All Tomorrow’s Parties

Since I cannot imagine anyone less qualified than I am to give political advice, I will not presume to suggest for whom you should vote tomorrow (or cast any judgment on you for whom you may already have voted). But, in spite of the fact that for the first time in my adult life I will not be voting in a Presidential election, I will presume to offer some humble thoughts about our most recent exercise in quadrennial hilarity.

On the eve of the coronation of Ms. Clinton we can probably all now admit that we knew this was the way it would turn out. With every major “mainstream” media outlet behind her, almost every Wall St. dollar in her pocket, and a good portion of even the Republican punditocracy kowtowing for possible cabinet appointments, it was difficult to imagine a different outcome. Early on, Sanders was a surprise, a hiccup who was dealt with quickly and efficiently at the highest levels of the Democratic party. And then came Trump. A god-send. She could not have imagined in her most pie-in-the-sky wishlists that Fuckface von Clownstick would emerge from the 17-candidate dung heap of the Republican party primary process.

She survived the Wikileaks/FBI/email issues because they did not offer any new information. If a “scandal” simply reinforces what we already believe (politicians are crooked, on the take, talking out of both sides of their mouths) then we tend to dismiss it. The Clintons may be more whorish than most politicians but probably not by that much. And, after all, we shouldn’t forget the single most important factor in her victory: she is not Donald Trump. She will take office as the most disliked and least trusted President in our history and she will have gotten there in large part by having had the good fortune of running against a buffoon.

So, what will the Clinton (II) administration look like?

There is one party left in America: the War Party. And Hillary Clinton is its current head. The War Party believes in American exceptionalism. In spite of our crumbling infrastructure, our declining life expectancy, our skyrocketing incarceration rate, our microscopic K-12 test scores, and an income inequality that is greater than at any time in our history (save for the months immediately before the Great Depression), the War Party soldiers on, convinced of our destiny to police the world. But America’s exceptionalism these days lies chiefly in one arena: our ability to wage war. There are Democrats in this party, Republicans, liberals, conservatives, neocons. They all have one thing in common: they believe, with modest variations of shading and emphasis, in the status quo, in the essential right-ness of our national apple cart. That the cart is filled with rotting fruit and about to hurtle off the edge of a cliff is no concern of theirs. They understand that there is no vision of America and freedom and democracy which cannot be imposed by a Sidewinder or enforced by a squadron of remotely-piloted drones. Over the past few decades, under Presidents of both parties, the War Party has murdered hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians; under Hillary Clinton, you can expect that number to increase, as America’s Forever War marches on, grounding the bones of black and brown children to dust.

And at home, Hillary will be in a position to complete the destruction of the American Left begun by her husband. In the 1980’s, Bill was instrumental in remaking the Democratic Party out of the smoldering embers of the Mondale and Dukakis defeats. As President, he dismantled the social welfare safety net and laid the foundation for the national prison state. These are Hillary’s instincts, too. Her administration will embolden corporations over people, will extend the domestic surveillance of our citizens, and will fail to reverse the rising tide of income inequality, since to do so would be to threaten the hegemony of her biggest donors. For shits and giggles, she may very well tinker around the edges of Social Security and Medicare, too. In general, as is the case with every American President, if you are already well-off, you will fare well under Hillary Clinton; if you’re not, you’ll slip a little further down the rungs of an increasingly slippery ladder.

While I thrilled this past winter and spring to Bernie’s improbable ride, I must also admit that I savored the Trump phenomenon. The Trump-as-Hitler hyperbole was great entertainment; the Trump-as-Manchurian-Candidate narrative even more of a hoot. As he blazed his way through the gaggle of stunned Rubios, Bushes, and Cruzes, laying bare the naked truth of the party he’d hijacked (that he was not an anomaly but rather the logical and horrific conclusion to decades worth of hate-filled rhetoric), Trump’s snake oil salesman act was pitch-perfect and the political theater he provided was brilliant.

