Monday, June 25, 2007

Barbara Manning - B4 We Go Under

Reading this recent article on Barbara Manning in the San Francisco Chronicle made me feel like I just got punched in the stomach:

Barbara Manning, once the golden girl of indie rock, is getting a handle on impermanence. In the mid-to-late-1990s, she was riding high-snagging gigs with little effort, touring internationally with such peers as Calexico, Yo La Tengo and Sonic Youth and enjoying support from the influential indie label Matador. Today, while music is more important than ever in her life, she's without a record deal and struggling to find a job after going back to college to get a degree and a "straight" career as lab technician.
It's not a happy story, and though Manning remains optimistic about the future, it is clear she is going through some tough times right now. This is a more general problem my friend Adam and I have often discussed: What do artists do after they hop off the indie-rock carousel? The problem is perhaps most acute for those like Manning who experienced some level of success; not having made enough to retire on, but perhaps enough to stop working day jobs. It's hard enough to find a good job with a stable work history behind you, I can only imagine how hard it is to start on a new career path at 40, especially when there is a certain (largely unjustified) stigma attached to the lifestyle of a professional musician. I'm sure Manning is far from the only former indie-rock stalwart facing this dilemma.

It's especially painful to hear the Manning is having such a difficult time. I met her very briefly several times, and she seemed so nice. I guess you have to file it under "life's not fair" but it also pisses me off to know that some of her less-talented peers continue to experience more success because they are better self promoters (not that I'm calling Liz Phair out by name or anything).

Reading the article, I also felt a twinge of guilt, because in all honesty I stopped following Manning's career sometime back around 2000. It had nothing to do with Manning in particular, for the most part I stopped following indie-rock in general around that time. A lot of things in my life had changed; I moved out of New York City, I was married, I would soon be a father. I was Manning's audience, and I had moved on. During the late 80s and early 90s I bought everything Manning put out whether it was with 28th Day, World of Pooh, the S.F. Seals, or as I solo artist. I even bought stuff by her experimental side-project with Seymour Glass, The Glands of External Secretion. I probably have 10 Barbara Manning related 7" singles, and all of the albums up through 1999's In New Zealand. Then I just sort of stopped paying attention.

To make up for my years of neglect, I'd like to point out that Rainfall Records has just released a 3 CD box set called Super Scissors that contains Manning's long out-of-print albums, Lately I Keep Scissors and One Perfect Green Blanket along with live material and outtakes. The set is available for a very reasonable price from Parasol, who have also made some .wma tracks from the album available for listening. Apparently the albums come packaged in mini-LP slip cases, much as I wished the Love Blue Thumb set had. Nice. This set has been pressed as a limited edition of 1,000, so act fast.

"B4 We Go Under" (written for Barbara by the Bats' Robert Scott) was originally released in 1993 as a 7" on Teen Beat with unique silk-screened chipboard sleeves. I liked it so much I bought two of two of them. This was one of my favorite songs of the 1990s--pure indie-pop perfection. The song was last available on the Italian compilation, Under One Roof: Singles and Oddities.


Peter Hennig said...

That's a great single. And the new set sounds cool - I only have a cassette of that stuff.

Reading the article, I get the impression she'll do ok. Almost sounds like the typical stories of recent grads.

For comparison though, I remember reading an article about Bob Stinson back after he left the Replacements(this had to be late 80's) and thinking at the time "Oh man -- this is really bad." And it was.

Anonymous said...

Liz Phair >>>> Barbara Manning

I like Barbs's work, but Phair is a one of a kind. The fact that she went pop and recorded a mess of an album and people still ranks her 90s album among the greatest of all time speaks more for the quality of the material than self-publicity. Exile in Guyville blows every Manning work out of the water by a mile or two. I remember Mrs. Manning around the time of 2112 saying that she believed to be head and shoulders above Mrs. Phair. I must say that not many agree with that. More adventurous production doesn't equal greatness - Phair did more with less, in my opinion.

Anonymous said...

Barbara Manning is a lot better than Liz Phair will ever be.

Carlos Reis said...

