Sunday, September 25, 2022

"I'm Not Trying to Be Smug Here:" Words for Anton Fier


Photo by Rick McGinnis



In many ways, Anton Fier – who passed away last week at the age of 66 – died years ago.


Long before social media gave the world a platform for self-aggrandizing, Anton packed up his music box and split for parts unknown without a single word announcing his intentions. The year was 1996, and he had just released Dead Inside – one of the darkest albums ever committed to disk – with his long-running project, The Golden Palominos. Largely created in collaboration with spoken word artist Nicole Blackman (perhaps best known for her bullet-between-the-eyes work with KMFDM), Dead Inside was bleak, distressing and fearless. (Kidnapping, murder and infanticide were among its primary themes.) Even in a post-Cobain musical landscape accustomed to depression set to sound, Dead Inside was too much for too many. (Cheekily, I once put it on for a ladyfriend who had basically been my high school’s answer to Sylvia Plath. She politely asked that I turn it off after the first song.) Naturally, I absolutely adored the thing – despite the fact that I’ve only been able to sit through it thrice in the last 26 years.

As career suicides go, Dead Inside is a masterstroke. From 1980 to 1996, Anton had been everywhere as one of Alternative music’s most expressive and versatile drummers. His extraordinary talents made their first major appearance on The Feelies’ amazing 1980 debut, Crazy Rhythms. Over the ensuing decade and a half, his personal discography blossomed to include standout work with Pere Ubu, The Lounge Lizards, SWANS and Bob Mould, among others. Under his own steam, he led The Golden Palominos – a revolving who’s who of underground music elites – through a series of captivating albums (with 1983’s eponymous debut, 1985’s Visions Of Excess and 1994’s Pure being my personal favorites). Critics and adventurous music fans couldn’t get enough of the guy – but then Dead Inside shook the Cult of Fier into a stunned silence. Years went by without a peep from him.

Where did Anton Fier go? And why? Why was Dead Inside presumably his final word? In early 2005, I decided to find out.


Driving down Sunset Blvd. one day, I came up with the idea to write a book called Albums that (Should’ve) Changed the World – a more grandiose title than, say, Albums that Really Deserve a Second Listen. Within seconds of coming up with the title, I decided that Dead Inside would be one of the releases I’d write about. At the time, I viewed Myspace – still primitive in those days – as a passing fad not worthy of much attention. So, I started my journey the old-fashioned journalist’s way – by connecting the dots through phonebooks, legwork and organic networking. I was soon in touch with various Palominos and Pere Ubu types, hoping to gain a glimpse into Anton’s working process and personality. Before long, a common thread surfaced: Many spoke highly of their working relationship with Anton, but they cautioned that my attempts to get to the heart of the matter directly with the man himself – who could be quite a cagey fellow at times, it seemed – would very likely lead to a brick wall. Additionally, it appeared that nobody had heard from him in years. These were tantalizing circumstances for a journalist, and finding Fier became a fixation for me.

I tracked down and hit up more past Palominos. None of them seemed to know where Anton’s feet had landed. I left a few messages at the NYC bar Tonic (RIP) after a SWAN tipped me off that Anton was last seen working there. Nothing. Shortly after my Eddie And The Cruisers-style search for the man hit its ninth month, I finally came across a presumably old email address for him in the liner notes to Tzadik's reissue of his solo album Dreamspeed after unexpectedly finding it at Amoeba Hollywood one day. I sent him an email but didn’t expect much. Amazingly, he wrote back two days later. Here’s an excerpt:

“While I appreciate what you're trying to do, I'm just not sure that talking about the music or the past holds much interest for me. I'm not trying to be smug here, but outside of technical details, I'm not sure what information I can offer you that would be relevant – relevant in the sense that it sheds light on the work. The work is the work, created by the people who created it, and it speaks for itself.”

The journalist in me hated reading those words, but the creator/musician in me understood and respected the hell out of them. During a conversation I had with him a few years back, the late Andy Gill of Gang of Four cautioned that artists could too easily end up being “guilty of trying to be [their] own reviewers and trying to really spell out what [they] think [the work] is supposed to say,” adding that such practices “can take away some of the magic in things by over-talking them.” Creators are in the business of creating; in a perfect world, that would be enough. Unfortunately, publicity and promotion don’t work that way, and this often leads to otherwise solitary people being bugged by, well, people like me. Having existed on both sides of the fence over the years, I tend to favor Anton’s go-away-kid-you-bother-me approach to public relations over the time I need to take away from DOING things to discuss things I’ve already DONE. A necessary evil is still evil, and I found Anton’s reluctance to give away too much a breath of fresh air. And in a modern world where photos of lunches provide midday entertainment for millions, Anton accomplished the great feat of a public death without actually dying. Brilliant and admirable.

