Tuesday, July 07, 2015

Adventures in Selling Out

I may not be doing much more than keeping the lights on here, but I'm glad this little home of mine exists on the internet so that I can still retreat here when I need to. Like, say, now.

Since the days when I used to write here full-time a lot has happened. I made the decision to burn my proverbial ships and make a life in L.A. after driving out in late 2011. I got involved with someone and, even after all I'd gone through previously, gave in to the desire for human interaction with a woman I loved. Maybe most importantly in terms of my output here, I finally started getting paid to write full-time thanks to The Daily Banter. Being a professional writer was what I had been working toward since May of 2006, when I started this little experiment of mine and began cranking out material for it, so when the Banter offer came along I jumped at it. In some ways, even though it was the chance I'd waited for, I still felt like some kind of sell-out because I had always promised my readers that I would be completely independent. That's what DXM was. That's what I was so proud of.

Over the past few years, Banter has done something extraordinary. With just a few regular columnists working their asses off and creating only as much as a few columnists could, the site grew to the point where even though it wasn't a household name, it was still pulling in upwards of five-million hits a month at one point. We broke stories, went to Ferguson, did some genuine good, and took absolutely no prisoners. It was and is the best job I've ever had and I have no doubt my fellow contributors would say the same thing. But running a website is a herculean task financially, especially if you've made a promise to readers not to talk down to them or inundate them with clickbait. Investors want a concept -- and no, creating decent content and making it your mission to slap down those who deserve it doesn't really count as one -- and in lieu of venture capital the best you can hope for is to pummel readers with ads and pray it's enough to keep the lights on and the writers paid. It's been a struggle and, as any regular reader has noticed, it's one that's had a drastic impact on output at the site lately and the roster of writers on the payroll.

I don't write at Banter as much as I used to, but I still have to write. I want to write. But here's the thing: I can't come back here and do it for free anymore and I can't see this site, even with options like Patreon or GoFundMe, bringing in enough money for me to live off of. I need to keep myself out there both in terms of making a living and to keep my name in the conversation so that I'm helping to draw traffic to the Bob & Chez Show podcast I do with Bob Cesca. So in addition to the few pieces I post at Banter, I'm going to be branching out and pitching to other publications from this point forward. Which brings me to the thing I feel kind of shitty about. Thanks to a recommendation by my good friend Mary Beth Williams -- and with the knowledge that Cesca has taken to writing for them regularly -- I'm probably going to start writing for Salon. I feel like a hypocritical asshole for this considering the amount of criticism I've heaped upon Salon over the past couple of years, but the fact remains that the site pays shockingly well and has already agreed to accept my contributions. There will likely be other outlets where you'll be able to read me, but branching out to Salon is the immediate path of least resistance toward continuing to write and continuing to get paid for doing so. Maybe it seems like an odd choice considering, but really it's no choice at all: the pay is great, they're still a site that hosts a lot of really good writing, and they've even toned down the lunacy quite a bit as of late.

As I sit here and type out these words at DXM, I think to myself how great it would be to just come back here full-time. To try to make this site into something that pays me well enough to be able to abandon almost everything else. I have no idea if that would even be possible but I know that it's the future I would choose over any other. Maybe that's what's really left my head spinning. I owe no apologies or explanations to anyone when it comes to where I write, considering that nobody's paying my bills but me, and yet I've always known that nothing makes me happier or prouder than simply working for the people who read this site for so long. The best stuff I've ever written was published here because this was something I took more pride in than almost anything I've ever done in my life. DXM was and is my home, even if it's largely abandoned these days. I can't afford to come back here and put in a lot of effort when my day is so busy as it is and when I'm now in a position where literally everything I do that's work has to come with a paycheck. I can't do anything for free anymore. That's the reality.

So, I get to move on and push further out into the world yet again, which I guess is a good thing. Maybe the words I write won't be quite as meaningful as the ones I published here or even at Banter, but who knows. This is the life I chose nine years ago. I guess I'm stuck with it now.

Tuesday, June 02, 2015

Listening Post: Band of Horses

Just really feeling this song right now.

