Monthly Archives: June 2010

Title Track

by Carl Wilson

An email group that I’m on – let’s call it the Nerd Mafia – got into exchanging favourite song titles this week. Someone offered up Don Caballero’s “A Lot Of People Tell Me I Have A Fake British Accent” and “Why Is the Couch Always Wet?” and then came Half Man Half Biscuit’s “Architecture, Morality, Ted And Alice.” Inevitably, someone raised with Guided By Voices (“A Contest Featuring Human Beings,” “14 Cheerleader Cold Front”) and doubled down with Jim O’Rourke’s “Halfway to a Three Way.”

The Minutemen (“Political Song for Michael Jackson to Sing”), Smog (“Dress Sexy at My Funeral”), the Fugs (“I’m Gonna Kill Myself Over Your Dead Body,” “I Command the House of the Devil”), Love (“Maybe the People Would Be The Times or Between Clark and Hilldale”), Curtis Mayfield (“We the People Who Are Darker than Blue”), Captain Beefheart (“Neon Meate Dreams of an Octafish”), and even calypso godfather Lord Executioner (“Seven Skeletons Found in the Yard,” ”How I Spent My Time at the Hospital,” “We Mourn the Loss of Sir Murchison Fletcher”) all got their due respect. I felt I crowned the lot with Charles Mingus – pretty hard to outdo “The Shoes of the Fisherman’s Wife Are Some Jive-Ass Slippers” or “All the Things You Could Be Right Now if Sigmund Freud’s Wife Were Your Mother.”

With a few exceptions, those are jokey titles, but most of them do stand up, even without hearing the songs they name. The conversation got me thinking about this relationship between artwork and title. I adore titles, and pride myself on having a good ear for them, but the hours of intense conversations I’ve had with friends when they’re in the titling stage of a project strikes me in retrospect; likewise the number of friends who seem to have many more titles than they do projects, or who need to begin with a title.

It speaks to a conceptualist orientation, but it’s also to be a child of the marketing age. I sometimes wonder if it betrays a preference for the idea of a thing over the thing itself, a self-accusation that quickly widens its net over the rest of my life and hauls it in for questioning. I’m prone to idealize the mind of the artist who rejects titling as too restrictive, and goes with “Untitled #2” or “Sonata for Two Pianos in D Major.” But such an artist offers a certain impersonality to the audience, too. Especially in abstract forms, the title is an opportunity to offer the audience a starting point, a weather-vane to swing round in the imagination and point in a rough direction. A sonata or a jazz instrumental or minimalist sculpture on first encounter can be, to swipe my favourite Modest Mouse album title, “a long drive for someone with nothing to think about.” A title can supplant that nothing with something that then evolves of its own accord in the listener’s mind. Or it can simply help you focus on the more helpful detail among all the elements of a work. There’s a generosity in that. It doesn’t presume that the audience has nothing better to do with its time than search your work for a clue to what you’re on about.

When I was a child, I had a guitar-strumming, open-concept-school teacher who played us songs like “One Tin Soldier,” the cheesy anti-war anthem first recorded by the Canadian pop group Original Caste in 1969, remade first by Skeeter Davis (whose “The End of the World” from 1963 – a good title, though not quite as good as Willie Nelson’s “I’ve Just Destroyed the World” – was named the 177th greatest country single in my friends David Cantwell and Bill Frikiscs-Warren’s book of the best 500 country singles) and then more successfully by Coven for one of the Billy Jack movies. I vividly remember getting laughed at by my classmates for requesting it by the name “Listen Children,” based on the first line, “Listen, children, to a story that was written long ago…” Somehow I missed the resonance of the key chorus line, “On the bloody morning after, one tin soldier rides away.” No doubt I was narcissistically overrating the importance of the invocation of children. In any case it left me careful to get titles right.

One of the practical purposes of a title is for a fan to call it in to a radio show or shout it out at a concert, but often you might know a song without knowing its title. Especially when the relationship between the two gets looser. This is a point against the title that stands independent of the work. My mind’s never really been able to maintain the link between the words “Lady Marmalade” and the Labelle hit that seems to want to be called, “Voulez-vous coucher avec moi?”

