Next Big Thing: Looking for That Song
LAST WEDNESDAY AND THURSDAY, TWO OF THE BEST UNDISCOVERED bands of the new rock crop, Hot Hot Heat and the Walkmen, played two sold-out nights at the Troubadour in the midst of a 15-date tour. Of course, this being Los Angeles, calling the groups "undiscovered" isn't entirely accurate. On Thursday, Warner Bros. Records had requisitioned several dozen tickets, and a number of its employees were in attendance, including A&R chief Perry Watts-Russell, "creative czar" Jeff Ayeroff and publicity-shy chairman Tom Whalley. Hot Hot Heat are Warner Bros.' latest signing, and the Walkmen had been taking meetings all week with various major labels.
The evening was yet another indicator that we've entered a new era of smart and quirky guitar music made by white people. Creative, sincerely felt rock has fallen considerably from the perch it occupied in the early '90s. Back then it was dubbed alternative rock, and for a while, it seemed as if it would never fall from the charts. It did, of course, replaced by Ricky Martin, Britney Spears and an endless succession of nu-metal mooks. But there's an excited buzz in the industry right now. Sure, declining sales have everyone fearing for their jobs, but so-called "good music" (think the White Stripes, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, the Strokes) is back. Spin's editor in chief, Alan Light, quit to seek a backer for a proposed magazine actually titled Good Music.
What Tom Whalley and company were looking for at the Troubadour, however, was not quirks or smarts, but That Song, an anthem so good it will instantly be inscribed in the hearts and minds of the young a song like Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit" that blossoming teenagers just know about. That Song is inevitable, the pop-music equivalent of boys knowing they can singe insects by focusing the rays of the sun through a magnifying glass. None of the bands in the new rock resurgence have released That Song. Yet.
The Walkmen opened up. Lead singer Hamilton Leithauser stalked the stage in faded black jeans and a tweed sport coat, looking like a midcareer novelist. His bandmates were similarly dressed, in conservative sweaters and wool pants. The band's songs are oddly structured fast then slow, tenuous then propulsive, filled with abstract ropes of sound. They recall the work of U2 right down to Leithauser's full-bodied and, yes, Bonoesque voice. But as he began singing the group's signature tune, "We've Been Had," Leithauser sounded more like an A&R exec passing judgment: "I'm a modern guy/I don't care much for the go-go/Or the retro image I see so often/Telling me to keep trying/ Maybe you'll get here, someday/Keep up the work kid/Okay, I close the book on them right there."
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The song might be about the experience three-fifths of the group had in the late '90s, when they were part of a notorious DreamWorks flop, Jonathan Fire*Eater. (Their one album is a bargain-bin classic, and, perhaps to scare off hubristic A&R professionals, the helpful parenthetical "formerly Jonathan Fire*Eater" was included in ads for the show.) As a gauge of just how much the climate has changed since then, "We've Been Had" is being featured in current TV ads for Saturn. Still, it's clearly not That Song.
Around 11 p.m., Hot Hot Heat took the stage. There are some parallels between this group (a bunch of young kids from the isolated Pacific NW town of Victoria, British Columbia) and Nirvana (a bunch of young kids from the isolated Pacific NW town of Aberdeen, Washington). Where Nirvana resuscitated unfashionable influences such as Black Sabbath, Hot Hot Heat resuscitate unfashionable influences such as the Cure and XTC. Both emerged with addictively catchy songs, and both had their recording contracts with Sub Pop bought out by major labels. There seemed to be a lot of teenagers in the audience for a Thursday night, and as Hot Hot Heat began their set, it became apparent they probably weren't there for the tweedy guy named Hamilton.
"Talk to me, dance with me here in the spotlight," sang front man Steve Bays. He wore extraordinarily tight blue jeans, a gray-and-black ringer T-shirt, and had his hair styled in an eccentric and well-cultivated variation on the Jewfro. A girl in a black miniskirt, fat pink new-wave belt and yellow shirt jumped onstage and began to dance. The song was stripped of layers until only drums, voice and the occasional keyboard belch remained. "You are my only girl, but you are not my owner," sang Bays. Four more girls leapt onstage, shimmying.
