A journal of TMI

Latest

Fire on my street

I heard the horns blare as they’ve seemed to

four times a day

but this time

slow to a halt and rumble

outside

three overlapping jurisdictions

ambling about

fire logic predominates

different assets, different trucks

twenty, thirty engines, cruisers?

spanning a quarter mile?

One small house steaming smoking

up the night

another battalion assembles

flips open the side rack

particular axes, specialized pry bars

hanging

grasped

the sub-normals of the neighborhood

gawk

a few of us about

Nothing much happening

the street is shut down

a major artery

but a time of day

not many notice or care

about three guys

doing the actual work

no one seems hurt

just another slow change

rupturing

our street

Get off my lawn because Rock is Dead

I bought my first three records in 1977 and due to the genius of the medium, spent a lot of time pondering the album art. ‘Art’ is the correct term here, though the designs were intended to be mass-produced, to break the confines of institutional settings such as a museum or gallery. However, there is nothing about any proper work of art, such as a Picasso or Rembrandt, that would make it unsuitable to be reproduced in this way, as album art, nor is there anything about the nature of album art that demands that it conform to any of the formal, aesthetic, or theoretic demands of the art world, the museum, or the gallery. Specific album art can be said to be ‘bad’ or a failure of some sort, but it never really is- by virtue of existing it creates meaning about itself, and thus succeeds in its function of providing visual clues to the larger enterprise that is being presented. One of the albums I purchased (Fleetwood Mac) featured on its cover an enigmatic ensemble, a man with high boots and a cane nearly in silhouette drinking what might be a flute of champagne with a flourish. A man beside him noticeably impersonates a midget, while juggling a mysterious ball, (or the ball is hovering above him while he makes some strange gesture), the both of them framed by a door that is unfixed to any wall, but remains a portal nonetheless. Although I am about to offer an interpretation of what this might mean, the mysteriousness of the image (its cheesiness notwithstanding, and in harmony with the times), the deliberate evocation of mystery that it presented made it the perfect object of study while one listened to the songs as they played on one’s phonograph. It was a head-scratcher, as was all the best album art, but really, as I intend to argue, thus it was without nearly trying, though here and elsewhere are examples of trying very hard indeed. That is, any image associated with a rock band invites interpretive contemplation, regardless of what the image actually is, by its very nature of being attached to something larger than itself. Of course in the end everything is attached to everything and we do indeed find meaning by following these lines, but in this case I am referring to the very limited constellation in rock that is image/sound/lyric/performance and other sources of information that create meaning for the participants. The collapse of album art in its finest formats, the cardboard vinyl album cover, and the paper 7” sleeve, did not end rock music (and other popular genres that used them), but it destabilized it greatly. Bands still could, as always, write songs, sing and play them, and present many different types of performances and images, but the end result is somehow different, a scramble to find that fleeting, but stable, (stable as a thing in itself, though obviously not stable as a trend) mirage that is/was meaningful popular music.

This seems almost a silly claim. Album art, specifically as it existed as part of the product of vinyl production, was an undeniable joy of the experience of following the artists whose work became thus manifest, but is it an essential aspect in enjoying music? That was one way of doing things, and other ways preceded it, accompanied it, and others that could emerge will equal, perhaps one day surpass that peak. Dancing, for example, being an eternal example of a true way to approach music. The cracked and scratched jewel-case didn’t quite match the vinyl era of album presentation, no. And a scratched record is usually far more usable than a scratched cd, but these are trivial debates, because after all… it’s the music that counts, right? Well yes and no; yes there are plenty of trivial debates to get immersed in while on this subject, and yes, music is more essential to a music group than any specific form of packaging, but rock and other popular formats are about more than just music – there is always a constellation of information and meaning to be had, whatever the particulars- this constellation is essential to the final communication of any artist. To simply hear a song, say on the radio, and then never find out any other information about what it is, where it came from – this is the essence of an incomplete act. The music must be distinct, it must be pertinent, and to be pertinent it is essential that rock music go beyond just music to find its full expression. To fully express itself rock music must call on the powers of its true nature, and if this true nature were to be revealed we would see that rock music is in fact theater, and that all rock bands are in fact theater troupes.

Let’s go back to the image on Fleetwood Mac’s 10th album, their second eponymous album, often called by fans the white album. As I said above, the image seems self-consciously mysterious and is intended to be a head-scratcher, resistant to interpretation. Saying so however moves it down the road towards interpretation, but I believe it’s quite easy to push it further. The doorframe liberated from everyday use makes two things of itself, it as at once both a prop, and an abstract portal, that is to say, a theatrical stage device. The poses of the two figures are both dramatic, each a caricature, thus comic, and yet severe (a shortened man, a man in command) thus tragic. They span low and high, aristocratic and plebeian. The two men are in fact representations of the masks of drama and the whole image is an evocation of the theater in its most classic sense, the roots of which we will explore further. Which, being one album cover, doesn’t prove anything, but proof is not the issue – it fits, and there is more to look at, so let’s continue.

How is rock (and other forms of musical entertainment) theater? What is theater? Well, the question posed as such uses the word, ‘theater’, meaning a building. Not just any building of course but a building devoted to a certain use, and it is the intention where the meaning really lies, as a theater can be outdoors as well. Having a building is not really the point at all, but relevant in that having a space is what is needed, a space for a certain kind of action to take place. Action is an appropriate description, in that action, or doing, is the root word in Greek behind the word drama. The doers are the actors, and the action is a drama, and the drama is the performance that is viewed in a theater. The theater can be an actual building devoted to performance, or it could be an outside area. The area (inside or outside) could be furnished for performances, or it could be completely impromptu, provided the local conditions are amenable to a performance taking place. Adverse conditions outside could be an unfriendly beat cop, unwelcoming local merchants, hecklers of any stripe, or a hail storm- and any of these could be temporary and thus overcome, inside, the same could be said, that there are hazards and obstructions that could be overcome – what is really at stake is security (some kind of outer boundary, just as a dreamer must have a safe space for her body to sleep) and thus the resulting freedom to perform within (for the dreamer to dream, and the performance to be viewed). Now, in actuality safe, the performance must challenge that again, and put the audience on edge somehow. Assured, the audience sits in terror at what might take place, or is taking place. The world, being an incredibly open stage, invites us to be players. Play being another apt synonym for what takes place in the theater (plays).

 
And people play in bands and these bands play in theaters and in auditoriums, and in amphitheaters, and in garages as well, but always on a stage, well not always, but when there is no actual stage one is approximated somehow, by placing the band in a viewable position, or by crowding around them. But does this make rock the same as Death of a Salesman? Clearly if they are both forms of theater they are different forms, but there has always been room for different forms of theater.

Rock makes its home in the theater but is playing rock music akin to acting? Yes it is, it’s really inescapable. One cannot mount the stage to play and credibly deny that one is making a theatrical performance. Many have understood this principle and taken it to its logical outcome and yet there have been efforts at many times to deny this and instead promote an ethos of authenticity. Well I hate to break it to the earnest but it’s not necessary to wear a feather boa, or Shakespeare pumpkin pantaloons to be a performer. Wearing your work clothes, or your street clothes on the stage results in a performance of working class values, or of street cred, or whatever other form of authenticity one is touting. Some go the other way, and wear their theatrical clothes in everyday life – like the ‘every day is Halloween’ crowd. Many a rocker gets lost in these roles and never quite know whether they are on the stage, or on their way to the post office or supermarket and so wear their pajamas at either. And despite the brain fart that may or may not have taken place, I am not saying that these resulting performances are illogical, (or flawed) or in any way necessarily ridiculous, no, they are natural. I am merely pointing out that appearance has become part of the drama, and that all aspects of presentation are a performance that must be taken as theater. I myself have many favorites (bands or even genres) that have played and presented themselves as plain-dressed, and I think their choices worked. But let’s not insist that Bryan Ferry (whose father was a farm laborer) wear Dickies overalls, or wish that Alice Cooper (whose album, Love it to Death is a perfect example of a way of writing rock as theater) had not worn eye make-up. In some ways this plain-clothes guideline in rock is just a puritan indulgence by white guys who are also too dignified to dance. And it never escapes being theater.

