Moronicism at work

From the sublimely sad (my previous post) to the ridiculously stupid:

Thanks to J.D. for the tip elsewhere — this is just a case where all you have to do is read, and read the comments, and laugh cruelly at the people behind the original post.

Favorite line in the original post:

“Naturally, I was prejudiced against them.”

No doubt. No doubt at all.

In memory of Mike Conley

You shouldn’t learn about the death of someone you knew at a birthday party.

Last night, I was at my friend Fern’s 40th birthday party, held at eVocal, a local venue/art gallery that is one of her spiritual homes, a place where she regularly reads her work. It was my first time there after having heard much about it, so I was wandering around, looking at everything, when a flyer up in the window caught my eye.

MIA playing around here? Thought she was at Coachella. Maybe she’s at the Detroit Bar…oh no wait, it’s the band M.I.A.

I moved closer.

With Jello Biafra and Kevin Seconds, huh…wait, hold a minute, M.I.A. had broken up years ago. Something doesn’t make –

Then I read more of the flyer and something hit me:

A flyer for the Mike Conley benefit show

For the family of Mike Conley…Mike’s dead?

Mike’s dead?

I didn’t know who to ask but Brett, one of eVocal’s main folks, was around, and I walked up to him and asked. I vaguely remember feeling shocked. Brett confirmed it and we talked a bit about it — I could tell it had hit him hard as well.

Was this huge news? How had I missed this?

As the party started filling up the venue I withdrew to the side and started scrounging for information via the iPhone, and found stories like this one, written by my editor at the OC Weekly, Dave Segal, some days after it happened — which makes my ignorance of his passing until now all the more inexcusable. The actual event and initial reports had happened on the crazy-full weekend of my birthday and good friend Stripey’s and my mind was very much elsewhere, but to have missed Dave’s story on it a few days later in a paper I write for…self-pity isn’t an attractive quality, but I was damn ashamed of myself, angry at myself, to have blanked on this, still am. I will say no more on that front.

But I searched for a few more stories, read some comments, and quietly, I began to grieve.

In late 1992, as part of my initial arrival at UCI, I sought out both the radio station KUCI and the student newspaper, the New University, the latter with a vague idea to do some sort of regular music coverage. I had barely any review experience or interview experience as such, but I knew I wanted to do something, even while going to grad school — it was an interest I really wanted to pursue for some time but, in my own fairly slack way, I hadn’t sensed how best to do it. (The idea of doing a fanzine on my own or the like never occurred to me — I think in the end I am and remain someone who finds larger contexts to work in.) But since the New University, unlike UCLA’s paper, didn’t require you to be part of the journalism program one way or another — handily, since in fact UCI had no such program (for better or for worse!) — I pretty much walked in, indicated my interest, and was immediately made an intern. I can live with that.

How it happened I’m not sure — I must have mentioned I was interested in music and all — but shortly thereafter, not on the first day or anything (I think), this had arrived in the New U mailbin:

You can find my thoughts on this release, Naked Soul’s debut EP Seed, at the All Music Guide, but those were written many years later — at the time, I knew of M.I.A. a bit and in reading the press guff that came with the CD I learned the connection and was intrigued. I forget how it happened — my interest, the label’s, my editor’s — but I arranged to do an interview with Mike and Jeff Sewell, Naked Soul’s bassist, near UCI.

You won’t find the story anywhere online to my knowledge — though if it has surfaced, I’d be pleased to know. I was still months away from hearing the term ‘web browser’ for the first time and the New U wouldn’t fully go online until the mid-nineties, and its archives start from around that time. So I have no story to refer to, beyond guessing it’s probably an embarrassment of an effort on my end, fairly obvious in its line of questioning and general approach. There’s a lot of woodshedding I’m content to ignore.

