Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Divine Mathematics

For ultra-quixotic, and therefore probably somewhat embarassing, reasons, I penned some lines about the Wu-Tang Clan, which I thought I would share with you, my people. Since a computer crash eightysixed an earlier and loopier version of this post (best line that no longer makes sense: "don't despair karma, you are not what they say you are!") I am going to indulge my laziness and leave titles un-italicized. You can sprinkle some peccorino romano or rub fresh basil on them if you wish...

“I verbally assault with my tongue…” Goodbye Short 20th Century

In 1999, Sonic Youth released a record called Goodbye 20th Century. It was a multilayered joke. Not only was the Gregorian calendar making its way queasily to a centennial jump (to say nothing of the possibly-apocalyptic-millennial-lurch, with its own doomsday computer virus and survivalist shopping sprees), but Goodbye 20th Century also marked Sonic Youth’s tribute to a musical genre whose name was days away from becoming obsolete. “Twentieth-century music” was the term people used in the twentieth century to refer to music written in the twentieth century. In a perfect exemplification of the process that Karl Marx called “reification,” by 1999, nine decades worth of resistance to bourgeois complacency-- twelve-tone spirals, abrupt tape splices, droning and burbling analog synthesis, inside-piano gimcrackery-- seemed to cohere in a set of aural clichés. The twentieth century had become a brand, and its music a sonic logo, as recognizable as the dun-ding-dun-dong that every resident of the twenty-first century automatically knows to associate with the Intel Corporation.

The correlation of twentieth-century and ultra-contemporary, however, was sort of terrifying, in its own way. The unmistakable implication seemed to be that the end was nigh. The world would not survive the twentieth century. Like Tim LaHaye and Hal Lindsay, the nutbag authors of Christian-apocalypse-pornography bestsellers Left Behind and The Late, Great, Planet Earth, new music enthusiasts seemed to feel that there would probably be no twenty-first century to embarrass them.

1999 was nevertheless too late for an authentic Goodbye 20th Century—it should have come years earlier. In 1993, the British historian Eric Hobsbawm, (Jewish exile from the same flaming Europe fled by my grandparents and lifelong Communist), completed The Age of Extremes, an obituary for the “Short 20th Century” that began in 1914 and ended in 1991. “There can be no serious doubt,” Hobsbawm wrote, “that in the late 1980s and early 1990s an era in world history ended and a new one began.” For those of us who didn’t spend the subsequent decade or so riding razor scooters around the awesome office parks of dot-com startups, it was easy to see the world after 1991 like Hobsbawm: “an enormous zone of political uncertainty, instability, chaos and civil war.”

In 1993, the Wu-Tang Clan released a record called Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) which, in retrospect, seems like a proper Goodbye 20th Century, a farewell to the brutal decades between World War I and Operation Desert Storm. Appropriately, it is a blues record, albeit one very much of its time. The blues tenor of Enter the Wu-Tang becomes more clear if we keep in mind Ralph Ellison’s beautiful rendering of the blues as metaphysics: “The blues is an impulse to keep the painful details and episodes of a brutal experience alive in one’s aching consciousness, to finger its jagged grain, and to transcend it, not by the consolation of philosophy but by squeezing from it a near-tragic, near-comic lyricism. As a form, the blues is an autobiographical chronicle of personal catastrophe expressed lyrically.”

The record opens up with a kung-fu movie sample-- a hyper-caucasian voiceover artist reading Shaw Brothers boilerplate doggerel-- that sounds like it was recorded with a handheld cassette player held up to a television: “Shaolin shadowboxing and a wu-tang sword style.” Soon it will become clear to me that martial arts cinema mythology, cosa nostra trivia, comic book superheroes, Staten Island drug trade lore, five percent nation holy writ are all elements of an occult and inscrutable language in which the Wu-Tang Clan encode their messages to the world. Like Lee “Scratch” Perry and Sun Ra, the Wu-Tang Clan speak in a language meant to confuse and mislead outsiders like me; nonetheless, it seems all the more pleasurable the more it leaves me scratching my head and feeling like an idiot. The young Dominican-American novelist Junot Diaz once said that the reason he leaves so much untranslated Spanish in his fiction is to give Anglo readers the sensation of what it’s like to be an outsider to a dominant culture. Unlike the bourgeois MCs of recent years, the Wu-Tang Clan do not speak the lingua franca of luxury goods and imported automobiles… there is no opportunity for the false solidarity of product loyalty… but rather an invitation to estrangement, the first step towards critical consciousness…

The group begins what will be the first of many chants: “bring the mothafuckin’ ruckus.” “Wu-Tang killer bees.” “Clan in da front.” Chanting, of course, is something people do in groups, an activity in which an individual identity is subsumed in the voice of a greater collective body. And what the Wu-Tang Clan do—why their music is so powerfully radical—is provide a glimpse into what kind of power a group might have. Or, in other words: politics.

