Marlon James's Blog
April 19, 2009
Oh my god it was the hardest thing I’ve ever written in my life. I remember calling friends shouting, “I just wrote a love scene! All they do is kiss!” to which they would respond, “. . . and are they then dismembered?” and I’d go, “No, after that they dance!” It was hard. I resisted it for as long as I could because I didn’t believe in it at first, and even when I did, I couldn’t figure out how to write it. Not until Irish novelist Colum McCann gave me permission by giving me the best writing advice I’ve ever gotten from a writer: Risk Sentimentality.
There’s a belief that sex is the hardest thing for a literary novelist but I disagree: love is. We’re so scared of descending into mush that I think we end up with a just-as-bad opposite, love stories devoid of any emotional quality. But love can work in so many ways without having to resort to that word. Someone once scared me by saying that love isn’t saying “I love you” but calling to say “did you eat?” (And then proceeded to ask me this for the next 6 months). My point being that, in this novel at least, relationships come not through words, but gestures like the overseer wanting to cuddle. Or rubbing his belly and hollering about her cooking, or teaching her how to dance or ride a horse — things reserved for white women.
Read the rest here: http://maudnewton.com/blog/?p=9295.
March 31, 2009
Joss Whedon. I’m still trying to figure out how he does it. While misguided telesnobs who gushed at mopeshows like Felicity or watched The West Wing because it made them feel intelligent for watching it, snickered at a show named Buffy, I was witness to the finest tale spinner in America do his work. I initially resisted the show myself; half remembering the vapid movie it came from, but gave it a chance because, like everybody else who watched the WB, I loved watching pretty people go through all kinds of distress. I even stayed around as the show floundered a bit until it hit upon its breathless stride (that would be the third season, people).
There’s nothing I can say about Buffy The Vampire Slayer that Time Magazine hasn't said already, except that I’m sure that its mix of fun and fright, camp and tragedy, butt kicking fun and overwhelming sadness, probably affected each fan in its own individual way. Add to that an overall dread that was damn near existential for what many still dismissed as a filmed comic.
Buffy was about a super-powered blonde babe that killed vampires and kicked major ass. You could have watched it on those terms alone and still be watching one of the smartest shows on TV. But Whedon wouldn’t be Whedon had he not defied his own stereotype. He never uses bloodsuckers or life drainers to show that, The Matrix would have like, so rocked if it had like vampires and stuff (Blade, Underworld), nor does he use them because he really wants to write about man-man love (Lestat), nor does he wants teenage girls to slip a chastity belt under that skirt from TJ Maxx (Twilight). Whedon uses the fantastical almost as a trick, a ruse to get to the emotional core of the lonely American teenager, whose life is neither Theo Huxtable good nor Holden Caulfield bad, but better and worse at once. More often then not, they are force-fed maturity, not from parents that either over or under raise them but from life forces that our seemingly invincible parents cannot control, whether it’s the Goddess Glorificus or something more shocking, like a sudden same sex crush. Buffy’s boldness came from suggesting that they were one and the same thing or at least troubling allegories standing in place for each other. And unlike My So Called life, but like many teenagers in the real world, Buffy didn’t have time to make an epic tragedy out of her whining and moping because whether it was her choice or not, she had shit to do.
Because of it fantastical premise, Buffy had no choice but to get to gut truths. When her mother died, not through Vampire bite or demon life force drainage, but a massive brain hemorrhage the shock came from the thoroughly plausible. The show yanked itself into reality before the audience did, showing us that we were the ones in a fantasyland, thinking death worked on our terms. It was a hard lesson for Buffy but it felt like a harder lesson for us, a reminder that death was an indiscriminate monster that struck anybody at will and any time. It took those you love at random and there was not a single thing you could do about it. Here was a TV show that locked in an hour what we’d prefer to never do in life. Witness the shock and dismay over Natasha Richardson’s sudden death.
But I mention death because, weirdly enough it’s not the monsters and demons or gamma rays, or his characters’ tendency to slip into song that makes Whedon great but death, or rather grief. Even his lightest moments seem to hint at shades of grey on the horizon. I’m talking about Dr. Horrible’s Sing Along Blog the most fun I’ve had in years on a TV show not named Burn Notice. If you still watch an actual TV set, you’ve probably missed it, so you’re missing the several things that Whedon does very well.
