Exciting news to share:
On October 2nd, 2014, I sat down with WNYC's John Schaefer to discuss Tony Bennett's newest album with Lady Gaga.
You can hear the bulk of the interview here:
Writer / Composer / Lyricist / Engineer / Producer / Sound Designer / Multi-instrumentalist
A compendium of all things Nick Messitte
Exciting news to share:
On October 2nd, 2014, I sat down with WNYC's John Schaefer to discuss Tony Bennett's newest album with Lady Gaga.
You can hear the bulk of the interview here:
There is an inherent contradiction in being both a musician and a music critic. It’s a similar position, I’d imagine, to that of certain Wall Street regulators--the more nefarious ones, the sort who used to operate inside (and sometimes beyond) the boundaries of Wall Street and are now charged with policing it: how could an objective review be even remotely possible given one's intrinsic connection to the industry?
Pushing that question to the limit is another series of interrogatives undoubtedly posed by other musician-cum-critics in the past:
“How do I go about reviewing myself? Is there a way to even do that with any objectivity whatsoever?”
In point of fact, there probably isn’t.
But this will not stop me from trying, for I believe a detailed critique of the following performance will serve a much larger purpose—that of illustrating what was so beautiful and special about Celebrating Red Hook, an inaugural festival held last Saturday, July 12th, on the pier of Brooklyn’s quaintest neighborhood (It’s so quaint, I almost wrote “village”).
Here is a video of me covering Soundgarden’s “Spoonman.”
Now, let’s start with what’s wrong with this performance. The most obvious transgression is that the singer (me) has mangled the words: he opens with the second part of the verse first—an obvious lyrical mess-up—and frequently misplaces the location of key phrases in the chorus as well.
More problematically, I would label him a stiff stage-presence, far more obsessed with his own finger placement - or with cuing the band behind him - than with connecting to the audience.
Then there’s the band: loosely playing behind the singer, they are obviously not familiar with the song; “Spoonman”’s time signatures migrate between climates of 7/8 and 4/4, something the musicians do not account for here. At a certain point, you can see the singer completely abandon the notion of strumming his guitar in 7/8, opting for blend with the band over accuracy of material.
Lastly, you’ll notice that all the energy of the song peaks roughly 2:25 minutes in. Why, then, is there another minute of music—a full sixty seconds of nothing but chorus repetition and screaming? As a concert goer told me after the show, “[he] already impressed us with that one high note, why did [he] have to do it again?” (Full disclosure: the concert goer was my girlfriend, and since she's an in-demand Mezzo Soprano on the opera and lieder circuit, I believe her opinion to be a qualified one).
Yet it is my position as a music critic--not as a musician--which allows me overlook these obvious problems, to shrug them off, in much the same way as one shrugs off the admittedly corny dialogue of a sentimental favorite TV show: sure, it may not be the best and most polished version of what it could be, but something in this performance connects regardless. Something about it lands, for all its hiccups.
What is more, I believe this connective tissue—for lack of a better phrase—is the perfect metaphor in summing up Celebrating Red Hook’s inaugural event: a work in progress that was, nonetheless, a beauty to behold.
Above, you’ve read what has to be the most distanced account I could muster of my own performance. Now, read the more personalized story behind it:
My job that day was to play fifteen minute sets every hour while the next band set up behind me. I was the entr’acte, a face and a voice to fill up dead time, to keep people milling around.
Now, here’s the thing about musicians: we’re an antsy bunch.
Example: if I’m playing drums in a band, and I’ve set up my gear before anyone else in the group--and, what's more, if there’s some dude playing songs right in front of me, songs that don't sound all that hard to accompany--well, that's a bit of a sticky situation; to quote Keema Greggs from The Wire, "If I hear the music, I'm gonna dance."