To be clear, I am not saying (though one could) that every person who is clothed is wearing a costume or is somehow making a statement by the clothes that they have chosen, but only that – once one mounts a stage – such choices are naturally read by the viewers. As is the choice to be unclothed or partially clothed. And viewing, whether it be viewing cardboard album art, or a live performance, or an MTV video clip, is an essential aspect of the theater of rock.

Rock perhaps is not visual to the blind, and let’s also consider the act of listening to music in the dark. Although I’ve never spoken to a blind person about music, neither a person blind from birth, nor someone who has seen, and then lost their sight, I’ve put on headphones in bed, or simply had a song in mind, powerfully performing itself. I’m sure someone can tell me whether this is the same for all of us, that an inner vision takes over, which can be abstract or distinct (and is more so, either way, the more drugs one takes). Is it a stretch to say that with music, the blind (or those with their eyes closed) see? Let us ask Blind Lemon Jefferson, Ray Charles, and Stevie Wonder. (And why are there no blind white rockers?)

When a rocker mounts the stage, and is viewed, he or she is playing a role. This is why any serious critic of rock must acknowledge David Bowie as one of the avowed masters of rock, whose distance from and yet complete embodiment of the personae he created completely fulfilled the potential within the form. But not everyone has to be David Bowie to do something that matters (within rock). The stage is wide open for a range of expression that our description should not limit.
And rock must not allow itself to become too self-important, it goes against the whole point of it somehow. This principle is part of the struggle of why rock cannot fully accept that it is theater. Theater is something that can be seen as being pretentious, like Poetry (as it is regarded in America all too often – see discussion below), and must be torn down, whereas theater is in fact a mass form of entertainment (let’s not forget vaudeville) that arose out of rural festivals that celebrated wine, a goat-god, and featured parades of penis statues, among other things. We can’t describe it completely because it all occurred at the horizon of civilization and even then arose out of a purposefully mysterious setting, what we call the mystery religions, but the outlines and visible aspects are well studied and known. Orpheus, Dionysus, Krishna, Shiva – these were the first rock stars.

And let’s just agree that rockers don’t really need to know about history, or understand theater, or really have a professed theory of anything to succeed in their craft. They just need some kind of sense that comes from within that drives them, as well as a connection to their times. But having zero sense of drama- that is definitely not a formula for rock.

But why bring this up? Because one day I looked around me and noticed that rock is dead. Pan is dead! I declared, the only god that ever died. Who knows, maybe epic tragic death is part of what makes rock. And probably, along with it, the potential for rebirth.

The first time that I witnessed rock die (but not the first time overall that it died) Punk killed it, thankfully many would say. Many of these killers of rock however were self-consciously rock revivalists, like the Ramones, who even dressed like Sha Na Na. When my cohort (a smaller set than my generation, to be sure) came of age and could freely associate beyond the structures of our childhood, we were fully steeped in rock but only drove the knife in deeper by giving ourselves up to music that seemed more punk than punk, a music that was barely music (which is another way of pointing out that this is all theater) but theater or not, rock and its sub-currents exist as social movements, or they are nothing.

Social movements are forces that either buttress social order or threaten to upend it – rock is caught in a crux where it begins as a natural, unruly force that then gets tamed and sacrificed, its spilt blood now useful as a consecration of the status quo. Think of how rock anthems are constantly being adopted by presidential campaigns, to the perennial complaint of the aged rockers who penned them.

Think of the baby boomers.

I was, like any true rock fan(atic), an adherent, a partisan, which meant that a performance by a band sacred to us was a call to arms, an alert for all hands to be on deck, and after hearing the word passed along by network, one must be there if at all possible. The music itself was at first (due to the ethos that had developed as a strand out of punk, and become hardcore punk) not intended to be beautiful, rather it was a chant of togetherness, and of repulsion to those who would be outside of it- it was a fight song, a would-be war song. But it was music, and eventually the desire that it be beautiful crept in (which at first seemed a validation- that we were right to be the way we were – as we possessed the beautiful, disguised though it was in the disapproval we wore as a mantle). This desire for, and realization of beauty, itself killed hardcore punk, an experimental avatar of rock theater destined to be short-lived, but crucial in its creation of networks of distribution and nodes of production. Faced with this- as we more and more accepted that we were part of rock, we could not help but to make a transmission of our culture into the wider environment (Nirvana et al and the dawn of post-punk which when conceived as mere product was marketed as ‘alternative music’). In fact this was not a process that started here and ended there but was part of a drama that had always taken place, each time a band formed, each time a song was written or rehearsed, and then became a thing in itself, something that others hummed to themselves, or sang aloud.

This private to public transmission was perhaps first set up by the mystery religions with their theater of initiation that transformed into the widespread public affairs that were the Tragedy competitions during the festivals of Dionysus oh so many years ago. But I don’t mean to harp on Greece – this example of theater, though it is integral to Western culture, out of which rock sprang, is just an example. Let us not forget Africa, the other true parent of rock, or Asia, or any other part of the world where rock, or any form of meaningful popular music (hip-hop e.g.) may spread to or come from. All human habitudes are brimming with drama and theatrical traditions.

I began a form of participation in this theater of hardcore when 14 or 15 and then more, when I could drive to the nearby cities (D.C. and Baltimore) and watched my private club (a floating roster of meeting halls) open its doors and swell with the hoi polloi, in fact, I was the hoi polloi, not an original club member at all, but an -nth wave gate crasher. The club (again, a loose association, an identity, an unfixed location) was composed of people like myself, it addressed itself directly to our sensibilities, welcomed us on stage (to scream lyrics, and then stage-dive), and had an ethos of minimal security other than the fighting that took place in the pits (more than 90% of the violence was theatrical, though occasionally it wasn’t). It was only natural that the disaffected youth of America, whose numbers go beyond any count that I can make, would take to it, and form the -nth ++ wave, the tsunami, only it didn’t sit quite right after it was over. In fact, hardcore never went big, but was the seed that split and grew from a sprout into something else. Was this a victory? For many it was.

The final inevitability that any subculture may be appropriated and thus neutered of its revolutionary potential – the notion that this can take place sets up a few questions about what this people’s music is, and how it may best be deployed, performed, or enjoyed. We’ve been speaking mostly about rock, (and then hardcore) but all of this is just as true for hip-hop, soul, pop, any popular genre, even of course any genre known in short-hand as ‘rock’. (glam, metal, punk, prog).

But what do we mean by ‘revolutionary’. It’s hard to limit this if we are planted within rock – as it is decided on by the participants. We can say that this begins as an exercise in imagination. Does it end there as well? Can rock finally be a revolutionary act in the political sense (where theory of revolution is much more codified), or is there an absolute demarcation between the world of rock and the world of politics?

