Tuesday, January 27, 2009

My "Annie Hall" Moment

(Originally posted on MySpace on Sunday Feb 11, 2007)

I'm in a bit of a hurry today, so it's going to be a quick story. Today is an event called "Freeze Relief". Several LA restaurants are getting together and offering special menu items based around fresh farmer's market produce. And the proceeds for those items will go towards helping farmers who have lost most of their crops to our recent freeze, a freeze that has knocked out a good many plants in my own yard. So, as soon as I finish this, we're off to one of our favorite restaurants, Border Grill, where we'll enjoy blood orange jalapeno margaritas and special market food dishes. Yum!

This week I'm finally going to get to the tale about my "Annie Hall" moment. This is a tale from back in the days when Usenet was a force to recon with.

Back in the early 90s, Usenet was the place that the online community would go to to discuss any topic of the day. There were literally hundreds, if not thousands of Usenet groups you could subscribe to and in each one you would find a large collection of like-minded people ready to discuss whatever topic the group was for. (I actually just checked in with Usenet to find that there are still people posting there, although not in the numbers they were. I haven't visited a Usenet group in over a decade now.) You would also find a good many people called trolls who would do whatever they could to throw the group into pandemonium by posting insults and other nonsense in the group hoping to get a reaction. And they usually did.

I belonged to several groups. Alt.music.alternative, alt-tv-realworld, and several of the rec.comics groups, although I didn't post much in the comics groups. The "Real World" group was a good one that used events that happened on the MTV reality show to spring into spirited arguments that would go just about anywhere. It lasted as a great group for several years until it attracted too many trolls and was destroyed by their meddling. In fact, that seemed to be the case with all Usenet groups and was the reason so many people fled from it.

But this isn't about the "Real World" TV show. This story takes place firmly in the alt.music.alternative group. This group was for the discussion of any band perceived as an "alternative" music group, a definition that was a very broad one. If any band got too popular, there would usually be a new group formed that would concentrate conversation on that one group.

Now that you know some history of Usenet, I can lay the ground for the story I want to tell.

I LOVE Woody Allen! I've seen all his movies and I don't think he's ever made a bad picture, although some are better than others. One of my favorites is also one of his most popular. That would be "Annie Hall", his 1977 movie that follows the romantic adventures of a neurotic New York comedian and his equally neurotic girlfriend. Its not only one of his best movies, its one of the best movies ever made by anyone. In my humble opinion anyways.

And my favorite scene in the movie is when Alvy, played by Woody Allen, gets stuck in a line at a movie theatre behind a know-it-all who is telling his companion some theory he has about television's influence on popular culture. Alvy is upset because the guy is so wrong about everything he's saying, but when the guy starts going on about how Marshall McLuhan, a well-known literature professor and communications theorist who wrote a 1964 book called "Understanding Media", he challenges the guy on it. But the guy claims he's a college professor who teaches a course called "TV, Media & Culture" so his insights on McLuhan are spot on. But then Alvy says to the guy, "Oh, that's funny, because I happen to have Mr. McLuhan right here." He then proceeds to pull the actually Marshall McLuhan out from behind a movie poster and Mr. McLuhan tells the guy straight to his face, "I heard what you were saying. You know nothing of my work. How you ever got to teach a course in anything is totally amazing." Alby looks at the camera and says, "Boy, if life were only like this."

I LOVE THAT SCENE! There have been so many times that I have found myself in a situation exactly like that and it would have been great if real life allowed you to pull an expert out to back you up.

So here I was on Usenet and there were a number of us arguing the merits of woman playing rock and roll on alt.music.alternative. This had been going on for awhile now and I had been reading the back-and-forth, but not bothering to get into the argument myself since it seemed to just be people making the argument that, "woman rock!" or that "women can't play rock and roll" in various different ways. But something someone said attracted my attention and I piped in with a statement. I said that when it came to bands fronted by woman, I preferred the bands like the Raincoats or Throwing Muses, bands that played music that only woman could play.

And that started quite the shitstorm.

I was suddenly finding myself accused of being sexist and hating women. I tried to explain that bands like those two, and others like Kleenex or the Slits, played music that was feminine and not masculine like the music that Girlschool or Joan Jett played. Joan Jett was just aping the men that influenced her, while Kristin Hersh of Throwing Muses had developed a style of her own that didn't sound like a man playing a guitar.

The shitstorm just got worse and now I was being threatened with death, or at the very least, banishment from the alt.music Usenet groups.

(Now it may seem that my statements aren't all that bad, but that was the nature of Usenet. In many ways, it's still the nature of the internet. People read something and blow it way out of context. Misunderstanding is a way of life on the internet.)