The first thing one confronts when listening to the Wu-Tang Clan is the difficulty of separating individual voices—one volley of distorted syllables and surreal references seems to bleed into the next. The front cover art—the group in ninja garb and white masks-- reinforces the seeming intentionality of this bleeding of identities one into the other. The more one listens, the more one becomes attuned to the complexities of sonic difference. Making the entire affair all the more wonderfully disorienting is the proliferation of nicknames and noms de guerre, RZA the razor, “The sharpest motherfucker in the whole clan… razor sharp,” GZA, “the genius,” Raekwon, “the Chef,” “Lex Diamonds,” Method Man, “Johnny Blaze,” Ghostface Killah, “Tony Starks,” Inspectah Deck, U-God, Masta Killa…

Of course, this creative renaming is one of the chief characteristics of the blues—think of, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Bukka White, The Masked Marvel, Black Ace, et al... Robert F. Diggs, “RZA” once noted that he and his cousin Gary Grice, “GZA” changed their names because they “had no choice,” a process that Clyde Woods calls a “blues transformation”: “Back in the ‘80s, I lost it. I became a problem for the world. I wasn’t living righteous… And we changed, both of us. We had no choice. It was either that, go crazy, or go starving.”

The Wu-Tang Clan member most firmly in this tradition was the late Russell Jones—“Ol’ Dirty Bastad,” “the Bebop Specialist,” “Osiris,” “Big Baby Jesus,” “Dirt McGirt,” “Freeloading Rusty”… Like Peetie Wheatsraw, the Devil’s-Son-In-Law, or Robert Johnson or Angola Prison bluesman Robert Pete Williams (whose “I’ve Grown So Ugly” would have been the ultimate Ol’ Dirty Bastard cover), Jones’s damaged-lung and spittle-encrusted trickster/badman lines loom like gargoyles over the proceedings. RZA described his cousin in words that might have been penned to describe other outlaw bluesmen like Robert Johnson or Charlie Parker: “In every kung-fu movie, there’s always the dirty bastard, the dirty rat; somebody who, no matter what he does, does wrong. Even when does right, his intent is to do wrong. Well, that’s Dirty in real life. He’d rather do it to a girl that got a guy than a girl without a guy.”

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

"I've had a rough night, and I hate the fucking Eagles, man"

Lately I have been finding all sorts of weird mp3s on my hard drive that I have never gotten around to listening to. Tonight I decided to listen to some of them, and I stumbled upon a single called "Union Man" by a group called the Cate Brothers. The blog that posted this track did not provide much information about it... so, for whatever reason, I had the idea that it was that rarest of all entities, a 70s soul single that directly references trade unions or the labor movement.

The music is really pretty awesome-- its layered textures remind me a little of the Ohio Players, and the guitar playing is impressively unhinged. The lyrics voice a protest against a "union man" who is calling for a strike, when the singer wants to earn some money and pay the bills. I was disappointed that this one rare union-related track was not more pro-labor; on the other hand, I totally understand the frustrations of workers who try to make ends meet on strike pay, and African Americans especially have good reason to be totally frustrated with the American labor movement. Especially during the George Meany/Lane Kirkland years, the AFL-CIO was a pretty awful institution, so a critique of the "union man" is not without its merits... especially if that "union man" is the satin-baseball-jacket-and-pinky- ring wearing local boss, rather than the rank-and-file worker seeking a measure of workplace democracy and maybe a little job security or health insurance. Most men and women in American still want to be that kind of "union man" or "union woman" and many more would no doubt join them in that aspiration if the corporate anti-labor propaganda machine wasn't so well-funded and tenacious.

But, as it turned out, the Cate Brothers were not an African American group, but a white soul/funk combo from Fayetteville, Arkansas. That town has the dubious honor of sitting at the epicenter of contemporary American union busting: Wal-Mart HQ is in nearby Bentonville, and Wal-Mart cofounder Bud Walton used to live there. Is this a cosmic coincidence? Or something more sinister. I am going to try to find out.

