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Columns > Jesse Jarnow - Brain Tuba

Published: 2002/05/22
by Jesse Jarnow

BRAIN TUBA: Alive Again

A while back, my friend Charles and I started talking about the new Trey
Anastasio record. Our conversation eventually evolved into a collaborative
writing experiment…
1. Trey Anastasio
CHARLES. Trey Anastasio has at various times shown me the inside of my
brain. He’s played guitar solos that have thoroughly demolished my
understanding of music. He’s written songs (in conjunction with a bunch of
other guys) that have redefined the possibilities of what pop music could
and should be. He’s set an Olympic-sized high jump bar for himself that we
will endlessly have to scale. Could it be possible that the glory days of
Trey’s musical adventure are behind us? And now we’re here, approaching
middle age – I’m 32, only four or five years younger than Trey – looking
around, slightly yearning for the exuberance of youth while accepting the
responsibilities of maturity.
Phish invented a sound during the Farmhouse-era that Wasn’t
particularly compelling on record. It’s groovy and somewhat fun on its most
basic levels, but not remotely as groundbreaking or creatively inspired as
earlier efforts. (The Siket Disc’s experimental soundscapes and the
rough hewn charms of the Holy Trinity – Junta, Lawn Boy, and
A Picture of Nectar – immediately come to mind.) I wonder if this CD
wasn’t Trey, whether or not folks would care so much. I’m feeling a
souped-up R&B-meets-Zeppelin big band vibe. It’s mostly safe suburban
pop-rock kinda stuff with a handful of tasty jams thrown in.
JESSE. This is definitely (mostly) a safe album. Suburban is a good word for
it. It’s summery and, in some ways, it’s exactly what I was primed for. Who
knows if this record would work if it were released in the winter-time
instead of with the expectant breath of summer hovering?
CHARLES. Artists grow. They change. What may be appealing during one
era of output may grow to be tiresome in later stages. Truth be told,
Trey Anastasio is a different phase. Obviously this is not Phish, nor
is this an extension of Trey’s earlier soloish outing Surrender to the
Air. It is a mature and conservative collection by a musician who – night after night, tour after tour, year after year – mystified and
transfixed the jam nation with mindbending feats of six-stringed Vulcan
Death Grip Kung Fu and other Jedi skills. And this is why Trey
Anastasio is difficult to listen to.
JESSE. The music is well arranged, and well played. Trey’s got a solid,
solid cast behind him, which includes his now usual Vermont buddies, as well
as percussionist Cyro Baptista, jazz trumpeter Nicholas Payton, and former
Morphine saxophonist Dana Colley. There’s an orchestra, too. And they all
play very, very well. The problem, for me, is that a lot of the material is
just plain mediocre. It’s danceable and fun, but artistically disappointing.
I have a hard time listening to "Night Speaks To A Woman" without cringing.
Some of the stuff on the second half of the album is really quite
remarkable, especially "Last Tube".
CHARLES. Trey Anastasio is very possibly the best record of 1999: a
pre-dotcom disaster, pre-2000 election fiasco, pre-September 11th,
pre-pre-WW III record. I admire its unintended escapism. I actually feel
transported to pricey Caribbean vacation spots and rustic New England
mansions. There are dogs by the fireplace, a steady stream of NPR’s human
interest news and The Classics providing a gauze counterpoint to the
assembled array of brochures for potential boarding schools spread on the
grained-and-stained kitchen table. I can smell the Earl Grey tea, and feel
the breeze rustling the tall Norwegian Maples and Evergreens outside. I
will project that there will be folks in the jam scene who will relate to
this music in much the same way that punks and metal kids felt about
dinosaur rock..
JESSE. So you think it feels irrelevant?
CHARLES: More unaware of, or removed from, reality. An artist of Trey’s
caliber seldom becomes irrelevant.
2. And Furthermore
JESSE. Can good music be political? David doe
sn’t think so. Sometimes I agree with him. In fact, until recently, I
probably would’ve agreed with him fully and completely. Lately, though, not
so much. "Music is timeless," David wrote. "Politics is based in time."
That’s what I disagree with. Music is not timeless. It is a very
literal way of marking time. Any and every song is a performance, whether or
not it was performed live or in the studio. Either way, a period of time is
being captured — be it three minutes, or something longer that got tweaked
over a period of several months or years.
