Friday, March 8, 2013

Still life #15

So we hunkered down in the belly of the boat, me and my closest enemy, as the tides rolled us towards the shore.  And six thousand miles away a single white light was blinking like an intermittent grace.  He looked at me in an ambivalent trance, enraptured by the play that should have unfolded - act III, anagnoresis, the fatal spectacle of revenge - then down at his stomach, at the single perforation from which spilt a thin excrescence.  I, too, imagined that alternate maze of causes and effects, my interment in the watery depths, his return to some den of commonplace desire where whoever sent him would have afforded him the balance of his treasure.

But instead we were here with nothing to say to each other, our only shared property the smoking confirmation of his demise.  And even though I knew above deck only bore witness to a retarded fury, I had half a mind to abandon this expiring acquaintance and abandon myself to whatever trajectory the wind would assign to me.  Because staying down here until the hull of our ship scraped against another surface was unthinkable.  How long before that single white light matched my heartbeat?  Across from me he slicked his lips, he jawed and gasped, his last will and testament gurgling its way up his throat.  I forgot the freedom of disintegration above and waited for whatever it was he was going to say.  Finally he spat it out:

-It's only a flesh wound.

Our laughter almost sounded like a brotherhood...

Wednesday, February 20, 2013


First post of 2013: I'm coming for you, assonant Internet homonyms.

YOMO: You Only Miss Out.  This, not FOMO, should be the real motto of Our Generation.  Virtually our sole point of reference is the life we're not living, but could be, with motivation, an internship in the City, a study abroad program, the second date.  So we take the internship and the study abroad program and the second date and we open up our pantheon of online avatars and watch the digital familiar spirits of all our friends and family taunt us with their better choices, swirling about in the cybervoid with hi-res photos of their new pad and their Valentines' Day canoodling session and their totally bitching New Years Eve party.  Everything in our lives that would form the fabric of someone else's dreamworld reduces to a pale imitation of Something Better.  The fear of missing out transforms into a permanent condition.  Every gain haunted by a greater gain we didn't obtain.

FOLO: Fear Of Living Once.  This is our second watchword.  Because why are we obsessed with missing out if not because we only get one shot at this day, this hour, this second, this millisecond?  Don't buy for a second the fairy tale about fanaticism being the province of fundamentalists who only think about the hereafter.  We're fanatical about our career trajectory and our BMI and our sexual performance and our online brand.  None of these require an afterlife.  Mostly they thrive in its absence.  I'm not even talking about fear as in dread here; I'm reaching for the KJV, naming fear as the reverence and awe we pay to this sacred cow known as our singular and infinitely important mortal existence.

But who wants or needs to keep summoning the ghost of Something Better and spilling blood on the altar of Now, you ask?  Who has time for that?  The truth is, this is all we have time for.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Decisions, decisions (some kind of parable)

You know you have to do your civic duty but you can't believe you didn't bring a magazine for the line: who knew it would be this bad, this year?  Four years ago, when you first started voting, you couldn't remember it being this crowded.  Maybe people cared less that year.  They were such boring candidates after all - and when the time came for the Offering, the drama of the ritual wasn't even captivating enough to convince you to stick around for the whole ceremony.

This year, though, things were different.  You left all your responsibilities in arrears just to attend all the town hall debates.  You were transfixed by the candidates.  Dast, the local boy, celebrated war hero, exactly the kind of offering favored by the oracles since time immemorial - you remember being mildly sickened by how paradigmatically perfect he was.  On the other hand, Qaar, captive from the tribe across the valley.  No war hero, but then, the foreign candidate didn't have to be - he just had to be sufficiently exotic, bearing the aroma of enchantment, dark and mysterious and redolent of the heavens to which the Offering would return him.

And this, Dast argued, was precisely why the masses should vote for Qaar.  He was everything the gods could want in a Foreigner.  And hadn't the oracles said of old that when a Foreigner was Offered the rains would come again?  Also, the economy would rebound and the tech industry in particular would see a renaissance.  Whereas if a Local was offered in a time of drought, you'd have all kinds of issues.  Not least the fact that the women would be barren and the barbarians would start conducting strikes again from the mountains - count on it.

