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Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Burning Man 2010: Metropolis: an Art Review

Sure Burning Man is a survival adventure, a party, an anticapitalist civic experiment, a science experiment, a new Home. But for me, it is above all an arts festival. Where to begin, though, when addressing the art? It’s everywhere. It’s not just the honorarium installations on the playa, nor the unfunded ones either. People turn their homes into art (theme camps), their bodies into art, and merely in walking and biking around people alter the art, continue it, fulfill it, finish it. There is art that only functions when the people play it, such as a three legged crystal of glowing cubes with touch pad rhythms at the end of its tentacles.
There is art that must be completed by us, such as the communist bar lying towards the end of the playa—one bar, four bar stools with a hammer and sickle, a table and chairs, a bench, and saloon doors with no walls. It was up to various enterprising and generous artist/visitors (the line is blurred) to bring alcohol and man the bar, offering their best communist musings. There is the art of writing at Burning Man, in a little dome on the edge of town or perhaps an office desk and chair standing their alone in the middle of the desert.

The best I can do, then, is offer some musings on the swirling, changing art manifesting on the playa in expanding and contracting circles and layers.

- Playa walk #1, in the hot midday sun. I’m talking deep into the desert, far from the safety of the tiny, heat-blurred center camp. I pass a Marcusian vision—fish leaping out of the ground, baited by circuit boards, with a beach chair in the center. Each fish is painted uniquely, but each fish falls into the same technofetish trap. The spectator/fellow-artist sits in the beach chair to rest, forced to contemplate the kind of constant baiting going on even while we rest.

- Further out, we reach a feat of sacred geometry—a pentagon in the center, five of us sitting with our backs to a side. Across from the slanting sides were mirrors, so that we could see our selves and the other four fanned out around us. All the while, a machine hummed at a frequency almost too low for human ears. The frequency and the perfection of shape and color (perfect red and perfect blue) were supposed to help us find balance or grace or at least pause. It worked for me.

- I stumble along: there is a (fake) man in a biochemical suit operating a mine detector in front of a blooming flower. The flower seems fierce, defiant. In this Metropolis, Mother Nature often asserts its power, from these surprising growths, to honeybees transplanted to the desert, to the awesome all-consuming power of fire.

- I reapply my sunscreen and trundle on—there in front of me is the obelisk from Kubrik’s 2001. I think of Also Sprach Zarathustra, the symphony and the text, and the birth and rebirth of civilizations. Does Burning Man constitute a birth. Will it’s model ever spread? I come again, with this sun, with this earth, with this eagle, with this serpent – not to a new life or a better life or a similar life: I come back eternally to this same, selfsame life, in what is greatest as in what is smallest, to teach again the eternal recurrence of all things…" (Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Nietzsche, “The Convalescent”)

- Water from the camelbag. Scribble some notes in front of the obelisk. Mutter “Civilization lurches towards its destiny with the first weapon” to a woman who walks up, walk past a solar-powered upside down city, manifesting on the underside of a pop globe. I am too tired to walk over to that one. It occurs to me that no one curates Burning Man, nor are we ourselves curated by Burning Man. I make it to “The Heart Machine” : a giant underground heart, with four ventricles popping out of the dust further out. If three others placed their palms on the sensor at each ventricle, with enough energy we could speed up the heartbeat until the ventricles shoot fire. But alas I was out there alone.

- I turn back to look at the Man. He is perched on the pure Form of Skyscraper. Just the scaffolding, without the offices. When we burn this man we burn the skyscraper, too.

- I pass a small town park, everything symmetrical and in proportion, from the number of arched entryways to the position of the benches. It is important to pay attention to detail when the desert threatens to blow away one’s piece of precious meaning-making. Then I pass a temple dedicated to all religions. This, too, seems incomplete without our participation, so I perform a wedding ceremony between a woman and the world: “…Do you agree to progress from a mere twosome to a conjugation with the world itself, to love and to cherish, to live and to perish?...” Etc.

