The Beatdown

Welcome to the school of hard rocks.

 Whitney Houston is a mess these days, a crack-addled, emaciated shell of her former self. The last time I caught her on TV, she was wading in the River Jordan, about to be baptized alongside her trouble-magnet other half, Bobby Brown. Seemed a little ill-conceived to me, but, whatever. Brown and Houston are the R&B equivalent of Kurt and Courtney. Brown is always in the tabloids for doing stupid shit, and Houston would be a shoo-in for a walk-on role in a remake of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. Still, as unhinged as she's been for the past few years, she was on point about one thing: The children are our future. Teach them well, and let them lead the way.

And while I'm no Dewey Finn, last Thursday I found myself molding young minds in my own mutant version of School of Rock. But before you start thinking that I'm getting benevolent, giving back to the community and all that, you should know this wasn't something I'd instigated. I love kids as much as the next guy, but truth be told, I was a little nonplussed when Aaron Betcher from Oer the Ramparts -- the musician who's also the associate program director for the YMCA of Boulder Valley and the man behind Garage Rock 101, a rock-and-roll summer camp for kids -- asked me to mingle with a crew of crumbsnatchers for an hour. What wisdom could I possibly impart to these kids? I wondered. And more to the point, I then thought, And besides that, I'm a busy dude. I've got "work" to do.

My knee-jerk reaction exemplified exactly what's wrong with the music industry today. From the media that covers it to the artists who make it, music's become a j-o-b. It's not fun -- and that's a problem. To paraphrase Bob Dylan, music's really all about three chords and the truth. That's what I'd tell the kids, I decided -- once I'd gotten my head out of my ass.

I scrambled to put together a syllabus. I dredged up every conversation I've had over the past year with every struggling musician and recalled my own formative days. What I planned to say was probably the antithesis of everything they'd heard before, I realized. An old goat friend of mine insists that in order to succeed, you have to embrace a certain ideology. And as much as I argue with him, he continues to insist that you need to have the right packaging, the right image and, most important, the right production. I don't subscribe to that theory. To me, it's all about the music, nothing more, nothing less -- good, well-written, thought-provoking music. But sadly, my friend's not alone in his thinking: A few weeks ago I read a message-board post that suggested bands should analyze the pop charts, figure out who's popular and then emulate that sound. Horseshit, I say. Historically, the artists who've truly scratched the grey matter, who've really made a difference with their indelible art -- acts like R.E.M., Fugazi, Radiohead and U2, whose music will be around long after we're all gone -- didn't worry about making it on the radio or getting written up in the paper. They concentrated on writing good songs, on moving people with sounds and vibrations.

And that's precisely what I told Betcher and his kids when they came by my office. But as much as I'm an idealist, I'm a pragmatist, too. So I also offered them a little insight into the media game, explaining what to do and not to do when pursuing coverage, and demonstrating the makings of a good press kit versus a bad press kit. "Keep it simple," I said. "Nobody wants to read a novel about your band. Limit it to one sheet, and forget about the expensive glossy folders. Anything more than a single piece of paper and you're just killing trees."

Then, after nearly twenty minutes of yakking, I asked if anybody had questions. A few did. One of the kids, barefoot and clad in a tie-dyed Dead T-shirt, with a fro that would've given Cedric and Omar from the Mars Volta a run for their money, raised his hand. He wanted to know if Westword gravitated toward covering one style of music over another. I explained how we listen to everything and base our section on the music's merit. But the kid kept after me. And finally, I realized what he was reaching for.

"What kind of music do you listen to?" I asked.

"Mostly jam bands," he replied. "You know, the Dead and stuff like that."

Oh, great, I thought. This kid read my column on the Dead. I was busted. He knew that I'd sooner be strapped to a chair and forced to listen to the Wiggles than endure yet another batch of marginally talented noodlers.

"Actually, you're living in the best place for that kind of music," I said, trying to escape his trap. "But there's also a lot of acts out there, so to stand out, you have to be really good."

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