I used to spend a lot of time reading Glenn McDonald's music-review site The War Against Silence. It was much more than just a music site, as any random sampling of a 20,000 word Shania Twain review can tell you. Rather, the site was, in McDonald's own words:"a weekly music-review column, and then a weekly column about music, and then a weekly column that was often inspired by music...It was against many things, beginning with but not necessarily including silence, and in favor of many more, including some of the things it was once against and eventually its own end."
The site taught me a lot about music writing, about actually thinking about what music meant, or could mean, to you, and how to actually think about its larger worth. I think the most noteworthy thing about McDonald's writing is that his taste and mine only occasionally overlapped--I had no great interest in Japanese pop bands or Tori Amos records, but I wanted to know what he thought of them, and how his understanding of them could benefit me. I still miss the site.
Anyway, the point I'm getting to is this, from McDonald's review of Low's Christmas EP. It contains one of my favorite pieces of writing on the subject of the holidays, sums up and expresses a lot of similar feelings on my part, and I include it here:
I hate Christmas for a host of small reasons, too, but most of them are variations on two fundamental objections. The first is that at least here in the US, Christmas is the single most egregious and pathologically self-contradictory example of systemic insincerity I regularly encounter, edging out the entertainment industry and the political process. "It's over-commercialized", everybody has been taught to grouse; even dissent has been co-opted, as if the problem is a matter of degree, and the holiday season would be a paragon of cultural discretion if only K-Mart would tone down the graphic design of its December circulars a little. Christmas isn't over-commercialized, it's defined by commerce. The carefully meta-religious phrase "holiday season" isn't informed magnanimity; it's just pandering to a wider audience.
The other big thing I hate about Christmas is that there's virtually nothing good about it that wouldn't be better if it were spread throughout the year. Gift-giving, decorations, baking, holiday parties, sending notes to people with whom you've fallen out of touch, donating to charity: all these noble pursuits, to the extent they are practiced at all, are compressed into a few frantic, resentment-laced weeks, and then forgotten about for the next eleven months. You could contend that without Christmas, even this much wouldn't happen, but I'm not actually that cynical. Take away the inertia towards scheduled solicitude, and I think we would devise healthier alternatives of our own. Without Christmas, I'm almost certain I would do more. I suspect many would. We would celebrate, and give, of our own volition, and in our own terms, and on our own time. And the component of joy, which seems so elusive as we struggle through December traffic snarls and fight like ill-bred zombies over whatever objects' commercials most crassly exploited our emotional vulnerabilities this year, would, I stubbornly believe, have a genuine chance to infuse our actions, rather than being crushed by their logistics. It saddens me, every year, that in a way we never get to find out how good-hearted we are, how willing we would be to touch each other even if the enormous klaxons at Macy's and Amazon.com didn't go off the day after Thanksgiving.
Our real gifts are given the moment we write each other's names on a list, the moment that we realize we care about each other enough to brave the swirling debris of a mangled holiday to include each other in what, if we squint and imagine, it might once have signified.
"He told me once that he wanted to take on everything at one time and conquer it all just so he could feel indestructible."
I have no idea how to begin this, so I'll just say it: it's been a year now since my friend Mike died. Up until this point, I've resisted trying to write something, because it seemed so goddamn hard, and I thought that maybe, with the distance afforded me by the passage of time, I could get some kind of a grip on the situation, some sort of perspective, and talk about it in some kind of meaningful way. But I haven't, and I suspect I never really will. All the insight this year has yielded is that he's dead, and I wish he wasn't, and it still hurts that he is.
As best I can remember, I met Mike sometime in early 2006, in the corridor of Bronson Hall at LSUS. I don't think we spoke at all. He was friends with my roommate Charlotte, and we would see him off and on around town, but he didn't come around a lot. My initial reaction was that he was kind of aloof and distant, which was not entirely untrue.
But for whatever reason he started dropping by our place a lot more, and whatever reserves I'd had about him melted as I discovered that we shared a common language of books and movies and comics and music. He did freelance work for a local paper, so we had journalism in common as well. I don't think I've ever met anyone who was so much on my own wavelength culturally, and I know I've never known anyone who owned so many books. Frequently, my first thought when running across some book or album or magazine article was that I couldn't wait to run it by Mike, or to ask his opinion.
In the six months or so leading up to his death, we had begun to grow closer as friends. On Wednesday nights, he played trivia at a local pizza place, with the first place prize being two free pizzas. After I joined his team, our group routinely placed first. Other friends of mine sometimes wanted to come along, and I never actively discouraged them, but privately I always preferred to keep it as something between us.
Some things he loved: Captain Beefheart and Guided By Voices; William S. Burroughs and Alan Moore and The White Album; Moon Knight, John Coltrane, and John Sayles; Captain America and baseball and Superman; hobos and yeggs and second-story men. Whiskey and coffee and cigarettes.
He had a kind of offhand, effortless cool. He was a few years older than me, and had lived in Athens, Georgia during the Elephant Six years, roomed with Andrew Rieger from Elf Power, was casual friends with Jeff Mangum, and is listed as playing organ on the self-titled Circulatory System album. It's to his credit that he never went out of his way to mention these things; I discovered his name on the Circulatory System album while searching his name online. He was not the sort of person who felt the need to remind you of how awesome he thought he was. As the son of a prominent local doctor, he came from money, but he never carried himself in the way of a rich kid: I'm sure his family helped him out, but they didn't support him, and I always respected that tremendously.
If you needed to know something about a movie or whether or not Grant Morrison's run on Justice League of America was any good or what the coolest figure in Aztec mythology was, Mike was a good source of information. He knew a lot about local history--if you needed to know where something in town was, he could usually tell you, but only after he'd first let you know what it used to be, and when it was built, and what was across the street. And it wasn't that he was trying to sound like a show-off; he just wanted to share what he knew.