But several of my favourite songwriters use titles as almost a cryptogrammic guide to underlying themes in their work. I love the “hymn” series by Hefner: “The Hymn for the Cigarettes,” “The Hymn for the Alcohol,” “The Hymn for the Postal Service,” “The Hymn for the Coffee” – in one fell gesture it indicates the whole approach to beauty that the band takes: elevating the abject, losing to win, mocking to worship and worshiping to mock. It may be that titles now are what we have instead of manifestos, to state our aesthetics without going to the obnoxious lengths of making an “artist’s statement” out of it.

One of the more outré approaches to titling of late (well, outside metal, Anthony Braxton, the likes of Autechre and the highly ambivalent case of Fall Out Boy) has come from The Mountain Goats, a.k.a. John Darnielle, who for years not only worked in series (the “Alpha” series, in which all the songs using that word in their titles depicted the same imaginary doomed couple; the “Going to _____” series, which featured characters who mix up geographic plans with life plans; more), but titled most of the rest of his songs with various historical, mythological and geographical references, so that if I want to hear one of my most-loved songs about burning jealousy, infidelity and loss, for example, I need to call to mind what I think is a grammatical mode in Sanskrit (“Raja Vocative”), or if you want to hear the one about robbing the candy store, you’ll have to recall the classical-dramaturgy/psychoanalytic term “The Recognition Scene.” Is this a less generous, more self-indulgent approach to titling? Here’s what Darnielle said in a Believer interview in 2004:

“I always preferred album titles that weren’t named after a song on the album. … Why is the album called Get Lost? That’s a great example, because it’s The Magnetic Fields Get Lost – it’s a sentence. But divorce it from the band name, and it’s an imperative: Get lost. When I was a kid, when I was developing my record-collector disease, those are the types of records I liked best because when I exhausted the songs and the lyrics I could still think about that aspect and I wanted albums to have as many possible points of scrutiny as they could. From the time I started writing songs, I thought it’d be better if the song title had to be in some way connected to the song. Then I got perverse about it and thought if I titled them in ways that no one could possibly make the connection I’ve made, they’d be even more interesting because anybody who’s like me and wants to make the connection would have to fabricate their own or conclude that it can’t be done. If you’re a record collector, you won’t conclude that it can’t be done. You’ll just go ahead and do it.”

So there’s another, more playful kind of generosity there, a game being played with the listener, based on the kinds of games the artist himself likes, which again is a hint of what kind of artist this is: “Here is everything I know, and here is how I put it together, but I’d be delighted if you would pull it all apart and put it back together differently. Also, I think meaning is contingent, how about you?” (Perhaps with the settling calm of maturity, perhaps because “record collector” is a pretty imperilled category, more recent Mountain Goats albums have used song titles closer to the content of the lyrics – even the latest, on which all the songs are titled with chapters and verses from scripture, is a relatively low-difficulty-level challenge.)

It’s refreshingly bracing sometimes when a song’s just called “Love Song” or “Divorce Song,” but all the additional pointers and tags make for a richer experience. Indeed, perhaps the question should be why we use the same general names for so many different things in life, like loves and divorces, rather than inventing unique titles for them. Or perhaps we already spend too much of our precious time in those deepest realms of our lives searching for the caption instead of listening to the music.

P.S. Here are some of the rejected potential titles for this website:
Triple Nerd Score
Ergo the Living Planet
The Potato Barn
Big Head
Blind Chess
Zionist Time Conspiracy
The DeLorean of All One’s Born Days
Viva la Quinta Brigada


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Robin Hood (2010) – directed by Ridley Scott, starring Russell Crowe

by Margaux Williamson

(My friend Lauren Bride invited me to the movies. She suggested “Robin Hood” or “Babies.” We decided on “Robin Hood” because it was summertime. At the theatre, when I saw Russell Crowe’s head on the poster, I was a little disappointed. He always plays the mightiest of virtuous white men, sort of like Doris Day but not as funny and more prone to unwanted and overly serious advice giving. I might have picked “Babies” had I known. How could such a can’t-play-anything-but-a-virtuous-man play Robin Hood? I also somehow made the mistake of picturing the time period being 1990s, and the stage, Hollywood – the time of Kevin Costner and well-laundered cloaks. So I was a little startled when the movie opened in the deep past. I think probably no one else was startled. Throughout the movie, Lauren and I whispered jokes to each other. When we walked home, we didn’t mention the movie. We talked about other things.)

