Whether it was Jimi Hendrix burning his guitar or Kurt Cobain running roughshod over Nirvana’s equipment or the Who laying waste to any instrument unfortunate enough to be theirs for the night, musicians have been trashing their instruments for years. The statement is always the same—we own art. We own music. As much as we may be owned by it at times, and as much as we love it, cherish it, and devote our lives to it, we are still liberated from it, and we do not obey its rules. There is a musical code of conduct, a restraint and respect mandated by, and expected of, the music community, and we are flouting that code and flipping that community the bird. Destroying instruments was always the best way to do this, because those were the tools with which one made music. They were the most direct, appropriate metaphor for music at large—by incinerating his guitar, Hendrix was, in fact, incinerating wide-held conceptions about how musicians relate to their craft, themselves, and their audience.
With that in mind, the events of this past Sunday night beg enormous canonization: the image of one young man, performing music onstage, picking up his laptop and throwing it into the crowd, instantly ruining his computer, and with it, any chance at normalcy for the group on stage.
While a more beneficent destiny may have been to witness this incident as a spectator, such was not my fate. I was directly to this young man’s left, hammering out bass lines and trying to navigate the tangled mess of wires, microphone stands, and foot pedals on the Knitting Factory’s main stage. A co-member of the Nineteen-Sixties, I was actually facing the other way during a few portions of the technological homicide, so I couldn’t fully appreciate what will be forever known as “Computer Toss ’07.”
But here’s what happened:
The laptop was on the stage because one of our band members (who shall remain nameless) was using it to sample some P-Funk and Beastie Boys clips over our first song. Once he was done with his computer, our bandmate left it onstage, sitting open-faced on a chair just behind him.
In the middle of our second song, its owner jumped in the air and accidentally came down right on top of his computer. In the seconds it took him to right himself, he realized that the screen was broken. Assuming (either correctly or incorrectly, we’ll never know) that the entire computer was ruined, he held up the computer for the crowd to see, placed it on the floor, and stomped on the keyboard. Next, he held up the computer for the crowd once again, and then lobbed it into the audience. It landed harmlessly at a girl’s feet. She politely picked it up and put it on the side of the stage.
It wasn’t until Computer Toss ’07 that I realized that the trash-your-guitar model of musical rebellion is painfully outdated. Popular bands simply don’t do it anymore because, in the last decade or so, the physical instrument has been supplanted as the most effective device for making music. Its replacement: the computer. Just think of all its applications—computer programs have long since replaced analog, reel-to-reel recording. Many DJ’s and mix-masters spurn instruments altogether, opting instead for computers and digitalized turntables. In fact, the two types of music that have remained essentially unaffected by technology—classical and rudiments jazz—have virtually no commercial viability. 99% of the music you hear every day was somehow created, shaped, edited, enhanced, or changed by a computer. Simply put, the computer is far more important and vital to contemporary music production than is the instrument.
“Computer Toss ‘07” is the modern adaptation of slamming your guitar into the ground. Sure, it might have been nothing more than a capricious sum of booze, adrenaline, dance music, frustration, and bad judgment, but the message after the fact is undeniable—we are still flipping the bird to somebody, still showing our independence. In fact, destroying a computer is a far more global symbol than ruining a guitar, since the computer has come to dominate and own us not just in music, but in almost every significant facet of our lives: how we communicate and interact, how we work, how we do research, how we conduct war, how we shop, how we make friends, how we read the news, how we gather information, and especially how we think of ourselves in the contexts of others and the world. While Pete Townsend was breaking the chains of musical bondage, my band broke the chains of ubiquitous, all-encompassing enslavement.
We are the Nineteen-Sixties. Thanks for coming out.
Stay Quixotic, Whichever Band I’m In At Any Given Time,