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“Here is the bottle it came in”: On Jimmy Buffett’s “Margaritaville” and stepping out of the marina

Posted by , September 2nd, 2015
Category: Abstraction, Recognition Tags: , , ,   RSS | Comments | Trackback from your site
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before.the.salt

 

 

 “Here lies one whose name was written on water” – John Keats

 

“Keepers of private notebooks are a different breed altogether, lonely and resistant rearrangers of things, anxious malcontents, children afflicted apparently at birth with some presentiment of loss” – Joan Didion

 

“the sun was called the sun because the real word for it was too terrible.” – Joy Williams

 

“Bowsprit cracked with ice and paint cracked with heat

I made this, I have forgotten

And remember.

The rigging weak and the canvas rotten

Between one June and another September.

Made this unknowing, half conscious, unknown, my own.

The garboard strake leaks, the seams need caulking.

This form, this face, this life

Living to live in a world of time beyond me; let me

Resign my life for this life, my speech for that unspoken,

The awakened, the lips parted, the hope, the new ships.” – T.S. Eliot

 

thank.you.for.the.party

When I was six or seven, my family owned a boat for a time. It was a very small boat, but it was big enough that I could curl up and sleep in the bilgy fiberglass storage area under the bow. And it was a very brief time—not much more than a couple years—but it was perfectly positioned and vivid enough that “back when we had the boat” has become the default location for almost every water-based memory from the first ten years of my life, no matter where and when it actually occurred. I sometimes feel that if I didn’t fight it, my reverie over this period could swallow the rest of my memory whole.

I tell you that to tell you this: When I was a kid, I wanted to live on a boat. I wanted this deep, deep in my bones, and felt it with a purity and intensity that, when I think about it now, makes me put my hand over my heart. But the shadow of reason grows, and adolescence locks earnestness and optimism outside of fashion for what feels like forever, and this want was eventually and affectionately archived along with the other Things That Probably Look Cooler On TV Than They Really Are, just another one of the endlessly-cycling fantasias of a kid who was tired of living in a house. After a while it became clear that a life less ordinary was not going to be had on this rent-to-own basis; a couple weekends a month on Lake Erie was never gonna feel like Magnum P.I. or even like The Rockford Files. My high romance with the boat and the water eventually cooled into just wanting to profile down at the dockside commissary and flirt with girls wearing lifejackets.

Late this past fall, though, I was walking down by the water in a different city, and saw at the marina there a string of houseboats. Festooned with greying welcome mats and Christmas lights that weren’t turned on, they looked waxy and shopworn, like Easter cakes still on display in November, crusted-over and pathetic. But in the dusk, I could make out through one of their lit windows the back of a person standing at the counter, all elbows and hunch, chopping or washing something. It was a simple bit of drudgey human gesture that didn’t have anything to do with the splashy escapism and strained hunky-dory that I saw in the version of that life that I’d written off. And in the half-second before I moved on and began to think about something else—neatly executing the kind of instantaneous mental ejection crucial to surviving an ambush by the glimpsing of a sudden sliver of viability in something you’ve walled off in your heart and mind as necessarily impossible—I found myself surprised by how real that life seemed in just that moment, and also surprised to find myself so surprised.

 

cant.handle.the.whole.weight

Once upon a time, for one little while in one very little corner of the world, there used to be this ongoing dialogue about the marina as concept and culture. Over however many years in the late 2000s and early 2010s, it was a discussion that passed between friends and acquaintances and otherwise disconnected co-occupants of certain precincts of the internet. Mostly the dialogue had to do with the casually nautical lifestyle evoked by the marina, and this lifestyle’s window of fashionability among musicians and other people appearing on record covers. Such talk, though, inevitably rippled outward into parsing that lifestyle and that fashionability’s subsequent impact on popular culture in general and on inwardly aching record collectors in particular.

Broadly and in brief: Among my kind of record people, marina culture had mostly to do with local waters, scrappy vessels, the white working class of mid-70s/early-80s America, and the companionably weathered souls navigating the intersections of all three. The great post-60s scattering of Cool America had begotten a generation of spirits too free for the land but too human for the sky. At the same time, the great proto-80s stagflation of Regular America had begotten a generation of bodies too dogged to stay but too tethered to get far. True, a lot of those dads and uncles too soon sold the Sea Ray for a down payment on a Chevy Whatever, and true, by their next albums David Crosby was in long pants and Kenny Loggins was in long sleeves, but for a long minute there, they were all in the water together, united in salty sigh and weedy ahoy down at the marina.

It was an elusive idea, and parsed on the internet a few decades after the fact, its slipperiness made for a brief season. The ascent of the adjacent and far more party-ready “yacht rock” saw the nuances of the marina mostly spackled over and subsumed into ironic vogue and all its bankruptcies. Whatever is left now of whatever we thought then, it survives isolated in the rusted circuits between people who are not exactly talking but not exactly not-talking. And even the people who are talking aren’t really talking that way anymore. People just wear deck shoes now.

But I’ve written about a lot of this stuff in a couple other places, and I’m vain enough to not want to be thought of as someone who repeats themselves too much, so there is much that I won’t say here. To the extent that “here” is even here anymore. Jesus. Fucking internet, man.

Anyway, I am writing, then, of a certain absence. I’m writing about it, from it, and into it. And whatever else it may be, Jimmy Buffett’s “Margaritaville” is a record of absence.

 

find.lovelier.lovelies

First and most literally, there is of course the absence of the shaker of salt, the madeleine squirreled between the gently mildewed all-weather-cushion ventricles of the song. When I first heard “Margaritaville” as a very young and very unimaginative kid, I honestly thought the lost salt shaker was the whole object of the song, was why the singer sounded so sad, was what everyone else (not him, though!) was blaming on a woman and which he was blaming initially on no one and then possibly on himself and then definitely on himself. I had little concept of metaphor, and just assumed that salt in a shaker was another one of the mysterious adult things whose great importance would become clear to me as I got older, like all that stuff under the sink in my parents’ bathroom.

 

dont.worry.if.i.write.rhymes

“Being a Parrot Head is also much more. For most Parrot Heads, there is a specific state of mind that comes with their condition. Age has nothing to do with it. Through his music and writings, Parrot Heads vicariously experience Jimmy’s lifestyle: the party, the ocean, the sunshine, and a relaxed sense of freedom are a part of it. And that freedom is most appealing; it allows us to express our feelings and creativity in whatever manner we choose and allows us to escape from the rat race to our own little tropical paradise, if only for a little while.” – From “What Is A Parrot Head?” by Parrot Heads of North Carolina (“Partying With A Purpose!”)

A half-step to the side of the salt is a quasi-absence–or at least the kind of disconnect that you find in these kinds of first, quiet things. The complicated peace just before the arrival of a vast, clamoring audience. The detailed confusion of What Might Be that buzzes before the dumb certainty of What We Are settles in. There is some formal weirdness in the retrospective realization that this wistful and neighborly little song became the mover and mission statement behind  a sprawling corporate lifestyle conglomerate supported by a landlocked conga line of deferred dreamers stretching from non-coast to non-coast, for most of whom a song like this is something like a hat that you put on. While I am abstractly pissy at the fact that this shimmering miniature of coastal American saudade has all these decades later lent its name to, for example, a line of tropical-drink blenders, as well as the fact that its conflicted but earnest yearn has been ballooned and cartooned and flattened into the cheapest escapism, by listener and creator alike (it’s all there in the title of Buffett’s 1999 record: Beach House On The Moon), I am not necessarily averse to the truth that the artistic imperative to worry will never fully overcome the human imperative to believe. In the popular imagination, Everybody Knows This is Nowhere will ultimately always lose to It’s 5 O’Clock Somewhere. And anyway, Jimmy Buffett has as much as any single performer of the modern era satisfied Wordsworth’s requirement for the great artist: He has created the taste by which he is to be appreciated. Can’t knock the hustle.

 

the.summers.out.of.reach

The song’s most central absence, though, is also—considering its creator’s ultimate willing descent into garish banana-cabana sybaritism—its most surprising: the absence of the good times. With the possible exception of playing guitar on the porch, none of the things that are generally considered the raisons d’etre for the kind of beach-bum idyll depicted in the song—“the party, the ocean, the sunshine, and a relaxed sense of freedom”— are really present in the song.

What we get instead is the hangover, the day after, the in-between times, the bill come due, the soft oblivion that you can’t get silkscreened on a t-shirt. “Margaritaville” is almost exclusively negative space.  And that’s not a flaw: On the contrilli, its sideways nature lets it get to places that other, better, more frontal songs (e.g. James Taylor’s blank-generation “Mexico” and Jerry Jeff Walker’s terminal version of “Backslider’s Wine”—two songs which you could fairly put at ends of a continuum with “Margaritaville” as an exact midpoint) will not reach.

Because as affecting as these more-exquisitely rendered songs can be, their directness and the clarity of their object keeps them even-keeled and centered. They’re too good to be called obvious, but there is about them an unmistakability. “The baby’s hungry and the money’s all gone.” “I found myself face down on the bar room floor.” Both songs run plumb through the canonical and chiaroscuro vale of hope and collapse that is known to us all.

So often, though, the deepest, most irreconcilable losses in life happen around the edges rather than at the center. We brace ourselves for the big stuff, the bottom dropping out, the axe falling, the door closing, and we overlook the flickering little departure, the slow winking-out in the periphery. The hardest things to keep are the things that you would never think to save. They vanish when you are not looking from places you’ve stopped checking and accrete without your even realizing into a void that ends up mattering more than you could ever have imagined.

It is a very particular class and a magnitude of loss, one that “Margaritaville” accesses by glancing just to the side of where it by all rights should—by not being about the beach but about fucking up your foot on the way there; by being not about the party but about the tattoo you got afterwards and don’t even fucking remember; by being not about the ease and the absence of obligation but about the woman you couldn’t keep, the one simple, everyday thing you want that you really can’t find, and the waste, dear lord, the fucking waste. The bright yearning for the good life that is implied by the song does not outrun the dark realization born of what’s actually in the song, right there in front of us: That there are things—things that matter—that even the good life cannot fix.

But at the same time that “Margaritaville”’s sideways approach kinda gives the lie to the style of living that is its implied center, it kinda gives it life, too. Looking too directly at the heart of the good life overwhelms us and thereby dulls it: When trying to get our minds around broad concepts like “freedom” or “leisure time,” reaching any truly personal conception requires machete-ing through the torrents of flat and banal images that present themselves so readily, and few of us have that kind of stamina anymore, so we end up caught in dumb feedback loops of blue skies or open roads or cold drinks or hammocks or stacks of money or whatever. But coming to understand something of that life’s periphery—recognizing that it even has a periphery—can keep it from hardening into cliché. “[T]he party, the ocean, the sunshine, and a relaxed sense of freedom” are as empty as they are immortal, their meaninglessness imparting them with deathlessness, and vice versa. By focusing on transitory details, the song exhibits a presentiment of loss that lets it sidestep the stupefying glare of the eternal thing at its center. It is the single evasive maneuver that has kept the song compelling, has kept it apart from the vicarious experience and easy jackassery that it left in its own wake, has kept it alive.

 

i.could.never.stay

The secret heartbreak shared by marina culture and record collecting is that at the very center of both is a wholly individual and ultimately uncommunicable thing. In the marina, that thing is the freedom promised by the water; in record collecting, it’s the ecstasy of personal musical taste. And because of this, we’re all left celebrating not thee thing, but the surrounding things: The boat, the weather, the waterfront bar. The price, the cover, the store where we bought it. And we all mean well, doggedly pursuing preservation in service of reanimation. Ours are aesthetics and cultures rooted in the braiding together of fleeting and loss-prone peripheral phenomena into something that can be saved,  gathering the neural wisps of the complex and the unique and knotting them into something that can be measured, seen, and shared. Sorting out our ideas about the ocean’s majesty may dredge up differences and frustrations, and whatever is between us may slip through our fingers again and again and again. Better, then, to just have some beers on the boat, preserving in the known and beloved pattern of that act at least something of the fellowship.

But, to paraphrase the one Sharon Stone, you can only share your way to the middle. The dissatisfaction of not being able to bring each other all the way in eventually becomes an awful lot for the collective to bear. There creeps in a counterfeit that can taint, running backward and inward, sickening the eggs of what we hope to one day bring forth. What begins as wanting to explore a sensibility in a place where others can see it leads to a sensibility warped by the understanding that it will of course be seen. Too many knots exhaust the rope, too many acquisitions cloud the consideration, talking about things you like becomes liking the things you know you’ll be able to talk about, the outward exposure depletes the inner fever, and it is wonderful to be together but we are no closer, here inside “The little circle of time that talking makes / like a hunger-producing food.” At our best, we are united in our talents for massing all the attendant things and scrolling between them fluidly enough that we receive what we think might be glimpses of the great thing at their center. But how often are we at our best? And all at the same time? Half of us are talking about oceans, the other half are talking about boats, and eventually we all just end up talking about the most knowable, relatable thing. Fucking boats, man.

This is the sorrow of “Margaritaville,” and that it is probably unwitting makes it no less profound. The life that we live among each other happens in the connections that form in our exchanges across the steady drift and eventual weave of the observable and the relatable. And at the center is something important that will not be settled here. In a few drawling, bittersweet strokes, “Maragitaville” sketches beautifully and dolefully the part of its life that it can tell you about, and when it’s said all it can, smiles downward and gives a sad little wave. There is a good life behind this, yes, but you’ll have to go the rest of the way on your own. That essential place is not in the song, not in this thing that we share, and perhaps we were not, after all, meant to get there together.

 

 

Mark Morrison – “Return Of The Mack (Acapella Of The Mack)”

Volume Two: “Oh My God!”

Mark Morrison – \”Return Of The Mack (Acapella Of The Mack)\”

“…you can see yourself trying to find your way in the darkness, lighting the hall and staircase with a miserable lamp, dragging along tied to you as part of yourself, the corpse of your memories, of your wrongs and failures, the murder everyone commits at some time of his life—you can never free yourself of your past, you have to carry the corpse while Life plays the drum…” – Max Beckmann

Several years ago I was listening to some NPR feature about Chicago radio, and there was a piece about a brand-new radio station that had just started broadcasting a couple weeks before. The initial focus of the NPR piece was on the new station’s dubious decision to plug itself right from the beginning using taped man-on-the-street testimonials. The examples played in their authentic-seeming and fully background-noised trebliness: “Oh, yeah–WXWhatever is my favorite station!” “WXWhatever plays all the best music!” “WXWhatever is the only station I listen to, at work, at home, and in the car!”  The NPR commentator pointed out the inherent ridiculousness: The station was brand new; no one in Chicago had (or could have) yet heard a minute of it, so it was logistically impossible that it was anybody’s favorite anything. There was an audible smirk, and then a pregnant pause during which I naturally assumed that he was getting ready to go in on the absurdity of commercial radio. What came next was surprising: He said that the longer he thought about it, the more human their approach seemed. He compared it to the first day at a new school, when all anybody wants to do is to seem like they belong, or at least to not seem like they don’t belong. You concentrate your efforts, he said, on pretending that you know where everything and how everything works, making sure that–in this place you’ve never been before–you don’t look out of place. Even stepping outside your own body and seeing how idiotic you look and feeling the excuses turn to ash in your mouth before you can even make them, it’s tough to fight that instinct. What? Me? No, I’m not new. What do you mean? I’ve always been here.

“We manipulate memory / To make things free” – Lisa Robertson

In the summer of 1989, days before the start of our sophomore year of high school, my friend Ethan and I were lounging in our other friend Andy’s family room, watching MTV. Our semi-rural town’s conservative and overwhelmingly religious leadership’s decade-long lobby against the inherent turpitude of Music Television–and said leadership’s subsequent strong-arming of the only cable provider in town–had only just relented a month or so ago. We’d all already spent years listening to as much music as possible, reading about it wherever we could, and watching on other networks whatever “video shows” we could find, and even if we’d read enough Maximumrocknroll to know that MTV was of course totally meritless corporate bullshit (of course), it still felt like a new mainline had opened up, and its pull was irresistible. Wherever two or more of us were gathered we watched with a thirsty reverence our new cathode-ray Fatima, looking for signs, for connectors. When De La Soul’s “Me Myself & I” came on, we watched it in the riveted way we watched all of them, but about halfway through the video, Ethan jabbed a finger at the screen said with great portent:

This–this is going to be us this year.”

we’ve formed an image

Right up until the second before he said that, it would never have occurred to me, but in the way that can only happen once someone else’s failed check on their teenage obviousness gives you tacit permission to unleash your own, I immediately gave myself over fully to the inevitability of his assertion. Yes. Clearly, this was our new template, our re-up, this year’s model of the outcast pose we’d cribbed from punk the year before (and from thrash metal the year before that, and from horror movies the year before that, and from comic books the year before that, and from weird cousins all the rest of our years). By the end of this goofy little post-“I Wanna Rock” melodrama, wherein the asymmetrical and unfashionable De La dudes slouch their way unobtrusively through a school day while being endlessly taunted by the popular and conventionally-dressed archetypes who mug nonstop in their periphery, we were certain that the new path had been shown. In the life of the artsy teen, there is a design that must needs be renewed every day, a pattern of positive and negative, assertion of what you are and denial of what you are not, criticism and embrace, creation and rejection. But the greatest of these is: Fabrication. Complete and utter fabrication.

My friends and I were not outcasts. We did not register in the social structure to enough of an extent that anyone felt the need to cast us out of it. Generally speaking, I think we were at this point pretty much nonentities to everyone except each other. This is why wholesale identity-jacking was attractive in general. What made the identity offered in the “Me Myself & I” video so attractive in particular was the blasé air that we perceived about the protagonists: As reflected in all our previous models of marginality as well as in our own mirror, here were weird dressers with indistinct physiques and hair issues and who felt they were suffering fools daily; but instead of responding with traditional anger or violence, they responded with a kind of soulful fatigue. Where the cycles of dissatisfaction and retribution–enacted by The Exploited, “Institutionalized,” Nail Gun Massacre, that Aaron kid who ended up going to juvie (he was a year ahead of us–remember? had a single mom who was kinda cute?), The Punisher, et al.–had been circuits that we could only ever complete symbolically (and even then, unconvincingly), here at last was a front that we could ride all the way. It wasn’t the giant leap that all those other things had asked us to make, it was just a step–a step so small that it didn’t even register as a lie. It was a fantasy that was made so seductive by seeming so close to where we already were, and we took that small step, overlooked that lie, jettisoned the history we’d never wanted in favor of the history we’d never had, and said “yes” to all of it.

But then, that kind of thing is pretty exclusively the province of teenagers. What seemed at the time to be a slip of the yoke of memory, looking back, seems more like the kind of transubstantiation that can only happen in the time before memory. We were fucking kids, you know? It was a great unburdening at a time when we had almost nothing to shed.

So much has happened since, and history, memory, and circumstance are not so easily escaped. We are grown now, and now, in our time of the corpse and the drum, that open territory seems to always recede before us. We come to understand that in the end, videos, music…these kinds of things, they never mean as much as we want them to; they are beautiful but they are uninhabitable and they cannot stay, any more than we can. Ultimately, in the dark of the night and dark of the head and dark of the heart, there can only be the self–the true, unblinking self, the one we do not get to choose–and when stripped and thrown back before that most dreadful witness, will you still have a song to sing?

….

“Call me Ishmael.” – Herman Melville

b/w

“Don’t call it a comeback!” – LL Cool J

Every Mark Morrison music video I’ve ever seen makes at least one truly awful fashion statement. “Crazy” has a guy chatting inna doo-doo raggamuffin stylee from behind an infrared cyborg eyepatch; “Let’s Get Down” has Mark himself in various configurations of a mismatched buffalo-check shorts set, worn cholo-style (with just the top button done) and topped off with a clip visor worn backwards; in “Trippin’,” he’s flanked by bored-looking huskies and wearing a turtlenecked vest (to the casual observer who might wonder whether this wouldn’t simply be a sleeveless turtleneck, all I can say is that it’s like those dreams where you’re in a house and it’s nothing like your house and yet you instinctively know that it’s your house: I just know it’s a turtlenecked vest, okay?); that other video (“Moan & Groan”) where he’s at the microphone stand emoting broadly while shackled with gold-plated handcuffs, so clearly wearing them not as props but as an earnest attempt at, you know, a look. In the video for “Return Of The Mack,” the statement is: door-knocker earrings for men. And the whole video is characterized by similarly questionable aesthetic decisions, decisions that leave it feeling like New Jack City staged five years too late and shot like a perfume commercial. The storyline is hazy, but it has something to do with Mark–in open rebuke of the café au lait honey who dissed him for some bobo-dread scrub in an entry-level bubble goose–posse’d up with two additional computer-generated versions of himself and striding through a dramatically lit chunnel toward the future, with black leather trench coats and dookie chains and door-knockers for all three of them/him. There is also a snake, which I believe represents the scheming ex-girl who herself shows up partway through the video to confront the three Marks in their postindustrial office suite while draped in a black leather trench coat that she seems to have borrowed from one of them. Whew. Nonlinearity aside, the video’s triumphalism is contagious and undeniable. It floats from its first second to its last on a luxury of mist and party-over-here type atmosphere that blurs all edges and blunts all objections. Truly, the mack has returned.

at least two pair

The music is similarly seductive. It’s simultaneously muscular and spongy, slabby and sassy on its own slow-roll majesty. Hip-hop in its approach but smooth-jazz in its self-satisfaction, it is chromed and confident and doesn’t mind moving just a little bit slower than you’re hearing it, hanging back a little even as it swells forth on a three-and-a-half-minute wave of cork-pop and bubbly gush. Every bar is measured in the same wet starburst of picked guitar, and peppered with samples and stabs that sound as though they’re imported from some faraway magical kingdom of Rap Music. There’s no bass presence to speak of, just kick, snare, and sparkle that weighs a ton. Underneath the whole thing is a vastly satisfied professional buzz, the purr of a giant robot cat that has eaten all the money, and can now doze.

