I spoke to Black Francis on the phone one Friday afternoon in March 1988 prior to a CBGB show. As far as I know, this was one of the very first Pixies interviews (although, as he mentions, Rockpool got to them first). Published in the third issue of my zine, Writer’s Block.
News is very sketchy at the moment, but according to the official website, Scott Miller (Game Theory/Loud Family) died this week. I’m not really sure what to say about this. If I had to pick a favorite songwriter, Miller would certainly be among the top five, below Lennon/McCartney and Brian Wilson but above Nick Drake and Alex Chilton. His ability to weld witty, often oblique lyrics to breathless power-pop craftsmanship was simply unparalleled. Later in life, he released a book of rock criticism, Music: What Happened? It turned out he was better than us at that, too.
It’s hard enough when a beloved musician dies, harder still when it’s someone you’ve actually met and spoken to in real life. (Weirdly, it happened shortly after he posted the entire Game Theory catalog on Dropbox.) Shortly after the first Loud Family album, they played the old Knitting Factory on Houston St. I interviewed him and Josef Becker for about an hour before the show. Both of them could not have been friendlier. Miller impressed me with his humility. Like another Miller I spoke to recently - Roger of Mission of Burma - he seemed to know how good he was at music, yet was grounded about it. Later, in Seattle, the Loud Family played at Graceland, and a bunch of us local fans met up with the band for drinks before the show. It says a lot about Miller’s generosity that he was willing to spend time with us, a bunch of music nerds.
I have no idea what happened. Apparently there is going to be some sort of formal announcement over the next 24 hours. Saddest thing of all is I know he had young children. My sister-in-law died a couple of years ago, and she left a daughter, so I know firsthand just how hard it is on kids when they lose a parent.
So here’s a condolence to his family and friends if they happen to read this. Let’s listen to a few songs together.
Game Theory: Nine Lives to Rigel Five (live 1983)
ICYMI yesterday, I put up another demo. I started writing this thing below and it just kind of ballooned. Feelings.
The last year and half has been difficult for me, creatively speaking. To say that I’ve had writer’s block would be a complete understatement of my inability to come up with anything. Every time I sat down to write, nothing. They say you have to keep at it, and I did. And there was nothing. My band breaking up was another stumbling block. I’ve spent many months reflecting upon why I couldn’t keep my lone project functioning. There are/were a lot of feelings of failure inside of me.
The last time I felt like I was spinning my wheels in a similar fashion was before I entered grad school. While I don’t have an interest in spending obscene amounts of money for a degree, the part where giving myself a language was appealing. There are some who say that knowing how to play music shuts off the creative part of your brain. No one has ever said in the history of anything, “Never learning to write really freed up my ability to communicate, maaaaan.” Pointing at my strings to communicate chord changes made me feel like a Neanderthal. I knew I could do better.
I know I’ve talked about my past life as a competitive figure skater (what I did with my life, ages 3 - 16). You’d think being waking up at 3AM as a child and driven to midtown Manhattan every day for 13 years would have turned me into an Olympic star. It didn’t. I was very aware that I was a gifted skater. But I was also careless with those talents, mainly because I never felt like I had any say in whether I skated or not. I goofed off at practice, spent more time being social with the other skaters (mainly because I had no friends in school). The day I broke my leg (landing a double salchow on the wrong foot), somewhere in the pain I remember thinking about how I might never skate again and feeling content about that possibility.
Back to music. Part of this process involved understanding that I had to be Serious. This means practice is a thing everything else gets scheduled around. I sit on the couch and work on exercises while watching TV. Similarly, this rigor applies to the people I work with. It’s not that they make me a priority as if I am a ~special snowflake~, but they are aware about the level of seriousness in my approach. Band practice is not a time to deal with other people’s life shit. (Someone please use “Life Shit” for their next band’s name. You’re welcome.) These boundaries are here not just for others, but to keep myself in check. I have to be pedantic and do pretentious shit like call it “my craft” (sigh, balk) because I know my proclivity for self-sabotage.
It’s been a year since my first lesson. Not only can I tell you the key signature for the song (G major), I can tell you the mode (it’s… Aeolian-ish.). If you wanted to play it, I could give you sheet music, since I started writing and reading notation. Not anywhere near being good at these things. But knowing this stuff helped when I ran into the eventual roadblock. I felt less discouraged.
My next project is to tackle my lousy songwriting skills (in addition to continuing lessons). I picked up Pat Pattison’s Writing Better Lyrics late last year and slowly working my way through the material. (Very, very slow.) I found out that he’s teaching a course through Coursera, so I’ve signed up for that. Maybe someone out there is interested in forming a study group?
If anyone reading this feels similar about their own creative/personal/professional endeavors, don’t feel bad. Hopefully what I’ve said here is useful to you. Failure is the way out of disappointment.
Respect to Maria for writing this. I had a similar crisis myself a few years ago. I tried to write and record songs between 1997 and 2004, and nothing ever came out except a few decent riffs. I’ve finally admitted this year that wherever my talents lie, creating music is not one of them. I’ve sold my guitar, amp and four-track, and am in the process of selling my Omnichord. This is bringing up all kinds of latent feelings of failure. So it’s comforting to know Maria’s at least taking steps to break her own cycle of writer’s block.
Inspired by this week’s episode of The Fogelnest Files, and the relieving realization that I’m not alone in finding movie and TV logos scary.
quincy’s “turn the other way around.” south jerseyans circa 1981 doing one of the era’s very best elvis costello impressions. i wish videos were still this simple and cheap.
I am a big enough Neutral Milk Hotel fan that I took up the offer to move up to the front. However, I am not an unhealthily big enough fan of anyone to steal his/her water and throat spray. (Did I steal Stuart Moxham’s water the first time I saw him? Or Palmolive’s? No and no.) I don’t know how Mangum deals with these awkward fan interactions. Some seem to want to make him into a god. It’s to Mangum’s credit that he tried to defuse that, but I don’t think it worked for some.
today i sold my silvertone 1488 (with amp in case) and my fender princeton 112 plus amp. i hated to part with them, but i have to be honest: i haven’t written a new song in 9 years or played a show since 2001, and could really use the money for other projects. so it goes.
above photo: recording the automat happy trials ep at home, seattle, 2001-ish. also pictured: a casio vl-1 that hasn’t worked in years.
David Bowie, late ’80s
“Bleecker Bob knew Bowie and Bowie had come in plenty of times over the years,” DeSalvo says. “But one time, in the late 1980s, he came in while I was working. He was in disguise, with sunglasses and a beard which looked like he had been growing for several weeks. He asked me, ‘Do you know this band Neu! [an obscure experimental German band from the 1970s]?’ I said, ‘I love them. If you want to listen to them, I’ll give you my albums.’ So he gives me his manager’s address and I sent him all three of their albums — ‘Neu!’ ‘Neu! 2’ and ‘Neu! ’75.’ A few months later, he comes out with his first ‘Tin Machine’ album — some of the worst garbage he ever put out! If that’s what he put out after listening to my records, I oughta kill him!”
i couldn’t believe this place was still around two months ago when i made a brief visit to nyc. can’t say i’m that upset that it’s finally going out of business, although i do appreciate that it’s another part of olde new york gone.