Now Anton IS dead, and we’re left with his work to tell the tale. Thankfully, that tale is an extraordinary one. As a young drummer growing up in New Jersey (The Feelies’ headquarters), I learned a lot about finesse by listening to Crazy Rhythms – especially via the gradual tom buildup of “Loveless Love” and the tasteful-yet-powerful timekeeping genius of “Moscow Nights.” I’ll also state without reservation that White Light From The Mouth Of Infinity – largely viewed as SWANS’ return to form following the commercially driven misstep of 1989’s The Burning World – would not have been the album it was without Anton’s presence. And then there’s Pere Ubu’s Song Of The Bailing Man. And Bob Mould’s Black Sheets Of Rain. As far as I’m concerned, these are ANTON’s records. He was not a sideman; he was the engine.

On a personal note, Anton’s death is another nagging reminder that my Albums book – long delayed by nearly two decades’ worth of marriage, parenthood, divorce, car accidents, world travel and actual paid work – is still unfinished. I’d like to think that if Anton had lived long enough to read the final product, he would have enjoyed my investigation and interpretation of Dead Inside.

Although Anton briefly resurfaced about a decade ago with another Golden Palominos record (this time a collaboration with Drivin N Cryin’s Kevn Kinney) and a couple of surprise live shows, he largely maintained his elusiveness until the very end. No official cause of death has been announced, and I’d be surprised if one ever comes to light. (There are online rumors, of course. I will neither share nor validate the more prevalent ones here except to say that I hope Anton left this world feeling a sense of personal dignity.) At the end of the day, Anton did his job by leaving us plenty of great music to mull over – and then staying out of the way of his own creations.

“The magic in things,” as Andy Gill would say, remains intact.

You were right, Anton. Your work does speak for itself. And it will always say – and mean – a hell of a lot.


EMAIL JOEL at gaustenbooks@gmail.com


Five Tips for Mid-Level Touring Acts on How Not to S**t the Bed




Lauren Hart and Max Karon of Once Human





The “post-COVID” tour season is in full swing, and GOOD GOD is it an organizational shitshow out there. Here are some thoughts that have been rolling around in my head that I’d like to share with the mid-level touring acts in my orbit:

1. PAY ATTENTION TO YOUR STAGE LIGHTING
Have you invited press to the show? Given those people photo pit passes? Then make sure the first three songs of your set are photographer-friendly. This means no reds and no strobes – and absolutely NO red strobes! You want to see a great action shot of your band on your favorite website or in your favorite magazine, right? Then don’t leave a photographer with only 400 blurry red smudges to work through. Also, you need to actually give those photographers an image they will want to use – so pay attention to them! The photo of Lauren Hart of Once Human I’ve included above is a prime example of what I mean. In a split second while performing, she spotted me, stopped and gave me a pose. That’s a pro.

2. MAKE SURE YOUR TOUR MANAGER HAS THEIR SHIT TOGETHER
Tour managers are like combat generals; they work to keep everyone alive and winning while getting shit thrown at them from all directions. Very often, the tour manager has to keep the artist organized (no small feat), deal with the production aspects of the show/venue, deal with guest list management and oversee the logistics of the onsite interviews that the publicist has booked for the artist. (Hey, publicists: Please stop doing this. Trust me, EVERY artist on the road fucking hates it.) That’s a lot of patience and brainpower, and not everybody possesses them – especially while sleep-deprived. Make sure that any tour manager you bring on has the experience and brains necessary to rise to the challenge. I have personal experience with a frazzled tour manager who once went from musician to musician backstage to ask if they had any additions to the typed-and-printed master guest list in her hand. After scribbling down everyone’s additions, she exclaimed, “Oh, no, the master list is not in alphabetical order!” and scurried off to re-do it. Although she revised the list to be in alphabetical order, she forgot to add on the scribbled names from the previous list – thus leading to people standing shocked at the door as the person checking the list told them they weren’t on it. Don’t let this happen to you or your people.

