Category Archives: poetry

Margaux’s Friday Pictures – Marlene Creates, opening tonight at Paul Petro in Toronto

 

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Link here to Marlene Creates’ great internet performance/ tour through The Boreal Poetry Garden (Portugal Cove, Newfoundland & Labrador)

 

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Larch, Spruce, Fir, Birch, Hand, Blast Hole Pond Road (2007–)

 

MARLENE CREATES excerpt from Sleeping Places, Newfoundland 198

excerpt from Sleeping Places, Newfoundland

 

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Bob Wiseman, “mothface@yahoo.ca” and other titles on Giulietta Masina at the Oscars Crying (2013)

by Carl Wilson

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Bob Wiseman, Tracy Wright & Sky Gilbert.



Bob Wiseman’s new album, Giulietta Masina at the Oscars Crying, sets a series of challenges like crossword-puzzle clues. Each title is syntactically structured “[Subject] at [Location/Activity],” almost as if in an index. Together they ask: What difference does it make whether we get exactly what a song is about?

The subjects can be anything from cultural or political figures to personal friends: Neil Young at the Junos, The Reform Party at Burning Man, Aristide at the Press Conference, or Portrait of Phil at Various Times in a Closet. The one cover song both fits and breaks the mold, Sam Larkin’s Children at Play. (Here’s the original on Rdio.)

And one title plays on the fact that this is also the syntax of email: mothface@yahoo.ca, the address of the Toronto actor Tracy Wright (previously discussed here), who broke many of our hearts when she died at age 50 in 2010 of pancreatic cancer.

The song tells the story of a time in the 1980s* when Wiseman agreed to act in a play Wright wrote “that made no sense” because he figured no one “in their right mind” would put it on, but then theatre artist Sky Gilbert signed on to produce it in his Rhubarb experimental-theatre festival. As a result, Wiseman sings, “I always knew that I had nothing in common with Sky Gilbert.” The line is repeated over and over, anthemically, in harmony.

Hearing it first at last week’s launch concert at the Tranzac Club in Toronto, it started annoying me: Who outside a small Toronto arts circle gives a shit how Bob Wiseman feels about Sky Gilbert? Why write a song picking on Gilbert anyway?

Then the lyrics cross-cut to Wright’s memorial, when Gilbert got up and said just what Wiseman was feeling and thinking about her, and moved him to tears. It turned out the two had something in common after all: “the love of you.” And I came close to tears myself.

I wondered whether other people, who hadn’t known Wright or who Gilbert is, would be so touched. Would they even keep listening up to the final twist? It made me ask, too, if the electricity of the launch, where many members of the local music community were renewing frayed connections, would come across to an outsider, and whether that mattered.

These are questions Wiseman’s album prods: the effects of reference, and specificity versus so-called universality.

The particularity of Wiseman’s subjects is part of his modus operandi as an artist engagé, a creative activist: the naming of names, the preservation of place, the marking of dates and times. Early in his solo career, he wrote songs that gave a blow-by-blow account of the Union Carbide disaster (live, starts about 0:55) or implicated the president of Pepsi Cola by name in the assassination of Salvador Allende. (A move that infamously got the first thousand copies of his first major-label album destroyed.) You could describe it as a Brechtian gesture of counter-propaganda, or as keeping shit real.

But it’s never solely political. It’s in Wiseman’s voice, a harmonica-like needling without a hint of false gravitas. It’s in the way he’ll often interrupt a catchy melody with a dissonant solo or silly backup vocal, recklessly undermining what might have been some kind of “hit.” It’s in the cranky energy and nearly painful innocence of his writing, which attest that these aren’t positions struck but art made by following the tracks of his preoccupations.

He sounds like a regular person who’s ruefully aware that his complaints can’t reroute the flows of power, but can at least take satisfaction in sharing and laughing or weeping over them. If some personal situations won’t be transparent, perhaps listeners will connect anyway with having relationships and experiences that are exactly that, obscure and opaque in the supposed big picture of news and celebrity. Just like our own. And no less crucial to us for being so.

I do have affection for certain email addresses. Maybe your loved ones’ familiar @’s also set off a warm and quiet hum.

Purposefully or not, the variations Giulietta Masina plays on the “X at Y” formula work through a range of possibilities about how we’ll relate to the subject of a song. Neil Young at the Junos, for instance, treats a figure Wiseman can rely on his audience feeling like it knows well, then tries to say something unexpected – neither hagiographic nor cheaply skeptical – about him.

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The title track unfolds most like a riddle: When Wiseman started playing it at the launch, my friend and I said to each other, “Do you have any idea who that is?” Then partway through I said, “For some reason I’m thinking about Fellini.” And just as I was looking her up on my phone, Wiseman sang the final words, “8½.” Giulietta Masina was Fellini’s actress spouse.

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I only later discovered that Ruby Bates at Grad School, one of my favourites, is about a woman who’d been an accuser in the racist 1930s Scottsboro Boys rape case, but later recanted her story and was vilified for it. I haven’t identified the second woman, more contemporary, described as dying in an ambulance in the last verse, and am glad I haven’t.

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I knew right off who the protagonist of Robert Dziekanski at the Airport was – the Polish immigrant the RCMP mistakenly tased & killed at the Vancouver airport in 2007, and then whitewashed. A straight protest song, a bit obvious. Then I read a college student’s review of the album who was startled to find out or be reminded of this event six long-to-him years ago.

