Tag Archives: this politics thing

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: Franklin Bruno/Kelly Hogan, “Never Tell Your Lover How You Voted”

by Carl Wilson

Some good advice for this day from Franklin Bruno, sung by the inimitable Kelly Hogan: “He’d rather imagine you sleeping with his Dad/ Than picture you punching some other party’s chad.”

Other excellent recent Bruno productions on political themes: Flag Pin and Free to Organize.

After the election’s over, Franklin and drummer Matt Houser, aka The Human Hearts, are on tour. If you’re in any of these places, don’t miss them:

Mon. 11/12 – Pittsburgh PA – Sound Cat Records (6 pm)
Tue. 11/13 – Columbus OH – Used Kids Records (6 pm; with Aloysha Het, Randall Douglas Matson)
Wed. 11/14 – Cincinnati OH – The Comet (with Matthew Shelton, Dana Ward)
Thu. 11/15 – Louisville KY – Solidarity (1609 Bardstown Rd.)
Fri. 11/16 – Durham, NC – Motorco, with Pretty and Nice, Gary B and the Notions
Sat. 11/17 – Washington D.C. – Big Bear Cafe (7:30 pm, with the Tinklers)
Sun. 11/18 – Philadelphia, PA – Kung Fu Necktie, with Gashcat

Hogan’s also on tour and she’s coming to Toronto on Dec. 1 (!), and a lot of other nice places, some of them in swing states. If you’re in those places, go vote or she won’t sing for you. Really, she told me. Go vote.

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Tuesday Musics: “Drone Operator,” by Jon Langford

by Carl Wilson

Above: Earlier art about unmanned flying things by Jon Langford.

I wanted to share this song with people from the moment I first heard it at Jon Langford’s concert in Toronto on Saturday night, and thankfully Joe from Mechanical Forest Sound – with his characteristic reliability – recorded it and has posted it.

Listen here.

Langford’s show at the Horseshoe was a three-part affair, opening with a Welsh miners’ choir and closing with Langford’s long-standing collaboration with Toronto’s own The Sadies (they started with one of my favourite songs by Langford’s landmark band, The Mekons – “Memphis, Egypt” from 1989’s Mekons Rock N Roll – “Destroy your safe and happy lives before it is too late …”). But this tune came from the middle set by a mini-version of Langford’s Skull Orchard band, with Jean Cook on violin and Jim Elkington’s fluid acoustic guitar leads.

It’s a protest song on an extremely timely subject, the ever-expanding American use of drone planes for targeted assassinations – at least, sort of targeted, as the song’s eponymous protagonist, the “Drone Operator,” tries to explain away at one point: “It didn’t look like a wedding/ It really wasn’t my call.” (The way the Obama administration minimizes civilian casualties in drone strikes, by the way, is essentially to redefine anyone within range of the hits as a non-civilian.)

What I find most compelling about the song is its ever-shifting perspective – a highly unreliable narrator who shrugs off several skins and prevents the song from ever taking a comfortably stable point of view on its subject. It opens with what sounds like the voice of the balladric everyman, the sort of humble farmer or working stiff you might find in a country song or in “Witchita Lineman” or in Billy Bragg’s “Between the Wars” –  but rather than being merely the victim or object of larger forces, this one is their tool, their willing and perhaps even thrilling vector. His humility is gradually replaced by classic hubris – “I’m like a god with a thunderbolt” – which then itself falls apart into what seems like a kind of drunken defensive shame, and then takes a final sleazy left turn into interpersonal threat.

The last move not only “brings the issue home” and the song full-circle, it suggests the other dark side of the drone technology, the possibility of its use for domestic surveillance – and not only by police and intelligence forces, but out of mail-order catalogs by possessive husbands and jilted stalkers.

Langford’s willingness and ability to play this creepy part to the hilt is a blessing of his punk roots, and makes the song far more devastating and sharp than the standard folkie-pacifist, didactic denunciation. And the way the music swerves out from its standard Celtic-western form between verses into the slightest hint of a Middle Eastern melodic oscillation, like an oud or an ululation, reinforces the theme of the invisible threads between “there” and “here” – that what is happening to those targeted in “the tribal lands” is happening, in insidious reverse effect, to the people sitting behind the consoles, the people who give the orders, and the people who pay their salaries (but were never given a vote on this) – a pervasive grid of alienation and intimidation, a multidirectional field of remote control.

