Rock Blocking with Jett and Heart

The cake backstage at the Forum.

The cake backstage at the Forum.

I hate classic rock. I just spent two months in a part of the country (the rural Midwest) where too many people still listen to the songs they made out to during their first hormonal bloom — where party mixes sound like a broken record that’s been stuck in a groove of guitar climaxes and sodden rhythms for forty years. Nostalgia is dangerous; this is also Trump country. Not only can I not bear to hear most of these overplayed ur-rock songs again — and admittedly, I loved them when I heard them as a youth myself, but I’ve discovered a zillion other great records since then that have not been so tirelessly overplayed. As a music historian, I also understand that the ’70s was not some golden age of rock. It was a time when commercially driven radio stations had inordinate power over what the country heard. Specifically, sleazy white male music directors with ugly mustaches and thinning hair picked out those songs that are now on endless repeat, their “taste” groomed by similarly attired record men pushing coke. (Don’t you watch Vinyl? I don’t.) It was a time when playlists were as segregated as my high school lunch room — the era of “disco sucks” — and when women artists were limited to one rotation per hour.

And yet there I was last night, at the Los Angeles stop of the Rock’n’Roll Hall of Fame tour featuring Heart, Joan Jett and the Blackhearts, and Cheap Trick. The presence of two female-led acts on the bill drew me, as did the invitation of my dear friends Veronique and Jon. After all, women are a small minority in the Hall of Fame, and Jett and Heart are two of the few female artists who smashed the glass ceiling of album-oriented radio in the ’70s and ’80s. I love the fact that these pioneers have hitched their wagons together, no silly Lilith nomenclature necessary. Plus, as a former resident of the Midwest, I have a soft spot for Robin Zander.

Frankly, I wish I had gone to see Adele or PJ Harvey instead. All three acts at the Forum played newer material, trying to maintain relevance in a world where analog has gone full cycle from obsolescence to retro chic. Cheap Trick nerdboy guitarist Rick Nielsen was self-aware about the impotence of this strategy; announcing a song from the band’s four-month-old album Bang, Zoom, Crazy … Hello, he sarcastically asked, “Anyone heard it?” (Answer: resounding silence.) It was the oldies — “I Want You To Want Me,” “I Love Rock and Roll”, “Magic Man” — that got the AARP audience to its feet.

Cheap Trick opened and Joan had the sweet spot in the middle. She and her band offered the perfect bridge between the Trick’s bubblegum metal (I mean that in a good way) and Heart’s acid-washed anthems. I’ve seen Joan I don’t know how many times, and she was in great form. I’m not sure I’ve ever watched so many thousands of people go crazy for her like that; she was clearly the star of the evening. Joan ate up the energy and fed it right back to the crowd. Maybe it helped that there were more female fans at the Forum than I usually see at a classic rock show. (I do go to them. Occasionally.) The Wilson sisters and Jett deserve immense kudos for the gender barriers they broke decades ago. And they have always been clear that they were fighting a battle, as Ann Wilson said when Heart played their old song “Even It Up.”

Very few musicians escape the burden of their own success. Even Lou Reed, that crank, was obligated to trot out “Walk on the Wild Side,” or at least “Sweet Jane.” I remember seeing Neil Young introduce his great song cycle Greendale at a West Palm Beach amphitheater, and the crowd hating on him big time because he wasn’t playing “Cinnamon Girl.” Bruce Springsteen keeps it fresh because he warned years ago about the dangers of thinking about nothing but “Glory Days.” But even the Boss has taken to replaying whole albums from his past live.

I would think Joan Jett is as tired of playing “Crimson and Clover” as I am of hearing it — more so. But she didn’t show it last night. And when, as she has for 23 years, she kept the pronouns as Tommy James intended them — “I think I could show her” — yeah, it felt bold, the daring of a woman ahead of her time. Hearing an arena sing along to a woman voicing desire for a woman is a glory day I can relive, over and over.

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Yes She Can

Last night, at a point when we needed it most, America was blessed with one of the most detailed, compassionate, forward-looking, fierce, and presidential speeches I have ever seen a candidate give. And she wrapped it all up with a quote from Hamilton! Hillary Rodham Clinton provided an exuberant end to an intense and important convention. Afterwards, we went outside and the Northern sky was lit by aurora borealis. Stars streaked across the heavens for seconds at a time, leaving behind iridiscent exclamation marks. It was as if Mother Earth were celebrating this historic moment — or as if my own mother were letting us know she is still here. Hope lives. 

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Vivien Goldman, Punk Renaissance Woman

Vivien Goldman has inspired me for decades. She is a true artist and friend. I got to write about her for NPR.

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A Story of Hamilton

The screensaver of my son, C. Ham

As I write in an essay published by the Los Angeles Review of Books today, I have a double investment in the musical Hamilton: I come from a long line of Hamiltons, including, according to family legend, Alexander; and I wrote the book about Rent, a major inspiration on Lin-Manuel Miranda. I also relate to Miranda’s script, and the accompanying Hamiltome, being a piece of writing about writing. Read the full essay here: https://lareviewofbooks.org/article/whats-in-a-name/.

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New Journalism, Old Problems

I have always celebrated the work of the New Journalists of the 1960s as having reinvigorated reporting, rather than circumventing it. Unfortunately, as recent scandals involving Gay Talese and Rolling Stone have shown, there can be a thin line between gonzo style and old-fashioned tabloid sensationalism. I recently commented on these ethical issues for The Washington Post and Salon.

 

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Carrie Brownstein LARB Interview

I first met Carrie Brownstein 20 years ago. Sleater-Kinney were playing their first New York show, and she and Corin Tucker came up to me, asking if I could write about them for Spin. They weren’t happy with the writer who had been assigned to the story, but even though I loved the band, I couldn’t help them out. (I wrote about them plenty over the following years, of course.) I hadn’t seen Carrie for maybe a decade when the Los Angeles Review of Books asked me to interview her in April, while she was in town for the Los Angeles Festival of Books. Here’s what she had to say, about Sleater-Kinney, Portlandia, Transparent, and her book, Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl.

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Spend Summer on Cabrillo Beach

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Once again this summer, our amazing oceanfront LA apartment is available for sublet, June 15 to August 15 (approximately). Live with panoramic views of the Pacific; fall asleep to the sound of waves crashing.  The second-floor walkup is directly across from Cabrillo Beach in San Pedro. Two beds, two baths, approx. 1400 square feet in historic 1920s four-unit villa. Lots of parks and activities nearby: the Gehry-designed Cabrillo Marine Aquarium, Point Fermin Lighthouse, Ports of Call, 22nd Street Landing and Marina, Marine Mammal Care Center, Korean Bell, Crafted, etc., all within walking or biking distance. Fully furnished. Beautiful wood floors and built-ins. Email evelyn@evelynmcdonnell.com if interested. $2150/month.

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