The Chicago-rooted, New York-resident, Montreal-affiliated, beautiful-music-making Matana Roberts was in Toronto at the Music Gallery last weekend, playing solo alto saxophone. She chatted with the crowd about a lot of things (“I’m a talker,” she warned early on), but at one point spoke of how her heart was with the people of Calgary, especially after experiencing how devastating a flood can be after last year’s hurricane in NY. Later in the show she repeated, “Sound heals. Sound heals. Sound heals.” So with that in mind, listen to the torrents of incredible tones she generates in this video made in Kensington Gardens in London a couple of years ago, and think about inundation, immersion, and recovery.
Margaux Williamson: Steve Kado is one of my favourite artist people in town – who is sometimes not in town. He has startled and delighted me while standing on stage with a microphone and he is also very fun to talk to while not on stage. He doesn’t write often and I asked if he would write something for Back to the World. He sent a post from L.A.
By Steve Kado
My friends and I were driving from Los Angeles to Tijuana to go to an art opening. Everyone in the car was involved in art to different degrees. One of our number was actually in the show we were going down to see. Three were from Australia and New Zealand; I was/am from Toronto. In San Diego we picked up Scott, a genuine American, who was in town visiting his mom – normally he lives in the desert where he builds his own house and designs books. At the same time, that weekend, there was a massive manhunt on for Christopher Dorner, the disgruntled victim of discrimination and racism within the LAPD who had had enough and gone on a cop-killing shooting spree. Confusingly, he did not exclusively kill cops, but also family members of cops.
Being that everyone in the car was from the arts, news-awareness was not always a strong point. Also, some people were travelling in America, not residents or even one-time-residents, and we all know how hard it is to keep up with the news when you’re on vacation. Unable, somehow, to bear listening to any news on the radio, we heard no broadcasts or music and tried to discuss the issue amongst ourselves. Earlier I had read that manifesto Dorner wrote. I would say that it was very easy to be sympathetic to him until he got to the killing part, and especially when he broadened the killing part to include family members of cops.
We were fuzzy on the excesses of the LAPD reaction. We had all heard something to the effect that they had shot up several (one? two? three?) different trucks, all because they feared Dorner was inside. In every case they had been wrong – Dorner was not in either of the vehicles they did in fact shoot at, neither vehicle was the make, model or colour of Dorner’s, and in one case the occupants were not even the right gender or number, being instead two Latina women doing a paper route. The asymmetrical and seemingly random armed response by the police force towards “trucks” as a category did, regrettably, seem to support aspects of Dorner’s manifesto.
Reflecting on it all now, one must also say that the silence about what happened to the police officers who reacted so excessively towards widely varying vehicles and people (at least in the news I’m getting) leads one to believe that perhaps nothing has really changed since the Rodney King and Rampart division scandals that Dorner mentions in his screed.
The mantra-like repetition of the phrase “cop killer” by others in conversation, before the car trip and during, led to the first attempt to hear music – Amy put John Maus’ Cop Killer on her phone. Playing out of the tinny speakers, all we could hear over road noise was the incessant repetition of the phrase “cop killer.” Scott put on the Body Count song of the same title but somehow it didn’t stick, despite arguably being more relevant to the specific situation and police force in question. All that night and the next day we would gloomily intone, a la John Maus, those two words.
After the opening we went to a very democratic dancing area. All types, ages and sizes were out there, giving it to the parquet flooring. We got very drunk. Then, around 2 am, a group of men with camouflage balaclavas, assault rifles and (perversely) GoPro cameras strapped to their heads trooped in. Taking one look at our half-antipodean gang the armed men (who seemed to be police) decided that we were of no consequence to them. They proceeded to ignore us while many of the other patrons in the bar were spread out against the walls, searched, forced to empty their pockets and line everything they owned up in neat lines on the ground and other such things. Finding nothing of interest, the armed men left, the music came on again a bit louder than before and things continued as if nothing had happened.
Back in LA, days later, Travis and I are walking from the Gold Line up to his house on a hill in Lincoln Heights. Every yard on the street he lives on is fenced in and contains between 2-4 dogs. These dogs are never walked, vary widely in size and do nothing but run in their yards and bark. The first day I arrived and woke up at Travis’, the first living animal I saw was the chihuahua across the street vigorously humping the terrier across the street. Choral waves of barking follow the passage of anything human or mechanical up or down the street. Acoustically, it is close, for me, to hell. Tonight, however, the dogs are quiet. “Cop killer,” we confide to each other, awed by the night’s silence. Almost immediately, a slow moving police car cruises by, checking us out with its search light. Neither of us match the profile of Christopher Dorner: Travis is a six-foot-something white beanpole and I am a less tall half-Asian person wearing a large backpack with huge glasses. Neither of us is an ex-reservist, neither of us seems interested in killing cops. The cops drive off but then circle back a minute later, just to make sure that we haven’t somehow merged Voltron-style into a cop-killing ex-reservist.
