I was there! I got word of Eric Lewis playing at the DNA Lounge via Twitter when Brian Solis let people know it was happening. Problem though. This was last Saturday, April 25th and I already had plans to see the LINES Ballet with some folks from UCLA. However, I had some time between this impromptu performance and meeting people. The decision was then to rush out early into the unknown or pass?
I'm so glad I went. I'll be honest and say I'd not heard of Eric Lewis beforehand. However, I took the time to go to his website and listen to some of his music. That's when I knew I HAD to go even if just for a bit. I got there early. I felt horribly conspicuous because I arrived by myself and knew I'd also have to run out during his set. I saw Lewis talking to someone and decided to apologize beforehand for running out.
I also found out about the trouble The DNA Lounge is having with the powers that be here in San Francisco. Basically, they're fighting being shut down. The DNA Lounge is a crucial part of music history here in San Francisco. So, please click over to The DNA Lounge's website to find out more and to support them.
I knew I'd miss something great in doing so too. Read on.
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Episode 25: In which a live piano performance that had to be seen to be believed restores my faith in reality
- guardian.co.uk, Wednesday 29 April 2009 15.19 BST
"Eric Lewis? Isn't that the guy who Michael Howard threatened to overrule?"
"Nothing - that joke doesn't really travel. Eric Lewis is the piano guy from TED, right?"
"Yes - didn't you see the Facebook link I just Twittered?"
"No, I'm out shopping, and until I get a social security number I can't get a proper phone with the internet on it."
"Jesus. Well, just come down to the DNA Lounge. It's going to be amazing."
And so it was that I found myself, this past Saturday, standing at the back of The DNA Lounge, waiting to experience something amazing. The DNA lounge, it turns out, is something of a San Francisco institution. Owned by open-source hacker Jamie Zawinski (who bought it from Deuce Bigalow), it used to be famous for hosting surprise gigs by the likes of Prince, Metallica and – most recently – Green Day. I say "used to be" because now it's better known for its ongoing battle with the California Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control, which wants to shut it down. Specifically, the department has accused DNA of being "a disorderly house injurous to the public welfare and morals" following some alleged "lewd behaviour" during the club's gay and lesbian nights. I'm not kidding, they actually used the phrases "lewd behavior" and "injurious to the public welfare and morals". In San Francisco. In 2009. Eat that, Lenny Bruce.
But while I wouldn't normally need an excuse to visit a disorderly house, on Saturday I definitely had one: a 35-year-old jazz pianist, wearing a checked jacket and sitting at a Steinway piano. It's pretty much a cast iron certainty that, unless you were at the recent TED conference in Long Beach, you won't have heard of Eric Lewis. Not yet, at any rate. But you will. Because rumour has it that in a few weeks he's playing at the White House for Barack Obama – and he's going to raise the fucking roof.
You see, Lewis doesn't just play the piano. Rather he owns – pwns – it. Reaching inside the lid, he pulls and pounds at the strings, creating a magic eye pictures of sound – walls of noise that suddenly snap into focus as you realise you're actually listening to the opening bars of Evanescence's Going Under, or The Knife's Heatbeats or Nirvana's Smells Like Teen Spirit. And just as you've worked out what's going on with the strings, Lewis starts on the keys – reinventing songs you've heard many times before in ways that you'll probably never hear again. Jesus Christ, the man's so good he could cover Coldplay's Clocks and make it sound edgy and frightening and weird and brilliant. And so he did.
Just in case any of us in the audience doubted how much effort and passion it takes to make Coldplay sound good, the pain was written across Lewis's face: eyes tightly shut, teeth clenched and features contorted into a mask of – I dunno, rage and talent, I suppose. I really can't describe it – there are photos but really you'll need to check out the videos on YouTube. Actually no, that's not true either. Even if you do watch the videos, you still won't get it. What it felt like to be in that room seeing a man in a checked jacket make a piano do things it had no idea it could do, watched by an audience of maybe 100 people, all smiling and gasping and clapping and – this is America after all – whooping.
Once the set had finished and the standing ovation ended, I turned to my friend - almost two hours had passed and we'd barely touched our drinks - as we tried to find the right words.
"I mean, I don't know what the word I'm looking for is. I don't want to sound wanky but it was..."
"It was Real."
Yes. That's it. It was Real. And not in that meaningless, wanky, "urban" way but Real in the way that so many things in today's virtual world simply aren't.
In recent years, Real social experiences have been under constant attack from technologically simulated ones. Where once schoolkids would buy a CD and invite their friends round to listen to it, now they forward those same tracks or share them on MySpace from the comfort and loneliness of their bedrooms. The music is the same, but the experience of listening to it is almost entirely virtual. Where once there was something exciting about buying a DVD and settling down with a special friend and a bottle of wine to watch it, now we download the same movie at work in 10 minutes and watch it on the train on the way home. Music and film have become commodities: digital, virtual and decidedly unspecial.
