Manetta's Diner, Trenton, New Jersey, Wednesday, October 18, 1:00 p.m.
My family doesn't quite understand what I do for a living. "So, what's this conference that you're going to in New York?" my grandmother asks me over lunch.
"It's called the CMJ Music Marathon," I say between forkfuls of chicken parm, wondering yet again why Greek restaurants insist on spiking their tomato sauce with cinnamon. Realizing I've explained nothing, I offer her my coleslaw and add, "A bunch of bands play all over the city for four days and I get to go see them."
Aunt Nancy asks, "What bands will be there?"
This is the sort of unanswerable quiz that always awaits me when I run into my kinfolk in Jersey. I mentally scan the Marathon's list of some 816 performers, and can't produce a single name that might make sense in this conversation. Death Cab for Cutie? The Dismemberment Plan? The Brian Jonestown Massacre? "Uh, probably no one you would have heard of," I say.
"New bands?" my aunt asks.
Well, not really "new," I want to explain--just bands that fly under the scope of the mass-media radar, who cultivate a semipopular status that, for whatever subcultural reasons, purposely evades everyday folk like the Harrises. So, do I have time to recount the past 20 years of American indie rock before the check comes? Instead, I lie: "Yeah, mostly new bands."
"And you go see them and then write about them, and tell people if they're any good," my grandmother decides.
"Something like that." That's the easiest explanation, after all, even if it leads to the hardly accurate impression that I'm some kind of media kingmaker present to bestow accolades upon worthy unknowns. Anyway, isn't it pretty to think so?
Hilton New York, New York City, Thursday, October 19, 12:00 p.m.
So, why are we here? I ask myself. That's not some grand existential quandary, just a sigh of distracted boredom. I'm waiting in the first of the weekend's many lines, this one to register for the conference. For two decades now, the College Music Journal (or CMJ), a trade mag that largely acts as the Billboard of college radio, has thrown this annual sprawling bash. Over the course of four days a mixture of obscure, heavily buzzed, and firmly established bands perform in more than 60 venues, while 80 or so seminars and panel discussions ranging from "How to Drive Traffic to Your Website" to "Latin Alternative Gets Out of the Cradle" take place during the day. And a seemingly infinite number of dupes like me show up.
We've come from all across America. Music directors from Nebraska. Emo songpoets from Oregon. Would-be label moguls from Cincinnati. You can spot CMJ attendees in a hardly homogeneous Manhattan mass of flesh by their inept sideburns and the Kill Rock Stars button on their lapels. You recognize them on the subway by their pink Hello Kitty backpacks and white go-go boots. They peer through nonprescription horn-rimmed glasses at vintage vinyl across the aisle from you at Bleeker Bob's. And right now, several hundred of them stand between me and my registration materials. Big fish in our respective small ponds, we've all swum upstream to find ourselves small fish about to get unceremoniously flushed down the biggest toilet in the United States.
Said piece of monumental plumbing isn't New York City itself, where at least two people will help me lug my ridiculously overpacked suitcase up the steps from the subway. (On a train to Jersey, by contrast, some kids watch me struggle to lift it into the overhead rack before commenting, "Dude, that bag is way too heavy for you.") Nope, my metaphorical toilet is this independent-business seminar, which trains folks who like electric guitars how to make a living by extending the hype through whatever radio, print, or electronic media are at their disposal. Having matured out of the gawkiness of physical adolescence, the CMJ crowd are now in a no-less-classifiable professional adolescence, a larval stage where they've molted into something more than the simple fans they began as, without yet blossoming into the full-fledged music bizzers they may someday become.
Exhibit A: the Midwestern program director ahead of me, who hands out cards from an unlimited stack and pesters everyone within earshot about his station's "new direction." CMJ is for him--for dealmakers, for canny extroverts out to make connections. For the rest of us, its forced chumminess can be intimidating.
Trying to get into the spirit of things, the until-now-silent woman next to me asks, "Where are you here from?"
"City Pages. It's a weekly in Minneapolis. You?"
