My #NotbyREM Song Challenge Results

I had a lot of fun writing this one, and it also influenced me to revisit REM’s early and mid-era catalog on vinyl, which is always enjoyable. I had overlooked the second side of Murmur for so long! Anyway, here are my song choices from this month’s challenge. The matrix, for reference:

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  1. Worriers – “End of the World” (song of 2020)
  2. The Aquabats – “Pool Party” (it was a cool party)
  3. Cee-Lo Green – “The Art of Noise”
  4. Pinback – “How We Breathe”
  5. Herbie Hancock – “Chameleon”
  6. Common – “The Corner (feat. The Last Poets)”
  7. Jessie Ware – “Spotlight”
  8. Mrs. Magician – “There is No God”
  9. Def Leppard – “Stand Up (Kick Love Into Motion)”
  10. Frodus – “The Day Buildings Mysteriously Vanished”
  11. Prefab Sprout – “Moving the River”
  12. Dan Deacon – “Wham City”
  13. Andrew W.K. – “I Get Wet”
  14. Travis – “Flowers in the Window”
  15. Goldfinger – “Superman”
  16. Grandaddy – “El Caminos in the West”
  17. The Dead Milkmen – “Watching Scotty Die”
  18. Orange Juice – “Falling and Laughing”
  19. The Ramones – “Howling at the Moon (Sha-La-La)”
  20. Meat Loaf – “Everything Louder than Everything Else”
  21. Snapcase – “Bleeding Orange”
  22. LL Cool J – “I Can’t Live Without My Radio”
  23. Sick of It All – “Clobberin’ Time”
  24. Buzzcocks – “Everybody’s Happy Nowadays”
  25. Deftones – “Be Quiet and Drive (Far Away)”
  26. The Replacement – “A Little Mascara”
  27. Cock Sparrer – “Working”
  28. Sunny Day Real Estate – “In Circles”
  29. Husker Du – “I Apologize”
  30. Ruth – “Polaroid Romain Photo”

Because I can’t stop won’t stop (procrastinating), you’re all getting a challenge for September, too. I am going to try to keep grinding one out for every month the US is in “quarantine” due to COVID, so you can all look forward to another year or so of these!

[cue bitter sobbing]

Anyway, tune in tomorrow at 9AM Eastern for that, and don’t forget to tell a friend or two or however many the Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram algorithms allow to see your posts (probably around 2).

Transmissions from Down Under: Week 3 and Conclusion

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This is Port Phillip Bay, as seen from the St. Kilda promenade, the final photo I took in Australia. It was pretty early on July 16th. A light morning drizzle had peppered an excursion that Joshua Pitt and I went on to get a photo op by Roland S. Howard Lane, but the clouds were beginning to part, and the view of the Bay was sublime while an older gentleman and I stood waiting for the Airport shuttle. I had spent the final four days of my trip Down Under in Melbourne, which was quite a way to conclude things. Joshua was the prodigal host, doing everything within his power to ensure I had returned to the states with nothing but positive affirmations about his hometown. As I’ll catalog shortly, my time in Melbourne felt like a victory lap after three jam-packed weeks of equal parts academic business and legitimate holiday-making*.

I believe I left Part II off with a gripping cliffhanger of an announcement that I’d booked a speaking engagement at Victoria Uni in Wellington. Let me tell you about my excursion there, the beginning of which saw me with a (deliberately planned) extended layover in Brisbane for musical reasons.

BRIZBN (Brisbane)

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Stopping by the Go Between Bridge, Brisbane, QLD. 3 July 2019.

I don’t understand the cultural undercurrent NSW, ACT, and VIC Aussies have where they rib Brisbane. It may be because it’s in Queensland, a target of some political antipathy given Australia’s contentious relationship with mining and fossil fuels**. From what I understand, given how much research I’ve done about the Go-Betweens, Brisbane was always the also-ran city of Australia, home to bogans and not to be taken seriously as a cultural center. Whatever it was, I found a beautiful city with quite possibly the best public transit I rode on while Down Under (not that Sydney’s mess of a bus system set the bar too high, but I digress).

I walked all the way from the Queen Street Mall across Victoria Bridge into South Brisbane and up to the south exit of the Go Between Bridge, where the city had placed a plaque honoring the eponymous indie legends. I snapped that photo (above) and crossed the bridge, finding a Metro station that I could hop on toward the suburb Toowong. I debated whether the excursion was worth it, but the unapologetic Go-Betweens fanatic in me (who caucused with the pragmatic side that knew I wouldn’t be back in Brisbane anytime soon) won out. Their earliest records, which they put out themselves on the Able Label, carried the address 19 Golding Street.

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I need to check my sources on this, but apparently Damien Nelson, who founded the Able Label, ran it out of the Toowong Music Center, which may have been in this building. It does look like the type of building to house a record label in the 70’s or 80’s, so that facet checks out. My initial (incorrect) assessment was that Grant McLennan lived in a house on this lot at the time and ran the label out of there.

I took the beautiful train back to the airport in a timely manner to board my flight for…

WELLINGTON

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Last year, a pair of my best friends from my life in DC announced to our extended friend group that they were going to be based in Wellington for the next few years. Although this entailed an additional international flight sandwiched in between a series of intra-national flights sandwiched in between a massive international flight, I was not going to pass up this opportunity. I am ecstatic to report that everything outsiders report back about Welly is absolutely true. It’s a big city that feels like a small town. You can easily walk to the “Shire” (or at least scenes reminiscent of it). Also, Kiwis are spoiled rotten with good beer. Every single thing I drank was delicious. My friend surprised me with a can of Fugazi, a fantastic low-gravity lager made by Garage Project, a brewery built into an old garage in the overwhelmingly quaint Aro Valley district.

