Monday, March 26, 2007

Sample Platter

For those of you who haven't seen any of my work in ALARM yet, here are some previews of my work in the spring issue:

Here . . .

. . . here . . .

. . . and here.

The 250 word format is challenging; there's only so much you can say in that time. I know 500 would be easier, but I imagine that 100 would also be easier, because it would take away the illusion of in-depth content and leave me to make more impressionistic (or expressionistic) statements about my experience of the music.

On the other hand, I wrote these guys back in January, and I think my new batch is better. So there's something to be said for the practice of doing the short takes.

Anyway, enjoy!

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Be, and I'll Just Watch You

(Props to the criminally under-recognized Julian Cope for the lyric referenced in this post's title, from the song "Soul Desert," on the album Jehovahkill; the lyric quoted is followed, rather devastatingly, with the addendum, " . . . 'cause being is just too hard for me.")

I'm sorry I haven't called. Really. I didn't mean to leave you hanging. I've been busy, but that's not much of an excuse; I found time to play with my other friends over on the Fray, and I don't even like them all that much (I've actually got a lot more over there--click on the "More By This User" key to see what I've been up to--but this review is the only thing that got any honorable mention, so I chose to emphasize it). Well, maybe a few of them. Mostly I go over there to get into debates; it's like a bar I'd never take my wife to because I only go to start brawls.

I had a performance with UMO Ensemble on Sunday, for the Moisture Festival, a great idea (a week+ festival for burlesque, cabaret, clowning, magic, vaudeville, and other arguably archaic forms that, at one point, formed the basis for modern musicals and the Theatre of the Absurd, and a good basic ground for re-enervating, and hopefully innovating, the form) with a terribly and wholly inexplicable name. We were performing as buffoons (I don't actually appear in the picture, but I wore the costume/makeup for the tall one with the horns, and more or less looked exactly like that; the costume defines the buffoon at least as much as the wearer), a staple of the UMO roster with which I, being something of a newbie (I've been a member since 2003, but we've been on hiatus most of that time), had not yet engaged.

A buffoon is the ultimate outsider: deformed (indeed, in the case of Aztooth, not human at all), rejected, interdependent on other buffoons, living in holes in the earth near the landfills and sewers outside medieval towns . . . and liberated to tell nothing but the truth, to exist free of all social grace or obligation, oblivious to stigma, allowed to live in a state of perpetual toddlerdom.

Anyway, we were emceeing the event in question, so it involved a lot of flying by the seat of the pants. I'm a little creaky when it comes to verbal improv--words are a very carefully considered thing to me, though I can react quickly and organically enough on a physical basis--but, luckily, Aztooth is the least verbal of the crew, so I just had to live in the skin. Much hilarity seemed to ensue.

Of course, how could it not? One has a clearer--and giddier--view of truth and being when we use artifice to strip away pretense, costumed that we may run, socially naked and brutally honest, through the world without accountability. Clowns and fools always have a certain advantage when it comes to telling the truth, and fiends & monstrosities have a certain advantage when it comes to seeing it. The rest of us are so tied to the roles we feel obligated to play that we often don't see when the role is doing the talking for us. The role of buffoon speaks for its wearer, of course, but the role itself is obliged only to exist outside obligation; there is no fear of repercussion, no mercy, no sense of consequence, no concern for the consequence when it arrives. The buffoon laughs at being beaten, its anger just a more violent facet of its perpetual amusement.

This article in last week's Seattle Weekly, written by Mike Seely, got me thinking about roles & obligations, about labels and context (which continually both illuminate and obscure truth). The passage that really took me for a ride was this one, in which the narrator--a prank-playing indie rocker--is confronted by someone who chastises him with a label I have often used derisively:

'John, you're such a...a...frat boy!'

