Wu Yorker

Andrew Hultkrans on The New Yorker Festival

New York

Left: Ani DiFranco. Middle: Ric Ocasek, Ani DiFranco, Steve Albini, Sasha Frere-Jones, and the RZA. Right: The RZA.

If my first stop at the New Yorker Festival doled out a satisfying amount of bile—mostly directed at Hollywood—the next panel on my docket promised greater internal acidity. After a calming hour in the sun at Bryant Park, I steeled myself for my appointment with the RZA, the LZA (Ani DiFranco), the Old Skinny Popster (Ric Ocasek), and the Rapeman (Steve Albini)—not exactly Wu-Tang, but some kind of hell-spawned super-group nevertheless. Moderated by Sasha Frere-Jones, the magazine’s pop music critic, the panel was guaranteed to be volatile, based on the presence of Albini alone. An angry pencil-neck made good—as the frontman of Big Black, Rapeman, and Shellac, and as a prolific if absurdly Spartan producer—and a notorious musical puritan, Albini has, over the years, lashed his sharp tongue at bands that made his aesthetic famous (The Pixies, Nirvana) and at just about everyone else who doesn’t meet his curmudgeonly underground standards. Matching him with Cars frontman Ocasek, his near twin in the pale-skinny department but mortal enemy in terms of musical sensibilities, seemed perverse in the extreme. Then there was the RZA, whose crew’s handling of gender issues has been less than sensitive, paired with the personal-is-political righteous folkie babe DiFranco. The potential for harsh words, even violence, was high.

Which is why I was not merely surprised but gobsmacked to see the RZA head-nod approvingly to a DiFranco-produced song and Albini clapping enthusiastically afterward. A kinder, gentler Albini? Say it ain’t so! Indeed, the scrawny rock gadfly seemed positively avuncular, timidly stumbling over his words and politely waiting for the other panelists to finish before interjecting. Perhaps he was cowed by the presence of the RZA, a big man with street cred to burn. Or maybe it was the patina of mainstream cultural acceptance the magazine’s sponsorship conferred. Whatever the reason, I began to wonder if this Albini was some kind of animatronic stooge filling in for the real Steve. Until, that is, he indulged himself in an extended metaphor comparing music production to gynecology—a producer should get no more emotionally involved in his client’s music than a gynecologist should in his patient’s privates—a deadpan burst of verbal license that embarrassed the pants off the RZA and had the crowd roaring. Albini then said that while he may come to enjoy the fruits of his production labor after the job is done, during the recording process they’re all “bummers of equal magnitude,” leading Frere-Jones to quip, “just like writing for the magazine I work for.”

DiFranco, who self-produced her many albums and is the picture of confidence when performing, seemed scattered and shy as a panelist, unable to give definitive answers, while Ocasek had the easygoing cool of an aging rock star who’s sold a gazillion records. The RZA was unexpectedly humble and funny, noting that if recording engineers are not on point at a hip-hop session, they can be, and often are, physically attacked by impatient MCs, and that, in certain ways, producing the Wu isn’t much different than scoring a film with a symphony orchestra—rappers and first violinists smoke dope with equal ardor in the studio, he asserted. This last observation provided the image that, to me, summed up the best intentions of the Festival in general and these events in particular. After all, if you find yourself sitting in a midtown venue listening to the RZA and Steve Albini, with the MTV studios clearly visible across the street and the children of the head monk of the Shaolin Temple of New York capering through the aisles, some sort of cultural cross-pollination is definitely occurring.