What’s that? You want more beer tourism photos? Don’t mind if I do! I don’t normally go overboard with this type of content, but I can’t overstate how good the beer was in Aotearoa. On my last day in Wellington, my friends and I drove up to Paraparaumu to visit the Tuatara brewery and tasting room. I actually never bothered asking where the name came from, but upon some light googling, the tuatara is a spiny lizard, not unlike the iguana, endemic to Aotearoa. Who says that drinking isn’t educational?

When I decided to add a jaunt to Welly, I reached out to the Geography department at Victoria University, Wellington, who welcomed me to come and deliver a talk about Capitals of Punk. The faculty were incredibly enthusiastic, and Dr. Sara Kindon was a wonderful host. The timing of the talk (right before the term started back up) prevented a number of faculty from attending, but I had a great time meeting with Sara and her colleagues to discuss the path I’d taken to the book’s publication. I also learned about Shane Greene’s work on punk in South America from Eduardo Moreira, which was a bonus.

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After some more quality time hiking and learning about the regional landscape, I took off early on Monday, July 8th for Melbourne. This was only a brief stop-over before the IAG meeting on Tasmania, so I’ll hold off on making it a separate section, but it was a fun stop-over. I met up with Josh, who took me through the neighborhoods he used to kick around. We met up with his better half Julie at a Mexican restaurant/dive bar (which displayed an unmitigated love of the Descendents). I learned a lot more about Aussie culture than I’d bargained for. I’d already learned about “cultural cringe” from friends in Canberra, but Julie told me about “Tall Poppy Syndrome.” Such a good preview of Melbs.

Josh and I woke up quite early on Tuesday morning to catch a ride to the airport. It was time to take our very quick flight to…

HOBART

0710190822_hdrIf someone were to ask me what my favorite city was Down Under, I would be diplomatic and say they were all amazing, with so many unique qualities and charms (which would be the truth). But if someone got a few drinks into me and pressured me into picking one, I would go with Tasmania’s “fishing village at the end of the world” (h/t Chris Gibson): Hobart. My friend and erstwhile department chair Ronald Kalafsky (who travels to Australia annually) predicted that I would really like Hobart, and as with most everything non-hockey-related, Ron was correct.

As I mentioned, the Institute of Australian Geographers was what brought me and Joshua Pitt to Hobart in the first place. The IAG brass had been as welcoming as any academic organization committee from the day I initially emailed them last year. It was a fortunate stroke that Hobart was their location this year. Despite being in the middle of the winter cold*** period in what many claim is Australia’s coldest city, the days were gorgeous and sunny. Despite the conference’s setting at the Wrest Point Casino, it was still easily accessible on foot, and Hobart’s radial bus system used numbers for their stops – such a novel concept that makes perfect sense for the metro area.

Vickie Zhang hosted a pre-conference doco session with filmmaker Molly Reynolds, which was a fitting ‘welcome to Hobart’ moment. The conference itself was packed with fascinating presentations, few of which shared any serious thematic overlap with anything I’d seen at AAG. I rarely play favorites, but the highlight for me was seeing a paper on “political fatigue” and mental health in qualitative geography by Nat Osborne, a Brisbane-based geographer and host of Radio Reversal.

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Dr. Nat Osborne cleverly applies memes in her presentation on perceptions of powerlessness and activism fatigue at the IAG Meeting in Hobart (July 2019). Every single one got a laugh.

Outside of the conference, Hobart was also packed with highlights, including a game-time decision I made to visit MONA, which was clearly the work of a madman. Josh and I grabbed dinner at the Brisbane Hotel, a beautiful dive so clearly crucial to culture in that isolated city (so of course it’s being threatened). I also stopped into the Shipwrights Arms Hotel on my final night there, catching a performance from the Dave Sikk 4Tet and running into (and getting schooled on cricket by) Chris Gibson and Andrew Warren. I also bumped into Vickie Zhang on the walk home and we chatted for a few kilometers. It all just fell together so nicely. I love Hobart and want to go back pretty much all the time. Here is some photographic evidence:

With great reluctance on Friday afternoon, Josh and I hopped into a cab and headed back to the airport (where I snapped a photo of that adorable Tassie Devils statue above), and made our final return to….

MELBOURNE

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Here it is. The grand conclusion.


This is where I’m picking up this entry in May 2020, 10 months later. Please pardon my dust, but I do this blog out of passion (read: I don’t get paid anything) and the timing never really felt *right* to just hit “publish,” but it felt even worse, after all this time, to just let the conclusions just languish in my drafts. So, I’ll piece it together here; forgive the brevity and directness of the writing from here. 


Upon our return, Josh took me down to a bohemian bar in Thornbury, where we packed into a tiny room with about 50 locals and a four-piece band for a special screening of Wake in Fright accompanied by a live band. We also stopped for souvlaki on the way in, so if there was a more Australian way to spend the first night back on the mainland, I couldn’t imagine it. If you’ve never seen Wake in Fright (as I hadn’t), words cannot describe just how jarring and disturbing and good that movie is. After the band wrapped up their credits song, I turned to Josh and said, “That was a great documentary about Australia!” A few people chuckled and thankfully did not jump me.

