January 26, 2015

Confessions of a Jack White junkie, part 9: Jack White's ego live and in person, redux

Something about the Dallas/Fort Worth airport seemed familiar and I found myself wondering "Am I even in Texas?"  Must've had a layover there on the way home from another show last summer or fall. But this time I was in Texas to actually be in Texas, catching a connecting flight to Austin for what was supposed to be the second night of two that Jack White was performing at the Austin Music Hall.  I had thought I'd have to work that Saturday, so the plan was to fly into town that evening to meet Sam, Helen, and Kristi after they got out of that show so that I could join them for the second show on Sunday night. By Thursday, I realized that I was wrapping things up early at work and could have made it for the Saturday show after all.  Unfortunately, changing my flight and snagging a ticket for the sold-out show would've cost more than my credit card could bear at this time and would have meant a bit of a scramble to get myself organized to fly out Friday night. For a change, my rational side stood up and took control before the junkie had a chance to, and I resigned myself to sticking with my original plan of missing the first show on the 2015 leg of the Lazaretto tour.  

But you just never know how things are going to work out.  Despite feeling sad, I remained stoic and didn't eat my guts out over a show that I could've gone to "if only".  I got up Saturday morning and thought of my friends lining up for that night's show without me, then took my time packing and cleaning house and headed off to the airport at the scheduled time.  Parked in row 3 on level 3, then found out my flight was departing from gate 33.  Something about that... made me feel that things were happening the way they should. Made me feel better about not letting the junkie rise up and turn everything topsy-turvy.

So when my connecting flight arrived in Austin, I hopped into a cab and had it take me directly to the Music Hall, where I figured I'd wait outside for my friends to come out when the show was over.  I had pictured myself sitting outside all alone, hearing the muffled sounds of the show and pining away.  Instead, I found the front entrance bustling with security staff and people hanging about smoking.  I walked up to the glass doors with my backpack and carry-on bag and realized I could see all the way through to a portion of the stage.  And there was the merchandise table right inside the door.  On an impulse, I opened the door and stepped in to see if there were any new items that hadn't been available last summer.  Almost immediately, a young girl from the security staff was at my side, asking if I had a ticket. I said no, that I was just checking out the merch table.  She eyed my bags and said I had to go back outside.  She was very sweet about it, so I figured I'd explain why I'd just walked up laden with luggage and let myself in.  Again, she was nice as could be and stood talking with me for a while about my situation and Jack's shows. She was apparently a bit of a fan herself and really excited to be working these two nights at the Music Hall.  Then we saw the blue curtains close across the stage and I knew what point of the show I'd arrived at. 

While I was explaining to my security pal about Jack's "intermission" breaks and how his encores are really like a second set, a small stream of people began pouring out the doors. I stopped one group and asked if they were leaving and one of the guys said yes. I asked if I could have his ticket.  He said "Sure", and handed it to me.  I turned to my new buddy on the security staff and asked "Any chance I could go in now?"  She said that she had no problem at all with me going in, but wasn't sure that ticket would work since it'd already been scanned.  Then she was called away for something and I sat by myself for a moment or two, staring at that blue curtain through the glass of the doors and watching more people trickle out to leave.  Since none of them were complaining about what they'd just seen, it was apparent they had just been there so that they could say they'd been there and had no clue of what they were going to miss when those curtains opened again.  Then another security person came out and leaned against the wall next to me and I found myself telling my story all over again.  She said the same at the end, that she'd be happy to let me in but wasn't sure about the used ticket.  But she said "Let me see what I can do".  Then she headed back inside and I was alone again for a few moments.

Right about then, the blue curtains were pulled open, I heard the second set begin and, next thing I know, a third woman on the staff came out the door, walked up to me, and said "Come on in".  She led me to a spot where I was able to stash my bags and told me to go on.  I found a somewhat decent spot behind the sound & light board where I was able to see more than I thought I would, just as Jack began a performance of Ball & Biscuit that included the surprise of Charlie Sexton joining him on-stage to trade guitar solos back and forth. 

Photos by David James Swanson

He seemed to be enjoying himself immensely, and I realized I had to try to get closer. Cut along the side of the venue all the way to the front and then managed to slip between people to an empty spot just my size in the second row near the far end of the stage.  Not ideal, not my usual spot on the rail right in front of Daru Jones' drumkit, but pretty damned good considering I thought I wasn't going to see this show at all.  And then Jack launched into one of my favorites, Broken Boy Soldier, and I had not a thing to complain about.  

My pals right there up front. By this point in the show, I was back about where that tall guy is at the far end of the stage (on the right of the photo, under Jack's guitar cord)
 Rocked my ass off to Steady, As She Goes and Seven Nation Army, and then the band took their bow, the crowed cheered like crazy, Jack gave an enthusiastic thank you, and when the blue curtains were pulled shut I pushed my way through the crowd to where I knew my friends would be.  After surprised hellos and hugs, they asked if I'd been there for the second Broken Boy Soldier.  Second?  Yeah, they said, he'd played it during the first set and then busted it out again during the second set.  We joked that he'd done it just for me, that he must've known I was there and I thought of those 3s at the airport.  I honestly don't place stock in things like that and saying he'd done it for me truly was just joking around, but sometimes... sometimes you do have to wonder about synchronicity versus coincidence and how mysteriously the world occasionally works.  (And be very, very thankful when people do you such a kindness as those women on the staff at the Austin Music Hall did for me.)

And then there was night two, the full show I'd come for. 

