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Redefining 'counterculture' on the corner of Haight and Ashbury

Noise. Pop. Festival.

At 17th St. and Wisconsin in the Potrero Hill district of San Francisco sits the Jackson Playground. The grassy expanse of the park is swarming with shin-guard-clad children weaving their way through cones, their soccer coach alternately shouting reprimands and praise. Cars filled with mothers line the streets, waiting for practice to end.

 

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They have no idea what is about to descend upon their community.

Across the street from Jackson Playground sits Thee Parkside. One of San Francisco’s smaller live music venues, it is gaining a reputation as a place where, according to the Web site, “The rock ‘n’ roll elite meet to get bombed.” (That is, of course, assuming that your idea of “rock ‘n’ roll elite” includes Ryan Adams and the Donnas.) But early in March, it’s no lie. For the second year in a row, Thee Parkside has been transformed into the official Noise Pop headquarters.

The kickoff party, however, is quite the misnomer. It’s less a party than it is a gathering to show off Noise Pop’s sponsors: Miller High Life, the Official Beer of Noise Pop; American Spirit, the Official Cigarette of Noise Pop; and the SF Bay Guardian, the Official Alternative Weekly Newspaper of Noise Pop. Nobody seems particularly thrilled to be there; everyone is buzzing about tomorrow’s lineup, with the real Noise Pop kickoff: the Unicorns performance at the Great American Music Hall.

Hundreds of questions regarding the Unicorns are unanswered. Much of that is because these three fellows won’t sit still to answer the goddamn questions they’re asked (just refer to their interview with Prefix for evidence). But it’s also due to their wild imaginations. Who Will Cut Our Hair When We’re Gone?, the Unicorns’ second album, combines flutes, synths, back-and-forth vocals and sprightly pop melodies into an album about ... death? They’re all over the board in the best possible way.

One question that has been answered, though, is that it’s necessary to see them perform. Their performance at Great American Music Hall held the enrapturing allure of a train wreck, the chance to watch three young men behave in ways that will in all likelihood preclude them from seeing the age of 30.

These are the facts of said performance:

1. The Unicorns play shows in a variety of pink polyester suits, capes and suspenders. In bare feet. With Absolut instead of water bottles next to their mike stands.

2. About four songs in, they get in a shouting match with the sound guy, who cuts them off, forcing them to leave the stage. Minutes later, they return, triumphantly bellowing, “We’re richer than you, sound guy! We can buy and sell you ten times over!”

3. Their feud with the Stills continues. After asking the crowd if anyone had tickets to the Stills’ Friday night show, singer/guitarist/organist “Neil” Diamonds says, “You can probably still get refunds if you act quickly.”

4. They play an extended version of “The Clap” that morphs into Kylie Minogue’s “Can’t Get You Out Of My Head,” which somehow flows seamlessly into 50 Cent’s “P.I.M.P.” It is the first and last time you will hear a Canadian wearing a pink cape say, “I’m a motherfuckin’ P-I-M-P.”

5. Nick “Neil” Diamonds accepts a joint from someone in the crowd and puffs it down to nothing while telling a story about a baby they found in Florida that was nearly eaten by an alligator. Minutes later, he drops his guitar and has a bit of a panic attack, blaming it on “that good shit.”

6. With munchies in full gear, Diamonds asks for food. “Nachos, if you’ve got any.” He is miraculously tossed a box of Fig Newtons. He sits Indian-style and eats while Alden Ginger and Jamie Thompson jam for a while.

7. During the finale, “I Was Born a Unicorn,” Diamonds and Ginger dance on speakers and crash into each other, giving Diamonds a bloody lip. Ginger does pushups while Diamonds leaps into the crowd as Thompson ends the show with a flurry of drums.

It’s hard to say exactly which of those antics were planned. Possibly all of them. But I don't go to rock shows to see three somnambulant invalids mope their way through twelve songs and wave goodbye. If it’s action and total ridiculousness you crave, I cannot stress the urgency of seeing the Unicorns perform enough. This, my friends, is rock ‘n’ roll. If Noise Pop was meant to showcase what music has to offer these days, the organizers could not have picked a better performance to lead things off. No one knows what, if anything, the Unicorns are all about, but they do know how to perform.

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Thursday night at Café Du Nord is a different story. After sitting patiently though an extended sound check only to hear, “Thanks, we’re Plan B,” I head straight for the bar. I have no intention of being sober when Noise Pop took a turn for the worst.

