Thursday, February 28, 2008

The Immortals: #100 - Lee "Scratch" Perry

The story of Jamaican popular music is one of self-reinvention, where the mento sounds of the island’s dancehalls evolved into ska and rocksteady variants to create a rich and unique folk tradition over a relatively small window of time. And while the most popular and influential musicians of their era were certainly ready to put an ear to their contemporaries, only one figure could make the whole island stop dead in its tracks to see its own future: Lee “Scratch” Perry was the crazed visionary of their native musics, and everybody knew it. That’s why they flocked to him to produce their tracks, and to proudly display his mark prominently on their own legacies. His creations were rife with imperfections and non sequiturs, signifiers of his own idiosyncrasies which, like the famously detuned piano of Studio 1, sustained each note he recorded with the unmistakable ring of his personal madness. While Perry's known erratic and volatile history at times overshadows his specific innovations, a glace back at the decades since he first hit the charts reveals a more subtle and important place in rock and roll history.

It is significant that the commercial viability of punk was first realized in England, where pop singles were propelled up the charts by seemingly nothing but the collective despair of the young, broke and angry. The Clash filled their first recordings with Junior Murvin covers, barely-veiled weed references and songs about how the only true revolutionaries in their punk explosion were found in the black clubs of Sheperd’s Bush. And you know something- they were right. When, my 15 year old self asks, did punk rockers stop listening to reggae music? After all, the towering influence of Scratch himself might be the most immediate link we have to our beloved indie ethos of Do It Yourself. Sure, the states had their share of forebears of would become punk, but any number of those proto-whatever acts were "DIY" only in the sense that they hadn’t the means to replicate the post-Motown, post-psychedelic take on American rock and soul (or the British Invaders who were themselves responding to those trends) that they aimed for. Ultimately, almost every Nugget of the garage-y goodness that we all love actually came from bands who aspired only to match the conventions of the time.

Far more punk than those days could predict, Scratch was true to himself, an Upsetter at heart from his earliest days. He broke genre boundaries because they could no longer contain his mad genius, and he pushed standard technologies past previous limits to fulfill the drive he felt to create something that could move even his own addled soul. When the instruments couldn’t make the right noises, he re-imagined the studio itself, and when he was ready to impart his pedagogy unto others, he did so in a lab built by hand from brick and wire. And, profane in all but the eyes of Jah, he christened his studio the Black Ark. Listening to a survey of his works, from the vocal pop of the Wailers and Junior Byles to his most hard-core instrumental dubs, one senses that the man’s recordings are as close to a map of his brain as could be generated in an Earthly language. Lee Perry made music because if he tried to put his actual thoughts into words, they’d have locked him away and thrown away the key.

Arkology by Lee "Scratch" Perry

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Thursday, February 14, 2008

Modern Library Top 100: #96 - Sophie's Choice by William Styron (1979)

It’s probably not possible to write a bad Holocaust book, even if the book in question is totally innocent of literary quality. Tapping into the reservoir of shock and shame that still guides our collective memory of that madness is the ultimate storytelling crutch. The Manichean reality of the camps and ghettos is so unbelievable that first-person accounts of it would read almost like a simple morality fable about the apotheosis of evil, if not for the 12,000,000 bodies that make the fable very, very real.

Against that backdrop, it’s easy to see how even unskilled hands can craft from such duality something overwhelmingly affecting. Witness Elie Wiesel’s Night. Certainly not one of the great novels I’ve read, Night is seared into memory because despite its literary faults, it describes, simply, those acts of unequivocal selflessness transpiring contemporaneously with similarly pure evil (there is no other word).

But if Holocaust literature is always an affecting experience, for a long time it suffered from being told from a single, unwavering paradigm—that of the survivor memoir. Then, in 1979, a middle-aged Virginian gentile by the name of William Styron had the audacity to publish Sophie’s Choice, one of the first (and certainly the most commercially viable) efforts of fiction to bring the Holocaust home, so to speak. Styron’s protagonist Stingo is a wide-eyed twentysomething boy, a southern gentleman-in-training living large in the Big Apple. And he experiences the Holocaust only indirectly, through the recounted memories of his fictional neighbor Sophie, memories that ultimately destroy her.

