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“It’s affected me in a way that I don’t understand, so that my reactions to things aren’t, um… the same as they used to…”
– Nick Cave in One More Time With Feeling

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Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds performing “Girl in Amber” on June 3rd, 2017, at the Masonic Temple in Detroit.

Trauma changes people.

Some of the changes it brings are seemingly minor: maybe we become a little more aware of our surroundings, or we no longer crave the food we were eating around the time of the traumatic event. Many changes tend to be life-altering—as captured by John Cale and Lou Reed in their final collaborative tribute to Andy Warhol, following the pop artist’s tragic death at the age of 58. Their achingly composed musical eulogy (Songs For Drellaculminates with the unforgettable impression of a train—never mentioned in the words of the song, but depicted vividly in the rhythmic chord modulations hammered out by Cale on piano. As assorted memories of the Factory (its characters and its products) flow together in an increasingly persistent stream of consciousness (also recalling the image of a train), Cale intones: “The whole thing quickly receding/My life disappearing/disappearing from view/Forever changed, forever changed/I left my old life behind and was forever changed.”

In the most memorable couplet of the song, he insists that: “Only art can see me through/Only heart can see me through.”

And I defy the world to challenge his conclusion.

* * *

“I’m transforming
I’m vibrating
Look at me now”
– “Jubilee Street,” by Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds

On July 14th, 2015, Arthur Cave—son of the prolific and revered singer/songwriter Nick Cave—fell to his death from a cliff at Ovingdean, near the family’s home town of Brighton. The following year, a documentary film (One More Time With Feeling) was released in conjunction with the 16th studio album by Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds, titled Skeleton Tree. On the night of the film’s worldwide release (initially indicated to be the only opportunity the general public might have to see it), I attended a screening at a peculiar little “independent film multiplex” in Columbus, Ohio, accompanied by my life partner and a pair of of dear friends—one of whom had turned me on to the annihilating merits of Cave and his extraordinary band, some years back. The screening took place Thursday, September 8th. The infamous U.S. presidential election of 2016 was nearing its anxiety-ridden apex, and I recall sitting there in a perplexed and tired state of in-between-ness. Before the film had started to roll, I found myself thinking of the river Styx, and of an earlier Nick Cave album, The Boatman’s Call—titled after that Mythical figure that is said to accompany departing souls, as they venture from this life into the underworld.

I remember the lights going dim in the theater, and the usual procession of “if you like this, you might also enjoy…” advertisements, which (unfortunately) seems to accompany every human experience these days. I then recall hearing the voice of Warren Ellis, before his face had even appeared on the screen—big and dear as life itself. At the film’s start, he is doing his part in an interview with the film’s director, Andrew Dominik. He describes the opening track of the as-of-yet-unheard album, and recalls a sense of eeriness while listening to the completed album with the band; for this first track is said to begin with someone falling out of the sky, and crash-landing to the ground. The filmmaker presses Warren slightly, inquiring whether he would be interested in describing the incident in greater detail: there’s a hint of tabloid journalism in Dominik’s request, but his inclusion of the question (along with Warren’s respectful refusal) seems to indicate a latent understanding of his own faux pas. Warren proceeds to explain: “I can’t imagine how you navigate such a thing… um, and, you know, I just can’t even fathom it… and watching this thing happen, just, to people that you love is… um, it doesn’t even… I don’t think it even makes you any… gives you any insight, really, into it. Because there’s a step with it you can’t… you can’t go.”

Shortly after making this hesitant—yet perfectly lucid—statement, Dominik encounters some technical difficulties with the 3-D technology of the film’s format (a recurring motif, as we soon realize); both he and Warren step out of the vehicle in which the interview is being conducted, leaving the focus puller to work his magic on the 3-D camera. The screen goes dark again, and we hear the sound of irritability merging with conscientiousness, as Warren explains (in a somewhat terse tone) that he is struggling to find the right approach when fielding some of the deeply personal questions being posed by Dominik. As the remainder of the film unfolds, the perfection of this introduction reveals itself to the viewer, seeing as how no one who is interviewed herein—much less Cave himself; or Susie, his wife—seems to be in any position to offer expert insight into the trauma lying at the core of the film (which, appropriately enough, remains unspoken throughout the majority of its running length).

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Warren Ellis, working on songs for the Skeleton Tree album in Andrew Dominik’s film One More Time With Feeling. © 2016, Picturehouse Entertainment.

What we are left with, in lieu of analytic comprehension, is a crystal clear perception of the change this tragedy has brought about in the lives of all those involved. Perhaps the most telling observation of all is disclosed about an hour into the documentary, when we hear Cave expound briefly on the link between Arthur’s passing and the Skeleton Tree album: “great trauma isn’t actually, uh… a very good thing. Sometimes, you know, we all wish we had something to write about… Trauma, I think, in the way that this happened, and the events that happened, um… it was extremely damaging to the creative process.” (He later expands upon this observation, explaining how the trauma came to occupy such a vast space, there was scarcely any room left for the creative process to unfold.) And indeed, looking back on the performances showcased throughout the film, the viewer can trace the troubled evolution of the eight tracks on the album—notably, perhaps, the shortest and least verbose of all the Bad Seeds’ studio albums to date. We see a fledgling attempt by Cave and Ellis to find their way into the title track, which is here performed as a pensive (if confused) dirge—Cave sticking to a downward progression of minor chords; Ellis fidgeting with different patches on the effects pedal for his violin, sounding jarringly electric in counterpoint. As we discover at the illuminating close of the film, this is a startling contrast to the finished result: a vast, pastoral, gorgeous fusion of words and music—made of the simplest (and by extension, the truest) chord progressions, now placed in the hopeful harbor of a major key.

As Cave repeats meditatively, in a recitation from an earlier scene in the picture: “There is more paradise in hell than we’ve been told.”

* * *

It’s nearing midnight on a Monday in June, and I just finished watching Richard Linklater’s second entry in the Before film trilogy, Before Sunset. I first saw the film at my local art theater, at the time of its initial theatrical run (during the Summer of 2004); I had seen it one or two additional times on home video, but seeing it tonight felt like seeing it for the first time. Perhaps it was the companionship of my life partner—absent from that initial viewing, as we had not yet met—that made this screening so different. Maybe it was the fact that we had, in fact, seen the final entry (Before Midnight) together in 2013, in the very same theater that I had seen the second entry with a friend some years back. Or maybe it was the simple fact that I have grown older; that my relationship to the film—which is, ultimately, about time’s passage—is evolving. Like those oscillating paperweights (the ones with metal rings, ranging in size, that sway concentrically around each other), swinging incessantly within themselves. Finally, I am struck by a recognition of how I, myself, have been altered by trauma; and how this change, in addition to the changes of time (and the change of one’s relationship status) inevitably alters our perception of life itself.

I find it significant to note that trauma comes in different shapes and sizes. For instance, there is the immediate trauma of being assaulted; there is also the profound trauma inherent to the premature death of a loved one. There is the equally profound, but frequently more scattered trauma of a natural disaster—or an act of terrorism. Then there is the experience of vicarious trauma, whereby individuals are exposed to a series of traumatic incidents (or, conversely, bear witness to a singular and majorly traumatic event). In all instances, the individual is affected irrevocably—on the psychological, the emotional, and even the physical level. Of course, this isn’t to say that recovery from trauma is implausible; for if this were the case, the trauma of leaving the womb would be an experience we humans could not recover from (then again, some will argue this as the injury at the core of the human condition). Nonetheless, trauma changes us; and like the oscillating rings of a paperweight, we must re-calibrate—in order to swing back towards that initial point of divergence. Unlike the paperweight, though, we never return to the exact point of origin in recovering from a traumatic experience: we cannot, for it is no longer there to be recovered. In such instances, and as the late David Bowie memorably sang at the start of his 2002 studio album, Heathen: “Nothing has changed/Everything has changed.”

I was struck by a variety of moments throughout the course of Linklater’s film, my mind and soul renewed as I reacquainted myself with its beauty at this later age. One moment that struck me as particularly memorable occurred towards the film’s start, as Jesse (Ethan Hawke)—one of the film’s two protagonists—fields questions at a book signing in Paris. Asked about the possible subject of his next book, Jesse explains how he is intrigued by the notion of writing a novel that takes place within the length of a pop song: one single song that could encompass “the sum of all the moments of our lives” (a quotation of Thomas Wolfe’s). It reminded me of something Nick Cave talks about near the start of One More Time With Feeling—something about the elasticity of time, and an email exchange on the subject between himself and a friend: Cave recounts how this friend was fascinated by the idea “that all things were happening, all the time;” that neanderthals are copulating at the same time that scientists are planning to colonize Mars; or if one were to connect this idea with Jesse’s reading of Thomas Wolfe (or Borges’s reading of Zeno’s paradox; or Joyce’s Ulysses), that a pop song might contain the entirety of human experience. Cave jokingly scraps the idea in his voice-over: “That is encouraging, right? And I think he meant well, but… it’s not true, because… if everything was happening now, I wouldn’t be sitting here waiting for the film crew to work out how to work this ridiculous 3-D black and white camera.” He completes his counter-argument by asserting drolly: “Right now, nothing is happening.”

 

It’s an argument one could easily level against Linklater’s trilogy of films—a trilogy about the miracle of human connection, the melancholy of separation, and the inscrutable phenomenon of time itself: for apart from the walking, the talking, and the arguing, very little actually happens. But as I lay there on the couch, enraptured by the pure poetry of film—seen through the eyes of Linklater, Hawke, and Julie Delpy (our other protagonist)—I could not bring myself to accept Cave’s simplified negation of such a beautiful idea. As though to reinforce the idea’s validity, the film ends with Jesse putting on a Nina Simone CD in Celine/Delpy’s Parisian apartment: the song is “Just In Time,” recorded live in 1961 at Village Gate in New York City. It transports both of our protagonists back to the time of their initial meeting, which was depicted in the first part of the trilogy (on a train, nonetheless—that most symbolic of all transportation modes); it simultaneously transports them to the more recent memory of Simone’s passing in 2003, at the premature age of 70. Jesse bemoans the fact that he never had a chance to see her in concert; Celine recalls having seen her twice in Paris, and then proceeds to expound upon the brilliance of these shows—re-enacting her memory of Simone’s performance while listening to a recording from decades prior (even re-creating Simone’s slow dance away from the piano, confronting the audience in one of her renowned acts of self-interruption). Celine then brings us back to the present, as she teasingly observes that her old flame is about to miss a scheduled flight back to the U.S. Jesse shrugs; the camera’s eye turns back to Celine dancing, eventually fading out into the end credits.

I’m reminded of another anecdote about Nina Simone, recounted by Warren Ellis in that other recent Nick Cave documentary, 20,000 Days on Earth. During a casual conversation with Cave around his kitchen table, Warren Ellis recounts a performance of “Dr. Simone”’s that they had both attended some time prior: Cave recalls the legendary artist taking a wad of chewing gum out of her mouth at the start of the show, sticking it on the piano; Warren one-ups his friend’s recollection by explaining that he retrieved this same wad of gum, and has preserved it in the cloth that Simone used to wipe her brow during that night’s performance. Cave asserts his jealousy, and Warren proceeds to recall how Simone had been brewing in her dressing room before the performance, “looking really pissed off and not wanting to be there:” when asked by a stage hand if there was anything she needed, she memorably responded, “I’d like some champagne, some cocaine, and some sausages.” He prefaces the anecdote by explaining that her performance was “one of the greatest things I’ve ever seen.”

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Everything happening all at once, during Cave’s live rendition of “Skeleton Tree.”

Having never seen Nina Simone perform live (or David Bowie, for that matter) during the artist’s time on this planet, I am comforted by the notion that everything is happening at once. That while the world is being assaulted by a vast array of traumatic events on an hourly basis, I am simultaneously in the audience of Simone’s powerful Carnegie Hall performances, recorded in the Spring of 1964 for her In Concert album. And I am also in the crowd of David Bowie’s concert performances from the Spring of 1978, each time I dust off my copy of Stage. On the more mournful side of this incalculable equation, I find myself recalling Nick Cave’s performance of songs from the Skeleton Tree album (and beyond) during a recent concert I attended at the Masonic Temple in Detroit. I close my eyes, recalling how I had lost myself during the performance of “I Need You,” tears streaming forcefully down my cheeks—collecting in the palms of my hands. As Cave intoned each perfect word in the song—which includes such unfathomably gorgeous phrases as “I saw you standing there in the supermarket/with your red dress falling;” and “a long black car is waiting ’round/I will miss you when you’re gone/I’ll miss you when you’re gone away forever”—I inevitably thought of Arthur. And of David, and of Nina; and of a world in disarray, spinning away from its axis. I thought of my loved ones—my partner sitting next to me; my hand moving to his side, bracing for support. And I fall apart in the beauty and the sadness of it all: the entirety of life’s sorrow, contained within the length of a pop song.

Several hours before the show’s start, we were alarmed to read the headlines of a developing news story: another terrorist attack in England, this time directed at unsuspecting pedestrians on London bridge. As we sat in the balcony, waiting for the show to begin, there was a strangely oppressive tension in the air (exacerbated by the disorganization of the venue, which was clearly under-staffed—swarmed by confused attendees, searching in vain for their assigned seats): a few minutes before the band took the stage, one attendee (who we assumed to be struggling with some form of mental illness) started screaming irrational profanities at the top of her lungs. She kept at it throughout the concert, and we wound up migrating to a different set of seats by the fourth song. But driving back from the event, a friend who had joined us for the pilgrimage remarked upon how “surprisingly calm” he felt by the show’s end (the reader should here bear in mind that the penultimate track of the night was the exuberantly vulgar and intense “Stagger Lee”). Indeed, it was a shared sentiment. For there was something in the way Cave had wandered out into the crowd for the closing number (“Push the Sky Away,” an anthem of resiliency in the face of conformity and complacency). Even with his forceful request—directed at his band—to “start the fucking song,” the performance comprised a lasting moment of utmost serenity. “I was riding, I was riding home/The sun, the sun, the sun was rising from the field…”

Here was a longed-for point of convergence—a union between life’s sorrow and joy: the oscillating rings of human experience in a place of rest, at last. And now the tables have turned, and it is we who are pushing away at the horizons that attempted to shake us from ourselves.

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A panoramic view from above, as Nick performs the set’s closing number (“Push the Sky Away”) within the embrace of the crowd.

Upon returning to our hotel room, and endeavoring to put our perceptions of this earth-shattering performance into some kind of perspective, we found ourselves inescapably remarking upon the change we both recognized (between this and the previous two occasions on which we had the joy of seeing this band perform live). I commented on the palpable distance during the first two numbers of the night—“Anthrocene” and “Jesus Alone,” both off Skeleton Tree. Whereas in past concerts, Cave made clear from the outset the current of electricity between himself and his audience, this introduction felt more contained; more internalized. Much of “Jesus Alone” (the song that begins with the description of a figure who “fell from the sky/crash landed in a field/near the river Adur”) was performed with eyes closed—a ghostly projection of Cave’s face spread against the backdrop of the enormous Temple stage. “With my voice/I am calling you,” he mourned.

I cannot, with any degree of certainty, pinpoint the exact moment when the dam broke—when the artist gave way to the starved energy of his fans. All I can say is that it felt less like an act of possession than an act of submission; as if, for the first time in my experience of his live performances, Cave actually needed us as much as we needed him. He went on to assert, at several intervals throughout the performance: “I love you all… and I mean it.” He even commented playfully on how “beautiful” Warren Ellis was, as a person, pausing to remark upon the loveliness of his violin solo during “The Weeping Song.” And when he merged with the crowd at night’s end, it bore little resemblance to the time he advanced menacingly upon us, during an especially cacophonous performance of “From Her to Eternity” in Louisville. Instead, he seemed to be offering us what we had craved the most: a sense of unity. Unity of mind and spirit; unity of the individual self with the collective of humankind. We both remarked upon how Cave had provided a more explicit level of band-leading throughout the evening, directing Thomas to play more softly during “Tupelo”—or asking George to “take it easy” when re-booting “The Mercy Seat” (after an initial misfire): Craig observed it was as though he was “herding the rest of his flock, after having lost one of the herd.”

And as I lay my head down to sleep for the night, I thought of the final moment in One More Time With Feeling—when the credits roll over an otherworldly recording of Arthur, singing Marianne Faithfull’s beautifully maudlin “Deep Water:” “I’m walking through deep water/It’s all that I can do/I’m walking through deep water/Trying to get to you.” I thought of the river Styx and The Boatman’s Call—songs of mourning that Cave had released some twenty years prior. And as I sit here in the midst of this moment (and the eternal moment that contains all moments—present, future, and past; the latter two having been postulated by Borges [see pp. 123-139] to be entirely conjectural, and therefore irrelevant), I return to the beautiful words sung by Nina Simone in 1961:

“Just in time
you found me just in time
Before you came/my time was running low
I was lost/them losing dice were tossed
My bridges all were crossed/nowhere to go
Now you’re here
Now I know just where I’m going”

* * *

Towards the end of Dominik’s film, Nick confides (with a tone of cautious optimism) that he and Susie have “decided to be happy… like an act of revenge, of defiance; to care for each other and the ones around us.” Earlier on, he recites a movingly humorous piece of ad-libbing (titled “Steve McQueen”), wherein he observes that “everyone out here does mean, and everyone out here does pain/But someone’s got to sing the stars, and someone’s got to sing the rain… And someone’s got to sing the blood, and someone’s got to sing the pain.”

