It’s probable that nobody’s ever mentioned Mary Battiata and Jon Ginoli in the same sentence up to now, but remedying that situation is what this blog is for. Not that I ever expect to see them collaborate on an album, or even perform on the same bill. And although both these talented songwriter/performers are well aware of and knowledgeable about a wide variety of other bands and musicians, I’d be surprised if either one had ever even heard of one another before, well, this post.
More to the point, Mr. Pogoer, you ask, exactly which dots are you trying to connect here?
Let me try to explain. If this blog has any continuing “theme,” it probably has something to do with trying to explicate my particular musical tastes, make plain how they relate to my life, and maybe yours as well. In my first website, Pogoer.org, I drew up a list of favorites under the title Music for the Real World. It was an attempt to draw a line in the sand between today’s media creations and tabloid sensations and, well, musicians more or less recognizable as belonging to the same species as regular folk. In other words, I wrote, “They live in the real world, like the rest of us.” They also share the following qualities: Attitude, tenacity, originality, style, a sense of perspective gained through a certain amount of life experience, a kind of wisdom, and at least a hint of spirituality at odd moments. And for whatever it’s worth, they tend to be over 30; actually, it’s been a while since a number of them have seen their 40th birthdays. (I spent my 40th alone on a rainy day at the Beer and Flowers Festival in Laško, Slovenia — also a while ago. I don’t spend my birthdays alone anymore.)
Most people, at least the musically sensitive among us, have a natural affinity for artists of their own generation, and I make no apologies for being no different. I’ve previously blogged about what I see as the salient qualities of my generation’s artists: a sense of humor, perspective and a quest for spirituality primary among them. Now that we’re getting up there, and the ranks have thinned due to fatigue, jobs, families, obligations and even death — in other words, when the real real world interferes with, even shortcircuits, Music for the Real World — the question is, what abides, besides the Dude? What remains, besides the Remains?
As far as Mary B. and Jon G. go, the one thing they have in common (besides being musicians/songwriters over 40) is that they’re both sincere about what they do, are rather good at it, and have reached a certain level of ease in performing. Why do I like such different artists, the expressionistic alt-country poet and the forthright, punky gay jokester? I’m sure they appeal to different pleasure/pain zones in my cerebral cortex, push different buttons that need pushing on different nights, at different times.
And why do I still seek out artistic affinities, even though not as often as two decades ago (the kids and all, the seen-it-all)? On two nights in October, I went looking for some answers in downtown Austin when these two out-of-towners showed up to play. Not, alas, on the same bill.
October 1, 2007: The Mean-Eyed Cat, West Fifth Street
The train whistle blows in the night.
First night of October, ought-seven. Year of Self-Discovery and Re-Redemption? Whatever. Down at the Mean-Eyed Cat, a Johnny Cash shrine in a converted chainsaw emporium on the west side hard by MoPac, a shack, really, and a pretty cool place. Not as dangerous at all as it might seem on first glance. Downright friendly, in fact. First time there. Monday night jam session, as low-key as they come.
Mary’s in town from D.C. with a few of her Little Pink mates. I’ve written about Mary before — a former journalist and foreign correspondent for the Washington Post who also happens to be a genuinely talented songwriter and heartwrenching singer. Her songs, in the main, are deceptively quiet and meditative, but if you listen closely, they contain the fury of the universe and the sleepless nights of the heart.
It was the last night of a mini-Texas tour, and Mary and her friends were just there to sit in and contribute a couple of slow numbers to the Frito-pie-and-beer flow of the evening. Sitting and listening, if you’re lucky, you begin to apprehend the clockworks of the universe and how we’re all connected — not in a spacey ’60s hippie/LSD kind of way, but, well, in a 21st century indie rock fan’s way (works for me).
Such music calls down the power, grace and mystery of it all. Christy McWilson (whom I will discuss in a later post, and who reminds me more of Mary more than does anyone else, although their respective styles are hardly identical) once suggested in a letter to me that this kind of music works like a dog whistle that only some can hear — but it serves as a connection to draw together those who can hear it. (I mention this not to congratulate myself on my high level of coolness and impress you the reader with same, but — oh, just to better explain myself to myself along with any of you onlookers and bystanders who are just odd enough to care. It has to do in part with a love for lo-fi, minor keys, the attraction of darkness and outlines in the shadows that draws one in, is all I can say.)
After the show, Mary and I chat for a while and I tell her about Christy McWilson, and she gives me a few Little Pink stickers, which still sit on my desk while I decide what the best use of them might be.
And so, it’s back to the real world for a while.
