The great bluesman Blues Boy King has passed. Not unexpected, for he has been critically ill and in hospice care. I have had boundless respect and love for this amazing musician since I first saw him perform when I was in my teens. My favorite Pandora channel is named after him.

The blues have fueled my musical passions since I was a boy. My musical tastes have always been defined by my love of the blues. I have often said that were I to have my life to live over again I would play sax in a blues band. BB King has been an important part of my musical soul and I will miss him.

“I stepped out of Mississippi when I was ten years old. With a suit cut sharp as a razor and a heart made of gold. I had a guitar hanging just about waist high. And I’m gonna play this thing … until the day I die.”

“Montage of Heck” captures the contradictions of Kurt Cobain — and the America that shaped him

Smells like doomed genius: 

Yes, it’s Courtney-approved, but this documentary is a moving and powerful portrait of Kurt Cobain’s America

Smells like doomed genius: "Montage of Heck" captures the contradictions of Kurt Cobain -- and the America that shaped him

“Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck” (Credit: Sundance Institute)

I remember coming to work on the morning Kurt Cobain was found dead, and feeling puzzled that a younger writer at our San Francisco alternative weekly – who would go on to become a prominent newspaper and magazine editor in New York – was so upset that she sat at her desk all day crying. I could psychoanalyze myself at Cobain-like depth, but the reasons I didn’t get it were basically stupid and defensive. Of course I knew Cobain’s music, and I understood that his death was a big story. But I was also deeply committed to my own disillusionment, to never being taken by surprise. I had already been through the first wave of punk rock, the worst years of AIDS, the deaths of a lot of people less famous than him. I would have rejected Cobain’s status as generational icon even more forcefully than he did – which, in retrospect, looks a lot like deep yearning, thinly wrapped in snobbery. His combination of suburban angst, drug addiction and mental-health issues was an old story, wasn’t it? Just another “Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide,” a song David Bowie wrote in 1972. Nothing to cry about.

Fourteen years later, I was with my kids at a beachfront amusement park when my friend Laura Miller, Salon’s book critic, called to tell me that David Foster Wallace was dead. I got out of the roller coaster line to talk to her – Laura knew Wallace, but I didn’t – and one of the first things to swim into my brain, addled as it was by sunshine and a friend’s grief, was Kurt Cobain. At the time, I understood the connection as a personal commandment to have this experience, complete with all the Cobain-like and Wallace-like ironic introspection it might require; I took it as an edict not to insulate myself against the shared emotion, and potential shared meaning, of this moment of collective mourning. It took longer to see that the linkages between Cobain and Wallace go much deeper than that, and that many other people registered the connection in approximately the same way.

For many viewers of Brett Morgen’s extraordinary HBO documentary “Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck,” the most fascinating and powerful elements of the film will be found in the intimate home videos shot by Cobain and Courtney Love in the early ‘90s, before and after their daughter Frances was born. (Frances Bean Cobain is an executive producer of the film, and both its remarkable depth and its limitations derive from the fact that it’s an authorized biography, made with the cooperation of Love, Cobain’s parents and various former friends and bandmates.) That footage is absolutely heartbreaking in its depiction of a loving, flawed, high-spirited and essentially normal young family, a long way from the drug-crazed rock-star fiends favored by the tabloids of that not-so-distant era. Yes, rock fans, you do get to see Courtney naked. Impressive as that is, it’s not half as much fun as hearing her ventriloquize baby Frances complaining that her dad’s band are self-indulgent whiners who aren’t as good as Guns N’ Roses. (Footnote for scholars: Cobain’s obsession with GnR frontman Axl Rose is fascinating, but ultimately aren’t they more alike than different?)

But I watched that amazing material with a sense that by that time the die had already been cast. Love and Cobain were famous and their baby, allegedly born addicted to heroin, was famous too. What they were “really like,” as human beings, was irrelevant. As long as they lived they were going to be famous rock ‘n’ roll fuckups, damaged symbols of a damaged generation. For someone with Cobain’s particular set of neuroses, ailments and vulnerabilities, not to mention his philosophical and aesthetic predilections, that might literally be a fate worse than death. I’m not saying that other outcomes, not involving a shotgun blast to the head, were not possible. But there was no easy or painless exit from the prison-house of celebrity available to Kurt Cobain, and he didn’t much like living in it.

Morgen’s title refers both to an extended audio collage Cobain once recorded on cassette tape – just one example of his explosive, unstoppable cultural output – and to the method of the film itself, which assembles an immense trove of public and private material to illustrate a life spent first in obscurity and then in the unbearable spotlight. He has Cobain’s famous notebooks full of lyrics, journal entries, cartoons and momentary observations, of course, but also home movies of his 3rd birthday party, a collection of family snapshots, recordings of early radio interviews and footage of the first Nirvana shows in Aberdeen or Olympia, with a few dozen people in attendance.

He interviews Wendy O’Connor, Cobain’s overly loquacious mother, Don Cobain, his monosyllabic father, and Tracy Marander, who was Cobain’s first serious girlfriend and the first woman he lived with. (He was a total deadbeat, from the sound of things, but Marander doesn’t seem to regret working for a living while he played guitar and watched TV. Here she is in a movie, all these years later.) Oh, and there’s music – a lot of it, the famous tracks and a bunch of lesser-known ones. You will indeed hear “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” in a number of versions and a variety of contexts – and when we finally get the actual Nirvana recording over the closing credits, well, I’m not saying I cried in grief and joy and anger but I’m not saying I didn’t.

