I took my fiancé to a really expensive restaurant last week because it was her birthday and because it was expensive.
Food culture being the new rock n’ roll and all, Manhattan is awash in pricey eateries these days. You can’t score a piece of chicken below 92nd street for less than $30.
But this restaurant, written about exhaustively and fellated by food critics from the New York Times and elsewhere, was on another level.
I’m talking $75 for a piece of fish and $60 for a plate of pasta. I don’t think there was a wine on the menu that cost less than $35 a glass, and if there was it probably tasted like pee.
Ask me how I can afford this on what I make?—?let me be painfully honest?—?I can’t. This wasn’t dinner, it was a stick-up. When the check came I thought I’d just hand the waiter my wallet and run.
However, the point of this is not to bemoan a popular establishment. You could easily obtain this overpriced cuisine in another borough, but why would you? The restaurant caters to the elite New Yorkers who populate the tony West Village, and if one can reasonably overcharge for the simplest of meals and get away with it, why not? A sucker like me is born every minute.
And yet the thing is, when you’re dropping $500 minimum on a table for two, even if that’s not something you do very often, you are afforded with the rare opportunity to partake in a bit of tourism, if you will. In that brief moment, that two or three hours you spend imbibing and ingesting like the gluttonous gilded age baron that you occasionally fantasize about being, you get to see how the other half really lives. Okay, maybe not the other half. Maybe only a percent. Maybe only the 1%.
But regardless of what the percentage is, the average New Yorker?—?heck, the average person, period?—?will never step into a place like this restaurant. They will step into it elsewhere, as a unique experience and byproduct of their own neighborhood, because that’s all this place was anyway, but never as the expensive tourist attraction it is in the West Village, where everyone is a tourist now anyway, even if they live there.
With that in mind, I couldn’t help but pay a lot of attention to who else was in the restaurant. There was the J. Crew-clad couple across the room, dining with their parents, who looked like they had just flown in from Charleston. And the two stylishly-dressed young women sitting to our right, maybe employees at a big media company like Conde Nast, who wanted to try out a swanky restaurant, but were so budget conscious they wound up splitting an entree.
And then there was the table to my left, a booth in the corner, shaded by a brick wall that obscured whomever might have been sitting there. When we initially sat down it was populated by two young women?—?one Latin, the other perhaps Eastern European. They ordered drinks, fiddled with their phones and waited for the rest of their party to arrive. Twenty minutes later, two affable gentlemen in their mid-40’s strode in.
One was a tanned, Arabic-looking Brit. He was stylishly-dressed in a form-fitting suit, wearing silver glasses with his hair messily slicked back. He looked like he’d just left a board meeting, and being a middle-aged dad-type out for a night on the town, he was not particularly handsome. But he was trying, and that’s nice.
The other fella was a chubby Indian or Pakistani. He was poorly-dressed in a suit snatched from a discount rack at Men’s Wearhouse, his hair balding, forehead wrinkled and belly hanging sloppily over his belt. He was not particularly handsome, but neither he or his dinner guests seemed to mind. And that’s also nice.
If I was just guessing, I would assume that these two guys were either briefly in town for some business and wanted to have a nice expensive meal on their expense account, or they were hedge fund dudes doing what hedge fund dudes do. Quite possibly, they could have just been anything that actually pays real money, unlike writing, which admittedly, tends to taint your view of things.
But whatever, hugs were exchanged and cheek kisses were awkwardly planted and the Brit sat on the far side of the booth, sandwiched between the two girls, who were both in their late-20’s or early 30’s, and quite attractive at that. The other guy sat off to the side a bit, somewhat removed from the other three, almost disinterested in a way, with a dour look on his face.
This being a birthday dinner for my fiancé, whom I obviously wanted to focus all my attention on?—?and the fact that I’d probably never spend this much money on a meal again in my life, so I was going to eat the shit out of it?—?I tried to ignore the scene just to the side of us. But perhaps because on too often an occasion a loud laugh was elicited or a voice was raised, it was hard not to glance over there to see what was happening.
