Tuesday, July 25, 2006

The Muddy Face of Dilettantism

In Cees Nooteboom's novel Rituals, the art dealer Bernard Roozenboom says to Inni Wintrop, the central character:
"...You are incapable of selecting--a sure sign of lack of class. That's why you're nothing more than a dabbler. That is somebody who likes everything. Life's too short. The human condition does not allow it. You can only really find a thing beautiful if you know something about it. He who does not select will perish in the morass. Carelessness, lack of attention, not really knowing anything about anything, the muddy face of dilettantism. The second half of the twentieth century. More opportunities for everyone. More people knowing less about more. The spread of knowledge over as large an areas as possible. He who wants to skate over the surface will fall through the ice..."
Later, Inni contemplates Bernard's words. He recognizes that, by now, by the age of 45, certain paths that may once have been possible for him are now not. He thinks of the things he will never have time to know, to understand, and he is
...reminded [...] of his own visit to Chieng Mai, in northern Thailand, where he had wandered equally helplessly from temple to temple, book in hand. Books tell no lies, and he had let the facts, dates, and architectural styles trickle deeply into his brain. But at the same time, he kept that penetrating sense of impotence because he could not see why one building was so much older than another, because he could not read the signs, and in the last instance, because he had not been born a Thai. The nuances that gave those things their flavor would remain hidden from him because, quite simply, they were not his. Even in the colonial cathedral of Lima, where he was more at home, he had decided to let it pass before his eyes like a brilliant decor, no more. You did not have a thousand lives. You had only one.

Sunday, July 23, 2006

Patrick White

As has been reported elsewhere, Patrick White's novel The Eye of the Storm was used in another of those tricks in which a portion of a prize-winning novel of the past is typed out and re-submitted to publishers, passed off as new work by a fictional writer. As in the other cases, the publishers declined to take on White's novel, employing varying degrees of condescension and scorn in their responses.

I tend to think that such pranks are generally rather pointless, although they make for amusing copy. It's not clear to me what is being proven that wasn't already known. Yes, publishing is rife with philistinism. And, yes, though books like White's, which doubtless didn't sell well at any time, did indeed, obviously, get published in the past, the industry is much different now, at least the mainstream houses are anyway. Is this exactly news? That said, I like that the story has brought more attention to this writer. I first discovered Patrick White, perhaps inevitably, via the Complete Review. Their effusive praise of White put him at the top of my list of writers to look into. But it turns out that all but one of his books is out of print in the U.S. (the exception is the NYRB edition of Riders in the Chariot). I had it in my head that I had to read Voss first, but I was unable to find even a used copy. Finally, on a trip to London three years ago, I did find Voss used, as well as another White novel, The Twyborn Affair. I read Voss later that year, and I was astonished. A magnificent, powerful book. Since then, I have acquired used editons of three other White novels: the aforementioned Riders in the Chariot, The Solid Mandala, and the book at the center of the current controversy, The Eye of the Storm. Of these three, I've so far read the first two. I have yet to be disappointed.

Anyway, my favorite of the ones I've read is Riders in the Chariot, but I'm going to share some passages from The Solid Mandala, because I already have them copied out in my notebook. Page numbers are all from the old Penguin edition that I have.
...she went on down the steps, her red-roughened chest ending where the secrecy of white breast began. (p.72)
...even where there were flaws in the past, they fascinated, like splinters in the flesh. (p.74)
When his thoughts grew too much for him, too blurred, or too entangled, his mind a choked labyrinth without a saving thread, Waldo Brown would stalk along the country roads, exchanging his own blurred world for that other, dusty, external, but no more actual one, in which he continued hoping to discover a distinct form, some object he hadn't noticed before, while Arthur kicking up the dust behind--it was impossible to escape Arthur unless Arthur himself chose to escape--conducted his monologue, if not dialogue with dust or sun, pee-wee or green-sprouted cow turd. Like injustice, the dust always recurred to daze, unless from a sudden mushroom of it, Mrs. Musto's chariot unwound, honking by her orders to warn pedestrians of her coming. (p.83)
...as he approached down Mrs. Musto's winding drive of raked gravel he realized worse was in store for him. He could hear quite plainly the felted sound of tennis balls as they were struck thudding back and forth. The gathering of 'youngsters', judging by its numbers, was fully assembled on Mrs. Musto's lawns. There was positively a smell of tennis. The four elect performers, each older than himself, it seemed to Waldo, were also far more adept, more graceful, if not better born, at least wealthier. Young men reaching overhead with their rackets revealed their glorious ribs through transparent shirts. Delicious girls, in pearls of perspiration, appeared to have been at it all their lives as they controlled their skirts in running to dish up a ball.

Waldo was appalled. (p.87)
...although memory is the glacier in which the past is preserved, memory is also licensed to improve on life. [...] There are those who considered the eyes too pale, too cold, without realizing that to pick too deeply in the ice of memory is to blench. (p.192)
For more information, see the Complete Review's Patrick White page, as well as this editorial in the Australian, by Peter Craven. Also, I look forward to following the discussions at the newly formed group blog, the Patrick White Readers' Group.

