Monday, December 31, 2018

Scenes from the Anti-Ark

From Jean Baudrillard's "New York City," in America, published in 1986:
Such is the whirl of the city, so great its centrifugal force, that it would take superhuman strength to envisage living as a couple and sharing someone else’s life in New York. Only tribes, gangs, mafia families, secret societies, and perverse communities can survive, not couples. This is the anti-Ark. In the first Ark, the animals came in two by two to save the species from the great flood. Here in this fabulous Ark, each one comes in alone—it's up to him or her each evening to find the last survivors for the last party. 
In New York, the mad have been set free. Let out into the city, they are difficult to tell apart from the rest of the punks, junkies, addicts, winoes, or down-and-outs who inhabit it. It is difficult to see why a city as crazy as this one would keep its mad in the shadows, why it would withdraw from circulation specimens of a madness which has in fact, in its various forms, taken hold of the whole city.
Chinatown, New York City. Photo by Vivienne Gucwa
Kenny Scharf, Cosmic Closet (1980s/2017). Multimedia installation.

’Breakdancing’ is a feat of acrobatic gymnastics. Only at the end do you realize it actually was dancing, when the dancer freezes into a lazy, languid pose (elbow on the ground, head nonchalantly resting in the palm of the hand, the pose you see on Etruscan tombs). The way they suddenly come to rest like this is reminiscent of Chinese opera. But the Chinese warrior comes to a halt at the height of the action in a heroic gesture, whereas the breakdancer stops at the slack point in his movements and the gesture is derisive. You might say that in curling up and spiralling around on the ground like this, they seem to be digging a hole for themselves within their own bodies, from which to stare out in the ironic, indolent pose of the dead.
Break dancing in NYC (1980s)

Image of Chinatown, New York City via NY Through the Lens 
Image of Cosmic Closet via Artspace
Image of break dancing via reddit

Thursday, December 27, 2018

Right through the haze

l-r. Michael Pollan, Walter Benjamin, Pete Townshend
"One of me best songs I've ever written. Quite a fiery Wagnerian piece."

That's Pete Townshend on "I Can See For Miles," the masterpiece that the Who released as a single on October 13, 1967. Recorded during the fall in studios in London, Manhattan, and Los Angeles— accessing Gold Star Studios's echo chamber at the latter for the proper menacing reverb on Roger Daltrey's vocals—"I Can See For Miles" is recognized as one of Townshend's greatest songs, and one of his biggest personal disappointments when the single didn't move in the numbers he'd envisioned (he had to wait for Tommy for such success). I've been obsessing about this astounding song for many years, an obsession renewed while reading Roger Daltrey's new memoir, which off course sent me back to the band's catalogue, which sent me back to Dave Marsh's excellent biography Before I Get Old: The Story of the Who, which sent me back to YouTube, which sent me back to the records, etc..

I was also put in mind of the song while reading Michael Pollan's recent piece in the New York Times, an account of the profound difficulties Pollan experienced while attempting to write about his drug-induced psychedelic experiences for his latest book How To Change Your Mind. In "How Does a Writer Put a Drug Trip Into Words?" Pollan lays bare the problem: while it was clear that he would have to trip in order to write his book, "it wasn’t at all obvious how I would write about that experience, one often described as, well, indescribable."
William James famously wrote that mystical experience—perhaps the closest analogue we have of a psychedelic trip—is “ineffable”: beyond the reach of language. I couldn’t count on a common frame of reference, since not all of my readers would be familiar with the exotic psychic terrain onto which I wanted to take them. Boring readers was another worry. Perhaps the second closest analogue of a psychedelic journey is the dream, and there is no surer way to drive people off—even your loved ones!—than to tell them your dreams. I’d also read enough “trip reports” online and in books to be acutely aware of the literary risks—what Arthur Koestler, a skeptic after his own psychedelic experiments, described as “pressure-cooker mysticism” and “cosmic schmaltz.”
Reading his next-day notes and journals, Pollan recognized with a sinking feeling something many of us have experienced: the lameness, sometimes embarrassment, of the drug epiphany. What sounded—what felt—solemnly profound and insightful at 3 a.m. in the dorm, at the party, in the bar, alone at home, read the next morning as trite, and often indecipherable. Famously, when Paul McCartney first got high with his bandmates in New York City, he asked ol' reliable Mal Evans to write down a head-clearing insight that Mccartney, liberated by the marijuana, had been vouchsafed: There are seven levels. McCartney may have indeed perceived something profound, even accurate, that we can't access in our clean and sober hours. But life-changing it wasn't.