For his part, Qaar relied on the well-worn argument that all Foreigners used: the gods smiled when the people showed kindness to a stranger by Offering one of their own instead.  It indicated mercy, compassion, acceptance.  It also indicated an inclination towards immigrant reform and a more enlightened foreign policy, and at least a few of the deities had a dog in that fight.  (People argued over which ones, exactly - Xara or Ku'Egh? - but they agreed that the pantheon was hardly unanimous in its views on relations between tribes.)  Qaar wasn't exactly well informed on his deities, but he had a nice smile and, according to recent polls, he scored highly in the single female demographic.

The council chattered in between the debates, and predictably, each candidate had scores of followers arguing why the other guy should be Offered.  In the town square one day, one of Dast's followers hung an effigy of Qaar, with a sign around his neck: NOT ONE OF US.  THE CHOICE IS CLEAR. Whoever did it had violated the ban on effigies instituted twelve years ago, when a burning effigy accidentally torched the thatched roof of a nearby plaza and a good percentage of the villagers lost their means of employment.  Still, the village was so polarized this year that two nights later someone hoisted an effigy of DAST with the words FORWARD - STOP INTERTRIBAL VIOLENCE. OFFER DAST.  

Occasionally cranks would write screeds and paste them to the door of the Council Hall, decrying what they called false choice.  A choice between killing one man and killing another is no choice at all, they said.  Let's dismantle this system and stop investing time and money into a form of politics that makes a mockery of real democracy, they said.  The Offerings are a public spectacle designed to make us feel like we have agency over the future of our village, they said.  No more people-sponsored executions. Investigate the Council and remove them from power.

But their screeds were invariably torn down and/or reposted ironically, in invisible quotation marks.  You yourself rolled your eyes upon seeing someone handing out an anti-voting tract on the way to the station today.

Thankfully, Voting Day has arrived: no more screeds, no more debates, no more effigies for at least another four years.  You finally make your way into the voting booth.  You think idly on the possibility that the Council really is manipulating the people into thinking that it matters whether they choose Dast over Qaar, Qaar over Dast.  But it's absurd: who could ever fall for the idea that the choice between them is immaterial?  Look at them.  One is a Local, the other a Foreigner; one is a decorated older gentleman, the other a dark and nimble young man.  

As you reach for the wooden stick with your candidate's name on it, you wonder whether he stays up at night thinking about the outcome.  Are they resigned to the possibility of being Offered - the possibility of being torched alive atop a mountain in full view of thousands?  Everyone says that the candidates know what they're getting into when they sign up for this - if the people choose them as the Offering, they die a horrible death; on the other hand, if the people don't choose them, they enjoy a comfortable future as an esteemed member of the village, receiving the gratitude of citizens who admire their willingness to risk the flames.

Best not to think about these things, you decide as you cast your vote.  Best to do your duty, and walk away.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

After 'Vertigo.' For Scottie.

Failed detective, line of duty, eye of deity, inspect the premise of the age.  Yet all you could do was hang on for ten seconds before letting your vision narrow to a thin grey line separating dusk from dust.  Wherever the thread began, it was woven in a wasteland.  Now you're tracing fingers on the chalk walk, the whole damn story steeped in the steaming trauma of a trainwreck.  Two shooters, one you could only see from above with glass in your eye.  One more step is what it takes.  You close the case and you finally find all the clues you can use, now you just gotta find the crime.  You want a girl and gun, you got a woman and a war.

