Friday, January 3, 2014

Notes on a unifying thread between Klaus Kinski and Kanye West

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She told the magazine that she had never been able to watch any of her father's films in which he typically played tyrants, criminals and outlaws. "When I did catch a glimpse of one I always thought: 'he's precisely like he is at home'." 
—Pola Kinski on her father

Are you willing to sacrifice your life?
—Kanye West, "Monster"

In 1971 Klaus Kinski embarked on a series of performances of the confrontational monologue Jesus Christus Erlöser (Jesus Christ Savior), which included lines like "I am not the official Jesus, the one that is tolerated by policemen, bankers, judges, hangmen, officers, church bosses, politicians, and other powerful people. I am not your superstar." As replayed in Werner Herzog's My Best Fiend, we see the performance degenerate into shouting, insults, tantrums and, most of all, diabolical scowls. The way he returns to the stage and rips the microphone from the hand of the man he replaces makes Kanye West's interruption of Taylor Swift look like exactly what it is: tame and inconsequential.

Also, Jesus, pronounced in German, is Yeezus.

Werner Herzog paraphrasing Kinski's attitude toward awards and prizes:




Klaus Kinski was an intense method actor who saw the promotional value in appearing insane, that the cult of genius necessitates unhealthy commitment, megalomania, otherworldliness. But we know he is an actor and that Herzog is a director. My Best Fiend is directed by Herzog and stars Kinski just as the 5 other movies were. Why would we acknowledge those are fictions manipulated by men and that this is not? The legacy of Herzog depends on Kinski which in turn depends on his transgressions. Herzog needs him to be a monster for the success of his films and the glow of their aura.

Kanye is actor and director, writer and producer, dancer and set designer. He can stop and appear as Herzog—calm, yet intense director—but the public cannot separate him from Kinski, an outsider shouting on a televised stage about how phony our entire civilization is and, especially, how impoverished our saviour has become, manipulated by power, unrecognizable.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Structure, Seinfeld & Play: a non-coffee-table book not about coffee tables

THE BOOK IS PUBLISHED ON THE INTERNET!
THE EBOOK IS ALSO PUBLISHED ON THE INTERNET!
IT IS NOT A COFFEE TABLE BOOK NOR IS IT ABOUT COFFEE TABLES OR COFFEE TABLE BOOKS!
IT IS ABOUT SEINFELD!
IT DOES NOT TURN INTO A COFFEE TABLE!
IT IS JUST A BOOK!

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Watching Seinfeld 15 years after its finale


Seinfeld, since the age that I started to think of the show as made by real people and not its own real world that the television presented me, has been a kind of riddle to me. Up until a certain age—somewhere between 9 and 13, let's say—disbelief is not suspended as much as it just does not exist, but once the charade, the theater of the event, is revealed, it is hard to get lost in a weekly situation comedy unless you are getting lost in the brilliance and intricacy of the jokes, the way the charade is constructed and seems to hold together. Yet Jerry-Seinfeld-the-character, who was a stand-up comedian and even created and produced an episode of a situation comedy, remained Jerry-Seinfeld-the-person, seemingly,  and there lay the riddle—if the show flirts with autobiography and thus a certain level of verisimilitude, how much does it intend to accurately describe reality, especially since the non-thespian lead rarely seems actually to be acting?

Now that we have fifteen years between the present moment and the airing of the series finale, longer than the show was actually on the air, and twice as long as Larry David's tenure as executive producer, we can read the respective post-Seinfeld careers of Seinfeld and David as a means of understanding the sensibilities that each brought to the show, or, at least, I will presently argue that we may, and, if you disagree, you may presently suspend the aforementioned disbelief. The most instructive moments from the televisual, new millennium work of the co-creators of Seinfeld are those in which Seinfeld (or another actor from Seinfeld) enters the Davidian universe of HBO's faux-reality-TV, improvised avant-garde post-sitcom Curb Your Enthusiasm, or when David appears in one of Seinfeld's post-Seinfeld projects, and we will start with an example of the latter, which is the most recent, in which Jerry invites Larry out for coffee, which is actually breakfast, on Seinfeld's self-explanatory web series Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee, the first episode entitled "Larry Eats a Pancake."

"It's a miracle we ever got any work done because nobody can waste time like you and me," Jerry says to Larry as they get out of the 1952 Volkswagen Beetle that Jerry has taken out on the town for the purpose of this episode.

"I agree—it's a miracle." Larry says, "I always wanted the show to get canceled so I wouldn't have to work."

For someone who enjoys Curb Your Enthusiasm as much as I do, and particularly the Larry character played by David, it is gratifying to see the "real" version of the man, not too different from his fictional self yet entirely sociable, yielding and not despicable, though this Larry is of course just a different kind of fictional version of David, an improvised television self, acting natural, so to speak in a showbiz context, but he is warmer and kinder, someone seriously preoccupied with the consumption of chicken, for example (we learn after Jerry asks "What the hell is wrong with chicken"), "it's a lot of cholesterol... and if it's not free range chicken there's a lot wrong with it," and generally concerned with his diet and the environment, as evidenced by the first piece of writing I read by him, written as the Larry David outside of his TV show, about a decade ago in Rolling Stone about the alarming rates of mercury in tuna, arguing that we need to look after the health of the oceans so he could remain a happy frequent consumer of tuna fish sandwiches, otherwise the world as he knows it would collapse.  Jerry makes a joke about the idea of "free range," that it's a myth involving chickens in cowboy hats, "Home on the Range," etc.

