Lots of baseball in this one, plus some TV talk. This one went on forever, but I like it a lot.
Shut Up And Play The Hits: New York I Love You, But You’re Bringing Me Down
“To tell the truth? Well this could be the last time. So here we go…” - All My Friends
There is a moment near the end of Shut Up And Play The Hits where frontman James Murphy, the morning after playing LCD Soundsystem’s final, sold-out Madison Square Garden extravaganza, stands alone in a storage room, surrounded by guitars, microphones, drums, keyboards — the entirety of the band’s never-to-be-used-again touring equipment — and begins to weep.
This is significant, as Murphy spends most of Shut Up… doing his best to project an air of confidence and emotional detachment from both LCD Soundsystem as a band and his own relevance in modern music. When asked, for example, if he had ever contemplated at the start of LCD Soundsystem’s journey how the band would end, Murphy refuses the premise, declaring that he “never wanted to start a band”, that he just made a record that people seemed to like, and the band arose out of people’s desire to hear that record played live.
This would be a fine answer, except that everything about Murphy exudes a kind of hyper-self-awareness that makes it seem impossible for someone like Murphy to not have thought out every move of his career as a postmodern dance-rock star. It’s hard not to imagine, given the way Shut Up... unfolds, a thoughtful Murphy — watching his own star rise as mountains of critical praise are heaped upon each new record, as more and more shows are sold out in bigger and bigger venues, and as the responsibility of his success grows more and more daunting — growing both immensely satisfied with the success he’d worked so hard to achieve, and yet terrified that at any moment it would all turn to salt.
It is within this conflict that Shut Up And Play The Hits really hits its stride, which is good, because as a straight-up concert film it is actually fairly underwhelming. It lacks the immersive energy and inherent quirkiness of Stop Making Sense, is void of the cinematographic flourishes and celebratory sure-footedness of something like Shine A Light; the concert footage is shot simply, primarily from on-stage and the first few floor rows, relying on a lot of quick cuts to maintain visual interest. The audio quality is superb, but beyond that, the lion’s share of the MSG footage is fairly bland, the effect of which is that a viewer is left with the impression that the people behind the film decided they were going to make the movie about a week or so before the show.
Which ends up being totally fine, primarily because of how interesting the accompanying day-after footage ends up being. Though there is some contrivance you have to get past — if you stop and think too much about the fact that Murphy is going about all the mundane elements of his morning-after routine (waking up, shaving, walking the dog, making coffee, running errands) while never acknowledging that he has a camera following him for all of these things, it kind of falls apart a little bit — there’s something very poignant in the way Murphy’s solitary, whitewashed apartment is juxtaposed against the darkened auditorium full of thousands of screaming fans. Particularly early in the film, the life-and-death imagery sort of jumps up and slaps you in the face, the vitality and energy of the concert and crowd versus the dreamy, heavenlike solitude Murphy groggily wakes into as he begins life after LCD.
The movie really didn’t come together for me, though, until about the last half-hour or so, as the concert and surrounding conversations coalesced into what I feel is the movie’s ultimate statement. This portion begins with de-facto narrator Chuck Klosterman asking Murphy if he likes being interviewed. Murphy’s response, after declaring that he wishes he were the kind of person that could answer “No” to that question, is that he enjoys interviews because he has a deep seeded need to be understood; that he doesn’t get into describing the meaning of certain songs, but rather appreciates the opportunity to explain a perspective, to clarify a mistaken interpretation of his point of view, to have the best opportunity to be understood.*
*I wonder if this isn’t a common thing among artists born after a certain period, that a certain tendency among postmodern writers and artists towards deluges of vocabulary is not born simply out of a petrifying fear of misunderstanding or misinterpretation. Whereas Fitzgerald, Hemingway and the like seemed to have the confidence (or simple indifference) to simply put their work out there and let the reader interpret how they would, it seems like most relatively young writers (Wallace and Klosterman himself are two that immediately come to mind) are much more paranoid about conveying an unintended message, choosing instead to overtalk, overshare, overexplain for clarity’s sake, even at the cost of accessibility or relatability. I digress.
