My two favorites are on my mind today. It’s Bruce Springsteen’s 67th birthday, which he is marking with the release of his autobiography, Born to Run. Meanwhile, Sleater-Kinney have announced a New Year’s Eve show in San Francisco.
In 2002, we saw Sleater-Kinney for the 8th time. It was the second time we’d seen them at the Fillmore. It was, in fact, exactly 14 years ago today. Which, as you might have figured out, meant I saw Sleater-Kinney on Bruce Springsteen’s birthday. And they did me a favor: they played “Promised Land”.
Someone named Han Q Duong had a website devoted to S-K back then, and he wrote after I commented on this show, “I'm glad they played Promised Land for him, as his entire blog is pretty much entirely Sleater-Kinney and Bruce Springsteen, with a little bit of the San Francisco Giants mixed in.”
When I got home that night, I had to post something to the blog before I went to sleep:
Theirs is a sped-up version, with highlight moments for all of them. And, as Michael Tedder said, “Weiss is playing the harmonica while drumming on this, because there’s nothing Janet Fucking Weiss can’t do.”
The date on this is September 25 ... close enough:
Jovana Babovic is an historian with a clear love for Sleater-Kinney. She goes far afield from a track-by-track approach ... in fact, she never comes close. Instead, she places riot grrrl within the history of rock and roll music, shows how the women who created the music in that genre were battling against long-held prejudices against women in rock, and then explains how Sleater-Kinney grew out of that milieu, tying them specifically to the Pacific Northwest. She shows how the band drew power from that community, but also how they couldn’t be confined to those roots.
She talks about the making of Dig Me Out, which took eight days during a miserable snow storm, pointing out that they were able to create the album under those conditions because they were prepared (this reminded me of Rombes noting that The Ramones were able to make their first album so cheaply because they rehearsed before they ever hit the studio). Once S-K hit the road, touring behind the album, they confronted the condescending sexism of the sound guys, who never understood that these women knew what they were doing. And a key moment in the book comes when S-K are opening for the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, and a fan of the headliners is giving Corin some shit. “We just want to say that we’re not here to fuck the band; we are the band.”
One question I have had through the close to 20 years I’ve been a fan of Sleater-Kinney is why they have so many middle-aged guys among their admirers. I once wrote, “Sleater-Kinney are a 21st-century version of classic rock. Their most obvious roots are in punk via riot grrrl, but the less obvious roots are reflected in the bands they cover in concert: Creedence, Bruce Springsteen, Jefferson Airplane, Richard Thompson, even Danzig. The Woods sounded like Blue Cheer meets Led Zep; drummer Janet Weiss plays like a cross of Keith Moon and John Bonham.” Their music reflects the tastes of a lot of middle-aged men. What Babovic reminds us, again and again, is that the music is made by women, and that while these women want to reach out to the largest audience possible, they will never do this at the expense of their demand that what women do in rock music is not just relevant, but crucial. (Babovic quotes Weiss about those middle-aged men: "We always joked that Corin had these intellectual 50-year-old men who wore glasses and looked like college professors. ... She really had a type -- these guys always stood on her side and they were Corin's special, intellectual fans.")
I don’t know which of their eight albums is my favorite ... probably Dig Me Out or The Woods. But I remember in the earlier days, when a question often arose, are you a Call the Doctor person or a Dig Me Out person? It was never close, in my book ... most obviously, Dig Me Out is when Janet Weiss joined the band, and “my” Sleater-Kinney always includes Janet. I can say that I very much enjoyed revisiting the album through the lens of Jovana Babovic.
Here are my favorite tracks from Dig Me Out:
“Dig Me Out”. The video, from 2015, has everything that is great about a Sleater-Kinney concert. Corin’s unstoppable vocals, Carrie dripping charisma and playing her idiosyncratic guitar lines, Janet Fucking Weiss of the Great Drummer Hair showing why she is the best.
“One More Hour”. Perhaps the most heartbreaking song in their catalog, and in the running for best breakup song ever. Oh, you’ve got the darkest eyes.
“Turn It On”. The video is from CBGB’s in 1997, a show written about in the book.”On top of that, there were rats everywhere.... ‘It was just gross and just-don’t-touch-anything,’ Tucker said. ‘But it was also a very rock ‘n’ roll club.’”
“Words and Guitar”. As much a statement of purpose as “I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone” from the previous album. The email list for S-K fans I was on was named after this song. “Take take the noise in my head, C'mon and turn turn it up, I wanna turn turn you on, I play it all i play it all, I play it words + guitar!”
