Category Archives: Punk Rock

Overstaying Your Welcome

I’m spending my Saturday night sitting at home, drinking diet Dr. Pepper and watching Norah Jones on PBS. Yes, I am a fan or Norah Jones. I think she’s actually just a solid composer and performer who has been able to avoid the conventional story arc of being attractive and talented. She can actually sing without the assistance of auto-tune or over-production, she can actually play keyboards and guitar really well, and her band are very obviously hired guns but rather than work hard to make her sound, I have a feeling she makes the hired band really sound good, if not they all perfectly complement each other and adapt well to each others’ styles. It’s a live performance from 2012, her backup band look like they’ve been stealing from Wilco’s closet, but watching this made me realize something most important about Norah Jones’ avoidance of the conventional pop-star story arc: she’s yet to peak and drop.

Earlier in the night I watched Get Him to the Greek for, surprisingly, only the second time (the first time was in theatres shortly after its release). For those who haven’t seen it, it’s a film about a rock star (portrayed by Russell Brand) experiencing his own post-peak drop while a record label employee (Jonah Hill) attempts to escort the drunken, drug-filled, lonely, and depressed rock star to a comeback concert. Though it plays on a lot of rock’n’roll lifestyle stereotypes, I think there’s something to be said for Brand’s character’s situation in the film. After gaining a cult following being the degenerate and debaucherous rock star that people could only imagine actually existing during the 70s and 80s, Brand’s character releases his “slump” record: one that experiments with world music and but comes off as an attempt to show a charity-focused side to a performer obviously only obsessed with his own public image and self-indulgent lifestyle. Of course, by the end of the movie, we realize that Brand’s character is more complex than his drug use and public persona and all the actually wants is a really good friend.

While watching this, I realized that there is something very familiar about the peak and drop that so many popular and contemporary artists experience during their careers. Be it the Offspring strangely experimenting with hip-hop (while poorly trying to parody the suburban lifestyle that has adopted the urban gangster culture), Metallica putting out relatively safe biker-rock records, or even something as simple as Kiss taking off the makeup, everyone has an artist whose career they followed and there is one moment leaving us yelling out, “What were they thinking?”

Chuck Klosterman has a similar argument in his book Eating the Dinosaur, but Klosterman obsessively dissects a single example of the peak-and-drop: Nirvana’s In Utero. Before we go any further, let me clear something as so we can understand some of my frame of reference as I approach this. There were only two good parts of Nirvana: Dave Grohl and Kris Novoselic. Those two were possibly the most solid rhythm section that came out of the 90s. Unfortunately, everything else about Nirvana feels like a constant argument attempting to legitimize itself. For Klosterman, In Utero is what he repeatedly described as “guilt rock.” Essentially, Klosterman is saying that in an attempt to reassert Nirvana’s own legitimacy, every choice behind In Utero (from selecting Shellac and Big Black legend Steve Albini to produce it to the choice of guitar tone and song structure) was solely to make In Utero as unlistenable and inaccessible as possible.

Klosterman’s second and third books, Sex Drugs and Cocoa Puffs and Killing Yourself to Live, are a huge reason why I write the way I do. The accessible language and diction coupled with the choice of topics surrounding popular culture Klosterman often uses in his essays and non-fiction shaped much of my own writing style. Killing Yourself to Live especially has a harsh honesty that most writers strive to achieve, but mostly still wind up trying to hide behind their work rather than display themselves in their work. Klosterman was especially good at creating narratives throughout his essays and arguments as well, increasing the accessibility of his work and making his ideas relatable on many different levels. Both of these books boosted Klosterman’s reputation as a solid non-fiction writer. As I’ve tried reading his later books, I have to wonder if he’s experiencing his own peak-and-drop.

I haven’t read any of his fiction yet, and admittedly I’ve yet to read his newest book I Wear the Black Hat (which looks at how people often relate to villains better than heroes), but while trying to read IV (which is more a collection of observant magazine articles) and especially Eating the Dinosaur, the deep personal points or relation to the topics he writes about is almost gone. In fact, he almost comes off arrogant because he writes his point of view so far above the topics he looks at. Klosterman has starting writing as though he were Albert Camus and Jean Paul Sartre where the premise in his topics are meant to be modern, but the thoughts and arguments are too obscure for the topics he’s writing about. Admittedly, Klosterman’s cult readership is only expanding the more he writes, he must be doing something right. But none of his books since Sex Drugs and Cocoa Puffs and Killing Yourself to Live have received any of the same media attention or critical acclaim.

