S&R Nonfiction: “The Courage Knob,” by Aimee Stahlberg

It’s mid-October and I’m bundled up, wearing long sleeves that cap the tops of my hands, a normal thing for me. Ever since I started doing outreach with teens, I’ve become even more self-conscious about the scars that run down my wrists from cutting, and the tattoos that remind me about the journey I’ve made. I still feel edgy when they notice them, when they ask questions, so I hide them.

I’ve got a notebook with a list of things I want to make sure I say, and a note that says: “Smile!” It’s my first day as the lead writing instructor with a new outreach group: Teens Together. They are the only non-incarcerated writing group of teens who work with Storycatchers Theatre, a not for profit organization whose mission statement is to prepare young people to make thoughtful life choices through writing, producing, and performing original musical theatre inspired by personal stories. I remember how inspired I was after I first started telling stories from my life creatively, how inspired I felt about living, and how I felt like I had accomplished something. I take a deep breath, hoping I’ll be able to make it through the day.

I study the room, reminding myself that I am in a place that I call home. I remind myself that I learned how to teach a class of students in this very room. “I know how to teach,” I tell myself. But it doesn’t matter that I’m in the same room I have several classes in on the 12th floor of Columbia College Chicago: a chalk board lining one wall, windows on another; deskless chairs scattered around the room now arranged into a semi-circle; coat hooks that I’ve only seen used once or twice. These common things are only so much comfort, and I feel my first finger start to rub the skin around my thumb nail, wanting to peel the skin that sits around it, something I can’t help but do when I get agitated or nervous.

Within minutes of my arrival, my program manager Hillary arrives. She wears calmness; she comes in smiling, her strawberry hair tucked behind her ears, eyebrows raised, “Ready?” she asks. I nod, even though I’m not.

And soon, kids start filtering in. A tall black boy with a bald head who’s wearing dark jeans and a worn sweater bolts to Hillary and gives her a hug. His voice is full and warm, deep.

A shorter black boy with a mohawk comes in. He runs straight to Michael and speaks in a tongue I don’t quite understand. I later learn that it’s a language they’d made up the previous summer. Michael’s already, apparently, grabbed a contract for this boy, and Hillary explains that this is Jermaine, a boy who isn’t in high school just yet, which is not something that Storycatchers does very often–all the participants in Teens Together are usually in grades 9 through 12. Her extensive knowledge of these teens makes me nervous that I will mix them up or not win them over in the same ways. She manages to hold it together so well, and that’s something I only wish I knew how to do.

Soon, a calmness creeps over me when two kids that I’d taught in another teen outreach program–After School Matters, or ASM for short–arrive, Christian and Alex. They are both chubby and latino, but from different families. Alex is a senior in high school, but being very short, she tends to hang out with the younger crowd. A prime example of this would be later in the year when Alex invites Christian, a sophomore, to her senior prom as her date.

Behind them are some other kids I don’t know, who Hillary identifies as Michael’s girlfriend Myia and a new girl who Hillary had already met, Tazhaniq. Myia is tiny and dark skinned, with sleek black hair and a thin, muscular, dancer’s body. Tazhaniq is a full-figured girl, with braids, and baggie clothes.

We have only one white student. He stares at his hands, fingers interlocked in his lap.

“And this is Danny,” Hillary tells me. “We’re so happy to have him back. This is his second year in the writing program with us, and when the play is done, I’m sure this will be his third time in Summer Theatre Ensemble. He’s grown to be quite the actor.” She nudges me in the arm, smiling.

All I see is a tuft of light brown hair.

“Hi, Danny. It’s nice to meet you. I’m Miss Aimee.” I reach my hand out toward him, but he’s so folded into himself, I feel I need to pull my hand back. It’s hard to offer any of myself. It’s even worse because I know Hillary will let me know anything I’ve done wrong or right at the end of the day. That’s her job as program manager. I’m trying so hard not to have a list of wrong.

He doesn’t look up.

Hillary says, “Think Clint Eastwood, Danny, and introduce yourself to Miss Aimee.” I don’t know what this means, or why she would suggest Clint Eastwood, but I think I see the rims of his glasses creeping up for a moment. I’m wrong. It is still only the top of his head, that mound of light brown hair.

