Nick Lowe and Compassion

It’s past the holiday season, but what the hell. Since when is human decency seasonal? at about 36:00 in this holiday interview Terry Gross and Nick Lowe touch on the compassion that sets Lowe’s songwriting apart from the rest. It’s the thing that, for me, anyway, makes his music so appealing. It’s music written for human beings by a human being. It’s sometimes morbid (Marie Provost), sometimes bemused (So It Goes), sometimes heart-on-sleeve (What’s so Funny ‘Bout Peace Love and Understanding), but always true. It is always songwriting stood on a bedrock conviction that people have dignity and it is deserving of recognition.

I saw Nick Lowe’s Quality Holiday Revue with Los Straitjackets this year, and it was absolutely the best concert I’d ever attended. I’ve never seen a better performance, I’d never witnessed better musicians, I’d never heard familiar songs so imbued with their own inimitable and indelible character. There was an incontrovertible, nearly geologic factuality to the presence and musical mastery those musicians brought to the stage.

Anyhow, here’s that interview:

Imperialist Reductionism and a Boring Universe

The other day on the Late Show I saw a game developer demonstrate his soon-to-be-released wares, a game called “No Man’s Sky”. The dev was himself suitably impressed with his own marketing hyperbole, but the demonstration, as per the usual in these circumstances, gave the lie to all the hype. The game generates an impossible-to-fully-explore universe the player exploits for resources. In the game, a universe consists of a fairly restrictive set of variables, summed up as planets and resources. The player looks at the pretty screensavers virtual landscapes, marvels at the life-forms that populate them (generated by the recombination of a limited set of variables determining animal appearance and behavior), and monotonously collects abstracted “resources”.  The reductionist ideology that guides the gameplay would have us believe that the only things to do in a “universe” is to engage in a mechanically simplified imperialist exploitation of foreign resources. That’s it! You’re G-d, and of course that means that all you want to do is collect energon cubes from hapless natives and watch your galactic credits pile up. The player gets a whole universe, and all he gets to do is play a monotonous farming game. It would be laughable if this ideology wasn’t so apparent all around us:  places of cultural value, such as bookstores and revered record stores, close in towns across the country only to be replaced by Chase bank branches pushing the empty signs of monetary value.

The universe is bigger than dollar value. To attempt to reduce it to a place that only abides the predatory regard of others is cynical propaganda.

Life During Wartime: Ceci n’est pas une discothèque

A Doctors Without Borders hospital is cynically pummeled with ordnance in distant Afghanistan. There is another school shooting in nearby Oregon. Theorists call the state of modern life precarity, people like Bezos or Gates give it a sheen by jargonizing it as “disruption”.  In the total world terrorist state, violence, whether defined by constant threat of air-raid or mass shooting or the randomly-placed economic sword hanging above every corporate cube-dweller’s head, erupts without warning, from every direction, without predictable source or intended target. The apparent rule is lawlessness, the constant state of mind is suspicion, trauma, fear. This lawlessness, this norm wherein there is no basic stability, extends everywhere. It atomizes collective community action and nullifies the operation of politics in the rich world while simultaneously fundamentally erasing stability, memory, and history in every place geographically located outside the castle walls of the neoliberal project. The razing of a temple complex in Palmyra and the enforcement of reductionist binary rhetoric promoting ever-increasing militarization of civilian life in the heartland demonstrate the creep of the same mission: The end of history, memory, agency; in short, the end of life lived for any human purpose, and the start of one whose only permitted goods are its timeless, rote performance of servility to ideology that maintains the power of a very few.

In “Life in Wartime” (1979), the desperate voice of Dada is set to music.  Byrne sings, “This ain’t no party, this ain’t no disco, this ain’t no fooling around.”  Where Magritte famously set up the surreal opposition of image and description in his “The Treachery of Images”, stating that what was illustrated was, in fact, not that which was illustrated (“This is not a pipe”),

The Treachery of Images

the Talking Heads similar statement, paraphrased “This is not a disco”, moved from a surrealist transgression of the order of signs and language to engagement with the dadaist dilemma: what does one do if there are no laws anymore?  How does one exist in the state of emergency and exception “during wartime” when all law has been suspended?  The video linked to above is from a live concert recording, itself repudiating proof that there was a party, that there was, so to speak, a disco. The effect produced by these statements is the same as that produced by Magritte’s painting, but with an edge. It made reference to the fact that everything seemed to be coming apart at the seams. New York in ’79 was in shambles and the banking system seemed as though it was on the edge of collapse. The country was still staggering after the real and moral defeat in Vietnam. The empty energy of hippie consumer hedonism had been overtaken in the culture, where any energy was still boiling, with its only possible progeny: anger and addiction. The song sets this problem for the viewer and listener: How does one acknowledge one’s fundamentally precarious position in a society that has gone off the rails while the trappings of celebration-as-usual march, undead, wildly on? The time was ripe for the contradictions this song manifested in 1979, but lamentably the song is even more relevant to our present moment than it was to its own.