Finally there’s this guy Phil in the closet, along with someone named Rob Noyes who apparently dies, and “the campers of B.B. you’ve heard so much about.” No clue. But I’m stirred by its final plaintive lines about wanting to repay Phil, “it’s awful,” for “being there at the airport or hospital.” Would listening to the song about Tracy feel like this to others, like an emotional mystery?

My misgiving about Wiseman’s songwriting is that he often is too literal for my tastes, even if I see why. This album, more than any since his now-storied debut In Her Dream, when he pretended to be singing songs by someone named “Wrench Tuttle,” unsettles that directness fruitfully.

In his new book Missing Out: In Praise of the Unlived Life, the psychoanalyst and critic Adam Phillips has a chapter called “On Not Getting It.” He investigates how our drive to get the point, to nail down the meaning of a joke or a poem, to understand ourselves, to truly “know” other people (especially our lovers, our families), may become an evasion of other ways of existing and of allowing others to exist with and apart from us.

In Bob Wiseman’s more literal songs he gets at things worth knowing for certain and stating clearly, most often how an injustice has been perpetrated or excused. But there are things worth being clueless about, worth never knowing – such as not knowing what we do and don’t have in common, so we can be surprised when perhaps we need to be. Such as not knowing how to repay certain debts when all that really can be done is to acknowledge them.

Music has an unusual capacity to say a lot without knowing everything or even much at all. We can “get” a song’s texture and its atmosphere without wanting to “get” all its content. We can hear it many times and only “get” something like “blah blah blah Gilbert, blah blah blah Gilbert … the love of you,” and yet treasure the song.

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Phillips quotes the notoriously elusive poet John Ashbery as saying that he writes as he does because if all you do is tell people things, they stop listening. But if they only overhear, they will be curious. On this album Bob Wiseman has things he wants to tell, but also lets us eavesdrop on him talking to himself or to others, about things we might not know or even need to know. The sites from which he sings can be nearby or at a distance, his phrases sharp or indistinct.

By ranging this way, by not always demanding we understand him, he implies that it is okay if we, his listeners, aren’t utterly knowable too. By extension the people he sings about, at his best, cannot be captured and summed up, not reduced only to political subjects but allowed to be humans like the one who is singing about them.

At the least, a cop and an immigrant, Neil Young and Jean Bertrand Aristide, the Oscars and the airport, the halls of parliament and an ambulance all are, and acknowledging that may be to admit they share something unnameably more than everything that isn’t** – including so-called universals such as patriotism, duty, righteousness.

In this sense, being specific, if you are specific about a great many things, might be a different program than we at first thought: less like itemizing a legal brief, and more like giving up on coercion.

—————

This section originally said Wiseman and Wright were dating at the time; Wiseman writes to tell me I misread his use of the word “girlfriend” – they were just friends.

** The basic idea about things that exist having existence in common is someone else’s that I heard, read or was told about recently. I don’t remember the source. My elaboration on it is my own (mis)interpretation.

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Carl’s Tuesday Musics: Marker Starling, “Author”

by Carl Wilson

Marker Starling is Toronto’s Chris Cummings, who recorded a series of great albums of “visual music” under the monicker Mantler until jazz musician Michael Mantler (apparently taking out whatever were his own frustrations over his stature in the world as he approached 70) threatened this little-known Canadian artist with legal action and forced him to adopt a new name. No matter, no matter, the beauty carries on, with Cummings’ ownmost amalgam of smooth R&B, disco, organ music, sex and poetry. Just stand back and gape at this opening acrobatic sequence:

Like a face bears a noble expression, it’s not the words you love, it’s the voice of the author. It’s not the story spoken, but the impression furnished.

In dusky theatres of old, in auditoriums dark with age, the speeches actors would unfold, the poems fluttering from the stage: garlands of love, daggers of hate, waistcoats and gloves, prop pieces of eight, fiery hues for burning at stake.

Better pay your union dues: They’ll write a part for you.

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“Video Killed the Radio Star,” as used in Take This Waltz by Sarah Polley (2012), a movie about love and, perhaps, technology

by Carl Wilson

[NOTE: This post “spoils” major plot points.]

I couldn’t be less capable of forming an opinion about Sarah Polley’s recent Take This Waltz. It is set not just in Toronto but in my exact Toronto – Parkdale, Kensington Market, the Island, the airport. Call it what you want. (I know what you’re calling it.) The star, Michelle Williams, hits me emotionally on screen more than any of her contemporaries, even when she is just interacting with shafts of light (as she often does here); her romantic foils are Seth Rogan, who’s charmed me ever since Freaks and Geeks and can be enough reason to see a movie that looks unpromising, and Luke Kirby, who’s an old friend-of-friends. (The plot, boiled down to a peashoot: Williams leaves Rogan for Kirby.)

It’s a little difficult, too, living here, not to have preconceived reactions to the very idea of Sarah Polley that I wouldn’t if she were in L.A. or London. (I couldn’t make it through her last film, feeling bored, though I should try again.)