But who am I to talk about media attention and critical acclaim? If I were to pick a Nirvana record as my favourite, I would pick In Utero.

Klosterman’s diction has increased, he’s formatting his books in new ways, and he thinks about the world in different ways than he did a decade ago. That’s actually a good thing. Because if we’re not complaining about how different Americana sounds from Smash or how much slower Reload is from Ride the Lightning, then we’re complaining about how every Nickelback record sounds the exact same. I think the only real happy music fans are fans of the Mars Volta or TV on the Radio, because they expect each record and each side project to sound to different and that everything they do is artistically minded and a little off the wall. But, at the same time, if they record something that sounds like an earlier record, then they’re being “self-referential” and totally “post-modern.” Two terms that bands like the Mars Volta and TV on the Radio and their fans would be very comfortable with.

This then begs a bigger question: is the artist’s creative process or the output and the product attached more important? When Paul Simon made the Graceland album, people were pissed at the process, saying that Simon should have avoided what was a still apartheid enforcing South Africa. But the very same people criticizing his process couldn’t help but say that Graceland was the best thing he did since parting ways with Art Garfunkel. I read Eating the Dinosaur and understand how much work Klosterman put into his analysis and arguments. I understand how much time Jean Paul Sartre and Albert Camus spend on thinking about literally everything and how hard it is to cram that much thought into books. I’m just having difficulty reading them.

I’m sure somewhere there is a magical land where the process of growing and experimentation collides with an output and product that doesn’t alienate established audiences. Even small deviations from set forms can cause fans to turn their backs. Hardcore band Strife experienced this with its last record before their recent reunion, Angermeans. Strife’s influences from non-hardcore bands like Sepultura and Helmet were obviously showing. The backlash from the militant straight edge communities that Strife helped build through the 90s instantly disowned the band. Was Strife ever really that dissimilar from Sepultura and Helmet to begin with? I don’t think so. But I also haven’t been straight edge in almost a decade.

Do I fully get why artists overstay their welcome? No. But it’s an interesting trope that has arisen over the years. Especially recently there seems to be more and more stories of artists who try something different and fail. What we keep forgetting is that failure isn’t a bad thing. It just means you put yourself out there and tried. Not everyone will like everything a hundred per cent of the time. But at least you tried.


Library Girl: or, How I Learned to Stop Procrastinating

There are elements of myself that have not, in a lifetime, changed much. Most prominent of these aspects of course is my tenacity to think I’m progressing, but in reality, all I’m doing is procrastinating.

The first of these behemoth procrastinations was the girl who volunteered in my junior high library. She wasn’t your straight from Sweet Valley High type of library volunteer either: her wit was like if David Cross was a girl and played bass for L7, her thick rimmed glasses predated the emo trend by at least five years and she still strutted them better than Taking Back Sunday or Weezer ever could, and she had red undertones in her hair that was as black as and shimmered like a television screen turned off. She was smart, she was cool, and she knew it.

I had one shot to make an impression with her. We were the only two kids into punk rock at our CBC family drama junior high. I sat in my math class not paying any attention to my teacher’s explanation on fractions (or something, keep in mind I wasn’t paying attention) and looked around the room at my other female companion options.

I obviously had no interest in the girl who grew up on a horse ranch, and the girl who from age eight had her sights on the WNBA didn’t quite do it for me either. They were both nice enough girls, almost everyone I went to school with I had known since second grade, but it was like these girls just weren’t legit compared to the girl in the library. Library Girl had something more to her than just horses or sports.

Then it hit me. Library Girl. She had only just started going to our school within the last year. I only knew her as Library Girl. No name, no back story, no connection between her parents and my parents, nothing. Just Library Girl. How the fuck was I supposed to start a conversation with a girl whose name I didn’t even know?

I hear the buzzer over the intercom. Usually, the buzzer after math class is like the voice of God calling out, “Go forth, young man! And claim the cute girl in the library!” But today’s buzzer was only accompanied by an annoying voice in my ear telling me, “Hey, you got no chance, Pisano. Give it up now before you look like a jackass.” I walked through the halls wondering why the only voice in my head is a bad Italian stereotype and found myself stopped at the library entrance, standing in front of it like I was a prisoner in his cell waiting for the bars to drop.