This is a trivial moment—and thus quintessentially Seinfeld (and Seinfeld)—but an important one in understanding the dynamics of these comedy greats: Larry has a slightly ironic, for the sake of not seeming preachy, moralizing streak; and Jerry is amoral—he is nice, he does not curse, his comedy is inclusive and commercially viable, but it is unpolitical and oblivious to any real notion of ethics that goes past the etiquette of tipping to, for example, the socioeconomic implications of a tip-based income.

"You're like a young king, aren't you," Ricky Gervais says to Jerry in the second episode—"Mad Man in a Death Machine"—after Jerry asks in the restaurant to where he has driven them, "Can I have two yellow eggs and two egg whites?" Gervais' comedic proposition is the best moment of the whole series, in my humble opinion, because it rings so true as it simultaneously takes to task the whole premise of the show.

"Things are kept from you, but...you wanna do stuff... 'He wants to drive around in a car,' and someone says 'well, just let him go around in a car.'"

"'But he wants to do it with celebrities,'" Jerry adds.

"'He wants to do it with some of his friends he's seen on the tele.' 'We'll get their number.'"

Jerry's material is based on his celebration of never having grown up, inhabiting a world based around cereal, Superman and inconsequential foibles. I remember watching one of his big returns to TV, a Tonight Show appearance about five years ago, and the five minutes of new—I should note killer—material from the fiftysomething legend were all about eating cookies in the middle of the night. He has nothing but money and time, like a "young king" who doesn't quite grasp the responsibilities of his role, instead telling cookie jokes, collecting vintage cars as an extension of the common boyhood dream, and he has his people arrange play dates for him with other people who understand the lifestyle of having nothing but money and time, and, instead of a privilege bestowed at birth, comedic talent.  Another great moment is Alec Baldwin's deadpan summation of Jerry that gives the episode—"Just a Lazy Shiftless Bastard"—its title and us the line, "Your life has been one unbroken boulevard of green lights, hasn't it?" They drove in a 1970 Mercedes 280 SL in signal red. They park it in a garage and, like the rest of the help that appear in the back- and foregrounds of the show, the attendant is seen and not heard.

I once saw Jerry Seinfeld in person. I had just finished sixth grade and Jerry had just finished the most successful situation comedy of all time, as people like to say. My English uncle, a captain of industry and then collector of Aston Martins, took me and my brother to the Concourse d'Elegance in Pebble Beach, paying fifty dollars for the each of us—to my shock and horror (the things I could have done with fifty dollars!)—at the improvised ticket desk erected on the 18th hole of the Pebble Beach Golf Links.  We spent the afternoon looking at beautiful antique cars arranged in and out of tents along the fairways, and at one point I turned around and there was Jerry Seinfeld, surrounded, of course, by half a dozen people.  I wanted to be one of them, but I didn't want to bother him, nor did I have anything to say.  I just stared for a bit and kicked myself for not having a Pez dispenser and Sharpie on my person.

I followed everything he did after Seinfeld.  I taped I'm Telling You for the Last Time off of HBO onto the VCR and watched him literally bury (or at least simulate the burial of) and perform all of his material once before my dad recorded over it with a soccer game which, needless to say, was, in hindsight, very disappointing, and, in the moment, really upsetting. When I discovered Napster a year or so later I downloaded the album and listened to it on headphones and roared with laughter as I discovered the internet.  I saw Comedian—the cinéma vérité documentary of Seinfeld, the biggest name of his generation, start awkwardly from scratch in small New York basement comedy clubs along with an obnoxious youngster who spends the movie complaining that he his not famous—the day it came out with my dad after he picked me up from high school.

