Saturday, August 1, 2009

"Uncle Johnny's Tips for Musicians" (Scene) August 2009

Update: This entry is from my column that originally appeared in the Northern Colorado entertainment magazine The Scene. While I'm not doing this column anymore, I'm still as involved as I can be in the Fort Collins area music scene in general.
This edition’s topic: Art is FREE. WHEE!

I'm not going to pretend to be an economist. I’ve already shared some theories on why our country is in financial decline, and who knows if I’m right. But right now I’m in a somewhat obsessive phase of reading world history, especially the history of Stalinist Russia. I’ve begun to think that one very disturbing symptom of decline may be people’s gradual numbness to art itself. In this regard, the internet is the modern miracle that is simultaneously saving and destroying us.

It’s hard to say whether the internet has done more economic harm than good. I would think harm, but I honestly can’t say. While it has put millions of travel agents, car salesmen and realtors, etc. out of business, I’m sure it has also provided some jobs, exposed more people to global concerns, and let people telecommute, among other positive things.

This nation was once a major exporter of goods in the world. Now, not so much. American workers have earned themselves a reputation for being lazy, most everything is made overseas, and mega-corporations constantly price-set and put local competition out of business. I meet more and more people who are employees in retail, and fewer who are business owners or who actually manufacture something. I ask: what exactly are we making here in the United States that the world is interested in buying anymore? And for that matter, what are we making that WE are interested in buying? Our spoiled and selfish consumers favor quantity over quality, and seem to gleefully use the internet to pirate that which they can’t legitimately find for free.

New movie coming out? Buy it? can burn it...for FREE! WHEE! Music? Get it FREE! WHEE! Piracy “feels” less dishonest than shoplifting, even though it’s not. Consumers are totally desensitized to the effects of their own behavior. For those that bother to compare and pay attention to the lessons of history, today’s commodity-hunger and devaluation of art are eerily similar to what happened to Rome. That super-power ate itself up in a hedonistic orgy of food, sex and entertainment. And after the implosion of a society, it is usually left to some restrictive regime to pick up the pieces.

Music, art and literature were once highly valuable commodities in the United States. Now writers, artists and musicians here are vying for any attention they can garner.....for FREE!! WHEE! Ask most young people today if they believe they should pay for fine art, literature and music and they will look puzzlingly at you. Who can blame them? It’s there – FREE! WHEE! Many young, budding musicians I know give away music that cost them to make, somewhat reluctantly, but their attitude is “that’s the only way to promote it anymore.” Sometimes their self-promotion pays off, sometimes not. The diminishing desire to create art that gives voice to the pains and desires of a society is part of the decline of that society. The concept of the starving artist is somewhat romantic for a while, but artists have dignity too and want to get a fair reward for their work. Authors have mortgages and actors have car payments just like everyone else. Art for art’s sake is a lovely idea, but one still has to eat. If this trend continues, the result could very well be a society that has its arts completely funded and hence dictated by its government, much like the art of other countries throughout history. If that happens, the handful of remaining artists will end up on government payroll, which will certainly lead to two things. One, the art they produce will be created in an atmosphere of fear of job loss and will grow ever more stale and predictable. Two, art will most assuredly NOT be FREE!! WHEE!! Does undervaluing the arts still sound inexpensive? Uncle Johnny, over and out.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

"Uncle Johnny's Tips for Musicians" (Scene) July 2009

Update: This entry is from my column that originally appeared in the Northern Colorado entertainment magazine The Scene. While I'm not doing this column anymore, I'm still as involved as I can be in the Fort Collins area music scene in general.

This edition’s topic: The Glamorous Sound of Eco-touring

Today’s topic arises as the result of a well-intentioned, blonde dreadlocked music fan who wobbly Birkenstocked up to me at a recent festival and asked, “Hey, man, what is your band doing to keep your tours green? I mean do you guys buy offsets to help with the carbon footprint?” “No, we don’t,” I said immediately. She looked shocked. Well, shocked, and a little bloodshot, and somewhat disappointed. I tried to explain.

Regarding the mucho-hyped carbon offsets, I feel compelled to put things into a pragmatic perspective. A little background: The idea of carbon offsets is not brand new (but maybe not familiar to everyone). Per Wikipedia, “In the … voluntary market, individuals, companies, or governments purchase carbon offsets to mitigate their own greenhouse gas emissions from transportation, electricity use, and other sources.” You buy an “offset,” and with that money, you support some ecologically P.C. groovy project like a solar or wind farm. (Is it just me or is this a little bit like going to an O2 bar to offset the lung damage done by smoking a pack and a half of Camel Lights a day? Basically, you are just fining yourself for touring.) But don’t get me wrong. Bands who buy carbon offsets are doing something important for the greater good, and I commend them for doing so. At least it’s honest, for it acknowledges that our industry pollutes (most do). Dave Matthews, Phish, The Dead, they’re all buying offsets and sponsoring clean energy, and I am proud that they are. Bear in mind though, that they do this in part to inspire others, not just musicians, but fans who are insurance adjusters and company CFOs. The point of these bands using their fame “for good” is to remind everyone that our travels make an impact.

Unfortunately my band (and in actuality the vast majority of bands) just don’t tour at the level of Dave or The Dead. Some of our friends are still crossing the map with two giant buses (at 6-8 MPG), one for band and one for gear. They SHOULD be buying carbon offsets. When they do, it’s because they can afford to. We tour nationally at a much more modest level. Trying to make a profit during this recession, Cracker tours in a single Sprinter van that gets over 20MPG even with a heavy gear trailer. When we arrive in a city after a 5 to 8 hour drive every day, our legs and asses are asleep and we have had almost NO sleep, but may I point out, we are leaving a much smaller eco-footprint. We recycle. Some of us are vegetarians. We play “sustainable living” fairs, and as individuals we give money to green charities when we can and still afford to keep going. But our business requires that we travel. CD sales are a fraction of what they used to be for EVERY band, so survival equals touring. A videoconference or podcast of a show just doesn’t give our fans that vibrating-through-the-floorboards, smell of the beer that just got dumped on the guy next to them, live in-concert feeling. We can really only pollute less by touring less, and by not making a living and not bringing our live show to the fans that sustain us. So until Ben and Jerry’s gives us our own flavor (Cracker Surprise with Whiskey, Milk & Honey?), or the industry reinvents itself in a big way, we will keep doing the many little things we hope will add up to helping sustain the earth, just as we hope our fans will do, even if we can’t publicly boast that our exhaust paid for an entire wind farm in Wyoming.

To learn about the many ways bands can tour more responsibly, and how fans can help, one great site is (started by the folks from Guster). A final fact, from the Dogwood Alliance website, says that 80% of a concert’s carbon footprint comes from fans’ commutes. Hey dreadlock girl, wherever you are, I trust you walked or carpooled to that festival. Or perhaps you bought a carbon offset instead of that extra bag of “herb.” My only advice to friends and readers is this: do everything you can to fight global warming and social ills, but don’t waste time feeling guilty about things that are out of your hands. If you are doing your part, you are ahead of many who just don’t care.

Footnote: My wife and personal editor would like me to point out that we know Wikipedia is not a “real” source, but, this is not a New York Times column, either. This is college-town entertainment publishing, and Uncle Johnny is just fine with that, over and out.

Friday, May 1, 2009

"Uncle Johnny's Tips for Musicians" (Scene) May 2009

Update: This entry is from my column that originally appeared in the Northern Colorado entertainment magazine The Scene. While I'm not doing this column anymore, I'm still as involved as I can be in the Fort Collins area music scene in general.

This edition’s topic:
A few words

Hello Fort Collins! Short column this month; I had considered not submitting anything at all due to time constraints, but I wanted to give a few props before summer insanity hits.