Politics and the political realm are difficult to demarcate, people are bound to say things like ‘everything is political’ and just as likely to deny that anything in particular is. There are some areas that clearly are politics proper, such as a parliament, or the arena of diplomatic negotiations, but even within these there are activities that cross over larger categories, for example the performance of oratory, the realm both of the actor and the statesman (and who can tell the difference some would say). The aesthetics, the soaring language of a speech could win the day on an important vote, as could a well-designed and branded political campaign win an election. The arts thus play a crucial role in politics but the default understanding of rock is that it is against all this, or not a part of it, or something… Is rock in opposition to the political realm itself, or does it simply function as opposition politics, holding within it the aspiration to nurture a nascent golden age (or other imaginary world-that-is-not-this-world)?

The birth of the political within rock took place in the birth of (yes) theater. Before theater – there was the storyteller who told the lore of the group- all meaning was continuous from the past. Then our first modern setting arose and theater (the division of the storyteller into actors and chorus) stepped up to address the complexity (the complexity of democracy for example). Theater, as Greek Tragedy, discussed issues facing the populace, the rulers et al, riveting the audience and providing catharsis, the cleansing of emotions. The issues may have been disguised as the mythical past but they were felt as an immediate presence.

Rock, like theater, is a human affair, concerned with politics, concerned with love, hunger, death, concerned with any human concern, but like theater its action cannot be said to be practical. Actors, artists, rockers, all need to get paid, all need to eat, but their acts as artists are not practical, rather they are inherently abstract. A songwriter may be drenched with practical, political concerns but what comes of it? A song, a song drenched in whatever it is drenched in. Something an accountant, a lawyer, a politician does in reverse, taking abstract concepts such as numbers and laws and making them practical.

And yet this theatrical churning of all and any issue does cause agitation, that currency that amounts to a check the ruled can accumulate and unleash upon the rulers. The politician proper pricks up his ears when he hears the sound of agitation – be he king or freshman councilor. Whether this sound be signal or noise – of concern or trivial – can all be discovered by the well-tuned political ear.

Let’s look at agitation on boil – riots- this is a political realm wide open to adherents of the arts. Spectators riot, either in support of or against the work (see Black Flag and Igor Stravinsky for former and latter) the police can show up and riot (see Black Flag again; or the earlier Sunset Strip riots beginning in 1966. In So Cal bands and their fans have often been taken to be gangs by the police, an assessment not wide of the mark). Riots speak the language both of social upheaval and counter-repression (see Kent State). Such actual riots are rare, but the sensation that they will erupt is not – to a conservative, the mere appearance of a rock partisan is a riot (until the boomers took power at least). Behold the rocker, doing what? Raising a freak flag – what ho! An army arises behind the rocker – the rocker reads off a list of demands, articulates a political platform – how often does this actually happen? Maybe there was a time but even then, as now, the power was in the fact that it seemed to be happening (because it was theater) and not in any actual practical threat. Some say the psychedelic music scene ended the Vietnam War, though if you go back and look at the dates, the Summer of Love was in 1967, the Woodstock Music and Art Fair was in 1969, and the withdrawal from Saigon was in 1975. Although the debate over whether organized protest drove or effected this political decision cannot be resolved by asking whether 6 or 8 years is a long time, or a short time – (it’s a long time when bombs are dropping) -, it is clear that the combined theater of dissent, based on the foundation of the music scene, created a lot of drama – a LOT of Drama – according to its natural ability – its ability as an offshoot of the theater.

There is a lot of flag waving in rock, even allegiances to militias, at times. It is hardly unheard of e.g. the Crips/Bloods, IRA, FSLN, and LTTE all have been referenced and/or paid allegiance to by well-known performers. Also, consider the ‘Southern Man’ tiff between Neil Young and Lynyrd Skynyrd (the band and their fans both being exemplars of Confederate battle flag rituals, and thankfully taken to task for it, at least on this occasion). Rockers are prone to political arguments, however, that could be said of anyone, of Everyman, but in the end they are not legislators, or law enforcement, or generals or politicians of any stripe (other than that of the cultural diplomat, e.g. Bono, with Václav Havel fulfilling some other kind of archetype) -unless they effectively retire themselves as rockers. Admittedly, this is a description of a world that is intertwined, and some may find it unnecessary or unconvincing to pull apart the threads, but let’s look at what is at stake. What do you want? To be political with your art or music, but without being theatrical? This is just not possible. Do you want instead to have theater and art that is not political – at all? Go ahead and try- that’s an entirely different discussion, as it would be to imagine the world of politics without any art, stripped bare. In the end probably none of these propositions are possible. Popular concerns, musical subjects, theatrical performances, and political actions are all in a perennial interaction with each other.

And let’s remember, there are large-scale politics and there are everyday politics and/or the politics of matters that may not be headline news but nonetheless are all-important. Rock has lost the ability to comment on large issues, so it redeems itself by patrolling the everyday, and providing a report, as if it were a poet. Rock lyrics are of course a form of poetry (as are song titles, album titles, band names – it’s all a poetic literature), that form necessitating they be but one component of a larger piece that matches the weight of a real poem, the total music and performance of a song being on par with a poem. The rocker can fulfill the figure of the poet quite easily; the strange hat or bold hair, the cape or cane or boots, and most importantly, the wild look in the eyes. Of course not every poet fulfills the profile of a brigand or pirate, nor does every rocker, but they are both required to make up for it in some way, or be irrelevant. To appear as a poet, rockers allow their theater troupe – the band – to fade into the background and their efforts then are presented as a singular voice. They become a unit of one, the solo artist, even though they can be unpacked by the astute ear and eye to be the ensemble that they actually are – it is all just a presentation, whereas a real poet actually is just one, and provides her own music and beat in the bargain. Even the rocker who stands alone on the stage in fact is not alone, and at least invites his arms (to play the guitar), and can then go a step or more further, and accompany himself on harmonica while singing, or tap his heel – he may appear to be a poet but he is not a true poet; rather he is a one-man band. Bob Dylan is exactly not a true poet – he is a rocker that produces material that serves the function of poetry, and is on par with it, and why not? This is a good thing.

Poetry is words that are organized in a way that the mind can draw from them some meaning – rock lyrics are often howled or mumbled and cannot be understood immediately. We stretch our minds to accommodate this – it’s all part of the fun (‘Excuse me while I kiss this guy’). Poetry uses music to create emphasis, and rock uses words to create music – music being inevitably more abstract than language. Music is a language, a language without words, and when words become unintelligible, they remain as sound.

Poets are said to be held in high regard (in many cultures) outside America whereas in America, until you arrive in a poetry scene or unless you just happen to travel in educated circles, poetry is mostly just (when it is thought of at all) considered to be reserved for effete faggots. And of course there are homosexual poets and poetry readers, some of the best poets are gay (Sappho, Oscar Wilde, James Merrill, and who knows how many others), the same could be said of rockers (Freddy Mercury, Rob Halford, Darby Crash, Morrissey, and so on, with the female sexual preference perspective being too complex to even address, a status that can go beyond static descriptions and instead be a spectrum of movement), but this epithet ‘faggot’ comes almost exclusively out of the mouths of adolescent males (and their uncles and coaches) who ironically tend to, and are in many cases, pledged to only keep the company of other males, whether they be hooligans or football players (or some hybrid). To them poetry is for faggots, a guy that has a girlfriend is a faggot, everything they don’t understand is faggotry, that is to say – all this only says something about the culture the accuser is defending, and not much about poetry – other than that it is threatening. Rockers again take their place as poets by brawling in the high school lunchroom with such bullies, because there are few of the other kind of poet to take the heat, and who would recognize one in any case.