Before Teens Together had started, Hillary told me that there were several teens who would be returning from the summer program. She warned me, “Some of them are extremely outspoken, loud, and wild. They’ll say things that will surprise you. But all of them are amazingly gifted, talented young people.” There were no words within that warning about anyone paralyzed with shyness. There were no words about a teen who would appear as though he would rather die than look an adult in the eyes. And on my first day, this is what I came face to face with.

Once all of the teens arrive, we have them go around the circle, say their names, ages, and what school they attend. We also want them to discuss how they heard about the program and why they joined or what they hoped to get out of it.

“I’m Tazhaniq and I’m a Junior at Fenger. I heard about this program when Miss Hillary visited my school. It sounded cool that we’d be doing acting and writing. I really like both, and think I have talent in both, but I’d like to see my talent blossom.”

We fly around the circle until we land on Danny.

“Danny, who are you? Tell us about yourself,” I ask.

He glances over the tops of his glasses at me, blue eyes big and frightened.

His mouth opens and he drops his hands to the sides of his legs in the chair. They are balled into fists and he fingers the nails on his thumbs.

A breath comes out of his mouth.

“Danny.” His voice is so quiet that it is difficult to tell whether I actually hear him speak or wish I hear it.

He hears Hillary’s voice and his head tilts up. He faces her, looks her in the eyes. “Tell everyone your name so they can hear you.” I want to learn to master the magic she has with this boy.

He clears his throat, but still barely loud enough to hear, he says, “My name is Danny and I go to Lincoln Park High School. I am sixteen. I like the way this program helps you make friends and helps you build confidence?” His tenor, and what could be full voice, curves up at the end of the sentence.

I feel my lips curl into a smile.

Danny isn’t just one of those kids who is shy the first day. He is a kid that every time you have a first day with him, it’s like the first time you meet him all over again. The shyness comes back. Heck, Danny is the kind of kid that day four you need to remind him that he knows you; he can joke around with you; he can be loud! He isn’t one of those kids that will just open up after his parents leave the room. This is a kid who is terrified of everyone. He is terrified to speak in public. He is terrified of what people think. He is terrified to share his voice.

I don’t smile because I am happy that he’s paralyzed with shyness. I smile because in a lot of ways Danny reminds me of me. My first days at Columbia were after a major bout of depression and I became tremendously introverted. (And no, this is not me diagnosing Danny with depression. I don’t know enough about him in the moment to do that, and what I’ll learn over the course of these next couple of years working with him will show me that he is an extraordinarily happy kid.) I couldn’t look people in the eyes. I couldn’t speak without shaking. And I hated the sound of my own voice. I was terrified of people and their reactions to me. I was terrified of what people would think when I spoke. I was terrified of people hearing my story. I was terrified of hearing my own story. But, I learned how to use that nervous energy as excitement. And I want Danny to be as excited to come to program as I would be every Saturday. And even though this first day, I’m nervous too, his shyness makes me commit to a goal, and it makes me less afraid that I’m going to mess up, or worse break a kid.

We read aloud in session every week, and I’d been told that over the summer, Danny was given a soliloquy to perform. They had him research Clint Eastwood–which I began to assume was a choice made because of his love for TV and watching it with his entire family, including his parents–in order to figure out different ways of delivering the lines. Anytime Hillary coached him to “Think Clint Eastwood!” his face would change, eyes would glaze over, and he would become enveloped in some kind of act.

As a writing teacher, however, I wasn’t trying to find an actor. I was trying to find the writer. And as someone who this kid might someday see as a mentor, I wanted to find Danny!

I’d manipulate coachings while having him read, trying to play with the information I had about him in order to get him to have more fun, open up. I felt I owed it to him to help break him out of his shell, to let him find a comfortable space within the group to build his voice. I owed it to the teachers who had helped do that for me. I needed to knock away my nervousness and listen to all of my mentors’ advice. “What does he need right now? Say those words to him.”