Rather than trying to describe all these people who have lived on and gotten older, and who now find themselves sitting on their couches struggling to describe or explain a guy they used to know who became very famous and then died, I would say that “Montage of Heck” paints a bitter but compassionate portrait of the downscale white America that shaped Kurt Cobain. He was born in 1967, which surely felt more like 1957 in Aberdeen, Washington, than it did in the tumultuous climate of big cities and college towns. O’Connor says she remembers Aberdeen as a wonderful place to raise a family, and that her kids had a happy childhood. Not much later in the film we hear Cobain describe Aberdeen, in a recorded conversation with an old friend, as an “isolated hellhole” dominated by moralistic Reaganite conformity. You don’t get the feeling that teenage Kurt was an easy kid to live with, or someone who naturally made the best out of difficult circumstances. But his inarticulate sense that the society around him was fundamentally inauthentic, and his yearning to transform it or destroy it, molded one of the last and greatest voices of what Casey Kasem used to call the “rock era.”

Teenage alienation and rebellion is of course not a new phenomenon, and is not unique to the depressed lumber towns of the Pacific Northwest (although I imagine that lent it a particular coloration). In the animations Morgen’s team has created to illustrate Cobain’s audio montages, we witness the highly familiar quality of Cobain’s childhood and teen years: His parents were unhappy and got divorced, he smoked a lot of pot and had frustrating sexual experiences, he was an intelligent and creative kid who found school to be soul-deadening and found some release in loud music. There may be no comprehensible answer to the question of why he responded so keenly to these stimuli, which were applied with equal force to millions of other kids of the downward-trending ‘70s and ‘80s. From an early age, Kurt Cobain yearned to make memorable art, escape his surroundings and become famous, and from an early age he contemplated ending his life, with the kind of obsessive, repeated “jokes” that are impossible to gauge from the outside.

If Cobain and Wallace worked in different mediums and different registers, and emerged from different sectors of middle-class white suburbia – indeed, you can only call Cobain’s background “middle class” under the postwar convention that all white Americans who have jobs and cars belong to that class by definition – there is no mistaking the kinship of their unnaturally keen responses. They were 1960s babies who grew up amid Vietnam and Watergate and the gas crisis and Whip Inflation Now and Jimmy Carter in his cardigan talking about our “national malaise,” and who were teenagers and young adults as that malaise and turmoil turned to amnesia and denial and the suicidal, delusional counterrevolution of the Reagan years. America has not recovered from the cultural and political whiplash of those years and probably never will.

All of us who lived through that period bear the scars, and we have all tried to react to it and push forward as best we can. Of course Wallace is not the only important writer of their generation, nor is Cobain the only memorable singer-songwriter. But they are joined by the intensity of their response – “Nevermind” and “Infinite Jest” are highly singular works in totally different traditions, but I think they represent the same scale of achievement and possess a similar cultural resonance – and by the way they touched a deep well of passion, hunger and unease that transcended demographic or generational clichés. It’s by no means irrelevant that they were both white heterosexual men who were deeply aware of the problematic nature of the Great Man archetype, and committed to addressing that issue in their work and their private lives. And it’s certainly not irrelevant that they became overwhelmed by the vicious contradictions of fame in our era — or, to put it more simply, that they could not escape the private demons of mental illness and drug addiction and ended by killing themselves.

As I noted earlier, “Montage of Heck” was made with the cooperation of Courtney Love and several other relatives or intimate friends of Kurt Cobain. (The most prominent omission is Nirvana drummer Dave Grohl.) Among other things, that means the movie does not traffic in any of the pathological conspiracy theories around Cobain’s death, or indeed depict his death in any way. It may whitewash some details of Love and Cobain’s relationship – I wouldn’t know, and don’t especially care – and it certainly depicts the reporters who raked up dirt on the couple, especially Lynn Hirschberg of Vanity Fair, as unscrupulous vultures.

I would agree that the media’s vampirical obsession with the Kurt-and-Courtney story was not journalism’s finest hour, and that it reflected profound anxiety about the youth-culture moment they were seen to represent. But that’s too large a problem to unpack here; I think it’s best to take the Courtney-centric area of the film with a grain of salt and draw your own conclusions. Those are minor issues in a masterful and often deeply moving portrait of a volatile American genius, a portrait that goes far beyond one man, one family and one rain-sodden small town. It depicts the society that nurtured and fed that genius, and that made his unlikely creative explosion possible, as being the same environment that poisoned him — and suggests that the rise and fall were inextricably connected. Kurt Cobain was a canary in the coalmine, as was David Foster Wallace. You and I are still in it, and it’s getting harder to breathe.

“Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck” opens this week in Los Angeles, New York and Seattle, and then premieres May 4 on HBO.

The Big Shift Needed for Humanity to Protect the Earth: Restore the Commons

On Earth Day, let’s talk about making the commons the organizing principle of social, economic and cultural life.

Photo Credit: Garry Knight/Flickr

At a time when ecological destruction is more dire than ever, the work of protecting the planet depends on dreamers just as much as of scientists, activists, public officials and business leaders.

Earth Day, when millions of people voice support for environmental causes, is the perfect time to recognize this. While it’s critical to wrestle power away from those who believe that corporate profits are all that matter, we won’t achieve a sustainable, just future without serious attention to imagining a different kind of world. That’s why it’s great to see artists playing an increasingly active role in the climate justice movement today.

What bold blueprints for a green planet will arise if we unleash the full power of our idealism and ingenuity? What visions of new ways to lead our lives would turn the public’s indifference about climate change into enthusiasm for building a society that is more sustainable and fair for all?