Here's Band of Horses -- Laredo.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

It Goes On and On and On and On

In an extraordinary extended essay for the Directors Guild of America, David Chase is now dissecting, shot by shot, the masterful final scene he created for The Sopranos. After eight years, the ending of The Sopranos is still controversial and wildly disputed and while Chase explains the mechanics of creating the tremendous suspense that led up to the final cut-to-black, the one question he doesn't answer is the one question everyone wants to know: did Tony die? Actually, Chase does answer it, alluding quite a bit to the possibility of Tony being killed, but still acknowledging that in the end it didn't matter. Regardless, the amount of skill and detail that went into that final scene is almost breathtaking. To hear Chase walk you through it, it becomes clear just what a master tactician he was as a director.

In June of 2013, I wrote a lengthy piece pegged off of the ending of The Sopranos. I had been pondering it and the recent death of James Gandolfini, maybe to an unsettling degree given that both felt like they were saying something to me during a very dark period within my own head. Today I'm bringing that column back, possibly with the knowledge that even though I'm in a better place now the questions I raised within it are always there in the background, lurking. The knowledge of my relationship with the inevitability of death never goes away. As Chase says in the DGA piece, "The big moment is always out there waiting."

"The Grand Finale" (Originally Published, 6.26.13)

Act 1: "Try To Remember the Times That Were Good"

Lately I've found myself obsessed with the ending of The Sopranos.

Surely you remember it: Tony and two-thirds of his family, sitting in Holsten's diner, casually munching on onion rings while the tabletop jukebox played Journey's anthemic Don't Stop Believin', a song which suddenly seemed to take on an odd menace given the setting. Tony had just made an uneasy peace with the New York mob, but both he and we understood that threats to him still lurked in every shadow simply by virtue of the life he'd chosen, what had already killed off almost everyone around him, turning him, maybe through sheer good luck, into the Jersey crew's last man standing. So there he sat, grabbing a bite with the people he truly loved, the blood family he'd tried to protect but whom he had inadvertently poisoned via the same cycle of ruthless violence that created him. Only one person was missing at the table: his daughter, the one whose voice he had come back to at the beginning of the year after being shot by his uncle and put into a coma. She was trying to parallel park outside and once she finished she'd come in and sit next to her father and the Sopranos would be together again as it had always been. We watch her finally pull into the space after three tries, watch her stride across the street to the front door of Holsten's. Tony hears the bell ring on the front door and looks up. Then an abrupt cut-to-black. Nothing.

At the time, the way The Sopranos ended felt like a cheap parlor trick, the final triumph of creator David Chase's more cynical tendencies and a big "fuck you" to the audience. At the time, the sudden cut-to-black felt like Chase telling us that life would go on for Tony; we simply wouldn't be around to see it. Of course, the reality of that ending was that nothing could be further from the truth because the reality was that Tony was killed at the end of The Sopranos, he simply wasn't around to see it and therefore neither were we. If you doubt this interpretation of what's gone on to be perhaps the most controversial finale in TV series history, go back and watch it again -- and this time, look closer. As Chase would say in a later interview, all you need to know about what really happened at the end of that iconic scene is there in the minutes, hour, and weeks that came before it. In the end, he practically spells it out on the walls.

Watch the man in the gray Members Only jacket get up from his seat at the bar and walk into the bathroom behind and to the right of Tony just before Meadow presumably walks in. Remember that the title of the final season opener was "Members Only," and in it Tony was shot by Junior and Eugene Pontecorvo carries out a hit in a restaurant wearing the same jacket. Think back on the conversation Tony has with the recently murdered Bobby Bacala on the lake, when Bobby muses on being whacked that "you probably don't even hear it when it happens" and how Silvio didn't hear the initial shots that killed Gerry Torciano right in front of him. Notice the split-second that Jay and the Americans' This Magic Moment is shown on the jukebox at Tony's table, the same song that played after Bobby made his first kill. The woman who walks in who bears an uncanny resemblance to Janice. The two black men who look strangely like the guys who once tried unsuccessfully to kill Tony. The scout leader who looks and dresses like Phil Leotardo and who makes his finger into a gun. Remember Paulie's comment about the orange cat -- the one that seems to stare intently at a picture of Christopher -- being a bad omen. Now look over Tony's right shoulder at the giant painting of the orange tiger on Holsten's wall and remember Adriana's affinity for orange tiger print. Also on the wall, the inescapable image of the Inn at the Oaks, which represented the final acceptance of death -- what Tony Blundetto called "home" -- in Tony's dream-state after he was shot. As Chase said, it's all there. Everyone is in place at Holsten's for Tony's final reckoning, his life truly flashing before his eyes just before the end comes.

