It’s not like superhero comics are generally progressive where gender and sexuality are concerned, but the stiffly written attempts at “sexy” that Laura Hudson decimates here look even more awful than usual.
Via Jami Attenberg, an outer-borough enigma: “It is possible there is some larger lesson for ailing newspaper sales in the sudden good fortune of The Suffolk Times and The Riverhead News-Review, two modest Long Island weeklies that saw an unprecedented sales spike last week as mysterious buyers swooped in to buy every copy they could.
Or more likely, newspaper officials guess, the lesson is very local: Either someone really, really wanted people to be able to read that week’s newspaper, or someone really, really did not.
The papers, which originally printed a combined 8,620 copies for newsstand sales, had to print 5,500 more to keep up with the demand, which seemed to come almost entirely from two customers buying up every available copy at $1.50 each from 7-Eleven stores and bagel shops from Calverton to Shelter Island…”
New Tune-Yards song! I was at this Pop Montreal show (and the one she played in Toronto a few days later), but the packed Ukranian Federation was hot enough to melt stamps off hands, so it’s nice to hear the track in a state of repose.
Margaux: I haven’t looked into the programming for Nuit Blanche yet, but I know a few of my favourite Toronto artists have projects happening. Ulysses Castellanos is doing something with fellow artists Malgorzata Nowacka and Margaret Krawecka called Hansel and Gretel at 99 Sudburry St. And the always hilarious and dead-on Life of Craphead (Amy C Lam and Jon McCurley) is doing something across from the Xbox store.
Tea With Chris is a roundup of recommended links, posted every Friday. Here are a few of our favourite things from the Internet this week:
Chris: Ariel Levy’s New Yorker article about the many trials and depredations of Silvio Berlusconi is unsurprisingly filled with great quotes, from the crony who approvingly equates his Presidente with Mussolini to the former cabinet minister who explains: “His lies are like the lies of a baby: he gets caught with his hand in the cookie jar and says ‘I’ve never eaten a cookie in my life!’” Levy meets Italians who delight in their buffoon of a leader and ones who cringe at being represented by a human stereotype, but she zeroes in on the oligarchic control that allowed Berlusconi to make his own appalling sexism omnipresent in the media: “If your only information about female people came from Berlusconi’s channels, you would likely conclude that they exist specifically to be sexually humiliated in public.”
PS22 chorus covers “Energy” by Austra and former choir kid Katie Stelmanis, kills it.
Margaux: I love Peter Galison and his concrete ways . He wrote a book about how it was probably pretty relevant that Einstein had a crappy job at the patent office where he had to think about how to synchronize clocks for train schedules – a very big problem at that time. It’s an obvious idea once you think about – the obviousness a natural sign for a real genius idea. It feels better to think that something as abstract as the theory of relativity could originate from a problem in the world so newly created as “how to coordinate train schedules”. One’s mundane job feels better too. This New York Times article surveys his incredibly varied works.
Speaking of grounding the symbolic realms, this reminds me of how, reportedly, Buckminster Fuller had a pretty hard timeas a child understanding that the dots on the blackboard represented points in the world – and lines drawn between them represented connections. And how he tried to change the phrase “worldwide” with the more grounded “world around” but didn’t have any luck.
Which makes me think of how strangely grounded the artist Rebecca Belmore‘s repetitive gestures are. Sometimes, when people are trying to be more direct with their art, they occasionally think to take their work off the canvas or pedastal or loom. Sometimes the results of this freedom can, unfortunately, become even more trapped by the medium of the gallery – as it can be a challenge for irregular forms or complicated messages to keep their shape outside this context. But the artist Rebecca Belmore always succeeds to escape both the mediums, the gallery boxes and the confusion.