Deeper into the Mire

US foreign policy planners, Republican and Democrat alike, have consistently demonstrated that whether there is actually peace in the Middle East, or indeed democracy, is immaterial so long as American "interests" (defined by the power elite) are furthered. As a result, the US refuses to countenance any democratic move that does not miraculously endorse said American "interests". Since there is no chance that a rational Middle East democracy would support these American policies, the US has, over the course of many decades, seen fit to effectively destroy any semblance of secular society in the Middle East in favor of recognizing and encouraging radical Islamist groups, such as the Mujahideen (and Osama bin Laden) in the war against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan.

Similarly, Israel has no interest in peace with the Palestinians that in any way mitigates its own extreme (and otherwise untenable) position, nor does it have any interest in there being a functioning democratic Lebanese state. Jonathan Cook explains why:
Recently Israel has encouraged the slide deeper into Islamic extremism through its policies of unilateralism and its refusal to negotiate.

The same set of policies [as those that created Hamas and resulted in Hezbollah] is being continued now in the Palestinian territories and Lebanon: the shattering of these two societies will only deepen the trend toward radical Islam. Islamic movements not only offer the best hope of local resistance to Israel for these weakened societies but they also offer a parallel social infrastructure of health care and welfare services as state institutions collapse.

There is immediate advantage for Israel in this outcome. With secular society crushed and Islamic resistance movements filling the void, Israel will be able to reinforce the impression of many in the West that Israel is on the front line of global "war of terror" being waged by a single implacable enemy, Islam. Israel's ability to persuade the world that this war is being waged against the whole "civilized" Judeo-Christian West will be made that bit easier.

As a result, Israel may be able to drag its paymaster, the United States, deeper into the mire of the Middle East as a junior partner rather than as an honest broker, giving Israel cover while it carves up yet more Palestinian land for annexation, puts further pressure on the Palestinians to leave their homeland, and destabilizes its regional enemies so that they are powerless to offer protest or resistance.

For some time President Bush has found himself in no position to criticize Israeli actions when Tel Aviv claims to be doing no more to the Palestinians than the US is doing to the Iraqis. If the US allows itself to be handcuffed to Israel's even more extreme version of the "war on terror," the consequences will be dire not just for the Palestinians or the region, but for all of us.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

A modest proposal

In an "Open Letter to the Iraqi People", Stan Goff has an interesting suggestion on how suffering Iraqis might get the attention of the American media:

There was a video made recently by a Marine in Iraq, called “Hadji Girl.” It was a cruel, racist, and woman-hating song that a Marine sang for other Marines at a kind of party there, that found humor in the lyrics that celebrated the killing of Iraqi children; and it was emblematic of the mindset that underwrites the cruel and racist occupation of Iraq. The cheering by the enitre unit during this video shows that the excuses made for this video — that it is not typical — is a lie.

I suggest that Iraqis begin a graffitti campaign all over Iraq, painting the term HADJI GIRL everywhere, and posting an internet link, as well as distributing flyers that show the translated lyrics of this reprehensible song. Paint this term so ubiquitously that no journalists camera can escape it. Make signs for every demonstration, for every shop, for every car, so that when journalists aim their cameras at anything, someone can hold up the sign that says HADJI GIRL. Build a movement around the song, its racist title, and its disprespect for Iraq.

The reason I suggest this is that once a campaign like this gains enough momentum, it can no longer be ignored by our media; and this song embodies everything that is wrong with the occupation — its imperial hubris, its true aim of domination, its racism and Islamophobia, its militarism, its dehumanization of occupied and occupier alike, and its wanton cruelty. It will help hasten the end of the war, and allow Iraqis to reclaim their own futures, as well as repatriate our soldiers before more of them can be infected with this hatred.


The appalling events of the last couple of weeks have moved incredibly quickly, far outstripping my slow attempts to say something of substance about them. In any event, the message is clear, and should be familiar: Israel feels that it can do whatever it wants with impunity. This is because the past has shown this to be effectively true. Israel repeatedly gets away with the most horrible atrocities, the grossest violations of the most basic ideals of peace and justice and international law. They get away with all of this because they are closely allied with the United States. The attacks on Gaza and Lebanon, on the lamest of pretexts, lay bare the true nature of the Israeli state. Israel's claim of self-defense is usually nonsense, but in these cases it is utterly laughable. Israel's claims are bullshit, its aims criminal.

It is argued that Israel must be allowed to secure itself. If it really wanted to do this, it knows exactly what to do, and has known for nearly 40 years. It's simple. At minimum, Israel should withdraw completely from the Occupied Territories and sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. In addition, the US should sever its long-standing but altogether counter-productive (for both the US and Israel) alliance with Israel. Taking these steps would be both obvious and common sensical, which means that they will never happen.

Every once in a while, Israel does those of us living our quiet, complacent lives a twisted favor. It acts in such a gratuitous, disproportionate manner that it is nigh-impossible to miss the message. And yet miss it people still manage to do. It's also useful to remember that even that use of the word "disproportionate" itself concedes too much to Israel, buys into Israel's preferred narrative. Since Israel precipitated the Gaza disaster when it abducted two Palestinian men on June 24 (link via Flagrancy to Reason; I first read about it in this Democracy Now! interview with Chomsky), it hardly seems unpredictable that there would have been a response, which there was, in the capture of Shalit. Using the word "disproportionate" to describe Israel's subsequent re-invasion of Gaza implies that there could have been any justifiable, proportionate military response to the capture.

