The year in guns and music

Lin-Manuel Miranda as the Father of the year. (Photo © Joan Marcus)
Lin-Manuel Miranda as the Father of the year. (Photo © Joan Marcus)

 

Music normally provides a refuge from and a response to the sorrows of the world. But in this bitter and broken year, even music became a war zone. Which makes it even more imperative that we continue to support live music, continue to go to shows, continue to choose art, joy and freedom over fear.  U2’s stunning Paris concert, which HBO aired live on Dec. 7, was a powerful antidote to the vile “keep Muslims out of the U.S.” posturing of Herr Trump that coincidentally dominated the news cycle that day. But, more important, it was a healing gesture — as far as gestures can go — to the city of Paris and to musicians and music lovers shaken by the horror that took place at the Bataclan.

I’m sure I’m not the only fan who once believed to my core that a rock concert is hallowed ground. How can anything bad possibly happen when you’re dancing to the music you love? But it did, and we have to acknowledge that dark cloud. We in the U.S. also have to contend with domestic terrorism wrought by the NRA’s insane GOP-enabled perversion of the Second Amendment. But you know what? Life goes on. Music goes on. Thirty-five years ago this month, John Lennon became a gun violence statistic, murdered by someone who should never have been able to obtain a gun. We thought the dream of peace and love died with a Beatle, but it didn’t. It lives on, even stronger, in the increasingly angry and emboldened response of sane Americans to the mass shootings that have taken place almost daily, and to the racist, xenophobic, gun-humping, misogynistic filth spewing from the mouths of the fringe crackpots the Republicans are trying to pass off as presidential material.

On the night of Dec. 7, after a scrolling remembrance of Paris casualties and shouts of “Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite,”  Bono brought an emotional Eagles of Death Metal onstage to sing Patti Smith’s “People Have the Power.” It was a moment of pure rock and roll joy. The audience jumped, cried and howled along on Smith’s progressive battle cry — “The power to dream, to rule, to wrestle the world from fools” — like a great wounded animal stirred. And you never want to underestimate a wounded animal.

Much of the music on my best-of list reflects my state of mind this year, probably more than it does the musical moment. The news was frequently so depressing, I found myself gravitating towards music as an uplifting escape. My Top Seven albums of 2015:

  1. FFS. Franz Ferdinand and Sparks morphed into a defiantly off-kilter entity, serving up an album “so harmonious it enhances the distinct charms of each element, while becoming something entirely new and astoundingly delicious” (as I wrote in June). There was one song on the record that diverged from the upbeat mood, Alex Kapranos’s atmospheric ballad about a man with a gun, “Little Guy from the Suburbs” (“I’m just a little guy from the suburbs/ Who learned to kill better than the others”). As the year went on and the mass shootings by terrorists both domestic and foreign piled up, the song took on a grave kind of prescience. But FFS didn’t let that weigh them down. Their jubilant, inclusive concert at the Fox Theater in Oakland was also my show of the year.
  2. Hamilton (Original Broadway Cast Album). No, I haven’t seen it (I’m hoping for a West Coast tour). But the album, oh the album. Hamilton stands on its own as a hip-hop/pop opera, with Lin-Manuel Miranda’s take on Alexander Hamilton — Founding Father, guy on the $10 bill, famous duel victim — a work of straight-up genius in so many ways. Listening to the album reminds me of how, as a kid, I locked myself in my room with Hair and didn’t come out for a year.  Hamilton brings popular music to Broadway in a more original way than jukebox musicals like Motown: The Musical, harnessing the power of rap as storytelling form (and connecting the dots backward to Shakespeare in the process). The show’s electricity comes from how star and creator Miranda frames Hamilton as an outsider with a vision of democracy and equality (“just like my country/ I’m young, scrappy and hungry”). Its heartbreak comes from the audience’s knowledge that the show’s big ideas — the abolition of slavery, the right of women to determine their own destinies, the creation of a strong central government (“Are we a nation of states? What’s the state of our nation? I’m past patiently waitin’ “) — are still regarded as open to debate by a large swath of the population. At the very least, the boundary-crossing popularity of Hamilton might make American history sexy again for a country that often seems sorely in need of a history lesson.
  3. Colleen Green, I Want to Grow Up. Achingly lovely and lonely pop from a performer for whom weed, wisecracks and meals alone in front of the TV no longer seem to be enough. The haunting “Deeper than Love,” in which she details her discomfort with intimacy and her fear of aging and death, is as wrenching a piece of confessional songwriting as you will ever hear.
  4. Grimes, Art Angels. Colleen Green works in tight-focus; on Art Angels, Grimes (Claire Boucher) blows her music up to IMAX. This is a big record, in sound, intention and the talents of its creator, and it mostly succeeds. Producer/arranger/songwriter/beat-creator/musician/performer Grimes moves confidently from sugar-voiced yet tough-edged dance pop (“California”) to savage electronica full of other-worldly mystery (“Kill V. Maim”). On Art Angels, Grimes emerges as the spiritual daughter of Madonna in her prime and Yoko Ono at her wildest.
  5. Hot Chip, Why Make Sense?  Glorious electronic dance music about the challenge of growing older without letting the world turn you bitter. My review is here. 
  6. Shamir, Ratchet. This young, agender Las Vegan delivered the debut album of the year, featuring sublime dance hits “On the Regular” and “Call It Off.” On their sassy delivery of those two primary-colored tracks, Shamir calls to mind a cross between Sylvester and Off the Wall-era Michael Jackson. On a downcast song like “Vegas,” the bright lights fall away, revealing a willingness to acknowledge ugly truths: “You can come to the city of sin and get away without bail/ But if you’re living in the city, oh you already in hell.” Shamir’s combination of playfulness and darkness raises the ante for future work.
  7. Elvis Costello, Unfaithful Music and Disappearing Ink. Not actually an album (though there is a companion playlist), but reading Costello’s memoir was exactly like listening to his lyrics. His writing here is dense, assured, filled with dazzling turns of phrase and tricky — unfaithful — when it comes to narrative structure. This is a book of memories that unspools like both a memory and a melody, moving back and forth in time, often steeped in self-loathing, but always returning to Costello’s main refrain and reference point — his beloved, often-absent father, the big-band musician from whom Elvis inherited his sense of showmanship, among other things. This is a deep, rewarding tale, beautifully sung.

