I suppose I shouldn't just barge into town unannounced and start weighing in on things as if I know something, so, as the song says, please allow me to introduce myself.
Inspired by blogs and my constant disagreement with reviewers in San Francisco's local papers, I started A Beast in a Jungle in January of 2009. I really had no idea what I was doing, but I soon found myself meeting fellow bloggers at performances. Not long after that people began offering me free tickets to attend concerts, followed by tickets to plays, followed by all kinds of things, which was like handing a crack addict a pipe and a lighter.
When I began writing A Beast I believed I needed to come up with some catchy title and do something a little different than what others were doing -- unlike most of the bloggers I was reading, I had no formal background in the arts and took just a handful of undergrad classes in music and theater while I was in college. I wasn't a musicologist, a critic, or anything of the kind, although I used to be a DJ and I've had a life-long interest in the performing arts. I decided I would approach things as if I was a character in a contemporary Henry James novel, hence the title, which is a play on James' novella The Beast in the Jungle, and wrote under the pseudonym John Marcher, the name of the novella's protagonist.
In James' story Marcher is a middle-aged man who prides himself on his abilities of observation but is driven by a sense that something great and terrible is going to happen to him. He spends his life waiting and watching for it, only to eventually realize he missed everything important because of his twisted fear of missing out on the grand thing, a fear that sidelined him from really living any life at all.
In that spirit, during those early years I incorporated much of what was happening in my personal life into the posts, so much so that someone once remarked they thought I was writing a novel, while others thought the entire thing was a fiction in progress. I laughed when someone asked me "where do you come up with this stuff?" when in fact I was writing what was in essence a kind of diary.
A point came when I had to walk away from that style for personal reasons, and I decided to drop the pseudonym and write straight-on about the arts scene in the Bay Area without any personal narrative, encouraged by comments and messages from others, especially artists whom I had written about who validated my often contrary and negative views of their work.
In 2014 A Beast in a Jungle won the SF Bay Guardian's 40th annual Readers Poll for the Best Arts & Entertainment website. The Bay Guardian folded soon after, so I wasn't able to repeat the feat, but the site won the 2016 Best Arts Blog in the SF Weekly's poll. What's most notable about that to me is A Beast won competing against commercial sites, well-funded and written by multiple people, while this is pretty much a one-man show with no budget and no revenue streams. It's just me, and the occasional friend adding something to the mix.
At this point you may be asking "If there's no money in it, then why do it?" There are a few reasons: obviously I like the comped tickets -- getting them has saved me a lot of money over the years as well as exposed me to artists I wouldn't have seen or known about otherwise; more importantly, I've met a lot of really interesting people doing this, many of whom have become some of my closest friends; additionally, it's now a kind of portfolio, which has led to paid writing and consulting gigs (click the email icon if you want to talk with me about writing something for you).
There's one more reason: I believe promoting the arts is important and there aren't a lot of other people doing it this way. Most sites and newspapers, if they have anyone covering the arts at all, usually have a classical music critic, a theater critic, a pop music critic, etc. The more specialized sites (like the new Washington Classical Review born from the now moribund Ionarts, DC Theatre Scene, etc.), often seem to exist in artistic silos, with perspectives geared toward specialists, insiders, and those who have been life-long followers of their respective arts, with reviews and articles loaded with jargon and academic terms. They have their place, and don't get me wrong -- I read and appreciate them. But they're generally not written for people who grew up on a diet of pop culture and discovered or developed a wider palate for the arts later in life. I'm not an arts critic -- I'm an arts advocate, and I think Duke Ellington was right on when he said "There are only two kinds of music -- good music, and the other kind."
There's no reason to separate art into silos, to keep perpetuating the idea that enjoying classical music or going to the opera is something for highbrows, a part of some aspirational lifestyle, or that being interested in such things places one in some kind of elite atmosphere where everyone is more intelligent and discerning than the people rocking out at the AC/DC gig at the Verizon Center. First, it's not true, and second, it's just plain stupid because if you haven't noticed, arts coverage is dying. There are many reasons for this, but a big one is because arts writers and publications don't try to build bridges between what they view as entirely different audiences, but are in reality just one audience: people who want to experience the specific pleasures that can only come from a live performance. And when they do, they muck it up by conflating the "arts" coverage into the "entertainment" section.
True, on one level it is all entertainment but one rarely gets the sense that the person writing about Wagner knows anything about Wilco or vice versa. The results read like a conversation between experts uninterested in anything other than their own spheres of knowledge and experiences, and unwilling to acknowledge that most people under fifty cannot read music, do not play an instrument, have limited knowledge of the histories of art and theater, and have never stepped foot inside an opera house or small theater. What's worse is these writers and their publications (whether print or online) impart a sense that the Wilco audience wouldn't be interested in Wagner.
In other words, there are very few generalists left in our increasingly atomized world, and yet we need them now more than ever to keep the atoms connected. If anything, that's the role I aspire to play here -- I believe anyone with an appreciation of art and music, regardless of where it came from, coupled with a hunger or curiosity in expanding their knowledge and experience, will like Wagner if they find a way into his world. And so here I am, trying to do my part, ignoring the walls separating "high" and "low" cultures, believing there's no reason one can't take pleasure in both the grindhouse and the art house, knowing that seeing Faster Pussycat, Kill! Kill! or Some Like it Hot on a big screen can be almost as revelatory as experiencing a Ring cycle. Almost.
Oh dear, I went off on a rant and didn't even tell you why I'm here in the first place -- what caused me to leave San Francisco and bring A Beast east. Well, I won't say, other than to tell you it had nothing to do with wanting to leave, but rather had everything to do with wanting to experience something new.