"The insult was the equivalent of slapping my face with a white calfskin glove," Roderick goes on. "The term 'frat boy,' as he intended it, had all the connotations of beer-swilling, date-raping, jock, macho crap. I laughed, because to me, a fraternity boy was someone who sneered insults at people with sarcastic WASPy smugness. His knotted-sweater, white-collar disapproval was everything I associated with the Greeks.

"So here we stood, two indie rockers, faced off across a gaping cavern of American culture as defined by the term 'frat boy.' He dismissed my car-wreckin', prank-pullin', fire-startin', gun-shootin', whoop-it-up, call-the-cops American party-makin' with one word: frat. And I saw his sniffing, eye-rolling, weak-assed, big-vocabulary-but-not-quite-used-correctly tsk-tsking as more or less the same thing: fraternity boy. But in fact, we were both limp-wristed, lit-major indie rockers."

The operative words in Roderick's diatribe: "gaping cavern." The stigma associated with frat boys is not a one-size-fits-all-proposition, but has rather been expanded over time to signify anything that anyone might find remotely annoying about white heterosexual males.

Seely goes on to note that no one should get too worked up about the "poor white boy" thing, and I won't get into it here (much; it's probably unavoidable). But it's interesting for me to see not only how two-sided the label can be (or many-sided, if we buy the author's assertion that ANY annoying traits of the white, heterosexual male can be targeted), but on how many sides I've actually been when using the word (only once, that I know of, did anyone ever use the word to describe me; as I was in a bedroom with two naked women when it came out, I decided offense would've been a little out of line). Really, I've been both the merry prankster dismissing the uptight preppy and the trimmed metrosexual chastising the feral party animal; I've been the fashionista and the regular Joe straining at the boundaries of couture. Interestingly enough, while I champion independent music, I've often been dismissive of (some) indie rock (some of my favorite and least favorite bands are tagged with the label), as such, precisely because they seem like a fraternity, a collective with rigid standards of fashion and conduct wherein learning to sing or play instruments is dismissed as selling out (probably because some of them, if they shed the affectation of sloppiness, would be mere rock bands, about as indie as Bob Seger), with an off-putting sexlessness that seems counter to all that I consider revolutionary in art. But I do also see that as a reaction to what I've always perceived as the adolescent sexual culture of the more jockish franternities, where I always imagined that men got laid, but women never had orgasms. Of course, that view may be my envy and not getting laid nearly as much as I hoped I would in college, knowing full well that I could provide the orgasms I was sure the women weren't getting . . .

What was I talking about? Oh, yeah . . .

So anyway, that little exchange noted in the article--in which we see that both sides of the "gaping chasm" see frat boys on the other side--reminded me of this post from back in August. See, I realized as I read the article on the indie rocker/frat boy divide that the term "frat boy," while once indicative of membership in an organization, has become a term rather like "bourgeois," a way of commenting on class, aesthetics, and value systems. And like "bourgeois," it's a term generally only applied by those to whom it might BE applied. Whatever you mean by "frat boy," chances are, if you use it as an insult, that you're white, male, reasonably privileged, somewhat educated, pop-culture savvy (even if you pretend not to be), and either a self-styled bohemian or a meticulously constructed "average Joe." And if you're not at least, say, three of those things, you're not more than a degree separated from someone who's all of the above. I'd also bet money that if you're a male applying that term, you (like me) choke just a little on the envy in the term, probably still a little steamed at the girl who left you alone that night for her frat god, certain to spend her orgasm-less night (unless, you know, she came by such things--pun intended--easily) in the arms of cretin. If you're a female applying the term, I suspect that you either spent too much time around people like me, or you're one of those unfortunate girls who could've been having orgasms with the 'hound, but instead were duped, to your eternal regret, into sleeping with the devil in the alligator shirt.