"This goes out to everyone with the balls to get onstage in the last five minutes," said Bays just before breaking into the group's current single, "Bandages." "This is our last song."
Five audience members joined the group. Then 10. Then 20. As Bays moved into the final verse, the 450-capacity crowd appeared to have emptied out considerably. Fifty members of the audience danced onstage. "Don't worry now/Don't worry now/Don't worry 'cause it's all under control," went Bays, his bandmates eclipsed from view by the audience's spontaneous response. Maybe it wasn't That Song, but for one brief moment it didn't matter. "Don't worry now/Don't worry now/Don't worry cuz it will all turn around, around, around, around, around . . ."
Alec Hanley Bemis
OVERHEARD ON FM RADIO LAST WEEK, while driving down Fairfax: the tail end of an old Doors song interrupted by a gushing female DJ. "We got an amazing call today, folks, from Marines who are shipping out to the Gulf. Of course we'll play your request, guys. I got to tell you, this call . . . just took my breath away. And the girls in the office wanted to tell you to come on and visit as soon as you get back. Because all the girls here just luuuuv Marines. And here's your Bob Seger." I changed the station.
I'm not old enough to have experienced the Vietnam anti-war movement as anything but a callow 13-year-old ("Uh, like, they're oppressing peasants over on the other side of the world or something and we get a day off school"), but I am old enough to remember the days when freeform, progressive FM radio stations (KMET in Los Angeles, for instance) acted as if politics and music were as hard to separate as Siamese twins. FM radio used to be one of the things that bound us together.
In the early 1980s, I lived in San Francisco when subversive FM newscasters like the legendary Dave McQueen actually gave us the news. But by the time I got to meet McQueen, coming back through San Francisco on a book tour in 1991, he was doing a 6 a.m. Sunday talk show at a disco station. During the interview, I embarrassed him with my enthusiasm. He knew how far he had fallen.
What scares me now is that dissenting voices even in places as celebrated as The New Yorker seem to trail off like virgas, the desert rain showers that evaporate before reaching the ground. The great voices of journalism (John Hersey on Hiroshima, Woodward and Bernstein on Watergate) were in a dialogue with their readers. Now, nobody can pay attention long enough to respond. One voice rapidly replaces another, talking, perhaps, about penile implants or car sales. One has no chance to think. Yeats does not have to worry about the worst being full of passionate intensity; no one is full, just replete.
No one, perhaps, except baby boomers, like the screenwriter I met for a drink the other night. All right, I confess, I met him on the personals at the online magazine Salon. We knew some of the same people, and he wrote well. His profile said that he was in his mid-40s. When I got to the bar, I realized that if he was 46, I was one of the Olsen twins.
I didn't say anything about the fact that he looked more like Donald Sutherland than William Hurt (as advertised). Then he told me he had gone up to San Francisco to an anti-war demonstration the previous weekend. "It was useless, of course," he said. "But, you know, it was moving. We used to run up there from Stanford all the time and get our heads bashed in."
"Stanford?" I asked. "How old are you?"
"Well, late 40s," adding defensively, "Look at the business I'm in."
The business, indeed. The troops are sailing. The radio station carefully selects which Doors song it will play, and it's never "The Unknown Soldier." I'm getting pissed off and flipping the radio dial again. The baby-boomer screenwriter is coming home from calling the government a liar and then lying about his age on the Internet.
I suspect we're all in the business now.
SCOTT LEWICKI BEGAN HIS 4 P.M. YOGA class on Saturday the way he always does: He asked everybody how they were. "Feeling quiet?" he asked. "Yeah, me too. As some of you know, I work for NASA. So today is a particularly sad day for me."
Most of Lewicki's regular students at City Yoga know about his science background. As a joke, he's called himself a "rocket scientist yogi," even though he's really an engineer and systems designer who oversees a team of scientists working Earth Observing Vehicles, a series of unmanned spacecraft that monitor things like global warming, pollution and ozone holes. Lewicki's students also knew that on this day of the Columbia crash he would do what yoga teachers by divine order nearly always do: Draw a lesson from the day's events to the practice of yoga.