“Little Babies”. I’ve never been quite sure what this song is about, but it is their greatest sing-along. “Dum dum dee dee dee dum dum dee dum do, All the little babies go oh oh i want to.” I could add that Janet is great on this one, but I could say that for every song they recorded once she joined the band.
“Not What You Want”. Like the Stones’ “Rip This Joint”, this is S-K blasting through a song at breakneck speed ... as Corin sings, “80, 95, maybe more!” As such, my favorite S-K blitz song, at least until a couple of years later, when Janet had her greatest moment in “Youth Decay”. (That song has my favorite Sleater-Kinney lyric ever, one that could be my motto: “I’m all about a forked tongue and a dirty house.”) The video is from Portland, 2006 ... after that show, they took off for a decade.
Bonus: here’s the last time we saw them do “Youth Decay” live, San Francisco, 2015:
A friend of mine turns 51 today. She’s not a big fan of public exposure on the internet, so she’ll remain nameless here, but pretty much everyone reading this knows who I mean.
We met more than 20 years ago ... we can never remember exactly when it was, but at this point, we can at least say “more than 20 years” and know we’re being accurate. We were in grad school together, we taught together, for one year we were about the only ones of our buddies still teaching at Cal. My wife and I took her to see our hometown where we grew up, met, and got married. Later, we stayed with her parents and she showed us some of the things she remembered from her childhood.
I wasn’t looking for a best friend ... I’m one of the lucky people whose wife of 43+ years is also my best friend ... but there has never been anything second-rate about my friendship with the birthday girl, she has always been there for me, as I hope I have been for her.
Due partly to unforeseen circumstances, she’s moving out of the Bay Area temporarily, the first time she has done this since we met. She is, in fact, driving to her new home today, on her birthday, with her beloved partner of many years. They take care of each other ... it’s a great thing to see ... this new experience will likely be very good for them both.
I have to admit, though ... I already miss her. Her birthday especially reminds me of the past ... between she and her partner and me and my wife, we always made sure to spend a night together on our birthdays, four times a year.
If there is a cultural artifact that bonds us, it might be Sleater-Kinney. Together we’ve seen them fourteen times since 1998. I find myself listening to S-K, thinking of her, trying to pick just the right song to include here. But most of their goodbye songs (and they have some great ones) feel final, and are filled with the problems that led to goodbye. My friend and I have never had those kind of problems, so as much as I’d like to post something like “Good Things” (“Why do good things never wanna stay, Some things you lose some things you give away”) or “One More Hour” (“I know it’s so hard for you to say goodbye”), the totality of those songs is much darker than how I feel. Yesterday, I sent her an email with a link to the following video, which I hope was the right choice as they travel to the desert. “There are no cities, no cities to love. It's not the city, it's the weather we love! ... It's not the weather, it's the people we love!”
And one more: the last song we saw Sleater-Kinney perform (so far), May 3, 2015:
My whole life looks like a picture of a sunny day.
It’s an hour until Xmas begins, so I’ll be quick. Here are ten songs that I listened to a lot in 2015, according to Last.fm, which tracks my Spotify listens. They’re in reverse order of times played, and I’ve skipped some (only one track per artist is the main disruptive “rule”). So the song at the bottom of the list is the one I played the most during the year. As I said when I posted something similar on Facebook about my listening habits, if it wasn’t for Sleater-Kinney, I’d be 1000 years old. Happy holidays to everyone.
1968: The Beatles, “Happiness Is a Warm Gun”. (Ironically, as The Beatles enter the streaming era, it’s hard to find their music on YouTube. So the video link is to a version by a Japanese cover band.)
1967: The Chambers Brothers, “Time Has Come Today”. (The video is from a 1986 show at The Fillmore.)
Nine years ago today, I posted a roundup of TV in 2006. Nine years is a long time in TV World ... almost everything I talked about is long gone:
Battlestar Galactica, The L Word, The Shield, 24, Desperate Housewives, The Sopranos, Big Love, Huff, Penn and Teller: Bullshit!, Bonds on Bonds, The Unit, My Name Is Earl, The Office (U.S.), House, Lost, Rescue Me, Deadwood, Entourage, Life on Mars (U.K.), Weeds, Dexter, The Wire, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, Ugly Betty, The Nine.
Some of my favorite shows are on this list: Battlestar Galactica, The Shield, The Sopranos, Deadwood, The Wire. Some shows I barely remember are here: Bonds on Bonds, The Nine. There are even three shows where essays I wrote ended up in anthologies (BSG, 24, and House). They are all gone now. You can find a bit of the spirit of Lost in The Leftovers. Ugly Betty and Jane the Virgin have similarities.
