Rock is dead. Long live
goddamn festivals are the nails in the coffin. North by
Northwest is the epitome of the sly corporate leeching
of any and all soul from the beast formerly known as rock'n'roll.
What started as merely crass has proved to be mortal poison.
This much-hyped "showcase" for "independent" music is
always promoted in the same breath as "Your band's one-in-a-million
opportunity to sell-out!" A contradiction in terms? Yeah,
but who's listening? It's all the same damn thing nowadays,
as indie labels get sucked into the vortex of mega-corporations.
To be viable you've gotta be a made-for-money machine
like Brittney or 'N Sync, or learn how to produce, record
and market your music yourself, which can wear on the
always fragile muse responsible for the goods. But, hey,
that's independent! Just be sure and get your MBA before
you pick up that guitar, son. A law degree might be useful,
too. But, says Satan, wouldn't it be nice to have someone
do all that for you?
Ever hopeful and ignorant, bands seem perfectly willing
to play the corporates' bitch, shelling out plenty of
money to be seen and heard by wasted industry types who
are drinking on their blood, sweat and tears. You asked
for it! Just don't let me hear you complain when they
get you in debt by making you pay for your tour bus with
the insufficient funds your (their) record earned while
they forgot to promote it.
Anyway, I couldn't imagine a worse fate for a Friday night
than to be forced to participate in the peregrinations
of the amateur live music aficionados. It's a hassle,
boring and downright dangerous. Not to mention depressing
as hell! But, as I've explained before, sometimes a deadline
will find you doing things you'd never dream of doing
otherwise. So, I found myself at the Green Onion, a decent
Middle-Eastern restaurant, at 9 PM on a Friday night,
four guys and a girl were playing perfect Pornland pop
to a capacity crowd.
Here ya go, folks, my tell-all diary of a one-night
stand with NXNW 2000.
PM: Norfolk and Western
The hype was heavy for this local outfit when I asked
around at the titty bar the night before. There's a
Portland sound, ya know, and this band is it in a nutshell.
And I'm no fan. Yawn. It's melodic, guitar oriented,
Elliot Smith-y, three vertebrae up from shoe-gazer dopey
rock. No head bobbing, just buy the cd and play it on
a rainy day while you're cooking dinner or cleaning
house in your pre-yuppie bohemia.
A lot of people turned out for this show, even though
Norfolk and Western are local and you can presumably
see them any time for less money and easier parking.
Outfit of choice was khakis with tucked-in shirts. Smart
guy stuff. Wire rim glasses and undyed hair. Natural
fibers with Patagonia shells instead of leather coats.
Cute guy factor was a big fat zero.
9:30: Polecat/Dora Flood
I ran around the corner to Dante's, hoping to catch
some of Polecat, which, according to the write
up promising high-energy loudness, I hoped would be
more up my alley. I was late. I forgot the festival's
basic tenet, namely that in order to haul in as much
possible dough from poor little bands and non-wristbanded
patrons, the NXNW machine must operate with deadly precision.
That being the case, I arrived at 9:36 to the last little
chugga-chuggas of this Seattle band. Oh, well. I was
well in time to catch what proved to be the most exciting
aspect of the festival for me: the virile tear-down
and subsequent mounting of the bands' equipment. This
part is HOT! All those instruments of revolution, bandied
about by real WORKERS! The little band boys show off
their muscles and grace while wheeling Marshalls offstage
and delicately packing up bass drums.
After this spectacle, I was treated to some U2-inspired
sludge by Dora Flood from San Francisco. It was all
I could do to keep myself from shouting "Boo!" or "ZEN
GUERRILLA, motherfuckers!" after every song. I entertained
myself by looking for cute boys in the audience. I found
three passable ones. One was suddenly standing next
to me, offering to get my next drink. He didn't like
the band much, either, but he did like Blonde Redhead,
which is not really ok with me.
The crowd at Dante's was about three times more hip
than the Green Onion crowd. Nearly everyone wearing
glasses had those ubiquitous Buddy Holly ones, there
was a lot more creative hair-coloring going on and leather
coats were the rule.
On my way out, I asked one of the other cute boys what
he thought of the band. He said he liked 'em. "Really?"
I decided he wasn't so cute close up.
11 PM: No. 2
The Cobalt was packed for this group of Elliot Smith castaways.
Folks here were even more hip than at Dante's! Black tee-shirts,
mixed races, mixed glasses. Some sweetheart shared his
flask of Jameson's with me. And that's the extent of that.
