Tag Archives: relationships

Tuesday Musics: “Ban Marriage,” The Hidden Cameras, 2003

by Carl Wilson

Dedicated to Barack Obama and the state of North Carolina: You know, there are much more radical stances than the one you’ve been finding so difficult.

And as I looked him in the eye, I heard my best friend cry
That we aren’t fools to fall in love, but let coupledom die.

(All: Sorry for the belatedness. It’s not really Tuesday.)

 

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Tuesday Musics: Kevin Coyne & Dagmar Krause, “Come Down Here” (Babble, 1979)

by Carl Wilson

Babble: Songs for Lonely Lovers is a concept album (based on or the basis of a musical) by the late British rock songwriter Kevin Coyne and German singer Dagmar Krause (perhaps best known as a member of Slapphappy), recorded in 1979. It’s the depiction of a relationship for which the word “troubled” would be much too mild – Coyne  intimated here and there that it may have been inspired by child-murdering lovers Ian Brady and Myra Hindley, though I don’t think it needs such macabre embellishment to do its work with a chilling sparsity and intensity of purpose – to evoke the perils of intimacy at their most harrowing.

Given that, it’s not entirely surprising that the album’s been adopted as kind of a cause by another bard of brutal closeness, Will Oldham, first by covering a couple of songs on a Portugese single, then in an appreciation for Mojo Magazine, and finally with a full-blown tribute band, The Babblers.  (You can hear their vocalist Angel Olsen cover “Come Down Here” here or watch them do it starting at about 1:30 here.) His most powerful cover is probably of the album’s opening track, “Are You Deceiving Me?”

But nothing can eclipse the original Babble, despite its obscurity and general neglect. It should be alongside Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks, the Thompsons’ Shoot Out the Lights and the Mountain Goats’ Tallahassee as records that throw into serious doubt how wise it is for humans to get to know each other too deeply. As Oldham put it, “the transference of horror (at ourselves) into music has not been done so well. It’s a record that fully reverberates the fear.”

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Tuesday Musics: Les Mouches, “Carload of Whatever”

Les Mouches was Owen Pallett‘s band before Final Fantasy, and is (sometimes and in a very different sense) his band now after Final Fantasy.  The other flies in this ointment are Matt Smith (guitar, stuff) and Rob Gordon (drums, stuff). In this band Owen played guitar, mostly, not the violin or keyboards to which fans of his solo work are accustomed. Rob’s drums frequently burst into squalls of free-jazzish noise. Owen was in a deep Xiu Xiu phase. There was frequent screaming. They weren’t to everybody’s taste. I miss them.

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Scud Mountain Boys at Lee’s Palace in Toronto, Sat. Feb. 25, 2012

by Carl Wilson

Memory, as everybody knows, is an odd, perverse thing. When I first saw the reunited Scud Mountain Boys’ stage setup at Lee’s Palace last weekend, I said, “Oh, that’s funny, it’s just like the photo on the back of one of their albums where they’re sitting in somebody’s apartment around a kitchen table, playing and drinking.” Then I came across the above 1990s-era photo online, clearly not a candid home snapshot but one that includes microphones and at least a bar booth if not an actual stage. Was this the album shot, or a publicity picture I got with the Sub Pop CD reissue of their first two albums, when I worked at an alt-weekly in Montreal in the mid-90s, which is how I first heard of the band? Or another picture altogether? I wanted to dig out my copy of the CD to check, but almost all my CDs are walled in with a bunch of boxes in a nook off my kitchen and retrieving it would be basically a home-renovation project.

What a more exhausting and error-fraught sort of excavation it must be to dig up three people with whom you were once intimate, but haven’t spoken to in 14 years, and propose that you do the thing you used to do together, before you stopped talking. But now-Toronto-based songwriter Joe Pernice (better known for his subsequent and current band, the Pernice Brothers) did that after a close mutual friend of the group’s unexpectedly died. The deceased had been a fan and the idea was to honour his memory. Not right after, though. As Pernice explained on stage, it took him a year to make the phone calls. But whatever he was afraid of happening didn’t happen, maybe because “nobody really remembers what caused all the shit any more.”

