Monthly Archives: June 2011

Little Boxes #52

(from Batman #404, script by Frank Miller and art by David Mazzucchelli, 1987)

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Tea With Chris: The Seeds, the Stones

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

Carl: Peter Falk expressed more humanity in a shrug or a cough than most actors can bring to a whole Shakespearean soliloquy. He was a virtuoso of hesitation, doubt and resignation, but he could also ring arias of joy upon his shaggy brow. The spectrum of his work made him the soul of John Cassavetes’ greatest films, an inspired clown in his comedies, but also the redefinition of the TV cop show. His Columbo, a character it’s nearly impossible to imagine anyone else playing, was a kind of rumpled angel who meted out justice in a way that even his quarries had to delight in – a softie’s utopian ideal of law and order, in which authority punishes with reluctance and the truth is outed with a sigh of inevitability, that could only have originated in the 1970s. Falk embodied the best of that decade, a gentle dirty realism that lay upon his skin like a wrinkled overcoat. His death this week was the period to a quiet denouement. But we need his like again, to animate new dramas of understatement in an age of bluster and noise.

What Toronto’s listening to: I want there to be a new episode of this every day. Our friend Sheila told me that it made her terribly nostalgic for Toronto – even though she was already in Toronto.

Speaking of our town, here is a history of my favourite artistic tradition in Toronto, which is coming to an end this summer.

The writer Robert Kroetsch also died this week, in a car crash. A terrific Prairie poet, Kroetsch was true to the weirdness and funniness of the flatness, the seeds, the stones. Here’s how he described the urban development and decline of a Prairie town: “The gopher was the model./ Stand up straight/ telephone poles/ grain elevators/ church steeples./ Vanish, suddenly: the/ gopher was the model.” He was also an important novelist, essayist, critic and anthologist. His sad end doesn’t diminish the fullness of his life, the sort that people may remember better than they honoured it in his own time.

Chris: Something you don’t want a Serbian warlord to say about you during interviews: “I look forward to the day I can drink his blood.”

A Chinese company is replicating the entire Austrian village of Hallstatt (which was listed by UNESCO) in Guangdong province.

Since Toronto’s homophobic asshole of a mayor decided to skip next weekend’s Pride parade (along with every other event during the 10-day festival leading up to it), here’s a Flickr collection of old photos from historical gay-liberation events.

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Friday Pictures – Alison Yip


from You and Me and the Sea


from You and Me and the Sea

 

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Out of the Vinyl Deeps: Ellen Willis on Rock Music, edited by Nona Willis Aronowitz (2011)

by Carl Wilson

There’s been plenty of praise already for this posthumous volume of work by not only The New Yorker’s first pop writer but one of the first rock critics (as opposed to reviewers) – who went missing from the history because she had dropped out of the game by the time it was first being historicized, and no doubt because she wasn’t a guy. I was a fan of Ellen Willis’s socio-political, feminist writing (many fine examples of which are archived on this Tumblr) long before learning she’d been a music critic. Later I couldn’t believe I hadn’t known.

I’m still struck by the uncanny frisson rereading her work imparts. It feels at once anachronistic and full of unfinished business. Early rock critics generally read more like our contemporaries than other cultural critics of the 1960s and 1970s, save perhaps Pauline Kael. But in part that was because they (Marcus, Christgau et al) were having arguments they then went on to finish, or that other people clearly took up (Lester Bangs). They were able to moderate their various romanticisms, rockisms, exclusions and snobberies.

With Willis, you get reflections on anything from Elvis’s comeback to the social meaning of white electric blues to whether David Bowie was a phony, all as offhand, first-draft-of-history musings, necessarily innocent of the big debates to come, often half-wrong but revitalized by freshness as first thoughts. You also get blind spots – it’s misleading that the first piece in chapter 1 is about “Two Soul Albums,” because contemporary black music just isn’t going to come up in this book very often. It’s not an omission anyone writing retrospectively about the 1960s and 1970s would make. But it was one plenty of people did at the time, and Willis isn’t exempt, nor does she get to go back and revise.

More importantly there are the hints and beginnings of big themes she’d never go on to explore in depth – and neither would many others. Part of what was lost in Willis’s voice going missing was the way she treated music not so much analytically, and certainly not categorically, but dynamically. She had a way of talking about artist-audience relationships, specifically fan relationships, that anticipated what would come in cultural studies in the 1980s and 1990s.