I had no thoughts about this movie – other than an attempt at historical accuracy and a grittier aesthetic doesn’t add much to this big story that keeps collectively getting better (this movie excepted) 600 years after its origin. Also, it’s a war movie (?) starring a virtuous and victorious Russell Crowe (?).

But a month later, on an airplane, after reading an article on perceptual illusions, I fell asleep and had a dream that David Foster Wallace and Russell Crowe were on a panel together. Russell Crowe had his Robin Hood outfit on and his hat in his hands. He looked nervous. He had lost some weight and was finally sweating in all the wrong places. He kept looking at David Foster Wallace, and then, back at the audience. David Foster Wallace was relaxed and in jeans, looking out into the seated crowd. Neither of them were talking. The less they talked, the more nervous Russell Crowe got. Russell Crowe wanted to defend himself, to tell people he was a virtuous and good man, but no one was asking any questions. We all just sat there. It was different from that time I saw Russell Crowe on Oprah, when he gave her a book for her Oprah’s book club, “The Magus”.

If you really want to steal from the rich and give to the poor, it’s good to remember that your trial probably won’t come for a long time – if ever. You’ll have to be patient with being misunderstood, even by people you love. You may be glorified for the wrong reasons and disrespected at all the right parties. Understanding someone can take a very long time.

But it can be interesting to be misunderstood, and being misunderstood lets you be more flexible. Flexibility is important if you want to be an effective element in the big story rather than the respected author of your own story. It can be really fun to see how much one can affect the big story, becoming any character that proves most useful. And fun to observe what story we all begin to understand collectively.

When I woke up from my David Foster Wallace / Russell Crowe dream, there were a lot of people in line for the airplane washroom in the back and no one in line for the one in first class. A stewardess sent me back when I attempted to go to the one in first class, rolling her eyes at this move that had been tried a million times before. Sometimes it’s harder to change the big story than to be a hero of your own making.

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Little Boxes #2

(from Lose #1, by Michael DeForge,  2009)

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Tea With Chris: An Altruistic Army

“Tea With Chris” is a roundup of recommended links, posted every Friday. Here are our favourite things from the internet this week:

Carl: Tracy Wright in Me and You and Everyone We Know:

This appearance in Miranda July’s movie by the Toronto actor, who died this week, perfectly captures what she could do and how, as her lonely art-curator character gradually, wordlessly realizes the true identity of the Internet sex-chat partner she’s arranged to meet in a park.

Rae Armantrout, 5 Poems. If Tracy had been a poet, she might have been a lot like this one.

Chris: Geoff Manaugh of BLDGBLOG envisions a flower factory producing its own miniature climate in the caverns beneath Naples.

Stereogum got a bunch of musicians to participate in an “artists’ dialogue” about the band CocoRosie, which I loved even though I’ve never heard a single one of their songs. You should scroll down to the contribution from Annie Clark (a.k.a. St. Vincent), who stands out, as she often does, with an extended quote from Dave Hickey’s Air Guitar. And I should finally read that damn book.

Margaux: An amazing article “ARMY OF ALTRUISTS On the alienated right to do good” (2007) from my favourite anarchist David Graeber – an agile and sympathetic exploration of the motivation factors, opportunities and effect of the American left and right to do good. Read here or download here.

It is nice to watch Carole Lombard swear, it feels like 1999:

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Friday Pictures – Shaan Syed and Luc Tuymans


photo from Will Munro’s Memorial/ Celebration
photo by Shaan Syed (2010)


Luc Tuymans, Turtle, (2007)


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All the Critics Love U in Nippon

Starfish and Kanji

So I wrote a cycle of haikus about Prince. They are dedicated to Tipper Gore, without malice.