More potently it is also about the Toronto I know because it is about marriages between decent people that break up mainly because, as Sarah Silverman tells Williams in the movie, “Life has a gap in it, it just does,” and it is hard to know how large this chasm is supposed to be and which resorts to bridging or filling it are fair, reasonable or crazy ones. (It is about, in other words, How Should a Person Be?) Some friends and their friends were also on the soundtrack. And it’s titled after one of my favourite songs, more about which later.

But mainly I can’t form an opinion about it because I was crying for the entire final third of the film, almost certainly a personal Guinness Record. I cry easily at movies, which means my eyes are streaming sort of neutrally (I’m not gasping, heaving; often I’m laughing at the same time) while I continue to watch, like an android weeping over a dead electric sheep, but I don’t pretend my judgment can be fully engaged then.

I suspect the film has significant flaws, but I would have to watch it again to articulate them … aside from the sex montage with the two threesomes – one MMF and one FFM, too symmetrical, too concerned with what it might have said to pick one or another, which contributes to the way we fail to get any sense of the second relationship compared to the first, except that there is sex finally, and in a ravishing loft space that those characters could not realistically afford.

That’s broadly a legitimate choice, but its execution seems representative of what the movie doesn’t quite achieve. It feels more like Seth Rogan’s character’s paranoid fantasy of what would be happening (cf. John Cusack in High Fidelity: “No woman in the history of the world is having better sex than the sex you are having with Ian in my head”). Although of course early-relationship sex can in fact be amazing.

But there’s one thing I can judge, which is that Take This Waltz makes the best use of the Buggles’ “Video Killed the Radio Star” in the history of that song, if we discount (as we must) its literal, legendary use as the shot-across-the-bow first video on MTV in 1981.

The other music in the movie is indie twee, though not bad. I loved the Feist cover of “Closing Time” by Leonard Cohen (which features Afie and Jason from Bahamas and Mike from Zeus) in the fraught party scene, thinking in that moment that it would be so smart if the movie didn’t include any other Leonard Cohen, especially not the title song. Then that song shows up in the sex montage, and it’s all but awful there, way too weighty, with its double-barreled Cohen/Lorca imagery and lush continental tune, for the scene.

“Video Killed the Radio Star” comes up twice: First, it plays while Williams and Kirby are on an illicit date at Centre Island, on an amusement-park ride, the Scrambler, that they choose ostensibly because it goes “so fast” that they won’t be able to do anything inadvisable, a ridiculous rationalization (yeah, being on a tilt-a-whirl, thrown against each other involuntarily by the force of gravity – no one’s used that metaphor for love ever). There the song is all momentum, giddiness and dreamlike tacky-innocent nostalgia, which is what “Radio Star” typically represents in movies, TV shows or real-life dance parties.

But then it comes back at the movie’s end, when Williams is unsure, half-regretful, over her choices, but also stuck with them, and perhaps content to be. On one level, a conventional flashback – remember the Scrambler, when none of this was real yet and therefore thrilling but also as safe as a stupid old 80s song? Now that’s gone. Nostalgia has lost its innocence, and so is doubled.

Yet of course that rhymes perfectly with the lyrics of the song: “We can’t rewind, we’ve gone too far.” And so the the film and the song begin singing questions into each other’s mouths: When we move from one love to another, is it as shallow a difference as that from one delivery method for the three-minute rush of a pop song (or of sex, of a moment of affection, of a good teasing joke that makes the world warmer) to another?

Adam Phillips, in his book, Monogamy: “For the monogamist the thought of infidelity is the secular equivalent of the afterlife. It is the thought of something infinitely better or infinitely worse: something perhaps one has to earn; a blackmail of sorts. Certainly something for the future. But then what no one ever dared think about the afterlife was that it might be exactly the same as this one.”

The Buggles: “Pictures came and broke your heart/ Put the blame on VTR”  (video tape recorder).

Did the eclipse of radio by video really remake the musical/media world? For the better or the worse? The joke “Internet killed the video star” has been made many times, framing this within a shift we tend to count as more profound. But perhaps video did have that impact. We came to relate to music through a different scrim after that, one with less mystery, just as the invention of the rock star had altered that balance decades before. Indeed, from the Residents through Jandek and the Weeknd, there’s a recurring counterreaction, artists set upon stripping away visual and biographical cues, restoring mystique to music and therefore in a sense its freedom. (Who would fantasize about fucking Jandek? Someone, surely.)

In our personal lives, as in our pop-culture lives, we don’t know the answers to any of these questions beyond knee-jerk opinions. Everything takes on a cast of inevitability, and so we rationalize in reverse to say that the way things went was how they had to go: Who could have known that a high-speed tilt-a-whirl would be so arousing?

There is a more compelling logic, it seems, in technological change than in personal change, though it’s still open to critique: Read thinkers like the Christian anarchist Jacques Ellul on techne, or Ivan Illich, not to mention environmentalism generally – are we as a species unable to take any other forks in the road than we do? Are we unable to think preventively, and should we? (Put another way: Does free will exist?)

Now reflect that back on the intimate version: Are we unable to do anything else with the ebb of passion than to surrender to the next flow, at least without a social support system that integrates love, and our impulses around it, into a more finely tuned ecology? The downtown-urban life, so pleasurable in so much of this movie, lacks a lot of the traditional embeddings of long-term monogamy, such as the extended family. The movie is careful to show that Rogan’s and Williams’s marriage does have a reinforcing network – though notably, that it is more his than hers, and it is called into existence at gatherings, on special occasions, not so much in the neighbourhood, the day-to-day battleground where magnetic temptation may be just across the street.