This, combined with Klosterman’s follow-up question (“What would you say is the defining failure of LCD Soundsystem as a band?”), strike at the heart of what I think Murphy is trying to convey with this film, as Murphy responds that quitting, particularly quitting at their point of greatest success thus far, may well be their biggest failure. “I’m quitting because I like being a person that can ride the subway” he jokes at first, “But maybe that’s not a good enough reason.” He continues, explaining that he’s proud of everything he’s done with LCD to this point, how he doesn’t want to lose that pride, and how there’s a responsibility that comes with reaching the next level of success as a musical artist that he’s not sure he’s prepared for. He says all of this with perceptible panic in his eyes, and you see the conflict raging behind all the jokes and self-deprecation and detachment, that this is a man who is in no way sure that he is making the right decision in walking away.
There is an interview with Murphy, not in the film, not even having anything to do with the end of LCD Soundsystem, that I nonetheless find relevant to the dialogue at this point. In it, Murphy talks about being in his twenties and being terrified of failure, how inaction seemed preferable to the idea of putting something new into the world and having it be rejected, and how this fear of failure resulted in him frittering away his twenties not doing much of anything. I see shades of this at work in the last half-hour or so of Shut Up…, in that LCD Soundsystem, at the moment the concert is taking place, stands on the precipice of major mainstream significance, of taking the leap into the same echelon of performers as contemporaries The Arcade Fire (who appear briefly in the film), on the verge of Grammy nominations and Top 40 singles and no longer being able to ride the subway. And to someone like James Murphy, who seems to be the kind of artist whose sense of self-worth is wrapped up in his sense of artistic credibility and general good taste, that world of what must be tremendous compromise, with fantastic pitfalls to avoid in order to maintain that artistic credibility, must have seemed like an impossible yet alluring challenge.
Which, I imagine, is how Murphy ends up weeping in that storage room, surrounded by signifiers of everything he had built, of the success he had dreamed of in youth and achieved long after he thought it wouldn’t be possible, and feeling torn in a thousand different directions, certain that he’d made the wrong decision, and feeling helpless and dumb, back to the version of himself from his twenties, terrified of failure, full of uncertainty, and hating himself for being both. It is a portrait of a man just past a crossroads, committed to a path yet still uncertain that he’s made the right decision, and overwhelmed by the potential consequences of being wrong.
The fact that this moment leads into what is easily the most dramatic musical sequence of the film — a performance of “New York, I Love You, But You’re Bringing Me Down” that will cement the song in your personal playlist for at least a week after seeing the movie — only adds to the weightiness of the film’s conclusion. Like the song itself, the movie ends in emotional conflictedness, at once celebratory, regretful, joyous and heartbroken. Having no use for tidy resolutions, it ends in relative uncertainty, the house lights rising to rinse the disco balls and spotlights out in a wash of stark fluorescence.
I personally found it to be a remarkably tense conclusion, leaving a weight on my chest for a good 2 hours after leaving the theater for some unknown reason. This may be why I enjoyed it as much as I did, as my favorite movies are always the ones that nag at you, that rattle around inside your head for days. Shut Up And Play The Hits is most certainly this kind of movie, one that’s hard to shake, and, thankfully, that you’re not really sure you’d want to if you could.
Episode 2: Ethan Key
Have at it kids. Hope you like it!
A Love Letter To Minneapolis, or Why You’d Want To Live Here
This will be another installment of the “Things That Have Nothing To Do With The Podcast” series of writings. I hope these are interesting, but if nothing else, they’re allowing me to get some thoughts out of my head, which is terribly useful. If nothing else, I thank you for your patience.
A bit of backstory, if you’ll indulge me. My wife and I went on vacation last weekend with four friends. A day into the four day trip, one of them started giving me shit in subtle ways, and continued doing so intermittently throughout the weekend. Being a person of relatively fragile confidence, this got under my skin in a way that’s only really started resolving itself for me in the past couple of days, more than a week later.