If you’re not familiar with Rebecca Belmore’s work, Daniel Baird’s article in Walrus Magazine is a good survey of her work. Even if you haven’t seen Belmore’s work, it is hard not to be horribly moved by even Baird’s simple descriptions of her most famous performance pieces. The works are made up of ideas and gestures and performance. They performances’ power are just as undiminished through video or account (though Daniel Baird is to be credited too here). Rebecca Belmore’s repetitive gestures seem to be the gestures that she knows are missing in world – gestures of grieving or acceptance or making things right or simply known. Her gestures became part of the concrete world through sheer force of will, repetition and need. Though unconventional, the work communicates directly to anyone who can look.
Carl: The best thing I’ve read about class in a long while is Polly Toynbee’s spare-no-fistpower column on the British equivalent of the (less commonly thrown around) North American “white trash” slur, “chav,” the most successfully bruited-about socioeconomic bogeyman since the 1980s-90s welfare-mom/crack-mom in the U.S. The spectre of the chav, she writes, is a tool in “the conspiracy to deny the very existence of a working class, even to itself.”
Killer bars: That brief period between 1917 and 1979, when British wealth, trembling in fear of revolution, ceded some power, opportunity and money to the working classes is over. There is now no politics to express or admit the enormity of what has happened since the 1980s – how wealth and human respect drained from the bottom to enrich and glorify the top.
She was inspired by what seems like a fantastic new book on the subject, Chavs: The Demonisation of the Working Class, by Owen Jones. Put it on your summer reading list. The whole thing reminds me of a joke I heard this week somewhere I can’t recall: A corporate executive, a union member and a Tea Party member are sitting at a table. On the table are 10 cookies. The CEO reaches out and takes nine cookies at once and then turns to the Tea Party member and says, “Look out! That union guy is trying to take your cookie!”
Nobody in the past 30-plus years has sung about such subjects better than the late, great Gil Scott-Heron, and nobody has sung in prose about the death of GSH (or many other topics this year) than the great Greg Tate this week in the Village Voice. A truly heartbreaking eulogy. A few killer bars among many:
George Clinton once said Sly Stone’s interviews were better than most cats’ albums; Gil clearing his throat coughed up more gravitas than many gruff MCs’ tuffest 16 bars. Being a bona fide griot and Orisha-ascendant will do that; being a truth-teller, soothsayer, word-magician, and acerbic musical op-ed columnist will do that. Gil is who and what Rakim was really talking about when he rhymed, “This is a lifetime mission: vision a prison.” Shouldering the task of carrying Langston Hughes, Billie Holiday, Paul Robeson and The Black Arts Movement’s legacies into the 1970s world of African-American popular song will do that too. The Revolution came and went so fast on April 4, 1968, that even most Black people missed it. (Over 100 American cities up in flames the night after King’s murder—what else do you think that was? The Day After The Revolution has been everything that’s shaped America’s racial profile ever since, from COINTELPRO to Soul Train, crack to krunk, bling to Barack.)
This recollection of being taught creative writing by Scott-Heron early in his career is also well worth reading.
Finally, as a little ray of sunshine through that beautifully rippled gloom – hey, it’s really nice outside! – here’s a video that seemed to me this week as if it was everywhere on the social networks, but in fact it was only everywhere on my social networks, because where 80s anarcho-collectivist-folk-punk and Torontopian twang-rock intersect you apparently automatically find all my contact information. It’s a joyful shambles of a hootenanny by the Mekons and Toronto’s own Sadies on one of my favourite songs, “Memphis, Egypt,” from one of my absolute favourite albums, Rock N Roll (1989). Apropos of the above: “We know the devil and we have shaken him by the hand/ embraced him and thought his foul breath was fine perfume…. Just like rock ‘n’ roll.” It is sung in Zurich, where the proverbial fiscal gnomes reside.
It’s often said that Tintin is the world’s most famous Belgian, perhaps because it sounds like a syllogism: a fictional character from a notional country. And the intrepid boy reporter has been appropriated far beyond Wallonia, for purposes alternately pornographic, postmodern and Spielbergian. My favourite of these detournements is predictably Breaking Free, which recasts Hergé’s characters as working-class radicals in a didactic struggle against Thatcherism. That almost seems pious next to X’ed Out.
