Friday, July 30, 2004

Other People's Problems: A Review of Something Else By the Kinks

So, I hear that some Kinks fans think that Something Else is the pinnacle of the Brothers Davies' accomplishments. Me, I think it's good, but it's not very good. It's no Village Green Preservation Society, and I hear from George Starostin that it's not even Face to Face. Though I agree with him on many points, I can't help but feel that he's missing the point of the album (and VGPS, too, but that's another post another day.

Something Else is a good album; I wouldn't call it a boring album, exactly, though it is a music-hall album through and through. As Ray and Dave Davies are pessimistic men, in general, their take on the music hall experience is far more successful and enjoyable than that other great songwriter, Sir Paul of the Cloying. All in all, though, the music and lyrics combine to form an extended, consistent, and very depressing mess.

See, I'm of the opinion that just because a song looks and sounds like it's supposed to be happy doesn't mean it actually is. The aforementioned Paul's Your Mother Should Know was the first I remember to get this treatment. There's something in the song's dynamic, you see, that makes it unbelievable as a happy dancing tune. The way the swooning, cloudy harmony vocals at the beginning modulate is more disturbing than joyful, the organ solos are poignant, and the chord changes say more of the tragic than the comic. Incorporating biography as I always do, I'll just note that Paul's mother died when he was young and he allegedly never quite came to terms about it. If you just look at the lyrics, it seems as if it should be a bit of bright nonsense, but in fact, it's certainly not.

Similarly "bright" on paper are Ray's songs on Something Else. (Dave's songs are nothing of the sort, but more on that later.) The majority of Ray's songs, from David Watts to Two Sisters to Waterloo Sunset, seem to have a general theme of "wanting to be what you can't", but several of them end more or less happily. Priscilla of Two Sisters ends up "deciding that she was better off / than the wayward lass that her sister had been"; the tin soldier man is a "very happy little tin soldier man". The rest don't seem all that poignant on paper, really.

["Spoilers" ahead] But Ray, after all, is the master of the roundabout kick in the teeth, and the subtlety of the dread here makes it all the more powerful. Nothing actually happens in David Watts; if you grew up with Richard Cory as I did you're waiting for the guy to off himself all through the first listen. The happiness Priscilla achieves at the end of Two Sisters is tainted by Davies's attention to detail: her willingness to sacrifice her Women's Weekly for freedom and her contented "running around the house with her curlers on" both make her a pathetic, dislikable figure (it's an ironic response to "She's Leaving Home" or something). The characters in Afternoon Tea are more artificial than usual for Davies. The whole idea of the Tin Soldier Man isn't a positive one, durnit. Finally, beautiful as Waterloo Sunset is, it's ultimately a song about loneliness and isolation (and the way the narrator names and proudly observes the Friday-evening couple isn't the least bit reminiscent of One Hour Photo, noooooo...)

Then there are the Dave songs, three of them. I disagree with George: they're all great, and better than Ray's less distinguished tracks. I mean, there's only one thing wrong with them: they're all disturbing as hell! Death of a Clown isn't all that bad, though there's a distinct chance that the titular clown is Ray, who cowrote it. It's deeply seedy, though, and the angelic backing vocals (!!!) are some of the eeriest in their catalog. Love Me Till the Sun Shines seems to be an invitation to a prostitute to take over Dave's life, house, etc. -- a classic (?) psychosexual compulsion song. The middle-eight, with more faux-angelic cooing over the lyrics "Baby baby, I dunno what I'm doing, everything I do just tends to ruin," really makes it for me. Finally, the cute-sounding Funny Face is everything but. Dave's little neuroses really take charge here, as he sings about his love for an imprisoned mental patient. The sweetness of the vocal enhances the squick factor even more: "I see you peering through frosted windows / Eyes don't smile, all they do is cry." The guitar riff itself is sleazy and foreboding, but subtle enough that its power is mostly subconscience. It's really a revolting song. Lou Reed might have been proud to write it, I think.

The unexpected bright spot of this album actually points to the direction VGPS would take: Lazy Old Sun (no relation to David Gilmour's Fat Old Sun, really) is actually a touching, heartfelt ode to the sun. This is not California sun-worship here; the line that sums up the point best is this: "When I was young, my world was 3' 7" tall; when you were young, there was no world at all...". The sort of chronological sublimation here would, I think, transform into VGPS's extended meditations on history, personality, and loss.