The focus for most people’s dreams would be the familiar places they love—neighborhoods, cities, suburbs, villages and countryside. Think what could happen if we declared these places commons, which belong to all of us and need to be improved for future generations. Citizens would stand up, lock arms with their neighbors and demand new political and economic directions for our society. They would open discussions with business leaders, government officials, scientists and design professionals on how to create resilient, equitable, greener communities. But the conversation wouldn’t stop there. We’d plan for less carbon and waste and poverty, but also for more fun and joy and conviviality—which are equally strategic goals.

The chief obstacle to taking action on climate change and global inequality is fear of the economic sacrifices involved for people who are relatively well off today. The decline in the West’s material consumption could be more than compensated for by a richer life filled more human connections and natural splendor. We can look forward to a world with more congenial gathering places like parks, plazas, museums, playing fields, ice cream parlors and cafes—lots and lots of cafes. Millions of acres and hectares of pavement would be torn up and transformed into gardens, performance spaces, amusement parks and affordable housing.

Cities would be greener. Suburbs would be livelier. Rural communities would be more robust. You’d see folks of all ages, incomes, and ethnicities as well as social and political inclinations sharing the same spaces, talking with one another even if not always agreeing. In short, the world would be a lot more interesting for everyone. I can’t think of many folks—from free market zealots to ardent political organizers, religious fundamentalists to confirmed hedonists—who wouldn’t jump at the chance to experience more pizzazz and spirit of community in their lives.

But the biggest change we’d see if the commons became the organizing principle of social, economic and cultural life would be felt in our own hearts and imaginations. These days, most of us experience modern life as a fragmented and alienating, which makes us retreat into ourselves as a defensive posture. We feel a growing sense of loneliness—quiet desperation in Thoreau’s phrase—that renders us passive and withdrawn at a time when it’s more important than ever to reach out.

Creating stronger, friendlier, more engaged communities is not a sideshow in the urgent cause of saving the planet. It is a central strategy. Because when people connect, roll up their sleeves and get down to work protecting the places they care about, anything is possible. There’s a whole world of people out there ready to dream big and then put it into action.

Jay Walljasper is a writer and speaker who explores how new ideas in urban planning, tourism, community development, sustainability, politics and culture can improve our lives as well as the world.

How ‘420’ Became the Big Day for Weed Smokers Across America


The little known origins of the 4-20 holiday

This story originally ran on and has been reprinted with permission by the author, Ryan Grim. He is the author of This Is Your Country On Drugs: The Secret History of Getting High in America.

Warren Haynes, the Allman Brothers Band guitarist, routinely plays with the surviving members of the Grateful Dead, now touring as “The Dead.” Having just finished a Dead show in Washington, D.C., the musician gets a pop quiz from this reporter: Where does “420” come from?

He pauses and thinks, hands on his side.  “I don’t know the real origin.  I know myths and rumors,” he says.  “I’m really confused about the first time I heard it.  It was like a police code for smoking in progress or something.  What’s the real story?” Depending on who you ask, or their state of inebriation, there are as many varieties of answers as strains of medical bud in California: It’s the number of active chemicals in marijuana; it’s tea time in Holland; it’s those numbers in that Bob Dylan song multiplied.

The origin of the term 420, celebrated around the world by pot smokers every April 20, has long been obscured by the clouded memories of the folks who made it a phenomenon.

An exhaustive search chased the term back to its roots, where it was found in a lost patch of cannabis in a Point Reyes, Calif., forest.  Just as interesting as its origin, it turns out, is how it spread.

It starts with the Dead.  It was Christmas week in Oakland, 1990.  Steven Bloom was wandering through the Lot – that timeless gathering of hippies that springs up in the parking lot before every Grateful Dead concert – when a Deadhead handed him a yellow flier.

“We are going to meet at 4:20 on 4/20 for 420-ing in Marin County at the Bolinas Ridge sunset spot on Mt.  Tamalpais,” reads the message, which Bloom managed to dig up for this story.  Bloom, then a reporter for High Timesmagazine and now the publisher of and co-author of Pot Culture, had never heard of “420-ing” before.

The flier came complete with a 420 backstory: “420 started somewhere in San Rafael, California in the late ’70s.  It started as the police code for Marijuana Smoking in Progress.  After local heads heard of the police call, they started using the expression 420 when referring to herb: Let’s Go 420, dude!”

Bloom reported his find in the May 1991 issue of High Times, which the magazine found in its archives and courteously offered up for this piece.  The story, though, was only partially right.  It had nothing to do with a police code, though the San Rafael part was dead on.

Indeed, a group of five San Rafael High School friends known as the Waldos by virtue of their chosen hangout spot, a wall outside the school, coined the term in 1971.  This reporter spoke with Waldo Steve, Waldo Dave and Dave’s older brother, Patrick, and confirmed their full names and identities, which they asked to keep secret for professional reasons.  ( Pot is still, after all, illegal.  )

The Waldos never envisioned that pot smokers the world over would celebrate each April 20 as a result of their foray into the Point Reyes forest.  The day has managed to become something of a national holiday in the face of official condemnation.

The code often creeps into popular culture and mainstream settings.  All of the clocks in Pulp Fiction, for instance, are set to 4:20.  In 2003, when the California legislature codified the medical marijuana law voters had approved, the bill was named SB420.

“We think it was a staffer working for [lead assembly sponsor Mark] Leno, but no one has ever fessed up,” says Steph Sherer, head of Americans for Safe Access, which lobbied on behalf of the bill.  California legislative staffers spoken to for this story say that the 420 designation remains a mystery, but that both Leno and the lead Senate sponsor, John Vasconcellos, are hip enough that they must have known what it meant.