Then there's the pattern. Tony hears the bell, looks up, the shot reverses and we see what he sees, his family coming one-by-one through the door. First Carmela. Then A.J. Then Tony hears the bell, looks up, and sees -- nothing -- because there's nothing to see. Tony is dead, shot in the head in front of his family by the man in the Members Only jacket. Rather than show us Tony being killed Chase does something far more diabolical and powerful: he makes us experience it. This choice represents perhaps the truest stroke of genius in a show that was full of them from beginning to end. It makes you understand that almost nothing you saw up to that point was by accident. Every single little detail mattered and it was all leading you to the same place -- to the death of Tony Soprano. That's what this extended tragedy was always about: his rise, attempt and failure at moral redemption, and ultimate fall.

In the very first episode of the show, Tony panicked over the ducks leaving his pool and understood that it represented his fear of losing his family. In the end, he lost them by being killed right in front of their faces.

Tony never heard it coming. And neither did we.

Act 2: "You're Going Home"

It's been so long since I've written.

Yes, technically I write almost every weekday, upwards of 4,800 words a week, for The Daily Banter, but for me it's not the same as writing. I bang out polemics which I sometimes feel very strongly about but which can, I admit, occasionally be little more than the fulfillment of a job requirement. This doesn't in any way mean that I don't care and don't take pride in the work I do for Banter, only that I miss the comfort of expressing the parts of my personality that don't want anything at all to do with politics or media or generally being a smart-ass, and those parts are many. I always wrote because I needed to, not for anyone else but for myself; I don't do that anymore. I don't do it for reasons purely practical and for reasons I try to convince myself are purely practical: because I simply don't have the time or don't have the will. There are so many days that I just do not give a shit about the Republicans in Congress, or Barack Obama, or the latest scandal, or who's outraged over whose crude joke, or what insufferable thing Glenn Greenwald said this week. There are so many days when I spit fiery opinions into the ether that I barely believe and hate myself for pretending to hold to ferociously. You can typically spot these instances by way of a counterintuitive and yet incredibly obvious tell: they're the ones I defend with the most egregious amount of venom. I fight back the hardest and in the most personal manner when I believe my own bullshit the least. This is the unnatural order of things. And I'm beginning to think that it's literally killing me.

Ironically, all the poison I regularly unleash is nothing compared to the poison I keep inside. It churns constantly, feeling at all times like it's threatening to eat a hole through my sometimes fragile psyche. When things were at their worst in my life a few years ago, it was my ability to express what I was going through -- the release of putting it down and pushing it far away from me -- that saved me from going completely crazy. But I don't do that anymore. No, at face value things are nowhere near as relentlessly punishing as they were from mid-2009 through the next couple of years, when a combination of pain and paralysis caused by the collapse of my marriage and being removed from my child left me floating adrift and alone: no real home to speak of and no real sense of who I was as a person, what beliefs I still had to cling to, or where to turn to make the almost constant anguish stop. But something is still wrong -- naggingly, achingly wrong -- and I'm finally having to truly come to terms with the fact that it isn't something being generated from without but from within. I have a beautiful and caring girlfriend, whom I love (dearly). I live in sunny Los Angeles (again). I don't do drugs or drink too much (they don't work in the end). I have major financial considerations that I at all times feel like I'm being crushed by and they cause me to work almost inhuman hours just to keep my head above water (but it's not as if it's the first time in my life that I've been in this position). Like everyone else, I deal with good and bad and try to navigate the world as best I can. And yet I don't sleep most nights. I often wake up crying. I rarely want to get out of bed. I sometimes dread leaving my home. Even when I'm laughing, I can feel desperate and broken inside. And always present at the front of my mind is that the older I get, the more hopeless my future is going to seem.