But as good as the video looks, it’s also a lazy absurdity of convoluted clichés and a train-wreck of disconnected posturing. And as good as the music sounds, it’s also an meaningless juggernaut of gloss that never leaves the showroom. They both operate in complete fealty to history, memory, and archetype, and evaporate as soon as you look away.

The acapella, though, is the work of a free man. Taken in its full musical (and, if you like, visual) context, the singing registers chiefly as one long torrid ululation–good, but nothing crazy; typical r&b overemotion refracted through an eccentric vocal approach multiplied the fake crying from “La Di Da Di” and divided by the fact that dude’s a couple years late with all this. But when cut loose and taken on its own, you can hear the mania bloom.

“The guy just goes out and thinks, No one’s gonna understand what I’m doing except for me, but I’m a fuckin’ genius.” – Matt Damon

Far from ahistorical, its first note is a clarion of continuity, the kind of ascendant and hanging “Ohhhhh” previously given vessel in Frankie Beverly, Jackie Hogg, Lenny Williams, Charlie Wilson, Aaron Hall, and on and on. And this voice’s very ribs reach forth from the lineage of messianic anguish and megalomania and entitled eccentricity and willful abandon knotted with complete control that passed like a coiff- and larynx-borne virus from Captain Ahab to Larry Blackmon to Grace Jones to Bobby Brown to Shabba Ranks to anyone else who ever flamed weird and fearless from their mouth and had hair that was all fucked-up on one side. And what this vocal here does is take all that lineage, all those continuities, and lets them pile and pile and pile, indulging each of them in their turn, running through all that history so fluidly that the individual images of the originals get subsumed into ever-accelerating zoetrope flicker. In this heedless cycling-through, it all moves. The old is made new, time vibrates against itself, and the pretender is made real.

The vocals of the full version include a mid-song break during which we hear a woman’s voice, English-inflected and sleepy (or maybe just tired): “Mark, stop lying about your big break…For god’s sake–I need a real man…Stop letting me down…Stop letting me down…” It’s a humorous little moment, and a somewhat pivotal one, in the way that its “Oh yeah? That’s not what she said…” humanizes slightly this preposterously over-the-top figure and eases him back from the brink of pure caricature, and also in its sly acknowledgement (“stop lying about your big break”) of the commercial fact that when this song came out, almost nobody in America knew who the fuck Mark Morrison was or why his “return” from anywhere would mean anything to anyone. (It’s telling that the single/radio version includes only the “big break line”; admitting to your pop audience the realities of the market is one thing–copping to personal shortcomings your first time out is, I guess, another.)

The acapella gives no quarter to such outside perspective. This is a universe of one. Morrison vipers heedlessly from machete-chop dancehall cadence to silk degrees of loverman confession to the betrayed bleating of a still-glistening man-child kicked too soon from his butter-leather womb. Here his voice is Caribbean, here throaty and Pendergrassian, here adenoidal. Now his accent is from Jamaica! London! Atlantis! And the deeper you listen, the weirder it gets. If the music were around, its glittering batter would ooze through and smooth the song into its familiar braggadocio, moneyed and middling. But the music is not here, and in that vacuum we are left alone with a voice that operates only at the far poles of drama, with no use for anything resembling medium cool. There are only Best Things Ever and Worst Things Ever. Godly and lowly. The shining victor and the abject loser. It is complete immersion in rotating archetype, until every line is a comment that reflects on a reflection that was already a reflection of a reflection of a reflection of something that was a copy in the first place. It becomes a demented hall of mirrors housing both The Mack, high on powdered pharaoh brain and fat on the meat of eagles, bestride the whole world, mile-wide smiling and licking his champagne fangs, and The Pariah, a mock-necked Caliban wracked and bawling like all three members of Jodeci bound into one monstrous body and informed that one head must now eat the other two.

One could argue that singers in general and r&b singers in particular tailor their vocals to the nuances of the musical backing they’re singing against; when stripped from that backing and isolated, pretty much any vocal is gonna sound a little unhinged. To me, though, the “Mack” acapella goes farther. Formally, it doesn’t have the spaciousness of most isolated vocals, nor does it exhibit much sense that it is meant to exist as one part of a full musical production; all of the auditory space is filled with vocals and choruses and back-ups and ad-libs, all sung by Morrison and all delivered as if each part represented a distinct character, and as if Morrison alone was responsible for (and worthy of) populating the entire track. And creatively, it is just so unabashed and frontal, so devoid of any non-extremity; for dude’s maiden voyage towards a wider American audience, he delivers a vocal that not only explodes with contradictory eccentricities–You’ve never heard of me before…but all hail my return! I’m the ne plus ultra ladies’ man…but I lost my girl! This is my big moment, right here…but I’ll be back!–but that also demands to have its story swallowed whole.

What makes this last insistence so audacious is the faint but deep feeling of fugazi that runs through the vocal. The entire performance revolves around Morrison’s ability to sustain the idea that he’s got all the moves. And to a point, he convinces; it’s a strong vocal, plenty of range, expertly structured, and invokes enough established r&b signifiers (The Voice, The Man, The Girl, The Lie, etc.) to get through the door without a hassle. Soon, though, there comes that uh-oh feeling. It’s not unlike when you’re scanning the dial and enjoying an unfamiliar song for the minute or two before its suspiciously non-committal pronouns make you wonder if you’re accidentally listening to something religious, or flipping through channels and coming to rest on some interesting-seeming show whose slightly scrubbed and behind-the-times quality prickle your suspicion that you’ve been tricked into watching a little bit of something Canadian. That feeling of Everything is here, all the right switches get flipped, everything is right where it should be–why does this still seem…off?

Again and again, Morrison gets the substance right but the details wrong: He starts in immediately with the kind of that-boy-can-sang vocal flexing that so often in r&b acts as an annunciation, but he takes it too far too fast; in the few seconds comprising opening vamp–“Ohhhhhh / Come on / Oooh yeah”–he uses three different voices (adopting an ecstatic clarity for the “Ohhhhhh,” a weird nasality for the “Come on,”  then a smooth quaver for the “Oooh yeah”), pushing past “range” and into “schizophrenia.” Beginning in these same early seconds and continuing throughout, it’s made clear that he’s studied the furious entitlement of later-period Michael Jackson and its attendant belief that sheer presence can trump intelligibility, that if your phonetics are visceral enough, the listener will bend their understanding to accommodate your intent (call it The Shah-Mown Paradigm): he swallows both the beginning and the ending of the “Come on!” so that we only really hear what bubbles up in between, something that sounds like “I’m oh!” It mostly comes off, but there remain these moments where the smeariness and indecipherability exceed the pocket, making the listener conscious–in a way that a more orthodox, sonically grammatical approach might not–of the liberties being taken and of an unearned identity being asserted; mid-nineties Mark Morrison is not, after all, mid-eighties Mike Jackson, and while it took until the what’s-up-with-that? observational-humor boom of a few years later (possibly even until the hey-remember-the-8os? talking-head shows of more than a decade later) to really shine a light on the bizarre qualities of MJ’s fevered ad-libs and gravid exhalations, it’s almost impossible to hear Morrison’s vocal even once and not be struck immediately by its overweening self-indulgence, by just how fucking weird this jiggy no-name pop aspirant sounds from the very first listen. Far from any kind of middle finger, though, it is not an act of rebellion but is instead a formal and aesthetic reverence so slavish and inflated that it becomes a kind of disregard for accepted reality.

The vocal’s highness-on-its-own-supply-ness is driven home in the acapella’s last thirty seconds. In this final stretch, there are three iterations of the chorus–each consisting of the title phrase sung three times, then buttoned with the chronologically and thematically muddled threat/promise, “You know that I’ll be back!”–with Morrison ad-libbing between each line to form loose couplets: “Return of the mack! (My little girl!) / Return of the mack! (Once my pearl!) / Return of the mack! (Up and down!) / You know that I’ll be back! (’Round and ‘round!)” and so on. Every “Return of the mack!” is sung identically, but every round of ad-libs is sung in at least two different voices; taken cumulatively, they lay bare every color in his palette, willfully and jarringly exposing the work as just that: a work. But then, the listener’s suspension of disbelief has by now become irrelevant. Morrison has created his own universe, a universe in which he plays all the parts, every one which he’s repurposed from somewhere else, and he stopped worrying about you a couple verses ago, straddling with impunity worlds of pure artifice and worlds of no artifice at all, and he will insist on his authenticity even as he lets you see him change costumes right in front of you.

Why I’m still able to draw inspiration from this in 2012 is perhaps mostly a matter of scale. As the self-doubt and isolationist tendencies of my adult self do nothing but intensify my feelings of withdrawal, there is a steady erosion of my belief that any freedom from the hulking corpse of memory and the martial drumbeat of life is truly possible. All the solutions seem to rely upon the outside world’s acceptance of your particular strain of kayfabe, or at the very least upon some fellow travelers among whom you can circulate your counterfeit without fear of exposure. And I have a hard time trusting in any solution so dependent on the willful blindness of others. But this is not that. The “Return Of The Mack” acapella is not a fledgling radio station trying to snow a whole city, nor is it my friends and I scanning the dial for our next amnesiac waterslide out of suburbia. Though its aims are just as delusional as either of those, its pursuit works through not exactly the former’s denial of wider histories, nor exactly through the latter’s denial of personal histories, but through gorging on the poses of history and memory until rupture is achieved, leaving a space in which a different self might emerge, a self born not of negation, but of explosion. It is, ultimately, just one guy who realizes himself not by cutting loose from that which he is and that which he cannot forget, but by burrowing into it so deeply that he comes out the other side, emerging as something new.

In Aimee Bender’s story, “The Girl In The Flammable Skirt,” the narrator has for reasons unexplained inherited from her father a massive backpack that is made of solid stone and which she cannot take off. She goes to school and talks to her teacher:

It’s so heavy, I said, everything feels very heavy right now.
She brought me a Kleenex.
I’m not crying, I told her.
I know, she said, touching my wrist. I just wanted to show you something light. 

Rise Like Lions After Slumber

Posted by , November 11th, 2011
Category: Recognition Tags:   RSS | Comments | Trackback from your site
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Smiling still a despot dies
For he knows, on his demise

New hands wield the tyrant’s power
It is not yet freedom’s hour
Heinrich Heine (King David, 1848)

 

Amidst all the fervor and misinterpretation surrounding the Occupy Wall Street movement, there is, largely, a presumption that the binary political system can atone for the inequities that have so angered the unruly, leaderless mass. The occupation process, however vague and “directionless,” is a spontaneous display of what Benjamin Tucker called “unterrified Jeffersonianism” — an exercise in non-hierarchical, transparent democracy that moves sideways through linear time, and, as such, remains largely “unseen” by traditional viewpoint. It’s not so much “directionless” as it is moving in all directions simultaneously. The occupation has gained popular support in no small part because of its honesty, behavior that is a novelty and stands in contrast to the immorality of political theater. As Heinrich Heine so poetically described, a tyrant can die smiling because he knows that after his death, power only changes hands, and tyranny has no end. The duopolistic structure of left and right party politics acts as its own counterbalance, its own safety net, trading power between tyrants. What this occupation does is short circuit that binary process of continual transfer of power, voiding the presupposition that the answer lies within politics as such, and asks instead, “if not this, then what?”

 

In 1976, Jean Baudrillard forecasted both Occupy Wall Street and the false sense of free choice within the structure of democratic capitalism:

 

The system of the ‘advanced democracies’ becomes stable through the formula of the two-party system. The de facto monopoly remains in the hands of a homogenous political class, from the left to the right, but must not be exercised in this way. This is because single party rule, totalitarianism, is an unstable form which drains the political stage and can no longer ensure the feedback of public opinion, the minimal current in the integrated circuit that constitutes the transistorized political machine. The two-party system, by contrast, is the end of the end of representation since solicitation reaches its highest degree, in the name of a simple formal constraint, when you approach the greatest perfect competitive equation between the two parties. This is only logical: Democracy attains the law of equivalence in the political order, and this law is fulfilled by the see-sawing of the two terms, which thus maintains their equivalence but by means of this miniscule divergence allows for public consensus and the closure of the cycle of representation: a theatre of operations where only the smoky reflections of political Reason continue to function. Democracy’s credo of the individual’s ‘free choice’ effectively turns into its exact opposite….
Jean Baudrillard (Symbolic Exchange and Death, 1976)

 

 

Isn’t it exactly the illusory nature of binary democracy — limited to a preordained duopoly, offering miniscule divergence, a simple format of constraint — that functions as “free choice” today? It’s this illusion of choice, a choice between the lesser of two evils, between an already narrowed field of left and right that is growing more homogenized each election cycle, that intensifies the occupational rage.

After the Cold War, the two-party structure of “good” and “evil” was effectively defunct, as democratic capitalism reigned supreme, a Heine-esque King. As Baudrillard explained, such an autocratic system is an inherently unstable form that drains the stage, leaving the political theater of choice anemic, an unconvincing performance. With the attack on the World Trade Center, and the wars that followed, there’s been resurgence in simulated opposition. Baudrillard offered eerie prescience about the financial collapse in his architectural survey of the World Trade Center:

 

 

Why has the World Trade Center in New York got two towers? All Manhattan’s great buildings are always content to confront each other in a competitive verticality, from which there results an architectural panorama that is the image of the capitalist system: a pyramidal jungle, every building on the offensive against every other… The buildings stand next to one another like the columns of a statistical graph. This new architecture no longer embodies a competitive system, but a countable one where competition has disappeared in favor of correlation. This architectural graphism belongs to the monopoly: the World Trade Center’s two towers are perfect parallelepipeds, four hundred meters high on a square base; they are perfectly balanced and blind communicating vessels. The fact that there are two identical towers signifies the end of all competition, the end of every original reference. Paradoxically, if there were only one, the WTC would not embody the monopoly, since we have seen that it becomes stable in a dual form. For the sign to remain pure it must become its own double: this doubling of the sign really put an end to what it designated.
Jean Baudrillard (Symbolic Exchange and Death, 1976)

 

 

With the collapse of the World Trade Center came the collapse of the tactical division of the monopoly, and, in hindsight, it seems inevitable that without such a symbolic division, the totalitarian single-party marketeers would steer us straight towards instability.

The obvious question remains: what the fuck does this have to do with music? It is both unbelievable and unmistakably clear; there is a curious correlation between Occupy Wall Street and the punk band Crass.

 

 


 

 

 

Do They Owe Us A Living?” (The Feeding of the 5000, 1978)

Do they owe us a living?
Of course they fucking do!

 

 

From 1977 to 1984 Crass took the anarchist impulse from the first wave of punk and followed it to its obvious fulfillment: a completely different way of living. As a band, they articulated their rage completely outside the rock ‘n’ roll arena, manufacturing their own records (to circumvent censorship), avoiding conventional concert halls and operating without any business apparatus (managers, lawyers, PR, etc.). Despite any popular fanfare Crass not only managed to sell tens of thousands of records, but more importantly, they forced the government and the public to deal with issues they raised (the Falklands War, nuclear disarmament, globalization, animal rights, environmentalism). As a social force, Crass was remarkable. The band lived all together at Dial House, a collective home with an open door policy that recognized no ideology: anyone was free to come and go and the house was used as a free space to realize creative endeavors.

Musically, Crass not only stood in stark contrast to other punk groups like the Sex Pistol and the Clash, who enjoyed commercial intercourse with the entertainment industry, but they sounded different than other punk bands. While the Sex Pistol were a slightly rough-around-the-edges variation on rock ‘n’ roll, Crass used sound as a function of their praxis. Under traditional criteria, e.g., melody, harmony, timbre, pitch and rhythm, Crass could be described as unbearable. Listen to any Crass song and it should be abundantly clear, the sound is ugly, and the sound has less to do with entertainment or sing-a-long-ability and more to do with acting as a conduit for their message of total rejection.

Theodor Adorno denounced protest music, explaining that by coupling the voice of dissent with entertainment, the music and the message is doomed. “The entire sphere of popular music is inseparable from consumption,” Adorno explained, and “taking the horrendous and making it somehow consumable makes the music unbearable.” The idea of the inseparability of entertainment and consumption, and how that is at odds with the subversive intent of punk, seemed to be clear in the Crass “sound.” Being “terrible” at music made Crass that much better as a punk outfit. In the Adornian sense, Crass did what it set out to do musically, to be perfectly horrendous. And the fact that the band operated as an informal non-profit, turning their earnings to investments towards other anarchistic endeavors, insured not only that they remained broke, but that their practice never involved intercourse with the culture industry.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Understanding Crass — ugly, loud, discordant — as an anarchist movement is quite easy, one only needs to hear them, or see an album cover to reconcile some vague idea of anarchy with the band. Beyond the noise, Crass promoted ideas of individual freedom and autonomy, which, when viewed through the skewed lens of Western understanding, is usually seen as “disorder.” What’s missing in this view of anarchy vis-à-vis disorder is precisely the thing that makes anarchy so compelling: love. And more than anything, Crass were compelled by love. It’s hard to reconcile the ugliness of Crass with the hippy image of them living together, tending their organic garden and promoting love, precisely because their existence rejects the presupposition of such binary regulations.

The same inability to amalgamate seemingly contradictory practices is at work in the perception of Occupy Wall Street. The term “anarchy” has been frequently thrown at the occupation as a way of slandering the intention, painting the anger as juvenile spectacle instead of warranted response. This tactic is a throwback to McCarthyism, in much the same way that the term “socialist” has been slung at Obama’s presidency. For anyone with an understanding of the Cold War, it’s not only clear that communism failed completely, but the only state to propagandize communism more than the Soviet Union was the United States. That is because to paint the Soviet Union as an example of “true communism” only strengthens America’s claim to being the leading exemplar of “true democracy.” The false choice of communism or democracy offers two options in a binary operation not unlike the preordained duopoly of the political theater of left versus right. What Occupy Wall Street does, is, first, reject the premise of such a binary presumption, and second, instead of being one among many to offer answers to today’s political problems, the occupation asks, “if not this, then what?” and by doing so, redefines the problems of today’s politics.

That same redefining of problems was apparent in Crass, who screamed their anarchic message of love through songs of cacophonous noise, which were contained on records that were covered in vile imagery. When detractors and reactionaries demand the occupation answer such charges as, “are you just an anarchist who hates America and capitalism?” the impulse should not be to answer within the binary regulation of yes or no, but instead, to reject the premise of such a notion. The refusal to submit to being a single-issue protest renders Occupy Wall Street “uncoverable” in conventional media terms. There’s no single sound bite, there’s an overabundance of sound bites. The egalitarian structure makes every interviewee just a participant and not a spokesperson. Rather than listing issues that can be addressed by the current system, the occupation cites the system itself as the single-issue problem. Here, again, the movement shares likeness with Crass, who practiced a form of anarcho-syndicalism:

 

 

Liberalism and Democracy were pre-eminently political concepts, and, since the great majority of the original adherents of both maintained the right of ownership in the old sense, these had to renounce them both when economic development took a course which could not be practically reconciled with the original principles of Democracy, and still less with those of Liberalism. Democracy with its motto of “equality of all citizens before the law,” and Liberalism with its “right of man over his own person,” both shipwrecked on the realities of the capitalist economic form. So long as millions of human beings in every country had to sell their labor-power to a small minority of owners, and to sink into more wretched misery if they could find no buyers, the so-called “equality before the law” remains merely a pious fraud, since the laws are made by those who find themselves in possession of the social wealth. But in the same way there can be also no talk of a “right over one’s own person,” for that right ends when one is compelled to submit to economic dictation of another if he does not want to starve.
Rudolf Rocker (Anarcho-Syndicalism: Theory and Practice, 1937)

 

 

It’s in this moment of spontaneous “unterrified Jeffersonianism” that the occupation, hearing Jefferson remark, “that government is best which governs least,” shouts back Thoreau’s anarchist retort, “that government is best which governs not at all!” And it is here that we find ourselves at the deadlock of capitalism. That is to say, crisis is inherent in capitalism. There is a sign that frequently appears at occupy rallies, “capitalism IS crisis,” which perhaps best summarizes the entire movement. And yet, in just three words, the apparently simple redefining of the problems confronting us has no equally simple answer.