Dr. Horrible, like The Brain (in Pinky and the Brain) is a monomaniac mad scientist hell bent on taking over the world. But wait! He’s not mad around the edges, just a horribly lonely fan boy wishing somebody would love him back for once, that girl at the Laundromat in particular. Horrible is an archetype to be sure, and not an original one, but Whedon has a way with the sociopathic loser, a way with engendering them with so much pathos, that you almost root for them even if they are, well despicable. He’s had practice: perhaps Buffy’s greatest creation was eurotrash vampire Spike, a villain in the first few seasons, a hero in the last few, a brutal bloodsucker who feared he had a heart long before cosmic forces gave him one. But I digress. Once you get past Dr. Horrible’s near constant sing-alongs, all as inexplicable as they are irresistible, (And why should you get past them anyway? It boggles the mind that Broadway hasn’t snapped him up yet), just as you are about to dismiss them as another deployment of kitsch, the show slays with heart. Just as you're about to be overwhelmed by sentiment the scene punctures itself with ribald humour or more often overwhelming tragedy. He may be the best Dickensian that we’ve got.
Dr. Horrible’s Sing Along Blog is clearly ridiculous, if for no other reason than the real world is right there sharing the same screen space. People are getting on with their lives and Dr. Horrible and Captain Hammer may be inhabiting a world purely of their own deluded making. It’s also clearly buoyed by the web’s lack of restrictions. Even the buff (in his mind) Captain Hammer, knows his name is a penis joke; except it’s about his penis and he’s sure he has the last laugh. Dr. Horrible turns out to be one that truly loves the damsel in laundry distress, while Captain Horrible is the horrible poon hound. But wait! Captain Hammer is just a dick. Dr. Horrible is a genuine sociopath. Credit Whedon for not making even simple characters simplistic. Whedon knew what he was doing casting the impossible not to love, Neil Patrick Harris in the title role. He can sing too.
Dr. Horrible VS. Captain Hammer. It’s a showdown of minor proportions, fated from the get-go. Whedon laces the torment with the best show tunes not in Spring Awakening. But Whedon cut his teeth writing about young American erotic torment— with apropos soundtrack, so this is almost hackwork for the likes of him. Then the damsel dies. From Dr. Horrible’s stun-now-set-to-kill ray gun. Fired not by him of course but by Captain Hammer trying to kill the Horrible one. Either way the damage is done and we’re led to another Whedon specialty: taking the basically innocent person down his or her own heart of darkness. You’re horrified and choked up at the same time, especially when you realize as I do often, that Whedon is really the only writer that can do this. How does he bring such affecting tenderness out of sometimes despicable people? How exactly does he counter balance comedy and sadness and why does he trust us to go along with both at the same time in the same show? And why can’t Judd Apatow or whoever writes Supernatural get better at this?
Granted I am a fanboy and a nerd. So much of a nerd that I can still tell you what happened in issue 339 of Thor (Beta-Ray Bill, bitches!). If Freaks and Geeks turned you off or you’re not wetting yourself over the Star Trek trailer, then this may not be the TV show for you. Even if you are ready for the best show tunes that you don’t have to be gay to love, you might still watch it the way everybody in New York listened to Scissor Sister’s debut: in secret, on headphones. Or you may shut it out altogether. Your loss. The most wondrous show on television is happening and your life is so much the poorer if it’s happening without you. I still wish I wrote books the way Whedon writes TV. If for nothing else, then for this: Everything you hate about yourself before you see an episode of any Whedon show (thought the jury’s still out on The Dollhouse) turns into everything you love about yourself after.
March 7, 2009
It’s an old argument but not a tired one. What should a black reader do if he finds out that one of his favourite authors was racist? I made that question specific, because it’s too easy to weaken the idea by broadening it with something like, “what if an author/poet/artist/ musician turned out to have done something or believe in something that was anti you? What if he hated Jews? Indians? What if he used to hit women? Do we forget the artist and look at the art? After all, isn’t the reverse just another way that we read writers and not books? These questions are all valid, but who feels it knows it and it’s easy to dismiss a writer’s bigotry (alleged or no) when you’re not the one being bigoted against. It’s easy to look past a homophobic genius like Dylan Thomas if you’re not a homosexual.
