Too much revelation at your indie fest? Too much Jesus? Shut up, naysayer. I want more.
At this year’s Noise Pop— San Francisco’s broadest annual music fest— I was hoping to lie at the feet of the kind of Americana music I’ve been obsessed with my entire life. My most visceral early memories are of blues and bluegrass in the mountains and at the General Feed & Seed, the looks in the adults’ eyes as moving as the music itself. It looked like they were recognizing something in themselves, something they often kept at bay. The music sounded at once folky, sly, honest, raw. It seemed basically religious to me, and a more interactive kind of religious, because it was just like when we went to synagogue–there was community, there was singing–but you were actually expected to get up and boogie down, and (as I would later realize) there weren’t any restrictions on what you could sing about.
Eventually, I, too, was drawn in by the words, tales of mountains and rivers with ends, stories about ghosts, lost-and-found loves, churchyards, broken guitars, conflicted saints. This led to my favorite time to do Tarot readings: late at night, after gigs, when the world was quiet and the evening’s revelations–the lyrics and the sounds–had slowed down but still were present. I’ve been mildly obsessed with Tarot since a friend gave me the Rider-Waite deck back in high school. It was a used copy, no less, from a little bookstore in Pacific Grove, California. So it could have first been handled by anyone around those parts, from leftover Beats to former Carmel-by-the-Sea mayor Clint Eastwood, from the fleet-eyed ghost of Robinson Jeffers to a bronzed Carmel Valley couple with a taste for Tantra. None of this is likely—it was probably just traded in for gas money by a Big Sur pothead—but all of it is possible.
I’m basically pretty sure the deck was Eastwood’s. Forget about his over-declared Libertarianism and San Onofre beach-saving (“bad ideas are not uncommon”; video), let go of Dirty Harry and its killer soundtrack (video), and let’s ignore for a second his generous support of the Monterey Jazz Festival, whose school music program enabled my addiction to improvisational music early on by sending real, phenomenally talented, often hungover musicians into my high school every month to tell my jazz trio how they could do more with one note than we could do with all of them, every note, put together, plucked and sounded by our trembling hands.
My Eastwood-Rider-Waite theory has more to do with the hidden force of gossip, a religion of repetition. The sacred is hidden, the sacred is everywhere. My first brushes with fame were entirely fictional and had much to do with mistaken identity. See, my uncle happens to look uncannily like Eastwood. On family adventures we were accosted by people wanting attention or an autograph, offering above-average service, whispering to their friends, buzzing with the dumb spirit of recognition. We seldom corrected the giddy throngs. For those people, accessing their internal images of Eastwood and responding to the imaginary, my uncle (or my dad, who also bears a resemblance, though it isn’t as strong) might as well have been Eastwood. Sure, we gave them something to talk about, but something else was happening, a beautiful, pointless transcendence of the everyday. It was best when they realized their folly and were delighted by it. “Oh, he just looks like a movie star. Did you know they use Vaseline on the camera lenses?”
Dude, reality is hella sketchy. Big or little gossip breeds big or little fame. That’s one kind of repetition. Music—both the nature of rhythm and our desire to “know” songs through repeated intercourse—is another. Religion is somewhere between the two. Tarot is outside of all these things, but inside, too. It’s now mass produced but each card looks a little different every time you stare at it. It proliferates via the kind of religious practice that must be passed from mouth to mouth, the gossip of everyday fantasy, the idea that life is dialogue. If you lay out the Tarot trump cards, they form a sort of storyline, yet we don’t look at them like that. We pick one card or do a spread and trust in the instantaneous narrative’s lilt and loop. A good reader is a little admonishing (“honest”) and puts you in your place without dismissing your thoughts. Without a reader, the cards are nothing. It’s like the Gospel of Mark, who, quoth Barry Qualls, “does not fear…the Hebrew determination to summon the reader to take part in the story. Mark is sublimely at ease with the gaps.”