But while there was sociology in Willis’s take, it was also self-reflexive and personal – her sense of what she was asking of Janis Joplin and what Janis Joplin reciprocally needed from her, or how she could appropriate the virile aggression of Mick Jagger as a fan, and take on that erotic energy as subject rather than object. (So the Stones’ Under My Thumb is potentially more accommodating to a female point-of-view than Cat Stevens’ Wild World, because a hetero woman couldn’t easily picture herself passive-aggressively controlling an ex-lover by telling him he was too naive and delicate for the big bad world. Molly Templeton has astutely proposed that gender-flip question as Willis’s musical equivalent of the Bechdel Test.)

Here, then, are 5 propositions and maxims that reading Out of the Vinyl Deeps made me think should guide more criticism today.

Music is an embodied experience.

As a feminist, a 1960s counterculture-liberationist and, most of all, as someone who came into a relatively empty field and pursued her passions rather than having a lot of other discourse to answer to, Willis was seldom distracted from the fact that music was something to feel physically – an engine for dancing, a drug for feeling, a massage for pain, an erotic locus and something that pulls you into crowds.

Unlike some members of the boys’ club, she didn’t take that as an excuse for slobbery prose that tried to emulate the music’s (and the drugs’) pulses and waves. She wrote more diagnostically, describing the symptoms caused by these viruses of sound and trying to say what they were good or bad for, and what overall syndromes they might indicate. She knew there were contradictions between rationalism and expressionism, between the body and the mind, but to her that was exactly the meaning and purpose of rock’n’roll.

 It’s natural to have an agenda.

Willis felt no compunction about the fact that Janis Joplin, Bob Dylan, Mick Jagger, The Who and the Velvet Underground (who, amazingly, she’s still written about better than anyone else) were closer and more personal to her than a lot of other figures. She enjoyed keeping in dialogue with them, with each new album or development.

She wasn’t uncomfortable with that commitment and contaminated by ideas of objectivity leaking inappropriately in from other branches of journalism. But she also knew that her fan relationship to them was fraught. She cared about whether they were fulfilling their promises without petulantly implying they owed something to her – as if they were the leaders of a republic in which she was just one highly engaged citizen. Pop is about both identification and objectification of the stars, she knew. But just as with the people around us, the projections, identifications and oppositions we bring in are mainly our own problem.

Pleasure is both a moral imperative and a moral dilemma.

None of the liberating power Willis felt in pop music could function without pleasure. In this way, she was ahead of the back-and-forth that would come between the neo-Adorno undergroundist critics who were suspicious of pop pleasure and the (now dominant) faction of poptimists who insist that’s where it all begins.

But she was always asking herself what pleasure meant: I like that beat, but what do I like it for? It’s not just whether and how it works, but what it works, what it’s propelling. She was alert to the possibilities of masochism, of submitting to the force or insinuation of music without questioning what becomes of the self in the process. She also delighted in finding pleasure that was hard to find – that punk, for example, had a positive life-force to offer within what had seemed nihilistic, anti-pleasure to her at first. But when music had no pleasure in it, she was impatient with any other argument it might have to offer.

Music always suggest a philosophy, a life-world.

For Willis, ultimately, the question was whether music was evoking a world she wanted to live in, or at least wanted to work her way through. Her landmark Velvet Underground essay for the Stranded “desert-island disc” anthology was testing exactly that problem: She saw in the VU, and in Lou Reed’s songwriting especially, a search for salvation in a fallen world. The VU was radical in pop music for its depiction of how deeply, violently fallen the world is – how unlike a mental ideal the embodied life is.

But she was convinced the music was about the struggle against that nihilism. She would have had little time for music that embraced the nihilism, a genuinely gnostic music. (Which may be what she thought she heard in the 1980s, and why she quit writing about it.)

Her writing likewise depicted a fight against cynicism and despair, which partly marks its post-60s era – she’s not that far off from Joan Didion in that way, though Willis could never be mistaken as anything but a New York writer. But the details of the philosophical positions involved aren’t so much the crux as is the constant listening for what’s being proposed and the writer’s honest effort to imagine what that has to do with her.

To live outside the law you must be honest – and hurt the ones you love.

All that said, Willis was never willing to straight-out join up. Perhaps her days of countercultural immersion and unthinking loyalty are behind her by the time she starts writing in public. Perhaps they were just never in her character. She makes her alliances tentatively, the way a feminist who loves Dylan and the Stones and the Who has to if she’s not switching her brain off.

