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Columns > Jesse Jarnow - Brain Tuba

Published: 2003/03/25
by Jesse Jarnow

Left By Southleft

The economy has gone to the dogs, in more ways than one. I’m broke. Most of
my friends are broke (or, if not broke, then reasonably unhappy doing what
they’re doing). The idea of making a comfortable living in this country as a
musician or a writer or an artist is plain out laughable, really. (Has it
ever not been?) What with war and stuff, who needs this pap? It certainly
doesn’t generate new revenue, for the most part, so what good could it
possibly do? For that matter – with the exception of occasional outcries
about music causing deviantly sexual thoughts or movies creating teen
violence or pregnancy or whatever – most art doesn’t even have a
particularly measurable effect on people. It’s abstract, and therefore not
too quantifiably "useful".
Recently, I finished reading the Federal Writers’ Project Guide to New York
City, published in 1939 under the auspices of Franklin Roosevelt’s Works
Progress Administration. In order to combat the Depression, and give all
those mopey beret-wearing sods something to do besides twiddle their thumbs
and get all worked up about Freud or existentialism, the government gave
money to them, to writers and artists and musicians, to do useful
things. They painted murals on federal buildings. Teams were organized to
write guidebooks to cities (such as the meticulous Guide To New York). Woody
Guthrie was dispatched by the Bonneville Power Administration to chronicle
the construction of the Grand Coulee Dam on the Columbia River by writing a
cycle of songs about it.
Around the country, the Federal Theatre Project presented what they dubbed
The Living Newspaper. The productions staged short plays based on current
headlines and stories and went up in inner city theaters and playhouses. The
scripts had to be cleared with the government, of course, but as long as
they were factually precise, the actors and writers were allowed to do
whatever they wanted to with the material. From a production point of view,
the stagers used experimental techniques, including "masks, puppetry, ramps
joining the house to the procescenium, characters in the audience and the
liberal use of projections".
The plays were a success on every level they were conceived — a "rare,
happy blend of avant garde and accessibility", according to one historian.
Unfortunately, they went by the wayside with the rise of Joseph McCarthy and
his witch-hunting House Un-American Activities Committee. A contemporary
Federal Theatre Project, a right impossibility in terms of funding, would be
wonderful to see. At this point in time, though, the idea of
government-funded art is positively repugnant. "There is nothing political
about American literature," Laura Bush has said (which my roommate is fond
of quoting). Presumably, she means American theater, too, and one almost
shudders to think what a Bush Administration-sponsored Federal Theatre
Project might look like.
Actually, one probably doesn’t have to do much imagining. Given the
government’s taste for contracting federal projects out to friendly
corporations (see the recent news about Halliburton, Dick Cheney’s former
company, receiving mondo war contracts), one would expect them to turn to a
big entertainment concern – like, say, ClearChannel, whose vice-chair,
Tom Hicks, was a major
contributor to the Bush presidential campaign – to handle the
nitty-gritty. Yeah. It seems they’ve gotten a head start, sponsoring a recent spate of political rallies, in addition to their
already broad spectrum of fine programming.
Naturally, I’m a little bit disturbed about all of this — that the company
that owns the bulk of the country’s media outlets is putting on pro-War
events. Hypocritical thing is, if ClearChannel were encouraging peace
rallies, then I wouldn’t be even remotely as offended. All news has a slant
to it, obviously. As historian Howard Zinn wrote in an epilogue to his quite
useful A People’s History of the United States: "A journalist, or
anyone telling a story [is] forced to choose, out of an infinite number of
facts, what to present, what to omit. And that decision [reflects], whether
consciously or not, the interests of the historian." It’s rarely that
blatant, though. It’s usually at least as subtle as the parade of
ex-generals analyzing the country’s latest strikes on the news.
It is through all of that that the invalidity of the supposedly objective
tone of the Associated Press and the like becomes obviously and exceedingly
bunk — like surgeons behind sterile white masks gleaming and grinning with
teeth a-bloodied. There is less and less of a divide between those making
the news and those reporting it, and that infects every kind of journalism
from politics down to music and entertainment coverage. (Check out the
recent cycle of Martin Bashir’s Michael Jackson documentary, chased
immediately by analysis of the "news", and followed by Conan O’Brien
commenting on it in a monologue filmed before either the documentary or
analysis had aired.) It ain’t just ClearChannel.
Of course, saying a band is part of the Problem because they’re on a major
label or shunning them because they play a ClearChannel owned venue is a bit
of a rush to judgment and entirely unfair to whatever music the band has
created. But it does make truly independent music – free of a coterie of
publicists, managers, lawyers, major labels – that much more aesthetically
rich. In Our Band Could Be Your Life, his recent book about the punk
and indie scene in the ’80s, writer Michael Azerrad described the
independent system as "a sprawling collective of fanzines, underground and
college radio stations, local cable access shows, mom-and-pop record stores,
independent distributors and record labels, tip sheets, nightclubs and
alternative venues, booking agents, bands, and fans that had been thriving
for more than a decade before the mainstream took notice."
On a band-to-band level, this means widespread idiosyncrasies on every
level. A band working with traditional management agency with accept outlets
will likely play regular venues, and go about their business in the way that
every other band has before. And, while it’s not a given, it can be
instructive to note how creativity works on various levels of a band’s daily
business, ranging from music-making up through financial decision making,
and how the various aspects play off of each other. The chaos of the
Grateful Dead’s business organization, for example, was frequently a precise
mirror of their musical aesthetic. On the other hand, some good music seems
perfectly in line with the idea of mass production.
Ex-Minutemen bassist Mike Watt (also quoted in Azerrad’s introduction) has
said that "punk was about more than just starting a band. It was about
starting a label, it was about touring, it was about taking control. It was
like songwriting; you just do it. You want a record, you pay the pressing
plant. That’s what it was all about." Indeed. Punk fuckin’ rock. Rock and
fuckin’ roll.

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