Pollan continues: "What I realized, reading over my own dubious epiphanies, is that there is an inside and an outside to a psychedelic experience, and that one way to write about it would be to honor both perspectives more or less simultaneously. I wouldn’t take sides, in other words, but would instead attempt to cultivate a measure of intellectual generosity, a kind of negative capability, toward my mental doings, however bizarre, and at the same time frankly acknowledge the reader’s skepticism, which in fact I shared. I would be of two minds." This duality of perspective allowed Pollan to render, as best he could, the weirdness and irrationality of a trip. As he puts it, "Multiplying my authorial persona—or was I dividing it?—in this way allowed me to capture at least some of the paradoxicality and sheer weirdness of the psychedelic experience as no single, stable narrator could hope to do."
By this point in my story there were three distinct “I’s” telling it: the voyager reporting from inside the experience; the I who observes that first-person poof into Post-its (who is also “inside” the experience but at a remove); and, finally, the “outside” narrator who, acutely aware of just how crazy this all sounds and of the demands he is making of the reader, tries to assure her that it is only the limitations of language that make it hard to see there’s something here worth taking seriously. The acknowledgment of doubt is precisely what allows us to suspend it.
Pollan goes on to cite two books about drug experiences, one well known, The Doors of Perception by Aldous Huxley, the other obscure, Miserable Miracle by Henri Michaux. Huxley's book "is a seamless, confident, elegantly written travelogue of a psychedelic journey that the author found astonishing but entirely comprehensible." Michaux's account "took the opposite tack, refusing the offer of metaphor to make sense of an experience he believed was beyond the power of words to convey." Pollan attempted to locate his writing somewhere between those two poles, between beauty and chaos, rational and irrational. "I can see now that I was charting a path between Huxley’s Scylla of neat interpretation (I had none to offer) and Michaux’s Charybdis of incoherence."
But even though the anarchy of my experience bore a closer resemblance to Michaux’s, it seemed to me that to give up on language and metaphor, inadequate to the experience though they might be, would constitute a breach with my reader, who had already come some distance with me in my psychedelic journeying. Could I now abandon the reader in order to preserve some ideal of literary integrity?
Reading Pollan's struggles reminded me of Walter Benjamin's killer essay "Hashish in Marsailes," in which Benjamin recounts a night he doped-up and walked the streets, part lab analysis, part kicks. (He called these experiences in the late 1920s and early '30s “protocols of drug experiments.”) There's a subtle thread of comprehension and insight that runs through Benjamin's generally wacky experiences on that night involving the miraculous oneness he achieved with strangers, the strong sense of empathy and recognition he felt for his fellow men and women, and the indeed mind-blowing, and valuable, discovery that there is beauty to be found in the ugly, worth to be discovered in what was considered hitherto worthless. Benjamin ends the essay with a brilliant passage that I love to try and parse with my writing students because, for as many times as I've read and taught the essay, I can never quite get to the bottom of it: "When I recall [the state of being high] I should like to believe that hashish persuades nature to permit us—for less egoistic purposes—that squandering of our own existence that we know in love," he writes. "For if, when we love, our existence runs through nature's fingers like golden coins that she cannot hold and lets fall to purchase new birth thereby, she now throws us, without hoping or expecting anything, in ample handfuls to existence."

That feels like a foreign language that I only semi-understand. That's also the language of a changed man.