“You’re an actor, right Danny?” I said when it was his turn to read, and posed my hand in front of me, like any and every Shakespearean actor I had ever seen. He nodded at me. “Okay great! So, go ahead and address it as a letter across the semi-circle. And when you do that, exaggerate your voice. Allow it to carry to the very back of the theatre in your mind. Think about the way you deliver lines on stage, your favorite character you’ve played. Give that much energy to the reading.” All the while, I moved my hand in a big circle, emphasizing just how much space I hoped he’d fill. My arcs grew wider and wider, and my focus stopped being on whether or not my sleeve would slide up my arm and the teens would see my tattoos and my scars, but instead on the theatre I was trying to create in Danny’s mind.

He bit his bottom lip, and then nodded again.

“Dear Myia,” he was still whispering. He’d chosen a girl, which was out of his comfort zone, but Myia was someone he was already close with from having participated in Summer Theatre Ensemble the last year.

“Let’s see that actor come out! Get that volume way up!” My voice was so loud I wanted to plug my ears. My hand was out in front of my body, twisting radio knobs I was imagining on him.

The kids stared at me.

“What are you doing?” one of them asked. Christian remembered my coachings from ASM, and he chuckled, removing his football-player hands from the pockets on his sweatshirt and putting them over his mouth. Those few months without the coachings seemed like a long void, and brought the amusing quality back for him.

“She’s turning up his volume.”

The rest of the kids wrinkled their foreheads.

“She told him to get his volume up and she started turning a knob. See it.” As a returning student, he’d picked up on my lingo, that writing teacher language I’d used with him all summer.

Danny’s breathy, gasping laugh erupted. He pulled the book up in front of his face, lifted his feet off the ground, knees high in the air, and then slammed them down as he reset the book in his lap. “You’re turning my volume button!?” It was the first time I really heard his voice, deep and full, much too big for that lanky kid’s body, I thought. I laughed along with them, realizing that for the first time I was smiling without really thinking about it.

“Listen to your voice. Now keep that volume way up. Read that story, and listen to your voice as you tell it to all of us.”

By the time all of the teens were turning in their final drafts of their stories for the anthology in the middle of the year, Danny had started exploring some personal material–a relationship with a girl where there may, or may not, have been an attraction. He wrote about the way the weather seemed to change whenever they were together.

“How do you see her, Danny? How does she make this boy feel? How does her being there change things?” I would sit in front of him, watching the way his face would illuminate when he would start to write. Sometimes, I would even sit next to him when we had the privilege of getting time in the computer lab, and have him tell me everything he saw in his head when he thought about her.

He wrote about how he couldn’t even feel the coldness or the snow. He wrote about how they would spend every moment at school together. He also wrote about how he started to watch new TV shows, ones he wasn’t really interested in so that they would have even more to talk about. Soon, a new side of Danny was being explored. This was a relationship he had developed in the Drama Department at Lincoln Park High School, and we started to see the humor he had hidden inside.

I forgot about myself. I only cared about the things that this ensemble of teens had to say. And soon, he started telling me without me having to ask.

I am asked to take a role as an instructor with the Summer Theatre Ensemble, even though I don’t know much about theatre, and I’ve never been a part of this program before, but I accept the opportunity. In fact, I’m excited about it. We encourage the kids to take the project from beginning to end, to see the arc of their project.

  1. Write Creative Non-Fiction stories.
  2. Rewrite them until they are of publishable quality.
  3. Find the common themes and perform them as a staged reading.
  4. Understand the growth of the staged reading and develop it into a musical.
  5. Perform the musical.

As a first time staff member, I am learning this process with the kids. And as a staff member who facilitated writing the musical and their “writing guide” I have no choice but to be excited to have a role in the summer. I want to see how the kids react to seeing it come full circle.

Danny applies for his third summer with Summer Theatre Ensemble, and he is accepted. He is one of four writers to take things all of the way to the end.

I’m more confident in giving jobs to the teens and figuring out what a day is supposed to look like. I am more confident in running a bigger group, and believing that everyone will get home safely and happily. And the more confident I become in myself, the more I realize that a lot of teaching can be hands off, that some of the kids grow on their own if they have the right nurturing.

I play a role in helping decide how the teens audition and who is cast for what. The girls are competitive in what they audition for. Every girl wants to be one of the main female characters. The boys, on the other hand, are more self-deprecating and place themselves in smaller roles for the audition.