But moving into the general election campaign, I began to change the way I looked at him, because it became less about him and more about his “movement.” Who were these people? Was 40-45% of the country really ready to cast their lot with this obviously pathetic reality show cast-off? I began to feel empathy for people so desperate, so devoid of any faith in our systems, that they would howl such a gigantic inchoate “fuck you” at the nation that had abandoned them, that was laughing at them every night in all the hippest media, that saw them as opiate-addicted trailer-park losers who necessarily needed to be kicked to the curb in our race into the new global economy?

People are beginning to sense that things are broken, that “opportunity” is not what it once was, that “the system” is “rigged,” in that the world is rocketing past entire industries of workers, and that our government is not helping. Some folks can articulate it; others just feel the weight of a terrible truth on their shoulders. People on both sides of the American political spectrum, those who followed Bernie Sanders, and those who support Donald Trump, have more in common than might be imagined. It is the genius of our system that these two groups of people were kept apart, were kept from recognizing their common interests, were kept from combining their forces and doing pitched battle with the “establishment.” Which is why the prospect of the next Donald Trump is so fascinating: imagine a Trump who was just a little less racist, sexist, a bit less of a xenophobe, leading a tribe of people who were convinced that the game was rigged against them, that they were never in fact going to get theirs, that the American dream of working hard and getting ahead was over … and imagine that tribe combining with a truly progressive left led by the next Bernie Sanders, a left led by young people who had grown up in an internet age, who saw no value whatsoever in old orders, alliances, or even of political parties themselves. This combination would represent a true populist movement in America, one committed to a rational stance on defense and foreign affairs, one willing to invest in the country’s future, one recognizing the importance of attacking income inequality and strengthening a safety net capable of providing basic levels of care and subsistence.

(A brief parenthetical note: think for a moment about the next Trump. Imagine 4 or 8 or 12 years from now. Automation, driverless cars, and robotics in general are well on their way to eliminating an entire swath of the American labor force. Sure, there will be new jobs … but who will fill them, who will be technically adept enough to adapt to that new landscape? Think back to the economic pressure that this year led to the Sanders and Trump campaigns and ratchet up that pressure by orders of magnitude … how do you think the American electorate is going to respond then? Will we still stomach whichever “establishment” candidate is crammed down our throats … or will we resist?)

There was one lasting effect of the Wikileaks revelations. They may not have sunk Hillary but they are a death-knell for the “mainstream media.” The extent of the corruption of our “journalists” by politicians was breathtaking. The internet was killing off the old-guard, anyway, but its execution date was sped up considerably by the realization of just how deeply in bed once-revered publications and networks are with the campaigns they cover. The scales have been lifted from our eyes and the American people will no longer give the benefit of the doubt to any news source, no matter how formerly “respected” they might be. 2016 was the year in which more clearly than ever before “journalism” became “public relations.”

We now live in informational enclaves of our own creation. The tendency to secrete ourselves behind walls that began with talk radio and Fox News has now spread everywhere with a virulent irresistibility. Our feeds are curated for us, based on our preferences, our friends are confirmed/maintained by virtue of our ability to agree with them, and our anxiety at the prospect of the “other” drives us scurrying to sources of information which echo back the version of reality we most want to believe in, that we are most comfortable with.

Once again this year, we have seen the uncanny way that we all succumb to fear-mongering and are thereafter led to voting against our own interests. (A corollary to this phenomenon is the tendency for poor Americans of different colors to tear each other apart rather than to unite in the realization that their government does not represent their interests.) We are enthralled by the “horse race” and more than willing to buy into the quadrennial proposition that this is the most important election of our lifetimes and that victory by the other side would mean the end of civilization as we know it. This would have been my 11th vote cast for a presidential candidate. On all previous 10 occasions, and cynic that I am, I had been made to believe that the election I was participating in was a matter of life and death. This obsession with fear and outcomes blinds us to the fact that our candidates are simply replaceable pawns of the oligarchy. Our attention ought to be on: my god, how did we get here? Instead, we are driven to focus on: my god, we can’t let him win.