I spent most of my day Saturday exploring the Melbourne CBD via bike-share. Like any good tourist, I paid a visit to Victoria Market for brunch. Like any bad tourist, I didn’t bother to check how far the bike-share stand network ran. In retrospect, I should be prouder of how far I biked (Brunswick), but getting there to find nowhere to park my massively heavy cruiser felt like a huge egg on my face. I biked all the way back down to the CBD, and once I found a bike-share stand, I parked and treated myself to an amazing vegan ice cream churro pile.

Moving on…

Saturday night: an entity cool enough to inspire songs by Elton John, Suede, and The Cure. I met up with Joshua and our NZ-based friend and colleague Tamara Bozovic in Collingwood, a district made legendary by years of punk documentaries. Naturally, the area has become so gentrified over the past two decades that The Tote, one of Australia’s most legendary punk venues, was forced to close in 2010. Fortunately, because the Tote was so beloved, it sparked an ahistorical public outcry about Melbourne’s stentorian liquor laws, leading to a rally two days later that drew somewhere between ten- and twenty-thousand people to the city’s CBD. What I wouldn’t give for Americans to have such a communal dedication to their cultural hubs, all of which are under siege by COVID (and capitalist accumulation) as of this writing (a-HEM).

Anyway, this story actually has a happy ending: The Tote reopened under new management a few months after in 2010. Nine years on, I would have the singular opportunity to see Slush, Pistol Peaches, and VOIID tear the roof off. What a great show, and I’m still grateful that Josh made it a reality for us.

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Brisbane’s VOIID, who rocked too hard to be captured clearly on camera, light up the Tote (Collingwood, VIC, 13 July 2019)

One additional note on that night: When I was in Sydney, I recalled an anecdote a friend in Knoxville, TN had told me about the local brewery Balter Beerworks. Apparently, they could not franchise under the name “Balter Brewing” because some brewery in Australia reached out and said they beat them to it. Australia, by virtue of ‘the tyranny of distance,’ has always necessitated notable branding controversies. I looked up where the Balter Brewing Company was located, and it turned up a Queensland town called Currumbin, not far from Gold Coast.

“Oh, well,” I thought, “It would have been fun to hit the brewery and send pictures back home, but I’m not going to be anywhere near there on this trip. Maybe next time.”

A few weeks later, I found myself at a very hip pizza place down the street from the Tote with Josh and Tamara, the latter generously offered to buy me a drink in honor of an IAG conference well done. As I was thanking Tamara, I interrupted myself with a shout, which I have no doubt frightened her. I was face to face with a Balter Brewing tap, in the heart of Melbourne. I had never bothered researching whether Balter distributed throughout Australia; I guess I shouldn’t have been so surprised.

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Forgive the stream of consciousness here, but posting one Melbourne beer memory reminded me of another, perhaps the most serendipitous of the whole trip. Earlier that afternoon, I was walking around in Fitzroy when I spotted a Big Bad Wolf mural and decided I needed to get this picture:

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As luck would have it, a woman was photographing a colorful can of beer set against the backdrop of another mural nearby. I worked up the courage to ask if she would take a picture of this admittedly ridiculous pose with the Wolf mural, and she was more than happy to help. We got to chatting, and LeeAnne told me about her beer/street art Instagram project she had going with her partner Corey called “ForRicherForPourer.” I asked her if I could take a look at the can she had been photographing, and she told me about how the Mr. Banks Brewing Company, aptly located down on the Port Phillip Bay, had dropped a limited batch Pale Ale…aptly named “The Drop.” As I stood there clearly impressed at how cool the can and exclusive batch sounded (apparently, beer fans had to be lined up at the opening that morning to get it), it likely hit her that no other Yank on Earth might have the opportunity to drink it, and made my day: “Why don’t you just keep it?”

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The following night at Josh and Julie’s place in St. Kilda, we cracked open the can of Mr. Banks’ Drop over dinner. Waiting a full day and a half to do that was nearly impossible, and it was delicious. Thanks again to LeeAnne for her kind gesture, and I’m sorry it has taken me almost a full year to immortalize it here!

Back to the timeline: on Sunday morning, Josh and I headed over to Marvel Stadium for what would finally be my first Australian Football League match. Despite the cold and rainy weather, as well as the absence of Josh’s preferred club (see his hat), here was our assessment:

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I’ve never been a fan of American Football, but I do appreciate rugby whenever I have a chance to watch a quality match (which is usually relegated to highlights on YouTube). Watching a sport that combined rugby with the spatial elements of cricket and good-times tribalism of American Football was a lot of fun. I don’t remember the finer points of the match itself, but I felt like, similar to the baseball experience, a lot of folks were there for the spectacle and weren’t necessarily die-hards. I was expecting to learn about the rules and structure of the game, but Josh surprised me with a bit of history and geographic context for the sport. I had no idea that AFL had been (until recent decades, at least) largely relegated to Victoria and South Australia, whereas rugby proper dominated elsewhere in Australia. Neither had I realized that Aussie Rules Football grew out of necessity to use the cricket pitches during the off-season; I have to admit that one was truly in front of my eyes the whole time.