She's the music director at a college station in Ohio.
"I went to school in Ohio. Kenyon," I say.
After a pause, she gamely tries again, "What bands are you here to see?"
I mention the Northern California band Grandaddy.
"You probably won't be able to get in," she mentions.
Discouraged by our feint at conversation, we listen to the hustler ahead of us. The need to remain in line limits his ability to work the room as completely as he surely would like to, but he racks up the contacts nonetheless. His station, we learn, programs a variety of cutting-edge formats, including "subversive rock." Again I wonder, Why are we here? This may not be an existential quandary, but there is a Sartre-like mood at work: I am starting to feel something very much like nausea.
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.
Bowery Ballroom, downstairs, Thursday, October 19, 9:30 p.m.
"We're just jaded," says a journalist friend once we're waved inside. She's a mere 23, mired in the sort of dissatisfaction that greets anyone's first "real" job out of college. Hers happens to be with the online branch of a national music glossy that offers far more prestige than pay. I suppose she'll either outgrow this feeling or flee the biz.
"I love talking to musicians, but I hate interviewing them," she continues. "Here are these people whose music I care about and, because I'm a journalist, they can only see me as their adversary."
Me, I'm not jaded: I'm just trying to get up the guts to ask Robert Vickers for a Jetset three-quarter-sleeve shirt. Vickers is the head of publicity for Jetset, the indie label sponsoring this showcase, and he also happens to be the former bass player for the Go-Betweens. He's a slim fellow possessed of a quiet intensity. Upstairs, the Spoozies, a Jetset band I'm sure he wishes would garner more press, are playing. And each time Vickers passes our table, he glances ever so slightly over at our gaggle of accumulated writers, as if to say, "Why aren't you upstairs listening to the Spoozies?"
But that's not why I won't ask for the freebie. I just feel weird asking publicists for favors. Okay, I feel weird asking publicists anything. To be fair, three of the most decent people I'll meet this weekend are publicists, Vickers included. That shouldn't be a shocking revelation, I suppose--here are people who, for the most part, loved music so much they wanted their jobs to reflect that affection. Just like me. Well, not just like me. They get paid to push product while I--okay, when it comes right down to it, I get paid to push product too, only in a roundabout way that assuages my conscience. So let it be said: There are plenty of "journalists" who function as industry lapdogs. There are plenty of honorable publicists.
I make a note to listen to that Spoozies record the first chance I get.
Bowery Ballroom, upstairs, Thursday, October 19, 11:30 p.m.
Scottish mope rockers Arab Strap have always bored me too much on disc to annoy me. But, in this context--surrounded by gape-mouthed adoration--there's a difference. The band's drone, combined with the slurred mutter of frontman Aidan Moffatt, results in an undeniably sexy mood, with an underpinning of violence that's just as inescapable--and inseparable. I watch a guy stroke his girlfriend's hair, and I'm creeped out.
"We've got time for one more," Moffatt shouts. "You want an old one or a new one?"
"An old one!" shouts a crowd already nostalgic for their sophomore year.
By contrast, until this year, headliners the Go-Betweens hadn't released a record since 1988, before most of my fellow attendees were in high school. Yet the band's lovely reunion disc, The Friends of Rachel Worth, has accrued college-rock points by including instrumental support from Sleater-Kinney, including drummer Janet Weiss, whose understated work is easily topped by the Swedish fellow playing drums this night. The suavely affected Robert Forster stands center stage and dominates the show, wearing pastel pinstripes and wielding a fey attitude. (He emphasizes lyrics with a weird flick of the wrist that suggests Brian Ferry imitating Beyonce from Destiny's Child.) To his right, balding, casual, workmanlike Grant McLennan plucks out contrapuntal hooks on his acoustic and sings far too infrequently.