I still recall the drive back from that first screening of the film, this last September: the four of us were frozen in a state of contemplation, imagining aloud what the album might sound like on its own terms. The following morning, we rushed out to our local record store the minute it opened. Upon returning home from work, Craig and I put the needle on and absorbed the songs, basking in their simple openness—still haunted by the memory of the telling interviews laced throughout the documentary, and those final images of the cliffs at Ovingdean. And as I look back on the film, the record, the concert, and Simone’s song, time folds in on itself. Inexorably, I find myself returning to the labyrinthine writing of Borges, as he contemplates eternity in the all-encompassing moment:

“When we can feel this oneness, time is a delusion which the indifference and inseparability of a moment from its apparent yesterday and from its apparent today suffice to disintegrate.”

And yet again, everything is happening, all at once.

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Nick Cave at the piano in One More Time With Feeling. © 2016, Picturehouse Entertainment.

Indigestion’s a pain.

I found myself in the midst of an especially bad bout last night, tossing and turning in bed, struggling to fall back asleep. In such instances, I occasionally find myself achieving a heightened level of awareness and concentration: as if hyper-awareness of one’s natural (or unnatural, as the case might be) biological functions carried with it an increased sensitivity to other surrounding circumstances.

In this instance, I found myself dwelling upon a recent essay in-progress, which seems to be going nowhere slow. The subject of my reluctant essay is the suburban experience (more specifically: American films that have explored suburban themes in a Mythical vein). It’s one of those frustrating instances where the writer knows what he wants to convey—even how he wants to convey it—but once all the pieces are lined up together, they no longer convey what was meant to be conveyed.

I’m reminded now of a startling incident that occurred earlier in my workday, as I was driving a client back to her residence—which was located in a somewhat run-down suburban neighborhood. As we drove past some smartly structured houses, I offered some casual observations to break the silence of the drive—small talk about some of the more striking residences, many of which featured alarmingly pointed rooftops. It was then that my client interjected a most unexpected anecdote: “Yeah… A lady shot her two kids in the head last night, over there by that school. I guess she had told the cops the world was a terrible place, and she didn’t want them living in it anymore.”

Understandably, I found myself at a loss to form a suitable response. I’m certain I said something nominal and insufficient, something along the lines of “that’s horrific,” or “how terrible.” It was a jolting reminder of just how fleeting and cruel this life can be. It also underscored the inadequacy of my writings on suburbia, which paled in comparison to this shocking anecdote—having failed to represent the surreal perversity of the suburban experience, in its full scope. A recently released Sun Kil Moon record came to mind, as well. In the opening track, “God Bless Ohio” (a follow-up, of sorts, to the preceding “Carry Me Ohio”), songwriter Mark Kozelek pays tribute to the Northern gothic elements of Midwestern living, touching upon a range of suburban issues: alcoholism; A.A. meetings; the loneliness of being a child; nursing homes; psychotherapy; human trafficking; mass killings.

Maybe I should just scrap my essay and let Kozelek’s song speak for me, instead.


Sleeplessness has been a recurring motif of 2017 for me. During the day, I frequently find myself struggling to concentrate on basic tasks—easily distracted by the latest development in the investigation of our president’s relationship with Russian oligarchs and government operatives, as well as the on-going toll of devastation mounted by a conscience-free Congress and an administrative agenda fueled by corporate greed, short-term private gain, and a stiff middle finger to the vast majority of our country’s population. I was struck by a recent episode of Bill Maher’s show on HBO, in which Dr. Cornel West and David Frum were guest panelists. In an exchange that was (admittedly) cringe-worthy at times, Maher and West sparred on the subject of the 2016 election: West, who was outspokenly opposed to another Clinton presidency, stood by his idealistic decision to not vote for either of the primary candidates; Maher challenged his decision with an itemization of some notable areas in which the two primary candidates differed from one another, with an emphasis on the compounded harm being inflicted upon minority groups by 45.

Hearing Cornel West’s voice rarely fails to bring me joy: his combination of humor, zeal, and intellect is unsurpassed by his few peers, and his perspective is fiery but reasonable. Watching him spar with Maher on this issue brought to light the deeply personal nature of his investment in politics, and I found myself torn between two equally impassioned points of view. As I think back on the debate, I’m struck by the awkward correlation between religion and politics in this country. Apart from the obvious investment of religious power in American politics, it strikes me that politicians in this country are frequently placed on a similar plane to religious leaders: they are often evaluated as much on abstract moral principles (or lack thereof), as they are on competencies and qualifications. West makes it clear during the debate that his opposition to Hillary Clinton was of a moral nature—a perceived “lack of integrity,” as he defined it. On the flip-side of the argument, we find the pragmatism of the vehemently atheistic Maher, who is able and willing to look past the character flaws of a given politician in order to hone in on the practical, real-life outcomes of their stances and actions.

Setting aside my love of Dr. West (and that tremendous laughter of his), I cannot help but feel a sense of exasperation at our country’s obsession with bringing religion into all facets of life. I’m reminded of an observation shared by a philosophy professor I had in college, who attended multiple symposiums at home and abroad, only to find that European nations have little (if any) of the political hang-ups our country has developed in this regard. Theories of evolution and creationism coexist peaceably; women, atheists, and non-Christian theists are allowed to hold public office without controversy; and outside the Vatican (a unique religious outlier, if ever there was one), it’s unanimously agreed that religion ought not to be a deciding factor in economic and social policy. I think of David Fincher’s American film masterpiece, Se7en, in which the seven deadly sins of Christian folklore provide the foundation for a rigorously coherent series of horrific murders. I think also of real-life horrors committed by the Ku Klux Klan (a white Christian organization); the so-called “conversion therapies” imposed upon gay people in Christian communities; the persecution of victims of rape, in an assortment of forms, under the alarming guise that their assaults may have been “God’s will;” the historical genocide of Native American people, performed in the name of a Christian God and country.

“God bless Ohio
God bless every man
Woman and child
God bless every bag of bones, six feet under the snow
God bless O
God bless O
God bless Ohio”

I think of the recent terrorist attack in Manchester, which stole the lives of 22 unsuspecting concertgoers and injured 120 others. (I will refrain from making mention here of the terrorists responsible for the attack, or the religion of which their organization is a perverse offshoot, seeing as how they have gathered sufficient negative publicity over the years—and it doesn’t seem to be helping any. Perhaps it is best to remove the plank from one’s own eye, first.) I think of all the different religions in the world that provide a foundation for the most appalling crimes against humanity, and I think of the unscrupulous support lent to our current administration by millions of American Christians. I think of that genius of early American cinema, Ernst Lubitsch—having just watched Trouble in Paradise for the first time the night prior. I think of the excruciating cleverness of Lubitsch’s characters; the hilariously amoral, yet totally functional relationships they foster and maintain with one another. I think of Jorge Luis Borges’s beautiful and unassuming essays, compiling assorted theories of eternity and ontology: the power of the human mind to overcome the self-inflicted impositions of religion—and the seeming refusal of the human spirit to embrace the assets of pragmatism. I think of Morrissey’s early song for The Smiths (“Suffer Little Children”) about two highly pragmatic, non-religious sociopaths from a separate, but equally dark chapter in Manchester’s history (Ian Brady and Myra Hindley). I think of the silence on the moors where their innocent victims were slaughtered; I think of the screams and explosions that jolted Manchester Arena on this god-forsaken Monday night. I think also of the solace offered during a non-religious vigil held in Manchester on Tuesday, to mourn lost lives and lost innocence; and the open gestures of solidarity extended by individuals and cities around the world—none of which required the pretense of religion to achieve their intended message.

Oh, human (t)error:
So much to answer for.


I’ve thought a lot (and continue to think) about the ways in which the jolt of last year’s election outcome sent shockwaves pulsing through every facet of the American experience—many of which we have yet to fully appreciate (or, in some cases, even to recognize). I’ve noticed tiny paradigm-shifts taking place in areas of everyday life, some of which are so minute they might be disputed as misperceptions. For instance, there’s the weekly program CBS Sunday Morning, formerly hosted by Charles Osgood and currently represented by Jane Pauley: previous segments on ecology and environmental issues have accentuated the well-documented, factual impact of climate change upon different parts of the planet (many of which provide source material for the show’s closing “moment of nature”). In the most recently aired episode, Jane visits the city of Amsterdam, where she is forced (as commentator) to acknowledge certain obvious changes in the landscape—including a visible rise in the sea level, and subsequent changes in irrigation. A phrase she uses in this segment has been stuck in my mind all week: “whatever the cause.” As in, “whatever the cause of these changes…” As if the matter were still up for debate.

I think of the shifts in media coverage that have historically accompanied drastic regime changes in different countries throughout the world. I wonder to myself how long it might have taken for Mussolini’s state-operated propaganda machine to fully infiltrate popular Italian knowledge, or for Lenin to convince his minions of the evils of Western living.

I imagine this essay reading like a poor man’s attempt at a Mark Kozelek ramble. I’m reminded, again, of my meandering essay on the suburban experience—and how truly difficult it can be to write about something when you actually have some pre-existing knowledge of it (in contrast to the old adage). In a way, such a task is even more difficult than writing about the unfamiliar: at least then, one can quite easily acknowledge and convey the limitations of one’s lived experience. But in the case of a subject that lies close to home, the writer is expected to have some sort of preternatural grasp on the topic—a near-omniscient, no-stone-left-unturned level of understanding. Maybe this is why so many Americans are turned off when a politician fails to publicly answer a question with utmost knowledge and understanding of their personal interests: instead, they’re expected to be godlike magicians, sauntering into town on the campaign trail and telling everyone exactly what they need (or, more commonly, want) to hear. God forbid a politician should ever be heard saying those three dreaded words: “I don’t know.” Far better to hear someone say: “I am your voice… I alone can fix it.

* * *

I think of the recent return of David Lynch and Mark Frost’s much-beloved television series, Twin Peaks. I think of what a tremendous joy it was, watching those first two hours of this new 18-part series—momentarily forgetting about issues of popularized ignorance and man-made atrocity (of both the religious and the non-religious variety). I’m grateful for creators—true creators—like Lynch and Frost, who seemingly have made it their lot in life to build upon and restore popularity to Myth (the only human creation that continues to transcend pure reason and pure religion). It makes me feel lucky to be alive, to witness the brilliant and awe-inspiring fruits of their efforts. I hope these efforts—and the efforts of other keepers of the flame—are ample enough to keep the Myth alive, for all the atrocities that are coming down the pipeline.

And I continue trying to shake my hyper-awareness of how terrible things have gotten. I continue trying to just live life, for what it’s worth, and not let it bring me down. But damn: indigestion’s a pain.

As the world continues to spiral into greater levels of global chaos, I find myself contemplating all of the common responses to the state of current affairs. In my previous essay, 45, Medea’s rage, and the sinking ship of American culture, I confronted the more nonchalant of these responses—that “nothing has really changed; it’s just business as usual.” This time around, I’d like to confront another common response that I’ve heard from several on-the-political-fence individuals—a contingent I often seek perspective and independent analysis from, taking into account the proposed neutrality of their socio-political stances. The response I’m referring to can be paraphrased as follows: “At the end of the day, we all want the same basic things for ourselves and for our loved ones. It’ll all work itself out.”

The first time I heard this response, I nodded in silent agreement, and thought to myself: you know? You’re right. What are we fighting for, if we all want the same basic things? But later, as I walked away from the individual providing this kernel of proposed wisdom, the flaw in their line of reasoning expanded—to the point where I could outline an entire chasm separating this pat observation from our observable reality. By the time I had thought it through from a variety of angles, the allegation seemed outright ludicrous. After all: is not the crux of political discourse that we don’t all agree on what we want for ourselves and our loved ones? Isn’t that why we (used to) teach civics in school, and have debate teams, and engage in reasoned dialogue surrounding the unanswerable but imperative question: How are we going to share in the direction of our society?

While I readily concede there are some basic human necessities we all share (food, water, shelter, and oxygen), I find it worth noting that even these universally accepted basics—the founding level of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs—are being called into question in our current state of affairs. Consider climate change—the most severe and defining issue of our time: the volume of individuals denying statistical evidence that our climate is changing, and that human beings are one of the biggest contributing factors (evidence that has now officially been removed from the EPA’s government website), indicates a disregard for the requirement of food and oxygen in the future. Likewise, passing legislation that would encourage and enable the contamination of our water supply (such as the decision to reverse policies preventing coal companies from dumping waste in our rivers) flies in the face of our shared need for potable water. At the end of the day, if we cannot agree that we need to conserve the planet, and preserve the natural resources that are essential to human sustenance (instead of flying off to Mars in one of Elon Musk’s space shuttles—where we may or may not find water); if we cannot agree on this, can we truly reach an agreement on anything? (And since when did the upkeep of planet Earth cease to be a non-negotiable for U.S. voters?)

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Thousands of protesters marched on April 22nd in support of evidenced-based reality; this is a snapshot of the rally held in Portland, OR. Photo by Alex Milan Tracy, courtesy of CNN and the Associated Press.

To build upon the foundation laid down in my previous essay (surrounding the two definitions of the word “myth,” which I will continue to differentiate as upper-case Myth vs. lower-case myth), it seems to me we are living through an era defined by myths. First, there is the myth that climate change (despite the overwhelming abundance of facts supporting its reality—let alone the observable reality of rising temperatures and increasingly erratic weather patterns) is a conspiracy developed by the Chinese, or by the liberal elite (the jury is still out as to which was the primary perpetrator, as I understand it). Second, the myth that we “all want the same basic things”—which once could have been categorized as an upper-case Myth, but as we can see from recent polls of public opinion, is no longer eligible for widespread consensus. Third, we have the dual myths surrounding issues of civil rights: on the Right, there is the myth that institutionalized racism, sexism, and homophobia (among other common discriminatory pretenses) do not actually exist; on the Left, the myth that prejudice can be wiped out by policing language and forcing the acceptance of cultural diversity through mainstreaming. In my own analysis, these are two of the most significant and detrimental of our current myths, so I’m going to devote another paragraph to defining them more clearly. In order to accomplish this, I find it is necessary to frame these myths in the context of the broader Myth they belie; by this, I’m referring to the Myth of freedom.

Like all (lower-case) myths, every Myth carries with it a note of unreality. The key difference between the two categories (M vs. m) lies in how the unreality is addressed. In the case of myths, the unreality inevitably provides a foundation for stupidity. Example given: a man believes in the myth that all young African-American males (especially those wearing hoodies) are up to no good—that they present a threat to the integrity of the community, and that this threat needs to be eliminated. This false belief leads to the callous and stupid act of murdering innocent young black men, under the horrific pretext of “standing one’s ground.” On the flip-side, Myths address the unreality by acknowledging the distance between reality and the Myth. For example: the Myth of freedom, as espoused by the founding fathers, indicates that it comes at a cost—that wars (civil and otherwise) are sometimes fought to preserve this abstract ideal, and to continually close the distance between the American reality and the American Myth. There is nobility in the Myth, even when it is of a purely quixotic variety, and even when it is pursued by erroneous means; there can never be nobility in myths, since they are fundamentally, intrinsically wrong.

Which brings us to the final, most devastating myth we are currently faced with: the myth (still held tight by many) that 45 is going to “Make America Great Again.” This myth can easily and readily be held up against the proven, objective reality that 45 cares for no one’s interests outside of his own, and that his own interests (which are profit- and ratings-driven) do not reflect the stated interests of his adoring minions. But just as with George Zimmerman and the late Treyvon Martin, the myth of the “great white hope” has provided the foundation for stupidity of a caliber we have not seen here in decades. And likewise, the liberal myth that mainstreaming diversity is not just a means to an end, but an end in and of itself, has proven fertile soil for many a stupid action and response on the Left. Ultimately, all of these myths present grossly miscalculated efforts to arrive at the Myth of freedom—without any of the legwork that history has proven crucial to its pursuit. They are wild goose chases disguised as shortcuts, and while at times the intentions of their travelers are entirely malevolent (as can be seen with 45’s “basket of deplorables”—the racists, misogynists, and ideological lunatics who congregate around the comparably ordinary and delusional Republicans at his rallies), one occasionally spots a kernel of good intent in a person wandering down one of these deceptive detours.

For instance, it appears to me that the current myth, “we all want the same basic things for ourselves,” is a desperate but worthy attempt—by concerned, confused citizens—to consolidate and process the disorienting array of recent events. It’s the nautical equivalent of clinging to a buoy in the middle of a raging hurricane, hoping it will provide a safe harbor; a beacon of stability until the storm blows over. At best, it’s an expression of solidarity: at worst, a cop-out. Ultimately, I suppose the very fact that so many people are turning to this same beacon for solace proves there is some legitimacy to its proposition. But seeing as how we can no longer really point to our basic necessities as positive criteria for our shared interest(s), we are left instead to interpret this expression of shared interest as merely a negative criterion—providing the outline for some vague, positive criteria which now require (re)defining. It is almost as if we were all trying to speak this shared interest into existence, but not recognizing that every person is speaking a different language and—in some case—speaking of different things altogether. In trying to reach a renewed consensus on our core priorities, a pragmatist (such as myself) may conjure something along the lines of a national town hall meeting—a symposium where every voting citizen gathers under one roof, to unilaterally vote upon what our shared interests are going to be, moving forward. “Do we want to have clean drinking water? Yay or nay? What about clean energy vs. coal energy? Or the planet itself: do we want the planet to remain habitable, or is that up for debate? What say you?”

Obviously, such a forum would be logistically unfeasible (to say nothing of the ideological lines drawn in the sand from the outset). But the idea of such a gathering—absurd though it seems—paints a clear picture of just how absurd our situation has become. I noted, in my previous entry, that ignorance was not always seen to be an admirable trait in dominant American culture: that citizens used to want its leaders to be smart, competent individuals—and that people used to seek out smarter folks than themselves, in order to learn from the experts and to advance in their cognitive growth (alas, such a pursuit is muddled these days by the dozens of self-proclaimed “experts,” seeking job security in professions for which they have no real conviction or proper qualification).

