Sunday, October 11, 2009

Carnegie Hall

Last night played a gig at Carnegie Hall in New York. Zankel Hall is their 600-seat theater and, oh, it sure is pretty. In typical Minnesotan fashion, I did not tell my relatives and friends that I was playing Carnegie Hall, and when some of them learned about the show and mentioned it to me, I made sure to clarify that I wasn't playing in the main hall with the New York Philharmonic, but in Carnegie's smaller performance space.

"What are you talking about? It's Carnegie Hall!" was their response every time. Maybe I can learn someday to drop that habit of backpedaling - why not just allow my friends and relatives to enjoy the moment?

Anyway, when I saw my poster there on the side of the building, underneath the Tiffany-style colored-glass logos, it was my turn to enjoy the moment.

The Carnegie show felt like an extension of the Hometown Tour I did here in Minneapolis a few weeks ago: easy-flowing, open, free-associative. That tour put a whole new batch of my older songs and also a couple of new ones at my fingertips: "Act Naturally," "FNT," "Something I Don't Know" among them. So I had lots of music to choose from last night, and I took advantage of that. Playing the amazing piano there also made me want to do more shows playing piano. I'm not sure how that would go but I think it would be interesting and I could improvise a lot more.

Brad Gordon, a multi-instrumentalist friend of mine, flew in from Los Angeles to play piano with me during the songs on which I played guitar. (And Brad played the clarinet on "Baby Doll.") I met Brad in 2008 on the Hotel Cafe tour, one of the more formative experiences I've had in a while, and by the end of that tour he and I had pretty much established a very nice blood-brother type of e.s.p. when we jammed together. Brad just plain plays the piano like a more skilled version of me. So of course I like performing with him.

At Zankel Hall last night, I shared the bill with Cory Chisel, who is a gravelly-voiced singer/songwriter from Appleton, Wisconsin, and with whom I had written a couple of songs maybe a year ago. He's an amazing singer, able to channel the spirits of Otis Redding, Bob Dylan or Ray Charles. We wrote together in Graham Nash's house, which could only have been more surreal and glorious if Graham Nash were home. As it was, he was not, but it was still a memorable time. At one point, Cory initiated me into his theory of Bob Dylan's vocal phrasing and how it changes from one period to another in Dylan's career. I wish I had recorded Cory's holding-forth - he can switch back from one era of Dylan to another, freestyling lyrics in the voice of each era. I laughed a lot. Inspired by Cory's outpouring of mojo, we wrote a bluesy and Dylanesque song called "Never Meant to Love You," which I adore.

At the end of my set, Cory and his singing partner, Adriel Harris, joined me onstage and we performed "Never Meant to Love You" and, if my experience is any indication (doubtful but possible), it was beautiful.

On my way out the door of the venue, one of the staffers considerately handed me the "three sheet" poster for the show. These are the giant posters, about 40" by 80", that they put up on the side of the building or on the wooden walls of construction sites and abandoned lots. After a brief moment of excitement, I immediately began fretting about how impossible it was going to be to get the poster onto my Northwest Airlines flight the next morning.

Then my friends Craig Wright, Jacob Slichter, Gillian Ryan, Steve Schiltz, and Jim Grant, along with Brad Gordon and Cory Chisel and his band and a lot of the audience from Zankel Hall, all went to a way-too-loud bar down the street and had a lot of whiskey.

Even later, Craig and I spent about two hours wandering around Midtown trying to find a sandwich. This kind of late-night search is a common-enough occurence on tour, when it can be very hard to find the one joint in Topeka or Toledo or Tuscaloosa or Toulouse that stays open late. But New York City! What has become of our nation's cultural capitol? Every hotel restaurant and bar seemed to have closed at midnight - the City may never sleep, but they don't stay open that late either. In fact, I'm sure they were wide awake behind their closed doors, eating the sandwiches my friend and I were seeking. In a typical bout of late-night urban aimlessness we took a taxi down to around 52nd and then wandered back uptown from closed cafe to closed restaurant to closed "all-night" diner, until we finally ended up at the Carnegie Deli, ludicrously near where we began.

But when our blintzes and a gigantic American-Tourist-Sized Corned Beef Sandwich arrived at the table, all was forgiven, and we loved New York once again.

Following this mini-adventure and my very short night of sleep (bedeviled as it was by Carnegie-Deli-Corned-Beef-inspired nightmares), I found myself zooming in a taxi through traffickless Queens, enjoying the scenery and wondering who exactly lives on Astoria Blvd., a pre-sprouted gentrification zone if I've ever seen one.

In the trunk, the giant poster; ahead of me, certain confrontation with the employees of Northwest Airlines. They were sure to see this huge roll of paper as a security threat, or worse, the sign of a Minnesotan pumped up with pride, and I could only imagine how crumpled or folded it would be by the time I brought it home. Or perhaps I would be forced to discard it along with the plastic water bottles and hand lotion containers of greater-than-3-ounce capacity which one can often see forlornly piled in the TSA Forbidden Container bin at the airport security checkpoint.

But no! my fears were unfounded. Instead of the old Northwest Airlines "we hate our jobs and so we hate you too" approach, I was treated to the now-famiiar new post-Delta-merger niceness: the crew found a spot in some special secret closet for my poster, and now it's home with me.

But where exactly does a Minnesotan put a gigantic poster advertising his own show at Carnegie Hall?

Thursday, September 24, 2009

My show at Bryant Lake Bowl, Tuesday Sept. 24th

Tuesday at the Bryant-Lake Bowl was an excellent start to the Hometown Tour. (Or the "Staycation Tour" as my friends have dubbed it.) I've played there before and I dig the "tiny theater" that they have. I haven't seen many rooms around the country like it.

The gig also had its own unique vibe and proportion. I think my energy was all there, but a little weird. The songs and the notes were wriggling around like cats in a bag; the squirminess wasn't unpleasant, it was interesting, but it kept suprising me. For example the version I played of "Honey Please" was full of strange variations on the piano and changes of tempo and arrangement, nothing I had planned, they all just kind of happened. Which is great, actually, when the spirit of the night is more powerful than the plan that holds it together.
I also unveiled my "Live at the Pantages" CD, which is a mail-order and stage only fan piece for now, but which I'm very proud of. Bought special Sharpies, urged the folks all to buy the record, and signed a lot of them at the end of the night.
Here's the set list:

FNT - fresh from the Current performance I did before the show. I am loving this song again, the rhythm of the guitar part jumps from my hands without effort these days.

Hand On My Heart

Turtle Dove - yes, the Trip Shakespeare song.

Great Divide

Baby Doll - everyone sang along to the "no one else" parts. I finally figured out why that last "no one else" in the chorus has singer-alongers confused. It's not there on the album but it belongs there and everyone instinctively knows that.

Your Brighter Days - new song, wrote it about someone I met on a plane

Sugar - on piano.