The temptation, in these sorts of situations, is to try to paint the sunniest possible picture of the person, but I've always felt that overplaying someone's virtues is as dishonest as harping on their faults. Mike had his problems, like anyone else: he could be overly dour, and there was something in his demeanor that suggested a kind of haughtiness that was largely nonexistent, but I could never fault anyone who assumed on first meeting him (as I did) that he had an arrogance about him. But he was also incredibly thoughtful and generous: he went to California last summer and upon returning, he presented me with a book he'd bought—it wasn't a huge gesture, but it was entirely unexpected, and oddly touching.
I remember the last time I saw him, three days before he died. We were at Charlotte's house, and it was time to go home. It was late, but I was still very much awake. Mike seemed to be lingering, as if he didn't want to go. I thought I would drag my heels a bit, too, and see if he was up for something. But in the end I went on downstairs to my my car ahead of him. I still sat and waited, though, thinking he might stop when he saw that I was still there.
But he didn't. I watched in the side-view mirror as he walked to his car, then started my own and drove home. It's the last living memory I have of him, a tiny figure haloed with frost, moving across the face of a mirror and then off into darkness.
And I regret that I didn't stop him, didn't ask him if he wanted to hang out or watch a movie. I regret that I didn't get to talk to him one last time. These are regrets that are common to everyone who knew Mike. He was someone you were always happy to see on your doorstep, and always sad to see go. I never had a bad time when Mike was around.
When I got the news I didn't believe it. On a purely rational, reasoning level I did; I knew it was true. But there was a completely irrational voice underneath that was insisting that it was a mistake—Mike might be hurt, or in the hospital, or they thought he was dead, but everything would be cleared up, the facts would be made clear, and we'd all feel stupid for making such a foolish assumption. This, of course, was wrong. We pulled up to his house in time to see them wheeling the body away. It was a fucking horrifying sight, but even then, deep down, there was a desire to refuse to accept reality.
A few months before, Mike and I watched Gonzo, the Hunter S. Thompson documentary, and we left the theater discussing how massively Thompson had failed himself—first abandoning his talents and then, when the will to fight became too much for him, abandoning his own life. Thompson didn't have the heart to get old and keep kicking ass, but Mike did, which makes his death all the more senseless and tragic. He had so much more work to do, and so much more fun to have, and so much more life to live.
He is dead, but only in the most meaningless sense of the word. Death doesn't even begin to stand a chance against a person like Mike. None of us knew him as long or as well as we would have liked, but all of us are better for the time spent with him, and worse for all the time we will, for the rest of our own lives, be without.
"He smoothed his clothes and calmly stepped through the door, emerging from years of depression, uncertainty, and chaos, and into a world of gleaming hope. He strutted the few short steps to his car, fresh and glad, and drove away knowing that at that moment he was perfect." --Mike Schwalke
A couple of weeks ago, I went to the Robinson Film Center for a rough-cut screening of the documentary Invisible Girlfriend. The film focuses on Charles, who lives in Monroe, Louisiana, and who is in love with the statue of Joan of Arc on Decatur Street in New Orleans. Charles is convinced that “Joanie's” physical manifestation is a bartender named Dee Dee, who he is infatuated with. Since Charles's driver's license is suspended, he buys a bicycle and decides to ride it to New Orleans, some four hundred or so miles to the south. Along the way, he has a series of odd encounters with a number of genuinely strange and engaging people
I'm still not completely sure how I feel about the movie. I saw it with Lindsay, and while I agree that some of her criticisms are accurate, I don't feel they detract from the overall effect of the film. There are a handful of beautiful shots throughout and, while some of them don't entirely work, or are somewhat clumsy, or lose focus, this is simply because the camera being used just can't handle the conditions it's used to shoot in, creating an extremely grainy or unsteady image. I can live with this. Bitching about a blurry shot or a little grain when a movie has been shot by literally two people is like complaining that Bee Thousand doesn't sound like The Colour And The Shape.
There's the inevitable and more concerning question of exploitation, but watching the movie, I never got the impression that Charles was being manipulated or that scenes were in some way scripted. And while Charles is certainly crazy (and though he comes across as more or less harmless, you get the definite impression that his illness has taken darker turns in the past), the film never paints him as some kind of Funny Crazy Guy and never portrays schizophrenia as any kind of fun. Charles is extremely candid and clear-headed in his discussions about mental illness, and during the aftershow Q&A, which he and the filmmakers attended, he was remarkably lucid—though he still seemed to believe that his invisible girlfriend was with him.
Initially, I was troubled by the fact—revealed by Charles during the Q&A—that making the four hundred mile journey by bicycle was actually the idea of the filmmakers. This alone should probably have been enough to cause an outright dismissal of the whole movie, I thought. But, really, so what? The scenes that work best in the film—a farmer proudly showing off his muzzleloader while waiting for a calf to be born; a man who owns a ruined riverboat that he claims belonged to FDR; an old married couple who provide Charles dinner and discuss Walt Disney's cryogenically frozen corpse; a man who owns a strange roadside attraction dedicated to dead US Soldiers, and who breaks down crying while looking over their photos—are absolutely real.
That reality is reinforced in the film's conclusion, which is completely unexpected, focusing on one of those moments when you've been utterly blindsided by tragedy in some public place and you wind up all alone, walled up with your grief, your pain soundtracked by some idiotic song (in this case, a live version of The Doors' “Roadhouse Blues”) blaring in the background. It might be Invisible Girlfriend's single best moment.
