Tuesday, March 26, 2013

On grief and Led Zeppelin

In January, I alluded to the fact that we were in the middle of a period of grief. The fact is, in late December, our unborn baby, due this Spring, died. Forgive me for the bluntness of this statement. Some of you know this already, most of you do not. I'd not wanted to write about it here, primarily because anything I could write felt inadequate, inappropriate. And though this blog has not shied away from personal matters, it just seemed too much. I'm not going to write about it here, either, beyond what I've just said. But I felt I needed to say it in order to make this post make any sense.

At any rate, in the aftermath, I found, amid the resumption of everyday life, the day-to-day practical stuff, including getting things take care of related to our loss, that when I was by myself, I wanted to listen to music. It was music that helped me deal with the down time. Not unusual - I often want to listen to music, and people often turn to music for comfort and consolation. Sometimes it was too much and I'd be stopped short by a song coming on randomly (this happened with Sinead O'Connor's unbelievable "Three Babies", which I don't think I can listen to again without crying), but even these have helped. I mostly wanted to hear familiar voices.

First it was Fleetwood Mac - an old favorite from childhood - but instead of reaching for the records I knew very well (the obvious ones, Fleetwood Mac and Rumours), I instead reached for Tusk, which I'd never given a proper listen. Though really it was primarily "Sara" and "Storms" I wanted to hear: sad songs, but not too on the nose. I'd always loved "Storms" ("And I did not deal with you I know. . .": this line gets me every time), but "Sara" had always been just a pleasant song I knew only hazily. But I now found I wanted to hear "Sara" constantly; I played it over and over again. Then I started listening to the album in full, reading more about Tusk, realized/remembered that since I only had it on the original cd pressing, that I had the "edit" version of "Sara", which is roughly two minutes shorter than the original (i.e., an abomination, I later understood). . . that I'd never sought to remedy this situation suggests my overall lack of engagement with the album and even the song, though I'd always "liked" it. But in my newfound obsession with the song, I needed the full version, so I downloaded it, inserted it back into its rightful place, obsessed over it further. . .

Enter Marcello Carlin and his blog, Then Play Long. Recall that at TPL, Carlin has been, over the last five years, writing about each album to reach #1 on the UK charts since the beginning, in 1956, "so that you might want to hear it". I'd been reading the blog regularly, and he's not only made me want to hear records I never gave a second (or first) thought to, but also managed to somehow say something new and interesting about records that have been written about to death, many of which I'd have told you I knew about as well as it was possible to know a record. I wrote about some of these previously (here and here). But my own life got complicated and busy, his publishing slowed down (in part due to health issues, as I understand it), so I'd gotten out of the habit of reading; then it was recently brought to my attention that he was contemplating pulling the plug on the project (happily, he has since reconsidered). . . I clicked over to find out what was up, realized I'd missed roughly five years worth of number one albums, blog posts going back a couple of years. I happened to notice his entry on Tusk. I was floored, reminded: this is great music writing! I went back and re-read the great piece on Rumours.

But I was thinking - Tusk - 1979 - hm - 'hey, Led Zeppelin's last album, In Through the Out Door came out in 1979, I wonder what he'd had to say about that'. I'd recalled that he'd been, compared to his writeups of the first five Zep albums, relatively lukewarm on Physical Graffiti. . . so I looked up In Through the Out Door, noticed his entry on Presence, and even the soundtrack to the concert film, The Song Remains the Same . . . and reading these entries, I quickly realized that there were things I'd once known about Led Zeppelin that I'd long since forgotten, and several things that I'd never properly processed about the band in my youthful enthusiasm. And I realized that, though they had been my favorite band, and I'd never stopped loving them, never stopped repping for them, or defending them where necessary, I'd also long since accepted certain aspects of the case against them. Not wanting to spend much time rehearsing those charges here (but: sexism, plagiarism, the idea "that they represented some kind of unwelcome decadence and opulence in rock, getting further and further away from the things which originally powered them", among others), I'll simply mention the idea that they were a band that had little to say, which I expanded, it seems, to not noticing any evidence of lived pain or anguish in the music, in Robert Plant's vocals in particular. And in part this is because of the things I'd forgotten, or not really processed, or been able to process in my youth. 