And this was my song of the year. I wish it hadn’t been necessary, but the power of it is, still, a comfort.

©Joyce Millman, The Mix Tape, 2015

 

 

Salon.com turns 20

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The trailblazing web site Salon.com celebrates its 20th anniversary this month. I was proud to have been on staff for its debut in November 1995, and it was my regular gig until 2001. From the beginning, traditional media didn’t know what to make of this “left-coast, interactive version of The New Yorker,” as Rolling Stone called us in 1996. Since we actually did think of ourselves as a left-coast, interactive version of The New Yorker, the line felt like a compliment — as long as we ignored the rest of the review, which likened Salon (then called “Salon1999,” because we had not yet been able to wrest the Salon.com domain away from its owner) to the doomed “flying boats” at the dawn of commercial air travel in the 1920s.

Salon’s demise was predicted early and often. And yet, it’s 2015 and Salon lives on. Sadly, a lot of the content from its early years as a webzine has vanished into the ether. It’s still possible to find early issues (Salon published weekly at first) via the Internet Archive, but it takes some sleuthing. [The Internet Archive is in the process of building a search engine for the Wayback Machine, but it won’t be ready until 2017.]

I was Salon’s TV critic from 1995-01, which coincided with some great television; I was privileged to have been able to write frequently about Buffy the Vampire Slayer, The X-Files, The Sopranos, Seinfeld, NYPD Blue and arguably the finest cop drama in TV history, NBC’s Homicide: Life on the Street, which was adapted from David (The Wire) Simon’s true stories from Baltimore’s homicide squad.

The first piece I ever wrote for Salon (it ran in the startup issue on Nov. 13, 1995) was about Homicide. The link is gone now, but, pack-rat that I am, I saved hard copies of all my pieces. I guess I didn’t totally trust this Internet thing to be around forever. I’ve scanned the column and posted it below; I’ll try to post others from time to time. For me, Salon was an exciting leap into the unknown. I’m glad it outlived its obituaries.

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© Joyce Millman, The Mix Tape, 2015

Chasing Amy

 

Detail from foyer image of "Amy Winehouse: A Family Portrait" (© Mark Okoh, Camera Press London)
Detail from foyer image of “Amy Winehouse: A Family Portrait” (© Mark Okoh, Camera Press London)

Exactly four years after Amy Winehouse completed her heartbreaking slow-motion swan dive into the void, I surveyed the flotsam and jetsam of her life on the opening day of “Amy Winehouse: A Family Portrait” at San Francisco’s Contemporary Jewish Museum. Organized by the Jewish Museum of London with extensive input from her family, “A Family Portrait” is a quiet, almost shrine-like, remembrance of the ferociously talented pop-jazz singer who succumbed to the ravages of bulimia and alcohol and drug addiction in 2011 at age 27.

There are only the vaguest references to Winehouse’s struggles in “A Family Portrait”: a 2007 Rolling Stone cover with the headline “The Diva and Her Demons” and a wall label featuring a quote from her older brother Alex mentioning the Amy Winehouse Foundation, a UK charity set up by her family to educate young people about the dangers of addiction. But then, starker references aren’t necessary. Amy’s absence and her family’s grief are nearly palpable in the intimate exhibition space. The loss of her resonates everywhere you turn: in the video of teenaged Amy tearing it up, already possessed of that magnificent voice and eccentric phrasing, in a school revue; in the suitcase full of loose family snapshots that she hoarded; in her brother’s notes on her little collection of Snoopy paraphernalia. “This book was a Christmas present from my mum to me many years ago,” writes Alex Winehouse of a well-worn Snoopy paperback book. “Stolen by Amy, I took it back after she died and always carry it with me.”

The Snoopy anecdote got to me. This is what loss feels like; flesh and blood are gone, but the sadly mundane possessions — the tattered Snoopy paperback, the cheesy cache of refrigerator magnets — remain. They’re woefully inadequate reminders that you can’t put your arms around a memory.