The movie's not perfect. And it might not even be completely "real", but it's close enough, I guess.
I don't know if he writes for Rolling Stone anymore, but when he did, Matt Taibbi was essentially the only good thing about that magazine. He is vicious and funny and I love his work, especially when he manages to articulate some point that I find myself unable to fully or more artfully express.
Just as she had during the campaign last fall, Palin defied rational analysis by making a primal connection with the subterranean resentments of white middle America, which is apparently so pissed off now at the rest of the planet for not coddling its hurt feelings in the multicultural age that it is willing to embrace any politician who validates its insane sense of fucked-overness.
Nobody understands this political reality quite like Palin, even if she doesn’t actually understand it in the sense of someone who thinks her way to a conclusion, but merely lives it, unconsciously, with the unerring instinct of a herd animal.
...Sarah Palin [is] the perfect leader for the inevitable pushback against the Obama era, when America in a vague and superficial sort of way decided to celebrate the values of culture, tolerance and knowledge. The other America doesn’t read and doesn’t remember anything it didn’t learn in the last five minutes; it’s angry and unhappy but doesn’t want to think about why, and knows only that it wants someone to pay the price for what it feels.
I've been thinking about that short story “The Gift of the Magi”—anyone remember it? It's one of those they always make you read in school, along with “The Most Dangerous Game” and “The Lottery”. It's an O. Henry (the author not the candy bar)story, which means that it has a crazy twist at the end. Or at least that was supposed to be his trademark. I've never read anything else the guy ever wrote, as far as I know, but in your English textbook, if you check the author bio before the story, they will not fail to mention how famous he was for his surprise twist endings, making O. Henry sort of the M. Night Shyamalan of his day, I guess.
(Keep in mind that I have not read this story since I was probably thirteen years old, so I may have some of the details slightly wrong, but don't worry, I remember the main plot points.)
ANYWAY, “The Gift of the Magi.” It's a story about Jim and Della, a young couple who are staring down the barrel of their first Christmas together, and they are broke. This is causing some problems for the two of them, because neither can afford to get the other a Christmas gift. Della, the girl, has long beautiful hair, and she loves her husband Jim very much, and she wants to do something really nice for him. So she goes and she has her long beautiful hair cut off, and then she sells it so someone can make a really cool wig out of it. Heartbreaking! She then takes her hair-money and uses it to buy a really nice watch-chain for Jim. This is awesome, the power of love at work, etc. And she goes home and she puts the chain in a fancy box and waits for Jim to get home from working at Mr. Scrooge's counting house or wherever it is a dude worked back then in those days.
So then Jim comes home and before she can give him the fancy watch-chain, he tells her that he has a gift for her, and hands over a box of his own. And so they sit down opposite one another and open up the presents. Bored to tears yet? Well, don't worry, because this is where it gets good. You see, while Della has gone and sold her hair to buy Jim a watch-chain, Jim has sold his pocketwatch to buy Della a beautiful set of silver combs and brushes! The irony is just too much, and they realize that—I don't know, love is good, and it's the thought that counts and all that stuff. It is a beautiful and well-crafted story that is beloved by young and old all the world over.
But here's the thing.
Della's hair—her long, beautiful hair—that shit is going to grow back, and she will be able to use her fine silver combs and brushes and whatnot. But Jim? Jim is shit out of luck—he's not going to be growing a new pocketwatch anytime soon. He totally gets the shaft in this story. A better ending would be, instead of the two of them gently laughing and being grateful to be young and in love and so on, if Jim said “Well, Della, tell you what—in three months when your hair grows back, we'll go sell your combs and stuff and buy me another watch. That way the two of us will be back at square one, you with hair that you can't comb and me with a watch I can't swing around on a chain. Otherwise, this is some god-damn bullshit.”
(A quick sketch from the bus: a vaguely scummy-looking white dude boarded, clutching a baby carrier complete with sleeping baby in one hand and his breakfast burrito in the other. He proceeded to sit opposite me and talk into his cell phone, holding it in front of his mouth like a walkie-talkie. I had a great view of his jagged teeth. Because there were women in the vicinity, at some point someone mentioned the baby. "He's four months old," daddy told everyone within earshot, "yesterday was the first day I seen him. I's in jail when he's born. His momma come to me with him and says she don't wont im. Says 'have a nice life with your son,' and I'm raisin im now." He then began to hand out wallet-size photos. "there's two of my kids," he said, "and here's two more. Here's the other two. And here's the otherns." "How many kids you got?" inquired the heavyset woman directly to my right, in between bites of her breakfast sloppy joe. "I got seven daughters and this here little boy," he told us all, and went on to let us know that he was 31 years old and had eight children "by five different women." He confided in us that he "used to like to smoke pot and chase women." At some point the phrase "I'd dip in and out" was used. The bus stopped somewhere between the public housing apartments and a motel famous for its numerous murders and he departed, sleeping baby in hand, bound for greener pastures and more willing pussies.)
Iris Dement's “My Life”is song that never ceases to amaze me.
The song is simple, three and a half minutes. A piano part I suspect nearly anyone could play, a plucked violin that swells and recedes quietly underneath the plaintive vocal, nothing else. Dement's voice is a strange, tender thing. A country voice, but one that's worlds away from not only the pop sheen of modern country but also from the brash twang of the 60s and 70s. A voice you might hear on a Carter Family 78 or Harry Smith's Anthology, a voice that swims up from the crackle and hiss and the weight of decades.
The lyrics are simple. Some would even say trite—“I gave joy to my mother/and I made my lover smile/and I can give comfort to my friends/when they're hurting/and I can make it seem better/for awhile”—goes the chorus, but just viewing the words does nothing to explain the way that Dement makes something so simple the cradle for enormous profundity. Its opening verse—“My life, it don't count for nothing/When I look at this world/I feel so small/And my life, it's only a season/a passing September that no one will recall”—makes personal humilty into a supremely beautiful, heroic thing.