Almost immediately after its publication, Styron was attacked from more or less every corner. How dare this American, this interloper, shoehorn his way into the tragedy of tragedies that, ultimately, isn’t even his story to tell? And do so by inventing a horror amid an epoch rife with horrors already beyond imagination?

That question of “ownership” of the Holocaust is essential, I think, not only to Sophie’s Choice but to a whole bunch of other political shit that Neon Hustle strives to avoid, something I'll honor here. Suffice it to say, the cacophony of Styron’s detractors ultimately couldn’t smother what was undeniably a great novel. Partly as a consequence of Sophie's Choice, then, the Holocaust has come to be seen equally as a Jewish (and Gypsy, and Polack and Slav and homosexual and Soviet POW) experience and one that speaks to every global citizen. Speaking delicately, while you can’t really fault the survivors for defining their Holocaust experience as theirs and theirs alone, that impulse to exclude the rest of us 60 years later makes it more difficult for to appreciate, even sympathize with, what they endured.

So what makes Sophie’s Choice such a great book? Probably it’s Sophie herself. She is beautifully, brilliantly drawn, and if Styron didn’t actually know anyone like her in his too-short life, he certainly did his homework to create such a convincing character. Garrulous and withdrawn, exuberant and abject: Sophie embodies the withered dreams of her generation. This is a book I read twice through (I had erroneously assumed, being the lummox I am, that Sophie’s choice was a choice between sparing her child and herself, not a choice between saving one of her two children, a prism which undermined the experience for me the first time round. Plainly, the lesson here is to approach all things with an open mind, or at least a bare minimum of foreknowledge) and each time Sophie jumped off the page, someone you desperately want to talk to even while knowing that you’ll despair at what she has to say.

There are some faults here, of course, particularly Styron’s attempts at tying together the Holocaust and U.S. slavery. But rarely is a sweeping 600 page novel absolutely perfect. Credit Styron for aiming for the stars and getting at least as far as the moon, an accomplishment that’s still impressive 30 years on.

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Wednesday, February 13, 2008

The Self, The Other, The Home Team

When I was in high school, I was ecstatic to purchase the fourth album by Weezer on release day. I think I speak for every skinny nerd with glasses when I say Pinkerton and the Blue Album were my life. And I even thought the Green Album was pretty nifty. So, with a new album coming out, I was of course excited. I was a fan.

I was also an idiot. History, taste, record sales, cursory and in-depth listens, and common sense bear me out when I say that the record is awful. I’m writing this on the road, where I don’t have access to it, which is not an oversight: I haven’t intentionally listened to the album, in whole or in part, for at least three years. Their first albums were brilliant, but just because I loved what they did doesn’t mean I would love what they would do. After that experience, while I will always love Rivers and will always love that band, I will not blindly follow where they lead. I’m wearing an Against Me! sweatshirt but I’m not an apologist for “White People for Peace” or half of their last album.

In Oxford, there’s a bookshop called Blackwells. It’s described in the sort of grandiose superlatives that comes with college towns in general, and prestigious ones in particular. I’ve been traveling with only Ellis’s “Founding Brothers,” which while by no means serious history, still encouraged me to pick up a counterweight. This led me to pick up the only purchase that I’ve been even slightly embarrassed to hand to a cute, hipster book clerk - Simon Barnes’ “The Meaning of Sport.” In a cascading series of anecdotes that reads somewhere between a neonhustle post and a piece of longform journalism, he touches on all manner of topics related to sport (interesting), the process of writing about it (more interesting), and his hobbies of bird-watching and equestrianism (not interesting in the least).

Perhaps one of his more interesting digressions, though perhaps only because I was predisposed to the topic, is on the matter of fandom, or fanship as he calls it. Why is it that people tie themselves and their emotions to the successes and failures of athletes and clubs. As the match drew to a close and United could only strike once, Rohan said in passing, “I’m going to have to put three of my housemates on suicide watch.”