As I see it, we are at a tipping point in our nation’s history, and it is still unclear which way the full tilt will swing. Although the election of 45 is one of the most singularly idiotic and irresponsible actions our country has committed in recent history, the outpouring of public concern provides evidence to support the theory that folks might start to remember why intelligence and competency used to be given expectations in leadership. Considering how little is likely to be done, in the way of dismantling this administration anytime soon (since Republicans—well-known for prioritizing autonomy and authoritarianship over public concern—hold a Congressional majority in both the House and the Senate), we have at least two years of revered ignorance to survive, as a species, before our next given opportunity to redefine the tilt of our nation’s conscience. Put simply: we have two years (maybe less) to decide whether we want to be a country defined by a Myth, or a country defined by myths. One path leads to regeneration; the other to self-destruction.

* * *

Official music video for the title track of Father John Misty’s latest opus, released shortly after the inauguration of 45.

I want to shift gears at this point and spend some time talking about Father John Misty—formerly known as Josh Tillman, one-time drummer for the acclaimed indie folk/rock band, Fleet Foxes. Over the course of three immaculately produced albums (his most recent outing, Pure Comedy, was released this past month), Tillman/FJM has consistently and intelligently explored some of our country’s foremost concerns in the new millennium. On his first album, the practically flawless Fear Fun, Tillman embarked upon this quest with the apocalyptic sigh of “Funtimes in Babylon:” “Before they put me to work in a government camp,” he pleaded. “Before they do my face up like a corpse and say ‘get up and dance.’

Five years on from then, and I see no reason to believe he’ll be rounded up for government duty anytime soon. Case in point, Father John Misty appears to have finally arrived (on his own terms) to “the masses”—flown in on the wings of a typically impassioned performance on the resurgent Saturday Night Live, and heralded by the appropriation of a crucified Kurt Cobain impersonator in his most recent music video (to further drive home his renowned meta- factor, the Cobain stand-in is played by that lamented-yet-celebrated former child star, Macaulay Culkin). Interviews and radio features in support of the release have highlighted the polarizing dynamic of this latest offering, while taking care to note (and rightly so) that this is nothing new for Tillman. But while a few glowing reviews have emerged, and Paste Magazine has boldly named it the #1 album of 2017 (to date), the overall reception has appeared more lukewarm than that granted its satirical predecessor (I Love You, Honeybear). Of course, such things are subject to change at the flip of a coin, and I believe it both possible and likely that Pure Comedy will find its audience by year’s end.

Admittedly, the record is far from perfect. But flaws included, FJM Vol. 3 is a captivating and brilliantly executed double album—complete with odd little detours and a fascinatingly structured song sequence (the more full-blooded numbers are stacked towards the front; by the end of side 2, the energy has sunk into mellow contemplation—not unlike many a ’70s genre film/concept album. This appears, to me, in keeping with the original Misty spirit and aesthetic, which has always had one foot firmly planted in ’70s nostalgia). A glance at the obsessive liner notes (which unassumingly begin with a scripture from the book of Ecclesiastes) will inform the reader that Pure Comedy is to be heard from the mindset of a person slowly falling out of space, heading towards an extra-terrestrial planet occupied by a conjectured, half-formed species. This species, as one may expect from Tillman’s outspoken views on the state of the human race, is a doppelganger for homo sapiens. As with many a fable and experimental film, FJM has here removed the subject of his analysis from its natural context, and placed it in a stylized substitute context. The motives behind this literary strategy have been scrutinized by many a cultural scholar over the years, from an assortment of angles; one of the more common interpretations highlights the general understanding that by transposing a subject to a foreign environment, the subject is brought into greater relief for the spectator, and the Mythical truth of the subject’s existence is made clear. And if there’s one thing Father John Misty has been keen on from the outset, it’s the American Myth.

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Kirk Douglas embodies the Myth of the last great frontiersman in David Miller’s 1962 feature, Lonely Are the Brave © 1962, Universal Pictures

From name-dropping Joseph Campbell in the closing track of Fear Fun, to tackling the Myth of the Western lothario in “Only Son of a Ladies’ Man,” to dismantling the American Myth itself in I Love You Honeybear‘s “Bored in the U.S.A.,” Tillman has consistently emphasized the Mythical component in his work. At his most brilliant and incisive, Tillman’s alter ego comes across as the “last great frontiersman,” attempting to salvage something of the American Myth for future generations, while simultaneously pointing to the futility of Myth in the context of our present American landscape. Taken as a whole, his work calls to mind an early Randy Newman composition, “Cowboy,” best known as recorded by Harry Nilsson (whose vocal stylings are frequently echoed in Tillman’s own recordings); “Cowboy,” in turn, was inspired by the Kirk Douglas picture, Lonely Are the Brave—a filmed fable, depicting the Myth of the last great frontiersman. But whereas both Newman and Douglas embodied entirely different characters from one project to the next, Tillman has (for now, at least) made the bold decision to tether himself to this creatively engineered persona. One wonders whether his ideological commitment will prove the best use of his natural talents moving forward; one also marvels at the chutzpa required to make such a commitment in the first place. As far as his most recent outing is concerned, both appraisals seem valid. Let’s begin from a skeptic’s perspective.

One of the challenges that Pure Comedy presents for its creator is the Godardian effect—which Rainer Werner Fassbinder defined brilliantly by observing that his films “never get to the right audience” (as quoted in a 1969 interview with Joachim von Mengershausen). For as brilliant as Misty’s songs (and Godard’s films) truly are, it seems unlikely that everyday, disillusioned and misinformed Americans will connect with and/or relate to his deliberated, academic approach (just as the ramblings of Yours Truly are unlikely to ever reach this same, sought-out audience). That said, if ever there was an opportunity for Father John Misty to become a household name, that opportunity is now: the fact that he will be performing (and is already selling out) in proper theater venues across the world—as opposed to the smaller haunts of tours past—means he will be conveying his Mythical ideology to the broadest canvas of spectators yet available to him. Conversely, the rather downbeat quality of his latest offering (in comparison to album #1 and at least 2/3 of album #2) may present a challenge for those with a short attention span. Still, one hopes that at least a handful of dejected bigots will wander into one of these theaters and come out, in some small way, transformed.

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The Where’s Waldo?-meets-Bruegel album artwork for Pure Comedy, produced by renowned New Yorker cartoonist, Edward Steed © 2017, SubPop Records

The other, rather more apparent fly in the album’s ointment, lies is the complicated relationship between Tillman, his alter ego, his audience, and the press. Put simply, it is nigh impossible for any dedicated listener to appreciate the album (and its songs) on merits alone. Just as Warren Zevon’s and Harry Nilsson’s troubled lives often interfered with the audience’s ability to appreciate the pure craftsmanship and beauty of their songs (which they cranked out prolifically during their respectively chaotic careers), Misty’s flamboyant persona and his intentionally pompous approach to interviews—rather than illuminating the purity of his pursuit—often present barriers to the critical appraisal of his work. In part, his strategy appears to be rooted in shining a light on the self-obsessed, numbers-driven, and (frequently) clueless work ethic of present-day critics. But in order to effectively convey his critique, and to avoid the pitfalls of superiority-complex-guided sermonizing, Tillman has been forced to incriminate himself in these attacks. Ultimately, one could argue that his relentless entanglement with media journalists has diluted the clarity of the work itself (especially when he becomes overly self-conscious about how his persona is going to be perceived by the public). One wonders what he might be able to communicate if, like Randy Newman or Nina Simone, he were to throw off the shackles of self-incrimination and popular attention, and devote his energies to fully inhabiting the disparate characters in his songs—abandoning his ironic mission to convert the ignorant masses, and shifting back to the more purely narrative direction of Fear Fun. Sometimes, it seems that by dedicating himself to the perspective of an omniscient narrator, he’s actually taking the easy way out of the artist’s dilemma.

After all: if Tillman has an Achilles’ Heel, it would have to be his obsession with swallowing every cultural phenomenon in his vicinity and insisting on having the final say. To his credit, the focus of Pure Comedy on a conceptual journey (from outer space to a fictitious planet) provides the ideal framework to highlight his own frailty as a creator. It’s the sonic equivalent of a journey down the road to Compostela—or Damascus, or Canterbury: there are no great revelations at the end; no astonishing solutions. There is only the endless mystery of existence and the enigmatic process of self-discovery (epitomized in the gorgeous, 13-minute odyssey of “Leaving L.A.”). While it is difficult to imagine a more perfect album closer than Fear Fun’s “Every Man Needs a Companion,” “In Twenty Years Or So” provides a perfectly adept coda to the meta narrative of Pure Comedy—setting the finale in some unspecified piano bar, with the Talking Heads’ seminal “This Must Be the Place” playing somewhere in the background. As painstakingly developed as the album is, its finest moments seem to reveal themselves (as they do in this finale) when Tillman lets his guard and his pretense down. And at the end of the day, this vulnerability points to the most convincing message underlying his hyperbolic work: our artificial construction of “better-than-ness” (as defined in his self-penned liner notes) does nothing but interfere with our ability to be functional, decent, useful living creatures. And it is this pretentiousness—whether of artistic, political, or moral/religious superiority—that most explicitly interferes with our pursuit of Mythical freedom. This revelation is the album’s ultimate saving grace.

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Monica Vitti confronts the paradox of modern living in Antonioni’s Il Deserto Rosso © 1965, Rizzoli Films

These days, as Tillman has repeatedly observed, it is far more common for people to be seeking freedom from Myth, rather than running towards it. In the second (and stand-out) track from his latest album, FJM serenades the listener with the prospect of a civilization with “No gods to rule us/No drugs to soothe us/No Myths to prove stuff/No love to confuse us.” For an instant, it almost sounds enticing. And then we remember: this is the place we’re heading to. When listening to the record, I’m sometimes reminded of the quartet of divisive, ennui-fueled films (L’AvventuraLa NotteL’Eclisse, and Il Deserto Rosso) made by Michelangelo Antonioni during the early-to-mid ’60s. In these films, Antonioni (or Antoni-ennui, as one less-than-convinced reviewer christened him) explored the emerging struggle of modern man and woman in the latter half of the 20th century: namely, how will we adapt to a modern technological reality that renders many of our pre-existing human traits (close-knit friendships; emotional sensitivity; human kindness) seemingly unnecessary? Seen today, these films have a chilling, yet faintly comical quality to them: although many of his predictions appear startlingly prescient and somewhat profound, there is something undeniably absurd in the mannered movements and designs of his dystopic visions—which also call to mind the films of Jacques Tati; Playtime and Trafic in particular. Not unlike Pure Comedy, and the outrageous album artwork designed by Edward Steed (best-known for his regular contributions to The New Yorker), these mid-century filmmakers shared a common thread in their outlook: mankind is on the brink of a civilization with no need for civility.

It’s an assessment that puts us, as listeners and observers, in a curious position. While difficult to argue with, the finality of this assessment—which is essentially at the opposite end of the more cautiously optimistic: “we all want the same things”—precludes the possibility of a tenable paradigm shift. In “Ballad of the Dying Man” (and elsewhere on the record), Father John Misty directly confronts the dilemma of the modern-day progressive: he defines this dilemma in terms of our easy access to every hateful and ignorant remark perpetrated by ill-intentioned “trolls” (on the internet and in the press), and the apparent impossibility of doing anything about this without first becoming a contestant in their reality show (to further expand the meta- factor of the song’s narrative, its protagonist clearly calls to mind Misty’s own complicated relationship with millennial culture and clueless music writers). Put another way, the struggle of the contemporary conscientious objector can be defined by our having to acknowledge the existence of all these insignificant myths, in order to properly tear them apart and offer an alternative. And considering the pace of information technology and the seemingly incessant distribution of falsehoods, it is a hopeless and thankless task. It’s only fitting that Tillman should wind this song down with the following verse:

Eventually the dying man takes his final breath
But first checks his news feed to see what he’s ’bout to miss
And it occurs to him a little late in the game
We leave as clueless as we came
From rented heavens to the shadows in the cave
We’ll all be wrong someday.

But is that really all there is? One wonders. And the beauty of this album lies in its willingness to let us. Although replete with elements of finality, Pure Comedy is most easily distinguishable from its predecessors as a more contemplative and open-ended exercise in narrative songwriting. Tillman’s humbling concession at the end of “Ballad…” seems to stress this shift in tone, and it certainly makes one curious as to what his—and our—next move will be.

* * *

There is a song on the 1982 studio album by Bauhaus, titled “All We Ever Wanted Was Everything.” The lyrical counterpoint to this titular statement is: “All we ever got was cold.” As it stands, it seems that we Americans have gotten both outcomes over the course of this past century. While we remain one of the most wealthy and possession-obsessed countries on the planet, our voracious consumption habits and our extinction of humanity from popular culture have led to an expanding chill across the land. Some political commentators and historians have identified this as the chill of fascism; and while their assessment is far from groundless, the word doesn’t quite do justice to the magnitude of our socio-cultural problems. It seems more appropriate, in my view, to define this phenomenon as the chill of emptiness (which, oddly enough, has been amplified by the religious sector in the United States: a population that spent decades harping on about the spiritual dearth of their country, but ultimately committed the most spiritually vacant act of all by giving into the emptiness of 45). It’s enough to make any reasonable person question, with utmost sincerity: What exactly is it that we want?

At the close of this seemingly interminable nightfall on our nation’s conscience, maybe this will be the line of collective questioning that leads to the restoration of the American Myth—and the beginning of a new age. For if we cannot bring ourselves to dream of a better future, and to bring this future into the present, of what use are we?

PJ Harvey’s pre-apocalyptic North American tour

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View from above: taking in the stage set-up for PJ Harvey’s Massey Hall performance from the upper balcony.

“Water
Walking
Walking on water
Walking
Walking on for years, and years, and years
Taking it into my head
Living by the right lines
Reading what the very man said…”
– “Water” (from the studio album Dry, 1992)

It’s a Thursday night in Toronto, Ontario. I’m seated in the third row of the uppermost balcony in the legendary and historic Massey Hall theater, waiting anxiously for the show to unfold before me. While I await, I engage in some shameless people-watching—taking in the surprisingly diverse demographic range of fellow admirers. I find that I am compulsively adjusting my legs in the cramped space between my seat and the subsequent row; I remind myself that humans were of a somewhat smaller build at the time of this venue’s construction, but I am fairly confident this won’t prove detrimental to my enjoyment of the spectacle I’ve awaited eagerly for the past 13 years. I take in each component of the widespread set on stage (three separate drum kits; two keyboard rigs; a row of five vocal microphones; an array of guitars), and I tell myself one last time: you’re about to see PJ Harvey perform live in concert.

Pinch yourself.

* * *

It’s a trying task—writing about an artist whose craftsmanship and soul essence you’ve admired, studied, and (even, admittedly) obsessed over for a period of over a decade; objectivity is rather firmly out of the question (to put it mildly). Then again, one starts to wonder: is objectivity ever truly within one’s reach as an audience participant? Aren’t we all at the mercy of our individual whims, preferences, and fetishes when it comes to consuming a live performance—let alone being at the mercy of other attendees in one’s immediate vicinity? Subjectivity in such matters seems to me an inevitable and foregone conclusion.

I’m again reminded of Naomi Greene’s writings on the “free indirect subjectivity” permeating the films of Pier Paolo Pasolini: her excellent book, Cinema of Heresy, happened to be my primary reading material during this Canadian road trip. In hindsight, the correlations between these two seemingly disparate sources (Greene’s theoretical writings on one of world cinema’s most controversial and ill-fated legends, and the live performance of a living music legend) seem to me overwhelmingly prevalent. Walking back to our hotel after show’s end—in stunned silence; for what can one say, after achieving transcendence, that might add anything of possible merit?—the images of Pasolini’s final films (having just finished Greene’s chronological text earlier that day) converged aqueously in my mind with the overpowering imagery of the evening’s events. And I found myself replaying the borrowed chorus from the penultimate number repeatedly in my head: “Wade in the water/God’s gonna trouble the water…

I suppose some context may help to frame the following thoughts in a clearer light for the unfortunate reader of this (doubtlessly meandering) essay. For starters, a temporal framework: it is Thursday, April 13th, 2017. PJ Harvey is embarking upon an expansive (comparative to her 2016 outing) North American tour, starting in Toronto. In Canada, the Prime Minister is a doe-eyed populist liberal, beloved by citizens at home and abroad. The United States, meanwhile, has as its Commander-in-Chief a mentally unhinged populist autocrat, who may all-too-conceivably be accelerating the end of the world via any number of available means (nuclear holocaust; opportunistic climate change denial; a general inability to refrain from performing rash acts, with the apparent intent of continuously domineering the attention of profit-driven media outlets).

I’ve spent much of this year having pained conversations with friends, associates, and acquaintances from across the political spectrum—trying in vain to make sense of what is happening in the world; hoping against all hope that a deus ex machina will present itself and save the human species from the destructive urges of this latest assortment of clinically unstable world leaders. Earlier this week, news emerged of gay men in Chechnya being rounded up—some reported to have been murdered—for imprisonment in concentration camps. On the same day that Ms. Harvey’s tour is slated to begin, the Pentagon authorizes the deployment of the largest non-nuclear bomb at the disposal of the grandiose U.S. Military-industrial complex; it is reported that a total of 36 Afghan militants were killed as a result of the bombing. A week prior, the current U.S. president authorized the launch of Tomahawk missiles against Assad’s regime in Syria. And in the midst of all this chaos, American citizens anxiously await confirmation of well-founded suspicions that this very president colluded with Vladimir Putin and his legion of government cronies to influence the 2016 election—which would frame all of these happenings within the disorienting precedent of a traitor being placed in the highest office of the American government, and subsequently authorizing attacks upon foreign countries under the galling auspices of delivering democracy. One may find oneself drawn to the lines from one of Harvey’s songs on her newest album:

“Those are the children’s cries from the dark
these are the words written under the arch
scratched in the wall in biro pen
this is how the world will end.”

