Microhoo redux?

Carl Icahn is obviously smarter than me. So I’m not quite sure why he’s threatening to oust Yahoo’s BOD in an attempt to woo Microsoft back to the table, as outlined in this article.

Microhoo! might sound like a good idea to Yahoo’s shareholders and once seemed like a pretty good idea to Steve Ballmer, but none of the grunt workers (the people responsible for actually creating and selling product) wanted this merger to happen. Icahn would be trading a short-term spike in shareholder value for years of paralysis, brain drain and slow, painful assimilation of two contrary corporate cultures. Meanwhile Google would continue to widen its lead in search, search-based advertising, online services, and whatever the hell else Microsoft is hoping to catch up with them for.

I admit it would be kind of fun to watch if the merger actually did take place. The spectacle of Microsoft slowly suffocating under its own weight has been amusing as it is; adding Yahoo’s ponderous bulk to the mix would elevate it to the level of Shakespearean tragedy.

On coolness and Beatles

I recently resurrected an old piece I wrote for Pop-Culture-Corn called “How Cool Is Paul McCartney?”. The original feature, now lost somewhere deep in the belly of a Google backup drive, found four writers each making the case for a particular Beatle as the apogee of Cool. I was asked to represent McCartney because of my avowed fondness for his work; I accepted because I was, and still am, sick of the sneering attacks music critics have been aiming at him since roughly five minutes after John Lennon’s death.

And also, truth be told, because I have an unfailing sympathy for the uncool. And McCartney, no matter how cool his various achievements, will always, personally, be uncool. As many a sardonic wag has remarked, The Beatles are dying in order of coolness. Ringo’s next.

Reading my essay over now, there are a few things I would change: I’d tone down the Yoko bashing, for one thing. (The creepy, unhealthy psychodrama of the Lennon/Ono marriage rests more with the groom than the bride.) For another, I actually think I could’ve made my case stronger. Forget for a moment the fact that, in 1966, McCartney was among the handsomest, most interesting and most sought-after (read: cool) figure in arguably the most culturally significant city in the world at that moment. He went where he wanted, slept with whom he wanted, did whatever the fuck he pleased; no one would turn down a chance to trade places with Paul McCartney. But forget all that and just stick to what you can quantify. McCartney was the first of the Beatles to write his own songs, the first member of the fledgling Quarrymen who actually knew how to play. (Lennon played the guitar with banjo chords until “Paul taught [him] to play properly.”) Unlike Lennon, who before meeting Ono deeply mistrusted anything avante garde, McCartney eagerly absorbed the musique concrete of Stockhausen or Glass, and was the first of the Beatles to rip the eraserhead out of his tape recorder and begin making tape loops in his home studio. Without McCartney, “Tomorrow Never Knows” would have consisted of John Lennon banging out C on his acoustic guitar, and the world might have been spared “Revolution #9” altogether. It was McCartney who pushed the Abbey Road engineers to overdrive the trebly guitars of “Nowhere Man” and who had the idea of recording his bass through another amplifier instead of a conventional microphone. Critical opinion has swung between either Sgt. Pepper or Revolver as the Beatles’ masterpiece — and both are dominated by Paul, from behind the desk if not always behind the mike. This is something beyond cool; there are maybe a dozen people in 20th century popular music who can claim achievements of this rank.

And yet.

I will defend McCartney’s creativity and experimentalism to the end. Yet my heart-of-hearts favorite Beatle?

John.

John Lennon was a deeply wounded man, a man for whom braggadoccio and cruelty served as a mask for an insecure boy who never stopped resenting all the grownups who thought he was worthless — and who he must have at least occasionally suspected were right. Lennon’s earliest efforts at “honest” songwriting were exercises in formulaic self-pity, no more or less fundamentally honest than the likes of “I Want to Hold Your Hand.” But somewhere around 1965, Lennon figured out how to tap his inner conflicts without resorting to sad-clown poses. He presented the tangle of his psyche with all its contradictions intact, grounding his songs in uncertainty, hesitancy, confusion. Lennon’s finest songs — “She Said She Said,” “Strawberry Fields Forever,” “I Am the Walrus” — are snapshots of a tumbling psyche in mid-churn.