I have both despaired at and been cheered by this election. On the one hand, as someone who believes that our politics needs a complete re-build, it saddens me that in this age of the outsider, the insurgent, we are putting the most establishment candidate imaginable into the White House. Will things never change? On the other hand, though, the candidacies of Sanders and Trump are thrilling expressions of ordinary people swimming upstream against every force aligned against them by the political elite. These people have expressed a fundamentally dissenting view of our democracy. In our safe havens of groupthink in Santa Monica or Berkeley or Ann Arbor or Austin or Brooklyn, we may be disgusted by Trump … but we sell ourselves short if we do not try to understand why our fellow citizens decided that he was their answer.  And perhaps in the process even feel a bit of empathy for their plight.

Maybe the seeds of something lie in these groups who dissented … maybe the much-maligned (especially by the Clintonistas) “millennials” will refuse to recognize the primacy of corrupt political parties and will begin to build something new, a politics based more on immediacy, connectivity, and transparency.

I Circle Dostoevsky’s CRIME AND PUNISHMENT, Looking for a Way In

Raskolnikov, man. Fuckin’ Raskolnikov. Occult bastard was keeping his meaning hidden from me.

I started the surfing memoir Barbarian Days while Crime and Punishment still rattled down the corridors of my brain. How soon after can/should you start something else? If you dive right in to something new are you not treating the thing you just finished with a certain lack of … regard? What did it mean, that 550-page monstrosity on the human condition if its only purpose was to launch you headlong into the next completely unrelated reading project?

If you are going to write about a book, then clearly you need time to think about it, to let it sit with you, to nurture your thoughts, to let a pattern emerge, to begin to understand how you feel about what you read. Do you need to do the same thing, though, if you are just reading?

There are analogues in Barbarian Days to the millieu of the Dostoevsky, weirdly enough. For me, they are mainly located in the oppressiveness of the weather. Oddly enough, I have been reading Dostoevsky during the last two summers: The Idiot and The Brothers Karamazov last year; Crime and Punishment and, in a few weeks, possibly, Demons this year. Crime and Punishment is very much a summer book, its action taking place during a sweltering fortnight in the claustrophobic streets, dank closet-sized rooms, and overcrowded taverns of St. Petersburg in the summer. There is a momentous cloudburst near the climax of the novel, a thunderstorm of flash-flood proportions, that segues very neatly into some of the dismal tropical heat-drenched jungle rains that seem to follow William Flanagan in the opening chapters of his search for redemption via surf in Barbarian Days. So … is this an example of creative reading, of using two adjacent works to enhance each other, or does it distort and bring out elements in each book that may actually not be analogous, whose connections you are only making because you happen to have read the books in a certain sequence?

This could have been a horrible choice. I might have had a completely different reaction to Barbarian Days if I were to have read it after a different sort of book. And other interpretations of Crime and Punishment might occur to me had I not paddled right into the maelstrom of Barbarian Days. Isn’t this always the case, though? I mean, we have to read something after having finished something else. All we can control, I suppose, is what that something is, and how long after the first something do we start on the second something.

How do we ordinarily decide this? Sometimes we crave variety, choosing a dark, metaphysical novel just after finishing a whimsical Hollywood bio, and other times we binge, reading multiple books by a single author in a short period of time, and still other times we may stay within a genre, gobbling up mysteries or romances or fantasy epics, one after another in fairly short order. Does any of these approaches lend itself particularly well to a deeper appreciation of the books you read, or are they all more or less equally (in)valid?

(Underlying this discussion, of course, is the assumption that, in reading for pleasure, we are not in search simply of mindless entertainment, that we are not attempting to merely divert ourselves from our daily worries, or escape into something which gives us temporary relief from life’s woes. We assume here that the reason we read is to explore, to discover, to plumb the depths of what life means to us, to measure ourselves and the decisions we have made in our lives against the tapestry of what unfolds before us as we scan the pages of the books we choose to read.)

The internet, of course, has a wealth of more or less automated ways to suggest what to read next. Recommendation engines assert that if you like this thing you are likely to like this other thing … it’s about the search and the identification and procurement of what to read next. There’s no sense that what you choose to read next might effect how you think about what you just read and also how that book you just read might color how you feel about the book you’re about to read. Tell me, in other words, internet, what book to read after Crime and Punishment that will both best complement and best be complemented by Dostoevsky’s book.

Barbarian Days conquered, I decided to go small. I would not take on, immediately at least, another big book. The Crime and Punishment epiphany continued to elude me and so I ventured forth to minor works by favorite writers: Pico Iyer’s The Art of Stillness and Geoff Dyer’s Another Great Day at Sea. The Iyer was disappointing … and once I learned it was the product of a TED talk I almost didn’t finish it since nothing worthwhile ever emerged from the bowels of fucking TED. The Dyer was a trifle, curiously jingoistic (if a Brit can be considered jingo by trumpeting the virtues of the American military), and lacking the charm and profundity of many of Dyer’s other book-length peregrinations. Perhaps it was the spirit of Raskolnikov lurking over Dyer’s shoulder, manning a gun-turret, slumming in the mess, smirking in the corridors, that muted the writer’s usual power for me? Raskolnikov don’t do aircraft carriers, son.

So I had now read three books post-Crime and was no closer to gathering my thoughts about the double-murderer in that Petersburg summer. Or maybe my thoughts were as gathered as they were ever going to get. Maybe my reaction to Raskolnikov’s predicament, his breathless twisted ultimately futile journey toward some sort of self-awareness, self-justification, was as developed as it was ever going to be. And I should just move on. I pulled Demons off the shelf, prepared for a day or two to give up on any Crime-engendered revelation, and to move on to the last of the Dostoevskian quartet. And then I got sentimental. Since I do not re-read books and since I would have read the Fab Four of the Dostoevsky oeuvre would I ever again read another Dostoevsky? Would Demons be it for me? Very likely. Best to put it off a bit longer.

I allowed the distraction of a newspaper report on the upcoming sale of a property in Pacific Palisades to consume me. The house in question had been occupied by Thomas Mann during the composition of Doctor Faustus. Faustus is a book that has long frustrated me; begun a half-dozen times, never finished, never even passed the century mark. I regard it as one of the masterpieces that I will one day get to … could that day be now? Should I throw Crime that far under the bus, delay my completion of Dostoevsky, and take a deep dive into the Mann? While slumming with Iyer and Dyer I could still pretend that I was allowing my thoughts on Crime to gestate; taking on the Mann would be an admission that I was done with Raskolnikov, that I had learned what I was going to learn from him and could therefore move on. No. I put the Mann back on the shelf … and wandered over to the 3-volume boxed set of Kilmartin’s updating of the Scott-Moncrieff translation of Proust … another unread but one-day-to-be-read masterpiece. Was now the time for Remembrance of Things Past?

Of course not.

I dithered for another few days. During times when I would ordinarily read, I idled with Trump and Clinton in my Twitter feed, imagined Raskolnikov catching Pokemon in Aleppo, wondered why did Nabokov hate Dostoevsky so much, and played SpellTower while my wife slept beside me. Giving Crime and Punishment one last chance to reveal itself to me in some tangible form, giving myself one last opportunity to sit down and record what the book had meant to me, why I thought it had been worth reading.

Having cut the cable cord recently, I further diverted myself by streaming series (BLOODLINE, BOSCH, STRANGER THINGS, THE MAN IN THE HIGH CASTLE) of various stripes and quality. And then a few days ago, while scanning the Sci-Fi shelves at the Venice branch of the Los Angeles Public Library for Ann Leckie, I came across Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris. Never having read it, nor seen the Tarkovsky film adaptation, I resolved to gobble it up as a tonic, since it was at least Russian … might reading it not keep me somehow in the same geo-metaphysical space as the Dostoevsky; could it perhaps allow me to access the closure I so desperately wanted regarding the Raskolnikov saga? I was buying time. I knew the Lem—which is short—would lead to the Tarkovsky—which is long—and that, after that, I’d be ready to leave at last Petersburg’s sweltering summer shimmering in my rearview.

