Tag Archives: Jacob Wren

Tea with Chris: ‘Is Your Hate Pure?’

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

Margaux: Uugh. James Cameron, director of faux-moral movies, buys a lot of land in another country. This seems so real-wrong. Are people really still allowed to buy land?

A video of how your environment can affect you!

This is such a weirdly entertaining article on the Occupy Wall Street Summer Camp by Alan Feuer.  When there is not an intoxicating swell of action, patience and humour prove nourishing .

The teenagers of the Torontonians and the art company Mammalian Diving Reflex (with Darren O’Donnell in the mix) are having a sleepover at Toronto’s Gladstone Hotel on the night of August 10th. The event is called Dare Night: Lockdown, sleepover with one eye open – An all-night horrifying sleepover dare-filled lockdown night. These aren’t the boring old-fashioned art days where the artists on stage challenge the bourgeois audience with difficult ideas about how culture should be and send that audience home so they can think about that. These are the new days, when the artists simply change all the rules for one night (or in this case 17 hours) and the audience job is to endure a new world. I can assure you, as someone who sometimes hesitates to “participate” in art, other than probably being completely delighted, you’d also probably be completely safe here. Sort of. Maybe. Begins August 10 at 7 pm, ends August 11, 12:00pm (17 HORRIFYING HOURS!). Free.

“This is the way the world ends” – A thoughtful article from Terrence Rafferty on the new crop of unheroic apocalyptic movies. My favourite: “Humanity is about to expire, but this time it’s personal.”

Carl: I don’t know why but my teacup is overflowing this week.

This account of the “increasingly bizarre and beyond logic” trial of the Pussy Riot art-activists in Moscow is at once entertaining and appalling. Another perspective on the case comes from Natalie Zina Walschots, who writes about other cases of prosecution of heavy-metal musicians who “stand in the sacred heart of things and scream.”

Here is Jacob Wren doing his own screaming as he generously blogs his novel in progress, Rich and Poor. The kinds of issues Jacob likes to masticate – class, violence, money, art, complicity – are also the meat of this conversation between art critic Martha Buskirk and Alexis Clements of the “Hyperallergic” website, titled “Art’s Corrosive Success.” And another angle on the art world’s insular economy comes from Allx Rule and David Levine in this satirical attack on “International Art English.”

Two great foes of corrosive success (whatever other corrosions they succumbed to) died in the past week or so, Gore Vidal and Alexander Cockburn. Neither produced a masterpiece, except for their lives. Vidal, that terrible-wonderful patrician-queen walking paradox, is being feted everywhere. But Cockburn, who was a columnist for The Nation when I worked there (Vidal also had a long association with the magazine), is less widely remembered today. My favourite comment about him this week came from a friend: “He was the real Christopher Hitchens” – that is, the fearless and unkowtowing political critic and scourge that Hitchens set himself up to be but too often let down (as his former friend Cockburn lamented). Michael Tomasky’s appreciation is ambivalent but does get at what was important about Alex; his former editor (and a former mentor of mine) JoAnn Wypijewski’s more personal tribute gets at what was beautiful about him:

“Is your hate pure?” he would ask a new Nation intern, one eyebrow raised, in merriment or inquisition the intern was unsure. It was a startling question, but then this was—it still is—a startling time. For what the ancients called avarice and iniquity Alex’s hate was pure, and across the years no writer had a deadlier sting against the cruelties and dangerous illusions, the corruptions of empire. But, oh, how much more he was the sum of all he loved.

So let us celebrate our surviving scourges: Garry Trudeau’s Doonesbury nailed one of the most neglected scandals of the current U.S. election season, vote-suppression legislation, with his historically acute series this month, “Jimmy Crow’s Comeback Tour.” And few have been paying heed while Canadian doctors stand up against similarly prejudicial bullshit on our side of the border, the Harper government’s cutoff of health care services to refugee applicants.

All right, enough. Now I have to go decide whether to make snack chips out of prosciutto or kale. Maybe I’ll mix them up together. Like a pussy riot! Like a pussy galore!

Chris: Terrible-wonderful patrician-queen and a gourmand-vulture too. When news of Vidal’s death emerged the first thing I thought of was Suddenly, Last Summer, the gloriously overwrought melodrama he worked on with frenemy Tennessee Williams (who once said of Vidal and Truman Capote, sounded both appalled and impressed, that “you would think they were running neck-and-neck for some fabulous gold prize”). Being a member of the cohort that learned about queerness from John Waters’ Simpsons cameo, this was the second thing: “Friends? Ha! These are my only friends: Grown-up nerds like Gore Vidal. And even he’s kissed more boys than I ever will.”

Dan Bejar explains a fair number of Dan Bejar songs: “I always loved music, but listening to rock seemed kind of gauche. It was not something that a human actually does; it was like some other world. The idea of it seemed very exotic.”

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On Persian-Tuned Piano, and Not Knowing Anything

By Carl Wilson

I’m currently immersed in a project bigger than a breadbox (new version of the 20 Questions classic: “Is it bigger than a blogpost?”) for the first time in a while. While research is a pleasurable way to fill the gaps in one’s knowledge of a given field, what it immediately starts disclosing is how many other fields there are that to you are all gap: All ground, no figure. Existential vertigo is an easy reaction. The alternative is to enjoy your stupidity.