This in and of itself is nothing out of the ordinary; it wasn’t the first and almost certainly won’t be the last time I’ve let someone being a dick rile up all sorts of self-doubt and insecurity.* My brother pointed out to me recently that I tend to just reflect whatever general feeling is being broadcast from the people around me, which was dumbfounding in that he managed — in a single sentence, no less — to sum up a problem I’ve spent 2+ decades and hundreds of thousands of words trying to put my finger on.
*This is, in a way, the origin of the podcast name, that I should not only know the people around me better, but that, as I approach thirty these next few years, it really behooves me to finally start learning from these sorts of mistakes and get my act together. But more on this later.
But one particular thing was said that really drove me nuts, and that’s what I’m looking to address. “I don’t know why anyone would live in Minneapolis,” this kid said, dripping with disdain. “There’s nothing to do there.”
This was baffling for a number of reasons, not the least of which is the simple factual inaccuracy of the statement. Look up Minneapolis on Wikipedia if you really require a laundry list of interesting and engaging ways to spend a day in this vibrant, thriving metropolis. If you are bored in this town it’s because you choose to be, it’s that simple. But there’s more to what makes this city great than just the activities one can undertake, and it’s this that I’m concerning myself with at the moment.
It seems to me that there is a fundamental difference in culture between Minneapolis and most other cities. It is a hard thing to articulate, this difference, but it centers, in my mind, primarily on the types of people drawn here, the kind of person that feels comfortable in a city like Minneapolis as opposed to its midwestern siblings. While the hippies and hipsters found throughout Uptown on any given day are the most obvious example of the kind of personality I’m referring to, I think it goes beyond that. Minneapolis, after all, is the town that produced Prince, John Berryman, Bob Dylan (shove it, Duluth, I’m taking credit for him for the moment), Paul Westerberg, Maria Bamford, Craig Finn, Neil Gaiman, everybody responsible for Mystery Science Theater, Mary Mack, and a guy that calls himself Slug. The legacy of delightful weirdos, of vagabonds and degenerates, of hard living depressives and functional neurotics, of absurdist, offbeat, off-color, everything-off-about-them-entirely artistic voices coming out of or finding a home in Minneapolis is a long and proud one. And there are maybe only six or seven cities in the country that can even think about making similar claims to weirdo sanctuary*.
*Others on the list: San Francisco, Austin, Portland, New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles. I’m open to including Seattle and San Diego, but don’t feel confident enough including them without actually having been there.
I consider myself to be an average citizen of this city. I’m no hippie or hipster, and I’m no professional artistic type. I fancy myself a functional neurotic, undone often by too much thought and a penchant for the impulsive. In my best moments I am witty, engaging, reflective, well-spoken, self-aware and self-effacing, even occasionally funny; in my worst I’m painfully self-conscious, wracked with self-doubt and insecurity, utterly unwilling to step out of my comfort zone. Most of the time I’m somewhere in between. Despite all this, I feel like a pretty normal person*. Everybody has their issues, unflattering qualities or challenges they’d rather live without. The people I trust most in the world are the people whose challenges and frustrations are most readily obvious, as it’s been my experience that the people who seem the most put together are often simply the most deceptive.
*Though of course, dear reader, you’re welcome to disagree.
Which gets me back to my point about this city, Minneapolis, my home. It’s not that we as a city are any more inherently weird than any other place. I do, however, feel that there is an honesty in the Minneapolis culture, a willingness to wear one’s shortcomings openly and without shame. Despite its beauty, Minneapolis is not pristine. There is genuine ugliness to be found, both in the literal (take a walk down any city street in March as the snow turns to muddy, puddled slush) and figurative senses (many examples, but a drive through the tornado-devastated neighborhoods on the north side of the city remains affecting more than a year later). Yet the city and its people embrace their battle scars, will stubbornly go out in search of more.