A chance meeting on a trip, on a plane, can be more powerful than the bonds of five years – at least in a life in which five years at once feels like a long time and can be compressed by the magic of traumatic transition into a forgettable moment.

Further, can these modes, of sequential passions versus long-lasting loves, somehow coexist, or must they be engines of mutual destruction? And is that dilemma different for men and women? The movie is serious about that.

Phillips again: “For some of us – perhaps the fortunate, or at least the affluent – monogamy is the only serious philosophical question.” That might be the bigger definition of what’s wrong with Take This Waltz. But there is a broader question, implicit in “… Radio Star”, about why people who have so much are so inclined to stop wanting it, to be driven to replace it. These are intractable issues about the persistence of hungers, of shortsightedness, of how much humanity can change. If we cannot find balance in these close-up interactions, with people we understand, can we find it between nations and peoples? Or can distance be the saving grace?

Apparently the lyrics of “Video Killed the Radio Star” were sparked by a J.G. Ballard story in which an opera singer is found hiding in a sewer by a mute boy, in a world in which music has been abolished. That expands what Trevor Horn, in his casual pop-culture tone, is asking: Does video conquering radio mean music itself vanishes? Without marriage, is there love? Like the boy in Ballard’s story, as a viewer in tears I was in a sense mute, unable to join Take This Waltz in duet. Or in a deeper critique.

I knew the injudicious weeping was going to happen when I watched this movie. For that reason I put it off for a few weeks, and waited till I had the right person (who was also of course the wrong person) to watch it with me. When we go into relationships, or enter optimistically into new eras of innovation, don’t we know, really, what is going to happen, at least if we are not kids anymore? (Williams’s character here is about to turn 30.) Yet we “lie awake, intent on tuning in on you,” as the Buggles sing. (I don’t think my viewing companion ever cried.)

We are the creatures, as Cohen has it, of “this waltz, this waltz, this waltz, this waltz” – hear him sing it four times, not the musically symmetrical three, always waltzing one time too many – with “its very own breath, of brandy and death, dragging its tail in the sea.” Does this stale heady air belong to the waltz itself, or to our own mortal, social, erotic myopia, or is it even possible to tell the waltzer from the waltz? What a relief, then, whatever the case may be, to give in, to give it away. “It’s yours now, it’s all that there is.”

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Friday Pictures – Clint Griffin, last weekend for exhibition at Katharine Mulherin Contemporary Art Projects

 

walking the water

 

 

leave me

 

 

fall

 

 

 

we land just within the clouds

 

 

 

 


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Lynn Crosbie – Life Is About Losing Everything

by Margaux Williamson

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 is my favourite book of hers so far. I’ll be co-hosting the book’s launch, under The Production Front, along with House of Anansi Press at The Mascot on May 10th.

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The Colalogues, by Lauren Bride

by Chris Randle

Maybe you know of the arch-Torontonian and blog friend Lauren Bride from these love letters, or her prose fiction, or her acting, or her sisterly videos, but she writes poetry as well, which I discovered during a spree of soft-drink-related versifying on Monday. Look at these fizzy couplets:

Drink a lot of pop, morning, noon and night,
a Doctorate in Pepper, my undergrad’s in Sprite.

This leaves me overqualified where there’s real employ,
I can’t help my expertise, I just gotta chug my joy.

When next you find you’re struck with thirst and don’t know what to do,
find me in the Appalachians, sourcing fair-trade Mountain Dew.

I wax of unwaxed citrus joys, Limeade, Crush, and Ting!
rinds of an ancient marinader, with a contemporary zing.

Visit @bridebride and scroll backwards for much, much more, a sprightly dance of bubbles and brand names. For all the caffeine she’s figuratively ingesting, her jokes remain poised throughout.

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Ten-plus Cultural Experiences I’m Still Thinking About Now that 2011’s Done with Us

by Carl Wilson

 [With trademark untimeliness, Back to the World is presenting a series of belated, cross-genre, year-end lists, as we did last year, and again loosely on the model of Greil Marcus’s long-running Real Life Rock Top Ten. Margaux posted last week and Chris will post soon. Once again I’ve confined myself to topics I haven’t written about at length here before, or in my year-end chatter in the Slate Music Club (and accompanying Spotify playlist).]

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 citiest of 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.

And speaking of eggs, I agree completely with Margaux about the Louie duckling-in-Afghanistan episode.

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 supposedly retromanic 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)

Along with assuming the role of author (along with our comrade Sheila Heti) of The Chairs are Where the People Go (about which I really recommend this Los Angeles Review of Books podcast, along with LARB in general), B2TW associate Misha embarked on another new venture this year: An experienced teacher of many forms of improvisation and facilitator of conferences and events, he began this year giving a class in negotiation and communication born of both his innate inclinations to and his concerted studies of  reason, compromise and low-bullshit ways for people to have difficult conversations.

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.