Charles Burns’ new book is the first of a trilogy, oversized and full-colour in the Franco-Belgian tradition. Most people reading this probably know Burns best from the portraits he’s drawn for every cover of The Believer, but his major work up until now was Black Hole, a serial-turned-graphic-novel about teenage stoners giving each other sexually transmitted mutations. The horror in X’ed Out is more implicit; it unnerves by infecting Hergé’s bright, clean world with images from ’70s punk culture. You could call it Tintin and the Lower East Side.
Bandaged and bedridden for unexplained reasons, a kid named Doug slides through time and space whenever he swallows enough medication or stares at the wrong Polaroid. Burns’ alienated performance artist bounces from a no-future Pacific Northwest into some city out of the dystopian adventure Tintin never had. William Burroughs is a big, clammy touchstone here – the grumpy lizard-men, rivers of industrial sludge and North-African-ish setting all feel like his kinks. The two worlds eventually bleed into each other: Nitnit is Doug’s alter ego both in the realm of “the Hive” and on stage in Seattle, where he reads cut-ups over feedback before the main act runs out of patience. (“I mean, what do you call that, anyway? I guess it was art.”)
So far Burns is only gesturing at a plot. (Doug’s dying father and the self-destructive photographer he’s fixated on appear only briefly in the parasite landscape, the latter as a cliffhanger.) The primary attraction is watching a great cartoonist experiment. This one has never worked in colour before, and his deep, dark inks diverge sharply from Hergé’s ligne claire. Following his pastiche’s adaptation to those rounder, cartoonish lines, I saw new resonances between the two artists: Burns’ usual style is far more elaborate than his model’s was, but their techniques both feel methodical, controlled.
Not all of the riffs are so intriguing. While Tintin always chased after that little white dog, Nitnit searches for a cat named Inky, and the critter might as well bat readers on the nose. But I loved how Burns recycles one familiar image to fill Burroughsworld with mottled red-and-white eggs, culminating in the creepiest-looking omelette you’ll ever see. There’s a single notable female character in Hergé’s strips, matronly diva Bianca Castiafiore, and our hero’s intentions towards her or his bawdy sailor friend remain pure as Snowy.
Chris Ware once said: “Tintin was fundamentally too sexless to really catch on in America.” Yet Tom McCarthy’s poststructuralist romp Tintin and the Secret of Literature argues that “Hergé, like all good Catholic boys, has a filthy mind…[Castafiore’s titular emerald] is a clitoris, duh.” Burns’ pregnant allusions to “breeding” imply where his X is marked. Like fellow cartoonist Joost Swarte, who coined the phrase ligne claire, he draws out the fucking repressed by that flatness.
A smooth surface can intimate freakiness of its own, though. The hybrid sections of X’ed Out are filled with suggestive abstractions: Doug’s scar becomes Nitnit’s cartoon plaster, his hair spikes out into a punkish variation on Tintin’s trademark quiff, and entire panels are taken up by blocks of colour or symbols. It reminded me of TNT en Amerique, the most radical Hergé revision of all. Jochen Gerner’s comic, which sprang from the cartooning equivalent of Oulipo, reduces Tintin in America to a blacked-out series of broken phrases and neon signs.
Gerner later said: “I dismantle a given material to make something else of it…I did not see this book as a ‘technical feat’ but as the discovery of a secret passage, of a dark track followed to the end.” When William Burroughs and Brion Gysin joined forces to spread their gospel of divine deformity, they gave the cut-up technique a slogan: “Rub Out the Word.” You know what Tintin means in French? “Nothing.”
Sometimes people speak of the “physical genius” of an athlete such as Michael Jordan, Wayne Gretzky or Roger Federer – the way what they do, in the bugged-out eyes of self-consciously-more-mortal players and spectators, can seem beyond not just rational understanding but even instinctive possibility.