We are a city of risk-takers, of as much failure as success. Berryman reached arguably the pinnacle of artistic merit and achievement yet still found himself plunging from the Washington Avenue Bridge into the Mississippi River. For every Prince the city offers, there’s a Lifter Puller that couldn’t quite break through. We are a city of ambitions, both realized and unfulfilled. Life here has palpable stakes; it is, as much as any place I’ve ever been, a city that embodies Roosevelt’s Man in the Arena, “marred by dust and sweat and blood…who at the best knows…the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly.”
I live here and love this city because life here feels honest, vibrant, meaningful. I feel surrounded by people vigorously engaged in the act of trying at life, and I find that inspiring. Even the winters, which I loathe, seem essential to the experience, reflective of the parts of life that are uncomfortable and harsh but that must be experienced, a unifying trial from which one emerges stronger. I live here because this is a city for people trying to be better than they are, and there is meaning in that for me.
So, I hope that clarifies things.
The First Episode is Ready!
The first episode is up! The production quality is total shit, but hopefully the content is interesting. Be kind for the sake of my future ulcers.
iTunes links are coming, going through the process of getting it approved. Episodes should be posted every Wednesday evening from here on out.
This Has Nothing To Do With The Podcast (A Baseball Musing)
I hope you’ll forgive me for using this for purposes outside the direct relevance to the ISKB Podcast. Part of the purpose of doing all this is to be slightly more creative, and part of that, ideally, involves writing more. I’m hoping to use this space, when I’m not using it directly for podcast purposes, to be sort of a catchall for whatever media and culture ideas I’m mulling over. So feel free to skip this if this is not your thing.
That said, I am so goddamn excited for tomorrow.
I haven’t gotten really excited about baseball since about a month into the Milton Bradley era in Chicago. This is, in no small part, a self-defense mechanism; once it became clear that the “most wonderful fans in all of baseball” weren’t going to give someone like Milton a fair shake* it was obvious that the Cubs were going to nosedive, and nosedive hard. After the borderline euphoric highs of 2008 (and the fairly inevitable disappointment of THAT team), I needed a break.
*Milton Bradley has taken a lot of grief for his 2009 season in Chicago, some of it deserved. Personally, I only know two things for certain: one, that Milton Bradley had the absolute best eye for the strike zone of any hitter I’ve seen outside of Barry Bonds. The man did NOT swing at balls out of the zone, and his confidence and understanding of the strike zone was, I’m sure, at least partly responsible for his well-documented difficulties with umpires over the years. Two, the Chicago media decided VERY early in the season that they didn’t care for Milton or his attitude, and framed the narrative for fans to reflect their views. Nevermind that there are a lot of hitters that get off to slow starts in Chicago’s cold Aprils, the deck was stacked against him in such a way that there would be no recovery from a slow start in the fans’ minds. This shall henceforth be known as the Jacques Jones Corollary. I could continue ranting about Milton Bradley, but nobody’s reading this anyway, so let’s save time.
Since Milton’s ignominious departure in the waning days of the 2009 season, there has been exactly one on-field moment worthy of sustained excitement for Cubs fans: the explosion of Starlin Castro through the minor leagues and onto the major league roster. Starlin announced himself early in 2010 with a record-setting 6 RBI performance coming off a homer and a triple. Particularly for an organization that hasn’t generated a genuine offensive talent in more than a decade, Starlin Castro represented hope that the Cubs organization could move on from its obsession with Scrappy White Guys* and generally mediocre free agent signings and actually begin to cultivate success at the organizational level. Loading up the farm with (at the time) quality prospects like Josh Vitters, Chris Archer, Andrew Cashner, and the like all seemed to suggest a club that was moving in the right direction.
*Reed Johnson, Mark DeRosa, Ryan Theriot, Mike Fontenot, Tyler Colvin, Darwin Barney….I really wish that list would have taken me longer than the 15 or so seconds it took to make it.