It was easy to erase any trace of Jack London from my house after I heard his remarks about Jack Johnson. I had my doubts about Faulkner until I came upon him addressing those very doubts, in Ebony Magazine no less. O’Connor would be hard to ditch, but the world of literature is just too vast, too top heavy with brilliance for me not to find another heroine, and Nadine Gordimer is better any way. But as I said before, who feels it knows it. I wonder if I’m a hypocrite. Sure my shelves are free of Jack London because he might have hated blacks, but I have 7 novels from Knut Hamsun, a Norwegian writer so in love with the Nazi Party that he gave Joseph Goebbels his own Nobel medal. By ditching O’Connor and keeping Hamsun I become a hypocrite. Or at the very least I render near everything in the previous two paragraphs moot.
How do I justify Hamsun? Is prejudice only prejudice when it affects people like me? What do I tell my Jewish friends when/if they find Hamsun in my house? Turns out that it’s not so easy hating haters after all, especially when another NY Times review of Brad Gooch’s biography leads right into a review of my book, a factor that may have contributed to heightened interest in my own work. I wish this were easier. And I wish people would stop bandying about the love the art, hate the artist mantra and if such a thing weren’t intellectually dishonest. Sure we can appreciate the work of the despicable as long as their despicable acts do not affect us. My being expected to tolerate or even like Flannery O’Connor, or any other racist on the grounds of aesthetic excellence may be admirable in theory but it’s as ludicrous in practice as a Jewish person writing about the structural brilliance of Albert Speer. The problem with this of course is that if you start exhuming the dead and brilliant for their grievous character flaws, you’re going to find yourself neck deep in a lot of bones. Should I stop wearing Allure Homme because Coco Chanel was a Nazi Collaborator? It’s not long before you become appointed judge and jury of all, even if the court is in your own mind. We also end up cheating art. Once an artist, or writer or even dancer creates something it’s not really theirs anymore. I don’t have to stop reading O’Connor, because Wiseblood is no longer her book, nor can she control who reads and how he chooses to read it. Bruce Springsteen can’t control right wing nuts who fist-pump to Born in the USA anymore than Jack London could stop me from casting a black child in white fang. Art is ours even when we do not want it and it that sense it almost doesn’t matter who made it.
A black woman loving Wiseblood in spite of Flannery O’Connor is a better person than O’Connor ever was. In some ways the art lover is more crucial than the artist. The lover of art or literature by embracing art embraces the very best of that person, something that more often than not, the artist doesn’t deserve. It’s doesn’t mean that we should rewrite Leni Riefenstahl as Isak Denisen, but it does mean giving her books on Africa the acclaim they deserve. Besides, a world without A Good Man is Hard To Find is one I’d rather not live in.
February 27, 2009
I don’t always agree with Michiko Kakutani, but I think she nails exactly what goes wrong when writers tackle the unthinkable, in today’s review of Jonathan Littel’s The Kindly Ones, the Nazi novel that was a sensation in France, given its first person narrative of an unrepentant Officer:
Indeed, the nearly 1,000-page-long novel reads as if the memoirs of the Auschwitz commandant Rudolf Höss had been rewritten by a bad imitator of Genet and de Sade, or by the warped narrator of Bret Easton Ellis’s “American Psycho,” after repeated viewings of “The Night Porter” and “The Damned.”
Whereas the philosopher Theodor Adorno warned, not long after the war, of the dangers of making art out of the Holocaust (“through aesthetic principles or stylization,” he contended, “the unimaginable ordeal” is “transfigured and stripped of some of its horror and with this, injustice is already done to the victims”), whereas George Steiner once wrote of Auschwitz that “in the presence of certain realities art is trivial or impertinent,” we have now reached the point where a 900-plus page portrait of a psychopathic Nazi, dwelling in histrionic detail on the barbarities of the camps, should be acclaimed by Le Monde as “a staggering triumph.”
The biggest problem faced by the writer of atrocity is his own talent, that his highest aesthetic value becomes his lowest weakness. By transforming atrocity into art, atrocity is no longer atrocious. There are two ways this can happen: by not dwelling enough on the horror, or dwelling way too much. The former allows the reader either through the beauty (or vagueness) of the prose to sidestep any punishment for being a voyeur. The latter runs the risk of turning into pornography, atrocity smut that numbs instead of outrages.
Of course having just published a novel about an atrocity, I worry about mixing art and horror myself; not just how successful I was but was exactly does that success mean. Does even calling a novel about the holocaust a success result in a kind of glibness? Art taking the place of fact, so much so that people run the risk of looking at the holocaust through Stephen Spielberg’s incredibly artful lenses, and not the actual event? Life is Beautiful has aged horribly because of this very thing, Roberto Benigni turning a concentration camp into a world of wonder, despite having a slight justification for it (in the story, at least).