The usual critical line is that McCartney, by contrast, was shallow, preferring to pander with a smiling face and a thumb perenially turned upward. That’s an oversimplification. McCartney aired his share of emotional dirty laundry, most famously in “We Can Work It Out,” positively Lennonian even before his partner added its rather impatient middle eight. But McCartney, ever the forward-thinking optimist, tended to present his emotional dilemmas post-facto, their tensions already resolved. If Lennon’s songs were the work of a skeptic, McCartney’s were the product of a believer. Think of “Let It Be” and its famous opening lines:

When I find myself in times of trouble
Mother Mary comes to me

No sooner is the crisis introduced than the solution arrives. Lennon could have handily written an entire song about finding himself in times of trouble — indeed I seem to recall a song called “Help” written in 1965 or so — but for McCartney, it is merely the precursor for the dramatic uplift, the consolation that is the song’s true message. “Hey Jude” of course is an anthem of consolation, a plea for optimism that is both cannily calculated and wholly heartfelt. Both “Hey Jude” and “Let It Be” are gorgeous songs, and the former is among the Beatles’ very finest, but unlike Lennon’s finest, they begin after the crisis has taken place, not in the middle of it.

So I will always admire Paul’s amazing abilities, his drive, and his belief that the ordinary and the positive are worth celebrating. But it’s John who, briefly and wonderfully, speaks to me.

How Cool Is Paul McCartney?

It was a moment of pop-culture surrealism worthy of The Simpsons: Paul McCartney, schmoozing backstage at the MTV awards, innocently picks up a baguette and bites into it. His front tooth suddenly shoots out of his mouth, and while it doesn’t land into anyone’s Ketel One–and-cranberry, those looking on are flabbergasted enough. Yes, the gap-toothed McCartney confesses: the Cute Beatle wears a fake tooth. The reason? A motorbike accident more than thirty years ago, in which a stoned McCartney flipped over his handlebars and fell face-first into a dirt path. Though the accident had been public knowledge at the time, McCartney kept the full extent of his injuries hidden for more than three decades, the best-kept secret in all of Beatledom.

Somehow it tells you so much about Paul McCartney: the need to present a sunny, all’s-well face to the world; the juvenile streak that manifests so often in his music (even John knew to stay away from dangerous machinery when he was stoned); and most importantly, the essential mystery that has been hiding in the public’s plain sight ever since the Beatles first came to the consciousness of a generation. McCartney was the smiling, puppy-eyed charmer, and he adopted that characterization so expertly that few people to this day have bothered to look past it. They see a shallow media persona and assume it hides a shallow man, and they’re wrong.

It was not always so. Anyone involved in London’s artistic and cultural ferment of the mid-sixties (which John Lennon largely wasn’t, preferring to shuttle his friends out to Weybridge rather than mix it up at nightclubs) knew McCartney as a key figure, popular among the cognoscenti for his intelligence, curiosity, and openness to new ideas. Naturally his cultural pursuits weren’t allowed to infringe on his favored pastimes of getting high and sleeping with women, yet he still found time to help launch London’s first countercultural newspaper and bookstore, talk movies with Michaelangelo Antonioni, collect the work of surrealist painter Rene Magritte years before anyone else thought it worthwhile, be seen with one of London’s most beautiful and talented actresses, and — oh yeah. And write all those songs.

The greatness of McCartney’s songwriting is so self-evident as to be beyond dispute. It need only be pointed out that his work is far less simplistic than is often claimed. “When I’m Sixty-Four” may be a light-hearted toe-tapper, but the fear of aging lying beneath its charming façade can ambush an unwary listener (“indicate precisely what you mean to say/Your’s sincerely, ‘Wasting Away'”). “You Never Give Me Your Money” is a heartbreaking confession of the Beatles’ decaying carmaraderie, simultaneously recriminatory and celebratory; I’ll take its stunningly versatile four minutes over Lennon’s chest-thumpingly obvious “God” any day, thank you. And “Penny Lane,” arguably his finest single achievement, is a joyful, smutty, kaleidoscopic remembrance of childhood every bit as mind-blowing as its more lauded companion piece, Lennon’s “Strawberry Fields.” (Spend a half-hour sometime pondering the nurse who “feels as if she’s in a play” but “is anyway.” Your head may explode.)

So how, despite his undeniable achievements, has McCartney acquired his reputation as a lightweight, middlebrow balladeer, cuddly and unthreatening? Truth be told, the fault is mostly his, and goes beyond the admittedly depressing decline in the quality of his work around the mid- to late seventies. The birth of Safe Paul McCartney can be traced to the summer of 1967, when Rebellious, Intellectual Paul McCartney admitted to a BBC reporter that he had not only taken LSD (the first pop star to make such an admission), but found the experience beneficial, even a little fun. The establishment came down swiftly and mercilessly, deriding him as an “irresponsible idiot” and generally making life difficult for every drug-taking pop star from then on. While John Lennon never lost his taste for outrageous remarks, McCartney has made nary an offensive peep since, and by the mid-eighties was confessing in interviews that his own family was “a lot like” that depicted on The Cosby Show. Thus the perception of Paul McCartney as an ordinary family man, a perception that has preserved his privacy while chopping away at his artistic reputation.