I've always appreciated the literate lull of Go-Betweens records more than I've actually enjoyed listening to them, but by the end of the evening I'm as swept away as the faithful who surround me. The Go-Betweens close with Forster's lovely reflection upon a Patti Smith performance, "When She Sang About Angels." The song is a prime piece of rock criticism, about loving a performer so deeply you forgive her bullshit, and no one else, to my knowledge, has written a song nailing this emotion.
I look over at erstwhile Go-Between Robert Vickers, who has an unreadable smile on his face. Behind him, my writer friend is leaning against the wall, and it looks like her eyes are misty. Or maybe she's just drunk. I wonder how long she's going to stay at her job.
Greenwich Village, Friday, October 20, 8:30 p.m.
Since this weekend is beginning to feel like a tightly compressed recap of my college years, it's only fitting I should get a chance to meet the Dean. Robert Christgau, pillar of the Village Voice music section and self-dubbed "Dean of Rock Critics," is, at age 57, the grand old man of my trade. He also happens to be a professional acquaintance of my friends Jon and Laura, the floor of whose uptown apartment I'll be sleeping on throughout my Manhattan stay. Our plan: Visit Christgau's apartment, chat for a bit, then head over to Irving Plaza for Texas up-and-comers At the Drive-In and my beloved, wistful Grandaddy.
"So, you're off to see the Dean?" a friend grins when I tell him my plans.
"Yeah, Jon wants a brain, I want a heart, and Laura wants some courage."
When we reach his apartment, Christgau is set on automatic putter, his CMJ badge already dangling around his neck, thoughts about a baseball piece he's writing dribbling out into conversation. He and his wife Carola Dibbell playfully bicker about whether to keep a wicker filing cabinet they ordered from a catalog. They bustle about, offering us beer and sorbet, then regretting that they have neither beer nor sorbet to offer, then running down to the deli across the street for beer and sorbet, then returning to the discussion about the cabinet.
Christgau observes that it can't be a good sign for the conference's commercial status that, aside from a New York Press kitchen magnet and an inexplicable Max Weinberg 7 button and a few label-sampler CDs, the tote bag of promotional goodies handed out at registration contains mostly CMJ product. This hadn't occurred to me. Guess that's why he's the Dean.
Irving Plaza, Friday, October 20, 9:30 p.m.
They aren't taking any more badges at the Grandaddy show. Ever prepared for such emergencies, Christgau has a ticket--but the rest of us are out of luck. Other friends drift by, including a guy from Minneapolis named Chuck whom I've met at several parties over the years without ever discovering his last name. He isn't on the radio, doesn't write, isn't in a band--I still have no idea why he's here.
Christgau looks back at us one last time and disappears inside.
The rest of us spend 20 minutes debating whether to head out to CBGB to see the Ass Ponys. A bouncer emerges and, with routine belligerence, commands us not to block the sidewalk.
CBGB, Friday, October 20, 10:30 p.m.
Scrawled sign taped on CBGB's door: "The Asspony show is cancelled."
Mercury Lounge, Friday, October 20, 11:30 p.m.
No more badges are being accepted, and I refuse to pay 15 bucks to see the goddamn Pernice Brothers.
Saturday, October 21, Arlene Grocery, 12:00 a.m.
Bad indie rock.
Saturday, October 21, Elbow Room, 12:30 a.m.
More bad indie rock.
Saturday, October 21, Living Room, 1:00 a.m.
No more bad indie rock. Please, God, no more bad indie rock.
Saturday, October 21, 1:30 p.m.
I narrowly miss a panel discussion on "Journalism in the 21st Century" chaired by the editorial director of CDNow, titled "Writing on the Wall." I run across the woman from the college station in Ohio I'd met earlier, who tells me it was an informative session. I joke that they should have called the seminar "Click Here to Buy." She doesn't get it, waves to a friend of hers across the concourse, and is gone.
Unfortunately, I'm on time for "You Can Dance If You Want To," a techno discussion that focuses almost entirely on how DJs can get paid. When it becomes evident that no one will be addressing the most pertinent question--why is it that every time I go to a club, the big name DJ at the top of the flyer invariably doesn't show?--I go back to wandering.