What happens when a beautiful technique captures horror? VS Naipaul, in his perceptive and damning Middle Passage, once said that a Jamaican slum was a place of such unremitting ugliness that one could never take a photograph of it because the beauty of the photographic process lies to you about how ugly everything is. I saw this in my former job as a location scout: foreign photographers jumping at the chance to shoot in the ghetto, not because they wanted to capture poverty, but because rusted zinc gave such a wonderful brick red colour.
I’m in a reading group about violence and one of the crucial issues we have to tackle is the very existence of such a group. If this study has no plan for concrete action, some form of sacrificial giving to a cause that betters us all, aren’t we just making our own torture porn? We run the risk of reducing violence to a mere aesthetic or intellectual experience, that way a Photograph’s beauty can rob a tragedy of its horror. The only artist I know who may have fully figured this out, balancing beauty and tragedy in a way the highlights the tragedy of the subject, while saving beauty for the dignity of the victim was the gifted photographer Dan Eldon. Of course he paid for his commitment to truth in art with his life.
February 24, 2009
I’m thinking about getting into some trouble tonight. The fate of all authors might hang in the balance. I’m reading “Revenge of the Nerds” a funny and bittersweet article in the March/April Issue of Poets and Writers; about how today’s (meaning my) generation of writers can be such wusses sometimes. How we lack the sturm und drang of the mighty men and women of the past; writers that doth bestride the world like colossuses or Colossi, if we want to get technical. Or at least get trashed and laid an awful lot. Writers seemed even more fascinating since they were rarely as Dorian grey hot as rock stars but were even more drunken and disorderly.
But Amy Shearn, who wrote the article, has a point. I think. Most of the writers interviewed said that they were simply too busy writing to get on with any debauchery. Others said that unlike their forebears, they couldn’t depend on writing alone for a living so had to teach in places where scandals weren’t looked upon with “you remember when” nostalgia (No this doesn’t mean you, Bennington). Are we just wimpier? When Norman Mailer traded barbs with Gore Vidal, you knew that sooner or later somebody was going to punch somebody. Compare that to our own recent feuds, like Dale Peck Vs Rick Moody, which came across like two nerds trying to pull out their battered copy of Hitchhiker’s Guide to slap each other with it.
Maybe Byron wasn’t so Byroneqsue, but you’ve got to wonder if on seeing what my generation of writers looked like, that he wouldn’t have become a rock star or wrestler instead. When did we get so nerdy? I have an excuse I think, me being a nerd of some sort since childhood, but so was James Joyce, whose glasses were far thicker than mine. Is it just that we are dweebs or that we write dweeby books as well? I'd be the first to say that we’re pretty awful navel gazers, with the added problem of not having a life to gaze at. I’d like to agree that we may be too busy writing, but here I am writing this blog so clearly I have some spare time. But I’m saddened when Charles Baxter says “writer are no longer gods; everybody knows that.”
Sometimes I think I was born two generations too late. Granted had I been born then I would not have been a writer. I’m also not convinced that the lionizing of writers is such a good thing since it created the culture where we know the writer but not the book, sort of like George Clooney being famous, but nobody being able to name five of his works. I wonder if other writers do what I do: look at how the literary badasses of the media age sacrificed their own work in the bargain. I wonder if they take that as a lesson. But there are times that I wonder if I should go have some illicit sex, say something outrageous or just reach for something a little more banal, like a raging coke habit. Or maybe I should get a wife just to shoot or stab her. Or drink myself to death. I try to say that all this would mean I write less, but I write lees than I want to now, and these reprobates of literary past also got an enormous amount of great work done.
Granted the media eventually chewed up Mailer and spat him out, no matter how much he refused to be a tasty dish. And I’m not sure writers ever wanted to be celebrities, certainly not Updike or Roth. As for the badasses of yore, I’m not sure they were being bad for the camera or the newspaper column, even back in their heyday. But something about me misses that era as if I lived through it. Maybe it’s because that when the writers seemed bigger than life the books seemed bigger than life as well.
February 13, 2009
Of course I have no problem with writing about sex (my apologies if you thought this was a PG13 blog). The more whams, bam and slams in fiction the better quite frankly. I don’t see why G. Carbrera Infante and Roberto Bolano should have all the fun; after all they are both quite dead. So no, I have no problem whatsoever with sex in fiction. But I do have a problem with erotica.