Hezbollah's capture of Israeli soldiers looks thornier on the face of it (many, Chomsky included, have called it at best stupid and irresponsible). Except that Israel was obviously ready and waiting to mount an attack on Lebanon (link via Lenin's Tomb). At the time, I couldn't help wondering whether Israel had staged the capture; it fits a little too nicely into its plans. I haven't seen any evidence of that, but the likelihood that the Israeli soldiers were in Lebanese territory seems pretty high, if undiscussed. I saw this point raised by the excellent Stan Goff, in this comment to this post:
The border of Southern Lebanon and Israel is a seamless web of intervisible Israeli outposts with night vision devices, tied together with ground surveillance radar, plowed-flat and raked daily to see footprints, and backed by quick reaction forces. Israelis routinely make incursive patrols into Lebanon. It is nearly impossible for an organized group of Hezbolla or anyone else to cross the border south, much less capture prisoners there. The very notion that this was an incursion INTO Israel is propped up solely by the credulity of the general public that knows nothing about military operations. In reality, the idea is as ludicrous as the Easter Bunny.
But all talk of who did what first here is finally a distraction from the larger point, which is that Israel has the power to end this whenever it wants to, and has had the power to resolve the main issues endangering any prospects for peace for decades. Neither Hamas, nor Hezbollah ( nor Lebanon) has this power, as the rest of the world knows full well.

It's taken me this long to post anything about this because I don't write quickly, particularly about news stories, and because all I could muster at first was a sputtering "what the FUCK is the matter with Israel?" email to my wife. But a lot of other people have been doing a lot of great work on it. For one thing, I've been addicted to Antiwar.com, the newslinks and the commentary, both of which have been indispensable. Beyond that, it's been a lot of the usual suspects. Lenin, not surprisingly, has been amazing:
Let's be clear about this - Israel has been engaging in activity on the Lebanese border ever since it was kicked out of the south of the country by Hezbollah fighters in 2000. The strategy has long been to target Hezbollah, Syria and Iran via Lebanon. This assault was planned well before the incidents that supposedly precipitated it. Israel has long wished to terminate its regional enemies all the better to finish off the Palestinians as a people and as a polity. They intend to take the whole of the West Bank, and Gaza will be maintained as an ever-shrinking open air prison which can now be bombed freely since there are no settlements there to defend. Time is running out for the Palestinians, and yet the only thing that matters to Western reporters and politicians is Israel's right to 'defend' itself. And as with apartheid South Africa, the right to 'self-defense' of a viciously racist sub-imperial state amounts to the right to threaten, do and dare anything, and present whatever contemptuous excuse can be devised.
See also here, here, here, and here for more from Lenin. Richard at American Leftist has written some very informative, wide-ranging posts on the crisis, as well. First was a post on what he sees as "The End of Zionism":
As for Zionism, each bomb that explodes in Gaza and Lebanon further shatters what remains of the edifice of its legitimacy. Challenged by demographic and social change within Israel, and confronted by those it has occupied and brutalized, Zionism has lost whatever idealism it originally possessed and abandoned its utopian sensibility, having been reduced by its proponents to an intellectual justification for militarism and the conscious use of unrestrained violence in order to perpetuate Israeli dominance of Palestine and Lebanon. An ideology stripped of its clothes of respectability will not long survive the cold of winter.
See here and here for two more outstanding, extensive pieces from Richard, with excellent links and analysis galore. I have also been reminded of the blog Jews Sans Frontieres, which I had nearly forgotten about.

Among the many articles and columns I've read on this have been this one by Jonathan Cook, in CounterPunch:
Several Israeli armaments factories and storage depots have been built close by Arab communities in the north of Israel, possibly in the hope that by locating them there Arab regimes will be deterred from attacking Israel’s enormous armory. In other words, the inhabitants of several of Israel’s Arab towns and villages have been turned into collective human shields -- protection for Israel’s war machine.
And this one from Amal Saad-Ghorayeb in the Guardian (link via Ellis Sharp):
The regional significance of the abductions has also been misconstrued. To suggest Hizbullah attacked on the orders of Tehran and Damascus is to grossly oversimplify a strong strategic and ideological relationship. Historically there has been an overlap of interests between Syria, Iran, Hizbullah and Hamas. Together they form a strategic axis - the "axis of terror" to Israel - that confronts US-Israeli designs to redraw the map of the region.

But the nature of that relationship has changed much over the years. Since Syrian forces left Lebanon, Hizbullah has become the stronger party. It has never allowed any foreign power to dictate its military strategy.

It is ironic, given Israel's bombing of civilian targets in Beirut, that Hizbullah is often dismissed in the west as a terrorist organisation. In fact its military record is overwhelmingly one of conflict with Israeli forces inside Lebanese territory. This is just an example of the way that the west employs an entirely different definition of terrorism to the one used in the Arab world and elsewhere, where there is a recognition that terrorism can come in many forms.

Speaking of Sharp, at his blog The Sharp Side, he has some excellent posts, largely related to the media coverage of the crisis (for example, here, here, and here).

See Jim Lobe at MRZine for a survey of the rabid neo-con response to all of this:
The cover of the July 24, 2006 [Weekly] Standard blazes "Iran's Proxy War," and the issue featured no fewer than four articles stressing Iran's sponsorship of Hezbollah and Hamas and the belief that the United States must stand with Israel, if not take independent action against Tehran and/or Damascus, as Kristol recommended.

The new campaign's prime targets are the more conciliatory "realist" policies toward Syria and Iran pursued by the State Department, which the neoconservatives argue have backfired by making Washington look weak.