She fucked me, my sis
I’m pretty sure she meant to
See, I was budding

He and I could share
You used to wear all my robes
Please put down the phone

A coliseum
Chill winds, thrown trash; they want Stones.
Old phallic idols

Flicker’s a pretext
I got one thought, ten digits
Bet you got some too

Monogamy? Well
Let’s drive uptown – you caught red
I adore fascists

Couldn’t stop myself
I might be a low-down toad, but
He’s wearing the horns

Giant platform shoes
Tiny man, cicada-sized
Were you insecure?

Let’s fake sincere, let’s
Fuck the bass out of our mouths
Consummate, sleep late

Utubed weepy doves;
Prince’s creepy outstretched hand
Beckons…but to where?

Nikki thumbs, sweat-slick
She dug the lobby but not

Sue, Sheena, Sheila,
Vanity, natch; they sated,
For a few seasons.

She wore scant vintage
Old man curses indolence
Raspberry sorbet

Freshly washed hair
Slender fingers muss, console
Maybe we’ll get hitched

Music, not your God
Cleft us then. Revolution
Spat out its mamas.

A sign of the times:
Fiery armageddon
Becomes funky jam

Street of scattered glyphs
First forms thunder then blossoms
You, horny pony.

King Mob, Roi Ubu
Party like a harlequin
Fire scars painted face

Black marks on my cheek
I sweated on pyramids
The water’s cold now

The lech in winter
“Best since” always yet to come
Myth subsumes the man.

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The Elephant in the Living Room (2010) – by Michael Webber, starring Terry Brumfield and Tim Harrison

by Margaux Williamson

(The closest cinema to where I’m staying in San Francisco is called Roxie Theater. Roxie Theater was playing a movie I hadn’t heard of: “The Elephant in the Living Room.” I looked around but it seemed like all the other nearby cinemas were playing movies for kids. I thought: maybe June is when kids watch movies. So I went around the corner and bought a ticket. It was being presented by the United Film Festival as part of their “Animal Rights” program. The director of the festival and the director of “The Elephant in the Living Room” sat down in the narrow line of blue seats with the audience when the movie began.)

The narrative of “The Elephant in the Living Room” is sort of: “There is a lion in my backyard – and it is getting bigger!” It focuses on people who keep animals like pythons and tigers in their homes, and what happens when the pythons and tigers grow larger than the people. Sometimes the people dump the animals in the suburban wilds. Sometimes they keep them.

We mostly see Ohio. We mostly look at two characters: The Man with a lion, and The Officer from the state. The Man, a big soft spoken one who looks a bit like his lion, was given the baby lion when he had a broken back and depression. He says the love helped him to survive. But then the baby lion grew up and became a big lion in a small cage. And then they were stuck there, the lion in the cage and The Man who made the cage.

The Officer, with the mustache and the baseball cap, is sincerely hoping to untangle the love/cage problem for the lion and The Man – and for Ohio. He is brave and kind and he is good at his job. He really wants to do the right thing. He catches cougars found in peoples’ backyards. He tries to find better places for them. He buys the most poisonous snake at the Underground Snake Convention so that no one else buys it. But snakes make a lot of babies and he cannot buy all of them. The Officer is exhausted. Cases like these have just been increasing every year since the mid 90s and he doesn’t know why. (My theory – that monkey on “Friends” is to blame).

The Officer doesn’t see an end to the problem. The few exotic animal santuaries in America are mostly over capacity. He is starting to question his role and what side he is on. We see a pleasing shock in his eyes when a new idea occurs to him – maybe, he thinks, he should not try to capture the dangerous animals in the suburban wilds. Maybe he should let them run free.
I thought of the movie The Matrix Reloaded (Matrix #2) – the humans being kept in cages by computers and the growing number of humans who escape, then are hunted down by the computers. I had recently picked it out of a sale bin at Walgreens. The bin was under a helium balloon that said “Papa Navedaz!”