PLUS

Melancholia, especially Charlotte Rampling as the archetypical Bad Mother, and Earth as the even more archetypical Bad Mother; Kirsten Dunst at the Cannes press conference for Melancholia; the BBC series Sherlock, the other BBC series The Hour, and the other (much less smart about Britain, class and war, but still absurdly entertaining) BBC series Downton Abbey; Christian Marclay’s The Clock at Paula Cooper and Alexander McQueen’s “Savage Beauty” at the Met (the two art shows I most regret missing) and “Alexander McQueen” (the song by Tomboyfriend); Ryan Trecartin’s “Any Ever” in Queens (the show I’m gladdest I didn’t miss); the Doug Loves Movies podcast and the (for me, unplayable) Leonard Maltin Game (throughout “Two Oceans 11”); the Slate Culture Gabfest (especially being on an episode, which was a thrill); The Ex with Brass Unbound at Lee’s Palace in May; two concert/tour movies about Canadian artists that I didn’t expect to like but that each made me cry, watching them in immediate sequence, Look at What the Light Did Now (Feist) and We’re the Weakerthans, We’re from Winnipeg (Weakerthans); the saving of Saint Mark’s Bookshop; the Smee jokes in Pat Thornton’s third 24-hour standup marathon at Comedy Bar; Tim Hecker’s pipe-organ concert at the Music Gallery; poems by Michael Robbins and D.A. Powell; John Hawkes and Elizabeth Olsen in Martha Marcy May Marlene; Sandro Perri’s CD launch concerts at the Tranzac in November; Ty Segall at the Wrongbar in NXNE (June); Jeff Mangum at Trinity Saint Paul’s church in Toronto, Aug. 12; discovering this early-1980s scene from a Ron Mann art film featuring Jim Carroll and Jack Layton improbably together, both RIP, #occupymemory; as an epigraph to the year, these lines from “Hindsight,” by Richard Buckner: “Stricken as we stood/ Broken as we made/ Time for make-believe/ Stealing, when we should/ What we couldn’t give away.”

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Top 10 Moments, Gestures and Consolations of 2010

by Carl Wilson

[With a debt of gratitude to Greil Marcus’s Real Life Rock Top 10, the Back to the World team is reviewing 2010 on a free-associative, nerve-impulsive basis. I’ve confined myself to things I haven’t already written about at length on this site this year, and discarded all critical-game rules of rank, comprehensiveness or balance. Another week it might be another 10.]

1. Collective redemptions: Auto-Tune the Meme

Antoine Dodson, singer of the year

I don’t know how long it will last but for now it’s a blessing to live when whatever nonsense goes viral will be remixed with Auto-Tune, usually by the reliably silly Gregory Brothers. What was the sonic signature of high-end rap/R&B (and Asian and Caribbean pop) in the ’00s becomes the crazed sound of the inside-out unconscious of the Internet digesting fetishes in the ’10s. Which comes with a disturbing side, of course: What seems fair game for politicians and newscasters on the Bros.’ great, long-running Auto-Tune the News series, and unimportant when it’s Double Rainbow Guy, becomes more complex when it comes to Antoine Dodson losing his shit about a rapist in the Huntsville projects on a local news report.

Without music, it seemed nauseatingly clear people were mocking the way a gay, black man in a poor neighbourhood of Alabama spoke in a state of distress. But the music, I’d argue, really did transform that into a celebration of Dodson’s flair and sincerity, into a tune so distinctive that it can be played without words by a marching band (at a historically black university, fwiw) and still hit the same sweet divot in the brain pain. And the Dodson family was able to buy a house on the spinoff proceeds, inverting the usual consciencelessness of that Internet unconscious.

Would it be too treacly to say that it’s a reminder of how rhythm, melody and harmony are ancient technologies to mediate alienation and generate human connection? Definitely, but grant me an Xmas pass.

2. Candid-camera delusions of grandeur/grotesquery: Destroyer ft. Loscil, “Grief Point” (Archer on the Beach EP)

Destroyer, Archer on the Beach

Another angle on the music/reality blur zone comes from Dan Bejar: This song is how it would be if songs or albums regularly came with the commentary tracks we’re used to on DVDs of movies and television, presuming that the commentaries were written by self-excoriating poets of course. (There’s precedent in the Dr. Horrible musical’s musical commentary tracks, though to more blatantly comic effect.)

Dan voices notebook entries seemingly written while recording last year’s “Bay of Pigs,” the “ambient-disco” song apparently originally titled “Grief Point” (or “May Day,” or “Christine White”) that reappears as the closing highlight of the upcoming Kaputt album, about which much more in the New Year. The way this track keeps up the links in this three-year chain of significance/striptease is part of the pleasure.

I prefer the denser EP version to the superminimal “Making of Grief Point” that Loscil (Vancouver electronic composer Scott Morgan) released earlier in the year: This one better fulfills and thus escapes what Dan calls “the same old shit. A potential, complete ignorance of ambience, real ambience, in that: Can you really construct it, every last bit of it, and just let the listener feel its effects? And is this the right treatment? Always the same question.”

The paradox of the ambient, which is Loscil’s genre, has percolated since Brian Eno coined it: How to listen to music not designed to be listened to, only heard? This track revisits that issue as the life/art problem (blah blah John Cage blah) etched in blood: Trust Destroyer to come up with a genre one could call Brian Emo.

As Dan considers whether to quit music or to be happy that he hates what he’s recording because “it means I’ve changed,” he flirts with the lines between social-media-panoptical self-indulgence and self-celebritizing and the substantive mental torment inherent to making meaning.

