An Emotional Memoir of Martha Quinn by Alan Licht
I just blasted through this little 76 page book this past weekend. Some of you may know Alan Licht from his music released under his own name or as Text of Light with Sonic Youthster Lee Renaldo or many of his other collaborations and bands. Anyhow, the low down on this book is that it has nothing to do with the MTV VJ Martha Quinn. Rather, it attempts to investigate how musical taste is formed early on, how it morphs as we age, and especially how music we hated in our youth (in Licht’s case 80s pop) sometimes has an eerie appeal. Licht begins his musings inspired by chance encounters with pop tunes in the grocery stores, restaurants and bars, and only later he subjects himself to a multi-disc decade retrospective collection where he attempts to comment track by track. He makes a valiant effort to comment on these tracks, but somewhere along the way he seems to loose steam, which may be more due to the collection in question.
So the book chugs along like this for the first couple of chapters before Licht changes gear to address the story of indie rock, and in many way the story of New York City, being co-opted by the mainstream in the 90s. Licht takes a personal approach to looking at how this history unfolded. He talks about his own recollections and thoughts as well as incorporating the views of the musicians and artists around him. But this is all done in a super informal, conversational manner. He is not quoting anyone, or tracking people down for contemporary interviews.
The story of late 80, early 90s in independent music is certainly not a new story to me, but it is always interesting to me to read how different people remember and interpret the changes that happened. In many ways this story of underground, independent rock getting into the mainstream and the subsequent effects is one of most relevant, interesting and important stories to happen modern music. It is so important because it is not really a success story at all. Many bands did not survive the transition after becoming really “big”. While others got totally screwed over by crazy deals. And then there were those that self destructed. It was exciting to watch great bands get the recognition they deserved, while at the same time disheartening to witness their increasing distance from their underground values and ideals (or at least the fan-perceived, media perpetuated versions of this).
The thing that I found really interesting to think about while reading this is that Licht must be at just the right age to be at the very beginning of Generation X, while I myself am just at the very end. There are a lot of interesting statements about how he and his peers perceived authenticity and value in music before the 90s media buzz and before the ease of Internet discovery. What I don’t think that he realizes is that even the people in my age group, the people who were young impressionable twelve or thirteen year-olds when Nevermind came out, some of us had some understanding of the underground and the rhetoric around it. For those of us who were somehow tuned in to the underground, even if only to some small extent, we were totally suspicious of success, selling out, signing to a major label, and being on MTV. I too often find myself, like Licht, lamenting the fact that it is so much easier to find out about music today, that it seems like the kids are really different, and all that jazz. So this really got me thinking. It seems to me that there has been a long history of independent thought and expression in the arts that has been around a lot longer than indie bands and labels. Maybe not all of the kids really are all that different. Maybe some of them are able to tap into the independent, underground mentality and seek out its manifestation today. The authentic gesture still has a huge impact on teenagers and chances are, those who are savvy can identify it. This likely accounts for the amazing noise, drone, experimental tape scene today and its semi-popularity with the kids. Music from this scene will never be on MTV or the radio and its possible that is part of its appeal. I have been to many shows where I have been totally shocked to see such young faces in the crowd. It took me years of listening and exploring to appreciate this music, while for them, it reeks of independent spirit. It makes me truly happy to see that young people, perhaps feeling marginalized and out of step, are seeking out authentic independent voices within music and other arts. For me, finding non-commercial, independent, genuine art of all sorts got me through being a teenager and beyond, and I imagine that the importance of this kind of connection is not limited to my generation.
Its that time of year when many writers look back at the year and try to create some sort of account of what will be memorable for them. What are the best albums of the year? The best movies? The best books? Etc. I have never really tried to have much a formal take on this whole list-making business, even though I really enjoy looking over what others have to say. I certainly do not have a formal way of keeping track of what has come out this year and what I have encountered and enjoyed, so I am sure that I will completely forget something totally amazing. Oh well. Here are some of the albums that I found myself listening to a lot this past year.
Overall, I think I have a lot to say about music from this year and not a whole lot on books and movies. I think I totally missed the boat on movies and books that came out this past year. Well, that’s grad school for you. I did see a fair amount of films, but I don’t think much of it was newly released. Enjoyed the new Planet of the Apes in the theater, but still not sure that it will hold up to repeated viewings. Criterion’s re-release of Brian DePalma’s Blow Out was pretty great. Surprising got a real kick out of Tucker and Dale Vs. Evil. Great twist on the slasher premise. Rubber was kinda, sort of, pretty great. One viewing is probably all I need in this life, but at the same time, it was really well done and interesting. None of the big, important films of the year got me to the theater. Any time Terrence Mallick comes out from his cave, its an event that is likely worthwhile, but I just didn’t make it to Tree of Life. Sorry Terry. Not your fault, its mine. Same goes for Drive. Realize that it is worth seeing, but somehow, it just didn’t compel me to see it. Yet. That’s what I remember for films, and some of those may have come out last year. Oh well, I saw them this year. Again, I’m blaming it on grad school.
