Be The Boss – Phantom Buffalo – 2009

There are all these different ways to approach the same idea. And usually the simplest idea is the best. But experimentation is always the key to any progress. But I always end up coming back to the same idea. Consistency is really the key to a lot of things. The least confusing idea for this blog is that I write about a song every day. And when I can’t do that, I just simply can’t do that. I doubt that I will write about 365 songs this year. Maybe I will come up with another title for this blog. Maybe I won’t.

“To be the boss”

In elementary school back in Bryam Township, NJ, there was a math teacher named Hobb Engler. The local Little League organization is named after him. He was a big guy with a cigar. That’s how I remember him. I never had a class with him. But there were three female teachers around him in the 4th grade that would send their misbehaving students, especially male, instead of wasting the time of the principal. I got sent to his class once. I don’t remember what I did. I expected that I would sit in the desk next to his desk with my back to his class and the discomfort of the unfamiliar setting would be punishment enough.

“or carry my hat.”

But Hobb Engler’s methods were not passive. He told me to get up and write on the chalkboard while he sat in his chair. My handwriting has always been atrocious, so the numbers on the board were unreadable. But he had me carry on until the students were asking what the hell I was writing. Which he made me explain. The class he was teaching was one grade ahead of me, so I was a bit lost. And while I was incredibly confused, I attempted to figure out what was going on. I was engrossed in trying to decipher what I had written on the board when Mr. Engler said, “Mr. Lines? Do you walk to school or carry your lunch?” Me, “What?” Engler, “It’s a yes or no question.” Me, “What?” Engler, “Do you walk to school or carry your lunch?” Me, “?” Engler, “Mr. Lines. It’s a yes or no question. Do you walk to school or carry your lunch?” Me, “?” Engler, “I think I have had about enough of you.” Me, “?” Engler, “Or you of me? Go back to your class and don’t bother your teacher anymore. Got it?” I didn’t bother her anymore.

“Don’t blow it away.”

To be the boss or carry my hat? Do you walk to school or carry your lunch? There’s not much of a choice is there. I think it’s a really important thing to ponder an incoherent question. It’s sort of the daily dilemma of the modern world. The riddle of affluence. The curse of the middle class.

“I want it to stay.”

There’s a lot of encouragement about bettering ourselves and being of service. But society and possibly survival itself don’t lend themselves very well to idealism, community, passion, intelligent discourse, etc. When it comes down to it, there is no right answer for anything. Any of the political or social issues that own large swaths of our consciousness. Tax cuts, crime, social security, defense, world hunger… There are answers, but the questions are largely incoherent. Requiring yes or no answers where long discourse and argument are concerned is largely unproductive. But when the problem includes threats that seem imminent and life threatening, then intelligent discourse gives way to panic and threats.

“But our little fire’s not doing okay.”

Phantom Buffalo fits into a particular group of Indie artists and labels that don’t seem to distribute their music very widely via the internet. You can order a record from the label, Time Lag Records, but that’s about it. Mexican Kids at Home, who I wrote about in my last entry is the same. They are on Wee-Pop records and they even told me that they don’t necessarily put mp3’s out on the internet. This all seems rather contradictory in a way. And really this song, Be The Boss, has been bothering me. But it finally reminded me of this story about Hobb Engler. And while the song comes off as a love story, it seems to be saying something about the fruitless endeavors of the creative fringe of society. We used to be just underground, but now we are marginalized. Largely with our consent.

Being an Indie artist, or maybe to do anything truly artistic (I’m not talking about making music for the corporate context that is dictated to us.), is like walking backward through life. The answer as a musician seems to be to get a large following, get signed by a major label and make lots of money. There is a different formulaic answer for all of the media that artists work in. And it’s ironic to contemplate all of these solutions, because all of these paths to success involve some step or element that most people don’t have access to. A very basic step in the music formula is submitting a demo. You need an entertainment lawyer to do this. To retain a decent entertainment lawyer, you need to cough up a very larger retainer (In case you didn’t know. Retainer = cash.) and also be connected to people that know lawyers well enough to recommend you to them. So you need an agent to make an introduction. Run your head around that one a bit. It’s enough to make you crazy.

