Well a-heydy-ho. I'd better get active on this blog so it doesn't start withering like an unloved plant. First things first: you may want to read this article by Richard Beck at N +1 online magazine. It's a big piece - bordering on a thesis - but if you have any interest in the state of contemporary music (and despite my perennial complaints, I do), it's worth a read. It details the rise and rise of Pitchfork magazine, a favourite whipping boy of yours truly, but as I've stated to friends: love it or hate it, Pitchfork's success in the world of "music journalism", at a time when everyone else is failing, is a worthy topic of discussion. More than that, it has somehow - through the use of black magic or possibly even quality writing (just a thought) - risen above the herd to become the taste-maker for modern-day "indie-rock". Does anyone care what the likes of Rolling Stone or SPIN think of a given recording at all these days? Thought not. I never did, either, but for once I appear to be in the majority. I don't agree for one second w/ the writer's view on just about any of the bands mentioned within - the Pitchfork cabal of losers (Sufjan Stevens, Animal Collective, Arcade Fire, Bon Iver et al) can blow me and swallow - and being a hopeless old mofo pathetically caught in the past, I'd rate "indie-rock" (I prefer "independent rock")'s hey-day as Rough Trade ca. 1978-'81 and the US conglomerate of SST/Touch & Go/Subterranean/Homestead/etc. ca. 1979-'89, but really, would you expect me to say anything different? I'd say that Pitchfork's influence on music today is overwhelmingly negative, trumpeting mediocre drivel and hyping up Next Big Things in exactly the same manner as the corporate music world has been for the past 60 years: more of the same, except this time the intended audience is apparently one which is ripe with "intelligence" and "sophistication", as if those qualitities actually bear any relation to good music (I prefer mine made by bumpkins and primitives, personally). But still, the article in question will keep you off the streets for a good half-hour, and you'll find something to argue w/ your friends about.
Last night the ABC2 channel, the digital version of the national broadcaster, gave the people of Australia a special treat by airing two programs surprisingly worthy of viewing: Persecution Blues: The Battle for The Tote, and Autoluminescent: Rowland S. Howard. Both were made last year and played briefly at Australian film festivals. The former documents the infamous Melbourne pub's fight for survival in 2010, when liquor licensing laws, and their related expenses, made life for the music venue untenable. For anyone Down Under w/ an interest in u/ground rock, the story itself is well known. I never saw the film at any of the festivals, as I'd come to find the constant mythologising of the venue tiresome and had little desire to see the usual talking heads singing its praises (even if some of those talking heads are good friends of mine!). The Tote was my home away from home for a number of years - approx. 1996 - 2003 - and I blew more hard-earned cash there drinking my youth away than I'd care to recount. I even played about half-a-dozen shows there in various half-arsed outfits I've performed in over the years. It was also a hotbed of activity for me from 1989 - 1993, though from memory, it went through a few dark years mid-decade, as it changed management and ownership and turned itself into a low-life strip bar frequented by the kind of people you wouldn't want to associate with. For myself, moreso than the management of Bruce Milne and co. in the 21st century or its current ownership (Milne had to sell it; it has since been reopened under new management but essentially kept everything which made it what it was, even improving it by putting in some new carpet and taking out the obstructive support beam in the band room), the people you could credit for really putting the pub on the map would be the Soccio family - the owners of the venue prior to Milne taking over roughly 10 years ago - and my good buddy, Luke Roberts, who booked bands there from roughly 1996 - 2003 and can be held mostly responsible for resurrecting the venue from the dead and putting it back on the map as the independent music venue in the southern hemisphere. Luke gets a brief visual and a line in the film, though he gets no credit. That's OK. When I first heard that neither he nor the Soccios were even mentioned in the documentary, I disregarded the film as a travesty. In the context of what the film is about - the Tote's troubles in 2010, its closing and the controversy it caused, so much so that the state government had to backflip on liquor licensing policy - such ommissions are entirely forgivable. Persecution Blues is not a "history of the Tote", it's a documentary on its dying days and eventual resurrection. If you're at all interested in Australian music worth listening to, I'd rate it as quite essential viewing. That's not to say that it's flawless - far from it - and perhaps my expectations were so low in the first place that its watchability is simply a pleasant surprise. Whatever the case, you can watch it here for the next fortnight on ABC iview; after that, the link closes.
I'll admit it: the music of Rowland S. Howard, who passed away in December 2009, never meant a great deal to me. Not his contributions to Boys Next Door and the Birthday Party, which were manifold and appreciated greatly by myself, but his post-BP solo albums and material w/ Crime & The City Solution, These Immortal Souls, etc. His Teenage Snuff Film LP/CD from 1999, which was considered a major comeback after a number of years out of the limelight (mostly battling addiction problems), was one I heard too many times to mention. Not of my own will, mind you, but due to a colleague when I was working at Missing Link at the time, who played it 1,000 times or more in my presence. Regardless of whether I liked it or not (I did "like" it), I certainly figured I need never hear it again. Same goes for 2009's Pop Crimes: yet again I was stuck w/ a different work colleague who insisted on playing it day in/day out for months on end. It's easy to forget, given that Howard didn't enjoy the same high-profile status as his old musical sparring partner Nick Cave, just how much music he did release in a 30-year period. There were long bouts of inactivity, mainly from the late '90s onwards when ill-health struck him, but prior to that, both Crime & The City Solution and These Immortal Souls (who, strangely enough, were licensed to SST at the time, c/o the good word of Thurston Moore) were active touring/recording outfits, and that was when Rowland wasn't busy recording w/ the likes of Jeffrey Lee Pierce, Lydia Lunch, Nikki Sudden and others. As stated in the film, his contribution to the Boys Next Door were absolutely vital, his slashing/shrieking guitar histrionics shaking the band out of their Bowie affectations and putting some grit under their nails. Nick Cave is damn thankful that Rowland joined, and he should be. There's also attention given to Rowland's pre-BND band, the Young Charlatans, a supergroup of sorts which also featured Ollie Olsen and Jeffrey Wegener (later of the Laughing Clowns, and one of the finest skin-hitters Down Under has ever produced), as well as the usual talking heads (Rollins, Moore, Primal Scream's Bobby Gillespie, etc.) singing his praises, but for me the film's best moments are the ones which document his relationship with a woman throughout the '90s, and the fatherly relationship Rowland had w/ her son (who's interviewed and looks like he could be groomed as a future member of the Bad Seeds), as well as the footage of his last few years. Rowland was no suicidal romantic - he quite obviously wanted to live, be around his family and friends and write and record more music - a fact which makes his death more tragic. There's nothing in this film which indicates to me that he was anything but a good human being who, by his own admission, wasted much of his potential through his own abuse. Autoluminescent is, to put it bluntly, one of the better music documentaries made in recent and not-so-recent years, a truly illuminating look at an artist whose influence is greater than his profile and whose work is probably better than I've given him credit for. At this stage, so far as I can tell, nothing Rowland released after the Birthday Party is actually in print, something which is to be rectified this year w/ a definitive box set. If you weren't a fan of his beforehand, you may just be after watching Autoluminescent.
For the next fortnight, you can watch the film here.