp, giving form to the aura that surrounds a band whose members have names like Tobacco, and Power Pill Fist could be next to impossible. I hope you get to see them soon.
Years ago (and I mean that literally) a friend of mine asked me if I wanted to go to the opera with her. “Sure.” I said. I’d never been to the opera and thought it sounded like fun. Years pass. I had actually forgotten that I had agreed to attend the opera when she says, “So I got tickets to “The Italian Girl In Algiers” for the 18th. Does that work for you?” And so it was settled, I was going to the opera.
I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. The images that immediately leaped to mind were of Bugs Bunny dressed up in that Valkyrie costume (you know the one I’m talking about, “What’s Opera Doc?”) doing triple-Wagner-high-Cs while running from Elmer Fudd, and alternately of the film Amadeus. Knowing that these images where only artistic interpretations of the art form, I pushed them out of my head and opened myself to the experience as much as possible. Here’s what I learned:
1. Three hours is a long time, unless you’re at the opera. I was informed as we were locating our seats that the opera we would be seeing was “A short one.”
“How short is short?” I asked.
“About three hours.”
“That’s longer than ‘Apocalypse Now’!”
2. There is a lot of singing. A lot. This goes with out saying, but is still worth mentioning (if that makes sense). The opera may have been three hours long, but the actually story could have been told in a third of that time. The rest is all singing. But that’s OK because it’s the singing you’re there to see. I’d actually put the storyline on par with an episode of Perfect Strangers, or Bosom Buddies. So if you don’t like a lot of people standing around singing you might be better off renting “Apocalypse Now” and staying home.
3. It pays to have a suit professionally tailored. If your going to be sitting in a seat at the opera for three hours (or longer) you better be wearing a damn comfortable suit. Maybe the seats on the floor are roomier than the balcony, but it was like sitting on an airplane for three hours. That’s like a flight to New York! I’m glad I spent the extra money and had my suit altered at Heimie’s downtown. If you’ve never been to Heimie’s you owe it to yourself to at least take look inside from the sidewalk. It’s one of the last old school tailor and haberdashery shop in town. Think: dark wood, cigars, tweed, and curly mustaches.
4. Las Vegas is a stage. The set for “The Italian Girl” was amazing. The overture started with not much more than a gigantic book on stage, laying flat and closed. Once the overture ended the book opened by itself (no wires!) and the entire set was revealed inside the book! Like a giant pop-up book. Seeing the stage setup and all the lighting for the opera, reminded me of The Strip in Las Vegas. It occurred to me that the fake architecture, the crazy lighting and water features on The Strip are all part of a gigantic stage set in the middle of the desert. And on this stage you get to star in your own show for a weekend as any character you want. Even the Las Vegas bureau of tourism is in on the game. I guess I always knew this about Vegas, but the opera really drove the point home.
5. Opera has more in common with 80s arena metal than you might expect. Think about it: lots of high pitched solos, the costumes, the make-up, the elaborate sets, and the crazy lighting. Yeah.
All in all it was a good time. More than once I was reminded by my friend that “The Italian Girl” was not indicative of more “traditional” operas, it was a comedy as opposed to a drama, it was shorter etc. So now I’m a little curious to see what else I can learn from seeing another one.
As I wrote earlier, I spent the weekend in Chicago for the Prefuse 73 show. I was joined by Mr. Snead. We stayed with our friend Colleen who was gracious enough to let us crash on her floor. I’ve always been pretty jealous of Chicago. I can’t count how many times great bands have been on tour and the furthest north they came was Chicago. Too often. So this time with the great line up of Prefuse and Blank Blue I decided to take a trip down and catch the show while catching up with some friends at the same time.
The show was at The Empty Bottle, which is a pretty typical mid-western rock-roll venue. Lots of exposed brick, dim lighting, cheap beer, and a floor that has had every beer, liquor, and fluid contained with the human body spilled upon it. I had never been to the Bottle before, and I was expecting it to be bigger. I figured Prefuse would draw a crowd large enough to require something larger than a rock club, but I was excited to see him someplace smaller. Which segues nicely into our first learning:
1. Music is best experienced on a human scale. I would define ‘human scale’ as anything immediately conceivable by the human mind. With numbers I’d put the limit around 100-125, and with distance about 100 feet. Anything larger and the mind has trouble judging the amount accurately, and naturally allows for a higher tolerance of inaccuracy. So when I say music is best experienced on a human scale I mean with less than 100 people and from a distance no greater than 100 feet. This I believe is the optimum condition for feeling connected to not only the music but also the musician.
2. Never underestimate the power of the nap. After a wonderful afternoon eating hot dogs, polish, and duck fat fries at Hot Doug’s we headed back to Colleen’s place with no plan of action. All of us were feeling the hearty lunch we’d had earlier and the drowsiness began to descend with the darkness outside. But wait! This is Chicago! We didn’t come here to nap! Let’s go do something! So we scraped ourselves off the floor and headed outside. We did some shopping, drank some coffee, and had a round of bloody marys. That evening, after Colleen went to dinner with some friends, Bud and I were left to our own devices, and things got ugly. Real ugly. With 4 hours to kill before the show we hit a local pub for some dinner, and immediately found ourselves staring blankly into a television unable to form the coherent thoughts and sentences needed for an actual conversation. We both knew that it was going to be a hard slog to stay awake long enough to enjoy the show, and both agreed that we should have napped when we had the chance. We made it to the show, and the music revived us quite a bit, but let this be a lesson to all of you. You must appreciate the nap!