A psychotherapist friend of the author explains fanship as “‘A bearable way of facing the fact that God doesn’t love me.’ You desire a certain result, but inevitably, there are times when you are thwarted. The act of fanship, then is a way of seeking out and finding disappointment.” While Barnes is right to later point out that all human relationships are rooted in the prospect of such loss, we seek out both them and fanship anyway. The reward of each of these, however, is contingent on the risk that we be devastatingly disappointed when they go badly. Perhaps the friend is right to say that the choice to live and die by the standings is a way of buffering us from living and dying by our bank balances, our romances, our lives, but these don’t disappear when we constantly track the ticker to see who won or lost in the division. If we then choose to stake our mental state on the fixtures, which fixtures do we choose?

Chuck Klosterman points to the return of the Browns, and the moment when the identity of the team was so indeterminate that their fans were effectively supporting ‘(a) an incorporated municipality with a shared tax base, and (b) a color best-described as "burnt orange."’ He casts aside the former question of identity, and instead says a true fan places the sport above the team itself. Set in starker relief by international competition, where the allegiances fall within borders and allegiances that we’ve already decided “matter,” loyalty to sports clubs may be no different. Perhaps not in America, where we seem painfully frightened of recognizing any divisions in our society beyond the boroughs that divide Yankees and Mets fans and the peculiar psychological drive to support the Clippers, football teams often fall in the same city and punting says everything. Everton or Liverpool? Man City or United? Celtic or Rangers? Geography, class, religion.

Barnes answers the question of fanship differently than his friend: “Football, then, must be seen as an aspect of love.” That pledging loyalty to a club is part of an innate human drive to love, and perhaps then it matters less who we love than that we love. Then, the choice becomes more a question of with whom you love, than who it is you love. Your side may win or lose, but your father, your neighbor, your factory, your church will always be by your side through it all.

Fanship is an irrational decision. There are plenty of great reasons to follow sport: to appreciate the physical greatness, to respect its global impact, anything. But to believe with zealous fervor in the superiority and righteousness of your side? To support, as some people have said, “the court and the jerseys.” But even those change. The players, the managers, the owners, the stadiums, the kit. In America, even the cities and the names. In the most crass but realistic terms, you’re supporting a transferrable corporate entity. Any Sonics fan reading this knows what I’m talking about.

When I was a student, I hated college football. The American kind, to clarify. Not only did loath the culture that surrounded it - misogyny, binge drinking, pink polo shirts - but it inculcated a mindset that seemed closer to a right wing nationalist rally than an open-minded, liberal university that I hoped to find while doing my undergraduate degree at a notoriously hippie school. Demonizing the other and claiming superiority based on group membership isn’t what I was hoping for in a liberal arts education. And there will be people who say this builds community and spirit, and I understand that. It is with whom we loved.

But what does the same thing do for a franchise? You divide a city, you rally to the cause of raising money for a corporation, you support an ever changing reality behind a corporate facade as you watch a shitty side in the name of being a “true fan.”

Earlier, I nearly ended the paragraph that quips about Sonics fanship with the following dig: “I do.” But I didn’t. In a sense, I am a fan of the club. Since I started following the NBA, there is no team that I would rather see win a game, no team whose roster I know better, whose record I follow more closely, whose injuries I am more personally wounded by. But I am still not sure whether I am a fan of the Sonics. Since I left, they’ve set the court date to determine how and when the new owners are going to rip the Sonics out of their home and ship them off to Oklahoma City. Will I still love watching Kevin Durant as he realizes his near limitless potential? Of course. Will I forgive the franchise’s history of drafting inept big men with bad knees and hiring incompetent head coaches? Less so than I am now.

As much as I learned the lesson with Weezer, I haven’t quite gotten to the same thing with sport yet. In that I give my love a little less easily, I suppose I have, but I still have some vestiges of loyalty to the franchise regardless of their nature. I grew up loving a Mighty Ducks that won by opening a game with one of the faster teams on ice, but I still feel the same loyalty to the team of grinding bruisers and thugs that won the Cup last year. They play a game I like less, but it’s a team I like as much as ever.