And then there are a few items that are still around in some form:
Comedy Central (although Jon Stewart is gone, and Stephen Colbert has moved to CBS).
Tim Goodman (went from the Chronicle to the Hollywood Reporter).
The World Cup (in 2006 it was the men, in 2015 it was the women).
Here is one of the highlights of TV 2006 for me ... it comes from a show I didn’t much like:
My wallpapers generally follow two patterns. On my desktop, I have a rotating random selection of photos from the hard drive. On my phone, I usually have the latest cute picture of my grandson.
But right now, both desktop and phone have the same photo, cropped in the case of the latter to fit the screen:
I love this picture because of the look on Carrie Brownstein’s face. There is such joy, as she throws out the first pitch at a Mariners’ game. She has brought joy to a lot of people, but I don’t think it’s always been easy for her ... we’ll find out when her memoir comes out later in the year. In the meantime, look at that face:
It has happened. It was necessary, and it happened. If those were the last two Sleater-Kinney concerts I attend, I can accept that. Nothing lasts forever, but there was something about The Hiatus that left a void, and now that void has been filled.
I don’t think I’ll ever get to the bottom of why I love this band so much. But there is no denying the reality of that love. And after nine years of listening to “One More Hour” and “Good Things” and fighting back tears, not always successfully, I’ve been able to reacquaint myself with their work, and whatever tears remain are tears of joy.
I’m comparing those two shows not just to the previous twelve times we’d seen them, but also to my faulty memories and the curse of nostalgia. So I can’t be certain my comparisons are accurate. But in 2015, Sleater-Kinney is tighter and more confident than ever. Corin has always had The Voice, and she’s never been shy about using it. But now, I felt a sweet pride from her ... when she sang “LAAAAAND Ho!” in “The Fox”, the look on her face said “I have this gift, and I know it, and you know it, and isn’t it grand?” While she still isn’t the most active person on stage (except for one song, which I’ll get to), she has lost all of that I’m-not-the-star feel. When I use the word “confident” about these shows, I’m talking mostly about Corin. Janet’s entire style of drumming feeds off of her confidence, so I wouldn’t say in her case that there has been a noticeable increase. Carrie, always the most charismatic one, seems much happier now. Perhaps that’s unfair ... over the years, we didn’t know how hard it was for her, but with hindsight, some of that is revealed. Yet I felt none of it in these shows ... in fact, it was a bit unsettling at times, that Carrie was having fun when the songs didn’t necessarily have a lot of fun in them. Jillian (who deserves special mention ... she and I have been to 14 S-K shows together now, it’s a wonderful thing) remembers the days when the band was looser on stage, when Carrie was goofy and Janet told jokes. Now, they plow through their songs, one after another, almost Ramonesian in the blast, with only an occasional “thank you, San Francisco”. On the second night, Carrie started talking about how they felt a special bond with San Francisco, and it was a lot like the speech she’d given the night before. But then she veered off, mentioned writing “Jumpers” here, and then going into a long, shaggy tale about recording No Cities to Love on the sly in San Francisco. At one point, she was spinning a joking legend out of the making of the album, and Janet tossed in the comedian’s friend, bah-dah-BOOM, and we all laughed and Carrie said everyone should have their own Janet Weiss. (Sigh.) It was a lovely moment, and really the only such moment over the course of two nights, and it was one of the reasons Jillian said she thought she liked the second night even more than the first. They are more confident now, have more fun now, but the goofiness doesn’t often pop up.
A few personal highlights. “Price Tag” is an excellent opener, driven by Janet ... OK, I’m biased, but her more demonstrative displays clearly fired up the crowd throughout the two shows. She even got extra love from the crowd when she played harmonica during “Modern Girl”. The first show truly exploded four songs in, with “What’s Mine Is Yours” ... the out-of-nowhere noise-guitar middle, the overall power behind the performance, let us know early on that this band was still the best. (On the second night, “Turn It On” preceded “What’s Mine Is Yours”, and it was the igniter.) While the old stuff like “Little Babies” and “Words and Guitar” and “Dig Me Out” predictably got the crowd going, the material from the new album was also very welcomed, with “No Cities to Love” a sing-along highlight. I was hoping to hear two songs in particular, and got one of each at the two shows. “Youth Decay” came on Night One ... it’s a favorite of mine for the ferocity of Janet’s drumming, and for the line, “I’m all about a forked tongue and a dirty house”. Late during the main set on Night Two came “Sympathy”, my favorite Corin showcase. Up to that point, I’d made it through almost two entire concerts without getting overly choked up ... I was just so happy that I was seeing them again. But “Sympathy” never fails to grab me, and Corin’s performance may have been the best I’ve witnessed, with an almost theatrical bent to her line readings, and when she held the final note about all the mommies whose hearts were breaking, for what seemed like forever, that was when I finally lost it.