- After a conversation with a naked couple in their fifties, I make my way towards a large metal globe consisting entirely of city streets mapped over city streets, in three separate layers. Despite the lack of open spaces, I find it strangely beautiful, the criss-crossing designs formed by our attempts to connect everything. The piece works as a reification of our lived experience of metropolis.

- After so long I am grateful to find a shade structure. Shade structures at burning man combine aesthetics and utility. It is wondrous strange to finally reach a distant piece of art only to realize that you need this piece for shelter, recuperation, rehydration. Out near the trash fence is a double dome, so low to the ground you think there is no opening. But there is. Inside it is cooler, even with eight people crammed into the dome, most of them named Ted. There are pens and crayons everywhere for writing on the cloth interior of the dome. There is a dynamic of focused respite here in these shade strucutres, unlike the unfocused relaxation spaces we are used to. It may be focused towards beliefs, as the little house-shaped one with paper leaves on which we are supposed to write beliefs, and read others’. (One I wrote down: “The power of the boy overrides the mind. Enjoy.” I wrote: “I believe in believing.”) It may be focused on education, like the beekeepers’ dome. Perhaps it is focused on memory, like the tiny house playing a recording of someone’s memories. A gratitude emerges in all cases, perhaps even an anger on behalf of all those without shelter in our various Metropolises. In any case, I see a cloud of dusty hurtling towards me, swallowing all the art and people until they are gone. In these instances you know the dust storm is your destiny, that there is no direction to run. You affix your goggles and bandana and it hits you, until only the sounds of drum and bass remain, like the manifold heart of metropolis itself. I duck inside the serendipitous shade structure and wait it out, talking to six strangers about King Lear, which is what I am ‘gifting’ today in our gift-run economy.

In addition to the shade structures are the manifold cushiony areas to lay one’s weary, sun-stroked body. They may take the form of the Pleasuredome at our own Polyparadise. Perhaps it’s a massive dome filled with giant glowing mushrooms and crystals, or it could be a circle of hammocks suspended among willowing shawls. The important thing is that they are open to all, like most ‘private’ spaces at Burning Man. Indeed, Burning Man questions our American attachment to property and privacy. Only the gauche here talk about ‘my space’.

- Time to take the long walk home. Along the way I pass a pile of metal refuse, littered also with plastic easter eggs. The instructions say to pick one, take it’s treasure, and leave your own. I remove the glowing ring, put it on my ring finger, and leave in its place a Star Wars Valentine that says “Together we Can Rule the Galaxy”.

- Next piece: a cross between a graveyard and junkyard, with various plaster limbs and dismembered bodies. This world is still manipulatable, as you may stack stones, roll gigantic metal boulders, even arrange the limbs. But the joy of manipulative power is tempered by the sobering fragmentation of bodies. Is this piece a commentary on the disembodiment an dis-membership of capitalist society, with its shortage of embodied and whole activity, and its fruitless opportunities for movement and manipulation of our environment in a way that does not alter the fundamental stark reality of society’s organization?

And so on through the desert, reading Leonard Cohen poems with this group, handing out Star Wars valentines with epigrams my friends and I thought up. Each one of us in named ‘Ted’ here in the world of playa names, in a communist-absurdist theme camp ploy/play. I participate with the art, leaving a notebook that says “Lab rats have more meaningful careers than I do” on an office desk manifesting there in the deep playa. Perhaps it will be taken by someone, adding to his life—an exchange of goods occurs equally between art and public and between two people…with no market whatsoever! Perhaps it will remain an addition to the work itself. It’s hard to know what was ‘meant’ to be there. Nothing, perhaps.

