Recent articles by Hitsville

For the Columbia Journalism ReviewScreen Shot 2016-05-12 at 5.03.30 p.m.
“Nate Silver unloads on the New York Times”

FIVETHIRTYEIGHT’S NATE SILVER ripped into The New York Times in general—and the paper’s new media columnist, Jim Rutenberg, in particular—on the FiveThirtyEight election podcast on Monday. The minutes-long rant included loaded words like “dishonest” and “unethical.”

Silver and his operation had an alliance with the Times during the time of the 2012 election. The attack showed that there’s little love lost over the split, at least from Silver’s perspective. It also proved that Donald Trump, the apparent victor in a race that reporters across the spectrum called spectacularly wrong up until the very end, is still roiling the media world.

Screen Shot 2016-05-12 at 5.01.15 p.m.For Vulture (New York magazine website):
Radiohead’s Shtick Resonates Anew in the Trump Era With A Moon Shaped Pool

Now, with 48 hours notice, we have A Moon Shaped Pool, which is, leaving aside the annoying lack of a hyphen in the title, a capital-A album. Do you remember the opening passages of King of Limbs? The atonal beeps, like something out of a Terry Riley piece? A Moon Shaped Pool, by contrast, begins with a coursing and dramatic guitar line, as powerful an attack as we’ve heard from the band in more than 15 years, flecked first with some processed strings, and then a hysterical reedy bleat, like a bassoon about to undergo a tracheotomy.

For Vulture (New York magazine website):Screen Shot 2016-05-12 at 4.59.14 p.m.
His Name Was Prince. And He Was Funky. 

With the death of Prince, let’s celebrate “this thing called life,” as His Purpleness himself put it. For him it was inseparable from love — his second and most heartfelt subject — and from sex, his third and most lascivious. They were all part of the same thing. He was arguably the most crazily multitalented pop star we have ever seen: a singer, songwriter, producer, multi-instrumentalist, dancer, performer, and impresario of the first rank. He was also a dutiful actor, a worthy inhabitant of the Madonna-Kardashian-Trump ether of tabloid antics, a narcissist of dizzying dysfunctionality, a crank, and also, in the end — what’s the word? — a presence. I remember being at a Warner Bros. convention, sitting at a big ballroom table with a bunch of cynical journalists. Prince walked by — tiny, in purple and high heels — and we all dropped our drinks. A few minutes later he was onstage rolling around on the top of a white grand piano singing “Nothing Compares 2 U.” We all knew what he was trying to do to the piano. He was a fucker. No, I mean: a literal fucker. Beside everything else, he stood astride the world and fucked famously. He was the world’s most advanced rock star.


Liz Phair, Steve Albini & Me

newcity cover

Twenty-two years ago, the music producer sent me a letter at the Chicago Reader, complaining about a piece I’d written on Liz Phair, the Smashing Pumpkins, and Urge Overkill.  It was 1993 and those three acts were at the front of of a roller-coaster ride of fame as the city’s rock scene came to national attention.


albini fax

The exchange has become part of Chicago rock lore — to this day it comes up regularly in writing about the scene.

His note created a months-long letters war in the paper, but I’ve never responded. Recently, a writer in the Reader (which is, sad to say, a shell of its former self) cited the note and dissed me in the process. I thought it was time to talk about some of the issues the letter raised, let folks know how ’93 unfolded from my perspective in the cheap seats, and, not least, settle a few scores.

New City, a competing paper in town, agreed to run the result. It was, editor and publisher Brian Hieggelke said, the longest piece they’d ever run.

You can read the piece — with major and cameo appearances by Phair, Albini, Urge, Billy Corgan, Jim DeRogatis, Brad Wood, Brigid Murphy, Jeff Tweedy, Sue Miller, Joe Shanahan, Jim Ellison, the Stalkers, Courtney Love, and Sheila Sachs — here.


Everything you know about the Oscars and diversity is wrong

Screen Shot 2016-02-26 at 8.43.52 a.m.I wrote a media commentary story for the Columbia Journalism Review last month right after the nominations for the Academy Awards were announced. The gist of the piece was that it was odd that all the press on the awards didn’t bother to lay out what the academy’s record when it came to recognizing minority actors actually was.

In the weeks since, the cacophony has only gotten worse. Just for the sake of disseminating accurate information, here’s some things you haven’t heard in the debate running up to the show, which is Sunday night.

Please note! Racism in the entertainment industry is a complex, multifaceted beast, with much blame to go around, from discriminatory hiring patterns on the part of the industry to the casual commercial indifference of audiences to films about the black experience.

But, having noticed a lot of changes in the way the academy has gone about its job over the last fifteen years, I think on balance that the criticism of it has gotten into the realm of the irresponsible.

Anyway, if you want to go protest something, here are some things you can put on your placards:

