03/29/2002 - It's TimeAs much as I'd like to wander about, maybe it's best to be direct right now. Lady Irony, my good buddy, is impatiently tapping her cloven toes, waiting for me to get to the point so she can do her little jig. I'm retiring. From Rockapella, not from life. I don't have all my ducks in a row. I don't have lots of grand plans for the rest of my life. I just know, and the Lady keeps pinching my ass and winking to remind me, that it's time. That's the shortest and most honest answer to anyone who asks why. It's time. There are other things I need to attend to, and what delights the Lady the most is that I don't quite know what they all are. I have a few gauzy ideas floating around; writing most probably, commercials most assuredly, something musical somehow, maybe teach some, and of course my lazily-chronicled perpetual search for the Big Answers, but nothing substantial to break the fall once I leap empty-handed into the Void. Sounds crazy, I know, but I never claimed sanity as an excuse for anything.
I'll tell you all this much though. This is not easy. There are lots of things and people I already know that I'm going to miss. Most of all, though, I'll miss the music. Making music with Rockapella has been one of the best and brightest spots in my musical existence, and it tears my heart to bits to leave that. I know it's going to be a little while before Mr. Next is discovered and groomed, so there are more concerts to do and possibly even a recording to make, so I have time to say hi and bye and sing some more. But the word is out and the search is on.
A few words to the next guy:
This is a great job. You couldn't find a better bunch of guys to work with, or a better bunch of musicians, or a more devoted group of fans. You are going to have a blast.
A few words to you diehards:
You are all in my heart. Your love and support have meant an incredible amount to me. I hold your friendship very dear, and feel very blessed to have experienced your appreciation for our music. The emotional scrapbook of my heart is bulging with all the kind words and wishes you have showered on us over the years that I've been a part of the group. One more thing - when he does show up, be nice to the new guy.
01/27/2002 - Production ValuesYo Diehards!
I tend toward lucidity when I'm sleep-deprived; either that or my self-edit function goes dormant and I merely think that I'm lucid. It's a fertile time for me, and as some obscure but wise philosopher observed, 'Carpe diem et eripe eum'. Seize the day and wrench it. have a couple of hours before my next flight on this interminable travel day: New York to LA, LA to Tokyo, Tokyo to Fukuoka, cab to hotel, find room, soak in tub, fall asleep a mere thirty or so hours after leaving home.
Since the battery in my laptop is, as is its owner, the victim of memory loss and rapid power drain, and its owner is too cheap to buy a new battery, I have sat, or rather squirmed, for hours, waiting for the propitious moment when down-time coincided with a convenient power outlet. The only thing missing from this moment is a 1st class lounge with an espresso machine, but the strange progression of time zones and airline cuisine would not be enhanced by the addition of caffeine to the already corrosively burbling environment of my innards.
Last week I was sitting on the couch, minding my own business, idly thumbing the remote through the channels when I happened to catch a commercial on the Disney channel for an upcoming JLo concert spectacular. It got me thinking about a phrase that gets bandied about frequently in 'pellaland: Production Values. Well, if anyone has Production Values, JLo's got 'em. There she was; steamy, sultry, stacked and smokin', surrounded by steamy, sultry, dancers, the guys with washboard abs and pumped, the babes with oh-my-god bods and enough mousse to reinforce a suspension bridge, pyro displays, killer sets, huge rear-projection screens featuring JLo's huge rear projection, and the announcer unctuously crowing about the costumes. I thought 'Wow! Them's some Production Values! Now that's a show!'
I think that baroque opera is partly to blame for today's Production Values. So is P.T. Barnum. So are the ancient Romans. Back when the coliseum was a spiffy new stadium, the aristocracy kept the hoi polloi under control with prodigious if somewhat crude Production Values. That's where we get the phrase 'bread and circus'. They'd promise the masses a great time, herd them into the coliseum, feed them bread and provide spectacle. When their attention seemed to be waning, they'd up the ante. When gladiators got boring and everyone was stuffed with bread, they'd run some hapless Christians into the ring and let loose the lions. The ensuing mayhem and gore were instantly recognized as High Production Values. The crowds loved it, and came back for more.
Jump cut many centuries later, and our passion for spectacle rages unabated. The grand masters of the high baroque are enamored of stagecraft and clever machinery, and opera productions become increasingly about gimcrackery and less about music. The Greek concept of the 'Deus ex Machina' reaches a sort of apotheosis in this 'golden age' with various gods always descending to the stage at crucial dramatic moments, aided by complex stage machinery that rivals the intricacy of an expensive watch. Smoke, fireworks, pageantry, impossibly elaborate costuming, ornately gilded everything, and flights of fancy limited only by the technology of the time and the rapacious budgets of the sponsoring royals become the au courant Production Values. Beginning to sound familiar? The singers of the day unfortunately lack amplification, and actually have to sing their own parts in the midst of this. At least that much has changed.
Bear with me here. I'm just trying to provide a little historical perspective on a fascinating human phenomenon. I'm not trying to be pedantic, even if it comes out that way. Music history, at least the way it was taught by the excrutiatingly dry and unimaginative drudges whose job it was to tutor me, was one of my least favorite subjects. Even the textbook was loathsome, cobbled together by a wheezing academic with the woeful name of Strunk. I subsequently discovered that music history could be a rich, yeasty subject when not bled dry by being surgically excised from its meaty context.