What I hadn’t known was that the kitchen-table-on-stage was a standard live Scuds motif in their initial run, around the Boston area, not a cute reunion gimmick. You could argue that now it has become a cute reunion gimmick. I think it is more apt to say that it is a technique, one of those stage-magic tricks you discover and maintain because it works, makes the show the way you need it to be. Now I find it virtually impossible to picture them standing in standard band configuration, rather than drinking beers off the table (Americans visiting Toronto always love Keiths), bending over in the uncomfortably expressive angles around their instruments that people do in a home song-swap session (not a “jam,” as Pernice admonished), mumbling in each other’s ears, telling tales between tunes.

But this was not folksy-homey coffeehouse shtick. Pernice’s songs are too infused with rue for that, as much as classical pop craftsmanship ever has been, lying (their pretty white asses off) where the mouths of the George Jones, Jimmy Webb, Alex Chilton and Joe Strummer rivers meet. His persona now is laid back and salty-charming, but the songs make it easy to picture it when his back-in-the-day yarns tend to include heavy doses of anti-anxiety meds. Then you’re tempted to imagine “all the shit” wasn’t so much the bass player, the mandolinist/drummer or the lead guitarist’s faults – but maybe that’s just because they weren’t talking as much on stage. Second-guessing other people’s memories is an even less reliable thing.

Indeed, I wondered what the person in question would have had to say about the story Pernice told about writing one of his best-loved songs: A girlfriend at the time, he said, kept going on about what a romantic song “Hey Jealousy” by the Gin Blossoms was, and he exasperatedly responded that the guy in the song was just trying to get laid. To prove his point he wrote a seductive, early-70s-style, gorgeously hazy tune in which a guy tries to wheedle his way back into a girl’s bed (“I would give anything to make it with you, one more time/ I would give everything I own”), which builds up to chillingly menacing insinuations. He titled it, “Grudge Fuck.”

The crowd was full of pushing-middle-aged folks, no doubt with their own recollections to husband. There wasn’t a lot of dancing or swaying, as if everybody were still following the cool-rules of 1997, when they went to more shows, when audiences stood or sat nodding with their arms crossed whenever not moshing. But when they did express emotion, it was with surprisingly rowdy outbursts, of varying appropriateness: Why did people scream every time Boston was mentioned? Was the room really full of Mass. expats or were they just trying to bonafide their in-the-knowdom? Even on a Saturday in a bar, do you shout every time a song mentions drinking and drugging, when those are the things clearly killing the protagonists? Jeez, it wasn’t St. Patrick’s Day.

Unfair. But the intimacy made it tempting to rubberneck into people’s minds. Pernice suddenly did a double take at a woman holding up a homemade shirt in the front row: “Is that you?” He explained that she’d shown him the same shirt at a show in another town 15 years ago – when her parents brought her, and she was, “like, 13. … Wait, I don’t like the way that sounds.” The dysfunctional-neighbourhood feel was cemented when Sadies (and former Pernice Bros) drummer Mike Belitsky cracked the singer up so much from the back of the room with a text message (his iPhone was on the table, to watch the time) that Pernice had to take a few minutes’ break after corpsing on his first couple of tries at the Scuds’ somberly beautiful cover of Cher’s “Gypsies, Tramps and Thieves.” He had to think of “nuns beating me” and other dark childhood images to regain composure.

After all, I’m not the boss of anybody else’s nostalgia. (Though I’m tempted to call Pernice on leaving out that he didn’t just “work in a bakery” when the band started, but was doing an MFA in creative writing.**) Hell, I’m not even the boss of mine. I was grateful finally to see a band that never played near me in their original lifespan. And to see them enjoying each other’s company. Even though there’s a part of me that selfishly hopes this slight return will be the sum of it. That even wishes they’d remained, as the slogan of Lubbock, Texas’s The Flatlanders had it, “More a Legend than a Band.” (Yet even they later reunited for a string of shows and new records.) That sympathizes with Darren Hayman’s title, “We Love the Bands that Don’t Re-form.”