I was so impressed with the bands and the organization that went into our city’s first Fort Collins Music Experiment! We enjoyed two great nights out and I got to see a few local artists I’d only heard about. Take it from this happily weary, 25 year alt-rock veteran...Northern Colorado has one of the best locals scenes I’ve ever seen, much less been a part of. I hope FOCOMX grows every year, and thank you FOCOMA for supporting local music. It’s been an honor to be part of it.

Creating support for musicians at the local level is so important...without a local fan base, bands have nothing to build on. With the recession still in full swing, local music fills a community need for affordable and quality entertainment, to say nothing of the tremendous release that a night of musical escape from the day-to-day grind can provide to the soul and the spirit. So, folks, consider it your civic duty to hoist a few drinks in front of your favorite local band whenever possible! That said, I will be away from the Fort a lot this year.

My band Cracker has a new album coming out on May 5th. As my fellow musicians know, touring during a recession means more legwork and more dates, fewer patio lunches in Old Town, less time with friends and family. Summer can be grueling, but, this is what we do. We had an amazing time recording the Cracker album and I hope to bring tales of the road back home. We had great guest musicians on this record, like Patterson Hood, John Doe, and Adam Duritz. Due to a tight recording schedule, I didn’t bring home any tales of debauchery from the sessions, but if we spend any time with these characters on the road this summer, you had better believe that there will be adventures and misadventures to share. I will try to make time to write about them between festivals, long drives, hangovers and layovers!

Here’s to a fine summer, Uncle Johnny.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

"Uncle Johnny's Tips for Musicians" (Scene) April 2009

Update: This entry is from my column that originally appeared in the Northern Colorado entertainment magazine The Scene. While I'm not doing this column anymore, I'm still as involved as I can be in the Fort Collins area music scene in general.

This edition’s topic:
Uncle Johnny: MyBook SpaceFace!

Welcome to the world of “web thingies,” as my friend Brian calls them. Brian is a respected music business attorney in Los Angeles who, like many of us, feels a bit conflicted about the relatively new, blurred paradigm of web communication, networking and f____g off.
As I sit here feeling guilty about neglecting my MySpace “friends” and spending far too much time perusing mildly amusing but basically useless stuff on FaceBook, I hope to steal a moment to weigh the worth myself. Where have all my moments gone? While I admit to enjoying what I see as the positive aspects of the web thingies (reconnecting with old friends like Brian, advertising my band’s gigs), I don’t even want to think about what a time sucking vortex these technologies are.

For those of us fortunate enough to have a spare moment in these challenging times of economic catastrophe, the “thingies” pull us in and take those moments away. So that we can do what, share pertinent information such as our 25 favorite albums of all time, I guess.

How ever did we survive without these wonderful new communications miracles? Powerful indeed, they have even managed to create a new elitist lingo. “Oh..are you still using MySpace? How quaint! The rest of us were using Twitter but have since moved on to Splitter or perhaps Shitter!” Where does it end? Does it end? Will we all be sharing the apocalypse experience in darkly humorous, rapid-fire anecdotes as Rome burns?

Maybe I, modern guitar-Nero, will be sitting on my roof with a Les Paul and miniature amplifier, maniacally typing to you all between riffs until the wireless server shuts down for the last time.

Wait!...what am I doing writing this inane article? I have to check in on my “friends!”

Thanks to SpaceFace, I’ve now witnessed the end of more than one relationship, the details of which were sadly displayed across the screen for many “friends” to see. It is odd enough knowing these details about “friends.” It is even sadder reading these public proclamations about real, long-term friends and their personal pitfalls.

How will I respond? Privately or publicly? How will I keep track? Hmm...Note to self: Create new folders for friends vs. “friends.” Then I can get back to those bothersome secondary tasks such as eating, sleeping, working and caring for family. With any luck, my life will be made even easier when next year’s thingy automatically scrolls right across the inside lenses of my glasses so I can see what everyone’s favorite movies are as I get dressed and make breakfast! That will give me back so much of the time I’m now losing. I can’t wait!