But rock is dead, as I was saying, although it is evolving and growing. As an undead phenomenon. Some random observations: The School of Rock movement for kids undoubtedly yields moving performances and maybe hordes of actual artists will emerge from it down the line. Rock also is now delivering education and entertainment geared specifically to kids, by performing children’s music that is at the same time rock. This is happening on the show Yo Gabba Gabba (if you haven’t seen it – it seems specifically geared to couples who watched Pee-Wee’s playhouse, and never thought Paul Reubens committed an actual crime anyway- rather a faux-pas, and now suddenly find themselves raising kids and are seeking to enjoy the experience for all it’s worth). Also, a lot of children’s music is being produced out of solid hipster families, rockers taking an active role in raising their kids and seeking to unapologetically reproduce what they see as the best of their values. And moving on from children, rock has aged and aging rockers are still touring, and just playing and enjoying themselves, from the Feelies to some surprisingly non-extinct rock dinosaurs. But if you’re not a kid or a senior citizen it’s harder and harder to believe that anything is really happening in rock – the rather large exception being the people who perform and go to shows, largely confined to urban areas in the subcultural domain of rock clubs, or the smaller realm of the more guarded and mysterious underground warehouse parties (I’m speaking more of the noise and experimental scene than raves). These folks believe rock is alive (even if they call it by a more preferred name), or rather they understand that it is dying and has always been dying. This is just part of the drama of it all. When I say rock is dead I am not talking about you or your mates, or your granddad/mom, granddaughter/son, you guys are doing good work. Of course (a large) part of what I am saying is that I have just lost touch with everything. But it’s too easy to do, and when I do look around, it seems that nothing is happening that isn’t some splintered, isolated, community-based lodge-meeting (which – in itself, is not necessarily a bad thing – it can be everything if the spice and cooking is right, but it can be downright boring for those not seeking membership). Rock is in a phase of being ever more cryptic – in fear of being captured it speaks secret, natural languages, and has retreated into a thicket. At the same time it must market itself, brand itself, and perform all the functions that capitalism used to do for it. Rock has seized the means of rock production via the computer and all the robotic tasks that wonderful machine is capable of, and now become professionalized, and thus slick and uninteresting. Which is a drag for the local working class, who are reduced to following defunct jam bands, and for critics, who are too tired to get further than the turntable out of range of their couch or easy chair or stool (or rough bench even) when listening to music, but who can kill it every once in a while with the wax on the dance floor. After this rather transparent self-portrait (the critic with the phonograph, not the jam-band devotee) I have little else to say other than a few more observations:

It’s always nice to see a nearly forgotten or even unknown rock song come alive in full form in a film segment, as cinema (and disheartening when this is blundered e.g. the totally weak use of Black Sabbath’s Iron Man by Jon Favreau during the Iron Man film credits).

T.V., never shy of being sensational, should commit itself more (at least ONE show) to showcasing outré rock and hip-hop acts doing a truncated performance as an aside during a sit-com or other suitable format. I am thinking of how exciting it was to see Motörhead as well as the Damned and others on BBC2’s classic anarchic sit-com ‘The Young Ones’. Pro-tip to the producer reading this – the music doesn’t have to be this sure-fire classic, curate it more as a magazine of ‘what’s happening’ – people are always interested in that. Let me be clear – this has to showcase music that has a small, but devoted following. Don’t mess with successful acts as neither of you have time for each other and in any case would be sure to be tremendously boring. Remember, not-yet successful acts who have already proven themselves to their local followers are incredibly interesting, at least in a passing way, and a showcase can profit from the aggregate spectacle. This formula worked for American Bandstand, Soul Train, MTV, and many Late-Night TV shows like Saturday Night Live or David Letterman. Since the beginning, rockers have had countless cameos in sit-coms and movies but, with a few exceptions, these have all been scattered and irregular. It needs to be done more methodically, by having a quick band segment on every episode that the ensemble bops to.

The puerility of a show like American Idol could be relieved by merely focusing on good, original music, music not made by pliant absolute amateurs, but rather by practiced groups who have just outgrown their first petri dish. Instead of a show displaying the insidious effect of capitalism on people’s artistic impulses, just let it be a Battle of the Bands revue. The attempt to create music as commercial product may not be overcome by this suggestion (also, I don’t really watch T.V., but could always start), but having a visually dramatic competition open to new contestants is not a bad idea for reviving rock music – this is how drama was originally done.

I saw it coming

About two days ago

On Sunday or Monday, I forget which

Or between them, at midnight

I lay in bed

I thought: Here we go again

Poised on the brink of utter violence

We’re all waiting for it

The whole country knows

Where it will happen

It will explode at a rally

And crush someone’s body

Someone’s son or daughter

Lost in mad bloodlust

Denigrated and hastily dismissed

Too soon

By gears turned malignly

Not without thought

But without precision or care

A battle in a coliseum

I foresaw this spectacle

I used no talent in this

Only sleep – lost hours of sleep

Today though

I felt a lull, really felt it

I looked around

Spring is pushing up

The flowers

Hungry though they are for the mulch

Of all living things

Chilly winds and sunshine mingle

Pleasant warmth with brisk tones

One could jaunt about

But me? Well…

I need a nap after all the tossing and turning

Have we paused in our course?

Dark circles round my eyes

Has the specter of death shaken us?

I drank too much tea yesterday

Have wise leaders stepped in?

I should drink more water

Who will form the next comment; the au courant critique?

Tonight wine will sooth me

It’s hardly the collapse of certainty

That dark forces have sprung up to take their opportunity

I’ve been waiting for this since I noticed the life political

What people call “my whole life”

But I had a life before that

A secret mystery of a life

I was happy and swam and ran

Now it’s my time to play the adult game

Of serious business and arrangements that hold

I can accept that

But what game we are playing?

It’s certainly familiar

Perhaps because

It stinks of the cruelty of children

The ones who weren’t happy

To be free and have the freedom of delight

And play

We all began drawing muddy pictures

But this is a food fight

A shit smear

A time-out in the Chinese Algebra test

A nightmare

And I saw it coming

From two days ago

Or since day one

Such a small comfort

Such a tidy pleasant lull

 

My dream of the river city of museums and trees

My dream of the river city of museums and trees,

of marble and barges – was it a necropolis, a funeral city of a queen?

The ghost shells of houses abandoned in woods

haunted by memories and crystalized bric-a-brac

dotting the woods surrounding small towns

A city likewise with abandoned houses- now that’s a shame

the central district, wiped clean for procession

No one can live there, a wandering fox’s ear perks if he hears, sees something

just over caution and reflex, nothing is there

If one wins a battle with the city, they fold and then fête you

Present you with the key – the people throw themselves at you

Differently then a battle, but

God save us from a mob, from the local team winning

Do you join them in turning over police cars? The people unleashed,

You should run and hide, or join them

You can’t just watch – unless it’s actually a parade

presenting the key – then it’s all good

So the barge sailed on the main canal

Classical antiquity laid over the present

One and the same

A ritual of community

purity and purpose

but also stark, lifeless

scanning and finding no one,

except you – you were there with me

of course

on the barge

Everything else was empty

So unlike the pub-ridden alleys of my initiation into decadence

I sneered then like an odd farm boy

to shame the sodomites

but there I was, ordering a drink

with the rest of them

unsure about the vision sent to soothe

of the frolic of lasses and lads bucolic

the hazy fantasy of real companions

clumsy, another alive, unlike the locked water closet

with soap and musty towels

None of this was but a moment’s assurance

But still, it was a rough refuge

We were hardly in a natural state back then

of nudity

blanketed instead by leather and boots

black underwear for the ladies

black shirts for the guys

to remind us where we came

from

Satan’s outhouse

and could be dragged back to

My heart was possessed by the demon of Arcadia

Was I a mere man of the crowd?