As is pretty typical with this organization, however, not much went right after this burst of encouragement. We realized Vitters had less plate patience than Neifi Perez and Cashner would be plagued by health issues. Archer (along with quality shortstop prospect Hak Ju Lee and Wikipedia Darling Sam Fuld) was shipped off to Tampa in a trade for Matt Garza (a trade that to this day makes no sense to me, given the state of the organization at the time). Castro lost some of his shine under the grind of a 162 game schedule, pounding out hits, yet making a ton of outs and getting somewhat exposed defensively at short, raising questions about his long term ability to field the position.
To sum up: it’s been an ugly 4 years since the highs of the 2008 season. Which is why tomorrow is going to be such an exciting moment.
Tomorrow Anthony Rizzo, the number one ranked first base prospect in baseball, joins the major league roster, hopefully for good. Older than Castro, Rizzo comes with slightly more polish, mostly by virtue of spending time in organizations other than the Cubs. Drafted by Boston originally, Rizzo went to the Padres as the centerpiece of the deal that sent Adrian Gonzalez to the Red Sox. From there he was traded yet again for a package built around Andrew Cashner. What is notable about these deals is that in both trades, it was Jed Hoyer looking to acquire the young Rizzo. Hoyer seems to be a true believer in Rizzo’s talent and work ethic, a belief supported by Rizzo’s absolute rampage through the PCL this season. His gaudy slash line - .345/.408/.702 in 282 plate appearances, with 23 bombs in 69 games - reflects a dominance of the AAA level that I’m not old enough to remember a Cubs prospect matching. Everything about his performance — save for a disappointing stint on San Diego’s major league roster (in PETCO of all places) — suggests at worst a quality, cost-controlled first sacker that will allow the team to allocate resources elsewhere, and at best a superstar caliber power threat the team can build a future around.
But more than this Rizzo represents the first tangible step in realizing the plan laid out by Theo, Hoyer, and company when they assumed control of baseball operations this winter. This team is a long way from being good; I still fully expect them to contend for a league worst record and the number one overall pick in next year’s amateur draft. But Rizzo’s arrival brings us one step closer to the day when this organization can move past mediocre journeymen like Reed Johnson, Jeff Baker, Darwin Barney, and the rest. And for someone who’s favorite moment in this baseball season thus far has been the Cubs finally kicking Koyie Hill to the curb, it means something to me to see a tangible step forward in this long rebuilding process, to be shown a hint of light, way at the other end of this incredibly dark tunnel.
In all likelihood, the face of the Theo-led Cubs will not be Anthony Rizzo. It may not even be A-Ball folk hero Javier Baez, if and when his turn through the hype machine comes. But having Rizzo on the major league roster is tangible proof that the organization is starting to accumulate the right sort of players to achieve success. And that is a nice place to be.
First Call Is In The Books!
Welp, just got off the phone with my first caller, and I believe it went terrifically. All the concerns I had about the audio ended up fine. Going to get a few more calls under my belt this weekend and start editing them, shooting for releasing the first episode midweek next week.
Hi there folks, and thanks for your interest in what I’m up to with ISKB. This will be the home base for the podcast; episodes will be posted here and on the Twitter account (http://www.twitter.com/ISKB_Podcast). I will also post updates about the show itself, what I’m learning as I’m going along, general thoughts about the process, that sort of thing.
Should be having my first chat either tonight or tomorrow, with the hope of getting it posted by the weekend. I don’t know what day I’m going to release the show yet, but when I do it will stay consistent and be a once-a-week release.
I’m hoping to get a number of chats banked this weekend, but we’ll see how it goes.
I’m changing the requirements of the process, since they seem to be scaring some people off. If you want to be a guest on ISKB, please email IShouldKnowBetterPodcast@gmail.com with just 5 things you find interesting (literally anything, just looking to get a small glimpse into your way of thinking and find a jumping off point for conversation). I will email you back eventually to schedule a time for us to chat.
Skype is the preferred method of conversation (limited phone minutes, and all), but if you don’t have or don’t want skype, I can easily record a regular phone conversation as well.
I thank every one of you for being so encouraging and supportive as I get going with this; I hope that the end result is something that’s engaging and that you’ll enjoy listening to.