Do you walk to school or carry your lunch? Really! So we know the answers. We really do. There are thousands of books written about how to do it. And even how to do it as an Indie artist. None of these answers reflect that the questions are incoherent. How do you break into an industry that no longer even likes what it does? The music industry doesn’t like music or musicians. The people don’t like themselves. No one likes what they do. We all point to the government as if the government wasn’t the biggest employer in the country. Even people that work for the government talk about it as if it is something outside of themselves. We largely alienate only ourselves because we are always who we are criticizing. The truly rich have sold us the dream of being rich, and we have laid down our only defense. Freewill. We feel like we don’t have any choices. We need everything the middle class dream has dictated that we must have.

So my first instinct when hearing music so far out of the mainstream that the labels that distribute it have basically dropped out of the contemporary methods of the distribution chain is to just dismiss it all. I actually said out loud to a friend that I wondered if they were members of the Society for Creative Anachronism. But then I thought about all of the things that I have said here. And really I am so full of shit if I come at it from this angle. The music is good. There are some really heavy metaphors lurking just under the surface. And I know for a fact that digital distribution only serves to expose more people to the music. It doesn’t even attract new people to the shows which is where the band makes all of its money. But no one makes any money off of the digital distribution except the corporations that offer the download service, iTunes, Amazon, Emusic.

So what does it matter. People downloading songs on their computers don’t really add a significant turnout to shows. Word of mouth. Scene buzz. That’s how people end up going to shows. The internet does hold a lot of promise as the great equalizer, but it isn’t the shoe in the door to the industry success that we would like to believe it is. So labels like Time Lag and Wee Pop are just choosing to reign it in. As are the bands that choose to partner with them. It’s kind of a smart strategy. It’s the community that has always been the strength of building buzz around music. But even if it doesn’t bring them bigger “market share”, there is some integrity in it. They are not playing the corporate game. The game where smaller players have to mortgage their future to buy into a new infrastructure that only benefits the larger corporations that own that infrastructure. These smaller players have their own rules and their own metaphors. They protect what they have when they drop out and say that they aren’t going to play.

“Even in our minimized world, we can survive girl.”

That seems to be it. There is so much promise in all of this new stuff. But I think a good deal of it is a waste. What was the original question that our modern answers are responding to? To be the boss or carry my hat? Do you walk to school or carry your lunch? Yes or no? I understand what he was trying to teach me. The teacher was there to do a job and I was being an asshole for making it harder. Teachers show up for work and most of the questions they are answering are incoherent. Their time with the students is short. The teacher isn’t the man. Just another victim of a senseless system. I get it, but if Hobb Engler asked me today, I would say, “No!”

Phantom Buffalo myspace page

One Man Band – Mexican Kids At Home – 2009

My friend, Mark, that I was in several bands with is one of the most interesting characters I have ever known.  But I hate to use a forum like this to tell Mark Pringle anecdotes.  There are so many of them.  But for the love of God, I wish I knew where to contact him.  He’s a strange guy, but one of the best friends I have ever had.  He wrote a song for me once that I have had in my head for over 20 years called We Shared the Same Song.  I have only ever heard him play it live, because that’s how our musical careers have gone.

“I don’t want to sleep in the corner”

You can only take my word for it that the music I have actually recorded for people to hear is a sad facsimile of the original work.  Mark and I tried to record several times.  Some of it sucked very badly.  Some of it was okay.  But the truth is that we could never keep it together long enough for actual decent recordings of our efforts to be completed.  We spent a long time writing songs.  The song was more important than anything.  But the end result is that there are few artifacts available for general consumption.

“where people throw stuff at me cause I’m smaller.”

We could work together for an average of 6 months before we were at each other’s throats.  I blamed him.  He blamed me.  And really, it would be easy for me to present a case about how hard it was to work with Mark.  But who cares.  In the end, I have nothing to show for the some of the most valuable creative efforts of my life.  And it’s a good thing I have a really good musical memory, because I have only heard the song he wrote for me a handful of times.  But I can easily recall all of it.  And it was perfect with just him and a guitar.  And as frustrating as Mark could be, he could really reach you with his music.  And when he did, he was easy to forgive.