Later that week, the entire saga came to an end. Dorner was killed in a fire started by incendiary smoke grenades lobbed into the mountain cabin that he was hiding out in. He shot at and killed some more police before the fire got him. This was, more or less, how we all expected this to end. Watching CNN’s coverage of the minute details of one of Dorner’s police victims’ funerals in a Vietnamese restaurant, Travis and I try and make sense of a military ritual where a horse is led around with a pair of boots lodged backwards in the stirrups. It looks like someone had been riding a horse backwards and then vanished, leaving their boots behind. Neither of us can hear the CNN anchors explaining this over the din of noodles and slurping that fill the air. Everything from the emergence of a disgruntled ex-cop on a killing spree to the excessive reaction of the police once threatened and the inevitable Waco-like showdown felt grimly pre-recorded. But no one told us about the boot-thing that would happen at the end.
photo of “Glow in the Park” from Jaclyn Blumas and Robert Cram of Heretical Objects
I saw Christian Marclay’s The Clock this weekend at 5 am. The Clock is a 24 hour video work. It’s made up of thousands of scenes from movies and some television shows. The scenes all contain evidence, like clocks and watches, of the time represented in the specific movies and television shows. That time corresponds to the real time where the work is being screened.
It was playing during Toronto’s all night arts festival Nuit Blanche, an event that takes place between 7 pm and 7 am. Picturing the line-up at The Clock, I hadn’t planned to go. I had seen a few good things earlier in the night. I had thought to go to Slavoj Žižek’s talk in Toronto’s City Hall Council Chambers, but figured it would be too crowded and went home. My fellow blogger Carl was there at City Hall, he was part of the overflow from the Council Chambers that moved up to the roof and, in the cold, listened to Žižek talk about “The End of the World” through loudspeakers. That might sound even more special than sitting in the audience in the Council Chambers, though I have to say – arriving home, a few miles down the road but still in the center of festivities, making my way through the moving crowd that included a lot of children and drunk people, to get to my covered-in-tiny-bits-of-smashed-beer-bottles front stoop – to at that moment, receive a text message about how your fiends are standing on the roof of City Hall listening to Žižek talk about “The End of the World” through loudspeakers might have been the most special.
I had planned, at that point, to go to sleep, but a rogue DJ was parked on a flatbed truck outside my window. In addition to music, he had a microphone and a lot to say. Hours went by. I watched television shows I had never thought to watch: Gossip Girl, Lost, Wilfred.
When the police on bicycles put an end to the DJ, it was 4:30 Am and I was wide awake. I got on my bicycle and made my way across town to the Power Plant Gallery where The Clock was. It was pretty out, bits of garbage floating around and the highways empty.
When I arrived, there were no line-ups but the couches were all taken, a few with gently snoring people, and others on the floor, leaning against the wall. I saw my other fellow blogger Chris in one of the sofas. Later, I found out he had been sitting there for 6 hours. I went to the floor at the front and made a pillow with my sweater.
Though The Clock is a 24 hour video that has no continuous narrative apart for what time it is, it’s still made up of some of the most compelling narrative movies of all time. Movies that are meant to take you out of the place where you are and bring you entirely into the world where they are – an aspect of storytelling that our culture has become masterful at.
It was funny to come to it after having watched so much television just before, television that is meant to eat your time and make you forget about where you are. It was strange, in that room at the Power Plant Gallery, to have that very familiar feeling of being taken away from your world combined with continuous reminders of what time it is in your world. Every few moments, when you remember what time it is in your world, you inevitably remember where in your world you are, lying on the floor at the Power Plant at 6.18 am, 6.19 am 6.20 am. It’s like being at home watching television but the television isn’t lying to you. It was as though the fundamental elements of being in someone else’s world and then being in your own world were being tied together, a rhythmic loop that feels both impossible and also completely natural. Nothing felt forced or awkward about this tie, it felt like something that could be easily tied together and finally was.
There were some high points to the staged discussion this week in Toronto between musician/much-else David Byrne and author/Internet activist Cory Doctorow, on the occasion of Byrne’s tour for his terrific-sounding book How Music Works. But they didn’t stop the feeling that this conversation shouldn’t have taken place in this form at all.
For example, Byrne recounted a conversation with his 22-year-old daughter about copyright, in which he said that under current rules his work would go on supporting her financially long after he was dead, and that he thought this was kind of a bad thing, both for the art (which would not join the public domain as it should) and (he implied) for her own autonomy. Sorry, honey!
For his part, Doctorow passionately made a case that the business model that evolved in the 20th century for musical cover versions – the original creators can’t prevent anyone from covering their songs as long as they’re paid a royalty – should in fact be a model for how all copyright, especially online, works. He elegantly argued that music as a human practice long predates the existence of commercial markets for it, and that the only sane way to develop systems of regulation is to make them true to the spirit of the historical norms that surround it, such as that anyone ought to be able to sing any song, in public, and that any reasonable definition of public in the 21st century includes, for example, YouTube.