Shit, what was I on about? Oh, okay . . . See, I don't really think we can possibly underestimate the role that envy plays in this whole tendency to disparage the frat boy; I can only take TREMENDOUS comfort in the fact that my wonderful wife, 'Stine (y'all know her, right?), chose me over a creature that, truth be told, is probably more like me than I care to admit. It seems to me that stratifying the people you see and know over such mundane details as whether you were into Joy Division or Def Leppard as adolescents, the Decemberists or Jack Johnson now; whether you're into arts or into sports; whether sex came easily to you or only infrequently and with tremendous personal, emotional investment . . . Well, it's all very bourgeois, isn't it? It's like the whole geeks/jocks/art fags thing really just followed us into adulthood. Everybody's adolescent angst has become the meat of our arts journalism, apparently.

But this problem isn't just about frat boys and indie bands. No, this is something else. Look at this article about how New Age culture cheapens yoga. I happen to agree with some of what the article is getting at. New Age-ism claims to have roots in Hermetism, Gnosticism, and Rosicrucianism, but it seems to get the doctrines wrong, and the hippie-turned-yuppie concerns of baby boomer self-actualization have done much to confuse my own understanding of spirituality and self-care. As a Western practicing Buddhist, I struggle not only with those who will criticize, en masse, all Westerners who practice Buddhism, but with the fact that they at least partially have a point: There ARE those who use Eastern thought as a way of avoiding the rigors of Christianity, who adapt it to their least noble instincts and create a consumer culture of fabricated needs disingenuously called "tools." The comfort I take--aside from the physical benefits of doing yoga and martial arts, of chanting, of studying the Lotus Sutra and the Nag Hammadi Library--is in knowing that this disdain is itself a function of the same occidental privilege. Atheists who chastise Western Buddhists as insincere are ultimately betraying their oneness of mind with American Christians, assuming that honest Westerners must surely be either Christians or Atheists, that all religions should be approached only in their orthodox forms.

But then, the Vedic cultures from which yoga arose were often anti-materialistic only in rhetoric; some yogis have been ascetics, but certainly not all. Similarly, the debate as to whether the tenets of Buddhism demand austerity was raging in the East long before it was cool in the West to meditate, chant, or read the Sutras. Western boxing neglects the feet, knees, and elbows as weapons, and anything outside the torso as target; indeed, ALL Western exercise before pilates fails to address the body from a holistic perspective. Moreover, if we LIVE in a material culture, in practicing arts or spiritual disciplines from elsewhere, we need to either adapt those arts to what we NEED TO DO to survive here, or we need to leave.

And I suppose you could make similar arguments for fraternities. People who belong to them develop social connections that help them in the free market; artists may even be able to network in ways that can help future career prospects, or to create a new audience. Hell, a fraternity produced one of my plays back in college, with no help from the theatre department itself, because one of them happened to like what he saw at one of my other pieces. Did I sell out? Did I accept help from a lesser being? Does the fact that I wanted to be Kafka suffer because he may possibly have been listening to Stone Temple Pilots back at the frat-house?

These prejudices, and the misunderstandings that surround them, are almost necessary for the color in our language and culture; abandoning "frat boy" as an insult isn't likely to happen soon, and I wouldn't want it to. Insults are prejudicial by nature, and a culture without insult is a culture without flavor. Disdain, discord, and elitism are the satirist's bread and butter; subcultures exist to oppose each other, and the greater good of the culture relies on the proliferation of subcultures, where innovation takes place to enrich the whole. I don't object, either, to our turning either our parts in these conflicts or the "objective" analysis of the conflicts themselves into fodder for critique. But I think we need to recognize, also, that there's something inherently frivolous, and a little hypocritical, about taking these things too seriously. We could be talking about the health benefits of yoga and the dangers/benefits of materialism. We could be talking about the effects of white privilege, about the harmful wages of social competition through sex, about different levels of entitlement, about aesthetic theories and the role of theory vs. technical proficiency in the creation of art. If we spend all our time talking about whether it's acceptable to meditate or chant for more money, trying to decide who is and who isn't more of a stereotypical frat boy, or scolding people for driving several hundred dollars worth of yoga equipment to a class in an SUV, it seems to me that we're missing the point.

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