It’s going to be nearly impossible for me—indeed, for any musician—not to test the waters: I’m going to start marking a beat on the high hat, or hitting the kick drum in certain key places (such as I hear them), or finger-tapping something on the snare. In short, I'll do anything (within reason) to warrant the singer’s attention, to see if I get the nod or the fist—the tacit okay, or the cut-off gesture.
Now here’s another thing about musicians: the chemistry behind our union is a bit like love--or more accurately, like sex: you’re going to know pretty damn quickly if you’re feeling what you’re hearing, and if you’re comfortable with the idea of allowing it to happen, of sharing in it together, of ceding control of the “I” and the “You” in order to become the “We” and the “Us.”
So when the drummer behind me started marking time at the beginning of my set, I knew very quickly that I dug his style, so much so that I turned around and said “play more.”
By the beginning of "Spoonman" (the second song in this particular set), we had already played one impromptu tune together, and now a bass player had materialized to my right; he too had found himself warmed up and ready to go.
So what did he do? He tested his waters also: he took note of the song's key (D), understood its basic two chord structure (two chords in the broadest possible sense: it's possible for a good bass player to pedal one low D over that entire descending figure in 7/8), and he started to mark his way through the tune.
Which brings us to the snag: the competing time signatures. While these musicians had never heard the song, I couldn’t very well stop the tune to turn around and say, “no guys, this number is 7/8 for the verses--with fermatas held out in between each phrase--and then we switch to 4/4 to for the choruses, which just so happen to end in 7/8 again."
No. That wouldn’t do. To quote Porcupine Tree's Steven Wilson, "This [was] no rehearsal."
Instead, we had to feel each other out, and this accounted for the weird rub in moments where I’m playing one groove and the band inhabits another—moments that are innately messy, yet are overcome fairly quickly as well.
And that, right there, is my point: what you do see in this performance are a couple of talented musicians figuring out, in the spur of the moment, how to back up a singer whom they’ve never even met; by the end of the endeavor, music was made—good music, I’d wager to say.
This too accounts for why the tune went on longer than it needed to: the end of the song wasn’t for the audience, it was for us; we had found the groove we wanted—the groove we needed—and we found it necessary to stay firmly within its pocket for a little while longer.
Similarly, the festival itself did not need to go on from 12 to 8pm in the baking sun. But still, people stuck around for the vibe--the warm, embracing mojo of the whole event, complemented by a final barrage of fireworks sending us off into the night.
So here's the corollary between the microcosm of this performance and the event as a whole: This was the festival’s first year. It was pulled off in a scrappy, run-and-gun style. Many were the times I was pulled aside and asked to perform an ad-hoc ten minute set in order to accommodate time suddenly allotted for a local Politician's speech, for instance.
Another example of the festival's make-shifting: port-o-potties had not been set up for general use, so those in need of the bathroom had to hike it all the way to Ikea only to get lost forever within its cumbersome maze (my father, a child of the second World War, likened the superstore to a “consumer concentration camp” after going around and around the floors, trying to find the exit, and missing one of my sets in the process).
Yet despite any cosmetic issues, beautiful music was forged there—and by that I don’t just mean literally: deeply personal relationships were established between members of the community and outsiders; family-owned businesses attracted an otherwise remote clientele; Ikea and Fairway seemed to team up with the mom-and-pop shops, rather than compete with them--this is the music of which I speak.
Undoubtedly, next year’s festival will be more put-together, more organized, because the experience of running a festival is, by its nature, a cumulative learning process. But part of me is going to miss the frenetic energy, the messy conglomeration of life, that made the day what it was—that gave every musician the safety and freedom to hop on stage, not to show off, but to help each other out. I surely hope they preserve some of that ethos.
Red Hook being what is is, I suspect they will.
My generation has witnessed an undeniable uptick in oppression narratives, and this is a good thing. Who can say why this has happened so rapidly? Cheaper technologies? Unprecedented access to crowd-sourcing? Youtube? Who cares? All that matters is this: in a very mainstream way, Americans my age have been allowed to experience vantage points of traditionally oppressed peoples like never before, if only in the fleeting moment between when the lights go down and the lights come up.