The result is that things get encapsulated in that. David suggests that we
go back to 1967, and throws out Country Joe’s the
"I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixing-To-Die Rag" as an example of dated music. Sure. But
Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was also released in that year
— an album which I’d say is just as dated as anything Country Joe put out.
Everything The Beatles chose to do on that disc – in terms of lyrics, sound
effects, production techniques – was chosen because it made sense to them.
It was the very definition of contemporary. They certainly did not sit
around and wonder if the music would sound dated 35 years later. In fact,
I’d say it was quite the opposite. The difference, I think, is that The
Beatles were just more successful than Country Joe.
I didn’t live through it, but I’ve read and heard countless commentaries
that say that Sgt. Pepper perfectly encapsulates the summer of 1967,
when it was released. Sgt. Pepper made sense precisely because they
didn’t think about it. It reflects a kind of retro for the period, looking
back at the popular music of the 1920s and 1930s. The thing that makes it
"timeless" is that it can be reproduced at will. All I have to do to
experience those performances is to slap the CD in my CD player. Wahoo for
mechanical reproduction! Take a piece of music, and break it down. If
one removed anything that might possibly sound dated in even 10 years then
there wouldn’t be too much left. One will end up with something that is far
worse than a dated record: a middle of the road, bland, soulless piece of
shit. More importantly, it will be dishonest, precisely because one denied
his instinct to describe and reflect the world around him. David writes that
"no matter how biting [one’s] critique of a political situation is, it’ll
become passe when circumstances change. [The] song is destined for the cut
out bins." So? A song is a document of a particular moment; emotional,
political, physical, historical or something else. The value of its
continued selling power and general commercial appeal certainly shouldn’t be
a qualification in its composition.
I’d actually argue that it’s only since the introduction of recording
technology that this kind of appeal has become important. For one, pop music
really didn’t become art until it was able to be recorded. More, though,
it’s because timely music and the very idea of a record are inherently at
odds with each other. Before recorded music, if a popular song became out of
date, it had the option to disappear completely, become adapted to a current
situation, or become a curious piece of folklore. Technology freezes such
things. Country Joe’s song certainly can’t disappear. And, since it’s on
record, it can’t really be adapted. But Country Joe is still alive, as are
our still (comparatively) recent cultural memories of the Vietnam War. It’s
sure as fuck not folklore.
The answer, I suspect, is a more participatory one (one that, oddly enough,
befits the "I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixing-To-Die Rag"): it’s up to the listener to
adapt it his damn self. Discard it if it takes too much effort, but don’t
call it irrelevant — just think about it for a little bit. At their most
effective, politics are emotional, in the sense that one must always
do what he feels is right, politically or personally. If logic informs that,
so be it, but a sense of ethics and decency should be at the center of all
politics. In its moment, the "I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixing-To-Die Rag" was
entirely reflective and instinctual. After that, it doesn’t actually become
dated. After all, history doesn’t become dated. It’s not some pop artifact.
One just has to think about it more. Isn’t that what you wanted, David?
All that said, yeah, political music can be dumb sometimes. But I don’t
think it’s dumb because it’s political and it’ll be dated, etc., etc.. Its
stupidity is merely a matter of taste, or lack thereof, on the part of the
musicians in question. Good music is good music. And, as far as good taste
goes, I think that a lot of art that is plain out blunt often suffers from a
profound lack of grace and beauty — which is precisely why emotional art
wins out over logical art just about every day.
CHARLES: Dipping one’s artistic toe in the piranha tank of politics is a
perilous task to say the least. Some artists – Fela Kuti, Frank Zappa, Bob
Marley, Rage Against the Machine, and the Dead Kennedys – have continually
plundered societies’ political ills for lyrical content and commentary,
often with mixed results. While Zappa’s political stands have been often
noble (see "Porn Wars" from Zappa Meets the Mothers of Prevention)
often times they’ve resulted in output with the shelf-life of a fillet of
salmon (see Zappa’s Broadway the Hard Way.) Does any body in 2002
really care about the Meese Commission, Watergate, or Ronald Reagan’s
selective memory? But, then again, does anybody still care about
non-political hits such as Rupert Holmes’ "Escape (The Pina Colada Song)"
or anything put out by Ace of Base?