  • Of the 300 Academy Award nominations for acting since 2001, 45 nominations have gone to people of color, including blacks, Hispanics and Latinos, and Asians. That’s 15 percent; some 35 percent of the U.S. are non white. That’s not a huge percentage, but it’s significant. It should be mentioned in every commentary on the awards, instead of leaving the implication that the academy has a terrible record with non-white actors.
  • In 2001, the top acting awards were won by African Americans — Denzel Washington, for Training Day, and Halle Berry, for Monster’s Ball. In the years since, black actors have been awarded the Oscar nine times. Of the 60 statuettes awarded in the last fifteen years, that’s 15 percent. Blacks make up about 15 percent of the U.S. population. It doesn’t mean that much. (It’s not a limit—blacks could get it more than 15 percent!) But it’s not anything to protest about.
  • Since 2001, black and Latino actors have dotted the nominations and the winners: Viola Davis and Penélope Cruz, Eddie Murphy and Javier Bardem, Octavia Spencer and Forrest Whittaker, Ken Watanabe and Lupita Nyong’o, dozens more.
  • The academy has gone out of its way to recognize the overlooked. Quvenzhané Wallis, the incandescent presence at the center of Beasts of the Southern Wild, was nominated for best actress, the youngest actress ever nominated, this for a role in what was probably the lowest grossing film ever nominated for best picture. Barkhad Abdi, the Somali actor in Captain Phillips; Sophie Okonedo, whose background is Nigerian and Jewish, from Hotel Rwanda, Rinko Kikuchi, from Japan, from Babel, and others have broadened the academy’s nominations lists each year.
  • In the context of the paucity of non-white roles in most American films, this recognition is even more significant. No one would make the argument that 15 percent of the roles in Hollywood filmmaking are serious opportunities for blacks, yet blacks have won the Oscar 15 percent of the time. If anything, the academy has dug down to recognize good black roles.
  • This is not an insignificant practice. Nominations and awards increase the recipients’ earning power and filmmaking power.
  • Before 2000 only two women have been nominated for best director. Since then, two more have (Sofia Coppola for Lost in Translation, Kathryn Bigelow for The Hurt Locker.) In the first fifty years of the awards, there were no films nominated for best picture that had been directed by a woman. In the last 15 years, eight have. That’s not exemplary, but it’s an improvement.
  • In the best director category, incidentally, a white American man hasn’t won the category since 2007 (the Coen Brothers, for No Country for Old Men), and only four total since the turn of the century. The Mexican directors Alejandro Iñárritu and Alphonse Cuarón won the last two years, preceded by the Taiwanese Ang Lee, and Bigelow. The others were Brits. (But an African-American has never won the award.)
  • In the entire decade of the 1990s, there was not a single film nominated for best picture that had anything to do with the black or brown experience. In recent years there’s been quite a few: Ray, Babel, Slumdog Millionaire, Precious, The Help, Beasts of the Southern Wild, and Selma, to name just some, culminating, of course, with 12 Years a Slave, which won best picture as well as two other awards, and created a moral bookend to the rather more rosy-eyed view of the South in the Hollywood touchstone Gone With the Wind, which won ten awards in 1939.
  • And that’s not to mention the films that took an unblinking look at other minority populations, notably Brokeback Mountain, Milk, and The Kids Are All Right, all of which were nominated for Best Picture and won other awards.
  • Over the last ten years or so, the members of the academy have broken themselves of the habit of focusing on high-grossing pictures. This is the biggest and most welcome change in the Oscars, and it’s the one that has made all the other changes possible. In the 1990s, the average box office gross of a best picture winner was $180 million. In the last ten years, it’s been closer to $80 million, and of course the difference is much greater when you take inflation into account. (Ticket prices were half what they are today in 1996.) In other words, the typical best picture today is seen by about one-fourth as many people as in the 1990s.
  • Similarly, the average gross of all the films given the nod for best picture are about one half what it was back in the 1990s. It’s not unusual now to see films that have grossed less than $10 million nominated for best picture. (For comparison purposes, the marketing budget alone for a blockbuster can run $100 million to $200 million.) It’s also common to see no best picture nominees at all appear in the list of the top ten grossing films of each year.
  • One of the complaints this year is that Beasts of No Nation didn’t get a best picture nomination, or an acting nod for Idris Elba. Beasts of No Nation made $100,000 at the box office. $100,000. Hurt Locker, with it’s $17 million gross, was the least-seen best picture winner ever. Beasts made roughly one-half of one percent what Locker made. That it could even be considered for a best picture nomination is a strong example of how wide the academy now spreads its net.



Recent Articles by Hitsville

What the Media Failed to Mention in Their David Bowie obituaries
Columbia Journalism Review

bowieA CNN report, for example, went out of its way to mention Bowie’s involvement in a “schoolboy fight over a girl.” Bowie’s own contemporary version of his life then was much different. He told Playboy:

So it was some very pretty boy in class in some school or other that I took home and neatly fucked on my bed upstairs.



The Vulgar Boatmen’s “You & Your Sister,'” 25 Years Later

vulgar boatmenSpending the past few weeks with “You and Your Sister” brought its intensity back to me. There’s a six-minute song called “Drive Somewhere,” recorded with a great deal of unexpected clarity at Ray’s home studio, in Florida. It turns a lethally incisive backing track into a thrilling, expansive trip; the melodic changeups are snapping visions of light. I was immediately back amid the emotional maelstrom of driving, love, the radio, family, all making unified and coherent sense.


Everything You Know About the Oscars and Diversity Is Wrong
Columbia Journalism Review

oscarThe Academy’s switch to awarding most of its nominations to movies that don’t make a lot of money opened the door to the increase, over the last 15 years, in minority performers, as art films and those with more modest designs began elbowing aside slick commercial entertainments.

In 2008, Slumdog Millionaire, a film about a poor Indian boy, won best picture. Two years ago, 12 Years a Slave, the devastating portrayal of the lives of slaves in the pre-Civil War south, dominated the awards, winning best picture for director Steve McQueen, and best adapted screenplay for John Ridley, both of whom are black.

All 74 Led Zeppelin Songs, Ranked from Worst to Best (New York magazine)


Led ZeppelinAll the old terms used to explain this still apply: Zeppelin were a sledgehammer, a steamroller, a juggernaut, a leviathan, picking the music up, turning it into a club, and wielding it unmercifully, often on innocent bystanders and any nearby baby seals.

The first side of the band’s first self-titled album contained arguably the hardest-rocking, most thoroughly enjoyable set of songs any mortals had yet created. It created a sensation, and the group’s earliest tours began to spread the word of a uniquely powerful live assault. Zeppelin soon became the ultimate uncompromising hard-rock band, imperiously traveling the globe to deliver pummeling concerts at ear-splitting volume, attend to the local womenfolk, and take away unprecedented paychecks

For Dylan fans only — the real story behind Victor Maymudes book

The NYT today has a review of a new book on Dylan. It’s based on the recorded reminiscences of Victor Maymudes. He was one of Dylan’s earliest friends in the Village and later a key part of his entourage during the years of chaos that followed.

The two had lost touch, but when Maymudes ended up down and out Dylan eventually put him back on the payroll, and he eventually rose to be essentially his road manager on the Never Ending Tour—and later had a lot to do with Dylan’s real estate holdings. (The star is said to have a hobby in flipping houses.)

