Sunday, June 20, 2010


If you're the kind of person for whom pop music isn't just background noise or an occasional hobby but an all-consuming passion, Phonogram: Rue Britannia is sure to set your discophilia reeling with pleasure. If you have a particular love of post-'77 British pop, then the book's effortless magpie of visual and verbal references to bands like Oasis, Blur and Pulp should set off long-buried synapses of sonic memory like a needle hitting vinyl. And if you (like me) are the kind of person who might comb its witty and informative post-story "Glossary" to see what the authors say about favorite bands (and to quietly assemble lists of future I-tunes purchases in your head), then forget it, you're finished, dead, you're gone-- Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie's gorgeous graphic novel is a must. Put down that Primal Scream seven-inch and get to your local comic shop immediately.

Originally published by Image as a six-issue, black-and-white miniseries in 2006 (with a follow-up miniseries"sequel"--actually individual stories set in the same magical universe--released last year), Phonogram opens with quick glances at a set of signifiers-- reflecting dark-rimmed glasses, just-so haircut, leather jacket, and the all-important lighter-'n'-cigarettes--whose fetish qualities are enhanced by their capture in individual, unconnected frames. This is our lovable anti-hero David Kohl (in his own self-description, "Toxic and male. Utterly noxious. Totally perfect") getting ready for the evening, and these early panels immediately keys into the ways pop music can both deconstruct our identities as commodified consumers (we are what we wear), and rarify those same impulses (we are, simultaneously & gloriously, both stand-out individual and blissed-out member of a community).

More than most pop fans, though, David's literal being is determined by his taste-- he is a "phonomancer," able to analyze the qualities of singles and albums in order to unleash their actual, otherworldly magical qualities. In this netherworld running parallel to "our" 2006 London, phonomancers are "made" through certain aspects (i.e., genres or periods) of popular music, and David's is Britpop. Only something is happening to the Goddess Britannia, and it's starting to mess with David's memories. He flips on the stereo, starts singing along to Echobelly's "Great Things," and freezes-- when the hell did he ever love Echobelly? He starts to remember events in subtly different ways, and is haunted by his increasing inability (as Roland Barthes might put it) to make his tastes and his ideas match. This is deadly for a phonomancer, and David is further spooked by a confrontation with The Goddess (presumably of all music, although its left wonderfully ambiguous just how far her powers spread) at a nightclub, where he's put under her hex. Over the final five issues, David must determine what's happening to his aspect, before the musical fates disappear his essence forever.

That's the basic outline of the series' narrative, and it's a wonderful riff on the power of musical fandom to determine who we are, and the complex critical categories we construct to detail those personae. For anyone who grew up devouring musical magazines, obsessively checkmarking lists of albums and bands, getting in heated arguments about pop music's meaning in dorm rooms, or writing things like "the power of musical fandom to determine who we are, and the complex critical categories we construct to detail those personae," there will be more than a few shudders of recognition in these pages. McKelvie's beautfully minimalist black-and-white pages capture the tight mod fashions of his subjects while leaving enough breathing room for the reader to add his or her own memories to the mix. Gillen's prose doesn't overwhelm those images, alternating between a terse, compact phrasing (often coming in captions or short word balloons) that functions like cynical captions, and longer passages of Romantic longing (as in a fabulous four-page interior monologue in issue #2-- on pop, religion, nostalgia and community--whose sensual verbosity could function even without McKelvie's art, and whose pitch-perfect mixture of satire and regret is worth your $14.99 alone).

It's also very funny-- David's own coming-to-grips with his flaws and feelings is played for both pathos and laughs, and there's a lovely, eccentric supporting cast (including the social-climbing second-in-command of David's coven, his nobbish sidekick Kid-With-Knife, and an old, unreconstructed punk phonomancer who feels like what Greil Marcus or Simon Reynolds might have become if they couldn't write). I also loved Britannia herself--all bitchy mod entitlement--and her po-faced attendants, who quickly slug anyone who dismisses the Kinks.

In the end, though, it's the reader who is the most important "character" in the book, and I've gone on a bit about fandom here because it is that mix (in all senses of the word) of text and reader that is crucial to the book's success. If you've never heard any Britpop (or have a real antipathy for the genre), Phonogram still works as a straight-ahead comedy/adventure/coming-of-age story. But as the original issue covers reproduced here suggest, you'll get a lot more out of it if you get the jokes and references, and figuring out what to do with those passions and memories is the creators' challenge as much as David Kohl's. There's a clear love for both Britannia and its phonomancer in these pages-- David is very much in the tradition of the irony-fueled Martin Amis ne'r do wells that Blur claimed inspired their seminal record Parklife (See? I told you these references were inevitable). But there's also a suspicion of those same qualities--David's coven leader rejects his call to save Britannia by mentioning "Britannia was a pretty, petty little sixties goddess. She was a paraochial, xenophobic bitch."

The split that resolves this tension, according to the authors, is between "retromancers"-- trapped in nostalgia, "that mass of pseudo-patriotic bollocks"--and phonomancing as a forward-thinking movement; indeed, to move here means not just dancing at a club (a constantly recurring image) but shifting your whole identity through pop magic. Or, in both discophilic and writerly terms, remixing it.

Phonogram is deliberately vague about how its magic works, and the few times we do see an explicit referencing of its ways (as in Britannia's temple, or the aging punk photomancer, or David writing out and scratching out a list of new musical aspects to choose that includes "radical poptimism"), the supernatural tends to be played for laughs. It's far more powerful to make the magic fleeting, keep it as a metaphor for taste and history and style, because that mixture of the clear and the muddy (or what we might call the lyric and the timbre) better captures what it feels like for the perfect pop single to wash over you, as something you feel rather than explicitly articulate. There have been many times in this post when I've accidentally typed "writer" instead of "reader," and I think that's McKelvie and Gillen's great magic trick: in the more active use spaces of pop music, DJing, comics and blogging, the reader is invited to be both creator and receiver of meaning, to remix and simulate the groove of the song on the comic book page and in his head. As we read, our pleasure becomes blurred.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Preaching Practices

Peter Ames Carlin's recent biography of Paul McCartney is compulsively readable, a gracefully written blend of cultural history, biography and occasional music criticism that carries us to some familiar pop landmarks with style. I want to happily recommend it, but still have some qualms about the familiarity of those landmarks that Carlin visits-- not so much the details of McCartney's life or the Beatles' achievements, but the cliched nature of the frameworks into which those details are often rammed.

Earlier in the day, I was listening to McCartney's 1974 solo album Venus and Mars (one of the gifts of Carlin's book is the desire it creates to go back and rediscover those Wings albums one might have previously dismissed). It might not rank with the highs of its immediate predecessor, Band On the Run (although as "You Gave Me The Answer," "Listen To What The Man Said" and the alluring title track all confirm, it's a solid piece of mid-seventies pop), but what's really striking about Venus and Mars is the seamless flow from one song to another, how a bass line from one song carries over into the next, or a harmony at the top of the record is echoed by one in the middle. Despite the scene-setting of "Venus and Mars" and "Rock Show" at the top of the record, it's not a concept album-- there's no carried through narrative or even the hint of one (a la the opening and reprise/closing of Sgt. Pepper), but working off the details of arrangement and timbre creates a coherence based less on lyrics or themes than on intuitions and snatches of remembered melody (this style of crafting a floating, called-back-to musical "personality" across a disc, which McCartney has used throughout his solo career, is explicitly acknowledged in the title of his most recent solo piece, 2007's Memory Almost Full).

Over at Yellow Dog, Jeff Rice describes a way of working-- through the rhetoric of collecting-- that might tease out McCartney's ongoing methodology. Writing of Liz Rohan's recent piece in Composition Studies, he notes her interest in photographic detail:

The detail is not meant to undercover an argument or perform a deconstruction or a representation/idea but rather to further a type of thought motivated by pleasure (punctum, jouissance, third meaning) not captured by denotative or connotative meanings.

The collection has long served writing purposes. Benjamin’s Arcades, Harry Smith’s unfinished Anthology project (a massive folk music collection), Sirc’s Virtual Urbanism, and so on. To collect is to conduct research. It is to, as Latour notes, gather. In the age of new media, gathering, collecting, and aggregating have become like-minded rhetorical gestures. The Web has exemplified this point to an extreme: Google News, RSS feeds, Facebook Top News/Most Recent News status feeds, and so on. Most of the Web is a collection.

What cannot be lost in this collecting, though, is the detail. The moment that pricks. The moment that sparks some kind of reaction. Rohan points to the Credit/No Credit markings on a school assignment in 1984. In each temporal photograph I showcased, I pointed to some detail (like my father’s unexplained apron in 1965).

This was the project of The Rhetoric of Cool (cool functioning as a detail that motivates a collection of 1963 moments). It is also a project of my obsession with craft beer, an obsession marked by a collection: visits to places, bottles, photographs, ratings, blog posts, etc. I don’t need to remind anyone that most writing pedagogy ignores the logic of the collection in favor of the logic of the single stated thesis statement. In the world of thesis statements, research is treated as a projection outward from that statement (confirmation favored over exploration). And as many times as I’ve given the lecture to fellow teachers regarding a pedagogy of the collection (the collection, which, in turn, produces the claim or position; not the other way around), I seldom see shifts in practice.

Another mode of collecting is less visual than sonic-- that of the record collector who seeks out both popular hits and obscure rarities by artists (or within genres) that he admires and perhaps wants to master. Some of the best passages in Carlin's book document McCartney's obsessive teenaged tracking down of early rock and R&B recordings (often in the company of friend John Lennon), and his fierce desire to both learn those songs and use them as a creative springboard towards his own nascent songwriting. More importantly, Carlin skillfully reads this as a moment of Barthesian punctum, what Rice calls above "The moment that pricks. The moment that sparks some kind of reaction": following his mother's death from breast cancer in late 1956, McCartney's early exposure to rock-n-roll in 1957 (coincidentally, also the year Barthes' Mythologies is published) becomes both escape and expression, as he hears the energy and rawness of the new music as a way of transforming his inexpressible grief into something literally electric.

According to Carlin, this wedding of early rock and dark shadows is, for McCartney, the wound that never heals. Elvis, Carl Perkins, Chuck Berry and Eddie Cochran will be the music McCartney circles back to following a variety of personal and professional traumas: the break-up of the Beatles (where the lo-fi aesthetic of early rock produces McCartney's blend of blues jam and acoustic openness), mid-80s career slumps (which are followed by a covers album of 50s rock released-- intitially, at least--only in the Soviet Union) and most dramatically the death, also from breast cancer, of wife Linda in 1998 (when a destroyed McCartney, unable to contemplate his own songs, records a series of blistering 50s songs called Run Devil Run). McCartney's endless discipline at the guitar and piano, along with his remarkable talent, allowed him to absorb the details of these songs so well (Carlin notes that McCartney has near-perfect muscle memory for playing these early songs, even if he'd only heard them once), and to slowly rough his own style (with Lennon, and then on his own) out of it-- as Jeff says, "the collection, which, in turn, produces the claim or position; not the other way around." The passages on the Lennon-McCartney collaboration constantly note both its improvisatory nature (done on the fly while on tour, or quickly around a home piano, or jammed out in the studio) and its reliance less on thesis ("this is the song from a to b") than a collage aesthetic: Lennon almost immediately finding the dark counterpoint to McCartney's optimism when the latter sang "I have to admit, it's getting better all the time" by firing back, "It can't get much worse"; McCartney blending John's lyrical fragment with his own to create "A Day In The Life" (then coming up with the great orchestral ending to the piece) and John returning the favor two years later by offering up a slice of lyric and harmony ("Everybody had a hard year, everybody had a good time") to complement Paul's melody on "Don't Let Me Down." This back-and-forth dialogue of brilliant bits (what John himself would playfully call "skywriting by word of mouth") fueled the Beatles, and reached its apogee in literal collaging: it was McCartney, whose interest in avant-garde musicians like John Cage led to numerous tape experiments in the mid-sixties, who came up with the surreal back-and-forwards tape loops on "Tomorrow Never Knows," after which Lennon would apply what his partner told him to the dissonant sonic spaces of The White Album's "Revolution No. 9." It may be the brilliance of the whole song (or concept album) that the Beatles are often discussed through, but it's arguably the tiniest details of the songs-- a harmony here, a lyric there, and guitar breaks everywhere-- that makes the music actually resonate in the memory. And for McCartney, following those details and using them to write his own pleasure became as natural as breathing.

This weave off the detail that McCartney captures so easily in song is something Carlin is very good at capturing in his prose-- you might say it's the most "McCartneyesque" insight in the book, as Carlin moves (often in a single paragraph) from a Liverpool stadium to Paul's father Jim playing at a piano in 1947, as easily as one of Paul's bass-lines shifts from rhythm to melody and back again. And as with a McCartney song, while the results are occasionally banal ("Community is a beautiful thing, and also extraordinarily complex to maintain when visions and ideals come into conflict"-- well, yes), they are at other times striking (as when Carlin slips a brief review of the 2005 album Chaos and Control in the Backyard into a longer passage on the dissolution of McCartney's marriage to Heather Mills) and sometimes downright revealing, as with the moving tales of Mary McCartney's death, or the three-page anecdote that opens Chapter Six and finds McCartney and Lennon quietly facing off in front a dressing room mirror in 1962, each man's emotions and responses seeming to predict their up-and-down friendship over the next eighteen years (when Carlin circles back to a related anecdote at the end of the chapter, involving the two men, McCartney's soon-to-be girlfriend Jane Asher, and a really off-color joke, the narrative flavor is so rich you can't wait to see what happens next).

But as Jeff notes in his Yellow Dog post, what matters isn't just what you're collecting (styles, notes, biographical data), but what you do with it: "A pile of documents is only as useful as the details discovered, the details which form patterns and connections (showing the obvious and the novel) and thus generate some form of writing." And while individual passages of Paul McCartney: A Life are often breathtakingly fun, there are many moments when Carlin falls prey to what might be termed High Lennonism.

Reaching its peak in 1988 (with the brouhaha over Albert Goldman's error-filled "tell-all" bio of John Lennon, and David Wolper's equally problematic but far more worshipful film Imagine: John Lennon), its a church of Beatles criticism whose high priests seem insistent to the point of pathology about projecting John Lennon as the Beatles' chief creative figure, political visionary and (in Carlin's apt phrasing) "secular saint." It seems understandable in the wake of the Beatles break-up (as with all great former partnerships-- Camus/Sartre and Truffaut/Godard come to mind immediately--fans are forced to recognize a false binary and choose one or the other), and certainly gained emotional resonance in the decade after Lennon's murder; in the two decades since-- after Beatles reissues, endless books, George's successful solo albums in the late 80s and tragic death from cancer in 2001, and McCartney's various projects and tours (Ringo doesn't play a role here; Ringo is always Switzerland in these critical battles)--Lennonism has receded a bit and the story of the band/post-band has regained more human proportions and balances of its protagonists' flaws.

Which is why, for all of its great points, Carlin's book occasionally feels like an arriere garde, devoting 183 of its 340 pages to a fast-paced but ultimately conventional reading of the Beatles' rise-and-fall, and being sure to play Lennon's "rapier wit" off his partner's insecurities and supposed "ruthlessness." The Carlin snark is strongest (and at its least original or insightful) on the subject of each man's star persona. While he takes care to detail Paul's mid-sixties excursions into high art, experimental cinema and avant-garde music, and how this inflected the Beatles' recordings (material dealt with at greater length and with more historical context in Barry Miles' hagiographic Paul McCartney: Many Years From Now), he can't help but frame these triumphs as a Lennon tragedy: "Paul's burgeoning confidence was, in John's eyes, part of what was killing [John]." He mocks Paul's perfectionism--"Paul also aggravated the always impatient John by doing endless retakes on his own lead vocals, then kept the engineers occupied for hours as he labored painstakingly on his bass part for 'Lovely Rita'"-- without noting that one of those engineers, Geoff Emerick, wrote in his memoir that such perfectionism was something he admired in McCartney (Carlin quotes the book elsewhere, while politely ignoring the passages where Emerick refers to the sainted Lennon as a bullying thug who simply wouldn't put the same kind of work in as his bandmate, but would gladly complain about the results). But the really grating stuff is Carlin's coverage of the Beatles' American tours, where McCartney's cheery professionalism and endless press backslapping is read as a pathology against Lennon's more "authentic" refusal to engage with such frippery: in one depressing anecdote, Lennon responds to a young woman who shows up at his hotel room and declares "I'm Donald O'Connor's daughter!" by immediately spitting out "I was just hearin' on the radio about your dad's being dead," causing the woman to run out in tears (to clarify, the "Make 'Em Laugh" star wasn't actually dead), then responding to Paul's criticisms with "I'm fuckin' sick of everyone comin' in, I'm the lord mayor of this, I'm the daughter of that-- I don't give a fuck! I'm John Lennon!"

Well, sure. And it's easy to hear Paul's response ("We've got to behave, or where gonna lose all this!") in the smarmy tones of a desperate PR man. Generations of rock fans (me included) have grown up on the myths of outsider authenticity presented to us by Rolling Stone, Spin and Pitchfork, to the point where (as Barthes reminded us in Mythologies), they become naturalized as "real": as Lennon himself sang on Plastic Ono Band, "As soon as you're born, they make you feel small/By givin' you no time instead of it all." Poor dear-- is there anything harder than being a pop star? It takes a true outsider to the outsider myth to, as Lennon himself might have put it, call bullshit:

There's no putdown in the critic's arsenal more dismissive, or easy, than "bubblegum." To zap a performer with this particular insult is to brand him as a fake, a manufactured morsel aimed directly at the gullet of the least hip consumer. The artist is judged by his fanbase, and most six-year-olds are distinctly lacking in street cred.

Bubblegum offends the myth of Rock as an oppositional, "outsider" cultural force. To its detractors, bubblegum is read as an "insider" music, although in truth much bubblegum music came out on small independent labels, as opposed to the edgier sounds of the accepted underground. The major labels did a great job of selling their product as packaged rebellion, and the late sixties fanzines concurred. It was only when they overplayed their hand ("The Man Can't Bust Our Music," the "Boston Sound" debacle, overpromoting Moby Grape) that the pseudo-hipsters rejected these hairy offerings.

Rock criticism, born of and beholden to the sixties, stumbles badly when confronted with music produced outside of its short set of registered myths. Session singers? Studio musicians? That's not rock and roll! Except for Motown. And Stax. And the Beach Boys and portions of the Byrds' career. And, retroactively, disco. And Dusty in Memphis. And Richard Davis' sublime bass work on Astral Weeks.

We think it's time to retire this folkie stab at a false authenticity. We're not immune to the allure of the Romantic Artist, nor have we traded our Townes Van Zandt collections for BSB memorabilia. But this myth of the Self Contained Band (beginning with the Beatles) and its offspring, Anarchist Gangs (Clash, Mekons), Artist Collectives (Can, the Band at Big Pink), Populist Unions (Bruce & the E-Street Band, Fugazi) breeds in the ripe compost of abandoned lefty utopias. It's no measure of the music.

Or to put it another way, one might flip the script and read John's dismissiveness of the fans as upper-middle-class, rude boy entitlement, and Paul's almost desperate embrace of them as reflective of his both his working-class background and the sense of loss bred by his mother's passing-- also reductive, but at least different. But to do so would mean noting John's posher background, just as a more balanced account of Paul's sillier Wings records or early 80s solo records might also note the mid-seventies black hole Lennon's music falls into (anyone who wants to dismiss Wings as sheer Muzak must first listen to the entireity of Lennon's 1973 Mind Games without tearing their ears off). But in this account, as in so many, we easily move from Imagine to Double Fantasy without even a stop at Some Time In New York City.

Which is fine-- I can't emphasize enough that Carlin has a lot of good anecdotes throughout the book (and in many ways, McCartney's less savory aspects make the glow of his music all the more remarkable). My complaint is less with Carlin than with the ways in which narratives about pop stars-- particularly well-known ones-- so often fall into cliches that have less to do with the detail and more with that insistence upon a previously-known thesis that Jeff so laments in his Yellow Dog post. It seems even thoughtful and sympathetic writers like Carlin can't seem to escape the dominant practices. Robert Ray rightly calls it "path dependency", and notes how easy it is for any self-proclaimed "radical" style to transform into hardened ideology:

The field now gathers around these terms, certainly useful, but beaten to death. How did film studies, once the freshest, most daring wing of the humanities, settle into this rut? The answer is what economic historians call path dependence, an idea developed as a way of explaining why the free market's invisible hand does not always choose the best products. Beta and Macintosh lose to inferior alternatives, while a clumsy arrangement of keyboard symbols (known as QWERTY, for the first six letters on a typewriter's upper-left) becomes an international standard. Although an initial choice often occurs for reasons whose triviality eventually becomes evident (momentary production convenience, fleeting cost advantages), that decision establishes a path dependence almost impossible to break. Superior keyboard layouts have repeatedly been designed, but with so many typists in the world using QWERTY, they haven't a chance.

In the end, John Lennon is done an ironic disservice by his high priests-- no one was more self-critical and withering of pop mythology than he (a long passage in the biography Lennon documents John's dismay at how long his friends were mourning Elvis Presley's death: "Be here now" was John's advice, which naturally had its meaning exactly reversed by Oasis 20 years later). And while Carlin constantly returns to the other dark shadow McCartney's supposedly labored under for 40 years-- that of his ex-partner-- it might be more honest and self-reflexive to say that it is not Lennon, but the shadow of Lennonism-- its odd mixture of nostalgia, politics, and pop--that he's facing. No question that, as Carlin says, there's a bit of Narcissus in McCartney, as there is in any pop star, "too in love with his own youthful reflection to recognize how unappealing his mature face has become." But couldn't we say the same thing about cultural criticism, and its inability to look at the myths of the sixties, and finally say (hello) goodbye to all that?