Showing posts with label Writing. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Writing. Show all posts

Friday, August 15, 2014

Getting The Band Back Together: The Wicked + The Divine

It was a few nights ago, and while talking about pop music with my wife, I was trying to explain the impact Prince had on my teenaged self. Finally, after talking about the playfulness of his persona, the powerful contradictions in his lyrics, the energy of the music, I settled on the most expressive reason: "Prince taught me how to walk."

I wasn't sure what that meant, exactly, except that I felt it very deeply: vivid visual memories of high school hallways, being sixteen, understanding that there was such a confidence to Prince's work that you literally felt it, that it transformed your body. Hundreds of songs exist about dance floors and nightclubs, but the best pop music gets under your skin everywhere, transforms the everyday into a song. It's alluring and liberating and addictive, and Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie get it down to their bones. When, in one of his patented end-of-the-issue essays at the back of issue two of The Wicked + The Divine, Gillen alludes to his own experience with the physicality of pop-- talking of how Hole's "Beautiful Son" made him "...walk better. I wasn't uncomfortable, but now I'm beyond comfortable. It's the first time I've felt like a shark in any waters. Whatever this is, I'm at home here, and I'm powerful here."--I smiled and nodded in recognition.

There are pop artists that speak to you so deeply that it's like you've known them your whole life, that they were buried in your subconscious, and each new work is less an act of consumerism than one of self-recognition, another part of their body of work intersecting with yours, and everything moving together. Gillen and McKelvie are like that for me-- Phonogram, Young Avengers, and now their new title, The Wicked + The Divine--are rich, allusive, deeply personal books that somehow feel like they were made just for me. At some level, Gillen and McKelvie must recognize this effect, since it's also the central theme of their work-- how pop culture, superpowers, and other kinds of magic are acts of alchemy, requiring the reader or listener to finish the work that's offered: they gain power when we bind them to us. And that's when the trouble starts: there are trade-offs to the bargain, almost mythological moral problems that arise from such transactions-- but we still don't want to let go. It could all feel heavy-handed in, say, Mark Millar's hands, but Gillen and McKelvie are fleet, witty craftsman, and so in love with their characters (no matter the levels of irony that they bring to them) that their messages feel less like lectures than the melancholy harmonies of a Brian Wilson song: there's wistfulness and loss, but it all sounds great.



I wrote about Phonogram here, and found out three years later that Gillen had somehow stumbled across my piece, and liked it. I mention this because it made me feel a bit like Laura, the central protagonist of Divine: a seventeen-year-old South London girl obsessed with the pop star gods that dominate the city's music scene. And when I say "gods," I'm not speaking metaphorically-- the magic radiating from their stages is literally mythological, because the twelve stars are actually reincarnations of gods that appear every ninety years, in an event known as "The Reccurence." They only live for two years in these god-like pop forms, but while they're there, it seems wonderful: as "Luci," the Bowiesque Lucifer who seduces Laura into their pack drily suggests, it's "a sad, sad story of lives wasted being truly divine," and we're meant to hear the double meaning on her last word. The book's blend of everyday London banality (tube stops, bored television watching), pop sheen and mythological violence effortlessly achieves the surreality and shock-of-juxtaposition that Brian Azzarello strived for on his recent Wonder Woman run, but only intermittently achieved.


Luci and Laura are joined by a supporting cast that feels at once immediate and elusive (and allusive, of course-- McKelvie and Gillen are always allusive). Two issues in, we know little about Ananke (God of Fate, Chooser of the Reincarnated), Amaterasu (Florence and The Machine by way of Dazzler, whose on-stage glow has the power to make people cum and then pass out), Baal (gold-chained pop star with an undefined edge: Laura notes that her love of Baal "probably says bad things about me"), and Cassandra, the cynical grad-student-turned-internet-reporter trying to expose the gods as frauds, who acts as the opportunistic, ironic angel on Laura's other shoulder, trying to drown out Luci's seductive promises with her own selfish syllogisms.  Coming to Divine at the start, rather than reading it in completed trade form as I did with Phonogram, is both thrilling and frustrating: it's harder to get a full sense of how all the pieces fit, but that doesn't matter as much now as the high the pages give off, and the sensation of Gillen working at full power after an enjoyable-but-slow run on Iron Man. To make the Britpop analogy explicit, this is not the Blur of Leisure, making fun-but- awkwardly-compromised pop within someone else's commercial framework, but the Blur of Modern Life is Rubbish-- brash, cocksure, and full of such "fuck you" swagger you'd pretty much follow them anywhere.

The overload of character, narrative, and energy coursing through the pages is well-captured by the color art by McKelvie and Matthew Wilson-- its Technicolor rush feels like a Katy Perry video mashed with J-Pop art, and stands in striking contrast to the black-and-white minimalism of Phonogram (even as the writing suggests thematic linkages with the earlier work). In the backpages of issue one, Gillen has a long discourse on how The Wicked + The Divine both is and isn't  "the third volume of Phonogram" (which is on its way sometime in the next year), as well as both books' autobiographical qualities: Phonogram places magic in "our world. It's outside your window. The bands are real, the people are real...The point is that the fantasy is not a fantasy. the fantasy is a lifestyle. It's how I lived for the best part of a worst decade." Divine, on the other hand, "is a fantasy. This isn't our world...It's a world we've created to lose yourself in, to become addicted to, to find yourself in."
That flip makes The Wicked + The Divine less immediately accessible-- that sense of explicit identification with a character's tastes (or rejection of them, which amounts to the same thing) created a quick bond--but potentially longer-lasting: the world of gods, music, media, fandom and criminality the books is establishing could spin out forever, like the Spotify lists Gillen is busy establishing for the book's readers. That we happily fall into this world knowing the irony of our fall is part of the fun, of course, and part of the magic. "I want everything you have," Laura blurts out to Luci in a moment of unplanned honesty. It's a statement of greed, desire, fandom, and longing, but also a declaration of identity: symbiosis and appropriation as engines of creation. Gillen and McKelvie are laying down the groove for us once again.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

All The People...