Saturday, July 15, 2006

The Death of Mr. Lazarescu

The other night, we saw the Romanian movie The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, which was directed by Cristi Puiu and won the Un Certain Regard jury prize at Cannes. My wife will report that when we walked out of the theater, I said that I hated it. And it's true: I did say that. But that is not the whole story. In fact, I backed off of that more or less immediately. The reality is that I was so tired when the film began that I strongly wished that we hadn't bought tickets, that I could go home and immediately go to sleep, that it wasn't two-and-a-half hours long, that it wasn't the last night the film would be shown. Once it got going, I quickly realized that this was a movie that required my attention and I was sure that I did not have the requisite attention to give it. I repeatedly closed my eyes, waiting till I heard voices, when I would open them and read the subtitles. An excellent way to approach a visual art, I find. I was exhausted, and the movie felt brutally depressing and claustrophobic, and I wanted to go home. But then something strange happened. With about 15-30 minutes remaining, I realized that I had been watching, relatively alertly, for some time, without closing my eyes, without wanting to slip off into a coma. I had been sucked into the film quite in spite of myself.

In the beginning of the movie, Lazarescu Dante Remus calls an ambulance because he has been suffering from headaches and vomiting, which may or may not be caused by an old ulcer or his excessive drinking. Naturally, the ambulance takes forever to come, and that's just the beginning of the bureaucratic nightmares he must endure on the way to his probable death. He is taken to hospital after hospital. One of the movie's strengths is that, while he and his attending paramedic encounter indifferent or hostile doctors wherever they go, who are actors definitely caught up in a bureaucratic hell and as a result are often quite indifferent to his fate, each hospital and each doctor or nurse is distinctively realized. As tired as I was, I have no trouble bringing to mind several clearly delineated characters.

Lazarescu's full name should no doubt have been a tip off that he was traveling into something like circles of hell, but the brutal realism of the film (not to again mention my exhaustion) somehow enabled me to not attend to such details until afterward. Identifying his predicament as Kafkaesque was trivial enough. When my wife and I discussed the movie we focused on the realism, of course, but for her it also exemplified existentialist ideas: there was no transcendent meaning, no resolution. This is what life is, the film seems to be telling us, and any human connections (and there were some real connections--and disconnections--in the movie) are made by the characters, not determined by any externality. There is the bureaucracy, yes, and there are rules to be followed, but the doctors and nurses pretend to have no control over what they do; they clearly pick and choose which rules to enforce, and how strongly to enforce them, at any given time, and they repeatedly hassle Lazarescu for choosing to drink. I felt that there were a few lines of dialogue here and there that were hamfisted in their attempt to drive home the point about the bureacracy and the conditions of life in Romania, but as a whole the movie managed to avoid heavy-handedness: everyone seemed so natural and unaffected, it was much like watching a transparent documentary. Indeed, it occurs to me that those lines were often undermined by the reality of the scenes in question.

In the end, a good film. I recommend it, but with some caveats. Avoid sleepiness, and expect to encounter some pathetic characters and a painfully realistic, not to say depressing, story. I, for one, am glad that I did not force us to leave the theater and go home.

For more on The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, see this Cinema Scope article, of which the following is a sample:
Lazarescu is only 63, but he is treated as a useless piece of junk. Everything and everyone conspires against him: his bad mood, his drinking habits, the quality of the emergency services, aggravated that night by a horrific bus accident that led to hundreds of victims. But, above all, Mr. Lazarescu’s enemy is authoritarianism, so embodied in Romanian society (and elsewhere), and so easy to adopt as a maxim by the members of the medical profession, leading to the contempt and mistreatment of patients. But the film functions along the lines of a thriller, not only because of the mysteries of medical diagnosis and its procedures based on hints and clues, but also because it’s obstructed by laziness and arrogance. Nobody knows what’s wrong with Mr. Lazarescu, but he slowly and steadily deteriorates until he reaches a state where he can no longer communicate. Ironically enough, everybody puts forward his or her guess before the truth is established, though by that time, maybe it’s no longer important. Puiu’s treatment of the subject is so intelligent that he even builds a suspense that is very difficult to appreciate, although it’s essential for the plot.

Friday, July 14, 2006

Purpose and Propulsion

For still more on David Thomas, here's a post about that last pre-return-of-Ubu solo record, Blame the Messenger, from the blog Overlooked Gems of My Lifetime (which, incidentally, is a great concept for a blog):
What I love about this album, following the sometimes sketchy early-80s releases by the band proper (eg, The Art of Walking) and the nutty, impressionistic batch of solo Thomas albums that led up to this one (Monster Walks the Winter Lake is a particular winner among this category), is its feeling of purpose and propulsion and the way it balances the competing, reckless impulses of early Pere Ubu the way no Ubu release had done since the release of their underrated (among Pere Ubu fans, that is, because anyone else doesn't care) New Picnic Time.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Necessary Minimum of Agreement