Maymudes died in 2001; the book, Another Side of Bob Dylan, was put together by his son Jacob, based on 24 hours of cassette recordings his father had made.

The Times story elides some of the more, ah, colorful aspects of Maymudes life. The rockiness of the relationship is described like this:

[Dylan] [b]rought him back even after an episode involving a teenage girl that led to Victor’s being fired as tour manager in 1995. Another star might have banished him. Instead, Mr. Dylan had Victor scout for and look after his real estate holdings. A quarrel over one property caused the final, acrimonious break in 1997.

There’s more to the story. Maymudes was not charged in the 1995 incident but he was detained by police. According to another new biography, Dylan, by former LA Times reporter Dennis McDougal, that property quarrel was not what estranged the two. McDougal reports that Maymudes exposed himself to a 17-year-old  cafe waitress, and that’s what led to his ultimate banishment.

I’m not sure whether to trust McDougal’s book. It’s irritatingly unsourced. On the other hand, it’s not just a clip job, and he’s a legitimate reporter who seems to have some good Southern California sources with knowledge of Dylan’s activities.

The Times story also doesn’t ask about what happened to the ill-tempered tell-all Maymudes promised almost 20 years ago. “I’m going to peel him like an onion,” he told author Howard Sounes in the late 1990s — and called Dylan an “asshole.” Maymudes also detailed his years of shuffling women around for the star —and bragged he himself had slept with 300 women just in the Hotel Chelsea!

It can’t have been easy working for Dylan. Early on, Maymudes was a quiet presence in Dylan’s chaotic world, always there to play a silent game of chess or Go with him.  Later, there’s circumstantial evidence Maymudes was on a shorter leash. At the beginning of the Never Ending Tour, Dylan was on the road with the Alarm, a very poor man’s U2 who had a few months of notice in the late 1980s. Here’s a story the lead singer recounts:

“There was this guy Victor Malmudes [sic] who was just Bob’s mate. We never were quite sure what he did. One day Bob didn’t come down for his usual swim. Victor said, ‘He’s got a bit of a cold.’ The next day we were by the pool and Bob comes down for a swim and Nigel Twist [Alarm drummer] said, ‘How are you feeling today, Bob?’ He goes, ‘What do you mean?’ Twist said, ‘Victor said you had a cold.’ Bob said, ‘Did he?’ and that was it. He carried on swimming. That evening Victor was sent home off the tour for giving away personal information. He was banished for three days, and then he came back.”


“Here be dragons”: A few thoughts on Richard Linklater’s “Boyhood”

boyhood“Here be dragons”: Those words appear in a section of uncharted territory on a 16th-century globe. It’s a reminder that dangers lurk in places we haven’t been yet. That’s what life, in the end, is all about, and that’s what Richard Linklater’s new film, Boyhood, is all about. It’s the most technically interesting movie of the year–the Gravity of 2014–but not because of technology in the usual sense. Linklater lays out the events over 12 years in the life of a young boy; the trick is that the filmmaker, the crew, and the cast filmed the thing over an actual 12-year period, so you see the main character–and his supporting players–age genuinely over the course of the film. About a third of the way through you start to get the feeling that the result is something you’ve simply never seen before.

There are things about the movie that thrill you, but you also from time to time question the conceit. Wait a minute, you think. In a certain way, it’s not that big of a deal; we watch documentaries, after all, in which we see real people change over time, right? I think the difference with Boyhood is that in most cases anyone who’s the subject of a documentary would be someone we’d be familiar with as an adult, so the older pictures are quaint and harmless. Part of the thrill Boyhood gives you stems from the fact that, since the film is in essence about life, about time, the aging feels different. Each new segment of the film is a new step into an unknown world, and the effect as you watch is poignant, almost overwhelming.

I’m also always suspicious about work where we’re supposed to marvel at how the thing was constructed, as opposed to what was constructed. If the PR folks are talking about process, it means they don’t have the substance to talk about. But again, once you think about it, you realize why this film is different. The process and the film’s meaning are in the end one. The process embodies the mystery at the heart of the picture and, again, life. Every new step forward into new territory is a victory in a journey that, for all of us in one way or another, is perilous. We’re in the same position parents and relatives are in as they watch the kids evolve over time. We know things the kids don’t; we ache to comfort when the unexplainable happens—when, in other words, the things that make life happen happen. And we see growth in all its forms.

The star of the film, playing the kid Mason, is named Ellar Coltrane; the risks Linklater took on the project–casting a 6-year-old on a 12-year-project–are obvious. Watching the kid both grow up and, essentially, learn how to act, adds another level of depth to the film. As we leave him, the round-faced Mason with the unblinking eyes whom we have seen emotionally battered in various ways has elongated, smoothed and–after that unattractive early-teen phase we all went through–turned into something that, on the surface at least, seems to be a resourceful and even somewhat confident young man. He knows things he didn’t know before, and sees his surroundings–and particularly his parents–in a new perspective.

One of the realities of Boyhood, however, is that, on top of this conceit, Linklater achieves his effects without actually doing much. There is no great narrative arc. It’s really just a series of vignettes about how Mason relates to his family and others, and how these experiences accrete to make us who we are. I may be forgetting something, but I don’t know if there’s more than an incidental scene in the entire film where Coltrane’s alone.


What Boyhood is really about is the fragility of every child’s life, and I think all will feel the slight air of dread that permeates the film. The effect isn’t a cheap one; rather, it’s a deeply humanistic point about the vulnerability of kids. That’s why parents tell kids the things they do: Don’t do risky things with your stupid friends; don’t text while driving. These are all are dangerous things to do, and they are all things kids do anyway. If you’re like me, you’ll spent a good part of the film slightly anxious. Linklater seems to know that there are subtler dangers as well. One character, a psychology professor, has the words “attachment disorder” on the blackboard. This theory says that a lot of emotional problems later in life comes from the level of secure attachment a child is allowed to experience with his or her parents. There’s a plain irony at work when a detached father, say, tries to warn the kid how to take care of himself. Most of the film, in fact, is quite subtle; entire new lives and other stories are hinted at by the smallest of things – a glimpse of a uniform, a passing remark to a friend.