The Artistic Director and I both see tremendous growth in Danny. “Let’s see him in the role of Carlos,” she says. Carlos is one of the biggest roles. He is the character that changes the most. He has a ton of lines, a solo, and a rap.

Danny stands on a box during the audition and loudly delivers lines. His body seems to have filled out in the four short weeks between Teens Together ending and Summer Theatre Ensemble’s start. He holds his shoulders back while he delivers lines, and his tenor voice now seems appropriately full for his body. It isn’t long before he’s in front of audiences of at least 70, singing, challenging himself to be loud, and rapping over the music. Danny makes eye contact with every person in the audience. On the last day, he tells me, “I think I found my volume knob. It’s up now.”

The European Union’s next crisis

The European Union has surprised people over the past year with its resilience. Much of 2012 was spent listening to commentators predicting the imminent break-up of the EU, with Greece the first to go, followed in short order by Portugal, Spain, and perhaps even Italy. That most of these commentators were British or American should not come as a surprise. Even Paul Krugman, who is generally pretty on top of things, seems to have misjudged this one. It’s not the first time, nor will it be the last, that the political will of European leadership to remain a union has been underestimated. Europe has muddled through—the crisis isn’t over, but it certainly appears to have diminished to more manageable proportions. As Warren Johnson once pointed out, there is an art and science to muddling, and the European Commission and the European Central Bank, which drive much of what passes for policy in the EU, seems to have perfected it. This is not to say that something dire might not still materialize—there may indeed be exits from the EU over time. But thus far the crisis that emerged could have been a whole lot worse than it actually has been.

However, the EU has a different sort of problem on its hands these days, one which may not lend itself to muddling, given what muddling failed to accomplish the last time this particular problem raised its ugly little head. The problem is anti-semitism, which seems to be running rampant in Hungary, so much so that a senior Hungarian legislator recently called to all Jews in the country to “register.” Much of this swill emanates from the far right Jobbik party. The politician in question, Marton Gyongyosi, now says he was “misunderstood”—he was referring to Jews in the country as visitors. Well, he would say that, I imagine. The response has been muted at best, however—there were some lively demonstrations within Hungary, but little in the way of broad European condemnation. This isn’t that surprising on the face of it—it’s rare to see criticism of another country’s internal political shenanigans. But still.

Nor are Jews the only target—the Roma (gypsies) are perhaps even more of a target in places like Hungary, simply because they’re a bit more visible. But like the Roma, the historical precedents here are ample, and frightening. Recently, the Hungarian football team has been sanctioned by FIFA because of anti-semitic chants in the crowd at a match against Israel.

This should be seen in the context of a broad and rapid move to the far right by Hungary’s government over the past several years, one that has alarmed a number of observers in Europe. Not just Hungary—the economic crisis and resultant austerity measures have given a new lease on life to Europe’s far right in many countries—for reasons very similar to the economic fears that initially drove the tea party. Yes, anti-semitism pops up in Western Europe from time to time, usually in the form of vandalism of Jewish cemeteries (which never ever happens in the US, of course). The problem in Hungary is that while Jobbik is a minor party—well, it’s not exactly that minor, since it got about 17% of the vote in the 2010 elections—it’s part of the coalition government of the Fidesz party, which needs Jobbik to maintain power. And part of this process of maintaining power has been to increase the power of the executive, in what some observers see as a retreat from democracy. And Fidesz does not give much evidence of minding the approach that Jobbik has been taking. It has certainly not been critical of them in any serious way.

Whether or not this blows over remains to be seen. Poland had some similar issues a couple of years ago when the Kaczynski twins were running the country, and their supporters would often say inflammatory things. This passed, although one has to assume that it’s not gone completely—anti-semitism had a solid base in Poland, of course, and probably still does, as does much of eastern Europe to this day. But if it does not blow over, it’s hard to see how the EU can avoid being forced into considering a move that has not been used before, a pretty draconian one—but trying to discipline or even expelling a member state turns out to be extremely problematic. While countries can apparently leave the EU (and the euro) voluntarily, actual expulsion appears to be difficult, if not impossible—there is apparently no provision for expulsion in the Lisbon Treaty. So there is no current mechanism for actually being able to do this, no matter how crazy a particular government gets.