Here's something I've been longing to say for quite a while because I always felt like it was important: My divorce taught me something that I desperately needed to learn. It taught me something I was supposed to learn twelve long years ago, when I was in rehab for a devastating heroin addiction. Put simply, it taught me the truth of the Serenity Prayer. Anyone who's read my book, Dead Star Twilight, knows that that seemingly trite nostrum is a common refrain for those who hold tightly to the wisdom of "The Program." While I always understood the idea of it, I never actually accepted it -- until I finally put my arms in the water and began to paddle after almost three years at sea in the wake of my break-up from my wife. It was then, at long last, that I "got it." You have to accept that there are some things you simply can't change or control, another person's actions being one of them. I couldn't do anything about what had happened to me. I was completely at the mercy of what someone else wanted for both her life and mine, with our daughter caught in the middle, and I had only two very clear choices when it came to how I dealt with it: in the immortal words of Andy Dufresne, I had to get busy living or get busy dying. So I made a choice to come back out west, to the Pacific, which, again according to Philosopher Dufresne, has no memory -- hopefully no memory of what happened to me the last time I was in L.A. My drive across the entire country was the metaphoric made literal, a sudden bolt of physical momentum that finally led me forward for the first time in a long time -- appreciating each new day rather than uselessly looking back on anything that had happened in the past, any of the immutable events of history that had led me to each precious new second in time. It was good. It was the lesson I needed.

But it's a difficult outlook to maintain when you realize that each time your child visits from her expensive three-story home in Dallas, you have to convert your bedroom into hers and play a personally heartbreaking game of pretend, hoping she doesn't notice or care about the difference. When you're struggling with the kinds of money issues that seem to have ceased being a problem for other people years ago. When you can't understand why anything can make you cry. When you truly come to believe, finally, at the age of 43, that there's a very good chance you're not going to live to see old age, nor would you much want to.

Yesterday, I was wandering a local Rite-Aid, looking for a bottle of water and a bottle of Tylenol. As I moved through the aisles, I noticed that the music playing on the overhead speaker system was Tears for Fears' Everybody Wants To Rule the World, a seminal song from my high school years. I try not to look back on those days too much because nostalgia gets you nowhere; again, the past is past and there's no changing it. But I do miss the optimism of that era, the knowledge that no matter what went wrong, there would always be time to fix it. Tears for Fears then segued into Bon Jovi's Who Says You Can't Go Home. A New Jersey band. Singing about going home.

Act 3: "Every Guy Who Ran That Crew..."

There aren't enough superlatives to fully and properly express the impact that James Gandolfini had on television as an art form and, as has been almost universally acknowledged, on those he came into contact with throughout his career. He died last week at the far-too-young age of 51 of a massive heart attack -- cut to black, likely didn't even hear it coming -- but by creating the most complex, indelible and influential character in dramatic television history, he ensured that his legacy will live on for a very long time indeed. Like his alter-ego Tony Soprano, he was taken from us so quickly that we barely had time to process it, each, some have argued, a victim of his own bad choices. In Tony's case it was a life of crime; in James's case, a potential lack of attention to the deterioration of his heart. Either way, the end result is the same: death, an abrupt nothingness. I'm left wondering, though, whether Gandolfini ever looked back on his work on The Sopranos and felt somewhat haunted by it, if he pondered whether he'd ever do something that good, create something that undeniably flawless, again. An artist, of course, isn't merely to be judged by his or her current output but is in reality the sum of it over a large swath of time; provided they've got real talent, people tend to judge artists by what they've done throughout their lives, not simply what they're doing at any one moment. But creative types themselves don't always see it that way; they can go completely fucking crazy, unleashing their own private hell, simply by doing nothing more than constantly asking if their best days as a painter, actor, musician, writer, and so on are behind them.

I don't claim by any means to be a great writer, but I admit that I now go back and look at the material I wrote for years on this site and in Dead Star Twilight and it's as if I'm reading the work of someone else. I remember the act of writing but I can't for the life of me explain how I came up with the words that I did. What I read from years ago feels fearless and passionate, far too fearless and passionate to come from the person I know now to be me, the person I live with every day and night. That person is timid, frightened almost all the time, aware maybe of the best way to proceed but once again too trapped under the weight of mid-life stasis to actually proceed that way. That person has proven time and time again that it all comes back to this: feeling despondent, feeling overwhelmed, absolutely sure that his best days are behind him. Only now it's worse because I'm finally willing to -- have no choice but to, really -- admit that a lot of the past wasn't all that great. So if the past was bad and it's the best it's going to get and there's no other way to live but for today, what the hell do you do? How do you continue to move forward?