Boyhood isn’t an easy movie. It’s long, and its disconnected episodes, given the film’s conception, by definition could go on for a lifetime. But by halfway through little Mason had caught me. He wasn’t a boy but Everyboy–at the mercy of a merciless adventure. No one knows where he will go next, but there will be dragons.

Here’s what’s wrong with the big Ticketmaster settlement

The WSJ says that Ticketmaster is in the process of settling a long-running class-action suit attacking the company for its myriad “service” charges. The basic thrust of the case was that the company was just tacking on new charges that had no relation to the ostensible names—they were profit centers whose price bore no relation to the service supposedly rendered.

You can read the court papers here.

The Journal says the settlement could cost the company up to $400 million, but that its actual outlay would be much lower. The proposed settlement provides for $2.25 and $5 discounts on future ticket buys to members of the class; the paper says participation rates in cases like this are typically so low that the total the company pays out might be less than ten percent of the maximum.

The settlement as it is described is for many reasons something less than a silver bullet for music fans.

Part of it lets the company simply say on its web site that the various fees generate profits for the company. Ironically, this provision is bad for both sides. Most consumers won’t see the notice, and will remain misled. Those who do see it will have confirmed the suspicions they already had about how the company operates. This will undermine the company’s reputation further, though I suppose the argument can be made it can’t get any worse.

But this is all ancillary to the main issue, which is that the fees shouldn’t be allowed at all. But wait — don’t fans have a choice, like any other consumer?

They don’t. Music fans have no where else to go. As Hitsville has written before, the peculiar economics of the concert industry make it easy for shenanigans like this.  If you want to see U2 on a tour, you have to go through whatever ticket-purchasing system is available for the particular show in your town. You can’t choose to see U2 in a different venue, or buy your ticket through a different reseller.

If, for example, your local grocer let you wait in the checkout line, but then before handing over your food demanded a “cashier’s fee,” or a “convenience fee,” it wouldn’t stay in business long, because people would go somewhere else.

Also in a normal industry, other interested parties, like the venues or the artists that are putting on the actual shows, would feel heat from consumers. Ticketmaster gets around that by sharing the wealth.

For example, Ticketmaster has built up a network of exclusive facilities across the country. It keeps the arrangements exclusive by kicking back part of the ticket fees to the venues. In effect, music fans are being forced to pay more for their tickets to help prop up an extortionary system.


Recent articles by Hitsville

For the New York Times:

“Knock, Knock, Knockin’ on Nobel’s Door” (Why Bob Dylan Should Be Awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature):

29DYLAN-articleLargeIf the academy doesn’t recognize Bob Dylan — a bard who embodied the most significant cultural upheaval of the second half of the last century — it will squander its best chance to honor a pop poet. What other songwriter would remotely qualify? Joni Mitchell or Leonard Cohen? Perhaps. Randy Newman? Chuck D? (In truth, the only other pop artist with work as timeless as Mr. Dylan’s is Chuck Berry — but that’s an argument for another day.) With his superstar peers either silent or content to collect the big bucks playing ingratiating stadium shows, this artist, iconoclastic and still vital, demands that we take the product of his muse on his own terms, and refuses to go so gently.


“Last Thoughts on Breaking Bad


A famous Agatha Christie book ends with thick sheaf of blank pages. She wanted to the end of the book not to be anticipated by her readers. The ending of “The Sopranos,” famously, came on a note of total ambiguity. Among other things, the scene was a meta commentary on the TV finale: why must lives end when the show does? What unites the previous three points is that Gilligan and Co. became too caught up in the story-ness of their story; they insisted on tying everything up with a tidy morality-tale bow. David Chase, creator of “The Sopranos,” never let us forget that evil sometimes walks way unscathed. Young Todd, the sociopath’s sociopath, should have seen White coming, considered the odds, and taken off to cook, and kill, another day.

For the New Yorker’s Culture blog: ‘Exile in Guyville,’ 20 Years Later:

Liz_Phair-Exile_In_Guyville-TraseraTo me, each song on Exile in Guyville reverberates powerfully, making it patently one of the strongest rock albums ever made. But the legacy of its maker is going to be of the what-might-have-been variety, the story of someone who took a look at what Joni Mitchell called the “star-making machinery” and neither engaged it nor quite walked away, with ambiguous consequences.



For the Wall Street Journal:  “Restless Wanderer” (Notes on the 25th Anniversary of Bob Dylan’s Never-Ending Tour):

PJ-BP073_dylan_DV_20130625172731It is a remarkable achievement—though not one that Mr. Dylan himself acknowledges. In the 1990s, he wrote, “There was a Never Ending Tour but it ended.” His organization doesn’t talk about his performances. No wonder then that, as the endeavor clicks into its 26th year with yet another leg of shows starting this week—dubbed the Americanarama Tour, with special guests Wilco and My Morning Jacket on board—no special note will be taken of the occasion.

But if it is not the Never-Ending Tour, it is a never-ending tour. As with many things Dylan, his motivations run deep. The shows align him with an earlier era—when blues and country musicians created their art on small stages in small towns or in small corners of big towns. They also trenchantly separate him from the current era. The modern rock-superstar act tours with a new album to sell and a new image to show off. (That’s why Coldplay was running around in Sgt. Pepper jackets a few years ago.) Mr. Dylan just keeps playing, and rarely does interviews. Highly scripted video and light cues make spontaneity in most if not all big-name rock shows rare. By contrast, Mr. Smith has said he often didn’t know what Mr. Dylan was going to play next.