DRONE OPERATOR – Jon Langford

I’m not really a soldier. I’m more likely to die

By car wreck or cancer than the eye in the sky

That follows them home, right into their window –

And they never know. They never know.

 

When I was a young boy I played all the games.

Straight out of grad school, someone gave them my name.

So I stumbled into a job with good pay.

Through traffic and construction, I drive in every day.

 

So don’t call me a coward, I know what is allowed –

I’m like a god with a thunderbolt sitting on a big white cloud.

I’m a drone operator, with targets to scan.

I sit drinking coffee, with one eye on the ground in the tribal lands.

 

Yeah, I’m a drone operator – I am part of the team,

While I study my monitor, wipe some dust from the screen.

It didn’t look like a wedding, it really wasn’t my call –

When it all was over, I went to a bar, drank beer and watched basketball.

 

Can I get you a drink? Yeah, I’d do it all again,

To stem the flow of body bags the politicians find so hard to explain.

But please don’t complain. There’s no pain, no pain.

When this bar is closed, I’ll follow you home, I’ll follow you home …

In through your window. You’ll never know.

You’ll never know. I’ll follow you home.

 Follow you home.

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Tuesday Musics (Belated Short-Week Edition): “Compared to What?” by Eddie Harris & Les McCann

This is a live 1969 recording from the Montreaux Jazz Festival of this cover of Eugene McDaniels’ song (also recorded on Roberta Flack’s first album the same year):

Dedicated this week to the student protestors of Quebec.

Love the lie and lie the love,
A-hangin’ on, with push and shove.
Possession is the motivation
That is hangin’ up the goddamn nation.
Looks like we always end up in a rut (everybody now!):
Tryin’ to make it real — compared to what?

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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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Tea With Chris: Here Be Voguers

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: Vintage rules list from the Sound Factory, a.k.a. the New York club where Frankie Knuckles once DJed a string of fantastic parties:

Great moments in Lisa Hanawalt’s cartooning-filled review of Transformers 3: “gabardine,” the Tree of Life joke, a drawing of its female lead grotesque enough to please the shade of Basil Wolverton.

During this week’s inspired 24-hour “citizen filibuster” at City Hall, right-wing councilor and glowering henchman Giorgio Mammoliti claimed to be “a fan of the arts.” So he would love David Balzer’s Canadian Art piece about Caravaggio! “One is beguiled by [his] formal bravado and then inevitably brought to a moment of thematic severity and crisis.” Kind of like what Rob Ford is doing to Toronto, though “beguiled” is not the verb I would use.

Carl: Until about this time yesterday, I was going to post poet poet Dionne Brand’s contribution to Toronto’s budget-cuts debate as the most eloquent and moving public discourse of the week. But the marathon “citizen filibuster” at City Hall that ended at something like 8 this morning equalled (and sometimes quoted) Brand over and over again. While the mayor snorted, dozed off, occasionally called names, and talked about football.

Meanwhile, south of the border, politicians acted even more childishly – or in the President’s case, I’m afraid, timidly. What should he have been saying? Something more like what Robert Reich says here: The whole thing is a sham, holding the country’s economy to ransom until the Republicans get their way, which is the wrong way.

But why why why why why why why why on earth are these things in Toronto and Washington happening? Well, it couldn’t be the inherent contradictions of capitalism, could it? I’m not positive but I do know that this video is the most entertaining and lucid consideration of that thesis that I’ve seen in a long time.

(special thanks to Marianne LeNabat and her Facebook friends)

Now, quick! Stop thinking about that and think about how North Carolina motor lodges have changed since 1950s postcards of them to now. One of my favourite things about that site is that sometimes they’ve hardly changed at all, and other times they’ve totally collapsed into ruin. Sometimes the trees have just gotten bigger.

My other favourite thing about it is that I found it through Wendy Spitzer’s tumblr, The Liminal Hymnal. Which is a tumblr but really a blog. Because Wendy is, as she extensively documents, a systematic person, she is doing a project in which she is blogging, also from North Carolina, every day in July. And every day it is worth reading, a nice awkward-confident tour of a complicated person’s singular mind.

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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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