The dadaist meets terror with an exacerbation of the same, an amplification that hopes to widen and make apparent the fissures of contradiction immanent in the organization of society. In this bizarre year 2015, 36 years after “Life During Wartime” was released on Fear of Music (Sire), a video of the band (still, obscenely, young) playing with abandon can be called up instantaneously from any device with a screen and access to the internet to provide an escapist shot of nostalgia or enjoyment. Meanwhile, one alternately reads news of the latest Joseph Heller-esque escapade of our military, our propagandists on the pre-campaign trail, or our spiteful fellow citizens while absentmindedly scrolling through pictures of celebrity cats. The song’s references to the Mudd Club and C.B.G.B. (“This ain’t no Mudd Club, no C.B.G.B., I ain’t got time for that now”) are now true in every respect; the venerable punk venue C.B.G.B., present at the level of reference and memory in the lyrics, in a reversal of its aura now houses high-end shopping on a former skid row. In the intervening years the song has become more true. The fissures have widened. It is more than not C.B.G.B. It is its own antithesis, a negation or forgetting of itself.

The difference between then and now collapses with the ease of accessing video of the performance. So does the perceptual distance between the siege of emergencies (real and constructed) that threaten us and our accelerating means of diversion and consumption. We are told “This ain’t no disco”, and this we by now should already know. Still, they tell us to keep dancing. For whatever reason, for now, we still do so without changing a step.

At least it’s natural to jitterbug when the bullets keep falling so close to your feet.

Some of this blog entry makes reference to Bad New Days: Art, Criticism, Emergency by Hal Foster

On Seeing The Babadook

I finally rented Australian writer/director Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook, a lean, masterful synthesis of seminal psychological horror films The Shining (Kubrick, 1980) and Repulsion (Polanski, 1965).  From The Shining, Kent adapts the parent-as-monster and boy visionary.  From Repulsion, she takes the isolated woman disturbed by sexuality, and the victim who, when her pain can’t be shared, succumbs to adopting the ultimately self-destructive perception of herself from the point of view of others.  The hypnagogic imagery depicts a woman dissociated from herself and the passage of time, keeping the viewer constantly on the fence: is this a story of the supernatural, or are we simply seeing the world through the protagonist’s psychosis?

The film leans heavily in the direction of a creatively-told psychological tale of a combination of Munchausen-by-proxy, unresolved grief, misplaced survivor’s guilt, and resentment, denuding much of the more visually spectacular horror scenes of their typical horror-genre immediacy.  In this way, the most anxiety-inducing moments of the film direct viewers not to their own sense of self-preservation, nor to fear of the unknown as represented by the possibility of an actual embodiment of supernatural evil, but instead towards a mother’s concerns: the well-being of others, here the mother, Amelia, in particular, the adequacy of our protagonist’s parenting, and the well-being of “the boy”, Sam.  This is a horror film of compassion, a film whose top concern is not self-preservation-by-proxy, but, remarkably, compassion for others.  This is the particular genius of Kent’s film.  Her storytelling makes the obvious, terrific, bone-chilling imagery secondary, subtle, and allows the human concerns behind our fears to take the center stage.

First Thoughts Upon Finally Reading Bolaño’s “Woes of the True Policeman”

Of the many books in Bolaño’s interwoven oeuvre, this was the first posthumously-edited, as-yet-unfinished volume that betrays the presence, or rather the absence of the author. It flatly addresses questions floated or hinted at in other works (What about the UFOs? Why so many characters?  Why so many retellings of the same stories from slightly different angles with slightly different details?).  It seems to end mid-sentence, but then it does so appropriately, at just such an “I’ll be right back” moment as readers have become accustomed to.  This pause, though, has the unmistakeable weight of finality, the epistolary finality of a farewell that has reached its recipient on the other side of an unbridgeable gap of distance and time. So it is that we are left to silently contemplate Padilla’s fate in Barcelona, thousands of miles removed from Amalfitano’s eerily bloody Mexico. This feeling of definite separation has its counterpart in the final break of reader from author, in the feeling from which readers have been thus far shielded; that of the author as an individual taking his leave.  Whether this was a deliberate drop of the curtain or the unintended consequence on a work in progress of the drawing of the shroud, the reader takes away the rare feeling that, more so than in his other works, Bolaño has undisguisedly revealed more of himself to the audience than in any of his other works.