Again, the Indian/Pakistani dude sat off to the side, occasionally chiming in with a word or two, by and large content to just stare off aimlessly at the wall, in his own world. My back was to the wall so his glance and mine met a few times. I smiled and he feigned a smile back, but it was almost like he didn’t want to be seen there. He was nervous. He looked at his phone a lot. He shook his leg under the table.
Meanwhile, his partner, trying to be a debonair playboy, was in the middle of these two women, attempting to chat them up, but at the same time not doing quite a good job. He’d mutter a couple sentences?—?something about business or this country or that country, shit rich people talk about?—?and then go back to fingering the stem of his wine glass, shaking it back and forth to reveal all the floral scents that a $300 bottle of wine gets you. He was very smug and self-satisfied.
The women, for their part, tried to appear as interested as they could, and they seemed well-traveled and worldly and as jet-setting as I suppose whatever it is they did allowed them to be. They could have been models or maybe not models, because even the ugliest people in Manhattan nowadays looks like models, but if anyone laughed, it was them. They were trying. Trying to make this pair of rich losers interesting. But it just wasn’t really working. I felt bad for them.
I felt bad for the guys too. What brought them here on this night and why were they with these two women, whom they obviously did not know well, if they knew them at all? Had they met on Tinder or through some other random hookup site for the wealthy elite or was their some madam off in the shadows texting them a time and a place to meet two dudes with money to blow and time to waste and expectations to wind up in bed at some point, even though that looked like it might be the last thing either of the women wanted?
Or maybe in some strange alternative universe, which is not that strange at all these days?—?if you live in New York, at least?—?the women were the ones calling the shots, and maybe they were interested in a unique experience with a fine pair of gentlemen, and were being summarily let down by one guy who was far less interesting than he perceived himself to be, and another that couldn’t muster up the energy to even pretend to want to be there in the first place.
I gathered from their body language and their actual language that what brought them together was probably some type of financial arrangement, as can often be the case. And aside from the food, which was nominally tasty, despite costing what it might cost to put a small child in Africa through college, neither party particularly wanted to be there at all. They were just stomaching each other, going through with the pleasantries and pageantry that one goes through, in order to get to what they really want.
As for us, we ate and drank, and ate some more and drank some more and then said?—?“Wow, how the fuck did we eat so much?”?—?because it was a birthday and birthdays are fun and festive and reasons to indulge even when you don’t have the money and probably never will have the money and can’t possibly fathom who might ever have the money to afford such an overpriced meal in such an overpriced neighborhood in an overpriced city for well-off people who don’t know what overpriced even means.
In the end, the meal was decent but like most things in New York these days, altogether too expensive, special occasion or not. And despite our well-to-do company, the rich men and the women who temporarily pretend to love them?—?a night of fake laughs, stilted conversation and feigned excitement almost certainly ahead of them?—?we knew the only truth that was worth knowing after a dinner like that. The only thing truly clear and truly obvious.
That the only people who got fucked that night was us.
What I used to love about blogging was that it felt very much like punk rock. Or even hip-hop, for that matter.
While the establishment had their expense accounts and fancy photo shoots, bloggers took things they found on the internet and re-contextualized them. They gave them their own spin. Like rappers sampling break beats, blogging was all about taking something else and making it your own.
When you think about it in context of music?—?let’s just stick with punk here?—?blogging wasn’t reinventing the wheel. Punk was the same 3-chords that all music was based on, just with unnecessary embellishments taken out. It wasn’t big and bombastic. It was fast and loose. It was offensive, angry and fun.
And that’s what blogging was. A sort of low-budget way of making media, creating things out of other things, people saying things nobody with a salary and a fancy job title had the balls to say. Taking the piss out of the media business. Giving the people what they wanted. The good shit. The dirt! Written by amateurs, devoid of fluff.
I think that’s why blogging really took off. It was so anti-establishment, so middle finger at the big media companies, and people really embraced that. It was kind of like how corporate radio rock was in the seventies. A whole gang of folks were standing there ready to embrace whatever was the antithesis of that.