In 1995, Britpop icons Blur released The Great Escape, the follow-up to their multi-platinum Parklife, and a record that, as Blur biographer Martin Power wryly notes, “was deemed a masterpiece… Then, all of a sudden, it wasn’t.” What accounted for that sudden shift in critical perspective, and what could that question tell us about the shibboleths of pop music criticism?

I've been listening to all of Blur's work obsessively for the last year or so, and wrote about the band, Britpop, and The Great Escape for PopMatters. I'm really glad to be up at such a lovely site, and thank them for making the piece look as shiny and alluring as a great pop single. You can read it by clicking here.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Tangles of Conversation


One of the many reasons there have been fewer posts on this blog than usual in recent months is because I've been working on a book about Pop, the underrated U2 album from 1997 that is, in many ways, both a summation of everything that came before it, and a stylistic peak that the band never dared scale again. Anyway, my head has been rolling around inside its songs for a long time, so I was delighted to discover this "wordle" from Mark Mynell, mapping out the frequency of various terms across the album. Very fun, very useful, and in its canted angles and bursts of diagonal color, a very cool representation of the ways in which Pop explodes expectations. You should check out his other U2 wordles here.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Industry of Uncool


The death of Philip Seymour Hoffman, announced this afternoon, hit me really hard. I share some thoughts at Cinespect.


Monday, January 27, 2014

Magic Tricks

Frances Ha and La Notte--both recently released by Criterion on DVD/Blu-- offer stylish, digressive, anecdotal models for cultural critique. I sketch out some thoughts on the art of delay, over at Cinespect.

Monday, September 9, 2013

Before The Revolution

What do "MTV cops," screwball detectives, New Orleans restaurant owners and angsty ad execs have in common? They were were all crucial for carving out the space of the current cable TV explosion.  In response to Alan Sepinwall's and Brett Martin's recent books about the new "TV revolution," I think about pre-"revolutionary" television (starring Larry Hagman, Don Johnson, Tim Reid, Cybill Shepherd, and David Caruso's ass, as well as an all-star line-up of writers, directors, and producers) at RogerEbert.com.


Saturday, August 24, 2013

Surrealist Daydreams


Ernst Lubitsch's To Be or Not to Be, out Tuesday in a spiffy new DVD/Blu-ray from the Criterion Collection, is comedy on a knife's edge,  choosing at several moments to forgo its farcical set-ups in favor of the look and tone of a wartime thriller. Imagine a screwball Carole Lombard being dropped into Clouzot’s Le Corbeau, and you begin to get a sense of how Lubitsch is deploying his talent to startling effect. It has all of the exquisite detail and knowing sensuality of Lubitsch's earlier comedies, but it’s less interested in tickling the funny bone than in alternately caressing and grabbing your throat—it juggles slapstick and tragedy like a sublime, Surrealist daydream. My review of this essential disc is up at Cinespect.


Sunday, August 11, 2013

Cathedrals


Over at his excellent blog, Some Came Running, film critic Glenn Kenny has spent a couple of posts engaging with Anil Dash's bizarre pro-"talking in theaters" manifesto (an exercise in sophistry that elicited a different, equally interesting response from critic Matt Zoller Seitz). I'm not that interested in discussing Dash's piece here, except to note that I stand more or less with the "shush" crowd, feel no shame in asking grown adults to shut the hell up in a theater during a film, and believe the Surrealist viewing procedures Kenny smartly cites are different and much more complex than Dash's smug "join or die" syllogisms.

What really interests me is Kenny's citation in both pieces of the Steven Spielberg/Bernardo Bertolucci notion that movie theaters are cathedrals. He quotes (via Self-Styled Siren), Bertolucci's remark that "Maybe I'm an idealist, but I still think of the movie theater as a cathedral where we all go together to dream the dream together" (and really, the whole Kenny post in which that quote is embedded,  "5+1 Transcendent Movie Theater Experiences I've Had In The Last Twelve Months," is itself a transcendent, shimmering thing of cinephiliac, anecdotal beauty that you should read in its entriety. Go ahead, I can wait). Bertolucci's comment might be set in opposition to the implied argument in Kenny's observation that "New generations used to get themselves noticed by trying to change the society that they lived in; now they affect a societal change by the way they choose to define experience" (and how that experience is therefore defined for all those people who might not want to see the light from your texting screen, thank you very much).

