So, as many of you know, in addition to being an intrepid music writer and a motivated (to say the least) fan of music, I’m also a musician.
I play guitar, I write and I sing.
I do all of this in Toronto, where I live.
And, at the risk of sinking into the morass of artistic cliché, it really is the truest form of myself.
This is all preamble to saying that I’m playing a show this weekend, an early show on Saturday (August 24th..to be specific) at the Supermarket in Kensington. Playing this show isn’t so much unusual as much as the group it’s associated with.
I’m performing as part of the Music City North: Kensington Festival.
Music City North is a group of musicians and music lovers who are trying to organize the music around them for the purpose of developing an audience.
Check them out here.
Please take the time to explore the site a bit.
Not because it’s a good cause or something…but because, if you love music, it’s a great idea. This idea, or this type of idea, has been kicked around forever by local artists and folks. The idea of building a community around art, in this case specifically music, is as old and natural as art itself.
Music has always been social. It’s a form of expression. It needs at least one listener to escape existential crisis and it needs a few, hearing it each in their own way, just to make it feel right. This is to say nothing of the social bond that’s formed by those who make music together. And, I’m not just talking about some silly romantic notion of ‘making beautiful music together’. This happens to be sure, and that’s…well, swell I suppose, but there is no connection like a bond that forms in the face of artistic failure, staring challenge in the face and the struggle to overcome failure while making music.
The commonplace sidewalk-wisdom way of describing what I’m talking about is a ‘scene’. As in, ‘the Seattle Grunge scene’ or the ‘punk scene’ and so forth. It’s a community that springs up in a time and place that can be fairly, simply, defined by the apparent reason that the community exists.
Now scenes can make music and music can make scenes. The chicken versus egg argument gets infinitely anthropological when it becomes LSD versus the Grateful Dead. There certainly seems to be no rule…except to say that groups of like minded people who congregate for long enough and feel like others should listen almost inevitably turn to song…have you ever been to church?
The music is the glue that holds that faith together – if you do it right anyway.
But indeed music has held much and many together, historically speaking. Music can tell feelings faster than it can tell stories…it skips language and heads right to emotions. It’s just way easier to feel the same as your immediate peers with a soundtrack. And then, in group catharsis, the world feels clearer and maybe, a bit easier. This goes back through the ages and through true, honest to God adversity as recently as slavery in the U.S., too. Gospel, jazz and blues simply wouldn’t exist if not for campfire singing in slave camps.
Of course, a musical ‘scene’ is a bit different than the mass enslavement of a race of people. It’s sort of a ‘first world problems’ version of the same, though. The underlying principal seems consistent though. The music a ‘scene’ makes is both the inspiration to congregate and the result of its congregation.
In The Great Depression, devastated people and their families huddled around makeshift fire pits telling their stories of loss and better days using guitars and familiar melodies. This gave us modern folk music.
The Beatnik desire to be not ignored led to bebop jazz music which was intentionally designed to demand listening in order to understand.
The invention of the American teenager in the early twentieth century led directly to a style of music that imitated the rhythm of the worst possible thing they could do. It was named for it too. Rockin’ and rolling (shortened to rock ‘n’ roll) was literally what happened when you had sex in your parents’ car and forget to engage the brake.
And, with the pervasion of those same teenagers and the creation of the middle class in the 1950s comes the first notion of disposable income, and with it, the invention of modern marketing. This gives us social connections leading to and extending from purchasing decisions and we have, voila, the pop sensation. Elvis, Perry Como, Pat Boone, Herman’s Hermits, The Beatles, The Stones, The Monkees, Shaun and David Cassidy and on and on right up to One Direction. This is less of a ‘scene’ though than a chance to divorce parents from their paychecks. But the pop stars that survived to build their own scenes pushed back against this pop star notion so hard that an anti-pop rebellion became the rallying point and the first, strongest bond for their fans moving forward. One need only compare Meet the Beatles! to The White Album to understand this.
Now, the scenes that have always informed me and my personality have been the ones that followed these. The ones that the marketers couldn’t understand and were left alone long enough to change music forever.
The pure naiveté of San Francisco in the mid-’60s and the dreams of peace and community were the perfect womb for what became the Grateful Dead. The acid didn’t hurt either… The idea of the Dead is simple – community. The band works to invent and improvise as one entity to spontaneously create new music at every performance becoming one with each individual audience. Individuality isn’t given up but it’s accepted and allowed as part of the whole as long as no one gets hurt. The movement went on to bring crowds of thousands and create families of deadheads following the band around the world for decades. The term ‘jam-band’ wouldn’t exist if not for the dead and the do-it-yourself marketing that is commonplace to indie bands now is a direct result of the Dead and their drive to build community.
Sounds like an acid trip right?
Well, it was. Two massively underreported parts of the Grateful Dead’s story are this;
1. Their first large shows were events called ‘Electric Kool-Aid Acid Tests’. This was an attempt by a group of independently wealthy San Franciscans to create a three-dimensional acid trip in real space. It drew those fascinated by the notion of ‘tuning in, turning on and dropping out’. The Dead were just a part of a massive room full of artistic chaos.
2. The Grateful Dead’s soundman, Owsley Stanley, was a bathroom chemist who made (reportedly) the best LSD in the state. The entire state of California. Yes, an entire state of Californian drug enthusiasts travelled miles to Dead shows to cop the best highs of their lives.
So who’s to say what came first? Beautiful music or beautiful feelings? I’m not sure it matters…but it is fascinating. As a fan of the Dead myself (but not LSD) I can tell you that the music, at it’s best, is enthralling.
A harder to pin down scene begins in the mid-’70s. It seems that a couple decades of teen life being co-opted and organized for the purpose of profit creates a bit of cultural anger. Send in the punks. The punk movement in London and in New York came at a time when both those cities had some of the dirtiest and most distasteful urban areas in the world. So, those sick of the mainstream eventually flocked to these very pits to create chaos and make a home. The idea seemed to be an almost theatrical anarchy. Being flagrantly against everything and revel in it. I, myself, have never felt this way but some of the music is awesome. This is where I should mention the Sex Pistols, The Clash…the eventual emergence of The Police, etc.
I’d like to take this moment to direct you to a record called The Record by a band named Fear.
Interestingly, the desire to be anarchic became so popular that it became profitable. Money came in and anarchy faded away. Compare the first album by The Police, Outlandos d’Amour to Synchronicity.
It seems it’s harder to be pissed at the world in a limo.
The world turns through the ’80s, punk becomes light new wave and all is well with pop culture again in cities and suburbs until the late-’80s. The same anger that fueled the punk scene makes it way to secondary cities like Seattle and more remote areas in the Midwest and the extreme northeastern U.S. This time the anger isn’t settled by anarchy – it’s settled by a search for self. Sometimes introspective and often self-deprecating folks start gathering in bars to hear music that sounds like they feel.
In 1991, it explodes.
What will be the next scene be?
I want to see it and live it. But how can you chase something that becomes more elusive when you know what you’re looking for?
I wish Music City North well. Hell, I’m even hopeful for them. I don’t know if you can build a scene from scratch. I don’t know if people even want to go hear music anymore. I don’t know what the magic formula is, but I’ve got to believe that it starts with a group of folks who want to be heard.