All in all, this album reminds me of a family holiday party: stuffed to the gills with resentments, anger, disillusion, and maybe a bit of perversion, none of which anybody will talk about. (For an amusing confirmation of this feeling, check out the real story behind "David Watts" sometime.) It's a profoundly discomforting, uncomfortable album. Because of this, it's much more interesting than Starostin gives it credit for. It's not an essential Kinks album, but it is an interesting and disturbing one.

Monday, July 26, 2004


I forgot one thing. Life sucks; if your childhood wasn't traumatic, I guarantee you your adult life will be. To be human is to undergo trauma. At least you're not here.

And no more turn aside and brood upon love's bitter mystery

It occurred to me this morning in the shower that The Who's Tommy is not a concept album about a deaf, dumb, and blind boy; about pinball (duh); or about "spiritual transcendence" (though that was an undeniably important idea to Pete Townshend). I'm not entirely sure that Townshend knew it at the time, in fact, but given recent interviews and that unfortunate (and, to be perfectly clear, unwarranted!) kiddie porn arrest I'm sure he realizes it now: Tommy is first and foremost about abusive families, the effects they have on children, and the way abuse is institutionalized and passed on.

It's obvious from interviews and many of the songs themselves that Townshend identified with the main character. This is understandable; after all it's very difficult to write a song cycle the length of Tommy without having a character to anchor yourself to. Many of the themes in Tommy are common throughout his career: from the first album his songs revolve around insecurity and false pretenses. Really, "The Punk and the Godfather" from Quadrophenia is just an extension of Tommy's obsession with the unreliability of that man at the stage y'all are getting so excited about (to say nothing of his incredibly creepy 90s fictionalized autobiography, Psychoderelict -- funny that he attached Ray Davies's name to his own character, but that's another post). The powerlessness of the main character and his surrender to the sublime is also something that pops up in both the Lifehouse plot and in Quadrophenia. Anyway, I'm not going to psychoanalyze him, I just wanted to demonstrate that a lot of Tommy's themes are Pete's first and foremost.

The problem with Tommy as a "positive story of spiritual transcendence" is this: Tommy Walker isn't a messiah! He's not an avatar or guru, either. He's revealed gradually in the last three songs as a charlatan. His enlightenment, his "ability to experience Reality and Infinity" (Townshend '69) does him no (expressed, anyway) good, for at the end he's back to sublime surrender.

Let me summarize the life of Tommy Walker to spin it the way I want to:
  • Tommy is born. Daddy's not there.
  • Some major traumatic event happens. It doesn't much matter what it was; what matters is the way the parents react to Tommy seeing it: "You didn't see it, you didn't hear it, you won't say nothing to no one ever in your life, ... never tell a soul what you know is the truth." As most people who've been in a truly dysfunctional family can attest, secrecy and isolation is one of the first priorities.
  • The loss of Tommy's senses due to this is illustrated memorably as a sort of cage on the album's cover. Whatever Pete said at the time, I find this cage a useful metaphor for the emotional withdrawal and isolation that children from such families experience. The focus of the emotionally abused swings inward, and forcing it outward and becoming a useful member of society is a much harder task.
  • The parents, now experiencing their own deep guilt, worry about the state of Tommy's soul -- then abandon him to sadistic cousins and molesting uncles.
  • The parents begin to search for remedies: the father hires him a prostitute.
  • Pinball. Whatever.
  • They finally get around to taking him to a doctor. Likely in Pete's conception this is the last of many doctors they tried.
  • The mother becomes furious that after all she's done to try to help him, he's still blind, deaf, and dumb. Then there's more of that weird Townshendian mirror stuff.
  • Tommy, opened to the world, decides that he's a miracle worker and that he should change the world.
  • Sally Simpson -- well, whatever. The beginning of the dark side. "The theme of the sermon was, 'Come unto me and love will find a way'", which it doesn't, apparently.
  • "I'm Free", in which Tommy gets a little too cocky.
  • Finally Tommy's religion gets going -- a religion of comfortable people. He's obviously not sure what exactly to tell people, but he's special, so he's sure whatever he's doing must be alright. He starts this religious colony at his family's house, though, and begins to involve them. OK, only Uncle Ernie is mentioned by name, but the implication is that most of his family is involved.
  • And the family buys a holiday camp as Tommyism's sanctuary. In order to help the people free themselves, apparently, Tommy decides that they must first be enslaved as he was: he tells them to make themselves deaf, blind, and dumb, and sends "Uncle Ernie to guide [them] to [their] very own machines" -- the very creepy implication is that Ernie's hands will be roaming. The important thing is that Tommy's echoing his parents' earlier lines: "You didn't hear it, you didn't see it..."
  • Tommy's followers rebel. After all, it's easier to truly escape something created by an outside party that you first encountered as an adult (as former cultists can attest) than it is to escape the situation in which your psyche was forged.
Important points I didn't make in this synopsis:
  • Tommy's parents, traumatic event aside, aren't bad people. They're caring, but clueless to their own defects and to those of their families -- or perhaps just unwilling to address them.
  • The way Kevin and Ernie act is predicated not just on Tommy's powerlessness, but also on Tommy's inability to communicate.
  • The Simpson family is an interesting constrast: her mother is supportive (I think) and her father is caring in a traditional, gruff way. Sally is the insensitive and heedless person in the story. I think the Simpsons may have been intended as a "normal" family.
  • The most powerful parts of the cycle to me are the confusion of the parents who are unable to communicate with their child ("Tommy can you hear me?") and the insistence of the parents on secrecy and terror in the beginning.
Anyway, as a commentary on child abuse and abusive family dynamics, Tommy really is effective and coherent. You just have to neglect the absurdity of parts of it. You know what? With Tommy, an inside-out boy with his physical senses turned off instead of his emotional senses, Pete Townshend was working symbolically, and largely succeeded. It's much easier to succeed at producing something good or even tolerable using symbols than using plain talk. In the final analysis, what better illustrates to someone from a normal household the difference between a normal household and a really dysfunctional one: Tommy or Plastic Ono Band?

