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THIS IS NOT A TEST with Michael Phillips

Cultural pioneers – THIS IS NOT A TEST #4 (transcript)

Published January 17, 2015 [Podcast link]

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“You can recognize a pioneer by the arrows in his back.” I thought it was said by someone cool, but it appears to be from Beverly Rubik – biophysicist who seems to be involved in some kind of kook science dealing with auras and diet.

I often think about pioneers – mainly in music – people who created new sounds, new genres – it doesn’t happen very often so there aren’t a lot of them. New genres of music usually spring up from communities of musicians rather than individuals – Jazz, Rock and Roll, Hip Hop, Reggae – totally new sounds that can’t really be traced back to a single person. They were just movements, changes, usually brought on by cultural changes.

You don’t have to be a pioneer to be a great artist, but I have always been drawn to the pioneers. Someone like Prince is a pioneer, even though he didn’t create funk or rock and roll, but he merged them in a brand new way. Punk rock was really just rock and roll but with a completely retooled attitude and approach. I love a lot of musicians and writers who aren’t necessarily breaking new ground, but are really really good at working the established ground. Regina Spektor, Fiona Apple, Aimee Mann, Miranda July – I’m trying to think of a dude to mention with all of these women, but I can’t. Sorry dudes.

How do you know when something is new and pioneering? Usually you can tell because it seems crazy or ugly or jarringly unusual – at first anyway. Personally I identify pioneers by their ability to make me laugh. What I’m laughing at is the newness, the audacity. I think of the first time I heard Prince or the Ramones and it made me laugh because I couldn’t believe someone was actually doing what they were doing. And I’m not exaggerating when I say that first Ramones album literally changed my life. Is there a record that’s come out in the last 30 years that you can say that about?

Where music is concerned we don’t have any pioneers working it these days. There hasn’t been a completely new and fresh musical style since the 70s, when hip hop and reggae came onto the scene. They came into the popular consciousness around the same time, but hip hop is actually a child of reggae, and the Jamaican DJs who first started talking – or toasting, as they called it – over instrumental records in the 60s. And don’t talk to me about electronic music – that also started in the 60s, and all of it is just amped up disco. Remember disco? It never died, it just put on some furry boots and picked up a fistful of glow sticks.

But the 60s and 70s were a long time ago man, so what’s going on? Where are the musical pioneers? Or the movie or art pioneers?

The last new genre of movies was also created in the 70s, the action movie, which was born in the twisted mind of George Miller who made Mad Max and The Road Warrior. The Road Warrior is a perfect movie, and I think one of the greatest movies ever made, because when it came out it made me laugh. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. It was completely fresh and new and really fucking cool. My friend brad turned me on to it, and he said to me, “When you see this thing you’re going to wear your engineer boots for a month without taking them off.” And he was right. Not about the boots, but the movie stayed with me for a long time. I still watch it every couple of years and marvel at its grisly perfection.

And if you go back to the silent era you have someone like Louise Brooks – well not someone like Louise Brooks, there was only one Louise Brooks – iconoclastic and idealistic, she was the first actor to behave like a normal human being in front of the camera. Before she came along movie acting was all about campily exaggerating everything, you know, so the idiots in the audience would understand what the actor was supposed to be feeling. Then Brooks came along and made them all look like fools overnight by acting with her eyes and subtle gestures and real nuance. It must have been astounding to see at the time, when everyone else was acting like a circus clown.

But she didn’t underestimate the audience, and I think that’s a common thread among a lot of pioneers. They just assume that certain people will “get it,” and they don’t worry about everyone else. How else do you explain a band like The Stooges?

And writers – Bukowski was a pioneer, and he took a lot of arrows in the 50s and 60s when his fellow poets criticized him for being vulgar and artless. They were all writing about lofty bullshit within accepted poetic parameters. They were rhyming fer chrissakes. So when Bukowski came along and started writing about his everyday life, as ugly as it sometimes was, the poets of the day were beside themselves with horror and indignation. “That’s not poetry, he’s just typing,” “It’s classless and vulgar and it has no place in a literary publication.” Those are the kinds of things his contemporaries said in letters to the literary magazines.

But a handful of smart people saw what Bukowski was doing and recognized it as the next stage, the next wave of poetry. Now you can’t swing a dead possum without hitting half a dozen bearded wankers who are emulating Bukowski’s writing style and what they think was his lifestyle. It’s a lot harder to be a pioneer in literature than in music, because it’s limited to words and what you can do to make people feel something with those words.

