MSHOW - The Merlin Show

During this 4-part series, Merlin and John talk about:

  • PART 1: No sponsorships on this show (Podcasting)
  • PART 1: Not getting paid for your work as an artist (Music)
  • PART 2: Even Bono has a boss (Music)
  • PART 2: John’s intolerance for bullshit (Personality)
  • PART 3: Crossword and Solitaire being retarded (Attitude and Opinion)
  • PART 3: Different views about art (Attitude and Opinion)
  • PART 3: Learning the guitar for the right reasons (Music)
  • PART 3: Being committed to following your dreams (Music)
  • PART 4: Playing music live vs recording music (Music)
  • PART 4: Producing your own album (Music)
  • PART 4: Thinking about the live show when recording an album (Music)

John’s chair is fully 6 inches (15 cm) lower than Merlin’s, so if it seems like they are the same height, he wants to make sure the audience at home know. But don’t be stupid, John! This is Merlin’s house!

John is talking right into the camera, which is generally frowned upon, because he wants people to like him.

Merlin and John accuse each other of being French. John was in France 2 weeks ago and there were people who look just like Merlin. He is like the Jerry Lewis of France.

Draft version
The segments below are drafts that will be incorporated into the rest of the Wiki as time permits.


No sponsorships on this show (MSHOW)

There are no commercials on this show, no standard TV commercials and not even fake commercials, like ”This episode is brought to you by Merlin Sav”, because Merlin hasn’t sought sponsorship yet. John’s impression of how the web people make their money is that they make something and then sell advertising space around it until the thing itself is the size of a can of tuna surrounded by advertising that is flashing at you to click here, offering you $1 million dollars or offering you to make your dick twice as big. Why would this show be any different? This is indeed a very popular model for making money on the web, one that Merlin has employed. Some people go with subscription models.

John calls out the people talking on the set and tells them to fuck off if they want to talk. What are these hippies doing in the park? Do they have some pot to smoke? As a Rock musician, drugs have given John a really short attention span and hearing not only voices in the yard, but all around him makes it hard for him to concentrate.

A more conventional and less idiotic way would be a sponsorship, where Merlin would turn to the camera and talk about their sponsors, a thing they would call a DJ read, going back to the days of radio. Merlin is not doing that either, but he is literally losing money while he is talking to John. It is like downloading somebody’s music for free.

Not getting paid for your work as an artist (MSHOW)

Merlin is putting this show on the Internet for free, not necessarily hoping that it generates traffic to some place that makes him money, but he just wants people to like him and have affection for him. He is willing to subsidize that effort with whatever it takes. Maybe this affection will one day translate into money. Both Merlin and John do this for a living, but John is in a different boat than he was a few years ago. As a musician, a lot of people working in the straight world are constantly trying to tell you how much your job itself is its own reward. Touring is great and John is so lucky and money has to be far down the list of motivations, because you get to travel and play your music for people. John is super-grateful that people spend so much time telling him all the reasons why he should be glad for not getting paid for various things. The best people are of course the promoters for the show or the people who run your record label, because they understand how valuable the publicity is and that you would be convinced that the 3 free beers they put in your dressing room are adequate compensation for you having driven 8 hours to play the show.

Their logic is often fractal, or at least recursive. You will be able to come out here to play the Fallen Oak festival and they can’t even tell you how many people they couldn’t get on the boat this year! Do you understand how many press is going to be here for the Fallen Oak festival? You tell them that you had to pack your van and pay your band, but playing the Ass Polyp benefit is such a huge opportunity for you because it is going to be a lot of exposure to a demographic that a lot of people don’t get their music exposed to. The beauty is also a very rarified vertical market that you are going to move into with the Polyp crowd. By the way: It is called the music business! It is not called show friends, but show business! (a quote by Sean Nelson).

This happens with music, with web and also with film stuff. Merlin has some friends who do some film stuff and there are so many people who are clawing for being even just vaguely associated with certain industries that they will give up a lot. They will call it an internship and people higher up in the food chain really exploit it in every one of the entertainment businesses. The perceived glamour is a major form of payment for people who are breaking into any industry. You are going to meet Bono’s personal assistant’s sister tonight, maybe she is on the list, but she might not come. It is great and that is how people get into the business initially, but after you have been doing anything for a while, you got bills to pay and John also may have a little bit of a dignity problem.