But a curious trend has accompanied this rise in oppressed narratives. Stories of seemingly unhampered white men sharing a similar kind of tale, displaying a similar kind of sentiment, have begun to seep through the cracks. The dirty little secret of our times might just be that everyone feels oppressed, even the oppressors themselves.
Now, those who enjoy the ill-gotten gains of hegemony may not have earned the right to feel this way; no one could say they are entitled to the feeling, and surely they do not deserve it. But as the old saying goes, deserves ain’t got nothing to do with it. People feel the way they feel, and art will always be made of it.
Not to be confused with the onslaught of testosterone bombarding us since Arnold first pumped iron, narratives of white male oppression have a decidedly curve-ball feel to them, from the anarchist vantage point of Fight Club (“We’re a generation of men raised by women, I don’t know if another woman’s what we need”) to the insidiously right wing ethos of Falling Down (“I helped build missiles. I helped protect this country. You should be rewarded for that, but instead they give it to the plastic surgeons.”). Such narratives might be distasteful, they might even be dangerous, but they now exist in every genre and within every forum, from the multiplexes to the literary world, from the stages of Broadway to the multicultural platforms of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.
This past summer, one of the most popular events at Edinburgh’s famed theater-gasm was a four man display of physical prowess entitled BLAM! I saw the show, I was part of its sold out audience; apparently, it would be sold out for weeks to come. The press release promised a family friendly romp that transmuted the mundane into the spectacular, and the production certainly scored on that front. But wittingly or unwittingly, the play delivered more than this—certainly more than I had bargained for. What they presented to us was, in a very crafty way, a narrative of white male oppression cloaked in the subliminal guise of a dance piece.
Like its closest predecessors—Stomp and De La Guarda—nobody speaks in BLAM! Anything resembling chatter is reminiscent only of the trombones in a Charlie Brown Christmas meant to connote adult speech. One imagines this was an attempt by the production to maintain a kind of childlike universality. But the piece most certainly was not universal.
The cast, for starters, consisted of four meticulously put-together Scandinavian men; quintessential Scandinavians at that: tall, Teutonic, moving with that buoyancy and elegance I have only seen in Northern Europeans. To be sure, one of the performers was from a different region. A token Frenchman, if you will. Aside from this one statistical aberration, the cast and creative team all hailed from relatively stable regions in relatively stable parts of he world.
The plot of BLAM!, if you could call it a plot, is easy enough to comprehend: three guys work at an office, their boss is a jerk, and when the boss is away, the employees will play. The meat of the piece consists in how, exactly, they play.
It begins subtly at first. When the boss takes a phone call, the employees engage in a game of rubbish basketball, sinking impressive trick-shots across a vast series of cubicles. When the boss uses the bathroom, trash bins become helmets, hole punchers become machine guns, and something decidedly unsubtle happens: the lighting changes—glowing bright and green—and loud speakers smack you in the sternum with robotic blasts and metallic squeals. Dubstep as sound design. We have left reality and entered the mind of the stunted, thwarted, mid-levelly managed white man.
And what’s in that mind? Die Hard. Jackie Chan. Deerhunter. Iron Man. X Men. Cops and robbers. Aliens. You know, the usual. The fantasies become ever more active, and soon the employees are sweating through their shirts, beating each other to smithereens, and literally swinging off fluorescent chandeliers.
By the end of the show, the track lighting has been ripped from the ceiling and thrown across the stage. The cubicles are demolished, because that’s what happens when you keep throwing people through them. In a final upset, the Hulk-like antics of one employee cause the stage to tilt forward at a ninety degree angle. The floor becomes the wall, that which is not bolted down falls into an abyss, and the dull workplace goes topsy-turvy. I quickly realized this was not an ending—it was a rebellion. "The revolution will not be departmentalized."