The Cate Brothers are no longer very active. But Wal-Mart has moved on in its search for musical compradors, anyways. Now, before I go on, I urge you to have a seat. You should definitely take a moment to prepare yourself for the unfathomable ickyness of what I am about to tell you. Wal-Mart has signed a one-year contract to be the exclusive distributor of Don Henley and The Eagles' next album. I don't even know how to grasp the extreme yuck... ecch... Wal-Mart... Eagles... Wal-Mart... Eagles... Could anything be worse? Maybe Bed, Bath, and Beyond and Mike and the Mechanics? But let it be known that Henley is fighting mad about folks questioning his decision to team up with enviro-criminals Wal-Mart. And Glenn Frey, is, if I remember the video for "The Heat Is On" correctly, totally ripped. He could kick your ass. Henley you could probably take, but as soon as he started singing "The Boys of Summer" you would be mortally weakened... and then he would start crooning that "End of the Innocence" song and you would be dead. Like some mystical Bruce Lee chi-ball action. Mark my words. The Eagles will fuck you up.

Saturday, February 03, 2007

Fatigue and Barbarism Converge

Are weird juxtapositions cool or lame? I don't even know anymore. But I have been thinking about them lately.

Our friend Becky stopped by and played us "The Slack Album," the latest chapter of the Jay-Z "mash-up" saga. You probably remember Danger Mouse's "The Grey Album," which was a clever and surreal crosspollination of Jay-Z's "The Black Album" and The Beatles' "White Album." Well, some wiseacre named DJ N-Wee decided to do Danger Mouse one better and splice "The Black Album" with Pavement's "Slanted and Enchanted." I was mostly entertained by the result. On "13 Jackals, Allure - The Lonesome Era," for instance, the oddness of the original's fuzz-guitar line is ramified by its imbrication in a hip-hop loop. It was a nice reminder of one of the original appeals of Pavement: the fearlessness with which they embraced trashy sonics and formal awkwardness as aesthetic virtues.

Other tracks on "The Slack Album," however, seem to illuminate the very ordinariness of Pavement's musical vision. The strummed clusters of "Here," meant to evoke laughs when situated aside Mr. Hova's rhymes, provide instead a horrible sense of deja vu. For you, it will likely be different. For me: Songbird Music guitar store on Queen West in Toronto in 1998, 81 fellows with clumpy hair playing Neil Young sliding triads against chiming open high E strings on overpriced Fender Jazzmasters through overpriced Hi-Watt stacks. I'm not sure music has ever been worse. Like, The Three Irish Tenors? Probably better.

With weird juxtapositions on the brain, I paused to consider TW Adorno's essay "Valery Proust Museum" (brought to mind by a call for papers in my inbox) and an interview with Texas hip-hopper Pimp C (in AllHip-Hop.Com) that Cogburn was kind enough to send me, even though I owe him 500 emails and 3000 hours of phone catch-up time. Cogburn that is, not Pimp C. Or Adorno. If only I had a friend named Pimp C to whom I owed emails and phone calls! Adorno, even in his current state, would be too high-maintenance to maintain regular correspondence with.

Pimp C's answer to a question about Pro Tools recording software is one of the favorite things I have ever read:

"Do I like Pro-Tools? I like some things about it, but I feel real nervous knowing my songs are still in some motherf**ker’s computer and I can’t even get my s**t out of there when I leave. That s**t is some bulls**t designed by people that like to steal records." As Cogburn likely predicted, this insight sent my intellectual property-addled brain a-reeling. Not only does Pimp C make fascinating connections between uneven property relations, the materiality/ontology of recorded music, and conflicting notions of ownership, but he also points to emerging battles between producers and studio bosses in hip-hop.

On a related note, Pimp C observes that the use of Pro Tools has introduced palpable differences in the sound of hip-hop:

"Do I think that all studios having that computer s**t has cheapened the quality of the music? Of course it has, records don’t sound like they used to bro. There’s too much technology involved and you can hear it. Go listen to some of those old records that we were doing in the studio with SSL boards and a two-inch tape machine. You can hear the difference between that s**t and what these n****s are making right now. The game is popcorn, it’s like comparing something that was cooked in a microwave to something from a gas stove. It might be the same ingredients and even the same recipe, but it don’t taste quite the same in the end. It’s gonna to go back to the real and people are gonna figure it out. It’s all about finding a happy medium between the technology and the old way of doing things. Some will perfect that and some won’t, some just don’t care."