It was a perfect myth—man of integrity climbs to the top of show business, walks off stage on the most perfect note imaginable, and starts from scratch in obscurity, toiling for love of the craft, suffering for jokes. A moment in the movie perpetuates this myth and describes the timelessness of it when the other comedian complains to Jerry that he's not famous yet and Jerry, the seasoned guru of show business, says "you got something else you'd rather have been doing?" and tells him his "favorite story about show business."
Glen Miller and his orchestra they were doing some gig somewhere. They can't land where they're supposed to land 'cause it's a winter snowy night, so they have to land like in this field and walk to the gig and they're dressed in their suits, they're ready to play, they're carrying their instruments. So they're walking through the snow and it's wet and slushy and in the distance they see this little house and there's lights on in the inside and there's a curl of smoke coming out through the chimney and they go up to the house, they look in the window they see this, this family. And there's a guy and his wife and she's beautiful, and two kids they're all sitting around the table and they're smiling, they're laughing and they're eating, and there's a fire in the fireplace and these guys are standing there in their suits, and they're wet and they're shivering and they're holding their instruments and they're watching this incredible Norman Rockwell scene, and one guy turns to the other guy and goes "How do people live like that?" That's what it's about.
I was sold on this myth. Jerry Seinfeld was my hero and, though I had watched Larry David's special and subsequent series on HBO and I knew he had something to do with Seinfeld, though I didn't really understand what, I believed Seinfeld was the heart of Seinfeld, the proletarian toiler whose work ethic flourished from the need to selflessly make people happy through some amalgam of truth, intergrity and jokes. I was so devoted that when I heard rumor of Jerry returning to TV I was there for the big debut, even though it was just an American Express commercial. And this moment when he returned to TV was the moment the myth began to fade because, of course, it was just an American Express commercial, and in the ten years that have passed since that moment, the episodes of Curb Your Enthusiasm that had already aired and the ones that would be steadily produced became better and better. The riddle of Seinfeld became clearer and ultimately obvious: Larry David hijacked Jerry's mainstream appeal, his formulaic accessibility, near universality, commercial viability—the man could create hype for commercials, for god's sake—and used it to produce the most interesting television ever to be consumed by such a large audience, recursive and self-referential jokes whose punchlines cannot even be properly identified, seamless ripped-from-the-headlines parodies that never break the verisimilitude of the episode, and a constant undercutting and near shame of the form in which they worked, an embarrassment so severe he quit at the show's peak after killing off Susan with cheap envelope adhesive. This was two years before everyone else supposedly quit at the show's peak, mind you, not before demanding a million dollars an episode for the final season. David's was an embarrassment so severe that he quit the most successful show of my lifetime to write and direct a somewhat difficult-to-watch moralizing film, 1998's Sour Grapes, and cast himself as the obnoxious producer of a show not unidentical to Friends, an artless, sentimental Seinfeld rip off that nobody could accuse Seinfeld of resembling. But, for Larry, the resemblance was too close.  

Seinfeld's post-Seinfeld work, especially the second era that begins with that American Express commercial, is not in the same category as that of David. Each season of Curb Your Enthusiasm, it seems, surpasses the glory achieved by its precedent, even the Seinfeld-reunion season, which brought Seinfeld back to form playing the straight foil to the mad creative genius of David's writing, a season that felt like the inevitable peak of the series, was trumped by Larry's subsequent Season 8 sojourn in New York. Jerry made a blasé children's cartoon in which he voices a bee (Bee Movie), an interesting reality TV show, by reality TV standards (The Marriage Ref), and now a rip-off of the British program Carpool, a debt which goes unacknowledged I should note, a seemingly minimalist literal vehicle for jokes that is instead propaganda for himself and his friends, an advertisement for the bourgeois lifestyle, cars, and coffee. Or, as Larry sums it up in the first episode, "You've finally done a show about nothing."

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

April is National Poetry Month and this is the 4 year anniversary of this blog, roughly

April is the cruelest month breeding blogposts out of the dead land about how April is National Poetry Month.  This month is the 18th we've shared as a nation since 1996 that has involved poetry.

There are many 21st-century phenomena that strike me as arbitrary, sinister or generally just a bad idea, and, while I am still out on whether the internet as a whole has been a complete catastrophe for our culture, I am certain that it has bestowed upon us a whole new genres of arbitrary, sinister and generally just bad ideas.

And perhaps it has been a trope of print media for decades to decide the time is right to re-evaluate a work due to an anniversary, or a national x month, and perhaps it's even less sinister than retroactive analysis in honor of a re-issue or new edition or some other commerce-related decision (though much poetry is released in April to capitalize on the hubbub) to reappraise a piece of writing, cinema, music, television, etc. but a critical mass has been reached of essays beginning "Does hold up after z years" or "April is National Poetry Month," and thus the writing something that will be as irrelevant as poetry come May, or when it is no longer 25 years to the day after—somehow attaching the writing to a past moment when quality media actually mattered to its culture and thus gaining a gravitas that otherwise is not found in today's internet-print culture that is designed like an off-the-wall calendar, a factoid a day that can easily fit into cubicle culture, in this case that can be linked to a friend's facebook page who likes, for example, poetry—and it's his month, after all, so let's celebrate. It may be a ludicrous and cynical conclusion to make, but I shall make it—anything that has a specific month to celebrate "its vital place in American culture" does not have a vital place in American culture, for it is a culture dominated by everything we know we are not supposed to celebrate, a list too depressing to produce in this moment.

It is no longer the writer's priority to write something because the thought occurred and developed a month, or however long, before, just as we don't communally watch the Beatles debut on the Ed Sullivan Show anymore, we watch gimmicky karaoke programs that promise talented people the possibility of being chosen to join the schlock machine.  We publish for the anniversaries, we post in time for our pieces to be cherry-picked and linked cubicle to cubicle, in honor of whatever arbitrary subculture or past text we are told to celebrate in that moment, to give our meaningless laptop interactions some vague feeling of significance.

Unfortunately, I stopped writing poems every day as part of a project that began in September, just at the beginning of April.  I could have really cashed in on this gimmick.

I am pleased to announce, however, that the Seinfeld-related material of this blog will become available in book form on May 14th, the 15th anniversary of the series finale.