So one ends up wondering just what the EU can do if a member government starts showing ominous signs of fascism. Well, the issue in Poland sort of went away, as it did earlier in Austria—but Austrian surliness appears to be coming back. It may be that the only real policy option at the moment is to hope that this situation rights itself—but this can hardly be called a “policy.” Still, as Keno Versek at Deutsche Welle has noted, it’s a bit strange that while Hungary’s economic policies have come under withering criticism, its increasingly vocal anti-semitism seems to bring no censure from outside the country. History isn’t everything, but there are times when ignoring its lessons seems a bit foolhardy.

The above currency note is an example of Notgeld, currency that was often issued by savings banks and municipalities in Germany during the period of hyperinflation that Germans suffered at the end of the First World War and early 1920s. This particular note shows two highly caricatured Jewish men hanging from a tree.

God, Dodge score big with Super Bowl ad; competitors scramble to catch up

The first ad resulting from the long-rumored partnership between Chrysler’s Dodge Ram truck division and God was unveiled at the Superbowl on Sunday. Critics applauded the commercial. The spot was voted the “Best Ad” by the New York Times, Adweek, Ad Age, Ad Hd, and others. It scored a 96 likeability rating on the Dreyfus Consumer Poll conducted immediately following the broadcast.

John Michael Luke, brand manager for the truck division, says he is delighted with the results. “This is the sort of recognition any marketer would sell their soul for,” he said. “It’s marketing heaven.” He declined to comment on rumors that future spots are in the works featuring Tim Tebow and Lolo Jones.

God’s agent-on-earth, Pope Benedict, issued the following statement: “We’ve had lots of offers, but have held out looking for just the right partner. We look at this as just the beginning of what we can do together. The sky’s the limit.” Asked if that might mean joint promotions such as a bogo where a customer buys a truck and gets a free entry into heaven, a Vatican spokesman said, “It is too early to tell what form the partnership will take, but that’s certainly on the table.” From the Pennsylvania State Prison, Father Terrence Feeley said, “I can tell you the entire salesforce is absolutely thrilled by this relationship. The phone in the cellblock is ringing off the hook. Kids love trucks!”

Chrysler’s and God’s competitors aren’t so thrilled. Chevy has a campaign that also featured God, along with Country, and is mulling legal action. The market share leader in the afterlife category, Great Satan, Inc., a division of Microsoft, is also considering a challenge in the courts. Great Satan has gained significant share in the last millennium, and much of that is attributed to their long-running campaign, “Oh hell yes!” which features a ram. Rumors from their headquarters in Redmond, WA say they have hired Goldman Sachs to conduct a trademark search to determine if their brands have been infringed upon. One industry observer suggests were Great Satan to pursue legal action, it would be a real challenge for God to respond, since every lawyer in the world is Satan’s spawn anyway.

Meanwhile, competitors are scrambling to sign up their own spokesdeities. In a three way arrangement, Ford is rumored to have inked a deal with Buddha and Weightwatchers Anonymous. And Toyota is rumored to be in talks with Mohammed through its agencies in both Mecca and Tehran. Because of the time difference, it was impossible to reach senior executives for comment, but Assistant Junior Brand Manager Mahmoud Ahmadinejad confirmed talks are underway. He also added, “You are a bunch of decadent pig-fucking defilers, and the streets will run ankle deep with your despoiled blood and that of your feeble children and shameless whores,” before suggesting there will be a news conference at 10 a.m. tomorrow Tokyo time, and “people should stand by for big news.”

In separate news, the LDS Church announced its own marketing deal, licensing both Joseph Smith and Brigham Young to Vespa motor scooters.

After 22 years, My Bloody Valentine is back: geniuses or the most overrated band ever?

I had this little Facebook exchange yesterday with Tony Hamera, guitarist and songsmith for one of my favorite bands, The Blueflowers.

Tony Hamera MBV – I don’t think there is a more overrated band in the annals of music history…..

Sam Smith Even if they were overrated, what happens to the last 20 years of music without their influence? They’re tremendously important.

