Thursday, April 12, 2007

A Moment of Silence . . .

. . . for the late, great Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

Readers will quibble over whether he was a great writer or a merely good one (I'm sure some cad will insist he sucked, which is fine; I've never liked Hemingway, so I have to assume that there are no universally applicable, fully objective standards). Others will debate their favorite works (I'm partial to Slaughterhouse 5, which, IMO, beats the pants of of Heller's Catch-22 for surreal war satires; but in the end, my REAL favorite is God Bless You Mr. Rosewater [although Venus On the Half Shell, a book supposedly written by Vonnegut character Kilgore Trout, which I've never been able to verify as being written by ANYONE, but which sits on my bookshelf and has a vaguely Vonnegut flavor about it, is an apocryphal contender]).

Anyway, R.I.P., you cranky old bastard. 84 ain't a bad time for an artist to go, especially one who saw some of the shit you did.

ADDENDUM: Turns out that Venus on the Half Shell was written by Philip Jose Farmer with Vonnegut's permission; Vonnegut was apparently unamused. Nonetheless, it's a funny bit of satire, and I've interests in adapting it--in whole or in part--for . . . well, whatever medium seems to absorb it.

I still maintain that it has a Vonnegut flavor about it, and I think it's interesting that it actually predates The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, which it does very much resemble (though it's infinitely more American).

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Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Cultural Nudity: No Shirt, No Shoes, No Being

I was having trouble getting started on a post today. I've had an idea brewing since about the time I made that first post after a long break, but I haven't been able to find the time amidst my personal and professional chaos to sit down and write it. I started something an hour ago, involving tortured references to Foundationalism and Coherentism (which only applied in the most slanted possible way to the matter at hand), in addition to an attempt to tie it to this post and rumors of someone's misunderstanding thereof, and . . . well, it was just too dang thinky for me to parse out the relevant bits and get to the story I wanted to tell. What sucks is that all those connections--even the skewed philosophical ones, and especially the one relating to the other post--were actually quite real, and quite important, in my mind, whereas the story itself lacks resonance on its face. Could I rely on most readers to make the proper inferences? Would this post be of any worth without them?

I'm not gonna get into the whole debate as to whether blogs are supposed to be good writing or not, except to say that I try to keep things at least nominally thoughtful and somewhat (anti-)intellectual to differentiate it from the multitudes of bloggers who seem to think that their journals are interesting to anyone (though I certainly think some of them are correct; indeed, my hope is that my concepts, and the ways in which I write about them, will interest the reader in the being who formulated them, thus finding them willing to engage with my autobiographical details and prosaic musings). No, what just occurred to me was a conversation I had with 'Stine sometime in the last day or two. I was coming home, exhausted from a day at work following a weekend of some serious writing. See, I had a big deadline for the summer issue of ALARM on Monday, so I had three features and eleven reviews to write (actually, I'd already written four of the reviews, and transcribed all the interview text for the articles, but STILL . . . ) over the weekend. And quite accidentally, I said something to 'Stine that was more true, more profound than anything I could actually have cooked up from my arsenal of noetic recipes.

"If there's one thing the deadlines and money help me with, it's getting over any worry about whether my writing is any good. My title is 'contributing writer,' after all, not 'good writer.'"

Okay, it doesn't look so profound now that I've put it down. But it's still true, and truth trumps profundity. See, it doesn't really matter if I get the best of my craft out there; that's between me and whoever prints, publishes, edits, or markets my work. That's what those people are for. Since this is a forum where I rarely rewrite, and where all middle-men/-women are removed from twixt my readers and myself, I'm actually even LESS obligated to produce good writing, and more obligate to WRITE, to tell the damn story I wanted to tell.

So as far as either my philosophical interest or the connection to the other post goes, we can either address that in the comments, or--should this fail to draw any comment--in a future post, where the dialectics can be unburdened by mere observation. Here's what I was interested in noting, and what it seemed to mean aside from its relation to either big philosophy or its relationship to my other ideas.

I was listening to one of the CDs I'd requested from the list for review. I don't get everything I ask for from every list--there are other writers to take into account--but I don't get anything I didn't ask for, unless my review editor thinks there's something I'd enjoy based on her (remarkably astute) understanding of my tastes. In order to avoid falling into a rut, and only reviewing one or two kinds of music, I do like to shake my own foundations up a little, and request something that resides outside my tastes, if not entirely outside my musical values. **
The process can be a little risky, but it's often quite rewarding.

So I'm listening to one such gamble--we'll leave the artist's name out of it for now--and I'm finding myself a little put out, at least for the first track. It might be because it's blues rock, and I'm just suffering from precisely the prejudice I was trying to address in picking the CD; post-punk theory (because post-punk is nothing if not theoretical) has traditionally demanded that the blue be bled from the blues, hollowing out the recognized emotion constructs in order to create music that is resolutely deconstructionist, situationist, etc. This was partially a function of European bands trying to de-Americanize the essential tools of rock & roll, but, considering that American bands like Devo, Mission of Burma, Talking Heads, and Pere Ubu also engaged in this, it's also fair to say that they were rebelling against the Rousseauist warmth of '60s ideology (it's no coincedence that Rousseau's number one rival, the Marquis de Sade, was such a profound influence in the industrial camp, one of post-punks most easily recognizable sub-genres).

