The Drama You've Been Craving
Monday Oct. 16, 2000
Radiohead's Anti-Vanishing Act
Or, why Time magazine will always suck.
By Michael Goldberg
I guess it's predictable that Time magazine has decreed Radiohead "with the possible exception of... the Roots and Rage Against the Machine," the "best young band in the world."
That's like your great-grandmother saying that Pat Boone is a really nice man who recorded some lovely songs - yeah, and who cares?
Time magazine has always been a joke. Bob Dylan knew it back in the mid-'60s. Just check out the on-tour documentary "Don't Look Back," where he rails against Time. ("Don't Look Back,", by the way, is the antecedent of Radiohead's own tour documentary, "Meeting People Is Easy.")
It's predictable that Time should issue such proclamations. Mass media love to declare that rock is dead, whereupon they discover some band (or bands) bringing it back from the grave. It's as if some long-slumbering giant wakes, discovers that Ronald Reagan is no longer president, and announces the fact to the world as breaking news.
In this case, we get Time informing us in the October 9 issue that "in the past two years it [rock] has been rejuvenated creatively and commercially by hip-hop rock acts such as the Deftones [rock] sounds pretty good for a dead man."
HEY, TIME MAGAZINE!!! FORGET ABOUT IT. Why don't you just attend to your pseudo-objective reporting on politics and the like, and leave pop culture alone. You don't get it, you never got it, and unless I'm mistaken, you'll never get it.
The "young" Radiohead - who have been together now as Radiohead for oh, at least 10 years now, not to mention the years since 1988 when, according to the All Music Guide,they formed as On a Friday - are a great band. As Editor in Chief of Addicted To Noise, and then SonicNet, I was a huge supporter of Radiohead; we ran reviews, news and extensive, in-depth interviews (May '96, July '97) with the band long before they became fashionable.
Point being, I love Radiohead. But they're not the best band, any more than Nirvana, another important band, were the best band back when "Smells Like Teen Spirit" could be heard on radios around the world.
(The "best band," if there is such a thing, changes from night to night, show to show. Tonight, you might see At the Drive-In, and for you, caught up in the excitement, they are the best band in the world. Meanwhile, someone else may be having a similar experience, only they're at a Rage or Foo Fighters show.)
Rock dead? To say that two years ago, in the fall of '98, rock was dead, you would have had to ignore Pavement and Sonic Youth, Gang Starr and DJ Shadow, Portishead and Garbage, Prodigy and Verbena, Cracker and Counting Crows, Sleater-Kinney and Olivia Tremor Control, Hole and Marilyn Manson, Korn and NIN. Should I go on? Grandaddy and Modest Mouse, Elliott Smith, Moby, At The Drive-In, the Make-Up, PJ Harvey, Beth Orton, Chemical Brothers, Cat Power ... I could list dozens more - artists who, in one way or another, have pushed the music. Or just made a great album.
No wonder Radiohead's Thom Yorke doesn't want to talk to the press, or tour endlessly, or make music videos, or do much of anything that plays into the star-making machinery. Even when his band do what they can to avoid attention, they just get more - both the New York Times Magazine and Spin used Yorke's reluctance to be interviewed as an angle.
Yorke and his buddies are rock stars who'd rather hole up like J. D. Salinger. And who can blame them?
Novelist as Rock Star
Michael Chabon is a novelist who has to act like a rock star. Such is the sad state of America these days that it's not enough to be a brilliant writer - you have to be witty on the talk shows. You even have to be able to perform your work at bookstores.
Thus Chabon, author of the excellent new novel, "The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay" (Random House), drove up to Sonoma from Berkeley recently to stand at a podium in Reader's Books before 25 or so curious people and perform a section of the novel.
"The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay" (sure I wrote about it last week too, and so what? Have you bought it yet?) is, to greatly simplify, the story of two cousins who create a comic book in the late '30s that, for a time, is as popular as "Superman." It's also about trying to come to terms with the devastation Hitler wrought on the Jews before and during World War ll, with growing up and finding yourself, with short-lived pop success and a whole lot more.
Straight from central casting for "moody, handsome writer," Chabon showed up with his brown hair on the long side, wearing blue jeans and a brown-and-off-white plaid shirt that could have come from Ralph Lauren's country collection.
While you might think it would be boring to watch a man standing, hands behind his back, staring at the pages of a book and reading aloud, it wasn't. Chabon made his characters live. His writing is charged; when he reads it you can see the current. He'd sometimes smile at a turn of phrase, or when his audience laughed at an amusing passage, of which there were many. In that intimate setting, his smile made all of us smile.
Put a band behind him and he could play the role of rock star as easily as Red House Painters leader Mark Kozelek does in "Almost Famous" as the bassist in the fake band Stillwater.
Rock Star as Politician
U2's Bono is a rock star who sounds more like a politician."I read the Charter of the United Nations before meeting with Kofi Annan," he told the New York Times Magazine recently. "I read the Meltzer report, and then I'll read C. Fred Bergsten's defense of institutions like the World Bank and the I.M.F..."
Bono's been outspoken for a long time about social and political issues. Years ago U2 headlined a tour that drew attention to Amnesty International. Bono sang on the Band Aid record; U2 played Live Aid and the Tibetan Freedom Concert. The singer is aware that his fans may not want to hear him talk about politics - even his bandmates have apparently had enough. "I kind of promised the band I'd stop doing these interviews last month," he told the Times, "but we have this thing coming up in Congress"
And there you have it. Bono cares more about the state of the world than his career. He may be arrogant and over the top at times, but he's using his power as a rock star to influence things other than CD sales. For that alone he's a modern-day hero.
U2's much-anticipated album, All That You Can't Leave Behind, due later this month, represents a return to classic U2-styled rock. Bono seems slightly uncomfortable balancing his political interests with his role as a singer/songwriter. "I don't want to be the singer who, when people think of you, they roll the blinds down, shouting, 'We've paid at the office."
How to Disappear Completely
Radiohead are the band that no one understands. They have deliberately unraveled, gone obscure. When it was time to begin recording Kid A, Yorke reportedly arrived and informed his bandmates that guitar bands were no longer relevant.
Kid A may not be the most esoteric album a successful rock band has made, but it comes close (anyone remember Tusk?). Listening to it, I find myself searching intently for melody, for hooks that I can hang on to. When I find one, I hang on for dear life, but as time goes on, the strange stretched vocals and organ tones become the bits I welcome on the next listen.
The artist's job is to shake things up, to make you question your assumptions about the world. With Kid A, Radiohead do just that. And that's one reason why it's a cool album, and they're one of many great bands.
In the Game
Guru's Jazzmatazz, Streetsoul (Virgin): I'm a major Gang Starr fan. While I probably prefer the grittier sound of Gang Starr albums, any lover of modern (or classic) soul will trip on Streetsoul, which features such vocalists as Macy Gray and Erykah Badu. Standout track at the moment is Kelis' groovin' "Supa Love," with production by The Neptunes. Put this on and you'll be dancing around your place, turning a down day into a party and picking up some "mad wisdom" along the way.
Michael Goldberg is the Editor in Chief of ARTISTdirect.
(c) 2000 Michael Goldberg. All rights reserved.