In the last season of The Sopranos, David Chase put Tony Soprano on the final path toward his inescapable end. Tony was shot and awoke from a near-death experience to find that he'd been given a second chance to redeem himself and possibly live out his years in peace with his family. But it took almost no time at all for him to return to the life he'd come to know all too well and enjoy far too much. He cheated on Carmela, killed Christopher, arrogantly and ignominiously gave up on his treatment and was consequently dumped by Dr. Melfi, and with all of this, the wheels were set in motion for Tony's doom. Again, as Chase said, it was all there. Anyone could see it. In fact, if you go back and watch all of Season Six of the show from start to finish with the knowledge that Tony is killed at the very end of the final episode, it's impossible not to see just how obviously, meticulously, and brilliantly that outcome was set up.

Everything in his life led to what finally happened to him.

It'd be nice to believe that he could have changed it, could have averted his ultimate reckoning. But who can really say for sure? Maybe he hadn't, in fact, chosen it. Maybe it was something he couldn't change and something he therefore had to simply accept. Maybe his death, like his life, was inevitable. It was the only ending that made sense.

Friday, March 27, 2015

Listening Post: Genevieve

Genevieve Schatz used to sing in a band out of Chicago, which means that she knows big hooks and absolutely irresistible melodies since there's apparently something in the water in that town. Her old group, Company of Thieves, was a favorite of mine a few years back -- when they were active -- to the point where I chose their song Oscar Wilde as one of the best singles of 2009.

Well, Genevieve is back -- ditching her last name and going full-on pop queen. Normally, maybe this might be an unfortunate choice, but the thing is, not only does Genevieve display the same spectacular vocal authority she did in Company, but she's doing this as an independent so it's impossible not to feel good about supporting her. She moved out here to L.A. at some point, which for the love of all that's holy I hope doesn't ruin her -- but from what it looks like, so far, so good.

Here's her first single. Listen, share, that sort of thing.

Happy Friday -- this is Colors.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Listening Post: Fink

Fink is the stage name of British singer-songwriter-DJ-producer Fin Greenall. With that kind of hyphenate you'd think his music would be overly complex, but actually Fink's best stuff is stripped down and deeply personal. He's collaborated with John Legend, Banks and Amy Winehouse in the past, but his solo material is where it's really obvious what he's capable of.

His most recent album, Hard Believer, is a current favorite of mine and when you hear the first couple of singles from it you'll understand why.

First up, it's a song that could easily be a lost track from Radiohead's OK Computer. This is Pilgrim.

And here's Looking Too Closely.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Listening Post: Wolf Alice

You should be listening to Wolf Alice for a number of reasons. They're out of London and they sound like a plane full of Seattle musicians circa '91 plunged into the venue where My Bloody Valentine and Elastica were playing a show together. They're basically kids and yet in just two years they've managed to become one of the most buzzed-about bands overseas. It feels like their stuff just keep getting better and more assured with each new song you hear.

Wolf Alice's new record, My Love Is Cool is set to land in June. Right now none of their material is available on iTunes in the U.S. but it looks like you can get it at Amazon. I have to imagine, since they're all over iTunes U.K., they'll eventually get Apple distribution here. They're also touring the U.S. right now. (If you happen to live in L.A., they're playing the Roxy on May 18th.)

Here now, three from Wolf Alice. First up it's Giant Peach.

Next, Moaning Lisa Smile.

Finally, this is Storms.

Friday, March 13, 2015

Listening Post: Dead Sara

In 2012 I called Dead Sara's Weatherman the best single of the year. It was an absolutely ferocious track that heralded not only Dead Sara as maybe the next and potentially last great rock-and-roll band, but their single, Emily Armstrong, as the kind of voice that really does come only once in a generation.