I've written about Jack's ego before, but in that situation I was using Freud's theory of the three states of the ego as metaphors for the three bands he's most well-known for.  Now that he's performing as a solo artist, albeit with a backing band that he's obviously built a deep connection with, I've had chances to see his ego in the more commonly familiar sense of egotism rather than sense of self.  Do not for a moment think that I'm calling Jack White egotistical.  I've read and watched too many interviews in which his innate humbleness was very clearly apparent (The Dan Rather one that the outtake clip above came from is a perfect example).  But the way he interacts with an audience makes it also apparent that he's accepted his status as a world-renowned Rock Star, at least when he's caught up in the rush of being on-stage.  I've described before how he'll sometimes pause between, sometimes even during, songs and wait for the crowd to begin cheering and then he'll wait some more to see just how loud they can get without him doing a single thing to incite them.  And my friends told me about the multiple times he paused to comb his hair during the Saturday show in Austin, fussing with it at one prolonged point until it became obvious that he was playing to the crowd's laughter and cheers. 

 I don't know how much he did these things in the White Stripes, since I missed that band. But I don't recall seeing this at the Dead Weather shows I attended. And his efforts to get cheers from audiences at Raconteurs shows had a very different flavor, more exhortation than expectation.  But who could begrudge him these moments, with his charisma it was only a matter of time before it'd get to this point.  But sometimes...  

Let me clarify here that when I write about the shows I've been to, in many cases I'm not necessarily talking about "what happened" at the show.  I'm talking about my impressions, my experience, what happened for me.  And sometimes these impressions don't form until after, when I'm thinking back on the experience, comparing it to other experiences, and letting my mind ramble.  In the case of this show, I found myself thinking on the drive home from the airport about how it'd left me feeling exhilarated but at the same time somehow detached.  When the show ended, I turned to Sam and Kristi and said "I have no idea what to write down about this show".  There'd been no highlights, nothing in the setlist that blew me away, no moments that made me feel they just had to be remembered.  And yet as the show was going on, I danced and cheered and and sang along with every ounce of energy and exuberance that I always do.  It was not a bad show.  It was a solid show. But it was just that, a solid, energetic, hard-rocking show. 

There was a bit of this feeling at Sunday's show, that eyes closed, hands on hips, sort of tired feeling.

But there was also this.
And there was this.
And this.

Of course, part of it is due to the fact that I've been to so many shows now.  This was number 34 and a half (counting Saturday night's second set) within five years.  After some of the experiences I've had, my bar for Jack is damned high, probably a lot higher than the average fan.  But I don't have any problem with some shows being just solid and not transcendent.  I can't expect him to pull out surprises and give us treats at every show.  The man's human.  And so am I, my brain probably couldn't handle all the memories it'd need to store if every single show had multiple highlights.  But today, looking back on last night's show, there's still that vague sense of detachment mixed in with the leftover excitement.  Could be due to other things, like the fact that I only got 2 1/2 hours of sleep before I had to get to the airport for today's flight home and that I now have to do laundry and prepare for three more shows this week in Nashville, New York, and Ohio, and the weather forecast for all of those cities is going to make for some hellatiously cold line-standing (though I've survived that before for Jack!).

But I also wonder if it was Jack's posturing.  Twice during the show he yelled to the crowd "Are you with me or against me???", a question he's asked at several shows on this tour.  It seems somehow divisive to me.  My first thought is why would anyone be there if they weren't with him, but then I think of the people who left after the first set the night before.  They weren't with him, not in the way he really wants, but I doubt they would have been against him, either.  Does he really think anyone would yell back "I'm against you, Jack!"?  Combined with the posing and waiting for cheers to ramp up and up, it leaves me bemused. At so many shows I've felt that the unexpected songs and unusual moments he's given us were just that, gifts from him to us, something that we, the crowd, and he shared between us.  But shows like last night make me feel that sometimes he's out there to give but not give quite as much, and in return he wants a more obvious proof of our devotion.  I'm happy to give no matter which mood he seems to be in because I'm so very grateful for what I've already had, so I look at shows like this as just little bumps along the roller coaster.  But it makes the half show from Saturday night in Austin just a little more memorable than the full show on Sunday. 

One thing's for sure, though--  The show coming up this week in Nashville, with Loretta Lynn opening up for Jack, is bound to be one that won't soon be forgotten. I don't know if even my over-blown anticipation is high enough for what this one may turn out to be.

Nashville's where the roller coaster is going next, but here's where it's already been


January 18, 2015

When "Have a good day" isn't good enough

Drove into Baltimore today for lunch and a movie and had a couple of interactions with homeless folks while I was in town. The first offered me a parking ticket that supposedly had an hour of time on it-- Baltimore's got those centralized parking meters at which you pay for a period of time and leave the ticket on your dash with the expiration time showing.  The local homeless folk have started a practice of collecting tickets that still have time on them from people who are leaving their spaces and then selling them to the next person who drives up and parks.  I declined.  Not because I didn't want to help the guy out, but because it just felt so much like a scam.  Which it's not, really (at least I don't think there's a way they could be scamming). So I'm not sure why I feel that way about it.  When I came back to the car after lunch, the guy very pleasantly told me to have a good day. I half-smiled and mumbled a reply, got in the car, and drove off.

