Monday, July 9, 2007

Amanda Palmer and Henry Rollins @ Hammer Museum, July 7

On Saturday night I had the chance to see a Hammer Conversation between Amanda Palmer and Henry Rollins. For the sake of background info, the Hammer Conversations series is an ongoing program at the Hammer Museum that pairs famous people together for a spontaneous discussion (which happens to take place in front of microphones and a courtyard audience). As the museum puts it, the program pairs “creative thinkers from a range of disciplines for engaging, provocative discussions on culture, science, and the arts.” It's a really odd concept altogether because it's a great way for casual art fans to hear otherwise unattainable people talk in front of them, but the museum courtyard location sets things up to appear much more highbrow than what seems accurate – who'd have thought twenty-five years ago that a member of Black Flag would be asked to speak at a museum in a college town? Palmer and Rollins clarified that they had nothing planned and didn't know what the hell to talk about.

Bluntly put, the audience majority was there for Henry Rollins, who played excitable child to dry and restrained mother Amanda Palmer (one half of the Dresden Dolls). Rollins is massively neurotic, and if he's not, he tries to make himself appear that way. Supposedly he doesn't like physical affection but isn't afraid of germs; he hasn't dated in years and is a workaholic who can't fathom the idea of relaxing; he doesn't like to open up to people because he doesn't want others to gain information on him and leave him potentially vulnerable. The opposite of Palmer, and interestingly enough, Rollins claimed during the Q and A session at discussion's end that he doesn't regret having shared personal experiences in his earlier books because readers only tend to find value in what is personal and thoughtfully shared. Howard Hughes likes the anonymity of a crowd but fears individual personal time, it seems.

Things got a bit more worthwhile when the two debated about MTV, blogging and criticism, though, because they'd grown up in slightly different times and knew different experiences in terms of how music is presented. The 46-year old Rollins noted a hatred of what the music video has done to music, leaving no room to romanticize about the time when no one knew what their favorite musicians looked like.* He admitted to making videos in the past (anyone remember the one for “Liar” by the Rollins Band showing up on Beavis and Butthead?), but after mentioning one he'd shot that had been dumped by MTV, got across the point that it's essentially a waste to spend real money on videos because of whatever standards the station might have, or at this point, the lack of videos that are shown. The significantly younger Palmer, however, explained that she'd grown up with MTV, associating images with music automatically and in turn felt the need to incorporate visual performance into her live acts. That even without videos, watching MTV as a kid eventually led to a need for a visual association with music. However, she also mentioned that she considered herself a performer first, using music only as a medium, and that videos were only worthwhile when we had the creative ones like those put out by Peter Gabriel. She also said she hated the word “guesstimate,” but that's a sidenote.

In terms of criticism, though – Palmer spoke of an incident in which a critic once wrote a negative review of a Dresden Dolls album, after which the band went out of its way to get him to a show of theirs so that he could change his mind and write a positive review of their live act. Considering that there are musicians like Rollins, who expressed the “those who can't do critique” mentality, I was actually quite surprised that musicians care so strongly about the new press that's granted them. Surely it's more of an issue with new musicians because they're relying on the written word to get a name out, and some people actually do bother to choose their entertainment based on critics' scores (in which case readers need to trust their own tastes more frequently). But given the reason that people like Palmer and Rollins claimed to hate blogs so strongly – that anyone can be called a critic if they claim a space and toss out whatever snark they want instead of spending time on observation – I'm almost a bit sad that this sort of writing matters so strongly to them, or to anyone, for that matter. Just the same, if it seems hypocritical to have this viewpoint while expressing it on a blog, I'd like to note that my love-hate relationship with these things stems from the fact that they're best put to use for the sole purpose of getting word out and promoting music, not offering impressions of less literate Pitchfork writers and granting zero out of ten points to an album for the sake of making a statement. There's also the issue of whether artists' freedom to create should take priority over critics'/bloggers' right to an opinion, but that's a never-ending “the freedom to wave your arm ends where my nose begins” debate that will exist as long as computers.

Anyhow! All tangents and added thoughts aside, it was a lovely public chat, and it turns out that Henry Rollins is quite attractive for a grey-haired bloke nearly my dad's age (he'd undoubtedly hate that statement, as he'd also mentioned a frustration with music criticism that made a point of mentioning age comparisons.). All tangents and thoughts aside from this point on, then: if you live in Los Angeles, I'd highly advise seeing the next Hammer Conversation, which will be between artist Ann Hamilton and curator/writer Joan Simon on September 8 (7pm, free, 10899 Wilshire Blvd. at Westwood).

*On a side note, this same idea was either in Frank Kogan's Real Punks Don't Wear Black or the Rollins-supported The Psychic Soviet by Ian Svenonius. Can't remember which at the moment, but the basic concept is that MTV ruined music by revealing a musician to be either attractive or unattractive, leading to an eventual need for attractive musicians who can be seen in videos, therefore resulting in people who have a look first, a sound second. This is why pop stars can't sing but look identical to one another, and why “Video Killed the Radio Star” doesn't seem as cheesy a song after all.


David Franklin said...

Thanks for the excellent and thoughtful summary -- if you know of any video or audio recording that's been posted online, won't you post a link to it? - thanks

China said...

Thanks for the appreciation! I looked all over for video but couldn't find any, nor could I find photos. I saw a lot of cell phone cameras that day, so maybe there'll be at least a photo here or there at some point...

Anonymous said...

Must have been great to be there!

Audio of this very interesting conversation can be found here.

I've also embedded it into the 2007 Interviews page of