Act Naturally - suprised myself at soundcheck by playing this song on piano. I almost never play it and certainly not on the piano, but piano/voice is the perfect setting for it.

Greece story - okay this is not a song, it's a long story about my trip to Greece to play on their Mad TV Video Music Awards show recently. My parents were at the BLB on Tuesday, so I told the people how my Dad had alerted me a year ago to the MILLION views of a Youtube clip of "Breathless." This was a clip that only has the static picture of the "Free Life" album cover. My Dad said that something must be going on, and when I found out what it was, an adventure ensued.

Breathless - I wish I could have sung it in Greek but I did the English version.

All Will Be Well - song by me and Gabe Dixon. Always makes me happy.

Free Life

Honey Please - on piano, by request

Falling - also a request

All Kinds - nice singing everyone.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Gappy Information and the Multi-Tasking Illusion

I've been thinking about multi-tasking. I've never believed in it, never thought I saw anyone doing it well, or even actually really doing it. Never could do it well myself, anyway. Lately there's been a lot of talk about new research that shows how poorly multi-tasking works in comparison to doing one thing at a time. I like hearing that talk, of course, because it agrees with my already-formed opinion. But it's a subject that would interest me even if the research were saying I was wrong.

One reason I've been thinking about multi-tasking is that I've noticed people doing it around me a lot. I sit with friends at restaurants while they talk on their phones and answer e-mails at the same time they're talking to me. I feel like I'm sensing more often the distinctive "temporary stupidity" effect that occurs when someone is quietly checking and answering their e-mails while they're talking to me on the phone. Another reason multi-tasking has been on my mind is that it's in the news a lot. For example, there seem to be more and more stories about people getting killed by multi-tasking drivers of cars.

Another big reason I'm thinking about multi-tasking is that I've been making some changes to my life lately and I've noticed that a lot of the changes involve banishing multi-tasking from my daily experience. When I noticed that I was trying to banish it, I started thinking about it. Ironic.

My main conclusion so far is that multi-tasking is actually an illusion. A very convincing and vividly real-seeming illusion, but an illusion. And the reason that the illusion is so very vivid and real is that our consciousness is pretty much built to create the exact kind of illusion that allows us to falsely think we're multi-tasking.

The information coming to our minds through our senses is gappy, discontinuous, fragmented. Loud sounds interrupt conversations, but we comprehend and talk on. Beer salesmen and other fans pass in front of our eyes as we watch a baseball game, but we disregard the momentary gaps in our vision and continue to understand and enjoy the game. Even more basic, our eyes are constantly blinking shut, interrupting our flow of visual information, but we remain happily unaware of these brief moments of darkness.

Similarly, our actions throughout our days are constantly interrupted by sounds and sights that require attention. The doorbell rings during a conversation with a visitor; I get up, answer the door, sign the UPS driver's tablet, sit back down and continue the conversation. It's as though there were no interruption at all. The coffee which I put on the stove before I sat down to breakfast with my wife and daughters begins to boil; I get up, pour two cups of coffee, bring them to the table and resume eating my eggs, nearly unaware of the act.

So, our minds gather all of this gappy, discontinuous information from many different channels. And yet our consciousness feels smooth and continuous. If someone asked me about my breakfast I wouldn't say, "I ate two eggs for a few minutes, then was interrupted by the coffee boiling, then sat down and resumed eating my eggs and drinking my newly made coffee." I'd just say, "I had fried eggs and coffee," and the statement would feel complete and true.

For many years, I've been reading as much as I can about consciousness and what it is, and one theme returns again and again: one of the main functions of consciousness is to create and sustain for us an illusion of smoothness and continuity in our minute-by-minute experience, even when our senses are receiving interrupted, unrelated, or even contradictory signals. This feeling of smoothness may be an illusion, but it is a very useful one. It allows us to make sense of our actions and sensations, it allows us to maintain a coherent story as the sometimes confusing and contradictory information flows to us through our senses.

My impression is that when we multi-task (or think we are multi-tasking), we are engaging our minds' capacity to create this illusion, and then mistaking that illusion for reality. It's a misappropriation of our minds' capacity to create continuity from fragments. We are doing several things, spinning several threads, each in a discontinuous and gappy way, but our minds obligingly provide for us the illusion that each of these threads is discontinuous, unbroken; that we're doing all of these things continuously at once. We think we are multi-tasking when we are actually serial-tasking - attending to one thing at a time, each one in a choppy and discontinuous way.

Thus the sensation that we could still be "working on" the driving of a car during the same time in which we are reading a text message from a friend. Yes, we do feel very vividly that we are "still paying attention" to the road during those gaps, but that is because our minds are built to create just that illusion in our experience.

The illusion of smoothness and continuity isn't fully formed in us from birth. It develops and is refined over time. For example, a baby panics when its mother walks away to the next room. It's as if she has vanished from reality. But as the baby's consciousness develops, it learns to believe that Mom is "still there" even though she is out of sight. (Once this lesson is learned, it is a source of pleasure: when our mother hides behind a tree, we can delight in the magical feeling of knowing she's there even while not seeing her, and enjoy the suspense of testing our little theory - Yes! I found you!)

Or when we speak with a friend on the phone and the reception begins to deteriorate, we can keep the conversation going even through huge gaps in the transmission. In fact it takes a pretty radically bad connection to force us to give up and shout, "I'll call you back later!" We are able to take that interrupted sound information and either fill in the gaps with probable words, or if the gaps are too long, we just accept the gaps and stay in a suspended state, feeling that the next sentence might fill in the context and the gappy sentence will eventually make sense.

Films take advantage of this ability of our minds in a wonderful way - we can watch a scene which leaps from one character's speaking face to the other character's listening face and back, then to another wider view of the restaurant in which they are sitting, then to the image of the waiter carrying a tray of food through the swinging door of the restaurant kitchen, and then back to the faces of the two characters as they continue to talk. The sound of the film changes radically with each edit. And yet we don't think of this scene as a jarring series of unconnected pieces of information. We think of it as "the scene where the two characters are talking in the restaurant." The gappy information feels smooth.

Now, this creation of smoothness out of gappiness is really useful. Imagine if every time someone walked into the next room, you were suddenly unsure whether or not they still existed? How could you plan for the future if you couldn't assume the continuous existence of, say, your spouse, who has merely walked into the next room? 

Also, imagine if you were unable to hold a conversation in a loud party where lots of other people were talking loudly around you. Or if you were unable to speak to someone during a series of brief but very loud interruptions. For example, what if you couldn't understand the lyrics of a song because a kick drum kept interrupting and briefly obscuring the sound of the singer's voice, as it does at any rock show and on lots of great records. (I would be particularly sad if I couldn't listen to singing while there was a drummer drumming.)