Alright, that said, I should make one thing clear: I do think there's too much hand-wringing by people who really should grow up about the wrongs they've been done by their parents, in general. Examine the biographies of the people who've changed the world, of the people who've made the greatest art, of the people who have contributed most to our knowledge of ourselves and our universe. With a few exceptions such as J.S. Bach, Albert Einstein, and, uh, well, I can't think of a great statesman who didn't have a bad-to-horrible childhood, actually. Maybe Disraeli? Anyway. Many of these great people might have been horribly unhappy, or at best depressive, but they accomplished things while many happier people ran around, were happy, perhaps contributed nothing of value to the world, died, and are entirely forgotten. The only worthwhile thing in a universe that appears destined to one day vanish, in a solar system whose sun will burn out not too many billion years hence, on a planet whose climate and history and biology and geology we are woefully ignorant of, which ignorance will one day allow us to go over a precipice, possibly to extinction, without noticing it; the only worthwhile thing is defiance of all that. At least it's the only worthwhile thing to me.

And that was just my bonus rant!

Monday, July 19, 2004

Art and the Perverse

There's something engaging about willful perversity in art; I think this is the major gem at the center of dada's lump of unloved coal. It's willful perversity that makes the careers of Neil Young, Bob Dylan, Thomas Pynchon worth reading about; not only that, though, but w.p. is the really invigorating force behind the works of these men (and others).

First I suppose I should define willful perversity. We'll turn to the American Heritage Dictionary for a useful tetrapartite definition of the word "perverse":

1) Directed away from what is right or good; perverted.
2) Obstinately persisting in an error or fault; wrongly
self-willed or stubborn.
a) Marked by a disposition to oppose and contradict.
b) Arising from such a disposition.
4) Cranky; peevish.
Obviously, 1 is useless to us. I'm not using perverse in a moral sense, but in the context of an artist's career. However, 2-4 all are of use; synthesizing them, we arrive at a definition of perversity somewhat like this:

Per-ver-si-ty, n. A state of obstinacy and unreason, provoked by the resentment of past artistic successes and characterized by the rejection and undermining of those successes. See re-ac-tor.

Famously perverse career decisions:
  1. Neil Young.
  2. Dylan goes electric.
  3. Dylan goes folk-bard.
  4. Dylan goes Christian (this one didn't quite work).
  5. Pynchon publishes Mason & Dixon, a huge fictional work about the surveyors, using contemporary (1780s) capitalization and spelling.
  6. Finnegan's Wake (rather than a volte-face, this was the stupifyingly logical conclusion to James Joyce's oeuvre -- though the symposium of critical writing published ten years before the novel, the bulk of it possibly ghostwritten by Joyce, can only be called perverse).
We'll examine this subject in greater detail in the future. I just hope I'm not alone in loving, conceptually, that, after the critical and popular acclaim that Rust Never Sleeps achieved, NY could release a nine-minute long song whose lyrics consisted of, "Got mashed potatoes, ain't got no T-bone" and then print all six verses in the liner notes. Diane suspects I am.