He'd done it before, with the solar eclipse, with the subtle shift of a season, even with the Angels' performance in the World Series. "I want a rally monkey at the edge of my mat, cheering me on," he said then, a remark lost on most of his students if few yogis are scientists, fewer still are professional-sports fans. This time, he did not disappoint us: "I've worked at JPL for NASA for 15 years," he said, "and I was working there part time as a student in 1986 when the Challenger disaster happened. So I know what goes into the shuttles at NASA, what they put into making them safe. But to most of the public, the shuttle goes up because it goes up. It doesn't register for most people how amazing it is that this can happen."
As a yoga teacher, Lewicki, a tall 37-year-old with blond curly hair to his shoulders, has a habit of making goofy wisecracks he once held a class in downward-facing dog position until everyone confessed a favorite flavor of Ben and Jerry's. But in this moment he was a scientist, his tone more measured and serious. "To have a disaster like this, it really shakes things up. It shocks you, it brings into awareness how amazing the shuttle is. And that's what yoga's about: awareness."
Class ended, and in that peculiar hazy twilight of a Los Angeles winter, I tried to get Lewicki to elaborate, but he was rushing off to teach a 6 p.m. class at Center for Yoga.
"I've gotta jam," he said. "But you can catch me at home tomorrow."
So I did. "How does a rocket scientist become a yogi?" I wondered.
"I've been good at math and science from grade school, and I chose that as a career path," he said, "but I always felt I had my strong creative side that was looking for a way to express itself. Yoga fulfills that."
The specific kind of yoga Lewicki teaches, a style called Anusara developed by Houston yogi John Friend, "is very much grounded in the science of biomechanics and [Friend's] work in physical therapy; it involves all the latest work that's been done in those fields. But it's fit into the context of yoga tradition and philosophy. It's scientific, but it's spiritual, too. If it weren't, it wouldn't have that same attraction."
But isn't science spiritual? Didn't Einstein say something about knowing God through science? "I'm not familiar with that quote," Lewicki demurred. "But it's different for me. In some ways what I search for is something that makes me feel like I'm tapping into an energy that's larger than myself. I feel that sometimes working in science and mathematics, but not as much as when I find that in yoga. And it's also a balance: It's not that science is not spiritual; it's that science has specific uses that help to improve humanity in a different way.
"As Tantra says in the most basic way," he concluded, "'It's all good.' To revel in a scientific discovery is to revel in discovery about the universe and the beauty of the universe. And to practice yoga is to revel in the universe, too. It reminds you not to take anything for granted."
I remembered an article I'd read over the weekend about astronaut Laurel Clark describing space as "magical," about glimpsing the brief, flashing sunsets and strange blues of space, and being grateful that she'd been lucky enough to see it. She didn't know at the time that she and her crew were likely already doomed, but in those last moments it might have occurred to her this might be the last she'd see of space. I do not doubt that she paid attention.
LOOKING BACK AT 25 YEARS OF L.A.WEEKLY
"Ronald Reagan has set in motion a more fundamental change in America than any administration since Franklin Roosevelt's . . . His policy planners, reversing previously unchallenged theories, now declare nuclear war to be winnable and are preparing to be the winners. His State Department has signaled the Third World in innumerable ways that the administration's primary interest is the protection of U.S. corporate interests in their countries . . .
"At home, longstanding government policies on the environment, on workers' safety and on innumerable consumer protections have been reversed or are about to be . . . The Democrats have been supine in their responsibility to spell out to Americans the impact of the Reagan program, and the press has been almost moribund when it hasn't been cheerleading . . . Reagan may be a bit overzealous with this or that cut, the editorialists say, but he deserves the right to try to cure America of its economic and political ills. So much for the penetrating analysis of an awesomely radical shift in government policies."
Greg Goldin on the early days of the first Reagan administration, October 2, 1981
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