ABOUT HALFWAY THROUGH A SET that Louis CK himself describes as “very fucked up jokes” — everything from shitting on his father’s face to 69-ing Hitler — Louie rants about dolphins:
You ever go shop for tuna and it says “Dolphin Safe” and you kinda go, “Yeah, but…” like somehow you think it’s not gonna be as good? “I wanna do the right thing, but it’s probably kinda bland.”
But here’s the thing: why not kill and eat a dolphin? Why not? “Oh, because…”? Why not? I don’t fucking get it. If you’re a tuna, fuck you, we’re eating you. So I really don’t see the difference.
And I think it’s wrong to eat dolphins, and tuna, and cows, and everything. But I eat them. I eat ‘em all! Because I don’t care that it’s wrong. I totally think it’s terrible, but it’s not important to me that it’s terrible. So what that it’s wrong? It tastes good, and I like the way it feels when I eat it. So fuck it.
I must confess I started writing this post as nothing but a string of Louis CK routines, one after another, but that would be cheating. It would also be a waste or your time and mine, because he’s funnier to watch than to read. And finally, it distracted from the main point I was planning to make: Louis CK’s attitude toward eating animals is exactly the same as my attitude toward music piracy.
Napster came out back in late 1999. I was 13. And it changed my life.
At that time, the only two albums I owned were Weird Al’s Bad Hair Day and Fush Yu Mang by Smash Mouth. Fush Yu Mang was actually the first CD I bought — Bad Hair Day was on cassette — following a lengthy discussion about whether I should purchase Smash Mouth or Chumbawamba — for the hit single “Tubthumping,” proving once again I’ve always had impeccable taste. My friend and I decided he’d get one and I’d get the other. That way, we could both be ashamed of ourselves as adults.
So I didn’t have a long track record of paying for music before Napster arrived. People say that getting a new album back in the days of vinyl was a treat, because you’d get to take the record from the record jacket — a piece of artwork itself — set it on a turntable, hear the warm, scratchy tones of the needle in the grooves, and stand completely still or you’d make it skip.
“It was wonderful.”
“Was it free?”
“No. But why would it–?”
I can appreciate simple joys, but you can’t argue with getting something you want almost instantly and paying nothing. For the year and a half that Napster existed, I became accustomed to doing just that.
Today, whenever I meet an aspiring artist, if they seem cool or I don’t care, I mention that I steal intellectual property constantly. “What about Netflix? Or Rhapsody? You pay a little monthly to get as much as you want.” “Are they free?” “No. But what you’re doing is terrible.” “Oh, I know. I totally think it’s terrible…” I love the irony that I’m trying to make it as an artist yet refuse to pay for art.
Senior year of college, the apartment building I stayed in had a T3 line and free internet, so my roommate and I had a pretty good racket going. While I was up to 6-8 albums a day, he got whole seasons of HBO and Showtime shows, and eventually a cease-and-desist letter.
He learned his lesson. I didn’t.
At some point, I hatched a plan to have 10,000 songs on my iPod, but only great songs. Anything I found myself skipping more than once I deleted to put something better in its place. About a month later, I got a call from one of the ladies in the apartment’s main office:
“Michael, can you please come down? We need to speak with you.”
Then she hung up. I knew instantly that I was screwed.
This was around the time the RIAA was taking people to court for pirating music. Just suing their asses off. I’d heard there was a little old lady in Idaho who downloaded an album or two and wound up paying a grand. They wanted to make examples of people. No crime was too small. I’d stolen enough music to warrant a double life sentence.
I started rehearsing potential appeals to the court. I can’t remember them now because there was no logic behind them. I was clearly guilty. But I knew I had to nail down my talking points before I went downstairs. This being Los Angeles, I figured I’d forget some things when the SWAT team gave me the inevitable blackjack to the head.
When I felt good about the plea bargain I’d committed to memory, I went down. I didn’t see a SWAT team, but I approached the lady at the desk with my arms out, wrists up, so she could slap cuffs on more easily. She looked at me and said, “Critelli? Room 509?”
“Your roommate left his wallet down here. Could you bring it up for him?”
She laid the wallet on my wrists and went back to work. I’ve never been more relieved. “Now I’ve learned my lesson,” I said to myself. I went back upstairs, gave my roommate his wallet, and stole two more albums before dinner.
Back when Napster began, I was more into pickpocketing than grand larceny. A song here or there and an album only on rare occasions, only if I’d heard it was good. The internet just wasn’t fast enough. So I spent much of the day reading about music to find out what was worth spending my hard-earned nothing on.
My favorite site then was AllMusic.com. It’s a great for playing a sort of musical “6 Degrees of Kevin Bacon.” For example, try to link The Velvet Underground to Mariah Carey in four moves (ANSWER: John Cale of the Velvet Underground collaborated with Brian Eno starting with Fear in 1974; Eno produced Talking Heads’ Remain in Light; Chris Frantz and Tina Weymouth of Talking Heads started The Tom Tom Club and released the Top 40 single “Genius of Love;” Mariah Carey sampled “Genius of Love” for “Fantasy” and won a Grammy for Best Female Pop Vocal Performance). You can do this all day.