But that means instead my memories are about that first meeting — dim, but for a reason as I’ll explain. Jeff was cool enough, but I remember Mike being very friendly, a warm and heartfelt guy. He matches well in my memory with someone else I interviewed and first heard soon thereafter, O from the band Olivelawn, who had just started his own new band fluf around that point. Two different people but both allied to anthemic and heartfelt rock and roll that had grown out of the 80s punk/alternative/whatever you want to call it scene they’d grown up in and been a part of. The world had turned — slightly — towards their musical view on life and they were out to make the most of it.

The point is, though, that I sensed Mike was a good fellow, from the start. Nothing earthshattering about this, nothing that changed my life in a singular fashion, just that you knew, here was a good dude. I’m sure he spoke a bit of his happy pride in his young daughter, pictured there on the cover — surprising to realize now that she’s 18 years old — and what he hoped things might lead to. He’d already done a lot so he had no illusions I’m sure — he just wanted to make music and see what would happen. And in combination with the interview and the EP, I became a Naked Soul kind of a guy — for me, Mike was identified with that, not with M.I.A.

The story doesn’t end there, though. Now let me stop and say this right now: I will never claim to have been Mike’s friend at this time, close or otherwise. But we were friendly — over the next couple of years, we struck up an acquaintance, built in part by circumstance and in part by luck. He lived and worked nearby, and I got to know him in the same way that I got to initially know someone like the Detroit Bar‘s Chris Fahy, say — someone on the scene and getting involved while I was off torturing myself over obscure theorists. But I played Naked Soul’s music on my show and covered it for the New U and while I showed nowhere near the focus on local things that I could have done, there were folks I did follow a bit and shows I did see and people I talked to, and Mike was one of them. I remember seeing a Naked Soul show up in LA — the first time I think I saw them do their killer cover of the Replacements’ “Answering Machine” — and played cuts on my show from the EP.

Some months later, they ended up booked to play a show at UCI’s old Pub venue, now somewhat resurrected in the new Student Center there. At this point the show booker for a lot of things at UCI from 1992 to 1994 was another KUCI DJ — my friend Jen Vineyard, who was able to get in a huge number of stellar acts on the road during those years, big and small. That’s a story in and of itself, and I can talk about everything from seeing Tiger Trap doing an afternoon show in the Pub to the Melvins blasting a huge wall of noise across campus to seeing the final Unrest tour with an opening act on their own first American tour…Stereolab. And more, and onward — but the point was that Jen also kept her eyes and ears out for local bands all the time, booking them in for shows, and so Naked Soul got their own headlining gig one night.

Now, I don’t remember how this happened. I don’t even remember why. But I think — maybe — that Mike had always remembered the story I’d written and thought it was really nice, and we were all talking before the show or something. Again, I don’t remember — when I say things are dim from that first meeting, it’s that we met often enough than things blend into each other, and that I can’t be sure of what was talked about at each time. But he really wanted me to introduce them that night at the Pub.

I’m sure I was pleased, flattered, but also surprised and maybe a touch nervous. But I remember agreeing, and I dimly recall stepping on the stage, looking out to the crowd and into the stagelights (and thus not seeing the crowd), saying…something and happily introducing the band, I trust. And then I got off there as quickly as I could! Hey, they weren’t paying to see me.

As it turns out, there’s a video of a performance from that show on YouTube. Just one cut, but a good one — their fine rip on the Who’s “So Sad About Us”:

I wonder if there’s more of the show out there somewhere. Hopefully so.

I kept running into Mike after that, very randomly — and bless his soul, he always seemed to recognize me first. I only just remembered that, typing this now. I remember running into him at Lollapalooza 1994 at the water tent, he was all smiles, having the time of his life — god knows what we talked about, but I have that memory of him just having a ball, totally up. I want to say there were a couple of other encounters along the way too, out and about.

I think I recall the final time we talked, though, and I’m going to have to do some scrounging later to see if I still have the tape. What happened was that Naked Soul had released their full album, Visiting Your Planet — and as this AMG review says (not by me, but by a fellow fan), it’s a secret treat of an album, not earthshaking but sounding great still. I ought to know, I’m playing it just now.