I am slightly vindicated to have found this quite eloquent anti-Poetry Month poem by Charles Bernstein: http://www.press.uchicago.edu/Misc/Chicago/044106.html

It seems this subject is quite popular, and most blogs, apparently, begin as mine has:
http://www.thedailybeast.com/newsweek/2004/04/08/the-cruelest-and-coolest-month.html

http://paxamericana.wordpress.com/2006/04/10/its-national-poetry-month-and-richard-howard-doesnt-care/

http://blogs.forward.com/the-arty-semite/127408/april-the-poetry-month-some-highlights/

etc.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Structure, Seinfeld and Play—the book




Structure, Seinfeld and Play—the book, available May 14th, 2013.  

Friday, April 12, 2013

Listening to Being There for the First time in a long time really loud on my ipod camera phone


DISC TWO OF WILCO'S BEING THERE
This morning I taught the first two thirds of a day of Kindergarten—actually it was yesterday when, in the morning, I also taught two thirds of a day of kindergarten—and, as I walked down Bardin Road to the strip mall at the corner with Williams for lunch, checked my cell phone and got a message from my brother—Do yourself a favor and listen to Being There! Loud!—and I responded at this A.M. enthusiasm (this is an unintentional reference [I swear!] to, A.M., the first Wilco album that preceded Being There): In the morning time? and What will the neighbors think! and he text messaged back (which doesn't sound quite right to me because "text messaging" to me means hitting actual keys over and over again to turn an a to b to a c, etc. and my brother has a new touch screen kind of device that Mike Daisey told us certain inaccurate truths about last year that we were able to ignore because there were certain inaccuracies about the truths) anytime! and then fuck em.  And then I "wrote" back (because I also now have one of those devices that doesn't old-fashioned-ly text message) Also I could put it on my new iPod camera phone and blare it whenever and then, because he usually works at this time, Have you been blessed w/ a day off? and he said No and messaged me a smily face that was not smiling but instead screaming with eyes closed and waterfalls of tears streaming down its yellow circle non-smily face.

Since I have begun this "essay" (or account of a brief text exchange between my brother and me while he was at work and I was on my lunch break substitute teaching kindergarten for the first of two days in a row) I have listened to the first five songs on the second disc of a copy of Being There that my friend Jaymee found and removed from the area with the CDs and stereo in Campagno's Market & Deli in Monterey, California where she made sandwiches for active members of the military and civilians who like really big sandwiches, off and on, from 2001 until 2006.  The CD was removed in 2002 (due to some quick wikipedia fact-checking, and some consequent serious pinwheeling issues, track seven is finishing and I fear time is slipping away), when I got super-excited about Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, the fourth Wilco album, and couldn't stop talking about it (an album I was so partial to—one of the few payoffs for the half-decade Rolling Stone subscription I devoured from age 13 on until I had grown [word choice very intentional] to dismiss and resent it—that I insisted that what I do the first time I smoked pot by myself was to listen to that really loud, which is interesting because, as wikipedia informs us [pinwheeling...] The first conceptions of material for the album came during a particularly stressful time in Tweedy's life. Tweedy had recently quit smoking marijuana,...also I made a great friend who has the same name as me because I saw I am trying to break your heart, the movie about that album at the independent movie theater he worked at)—because it didn't seem like it belonged to anybody and had been in the CD/stereo area of the sandwich shop "forever," and for some reason it was a cardboard "CD advance" version, which turned out to not be at all different.   I listened to it all the fucking time.  And why this classic of '90s post-Parsons country rock psychedelia—and a "CD advance" version at that—ended up abandoned at the Compagno's Market and Deli just outside the Taylor Gate entrance to the Defense Language Institute of Monterey, and why I happened to have a best friend who lived down the street and for some reason got a job at the age of 15 making sandwiches who decided to pilfer me this bit of media remains to me one of the great minor miracles that have made my life worth living.

Another wikipedia fact, one that seems slightly incongruous and wholly depressing:  Valve Corporation used Someone Else's Song as a basis for one of the opening themes in their first-person shooter game Team Fortress 2.

*    *    * I am in, what I am deciding to be, a moment of indecision.  The second CD of the album has finished and the first one did not work in the CD player—above my desk in my parents' garage—that for all of my adolescence was in my room, on which I played, I am estimating right now, between the first five albums—my friend Vicky bought me A.M. and the third, Summerteeth, to continue this theme that the benevolent forces of reality put Wilco's music into my life; and A Ghost is Born, which I bought the day it came out, was essentially the soundtrack of the end of my childhood—in excess of three non-stop month's worth of Wilco, a conservative estimate.  I have chosen simply just to replay CD two as I think about this and the first song has ended.  Its title comes from the notion that "there is no sunken treasure, rumored to be," a weird sort of non-teleological thinking that, in our forward motion into the past, there is no reward beyond that of the journey.  "Music is my saviour, but I was maimed by rock and roll," the song ends. "I was tamed by rock and roll."

And then a reprise, a reprise that always haunted me, the less commercial more abstract version of the single that I didn't really remember, but I remember in the background of a non-existent memory somewhere in the nineties, sometime after I turned 11 and before the 20th century ended.  It was two minutes and thirty-five seconds of their biggest hit.  I just googled the video...pinwheeling...youtube-geico ad...and they take their instruments on a plane as Jeff Tweedy lip-syncs the song and carries a snowboard used for skydiving purposes (I just read it is called "skysurfing"), and then they pretend to play their instruments on the plane, and then in mid-air, as Jeff Tweedy continues to lip-sync, and I can't really tell if there are doubles or if there is a green screen involved it just looks like they are falling through air with guitars, a snare drum, etc.  Although it is incredibly late-'90s-Dawson's Creek-cheesy I am having a hard time not liking it a lot, but I never saw it, I can safely say.  The mystery remains...when did I hear this song?