I watched the Tarkovsky via OpenCulture on my laptop propped between my knees for a couple of afternoons while the toddler napped. It left me cold. None of the brooding weirdness of STALKER, none of the inspired poetry of ANDREI RUBLEV, none of the metaphysical depth of THE MIRROR. And then I came across a remarkable passage in a book of interviews published in Poland in 1987 called Conversations with Stanislaw Lem. Lem on Tarkovksy’s movie:

“And secondly — as I told Tarkovsky during one of our quarrels — he didn’t make Solaris at all, he made Crime and Punishment. What we get in the film is only how this abominable Kelvin has driven poor Harey to suicide and then he has pangs of conscience which are amplified by her appearance; a strange and incomprehensible appearance.”

Yikes! What had I stumbled upon? A key began to creak and scrape in a rusty lock in my head; that “only” in Lem’s second sentence above began to show me the way …

Barbarian Days moves from summer to winter, from youth to age, from tropical warmth to bitter biting cold, waves cutting through icy seas, swells that seem to freeze in air mid-break. At the beginning of the book, when Finnegan is Raskolnikov’s age, the water is warm, the surf though large is nurturing, the blood is hot. And the soul is brazen; you can’t talk to it or convince it of anything since it is sure of everything … it’s too sure of itself to be of any real use to anyone. (But still of course glorious and enviable in its youth.) California, Hawaii, Australia, Fiji, Bali, Indonesia. Melville territory. Wounds—from coral reefs, from blows to the head, from ribs bounced off rocks—heal quickly; love’s found easily and moves on just as easily. But eventually age as it always does claims its dominion: San Francisco, Madeira, Long Island. Thundering storms, unforgiving, uncaring seas. Winter surfing. Rather than simple revelry, the object becomes survival in the unforgiving small months of new years. The waves themselves are not necessarily as huge but they are more punishing due to their setting, their delivery system, their location, your diminished skills. It becomes much harder to do much less. Doubt defines your every step, your every stroke. But you paddle out each time as a test of nerve, in a slow-motion panic of finding the bliss that once came so effortlessly as you popped up on youthful knees and cut wicked shapes into the sides of monstrous swells, lethal as Raskolnikov.

Doubt is, ultimately, in its various manifestations, our most productive state. Skepticism, when one doubts the veracity of what one is told, produces the best journalism. Loss of faith, when you doubt what you have always believed in—your faith, the nature of reality, your mind—produces the best art. It is only when one doubts that one begins to pierce the veil of illusion which consumes all our days and clouds the mind from its truth. Ahab doubts. Lear doubts. Raskolnikov, like many other youngsters, doesn’t really doubt. Oh, he can talk … and talk and talk and talk … and agonize … but he doesn’t really doubt. He remains firmly tethered to his original position and though we may thrill to the chase—will he? won’t he?—the beauty of the novel is not really in the passage of Raskolnikov’s soul. (I reject his bullshit “conversion” in the book’s Epilogue which ought never have been written.) It lies more in the majesty of Dostoevsky’s mise-en-scene as he orchestrates the entwining orbits of his marvelous cast. But this is also why Crime is (relatively-speaking, by Dostoevsky standards) a minor work, for me, at this stage of my life: its revelations are not profound so much as thrilling, leading not toward transcendence but instead offering diversion, after all. And diversion is not worthy of doubt, and a book which ultimately merely diverts may be safely abandoned once consumed. It was now OK to move on.

POSTSCRIPT

The English translation of Solaris has always been suspect; made not from the Russian but from a dodgy French edition, it has been an object of … concern for many years. But there are gems in it, nonetheless, and none more glittering and soul-piercing than its final line, which speaks to me more with each passing day:

“I knew nothing, and I persisted in the faith that the time of cruel miracles was not past.”

I have been happier as I’ve aged and realized the nothing of my knowing; I am still working on my faith in the cruel miracles that we all hope pepper our days.

Abroad upon the deep: on Melville.

-1-

It’s been 165 years. What more can be, needs to be said, that has not already been said about Moby-Dick? We could have stopped with Ezra Pound’s observation that Melville’s opus was “a whale of a book.”

While we scurry beneath the heels, knees, and elbows of our collapsing empire and try to take what small joys we can from friends and family in these last-gasp days of capitalism, our overwhelming feeling is that the modern condition is for man to be bludgeoned. By life, by work, by the media we consume, by superhero movies, by the envy and fear that gnaw at us as we make our choices and wonder at the wisdom of the hardscrabble paths we navigate.

I think about Moby-Dick obsessively, reflexively, every day. I was in downtown Los Angeles just before midnight last month walking through pockets of weed-smoking street people on my way into a Sunn O))) show at the Regent Theater. For 90 minutes once the band took the stage I was bludgeoned. While the world spun on outside that early Saturday morning I felt waves of drone rattle my ribcage and loosen the fillings in my teeth. As much as anything else, this concert was an endurance test. Largely tuneless, the onslaught of the “music” became the very point … we in the audience survived and in our survival found release from the unrelenting bludgeon of the world outside … which none of us of course will survive.

Moby-Dick is a bludgeon, a monstrosity, a force which cannot be conquered, an ear-splitting noise which will cast you aside as soon as look at you. It simply doesn’t care what you think or feel. And talking about the book is ridiculous, presumputous, redundant, requiring an audacity that brings to mind Mary McCarthy on the city of Venice:

And no word can be spoken in this city that is not an echo of something said before.”

I began to feel my way into the book in a way that might be different; began to see a way to describe it that arose from my gut and might therefore be of some value: I would talk about Ahab and explore my own failures as a father.

-2-

Like Ahab, I was made a father again at 58. And, freshly fathered, I came to Ahab’s tragedy, a book called Moby-Dick, at 60. An old man reading an old man’s book, written, startlingly, by a young man. Melville was 30 years old when Moby-Dick was published. And yet it’s an old man’s book. A book written by a man at the end of his youth about an old man at the end of his life.

The book is a beast; about a beast, and a beast itself.

No, not about a beast, about an obsession, about hatred, about the extraction of sperm oil from the carcass of a whale, about lives lived on the sea, about the power of nature.

God, no, none … and all of those things.

For the book is a conundrum, full of full-stops, misdirections, changes of narrators, vacillations between forms (novel, encyclopedia, stage play), made-up words and “creative” punctuation.

In its final three chapters the book is the greatest action story ever composed. These are breathless pages; our hearts throb in our throats as we navigate their thrilling depths.

The book meanders: seems to double back in on itself, and then start again, abandoning characters mid-stream that you were thought you were meant to “follow.”

The book maddens and intoxicates: you sense Melville’s glee as he drags you through asides and misdirections that would founder a lesser book. His glee, because: he knows that he has written that most difficult of all books: a portrait of a man’s life at the moment he becomes aware that he has wasted his days and that he is lost.

Is this overly depressive? After all, few of us arrive at death’s shores feeling that we have wasted our days, that we have become lost down one or another of life’s tributaries, that we have gotten distracted by what ought to have remained unimportant. Or, is this feeling more universal, do we really understand fully, ever, how we ought to spend our days and what we should allow ourselves to become obsessed with?

Ahab strides onstage, after nearly 200 pages, as a cipher, a specter, a terrible black hole of a man. What has Ahab to teach us? What can we possibly learn from such a monster? How can we “relate” to him? Surely, few of us arrive at our end of days “a forty years’ fool”?

The book is several books and it is exactly what it is and it does not give a damn what you think.

The book is a slaughterhouse. You almost stop reading it for the violence and torture it wreaks upon its whales.

The book is both micro- and macroscopic.

The book is a tragedy. Its tragedy resides in its hero’s poignant self-awareness and last-minute brooding on the life not lived.