Erotica’s purpose cannot help but be dubious: for one, it sets out to spark desire on a mass level; something as fraught with disaster as trying the same seduction on two different people. The idea of one kind of story, or one kind of set up or even one or two kinds of sex that would turn on millions is not only ludicrous, but also kind of creepy. But I’m not one to turn down honest paying work, and besides, this is what pseudonyms are for. And some of that stuff is actually good, well the gay stuff anyway. The straight stuff that I “researched” came across as oddly unsexual, even anti-sex, and they all had a sort of artistic line that was disturbingly similar. It took my awhile to figure out what was wrong with erotic fiction.
None of these writers are having sex.
It’s a curious phenomenon, the virginal ho. The literary smut hound that somehow never comes across as ever having sex. Not satisfied with my suspicion I dug deeper and came upon a site that shall remain nameless. I’ve spent some time in a newsroom so I knew what to do: checked the bio before I read the story. Here was one:
…Bald, old guy writes erotic tales when he's not building his model railway.
I don’t know about you, but that got me hot. A typical paragraph went like this:
"Damn you John, you're being cruel."
"And you're loving it." His hand went to his cock again; he wouldn't have to wait much longer surely.
He bent and kissed her pretty ass, nipped the soft flesh and thought how much he loved this sweet creature.
"Oh no!" she whispered and he heard the trickling sound.
What preceded was a rather disturbing sadomasochistic fantasy, but disturbing only in the sense that it read like the work of someone who had not had sex before. And probably should not since he may cause grievous damage to another human. In another story by a different but male author, the male character, with one hand in the Bangkok whore’s (is there any other?) cunt (his word not mine) and the other in her anus, she still manages to have a pretty lucid discussion about countries of origin, national identity and nostalgia. Worse was the in-between sex narration, where the writer got into quasi-metaphysical mumbo jumbo just to prove to the reader that he’s read wikipedia and was not some hairy palm redneck typing with his free hand.
The thing about erotica for the most part is that for all the action, it betrays very little understanding of female and male bodies. The man’s penis is always hard and dripping pre-cum, the woman’s vagina is always throbbing and dripping whatever, and it’s never a vagina, but a cunt or twat. One becomes nostalgic for a simple pussy. I wonder how these women think, what with their twats throbbing at the mere sight of a male bicep. So we have dicks dripping, twats throbbing, breasts heaving, clitorises undulating (!), lips licking, tongues flicking, cocks straining in their pants. The cock is always super long so that it needs two tongues to lick it and the vagina manages to be super tight yet super deep at the same time. And if the evocative passages are horrible, the evaluative ones, where the writer gets into the character’s mind are much worse. Step into the remains of an exploded orgasm and you slip on lines like these:
“It's all fake, of course. All this. A construction. A replica of love. Play-acting on an exotic stage. A Hollywood movie. And like all movies, we pay our fare, and for a short while we allow ourselves to be subsumed by another reality. In the warm comforting cinematic darkness, we become part of a world more vivid than the one we live in.”
And here I was cussing creative writing students because they’re far too in love with Raymond Carver. For a genre of such transgression, erotica can be frustratingly conservative, or at least lock step. There’s no new territory being opened or any clever retelling of the old. Maybe cleverness is asking too much, but whom, after reading these stories goes on to actual sex? With another person? Consensual? Not only are these writer not fucking, worse, they’re not reading. Susanna Moore’s In The Cut, Nic Kelman’s Girls, Adam Thirwell’s Politics, Allan Hollinghurst’s The Swimming Pool Library and Andre Aciman’s Call Me By Your Name all manage scenes both hot and brilliant, scenes that could teach these writers what happens when one body touches another. But the tragic flaw of this fiction is what grips all mediocre fiction; a lack of reading, a basic unintelligence about literature that perhaps they felt they had no need for since their thrills were below the belt.
Except that it isn’t. Erotica isn’t actual sex, so it has to seduce the brain first. Instead I kept coming across writing like the kind I sometimes see in workshops, by writers trying to shock or titillate but with no experience of either. Other times it’s the taking on of a transgression that they have neither the intelligence nor daring to handle. This leads more often than not to fiction that’s accidentally disturbing, or at least bothersome enough to make you wonder just where did that last missing child end up.