The regular set ended both nights with “Entertain” and “Jumpers”, two songs I love that I also find ... not sure problematic is the word, but they don’t go down easy. “Entertain” is supposedly about lame bands, but I’ve always read it as Carrie standing down the audience, and the passion in her voice is disturbing. And “Jumpers”, which as far as I can tell is a real crowd-pleaser ... well, it’s one of my favorites, too, but it’s about jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge, and if there’s room for multiple interpretations of “Entertain”, there is nothing ambiguous about “Jumpers” ... the singer kills herself, and the final “four seconds was the longest wait” is very emotional.
Having featured the new album during the main set (it’s proof of the rightness of this hiatus-ending move, that the new album is so much a piece of what came before, and that their performances are as good as ever), the encores mostly looked back. Night One’s encores began with Corin making a pro-Planned Parenthood speech, after which she did something we had never seen over the past 17 years. Katie Larkin, the “fourth S-K member” on this tour, who spends the entire night off in a back corner, adding guitars and keyboards and percussion, comes forward to take Corin’s place on the stage and on guitar. Corin then proceeds to sing “Gimme Love” sans guitar, holding the mic “like a singer”. At one point, she ends up on the floor ... can’t say for sure what she’s doing down there, let’s just say that I’ve seen Carrie down there many times, but it’s a first in my experience for Corin. It’s as if she suddenly became Patti Smith or something.
On the second night, “Good Things” and “One More Hour” worked their way into the encore. “Good Things” is probably the first S-K song I really noticed, and “One More Hour” is simply one of the finest break-up songs of all time. Over the past nine years, both songs resonated with the context of the hiatus ... “why do good things never wanna stay” indeed. Now, they were just two songs I loved ... absent that context, I was able to bear hearing them again like I did back in the pre-hiatus days.
Both nights closed with “Modern Girl”. Carrie told us to take over singing the chorus, but she needn’t have bothered ... we were already singing. My whole life is like a picture of a sunny day.
After the second show, I told Jillian that where Carrie has been a rock star from the first moment we set eyes on her, what the band is now feels more like an entire group of rock stars. Oh, Carrie is still the one who attracts our attention the most, and that will likely never change. But the confidence I spoke of earlier has the feel of Rock Star ... not in a look-at-me egotist way, but in a we’re-good-and-we-thank-you-for-knowing way. Since the announcement of the return, I’ve often wondered what they think of all the audience love they are getting. They surely always knew they were special in the hearts of their fans. And while there’s been quite a media blitz compared to the past, Jillian pointed out that the crowd seems to be aging with them ... not as many youngsters as you’d hope. But how does it make them feel, experiencing this unavoidable mass love from their fans? For me, the point is made most clearly in the video for “No Cities to Love”, where an array of cooler-than-cool celebrities like Natasha Lyonne and Daryl from The Walking Dead sing along. The measure of their participation is that each of them in turn melts into each of us fans ... these “celebrities” are fans, too, and they are just so happy to be in a Sleater-Kinney video.
Setlist Junkie Stuff: Over the two nights, they played 30 different songs (7 changes from Night One to Night Two, denoted below in bold). More than half of the songs each night came from No Cities to Love or The Woods. Every album except the self-titled debut was represented at some point. Of interest to no one but me: between the two shows, they played nine songs we heard at our very first Sleater-Kinney concert back in 1998: “Dig Me Out”, “Turn It On”, “Joey Ramone”, “One More Hour”, “The End of You”, “Little Babies”, “Get Up”, “Words and Guitar”, and “Good Things”.
Turn It On
What’s Mine Is Yours
What’s Mine Is Yours
A New Wave
All Hands on the Bad One
Bury Our Friends
No Cities to Love
The End of You
No Cities to Love
Bury Our Friends
A New Wave
Words and Guitar
Words and Guitar
Dig Me Out
I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone
Dig Me Out
Let’s Call It Love
One More Hour
A handful of videos have already surfaced. The best are from concertkid. Here’s one, from Night One: