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Tuesday, March 29, 2011

We Got Radiohead's Universal Sigh Newspaper in S.F. Did You?

Posted By on Tue, Mar 29, 2011 at 3:19 PM

Got it (happy sigh).
  • Got it (happy sigh).
At about 1:30 p.m. today, after 40 minutes of waiting on Mission Street, we were handed a copy of Radiohead's much-ballyhooed newspaper, The Universal Sigh. It's 12 pages, with color on the front, back, and middle. It contains a lot of first-person writing, some Radiohead lyrics from the new King of Limbs album (which came out on vinyl and CD today), and pretty much zero news.

Getting it wasn't hard. When we showed up to 16th and Mission at about 12:45 -- 15 minutes before the distribution time given on the website -- a line stretched  from a random-seeming door on 16th Street around the corner and up Mission Street. Someone in front of us counted the people in line; we were probably 120th from the front. By the time the line started moving about 1:20 p.m., there were about another 50-70 people behind us.

The front of the line
  • The front of the line
Of course, having hundreds of people line up on Mission street in the middle of a Tuesday caused a bit of a spectacle. Several people (who were presumably not Radiohead fans, or nerds) walked by and asked what the line was for. Explaining that it was "for a newspaper" caused a few surprised looks. Drivers also slowed down to gawk at the agglomeration of people. Who waits in line for a newspaper anymore?

The back of the line, looking south on Mission.
  • The back of the line, looking south on Mission.
At the front of the line, two ladies handed out papers from old-fashioned canvas newspaper bags printed with "The Universal Sigh." They took pictures of those of us who got them for the website. It seemed like there were plenty of copies to go around. (The papers were also given away at Amoeba Music on Haight Street -- if you were there, please tell us your experience in the comments.)

"I'll shoot you if you shoot me"
  • "I'll shoot you if you shoot me"
As for the paper itself, well, it's more like a literary/arts journal published on newsprint than an actual newspaper. It contains three longer stories, some random shorter writings, about half a page of lyrics, four micro stories, and various illustrations and drawings. Many of the stories and images have to do with nature; more specifically, with forests and trees and their contrast to the mechanized, developed, stress-inducing, alienating world. One is about a person finding respite while climbing up a tree. Another tells of a person who, in the midst of deepening depression, travels to the Amazon and finds himself lifted into happiness by the forest and the shamans he meets there. The final story in the paper tells of a kind of apocalypse, but leaves in question whether its narrator brings about the disaster upon himself.

A few other points about The Universal Sigh:
  • It does not contain a single instance of the word "Radiohead."
  • Although filled with haunting images of forests and spirits, several of the stories strike a very slightly optimistic tone.
  • Overall, it's pretty creepy. For example, a center page features a hand-drawn image of bats flying over a barren brush of tree branches with a giant red spot at the top. It says "Gather Up the Pitiful" in bold letters above: Mildly unsettling, at least.

So what's the point of all this? The contents of the paper leaked online a few days ago, so one could ask why it's worth going out and standing in line to actually get one. We'll say this: Like a flashmob, or a major protest, or a worldwide sporting tournament, it's fun to participate in something that is truly a global event. The papers were being given out on four continents (sorry Africa, South America, and Antarctica) yesterday and today. (And, due to an error, tomorrow for Vancouver.) We found the urge to be part of this worldwide thing, whatever it turned out to be, pretty irresistible.

Obviously the project works well as a publicity stunt. One wonders though how much publicity Radiohead -- probably the most revered band of the last 15 years -- really needs. And if the paper was meant to drive physical album sales, our anecdotal evidence suggests it may not work so well: Everyone we spoke with had already downloaded the King of Limbs, and only one had purchased a physical copy.

The six sheets of newsprint themselves make for a beguiling little artifact. The stories in it are interesting, especially Jay Griffiths' Forests of the Mind, about the Amazon trip. But more than any one story or image, what's cool about the Universal Sigh is just that Radiohead did it. Not many bands could (or would) try to give away a newspaper across the world over a couple of days. Not many organizations -- bands, companies, anything -- could get young people to stand in line for hours in order to read words printed in black ink on cheap gray pulp. With the Universal Sigh, Radiohead did that. And in the process, it managed to give out a decent-to-good read, and a tangible companion to what are, for many, intangible album releases.

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