February 1, 2009
January 30, 2009
I know that your reading this means I’m preaching to the converted, but I was so taken aback by the pointless webism of the people I spoke to that I thought I had to write about it. Webism, a clumsily created term to be sure, but it’s mine for misguided luddites who think they score points for authenticity or old-fashionedness by being luddites, but are actually elitists, reacting to a movement that moves laterally rather than through some top-down hierarchy. They’ve become the very kind of smug people that reach for a value of a past generation that never had such a value in the first place, people simply unaware that their elders grabbed for the innovations of their own time, knowing instantly what we do not; that these things are supposed to make our lives better.
But elitists are just ignoramuses with pedigree, a slightly exalted version of the people Chris Rock talked about whose greatest pleasure is to not know. I’m not amazed that in 2009 some people don’t have a cell phone, but I’m stunned that they think it’s a good thing. It only takes one child in an emergency and them unable to reach you for you to regret the error of such a position. And another thing, stop begging calls.
My friend will of course kick my ass for the previous paragraph but at least he has a website, so he knows what time it is. But even those among us who’ve given in to dreaded e-communication, blanch at Facebook, Myspace, and blogs for all sorts of reasons, none of them sensible. My good friend, an African poet recently snared at the very thought of a facebook page, and even now when I whip out a phone to update my status I get labeled everything from an attention seeking hound to a loser with no real friends. So while my friend was happy to boast of having no “space” page, I politely pointed out that the new wave of African literature was happening without him. Only last year, Binjavana Wainana mentioned that it was the Internet that allowed African writers to build community. Many of these writers, some still in repressive regimes have seen the means of communications co-opted by their governments. But the Internet has been one of the few things those governments could not fully control. So Wainana in Kenya can become friends with Chimamanda Adichie in Nigeria, and a new network, a support system arises that can speak truth to power or at the very least let the world know.
What would we have thought of the last flare-ups in Lebanon, had young Lebanese kids not grabbed their digital cameras, and uploaded to their blogs or cut and pasted to Youtube? Would you have known the real story and would you have been left warm and cuddly all over, the way we were after Desert Storm? Because if you’re not one for blogs and websites then you’re a sucker for spin. And while we’re on spin what about the stories that the traditional media refuse carry? If you’re a webist, you probably didn’t hear about Alberto Gonzales until the mass media started covering him. Congratulations, those of us in the blogosphere knew about this a year before you did. For almost two years Albert Gonzales was getting away with astounding corruption and only one source, Joshua Marshall’s blog, Talking Points Memo, was reporting it. In fact, the story would have died, and Gonzales still in office had TPM not stuck with the story, at risk to itself, until the mainstream media finally woke up. And if you think that was just a one off, you’re again, missing the point. One of the nastier stories of the Iraq War has been the military’s allegedly occasional practice of demanding that wounded and maimed veterans return their signing bonuses because they did not complete active service. Again, a story that would have caused national outrage had a single major newspaper been interested in it.
This anti-internet luddism came as a particular shock to me because I was at a low residency degree program, something that would have been unthinkable pre-internet. Without it I would still be degree-less and miserable in Jamaica, writing ads telling people how good we are at making them better. I wished I had a community of writers back when I started writing, somebody to tell me I wasn’t crazy for trying to do this.
I know them’s fighting words. But anti-internet snobbery is a blank and ignorant dismissal of something that has clearly empowered others. It makes me recall Kiran Desai’s brilliant takedown of Naipaul in The Inheritance of Loss, when a character said (I’m paraphrasing) that Naipaul was so up his own colonial ass that he may the only person to not realize that the most popular dish in the UK was Chicken Tikka Masala. Again ignorance with pedigree, a refusal to believe that anything good can come out of anything new. A refusal to see that his people have moved beyond his own tired stereotype of them. The truth is that people like Naipaul know, but may never admit, that the world has simply moved on without them. I can bet he’s never even heard of M.I.A.