That’s what many of the most vital artists’ work currently does – such as B2TW intimate Sheila Heti’s 2010 novel How Should a Person Be?, which found a surprising champion in The New York Observer this week; but then the Observer, name down, has always been the cultural voyeur’s broadsheet.

Yet Destroyer was in this territory well ahead of the pack – “your backlash was right where I wanted you/ yes, that’s right, I wanted you,” he sang, before having enough recognition to get backlash. And he approaches it with a half-careless swagger but also a wolfish hunger to make the risks count, this fucking time at last at last.

3. Sex is so much more than sex: You Can Have It All, a performance by Mammalian Diving Reflex, Feb. 12-13, Toronto

"The Best Sex I've Ever Had"

Perhaps Ontario, the home of the old-lady sex Yoda, Sue Johanson, may inevitably eventually have generated something like this performance, but we’re lucky to have artist Darren O’Donnell to nudge it along.

Having advertised on telephone poles and bulletin boards for people “over 65 and still thinking about sex,” he gathered an incredible panel of women and men to first workshop and then publicly talk about their erotic lives in intimate, funny and often wrenching detail.

I can’t reproduce the effect here, except to say how exhilarating it was to hear how recent the participants’ greatest sexual experiences (in their opinions) often were. And conversely how intense it is to talk about great sex with someone now dead. … Funeral speeches that never were.

For all their universality it’s also a very local conversation; every community should bring in O’Donnell to root out these words stirring unspoken among them.

But the thing I was left thinking about most was that all the straight men on the panel dropped out before the performances: Was this just a generational blip or does it reveal something deep and hard to uproot about gender, power and vulnerability? (Including O’Donnell’s own power dynamic as a director, though that seems too simple.)

4. Past, unpassed: Richard Harrow (played by Jack Huston) on Boardwalk Empire

The best TV show I watched in 2010 was no doubt the third season of Breaking Bad, but the best thing on TV was this extraordinary character on an otherwise mediocre series.

Sniper-turned-hit-man Richard Harrow is a veteran of World War 1 whose face was so maimed in battle so that he wears a painted tin mask in public – a historically accurate representation inspired by this Smithsonian Magazine article. He befriends one of the central characters, fellow vet Jimmy Darmody (the anemic Michael Pitt), whose mutilation is less visible but similarly soul-obstructing. Together they use their skills to make themselves other-than-disposable to men in power the one way they know: murder at someone else’s command.

Yet Harrow (despite his wince-worthy, typically Boardwalk Empire-showboating name), as image, and in Jack Huston‘s physical and vocal dance (he is the mess of tics we all would be in his place, but never a cartoon), more than even Steve Buscemi’s ever-virtuosic lead, inspires a sympathetic vibration very near love. At one point, to soothe spooked children, he jokingly calls himself the Tin Man (referring to the book, not the yet-unmade film). Huston (grandson of John, nephew of Angelica) earns the parallel.

Boardwalk Empire‘s fatal flaw is its jones to emulate its media-gangster icons, from The Sopranos (on which its creators worked) to The Godfather and the best films of producer Martin Scorsese. But to do something memorable with the dawn-of-Prohibition lawlessness it aimed at, it needed someone more like David Lynch, who could capture the uncapturability of those silent-film years: the way its sensibility is just out of reach of an audience for whom history really begins with the talky mass-cultural connection that’s come to spell “20th century.”

That there was a 20th century before the 20th century is a fact the tapes in our cathode-ray lizard-brain stems don’t readily disclose. (As a music guy, I’m sad their takes on Eddie Cantor and Sophie Tucker don’t gel, though the Hardini-Houdini’s-brother riff had legs.)

Thus the series can’t give us the uncanniness, the unheimlich feeling of meeting Freud’s day on its own terms. Except with Richard Harrow. In his face we get a time before medicine was anything we’d see as fit for the title, when the compromises had other stakes – the spasms that pushed the modern out its birth canal. Upheavals still felt like phantom pains in today’s post-everything pathologies. What a story that could have been.

5. Mantler, Monody

There were days this year I wanted to live in a ditch. I wanted rats to nibble at my shoelaces and beetles to replace the pupils of my eyes. Too often I got right down in that culvert and dug my elbows into the grime and let the parasites feast on my shit, then come back up and spit it in my ears.

If I knew a little better any given Sunday, though, I’d put on Toronto singer-songwriter Mantler‘s record and then the goat-footed balloon man would come laughing, “Have you forgotten the word ‘mudluscious’? What’s wrong, fetish not got your tongue? Displace a little up-up-and-away into me, and wrap your troubles in dreams till they’re helium-drunk and far and wee.”

That most hospitals were never told about this miracle cure is one of the true scandals of 2010. That it had been six years since the last release of the absintheian elixir that Mantler (Chris Cummings) pours generously out of a cauldron full of white suits and colour organs and herbs that taste like bells is the occasion of every party you should have been invited to when some sad bastard forgot your name.

6. Not ready to make nice: Bernie Sanders’ 8-hour semi-filibuster

Bernie Sanders: Mad as hell and he didn't have time to go round and round and round... but did it anyway, dammit

What I don’t really want to talk about, despite how much it weighed through 2010, is how hard it was to keep supporting Barack Obama (if Canadian support counts). Especially after November, when the tax deal, in particular, seemed to squander a vital “lame duck” opportunity to counterbalance the upcoming bullying of liberty, logic and economic justice by the Republican House.