Of course the playa art is not the only art. There are the theme camps, from the expensive collaborative projects to the hastily thrown together little havens on the edge of town—from sacred space villages to techno-lush domes; from Cuban beaches to teahouses. There are also the art cars, this year as fascinating as ever. A schooner which required passengers to don hot rubber fishing suits and was capable of depositing a 100 ft. diameter fishing net to ‘catch’ a fish art car. A futuristic tank with a 19th century drawing room as its inner compartment (always disorienting to be blasted with techno music within such a room). A land speeder from Star Wars, a massive, glowing, travelling 8-track recorder. The key here is defamialiarization. Sure, it’s always fun to ride a yacht. But riding a yacht across the desert, that moves the experience from relaxing to revealing. Aaron and I descended into the hold of the yacht to find a land of cushions and pillows, people draped in every style of repose. A man announced that he and his wife would perform for us, but she left. “She’s shy,” the husband said. Riding art cars is doing Burning Man in style. How much is better is the art when it’s viewed from on top of or within art?

It all ends with the temple burn, the temple wherein thousands wrote messages to the dead, deposited books of photos and stories, set up shrines and left diaries and artifacts. All of it up in flame, in a silent catharsis (it’s stunning how silent the playa becomes). When the man burns, we burn away that which in us is overripe, stale, needs to be purged. When the temple burns, we allow our grief freedom to leave us. Either way, to every thing there is a season, burn, burn burn. What are you going to burn next year?

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

The Other Guys and the other economic system

I hope those of you who saw "The Other Guys" avoided the ADD rush and stayed for the credits.(Please click on the link and look at them!) If you do, you get to see a litany of statistics detailing what's wrong in our capitalist system, played out over a ruthless Rage Against the Machine version of Dylan's excoriating "Maggie's Farm". Specifically, it's about what's wrong with the system of subsidized banks and nonsubsidized people. There are some revolting statistics--I won't detail them here, except to say watch them, and watch for the one about the exponential rate of growth of the proportion of CEO earnings to working-class earnings. Another tidbit: The $700 billion T.A.R.P bail out is enough to give each man, woman and child in America $2,258.
The credits are just one element in a strikingly anticapitalist and some would say anti-American (although that is just a conservative term for refreshingly critical) film. I thought it was courageous, for example, to play out a somewhat typical shoot-em-up action scene (with action heroes The Rock and Samuel L. Jackson) that ends in an arrest. A reporter then asks the cops if 20 million in city damage was worth arresting the culprits for what amounts to a misdemeanor quantity of pot. Their answer? "Why don't you ask the people of New York City? Best city in the world!" Rarely have I seen such satire of post-9/11 jingoism covering up wrongheaded policies such as the drug war. (Hollywood's complicity in the Drug War is spoofed throughout the movie as Mark Wahlberg's character thinks every lead and every bad guy points to some form of drug-dealing, when in fact all villainy in the movie belongs to the world of finance capital). The villain speaks at the "Center for American Capitalism", and the hero at one point, asked about the importance of law enforcement, says: "How about a community of socially-responsible citizens simply all doing their part?"
From spoofs of gun-happy cops to jibes at the S.E.C., the film is a veritable tirade against the age of corporate dominance and the complicity of law enforcement, the media, and the entertainment industry. Sure, the film is no "South of the Border" (Oliver Stone) or "Tout Va Bien" (Godard), but it's a step in the right direction. When interviewed, stars Wahlberg and Ferrell asked them if they were on board a propos the film's radical politics. They said: "Of course--that's why we did the film." Did I mention it was funny? I suppose that deserves some applause as well, since the combination of socially important and funny is a rare one indeed. Strange that almost none of the reviews I read mentioned the political messages. Then, again, that's not so strange, after all. It's part of the problem. One of the more insidious elements of the capitalist treatment of time and space is the division of everything into departments, sectors, and of course genres. Philosophy departments don't intercourse with Economics departments, a rock audience is now clearly delineated from a protest , and politics doesn't mix with entertainment, especially comedy. Even when it does, critics and viewers tend to tune out the socially relevant (see the mass exodus during the credits of this film) in favor of a pure form of the opiate of the masses. No, not religion, ENTERTAINMENT. Sure, there are always exceptions, and I close this note with gratitude for those who bleed the spaces together, such as Tom Morello and Stanley Aronowitz.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010