I’m indebted on that count to Jacob Wren, who posted the above in the sociable media earlier this week – a recording of early-20th-century Iranian musician Morteza Mahjoubi playing “Persian-tuned piano.” I thought that I had some inkling of the ways people had monkeywrenched pianos in the history of music – John Cage with his preparations, Conlon Nancarrow with his player-piano rolls, Terry Riley with just intonation, Thelonious Monk with his knuckles and Cecil Taylor with his elbows, etc. But I had never imagined the world of alternate tunings for a piano could be this vast.

Although I have a general interest in Iranian culture, I couldn’t say I know even a full-fledged smidgen about the operations of Persian music, even less than the almost-nothing I know about Arab music and the nearly-approaching-something I know about South Asian music. But I can understand that “well-tempered” pianos can’t play it, with its quartertones and mandatory wavers. So Mahjoubi and others began to find ways to retune and otherwise alter the instrument to approximate Persian modes (the radif system). It seems that many performers since have learned the method and still practice it today.

All this struck me as an intriguing early case of postmodernism, in which the traditional becomes a form of the avant-garde. So I went on a little Google hunt. I could find almost nothing written in English in about an hour’s search. This, compared to the overwhelming avalanche of information one finds on most subjects, was oddly soothing.

I invite you to try it yourself, but in case you haven’t the patience, the best two sources I found were here and in the explanation box accompanying this other YouTube video.

But perhaps you prefer to just glance at it and let it renew that Socratic sensation of wisdom-as-knowledge-of-ignorance? For now, me too – back to the task at hand.

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Who’s the Boss? Dialectics for Peter Pan: Revenge Fantasies of the Politically Dispossessed by Jacob Wren and The Promise: The Making of Darkness on the Edge of Town by Thom Zimmy (both 2010)

by Carl Wilson

If you’d asked me last week for a shorthand analysis of my favourite Bruce Springsteen album, Darkness on the Edge of Town, I would have called it his response to punk rock – inspired by it to a new rawness of sound, but on the other hand rebuking it for pitting subculture against mainstream rather than common man against plutocrat.

As an American, anarchy was all too present to him – the anarchy of the Badlands of Terence Malick’s movie and his own song. Rather than transgression for its own thrilling sake, Bruce wanted to betray betrayal and get fidelity; to sin against his country’s original sin and create virtue. Beyond contradiction to dialectic.

But this week I watched a new documentary about the making of the album. Turns out that though punk and politics were factors, Bruce was responding to a lot of other things. Namely, he and his former manager were suing each other, over the contract he’d naively signed that gave the manager control over how he made his records and half-ownership of his songs. This kept the band out of the studio for a long, frustrating time. It kept them from following up his first big hit, “Born to Run,” at the point conventional wisdom in the mid-1970s said they must or risk career death. He was terrified of losing everything, then jubilant when he could finally get back to work.

This part’s not politics. It’s careerism. There’s a daisychain of desire connecting Bruce to the elite. After years as a struggling artist he’d quite quickly become a rock star. He wanted to stay a rock star. All of which is in the songs: “Poor man wants to be rich, rich man wants to be king.” But he knew he had to be wary of success as much as failure, of becoming his own enemy: “A king ain’t satisfied till he rules everything” (a duality always inherent in his nickname, “the Boss”). He talks in the documentary about the danger of losing yourself, the spark that made you do the work, made you who you are –not just as a human being, one understands, but as a rock star too.

He could see only one safeguard: He had to grow up.

Adulthood, he felt he’d learned from his parents, is a state in which you’ve learned what you have to compromise (song after song refers to paying the price, the cost) and what you must not, while giving up the fantasy that you can dodge compromise altogether: “When the promise is broken, you go on living,” he sings in the song that gives the documentary its title, one of many he cut from the record, dumbfounding his collaborators: When a song sounded like it could be an overshadowing hit, he’d cut it for the sake of the whole, giving for example “Because the Night” to Patti Smith, which became her sole radio success. Perhaps this was the adult thing to do. (A double-disc collection of those songs comes out in November. [Yes, please.])

Springsteen was moving away from kids like the lovers in “Because the Night,” who want escape – the heroes of standard rock’n’roll politics, even in punk. He turned towards the viewpoints of people like his parents – his father went deaf (symbolically enough) working on a factory floor – or those even more damaged and hopeless. It wasn’t the guitar sound or the shredded larynx that made Darkness seem almost more punk than punk. Its commitment to reality came with a bitter willfulness that was bigger than nihilistic escapism, the way Hank Williams’ does (another new discovery for Bruce at the time).

Like his earlier work, though, and in fidelity to rock, it still sought redemption in love. When Bruce had two versions of “Racing in the Street,” one just about the two drag-racing buddies and another that adds a painful love story, he asked a longtime female fan as well as Steve Van Zandt which one they liked better. They both said, “The one with the girl.” Bruce was surprised Van Zandt said so and asked why. “Because that’s how life is: You’ve got a friend, the girl comes along, then you don’t have that friend any more.”