But there were assymetries in their conversational style that made for an uncomfortable evening, and not in a particularly enlightening way. Byrne is an artist whose social awkwardness (although much mellowed by age) is part of his essential makeup, as is his logical but lateral thinking, and his kind of savant-ish gift for deriving abstract proposition from experience via free-associative rumination. (It’s how he finds himself a city, picks a building that he wants to live in – it’s over there – water flowing underground, into the blue again.) And while he’s a very savvy user of technology for someone of his generation, I don’t think he has immensely much to tell us about the Internet that any intelligent person who’s been paying attention doesn’t also know.
Doctorow, meanwhile, is a professional opinion-giver, a whip-smart advocate for strong positions on contemporary technology and society. Where Byrne conversates a bit like a chickadee lighting from twig to palm with a beakful of seed, Doctorow expounds like an eloquent atheist preacher at the digital pulpit.
Guess which one took up most of the verbal space? Not the person most of the audience was there to hear. As I joked afterwards, when a lot of the audience heard the publicity for a conversation between David Byrne and Cory Doctorow, they heard, “David Byrne and Mwah-mwah-blah-blah-blah.” (Insert Peanuts teacher voice/Far Side “Ginger” cartoon here.)
That’s no slight against Doctorow. The situation did him the greater disservice, making much of the audience turn against him, frustrated they weren’t hearing more from the better-known personality (at least in the demographic that is likely to attend a $25-ticketed literary conversation). No one was going to hold it against David Byrne.
Much beyond the specific miscasting of these two as conversational partners for an audience (I’m sure as conversational partners on their own they’d have a great time), there are general lessons here.
A while ago, I was very kindly brought out to Portland to do a presentation about my work to a university audience. Even more kindly, the organizers thought that since I’d come all that way, we should put on another public event in town. Who else should be on the bill? Portland has a lot of interesting personalities, and to my surprise after some casting about, Frank Black (aka Charles Thompson, aka Black Francis of the Pixies) agreed to participate.
Come that night, even though the themes of our conversation were organized around my book, of course most people who came to the show were there to see Frank Black (in the Q&A they kept trying to get him to sing songs). I was the “Mwah-mwah-blah-blah-blah” on that bill. The only real option for the relatively obscure critic-author on stage with the famous musician was to fall into the role of his interviewer. Charles was extremely gracious and I really enjoyed the experience on many levels, but ultimately, as an event purportedly about my book, it didn’t make much sense.
Let’s derive a few rules of thumb from these stories. (I’m indebted to post-show conversation partners, Misha Glouberman, Chris Frey, Rebecca Payne, Emily Keeler and Charles Yao.) They may even apply to life beyond staged events.
a) When two people are going to be “in conversation,” in public, they ideally should be about equally familiar to the audience. Or something about the situation might mean that they each attract half a crowd, to whom one is familiar and the other is obscure and vice-versa, and your goal might be to introduce these two publics to one another.
b) The subject matter should be something in which they’re both fluent, though hopefully from different angles. (It also should be neither unhelpfully general nor smotheringly specific. A pointed question is a good starting point. The Harbourfront event’s question was “Wassup Internet?” Enough said.)
c) When that’s not possible or desirable for some reason, don’t play the less-well-known person for a patsy. The simplest thing might be to say upfront that they’re interviewing the better-known person. Bonus points: A very good trick can be to have the better-known person be billed as interviewing the less-known person. This can bestow a glow of generosity to the whole proceeding.
d) If that’s not what you want, there is a solution: a moderator, who relieves the speakers of visible responsibility (and blame) for guiding the conversation. A good moderator will help keep the share of time in balance. A really good moderator can also lend shape to a conversation that might otherwise ramble on endless tangents. A great moderator can do all that while seeming invisible.
e) If all else fails, you can alleviate a great many sins by bringing the audience into the conversation. At heart why should a question-and-answer period be so much shorter than the period speakers spend deciding the subject matter? The crowd is often much more dynamic. Obviously, again, a moderator needs to keep the Q&A on track, but I’d be as happy to go to a show that was all Q&A and zero meandering speaker as vice-versa.
In fact, the nicest moment the whole night was when a very young man came up and asked Byrne if he could repeat the name of the song he’d said he heard as a young man himself, whose sound “let him know there was something else out there.” Byrne paused for a moment, confused, and then answered, “Oh, you mean by the Byrds?” I think so, the young man said. And then very carefully copied in pen on his notepad, syllable by syllable, echoing Byrne’s answer out loud: “Mis-ter… Tam … bour… ine… Man?” In case we needed reminding that you can never assume worlds overlap. (People laughed, but it was just amazingly sweet.)
Ultimately, any form of entertainment that solely consists of somebody or somebodies speaking, if they are not just telling jokes, is dicey. It is only so much fun to listen to people talk and not to talk back, unless it’s very lively and engaging. There are a million ways for it to go wrong and the only way for it to go right is for someone to think through, carefully and conscientiously, “Just what is this going to be like?” Otherwise it is dubious that it should be done at all.
And this is worth talking about right now because these kinds of staged conversations and lectures and such have retaken a central place in our culture – the decline of print and rise of the digital-virtual somehow combining to generate a keener hunger for physical presence and non-fiction discourse than previously in my lifetime, like a return to the days of the chalk talk and Mark Twain. And, as it was then, it’s becoming one of the few ways writers can make a living. If that’s how it’s going to be, it should itself be a kind of art, not an afterthought.