Blogging is not really like that anymore in that blogging, at least in the popular sense, doesn’t even exist now. I suppose there are attempts to bring it back, but there isn’t quite that level of energy around blogging anymore. That was a rather unique moment in time, when a lot of people were just getting online and even the idea of streaming video was a novel concept.
A personal blog can’t really compete nowadays, which kind of sucks. Because I never looked at blogging as a very precious thing. You wrote something quickly, dashed it off in thirty minutes, then moved on to the next thing. Again, it was very DIY punk rock-style, get the song done and move on to the next song. No overdubs, no bullshit. Every day was a chance to make a new fan.
But I guess those days are over, and that’s sad.
We went to see Entourage this weekend, and when that was over (it got a standing ovation?—?take that, critics!), snuck in to see Love & Mercy, the excellent new movie about Brian Wilson from the Beach Boys.
The film tells Wilson’s story in two particular epochs?—?the rise of the Beach Boys in the 60’s; and subsequently, the 80’s, when he’s insane and under the care of an abusive psychotherapist who treats him like a slave.
The younger Wilson is played by Paul Dano, the older by John Cusack. Both do a great job but it’s in the younger years where we see Dano as Wilson toiling away in the studio, possessed by some higher power, trying to make the sounds he hears in his head come to life.
The effort Young Wilson expends is enough to drive him to the deep end, literally (he can’t even get his bandmates to swim out of the shallow part of a pool he’s wading around in), and the film does a great job exploring what music-making was like before we all began carrying around virtual recording studios in our backpacks.
Naturally, the Beach Boys, who would rather just do the same happy-go-lucky stuff they’d been doing for years, reject Wilson’s new sound, as does his father?—?whom he’s fired from managing the group?—?and the young creative begins to come apart at the seams.
One thing that happens is his sonic obsessiveness starts bleeding over into his real life, and he becomes particularly sensitive to natural, everyday noise. The clinking of silverware against plates at a dinner table. A group of people having five separate conversations at once. This stuff drives him mad.
I found this part of the movie to be very interesting because it’s rare that a biopic really gets into an artist’s creative process. The director might show a few instances of the artist at work, but there is this assumption that viewers don’t want to see the nerdy stuff, so it winds up on the cutting room floor.
The director Bill Pohlad wisely created the entire Young Wilson narrative out of that nerdiness, in part to show that this formative experience?—?as well as other things, like drugs?—?is actually what lead him, later in life, to be so stricken with psychological problems.
But the effect is more to the point?—?we are watching the tug of war between madness and genius take place right in front of us. It’s the making of the myth. Let the music be the proof.
When we left the theater, I remarked that sometimes when you have to spend countless hours perfecting something, and the competition is so thick and stakes are so high, you can’t help but drive yourself crazy. Sometimes the difference between winning and losing is just how crazy you are.
The next day, we went to my father’s house to celebrate his 66th birthday. Told him we’d seen the movie, and he surprised me saying he was actually a big Beach Boys fan when he was a kid. Raised in a musical household, I can’t remember ever hearing the Beach Boys.
But anyway, we pulled up some Beach Boys music on Spotify and turned the volume down just low enough that we could hear without being disturbed. Some time passed and I almost instinctively went looking for something else to listen to, wherein I switched to Bo Diddley, then Chuck Berry.
The third or fourth Berry song that played was “Sweet Little Sixteen,” and it was then that I turned to my fiancé and said, “You know that’s where Brian Wilson stole the Beach Boys song ‘Surfin’ U.S.A.’ from, right?”
She gave me a confused look. As a music person, I take it for granted that everyone knows these little trivial things, but like most people not well-versed in this stuff, she didn’t know.
And it was only while I sang the melody to ‘Surfin’ U.S.A.’ over Berry’s music that it became really apparent. Then, just to prove the point?—?like any real music nerd?—?I turned on the Beach Boys song and it was plain as day.
“So Brian Wilson’s not such a genius then, is he?” she asked. “The movie portrayed him as someone who composed every sound and every note. His vision.”