In the New Yorker,  “The Pale King,” an essay on the legacy of Michael Jackson


NYer cover 12-24-12“No man achieves immortality through public acclaim,” said Bob Dylan, who had the opportunity to consider such things up close. From the point of view of celebrity and popularity—the point of view that truly mattered to him—Jackson may well have been the most successful entertainer ever. His life and career remain sensational to all of us who marveled as the black music that has run as a counterpoint to the past century—through gospel, jazz, the blues, soul, and hip-hop—resolved itself to play, for a time, perfectly in tune with a nation. Still, there’s little doubt that Jackson lost something self-defining along the way. He ended up a shade, and, besides the music, all that he really left behind—an ambiguous legacy, and a tarnished name, to some rich white kids—was just the final, meaningless step in the ultimate crossover.


In New York magazine, a look back at David Bowie’s bracing, ineffable early career:ny mag cover

David Bowie—indigestibly arch; unfailingly cerebral, distant, and detached—was always sincere about his insincerity, but never insincere about his sincerity. At the time, this distinction was as crucial and confounding as the highly sexualized, polymorphously perverse demimonde he celebrated. He mocked rock seriousness, even as he delivered some of the most lasting songs of the era, all the while carrying himself like a lubricious aristocrat, drawing, with a sort of kinky noblesse oblige, strength from his audience’s adulation and in turn bestowing his blessing: E pluribus pervum.


Last thoughts on ‘Breaking Bad’

Breaking-Bad-Season-511) The machina ex machina.

Walter White’s last great plan involved the creation of a jerry-rigged gatling gun. He was a chemist by trade, and chemistry was the show’s thematic through-line over five seasons of chemical reactions and carbon-based life forms. Why did the final episode hinge on something out of “Wild Wild West”?

And even by the standards of a series that had already offered us a truck-borne supermagnet, this was a hugely improbable device, one that would have been useful only under a very precise set of physical circumstances. White—surprise!—managed to find himself in exactly those circumstances. (He could have been forced to leave his car outside the fence, or been taken down into the meth lab, rendering his contraption useless.) The plan had no way to be adapted to a different situation, and not much nuance, either. I thought about it for 30 seconds and came up with the idea of an explosion that distracts the gang and then a gas that puts the thugs to sleep. White could have rescued young Jesse and called the cops as he left. (I could imagine him telling the 911 dispatcher wryly, “They are armed but won’t be dangerous for eight hours or so.”) The White Power guys would have been found with the blue meth lab, and he could have made his peace with …

2) Pinkman Agonistes.

Among the various narrative arcs of the show, the one that saw the systematic unraveling of Jesse Pinkman was its starkest and most visceral. Pinkman began as a fairly gentle soul with only faint antisocietal leanings. With White as a catalyst, he is first turned into a monster and then, as if in penance, became, of the characters left alive, the show’s most potent sufferer. His agony became another of the psychic weights around Walter’s neck. The last show made no note of this, and our last image of Jesse was a manic and gleeful one. But of course the brutality of the physical and mental traumas he had suffered, his lack of a support system, and his tendency to self-medicate don’t make his future bright. Our final glimpse of him had no hint of this and was accordingly false.

3) Envoi.

The enormity of White’s (d)evolution built steadily to what was to me the series emotional ground zero: “What the hell is wrong with you?” he raged at his cowering but defiant wife and son a few weeks back. “We’re a family.” This absurd speech was bookended by his confession to Skyler in the finale: “I liked it,” he said, talking about his ascent to druglordship.

The two positions are mutually exclusive. Either he became a true maniac, raging in some Learlike extremity, or he was a canny and clever master criminal. In fact, “Breaking Bad” is about male ego. White was a milquetoast at the show’s beginning, condescended to by his brother-on-law and pitied by his son. In TV terms, he was turning himself into a Ralph Cramden, an Archie Bunker, or a Tony Soprano; the hulking, raging male overlord. And yet he is allowed to die with a smile on his face, as if this was his plan all along, Ozymandias does not rest so easily.

4) The tyranny of the finale.

A famous Agatha Christie book ends with thick sheaf of blank pages. She wanted to the end of the book not to be anticipated by her readers. The ending of “The Sopranos,” famously, came on a note of total ambiguity. Among other things, the scene was a meta commentary on the TV finale: why must lives end when the show does? What unites the previous three points is that Gilligan and Co. became too caught up in the story-ness of their story; they insisted on tying everything up with a tidy morality-tale bow. David Chase, creator of “The Sopranos,” never let us forget that evil sometimes walks way unscathed. Young Todd, the sociopath’s sociopath, should have seen White coming, considered the odds, and taken off to cook, and kill, another day.

The Replacement’s Last Show: “Not sad pathetic, just sad sad.”

Word from Minneapolis is that the Replacements are preparing a series of reunion shows, which will take place in Sunday in Toronto, in Chicago Sept. 15, and in Denver Sept. 21 as part of the RiotFests.

The band deserves whatever money it’s going to get. They were my favorite band for a long time. Here, from a piece I did for the Chicago Reader, complete with a fairly prescient antepenultimate sentence, is what happened at what turned out to be their last live appearance at the city’s Fourth of July concert, 22 years—gulp—ago.

– – – –

Whether or not the Replacements show at WXRT’s Fourth of July concert was the group’s last, it sure sounded like it. The band’s hour or so onstage was desultory and sad–not sad pathetic, just sad sad. The songs–nearly all of them woeful tales from the rock ‘n’ roll front–tumbled out one after the other, the band’s attitude throughout one of thorough self-disgust. It was difficult to hear the offhand comments from either Paul Westerberg or Tommy Stinson, but they sounded cynical and hostile. At one point, Stinson asked the crowd how it was doing: he wasn’t clear, the response was tepid, so he then replied something to the effect of “Yeah, well, that’s why we’re not going to be doing this anymore.” Paul Westerberg, his youthful, defiant exuberance depleted, seemed particularly humorless. (His one great line was “Fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck,” a tip of the hat to ‘XRT, which was broadcasting the show). But his apathy was understandable: his worst nightmare–his career being reduced to going through the motions onstage–came true right before his (and, worse, our) very eyes.

