Ballad of Big Nothing


Something valuable was missing from the CMJ Music Marathon this year, and I’m not talking cigarette smoke. It wasn’t black people in the audience either—they’re never at CMJ. What was missing, mainly, was fun.

Of course, Elliott Smith’s death didn’t help lighten the mood. News of the beloved singer-songwriter’s suicide-by-stab-wound hit Wednesday morning, CMJ’s first day, and talk of it dominated the weekend. Memorial signs graced the walls of Irving Plaza Wednesday night, where DEATH CAB FOR CUTIE frontman Ben Gibbard ended a gorgeous, melancholy set by quoting Smith’s “Say Yes.” Other performers offering remembrances and song dedications included IDA, the KING OF FRANCE, CREEPER LAGOON, TURIN BRAKES, ROB CROW, the LONG WINTERS, and TED LEO, but the most moving tribute may have come from Smith’s longtime friend MARY LOU LORD, at Pianos on Saturday. Visibly distraught and constantly apologizing for her absentmindedness, Lord led her band through her angry new “The Stars Burn Out,” about “rock stars who die too young.” She closed with a beautifully messy solo acoustic version of “Not Half Right,” a song Smith wrote for his early band Heatmiser.

But the specter didn’t hang over everybody. Hyped mope-rockers BRITISH SEA POWER sported silly headdresses, and their keyboardist ran around in the Bowery Ballroom crowd Thursday. Too bad their set was just as dull as BROKEN SOCIAL SCENE‘s on Saturday at the Hilton. Somehow, the sprawling magic of BSS’s latest album didn’t come across in a conference room full of people reading free copies of Paper. BLACK BOX RECORDER at Webster Hall Wednesday would’ve benefited from more spectacle as well: Part of what makes their nihilistic synth-pop so appealing on record is their studied cool. But live, detachment can be a total bore.

Not a total bore, shockingly enough, were a couple of panels at the Hilton. Discussing the state of underground hip-hop (number of black people in audience: six, by my count), Definitive Jux honcho EL-P and rapper J-LIVE cheered file sharing, dissed the mainstream media for ignoring conscious lyricists, and accused The Source of being paid for positive reviews. Of course, every panelist on the rock journalism panel claimed no such thing ever occurred.

You might not find the old fogies in Rammelzee’s no-wave-hip-hop-pioneering DEATH COMET CREW (Friday at the Knitting Factory, their first show in 20 years) or 56-year-old Minnesota sawed-off-guitar stoner-cult hero MICHAEL YONKERS (Saturday at the Bowery, supporting a 1968 album that went unreleased till last year) featured in mainstream magazines anytime soon, but that didn’t stop either act from rocking harder than everybody else I saw at CMJ. (Except for the CONSTANTINES, who tore through a Saturday Pianos set with so much energy that I forgot how forgettable their new album is.)

But the performance that everyone may remember the longest was the paroled-in-February OL’ DIRTY BASTARD‘s not so triumphant return from prison Friday at the Knit. Surrounded by his Brooklyn Zoo posse and a few women apparently auditioning for Girls Gone Wild, the man now known as Dirt McGirt stood in a motionless daze, staring confusedly out into the frat boys and hipsters going apeshit over his presence. Now and then he’d break into a random wordless wail or chant, and occasionally he’d remember lyrics. At one point, drool began to drip from a corner of his mouth. It was like watching a lame dog lying in the street, waiting to get hit.