I learned to get what I asked for, but it was never what I expected

I didn’t expect nomadic camps of workers, overalls, motels, whiskey

I didn’t ever expect to join a team of men

I only wanted to draw on my best activities

I wanted the total experience

there are always ruins out buried beneath the vines

there are always those hiding from judgment

To be condemned by the crowd however

became a mere fad among the morons,

unwelcome cousins

bent on foul acts

I prefer these sleek, polished canals

built with a cosmopolitan sensibility

the monumental, empty city of polished stones

And you on the barge, your voice behind me

though I can no longer discern your language

and the city devoted to the sun

beyond this place that I dreamed of

with particles imported from what I have seen

its slums endure

the particular placement of its paths

and avenues

and canals

do not

 

 

 

Why I go to California

I’ve tried to move to California many times

Something about that place

Speaks to me

The ugliness of modern life

Can be found most anywhere

And this is no exception

So when in California I ponder it or

Squint my eyes to screen it out

Focus on the beauty instead

The banality doesn’t dissuade me, nor the horror

Los Angeles doesn’t rebuff me

With its whole ‘natural’ thing, nor its freeways and ‘car-be-cues’

It is urban after all, yes

More like 100 cities

Crammed into a valley

But it’s surrounded by mountains

And the sea

Even the worst neighborhoods have that

Can remember that

I don’t figure into it though

Los Angeles doesn’t focus on me

It’s fair to say

It barely notices me

Which is part of the problem

Why I haven’t stuck yet

And part of why I go there

I have no real reason to be there

(Unless love of the sea is a reason, or seaweed, or film)

No job in California to say

‘You have to be here on Monday

And take care of this’

No-

On Monday I’ll be elsewhere

Doing other things

Good things worth doing

Just this year I realized

That if I had insisted to go there

When I was shoved out the door

And told ‘Go anywhere (that has a university) and do well – do your best’

I would have done better in California

Instead

I went to Chicago

So cold

So morbid

(For me it was – I became the living dead – the outpatient; I was cut up and tested)

This wouldn’t have happened by the sea, near the mountains

A bitter northern lake was the perfect setting for that

The problems I brought there would have dispersed

On the beach or the crest

Of a canyon hike

I think those that loved me

Wanted to keep me closer

While pushing me away

But either way meant boarding an airplane

To get home in a few hours

So what was the big deal?

They said ‘No’

And I needed to get away

Not take the greyhound for a secret weekend in Baltimore (which was too close – a mere 700 miles)

Indulging my white-faced passion

For a friend that literally stabbed me

Suffering from the drama of abandonment

Which was the opposite of what was taking place

I had a friend from California at the time

Who was sleeping with this friend in Baltimore

I could have taken his place (as he did mine)

In his home state

A swap negotiation that would have meant freedom

For me

He was from Ramona

‘Which is nowhere – up in the desert hills of San Diego’

Once much later on one of my trips to California

(This time the excuse was a conference)

I was invited to spend an afternoon there

By a buddy I had made – he was a paramedic – we said hi to his father,

and went to the Barona reservation casino for dinner with him

He ate standing up at a counter

It might have been a corn dog

Did we go up there for dinner? Was that the overt reason?

I left hungry but got what I came for-

to walk through an average neighborhood, probably past the former house of an old friend

who I’d dreamt of pounding to death with my fists

And seen

That it was just a place

A nowhere place up in the high desert

Not without beauty

A guy sawing plywood in his driveway

Desert scrub invaded by wan suburbs

I haven’t been to the far north of California, but I’ve driven around

More than just a few spots

Tried different environments

As I pretended

That I had the power

To be there

The place where I hadn’t wadded up a bunch of chances like tissues

And infected them with snot-like cancer

I can’t decide which is more beautiful

The Pacific shaped rocks on a pebble strewn beach

Or the sound they make as the water washes through them

To climb once again into the powerful surf

The flora / the fauna , of course attenuated by the clumsy violent history of our people

Who cleared it, settled it, made it what it is today

A collection of bad architecture, simple rotten boxes or gaudy faux appropriations

Some masterpieces

Like the Getty museum

Which could pass for the aerie

Of robed Vulcan hidden masters

Or the cottages on the Venice canals

Whose simple gardens invite

Elegant solutions

But most of the housing stock and interior design- hideous

I of course say this as an ambivalent alienated wanderer

Leering from the outside

A home is a home though

A design scheme or simplicity can make it work

I’ve seen it happen

What’s so great about a brick row house in Philadelphia by the way?

Or a restored farmhouse in Maryland?

Except that that’s what I grew up with

I screen out whatever ugliness is there effortlessly

Which as I said I can do in California

Sometimes this is as easy as gazing

Over a rich buffoon’s golf course

On the edge of a bluff

To see the mists of Catalina catch the light

Ever so enchantingly

I said goodbye to that today

My life set on the path where I’m not quite there yet

And I could have done better

But that’s just mist that will burn off

In an hour’s time

Or grow into fog

Or wed itself to pollution

And become smog

And the whole thing will fall into the ocean

One day (soon)

While bursting into flames

The ocean, however

Will remain

And I’ll take a boat to get there

If I have to

and return again

Looking for a place

Somewhere to start

A lease on a clean and focused heart

Thinking about my death today

My death will probably approach with bloody fever/ impossible chills
And stab me in the lungs with a rasping cough

Or retch – a convulsion either way

That ruptures suddenly what was already unraveling

The truth is I have a mild cold and

The insight from this – provided by

Over the counter medications

That don’t reveal whether they have helped

Or not

Shows me how it all will end

Without recourse

Or devices

It’s inevitable

But I want one thing

Give me this

I want more of course

All that can wait

This must come first

Give me this (I demand it)

One second

Of understanding

Of my mother, my father

The people I have loved (rightly or wrongly)

Let me understand my son, my wife

My siblings

My friends

Everything I have seen and done 

Just as the brain explodes

With the knowledge that it’s over 

I want to go: 

Ah – that’s what it was all about!

But give no priority to my pet mental projects

I’ve worked hard enough on them

They will fall into place on their own

Not before the next time I sneeze

To be sure

But maybe before I die – and if they wait until then 

Then they can wait until the last portion of the last second of understanding

Or be damned into unconsciousness. 

Thoughts on the murders at Charlie Hebdo

I myself am an off and on cartoonist, what developed from doodling in class combined with other interests. In college at the University of Chicago I was the editor and a contributor for two issues of Breakdown Magazine, an anthology of cartoons (mostly) by students. The second issue that I edited especially was controversial and resulted in the magazine being defunded by the student government. One day when I was hawking the magazine in front of one of the largest buildings for classes, a foreign professor was assassinated in a restroom of the Divinity school building, the building that was to my back. It was quietly done and covered up, if you missed the hour of yellow tape and the A3 article in the Chicago Tribune, you might have never known. It remains a relatively unknown case, and an unsolved one, even though since then a book has been written about it. The connection to this recent event is minimal I suppose, just a personal coincidence linking controversial drawings and writings and a violent end. I suppose I tell the story because I think it is important to see this type of violence as part of the overspill of war. In this case, the most likely thing that happened was that the professor was made an example in his exile community for criticizing the results of a recent revolution by writing columns in an expatriate newspaper based in New York and was thus targeted and murdered by still powerful secret police.