Uncle Johnny, over and out

Sunday, February 1, 2009

"Uncle Johnny's Tips for Musicians" (Scene) February 2009

Update: This entry is from my column that originally appeared in the Northern Colorado entertainment magazine The Scene. While I'm not doing this column anymore, I'm still as involved as I can be in the Fort Collins area music scene in general.

This edition’s topic: Ambassadors of the U.S.A.: My Minority Neighbor and Me

I have a “minority” neighbor that I have nothing but contempt for. He represents everything I can’t stand about his kind. They feel threatened when anyone outside of their minority group seems to be advancing socially, financially or politically. Throughout history these people have been known to resort to violence to quell said advancements when propaganda and fear mongering do not do the trick. I’m talking of course about the last holdouts of thinly cloaked racists that disguise themselves as patriots and good God-fearing folk. They organize into hate groups, hiding in basements and back rooms to wallow in their stagnant fear of change. They wave the flag and blindly assume that every military action our nation takes is right and just, be it the battle with Hitler or backing blood thirsty dictators like General Pinochet or Saddam Hussien (Yes, before we killed him, we were Saddam’s ally). On Election Day, my obviously frustrated and hateful neighbor adorned his camper with an obscene sticker defaming our handsome and dignified president. His vehicles are already covered with bumper stickers that read “Can’t feed ‘em, don’t breed ‘em” and “Real Americans don’t press two.” Gee, I wonder how he really feels about immigrants. You know, those people who built the entire nation? What he seems to have forgotten is that the quintessential “real” American can barely be defined, given our diverse population made up of so many proud “foreigners.” Really, it’s only those a**holes like him that I’d rather not claim as my fellow Americans.

As traveling musicians, my band mates and I see a great deal of this country. We meet fantastic people of every age, race, and political persuasion. We also have the opportunity to get a firsthand perspective on how the rest of the world sees us. It’s been a rough last few years, touring internationally. Constantly having to defeat the image of the rude “ugly American” tourist who demands “Texas sized” portions and starts every sentence with “Well back in the STATES,…(they just GIVE you ice water / we don’t PUT up with riff-raff / we just take the FREEWAY / whatever...doesn’t anyone speak ENGLISH here?)” Unfortunately, foreigners I’ve chatted with seem to believe that folks like my neighbor ARE the common citizens over here. How did this guy’s small-minded set become the mental image of “American” for so many people? I don’t get it. Maybe the press, maybe the internet have magnified their presence. Most foreigners I met on the last couple of tours didn’t like our government either, so I would often find myself on the defensive end of a polite but opinionated set of questions. As a musician, you go on tour wanting to just do your job, share your music, meet people. You want to be proud of America’s artists, thinkers, and humanitarians, our frequent acts of aid to others in need throughout the last decades which are more than most other nations combined. But, again, the last few years have been tough for selling the assets of America to worldly folks who are usually much more aware of world politics than we are. All I could ever do was try to set a good example, be polite and unassuming, as another individual ambassador for my country.

May the next four or eight years see the global opinion of us change, as the haters here continue to slowly fade into the sunset and the “real” America continues on its path to healing and accepting responsibility for our actions. In my opinion, our new president perfectly represents the best of his constituency. Though his presidential track record remains to be set, he at least seems passionately devoted to working toward the common good of all people. Which is certainly more than I can say about my “minority” neighbor. (May he and his kind go the way of the dinosaurs.) Next time I tour overseas, I’d like to just do my job—entertaining—without feeling the need to apologize on every street corner.

Uncle Johnny, over and out.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

"Uncle Johnny's Tips for Musicians" (Scene) January 2009

Update: This entry is from my column that originally appeared in the Northern Colorado entertainment magazine The Scene. While I'm not doing this column anymore, I'm still as involved as I can be in the Fort Collins area music scene in general.