“I would normally throw stuff back”

Mark made a living a lot of the time in Albuquerque playing in coffee shops by himself.  He could throw down an open guitar case and pull in enough to pay bills.  And you could see it when he reached someone.  And he could do it over and over again.

“but it never seems to go down like that.”

Mark would do this thing where he would attempt to add additional instruments without adding additional people.  Part of that was just wanting to get it done and he played live so much.  Part of it was just Mark being weird.  Part of it was just that he generally had a bad time working with other people.  It would be really funny sometimes.  And he would talk about the Dick Van Dyke character in Mary Poppins.  The one man band.

“I just want to start a one man band.”

Honestly at the time, I had no idea what he was talking about.  It had been so long since I had seen Mary Poppins.  But in the last few years, I have had the opportunity to see Mary Poppins with my son several times.  I can’t help but think of Mark whenever I see that character.  And it always makes me think about some of the values Mark had in entertainment.  He told me one time about why he liked Chinese cinema so much, even beyond the Kung Fu movies we were into because the whole Albuquerque crew studied so much kung fu.  He liked that they were all so intense.  Every moment of the movies were so ‘lived’.  And he must have thought the same thing about that Dick Van Dyke character.  He was so alive.

“And write songs that people don’t understand.”

But it all makes me think of all the missed opportunities.  And really there are so many in my life.  As my friend Troy says, “We never missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity.”  But I think we really misunderstand which opportunities we were missing.  We always thought we were missing the business opportunities.  But really we were missing each other.  And yes, we were all pretty much handicapped mentally and doing our best to figure out how to overcome our disabilities.  But we already had the community built.  All we had to do was stay in one place and figure out how to work together until we had artifacts that we were satisfied with.

“I will finally be on my way.”

And I am using artifact in place of the term I would usually use to describe what I mean – product.  Because I am finding that this is the obstacle that I have been unable to overcome in my creative process – the eventual commercialization of my artifacts.  But this should have been the last thing on my mind.  But it was always the first thing that would kill any of our endeavors.  How do we make money doing this?  And the answer really is – you don’t.  You love it, and that’s the most you are ever going to get out of it.  If there is eventually a payout, great!

“But I still don’t have much to say about it.”

But that’s where we would all end up.  We have to eat somehow.  And we would all be desperate to make money doing something we loved doing.  So we would try everything and bite off more than we could chew.  And eventually we would be sick of that part of the process and each other, and everyone would scatter.  Back to shit jobs we all hated.

And really there are so many wasted words to try to capture what I mean.  I became a programmer because I got sick of being in an Indie band.  Paying $300 to $500 a month on a rehearsal space while living in an apartment with no furniture.  Money seemed to always be the thing that was missing.  “If I/We had enough money, then I would be able to put this whole music thing together.”  But we were putting the music thing together.  We were just starving half the time.  And the idea of being a programmer was financing my own music projects and eating at the same time.  A really novel idea.  Mark did the same thing.

I don’t know where Mexican Kids at Home got their name, but I like it.  I like their obvious dedication to acoustic music with no effects.  It’s this really sparse landscape.  An intentionally child like approach.  On first hearing, it sounds like they wrote the song five minutes before they started recording.  But even if they did that, which I doubt, it really has a much heavier message hidden in all that simplicity.  It’s so hard to listen to commercial pop music and know that there are so many people much more talented all over the place.  But it’s the lowest common denomenator always.  Sex and corporate success.  Fame and riches.  It’s a carrot in your face as a musician.  A vision of success sold to you as easily as a new brand of toothpaste.  That’s what is being sold by commercial pop.  It almost looks accessible.  Until you realize you need contact with an executive class that you will never have access to.  It almost kills you.

“And there’s some things I hate the most.”

And then a long time has passed and I realize all of this.  That my one man band killed my creativity.  That I didn’t begin with a vision of corporate commercial pop success.  I just wanted to write, record and tour music.  I got the writing part.  And one part that I overlooked whenever I had it.  Community.  And that community seemed like the easiest thing to walk away from every time.  And I realize now that it was the most important part.

“Listen to the radio and finding it hard to breathe.”

Mexican Kids At Home myspace page