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Andy Pratt, Mika, Pitchfork, and the anti-poppers

It's easy to critique. It's much easier to critique than to do. Having said that, I would like to lodge a complaint about this year's panels.

I understand a few of the panels were genuinely interesting. But the word of mouth I've received from most panel-attenders is that overall they were kinda yawned-out. And after the "Blogs: Whatta Concept!" panel I attended this morning, I wasn't only yawned-out, I was bummed out.

The panel, on "Covering Music In New Media," was awfully fancy. A couple people obviously had their heads (and hearts) screwed on, and I'm sure almost everyone up there was decent human being — yet the panel seemed to take place under a cloud, as if all of life were just incredibly, painfully, horribly unexciting. Granted, it's also possible everyone was just hung-over. But there wasn't any sense of even hung-over joy and humor and excitement about all the cool things made possible by digital technology. And isn't that why we were all there? To get jazzed about all the possibilities, and to celebrate all the grandiose improvements New Media and digital technology have already brought to our lives?

Come on, brothers and sisters! Think about it! Now that we have all this digital recording technology, doesn't music sound better than ever? I mean, can you even believe how incredibly great all the new music is these days?

And now that we have Pitchfork and the blogs to tell us what's cool, and keep us up-to-the-second informed on all their favorite bands, hasn't rock & roll once again ignited the planet with revolutionary fervor?

And don't you find sunlight feels warmer and jasmine smells sweeter and you fight the Powers That Be with renewed vigor every day because you found out the new fuckin' Björk album title first?

THE MUSIC INDUSTRY'S AT A CRISIS POINT, but based on the vibe at SXSW and the amount of back-slapping to be heard up and down the streets and conference rooms of downtown Austin, you'd never know it.

There's much that needs discussing now, much that is depressing and even scary, but needs to be talked about.

A few topics I would have liked to see panels on:

1. The de facto destruction of Capitol Records: What the fuck is going on at Capitol, and how did it happen, and what's going to happen?

2. The hyperspeed mergers, firings, and consolidations in print media affecting music journalism: What are freelance journalists doing to get by; how are writers making a living--are they branching into new, related fields or just going to law school?

3. The future of vinyl: I've heard that vinyl is making a slow but real comeback, and I'd love to hear from those in-the-know about the ins and outs of why and how my favorite musical format is making its way into the future.

4. The planned satellite radio merger, in which XM and Sirius will become a monopoly outlet: How likely is this, and if it happens, what will be the likely effect?

5. Facial hair today: How many beards should a band have, and how does the beard/mustache ratio within a band affect musical output?

A COUPLE INTERESTING POINTS were made at the Internet panel, and I wish I could remember who it was, but one of the panelists said, essentially: 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, and it's a strange thing. 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, wordsmithing 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. This may or may not be indicative of something larger, but today, I was talking with some very nice people from a "tastemaking" public radio station about 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. The consensus seemed to be, overall, dismissive of Mika as "candy." (And he certainly does have a bubblegum influence; he even has a delicious song called "Lollipop.") If only people had the first clue how impossibly difficult it is to write a catchy song! And under these aesthetic guidelines, what then of the Beatles, or the Stones, or any other catchy band that ever endeavored to write popular music? Must music be uncatchy to be taken seriously? Why would people deny themselves the pleasure of catchy music?

Is this what poor Mika is up against? My goodness! I wonder how a classic, vintage-era Elton John would fare today if he were trying to break through on the various indie-type 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! — poppy.

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TOP SURREAL MOMENT OF THE FESTIVAL: I'm in the coffeeshop today at 1 pm, 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 seven years ago, one Sunday-night three a.m.; as it turned out, Jon Brion was guest-DJing on The Open Road, and playing something simple, and bizarre, and real. And beautiful. And incredible. And true. And it was Andy Pratt.

I hunted for Andy Pratt, ultimately ordering something difficult-to-find through a record store, called Resolution. This was all way before MySpace or iTunes were ever an option for me. He sits at a piano on the cover, looking like a much taller Lindsey Buckingham. I never heard anything on it as amazing as that stuff on the radio. Yet he seemed a charismatic figure. He'd later become a Christian. Sometimes, the really gifted ones, the ones who really face the music, and madness, do that.

You may hear Jon Brion talking at length about Andy Pratt, and playing three of his songs, here. He even "steals" my theory of musical time-travel, suggesting his influence on Radiohead and Beck.

Anyway. 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.

And I had his album, and I always wondered what had happened to him. Much as I'd wondered what had happened to Dory Previn, another '70s misfit whom I'd discovered once while taking a bath in my apartment in Hollywood. (I heard a sound of key-twisting melody and androgynous, strange vocals wafting through the open window. I yelled out the window, what is this music? (It was Mythical Kings and Iguanas.)

I'm in the coffeeshop, 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: A psychedelic-looking photo of him on the cover. Shiver In the Night, it's called. A memoir. I ask him to sign it, and he does: For Kate, Love, Peace, and Power.

"So you're writing articles?" he asks.

"I'm doing a blog," I says, adding (and hoping it's not insulting), "Do you know what a blog is?"

"Yeah," he says, smiling. "So, you write up your daily report and all your fans read it?"

"Um... I don't have any fans."

"OK, 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 OK. 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 said it without bitterness, but also like someone who's not happy to be forgotten.

And nor should he be. Tonight, I've done a brief search, and found that he has a couple different MySpace pages, here and here.

His shit is incredible. And so of course MySpace is good for some things, and obviously The Open Road at 3 am is, too. But I couldn'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 surrounded at a cafe 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."