From my imprisoned position, I spotted a sign that said “Library Volunteer needed. Ask Mrs. Wassel for more details.” Like a Ferrari being suddenly put into third gear, I shoot across the library to the sign in under a second and ask Mrs. Wassel what happened to the last volunteer.

“Oh, Becca? Her dad’s military, so she moved again.”

So simple a sentence put me to worse shame than a public ostracizing ever could. I waited too long to talk to her. If I had just even asked her name one day and complimented her on her Dead Kennedys sweater, maybe I would have at least got an email or a phone number to keep in contact with her.

I wound up taking the volunteer position, hoping one day I’ll see that hair with the red undertones come through again, and this time I wouldn’t have to call her Library Girl.

Halloween, Where Have you Gone and Why Have you Left me Here?

Halloween, where have you gone and why have you left me here? Why am I sitting on my front porch, surrounded by skulls and cobwebs with a bowl of candy placed on my lap waiting for the magic while the malls and department stores are already setting up wreaths and trees?

What happened to my neighbourhood? I remember it being littered with kids. You’d have to stand in line behind three other groups of tick-or-treaters before you could get to any given house. Parents would call out to each other to do last minute runs to the grocery store for another few boxes of candy. This year, I had to give out handfuls just to put a dent in what I had to give.

I remember being out with my friends until 10, sometimes eleven at night. We’d alternate between our neighbourhoods each year, and then compare each to the last the year before. One year, we had actually mapped out all of Davidson Creek in Sherwood Park to make sure we hit every block, hit every house, explored everywhere we could, and made the most of the night. This year, my house was empty and the streets were barren by 7:30.

Halloween was so much more than just a quest for candy. It was a night of mystery and mischief. It was travelling through neighbourhoods, going as far as your legs would let you and then going further. Getting lost and improvising ways back home. Hauling a pillow-case heavy enough to be used as a weapon. It didn’t matter how cold it was outside, how much it snowed the night before, or how hard the wind was blowing, this was our night. Our night to be on our own and wander the streets carefree, seeing how people decorated their houses and what costumes other kids came up with.

Eight o’clock rolled around and I just couldn’t sit and wait any longer. The wind blowing leaves along the dark empty streets and the streetlight’s illuminating without a shadow in sight just depressed me too much. I went inside my house and tried to find some Halloween specials on TV. There was nothing. I couldn’t even find a Scoobie-Doo cartoon. Remember the Garfield Halloween special where he and Odie dressed as pirates but then encountered pirate ghosts? That cartoon scared me a bit when I was a kid, but I loved it. After all, everyone deserves a good scare on Halloween. Instead, the TV guide on my screen told me it was just another night of prime-time police dramas and syndicated sit-coms. God forbid we interrupt your stories.

Maybe kids just lack imagination now. Halloween is a holiday that requires a bit more thought and creativity on the part of those who celebrate it. Christmas simply involves going to the mall and digging yourself into more debt. New Year’s simply involves drinking and yelling things. For Halloween, you actually have to think. You actually have to take the time to think up a costume, figure out what it means that this is the costume you chose to wear, and how to defend your choices in how you put your ensemble together. Maybe Halloween’s dying because people are lazy and uncreative today. They expect all creativity to be in easily digestible formats and cleanly wrapped up in thirty minutes (including commercial breaks of course).

I used to spend hours coming up with my costume for the year. Most memorable for me is when my friends and I all dressed up as the Misfits. I sat in front of the mirror, making sure my make up was exactly like Jerry Only’s, giving my devilock perfect shape in front of my face, and putting just the right rips in my glow-in-the-dark crimson ghost t-shirt. I wasn’t just dressing up, I was creating something and it had to be perfect. Any less than perfect was completely unacceptable.

Halloween, do you remember all this too? Do you remember my friends and me staying up all night watching Freddy Krueger and Michael Meyers movies the night before, getting ourselves excited for our night of horror and fun? Do you remember how many hours I spent going through every Halloween department in every department store I could possibly get into?

Halloween, it’s bad enough when something becomes commercialized and commoditized, marginalized and capitalized on. It’s even worse when it completely vanishes.

Do you remember, Halloween? I do. And because I’m sitting alone on this empty street, it hurts. And I miss it.