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PJ Harvey and her nine-piece band take the stage in Toronto to kick off their 2017 North American tour in support of The Hope Six Demolition Project.

I find myself propelled back into that uncomfortable seat, way up in the balcony of Massey Hall. Polly Jean Harvey is on-stage, decked out like an exotic bird, perched in heeled leather boots that—from a distance, at least—give the marked impression of a heron’s legs. As the second song of the night (and possibly my favorite track from her latest offering) begins to take flight, a curtain behind the stage unveils a new addition to the set. Rising from behind the vaulted proscenium, a massive, dimpled wall starts to loom increasingly (and rather forebodingly) large above the ten-piece band. I’m paralyzed by the intensity of the moment: the stunning silences between the guitar notes; the forced breathing of the keyboardist, adding sonic texture and punctuation throughout the number. Polly’s voice soars at the start of each verse—and this is but a warm-up for the night’s vocal acrobatics: “This is the ministry/Of defence/The stairs and walls are/All that’s left.

Two drummers, Jean-Marc Butty (a resident of PJ’s band since her 2009 tour in support of A Woman A Man Walked By) and Alain Johannes (a newer addition), are pounding out what I presume the opening of the seventh seal, as described in the Book of Revelations, might very well sound like. I’m both riveted by the sights and sounds that are overwhelming my senses, and forcibly reminded of the global events surrounding this occasion. After all, it was Polly’s visits to Afghanistan and Kosovo between 2011 and 2014 that initially spawned the “project” of this album’s namesake; it was her conscious decision to go “to the front line of the issue rather than picking it out of the newspapers” (as quoted by Billy Bragg in the May 2016 issue of Uncut) which resulted in this alarming approach to songwriting, as well as the brave selection of subject matter. Drawing a slight but noteworthy contrast between Ms. Harvey’s approach and that of Bob Dylan, Bragg explains: “Dylan wasn’t beaten up during the Civil Rights in America, but he read about Medgar Evers and he wrote about it. Whereas Polly seems to be much more like a war artist in the fact that she’s actually gone there to experience it and bring it back. It’s like frontline reporting.”

While the ostensible intent of this project appears to faithfully have been grounded in this attitude of “[wanting] to smell the air, feel the soil and meet the people of the countries I was fascinated with,” it’s worth noting that the finished outcomes of this pursuit (the book of poetry and photographs, The Hollow of the Hand; the album; the world tour) all carry a flavor that is noticeably removed from a purely journalistic outlook. A worthy anecdote to highlight this distance between the intent and the outcome of Harvey’s latest project (a distance which, I might add, is inherent to the realization of any creative project—though breadth varies from case to case) is the backlash the singer/songwriter received from Vincent Gray—the former mayor of Washington, D.C.—after releasing the album’s second single, “The Community of Hope.” Inspired by Harvey’s latest visit to the nation’s capital, which centered upon lower-income areas within Ward 7, the song contains lyrics alluding to a school that “looks like a shit hole;” a neighborhood resembling a “drug town” (“just zombies, but that’s just life”); and the renovation of an old mental institution into the Homeland Security base. Gray’s exact words on the subject, as quoted in an online article by DCist: “I will not dignify this inane composition with a response.” His Campaign Treasurer, on the other hand, chose to dignify the song with the following assessment, “PJ Harvey is to music what Piers Morgan is to cable news”—which leaves one in doubt as to whether this fellow would be able to pick Ms. Harvey out of a line-up, let alone being in any position to capably interpret her peculiar style of writing.

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Points of reference (clockwise from left): The Hollow of the Hand poem and photo book; the May 2016 issue of Uncut Magazine; Uncut’s Ultimate Music Guide to PJ Harvey; the studio album.

Although I personally beg to differ with the criticisms launched against this (and other songs) on the album, I find them of significance insofar as they point to the aforementioned distance between Harvey’s stated goal for this project, and the devastating result of her efforts. It’s a distance that Naomi Greene (or Gilles Deleuze, for that matter) might argue to have been marked by that same “free indirect subjectivity,” which forms the cornerstone of not only Pasolini’s work, but Godard’s, Antonioni’s, and Fassbinder’s as well. As explained by Pasolini, this form of subjectivity in writing can be identified as “the presence of the author who, through an abnormal freedom, transcends his film and continually threatens to abandon it, detoured by sudden inspiration—an inspiration of latent love for the poetic world of his own vital experiences… In short, beneath the technique produced by the protagonist’s state of mind—which is disoriented, uncoordinated, beset by details, given to compelling anxieties—the world constantly surfaces as it is seen by the equally neurotic author: dominated by an elegant, elegiac, and never classicist, spirit” (Greene, p. 119).

Elegant and elegiac. Two words that would befit PJ Harvey’s personae of the past decade most suitably. Ever since turning (yet) a(nother) page with the stark chamber pieces of 2007’s White Chalk, Harvey’s listeners and admirers have been privy to a somewhat different character angle than the one we identified throughout her ’90s output. Then again, when taken as a collected oeuvre, a dedicated student of her work may well reach the conclusion that her entire career has been predicated upon this same form of indirect subjectivity all along. One could feasibly take this observation further and argue that what her harshest critics have possibly reacted against is not her perceived “misanthropy,” or the seemingly perpetual darkness of her subject matter; their disapproval may instead stem from an (arguably justifiable) aversion to an artist who has chosen to specialize in the territory between her subject matter and her own creative self. For even in her most dedicated and visceral performances—the “Joan Crawford on acid” persona of the To Bring You My Love tour, or the lovelorn sensualist of Uh Huh Her—there exists an undeniable tension between the committed (forgive the pun) words and attitudes of her characters, and the mannered control of her own artist’s instinct. Not unlike Bowie, and yet the distance is even more pronounced—more arch (closer to Scott Walker territory, as far as comparisons go). With every new incarnation of her 25-year career span, it’s as though Polly Jean has been repeatedly pronouncing: “Here is a woman. She is not me, and yet she is.” (And with Let England Shake, this pronouncement stretched more broadly to incorporate the additional layer: “Here are the men who died in these wars. They are not me, and yet their blood courses through me.”)

This very same message emerged palpably and overwhelmingly at the start of her Massey Hall performance—as she emerged with her cohorts in the line formation of a marching band, and proceeded to chant the opening lines of the first number, “Chain of Keys” (which communicates on a far more imminently powerful level than in the studio recording): “Fifteen keys/Fifteen keys hang on a chain/The chain is joint/The chain is joint and forms a ring/The ring is in/The ring is in a woman’s hand/She’s walking on/She’s walking on the dusty ground.” The song makes reference to a woman whom she encountered on her travels in Kosovo—the keeper of the keys to fifteen houses owned by fifteen men she’s unsure if she will ever see again (the poem version of this song, as published in The Hollow of the Hand, includes the additional lines: “Numbers painted on the doors/posters on the locked-up church/in black and white, the recent dead./Now all I do is wait, she says.”) It is a shameless cliché, but I can think of no better way to describe the show’s introduction than to say it was electrifying.

Whereas in earlier outings, Polly Jean tended to slide rather directly into the skins of the characters sprinkled throughout her songs’ narratives, post-White Chalk PJ appears to have developed a keener dedication to maintaining (and even celebrating) the distance between herself as the artist, and the characters in her songs as autonomous beings. Which is part of what renders The Hope Six Demolition Project so rewarding upon repeat listening: the palpable, positive existence of the human beings who populate these eleven stories. Her perspective is with the subjects, but never totally within. And even this tenuous connection between herself and her characters is called into question repeatedly—most pointedly in the lyrics of “Dollar, Dollar,” where she finds herself “trapped” in the backseat of a car in Afghanistan, struggling to come to terms with the sight of an ill and impoverished child begging at her car window: “All my words get swallowed/In the rear view glass/A face pock-marked and hollow/He’s saying dollar, dollar.

These moments (alongside the militaristic psychodrama of “The Ministry of Defence,” with its cast of children who “do the same thing everywhere/They’ve sprayed graffiti in Arabic/And balanced sticks in human shit”) appear to me to parallel the observations of Gilles Deleuze, in reference to Pasolini and the notion of free indirect subjectivity on-film: “What characterizes Pasolini’s cinema is a poetic awareness which… is mystical or ‘sacred’… Here is the permutation of the trivial and the noble, the connection between the excremental and the beautiful, and the projection into myth that Pasolini diagnosed in free indirect discourse [seen] as the essential form of literature. And he succeeds in making it into a cinematographic form capable of grace as much as of horror.”

“…Lying on eleven years
Taking it into my head
Mary, Mary drop me softly
Been reading what your very man said
Lying on eleven years
Taking it into my head
Leave my clothes on the beach
I’m walking down into the sea…”

As with her earliest albums for Elektra, PJ Harvey’s music work continues to carry with it a cinematographic strain. This was rendered explicit with the release of the Let England Shake album, the unveiling of which culminated in a collaboration with filmmaker/photographer Seamus Murphy—who produced a short film for each one of the tracks on the record. Seamus has since contributed three original music videos to her latest project (as well as providing the accompanying photographs for her poems in The Hollow of the Hand), and one can only hope there will be more forthcoming. But beyond the produced visuals in support of the album, one is immediately drawn to the subjectively conjured visuals of Harvey’s indirect lyrics: the characters throughout these songs, nameless though they may be, remain with us for the album’s duration—and they don’t readily abandon us (or let us abandon them) after the end credits roll. There is such a truthful, mythical quality to the depictions of the people in these songs; it’s the type of truth that encompasses all the contradictions of reality, including the likelihood that her harsh description of certain locations (such as D.C.’s Ward 7) are both every bit as exaggerated as the former D.C. mayor would have us believe, and every bit as bad as she succeeds in making them sound.

But beyond these notions of indirect subjectivity and writer’s POV, there appears to be a more profound understanding at play within the subtext of The Hope Six Demolition Project and its supporting tour. Namely, the perceived wisdom of having fully accepted the limitations of what art can accomplish, while simultaneously reaching for the outer limits of what is capable. In short, by carving into the terrain of myth, which reveals itself to be sacred (while offering up equal measures of the profane) Harvey has set herself—and this work—apart from the more traditional forms of front-line reportage. In Cinema of Heresy, Greene also cites a previous text by Lino Micciche, in which he draws a comparison between the German philosopher Theodor Adorno, and the role assumed by Pasolini as a revolutionary film-maker: “Adorno is seen as the man who best described contemporary society as one in which the order of the Enlightenment turned into barbarianism, where thought ceased to think itself, where the destruction of the Myth… created the new myth of Reason (and its order of the ‘rational’). For Adorno, in fact, and in general for all ‘negative thought,’ the mandate of intellectuals and artists… [to] merely oppose what exists… winds up by reflecting… the barbarity of what exists” (p. 170). The rationalism of her critics is thus drawn into stark contrast with the unstated intent of her latest work (further outlined by her refusal to give any interviews on the subject—the interview being that most rational and, all-too-often, belittling of vehicles for the artist’s message): to bring us in direct contact with the unseen and unspoken terrain that lies beyond the imploding confines of twentieth century rationalism.

So not unlike Pasolini, with his mythic film quartet, PJ Harvey has ventured into that territory housing the origins of man-made myth itself: the lands of the Middle East. (Lines from “The Orange Monkey” serve to corroborate her intent: “…to understand/You must travel back in time/I took a plane to a foreign land/And said, ‘I’ll write down what I find.’”) Also not unlike Pasolini (who once remarked: “I do not place much faith in action, unless it is truly action”), Harvey is establishing a space for herself—as an artist—in which she can maintain an indirectly subjective rapport with her characters, all the while avoiding the self-righteous sermonizing of most social consciousness-driven songwriting. But what separates Harvey from Pasolini, as both a human being and an artist (among many of the latter’s character traits, not worth numbering), is the apparent, genuine empathy she reveals for the people she depicted in these songs. Unlike the Italian filmmaker, whose career ended on a note of the most profound and dour pessimism, Harvey appears to be at least containing—and quite possibly contemplating—the possibility of a happy ending. Whereas many critics, upon release, commented disparagingly that Ms. Harvey ought not venture into the world’s biggest problems without offering any solutions, I personally find their admonishment laughable and unwarranted—on at least two levels. First, since when has it become the artist’s responsibility to provide tactile solutions for the world’s most enormous social problems? (Morality aside, are competent artists generally equipped to become efficient policy-makers?) And second, couldn’t we all admit that one of the more substantial problems at-hand these days is the proliferation of individuals offering their self-proclaimed expertise on possible solutions, while never actually participating in the implementation of their propositions (or never having been an expert in the first place)? It appears to me, these days, that solutions to social issues are worked out and proposed without even considering the source problem from a multitude of angles. The irony of this faux pas, of course, is that the cultural notion of intentional, “solution-focused thinking”—featured in many an inspirational TED talk—has, in fact, failed to offer many tangible and long-lasting solutions to society’s broader issues. In part, this has been for a failure to comprehend, clearly and unanimously, the source(s) of the problems at-hand.

And so Polly Jean invites us to look. To really look, and to withhold from offering expert advice on something we’re not really an expert in. Her songs seem to be saying: “I’ve actually been there, and I know little more than I did before having gone. But here are the fragmented facts I can attest to; someone else has the rest of the picture.” It’s not just honest: it’s—dare I say it?—revolutionary, in proportion to the present-day worldviews of many writers. There is a genuine empathy inherent to these songs, and to their live performances, but it is all smartly packaged within the mythical/theatrical tradition of storytelling. It is both huge and small; conveyed with a Brechtian influence, and marked by occasions of unexpected warmth and humor (such as the ridiculous sax solos in “The Ministry of Social Affairs,” or the unexpected, highly rewarding inclusion of “50 Ft. Queenie” towards the live set’s culmination). Her current songwriting approach never quite enables us to get comfortable within the sketchy parameters of the scenes she is depicting: the work is clearly conscious of her—and of her likely audience’s—somewhat bourgeois milieu, and it refuses middle-class consumers the somewhat sadistic and classicist comfort of admiring the horrors of humanity from a safe distance. This approach reminds us perpetually that it “does not simply give a vision of the character and his world; it imposes another vision in which the first vision is transformed and reflected” (Deleuze, in reference to Pasolini’s use of the camera). And this is where Harvey most explicitly transcends the defined confines of the various mediums she is operating within (live performance; poetry; songwriting; recording), drawing our attention instead to analyze the intended purpose of the mediums themselves—and to recognize the endless sea of inherent subjectivity that envelops them. It is also significant to recognize here that, for the first time in her catalogue of album artwork designs, we are not delivered a crisply conceived, fine-tuned aesthetic. Announcing an immediate departure with the designer’s choice of the “Impact” font (which so many of us are likely to associate with the pedantic phenomenon of the “meme”), this newest album cover somewhat daringly mixes the personal—the crest being of family origin to John Parish, Harvey’s long-time collaborator—with the culturally vulgar. It is a product for creative consumption, and at the same time, it seems to be calling into question the integrity of its own conception.

In a highly reflexive, quasi-Godardian move, Harvey maintains a steady commitment throughout The Hope Six Demolition Project to not employing any emotional clichés, instead quoting from genre (the gospel blues of “River Anacostia;” the jazz-inflected plastic soul of “The Ministry of Social Affairs;” the barroom chant at the close of “Community of Hope;” the layered, live instrumentation of the tracks, loosely recalling ABCKO-era Stones) and inserting documentary-influenced observations throughout to achieve an almost endlessly repeatable cycle of sonic paintings. Appropriately enough, one of the stand-out pieces from the album (and a high point of her Massey Hall performance, garnering a standing ovation) is entitled “The Wheel:” it takes as its subject matter the thousands of children who go missing every year in the Middle East, leaving empty playground carousels spinning in the wind. Harvey never lets us forget that most of the characters in these songs are now—or have always been—ghosts, and she deploys language as a masterful weapon to conjure simple, timeless images in the listener’s mind of the chaotic, life-drenched, and death-soaked landscapes she has visited.

“…Now the water to my ankles
Now the water to my knees
Think of him, all waxy wings
Melted down into the sea
Mary, Mary, what your man said
Washing it all over my head
Mary, Mary, hold on tightly
Over water, under the sea…”

The back catalogue selections in her live set also reveal an astute awareness of the disparities and the similarities between her former selves, and her current outlook: by blocking the set with an initial chunk of songs from the new project, followed by a series of selections from the comparably poetic and politic-inflected Let England Shake, she then segues from the inebriated woman in a wheelchair at the end of Hope Six‘s “Medicinals,” to the woman undergoing an abortion in White Chalk‘s “When Under Ether” (with both songs also calling to mind the powerful presence of the woman holding the chain of keys to those fifteen abandoned houses—not to mention real-life issues of women’s rights, making global headlines on a daily basis). She then proceeds to weave, in a totally seamless and fluid fashion, numbers from To Bring You My Love and Rid of Me with the remaining pieces of her three most recent albums—alternating between the desperate child at her car window in “Dollar, Dollar” and the woman inviting “The Devil” to enter her soul “on a night with no moon;” between the blues of the beggars soliciting outside “The Ministry of Social Affairs,” and the self-confident swagger of the “king of the world” in “50 Ft. Queenie.” For an artist renowned for being (at times, overly) curatorial and selective in her live set sequencing, it’s an absolute joy to see her make full use of her biggest touring band to date, giving new life to older songs which fully warrant the panoramic treatment (did I mention that this band is phenomenally good?) In fact, two numbers from her most blatantly cinematic album to-date (and one of my personal favorites), To Bring You My Love, serve as a highly dramatic lead-up to the anticlimactic warning sign of “River Anacostia”—which closes out the set proper. Traveling from the woman who commits infanticide in “Down By the Water,” to the one who has “climbed over mountains” and “forsaken heaven/To bring you my love,” the set ends with a subtle return to the more prophetic overtones of the woman whose chain of keys first opened the floodgates. But something has changed between then and now: over the course of her transformative and bristling performance, she has come that much closer to fusing herself with the song’s narrator. She now beckons, with both a genuine urgency and the heightened drama of a Greek chorus: “What will become of us?/What will become of us?” As the band repeats the chorus of a 19th century African-American spiritual (another link in the chain, emphasizing the mythical proportion of the entire project), the wall that was erected behind the band at the start of the night sinks quietly to the ground—swallowed by the poisonous waters of the river in question.