Thursday, June 27, 2013

'66













Did you ever dream about a place you never really recall being to before? A place that maybe only exists in your imagination? Some place far away, half remembered when you wake up. When you were there, though, you knew the language. You knew your way around. *That* was the sixties...No. It wasn't that either. It was just '66 and early '67. That's all there was.
             --The Limey (1999)

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Sensualities


When Shoeshine opened in 1947, I went to see it alone after one of those terrible lovers’ quarrels that leave one in a state of incomprehensible despair. I came out of the theater, tears streaming, and overheard the petulant voice of a college girl complaining to her boyfriend, “Well, I don’t see what was so special about that movie.” I walked up the street, crying blindly, no longer certain whether my tears were for the tragedy on the screen, the hopelessness I felt for myself, or the alienation I felt for those who could not experience the radiance of Shoeshine...Later I learned that the man with whom I had quarreled had gone the same night and had also emerged in tears. Yet our tears for each other and for Shoeshine did not bring us together. Life, as “Shoeshine” demonstrates, is too complex for facile endings.

--Pauline Kael


Two recent books on Pauline Kael offer reminders of a sensual critical style that transformed American cinephilia. My review of both can be found over at Cinespect. The review is extremely lucky to have photos of Kael from Robin Holland and Jill Krementz, which they are kindly allowing us to use, and for which I say a very grateful THANK YOU. Special thanks, too, to the fabulous CINESPECT team, whose choice of film stills and layout wizardry transformed the piece, and thrill me whenever I scroll through it. Their editing prowess on my prose also made it so much better-- you all are the best!

Monday, September 17, 2012

Historical Poetics


Screenshot from Children of Paradise, 1945.


Screenshot from Les Visiteurs du Soir, 1942.

L'amour! L'amour! And of course, because this is Marcel Carné, they are all doomed.

Richly poetic, visually dense, and achingly romantic (in all senses), the work of Marcel Carné was a high point of French Poetic Realism, particularly his collaborations with writer Jacques Prévert. Two of those films-- Children of Paradise and Les Visiteurs du Soir, both made under the Occupation-- are out this week on Blu-ray and DVD from the Criterion Collection. Children was released in an earlier Criterion DVD in 2002, but this new version is spiffily restored and sports several new extras (including an essay by film scholar Dudley Andrew and two fascinating new documentaries), while Les Visiteurs is being released for the first time, and also looks gorgeous (extras for both films are the same on DVD or Blu-ray). Over at Cinespect, I have some further thoughts on the films, their extras, and the way they juggle the mysteries and pleasures of poetics and history.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Daydream Believers


The Bloomsbury Press acquired Continuum in July 2011, which means they also acquired the wonderful 33 1/3 series that Continuum once published. Each book looks at one specific album, and uses that as a starting point for musical analysis, cultural critique, Ulmerian mystory, fictional flight of fancy, or whatever else the writer's imagination can conjure and convey. They put out a call for new book proposals this past spring. I submitted one on U2's 1997 album Pop, and eagerly awaited the martini-laden conversations with Bono about rock aesthetics, decadence and debt relief that were sure to follow.

The final list was released last week, and in the biggest publishing tragedy since the release of Andy Cohen's autobiography, my proposal was not among those chosen. I knew this ahead of time, actually, as I received a very nice rejection email from the editor in June, when the first round of cuts was made. I was curious about the final list, though, and looking at it now, I see things both intriguing (Danger Mouse! Oasis! Michael Jackson! Sigur Ros! Kanye! Bjork!), predictable (Hole, Devo, Gang of Four, Bobbie Gentry) and head-scratching (as one person put it in the comments section to the above post, Smile is unquestionably a great album, but is there anything new to say about its various permutations, given that it's probably the best-known, most obsessed about "lost album" of all time?).


It was suggested, in both polite rejection note and on their blog, that we unaccepted folks share our proposals (in part or whole), if only to keep the conversations going (either on our own blogs or websites, or in the comments threads of the 33 1/3 blog). For whatever reasons, I resisted this notion for a few months, but I've been thinking lately that it's not a bad idea. I really like my submission, and when I wrote it, I did imagine the text interweaving around images, links, and YouTube clips, anyway (Pop is both a discophilic dreamscape and a techno-playground).

What follows is one part of my longer proposal, the section where they asked for the first chapter or section of your proposed book (my conceit is that each chapter would take its title from one of the songs on the record). As an imagined opening to a longer book, it counts on the fleshing-out of certain skimmed-upon theoretical points, but I still think it works pretty well on its own. And despite the fact that it's not about Courtney Love, I still hope to do something more with it in the future.

Chapter One: Discotheque

One word-- plastics.
--The Graduate

In the beginning, the idea of wearing sunglasses in an interview seemed...kind of stupid. Now, we realize that, in fact, it's not whether you're wearing sunglasses that's important, it's what kind of sunglasses you're wearing.
--The Edge, 1992




The first thing you notice is the hat.

U2’s Pop Mart (Live from Mexico City) DVD opens with Steve Osborne’s blaring re-mix of M’s “Pop Muzik,” set against an animated credits sequence that loops Peter Max-like drawings of various tour signifiers (an airplane, a lipstick, Adam Clayton’s head, a television, a red guitar). The song fades with the image, as the credits give way to a long shot of the ecstatic, awaiting crowd staring at the glowing yellow arch, and the ballooning letters “P-O-P” that are disappearing and reappearing on the PopMart stage. It’s 1997, mid-way through U2’s world tour, and a gigantic green olive on a bright yellow martini pick stands aloft, waiting for its heroes’ arrival. “Pop Muzik” kicks back in (this time playing on tape at the arena, rather than as a credits overdub), as the camera cranes around the crowd and the stage, the “O” of the “POP” projection turning into a globe, a soccer ball, a great glittering disco orb. Cuts carry us across beatific faces in the crowd and back to the stage, the slow build transforming the PopMart set into an objective correlative, creating anticipation for icons who aren’t yet there.

A final zoom on the crowd segues to a super-imposition of the band’s arrival. In contrast to the trashy, colorful glow of the stage, this scene is staged in hand-held black-and-white, cut to look like paparazzi footage as the band and their bodyguards push through the crowded mass of fans. The Edge leads the way, and he’s wearing wrap-around welder’s goggles that resemble those sported by Bono’s “Fly” character on the ZooTV tour four years earlier, in support of Achtung Baby. When the band promoted that aesthetic breakthrough at the start of the decade, Edge had donned a blue ski cap which, in combination with sunglasses and a menacing goatee, gave him the appearance of (in journalist Bill Flanagan’s words), a space-aged bouncer. Just before ZooTV kicked off, Flanagan reports in his essential U2 At The End of The World, the band had to choose hotel room pseudonyms that would keep them relatively safe from the inquiries of eager fans; Bono had suggested that they check in under the names of the Monkees:

Bono wanted to be Davy Jones, the short, maracas-shaking singer. Edge was to be Mike Nesmith, the serious, wool-hatted guitarist. He thought Adam might object to being the troublemaking blond bimbo Peter Tork, but Adam said no problem. The whole idea sank when Larry refused to be Mickey Dolenz (Flanagan 41).

Not surprisingly, it was the level-headed Edge who shot the idea down, pointing out to his disappointed partner that “We’d still have fans ringing the rooms, but it’ll be somebody else’s fans!” (Flanagan 41). Spilling out of a Dublin bar that evening, Flanagan reports that this conversation lead Bono to drunkenly sing “The Theme from The Monkees” as he crossed the street, heedless to an oncoming car, and grabbed just in time by his bandmates before he was smashed across the pavement (42).

The Edge may have rejected “Mike Nesmith” as a tour-ready secret identity, but his Achtung-era wool cap suggests that the Texan’s steady, music-obsessed persona wasn’t that far from his own.
On the PopMart tour, in fact, the Edge will lead the crowd in sing-alongs of “Daydream Believer,” simultaneously an act of penance for rejecting Bono’s playful idea, and a way of swiping the lead singer’s moment (by rights, it should be Bono’s sing-along, since he wanted to be Davy). But that moment of campiness is performed, not in a wool cap like the Serious Monkee, but in the more familiar, Edge-trademarked cowboy hat.

The cowboy hat suggests, not the futuristic, media-ridden dystopia of ZooTV, but the arid desert landscapes and religious overtones of The Joshua Tree, the 1987 record that U2 spent much of the 90s running away from (at least on the surface).
Worn on the cover of that album, and throughout the world tour that supported it, the cowboy hat fit with U2’s desire to filter an ideal of Americana through their own Irishness, a contradiction worked out through the combination of the Edge’s ringing guitars and Bono's Raymond Carver-inspired lyrics, as well the similarly dualistic production partnership of the earthy and emotional Daniel Lanois and the cerebral experimentalist Brian Eno. What is more “American” than the cowboy hat, after all? Frontiers, violence, practicality, masculinity: it holds volumes in its ten-gallons. It also blocks the glare of the sun (or a neon martini pick). Striding to the PopMart stage, the hat reinforces The Edge’s grim and determined expression, just as it did in Anton Corbijn’s Joshua Tree cover photo, a mood only slightly undercut by Bono’s shadow-boxing behind him.



“Radio, video…boogie with a suitcase”: as the lyrics of “Pop Muzik” sing out over the industrialized drums of Osborne’s remix, they neatly delineate the split between sound and image (meaning and pose?) that U2 have been pushing, blurring and ironically challenging over the last decade. First released as a single in the UK in May 1979 (four months before U2’s debut EP Three), the original “Pop Muzik” single was the brainchild of producer Robin Scott, recording under the pseudonym “M” (taken from the giant “M” Scott saw on the sides of Parisian buses). It took advantage of the vinyl format in a Surrealist way: as a 12-inch single, the record was double-grooved, so both songs on the record started at the same point, and which would play depended on the chance operation of where the needle would land.

Those kinds of technical tricks (and Scott’s generating a stage name out of the moving billboards of consumer culture) would’ve been rejected by early U2, for whom a more linear, earnest expression and attempts at clarity (even if it had to be found by pushing through walls of guitars and swirlingly ambiguous vocals) were key; that need for something solid, something “real,” took on a bodily presence in Bono’s speech inducting The Who into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1990. There, Pete Townshend’s nose was offered as the generator of the band’s meaning: “It’s essential equipment, if you want to be in a great rock and roll band,” he noted, a smile playing but never quite forming on his lips. “…Some people have ‘em and they chop ‘em off, uhh…We call those people pop stars. The Who are rock and roll stars.”

On the cusp of Achtung Baby, when the band will follow their noses somewhere quite different, pop vs. rock seems like an important categorical difference for the band; by 1998, playfulness and identity confusion had become the new paradigm, and U2 seem to have embraced Robin Scott’s single and his personal manifesto: “"I was looking to make a fusion of various styles which somehow would summarize the last 25 years of pop music. It was a deliberate point I was trying to make. Whereas rock and roll had created a generation gap, disco was bringing people together on an enormous scale. That's why I really wanted to make a simple, bland statement, which was, 'All we're talking about basically (is) pop music." U2 have also replaced Townshend’s out-front nose (and all the cultural history it represents) with a concealed (pseudonymous?) face; as Bill Flanagan points out, the 90s Bono was apt to quote his fellow Irishman Oscar Wilde: “Man is least himself when he speaks in his own person; give him a mask and he’ll tell you the truth.” The walk to the PopMart stage is a procession of costumes: just behind the Edge’s disco cowboy is Adam Clayton, wearing a surgical mask that covers both his nose and his mouth, like a pop musician waiting to perform the plastic surgery Bono mocked seven years earlier. Bono is wearing a boxing robe with the hood up, and wrap-around sunglasses; only Larry is sans costume, his eyes piercing straight ahead.



A cut takes the viewer to an overhead shot, as the camera pulls back and we see the spotlights making patterns that look like light crosses flickering across the band. Another cut shows the band’s movement captured in a circle, projected under the stage arch, an image whose black-and-white evokes both a silent cinema iris and the gun-barrel circles of the James Bond films (two years earlier, Bono and the Edge wrote the title song for the Bond film Goldeneye, while Larry and Adam contributed a funky reworking of the Mission: Impossible theme to the first entry in that Tom Cruise franchise). As U2 hit the boardwalk leading to the main PopMart stage, all but Bono proceed a bit further to their instruments. The lead singer stays downstage for a moment, shadow-boxing some more to extend the instant, to further pump up the excited crowd. He grabs the hand-mike from a roadie and starts mumbling “Mexico…Mofo.” He leans into the camera, creating a fish-eye distortion that makes his leer even creepier. “Fo…Mo... Fo…” he repeats, and the band kicks in with “Mofo,” the third (and the most sonically menacing) song on their most recent album, Pop.

Bono kisses the camera lens, his pop nose distorted and exaggerated, then marches to join his bandmates. He begins hopping up and down, hooting, chuckling and mumbling all the while, the peak of his boxing hood echoed by the shape of the arch above him. It’s a long way from The Joshua Tree‘s stoicism, but it’s still its own kind of religious ecstasy. A sudden wash of color takes us out of the black-and-white footage, almost like a Technicolor baptism, a sensation enhanced by Bono’s sudden removal of the boxing robe that’s covered his shaved head, ready to be cleansed by the power of music. He squeezes the words out, like a man slowly being resuscitated: “Lookin’ for to save my…save my…soul…”



When they were filming the video for “Numb” in 1993, Bill Flanagan had a great idea--amidst the ropes, feet, and band-mates assaulting a somnambulant Edge, perhaps someone could sneak up behind the guitarist and remove his wool hat, revealing another underneath? Edge rejected the idea, but that act of repetition and difference in a single gesture will play itself out on a grand scale in Pop, both the album and the subsequent tour. Most immediately, there’s the sonic boogie of U2’s suitcase (a word with its own double meaning: “suitcases” don’t just hold the band’s costumes, but in the early days of synthesized keyboards, held the synthesizer itself)-- very instrument on the stage is filtered and processed, from Edge’s wah-wah guitar to Adam’s bass (which almost sounds like a lurching keyboard) to Larry’s electronic drum sounds (to say nothing of Bono’s amplified voice). But it works on a visual level, too-- when Bono pushes his white boxing hood down, another hood is revealed underneath (Flanagan reports that it was Bono whose “eyes lit up” at the idea of a two-hatted Edge all those years ago). Clearly, there are some layers to sift through here, or as the band sings on “Mofo,” “Lookin’ for the Baby Jesus/Under the trash…”



The difference between the PopMart and Joshua Tree tours, or indeed the PopMart and ZooTV tours, is that it’s not clear where the costume ends and the “real” band begins. However disingenuously (more on that later), the "U2" offered up in 1987 came without any apparent filters, creating a direct and intense connection with their audience that stood in contrast to the surrounding 80s glitz, and made them the biggest band in the world. ZooU2 was deliberately about creating a stark contrast with their previous asceticism-- the tour trumpeted its artifice in a barrage of multimedia and named characters (The Fly, MacPhisto) that transformed the Achtung tour into a stage parable (ironically, this meant it also stood in contrast to the surrounding earnestness of the early 90s grunge bands--including Pearl Jam, who opened for U2 on the Zoo tour--who saw the 80s version U2 as a social model). PopMart offered an ever-faster barrage of masks, a feint-and-dodge of endless signifiers, but unlike ZooTV, it refused to footnote for its audience, refused to clarify where the characters started and the real U2 began.


It’s a concept addressed as both dilemma and opportunity on “Discotheque,” the opening song and first single off of Pop:

You can reach
But you can’t grab it
You can hold it, control it,
No, you can’t bag it

You can push
But you can’t direct it
Circulate, regulate, oh no
You cannot connect it


In contrast to the linearity of early U2, “Discotheque” creates circularity in both its riddling lyrics and its production, a bend of guitars and DJ wash that album co-conspirator DJ Howie B called “swirl”; the effect is like being in a sonic centrifuge, the beat thrusting us around into a dizzying vertigo. And yet-- it’s intensely pleasurable, not in spite of its confusion, but because of it. “You know you’re chewing bubblegum,” sing these onetime-potential Monkees, finally embracing the artificiality of their circumstances. “You know what that is/But you still want some.”



The tensions embodied in “Discotheque’s” opening lines (solidity/transience, materiality/spirit, stasis/movement) are just the latest variation on the paradoxes U2 devoted themselves to in the 90s, as earnestness gave way to irony, rock gave way to pop, cowboy hats gave way to plastics.
Achtung Baby was its opening blast, as if David Bowie and Walter Benjamin had jammed together a band right on the cusp of the millennium, with doubt, materiality and glam rock taking lessons from one another. Zooropa was the giddy drift, as placards gave way to Prada: one might “have no religion,” Bono sang on the title track, but “you’ve got the right shoes to get you through the night.”
1995’s Passengers project (in conjunction with Brian Eno) took the band even father afield, dropping “U2” altogether in favor of a communal pseudonym that allowed for instrumentals, collage pieces, “fake soundtracks,” and collaborations with Pavarotti; U2 also released a Zooropa-era track, “Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me, Kill Me” as part of the Batman Forever soundtrack, in conjunction with a cartoon video that layered a superhero identity onto the band’s ever-increasing set of hoods, masks and capes.

After all these dizzying spins, 1997’s Pop is, to paraphrase Diana Ross, the Love Hangover (as Bono slips lines from Donna Summer’s “Love To Love You, Baby” into “Discotheque’s” la-la-la choruses), the moment when these various lyrical protagonists hit the saturation point of their sensory experiences, but can’t let go. Images juxtapose and flit by like a kaleidoscope of joy and guilt, with fades and superimpositions of experience and critique occupying the same frame.



What we need, the anthropologist Michael Taussig noted, is a social critique that “pierced the veil while retaining its hallucinatory quality”; U2’s refusal of singularities (“You’re looking for the one,” Bono sings on “Discotheque” “But you know you’re somewhere else instead”), its creation of a discotheque where the neon decadence of the martini pick and the law of the cowboy hat (a law of the Old West, of Old Rock, of the dreaded authenticity) dance with one another, feels like the embodiment of Taussig’s call.


Of course, it was a call that a lot of people refused in 1997. More than any other U2 album, Pop faced a barrage of criticism when it was released, and even more once the PopMart tour got underway later that year. The band would later claim they’d brought some of this on itself: they’d booked the tour before the album was done, necessitating a quick series of decisions on song mixes after the album’s long gestation period, and a later revisionist critique would suggest they made the wrong choices. The PopMart tour itself was announced in a K-Mart, a cute Situationist gesture that the more po-faced music journalists would read as too cute by half (they’d also sit stone-faced in the wake of PopMart’s McDonald’s arches, Tomb Raider graphics and flying Lemon-ships). The album sold seven million copies, but slow ticket sales for the shows gave critics ammunition for their theses that U2 had overreached. But more than any of the band’s choices (or any choices they could have made), Pop is both the beneficiary and victim of timing (or what trip-hop artist Tricky called, that same year, “pre-millennial tension”). At the end of a decade that had seen the rise and fall of grunge, the death and re-birth of the boy band, the emergence of hip-hop and country as America’s most popular musical genres, and the inevitable (but for many old-line critics, uneasy) integration of dance and electronica into “traditional” rock forms, U2’s refusal to stake a singular claim, its embrace of paradox and camp, was read as nothing less than a betrayal of its once-earnest mission. That the band had spent most of the last decade defrocking itself was conveniently overlooked: “They want you to be Jesus, to go down on one knee,” Bono crooned on “Hold Me, Thrill Me…” before wryly adding that “they’ll want their money back if you’re alive at thirty-three.”


By 2000, when the band released its supposed “back-to-basics” comeback record All That You Can’t Leave Behind, the excesses of Pop were something U2 felt the need to apologize for, and their prostrating themselves before the church of Rolling Stone got them back in the good graces of the proper cultural High Priests, and back on rock radio. But pop music, for all of its roots in the Church, tends to play better in the clubs, and as Pop hits its 15th anniversary, it seems ripe for a re-revisioning. “You want to be the song,” Bono croons in the bridge of “Discotheque,” “Be the song that you hear in your head.” It’s the band’s best prayer, the purest and giddiest of U2’s chronic longings for musical transubstantiation, the most ecstasy-laden of its recognitions of itself in its community of fans (it’s a link between band and listener that paradoxically happens as a dissolve of the self).

In the musical and cultural blur of 1997, Pop felt very much of its moment, and also a bit out of time, futuristic and forward-looking, both the apotheosis of the previous decade’s experimentation, and a stopping point for U2’s avant impulses (it would take until the end of the '00s for the band to set aside its increased musical conservatism and get playful again). And given its prophetic blend of rock, pop, ballad, country and electronica, Pop remains as startling and fresh now as it did when it was released. I would argue it’s precisely because the album has been so dismissed by fans, critics and the band itself that it seems like the U2 album most worth exploring: hidden in its grooves might be all manner of secrets-- about U2, about pop music, about how the boogie in a discotheque on the edge of the millennium might be (to paraphrase the great film director Jean Renoir) like “dancing on the edge of a volcano,” and why such a choreography might still have something to say about cultural criticism in the 21st century. All that’s needed is a style of writing that unlocks the grooves, like that double-grooved “Pop Muzik” single mentioned above, something that can make the needle land in a new spot, and spark the dance.
In the chapters that follow, I want to suggest the possibilities that the riddles of Pop offer for both pop music and cultural critique, without claiming (in fact, strongly refusing) to “solve” those riddles; instead, I want to use them to reanimate that moment, to pierce the veil while retaining its hallucinatory quality, to boogie a bit with its suitcase of paradoxes.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Bonjour, Paris!




“I don’t want to stop! I like it! Take the picture! Take the picture!”

Fred Astaire, Audrey Hepburn and Kay Thompson choreograph an intoxicating dance between hyper-stylized satire and naturalized, caught-on-the-fly emotions in Stanley Donen's classic musical Funny Face, with help from producer Roger Edens, cinematographer Ray June, and visual consultant Richard Avedon (the legendary fashion photographer on whom Astaire's character is based). The Gershwin songs are s'wonderful, too.

The 1957 Paramount hit gets a week-long revival starting Friday at Film Forum. My Cinespect review of the film can be found here.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Guardians of Hope


Hello! Where were we?

Breaking radio silence (it's been a busy year) to urge you all to check out a new book, The Guardian Class: How a Couple Battle Buddies Challenged Washington's Elite, by Dr. Jonathan Heavey. I will be very upfront about this-- Jon is family, so let that affect your reading of my recommendation as it will. But he writes about a vitally important subject that should not get lost amidst the political and economic debates now engulfing us, particularly when it comes to any future role the country will play in Iraq or Afghanistan. I linked to an earlier piece Jon wrote about Hope MD and its work; this is not only a story about trying to bring care and hope to people caught in the ravages of war, but also the tale of how some intelligent, dedicated, and deeply humane people maintained their own humanity and humor and tried to affect genuine change for communities who might otherwise struggle to be heard.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Jagged Edges

I couldn't have been older than thirteen-- any younger and I wouldn't have known who he was, any older and I would've felt guilty doing what I did. That sounds like the opening to a dark romance, and in a way it was, except my heartthrob was a writer I'd never met, and I was making my parents come on the date.



We were in Chicago on a family trip, and I was obsessed with tracking down any and all Harlan Ellison books I could find. You couldn't find a lot of them in Kalamazoo-- the rare appearance of something like Shatterday in the local bookstore was an event met with a whoop and a ravenous grab off the shelf. Otherwise, one had to special-order them through the stores, or from book catalogs, which was how I got the short story collections Stalking The Nightmare and Ellison Wonderland, and his brilliant collection of columns and essays, An Edge In My Voice. But surely a big city like Chicago-- which seemed, to my adolescent eye, to have bookstores on every corner-- surely, this city would sate my desires, surely they would be prominently placing Ellison at the fronts of their stores, in a big display marked by a cardboard cutout of Ellison's scowling visage (preferably with a pipe between his lips). Surely.

It was not to be-- the Windy City was a letdown, as I dragged my poor parents from store to store, and inquired about whether or not they carried Ellison's books (in a voice that no doubt shifted from a tone of Dickensian-street-urchin-begging to a fierce growl with each reply of the store clerks: "Sorry, no"). Or maybe I was the letdown-- who was this thirteen year-old dervish who was perfectly willing to spend everyone's time on such a pursuit? What was it about those books that made them such grails, that led to quests that subordinated everyone's lives to my own? I was like Ray Milland in The Last Weekend, obsessive need shining from my eyes. Simply put--one year earlier, Harlan Ellison changed my life.

My gateway drug was a 1985 issue of Starlog that contained an interview with Ellison. I was twelve years old when it appeared in the mailbox. Ellison was a creative consultant and writer on the new Twilight Zone series that was starting that fall, and right away the article grabbed my eye. In what I would come to learn was a typical rite of passage for many Ellisonians, what caught my attention was his ability to piss me off. He hated recent Spielberg movies; he dissed Back To The Future and Gremlins (or maybe Goonies-- I don't have the issue right in front of me); he suggested a lot of contemporary science fiction and television was garbage, and he did it in a fan bible that often valorized and promoted the very filmmakers and writers and pop culture objects he was slamming. Well, I never! How dare he? There was a photo a younger Ellison on-stage at a convention, but the shoddy printing made him look like a little kid standing in a snowstorm. Which, as I was soon to find out, was how he'd make me feel.

Once Harlan Ellison is under your skin, he stays there. He may have infuriated me in ways I could not yet articulate or fully understand, but I kept reading, intrigued by this funny, opinionated guy. And he was funny-- references and metaphors and profanities flew out of his mouth in such density that it's a wonder the interviewer kept up. The next time I was at our local bookstore, I searched for his name on the shelves, and found the aforementioned Shatterday (I still have it, its white cover sporting a brilliant painting of Ellison in a slick suit, looking shocked as the phone receiver in his hand turns into a deadly serpent). A little while later, the new Twilight Zone debuted, and while I hated the first story in the pilot (a heavy-handed story about nuclear annihilation), I loved Alan Brennart's skillful adaptation of "Shatterday," a tale about a man who means to call his mother, accidentally calls his own number instead-- and hears himself answer on the other end (I will spoil nothing else-- rent the episode on DVD and watch Bruce Willis give a heartbreaking performance as that man). I was hooked, and Harlan Ellison became not so much a writer as a way of life.