The code pops up in Craigslist postings when fellow smokers search for “420-friendly” roommates.  “It’s just a vaguer way of saying it and it kind of makes it kind of cool,” Bloom says.  “Like, you know you’re in the know, but that does show you how it’s in the mainstream.” The Waldos do have proof, however, that they used the term in the early ’70s in the form of an old 420 flag and numerous letters with 420 references and early ’70s post marks.  They also have a story.

It goes like this: One day, in the fall of 1971 harvest time, the Waldos got word of a Coast Guard service member who could no longer tend his plot of marijuana plants near the Point Reyes Peninsula Coast Guard station.  A treasure map in hand, the Waldos decided to pluck some of this free bud.  The Waldos were all athletes and agreed to meet at the statue of Louis Pasteur outside the school at 4:20 p.m., after practice, to begin the hunt.

“We would remind each other in the hallways we were supposed to meet up at 4:20.  It originally started out 4:20-Louis and we eventually dropped the Louis,” Waldo Steve recalls.  The first forays out were unsuccessful, but the group kept looking for the hidden crop.  “We’d meet at 4:20 and get in my old ’66 Chevy Impala and, of course, we’d smoke instantly and smoke all the way out to Point Reyes, and smoke the entire time we were out there.  We did it week after week,” Steve says.  “We never actually found the patch.”

But they did find a useful code word.  “I could say to one of my friends, I’d go, ‘420,’ and it was telepathic.  He would know if I was saying, ‘Hey, do you wanna go smoke some?’ Or, ‘Do you have any?’ Or, ‘Are you stoned right now?’ It was kind of telepathic just from the way you said it,” Steve says.  “Our teachers didn’t know what we were talking about.  Our parents didn’t know what we were talking about.” It’s one thing to identify the origin of the term.  Indeed, Wikipedia and Urban Dictionary already include references to the Waldos.  The bigger question: How did 420 spread from a circle of California stoners across the globe?

As fortune would have it, the collapse of San Francisco’s hippie utopia in the late ’60s set the stage.  As speed freaks, thugs and con artists took over the Haight, San Francisco’s legendary hippie mecca and home to the Grateful Dead, the band picked up and moved to the Marin County hills just blocks from San Rafael High School.  “Marin Country was kind of ground zero for the counterculture,” Steve says.

The Waldos had more than just a geographic connection to the Dead.  Mark Waldo’s father took care of real estate for the Dead.  And Waldo Dave’s older brother, Patrick, managed a Dead sideband and was good friends with bassist Phil Lesh.  Patrick says that he smoked with Lesh on numerous occasions.  He couldn’t recall if he used the term 420 around him, but guessed that he must have.

The Dead, recalls Waldo Steve, “had this rehearsal hall on Front Street in San Rafael, Calif., and they used to practice there.  So we used to go hang out and listen to them play music and get high while they’re practicing for gigs.  But I think it’s possible my brother Patrick might have spread it through Phil Lesh.  And me too, because I was hanging out with Lesh and his band when they were doing a summer tour my brother was managing.”

The band that Patrick managed was called Too Loose to Truck and featured not only Lesh but rock legend David Crosby and acclaimed guitarist Terry Haggerty.  The Waldos also had open access to Dead parties and rehearsals.  “We’d go with [Mark’s] dad, who was a hip dad from the ’60s,” Steve says.  “There was a place called Winterland, and we’d always be backstage running around or onstage and, of course, we’re using those phrases.  When somebody passes a joint or something, ‘Hey, 420.’ So it started spreading through that community.”

Lesh, walking off the stage after a recent Dead concert, confirmed that Patrick is a friend and said he “wouldn’t be surprised” if the Waldos had coined 420.  He wasn’t sure, he said, when the first time he heard it was.  “I do not remember.  I’m very sorry.  I wish I could help,” he said.  Wavy-Gravy is a hippie icon with his own ice cream flavor and has been hanging out with the Dead for decades.  Spotted outside the concert, he was asked about the origin of 420 and suggested it began “somewhere in the foggy mists of time.  What time is it now? I say to you: eternity now.”

As the Grateful Dead toured the globe through the ’70s and ’80s, playing hundreds of shows a year, the term spread through the Dead underground.  Once High Timesgot hip to it, the magazine helped take it global.  “I started incorporating it into everything we were doing,” High Times editor Steve Hager said.  “I started doing all these big events – the World Hemp Expo Extravaganza and the Cannabis Cup – and we built everything around 420.  The publicity that High Timesgave it is what made it an international thing.  Until then, it was relatively confined to the Grateful Dead subculture.  But we blew it out into an international phenomenon.”

Sometime in the early ’90s, High Times wisely purchased the Web domain  Bloom, the reporter who first stumbled on it, gives High Times less credit.  “We posted that flier and then we started to see little references to it.  It wasn’t really much of High Times‘ doing,” he says.  “We weren’t really pushing it that hard, just kind of referencing the phrase.”

The Waldos say that, within a few years, the term had spread throughout San Rafael and was cropping up elsewhere in the state.  By the early ’90s, it had penetrated deep enough that Dave and Steve started hearing people use it in unexpected places – Ohio, Florida, Canada – and spotted it painted on signs and etched into park benches.

In 1997, the Waldos decided to set the record straight and got in touch withHigh Times.  “They said, ‘The fact is, there is no 420 [police] code in California.  You guys ever look it up?'” Blooms recalls.  He had to admit that no, he had never looked it up.  Hager flew out to San Rafael, met the Waldos, examined their evidence, spoke with others in town, and concluded they were telling the truth.  Hager still believes them.  “No one’s ever been able to come up with any use of 420 that predates the 1971 usage, which they had established.  So unless somebody can come up with something that predates them, then I don’t think anybody’s going to get credit for it other than them,” he says.