...and wind up at the inscrutably titled "Always and Forever: Hip Hop Examines Itself and Its Future." After an afternoon of blathering bizzers, I will be forever grateful to panelist Schoolly D, who, when confronted about the persistence of hip hop's often piggish machismo, offers up just about the only pearl of wisdom I will hear all weekend: "If I got a big dick, I'm gonna talk about it."
S.O.B.'s, Sunday, October 22, 10:00 p.m.
If anyone at S.O.B.'s has a big dick, he's keeping quiet about it. It's the last night of the Marathon, and the comfortably crowded club possesses an understated "exotic" vibe (although the oversize plastic palm tree I lean against is a bit much, as are the "real" bumps in its simulated bark). There's been some excitement outside. The guy behind me in line tried to smuggle a Tupperware container of flour into the venue. The doorman tasted it carefully. Yep, flour, all right. No one can explain this incident. The container is confiscated.
Onstage is All Natural, a Chicago duo who'd left me largely unimpressed on disc. But MC Capital D reels off a breathtaking freestyle than includes lines like "You're unworthy/Like Will when he dicks Jada." Then, after plugging the group's new disc, D promptly announces that he's leaving the indie-rap game for Islam.
I see Slug across the room. He says, "I hear you ripped my record in your review."
Our lanky hometown rapper has a way of greeting you with a half-smirk in his eyes that his mouth doesn't quite match. He'll let you know you've been acknowledged, the expression seems to say, but you've got to decide for yourself whether he's happy to see you. His initial comment suggests he isn't.
I explain away my supposed "rip" on the new Atmosphere album in City Pages (Revolutions Per Minute, October 18): Slug's got a stone classic in him, I insist, and I'm waiting for it.
And, uh, by the way, any chance he could help get a couple of my friends outside into the show? Slug shrugs at my explanation and obligingly pops out the door to see what he can do. I feel like a war protester being stared down by a vet. Okay, not quite. It's not that I don't stand by my review of Atmosphere: Bunch of great tracks, but oodles of filler too--and I can't wait for the real album. But here, as Slug and I are two Minneapolitans in the Big City, I feel like I've betrayed the team.
Up onstage, the host shouts about upcoming acts, each of which draws eager shouts. But when he gets to "At-mo-sphere," the crowd, as they say, goes wild. It occurs to me for the first time that Slug is, well, sort of famous.
Varick Street Subway Station, Monday, October 23, 1:00 a.m.
I can hear raps thumping through the tunnel as I wait for the 2 train to swing me back to my spacious uptown floor. The danger of events like CMJ, it occurs to me, is that they encourage journalists to make sweeping generalizations about the state of indie rock, or of the music business, or of our own psyches, when we'd be better off just focusing on whatever music we're fortunate enough to encounter. Or, in my case, not encounter. Still, it's hard not to consider the state of college music when you've voluntarily immersed yourself in the stuff for four solid days.
I glance back at the schedule, at my favorite bands, which I hopefully circled back when this all began. The names are listed there in rows and columns, in a typeface that should be outlawed or come with its own magnifying glass. And all around those names are the monikers for other bands: ones I might see if no wait were involved, and ones I wouldn't see if it could deliver a cure for cancer (though, to defend such selfishness, that scenario seems highly unlikely). And then there is the greatest number of bands--ones I've never heard of. Wannabe guitar contenders who are right now trying to decide whether they should all dye their hair the same color, scheming to place their faces on magazine covers and their videos on MTV Asia. Crews of beat believers who formed on a lark and will dissolve on a whim and will leave nothing but a poorly silk-screened T-shirt and a few MP3 files in the ether.
There's more stuff crammed into the cultural landscape than any one person could possibly experience, even if one's all-access badge actually provided all access. However insular this CMJ universe may be, it is unknowably large and limitless. And there is something reassuring in that. If there are still faceless people trying to eke mediocre music out of the most banal conventions, eventually some smart guy or gal is going to stumble across a sound that might change my life. Isn't that why we're here?