It’s an adult pleasure to have memories that stay memories, memories you can’t recover, even ones you never got to attain in the first place. Perhaps we just confuse reality with rarity, essence with inaccessibility. We think there’s only so much room around a kitchen table. Or, whether superstitiously or maybe with real folk wisdom, we long for minor rites of sacrifice, destruction, some kind of preview of death and loss to gird us for the real thing, even fantasizing it can homeopathically prevent the real thing: “I’m going to burn the silo when you go,” a farmer whose wife is on the way out sings in one sterling Scuds song. “You’ll see the flames, and maybe know.”

We’re damn fools, the thing is. Can’t we be allowed sometimes to forget that? The sugar-lick torture of the Scud Mountain Boys was to remind us and make us like it.

 

** Joe informs me that there was a significant time lag between the bakery and the grad-school period – sorry for presuming on my own in-the-knowness!

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Out of the Vinyl Deeps: Ellen Willis on Rock Music, edited by Nona Willis Aronowitz (2011)

by Carl Wilson

There’s been plenty of praise already for this posthumous volume of work by not only The New Yorker’s first pop writer but one of the first rock critics (as opposed to reviewers) – who went missing from the history because she had dropped out of the game by the time it was first being historicized, and no doubt because she wasn’t a guy. I was a fan of Ellen Willis’s socio-political, feminist writing (many fine examples of which are archived on this Tumblr) long before learning she’d been a music critic. Later I couldn’t believe I hadn’t known.

I’m still struck by the uncanny frisson rereading her work imparts. It feels at once anachronistic and full of unfinished business. Early rock critics generally read more like our contemporaries than other cultural critics of the 1960s and 1970s, save perhaps Pauline Kael. But in part that was because they (Marcus, Christgau et al) were having arguments they then went on to finish, or that other people clearly took up (Lester Bangs). They were able to moderate their various romanticisms, rockisms, exclusions and snobberies.

With Willis, you get reflections on anything from Elvis’s comeback to the social meaning of white electric blues to whether David Bowie was a phony, all as offhand, first-draft-of-history musings, necessarily innocent of the big debates to come, often half-wrong but revitalized by freshness as first thoughts. You also get blind spots – it’s misleading that the first piece in chapter 1 is about “Two Soul Albums,” because contemporary black music just isn’t going to come up in this book very often. It’s not an omission anyone writing retrospectively about the 1960s and 1970s would make. But it was one plenty of people did at the time, and Willis isn’t exempt, nor does she get to go back and revise.

More importantly there are the hints and beginnings of big themes she’d never go on to explore in depth – and neither would many others. Part of what was lost in Willis’s voice going missing was the way she treated music not so much analytically, and certainly not categorically, but dynamically. She had a way of talking about artist-audience relationships, specifically fan relationships, that anticipated what would come in cultural studies in the 1980s and 1990s.

But while there was sociology in Willis’s take, it was also self-reflexive and personal – her sense of what she was asking of Janis Joplin and what Janis Joplin reciprocally needed from her, or how she could appropriate the virile aggression of Mick Jagger as a fan, and take on that erotic energy as subject rather than object. (So the Stones’ Under My Thumb is potentially more accommodating to a female point-of-view than Cat Stevens’ Wild World, because a hetero woman couldn’t easily picture herself passive-aggressively controlling an ex-lover by telling him he was too naive and delicate for the big bad world. Molly Templeton has astutely proposed that gender-flip question as Willis’s musical equivalent of the Bechdel Test.)

Here, then, are 5 propositions and maxims that reading Out of the Vinyl Deeps made me think should guide more criticism today.

Music is an embodied experience.

As a feminist, a 1960s counterculture-liberationist and, most of all, as someone who came into a relatively empty field and pursued her passions rather than having a lot of other discourse to answer to, Willis was seldom distracted from the fact that music was something to feel physically – an engine for dancing, a drug for feeling, a massage for pain, an erotic locus and something that pulls you into crowds.

Unlike some members of the boys’ club, she didn’t take that as an excuse for slobbery prose that tried to emulate the music’s (and the drugs’) pulses and waves. She wrote more diagnostically, describing the symptoms caused by these viruses of sound and trying to say what they were good or bad for, and what overall syndromes they might indicate. She knew there were contradictions between rationalism and expressionism, between the body and the mind, but to her that was exactly the meaning and purpose of rock’n’roll.