But when this illusion becomes unhelpful is when we engage it while trying to "save time" by doing several things at once. I spoke recently with a friend about this and he told me that sometimes he finds that he's "missed" the last couple of minutes of a phone call because he's been checking his e-mails on his cell phone while talking on the phone. "The weird part is that I'll be thinking I'm paying attention to the conversation but I suddenly realize that I have no idea what the other person has been saying. I find myself then listening carefully to what they say next, to try to get some clue or hint to what they've been talking about. That at least reduces the chances of my saying something irrelevant and looking like a jackass."

And of course it becomes a matter of life or death when the drivers around us on the highway are reading their e-mail, operating scanners and printers and thumbing text messages while driving, happy in the illusion that they've been watching the road during the same two minutes in which they've been feeding papers into the scanner. The blithe look on the face of the woman talking on her cell phone who recently sailed through a red light a few feet from my car was the happy face of someone having a very nice and involving conversation. But she obviously wasn't as aware of the world around her as I would have liked her to be.

In my life as a songwriter the temptation to believe in the multi-tasking illusion is not physically dangerous, but it's dangerous to the writing. It's so tempting to go from looking at the online rhyming dictionary to a quick peek at my e-mail or the front page of the New York Times' website. These seem like harmless and brief interruptions, and of course given the way our minds smooth over interruptions and gaps, they almost seem like no interruption at all.

But achieving the state of mind necessary for creativity is like lighting a match. Sometimes it's like lighting the match between cupped hands on a windy day. And it's not always easy to re-light it when the match is allowed to go out.

When I'm writing a song, I need uninterrupted time during which I have nothing else important to do and nothing else important to think about but music. Maybe you can, but I can't multi-task and be a songwriter. The minute I get on the phone and discuss something important or stressful or complicated or even something which engages my problem-solving mind, the songwriting flame flickers or goes out. The minute I open my e-mail application on the computer, the flame goes out. And it takes another half hour for me to get that fragile flame lit again, if I even can. 

And we all know why people multi-task in the first place; extra half-hours are rare and precious in information-age America, year of 2009.

In a future entry, I'll write about the kind of distractions and interruptions that help me write songs. Perhaps I'll talk about parenthood and multi-tasking too.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Dan's latest book report is on "The Freedom Manifesto," by Tom Hodgkinson

I was drinking espresso after lunch at my newly discovered favorite cafe in Minneapolis, Common Roots, and reading a book that my brother gave me recently. The book was "The Freedom Manifesto," by Tom Hodgkinson, and it is an inspiring and funny and lighthearted outline how to go off the grid, unhitch oneself from the expectations and burdens of modern society, and revive the joys and inspirations of non-modern life. If the book is an extended leftist pamphlet, it is one with no self-righteousness or drudgery, but instead with special emphasis on enjoying our time on earth. Tend a garden; grow your own vegetables; cancel anything with a monthly fee; get out of debt and stay out; drink more beer with friends; cook your own food; let the kids find their own entertainment outside; ignore the government; start a neighborhood council and use it to throw a great party every year; stuff like that.

I was laughing out loud at one particularly pungent paragraph and an employee (manager?) of the restaurant approached me while he was busing a nearby table.

"What is that you are reading?" he asked.

"It's called 'The Freedom Manifesto,' " I said, and I gave him an earful about the book, the new convert's hard-sell. He said it sounded great, and that he'd look around for it.

A few weeks later I was back in Common Roots ordering lunch and espresso at the counter. The man who asked me about the book was ringing my order up. "You're the guy who told me about 'The Freedom Manifesto,' right?"

Yeah, that's me.

"I read the book, it was great, leftist politics without the overseriousness."

Yeah, I said, I thought the same thing.

He turned to another woman behind the counter who was pulling a shot of espresso for a customer. "Hey, this is the guy who told me about that book," he said to her. She told me she had read it and enjoyed it herself. "She loved it, too," she said, indicating another employee.

I was very pleased that I was able to introduce this fantastic book to a handful of new readers. If any of you out there like the Common Roots cafe, or just want to read a very interesting book about getting free, you may want to read "The Freedom Manifesto," by Tom Hodgkinson.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

It's a Hustle and a Game and a Gift

A reader pasted this quote as a comment on my recent post about file-sharing.

"When someone downloads a piece of music, it's just data until the listener puts that music back together with their own ears, their mind, their subjective experience. How they perceive your work changes your work. Treating your audience like thieves is absurd. Anyone who chooses to listen to our music becomes a collaborator. People who look at music as commerce don't understand that. They are talking about pieces of plastic they want to sell, packages of intellectual property. I'm not interested in selling pieces of plastic. I'm grateful that I've sold enough to have a house, take care of my kids and live decently. But that's a gift, not an entitlement. I don't want potential fans to be blocked because the choice to check out our music becomes a financial decision for them." – Jeff Tweedy

First of all, I find it beautiful that this comment was copy/pasted from another source; using someone else's words to express our own thoughts is an interesting aspect of this whole discussion. I do it all the time.

Second, I totally agree with the Tweedy quote. Music is not about selling pieces of plastic, it's about sparking a connection between people, and about giving the listener joy. When you give people joy, there's a good chance they will reward you somehow. But the exchange doesn't work as well when the artist treats their work as a product for sale, and demands a reward from the recipient.

Still, I can't help noting that Wilco gives us an awful lot of ways to buy pieces of plastic with their recordings on them! So even if Jeff Tweedy isn't interested in selling us pieces of plastic, someone in the band is, and makes them available to us to buy if we like. (I just bought "Wilco (The Album)" and I love it.) Maybe Jeff means that he's not primarily interested in selling pieces of plastic, that selling pieces of plastic is not an end, but a means of getting his music into the ears of his audience. And that downloads, paid or unpaid, are also ways to do that. If that's what he means, I'm completely in agreement.

I read an amazing book recently, called "2666", by Roberto Bolano. In one passage, Bolano describes the attitude of one of his characters, a novelist, towards his own work. The passage struck me as one of the best descriptions of what it's like to be an artist that I've ever read, especially the odd and interesting relationship between art and the commerce of art. Archimboldi, the character, writes in the day; his main job is at night, as a bouncer (or doorman) at a bar.

"Archimboldi's writing, the process of creation or the daily routine in which this process peacefully unfolded, gathered strength and something that for lack of a better word might be called confidence. This 'confidence' didn't signify the end of doubt, of course, much less that the writer believed his work had some value, because Archimboldi had a view of literature (though the word 'view' is too grand) as something divided into three compartments, each connected only tenuously to the others; in the first were the books he read and reread and considered magnificent and sometimes monstrous, like the fiction of Doblin, who was still one of his favorite authors, or Kafkas' compplete works. In the second compartment were the books of the epigones and authors he called the Horde, whom he essentially saw as his enemies. In the third compartment were his own books and his plans for future books, which he saw as a game and also a business, a game insofar as he derived pleasure from writing, a pleasure similar to that of the detective on the heels of the killer, and a business insofar as the publication of his books helped to augment, however modestly, his doorman's pay."