Let me tell you what it was like to listen to music in prison. I told you what it was like the first time I put on headphones in months. Heart-flooding. Thereafter, I developed a relationship with music that was a sublimation of my frustrated sensuality and sexuality. It was also a tunnel into the world.
Let me start by describing what was for me the opposite experience of standing on a prison yard: standing in the middle of the crowd at a Phish concert. Phish is a band that jams its songs into unrecognizable, unpredictable times and spaces. You can—and I have—follows them for a few shows and never hear the same song twice. When you do hear it twice, it can barely resemble the last version. Already this sounds nothing like prison, of course. But being there, on the road, on the run against time, was unparalleled, since I myself never got to participate in a revolution or even a minor uprising of the people.
Ana and I were on bail, awaiting our sentence when we followed Phish up the West Coast of these fractured states of America. Originally we thought that first night in jail was the first night of our sentence. Then we were bailed out, and looked forward to a couple months of freedom. Time to get our things in order, say what needed to be said to friends and family, make our peace with the disappearing free world. We lived every day like it was our last, embracing desperately, pouring forth promises and apologies and new dreams for a new millennium, with a new consciousness of class born of our being summarily thrown into a new class. Only weeks left! Only one week left! Only a few days! And then…
We go to court and see our trial date moved back another few months. Sweet merciful bounty of extra life! Bonus freedom! Commence the process again: living in vivid colors, vivid sounds. The last colors. The last sounds. The last chance power drive. Back to court….another suspension of our bodies in this sweet coupled time and space!
And so on. And so on and on. A whole year living each day intensely, fully, consciously and conscientiously. It was heady, high and exhausting. A month in Las Vegas stripping to pay my parents back for the lawyer. Reading the history of prisons, reading the great philosophers of solitude and strength—Nietzsche, Bukowski, Benjamin, Dostovesky, Roberto Benigni, Tyler Durden. Reading each other in an attempt to memorize each other.
And then on this tour, from Chula Vista to Mountain View to the empty plains of Eastern Washington, following them with a motley group of human living off of the goods they made and sold in the parking lots. We supported ourselves by making fake tickets (which nonetheless, back in the days before scanning, worked) and selling them in large numbers. Out under the September west coast stars.
And what I wanted in prison was this: the bass like a heart that lets you know it will go on when yours stops. The ringing of the guitar like a WASHING. The melody which is the one in our heads. You need the breeze on the neck. You need to see a few dozen smiles in your peripheral vision. You need the smell of marijuana, sweat, perfume, pine trees. Of course you need her next to you.
You need that strobe light as they hit the high notes. Why? Because a strobe and a machine-gun guitar line shake the lines. We expect the lines that form the shapes of our world to be mostly constant. In prison, we know them to be constant, deprived as we are of soft materials, of women, of mind-altering substances, of rock n’ roll lighting. The strobe is the limit of difference.
It’s a particular feeling.
For a certain kind of housewife or househusband: it’s when every appliance in your kitchen matches.
For five year olds: it’s when you read your first book to everyone you meet, and see that we can all be in the same story.
For lovers, it’s like falling in love, but with the whole world.