I was politically positioned in the sense that I was opposed to the Persian Gulf War that had just taken place (this was 1991) and part of my aim in editing a deliberately controversial publication was to shake up complacent acceptance of the status quo. As a large goal this was an abject failure. Whatever eddies were stirred, weren’t on the level of the wide-eyed professor, or of Charlie Hebdo.

There’s been a lot of interesting discussion regarding the actual position of the Charlie Hebdo satire, who they were punching at and in what context. Some of it is quite incisive and interesting and some belongs to the obtuse and blowhards. To that mix, I’d like to add my own thought experiment, deliberately absurd. What if this all took place in a time-machine and the gunmen were French resistance fighters and the journalists in question were actual Nazi propagandists in their weekly meeting with Joseph Goebbels?

Sorry, that was stupid.

Just to be clear though, I don’t mean this as a comparison, please give me that much credit, comparing anyone to a Nazi is an overused and often lazy tactic. Yes the Nazis had cartoonists that depicted those they deemed untermenschen or worse, (click if you dare) and yes I saw someone on the internet call the dead French cartoonists Nazis, but the point is that if we imagine a massacre, an attack on civilians as a strategic act of war, and valorize one side, suddenly it resembles something that happens nearly everyday in the hell zones that we as humans have created. It’s a shocking bit of blowback for Western democracies to absorb right now.

Most everyone is debating the Charlie Hebdo massacre as a free speech issue but this seems circular to me. So Democracy equals free speech and free speech equals democracy; but the killers weren’t debating how things should work in a democracy. They’re not interested in having a democracy. When we get caught up in that question we’re debating ourselves on terms that are not up for debate, as they are aspirational.

This was an attack by Al Qaeda on France. Although France is not supposed to be at war, things are pretty grim now in AQ land, places like Iraq, Syria and Nigeria. There’s supposed to be a membrane separating the civilized world from the hell-zones, but this event represents a puncture in that membrane, a puncture by a bunch of losers who were sick of delivering pizzas.The killers were criminals, and they were AQ (as well as being French citizens), whether they took orders or independently conceived and launched the mission. The fact that they declared themselves to be AQ, invoked the prophet and so on makes many want to discuss and parse religion, which seems a no-brainer but I think is a mistake. These brothers and others before them were religious hacks and lived deeply secular lives before putting on an armband (as it were) for their final act. Religion was just a touchstone in their personal struggle, a web they were caught up in that is in many ways a global political critique of the West, or rather the developed world. The Cold War no longer fits as a backdrop for that critique so if America destabilizes Iraq in a war of adventure, as it did Cambodia in the 1970’s, the nihilistic insurgents clad in black pajamas declare themselves communists, or jihadists, depending on the context of what is most oppositional at the time.

Although I see this as an act of war, I say this without the hot-blooded analysis that declares war, as Bush’s America so readily did after 9-11. Rather it is that war that I am declaring this to be, not a future war, though we can predict we will have those. This war, this Charlie Hebdo war is an extension of the second Iraq war, the war where it was as if Japan invaded Pearl Harbor, so we invaded China because they looked the same to us. To enrich contractors like Halliburton and Brown and Root, the only goal of the Iraq war that was actually achieved. That was a stupid war and the Hebdo war was a stupid war, the Kouachi brothers are not going to stop cartooning any more than the Tsaernav brothers stopped marathons. For that matter, the Khmer Rouge also failed to stop vegetable markets, despite their best efforts.

On the other hand democracy is looking less and less like democracy (if it ever was)(so I guess the terrorists have won)…so what do we do?

First off, let’s recall that Bush’s war, Cheney’s war, America’s war did not slap sense into our perceived enemies, or eliminate them, it only made things worse. The utter sadism and depravity unleashed at Abu Gahraib, and the same sort of acts further revealed by the CIA report only pumped more poison into the situation. Allowing sadists to sate themselves turned out to be bad foreign policy.

Obama’s drone wars have the advantage (when trying to retain the image of a liberal democracy) that the scale of desolation is decidedly of a lower order. But if it were an experiment we would have to conclude that the number of innocents killed has still been above the magic threshold that produces more new enemies than true enemies that it kills. So it fails on its own terms.

Realistically, something war-like and violent must be done in response to such an act, so in such cases this reaction must be channeled into police work, into catching the gunmen, as was done.That’s all that’s needed – we don’t need further wars.

Journalists and other citizens do not always fare well in war-time.

After googling ‘journalists killed 2014’ I was relieved at what seemed to be a low number to me of 61. But still, not an easy job. The word journalist connotes objectivity, at least it is meant to, though at times this seems laughable. But satirists are not quite journalists, nor are they mere propagandists. They report, if they are any good at all, on visceral ideology, and whether they are aware of it or not (the best ones are) they are ideologues of a sort. If the cartoonists at CH were or were not your sort of ideologue then so be it, whether they were French bigots or leftist situationists, they knew what kind of hornet’s nest they were fooling with- not that they wanted to die, who does? But they took their stance and are now martyred for it.

It’s not how things are supposed to go in a liberal democracy but we’re all grown up living in a bigger world than that now.

Reflections on Knausgaard, America, and Great _______ Novels.

I just returned from a second, almost unexpected trip to America this year. An opportunity arose to bring my wife and son there for the first time, and we surprisingly achieved a travel visa for my wife, something we were denied twice already. I was at first reluctant to return, having been there three months prior, but ultimately had to accept it, even though it meant briefly borrowing money from my brother and taking a month off from writing. I love traveling, but there are places I haven’t been yet in the world, and I at times detest my hometown, where we spent much of our time, but this sacrifice was hardly heroic – and I think it was good for everyone, for different reasons.

Sebastian traveled well, slept a lot, and as he does these days, developed nearly every day right in front of our eyes. He did get his first cold, which was worrisome, and in modern style this coincided with a mysterious new (recognized the day his symptoms arrived) respiratory virus that was hospitalizing children in the Midwest. We flew through Chicago, where he caught his cold, judging by the hours that elapsed before his symptoms arrived, so it is possible that he got this bug. But the snot eventually dried up, whether it was a less potent, average cold that he got, or he simply was one of those that handled the new alarming strain well.

America was in a heat wave, which lasted about a week when we arrived early September, during the onset of late summer, which then mellowed into cooler weather that more resembled the approaching fall. By the end of the month as we left trees were still green, but most only 50 – 70% green – yellows and reds were there to see but the crisp glowing orgy of autumn was still a few weeks off. The sun’s power still asserted itself on days when the clouds did not cover it, and my wife cut short a walk we were taking one day with our boy because of the sun, and it being too close to noon. The air was not hot that day, there was a nice breeze, so I complained “But it’s September” and a moment later “This is not Vietnam” but she was right, radiation bathed our fragile heads, beating against our skulls. I don’t remember the sun ever feeling that way when I was a kid, and there are three possible explanations for this, that I, in the mid-Atlantic region in America, didn’t feel irradiated by the sun’s presence when I was a kid because: 1) kids have a protective layer of vitality 2) kids sense things differently, some things they sense more simply, or even thoughtlessly (a kid could get a headache from being in the sun too long but might not even notice it unless they were bored or it was severe enough), (which may just be a mushy way of restating the first point) or 3) climate change has removed layers of protection from the atmosphere, or added pollution, allowing or creating more damaging rays to penetrate to our realm. I think maybe it’s all three but I seriously ran around in the sun all summer when younger without a hat and never felt any caution at all about the sun, and don’t remember napping either. Well, those were the days. I took my wife back to that neighborhood where I had lived thusly and felt transported as always.

