Saturday, August 28, 2010

The Silhouette

When I write I'm struck by that weird tension between the act feeling crucial and the act feeling solipsistic. A fundamental dilemma for autobiographical essayists is how exactly to navigate between the necessity to write and the sinking realization that it may not really matter to anyone else. All writers, all artists, deal with this problem, of course, especially at this point in time, when via the blogosphere and social media literally millions of autobiographical missives are launched weekly, each voice clamoring for an audience of careful, sympathetic readers. We're past the trendy 25 Things About Me and Tweet-As-Memoir memes, thankfully, yet the amount of personal writing on the Internet is still staggering, and growing.

What are the implications for autobiographers? Is experience (however ordinary, however extraordinary) what matters, or is it the treatment of it? Content, or form. I'm less likely to move the moving parts in a way that distorts reality; I'm interested in verisimilitude also, but not at the expense of the actualness of actual events. A sincere voice is important in the essay, but again, who cares about your rite-of-passage, no matter how sincerely rendered? Writer and painter Max Jacob says, "What is called a sincere work is one that is endowed with enough strength to give reality to an illusion." But I'm more interested in the reality than the illusion. Is freshness of vision the answer? Proust: "The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes."

Back to Wallace Stevens and his invaluable definition of metaphor, the magic act of re-presentation: "The absolute object slightly turned is a metaphor of that object." It seems to me that this slight turning of the absolute object is required in an essay, if the object doing the turning is also the object itself. What results (hopefully) is the human silhouette, my private details smoothed and outlined to become personal, a place where you might fit, where the people, places, things, and events of my remembered experiences might speak to yours. It's a tough act. Who cares?

Netherlands Silhouette 3 by Mechanical Turk

Saturday, August 21, 2010


"The attitude that nature is chaotic and that the artist puts order into it is a very absurd point of view, I think. All that we can hope for is to put some order into ourselves," Willem de Kooning

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Will You Be An Outlaw For My Love?

Richard Mazda recently produced a live tribute to Alex Chilton at the Secret Theatre in Long Island City, NY. He asked me to contribute an essay for the program:
Much like Jay Gatsby to Nick Carraway, Alex Chilton existed to me first as rumor, then as myth. I grew up in the Washington D.C. area listening to “The Letter” on oldies stations, loving the blue-eyed soul and grabby hooks before I knew who the man was singing it. Throughout the 1980s Chilton was a ghost on my periphery, a hipster’s name spied on worn records and uttered reverently at WMUC, the college radio station where I had a weekly show. I loved the Replacements’ paean to him on Pleased To Meet Me, understood Paul Westerberg’s worshipful crush, and I played it a lot; I loved the Cramps and Panther Burns records that Chilton produced, the primal vibe and the looks cast backward and forward. I knew that Big Star had brought jagged 1960s psych-folk into the difficult, differently-tuned Seventies; I’d marveled at the blissy guitars on Radio City, and knew the group’s classics, the mini pop opera of “O My Soul,” the jangle and accelerated heartbeat of “When My Baby’s Beside Me,” the descending chorus in “September Gurls” that sounds like nothing less than sorrow scored.

Chilton remained an indie gadfly whom I couldn’t ignore — but I was busy worshipping others. I’d spin tracks from Like Flies On Sherbet and High Priest and wonder what I was missing. I was listening to garage rock & roll, roots rock, later-generation power pop, but only later in the 1990s when I started paying closer attention did I discover that Chilton’s musical threads ran through most of the sounds that I cherish. Reinvestigating, I tried (in vain) to block out the heavy breathing that I’d heard from critics; as William Ruhlmann says about Big Star’s first album, “The problem with coming in late on an artwork lauded as ‘influential’ is that you've probably encountered the work it influenced first, so its truly innovative qualities are lost.” That’s true — my way back to Chilton was paved with Jonathan Richman, Ben Vaughn, and R.E.M. songs — but coming late afforded me my own time frame, less concerned as I was now with catching up than with slowing down and really listening to the music, post Chilton Myth.