The second guy approached my car along MLK Boulevard as I was stopped at a light. He'd already passed a couple of cars that didn't lower their windows, so I fished a couple bucks out of my pocket and lowered mine to hand the money out to him when he got to me.  He said "Thanks, beautiful. How's your Sunday going?" I didn't know how to reply. It was grey and dreary and rainy out, I'd just seen a film that left me devastated (Selma, holy hell), and I was in a bit of distraught mood.  But otherwise my day had been fine.  I had nothing to complain about, especially compared to someone who lived beneath an underpass and might not have any idea when he'd have his next meal.  I finally came out with "Oh, it's going ok". His reply was philosophical, something about at least we both woke up that morning and you've got to be grateful for that.  Then the light changed and the cars in front of me began to move and I had to go. I said "Take care", raised the window, and drove off.

What do you say to a homeless person in these situations?  They're a person like any other, but I always feel like the typical responses of everyday, just-passing-by chit-chat just aren't appropriate.  When someone who's panhandling wishes you a good day, the standard, habitual "Thanks! You, too!" seems dismissive of the difficulty of their existence.  I considered telling the guy I encountered at lunchtime, "I hope you do, too", but then that struck me as presumptuous.  Isn't it patronizing to assume he's not doing just fine despite his circumstances?  I just don't know.

There's no moral to this, and it's nothing fantastic that I wanted to share with others. It's just stuff I had to get out of my head.

January 4, 2015

Another day at the museum: Exploring synchronicity through Setlists for a Setting Sun

On one side of the room, one Setlist for a Setting Sun, The Crystal Palace.  Blues and whites and bone beiges. Glass domes over crystals and shells and butterfly wings.  A Victorian palace inaugurated by Victoria herself.  Four thousand voices singing Handel phoned in via Edison's phonograph. Hearing crystal-clear reality through a scrim of staticky needle scratches is still startling even now. Cylinder rotations thumping like heartbeats or, as John Fahey said, the furious beating of angels' wings. Is this what angels' voices would sound like to our human ears?

A couple of photos I snuck when the museum guard's back was turned.  For more views, go here.

On the other side of the room, another Setlist for a Setting Sun, this time Dark Was the Night.  Still blue and white, with more crystals, shells, and iridescent wings under glass, but this time with rockets taking off for the dark expanses of space. A Voyager in search of other voyagers, carrying the sounds of a man who could only see darkness. We've kept track of Voyager all these years, but have no idea where Willie Johnson, whose spectral humming and eerie bottleneck are an angel's song of a different sort, ended up.  

Again, my own surreptitious photos. More from the artist's site here

It's always exciting to me when I run into things that are meaningful to me presented in entirely knew contexts.  Dario Robleto's current exhibit at the Baltimore Museum of Art is a perfect example and I got a bit giddy when the pieces came together. At a distance, it's just an assortment of shells and glass and bits of stuff inside a pair of plexiglass cubes and I almost walked past without taking the time to catch the connections.  Fortunately, I stopped long enough to read the little card about the Edison phonograph recording of Handel's oratorio at the London Crystal Palace.  You see, it wasn't too many months ago that I read a book called Perfecting Sound Forever, by Greg Milner, which begins with accounts of several of Thomas Edison's "tone tests" such as took place at the Crystal Palace. So to read that card, then to pop on the headphones hanging next to the exhibit and hear what that London audience heard was fairly amazing. It was a digital copy I was listening to, yes, but still, the effect it must've had on those people, people who were hearing for the very first time an early, unsophisticated version of the recorded sound that we take for granted, was so easy to imagine.  

And then I stepped across the room and put on a second pair of headphones and heard Blind Willie Johnson's Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground, a song I first heard a couple of years ago, early on in my exploration of blues music, and one that immediately defined the blues for me.  And here it was, this primal, innately human sound, linked with man's attempts to communicate with alien species.

What was the one thing that tied all of these elements together and made them significant to me?  If you've read more than a few entries here, I'm sure you can guess. Yup, that's right, it all comes back to Jack White.  The musician who was my gateway to blues music, without whom I'd never have heard of Blind Willie Johnson or known that Johnson's song was chosen by Carl Sagan for inclusion on Voyager's Golden Record (I'd learned about this originally in the companion book to Martin Scorsese's PBS series, The Blues, and it coincidentally came up again recently in an interview that Dan Rather conducted with Jack). Whose songs have inspired a craving in me to learn how music is made and whose mention of Milner's book led me to pick up a copy and learn about the effect of those early phonograph recordings on concert-hall audiences.  Is this meaningful synchronicity or the delusions of apophenia?  I know it seems maddeningly myopic but, from my perspective, it's just the opposite-- The things I've been exposed to through Jack have opened up a whole world for me and broadened my appreciation of so many forms of music and art and even science. If not for my obsession with him, I would have walked right past those plexiglass cubes at the BMA and thought, "Shells and shit under glass. Pretty, but how is this really art?"  I would have missed the connections that made me stop long enough to understand the message of Dario Robleto's art.  The message itself wouldn't have meant as much to me.

And Robleto's message is important. The need to communicate is one of mankind's earliest and most primary. We've been using art and music as means of communication since we could speak, if not even earlier. And we're using music now to try to communicate with species beyond our own world. Art such as Robleto's reminds us of this, makes us understand how music can bring us together and connect us, and how vital it is to not take the need or the method for granted.  Words are great for getting a point across, but music can communicate feelings so much more succinctly.