Thanks to AllMusic.com, I’ve almost never listened to contemporary music. My favorite albums during my teenage years were released in 1991, when I was five. Here they are:
The Smashing Pumpkins – Gish / Nirvana – Nevermind / Pearl Jam – Ten
I remember being in a youth soccer league in second grade and going to hang out after practice with the Russian kid who lived above the YMCA. He had a poster in his bedroom of the album cover for Nevermind, and I wondered why a 9-year-old would have a photo of a nude baby on his wall and whether or not that was legal. I noticed that picture years later at a record shop, picked up the album, and was blown away.
The media liked to say Grunge was a response to the overproduced pop metal of the ’80s, but Grunge started as equally glossy, if not moreso. Butch Vig, who produced Nevermind, also produced Gish earlier that year, and was heavily influenced by Billy Corgan’s pop tendencies. So, while it’s said that Grunge was deliberately ultra-raw and edgy, the bands that succeeded were trying their hardest to sound commercial and sell out. Pearl Jam had the most street cred of the three, because they found Eddie Vedder at a gas station.
A lot of parents worried about Grunge’s effect on their kids, with its focus on ultra-dark subject matter. My all-time favorite Grunge CD was Dirt by Alice in Chains, a concept album about being a heroin junkie. This couldn’t have been more foreign to my day-to-day experience as a kid in suburban Connecticut, and went right over my head. I just thought it rocked.
Talk Talk – Laughing Stock / Slint – Spiderland / My Bloody Valentine – Loveless
Or, “Three gems that proved to be influential, commercially unsuccessful, and a nightmare to bring into existence…”
Talk Talk had been a moderately successful New Wave band in the ’80s before front man Mark Hollis decided to go all Dennis Wilson and follow his muse to the ends of the earth. They went from sounding like Hall and Oates to a more-bizarre Miles Davis, and alienated most of their fan base even before Laughing Stock with 1988′s Spirit of Eden.
Spirit of Eden‘s recording sessions were known for one particular occurrence: Mark Hollis hired a 25-person choir, rehearsed them to perfection, then showed up early the next day to erase the tapes because he changed his mind about using a choir. Upping the ante on Laughing Stock, Hollis kept everyone in the studio for seven months straight with no breaks except to sleep. He had a 40-person orchestra, of which he only used 20 instruments, and — so I hear — the only recorded sound from one of the trumpet players was him cleaning his mouthpiece.
Loveless has a similar story. Its entry on Allmusic.com begins “…After two painstaking years in the studio and nearly bankrupting their label Creation in the process…” This time, the creative genius was Kevin Shields. His claim to fame was waking up vocalist Bilinda Butcher in the middle of the night to record suddenly so she’d sound dreamy and ethereal (groggy and confused). The two years were mostly spent trying to get distorted guitars to not sound like guitars.
Finally, Spiderland only took four days to record, but the emotional intensity of the sessions landed at least one member in a psychiatric ward (which is much more impressive than if it had taken seven months). It was produced by Steve Albini, who took the liberty to write an early review that concluded with, “TEN FUCKING STARS.” I saw Slint three years ago and I’d love to put some concert footage up but it’s some of the worst on YouTube because the quiet/loud dynamics can’t be captured on a camera phone and none of the band members move — they just stand and look down at their instruments, usually facing away from the audience.
The Jesus Lizard – Goat
These guys reunited and came to LA back in October but I couldn’t bring myself to buy tickets because I didn’t want my glasses broken and someone else’s blood on my shirt. Stories of lead singer David Yow getting drunk, storming the crowd, and getting into fistfights with fans are the stuff of legend. I’ve tried unsuccessfully to start a band every year since senior year of high school, mainly to perform the following song live…
Primal Scream – Screamadelica
Screamadelica was apparently made for British club kids to dance to while doing ecstasy, but that was as foreign to me as being a heroin junkie; all it did was introduce me to other bands from that scene, like The Stone Roses, Black Grape, Happy Mondays, and Spiritualized. It took a while to realize how much of the music I liked growing up was made for people on drugs.
A Tribe Called Quest – The Low End Theory
Sometime between Straight Out of Compton and the East Coast / West Coast hip hop battles of the ’90s (actual battles; people died), rappers got into jazz. The Low End Theory is not the least bit hard or thuggish; this stuff is smooth as butter — the fourth track is even titled “Butter,” featuring the following couplet:
“Not no parkay, not no margarine,
Strickly butter baby, strictly butter”
Shortly thereafter, an album by Pete Rock and C.L. Smooth called Mecca and the Soul Brother came out. It’s considered a classic of the jazz-rap canon but it’s actually unlistenable beginning to end; 80 minutes, 20 tracks, and each track opens with a 30-second interlude that has nothing to do with the rest of the song. This level of pretension why rappers soon left jazz behind and went back to the basics: slappin’ hos, dealin’ drugs, and makin’ mad bank.
Write what you know, I guess.
I get asked pretty often what kind of music I like and I always say, “Everything,” which is — I know — the most obnoxious answer, but it’s the only one that makes sense for someone born in the Napster era who took advantage of it to the extent I did. I’ve listened to all the music I can get my hands on, for free, and I totally think it’s terrible.
But not really.