And that's when I remembered that I managed the Poster Children and they were signed to Sire Records, the same label that Throwing Muses was on. I grabbed the phone and dialed the Poster Kids A&R guy and asked him if he could put me in touch with Kristin Hersh. He said he would see what he could do and less than an hour later I got a call from Kristin's manager (and husband), the very cool and amazing Billy O'Connell. I explained to him what was going on and he told me that he would talk to Kristin and see what he could do. He gave me his email address asked me to send along the posts that were made in the argument. He said that he would get back me know in a day or two.

And less than a day later, I had what I wanted.

Interestingly enough, I just did a Yahoo search for Billy O'Connell because I wanted to get his name spelled right and what popped up was the entire text from my last post on the subject on Usenet. And here it is:


Written by ad262@lafn.org (ML Compton) on Wed, 19 Oct 1994 06:24:28 GMT.

OK folks, as promised here are the replies from Billy O'Connell and Kristin Hersh concerning the "femininity in rock" debate.

First up is Billy O'Connell, Kristin's manager and husband...

Hi ML,

Believe it or not, you're talking about something that I know Kristin feels strongly about in her music. She has referred to this "femininity" in music in interviews for years now. Oddly enough, it's also a term she's used in relation to certain male musicians almost more frequently than female.

The whole idea of the masculine and feminine in music is a very real one. Masculine forms have ruled rock music for years, only recently have we noticed a growing acceptance of that which is feminine in music. This femininity is evident maybe most significantly, in Kurt Cobain's songs. The confusion (in Nirvana's case not in form, but content) and the expression of what Kristin calls "messy" or opposing emotions that often conflict within themselves, are distinctly feminine.

A lack of narrative, a stream of images and emotion, an embracing of the earthier, "dirtier", more essential elements of our lives, all commonly thought to be "tough" or "macho" characteristics in the world, this is the "feminine" as it exists in songs. "Female rhythms" are spontaneous and unpredictable, often not in "real time", like the Velvets and the Raincoats.

Often dismissed as "confusing", "naive", or "ungrounded", this is feminine music when it is it's most truthful and real. I hope I haven't "gone off" and lost your interest along the way, countless discussions on this very topic have filled me to bursting with opinions and feelings.

Anyway, I'm sure Kristin would like to participate in this "talk", and if it would be helpful in any way, please feel free to call me on xxx.xxx.xxxx, or continue to e-mail me (us) here. And yes, we'd love to see the posts (and the review too).

Thanks for asking,

Billy O'Connell

Next up is Kristin's reply...

Dear ML,

My response to the feminine/masculine question has always been that, yeah, I think that there is a very real difference. More importantly, though, a good musician is capable of embracing a song in either form... even better, to be balanced. The Femmes, Velvets, Nirvana, Sugar, REM, Pixies, Scarce (Chick Graning's new band)... these are all males with a good grasp of the feminine in music, something that has always been considered a "deviation" from the norm.

This is why one of the few things that really bugs me on this planet is people saying that Red Heaven wasn't "feminine enough ". It is a VERY masculine record and it's great. If I don't care that a woman made it, neither should anyone else.

I started playing guitar when I was nine. When I later took a bunch of classes in theory, etc., it nearly ruined my playing; I found it limiting, boring and false. I had to learn to listen to something else; I'm not sure what that is, but I know it doesn't lie. (As for the guy who said women's hands are smaller, I bet mine are bigger than his.)

Has this helped at all?

--Kristin Hersh

P.S. My rhythm section is male, but they have to play along with the rhythms I write. Neither of them seems to mind.

And that was that. All argument on the subject ended almost immediately. And so did all the threats. I managed to stay on Usenet for another year or so without anyone banishing me from any group.

And I loved it because I felt like I had achieved my "Annie Hall" moment. I had pulled the expert out and quieted the know-it-alls. And it felt damned good.

(You may ask yourself why people took me at my word that it actually was Kristin. I was well known on the groups and in the alt.music world as the manager of Thin White Rope, Poster Children, and several other bands. People may not agree with me, but they knew I wasn't a liar. I was all over Usenet at the time and it wasn't unusual to see a Usenet post title such as "ML Compton is an asshole", much to the horror and confusion of some of my bands. Such is the nature of the beast.)

I kept up a slight friendship with Billy for a while and while I was working at the Rhino Records store I even arranged through him for Kristin to do an instore there. And I finally got to meet her face-to-face. During that instore I told her about the whole "Annie Hall" thing and she thought it was great. And I'll always be thankful to her for providing that moment for me.

Since leaving the music business, I've lost contact with both Kristin and Billy, who is still her manager and her husband. But I keep listening, and to this day she is still making some beautiful, feminine music.

And that's it for this week, folks. Hope you enjoyed it.

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