November 22, 2014

This is Baltimore: Puerh, pierogi, and plique-a-jour

Within the  past week or so, two different articles about the dark side of Baltimore have popped up in my news feed.  One about Leakin Park's notoriety as a dumping ground for corpses, the other about the difficulty of overcoming the negative image created by shows like The Wire and the new podcast, Serial.  I'd heard the reputation of Leakin Park before I ever rode my bike through it along the Gwynns Falls Trail and, yes, I'll admit to moments of paranoia in a few spots, especially opening the door of the public restroom in Leakin where a murder victim had been found just a year before my first ride there.  But on that ride and others since, I've not once experienced anything more alarming than having a homeless person yell at me as I blew past him in the tunnel near Carroll Park Golf Course.  I've not yet listened to Serial, but I have watched The Wire and have driven many times through neighborhoods that feature prominently in it. I've seen kids hanging out around those corner convenience stores who very well could have been dealing drugs just like the kids in The Wire. But mostly I've seen working class folks whose circumstances force them to live in down-trodden neighborhoods that are unfortunately subject to a high level of crime. Those are the same folks I've seen on the last Friday night of the  month when the Baltimore Bike Party rolls past their row-houses, sitting out on their front stoops and smiling while their children line the sidewalk to cheer and high-five us crazy, mostly white, cyclists as we ride by.  The more gentrified neighborhoods we pass through never give us that sort of greeting.

I've gotten to know a pretty large portion of this city, and yet I still feel like there's so much more to explore in its widely varied neighborhoods.  Today I stuck with some old standbys yet still managed to have new experiences.  Started the morning with brunch at Teavolve, a place I've watched evolve from a teeny little tea shop in Fells Point to a terrifically popular restaurant in Harbor East that serves from breakfast through dinner, tea through cocktails, and that has a vibrant connection to the local music and art scene.  Their staff hustles and the brunch maitre'd, Gary, always gets me quickly seated in a nice cozy spot. With a pot of Puerh tea and an Eden omelet (sorry, no food porn photos, I was too busy eating), accompanied by a good book, I have trouble imagining a better spot for breakfast anywhere in the city.

From there I headed over to Canton for some shopping.  It was on the way back towards downtown, passing alongside Patterson Park on Eastern Avenue, that I made an impulsive and fortuitous stop. I've been entranced for years by the golden onion domes of St. Michael the Archangel Ukrainian Catholic Church

Image source

For a few years now, I've thought of stopping to see if I could go inside. A place sitting in the middle of Baltimore with such fantastical architecture would have to have an interesting interior, right?  But I just never got around to it.  Until today, when a sign in front of the church reading "PyrohĂ˝ sale 10 - 2" forced me to grab the nearest parking space and bolt across the street.  The wooden doors at the front of the church were locked tight, but in a little annex down some steps next door, I found a small dining hall and kitchen where they were selling boiled potato, cheese, and sauerkraut pierogi from the kitchen service window.  After handing over $16 for a dozen potato and hearing from the woman manning the window about her recently broken tooth, I asked if the church was open.  She said no but asked if I wanted to see inside. When I said I'd love to, she turned around to a gentleman in a sweat suit and said, "Father, this lady would like to see inside the church".  Next thing I know, I'm following the casually-dressed priest back up the steps to a side door of the church, which he unlocked and then ushered me through into a small space so beautifully painted with icons that it literally made me gasp.

Image source
In a Ukrainian accent so thick I only understood about two-thirds of what he was telling me, the priest described scenes painted on the two side walls and the row of icons of saints martyred during the Stalinist era. I must've looked like a wide-eyed fool over it all, it was so gorgeous, but he was very obviously proud of showing it to me and invited me to come back for Sunday mass to hear the church choir-- "No music, only voices like angels", he said. I may very well go back some other weekend, but via the magic of the interwebs, I found a taste of them--


After that impromptu stop, it was back to the day's planned itinerary, which meant heading up Charles Street to the Walters Art Museum to check out the current exhibit on the history and breadth of the collection that William and Henry Walters gifted to the city.  That gift is an incredible treasure.  One of only two free museums in Baltimore (the other being the BMA), it's a labyrinthine building combining 19th century and modern architecture, full of surprises from ancient cultures, through the Baroque, and into the 18th and 19th centuries.  I've a handful of favorite rooms and items there, but today was struck by a piece I've never seen before.  In a dark blue side-room of the From Rye to Raphael: The Walters Story exhibit, I found a deceptively simple little Japanese bowl made of silver and plique a jour.  I've seen plique a jour before, both in the Walters collection and in the vintage estate cases of the jewelry store where I work.  It's a form of enameling that allows light to shine through the enamel and create a luminous effect.  But I'd not seen any like this before. Usually it's in small pieces of jewelry, cigarette cases, small bowls or dishes, sometimes larger dishes on stands.  Louis Comfort Tiffany, famous for his stained glass, also worked in plique a jour, so you may've seen it, too. But this simple Japanese bowl was so very different. It looked to have been made of a single sheet of silver molded into the shape of the bowl, and then pierced with hundreds, I mean hundreds, of small scallop-shaped slivers interspersed with many-petaled chrysanthemums, some singly and some in small groups.  Into the scallops was inlaid pale grass-green enamel.  Into the chrysanthemums, tender gradations of pink and soft bright yellow.  The lighting in the gallery was almost criminally wrong for truly showing off the beauty of this bowl, as it shone straight down from a fixture in the ceiling so that much of it was blocked by the inward curve at the top of the bowl.  You could see the silver framework of the design and the prettiness of the colors, but in order to see the luminous glow of the enamel you had to crouch down next to the display case and look up at the bottom sides of the bowl. But that crouching was worth it, as the thing left me stunned.  Much plique a jour is created like stained glass, with bars or wires of metal laid down in a frame-work and soldered together.  If one piece gets messed up, it can be removed or fixed without disturbing the rest.  But the walls of this bowl were smooth, inside and out. There were no separate sections, no solder.  The artist who created it obviously took the initial solid silver bowl and pierced through the metal to create those hundreds of slivers and petals.  If he'd messed up one, he'd have had to scrap that bowl, melt down the metal, and start all over.  The craftsmanship of it was so exquisite and subtle that it made the Lalique and Tiffany pieces in the same room look ham-fisted and over-wrought in comparison.