I sincerely doubt that the creators of BLAM! intended to stir up feelings more complex than some well-managed awe. In their press release, they described the show as “an imaginary game where ordinary life is put through the shredder”. But intentional or not, that’s an oversimplification of what’s happening here—as pat as saying “boys will be boys”—because a physical, wordless piece like this allows you to judge only what you can see. And when the tableaus display such relentless violence against physical constructs, or such misplaced sexual aggression directed towards the water cooler, or such blatant attempts to scapegoat a one rotating other, and all of it perpetrated by white men, the image burnt onto the retinas is not so easy to blink away. You leave questioning the sense of a world that puts such affluent men in such a neutered position, and that’s a twisted thing to do to an audience.
So take your children to see BLAM! when it comes around. I am sure they will have a good time. But know that you will expose them to more than a goofy dance piece. You will introduce them to a paradox they cannot begin to understand.
SPOILERS BELOW – READ ON AT YOUR PERIL!
Most of those taking to the the blogosphere to speak of "#HIMYMfinale" have done so to blast it: “How dare you for killing off the mother!” “HOW DARE YOU PULL OUT THE RUG FROM UNDER US!”
These are not actual quotes, but summations of public opinion I have found. Normally, I’d take care to hyperlink each quote to an example, to ground my words in a proper context. But today, I just don’t have the energy. I have been, for lack of a better word, drained. Rarely has any piece of art affected me this much—much less a sitcom.
Doubtlessly, there are many subjective factors in feeling this way: my predilections for one (I am someone deeply affected by a certain kind of sentimentality--one grounded in just enough reality to bite), the unshakeable suspicion that I have been manipulated for another.
I could easily throw up a laundry list of endings that have left me in similar places.
And I will, that we might better understand each other.
This list is not complete, but it’ll do for right now:
- Black Swan Green. Novel. David Mitchell.
- Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Movie. Michel Gondry.
- Sandman. Series of Graphic Novels. Neil Gaiman.
- Richard II. Play. William Shakespeare.
- The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. Movie. David Fincher.
- Six Feet Under. Television Show. Alan Ball.
- Faure’s Requiem. Music. Gabriel Faure.
- AI. Movie. Steven Speilberg.
- About Time. Movie. Richard Curtis.
- How I Met Your Mother. Television Show. Bays and Thomas.
This is not a catalogue of works I think are inherently good, but works that always make me cry. Not only cry, but sob. I had to leave Benjamin Button a bit early so that no one would see me breakdown in the theater. This had more to do with those who had died in my own life than the movie itself. The film was efficient, but hardly sublime.
Indeed, some of the entries on this list are downright bad: for all the tears that Spielberg wrings out of me whenever I see Hailey Joel Osment crawling to his mommy in AI, I know it’s a schlock move, and worse, a deeply manipulative one. I see it for what it is—another Spielberg moment, one in which the director wants to reach out and squeeze all the juices from my heart. I know that had Stanley Kubrick lived to direct the project, it would have been much icier and far better.
I would have liked that movie, instead of crying over it.
I digress, but not too far: I suspect it's not the ending of HIMYM that puts a sour taste in the internet’s mouth. Rather, it’s the age old question of manipulation versus artistry, of feeling versus sentiment: whether or not we can feel the strings being pulled in the old ticker.
In the case of HIMYM, we can feel those strings jumping around for sure. But that might be a function of the medium itself.
It’s a common belief that series finales are never what we want them to be. I suspect this is even more true of the Sitcom because ending one is inherently unnatural—that is, antithetical to the promise of the Sitcom, which has always included a grand reset button at the end of every episode.
No matter what happens in a given Sitcom's story, there is a Godly and authorial voice rooted deep into the genre, one that screams, “Do over!” even in the face of season-long plot arcs.
In the real world, it is a reality that everything has to end. But this reality is a falsehood within the universe of the Sitcom. To put a glass case around the reset button feels like the ultimate unfunny joke. It’s the Godly, authorial voice proclaiming, “let there be DARK!”