From George Orwell's Homage to Catalonia:
Between the Communists and those who stand or claim to stand to the Left of them there is a real difference. The Communists hold that Fascism can be beaten by alliance with sections of the capitalist class (the Popular Front); their opponents hold that this manoeuvre simply gives Fascism new breeding-grounds. The question has got to be settled; to make the wrong decision may be to land ourselves in for centuries of semi-slavery. But so long as no argument is produced except a scream of 'Trotsky-Fascist!' the discussion cannot even begin. It would be impossible for me, for instance, to debate the rights and wrongs of the Barcelona fighting with a Communist Party member, because no Communist--that is to say, no 'good' Communist--could admit that I have given a truthful account of the facts. If he followed his party 'line' dutifully he would have to declare that I am lying or, at best, that I am hopelessly misled and that anyone who glanced at the Daily Worker headlines a thousand miles from the scene of events knows more of what was happening in Barcelona than I do. In such circumstances there can be no argument; the necessary minimum of agreement cannot be reached. What purpose is served by saying that men like Maxton are in Fascist pay? Only the purpose of making serious discussion impossible. (p. 178-9)

Saturday, July 08, 2006

We have the Technology

The subjects of my last post, Richard & Linda Thompson, have, perhaps surprisingly, collaborated on various occasions with Pere Ubu singer David Thomas. Richard Thompson plays guitar on Thomas' first two non-Ubu albums, The Sound of the Sand and Other Songs of the Pedestrians and Variations on a Theme, from 1981 and 1983, respectively. There's a brief, amusing anecdote related in the liner notes to Thomas' Monster box-set, which collects his first five solo albums, in which, by the time of his fifth, Blame the Messenger in 1986, he and the band he'd assembled for that record look around and realize that they are essentially Pere Ubu. They start recording again as Ubu, and the first album after this was 1988's The Tenement Year.

Carl Wilson of Zoilus has been guest-blogging some over at Said the Gramophone. Yesterday he posted an excellent piece on Pere Ubu's "We Have the Technology", probably the best song from The Tenement Year:
This is the Pere Ubu of 1988, when it had regrouped after David Thomas’s more-scorned-than-heard, “eccentric nature-boy” solo years. Now David Thomas lived in what he considered an exile in England, making albums such as Monster Walks the Winter Lake, a metaphoric suite about the breakdown of communication in a marriage. In those songs, he portrayed a failing marriage as a third entity, a Frankenstein pastiche of “parts that don’t matter,” a hulk that comes lumbering between two people, silencing them, dominating the horizon. And in the first years of the reanimated Pere Ubu this theme persisted: Where to turn when the dynamic between people is beyond their control, when it wrenches the torch from their hands and blazes through the village? It needn’t be a marriage; it could be a band.


As so often, in a group that always made its art from the parts that weren’t supposed to matter in culture, from B-movies and sci-fi novels and comics and Germanic freak rock and abandoned buildings and obsolete synthesizers and dinosaur books, Pere Ubu digs for inspiration in the trash: Here it’s the opening sequence of the boneheaded 1970s TV show The Six-Million-Dollar Man, in which the surgeons intone over the prone body of the astronaut, “We can rebuild him. We have the technology.” [...]

But David Thomas isn’t a kid any more. He doesn’t want to fight cartoon threats, or even, for awhile, his pet cultural apocalypse. He wants to talk to his wife. What is that monster made of? It’s made up of moments, intervals at which no one rises to the occasion, or all parties are too stubborn to prevent the inevitable crash.
I've never been able to catch Pere Ubu live, but a couple of years ago I did manage to see Thomas with a band of local musicians here in Baltimore at the Ottobar, as part of Morpheus Records' 10th Anniversary celebration. Morpheus has distributed some Ubu releases, such as the live The Shape of Things, as well as the utterly fantastic Jimmy Bell's Still In Town from 15-60-75 (Thomas has called this "the only good album by anybody ever", which is obviously a trifle excessive, but the record is still pretty damn awesome). Anyway, Thomas is a huge presence, and before his set he bitched out the girl handling the Morpheus table (she took it remarkably well, basically laughing it off). The show was a little ragged, but they did play "We Have the Technology" and it was a definite high-point of the night.

Elsewhere on Pere Ubu, Simon Reynolds has been posting his footnotes to Rip It Up & Start Again and this week posted the notes to the chapter concerning Ubu and the Cleveland scene. These also highlight Ubu's humanity. First, in contrast to the Dead Boys:
Compare the direction Pere Ubu pursued with what happened to the other ex-members of Rocket From the Tombs. Taking the punk side of RFTT to the max, they became The Dead Boys, fronted by Stiv Bators (who had briefly displaced David Thomas as RFTT’s singer), a weasel-faced Iggy Pop-wannabe who mimed suicide by hanging himself onstage. Moving to New York and latching onto the CBBGs scene, The Dead Boys were briefly infamous for their misogynist songs (“Caught With the Meat In Your Mouth”), Vicious-like cartoon-psychosis, and puerile penchant for carrying switchblades. Where The Dead Boys thought it a real, er, gas to sport Nazi imagery (Bators legendarily shaved a swastika into a girlfriend’s pubic hair), Pere Ubu decided to cease playing “Final Solution” live, in case anyone took the song (actually inspired by a Sherlock Holmes short story!) as pro-Nazi. In essence, the Dead Boys were like the Sex Pistols if they’d been entirely composed of Sid Viciouses and Steve Joneses.
And on original member Peter Laughner:
A man who died, said Lester Bangs, because he wanted to be Lou Reed so badly [...]. Although 'Final Solution' got included on the first Max's Kansas City album, Pere Ubu were also too humanist to really fit even the New York arty but death-tripping version of punk. They had no truck with those who flirted with the void, however poetically. . .
Some of the other footnotes touch on Thomas' occasionally dubious ideas of blood and nation and culture, which I talked about in this post from May. Reynolds quotes from the same interview in The Wire that I did, as well as much else. I like this concluding bit about Ubu's peculiar brand of "Americana":
Thomas also talks often about working with American archetypal themes and images--the railroad, the worried man, the river. Ubu liked to use already-famous song titles, like ‘Sentimental Journey’, ‘Stormy Weather’, “West Side Story”, while “My Dark Ages” turned The Beach Boys inside out: “I don’t get around/I don’t fall in love much.” Perhaps this confusion--art or folk, bohemia or populism--is at the core of rock, its undecidable essence. Perhaps the best stuff manages to be both at the time. In this respect Pere Ubu were, as Mark Sinker argues, a bit like The Band “if they had ended their [1966] tours with Bob Dylan by deciding to invent an urban American music based not in borrowed snatches of the rural past but in intuited fragments of the city future.”

