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Dear Pacific Gas and Electric: Consider Acoustic Music as a Form of Energy Conservation

3 August 2006

There are these advertisements for Pacific Gas and Electric that are played during radio broadcasts of baseball games in which the guy from the electric company goes to various places (schools, gyms, private residences) and persuades people to be more energy efficient. It’s a great public relations move, and may deflect suspicion. Sure, the public utility spends a portion of your bill on advertising (which for public utilities and hospitals should be illegal), but it’s less of an advertisement and more of a public service, so it becomes very noble, especially in an age in which privatization is all the rage—certainly the commercial radio stations wouldn’t spend money and time on such unpaid public service announcements, so the electric company has graciously taken up the slack.

Even the public utility knows the benefits of energy efficiency—so I would like to propose another commercial to PG&E, or any other public utility company public relations department who may read this. For instance, you could have your spokesman walk into the headquarters of major league baseball and tell BUD SELIG to arrange the schedules of a major league team in a more energy efficient way—so a team doesn’t have to fly from Toronto to Arlington, Texas and then to New York. Certainly that isn’t very energy efficient.

More to the point, since this is a music magazine, why not do a commercial on a rock radio station in which you go into a the office of Clearchannel or a major record label (one whose major acts are either modern rock, contemporary country, Christian metal, hyphy, reggaeton, or American Idol-like pop), and tell them to play and sign more acoustic acts. Yes, you could marshal the full force of your persuasive muscle to convince these industry types that pushing more acoustic acts could still ROCK or radiate whatever kind of intensity, warmth, and emotive power deemed marketable. Hell, maybe you could even start a trend! It’s but one small way PG&E is here to serve you!

What I propose is to sign my new solo act—me on acoustic piano, and an acoustic drummer or two, etc. I’d gladly sacrifice the electric guitar, bass, and piano lineup of CONTINUOUS PEASANT for your endorsement. Okay, yes, it would be nice if we could work out some clause in the contract that would allow the use of electric instruments for, say, one show in ten. We’d have to talk about the studio later. I don’t know how much electrical energy playing acoustic instruments into electronic recording devices entails, or saves. As for playing live, well even the most acoustic acts usually have microphones and public address systems. But I’m not going to get too ridiculously utopian purist here; I’m not the Unabomber. Obviously, you (oh public utility) don’t want to totally get rid of dependence on electricity (which would be self-defeating since your existence relies on this dependence), just to moderate it, and I’m with you here.

Despite my high talk, I’m implicated in the need and/or desire for electricity (even if I can wean myself of my love for electric guitars), so I don’t want to argue in bad faith, but I also know that I can, and am willing to, go further than most, even when they’re offered the kind of extrinsic positive reinforcement you offer as an incentive. And this does matter; it is not just liberal incrementalism. Anyway, so Continuous Peasant just recorded a rocking song called “Sympathy for the Industry.” It starts out by thinking about (and praising) JOE STRUMMER but ends like this:

Do you need electricity
To help people to be free?
Can you swim if you’re the sea?

I’m not presuming that these lyrics ‘stand up’ on the page (doubly taken out of context here, both from the music, as well as from the other lyrics), but I like thinking about them. Sure, on one level, yes, there’s a somewhat superficial socio-political dimension to this lyric. And, yes, this particular song is one of my most electric rockers (and its lyrics chide itself from within, like RAGE AGAINST THE MACHINE needing the machine to rage against it)—but that’s also part of why on the new (as-yet-untitled) album, I’m following that song with the only totally acoustic song on the album (which I think I’m gonna do more of next—once this long tedious process of being in the expensive studio ends).

Up until roughly 1980 (a good 60 years after the first radio and widespread access to records and over 30 years after the advent of electric guitars), acoustic music was a regular presence in pop music. Today, however, if a major act ‘went acoustic,’ it could be as controversial and revolutionary an act as the historians and myth makers say BOB DYLAN’s going electric was in 1965. Then again, it could just be ignored by the corporate status quo (does anyone remember PRINCE’s acoustic album from a few years back?). Sometimes it’s hard not to think there’s an anti-acoustic conspiracy; that’s where you could come in, Pacific Gas and Electric.