One of the most political artists of our time, Robert Nesta "Bob" Marley, is
a huge catalog seller. Every couple of years his recordings are remastered,
repackaged, and refurbished with more and more insider photos, liner notes,
and bonus tracks. There is value in these reissues, we get a closer view
at the natural mystic himself, learn more about the forces in his life that
lead him to rastafarianism, joined him up with Bunny Wailer and Peter Tosh,
gave him the insight to record classic calls to freedom such as the early
dancehall violence stopper "Simmer Down",Tosh’s epic "Get Up, Stand Up",
and the contemplative "Redemption Song". Are these songs still vital more
than 20 years since Marley’s death? Yes, absolutely. Bob Marley is new to
all of us at some point. Eventually we grow beyond the "Yah Mon, natty dread
smoke de ganja" Jar Jarisms of the rasta patois and develop a real
understanding of what Marley’s message of One Love was all about.
One of the most profound musical political statements ever contained no
words. Jimi Hendrix’s performance of "The Star Spangled Banner" at the 1969
Woodstock Music and Arts Festival dropped jaws globally, and was the
defining moment of the festival, and very possibly the defining moment for a
generation of young people. A simple rearrangement of our countries
National Anthem, performed during the height of a vicious and bloody war
that nobody understood and less wanted. In true Hendrixian fashion, he fired
up his Stratocaster, painted the sky blood red and black and tore your heart
out. He’d do it again a year or so later with another passionate anti-war
statement, this time with words and guitar (see "Machine Gun" from
Band Of Gypsies).
In 1963, Bob Dylan penned a song called "Masters of War’. A song written
during the early stages of the Vietnam War. In 1991, while being honored
with an honorary Grammy award, Dylan performed the song again, this time
framed by President George Herbert Walker Bush’s Persian Gulf Oil War.
These words could easily apply to the current Bush’s global "Terrorism" War.
Come you masters of war
You that build all the guns
You that build the death planes
You that build the big bombs
You that hide behind walls
You that hide behind desks
I just want you to know
I can see through your masks
And what’s so bad about Country Joe and the Fish’s
"I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixing-To-Die Rag"? Fortunately for him and for us,
Iraq/Iran and Afghanistan are an easy rhyming replacements for Vietnam, but
Ive come up with another one, more suited to Bush’s seemingly endless War
On Terrorism:
And it’s One Two Three
What are we fighting for?
Don’t ask me, I don’t give a damn.
Next stop is fill-in-the-blank.
And it’s five six seven open up the pearly gates
Ain’t no time to wonder why
Whoopee! We’re all going to die.
It is the duty of artists to tell the truth. Unfortunately, capitalism has
all but destroyed art. When the machinations of the music industry are
essentially a wing of the same corporations that builds the bombs, builds
the politicians, builds public policy, and manufactures public consent for
those policies by advertising and media programming, it’s nearly impossible
for artists to tell the truth (i.e.. don’t play the corporate rock game)
without being blacklisted, underpromoted, or dropped/fired from their
breadwinning contracts. 3. We Deflate
JESSE: Is it Trey Anastasio’s responsibility to be political? Oh, gracious
no. It’s just interesting how deeply rooted some of his album is in another
reality. All that said, I think some of Trey Anastasio is
political, in an abstract, unintended way. Here’s a theory, then: World War
III has actually already come and gone and we never really noticed. Instead
of a war as we traditionally know/knew it, what we got was 10 years of
prosperity, of ultra-far-too-fuzzy orgies of globalism, that – instead of
being the heaven-on-earth situation most thought – actually set the world
a-ruin.
It left people shattered emotionally and financially, and we are now left to
wander among the crumbling golden arches, the 404 errors, and the discarded
technologies and obsolete operating systems. I dunno. Maybe. Maybe September
11th was the beginning of return to normality. And I think, at its best,
good music – and parts of Trey Anastasio – has the ability to make us
shake thoroughly, in the sense that "shake" means both "to dance" and "to
shit ourselves in fear".
