"I'd say creativity in San Francisco is in its death throes" — Stephan Jenkins, Third Eye Blind leader
At The Drive-In: hope for a dying, wretched civilization?

InsiderOne - The Drama You've Been Craving

Monday Sept. 18, 2000

MTV, At The Drive-In And A New 'Rock Star'

Reflecting on the pop moment. And then some.

By Michael Goldberg

I find it impossible not to watch the yearly MTV Video Music Awards. The purest available encapsulation of the pop-music moment, it reflects the hard work of MTV's talent bookers to ensure that even the most transitory fad will be touched on (witness the booking of "Survivor" celebrity Richard Hatch).

It was only natural that this year's show would feature Britney and Christina, Macy Gray and *NSYNC, Limp Bizkit and Rage Against the Machine and Blink 182 — these are the popular artists of the moment.

I used to hate the show. I looked forward to writing mean things about it, or, even better, hiring smart critics to write mean things about it.

But now I look forward to the VMAs, as MTV likes to call them. In fact, the way I see it, MTV is doing me a favor. The VMAs are a wake-up call, a reality check, if you will.

For no matter how strongly I may feel that artists such as Grandaddy, Modest Mouse, Sleater-Kinney, At the Drive-In and Richard Ashcroft are making the music that really matters, MTV reminds me that music fans just don't agree.

It's Britney and *NSYNC and Limp Bizkit who sell millions of albums. Not Pavement, no matter how great their artistry.

It's Sisqo and Christina, not Blackalicious and The (International) Noise Conspiracy, who rock most fans' worlds.

The show itself is generally entertaining. This year, Rage put in a cool appearance (first performing live, then getting their bassist Timothy Commerford arrested), as did Eminem, accompanied for his performance of "The Real Slim Shady" by dozens of young men with shaved heads dressed just like Dr. Dre's protégé, and Blink 182, who I think are gonna surprise a lot of people when (if?) they evolve into one of the great rock bands of this decade.

There's even a little danger built into the show. Were Fred D and Britney S gonna get into it? Was Commerford really trying to disrupt things, or was that part of the VMAs? MTV, like Britney, wants to make sure you know it's "not that innocent." It's a troublemaker, kinda, a little — but not too much.

The Death Throes

Ironically, even as MTV celebrated another year of music ads — oops, I mean videos — by pop-music celebrities, way down in the trenches, the future of music was in serious peril.

In San Francisco, one of the major rehearsal spaces for local artists is being shut down. The building that houses Downtown Rehearsal has been sold, and the 155 bands/artists (an estimated 2000 musicians) who rent space there have received eviction notices, according to the San Francisco Examiner. Among the evicted are such stars as Chris Isaak and Faith No More.

This is bad news. If new bands don't have a place to rehearse in San Francisco, soon enough San Francisco won't have many new bands. The Bay Area nurtured such artists as Metallica, Janis Joplin, Third Eye Blind, the Counting Crows, Joe Satriani, Journey, the Jefferson Airplane, Huey Lewis and the News, Santana, the Grateful Dead, the American Music Club, the Avengers, the Red House Painters and many, many others.

Since at least the mid-'60s, San Francisco, as a city conducive to the musician's bohemian lifestyle, has had a real music scene. Actually, a series of scenes. Removed from the music business (Los Angeles, New York), San Francisco has always seemed more about the music than the money.

Unfortunately, San Francisco's once-cheap warehouse space has been taken over by high-tech companies, so the loss of Downtown Rehearsal is significant. There simply aren't many alternatives left in the city for bands who need a space to practice their art.

Band members have come together, forming the Save Local Music coalition. They're planning a Sept. 25th event — performances and demonstrations by more than 100 bands on the city's street corners.

"[Writer] Charles Bukowski said the greatest aid to creativity is cheap rent," Third Eye Blind leader Stephan Jenkins, whose band still gets videos played on MTV, told the Examiner. "So by that measurement, I'd say creativity in San Francisco is in its death throes."

"These people are not being alarmist," S. F. Board of Supervisors member Gavin Newsom added. "The evidence is incontrovertible. If you have no incubator space, the seeds of the community will die off, or go somewhere else."

Rip The Heart Out

My favorite album at the moment is the just-out Relationship Of Command (Grand Royal) by At the Drive-In. Formed way back in 1994, the group comes from El Paso, Texas.

At the Drive-In (ATDI) have toured with Rage, and I can understand why they were asked to open for America's premier rebel rockers. ATDI make noisy, edgy rock that is more than simpatico with the Rage sound. With an Afro reminiscent of the late MC5 singer Rob Tyner, singer Cedric Bixler has a bit of Rage's Zach de la Rocha in his voice.

But ATDI are more rock than hard rock. Their sound has evolved over the course of several outstanding indie releases (In/Casiono/Out, Vava) and become huge and Cinemascopic.

"One Armed Scissor," the first single off the new album, is about as perfect as a rock song can be. The music roars along, occasionally slowing to build tension, then letting loose with corrosive guitar assault. Half the time I can't understand what Bixler is singing, and then an awesome line pops out. At one point, I believe, it's guitarist Jim Ward who sings "Get away! Get away!" and then Bixler shouts what sounds like "Sad transmission from the one armed scissor." Who wouldn't want to stand back from that?

Then, almost in passing, Bixler offers a piece of wisdom: "I write to remember," he sings.

Rock Star As Antisocial Recluse

The most outrageous rock star I've come across this year is actually an author. In the Sept. 10 issue of The New York Times Magazine, there's a profile of controversial French author Michel Houellebecq, who lobbed a firebomb into the middle of French society with the publication of "The Elementary Particles" (300,000 copies sold) two years ago. He makes Marilyn Manson look like George W. Bush.

Houellebecq, whose novel will be published in the U.S. in November, is an antisocial recluse holed up in a town house in Dublin. "To spend a weekend in his company is to become an unwitting participant in a sensory-deprivation experiment," reporter Emily Eakin writes. "External stimuli are reduced to a minimum. Physical movement is discouraged. Likewise talking and eating and any other activity that might detract from the primary objective — getting from Saturday morning to Sunday night with as little conscious awareness as possible."

During the interview he drinks himself to oblivion, makes passes at Eakin ("How would you like to be in my erotic film?") and comes up with spontaneous statements, e.g.,. how he can't imagine anything better than "having clitorises all over your body."

The book, which Eakin writes is "considerably bleaker than any French sex-and-death novel in recent memory," posits that "the 1960s begat not peace and prosperity but selfishness, misery and violence."

Maybe next year we'll hire Houellebecq to review the VMAs.

In The Game

The (International) Noise Conspiracy, Survival Sickness (Burning Heart/ Epitaph): Having founded a once-subversive website called Addicted To Noise, I find it hard to resist a great punk-rock band that calls itself The (International) Noise Conspiracy. Doesn't hurt that this band, formed by former Refused singer Dennis Lyxzén and Separation guitarist Lars Strömberg after the awesome Refused broke up, has produced a raw Detroit-style (think MC5, think Stooges) punk blast that reminds me of some of The Make-Up's best work. Highlights include the anthems "Smash It Up" and "I Wanna Know About U."

Michael Goldberg is the Editor in Chief of ARTISTdirect.

(c) 2000 Michael Goldberg. All rights reserved.