It seems a stretch to call “A Family Portrait” an exhibit; it’s too narrowly focussed and reverential for that. There is little to contextualize Amy Winehouse, the Star. A few of her tiny stage dresses hang dispiritedly above a row of her stiletto heels and her old Regal acoustic guitar stands next to a portion of her record collection, but her singing voice is absent except for that  school video. There is one video of Winehouse after she achieved success, a European TV performance of “Back to Black,” but it plays in a loop on a screen outside the exhibit.

And though the show was organized and is currently housed by a Jewish museum, there are only a few overt connections to Judaism (the Winehouses were not strictly observant): a family tree tracing Amy’s ancestors’ emigration from Belarus, Poland and Russia to London; a Jewish cookbook given to Amy by Alex;  a few photos from Alex’s bar mitzvah.

But in one respect, the exhibit powerfully justifies its existence and its venue. Visiting “A Family Portrait” is like attending shiva (the Jewish period of mourning) at the home of the departed. It leaves you feeling enormously tender towards Amy;  your heart aches with the loss of her.

The CJM is also showing “You Know I’m No Good” as a companion exhibit to “A Family Portrait.” Consisting of works by San Francisco artists Jason Jagel and Jennie Ottinger and New York artist Rachel Harrison, the smaller exhibit attempts to broach the subjects “A Family Portrait” doesn’t encompass: Amy Winehouse’s legacy as a performer, and artistic interpretations of her as an icon.

Jagel’s “What Remains When You’re Not Here” makes a sensitive landing point as you enter the small side room still in a fugue of sadness from “A Family Portrait.” Jagel places an Amy-shaped blue and turquoise empty space in the center of the frame; it’s a perfect complement to the feelings of grief and absence stirred by the main exhibit.

But the centerpiece of the side exhibit is Jennie Ottinger’s “Mouth to Mouth,” a wall-length (and then some) collage consisting of cut-out and painted figures of Winehouse and the black female singers who came before her. According to the wall labels, the artwork is from a stop-motion animation addressing cultural appropriation. The figures on the wall include Nina Simone without a mouth, Billie Holiday, the Ronettes and the Supremes, all surrounded by disembodied lipsticked mouths, some with black skin, some with white. Pieces of Amy — the eyeliner-winged eyes, the ratted bouffant, torso, arms, legs — float around a final image of her with a three-dimensional black-skinned mouth placed over her own.

In the notes, Ottinger writes,  “As talented as Ms. Winehouse was, she did not invent her distinctive sound but brilliantly extended what had been happening in black music from Mamie Smith in the 1920s through Lauryn Hill in the 1990s … As amazing as Winehouse sounds, she built on the work of talented predecessors who sadly never achieved the level of appreciation that she did.”

While I doubt that anyone listening to her ever believed that Amy Winehouse “invented” jazz or R&B (or eyeliner and bouffants, for that matter), “she didn’t invent her distinctive sound” is a strange, contradictory phrase. Amy’s sound was, unequivocally, distinctive, because her voice — and what she did with it — was distinctive. It was her own. Of course she invented it — she was born with it. And while it’s clear that Winehouse was influenced by black artists, it seems disingenuous to state that such revered, towering musical and cultural figures as Holiday, Simone, the Supremes and the Ronettes, for example, “did not achieve the level of appreciation” Winehouse did. You could argue that those artists, particularly Holiday and Simone, didn’t achieve the level of monetary compensation that Winehouse did. But “appreciation”?

Ottinger’s is a provocative piece, but Amy Winehouse feels like the wrong target at whom to launch a loaded projectile like “cultural appropriation.” Winehouse was no dabbler in black music; there was nothing manufactured, opportunistic or artificial about her feel for jazz, the blues or R&B. In the main exhibit, her record collection and her playlist of favorite songs (compiled while still a schoolgirl) is heavy on Ella Fitzgerald, Thelonious Monk, Nina Simone, Ray Charles and Sarah Vaughan, along with her other avowed influences Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett and Carole King. Winehouse grew up in a jazz-loving household. She felt the pain and joy of the music;  that much was obvious even in the main exhibit’s video of Amy at 14 singing in the rich, near-fully-formed jazz-soul style of the adult Amy.

Was this white Jewish girl influenced by artists of color? Without a doubt. Can’t we leave it at that, and rejoice in black music’s power to bridge racial and cultural divides and speak deeply to universal feelings across color lines?

I appreciate the attempt by the CJM to offer a weightier component to “A Family Portrait.” But the balance feels off, like speaking ill of the dead at a funeral. Maybe the problem is that the main exhibit is so overwhelmingly adoring that, in this context, Ottinger’s piece feels unduly harsh. Still, “A Family Portrait” does seem incomplete. The unanswered questions are glaring. What was it about Amy Winehouse that made her such a singular talent? Why was she so vulnerable to the demons that finally took her life? And where was her family when all of the bad shit was going down?

The best companion piece to “A Family Portrait” isn’t a companion piece at all; it’s Asif Kapadia’s devastating, beautiful documentary Amy, which I went to see right after leaving the museum. In “A Family Portrait,” one of the first objects we see is Amy’s admission essay to Sylvia Young, a London performing arts school, written at age 13. “I have this dream to be famous, to work on stage. It’s a life-long ambition. I want people to hear my voice and just … forget their troubles for five minutes,” she wrote. Those words weighed on my mind as I watched her dreams of fame come true in Amy. 

