Sunday, July 27, 2008

I Pity the Poor Immigrant

So, we have been watching Mad Men. It is just as amazing as everybody says it is. There is a lot more to write about it than I can think through right now, but I wanted to jot down some notes about Mad Men and history, in particular the American relationship with history. (I will proceed as if readers know the basic details of the show, so you might not want to read on if you haven't seen it and want to stay surprised).

Mad Men is centered around Don Draper, a man who has renounced his own past--as a poor son of a prostitute and a cruel father-- in order to become the "man in the grey flannel suit," the "organization man," the "other-directed" bourgeois business man of the Eisenhower era. He brings to mind Thomas McGrath's observation about the contradiction between American individualism and history as the world of collective memory. In the United States, McGrath wrote, "history no longer functions, has been 'paved over.' In the East man begins every day for himself."

This is the stuff of the great American novel, Martin Guerre, the confidence man, David Levinsky, Gatsby, etc. As such, the potential is great for overreach and pretension. But this is avoided, because the world Draper lives in is depicted as terrible: meaningless and stupid, filled with racism and class hatred, misogyny and sexual harassment. The significance of Draper's remaking of himself thus transcends the particular drama of one ad executive's personal journey... it becomes an engagement with the thing in the name of which America's sacrifices (racism, genocide, war-- the horrors of which, always denied in the rhetoric of patriots, provides the spur for Draper's renunciation of his past) have been justified: suburbia, shopping, the white republic. We are left with the distinct impression that this was a bad trade. With the exception of The Sopranos, this is an opinion that is almost never uttered in contemporary American culture, an opinion that the white middle class does not speak. "The rest of the world wants to be like us," they say. Maybe it is this notion that makes it hard to say: "this sucks."

Draper's circumstance calls to mind Bob Dylan's "I Pity the Poor Immigrant," one of the most moving and beguiling songs ever written:

I pity the poor immigrant

Who wishes he would've stayed home,

Who uses all his power to do evil

But in the end is always left so alone.

That man whom with his fingers cheats

And who lies with ev'ry breath,

Who passionately hates his life

And likewise, fears his death.

I pity the poor immigrant

Whose strength is spent in vain,

Whose heaven is like Ironsides,

Whose tears are like rain,

Who eats but is not satisfied,

Who hears but does not see,

Who falls in love with wealth itself

And turns his back on me.

I pity the poor immigrant

Who tramples through the mud,

Who fills his mouth with laughing

And who builds his town with blood,

Whose visions in the final end

Must shatter like the glass.

I pity the poor immigrant

When his gladness comes to pass

In Mad Men, the representative of the singer in "I Pity the Poor Immigrant" is Draper's brother, Adam, who seeks him out in the hopes of an explanation, and whose very existence is a threat to Draper's charade. To Adam, Draper indeed "falls in love with wealth itself" and turns his back on him. Draper tries to pay Adam off to make him go away; he cannot satisfy Adam's desire for historical honesty, for truth and reconciliation. Adam's suicide is thus in a real way a murder, caused by Draper's refusal or inability to provide him with the history he needs.

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Socialism is Love

So I updated my muxtape, because, among other things, I wanted to share my newest obsession, Jamaican (I believe the appelation "roots" is the correct one vis-a-vis reggae terminology, by I have a hard time navigating the nomenclature... mea culpa) singer Max Romeo, and his amazing song, "Socialism is Love." As a socialist, I like this song, and its message, that socialism is love. I really don't need much more than that in a song. Which is a confession of a ridiculously high tolerance for sentimental left wing propaganda, I suppose. At the end of the day, though, I prefer having a high tolerance of sentimental left wing propaganda than a high tolerance for sentiental fascist propaganda, which must be true of my many contemporaries who love Star Wars and Lord of the Rings and Frank Miller. Also, this song is musically remarkable-- it achieves the sublime, wonky, gremlins-at-the-pitch-wheel-and-reverb-knob effect that otherwise can only be found in the work of Joe Meek and the musicians of the Rat-Drifting persuasion.