I spent much of the afternoon catching up on work before I took the train down to St. Kilda, where we split the aforementioned limited-release beer, ate a wonderful dinner, and watched Dogs in Space. It was the most Melbourne weekend that I could have possibly Melbourne’d. Revisiting it all these months later (again, sorry) makes me miss it terribly.

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Victoria Market, Saturday Morning, July 13, 2019.


LINER NOTES

* I picked up that term, perhaps my second favorite Australianism behind “Nice/Lovely day fer it,” from a recording on the Kurunda Scenic Railway, which I took out into the rain forest from Cairns. See Part II for more on that.

** One bank even centered the fact that they did not support the mining industry in many ads all over Sydney and Melbourne.

*** I’ll apply the term “cold” here to be respectful of my Australian hosts, who claimed it to be so. Most of you know I grew up in New England, did my undergrad at Syracuse, and moved to Michigan with the utmost enthusiasm. That’s all I’m going to say.

Your Sonic Sunday: May 17th (Punk Scholars, Jangle Pop, and Hardcore)

Happy Sunday! I have a few music documentaries to recommend (which are streaming, for free, on YouTube as of this posting), but first a couple of announcements about things near and dear to me.

First, per Dr. Matt Grimes, the Punk Scholars Network website is up and updated! For those keeping track, I published an article in the connected journal Punk & Post-Punk a couple years ago ahead of Capitals of Punk, and I’m looking forward to collaborating with this consortium more in the future. For now, take a gander at what they’ve been up to lately, and who makes up their team.

a2570743017_10Second, while working on the Sonic Geography Song Challenge, I’ve inadvertently discovered that Mark Mulcahy put the entire Miracle Legion discography up on Bandcamp (the second-best website on the internet, behind Cinema Treasures). For my fellow 90’s kids who remember the beautiful show The Adventures of Pete & Pete, Polaris were, ostensibly, a massaged iteration of Miracle Legion. Chris Viscardi and Will McRobb have said that Miracle Legion’s 1985 EP The Backyard directly informed the aesthetic of the show, and it makes perfect sense.

Under the “Hey! Free Viewings!” category: Lance Bangs made this appropriately slow-burn documentary about Slint’s 1991 masterpiece Spiderland, and it’s available to watch here. He does a good job pulling from his own super-fandom of the mystery that surrounded albums like this before the internet, as well as the fascinating little world of Louisville, Kentucky.

maxresdefaultDrew Stone has been breaking his back for a long time to not only keep the spirit of New York Hardcore (or as it’s properly pronounce “N’Yuk Hahdcowa”) alive through shows he organizes in Brooklyn, but hosting numerous live-streams with NYHC figures. I caught this one with Lou Koller, the singer of one of my favorite bands Sick of It All, and as I may have said on twitter, it felt like a warm embrace. Stone’s “The NYHC Chronicles” documentary (stream-able here) digs deep into that universe, and I recommend it. Also, somehow, Walter Schriefels does. not. age.

the-jane-projectSpeaking of hardcore (just a bit further North), every time I have the privilege of introducing someone to Converge’s 2001 masterpiece Jane Doe, I get excited about the record all over again. While traversing the algorithm for those previously mentioned videos, I found this video of Kurt Ballou talking about the album to a class at the Berklee College of Music in the band’s native Boston. As an academic who thinks Jane Doe deserves every bit as much respect as any other piece of critically-coveted “art music” of the past two decades, it’s always gratifying to see Converge getting that kind of institutional validation (not that they need it). Over the past couple of years, I’ve had an epiphany: Converge may be the greatest band in Boston history. Sit on that one, and tell whether you agree that there may be weight to that argument.

Sonic Geography Ep. 2 (Tennesseein’ is Tennebelievin’)

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Well, I missed Sonic Sunday this weekend, but I’ll make up for it with some quaran-tunes for your enjoyment. This week, I’m taking a voyage across the mercilessly wide state (almost as if it was added to the Union in some type of land-grab) of Tennessee. When I moved there in 2013, I made the argument that the Volunteer State has contributed more to popular music history than any other, and I still tend to agree with that idea.

This DJ mix, though, gave me the opportunity to share some wax tracks released by various friends I made in my six years of living in Knoxville as well as a few stone-cold classics.

  1. Dead Man’s Lifestyle (Morristown) – “Common Lush” (split lathe 7″ with Cop Funeral)
  2. Reigning Sound (Memphis) – “Time Bomb High School” (stone cold classic LP)
  3. Psychic Baos (Knoxville) – “Fluicide” (Two words: Will Fist)
  4. Faux Killas (Memphis) – “Anxious Love” (I saw this band set Shangri-La Records aflame last year when I went to a conference at University of Memphis)
  5. Daddy Don’t (Knoxville) – “Octopussy”  (The only band, to my knowledge, with a full-time bubble blower)
  6. Bark (Knoxville) – “Everything He Built” (7″ with beautiful artwork by Striped Light)
  7. Daddy Issues (Nashville) – “Locked Out” (Possibly my favorite cut from my third favorite LP of the 2010’s)
  8. Lavish Boars (Knoxville) – “They Accepted Me as One of their Own”
  9. Koro (Knoxville) – “The 700 Club” (Off the EP repress, because I’m not a millionaire)
  10. Big Star (Memphis) – “What’s Going Ahn”  (here’s a little heartbreak for you)
  11. Gamenight (Knoxville) – “Take My Time”
  12. Headface and the Congenitals (Knoxville) – “Beast is Better”  (The McBrides are America’s greatest rock n’ roll family)
  13. The Lost Sounds (Memphis) – “Better Than Something”
  14. Booker T. and the MG’s (Memphis) – “A Woman, a Lover, and Friend”
  15. Saint Thomas LeDoux (Nashville by way of Knoxville by way of Memphis) – “Me Time”
  16. Ex-Gold (Knoxville) – “I’m a Man”
  17. Johnny Cash (omnipresent) – “Goodbye, Little Darlin'”
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Knoxville, March 25, 2018. Never forget.