I'd forgotten that Plant and his family had been in a horrible car accident and that this resulted in the cancellation of a Zeppelin tour and led to the band recording a new album instead, which ended up being Presence. I'd forgotten that the recording of this album was beset by all kinds of problems. I'd forgotten worse things than that. I'd never really processed that these things might have had some effect on how Presence sounds - which to my often distracted ears was always dense, monochromatic, impenetrable, even if I officially "liked" it. Given all that was going on, Carlin describes the record as "a reaction against everything surrounding them", as "a case of Zeppelin versus the world", reminds us that it "baffled and annoyed reviewers", doubts that it's "ever been completely understood". All this is fine, but it's when he gets to the actual music that Carlin really surprises me, right from the beginning when he says, "It’s very rare that I come across a number one album that was made because it absolutely needed to be made, but Presence is one of those..." I don't think it ever would have occurred to me to describe Presence as an album that needed to be made.

Already this post is getting longer than I wanted it to be, because it wasn't supposed to be about Presence (though I've been listening to the album a lot lately, and am especially grateful to Carlin for bringing my attention to the great "Tea for One", and I feel I'm finally able to appreciate "Achilles Last Stand") nor is it supposed to be about stuff about Led Zeppelin I'd forgotten. Except for one thing: I'd forgotten that Plant's five year-old son had died in 1977 from a mysterious stomach ailment while Plant himself was out on tour. In all the years I've listened to Led Zeppelin, it never once occurred to me to think of how this might have affected the music. But right there, at the end of In Through the Out Door, are two songs I'd not much cared about:
Before pondering on whether the group are attempting to give birth to Asia or Bon Jovi, the album suddenly takes a sideways, then downward, step into two rather astonishing closing songs. “All My Love” begins exactly like Abba – one can easily imagine Agnetha singing the song (plus it is in the opposing key to “The Name Of The Game”; A minor to Abba’s A major) – and Plant’s voice lends the song and lyric an emotional candour which evidently counts for rather more than a girl who just done walked out on him; he puts an unusual emphasis on the line “He is a feather in the wind.” Meanwhile, Page in his solo is still channelling Hank Marvin, and as the song slowly disappears Plant’s hurt is superseded by a slowly coruscating grief; in its fading moments he appears to cry, again and again, “Stop dying!” (to which Bonham immediately responds with a cocked head tom-tom breakout). His parting call is a searing, extended “to YOU” – there is no doubt whom he is really singing about.

And, finally, there is “I’m Gonna Crawl,” the last word from Zeppelin – not that in 1979 anyone knew that; Page was already planning to follow it up with a return to The Rock Formula – and one of the greatest things they ever did.
Hm. . . Presence is an album that had to be made, and "I'm Gonna Crawl" - a song, Carlin says, is "so peaceful, so disturbing in its deceiving amble" and he surprisingly compares to Tricky - is one of the greatest things Led Zeppelin ever did? Where have I been?

I'd read Hammer of the Gods twice ages ago, consumed all I could about Led Zeppelin as a teenager and young adult, yet I'd never processed that "All My Love" is 'about' his late son. But I was young and stupid and life had yet to  happen to me. Now, years later, being reminded of his tragedy, and reading Marcello Carlin's post on the song, in the wake of our own grief, was a disquieting experience. I got home that day, re-added "All My Love" to my iPod, and when not attending to the various errands and other practical matters I took care of that weekend, all I wanted to do was listen to this song; I communed with it, and with its follow-up, quietly devastated. Where Carlin reports that Plant appears to cry "Stop dying!", I'd formerly always heard "Sometimes, sometimes!" At first I still heard it; internet searches had "sometimes" too. I tried like hell to hear "Stop dying!", eventually sometimes it seemed to be there, blurred in with "sometimes!" I couldn't decide which made more sense, which was better (worse) . . . then one day I was listening to a Zeppelin playlist while washing the dishes, and "All My Love" came on - I wasn't paying close attention - and "Stop dying!" came through as clear as could be, as though of course that's what he was singing. And a singer I'd always loved, in a band I'd always loved, I now felt somehow more love and respect for, and felt now in some way protective of.

In winding up his remarks on In Through the Out Door, in particular on "I'm Gonna Crawl" - another song full of anguish and pain, which I listened to over and over again, paired with "All My Love" - Carlin writes these words, which I will end with:
All hope appears to have been eviscerated; Plant’s voice is as despairing and despondent as I have ever heard him, passing by ominous lyrical signposts – [...] – but the pain is too much, and the whole thing culminates in some terrifying primal screams that outdo even the Lennon of “Mother.” At last, when attending to and singing about things and people he really cares about, Plant reveals himself; the song, like its predecessor, is really about his departed son. The closing moments sound like a dozen years of hurt compacted into one apotheosis, or nadir, of betrayed emotion.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

"One must shout, murmur, exult, madly, until one can find the no doubt calm language of the no..."

