Tuesday, April 29, 2008

In honor of my brother...

My brother Dan Potruch is a professional drummer and songwriter with more pure musical talent in his pinkie finger than most have in their bodies. I worked with him in a band during the mid-1980s and watched him take off from there and never once work a full-time day job. He has my utmost respect in his musical knowledge, his playing ability, and more recently, as a husband and father. Today, he emailed me on how lame it was of me to comment on American Idol on this blog. This was his second such comment. I dunno, maybe I'm being lightweight in a forum where I shouldn't be?

I thought it appropriate to be clear as to why AI is important to me, and to my family.

First, being a recovering musician, it's important for me to get out my feelings about the music I encounter now, rather than keeping them bottled up inside. In the past, as a snobbish intellectual who could not appreciate the pop confection that so many of those in my life -- including my lovely wife -- listen to, that bottling up would frequently lead to an elitist rant about art, musical integrity, and something other than a 4/4 time signature with a 2-4 back beat. In later years, I came to realize that my musical snobbery was managing my life and affecting my relationships. I was out of control. I stepped off the stage (and my soapbox) and started to become more tolerant of those with lower forms of musical intelligence. Those whose attitudes towards music stopped at 12 years old and American Bandstand's "Rate-a-Record." Those who think 3/4 or 7/8 are part of "One Two Buckle My Shoe." Yes, that was me way back then. But I digress.

American Idol, for me, shows me just how awesome it can be for someone to step out of one's bedroom, where one pretended to be a star, and actually become one. I dreamed of big lights and big music, and tentatively stepped out of my bedroom for nearly 18 years, thinking that my off-center taste and elitist attitude would somehow break down the doors of the pop world. I realize now that my desires and intentions were conflicting. One cannot experience widespread recognition for one's talent unless his displays of that talent can appeal to as widespread an audience as possible. I thought that my years of listening to and emulating King Crimson, Gentle Giant, and Frank Zappa were going translate into formidable writing talent that would eventually lead me to audiences as big as they'd experienced. Except they wrote better than I did, practiced more than I did, and studied more than I did. More importantly, their audiences reflected the tastes of their time, which was about 10-15 years before me. It was OK to be weird then. Plus, in retrospect, their audiences weren't all that big when held up to the audiences of, say, post-Gabriel Genesis, or Rush (once Moving Pictures was released).

When I had gotten underway with my musical career in 1980, weird had already lost its appeal. I was listening to bands and musicians who emerged in 1969 and who had already pretty much burned out by 1977. Those who still had so-called "progressive" projects, like Bill Bruford or National Health, were the last of their kind, and they ultimately descended into much smaller side projects or went really commercial. Bruford re-joined Robert Fripp in the new King Crimson, which had relative success with singles like "Elephant Talk" and "Sleepless."

Also, quality musicianship had lost its appeal to wide audiences, replaced by punk and new wave, and had slunk into dank nightclubs that used upside-down 7s to take the place of lost Ls on their marquee signs. By the time I "retired" in 1997, after Webster's New World, and Van Gogh's Ear, and Glass House, and then my last three-song acoustic set as Halfway to Dharma at Genghis Cohen with my dear friend (and a formidable talent in his own right) Byron Fry, I had finally had my fill of all that. But, again, I digress.

Second, the kids who perform each week on AI are usually full of talent, courage, and most of all, hope. It has to take mountains of courage for a girl like Kristy Lee Cook to step out and sing her heart out in front of millions, only to be savaged by the three judges who have only one musical talent (Randy), and one intelligent brain (Simon) between them. Sure, the show is glorified karaoke! Sure, the songs are almost always cheesy. But sometimes, just once in a while, you hear something brilliant, unaffected by all the glitz around it, a moment of pure musicality. For me, that happened during Beatles week #1, when my homey from Inglewood, Chikezie, pulled the smallest kernel of country/bluegrass out of "She's a Woman" and turned it into a barn-burner. His Roger Daltrey-like stuttering that led to almost a howl of passion just did me in. If you don't believe me, watch it for yourself. And, through all of this posturing and having to endure the endless screaming of young girls, with their highly-coached arm waving and clapping above their heads, these kids hope to be big enough to make a great living.

I remember the first season -- and I wasn't even a big watcher back then -- when Kelly Clarkson won and sang that God-awful "A Moment Like This." I thought that corporate America had just ruined a perfectly good talent with a gigantic and pure voice. Further ruining it for me was that ridiculous movie she did with the runner-up, where they made her wear sarongs around her too-big tush. I thought for sure she'd disappear in a year, tops. Then they released this song, "Miss Independent." Then she won Grammys. Then she released some more stuff, and eventually I got hooked into this girl's fantastic talent. And she was just some girl from Texas who was as obscure and unknown as some kid at a Burger King, suddenly a millionaire, suddenly a megastar, and suddenly proof that AI can do huge things for good people. And I believe it's the hope of the contestants that makes the show great.

Finally, one only has to see all the talent that has emerged from the show -- Clarkson, Clay Aiken (Broadway), Fantasia (Broadway), Diana DeGarmo (Broadway), Jennifer Hudson (OSCAR!), Carrie Underwood (CMAs, Grammys), and Chris Daughtry (megastar rocker) -- and the buzz that this show has created all over the fucking world, and one can't help but be taken in.

Tonight, the kids sing Neil Diamond tunes. I've never been a fan, but when you see the guy's songbook and how huge it is, I think it's going to be an exciting show. Plus, I get to watch it on my living room sofa, curled up with my beautiful Lisa and our beautiful boy, Max. It doesn't get much better than that.

Sorry if you don't agree, bro...

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