The Matrix2 doesn’t work so well. I think it is because everything started off with too much value. When everything has equal value, it’s hard to know what to focus on. Like, here are the proper names in the movie: The One, The Architect, The Key-maker, Zion, Trinity, Morpheus, Persephone, The Oracle. That is a lot of value! Midway through, I had a real longing for some garbage – or at least a mortal. I wanted The Farter, The Fuck up, The Mistake, The Girl Who Couldn’t Fly.

You have to be a real magician to take only value and double it. Sometimes it is easier to make a movie that begins with lowlier proper nouns and then move them towards value. “The Elephant in the Living Room” starts in the middle of nowhere and moves towards value. Apart from some seriously problematic music choices, the movie is funny and sweet and occasionally brushes against epic. It is really interesting to see men working together to solve the old love/cage problem as though it is a new problem. Since we are only starting from Ohio and not from the olden times, it looks kind of like a problem that men have only just discovered. It is as though, from this perspective, we are watching a mass male entry into the nurturing arts and its complications. They are beginning with snakes and tarantulas. It’s a hard-won pleasure to catch a glimpse of The Man’s heart of gold or see that The Officer may in fact be “The One”. And it is a surprise when we can see the vague but convincing outlines of a possible apocalyptic scenario (where these animals first take over the suburban wilds and then, all of America) – originating in Ohio! At least more surprising than seeing one originate in place called Zion.

For a good apocalyptic movie scenario, you really need at least a few elements without so much consistent value . The good ones are like a magnifying glass on the thriving life, boredom and absurdity of a regular day. To our delight or pain, we watch as things randomly, and with great speed, move in and out of meaning, value and existence. It is like a bird lands on your shoulder just as the convenience store goes up in flames – you don’t know what the fuck is going on, but you know something is happening. Our human brains lag behind the action, working hard to make meaning from the chaos. It is what we do best.

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Working in Close-Up: Fiery Furnaces, Patti Smith, Will Munro, Tracy Wright

by Carl Wilson

When I first saw Eleanor Friedberger of the Fiery Furnaces perform, I was (like many others) reminded of Patti Smith. But it’s in the angle of E.F.’s nose and the insolence of her mouth and the willfully untended hair, not in her voice really. E.F. has a well-bred, kids’-TV-meets-cabaret approach to singing a story, like a book on tape, her consonants so crisp it’s like they’re sweating little beads of tart apple juice. It’s more as if Edith Nesbit fronted a rock band, or Edith Wharton. Still, Smith and the Fiery Furnaces both build word-drunk narratives over a musical scaffold from the heavier end of classic rock (though in Smith’s heyday those classics were new); and they both depend on partnerships between a woman who sings and a guy who plays guitar. Smith’s most famous collaborator is Lenny Kaye, though there have been others. Eleanor Friedberger’s foil is Matthew Friedberger, her brother.

When you hear or see Patti Smith, you know that for all her generosity, she’s also a diva. The songs are her stories, the music the altar on which her words are burned and transfigured. It can be inflected, recharged, reframed by different partners, but its essence is singular. When I first heard the Friedbergers, by contrast, I imagined that the process of making music for them was like a couple of siblings goofing around with a tape recorder and making up stories.

Later, my impression shifted. Maybe Matthew was the controlling creative interest and Eleanor a performer/interpreter. But then on their most recent record, I’m Going Away, Eleanor apparently wrote the majority of the lyrics. Such a back-and-forth makes as much sense as any sort of specialization between a creative pair; my desire to get at the truth about their method – was Matt really some kind of Richard Carpenter figure, the music nerd exploiting his beautiful singing sister? – was my own problem. It was a compulsion to pin the artists in place. (The better to explain you with, my dears.)

I dropped in to see the Furnaces again last night at the Drake Underground in Toronto. The place was only half-full, surprising for a band that used to crowd much bigger halls. Their excursions into long-form suites, one of them based on recordings they made with their grandma, seem to have worn down the more fickle listeners’ patience, even though every record the past few years has been praised as a “return to pop form.” I hope it doesn’t make the FF’s feel that they’re on any kind of downward drift. They certainly don’t play like it. They must appreciate having an audience instead that’s mouthing along with every multisyllabic line.

