If you want to know what the rock 'n' roll lifestyle looks like during downtime, take a walk by the Phoenix Hotel some morning. It's a tiny L.A.-style oasis within the grimy streets of the Tenderloin — a vision of pink doors and palm trees. Huge, shiny tour buses sit quietly in the parking lot, and around the pool in the courtyard lounge men whose graying ponytails, handlebar mustaches, and faded concert T-shirts make them look like veteran Deep Purple roadies. Maybe they even are.
Sitting in the midst of this rock-star cliche, it seems both fitting and ironic to be talking to Lou Barlow and John Davis of the Folk Implosion, who had a radio hit with a song they composed for 1995's Kids soundtrack, but who still seem amused at the whole idea of having an audience beyond the most stalwart collectors of rare vinyl.
I ask the duo what they think of the masculine aesthetic of songwriting. Lou Barlow, who is hunched over a bran muffin and several half-empty cups of coffee, seems thoughtful on the subject, perhaps not surprisingly for someone whose repertoire of sensitive relationship songs comes off, at times, like a lexicon of boy disease.
“That idea is something that, ever since I started playing music, I've been trying to undermine,” he says, shaking his head. “Growing up in the '80s, it was all heavy metal and glam metal, and it just seemed so absurd — songs about teen-age sex played by guys who dressed like women. It was like, all bets were off. You had no idea; everything was moving on these kind of intense symbolic levels.”
John Davis, the painfully thin, soft-spoken half of the duo, furthers the contradiction. “The guys who were the epitome of cock rock — Steven Tyler, Mick Jagger — were also the most effeminate. It was that totally sexist rock culture.”
John and Lou agree that the masculine mind-set of rock might best be summed up by the MC5, the Detroit band whose sonic influence has reverberated through the indie movement for decades. “It was so fucked up — they had this house where the women would be making clothes for them, and they would be getting shitfaced and going [macho caveman voice], 'We're revolutionaries!' And it's like, what?”
I wonder aloud whether women get into the music of the Folk Implosion — as well as that of Sebadoh, Lou's other band — because of its somewhat anti-masculine quality, and both nod vigorously. Lou says, “Kathleen, my wife, would always tease me about Sebadoh [audiences] — you know, 'Oh, it's just a bunch of guys up there, and they think they're so cool because they have every 7-inch,' and I'd go [pussy-whipped guy voice], 'Well, I dunno, I think there's more girls coming,' but I was never able to prove that until recently.”
He adds, “When John and I get together, just because of the chemistry of our personalities and the nature of the music, we're kind of into subverting that whole Guy Rock thing. We're not out to be like the Beastie Boys — I mean, what those guys stand for, idealistically, is pretty sound, but the music itself is total frat rock.” Lou breaks into an impromptu rap, with muffled beat-box sound effects, to illustrate.
John looks pensive. “The texture of your music is something that has an effect on people beyond what you tell them to make of it. Even on our first record, when we were trying to be danceable and not heavy-guitar-chord-dominated, part of that was trying to poke fun at that indie-guy snobbery.”
At this point Lou, who has been gazing earnestly over my shoulder for quite some time, gets an extremely avid look on his face. “Is that the guy from Jefferson Airplane?” he asks. We all scan the middle distance. Apparently not.
“Saying that music that's pleasant or catchy is unmasculine is like that whole 'Disco Sucks' mentality,” John continues. “I was watching this special on disco before I left for this tour, and they showed the footage of that DJ in Detroit burning all those records back in the'70s … it was all these white guys in Tiger Stadium jumping up and down on these piles of burning records. It's like, because disco came out of gay culture, and black culture too, music turned into this whole rock-versus-disco mentality.”
“Yeah,” interjects Lou. “But then the rock bands ended up wearing high heels and makeup.” He comments that his wife saw Kiss on their comeback tour last summer. “She said it was all these older guys, and that they were just swigging beer and hugging each other whenever the band played a new song — like [crazed Kiss-fan voice]: 'Yeah, man! Yeah!' Meanwhile, Paul Stanley is up there doing his whole queen routine. It's bizarre that these same men were threatened by disco.”
One of the Deep Purple roadies strolls by, casting a look of vague interest over our table. His T-shirted gut obscures his belt buckle; I'm guessing it's one of those huge brass ones that says “Hoss.” I ask John and Lou what they think is behind the whole masculine aesthetic. Silence. Both seem to be concentrating on the flamingo-print tablecloth.
“I think … just taking yourself too seriously,” says Lou finally. “I saw Korn recently, and they took themselves insanely seriously. They had all these roadies running around, fixing their equipment with power tools. And all turning up the volume, which is totally what guys do, like 'I have to be heard!' It's the total white-male thing of [macho doofus voice]: 'No one's listening to me! I'm surrounded by things I don't understand!'
“It's like, we didn't grow up with the military, with being drafted, so instead we're playing in indie-rock bands, going on tours in vans with a bunch of other guys, and it's like this rite of passage, you know … playing horrible music way too loud.” He pauses, looking out into the sunshine of the courtyard.
“And inflicting it on whoever we can.”
By Andi Zeisler