 

 

 

 

 

Taking Sides” (Yes Sir, I Will, 1983)

We must be prepared to oppose them on every level,
To fight back in the knowledge that if we don’t
We will have failed in our responsibility to life itself.

We must not be intimidated by the authority that they appear to have.

 

In an interview, Penny Rimbaud said of the Crass agenda, “We got out on the streets and we really tried it out — and we failed.” How did they fail? Crass deliberately presented their music not as a sound commodity but as a natural extension of their way of life. Through shared living at Dial House, and the community centers and actions they funded with proceeds from the band’s activity, Crass assumed other punks and anarchist equally invested would do the same. The idea of thousands of Dial Houses all over England was an early dream of Crass, and that is all it ever was, a dream. Rather than hearing “There is no authority but yourself” and taking those words as a call to autonomous action, the listeners, for the most part, acted like fans, and sang along, just as they would with the Sex Pistols. Rather than being inspired to create their own autonomous, anarchist squats, most punks adopted Crass as a badge, an ideology, and preached it. Crass was quite successful as a band, selling records, garnering followers, influencing other groups, but failed in that by becoming a force of the underground, they managed to create an alternative binary system rather than uproot the existing binary system.

 

There are occasions when it pays better to fight and be beaten than not to fight at all.
George Orwell (Homage to Catalonia)

 

Crass disbanded in part due to a division between members who believed in pacifism and those who believed in reactionary violence. Is this not also an antagonism in the occupation? As the balaclava-clad bloc came out during Oakland’s General Strike, though overwhelmingly in the minority, it can be seen as the logical conclusion to the “if not this, then what?” question. As Occupy Wall Street, echoing Rudolf Rocker, undermines democratic capitalism’s credo of rights and equality, revealing the perpetual state of shipwrecked-ness, the “then what” is the face-off between society at large and those in possession of social wealth. We only need to look back at the history of radicalism to see that going head-to-head with the controlling minority has rarely been able to, as the rallying cry pleads, “remain non-violent.” The history of reactionary violence — tens of thousands guillotined during the French Revolution, burning the Tuileries palace to the ground during the Paris Commune, systematically destroying the churches in Barcelona during the Spanish Civil War, Molotov cocktails hurled in every direction during May ’68, the poison and bombing campaigns of “propaganda by the deed” individualists — finds itself in the same frustrated deadlock time and again, as the issues central to radical protests (liberty, equality, fraternity) have never been resolved within democratic politics. The realization that civil rights, gender equality or suitable living conditions for all are among the many issues that remain perpetually unsettled return again and again as a statement of war against what Rudolf Rocker called the “pious fraud” of the minority (i.e., the 1%) in control of social wealth.

 

 

 

 

 

Crass was instrumental in organizing a proto-Occupy Wall Street in the early ‘80s, called “Stop the City.” Without permit or notice to authorities, thousands of activists occupied the area of the London Stock Exchange, preventing brokers and bankers from getting to their offices. Protestors were, in turn, truncheoned and tossed into paddywagons, only to return in record numbers the following year to do it all again. Before the anti-globalization movement was identified as such, Crass was a part of it. Nearly three decades before people were willed to fill public squares en masse, Crass had the same idea.

There’s a tendency, likely born from a combination of suspicious wonderment and jealous misdirection, that’s common among the view from outside the occupation, which extends beyond the name-calling and jokes of hygiene and hair color, to reveal a hesitation that should be considered a vote of confidence. Because it’s within this impulse to apply a title to the character of revolt, to look upon protestors and call them madmen, where true identity is revealed, where what is unbearable is being uncategorized. So by designating oneself “sane” in the act of calling the other “mad,” we can see the locus of illusion: by insisting the other is under the illusion of madness, the sane one falls victim to the ironic illusion of his own madness. Or, to use a Lacanian aphorism: “If a man who believes himself to be king is mad, a king who believes himself to be king is no less mad.” The impulse to denigrate, which is in abundance with critics of Crass and the Occupy movement, should be seen clearly as an impulse towards solidarity masked by contemptuous envy. It’s this sign of discomfort that signals the slow overturning of public conscience, when the tenuous link to the belief that there is an answer to the problems slowly turns to the realization that the problems themselves should be redefined, as the previously specious set of beliefs is put to torch.

Le roi est mort, vive le roi. “The king is dead. Long live the king.” When one king dies, another king is crowned, and the kingdom continues…  until it doesn’t.

 

Banned from the Roxy” (The Feeding of the 5000, 1978)

The government protecting their profits from the poor,
The rich and the fortunate chaining up the door.

Afraid that the people may ask for a little more

Than the shit they get. The shit they get.
The shit they get. The shit they get.

 

While there are plenty of parallels to draw between Crass and Occupy Wall Street, the two are fundamentally different in their intent. Crass operated as an underground movement while the occupation specifically aims at the majority, the ninety-nine percent. This principal distinction, paradoxically, makes the two more similar than separate. While Crass subscribed to a punk ethos, operating as a subversive counterweight to popular culture, the occupation aims at the subversive counterweight that maintains cultural social order, that is, the plutocratic minority that bang the drum of democratic capitalism against the better judgment of the majority. Crass was critical of the Sex Pistols singing, “I believe in anarchy” alongside “there’s no future in dreaming,” because, for Crass, the only future was in realizing the anarchist dream. In much the same way, the occupation endeavors a monumental overturning of everything; instead of banging the drum of cynical partisanship, which sees no future, the movement, instead, asks for a waking up from this nightmare, allowing another impossible dream to be dreamt.

 

 

 

 

 

However unconscious, it seems the occupation has learned from the mistakes of Crass. Rather than operating as a traditional organization, with a figurehead easily toppled, the occupation’s egalitarian approach offers an answer to Crass’s failure to become one among many collective anarchist groups operating around England. And it’s no coincidence that the brave souls who camped out at the very beginning of this occupation, those very same people that current supporters of the occupation are quick to relegate as not indicative of the whole, who critics continually point to as typical examples of the occupation, are the very stripe familiar to Crass fans: the dreadlocked ‘n’ mohawked, Mad Max looking gutter punks. Among those first to feel the swing of a police baton, the first to familiarize themselves with the taste of pepper spray, the first to be hauled off in cuffs, the first to become dispossessed of their reasonable expectation of privacy, the first to volunteer to sleep in a park, the first to march fearlessly into a confrontation with police knowing it ends with a ride in the paddywagon, are those who look like extras cast in a Hollywood-produced “tell-all” Crass biopic. No coincidence. Like Crass, let’s not disregard them just because they are unbearable.

 

Those who are willing neither to suffer nor to possess the means of oppression, who want freedom both for themselves and for others — they, in an age that poverty or terror condemns to the excesses of oppression, are the seeds beneath the snow of which one of the greatest among us spoke.  Once the storm is over, the world will live off them.
Albert Camus (Resistance, Rebellion and Death, 1960)

 

Crass has largely been left out of the history of punk rock, because much of that history has been produced to satisfy the evidence of the very forces Crass sought to overthrow. In the Adornian sense, history, commissioned through industrial institutions (government, entertainment, academic) that further the obligation to consume, makes Crass not only unbearable, but also irrelevant. However, as Camus points out, Crass act as “seeds beneath the snow,” and the occupation we see sprouting “out of nowhere” today can be easier comprehended as the later part of a gestation period that found genesis with Crass and their ilk.

With respect to the Great Recession we find ourselves in today, we can use an instrument of “financial innovation” as an analogy for how we view the historic authenticity of Crass and Occupy Wall Street. A financial derivative has no independent value; its value is derived from the value of an underlying asset. In the case of Crass and the occupation, the underlying assets are peace, resistance, autonomy. This impulse towards human welfare is both monumental and desired, but you can’t sell something that is free, ergo, such an impulse is out of place in our society. The West has slowly created a historical practice that describes itself to itself while erasing all that does not satisfy its rules of evidence. And while there are many noble elements found within Crass and Occupy Wall Street, both derive their value from outside the laws of democratic capitalism, not only positioning themselves to be constantly misconceived, but to become historically inauthentic within Western historicity.

 

The Five Knuckle Shuffle” (Yes Sir, I Will, 1983)

If there was no government, wouldn’t there be chaos
Everybody running round, setting petrol bombs off?
And if there was no police force, tell me what you’d do
If thirty thousand rioters came running after you?
And who would clean the sewers? Who’d mend my television?
Wouldn’t people lay about without some supervision?
Who’d drive the fire engines? Who’d fix my video?
If there were no prisons, well, where would robbers go?

And what if I told you to fuck off?

 

 

Aren’t we seeing, as a natural side effect of the occupation, a slow dismantling of those rules of evidence that shape Western historicity? Throughout the first month of the movement, the restrictions, corruptions and outside interests, mediated through Western historic authenticity, promised to be the death knell of the occupation. They can’t sleep outside indefinitely? They can’t survive being co-opted by outside interests? They can’t resist the violence and crime inherent to such groups? The snow came, and the occupiers found a way to sleep. The unions, teachers and marginalized infested the occupation, and found a welcoming ear for their concerns. The gas-powered generators were confiscated, and the occupiers found a bicycle-powered alternative. Violent elements inserted themselves into Oakland’s General Strike, and the occupiers, echoing the declaration adopted by the Amsterdam anarchist international convention in 1907, acknowledged that, “such acts, with their causes and motives, should be understood rather than praised or condemned,” and not only worked to repair the damage, but debated the acts at their assembly. As each new challenge presents itself — police agent provocateurs, right wing saboteurs, a rise in homeless, crime and sexual violence visited upon encampments — the occupation defies those rules of evidence that satisfy ideas of Western newsworthiness. The problem the mainstream media faces is that the occupation resides in a blind spot, outside the view of Western historicity, and so, situations such as sexual violence or homeless visiting the encampments are reported as outside problems thrust onto the occupation. Instead, we should view the occupation as a microcosm of a different history being made, one that operates through egalitarian consensus, and such issues (sexual violence, crime, homelessness) are elements within the culture that are addressed, debated and hopefully, further prevented. A human approach, instead of the Western binary us versus them.

The mainstream media — by reporting issues discussed at general assemblies as “dilemmas” or “arguments,” by “building narratives” of the occupation through interviewing individuals rather than observing assemblies — reveals its blind spot to methods foreign to Western historical practices that don’t satisfy its rules of evidence. When such questions came framed with a blind spot (“If there were no prisons, well, where would robbers go?”), Crass answered in kind (“And what if I told you to fuck off?”). The occupation’s open-ended, anamorphic culture of love is a similar “fuck off” to traditional Western historic authenticity.

The Austrian art historian, Alois Riegl, sought to change the manner in which history was authenticated, and, in some measure, shared the Crass worldview. Riegl’s theory of Kunstwollen, or the artistic will-to-form, worked to unite activities in high and low art with the culture of its time, which was contrary to the anthropological impulse of history to excavate and separate, dividing material culture from mental culture. Rather than separating ideas from things, Riegl chose to see history as a sequence of ideas and materials that were formed by the same interconnected culture. The history we know is a history already mediated through cleaving of that cultural continuum, restructured through the tools of historic efficiency, derived from its value to the body commissioning such a history. What Riegl sought was a view of man’s will to see the world as he imagines, and everything — art, law, science, philosophy, craftsmanship — is an obligation to meet such a desire.

 

Beg Your Pardon” (Christ – The Album, 1982)

I don’t believe the things you say
You make bullshit of the truth
The game you play’s offensive
And your life’s the living proof

 

Taking a Kunstwollen view of Occupy Wall Street, it is much easier to see how seemingly contradictory ideas of peace and anarchy, anger and love, autonomy and organization, form the character of the will contained in the occupation. The genesis of the movement is found as much in the financial collapse as it is in the resurgence of interest in anarchist movements, underground music and hacktivism. Wikileaks, Anonymous and the Arab Spring can be seen as societal forms that are mirrored artistically in, as an example, the rash of recent reissues of subversive music from the past (e.g., Crass, Faith, Void, Death, East of Underground, The Ex). Similarly, in film and literature we find an abundance of new material about the Red Army Faction/Baader Meinhof, May ‘68, the Black Panthers, Up Against the Wall Motherfucker, the Situationists, as if we’re experiencing a spontaneous will-to-form of reconsideration for those radical movements, looking forward to our future through a re-informed hindsight, trying to determine if similar actions can derive their value from something other than the violence that brought an end to past radicalism.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Half a century ago, when the Soviets beat us into space with the launch of a satellite called Sputnik, we had no idea how we would beat them to the moon. The science wasn’t even there yet. NASA didn’t exist. But after investing in better research and education, we didn’t just surpass the Soviets; we unleashed a wave of innovation that created new industries and millions of new jobs.

This is our generation’s Sputnik moment. Two years ago, I said that we needed to reach a level of research and development we haven’t seen since the height of the Space Race. And in a few weeks, I will be sending a budget to Congress that helps us meet that goal. We’ll invest in biomedical research, information technology, and especially clean energy technology -– (applause) — an investment that will strengthen our security, protect our planet, and create countless new jobs for our people.
President Obama, 2011 State of the Union Address

 

 

 

Obama’s call for “our generation’s Sputnik moment” was a retooling of the binary regulation that sustained the ideology of the Cold War. There is a Baudrillardian “theater of operations” in phrases such as, “research and development,” “information technology” and “biomedical research,” which seem harmless in their hopefulness – or hopeful in their harmlessness, but such phrases usually signify other, more harmful, more hopeless, phrases: “defense contracts,” “NSA eavesdropping,” “pharmaceutical lobby.”

Obama’s acknowledgement of our slump in innovation is tied to our slump in human development, equality, literacy and quality of life. What if there is another way to view such statistics? What if our slump is, in itself, a sign of a nascent resistance, a will-to-form, however latent, against turning our Sputnik moments into tools for the de facto homogenous ruling class to use against us, or people elsewhere who are like us? Perhaps it is too optimistic a view, but can’t our dire statistics also be seen as a sign of change, as an unconscious un-tethering from Western hegemony?

Democratic capitalism functions in much the same way as religious fundamentalism. The people act as pious adherents, sacrificing themselves in support of divine principles, which are suspended by faith. In the case of capitalism, the faith resides in the belief that heavenly judgment will reward devotees with a bounty of riches. The inconvenient truth, paradoxically, is that while the majority of devotees work, a small minority is richly venerated, and while this cycle continually repeats, the faith of the poor, devoted majority remains unshaken. Heaven is reserved for the minority, and on the ground, the reality is faith functions as a belief in a freedom that’s never free. Or, as Baudriallard said, a democracy whose credo of free choice effectively turns into its exact opposite, an obligation to consume. Perhaps we can view the rise in self-described atheists as a nascent resistance to democratic capitalism?

 

 

Demoncrats” (Stations of the Crass, 1979)

They believed in democracy, freedom of speech
Yet dead on the flesh piles I hear no breath

I hear no hope, no whisper of faith
From those who have died for some others’ privilege
Out from your palaces, princes and queens
Out from your churches, you clergy, you christs
I’ll neither live nor die for your dreams
I’ll make no subscription to your paradise

 

This obligation to consume was made clear in the death of Steve Jobs. Westerners far and wide revered Jobs like a deity, and praised his innovation and brilliance in bringing the world to our fingertips. Much noise was made of him being a genius, dropping out of college, having a propensity to indulge in crazy ideas, tripping on LSD and his Christ-like ability to convert followers with his “reality distortion field.”

 

 

 


 

 

 

Here’s to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers. The round pegs in the square holes. The ones who see things differently. They’re not fond of rules. And they have no respect for the status quo. You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them. About the only thing you can’t do is ignore them. Because they change things. They push the human race forward. While some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius. Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do.
Apple, “Think Different” advertising campaign, 1997

 

 

It’s this anti-establishment idolatry that Steve Jobs originally intoned upon twentieth century personalities that was, in turn, intoned upon him, creating a horrendous Adornian coupling of consumption and innovation. Just as Exodus reminds us, “You shall have no other gods before me,” the unlimited freedom that Jobs brought to us, mediated through consumption, as a derivative of Apple’s profits, has an unsightly, dare I say ungodly, obverse. The idolatrous legacy of Steve Jobs that we celebrate, that “pushed the human race forward” and was “crazy enough to change the world,” is sustained by Chinese workers committing suicide in the factories that produce Apple products, mass graves in Kashmir where multinational mining and infrastructure corporations vie for land rights, the rape of Congolese women and children by militias who control the export of minerals needed to produce our “smart” devices.

Perhaps it’s too optimistic, but maybe what’s forming now, amidst the occupation, is a will to think differently about our “Sputnik moment.” We’re “suffering” a spontaneous disentanglement from our involvement in the inhumane practices that sustain our “freedom.” Perhaps part of the question, “if not this, then what?” involves questioning the worth of insurmountable debt in pursuit of an education that leads to a profession where the best ideas are commandeered by the government for purposes of “defense,” “finance” or “intelligence.” Perhaps we’ve grown tired of seeing our ideas turned into killing machines, financial instruments of greed and tools to invade privacy. Perhaps the political theater is finally being rendered irrelevant. Perhaps we’re beginning to see the blind spots in our history. Perhaps our “Sputnik moment” is not developing something new, but rejecting old presuppositions: that we can’t stay safe and still make awesome affordable things, that it’s impossible to have health care, education, social security and a stable economy, that we must always be at war, that we need kings or leaders or cops at all.

 

Here’s to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Where Next Columbus?” (Penis Envy, 1981)

 

Do you watch at a distance from the side you have chosen?
Whose answers serve you best? Who’ll save you from confusion?

 

Who’s your leader? Which is your flock?
Who do you watch? Who do you watch?

 

 

 

 


Lil’ Louis – “French Kiss (The Original Underground Mix)”

Volume One: “Can you tell me if I’m doing it right?”

 

This is not the minute—this is the day. This is not when they come—this is when they call to say that they’ll  be coming. This is not the knowing—this is the wondering. This is not the sex—this is…

…the kiss.

 

Lil’ Louis – “French Kiss (The Original Underground Mix)”

 

Sex is terminal. Kissing is not. And in that absence of a clear goal, of an end of the line, variation becomes everything: The warm drift sustained by a wet concentration, muted sensations pricked with the occasional pop, maroon formlessness perforated by a softly clicking jaw, the seeking out, the reeling back, the push, and the pull, all moving back and forth in the wooziness of the blood. In its way, endless.

Existing as it does entirely in this shared bruit, this closed, waltzing pulse, the true kiss—the kiss, that is, that is not actually Something Else—can have no real release. And so the drums throughout keep a capped, tamped-down quality. Allowing for no exterior outside of this room, outside of this song, outside of our bodies, it is transportation between low-ceilinged places; it is being locked inside of the vast TJ Maxx of desire that exists just outside of consummation—muzzy, overstuffed, and almost. Lingering in that hour between the dog and the wolf. But if it is neither possible nor necessarily desirable to rise above, to leave, the song stretches and presses, revealing fissures that become new things, possibilities into which we could fall and stay. There are inexpert and over-anxious peeks of pitch-shift and tempo wobble to remind us that all of this has been put in place by human hands, and there is a Moiré effect where every subtle shift in alignment creates a new pattern: the synth twists around inside and refracts the straight 4/4 pound into an irresistible little bounce; the beat lolls for half a second and slips from being the rush itself to being something important brought along for later; keyboards scatter as ideas from an anxious mind, and all is velvet murk except for the hi-hats that brighten and feint like a little bit of fresh air caught from the corner of the mouth. The whole thing throbs like a jarful of hearts beating somewhere just on the other side of the tongue, and between here and there it’s just you and you, joined in a maze of endless head.

(Right around the midpoint are a couple minutes of simulated ecstasy that perch atop the song like a phony janus head of bad loving: too audible to sound like a good kiss and too monotonous to sound like good sex, it does little but over-show and distract. And you know what, let’s not think about all that right now.)

Distraction can be fatal, though, and by the time you’re wondering whether maybe all this has gone on too long, it has gone on too long. With the constant permutation comes a bluntedness. But, but, but: Isn’t there a sustainability in the edgelessness? Is “comfort” the word? Is this almostness where we learn to postpone, to prolong? No matter—when all the available combinations seem to have been explored, exhaustion yawns out ahead, and the plush anticipatory ripple at the beginning is by the end beeping out in monotony, a homing signal. This dark, sweet thing and all of its seamy potential has turned surprisingly fragile in its overextension. Blinking in that light, it becomes clear that preserving any of this into the next day or the next room will mean carrying it there like a completed jigsaw puzzle.

Or maybe instead of hanging on to it, instead of trying to turn it into something, maybe it’d be better just to start over, do it all again. Soon. Yes. Yeah. For this, too—no, this especially—is the kiss.

 

 

 

…………………….