Thomas: “Images are created--seminal things like Heartbreak Hotel. That image has possessed writers endlessly from the moment it was heard—I’ve written probably a dozen songs on Heartbreak Hotel. Read [Greil Marcus’s] Mystery Train, it’s all about this passing on of communal images. Down by the River—the notion of the river, the rail, the worried man. The worried man stretches back hundreds of years. Worried Man Blues by the Carter family in 1920 probably has roots back in Babylonia”. (Devo, incidentally, did a cover of “Worried Man” in Neil Young’s Human Highway movie, in a scene where they play workers whose job is to handle nuclear waste!).

Friday, July 07, 2006

Now the weekend's come, I'm gonna throw my troubles away

Last week, Ellis Sharp linked to my list of recent pop obsessions and provided a list of songs himself intended for a mix cd. It's an interesting list (I also like to look at other people's lists), with about half the songs by artists I'm very well acquainted with (Dylan, Cash, Steve Earle, Emmylou Harris, Lucinda Williams), even if the songs in question aren't necessarily ones I know all that well, and half by artists I've either not heard of (The Chordettes, Linda Scott, Dobie Gray) or whose music I am largely unfamiliar with (Connie Stevens, Nick Cave, T.Rex). But one of the songs on his list happens to be one of my all-time favorite songs: "I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight" by Richard & Linda Thompson.

In 1987, Rolling Stone came out with an issue compiling the "best 100 albums of the last 20 years". I was 17 and only in the previous couple of years had I started paying close attention to music, figuring out and forming my own tastes. I was listening to Led Zeppelin constantly. I didn't know that Rolling Stone had already become a shadow of its former self and would soon become entirely irrelevant. Since then, the magazine has continuously produced sad attempts at canon-making and re-canon-making, lists of top 500 albums or best 100 singles or whatever, and put out dumb issues devoted to "Women in Rock" and the like. But this one, this one I pored over like it was the Bible or something, which in some ways it was. I could take it seriously because the list devoted two slots to Zeppelin, who I already knew were great. And I took this stuff very seriously. For the most part, I treated the thing as a guide for music to look into, but I have to admit that I took the canonical aspect of it a little too much to heart in those days. One of the good things about it is that its cut-off year was 1967, which means it wasn't excessively overloaded with the Beatles and Bob Dylan, as these rock-heavy lists tend to be. Another is that it was a little hard-edged. No Eagles or Billy Joel here (they tended to show up on the later lists, no doubt in deference to Jann Wenner's friendships). I now see the list as having been hopelessly white, Anglo-American rock-centered (no Funkadelic or Can, to name but two). But, as such a rock list, it's still a pretty good one, and for me it was a treasure trove of interesting stuff to try to listen to: mixed in with Sgt. Pepper and Exile on Main Street and Ziggy Stardust and Hendrix and the Who and all that classic rock stuff I would have been hard-pressed to not have known about (although, with my steady diet of classic rock radio, it wasn't like I knew much more than the big hits; even Exile was unknown to me then), were such now-obvious artists as the Velvet Underground and Captain Beefheart who are now key for me but whom I'm sure I'd never heard of before. But even more obscure than those were Richard & Linda Thompson, represented by two records: I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight and Shoot Out the Lights.

It's difficult to remember how comparatively difficult it was to find records and learn about music (new or otherwise) as recently as the mid-to-late 1980s. I didn't live in a city. There was no Internet. At the time, I was buying cassettes and, soon, cds, and a lot of the stuff I was interested in was hard to find in those formats. Somehow it never occurred to me to try looking for much on vinyl, which might have made things a lot easier. Anyway, I was unable to locate anything by Richard & Linda Thompson until after college, when I finally found Shoot Out the Lights. This was their last record, and it was supposed to be their finest achievement. And I was....underwhelmed. To this day, I still have not quite warmed to it. There are some great songs on it, of course, but as a set of songs, it never clicked; it remains my least favorite album of theirs. Even with this disappointment, I was not deterred (if I can help it, I tend to give bands more than one chance). By then I knew that Richard Thompson was a critics' darling, and I wanted to have some idea why that was. I had to find I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight.