Anyway, we had agreed to set up an interview…for the paper? for KUCI? I don’t recall now, I don’t even know if it was tied into the album release at all. It was just Mike this time, because the band had either gone through a lineup change or was in some instability — there wouldn’t be anything else from the band in the end beyond a small-release single, so perhaps it was all just starting to wind down. One thing I do remember, though, is that I’ve got the interview on tape somewhere — I’ve got a big mess of random tapes like that and I really should go through one of these days and digitize them. I don’t think they’re any great classics missing in them, but they might be of interest (and I know that among them is my Ian Crause interview but that’s very much another story).

I can’t say I recall much about this interview but I remember Mike being a little more reflective, not quite as up — not depressed, I should say, just simply reflecting what had to be a stressful period with the band, possibly with the label, possibly something else too. But it wasn’t a bad conversation or interview, so I hope, and he was as friendly as ever; given I was going through my own ups and downs around that time I wouldn’t be surprised if I came off as a bit mercurial to him in turn, reading things through our own lenses. We ate some pizza as we talked, parted with a handshake and hopefully a promise to catch each other as we could.

To my knowledge, that was the last time we spoke. Somewhere in 1995 or so, I’m pretty sure.

I don’t mention this to speak of it in a dramatic sense, though I’m sure it comes off that way. Rather, I think from there we just carried on as we did, busy with our own lives and own experiences. He had the eventual breakup of Naked Soul to deal with, not to mention the daily living of family and fatherhood and the workaday world to address; I was only a short year or two away from the decision to pull the ripcord out of grad school and, as a result, stopping my writing work for a bit until a fortuitous exchange of e-mails with Steven Thomas Erlewine led to the All Music Guide work and all that followed after it. My knowledge of local bands grew a bit hazier as my interests went elsewhere, I put down deeper roots of friendship with others…a not-unfamiliar path.

And Mike? He kept on keeping on — and learning that he did and I somehow missed it all, well, like I said, I’m trying to avoid self-pity, but again I’m kicking myself a bit, just for simply not being aware, not knowing or asking or putting the pieces together — we were, after all, in the same area still. But among other things, he started a new band, Jigsaw, and once again took to the road and stage and studio doing what he loved. Here’s the video for their song “Sour”:

Meanwhile, he made a hell of a mark in recent years via his ownership of a great bar that I don’t go to often enough, the Avalon Bar. Located near the Detroit Bar (and eVocal), it’s a dive in the best sense — not scummy, but comfortable, the type of place that has its own feeling and loyal clientele. But again, I don’t go there often enough, obviously — because if I did, at some point I would have found out he was the owner, or run into him even. Now I’ll never claim he would have recognized me again then out of the blue, after so many years. But if he had — well, I wouldn’t have been surprised. And that would have been great.

It really would have been great just to say hi again one more time, that’s all. It would have given me the chance to apologize for losing touch, to say something like, “Man, I am a TOTAL goof, I didn’t even know you ran this place!,” to ask after everything. It would have been fun.

But there again, I protest too much — because, after all, those who did know him far better than I, his friends — his family — those are the ones who truly want to say hi to him again one more time, and more. Because you don’t expect to see your buddy, your boss, your husband, your dad go off on a trip somewhere for work and wish him well and then get a phone call or a message…

No, you don’t expect that. You just don’t.

The birthday party was a blast and I concentrated on the moment. There was music and poetry and catching up with friends who showed up later on in the evening and more. Fern had a wonderful time and it was a pleasure to meet her children and her family and friends. Yet in a weird and slightly reversed way, I thought of how I was now in a reverse position from three years back, where I came to London on a long-planned visit only to have it happen the day after the Tube bombings, and for me to find out that an acquaintance who was a dear friend of many of my friends there was one of the victims. As I sadly and ruefully summed it up at the time, I came out for a party and ending up crashing a wake.