Question: though the record is very loose, most songs produced in a day, the band is at the top its game—why do betray their professionalism with the inclusion of bits of studio banter, laughter, etc.?  Why does genius seemingly reside in the ability to capture feeling before rehearsal squeezes out the realness, and why does it fall apart at a certain point when it seems too improvised and off the cuff?  Why does it seem to serve the artist in this moment more than the listener/viewer/reader?  I think it has something to do with dreams.  I want to hear songs about dreams as a concept, about people's actual dreams, about life influenced by dreams, about dreams as a metaphor for aspirations.  But never do I want to hear a slick, overly-produced, written for pop singer of the moment song about dreams. There are two songs with "Dreams" in the title on this record, and one is called "Dreamer in My Dreams," and the album is a huge discussion of longing and hoping and aspiring, songs directed towards successful singers, or about aspiring singers, and the lyrics, otherwise, are surreal and the abstract instrumentation floats, and one song's words read like a haiku with the lines repeated centered around the quadrupled line "Why would you wanna live in this world," with a variation in its last phrasing, "Why wouldn't you wanna live in this world?"  Maybe at a certain point, when you've been playing music and smoking weed for what feels like forever, and you have your first kid and your band gets kind of successful, but not really, you realize you don't need your cannabinoid shortcut to surrealism anymore and it becomes even weirder to stop smoking pot.  I wouldn't know.  I don't mean to answer the question.  "I've got blisters on my fingers!" is the best moment of "Helter Skelter" in this aesthetic I am describing, which is that of a double album which the Beatles' "white" album is, btw.

I am back to the last song, a free-for-all barnburner, as much as a Wilco song can be, and Jeff Tweedy sings one about himself in the third person, the aforementioned "dreamer in my dreams":
There's a blister on his brain
that's driving him insane
'cause all good things gotta go
well there's a child on the way
it could be any day,
but how his life will change him, that we don't know.
The song ends with, I think, Jay Bennett saying "That's it" and then slamming a piano shut with lots of giggles.

I am going to get a beer and figure out how to listen to the first CD.



DISC TWO OF WILCO'S BEING THERE
While I just listened to disc two twice in a row and could probably listen to it again, I always found the first half more captivating, putting "Misunderstood" on half a dozen mixtapes, and "Hotel Arizona" on half a dozen more.  And the actual single and not its reprise is on it. And this time when I put it in my teenage bedroom's CD player it played, and I turned it up loud and wrote the next paragraph.

I just had a minor epiphany while listening to "Misunderstood," the album's first song about why this song is so captivating still, or, more interestingly, why it is more captivating than it ever was: Jeff Tweedy was me and my brother's age, just a couple years older than I am now, when he wrote the album, more specifically he was my age when he started writing songs for it and my brother's age (actually two months older) when it came out, and—while it is about all of those important rock and roll anti-authoritarian the world is not what it seems messages that one so easily falls in love with at the age of 16—it is more accurately about being on the verge of 30 and not knowing what exactly to do with all of these truths that were taught to us by a culture that gave more virtue to drug use and drinking than churchgoing and just about everything else that one is quote unquote supposed to do.  I just thought he was kidding when he sang in "Monday": "Well, I cut class, in school, yeah, but now I know I made a mistake, I made a big mistake," because it just sounds so hokey and Jeff Tweedy couldn't have made a mistake, he made some of the most important albums of my generation, or, I guess, his generation, or whatever.  I just finished a biography of David Foster Wallace and he cynically refers to a famous artist's occupation as "polishing the statue," which, if the statue is of a drug addict, or a genius, or a mentally unstable person, can be a harrowing, and literally unhealthy, image to maintain.  But if that's what the kids want it's what the kids want.

But "Monday" is a weak song, it's back to back with the single version of the single, which seem out of place on an album the rest of which sounds like a later Wilco album—abstract, cohesive, artistic, often really dissonant and borderline self-serving, but never quite.  For the first time during this experience I am going stop typing and actually just listen and think, a good idea, for a change...

"What's the world got in store for you now" is a rhetorical question on several levels.

I think Wilco played "Hotel Arizona" when I saw them in 2005 when they played with Jim O'Rourke, still in support of A Ghost is Born, I don't quite remember.  It would have tied a lot together for me if they did.  But then not really cause this epic number's post-crescendo conclusion is
I guess, all this history's just a mystery to me
One more worried whisper right in my ear.
*    *    *
(That would be a great way to end an album, or this essay, but it goes on with an on the road missing you love song, because the band was still a country-based pop band, accessible, on the brink of the avant-garde.  The work with Billy Bragg finishing unfinished Woody Guthrie songs solidified their place as rock and roll intellectuals, and Summerteeth went backwards a little bit with songs that were a little too bubblegum, and studio production that was too traditional and safe, though the songs were good.  The sonic surrealism reaches a new peak with Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and the band as it was, as it began with Being There [with Jay Bennett], ceased to be, which is right when I caught on and watched the documentary of that band falling apart and losing its label only to have a subsidiary of that label rebuy the album that its parent company already paid for, and my friend who has the same name as me got the movie poster from his work when the film left and gave it to me and it hung on my wall for the rest of my adolescence.)