And once again, via the magic of the interwebs...

Image source.  For a larger view, click here and then click again.

Don't ever, ever let anyone convince you that Baltimore is a scary place with nothing worth seeing. 


November 6, 2014

Contradictions of Paramount proportions

How to Make a Paramount Record (1930) from kellianderson on Vimeo.

I've written about Jack White (ad nauseum, some might feel), I've written about Third Man Records, I've written about blues music. But it occurred to me that I've not yet written about The Rise and Fall of Paramount Records, which is an oddly glaring omission as it's the pinnacle of those three things which have become such a focus in my life, my three primary addictions of recent years.

 Addiction is a perverse and contrary thing.  There's almost a stereotype in the picture of an addict doing things that make absolutely no sense in order to fulfill their need, especially when the need itself makes questionable sense.  My own addiction recently compelled me yet again to travel hundreds of miles to see Jack White.  But this wasn't for a show by him, though there was music.  No, instead of being surrounded by a band, on this night at Battell Chapel on the campus of Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut, Jack was surrounded by a panel consisting of a Yale professor of African-American studies, two music writers, a female blues singer, and a fellow record label owner.  This group was in New Haven for the follow-up to an event last year at the New York Public Library, which I also attended, discussing The Rise and Fall of Paramount Records, Volumes One and Two, released by Revenant Records and Third Man Records.

But it wasn't only Jack that motivated me to make the drive from D.C. to Connecticut. There was also my covetousness of these Cabinets of Wonder and everything they represent.  When Volume One was released at the end of October of last year, I already had plans to be in Nashville that very week.  So the very first day it became available, I walked into Third Man Records, drooled over the components of the set for a while, debated about the physical mass of it and the gigantic carton it was packaged in and how the heck I was going to get it home, then said "Damn the torpedoes" and plunked down my credit card.  Two days later, I bought a 50 foot roll of bubble-wrap, a large roll of tape, and spent an evening of my vacation removing the two large books from the cabinet (they went into my suitcase) and then painstakingly wrapping it, with the records enclosed, in almost the entire roll of bubble so that I could carry it home with me on the airplane.  Heading home from Nashville, I thought my arms were going to stretch by a good couple of inches from the weight of the solid oak box as I hauled it through the airport.  Had two moments of panic, the first at the security gate when the screener asked what was inside all that bubble and warned that they might have to un-wrap it if they couldn't get a clear view in the x-ray machine. The second was when I got to the plane and was informed by the flight attendant that it would not fit into the overhead bins of the tiny three-seat-across plane.  She asked what was in it and then wondered why I hadn't just shipped it from Nashville. After insisting that it was very fragile and I had no faith in UPS or FedEx to safely transport it (the real reason was that I'd wanted to open it up and go through the contents, fondle the box, look through the books, and play the usb while I was there on vacation- I couldn't wait til I got home), she relented and let me slip it behind the last row of seats on the plane and then, since the plane wasn't full, let me change my seat to that row so I could sit in front of it.  

When I arrived home, before even unpacking my luggage, I delicately cut through the mass of bubble and spread the treasures of the cabinet out on my living room floor to glory in it all.

Full set of my photos of Volume 1 here

That ain't plywood, folks, it's solid oak

Volume two is just as physically gorgeous, updated to match the Art Deco period of its music, all aluminum, silver, midnight blue, and pink--

All Vol.2 photos from Third Man Records

Jack has described the physical aspects of the sets as "witchcraft to lure you down the path to get you to the story" and that's very apropos, but he would have been more accurate to say stories, as the physical, textual, and audible elements of the sets tell a variety of tales-- Multiple intertwined histories of American music, American culture, Paramount the company, the stories of the musicians, some of which are more complete than others, and the tales within the songs themselves. I've had trouble getting this post written because I kept wanting to dive into some of those stories and digress all over the place. And heaven forbid I start talking about the music because with all the musicians represented in these sets I could go on and on and on. But there have been many articles written about Paramount and these sets (some of which I've included links to below) and maybe one of these days I'll get around to writing about the music and its effects on me.  At the moment, I'm more interested in the perverse and contrary elements that abound in connection with these Cabinets of Wonder-- Contradictions having to do with Paramount, with Third Man and Revenant Records, and with myself.

The chief contradiction of Paramount was summed up by Jack at Yale when he said "What’s beautiful about [the company] is … the accidental capturing of American culture for the sake of a dollar".  At both panel discussions, much was made of how Paramount didn't care who or what they recorded, didn't even care how the records were pressed-- Greil Marcus spoke of how they were so cheap that they mixed clay from the Milwaukee River that flowed below their factory into the shellac, making records literally from dirt.  And Jack mentioned that, at nearly the same time Paramount was combing the country for musicians to record, archivists such as John Lomax, working for the Library of Congress, were doing the same but with a much more methodical and discriminating intent. But where those archivists did much to define the genres they collected examples of, Paramount did not. Their focus was not on what they were recording, but on who was going to buy those recordings and, subsequently, the expensively housed record players that were the company's primary product.  The records and the music on them were almost an afterthought, created as an accessory to the record players, but an accessory that ended up selling in the hundreds of thousands of units, though never really making any money for the company.