Malcolm Gladwell tried to define it as some kind of combination of practice and a certain breed of imagination, and David Foster Wallace more exquisitely wrote about “kinetic beauty” – “It has nothing to do with sex or cultural norms. What it seems to have to do with, really, is human beings’ reconciliation with the fact of having a body.” And there certainly exists a parallel kind of performative genius in artists, which in cases such as Bruce Springsteen or Tina Turner bears a near relationship to that athletic quality, and in others such as Elvis or Prince a closer kinship to the preacher’s or shaman’s power. (And all of them, to contradict the great DFW for a moment, have plenty to do with sex and cultural norms – in fact, they’re a leading cause of both.)
But the most intense experiences of performative genius I’ve had, perhaps because of whatever kinetic handicaps I carry with me, tend to be of a slightly different stripe. I’d like to think that they would be equally universal if as many people could see them. On the other hand, most of the artists who bear this gift seem to become stuck in the “cult” category of the entertainment business, so maybe it’s not so. You might call it psycho-kinetic beauty, or Tourettic beauty: It’s a rendering of the mind-body problem without reconciliation but also without compromise. As if the mind and body were reversing their positions in the usual conflict, such that the body is thinking and the mind is dancing, or the body is writing a sonnet and the mind is having an orgasm.
Either way, it doesn’t exactly look like a person becoming more-than-normal, superhuman; it looks like a person becoming other-than-normal, extrahuman. With apologies to Wallace again, if any mode of human activity almost escapes sex and cultural norms, this would be my pick. Although that’s also what’s sexy about it.
David Thomas of the band Pere Ubu ranting and screeching; Ornette Coleman, his saxophone twittering not in musical notes but in the tongues of beasts; the Dutch band The Ex turning themselves into a collective star cluster or the bumps of a spine twisting in epileptic convulsion; Shane McGowan of the Pogues, his body wrecked, propped up against the mic stand like a sail hung on a mast or a patient on an IV stand, yet singing with the power of Prospero summoning a monsoon. Wherever it arises, when you’re in the room with it, you are very likely to feel that you are seeing the best performance that ever happened in the world.
As Wallace says of Federer, this quality doesn’t quite survive transmission or recording by other media; finding out why not, whether by science or phenomenology, would make a good dissertation (title it “The Federer Paradox”).
The answer may have something to do with the career path of Mary Margaret O’Hara, who was introduced almost rudely not long ago by CBC radio host Jian Ghomeshi as someone who is perhaps less famous for what she’s achieved (primarily, the 1988 album Miss America, which regularly appears on lists of the best pop records ever made) than for what she hasn’t (mainly, getting famous, or making any more albums since then).
It obviously has to do as well with the music industry’s discomfort with her sort of unclassifiable gift, with Canada on a bunch of levels (as experienced from within, as perceived from outside) and with her own eccentricities: Until this week, partly due to missed chances but mainly because chances are scarce, I’d never seen her give a full-length concert. Only cameo appearances at other people’s shows, where she’d sometimes be stunning and other times stunned — seeming as if she was totally unprepared, hesitant to join in, derailed by the whole situation. On occasion she barely sings at all.
It might be, as my friend Michael likes to think, that she sizes up the situation rapidly and thinks, “There’s no music going on here, nothing for me to do.” It might be modesty and spectacular shyness. Or maybe she is just prone to confusion.
Even then, Michael might be kind of right: At her show in Montreal last weekend, the kind of unexpected treat-out-of-pop-legend-history that’s one of the Pop Montreal festival’s specialties, you could see that she’s less tuned out than overly tuned in. She would notice someone dropping their phone halfway back the hall. She would catch a word in the middle of her own sentence – whether singing or speaking – and start free-associating hilariously on it.