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A towering wall looms large above Polly Jean and her band, as they provide both a warning sign of things to come.

As I left the theater and replayed that hair-raising performance of “River Anacostia” over again and again in my mind, I couldn’t help being reminded of the apocalyptic tone which overtook Pasolini in his final years—ultimately revealing its bleakest colors in the magisterial despair of Salò. I then thought of Harvey’s encore song selections: the broad, mythical canvas of Dylan’s “Highway 61 Revisited,” and the borderline-romantic (yet invariably gritty) depiction of her homeland, “The Last Living Rose.” I thought of this final moment of transcendent beauty, occurring at the end of this crowning number as she intones: “Let me watch the night fall on the river/The moon rise up and turn to silver/The sky move, the ocean shimmer/The hedge shake, the last living rose/Quiver.” With this final word, she goes through the motions of a mannered circle dance, calling to my preoccupied mind the ritualistic dance at the close Salò, which I’d found myself reading about that same morning. It was both a fitting finale, and a lingering reminder of the fragility inherent to this performance and its contents—let alone the fragility of the world’s survival in the troubling times we find ourselves living in. Once again, in contrast to Pasolini, Harvey doesn’t flatly deny us a happy ending: she seems instead to be denying the viability of any self-imposed ending to the vast and mythical narrative she has embarked upon.

Throughout the towering and unforgettable show Ms. Harvey has put together, she consistently makes us (her long-time listeners and admirers) fully, viscerally aware of the continuity stretching from the opening notes of Dry‘s “Oh My Lover,” to the cinéma vérité -inflected poeticism of her more recent projects—and she leaves us breathlessly wondering what might come next. Her magisterial performance serves as a humbling reminder that she remains in a league of her own, artistically speaking. One could reach for any number of comparisons with other poets/songwriters/performance artists (Patti Smith; Marina Abramović; Kate Bush), but when all is said and done, Polly Jean Harvey has cultivated a soil fully her own—which she is both modestly maintaining and ambitiously expanding from year to year. Her subject matter may have evolved over the course of the past two and a half decades, but it has retained the air of the mountain breeze blowing through the clothes of the protagonist in “Fountain.” The mythical body of “Water” that she walks on at the end of Dry emerges as the same water in which a child is drowned in To Bring You My Love—which is, in turn, the same sea her characters float in during the finale of Stories From the City, Stories From the Sea. The water from this sea now carries with it the poisons of “River Anacostia,” warning us (in a morally neutral tone) of the two most prominent threats looming over our present-day civilization: the devastating effects of climate change, and the contamination of our water supply.

As with Pasolini (widely regarded now as one of the greatest artists of the 20th century), Harvey ultimately calls to mind the “eternal return” of the Romanian philosopher, Mircea Eliade, who determined in his writings that: “Every sacrifice repeats the initial sacrifice and coincides with it… And the same holds true for all repetitions, i.e., all imitations of archetypes; through such imitations, man is projected into the mythical epoch in which the archetypes were first revealed. Thus we perceive… there is an implicit abolition of profane time, of duration, of ‘history’; and he who reproduces the exemplary gesture thus finds himself transported into the mythical epoch in which its revelation took place.” Likewise, Harvey has eschewed the self-righteous proselytizing of her pop music contemporaries, in favor of rooting herself firmly in mythical landscapes that—put in proper perspective—serve to dwarf the short-sighted and ineffectual efforts of modern man and woman.

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The audience dissipates into a crowd outside the venue.

And so we return to our hotel after this life-altering event, and we find ourselves at a loss for words. Because during the course of the past couple hours, we have transcended the boundaries of time and place, and we have experienced an authentic, humbling encounter with the likely origins of the world’s most widely debated (and frequently misrepresented) problems. We have been made hyper-aware of the vulgarity underlying the words of so many politicians, experts, and self-proclaimed artists—all vainly claiming to have found the solutions to these problems. But we can still see that revolving wheel, from which all those thousands of children have disappeared; we see “a tableau of the missing”—“a faded face/the trace of an ear.” And we “watch them fade out/and watch them fade out/and watch them fade out…”

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The newly renovated East Wing in the U.S. National Gallery (Washington, D.C.)

“Is it there I’m from?
I wonder where I’m from.”
– refrain from “’66 Wonder Where I’m From”

I recently had the tremendous joy of seeing The Magnetic Fields performing Merritt’s 50 Song Memoir in its entirety over the course of two nights, at the Lincoln Theater in Washington, D.C. I must admit, it sort of altered my geography, as a person. The songs are incredible—maybe the best of his entire repertoire—and the presentation was phenomenal. It’s my favorite record of the year, as of yet.

While in D.C., I also had an opportunity to pay a second visit to the U.S. National Gallery—whose East Wing was recently renovated to expand its explicit focus on modern art.

Giacometti. Kandinsky. Ernst. Bacon. Beckmann. Picasso. Jawlensky. Rothko.

Amazing works… powerful vibrations. As my partner, Craig, and I wandered from room to room, I found myself (inescapably) reflecting upon some of the current events surrounding this casual getaway: namely, the newly unveiled budget proposal, which would cut the National Endowment for the Arts entirely, along with the National Endowment for the Humanities and a slew of other arts-related programs (which, combined, form the most infinitesimal fraction of the overall Federal budget). I thought about this new museum wing, bursting at the brim with pieces of such tremendous energy, wisdom, ingenuity, and sheer creative (let alone monetary) value. I thought about how this is all made available to us (for free!), as citizens of this country, via an existing conviction that it is essential to support and preserve the work(s) of emerging artists; after all, when the NEA was initially conceived, the atrocities of WWII were not far from the memory of many living U.S. citizens and lawmakers. They had witnessed the willful neglect and outright destruction of art and culture at the hands of an extremist European regime, and they were determined to not let that sort of thing happen over here.

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Craig gazing into A Moment of Calm (Max Ernst, 1939). Collection of the National Gallery, East wing. Gift of Dorothea Tanning Ernst

I couldn’t help but wonder, what might happen to these museums if the NEA were to be successfully eliminated. At the very least, one could safely predict that efforts to champion artists and facilitate these vessels of cultural enlightenment would be forcibly diminished. I think about how in past times, when art has been forcibly diminished and/or suppressed, it’s often been the product of fear: a fear of what the artists might have to say. I think about how much bigger, richer, more enjoyable, and how intellectually engaging my life has been as a direct result of access to arts and humanities. I think of all the lessons I’ve been taught by the artists who have affected my being, and I try to imagine a world where they don’t even exist. And I just can’t.

Walking around a display of Giacometti sculptures in the East Wing, I was (typically) enraptured by those grotesque yet stunningly beautiful shapes. The way he chipped away at every angle and curve of his emaciated figures, leaving behind these skeletal ghosts—spectres of past horrors; strange angels of compassion. Nearly a century later, these pieces have retained all the power and urgency of the times from out of which they originated. I think about what might have happened if these pieces weren’t respected, appreciated, and valued as they universally are; if they just vanished into the dirt, or remained stashed away in the private headquarters of some war criminal or other. I suppose some could argue that it wouldn’t have made any difference, either way. The very idea of posing such a theory makes my soul shrink a size or two.

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The endless marvels of spending time with the sculptures of Alberto Giacometti (The City Square, 1948/1949, and Standing Woman, 1947). Collection of the National Gallery, East Wing. Gift of Enid A. Haupt.

After venturing through the West Wing of the National Gallery, and taking in several amazing works by Van Gogh and Bruegel (including this amazing piece by a follower of his, pictured below), we went in search of the Chagall mosaic we had heard to be a part of their collection. A front desk clerk told us it was somewhat difficult to spot, tucked away behind a pavilion somewhere in the sculpture garden. We ventured through the garden and spotted what we assumed to be the pavilion in question; there appeared to be the section of a wall, hidden behind a small grouping of bare trees. Picking our way through the bushes, we came upon the object of our search: Orphée, a kaleidoscopic rendition of the myth of Orpheus.

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The Temptation of Saint Anthony by Follower of Pieter Bruegel the Elder (1550/1575)

The story goes that a collector in Georgetown, Evelyn Nef, had this mosaic in her private collection: a clerk in the museum bookstore informs me that he once lived in the area, and would often peek over the garden wall when walking by, snatching only a glimpse of the epic work. The clerk seemed mildly disappointed that the wall was now public domain, oddly enough; he felt it now lacked some of its original intrigue. It goes without saying, from an objective standpoint, that having a piece like this as public domain is both a priceless gift and a noble gesture (and I appreciate the museum’s efforts to place the piece somewhat out of immediate sight, to avoid damage from heavy traffic). Looking at the various fragments and figures scattered throughout the fantastically imagined rendition of Orpheus, I think of Chagall’s personal history of abuse and exile.

I think about how Marc Chagall was forced to flee Nazi-occupied Germany, after falling out of favor with the increasingly fascistic regime, which now viewed his vibrant and extra-worldly paintings as nothing but “green, purple, and red Jews shooting out of the earth, fiddling on violins, flying through the air … representing [an] assault on Western civilization.” (from the text of Chagall: A Biography, as cited on Wikipedia). I think about Chagall and his wife fleeing to Vichy, France—only to realize that it, too, was occupied by French Nazi collaborationists, who were shipping French Jews off to concentration camps in Germany. And I thought about Chagall finally escaping to New York, and finding refuge in a colony of other escaped artists: writers, painters, composers… All seeking a safe haven away from a war-torn and fascistically governed European landscape. I think of the immigrants being targeted, in such a seemingly scattershot and disorganized fashion, by our current presidential administration.

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The Magnetic Fields perform the 50 Song Memoir at the Lincoln Theater (second night).

I look at the individual tiles of Chagall’s mural one last time, and breathe another sigh of relief at having found the piece, and having experienced this moment with the most important person in my life. We go see the second night of The Magnetic Fields performance at the Lincoln Theater, and I’m once again flabbergasted by the amount of wit, hilarity, musicianship, showmanship, and intelligence boiling over from that stage. I’m moved by so many moments throughout the course of these two special evenings, but one that sticks out in my mind is a penultimate track, “I Wish I Had Pictures.” The final line is repeated several times: “I wish I had pictures of every old day/’Cause all these old memories are fading away.” The video projected on a screen above the stage shows a hand flipping pages in a photo album, but all we see is the glare from the sunlight hitting the camera lens. Even though we all had to make a vow not to at the door, I cannot resist the impulse to snap a surreptitious shot during the final number (which, predictably, turned out a glare-y disappointment). As the band takes the stage for the final ovation of the night, I think to myself: “I hope people get out to see this show. I hope these songs are preserved, and that all that amazing art in the National Gallery’s East Wing doesn’t go anywhere anytime soon.”

We ride the metro train back to the hotel. I check my email on my phone during the ride back and am surprised to see a lot of positive and encouraging feedback from friends and strangers, who’ve taken the time to check out a newly released track I had the privilege of performing on. I thank my lucky stars that art is a part of my life, and then I hop off the train.

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For love of Marc Chagall (Orphée, 1969). “Infinite wonder/If it’s to end here.”

“We are the United States of Amnesia: we learn nothing because we remember nothing.”

With these words, Gore Vidal summarized (albeit somewhat cynically) what seems to be a recurring motif of our country’s ancestry. And it does stand to test that we, as a nation of people, have persistently struggled to effectively process our past. Like a patient who keeps returning to his therapist for analysis, but then disregards the insight provided about himself during every session, we seem to carry on in a state of oblivion—forever wondering what on earth might be the matter with this dysfunctional country we live in, when the answers have been presented to us time and time again…

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The great Tilda Swinton, playing a mother who fears her child might be developing sociopathic tendencies in Lynne Ramsay’s adaptation of We Need To Talk About Kevin © 2011, Oscilloscope Pictures

In Lionel Shriver’s acclaimed novel, We Need To Talk About Kevin (later developed into a chilling film by Lynne Ramsay), the author explores the psychology of a family whose parents struggle to come to terms with their child’s emerging sociopathic tendencies. Ignoring the author’s advice, Kevin’s parents fail to adequately explore what might be the matter with their increasingly disturbed son, and (spoiler) unnecessary bloodshed ensues. The text functions as an apt dramatization of a real-life struggle within many American families—namely, the disregard of clinically established mental health issues, which all-too-frequently debilitate (and sometimes destroy) otherwise functional family units when ignored and left untreated. But it also functions as a pointed criticism of our country itself: a country that has the highest death rate by gun violence among all the developed countries in the world (as cited in a 2010 report published by The American Journal of Medicine), yet refuses to acknowledge the benefits of common sense gun control; a country that was founded upon, arguably, the most egregious of all documented acts of genocide in world history (as summarized in great detail by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz in her text, An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States—among many others), and yet continues to minimize the egregiousness of these crimes against humanity (read this thoughtful yet infuriating piece by Guenter Lewy, who appears to be gunning for title of “hair-splitter extraordinaire” in his justification of these crimes); a country that—after having wiped out the native peoples of said country—proceeded to import slaves from other countries around the world to do our dirty work, while our ancestors feigned religious superiority; a country that, once forced to grudgingly acknowledge the heinous and un-Christian acts of slavery it perpetuated and legislated, slowly proceeded to modify the institutionalized oppression of people of color into forms of segregation—and later, into the Machiavellian mass incarceration of minorities, whose byproduct (or intention, depending on how one dissects the situation) has been gross profiteering at the expense of an unpaid labor force in for-profit prisons (“a rose by any other name…”).

And the list goes on; and the denial goes on; and the oppression goes on. This isn’t to say that our history isn’t being properly re-evaluated by present-day historians, documentarians, and artists; but it does much to substantiate Mr. Vidal’s argument. Consumed by the notion of progress, but ignorant to the painstaking effort and integrity required to truly achieve progress, we’ve by and large mastered the art of the dog and pony routine: instead of subsidizing adequate efforts to alleviate gross income inequality, house the millions who are homeless, and ensure basic healthcare and education for our tax-paying citizens, we’ve committed ourselves to “liberating” the denizens of countries abroad. And bear in mind, this is not an attempt to oversimplify the accepted complexity of diplomatic relations with foreign nations: we do (at least, for the time being) retain a Constitutional freedom of speech that many men and women across the oceans from us are bereft of. But since we are entering an era where “telling it like it is” is valued over respecting nuance and the ever-resented gray areas of our running history, I suppose it’s only proper that I should follow suit(?)

Then again, is that not the root of our problem? For how can we tell anything like it is, if we refuse to properly investigate what “it” actually is, or has been? If we persist in filtering the failures of our nation’s forefathers through a lens of “Manifest Destiny,” via which just about any crime (including ethnic cleansing) can be rationalized under this pathetically childish euphemism for “finders keepers”? As prone as we are to distilling the gray into black and white, I have an unshakable conviction of the urgent task at hand: to accept and to paint the gray areas we are so often inclined to ignore, and to talk—to actually talk, and listen when spoken to—about our past in terms that are frank, clear, and evidence-based. It’s not an easy task, by any means, but I can provide examples for reference as to how one might proceed.

* * *

In April of 1945, British forces liberated the last of the still-living prisoners discovered in Bergen-Belsen and Neuengamme—the last of the Nazi concentration camps to fall to the victory of the Allied Forces. During the years that ensued, the people of Germany faced a unique conundrum: while their economy rebounded at an extraordinary rate (so extraordinary that it was referred to at the time as an “economic miracle”), the citizens of this troubled nation struggled to incorporate the reality of their recent past into the greater scheme of their national history. Many accounts I’ve read by then-living German citizens argue that the years following the war were marked by quiet denial; by an unspoken refusal to address the proverbial elephant in the room, and later, by several political regimes of dubious merit (let us recall that, a mere 16 years later, a great wall was erected between the two halves of this troubled country).

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A snapshot of the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, located in what is now Lower Saxony. Courtesy of the Holocaust Education & Research Team website.

And yet, if we fast-forward to the fall of the Berlin wall and the period of reunification that ensued, we will find a change has taken place. In 1991, an art competition is held in West Berlin to commemorate the Holocaust in the form of a national monument; the winning artist rejects the most popular idea—a central monument in the Bavarian Quarter—and chooses something far more affecting. From the hundreds of rules imposed by the Nazi regime upon the Jewish population in West Berlin, the artist selects 80, to be reprinted one by one on street signs throughout the Bavarian Quarter; so that, while waiting to cross the street, a passerby might stumble upon a phrase like “Jews aren’t allowed to leave home after 8PM,” or “Jews must forfeit all electrical devices”—reminders of an unforgettable atrocity, to ensure this atrocity will not be forgotten (and, with any hope, not be repeated). Mind you, this change did not happen overnight: this change happened gradually, over the course of half a century, and through the concerted efforts of artists and historians to come to terms (without justification or rationalization) with the full extent of their country’s history of genocide and oppression.