John might have too much dignity or it might even be a constellation of dignity issues, but one of the things he gets his back up about is when people are telling him why he should be satisfied with less than what they would give someone else because of perceived intangible benefits of his job, which is screwing teenagers, blow, not having to work, and sleeping all day. These are real benefits or perks, and they are the perquisite of John’s vertical market, but when somebody is sitting in the back room of a club with a cigar in their mouth counting $100 bills and telling John that the teenage girl he is about to go shag in the van is part of his pay for the night, he will object because he wants the cash, too!

Then there are of course unstated status- and power-exchanges where interns or bottom-of-the-bill bands are watching the guy peel off the hundreds and they understand that they are not in a position to escalate. They have no leverage at all. John really relishes the opportunity to go talk to the guy with the $100 bills and set him straight about how it is going to work (which Merlin finds fun to watch), but a lot of people are just happy to be part of this glamour industry and to be playing at this bar on a Friday instead of a Tuesday. At least it is not like in Los Angeles where they would have to pay for something like that. John never had to pay to play in Seattle, but there are places where you can pay to play. His version of pay to play is that you play for free while you see the bar selling $5000 worth of Jägermeister shots. That money is going somewhere!

John doesn't know if computers and Rock attract people who are afraid of appearing aggressive and who are afraid of offending people, so you get people who are waiting for somebody to hand them the authority to stand up for themselves and until that point they just behave themselves. They are waiting for their blog or their site or their band to be unquestionably big enough that people will just genuflect to them. They think they have to earn respect by virtue of the thing they produce, rather than commanding respect by some other method or by just embodying somebody who isn’t going to take it in the shorts.

In some circles John has a reputation of being abrasive or arrogant, but if he was a contractor, that behavior would be necessary to get the job done. You got guys coming in late or hungover, you got to get the frame up and the concrete poured and you have to bust some heads or you have to tell them that they are short-changing you on copper pipe, because everybody is trying to short-change everybody on copper pipe. It is the way of the world, but if you call somebody out on short-changing you on the load of lumber in the music business, the typical reaction is that you are so uncool and you are such a dick. The currency, the lingua franca is this incredibly passive ”It’s cool, man!” I know you said we are going to get $1500 and you are only giving us $11, but that’s cool! Your club is righteous and you are a cool dude, we’ll get you next time. John just thinks it is horse shit. It surely happens in the web business, too, but it would be emails, like ”Hi! Emoticon ROFL ROFL!” That’s what they do. They speak to each other in this patois of punctuation, a little round smiley face who’s eyelashes are going crazy.


Even Bono has a boss (MSHOW)

On the web, a lot of the power comes from quantifiable things like traffic or how high up on Google you appear for certain returns. People are very obsessively following this stuff in a way a musician would sit and watch Soundscan, because you really need to see what happens in week 2 of this release. If you have a website about your franchise, this is an ongoing thing and reaching this perceived level of highness brings lots of weirdness with it. It is a first world problem and Merlin would be a dick to complain about it, but for example if you won the lottery tomorrow, all of a sudden you will hear from a lot of relatives and people with cancer. There is some shared DNA with the music industry, because you want to ingratiate yourself as much as possible to people who can stand to give you more of the stuff, whether it is an inbound like or a mention.

In the music industry, people are constantly sucking up to magazines and trying to get on TV-shows. You are always imagining that the next level above you will be the level at which you will be able to stop sucking up to the level above you, but in John’s experience that never arrives. John doesn’t know who Bono sucks up to, but on every level you are auditioning again for the next level. John learned this from the Robert Evans biography who had Charles Bluhdorn to please. Bono maybe doesn’t have to suck to anybody, but there are always those invisible people who’s names maybe aren’t in the press who are controlling access to places that Bono wants access to and he can’t come in and piss on the carpet in the entryway just because he is Bono, because these guys won't be impressed.

It would have been swell if Merlin had learned about this great myth when he was 14: If you masturbate the same way too many times, you lose feeling! John had known that at 14.

Merlin tends to think that there is such a thing as arriving, but here is the tricky part that he wants to credit to Robert Evans again: a) the older you get, the more you have to lose at any given time. Bono might not have somebody he looks at as his boss, but he got a lot of skin in the game in a lot of different ways and Merlin suspects it is a curiously American 20th century conceit to think that there are people in the world who don’t worry about where they are, about status, improving and about keeping it all together, just because they got more money than you. No matter who you are and where you are, there is always something you want to retain or gain or keep together. Having that skin in the game is what keeps us all from becoming Spartan warriors.

