Review of Sonic Highways
by Mike W Lunsford
The Foo Fighters have been my favorite band since I was in middle school when I heard their debut album. Dave Grohl, the drummer from Nirvana can play other instruments? He can sing, too? He did this WHOLE THING ON HIS OWN?!?! Damn! I was impressed and instantly a fan. Grohl's new project was not derivative of Nirvana like many would expect yet still had the edge that made the grunge legends great.
I've seen the Foo Fighters countless times in concert, I own all of their albums and when it was announced they were doing a documentary series about the history of music in America, I thanked my lucky stars that I had HBO. I figured it would just be a fun trip through music and a chance to see my favorite band make their latest album. What I didn't expect was they way I would feel at the end of the series: inspired.
The premise was simple enough. The Foo Fighters would travel to 8 cities: Chicago, Washington D.C., Nashville, Austin, Los Angeles, New Orleans, Seattle and New York City. They would record a song at an influential venue in each of those cities and discuss the musical heritage of each one. If you're like me and you love music but you aren't a historian of the craft, it's a fascinating look at where our music comes from. We also see the big events in the history of those cities that influenced them and more importantly, their musicians. Granted, I am biased, but some songs are dynamite (Something From Nothing, Outside, I Am A River) and others are catchy pop/rock songs (In the Clear, Congregation, What Did I Do?/God As My Witness). I listened to the album before I watched the series, but really appreciated the songs more after watching the accompanying episodes. They added a frame of reference and meaning to the songs. Some of the episodes tell stories that are touching, hilarious, or inspiring while others are down right heartbreaking. But isn't that the essence of music, to elicit powerful emotion? Each episode showed how important music is in each of these cities and how our musical identity as Americans has been influenced by what came from them.
A pleasant feature of the series was learning about music and musicians that were unfamiliar to me. The Nashville episode is a perfect example. I had heard of the Zac Brown Band, but never really listened to any of their stuff. The episode discusses how Zac Brown bucked the system that was Nashville's music scene. He wrote and recorded the song "Chicken Fried" in 2005, before he had become a big name performer. Another country group asked if they could cover it on their new album. Zac agreed as long as they didn't release the song as a single, as he owned the rights. A few months later, Zac heard it on the radio and was furious. He immediately called his lawyer and explained his verbal contract. His lawyer warned him that this band was represented by one of the biggest producers in Nashville, therefore in all of country music, and that pursuing this could result in Zac being blackballed in the industry. Zac stood by his principles and they issued a cease and desist letter. The song was immediately pulled off the radio. Some time later, Zac and his band were playing a show when another producer came to his show and introduced himself. He specifically stated that he had to meet the man who told the biggest producer in Nashville to, let me paraphrase, eff himself. I've only heard a few of Zac's songs, but how can you NOT be a fan of someone like that?
Another interesting piece of music history from the Nashville episode was the story of Willie Nelson. I had no idea that he started his career in Nashville as a clean cut looking crooner. He was more famous for his song writing abilities than his playing. Dejected, he moved back to his home state of Texas. It was there that he became the braided-hair, bearded, country legend that we all know and love. It took a man leaving home, starting on the path of finding his dream and realizing that playing by the rules was going to be a journey in misery to then returned home and do things his own way to became an icon. How can you not be inspired by such stories? And this is just one episode!
The series does a great job of pulling back the curtain and showing you the space that artists record and how influential they can be. When the band went to Seattle, you are shown Robert Lang Studios. The studio is a beautiful underground facility built by Lang himself. When you see it, it has a deja vu quality; I've been here before, I've seen this dream-like place and heard amazing music coming from this cavernous studio.
In Los Angeles, the Foos travel to Rancho De Luna Studios in Joshua Tree, California a place many musicians have sited as having mystical qualities. Inner Ear Studios in Arlington, Virginia held a place close to front man Dave Grohl's heart as he is from Springfield, Virginia and the first band he was in, Scream, recorded at Inner Ear Studios. Notable D.C. Punk legends Bad Brains and Fugazi recorded here as well. The band also recorded at Studio 6A, famous for the PBS music series Austin City Limits where legends like Tom Waits, Stevie Ray Vaughn, and Willie Nelson played famous episodes of the television show. They played at Preservation Hall in New Orleans, and Southern Ground Studios in Nashville, Tennessee as well. The series began in Chicago where they recorded at Steve Albini's studio Electric Audio. Albini is a living embodiment of the underground music scene, especially punk music. Albini is a punk musician himself and has recorded many influential albums, including Nirvana's In Utero. He refuses to be called a producer, preferring the term "audio engineer." He doesn't take royalties from the records he's produced because he feels that too many producers try to influence the record themselves.