The Who at Monterey Pop, 1967
The Who played the Monterey Pop Festival on June 18, 1967. On the flight home to England, Townshend took a hit of STP, and the unnerving experience, a ghastly four-hour high with intense mind-body divide, profoundly affected him and drove him away from hallucinogenics, "and it was on an airplane over the Atlantic," he marveled later. "I said, ‘Fuck this, I can’t stand any more.’ And I was free of the trip. And I was just like floating in midair looking at myself in a chair, for about an hour and a half. And then I would go back in again and it would be the same. And I was just like, zap, completely unconscious as far as the outside world was concerned. But I was very much alive, crawling alive."
Eventually, it tailed off and then. you get like, instead of a night’s lovely planing out, nice colorful images, you get about a week of it and you get a week of trying to repiece your ego, remember who you were and what you are and stuff like that.
For his part, fellow passenger Daltrey remembers Townshend "staring fiercely at my caftan coat. God knows what was going on inside his head but he kept gibbering on about rainbows." Daltrey meaningfully added: "Two good things came from that journey." One was Townshend's new-found antipathy to hard drugs. The other? "Pete got the idea for 'I Can See For Miles'."

Chris Charlesworth has observed that "I Can See For MIles" is "psychedelic without being trippy," and others have remarked on the song's hallucinatory vibe, but Townshend has always denied that the record's a drug song. "I swoon when I hear the sound," he acknowledged in 1971, but added, "The words, which ageing senators have called ‘Drug Oriented‘, are about a jealous man with exceptionally good eyesight. Honest." Elsewhere he said, "It was [originally] written about jealousy but actually turned out to be about the immense power of aspiration. You often see what it is you want to reach, and know you can't get at it and say, ‘I'm gonna try.' Those words start to move you in a direction, as long as you say, ‘I can see what I want, but there's no way I can get it'."

Perhaps through tabs? I want to believe Daltrey, though he might be mistaking "...Miles" for "I Can't Reach You." I've always heard the heady grandiloquence in "I Can See For Miles" as, shall we say, chemically assisted. It sounds and feels that way: the song rises to the surface as if it has eternally existed in some form and needed the acid to reveal it; the guitar drones, the airy spaces in the arrangement, the menacing, smugly knowing reverb, Townshend's famous one-note guitar solo (which he'll revise a dozen complicated years later in the opening to "Empty Glass") that's both aggressive and passive, boring down yet complacent in, pleased with, its own distracted inertia. Keith Moon rumbles on his toms throughout and then snare-attacks the song in places as if awakened from a narcotic daze, his blissy galloping in the choruses chasing Townshend's ascending, vapor trail Stratocaster leads. The key change at the line "The Eiffel Tower and the Taj Mahal" feels like nothing less than the epiphanic next wave of the drug kicking in, our eyes open again to the newness and nowness of the song's discoveries. The wide-screen self-assurance in the song feels like newly-won insight, its arrival so surprising yet familiar that it could've only come from previously untapped channels.

Townshend, quoted in Marsh's bio: "You can tell what is and what isn't rock & roll. To be the real thing, a song has to have an awareness of rock history. It has to have the beat, that undulating rhythm. Even while it feels like history, it has to say something new. And most important, it has to have crammed into it all the poignancy and excitement of youth, because that's what it's really all about." 
John Dougan, in his 33 1/3 book on The Who Sell Out: the band's performance on "I Can See For Miles" "strains against the confines of the song itself, as if the band knew full well that maintaining control was impossible and, more importantly, beside the point.... As much as anything they‘d recorded to that point, 'I Can See for Miles' articulated the band’s uncontrollable desire to smash rock and roll to bits and start all over." 
Just turn it up.

"I Can See For Miles" psychedelic poster designed in 1967 by Michael English and Nigel Waymouth, known as Hapshash and the Coloured Coat. Via V&A.