3. Cabbies are less knowledgeable than they used to be. Chicago has a great public transportation system and an abundance of cabs (both of which we lack all but completely here in the North) and we used them every chance we got. We rode the blue-line El into the city from O’Hare and took cabs everywhere else after that. On just about every occasion the cabbie was not as well geographically informed as we would have like them to be. Most times we had to direct them from what we could remember from Google Maps. This has happened a few times in the Twin Cities as well. After getting in the cab and telling the cabbie where you want to go they ask, “How do I get there?” or, “Where is that?” Is it just me or where they more helpful in the past.
4. Winter is the enemy of the show. Saturday afternoon the thick sky had had enough and decided to snow and sleet. This was actually kind of pretty for the first hour or so. The Chicagoans were bundled up tight and commenting on the cold weather. “It’s balmy! Only 30 degrees!” I would say (remember, the temp in the cities when we left was in the single digits). The above freezing temps during the day meant that once the sun went down the sidewalks froze over with snow melt. This made it very difficult, and dangerous, to walk the sidewalks and also made for some scary driving. It was a good thing we didn’t drink too much at the show because we most definitely would have broken something on the way home (on the upside, I’m sure all the cabbies know exactly where the hospital is). The cooler temps also meant that most people were wearing their winter coats, which take up a lot of space. During the show Bud commented to me that the club would be half as full if people weren’t wearing their coats. Winter coats are just a bitch to deal with. What are you supposed to do with it at the show? You can’t wear it because you’ll get too hot. And you can’t hold it because it’s too bulky and awkward and you end up looking like a dork. Usually the solution lies in doing a little bit of both. In the STP we drive to all of our shows, so we have the option of leaving coats in the car. I guess public transportation does has its downside.
5. Smokey clubs suck. I don’t know how anyone went out before the Minnesota smoking ban. It isn’t so much the smoke in the club, but the smoke that you take home with you after leaving the club. It gets into everything. Your clothes, your hair, everything. It’s like rolling around in the sand at the beach and then going to bed. The worst part is waking up the next morning. Somehow you’re always surprised, “What the fuck is this? Sand?”
6. Chicago: hipster quotient high; asshole quotient low. Never before had I seen so many hipsters. I thought we had them bad in STP. We got nothin’ on Chi-town. Which is no surprise really, it being a larger city. The surprise was that everyone at the show was super polite. There was no pushing, no crowding, and everyone who walked past said “Excuse me,” or “Sorry.” Although there was one dude I wanted to tell to quit dancing and enjoy the music.
Good night Chicago!
In a chance occurrence, I was looking through the Minneapolis paper last week (those of you who know me will note that I prefer the St Paul paper on a account that they run Zippy The Pinhead) and what did I happen to see? An arts listing hyping the Festival of Appropriation, which was being held at the Soap Factory. And Steinski was listed as playing a live set! Steinski is one of the early pioneers of hip-hop sampling and mash-up technique. He paved the way for DJs such as DJ Shadow, Cut Chemist, and Danger Mouse. His music was never very easy to come by. While he did release a few albums, his iconic “Lessons”, numbered 1-3, are tougher to come by because of their generous sampling of copyrighted material. With the rise of the internet his music, along with other sample based music, has become more readily available. (psst. you can download Lessons 1-3 from this website. don’t tell Canada)
While I think the show would have been better had it been in a real music club rather than in an art gallery, it was still fun to see the actual Steinski. I felt a bit like I was going to see Harley Ear, the man who first put tailfins on cars. While undoubtedly influential, I knew next to nothing about this man who has spent much of his life in obscurity, known only to die-hard fans and historians of a specific genre.
Ok. Let’s recap what we learned.
1. Steinski wears a fanny-pack. I don’t mean to put him down for it, but it strikes me as a little strange. I guess it makes sense if you’re traveling around a lot, playing gigs by yourself, and want to keep your personal items from being stolen. And when you’ve written a large chapter in the giant book of hip-hop history I guess you can wear whatever the hell you want. I’m surprised Diddy’s Sean John clothing line doesn’t offer one made from red velour studded with rhinestones.
2. I hardly knew ANYTHING he played. It was all fantastic, but I didn’t recognize 90 percent of it! Although, with a 20 year head start on me it makes sense that his record collection should be a bit larger than mine.
3. Steinski seems like a really nice guy. I remember seeing him in Scratch and he seemed cool, cracking jokes and what-not. Seeing him in person, I felt the same way. He was chatting with a few people, checking out the people, making sure everyone was jiving to what he was playing. He just seemed really genuine.
4. Latin music is the best bet when you want the people to dance. Most of Steinski’s show was early hip-hop, funk and soul, and with this being Minnesota, not many people were dancing. There was a small dance-off between two dudes, but that was hardly inspiring. To successfully incite dance, women are needed. One woman dancing alone acts as a lone nucleon in a particle accelerator, gathering speed and pulling in those nearest to her until she eventually collides with the other particles, releasing an enormous amount of collective energy. And the best fuel for this chain reaction is latin music. I was fortunate enough to witness this with my own eyes, without the aid of safety glasses.
5. Argyle is in. In a big way. At least among the art gallery yipster crowd. Argyle sweaters. Argyle ties. Argyle hats. Argyle socks. I think one guy even had argyle glasses. Also, mens footwear is starting to tread that fine line between what’s suitable for the sexes. My prediction, in 5 years it’ll be fashionable for men to wear stilettos. Knitted stilettos.