 

CONSEQUENTIAL DATA

 – cf. Debbie Harry’s “French Kissin’ In The U.S.A” (I watched her sing this on some show back then, and remember nothing except the blindingly bright pin-spot of glare off of her ludicrously over-glossed lips; it felt like my own tv was burning a hole in my chest with a magnifying glass), Julia Fordham’s “What chance did I stand / How could I resist / your American arms and / your French kiss?” and especially Lucinda Williams’s “I can’t stay around / ’cause I’m going back South / but all I regret now / is I never kissed your mouth.”

– See also: the deep-reverb lip-smacking that begins: “Mommy, What’s a Funkadelic?”

– A while back, I was trying to figure out why “French kiss” (the phrase) sounded so antiquated, so...quaint. Then I figured it out: No one qualifies a kiss anymore to specify that it was heavy; they do so only to specify that it was light. In the parlance of my young youth, “French kiss” was useful for distinguishing between a regular kiss and a capital-K Kiss. In these faster and heavier times, though, I think every kiss is assumed to be a Kiss unless it gets modified downward: “Oh, it was just a little/light/fast/quick kiss.” I cannot think of the last time I heard “kiss” modified upward. Even the singer on the Vocal Mix of “French Kiss” kinda pulls back/hurries past the titular phrase, as if she—a grown-ass woman—is a little embarrassed to have to structure her whole performance around this bit of grade-school phrasing.

– I am not now nor have I ever been a heavy house-music dude, but around the time “French Kiss” came out, I read so many breathless write-ups of it that I was on a crazy mission to hear it. I was in my mid-teens, and thus still had the wide-eyed outlook and the stamina to want to chase every rabbit down every hole, but I was also living in semi-rural South Carolina at the time, and access to that kind of music was limited. So, I started leaning on friends to see if anyone had the hook-up with an older sibling or a cousin at college or sister’s boyfriend at the record store or whoever: “Seriously, a tape or a dub off the radio or anything—I just wanna hear it!” My dear friend Pruitt didn’t really like to dance all that much, but his girlfriend did, and she knew some spots; namely, a gay club (“It’s called ‘The Crystal’ or ‘The Crystal Castle’ or ‘Crystal Palace’ or something like that”) in a town forty-five minutes away that “definitely plays that kind of music.” She didn’t feel like going, and I couldn’t drive yet, so—in an act of generosity that you’ll have to believe me when I say was contextually gargantuan—Pruitt said he’d take me. He wasn’t gonna dance, but he’d hang out and listen to some music, sure. (You’ve gotta understand: upstate South Carolina was still finding its way with this house shit, and it wasn’t yet non-stop jacking; it was still completely permissible for dudes to chill at the bar until they found their comfort level.) So once we get inside, I go up to the first person who looks like they might know and ask them, trying to be cool but really just square as shit, “Hey, excuse me, um, do you think they’ll play ‘French Kiss’—uh, the song  ‘French Kiss’—here tonight?” This was like 1990, and while “French Kiss” may have been over elsewhere, it was just peaking there in the slow-to-receive red-clay districts, and the response I got was, “Honey, they’ll probably play that stuff ten times tonight!” And indeed, in the couple of hours before I had to leave to make curfew (I am saying: square as shit), we heard it twice. If it didn’t exactly change my life, it definitely changed the way I listen to music, which as much as anything informs the way I think about life. So, sincerest thanks to my man Pruitt, without whom. I think of you all the time, brother, and hope you’re doing well at home.

– A few years after all this, Lil’ Louis put out the excellent Journey With The Lonely, complete with liner notes outlining briefly but potently his take on 1992 gender politics in a tone located somewhere post-Prince and pre-Tyler Perry (e.g. “My Queens: Judge me not because of what your father did at home / Judge me not by your past lovers / Judge me not by what damaged souls tell U / Judge me not generally, but individually”). The whole package comes recommended. 

– Some of the best advice I ever got: “Don’t lean on the doorbell.”

 

You’ve Got All That Is Really Needed

Posted by , July 13th, 2011
Category: Abstraction Tags: , ,   RSS | Comments | Trackback from your site
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In the course of going through some records in basement storage–all the rinked copies of records I’ve since upgraded, all the extensive discographies whose limp bulk testify to nothing but the pre-internet danger of having the proverbial “little knowledge” (for me, all it used to take was some passing remark in some magazine that “[Rap Producer X] sampled that [Prolific Artist Y] joint” and I’d be off and running–now it’s fifteen years later and I’ve got all these fucking Tom Scott records to deal with), all the records that weren’t my taste at the time but which seemed interesting and were thus purchased “just in case” for a someday that I now know will probably never arrive, etc.–I happened upon a small clutch of records that I must have at some point separated from my main collection for safekeeping, back when I believed that was the way to do it. Most of these shoddily plastic-bagged elite were holdovers from my very early days of record collecting, and had been elevated by nothing so much as the beginner’s simple glee that things like these actually existed and were actually themselves: ”Look, it’s a beat-up copy of What’s Going On! On a record! A for-real old soul record!” “Look, it’s a beat-up Blue Note record! On a record! It’s just like in those coffee-table books, but not in a book!” But one of the records was my parents’ copy of Earth Wind & Fire’s I Am, and it is different.

 

 

 

I Was

 

 

 

There’s a line from Albert Camus about how man’s work is the slow journey to rediscover through art the two or three great and simple images in whose presence his heart first opened. You’ve gotta understand: I Am is the first record that I have a conscious memory of—the first one I saw, the first one I heard and knew. It was such a constant on my parents’ turntable platter that for several years of my early life I believed that all the music in the world—even the music on the radio—lived on this single red-labeled gold-lettered black disc that had been furnished to my parents on one great day sometime before I was born.

Inwardly, I obsessed over the cover. The front was weird and icky, presided over by the head of a stern old man conjoined with some gleebus baby thing. The back was apocalyptic and threatening but also exciting beyond belief, with fire and mushroom clouds and viking ships and galleons and waterfalls and skyscrapers and temples and ziggurats and thick slabs of broken earth and knights with lances and domed cities and, sweet mother of god, flying saucers glinting in the sky. In the gatefold, though, lay the great harmonizer: Nine black Shogun Warrior superheroes arranged in an indestructible pyramid of power and welcoming–high-foreheaded, opulently clothed, faces either smiling beneficently or furrowed in the understanding of the ages, and towering like oaks in a ferny and flowered Eden where they are attended by a ring of gnostic symbols in the sky and a worshipful blue hermit crab at their feet.

Outwardly, I thought the music was life itself. It felt like the very essence of generosity of spirit, the golden symbol of a perfect, adult peace. All those harmonies, having neither edge nor end, seemed to overlap and interweave in a vast sunlit delta fanning out at the mouth of Everything, beckoning me and everyone I knew into the beginning of the great river of the understanding of What It All Meant. I wish I could be more concrete—tell you how much I loved the horns or something–but the truth is that I understood this record mostly as an element of life, and I didn’t think of it as having discrete musical aspects any more than I thought of sunlight as having color.

My triangular fascination with I Am–as object, as vision, and as sound—was exploded into full pyramidal realization when, at the apex of the album’s popularity, an entire Earth Wind & Fire concert was broadcast on television. It was a real event for my parents: they popped popcorn, made sure to turn on the tv a few minutes early, and watched every moment of the show with great enjoyment, singing along and grooving at their respective ends of the couch. I was like five years old, and sat between them, wide-eyed and trying not to burst out of my skin. In listening so much to the record and poring so deliberately over the cover, I’d arrived at a familiarity with its harmony and mystique that I mistook for understanding. But in seeing it brought to life where all childhood things must be brought to life—on the screen—I felt a capstone fall into place, the completion of circuits that I didn’t know remained open. I watched what seemed like a hundred band members charge from the back of the hall in an incandescent surge of  feathers and banners and pure energy, a wave of angels flooding the aisles and racing toward the stage, mouths already—already!–open in  song. When I realized that what I was watching there in my home was the people from inside the cover actually playing the music on the record that was on the turntable just a few feet away from where I now sat between the people who bought the record and put it on the turntable so that I could hear it all those times, the whole thing was made so real to me, so singular, so mind-wide and wonderful, that I thought my heart was going to blow.

This was the very first time I remember feeling like I’d really felt the totality of anything, that shock of recognition. But even as I swooned from the unspeakable thrill of it, it felt bittersweet. Before, even though I was mostly agog at the record and the unified power that seemed to project from every facet of its substance and presentation, I’d been able to fillet enough commonality out of the few little details that I could get any traction on (“UFOs? Hey–I like UFOs, too! I have some books with them in it!”) to think that, yeah, maybe there was some place for me in the obvious enormity of this music and image. Watching the concert, though, and feeling everything galvanize so completely and unmistakably, I began to feel pushed away. It was becoming clear to me that their enterprise was adult and perfect; as a kid and an aspirant, this was a temple that I would have to admire from the outside. And this nascent alienation wasn’t a simple case of watching fantasy cross into reality and subsequently lose its allure or become less extraordinary, but a case of watching fantasy cross into reality and instead become–just by virtue of its being able to exist somewhere besides my own head–more fantastical. Over years I had created in my mind an incomplete image of this impossibly perfect thing, and then in a single moment recognized its complete image, recognized that its perfection was not only not impossible but was something that you could sit in a room and witness for yourself, and recognized, most dejectedly, that it didn’t need me to create anything—it was already fully realized and video-relayable, as polished and unassailable as I could ever have imagined. The adult me guesses that what I was feeling was something along the same continuum as whatever you must feel when you realize that while your children still love you, they no longer need you. Or something. All I could have told you back then, though, is that it sure made me feel funny.

 

 

 

All the records keep playing / and my heart keeps saying

 

 

 

A little while later, when I was six, I was watching something else on the same tv while jumping up and down on an ottoman in our family room. One of my landings hit with just the right English and the ottoman shot out from under me, rocketing the crown of my head right into the raised brick ledge in front of our fireplace. I don’t remember the pain at all, but I remember very clearly the displacing exhilaration of seeing for the first time a large amount of my own blood.

My parents had raised me Catholic, so I’d had frequent opportunity to think about blood and its significance. A lot of the mechanical specifics of that stuff—bloodlines, spilled blood, blood oaths, blood sacrifice, blood into wine, etc.–were beyond me at the time, but I knew enough to know that it was something to take seriously. My ignorance and my sense of gravitas eventually compromised, leaving me at a point where I really stopped thinking of blood as a physical substance, and instead considered it more of an all-important essence, a unifying ether that moved through everyone and everything everywhere ever in the history of time and outer space and the universe.

Once I split my head open on the fireplace, though, my thoughts on all that demystified and became a lot less abstract. I immediately understood that blood was both, high and low: Yes, blood is the great cosmic lubricant, and Yes, it is also this wet stuff that will have to be cleaned off the brickwork. With Comet, probably. Yes, blood is this deep, mysterious force that I hear about in church but do not understand, and Yes, blood is this stuff that I somehow make myself, within my own body. It was untouchable and out there somewhere, but it was also right here, in me, and right there, on the fireplace. I still knew blood as powerful and sacred, running in darkness its immaculate circuits, but as I sat on the couch with a washcloth full of ice pressed into my sticky hair but very much not dead, I also knew that my simple self and my small life and my split scalp somehow figured into some big, weird work. I was somehow the beginning of the line and the end of the line and a stop along the way, all at once.

 

Interviewer, aghast: "Where does art like this come from?"  Quinn: "My arm, mostly."

 

 

 

I don’t think I again felt that thrilled kind of dizzy–so humanly cracked yet so cosmically included!–until I was about sixteen. It was around 1989, and I wasn’t really actively listening to old music at all; I’d fallen in with a crowd that was a couple years older than me, and so spent almost all of my listening time in frantic catch-up, borrowing and junkie-dubbing as many tapes as I could from every one of them in a sophomore’s two-pronged attempt to accumulate some fluency in The Good Shit of recent years while also affecting an enthusiasm that would hopefully mask things like the fact that I had paid money for INXS 45s in the not-distant-enough past. Nonetheless, after seeing Parliament-Funkadelic name-checked so often both in the crusty rock journalism that I was then taking as gospel and in the breathless articles on the sample-based rap that I was then just getting into, I finally knuckled under and rode Hutch with my man Ethan up to Manifest Discs and Tapes on an overcast Saturday, hell-bent on getting anything by Funkadelic, whose name I found embarrassing but who my research had led me to understand was the more rugged chamber. They of course didn’t have any, so I and my eight dollars settled, begrudgingly, for a cassette of Parliament’s Mothership Connection.

Once I got it home and listened to it, I was immediately disappointed. Above and beyond hoping it would make me feel not so bad about having run out of Red Hot Chili Peppers records to buy, I thought it was gonna be a whole lot freakier, sonically speaking–just some outlandish, not-of-this-world shit that would moon-roof my brain and blast my ears clean in a shower of stars. And this was not that. It was all horny and keyboardy, an endless string of funny-t-shirt choruses with no verses, punctuating minute after minute after minute of silly patter reminiscent of those De La Soul skits that I had to spend so much time fast-forwarding through. I heard nothing that I liked, and could hear nothing of what the artists that I liked must have once heard. I knew–knew!–that I should have held out for Funkadelic. Fuck.

 

 

 

 

I found, though, that even wincing in my frustration the whole tape glided easily by. My music budget was such that I couldn’t afford to not listen to it, but none of my friends liked it, so I always listened to it alone, and I found that I kept returning to it without exactly meaning to. The draw certainly wasn’t the much-heralded P-Funk visual presentation: the tape I bought was a thoroughly budget affair, with the record’s cover art reduced to the size of two large postage stamps and printed noticeably off-register and, inside, a single inlay panel of plain-type production credits second-billed underneath several sentences explaining Dolby noise reduction. Nor was I hooked by the technicolor afronaut mythos that was the record’s ostensible raison d’etre: I was in my mid-teens and pretty much mainlining affectation, so the fact that there was this highly crafted concept did appeal greatly, but at the same time I was dense enough and self-involved enough that most of the metaphors behind the storyline were lost on me, so a lot of the dramatic framing just rolled off of me as cartoony and distracting, little more than an excuse for a bunch of titles that felt ridiculous to say out loud. But if the tape was a letdown in these broad senses, there was something beguiling in the fine-grain.

I thought the opening track, “P. Funk (Wants To Get Funked Up),” was mostly cheesy come-on, drifting and overlong, but after the spaced-out narrator tells the story about checking out earth music and finding it wanting (he gives it a “3”), he then quickly adds “…but it was cool,” and something in the way he says it manages to convey all at once a heavily informed judgment, a neighborly sympathy, an absolution, and a breezy slide forward into whatever’s up next.

The shiny sloganeering of the next track, “Mothership Connection (Star Child),” didn’t have much for me beyond its catchiness, but a couple minutes in there’s a minor-key downturn ushering in a hook that takes a well-worn and passive entreaty for deliverance–”Swing down, sweet chariot…”–and kits it out with “…Stop and let me ride,” a resolution that’s twice as assertive (“Stop”), just as penitent (“let me”), and infinitely more sly; I went back and forth on what exactly the italics meant, but it was always clear to me that the concluding “ride” wasn’t just a ride but was in fact a ride.

In “Unfunky UFO,” the track after that, I couldn’t get over the sub-chorus (or is it sub-sub? I lost count): ”You could feel so much better / if you would show me how to funk like you do.” Even though I knew that it was just a silly little hook in a silly little song, I had preexisting ideas about the kind of control it takes to tell someone that you know what will make them feel better and I had preexisting ideas about the kind of surrender it takes to ask someone to teach you something, and all those ideas  got twisted on their axis when I heard them interlaced so perfectly and so offhandedly. It seemed to me an act of supreme generosity, and even my long-standing hatred of “funk” as a verb fell to the side in the head-spin of hearing the phrase’s double helix of mastery and need bend into a smile right between my ears.

And it went on like that, from song to song, all these stray moments sparkling in their intervals to thread me through the whole tape once again and once again once more. Whatever initial disappointment I’d felt in not having found something freakier got slowly transfused by a feeling of companionability with the record’s mongrel maximalism and its peculiar, underlying peace. The thick sonics and resolute, easy tone made me certain that the underneath was this vast, fluid slab of wordliness and experience, and I came to feel that the record was speaking from a position of knowing absolutely everything, from having been absolutely everywhere, and from having enough ballast—both musical and philosophical–to not have to worry about anything, not ever. In that way, I found it calm and calming. But simultaneously feeding into and emerging out of that depth was this endless effusion of signifiers, ad libs, and jokes. Its central power came draped in frankensteined robes, crying tears both happy and sad, leaking gold doubloons from its mouth, and farting stardust. It inhabited thing after thing fully, and with an odd grace was able to shrug them off without ever feeling like it was throwing anything away, exactly. The record seemed to have more good stuff than it could ever use, and was also enough of a spiritual spendthrift that it couldn’t not use such good stuff, so atop and below and between the music and lyrics proper there’s a near-constant improvisatory drizzle that ends up being the sundae on top of the sundae.

For example, in just two or three minutes at the middle of “Mothership Connection”: George Clinton leers that he’s “doing it to you in 3-D!” but then slides in the brighter assurance that “you have overcome / for I am here…”; just after that, just after the song dips and darkens into a prayer mat and calls for its chariot, his edgy “what’s happenin’, C.C.?…” runs into a welling background refrain that, just in time, obscures his plaintive follow-up: “…Have you forgot me?”; dude takes it way out with gnostic cool–“Are you hip to Easter Island? The Bermuda Triangle?” [Station break for some openly worried synth sounding very much like the theme from In Search Of, a 1970s tv show hosted by Leonard Nimoy that investigated all manner of mystery and supernature and that scared me shitless when I was a young youth; it pictured Easter Island in its opening credits and seemed to broadcast exclusively on weekend evenings when my parents were out.]–only to boomerang back in with the regular-cool “Ain’t nothing but a party!”; an attempt at stately annunciation (“Citizens of the universe, I bring forth to you…”) crumbles under the weight of a grin it just can’t hide (“…the good times!”); the line about “Doing it to you in 3-D!” repeats, but this time with the addendum “So good it’s good to me!” imparting it a gleefully bizarre selflessness by once again flip-flopping the server and the served, this time in the recursive idea that one’s own enjoyment of what one is doing can only come when that enjoyment is commuted into the enjoyment of others (when you’re a teenager with self-satisfaction as your alpha, that’s a pretty big idea).

And that’s only a couple minutes’ worth. And that’s not even the singers singing or the players playing—this is all just the extras. I spent a long time hating all this distracting side-business, and felt that that Clinton’s cackling self-delight in it verged on ghoulish. He was like a radio dj who wouldn’t quit talking over the records—I wished he would shut up already and quit crowding The Stuff, the real stuff. Now, though, I think I understand.

 

Like a lot of people in Chicago, I don’t own a car. But before I lived here, I lived in South Carolina, where I did. It’s impossible to overstate how harrowing it was to transition from being a driver there to being a walker here; suddenly having to care about things like “dressing for the weather” and “having singles” and “remembering to bring a fucking umbrella” felt like an indignity of the first order. And while I’ve mostly gotten over it, and am mostly really happy to not have to worry about things like “parking” and “insurance” and “dibs,” something of that loss of car has always stayed with me, and the thirteen years or so I’ve spent here as a pedestrian have so now thoroughly encased in the amber of nostalgia the preceding umpteen years of driving life that on the infrequent occasions when I do get behind the wheel I tend to get a little moony, overly conscious of Ahh, Driving!, of The Romance Of The Road, all that shit. As embarrassing as it is now, I used to be even worse with it.

Anyway, there was a period a few years ago where I was renting cars pretty frequently, most often leaving work early on Thursday to pick up a car for a long-weekend visit to family out of state. Early in the endless minutes time that I would come to spend in the waiting area of my local Enterprise Rent-A-Car outpost sipping at cone after cone of exhaust-tinged Hinckley & Schmitt, it became apparent that I and my long-distance purposes were in the minority: pretty much every other person in there was renting a car just so they’d have something nice to drive around in, a crisp late-model something–“you know, for the weekend.”  As a pragmatist and a cheapskate, I was floored. Even more surprising to me was that a lot of these folks already had a car, they just for some abstract-seeming reason wanted—no, needed–a nicer one, a newer one, or even just a different one. I spent a lot of time eavesdropping on clerks grilling renters pursuant to the paperwork on the clipboard in front of them and hearing stuff like: “I’m having friends in from out of town who haven’t seen me for a while” or “I’m just trying to give that old Honda out there a break” or “No, I mean, my car’s clean and everything, almost brand-new, really, but still: I’m not tryna roll up to Keith n’ nem’s thing in my daily ride, you know?”

I think those folks had the right idea. They seemed seemed restless but good-natured, working the seams to get just what they wanted, get it newer, get it in a different color, get it for that rate you were talking about earlier, get over, get the keys, get on the road, get back, and get it all over again. Looking back, it’s clear that the real jazz is not the “car” part, but the “rental” part—the inherent disposability, and how that imbues the whole process with an energy and a backhanded optimism, the improvisatory joy that only comes from having and then casting off (cf “Go on and take / ’cause I don’t need what I make” [The Fans, 1980] and “take this beat / I don’t mind / I got plenty others / and they so fine” [Prince, 1988]; see also “def O.J.” [passim, 1979-]).