At the end of the song, the couple plans to “ride to the sea, and wash these sins off our hands.” The abandoned Sonny has merged into the girl the singer’s somehow made hate her life. In the film, Bruce says the point was that you couldn’t get rid of sins, only figure out how to live with them. How to be faithful to your betrayals. Beyond contradiction to dialectic.

I’m sure he’d be surprised to be compared to Springsteen, but Jacob Wren’s Revenge Fantasies of the Politically Dispossessed is a novel that seems to revisit many of the same problems a Christ’s age later.

Jacob’s a Canadian practitioner of experimental theatre of a sort, and a friendly acquaintance of mine. He’s another heir to punk, particularly to the communitarian-anarchist and more self-consciously avant-garde, dadaist strains of it that would develop in the 1980s, when he was getting started as a playwright prodigy with the wonderfully adolescent pseudonym “Death Waits.” (I know Jacob Wren isn’t his birth name either, though I don’t know what that is.)

He gained a lot of notoriety around Toronto at that time, and the traces of that child-star-type brush with fame continue to haunt his work – like Bruce he wants both to hold onto success and reject it, although probably in inverse proportions. He does his best to be no one’s Boss, even when he is directing a theatre company.

I’ve read this novel twice now and have trouble reaching a full verdict, but I find it very compelling. It’s set in the very near future, or perhaps an alternate now, and centres around a group of people who have decided to hold weekly meetings to discuss political questions. Specifically the questions, rather than the answers. They feel the left has gone wrong somewhere, stuck between emotional irrational reaction and well-worn quietistic analysis. They think that if they talk in circles, rigorously, critically, long enough they might somehow break through these impasses – political discussion as a kind of Zen meditation. I’d like to attend these meetings, but in themselves they wouldn’t make a very good novel, of course.

What begins to spin out of them, instead of never-attained political nirvana, is a love triangle between a political philosopher, a doctor-without-borders and a nondescript participant who strikes me as the main viewpoint character, though the actual p.o.v. shifts from chapter to chapter. The affair strains the whole group, but it’s especially disastrous for the three of them, who end up separately turning to sexual (mis?)adventure, an expatriate life of fraud and blackmail, and an improbably plausible career as a reality-TV radical activist. Meanwhile the society around them is descending into nearly open fascism, putting all of them in a danger that both attracts and terrifies them.

Like Springsteen’s, this work is about the problem of adulthood and what compromise consists of, and the meaning of fidelity – personal, romantic/sexual, idealistic. It has a more tragicomic sense than Bruce’s and lacks his heroic dimension, as seems inevitable three decades further on in post-industrial capitalism. But it certainly does deal with chains of desire and ambition, and how (or is it whether) to transcend mere contradiction, mere negation.

The question is what the darkness is on the edge of town: Global political exploitation, or the personal darkness that makes us both prey to and complicit with it, and on which nonetheless we have to make our stand? Both of course. But Jacob’s characters are middle-class educateds in despair over injustice, while Bruce’s are closer to the actual sufferers of injustice. What seems amiss in Jacob’s title is that his characters are not dispossessed in the usual sense (in interviews he’s speculated that what he means is that he’s without possession of a viable political position or stake) and they don’t really get any kind of revenge.

The story in some ways seems to sate an urge to experience a much more brutal and vicious western regime to stand against, for capitalism to become the caricature its most conspiratorially minded critics imagine. The title should be something closer to Dispossession Fantasies of the Politically Depressed. If there weren’t a darkness on the edge of town, Wren’s characters might be forced to invent it. Bruce’s version is more surely not made but found.

The paradox here is of course self-conscious. I doubt Jacob thinks we’re close to a state in which writing a book about non-monogamy, or even professors sleeping with their students, would get you disappeared and tortured, no matter how many Tea Party Republicans get into Congress (or lefty bureaucrats to university administrations). Much less if you’re living in Montreal.

So there’s a satirical spirit. But the writer Wren reminds me of most in this book, Wallace Shawn, has a much surer hand with that kind of escalation of absurdities into a harrowing thought experiment. I waver about how much to credit Wren’s relative messiness – whether it’s an admirable attempt to complicate such methods further, or just plain messiness. (Though it’s certainly praise even to make the comparison.)

On the other hand as he’s gone on Springsteen’s projective identification with the downtrodden – who’ve become less Jersey workers, more dust-bowl John Steinbeck characters – has become less and less credible. He wavers between fidelity to that tough realist voice on Darkness and rock-star do-gooder sentimentality. In that sense Jacob’s got a more adult, sustainable fix on himself. In the evasions they each still make, there’s that tension between Peter Pan romanticism and the cynical ruin it can become (as Joni Mitchell memorably warned in “The Last Time I Saw Richard”).

Yet both these artists make stirring leaps at a near-insurmountable wall. As they say about death and comedy (and the parallel’s pretty accurate): Punk is easy, adulthood is hard. I’d love to hold a meeting to talk about it. Or a rock show to shout about it. Or a bed to whisper it in. I’ll be there on time, and I’ll pay the cost.

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