The Big Star Paradox

Alex Chilton died ten years ago today at age 59. Here are some words about what he and three other Memphians accomplished in their twenties with a little help from their friends.

Big Star Photograph © Michael O'Brien

Michael O’Brien Photo (C-heads)

Recently, I’ve spent a lot of time listening to Radio City, the second (and arguably last) Big Star album. It’s my favorite thing they ever released, and it had me thinking: it’s almost paradoxical how beloved Big Star are. I find it impossible to parse whether Big Star were great because they were unsuccessful in their time. Would it cloud our cultural judgment if “Back of a Car” or “The Ballad of El Goodo” were on the same level of incalculable impact on Western society as the Beatles, Elton John, or Queen? If any of those three artists had been relegated to Big Star’s niche of history, would their music be so lionized? I understand that those are three imperfect examples, but no perfect examples exist. Had the Beach Boys not been in the right time-place when they changed their name from the Pendletons and hopped aboard the surf craze, would whatever they would have created in that alternate timeline (certainly nothing on par with Pet Sounds) possess such heavy caché today?

To add another layer to the paradox, Alex Chilton was a household name to baby boomers. When he died, a majority of the outlets I saw mentioned “The Letter” in their tributes, relegating Big Star – not to mention his influence on the late-70’s New York punk scene and his iconoclastic songsmithery throughout the 80’s – well beneath the fold. But, as the party line reads, Chilton’s decision to join Big Star was informed by feeling washed up by the time he was 20. He wasn’t the only teenybopper who pivoted into an artistic legend, but he managed to occupy such a unique space in both categories; millions more have heard the Box Tops, yet his unsuccessful second act has changed the world almost in spite of itself.

What these layers all reinforce was that Big Star were a generational band. They wouldn’t have reached the heights they did if Alex Chilton weren’t burned out by pop fame by age 18, nor would their songs be such a testament to the power of Memphis if they had blown up and transcended their hometown. One of my favorite anecdotes from Rob Jovanovich’s biography of the band was when a few North Carolina college nerds (who would eventually become the dB’s) took a pilgrimage to Memphis in the mid-70’s and found a despondent Chris Bell working at a fast food restaurant. They talked him into accompanying them to Ardent Studios for a meeting with Chilton. Within minutes, they could tell how little Bell wanted to be there.

I am not entirely sure why that anecdote stuck with me more than anything else from the book, especially since it puts such a tragic din on #1 Record. The album was a legendary flop, and Bell and Chilton grew apart almost immediately as a result. It was the most important thing in the world to the dB’s, but it was barely a footnote in the lives of the people who made it. This recalls what Chuck Klosterman wrote about a Guns n’ Roses cover band in Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs: “Paradise City care more about Guns n’ Roses than the original members of Guns n’ Roses care about the song ‘Paradise City.'” It also recalls an interview with Slash I recall seeing a little over ten years ago (perhaps with Larry King, as outlandish as that may seem), where Slash didn’t dodge a question about GnR reuniting but rather gave a perfectly straightforward answer: he and Axl just weren’t interested in trying to recreate the proverbial “that.” It struck me as surprising, since everything I’d heard since 1996 suggested that he and Bill Bailey hated one another. Whether or not they did share antipathy was immaterial; they had moved on, even if their fans hadn’t.

I suppose therein lies another layer to the Big Star paradox: speaking personally, I appreciate the ability to see that meaning-making at work from the level of the fans of an obscure band, rather than the insanely popular band curating their legacy, sometimes bitterly. The former is endearing, and the latter is usually uncomfortable. Thankfully, everything I’ve seen Jody Stephens (the one surviving Big Star member) curate has done nothing to tarnish the band’s legacy. It may owe a lot to the fact that he still lives in Memphis, keeps his drum kit at Ardent, and has no delusions of grandeur.

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Jody Stephens’ drum kit at Ardent Studios (Memphis, TN), July 2011

I felt the need to write all of this because (1) Big Star formulate a key part of any curriculum I compose about the strange (after)life of American Popular Culture, and (2) it’s a question for which I genuinely want to get other music fans’ perspectives. The Big Star Paradox dictates that it’s impossible to judge the band solely on their music in 2020, but no amount of post-whateverist academic thought changes the fact that I nearly cry whenever I hear “What’s Going Ahn.” Whether or not Big Star had ever become famous in their time, nothing can change how their music was just so, so, so, SO good. RIP Alex Chilton, ten years gone today, as well as to my fellow UTK attendee Andy Hummel, who died on July 19 of that same year.

Sonic Sunday 03.08: Read About Your Band on Some Local Page

I know this firmly places me in the “aging guy with advanced degrees who wears glasses” stereotype, but prepare for a deluge of pure, uncut love for the Replacements and Big Star over the next week or two. 