Well, that and drummer Paulie really is so superfine.
Midnight: Scared of Chaka
I crossed the river for this Albuquerque band. They rule!
Their lead singer is an Adonis, and way won the Hottest
Guy Award. Chaka is what the Makers wish they could be.
Fun loud punk rock. Straight outta the garage and into
your heart. The crowd was stereotypically EJ's: people
to whom hip has no lingering credence, and who drink Pabst
any night of the week, not just on bowling nights. The
cool kids. All types of spectacles were represented. Lots
of black. More cute guys than anywhere else, but who was
looking? Chaka's lead singer is such a dish! If I weren't
such a dedicated editor, I would have flung myself at
him with reckless abandon. But I got a job to do here.
No sooner had Scared of Chaka shut off their amps than
I was back on Sandy, headed downtown. Unbelievably, cell
phones seem to be the latest accessory of choice for the
street ho's. A perfect match, really. Loitering near pay
phones is always a dead giveaway.
1 AM: Smegma
Back at the Green Onion, I watched the last bit of the
Kerby Street Trio--jazz for the über-hip new-mods.
Punks filtered in for Smegma, and I scouted the joint
for local hero/martyr Richard Meltzer. Meltzer was one
of two or three who wrote the book on rock criticism back
and the author of A Whore Just Like the Rest.
His band, Smegma, is a motley crew of music veterans
who put on a wonderfully unique show of highly offensive
poetry and carefully crafted music montages. Call it
Factory-esque. People left in droves about half-way
through the first song, which began with a little couplet,
something like "You ask me to piss on you/ then you
piss on me. We turn on the shower/ then I fuck you in
the ass." Or was that the sound check? Whatever. I am
a huge Meltzer fan.
1:30 AM: The Natrons
Back at EJ's, I found myself wondering whether there
was any middle ground in Portland between scene du jour
slow and punk rock fast. My question was answered an
hour later at Jimmy Mak's by the fabulous Natrons--Portland's
finest, without a doubt. Their music is hardly original--very
Cramps-like, which was a rehash when it was born twenty
some years ago. But who the hell cares. It's the real
thing, and perfectly executed. The rhythm section is
truly the best around, with the Fellini bartenders we
all know and love, Craig and Juliette, on drums and
bass, respectively. The lead singer does a perfect Lux
Interior, but is superfiner. He wins the runner up Hottest
Guy Award. And what a guitar player! Smokin'! He bent
the bluesiest notes out of his axe whilst standing atop
a tipsy table, then wrestled his sex-imbued song to
the ground where it moaned and gasped, and ultimately
delivered us all to an exhilarating afterglow. Jesus!
As the Flamin' Groovies say, all's well that ends well.
I mean, I got my rocks off at NXNW, so it can't be all
that bad, right? And when else could I see such a diverse
assortment of bands? Well, probably any night of the
week, if I was willing to drive all over town to search
'em out. How
the NXNW-sponsored hype still works to get the kids
out, and every musician puts a little more into their
show if they're playing for more than ten of their
close friends (with the possible exception of Portland-soundsters
and Elliot Smithies--they're so shy and humble, see).
Maybe I'll even try it again tonight...after all,
I have yet to see a show at Rocco's Pizza, and I'd
like to interview some rockers about the injustice
of having to play at Union Jack's--a STRIP CLUB that
of course EXPLOITS WOMEN (There have been pamphlets
distributed to this end. How silly.).
To those protesting the use of Union Jack's as a NXNW
venue, fuck you. Any musician with a brain and a couple
years experience will recognize that stripping is
a lot less exploitative than selling your soul for
a free round of PBR (and at Union Jack's, it's several
rounds of free JD!) or the chance to be seen by slime
of the earth music magnates. Yeah, yeah. We strippers
have to pay a percentage for the "privilege" of working
at clubs. And sure, some of us get hooked on drugs.
But look at yourselves! The music industry couldn't
be more exploitative or drug-addled.
Finally, while we're on the subject of sex workers,
NXNW progenitor South by Southwest is threatening
to sue the local girls who have been hard at work
bringing you Portland's second Sex by Sex Workers
film festival. For copyright infringement, naturally.
So forget about any good intentions of fostering independent
music and video. They just want your greasy money.
It's a never-ending ring of hypocrisy, and I have
a headache. As far as I'm concerned, the "independent
music" ethos was bullshit shot through with holes
from the beginning. Mission accomplished.