Art may not be a competitive exercise for the creator, but for the fan-who doesn't have the ego pleasure of invention-the experience is much more about picking winners and proving secondhand artistry of taste.
In 10 years of music criticism, I've only picked a handful of nascent bands and predicted them to be the "next big thing." Rage Against the Machine was one. They came through. Sarah McLachlan was another. She was a winning filly. The White Stripes proved me right. Jason Mraz was the latest, and that bet looks good so far.
There's only been one that didn't pan out, and I'm still pissed. They were the pride of Chico State University, that little college hollow of cows and the stoners who tip them, of bars and the alcoholics who support them, of classes and the students who ditch them.
Chico State's lone claim to artistic fame had been writer Raymond Carver, the elliptical mysterian whose short stories inspired coattail alcoholism in more than a few English majors.
And then came The Mother Hips-a luminous swoon of sound fronted by a duo of drug-taking, guitar-toting poets with vocal harmonies that intertwined like the naked legs of new lovers. Though heavily rooted in the hippie-blues, they could capably joyride through psychedelia and country.
Their self-released debut, Back to the Grotto (1992), was peppered with alluring, often nonsensical metaphors ("it's better to lose a few beans from your bag than to have no bag for your beans"), as well as some casual Freudian confessions that everyone could reluctantly relate to ("I used to have dreams I made love to my cat, is it shocking for me to tell you that? I might tell you more, but you might walk away, and I don't feel like eating alone").
That band was loved unconditionally by both music snobs and fraternity vanillans. Judging by the rapid and fully encompassing notoriety they reached in every West Coast city from San Diego to Yreka, international fame seemed not just inevitable, but unavoidable.
They signed to American Records. They toured with the label's kingpins and their musical counterparts, The Black Crowes. They shared the side stage of the then-important H.O.A.R.D.E. Tour with Wilco, and their crowds were debatably more fervent.
But neither American's rerelease of Back to the Grotto nor the Hips' other two releases for the label-1995's Part Timer Goes Full and the more y'all fare of Shootout in 1996-broke the band. Drugs were blamed for their ineffectualness, but the band still mattered so much to so many. The headline of a San Francisco Chronicle cover story even wondered, "Why Isn't This Band More Famous?"
They released a full-on country record in 1997 and then waited four long years to release their stab at indie rock with The Green Hills of Earth. Rolling Stone critic Bill Crandall named it one of the year's 10 best albums. Yet The Mother Hips seemed destined to be the band that was loved by everyone-but everyone, in their case, was never enough.
After 10 years of relentless touring and sold-out club shows, the Hips finally called it quits in 2002 and tape-traders west of the Rockies wept.
For frontman Tim Bluhm, life didn't change much after his rock 'n' roll baby rolled its eyes back in its head. He had lived on the road for a decade, so long that the road became home, and an actual address seemed like the real displacement. Bluhm lived in his van (maybe he still does). He released a solo EP called The Soft Adventure/Colts, a double album of new material and previously unreleased fare he had written in Chico back in 1996.
The music wasn't shocking-soft, country-tinged singer-songwriter material that mined the same shafts as the Hips: Tom Petty, Neil Young, The Beach Boys and Bob Dylan. But the narrative that ran through his songs was so innately Californian that it typecast him, for better or worse. He has become a sort of Golden State historian, an idealistic outsider looking in at the modern go-go-go culture of western suburbanites.
He sings about the facade of social progress that we buy into, our adherence to the formula that has been packaged and sold since the first freeways connected the first shopping malls. And Bluhm's own evolution-from a middle class Manhattan Beach kid to a detached minimalist who literally lives off the land and the hands of friends, getting by on good grace and a faith in practical communism-sells the viewpoint.
He's not bemoaning our blind adherence to the system and then paying his cable bill with the money from his paycheck-driven day job. The man has become the cognizant, poetic transient, copiously taking notes from the ever-shrinking margin that exists outside of the prepackaged American dream.
And all that might seem like a bunch of dropout hooey if he weren't living it-proving that, while unplugging from the machine may be a lonely process, it's a plausible one that is too often comfortably and readily ignored.
I'm sure that in the later days of The Mother Hips, he had ignored it himself. The machine seemed so promising, too big and involved to dismantle.
And yet he did. And here he is.Tim Bluhm performs with The Biddy Bums at the Casbah, 8:30 p.m. on Dec. 10. $8. 619-232-HELL.