But what happened to those records when Paramount closed in 1935?  Amongst other things, there's the tale of angry employees going up to the roof of the factory and sailing masters of the records into the Milwaukee River, not even realizing that they were, essentially, setting that music on a course towards extinction. Those records could never be re-pressed and when the existing copies became scratched or broke or were just thrown away as technology advanced beyond 78rpms, that was it. As the years went by, Paramount's bounty went the way of the dinosaurs.

Fortunately, enough collectors held onto enough scratchy old copies of enough songs that, when Revenant and Third Man came along, they had a few thousand tunes to go through, which they culled down to one-thousand and six-hundred. That's eight-hundred songs per set.  Seems like an overwhelming amount to sit down at your record player and listen to, doesn't it? And it's enough that, when people ask me about Volume 1, I'm hard-pressed to describe the diversity of the recordings included in it. And there are eight-hundred more coming on Volume 2.  And yet these sixteen-hundred songs are just a fraction, a small fossil representation of the thousands that Paramount released in their 20 year existence. As Greil Marcus put it in the discussion at Yale, what we still have "is so rich and so great and so varied that I think you don't even think about what might be lost [because] you can't imagine that anything is better than what is left."  

So along come Revenant and Third Man, pulling together what's left and giving us this glorious representation of what wasn't lost, and doing it with a mindset of "
how would Paramount have done this if they gave a shit... and had the money?". The crux is that these sets ended up being too expensive for the masses.  This music that was originally produced for a mass audience is now, despite the best of intentions, only available to those who have the money for it. Few people have been able to listen to the old 78s that existed over the years because the scarcity of those records has made them prohibitively expensive, up to tens of thousands of dollars for a single two-song record. And yet these Cabinets of Wonder, for all their value (fifty cents a song, if you do the math, plus the cabinets themselves and two chock-full books of information!), are still priced beyond the means of the average fan. 

I can understand why they did it this way. Just sticking these songs on a handful of records and selling them in a series, or even just selling the two 800-tune flash drives by themselves, would pique a bit of interest, certainly.  Third Man's project of reissuing the catalog of Document records, artist by artist, garnered some news and got fans talking. And I'm sure they've sold a fair number of the Document records. But to tell a story like Paramount's, to make the music and its history important, to make it desirable, you've got to present it in a special way. And yet, doing so ups the price and paradoxically limits the number of sets that will sell.  It makes this music that was once of the masses more accessible than it's been for many decades, and yet still keeps it rarefied.  This is frustrating to fans of Third Man Records, many of whom already scrimp just to afford $60 for a quarterly subscription to Jack White's Third Man Records Vault. Those fans just can't justify spending $400 for a bunch of old music, no matter how historic it is or how appealingly it's been presented.  Should it have been done this way?  Should Third Man and Revenant have created the gorgeous Cabinets of Wonder for people who want the full experience and then also sold the 800-song usb separately for those who want to experience the music but can't afford the whole shebang? Or would that just defeat the purpose of the full set?  They've made it clear that, in contrast to Paramount's quest to make a buck, they're not making any money off of these sets. Jack stressed when Volume 1 was released that they priced them as cheaply as was possible and that they would have to sell the entire 5,000 run of sets created in order to just break even.  Should they have done it differently and made the music more accessible and, in turn, made more money from it, the way Paramount did?  I don't know.  I do know, though, that I covet the hell out of my Volume 1 Cabinet of Wonder and all that it contains, and that I was practically drooling as I ogled the Volume 2 cabinet last week in Battell Chapel. If that sort of reaction was their intent then, yeah, they definitely did it right.

As for my own contradictions involving these sets and the panel discussion at Yale, there was a bit of a tussle between my inner fan-girl and my more rational side (they do that sometimes). The fan-girl, who unfailingly surges to the fore and tries to take over where Jack's concerned, wanted to sit there the whole evening and just stare at him, take in every detail of his face, his physique, the clothes he'd chosen to wear, how he listened to the songs played.  I can do that when he's whirling around a stage, I can glue my eyes to him and forget that there's anyone else up there with him. But in this situation, just as at last year's event at the NYPL, I couldn't.  My rational side won out for a change.  I couldn't just sit and stare at him while the other speakers were talking, I couldn't be that rude when what they were saying was so very interesting, from Adia Victoria telling of the body of a lynched black boy being thrown into the lobby of a theater where Ethel Waters was performing, to Greil Marcus describing a scene from the film Ghostworld in which the character Enid first hears Skip James' Devil Got My Woman...

And when the music began... forget it. My eyes traveled up to the gorgeous ceiling of the nave behind and above where the panelists were sitting and then closed as the voices took me over and my head began moving in time with the rhythm of the piano and acoustic guitar.  Something about the place made those sounds even more ghostly than they seem coming out of my record player at home, something about the way they floated around the rounded walls of the nave amplified their intensity.  The sound coupled with the ideas and images all of the panelists were talking about made it impossible to focus solely on Jack.  The fan-girl was perturbed by this, but I was in bliss.  Rocking back and forth and waving the paper fan they'd given us on the way in to the chapel, I felt like I'd been transported to an old-time revival meeting and was being moved to motion by the spirit of the music.