Kapadia tells the story through home videos, news footage, interviews, and Amy’s music. There is no traditional narration, no talking heads on camera, but the tragic arc of her life — from the opening video of the teenage Amy singing “Happy Birthday” in that precocious voice, to the skeletal, wasted figure circled by the strobe-flashes of British tabloid vultures near the end — is shatteringly clear. It’s not a new story: emotionally vulnerable young woman possessed of an outsized gift is preyed on by parasites until it kills her. But the fact that Amy’s struggles were no secret, and the people closest to her were unable or unwilling to help her, make them all the more devastating.

There are gorgeous moments in the movie;  in particular, the early career footage of Amy makes a strong case for her genius as a songwriter and for her intuitive jazz-soul phrasing. She recalls Laura Nyro a bit as she soulfully sings “I Heard Love Is Blind” (accompanying herself playing jazz chords on guitar) in an audition tape for record company execs. And the image of a young, radiant, saucy Amy clad in an elegant wrap dress, singing “Stronger Than Me” in a small jazz club, is the one I keep flashing back to, days later, as a counter to the awfulness of her unraveling in the film’s latter frames.

The filmmakers are unstinting in their portrayals of Amy’s father, Mitch Winehouse (who initially cooperated with Kapadia, but has since labeled the documentary “misleading”), and Blake Fielder-Civil, the love of her life, as twin negative influences (if not outright villains).

Mitch, a jazz-singing cab driver, was carrying on an affair with another woman and absent for much of Amy’s adolescence. In the film, her parents explain that they thought that Amy was “OK” with the separation and divorce, but Amy tells a different story of being a teen acting out her resentment and her longing for the stability her parents couldn’t give her.

Still, Amy adored her father, even as she laid the roots of her self-destructive impulses and attraction to bad men at his feet in the song “What Is it About Men” from her 2003 debut album Frank. She had “Daddy’s Girl” tattooed on her left arm, and in Amy, you see how Mitch repays her affection: after her first brush with a near-overdose, he quashes her friends’ attempts to get her into rehab, not wanting to forfeit her concert bookings. She defers to him, and backs out of the rehab plan. The lyrics to Amy’s breakthrough hit “Rehab” scroll onto the movie screen: “I ain’t got the time/ And if my daddy thinks I’m fine/ Just try to make me go to rehab, I won’t go, go go.” I’m sure I’m not the only one who heard the song countless times and thought that the “daddy” of the lyric simply referred to a lover. And now it’s impossible to hear that song the same way again.

Later in the film, while Amy is on a tropical retreat trying to get sober, Mitch — still capitalizing on his daughter’s success —  invades her privacy with a camera crew from his own reality TV show and manufactures drama by dragging a fragile, unwilling (but ultimately obedient) Amy over to take a picture with two fans he met on the beach. (For a deeper analysis of Amy’s father issues, see this fascinating piece by psychotherapist Binnie Klein.)

As for Fielder-Civil, this guy practically had “bad news” tattooed on his forehead. We see Amy fall hard for him, become his companion in booze and ever-harder drugs. It’s painful to watch Amy’s body language change when she’s around Fielder-Civil; without him, she’s lively, funny, brash, but in his presence, she girlishly flicks her eyes up at him, clutches his arm, leans into him. He dumps her, she spirals, but then when she gets hot with Back to Black, he comes sniffing around again and all is lost. Again, Amy’s lyrics — “You Know I’m No Good,” “Back to Black,” “Love Is a Losing Game” — tell the story. Seeing them placed in context in Amy, makes you hear the Back to Black album anew as a brilliant, immediate and heart-piercing piece of confessional songwriting.

While Amy takes clear aim at Mitch Winehouse and Blake Fielder-Civil, her mother Janis is portrayed (in her own words) as an ineffectual mother incapable of “standing up to” her strong-willed daughter. She recounts how, when the teenaged Amy told her that she had discovered a new diet that consisted of throwing up after every meal, she put her daughter’s bulimia down to “a phase.” As we know now, Amy’s lifelong bulimia contributed to her death of heart failure. There are heroes in the movie — Lauren and Juliet, two loyal friends from girlhood, her friend and first manager Nick Shymansky, her final bodyguard Andrew Morris (Alex Winehouse does not appear in the movie) — but their efforts to save Amy from implosion are no match for the perfect storm of addiction, fame, inadequately addressed mental health issues and the scars of family dysfunction.

After seeing Amy, it’s fair to ponder the other emotions that might lie under the grief that infuses “A Family Portrait.”

(“Amy Winehouse: A Family Portrait” and “You Know I’m No Good” run through Nov. 1 at San Francisco’s Contemporary Jewish Museum. Amy is playing in theaters now.)

©Joyce Millman, The Mix Tape, 2015

 

Just some guys talking about Bruce

albumbox

Below is a promo video for the forthcoming boxed set of Bruce Springsteen’s first seven albums, which have been remastered on vinyl from the original analog tapes. In the video, a select group of Springsteen’s “most loyal” fans (that’s the wording the official Springsteen website used to introduce the video today) get a sneak preview of the remastered albums and share their thoughts.  Let’s watch, shall we?