All Music Guide tells us that I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight, originally released in 1974, was first reissued on cd by Hannibal in 1991. I have no idea when I actually found a copy of it, but it was certainly a few years after that--these records were still not easy to come by, at least not in the record shops I tended to frequent at the time (or, um, work in). In any event, by the mid-1990s I had the cd, and finally I heard what all the critics meant when they praised Thompson to the skies. This is a great, great album. Bleak, darkly funny, beautiful. As with many albums, there are some songs I've only really fully heard until very recently. One such song is "The End of the Rainbow", sung by Richard and perhaps the bleakest children's song ever:
Life seems so rosy in the cradle,
But I'll be a friend I'll tell you what's in store
There's nothing at the end of the rainbow.
There's nothing to grow up for anymore
Richard sings lead on four of the album's ten songs, and his vocals are perfectly suited to the songs in question. Linda sings the rest, and her voice is strong and lovely. Many of the songs are sad or morose, yet often witty. And there's the funny class war "fuck you" in "Little Beggar Girl".

But it's the title track, of course, that has prompted me to write. The words are simple: the singer, working class, desires nothing more than a night or two on the town after a typical week of toil (in a factory?):
I'm so tired of working every day,
Now the weekend's come, I'm gonna throw my troubles away.
If you've got the cab-fare, then mister you'll do alright,
I want to see the bright lights tonight.

Meet me at the station, don't be late;
I need to spend some money, and it just won't wait.
Take me to the dance, and hold me tight;
I want to see the bright lights tonight.

There's crazy people running all over town;
There's a silver band just marching up and down;
And the big boys they're all spoiling for a fight;
I want to see the bright lights tonight.

Couple of drunken nights rollin' on the floor
Is just the kind of mess I'm lookin' for.
I'm gonna dream till Monday comes in sight;
I want to see the bright lights tonight.
I've seen the song described as upbeat, and I suppose in a sense it is, in the context of the album. There is a real joyousness to the song, but there's more to it than that. The singer doesn't imagine anything beyond the hedonistic pleasures of drink and dance and sex, before work must begin again on Monday. There is Richard's guitar, of course, and cheerful horns and drums keeping a stately beat, but it's Linda's voice that carries the song. And there's real desperation in her voice, for example when she sings the "I" in "I need to spend some money and it just won't wait". I love this song. I love singing along to it; I even sing along to the trumpet parts.

After that meandering build-up, you might be forgiven for expecting that I was going to spend some more time discussing the actual song than I have. Sorry, I don't want to gush. I said that it is one of my favorites, and it is. I've certainly put it on more mixes for friends than any other. When I saw it on Ellis Sharp's list, it made me think how unexpected it was for him to have linked to that post of mine (of all posts). I thought about how my musical tastes have changed and expanded over the years, and I remembered that edition of Rolling Stone (I still remember buying it, on a visit to my father's in Connecticut). I wrote above that I took the canonical aspect of the issue too seriously. This is true, but it wasn't too long before I developed a real counter-canonical streak, a tendency to seek out lesser known records from the past, as well as getting into the present-day underground to varying degrees. I've always liked making mix tapes and cds, for myself and others, and I've often thought about a given album or song in terms of how it might factor into certain thematic mixes, whether I've made the mix or not. One sort of mix I have in mind is a kind of "anti-classic rock" compilation--songs that ought to have been on the radio right alongside the Stones and Zep and Dylan but instead ended up consigned to obscurity. Richard & Linda Thompson's "I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight", though in one sense obviously "canonically approved" by Rolling Stone magazine, in another sense (its relative rarity; its absolute lack of any radio play in the US) fits right into this project. More on this in some future posts.

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Mulligan Stew, Gilbert Sorrentino

Mulligan Stew is widely held to be Gilbert Sorrentino's masterpiece. As such, I'd avoided it in favor of several of his other books. In part, this was because I knew too much about it. I knew that he'd borrowed characters from Joyce and Fitzgerald and Flann O'Brien and Dashiell Hammett (hey, it says so right there on the cover). I worry too much about allusion, and I worried here that there would be some significance that these particular characters were borrowed and that I would miss the significance. I knew that he'd included a variety of parodies and numerous lists and intentionally bad writing. I worried that I would somehow not be up to the task of what he was doing with all of this stuff. Besides, the novel is at least twice as long as most of Sorrentino's other books. So I put it off till now, and I've just finished reading it.

In the event, I needn't have worried so much. But, even so, though I have a lot of admiration and respect for what Sorrentino was doing, and I'd have to say that it appears that he pulled it off brilliantly, I enjoyed it a lot less than I have some of his other novels. Frankly, one of the problems for me was all of the intentionally bad writing. There is something almost heroic about the bad writing in this book. Sorrentino really outdid himself on this front--the wide variety of bad writing represented is impressive. Clichés in abundance, bad grammar, excessive use of commas and other bizarre punctuation, overheated prose, stupid metaphors, incoherent ideas. With all of this, I found it a slow read, quite difficult to get through in parts. But, nevertheless, a lot of it is indeed very funny.