Making art is very little like experiencing art; I agree. And I think many artists would agree with Bolano that an artist's life is partly a hustle and partly a deeply interesting and satisfying game to play just for the joy of it.

One thing almost every artist will tell you is that making art is very time-consuming; having a full-time job is pretty much death for many artists' work, since the job leaves so little time for making art. Thus the hustle; if only to buy time in which to make art, artists often try very hard to make their art pay. We look at every paid piece of work as a way to buy the time to do more work.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Is File-Sharing Immoral?

I saw a really interesting and amazingly civil discussion online about the question: "Is illegally sharing music immoral?"

The link is here:

After reading the thread I got excited about posting a comment, but my comment got super-long, so I've decided to put it here on my blogs. Several responses to the thread compared putting songs on file-sharing networks to borrowing a book from a friend or a library, and I kept thinking that this was a misleading comparison. So, that's where I launched my reply:

I don't see how anyone can honestly equate one person lending a single copy of a book to his or her friend with another person helping thousands upon thousands of strangers to make free copies of a music CD. Do you really see no difference? The difference is obvious: the book in the first example is never magically turned into thousands of copies of the same book. You can only read a book so fast, and so lending it to friends is a naturally slow and limited process. Whereas once a digital copy of a song is available, the number of copies expands exponentially. We all know that the advent of near-perfect copying has really changed the nature of sharing a work of art. I guess the problem is that it's all happened so fast that there aren't yet any generally agreed-upon standards of behavior.

The labels have brought a lot of this trouble upon themselves and us musicians by digging in their heels throughout the 90s when a creative approach to pricing and selling digital copies might have still been possible. By about 2001, when Napster was shut down, the horse was already out of the barn, and file-sharing was turned into a kind of "stick it to the man" act of bravery.

But the artists did benefit from their record sales in the past, because they got advances from record labels willing to risk the investment on possible profits later. Sure, very few artists saw royalties after these advances, but the advances were one significant way that musicicans were paid for their work. I know, because I got cash advances on even the Trip Shakespeare and Semisonic songs and albums that didn't sell. Nowadays those advances are rare and very small, and all but the very top bands and singers are seeing their incomes fall dramatically every year.

That's okay, nobody promised us we'd get rich or even make a living, but it seems self-serving for file-sharers to argue that copying and enjoying our work without paying somehow benefits us musicians.

I can see pretty clearly how it benefits the person who gets the free album, though...

Because music is fun! It brings joy and peace and inspiration to tired, discouraged and sad people! It makes lonely people feel less alone in their troubles, it gives angry people an outlet for their rage, it makes it easy to dance at parties and fall in love! These things are worth paying a little for!

I fly a lot in my work as a songwriter, and I bring my acoustic guitar on the planes with me. If I check it in as baggage, it will eventually come off the plane broken. I have learned this over and over again to my dismay. So I get on the airplane early, bring the guitar into the cabin with me and put it in an overhead bin.

On crowded flights, other passengers will see my guitar occupying two spaces in the overhead bin and complain to the flight crew. "Hey! There's a guitar here! That should go down in the hold! I can't fit my rollaboard into the overhead bin!" And sometimes the crew will then make me check the guitar into the baggage hold. And then, every 20 or so times the guitar comes back out of the plane broken.

I never make a scene at moments like this, but what I would like to say is: "This guitar has given lots and lots of people joy, and if it is broken, I'll have to spend a bunch of money to buy another one so that it can give lots of people joy! Your rollaboard is just a bag full of toiletries and clean underwear; it is only going to give you and maybe one other person joy! That's why my guitar deserves the extra spaces in the overhead bin and your rollaboard will just have to go down in the hold!" I wish I had the chutzpah to say this, but I don't. Especially because I think no one will understand what I'm saying.

Now, these outraged business travelers, who are just trying to save themselves 20 minutes of waiting for their own checked bag by stashing everything into a rollaboard, aren't intentionally trying to break my guitar. If the crew told them they could have the overhead space but the crew would have to break my guitar in two right then and there, I'm sure at least most of these passengers (not all) would say, "Oh, never mind, I'll check my rollaboard. You can leave the guitar in the overhead bin." In fact, I'd say that if they knowingly chose to have my guitar broken, it would be an immoral act; a small one, but definitely immoral.

And that's what people do in a tiny way by making our songs available to any old stranger on a file-sharing site. These file-sharings are very small acts, but they hurt the musicians a little each time. And I think people actually understand this, despite all the disingenuous arguments that file-sharing is good for musicians. I mean, give me a break, the site is called "Pirate Bay"! Everyone knows that pirates were sailors who robbed other ships!

I don't feel well-enough informed of the details of the case of the Minnesota Mom who has been fined more than a million dollars... that sounds truly terrifying, and I wonder just how many copies she would have had to give away to really add up to that amount of money. And it does seem typical of the tone-deaf way the music industry has dealt with this issue all along.

On the other hand, I wish the Minnesota Mom hadn't used as a late-breaking defense that "someone else" might have been signing onto her computer unbeknownst to her and sharing the songs. Hmmm. I think I liked the Robin Hood "stick it to the man" defense better.

As for creative commons licenses, this movement seems like a quibble, since holders of creative commons licenses are still trying to maintain control of how their work is used and copied. Why criticize copyright holders and yet still put restrictions on the use of your work? Why not put it out with no restrictions? If your song is good enough, a major corporation will steal it from you, release it, and make loads of money. Oh, but of course the sales would promote your tour. I hope touring is a big part of your new business model!

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Dan Wilson in Athens

Click here to see the MAD TV Video Music Awards clip

I went to Greece two weeks ago to perform on the MAD TV Video Music Awards. It was really fun, performing with me were the backing band of the Greek singer Stavros Dadoush. Afterwards at the side of the stage, the vibes player, Vaggelis Paraskevaidis, played some hot jazz on the vibes before the stage crew shooshed us down to our dressing rooms.

My friends were amazed at the number of whirling, whooshing crane shots in the clip. Mike Doughty told me I was lucky the producers let me stand on the stage, as they could have fit an extra crane where I was standing. I say the slight feelings of motion sickness are worth the fun.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Who is the Author and why isn't the drummer getting paid?

Been thinking about collaboration in my own musical world and other types of art, too. What is the relationship between the idea of a "sole author" and the real process of making art? Is the heroic solo author just a figurehead we need so that we can refer to the art and imagine that it comes from one body?

From the inside, I am more and more aware that any good piece of music I am involved with turns out to be a collaboration, even the stuff I once would have called "solo" work. Even if just one person writes a song, there still may be 6 musicians performing the song, a producer and two engineers recording the song, a mixer and a mastering engineer creating the final sound of the song, a kitchen cabinet of friends and spouse and peers telling the singer whether it's good enough to release, etc, etc. Pretty quickly, you're up to 12 specialists and at least a few trusted sets of ears afterwards.