This edition’s topic: When You Hate the Audience

Okay, that’s a bit of a harsh headline and deserves some clarification. Let me preface this rant by saying that 95% of the audience members I’ve had the pleasure performing for over the years have been wonderful in every way, making me more than happy to shake hands, sign CDs, take pictures and have a beer with them. A couple of my best friends are people I met at shows. Not only do I feel honored and lucky as hell to have the opportunity to play for these people, but they also pay my bills and keep our band in business. I could do a lot worse.

Still, there are those nights and those people who make it tough to be nice. I’m referring to the audience members who by virtue of being drunk or just plain socially impaired throw a wrench into the machinery of an otherwise great gig. Let’s refer to them as “gig clowns.” I’m speaking for all performers as well as for the concert going fan in all of us here because these people are disrupting everyone’s enjoyment, aren’t they? Many of you will recognize these clowns. Maybe you have BEEN one of these clowns. If so, stop reading and go back to drinking your cheap swill beer and annoying your soon-to-be-ex-roommate.

OK, everybody gets maybe one or two lifetime “passes” to be this character, limited mostly to your 21st birthday and the weekend after your marriage breaks up. But some of these audience members are obviously career troublemakers. These characters are overwhelmingly male and usually wasted. Sometimes it’s innocent clumsiness, other times it’s your basic, attention seeking, ego deprived “Look at me!” assholeness. These are the guys that wait for a quiet, intense point in a song to yell something brilliantly original like “This chick is SO F___ING HOT!” They are sure their public display of appreciation for a neighboring fan will win them a date. The proper retort (stated loudly over the microphone) is of course “Yes, she is, and NOW she knows you’re an idiot.”

Another gig clown sighting: I like Halloween as much as anyone. Unfortunately, through the years Halloween has been bleeding over to the preceding and following days and weekends, a sort of Halloween Season. Some people apparently use donning a costume as an excuse to be complete jackasses. This year, a few days after Halloween, I was onstage with my musical cohorts about halfway through a somber, quiet song. The audience was silently attentive. Suddenly two morons wearing the stale, oh-how-2-years-ago “My Dick In A Box” costumes forced their way down front. Lousy timing aside, these guys were clueless. Gyrating and clunking their boxes into female audience members, they raised more than a few angry eyebrows. Finishing the song, I almost yelled: “Hey..this girl down here just told me those boxes are WAY too big for your ‘junk’...anybody got a spare ring box?” But, I resisted. Why reward them with attention? Dogs, toddlers, drunk idiots. The rules for dealing with them are often the same.

One of my favorite gig clown scenarios is the pitiable soul who keeps yelling for a song you have already played. He may have been in the restroom hurling his unwise schnapps and beer combinations or out having a smoke when the song went down. He has been told this by exasperated people in his vicinity but continues to bellow like a beached walrus in search of a mate he will never find. Sometimes the walrus accepts defeat and slinks away grumbling. Sometimes however, he waits, wobbling in his misguided, booze addled fury until the rest of the crowd has left and the gear is being packed up. The bouncers are close to 86ing him but he feels forthright in his indignation. At this point (sorry) I find him amusing and proceed to taunt him like a cat toying with a huge drunken mouse. It goes like this: He sees me poke my head out of the backstage area. “Hey guys didn’t play blurberblurber!!” He yells between hiccups, his finger pointing in circles around the spinning room of his reality. “Yes we did!” I giggle and pull my head back in, closing the door. “NOOOO YOU DIDN’T JJJOHNNY! MAAAN, I PAID TO HEAR Mother f.....n BBRRRRUBLBBRUB!!” He throws down his beer can and begins to pound on the backstage door as my fellow band members laugh and shake their heads at my sadistic pleasure. As I hear the security guys leading him swearing and swerving towards the exit, I stick my head out and yell “Okay man.....we’re gonna play it right now!” and walk towards the stage with my guitar. You can imagine the scene as the side door closes behind our poor walrus. I sincerely apologize to this gentleman if he’s out there and recognizes himself in this story.....well.....actually, I don’t.

Uncle Johnny, over and out.