12/12/12: 12 Songs for the Apocalypse

It’s not the end of the world, and I feel fine.

But if it was, I would want all these songs to accompany me as we spiraled down the metaphysical drain.

I’d go into battle, or into oblivion, with these soldiers by my side.

Let’s begin, appropriately, at the end, with the boys from Birmingham: if we can’t sustain life here, let’s blast off and “Find another world where freedom waits (yeah)!”

Once the wind begins to howl, as long as I’m riding shotgun with Hendrix, I’m good:

Ian Anderson, of course, called this way back in ’79:

If you’re getting snuffed out anyway, you may as well make sure you say I LOVE YOU to whoever needs to hear it:

If the shit is going down, I’m bringing both barrels, which means I’m blasting The Melvins.

Starless and Bible Black. Any other questions?

And what exactly is a dream? And what exactly is a joke?

Bauhaus. Because.

Before I sink into the big sleep I want to hear the scream of the butterfly!

Nothing, even the end of the world, can be as deep or dark as the hard time killing floor blues:

If it gets beyond World War III, I know Mikey Dread is waiting patiently on the other side:

All kidding aside, if it’s scorched earth time, let me hide in the peaceful shadow of the Gentle Giant:


The Only Band That Mattered, Part Two

Short but sweet: “Somebody Got Murdered” is a somewhat overlooked masterpiece from their most misunderstood album (Sandinista!).

Is it just me or does this song, not only in sound but execution, predict (and perfect) the very distinctive sort of music both The Smiths and especially R.E.M. would make in the early-to-mid ’80s? (In fairness, The Clash may have picked up a trick or two from The Cure by this point.)

I’ve been very tempted
To grab it from the till
I’ve been very hungry
But not enough to kill…

Listen to the vocals and subject matter (and the matter-of-fact depiction of murder and its aftermath, understated lyrically in the same ways The Smiths’ “Death of a Disco Dancer” manages to be. On the other hand, contrast the laconic, serenely urgent –or urgently serene– delivery of Mick Jones as opposed to the  inimitable melodrama of Morrissey’s “J’accuse”). Then listen to the jangly guitars and tempo that keeps promising to crest but never quite needs to, and consider so many of R.E.M.’s early tunes.

Somebody got murdered
His name cannot be found
A small stain on the pavement
They’ll scrub it off the ground…

“Somebody Got Murdered” is archetypcal Clash: gritty without being affected, true without being self-righteous, sardonic without the self-consciousness that most bands (before and after) could not avoid.

The Clash did not do it first and they may not have done it best (whatever “it” is), but no other band has ever done it the way The Clash did it. It’s not so much that it seems effortless so much as they were unable to do it differently. And that is yet another reason they remain The Only Band That Mattered.


William, It Was Really Nothing or, The Faux Pi of Sarah Palin

Memo to Sarah Palin: when Lady Macbeth cries “Out, damn’d spot!” she is not talking to her dalmation.

I found Sarah Palin’s latest tearjerker invoking William Shakespeare particularly interesting on two levels (and, I say tearjerker in the sense that her indefatigable self-promotion combines with illimitable delusion to produce these types of comments, which at once induce laughter unto tears which then prompts one to weep for our future). First, it was, of course, The Bard who wrote the following lines, which demand to be quoted in full for a variety of obvious reasons:

Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

I know, right? (This is life imitating art, super-sized.) But second, it is more than a little appropriate to consider that the other great William (Faulkner, that is) utilized this poetry for the title of one of the towering literary achievements of the last century, The Sound and the Fury. It is amusing (aside from the audacity) that Palin likens her creative license (or that of the semi-literate cadre of ghostwriters who Tweet for her) with masters of the form who on occasion changed the language. The difference, aside from the fact that they could actually speak the language with no small degree of proficiency, is that for artistic folks who innovate and advance our template for communicating or creating, one must already have mastered the fundamentals. This is demonstrably true of Slick Willy (Shakespeare) just as it is true of will.i.am (Faulkner), as it is true of Salvador Dali or Ornette Coleman. Can you dig it?

Sarah Palin is in what seems to be a historically unique position in that the more she embarrasses herself, the better it turns out to be for her career. And bank account. Sarah Palin is hated and loved in equal measure, always a good niche market. And she is popular, to a large extent, because her legion of dimwitted acolytes find, in her looks, attitudes, pronouncements and propensity for faux pas (faux pi?), a reinforcement of many things they want and need to believe. She is popular the same way boy-band pop stars are popular: she sells copy because the things that come out of her mouth are the things that a great many people want to hear. There is a formula for insipid pop music and there is a formula for pseudo-populist hucksterism.