Tony Hamera Sam, I’m not sure what would have happened the last 20 years…I did concede they were highly influential, I just don’t know what relevant bands of the last 20 years have been influenced by them. I was merely commentating on the reaction to their latest release.

Sam Smith I think MBV resides in an interesting category: highly influential bands that probably weren’t nearly as good in their own rights as were the bands they inspired. There’s no questioning their importance in laying the groundwork for a generation of shoegazers. My collection is overrun by bands that owe their souls to what MBV (and Cocteau Twins and J&MC and Ride and Catherine Wheel and Verve) did in the early ’90s. Honestly, I don’t listen to MBV that much because I think their artistic progeny have surpassed them.

The subject, of course, is My Bloody Valentine, the seminal British Shoegazer band from way back in the late 1980s/early 1990s.

…My Bloody Valentine redefined what noise meant within the context of pop songwriting. Led by guitarist Kevin Shields, the group released several EPs in the mid-’80s before recording the era-defining Isn’t Anything in 1988, a record that merged lilting, ethereal melodies of the Cocteau Twins with crushingly loud, shimmering distortion. Though My Bloody Valentine rejected rock & roll conventions, they didn’t subscribe to the precious tendencies of anti-rock art-pop bands. Instead, they rode crashing waves of white noise to unpredictable conclusions, particularly since their noise wasn’t paralyzing like the typical avant-garde noise rock band: it was translucent, glimmering, and beautiful. Shields was a perfectionist, especially when it came to recording, as much of My Bloody Valentine’s sound was conceived within the studio itself. Nevertheless, the band was known as a formidable live act, even though they rarely moved, or even looked at the audience, while they were on-stage. Their notorious lack of movement was branded “shoegazing” by the British music press, and soon there were legions of other shoegazers — Ride, Lush, the Boo Radleys, Chapterhouse, Slowdive — that, along with the rolling dance-influenced Madchester scene, dominated British indie rock of the late ’80s and early ’90s. As shoegazing reached its peak in 1991, My Bloody Valentine released Loveless, which broke new sonic ground and was hailed as a masterpiece. Though the band was poised for a popular breakthrough, it disappeared into the studio and didn’t emerge over the next five years, leaving behind a legacy that proved profoundly influential in the direction of ’90s alternative rock.

As it turned out, Loveless was the last we heard of MBV. Until a few days ago, when they released m b v, their first new CD in 22 years. The  immediate response was perhaps predictable: the mad dash of fans crashed the Web site.

My Bloody Valentine: The m b v Reviews Are In

Critical response to the disc, which Shields says includes material from a planned mid-’90s album that was never finished, some earlier demo work and some new tracks, has been mostly positive.

  • The Chicago Tribune‘s Greg Kot gives it 2.5 stars out of four: “With expectations equally stratospheric for m b v after a two-decade wait, it’s difficult to imagine how My Bloody Valentine could possibly have measured up. Instead, Shields and his bandmates have made a transitional album, one that nods to the band’s storied peak but winds up heading in a new direction.”
  • Alexis Petridis of The Guardian seems to like it: “The songs on m b v, however, are more melodically complex, intriguing and often pleasing than anything he has written before. The tunes and chord progressions keep slipping their moorings and heading down unexpected paths. There’s occasionally something oddly jazzy about m b v, as evidenced by the shifting time signature of only tomorrow, which leaves the song sounding as if gasping for breath; and the song is this and yes boldly strips away all Shields’s trademark sonic mayhem, leaving behind only Butcher’s voice and an organ playing a strange and gorgeous chord sequence.”
  • Jason Heller at AV Club is at once confused and enthralled, which is probably about right for anything from MBV: “It’s tough to tell what Shields was shooting for with m b v, let alone if he came close to hitting it. How far back do the basics of these recordings stretch? Is the album an attempt to re-create what a 1993 follow-up to Loveless might have sounded like? Or is it a clean-slated attempt to open a fresh chapter in the band’s existence? Conscious or not, the loose ends from Loveless are impossible to ignore, but neither are they easy to condemn. Loveless’ main drawback was the fact that, for 22 years, it stood as a monument to thwarted promise, a teaser of what might have come if only Shields and crew had gotten their shit together. Finally, they have. And regardless of whether it’s an echo of the past or a bridge to the future, MBV stands as something potentially timeless—and immediately breathtaking.”
  • Several SPIN reviewers get together and are…well, SPIN reviewers. Their average score is a 7.25 our of 10, with plenty of sevens and eights.