But this time around the wake was in my head, and the party was all around me.

The Mike Conley Family Fund has been set up to take donations — there is a memorial T-shirt available for purchase, and as that flyer notes up top, there’s a show coming up a week from Monday — and that’s one amazing lineup.

For now, though, simply this, belatedly and with honest sorrow: thanks Mike. The memories are warm and I always knew you were ‘good people,’ as they say. From everything else I’ve read so far over the last twelve hours, it only just reconfirmed that. It’s a little comforting to know that whatever else my faults in learning too late and all that I’m not the only person who thought that about you, and knew it, and said it.

Rest well.

Two quick book reviews (cause it’s Friday)

And I’m fairly relaxed now. And still tired. At least there’s a birthday party to go tonight, that’ll provide some merriment.

Anyway, it’s been a bit of time since I’ve talked about recent reading — and as always the backlog’s pretty huge — but the two I’ve read most recently fit squarely in the realm of entertaining and informative popular nonfiction, each beholden a bit to their own cliches. Good reads both in any event:

  • Todd Balf‘s The Darkest Jungle is yet another in the series of books that draws, consciously or not, on the model of Erik Larson‘s Isaac’s Storm in particular to provide a demi-documentary you-are-there feeling out of an overlapping series of papers, archives and historical distance. This isn’t a complaint per se, it’s just that this is the model, or at least this is how it was pitched by someone to someone else somewhere along the line; Larson himself didn’t found the approach, as I’ve muttered before, but he was the great popularizer of it in recent years. Balf’s own writing career works in similar paths to Larson’s in terms of journalism and book work — at the time of this book’s publication in 2003 (and perhaps still today — too lazy to check right now!) he was a writer at Men’s Journal, which figures (there’s something about the whole model of Esquire/Men’s Journal style of journalism which…well, that’s a post for another time).

    This all said, the book itself is a fine take on the story of an American 1854 expedition, driven by a combination of nationalism, capital and ‘discovery’ in the classic (and biased) sense, to cross the isthmus of Panama via the Darien region, led by a Navy lieutenant, Isaac Strain. It’s a fairly obscure bit of history, known to those interested mostly via David McCullough‘s The Path Between the Seas, which provided a solid popular history of the development of the Panama Canal. But McCullough himself didn’t focus much on the Strain project, and part of the interest of Balf’s work is the solid footwork put into not only researching much obscure material (and not finding all of it — as he frustratedly observes in the end notes, Strain’s formal Navy report is missing from the military and government archives) but actually being on the ground in Panama. A key piece of the puzzle can actually be read by anyone right now — Joel Tyler Headley‘s Harper’s article from 1855, done in collaboration with Strain after his return. Balf mentions an earlier trip of his to Panama in the early 1990s and this book concludes with a return visit that attempts to retrace the steps of the expedition, but which turns into a story of his own struggles with the rough terrain and with the — at this point in history fully understandable — suspicions of the Kuna, the native inhabitants then and now.

    The great gift of the past few decades in what can be called ‘travel’ or ‘expedition’ writing has been an increasing reflexivity on the nature of travel and what it is meant to accomplish — what, in essence, is one trying to prove? Balf is cleverly aiming at having his cake and eating it too — he is going on the trip still and we the audience get the voyeuristic thrill of reading about it in comfort, the essential contract between author and reader in any such case like this, but at the same time he puts in careful observations about everything from the effect of cruise ship tourism on the coastal Kuna dwellers to concerns over the Pan-American Highway and whether a projected completion through the area would just lead to a host of problems. Notably these aren’t simply him wondering, as he conveys sentiments from many Kuna speakers during this final chapter; at the same time he is still the mediating voice (as this article notes, Internet access for the Kuna is practically nonexistent) — and so the intertwining of perceptions and interpretation of concerns continues. The book is a good read in all, quietly problematic but not unaware of its problems and one which ends on an open note of unsureness.