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Fassbinder challenges his (real-life and screen) mother’s interpretation of German history, in his episode for the collaborative 1978 film project, Germany in Autumn, renewed © 2010, FACETS distribution.

It is because of Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Werner Herzog, Wim Wenders, Alexander Kluge, Volker Schlöndorff; Alfred Döblin, Otto Dix, Fritz Lang, Billy Wilder, Douglas Sirk; Karlheinz Stockhausen, Conny Plank, Michael Rother, Hans-Joachim Roedelius, and Dieter Moebius (among many others—too many to name in one essay) that this change took place. Because of Alfred Döblin and Otto Dix, the oppression brewing beneath the decadent veneer of the Weimar era was painted in broad relief—through the jarringly prescient words of the former, and the harrowing brushstrokes of the latter. Because of Fritz Lang, Douglas Sirk, and Billy Wilder, the hatred and genocidal racism prevailing in Nazi Germany was documented, satirized, and captured in real time through the medium of popular film (they did their jobs so well, they were all three forced to flee the oppression of the Nazi regime, so they could continue documenting and satirizing from a distance). Because of Fassbinder, the prejudice and amnesia that had become ingrained within his parents’ generation was dragged into broad daylight and brought to the attention of those who previously refused to pay attention. Because of Conny Plank, Rother, Roedelius, Moebius, and all the pioneers of the neue German musik, the foundations of a better future were laid within the cultural narrative—wiping the slate clean of all the MOR “schlager” detritus, and offering an alternative to the sins of their fathers through entirely new art forms. And to this day, Wim Wenders continues carrying the torch for the country of his namesake, painting some of the most beautiful moving pictures man has ever known—reminding viewers around the world of just how precious and significant these little lives of ours are, and giving us cause to carry on loving and learning more about each other.

Which brings us back to the U.S. of A.—a country that, as Meryl Streep so pointedly remarked during her headline-making acceptance speech at the Golden Globes this past Sunday, has become so eager to reject immigrants that it might soon have “nothing to watch but football and mixed martial arts, which are not the arts” (and I suspect that, despite the slightly sarcastic undertone of that little caveat, there are many who would beg to differ with her chagrin at this notion). Without meaning to come across as pessimistic or overly self-deprecating, I can and will readily admit the painful truth: that we are a nation drowning in our own ignorance. We have forgotten how to love one another, because we have forgotten how to foster a loving society. We have invested so much in our institutions of religion and our splintered ideologies, and in doing so, we have forgotten the simple gestures that reveal love in its truest forms.

Roger Ebert famously referred to the cinema as a “a machine that generates empathy,” and yet a substantial chunk of the top 100 grossing films of 2016 (and 2015, and 2014, and 2013…) consists of obscenely violent action blockbusters which do nothing to generate empathy, and actually function through a reversing of this very formula: they are the products of a machine that aims to belittle and eradicate empathy. To be perfectly fair—and with respect to those gray areas I’m endeavoring to highlight—there were many films in this year’s top 100 that stand up to the litmus test of Ebert’s definition; in fact, the #1 box office success of the year, Finding Dory, is a populist but shining example of empathically-geared family filmmaking. And yet, the age demographic that seems most in need of empathic development—namely, the voting age demographic—doesn’t seem to be picking up on the message. We have to scroll down to the 70th percentile of the top box office grossers before we find a film (Fences) that addresses the ever-growing racial divide in our country; we have to scroll to the 80th percentile before we find Manchester By the Sea, one of the most remarkably skilled and affecting pieces of American film realism this past year (at least when it comes to fostering empathy for characters on-screen, and for the struggles they contend with). And we won’t even find the most powerful machine for empathy to tour the film circuit in 2016 (Barry Jenkins’s Moonlight) among the top 100 box office grossers this year; I can only hypothesize that the appeals of Jack Reacher: Never Go Back and The Legend of Tarzan were too irresistible to sacrifice in favor of something that might serve to edify and enlighten. (For comparison: Ken Loach’s latest documentary, I, Daniel Blake—a study in the failure of the British welfare system to adequately provide for the needs of an ailing carpenter and his family—can be found in the top 100 grossing films of both the British and French box offices. Can you imagine?)

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Ken Loach’s latest documentary film, one of the highest-grossing pictures of the year in England and France © 2016, Sixteen Films.

But the task at hand involves more than just empathy-building (which ought to be a given in any civilized society): we need to pair our empathic skills with our critical thinking skills, and difficult as it might be, we need to wean ourselves off of this addiction to sanitizing history—of our passion for distilling all those varying shades of gray into crisply delineated shapes of black and white. I can already see (and am myself contending with) the struggle ahead, as we prepare to wave so long and farewell to our current commander-in-chief: a man who rather gracefully served as leader of this country for the past 8 years—all the while speaking in complete sentences, refraining from extramarital affairs in the Oval Office, and polishing that veneer of social progressivism that we liberals cling to so readily. Difficult though it might be, I believe it is crucial that we not forget the unfulfilled promises of this seemingly squeaky clean administration. The failure to close Guantanamo Bay, as promised; the implementation of drone-bombings in the never-ending war for oil in the Middle East; the growing socio-economic divide among the citizens of this country; the endless flow of the almighty dollar between lobbyists, Congressmen, and the Executive branch—influencing nearly every decision that is made at every level of Federal government.

Let’s not do what the Republicans did with Reagan in the ’80s, and the Democrats did with the Kennedys in the 60’s: let’s not turn the work of a flawed man into a gilded legacy act, impermeable to the critique and reasoned analysis of future generations. Let’s celebrate the fact that we finally elected a person of color to the highest office in the country, but let’s also acknowledge and respect the limitations of his work—just as we must acknowledge the institutionalized racism that continues to prevail throughout so many structures of our haphazard economy. Let’s bear in mind that, should we live to tell the tale of our 45th president, there are likely to be individuals who persist in championing the infallibility of his being; and who are we to cast stones, if we cannot refrain from making the same mistake in lionizing our current president’s time in office? It is only by cutting our losses now that we will be able to adequately number the (possibly innumerable, I fear) losses we’re preparing to sustain throughout the next four years.

So at long last: can we begin to talk about Us? Can we drag ourselves, as a nation of people, to the analyst’s chair that is the study of history, and can we truly examine the ghosts lurking within? It’s an unpleasant task, and I understand the general reluctance to undertake it, but I trust we have the means and the resources to do so. It will require self-awareness and discipline, to be sure; it will require taking the time and effort to engage in open dialogue with individuals who cling to a conviction that differs from ours. Instead of shaking our heads at the seemingly uninformed statements of younger people—so often coated in a language that seems to betray an over-developed sensitivity—we must seize upon each and every opportunity to inform and educate: we must respect (and strive to learn from) their views of this confusing world they’re growing up in—and whenever appropriate, we should offer an expansion to their perspective (which might also serve to alleviate that heightened urge to mind every single “p” and “q” spoken in public).

Lastly, we must rediscover the significance of the arts in our daily lives. Although I don’t foresee the United States maturing enough to rein in its fanaticism for gladiatorial sports, I believe we have the capacity to meet halfway by restoring the arts to a place of heightened importance in our schools; I believe we have the capacity to invest in our country’s fledgling artists way more than we currently do—not just by subsidizing the works of up-and-coming artists through government sponsorship (let us bear in mind: nearly all of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s 30-odd films were publicly funded by the German government), but by making a deliberate effort to seek out works that endeavor to comment on and elucidate our present and our past. We simply cannot continue referring to ourselves as the Greatest Nation on Earth, when our state of cultural affairs remains in such vacuous disarray.

Mr. Vidal was easily one of the greatest satirists ever to emerge from our country, and his passing has left a notable void in the satirical department. We need intellectuals to continue seeking out new, innovative ways to engage the minds of our nation’s youth—as well as stimulating the dormant thought processes of so many a working adult. It was because of Vidal’s incisive commentary that so many of us took the extra time to investigate the folly of our country’s forefathers, and it will be because of similarly capable analysts that we might manage to do the same moving forward. Because I still retain a (quite possibly foolish) belief in the far-off possibility of guiding the dilapidated, runaway train that is the United States onto a track of reason, reflection, and true progress—and I believe I am not alone.

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Still taken for the forthcoming Raoul Peck documentary, inspired by the words of James Baldwin © 2017, Velvet Film.

But first, we must take the time to recall—and to challenge our recollections, when we fear they may have faltered. In our efforts to restore reason and empathy to this fallen land, we must invest as much energy as the artists of the German new wave invested in studying and repairing their own history. Documentaries such as OJ: Made in America, 13th, and the forthcoming James Baldwin film, I Am Not Your Negro, are an important step in this direction—but I’m convinced we can do so much more (especially when it comes to supporting these efforts with actual numbers). Whenever we watch a movie, read a book, or look at any piece of art, we should be asking ourselves and each other: what is this telling me about myself and my fellow man? Does this message ring true?

And what have I learned?

“If no one asks, then no one answers
That’s how every empire falls.”
– John Prine

on the road to ulter nation

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Quote featured on the back cover of Scott 4 by Scott Walker.

The journey detailed in this essay is a journey I’ve endeavored to capture sonically on an album called ulter nation (now available on CD and digital download). It is a journey that sometimes flows from track to track—and other times, jolts from one idea to another. Like a gesture that hesitates to decide its own course, for want of constantly considering the alternatives. It’s sometimes polished, and sometimes messy; sometimes big (verging on claustrophobic), and sometimes small and questioning. Over the past months, I’ve often doubted whether it’s worth releasing it at all (who’s going to listen, anyway?): the decision I’ve made to do so is grounded in a belief that every journey deserves to be documented—however meandering or insignificant it might seem to the individual who traversed it. Write what you know, as the old saying goes.


Official music video for album opener, “Eclipse”—featuring footage from the films of Michelangelo Antonioni.

Part I: Travels abroad

“…and I ride and I ride…”

As far back as I can recall, film has been a part of my life. I grew up in a three-story apartment building in Northern Italy: my parents were stationed there as missionaries, and the entire structure had been designated a “hospitality house” for the soldiers of a nearby Army base. The edifice was a square, stuccoed ordeal, and there was a large magnolia tree out front that would yield big white blossoms during the Mediterranean summer. I remember very little about the Army base itself—which we were only allowed to visit on civilian permit—other than the American movie theater at the heart of it, and the Italian cinema/video store combo across the street from its gates. These would be the sources of my earliest obsession.

I can vividly remember roaming the tall, stately rows of VHS tapes, lined up throughout the Italian video store—which was, in fact, functioning as an outlet for American soldiers who wanted something beyond the range of the smaller rental store on-base. This meant most of the videos were in the NTSC format; which, in turn, meant we could watch them on our American-made VCR. I can almost (but not quite) smell the nicotine-stained, styrofoam-packed video sleeves lining the shelves: the faded corners around the cover artwork of each title; the wall of artlessly catalogued cassettes behind the register. The stern but warm face of the middle-aged matron who ruled over the place with a disinterested (yet well-versed) sense of practicality; the printed ledger, which contained an alphabetized—and somehow always up-to-date—account of every title in-stock, in case a customer had a specific request. Oddly enough, I remember much less about its on-base counterpart: this could have been due to our being civilian visitors, and only being allowed to visit the American store at limited times. It could also have been that the Italian store was far more compelling, with its combination of cult and mainstream English-speaking fare, and the more exotic-(shall we say)-looking Italian films on a wall close to the register.

The two movie theaters in town held my intrigue in equal measure—and for similar reasons: whereas the movie theater on base could be relied upon to always have the latest American blockbuster, the Italian theater across the street primarily exhibited movies my parents wouldn’t be overheard talking about in public. But this became an amusing little routine for me: about once a year, mom and dad would find an Italian film showing that seemed to be child-appropriate; the four of us—my parents, myself, and my older brother—would venture out and, inevitably, one of them wound up scrambling to cover our eyes during a scene of spontaneous nudity (usually occurring in the second act, when the attention starts to lag due to the notoriously bad post-syncing). I can’t say we visited the military-operated theater with any degree of regularity; our finances were understandably limited. Perhaps it was my unfulfilled longing to know more about every mysterious movie poster that provoked this cinematic fascination which overtook me in later years.

Outside of these consumption outlets, film played a role in our family image development: my parents always seemed to have a camera on-hand, and they’ve kept a fairly comprehensive record of the 11 years we spent overseas. When our family was gifted a direct-to-VHS video camera, we started recording significant (and sometimes insignificant) events as little home movies. I recall one of these movies perfectly capturing my anxiety as a 7-year old on Christmas morning: my parents, good Christians that they are, made certain myself and my brother both sat through a retelling of the Nativity prior to any worldly gift exchanging. Part of me grew irritated by the monotony of the story (it always ended with the virgin having a baby—which likely triggered my later interest in surrealism); another part of me learned to appreciate the value of tradition—the accrued significance an event can obtain by virtue of its repetition. Both parts of me must have been fully functioning on this particular Christmas morning, as I hyper-actively jumped from the couch to the floor, to the stockings on the mantel, back to the couch, and back around in a (sort of) circle. While watching the video of this event some time later—and fast-forwarding through the Nativity section—we stumbled upon a happy accident: as the tape ran through the VCR in fast-motion, the action of my hyperactive body leaping around the living room revealed a rhythm. What at regular speed just seemed to be restless wandering became a sort of dance, when played at a different rate: like one continuous gesture, weaving throughout a designated space.

“…I ride through the city’s backsides…”

There’s this scene in Antonioni’s 1975 feature film, The Passenger, in which our protagonist (played by Jack Nicholson) lies dying in a hotel bed—fulfilling a predestination, set in motion by the death of the man whose identity he adopted at the movie’s beginning. The camera gaze drifts slowly outside the room, through the bars of a window overlooking the courtyard of some desert hotel. A man sits still in a chair against a wall. Maria Schneider wanders restlessly around the courtyard. A car drives slowly through the scenery. It’s one of the longest continuous shots I can think of, and when examined as a microcosm within the film’s narrative, it represents a sort of gestural solution to a fairly Quixotic, meandering plot.

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Still from Michelangelo Antonioni’s The Passenger © 1975, Sony Picture Classics

A series of shots at the end of his earlier film, L’Eclisse, betrays a similar strategy: delivering on the promise of its title, the gesture inherent to this series of still lifes rather passively brings to a close the film’s narrative (which, to be fair, has no real need for closure). The same could be said for a number of his other films, including my personal favorite—Identification of a Woman—which concludes with the lead actor opening a window to project his imagined sci-fi screenplay idea (which, in turn, projects a story narrated by Monica Vitti in Red Desert) into an open sky of improbable colors. I suppose another viewer might interpret these as cop-out endings, but they don’t come across to me as such. The gesture of each ending seems to catapault the viewer back to his own reality—which represents just one out of a number of possible gestures.

“…I see the stars come out in the sky…”

In 1999, my family packed up the few belongings in our expansive Italian house and moved back to the United States. As the Y2k scare swelled to its inevitable (and underwhelming) conclusion, we were settling into a rented home in the middle of an identikit suburban neighborhood. I remember the television coverage on New Year’s Eve—sitting on the carpeted floor of the living room, wondering if this move to a different country could also become a move to the end of the world. Some people must have been disappointed by the outcome, since the scenario was reprised (somewhat less effectively) the following New Year’s, with a scare surrounding the ’00 turning to a ’01. Who knew basic algebra could be this frightening?

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Still taken from Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation © 2003, Focus Features


Official music video for “Into the Night (pt. I),” celebrating a range of films which left a lasting mark on your humble narrator.

The neighborhood we moved into was made up of block after block of indistinguishable one-stories; you could (and I did) ride a bike through this maze for hours, racking your brain to find your way back to the street you lived on. Directly across a heavily trafficked 4-lane road on the edge of our neighborhood, there was an expansive strip mall—which housed a used music and movies store, but more impressively (and all the way towards the back of the labyrinthine lot) a proper multiplex. While the distance was a little demanding on foot, it turned out to be the perfect range for a bicycle. This enabled your humble narrator to pick up his consumption of new movie releases at a significant rate—within budgetary restrictions, of course. I remember seeing features as diverse as SignsLost in TranslationKill BillEternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. All in rapid succession. It must have been this exposure to another side of American cinema that opened an alternate dimension for me—one to rival the microcosm of that Italian video store.

It was this exposure to a “rebirth” of independent American cinema that inspired me to return to my roots: to find out about those movies I never get to see while I was growing up. My mother had found work as a public librarian, and this enabled me to dig into a variety of books on the history of cinema, as well as digging into older films (on VHS and the new DVD format) from all around the world. The Italian film selection intrigued, but also confused me, since it seemed to represent an entirely different side of Italian cinema than the side I saw while growing up overseas. Not only were the films mostly older titles—films by DeSica, Visconti, Rosselini—but they seemed to represent a somewhat artisinal curation of a culture I found to be far more eclectic. For instance, none of the titles I checked out from the library synced with memories of dumb comedies starring Fantozzi and Roberto Benigni; none of these “classic” Italian films—though they were all pretty good—really matched the indigenous cinema I had once known and loved.1

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Still taken from Fellini’s Juliet of the Spirits © 1965, Studio Canal Films

So I started to branch out, and I found the works of Bertolucci and Pasolini; films by Antonioni, Fellini, Leone, and Tornatore. I found films that were as far removed from the tripe I saw on Italian television as possible, yet just within range of the concerns I faced as a gay teenager. In Bertolucci, I found desperate, sensual beauty; in Pasolini, desparate anarchy. In Antonioni, it was the so-called “alienating” gaze that grabbed my attention (and subsequently found its way into many of the songs on this new album). In the films of Fellini, those wonderful outrages of the imagination—soaring on self-reflexive wings through fragments of deconstructed memory. Leone, on the other hand, was more of a magic realist: his majestic pipe dream, Once Upon a Time in America, may well be the quintessential cinematic rumination on memory and loss. And Giuseppe Tornatore brought me full circle, with his desperate love of life saturated in every film cell for The Legend of 1900 (a film I spent years searching for, having nothing to go on but my vague recollection of the teaser trailer shown on Italian television). I do believe a love of life is the defining characteristic of all the finest movies; it’s this act of love that inspires the viewer to become a better version of himself, thereby fulfilling the definition put forth by Roger Ebert—“a machine that generates empathy.” Just as the writers of Cahiers du Cinéma had incited a revolution (of sorts) through the act of championing the very lifeblood of cinema, my discovery of passionate Italian film-making incited an unquenchable thirst for more of the same.