 It’s natural to have an agenda.

Willis felt no compunction about the fact that Janis Joplin, Bob Dylan, Mick Jagger, The Who and the Velvet Underground (who, amazingly, she’s still written about better than anyone else) were closer and more personal to her than a lot of other figures. She enjoyed keeping in dialogue with them, with each new album or development.

She wasn’t uncomfortable with that commitment and contaminated by ideas of objectivity leaking inappropriately in from other branches of journalism. But she also knew that her fan relationship to them was fraught. She cared about whether they were fulfilling their promises without petulantly implying they owed something to her – as if they were the leaders of a republic in which she was just one highly engaged citizen. Pop is about both identification and objectification of the stars, she knew. But just as with the people around us, the projections, identifications and oppositions we bring in are mainly our own problem.

Pleasure is both a moral imperative and a moral dilemma.

None of the liberating power Willis felt in pop music could function without pleasure. In this way, she was ahead of the back-and-forth that would come between the neo-Adorno undergroundist critics who were suspicious of pop pleasure and the (now dominant) faction of poptimists who insist that’s where it all begins.

But she was always asking herself what pleasure meant: I like that beat, but what do I like it for? It’s not just whether and how it works, but what it works, what it’s propelling. She was alert to the possibilities of masochism, of submitting to the force or insinuation of music without questioning what becomes of the self in the process. She also delighted in finding pleasure that was hard to find – that punk, for example, had a positive life-force to offer within what had seemed nihilistic, anti-pleasure to her at first. But when music had no pleasure in it, she was impatient with any other argument it might have to offer.

Music always suggest a philosophy, a life-world.

For Willis, ultimately, the question was whether music was evoking a world she wanted to live in, or at least wanted to work her way through. Her landmark Velvet Underground essay for the Stranded “desert-island disc” anthology was testing exactly that problem: She saw in the VU, and in Lou Reed’s songwriting especially, a search for salvation in a fallen world. The VU was radical in pop music for its depiction of how deeply, violently fallen the world is – how unlike a mental ideal the embodied life is.

But she was convinced the music was about the struggle against that nihilism. She would have had little time for music that embraced the nihilism, a genuinely gnostic music. (Which may be what she thought she heard in the 1980s, and why she quit writing about it.)

Her writing likewise depicted a fight against cynicism and despair, which partly marks its post-60s era – she’s not that far off from Joan Didion in that way, though Willis could never be mistaken as anything but a New York writer. But the details of the philosophical positions involved aren’t so much the crux as is the constant listening for what’s being proposed and the writer’s honest effort to imagine what that has to do with her.

To live outside the law you must be honest – and hurt the ones you love.

All that said, Willis was never willing to straight-out join up. Perhaps her days of countercultural immersion and unthinking loyalty are behind her by the time she starts writing in public. Perhaps they were just never in her character. She makes her alliances tentatively, the way a feminist who loves Dylan and the Stones and the Who has to if she’s not switching her brain off.

She’s no easier on her female compatriots: She made a huge effort to find nascent feminist musicians who would speak to her. She didn’t find many. She witnesses the beginning of the women’s-music-festival movement, and finds it encouraging, but she’s impatient to find the women’s music that really rocks, or at least doesn’t traffic in feminist platitudes.

She keeps searching, but she doesn’t give away too many points for effort, and she’s not afraid she’ll be kicked out of the movement for voicing her misgivings, in part because she does it so clearly with regret. Just as she listens to the music, it seems as if she listens to her own words, asking how her pleasure in writing serves to create more pleasure, to liberate a larger purpose.

She indulges that ego right up to that line but never across it. At the ends of a lot of her pieces, no matter how big or small her claims beforehand have been, she often threw in a little offhand disclaimer: “He’s right, but I still miss it.” “Well, call it a draw.” “You can’t win ’em all.” “But I guess that I just don’t know.” She brings it back down to that human scale, in which the author is merely, again, one citizen of this republic of song, even when she’s saying what the rest of that imaginary nation hadn’t yet thought to think.

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Little Boxes #40

(from Asterios Polyp, by David Mazzucchelli, 2009)

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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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