I put on my headphones in my cell in prison and could hear the soundtrack of those times: 11.20.98, Hampton, VA. 9.11.99, George, WA. Sweet merciful
All I wanted was to get out and be among the people in this way again. But it was and is, I realize now, not so cut and dry, the superiority of this musical experience over the one in jail. The real opening of possibility and perception comes from juxtaposition. In prison, one pines for the openness, pines for the breeze and the warm burble of friendly voices, that thump in the chest that is more than mere hearing. But back in the show, out of prison, one in fact pines for the focus and intense consciousness of solitude. Headphones, after all, are the preferred tool of the connoisseurs of sound.
More to the point, in either state, one sinks into that state, normalizes it. Ceases to be rocked by it. The ideal, then, would be back and forth: prison/show/prison/show. A bizarre juxtaposition. An impossible one. In and out. This is the rhythm of revelation and revolution. Not the copout of staying in or staying out, but the copulation.
Back forth
Past present
Red blue
Flood spot
Constrained free
Me us
Juxtapose! Juxtapose my scholarly work and my creative work. My professional life and my ‘private’ life. Literary and pop. Jazz and rock. Sex and spirituality. Politics and art. Class and consciousness. Indeed, the lack of juxtaposition is a product of time and space and produced by capitalism, which divides everything into sectors, genres, departments, for the purposes of maximizing efficiency and minimizing the dangerous effects of…juxtaposition! Mixing, coming together, hybridity…revolution.
Fuck that. No, literally, fuck it. In and out, in and out, hear her groan, the moon and the sea. Back and forth. Of course this is an impossible dream—to jump in and out of prison. If we could, we would be brilliant. But the closest I can get is to go back to the show and let the song intersperse with the version I listened to in prison. Or to let the one I listen to in prison intersperse with one from a past show. And to let my notes from the two experiences mix and match. Because I forget the truths of being locked up when I’m free, and forget the truths of freedom when I am locked up.


Here we are: a Greek theater. A tragic chorus, a comedic chorus. A tribe in the midst of the dance where everybody dances.

Uncle John is working the show, as an electrician. We are in the show, as electricity, conducted under the soft blue dome of sky.

One becomes an expert at listening, working through one’s psyche, spelunking in the caves of the Id, in a three-night stand like this. As Bergson knew, duration is the key to understanding time. Seeing multiple shows offers the wisdom of marriage.

Hi my name is: ___Andy_________. (There is the contribution of my neighbor. My journal is his name tag).

The drugs work! I can work! Here’s some work:
Learn how to funk it up in the face of death. The lesson of this song “Possum”, a meditation on driving down the road and being confronted with death. But this meditation grooves. It takes metaphysical talent to groove this hard with death. But Trey Anastasio is reading his guitar cues somewhere above our heads, gaping, eyes intent on some kind of telos prompter.

Another neighbor writes in my journal: Laugh and the world laughs too.
My response: get high and the world gets high too.

The jam is always relevant. Because it fits everywhere. You cannot have an irrelevant night here unless you are lazy.

Most of my life has been spent making sure a woman won’t leave me.
This time will be different, this time will be different…until I do it again” he sings. But the third time he leaves off the ‘until I do it again’ and just jams. Of course this time will be different—every jam is. In every jam there is the hope that we are not just repeating ourselves. That, contrary to Cesare Pavese’s intuition, it is not the case that “what has been, will be.” In any case this blues has become supersonic blues, elevating it into the realms of pop.

Time really only offers up its fruits when you lose track of it. Hard, because you love it so much and you have so little of it. There lies the rub.

Set break:
1 pill of aderol and 4 shots of supersonic blues. We want to believe anything is possible. To do this, start with techniques of defamiliarization and deterritorialization, using light, duration, chemical alteration, unfamiliar language. Then, we need a direction. Find a city, the band says, via David Byrne. Not enough. There needs to be a sense that anything is possible politically, which is to say that the political is now social and material.
To imagine crazy things such as flying horses and women as large as the temple is good training for this kind of belief. Good training for, say, the belief that we could do without the really poor or really rich. For the belief that property rights are not what make us human or happy. For the belief that it’s possible to all together disrupt the machine merely by quitting out little cog-parts.
There is plenty of faith—look at the churches.
There is plenty of will—look at the philosophers.
There is plenty of energy—look at this show.
But now we need a direction. The band provides fist in the air power. Now write the fight into this power. “Got a blank space where my fight should be”, to revise Trey’s lyrics. That’s my challenge to you.

So loving and casually eternal with my Linz tonight.

Things to remember:
- type with the kind of ruthless forward movement of “Weekapaug Groove
- the show of life is being played right now. You’re on. Play.
- You can always be at the show at least with Vanessa and Lindsey.