Edit: Some grammar corrections

Not only is Liz Phair better than Barbara Manning, Phair never had anything to say about her, while Manning went quite a few times on record to dismiss Phair's success and critical acclaim. This was her first mistake, since most of the articles I have researched about Manning still attach her name to Phair, while articles about the latter are still about her work, even the present time releases that lack in quality. To be honest, I disagree with the above poster who said Manning is more adventurous. Phair is more, especially her Girly Sound works which show her guitar skills and stretches her narrative abilities into territories of intimacy, storytelling and humor that Manning's work always lacked. Phair was smart; she created a persona that connected to a female audience while developing Exile in Guyville's sound on an ambiguous space between The Rolling Stones and contemporary Indie Rock; she basically created one of the epitome of what means Indie Rock. Manning had a solid album and a very hit-or-miss with 1212, and lacked a persona. Since Phair had an art school background, she was able to address issues outside of music concerning the female body, independence, intimacy and relationships. What people that are dismissive of Phair don't seem to understand is that Guyville was about its music as much as its politics and the current art and indie environment curates and embraces this kind of material. Manning would obviously go forgotten without a work as complex and ready for discussion. PJ Harvey, Tori Amos, Björk, Sleater Kinney, Phair, it's not about their differences or ranking them: it's the way they were all political whilst delivering great music during a whole decade. Manning is way out of their league because she sang what is now anonymous indie rock while the others I cited still crack discussions and reinvent their music and discourses. Journalists, fans and hype keep your work alive. Manning is out of the radar because she opted to be anonymous in an age that is about carving some sense of individuality in a sea of competing artists. Phair will always have Guyville, even if she has been released poor material for a decade. Even her horrific self-titled is being reevaluated, since the Indie press reaction to it was personal and nasty in manners that are incompatible with the popism defended by this very same press. Phair curates discussion, she's interesting even when she's trashy. Manning and other indie rockers had no clue on how to stay relevant to audiences – and maybe they never were in first place.

Carlos Reis said...

I'll make my point a little clearer. Manning greatest achievement is her Arsonist Story; it is richly created, it flows beautifully and it is a tight passage in an uneven album with too many covers. Manning is credited by her few fans as creator because The Arsonist is pretty straight-forwardly non-personal. Phair was more ambiguous with Guyville; she released a record that she knew critics would take as personal on face value, because that's what they've been doing to plenty of female artists since the height of the singer-songwriters of the 70s. Joni Mitchell is genius, but her work is still cited alongside her ex-male partners, as if any dumped person could have architected Blue or Hissing of Summer Lawns – that is a social and critical work on 70s America. Phair knew that and she anticipated literary trends confounding critics, releasing a mostly first-person record that was taken as personal but was a complete creation, fictional, inspired by feelings, but not real. Phair was always manufactured, but by herself. She was more ambiguous than Manning and critics realized this early on, still in 93. Moreover, Phair attacked the Indie Rock community many times over the way they treated her. The title of the record, some of the songs, the way she promoted it, her consequential success and critical acclaim. Phair was an outsider that made it bigger than the scene that refused at first to spawn her. That's why she was attacked by Albini and Manning: it was political. Manning chose to be a cog, to receive no support whatsoever by Matador to promote her, to no develop a persona to a growing interested audience, to solely open to male artists and not be signed immediately. What did she do about all of this? She went after Liz Phair, a female that was receiving a different treatment than hers, but never after male counterparts. Phair was clearly a dissident. If she never aroused any discussion, chances are she would be where Manning is. She had to release a work as Guyville and promote it that way, she had to release a pop self-titled to the dismay of a community that never gave a damn to her and Phair never cared about in first place. As much as I dislike Why Can't I? I'm sure it pays her bills in way the 3xCD Super Scissors won't ever pay Manning. Phair never cared about cred, or a scene, or a indie rocker way of being. She was simply this provocateur out of an art school environment that took Indie Rock to another level, one that lacked the anonymity of a sound copied and pasted by anyone. Perfume Genius recently told that listening to Phair sing what she sang was his first huge influence on start recording and he is an artist as political as enjoyable to listen; same thing with Sleater Kinney, one of the members wrote an essay on Guyville two years ago and its influence. This is her legacy: artists that are interesting in a musical and image-political level. She anticipated this trend dismissing a whole circle that cared too much about cred and authenticity – as if such a thing ever existed in arts. What I find amusing is that as much as the indie scenes care about authenticity, they never cared if the artist is able to make a living out of music for the long run. This is the unfortunate trap that Manning and others fell. It's not Liz Phair or other self-publiced artists, especially the ones I cited, that still release records, tours and earn their livin, to blame for it.

Pete Bilderback said...

Thanks for the thoughtful response Carlos. You certainly raise some legitimate points.