3. ORGANIZE YOUR GODDAMN MERCH
News Flash: Tours these days survive on merch revenue. Do you want a fan to wait 10 minutes as the person behind your merch table frantically searches box after box for a shirt in the right size? What if they finally grab an elusive 2X shirt with the image of the nude woman in a Viking helmet riding a skeletal horse but your fan wanted a 2X of the bleeding skull with the rose in its mouth that - as it turns out - is now only available in Large? Congratulations – you just failed that fan! And considering that most people buy merch after the show – typically late at night during the week and perhaps moments before their bus ride leaves – you can’t afford to keep your supporters waiting too long. Organize your shirts by style and size before doors even open. And in the name of all that is holy, make sure your merch table accepts credit/debit cards. That $3.50 charge your fan has to pay to use the venue’s ATM could translate into $3.50 less they can spend with you – and $3.50 less in your tour vehicle’s gas tank at the end of the night.

4. KEEP YOUR MERCH PEOPLE INFORMED
Very often, whoever you have selling your merch will be your direct point of contact with your audience. It’s your job to make sure your merch people know your set time, any changes to the order of acts on the bill and any other logistical details that could affect your audience’s enjoyment of your show. Have your tour manager remain in constant contact with your merch people – and for fuck’s sake, NEVER have your merch people close up shop during your set! People sometimes need to leave early, so never lose an opportunity to sell a souvenir to someone who needs to duck out before the encore to catch a bus or get to their car before a garage closes. Your audience’s time and convenience is always more important than yours. Never forget that.

5. GET A GOOD PUBLICIST - AND MAKE THEM WORK
Not all publicists are created equal. There are extraordinary ones out there who will build solid relationships with media outlets on your behalf, and there are those who only hit “send” on a press release and never reply to responses. Media outlets want to receive replies to their inquiries, even if it’s a “no.” I have asked publicists to remove me from their contact lists after they failed to respond to too many of my emails back to them after they sent me a press release. Even if you know for a fact that you don’t want to do an interview (or are just too busy) or don’t want to add a certain person to the guest list (or simply can’t), still instruct your publicist to reply to the requesting party. You pay them to be your buffer, so MAKE them your buffer if need be. They should be skilled in the fine art of letting someone down easy without burning a future bridge. Additionally, you may want to look into how your publicist is communicating with potential press. How is their tone? Are they professional? Do they get your messaging across? What is their media placement rate? Are other acts in their roster getting the kind of press you want? Do they have basic things like time zones down? You’d be surprised how many publicists fuck up interview times because they somehow forget there’s a three-hour time difference between Los Angeles and Boston. They are the frontline, public-facing representative of your band. Make them work for it.


EMAIL JOEL at gaustenbooks@gmail.com


Sunday, September 18, 2022

Re-Made but Not Re-Modeled: A Slick & Safe Roxy Music Hits Boston





It’s impossible to write a review of a Roxy Music show in 2022 without first acknowledging that it's really an examination of four bands.

The classic Roxy Music, represented on 1972’s Roxy Music and 1973‘s For Your Pleasure, looked like extras from The Rocky Horror Picture Show and once recorded a gloomy, nearly six-minute ode to an inflatable sex doll (“In Every Dream Home A Heartache,” later covered with great aplomb by Rozz Williams and Gitane DeMone of Christian Death). Even as Glam Rock stormed England and beyond in the early-to-mid-’70s, Roxy Music’s otherworldly sounds and aesthetics were still enthralling headscratchers. Diehards could argue – with a fair amount of validity – that much of the band’s initial freewheeling spirit dissipated upon the 1973 departure of original synthesizer genius Brian Eno.

The second wave of Roxy Music – showcased on the stellar triple-shot of 1973’s Stranded, 1974’s Country Life and 1975’s Siren – found the group still somewhat embracing the experimental oddness of the Eno era while also navigating towards increasingly commercial waters. The sonic juxtaposition paid off: The Funk/Disco bounce of Siren’s “Love Is The Drug” landed Roxy Music in the American Top 40, while the group still retained at least some of its earlier esoteric touch in spots. (For this writer’s money, the eternally thrilling Country Life is the strongest example of the mid-period Roxy Music’s ability to straddle the line between art and commerce.)