The final city, New York, was a bit different than the other episodes. It was the final episode of the season so it tied the series up, but we also saw the issues New Yorkers are dealing with in today's post 9-11 Big Apple. A great deal of what made New York's identity is being paved over and none of us are noticing it. It's all under the guise of "cleaning up the city," and making it safer, but native New Yorkers are noticing the frightening undertone. We all have a tendency to live our lives and not notice the negatives that come from convenience. Little by little, the mom and pop stores, the local industries are falling by the wayside for giant corporate entities to take over their footprint. Corporate controlled stores, condos, co-ops are, as Steve Rosenthal, owner of the Magic Shop Recording Studio states, "it's destroying the reason why people want to come here (New York). It pisses me off when I go to the bank. So, I've owned this studio for 25 years. Is that meaningful? No! All that's meaningful is what happened in the last 60 days. People's lives...it's the qualitative total of their life, of what they've done in their life. That should have some meaning. Ya know, it's weird. It used to."
"We used to look out for each other," Grohl muses. New York is being bought piecemeal by corporate giants who want a "safe place" for everyone; a sterile environment that loses all of it's character, all it's essence. If you look around you, no matter what state you live in, the same is happening. We are being conditioned to love the convenience and the low prices of 24 hour big box stores. We're being told that if it's more than 140 characters, it's not worth reading. A text message is more important than a face to face conversation. Why go and interact when you can simply click a button on your smart phone? Why create something with your own voice when you can copy someone else? Sonic Highways ends on a high note and tells us why. Here are some of the quotes:
"It's important to chase what catches your fancy but more importantly, learn to play what you want to hear." Billy Gibbons from ZZ Top. This quote fits for anything creative, not just music.
"It's a burning coal...if you want to start a fire...that's what history is to me. It attracts the right person to do something with it. To create the next fire. And fires are fuel and food and energy and life." states Nora Guthrie, daughter of Woody Guthrie, the father of folk music. If that doesn't inspire you to want to do something with your life, then let me refer you to AMC. They're looking for the undead to be extras in the next season of The Walking Dead.
Paul Stanley of KISS says, "we all know what we're capable of doing, then someone comes along and says it's impossible. The person who tells you something is impossible is the one who failed."
"Don't follow in the footsteps of the masters, seek what they sought," is written on the walls of one of the studios Dave visited during the series.
"Every American has the opportunity, every American has a voice, we're all connected," Grohl says in the final episode.
You ever have one of those self-affirming moments that let's you know that you're on the right track? These quotes inspired me. This episode made me want to keep creating. There are mornings that I wake up and wish I had gone to bed earlier, and not stayed up until 1 am writing about Captain America or making jokes about Wes Welker.
But then I think of what is important. I think of the world I want my son to grow up in. The world I want my friends children to see: a world where we all help each other out. A world where we find ways to encourage each other's creativity. We encourage the young musicians, the artists, the writers. We let kids know that writing is not just a punishment. We show them that it's a way to share things with everyone. It lets you speak to people you've never met. It allows you to connect on a level beyond copying and pasting memes. You get to use YOUR voice. I would talk to my friends and they would tell me "Mike, I met this guy who is so funny, like you! You guys would hit it off!" Then, all they were was Simpsons quotes and lines from professional wrestlers. It was the biggest insult. Come on, man! Find something that is yours! Find your own voice!
It's so much more rewarding when someone hears a joke you came up with and they laugh. When someone reads a story you wrote and wants to talk to you about it, that is one of the greatest feelings. Don't take the easy road. Fight for something. Work hard at SOMETHING. Put the effort into it, get told you suck and just keep plugging away. All of the naysayers are worth it when you talk to people who genuinely love what you do. Is my writing on the same plane as the Foo Fighters music? No. I can only hope that one day I can have the kind of fan base and inspire millions like they do and that's what inspires me.
Talking to others who create as well makes it worth it. You'll see the same fire in their eyes, you hear the same excitement in their voice when they find the right words, or the right pose for their character, or the right note for their song. Excitement breeds more excitement. Find others who are like minded and create something. Those people look out for each other. Those are the people who are going to continue to make the music worth hearing, the art worth seeing, and the stories worth reading. When I heard Dave say that every American has a voice, I knew that this GGR thing was what I should be doing, that's part of our mission statement! I knew that Ethan Stone P.I. was the right comic book to work on with my best friend. I knew that writing my own novel was worth the endeavor because I have that coal and I want to do something with it. I mean...I knew all those things before this show, I just got told by a rock icon that I was right in thinking so.
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