Tuesday, December 25, 2018

Staying Put

Laying low raises some questions about the meaning of home, how it's defined, and whether it's a place one visits or a place one carries abound inside. Probably some measure of both, I'd guess. This is the first Christmas/New Years in more than twenty years that we haven't driven east to visit my parents and siblings. We're staying put in DeKalb this year, alone yet not at all lonely, and, as much as I'll miss family and the growing racket of what I used to call home, I won't miss the three hours it took us to cross Indiana in a horizontal blizzard, the bedraggled hotels, the too-brief human connections, the stress. And the rest. What I'm trying to pay close attention to this year, quiet with Amy in our small town, are eternal rhythms, from cookie making and tree decorating to the otherworldly quiet of the yard at night and, today, on Christmas morning, of the neighborhood itself where in homes all over, many families are enacting what still feels absurdly joyous and close to me. But during this season it's especially important to remember that a home packed with family members is no more festive than a home with one or two lonely occupants, fighting against the blues or worse, feeling underwhelmed by the season and so feeling miserably anti-human, and purposeless, because of it. Home is where you live, no matter what shape or noise that living takes.

Unsurprisingly, I've been thinking about all of this because of a couple of songs. Last night, we listened to Frank Sinatra's "I'll Be Home For Christmas (If Only In My Dreams)" from 1957—a song about home and how we long for it, but often have to settle for it as imagined—and I was again struck by how elementally simple on a technical level is the the arrangement of notes, the movement of harmonics, the rhymes, all of it written out in charts and on sheet music, and yet how mysterious the end result, how endlessly fresh, how in a moment of composition lies the eternity of expression. And yesterday "He's A Rebel" came up on shuffle at the Y. No one in their right mind would call this a holiday tune, and yet it couldn't have arrived at a better time for me, surrounded by the lights and spectacle and oppressive materialism of the Christmas season, as I'm trying to keep my ears and ears tuned to what's timeless. There's something eternal in the changes in this song, as if they've always existed, and surprised into hearing them again, and moved, I found myself still catching up to a song I've heard, and marveled at, hundreds of times. Written by Gene Pitney and recorded by the Blossoms in 1962, "He's a Rebel" was credited to the Crystals, who were then obligated to add the song to their repertoire and who became forever identified by it. The inestimable Wrecking Crew, with dependable Hal Blaine on drums, played on the track, laying the sturdy foundation for singer Darlene Love. Where's Love on this Christmas morning? Phil Spector produced the tune, and where's he now? I know where he is, but how is he defining home, and should I even care? (Coincidentally, it's his birthday tomorrow.) The men and women who wrote, recorded, and produced "He's A Rebel" entered pop myth for me long ago, and may as well be epic characters, some resplendent, some unsavory, most just normal, in a vast story about the Twentieth century. They lived, and live, in the echo of the eternal, something that will always exist just above our heads, practically visible in the ether, even as it pounds in our hearts and chests, moistens our eyes, plugs our throats forever, I'd wager today, this morning.

Anyway, Merry Christmas wherever you are, whatever you believe or don't, if you're in the old homestead or a new joint you just moved to and that doesn't feel like home yet, whether you're with loved ones or on your own. I wish you all sorts of eternal moments, in whatever form they take: family, friends, quiet reflection, loud songs. Maybe today is a good day to look for them, or better yet, to leave yourself open to the surprise of them.

Tuesday, December 18, 2018

Drive. Drive. Drive.