January 11, 2009
1. Erykah Badu: New Amerykah: Part One (4th World War)
That’s the problem with a promise, even an American one: change the tone and it turns into a warning. Enter (or rather re-enter) Erykah Badu, with the bastard that finally sprung from Funkadelic’s three times knocked up earth. This is New Amerykah: Mama’s hopped up on cocaine, daddy’s on spaceships with no brain, meaning that his ass may be in flight, but negro never emancipated himself from mental slavery. Badu’s new agenda feels like an old one, from praising a male ideal that men can’t or wont match, to breaking down ghetto politics of the present, which only sounds like the past because we still haven’t learned the lesson. Even the mistakes are fascinating: Master Teacher’s two halves never connect, but there’s more going on here than in Neo-Soul’s entire catalog. My People never builds on its initial chant but hypnotizes nonetheless, and Honey is exactly the kind of faux retro that screams bonus track. Far better is Telephone, neo soul to be sure, but at 8 minutes it has the slow burn of a hard fought, well earned climax (and the best use of sirens since Public Enemy). New Amerykah is a call to arms for those who distrust arms callers. The Healer is the hip-hop remedy the music doesn’t deserve, much like Common’s I Used to Love H.E.R. but without that track’s tedious art as Madonna-whore sexism. The Cell is so funky it nearly collapses under its own weight, dissolving into an accapella chorus of post-gospel urban blues. And then there’s Twinkie. A shootout gets cut up in beat so old school it’s retrofuturist while bass and blips duel and duet at once. Badu, disembodied takes us into an urban nightmare that maybe only Obama can rectify. All together now: Started with a rhyme from old ancient times/ Descendents of warlocks/ Witches with ill glitches/ Children of the matrix be hittin' them car switches/ Seen some Virgin Virgos hanging out with Venus Bitches.
2. Deerhunter: Microcastle/ Weird Era Continued
It happened like this in 2008: At a Wolf Parade concert I fell allergic to all things indie. This is why it took me months to listen to Deerhunter, probably the biggest mistake I’ve made all year. Only a truly great band could release their most coherent and mature album yet, then top it with a bonus disc. Microcastle, the first half, can sometimes sound like alternative 101, name checking all the requisite influences; Pixies, Jesus and Mary Chain, lots and lots of My Bloody Valentine. But Weird Era is something else: a consummate gorging on those same influences to spit out something at once beautiful, monstrous and new—a threat to the very music that helped spawn it. Dare I call it a pop album? But pop in the gloriously wasted way of REM’s Out Of Time; pop of a band trying on ideas for size and seemingly unaware that the toss-offs are the gems. Credit Deerhunter for not being afraid of big sound and for not confusing epic with grandiose (See: Chinese Democracy). Microcastle is the first fully realized indie double album since Husker Du’s Zen Arcade.
3. Earth: The Bees Made Honey In The Lion’s Skull
Only 5 seconds into Earth’s latest and I already knew the planet was doomed. It’s the boom of course; equal parts drum kick, bass bludgeon and pure malevolence. A real boom that sounded like the echo of one, like Armageddon had already happened and we’re rocking out to the fallout. Makes sense then that Bees starts at a crawl and stays there. Odds things happen when one of the heaviest ever bands goes slow. For one all that droning turns into a hypnotic kind of beauty, still doom metal’s best-kept secret. Jazz guitarist Bill Frisell knows. A surprise guest on several tracks, he functions the way Nico did on the Velvet’s first: as finder of light in the midst of all that gloom. But this is post metal, post doom, post stoner, just heavy. I can’t remember the last time I’ve not missed vocals on a rock record.
4. Portishead: Third
Don’t call it a comeback. After we had consigned Dummy to epitaph status, who’d have guessed that 1. Portishead would return and 2. In a shape that we would have scratched our heads to recognize were it not that Beth Gibbons was as magnificently melancholic as ever? Third wasn’t so much a left turn as a back-the-hell-up-and-dash-down-a–new-road altogether. So instead of Wu-Tang beats and urban gothic, we got a psychedelic rock n’ roll death trip, as if all the bad will lurking in Dummy’s Glory Box suddenly came on full tilt. It says much that all the right people hated it. You know who you are, you cocktail party having, Buddha bar foreplaying, wedding reception planning, hairdo cutting, ‘I listen to all kinds of music’ loser. I saw you, turning down Machine Gun and wondering what the hell is this all about? If it makes you feel any better, Morcheeba haven’t changed a bit.
5. Q-Tip: The Renaissance
Does music make the times, or times make the music? Different question: Did Q-tip know something we didn’t? Released on Election Day, would The Renaissance have packed the same delirious punch had the other guy won? Instead we had the hopeful counterpoint to Badu’s dread with a 40 plus veteran not looking a day over 25 showing idiots half his age how it’s done. There hasn’t been a hip-hop record this inviting since, well, Tribe Called Quest’s Midnight Marauders. This is adult boom-bap, big people music. So Manwomanboogie samples Can and comes up with a better song, You revisits a fractured relationship with a maturity and wisdom that the music can sometimes seem incapable of. He even made Norah Jones cool, slipping her into the role rappers usually reserved for Badu. That’s only fitting: Badu was busy burning down the old so that Q-tip could ring in the new.