One of the first stops along the tracks of this bullet train through world cinema was the land of surrealism.

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René Magritte’s portrait of Edward James (1937)

“…yeah, the bright and hollow sky…”

Surrealism seems to get a bad rap from most art historians. I think this is largely to do with a perceived constriction of art that serves solely to attack bourgeois values; for the record, I’ve never bought this open/shut interpretation. Having admired the strange and enchanting films of Luis Buñuel for many years now, I’ve recognized a more consistent thread coursing this art movement to be a study in gestures. If we rewind all the way back to Magritte’s painting of a man (Edward James) reflecting the back of his head in a mirror (while facing the other way), we’ll find that the artist has taken a common subject and rendered it fascinating with a hidden gesture. At the most basic level, the image functions as an optical illusion; upon further scrutiny, it captivates with the perpetual (and unfulfilled) suggestion of some inscrutable movement.

Fast-forward to the improvisatory, episodic trajectories of Buñuel’s The Milky Way and The Phantom of Liberty, and you have this play of movement and gestures taken to the remotest extremes of unpredictability. More-so than satirizing a social class, these works seem (at least to me) to be studying the chance element inherent to the formation of social norms. When seen as a series of incomprehensible—yet, somehow, logical—gestures, we are granted the realization that alternate possibilities will always lie in waiting, just beyond the confines of our actualized movements. We are granted the realization of life as one long series of gestures: one long movement, which could have been any number of ulterior movements.

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Still taken from Luis Buñuel’s The Milky Way © 1969, Studio Canal Films

These works by “formal” surrealists2 segued neatly into my exploration of the dream-drenched boudoirs in the films of David Lynch (it wasn’t until many years later that I learned of the association his films held to the surrealist art movement). There was also the wide and varied work of Robert Altman, which—while not “surrealist” in any proper sense of the word—was energized by improvisation and obliqueness. 3 Women, in particular, seemed to share just as much with the works of surrealists as it did with the works of Ingmar Bergman. It’s one of (if not the) best-captured dreams on film, as far as I’m aware.

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Panoramic still taken from Robert Altman’s 3 Women © 1977, Lion’s Gate Films

It seems to be dreams that most accurately capture the disorientation I’ve sometimes felt, straddling two cultures of origin. It was in dreams that I revisited the hallways and courtyards of the Italian schools I once attended; in dreams that I sometimes still catch glimpses of the life we left behind. Dreams have kept my fading memories of childhood alive, but they also tend to mutate these memories into increasingly fragmented images. The geography of my youth was one I traversed with little sense of orientation as a child: it’s now somewhat difficult for me to map these memories in any concrete order or sequence.

Maybe it’s this disorientation of recollection that fed my love of American road movies: Kubrick’s Lolita; Dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider; Five Easy Pieces, Deadhead Miles, and Two-Lane BlacktopKaliforniaThelma & Louise, Wild at Heart, and True Romance. Terrence Malick’s Badlands and Gus Van Sant’s My Own Private Idaho… They all channeled—in one way or another—this restless wandering of the soul, often through unknown towns and their roadside motels. The road movie may in fact be the perfect metaphor for the restless soul: it offers a literal depiction of the soul’s endless wandering; it establishes a tangible geography for an intangible journey. Just recently I saw Wim Wenders’ Kings of the Road for the first time, and it struck me as a flawless melding of the existential and the functional elements inherent to the genre (that infamous scene on the beach just about sums it up). It deserves to be crowned the king of all road movies.

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Still taken from Wim Wender’s Kings of the Road © 1976, Axiom Films; renewed © 2016, Criterion Collection

“…you know it looks so good tonight…”

The latest stop on my journey through cinema has been the spellbinding land of melodrama. This includes everything from the expatriate works of Douglas Sirk, to the no-less-brightly-colored—and equally perverse—domestic dramas of Almodóvar; the filmed plays of Tennessee Williams, and the brutal genre/chamber pieces of Rainer Werner Fassbinder. The lavish love letters of Wong Kar-Wai, and the cream of the day/night-time soap opera crop: Peyton Place, Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman, Twin Peaks… The overly deliberated, deliciously exaggerated gestures of all those existentially bothered characters.

There’s this wonderful string of episodes in the second season of Mary Hartman‘s nightly run, during which Louise Lasser finds herself corresponding with Gore Vidal from the confines of a mental health facility—providing the world-renowned satirist with insight into the trials and tribulations of a sexually repressed housewife. What at first appears as a borderline-ludicrous juxtaposition of personalities, winds up a mirror image of sorts: two people sharing this tremendous amount of perception regarding (their respective) sources of societal misery, but only one of them capable of tapping into repressed desire. The irony of this dynamic, of course, is that the hetero-normative individual in this scenario is the one most incapable of finding happiness within the confines of social structures (thereby affirming Yoko Ono’s eyebrow-raising claim3).

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Still taken from an episode of Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman © 1976, Sony Pictures and Shout! Home Entertainment

I could not have prepared myself for the outcome of the recent United States Presidential election, regardless of how hard I might have tried. As this country veers off into an uncertain future, I believe it will be noted by historians that the final straw before the breaking of the camel’s proverbial back was the threat of a woman achieving power. It is a given that sexism will not allow itself to be resolved any time soon, and it is this oppression that makes melodrama a study of such on-going relevance: it’s a genre centered around the awareness that society sides with one “type,” often at the sacrifice of another. Emerging forces of opposition are allowed to be studied with complexity and nuance in melodrama, and when done successfully, this creates the ultimate machine for empathy. This fosters the ability to recognize one’s “other” for who he/she/they really are, and we can then begin to comprehend where the scales are tipped. This heightened awareness is the first step towards developing an altered and improved model of the status quo.

“…I stay under glass…”

There is a dynamic that occurs when an organism responds to its surroundings: I refer to it as the “politics of space,” though I’m certain there’s a more scientific term in use elsewhere. The Canada goose, as we know, flies south in the winter to escape the frost; the lizard seeks sunlight to absorb the heat its body fails to generate adequately. Similarly, people respond to space in terms of opposition and assimilation. Living in Italy, I developed a curious obsession with the grandiosity of American culture—it being in such direct opposition to the scale of Italian geography—but for reasons beyond mere opposition: in this grandiosity of physical space (the Rocky Mountains; the deserts of Arizona and New Mexico; the vast tundras of Alaska and Canada) there can be found a reflection of the spiritual grandiosity Italians are well-known for.

The narrow geography of Italy has forced many citizens to establish tight-knit communities. Combined with the (once-stringent) policy put forth by the Vatican on birth control, this proximity of space in more industrialized cities made it so that—at the time I was there—families of 10 or more resided communally in two-bedroom flats. It was not unusual for us to visit our neighbors and find the husband sitting on their living room couch, wearing only his underwear and a tattered shirt: the living room often doubled as a bedroom/changing area, and some of the boundaries many “westerners” are accustomed to were frequently blurred.

As a general rule, upon entering an Italian household, life will light itself up. The Italians I met from Southern Italy, in particular, tended to move with grand, welcoming gestures; they were good-humored, hospitable, and down-to-earth. But all Italians (that I recall meeting, at least) seemed to share this grandness of spirit, which endeared you to people upon your very first meeting them. Genuineness among people felt instinctual: whereas North America (as we know it) was initially colonized in the vein of forming a new identity, Italians have retained a fairly confident sense of national identity for a while now. This sense was so confident, of course, that it once swung to the extreme of fascism—but this part of Italian history was seldom brought to my attention (and when it was, it rarely resonated within my youthful, ahistorical thought process).

Another thing about Italians (culturally speaking): very little seems to be done in a spirit of irony. Humor often inclines itself towards the wicked variety, but it rarely sinks to a level of actual cruelty (some lightweight debasement, perhaps), and it always feels close to home. Perhaps taking a path whereby few subjects ever require skating around, Europeans have side-stepped some of the common traps we Americans appear to fall into; specifically, traps involving the formation of social taboos that, when confronted by youth, frequently turn into vindictive norms. These traps can provoke a susceptible individual’s instinctive rejection of their environment, in lieu of confrontation or assimilation. Europeans, on the other hand, have been forced to confront their environment time and again; their consistency and solidarity (despite numerous wars and territorial squabbles) is viewed as remarkable by Americans, who’ve experienced something akin to schizophrenia between the disparate and far-removed parts of our country. Perhaps it’s this increased sense of national identity that enables Europeans to maintain the cultural upper hand.

Nonetheless, despite a heritage of great art and historic architecture—the Vatican; the Coliseum; the museums of Venice—the cultural components I connected with most immediately during my residency overseas were of a much more lighthearted nature. The Smurfs (translated as I Puffi) were a daily feature in our household after school, along with this great Japanimé series dubbed in Italian, Lupin III. There was also a sort of Disney knock-off cartoon serial (paper) that we used to pick up from the train station depot, whenever we went on a trip through the countryside.

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Still taken from the Mark Romanek-directed music video for “Bedtime Stories” (1995), one of many memorable Madonna moments from her MTV heyday

(Italian) MTV introduced me to a number of significant cultural icons, including Björk, Madonna, and David Bowie. There were also several Italian pop stars in heavy rotation—namely, Eros Ramazzotti and Jovanotti—and of course, the wonders of Ricky Martin’s hot candlewax threshold. Euro-pop is a real thing, make no mistake: the regrettable Swedish export, Ace of Base, made for ubiquitous listening in Italian supermarkets. There was also a strong affinity for UK-exported boy/girl bands, like Boyzone and The Spice Girls. But the CDs I found myself drawn to whenever we shopped at a retailer that carried music (which was a surprisingly large percentage of retailers, honestly) tended to be of a somewhat different nature: I vividly recall the covers of those early Massive Attack records (the name sounded so dangerous and alluring), as well as the Fat of the Land album by Prodigy. Then there was the first album by Tori Amos, with that startlingly graphic painting on the back cover—and, at the other end of the spectrum, the sinister-looking passenger on the front of Ill Communication. These were to be my forbidden fruit: if I found myself in any position to sneak a bite, it was a treasured moment.

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Album artwork for Ill Communication by the Beastie Boys © 1994, EMI

Looking back, I never really questioned the appeal of the “girl power” supernova, or Euro-trash one-hit wonders like Aqua: it made perfect sense to me that young people should find freedom in sounds that seemed bigger-than-life. Bold gestures of generic convention offered an oasis for young girls (and boys) trapped in shared bedrooms with multiple siblings. Much like Titanic when it was unleashed upon an unsuspecting box office, “Wannabe” and “Barbie Girl” swept my schoolmates away from the humdrum routines of family living. This self-generating machine of feminist chic was essentially a hybrid of the same sensibilities that once before produced the Electric Company and Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret (the polymorphously perverse sex ed. component of all this teenybopper fluff was especially confounding and alluring for boys, as I recall; they were often more likely to have memorized lyrics and choreography, now that I think back on it…)

Big music is significant, when living in a relatively small land. Big music implies big space, which implies big gestures. One of the defining features of Euro-pop, from this writer’s point of view, is the broadness of its gestures: lyrics tend to be generic and universal, and production values lean towards the indulgent and the simplistic. Building upon the tradition of disco, and the more vacuous end of the New Wave spectrum, ’90s Euro-pop/club music and feather-weight, caucasian-appropriated R&B represented a dead end to cultural hedonism. These beyond-MOR incarnations of pop brought those past undertones of fascism and segregation (undertones which had only lain slightly more dormant in the melting pots of disco and ’80s cross-culturation) into full relief. As soon as the ’90s sealed the 20th century in a veneer of artifice, there was little one could do to escape the capitalization of cultural integration (and on-going cultural appropriation). Once the recording executives realized there was a fortune to be made in petri-dish-curated line-ups, many execs appeared to (almost overnight) master the craft of mixing and matching specific personality “types” with the intent of achieving a broad, cross-sectional audience demographic. Through sheer chance or calculated precision, the “boy/girl band gurus” managed to instigate one superficially diverse overnight sensation after another.

Backstreet Boys. *Nsync. The Spice Girls. All Saints. Boys II Men. While young people latched onto the loud, compressed dance sounds of these automatonic groups, most adults recognized this as the end of the line for major recording studios (not to mention, the end of the line for proper A&R). Much like the “high concept” feature films, which appeared to drain the box office of all ingenuity and subversiveness during the ’80s, the efforts of different major labels to create self-prophesied hits drove the independent music scene further and further out of the woods and (eventually) into its own collective. The consumer who once gave unknown artists a chance by virtue of their being on a major (and therefore trustworthy) label, had now evolved into a consumer who sought out boutique labels, typically harboring counter-cultural connotations. The majors would have to settle for the likes of Adele and Taylor Swift, from here on out.

“…I look through my window so bright…”

Upon arriving in the United States, I was confronted with my nation of origin for the first time. I was barely one year young when my family flew to Italy for their 11-year term of civil service, and I had no notion of what to expect upon our return to the homeland (which, to me, was a totally foreign country). My parents had raised me speaking English; my schoolteachers had raised me speaking Italian. Torn between two tongues, I started to reflect upon the chance nature of cultural development: the notion that there are countless histories being written around the globe every day, but only a handful of these histories actually make it to the textbooks handed out in schools. The notion that every story involves a process of selection and omission—and that, oftentimes, it’s the omissions that define a story’s arc. I started to realize the significance of perspective; the importance of having a point of view, as well as the time and discipline needed to develop a well-rounded viewpoint.

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Still taken from the music video for “Eclipse” © 2016, DirtyCleanMusik

I went to three different schools (one Middle, two Highs) before graduating, and wherever I went, I seemed to be flummoxed by the possibility of an alternative. I struggled to relate to others in my class—not because I didn’t like them or didn’t enjoy their company, but because my curiosity to find out how the other half lived kept me in a state of intellectual restlessness. I received fairly good marks up through my Junior year, at which time I surrendered my will to try harder than absolutely necessary and wound up graduating by the skin of my teeth (thanks, mom).

Post-graduation, I tended to wander from one social circle to another. This rarely rose to the level of more-than-superficial friendship, though I’m fortunate to still have some friends from this time—and less fortunate to have missed out on lasting friendships with others. I initially went to college upon my parents’ convincing, which led to my (still current) involvement with the social work profession. In a way, it’s the perfect field for a person with my particular intellectual inclinations: I meet a new mind every day—or thereabouts—but the treatment process is structured in a way that protects these meetings from the nagging threat of interminability.

Today, I feel very fortunate to have had the experience of living in a different country: it’s something I wish every person on this planet could do at some point (though I understand the logistics of this happening are tricky, to say the least). I can only speak from personal experience, but I believe that acculturation has strengthened my stability of perspective. My former experiences have instigated an on-going (and, at times, hyper-active) drive to develop and implement empathy, whenever possible. And throughout my 30 years of existence, it is empathy that I’ve found to be the greatest equalizer. It is empathy that truly binds individuals to one another, above and beyond the forced constraints of social norms—and it’s empathy that protects us from the hazards of carelessness.

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Still taken from Fassbinder’s World on a Wire © 1973, Criterion Collection

There is a somewhat discernible decrease in understanding among individuals living through the digital age. As information becomes more and more readily available (quite literally, always at our fingertips), the value placed on comprehension and empathy seems to border on irrelevance now. It can be difficult for those who develop an appetite for sincerely empathic interaction to find a niche in internet chat rooms, but equally challenging to stumble upon opportunities for natural mingling in-person. As explored in the themes of Fassbinder’s Welt Am Draht, we’re often confronted by the awareness that we experience a level of dissonance between our perception and our reality, whenever we engage in digital communication; we’re having to identify our reality through filters and second-hand sources. It is safe to say, we are often reading the commentary before the text.

We are constantly responding to the stimuli of our environment—and everyone confronts the threat of overwhelming external stimulus. Everyone longs for an alternative to the negative situations in their lives, and everyone seeks the stability of home and familiarity. These are the things we share: the things that keep us together (“while the war’s going on”4).


Official music video for “Into the Night (pt. II)”—a continuation of the cinematic themes explored in its counterpart.

Pt. II: Homeland

“…over the city’s a rip in the sky…”

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Storefront of Gem City Records, located in Dayton, Ohio (1987-2008). The space is currently under new management, operating as a storefront for Omega Music.

American culture in the late ’90s and early ’00s seemed to reject the grandiosity that came so naturally to it in years prior. Following the death of Kurt Cobain, and that burst of one too many punk-pop and alt. rock bands, the White Stripes took hold of many listeners who were thirsty for a return to something simpler. I recall visiting an independent American record store for the first time in the early aughts: it was nothing like the corporate-owned music stores in Italian malls, or the quasi-corporate used media store in the strip mall across from our suburban neighborhood. Dayton’s Gem City Records was something different and confounding to me: most of the new releases on display represented “smaller” artists, but the overall impact was just as expansive as that of a Virgin Records. I wandered those aisles for hours—much as I had wandered the aisles of that Italian video store—and tried to learn about as many of these artists as I could. I eventually hooked up with the clerk at this record store (we’re together to this day), but that’s a story all its own.