  • In marked contrast, Joel Glenn Brenner’s 1999 book The Emperors of Chocolate is about something seemingly far more simple — candy bars. Brenner’s histories of the Mars and Hershey’s corporations are not themselves good histories of chocolate, though — I recommend instead The True History of Chocolate by Sophie and Michael Coe, which upends a lot of myths the cacao bean as well as providing a thoughtful overview on its transformation into the milk-heavy bars and simliar delights we’re all familiar with. Nothing against Brenner per se, since her focus is elsewhere, but combined with the slightly curious structure of her book — generally chronological but sometimes whiplashing back and forth across the decades or more — the actual sense of chocolate as commodity and cultural product, while not ignored, is sometimes obscured or given over to mythmaking.

    But setting these criticisms aside — I remember many years ago first learning about the sheer paranoia of the Mars bunch when I read this great exchange in The Straight Dope via one of the early book collections regarding the question of how the heck they got the Ms on M&Ms. Brenner’s book not only confirms how in more detail but provides a wealth of until-then-unavailable information about the whole company and its curious history, thanks especially to Forrest Mars Sr., who passed on in the year of the book’s publication. To say Mars was a business genius is undeniable — to say he was a raging, angry guy who in the course of driving himself hard drove everyone else just as hard if not harder, including his now-running-the-business kids (who frankly sound like they had a horrible upbringing), would also be undeniable.

    As for Milton Hershey, his own family history is equally tangled but he is seen in a gentler light, in part because unlike Mars he relied on someone else to do the hard-headed stuff but in part just because he was a nicer guy all around. It’s an interesting story of being well-meaning, driven, hungry for love and affection and wanting to leave the world a better place, in marked contrast to Mars’s goal to leave his company in a better place to take over the world. (The idea that Mars would have founded a whole company town with fringe benefits undreamed of by most at the time would be as laughable as imagining Hershey making a company partner — much less one of his sons — get down on his knees for the enterity of a corporate meeting with the whole board in attendance.)

    With the flaws noted above, Brenner’s book is a great resource about two companies with intertwined histories, resources and goals far beyond their most well-known food products (Mars in particular has a massive presence in a wide range of products, no less so than Hershey eventually did) and public images that completely bely their private battles. Nearly a decade old now, the book would benefit from an update as to how things stand in the 21st century, but it’s still a great overview of two institutions and more specifically how they became institutions in the first place, with two different philosophies that started to parallel each other more closely with time (though notably the movement was mostly on Hershey’s part). It’d be interesting if Brenner had unpacked more of the implications behind American identity via consumables and the globalized food market — now more than ever something of extreme interest, and given Mars’s involvement in a lot of it doubtless something they’ve been tracking obsessively for decades and near-minutely now — but at least they are addressed, and in a way that allows one to recognize more of what is at play.

How not to win friends and influence people, Illinois college/political division

With thanks to Nari for the tip. So in brief:

Let’s say you’re this guy. No need to mention names here, that’s taken care of elsewhere. Let’s say that very early this morning, righteously aggrieved by something or another, you decide that what you’d really like to do is express yourself in courteous and thoughtful language this way:

Men are better than women look at the comparison in IQ men are scientifically proven to have a higher IQ by roughly 5 points, or 5% you cannot dispute science sorry and if you want a much better website than your shitty one you might want to go to [redacted]. I think you would gain a lot more knowledge from that website and you might learn about the truth that way you would not be so stupid and ignorant you stupid cunts.

Now I should first note that the Mother’s Day cards sent by this putative you must be curiously worded. But set that aside.

Having finished, you decide to send this mail to the object of your disaffection, which happens to be a well-known feminist discussion site. It is received, read and noticed. And then posted. With this observation:

Apparently that extra five percent doesn’t help prevent run-on sentences. You would also think that those extra brain power percentage points would stop a dude from sending harassing emails from his school email address. Because then we wouldn’t know that our charming admirer is the public relations officer (yes, public relations) of…

Well, let me not spoil the surprise — the link is there to read, and should be read.