FreeDarko is NBA blog that challenges the notion that sports writing can’t be esoteric, brilliant, and over-intelligent, The blog has put forward any number of remarkable ideas, not the least of which has been the device of posting tangentially referential images in longform essays which we here at neonhustle have experimented with unapologetically. The most interesting, perhaps, may be the concept of
‘liberated fandom.’ Potential, excellence, speed, swagger. An inchoate conception of sport that ignores the franchise as a timeless enterprise to be respected and looks at the player, the League, and the team as the canvas on which the former paint and the from which the latter constructs its narrative.

Since I’ve started following the NBA, I’ve loved watching Suns. I’ve loved them because the game they play is the game I like to watch. Steve Nash’s passes threading through holes that I didn’t know were there and production coming from everywhere on the court because they’re always. freaking. moving. But now, with Shawn Marion traded to the Heat for Shaq, who I doubt moves for anything but his remote control, and even then quite slowly, I’m not sure I really care anymore.

I’ll always love the Ducks, because I always will have been there with my Dad and my sister during, and we’ll always have that first finals run and that first cup. But even though I’ll always want them to win, I’ll still love a beautiful save on a breakaway even if it stops us from taking the lead. I might get some personal satisfaction out of my loyalty to Weezer, and I’m sure they’re great guys who really appreciate my support, but I think I’ll listen to someone else’s new music now. I might have gotten something out of the geographical loyalty and city camaraderie to Seattle, but I don’t know how that will last when I’ve moved out of Washington and so have they. But now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to see how the Lakers are doing with Pau Gasol. I’m not sure if I can love Kobe, but I think I can love the game the play, and I think I can learn to love them with my sister and Brendan. Maybe I’ll call some of those old Weezer fan friends of mine and see what they think of the new Rivers material while I’m at it…

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Our Ironic Pleasures

One of many problems with so-called ‘guilty pleasures’ is they not only say "I like better music than you," but say "I like the same music better than you do." In doing so they claim a "correct" experience of art, which is to say an ironic one that denigrates any sincere truth another has taken from it.

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Sunday, February 3, 2008

There Will Be Blood-Suckers

We here at NH are, for our intellectual similarities and mutually respected tastes, not of one mind all the time. In the interest of differing sensibilities, sometimes a text of cultural significance warrants a second take. For previous thoughts on There Will Be Blood, check out Steven's post here.