“We never made a dime on the thing,” says Dave, half boasting, half lamenting.  He does take pride in his role, though.  “I still have a lot of friends who tell their friends that they know one of the guys that started the 420 thing.  So it’s kind of like a cult celebrity thing.  Two years ago I went to the Cannabis Cup in Amsterdam.  High Times magazine flew me out,” says Dave.  Dave is now a credit analyst and works for Steve, who owns a specialty lending institution and lost money to the con artist Bernie Madoff.  He spends more time today, he says, composing angry letters to the SEC than he does getting high.  The other three Waldos have also been successful, Steve says.  One is head of marketing for a Napa Valley winery.  Another is in printing and graphics.  A third works for a roofing and gutter company.  “He’s like, head of their gutter division,” says Steve, who keeps in close touch with them all.  “I’ve got to run a business.  I’ve got to stay sharp,” says Steve, explaining why he rarely smokes pot anymore.  “Seems like everybody I know who smokes daily, or many times in a week, it seems like there’s always something going wrong with their life, professionally, or in their relationships, or financially or something.  It’s a lot of fun, but it seems like if someone does it too much, there’s some karmic cost to it.” “I never endorsed the use of marijuana.  But, hey, it worked for me,” Waldo Dave says.  “I’m sure on my headstone it’ll say: ‘One of the 420 guys.'”

Ryan Grim is a staff writer for Huffington Post. This story originally ran on and has been reprinted with permission by the author. Grim is also the author of This Is Your Country On Drugs: The Secret History of Getting High in America.

R.E.M.’s “Monster” ranked from start to finish

An under-appreciated, polarizing album that’s aged very well

The subversive and shape-shifting 1994 album topped the charts but was never necessarily beloved. Why it should be

R.E.M.'s "Monster" ranked from start to finish: An underappreciated, polarizing album that's aged very well
Michael Stipe, lead singer for R.E.M., sings to an audience at the Shoreline Ampitheatre during Neil Young’s Bridge School benefit concert Saturday, Oct. 18, 1998, in Mountain View, Calif. (AP Photo/John Todd)(Credit: John Todd)

As the years pass, R.E.M.’s “Monster” has emerged as one of the most polarizing albums in the band’s catalog. Still, the record is also one of the most interesting artifacts of the Athens, Georgia, group’s career. First of all, it was unexpected: After previous attempts to make a rock-oriented album yielded two decidedly quieter affairs–1991′s “Out Of Time” and 1992′s “Automatic for the People”–the band finally succeeded in crafting a loud, brash record suitable for live concerts. Second (and perhaps most important), the album was a thematic curveball akin to U2′s 1991 opus “Achtung Baby,” in that R.E.M. toyed with their own mythology and decidedly tried not to sound like themselves.

As guitarist Peter Buck put it in David Buckley’s “R.E.M.: Fiction, An Alternative Biography”: “The whole record was a kind of reaction to having people following us around to a big degree, making the news in all these weird ways. … I would say that this was the only time where [vocalist Michael Stipe’s] done characters that are creepy, and I don’t know if people got that. He was getting out his things by acting out these parts that are not him. He took the mantle of front person to a degree he hadn’t done in the past. It is a record that is our least direct and our tour was the least direct. … I think it was all character-driven in a way–let’s be someone else for a while.”

This personality shapeshifting didn’t hurt “Monster” commercially: The album debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard charts, sold 4 million copies and spawned several hits. Time has also been kind to the record, which sounds far weirder–and far more subversive–than it did at the time. And like many R.E.M. albums, its themes–ruminations on obsession, identity and fame–seem eerily prescient and timeless.

While there’s no real bad song on “Monster,” we decided to revisit the album and rank its songs. In ascending order:

12. “Bang and Blame”

The band’s last Top 40 hit has, over time, also come to feel like one of its most dated singles–and one of its least-essential songs. The protagonist is smugly satisfied that a deceitful person is getting their comeuppance and is refusing to be a victim anymore–”Stop laying blame/You know that’s not my thing”–although an exact motive for this vindictiveness is never clear. The song’s charred riffs and explosive chorus are engaging, but not as innovative as other moments on “Monster.”

11. “Tongue”

Musically, the weakest link on “Monster” is the delicate, piano- and organ-driven “Tongue,” an homage to genteel baroque pop that would eventually be overshadowed by plenty of moments on 1998′s “Up” and 2001′s “Reveal.” Still, the lyrics are far worthier: Written from the perspective of a woman who rues her inability to resist a paramour who is simply using her for sex, “Tongue” adroitly captures the feeling of self-loathing intrinsic to such a situation.

10. “You”

The “Monster” album-closer is mesmerizing, with an underbelly of sludgy, droning buzz overlaid with coiled rhythm guitars and wild-eyed declarations of all-consuming desire and obsession (“I can wing around your Saturn smile, shout at the moon,” “And I want you like a Pisces rising”). Yet it’s also the most unsettling song on a record full of both blatant and subtle unease; the relationship described in the song isn’t necessarily consensual–and it’s not necessarily going to have a happy ending. Either way, it’s an appropriate capper for an album that never goes for easy answers.

9. “Circus Envy”

One of those subtly genius songs, “Circus Envy” is written from the perspective of a circus animal seething with anger over mistreatment; the character threatens mayhem should escape ever occur. But like George Orwell’s “1984,” the song also functions as an allegory for anyone oppressed by government tactics, the patriarchy or any other suppressive forces. The underlying bomb-fuse sound effects, metallic-coated vocal processing and martial-sounding drums further contribute to the song’s uneasy, apocalyptic feel.