Which it rapidly does: United States of Electronica, in addition to having possibly the worst band name in the history of band names, plays some pretty terrible disco pop. After the indie Spice Boys and Girls perkily exclaim, “Come on, San Francisco, this is a party!” for the twelfth time in four minutes, my patience has worn thin.

Note to U.S.E.: When you ask the crowd, “Who only wants to hear one last song?” and the place goes wild, cut your losses. Play your song and be on your way. Do not -- I repeat, do not -- just go on playing like nothing ever happened. That’s spiteful, and it even costs certain people money because they have to keep buying beer after beer after beer just to make it through your set, and soon those people have to switch to Miller High Life, the Official Beer of Noise Pop, against their will, simply because they’re only $2, and they might even soon realize that they are out of cash and have to use a credit card for the rest of their booze, and then those people find themselves drunk and pissed off because they need to spend another $8 to hit the $10 minimum for credit card tabs.

You know, theoretically.

I order fries and another High Life, which, sadly, squares me at the bar, and decide to give the next band, Willpower, four songs to keep me in the building. Shortly after a man with perfectly mussed hair and a denim vest bounds across the stage kicking his heels in the air with a couple of background dancers, I find myself walking up Market Street, trying to hail a cab to take me home. After the hellfire and brimstone of the Unicorns, I’d been dumped into a sea of bubbles governed by the fucking Teletubbies. Reeling from a severe case of musical whiplash, my Miller-lubricated mind was in complete turmoil.

When I get home, I collapse in bed, still confused and slightly pissed. I dream that San Francisco is still a strange whirlpool of political upheaval and rock ‘n’ roll inhabited by Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Garcia, Hunter S. Thompson. It is disorienting and reassuring.

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Milan Kundera once wrote that in order to discover endings, you must rediscover beginnings. The intersection of Haight and Ashbury stands less than a mile away from my place -- surely I could find some answers there, signs that would explain where rock had been and where it was going.

And upon arriving on that fabled corner, I am greeted by two signs: Ben and Jerry’s and the Gap. I’m not kidding. At least Ben and Jerry’s is a responsible corporation; a company that advocates environmental health and rallies for safe agricultural practices makes sense here. (And let’s not forget Cherry Garcia.) The Gap, however, seems horribly out of place at the epicenter of counterculture.

But that makes sense, in a way. Just as the music industry at large panders to canned emotion with pretty wrappers, so has the idea of a counterculture. Those who choose to live outside the mainstream do so today in fractured, marginalized environments, and react with venom to contact with people outside of their tight circles. Once companies found they could make a living off, say, skateboarders, they catered only to that group, which in turn bred a small army with brand loyalty, furthering the divide between these groups.

That’s the difference between the counterculture of the 1960s and today: unity, or at least the appearance of unity. The appearance is all you need. As brainy Tom Reagan told his boss, Leo, in Miller’s Crossing, “You only run this town because people think you run it. When they stop thinking it, you stop running it.” The dirty hippies (and I say that with affection) that populate the Haight today have forgotten a few important things about the legacy they claim to uphold.

Many dirty hippies in the past were often activists; that is, they had ideas and believed in things, and occasionally, even got off their asses to do something about it. They made a choice to pursue their lifestyle in the name of ideals, not laziness, or for the chance to indiscriminately call every passerby a fascist and pee in the street. It may have been little more than a curbside concert in the name of consciousness, but at least it was effort. The appearance of unity is what made the counterculture such a threat to the conservative ethos.

There’s nothing left in the Haight today but ghosts of an era that checked out long ago. You can find fucked-up haircuts and piercings galore, but you’d be hard pressed to find a guitarist anywhere outside Amoeba Music, the shining gem of the Haight. If you can track down an anti-war concert, prepare to shell out $14 plus convenience fees. The protests are organized via Web sites by non-profits that have offices downtown. And if you’re looking for anything of cultural significance in San Francisco, you should head to the Mission district. Commercial interests have relegated Haight-Ashbury to the status of living museum. All fluff, no substance.

Just like they did to the music industry.

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In 1997, Alan Meltzer, head of Grass Records, made two decisions that may have altered the trajectory of music's future. The first was cutting a moderately successful (at least, by indie standards) New Jersey band from its roster that had spurned his dubious contract offer.

With that out of the way, he could focus on decision No. 2 -- generating hype for an unknown band from Florida. This band has since made it big, cramming the airwaves with worthless post-grunge. You may have heard of them. They’re called Creed.

The members of the New Jersey band, the Wrens, have spent the past seven years wondering if the Wrens even really exist, and if so, if they’re still relevant to anyone. They released their latest album, Meadowlands, in late 2003, with little hope for a positive reception.