Notice something missing?  To recap, the participants who are filmed discussing the new boxed set are, with one exception, middle-aged white guys. There is one younger African American guy and one young white guy who proclaims himself a “vinyl snob”. There is a blonde woman who is quickly seen in one of the first pan shots, but we never see her again and her opinion is not included. There is an older blonde woman in the background when some of the guys are talking, but she never speaks. Oh, and there’s a reflection of a woman passerby in the window of the record shop in the first shot of the storefront where the listening session takes place. Probably on her way to the nail salon down the street.

Look, I don’t know what happened when this focus group was created. Maybe the women spoke, but were edited out for one reason or another. Maybe an attempt was made to invite more women, but everyone had other commitments. Maybe the guys never got the memo that they were each supposed to bring a female Bruce friend. Maybe it’s a truth universally acknowledged that only guys can hear the subtleties of remastered sound quality.

All I know is, if you told me that this was an SNL Video Short spoofing Springsteen’s perceived fan base, I’d believe you. Actually, I’m still hoping it is. Just drop Bobby Moynihan as Chris Christie in there, maybe Taran Killam in a “Born in the U.S.A.” bandanna — boom, instant classic.

I have spent 36 years trying to explain to non-fans how wrong their stereotypical view of Springsteen’s music and his fan base is — the Boss isn’t just for (now, old) white guys, honest!  But, hey, if official marketing material is going to reinforce that stereotype, why should I bother?

The irony is, Springsteen himself has long ago put the image of the E Street Band as a boys’ club to rest. The band has women in it, and their voices were an integral element of the 2012-14 tour. The audience has women in it, now more than ever. And think about these classic lyrics: “So Mary climb in, it’s a town full of losers, we’re pulling out of here to win”; “Come on Wendy, tramps like us, baby, we were born to run.” The Boss never excluded women from the journey, the rock and roll adventure. Which makes our exclusion from this promo all the more glaring. We are in this conversation, whether we’re invited or not.

©Joyce Millman, The Mix Tape, 2014

 

 

 

On women writing about music

As a woman who has written about pop music since the days when people who wrote about pop music were called “rock critics,” let me add my two cents to the discussion that began with Sarah O’Holla’s adorkable blog, “My Husband’s Stupid Record Collection.”

In case you’re smart enough to enforce Internet downtime in your life and have no idea what I’m talking about, O’Holla, who works as a librarian and is not a professional music critic, is reviewing all 1500 albums in her husband’s record collection, in alphabetical order. (Her husband, Alex Goldman, is a producer for NPR and a major music geek.)  The blog blew up this week across the Internet and while a lot of people like it, some women music writers have lamented that the premise of the blog is inherently sexist, in that it reinforces gender stereotypes about music geekdom being the domain of men, and that the acclaim for O’Holla, who is a self-proclaimed know-nothing when it comes to deep knowledge of music, is a form of gender bias in itself. Meaning, male music geeks would happily read the musings of a non-threatening novice who knows less than them, whereas women who write about music professionally are perceived as a threat to their manhood that must be crushed.

As the original debate was cooling, Jezebel posted a piece called “Oh, the Unbelievable Shit You Get Writing About Music as a Woman,” in which music writer Tracy Moore approaches the O’Holla blog uproar as a jumping off point to detail the creepy and deeply sexist comments, behavior and threats she has been subjected to in her career. There is currently a robust sub-discussion online stemming from that piece, in which women music writers have been sharing their own similar stories of sexism and gender bias.

I’ve got my own battle scars from my career as a music and TV critic. Before I air them, here’s the thing, though:  I don’t think that the existence of “My Husband’s Stupid Record Collection” devalues women who write about music professionally. It’s one blog from the viewpoint of one woman and maybe it got some attention for the wrong reasons, but it is not going to negate every serious piece of music writing ever written by women. We need to stop the self-victimization and stop looking for gender bias in this blog. It’s simply not there. Look, some — definitely not all — male music writers and fans are going to try to mansplain to us. It’s what they do. It doesn’t invalidate our opinions as women music writers. It just means that they’re jerks. Ignore them and keep at it. Writing well is the best revenge.

Allow me to set a spell in my rocking chair and reminisce about the days when I was coming up in the music writing world. This was the late 1970s, early 1980s. At the time, music writing was truly a boys’ club, with few women I could look to as rock critic role models. Ellen Willis, Ariel Swartley, Janet Maslin. Lisa Robinson and Sylvie Simmons. That’s about it. My mentors and editors in the music writing field were all male. And somehow, even in those prehistoric days, I was never made to feel lesser, stupid, objectified or that my opinions were undervalued. If it were not for Kit Rachlis, Milo Miles, Dave Marsh and Mark Moses, I would not have had a career. They were my champions and they treated me as an equal. Was I just extraordinarily lucky?  Maybe so. It’s depressing that some young women writing about music today feel so unwelcome in the job and the scene that they love, are subjected to more open sexism and flat-out workplace harassment now than I was then. We’ve gone backwards and I don’t know the answer to this problem, except to keep fighting for equality.