The Long Tail and Endless Flattery

In which this reviewer frolics in the used CD bin and reflects on the ambivalent nature of Pop memory

A “wise” algorithmically generated amalgamation of message board users once said, “The Internet never forgets.”  While that is superficially true, it would be more accurate to say that, abetted by the vast semi-organized troves of music and obscure band trivia music nerds have put on the Internet, music nerds never forget.  One of these music nerds is musician Alexis Georgopoulos, AKA Arp.  In 2013, Arp released the very ENO-esque More, a tiny stadium of simple, high-contrast glam outfitted with warm jets galore.  Today, while slowly perusing the used CD bin, I found an earlier Arp opus, the 2007 release In Light.  While I couldn’t help be touched by the faithfulness of his full appropriation of ENOisms on 2013’s More, I was struck on first listen to In Light by his apparent love for ENO collaborators and inspirational source Harmonia, in particular for their 1975 album, DeLuxe.

Oh, Arp, shall I compare thee to a summer’s eve?

51lfYaMZ2bL._SX300_ Harmonia: DeLuxe

Let’s begin our comparison with the names of these records.  Michael Rother, Hans-Joachim Roedelius and Dieter Moebius’ band Harmonia’s 1975 record’s title, DeLuxe, means “of the light.”  Arp’s 2007 release, In Light means, well, just that.  Harmonia’s original work came from the light, the source of inspiration, and Arp’s record was made by in the light cast by its predecessor.

Arp’s cover art has a certain undeniable, warm similarity to Harmonia’s, which carries the metaphor further.  The cover image of Arp’s 2007 album, by then already far from 1975, is more distant in obvious visual proximity from the source.  Here the reduction in the camera’s proximity to the sun does not reduce the similarity to the subject matter, however; in spite of the drifting, obscuring, amnesiac clouds, the parity of the image’s composition with the timing (further away in time and more obscure) only increases the level of homage.  Less is more.

The content (that hated word) of the record lacks an exact analog to the signature Rother guitar, but, if one is looking, a suitable one can be found in the steady saw-wave buzz that drones on the second track, “Potentialities”, or on the fourth, “Fireflies on the Water”, or opening the fifth, “Premonition of the Sculptor Steiner”.  In fact, the sound on the fourth may even be a guitar.  Even without a guitar, which we know Georgopolous will get to along with vocals on More, the songs all bear an unmistakable resemblance to the spare synthesized rhythm and repetition of the works of Moebius and Roedelius.  The use of a muted, pastel pallet of analog arpeggios and LFO-modulated, watery pads throughout Arp’s In Light hearkens back to Harmonia’s “Kekse”, “Notre Dame”, “Gollum”, or “Walky-Talky”, the less driving 3/4 of the earlier masterpiece.

Momus recently mused whether anyone was talking any longer about originality. In a summation of an earlier survey he had conducted, he states “critics in music and art mags prefer to talk about influences and reference and context.”  This question of originality in conjunction with or in opposition to creativity is very interesting to me, a person raised in the waning, pre-Internet years of the American Monomyth, my brain antiseptically washed squeaky clean in the Superman-iacal ideal of the One who would change All, in spite of the fact that, even then, everyone knew no one could ever come along and be the Beatles again.  The Alphas were out.  Onward to the age of the Alpha/Omegas- the Guns ‘n Roses of the world- the bands that would, at the very same time they finalized the form they embodied, kill it with their perfection.

Now, with the availability of cheap storage, streaming music, and endless, unpaid music journalism, we seem to have entered a Pax Romana of pop culture.  The illusion of an endless swathe of time seems to extend ahead and behind in Western culture in which our trivia, our selves, continued, continues, will continue, and will have continued to make sense.

In reality, Pop music by its nature lacks permanence.  Pop music appears before its intended audience at the time when they will hear it, and it leaves that audience’s consciousness nearly as soon as that moment as passed.  Unless you are a completist, it requires no effort to unearth.  It is apparently omnipresent, and as undemanding of examination as most people’s unexamined lives, lit intermittently  as they are by the strobe of changing fancy.  Like politics, Pop comes and goes and is drowned in the waters of Lethe nearly as quickly as it gains its audience share.