See, I’ve been having this weird dual reaction to the album. I’m bored
through all the first songs, and I start thinking cynically and
melodramatically about all this stuff. I start getting scared for the world,
and scared for myself. Then, all of a sudden, when the second half begins, I
wake up. Even though it’s happened every time I’ve listened to the record,
so I know it’s at least semi-inherent in the music, it still feels like
I’m the one waking up. It doesn’t feel intentional. And, in a
backwards way, I kinda like that. At least, I can dig on that as a listening
experience.
There’s a crushed beauty in something that’s been tossed out, or something
unsuccessful. Finding beauty in something that’s not supposed to be
beautiful is a way of actively appreciating it. Sometimes, I find myself
doing this because I don’t like being forced into things. There are certain
overt clues on this record that we are supposed to be having fun,
stylistic moves (the calypso beats, horn fills). It’s like they name-check
the idea of fun.
I feel like a bit of a shlump doing the predictable thing and quoting Lester
Bangs, but a bit of it is actually quite literally relevant:
Good rock ‘n’ roll… I don’t know. I guess it’s just something that
makes you feel alive… To me, good rock ‘n’ roll also encompasses other
things, like Hank Williams and Charlie Mingus and a lot of other things that
aren’t strictly defined as rock ‘n’ roll. Rock ‘n’ roll is like an attitude,
it’s not a musical form of a strict sort. It’s a way of doing things, of
approaching things… It doesn’t necessarily have to have anything to do
with music.

All of this is to say that Trey Anastasio begins his album with a song
called "Alive Again", with the phrase "the time has come for you to be alive
again" as a predominant lyric, which certainly doesn’t make me feel alive.
But, by God, "Last Tube" does. It makes me feel alive. It makes me
want to dance. It makes me want to jump on my bed. Maybe it doesn’t do much
more than that, but – to my ears – that whole piece of music just crackles
with life. There are some great interactions between Ray Packowski, the
organ player, and Trey. The horns achieve an improvised subtlety that I
didn’t think they were capable of. The song is fucking great; lyrically,
musically, jam-wise… all that.
To me, that’s political, at least as much as it doesn’t feel like escapism
but, rather, something far more active and unconsciously life-affirming.
There are four-and-a-half songs that make me feel like this on the record,
and they happen to be all clumped together as the last tracks: "At The
Gazebo", "Mr. Completely", "Ray Dawn Balloon", "Last Tube", and "Ether
Sunday". ("Ether Sunday" – which sounds like Trey’s attempt at writing a
Marley ballad – survives in the warm glow following "Last Tube".)
CHARLES. The swirly "Tomorrow Never Knows"meets"Are You Experienced?"
drone of "Mr. Completely" opens up some crunchy harmonic resonances that
yearn for exploration.

JESSE. I guess I should toss in that "Mr. Completely" was featured on Trey’s
first solo album, the Phish-released One Man’s Trash, in 1998. As the
name implies, that whole album is filled with weird scraps. I like it a lot.
It has a lot of heart, and is sonically way out there — an interesting
bridge between Surrender To The Air and some of the stuff on this
album.
CHARLES. It functions here as an appetizer for the coming feast of "Last
Tube". Tony Markellis’s rock-steady uber-fawnk bass, along with the wacky
Sun Ra-inspired horn/woodwind arrangements are absolutely the zenith of the
recording and point to some very interesting possibilities for this ensemble
as well as echo some of Trey’s finest compositions from the Phish era. It is
in this vein of creative construction where Trey’s talents truly shine.
Oddball whoomps, honks, squeaks, organ grinds, and wah wah wackachickas
pierce unexpectedly through a crazy quilt of call/responseish interplay
Fortunately for us, we’re treated to 11-plus minutes of thunderous groove,
space loops, cascading melodies and a huge dollop of truly frightening
guitar work. Yes. It rocks. You need no more tubes after this tube. Trip
completed.
However, there are other frivolous moments, mostly lyrical . The tasty,
angular grooves of the Bob Seger-inspired "Night Speaks To A Woman" are
rendered moot by contrived soul mama background singing and meaningless
lyrics. The aforementioned "Time has come for you to be alive again" is
essentially a mature reiteration of "Chalkdust Torture"‘s "Can’t I live
while I’m young?" lyric. I venture to guess that, in an amphitheater
setting, the repetition of "the time has come for you to be alive again"
will incite a similar cheering reaction from the crowd. For good or for
bad, this is a textbook example of what many folks call "arena rock".
