Beatle bones and smokin' Stones

The dry sands fall

The winged eel slither on the heels

of today's children

Strawberry feels forever

—Captain Beefheart, "Beatle

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History Lesson

Local documentarian tries to chronicle rock's alternate reality.

Beatle bones and smokin' Stones

The dry sands fall

The winged eel slither on the heels

of today's children

Strawberry feels forever

—Captain Beefheart, "Beatle Bones and Smokin' Stones"

Remember the 10-part Rock&Roll series PBS did a few years back? Curt Weiss, unit manager at local PBS affiliate KCTS, certainly does. But he remembers it less for what appeared onscreen than for what was missing.

Where, for instance, was Captain Beefheart—an artist who reveled in his status outside the superstar sphere of the Beatles and the Stones? And where were the rest of the eccentrics and iconoclasts who, while marginal commercial forces, exerted a profound influence on the course of rock 'n' roll? Sure, an entire episode was devoted to punk, but its practitioners were painted as simple aesthetic reactionaries rather than genuine artists following a more elusive muse. According to this historical model, Rick Wakeman—adorned in flowing robes and engulfed by a fortress of keyboards—was nearly as pivotal in shaping the movement as Iggy, Johnny, Joey, or Patti.

The gaps in the story were wide enough to get Weiss thinking about ways of presenting an alternate history of rock.

"The great thing about rock 'n' roll," says Weiss, "is that it's always gone outside the margins." And so he began to conceive a compendium that would chronicle these outsiders. The idea seemed promising at first. Certainly, there have been abundant signs recently that the subject would find an audience: Witness the success of Irwin Chisud's Songs in the Key of Z; Michael Azeraad's Our Band Could Be Your Life; Susan Orlean's New Yorker profile of the Shaggs; the use of Daniel Johnston's "Speeding Motorcycle" in a Target commercial; the Langley Schools Project phenomena; etc.

Still, getting the green light for a documentary about performers who relatively few people—including those controlling the purse strings—know wasn't a simple proposition. Weiss conceded that a five-part series probably wasn't going to happen; a one-shot deal would have to suffice. Fortunately, as he got more serious about the project, a more complete and compelling narrative emerged.

Instead of just concentrating on the musicians themselves, Weiss decided to examine the roadblocks—distribution chief among them—that artists toiling outside the mainstream face and the ways they get around them. As someone who spent most of the '80s in bands on the fringe (his stint with Beat Rodeo being the most high profile), Weiss had firsthand experience with the struggles and sacrifices of the underground musician. The inevitable taking of matters into one's own hands (you know, "Do It Yourself") became the story he wanted to help tell.

Despite Weiss' conviction that "all the exciting things in pop music have came from people in their bedroom, or in some stinky club, or in some garage"—not in a boardroom—the machinations of the music industry became a critical component of his D.I.Y. story. Like any popular art, rock 'n' roll is subject to the vagaries of a system that values commerce over art. "There is this conflict between art and commerce which can never be completely settled," says Weiss. "I'm interested in that. [But] the story is about more than just music."

Ultimately, Weiss' story is about a mindset that resists innovation until it's proven marketable, and then proceeds to overexpose and oversaturate it before moving on to the next big thing. This cycle of record company co-opt has swallowed countless talents, but the industry is tougher still on those who can't or won't be neatly categorized and packaged. (Captain Beefheart has been in exile in the desert for nearly 20 years now.)

Plenty of personalities—the list is diverse enough to include Ian MacKaye, Prince, and Lucinda Williams—have fought and succeeded against the system through sheer force of will, but in many respects, new technologies (and creative use of old ones) have consistently been rock's saving grace. Inexpensive recording equipment is what allowed pioneering indie labels like Chess and Sun—who stumbled upon a young Elvis making a cheapo vanity record for his Mama—to become instant cultural forces. In the meantime, songs loved the world over have been written in suburban garages, punk anthems composed on stolen equipment, and we all know what can be done with two turntables and a microphone.

The Internet, MP3s, and digital editing software are just the latest tools in the progression, and some argue that they're powerful enough to afford artists the freedom to completely bypass the grip of record companies and still prosper. Since the early '90s significant strides have been made, but more recent events—Napster's bankruptcy, the assault on Internet radio, continued media consolidation—prove the cycle hasn't really been broken.

Weiss' Do It Yourself project is still in pre-production—a grant from the Allen Foundation for Music has been procured but not yet matched, leaving the money untouched, and more funds beyond that are needed (soliciting cash from corporations for a documentary about their corrupting influence is a somewhat difficult proposition). A slumping ad industry and PBS' graying demographics may also conspire to stall the project, but like the artists he loves, Weiss is committed to somehow finding a way to bring the project to fruition.

"The airwaves exist for us," he emphasizes, "not for some powerful corporations and rich people. Unfortunately, it's the people who have the money who make all the rules. You have to do things outside the boundaries if you want to do anything good."

pfontana@seattleweekly.com

 
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