Whatever the reason, my relationship with the blues is tenuous. I love the old, scratchy stuff; I enjoy some revivalists like Mark Lanegan or Hillstomp; I LOVE artists like P.J. Harvey or the Kills who have appropriated aspects of the blues to tell stories that have more personal resonance with me than the ones usually held out by the old masters. But this recording struck me, on first listen to the first track, as belonging more to the school of '70s classic rock (which, if you haven't gathered yet, ain't my bag), with a vaguely Bob Seger-ish tinge that had me sulking.

Now, the album got a LOT better over the rest of the tracks, and I should note that, although that sense that this was sorta my parents music more than mine didn't quite dissipate, I was almost won over by the music itself. I can thank Quentin Tarantino (among others, probably) for contextualizing classic rock in a way that I could appreciate, and the right flavor of Americana can remind me of dusty road trips back in my old college stomping grounds in the SW, and the notion that this music could go quite well with a smoldering joint, a cheap (3.2%) beer, and a desert sunset did warm me to the whole enterprise. But my impulse was still to write this off as something that was only worth having if I was dying for something I could share with my friends who have no interest in motorik, post-punk, drone, dub, techno, hip-hop, art-punk, prog-metal, freak-folk, or anything else that I might refer to as my bread-and-butter.

Since it always behooves me to research an artist's past projects, I looked this guy up on Turns out his music is most often classified as indie-rock, and is usually compared to post-hardcore acts like the Jesus Lizard. What the hell? Thing is though, as I'm reading his history, the bands that he's toured with, and the way previous reviewers had described his sound, I'm starting to wonder: Did I give the album a fair hearing? Was I tricked into thinking this music was something it wasn't because the blues element was up front, rather than subverted? Did my prejudices against a certain kind of sound make me miss something hiding in plain sight?

So I listened to the album again with new knowledge . . . and it was better. Oh, it still sounded the same, and it's not gonna be something I play all the time. But when I know who I'm listening to, where he comes from, what his widely-perceived intent is in appropriating the sounds he's appropriating, I hear the music differently.

All of this had me questioning . . . well, everything. Had my theory unduly prejudiced me against the music? Had that same theory converted me back? Did knowing this gentleman's history open my mind to his music, or had it blinded me to its flaws? Do we apprehend art with the raw senses or with the whole mind? Does how we absorb a message depend on who delivers that message? Is it shallow to prefer the music when I know it's been delivered by a tattooed (in theory; I don't know that he has any tats) punk rather than some red-state fogey?

Can we approach anything--art, family, politics, religion--culturally naked, without the noetic baggage accumulated over a lifetime? I tend to think not. Maybe when we were younger, more literally naked. But we DO come to define ourselves by the roles we play, because without those roles, we're more and more like everyone else. C.S. Lewis once noted the irony of people insisting that they were "more themselves" when nude, because the opposite is, in fact, true: any one man is more like every man without his trousers, and any one woman more like every woman. Individuation is a result of serial affectation, calcification, rejection, appropriation, socialization. These labels, identities, archetypes do bind us to other people, but we still find space in the contradictions to free ourselves from those binds, and even that would be impossible if we truly shed everything--language, culture, preference, ethics, philosophy. A human without theory--whether or not he or she calls it that--is an organism, a collection of biological needs with few, if any, strategies for fulfilling them.

Truth be told, my review of this record wasn't that far from my original impression (though another CD on which the same artist played with a trio was a slam-dunk, a fulfillment of the furious promise hiding under the surface of the solo work, so I like to think everything came up [bloody] roses in the end); I just softened the criticisms and looked a bit more closely at the silver linings. But I like to think I listened more completely in knowing what the music's context was. Maybe we should be able to consume art without this knowledge. But do we? Ever? It seems to me that by the time we even started to develop musical preferences, we already had language, already had friends who recommended music to us, templates and paradigms by which we judged good from bad. Maybe we've never arrived on art's doorstep without the requisite shirt and shoes (and trousers, of course, though that was always omitted form the convenience store signs).

** - I differentiate between values and tastes because tastes usually speak to matters of genre, where values can transcend genre. I hate to say I don't like x kind of music, but like y kind of music. More correct would be to say that x kind of music tends to operate from a value system different from my own, but when it does address my musical values, I CAN like it (say, Neko Case helping me like country); y kind of music reflects my values as a matter of its construct (say, dub music already being an intrinsically postmodern form), and therefore it doesn't necessarily have to work as hard to meet my criteria. But even that ties me to genre more than I prefer, because there's a lot of suck-ass dub out there, and one really oughtn't criticize country music for BEING country music.

I bring this up because I find that everyone's preferences look snobbish to someone who doesn't share them, and I'm always taken aback when I--who like more individual bands and more individual kinds of music than pretty much anyone I know--am accused of elitism by people who surely dislike at least as many forms as I do (I remember being accused of elitism because I didn't like Neil Simon by someone who didn't like Theatre of the Absurd; I wondered why one set of preferences was perceived as affectation and the other as enlightened populism).

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