Even more contrary and less rational was the financial aspect of this little road-trip.  I've been whining to anyone who'll listen that I can't afford to order Volume 2 right now because I spent so much money travelling to shows on Jack's Lazaretto tour this summer, and yet I didn't hesitate to spend the equivalent of a Vol.2 to drive up to Connecticut and stay two nights just to hear a discussion of it. Perverse, huh? Yeah. But I've no regrets. The Cabinet will be available for a while and I'll just have to pine away until I can justify shelling out the money for it. What I felt in that sacred place that night, listening to the songs played and the ideas discussed in such a beautiful atmosphere, couldn't be bought in any store.

For those folks wanting to understand more, learn the history, and hear some of the music, the magics of the interwebs come to your rescue-- Here are both panel discussions in their entirety:

And a couple of good articles about the historical aspects of Paramount Records:

- Paramount Records: The Label Inadvertently Crucial To The Blues

- The Story of Paramount Records – Black History Month in Wisconsin

- Why Nerdy White Guys Who Love the Blues Are Obsessed With a Wisconsin Chair Factory

- Revisiting The Grandaddy Of Record Labels, Paramount Records

I hope you get sucked in like I did.

September 24, 2014

Confessions of a Jack White junkie, part 8: All good things must come to an end

So there I was, all by myself.  Stretched out in my camp chair, trying to snooze, waiting for Sharon and Sam.  Instead of driving to meet my buddies, I had flown into Miami Beach and was sitting there alone in front of the Fillmore staking out our spots while they drove down from Jacksonville, where they'd seen Jack White perform the night before.  

In Jacksonville with Helen but without me. Photo courtesy of Sharon Harrow.

Of course, I was unhappy about having missed that show due to poor planning on my part, especially when they finally arrived and began letting slip little details about it, but for a change I wasn't going so far as to eat my heart out over it.  We ended up having too much fun together for that.

In Miami with me. Photos courtesy of Sharon Harrow

I was also surprisingly not eating my heart out over the fact that these two shows in Miami would be my last for the foreseeable future. Writing this a few days after, I'm just waiting for delirium tremens to set in (especially since Sharon, Helen, and Sam were at the last show of this leg of the tour at the same time that I was typing), but so far, so good.  

The other thing that struck me as strange was that I didn't have the usual butterflies in my stomach leading up to these shows. It hit me the first night while leaning on the rail waiting for the show to begin that instead of excitement, I was feeling something that seemed strangely like relief. That's not to say I wasn't excited for the show, because I transformed into the usual bouncing banshee once Jack hit the stage.  In that moment, though, I was just... calm.  There had been no severe line angst that day and, being perfectly honest with myself, I had to admit to looking forward to getting a break from the emotional roller-coaster of the last couple months.  We would all be on hiatus after this week, as the only dates Jack had scheduled for the rest of the year were in Mexico, the U.K., and Europe and there have been no hints as to when anymore will be announced.

But before that hiatus, I had two more nights with him.

As usual, it started with this (the irony of someone watching Lalo's injunction to not watch the show through a 3 inch screen can't be missed)--

The first night was a little on the strange side, with three sets like at the Detroit Fox show. But the feeling of this one was completely different from that one.  The crowd at this show was rowdy, even slightly obnoxious in spots, with a bit of pushing and shoving going on around us (nowhere near as bad as Cleveland, though, at least where I was standing), but Jack seemed to be enjoying their response to him.  He made a lot of eye contact with people in the front, including us, much of it accompanied by that infectious smile.  So we were confused when the curtain closed after a relatively short set that included standouts like a nice long introductory High Ball Stepper, the rarely heard (though this was the third time for me) I Think I Smell a Rat, a more complete John the Revelator tucked into Cannon than I'd heard before on this tour, and a completely improvised, unnamed song. But then the curtain swept open again and the crowd went nuts to Fell In Love With a Girl.  This second set included a very sweet Same Boy You've Always Known, and then the curtain swept shut again after We're Going To Be Friends.  Very strange to end a show on such a mellow song, which left us confused all over again.  But the show didn't end then, because there was yet one more set of just three songs, all blazing ones-- Icky Thump, Freedom at 21, and Seven Nation Army. And unlike Fenway, this crowd knew how to do a fucking Seven Nation Army chant. (More irony, though, with this person filming everyone else filming the song. But, of course, I'm ironically grateful that they did.)

Show photos courtesy of David James Swanson

What usually happens when he hangs the guitar from the mic stand (this will make sense further on)

It was a damned good, high energy show, but something felt a little off and we had no good ideas of what it might have been.

But if the first night was a little strange, the second night was... well, I'm still not sure what adjectives to apply to it. In talking about the Fenway Park show, I mentioned Sharon and I finding each other afterward and wondering "What did we just see?"  This show yanked the same response from us, but expressed ecstatically instead of with bemusement.

Let me preface this by stating that I never in my life thought I would attend a Jack White show during which he performed sitting down. The man just has too much energy. He may not always spin around the stage like a tornado, but even standing still you have the feeling that he could begin whirling at any moment. But this show was proof that you just cannot ever have any kind of assumption or expectation where Jack is concerned.  

The only other time I know of anything similar to this happening was at a private party at end of the 2010 Dead Weather tour, late at night after the band performed on the David Letterman show. Jack apparently got into a mood and exploded at the crowd and when video surfaced a few days later, fans at one of the message boards exploded over the things he said.  Considering my own issues with temper and snark, none of that bothered me.  If anything, hearing of incidents like that makes me identify with him more strongly because I understand where that sort of shadow stuff comes from.  No, what bothered me  about the videos that popped up from that night was seeing the state he was in when he came out from behind the drum-kit to play guitar on Will There Be Enough Water.  He started out by sitting heavily down on the front of the drum riser with his guitar and then ended up propped up against the speaker cabinet at the side of the stage for support when he wasn't at the mic singing or at his pedal board for a solo. I found it very disturbing to watch, much more so than his displays of temper.  His playing wasn't affected, the solos he wrenched out were as searing as ever.  But was it exhaustion, illness, drunkenness, all of the above, or something else that made him unable to stand without support? I don't know and never will.  But I know it wasn't the Jack that usually takes the stage in front of a crowd. 