Westerberg and Stinson were the last holdovers of the violent quartet who ruined themselves trying to transfer Westerberg’s jittery genius onto records and stages throughout the last half of the 80s. They succeeded only intermittently, but it’s worth noting that when they did–on songs like “Within Your Reach,” “Unsatisfied,” “Left of the Dial,” “Alex Chilton,” maybe half-a-dozen others, and as often as not in their live shows–the magic that came out of Westerberg’s scruffy self-deprecation (“We ain’t much to look at so / Close your eyes and here we go”) and the band’s sociopathic attack was as wondrous to them as it was to us; no less-Olympian pretenders will ever aspire to the crown Westerberg chased. Since Westerberg so plainly was capable of capturing the imagination of an audience (it’s not that easy), the Replacements’ commercial lack of success does indeed seem tragic. If the group is now kaput–people around the band are being very close-mouthed and the official word from management is that this was merely the last show of 1991–Westerberg will of course continue solo, which will either open up his songwriting or demonstrate how much he needed the authenticity of a little terrorist like Stinson to keep him on track. At the end of the show, there was in fact no ending–the members of the band just straggled offstage, passing their instruments off to roadies, who then continued playing. You could practically see Westerberg roll his eyes as he left the stage, enervated and weary.

For the New Yorker’s Culture blog: Last Thoughts on ‘Exile in Guyville’

Liz_Phair-Exile_In_Guyville-TraseraLiz Phair’s Exile in Guyville was released 20 years ago this week; as I wrote below, the run-up to the album’s release and the subsequent sensation it caused was a very fun time.

I did a piece for the New Yorker’s web site about the album, Phair, and her discontents.

To me, each song on “Exile in Guyville” reverberates powerfully, making it patently one of the strongest rock albums ever made. But the legacy of its maker is going to be of the what-might-have-been variety, the story of someone who took a look at what Joni Mitchell called the “star-making machinery” and neither engaged it nor quite walked away, with ambiguous consequences.

You can read it here.

For the Wall St. Journal: Dylan’s Never-Ending Tour, at 25

PJ-BP073_dylan_DV_20130625172731I did a piece for the Wall Street Journal this week on the 25th anniversary of Bob Dylan’s insane marathon of later life touring—2500-plus shows.

The piece is here.

I’ve found the tour thrilling, enlightening and frustrating, as have many other fans. An extended essay I wrote on the original shows of the tour, in Northern California back in 1988, can be found here.

Bob Dylan’s Never-Ending Tour—the first review

dylanIn June 1988, when Bob Dylan announced a series of shows in Northern California, no one knew what to expect. It’s hard to remember now, but Dylan hadn’t embarked on a quote-unquote normal tour in a long time. There was the gospel tour, in 1979 and ’80. Then another largely gospel tour, in ’81. I was living in the Bay Area at the time; as a wee lad I was an usher at Bill Graham’s Warfield Theater, and so got to see most of his extended runs at the venue.

Then came the Tom Petty tour, and then, sigh, came the one with the Grateful Dead tour. As someone who was critical of the shows at the time, it was of some interest to me to read, in Dylan’s autobiography, that he, too, understood he’d been phoning the shows in.

The 1988 tour began in Concord, east of Berkeley, on June 7. Neil Young played for a big chunk of the show. I didn’t see the next night, up in Davis, but then saw the Berkeley show, at the Greek Theater, and then the one down on the peninsula, at Shoreline Amphitheater.

The shows, before half-filled halls in Concord and at Shoreline, and before a sold-out one in the smaller Greek Theater,  were amazing. The piece below is from the East Bay Express, the alternative paper in Berkeley. My review of the shows turned out to be a cover story.

– – –

Dylan Redux

By Bill Wyman

Bob Dylan: …Just look outside the window at the picket fences and the pine trees. New England falls are so beautiful, aren’t they? Look at those two kids playing by the train tracks. They remind me of myself. Both of them.

Jonathan Colt: Did you ever lie down on the tracks?

Bob Dylan: Not personally. I once knew someone who did.

Jonathan Colt: What happened?

Bob Dylan: I lost track of him…

Friday, June 10: It was nine o’clock. The sun had just set on what was possibly the most beautiful day of the year. We were waiting for Dylan. Continue reading “Bob Dylan’s Never-Ending Tour—the first review”

“Exile in Guyville” at 20—The first Liz Phair interview

exile-in-guyvilleMany years ago, Hitsville lived in Chicago, where the column “Hitsville” graced the pages of the Chicago Reader, back then a formidable journalistic presence in the city. One night at Lounge Ax, I met a diminutive, talkative woman, who after a lively conversation gave me a blank-label cassette of songs she’d been working on for Matador.
I listened to it, and called her the next day. We had breakfast on on a cold snowy Sunday at the original Wishbone. She was a lot of fun to talk to, even then displaying her highly attuned perception when it came to pop imagery, particularly in the sexual realm. Somewhere I still have the napkin on which she sketched her intent for the cover of the album—the now-iconic “blowjob queen” image—which was going to be a topless photo-booth shot cropped strategically at the nipple.
My column about our conversation, which ran that week, began a highly enjoyable period of Liz Phair mania in Chicago over the next year or so. The best part was the first six months, which culminated in the official release of the tape she had given me, Exile in Guyville.
The column ran Jan. 28, 1993.

Greetings From Guyville: Liz Phair’s Girl-o-centric Exile

By Bill Wyman

Liz Phair says she decided some years ago that her first record would be a double album; having heard that Exile on Main St. was a fine example of the form, she immersed herself in it. The title of her eventual debut, Exile in Guyville, is a grateful salute. (The rest of the title is a sardonic nod to the Wicker Park band scene dubbed “Guyville” on the last Urge Overkill album.) The 25-year-old Phair, brash as they come, insists that the songs on her record are designed to be read in an intense and exact song-to-song correspondence with the original Exile: Her 18 songs, she says, should be consumed in 5-4-5-4 bursts matching the original work’s four sides. Indeed, mention a song from the Stones’ Exile and Phair will immediately launch into singsong lyrics, rapid-fire analysis, and intermittent bursts of air guitar to illustrate this or that musical point.