And this is the case for almost all the music we think of as the work of a single artist - Bon Iver perhaps an exception to this, but he's the rare one.

But the thing I'm thinking of is that even in the visual art I go to see, the work is often a site-specific collaboration between artists and venue - an artist or two flies into town, looks at a room/park/building/atrium, gathers up some fabricators/engineers/collaborators, and when they leave town they leave behind them a cool piece of conversation fuel on tap for the public.

Even though these works are promoted to us as solo artworks, they're no less collaborative than the songs I get involved in.

So why do we still need the heroic solo author in the press materials and on the outside wall of the musuem? Is it just because a group photo is a mess? Is it because we need a figurehead just in order to talk about the art or music?

I am wondering whether our mental picture of how art and music are made are going to catch up to this reality or whether we'll always need that figurehead.

Last night I went out to a show - a friend of mine, Sara Watkins, came to Minneapolis, taught her songs to the band Romantica, and they played them together at the Ritz. I found it to be very inspiring and beautiful just as music, but even more than that I was fascinated by Romantica's willingness to let their "identity" as a band flex. They temporarily absorbed elements of Sara's vision and vice versa and the night was more exciting for it. I know this isn't a new practice, but it seems to be happening a lot among the musicians I know.

Here's another comment on the question of authorship: the biggest unacknowledged travesty in crediting and payment of royalties in music is that drummers are not paid royalties on the tracks they record. I think that most great rock songs boil down to being a great duet between the singer and the drummer. The feel that the drummer brings to the recording is almost the whole thing. But the way the payment is structured is that the singer gets royalties on sales of the recording, being the "artist." Drummers of the world, unite! It's time to get paid for your ideas, before that idea competely bites the dust.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

My Facebook status updates for June.

I thought I'd make an unusual blog entry, instead of my customary piece, I've pasted here all of the status updates I posted on Facebook in the month of June. It seemed like an interesting month to me and maybe there are some indicators here.

All comments welcome as usual.

Too bad I couldn't include the existing commentary, especially on my last May post: "Dan Wilson is seeking the perfect time-out. Crib? Corner? Broom closet?" And it wasn't for a time-out for me!

If you want chronological order, please read from the bottom:

Dan Wilson is still thinking a lot about Temple Grandin's "SEEKING system," That about-to-open-a-present emotion which she says may be the ruler of all other emotions.

Dan Wilson read "The Talented Mr. Ripley" from cover to cover on the plane from Holland on Saturday. Villains are best when they have to scramble. Ripley is like Anton Chigurh in that way. Soon I'll have watched all of "No Country For Old Men" in tiny bits on Youtube and will be ready to see the actual movie. Took me 10 years to do this with "Silence of the Lambs." Still enjoyed it even though I drained all suspense by waiting.

Dan Wilson had the blues the other day... put on some music, Aimee Mann's "It's Not" - not the first cure for the blues I realized but when she rhymed "astronaut" with "afterthought" in the last verse it was like the sun coming out. I must have been in a mood because the next three songs: "Alison" by Elvis Costello, "Gone Away From Me" by Ray Lamontagne, and "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road" by Elton John.

Dan Wilson is loving "I am not a robot." Marina & the Diamonds. When she says "little baby."

Dan Wilson can't find babysitter for Johann Johannson show! No, no, I'm not fishing. I'll let you know if I get lucky. Finding a babysitter.

Dan Wilson Home from Greece/Belgium/Holland. Saw the Acropolis, Parthenon, Erechtheion, etc, for the first time and am predictably wowed. Want to become tourist for a few years.

Dan Wilson got stuck on a train from Providence to New York. He sat in the dark and quiet while the people around him started to say things like, "I've gotta get off this train!" and "I'm getting so damn claustrophobic!" Dan watched several clips of T-Bone Walker singing and playing the guitar, in the quiet and the dark. It was beautiful.

Dan Wilson might also bring snacks to Providence, RI, where the wedding was, next time he goes. The people of Providence seemed very crabby as well.

Dan Wilson needs to remember to bring snacks to the next wedding he's at. During the photo session right after the ceremony, the risk of crabbiness is dire.

Dan Wilson just realized that the problem with universal health care is that Americans need at least some smallish portion of the people not to receive it. The "Universal" part rankles, it offends the American sense of fairness. Someone has to lose out. An awful thought but it seems true to me. We'll see what happens.

Dan Wilson is thinking about "Animals Make Us Human" by Temple Grandin... it's amazing. I thought it was going to be a specialized book about dogs and horses etc but it really is about our natures.

Dan Wilson mixing a song by me and Rachael Yamagata, such a pleasure.

Dan Wilson woke up last night to find that his entire visual field was filled by a pure-white, oval-shaped disk of light; in the center was a circle of light so bright that it was black, casting off a glowing aura of blackness around it.

Dan Wilson is trying to learn to move at the speed of Lily.

Dan Wilson played a benefit for PACER Center on Thursday at a really nice old mansion in Minneapolis. It might have been fun to be a milling baron in the 1920s. Or maybe kinda stressful.

Dan Wilson Johnny Cash "God's Gonna Cut You Down" and Decembrist's "The Hazards of Love."

Dan Wilson my songs are not information, thank you very much.

Dan Wilson just read a short story called "Vast Hell" - it's on the New Yorker website and it has me buzzing with excitement about reading some fiction. The last thing I read was the depressing "Gomorra."

Dan Wilson Is super happy his friend's surgery went perfectly.

Dan Wilson is sneaking away frequently from important tasks to read Dean Wareham's "Black Postcards." If anyone knows him, tell him I say thanks.

Dan Wilson is hoping his friend's surgery goes perfectly today.

Dan Wilson on my mind: red wine. Not the song, the drink.

Dan Wilson I'm cranking Bob Dylan ("masters of war", "blowing in the wind", "chimes of freedom", "don't think twice, it's alright") all morning but that harmonica is killing me! How did they get it to be so much louder than his voice and guitar? Why did they do it? Still love him.

Dan Wilson thinking obsessively about Tom Hodgkinson's "The Freedom Manifesto."

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Huh? What Happened?

Hello again. I'm back in the pool myself, sort of.

I guess I knew adopting a two year old baby girl was going to annihilate my daily routine. (How did I know? My friends all told me, and with great glee.) The immediate upshot: I traded journaling, book-reading, lyric-writing, and, yup, BLOGGING for cuddling, diaper-changing, scrape-prevention, and general silliness.

I'm sticking with the silliness and scrape-prevention, but now am going to experiment with squeezing a little blogging and lyric-writing in between cuddles. We'll see how it goes.

Although my daily life has been turned upside down again (my first daughter Coco turned our family life upside down for the first time almost 12 years ago), I have little to say about the diapers and sleep interruptions and other little inconveniences. It was pretty funny how many people told me before Lily came that having two kids is "ten times harder" than having one. Really? Maybe it's twice as hard, twice as expensive, etc... But ten times? Why is everyone so eager to complain about children? And these are all people with nannies or day care or babysitters. I can understand (a little) complaining about the first kid; after all, you had no idea what to expect, you don't know what just hit you. But once you go in for a second, it's a little harder to act surprised.