Anthony Lamont is writing a novel, using borrowed characters (and I believe he in turn is borrowed from Sorrentino's own Imaginitive Qualities of Actual Things--my copy is on loan, so I can't check it to verify, but I do know that Sheila Henry, his sister, is a character in that novel). He fancies himself something of an experimental writer and an overlooked talent. He is in fact an awful writer and quite oblivious to it. And he is paranoid. The book we are reading consists of the chapters of his novel in progress, along with portions from his notebook, letters to Sheila, letters to a former lover, letters to a professor considering using his work in a course, etc, and his scrapbook, which includes, among other things, equally bad fiction from Sheila's husband and Lamont's apparent rival, Dermot Trellis (an amusingly overwritten western about Irish cowboys). The chapters of Lamont's novel, while slow reading, include many hilarious passages, such as this one, from pages 232-233:
A moment later and it was over and the dear girl gorged up her Danish happily, washing it down with coffee. Time in its kindness heals our memories of its grievous wounds inflicted without regard to race or creed or status. Does not a rich man as well as a poor yell a lot when he is punched in the mouth? Marx forgot these basic truths. Suddenly, I adjudged that Daisy had flown swiftly to the ladies' room. Had I been wrong, after all, about her? Fool! Fool! Blind stupid fool. How I had hurried on, a frail canoe with the current, rushing from the past! And now it was all too clear what a mistake I had made. I bit my knuckles until they hurt me like coals of fire. I mean like if coals of fire had been applied to them. Thus were the sharpness of my teeth. Then she was back, eyeing me narrowly and with a curious stare as if realizing that it was I that she had earlier looked at as if seeing for the first time and not someone that she had indeed seen for the first time. So does the mind trick us despite our most careful ideas about things to do. I suddenly understood Kant's description of the mind as a "whatnot". Then, somehow, she was back, her trim, lithe form across the table staring at mine, words tumbling from her mouth...
The narrator here is Martin Halpin, a minor Joyce character. Some of the funniest parts (and easiest to read) of the book are found in Halpin's journal, in which he discusses the ignominy of working for a writer as bad as Lamont. Halpin and Ned Beaumont, borrowed from Dashiell Hammett, talk about what it's like to work for good writers and plot their escape from Lamont. At one point they encounter the "Irish cowboys" from Trellis' novel, who recount a long list of all of the clichés they've been forced to endure in their careers as characters in novels. This is perhaps the funniest section of the book. Here is a representative passage, the entirety of page 274:
How many times, I pray you, have you emerged into the sunlight blinking?

Not as many times as I've grabbed for the phone.

I once had a position where I wheedled every third page.

I was once dazzlingly insouciant to the point of nausea.

I'm damn sick of getting home and going straight to bed without washing.

I'm just as tired of the sun in my eyes always waking me up.

How do you like the wet streets that shimmer in the fog? I'm up to here with them.

I don't mind the women whose bosoms heave--unless they crack their gum. Or chew it furiously. Or simper.

I was in a scene once with a woman who primped and simpered. As a matter of fact, I think she also whimpered.

As long as she didn't whine . . .

Mostly it's the small chaps with pasty faces who whine.

I don't think this woman could whine--she was expected to spend most of her time muffling sobs.

Did she dab at her eyes?

Of course. With my handkerchief.

And her hands were cold?

Yes. And they trembled.

Surely her lips trembled as well. That is, when she wasn't reflectively pursing them.

Right-o! And how regularly her lipstick caked and cracked. Occasionally, she lowered her eyes and a tear slid slowly down her cheek. A crystal tear, often furtive. Which she viciously brushed at . . .

Enough! You haven't lived until you've steeled yourself.

That's preferable to listening to the trees whimper. Or roar. No, it's the wind that usually roars. Or the sea.

What of the fire that crackles merrily? Or the flames that dance wildly? Or the wind that claws at the windows?

And, don't forget, also buffets the house!

Is that the same house that's so full of strange noises?

The same . . . the one that has something sinister about it. Often, it squats malevolently. In the mist.

Inside said house, is there a damp chill that not even the cheeriest fire can dispel?

Yes indeed. And the portraits on the wall seem to be staring at you. And the far end of the great hall is lost in the shadows.

Those shadows, you will remember, seem to shift and change.

But it's only the fire that makes them do this, someone always says.

Nervously. Usually a woman.
I was delighted by the premise of characters trying to escape a novel and talking about writing, debating the nature of fiction (late in the book, Halpin, appalled, asks "Can a writer simply 'make up' characters?"). Sorrentino is obviously having a lot of fun, and in these sections I was having fun right along with him. But, unfortunately, there were too many fairly lengthy stretches that I couldn't wait to reach the end of. For example, I found the 40-plus page parody of a "masque" tedious and incoherent (even as it contained a few amusing jokes along the way), as well as the parody of a mathematical proof (ditto). It took me a long time to wade through these parodies and some of the others, so long that I often wondered what the point was and occasionally despaired of ever finishing the book. It wasn't at all evident to me how some of these sections related to the other sections of the book, or the novel as a whole, except insofar as, by virtue of being parodies, they played further with the nature of storytelling. I would finally make it to the end of these sections, and move on to another chapter from Lamont's novel or another portion of Halpin's journal, and I was back to enjoying it again. In the end, I'm glad I read the book, but I didn't love it.

Gilbert Sorrentino remains one of my favorite writers, but I think it's clear that this is not one of my favorites of his books, even with the extended bits that I thought were great fun. With his recent death, people who've never read him have been asking what they should read first. Some have indeed suggested Mulligan Stew. I'm sticking with recommending Aberration of Starlight (my first Sorrentino) or Imaginative Qualities of Actual Things (the opening of which I've excerpted here) or Sky Changes (which is admittedly much more conventional).

See also this excellent interview, in which Sorrentino discusses the ideas that went into his writing of Mulligan Stew and other novels. And, Ready Steady Book has expanded their nice mini-site devoted to Sorrentino.