It truly astounds me, sometimes, that human beings can carry so much beauty around inside themselves. It further astounds me how any one of us can look out at the world and not be utterly crushed by its limitless possibility. It's been a long day but I'm still awake, listening to this song and feeling my head spin. The sentiments are nothing new, nor are they expressed in any way that could ever be considered complex, but the song is better for it. You can feel lifetimes pass while it plays.
True Blood is a pretty bad TV show—I could go on and on about it, its mulitple Terrible Southern Accents, the bad acting, the awful special effects, the various and sundry plot holes, the typical condescension toward/complete misunderstanding of the American South—but I won't. I'll just say that it's bad and leave it at that.
I do have to mention this. Two of the castmembers—Chris Bauer and William Sanderson—were each on HBO original programs that were much, much better. Bauer played Frank Sobotka on season two of The Wire (a show that I had never seen until about three months ago, but that I became balls-out obsessed with), while the great William Sanderson, in addition to his roles in Blade Runner, Lonesome Dove and Newhart, played EB Farnum on Deadwood, a fantastic show that was killed before its time.
Bauer and Sanderson play the two cops in the town, and I imagine the two of them, after a long day of vampiring, walking into a dimly lit bar, sitting quietly at a wobbly table. They do not speak for a long time. A waitress comes and they quietly make their orders. She brings them quickly and moves back behind the bar. Finally, Sanderson lifts his glass.
I really like Ken Burns. A lot of the criticism of his work is pretty valid, I guess...but really, I don't much care. The stuff he gets right is great, and the stuff he gets wrong he doesn't get so wrong that I'm too put off (although I thought The War wasn't much good).
He's got another long-ass documentary on PBS, this one about America's national parks. I've only half-heartedly watched a bit of it—honestly, I'm not that interested in the parks' history—but it's pretty good. At what, twelve hours? it's probably too long, and more than a little repetitive (take a drink every time you hear someone say some variation of “the national parks are about democracy”), but again, so what.
The thing is, the other night when I was watching, I was...overcome? I guess, as I sometimes am, by how incredibly huge this country really is, both in its literal physical scope and, more importantly, its vast symbolic power, its ability to be what Hunter Thompson called “a fantastic monument to the better instincts of the human race.” America is an absolutely limitless place, which of course means it is also a nation that can never live up to the promises it makes—America will always break your heart, because you know that no matter how good it is, it will never be as good as it can be. Which means that there will always be men and women working to improve things, and to make the country live up to its potential.
When I was a kid, I was big into music. Granted, I still am today, but much more so then. And, because there was no internet back in 1997 (look it up!), my exposure was considerably more limited. Which meant that when something like, say, the Grammys would be on television, I was right there for that shit. I rarely liked the stuff that was nominated, and I usually hated whatever won, but I do have sort of a soft spot for the 1997 Grammy Awards: there were performances from Beck, The Smashing Pumpkins, The Fugees (remember them?), uh...No Doubt (I hated them then, and they have yet to rise much in my esteem), and a couple of other groups that were actually sort of decent. I was watching at home, enjoying myself, having a great time.
But then. Oh, then.
Then came the dreaded Waiting to Exhale medley. Whitney Houston, Cee Cee Winans, Mary J Blige, Chaka Khan, Brandy, and Aretha Fucking Franklin stood together on one stage, all of them shouting and screaming and yowling like half a dozen soulful banshees. For ten minutes. It was an insane clusterfuck of noise that haunts me to this day, nearly thirteen years after the fact.
See for yourself:
Awful, yes? Yes, of course. Although, with the benefit of hindsight and the wisdom that comes with age, the question that comes almost immediately to mind is who the hell decided that Brandy belonged there? It would be like Neil Young, Paul McCartney, David Bowie, Nick Cave, and Eric Clapton sharing the stage with that dude that played violin for Yellowcard.
Of late, my life has been a lot like that song “Sunday Morning Coming Down”, only minus the alcoholism and drug abuse aka the best part, but that is neither here nor there. Many is the day that I rise at the break of midday, look around my shabby apartment at my shabby belongings, and the only thing that stops me from jumping off the patio is the fact that the fall (less than fifteen feet) wouldn't prove fatal, but would only prolong the misery.
SO HOW HAVE I BEEN KEEPING MYSELF BUSY? I'M GLAD YOU ASKED!
I have been keeping myself busy by illegally downloading a ton of comedy albums and podcasts and such via some neighbor of mine who is nice and/or ignorant (and is there really a difference?) enough to not lock their internet connection, thus allowing me to steal the internet. Illegally!
Anyhow, comedy. It is rare that people ever look around themselves and acknowledge “I am living through a golden age.” Not the ancient Greeks, not those aliens that constructed the pyramids using nothing more than the hard work of their Jewish slaves, not the white people, back in the day, when they could do whatever they wanted. It is only in hindsight that we realize how fortunate we were to be alive in a time when magic was happening all around us.
And such an age is upon us. I honestly feel that comedians have, in the last decade or so, become funnier than they have ever been. You still have plenty of utterly shitty comics, and yes, most of the guys that are Huge are really terrible, but has there ever been a time when there were so many funny people around?