The Bush presidency has illustrated that better than almost anything: We always felt that the president was beholden to this backroom group of faceless puppet masters, but with George W, it has never been more apparent: He is ostensibly the most powerful man in the US, but he actually turns to the guy sitting next to him to see if the answer he has given to the camera was correct. He is visibly beholden to something larger than himself. Even as president of the US he is not able to sit back and say that he has arrived and now he is the decider. He is being stage-managed by powers not even beyond our comprehension, but they are sitting right next to him and we know who it is, it is Dick Cheney and about 7 other guys who are like ”George! You are doing really good!” This is true in every business and even for Bono there is somebody out there, maybe the chairman of Seagrims or Nelson Mandela or the person who has compromising picture of him: No-one is completely free!

John’s intolerance for bullshit (MSHOW)

This is not all nefarious inside baseball industry backroom cigar smoking stuff. Merlin really likes a lot of the people he has met for doing stuff with the web, just as John has made great friends while touring the world with his band and meeting people along the way. Merlin has seen John a lot happier on some tours than others, just by virtue of the fact that he got along really well and felt mutual respect with the people he was touring with. Intangible benefits are the main benefits why you are doing something like this and John never said that they weren’t, but his objection is when other people are trying to tell you that those intangible benefits are worth the 30% of the money that they are not giving you. Merlin thinks it is an even deeper thing for John because he is uncannily unable to handle anything that he perceives as bullshit, and yet he is often accused of being a bullshit artist. Merlin has seen this many dozen times: Something happens and it catches the corner of John’s eye and big claws come out and John has to go in and he is not going to be happy until he puts his front claws on the shoulders and his back claws into the cut and runs in place for a while in order to excise every last bit of bullshit.

But there is bullshit and there is bullshit, like the bullshit that Merlin has turned into a career which is harmless bullshit and doesn’t affect anyone, except ”What’s that sound? It is comforting! Oh, it is Merlin Mann!” and then there is bullshit where there is real skin in the game. There is bullshit which is a form of entertainment and there is bullshit which is a form of obfuscation where you are bullshitting in order to distract the person so that you can make off with the bridal (?) This is covered in the short book on bullshit that John has. There is bullshit as a form of passing the day. You walk down the street of Athens and there are 4 or 5 old men sitting on every stoop bullshitting and it is the social lubricant that makes the world a better place.

Somebody wearing a toupee as they are walking around is kind of a benign bullshit, but putting a gun to somebody’s head to make them believe that it is real hair is intolerable bullshit. It is harmless bullshit in general, but a toupee on the head of Ben Affleck, who's whole career is founded on the fact that he is young and full-haired crosses the line into a different kind of bullshit. When Sean Connery exposed himself as a toupee man, he empowered himself by saying that he is wearing this as a costume, whereas a movie star like Ben Affleck who never appears without his fake hair is the equivalent of a breast implant which is not advertising itself. Pamella Andersson’s breast implants for instance advertise themselves as implants and John has no objection to them because she is a cartoon person. He has no way of knowing whether Ben Affleck has male pattern baldness like Merlin or if he is a fully bald person, but his career is founded on his hair. John is not saying that it is a crime against humanity, but there is a difference between his hair and Sean Connery’s hair.

The pioneer of all that was Willard Scott, the big weather guy in the today show. He would charge you differently whether or not he would wear his little hair hat. His deal was that he was going to show up as Willard Scott, but if they wanted him to wear his little hair hat, he would charge them a little more, which takes a huge amount of self-consciousness that Merlin finds almost intoxicating. John should come up with his own version of that, like different glasses frames or whether he has the comedy biker-mustache or not. The idea is which version of colorful John he will bring to the show.


Crossword and Solitaire being retarded (MSHOW)

Crossword puzzles, Sudoku and Solitaire are for retarded people. John does not see any analogy with Pop-Top art, decoupage or string-art owls. People who make string-art owls are not just making them purely motivated by the joy of making them. They are making them in order to have them made and then they intend to do something with them, either to give them as a gift or to put them on the wall. John has made a lot of string-art owls and he has even made a ship by sticking nails into a piece of felt and then stringing the strings. The ship is the classic!

But John wasn’t making it out of the joy of making it. Was he conniving? He couldn’t just make a ship to make a ship? Did he think it was going to get him laid? If you are motivated to make something, joy is a lot easier to come by than getting some tax and some felt and making a ship. People paint by numbers to put it on the wall, but putting a frame around it and putting in on the wall is retarded. You don’t think about it just as an exercise of the hand! Maybe there are people out there who immediately throw the thing away afterwards and they just do it to keep your hands occupied?