8. “I Took Your Name”

“I Took Your Name” is a sonic and lyrical cousin to “Crush with Eyeliner”; the tune deals with chameleonic personalities and the subsequent havoc wreaked by those who shape-shift with nefarious intentions. Choppy guitar riffs, menacing vocals and spates of falsetto harmonies only encourage this tension.

7. “King of Comedy”

A satirical look at commercial success and toying with labels (e.g., sexual preferences, religious beliefs) to curry attention and financial gain, the growling, gravelly “King Of Comedy” sounds like a fractured take on the liquid post-punk favored by R.E.M.’s longtime influence Gang of Four. Thematically, it also shares traits with the latter band’s output; in the end, the lyrics condone the crassness of fame and superstars-as-objects:  “I’m not commodity.”

6. “Star 69″

About as punk as R.E.M. ever sounded (on record, at least), “Star 69″ ranks up there with the Replacements’ “Answering Machine” as one of the best rock & roll songs about antiquated technology. Take a chaotic tempo–the aural equivalent of amusement park bumper cars careening all over the place–add plenty of vocal delay and then pile on of stacks of jangly, haywire riffs; the result is oddly life-affirming.

5. “Strange Currencies”

Consider this a song a sonic holdover from R.E.M.’s recent acoustic elegies, and a welcome respite from “Monster”‘s noisier songs, courtesy of its arpeggiated guitars and waltzing tempo. Like “The One I Love,” “Strange Currencies” is also deeply misunderstood. On the surface, the tune’s about a love affair; however, its lyrical desperation–”I need a chance, a second chance, a third chance, a fourth chance…”–and pointed descriptions (“I don’t know why you’re mean to me/When I call on the telephone”) reveal the song’s about an unrequited love affair where the rejected person isn’t taking no for an answer.

4. “Crush with Eyeliner”

On the surface, “Crush With Eyeliner” is about the age-old phenomenon of changing personality to attract a gorgeous crush. But like many songs on “Monster,” the song has a creepy bent (“What can I make myself be (Fake her)/To make her mine?”) and has quiet depth–in this case, an exploration of the slippery nature of identity. Sleazy, woozy electric riffs and grooves (as well as an ominous second voice from Thurston Moore) complete the seductive package.

3. “I Don’t Sleep, I Dream”

Perhaps the most underrated song on “Monster” is “I Don’t Sleep, I Dream.” Sonically, it’s a foggy daydream centered around glassy piano shards, askew guitar chime and pounding-heartbeat percussion; lyrically, it’s an enigmatic, cryptic song that leaves things wide open to interpretation: “I’ll settle for a cup of coffee, but you know what I really need.” Plus, Michael Stipe’s falsetto surge when he sings “I don’t sleep, I dream” amps up the emotional urgency.

2. “What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?”

The buzzsawing first single from “Monster” heralded that R.E.M. was going in a different musical direction, from the tremolo-drenched riffs and the elliptical choruses to Peter Buck’s rare solo on the bridge–a distorted, malleable beast that never turned out exactly the same way twice in concert. But “Kenneth”–which refers to a phrase uttered during a 1986 attack on Dan Rather–also fell in line with the album’s commentary on pop culture and mass media. The titular phrase is intoxicating to the protagonist (perhaps because it’s so slangy), while the sharply observant line, “You said that irony was the shackles of youth,” sums up the generation gap that broke wide open during the ’90s.

1. “Let Me In”

The death of Kurt Cobain hovered over “Monster,” which was released less than six months after he passed. (Buck even played one of the Nirvana frontman’s guitars in the “What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?” video.) Fittingly, R.E.M. memorialized Cobain with the achingly straightforward, grief-stricken “Let Me In.” As Stipe cries out in anguish at being unable to stop his death–”I had a mind to try to stop you. let me in. let me in/But I’ve got tar on my feet and I can’t see”–the band surrounds him with dusty clouds of unfocused, distorted guitar and a keening, funereal organ. “Let Me In” succeeds because it is so wrenching–wishing only for a small, universal gesture that’s heartbreaking in its simplicity.

Annie Zaleski is a freelance writer based in Cleveland, Ohio.

Alec Empire’s latest statement on electronic music

A New Kind of Brutality

Alec Empire’s latest statement regarding the direction electronic music has taken, published in French in this month’s Trax Magazine.

It is 2015, and I feel like God’s hand has wiped us all off the continent, right into the icy water of the Antarctic. It was easy, even smooth, but with a new kind of brutality.

He is laughing at us, we can hear his deep, low voice in the winds, coming from all sides. A storm is coming. The earth is opening underneath our feet.

I have actually never believed in God or the concept of it. I always believed that we self determine our lives. I still believe this very strongly. We don’t have to believe blindly everything that other men have written down in religious books in some ancient time, when life was completely different. Believing something is one thing, but to let that drive our actions is another. The same goes for all these rules and unwritten laws in what we call “DJ culture”.

The second half of each decade is always completely different than the first half.

A new phase has begun. The first half was dominated by the euphoria we all felt about the free internet, social media and all hopes that came with it… The hope that we will be truly free. But instead, we seem to be riding on this train through a tunnel into darkness, the black hole that sucks us further into something we’ve lost control over.

Everyone can be creative, everyone can be a producer, everyone is equal.
But only if we buy certain technology that enables us to do so. This was the mantra for decades, Silicon Valley built its wealth on selling us this idea.