The year was 2003. With big music on the skids, a new folk revival was on the rise. I remember walking into the above-mentioned record store, asking for the latest studio album by Placebo on its release date: the knowledgeable clerk was aware of the release, but indicated they hadn’t ordered any copies for the store (they could place a special order, if I was interested). I was taken aback for a moment, because Placebo were bigger than Jesus in the Italian cool kids scene. They were just big enough to achieve “household” status, but small enough to retain some street cred—to not risk ready commodification at the hands of aggressive advertisers.

Another band of comparable cool in Europe, Garbage, seemed to be readily dismissed by most hip American music consumers, as well. I began to ponder what it was about these bands—bands that received steady radio-play and widespread appreciation in Italy—that didn’t resonate as easily with the average midwestern listener (after all, Garbage were based out of Wisconsin, with only their lead singer being of European origin). It came as a surprise to me that these bands were being read within the narrow parameters of “goth” music, and then subsequently dismissed under the guise of this lamentable term. It seemed, to me, a little lazy (not unlike those limiting interpretations imposed upon surrealism and disco).

In retrospect—and with both the aforementioned bands going strong in their respective endeavors5—the disconnect in question appears to stem, in part, from a politics of space. I realize that a component of the appeal these bands (and others: INXS; Eurythmics; New Order) held for European ears was the projection of a bigger-than-life quality. While the singers of these bands might have been shy (ahem, Bernard Sumner), their output rarely belied shyness (please see “Touched By the Hand of God”). Their output reflected a sort of longing for grandiosity: more specifically, a longing for a grandness that exceeded the confines of their origins. In Manchester, there was a need for the open/closed spaces created by the songs of Joy Division—and, later, for the dancefloor anthems of New Order. In the wake of Conny Plank and that great rebirth of German music, there was a place for the more grounded theatrics of Annie Lennox and Eurythmics. In the open landscape of the Australian outback, there was a longing to be packed shoulder-to-shoulder in an arena for the power-pop of INXS (or, on the flip-side of the pop music spectrum, the noisy barroom brawls of The Birthday Party—another export that never quite caught on among U.S. listeners).

Of course, thanks to the advance of globalism, one is now bound to find music of all sorts, in all corners of the world. But one is still bound to find trends and listening habits; genres that command critical and popular appeal in some pockets, but fail to connect with a larger audience in others. In my hometown of Dayton, for instance, there is an active local music scene: a new band or solo act seems to be popping up on Facebook and BandCamp just about every day. As in most small-city scenes, however, the range of genre and songwriting style tends to fall within a given section on the spectrum of possible musics. The spirit of Bob Pollard’s Guided by Voices—as well as the incredibly talented Deal sisters—seems to hover over the landscape of this music scene, and many interesting things have come (and continue coming) out of this influence.

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The Breeders, achieving international recognition with The Last Splash

It’s interesting to note, however, that the Deals’ 4AD signing of The Breeders fell apart once they achieved bigger-than-life status: an epic achievement of grandeur, their second LP (The Last Splash) carried with it big venues, big expectations, and big parties; they ultimately retreated back to the smaller comfort of their hometown (though two more Breeders records emerged in later years). Pollard also struck it fairly big, signing with TVT Records and working with Ric Ocasek in 1999; he quickly determined the record industry would not be able to keep up with his output, and subsequently returned to the boutique circuit. It is fairly safe to assume he was correct in this assessment—and he’s had the last laugh by proving himself to be one of the most prolific songwriters in the midwest, if not the world.

I admire the loyalty so many of these individuals hold to the proxemics of their hometown: I find it inspiring, meeting people so dedicated to an established tradition of music-making. I must admit, I’ve still retained an unapologetic affinity for the over-the-top power chords of Placebo and Garbage (and INXS, and New Order, and Queen)—which must seem laughable to so many musicians who find this approach indulgent and “show-off-y.” When you live in the land of Big Macs and Cadillacs, but your local economy is sludging along at a snail’s pace, there’s often this urge to retaliate against the popular and the mainstream—to carve out an idiosyncratic niche for oneself, and to find solace in the smallness of one’s existence. The question I’ve asked myself (and the question I continue to ponder) is: can’t I have both?6


The ulter nation album teaser, featuring album track “Stairs.”

“…and everything looks good tonight…”

I’ve taken music lessons from two very different instructors over the years. My first experience with piano lessons began around age 6, after my parents took note of a habit I’d developed of drifting towards the instrument whenever we visited friends or family who had one on display in their living room. My first piano instructor taught lessons out of his apartment, which occupied an entire floor in a hauntingly beautiful pre-war building farther uptown from us. I recall the wide, well-worn stone staircase my mother and I climbed on a weekly basis to get to this apartment: whenever I re-watch Identification of a Woman—specifically, the opening credits sequence with Tomas Milian returning to his apartment, and that scene near the end where he locates the woman in question from the top of a spiral staircase—I think of those stairs.

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Still taken from Identification of a Woman (1982) © 1982, Criterion Collection

My instructor, Alberto, was a traditionalist through and through. An impeccable player of the highest musical pedigree, Alberto held all his students to a comparably high standard: if he recognized that I had slacked in my practicing, he brought out a little switch and (gently) snapped it against my fingers whenever I hit the wrong note. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t develop a somewhat masochistic appreciation for the switch: why was it that playing the wrong notes felt so right to me; why was it that the punishment only seemed to validate my inclination towards coloring outside the lines?

When we moved back to the U.S., my mom started searching for piano teachers of a comparable caliber. When she stumbled upon a bearded beatnik fellow named Jeff, who walked with slow, graceful movements and played the piano with seemingly effortless virtuosity, she made the wise decision to sign me up for a weekly Thursday session in his studio. Lessons with Jeff could not possibly have been any more different from those traditional Italian lessons: for starters, the first 10 minutes rarely entailed any playing or music-reading at all. As soon as Jeff realized I was a fledgling movie buff, he quickly opened up about his own cinematic obsessions; before long, he had successfully turned me on to a number of memorably affecting American films: King Vidor’s Duel in the Sun; Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man; Brando’s One-Eyed Jacks; Altman’s McCabe & Mrs. Miller. I started discovering a side of the American western that I never imagined could have existed; some books referred to it as the “anti-western,” but we recognized it as the “honest western.” Whereas most of the films starring John Wayne as “the Duke” tended to glamorize acts of genocide and homicide—while minimizing the horrors of ethnic cleansing, and the struggles inherent to frontier living—these westerns captured the American dream in all its strange, violent, disorganized power. Jeff broadened my geography of classic American film, and from here on out, talk revolving around recently-discovered movies became a staple of our weekly session time (on occasion, this would actually consume the majority of our time).

Jeff was (and remains) a firm believer in recognizing the individual intent of a given student. If I had come to his sessions saying I wanted to play Carnegie Hall, I’ve no doubt he would have played drill sergeant and enforced a strict rehearsal regimen in order to achieve marked progress towards that end; if I had come asking to be trained in different jazz stylings, he would have asked “where do you want to start?” But I asked for something more elemental. I asked to learn simply about chord structure, song structure, and arrangement—subjects of seeming irrelevance with my former instructor, a passionate and dedicated classicist whose teaching centered around reading and replication. I now wanted to understand what makes a song work, beyond the dots and dashes printed on sheet music (which, truth be told, I’ve never been even remotely proficient at deciphering).

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The contrapuntal mastery of Glenn Gould’s Bach renditions left a marked impression on this writer as a 17-year-old student of composition.

At the start of our lessons, I was offered a refresher course in melody and counter-point (the two most important components in any song). Bach’s fugues and preludes were a perfect subject of study for me at this time, and Jeff introduced me to Glenn Gould’s masterful renditions of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier—which completely revolutionized my understanding of a song’s potential. He then encouraged me to bring in whatever songs I happened to be listening to at the time (mostly early Jackson Browne and pre-Yellow Brick Road Elton John), and we would break these down into individual moving parts. It was then that the dots began connecting for me, and my desire to create compositions of my own took a firm hold. My earliest compositions were nothing more than experiments in counter-point: without abiding by any pre-determined time signature, I would improvise one melody against a simple counter-melody, and then challenge myself to map it out on a grid. (Several years later, I stumbled upon David Byrne’s writings on music and composition, which taught me non-traditional ways to map out songs on paper—without having to stick within the parameters of those dreaded lines on sheet music. These have most definitely been a useful reference point throughout my songwriting experiments.)

Even though my scheduled sessions with Jeff ended well over a decade ago, I consider myself a student for life. As I continue composing, producing, and engineering recordings with Dirty/Clean, I find myself learning from other individuals involved in this process every step of the way. The mixing process can be an especially challenging and overwhelming part of recording, and I’m fortunate to have had the invaluable assistance of Derl Robbins (The Keynote Speaker, Motel Beds, The Company Man) on both of the Dirty/Clean records. Some other great teachers I’ve found over the years are those masters of composition and record-making: George Martin; Bob Johnston; Tony Visconti; Brian Eno; David Bowie; John Cale; Neil Young; Mark Mothersbaugh; Giorgio Moroder; Quincy Jones; Nile Rodgers; Conny Plank… There is so much to be gleaned from the works of past masters, and record collecting/listening is one of the most effective ways (as far as I’m aware) of cutting to the chase. And thanks to the advents of YouTube and Wikipedia, it’s now easier than ever for fledgling musicians to study our history of recorded music—not just through the songs themselves, but through the countless documentaries and tutorials archived in these video streaming libraries.

“…get into the car…”

Seven years ago (or so), I chanced upon an ’80s tribute show at a venue called Canal Street Tavern, which used to be located at the corner of First and Patterson in downtown Dayton. I commended some of the performers after the show, and spoke with a drummer, Jay, who seemed to be filling in for every band on the bill that night. We spoke about some of our mutual musical interests, and I mentioned that I was a keyboard player. After several further meetings, a mutual decision was made to endeavor playing music as a duo, and thus began our quest for a sound we could both agree upon. We joked about how ideal it was to have only two band members (“it’s the least number of additional people you need to be called a band”), but we eventually made our live debut as a 6-piece—in a Duran Duran tribute show, nonetheless.

Following this experimental outing, the 4 friends who joined us on-stage that night moved on to their respective projects. We shifted the focus back to making something work as a duo, and ventured out on several DJing forays. The most thoughtful of these efforts was a weekly exercise in combining live performance with music cues, which served to help prepare us for some of the challenges inherent to having only two players. It was around this time I discovered the films of Fassbinder, and this opened a concentrated portal into several subjects of on-going interest for me (namely: self-oppression, gender politics, family formation, and systems of control). I was especially taken at the time with Fassbinder’s made-for-television mini-series, Welt am Draht (World on a Wire). As I was struggling to come to grips with the ways in which social media was changing interactions with peers, friends, and acquaintances, the subject matter of the film seemed to speak directly to my struggles. The concept of trying to reconcile multiple virtual realities at once, frame upon frame, was no strange concept to me: it’s the way I felt every time I corresponded with acquaintances over the internet, then met a completely different side of the individual in-person. Beyond inter-personal anxieties, there was my somewhat more profound fear of human cognition being altered (perhaps permanently?) by the luxury of immediately accessible information.


Official music video for “Fall Things”—a tribute to the film work of Godfrey Reggio and Stan Brakhage.

Around this same time (2012, or so), the discovery of Scott Walker completely re-shaped my outlook on the frontier of popular music. I discerned some abstract connection between the divergent soundscapes of Walker’s varied incarnations, and the movement known to many westerners as “krautrock”—which had followed on the heels of a markedly bad gulch of German MOR (then referred to as “schlager musik”). Just as bands ranging from Can to Neu!, to Kraftwerk and Cluster had reshaped the future of all music (and seemingly from scratch), Scott’s peerless venturing into unknown musical territory presented a similar hope in the promise of mystery and mastery. The connection between Scott and “neue musik” was further established in my mind upon the discovery of Fassbinder’s Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant, in which an LP record of Walker Brothers recordings plays a vital (if minor) role in the unraveling of its characters.

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Margit Carstensen puts on a Walker Brothers record in Fassbinder’s The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant © 1972, Criterion Collection

As a duo, Dirty/Clean continues to function as an exchange of (frequently disparate) influences between myself and Jay: some of these influences overlap in our respective libraries; others remain permanent outliers. One source of mutual inspiration has always been disco (which, in turn, links back to my obsession with neue musik). While Jay’s knowledge of disco far exceeds my more dabbling interest, we share a profound appreciation for the functional quality of the genre. It is the ultimate music to move to, really: the pace tends towards the pace of one’s heart (if doing some kind of aerobic activity), and the fixed nature of the rhythm once lent itself to several years of seemingly endless—and surprisingly unique—variations. Of course, disco has had a fair share of harsh criticism heaped upon it throughout the years (not unlike surrealism): it’s been called repetitive, boring, MOR slop; it’s even been referred to as fascistic. But we’ve both recognized a different angle to this music. We’ve recognized music that has the power to unite; music with a pulse. Music that can range in content from utmost sincerity to utmost banality, and yield a successful result at either end of the spectrum.

I like to think of myself as a fairly eclectic listener, but like most people, I tend to fall in line with a particular strand of influence—and then spend a substantial amount of time lost in that strand. We’ve just recorded a follow-up album to Welt am Draht, and the motorik beat seems to continue propelling us along. I sometimes doubt the songwriting ethics of retaining a given beat so consistently, but I usually come around to my pre-existing mantra: “if it works, it works.” I cannot say with any degree of certainty where we will be heading next in this musical co-operative. I only hope to continue exploring unknown territories (at least, unknown to us).

“…we’ll be the passenger…”

For me, the journey of making ulter nation ends with Jean Genet. “Saint” Genet’s writings have been a fixed reference point in my creative efforts over the past few years: it is his understanding of the power of gestures that continues to empower my modest efforts. Edmund White’s comprehensive biography of Genet, more-so than any other source on the subject, seems to capture the sweeping gesture that was Genet’s life—whose very origins were colored by his own attempts to mislead biographers, historians, and the reading public in general. Genet is the most rewarding read of my life thus far, and I recommend it to anyone with the stamina for 700 pages of fine print (it flies by: honest).

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The Thief’s Journal by Jean Genet, first published by Gallimard in 1949

It could be argued that every age is an age of gestures. I would argue that the digital age is the most dangerous of all—in that it allows individuals the illusion of performing an action, when that action is often nothing but a digital fingerprint. As surveillance and fear of government intrusion colors our everyday activities, it is significant to note the steady dilution of our gestures; the gradual and perilous reduction of truly fearless gesturing—which used to be the defining feature of a life lived to its fullest.

Our nation is entering a confusing new chapter; a chapter wherein many long-standing forces of oppression remain unchanged, and yet the strategies once used to counter them have seemingly become obsolete. Absolute corruption has won out at the highest level of government, and it is important for all caring individuals to recognize that simple gestures of empathy may now be the most subversive gestures of all. Just as Genet realized in writing The Thief’s Journal, “traditional” acts of subversion and violation are part and parcel of a society that has been eroded from the top down:

“I’d wanted to steal. A strange force held me back. Germany inspired all Europe with terror, it had become, especially in my eyes, the symbol of cruelty. It was already outside the law. Even on the Under den Linden I felt I was strolling through a camp organized by bandits. I believed that the brain of even the most scrupulous Berliner harboured treasures of duplicity, hate, nastiness, cruelty, greed. I was struck by being free amidst an entire people listed on the index. Surely I would have stolen there, but I felt disturbed, since what triggered this activity and what resulted from it—the special moral attitude erected as a civic virtue—a whole nation understood and used against others.

‘It’s a nation of thieves,’ I felt within myself. ‘If I steal here I will not be performing a singular action that can better realize my nature: I’ll be obeying the normal order of things. I won’t be destroying it. I’ll commit no evil, I’ll disturb nothing. Scandal is impossible. I’ll steal in a void.’”

We are left having to reconsider our options for effectively confronting and dismantling a system that insists on imposing oppression, while acting out crimes far worse than the perceived transgressions of the oppressed. We are left having to identify alternatives for this state of institutionalized corruption (which can be equated to that old Caligari-esque saying, “the inmates are running the asylum”). We must dream of an ulterior nation to the one we are entrapped by, and we must preserve the strength to carry this dream to fruition. We must resist the urge to steal in a void, and instead, turn away from the void altogether—towards the spaces that surround it; those unknown buildings that await our occupancy.

And so, I continue riding through the city’s back-sides, searching for an open door into this ulter nation. I continue accruing cultural interest—expanding my potential for empathy, and striving to balance these creative pursuits with the personal responsibilities of work and home life. And I ride, and I ride…

“…singing la, la, la, la, la-la-la-la…”

* * *

ulter nation is available for digital download and CD mail order on the official Dirty/Clean BandCamp page.

DC_FinalCoverArt

Album artwork by Roger Owsley © 2016

Some footnotes:

1Ironically, the closest a film has come to capturing my memory of the Italian films shown on television while I was growing up is Down By Law—an American-made independent film by Jim Jarmusch, starring Roberto Benigni and real-life spouse, Nicoletta Braschi, in a pair of roles that intentionally echo the roles they’ve played in numerous Italian comedies.

2Beyond Buñuel, there are the lovely films of Jean Cocteau and the experiments of Man Ray. Also, the spectacular films of Jean Vigo and Jean Painlevé, which are only slightly removed from the surrealist movement.

3https://youtu.be/CtY5bv-oxLE

4https://youtu.be/5KP995r2NOc

5It is interesting for this writer to note that, while Placebo are celebrating their 20th anniversary with a worldwide tour, they are selling out arenas in Russia and Germany; they have not booked any dates in the United States.

6https://youtu.be/146LeLopVkY