Movies, I don’t know. It seems to me that it would be a little easier there because you have images, words and music to work with. But the state of movies is especially pathetic right now. It’s just an industry that feeds off and endlessly repeats itself. And you could say the same thing about music.

I’m critical of most modern pop or rock and roll, and people say to me, “Well, you’re just old and cynical,” and I can see how it might look that way, but I’m really not. I believe some kid in a bedroom or some little group of musicians somewhere are cooking up something wonderful, and I can’t wait to hear it. I know I won’t like it at first, because it will be new, but I wait and wait for it, it just never comes. And I don’t think it’s because I’m not listening. I listen to “new music” every day. Here in los angeles, and probably in your city too, we have a college radio station that constantly plays new music. Here it’s KCRW. I Listen to it every day on the way in to work, Morning Becomes Eclectic.

And you know how college radio is. They get a big hard on for anything that’s obscure or unknown, so I hear a lot of that stuff. And some of it is really good. Like I said, you can work with established forms and do something great. But none of it is new. Zero. Zilch, nada. When I hear something that I like, I can always identify the influences. Part of that is just because I’m old and have been listening to music for 50 years. So I’m going to hear things that I know are derivative when a 20 year old is going to hear something brand new to them in the same music.

And maybe that’s enough for the 20 year old. You know, like some TV network said about their re-runs, “If you haven’t seen it, it’s new to you!” Maybe I was lucky to be looking for something new when punk and reggae and hip hop were born. Maybe the people who were teenagers when rock and roll was born, or when Bukowski started getting his poems published or Louise Brooks movies were showing in the movie house were lucky too. Maybe it’s all just an accident of birth and expectations. Because really, most people don’t care about the new. They’re fine with the status quo, and there’s nothing wrong with that, this is all just entertainment to most people.

But it’s more than just entertainment to some of us. It’s life itself, or at least it’s what makes life interesting and beautiful. And that’s probably why I have different expectations than a lot of people. Because I want to be invigorated by art, I want to feel something, I want to have a reaction good or bad. The worst thing that can happen is seeing or hearing something and saying “Whatever.” And unfortunately that’s what I find myself saying about so many things. Whatever. I feel nothing. It’s all gloss and sugar. There’s no blood anymore. There’s no danger, no broken teeth or bloody knuckles. Nothing is offensive.

I feel bad for those 20 year olds. For me, having every piece of recorded music at my fingertips is great because I already have a frame of reference for it. But I can’t imagine growing up that way. It has to be a daunting thing, being able to hear all of humanity’s music and see all of humanity’s art any time you want to. I can only imagine what it must be like to try to create in that atmosphere…to try to make something new. I don’t know how anyone even tries. But they are out there, the kids who are going to turn shit upside down. I just don’t know what they’re waiting for.

I do know that being a pioneer or an early artistic adopter isn’t easy. The new frightens people. It threatens their notions of what art is. Makes them uneasy. The rockers that were desperately clinging to 70s rock when it was obviously uninspired and dying were particularly angry about punk rock and really aggravated by those of us who played it. I couldn’t tell you how many times insults or bottles were flung at us by mulleted heshers sporting old, stained Zeppelin t shirts. They were acting out their fears and disappointment. But so were we, though the two sides never seemed to recognize that common ground.

Disillusionment and boredom were the motivation behind a lot of punk rock, and before we could create something new we had to tear down the old. Which is why so many punks dismissed or put down the rock and pop music of the 60s and 70s. We had to do that to get a clear path. Now that it’s all ancient history we can come out of the closet and admit our love for that stuff. But at the time all we could do was sweep it all away into the trash. We had no use for it.

Which kind of brings me to the almost always unfortunate thing about pioneers, and that is their lack of “success,” financial or otherwise. They pave the road that subsequent generations of artists drive their 18 wheelers down, screaming and laughing and tossing empty champagne bottles out the window. It isn’t their fault. Most artists are followers, not innovators. So Green Day, Nirvana and the thousands of people who paint pictures of little girls with big heads and eyes are just doing what artists have always done. Cranking out the products of the zeitgeist and cashing checks.

Does that make things worse? Kind of, but not really. We don’t need 400 death metal bands singing in monster voices, but I don’t think anyone wants to live in a world where all art is new all the time. Sometimes we need the comfort of the familiar. But we need the new sometimes, otherwise we find ourselves in a world of sameness, like we are now. Waiting for an eruption somewhere, a shake up, a new idea. Can you see anything on the horizon? Do you feel anything coming? Doe you see any pioneers out there? I don’t. But I remain hopeful, because hope is very punk rock.

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