Look, I encountered my share of asshole guys in the music writing community. But I contented myself with the knowledge that I could write circles around them with one hand tied behind my back. And while I interviewed a lot of male artists, I can only think of one who directed a sexist remark at me.  The readers, on the other hand, were another story. The majority of the letters I received were from from male readers, and they were sexist, gross and hurtful. Oddly enough, I was never called a whore or a groupie, but “dried up feminist bitch” used to come up a lot. (The fact that I was married seemed to piss readers off too; what that has to do with credibility as a music writer, I don’t know.) I was not well liked, let’s put it that way. Maybe I was ridiculously naive, but I looked around at my male colleagues who were also getting hate mail, and I just figured, “Eh, it comes with the territory.” In most cases, it was clear that the vitriol I received from fans and bands always stemmed from and was, at bottom, directed at the “harshness” of a review, not simply at me for being a girl. And, it needs to be said that not all of my hate mail came from men. Some of the loudest complainers were women that I had written unfavorable reviews about. Fun fact:  The performer who got me dropped from the roster of freelancers at Rolling Stone was not a guy,  it was a right-on, sisters are doing it for themselves woman. Imagine that.

Here’s the other thing:  Women writing music criticism today need to know that piggy comments from male readers are not reserved solely for women music critics. When I was a TV critic, I was subjected to comments that were a million times more explicitly sexual, sexist, gross and hurtful than any that I received as a music writer. ( I even got a death threat once as a TV critic — a TV critic! — that was serious enough to be turned over to the FBI.)  The Internet was, in this respect, the worst thing that ever happened to critics of any field and gender, music, film, TV, male, female, LGBQT, whatever. Commenting, and trolling, is oh so easy now. Which is why you should NEVER READ THE COMMENTS.

I’ve had a lot of awful shit thrown at me by readers in my career as a critic, but, at the same time, I know male critics who have been torn apart by readers in similarly non-productive and hurtful ways. So this is the lesson I’ve taken away from all of this:  It’s not that I’m a woman, it’s that I’m a critic. Nobody loves critics. If you expect blanket approbation of your critical writing, you are in the wrong field. Certain people are so insecure that they are threatened by strong opinions that differ from their own, whether they are expressed by female or male writers. But you must remember that the stronger, more confidently your opinions are expressed, the bigger a target you will be. Wear that target proudly.

©Joyce Millman, The Mix Tape, 2014

Man on the mound: Brian Wilson’s Andy Kaufman moment

Through his tenure with the San Francisco Giants, the phrase most often used by the team, media and fans alike to describe closer Brian Wilson was, “He’s a character”. The tatted-up Popeye muscles, the Mohawk, the raging on the mound after closing out a win, the beard — sweet jeebus, the beard.  The survivalist-meets-Rutherford B. Hayes facial hair seemed to spring up overnight, so bushy and so black against his dirty blond hair and freckles that we wondered if it was glued on (no) and dyed (yes). We loved the beard, and the beard became a star in its own right on T shirts,  in commercials, in foam facsimiles worn by fans at games. Somewhere along the way, the beard stopped being just a beard. It became The Beard. And The Beard ate Brian Wilson, as it raised expectations for more, bigger, badder outrageousness.

I’m not going to get into Wilson’s athleticism and competitiveness, which helped my G-men win a World Series in 2010. That speaks for itself.  What’s always intrigued me the most about Brian Wilson is his Andy Kaufman-esque ability to create surreal scenarios and weird, edgy alternate personas. Like Kaufman, Wilson loves to push people’s buttons;  no, he needs to push people’s buttons. Before The Beard, Wilson (at the time, only faux-hawked) caused a buzz with a stunt involving his so-called “neighbor,” “The Machine,” a scantily clad guy in bondage gear, who wandered into the background of the shot during a webcam interview between Wilson and Chris Rome on Rome’s Fox show. What was a guy in bondage gear doing in Wilson’s apartment?  Wilson feigned obliviousness through the interview, while Rome — who is to Wilson what Bob Zmuda was to Andy Kaufman — squirmed.   The following video is an indispensable recap of  Wilson’s appearances on Rome’s show, culminating in The Machine Incident.

Wilson was so strange, and so unlike any other athlete I’d ever watched, that I gave him the benefit of the doubt when others argued that he was simply a calculating attention whore. No, I couldn’t shake the suspicion that Wilson’s bearded, bad-ass eccentricity was a very clever and canny piece of performance art. Even now, I still half-believe that Wilson is playing a role, one that delights in messing with sports fans’ ideas about identity, fame, masculinity, homoeroticism and idolatry. His January 27, 2011 appearance on the George Lopez show, for which he inexplicably dressed as a “seaman”, his beard dyed gray, and worked in the word “seaman” at every opportunity, convinced me that I was on the right track.

The sexual ambiguity of the Machine piece returned in Wilson’s red carpet attire at the July 2011 ESPY Awards, in which he showed up, stag, in a skin-tight Spandex onesie tuxedo, with a rhinestone-studded walking stick and white gloves.

And then there was this commercial for NBA 2K12, in which he performed an extended homage to the Boston Celtics of the 1980s.