I read a ton of great comics this year, but I will have to do some more thinking and research what actually came out this year. I will get back to you on that one.
I can’t really tell from here what the musical trend of the year was. I didn’t spot anything completely new and specifically 2011. Did you? Guess sometimes it take a few years to gain perspective. Although, of course, I know that my tastes are pretty far off the charts from whatever the heck is going on in the mainstream, or even the mainstream indie world. Seems like a lot of folks around here in the Seattle (based on what’s hyped at the music shops and what people are talking about) are really into some clean, slightly electro, adult contemporary sounding stuff. You would really think that with all of the messed up stuff going on in the world that there would be a whole lot more anger and revolt in the music of today, but that certainly doesn’t seem to be the case. Thanks to the Internet and mobile devices we are way more connected and informed, but somehow complacent as well. I don’t know really. This is obviously just my theorizing, but I can’t help but wonder if this doesn’t have some role in how inoffensive the “indie” music of today seems.
As usual, its not hard for me to think of a bunch of great stuff I heard this year. This is the stuff that I listened to most and releases that have high artistic merit in my book. This year I found myself listening to a lot more poppy, catchy, song-oriented music than I had been over the previous few years. Labels like Slumberland, In The Red, Woodists, and Captured Tracks seemed to be releasing pop gem after pop gem. Of course, since I had been ignoring this type of music for the past few years, there were lots of great older releases to get into too. Last year, for me was really THE YEAR for Slumberland in many ways, but there were some great follow-ups and sneak peeks into the studios in 2012 and The Crystal Stilts In Love With Oblivion was a stone cold beauty. Since their resurrection in 2005, Siltbreeze has continued a strong run that takes on the skewed, fractured, messed-up, damaged side of the pop equation. They also had some crucial New Zealand reissues from Axemen and Above Ground. Speaking of NZ, looks like the epoch defining label Flying Nun is getting with the program and kicking out some classic beauties on vinyl. Horray! Or really I should say, Tally-Ho! Also in the reissue camp, more Japanese heavies see the light of day thanks to Phoenix Records – Les Rallizes Denudes, Taj Mahal Travellers, Flower Travellin’ Band and others. Beyond crucial stuff. Also been trying to fill in the gaps of my Dischord collection. Thankfully their remastering, reissuing campaign continues. It is a really, really good time to be a vinyl fanatic – although the super, duper deluxe, special addition trend seems to be to be artificially pushing the prices higher and higher. Sorry, but 30 bucks for most albums is just a little too rich for my blood. (Most of the time). Luckily there are still many label putting great music on this earth, on vinyl, for the 10 to 15 range. As I say, I’m really glad that vinyl is popular again, but some of these super expensive releases really feel like someone is trying to cash in on the craze.
Speaking of budget minded labels, Mississippi continues to absolutely kill it. I miss being in Portland so much, for many different reasons, but Mississippi Records is a big one. Their releases are really in it for the long haul. I may not listen to them every day, but I know that I will cherish each one for years to come. As far as packaging, they keep things simple, but always press their records on nice heavy vinyl, without making some big deal about how many grams it is. Used to be that info on the releases way minimal at best, which really added to the whole mystery, but this year has seen some releases with booklets and photos. The absolute best of the bunch in my opinion is Ishilan N-Tenere a collaborative release with Sahel Sounds. Technically, this beauty was release in December of 2010, but I say that is close enough for me. Totally stunningly beautiful collection of songs from Senegal and Mali. Christopher, the brains behind Sahel Sounds has been recording and releasing great African music. Be sure to check out his blog that has lots of great info and sounds. Looks like more collabs with Mississippi are in the works, and if you have a change to go to the store in Portland, be sure to keep an eye out for the cassettes Christopher puts together. Mississippi’s cassettes have continued to blast out this year and the jams just keep coming. They are supposed to stop at a hundred and are almost there. Been trying my best to keep up, but its crazy. You never know which ones you’re gonna find. Luckily, they seem to continue to dub the older ones too. Maybe, just maybe my collection will be complete someday. I guess its kinda sick, but they are just about the best mixes for any occasion. What can a music nut do? On to the goods. This stuff blew my mind and made me happy this year.
Kaurismaki’s films are well worth seeking out and luckily today are much easier to find thanks to the efforts of the fine folks at Criterion. Leningrad Cowboys Go America was his big international breakthrough, but personally, I would suggest starting with The Man Without A Past(2003) and then the Proletariat Trilogy – Shadows In Paradise (1986), Ariel (1988), andThe Match Factory Girl (1990).