Phish played “Harry Hood” on both 12.30.99 and 8.07.10. Unlike most rock bands, the difference between those two performances varies greatly—such is the nature of the jam. I keep the numbers in my head like buoys spread out across great swaths of formless, merciless sea. This isn’t “Harry Hood”, it’s “Harry Hood 12.30.99”. The difference between jams is not only a matter of material, e.g. the notes, chords, melodies, themes vibrating in the cool humid Florida (12.30.99) or strangely chilly dry Berkeley (8.07.10) air. There is another part of the jam—your part. The part where your memories, hopes and present feelings swim and swirl around in the rarefied air of the jam, changing its contours.
Of course, “When the Circus Comes” jams quite differently with your own love on 12.31.99 than it does on 10.31.09. For when he sings “Could have had a chance to get out of this mess / The time that you came and the day that you left”, he was talking about one woman in 99 and another in 2009. In fact, in 1999 you held your wife and the chill went through your heart as your remembered your first, long lost love. In 2009 you do so with your 2nd wife, remembering your first. The song goes on, both in newer and newer incarnations, and in newer incarnations of older versions, since listening to 12.31.99 on 8.10.10 alters the meaning of the song again. “It didn’t mean that much / It didn’t mean that much”. It didn’t on 12.31.99, but it does listening to 12.31.99 on 8.19.10. Some numbers match up well. Sometimes they fall into place and out of the chaos swims a line of grace. A melodic line. And this time, you get what she had been trying to tell you. Or this time, you let it go once and for all, changing ad hoc the sense of a decade of versions of the song. But you cannot get too revisionist—the numbers are there to remind you of what you have forgotten. That is why some of those who do not want a reckoning with their past do not go back and listen. They know the numbers don’t add up. The difference between me and the friend who accompanied me for a 7.31.97 version in Mountain View, CA, is I’m still writing and rewriting the meaning of that number.
Meanings swim in and out of each other, back and forth across time and space. 8.17.97. 7.13.03. 8.07.10. Limestone, Maine. George, Washington. Prague, Czech Republic. Ana. Lindsey. Erica. Craig. Crime. Punishment. Freedom. Swirls and curls, through time, and always those numbers, flashing like the matrix at the beginning of the Wachowski Bros. film. What was trauma on 9.11.99 is grace on 8.08.09. The “Harry Hood” jam plays in my earphones—8.07.09, the Gorge. I think of all the Hood jams. All the hoods: Louis’ summer at Mt. Hood. Alan Moore’s “Under the Hood”. Ana’s clitoral hood. The hoods I knew in prison. The band sings “you can feel good, you can feel good, good about hood!” This is not some hippie clarion call announcing the oneness or the goodness of all things. No, this is multiplicity. A sometimes terrifying multiplicity of possibilities, meanings, hearts clashing. What matters to me is that we are continually revising, continually revisualizing, continually drawing new lines of flight through the matrix of versions of these songs. This is what I call jamming across space-time. Try this at home.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Legalize Drugs and There Go All Our Dramatic Plots