But then there was this bit of performance art in opposition to tax cuts for millionaires at the expense of the vanishing middle class (and not just in America) by the only avowed democratic socialist in federal American politics, and nearly the only mensch (well, along with Barney Frank). It was just what I wanted for Christmas and Hanukah. This shit is the gelt.

Sometimes you speak truth even knowing power is deaf. And abusive. And would rather look good at basketball than take, to revisit a theme, a goddamn risk.

7. Stretching for substance: Taylor Swift, “A careless man’s careful daughter” in “Mine” (Speak Now LP)

From the "Mine" video: I didn't post the rest 'cuz it's awful

This year Taylor Swift fell into a tabloid-tell-all mode that’s warped the naturalism that served her so well, not to mention overmilking the princessy crap. And where her nemesis Kanye at least freaked out creatively about their encounter of the 2009th kind, making it the sub-theme of his fine (if overpraised) new record, she was all too level and dull on the topic, on an album that marks her predictably awkward transition from teen songwriting prodigy to young-adult celebrity.

Notwithstanding, a key line in the record’s lead single has followed me through the months: “You made a rebel of a careless man’s careful daughter.” It may be the most writerly moment in her career, at least in a chorus, with its un-Nashvilley cram of syllables. You can tell how proud she is of it because she puts it in the repeated pivot point of the song. You almost want to come back with the old saw of writing-advice, “Kill your darlings.” But a songwriter in her position might need her darlings in a way a poet or novelist wouldn’t, as a creative love-rival to fame’s blandishments.

In “Mine,” we never hear anything more about the father, but the line tells us enough about who the protagonist is, and who the boyfriend is (his version: “I fell in love with a careless man’s careful daughter”) to double the narrative’s heft.

That reversal of P.O.V. when the boyfriend assuages her fears could seem rote as craftsmanship, but in pop, rote narrative moves that sync up just right are the ones that get you teary-eyed. Hell, it’s not that dissimilar to the move Stephin Merritt makes in one of my favourite songs, “Papa Was a Rodeo” – it just lacks the knowingness about itself as a move.

I’m not sure why it’s so effective at lumping my throat. Maybe it’s that I’m a careful man’s more careless son. I’ll keep mulling the question in 2011. But I hope that in the next few years, Swift stays proud of it and fills more of her songs with lines like it, till they become adult stories. She’s a country songwriter, after all, and she’s got examples like Dolly Parton and Merle Haggard to show that if you hold true to your craft, hang your heart on those pivot points, they can take you anywhere. It’s not about being as fancy a syllable crammer as Elvis Costello, who just as often is hoist on that petard. There’s so much that suggests Swift could get there, and so many reasons to fear that she won’t. Grant me another Xmas pass here while I bet against the house.

8. The medium isn’t such a mess-age: The San Francisco Panorama


After years when there’s been nothing but gloating and/or despairing obits for the print media in which I mostly make my living, I want to give thanks to McSweeneys/The Believer for demonstrating that death isn’t the only possible future.

Their one-shot example of what a glorious print newspaper could look like (it came out in late 2009 but was widely available in 2010) may be starry-eyed, but it makes concrete what I often say to my peers: Losing the position of first choice for news every weekday morning doesn’t doom newspapers. Play to strengths: weekend features, investigative reporting, physical scale and, well, “eye-feel” (the way foodies talk about mouth-feel). And – well, maybe not a 96-page books section, where the publishers played too aggressively to their strengths, but a books section, because those other people of words are allies. I think people would pay, and they’d stay.

My paper took baby steps this direction this year but those booties need a harder sole (soul).

9. Chatty Kathy

Has any cultural source made me regularly happier than Kathleen Phillips’ video blog in 2010? Her live character comedy came close, particularly when I got to help program her (playing a deluded actress-turned-writer) as part of the Scream in High Park this summer. But can that compete with The Ballad of Four Feet Joe? With her other animations of the inanimate? Oh, world, you will never look quite the same and thank Heaven or whatever department is in charge. Even if Virgin Mobile ripped it off in the name of Christ.

10. Sex is so much sexer than sex: The collected works of Tonetta; Good Intentions Paving Company by Joanna Newsom, 4:35 to end.

It’s been a long year. Remember when all we could talk about was Lady Gaga?  But finally some serious sensual competition came along in the struggle to make humans delirious, delusional, demented by delight. Toronto’s own Tonetta might have occupied my whole year if I were still writing a locally centred music blog (good thing there was someone around to fill in). You could shorthand it as Jandek meets Gaga meets Iggy in your pervert uncle’s basement, but the catchy hooks and obscenity and freak-flag-fluttering come with a poignant sense of a man finding himself in the act of losing himself (this is his post-divorce project). Social-media-voyeurism comes in for a lot of bashing, but Tonetta suggests one of its graces: Helping us discover what in us is worth gawking at.

Joanna Newsom has had that kind of gnosis for a long time, even too much so – she’s less sharp about what to leave out. Still, there are also great grasshopper artistic leaps on her 2010 album Have One on Me, including a verse that leaves me dizzy with desire – not for its singer (however deserving, vide the lascivious montage above), but with thoughts of people in my life who can reliably and relentlessly render me this way:

But it can make you feel over and old, Lord, you know it’s a shame / When I only want for you to pull over and hold me/ Till I can’t remember my own name.