At its worst moments, this is the recording of a recently divorced
middle-aged bachelor (divorced from Phish), with a brand new red convertible
hot-rod and bodacious early-20 something playthings (hot band). Add for
comedic measure: the stereotypical ’70s divorce perm, brown-tinted shades,
mad amounts of blow, funky new furniture for the bachelor pad, and visiting
kids who eat Dad’s inept cooking on the weekend. Or maybe its the odd space
between having short hair and having long hair when the patient stick it out
and the impatient hack it off. I’m curious to see which way the hair is
going to go. Baldness?
At its best moments, Trey Anastasio is a solidly constructed, finely
executed mish mash of songs, grooves, soul jazz and lite classical pieces by
a monster musician who is in the beginning stages of forging a new artistic
identity. Not an easy task when one has "Guitarist, Vocalist, Composer —
Phish" as the lead item on his rm
But the fact is this: there was an era pre-famous Phish, pre-cellphones,
pre-Internet… that pre-pre-World War III time I was talking about when
King George the First ruled the land. Options for adventurous music were few
and far between, the spectre of the Reagan dictatorship was a recent
terrifying memory, and the omnipresence of Phil Collins was a terrifying
reality. In pop music, the choices were avant-punk/death metal,
proto-techno/new wave, progressive rock, and the lingering scent of
psychedelia. It was an era when folks really cared that the new Rush record
was coming out, or pined for the day the original guys in Yes would get back
together, or that Zappa might tour again or, better yet, run for President.
JESSE. Well, the options were limited to some extent, but that opened things
up for even greater exploration, I think. Ronald Reagan was a few years into
his presidency in 1983 — the year that REM and Sonic Youth issued their
first full-lengths. Talking Heads were in the midst of their Stop Making
Sense tour. There always was an underground. And it’s there that Phish
emerged. The earliest circulating tapes come from the same week that Reagan
swept Walter Mondale in.
They rose through the ’80s and signed to a major label the same year that
Bill Clinton was elected. They began their hiatus a month before the
election travesty of ’00. If we’re gonna get political about it:
Trey Anastasio, the album, and Trey Anastasio, the dude, exist in a
still constricting conservative era. It’s interesting to the extent that
this music somehow represents the status quo (it’s what suburban kids will
be listening to/going to see this summer), but – as music – it also still
has the potential to make people feel real joy, sadness, or even revolution.
The latter certainly isn’t the mission of this album. At its best, though,
the album evokes feelings that are beyond escapism… at least for me. Is
there a way to reconcile these things?
CHARLES. It’s escapist in the sense that the party continues as firebombs
rage all over the earth.
JESSE. Yeah, but when has most of the world not been an utterly
miserable place?
CHARLES. We know it’s not Trey’s mission in life to be activist, however if
he elected to subtly slide into the cozy slippers of sagehood and echoed
universal sentiments of understanding, kindness, and non-violence I don’t
think anyone would fault him for it. "Shake me up, shake me down, shaking
that thing all over town" doesn’t really mean anything in the macrostructure
of today’s society.
JESSE. Okay, I can get into that idea: it’s not so much that a lot of the
stuff is escapist, but that it’s emotionally meaningless.
CHARLES. Nowadays, we know Trey. He’s like our prep school hippie older
brother. And like all older brothers, he grew up, moved out, brought home
weird shit from college (David Lynch films, Super Mario Brothers, Phish
records, mushrooms and ganja, strange women with hairy armpits, Windows
3.1). Then he graduated, moved to the city, got a job, got a steady love,
got promoted, went on vacations, moved to the suburbs, and had kids. He
eventually became a futuristic cellphone/SUV version of our folks. Now we
venture out to the suburbs, bring him Grand Theft Auto III, The New Deal,
rolls, and Mac OSX. Times have changed. Personally, I don’t like the
suburbs, but we all have to grow up sometime.
The time has come for you to be alive again.
Charles Morogiello is a
guitarist, remixer, dubologist, and theraminist. He is also a founding
member of Los Angeles-based avant-freak band FOOD. He’s baked up some recent sonic goodies, too. Jesse Jarnow recently completed a
children’s book about Johnny Bench, a short story about a ferryboat ride,
and an album called Funny Cry Happy. He currently rages inBrooklyn.

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