Continue reading ““Exile in Guyville” at 20—The first Liz Phair interview”

Liz Phair—The Option interview

In which Our Liz reflects on the chaos in her life as the release of Exile in Guyville approaches.

This was a cover story in Option magazine in 1993, back then a leading journal of indie rock.


Liz Phair’s Suburban Blues

Is She Weird? Is She White?

By Bill Wyman

“I’m thrown off by people who know exactly what they want me to do, right now,” says Liz Phair, “because I simply don’t have a clue. I’ve always changed my mind a lot. And now I’m having changes of heart at a rate I never had before.”

The words — cautious, confused, self-aware — are typical of Liz Phair. The Chicago singer-songwriter has entranced tastemakers from one coast to the other with her debut album Exile In Guyville (Matador), a brash but nuanced song cycle on the trouble with boys, girls and with Liz Phair herself. The previously unknown (even in Chicago) artist is showing off what may turn out to be a volatile belnd of talent, smarts and looks, and the circling industry is already causing problems for her.

Continue reading “Liz Phair—The Option interview”

What’s Hitsville been up to?

A few recent pieces:

In Slate, an essay on the breakup of R.E.M.:

r.e.m. albumR.E.M., with its odd progenitors, few of which trafficked in artifice, was a band somewhat out of time from its inception. And, at the beginning, R.E.M. didn’t matter. The only way you could hear music was on your local radio stations. (MTV had begun, of course, but cable wasn’t as big and college kids, particularly, didn’t have universal access to it.) Commercial radio didn’t play R.E.M.; program directors at the time were openly contemptuous of them. Commercial-radio playlists were determined by “research,” which often consisted of playing listeners 30 seconds of new songs over the phone. Vagueness and dreaminess didn’t play well in that context.

In the New York Times Book Review, a look at Electric Eden, Rob Young’s sprawling history of Britain’s visionary folk music:

electric edenThe visionaries here, in broad terms, are folkies who drew their inspiration from the music of a bucolic past rooted in the land — the nascent Britain of long-ago Albion, with a millennium or two of fairies, druids and whatnot to pick from. These artists rejected the decaying industrial England they saw around them in favor of a simpler pastoral one that enlivened their yearnings with mysticism, (really) retro clothing and mannered vocalizing. Young sees this as a search for an “electric Eden”; his vast travelogue encompasses novels, films, poems and BBC documentaries; reams of folk, religious and spiritualist scholarship; tales of public flamboyance, festivals and hippie-dippy explorations; and, first and foremost, music.

In Slate, an essay on the anniversary of 9/11 about four 9/11 movies that always get overlooked:

Donnie Darko rabbitThe thematic similarities are too great to ignore. A central character separates, in one way or another, from life, from the reality of being. Each film evocatively creates a heightened sense of reality for its characters that we the audience inhale as well. Each features a shock, a wrenching sideways, whether from that plane engine falling on a suburban house to the revelation that something is very, very wrong with poor Betty. The tragedy that hangs over each story is another similarity: In each case, the dread of loss touches the audience in some fundamental way. That’s a key point: None of these four directors is cynical or nihilistic. (An aesthetic position Lynch, for example, is not a stranger to.) In each of these signal works, a sense of humanity, of the great worth of every life—and a shuddering appreciation of the apocalypse that accompanies every individual death—is palpable.

In Slate, an essay on the most extravagant sitcom episode ever made:

community Writing about the NBC show Community, a sitcom set in a studiously unstudious community college, is difficult. The show is so self-referential that it has already discussed itself comprehensively. Recently in Slate, I referred in passing to an elaborate, mind-bending episode, “Paradigms of Human Memory.” Community isn’t a high-cost or highly rated show, and it couldn’t have been easy for the producers to put together such a dense and multilayered 22 minutes. “Paradigms” is being rerun this week. In its honor, let’s attempt to unpack what might be the most complex sitcom episode ever filmed.

In Slate, last thoughts on Amy Winehouse:

She was boozy and disheveled, a tarted-up gamin somehow reminiscent both of a blowzed ’60s pinup and a canny street urchin, all wrapped up with the bow of her almost Dickensian name on top. Yet she radiated precision and formalism in her music. Her gaze on a stage could be vacant, almost affectless. But somehow her albums betray an astringent intelligence, over- and undertones of meaning and calculation, and a surprisingly nuanced grasp of the music she loved from decades long past. And her arresting voice conveyed not just emotion, but on occasion universal cataclysms of love, loss, and degradation.

Also in Slate, an essay, Groundhog Decade: Hollywood is about to repeat the catastrophic mistakes of the music industry.

It’s about how illegal media isn’t just free, it’s easier to use—and the implications that has on the movies and TV industries as they face the same challenges the music industry did over the past decade.

There were many, many, engrossing comments on the topic. You can read them here. I was also on Slate’s Gabfest on the subject.

Also in Slate, Steve Carell’s Achievement: He made The Office bleaker, funnier, and more sadly American.

In The Atlantic Online, an essay on Katie Couric’s time as anchor of CBS news, and a story about the complete archives of Spy Magazine coming online.

In Slate, Lester Bangs’ Basement: What it means to have all music instantly available, in which I go spelunking in the illegal file-sharing networks, trying to find out if anything is rare any more.

In the Wall Street Journal, a look back at a long-lost Rolling Stones concert documentary, Ladies and Gentlemen: The Rolling Stones.

In Slate,  Please Allow Me To Correct a Few Things: Imagine if Mick Jagger responded to Keith Richards about his new autobiography.

This was an essay on Keith Richard’s Life. My piece in Hitsville about the worldwide reaction to the Slate review is here.

Other responses included Reason, the Washington Post, and the Village Voice.

For the Wall Street Journal, an opinion column, What Newspapers Can Learn from Craigslist.

Notes for the ‘Spirit of the Senses’ Lecture

Screen Shot 2013-07-12 at 3.50.56 p.m.

For those attending my talk at the Spirit of the Senses, here are a few of the articles discussed:


Prime Time Propaganda: How the White House secretly hooked network TV on its anti-drug message: A Salon special report.