Monday, November 12, 2012

Living to Live


I have Seth Cohen (The O.C.) to thank for introducing me to Chuck Klosterman. I spotted him reading Sex, Drugs and Cocoa Puffs during an episode of The O.C., and the title of the book intrigued me so much that I had to hunt it down.
Review by deargreenplace of Killing Yourself to Live
by Chuck Klosterman, on the revish.com

I have been on a trip for over ten days and have done little writing beyond that done on postcards, and I have been reading personal essays/autobiographical novellas with near exclusivity.  For example, I began Consider the Lobster by David Foster Wallace on the train stretch between Reno, Nevada and Salt Lake City, Utah, read 200 pages on flights from St. Louis to Chicago and from Chicago to Helsinki and from Helsinki to Berlin, and I have one essay remaining as I sit backward facing in a train en route—from Berlin—to Amsterdam, in a seat that may belong to a disgruntled Dutchman across the aisle.   My girlfriend/traveling companion is not sure of the meaning of an encounter that transpired while I was asleep involving the Dutchman's arrival, glance at his ticket and then my seat, and subsequent perpetual scowl.
*     *     *
I began this trip with a personalized variety of self-psychoanalysis by which I aimed to make it a journey of emotional healing and self-understanding, which, I suppose, with the rare intentionally self-destructive benders (Nicholas Cage in Leaving Las Vegas comes to mind), is how most people, if pressed, would describe a trip of their own making—I read William Styron's Darkness Visible, subtitled "A Memoir of Madness," from the origin of the California Zephyr in Emeryville on the San Francisco Bay east through Sacramento, finishing in Gold Country.  It was reassuring to have the symptoms of a long-developing depression—much due to the logistical anxieties of this trip—validated, and therefore to be cognizant of them through this validation, and to know what I experienced, was experiencing, and habitually experience is a minute shade of the debilitating effects of Styron's illness, and the depression afflicting so many others, and that whatever was pre-trip nerves was, so to speak, left behind.  Awareness with movement with anticipation with honest eloquent writing shuttled me like a train to a healthier place.  
*     *     *
A month before I left, my father and I caught up on what we respectively had read while he was on a road trip with my mom for over a month.  In the months before that trip I had shared with him two collections of pop culture essays by Chuck Klosterman that I had enjoyed, inspiring my father to raid amazon of another book of essays, two Klosterman novels—which didn't particularly interest me—and a road trip memoir that he insisted I read, to "let [him] know what [I] think," but that I should wait to read it on the train, in transit as he had done, for reasons that one may consider appropriate, dismiss as "cute," or may ascribe to the stoner synchronicity of playing Dark Side of the Moon while watching the Wizard of Oz muted, or throwing the radio in the bath when "White Rabbit" peaks, for examples.  He was also going to postpone lending me Consider the Lobster, in this case just to spend more time with it—he seemed particularly taken by DFW's ingenious explication of the famously impossible to understand Wittgenstein in a footnote to an essay about a new dictionary of English usage. I believe in synchronicity—as you can tell my father does as well—and I will constantly plan and interpret the media I consume in relation to its consumption, and the contexts that circle that consumption.   The process is constantly edifying and—at my most idealistic—the key to accidental insight, the sort of left-field logic or unexpected parallel that creates new and constructive ideas.  At my most cynical such "insight" is the deluded justification of a constant no-attention-span need to be doing at least two things at once, the consequence of too much self-indulgent art and too much cannabis sativa taken in—sometimes—at once.  Needless to say the project of this reading appealed to me greatly: CK drives around the country visiting memorials to rock and roll deaths as I take the train across these great states.  He mentions, as a detail that my dad thought I would enjoy, that he narrows down his CD collection to 600 essentials he would need for the drive.  I brought my walkman and emptied out my 16-cassette book of Oral Roberts reading The Old Testament and filled it with 16 essential tapes.   Surely this was to be a positive experience for everything involved, textual, human, and otherwise.  
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About a month has passed since I first began this essay on that train in my notebook, and I have yet to break my streak in autobiography consumption.  I have visited a friend in Spain and read Hemingway's great non-fiction tome on bullfighting, Death in the Afternoon, and re-connected with my father's side of the family in England, and borrowed from my youngest cousin and read Orwell's memoir of an over-educated jobless tramp, Down and Out in Paris and London.  I have just returned from visiting the middle cousin in London (though Orwell was still in Paris in the book) and am at my aunt's country house outside of Droitwich as I write this.  It is actually being shown to a prospective buyer presently and I am forced to conclude that I have not contributed to the property value as I type away in the dining room, and try to finish the story begun a month ago, lived a week before that.
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The first parallel between these three books—just to clarify Darkness Visible by William Styron, Consider the Lobster by David Foster Wallace, and the Klosterman book—is, well, I guess I should start with the presence of the narrator/author as character in the story, but also, stand-in for the reader.  We are to trust our author as we would our own selves in a given situation.  This is perhaps the difficulty in switching from the radically empathetic authors Styron and Wallace to the unflinchingly unfeeling narrative persona of Klosterman, which brings me to the parallel I initially intended to address at the start of this paragraph (a paragraph which saw the return of my aunt, the realtor, the prospective buyer and her son back into the room, a moment of eye contact with the 4-year old little English boy who proceeded to sprint out of the room): the treatment of the superficiality of Los Angeles.  David Foster Wallace begins the book (or the editor of the book opted to begin) with a 50-page, exhaustive account of—simultaneously—the Adult Video News Awards for achievement in pornography, the pornography industry, the media surrounding the pornography industry, and what it entails to be a member of the media covering the AVN awards.   The depth of Wallace's humanity is not explicit, but rather a visceral flip-side to the frank objectification and commodification of the greatest expression of love and intimacy humans have.   DFW treats his subjects fairly, quotes them accurately, backs up any detail with facts and context, with such rigor that what is initially just superficial (porn and its stars) becomes hideous in the extent to which the culture surrounding it has become autonomous with its own bureaucracy, media and logic.   Nowhere is judgment ever cast; nowhere does DFW take an implied position of superiority (I am composing this in the blogger platform which does not seem to have a means to footnote certain phrasings that need clarification, unfortunately, which I have let slide until the present moment when I feel the need to note that I do not have a copy of the essay in front of me [I left it in Berlin to collect at the end of my trip], I did not take notes on it as I read it, and I generally concede it is poor practice to use words like "nowhere" in serious literary discussion— I am thus admitting to and partaking in a particular brand of writing that values feelings and memories over the scholastic church of close reading and citation).