It's hard to find an exact place to start with the comedy renaissance, but I associate it in my mind with Mr Show and the so called “alternative comedy” scene that includes Cross and Odenkirk and Patton Oswalt and Sarah Silverman and Zach Galifianakis and Paul F. Tompkins, comics that are a lot more conceptual, less concerned with being jokey. Stuff That Makes You Think, in other words. And even in the realm of comedians that aren't particularly deep or cutting edge, you've got (relatively) funny people like Daniel Tosh or Jim Gaffigan or Dave Attell—guys that I don't really love, but are still pretty good. The guys that always have half-hour Comedy Central specials. The ones that are always doing those celebrity roasts things. They're not great, but even the mediocre comedians are pretty good. It must be like back in the 60s, when stuff by, like, Tommy James and the Shondells, was considered kind of throwaway crap, but was still awesome, because it was being compared to The Beatles and Creedence Clearwater Revival and The Kinks and whatnot.
There's so much overlap that it's really hard, if not impossible (and also pointless!) to divide everyone into specific scenes. The Judd Apatow Crew mixes freely with the Will Ferrell Crew, which at times includes people associated with the Mr Show/Alternative Comedy crowd. People from The State get mixed in with a handful of Saturday Night Live mainstays, which of course, includes Will Ferrell as an alumni. People from The Office and 30 Rock flow in and out of these different streams, all of them uniting to form a mighty River of Comedy that I am happy to continue to bathe in, day after endless goddamn day.
So, Eric Holder is opening an investigation into the CIA torturing people. I guess I'm glad these guys are going to be (in theory) punished, but I just can't find it in my heart to be that excited about it.
Let's be honest here: John Ashcroft isn't going to prison over this. I doubt anybody will. I'm glad it's going to be looked into, but at the same time I feel it's almost a way to distract us—let's get revenge on Bush and Cheney!—from the fact that, while things haven't yet collapsed or anything, neither have they gotten Super Awesome yet. My main concern is that perhaps Obama may be biting off more than he can chew. There are a lot of things that need to be fixed, but I kind of doubt they can all be fixed at the same time. My fear from the beginning was that Obama (or whichever Democrat took the White House) would wind up being the second coming of Jimmy Carter, a guy that got tossed a live hand grenade and then took the blame when it exploded in his hand. I really hope that's not the case—Obama seems a lot smarter than Jimmy Carter, and a lot more ruthless, too. You can tell that beneath his Cool Dude exterior he can be a Serious Hardass if he needs to be. Not unlike JFK. Granted, other than fucking Marilyn Monroe, JFK didn't accomplish much.
In the end, Obama is a politician, which means that he promised a lot of things—things that he probably really believed in—that seem destined for compromise at best or failure at worst. A lot of things that I don't have a whole lot of hope for. Which means that the guy was probably not the best candidate for me. I've always been a glass-half-empty sort of person. Rather than “Yes We Can”, I'd have been a lot more comfortable with “We Probably Can't, But Hey, We'll See What Happens”, which doesn't really pack as much of a punch, I admit, but it's a lot more honest, and sums up my attitude much better.
The good thing about Bush, Cheney, et al was that while they were in power, I always knew where I stood: in direct oppostion to them. They were my North Star—I could always find my way home by their putrid lights. But now, I feel lost and listless. My compass spins. The wilderness remains.
You could spend the next four years (hell, the next eight) punishing the people who fucked this country over, but my heart just isnt in it, not tonight.
I suffer intensely from bouts, at times almost disabling, of a limitless, all-encompassing nostalgia extending well back into the years before I was born.
The mass synthesis, marketing, and distribution of versions and simulacra of an artificial past, perfected over the last thirty years or so, has ruined the reputation and driven a fatal stake through the heart of nostalgia. Those of us who cannot make it from one end of a street to another without being momentarily upended by some fragment of outmoded typography, curve of chrome fender, or whiff of lavender hair oil from the pate of a semiretired neighbor are compelled by the disrepute into which nostalgia has fallen to mourn secretly the passing of a million marvelous quotidian things.
The world lost another of its idols yesterday. Murrell's, a local diner, closed its doors after sixty-plus years in the business of serving fried, greasy food to drunks and college kids.
I'm not going to bullshit anybody and claim that the food there was great—even for a diner, Murrell's was pretty average. The burgers, at one time, were awesome, but they'd gone downhill in quality, to the point where it was strongly suspected that they were just pre-frozen patties. But be that as it may, it is gone, and we should all be in some kind of mourning.
Murrell's was notable for a few things. It was the only place in town where you could get a Morvich, a truly insane sandwich that somehow combined all four food groups: chicken fried steak, cheese, eggs, and bacon. It was also the quintessential shitty diner. It stood for a little over sixty years, and I'm pretty sure it was last cleaned sometime during the Carter administration. There were a number of weird pictures on the walls (including portraits of four random US Presidents), which were stained a deep nicotine brown—only when you looked behind the picture did you see that the walls were at one point two or three shades lighter. The service was never fantastic, the tables and chairs constantly verged on the brink of collapse, and most of the clientele seemed to consist of shabby old lunatics. I can distinctly remember visiting one afternoon and wondering to myself if most/all of the customers had somehow escaped from the mental ward of a local nursing home.
You'd be hard-pressed to think of anything more iconically American than the all-night diner. You imagine truck drivers and cops and other hard-working stiffs coming in, looking for some cheap grub and a place to have a coffee and a smoke before going back out into the night again. You think of Edward Hopper and you think of Norman Rockwell and you think of Robert Frank, images that were antique thirty years before you were born, and you think that visiting these places again will help you touch base with some past that you never saw except in dreams or photos or in the long-gone memory of your grandparents.
I've been a night owl my entire life. When I was a child, I'd stay up while my grandmother played solitaire and watched late-nite TV until three or four in the morning, whenever the station went off the air (and more often that not, when that happened, she would put on a VHS tape and stay up even longer). And years later, I went nearly my entire sophomore year in high school on approximately four hours of sleep a night. Even now, as I'm updating this blog, it's nearly two in the morning. There's no reason for this, of course, it's just...what if I miss something?
It's a kind of lovely loneliness, being up late, thinking you're the one person in the world awake and watchful in the night. Places like Murrell's, open all night, give you the sense that you're not entirely alone out in the world when everyone else is asleep. Diners and gas stations and truck stops give you a happy, welcome feel. They're little beacons of safety in the night, little harbors, a place that lets you know that you are not alone, and that the fun has not yet stopped, that there's always something happening, and that you haven't missed a thing.
No matter where I was, or how weird & crazy it got, everything would be okay if I could just make it Home.--Hunter S. Thompson
I guess I had this idea that everyone must have some similar landmark that could be the center of their universe. Some places have a mountain that’s always on the horizon. Maybe for some people it’s a grain silo. Maybe a tree. Maybe a flat field. Maybe an apartment building. The iconic mascot of a place that is home.--Phil Elverum
The thing is: I really don't feel like I have that. Technically, my hometown is a little town in Texas called Linden, but I left it before I was old enough to really establish an identity there. I moved back when I was twenty years old and spent the next four years or so there, but I made no friends and felt no special connection to the place beyond the family I had there.
The years between my time in Linden were spent in an even smaller town in Louisiana, and I suppose that technically I feel more at home there than I do in Texas—if I go there I can see familiar faces, and most of my adolescent memories are tied up in that place—but I don't really know anyone there anymore, I have no family in the area, and so there is no reason for me to go back.
If I had any one place that I felt was totally mine to call home—“my own personal Lighthouse that I could see from anywhere in the world” as Hunter Thompson put it—it would probably be my grandparents' home in Texas, just outside Linden in an unincorporated community called Bear Creek. We lived with them off and on throughout my early childhood and following my parents' divorce and, when I returned to Linden to attend school and spend long graveyard shifts working at the EZ Mart, I lived in their home while they separately went about the slow business of dying, and I lived there in the house alone for nearly a year afterward before leaving it behind to live in an attic in Arkansas.
The house had always been the place for the entire family to gather. My grandparents had five children, so there were a lot of grandchildren. I have nearly a dozen cousins, and there would usually be a couple of weeks in the summer when most of us were running around outside getting bitten by ants and playing in the dirt. Holidays were always a big to-do, with thirty of us easily packed into the house, the adults playing Moon or Forty-Two, domino games that I never learned to play despite their soundtrack—the clack of the tiles and the laughter of grown-ups—playing constantly in the background of the first twelve years or so of my life.
But naturally, as my grandparents became more frail and as the cousins got older and went off to school or got married or had children of their own, coming home to Bear Creek became less of an option, and by the time my grandfather died in September of 2002, the house had ceased to be the gathering place for the family.
(He built it himself, almost literally. He worked in the mill at Lone Star, then would come home and between tending to the cattle or the two gardens, he built the house that stands there now. Working off and on like that, it took somewhere around a decade. I can't imagine having that kind of strength or dedication, and I can't really imagine I'll ever have it.)
But no one really wanted to live there. They had their own homes, their own lives And so the house went on the market and, after a year or so, it finally sold, and passed out of our hands.
It seems like those memories, and the things that happened there, in that place, were a hundred years ago, and happened to someone else.
Last night I watched The Marine, starring WWE superstar John Cena. It was pretty funny and awful. They say "the marine" about ten times, and there are at least seven ridiculous explosions. Also, the guy who played the T-1000 is in it, hamming up a storm.
Does anyone remember when wrestlers were tough? They were strong and muscular, but they were also kind of flabby...they looked solid. Most, if not all, of the guys wrestling professionally nowadays look strong, sure, but they don't look tough. Cena himself is huge and muscular--his neck must be thirty inches in diameter--and he has a gigantic, blocky head that looks to have been carved from stone, and he could break every bone in my body twice with little or no effort...but he just looks like a big overgrown doofus. And when the end credits for The Marine roll, and Cena begins awkwardly rapping, then it's confirmed: doofus. Not tough.
Cena and his kind are sadly representative of what kids think of when they think of wrestlers: oily muscleheads who wear Ed Hardy t-shirts in their off-time and listen to T-Pain to get themselves pumped up before a match. The kind of guys who throw fake gang signs and make kissy faces in their Myspace photos. In short, they think of douchebags. And as we all know, no matter how strong a douchebag may be, he is never intimidating or tough-looking.
Look at "Dirty" Dusty Rhodes or "Hacksaw" Jim Duggan or Ric Flair: those guys are/were certainly strong, but it was the kind of strong that you got by working construction or being a farmhand or working in a steel mill or living in the woods and fighting bears. It's the kind of strong that you associate with your father, when you're a kid. Those old guys were basically big strong rednecks, tough guys, like bikers. Guys that like to drink shitty beer and listen to ZZ Top and have gross sex with bar hags. Guys that would never make kissy faces in their Myspace photos. Guys that would never have a Myspace profile to begin with.
Guys like this.
Look at it this way: Ric Flair started wrestling in 1971. He stopped wrestling in 2008. That is nearly forty years. Ric Flair was a tough guy for a living for nearly forty years. Guys like John Cena usually retire a couple of years into their career to focus on making terrible music or to promote energy drinks or to star in terrible, terrible movies like The Marine.
Rhodes has a son that wrestles now, as does Ted "The Million Dollar Man" DiDiase, as does Randy Orton. All of these sons are douchebags. They're an insult to wrestling's great tradition of giving stupid rednecks something to yell at on TV on Saturday mornings, a place to direct your simmering anger, instead of beating your wife or kids or dog. In this way wrestling has long fostered healing and togetherness.