 

 

 

def / wish / u heaven

 

 

 

At the time, though, I was a histrionic idiot and acting as if in renting a car I was petitioning to be part of some sacred brotherhood of drivers, and was thus condescendingly bemused by these motivations that seemed so frivolous and so opposed to my own. I had all these grandiose ideas about Travel and about Access and about other overinflated theoretical potentialities that I felt sure were conferred upon a(n) humble pedestrian like myself when behind the wheel of an actual automobile. Sweaty, dogged-shoe supplicant that I was, I’d been seeing the heart of car rental not in the rental but in the car, the car, Sweet Jesus, The Car: the thing, the shiny, total, pristine thing, low-mileaged and half-tanked, gasketed at every aperture, noise reduced and climate controlled, requiring neither physical exertion nor exact change, lasering ironclad and unassailable across the paved world like a quick wink from a smiling God. Shit was ridiculous.

 

 

 

just sometimes I wonder if I should believe

 

 

 

And ironic, too. Because most of the time I was visiting family in suburban Ohio, and at some point during every single visit I’d find myself in the presence of a version of the kind of bright, epic totality that I seemed to be chasing through these lofty lines of thought, and every single time, in the face of this satori, I would turn away.

My wife and I (and eventually our kid and eventually our kids) would have spent three or four or five days at her dad’s or at my mom’s, days where the time would just sort of spool out, as if from an endless supply. The hours between meals seemed to fill themselves, without effort or design: sitting on a porch looking at owned lawn and owned trees; driving to a big-box store right now or maybe in a half hour or maybe later or anyway before tomorrow to buy things cheaply and, more importantly, easily; microwaving countless dainty cups of weak but loving coffee and making ourselves available to the stream of friends and family who not only knew our people but knew us, back when we were younger and cuter and simpler and closer to what any warm heart would surely know were our true selves. Noon after noon would pass that way, like lucky clouds. And then–bags packed, car loaded, goodbyes said, and individual mailboxes ticking away at both peripheries of the distance stretching out behind us—it would hit:

Couldn’t we just stay?

Couldn’t we just turn right around and slide into this readymade life, the one our families have kept warm for us all these years, and forget the janky, teetering life that we’ve made for ourselves? Forget about our world of worry and logistics and the whole brainfuls of strategy that it takes just to get through a day? Forget about piecing together what we need from what can be had within walking distance, forget the neighborhood crazy who high-stepped up to our two-year-old daughter and called her a “catshit whore,” forget all those new people who never knew the childless us, forget that whole hardscrabble world that lies coiled in wait for our return–couldn’t we instead just disappear back into the easy weave of this place where all is love and air conditioning, all memory and convenience and no cool? We’re still not on the main road yet, so there’s still time, isn’t there?

Well, yes. But no. None of our parents understands what we’re doing in Chicago anyway, and they’d love nothing better than for us to turn in the keys and come home, back into the golden circle. But what makes that circle so wonderful, so magnetic, and so heart-burstingly hard to step outside of is its perfection. And in that perfection, it is closed. The good life that it represents is the good life of the resolved whole, and there is no place for me there.

There is, I think, that good life that is of the spirit, and holds as its goal a connection to a diffuse, universal perfection. Through attainment, one is gradually freed from wants and desires and discomforts, uncluttering the mind and clarifying the self. All of this toward contentment, mastery, the resolution of all things.

Then there is a good life that is of the blood. There is too at its core a perfection, yes, but it reaches not toward this completion but out from it. Its is not the purifying pursuit of some sleek and radiant singularity, but the improvisation of a rough mandala, pulsing out in wide loops, pushed past obstruction, pushed beyond rupture, pushed through all and everything by the filling and the emptying of the working heart.

I see that good life of the spirit—in the brotherly, pharaonic brilliance of Earth Wind & Fire and in the open arms of my families, their smooth circuit of resolved pasts and promising futures joining to electrify a fair present—and feel in it a beauty that lifts me off my feet. But what I don’t feel in it is much possibility. In its resolution, it has little room for improvising; in its abolition of need, it has little cause to burn; in its relentless focus on the essential, it has little time for the extra. There’s not much bounce, you know?

The spirit has meant so much to me for so long that I know something of it will always live in me. But I also know that I can now only live in the blood. I need that spread more than I need any ascension, I need that push and pull more than I need harmony. Attaining some kind of peace will, I guess, always be a goal, but I suspect that I’ll forever be pushing that goal out in front of me, out just past my own grasp. The unified life will never interest, occupy, or energize me as much as the hustle surrounding my capacity to contain it all, my ability to lose it all, my scramble to take it all in, and my rush to give it all away. I’m a great believer in the triumph of the human mess, I am for an art that embroils itself with the everyday crap & still comes out on top, I am, again, no closer to being the boy that I was than I am to the man I thought I would be, and I long ago stopped wanting George Clinton to shut up.

Coming up from the basement and listening to my parents’ copy of I Am, I see the shining symbol of a purity that was and a perfection that could still be, and I smile in its embrace even as I sadden in the knowledge that it will always feel at least a little like we’re hugging goodbye.

But returning the car late on a Sunday with just enough time between here and the city to listen to Side 1 of Mothership Connection on the way, and hearing George n’ nem riffling through words and music like they’ve got the real cards in their pockets and humanity’s own trick deck in their hands, I’m thrilled not by the possibility of any single version of life, but by the possibility of these thousand versions of myself, pushing through the nighttime capillaries toward downtown, into the glittering smile of my own beautiful city.

Fetish Music

Posted by , January 18th, 2011
Category: Abstraction Tags:   RSS | Comments | Trackback from your site
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As was the case in the first Lacan Survey, let me again circumvent introducing or defining this series and, instead, offer broad questions in place of answers.

What do we mean when we say, “I like this song”? To see what’s beyond truisms like “the words are great” or “I like the beat” or “it just makes me feel good” means seeing how the song is integrated into our worldview, symbolically. The song has a totemic significance, as it allows the listener to perpetuate the experience of the song—or, more precisely, to perpetuate the experience linked to the song by the listener. The listener’s experience becomes embodied in the song. Is this not the definition of fetish?

I’m not talking about a dude in a latex suit licking a woman’s toes, though there’s room for that in fetish; I’m referring to associations made, the accidentally simultaneous presentation of a song and an experience. Attaching a song to an experience, however unconsciously, often suspends the song in a kind of sentimental abeyance—“this was our song” or “I spent my first year of college totally fucked up listening to this album” or “this song got me through some shit, man”—and allows us to either re-live the experience through an attachment to the song or distantiate ourselves from a reality we can’t wholly, consciously consider.

As an example, I will offer my own fetishistic associations and sentimental attachments between sound and experiences, and it makes sense to start with an extreme example.

 

 

 

I See a Darkness” — Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy

A handful of my friends committed suicide in the beginning of the 2000s, the last of which was my friend Charles, and it was his death that unraveled me. In the weeks shortly after Charles died, I was prone to fits of unpredictable, hysterical crying. I don’t subscribe to the notion of “boys don’t cry,” but paradoxically, I don’t often cry myself, so my crying jags were extremely hard to recover from. I was terribly despondent. I began carrying a snapshot of Charles around in my pocket. If while at work I felt the wave of tears coming on, I would sneak out of the miserable office and lock myself in a stall in the bathroom, take the picture of Charles in my hand and silently weep into his mangled face. Seeing a “real” version of him was the only way I could bear the experience. The snapshot was the embodiment of a belief that I couldn’t allow to be true. It was keeping him alive long enough for me to get through his not being alive.

Around this same time I was introduced to the Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy song, “I See a Darkness.” In many ways this song explains the end of my friendship with Charles.  He was strung out, living again with his parents, I had moved away, and while I still loved him, he and I simply didn’t have as much in common. The last time I spoke with Charles he called me under the auspices of plans to write music together again, but what we spoke mostly of was his addiction, his problems in his relationship and his poor health. A few times during the conversation he said, quite frankly (and comically, though the humor is bittersweet now), “I’m a fucking loser, man” and chuckled. At the time it was a very normal conversation to have with Charles. Afterwards, however, it was this conversation that haunted me, gave me tremendous pangs of guilt, and left me wondering if I’d not done enough. Listening to “I See a Darkness,” the pre-chorus, “this isn’t all I see,” and the post-chorus, “a hope that somehow you you can save me,” were, when reexamining that last phone call, prophetic intimations of what was to come.

Eventually, the crying fits became less severe, I quit carrying the picture of Charles around with me, and the guilt wasn’t as sharp a pain. “I See a Darkness” became totemic to the experience of losing Charles. Not just his suicide, but all the commitments we had made to each other, and how his death affected the rest of us—all of his friends—and what changed in us as a result of him being gone. Through this entire time (3 years?), I would listen to this song quite frequently. Charles continued living in my observance of, and attachment to, the song. The song embodied my refusal to let him die; it was a living disavowal of death. And most importantly, it helped me grieve. Paradoxically, thinking of him through repeated listenings allowed me distance from him. As my need to hear the song diminished, it became easier to accept his death.

 

 

 

Almost Was Good Enough (Once)” — Magnolia Electric Co.

In the years following Charles’ suicide, productive activities had a sense of defiance against all the defeat symbolized in his death. Being in a band or making a record felt, in some ways, like a “fuck you” to the spirit of his giving up. Carrying on with my life, without him, made me feel both guilty and subversive. For those of us that had “gotten out” before the rash of suicides struck our hometown, we looked at one another as survivors, the remnants of what had happened. Those suicides were such an ending, that continuing to do anything afterward felt uncomfortable.

It was in these purgatorial years that “Almost Was Good Enough” came to be more than just a song. Molina sings

Did you really believe
that everyone makes it out?
Almost no one makes it out

with the same sense of finality heard in “I See a Darkness.” It’s analogous to the clichés we all told each other while grieving—“you can’t blame yourself for what happened,” “it will get easier”—that are used to accept something unacceptable. These clichés are tempered with Molina’s reification:

But if no one makes it out
How come you’re talking to one right now
for once almost was good enough

These three lines sum up, quite perfectly, the feeling of defeated accomplishment in being the one who “made it out.” While it’s good to come out the other side, realize you’re alive and be filled with a renewed sense of self, you’re still dragging your dead friend around behind you, and what should be “good” is actually “good enough.” The guilt is real, and it’s too much to ask for more than good enough. While “I See a Darkness” allowed me to keep Charles alive in the years immediately following his death, “Almost Was Good Enough” allowed me to keep myself alive—and more importantly, moving.

The fetishized song can function in two opposite ways, either its role remains unconscious, as in the case of “I See a Darkness” where I was unaware of the song’s assistance in allowing me to live with death, or, the role of the song can be a conscious one, as “Almost Was Good Enough,” where the association with the song is reflected in the sublimation of the grief and guilt in continuing on with the plans made before Chuck’s death.

In both cases the fetishized song helped me to grieve. Unconsciously, I could displace that which I was incapable of dealing with (the actual total loss of Charles from reality) in “I See a Darkness.” Listening to that song allowed me to revel in his life, to relive that final conversation differently, until I was able to see him totally dead. Obviously, I knew he was dead the entire time, but it’s interesting to look back at what I was doing while being unaware of doing it. In contrast, I used “Almost Was Good Enough” as a fetish consciously, invoking it as a mantra of solidarity among my fellow survivors, acknowledging what we’d been left with and how to make enough sense of it to carry on.

 

 

 

 

V.A. Rocks Your Liver” — Verbal Abuse

It’s an understatement to say I was a “troubled child.” I was, literally, a poster child for juvenile delinquency: I appeared in low budget public access awareness campaigns, education panels and after school programs for people trying to understand problem children. Before my service work in helping people understand problem children, I did extensive fieldwork as a problem child. I’ll spare the details, and just skip to my friend Aaron and I running away.

Aaron was from another town (I can’t remember where), had a shitty car, and when we decided to run away that shitty car was our ticket out. The only tape I remember him having was Verbal Abuse. Paradoxically, neither Aaron nor I drank, so in retrospect, it seems strange that this anthem to drunkenness was our anthem, but we were fairly dimwitted. Our time on the outs was a time of true liberation, in direct opposition to our unbearable teenage lives. It was two decades ago, so the details have faded and the injustices seem comical now, but at the time the pain was very real. Our decision to runaway, to leave family, school and friends behind, was a refusal of the status quo. Aaron and I had no idea where we were going or what we were going to do when we got there. It was a salto mortale, a leap of faith from the known into the unknown, and in that act of un-knowing our entire lives, we were briefly, completely free.

Of course, the reality of undoing everything we had known up to that point was far less romantic than the picture painted in reminiscing. Aaron’s car broke down several times — the car we were sleeping in, we had no money, and all we had to eat was a wholesale-size package of hot dogs that rolled around in the backseat. The package had been torn open so dogs would occasionally shake loose onto the floorboards. Disgusting, but there was something heroic and martial in brushing most of the dirt off your cold dog before eating it; crunching of dirt was the sound of our freedom. I still smile at the thought of Aaron and I pushing his car while “V.A. Rocks Your Liver” (our “Star Spangled Banner”) blasted from his tape deck.

As I’ve grown older I’ve re-bought some of the records from my youth, records I had either lost in bouts of homelessness or sold for food, or, in the case of Verbal Abuse, never owned in the first place. Finally hearing “Rocks Your Liver” again after twenty years was certainly a nostalgic reward, but the song itself had lost it’s meaning outside being a placeholder for those memories. With the song sitting silently for so long, going unheard, how could I not be disappointed in hearing it again? Everything in my life had changed around that memory, and if my association with “Rocks Your Liver” (liberation, the frivolity of youth, girls underwear) remained static, hearing it again—outside that freedom—would inevitably be a different experience. I have more memories of remembering the song than the song itself.

“Rocks Your Liver” is a song that, if I heard it today, would leave me indifferent. As emblematic of those days of freedom, though—eating dirty hot dogs, breaking the law, and pushing that fucking car around—the song is overwhelming. I have no idea what became of Aaron, I have no souvenirs of that time, and I live across the country from where we roamed, so “Rocks Your Liver” is the only perceptible artifact of a time far from today with a valley of experienced life between then and now. In acquiring the record I learned I didn’t actually need it for it to be a favorite in my collection.

 

 

 

 

For Want Of” — Rites of Spring

Admittedly, I took this song, and the album it’s on, too seriously. Through most of the early ‘90s I practically pushed this album down the throats of everyone around me. Nearly everyone I knew got a copy as a gift, though more as an explanation of my condition.

One such recipient was Joann, one of the first friends I made outside my close-knit circle of degenerate creeps. Our friendship grew despite not having much in common, and eventually we traded favorite albums. I remember sitting in Joann’s house listening to her explain all the things she loved about Sade’s Promise album and being so excited because I felt exactly the same about the Rites of Spring album, except when I played it for her she looked as though I had just shit on her coffee table. At first Joann thought I was playing a joke on her, trying to humiliate her. “How is this anything like Sade?” What Joann responded to was the sound of the music (screeching, off key voice, brash noise) and I responded to the content (fervency, love, pain). To my senses, Sade and Rites of Spring were equivalent, while Joann perceived them antithetical to one another. It took much explanation, but Joann eventually, and reluctantly, conceded my point with the rejoinder, “this music is terrible.” We learned to celebrate our differences.

Unlike Verbal Abuse, Rites of Spring remained by my side through all of my tempestuous relationships, and I used lines from this album in defense of and as excuse for my recklessness, although, like Verbal Abuse, Rites of Spring doesn’t mean the same thing to me now. Fifteen years ago just hearing “I woke up this morning with a piece of past caught in my throat… and then I choked” could make my insides squall. The experience of my life then — tripping over my heart running from one woman to another — was measured in those words. Today I am different, and the song, certainly full of sentimental attachments, doesn’t operate as the embodiment of feelings, either conscious or not, that I’m experiencing.

Having an album as a sort of “constant companion” through life is interesting in how the symbolism changes (or doesn’t change) through life. Our experience with music is temporal, and is dependent on our view of things — and our view includes whatever blind spots exist in our perspective. How we hear the music will change as our worldview changes, and as the things that dominate our life (consciously or not) change. It’s only in hindsight that certain aspects come out of a former blind spot in our perception and seem legible, new to the current listening experience.

To this end, I enjoy hearing stories about other people’s sentimental songs. Most people explain it similarly (“Oh shit, this was my fucking jam”), though when pushed for more, it gets really interesting. The explanation reveals a great deal about how conscious one is of the symbolic weight of the song. Of course a good song can sometimes just be a good song, but once an examination of why a song is good begins what’s revealed is the amount of courage one has to examine himself. Telling the truth allows suffering to speak, and when we tell the truth we reveal our own parallactic finitudes. What’s real is a matter of how we arrived at truth, and that truth is tied to our inability to fully grasp the nature of truth.

 

 

 

 

Is It Because I’m Black” — Syl Johnson

As Cornel West talked of being introduced to the stank of life, so I found myself there while scouring the Internet looking for rare records. For me, a white dude in his 20s, this song represented a “holy grail” among record collectors, an obscure artifact from the civil rights era that was known in the hip-hop/sample-spotter world, and unknown to everyone else. My first access to a computer came through a desk job I had and any spare time was devoted to searching for records, back when dogpiling (remember life before Google?) “Is It Because I’m Black” would only return porno sites (Ahh, the days of unregulated metadata!). Before I had ever seen a copy of this record I found a soundfile (when .ram was the .mp3) and was so juiced to hear it I played to it through my speakers (no headphones) at my desk (a practice generally frowned upon). There I sat in the privacy of my own cubicle, with the volume as low as it could possibly go, getting so fucking into it when my boss, a black woman at least twenty years my senior (who had lived through the civil rights struggle) heard the song and completely marched into my personal space.

What happened next remains one of the most surreal and uncomfortable musical experiences of my life. My boss reached over my shoulder and turned my computer speakers up, way up, and while standing behind, sorta leaning on me, proceeded to sing along with and ad lib through the entire song. Most of the other cubicles were filled with middle-aged white women, all of whom answered to the same woman I did, that same woman who was singing, “something is holdin’ me back… is it because I’m black?” at each and every one of them. Everyone in the office was already afraid of my boss, as she had been the office manager for decades, since the office was just her and the owner, and she had no problem telling anyone what she thought of anything. This made me love her, but most people (me included) were fucking petrified of her. And there she was, moaning, ooh-ing, ahh-ing and “keep on holdin’ me back”-ing along with Syl, who was blasting out of my computer. All the while my co-workers looked at me with astonished what the fuck looks on their white faces. Jesus Christ! It was the race conversation that you always want, but are always to chickenshit, to have, and it was happening more to me than with me, and it wasn’t a conversation as much as a living disinterment of shame. When the song finished, my boss said, “goddamn, what a song” and casually went back to her desk.

My reality before listening to the song (in short: post-civil rights white man working for a black woman under the assumption, “the world ain’t perfect, but…”) was completely different after listening to the song. Everything was still the same, I was still a white man working for a black woman in an imperfect world, but the façade had cracked. It was a façade that all of us—my boss, me, my co-workers—were aware of and discussed as such (“equal opportunities, huh, right?”). Of course institutional racism worked in place of overt racism, and of course we aren’t all equal and of course things aren’t perfect, but it’s okay, right?

What my boss did by elevating Syl Johnson as a one-sided conversation was to acknowledge what Lacan refers to as the big Other. Our work place was operating under the guise of a paradoxical reflexive order which allowed symbolic order to function. This is similar to Marx’s explaination of how states function; we only imagine that we believe in order and demand that others believe in that same order as we do—no one really believes, but it functions. My boss, causing torsion in the façade, brought the Symbolic into view of the Real and all the rest of us saw the contradictions of multiple truths existing simultaneously.

Much like Cornel West explained, my boss had tremendous courage in allowing truth to speak through suffering, by acknowledging finitude, by showing how my truth was tied to how I came to that truth, by introducing me to the stank of life.

The whole experience was terribly uncomfortable, and I would not change that. Before, I saw the record as an artifact, something rare and obscure, a relic from the near past, but still the past, and afterward I saw my view of the record intersected by other realities, in parallax, discordant and uncomfortably true, coinciding all around me. The record never had a chance to become a fetish as my unconscious blind spots were revealed before I owned it.

 

 

 

 

“I Don’t Wanna Cry” Mariah Carey

(File under: Guilty pleasure!)

My senior year of high school I made friends with a foreign exchange student from Spain who dated my best friend. Of course, as all high school relationships go, my best friend dumped her and things got sad and ugly. I spent many weekday afternoons with my Spanish friend, eating her host family’s food and watching MTV. Mariah Carey was kinda huge then, and her multi-octaved only-dogs-can-hear vocal range was still a novelty. “I Don’t Wanna Cry” became a theme song for my Spanish friend’s bouts of tears and, at some point, she gave me a copy of Mariah’s first album as a kind-of funny acknowledgment of what we’d been through. It wasn’t so much about Mariah Carey as it was the experience, but the album was the perfect token of the experience.