PS: If you’re interested in this general subject, this series of video chats between Misha Glouberman and speakers’ agent David Lavin might be worth watching.
The Czech-Moravian marvel Iva Bittova plays Thursday night at the Rivoli in Toronto, and on Saturday at the Jazz Festival in Ottawa. Seeing her has been scientifically proven to add extra days to your life.
I’ve had the good fortune of becoming friends with the writer/academic/cultural critic Lynn Crosbie in the past few years; I have been a fan for much longer. Though she is famous for many things, there was something about her weekly column in the Globe & Mail that I needed and have always paid close attention to. In retrospect, I think, in some ways, her column was teaching me how to talk.
I remember, when I first started reading it years ago, I was living in a gloomy basement by the Leslie Spit and finishing George Elliot’s novel Middlemarch. Middlemarch has an unsual narrator – a narrator that is sometimes omniscient, sometimes addressing you directly, and sometimes trapped within the knowledge limitations that a typical literary character (or human) often has. The confidently wandering nature of the voice, to where it needed to go, was both thrilling and strangely subtle, both reckless and completely masterful. It was a hilarious voice to have in a novel where the main story arc involves an earnest and intelligent young woman, Dorothea, who wants to use her limited powers on this earth to aid the middle-aged Edward in finishing his great work The-Objective-History-of-Everything.
*SPOILER* (Edward turns out to be not-such-a-big-genius.)
I felt an actual sadness in letting this strange voice of Middlemarch go when I finished the 1000 pages. I’m a slow learner and sometimes 1000 pages isn’t enough to understand a new thing. I remember feeling grateful that Lynn Crosbie’s column came every week – her deeply human and masterful voice was just as thrilling to me as George Elliot’s had been. I think Lynn Crosbie’s column helped me to learn, slowly and in my bones, that speaking clearly, from where ever you happen to be standing, with the information you happen to have, accepting of flexibility and imperfection, can be a thousand times deeper and more useful than the boring tomb of carefully constructed cliches that Middlemarch’s Edward hoarded and handed down with shaky authority from that fancy desk he had in his study.
In Lynn Crosbie’s column, there are no qualifiers, there is no fear, there is no condescension, there is no sense that the topics or subjects aren’t heavy enough or in the proper location for the world’s spotlight and respect (or respectful wrath!). She is always just getting down to business, starting or participating honestly and earnestly and humorously in a conversation that she is invariably an asset to.
I was thinking about Crosbie’s work recently (and its effect on me) because, in April, I read her new book of poetic prose Life Is About Losing Everything. Though is about that, about losing everything, when you look up from the book while riding on Toronto’s Dufferin bus, everyone and everything looks so much more valuable.
Though I know her work very well, I was still kind of amazed at both the depth and the strange brightness of this book. Her heavy talent and heavy intelligence somehow makes her genius seem so light and natural. Maybe in a way it is, and it’s the living that’s so hard. It’s written in short chapters, and involves my always-favourite art project: how to take the bones of loss and meaninglessness and make meaning.
It’s been almost a year since our last live event, our 100,000th Word Party in March, 2011. So let’s do it again: As part of Margaux’s stint as Artist in Residence at the Art Gallery of Ontario, we’re holding a Daytime-Evening TV Slumber Party in the Education Commons on the west side of the AGO.
We’ll be screening videos of a show (you might know it, but be discreet) that turns art into a ruthless Elimination Dance in a whole other way than the professional art world does. Making and judging art on reality TV makes for strange and strangely refreshing stabs at more clear ways to talk about it.
Mostly this’ll be a lot like sitting at home on the couch vacuuming up consecutive episodes of a TV show on the Internet or DVD, except with friends you might not know yet, in a public place. And with somebody else ordering the pizza. Bring your own well-concealed beverages and snacks, and any other comfort-inducing devices (sleeping bags welcome!). There will be time for discussion and perhaps some unexpected interventions.
After, we’ll go out for drinks and talk more about who we think should have won and which one we would have sex with.
Memory, as everybody knows, is an odd, perverse thing. When I first saw the reunited Scud Mountain Boys’ stage setup at Lee’s Palace last weekend, I said, “Oh, that’s funny, it’s just like the photo on the back of one of their albums where they’re sitting in somebody’s apartment around a kitchen table, playing and drinking.” Then I came across the above 1990s-era photo online, clearly not a candid home snapshot but one that includes microphones and at least a bar booth if not an actual stage. Was this the album shot, or a publicity picture I got with the Sub Pop CD reissue of their first two albums, when I worked at an alt-weekly in Montreal in the mid-90s, which is how I first heard of the band? Or another picture altogether? I wanted to dig out my copy of the CD to check, but almost all my CDs are walled in with a bunch of boxes in a nook off my kitchen and retrieving it would be basically a home-renovation project.