Different views about art (MSHOW)

This is the classic argument people have about art: People want art to be pure and they believe that people who make art do it directly from their heart to the brush, unmotivated by any material gain. It is like saying strippers just like to dance and wear high heels! That is so far off from how stuff gets made! While Merlin is talking, John is still trying to grock the stripper / high heel analogy. ”grock”? Did John read that in Wired a few years back? Arthur C. Clarke! Now John is really playing to Merlin’s crowd. Is he going to throw in a couple of things like UHF and 8-Track? Merlin had no idea John was so up to date! He was having an RSS feed the other day and it was beta, but he grocked it for the most part. Those web people are always looking for words, because they don’t use words themselves and they don’t know words, so they repurpose words. John hates to get credit for that word. Merlin was working on a web-word called butthole.

Learning the guitar for the right reasons (MSHOW)

Merlin learned to play guitar after he got a $20 sub-noname guitar in 1982. He cannot even tell you how many mythologies of High School he finds unacceptable, including that those are the best years of your life, but learning to play guitar you will get you girls is completely untrue! In his experience the bass players get the girls! Merlin is still upset that he didn’t lose his virginity until he was 22. It is interesting to take something like guitar, a musical instrument for retarded people that is very easy to learn. John probably got good at it in 3-4 weeks. No, he labored over the guitar for years and he didn’t become good at the guitar until his late 20s and he would argue he is still not really good.

Merlin really liked to be able to play along with Black Sabbath records and when he had learned Pinball Wizard, playing along with Tommy was what he imagined sex was like. John says that you can see the guys who pick up the guitar motivated by the desire to get girls from a mile away. Every one of them is a fuck stain! Most people do it for a purer adolescent boy reason. You want to be Pete Townshend and being him seems like the end of itself. He didn’t get girls with it either, because John has never seen a picture with him and a girl.

John's first guitar was a tennis racket and he played it purely for the joy of it because he learned nothing by playing it to The Who, Judas Priest, the first two Def Leppard records, early ZZ Top, Judas Priest, Iron Maiden, or AC/DC. What do you get out of sitting in an empty house and playing air guitar? You don’t learn anything and it is the equivalent of playing solitaire. John would play the tennis record until sweat was pouring down his face and obviously he was day-dreaming and he was having these verdant fields of imagination of him playing guitar on stage with a crowd.

John knew that music in and out and he had seen the video Guitar for the Practicing Musician, so he had seen all the stuff and he had gotten everything except for the ability to play guitar. He has imagined it, but at a certain point as an adolescent boy you have to transform it into something physical. You need the physical action of participating in your imaginative fantasy, and it is not enough to imagine to play war, but you have to get out and play war with your friends. Imagining himself playing guitar on the stage was the thing that got John to actually to figure out what that first chord was.

Being committed to following your dreams (MSHOW)

Merlin says that it is not about how many years you play, but how many hours you play. You can get good at guitar if you really work at it seriously for 2-3 months if you have any dexterity at all, which John hasn’t. John’s hand doesn’t respond to commands from his brain with any kind of speed. Time and time again he sees people his age being frustrated by the fact that they are much better at the thing they want to do in their imagination than they are when they actually put their hands it and try and do it. They can see themselves being a great architect or a great game designer or somebody who is watching this show will say that they could also do a show like that because you just need to point a camera at a couple of guys and make a show, you just get some Chinese people playing basketball and that’ll be it.

Then you actually put your hands on a thing and realize that you are not as good at this as you thought you are and you are not going to do it and you are going to be frustrated by it. When you are 15 or 16, you feel angst or whatever, but when you are 35 and that is still the thing that is inhibiting you from doing anything beyond from just going to work at your job, then you need to get past the fact that your imagination is better at the thing than your hands and you need to actually get in and start learning how to do something.

As a musician John meets a lot of people who say ”It’s so cool! You get to do what you love!” while they have to do this job and they wish they were somebody else. John hates to be the life coach in these situations and it is really hard for him to offer somebody an opinion on their life, but sometimes people have to ask and every one of those people has a dream that is achievable. He has never met a person who had a dream that was unachievable. Sometimes it is disturbingly achievable, sometimes just right there and they just have to do that little bit of practice. People are saying that it requires a graduate degree, well yeah, it does! But you know how easy that is to get? You know how many morons have graduate degrees? Most of them! They like being called doctor! Merlin wants to be called Bachelor Mann. Every time they call him Dr. Rosen Penis, he insists them to call him Bachelor Mann. He really worked for this and went to school for 4 years, but now they hand it out to everybody. It is not hard!


Playing music live vs recording music (MSHOW)

When Merlin first started playing the guitar, he wanted to be good fast. He wanted to play along with Beatles songs more than anything in the world, but unless you had a really easy Beatles, the chords were quite squirrelly. Playing a 6th chord was weird and Merlin was barely mastering the G, which is his favorite key, but there is no Beatles song without a 6th. There is something analogous to that: Even if you do get good at guitar and you do get good at songwriting, one of the most crazy-making of enterprises is recording.