Sunday, November 18, 2012


We think so deeply in terms of rights that we have nearly ceased to think in terms of mercy.
By "we" I mean both the church and the society beyond it.
The right not to be bothered by anyone, the right to be left to one's own devices, the right to forge an identity unhampered by the expectation of another human being.
Such is the unwritten ethos of the modern corporate church, and it has learned well from the society that writes its rules.
We are a people of credit, with interest.
We can only imagine mercy as an alibi for the hypocrites and the sanctimonious.
We can only conceive of forgiveness as a passive aggressive power play.
Not for us the one beating his chest, looking up to heaven, averting his eyes from the center of the glory.
We don't forgive because we have so many ways to disengage and paper over the wounds that accumulate over the course of a lifetime.
There was nothing to forgive, we say.
There was no need for mercy.
I'm okay, you're okay, we're all okay.
If you're not okay, we'll just keep our friendship to Facebook.
Points if anyone can organize these thoughts into a manifesto.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Brill Buildings, Baby...

First, read this piece on the mechanization of the creative industry by one late Linds Redding, felled by esophageal cancer, still smiting us with the truth in his virtual afterlife.

Now let's talk about rock and roll by way of the ivory tower.

Imagine a society where the scholars of the land - the people devoted to research, whether it's combing the corners of history or digging through the recesses of the brain on some neuroscientist's Magic School Bus - fall into two categories.  The first category is the corporate scholar, who is a complete and unqualified tool.  Copy and repeat all knowledge known to turn a profit.  Publish an article every year.  If you can't generate that kind of output, come up with a specious but sexy argument that capitalizes on Hollywood adaptations of Regency novels.  Teach the kind of syllabus that, in the estimation of a middle-to-upper-class high school senior, constitutes a "liberal education." Ruthlessly extinguish intellectual risks that pose a threat to revenue.  Turn a profit in a world where people pay big money for education leached of passion and originality.

The second category is the "indie scholar," who has absolutely no institutional support to speak of.  He spends a third of his time on Twitter ingratiating himself with people in the hopes of convincing them to read his blog, which will then drive traffic to his self-published treatise on black nationalism, available for ninety nine cents on Amazon.  He works a day job teaching SAT Verbal at an academy in K-Town.  It's decent money but by the end of the day he's exhausted from teaching kids what analogies are.  He has to pay to gain admission to conferences to present his work.  He does this because, hey, at least he's not a corporate stooge and gets to think of his own ideas on his own time, and what other option is there?

At last count, seventy people liked his Facebook fanpage.

Some would argue that this division already exists.  Others, perhaps those like me who want to preserve a shred of faith in the public university, believe that, while many such institutions have capitulated to corporate models of education, they can still provide a safe space in which one can pursue intellectual interests with relative autonomy.  This is infinitely preferable to the prospect of being an indie scholar.  Granted, such scholars exist and can do excellent work (see Victoria Nelson, author of The Secret Life of Puppets.)  But they operate without the benefits and protections available through the public institution. 

I'm saying all this because, of course, the above division very much exists on the music scene today.  There are huge institutions and there are boutique labels Granted, there are boutique labels that afford a greater degree of autonomy than the huge record companies, but the musician who wants to attract the attention of either must expend massive amounts of energy.  This energy does not merely go into songwriting and performance; it goes into promotion, planning touring logistics, production, rehearsal, personal thank you notes, and, perhaps, abasing oneself on Kickstarter. 

The other primary option for "creatives" is to hire oneself to the kind of "dark satanic mills" Redding describes above: factories where the bottom line dictates how much thought goes into guitar solos and vocal lines and string accompaniments.  He's writing specifically about the ad industry but you could easily argue that the recording industry is infected with this mechanizing and routinizing disease as well.

There used to be institutions that did for musicians what the academic institution (with some HUGE exceptions) does for scholars today.  Remember the Brill Building?  An office space in midtown Manhattan that could've been just another rat maze for number crunching suits.  Except this Building housed Ben E King, Bobby Darin, The Drifters, The Shirelles, and oh yes, Phil "Wall of Sound/Homicidal Maniac" Spector.  Or dig one Mr. George Martin, he of Parlophone Records, every inch a company employee who, one fateful day in May 1962, met a bunch of leather-wearing jackasses who called themselves the Beatles.  They had just been rejected by Decca Records, who told them that guitar groups were on the way out.