One of the Most Influential Bands in History?

Tony’s “overrated” challenge is an interesting one. As I make clear in my response, MBV aren’t my favorite from that era – there are plenty of DreamPop and Shoegaze bands (original and latter-day) that I like better. At the same time, love ’em or hate ’em, there’s simply no way to deny how incredibly important My Bloody Valentine was. Have a look at the “Followers” list noted at AllMusic. Here are just a few of the bands that derive their sound, either directly or indirectly, from MBV:

  • Ride
  • Sigur Rós
  • Swervedriver
  • The Boo Radleys
  • The Verve
  • Catherine Wheel
  • Chapterhouse
  • Cranes
  • Curve
  • Garbage
  • Mazzy Star
  • Mogwai
  • Smashing Pumpkins
  • Spiritualized
  • The Chemical Brothers
  • The Dandy Warhols
  • Velocity Girl
  • Asobi Seksu
  • Fields
  • Japandroids
  • M83
  • Primal Scream
  • School of Seven Bells
  • Starflyer 59
  • The Apples in Stereo
  • The Black Angels
  • The Pains of Being Pure at Heart
  • The Raveonettes
  • The Sundays
  • Atlas Sound
  • Black Rebel Motorcycle Club
  • Boards of Canada
  • Explosions in the Sky
  • Peter Bjorn and John
  • Silversun Pickups
  • The Stratford 4

As I say, that’s just a few. For instance, you’d also add to this list one of the best bands I ever encountered (although they never broke through into the sort of fame they deserved), Space Team Electra. Let’s sift back through the past few years of my Best Of series for even more (in addition to the ones on the list above):

  • Tamaryn
  • Dum Dum Girls
  • Dotsun Moon
  • Washed Out
  • Able Archer
  • The Horrors
  • Ladytron
  • The Scottish Enlightenment
  • Rabbit Velvet
  • The Black Ryder
  • Tame Impala
  • Hoopherphonic
  • Blonde Redhead
  • LoveLikeFire
  • MiniPop
  • We Start Fires
  • …and, oh yeah, Radiohead

Conversations like this always bring me back around to criteria. When we say somebody is the best, what do we mean? What is “great”? When we say “underrated” or “overrated,” what precisely are we trying to communicate? As I have said many times, arguments over who’s best at a given thing are usually arguments over criteria in disguise.

Some years ago I took a whack at the criteria that I think are important in evaluating any given artist. Note item #3:

Influence. Great art begets great art. The greatest albums/CDs are ones which influence and inspire other musicians to greatness, and as such their import extends well past the direct impact they have on audiences. So when many brilliant recording artists point to a common influence, a greatest albums list would do well to include that influence.

There you go. Now, there are plenty of other criteria to be considered, but on this one, it’s clear that MBV scores major points.

The Student Has Surpassed the Master

Still, I suggest above that some influential bands are ultimately surpassed by those they inspire, and I think that’s likely the case for My Bloody Valentine. Let’s look at those lists above again and ask ourselves how the actual MBV catalog stacks up against some of their followers.

  • The Verve: Who knows what might have happened had their momentum not been kneecapped by litigation on the part of The Rolling Stones’ attorneys?
  • Catherine Wheel: Arguably the most underappreciated band in rock history.
  • Curve: Inventive, ground-breaking – they took the MBV ball and ran with it.
  • Garbage: The (mostly) American answer to Curve.
  • Smashing Pumpkins: One of the greatest bands of the grunge era, and the 2012 release was their best since 1995.
  • Spiritualized: Never my favorite, but unquestionably one of the most important players in the Ambient Rock movement.
  • M83: Have you heard the last two CDs?
  • The Apples in Stereo: One of the most important and influential low-fi indie pop bands in the last generation.
  • The Pains of Being Pure at Heart: Perhaps the best of the current wave of noisy indie-pop bands.
  • The Raveonettes: Pound for pound, one of the best bands in the world over their last four releases.
  • Black Rebel Motorcycle Club: They owe more to Jesus & Mary Chain than MBV, but the MBV influence has been an undeniable force in establishing BRMC as one of the best bands alive.