When Merlin’s band would record back in Tallahassee, the environment for that could not have been more welcoming and informal: It was an A-DAT and a 12-pack and it could not have been more comforting. The Wrens made a whole career out of an A-DAT and a 12-pack, but still ”they were recording”, it was almost like cost accounting or dentistry to be recording and over-dubbing and re-doing and then you realize that there is something on the drums that you can’t fix now because it is too late, especially on a 4-track or an 8-track. It is so frustrating because you are paying your cash to be in the studio.

People forget that recording is its own art-form, completely separate from playing the guitar. Those are very different skills! Being a great on-stage live presence who can sing on key is so different from being someone who can play the solo the same way twice. Everybody who is a fan of music knows the experience of getting a record, like the My Bloody Valentine record, which is an incredible record and then you go see them live and it is like watching paint dry. Then there is your favorite charismatic kick-ass band that you love to see, but then you buy their record and it is like a cold shower, because the record doesn’t capture the music at all.

Producing your own album (MSHOW)

Merlin has watched John up close from afar putting his last record together. It took him a long time, it involved a lot of false starts and John is someone who takes that shit really seriously and isn't phoning it in. The process was very frustrating, because in your mind you know how you want your record to sound, you know you can do it and you know it is just waiting on the other side of some amount of time that has to pass where stuff happens. How many times while making a record are you sitting on the couch and wishing that this record was just done so you could look back on how fun it was to make. Looking ahead of you at all the work you have to do and all the times where you are at a crossroads and you don’t know which way to go is excruciating.

This was also the first time that John has done this pretty much on his own. He was the project manager, the song writer, the singer and the guitar player. They had a great engineer, Floyd Reitsma, and without him John couldn’t have made it, but John produced it himself. It is like writing, directing and producing a movie. Sometimes you make great movies that way and a lot of times they are abysmal, because there is no-one standing there telling you that the shot of you getting out of the shower is inessential to the film and knowing when to move on. The way John’s perfectionism manifests itself is not to do that take 80 times, but often it is the first or second take. A lot of the vocal performances is run down once, do it again and then keep the third one.

Hear the cash register every few minutes does affect your decision making, but it is also an attention span thing. The cash register keeps John from making 90 minute long records where every song has 80 tracks of something, but the cash register doesn’t keep him from doing 80 vocal takes. It is his short attention span for that kind of perfectionism that prevents him, but also the feeling that it is illegitimate. John recorded the first vocal of Pretend to Fall with Ken Stringfellow in the producer’s chair. He sang the first 3 word and Ken pushed Stop on the machine. It was good, so let’s get the next 3 words, and it was stop again. John said that he can’t work this way, but according to Ken that is how you make records. He got the motor skills to be punching in and out that fast and through the 1980s and 1990s that is how they made records and Ken had never made a record any other way. This was with tape! It lasted 5 minutes because John couldn’t record a vocal this way. He got to push record, he sings the song all the way through and then he can do it again and maybe he will do it a third time, but then they would pick the one that is the best. If there is an out-of tune note, we can punch it in, but John was not going to do 3 words at the time. That was how they recorded all these records.

Thinking about the live show when recording an album (MSHOW)

People started quitting John’s band a few years ago before the initial line-up had even solidified. It wasn’t always fashionable to quit your band, but there was a time when people were doing some real landmark work and were then getting out of your way as quickly as they could. The first few people who quit John’s band were brave, clever, and funny people. Good riddance to them!

Every record by The Long Winters has been different from the last. On the first record they made no attempt to be able to duplicate those songs live and in a lot of cases, those songs are hard for them to play now. On the second record they made again no attempt to be able to duplicate it and they have struggled to play those songs live, but it has never constrained them. When their live band was a 3-piece band they would go out and play the 3-piece version of the song. They don’t have reels of tape running behind the stage with all the backing tracks, but they just get out there being the jam, the 2 Rickenbackers and a drum kit.

The fact that the record has the Vienna Boy’s coir on it is not going to be a problem for them and hopefully it isn’t a problem for their audience. Their audience isn’t made up of those people who will complain that it doesn’t sound like the record, but they are adventurous people with the spirit of discovery and they are curious what The Long Winters will give them this time. On the most recent record, they did try a little bit more to reign in the experiments that were further afield and make a Rock ’n’ Roll record, but John thinks that they are going to really explore the outer limits on the next record. The sky is the limit!

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