But this night was not like that.  

It started out as tempestuously as any other show, with Dead Leaves leading into High Ball Stepper leading into Astro leading into Sixteen Saltines. The first slow moment was a lovely You've Got Her In Your Pocket, but then two songs later the energy ratcheted back up again with Lazaretto, Just One Drink, and Black Bat Licorice.  And then things took an entirely different direction.

Fixing the pompadour, something he did several times throughout the show

After Alone In My Home, Jack decided he wanted to talk to his friends, meaning us, the audience. He's done that a lot this tour and the media has made a big deal of his "rants".  In return, he's made a big deal at recent shows of the media's big deal of what he considers "just talking to his friends", which is how he described it at Cleveland.  He also talked at Cleveland about how he feels he should end everything he says (even phone conversations with his mother) with "But you know I'm just joking".  This night in Miami was a perfect example of how subtle his humor can be when he gets going.  He began by asking his guitar tech, Abraham, who had already been dealing with multiple instrument issues, to find him a stool, one like stand-up comics use with the rungs at different heights so you can prop your feet in different spots (yes, he was that specific).  While Abraham went off to search, Jack began pacing around the stage with mic in hand, introducing the band.  I can't remember all of the intros, but by the time he got to Fats Kaplin and began telling us how he'd mowed Fats' lawn in the 80s, I was laughing out loud.  Abraham came back with a drum stool and set it by the mic stand, only to be told by Jack that it was too short for someone as tall as he is.  Off went Abraham again, and Jack took the opportunity to tell us about the public school tube amps he's been using this tour, explaining how they were once used for the sort of announcements principals make in school and that he bought all three for $150 and then checked on eBay the next day to make sure that was a good deal because that's what you do these days (I've actually heard elsewhere that they cost closer to $18,000 apiece) and that the other thing they're really good for is as guitar amps. 

Edited a couple weeks later: And God or whatever's above, please bless the young girl who broke the rules and recorded those band introductions. Obviously I mis-remembered the order of some things, but that really doesn't matter. What matters is this--

Here's the same from another, closer angle--

At some point, back comes Abraham with a taller drum stool and down sits Jack at the mic with his Gibson Army-Navy acoustic guitar (Or was it the Gibson L-1 acoustic? He asked for that to be brought out at one point). He was like Goldilocks, though, because this stool wasn't quite right either. After asking the audience if it was alright if he crossed his legs, he went ahead and did a song and then got Abraham back out so that he could very earnestly and lengthily clarify what he wanted.  I couldn't hear what he was saying but Sharon did and told me later that the drum stool apparently "was not representative of the proper form".  Off goes Abraham yet again and this time he scored with just the right form of stool.  At this point Jack was able to prop his feet the way he'd wanted to all along and he launched into a conversation of how sugar is bad for you, but so are artificial sweeteners and Stevia is supposed to be good for you but now the latest thing is Sorbitol and could "you fucking hipsters make up your minds" and get back to him and by this time we were laughing our asses off as he launched into Sugar Never Tasted So Good.

None of this slowed the show down a jot, just made it very, very different. His body might not have been moving around while he sat at the mic for that handful of songs, but the gyroscope in his brain was spinning full blast and he had us fully engaged with the dryness of his humor and wondering what the hell was going on.

In contrast to the previous night, Jack sang most of the songs of this show with his eyes closed.  But there was one moment, when he stood up from his stool to take a bow at the end of Blunderbuss, when he looked down at the people in the front and his eyes traveled from center-stage across the row outwards and I swear they stopped on Sharon, Sam, and me as the stagehands gradually pulled the curtain closed in front of him.    

He was back to electric guitar and on his feet for the second set, though definitely not as active as usual. But while his energy may have been a bit lower, his intensity wasn't. And there were other moments when the gyroscope went off in whimsical directions, like the minute or so he spent adjusting the guitar mic at his stand, twisting it one way and then another until it became clear he was just playing around with the thing and not at all concerned with getting it into the right spot, and at the end of the show, when he draped his guitar strap from the mics and then began wrapping the guitar and strap around the booms with a little grin on his face, leaving the guitar balanced atop this construction, watching it sink a little without dropping while feeding back crazily as he and the band lined up for their final bow.  All of these moments made for the most strange and wonderful show.

In talking about it afterward, we came to the conclusion that the ankle he sprained in San Francisco had not healed as well as it appeared at the first few shows on this leg of the tour. This could also explain why he was less active at Fenway Park the previous week, when I thought the issue was a lack of connection with the crowd. Whatever the case, there was no lack of connection this night and we saw him perform in a completely unexpected way.  It left me giddily high in just the way I love so much and when we walked out of the theater into the beginning of a drenching rainstorm, the last thing I wanted was the protection of an umbrella.  I wanted to feel everything-- euphoria, whimsy, electricity, rain, everything.  This is why I do this.  This is why I'll be damned if I'll give up on the addiction. 

When the roller-coaster ride will continue is up to Jack.  

(But here's where it began: Introduction)