I read this essay in the hours before arriving in Salt Lake City in the middle of the night, anticipating a quick visit with two friends who agreed to stop at the train station, and the morning after, when it turned out the train was 3 hours late.  At a certain point I read Klosterman's discussion of why he did not want to go to LA in his trip (he is visiting the sites of famous deaths in the history of American rock and roll, or, as he puts it in perhaps the most cringe-inducing line I have read in a book, "going to get his death on"), although it has some notable rock and roll deaths, which I can't presently share because he did not end up going there and you can google them just as well as I can.  Instead he presents a scene out of an imaginary screenplay that typifies his feelings about the failings of Los Angeles, its culture, and its people (again, I do not have my father's copy in front of me [this time it is in St. Louis to be collected further along the return stage of the hero's journey] and I am more or less describing the memories of my feelings about the work in question.  Abysmal scholarship, I know).  
*     *     *
Klosterman and DFW essentially get to the same point: LA is superficial and the people who live there and buy into it suffer from a certain lack of humanity as a consequence; both pieces of writing (the bit of screenplay dialogue and the DFW essay, which is titled, by the way, in the book, "Big Red Son," and, in Premier magazine in 1998, "Neither Adult Nor Entertainment") have a slightly detached outsider view on the situation and present it as ridiculous.  The difference is Klosterman has invented this unbelievable and absurd situation as an exaggeration of stereotypes, whereas DFW is documenting an unbelievable and absurd situation that is a greater exaggeration of stereotypes than one can imagine who is not privy to the San Fernando world of pornography.  The waiter trying to get into the media world of LA is a flat invention of Klosterman, and we believe in the authenticity of Klosterman because he finds conversing with the stereotype trying, so trying that the scene ends as he "jams a steak knife into his own heart...twice...not unlike singer-songwriter Elliott Smith."

*     *     *
Despite depression’s eclectic reach, it has demonstrated with fair convincingness that artistic types (especially poets) are particularly vulnerable to the disorder—which in its graver, clinical manifestation takes upward of 20 percent of its victims by way of suicide. Just a few of these fallen artists, all modern, make up a sad but scintillant roll call: Hart Crane, Vincent Van Gogh, Virginia Woolf, Arshile Gorky, Cesare Pavese, Romain Gary, Sylvia Plath, Mark Rothko, John Berryman, Jack London, Ernest Hemingway, Diane Arbus, Tadeusz Borowski, Paul Celan, Anne Sexton, Sergei Esenin, Vladimir Mayakovsky—the list goes on. 
—William Styron, Darkness Visible

The sets of circumstances that make me feel the way I do about the conclusion of Klosterman's self-satisfied SoCal commentary are very particular to me, so I shouldn't suppose everybody should shudder as deeply as I did upon first reading it (which is different from the cringing at the tackiness of "going to get my death on" or the treatise that follows in the next chapter on why Radiohead's Kid A predicted September 11th).   I found myself on the train restraining myself from querying aloud if he really thought his character, sitting beside a pool sipping on a coke, having lost patience with the waiter was really equatable with the pain that Elliott Smith was confronting in the moments before he killed himself.  I was getting over-excited obviously.  This disjoint is the source of the humor of the passage, the same disjoint that runs through the entire book: Klosterman voyages to and stands on the graves of people who felt and expressed feeling in art and he proceeds to fail to feel and express feeling about it in the book; and that's what passes for clever; and if I complain about it I don't get it?   He generally doesn't take the thing very seriously.  He prefers to put his thought and feeling into diatribes, for example, comparing the great loves of his life to members of KISS.  The eye-rolling you may be able sense in my words is anticipated by Klosterman and he seems to prefer to relish in his superficiality and his chauvinism as opposed to rationalize it, or take a critical, self-aware approach to it, and he even references someone like myself, a member of the blog community, buying his book and taking the piss out of it, again a paraphrase: the book and I remain an ocean a part.