And here's what particularly blows my mind about George Martin: He thought the Beatles' original songs totally sucked! So he made them sing other people's songs for a while.  One early session from the Beatles includes a cover of Gerry and the Pacemakers' "How Do You Do It," on which the unenthused John Lennon wins the award for Most Insipid Vocals Ever.  Yet even though Martin was less than over the moon about the Beatles, he gave them a shot.  Because he believed in giving artists room to develop and protecting their right to do so.

 Maybe I'm cynical but I doubt the Beatles would have a cryogenic corpse's chance in hell of finding a magnanimous major record label producer like George Martin today.  There are no more Brill Buildings.  There's Sony and there's Soundcloud.  Yes, yes, one can argue that people like Max Martin (dude who wrote hits for Britney Spears and N Sync) emblematize how record labels might still generate work that endures, pop that conveys the force of an original voice.  And fine, thirteen years later, people in my generation still sing "Hit Me Baby One More Time."  But are you telling me that's our era's equivalent of Brill Building songwriting? 

There simply is no major institution that invites upcoming musicians to operate with relative autonomy to explore ideas, find their own voice, and maintain artistic integrity.

Some may also argue that indie record labels, the kind that would get behind an Arcade Fire, still do this.  To which I say: It is increasingly the case that all record labels (not just the big ones) will only pay attention to an act if they boast the right kind of metrics.  What metrics?  Number of records sold, number of shows played, number of tracks featured in commercials.  In other words, you have to already have done the kind of labor that record labels used to do in the first place.  Labels will only afford opportunities to find your own voice if you already have it.  They will not give a young Liverpudlian band that plays R n B covers the chance to continue honing their songwriting skills.

This is, in some sense, the consequence of the Indie Revolution.  We all wanted complete freedom from the carcass of the record industry.  And we have it: the freedom to play at bars that will cut your set short if fewer than 15 people show up; the freedom to spend half your day updating Twitter and Facebook when you could be working on your lyrics; the freedom to regularly lose money on recording and rehearsal in the hopes that one of your projects will make it big.  Either that, or the freedom to pitch yourself as an infinitely malleable product devoid of idiosyncrasy; the freedom to work for one of those mechanized workplaces where, as Redding points out above, the kind of schedule expected of creatives forces them to put out content that doesn't meet their own standards.

Gimme those institutions that preserve a space for fledgling musicians to hone their craft.  Gimme Brill Buildings where inventive songwriting is rewarded with some kind of professional stability.  Gimme George Martin.  Gimme shelter.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

The Worst Ever, The Best Ever

We shot part of the video for our upcoming single "Twentyslashtwenty" today.  This isn't the first time I've released this song; my band in Korea recorded a version of it many moons ago, but I wasn't totally satisfied.  Something about my performance and the final mix didn't ring true with the song.

The song is technically about a night that happened when I was eighteen and in the throes of that stupefying variety of infatuation particular to adolescence.  I'm told some politicians never outgrow it - they just find other objects for it...Anyway, I realized today the song isn't about the event per se.  It's about trying to remember the event, re-presenting it, trying to capture it in your color Sharpie-stained fingers.  We all have events of some kind or another that we would immortalize if given the opportunity.  The morning a gash opened in the earth, the night that piercing light tore a hole in the sky.  The Worst Ever, The Best Ever.  We house them behind glass windows, frequently oblivious to the fact that what we're housing is only phantasmal.  We want to convince ourselves that we've preserved the event exactly the way it was...and the more it fades around the edges, the more we hold onto that image with a tenacity that shades into pathology.

A lot of great art comes out of that effort to preserve.  But so does a lot of sickness.  And, perhaps, worse than sickness: how much blood has been shed in the name of a past that never existed?  The cure, I think, is to acknowledge the limits of our own attempts at representation, even as we dig, once more, into the sound and the color of whatever it is we can't quite bear to release.