“He is a genius,” I said. “But ya’know, back then a lot of white musicians took the stuff black musicians made and tried to pass it off as their own. Not that it makes it right. It’s just what happened. Till’ this day, people still think Elvis invented rock n’ roll.”
Now, I obviously wasn’t alive when Berry wrote “Sweet Little Sixteen,” and who knows, Berry himself could have cribbed his clever guitar lick and what is now a standard rock n’ roll progression from somewhere else, because almost every great idea comes from somewhere else.
But “Surfin’ U.S.A.” and “Sweet Little Sixteen” are almost identical, and to add insult to injury, Berry was in jail when the Beach Boys song was released. That’ll make you raise an eyebrow for sure. Regardless, Berry threatened to sue and the Beach Boys eventually awarded him credit for the tune.
Love & Mercy takes place largely after all this happened, and in real life the Beach Boys never shied away from acknowledging Berry’s influence?—?just as the Beatles never played down how early rock and soul influenced them, too?—?but with our black music legends dying off (B.B. King passed away last month; Berry himself is in his late 80’s) these are things you have to think about a little bit.
Because most people just doesn’t know the history.
Unless, of course, there’s a Chuck Berry biopic in the works. I’m not holding my breath for that.
“Nobody goes on the internet to read.”
That’s the message an old friend of mine shot back at me after I sent her an article I wrote. She liked it because, of course she did. But getting her to read it?—?to spend a whopping 10 minutes looking at a computer screen or her phone or whatever it was she was looking at it on?—?that was a chore.
This is what she said. I repeat:
“Nobody goes on the internet to read.”
As someone who nominally plies their trade putting words and experiences together on the internet, for people on the internet, it was like getting stabbed in the heart with a cutco knife. Actually, no. It was more like getting disemboweled on some William Wallace Braveheart shit. It hurt.
I’ve been thinking about it ever since. Maybe she’s right. Maybe wherever we are into the lifecyle of the internet?—?25 years or something, no??—?the place to do hard reading, at least for non-media folks, is still not on the internet. It’s in books and maybe magazines and newspapers, occasionally something short that you can digest on the phone, but meaty subjects, that stuff has no place online.
Surely the data?—?big data!?—?would suggest otherwise. People want content. They’re hungry for it. Starving for it. Gimme cookie, gimme content. Content content content. More more more.
But, yeah, I dunno. Maybe that’s not true. Maybe it’s something we just tell ourselves so that we have purpose, so we can keep the checks coming in, keep the lights on, keep doing what it is we do. It’s tough to say.
It’s like, there’s only so much time in a day. People are busy. The average person really isn’t sitting around leisurely just waiting for your thing you wrote, no matter how good it is.
Sometimes on a weekday?—?during normal working hours?—?I take my car into the shop or I go into a grocery store or I just walk around aimlessly observing life. And, wow, people are really just caught up in whatever it is they’re doing. I would say on the whole, they have no idea what is really happening on the internet at all. I mean, maybe a little, but not much. Certainly not enough to keep up with the pace at which everything is moving nowadays.
Of course knowledge workers, people who objectively have to spend a lot of time in front of a computer, they might have more time than others to muck around online. But by and large, people, I think, are still using the internet just as a utility.
That’s primarily one of the reasons why “how to” articles are still so popular. People go online when they need help with something. You need a fact, you look up the answer. You need to make something, you look up a recipe. You need to get somewhere, you look up directions. You need to buy something, you look up the product.
But this idea that you can just hit someone with an article out of nowhere about god knows what and have a mass audience suddenly interested, I think that’s probably false. The audience for that is really a lot smaller than we think it is, or at least smaller than many in power would hope.
I get the New York Times delivered on Sunday, because I dunno, I guess I still like newspapers or something. But the reality is, a lot of times I’m busy on the weekends and the paper comes, then it just sits there. I bring it inside and just dump it on a chair. By the time I get around to reading it, if I read it all, I’ve already read a few of the articles I want to read online. The other stuff, it’s an effort to get into it. So time-consuming.