What a more exhausting and error-fraught sort of excavation it must be to dig up three people with whom you were once intimate, but haven’t spoken to in 14 years, and propose that you do the thing you used to do together, before you stopped talking. But now-Toronto-based songwriter Joe Pernice (better known for his subsequent and current band, the Pernice Brothers) did that after a close mutual friend of the group’s unexpectedly died. The deceased had been a fan and the idea was to honour his memory. Not right after, though. As Pernice explained on stage, it took him a year to make the phone calls. But whatever he was afraid of happening didn’t happen, maybe because “nobody really remembers what caused all the shit any more.”
What I hadn’t known was that the kitchen-table-on-stage was a standard live Scuds motif in their initial run, around the Boston area, not a cute reunion gimmick. You could argue that now it has become a cute reunion gimmick. I think it is more apt to say that it is a technique, one of those stage-magic tricks you discover and maintain because it works, makes the show the way you need it to be. Now I find it virtually impossible to picture them standing in standard band configuration, rather than drinking beers off the table (Americans visiting Toronto always love Keiths), bending over in the uncomfortably expressive angles around their instruments that people do in a home song-swap session (not a “jam,” as Pernice admonished), mumbling in each other’s ears, telling tales between tunes.
But this was not folksy-homey coffeehouse shtick. Pernice’s songs are too infused with rue for that, as much as classical pop craftsmanship ever has been, lying (their pretty white asses off) where the mouths of the George Jones, Jimmy Webb, Alex Chilton and Joe Strummer rivers meet. His persona now is laid back and salty-charming, but the songs make it easy to picture it when his back-in-the-day yarns tend to include heavy doses of anti-anxiety meds. Then you’re tempted to imagine “all the shit” wasn’t so much the bass player, the mandolinist/drummer or the lead guitarist’s faults – but maybe that’s just because they weren’t talking as much on stage. Second-guessing other people’s memories is an even less reliable thing.
Indeed, I wondered what the person in question would have had to say about the story Pernice told about writing one of his best-loved songs: A girlfriend at the time, he said, kept going on about what a romantic song “Hey Jealousy” by the Gin Blossoms was, and he exasperatedly responded that the guy in the song was just trying to get laid. To prove his point he wrote a seductive, early-70s-style, gorgeously hazy tune in which a guy tries to wheedle his way back into a girl’s bed (“I would give anything to make it with you, one more time/ I would give everything I own”), which builds up to chillingly menacing insinuations. He titled it, “Grudge Fuck.”
The crowd was full of pushing-middle-aged folks, no doubt with their own recollections to husband. There wasn’t a lot of dancing or swaying, as if everybody were still following the cool-rules of 1997, when they went to more shows, when audiences stood or sat nodding with their arms crossed whenever not moshing. But when they did express emotion, it was with surprisingly rowdy outbursts, of varying appropriateness: Why did people scream every time Boston was mentioned? Was the room really full of Mass. expats or were they just trying to bonafide their in-the-knowdom? Even on a Saturday in a bar, do you shout every time a song mentions drinking and drugging, when those are the things clearly killing the protagonists? Jeez, it wasn’t St. Patrick’s Day.
Unfair. But the intimacy made it tempting to rubberneck into people’s minds. Pernice suddenly did a double take at a woman holding up a homemade shirt in the front row: “Is that you?” He explained that she’d shown him the same shirt at a show in another town 15 years ago – when her parents brought her, and she was, “like, 13. … Wait, I don’t like the way that sounds.” The dysfunctional-neighbourhood feel was cemented when Sadies (and former Pernice Bros) drummer Mike Belitsky cracked the singer up so much from the back of the room with a text message (his iPhone was on the table, to watch the time) that Pernice had to take a few minutes’ break after corpsing on his first couple of tries at the Scuds’ somberly beautiful cover of Cher’s “Gypsies, Tramps and Thieves.” He had to think of “nuns beating me” and other dark childhood images to regain composure.
After all, I’m not the boss of anybody else’s nostalgia. (Though I’m tempted to call Pernice on leaving out that he didn’t just “work in a bakery” when the band started, but was doing an MFA in creative writing.**) Hell, I’m not even the boss of mine. I was grateful finally to see a band that never played near me in their original lifespan. And to see them enjoying each other’s company. Even though there’s a part of me that selfishly hopes this slight return will be the sum of it. That even wishes they’d remained, as the slogan of Lubbock, Texas’s The Flatlanders had it, “More a Legend than a Band.” (Yet even they later reunited for a string of shows and new records.) That sympathizes with Darren Hayman’s title, “We Love the Bands that Don’t Re-form.”
It’s an adult pleasure to have memories that stay memories, memories you can’t recover, even ones you never got to attain in the first place. Perhaps we just confuse reality with rarity, essence with inaccessibility. We think there’s only so much room around a kitchen table. Or, whether superstitiously or maybe with real folk wisdom, we long for minor rites of sacrifice, destruction, some kind of preview of death and loss to gird us for the real thing, even fantasizing it can homeopathically prevent the real thing: “I’m going to burn the silo when you go,” a farmer whose wife is on the way out sings in one sterling Scuds song. “You’ll see the flames, and maybe know.”