This is the end of a letter Samuel Beckett wrote to Georges Duthuit on August 2, 1948, collected in The Letters of Samuel Beckett, 1941-1956 (translated from the French by George Craig):
The mistake, the weakness at any rate, is perhaps to want to know what one is talking about. In defining literature, to one's satisfaction, even brief, where is the gain, even brief? Armour, all that stuff, for a loathsome combat. I think I know what you are going through, forced back into judgements, even if merely suggested, every month, at any rate regularly, pulled out with greater and greater difficulty according to hateful criteria. It is impossible. One must shout, murmur, exult, madly, until one can find the no doubt calm language of the no, unqualified, or as little qualified as possible. One must, no that is all there is, apparently, for some of us, this mad little tally-ho sound, and then perhaps the shedding of at least a good part of what we thought we had that was best, or most real, at the cost of what efforts. And perhaps the immense simplicity of part at least of the little feared that we are and have. But I'm starting to write. It has just struck midnight. Until tomorrow.

Wednesday, March 06, 2013

Notes on two Joanna Russ books

I recently finished reading The Zanzibar Cat, a collection of Joanna Russ short stories dating from 1962 to 1979. The stories cover a wide range of so-called genres, some of which I thought were excellent, others more of a chore. . . she certainly demonstrated here that she could do just about anything. There were a few clear science fiction stories (one with some connection to her novel The Female Man), a few "fantasy", at least one ghost story, at least one vampire story, one that might be a little of both. . . Then there was one that didn't seem like any of those at all, about a character named "Joanna Russ" living in New York ("The Precious Object"). Very experimental in form, hard to get a handle on any kind of coherent "ongoingness" (to borrow a word from Gary Lutz, though Russ' sentences are in and of themselves not odd like Lutz's can be - though she wasn't afraid to be ugly), even as individual sentences were not in themselves difficult. Then there was the title story, a kind of fable, in which questions of, problems of, authority are introduced in entertaining fashion, with one of the characters, the Miller's Daughter, revealing herself as being "the author". I wondered, as I often do, what Gabriel Josipovici would make of that one.

Meanwhile, a few weeks back I'd read her early novel, And Chaos Died. Surely one of the very few science fiction novels dedicated to Vladimir Nabokov (she was a student of his), I have to admit I spent a large portion of this novel actively disliking it. It is at times a very difficult read (yet, again, individual sentences are frequently beautiful). Again, for me, there is the problem of ongoingness - in the sense of trying to piece together what the point might be of all the phenomena or sensations being described. Among the overheated blurbs ("A stunning achievement!" - Fritz Leiber) is this paragraph from Samuel R. Delany:
Many novels have dealt speculatively with psi-phenomena, describing the effects on people and society. Ms. Russ has taken it on herself to put the reader through the experience. She is wholly successful. And Chaos Died is a spectacular experience to undergo.
Well, ok. The book begins with a mission to a planet apparently colonized at one point by humans, now populated by descendants, who have developed certain abilities. The landscape appears to shift randomly - it is unclear whether this shifting is a function of these abilities - nothing is as it seems, little is grounded in any discernible reality. The main character, Jai Vindh, is at some point endowed with these abilities. The action - or, setting, at any rate - returns to earth. Here, when at one point his consciousness seems to meld with that of a lizard's in the desert, and even the rocks, here is where I finally, roughly two-thirds into the book, felt I had a handle on things, that I could piece sentences together to make them meaningful to me, that the phenomena being described felt worth describing. Perhaps this is just because of the grounding of being back on earth? amid recognizable surroundings, even if fictional, and in a science fiction book from more than 40 years ago? Regardless, from here, for the next few dozen pages, I was genuinely enjoying the book, before it went off the rails and I again had little idea what she was on about.

Before I read the novel, I'd been warned that it was "bad" on homosexuality - that in this regard it was disappointing, in particular given Russ' other work on gender and sexuality and the ways in which she has explored these issues in her other fiction. So I read the book, in part, on the look out for this badness. I was thus mildly bewildered when it sort of didn't come. The Jai Vindh character is gay from the start, and there are conflicts with the Captain of his mission, who seems wary of him, and afraid he's going to be attacked sexually by Vindh. Vindh, for his part, openly mocks the Captain's homophobia. Then he ends up having sex with one of the women on the planet, and it is after this that he begins to experience the "psi phenomena" for himself. I did wonder whether this - that this openly gay character repeatedly has sex with a woman - might be the problem, but the idea struck me as dubious. But I was very conscious of my not being gay while thinking this, and also of the book being more than 40 years old. Much has changed. Even so, I was a little confused. Then I came across this 2011 review at Tor.com of And Chaos Died, by Brit Mandelo, and along with points about the book's "psychic phenomena, mind-bending imagery, nearly impenetrable—but beautiful—prose and an experimental sensibility", there is this extended passage:
Jai Vedh, the only male protagonist in Russ’s entire oeuvre, is introduced as a “homosexual.” At first, it seems that Russ is going to explore homophobia and prejudice against male queerness—the military officer who Jai crash-lands with is a big-macho masculine guy, who’s constantly responding badly and violently to Jai. There’s a lot of tension; Jai derisively tells him at one point, “I won’t touch you. Not even in your sleep. Calm down…” The captain’s response is to get even antsier and eventually try to physically throw him out of the small escape-pod spacecraft. So far, so good, I suppose; the explorations of masculinity and homophobia are interesting.

