Huh? Whazzat? Contact!

Why the first rush of discovering new music is often the deepest

Longtime New York and London Times art critic John Russell once wrote, "Never to go overboard for an unknown artist is a sign of bad character in a critic."

While some might argue that "bad character" is the natural state of most critics, Russell's theory applies to music fans as well--as illustrated by the ongoing interest in "Picked To Click" and other cultural megaphones determined to shine a light on What's Next. For even if you don't know Monarques from the Monkees, the desire to fall head over heels in love with someone or something new is at the heart of the human experience: The rush that happens on first impact and the ensuing cocked-ear edge-of-seatedness that takes hold as a piece of new music unfurls is a reminder that we'll always search for mirrors to help explain what's going on inside us, we'll always troll the collective bloodstream to find something that makes sense of how it feels to be alive in this moment.

I was thinking about all this the other night at First Avenue, as I stood on the Mainroom floor with 20 or so other early-nighters, waiting to hear Los Angeles singer/songwriter Patrick Park for the first time. We'd all just navigated our way through the thousands of acoustic rock fans who were heading to Target Center to see Counting Crows, a band whom I currently had no interest in seeing, but whom I once did, which made me wonder what has changed since then and why.

The thrill of the new: Patrick Park
60 Cycle Media
The thrill of the new: Patrick Park

On February 3, 1994, I stood in the exact same spot I was standing in now, watching Counting Crows. Their debut, August and Everything After, had just been released. I liked it, and, as was the case the night I saw Patrick Park, they were opening for someone I didn't stick around for. For 45 minutes, the band chugged with a dark, poised, alt-country mystery, and singer Adam Duritz, clad in a Big Star T-shirt, filled up the nearly empty room with his street epics. Again, there were maybe 20 people on the floor back then; now, there were 15,000 at the basketball arena.

So where was I? Why didn't I bother to walk across the street? What happened in the ensuing nine years to keep me from going to see a band that once interested me enough to wear out their first record and check out their first area gig? Elitism? Music fan snobbery?

I don't think so. I've been through a lot since Counting Crows first spoke to me, and I had a pretty good idea about what was going to happen at Target Center that night. I couldn't say the same about Park's set. I'd read exactly one story about him, had seen only one picture of him, and now I wanted to see what live hues he might add to his beautifully blue debut, Loneliness Knows My Name. No, I didn't pick Park to click that night because he was new--there are countless artists I've listened to for years whose new work sounds fresh, and tons of songs that reveal something fresh on further exploration--it was because I was.

 

"Your question reminds me of this Albert Camus quote: 'A man's work is nothing but the slow trek to discover, through the detours of art, those two or three great and simple images in whose presence his heart first opened.' It really is that same feeling I keep trying to find, again and again. And, luckily, it seems to happen all the time."

That's Peter Jesperson, co-founder of Twin/Tone Records, current vice president of New West Records, and new-music troller nonpareil. My question: What was the first thing you discovered--personally or "professionally"--and what was the last, and how did each one feel? As a way of talking about the joy of discovery, that most unique of all listening experiences, I posed the question to Jesperson and a few other folks who've made a livelihood out of finding new music.

Jesperson says the feeling he got in 1958 when he heard the Kingston Trio do "Tom Dooley" is virtually the same as when he recently heard Austin, Texas, lo-fi country rockers South San Gabriel (a spinoff of the band Centro-Matic) do "Smelling Medicinal"--that slightly dizzy sensation, like you're looking over the edge of a cliff at something that's so beautiful you can hardly believe your eyes." Drive 105's Shelley Miller talks about the "I gotta know what that is!" reaction she gets upon hearing something new, and how hard she's fallen over the past few years for Eastmountainsouth, Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, Ben Kweller, and the Dandy Warhols. As a teenager, St. Paul Pioneer Press staffer Amy Carlson had her life changed by John Mellencamp and the Gear Daddies, and "right now I'm listening to this ultra-cool new album by the beautiful Holly Golightly. It makes me feel hip in an unassuming, vintage kind of way; makes me feel sassy, full of love, and packed with balls all at the same time."

Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder jazz columnist Robin James's fave rave of the moment is trumpeter Nicholas Payton's latest, Sonic Trance, while Exiled On Main Street editor/writer Bill Tuomala flipped for local rockers Bridge Club in the 7th St. Entry last month. "I know nothing about them, but loved their '70s riffs/Who/Zep sound," he says. "They made me want for summer to end, for cool weather to come, for me to get off my rear and into the clubs again." Walker Art Center curator of performing arts Philip Bither's new music journey has taken him from hearing the Beatles when he was five years old to a demo of post-classical/post-rock composer Michael Gordon's new recording Light Is Calling, which "reached out of the car speakers and said 'listen' and 'be excited.'"

"My most recent musical discovery took place in a hotel-room showcase at the National Folk Alliance Conference in Toronto," says Red House Records' Bob Feldman, whose first discovery was Lightnin' Hopkins's Autobiography in Blues. "Celso Machado is a Brazilian musician living in Vancouver presently. I sat right in front of him as he mesmerized a roomful of people with his guitar and virtually his entire body. I had never witnessed so much music in another human being. At the end of his 45-minute set, the energy in the room was incredible. People literally jumped up from their seats shouting and clapping, crying and laughing. It felt like a once-in-a-lifetime experience. I was high from that for a year."

Tom Hazelmyer, founder of Amphetamine Reptile Records and owner of Grumpy's Bar and Ox-Op Gallery, wrote: "It was 1978. I had only seen pictures of Johnny Rotten and crew (pictures of the Sex Pistols were few and far between back then). There was no airplay, no MTV, and certainly nobody else near my age (a wizened 13) in western Michigan that even knew what that 'punk rock crap' sounded like. I knew this 'punk' alien invasion had to be investigated. Not only did this LP change my life entirely, but the fact that I had to hunt it down for months helped bolster the discovery aspects. Once I actually found a copy of Never Mind the Bollocks, it was literally a jolt. There was nothing else like it at the time. I had no reference point from which to approach this blistering slab of wax. This shit was dangerous. The following teenage years--full of fistfights, taunting, and derision over being a 'punk' back in the '70s and early '80s--bore that out. Other discoveries of art/music/literature have impacted my life and made me shift directions or change perceptions, but none so strong that I vividly remember the exact moment of where, when, and why I purchased a particular book, record, or print."

Hazelmyer's point about teenage revelation is crucial, for to undergo such miracles on a day-to-day basis would turn even the most experienced experimentalist into a quivering heap. Still, that night as I waited for Park, I found myself excited to be feeling the thrill of the unknown once again. When he took the stage and eased into the first song, my senses pricked up and I immediately knew I was in the right place. I listened carefully to Park's robust alto, and tried to decide why I was so moved when he dropped down low and sang, so desperately, "Hush hush before you say/Something you can't take away/You step out for a cigarette/You wait and you watch and you try to forget/How the world doesn't need you around."

Maybe it was because I'd never heard anyone put it for me quite like that before; when Park did, it sounded like a confession I didn't even know I'd needed to make, and the latest in a long line of answers to the new music seeker's eternal question: Who am I this time?

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