I'm getting a little bored with Rock Star memoirs. Shouldn't I be interested in the trappings of fame fortunes? I'll never posses them. They'll always remain exotic, other-worldly. I'll always be on the outside looking in. I should find tales of global mass success awe inspiring, the experience of, say, a band playing the Super Bowl halftime show riveting. Yet Roger Daltrey's description of that 2010 event in his memoir Thanks a Lot Mr. Kibblewhite is astonishingly similar to Bruce Springsteen's, in his memoir, in its banal reveal of the kind of necessary corporate think that rules stage spectacle. It's much more fun to read about the High Numbers'/Who's early shows on stages a foot off the ground in front of maybe a dozen Mods. Many rock stars lead boring, or anyway deflatingly ordinary, lives off the road, and the endless tour stories get tiresome after awhile. The book begins to grow a bit stale and repetitive after the Who make it, after the band graduates from small, cramped clubs to arenas, after Pete Townshend's songwriting gains traction, and we have to read again about Keith Moon's alcohol abuse and serial trashing/ketchup-decorating of hotel rooms (make that chains), John Entwhistle's creepy weirdness, and Townshend's moodiness and self-absorption. Daltrey's versions of these events don't lack for details; his bad luck is that his stories have arrived so late in the Who's well-worn myth that they don't add anything terribly new. The book, as did the band, loses considerable momentum once Moon dies in 1978, the boring 1980s arrive, and the band goes on a long hiatus, only to reunite on the odd occasion before embarking on a series of farewell tours (the band down to two original members following Entwhistle's death in 2002). Does lordly downtime make for interesting reading? If you want to read about Daltrey excavating the lakes around his ample property, endlessly stripping and staining wood with his mates at his Victorian estate, worrying about tapping big-name artists for his charity shows, or struggling to learn how to act on film and the odd stage production, then this memoir is for you. If not, well.... I've written before about Townshend's similarly disappointing memoir, and where to look if you want his real confession.

"I’m a deeply private person," Daltrey writes. "Why else do you think it’s taken so long to write this autobiography?" That rhetorical question gives me pause. I expect some measure of self-interrogation in memoirs, even in image-managed Rock Star memoirs, and though Daltrey does explore his childhood, adolescence, and adulthood for his social anxieties, personal contradictions, interior tickings, and occasional health scares, few of his excavations are particularly revelatory if you've read a well-researched, well-written Who biography. Though he does confess to a genuine bout of suicidal depression as a bullied lad, Daltrey admits to having difficulty in the Who's early years connecting emotionally with the loners, oddballs, and freaks in Townshend's songs. Daltrey seemingly couldn't understand a boy who had to beat off to pin-up photos ("Pictures of Lilly") when, even at this stage in his career, women were throwing themselves at him (after reading this passage, his doubt looks clear to me in the promo video!). He couldn't stomach singing about a boy forced to cross-dress ("I'm a Boy") as such gender fluidity and queerness were beyond his ken, and it seems, beyond his imagination as well. Eventually, he comes around to understanding how to sing. "Empathy, that’s the root of it all," he writes. "If I can empathize with where [Townshend] was when he was writing it, I’m at the root of the song. And most of those songs were written from a place of pain, as well as spirit."
I struggled at first to find that place and you can hear the struggle. But then I inhabited it. I didn't have to become Pete, I just had to find my own vulnerability. I had to tear down all my own defenses I’d put up to survive.
Sounds confessional, but Daltrey mostly plays his cards close to the vest in Mr. Kibblewhite, and that's his prerogative. Unsurprisingly, he's at his best and most insightful when writing about, and marveling at, making music, the chief passion in his life, lyrics aside. He's especially perceptive about his band's legendary stage antics as they dovetailed with a keen understanding and manipulation of commercial instinct, something band managers Chris Stamp and Kit Lambert intuited also. The practical Daltrey, who grew up hardscrabble, was initially appalled at Townshend's infamous guitar smashing. Then he began to understand, on a gut rock and roll level. "Very quickly, Pete wasn’t just smashing his guitar," he observes. "He used to stick the neck of it right up into the amps and through the speakers to make all kinds of surreal noises. It was animalistic. It was sacrificial. The guitar used to scream, and it used to go on for about five minutes until it was wrecked." He adds, "The critics missed it, but the fans got it the first time; they understood through the energy it created. The critics were writing about what they were seeing, but they weren’t listening. That became the problem with the smashing of the guitars; I felt that in the end people had just come to see that; it stopped people listening."