Thursday, July 08, 2004

Michael Moore: hopefully useful idiot

Re 'I think he's a big jerk': I agree with Hurwitz, the Republican Washington D.C. lawyer, regarding Fahrenheit 911:
... He does fear that Moore has unleashed ungovernable passions. 

"It is problematic. There are too many people who may take what he
says as gospel and at face value, and that is dangerous," he says.
"Let us put our mind in neutral, and let our imaginations run riot."
Michael Moore is a deceptive man, with no interest in revealing any truth that doesn't confirm what he already believes about any given situation. Fer cryin out loud, take a look at that public letter he released following Sept. 11; it's a sickening amalgam of sinister conspiracies (nearly as bad as "the Jews stayed away") and "we had it comin'." I'm willing to take the latter from Noam Chomsky, as I know he really believes it; I don't believe it coming from Mikey -- it's just a momentary spear to hurl at Bush, forgotten the next moment.

Do I believe Michael Moore should be mocked, despised, ostracised? Certainly. However, there is a certain element of the voting populace that can't be rallied by rational argument, reasoned discussion, measured criticism. The extreme right wing's use of Rush Limbaugh, the American Spectator, et al. -- not to mention the more moderate right wing's refusal to disavow them -- should be considered a tacit endorsement of cheap shot, unsubstantiated innuendo, and exaggeration to rally and energize the electorate. If Moore should be cast into the darkness, so should Bill O'Reilly.

I believe that George W. Bush and his associates are a real danger to the good portions of the American establishment (the EPA, caution regarding infringement of individual liberties, etc.), and are favorable towards many of the problematic portions (government subsidies for big businesses, big deficits, etc.). I do not agree with Kerry on everything (and disagree with Edwards on more points than I agree with him), but they're neither of them revolutionaries. THIS IS A GOOD THING.

BTW, the Declaration of Independence's list of grievances against King George III is full of exaggerations, half-truths, and a few full-on lies. Admittedly, its list of goals and principles far outclasses any and all thoughts that have ever rattled through Rush's or Mikey's heads, but it's still a rather dishonest document. And Jefferson disavowed more than a few of those ideas when he was president. For all his revolutionary talk (Time, listen up) he was a fairly level-headed and hardly revolutionary leader.

Friday, July 02, 2004

The Animalistic Orff

From Was Carl Orff a Nazi? Orff's Musical and Moral Failings by Richard Taruskin:
"In 1937, the year in which 'Carmina Burana' 

enjoyed its smashing success, the National Socialists were engaged
in a furious propaganda battle with the churches of Germany,
countering the Christian message of compassion with neo-pagan
worship of holy hatred. And what could better support the Nazi
claim that the Germans, precisely in their Aryan neo-paganism,
were the true heirs of Greco-Roman ('Western') culture than Orff's
animalistic settings of Greek and Latin poets?
"Did Orff intend precisely this? Was he a Nazi? These questions
are ultimately immaterial. They allow the deflection of any
criticism of his work into irrelevant questions of rights: Orff's
right to compose his music, our right to perform and listen to it.
Without questioning either, one may still regard his music as
toxic, whether it does its animalizing work at Nazi rallies, in
school auditoriums, at rock concerts, in films, in the soundtracks
that accompany commercials or in Avery Fisher Hall."
This is the finale of an insulting, poorly written piece by a NYT writer, a finale seemingly based on the assumption that nothing complex can get stuck in one's head: "'an instant tape loop for the mind,' something that, grasped fully and immediately, reverberates in the head the way propaganda is supposed to do." Various parts of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony have been reverberating in my mind for the last month. Does that make it "animalistic" and "propagandistic"? Somehow I think the author's response might be "yes."

I'm not saying that the Carmina Burana is complex, mind you; I just take offense at the equation of propaganda with anything that effectively reverberates in the mind. It's extremely hard to connect the material in the Carmina Burana with the sinister, animalistic mind-control referenced in this article.

In fact, the (rhetorical or not?) question asked earlier in the piece, "Or is it merely because the Nazis offer an "objective" pretext for dismissal to those who subjectively disapprove of Orff's music for other reasons: reasons having to do, could it be, with prudery?", can be answered with a resounding yes.

Perhaps if I knew the preceding or following (1951! Nazi my foot!) part of the trilogy, the claims made would be more sensible, but as it is the article is loaded with innuendo-through-non-sequitur, insubstantiated claims, and appalling elitism.