I mean no disrespect to Ellison's staggering gifts when I say that discovering his work just as adolescence hit was perfect timing-- for a nerdy tween with all kinds of social adjustment issues (and increasingly bad acne), Ellison's ability to call bullshit and distill rage and confusion was a godsend, a life preserver to cling to in difficult emotional times. As my Starlog and Marvel comics subscriptions suggested, I was already someone who found escape and meaning in fantasy stories. But Ellison was different. Yes, he used the tropes of fantasy, horror and speculative fiction as well as anyone ever has. But this was not about escape, but about illuminating the world around me, and finding the courage to face what I was feeling and deal with it. That could cause its own problems, of course-- wanting to replicate the honesty and bravery of Ellison's prose in my day-to-day life sometimes meant that I just ended up alienating people even further-- but in a moment when everything and everyone seemed to be spinning and turning upside down around me on a daily basis (I've always thought the pod people of Invasion of the Body Snatchers were the perfect metaphors for this stage of my life), Ellison's rock-solid example stood out, guided, and secured.

Strangely, perhaps, as someone who loved fantastic tales, it was almost always Ellison's non-speculative work that most grabbed me. I loved the introductions to his books as much as the tales they told. I was thrilled when a collection of his work would contain an essay amidst the brilliant fiction (such as "The 3 Most Important Things In Life," from which I learned the term "movie crawl," and that "At Disney, nobody fucks with The Mouse"). I also learned a lot from An Edge In My Voice, a collection of columns he wrote for Starlog, The LA Weekly, and other outlets (for which he won the Silver Pen for Journalism from International PEN). And I devoured Spider Kiss, his 1961 novel about the early days of rock. Ellison's was a voice that didn't so much transcend genre as overwhelm it, devour it, and spit it out as something unrecognizable and beautifully new. Of his speculative work, the story that will always live with me is "Jefty Is Five," which uses the conceit of a never-aging boy to explore issues of time, maturity and the imagination, to devastating effect. If John Cheever and Ray Bradbury collaborated on a story, it might turn out something like "Jefty," but even they never would've generated the same emotions Ellison does in just a few pages. I get a bit choked up just remembering the story; I haven't read it in at least twenty years, but I will never forget its climax, or the clear-eyed way Ellison drags us like teary-eyed babies to its logical conclusion. It's a gut-punch of a tale, all the more powerful for its slow build, for how well Ellison deploys bright humor and his eye for everyday detail in order to express the fragility of a childhood day.

As I got older, and my social awkwardness either faded or at least seemed less awkward around the other high school kids, my interest in Ellison lessened. It never entirely went away-- seeing an Ellison book on the shelf was still an event (in an ironic restaging of that long-ago book crawl, I remember my friend Chad and I splitting a stack of Ellison books we found in a Chicago second-hand store), and I was always interested when I saw his byline on magazine covers or television. But there was something about his anger and absolute certainty that felt less accessible to me as time passed. Was the world really that black-and-white? Were our choices always that stark, their moral dimensions always so absolute? I told myself that in moving away from Ellison, I was actually paying tribute to what I felt he'd taught me-- the need to stay true to yourself in the face of others, to say "no," even if you were saying no to one of the writers who'd taught you that very thing.

Many years later, I was watching the Mystery Science Theater version of Mitchell; when Crow and Servo responded to the image of a short, surly-looking guy being booked at the police desk by exclaiming, "Hey, Harlan Ellison's been arrested again!," I laughed. A couple of summers ago, I found out he had a webpage, where fans and friends gathered to talk about his work and life, and where he himself would stop in to answer questions, make announcements, and offer views on whatever was on his mind at that moment. I posted a couple of times, once to tell him how much his work meant to me, once to mention a website that played "Old Time Radio" shows (a passion of mine that I knew he shared). He never responded, but that was okay-- I hadn't expected him to, and I mostly just wanted to say "thanks" in what little way I could, for all the things his work had taught me, and all the ways it had sustained me in difficult times.

There's a passage in one of his book introductions where Ellison talks about being on a radio show; a woman calls in and tells a heartbreaking story of pain and depression, and Ellison writes that, in that moment, all he wanted to do was tell that woman, "You are not alone!" I think of that passage a lot when life is stressing me out, and I think of it sometimes when I teach or write-- that one of the best things we can do is to tell people who might otherwise feel isolated or out-of-place that there are others like them, that they will find community, that it's okay to swim against powerful emotional or intellectual tides. I thought of it again when I read that Harlan Ellison may be dying, and that he's almost certainly written his last book. Because of that news, he's been on my mind in a way that he hasn't for twenty years, and I just want to tell this man I've never met (but somehow feel like I know as intimately as anyone, such is the power of his writing), you are not alone. And thank you-- for the humor, the insight, the rage, and for all the ways your work has pissed me off over the years. To paraphrase the Gunter Eich quote you're so fond of, you have been sand rather than oil in the machinery of my life-- but somehow, I know I run better because of it.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Discography

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?