From the outset I had detached myself from Mariah’s music, being a boy who really only responded to testosterone-enraged guitar music. Not to typecast myself, but let’s be real, I was immature and angry, so the Misfits blew my mind and Mariah Carey was a whatever thing that I only acknowledged ironically. My friend moved back to Spain after graduation and I kept the album as a memento. Over the years, other friends, aware of this random softie-pop aberration in an otherwise agitated oeuvre, bought me subsequent Mariah Carey releases. It became a funny thing, me being an un-closeted fan with sentimental attachments to her music. Ten years later I was a “regular” Mariah Carey fan who, of my own volition, bought albums, singles, remixes, etc. It was usually a noteworthy thing for anyone browsing my stacks, “What’s the story with all these Mariah Carey albums?”

There’s nothing really remarkable about my attachment to Mariah Carey. It happens with people and pop music all the time, the, “I know, I know, but I just like it, ya’know?” worldview. In some way pop music exists to fill this place in our lives. Pop music is ubiquitous, and it’s a forgone conclusion that some Top 40 song will be playing when shit happens. It’s unavoidable. Everyone I know has a similar fetish with some artist or song. Like I said, it’s not remarkable. What is remarkable is when I decided to abandon Mariah.

That last year of high school was particularly painful for me. I didn’t really graduate, all of my friends were going to college (or moving to another country), my home life was totally fucked and it seemed like everything was falling apart. Once high school was over, I bounced around from girlfriend to girlfriend, apartment to apartment, roommate to roommate, town to town, trying to just figure it out, ya’know? It wasn’t easy. Through the next fifteen years I maintained this ironic Mariah Carey collection that functioned as a sentimental tether to my Spanish friend on the other side of the world. I was conscious of this and spoke of it as such. In 2000, I moved into a studio apartment, it was the first time I lived alone, and that’s when I decided to part ways with Mariah.

I didn’t think it was significant at the time; I’d had the albums for over a decade, hauled them from apartment to apartment, town to town, and regarded them as mementos the entire time. So why didn’t I get rid of them earlier? Or, why did I get rid* of them then? Looking back, it’s interesting that the Mariah collection started when I was terrified of being left alone, and it was only when I was able to live on my own that I didn’t need the sentimental token any longer.

 

 

….

 

 

Thinking about music in this way, as a fetish that allows us to either re-live experiences through an attachment or distantiate ourselves from a reality we can’t wholly experience, is an interesting process. Revealing unconscious fetishes that have never been fully in our view can stir aggravation or defensiveness. Engrained fetishes are especially perceptible when reading record reviews or listening to people discuss why they hate artists. In addition, looking at “phases” we went through with certain songs or artists will often coincide with experiences that were significant at the times we were getting “into” and “out of” the music. While we may passively listen to music, there is a lot of activity in the process, and I would venture to guess it’s rarely ever, “just a good song, ya’know?”

What song do you fetish. And why?

 

 

….

* As a footnote, when I got rid of the Mariah collection, I brought a box of random CDs to a record store to trade for used LPs. While the young, know-it-all clerk looked over the box I browsed. Some 45 minutes later, I’m deep in the middle of the Buck Owens section and a voice comes over the store loudspeaker: “Would the guy who brought in all those Mariah Carey singles please come to the front of the store.” —What a little dick! Trying to shame me even as I’m relinquishing my fetish. No wonder people are so defensive!

“crying ‘Take me back home, take me back home.'”

Posted by , January 17th, 2011
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Things seem difficult right now. I’m cooking too much and sleeping too little and not accomplishing enough in between. I owe too many people and I’m speaking with too few, spending too much time parsing rejections real and imagined. Someone’s always crying and everyone wants something and I want it all for them–I do, more than they could ever know, I do. And it’s all very very important and none of it matters in the least and I am no closer to being the boy that I was than I am to the man I thought I would be and no one wants to pay me for my broken heart and and and blah blah blah.

And I’ve been listening a lot to this new song by Iron & Wine, “Walking Far From Home.” A whole lot. I heard it on some website and was drawn in, completely and surprisingly. I’ve been seeing the Iron & Wine name in the ether for a number of years, but I don’t really know anything about it, mostly because I don’t really actually listen to singer-songwriter stuff at all; for no good reason, it’s just a genre to which I’m generally indifferent. I’m pretty sure that prior to this my only express encounter with Iron & Wine was lingering over a magazine ad a few years back that featured the cover art of their then-current record, which was a striking painting of a dog with buddy tongue adrape and a calming green-cheese moon for its glaucous eye, but at the same time looking like it had been flayed, the torqued meat of its turning head streaked magenta and black. That’s why I’m so surprised that this song has magnetized me like it has: Usually, within a genre that I think so little about, pricking up my ears would take a pretty unusual specimen, and “Walking Far From Home” is not that. It’s basically an exquisitely rendered litany, instantly recognizable as descendant from a long line of art-speech catalogs, glories strung like beads:

I was walking far from home
Where the names were not burned along the wall
Saw a building high as heaven
But the door was so small, door was so small
 
I saw rain clouds, little babies
And a bridge that had tumbled to the ground
I saw sinners making music
And I dreamt of that sound, dreamt of that sound
 
I was walking far from home
But I carried your letters all the while
I saw lovers in a window
Whisper “want me like time, want me like time”
 
I saw sickness bloom in fruit trees
I saw blood and a bit of it was mine
I saw children in a river
But their lips were still dry, lips were still dry

Hear in it the unification of disparate things in the funneling toward inexorable march, the pilgrim’s progress of us all:

In the day when the keepers of the house shall tremble,
and the strong men shall bow themselves,
and the grinders cease because they are few,
and those that look out of the windows be darkened,
and the doors shall be shut in the streets,
when the sound of the grinding is low,
and he shall rise up at the voice of the bird,
and all the daughters of musick shall be brought low;
also when they shall be afraid of that which is high,
and fears shall be in the way,
and the almond tree shall flourish,
and the grasshopper shall be a burden,
and desire shall fail:
because man goeth to his long home…
– Ecclesiastes

Hear the giddy, bookish liberation of free-falling through all the possibles:

If our pleasures be interrupt, we can tolerate it: our bodies hurt, we can put it up and be reconciled: but touch our commodities, we are most impatient: fair becomes foul, the graces are turned to harpies, friendly salutations to bitter imprecations, mutual feastings to plotting villainies, minings and counterminings; good words to satires and invectives, we revile e contra, nought but his imperfections are in our eyes, he is a base knave, a devil, a monster, a caterpillar, a viper, a hog-rubber, etc. Desinit in piscem mulier formosa superne [the beauteous woman tails off into a fish]; the scene is altered on a sudden, love is turned to hate, mirth to melancholy…
– Robert Burton, Anatomy of Melancholy

See pointillist vignettes massing into panorama:

The  conductor beats time for the band and all the performers follow him,
The child is baptized, the convert is making his first professions,
The regatta is spread on the bay, the race is begun, (how the white sails sparkle!)
The drover watching his drove songs out to them that would stray,
The pedler sweats with his pack on his back, (the purchaser higgling about the odd cent;)
The bride unrumples her white dress, the minute hand of the clock moves slowly,
The opium-eater reclines with rigid head and just-open’d lips
– Walt Whitman, Song Of Myself

Feel the cubist anxiety of seeing everything everywhere all at once, the anticipation, incomprehension, and faint dread of watching nonsenses and non sequiturs begin to rise up like a body :

The bird in this cage brings tears to the eyes of the little girl devoted to blue. Her father is an explorer. The new-born kittens turn about. In this wood there are pale flowers that cause those that pick them to die. The whole family is thriving and musters under this linden trees after meals. A croupier is dealing out handfuls of bullion. Oblivion is the finest fervour. One thinks only of cries. Hot drinks are served in coloured glasses.
– Andre Breton, The Immaculate Conception

Feel the intertwined sympathy and disgust of the witness, unwilling but unblinking:

I saw a newborn baby with wild wolves all around it
I saw a highway of diamonds with nobody on it
I saw a black branch with blood that kept drippin’
I saw a room full of men with their hammers a-bleedin’
I saw a white ladder all covered with water
I saw ten thousand talkers whose tongues were all broken
I saw guns and sharp swords in the hands of young children
– Bob Dylan, “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall”

Know the postmodern joy of the endlessly open circuit, fragments and refractions willed into narrative through nothing but the sheer exhilaration of their delivery, each line cascading jaggedly into the next (or not):

Ayo, crash through, break the glass, Tony with the goalie mask
That’s the pass, heavy-ice Roley layin’ on the dash
Love the grass, cauliflower hurtin’ when I dumped the trash
Sour mash surge in every glass up at the Wally bash
Sunsplash, autographed blessing with your name slashed
Backdraft, four-pounders screamin’ with the pearly axe
Children fix the contrast as the sound clashes
Mrs. Dash, sprinkle with her icicle eyelash
Ask Cappa Pendergrass for backstage passes
Special guest, no more Johnny Blaze, Johnny Mathis
Acrobat, run up on that
Love Jones actress–
Distract the cat while I’m high, “Sugar, get a crack at this!”
– Ghostface Killah, “One”

That’s a quick history of the motion, but it’s important to know something else, too: that every one of these catalogs and litanies can only truly complete its heart and ours in the ending, in its resolution. They each have a momentum that pulls us in and carries us forth, but until we know how it ends—whether all of these details are meant to be taken collectively as promise or rebuke or affirmation or burden or whatever—their energy is like a gift placed in the palm of an outreached hand upon which the fingers do not close. Until we know, there is something that both sides hold in reserve.

There are times in my life when I need to be spoken to much more than I need to speak. In such times I compulsively push things into meaningfulness, no matter how many facts I’m presented to the contrary. During a particularly coring summer several years ago, I listened obsessively to J Dilla’s “Time (Donut Of The Heart),” thirty, forty, fifty times a day, trying to make it speak. I knew full well that it consisted entirely of chopped and reassembled pieces from a Jackson 5 song, pieces which included no actual words, just a syllable from over here and an intake of breath from over there and a splinter of clipped melisma that just happened to get caught on the tail end of the guitar sample, and so on. But in open spite of that knowledge, I was convinced that “Time” was actually speaking, that I was hearing something literal, something real. There’s one point somewhere in the first thirty seconds where a number of these wordless vocal sonics cross each other, and I was sure that deep in their intersection I was hearing the words “all I can do is love.” I’ve since become familiar enough with the Jackson 5 song to know that I wasn’t right about what it was saying, but when I hear “Time” now, never getting outside of its own ouroboros of desire and pursuance long enough to catch up to the tick-tocking without, I know that I wasn’t really wrong about it, either.

And I think it’s somewhat the same with “Walking Far From Home.” It’s an affecting song, but reading it on paper, I can’t shake the feeling that it’s comprised of a bunch of loose diamonds the author had lying around, lines great and stray that he was just saving for later. So many of the images are profound and indelible in their turn, but taken collectively, there is between them a disconnect that is just enough to preclude some essential spark. They seem to owe more than a little to the power of suggestion, seem unified by inclusion more than conception; it doesn’t feel like the images have been put here in this song because they’re all related as much as it feels like they’re related because they’ve all been put here in this song. It’s a small difference, but for me it’s a heartbreaking one: Because even as I find myself drawn so unexpectedly into this song that is so outside of my usual taste, even as I find myself tugged forward and through on its ducking and cresting undulations of wing, even as I find myself allowing the kind of surrender that seems a little less possible every day, even in the light of these beautiful, beautiful words, I also find myself pulling back at the prickling suspicion that what I’m responding to isn’t really the heart of the heart or the root of the root, but is instead just a succession of pretty, pretty things, things that only mean something because I’m weak enough to need them to mean something, and because if they don’t, then I’m left with not only the absence of meaning but also the shame of having needed so desperately and having judged so poorly. “It’s like, if I can give, please give back. Please.” The fear is that there will be no communion, no intersection, and that these gemmy acts of witness will spool out coolly for another three minutes or for another five or for another five hundred before just tying off with a step back and a gnostic nod, revealing the song’s message to be not a message at all, but rather an expectation—the expectation that we will of course understand what all of these things mean. The fire will turn out to be just a bunch of flames, each pitiless in its own tiny perfection. That is my fear.

Until.

….

A few years ago, The Killers had a song called “When You Were Young.” It’s not a great song, but it was a very popular song, and it contains within it a moment of decision that is notable for having been so widely and commercially audible. The first couple verses are about youth, innocence, aspiration, and the threat of their passing. In the second chorus, the singer sings “when you were young” twice. The first time, he resolves the phrase with a curt downturn, sneering faintly with full understanding of what can and cannot be had, and severing the cord neatly from behind a mask of generation-specific American cool: No, see, this is how it is now. What, you thought it wasn’t? But in the moment before he sings it again, there are loomings–“It is ridiculous / what airs we put on / to seem profound / while our hearts / gasp dying / for want of love” ; “Tell me, how can you stand there with your broken heart / ashamed of playing the fool?”–there are doubts and disgorgings, disgust at one’s own attempts at aloofness, and somewhere within a door blows off of its hinges from the force of a refusal to believe that anything must be given up, that it is ever truly too late. And so when he sings it the second time, the singer coils the first three words behind, then whips the last one up, over, and out with all the abandon he’d suppressed just a second before, loosing a “young” of pure joy and yearning, trying to lasso the whole world and not caring if you see him trying, not even caring if you see him miss. If that first “when you were young” was the understanding–that cool is rooted in acceptance, an unwillingness to be affected by any realization–the second is the rejection, the cry out that cracks the mask.

….

Every line of “Walking Far From Home” looks out from its own arrested bloom. Sam Beam’s phrasing and pronunciation allows each a soft, rich little expansion, and then puts a ghost fillip at the very end, pulling back  just shy of full drawl, latching one line closed just as he swans lovingly into the next. The song mounts and mounts like this upon the current of his voice, the grace and beauty of the images becoming almost unbearable. Still, each remains discrete; these gifts all gather in the palm, but the fingers do not close.

Until.

….

Tom Moulton on remixing MFSB’s “Love Is The Message” in 1976: “That was probably the greatest thing I ever did. I would have done anything to mix ‘Love Is The Message.’ They couldn’t understand that….When I got to certain parts of it, it was like being pushed off a cliff and not falling. Suspended.”

….

I was walking far from home
Where the names were not burned along the wall
Saw a wet road form a circle
And it came like a call, came like a call from the Lord

And there, in the singing of the very last word, is the end of control, the abandonment of mastery, the opening of the heart. He first sings it as a Last Word is supposed to be sung: as first and foremost a completion of the preceding minutes, maybe allowing the end to rise up a little and flare into the drawl he’s been reining in. But he shakes his head, no, no, it’s not enough–and almost before the word is even over, he sings it again, this time not as word but as a repeated syllable, pushing it to bellow and swell into this great, swooping thing, a horizon-wide banner that he’s waving back an forth with both arms to the very limits of his reach. Still not enough. After a rest he sings it finally, as mercury keening high in an arrow to the sun. Even if it were just perfect it would be enough, but this, this is somehow better: At one point during the ascent and again at the very end, his voice slips from that pure heavenly sound and feathers out into a plain-sung “Awww,” flawed, but of complete humanity.

It is a  climb where every step is so vivid that it seems inevitable, every gesture so gravid that it seems unavoidable, and the pull of time so insistent that it seems inescapable. And the realization that its pinnacle can be reached not in the expected moment of triumph but instead in a moment of weakness, of release, is the beginning of the realization that that is where it all speaks. To go through these beautiful, difficult events, to be led so far and taken so high, and to then stumble, but to understand that you’ve not lost, to still be somehow held above, suspended

In that moment at the end of this song is much of what I’ve always looked for in music, and much of what I currently hope for in life.

All I can do is love.

 

CONSEQUENTIAL DATA

– Since getting stuck on “Walking Far From Home,” I haven’t done too much digging into Iron & Wine. Only enough, really, to confirm a couple suspicions that I had from my very first listening: One, I bet this is one of those bands that’s really only one dude. And two, I bet said dude has a serious beard—like, one of those Will Oldham-level pieces.

– One of the things that hooked me about this song was how it fooled me right at the top: When I first heard “I was walking far from home / Where the names were not burned along the wall / Saw a building high as heaven…” I would have bet my gold teeth that the next line was gonna rhyme it with “fall”–like how could this not be some 9/11 shit, right? “…But the door was so small, door was so small.” Okay, okay–not bad.

– The little backtuck Sam Beam puts in the completion of every line keeps making me think of those HAZE tags, with the unusual E that so distinctively spirals not outward, but back in on itself.

– Another perceived Moment Of Decision that I got a charge from: On “Race For The Prize,” the opening track of The Flaming Lips’ The Soft Bulletin, there’s this grand sweep of strings that I was kinda ambivalent about, because on the one hand it’s really majestic and lovely, but on the other hand, it’s also really straight and glutinous. But in short order it gets all pitch-bent, as if to show you, the home listener, that it’s really just a sample or some synth preset or something, non-sacred and utterly fuckwithable. It was very small, but I’m smiling just thinking about it.

– In Ben Folds’s “Still Fighting It” there’s also a line that ends three times. First time happy, second time bittersweet, last time absolutely gutting :

“You’ll try and try / and one day you’ll fly…”

“…away…”

“…from me.”

Songs About Fucking

Posted by , January 11th, 2011
Category: Abstraction Tags:   RSS | Comments | Trackback from your site
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In lieu of a proper introduction let me acknowledge that borrowing a restaurant review format and applying it to the examination of music is fairly absurd. What’s more, focusing these sound-as-sustenance reviews through a lens of Lacan psychoanalysis is wholly absurd. To stand on a dictum where Francis Bacon once stood: “Truth emerges more readily from error than from confusion.” It’s from this point—absurdity, obviously in error—that these surveys begin.

Examining sound from this skewed vantage point, anamorphically, with absurdity as the jumping-off point, our blind spot in how we perceive music is altered, which allows new experiences; more truths.

 

 

 

Moanin’ and Groanin’” — Bill Withers

Sound: Bedclothes duet
Impulse
: Sensual
Praxis
: Works every time
Price
: Who cares?

The quintessential fuck song, unarguably. All that is embodied in the sex experience distilled to its absolute essence, as if it were a fine salve that you could spread on those parts of you hurting for love. Sung in duet with himself, Mr. Withers makes interesting Lacanian intimations toward an “object gaze,” suffering a blind spot in his perception of a visual reality, presenting an inability to bear witness to his subject “in full,” so to speak. This is further confirmed in the line, Young girl turned out to be two times twice the woman that I thought she was; the subject of desire, once possessed—in full view—becomes anamorphic and the suitor must see her re-doubled in his reality. The gap between the Symbolic and the Real is revealed in the line, if she ain’t the best in the world/ she’s as good as the goodest one. The fundamental fantasy of the experience is confirmed, and almost unconsciously, Withers concludes, “I feel real good,” with an extraordinary emphasis on the “Real.”

Despite the barred reality present in the tune, still, one of the best songs to be playing should you find yourself naked — alone with your fantasies, or otherwise.

 

 

 

Come On Baby” — Natural Four

 

Sound: Falsetto fondling
Impulse
: Epicurean
Praxis
: Sincerity with a touch of sax
Price
: Worth it’s weight in gold

The recurring supplication throughout this song, come on — come on, however loaded with double entendre, begs, on one hand, for consummation, and yet, on the other hand, looks to Lacan for a guarantee of the “experience’s existence”: Baby this love I feel/ I wonder if it’s for real. Here, the suitor wills his conquest in words, and, likely, into a reality. That is, the pleading for the will to be Real. The I’m so lonely for you baby confession has obvious Freudian connotations, and after the first climax” of the song there is a retreat to cliché (confession interposed over a saxophone solo), a few bars reprieve from the Real intent of the song, before the begging begins again — this time with more oomph. If we are, as Freud claims, fixated with maternal love, then the crying pleas, the falsetto (from the Latin “false,” a condition most common in pubescent boys), the unrequitedness, certainly lends credence to that particular worldview.

Don’t let this stop you, however, from using this song to woo someone other than your mother. It’s a lot to deal with, what with the umbilical cord and the nipple and all…

 

 

 

Back Door Man” — Howlin’ Wolf

Sound: Low end
Impulse
: As old as the ages
Praxis
: Backwards (*wink*)
Price
: Initially, tight-fisted, much looser later

This song’s for all you naughty types, as it contains the taboo trifecta: cheating, underage girls, and anal sex [which reminds me of a joke: Q: What do spinach and buttfucking have in common? A: If it’s forced on you as a child you won’t enjoy it as an adult]. The obvious double entendre aside, Howlin’ Wolf really delivers with this Willie Dixon classic. And let’s be clear, fuck you square in the eye if you would rather hear Jim Morrison sing this. There’s a certain je ne sais quoi that Wolf embodies when he confesses, I eats mo’ chicken/ any man seen. No doubt Jim Morrison ate some chicken in his day, but we can be sure The Wolf ate much, much mo’.

Blues woman of note, Sara Martin, said of this song, “every sensible woman got a back-door man,” which implicitly confirms what we privately understand, though we deny it explicitly in public.

