Mercury Lounge, Thursday, October 19, 7:00 p.m.
The cumbersome plastic badges that the CMJ marathon organizers hand out aren't totally useless. First off, they function as nametags, so the publicists that I send directly into voice mail at work can now hunt me down in clubs and harangue me face to face. (As an added bonus, the homeless can now panhandle me personally by name.) On the flip side of the badge there's a handy subway map--and nothing says, "Hi, I'm a clueless tourist. Please welcome me to your lovely city," quite like standing in the middle of the street glancing at the back of a laminated card hanging around your neck.
Oh, and then there's the CMJ badge's primary purpose: If you show up at clubs an hour or so before door time, and wait in line with the rest of the attendees, you might be able to get in for free. Maybe. Unless the venue has already sold out the show, that is. Or chooses to claim they've sold out the show. Or decides they've let in enough CMJ freeloaders. Or the bouncer doesn't take a shine to you. Or or or or or.
This is the part where I sound like a spoiled crybaby. Okay, this is the part where I am a spoiled crybaby. I know it's ungrateful to complain about a free trip to New York City, especially since I'm (tee hee) "working." Especially since I haven't yet turned in my expense report.
But it's hard not to feel cheated. Not only have I already been shut out of my first show--PJ Harvey at the Bowery Ballroom--but I've been berated by overzealous bouncers for "blocking the sidewalk," a feat I insist I'm way too diminutive to carry off on my own. Retreating to the nearly empty Mercury Lounge, I hold in my hand a schedule, two sides of an 8 1/2-by-11-inch sheet of paper crammed with band listings in an infinitesimally tiny font. From this catalog of contemporary popular music, I am meant to explore. To sample. To stumble across hidden treasures I wouldn't ordinarily see.
Well, it's true, the needlessly bombastic Simi is a band I wouldn't ordinarily see. But that's only because I would ordinarily walk out on them. As various indistinguishable members of Simi pound out the crudest clichés their instruments have to offer, a black woman in a halter top who may well become the female Lenny Kravitz (if we're not careful) belts into the mic, "Don't you want to rape me?" Another woman stranded at the back of the stage is singing backup without so much as a tambourine to keep her hands busy.
On my way out, I run into Jeff Kearns and Phil Parhamovich from the terrific Minneapolis pop group the Waves, who'll take the stage next. "Are you going to stick around for the show?" Phil asks. I don't have the heart to tell them that if I want to see any of the other bands I've come to see, playing in various clubs across the city, I've got to go stand in line. Now.
Corner of Bowery and Delancey, Thursday, October 19, 7:30 p.m.
"I almost got to meet Travis last month," exclaims a kid in line ahead of me. He insists that everyone call him Tex. ("I'm from Texas," he explains). The group is split on whether Travis is a great band or merely a decent one, but no one doubts that they would have been worth meeting. Everyone recognizes the name, at least, which is celebrity enough in these parts.
Unlike South by Southwest, whose name suggests regional distinction and the attendant myth that separate geographical areas nurture different "sounds," CMJ implies a class distinction. Everyone knows that way back before alternative was invented, there was a thing called college rock--it's the label we applied to R.E.M. and Camper Van Beethoven before I graduated from high school. What few people acknowledge outside of CMJ is that college rock still exists. From bedroom electronica to pop punk to conscious hip hop, the music here isn't best classified as indie rock or even underground music. It's just "college rock."
When it comes to taste, college kids are mutants: In a weird combination of accelerated intellect and arrested development, they gravitate toward music that's unduly twee or unduly harsh or unduly maudlin or all of those things at once--music that, as a general rule, takes itself either too seriously or not seriously enough. Some of it's great. Some of it is, well, let's call it age-specific.
I'm waiting around the corner from the Bowery Ballroom to see the recently reunited Australian pop quartet the Go-Betweens, who won't take the stage until after 1:00. The doors won't open until 8:30 p.m. But if I want to see the band, I've got to wait--only the first hundred or so badges will get in.
The whole affair is sure starting to remind me of college. First off, most of the people around me have paid an insanely inflated tuition, for which my fellow journalists and I have received a hardship scholarship. And the same scheduling conflicts and bureaucratic runaround that once forced you to enroll in second-choice seminars (like "Crisis and Despondence in the Postwar White Male Novel") instead of the primo courses you signed up for ("From Habermas to Hustler: The Naked Mind, the Naked Body") will keep me from seeing the shows I've circled and starred in my booklet. Plus, I constantly run out of money and struggle to get enough sleep. And everybody else seems to be getting laid more often than me.