We’re damn fools, the thing is. Can’t we be allowed sometimes to forget that? The sugar-lick torture of the Scud Mountain Boys was to remind us and make us like it.
** Joe informs me that there was a significant time lag between the bakery and the grad-school period – sorry for presuming on my own in-the-knowness!
1. Marcus Boon, In Praise of Copying (out, late 2010; read, early 2011)
The Toronto-based writer, musician and scholar Marcus Boon’s generous intervention (that’s a full, free PDF) over one of the issues of our time (cf SOPA) seemed to echo everywhere – as far out as the viral reproduction of revolutionary courage through Arab countries, and the call-and-response of the “human microphone” of Occupy Wall Street and its own hashtag-breeding copycats.
What I found so moving, even given the book’s digressive wander through a potentially infinite subject (and the foolhardiness of trying to control infinitudes) was its restoration of copying’s many sensual and spiritual connotations in what has been much too abstract and legalistic a debate. The back-and-forth weave and warp of repetition and difference is a pervasive leitmotif of existence, and not just the human. Boon’s treatment is elusive, with no definitive answers, but that means it will reward repeated re-reading, never just a copy of the first time.
2. The sex scenes in Todd Haynes’ Mildred Pierce (March, 2011)
There was a lot of debate about what Haynes, one of my favourite American film directors, did in his HBO mini-series with the template of the 1940s melodrama starring, of course, Joan Crawford: Had he evacuated the original film’s queerness, its camp, and left only a portrait of a status-and-materialism-driven woman who brings ruin, reinstating the misogyny of James M. Cain’s 1941 novel? Yes and no. Yes, he was bringing back the sting of the novel’s more radical anti-capitalism. But he was also taking the mini-series’ extra time to push the viewer’s nose far deeper into the mortification (social death, social stiffening) Kate Winslet’s Mildred endures when all the guarantees of the social contract are pulled out from under her by economic-cycle brutality and masculine bad faith, and the contradictions she helplessly generates (chiefly in her daughter, almost earning Evan Rachel Wood’s scenery-masticating performance) in the course of trying to maintain vestiges of her expectations within that outcaste position.
But Haynes also grants Winslet’s Mildred a grace Crawford’s could never taste – full-blown, full-grown sensual gratification, in her leggy, languorous love scenes with Guy Pearce as aristocratic reprobate Monty Beragon, the real sex object of the piece. Granted, the plot ensures this is in many ways another trap, but between them the actors and Haynes refuse that old morality’s to overpower the commandments of skin and light on skin, the manifesto for being and perseverance that an intimate bodily encounter can’t utter but can proclaim. It enacts what camp once did but no longer can: victory within defeat, not just despite but also because of loss, in its unapologetic ensnarement with entropy and other ultimate unfairnesses, against which desire still demands, “Live all you can.”
By making that so vivid, and driven by the will of the “unrespectable” woman, Haynes discredited his own tragedy, asking why a male film figure like George Clooney or Clark Gable (whom Pearce’s Monty directly recalls) can give that same kind of vicarious pleasure and get at best lightly slapped, while Mildred Pierce has to be dragged through the shoals. In this, though the rest isn’t perfect, Haynes really made a melodrama to end all melodrama.
3. WTF with Marc Maron interviewing Bryan Cranston (June 10); Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul on Breaking Bad (all year)
If you measured by the number of hours spent on it in the year, you would conclude my most cherished art form is not music, literature, live performance or even TV, but the podcast. Check my iTunes: I’m currently subscribed to about 65, though the majority are really radio shows, not native to the pod. And the majority of those aren’t mwhusic but talk. Perhaps it’s that I live alone and am comforted by the chatter during cleaning, cooking, trying to go to sleep and other routines (I wish I were better with silence). But it’s also because non-broadcast radio lets people take liberties with talk – that most eternally human of media – that feel fresh and exciting without being consciously experimental and avant. There’s no better example, title down, than Marc Maron’s What the Fuck?! I came to it a little late, compelled by its backstory: A veteran, never breakout comedian who’s struggled with personal demons gets new career success and satisfaction by sitting down with people in his field in his garage and asking them frank, patient questions of craft, d but also how their own flaws and hauntings have affected their stories – empathetically sounding their barriers and/or divulging his admiring but frustrated puzzlement at how they surpass them.
The editions that draw hype tend to be confronting, sensational – a showdown with a hack, an uncomfortable discussion with a friend, a comedy writer confessing an attempted suicide. But I love the quieter talks he has with people about their growth. One of my favourites was with Breaking Bad star Bryan Cranston, and not just because he’s an actor whose work left me wide-eyed over the past several years (as it clearly did Maron). Cranston is at once enormously garrulous and open about his route to his ambitions (he tells stories with theatrical gusto) and humble (not showbiz humble, but humble) and grateful for the improbable fact that his journeyman dues-paying led to an artistic and career jackpot. I listened in early summer and have thought about it at least weekly since.
Bryan Cranston, out of character … and in.