The supporting characters in this story are interesting cases: the nurse: professional care provider to the infirm; the wife of the judge: partner to impartiality; and the cop’s wife: consort of the constable — all these women overexert their role in favor of this “gut shot dog,” as he’s viewed by their leading men. Though I lack any clinical case studies to back this, I would venture to guess the world has been supported “from behind” in this way since we were hunched primates. Gives new meaning to “Cave Man,” if you know what I mean?

 

 

 

 

Game is My Middle Name” — Betty Davis

Sound: Dominatrix-informed deep funk
Impulse
: Mess up my mind
Praxis
: Do me in
Price
: If you have to ask…

As a counterbalance to Howlin’ Wolf’s back door creep, Betty Davis comes out “on top,” “full frontal,” completely willing to “take” whatever can be dished out. And one gets the impression that she can take quite a bit, yaddamean? The admission, whatever you want/ that’s what I’ll be, has heavy chimerical signifiers. The kind that suggest she’s not unfamiliar with a request such as, “set me on fire and mash my nuts with your hooves while asphyxiating me with your serpent’s tail.” And Betty handles it: whatever you wanna play/ I said, I’ll play it witcha. I mean, what kind of “stable” woman asks you — no, begs you to, just mess up my mind.

Hearing the song in this light it’s not hard for one to envision a Blyian men’s group huddled around a fire somewhere in the wilds of Minnesota backcountry—having paid a small fortune for their “portable talisman” and “archetypal shaman’s kaftan”—and just as things are getting really myopoetic and the men can almost “touch” Iron John himself, footsteps from the distance grow louder… Out of the worst fairy tale of their New Warrior Training imaginations, the men are greeted by a Betty Davis-like sphinx with patricidal fangs and an unquenchable concupiscence:

 

Go on and open up your bag of tricks
Anything you got to give, I’ll take it

 

Listen to how she’s screaming at the end. I mean, just sit back and absorb how profoundly unhinged she sounds through the shrieking. Granted, she’s talking about “playing,” but I suggest coming up with a “safe word” before players advance to this level of the game. If Miles Davis couldn’t handle it, I ask, what makes you think you can (Yea hooo!, yea hooo! — yea hooo!)? “Come on, now.”

Again, no data to support this claim, but I bet when Betty Davis passes, should an autopsy be performed, they will find remnants of several suitable swains in her stool.

 

 

 

 

You Can Leave Your Hat On” — Etta James

Sound: Role-play R&B
Impulse
: To know what love is
Praxis
: With the lights on
Price
: Come on, just do it

Similar to the sadomasochistic spirit of “Game is My Middle Name,” Etta brings a better nine-to-five balance to the boudoir. While this is customarily a “behind closed doors” practice, this variety will likely see more travelers as it has an everyday flavor— tempting enough to draw in those lubricious-leaning types, but familiar enough to seem just-this-side-of-illegal. This jam is decidedly a lights on affair. What Etta receives from her man standing on a chair, “arms in the air,” shaking, is a little outside my wheelhouse, but if it gives her “reason to live,” who the fuck am I to argue?

When she comes on with the repetitions of “they don’t know what love is,” and the jousissanceinduced cries that complete them, there begins the slow fade. A song structure of Gräfenbergian device, as it “hits” the “spot.” Feel me?

 

 

 

Never Felt Like This Before” — Charlie Smalls

Sound: SSSW (sincere singer-songwriter)
Impulse
: Positive vibes
Praxis
: Serenade where possible
Price
: Ask Cassavetes

Off the soundtrack to the Cassavetes film Faces, a wholehearted song, caught unawares, amidst the véritély focused scenes full of drunkards, cheats and disappointed prostitutes. Faces is weighty with the conflated muse of newfound freedom, as the recently divorced “clumsy fuck” their way through—or, more precisely, out of—their unfulfilled lives. The realism of the film finds a strange bedfellow in Charlie Smalls, with his short, unassuming heartfelt proposal to spend a quiet life together.

Charlie Smalls is remembered without much aid from popular media (outside of this particular song and his work on the Broadway show The Whiz), which seems unfortunate given the gentle candor of “Never Felt Like This Before.” There are those who “commission their own immortality” — a quote attributed to marchesa Casati —and then there are the rest of us. Semiotically speaking, it’s often the case, continuing to use Casati as an example, that the signifier (Casati all dolled up) has a relationship to the signified (dandy splendor) through this commissioned immortality that is not shared in the same way with those of us (“slobs,” let’s call us) who also interpret the signs. For the Casati caste, and to employ a Barthesian Fashion System process, “a little braid gives elegance,” while for us slobs, “a little braid” makes you look like a “stuck-up” “gorgon.”

The resistance, however purposeful or not, to immortalizing oneself by way of a medium that increases public exposure, is a sign many of us slobs use to signify our own brand of elitism. For example: “This song is an obscure track off a rare indie film soundtrack.” While the level of percolation into popular awareness is different, the representation of status is quite the same. In other words, being a snob works with or without an audience.

The idea of a cinéma vérité—watching an actor play a “real” experience—is ripe with semiotic implications. Ask yourself if your participation in such a cinema, as an interpretant, decoding the signs, would be more or less “real” in a Cassavetes film than in, say, a Ridley Scott film? We value the “truth” of a Gena Rowlands-played-prostitute (humble, obscure) differently than the “truth” of an Angelina Jolie-played-prostitute (glamorous, famous). The meaning, the representation of signifier and signified, suffers more divergence in the case of Jolie, thereby diluting the authenticity of her character. She’s less “real” as a prostitute, as it were.

“Never Felt Like This Before” is a song, just like Katy Perry’s “Firework,” or any other song. The place the song occupies in culture—it’s obscurity or prevalence—has a diverging factor on how we interpret the sign, but what we respond to, ultimately, is the belief in the artist’s ability to transcend the static, and reach the ecstatic. How each artist approaches that ecstasy is different, and while some feign and some force, the listener has a keen perception, as interpretant, with a built-in bullshit detector that can seek out the truly transcendental in any performance.

So while some respond to Charlie Smalls, acknowledging his place among the shadows, as an obscure singer who appeared on a lesser-known soundtrack, what’s “Real” about that response is Smalls’ ability to transcend the rigidities of recorded media and bring ecstatic “truth” to life in song.

File under: Musique vérité!

 

 

 

You Can Have Him (I Don’t Want Him)” — Nina Simone

Sound: Piano paramountcy
Impulse
: Romantic devotion
Praxis
: Post-coital nostalgia
Price
: One’s life

Speaking of transcending the terrestrial and harnessing the ecstasy of creative infinity, Nina Simone’s performance here is the pinnacle of such an endeavor, making it the best kind of love song. Simone makes a unique experience of the mundane (“mend his underwear and darn his socks”) through an extraordinary amalgam of deliberation and inventive freedom. Musically, Simone unpremeditatedly spans between arabesques engulfing the entirety of the keyboard and buoyant whispers of notes that only hint at the melody, leaving her nearly acapella at times. The determination and contagious spirit Simone winds herself up in while singing is Stendhalian, transcendently pure, and that effect washes over the listener in a very capital R “Real” sense.

The obvious gestalt of the song—that she does want him—is betrayed in the title’s parenthetic admission (that she doesn’t want him), which, in a Lacanian view, could be construed as a “master signifier.” That is, the one thing that the subject most identifies with, and which, accordingly, has a key role in the way she gives meaning to everything. Of course, the problem with a “master signifier” is that it is also an “empty signifier,” a transferential supposition, or a blind faith in that which doesn’t really exist.  Here, the empty signifier works like the experience of Stendhal Syndrome (an assault of aesthetics). There are “real” physical effects but the sufferer can’t clearly identify a cause. “It’s just so beautiful.” Overwhelmed with her experience.

The paradox of Simone’s performance is multi-layered. First, at once she’s denying what she wants (“I don’t want him”) while confessing a contradictory truth through the signs of the song (she really wants him).  Second, there’s likely no real Object. That is to say, even if there exists a real man, the love described in the song is virtually unattainable. A love of this nature would be so overwhelming it would likely leave Nina in a Standhalian coma. The love is a sign, signifying an idea of what love could be. Finally, Simone’s performance, a live story telling, is a re-redoubling of events: Art (the song) imitates life (the love), which is then re-imitated (the performance). The song is a simulacrum of something that was never hers to begin with (Irving Berlin wrote the song).

In pure essence of Baudrillard’s simulacrum theory, Nina Simone’s performance doesn’t conceal a truth—it’s the truth which conceals that there is no truth. The performance, then, is Real. The “how deep the rabbit-hole goes” paradox of this proposition is the very thing we exalt in our faith in gods that don’t exist. For a mortal to be allowed to straddle such territories she must be damaged and difficult, like Nina Simone. We know, absolutely, that what she’s telling us is not real, but through her simulation, and the signs she conjures, we incant a truth that allows us to love, completely and freely. And that love is real.

It’s a pure faith in this complete and free love that so overwhelms Nina Simone herself in this performance. I wasn’t at Town Hall when this song was recorded, but I like to think that for the nearly six minutes that she was singing, Nina fell far, far down the rabbit-hole into a totally pure, transcendent ecstasy, and it wasn’t until the end, jarred out of her Stendhal Syndrome by the roaring applause, that she screamed back in feverish resuscitation at the audience.

Listen for yourself and hear how surprised she sounds, as if she forgot she was on stage.

 

 

 

Just Me and You” — Jane Birkin

Sound: Lolita lullaby
Impulse
: Retrieval
Praxis
: Temporary
Price
: Not worth it

 

The romantic impulse of retrieving a lost love in this song comes from the same place as Nina Simone’s “You Can Have Him,” though, here, with Jane Birkin, the longevity of this prospect seems slim. While the passion is present, and a genuine desire to revive the love once known is what Jane is asking for, there are some troubling symptoms afloat.

First, Jane starts out on a course of second chances with a focus on the “jealousy and pain” that likely ended the romance the first time. Her insistence for isolation—“it would be just me and you, fuck the rest of the world”—is an unconscious admission of her inability to integrate this ideal relationship into the rest of her worldview. Further, he desire to return to a former version of herself, “if I could be twenty-one again,” when “everything was fragile,” is a defense mechanism, classic Freudian regression.

It’s clear here that Jane’s continued nescience of her desire is not nescience of what she demands, but nescience of whence she desires.

I don’t need to tell you that Jane Birkin is dumb hot; she oozes “fuck me.” Her sex appeal has Stendhalian effects on the world. So whoever she’s addressing here was likely unable to resist. And who can blame him? Carnal satisfaction aside, you know this isn’t going to last, so, enjoy the ride, and… take pictures!

 

 

 

Maybe Liquor, Maybe Blood” — Judith and Holofernes

Sound: Fateful fado
Impulse
: Unholy
Praxis
: Predestined
Price
: Going to hell is free

 

Suppose you’re in a bad place. You’ve been there a while. And you’re not alone. Suppose you’ve fucked up a few times already. Like we learned from Jane Birkin’s misguided impulse in “Just Me and You,” being ignorant of whence you desire can lead to dark places. Those dark places are where we find the couple in this song. A “flood” of “lust,” “ill-will,” “vendetta,” “regret,” a “promise,” a “curse,” and “whiskey” on both party’s “lips.” These conditions are ripe for bad choices. Unable to sustain what little composure is left, the singer acknowledges the instability and forecasts, “I call out at night/ warning of a flood.” Unable to differentiate the symbolic from real, with a largely unconscious, dynamically repressed, Oedipal phantom overcoming him, he unleashes, “in the mood to fight or maybe in the mood to fuck.” At this point the actual act of maternal sex or patricidal rage is irrelevant, the singer is fully eclipsed by his neurosis.

Keep your distance.

 

 

 

S.D.B.J.” — Jesus Lizard

Sound: Projectile vociferating
Impulse
: Prurient
Praxis
: Preferably blacked out
Price
: Too much

 

This tableau vivant cannot fail to bring to mind a certain kind of “theater of cruelty” most have witnessed either in college or in some art house film whose images are not easily erased from the mind’s eye. This song, a life-threatening mixture of alcohol and sex, removes all pleasure from either drinking or fucking. A subject such as this is often viewed with curiosity-driven disgust. Much in the same way we are shocked at children who repeatedly cut themselves or smash their faces into walls yet can’t not watch as we’re baffled by the behavior, we find ourselves watching this song unfold. Perhaps the satisfaction — of both the self-inflicting children and the singer of this song — does not pertain so much to the way the feeling of intense bodily pain brings the subject back to reality but, rather, to the fact that inflicting this pain on oneself is a form of making a mark, thereby shifting the anamorphic blind spot, allowing a clearer view of the self. The “zero” of the subject’s existential confusion, of their blurred virtual existence, is transformed into the “one” of a signifying inscription. By engaging in these baffling activities they’ve made themselves Real.

 

Some doors are better left closed.

Lyin’ around
Like some goddamn walrus
You make me
Sick to my stomach

The smell is here
Hangs like a killer
Hangs like a deadman
And I can’t take another day

 

SICK!
DRUNK!
BLOW!

JOB!

Some kind of bra-wearin’-hairy-fish
Droolin’ into your dish

 

 

 

 

Soul On Fire” — Lavern Baker

 

Sound: Vatic ballad
Impulse
: Ego-Incinerating effigy
Praxis
: A game I’ve always won
Price
: Eternal

 

What better ending than self-immolation?

 

Descartes famously wrote, “I think, therefore I am” — the very act of doubting one’s own existence serves as proof of the reality of one’s own existence. In his seminar on the logic of fantasy, Lacan revised Descartes’ posit thusly, “I am not where I think.” A similar revision happens with Lavern Baker here, when she says, “goodbye to everyone but you, my love.” With this seemingly simple admission of true love, Lavern actually reveals a fully conscious perception of self, or what Kant called Transcendental Apperception.

Lavern resolves herself in parallax, with the ability to see her life through all perceptions simultaneously. Her experiences, her iterations of self, have all been a succession of content combined in her consciousness, though she’s “still had to walk this road all by myself,” the unity of experience is a unity of the self, or, as Lavern says, “I put them all on the shelf.”

In psychoanalysis, the investigation of the gap between the Symbolic the Real is referred to as “Symbolic Castration,” and here we see Lavern resolving her “barred subject,” when she sings, “I found my true love, with you forever, and my life has just begun.”

It’s no coincidence that this song (given it’s weighty implications: Oedipus complex, symbolic castration, burning oneself in effigy to unite the Symbolic and the Real) was used in the film Angel Heart to articulate the symbolism in the sex scene with Harry Angel and Epiphany Proudfoot. Under the auspices of finding Johnny Favorite, a “lost man,” Angel interviews Proudfoot, and learns Favorite had a relationship with Proudfoot’s mother. It’s not until the sex scene that the façade of Johnny Favorite starts to crumble. As “Soul On Fire” plays, and Harry Angel and Epiphany Proudfoot fuck, blood rains from the ceiling and scenes of a barbaric orgy quickly flash on screen. It’s not until the end of the film, when Harry Angel returns to this bedroom and finds Proudfoot dead, that he is slowly awoken by the revelation that he is Johnny Favorite, and Proudfoot was his daughter.

Hegel said, “beyond the veil of phenomena, the consciousness finds only what it itself has put there.” And so Harry Angel fucked his own daughter and burned in hell. The symbolic “dis-barring” of the Transcendental Apperception, eliminating the dual relationship of self (shattering the mirror stage, as it were), self-immolation—setting one’s soul ablaze… all of these phenomena coalesce beautifully in “Soul On Fire.”

Imagine Lavern Baker, in parallactic duality, with the ability to see all the mirror images of herself — all perspectives simultaneously, singing, in child-like abandon:

 

 

For me
You’re the only one
Who makes me shiver
Makes me tingle

 

 

 

 

 

The Howl

Posted by , October 20th, 2010
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Early this year, I got two records: Ducktails’ Landscapes and Matrix Metals’ self-titled. The two-thirds of the Ducktails record that I like consists of rinky, wistful throb supporting session-clean guitar that emotes from behind miles of mask; it sounds a lot like a play-along record, like something very important has recently been excised from it. The Matrix Metals record is far more canned and intense; it’s all just atomic fragments of what sounds like incidental music from a thousand instructional videos and offshore-bankrolled cop shows, slap-chopped into madness-inducing, pullulating near-unlistenability, then hastily looped to infinity only seconds after being taped off of someone’s tv, still wriggling. Both records are on the same Brooklyn-based boutique label, and both have cover graphics that look like they were xeroxed from Trapper Keepers, and both seem to be mining different veins of a similar kind of media-aware 1980s nostalgia: Ducktails expelling its anonymous and sentimental soundtrack in that last gasp before teen movies started using radio songs, and Matrix Metals’ compulsive channel-change supersaturating the synapses in clip-art mimcry of what we back in those pre-internet days mistook for “overload.” And while the records’ packaging and attitudes thus hint at a certain 1980s, I can hear in their very sound an echo of a different 1980s, of a more personal 1980s, of something I’ve always thought of as The Howl.

 

 

 

Deep in the teeth of my initial high-school obsession with Public Enemy and the attendant poring-over of liner notes, I was caught by the nickname of one of their producers, Eric “Vietnam” Sadler. A few years later I found out that he’d been tagged “Vietnam” because of an olive-drab army surplus coat he used to always wear, but when I first saw the name I barely gave it a second thought, mostly because I thought it couldn’t have been more perfect or more clear: The music sounded dirty and chaotic and lethal and jungly and inescapable—of course dude’s nickname is “Vietnam”; I mean, what else would it be? Similarly, though I’ve since come to understand that references to the music of “The Big 80s” usually mean big names and big record companies doing big spending in pursuit of a big sound and big videos and big spectacle (if you’re feeling ironic and/or work for VH1, you’ll also want to include something here about “…and big hair!”), but for a long time I assumed that it referred to The Howl, a sonic characteristic that seemed to me to reside in the upper air of a lot of the popular music back then. I heard it concretely in sounds like the drone that surged steadily through Kate Bush’s “Running Up That Hill,” flickering between being a real synthesizer and being a fake voice, and I felt it in abstract in things like the ether that worries and paces Phil Collins’s “In The Air Tonight,” and from which even Those Drums cannot fully deliver the song. The Howl was a particular kind of spaciousness that didn’t feel full so much as it felt cavernous; not the huge blank sterility that it’s always been branded, but something more windswept and turbulent; nothing as simple as the deadening effect of studio gloss, but something complex: a haunting–alienating and vast, vast. When I first started hearing about “The Big 80s,” I thought, “Boy, they got that right.”

 

 

it’s you and me now

 

 

 

All that notwithstanding, when I first started perceiving this Howl, this specific kind of space, it wasn’t at all dramatic or any cause for real reflection. I was just hitting double digits in the mid-80s, and thanks to independent comic books and behind-the-times public libraries, I was already a fan of retro-future science fiction (you know the stuff: loners with fedoras and rayguns, zipping through pristine cityfuls of towering geometry in their hovering Studebakers, high above a sleek and general citizenry), and thus expected that the capital-f Future would be somewhat devoid and empty, and not unpleasantly so.

Here at home we’ll play in the city
Powered by the sun
Perfect weather for a streamlined world
There’ll be spandex jackets one for everyone

What a beautiful world this will be
What a glorious time to be free

– Donald Fagen, “I.G.Y.”

 

 

 

this route could be trouble

 

 

This Gernsbackian scenario seemed to be the endpoint of what I at first thought I was hearing in The Howl, and I was cool with it. I’m not gonna pretend that the music embodying it was always my favorite shit back then, but I’d definitely listen to something like “The Boys Of Summer” and think: yes, that stylish vacancy and that cleanliness and that low level of cultural detail (minimal, but vivid and carefully chosen: Cadillacs, Wayfarers, etc.–or, actually, no “etc.”), all of it propelled by this faint but distinctly modern feeling of anticipation, of rush…yes, this is the sound of what’s in store. It made sense. Again, it wasn’t always my favorite music, but I felt like it was presenting a very polished and adult future, one that didn’t seem like a bad thing to look forward to at all. Whenever it and I met, we would just step right into one another, both having finally arrived.

 

 

I’d like to say that I only paid ten cents for this, but that horrible handstyle is actually there to remind me that this side won’t play through without a dime on the headshell. As for the dj markings, I can offer no explanation.