*     *     *
I heard the news that Elliott Smith died at recess, between 2nd and 3rd periods, toward the end of my last year of high school when my friend Amy asked if I had heard.  I said I had not and she informed me "he stabbed himself in the fucking chest."  It was an intense image, to say the least, to carry with you for the rest of the school day, but I happened also to have an intense affinity for the man.  Either/Or was one of my favorite albums; and I came of age to a mix tape that had "Miss Misery" as an emotional highlight—I brought this mix tape on the train, as it turned out. I first understood Existentialism, roughly, through his line "You can do what you want to whenever you want to / you know it doesn't mean a thing: big nothing."  

Celebrities die.  It is always sad, but not always unexpected.  It was amazing that Johnny Cash lived as long as he did.  I hadn't studied Derrida before he died, so I wasn't as deeply affected.  It was, of course, very sad when George died.  However, suicide is an unfathomable atrocity and the pain that leads to it and the pain it causes, while incomparable to each other, are each indescribable.  

When David Foster Wallace killed himself I was finishing my last semester of college.  I heard the news while listening to Fresh Air and heard his voice for the first time in a replayed interview.  I didn't really know who he was. I checked out Brief Interviews with Hideous Men and read it in my free time.  I graduated in December and the ceremony was cancelled due to a sudden snow storm which, in Portland, Oregon, has a tendency to halt things like graduation ceremonies.  What became known as "This is Water," DFW's commencement speech in 2005 at Kenyon College became my own de facto commencement speech, and he has since been a focal point of my post-academic life, and a source of a great melancholy in that every profound identification I make with his work and with the author behind it makes me feel the loss more.  

After high school I lived at my parents' house and saved money for an extensive trip: I was to drive my grandmother's car to Whidbey Island, Washington from Salinas, California, visiting my brother and a dozen friends along the way, leave it there for her, return to Oregon, somehow, fly to visit a friend in Massachusetts, fly to London to spend Christmas with my family, and then travel with my brother to Madrid and back.  On October 19, 2004 Elliott Smith's unfinished album about all of the deep dark places his soul was when he died was posthumously released, and I bought it that day while visiting my brother in Arcata and listened to it over and over.  I made a tape of the CD to play in the tape deck I had velcroed to the dashboard.  I made a great friend based in part on the shared enthusiasm we had for the album.  Interestingly, bear with me, Joanna Bolme helped finish the album after Smith's death, and she was on tour with Stephen Malkmus in 2005 when DFW spoke to Kenyon college, when I saw her in person (with my new friend and my brother) at the Fillmore and my brother shouted and got her attention.  And, on the off chance you find that interesting, it might interest you to know that the friend I was visiting in Massachusetts went to Hampshire College, Elliott Smith's alma mater.  By the way, I have never seen Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, I have just had the scene paraphrased for me about throwing the radio into the bathtub when "White Rabbit" peaks.

*     *     *
"Consider the Lobster," the essay from which the book gets its name, is, in essence, about tourism.  I am, in essence, a tourist.  While I am staying with friends and family, travelling at a leisurely pace, and trying to participate in real things, the label is not easy to escape, however much I would like to.  The essay describes a lobster festival in Maine, though, as is his wont, DFW comes from a compassionate perspective.  It becomes fairly disgusting to center a massive celebration around the act of boiling hundreds of creatures alive.  I am easier to persuade of the morals or this, as I am a vegetarian; but it is undeniable to deny the fact of it.  The biggest grain of truth comes, in true DFW fashion, in a footnote, really, in a metaphor at the end of a footnote.  What is said is that attending such phenomena, which the locals leave to the tourists to do, is like pouncing on something that is already dead, killing it further.  I am from Monterey, California, and around the time of my birth Monterey declared itself dead, put the bell jar on, and invited the world to witness what it was.  I can empathize with DFW's point, and the metaphor is that we flock as tourists to prey on the dead thing at the shore as a lobster bottomfeeds (the book is still in Berlin!) on the dead protein scattered on the beach, though of course on the water side of the beach.  

I believe everything I have endeavored to say has been said, apart from the conclusion about why I find Chuck Klosterman's work so offensive, which I still don't care to do because, like I said, it is so tautological, he describes it himself in his book, but, in his mind, transcends it by doing so.  The question for me is how do I tell my own story, taking a trip 8 years later, on the other side of my twenties, which has such similar contours, with not just Elliott Smith's unfinished, haunting swan song as its soundtrack, but the entirety of my past, and how do I continue to take this trip as both an empathetic human and a consuming tourist, and where do I end up at the end of it?  What has changed, if anything, in eight years, besides receiving a bachelor's degree, and what solace can I find in the credo that This Is Water, when it wasn't enough for David Foster Wallace?   And why should I have spent five hours typing up this essay on my vacation between lunch and teatime instead of, what, drinking cocoa and watching the rain come down?  There are, of course, many positive answers to this, deeply personal to me, but it is teatime and I have typed enough for a day of vacation.