According to Jamaican music expert Steve Barrow, Max Romeo was born Max Smith in 1944,
the eldest of nine children. He acquired the nickname "Romeo" from the father of a would-be girlfriend, which stuck when his producer Bunny Lee began to call him "Max Romeo." In the early 1970s he began carving out an identity as a "militant singer"-- singing about "what's happening for the people to hear... the prices too high, things are too hard and what have you." Romeo told Barrow that in those days, people listened to singers "to tell them what's happening." At around the same time, he began working with Lee "Scratch" Perry and Winston "Niney" Holness.

Barrow writes that in late 1971, Romeo recorded a song called "Let the Power Fall on I," which was picked up by Michael Manley's People's National Party (PNP) and played during campaign events in 1972. Many of the songs that Romeo recorded in the years after 1972-- a period of intense working class self-activity following the PNP landslide electoral victory- were penned as agitprop for Manley and the PNP, celebrating "Joshua" (Manley's political moniker) and condemning "Pharaoh" (Manley's rival Hugh Shearer of the Jamaican Labor Party).

Barrow quotes Romeo on this period: "The first year or so, people was questioning what’s happening, is this ‘socialism’ ? Those songs were actually encouraging him. (Manley) was an idol of mine; I had to come up with other songs to build up his confidence. It goes on for a while too, with (songs like ) 'Socialism Is Love.'"

Romeo's connection with the PNP became less direct over the course of the 1970s, but his music remained politically militant, if increasingly voiced in a Rastafarian idiom: in songs like anti-clerical "The Reverend" and on "concept albums like "Revelation Time," recorded at Perry's legendary Black Ark Studio. Romeo noted that "Revelation Time" was "really a revolutionary album. It came from 1972, when we had a revolutionary movement, with Mr Michael Manley trying to change society from capitalism to socialism. At the time I was socialist-minded - because it’s the only form of poor people government, socialism."

I should make some notes on the other tracks, though unfortunately I am too tired to really annotate:
The Raincoats song is awesome; the Neil Young track is from a soundboard recording of a show from the early 1970s I found online... it seems to me like the sort of thing that some of my friends would like; The Byrds track is also from a bootleg... the sound quality isn't amazing, and the band is incredibly out of tune, but this one of my favorite alltime songs, even if it might seem initially just another mesh trucker hat americana ballad, it is not at all that (and has the same "minor literature" quality as songs like You Got the Silver, which proves that Keith is the genius singer of the Stones, or Stage Fright, which proves that Danko was the Band's best singer, of Box of Rain, similarly demostrating that Phil Lesh was the best singer of the Grateful Dead), sung by Clarence White, perhaps my favorite musician ever, with barely a syllable legible as English, my favorite kind of singing, and concluding with some beautiful telecasterage; Harvey Mandel's Wade In the Water is a slice of amazing instrumental fuzz rock from the masterpiece instrumental record Christo Redentor; Swamp Dogg's take on John Prine's Sam Stone is baffling and heart breaking and miraculous; Madvillian speaks for itself; Pentangle's Willy of Winsbury makes me nostalgic for days with Eric and Martin and is included mostly for Nick's benefit-- might be too flooffy for him, but it strikes me as maybe the sort of thing he would like... this is also a radical socialist song, part of the Child ballad song-family that celebrates love over power and property; Wynn Stewart's song can only be heard as heartbreakingly ironic, I think, and I am on a one man campaign to get people to recognize the greatness of Stewart, the least-celebrated of the Bakersfield country masters (the steel on this track is awesome, as well)... this makes me nostalgic for Austin honky tonks... and I left the Nic Jones up because it is so hard to find and so wonderfully wonderful. Maybe I will make another muxtape with highlights from this record.
Oh, and everybody should pick up Peter Linebaugh's book The Magna Carta Manifesto: a 1000 year history of the commons, which could be subtitled "socialism is love."

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