So if you were this guy, what would your reactions be at this point? Would you:

  • crap your pants?
  • blame it on the booze?
  • post an insincere-sounding apology?
  • get booted from your public relations role?

Quite honestly I wouldn’t know about the first option. But the others came true. Make sure you read the comment section in full. It’s all still unfolding, and it’s quite instructive.

April is the AMGest month, or something

More reviews, reviews we have more of…

My latest music review in the OC Weekly — the new Brian Jonestown Massacre

It was interesting trying to come up with a review that acknowledges the band’s noteriety while not getting lost in it — as well as pointing out that Anton is someone who knows how to rile people up on a nearly constant basis. It’s a good album, one of his best ones, almost a return to the Methodrone days in some senses, but at the same time definitely something he could have recorded no other time than in recent years. Anyway, enjoy!

In a manner of speaking, semantics won’t do

So while I was away I got a copy of the Winston Tong overview on LTM, In a Manner of Speaking, in the mail. Great collection from a very underrated artist — friendly guy as well, we’ve exchanged a couple of e-mails in the past based on reviews for the All Music Guide I’ve done. His most famous song, done as part of a Tuxedomoon album, provides the title of the compilation, and having been familiar for years with the Martin Gore cover as well as the Nouvelle Vague remake a couple of years back it was nice to finally hear the original — I can be awfully lazy sometimes when it comes to tracking down things! It’s also especially enjoyable to hear how all three versions are quite different from each other — Tuxedomoon’s spare, understatedly intense take is not Gore’s warm, tremulous take is not Nouvelle Vague’s bossa nova take etc.

But while I was also away something else came up covering semantics and speaking, namely a certain comment a few days back by one Senator Obama and the attendant fallout, which for now seems to have reached a concluding point with last night’s frustrating and infuriating debate. The amount of venting of pure rage at Charlie Gibson as moderator in particular still seems to be roiling, and a lot of it is due to the questions and how everything was pitched and aimed at the candidates — and it had to be a sign of the stars aligning when Jonah Goldberg’s comment about how the debate seemed to be little more than ‘Republican water-carrying’ almost perfectly echoed the sentiments unfolding on the respective ILX thread at the same time. To say that there are a lot of grumpy people this morning — as well as a few thrilled ones thinking McCain came out on top as a result, thus increasing the grumpiness — understates.

Getting into some sort of kvetch against mass media idiocy and the confusions and conflations of politics and policy right now — tempting as it is and being a continuation of past sentiments of mine over the years anyway — isn’t my goal in this post. Nor is it the fact that more than ever candidates are under surveillance with an even closer eye thanks to the Net (“citizen journalism” as a term annoys me for some reason; that might be a subject for a further post). Still, the whole ‘bitter’ fallout reminds me of Raymond Williams’ Keywords, a now justly-famed take on language and meaning covering ‘key words’ in terms of cultural study. I cannot claim to be an expert on Williams and will not try to pretend otherwise but a core value of the book lies in unpacking how language changes and takes on new contextual meanings with political resonance.

To my mind that’s been the chief value of the whole ‘bitter’ kerfluffle and all that comes from it — it’s been noted already that because Obama spoke to an invited audience he likely assumed a certain general agreement among his listeners, however unconsciously, and similarly there’s an unconscious sense of how words can be taken by such audiences — as a general rule, not in specifics, of course (otherwise this would not have been reported in the first place). This isn’t any great shakes to observe on my part, but contextual meaning of a word that becomes a keyword (or a keyword itself) mutates constantly and probably accelerates all the more quickly in this century, though a general rule still applies of there being a lowest-common-denominator take on things versus a slew of minority readings covering any amounts of nuance.