And as she casts this invocation, horns and strings rise restless from every corner as if to redecorate the room for their sex-magickal rites. (RIP Peter “Sleazy” Christopherson.) May that be your benediction in the gloaming  of 2010, and as 2011 rises, aroused.

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How Should a Person Be, Teenager Hamlet and Don’t Go to School: MFA, Oct. 14, 2010

by Carl Wilson

Tonight, in a couple of hours, three of my closest friends are holding a launch party for the results of their three respective long-term projects, a novel and a movie and an album.

They all examine the relationship of life to art, using the people and places right around them as their subjects and sources. (It’s less obvious with the album, but we tend to forget that almost always when a band plays, we’re listening to a set of dynamic relationships in space; the “community band” element of Tomboyfriend emphasizes that.) They also served as each others’ characters and aides-de-camp.

The launch party takes place in a bar basically across the street from the apartment where I lived in the years they worked on their projects. And that seems apt. I was a participant too: I played a plump, pasty-skinned, city-slickened swamp ghost in the play-within-the-movie, the “ex-husband” around the peripheries of the action of the novel, and the music critic doing what he can do for friends-within-a-band. But mostly I was in another room, at middle distance, framed by a window, finishing my own project, my own book about art and life, which likewise involved them, though mostly less visibly. I almost wish I hadn’t finished it so long ago so I could be launching it tonight too. Instead, I marked the occasion by moving out of that apartment.

There are many tests and lessons involved in being a close part but not a collaborator in other people’s projects. Some have to do with ego, with the way the bubble can envelop you in warm inclusion but then pop you out into chilly dispossession. It’s good for the metabolism to get used to the coming-and-going.

More importantly it’s really educational to be sampled – that is, to be reproduced, in snippets, to be recontextualized and rewritten, to meet a blurry third-gen doppleganger who sounds more like someone else. Most of us aren’t 1970s funk musicians so we’re probably more accustomed to being on the other side. We may be accustomed to being linked or quoted in social media, but being sampled is a more intense sense of self-displacement. To adapt to your life being sampled may be a 21st-century necessity.

That it’s a little harder than you expect gives you sympathy for some of those older artists who take the copyright issue so much more personally than the scope of the financial issues involved. There’s the nightmare vision of being disassembled and reassembled atom by atom in a Star Trek transporter, but put back together in an utterly wrong order. (See also Cronenberg’s The Fly.) Or the subtler nightmare of being reassembled perfectly and yet no longer being “right.” Yet it is also deeply meditative, allowing oneself to be copied, mistranslated: When you think, “Wait, that’s no longer myself,” the next natural step is to wonder whether it was yourself to begin with and whether there is such an animal as yourself or whether you would recognize it if you met it.

So sweetly intoxicating to dare to think not, especially when a crowd of people are daring it with you (out of bravado, perhaps, too proud to be the one to say no, but it doesn’t really matter why, only that you did). It’s becoming the done thing, perhaps, in commercial and fame-economy culture to look at reality as a liquid commodity, worth more in exchange than in savings. But when what you’re buying with it is a dispersal rather than a magnification of self, it seems different enough to matter, which may be as far away from a dominant paradigm as one is usually able to get. Anyway I’m going to let me be proud of us, tonight.

My friends have themed their event as a kind of senior prom for their collective auto-didactic artists’ post-grad education (their autonomous “MFA”), but I think of it like a wedding, perhaps because I also think of all their projects as love stories. (Any launch is like one’s wedding anyway – you are obliged to talk to every person there, you mostly miss the actual party, and you’re completely exhausted by the end.) So I’ve composed a brief epithalamium for the occasion – in places, since fair isn’t fair, reappropriating lines from their works and others. Here’s to being foxy in one another’s henhouses.

From an Extra in the Movie,
Novel and Album of Your Lives

By a simple life, I mean a life of undying fame
That I don’t have to participate in. It’s the real guilty
Pleasure – like sex with animals: Licking Crisco
Off a gibbon’s tongue. Consent doesn’t equal silence,
But you can’t make an omerta without breaking legs,
As Aunt Jemima said to Jimmy Hoffa at the Inferno Disco
Roller Rink between choruses of “Bad Girls.”

Both their mothers were out at the pro-capitalist marches,
And they needed new ideological parasols
But didn’t have the language, or the polkadots.
When buttons came in, about 1650, private life was
Completely transformed. The purpose was
To leave them
unbuttoned. Leave more
To be abandoned without visible support by the imagination.

I know you only made it with me to help you
Make it without me. And it looks suspiciously
Like we made it out alive, but that might just be Art.
(Ho ho, did any actor ever have a better name than
Art Carney? It’s all the barnumanbaileying ballyhoo
Of the old commedia long con, in one pow
Straight to the moon, where love is just a word.)

If you’re not better off than dead here, where they all
Speak Esperanto underneath the ground,
You can’t make it anywhere. It’s up to you, new yore,
To be the first generation to swear off posterity
And disappear
Down the block, red-rain slatternly with all your
Fire-engine cherries on, three emergencies to go
Unanswered but arm in arm in arm.

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