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Magical Mystery Tour 

SxSW journal

Wednesday, Mar 21 2007
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Rue Britannia

Thursday morning: Got in last night. Horrible drunk musician-esque English guy sat behind me on the airplane, using F-words, trying to impress the unimpressed female next to him. He was under the unfortunate delusion that everything he thought, and then said, was funny and compelling, and that being the loud drunk on the airplane was a daring, rebel move.

Ah, South by Southwest. Only been here a few hours and already I can feel the familiar misanthropy returning like an old friend.

click to flip through (4) Slash & Tom Morello (Photos by Jay West)
  • Slash & Tom Morello (Photos by Jay West)
     
 

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The musical wing of the SXSW festival is very much about industry hype and band gossip. Example: At dinner last night, an English guy at another table was talking loudly (again) about Lily Allen. Not really saying if she’s good or bad or just okay. He was just talking about her: “She’s very British, really. Her dad’s a famous actor.”

Then there’s the game where you try to guess what band people are talking about by the things they say. Example: In the elevator later this morning, two English dudes (!) going to the whirlpool, apparently — one was wearing a bathrobe (ew) — were saying to each other, “Yeah . . . they signed to Merge. And there’s really quite a lot of them when they’re up onstage, isn’t there? Seven or eight?”

If you guessed Arcade Fire, I’m with you. Then again, if you guessed I Really Don’t Give, I’m also with ya.

Haven’t made any star sightings yet, but have seen a tragic quantity of leggings on the women.

Buzzcockin’

Saturday: The Buzzcocks, at something like 86 years old, blast bands of 20-year-olds off the stage, and shame them. They simply rock harder, more full-frontally, than almost any band I’ve ever seen. They began their set at Stubb’s BBQ (closing the Spin party) with a bang — “Boredom” and a mix of classics and newer songs, including the highly romantic “Reconciliation,” which got me feeling very sentimental about punk rock and true love. And they put some effort into looking natty and cool as well, which I appreciate. White jeans are always a plus!

The energy did flag a bit in the middle (long set, about an hour), but they saved their best for last: ”What Do I Get?,” “Orgasm Addict,” “Harmony in My Head,” “Ever Fallen In Love?” And nuts! they never played my current favorite “Why Can’t I Touch It?” (Ever notice how the Buzzcocks have more song titles in the form of questions than anyone else?)

Anyway, it’s official: The Buzzcocks are the most soft-hearted romanticists in punk rock! Oh, and they also like physical pleasure — you can just tell they don’t have any tightass fear of sex/love/romance . . . Which isn’t classically punk rock but is, also, always a plus!

Strangers With Candy

Sunday: One of the speakers at a panel on the Internet said: As music blogs and sites like Pitchfork rise in popularity and power, the quality of writing will become much less important in music criticism than the quality of branding. I would suggest that this has already proven to be true. The originators of rock criticism were writers to the core, and committed to music writing as a quasi pop-art form — writing as a form of joy, a genuine expression of the rock & roll spirit. Stylish, rhythmic, heartfelt, musical. Musical. When Lester Bangs typed onstage with the J. Geils Band, he meant it. And it wasn’t just Lester Bangs doing the Lord’s work.

But those values are rare now in the so-called “indie” media world. To the contrary: Humor and populism and style are often belittled as lightweight, shallow. Example: Today, I was talking to some people who work for a “tastemaking” public-radio station, and we were discussing Mika, the glam piano man who rocked the house here at SXSW. One person explained that she didn’t like Mika because he was too catchy. If music is too catchy, she gets it stuck in her head, and then she gets sick of it.

The consensus seemed to be, overall, dismissive of Mika as “candy.” If only they had the first clue how impossibly difficult it is to write a catchy song! And under these rules, what then of the Beatles, or the Stones, or any other catchy band that ever endeavored to write popular music? Why must music be uncatchy to be taken seriously? And why would you deny yourself the pleasure of catchy music?

Is this what poor Mika is up against? My God. If a classic, vintage-era Elton John were trying to break through today on the indie-radio outlets and blogs we’ve got, he’d be dismissed before you could say Captain Fantastic. They’d call him fluffy and pretentious and lightweight and — horrors! — catchy.

Reprint Andy Pratt

Sunday: Top Surreal Moment of the Festival: I’m in the coffee shop today at 1 p.m., waiting to meet up with a friend. The only available seat is near a lanky, white-haired man who hunches over his table and sways slightly, like one touched.

I take a risk and grab the seat. Of course, he turns around and wordlessly places some sort of piece of paper on my table in slow motion. I look at the photo on it, and I look at him.

“Andy Pratt,” it says.

Andy Pratt. Oh, if you only knew how I have hunted for Andy Pratt.

I first heard him while flipping around the radio dial one Sunday at 3 a.m. seven years ago. As it turned out, Jon Brion was guest-deejaying on KCRW’s The Open Road, playing something simple and bizarre and real. And beautiful. And incredible. And true. And it was Andy Pratt.

Jon Brion talked at length about Andy Pratt, and played three of his songs. He even put forth a theory of musical time travel, suggesting Andy Pratt’s influence on Radiohead and Beck. Because at one moment in history, Andy Pratt was the Next Big Thing. Andy Pratt was touted in Rolling Stone as some kind of genius, and his song “Avenging Annie” was a hit.

After that, I hunted for Andy Pratt, ultimately special ordering one of his difficult-to-find albums through a record store. This was way before MySpace or iTunes. Andy Pratt sits at a piano on the cover, looking like a much taller Lindsey Buckingham. I didn’t hear anything on the record as amazing as that stuff on the radio. Yet he seemed a charismatic figure. I found out he later became a Christian. Sometimes the really gifted ones, the ones who really face the music, and madness, do that.

I’d always wondered what happened to him. So I’m in the coffee shop, and Mr. Andy Pratt places a flier on the table. I tell him I know his music; I have his album. He smiles oddly and says, “That’s out of print now. Write about it so they’ll put it back in print.”

He then tells me he’s doing a book signing, and he pulls out a book: Shiver in the Night, it’s called. A memoir. A psychedelic-looking photo of him on the cover. I ask him to sign it, and he does: For Kate, Love, Peace, and Power.

“So,” he asks, smiling, “you write up your daily report and all your fans read it?”

“Um... I don’t have any fans.”

“Okay, so no one reads it!” he says, chuckling.

“Yes, nobody reads it!” And then we both laugh.

And then he adds, almost off-the-cuff, “It’s okay. I do lots of great stuff no one knows about.”

Let me just savor that for a moment. “I do lots of great stuff no one knows about.” He says it without bitterness, but also like someone who’s not happy to be forgotten.

And nor should he be. His shit is incredible. And later, after a brief search, I find out that he has a couple of different MySpace pages. But right now I can’t ignore the irony of being stuck here in the mouth of the indie-hype-monster machine, this event that launches the short-lived careers of Next Big Things on an annual basis, and sitting at a café surrounded by young assholes in dark shades and cool haircuts, all of ’em hoping for that all-precious mantle of hype, and meeting this man with the crazed eyes and the unspeakably lovely music that not one in a hundred of these cats could hope to touch.

On the inside of the dust jacket, at the end of his bio, it says, “[Andy Pratt] is now happily married, and he is ready to rock.”

Read more SXSW coverage, including Kate’s ideas on how to get the music industry to backslap less and talk more about its crisis of survival at http://blogs.laweekly.com/rocknroll.

Reach the writer at ksullivan@laweekly.com

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