6. Aterciopelados: Rio
There isn’t much that this Argentinean band can’t do, but eclectism is an old trick, a lazy way to make one seem multidimensional without being actually talented. So credit this band then, for mastering everything including making motherhood seem like the sexiest state of existence. Andrea Echeverri’s husband must be the luckiest man in Latin rock.
7. Dungen 4
A dense, ambitious, crazy psych-rock masterpiece that reveals more than anything, that lead singer Gustav Estes probably still thinks he’s making rap music.
What does it say for the state of pop music that the year’s finest pop album came out four years ago? Listen to Anytime You Like where an already broken Robyn helps her own boyfriend break her heart twice.
9. Hercules and Love Affair: Blind
Arthur Russell’s ghost hasn’t been this happy in years. An honest to goodness DISCO record, unabashedly gay in every sense of the term. Blind is fighting it out with Machine Gun and Single Ladies for single of the year.
10. Grace Jones Hurricane
Not a comeback so much as a reminder, Jones may be the youngest, craziest 60 year old on the planet. Judging by her recent buck nekkid layout for Dazed and Confused, she’s lost none of her ability to shock. But the real shock here is heart, especially for someone usually praised and damned for being robotic.
January 1, 2009
It’s barely 12 hours old, but I love 2009 already. That might be because I have a new book coming out in a month and a half. It not that I’ve piled on this year with expectation or that I expect some fulfillment of promise. It’s not even that I made a resolution. It’s just that after so much building, and changing and growing in 2008, I can enter this year saying whatever happens— lottery or car crash, it’s all good. Maybe I am Zen. I don’t pray much anymore. Okay I don’t pray at all, nor am I sure that I still believe in the or a God, but I do believe there is a fundamental rhythm to the universe. Rhythm that is, not order; the universe has to allow for out of sync shit, wonderful or horrendous to happen, with the only reassurance being that it absorbs both with equal nonchalance.
Several years ago I used to spend my New Year’s Eves in church. It’s not that I believed so much that I was desperate for something to believe in. Now I’d like to think that I’ve outgrown belief. That I’m perfectly fine with reason and do not need faith. Who needs the evidence of things unseen when what is plainly visible is enough to make you gasp in wonder sometimes? What will happen will happen, but we also make our own fates and play the key role in our redemption or destruction. I’d just rather have mine right now instead of in some afterlife. Something about the Christian definition of eternal life— the idea of eternity being nothing more than unending reward and punishment for how you spent your first 70 years—always seemed stupid or at the least not very eternal at all. I like the idea of eternity meaning not living forever but living beyond whatever forever means. Maybe I’m just realizing that I was born quite fine the first time, thank you very much.
In 2008 I killed myself six times. It just hit me one day, that there were so many versions of me around the place, a new one to suit the different kind of friends that I’ve always surrounded myself with. I used to think that this was to ensure that I’m always around different kinds of people, but see now that it was merely to make sure that I never got close to any of them, or rather that any of them got close to me. There is a version of me that still likes Graphic design, another that used to counsel Christian kids, and one that expected to get married one day. Then there’s another version that wrote things like these, fearing somebody would read them, but hoping just one person would. And hopefully that person would realize that I do not have my shit together and would just help me without me having to ask. I gave that version a titanic kick in the ass, but took a lot from him. The version I’m sticking with is everything in the last sentence, but is also the person who read Sula, and cried when the dying Sula, is response to Nel’s asking what did she have to show for herself, said, “Show? To who?”
It’s the last year of the first decade of the second millennium. I’m still waiting for the 21st century to start. For me that would begin with our ditching ridiculous attitudes from the 20th — hell, 18th century. I’m thinking about this because my good friends Chad and Jude have been married for four years and now have the most beautiful baby I’ve ever seen and the friends of mine who have a problem with this sentence are exactly the friends that I probably wont be friends with anymore. I’m sorry if that means you, but it’s not that I’ve changed but that I realized that my eyes are in front of me and the only thing behind me is my ass, so I don’t even know anymore how to look backward, or carry on a backward attitude. Turns out George Clinton was right: free your mind first and your ass will follow. I think I’m going to put on Funkadelic's Maggot Brain right now, or maybe John Lennon’s Plastic Ono Band; a new year’s kiss-off if there ever was one.
I leave you with this, a slightly changed Nirvana line: Forget your enemies, save your friends, find your place, speak the truth. And Oh yeah, buy my book.