What is different about Palin—and what makes her dangerous—is that while virtually every move she makes is calculated and carefully calibrated to resonate with the semi-literate and unreflective Americans whose bigotry is set on cruise control, she is not entirely disingenuous. Indeed, the things that most annoy the principled, learned and sentient citizens happen to be the things that are unaffected and/or unrehearsed. That is, her astonishing, almost impossible-to-properly-fathom ignorance. But that didn’t stop Ronald Reagan (whose amiable dunce routine, in fairness, looks downright Socratic after eight years of his Vice President’s son and Palin’s scorched earth ill-will tour). The problem, now, is what we have wrought as a nation with our voracious appetite for insipidity: being dumb is not only no longer an obstacle, it is a short cut. People like Reagan (and, to a lesser extent, his V.P.’s son) had to work hard to overcome their manifest intellectual shortcomings. Imagine how much time and energy is freed up (to fundraise, for instance) if you no longer have to fake it ‘til you make it. Think of how inordinately liberating it must be to celebrate—and be celebrated—for keeping it unreal on the campaign trail. Consider how much more confident one can be in one’s untested and uninhibited convictions if one never has to explain them.

I don’t blame Palin or her fans for this phenomenon. The staggeringly unenlightened have always been amongst us; mostly innocuous platforms like Facebook and Twitter have just given them more ways to connect and commiserate. No longer do misguided cretins have to conduct solitary diatribes in their attics or consult with their tinfoil hats in a dark room; now they can plug in, connect and blame the godless, the gays, the immigrants and the evil machinations of Socialist-minded social servants with one hand comfortably snuggled in the bag of Cheetos. They can incite riots and excoriate the elites without even leaving the comfort of their recliners.

But I suspect that even if social media (and, of course, the Internet) had been available two decades ago, an unabashed simpleton like Sarah Palin could never have made it out of Alaska back then. And for this I blame our disintegrating, increasingly useless mainstream media. The only thing liberal about today’s media is the appetite they have for horse races and sensational gossip over more mundane matters like what policies (take health care reform) actually contain and who they actually benefit, or making readership aware when a particular pol or pundit is straight-up lying. But we know this is treacherous ground to tread because, as Dr. Stephen Colbert established, the truth does have a liberal bias.

Which brings us to Sarah Palin’s latest crime against the English language and (more distressing) cocksure condemnation of racial and religious intolerance. No, not her own, but the ostensible hatred a certain ethnic and religious group harbors. That would be Muslims or, in Republican parlance, towel-heads. You see, because of 9/11 Muslims hate Americans, want to kill us, and their religious beliefs—and those who practice them—are violent and insidious. They also are not white or Christian, which is two strikes against them from the get-go. But this manufactured outrage over a Mosque in New York City is actually a teaching moment. In one imbecilic sentence, Palin is illuminating the misguided thinking that even allows someone to go there. Rather than attempt to disentangle the convenient (and conveniently backward and bigoted) sleight of mind that can equate Muslims with terror and a Mosque with violence, let’s try to use this insulting illogic in another scenario where Palin currently applies it. Below we have an image of the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. As my perspicacious friend Tony James reminded me, Timoth McVeigh was Catholic, so clearly we need to tear down St. Joseph’s Old Cathedral (indeed, the proposed Mosque will be two blocks from Ground Zero; this church is practically across the street!). Needless to say, the average American redneck cemprehending that comparison would be as conceivable as the average Christian conceding that Jesus wasn’t, in fact, a honky.

Instead, the focus has almost entirely been on her beyond-W butchering of English syntax and no one (outside of the progressive blogosphere which, while useful and necessary, is mostly preaching to the choir) seems terribly concerned in addressing the racist and moronic reasoning that would even lead one to endorse such backwards thinking. (That said, it must be mentioned that the collective genius of humanity has rallied in a time of need, and is busy at work on Twitter making appropriate mockery of Palin’s bungle. Enjoy the hilarity @ #shakespalin.) Naturally, the emphasis has involved a “discussion” of whether she intended to make up a new word (duh) or whether we should take it seriously (DUH). Less than a little effort is made to remind anyone that everything she is saying is historically wrong, mean-spirited to the point of psychosis and flat-out racist. One could also make a case that she is persecuting another group’s religion, something Christians, for all of their whining and “War on Christmas” crapola, should be at least a tiny bit sensitive about. Of course, as we know in America the only groups who are genuinely persecuted are white fans of Jesus and billion dollar crybabies who pay too many taxes (Ha).

