No more hobbies.
I guess I’m done.
I just saw an ad for an old guitar case (just the case!) for $10,000. I think that’s the turning point on trying to be involved in the “Vintage Instrument” world.
I have always been into old guitars, especially old Fender Stratocasters (see previous blog posts about these things!), but I’ve never been able to afford a “real” one, by which I mean a solid, stock, early 1960s Stratocaster. Even when I was a teenager: I found a Christmas wishlist I had written from Dec 1978 (I was 15) that had “Pre-CBS Strat neck” listed on it, ostensibly to put on the “Memphis”-brand Strat copy that I had. As if my mom would know what that was, let alone where to find such a thing.
Like pretty much every hobby or collection I’ve had, there came a point where I was priced out of being able to be part of it—I have not kept up with my age group, success and income-wise. In the 1970s and into the 80s I collected comic books, the classic old 1960s “Silver Age” DC and Marvel, and when Camper Van Beethoven was touring in the 80s, I’d try to find comic stores and buy $5 or even $20 comics to fill in my collection. But things changed, and in 1989 that first big time “serious” Hollywood Batman movie came out and suddenly those $5 things were $50 and the $20 ones were $200. So I pretty much gave up. And then when the band initially dissolved, I was a bartender during the 1990s, so my spendable cash mostly went to food or beer. It still does, I’m embarrassed to say. At my age where most of my peers have houses and savings, I’ve got a bunch of parts-made guitars. (I did “own” a house for about a decade. The house story is on this blog as well. It’s sad.)
I sold my comic collection in 1997 after moving to LA, via a fairly new thing back then called eBay. Got $7000, though it cost $1000 to send it all off to wherever via UPS. That money lasted for awhile when I was interning at Danetracks Studio before they started paying me. And of course, I quit working there to join Sparklehorse anyway, where I made a full $800 a week. While on tour, anyway. That lasted until that very last show, after which I never heard from any of that crowd again.
Many guitars have come and gone, I’ve sold several (and of course I regret selling each and every one!) and lots and lots of parts to build those modular Fender Stratocasters: all the parts are interchangeable! Well, mostly, anyway; it depends on the model year a bit, but for the most part there’s a lot of commonality. I had one (named Honey by a kitchen label sticker) that was “stock” as it came from the factory, a 1971 model, that I used on all my post-CVB solo and band albums and touring with Sparklehorse and then again with CVB when we started back up in ~2002. It was stolen in 2004 in Montreal. I got a brand-new guitar to replace it (a black “1962 American Vintage Reissue” model, so it was sort of like the old ones I always wanted. I added a racing stripe to it) and I always bought parts to build more. It was fun! A great hobby, guitars, especially modular ones. And the hunt for old parts was fun, like when I had motorcycles, I worked on my mid-80s Moto Guzzi V65, and rebuilt a few old 1960s Triumphs and a couple 1970s Ducatis as well! Super fun to try to track down the proper headlight ears or oil reservoir for my 1966 T-100SC, for example. (Similarly unaffordable now.) I sold some of the motorcycles when I was in LA—not as fun to commute with all those straight streets and stoplights—and the remaining ones left me in the process of moving to Sweden in 2012. My brain is filled with trivia of years and parts, correct markings and idiosyncrasies of the different model years of guitars, motorcycles, cars, comic books. Yay. Valuable information, that there. (All of which makes spotting fakes or just plain old wrong information all the more obvious on Reverb or eBay, though for the benefit of no-one as it happens.)
The biggest problem economically with “Partscasters” is that they are worth less than the sum of their parts! For example, if, last year, you had spent, say, $2000 (1 – see below for footnotes. Blog format is stupid) on a 1963 body, $2000 on a 1965 neck, and another $2000 on the pickups and plastic/celluloid parts, the guitar as a whole would be worth maybe $5000. Because it’s a collectors’ market, not a players’ market: stock, untouched, un-disassembled items are worth the most, like Mint Condition comics, and the prices drop precipitously from there, by halves or more per condition downgrade. So where a stock/mint model might be selling for $15-20k, and the individual parts for such a thing sold for relative fractions of that, a whole item made of various parts was considered Poor Condition and worth less than the parts! So my current collection of guitars is sort of ridiculous in the collector’s view. And of course, markets sell at retail, but buy at wholesale. For my own interest, I am (was) a player, so I’d always been trying to build myself that perfect guitar, that one single instrument that would be mine, the one I would play only and forever. And I guess I could say I kinda, maybe have that one… sorta… or these two maybe…, but then… well, then I only record with them anyway, because you don’t take that old shit on tour, it gets stolen.