There are consistent elements to Wilson’s personae. He’s boastful and macho to the point of absurdity. He snaps off wordy sarcasm like nobody’s business. He dresses bizarrely and makes himself look as unkempt as possible. He introduces a note of sexual discomfort (“Stop looking at my shorts, it’s weird”), and then contradicts it in the next breath when he fixes the camera with a mesmerist’s stare and commands, “Look back at them.”

Now, flash forward to Wilson’s 2012 season with the Giants, which ended in May when he blew out his pitching arm and underwent Tommy John surgery for the second time. Wilson then, for all intents and purposes, disappeared from view. He spent his time recuperating and rehabbing. When he did surface in the dugout during the playoffs to cheer on his teammates, he kept a low profile. He rode a motorized trolley car during the Giants’ 2012 victory parade, barely visible to fans, while his teammates rode in convertibles, some hopping out to walk portions of the route  — as Wilson had done in 2010. To his credit, Wilson is only The Beard when he’s healthy and playing, when he can back up his comedy with a solid contribution on the field. In other words, he only talks the talk when he can walk the walk.

In July of this season, the Giants were unwilling to take a chance on Wilson’s twice-rebuilt arm for the amount of money they would have had to pay him. They declined to pick up Wilson’s option. A free agent, Wilson signed with the  hated Dodgers, the Giants’  arch-nemeses.  Full disclosure:  I was so upset at what I saw as a traitorous move, that I did this to my Brian Wilson garden gnome.

traitor
©Joyce Millman, 2013

I’m not saying my reaction was rational. The guy is entitled to make a living. But there’s a lot of emotion in the Giants-Dodgers rivalry. I’m obviously grateful to Wilson for what he did in 2010, I hope his arm holds up but … seeing him in Dodger blue is not my thing, and a lot of other Giants fans would agree.

Back to the discussion.  Thursday night, Brian Wilson did something very odd. Not Spandex tux odd, just odd. At the end of the Giants’ victory over the Dodgers, while the Giants were in their handshake line and fans were on their feet cheering for soon-to-be free agent Tim Lincecum, Wilson stalked over to Giants’ president Larry Baer’s box at field level, leaned over the railing and began a (by witness accounts) f-bomb laced meltdown, demanding the Giants hand over the 2012 World Series ring he was due.

The Giants say he was invited to the on-field ceremony last April, but never responded, and ignored several attempts by the team throughout the season to set up a date for a private ceremony. When the Dodgers got into San Francisco for their series with the Giants last Sunday, Wilson reportedly told Giants representatives to “leave the ring in my locker.” But a couple of days later, after being loudly booed by Giants fans when he made his first appearance in blue, Wilson allegedly changed his tune and was asking for an on-field ceremony. And then came Thursday’s blow-up.

I am not a beat reporter, I have no direct knowledge of the situation or of Wilson. I speak only as a fan. But several thoughts came to mind as I watched Wilson confront Baer. I think Wilson might have been surprised by the intensity of the booing and heckling directed at him by the fans who once adored him. I wonder how much Wilson might have been hurt by the fact that the Giants’ highly-touted closing prospect, Heath Hembree , now wears his old number 38 — a diss, given that uniform numbers of departed still-active players who made significant contributions to a team are usually put into cold storage for a respectful length of time before being recycled. (The Giants’ venerable clubhouse manager Mike Murphy is the keeper of the numbers, and you can bet he knew what he was doing;  you don’t cross Murph by going over to the Dodgers. And, did none of Wilson’s old teammates question Murphy’s decision?)

So, was the confrontation initiated by Wilson the other night a genuine meltdown from a sensitive player with a broken heart and badly bruised ego?  Did Brian Wilson simply snap, as many believe?

Or, was this the birth of yet another stage persona, the WWF villain in Dodger blue, taunting Giants fans with obnoxiousness and an even bigger, rattier, more intimidating beard — the Jake the Snake of our time?

Remember, Andy Kaufman had a pro wrestling altar-ego too.

©Joyce Millman, The Mix Tape, 2013

UPDATE: (Oct. 27, 2015)  Nah, he’s just a jerk. 

The Queen and I

Queen Victoria statue in Kensington Palace garden ©Joyce Millman, 2013
Queen Victoria statue in Kensington Palace garden
©Joyce Millman, 2013

Few people understand my Royal Family thing.  Oh, I can always count on my sister and my mother-in-law for in-depth conversations about the Windsors.  But my husband doesn’t get it.  A lot of my friends don’t get it, and the ones who never knew this about me probably won’t get it, either.  I have to admit, sometimes I don’t even get it.

But I keep calm and carry on, monitoring What Kate Wore  (surely the greatest, most useful blog in the history of the Internet), and hunkering down on Sunday nights to watch dusty PBS documentaries — or as I like to call them, “royal crack” — about Queen Elizabeth II and her family and forebears.  Last Sunday night, for instance, I watched “Royal Memories: Prince Charles’ Tribute to the Queen”, in which the marble-mouthed, pink-cheeked heir to the throne (heh, good luck with that, Chuckles) showed heretofore private home movies from his childhood. (The Prince and I both teared up.)  I followed that with a cruise around BBC America’s On Demand menu, which yielded more gems from the vaults — a greatest hits reel marking Elizabeth’s Diamond Jubilee , followed by a William and Kate wedding special that I’d seen parts of elsewhere, but watched anyway.  I can’t get enough of that wedding. Kate’s poised elegance,  William’s happiness,  Pippa’s magnificent ass swaying like a pendulum as she carried her sister’s train up the steps — ah, memories.