Sitcoms, by function, inculcation, and enculturation, are not designed to end, but to be cancelled. To leave the thing you love fossilized in amber, that seems like the right move. To watch it crumble towards extinction is not fun—and, if nothing else, Sitcoms are supposed to be fun.
Furthermore, it’s even less fun to end something as whimsical as a Sitcom (and an especially whimsical one at that) in the harsher realities of life (death, divorce, losing friendships, moving on while staying intractably the same).
To do so is to impart something far too strong for the genre’s shoulders, no matter how well executed.
So given all that, I can expect a certain amount of complaining over the ending, a certain amount of disappointment. I'm sure the creators have been anticipating that as well.
But here’s what galls me about the negative responses I’ve seen. Here's what forces me out of my normal wheelhouse: I've come across way too much armchair criticism to the effect of “the show didn’t honor it’s characters”, or that the ending “wasn’t set up in the right way", or even, "the ending didn't feel real."
Yes, frustrations abound online. We're frustrated for spending the entire last season at a wedding whose participants get divorced about fifteen minutes into the finale; for spending so much time watching Ted and Robin play the game of “will they/won’t they” that we became ambivalent to it; for spending nearly a decade watching a likable protagonist flagellate, humiliate, and dehumanize himself all in in pursuit of The One; for spending about twenty seconds with The One before killing her off and saddling this poor schlub with The Other One—a person whom, by this time, we've ping-ponged around for far too long.
In other words, people feel cheated.
But I say don’t feel that way. If you were a fan, try your damndest not to feel that way, because that feeling doesn’t serve the show, and furthermore, it doesn’t serve the reality of your life.
We spent a whole year at a wedding only to watch the marriage crumble; at least half of you will spend years planning, talking, thinking, and dreaming of a wedding, only to see your marriage end in fire and misery.
We spent nine years of protracted, often infuriating games of “will they/won’t they” between Ted and Robin; most of you have had such a relationship in your own lives, or are still in the throes of one.
We watched these characters hurt each other and grow ambivalent to each other; how many friends have you frozen out of your own life?
And finally, we watched a man get everything he ever wanted, only to have it taken away from him in twenty seconds; if the love of your life had died horribly and suddenly, wouldn't the time you spent with him or her feel like twenty seconds? Wouldn't you want every minute of those "forty five days", as Ted famously asked for in "The Time Travellers"?
Still, many of you called “bullshit.”
Well, I call “bullshit” on your “bullshit.” At the beginning of this essay, I mentioned my significant other, and now I will now disclose more: the mother of my sweetheart lost her much-beloved husband after a terrible illness. After mourning the death of this man, she found herself in the company of a former paramour--him too having lost a spouse.
Over the years, you see, she had kept in touch with this former flame fairly regularly; they were friends. She gave his children piano lessons.
And one day those kids—having lost their own mother, and seeing the chemistry bloom between their father and their favorite piano teacher—played a game of Parent Trap. Soon, a relationship began to blossom, even in the face of so much past-love--so much death.
This is where my mind went in those waning minutes of HIMYM. This is what stung me the most: that this kind of thing really does happen—this kind of thing really is life.
Look, all the escapists out there can say, “I don’t watch this thing to remind me of life, I watch it to remind me how life is supposed to be.” And that’s fine. But the creators of this show didn’t want to do that. In fact, they made it abundantly clear over the arc that they didn’t want to do that (for everyone who accuses this show of backtracking, I invite you to check out the HIMYM wiki pages so you can really see just how interconnected each episode really is).
They wanted something else. They wanted to join the echelon of artists who use an inherently unrealistic medium to depict truth. They could've easily given you this ending. But they didn't do that, did they?
No. They went for the tear over the laugh. And what's more, they wanted that tear to mean something.
And if you’re still reeling, talking, thinking, tweeting, and posting about this topic, how could you say that it didn’t?
This is the a launch post for my new blog on my new website. Come have a look!