Man I hate thieves.
So during this past year while everybody has been locked inside, the prices of not only “Vintage” whole guitars have gone up, but the prices of parts as well. Maybe it’s the tail end of the Boomer money freaking out on the stocking of man-caves, so it’s just down to that old supply and demand, where demand had risen massively while everybody was needing to do something at home. But why old guitars? Do people even still play guitars in modern music? It must be Boomers (2) expressing a faux-nostalgia, still admiring Eric Crapton or Jiminy Page despite their irrelevance to popular music these days. We (should) all know about the presence of “Blues Lawyers”, those dudes who are so cool that they spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on a 1959 Les Paul to hang on the wall of their office, and they venerate players like Joe Bonamassa who play the perfect blues licks on quarter-million dollar guitars—in concert, even: “look, bro, he’s playing a 1958 Standard ‘Burst! That thing is worth $xxx! Man!!! That’s cool.” I assume these guys are the tech biggies and CEOs that got massively richer during the pandemic as the workers struggled (you can go read about that if you want), so anyway, now, June of 2021, the asking prices for what a year and a half ago was a $20k guitar are now $40-60k, what was a $5k guitar is now $10-20k.
I’m out. Actually I was really never “in” in that I never had that $20k to buy one of those instruments anyway (and then what do you do with it?) I mean, I literally have a couple thousand dollars in the bank to pay rent with over the summer. I guess it’s good I’ve never been super into Ferraris or something like that. So it’s another hobby down the drain… or, well, perhaps it’s not exactly down the drain but the reality of these objects as an obsession has confidently moved beyond my narrow slice of reality. Finally, right? I guess I’m gonna have to take apart these guitars to sell them in pieces. What a shame.
And a hassle. I hate selling things, I’m not good at it. (Duh. Can’t even sell my own music. Nor my own services.) Even, or especially, in Sweden where I live, which as you probably know is one of the overall richest societies in the world, …so I guess that makes the people super stingy? I don’t get it. They try to haggle on everything, it’s fucking disgusting. Makes me sick to my stomach to try to deal with selling things on Blocket (nobody uses Craigslist even though CL is free and you have to pay to put an ad on Blocket…! And there are ads on every page! But, but, Craigslist isn’t “Swedish”…) I have tried to sell some pedals and parts here, I price them low, super reasonably, and still people are like, how about half? And you pay for the postage? And I get ripped off. Halkan the Slippery, famous proprietor of one of the guitar shops in Södermalm ripped me off one time, and I tried to get some of the parts back, but no way. (Plus he paid me in cash. Nobody uses cash here and even trying to deposit it into my bank was a extreme hassle: only one branch office of my bank in the entire city of Stockholm deals with cash and then you have to fill out forms to say exactly where it came from, what it was to be used for!) That combined with the fact that the postal service here is fucking awful (Postnord. In a wave of neo-liberalism, the state sold the post office to a Danish corporation a decade back) and they have a built-in fee to deal with the added value tax so that if I try to get something from outside the country (like American made parts for American made guitars) I end up not only paying way more for it, but then even more to the postal service than the customs tax office simply for the privilege of being able to pay these taxes through them! (There is no other choice, apparently, beyond filling out a 6-page spreadsheet for your one “imported item” as if you were a commercial importer.) Even for books or records, even gifts (if they are valued over $50). Last year I probably paid a thousand dollars to Postnord for the privilege of paying Tullverket a hundred. And that’s every year. Sweden sucks the joy out of everything in any way it can (3), this sort of thing is typical and of course dampens any gladness from buying or collecting anything that isn’t made in Sweden. And what is made in Sweden anyway? Nothing that isn’t a sad copy of something made somewhere else better. I mean: especially the music. What’s touted here is only what’s successful, and not what’s good. And what’s successful is always a sad copy of something else. From Abba to First Aid Kit. They sound to me like Westworld robots trying to be authentic something-or-other, it’s almost there but something always puts it right into the uncanny valley, some accent or phrasing. (I will ruin your appreciation of Abba any time you like, but let me start with this: Orientalism. You may think they are cute and funny, but that’s just you “othering” them. They’re actually neither cute nor funny, they’re just mistaken in their attempts at translation.) And to think that Izzy Young moved here because he was so taken with Swedish folk music, something that was actually and truly beautifully Swedish. Well, Benny Andersson even ruined that with his semi-musical take on it. (I mean, of course there is some good music, but you’ll likely never hear about it and these bands will never go anywhere. The export model is built only on previously successful conclusions. The current model for all music is to feed the tech-machine anyway, so no band that isn’t in the top 5% will have a lifetime of more than a few years by design.)
