Tag Archives: punk rock

Tea With Chris: The Reprisalizer

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: In a previous TWC I made a nomination for the greatest tweet ever, the pinnacle of the medium. This one isn’t quite its equal, but it does have a certain beautiful simplicity.

Matthew Holness, best known for the brilliantly awful BBC3 series Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace, apparently has a film forthcoming: “YOUTH WAS GATHERING IN WESTGATE. CROAKY-VOICED LOAFERS, BLOCKING RIGHTS-OF-WAY AND ANNOYING WAR VETERANS.”

Lest any high-concept meta-jokes go uncracked, someone recorded a hardcore 7″ from the perspective of McGruff the Crime Dog. As Bill Kennedy observed on Facebook, this lyric could be an unwitting tribute to the project’s spiritual Ian MacKaye: “Just because something is safe to use one way / Doesn’t mean it’s safe to use another way.”

Carl: “#Moccupy“: Occupy Wall Street occupies Law and Order: SVU set version of OWS. Police raid it and can’t tell which are real barricades and which are fictional (now they know how we all feel). Protesters chant, “NYPD doesn’t respect Law and Order.” There is almost nothing I could say about this without ruining it, except: Slow. Clap.

I don’t usually do this, but, even though I was the editor on it, my highest recommendation of the week truly is the two long narratives and accompanying lovely photography and other material in this project about an effort to change the lives of “untouchable” girls (yes, caste still exists) in northeast India, by one of The Globe and Mail’s two or three most invaluable talents, my friend Stephanie Nolen.

In lighter feminist reading: You may well disagree with everything X’s Exene Cervenka says in this interview but you’re likely to be highly entertained by her right to say it.

In still-lighter, and hardly-at-all feminist, entertainment: This video the cast and crew of The X-Files apparently made as a birthday present is like a Rosetta Stone of ’90s culture, with an absurd number of ridiculously enjoyable celebrity cameos. It is only slightly undermined by the fact that, as later events were to make clear, its central premise is flawed: It seems highly likely that if you’d told him “love me,” you would have gotten nothing but an affirmative from David Duchovny.

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Moonbeam Over Marin: “California Uber Alles” and Jerry Brown

by Chris Randle

During my transition from a teenager who played competitive Magic: The Gathering to a teenager with dubious facial piercings, I rode the subway downtown to a cavernous vintage store on Queen Street West. The scruffy nave of local music and art in the 1980s, that neighbourhood has since become almost totally gentrified, but it felt like Weimar Berlin after coming from my leafy, ultra-middle-class corner of Toronto. The thrift shop clung on – still does – by hawking beat-up trenchcoats and black punk-band shirts. My favourite T circa Grade 10 featured a militaristic, sinister-looking emblem in lurid colours. The stark text “DEAD KENNEDYS” soon appeared in its owner’s passport photo, although that was a dumb oversight on my part rather than an attempt at radicalizing airport security.

I don’t remember exactly when I became a fan of the band, but I do remember how: “California Uber Alles.” The menace created by East Bay Ray’s guitar (surf rock for the sharks) and Jello Biafra’s manic sneer of a voice was intoxicating. I didn’t follow all the lyrics – I understood they were mocking some long-gone California governor with New Age leanings. Surely he must have been better than Reagan? But I got the joke. The notion of a serenely Zen fascist leader was just plausible enough for its indelible absurdism to work. Hippie hatred unites punks and neoconservatives like nothing else. It only serves the interests of the latter.

Jerry Brown, the DKs’ day-glo Fuhrer, made an unlikely comeback as governor of California this week. My teenage self probably would’ve been nonplussed, but now the news is a delight. That doesn’t have much to do with policy proposals (though Brown will be far, far better on that score than the billionaire cipher he defeated), and it doesn’t make up for the depressing loss of Sen. Russ Feingold in this grim midterm vote. Brown’s return appeals to me on a symbolic, even sentimental level. It implies that hopeless eccentrics can still get elected in a major U.S. state. The governor-to-be has never lived his life as if worried about potential attack ads.

That notorious oddness is sometimes exaggerated, and not just by a certain hardcore anthem. Brown acquired the inescapable nickname “Governor Moonbeam” when he suggested launching California’s own communications satellite – a crazy-sounding idea in the 1970s, a visionary one now. (Like Tony Benn on the left of Britain’s Labour Party, Brown was a starry-eyed futurist.) He did appoint a Beat poet to the California Arts Council, though, and espoused Buddhist economics, and lived in a commune for a time after leaving office. Later he interviewed Noam Chomsky for Spin: “The economists have a word, ‘autarchy,’ which they use to denigrate the notion of local self-reliance.”

It’s not surprising that Jello Biafra praised Brown’s insurgent campaign against Bill Clinton in the 1992 Democratic primary, lamenting the caricature he’d helped create. They had way too much in common. (Maybe Biafra also realized that some conservatives would take the idea of “liberal fascism” all too seriously.) The ’92 Moonbeam backed campaign-finance reform and condemned free-trade deals. If indie rock was succeeding punk as a centre of countercultural attention, he knew the kids better than Jello did; Brown stumped econo, refusing to take contributions higher than $100. Most came through a 1-800 number. He would hold it up during debates, deadpan, like he was selling OK Soda.

This lefty populist nonetheless championed a regressive flat tax designed by supply-side guru Arthur Laffer. That wasn’t especially surprising either. Brown has always been slippery ideologically, yet his weird mysticism makes the fluidity seem authentic, the core of his aura (in Walter Benjamin’s sense). As one right-wing admirer put it: “Nearly every politician dreams of being all things to all people; Brown found a way to treat that inconstancy as an Aquarian virtue.”

He was a contradictory governor of a contradictory state. California, epicentre of the New Left, is also distinguished by the virulence of its right. In Before the Storm, his book about Barry Goldwater and the American conservative movement, Rick Perlstein notes that Orange County alone swelled to 38 John Birch Society chapters, plus a Bircher congressman. When he ran for re-election in 1978, Jerry Brown carried Orange County.

“California Uber Alles” kept moving too. Dead Kennedys recorded an angrier version about Ronald Reagan in 1982, calling it “We’ve Got a Bigger Problem Now.” That could almost pass for contrition by hardcore standards. Numerous covers followed, each one diminishing the original’s effect. Biafra himself remade the song after the recall putsch of Governor Arnold, comic-Nazi accent and all, but Schwarzenegger lacked the earlier targets’ surrealism or extremism; he was just laughable, a celebrity feebly pantomiming the big persona, kind of like Jello Biafra.

I don’t mean to pit one subculture against another, hippie politician versus punk warbler. That game is boring. (We won’t even mention the H-word.) Fraught, tangled lineage is a more accurate framework. My friend Jonny Dovercourt once argued that indie rockers hate hippies because “they remind us of our embarrassing younger selves…Indie kids are descended from punks, who are descended from hippies.” A “crushing sense of disappointment” has been passed down through each semi-failed movement. Maybe he was right. What else could Dead Kennedys’ name signify? Groovy RFK, tribune of the ’60s New Politics, bleeding out at Nixon’s victory party.

During his rambling acceptance speech this week, Jerry Brown said: “While I’m really into this politics thing, I still carry with me that missionary zeal to transform the world…I’m hoping and praying that this breakdown that we’ve been witnessing paves the way for a breakthrough.” I could close by quoting my blog comrade here: “Punk is easy, adulthood is hard.” But I’ll be mercurial and cite Crass instead: “I’m the same old monkey in the same old zoo / Same old message trying to get through.”

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Tintin in Tangier

by Chris Randle

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.”

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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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