Fast forward again to good ol' P.T. Barnum, one of the greatest showmen that ever scammed a buck. He understood Production Values. His pet theory, 'there's a sucker born every minute', was the cornerstone of his entertainment empire. He used our nherent love of spectacle, the unusual, the bizarre to fleece generations of gawkers. He proved empirically that parting people from their money was easy if you distracted them with razzle-dazzle, nearly all of which was illusory. Circus is spectacle for the sake of itself, and P.T. made no bones about it. His life was a lesson in Production Values. He perfected the technique that I call 'watch the birdie'; while you are busy looking at something distracting, you don't notice that your wallet is being emptied. Pickpockets and three-card-monte scams owe everything to P.T. So do most governments, but we're not going there on this little trek.
So here we are today, with our present pastiche of Production Values. Now it is a very relative term, loosely applied to what I'll call, for lack of sleep, the visual stimulation quotient of any given production. High Production Values = JLo concert. Low Production Values = the Guarneri Quartet. Four guys dressed like butlers playing ancient, unamplified instruments on a bare stage, making nothing but sublime music is a prime manifestation of abysmally low Production Values. It's all about the music. So it follows that disposable music must be accompanied by a rich textured brocade of distractions so that today's pop concertgoers feel like they're getting something for their muy expensivo tix. It's a kind of shell game on a very grand scale. If there is enough spectacle, nobody notices that the music has no content, most of it is prerecorded, and all the hype and flash is flatulent window dressing for an empty window.
I'm not dissing JLo, or any other major artist here. They are doing a great job as incredibly highly paid marketing tools, carriers of serious commercial freight. Some of them really are multitalented, energetic, charismatic performers. And I can't argue with mulitplatinum albums, world stadium tours, starring movie roles with fast-food franchise tie-ins, and mansions on every continent. That's success as it is commonly defined. And it sure as hell demands High Production Values.
Now buried somewhere in the dungheap of the music business, atop which these stars glitter like undigested diamonds, is us, with our Quixotic quest for Production Values. In the beginning we lugged around with us a steamer trunk full of silly props, worked hard on our group choreography, and as I've detailed in the past, wandered through a bizarre and sometimes unfortunate array of costumes in our vain search for Higher Production Values. Right now our quest has us in Suit mode. Same guys, familiar tunes, slightly repackaged. That's Pruduction Values for ya. Various parties and parasites have vainly attempted for years to raise our Production Values. 'Get a band.' 'Try the Vegas look'. 'Hire a lighting designer, for heaven's sake'. We've tried every solution that we could afford, and it still comes down to the same thing; us five guys standing on stage and singing our guts out.
We're stuck somewhere in the limbo between JLo and the Guarneri quartet. Despite random butt-wiggles and the occasional ambitious lighting plot, it's all about the music. We're faced with an unsolvable conundrum, a Zen koan. If we were suddenly flooded with cash for the express purpose of glitzing up our show (and given the disposition of our label that possibility seems about as likely as me getting pregnant), what would we do? Visions of Spinal Tap arise unbidden; a miniature Stonehenge descending from the flies, us dressed as Druids, surrounded by dancing midgets; rising through trap doors in the stage, enclosed in pods that won't open, surrounded by smoke and flames. Would we suddenly transition to flashy effect-filled, affected presentational shows devoid of interaction with our audiences yet heavy on bombast? How bombastic can an acappella group get, anyway? It just doesn't fit. Major rockers, pumping out power chords, thunder bass and death drums - that fits. I think we'd just look silly or worse. We performed once a couple years back on a stage that was set up for Alice Cooper, with all his macabre props. After being repeatedly warned by his road manager not to touch any of his stuff, we did our little set on his stage. I didn't poll the other guys, but I just felt dumb standing out there singing our tunes, standing next to a fake guillotine.
Truthfully, I don't know how much impact Higher Production Values would have on our performances. I can only conjecture. We do get feedback from time to time; 'Love the new look.' 'Where'd he get those shoes?' 'Are you ever gonna get a different pair of pants?' 'What the heck did you do to your hair?' Hey, once all the pre-concert preening is done and we're out there singing, nothing much matters, to us, at least, but the music. We obviously don't have instruments to posture behind, fetishize or destroy, we don't have tape tracks to dance and lip-sync to, and we don't have sumptuous sets and wizard effects to distract you into thinking that we're doing anything but trying to delight you with music. But now we have Suits. It's a start.
You may have gathered from all the preceding malarky that I am against Production Values. Not true. Blue Man Group is one of my favorite shows of all time, and they have raised Production Values to high art. What those guys do with a bag of marshmallows, a few squeeze tubes of paint, a few drums and some lights is awe-inspiring. I have been, from time to time, thrilled to my ragged toenails by the Production Values of a show when it enhanced and enriched the overall experience. When Production Values become camouflage for garbage, when there's more Production than Value, I feel like I've been conned. Overall I think we've become more complacent about being had this way. Spectacle for it's own sake is the showbiz equivalent of junk food. Empty spectacle, empty calories. In either case they leave you ill nourished. Since we've become a nation of junk food addicts, it's hardly surprising that we've developed an equal craving for and acceptance of empty spectacle. Many of us don't know what it feels like to be truly nourished, even though our stomachs may be full and our sensoria titillated. We equate being stuffed and stupified with being nourished. Believe me, they are not the same thing.
Broodings from Bear - 2002
Broodings from Bear - 2001
Broodings from Bear - 2000
Broodings from Bear - 1999
Broodings from Bear - 1998
Broodings from Bear - 1997