They were worried about nothing, it turns out. Every article written about the Wrens since late 2003 presses two facts: 1) Meadowlands is one of the best rock albums of recent memory, and 2) These guys are sincerely grateful for their success.

In most cases, if a band says things like, “Even if this is the last show we ever play, this will be the most fun we’ve ever had. You guys are great,” it’s a good time to throw up in your beer. Concertgoers shouldn’t have to be goaded into cheering.

But when Wrens bassist Kevin Whelan says those exact words just after they finish an elegantly understated version of “Happy” during their rare afternoon performance at the Bottom of the Hill, it doesn’t sound phony. Meadowlands makes no attempt to hide the strife they’ve endured -- some external, some internal -- in the time between albums. If they had decided to make another collection of upbeat pop songs like 1996’s Secaucus, Meadowlands would have been a disaster, because that’s simply not who they are anymore.

That honesty is precisely what lends the Wrens’ music its gravity, something that becomes obvious after two songs for the Noise Pop crowd. “Everyone Choose Sides” minces no words in illustrating how close this whole production came to never happening: “We’re losing sand / A Wrens ditch battle plan / ... Everyone choose sides / A what-to-do of what to do for money.” Some bands look completely uninterested when they play live; the Wrens put every inch of their bodies into their performance.

Things couldn’t have gotten much better after a particularly poignant rendition of Meadowlands’ strongest track, “Boys, You Won’t” -- and don’t even try to argue it isn’t the strongest -- which began quietly with a plinking piano but ended in a brutal hail of guitars and drumfire. It’s a cruelly dramatic song, most likely about a girl, that could just as easily read as the script to their VH-1 Behind the Music special: “Hiding in new places, getting wasted / Singing ‘I guess we’re done’ ... / But I stood up / Dead off of the ground / But I stood up / And faced another round.”

It was already my favorite song on the album; its mere existence is the only evidence necessary to substantiate the press they’ve been getting. But seeing it performed live reiterated a different point altogether. Where the Unicorns succeed with whimsy, a dash of gimmick, and some contagious I-don’t-give-a-fuck, the Wrens make music that is emotional -- and therefore universal.

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Which is precisely why I’m really not worried about the future of the music industry -- great music can be made in so many ways. Bands that make no sense and, on paper, look ridiculous, can be unstoppable when they’re slapping you in the face. And bands that go where many men have gone before, but go there with their own personalities, their own visions, can reinvent that landscape and make it seem pristine and abundant with promise.

There will always be dip-shits like Alan Meltzer who are more concerned about image than substance, because they know they can sell their products to other like-minded dip-shits. But there's no danger of those "commercial" forces taking over the entire industry at the expense of talented artists for the exact same reason: there will always be a market for talent. Supply will follow demand; if people want to hear music like the Wrens or the Unicorns, they'll track it down and buy it. The Internet makes the success of independent music more attainable than ever. Services like Napster and Kazaa proved that the RIAA had absolutely no clue about what consumers want. The move toward services like iTunes had nothing to do with clever marketing ploys; it was completely consumer-driven.

The indies have adapted to the consumer-driven framework of the industry much quicker than the majors, and festivals like Noise Pop make their successes clear. With the exception of a few bumps along the way, Noise Pop was a hit. Attendance was not a problem, with shows like Neko Case selling out a week or two in advance. And it proved that bands like the Wrens and the Unicorns can coexist without making anyone’s head explode.

My first instinct is now to order a High Life, the Official Beer of Noise Pop, when I go out, even though it's not discounted like it was during the festival. Does that mean I'm a corporate whore? No, because High Life is pretty fucking good. The notion of the sell-out is complete and utter bullshit. I fail to see the tragedy in good music permeating mainstream culture -- and vice versa. The next time you hear Modest Mouse in a car commercial, or the find the Shins pimping burgers and fries, don't get indignant -- celebrate with a beer. The breakout success of independent music can only be a good thing. Given the choice between a Backstreet Boys Saturn commercial and a Walkmen Saturn commercial, I'll take the Walkmen every time. Popular music and good music are only mutually exclusive terms because of those who perpetuate the idea of selling out. If the Wrens had been able to place a song in a Pepsi commercial, we wouldn't have had to wait six years to hear The Meadowlands.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to the Haight for a burrito.

Spoon - Dedication and innovation take Spoon to the top NYC Free Summer Shows (2004) You're poor or cheap -- you should read this
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