What gave me a greater appreciation were the Big Star tunes that I was really hearing for the first time: the folky country pop of “Watch The Sunrise;” the defiantly desperate tone of “You Can’t Have Me;” the haunted, nearly unlistenable “Holocaust;” the love lyrics in “Nighttime” devolving into nihilism and fear, affected by the haunting echo of strings, slide guitar, and vocals; the dry, death-rattle sound in “Big Black Car.” “She’s A Mover” is one of the few introspective dance records that I’ve ever heard — and I wasn’t sure that such a hybrid was possible. Big Star’s semi-rousing take on the Kinks’ “‘Till The End Of The Day” lets go a bit more, but the band’s overall sound was guarded, however jangly — wary, however embracing. I followed this sound and attitude through Chilton’s solo albums, through others’ appreciations of him, and I better understood and respected the man and his music.

“Oh my soul, just hit me if I get on a roll,” You Am I sing in “Guys, Girls, Guitars” on their #4 Record. The guy they’re singing about has written 51 songs about a girl who split 50 weeks ago, but “it’s only a 2 AM tune” and “the seventh chord just keeps getting older.” The barely-disguised tribute to Alex Chilton nails the aloof, melodic sadness of much of Chilton’s catalog, pop and anti-pop communiqués from a misfit who’s armed with tunes, a guitar, and a wry, fractured, wholly unique way of seeing things. It took me a while to understand what I could of that guy, the musical outlaw. A part of Alex Chilton remains a bright, brooding enigma to me. And that’s about right.
The celebratory night featured some great music; Mazda and company did a superb job. I wish I could've been there.

Photo courtesy of antifluor @ Flickr Creative Commons

Monday, August 16, 2010

What Do iKnow?

Five hundred or so years ago Montaigne asked "What Do I Know?", rhetorically exploring the limits of the self as subject matter, a humanist autobiographical impulse that, down many roads and alleys, led to modern memoir. As we're a decade into the Twenty first century, and as our tools for perception and our means to know and interrogate ourselves and reflect those selves back to the world are growing, it's worth thinking about the volume and the speed (and the value) of personal writing. Montaigne was alone in his tower on his estate, a striking metaphor of the writerly solitude that's increasingly harder to find.

Or is it that it's simply less valued? I'm hardly alone in wondering about the effects of social networking on the forms and the cultural value of autobiography. What's interesting about the recent commentary is that we simply don't know: if instant messaging and tweets are eroding self-reflection; if posting and tagging a thousand images of yourself on facebook is narcissism run wild or if it's something else; if blogging is the new personal essay or a short-circuiting of wider intellectual meandering; if the autobiographical impulse—What do I know?—won't burn itself out in the growing conflagration of digital self-disclosure and exposure; if, as we feel less freakish and alone via social networking we don't also lose a precious, valuable sense of uniqueness; if personal "book-length" (when will that phrase lose its cachet?) dramatizations/reflections will prove too cumbersome, too long, too uninteresting, superfluous. What we do know is that the tools of and in social networking will become more efficient in the future. Where's Montaigne's tower now?


Walter Benjamin, eighty-plus years ago in his Arcades Project: "Reminiscences, even extensive ones, do not always amount to an autobiography. For autobiography has to do with time, with sequence and what makes up the continuous flow of life. Here, I am talking of a space, of moments and discontinuities. For even if months and years appear here, it is in the form they have in the moment of recollection. This strange form—it may be called fleeting or eternal—is in neither case the stuff that life is made of."

The "continuous flow of life" wends its way through a million computers and smart phones, over wire, and wireless. The flow is a weird, unpredictable one in 2010, its shape and consequences up for grabs. Maybe this is why lately I've become even more obsessed with abandoned places (here and here). They reconstruct (falsely) a time and place gone for good, literal quiet where noise used to be. That's an increasingly tough place to find. But I have to be careful not to romanticize the less-loud past, as the rest of the world moves on without me, not caring less.

"trash technology 3" courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Abandoned, Ctd

"Places are produced in that wonderful interaction of people, place, narrative, and time. When the people desert these places, narratives are forgotten, ties break, and the place is unmade.... Un-remembering is the enemy of good places and of public history," Robert R. Archibald