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July 21, 2006

Filed under: music»business

Package Deal

David Byrne:

We became friends and over many get-togethers in Santa Fe and elsewhere I got to know some of the Allens’ circle of friends — many of whom are also artists or singer-songwriters. Their New Year’s Eve parties would often end, as is common for Texas musicians (and Brazilian ones too) with a guitar being passed around and everyone who wrote or sang taking a turn and singing a song, often until late into the wee hours. (This tradition was continued here around the Thunderbird hotel fireplace, where most of the others stayed.)

It took me a bit to get used to this homey approach to music and performance. New Yorkers are sadly more “professional” in their attitude towards their art. We usually perform for money under controlled circumstances. We see ourselves as artistes whose performances are as controlled as we can manage them. (More on control later.) The camaraderie amongst musicians does exists up here in NY, but can you imagine a house party where Madonna picks up a guitar after dinner and serenades the drunken guests with a new song, and then passes the guitar to David Bowie? Not likely, I imagine, though who knows? But amongst Texans it’s the normal course of events. When I fist encountered and participated in these campfire sings I realized the meaning and resonance of these things goes deeper — to some extent this is a way of resisting the century-old trend of produced and commodified entertainment and culture.

We tend to see our culture and entertainment as something made by “others”, by “professionals”, which we then buy, attend, consume or purchase. It has been removed from us, our own culture. It’s made by those with distant professionals with the requisite levels of skill. craft and polish. When it was discovered that there was money to be made in marketing and packaging what was once locally produced and amateur popular music (and everything else) it slowly was insinuated that it was weird and uncool to make it at home with your friends — how unprofessional! It became considered strange and unlikely to create your own entertainment and to leave the TV off (as well as being unprofitable.) But in quite a few places this never took hold — Texas, Brazil, and Spain I can personally vouch for as examples of cultures where this process of creation and performance continued being transparent and public (well, amongst friends.)

My roots, in case anyone was wondering, are basically white-trash Appalachian. My dad's from southern Virginia, my mom hails from North Carolina. They're the first generation of their families to graduate from college. Whereas the running joke with my friends in college was that I grew up in "urban Kentucky," a phrase that's apparently hilarious to people who A) are not familiar with Lexington and B) prefer to live in a stunted, stuffy, yuppie-filled fever swamp like Washington, DC.

I remember as a kid that my parents would sometimes just sit down in our townhouse with various instruments--my father was a music major who played french horn, my mother played trumpet and (speaking of the mountains) hammer dulcimer--to go through a few songs. I'm not aware of any other real musical history in the family, and certainly few of my relatives (outside of my immediate family) have ever shown any interest in performing music rather than just listening to it, but it would be pointless to deny the front-porch legacy of Appalachian musicians. Once upon a time, the past tells us, that's what you did. Before we had a million other things--produced distractions--to occupy our time.

Were we profound? Or just bored stupid?

Maybe this is a symptom of the volume and bombast of Rock music, but I don't meet a lot of people who just get together and play a few songs with each other any more. It's a part of the culture that's been lost. It puts music into the realm of the inaccessible, turns it into something that Other People do. And the few of us who do learn how to play an instrument, to make a pleasing sound or two, we don't gather others around and share that sound just out of friendship. We try to reach the level of Other People on a stage, in an event.

Which is one reason why I don't really go looking for gigs any more. And why Belle needs to get cracking on learning to play her guitar.

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