I’m not a politician and I’m not campaigning for votes on the broadest possible spectrum in a nation-state, ie actually at the nation-state level rather than something smaller. The pressures on how to address or respond to certain groups and their collective or individual questions, or to say what might be assumed they want to hear, are manifold pressures and they are not mine, they’re not most of anybody’s. Under a microscope, all three candidates have misspoken at best, betrayed some deep concerns at worst (that may sound unduly cynical but I think it’s best to assume that whatever your feelings on the three candidates, what you’re hoping for more than anything out of your preferred choice is not to be a stellar and world-changing figure but simply someone who can amelioriate idiocies of recent years — and a big reason why Obama captures the attention he does is precisely because he is not as obviously invested in those idiocies).

Still, being careful of one’s choice of words is all the more important now, even as this whole thing grinds on, and on. The votes in the end act as a voice in response to the candidates’ own words, and the last thing any of them want — and Obama especially knows it now — is a response where, to quote Tong’s stellar lyric again, silence becomes reprimand. Political Blogger Alliance

And the second — and final! — EMP 2008 Pop Conference wrap-up post

I had hoped for a more detailed take to offer everyone here, looking at the entirety of the weekend with an eye to summarizing and reflecting. But the one thing I’m taking away from it all is that I’m *tired* — as I told a friend on the phone tonight, it’s only been today I’ve started to feel more in balance, and even then it’s a conditional one. I’m still feeling like I’ve not had much sleep, and honestly can’t wait for the weekend to arrive.

Now in part this was because of the birthday party I attended last night — and another one to come on Friday too! — so arguably I haven’t had a full and comfortable night’s sleep in some time (nothing again where I was staying in Seattle, of course — but a couch is a couch, not a bed!). But EMP as an experience is always mentally exhausting, in both the best and worst way. Worst because you always feel like you have to engage to follow it all to any reasonable extent, and because so much is offered in so short a space. Best because it IS all there for you, a series of often amazing gifts, whether it lies in the discoveries or the snippets or the analysis.

I felt both of that when doing all my transcribing, a constant disbelief that I was able to keep up as well as I did while also making sure I did my damnedest to do just that. But I also wanted to make sure that I enjoyed myself, which I did and then some; as mentioned a few days back, it is the social aspect of the conference as much as its content which makes it attractive. It helps that I have a preset context to enjoy Seattle, with so many friends there and so many visits under my belt; I won’t pretend to truly know the city but I can sense my way around things reasonably enough and familiarity has proven to be an increasing advantage. Combined with catching up with friends and colleagues who I hadn’t seen in months, and in some cases a full year since the previous conference, was its own reward as well; others who couldn’t make it were sadly missed.

It’s been interesting gauging the debates and thoughts on the conference’s overall success or lack thereof this year as well. I haven’t really touched on it so far but there was quite a bit of discussion of the keynote panel in the days following, and a lot of it was negative. Robert Christgau’s thoughts in his first EMP post on the panel were of disappointment, but many other comments were far more angry and aggrieved. Unpacking it all would take a while — and there were a few things said during the panel itself that had me scratching my head a bit as I was blogging it — but quite honestly much of the panel discussion was incredibly familiar to me in both academic and SoCal contexts. I don’t want to ascribe much of the reaction to the panel as being simply one of annoyed surprise and yet I’d also say that I’d be willing to guess those of us who work in those environments (or, like myself, both at once) probably felt a bit surprised by that surprise. As ever, context is all, and the contexts of the attendees all differ more than you might guess.

As for the overall conference itself, good friend and my Seattle host Mackro had this to say about it, and it strikes me as a fair take given the conference’s somewhat politicized theme this year. To quote a key part:

The ironic dearth: less engagement, less discource, less conflict. I think people were more AFRAID to say anything during the q&a’s this year than before. Then again, it’s safe to say most of the conference attendees this year were pretty much on the same side of the political spectrum, so there was less to argue against.