Happily, there are signs that McCartney is finally coming out of the woods and achieving parity with his martyred ex-partner. A pair of studio albums reminded the public of both his songwriting prowess (Flaming Pie) and his rock n’ roll pedigree (Run Devil Run); a new biography called Many Years From Now finally gave him due credit for his role in advancing the Beatles’ art; and the tragic death of his wife Linda, as sincere and humble a celebrity’s wife as any you’d hope to meet, reminded the media that a life of simple decency was nothing to sneer at. Of course there will always be naysayers; Yoko Ono, appalled at what she regarded as a slur on her late husband’s memory, shriekingly attacked Many Years From Now as a compendium of lies, claiming McCartney was merely “Saglieri to John’s Mozart” and that McCartney made little contribution to the Beatles other than insuring they all turned up on time. Her remarks, in their utter falsity and paranoia, make her pitiable. Lennon at his angriest never claimed to be the sole genius behind the Beatles. And when, years later in America, he would weep listening to “My Love” or gently croon “Here There and Everywhere” to Yoko from their white grand piano, he demonstrated something that his widow is still too blinded by jealousy to appreciate: that a song that insinuates itself into your heart is never simple, and never easy. The seeming effortlessness comes from genius, know-how, hard work, and an emotional generosity that’s impossible to feign. May we all live to see them receive the respect they deserve.

Originally published on Pop-Culture-Corn around ’99 or so.

Albert Hoffman (and child)

I missed this a few days ago: Albert Hoffman, the chemist who invented (or synthesized or discovered) LSD, died a few days ago. The guy lived to 102. Must be something in the water in Switzerland.

It reminded me of this article I read years ago in Slate, about how a 2000 bust by the DEA basically wiped out LSD as a recreational drug. It is evidently very difficult to make — no bargain-basement LSD labs in the small towns of Middle America à la the ones that grace us with crystal meth — and these two fellows in Kansas were the only ones left with the means and the know-how to do it, at least on such a scale. Not to rhapsodize about an illicit chemical that does some seriously hazardous shit to your head, but the idea of LSD disappearing because it’s too difficult to make can’t help but put me in mind of other products of craft and ingenuity rendered obsolete by quicker, cheaper or baser alternatives.

I am old enough to have actually studied penmanship in school, though not old enough to have retained much of it; I can only recall cursive letters with great effort, and my hand balks at shaping them. I don’t know of any grammar-school age child who studies handwriting the way my classmates and I used to; in today’s world, it would be like teaching a child to shoe a horse. Why spend the time learning to write well when no one writes letters and every other document we touch is created electronically?

So LSD, which some genuinely intelligent people once believed might actually change the way people live, is vanishing; researchers rarely study it, and cheaper, easier and more lucrative substitutes have crowded it off the map. I wonder if Dr. Hoffman imagined he would live long enough to witness it, the slow passing of his “problem child.”

In the not-too-distant past

Another recent interview with Joel Hodgson wherein he’s much more candid about his time in MST3K than he was in the past. This may have been well-known to fans more clued in than me, but his leaving midway through season five was entirely due to his feud with Jim Mallon; his claims at the time to have reams of ideas he wanted to try out were smoke to protect the reputation of the show. Does he regret leaving? “Absolutely.”

I really came to enjoy Mike’s tenure as host, but you can’t help but wonder how the show would have progressed had Joel stayed. Maybe he would have stepped aside as host anyway, or alternated with Mike; maybe Trace and Frank wouldn’t have left when they did; maybe Joel would’ve completely revamped the premise and it would have taken on new life, or crashed and burned. Beyond all that, you can’t help but feel a pang for a creative person forced out of their own creation. (John Kricfalusi can relate, I’m sure.) And whatever the hell Mallon is doing with the property nowadays doesn’t inspire much sympathy for his side of the issue. (There is no Tom Servo without Kevin Murphy. Doesn’t matter if Josh did it first. Nobody thinks of the Beatles as John, Paul, George, Stu and Pete do they?)