She would seem to notice a half-hoarse intonation in a note she’d sung and jump on it, twisting it into an actual horse braying and snorting, then seamlessly return to the groove or the melody she’d been teasing around the stage a moment before. Remember that her sister Catherine O’Hara is part of (one or two of) the past few decades’ most important clutch of improvisational comedians. This is that, as music.
And as comedy too. The hardest part of writing this is to explain how funny Mary Margaret is. Telling us we were a great audience, she mumbled, “You’re all so nice, you should be treated like baby seals.” (Petted? Clubbed? Eaten?) When there was a call-and-response bit on a chorus, and the audience, uncoached, failed to come in the very first time, she immediately sneered, “Losers.” You maybe just chuckled now. We gasped, we literally fell off of our plush little cabaret chairs. It was the mass and velocity of the gesture and verbiage that was coming at us, like tennis balls being fired by some out-of-control pitching machine, that was overwhelming.
It all happened by micro-instants. It was like Koyaanisqatsi or some other stop-motion photographic film, compared to the linear, zoom-in emotional arc of most performances. It was everywhere if it was anywhere. As Michael said, as soon as you can guess where she’s going, then she goes somewhere else. She was throwing away ideas and emotions as quickly as she generated them, and while it could read as careless it was actually rigorous: Why keep them? They’re already done!
But then she would freeze the strobe and simply sing the heaven out of some ballad, like “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” or her own “Dear Darling,” in a way that made you reflexively think “Billie Holiday,” not because O’Hara’s voice sounds similarly but because you thought this must have been what it would like to be in some 1940s club hearing Holiday interpret every syllable and note with such extreme musicality, humanity and particularity. At times, with her tendency to reticence, O’Hara would call up a guest, and then ask them later to come up again, and they’d call out from the crowd, “Mary, I think people want to hear you sing.” We were always so grateful.
Aside from Miss America tracks and the few covers I knew, I couldn’t tell which songs were her own (and her collaborators’, guitarist Rusty McCarthy chief among them for more than three decades), because she’s in the league of the standards composers as a maker of melodies and lyrics. That element’s often downplayed when Miss America gets praised, just because her voice is so conspicuously out-of-ballpark. Let’s do hope, in defiance of all sense and reason, that these new ones make it to another record.
It was all like an inside-out version of how you feel reading a great novelist, the kind – Dostoevsky, Robert Musil – who implicitly tell you that laughter and weeping are one and the same because, as Andre Breton said, “Beauty will be convulsive if it is at all.” It makes nonsense of their separations into genres or even into “beats” in a drama – scenes are “light” and then “get dark.” The body knows in its spasms that light and dark are part of one thing, the flicker of reality.
There were calls toward the end, at the encore, for one of her best-known songs, “Body’s in Trouble.” She shrugged them off for her own reasons, but it is her manifesto, with its caressing but also battering rhythms and textures: not the reconciliation to having a body but the realization that the body’s will, its wisdom, its stubborn it-ness, means that “having” a body is not at all the right description – it has you, and that’s its problem.
Oh you just want to take somebody
Your body won’t let you
You just want to, want to hear somebody
And a body won’t let you
You just want to ride somebody
Oh a body won’t let you
Who do you talk who, who do you talk to?
Who do you talk to? Who?
When a body’s in trouble, a body’s in trouble
When a body’s in trouble, in trouble, in trouble
When a body’s in a trouble
Oh, when a body’s in trouble
Who who who do you talk to?
Oh who oh who oh
Some moments of Mary Margaret O’Hara – but remember Federer’s Paradox about reproducing kinetic beauty, much less the psycho-kinetic kind.
An early appearance with her first band, Songship – must be circa 1980? The host describes her, awkwardly but tellingly, as a “combination of a sex symbol and Howdy Doody.”
Classic performance of “When You Know Why You’re Happy” on Night Music, early 1980s.
The Body’s In Trouble video
A newer song
In 2007 at the Edmonton Folk Festival
At her annual Martian Awareness Ball (for St. Patrick’s Day) in Toronto