Speaking of weird juxtapositions, "Valery Proust Museum" is Adorno's meditation on the museum and the museumification of culture; and what is a museum but a temple of unintentional weird juxtapositions?

"Museum and mausoleum," Adorno notes, "are connected by more than phonetic association. Museums are like the family sepulchers of works of art. They testify to the neutralization of culture. Art treasures are hoarded in them, and their market value leaves no room for the pleasure of looking at them" For Adorno, the presentation of music is increasingly becoming museum-like: "In efforts to retrieve music from the remoteness of the performance and put it into the immediate context of life there is not only something ineffectual but also a tinge of industriously regressive spite."

Adorno pursues his analysis by contrasting the views of Paul Valery and Marcel Proust on the museum. For the poet Paul Valery, Adorno says, the modern museum sucks the "feudal" delights out of art-viewing. From the "no smoking" signs to the "tumult of frozen creatures each of which demands the non-existence of the others" the museum provides disorientation and anomie, not pleasure and edification. "One does not know why one has come," writes Adorno, "in search of culture or enjoyment, in fulfilment of an obligation, in obedience to a convention... Fatigue and barbarism converge."

Of great interests for our purposes is Valery's comparison of the overhwelmed eye of the museumgoer and the comparatively fortunate ear of the music listener. Notwithstanding Charles Ives, it is true that "no one can ask (the ear) to listen to ten orchestras at once." Nevertheless, the effects of museumification afflict music as well as the plastic arts. The presentation of culture in museums and concert halls weakens our ability to attend to any one work in particular and discern its unique qualities. Adorno detects in Valery a radical Marxist critique of the corrosive political economy of art. Rephrasing Valery's argument, Adorno waxes eloquent on the deadly business of art in the age of capitalism: "Whether artists produce or rich people die, whatever happens is good for the museums. Like casinos, they cannot lose, and that is their curse. For people become hopelessly lost in the galleries, isolated in the midst of so much art... Art becomes a matter of education and information... Education defeats art."

Proust's thoughts on museums, like those of Valery, are motivated by nostalgia. But unlike Valery and his elegy for art displayed within the private artistocratic home, Proust objects to the new bourgeois fashion for art as "trivial decorative display," hung in the dining room to be enjoyed during a meal. Museums for Proust are not the depressing institutions hated by Valery; on the contrary they are spaces of sublime revery. The "masterpiece observed during dinner," Proust wrote, "no longer produces the in us the exhilirating happiness that can be had only in a museum, where the rooms, in their sober abstinence from all decorative detail, symbolize the inner spaces into which the artist withdraws to create the work."

Despite the differences between Valery and Proust, Adorno finds a common thread connecting their thoughts on museums: "they share the presupposition that works of art should be enjoyed." For Adorno, of course, nothing should be enjoyed, except perhaps for Webern bagatelles and run-on sentences. But enjoyment for Valery and enjoyment for Proust are two different things. Valery is interested in art as it captivates the viewer in real time, art that demands "absolute, unwavering concentration"; and since the age of these works is over, there is nothing left to do "but mourn for works as they turn into relics."

Proust, on the other hand, values the retrospective over the immediate. As Adorno writes, "because nothing has significance for him but what has already been mediated by memory, his love dwells on the second life, the one which is already over, rather than on the first... In a famous passage he glorified inferior music for the sake of the listener's memories, which are preserved with far more fidelity and force in an old popular song than in the self-sufficiency of a work by Beethoven."

One of the continuing appeals of Adorno is the sustained negativity of his writing... not in terms of being a "bummer," but in the logical sense of refusing the false resolution of a bogus synthesis. Putting Valery and Proust in tension with one another is not a project undertaken to prove a point: for Adorno, it is the effort of laying out and explicating the contradictions and dilemmas of the contemorary crisis of culture and humanity that is in and of itself productive.

PS: Here are the two orphans left after the editing of this post:

"Gold fronts didn't originate in Texas. My aunties and s**t from Louisiana have golds in their mouths. People in the South have been wearing gold in their mouths for years."

"The only relation to art that can be sanctioned in a reality that stands under the threat of catastrophe is one that treats works of art with the same deadly seriousness that characterizes the world today."

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