For me, the entire discussion of good film is denuded of a higher purpose to the word ‘good.’ It is not that good, unless it is political. (Yes, of course there are plenty of exceptions). As such, this blog is of a piece with my last one about political music. This is not because I dislike apolitical or purely aesthetic film. It’s because there is no such thing. If it is apolitical, aesthetic, more concerned with psychology than social reality, then it has a definite political reality—that of late capitalism. Frederic Jameson astutely
“Let me try to state this distinction in a grossly oversimplified way: one of the determinants of capitalist culture, that is, the culture of the western realist and modernist novel, is a radical split between the private and the public, between the poetic and the political, between what we have come to think of as the domain of sexuality and the unconscious and that of the public world of classes, of the economic, and of secular political power: in other words, Freud and Marx.” (Jameson, “Third-World Literature in the Era of Multinational Capitalism,” in New Political Science, Summer 1986 No. 15)
It is a privilege of the ruling political theory and ruling class to even have the time and space to say they are not interested in politics. To even have the idea that it is possible to separate social relations from ‘inner psychology.’ Soviet film and literature is today written off as “socialist realism,” but it is not as if the fiction we are used to is more moderate, less of a product of ideology. Our brand of fiction could just as easily be called “capitalist realism.” We don’t call it that, though, in MFA programs. We call it “good fiction.”
This is why I think arguments about the artistic worth of movies such as No Country For Old Men or Miami Vice are trapped to one side—and that side is not the left. They take for granted one of the absurd tenets of the War on Drugs, which is that drugs should be illegal. There are many reasons for this, but the top 3 are:
1) We’ve made no progress on the Drug War over the past few decades, wasting billions of dollars. Every time there is a drug bust, it only makes it more profitable to get or stay in the business. We could save enough on legalization to give everyone schooling and health care.
2) As for the danger of the drugs, they are dangerous chiefly because they are illegal. As such, doses are not consistent, they can be cut with anything, and the stigma associated with them discourages users from seeking practical help or rehabilitation.
3) In addition to taking the more than 50% of drug offenders out of prison and into rehab or productive jobs, legalization would cut down on most other crimes, since, as flipping through the television will tell you, most crimes are drug related. That is, related to drugs being illegal, since that’s where the profit is.
There are many more reasons, but this isn’t the place for them. This is the place to assert that if drugs were legal, we’d lose most of our television dramas and a good portion of our film as well! Let’s start with Miami Vice. Michael Mann is a good director; the film was tense, well-plotted and paced, and full of those ambiguities film critics love: Does Sonny place his personal attachments over his professional ones, etc? How about instead does Sonny get some god-damned POLITICAL attachments? Like the one to legalize drugs so that every murder and mutilation in the film wouldn’t have to happen?
As for “No Country for Old Men,” it’s yet another ‘psychological’ drama wherein we investigate or observe via the eccentric, unflinching eyes of the Coen Brothers’ camera the inner reality of a pathological hit man and a hapless group of people caught in his crossfire. The problem is, there is no acknowledgement from the Coens (and I assume the same for Cormac McCarthy) of the real tragedy, which is that this hit man only exists because drugs are illegal. All of the death and destruction in that horrifically violent film because drugs are illegal. You may say, judge art for its aesthetic merits, regardless of the politics of its makers, but that is only to assert your own ideology, the one created in the forges of capitalism, where the political is sliced off from the personal, and the economic sliced off from the social. It’s always passed as cheap profundity to leave big questions unanswered or indeterminate: What could drive men to behave this way. Sorry Coens, but we know an answer to the biggest Why in this film, but you obfuscate it. So it’s not a great film to me. Not as great as Godard’s Tout Va Bien or Oliver Stone’s JFK, or even the Wachowski Bros. Speed Racer, all politically sophisticated films. This is an ailing country, and it’s no country for old ideologies.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