The monstrous personality at the center of Paul Thomas Anderson's There Will Be Blood has been characterized, in many reviews, an American primitive, whose highs and lows are tied to the singular drive of accomplishment in his trade. The pivot of this argument may come in the scene that sees Daniel Day-Lewis, as Plainview, explain his apparent misanthropy to his long-forgotten half-brother:
“I see the worst in people. I don't need to look past
seeing them to get all I need. I want to rule and never,
ever explain myself. I've built my hatreds up over the years, little by
little... I can't keep doing this on my own with these...
Ever the blunt instrument, Plainview exhibits never so much a cruelty in politely hiding these thoughts from the world as the practical sense that voicing his hatred for human beings would only spur more attention from them. These fears prove well met, as his investment in rural California brings the weight of a church and its leader against him, and he spends the entire film with a barely-masked contempt not only for the concept of “salvation,” but for the people who would save him as well.
Enter Eli Sunday, the teenaged leader of the Church of the Third Revelation, an an angel-faced huckster who pimps his own faith with brimstone-powered showmanship as a worker of minor miracles, intent on eventually growing a personal empire from the ground up. He doesn’t know what to do with the oil that wells up from his family’s ground, but he knows that enough men will want it that he can extort useful means from it and them. Sunday is the mirror image of the less-evolved Plainview’s wanton disregard for everything claimed sacred, the only difference is that the quietly sophisticated Sunday wraps his ruthlessness in a socially-accepted pursuit. Plainview is unapologetic for his willingness to crush a man under his heel for personal gain, but Sunday could claim only to do so in order to humble the man for their acceptance of the great lord our God (growing, conveniently, his congregation and influence with it.)
With the rise of Sunday’s church parallel to his own success, Plainview is eventually vindicated in his mistrust of the supposed “good” to be found in nature, God, and the people who claim to do His work. Eli is able not only to extort Daniel in order to outgrow the dusty nowhere of Little Boston, but the humiliation and subjugation of the great and powerful Plainview through his personal ministry is his greatest victory in the film. When, in the story’s mesmerizing conclusion, he desperately attempts to crack the same whip once again, he finds he has been beaten by the superior will of Plainview, a man who is smart enough to loathe his enemy before proceeding to grind him into nothing. Plainview indulges his hatred once more in fulfillment the film’s titular promise and, unchecked by hope of love for humankind, absolutely crushes Eli (in both the figurative and literal senses.)
The relationship between Plainview and Paul Dano’s Eli has been rightfully singled-out with great frequency as a remarkable pair of performances and an incredible source of recurring, dynamic tension in the film. However, the sentiment that the pair’s relatively small number of scenes together could possibly diminish the final product of this film has certainly been overstated. Dano here is a foil to Day-Lewis, not a costar. And just like the other significant secondary characters in There Will Be Blood, he serves a very specific (and, truthfully limited) purpose to the story. That his minutes seem so limited- in a film that runs, I remind you, for 158 of them!-speaks less to a fault in the narrative’s construction than the outstanding talent of Paul Dano and the chemistry he finds with the veteran Day-Lewis when the two share the screen. They simply leave you wishing for more.
I don’t intend this to be a direct refutation to Steven’s post, as I think he does have some very valid criticisms of the film (especially that it is overlong, and in seemingly desperate need of an editor through the first two acts.) Where we differ most fundamentally will have to be spelled out plainly: I posit that this is not a film about capitalism and how it corrupts men. Sinclair’s Oil! certainly was, with its innocent child narrator a voice for idealistic socialist commentary on the plight of oil workers, the greed of entrepreneurs, and an analogy to the then-topical Teapot Dome scandal, but TWBB is a different work with a different concept. As a character study of the highest order, this film intends not to express how the pursuit of money hollows men, but rather how and why hollow men pursue money. In this respect, it seems to me less an analogue to the commonly cited Citizen Kane than to another great American story of the self-made man…
The similarities are almost countless, but key to my point are a few. Both Daniel Plainview and Tony Montana’s stories are marked by their alienation from humanity at large. Yet, both also show occasional vestigial morals in even the deepest depths of their monomania: Plainview halts Abel Sunday’s abuse of young Mary, and Montana refuses to kill the wife and children of his target for assassination. It may further be explained that such empathies as either man might still possess are hardened by betrayals from within those closest to them, Montana by Manolo’s secret union with Gina and his bitter marriage to Elvira, and Plainview by the false love of an eventually-trusted “brother” and the devastating guilt for his son’s injury. Finally, each also possesses, right through the brutal endings of each film, at least one final hope at finding actual grace in human life with members of their families. Of course, being great tragedies, they manage to fuck these up to, with Montana shattering his sister’s sanity before getting her killed and Plainview Not even allowing himself the forgiveness of his boy.
Too often, the lessons assumed in such stories as Scarface, taken at face value, equate to something like “money isn’t happiness and no amount is ever enough and we’ll just keep working for it until we die and ain’t that sad?” While Most of Upton Sinclair’s canon can probably be summed up as such, I think that is an oversimplification of both “Scarface” and this film.
Daniel Plainview toils and strives and ascends to the highest peaks of his businesses, and eventually lives in extravagance beyond luxury, yet he never seems to really care about the materiality of his work. It seems clear that Anderson's comment is that Plainview's pursuiot of his calling is the only logical and productive outlet for such a clearly pronounced sociopath,even if his greatest victories (like beating Standard Oil) will always prove fleeting and never fully satiate that greater inborn hunger he feels. What's most important about that assertion might be what it suggests about the "American Dream," and of the prosperity that awaits men who brave new frontiers to draw their fortunes, be they in oil or coca, from the blood of those they meet along the way. As his hunger demands that he never stop, it is also proof that the emptiness he feels won't itself be the end of him, but rather bring the curse of eternal life. And so, where Sinclair's work wept for the forgotten stories of such barons’ nameless prey, Anderson’s epic is- in actuality- a song for our history's great and terrible vampires.

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