Say you buy my argument that MBV wasn’t as great for their own music as they were for their influence, hypothetically (not that I expect people to buy this without a fight, but let’s play along for a moment). Are their other bands of which we might say the same thing? Are their other sacred cows I might gore here?

Joy Division: Back in the mid-1990s I’d never have believed for a second that in the future, JD would emerge as one of the biggest influences on the Indie/Nu-Wave movement of the early 21st century. But here we are, and the list of Joy Division devotées is as long as your arm. Interpol. Editors. The Killers. TV on the Radio. Bloc Party. The Rapture. The Bravery. The Futureheads. The Horrors. She Wants Revenge. The Mary Onettes.

And frankly, I’m just not that into JD. They had their moments, but I thought New Order, which emerged from the ashes after Ian Curtis offed himself, were a better band.

The Doors: Sweet hell, has there ever been more ado about nothing? The tunes were pedestrian, the musicianship was nothing special, and Jim Morrison was a poet like I’m a world class extreme skier. If you think the Lizard King was profound, you need to step away from the horse tranquilizers.

Velvet Underground: Maybe one of the five most influential bands in history. In addition to everything else, they were a key touchpoint for both Joy Division and My Bloody Valentine. Much respect. But how often do I listen to them? Like, never. I much prefer Lou Reed’s solo work.

Bauhaus: There’s a crowd of people with pitchforks and torches gathering outside my apartment right now, but the truth is that the idea of Bauhaus was a lot more interesting than the music of Bauhaus. “Bela Lugosi’s Dead” and the cover of “Ziggy Stardust” and several albums worth of filler. Peter Murphy’s first four solo releases were far more interesting (especially Deep) and I can probably say the same for the first three Love & Rockets albums.

So there. A bit of heresy to spice up your day. Are there others you can think of?

Meanwhile, you can sample m b v here.

Image Credits: ThisIsFakeDIY, rcrdlbl, golyr

Richard III’s body discovered—world rejoices

Well, it sure seems like it, anyway. Practically everyone I know on Facebook, for example, which is mostly Americans, has mentioned this. As has just about every news organization in the world. There will always be an England, apparently. Anyway, for those just returning on holiday from Venus, a body discovered beneath a parking lot in Leicester has been identified through DNA analysis as being that of Richard III, immortalized as the apotheosis of evil by Shakespeare. Actually, it’s not quite as casual as that makes it sound.

First of all, the parking lot is also the former site of the church where Richard was said to have been buried after he was killed at the battle of Bosworth in 1485—the battle that ended the War of the Roses, ended the Plantagenet dynasty and ushered in the reign of the Tudors. Richard was apparently buried in a Greyfriars church near the battlefield, but the church was destroyed in the 16th century during the Reformation, and its exact location lost. But it has been suspected for some time that the modern parking lot was put in over some of that area. So there were reasonable grounds for thinking that if a body turned up there, it could be that of Richard.

Second, as we know from our Shakespeare, Richard was a hunchback. Historians and authors have referred to Richard as being deformed, if not worse. In fact, Richard was indeed known to have had some sort of back deformity. So finding a body with such a deformity was the key—and that indeed was what was found several months ago—it looks as if it was afflicted with scoliosis. There was some initial excitement when the body was discovered, but the parties involved—led by archeologists at the University of Leicester—wanted to do the DNA testing, having found a plausible descendant. Which is now done. And it is indeed Richard.

And they’ve done one of those gee-whiz facial reconstructions they do all the time on Bones or CSI, or like what Abby does every week or so on NCIS, so now we have some idea what Richard might have looked like. Life does imitate art after all. And you know what? He looks pretty much like the portrait of him that’s hanging in the National Portrait Gallery (which has been reproduced in the stamp above)—which is notable because it wasn’t taken from life (there are no surviving contemporary portraits of Richard). How cool is that?

The body is going to be interred at Leicester Cathedral. Whether we’ll get a national holiday out of this remains to be seen, but I imagine it will be proposed by someone. We do love our royalty here.

Next up? Alfred, of course!