We had some fixed events to attend during our allotted time in the U.S., and family members to see, but we had a month, and for some odd reason we didn’t seem to have much free time despite the openness of our schedule. There were many people I would have liked to see and didn’t, or saw only briefly. This time evaporation is a basic mystery of traveling, and for this reason I’ve learned, or tried to learn, to not try to bring a stack of books along with me ‘on vacation’ because the first one usually gets cracked the first evening or morning for about 5 minutes before being slammed shut and the next 2 or however many don’t get cracked at all, but just follow along with their mournful weight. I was able to read most of a good serious novel however, Volume 1 of Karl Ove Knausgaard‘s ‘My Struggle’.Karl Ove, as he is most frequently addressed in the book, recapitulates and comments on his life, in exhaustive detail; this is a memoir, an autobiography, and literature in the mode of À la recherche du temps perdu.

After I finished I allowed myself to read some criticism about him and his works and it seems that the word on Knausgaard, although still positive somehow, is that he largely transcribes banality. I think that this is just self-hate (a term I use here not without some caution) on the part of the critics because they and I and Knausgaard all grew up in the eighties, and if one were to write about that, what else but banality would we have to work with? I was almost hurt by this taunt, having enjoyed the book, and having gone through many of the rituals Knausgaard and so many other’s have, albeit in a slightly different milieu, of beer stashing and smuggling, listening to the beginnings of the new music, and, well, even falling in love when it was impossible and fruitless, and when the girls were, in their own way, more ready than the guys.

I’ve been told before that I’m too hard on myself, but I think I was maybe more a buffoon than he was during the college and immediate post-collegiate years. It’s an odd sort of self-flattery, but basically we were in the same camp then, in that we were awkwardly writers who had written little, if anything. A painful position to hold; one that he’s been able to overcome quite handily.

Without the freedom to actually sit down and write (speaking now just of the recent trip, not vast expanses of my life where this has also been true)(those traveling with 1 year-olds will understand) I found myself mentally composing passages à la Knausgaard, discussing my family life and relationships in exhausting, revealing detail. I’ve tried my hand at this before, not in the same conscious manner of course, before his example arrived, but similarly taking journal and diary and trying to forge literature with that – in a recent attempt at a novel, for example. I felt uneasy telling tales on people so I attenuated the treachery by disguising identities in a basic roman à clef format, also attempting to manipulate key events into a plot. I was shocked that I got through about 3 small bullet points on my outline key before I was well over 100 pages. Of this kind of thinking, 6 volumes are born.

I blathered on, yes, and no one I showed really liked it. The most interesting comment I got was that it seemed kind of like Judy Blume but a little stoned. Was this banality akin to the banality it takes to be mulled over in the New Yorker? If so, hurrah. One critic friend said it fell into the Faulkner side of American writing, a grave error in his estimation. Again, this is an accusation I can live with, that’s for sure, but was this what I was aiming for, and attaining, with my YA level run-on sentences? It’s important to have models in any case; this is standard advice.

For this reason I’ve been casting about for would be peers that I’ve never considered before. I decided to give Franzen another shot, after reading The Corrections last year and recognizing scenarios and things to take note of, so I picked up Freedom in the San Francisco airport. I love that he announces he is trying to write great American novels, something I would have admitted to with a ‘maybe, yes’ in my authorial majesty in high school days (my journal of not great, barely approaching good poems under my belt).

The trouble is, I’m not convinced anymore that there is such a thing (great American writing). Of course there are better writers than myself that are American, great writers, loads of them, both in journalism and in the business of writing novels, criticism or even poetry, its just that I’m starting to doubt that any of the better ones are pursuing this “Great American” thing. Well there’s Franzen, who says he is, but let him have special case status; I don’t care to endorse or dismiss his efforts here, only to say that for me to try to do the same might, as my test case indicated, just reveal my whole juvenile take on the matter, of the supposed greatness resident in this specific place. I’m thinking I might be better off just refashioning my work as genre, and hope it will come out as fusion, a lit sci-fi novel, that can be optioned as a B-movie that’s actually interesting. Astute pop aesthetes will know the example (or hopefully, examples) I’m referring to here.

So Franzen is a contemporary writer waving the G.A.N. (Great American Novel) banner, but what is the indisputable canon of G.A.N.? Well, indisputable, ha ha, but about 4 years ago I reread Catcher in the Rye, there was a nifty four dollar promo for some anniversary and I said “why not?” I have to say, it made me want to puke, and I’m sure On the Road would have a similar effect.

Here I think is part of the explanation for the “Min Kamp” title that Knausgaard dared to use. I tried to just dismiss the whole thing in a recent Facebook post, that there was any intended connection with… you know, that he was merely speaking of his struggle, and I don’t think anyone bought it. At least no one ‘liked’ or commented on it when a similar post about a different writer last year had lit up. It truly sucks that there are Hitler admirers in this world, among them true anti-Semites along with bandwagoners and other brain-addled losers and idiots. Knausgaard is not one of them.

So… Why Name Your Book After Hitler’s? – as Evan Hughes in the New Yorker asked. Knausgaard can answer himself, why the title, and maybe has, but an essay that might provide answers is buried in Volume 6, so… I’ll get to it later. My understanding is that it’s meant as both an ironic self-deprecating send-up, coupled with a reference to the fact that nearly every supposed great modern book written by a man is really a story of a rotten monster. Who convinces you he is a hero.

Every? Well, at least Holden Caulfield is a monster. The fact that both he and Jack Kerouac inspired me greatly in my life makes me shudder. The step they took to be outsiders I can admire. That they had adventures – that’s fine. But becoming a moronic self-important alcoholic – hopefully there’s more to achieve in life than that. But at least I never admired Hitler! So there, take that! Here is a new monster, myself, that can be fashioned into a hero based on the scantest of evidence and the flimsiest of arguments. That will be my struggle; shame being such a powerful tool.

Another thought is that there’s this idea of reclaiming stolen treasure from thieves, or even just raiding jewels from villains, just before they howl and go up in flames like in Spielberg’s ‘Raiders…’ “I’ll take that …” [coolly plucks]. “Schwein! – Ahhh!” [immolated by God’s holy rays of justice]. It’s a just reversal of history.

Punk, Glam and other subcultures, icons like David Bowie, the Ramones, gay leather boys and so on have all appropriated Third Reich paraphernalia, and it can all be debated and explored in journals of pop-culture. For myself, this title is the crown jewel of the branding those assholes came up with, surpassing even Triumph of the Will, that Nietzsche appropriation, and the Swastika, that Buddhist and every other culture that opted for sun motifs appropriation. Stuff like that is too grand, too pompous to ever really be redirected. But struggle? Come on, they can’t own that! On the other hand, maybe it is truly pompous, especially the ‘My’ aspect of it, oozing of self-importance, the forehead sweat of a loser plotting to rule the world. But struggle is just a part of life, what should we say? “Our struggle?” That has almost more opportunity to come off as pompous I think. Unfortunately, we struggle alone, even if the struggle is to know oneself without self-importance.

It is without a doubt that the Nazis are the most notorious criminals of the 20th Century, and Hitler is the king of the bunch. Many others have suffered, the Albanians for example, the list is too long, even the Germans, in Dresden. All of it matters of course but the Nazis win in the popular imagination. They have become pop evil.