So I dunno what’s left for me in terms of interests. Flower arrangement? Bird watching? I collect books too, or used to. When I moved, I sold all my records, and shipped many of my books. That was dumb. It’s very difficult to find books in English here too, especially cool old books or hardbacks or First Editions, and that postal service—well, the UK used to be in the EU and I used to at least be able to get English books sent from there. So I guess that’s out now too unless I’m up for those excessive VAT and Postnord fees. And the “valuable” books that I have (in English) are worthless here as well, being English. And being books. I recently helped (well, I didn’t help much) a friend clear out her late multi-lingual father’s apartment of its books and even the University didn’t want the academic ones, nobody wants books. Books are passé, so last millenium. I despair for humankind.
No more “career” (as such) either.
I used to be a “professional” musician and composer too. Not so much lately. I do have a gig next month, the first in 17 months. I’m shelling out money to pay to travel to the show in Copenhagen just for the chance to play. Like the meme-joke about a musician being a person who spends $150 to get to the gig, brings $1000 worth of equipment, and then gets paid $50. It’s not a joke. I have to practice too, I got no callouses, man. And serious ulnar nerve issues in my left arm/hand—half my fingers are numb or painful these days.
I tried, I really did! For 40 years, trying to make this “hobby” into a profession. When I look at the classified ads for gear, musical instruments and even recording studio equipment are listed in a subcategory within the “Hobby and Free Time” category. I guess I should have caught a clue earlier. Now here I was wanting to express something real about existing, hearing, being, developing music as part of the expanding spiral of human endeavor, but that’s not a real thing, now is it?
Even while, for example, the Grateful Dead were not cool in the 1980s (4), I had jammed on those old songs in the UCSC dorms in 1981-2 and I loved the expanded form and subtle audio cues they used to segue into new material or the next song… I had always hoped that CVB would develop into a more improvisational outfit. We had our moments, but David was always into some ideal of how a song was “supposed to be” so that pretty much never developed. Even in Cracker, with Johnny’s guitar solos, they have their specified sections: this many bars for a solo, this is the form.
My intention with my first solo album, “Storytelling” (1988), and indeed all subsequent albums, was always that that should be some type of studio version of music that was to be developed or expanded upon (5). (Like how “Anthem of the Sun” is, with respect to “Live/Dead”, as an example.) But you know, when you have no interest backing, no agent, no manager, nobody but yourself to sell yourself, gigs are hard to come by. And music doesn’t develop unless it’s played, and often, so the isolated shows that happened for that album, for the subsequent Hieronymus Firebrain albums, for the Jack & Jill albums, for any and all of my solo albums from 1988 to the present day, have always been barely getting it together enough to even play the songs correctly to begin with, much less to develop and expand them! Look at the extant recorded shows I’ve done that are on Archive.org, there’s no touring. It’s always isolated shows, no steady band. As much as I tried to work with the same guys, these guys were often only doing it to be nice to me. (Thank you, though. I do appreciate it, that it happened at all.) It’s my show for this year! Come on, it’ll be fun! I could barely pay anybody, if at all. Which never goes far, of course. Nobody likes to play for free…
…or, well, I do I guess. I mean, most of the work I do I don’t get paid for, studio or touring. Never did. If you look at my discography probably 80% or more of that is work that nobody paid me for. Even now, in this past year where all I’ve had is recording tracks at home for other people. Sometimes somebody has $100 for a track, but more often nobody has money. You’d be shocked to know what little money I’ve made. And what little royalties have ever come in, especially now. And of course no record company has ever paid me to record (again, no management, no agents, no nothing on my behalf.) But I did it anyway. Or I mixed other people’s music. For that $100. Because that’s what I do.