I suppose being a man I am probably not shouldering my full share of child-rearing duties, so maybe I'm not the person to ask how hard it is.

All that aside, though, the thing that's most amazed me about bringing Lily into my life is the love. I guess when you take care of someone, you start to love them. It's automatic, and that's that. She's still a total mystery to me, I feel like there's a tiny stranger in the house and she's taken over the operation. And all that makes sense, she's a baby and her needs are immediate and prior. But how has this love sprung up out of nowhere? Because that's what has happened. Before we went to the Philippines, I was afraid it wouldn't happen, that I wouldn't figure out how to love Lily. Now the big surprise is that it has happened by stealth. I didn't notice falling in love with her, I just fell.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Commencement Speech

MacNally Smith College of Music asked me to give the commencement address to their graduating class this year, which I agreed to without really knowing what I was getting into. It was a very interesting thing to try but way outside my comfort zone.

Here's the text of the speech, not including a few digressions and on-the-fly amendments.


Get in the Pool

Good morning, everyone, and congratulations, McNally Smith College of Music graduates! I hope you had fun, I hope you learned a lot, and I hope you're proud of what you've learned and accomplished.

I'm here to talk to you about what happens next.
I am what you’d call a professional musician and that’s why McNally Smith has asked me to speak to you today. I’m not a professional speaker and I don’t claim to have the last word on the subject of the music business.

I never went to music school, but after enough times around the block a person starts to get an education in the music business anyway.

I spent about 15 years on the road with my bands Trip Shakespeare and Semisonic. During our heaviest touring, I think both of those bands did a hundred and fifty, or two hundred shows a year.

So I’ve played well more than a thousand gigs in my life.

And I still travel for my work: in the past few months I’ve written songs with KT Tunstall in London, Rivers Cuomo in Los Angeles, and Nicole Atkins in Minneapolis.
I’ve performed in Chicago, LA and Minneapolis in the past month.
Here’s something about me that I don’t publicize much: I’ve been signed to or put out records with at least twelve different record labels:

Gark Records
Clean/Twin-Tone Records
A&M Records
Elektra Records
Nettwerk America
American Recordings
Lost Highway
Universal Music
Warner Bros. Records
Columbia Records

I might be forgetting one or two.
This is not counting a half dozen other companies that have put out my songs when I was “between labels”, whatever that means.
And it’s not counting the various EP’s and albums that I’ve put out independently without a label at all.

Bottom line is, I haven’t had a day job for a long time, so my experiences are probably pretty relevant to your future plans.

Here’s my main message to you for the morning:
Get in the pool.

Get in the pool.
Join the conversation.
Go straight to the audience.
Start a camp, a crew, a scene, a community. If you can't start one, then join a camp, a crew, a community.
Hit the road if that’s what you need to do to find your community.
Better yet, hit the road with your community! See the fifty states and show them your music.
Keep no secrets.
Don’t save your art, spend it.
Get your ideas out into the world, into your camp, your crew, your scene.
Learn how to say, "How can I help?” and mean it.
Get in the pool.

I'm assuming that all of you either plan to be professional musicians,
or to work in the music business,
or at least to keep music as an important part of your lives.
Well, you're all at the threshold of a new phase.
Maybe you're wondering what to do next.
Maybe you have a plan you've been dead sure about for years.
Maybe you have a strange and excited feeling that you could become anybody at all, and you’re just waiting to find out who.
Or maybe you have the anxious suspicion that nobody could possibly make a living doing the things you've just learned how to do.
Whichever way, it’ pretty sure that the "training" phase is closing, and the "doing" phase is about to begin.

Some of you feel that the only thing you lack is a magical phone number or e-mail address; all you need to succeed is access; access to some higher-up, some powerbroker, some gatekeeper who, when they hear and see your work, will lift you up into the clouds and make you a star.
Maybe you have decided that your main focus in life is going to be making demo recordings to play for this gatekeeper, when you someday finally meet him or her.

Some of you feel that your music is not ready to show to anyone. As the Talking Heads sang in the song "Artists Only", "I’m painting, I’m painting again… You can't see it til it's finished!"
But the search for perfection can be endless. You might find yourself still feeling this way in five years, or maybe ten. "It's not quite ready yet," you might be saying in ten years, "You can't hear it til it's finished!"

Some of you will worry that if you share your work without the proper legal protections, then somebody will steal your ideas and make millions from music that rightfully belongs to you.
You might end up spending a lot of time and energy keeping your ideas secret until you can unveil them to the world.

Let’s talk about access.
Ever since people started noticing my music I've had a steady stream of beginning songwriters approach me for advice.
Their first question is usually, "Can you show my songs to Rick Rubin?”
They feel that their music is great; the only thing they really lack is access.
Well, try this: think about your musical friends, the people you've studied with and played with.
Think about the people you’re going to jam with and hang out with and record with over the next five years, whether it’s here in the Twin Cities, or somewhere else.
Most of these friends of yours are probably wondering just like you are about whether they will ever "make it."
You might in fact listen to their music at times and wonder the same thing. But at other times you listen to their music and you hear their potential for greatness.
Okay. Picture these friends in your mind.
I'm here to tell you the astonishing fact that these people, the peers you’re going to meet, and jam with and record with over the next five years, the people whose couches you are going to sleep on, whose vans you will ride in, whose equipment you are going to borrow, whose music is sometimes brilliant and sometimes not-so-much, these people are more important to your musical future than any executive in Hollywood or New York.
Why? Because when you start or join an interesting, inspiring and super-creative community of music, access will come to you.
Access will come to you and give you its phone number and its e-mail address. Access will want to be part of the community you’ve created, it will want a piece of the creativity that you are fostering. Access will see money in what you’ve put together, and access will find you.
Get in the pool. Have a camp, a crew, a community.
If you really, really can’t find this community in the town where you live, then move somewhere else. But I believe there are brilliant artists in many unlikely places.

Or, if you can’t find a super-creative music community, then start one yourself.
Songwriters and producers these days are not satisfied to sit in their studios alone and write or record new songs. Everywhere I go, the top writer/producers are trying to gather a scene around themselves. They’re trying to recreate the Brill Building, that office building in New York City which, during the Great Depression, became the birthplace of scores of hit songs.

The writer/producers I’m talking about, people like Tricky Stewart or Martin Terefe, are adding small rooms to their studios, finding undiscovered young writers, and setting them up in the small rooms.
Some call it setting up a writers’ camp.
Get three or four rooms like this going, each with a singer and a producer/engineer, and things start to multiply.
The doors open at lunch time, everyone hangs out in the courtyard, and suddenly people are pairing off with each other and writing extra songs during lunch. Camaraderie, competition, chemistry, all mixed together. So if you can’t find a community, start one yourself.