She’s no easier on her female compatriots: She made a huge effort to find nascent feminist musicians who would speak to her. She didn’t find many. She witnesses the beginning of the women’s-music-festival movement, and finds it encouraging, but she’s impatient to find the women’s music that really rocks, or at least doesn’t traffic in feminist platitudes.

She keeps searching, but she doesn’t give away too many points for effort, and she’s not afraid she’ll be kicked out of the movement for voicing her misgivings, in part because she does it so clearly with regret. Just as she listens to the music, it seems as if she listens to her own words, asking how her pleasure in writing serves to create more pleasure, to liberate a larger purpose.

She indulges that ego right up to that line but never across it. At the ends of a lot of her pieces, no matter how big or small her claims beforehand have been, she often threw in a little offhand disclaimer: “He’s right, but I still miss it.” “Well, call it a draw.” “You can’t win ’em all.” “But I guess that I just don’t know.” She brings it back down to that human scale, in which the author is merely, again, one citizen of this republic of song, even when she’s saying what the rest of that imaginary nation hadn’t yet thought to think.

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Little Boxes #51

(from “Snake ‘n’ Bacon: Up All Night,” by Michael Kupperman, 2011)

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Friday Pictures – Lindsay Fisher


Self as Francis Bacon

 

 Waiting room

 

 

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Tea With Chris: You Don’t Need a Penis

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

Carl: I’ve often made half-baked speculations about how younger people are listening to and relating to music, based on limited observations and guesswork, and often in front of people, sometimes for money. It apparently took a former scientist to go out and do some actual research. Her observations, while anecdotal, are intriguing and match things I’d suspected: that for teenagers period doesn’t quite exist any more. Music isn’t generational, and they listen to a lot of older music that they discover via video-game, TV and movie soundtracks, their parents’ collection, YouTube clips shared with friends, and whatever else they stumble across. Their interests are broader, I take it, than most kids’ were when I was that age. They just want to get a broad general knowledge, and what they prioritize is more personal than tribal. I was that sort of listener, in a lot of ways, at that age, but it was a minority approach that required a lot of reading and record-scouting prompted by having read about the blues or jazz or art rock and then searching for it. Now, the Internet has made it a natural approach.

The kids she talked to were becoming much more interested in staying abreast of new music around college age (and she’s in a college town so she can’t generalize about what non-college-bound late teens and early 20s kids are doing). And at no point does anybody listen closely to whole albums. Their listening is a much more impressionistic thing, usually while they are doing other things – texting and using the Internet in various other ways, primarily, plus socializing, doing homework etc. You could argue that in the music beginning to emerge from that generation, you hear both things – an awareness of styles from all kinds of eras, coexisting, layered on top of each other, and a vague fuzziness of attention, free-associating in a bath of sounds. You hear it across a range of genres. It’s so pervasive that I imagine there will be interesting reactions against it.

Prognosticating about musical directions is a futile game, but it’s been a while since there has been a zeitgeist to extrapolate from, so I’m indulging. As Simon Reynolds has been saying in interviews about his new (somewhat cranky-seeming) book, Retromania: “I think a bit of groupthink would be good. It happens in journalism. People are very reluctant to get behind each other’s ideas. I totally got behind David Keenan’s hypnagogic pop idea. I don’t care that he thought of it first; it’s a fantastic idea and I like some of that music a lot. But there’s much more ego value in taking the piss or criticising other people’s stuff. Actually joining together, unifying around things, no one seems to want to do that so much any more.”

Au contraire mon frere. I’m pretty happy with how this whole Polaris Long List thing came out, for example.

Also I have begun using this, which presumes that you want to listen to what other people are listening to, and it’s my favourite new way to hear music. Sometimes I even listen to whole albums.

Finally, it is worth mentioning that you don’t need a penis to disbelieve in God.

Chris: Count me as another person who’s happy with the 2011 Polaris Prize long list. I’m also happy that Spotting Deer, Michael DeForge’s most conceptual comic to date and maybe his best, is now freely available online. A reference text devoted to the titular made-up animal, it simultaneously documents the fictional author’s life-ruining obsession. Plus there’s good jokes about Canada. “Deer stand proud as stalwart champions of our most cherished national values: multigrain, diversity and volunteerism.”

Two circles filled with truth, via Maura.

Margaux: 5 million cheers for the Manal al-Sharif , the Saudi activist who posted to Youtube a videotape of herself driving her own car – an illegal activity for which she was jailed.  Today is the the official start date of the related campaign “Women2Drive”. I think it is going well.

 

 

 

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