My dream of course was that the music from an album like “Honey” or “All Attractions” should be played over days, months, years, to develop into Dark Star or something (Dark Star as a song started as a 3 minute single!) But you know, you get one show at the Camp-Out and one at a local bar, and pay each guy $100 from the $100 you get for the gig and… we barely knew the songs. I eventually gave up on that and started just doing improv sets at the events. The last set of shows that I did where I played actual songs (August 2019, West Coast USA) were mostly by myself (and a couple with Victor, and a couple with Kelly Atkins, thank fucking Glob!)
I don’t even like playing solo. I like playing with other musicians. I don’t like to be the guy that has to hold the song together entirely, and having that stress of essentially forcing a band to play my songs for ONE GIG meant that the pressure was on me to play everything exactly right so that the other folks could have less stress of having to be on top of it, because, hey, they were my songs after all. And they aren’t especially easy, I guess. I had to hold it together to make it seem like I was together enough to be a guy to back up. But really, I wanted to float, to have the song play with or without me so that I could be free to let it grow, to expand it. But I had to be the center of it, the guy to hold it together. Not my thing. I do relate to Jerry on this front.
I gave up on that with bands, so any “songs” that were played were only ever played at solo shows, and when there were other musicians to play with, we just improvised at any show that I managed to get in the past number of years. I tried to do a couple live streams in the first few months of the pandemic as well, playing songs and allowing as much growth in them as I could without the song entirely falling apart or fading into single notes. I gave up on that too, it just wasn’t real to me. It felt like I was practicing in my living room (I was) and that experience was not communicating with any people who might be listening. I relearned all of that first solo release “Storytelling” (a particularly difficult one), and managed in a few streamcast tries to get through the entire thing. I succeeded! Yay. What the fuck was that all about?
I tried improvised music streamcasts too, but it was similarly weird. I really want an exchange of energy, I guess. And I’m not much of a solo improviser, I like the interaction: action, reaction, creating the music so that we all hear how it’s going forward together. Picking up on those subtle or even subliminal audio cues to move into new territory. That’s probably why I started doing more computer programming in Supercollider or Max/MSP, so I could have something play sound back at me to react to. That’s beyond me now, the programming. I can barely figure out how to make a blog post here, now that WordPress has updated to use this weird-ass Gutenberg format. Fuck it.
I was studying music composition at Mills College from 2001-03, and among other notable professors there was that guy, Mr Fred Frith. In a composition practicum with him I asked him a lot about solo improvisation, as he successfully does that quite often. And he does it really well! He was like: play. So I did, but it was all “active” and not reactive. I guess I have a hard time reacting to my own impetus? Or I get so caught up in the idea of creating an impetus that it never pauses to assess itself. Dunno. Still learning how to play music.
Anyway, there’s no place for all of this in the world these days. There’s no band to help me with that dream scenario. “My dreams have withered and died” as Richard (or rather Linda) sang. I don’t even want to perform, I just want to play music, with other people, for other people. What you have seen if you saw me “perform”, say, with CVB, is the excitement of playing music. If I’m moving or jumping around, it’s not a performance, it’s the music moving through me. I’m not into the bullshit of mask wearing and pretending to be something, never have been—which is of course, an issue with “songs”, in that my songs are mostly “me” and only somewhat abstracted as character writing or acting. But character writing is what makes most successful songs popular. There’s this weird shift that seems to happen as musicians/songwriters age: they start out by writing “themselves”, what they know, who they are, but they seem to run out of it or something and start writing “characters.” Especially people who become successful. Back 20 or so years ago when I was in Sparklehorse, our peer group was made up of many extremely famous and successful musicians and I actually got to interact with them sometimes… I mean, if Mark was taken, of course; it wasn’t like Thom Yorke sought me out to talk to as his first choice. Anyway, I got into a conversation with Polly Harvey about this, and I ended up thinking about it a lot, how she was approaching 30 and had essentially stopped writing “herself” (as I took her earlier albums to be) and started writing vignettes of “characters”. David Lowery said once that he does that because “nobody can fill nine albums with their own experience”.