I saw them live here in L.A. -- they're locals -- last year and it was sincerely one of the best shows I've ever seen: just an hour being smacked in the face by the raw fucking power of these guys.

Three years later, Dead Sara are back. Their new record's called Pleasure To Meet You and you can already download this first single from it on iTunes and so on.

Here's Mona Lisa.

And another track from the album, Something Good.

Friday, March 06, 2015

Listening Post: Ex Cops

Brooklyn indie-pop duo Ex Cops are in the news at the moment. The reason is that they're the latest to take up the fight for independent artists everywhere to get paid for their work.

It goes like this: Ex Cops were invited by McDonalds to play SXSW this year, but within the offer was this line, which should be very familiar to any up-and-coming musician, writer, filmmaker or artist these days: "There isn't a budget for an artist fee (unfortunately)." In other words, feel free to come out here and play, but you're not going to get paid for it. McDonalds did, however, assure them there would be free food, which sounds less like a promise than a threat.

Ex Cops responded with a scathing open letter to McDonalds on their Facebook page, pointing out that a company that made $90 billion in 2013 somehow couldn't afford a few bucks to pay an indie act to play on their behalf, an act the company would immediately brand and use for its own promotional purposes. McDonalds shot back saying that it was simply following protocol and tagged its response with "#slownewsday." "That's not true," says Ex Cops singer Amalie Bruun to Rolling Stone. "They're not following any guidelines because everyone else is offering money. They'll have to take that up with South by Southwest if they think they're following the guidelines...Other, much smaller corporations are offering us money."

The band also ridiculed McDonalds for being "an archaic company trying to be hip by putting a hashtag at the end of an e-mail."

Exposure and promotion are important. But when you're a struggling artist, exposure and promotion don't pay the rent. It's especially a problem when a mega-corporation is asking you to foot the bill for your own out-of-town gig.

And the thing is, Ex Cops are worth spending a little on.

Hear for yourself. This is Black Soap.

Read me at The Daily Banter

Wednesday, March 04, 2015

Listening Post: Ibeyi

Ibeyi have a fascinating background and a genuinely remarkable sound. The duo is made up of 19-year-old twin sisters Naomi and Lisa-Kaindé Diaz, who were born in Cuba and raised in France. Their father was legendary Cuban percussionist Anga Díaz of the Buena Vista Social Club, which means that he played with people like Ibrahim Ferrer and Rubén González.

As the Diaz sisters grew up, they took up their father's instruments as well as piano and guitar and began singing in English and Yoruba, which came to Cuba via the slave trade from Africa centuries ago. The music Ibeyi makes is such an amalgam of styles and cultures that it almost defies description. It's cool and minimalist but warm and delicate, part electronic and part traditional and percussive, Cuban jazz mixed with African rhythms and experimental Euro-pop.

No matter how you attempt to categorize it, though, it's absolutely mesmerizing.

Here's Ibeyi -- Oya.

Tuesday, March 03, 2015

Listening Post: Gateway Drugs

So I can't promise that I'll be able to run this place on much more than impulse power given my heavy workload at The Daily Banter and beyond. But I've missed my internet home here so I think it's time to at least flip the lights back on, blow off some of the cobwebs and turn up some music. That's a decent start.

Today the new record from Gateway Drugs lands at iTunes and everywhere else and it's something you should definitely give a listen to. The band's a four-piece out of L.A. made up of three siblings who are the kids of Prescott Niles of The Knack and one hell of a powerhouse drummer, and their sound is a little like Black Rebel Motorcycle Club if you added a female voice into the mix.

I haven't stopped listening to the record, Magick Spells, since I got a hold of an advance copy of it a few weeks back. It's swirling, wall-of-sound fuzzy, propulsive and sensuously intoxicating stuff for the most part, even if the first single is a little more poppy than what you find on the rest of the album (which is to be expected).

My favorite track, if you care about such things, is I'm in Love with a Teenage Heartthrob, but this upbeat single will do nicely as an introduction.

Here's Fridays Are for Suckers.

And one more -- Head.

By the way, they're on tour with Swervedriver over the next month, so if you get a chance, see them live there or in here L.A. if you happen to be in the area. You certainly won't be disappointed.

Read me at The Daily Banter