Roxy Music’s third wave began with 1979’s polarizing Manifesto, an album steeped in then-current trends (the fun but ultimately disposable New Wave of “Trash”) but nonetheless saved by some truly fantastic Pop songwriting (the lovely “Dance Away”). But was this music really roxy? Always fashion-forward, frontman Bryan Ferry spent the preceding decade gradually going from space suits to suit suits. By the time the ultra-slick (and, frankly, largely irredeemable) Flesh + Blood hit shelves in 1980, he was infinitely more Gabriel Byrne than Gary Glitter. As a consequence, Roxy Music had become Yacht Rock for people just cultured enough to maybe have some Fitzgerald or Nabokov in their home libraries. Pretentious at worst and soulless at best, Flesh + Blood was wine-women-and-blow music for aristocrats – perfect for the decadent 1980s but terrible for anyone who favored substance over style. (Look, there’s dark and cool “In Every Dream Home A Heartache”- level decadence and then there’s this shit.) If the Eno era came from Mars, then the Roxy Music of Flesh + Blood resided in mansions. Plot lost.

But then there’s Avalon. Released in 1982, Roxy Music’s studio swan song saw the group’s various aural aspirations come to fruition. An absolutely gorgeous record, Avalon took Flesh + Blood’s formula and sharpened it, providing a listening experience both beautiful and brooding. (Although a deceptively upbeat number cleverly designed for America radio, the album’s best-known song, “More Than This,” also chronicled the smoldering embers of a doomed affair.) Avalon is For Your Pleasure grown up and Flesh + Blood with balls – and the first and only Platinum studio album Roxy Music had in America. And while many of the band’s experimental tendencies had long fallen by the wayside by then, Avalon remains a masterpiece of its time.

Now, in 2022, we have the fourth wave of Roxy Music, sporadically active as a touring entity since 2001 and currently on a 50th Anniversary Tour. This past weekend, the trek touched down at the recently opened MGM Music Hall in Boston. Comprised of Ferry, original drummer extraordinaire Paul Thompson (justifiably revered by scores of timekeepers for his exceptional work on the band’s early albums), original guitarist Phil Manzanera and original saxophonist Andy Mackay (plus a whopping nine onstage auxiliary performers in tow), the band’s latest incarnation is mostly defined by what it isn’t. Eno’s nowhere to be found (of course), and the band’s approach to the Boston show’s 20-song set largely felt as if Ferry and Co. had been encased in ice circa 1982 and chipped out for this latest jaunt. Although the band’s set gave plenty of attention to the Eno years (with show opener “Re-make/Re-model,” “Do The Strand” and a fittingly morose rendition of “In Every Dream Home A Heartache” clear highlights), virtually everything was performed through an Avalon filter – making the show Roxy Music Lite from start to finish. This certainly fit the tunes from the Avalon era exceptionally well but left quite a few ’70s songs without the trademark grit of the era that spawned them to balance out the gloss. What Roxy Music 4.0 delivered in Boston was a smoothed over and palatable version of the three eras that preceded it without offering a moment of risk or new adventure. And at 76, Ferry simply doesn’t have the pipes he once had. This was most noticeable during “More Than This,” which benefited from a trio of backing singers doing some of the heavy lifting.

Fortunately, none of the above quibbles mattered. Ferry is still a captivating frontman – one of Rock’s best – and his vocal limitations actually led him to present many songs in a subdued croon (not unlike Bowie’s in his final years) that added some interesting shades to the material. Manzarena and Mackay are still two of the finest – and grossly underrated – musicians of any decade (and both absolutely smoked on stage in Boston), and Paul Thompson is Paul Thompson. Enough said.

And those songs… My God, those songs…

Nobody should reasonably expect the Roxy Music of today to be the gloriously innovative clusterfuck it was with Eno – that Roxy Music was done 49 years ago! And considering that Ferry has basically kept up the same Avalon-driven image and atmosphere for four decades now as a solo artist, audiences should naturally expect “Avalon” and “To Turn You Own” to land on the set list at the expense of, say, “Whirlwind” or “Casanova.” Fans who accept this fact – and what Roxy Music is willing to give them in 2022 – will be treated to a pristine live experience that will remind them of just how extraordinary the group’s output – regardless of era – truly was and still is.



EMAIL JOEL at gaustenbooks@gmail.com