Observant stuff. Describing the Who's early sonic evolution, Daltrey really nails the Who's appeal and surging power: amped-up aggression and nerve fighting with, and within, a pop song, all of it barreling the band forward in unpredictable ways while grappling with real ideas and cultural observations. And Daltrey was in many ways leading the charge. "We were developing the way we performed as well. We were finding ways of expressing our aggression. The phrasing of things, the punch of the chords, more onbeat than swing. Our word for it was drive. Let’s drive, we used to say before a gig. Drive. Drive. Drive." 
I used to feel like we were trying to drive our music through the audience to the back wall. I’ve always done that, even at Woodstock, with no back wall and half a million people stretching over the horizon. I had to drive the curvature of the earth. It’s no good to play at an audience. You’ve got to play to them. You’ve got to try and move them. You have to drive through them. And it works.
Indeed. I had to drive the curvature of the earth. What a line! What a summary of how rock and roll became Rock, how audiences morphed from shoulder-to-shoulder intimacies in sweaty clubs to open-air communing under the sun and rain, and how one man learned how to sing it.

Photos from Thanks a Lot Mr. Kibblewhite; top and middle photo cropped; photo of Townshend leaping at Woodstock via tumblr.

Saturday, December 15, 2018

Sound gets in and stays

The other day in the gym locker room I found myself humming “It Won’t Be Long,” the first cut from the Beatles’ With The Beatles album. Ten or so minutes later, having been distracted by idle talk, the TV in the locker room, my phone, I noticed that I’d kept singing the album to myself in sequence without being aware of it. I was on the third song now. Perfectly timed.

Saturday, December 8, 2018

December 8, 1980

I was listening to Monday Night Football on the radio in my bedroom. Either Jack Buck or Hank Stram announced it—I'm pretty sure it was Stram, whose voice afterward I always associated with the shock and drama of the moment, though memory and its desire might be telling the story at the point. Anyway, in my teenage earnestness and grief I wanted to wear a black arm band to high school the next day, but I chickened out. My brothers and sister and I stood in her bedroom in mumbling disbelief. In retrospect, something did change that night, though I'm still not sure exactly what: violence and self-absorption and mania felt that much more personal, yet at the same time removed and beyond belief. All of the awfulness scored by music: DJs across the country dropped the needle, the opening of "(Just Like) Starting Over" suddenly became impossible to listen to, and "Watching the Wheels," it seemed, began its 24/7 presence on the radio that moment.

In the studio, near the end

Thursday, December 6, 2018

Sadness, Fun, Frustration, Release

RIP Pete Shelley, who died of a heart attack today. He was 63. The Buzzcocks' early, careening singles—"Orgasm Addict," "What Do I Get?," "I Don't Mind," "Love You More," "Ever Fallen in Love (With Someone You Shouldn't've)," "Promises," "Lipstick," "Everybody's Happy Nowadays"—with their rocking, pent-up mania and hilariously chaotic chord changes against singalong melodies, all under two minutes, give or take—sounded like the aural equivalent of adolescence. Shelley came close to rock and roll perfection a remarkable number of times but, to my ears, never as close as he got here, the middle eight of which ("I only get sleepless nights...") remains one of my favorites, and in its simplicity, ferocity, and liberation is so powerful as to be beyond language to express. I've written about this song so many times because it remains remarkably fresh. One of the great rock and roll songs of the era, if not of all time: sadness, fun, frustration, and release. Repeat.
I just want a lover like any other, what do I get?
I only want a friend who will stay to the end, what do I get?
What do I get, oh-oh, what do I get?

I'm in distress, I need a caress, what do I get?
I'm not on the make, I just need a break, what do I get?
What do I get, oh-oh, what do I get?

I only get sleepless nights
Alone here in my half-empty bed
For you things, seem to turn out right
I wish they'd only happen to me instead
What do I get, oh-oh, what do I get?
I just want a lover like any other, what do I get?
I only want a friend who will love to the end, what do I get?
What do I get, oh-oh, what do I get?
I get no love
I get no sleep at nights
I get nothing that's nice
I get nothing at all, at all, at all, at all
At all, at all, at all, at all 'cause I don't get you