For several months, that was partly because a highlight of each week was the fourth season of Breaking Bad, the best drama on television since The Wire, even better if only because it had the previous show to go by (just as The Wire had The Sopranos). Unlike those two, it isn’t a big ensemble piece. Supporting players are super, but this is a show about two people, Cranston’s Walter White and his protégé (considering how terribly he’s protected, that’s exactly the wrong word): Aaron Paul’s Jesse Pinkman. I have nothing original to add to the accolades: Beyond character and cinematic weave, what’s remarkable is its arc in which a good man becomes very far from good, at first for circumstantial reasons and then for deeply rooted ones, and the audience has to test how far our sympathies can extend, even as we vicariously participate in the rot.
The season finale is the obvious standout, featuring both one of the most ingenious murder scenes ever committed to film or video and an ending many viewers might find it hard to get past (and not just for its dangling plot threads). But three weeks earlier, there was an atypical episode, in which the focus shifted from Walter to Jesse for nearly the whole hour and forced the younger man to find unexpected strengths. It mattered because the question has become whether anyone in this saga will walk away alive with something like an intact soul, and there’s really only one hope left. Here we begin to see that a story that seemed to be about one person and his themes and issues might really be a story about someone and something else. As always: The story of the parents turns into the story of the children, which then turns out to be the story of their children, and the next, and so on. If it doesn’t, that’s when there’s real trouble. (Attention, anyone who compared Occupy Wall Street to Woodstock.)
4. The consolations of comedy: Party Down on Netflix, “Adults in Autumn” (Chris Locke, Kathleen Phillips, Nick Flanagan, Rebecca Kohler, Jon McCurley, Tom Henry , Glenn Macaulay) at Double Double Land (November), Louis CK at the Sony Centre (October) and Louie, Maria Bamford at Comedy Bar (January), Parks & Recreation, Community, the Comedy Bang Bang podcast …
Along with having become a podcast nerd – and abetted by it – what really struck me in 2011 is that over the past several years I was becoming a comedy nerd. I’m now usually more enthusiastic to go see people say funny things than to hear a concert, or to listen to or watch comedy on my computer than to listen to music. I follow local comics, especially the way-underpublicized Kathleen Phillips, as avidly as I used to follow bands, even here in the greatest musickest citiestof them all-est. I am still puzzling. Perhaps it’s just that a change is as good as a rest, as they say: The comedy nodes in my brain may be less worn-down than the music nodes. Or perhaps there really is more fresh happening in comedy than in music (in Toronto specifically or in general?), or more likely that whatever was new a half-decade ago or more to true comedy nerds finally has become obvious and available to us rabble. (The fact that I still don’t love the Best Show on WFMU is the clinching evidence, right?)
Or as Woody Allen would say, maybe I just needed the eggs. A lot of us had a grim year.
5. Have Not Been the Same by Michael Barclay, Ian A.D. Jack and Jason Schneider: reissue (June), panel (Soundscapes, Toronto, July) and CD (November)
Have I gotten this far without having to declare any conflicts of interest? No matter, plenty more to come.
Even in this supposedlyretromanic age of eternal re-re-return, the bubbles of cultural history with local habitations but no names can easily pop away and leave only stains on the barroom floors. A decade ago, three Canadian music writers, one of them my friend Michael Barclay, tried to guard against that by writing a history of the Canadian music world (mostly indie division) from the mid-‘80s to the mid-‘90s, Have Not Been the Same: The Can-Rock Renaissance. It was a fairly thankless task in 2001, when those scenes were waninh, fractured and with little apparent trace, though since the book mentioned dozens upon dozens of people it sold well enough. Perceptively, though, they later realized the Canadian successes of recent years lent their subject renewed relevance – and that made it incomplete as history. So they undertook many more interviews, updated the individual stories and overall tale with a new introduction and conclusion and brought the book back this year. They held launch concerts and discussions – including a panel at Soundscapes record shop in Toronto with Julie Doiron (ex-Eric’s Trip, current-Julie Doiron), Don Pyle (ex-Shadowy Men, ex-Phono Comb, many more, current Trouble in the Camera Club) and Alison Outhit (ex-Rebecca West, ex-Halifax Pop Explosion, current FACTOR) that was one of the most worthwhile discussions of how musicians and music live and that life has changed I’ve experienced in ages, even (I think) without nostalgia.
Michael’s also curated a companion soundtrack, possibly the first of many, with more recent Can-Rockers playing gems from the book’s era. Which coverers and coverees you like best likely will depend on your own faves: For me, there’s something especially poignant about the Hidden Cameras coaxing out the gentleness of Mecca Normal’s “Throw Silver,” or Richard Reed Parry (of Arcade Fire) and Little Scream slipping into the steamy ether of Mary Margaret O’Hara’s “When You Know Why You’re Happy.” Maps overlaid, outlines of one sunken continent shimmering around the contours of one newer-risen. Lenses, focusing other lenses, or a more vibrant blur.