 

 

In the years immediately following, I began to hear it differently. Probably due to some cocktail of both becoming a more careful listener and the pervasive curdling effect of flowering teen anxiety, the promise implicit in these sonics began to look like something else. While I had initially been drawn in by the music’s cool professionalism as an analogue for that clean, engineered future, the more I listened, the more I began to think that the space constructed in this music was something more lonesome. The limitations of the technology started coming into view: All these synthesizer textures and subtle studio washes felt like clear attempts to affect something like what brushed drums do in jazz–eliminate the dead spaces, fill up the room, and keep some kind of moving current under everything—but they couldn’t yet approximate those imperceptible swells and diminuendos that mark human work, so what was instead created was this creeping, disembodied pulse that seemed to go on forever, and which gave the lie to the alluring immediacy that the songs were insisting upon. The songs were hundred-story-tall feats of engineering that required whole hangars of auditory space to assemble; but they were only meant to show off the height that they could attain—masking the surrounding depths was a necessity, lest the perceptual process of the listener possibly tangle and darken with effort. The kind of records that were able to shake this—Sade, George Michael, “Planet Rock”–succeeded not by puffing to fill more space in a misguided attempt to balloon closer to the listener, but rather by stripping down and flattening the space around them; by ignoring dimensionality, these songs seemed to come much closer to occupying all their possibility. They sound plummy and total. In contrast, the music that I’m talking about here made the killing flaw of believing that the alienating expanses could somehow be camouflaged by, that any limit could be established by perpetual keyboard underthrob, massed chiffons of synthetic angel breath, or any other digital atmospheric whose very reason was its limitlessness, its ability to define a void.

In this flaw is the genesis of The Howl. All of these happenings within the music, when viewed from the outside (which has always been my only vantage point), had an increasingly isolating effect on me. What I heard were these very frontal, appealing songs that nonetheless sounded like they had bad fathoms stretching out behind them. As a teenager, I considered it my prerogative not to think too much about the latter, but I found myself nagged by the weird turbulence that seemed to blow through the whole of these songs in a way that I could neither ignore nor understand. This was not the populist, cosmopolitan tabula rasa that was so tantalizing in that Donald Fagen song, so comforting in its stylish surfaces and lack of secrecy. This was more like a Cy Twombly text painting, recognizable as writing, but cropped into illegibility; there is a clear frequency there, but one that you are nonetheless somehow unable to receive, an inability made all the more frustrating and shaming by the very recognizability of the subject. That’s how it felt to me, to on one level recognize this radio music as reflexive birthright, absolute lingua franca, but to also sense deep in its fiber this eternal current stretching far beyond my vision, ungraspable to me but essential, I was sure, to everything. Whatever was going on up front in these songs, there was always a missed train leaving out the back.

 

 

for friend

 

 

“…Because I know exactly when film noir began,” Thomson said weirdly. And he went on to recount, for a class of students born in the early 1980s, the impact of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy on 22 November 1963.

But that, he said, “was not where film noir began.” We were all of us in the seminar room beginning to wonder what in the world Thomson was getting at, but we were also nervous. “Film noir,” he said, “began in the basement of a Dallas police station, two days later,” when Jack Ruby shot Lee Harvey Oswald—when, to make history into genre, a nightclub owner shot and killed the man arrested for the crime.

But wait, everyone thought—and the question would have been asked out loud if Thomson had not been moving so fast—film noir goes back to the early 1940s; how could it begin in 1963?

–and it was then,” Thomson said of that moment in the police station, “that all the paranoia and fear that film noir had been prophesying for twenty years, the sense that our lives are not our own, that forces we cannot name are ruling our lives and our destinies—it was then that everything that film noir had prophesied in America exploded into real life.”

The assassination of President Kennedy, and then the removal of that event from the realm of what could be known to the realm of mystery, to a realm where one felt what could not be known as a rebuke and an oppression…

— Greil Marcus, The Shape Of Things To Come

Along with The Howl, I was also at the time conscious of another sonic element, one which I never thought of as having a name but which I will here refer to as The Chant. Like The Howl, The Chant was primarily a post-Fairlight phenomenon, but one that aspired to an earthier, more organic sound. It’s in the open-mouthed “ee-yo-oh”s of The Police’s “Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic,” the ersatz bamboo-flute trill that opens Peter Gabriel’s “Sledgehammer,” and on and on. The Chant always seemed like it was trying to tap into the kind of low-grade globalism that was stirring back then. It was meant to evoke distance, yes, but a benign variety: the distance between you the first-world listener and the rest of your multi-hued fellow travelers on the Big Blue Marble, a distance that can be closed—and so easily, too, can’t you see?–right here in this very song, perhaps via strategic employment of unobtrusive hand-drumming. One world, man–one world. This was a soft distance, the distance in The Chant, the distance between Here and There, and just to register it was to start to ameliorate it; there are all these cool and exotic things and peoples that you’ve never been exposed to, but that’s okay, because now that you’ve been exposed to this scrubbed sliver of the Other, the awakening can begin. Seen?

 

 

One World (Not Three)

 

 

But The Howl embodied something far more difficult: the distance here at home. Whenever I heard The Chant in some song or another, though I might have felt a small reflective twinge of “Wow, maybe there really is all this stuff out there in The One World that I’m just completely missing,” those pangs never stuck for long, because whatever I was missing was obviously some exotic stuff that wasn’t really for me anyway. But when I’d hear The Howl in a song, I felt like I was missing something that I should by all counts recognize; this was resolutely American-style pop music, my native idiom, but some part of it was still eluding me, and in this I “felt what could not be known as a rebuke and an oppression.” It was one thing to hear Ladysmith Black Mambazo radiating out of some Paul Simon song and to think for a minute about my remove from sunny, faraway lands that I would possibly never see; it was something else altogether, something far more unnerving and displacing, to listen to Bruce Hornsby And The Range’s “The Way It Is,” to understand it as being a song just as corny and frontal as I knew myself to be, and yet to recognize at its periphery an ongoing dark hum—the barely audible synthesizer druling in the background, yes, but also something woven between the lacunae within it and around it—a faint but ceaseless buzz of unknowability. There seemed to me to be no place at all in this dopey bummer of a song by Bruce Fucking Hornsby for any streak of mystery, but still, there it was—I was sure I heard it; and the fact that I heard it, the fact that I couldn’t ignore it, and the fact that I couldn’t get my mind around what exactly I was hearing, all this combined to make me feel as though I was being cast out of something. That in my inability to make sense of this one part of the ongoing conversation, I was being denied access to the full landscape of my own speech; and that in recognizing that some consistent mechanism was at work through it all, I was being denied even the romance of the void.

 

 

a thousand miles away

 

 

I think my conception of the particular isolation effected by The Howl has a lot to do with being a midwesterner. I spent an important middle sixteen years in the South, but I spent the first nine and the last eleven in the midwest, and to paraphrase the old saying about Catholics, I know that I will behave and misbehave as a midwesterner long after I have stopped residing as a midwesterner. To be a midwesterner is to be an inhabitant of limits and consequences. There is maybe a certain heightened connection to the natural world (maybe), and possibly better overall perspective, but it’s bollixed up in pervading awareness of your (and your neighborhood’s and your town’s and your state’s) relative inconsequence to history and to news. (Note: This might be a good time to point out that I’m talking here about my own decades-old midwest; folks below a certain age are just gonna have to take my word that before the internet collapsed everything this kind of regionalism and these kinds of borders used to exist and used to kinda make a difference.) And what’s more/worse, the temperate quality of the seasons extends deep into the regional soul, tending to blunt your sense of the dramatic and make too much gothic fixation on what you might like to think of as the extremities of your own surroundings feel ridiculous. Much of what happens here happens not where we are taught that Big Things happen, not within buzzy little warrens of import and cool, but instead within open locations of blatancy and blank function. It was all about sifting things out of the empty, staying open to any shred of freak shit that you might be able to fold into your own history, that second set of books you were keeping to someday supplant the utterly unusable history that you came into (“Birthplace Of That Famous Guy Who Left As Soon As He Could!”).

 

 

round at both ends

 

 

That’s why Miami Vice was a really big deal to me: because on the one hand it was other-planetarily exotic and cool and art-directed to within an inch of its life, but on the other hand, it felt fully familiar, essentially midwestern. It was total Howl TV. Long periods of nothing much at all, occasionally punctuated by these small, intense episodes that echoed in my adolescent-head eternity and that I struggled in vain to connect. There’d be some long, elliptical conversation on some long, boring porch or in some big, dumb breezeway, or on some long drive through nowhere and to nowhere, and then there’d be a funeral with a goat in the coffin, or a few seconds of Willie Nelson packing a backgammon case full of drugs, or a scene in a hangarlike warehouse with three purple mannequins hung ritualistically by link-chain collars, a guy in a suit comes along and kisses the mons of one of them, then shoots all three to splinters with a machine gun. It was electrifying because I was a sheltered kid with a nose for the prurient, but it was terrifying because I saw these mindbending things adrift in this sea of empty space, dead time, and meaningless talk—a sea that ultimately washed them over and under and carried on. That these horrific things could happen in the first place was far less scary to me than the fact that they could happen and not be a big deal. Just back to the car. Back to the porch for more talk. The legs of Icarus thrashing in the water are nothing compared to the man focused on his own plow, his bent neck’s nape looking just like his brown horse’s ass. Know what I mean? I couldn’t let myself believe that the boring shit would win, and I was sure that these eruptions were too outlandish to not all somehow form some kind of constellation, and at moments I felt like I had the key almost in hand. But I was young, and the expanses were vast, and a week was a long time back then, and The Howl yawned, and between this episode and the next, the drift would have sucked everything through my fingers.

 

 

I gots to plead the fifth

 

 

Like the kind of desperate bricolage that it took to try and make sense of the interesting parts of Miami Vice, the gymnastics of heart and mind that it took to connect the disruptions in midwestern texture was an intensely energizing effort. Because maybe one of your friends lucked into a handed-down issue of some zine that mentioned a tape that you could special-order from Record Bar and whose liner notes mentioned some book that you could special-order from B. Dalton and which opened with a epigraph that revealed itself to be the source of the cryptic title that was written on an otherwise unmarked cassette dub that someone’s brother in college had left in someone’s car and that you’d been too afraid to ask about because you didn’t want to seem like the kind of square that wouldn’t know what was the name of the tape and what was the name of the band which you didn’t know but now you sort of knew and it all let you feel as though you were, piece by piece, cracking the code to the world of cool that had been at some point long ago cleft at its equator and divided evenly and exclusively between New York and LA. It’s the kind of brief, beautiful bloom that can only occur in a place and time where you have so little larger external context for anything cool that you are forced to rely solely on inner context, to believe that every cool thing you know about must therefore necessarily be related somehow. But it was also nerve-wracking, because the shadow of reason grows, and even as you’re carried along on the exhilaration of finally maybe getting everything to make sense, finally managing to frankenstein everything you like into what you’re sure this time must correspond to an existing and accepted aesthetic, there’s this slowly worming doubt: these things, these things that you’ve been pivoting on, that you’ve used to make the case for (and to) yourself—maybe they’re the wrong things. Even if you’re secure in how your mind has connected all of them to each other, in the pre-internet, no-cable, flyover-country absence of any accessible validating system, the great (if suppressed) unknown is how they connect to everything else that might be out there. That twelve-inch that you blind-bought because you recognized that one name from the j-card, and which you thought sounded great and really tied in with that book that she lent you and subsequently became your, like, map for that whole summer? What if that very twelve-inch is known—by Those Who Know—to be the group’s total sell-out move, the single blight on their catalog? Are you unwittingly going out like those hayseeds from Russia or wherever who stepped off the boat with an idea of America formed entirely by Billy Joel or “Rappin’ Duke” or Charles In Charge or something similarly irrelevant? If it turns out, after all and everything, that you have placed your faith incorrectly, can your center still hold?

 

 

“Hey, do you guys have anything by Scratch A47?”

 

 

For me, that is the test that lies coiled at the center of The Howl, unanswerable. I’ve thought a lot about this particular body of music and about whether I’m asking too little, seeing it as pop music that is mine by right and should thus give up its lone sapphire—its workings—so easily and gratefully, or asking too much, focusing on insignificancies and scrabbling for connection and continuity where there is none. I’ve felt bad for being unable to resolve the pop music that I can hear with the void that I can sense within it, and I’ve felt bad even for feeling bad, because whatever once seemed to be at stake is now either a kind of future that I no longer believe will come or a kind of coherence that I no longer believe matters. And if that’s so—if I’ve been asking too much or too little, if I can now neither complete the circuit nor convince myself that its completion would the key to anything—then where does that leave me and all my years? I’ve been so long chasing these flickers across the widening gyres, and still I remain this version of Penelope at her loom: the essentially under-informed midwesterner operating on obscure pieces of information, seeking unifying profundity in Miami Vice, mooning over the caged quality of the attempted high-lonesome at the end of “I’m On Fire,” panning through it all for nuggets that will shore up my bridge to nowhere. If The Howl was once my sense of whatever was closing me out, it’s become clear that it is instead whatever has closed me in. I don’t worry about my 80s like I used to, but they do retain for me that slight salt of unfinished days, and in hearing records like Ducktails and Matrix Metals and recognizing in them an insistence upon the resonance and the load-bearing capabilities of these gathered echoes, I can feel a connection once again just beyond my grasp.

Space is doubt; I have constantly to mark it, to designate it. It’s never mine, never given to me. I have to conquer it.

– Georges Perec

But the house is haunted and the ride gets rough

and you’ve got to learn to live with what you can’t rise above

if you want to ride on down

down in through this tunnel of love

– Bruce Springsteen

CONSEQUENTIAL DATA

– There’s a car around my neighborhood with a bumper sticker that says “HOWL If You Love City Lights Book Store.” There’s another car with “I’d Rather Be Reading Bukowski,” and still another with “I’d Rather Be Reading Jane Austen.” The situation is deplorable, really. I’ve recently seen a car with a Foetus Interruptus sticker, but it feels like too little, too late.

– The only show that comes close to Miami Vice in terms of sheer Howl TV is Twin Peaks. Twin Peaks comes in second, though, for what I feel is an over-reliance on establishing shots of trees.

– One Friday night in middle school, my friend Brent came by with his pastel-accented slimline boombox and we walked around our neighborhood in the dark, blasting “In The Air Tonight” on repeat and affecting a ridiculous Run-DMC-informed strut. We were kinda goofing, but it also felt like we were trying to ward off something.

– At the markets in Charleston, South Carolina, there are these Gullah weavers who are regionally renowned for the intricate baskets they make from sweetgrass and for their sometimes impenetrable dialect. I now know that the Sunset Grill in Don Henley’s song of the same name is in Hollywood, but I was living in South Carolina when that song was all on the radio, and always assumed that the line about how “the basket people walk around and mumble” meant that it was a song about Charleston.

– My man Jonny said one time that the genre-defining toodling that opens “Sledgehammer” was actually sampled from an Alpha Blondy record. Can anyone confirm?

– In high school, I noticed that the negative space between the facing Es in the Sleep Chamber logo kinda-sorta formed the cross from the Psychic TV logo. I was sure that this meant that they were in fact secretly the same band.

– A few years ago, in the course of spectating Sheer Magic’s unsurpassable monthly funk night here in Chicago, my man Rob and I were discussing what it is that makes midwestern soul and funk so potent. We went back and forth about a lot of things, but he ultimately came up with what I think is the right answer: “It has something to do with the seasons.”

A Being is at Each Moment Itself and Yet Something Else

Posted by , September 29th, 2010
Category: Abstraction Tags:   RSS | Comments | Trackback from your site
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For this, the first salvo of “In The Key of Correlation,” where parallels, however wide, are drawn between two things (music and something else), it makes sense to unleash what my man Bumpy Knuckles would refer to as a full clip / of unstoppable shit. Here goes:

 

 



Mao Tse-Tung’s On Contradiction = James Brown’s “Say It Loud (I’m Black and I’m Proud)”

By way of introduction on his theory of the universality of contradition, Mao offers this Engelian postulate:

 

Life consists precisely and primarily in this — that a being is at each moment itself and yet something else. Life is therefore also a contradiction which is present in things and processes themselves, and which constantly originates and resolves itself; and as soon as the contradiction ceases, life, too, comes to an end, and death steps in.
— Friedrich Engles (Anti-Dühring, 1877)

Through this lens of constant contradiction we can look at Chairman Mao and James Brown, two erstwhile rulers, in an absurdist panorama, nosing out analogies not immediately apparent.

CORRELATIVES:


Stockpiling Sobriquets

  • The Chairmen of The People v. The Godfather of Soul
  • Savior of The People v. Soul Brother Number One
  • Never Setting Red Sun v. The Hardest Working Man in Show Business
  • “Long Live Chairman Mao for Ten Thousand Years” v. “I Feel Good”

 

OFF THE PIGS!

  • Mao was required reading for would-be members of the Black Panther Party.
  • “Say It Loud (I’m Black and I’m Proud)” was anthemic for the Black Panthers.

 

 

Cult of Personality

  • Posters hung in homes all throughout China that read, “The happy life Chairman Mao gives us.”
  • Aggrandizing fanfare in introducing James Brown (notably memorialized on Live at the Apollo).
  • Mao’s face is plastered on currency, posters and badges, he’s venerated in musical scores, plays and dances.
  • James Brown’s famous “cape routine.”

 

Beating Them At Their Own Game Is Still Losing

In their own way, both men changed the game, so to speak.

  • Mao revolutionized China, transforming the country from an agrarian society into an industrial world power.
  • James Brown revolutionized music by thrusting funk into the mainstream, creating an empire as a musician, songwriter, bandleader, A&R man, entertainer, activist and label and radio station owner.

 

“Doin’ It To Death” b/w Totalitarian Formula

In their rise to fame and power, both men adopted a mode of “reactionary ruling” indicative of the system that their followers accredit them with bucking.

  • Mao’s People’s Republic was communist by name, though negated, by the means employed, what Marx called, the “emancipation of the individual,” which is the very aim of communism.
  • The Godfather’s brand of “I Feel Good” funk involved hefty fines for his band members who were tardy, played sour notes, dressed shabby, or forgot to shine their shoes.
  • Mao’s “proletarian reform” included systematic imprisonment, execution, famine, forced suicide, the destruction of traditional culture, repression of religion, and the persecution of critical opponents.
  • When “Cold Sweat” broke out as a #1 hit it sparked a catalytic conversion in Brown’s oeuvre, framing the formula for many, many songs to come: rhythmic declamation, horn stabs, call-and-response, breakbeats, repetitive riffs, building one instrument atop the next by incanting the players, e.g., “Let’s give the drummer some? Wanna give the drummer some? Can the drummer some? Can the drummer some? Can the drummer some? Can the drummer some? YOU GOT IT DRUMMER! … Uhhh! … Help him out Bernard…”

 

 

The Devil is in the Details

  • In On Contradiction, Mao alludes to class struggle but contends that while contradictions will always exist, those contradictions can be made harmless. Just a short twenty years later Mao would boast of killing a hundred times more people than the first emperor of China. How do you say, Uh, with your bad self?
  • “Say It Loud (I’m Black and I’m Proud)” is one of the most popular Black Power anthems. The song is hopeful in classic JB-styled simplicity. James exclaims, “Say it loud!” and a chorus of children shout back, “I’m black and I’m proud.” It quickly became a #1 hit, and embodied an age of self-reliance, self-determination and mass mobilization. In actuality, the chorus of kids used to sing “I’m black and I’m proud” were mostly Asian and white suburbanites.

 

 

Notable Quotables — Four Duets

There is always a gradual growth from the knowledge of individual and particular things to the knowledge of things in general.
—Mao Tse-Tung

Some people say we’ve got a lot of malice
Some say it’s a lot of nerve
I say we won’t quit moving
Til we get what we deserve

—James Brown

°°°°°


The matter does not end with their dependence on each other for their existence; what is more important is their transformation into each other. That is to say, in given conditions, each of the contradictory aspects with a thing transforms itself into its opposite, changes its position to that of its opposite…. By means of revolution the proletariat, at one time the ruled, is transformed into the ruler, while the bourgeoisie, the erstwhile ruler, is transformed into the ruled.
—Mao Tse-Tung

I’ve worked on jobs with my feet and my hands
But all the work I did was for the other man
And now we demand a chance
To do things for ourselves
We’re tired of beating our head against the wall
And working for someone else

—James Brown


°°°°°

 

The contradiction between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie is resolved by the method of socialist revolution.
—Mao Tse-Tung

Now, we’re people
We’re just like the birds and the bees
We’d rather die on our feet,
Than keep living on our knees

—James Brown

°°°°°


It is of great importance to study these problems. Lenin meant just this when he said that the most essential thing in Marxism, the living soul of Marxism, is the concrete analysis of concrete conditions.
—Mao Tse-Tung

Oooh weee
You’re killin’ me

—James Brown

 

°°°°°

 

While there are correlations, the difference between “Get on the Good Foot” and the Great Leap Forward are clear. James Brown didn’t kill millions, and Mao couldn’t dance the motherfucking mashed potato. What’s the point, then? As a revolutionary once said, “if you go carrying pictures of chairman Mao / You ain’t going to make it with anyone anyhow.” Put another way, “we all want to change the world,” yet instead of changing the world we relinquish that want to idols who represent change. Put yet another way, the most urgent expression of changing the world should be the destruction of idols, especially when they claim to represent changing the world.

Karl Marx said his view of a socialist society is that which “permits the actualization of man’s essence by overcoming his alienation. It is nothing less than creating the conditions for the truly free, rational, active and independent man; it is the fulfillment of the prophetic aim: the destruction of the idols.”

See also: When I woke from my dreaming my idols were all clay / All portion of love had all flown away.