  • First and foremost, I discovered that this exists, and I’m going to have trouble thinking about anything else or accomplishing anything else on the internet in the immediate future.
  • Actually, just as foremost, my wonderful colleague Lola San Martín (EHESS) is organizing a new conference in Paris this summer entitled “Urban Nostalgia: The Musical City in the 19th and 20th Centuries.” I can’t think of a conference more curated specifically for me, but I hope to give it as big of a signal boost I can, because I love the work that Theatrum Mundi and EHESS do. The deadline is relatively soon (April 6th), and the full CFP is right here. Here is a nifty GIF advertisement for the conference, too:
    Urban Nostalgia
  • Here’s another conference in Paris that appears to have been curated exactly to my interests, happening in September. Something about Pop and Rock in the past two decades of cinema. Elsa Grassy will be there!

Here’s Paul Westerberg playing my favorite Replacements song to close out a solo set on KFOG-FM in 1996. Have a great week, everyone!

Just Another Sonic Sunday (03.01.20) – VHS and Vintage Games

And just like that, it’s March already.

  • Cool Maps on Instagram
    I haven’t really taken time to express how many fun maps I’ve seen on Instagram (and really, why would I?), but it’s definitely a fun-map-lover’s dream over there. Here is one particularly head-turning one for those of us who haven’t visited South Asia.
  • Shudder to Podcast
    Craig Wedren, who spent his teens through mid-twenties helming Shudder to Think and much of the past two decades scoring almost every show on television, is starting a meditation/ambient music podcast that sounds just as interesting as everything else he does. You can read about it here.
  • Bad Brains and Defiance
    Speaking of DC punk veterans, The Root published a great little piece on how defiance crafted Bad Brains in honor of Black History Month.
  • The Wild World of VHS Digitization
    A piece of non-journalism on VICE (which I’ve already RT’d; they don’t need any more exposure) clued me into The VHS Vault. Everything from the extremely copyrighted to the mundane. Further verification of my opinion on just how much data and media exists outside of the internet, especially given the way the home video market blew up in the 1980’s. What a time to be alive.

While we’re on the topic of the weird early-80’s techno-glut, I had the rare opportunity recently to visit a friend in Ohio who is a brilliant archivist, coder, and trader of vintage video game equipment. It was remarkable, given the legendary Video Game Crash of 1983 (Wikipedia), to be able to play some of the flopped systems and realize, “Oh…that’s why it happened.”

Here are a few of the digital antiques.

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A fluffball named Lucky poses with a pair of early Apple Computers. If I’m not mistaken, the one on the right was the model I used in elementary school in 1988.

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The Timex Sinclaire 1000. This thing was just the worst.

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A floppy disk with games coded for an old Commodore system.

Sonic Sunday Clips 01.26.20 (MLK, Istanbul, and Stars)

Happy Sunday. I’ve got about 3 new posts brewing at the moment, but returning to a regularly scheduled life has been my first priority of late. I’ll get those out soon, though. For now, here are a few things of interest from this week.

  • Derek Alderman on MLK Streets
    My friend and former PhD Adviser Dr. Derek Alderman has made yet another major news appearance talking about the geographic legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King. Obviously, this segment aired last Monday on ESPN. Derek shows up at 2:02, right after RFK announces MLK’s assassination.
  • History of Geography & Gender Conference, Istanbul
    This conference in August looks great, and it’s in Istanbul, too. Easily in one of my top ten cities yet-to-visit. Either way, if you’re able, drop a submission, and even see if you qualify for one of their paper awards.

Here is your weekly affirmation: a teenage choir from Vancouver that covers of Canadian indie rock anthems. This one may be my favorite.

 

The Flaming Lips, Mick Cornett, and the Selling of Oklahoma City

[I wrote this a few months ago upon hearing about my former colleague’s passing. Due to travel and teaching commitments, I unfortunately never completed it. In the interest of getting this out of my drafts folder, I’ve decided to publish it and give you all some reading material for this Monday morning. This may become a paper about the US Mayors’ Conference and “the selling of” cities on day. We’ll see. – Tyler]


I received some very sad news recently from some colleagues from my DC life. John, our longtime Managing Director at the PR firm where I worked passed away from cancer at age 70. As tragic as the news was to hear, it was nice for us to share some memories of perhaps the best person I  ever have been so fortunate to work under. I went through old files to see if I had any mementos of John, with no luck. However, it did lead me down a rabbit hole of memories from my twenties, some stories which would find a good home on this site now. I don’t think I’ve shared this story anywhere online, either, so here we go.

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A good way to get a photo op with Mayor Steve Benjamin was to show up in the same suit. I had no idea that Columbia, SC would eventually become one of my favorite southern cities, and this photo would become a running joke between me and friends I would make there. Strange.

The best assignment I had for that job sent me to Oklahoma City in 2010 for the US Conference of Mayors. Twice a year (once in DC and once in a roving location), leaders of towns and cities from across the country meet to trade tips on civic programs, navigating political minefields, image curation, and other tacit knowledge. Despite the number of big-name politicians in attendance (some of whom are currently countenancing Presidential campaign rumors), I don’t remember the meeting getting much national media coverage outside of our radio campaigns. Since few of these mayors are real celebrities, it didn’t get the slathered attention of an election-year Democratic or Republican National Convention. That being said, CNN was on hand, going live with then-LA-mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who deflected rumors that his city was considering bankruptcy. What was going on in LA in 2010 that would have generated such rumors is beyond my immediate knowledge.