Obscure related trivia: Joel Hodgson’s original Gizmonic Antsite was the first proper website I ever visited. (Not counting the proprietary stuff from the Prodigy days.) Even that black-and-white number loaded slow as hell on my AOL dialup connection.

Interview with John Doe

I kinda wanted to talk about the music industry, and I wanted to get into it by talking about the character you played in Georgia, because I’ve never been in a band, but watching that it seemed like the most realistic portrait of a real working band that I’ve seen in a movie. Playing bowling alleys and bar mitzvahs, but still being able to make a living at it, which is kind of a triumph in itself. I wondered: is it really that authentic, and is that what drew you to the project?

John Doe: What drew me to the project was working with [director] Ulu Grosbard and Jennifer Jason Leigh and Mare Winningham, and it being a great script. But I think it is accurate, to a bar band. Luckily, that’s the only time I’ve played “Hava Nagila.” Guaranteed. And I hope it’s the only time that I play it; not that it’s a bad song, it’s …

[Laughing throughout] It’s of a situation you’re not often in …

Yes. It sort of has a certain … je nais se quoi. [Laughs] But … the only thing that I don’t think a movie has ever captured in the music world is the speak that musicians have, the way that people are constantly capping on each other, and the banter that goes back and forth at rehearsal and just as they’re hanging around. I think that would be really difficult to script; you’d have to record it and then transcribe it. Even in Spinal Tap, it didn’t have that. I think of that sometimes in rehearsals and stuff.

The sickest part about doing acting is that then you find those same situations coming up in your real life. And then you’re wondering what’s real and what’s not.

Flashing back …

It’s just weird. Right around that same time when we were promoting Georgia, I was doing a tour on my own, and there’s this one place in Cincinnati called Sudsy Malone’s, which is a Laundromat-bar-gig.

One-stop shopping.

And it’s very popular with a certain level of musicians, because then they know that there’s one place they’re going to have clean clothes. And you can put your laundry in between soundcheck and the show and have it pretty much done. I’m sure that someone has probably gotten offstage while they’re playing so they can put it in for the …

[Laughing throughout] Put the fabric sheet in the dryer …

Right. [Laughs] I don’t think they’re worried about fabric softener with their jeans and t-shirts.

Your character had a line in that movie, something like “Look Sadie, things are really happening for us, and I don’t want you to fuck us up.” And to most people, for this band, nothing’s really happening; they’re playing bowling alleys. But for that band, to be able to just make a living playing is probably a pretty big deal.

Right, right.

They don’t have to worry about the day job anymore.

I think a lot of people would be better if they did have a day job. And in a way, acting has provided that for me, to do it for the right reasons; to do it because I love it, and because I need to do it, for creativity and stuff. And you can get—when you have a major label contract, you can get distracted, or you can get too far away from the reason you’re doing it. Because it becomes a job. And I think I was there—I was there with that Geffen contract, and I was there with kind of losing the reasons to write songs, or writing songs just for X, and it kind of came back after doing that Rhino record [Kissingsohard, 1995]. I’d collected a bunch of songs to do that record and then toured that, and then, just through personal life and things that happened, I realized I’d lost a sense of discovery, and a sense of searching for something and trying different things. Doing that Kill Rock Stars record [For the Rest of Us (EP), 1998) was—I tried to be innovative and tried to do different things, and carried it over into this one. It’s important.

Do you feel that you’re still “paying your dues”? Is there a point in your career where you thought “OK, I’m here; this can now be my job, I don’t have to worry about where the next paycheck’s coming in”?

Everybody has to worry about where the next paycheck’s coming in. Because everyone extends themselves over and above what they actually make. [Laughs] Everybody does.

This being America, after all.

Yes. Not just because it’s America, because you develop a lifestyle. I’m still having character-building experiences, let’s put it this way. [Laughs] You know, once you accept the fact that life is struggle, then you can embrace it a little bit better. My priorities are not security and comfort, although it’s nice to have in moderate amounts.

Well, you do have a family to help keep up—

I do.

—and that’s always a consideration.

It’s a great source of love, it’s a great source of happiness, and also it can take you away from what you really need to be paying attention to, which is a difficult balance. My wife is finishing school, she’s been going to school for five years, and so I’ve been taking the kids to dance classes and Girl Scouts and crap like that, and sometimes I have to turn down auditions, and say “I can’t do that, because I’ve got to be home.” And that can be really frustrating. Because you’re not paying attention to what you’re supposed to be doing. But that’s part of the tradeoff.

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