I think it’s important to not minimize their crimes, but pop meaning is elusive. Is it a crime to make money on a thriller with Nazi villains? Swastikas have littered glossy pulp paperback covers arrayed on book carousels at airports and beach five-and dimes throughout my youth. Maybe that era is over but this basic impulse has been reiterated again and again. I’m clearly defending Knausgaard, saying he’s not of this ilk, is above this, furthermore that his act has punctured something that is over-inflated, and is thus a just, even heroic act. I welcome other views, but I cannot read Norwegian, where the most in-depth debate on this has occurred.

Let’s put all that aside though, for if he had just called the book I just read “My Book” Volume 1 it would have had the exact same effect on me, and called in the same questions I am asking myself now. Questions of what is mine to discuss, to reveal. It’s as if in the present situation I am writing the same book that he has, different context of course, and just putting it in the drawer “oh no, this will never do” and then preparing to share with you, the reader, what? Karl Ove said no, I will write what I know, be it private, middle-class, shameful, or universal, and do it until I have nothing left to say.

Oh the stories I could tell you! Want to tell you! From this month even…but will not. And another question I have – is this refusal of mine really out of consideration of those around me? Can I blame my cowardice on them?

And look at me. Here I am discussing literature as if I know anything about it, as if I have something great to tell if only.

I might as well mention another writer who puts a nail in the coffin at least to my obviously bad notions of the G.A.N. When I discovered Roberto Bolaño my reaction was on a completely different level then what I was getting from Franzen, and I started reading them at about the same time. Let’s just call my reaction visceral – as the opportunity presents itself. Visceral Realism, what ho! – the fictional, or fictionalized poetic movement Bolaño reports on in his Savage Detectives. With Franzen I see the problem he is getting at, but with Bolaño I see the problem solved. The tapestry of chaos unfolds, as it should, or as it does, but the correct gesture is made.

Bolaño and Knausgaard challenge the necessity of Great American Novels for me, but the problem is persistent, also the reason also why I was not an English major, Dostoyevsky, Kafka, Sartre, Camus having not being written in English were not part of that department. I guess Bolaño comes close in a way to ‘Great American’ –ness in his effort to create a pan-Latin-American literature but… and isn’t this true? – one must be a gringo to qualify. One must write about the spirit of our times and have a particular background; nothing in itself wrong with qualifying for that. But why fuss with such particularities? And it’s not that I’m trying to bash America. All experience is valid subject matter so ipso facto America is, and I have experienced things here that I wish to share. I’m just pointing out that the trick lies in resolving the ultimate cosmopolitanism of literature with the writer’s inevitable provincialism, is this not the crux of the ‘struggle?’ And so if it is great writing the locality of it will be so much smaller than ‘America’ and the universality of it will be so much larger.

Bolaño, Proust, Knausgaard show that the Great Novel is the horse, and that the cart, the American-ness, or Asian-ness, or whichever continent-ness the writer has collected her baggage is just the material, and though it may command some aspects of the form, is not specifically crucial as material in dictating whatever greatness is achieved. Maybe everyone but me has always understood this detail of emphasis, but here I am working it out. Because after being an expat for the short time that I have, the idea that if I ever write anything great it will be about America or else classify itself as travel writing is not sitting well.

Let me state here that I am not that well read. I’m certain there are important writers that I’ve never heard of. And also, not only important, but best-selling, popular, well-known authors, who are nevertheless still good that I’ve never heard of. Sure, I’ve read a lot of books in my life, not something every rube can say, but maybe I can only quickly list five important writers that weren’t assigned to me in my schooling. An hour after that maybe I would have come up with 5 more. Given more time maybe five again, or maybe not, but that’s it, and it’s not as if I have actually tested myself in this way. Nevertheless that’s how extensive my knowledge seems to me. My ignorance is buttressed by my belief that most writers are just writing crap. This heroic razor-sharp criticism may have also prevented me from writing very much, which has been an injustice to me but maybe a blessing to everyone else.

If I could just write what’s in my head as Knausgaard does, about my family for instance, about my father’s death, or our current state, would it be as fascinating? I could wait for all of them to die, but I could end up being buried first. Also, with this kind of writing, if you wait even a few days you will end up writing an entirely different piece. (Knausgaard: “I know that if I had started any of my novels two days later it would be a different kind of novel.”[here]) And I have things I want to tell! But relax friends and family, you nest of humanity, my lips are sealed.

A year as an animal

to be as a horse

is an act of great vigor

breathe deep and with force

the lungs must deliver

 

a snort is in order

a stomp is commanded

with wings or without

rear up and break wind

 

the horse of today

has internal combustion

the gas that it spews

as lethal as methane

 

a very old story

tells of a race

twelve animals vied

to each find their place

 

why race at all?

there’s some obligation

to venture with gusto

without hesitation

 

I was riding a snake

then I switched in midstream

to a horse and we swam on

unfazed, quite hypnotic

 

the snake won the race

unscrupulous, intelligent

secure and at ease

in its water element

 

the horse was startled

swift and hot-blooded

its composure in contrast

to the ancient long-thinker

 

the snake is derided

slithering spine

smooth sexual skin

cold and elusive

 

horses and snakes

have an old enmity

conflicts in stature

and dietary needs

 

wild horses exist

and those that went feral

beasts of men’s wars

and high-value transport

 

I rode in a herd

the horse can be social

colts mares and stallions

geldings and foals

 

fillies and yearlings

lock their knees

for a while

yet still must lay down

protected by others

 

a rattle spooked pony

galloped away

the pasture

a buffet

sprinkled with hazards

 

the snake has not left us

man’s oldest friend

undulating motion

through dense vegetation

 

red light on a face

a draw for attention

scale shell renewed

eyes clouded- released

 

parasites

imbedded

ticks and mites

molted

 

all sloughed at once

egg cracked

forward thrust

 

ride on driver

maintain locomotion

the gait is adjusted

the race carries on

 

Again, why the race?

what’s the advantage?

 

why not lay

aggregated

like a snake

in its cavern

 

let the sun heat the ground

slither out in late morning

everything sleeps

but the river

and wind

 

we burn leaves at dusk

orange consumed piles

hovering smoke

a cover for actions

 

the snake won the race

yet the horse takes its place

next year a new story

walk, run,

leap

or pace

 

 

 

 

 

Poem of the year

Poem of the year

A year is a song

we sing it

Twelve, sometimes thirteen months long

2013

a strong melody

bright notes

tones of midnight

the mantle of dawn

the people hum

and do all the things

in the world

that don’t stop the world

the days roll on

dusk approaches

a candle gets lit

surely it must burn out

we’ve come this far

I’ll spell it out

A wild berry

a fish

a star

a breeze

a sprout

plums and cherries

a hawk

peaches and ease

September was special

and yet

the best

is a table

outside on this plaza

on a cool December night

looking about

though

The wars of men have stopped

some of us

(blown out candles)

walking around

like

October’s children

taking

a selfie in Beirut

I won’t forget

New Year’s Day

Philadelphia

parade route

In November we ate

I can’t remember

the full menu

fish sauce and turkey

but now

I have a new issue

It’s this-

the song in my head

it needs a new sound

something purer

than a carol

or a jingle

after the year’s final countdown

renewing a song

that’s countless years long

is an art

I’ll draw deep and sweep the notes

of my heart

and breathe out what’s left

and walk around the sun whistling

the true alphabet

________________________

*this was a fb status composed for New Year’s Eve 2013 that has been worked on a little up to the present form, January 2, 2014, Nha Be District, Saigon, Vietnam

%d bloggers like this: