Sunday, June 14, 2015

You Can Get F*****

So rarely do I blog that, at times, one wonders why I blog at all?  

Certainly I so wonder.

I blog rarely because the "events" that comprise my life tend toward the minimal and the mental.  And thus the uneventful.  E.g.: an "event" of last month was borne of a documentary I watched about Bowie (Five Years on Showtime).  The key moment: Robert Fripp, describing the difference between POP and ROCK said something….

Well, what he said is R-rated.  But the essence is: danger.  Danger.

And that gibes with the Ian Buruma NYRB review of the Bowie museum exhibit he saw at the Victoria and Albert--the element of danger in his music.  A meaningful revelation to me.  Yes.  An event, though mental, in my life: that is an element I respond to in his music.  Deeply.  The danger.  Non-ironic danger.  Real danger. 

In graduate school (I have a BSS in orthopedic dentistry) I remember driving some people somewhere--probably to the Corn Rodeo--and I put on Diamond Dogs--which opens with a spoken-word section about dogs eating cats, and filth, and the broken city--and this silly person in the backseat, who's now a semi-famous writer, asked me in a whimpering, doll-voice to please, turn it off.  It was scary.  And I did so, smiling, and wishing her destroyed….

And that's true, utterly, what Fripp and Buruma note.  That IS one of the great powers in his music: the sense of real danger.  Of, to use the LA-appropriate word, stakes.  

The Fripp quote: "the difference between pop at rock is that, at a rock show, you can get F******"

Meaning the last word in all its senses.  And Fripp--bespectacled and buttoned-up as he comes on--is, in truth, a dark, subversive wizard.  (Like Burroughs, another seemingly buttoned-up martinet).  Listen to early 70s King Crimson, and you'll know.  "Starless and Bible Black"--that song, to this day, unsettles me.  It is legitimately menacing.  In the best, most non-negotiable way.  

Anyway, that insight seems to me utterly true.  (Is this why, as we age, we tire of rock music?  Because  danger seems much less appealing at 40 than 20?  Because it has become real?  Much more, uhm, dangerous.)  And explains why I have so much weariness for, say, The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Elton John, and Bruce Springsteen.  To pick at random.  Where there is no danger, there is no rock.  This is what McCartney lacked--why without Lennon, there was no greatness. 

Not to say that danger alone suffices to make great, or even good, music.  (Exhibit One: solo John Lennon).  It clearly does not.  But madness, depravity, being TAKEN--that is always in the cards, at a good rock show.  On a good rock album.  "You might get F******."  Literally or otherwise.  (Hence the deep linkages between rock music and mind-altering drugs.  "You might get F*****").

So that was an "event" of the last month--seeing that documentary, being reminded of how much of Bowie's power derives from danger and also, seeing him in images (and I'm moving to a new topic now, in the non-eventful way of thought, as captured--the rhythm of thought I mean--in Eno's Music For Airports) from his unearthly beauty.  (A brief clip of him striding from a hotel in Paris in 1976 clad in trousers and a loose black knit sweater has convinced me to never wear jeans again.  Really.)

Which made me think of the dissappointing last season of a much-overrrated show, Mad Men--one of the few great moments in a forgettable ending involving a junior nobody who's been fired telling Don that the only reason for his success is that "he's good-looking."  Yes.  Correct!  That reminds me of Jaigello in the Aubrey/Maturin books--the sense we all have, I believe, of wanting to befriend and to be liked by those who have true beauty.  Not the beautiful people… but the truly beautiful.  And there are very few of those.

If Bowie looked like Meatloaf, but wrote the same songs, would he be Bowie?  Of course not.  And it's a stupid question, obviously, because if he looked like Meatloaf he wouldn't have had the same experiences that Bowie had, and could never have written the same songs.

So that's an event, so to speak.  Or reading the Palliser series.  Or watching the sublime Jiro Dreams of Sushi.  And my thoughts about Trollope.  Or Charles Baxter's essays, which include one about Bartheleme which deserves to be read.  Or The War On Drugs, which is who I'm listening to a lot, but who cares?

BUT.. here's why I bother writing... Oh--remind me--I have a link you all need to read--about computer languages...the best thing I've read on the net in months, especially great for all those (like me)who always wonder what comptuer programming's really all about, and what all those languages are and mean.  It's not brief, but you will love every word.  And you'll finally have a sense about the difference between Perl and Python and Java and C.   Just give it a few paragraphs.  WHAT THE HELL ELSE DO YOU HAVE TO DO YOU RECALCITRANT NINNIES!

Where was I?

Man, isn't Mad Men such a wearying, tedious, repetitive show?  Not that it doesn't have its moments, but how limited it proves to be in the end?  You know why?   Because no one ever takes any action, ever, out of generosity of spirit.  There is no altruism, no kindness, no wit (has there ever been a popular show that had so few moments of humor?  Which is a central experience of all life!) 

All actions in Mad Men are borne of covetousness and fear and vituperation.  As if that's the sum total of the human experience!   I mean, yes, obviously: humans tend frequently toward the petty, toward the fearful and mean.  No doubt.  But to represent human expereince in ONLY those terms--as Mad Men does (has Betty ever done anything even slightly generous?)--is just as stupid and ignorant as would be a show that showed people acting only out of high-minded ideals.

Contrast it to The Sopranos, a show that's two orders of magnitude greater.   Obviously, on The Sopranos pettiness and cruelty abounds.  But what makes it a great, a transcendental show, is that there is a full spectrum of emotions depicted there.

I'm suddenly so tired.  So so tired.  And I can't go on about The Sopranos.  But do I need to?  You all know that its powers, how it shows many, many more aspects of human emotion.  Meadow cleaning the floor of her grandmother's house after she has the party there, in Season One.  Tony and his conflicted efforts to be a good son.  His attempts to help Irina to find a better life.  Carmela hungering after a true spiritual life.  AJ trying to join the military, in the final season, to help his country (stymied by his parents).

But wait.

My ultimate point is subverted.  Because, though mostly I don't experience any real events, I did, this weekend.  

Yes.  Yes yes.  A Real Event!  Involving other people! And wine!  And some lawyer insulting my wife!  And more wine!  Wine that's better than any I've ever had.  Wine that costs 1200$ a bottle!  And people insulting Texas!  And me having to translate French poetry!  And plastic surgery!  

This is all true.  Activity!  And activity that's not only mental!  But real!  In my life!  And it will be described to you, my friends.  Soon.   So, so, soon.....

And you know what?  I'm listening, right now, to August and Everything After.  And I love it.  And I won't apologize!  SO DON'T TRY TO MAKE ME.

You don't want to waste your life, now, baby....


JMW said...

Adam Duritz knows from danger, obviously.

Also, Mad Men was terribly repetitive and ungenerous in spirit, as you say. If it was two seasons, it could have been brilliant. Almost all of the TV so over-praised these days is quite over-long. Concision is a lost art.

Also-also, why am I 41 and just now discovering the world-conquering greatness of Virginia Woolf? The fact that she created "Mrs. Dalloway" and "Orlando," books so different but so great, means, I think, she might be the best writer who ever lived. Do you dare to disagree?

Bowie. Huh. He's beautiful, it's true, in his elegant-alien way.

ANCIANT said...

I think there is some danger in Counting Crows, though it's the less acute dangers that you find there mostly--loss, heartbreak, failure. But dangers nonetheless.

I haven't read Orlando. I've never had anyone recommend it to me. I guess I should?

Mrs Dalloway, I agree with you on. I read "To The Lighthouse" a long time ago, and found it moderately interesting. I also read some of her essays and enjoyed them, but I've never been blown away by her work. I guess I should revisit it.

JMW said...

Revisit her, really.

Dezmond said...

First of all, loved the post. I wish you would write more about music. Even if it would be about Bowie about 90% of the time. Danger, absolutely. (I liked what you said about solo McCartney and Lennon. McCartney has nothing at stake in his solo work, it is all craft. And Lennon forgot such things as compelling melodies, great musicianship, etc. in his. That is why they needed each other). I of course cannot let the Springsteen reference go by without addressing it. So here goes.

First, when you throw him in there with the Rockhall and Elton, I am assuming therefore you are more referring to the latter day Bruce (and Elton, for that matter. Because prime 70's Elton is hardly wearying). Within the past year or so I have had a Bruce renewal due to the flood of prime Springsteen shows I have acquired, both in bootleg and official form. On my own blog I posted awhile ago about getting my hands on several coveted Springsteen bootlegs. In addition, Bruce himself has opened the floodgates. He was notorious back in the day for battling fiercely with bootleggers, and was protective about what was and was not released. He has relaxed in his old age, and on his website he has quietly started putting entire shows for download from 1975, '78, '80, '84...and some more recent ones. He's putting them there at a good clip too, a new one every month or so, sometimes even more frequently. For Springsteen fans, the '75-'88 time period is manna from heaven.

Is prime Bruce dangerous? In some ways, yes. Listen to my very favorite show that I have heard thus far (Winterlands '78), and there is danger in the intensity and commitment. So I guess as much as the danger and getting f*cked, great rock and roll is also about commitment. I mean really great rock and roll that is important. Prime U2 is another example. Achtung Baby might have some danger in there, but great 80’s U2 is all about the intensity of commitment. That may be less sexy than Fripp’s “you might get f*cked” statement, but commitment is as important as danger.

What do I mean by that? We have discussed this before somewhere and you have written about it, but great rock and roll has to mean something to the listener beyond just being a catchy tune or background party music. It has to mean almost everything. That is the key to Springsteen’s live reputation from the 70’s and some of the 80’s. Listen to his Winterlands ’78 show (and many other shows from the Darkness on the Edge of Town tour) and it is frightening in its intensity. Fortunately for us, there was some great rock and roll being made when we were the right age (or close enough to it); when WE could be as committed to it as the artist. There were fewer things vying for our attention, both culturally and personally. And I’ve mentioned this before, but vinyl was key. It takes more commitment to get off your ass and go to a record store, buy the record, hold a tangible object, put the needle into the groove, and just listen vs. quickly downloading impersonal, inferior sounding mp3s. Before I had my daughters, before I had my wife, before I had a job that actually mattered, before 40 and facing probably the midpoint of my earthly existence…rock and roll was it. I was committed. Bruce’s shows from his prime required and gave that level of commitment. I mean, just listen to the great bootleg or otherwise shows from either ’75 or ’78 (considered by most to be the best tours, I side slightly with ’78 because of said intensity). It is all left out there on the stage, every ounce of his and his band’s very existence sound like it is on the line.

Dezmond said...

It is like he has nothing else, and that was true. That was why he was so great. I’ve read interviews with him where he remembers back to those tours and talks about having nothing else in his life at all but rock and roll. Where he was a lonely and isolated individual, and the only place he felt at home or happiness or connection was onstage. Which explained the length of his legendary shows, he didn’t want to leave the stage because that was all that he had. Later, he got married, kids, other interests…other commitments. Since 1988, his shows have been entertaining and interesting, you get glimpses of the old days, but the all encompassing, insane commitment level is not there. He’s got other things that sustain him, and therefore his rock and roll is no longer as compelling.

I think back to a 1980 show he’s got on his website for download. It is a New Year’s Eve show and clocks in at about four hours. The show is looooong, and while not quite as great as ’75 or ’78 shows, it is a good one. He has already played for awhile, obviously, by the time they ring in the new year with the crowd. The show is an astounding 38 songs. After the midnight mark, he continues to play seven more songs, including a 16 minute “Rosalita,” 12 minute “Jungleland,” and 13 minute joyous medley of early 60’s covers. It is like the guy literally cannot stop (insert crack here about the length of this comment). If these shows are not great, then there is nothing great in his whole existence. So as much as getting f*cked, there is cultlike commitment from both artist and fan that also makes great rock and roll. And, come to think of it, there is some danger to 70’s Bruce. “Born To Run” is about cutting loose and leaving your current life behind for something else. That can be dangerous. I mean, where are you really going? The morning after the excitement of busting loose…then what? (I guess that is what Darkness on the Edge of Town can be about. The night after the night.)

Moving on.

You’ve inspired me. I need to write some more on my blog. I haven’t written as much lately because I don’t think that many people read it any more. Stupid, right? I should write for its own sake. But I only like to write if I know someone is reading it. I’ve got some ideas for posts in the works, though. Got about four things in the pipeline, and I’m excited about two of them.

Can’t really listen to Counting Crows anymore. Even August and Everything After. The Duritz whine is just too overpowering. And what was a nice thing about the record, it being so derivative of certain sources, now bothers me more. Yes, it nicely recalls some Van Morrison. So I’ll just go listen to some Van Morrison then. A better writer, singer and more compelling artist.

By the way, I now see the light on Talking Heads. Been listening to them nonstop for weeks. Remain in Light is ridiculously great. Everything up to (and including) Stop Making Sense is worth close attention.

I regret not making Vegas work this time around. We should have had this Bowie, Springsteen, what is great rock and roll conversation in person. Over drinks and steaks. With Johannes making funny, nonsequiter jokes at our expense. And Williams mocking the intensity of our positions. And Willis watching us and wondering why he spent so much money to come to Vegas just to watch us rehash the same arguments we could have had in Houston. God that is the best! I miss having you guys around and hope we keep that trip going.

And yes, Bowie is beautiful.

Dezmond said...

And yes, Mad Men is overrated and tedious. I liked a lot of it though. I doubt you watch Walking Dead, and there are stretches of certain seasons that fall short, but as a whole I love that show. It combines my love of horror, apocalypse, danger, and good characters.

Do you watch Game of Thrones at all? I feel like I've asked this already of you and you answered. I seem to remember you were unimpressed? Love Game of Thrones, although the cruelty and brutality was a bit much even for me this season. Still love it though. And hey, it is and was a cruel world.

Giving the new season of True Detective a chance? That starts Sunday.

ANCIANT said...

Great stuff. First--and I feel terrible saying this given the intensity of your response--I didn't really mean to include Bruce in that line about danger. I mean, I know I typed it, but I wasn't actually thinking about Bruce when I wrote it. Because a) I tend to agree with you, and I do find an element of...high intensity/passion/commitment that approximates the 'danger' Fripp meant to refer to, I think, in his quote and b) I don't know Bruce's work well enough to comment on it. So, I retract that wholeheartedly.

Also--and I feel like I should have stated this more explicitly--in agreeing with Fripp about the distinction between Pop and Rock, I didn't intend in any way to condemn pop. I love pop! Tears for Fears came on the radio yesterday, and I was so happy. Love me some Tears for Fears! And much poppier stuff than that (I defy anyone not to like "Girls Just Want to Have Fun." It's a great great song! And I think I'd say that even if I didn't awaken 80s nostalgia in me).

But I don't agree about Elton John--I think his early 70s stuff is still pretty bad. As pop or rock. Though that's just an aside. (The best Elton John song ever? "I Guess That's Why They Call it the Blues.")

* * *

I know how you feel about blogging, btw. It's why I blog so rarely now--one feels like no one is reading it, and it takes so much effort, and so why bother? I don't think it's realistic to think that we should write just to do it--without a responding audience, there's really no point. (Why not just keep a journal)? But I'm always glad when I go to the trouble. Well, mostly always glad.

I have another post coming in the next week or so, I hope, about a wine tasting my wife and I went to recently.

We have to make Vegas happen next years.

ANCIANT said...

Oh, and yes, I do watch--hatewatch, really--Game of Thrones. I think it's basically a pretty one-dimensional show, and that Martin's view of humanity and human relationships is approximately that of a well-read fourteen-year old, but the visual spectacle it offers mostly compensates for the insipid shallowness of its world-view.

Dezmond said...

'Songs From the Big Chair is one of my favorite records. Funny thing is that Roland Orzabal thought himself such the serious artist, but TFF is just superior 80s pop. Nothing wrong with that at all.

Saxo Philologus said...

The Saxo family always reads the blog, even if we are dilatory about commenting. Very sage comments on Mad Men. If you ever hear Matthew Weiner interviewed on Fresh Air, the reason for the show's many flaws will become apparent. Regarding GOT, the Philologi have a more positive opinion. I think there is a much richer panoply of human behavior on display in that show than merely murder and torture, though that is what the show emphasizes.

Cartooniste said...

I, also, still read the blog.

Though I felt that "Jiro Dreams of Sushi" was inferior to its inspiration, which is everything by Errol Morris. "Fast, Cheap, and Out of Control" is worth a look if you haven't seen it.

ANCIANT said...

I saw "Fast Cheap and Out of Control" in a theater in Berkeley, in fact. Under certain influences. And I enjoyed it. Though I'm not sure that Jiro Dreams Of Sushi owes that much to that or any other Morris film.