Even that last hold-out of the Real – the book – is facing a digital threat from the Kindle and the Sony Reader. It's not the physical feeling of holding a book that we'll miss when it's gone, but the potential for social interaction it could lead to. How many conversations between strangers have started when they both noticed they were reading the same book? How many relationships? Kindles don't have covers, so the possibility for that interaction will die with the printed page.
Even our relationships with our friends have become less Real. On the face of it, services like Twitter bring us closer to people we know than ever before. At any given moment, we know where they are, what they're doing and, often, what they're thinking. And yet actually, that virtual closeness is actually making us more distant. Before Twitter and its ilk came along, if we wanted to catch up on the minutiae of our friends lives, we'd have to actually phone them up and have a conversation – or better still, invite them out for dinner or down the pub. Now we can happily go for months without seeing someone, and still feel like we haven't missed them at all. I suppose we should be glad we still have friends at all, given that for the generation following behind us, a "friend" is just an avatar and a username.
The great thing about entertainment – whether that was a movie, a book, or just gossip from a friend – used to be that it gave us an excuse to get together and have Real experiences. Now, it's possible to imagine a hideous dystopian future where we went for years at a time without ever glimpsing a human being but where technology still fools into thinking we're connected and entertained.
And that's precisely the reason why seeing Eric Lewis on Saturday made me feel so deliriously happy. It made me realise that imagined dystopian future will never exist. Because no matter how cool technology gets, it will never feel truly Real in the way that standing next to my friends while a man played the shit out of a piano felt Real.
And sure enough, just when it looked like we might all up-sticks and relocate to Second Life, the technology pendulum has started to swing back the other way. Look at how the way we use Twitter has evolved, moving from simple status updates to organising real world meetups (although we could definitely survive as a species without the word "tweetup"). Facebook use has adapted too, with more and more people using it as a way to manage party invitations and to publicise events rather than simply collecting old school friends like Panini stickers. If I'd have been able to access Facebook from my crappy pay-as-you go phone, I'd have seen just how many of my friends were going to be at the Eric Lewis gig. It's lucky one of them phoned me to tell me about it; the resulting amazing experience, shared with friends, is something a YouTube video alone could never recreate.
This move back to technology as a trigger for Real social interaction should also come as a huge relief for the entertainment industry. Only this week we've seen the RIAA finally settling a four-year-old lawsuit (for a mere $7,000) against a computer illiterate mother who ended up with Kazaa installed on her home computer. We've seen the MPAA continuing its case against RealNetworks over the hypothetical possibility that its software could be used to pirate DVDs. And we've even seen Lawrence Lessig receive a takedown notice from Warner Music over one of his own presentations appearing on YouTube. When they're attacking Lawrence Lessig for copyright infringement, you know the entertainment industry is panicking.
And yet while CD and DVD sales are undoubtedly screwed, with printed books probably next to go, the increasingly virtual nature of our lives makes us willing to pay higher and higher premiums for shared social entertainment like live gigs and going to the cinema. Certainly I've spent many times more money in recent years on tickets to music events than I've ever spent on CDs, and they've brought me and my friends many times more joy. (Technology has a part to play there too: before Eric Lewis, my previous five gigs were all bands I've discovered through Last.fm.)
Even authors are getting in on the act – faced with poorer and poorer advances and dropping book sales, they're realising just how lucrative public speaking gigs can be. In fact, several authors I know have accepted advances that didn't even cover the cost of their writing time, safe in the knowledge that the five figure sums they earn for each personal appearance on the back fo the book will more than make up for the shortfall.
Back to consumers, and, thanks to the rise in smartphone ownership, the use of technology as a trigger for Real experiences looks sent to explode. After leaving the DNA lounge a group of us went for dinner at Mission Street Food. Before we'd even ordered drinks, everyone (except me, dammit) took out their iPhones and started tapping away at their screens. They were "checking in" to the restaurant using Foursquare, a service that tells your friends where you are, and invites them to join you. If San Francisco is anything to go by (and, when it comes to social media, it usually is), Foursquare is very likely to become the new Twitter – moving away from the idea of "what are you doing" and asking instead "where are you doing it?".
Foursquare isn't available in the UK yet but, like most of these things, it will be soon. Until then, Brits can sign up to Google's Latitude which uses GPS to track your whereabouts which can then be shared with trusted friends. Latitude lacks many of the features that make Foursquare so cool but if, as seems likely, Google releases an API for developers to build their own Latitude services, we're likely to see a zillion other location-based services launching in the coming weeks and months. Oh, yes, the future's bright ... the future's social.
All of which means, I suppose, I'd better get my finger out and get a proper smartphone so I can stop worrying about missing out on this brave new world of Real. But while I work out how to make that happen, if you should find yourself doing something amazing in a disorderly house injurous to the public welfare and morals, do make sure you tell me about it won't you?
• Paul Carr is author of Bringing Nothing To The Party: True Confessions of a New Media Whore. He blogs at paulcarr.com