BUT I noticed this during one of the more benign panels. Some guy in a Social Distortion T-shirt said at the end of a Clash presentation “Who cares about The Clash?” That’s when about two dozen people raised their hands to ask the *presenters* questions. That Social D guy successfully did what was needed. He actually POKED people. Before that, no one wanted to ask questions. People were more afraid to “poke” this year than before. Why?

This is an interesting take that I haven’t seen voiced much elsewhere, if at all, though I can’t pretend to have read every one out there. Mackro is slyly calling a bluff here in understated fashion — are we all, after all, only speaking to ourselves in the end (something I’ve often always wondered about while moving between venue to venue and room to room while the ‘regular’ EMP visitors go through the exhibits and participate with the play-it-yourself attractions — it’s a subtle psychological separation that I’ve always found interesting for what has recently become a free event, though I understand the reasons for the distinctions made) — but also is I think underrating the potentials for conflict and disagreement within that audience. In the piece I linked above, Christgau details a few of those conflicts — academics/journalists and who presents more effectively, for instance, or the argument about, at one panel he attended, “whether the graduate-school postmodernese in which the dreadful previous paper was written constituted a dialect of English whose effect and/or intent was exclusion.” (I had been at said panel earlier and had heard something went down after I left; in retrospect part of me wanted to see it but part of me also knew that if I got onto that particular hobby horse I’d never get off it!) Bald-men-and-comb stuff, some might argue, but in keeping with my own hopefully improving perceptions of political nuance it was refreshing to sense that the monoliths are so rarely that — a lot of people brought a lot of different things to the table, no matter how much or little they were directly stated.

But to step back to Mackro’s point — elsewhere in his post he notes the question of fatigue, physical and mental, and I don’t think it’s any great revelation to note that the Pop Conference guiding spirit, Eric Weisbard, openly wrestled with the question of how many papers to include and what the length of the conference should be in the future at a couple of points throughout the weekend. As is always the case during the conference I try not to monopolize his time — it’s a bit like the folks who organize the Terrastocks, they do all the work, rush around and everyone’s always asking them at least a few questions every other minute — but you could tell he was feeling it a bit like most of us were.

Of course, it could simply mean that I’m getting old and less energetic. But that can’t be true, with me planning on living forever and all. I’m a realistic person, after all.

Anyway, to conclude on a positive note — it was, as always, well worth it, and everything from meeting everyone before the opening reception to the concluding post-conference meal at Tamarind Tree, followed by the launch party for the new issue of Yeti, made it all the more worth it. Mine was just one experience of many, a slightly cockeyed lens to read it all through perhaps — but if any of this sounds like it would have been at all interesting, come out for next year’s conference. You’ll find yourself rewarded.

A little something basic (for me at least)

Orzo with homemade tomato sauce (patiently waiting in the freezer from last summer) and fresh parmesan, a radish/apple salad with walnuts (interesting combination) and bread with a bit of margarine and garlic. No complaints!

Okay, the first of two EMP 2008 Pop Conference wrap-up posts

And this is the one where I pretty much say, please check out my summaries earlier, as I’ve gone through and done a variety of cleaning up and putting in a slew of links, including where possible links to the authors’ home pages and/or blogs. The links are for the most part to various home pages or resources of artists, writers and so forth referred to in the presentations, as well as YouTube clips where relevant.

If any of the presenters notice a grievous error in the notes, ie you said one thing but my notes make it seem completely opposite, please let me know; any improved or more appropriate links always welcome too. Those four main entries again:

Anyway, hope this becomes a handy if very limited resource for anyone wanting to review the content of the conference as I encountered it; as I said some time ago, one can only see about a quarter of the conference at best since you can’t be in four places at the same time, and while you can make the argument for skipping around to catch five minutes of each presenter, I freely admit I couldn’t imagine it! Many different presentations have been cited as standouts by others, with a slew of comments about Charles Aaron’s piece on Labi Siffre emerging over the last couple of days, but having regrets about what you missed is as much a part of the experience as what you caught.

Actual final thoughts later today.


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