We witness that this hasn’t worked. We could even argue that creativity never worked this way. Now whenever creatives meet an audience online, they face a new kind of hostility. Frustration and aggressive behavior have increased a lot, I hear this from many creative people. The mob is winning. And most people choose apathy, so they don’t get noticed by the mob.

I grew up with the original ideals of the Techno movement. People should listen to the music they themselves have selected and not because context, location or their peers have pressured them to do so. Staying anonymous helps you to become who you want to be. The best DJs and producers in the history of electronic music will stay unknown, don’t win awards and don’t get a mention in history books or appear in exhibitions in museums.

Decentralization. We should set this as our highest goal again because creativity flourishes in a decentralized system. Decentralization does not happen when everyone acts like rivals on the same social media platforms, trying to become the most popular. Decentralization also means that we abandon and ignore stats systems like YouTube, Facebook or Instagram.

Our blind naive faith in technology has led us into a dead end. Many will understand what I mean in the coming years. Some are already feeling the consequences. Pay close attention, then ask yourself which headline DJ is absorbing the energy of the crowd, transforms it into creativity and then feeds it back into the crowd? We get this uneasy feeling in our stomachs, that in reality this has become a rare moment, it feels almost surreal when it does happen, it’s like a distant dream that we can’t recall after we’ve woken up.

What I am saying here is that if we give up that dialogue between crowd and DJ and the philosophy behind it, then we give up the very essence of what Electronic Music is about. A mass of people should never be brought in line by a DJ. But I see that since the explosion of American EDM, that this is exactly what everyone aspires to do. Are we witnessing how our generation is giving birth to a new kind of cultural fascism to that was unthinkable before? We can measure those changes, we can “see” them. We can see events like the destruction of Charlie Hebdo, the rise of Anti-Semitism all over Europe and the PEGIDA protests in Germany in which Neo-Nazis proudly participate without shame. These are just examples. We can try to create a parallel world in our clubs and festivals, even for a short moment. For a few hours we can agree on our core values, defend them, celebrate them. We won’t feel isolated or alone anymore. But this means that we must define those values from new, or remind ourselves of those we want to bring with us from the past into the future. I am totally aware of all those cynics out there who giggle in embarrassment right now, because this is is an inconvenient truth for them. I can only say to them, we don’t live in an ivory tower…sooner or later this will concern all of us. The music scene is always a reflection of the society it exists in.

The Electronic Music scene can continue to twiddle knobs, press buttons, like those gambling addicts in Las Vegas, who keep trying and trying to take their chance… Or we decide how the future will look like for us. I choose the second.

Stay strong, my friends and allies!

Alec Empire
Berlin , Friday, February 13, 2015


Jay Z Formally Launches New Tidal

Streaming Service At NYC Event


     Music artist Jay Z formally announced the launch of his new digital streaming platform Tidal earlier this week at a New York event featuring his wife Beyonce, Alicia Keys, Chris Martin (Coldplay), Usher, Nicki Minaj, Rihanna, Kanye West, and Madonna. Jay Z – also known as Shawn Carter – acquired Sweden-based Aspiro for $56 million, and the artists featured onstage were introduced as co-owners of the company. According to Variety, this represents the first artist-owned digital-music service, although the extent of their actual financial participation is not known. Other artists reportedly involved in the service include Arcade Fire, Calvin Harris, Daft Punk, Jack White (formerly of the White Stripes), and Deadmau5.

“Our goal is to create a better service and a better experience for both fans and artitsts,” Alicia Keys said at the event. “We believe that it is in everyone’s interests – fans, artists, and the industry as a whole – to preserve the value of music, and to ensure a healthy and robust industry for years to come.”

Tidal is designed to compete with Spotify and Apple’s highly anticipated streaming service, expected to launch in June. The service is available across all iOS and Android devices, as well as in web browsers and desktop players, and offers a library of more than 25 million tracks, 75,000 music videos, and curated editorial articles. The standard audio version (Tidal Premium) will cost $9.99 per month and the high-def audio version (Tidal HiFi) will be $19.99 per month. Both tiers are free to try out for 30 days, according to the company.


Investor Group Says Vivendi

Undervalues UMG, Should Spin It Off


     P. Schoenfeld Asset Management (PSAM) is calling for changes at French media conglomerate Vivendi, insisting – among other things – that the company spin off Universal Music, which controls more than 30% of the global recording industry. While PSAM owns less than 1% of Vivendi, it maintains that Universal’s underlying value – tied to an expected bump in streaming revenues and Apple’s pending entry into the business – is obscured by the parent company’s conglomerate structure, and therefore is not a good fit. PSAM repeatedly has accused Vivendi and its chairman, Vincent Bolloré, of trying to keep the company’s market value (and shareholder returns) artificially low.

“By not distributing adequate cash to shareholders and providing vague guidance about Vivendi’s acquisition plans, Mr. Bolloré and Vivendi’s management board are asking investors to have blind faith in their plan for the company’s future,” the hedge fund said in advance of an April 17 shareholders meeting.

As reported by Quartz, PSAM says there will be more than 250 million streaming music subscribers globally by 2020 (that number is about 5% of the predicted global smartphone customer base in 2020, which PSAM thinks will be 5.03 billion). These subscribers alone, the firm believes, will generate $16.42 billion in revenue – more than the entire global recorded music industry (including physical sales and downloads) is expected to generate this year ($14 billion). Interestingly, that $16.42 billion works out to just $5.45 per month per subscriber – less than the $10 a month most streaming services currently charge – which would suggest that different pricing models may take hold.