Don’t Hide Your Ideas. Spend Your Ideas.
“You can’t see it till it’s finished!”
I’ve always loved that song. I started out as a visual artist – after college I went to San Francisco to learn how to be a painter, and ended up getting pretty good at it.
But during those first couple of years, I hardly ever showed anyone my art.
And I met a lot of artists who were the same way – they’d paint their evenings and weekends away on work that no one else ever saw.

Well, at some point you have to come out of hiding. When I started showing my work to journalists, other artists, and collectors, it was as though my growth curve as a painter got super-charged. During the period when I kept my work secret and hidden, I had only one source of feedback: me. But when I started sharing my ideas, I got great feedback from every direction, and I loved it. It got so much easier to tell which works were great and which were okay; and the unexpected part was that sometimes the art I was most attached to and proud of left everybody else cold; and on the other hand sometimes the pieces that I was embarrassed or uncomfortable about were the ones that blew everybody’s mind.
So when I did come out of hiding, I was glad I had – I started to show and sell my paintings right away. I returned to Minneapolis, I found gallery representation, sold a lot of big pictures, and it looked like I was going to be able to make a decent living as a visual artist.

Things were going great, but I realized one important thing about being a painter: it’s lonely.
A visual artist is alone in the studio for 8 or 10 hours a day. Occasionally you’ll be visited by other artists in the warehouse where you rent space. And if you smoke you can chit chat with the other smokers out in the cold near the fire door. I didn’t even smoke so it was really lonely for me.

I think that’s why I eventually chose music. I love hanging out with other musicians. I love collaborating with them. I love the weird way they think. Maybe that’s because it’s the way I think, too.

Which reminds me of something I want to say to the engineers in the room. Engineers: if you don’t already love musicians and the weird way they think and behave, you might want to try to learn.

First reason to learn to love musicians: if this engineering thing goes well for you, you’re about to be locked in a dark room with these people for many years to come. So why fight it? I know too many engineers who find musicians and their non-linear thinking to be exasperating, too many engineers who think of musicians as obstacles getting in the way of making great music.

Second reason to learn to love musicians: as recording engineer, you are a vital element of the creative process, and you must understand the mind and character and needs of your artist just as well as you understand the needs of the machines you use to capture the artist’s performance. You’ve got to see the whole picture.

Third reason to love musicians: if you love them, they will love you back, and you’ll get more work.

Okay, back to my point.
Don’t hide your ideas; spend your ideas.
Get your ideas into circulation. Show people your songs. Teach other engineers or producers your tricks. Trade up! They will show you their techniques in return.

In 2001 I decided I needed to learn how to make my digital recordings sound great. I had figured out that most people in the music business can’t hear the greatness in a song unless the demo sounds like a hit record. Everybody in the music business will tell you that they can hear whether a song is great by listening to a simple guitar and vocal demo. Well, most of them are lying. Unfortunately, the truth is the demo needs to sound like a hit.

So I traveled in Europe and America co-writing with the best producer/engineers I could find. I wrote a lot of songs and asked a lot of questions. During the sessions, I was amazed how willing these people were to share their methods.
Back when I started making records, the analog engineers were ultra-secretive – they’d hide gear under the mixing desk, create secret patches off the patchbay so no one could guess what instrument was going through which compressor. But the digital producer/engineers I was working with just answered my questions. So I kept asking. I learned so much during that year, it was like going to school again. Now I do the same thing that they did. If anyone asks me, “How did you get that sound,” I am really happy to tell them. It’s like an indirect way of paying back the people who taught me.

Don’t save your ideas; spend your ideas. Get them into circulation.

When a young songwriter or recording artist approaches me with questions, another question she often asks is this: “How can I copyright my songs to make sure that no one steals my ideas?” This young songwriter feels that she has written an amazing new song, and she wants to send a demo to a manager, she wants to show it to a publishing company or a singer, but she’s terrified that when she does show it to someone, they will copy it or bite the best part and claim it for their own.

Now there are established ways to copyright your work. These ways are pretty basic and they depend on a certain amount of good faith on your part – when I was coming up the method was either to send songs to the Library of Congress (which I never did), or you could mail your songs to yourself, leaving the envelope unopened when it arrived. If you did this, the idea was that the postmark on the sealed envelope would be your proof of when you wrote the brilliant song, and you could use it in court to establish your authorship.

Well, the dirty secret about copyright law is that legal cases are expensive and people usually settle them based on how expensive they’re going to be rather than who is right, who wrote the song, or who has the sealed, postmarked envelope. Proving you’re right is often just too expensive.

And even if you have all the proof in the world, there’s just no preventing someone from biting your song if they really want to. The only way to guarantee the safety of your copyright is to hide it in your room and never show it to anyone.

So what’s the solution?

If you’re scared to share your idea because it’s too amazing, try this: Always bet that you will have another great idea. That’s what I do. I have come to realize that my job is not to store and protect my existing ideas; my job is to come up with new ones. The reason people come to me is not for my current idea but for the next one I’m going to think of.

And at some point, you just have to take the risk. You have to get in the pool, join the conversation, spend your ideas. Don’t save them. Everybody gets ripped off at one point or another, it’s part of paying your dues. Show people your songs, your recordings, your techniques. The only way to 100% protect your ideas is to never share them with anyone.

I run into musicians who tell me that they’re making an album but they’re not putting their best song on it. “Why in the world would you do that?” I ask. They tell me they’re saving the great song for when they have massive corporate backing so that the great song has a better chance of being a hit.

That’s pretty gutsy, betting that your second best song will launch you to a place where you can use your best one. I always just prefer to use up my best idea today. If I have a writing session with someone, and I have a great new idea, I always show it to them and ask if they want to work on it. It’s a way of betting that I’ll have another better idea tomorrow or next year.

When you make the bet that you will always have another great idea, it gets a lot easier to risk the current one, get it out into the world, put it into circulation.
And when you put that current idea into circulation, it multiplies.
Your idea will get better when other people handle it and give it back to you.
And your community will start to think of you as somebody with great ideas, and they’ll start to ask you for more ideas.
Ideas are like the opposite of money, the more you spend them, the more they increase.

Some final thoughts.
One of the best ways to get in the pool and join the conversation is this:
Go straight to the audience.
Are you half-ready to play live? Then get out and play live.
Don’t wait until you’re completely ready, because you’ll never be completely ready.

Are you micro-refining your sound for a market niche and looking for a corporate partner?
Forget that stuff!
Get your gear down to the bar, or the coffeeshop, or the open mic night, or your church, and play for live souls in a real space.
They will refine your work in the most ruthless and efficient way.

Are you waiting to show your demo recording to a management company?
Stop waiting!
Get out and play a gig! Take whatever crappy gig you can get.
I promise they’ll get better if you stick with it.
Playing for an audience will improve your music a hundred times more than sitting in your studio and asking yourself for your own opinion.