6. Stand-In (1937) with Leslie Howard, Humphrey Bogart and Joan Blondell, on Turner Classic Movies (August 24)
Not at all new, of course, but new to me when I stumbled upon it on TV in the summer. It’s a bundle of this-but-that: A screwball, Hollywood-skewers-Hollywood comedy that bridges Bogart’s tough-guy and leading-man days, with Busby Berkeley star Joan Blondell (the excuse for its airing, in an evening featuring her) being cutesy-charming but also the brains of the outfit, Leslie Howard stiff and patrician-blinkered but then melting and gaining his senses, and the whole thing ending with a ridiculous/stirring Hollywood labour uprising that gives away its Depression-to-New Deal moment, hard to imagine in many other eras. Apparently the original was more radical still – censored were “a speech about the stifling of competition in the industry and the crushing of independent companies by the majors; and … a speech by Atterbury at the end, in which he says he is going to start a Senate investigation of the motion picture business.”
Here’s a link to the whole movie, as long as it lasts:
It probably stuck with me because the broadcast just preceded the #Occupy moment, but anything mainstream-American that talks explicitly of economic justice without patting itself on the back until its spine breaks (like recent supposed treatments of the financial crisis), frankly, is memorable on its own.
7. The Citizens’ Filibuster (July 28)
Another classic movie came to mind in Toronto a month earlier, on the night of July 28: Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. We mentioned it and pictured it here at the time, but too briefly: The bizarre, nearly-24-hour session of citizen testimony – or, as it became known, the “citizens’ filibuster” – against Rob Ford’s attempt to slash budgets was, just as Torontoist says, one of the truly heroic moments of the year, here or anywhere: Our local mini-Newt’s attempt to force closure became the opposite, a populist force to pry the oyster of debate back open, which led to this month’s still-surprising turnabout, in which Ford’s agenda was, for the time being, trounced.
Culturally, whether you were at City Hall or following it on the simulcast and especially social media, it was incredible civic theatre, in which vivid characters (none more heart-tugging than the one below, but some others close) displayed the eloquence and, more significantly, the expertise of so-called ordinary people who normally aren’t even allowed to pick up the marbles in the political game. It’s a contrast to the ugly pro-death-penalty and anti-immigrant ovations of selected attendees at Republican primary debates, for instance. Don’t let those things kill your faith in humanity. The corpse of that faith is what the vultures feed upon.
8. DJs Debate Club at the Henhouse (March 6)
This entry’s a tad more self-indulgent: For the past few years, the Henhouse on Dundas West in Toronto has been the place that I and a few close friends have gone to get our cheap beers on and make like Jonathan Richman, except in a post-Will-Munro-polymorphic Third Place. Our hosts Katie Ritchie, Jenny Smyth and Vanessa Dunn made us more than welcome, and last spring invited me and pal Michael McManus (yes, the last of the Brunnen-G) to DJ one night under our Henhouse nickname, Debate Club (for our propensity to jawbone loudly about politics till closing time).
On the theme of #occupy-precursors that runs through this list, Michael decided we should intercut tracks of famous political speeches between tracks. It would have been a big hit if it had been six months later. Instead we eventually abandoned poor Mario Savio when cooler (but sweatier) heads prevailed and taught us girls just wanna have Robyn. I hadn’t DJ’d since the last time I supplied Wavelength with an iPod playlist, and had forgotten what a rush it is to play music very, very loud, like conjuring worlds, and sex, and astral projection. (Thanks also to Jacob Zimmer, Small Wooden Shoe and Dancemakers for letting me do it again at a fundraiser in December.)
The Henhouse has changed hands now, sadly for its denizens, end of an era. Ladies, you regularly made a room a festival and a roundup of strays into a small community, as best a bar can do. You’ll be missed, but I’m excited to see what you all do next.
9. Misha Glouberman’s Negotiation Class (winter/spring)
I took the pilot-workshop version of it last winter, with mostly Misha’s friends in it, at a time that I was navigating some crucial personal and professional transitions; some parts worked out and some didn’t, but I’d been given new tools to break down what was happening and address it with, most of all, relative fearlessness. That’s what much of Misha’s work is about: how to cope with the fear that human exchange sparks, which causes us to act protectively in ways that read as irrational to the very people we want most to understand, and find productive alternatives. Generosity, he shows, is a more winning position – not #winning, but in the sense that there’s usually less substantial conflict than meets the eye. (The urge to win, itself, might be an evolutionary catch-22.) He’s teaching a short, intensive version of the course again next month at the Art Gallery of Ontario.
10. Quite Interesting (QI) with Alan Davies, Bill Bailey, Rob Brydon, Jimmy Carr and Stephen Fry (Sept., 2007)
Back to humour again: This is from a few years ago but I first saw it because over Vietnamese dinner Misha brought up the BBC quiz/chat/comedy show QI, hosted by Stephen Fry, so I spent an afternoon watching clips. And then I hit this, which (beginning at 0:22), makes me laugh helplessly and forgive Britain all its sins. I like to watch it any time I feel overwhelmed, with no straight lines to follow. Or maybe I’ll do it ritually every year, as a colonial amusement, the way northern Europeans watch Dinner for One.