Streaming platforms (e.g., Spotify) typically return about 70% of their revenues to record labels and publishers in royalties and, since Universal is both the world’s largest record company and one of its largest publishers, it would presumably receive a significant chunk of that money. PSAM says Bolloré’s investor group recently doubled its stake in Vivendi to approximately 10%, thus benefiting from Vivendi’s undervaluation and the absence of a detailed capital allocation plan. As a result, PSAM said it was “concerned about the investors’ opportunistic purchases.” [Read more: Wall Street Journal

Apple’s Anticipated Digital Streaming

Service Is No Slam-Dunk Against Pandora


     Despite the media hyperbole surrounding the anticipated launch of Apple’s music service, some analysts remain skeptical that the company’s established position as a music store (with its legions of customers) will instantly propel it to the front of the digital streaming line. “Whenever Apple does anything you have to take notice,” said Paul Verna, a senior analyst with research firm eMarketer. “[But] Pandora has established leadership in this space and Apple will have a hard time threatening that position…so it is not a slam dunk for them.”

In the past when Apple entered a new category, it usually counted on its current customer base to quickly make whatever new product it was offering a top-seller, but the company would be ill-advised to make the same assumption in the streaming music sector. As Michael Inouye, a senior analyst at ABI Research, says, “With a device, it’s an image thing. People want to be seen with it. With a service, it is a behind the scenes thing and not as apparent to everyone else.”

Pandora understandably is putting a positive spin on its own dominance in digital streaming, even though the platform’s new user numbers appear to have stalled. “We believe we’ve cracked the code on providing the best lean-back listening experience ever created, and the loyalty of our listeners is unmatched and only continues to grow,” Pandora CEO Brian McAndrews told attendees at a recent investors meeting. “We’ve done this by assembling the greatest combination of music, people, and technology ever.”

As TheStreet noted in a recent analysis, Apple will have to launch something either radically different, or at a much lower price, in order to encourage people to make the switch. Plus, the acquisition of Beats and its executive team is hardly a guarantee of success for Apple: “Dr. Dre and Jimmy Iovine are smart and know the music business, but you can’t just take your expertise in music marketing and move it over,” eMarketer’s Verna said.


Sony Launches PlayStation

Music “Powered By” Spotify


     Sony and Spotify this week launched their PlayStation Music streaming service in 41 countries, making it available for PlayStation 3 and PlayStation 4 games consoles as well as Sony’s smartphones and tablets. The new system is a replacement for Music Unlimited, the Sony-branded streaming music service that launched in 2010, and is billed as a third-party service given first-party priority on the Sony platform. PlayStation Music essentially is Spotify, adapted for TV screens and PlayStation controller devices. It will be available as a free, advertising-supported service or a premium subscription, with users able to sign up from their consoles, including a 30-day trial of the premium tier.

“We’ve optimized the experience for the big screen,” Tim Grimsditch, Spotify’s head of global product marketing, told The Guardian. “We’ve been looking at how to make Spotify available on smart TVs and other non-mobile devices, and for us this is the pinnacle experience in terms of big screens. We’ve learned over the years to try to really simplify for a big-screen leaning back experience. We’re making the most out of the artwork and creating a very visual navigation, completely in line with how PS4 users would expect to use the platform.”

The partnership between Spotify and Sony is exclusive, but neither company will confirm how long that exclusivity lasts. This means Xbox One console owners won’t know when (or whether) Spotify will be available for their device, while subscribers to other streaming music services, such as Deezer, Rdio, Napster, and Google Play All Access, will be equally unsure whether they’ll be available on PS3 and PS4. 

BMG Signs Music Distribution Deal

With China eCommerce Firm Alibaba


     As Alibaba continues its quest to become the world’s largest eCommerce firm, Germany’s BMG music rights company this week signed a digital distribution deal that gives the China-based company more than 2.5 million copyrights. The $250 billion company has set its eyes on becoming an online media powerhouse, touting its potential for selling digital products as well as physical products in China, despite the country’s record of intellectual piracy. BMG sees the partnership as a chance to boost earnings by its artists in China and grow the legitimate music market in that country.

As part of the deal, Alibaba’s digital entertainment  division will “promote BMG writers and artists through channels such as its streaming apps Xiami and TTPod” and “monitor – and take action against – digital and mobile services who may infringe the rights of BMG clients,” the subsidiary of Bertelsmann AG, Europe’s largest media company, said in a statement.

“The internet and mobile media are quickly providing an answer to the music industry’s long-time challenge of how to monetize the vast untapped potential of the Chinese market,” BMG CEO Hartwig Masuch said in a company statement. [Read more here

Study: YouTube Is Emerging As #1

Streaming Platform…At Least In Finland


     Evidence is mounting that mp3s, CDs, and even digital music files are becoming increasingly outdated as young listeners now are finding their favorite music on YouTube and Spotify. A new research study from Aalto University in Finland found that 76% of young adults listen to YouTube music every day, and the music video channel has become the most frequently used service for music listening and new music discovery. Even active Spotify users visited YouTube often to complement Spotify’s incomplete music selection. YouTube also was perceived by the Finnish respondents as the most shareable music source available.

“The popularity of YouTube is overwhelming….nearly everyone uses it for listening to music,” lead researcher Lassi A Liikkanen said in a statement. “YouTube has transformed the digital media world and the practices of music listening. For the first time, we now have a scientific record of the big change that has taken place.”

The study also suggests that, at least in a solitary YouTube music listening context, the video is secondary to audio. “We ran an experiment to evaluate this and found that our participants evaluated their musical experience similarly, regardless of the presence of accompanying picture,” Liikkanen added. “This provokes many questions for future research.” [Read more here]

A publication of Bunzel Media Resources © 2015