By Daniel Forbes


Radio’s Big Bully: Dirty tricks and crappy programming: Welcome to the world of Clear Channel, the biggest station owner in America.

By Eric Boehlert



Where are all the women record producers?

By Neda Ulaby

Inside the strange world of the cadaver exhibit

By Neda Ulaby


Continue reading “Notes for the ‘Spirit of the Senses’ Lecture”

We’re all living in Lester Bangs’ Basement

Slate logoA story I did for Slate on the End of Rarity.

Music fans used to live with the fact that some records—some of them good and important—were hard to get your hands on. Those days are gone for good.

(The title comes from Lester Bangs’ dream to have every record ever made in his basement.)

A lot of the commenters to the story make some great ancillary points.

The curious case of the newspaper mention of how Starbucks used to sell CDs

starbucks.jpg“But the newspaper didn’t mention the fact that Starbucks used to sell CDs. ”

“That was the curious incident.”

Four years ago, all we heard about was how Starbucks was going to change the music industry. Why, Paul McCartney was selling his new album through Starbucks!

The breathless stories never said that only the novelty of the pairing, combined with the high disposable incomes of the typical Starbucks patron, was what allowed such things to (evanescently) happen. As Hitsville predicted over and over, the arrangements were dead ends, and would not be repeated. Anytime how the music is being sold is being talked about instead of the quality of the music, the quality of the music isn’t good.

The NYT story today on the difficulties the coffee retailer is having doesn’t even mention the chain’s insanely overcovered foray into the music business.

Why should it have mentioned it?

Because a quick search I just did suggests the paper had the words “Starbucks” and “music” in the same story 177 times in a 18-month period, many of the pieces more than 1000 words.  (I suspect something similar would turn up in the WSJ, though I can’t do that search on the paper’s web site.)

Last thoughts on Steve Martin and Deborah Solomon

screen-shot-2010-12-07-at-83230-am.pngThe nation was rocked, last week, by the unexpected disclosure of a top-level secret communication. I’m not talking about the WikiLeaks cache of diplomatic cables. I’m referring about the note the producers of a Manhattan literary series sent to New York Times writer Deborah Solomon as she interviewed actor Steve Martin on stage at the 92nd Street Y.


Solomon made the fateful decision to read the note aloud, and the words reverberate still. The chattering classes have reacted to famines with less Sturm und Drang.


The pair were there in front of an $50-person sell-out audience. Martin, who also writes books, had recently published a new novel set amid the Manhattan contemporary-art scene, and, according to coverage of the event, it was about that novel and that scene—and nothing else—the pair conversed.


One of the organizers eventually approached Solomon as she sat on stage—and handed her a note asking her to broaden the topics under discussion. When the audience members heard what the note said, they broke into a cheer. Solomon and Martin, quite rightly, took this as a rebuke to their talk thus far.


The world, scandalized that a celebrity’s feelings had been hurt, was on the side of the interlocutors. Many took to Facebook to post stories about the imbroglio, dismayed at what they saw as a lowbrow crowd.


The next day, however, the Y essentially doubled down on its position, and offered refunds to all those who attended. Martin spent the day on Twitter, exhibiting some humor. “Made love to wife,” he tweeted at one point. “She demanded refund.” (This was perhaps an unfortunate metaphor, given that both the presenters of the event and the audience were the ones feeling screwed.) Solomon pronounced the reaction “philistine”—and engendered a second wave of hurrahs. The op-ed page of the New York Times was quickly opened to let a wounded Martin vent.


The events sits nicely at the conflux of several interesting trends in pop culture: The walled-off world of celebrity, the complicit posture of the media, and the accompanying numbing of the audience’s expectations.


Martin is a smart and talented man who may or may not be a bit insecure in his intelligence. Philosophy classes he took, long ago in a junior college he dropped out of, seem to loom large in his personal mythology. Like Sylvester Stallone before him, he has donned a pair of bookish glasses and immersed himself in the world of fine art. His new book calls attention to his interest in this realm, in which he buys and sells paintings in the seven and even eight figures.


This expensive hobby is funded by starring roles in films that find themselves, surprisingly often, on worst-movies-of-the-year lists. Since 1999, he has starred in no fewer than five releases tagged with a red rating of 40 or less on Metacritic, the web site that analyzes movie reviews. (Rob Schneider, a name synonymous with below-the-bottom-of-the-barrel humor, has six.) Martin takes the paychecks and even goes the extra mile to appear in the sequels (Cheaper by the Dozen 2, The Pink Panther 2) but doesn’t use his comedic gifts to elevate their humor above the dismal.


Martin is not asked about these films unless he’s promoting one or another of them, generally in the hinterlands. For tony outlets like the Times or the New Yorker, he makes himself available to talk about his books, his personal filmic vanity projects, or his banjo playing. This convenient compartmentalization is in keeping with the laser-like focus of modern entertainment marketing, which maximizes media exposure to benefit the product at hand. This phenomenon, combined with the insular and sycophantic world most stars live in day to day, perhaps explains why Martin was so shocked to learn that he wasn’t being interesting. 


As for Solomon, she’s a journalist who in the past has gotten into trouble for taking a few too many liberties with her weekly Q&A column in the New York Times magazine. (Turned out she took “A’s” and repurposed them to “Q’s” she never asked.) In that column, she is known for the curveballs, glibness and snark with which she confronts her subjects, who are generally second-tier figures and safe targets. Martin, by contrast a rich and powerful man, was treated with an uncharacteristic solicitude, and he returned the favor by testifying to her interviewing prowess and calling her a “friend” in his op-ed piece.


This comfy alliance between star and media is sadly typical and contributes mightily to the banality of much entertainment writing. It’s worth noting again that the crowd, pace Solomon’s rude attack, had taken its medicine stoically. Only when the audience members found an unlikely ally in the presenters of the program did they let their feelings be heard, and delivered the cheer heard ’round the world. Given the celebrity dynamics at work, the fact that the Y staff took that step has to be seen as definitive. One hopes it’s not the last time that a pretentious star and an overly solicitous journalist hear a similar sound.