U2 and Bruce Springsteen At The Top

The four-hour television-special concert celebrating the 25th anniversary of the rock n’ roll hall of fame of course boasted a collection of astoundingly good musicians playing astoundingly good music. But I am not interested in writing about musicians or musicality. This is one of the pleasures of writing a blog as opposed to journalism—you don’t have to keep up the farce we call objectivity, or the thinly disguised relativism we call respecting other’s tastes. I’m not interested in the tastes of musicians and music aficionados. I’m not interested in what the Rolling Stones did for style, posturing, or blues songwriting. I love the smooth sound, virtuosity, and courageous racial-barrier leaping of groups like Little Anthony and the Imperials, but that’s not my critical specialty. I love Bonnie Raitt’s honest voice, Stevie Wonder’s songwriting. Paul Simon is a genius and breakthrough songwriter, and Garfunkel has one of the most gorgeously sincere voices I’ve ever heard, but even they were dwarfed by the world-straddling power of what I’m interested in.
What am in interested in? Music that, as Bono put it, “believes the world is more malleable than you think.” And there were only two such manifestations at the 25th anniversary concert: Bruce Springsteen and U2. (We killed off one of the rare others this year—Michael Jackson). Every time a best of the year or best of the decade list comes out, I just shake my head at what the necessary abstractions and lies of objectivity require—including anyone other than these two at the top. The best ten songs of the year were all by Springsteen and U2 (OK, and Dylan). The best 10 albums of the decade were all Springsteen and U2 (Ok, and Dylan). The reasons were on display where they should be on display—at a concert celebrating the best in rock history.
Let’s start with Springsteen. First of all, he doesn’t play in a band—he travels around in a perpetual spiritual battle. If Springsteen came before Hegel, Hegel could have saved me a lot of the headaches and desperation of reading The Phenomenology of Spirit, since he could have written a collection of Springsteen concert reviews instead. Springsteen closed night one with an epic set, not just mining the deepest reaches of various genres of rock n’roll, but celebrating those genres in the exercise of their most ambitious, engorged power. He brought out the most soulful of the soul men, Sam Moore. He knows enough to know where the soul is. Musicians will point to better musicians and songwriters than Sam Moore. But Bruce just looks at faces and bodies. Moore came out, in a shirt reading “SAM IS WHO I AM”, shaking his body outside the bounds of practice, of hipness, of posture, with an unfamiliar stage presence—as if he was infinitely grateful to be on stage and loving every minute of it.
Next Springsteen cared about the world, practically and palpably. There is a name for this that Americans—especially rock n rollers—are afraid of. It’s called being political. He gave a speech about Woody Guthrie and his tradition of topical, ruthlessly critical songwriting, taking issue with the barbarism of nation actually debating whether or not everyone deserves health care coverage. But it is not just the courage to make such a speech. He doesn’t just know who matters in these times—Woody Guthrie—but also writes contemporary songs that update Guthrie for the 21st century, such as “The Ghost of Tom Joad.” While Simon and Garfunkel are playing their hits (as opposed to, say, Simon’s courageous, gorgeous songs (Songs from The Capeman) about a Puerto Rican betrayed by our sick system of crime and punishment), Bruce is playing this modern folk song from one of his least-selling albums, along with the 10-minute storytelling masterpiece “Jungleland”, a strange choice at an all-star concert with short songs and brisk pacing. “The Ghost of Tom Joad” did not rest on its lyrical laurels—Springsteen and revolutionary artist Tom Morello sang and guitar soloed with vein-busting anger more at home in underground hip-hop than rock n roll: “Wherever there’s a cop beating a guy/wherever a hungry newborn baby cries…Wherever there’s somebody fightin’ for a place to stand/or a decent job or a helpin’ hand/wherever somebody’s strugglin’ to be free / look in their eyes Mom you’ll see me.”
As for U2, Bono sings every note with his entire body, with his entire life. It looked exhausting. Despite the tribute-and-history nature of the gig, the band played four newer tunes, along with one classic, a Springsteen song, and a Stones song. Like Bruce, Bono tends to pick songs that send double-meaning messages. “Stuck in a Moment”, then, was as much about the current state of the music industry, terrified of its own shadow, terrified to return to major risk-taking, as it is an outreach to a suicidal friend. But again, as with Bruce, the true power is in the ability to direct our energies and our attention in speech. “It’s a dangerous thing, this business of building idols, but at least rock n’ roll is not at its best in worshipping sacred cows. It’s about the thousands of voices gathered in one unwashed congregation, like tonight. For a lot of us here, rock n’ roll just means one word. Liiberation. Sexual, political, spiritual…liberation.” Don’t forget the middle child there—political--that’s where the world waits for our help. Those who say “I don’t like talking politics” are really saying, “I don’t like talking life.” The two are forever bound, now. As are U2 and Bruce (OK, and Dylan).

The Sacred Dice - A Revolutionary Salon

The Sacred Dice is a salon of musicians, scholars, poets, sound sculptors, activists and artists of all kinds committed to art that is committed.  That could get us committed (to an asylum).  That disdain's art for art's sake and artists who have no idea why they do what they do.  We know why we do what we do--to create and celebrate community in a country still stuck in capitalist fantasies of individualism.  If you want in, you're in.  If you want out, don't worry--you already are.