So now you know that I’m one of those people.  And I wear it proudly. I refuse to call this a “guilty pleasure”. It’s more like a hobby. Well, fetish, maybe.  But I make no apologies for staring at the live stream of the front door of St. Mary’s Hospital for two hours last week waiting for the first glimpse of Wills, Kate and their newborn prince.  Some people knit, some people play Fantasy Football,  I fangirl over the British Royals. Is that so wrong?

There was a time when I hid my secret passion. In 1981, when everyone in my office was swooning over Charles and Diana’s wedding, I put on a sneer of boredom and berated them for supporting a superfluous monarchy while  London was boiling over with economic inequality and racial tensions. But later, in private,  I watched the wedding highlights and devoured photos of Diana in her cream-puff dress and glittering tiara. Forgive me Joe Strummer, for I have sinned.

I came out as a Royals-watcher during the course of Charles and Diana’s marriage. Diana was an irresistible cyclone of high fashion, maternal perfection, spousal betrayal and dangerous neuroticism.  I gave in and got caught up in the greatest reality show of all.  Yup, that’s my story and I’m sticking to it. The story of the Windsors — actually, the story of the whole British monarchy throughout history — has all the drama, sex, tragedy and triumph you could ask for, and it’s all unscripted. Even Shakespeare couldn’t make this stuff up, he had to borrow it from them.

My obsession with the British monarchy has many facets, some of them even scholarly. (Almost.) I will never forget feeling disoriented with surprise when I first saw Buckingham Palace, for real. It was exactly as it looks in pictures, yet somehow much smaller and unassuming against the stuff you don’t see on TV:  the tourists, the traffic, the sounds of construction and modern life.  And it’s a humbling thing to be standing in Queen Victoria’s childhood bedroom in Kensington Palace, looking at her old dolls and crib. The Royals are the past and the present (and the future) converging, preserving the chain of British history even as they’re forging new links.  I know there’s a compelling argument to be made that the Royals are obsolete freeloaders. But it seems to me that there is value and substance to what they bring to England and the world. The best of them,  the Queen and, by all indications, Prince William, take their responsibilities as caretakers of their country’s past seriously, and they perform their duties, largely symbolic as they are, with humility.

I’m not saying that the Royals’ personal behavior has always been up to snuff.  In the past century alone, the Windsors have given us abdication, infidelity, politically incorrect gaffes, divorce, toe-sucking, topless sunbathing and strip poker, to name but a few.  But look at what we Americans have in comparison: Politicians sexting pictures of their penises. You can’t tell me that “Carlos Danger” is more absurdly entertaining than Prince Charles caught on tape telling then-mistress Camilla that he wished he could be her tampon.

But I’m not really in it for the scandal.  My particular weakness is the fashion iconography. At Kensington Palace a few years ago, I lingered at an exhibit of Diana’s evening gowns, moist-eyed and trembling, like a religious pilgrim before a shrine. It was one of the most intensely wondrous experiences of my life. What can I say?  Yes,  I am that shallow.

What hooks me the most, though, is the thing that drives Royal-haters the craziest:  I love the the pomp, the pageantry, the etiquette, the arcane rules.  And the hats.  Can’t forget the hats. “Preserving the old ways from being abused/ Protecting the new ways for me and for you,” sang the Kinks, only half sarcastically, on “The Village Green Preservation Society,” their ode to an England of  “little shops, china cups and virginity.”  OK, clearly that England doesn’t exist anymore, but those peculiarly English ways of doing things, the manners, the protocol, all of that hangs on in Royalworld.  And I think that’s what makes it so fascinating to onlookers, especially Americans. There is a correct way to address the Queen, there is a correct way of setting a banquet table at Windsor Castle, there are only a few suitable names for a newborn heir to the throne (“North West” is not one of them).  Far from being a colossal waste of time and money, I see all of this as a comforting example of order and civility in a mad world that otherwise seems governed by the rule that there are no rules.

And Queen Elizabeth II has been the exemplary embodiment of constancy, decorum and tradition.  Yes, Diana humanized the Royals, but she almost destroyed them, too. And the Queen picked up the pieces.  She accepted that she, as head of the Royal Family, needed to change with the times, become more emotionally open and relevant, if the monarchy itself was to survive.  And she did change, in large ways (it’s widely believed that she pushed for the recent rewrite of the law of British succession, to end discrimination against girls in inheriting the throne) and small (but no less exciting) ways — she poked fun at her image by parachuting out of a helicopter (via stunt person) with Daniel Craig as James Bond to open London’s 2012 Olympics.

Will the British monarchy endure?  I hope so. But I realize that there are natives of the U.K. who feel strongly otherwise, and it is their opinions and votes that matter, not those of some American Anglophile. But, may I make a modest proposal?  If the monarchy is dissolved in my lifetime, could PBS please just take the logical step of turning the Royals into a reality show?  And if Lord Grantham from “Downton Abbey” could narrate it, I’d be ever so grateful. Cheers, and God Save the Queen.

© Joyce Millman, The Mix Tape. 2013