As one might expect, the host mayor is keen to show their city off to visiting dignitaries quite enthusiastically. Oklahoma City Mayor Mick Cornett was that host, and show the city off he did. In 2010, he was in the midst of a banner era in his mayoral tenure. He appeared on Ellen in 2008 on the success of his anti-obesity campaign, giving Ellen Degeneres her own holiday in the city. The next year, the Thunder rocketed into playoff contention, bringing the city and state onto the national basketball stage and facing the Lakers in a contentious playoff series. What Cornett had going for his spectacle, though, was something intangible that his fellow Mayors would have killed for: the cool.

Most Mayors, especially for non-Major cities, are very down to earth. Their governance does not span an insurmountable area, so it’s easier for them to be on the street, interacting with their constituents and actually functioning like the citizens they need to impress. Though there are plenty of opportunities to get involved with corruption, the instances seem fewer and farther between; they are still beholden to their neighbors. It also follows that Mayors are predominantly Democrats, people of color, and in some cases LGBT.

CIMG7463Cornett was none of those things, but coming from within Red-State political hegemony didn’t prevent him from charming everyone by propping up his city’s greatest counter-cultural export: The Flaming Lips. His committee arranged for the band to play a private concert for the conference attendees and their families. All of the conference contractors got passes, too. As a music nerd who came of age when the Lips were at their creative and critical peak (1999’s The Soft Bulletin and 2002’s Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots mobilize something of a consensus here), imagine my excitement when I read that they were in the program for the third night.

I’ll get to the concert shortly. On the first night, the coordinating committee set up a private tent near the Sonic headquarters in Bricktown, the finely redeveloped, expertly walk-able downtown area. The party’s location came at the hands of some meticulous planning. It gave them an excuse to show off the relatively flashy downtown district (which, according to members of Red City Radio, the city paid for with a 1-cent sales tax hike).

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On the river-walk next to the Sonic headquarters. I don’t remember what this band sounded like, but judging by the cargo shorts, I’d say Jimmy Buffett got covered at some point.

On the second night, the conference piled everyone onto chartered buses and, with an roving wall of police escorts, led us out to a big warehouse in the city’s hinterland. Before we got a taste of Cool Oklahoma, we were to indulge in every Cowboy stereotype imaginable. A country string band played on a stage built on the opposite end from the entrance. A electronic Buckin’ Bronco ride sat immediately to the right, and a set of lanes for tossing Horseshoes sat between bales of imported hay to our left. In all fairness, “played Horseshoe against my boss in Oklahoma” is a claim few DC yuppies ever got to make. The well-orchestrated hoedown was fun, between the two-stepping lessons, barbecue, and open bars that surrounded us. I vaguely remember having a wonderful conversation with Mitch Ward, a retired actor and then the mayor of Manhattan Beach, CA, while standing in line at one of them.

 

On the third night, everyone headed over to the Ford Center (then in its final year with that name; it’s now named Chesapeake Energy Arena). We waited in the concourse, where they set up snack and drink tables, along with (from what I recall) showcases of local students’ artwork. I snapped a photo of a big mural they had painted that said, in airbrush-novelty font, “Rock and Roll with the Flaming Lips.” At the time, it seemed somewhat tacky and off-putting, but in retrospect they probably employed a local artist and some printers for a few days in order to make it, so who was I to hurl judgment? It was eye-catching.

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After an incongruously formal dinner program, a succession of mayors took the stage to make a succession of presentations. By this point, many of us were excited for the musical program to begin, so it started to feel as if it was dragging. Granted, it was entertaining to see public officials let loose and make speeches at varying levels of intoxication. Once the dinner program ended and the staff cleared the tables up front, Cornett got back onstage to introduce the band. The Oklahoma City Philharmonic filed into their seats. My coworkers and I migrated towards the stage, hearing a commotion coming from the bleachers a couple stories above our heads. We looked up to our left to see the 300 level filling up with hundreds of people who had just been unleashed from the concourse.

It had somehow eluded me that so many of the volunteers we had met in the course of the three activity-filled days, the local welcoming committee and the cogs who made it possible for Cornett’s machine to operate through the conference, were paid with free passes to this show. “Huh,” I thought, “That’s actually kind of brilliant.” I felt guilty being on the floor while the volunteers were sequestered up in the nosebleeds, but at least they all had a clear sight line down to the stage for what would be a 20-minute set. Also, the band (Coyne and Drozd, at least) came down to hang out and take photos with conference attendees for a long while after their set, so it would have been chaos if they’d allowed all of the volunteers onto the floor, too.  There were already enough indie dorks telling Wayne Coyne about how long they had been fans, how cool it was that the band did this gig, and other niceties. The best part was that Coyne and a couple of his band mates were so nice to everyone, no matter how monopolizing particular fans attempted to be.

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Just a couple of similarly dressed guys with ambiguously pronounced last names.

My boss and I got to chat with Steve Drozd, and we both took photos with him and his baton. He had just conducted an orchestra for the first time, and the excitement that he radiated was hilarious. My favorite moment of that whole week came when he looked at my name tag and asked me how to pronounce my last name. “Sonic-sun,” I replied, “How do you pronounce your last name?” “Draw-zid” he replied, answering a question I’d had wandering in my head ever since I first read his name in the pages of SPIN a decade earlier. Drozd’s prior decade, given his recovery from a somewhat well-documented heroin addiction, represents one of indie rock’s great redemption stories.

