This week is the third annual People Talking and Singing benefit for 826 Seattle—one of seven writing centers across the country co-founded by author Dave Eggers. This year's gala is hosted by the loquacious if dentally challenged John Roderick of the Long Winters and features readings by Eggers and New Yorker pop music critic Sasha Frere-Jones, comedians Todd Barry and Eugene Mirman, and musicians Rosie Thomas and Geologic of Blue Scholars. The Stranger got in on a three-way call between Roderick and Eggers to find out exactly what Ben Gibbard wears under his fuzzy sweater.
THE STRANGER: Rock stars aren't typically considered good role models for kids. Does that trouble you at all?
EGGERS: That's a good point. How do you answer that, Roderick?
RODERICK: I'm going to redirect that to you. At all the 826 benefit shows, music is a big part of it. Is music just putting butts in the seats? Are you just trying to sell tickets?
EGGERS: Typically, we do try to keep the musicians away from the kids when they overlap onstage.
RODERICK: I think overlap was the wrong choice of words.
EGGERS: Pass in the shadows? No, that's not good either. Yeah, we know the problems, just from Roderick down to a hygiene level. It's something we don't want the kids to see or take any cues from.
RODERICK: I'm working on that.
EGGERS: But I think the students like to blur those lines so it doesn't have to be just a strict reading, with 12 people in succession reading their work, or just a concert. I think the two things work together really well, and the students like the cross-pollination, the energy that comes from that. The audiences generally do, too. There's a very loose atmosphere because it's always a different lineup. I don't think we've ever had the same lineup for any two 826 shows. This one in Seattle will be very different than pretty much anything we've done. It'll be especially fun as long as Roderick doesn't screw anything up.
RODERICK: There's going to be comedy at this one, which will make a lot of my screwups seem intentional.
EGGERS: Eugene Mirman just did a benefit out in Boston for 826. He's hysterical; he did a great job.
So everybody's sort of familiar with each other.
EGGERS: Not really. John, have you met Eugene?
RODERICK: I've never met Eugene. I had dinner with Sasha [Frere-Jones] earlier this year; I love his writing in the New Yorker. At the 826 events that I played in New York and Chicago, part of the fun was the backstage area. It's a really lively place, all these different people getting to know each other. And then as we each take the stage you come back and you've got this group of people you've been talking to who've just seen you perform for the first time, and there's a real exchange. The fact that we don't all know each other is no impediment—I think it actually works in the event's favor.
EGGERS: I think so, too. They're all so real and fresh. It's madness sometimes. In Seattle, we had a backstage area with people counting money that was collected during intermission—that was the first time we did the money during intermission, the donation/passing the hat situation, and that was just like mass chaos, with 12 or 15 people counting literally piles of money. It looked like something very illegal was happening.
EGGERS: But there's always that kind of thing. The audience always knows they're seeing something one-of-a-kind. I think it's better that way than if it was always the same lineup and really well- rehearsed.
RODERICK: And the chance collaborations are another great thing about these shows that you hardly ever see anymore—not since the Rat Pack in Vegas. There haven't been as many different situations where people are joining each other onstage and collaborating spontaneously, which is a little dangerous, but good for you.
Aside from you, John, it does seem like the musicians involved are of the tame, fuzzy-sweater rock variety: Ben Gibbard, Sufjan Stevens, this generation of lit rock that's popular right now.
EGGERS: You know what—I've actually never seen Ben Gibbard in a fuzzy sweater. I have to say that. He's never worn one around me. I don't know what he wears at home.
Roderick: I have seen him in a fuzzy sweater, but he wasn't wearing anything else.
EGGERS: But there's going to be some hiphop at this show. And 826 performers, students in some of these shows in the past, or songwriters who appreciate a good turn of phrase and are good at it themselves... that's the connection. They're very similar in the attention paid to the written word, whether it's in hiphop or—what did you call it? "Lit rock"?—which I hadn't heard before, but I like that. I think the students recognize the common DNA to all those forms. So many of our students also do spoken word. They can put words on the page and perform them, too. There's a blurry line between all those forms, but I think the bottom line is that the words are important and they mean something.
RODERICK: You hit the nail on the head. There's a culture-wide lack of respect for articulateness that's growing by leaps and bounds. Part of the problem is pushing articulate people into a fuzzy-sweater ghetto because that's the only place where they can speak articulately and be respected and not shunned. What I like about 826 is that it's intervening in kids' lives, offering a place where articulateness is not a badge of shame, where they're not going to be ostracized or teased for being as smart as they are, however smart that is.
EGGERS: That's so true. On the one hand, 826 is helping a lot of kids for whom English is not their first language or they might be behind a grade level on reading and writing and self-expression skills. But on the other hand, it's a safe haven for kids who love writing and reading at a very advanced level. You have both sides and everything in between. We have so many kids who come in and are like, "Oh, finally—there are kids from all over the city who like to read at my level and write at my level and really care about the written word." You can just tell how intensely they favor being there, being around their peers, and having a really high-level discussion about contemporary writing that they don't always get, or they don't have to be embarrassed about how sophisticated their tastes are.
RODERICK: Even kids who aren't at a college level, reading at whatever level they're at, it's nice to be validated for that. And not have somebody be like, "Reading is for idiots! Sniff more glue, man!"
I volunteered at 826 in San Francisco, teaching a class on music criticism, and I was amazed at how into it the kids were.
EGGERS: That class always fills up. The movie-criticism classes and the very young art-criticism classes—middle schoolers take that one—they all fill up and do well because it's something the kids care a lot about. And then you try to build in critical-thinking skills and the ability to express themselves clearly and convincingly. So there are a lot of classes that are all trying to do the same thing. Which is, "What are you feeling and what are you passionate about? Now try to put it down convincingly." Whatever that access point is... that's how I started out writing for newspapers and stuff—I was a record reviewer for many years. It's always a good starting point for those kids for whom music is their first deep and passionate cultural experience.
RODERICK: It was my first experience, too, both as a writer and a reader. My point of entry into reading the newspaper was reading the culture stuff first. Then I became aware that somebody was writing about culture, and that was its own aspiration and you could disagree with it. That happened to me at a very early age, understanding the role of a critic and having that be my entrée into writing and thinking critically. I'm often at the pointy end of criticism—literary and music and otherwise. I know, Dave, that you get reviewed quite a bit, probably to your frustration a lot.
EGGERS: I'm smart enough not to read anything. I haven't read anything in seven years because I don't think it's my role to read it. That's a conversation that I'd be eavesdropping on. The subject of any review is not the intended readership; it's a conversation between the reviewer and the potential customer, the buyer, the experiencer. I knew a while ago that I was superfluous to that conversation.
RODERICK: My challenge in that is that reviews and criticism were my favorite thing to read prior to making culture myself. I'd read reviews of movies I had no intention of seeing, read reviews of books I was never going to read. And so my love of the art of criticism really puts me in a tough spot when, as I'm reading down a column reviewing records, I see my own record there and I go, "Oh! I shouldn't read it, I don't want to, but God, I've read every other review here." I have to find out.
EGGERS: Oh no! I will heal you. I've healed many people away from that temptation. It makes you a much happier, more balanced person once you heal thyself away from that. But we're on a major tangent here. What else should we say about the Seattle show? We're giving away money, too. Everyone who comes gets a hundred-dollar bill. Should we say that, John, or should that be a surprise?
RODERICK: There are six tickets to my chocolate factory that are going to be hidden under the seats.
EGGERS: That, too. And some very special guests with one name, and it might be Cher.