(Sidenote: it is either disconcerting or enticing—and possibly both—to consider what would happen if people like Palin and her ilk were really forced to sit down and actually read the bible or the Constitution (including the Bill of Rights) and understand who Jesus really was (even as a fictional character) and who the founding fathers really were (based on the things they actually believed and wrote which, unlike the authors of the bible, bear their signatures). Would heads explode? Would pre-packaged ideologies, at long last, suffocate on their own fumes? Would something approximating enlightenment ensue? Would reading lessons be necessary first?)

A prediction: There is an unforseen silver lining in all of this. Most of us have suspected for quite some time that Palin is the de facto leader of the G.O.P. brand; the only people unwilling (or understandably unable) to acknowledge this are the insiders and party elders themselves, who have so much to lose if and when she ultimately steps out of her Fox-News bunker and pre-scripted press releases (which she calls speeches). Once she puts herself in the proverbial crosshairs of even cursory (and at that point inevitable) media scrutiny, the lies will unspool and the façade will crumble and a modicum of sanity will be restored to our woeful world. And along the way the unthinkable will happen: the Republican contenders will necessarily have to go on the attack. That is when things will get very interesting indeed.

And people will write about it, we will laugh about it, and we will do everything in our power not to learn from it.


Art vs. Life and Death, cont’d

Marjorie has some typically insightful observations on her blog, here.

Sean blames critics and the academy for perpetuating this queer line of thinking. I agree that such folks shoulder their fair share of the responsibility here. But I also tend to think an artist or two, over the years, just might have been a little complicit in tacking a frill or five onto our culture’s insistence that the tortured artist is the only kind of artist for whom it has any patience.

Here’s the thing, though: one wonders how many of these artistic types are producing anything worthwhile? How many worthwhile artists do you run into who are even comfortable talking about the fact that they create? It’s certainly a generalization, but in my experience, those who talk much, do little (that’s actually true of just about any endeavor, but it seems almost axiomatic when it comes to artistic inclination). It would be amusing to make a documentary entitled “The writer at work”, and the camera pans in on some dude in his boxers and dirty t-shirt, sitting on the floor with a legal pad, rubbing his cheeks and shaking his head, staring at a blank legal pad. Moments pass…silence. WAIT! He is writing….he stops. Rubs his cheek; shakes his head. Crosses out what he wrote. Moments pass. Silence. After 90 minutes the words “To be continued” flash on the screen. It would be the most insufferably boring, but true documentary ever created–and it would disabuse countless dreamers and posers of the notion that being a writer is something you can cultivate or assume, the way you can learn a foreign language by being immersed in another culture.

Martin Amis: a writer who can write about writing

Martin Amis: a writer who can write about writing

But lest you think–understandably–that I wish to put the bulk of the blame on critics and article writing assistant professors, let’s acknowledge an immutable fact: these prurient tell-all tomes would not continue to be written if they did not consistently sell. So the onus is…on us. Seriously. The collective “we” are increasingly more familiar with the lives of the writers than the words they wrote. And this distressing tendency is at its apex (or nadir) right now, with the reality TV bonanza. Lest that sound like whining, or tilting at the inexorable windmills of commerce, I recognize it, I accept it, and I try not to worry about it. It’s not like America has suddenly retarded its collective ability (or desire) to think and read and engage. Or, if it has, it’s a very slow erosion and each generation has predictably lamented the idiocy of the age it currently suffers through. Same as it ever was.

But to some of your excellent points, Marjorie, I’d say that with some notable exceptions, I tend to be most fully satisfied reading criticism of writing done by writers (particularly fiction writers) and while it’s more rare, reading about music by people who make music tends to maintain the balance between insight and expertise. Put more cynically, everyone puts pen to paper with an agenda. No artist worth a damn would begrudge any honest reader their right to interpret the work as they see (and experience) it. Some critics mean well and just can’t manage to convince; some critics mean ill but can’t help being brilliant. Ultimately, it’s only when someone comes to the table with an agenda, but happens to be ignorant, that a disservice is done to the art being commented upon.