I call bullshit on that. One experience of love can forever inspire! One life contains multitudes! Or could, I guess, if you are willing to examine or re-examine. Or grow. To be frank, though, I pretty much stopped listening to PJ Harvey by the 2000s, because I didn’t hear her anymore and it was her that I liked.
Obviously none of that is Hard-And-Fast true. I mean, I did love Harvey’s later “Let England Shake” and the big concert I saw of that music was amazing. And David has recently been writing “autobiographical” songs for his solo albums (although his stories aren’t exactly true, of course…) And people like Richard Thompson who are essentially unknowable to begin with continue to write songs that are excellent and about who knows whom? But with regard to my own writing, it’s mostly directly from my heart to you, to quote Mr Zappa. Which is maybe what puts it in a niche (a very narrow niche) of popularity. I could probably count on my digits the number of people whom I believe actually enjoy these songs. Maybe it’s a genre problem, that is to say, unless you’re squarely within a marketable genre definition, nobody knows how to sell, or even buy, your music. Even with Camper Van Beethoven back in 1988 when we signed to Virgin, they said: just do what you do and we’ll sell it. But they gave up on that within a year and wanted a hit, so they made the band (sans moi by then) go back and record a cover song.
(More likely, it’s the sound of my voice. I do find that people mostly listen to singers who sound like other known singers, and I don’t, really. That’s how you know it’s viable, though, right? It sounds like music, music that I’ve heard before and was told that it was music!)
Well, the end result is…what? I did what I could. I have nothing to show for it, really. (Daddy, what is that shiny round piece of plastic? Huh? How is that music?) Like many artists over the centuries, I salute thee, I join thee in obscurity.
I haven’t written any lyrics for a year. I tried forcing myself to write song ideas earlier this calendar year and got a bunch of, say, demo chord progressions recorded. Nothing stuck…I think it’s the lack of input and idea sharing with others. Or I’m just done. But whatever. That’s neither here nor there and as Phil Ochs sang, “it doesn’t really interest anybody outside of a small circle of friends.”
So maybe it’s time to sell the guitars, see how long I can live off that. All that writing and composing I did over the past 35 years stopped recouping anything royalty-wise once Sporkify came along. I argued the royalty rates even during the 3 years I worked at Pandora (2009-2012—where I made $20/hour, the most money I had ever made in my life! Then I got fired and lost everything anyway… So it goes.)
I lost. We lose. Music loses, I’d like to believe. I’m still beating my head against that wall by trying to get our (that is to say my and Victor’s, our publishing company called Bumps of Goose Music) song catalog listed with the MLC, the Music Licensing Committee, a new entity responsible for collecting and paying digital mechanical royalties from the streaming services, but even doing this is arcanely difficult for those parts of pennies. There are now several new companies devoted entirely to the process of qualifying data for ingestion into the MLC! That’s the biz. The fact that the writers themselves are responsible (or must pay one of these partner companies) for data movement between conglomerates that don’t give a shit about anybody who isn’t in the upper 5% income bracket, well it’s insane. And time consuming. And probably on purpose. I mean, you’d think that BMI, for example, would be able to provide a spreadsheet of all the songs a writer has registered with them for radio and TV broadcast collection, with all their IPI and ISRC and ISWC etc etc numbers attached and get it directly to the MLC, but no. There is no interaction. It’s my last battle to get this done. Then I give. Uncle!
I have no retirement fund, obviously. I guess I actually believed that there would be a “long tail” or indeed a tail at all. I do live in a welfare state now, yes, but I’ve never worked here: all my income during the last decade has been from touring in the US, hence I have been paying taxes in the US. So when I get that yearly Swedish Orange Envelope that shows your accrued pension? Zero.
Maybe I can find some other hippies or a circus to bum around with for the rest of my life. I mean, once my daughter is 18 and moves out. If she has somewhere move out to. If there’s a world to bum around in. If I’m still alive by then. Till then, aloha.
footnotes, in the only way I could figure out how to do them in the new obligatory WordPress input format, which sucks ass. Blog form in general is antithetical to writing, in so many ways—nobody reads a book back to front, and yet with this format, time is upside down, this post is the end of the story and yet it appears at the top. Fuck the internet and all it has spawned.
- Now $4000-6000.
- Baby Boomers are of course technically those born in the post-WWII Baby Boom, 1946-1964. I was born in the fall of 1963, but I have never, ever, felt myself to be that part of cultural America.