In all seriousness, wrestling has a beautiful old-timey feel, an almost vaudevillian quality--the good guys are called "babyfaces" and the villains are called "heels"--there should be a guy in a straw boater and a striped coat coaxing you inside to see the huge men named Goliath or Samson or Hercules, men wearing leopard-print leotards and lifting huge trapezoidal weights. Men who marry beautiful midget women and eventually own racehorses and saloons. Men who become the first in the community to buy a motorcar. Men who inspire respect, whose funerals are attended by hundreds of mourners, who create legends that outlive them, who cast long shadows over all the subsequent generations.
Of late, I've become somewhat obsessed with talk radio. I had a job earlier this year with the Census Bureau, which meant that I spent a lot of time riding around in my car. And because I got tired of listening to music, and because NPR doesn't begin to air news programs until three PM, I would often spend a good part of the early day listening to AM radio, a scary place that is populated chiefly by angry lunatics and condescending charlatans that know exactly which buttons to push to rile up their equally angry listeners, who are for the most part older white men who feel threatened and put upon. The kind of people who genuinely believe that there is at this time a plot to overthrow The American Way Of Life that they have become accustomed to. The kind of people who get angry when they dial an 800 number and are told by the automated voice at other end of the line to push one for English.
(There's a really good article about this very subject by David Foster Wallace available here )
These hosts vary from the purely stupid (Sean Hannity, who says things like "this is the Greatest Country In The World, and Obama has the nerve to call us arrogant?") to the absolutely unhinged (Mark Levin, who screeches like a banshee for hours on end) to the genuinely evil (Michael Savage, who makes no attempt to mask his hatred for gays and immigrants). So it was quite a shock to me that, after hating him for as long as I've known of his existence, I came to realize that Rush Limbaugh is actually the only talk radio host that I can stand to listen to for more than five minutes. Not that this is an endorsement of Limbaugh—he is a terrible, terrible person, and I am sure he will go to hell when he dies—but he is the least worst option. Levin and Hannity and Savage are all idiots, clearly, but they are first and foremost zealots: they all genuinely believe the hateful bullshit that they spew day after day after day. Limbaugh, though, is more of a showman. I'm sure he believes most of what he says, but I'm also sure that he's a smart enough guy to know that the really insane, out-there shit is just that: shit. He knows exactly what to say to piss off his enemies and to encourage his pathetic, hero-worshipping fans. Whether or not he actually believes it is beside the point. If Shit Really Went Down, Rush would find a way to survive, like a cockroach.Hannity and Glenn Beck and Levin, though, would be down in the Führerbunker to the bitter end, waiting for the doors to be kicked in so they could swallow their cyanide capsules in unison.
I'm getting off track. What I really wanted to bring up was how utterly humorless all of these guys are. When I say humorless, I don't mean they don't try to be funny, just that they all fail at it, and miserably. Their humor most often takes the form of bad puns or weak, childish wordplay. Michael Savage calls Michael Jackson “Michael Jackass”; Levin calls the Washington Post the “Washington Com-Post” (and it's not bad enough that this is not only not funny, but he repeats it constantly); on Limbaugh they play a song, supposedly sung (in a lispy, faggy screech) by Barney Frank, called “Banking Queen”, to the tune of ABBA's “Dancing Queen”. Because Barney Frank is GAY, get it? They also played Michael Jackson's “Beat It” intercut with soundbites from (I shit you not) Pee Wee Herman, a joke that is both really bad and about twenty years out of date.
In some ways, I find these awful jokes more insulting than the idiotic opinions being put out there by these morons. We all have differing political opinions, fine, but just about everyone knows when a joke is good and when it's not. Even if you don't agree with Jon Stewart or Stephen Colbert you should be able to laugh at something that's objectively funny. I've never seen or heard a single talk-radio host tell a joke of any kind that's even somewhat funny. They should take a long hard look at Janeane Garofalo, a comic who used to be pretty funny but who long ago got swallowed up in being bitter and self-congratulatory. It's just not funny if you're the only one laughing.
And as the moon rose higher the inessential houses began to melt away until gradually I became aware of the old island here that flowered once for Dutch sailors' eyes - a fresh, green breast of the new world. Its vanished trees had once pandered in whispers to the last and greatest of all human dreams; for a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an aesthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder.
I was never really aware of Michael Jackson as a kid--I know that seems crazy, but it's true. I never really listened to music that much, and what I did listen to was mainly The Beach Boys and various other golden oldies. He just wasn't on my radar. I wasn't even a year old when Thriller was released. If I'd been ten or eleven, then he would have been a much bigger part of my universe. But by the time I was old enough to begin to be aware of the larger world of music around me, he had already begun his long slow decline.
Having said that, there are still a few distinct memories I have. When I was a kid, I wasn't allowed to watch The Simpsons, but my best friend would tape it, and when I would visit on weekends, we would watch it on his old top-loading VCR. And one night, FOX premiered the "Do You Remember The Time" video either right before or after The Simpsons, and the two of us watched it, fascinated by the then-current "morphing" technology used in the video. Despite the song not being very good, I can still remember it very well, nearly seventeen years later. FOX did the same thing with the "Scream" video, and I remember my grandmother making a point to watch it, which I thought was weird then, and still do now, as the only music I ever knew her to enjoy was the kind they played on Hee-Haw. It was a genuine "what the hell?" moment, one that goes to show the kind of weird charisma he commanded at that time.
He was probably the last genuine Global Megastar to walk the earth, the kind of celebrity who was as famous in America as he was in China, or Brazil, or Italy. For better or worse, no album will ever again sell like Thriller, and it is almost as likely that no musician will ever achieve the kind of worldwide renown that Jackson achieved.
