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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.

 

 

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.

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.”