- Secular Lutheranism? Protestantism with its work “ethic”? They are extremely Puritan (e.g. pot is an ILLEGAL NARCOTIC! HELP! You will be a drug addict! But alcohol, tobacco, hey, no prob. Cuz they’re LEGAL.) The whole concept of behavior is about “Lagom” or just enough and no more. You don’t stand out, you don’t have or do more than anybody else, stay unobtrusive and everything is “lagom”. Nobody gets to experience joy! That would be too much. I mean, unless they are drunk, and then suddenly it’s like they’re tripping. Fucking weird (Seriously, drunk Swedes are intense.) People say Swedes are stuck up and snobby, Swedes counter to say, no it’s just that we are shy and it appears that way! But the reality is that, indeed, they are incredibly stuck up and snobby: they believe inside that they are always right and they have the best understanding and view of the world, but god forbid that anybody would know that you felt that way! So they wear a continuous mask of “lagom”. What a bullshit culture. So incredibly hypocritical—look at the lip service given to Greta Thunberg: that poor girl was shocked to learn of the realities of the world and the destruction of the planet, while her classmates heard the same lecture and went right back to their phones and cared not a whit. She (has Aspergers, so, like me, unable to process the hypocrisy of this social stance) was like, we need to fucking do something! Nobody cared at all. Until her school strike was picked up by global media, because in other cultures, there are people who actually do feel and care. So she became famous and then, only then, Sweden was like, OH YEAH, Greta, she’s one of us. But they didn’t change anything about Swedish behavior. People still drive their fucking cars around the city (why? Great public transport!), still count on the arms factories to build new offshoots in the Middle East to provide tax money to the Swedish state, and then, then, when they’ve made arms and vehicles and sold steel for a couple hundred years, they complain about the immigrants forced to move from the destabilized areas. I know, the US is worse, but the US capitalists and extraction merchants are blatant about it (like the US racists, they’re pretty much in your face. We get to argue to their faces.) Here, nobody can even understand their own part in causing human migration patterns even within a relatively short period of historical time. “What? We’ve been good, though…?”
- Indeed, the several times I saw the Grateful Dead in the 1980s, they sucked ass. Sorry 80s/90s Dead lovers. Post-heroin any band is usually not good and my opinion hasn’t changed with re-listening. That said, the Dead weren’t cool in the 1980s in my world mostly because my world was College Rock/Alternative Rock and that was essentially a continuation of Punk, which meant that pretty much anything big and popular and especially from the 1970s Arena Rock world wasn’t cool. I still liked Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd, but I had to hide the Yes and Jethro Tull or be prepared to take crap for it. Whatever. Some things stick and some don’t, I only recently realized that I don’t think I like LZ much anymore, but writing this paragraph, I decided to put on Yes’ “Going for the One” and I still know all the words. In high school (1978-81) my “punk rock” band Bürnt Toäst still did covers of LZ and Hendrix in the mix, and I also played bass in a band with older dudes (so I could get into bars) who taught me Dead songs when the singer took a (coke) break, so I knew a bunch of Dead songs—as a bassist. I didn’t really listen to them then. Now, on the other hand, I am very into early Grateful Dead, pre-1970. It’s shockingly good. I’m even amazed at the development of their improvisation from there through the early 1970s, what they did and the fact that the audience was with them the whole time! What I’m not much into, however, is the Americana era stuff, and I know that American Beauty and whatnot were their breakthroughs, and everybody loves all those songs. They’re OK, I guess. Not my first choice to hear, and mostly if it comes up in shuffle I’ll skip it. The acid primal stuff though, it’s incredible. I started last summer on a forum thread listening to every Dark Star to analyze the development, we’re at ~#50, early April 1969.
- And you know I love the studio and especially mixing the recorded music: it’s like sculpting sound. You can listen to any of my albums, or the ones I’ve mixed for Øresund Space Collective, and you can understand that I’ve been working in studios for 40 years. I do love it. Playing music, especially live, is like painting. Mixing it is sculpting with the paintings. Admittedly, though, recording in a “Recording Studio” can be weird, like you bring your blank canvas and your paints, but you have to rent the brushes and paint it all as fast as you can, though then at least you can get a look at it/listen to it later and figure out how to structure it in 3-dimensional space. And time.