October 17, 2007: Red 7, East Seventh Street
In ATX, all the hole-in-the-wall punk clubs on and near Red River have a default decor suggesting post-apocalyptic wasteland, virtually unchanged in aesthetic since their ancestor clubs in the mid-’80s not only in Austin but across the land. Basically, they’re foul pits. The other thing they have in common is pleasant outdoor courtyards in the back, well fenced in from the street and furnished equally wastelandishly, but providing a refreshing breeze and a place for a quick smoke of one leaf or another, if that’s your thing. With Austin’s hellish summer weather (which extends from mid-May well into October), it’s a necessity.
Since I arrive downtown with over an hour to spare until the first bands come on (there will be four in all), I head over to Casino El Camino on Sixth — it’s another pit, but a real neighborhood hangout unlike most others on that drag, and it’s the dive in Austin that reminds me the most of the Rat in Boston circa 1986 — great, quirky kitchen and all (go to the back and put in your order yourself at the kitchen window, then return in 20 minutes to pick up the grub). I request a plate of the “medium” Buffalo wings plus requisite bleu cheese, celery and carrot sticks for sides. The “medium” turns out to be some of the hottest such wings I’ve ever had in my life; I like spicy food quite a bit, but this is a bit much, and I suck up my accompanying Guinness in record time and go downstairs for several paper cups of water to cool my throat to an acceptable degree. I then head back to Red 7 and await the main attractions: Pansy Division and the Avengers.
I end up liking them both (it’s the second time I’ve seen PD, I think, and my first time for the Avengers, the reunited legendary ’70s San Francisco punk combo), but I’m really here to touch base with Jon Ginoli, whose songwriting I’ve admired since I reviewed the debut album of his former band, the Champaign, IL-based The Outnumbered, for the music rag Boston Rock back in 1985. (I won’t go into my entire history with the Outnumbered here, but you can read the backstory on my older Pogoer.org site – scroll down to near the end for the relevant bits.)
When I greet him near a stand by the front door, where he’s chatting up visitors and selling Pansy Division CDs and singles, Jon’s first words to me are, “So you’re not in Slovenia anymore!” (Uh, yeah, it’s been a while since we’ve been in touch.)
Jon’s subject matter since the Outnumbered days has done a complete 180. Back in the ’80s, he specialized in lovelorn-confessional and society-is-broken diatribes (at times a bit over the top and painful to listen to, but usually spot-on, the voice of a decent guy waking up and dazedly looking at the surrounding wreckage — no accident that the Outnumbered’s best-of CD on Parasol is titled Surveying the Damage). The one and only time I saw the Outnumbered play live, it was at Green Street Station, a long-since-vanished club in the working-class Jamaica Plain neighborhood of Boston. The crowd was sparse, and several in the audience seemed openly hostile to their unique brand of all-male garage-band feminism.
With Pansy Division, which Jon founded in 1991 in (where else) his new home base of San Francisco, he went for something completely different — namely, in-your-face punk songs about, well, to be extremely polite about it, the things gay men like and what they like to do to each other in bed. PD were at the forefront of a loose early ’90s movement called queercore (though the band itself now states on its website that the movement is over and disavows the term in relation to themselves). PD have had quite a lot of success; among other things, they opened an arena tour for Green Day in 1994 and have released at least seven albums.
Their live show was, in a word, fun — impossible to take seriously, but you thought that was the point? They don feather boas and a sparkly minidress (well, one of them anyway) and the sizable audience, composed of GLBTs, old punks and others who live the “Keep Austin Weird” slogan every day, ate it up and cheered them on. (Hey, way to spend a Wednesday night.) Who needs to moan about how “great” the old days were when you were in your lonely 20s, when you think about the difference between Green Street Station in ’87 and Red 7 in ’07?
Jon looked great and seemed happy both onstage and off (he was, he told me later, indeed very happy with life) and I was happy for him. Jon was back fronting his breakthrough band on what may turn out to be one of their last go-rounds (the members live in different cities these days), though never say never, and it didn’t seem at all like a farewell tour. All in fun, but still straightforward, honest, tuneful and energetic, good beat and you can dance to it, with that irreverent sense of humor. Are you in on the joke yet?
“Hey,” I told Jon before we said our goodbyes, “we’re both still here and we’re still going.” Which isn’t nothing. It is, in fact, definitely something.
It was one of the latest nights out I’d had in quite a while. After returning home and watching an episode of Kitchen Nightmares with Mrs. Pogoer (who had been quite busy herself giving a class in knife skills at our place to eight women from the local neighborhood playgroup), I hit the sack at around 2:30. After arising Thursday morning (Mrs. P graciously let me sleep later than usual, despite getting less sleep than I did), while making my morning java I found myself humming that Pansy Division classic, “I Was a Bad Boyfriend.”
Maybe that’s the best thing you learn after a certain time on earth: Once you learn not to take yourself so seriously, everything gets easier. You get a chance to be, actually, happy.
So goes the scene in the 40s.