I witnessed an even greater fan-moment nearby a minute later. My friend/coworker Rebecca got Coyne to pose for a picture where they were both running a hand through their big, curly manes. There was nothing of deeper significance to this, but it was satisfying how Rebecca saved the rock star from a trio of bro’s who were monopolizing his time, prattling on about their cultural capital as Lips fans.

Whenever I’ve recounted this weekend to friends, I often pinpoint a few specific moments of epiphany, and Mick Cornett featured in all of them. After the concert ended, they arranged for a private after-party on the roof of a highly-regarded Italian restaurant in Bricktown whose roof patio overlooked Flaming Lips Alley. Later in the night, I wound up chatting with Cornett’s son (around my age), and Mick came over to join us. Within a few minutes, Cornett was proudly telling me how he pushed to help both name that alley after the Flaming Lips as well as help name “Do You Realize!?” Oklahoma’s State Rock song, both in the face of adversity from some real squares.

This made perfect sense. I wouldn’t be surprised if his kids left for college in the late 90’s and reported back to him about this band from OKC that everyone loved.  Additionally, The Flaming Lips are nothing if not prolific collaborators. Wayne Coyne has been vocal about his dedication to Oklahoma City, too, fighting to make the it less of a flyover and more of a destination. Conference attendees walked away with a free copy of Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots on CD, left in our hotel rooms by the local welcoming committee. The committee also left us limited edition copies of No Fences. I never imagined that I would own a Garth Brooks CD, but here we are. It’s good; I understand why it sold over 10 million copies.

Anyway, here is the video I discovered in the course of my archival search that sent me down this detour of memory lane. Wayne Coyne thanks Mayor Cornett, has the crowd congratulate Steven Drozd on his orchestra conducting debut, and introduces the Yo La Tengo cover. Enjoy everything coming together in a strange way.

Brain Massage: The Radio Dept. and Fan Videos

The Radio Dept. are Swedish band who make perfect soundtracks for riding trains into stations at dusk, wandering around a beautiful city far from home, or just flipping through old photo albums and wondering where the years have gone.

When I come around to my unit on Sweden and the pop music industry in GEOG 371: Exploring Europe, narrowing down the bands I want to sample in my lectures is nearly impossible. Choosing one artist to represent a country,  language, or nation is always daunting, but for Sweden, I need to content with a nearly overwhelming volume. Stockholm and her smaller urban counterparts have been consistently grinding out both chart-topping hits and beloved indie pop gems for as long as I can remember. I remember seeing Refused destroy their instruments in the octagon back in 1998, which blew my teenage mind. In college, I sold some friends on Randy by simply naming off their song titles. Although I was reading Rolling Stone and devouring MTV news documentaries as often as they would air them at the time, I somehow missed that Britney Spears, the Backstreet Boys, and many others owed their platinum success to Max Martin and the late Denniz Pop. Over the years, I would fill in these gaps in my knowledge while keeping tabs on the hottest Swedish artists diligently packaged and sold by indie labels. From what I remember of late 2006, it was impossible to go out anywhere in the DC area without hearing Peter, Bjorn, and John at some point.

In late 2010, I discovered Lund’s The Radio Dept. and wondered why it had taken me so long. Songs like “The Worst Taste in Music” and “Pulling our Weight” were exactly what my brain-soul Venn diagram needed at that time in my life. I included their music on my podcast (I believe they concluded an episode where I interviewed Harry Shearer, making for an odd but good juxtaposition), and sent their songs to anyone who would listen. I got one chance to see them at the Rock n’ Roll Hotel in Northeast DC on February 1, 2011. I was just out of touch enough with indie music trends to sleep on getting tickets; the show sold out fast. Fortunately, I found a face-value ticket on Craig’s List. The show was pretty good. No fireworks, no “duuuuuuuuuude you have to see this band before you die” sentiments, but pretty good. They took longer to come back for an encore (a ten minute wait for the demure and sweet “1995“) than any band I’d ever seen. I suspected that their blogger-bred reputation of being somewhat elusive and cranky was well-earned.

Recently, my friend in Long Beach sent me photos of The Radio Dept. playing a gig in Los Angeles, and I then spent the better part of the week catching up on the group. I was sizing up their music videos on YouTube for possible use introducing my Sweden lecture in a few weeks, and I discovered (or was at least reminded that) they have relatively few for a band of their renown. Again, this may have to do with their introverted, pointedly non-corporate approach to making and releasing music (see: their long gaps between albums).

In the course of this search, I found a handful of fan videos set to Radio Dept. songs. Fan videos, in a similar vein to fanzines, are publications created outside the artist’s purview. They use a particular song as a soundtrack to accompany film footage, and the Radio Dept. make exquisite music for this. Their dream-pop aesthetic, especially their more instrumental songs, creates a beautiful bed for equally dreamy footage.

There isn’t a heavy academic underpinning to this entry; I just wanted to revive my habit of spreading The Radio Dept’s musical love. I can see myself making something this an assignment in a future class, incorporating production, music, and geography. If I had a computer that could better handle video editing, I would start making these all the time, to procrastinate, inevitably.