For the completist, however, this is not the case. The Internet needs the completist far more than the completist needs the Internet- for it is the true rock nerd and his narratives who keeps the cobwebs on all that rock obscura (placed there by those same rock nerds or ones like them) at (e-)bay.  It is the completist, obsessed with the human continuity of any cultural form, who saves us from our woefully short memories.  This was true in the past, and it’s especially true now in the age of the Internet, with all that cluster of media forms’ distracting, rapid-fire arguments aimed to cut us off from whence we came.

It is this present environment that makes an artist like Arp so interesting.  The Long Tail means that, for the completist, the archival Pop reference becomes at once a blatant strategy for remembering, for organizing a history, and a form of expression.  If culture appears to have been on a steady course lo these many years, and all that work that composes that history is still available to tap into and compare oneself to, why wouldn’t Pop in some way formalize itself to remember itself?

Another act that comes to mind when considering this question is recently reviewed, Sub Pop-signed His Electro Blue Voice.  With their music they make references to The Pixies, Ministry, and Weezer in addition to their more obscure prog touchpoints.  Pop is an amateur form, and these references are up to thirty years old.  Why shouldn’t they be available to be used as an artist wishes if, as in any amateur form, one must imitate them to learn the temporary laws of genre?  Why should we be surprised to see them here again?  I prize originality, but I fear its illusion more.  A stress on continuity signals  a knowledge of history, something our always-accelerating media has been trying to divest us of since the inception of print.  If reference and derivation means, on some level, the triumph of history, I will revel in the stylistic reference.  It is never reviled among filmmakers.  Why should it be so in the case of musicians who respect their teachers?  The crucial element is, of course, this respect on the artist’s part for the innovation in a prior work, a prior work that is understood by the current artist.  This is what separates hackneyed derivation or kitsch from homage, and it allows for new beginnings, for audiences to connect to the same expanding pool of vetted reference points.  This is the condition in which originality can come into interplay with hagiography and survive.

The most tragic and sobering aspect of Pop is its veiled allusion to death.  Warhol knew this.  Pop is here today, and tomorrow its audience will have moved on, more concerned with making sure they can pay for their kids’ college tuition than with engaging in the romantic fantasies tied up in a night out.  Most serious Pop acts lose their audiences to maturation and the unexamined life, or become entwined in more banal concerns themselves.  Astute readers of Pop forms should appreciate when new acts flatter those masters they came across in record bins, through recommendations, and via RSS feeds with imitation that doesn’t become kitsch.  It is good when audiences can be taken along on an artist’s path of discovery, when they are allowed to follow the curved lines of a human dawning of context, culture, and music while more deeply forming their own.

A final aside on homage will end this post.  As I sat writing this, I listened all the way through another used find, The Album Leaf’s 2001 EP In an Off-White Room.  On the final track, on the far shore of a river of twenty minutes or more of ambient room noise, there is a fantastic cover of the English language version of Kraftwerk’s “Computer Love.”  Michael Rother of Harmonia and NEU! was briefly a member of Kraftwerk in an early incarnation of that band.  It’s hard to call it serendipity when everything is just so connected.

In Which the Author Hears HIS BLUE ELECTRO VOICE

Sub Pop put out the debut LP from obscure Italian  psych/noise/shoegaze/krautrock/garage punk outfit His Electro Blue Voice in the closing months of 2013, horrifically entitled Ruthless Sperm.  I came to hear it in a roundabout way that, as it so often does, involved Indie fountainhead and local/global radio station KEXP.  A friend heard it tucked amongst other driving gems on in one of the more punk-formatted specialty shows, was provoked to investigate them further, then passed the recommendation on to our small cadre of 1337 man-child indie-rock snobs.  Because I am possessed of the handicap of being unable to listen to music as though it is an entirely new experience, I was immediately compelled to make the following comparison: “Holy shit, this sounds like someone played Weezer’s “Surf Wax America.” over the top of Ministry’s “Thieves”!

At first listen you might be compelled to make similar juxtapositions of seemingly disparate acts and genres in your description of what you’re hearing.  They’re probably all dead-on.  The exciting thing, though, is that they don’t stay right.  Everyone has influences, but those are only a common ground, a shared grammar on which new statements can be built.  In true Bakhtinian fashion, subsequent listens to their catalog yield new combinations, new music, transitions from driving simplicity to synthesizer-accompanied stretches of minimal Psych, new impressions at play with your expectations.  I hope Sub Pop manages to bring these guys stateside so we can see them live.