This year’s Noise Pop music festival turned San Francisco into a big Tarot reading, a festival of raw sound and melancholic songs, “sublimely at ease with the gaps.” My favorite thing about the yearly fest is that so many venues (and genres) are involved. There’s no overwhelming communal vibe, no dirty “lot” with pupils the size of cupcakes; in its place is a community buzz, the twitter of subcultures. Each event is carefully curated to present music you might also like (“Listeners who sway to Blackalicious also groove to Little Jackie”)—there seemed to be very different audiences at each show—and because the venues tend to be intimate, a lot of the shows sell out. So you’re stuck hearing crap sometimes. But out of this comes the occasional revelation, and as the week went on, I was surprised to see my musical Tarot leading to one thing: Jesus, Jesus, Jesus.
Like many uninitiated, I entered the festival with too simple a goal: to hear Mark Eitzel and Martha Wainwright. I’m a fan. Two artists who sing with the sky in their eyes. Two mature indie stars. I was definitely pining for Eitzel to do a solo version of “Jesus’ Hands,” or maybe I would hear an unexpected cover of the Jayhawks’ “Baby, Baby, Baby,” the strangely affecting closing track on their 2000 effort Smile. “So beautiful,” they sing, “you’ll cry your eyes / Just like Jesus Christ, Just like Jesus Christ.” I also kinda wanted to hear Thao Nguyen to find out why people won’t shut up about her, and I hoped to catch Deerhunter on opening night, mostly because I like their visual aesthetic. Lilofee, who opened for Deerhunter at the Mezzanine, sounded pretty miserable and we almost left. Then Atlanta’s Deerhunter hit the stage. Shazam! It was like the Bordeoms meeting the Velvet Underground. It was the loudest thing I’ve heard in days, and it was spectacular. I think the opening was the first two tracks from their 2008 release Microcastle, but it doesn’t matter. The total onslaught of psychotic reverb, driven bass, and lead singer Bradford Cox’s withdrawn but iconic stance combined to leave the Mezzanine entranced. (Read Cox’s blog; listen to his solo project, Atlas Sound; check out Deerhunter.)
That trance, perhaps a macro version of what Rick Moody recently mused on for this website, left me singing my own lyrics. I ended up missing Nguyen, Eitzel and Wainwright through acts of fate or logistics, but although these mistakes had me listening to Bob Mould’s tinny, raspy, stressed, sad set at the Swedish American Hall, they also brought me to the Jesus of former Verbana frontman A.A. Bondy, who opened for Wainwright at Slim’s (I hadn’t planned to catch his set). The song in question is “Rapture (Sweet Rapture)” and by the time Bondy played it, those who had heard his folkie performance at SXSW last year but not heard his fantastic solo release American Hearts (2007), seemed as delighted as I was by his live trio setup. The drums, bass, guitar/vocals/harmonica trio was totally tight, and the place was dead silent (for a nightclub) when he started strumming “Rapture (Sweet Rapture),” then singing, “I don’t want to talk about Jesus, I just want to see his face.” He had other Biblical songs, too, and one about “vices.” But that one struck a chord. It made me realize what’s been missing from my indie rock rationing. I want more Jesus. I’m starving for it. Sufjan Stevens and Pedro the Lion, occasional Biblical indulgences by Smog, Lucinda Williams, Richard Buckner, Neko Case; it’s not enough. I want more song-talk about what people really want, what they think their ancestors might have seen. And this is America, I want the world and I want it now. I expect no expectations!
I think it comes down to action. I’m tired of songwriters who don’t seem to have heard themselves singing, or have picked an archetype and run with it blindly. There’s a story about Miles Davis that’s made it to my ears a few times. Davis is in a cab (or in a limo, depending on the teller) on the way to a gig. No one else is talking because he’s in one of his notoriously off-putting moods. Finally, something happens. He pulls out a huge bag of nuts and starts eating them voraciously. Someone in the car asks him why the cashews and walnuts; he was usually a meat-and-potatoes kind of guy. “Monkeys eat ’em,” he replies, grinning. “And they’re strong as a mofo!”
In the end, Davis would die from his own anger, a less ironic version of Robert De Niro’s character in Analyze This, who physically “corrects” a doctor after being told that he has had an anxiety attack. But so what? Songs about Jesus are a lot like those mythical walnuts. I can’t help it. I want more. “When Jesus fed the multitude with two fishes / It signified the Age of Pisces, not fishes or dishes…”
See also: The Day The Butthole Surfers Came To Town