It starts to get bad when the psychic society comes in, because Jai ends up getting together with a woman who uses her powers to “cure” him of his sexuality, which is framed as a dysfunction. They become lovers, and he’s all fixed from being gay, because when his mind begins to expand and he develops abilities like hers, he becomes heterosexual. It turns out, being gay was just a problem caused by his society, and when he’s mentally healed he’s straight. In this construction, straight equals healthy, straight equals better, straight equals right. It’s exactly the party line of the psychiatric associations of the 60s and 70s: gay is sick, straight is healthy.

I had a fairly visceral “you have got to be fucking kidding me” reaction to that scene. I nearly threw the book. It’s hard to believe that Russ, about to publically become an advocate for queer women’s sexuality in her next novel, could make such a nasty implication—that all a gay man needs is a good woman to make him straight. How many times do lesbians have to listen to the reverse, that a good man is all they need to give up other women? Hell, deconstructing that myth is part of the point of The Female Man.

Is it because Jai is male? Does his gender really make such a categorical difference in the validity of his identity and sexuality? There are threads of this tendency in second-wave feminism, so it’s not like it’s new; I likely shouldn’t be surprised, but I was. It felt like a betrayal.

That’s in addition to the fact that nearly every sex scene or sexual scene has elements of non-consent, on the parts of both men and women; Jai isn’t really willing to have sex with the woman the first time, but she makes it happen. Perhaps this is supposed to feed into the point that Jai’s society is so absolutely wrecked, socially, that aggression and violence are the only possibilities for interpersonal relation. If it is, it only succeeded in making me extremely uncomfortable and a bit disgusted—the sex scenes don’t seem to be written to be icky on purpose, and there aren’t many hints in the text that there’s anything wrong with the dubious consent. It’s just—there. It’s how sex is in And Chaos Died.
At first I wondered, again, if it's just me being the straight white guy in the room: I just don't see it. Still, my sense was that this was an over-reading of the material, and a reductive one at that. If nothing else, it had seemed to me that Jai is unwillingly drawn into both the sex and the telepathy (as, indeed, Mandelo's review suggests - in fact, re-reading her review, it strikes me that she was in part answering her own concerns). But given the fact that I'd been a bit at sea for much of the book and was not really much enjoying the experience till rather late in it, I wasn't inclined to argue the point. Then I read the comments to her review, and was very interested in this one, from more than a year after the review appeared, in which a DavidGolding says he'd "just read the second chapter of Rhonda Gilliam's master's thesis from 1988, which argues that the telepathic society should not be read as utopian [this, by the way, tracks with my reading of the society - RC], and that the 'cure' is intended by the author to be considerd [sic] an act of violence against Jai's personhood." Again, this latter idea isn't too far off from what I was thinking about Jai being an unwilling participant, nor does it diverge from Brit Mandelo's (accurate) characterization of the sex in the novel as such. Mandelo, for her part, replied that she herself now disagrees with what she'd written, in part because of letters from Russ, and also an essay by Delany about the book that appears in his Starboard Wine collection, and that she has revisited these questions in her recent essay, "We Wuz Pushed: On Joanna Russ and Radical Truth-telling", which along with the Delany, I'm curious about reading (though neither, admittedly, are high on my list of reading priorities).

I don't really have a point here, except to let you in on some of this discussion, should you be interested. It seems to me that And Chaos Died calls out for a re-read in order to be appreciated properly, yet I strongly doubt I have a re-read of the book in me (I'm much more likely to re-read the stories in The Zanzibar Cat, or the later novels, The Female Man and We Who Are About To. . . ). Brit Mandelo's review, incidentally, is part of a series of "Reading Joanna Russ" articles at Tor.com. In fact, I just noticed an essay on The Zanzibar Cat. . .