One time-tested way of going straight to the audience is this: make them dance. Don’t laugh: a lot of the greatest composers throughout history have worked extremely hard to make people dance.
Think of Mozart’s minuets, Strauss’s Waltzes, Ellington and Count Basie and Glenn Miller’s swing, The Clash, Prince, Michael Jackson, The Beastie Boys, Kanye West, nearly everything on pop radio today.
Almost every style of music can be traced back to a traditional dance music.

Finally, the question that’s foremost in a lot of your minds: how can I make a living doing the stuff I learned how to do at McNally Smith College of Music?

Making a living in music is not easy, that’s pretty obvious, but we musicians have advantages.
We’re cheap dates.
Musicians are accustomed to living on ramen noodles and sleeping on couches if necessary.
We have a sense of mission: we know what we want to do with ourselves and so we’re willing to sacrifice to make it happen.
We find meaning and joy in our work, so it doesn’t necessarily have to pay us like kings and queens to make us happy.

But since food must be bought and rent must be paid, here are five small but good tricks for making a living in music.

1. No cocaine. No heroin. Cocaine and heroin will eat your lunch money, then your rent money, then it will eat your dream too.

2. Learn how to say, “How can I help?” and mean it. Fill in for bands missing a member and do it for free or for cheap. Mix shows for nothing or for a meal. You’ll get really good. Become indispensable and people will hire you.

3. Find a flexible day job.
I know that’s not quite making a living in music, but a flexible day job that pays okay is way better for a musician than a time- and energy-draining day job that pays more.
You can phase out the flexible day job when you don’t need it anymore.
My personal opinion is that the day job is better if it uses different muscles that the dream uses.
So, for example if you dream of being a recording artist, I’d say don’t produce jingles for an ad agency.
Those music muscles will be so tired by the time you get home that rocking out will be the last thing you want to do.

4. Marry someone who believes in your music enough to share your dream for the long haul.
The minute your girlfriend or boyfriend wants to have a talk about a realistic timetable for either succeeding in music or getting a real job, you are in trouble. There’s somebody out there who will believe in your dream and set no time limits on your pursuit of it.

5: Whatever people tell you about the economy, don’t let them freak you out.
Now is a great time to be a creative person, especially one who is just starting out.
We’re in an economic downturn, and downturns are the time to be in research and development, creating new ideas that will change the future.
So work on your music and your techniques and your community now, and by the time the economy is back on its feet you’ll be ready to participate in the upturn with the great stuff you’ve created during the downturn.
And the best part about this is that during the hard times, you’ll have made a lot of people more happy, more inspired, and more hopeful with your music.

Thanks for your time, good luck in all you choose to do and again: congratulations, graduates.

Monday, February 23, 2009

This Land is Your Land

I posted this on my Star Tribune blog recently:

I just watched a clip from the presidential inauguration in which Pete Seeger leads that huge crowd of people in a call-and-response version of Woodie Guthrie's "This Land is Your Land." It filled me with such joy to see his eyes gleaming as he intoned the less-familiar verses, the ones about private property, the relief office, people standing hungry, the people "wondering if this land's still made for you and me."

Seeger unearthed the forgotten verses, the ones which not only celebrate our country's beauty and its democratic ideals, but which challenge our country to do better.

One thing that really gratified me about that moment of the inauguration was that a song could once again have such a powerful presence at a public ceremony. Yes, it was fun hearing Fleetwood Mac's "Don't Stop" at Bill Clinton's victory celebration, but I have to admit I found it a bit vapid. I found myself wishing for a song which could hold up its end of the bargain.

I remember reading an interview with Neil Young about a year ago. He said, "I think that the time when music could change the world is past. I think it would be very naive to think that in this day and age."

I'm not sure that "This Land is Your Land" did it quickly, but I am damn sure that it has slowly and inexorably changed the world we live in, and for the better. And if's "Yes We Can" didn't help to bring change to our country, then maybe Neil Young is right. But I think it did. Even now, I think other songs are being written and have been written which will change the world yet again, and for the better.

If there's a new "This Land is Your Land" out there, well, I hate to say it, but that song may have to wait sixty or seventy years to be played at a Presidential inauguration. That's fine; it's a mighty big honor for a song and, anyway, a song that great will have the patience to wait.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Star Wars, Muppets, Weddings

At the wedding I went to on Saturday, the processional (isn't that what they call the music played while the bridal party exits?) was, with perhaps some irony but much more glory and happiness, the "Star Wars" theme. The couple are in their late 20's I think. It really was a great way to send them off, I have to admit. If I'd had a hat, I would have thrown it in the air with excitement.

Lewis Hyde, author of "The Gift", (more about that lovely book later,) pointed out in an essay called "Frames from the Framers" that we are all flooded and soaked in a language of imagery and words which are owned by the entertainment and media industry. These phrases and pictures and ideas have now been woven into our consciousness and identity, but they are illegal for us to use for our own purposes. They're copyrighted and the companies that control them are very aggressive in protecting them. I'm not sure but my guess is that the church I was at on Saturday owes the writers of the "Star Wars" theme a royalty for the use of the song.

I guess that's why copyrights expire - a song or book or image belongs to the author at first, but after years pass and it has entered into myth, or in the case of "Star Wars" - religion - it becomes everyone's. (Yes, I like Wilco's "What Light.")

The night before the wedding, I was playing the piano in the living room of the big rental house where my extended family was staying, all 25 of us representing ages from 1 to 82. I was practicing my wedding reception number "You're Still the One," (which is the greatest 10th anniversary song ever written and that's good because the couple were actually celebrating the 10th anniversary of their somewhat private first wedding, this time with family included.)

After I'd run through the Shania Twain song a few times (despite my practicing, I still forgot a few words at the ceremony but that's another story,) I was kind of noodling around on the keys and ended up playing "Rainbow Connection" (from the Muppet Movie, yes, but written by Kenny Ascher and Paul Williams: "We've Only Just Begun," "Just An Old Fashioned Love Song," etc.). By the time I was into the second verse, all of the generation Y-ers in the house had gathered around the piano and were singing along, through the (great, short) bridge and thence to the unbelievably moving last verse (only slightly less unbelievably moving than the faith-defining, -destroying, -and-then-reconstructing second verse) all the way to the end.

I enjoyed the fact that some of them sang in their regular singing voices, but maybe half of them sang in partial or full Kermit the Frog voices.

Now, it isn't news that "Rainbow Connection" is one of the best songs of the past 40 years. But when the night ended and I opened up my computer to say good night to my e-mail, I noticed a window open to an article about Jim James of My Morning Jacket, and I decided to read it. I turned to the second page of the interview, where he was asked who his influences as a singer are. The first singer he names: Kermit the Frog. I think in all seriousness. Or at least as much seriousness as "Star Wars" at a wedding.

"Star Wars" and Kermit are getting more and more substantial as time goes on.