I’m probably the outlier though, in the sense that I do a lot of my reading online. I’m actively looking for things to read, because I’m a heavy consumer of content. I don’t suspect that most people are really like that. In actuality, I think most people are still very passive, and would like to get things fed to them, in easily digestible formats, in predictable ways.
If they are going to sit down and read, they probably are still doing it the old fashioned way, with a book or better yet, a Kindle. Maybe they’ll tackle some big magazine-style piece on their way to work, but even that, I think fewer and fewer people have an interest in. During their commute, they might be more inclined to listen to something than actively enagage in reading because, gee whiz, life is fucking brutal and riding crowded trains and buses is a modern-day form of torture.
So, do people go on the internet to read? I don’t know. But I’m thinking about that a lot.
What do you think?
Earlier this month, Apple Music was announced.
One of the features included is this thing called Beats 1 radio. It’s internet radio except with real humans (remember them?)— talking, playing music and doing things that terrestrial radio jocks do.
The general consensus on this feature was—huh? This is 2015. Who the hell cares what Zane Lowe, a forty-something white guy from the UK, thinks about music. Who cares what anyone not named ‘you’ thinks about music?
Internet radio, whether through an app or on your desktop, is not a new idea, and in a nutshell, the entire rise of the internet can be boiled down to this?—?getting away from these assholes. And now we’re suppose to go back to that? Get real.
In an interview with Billboard, Jimmy Iovine said:
What’s gone on in the last 15 years in radio is that it’s really become manufactured. It’s either genre-based or beat-driven or research-driven. So I said, let’s build something that’s got none of that that just plays music because it’s great.
Jimmy is right. Radio is awful. There are 4 terrible songs an hour and twenty minutes of commercials. Radio isn’t for music, it’s for advertisers.
Needless to say, alternatives already exist. YouTube. Pandora. Satellite radio. Apps like TuneIn can give you almost every radio station on earth. Playlists on Spotify, Tidal and Prime Music. Mixcloud. Soundcloud. Dash Radio. If you want to hear good music, you’re not going to struggle to hear it. You don’t need to pay $9.99 to have Zane Lowe tell you what’s hot?—?you already know.
Or do you? The opinionated among us take knowledge for granted. You have Google at your fingertips, therefore you must know everything! But there’s more content being generated now than anyone can possibly keep up with, and music has a major problem?—?the good filters are gone.
It wasn’t always like this. There was once radio and record stores and magazines and for a time, music blogs. Yes, briefly, we turned off the radio and tuned in to websites where passionate fans endlessly sifted through trash to find hidden treasures. But then that business got commodified, the government came swooping down on file-sharing, and the influence of bloggers waned.
In the wake of their demise, the uninformed among us turned our attention to streaming services. Sure, an odd mix of humans with algorithms can occasionally help us find a record we like, but discerning music fans still don’t have a better turnkey solution for hearing great music than just turning on the actual radio. Most streaming service playlists are unimpressive, and so are their algorithms. The ‘skip’ button has never been more popular.
Streaming on its own?—?without radio?—?is not a complete failure, though. Perhaps more important than what a booming voice in the sky is telling you, you can see what your friends are into, and you can make your own playlists. Because after all, the power of having all this music in front of you is that you, too, can be Zane Lowe, without having to actually like, be Zane Lowe.
But that’s assuming, again, that you even know what you’re supposed to be listening to. The average person certainly knows enough classic rock, Motown and hits from the 90’s/2000’s to get by, but at a certain point, they’re lost. They’re not at a fork in the road. They’re at a million forks in the road. Behind the wheel of a Tesla.
So, the curated listening experience is a tough nut to crack. Nobody has really done it well online at mass. And the thing about listening is, it shouldn’t be work. It should be easy. That’s why the greatest DJ’s are who they are?—?they know their listeners, can read their energy and know what to play next. There is an intimacy there, a familiarity. That relationship has value and throughout history it’s proven to have worked well.
But ultimately, radio is really simple?—?shut and play the hits. In a world where it’s gotten harder and harder to find the hits, is that worth paying for? I think so. But you tell me.