The band (with Jason Lowenstein [Sebadoh] on bass and Robert D’Amico on drums) doesn’t make it easy for the would-be karaoke singer to follow the bouncing ball, the way it collages their recorded tunes together live into non-stop rolling medleys (I thought of Gilbert & Sullivan more than once, and Glee) that change from show to show. That element is, no matter who contributes what, perhaps the most fascinating outgrowth of this living study in collaboration. It’s difficult to know, but there seems to be no solid set list; Matt would just veer into another song at the tail end of the last, and with a practised grace, Eleanor would land on the first, wordplay-packed line as if she’d known what was coming and had already baked it a cake. Serve and volley; call and response.

Eleanor stands in the traditional place of the preacher, at the centre of the stage, to whom Matt plays choir director (or talk-show band leader); it’s not a role reversal in which second banana is secretly boss, because once he’s called the cue she once again has primary command (instrumentals are brief and gestural). It’s more like Lester Young and Billie Holiday, maybe – each power sovereign in its canton within the federated state of the song. Even on record Fiery Furnaces songs seem built like a collective of interconnected duchies or archipelagos, and the jumps between locations can weary. They’re a band whose albums can give you jet-lag.

It’s pure speculation but it seems like all these stratagems – and more I haven’t mentioned, especially an album coming out this fall called Take Me ‘Round Again, on which they cover their own songs but re-write each other’s parts – spring from the special nature of inter-sibling collaboration. Perhaps you have to play a lot of games to keep it seeming fair, like dividing up the ice cream evenly. You be the Nazi this time, I’ll be the Allies.

I’m fascinated by familial or romantic collaboration. It’s difficult enough to collaborate with friends, as on this new blog. I’ve been to the outskirts of that even-closer experience, but seldom deep inside. I was once in a band with two of my best friends, one of them an ex-, along with her brother. The interpersonal dynamics were one of the reasons we played only two shows in three years. I’ve been an assistant, a doorperson, a driver, a publicist for other intimates, but usually stayed a step back from the cauldron, kept my potions to myself. I’m not sure whether I think that a lover or family member would know too much about me to take my input seriously, or if I fear that they’d find out too much to go on loving me.

But the prospect definitely spooks and thus beguiles me. When I look at the McGarrigle-Wainwright family, or Toronto’s husband-wife Lullaby Arkestra, or the Furnaces, or any number of other such partnerships, it’s as if they have superpowers. I might over-mysticize the art that results. There’s a sci-fi aphorism that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. Perhaps the same could be said of any art that is sufficiently free of fear.

This doesn’t require the conventional kind of family. I am thinking of two people that my city, Toronto, has lost, far too young and almost exactly a month apart, to cancer: One was Will Munro, an artist and party organizer and more, who managed to remap queer (and straight) life in this city. It looked like he was doing it just by getting people to dance in different places to different music. But that wasn’t it. Will was doing it by loving people’s differences more than their similarities; the effect just radiated out, and enabled others to do as he’d done. He died May 21.

Another is Tracy Wright, an actor who brought her sharp, soulful presence to all she touched, whether an experimental performance piece, TV series or movie. She collaborated with loved ones but she also made loved ones of collaborators, a category you could say extended to much of Toronto’s theatre community, as evidenced by the benefit performance of Brecht’s Galileo staged in her honour last month. She was meant to star in it, as Galileo, but then surgery was scheduled and she ended up watching over Skype from her hospital bed. She died this morning. Perhaps her talent was too sharp and particular to attract popular fame; as Galileo apocryphally said, “And yet it moves.”

These days it seems like divas, grand as they are, are too much with us. A sister playing an intricate game of musical catch with her brother shouldn’t be mistaken for and measured by Patti Smith because of her haircut. I hope that because of the way they shared their too-brief creative lives, like siblings or lovers, not bosses or stars, Tracy’s and Will’s spirits will still move and stir among us. Perhaps with enough circulation, enough give and take, this can somehow set to right what, at the end of a sad day, seems so very out of balance.

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Little Boxes #1

(from Melvin Monster #1, by John Stanley, 1965)

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** hello **

BACK TO THE WORLD welcomes you.

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