Was he a pedophile? Well, probably. There's almost as much evidence for his innocence as his guilt, but...yeah, he was almost certainly a pedophile. And if nothing else, he was more or less completely out of his mind for probably the last twenty years of his life. I can't think of a single figure who better illustrates the way fame--and especially the kind of desperate, nasty fame we create in America--can destroy a person. Just looking at the ruins of his face, the way he seemed to be trying to make himself something more, or less, than human, speaks volumes about how a person can crack so thoroughly they can never really be put back right again. For someone who brought so many people joy, he seemed to have never truly been happy, and regardless of the crimes he may or may not have committed, he is ultimately a truly tragic figure.
I rewatched the Townes Van Zandt documentary Be Here To Love Me last night. I'd seen it before back when it came out, but I'd forgotten how brutal it was.
In a way, it's admirable, Van Zandt's dedication to his art--his willingness to throw family, material gains, simple human comfort, aside in pursuit of his music. "There was a point when I realized: man I could really do this," Van Zandt says at one point, "but it takes blowing everything off. It takes blowing your family off, money, security, happiness, friends: blow it off." But it's also infuriating to see someone so fundamentally selfish ("he could be really cruel to the people who loved him," his oldest son says, with no hint of romanticsm). He left behind three wives and just as many children. True, he seemed somewhat content with his last marriage and family, but given enough time I expect he would have severed those ties as well.
At times, though, it seems it was almost worth it. We were joking around somewhat while watching the movie, making smalltalk, but the three of us fell silent watching a performance of "Marie", a completely no bullshit moment. Van Zandt wrote any number of sad, dark songs, but he was also the author of songs like "Highway Kind", "Marie", and "Nothin'" that are pulsing black holes, portals into a despair that is utterly inescapable. Listening, you're surprised he lasted as long as he did. His old friend Guy Clark puts it best, performing at a memorial for Van Zandt--"I booked this gig thirty years ago."
The other thing that struck me, watching the documentary, particularly during the interview sections with a visibly drunk Guy Clark, is how much Van Zandt and the entire Texas singer/songwriter scene--Van Zandt and Guy Clark and Steve Earle and others--remind me of my father and his old cronies, many (most) of whom are a bunch of drunks and fuckups, even now, well into their fifties. But they all had a lot--some would say too much--fun in their youth. They drank and did drugs and got fucked up and crashed cars and fucked each other's husbands and wives. They embodied the same kind of free-spirited outlaw/hippie/country vibe of Clark and Van Zandt, only minus the talent and success.
Still, I often find myself envying them their youth and freedom, particularly when weighed against my own rather timid and unexciting adolescence, and which probably explains to some degree my fascination/attraction to people who are kind of fucked up and self-destructive. They can burn up before your eyes, provide illumination, poke and prod into dark corners while you remain your own safe and boring self, quietly watching the dark.
So in a couple of weeks Seven Mary Three, Sponge, and Marcy Playground are going to be playing a free concert at a racetrack here in town.
There's always something profoundly depressing to me about seeing these kind of has-been groups still slugging it out (the same racetrack that's hosting these bands has already had Soul Asylum, Better Than Ezra, and the Gin Blossoms perform in the last year or so) in the trenches--enough of a name to be a draw, but only to people who want to hear them chug out their handful of hits and be done.
The saddest thing about these bands is that none of them--with the exception of Soul Asylum--were ever that good to begin with. The first Gin Blossoms album is great, and I have something of a soft spot for Better Than Ezra's Deluxe, but none of the others were anything more than second--or third--rate imitations. Seven Mary Three sounded like the stupidest parts of Pearl Jam (and were probably the first of the Shitty Pearl Jam Knockoffs that came to define "Modern Rock" radio, awful bands like Three Doors Down and Creed and Nickleback), while Sponge were like Stone Temple Pilots, only worse. And Marcy Playground...well, their first album wasn't the worst thing in the world, but that's hardly a glowing review.
Yet somehow all of these groups--again, with the exception of Soul Asylum--managed to have some big hits, but only one or two, and then were more or less forgotten in the great Post Grunge/Nu-Metal era, when a band as blatantly awful as Lit would be considered a cutting edge rock act. But none of them ever stopped making albums, despite more and more diminishing returns. And now they're playing free shows at racetracks and casinos and state fairs, taking the place of the dinosaur rock acts like Bachman Turner Overdrive and Foghat that usually play these kind of venues.
The thing that truly distresses me about these bands is the scent of failure that clings to them. And not only their own failures of talent or ability, but the failure of the whole early 90s rock movement. Bands that formed out of the crucible of the late 80s underground, that really took to heart what it was all about. Mark Lanegan likened it to being "in the late 60s, if the MC5 and the Stooges suddenly got to be the biggest bands in the world." And despite being a little too young to have been as affected by an album like Nevermind the way most people just a few years older than me were, being a kid when all this stuff was blowing up was nothing short of magical. It basically felt like the good guys had won, and things might be different somehow.
This was, naturally, a pretty stupid thing to think, and just a few short years later, it was obvious that the things that were good and challenging were having their edges sanded off and were being sold back in such a way that the greatest number of people would buy it. This is how things always happen and should have surprised no one. But that does nothing to stop the weird twinge of sadness and disappointment I feel when I happen to hear an old song or catch an old video and see young people so lost in themselves, full of a potential they will ultimately betray.
"Like most North Americans of his generation, he tends to know way less about why he feels certain ways about the objects and pursuits he's devoted to than he does about the objects and pursuits themselves. It's hard to say for sure whether this is even exceptionally bad, this tendency."