Christ had Gethsemane. Ahab has a clear azure morning, somewhere on the deck of the Pequod southwest of Hawaii and due north from Samoa. “From beneath his slouched hat Ahab dropped a tear into the sea; nor did all the Pacific contain such wealth as that one wee drop.” For a moment, he forgets the terrible thing he must do: kill the whale or die trying. For a moment he allows “that glad, happy air, that winsome sky” to “at last stroke and caress him.” In a shocking admission to his first mate, Starbuck, Ahab reveals how he “has furiously, foamingly chased his prey” and become “more a demon than a man!—aye! Aye! what a forty years’ fool—fool—old fool, has old Ahab been.” The enormity of his life’s folly has dawned on Ahab … and Starbuck’s heart leaps: perhaps his captain can be turned from the wicked fate he bears down upon. And then just as quickly the moment has passed: “But Ahab’s glance was averted; like a blighted fruit tree he shook, and cast his last cindered apple to the soil.”

-3-

I am newly fathered, as an old man, by a son.

I have seen them—some summer days in the morning. About this time—yes, it is his noon nap now—the boy vivaciously wakes; sits up in bed; and his mother tells him of me, of cannibal old me; how I am abroad upon the deep, but will yet come back to dance him again.”

Ahab, at 58, sets sail at the beginning of Moby Dick, having recently married a girl and fathered a child. At 58, I was newly fathered, and befuddled, and overwhelmed with love and wonder. I did not wander as I wondered; though I can imagine the pain that wracks Ahab’s heart as he reflects on the eve of his final chase on the boy (for he would be a boy by now, the voyage having taken three years) he has abandoned.

None of us intends to fail as a father. We begin, bleary-eyed and puked-on, with the best of intentions and some of us follow through admirably on the promise of those early days. Is it painful to think of yourself as a poor father? Like almost anything else, you get used to it.

I loved—and love—my children, but lacked the fortitude to be what they needed the most: a firm presence, a rock, something foundational who would have their back no matter what misfortunes befell us. I retreated, into work, into obsession, into the arms of other women, in a desperate search for love, for fulfillment, for me. I was absentee even when I was right there, building drill team sets and volunteering to teach P.E. to 4th graders. Something about me stood apart and in my egotism I set my children’s needs aside at moments that were more frequent than I care to remember.

Can I therefore relate to Ahab’s obsession, to his pursuit of The White Whale, to the exclusion of all else? And can I feel the poignance of his tragic realization that his days have been wasted in the service of a fate he could not possibly avoid? Yes, yes, a thousand times yes.

How, then, approach this leviathan? Whence the nerve to say anything about it? It is. It abides. It sits and sprawls and soars and smothers. How say something, anything, about it? Why say something about it when what it is is so … inchoate.

Its prose is archaic by mid-19th century standards. Its prose weaves a dense matted web in which we initially find ourselves as lost and rudderless as Dante’s pilgrim at the beginning of the Inferno. But we pick and plod and eventually a path, dim and occasionally disappearing, reveals itself.

When we resist the thorny pull of the book’s archaisms, when we allow our eyes to rise from its pages and look about, the path fades and the book itself can sometimes hang by a thread in our consciousnesses. But that thread is stiff stuff and we move forward, feeling our way, not truly understanding (for when do we ever truly understand something) but inching, stumbling, making progress and working our way to, we think, the center of things.

And then we are jolted. Thrown out by Melville’s glee. And by his utter disregard for our following him. And must begin again.

But all meaningful things in life are impenetrable. Nothing of value ultimately reveal itself completely.

-4-

Hast seen the White Whale?”

Whaling ships in Melville’s time could sail for three or four years before returning to their home ports. As a result, any encounter with another vessel while on the open ocean was to be cherished; as an opportunity for an exchange of news, correspondence, or the condition of the hunting grounds … or simply for the chance to talk to another group of humans toiling many thousands of miles from home. For Ahab, though, these encounters served one purpose:

Did the captains of the Samuel Enderby, the Rachel, the Delight have news of Moby Dick?

Hast seen the White Whale?”

Not “have thou” or “have ye,” since those contain an extra word. Simply “hast.” Not a wasted syllable, nary a nod toward maritime convention. In one case, after having received news of Moby Dick’s recent whereabouts from the captain of the Delight, Ahab refused that captain’s desperate request for assistance in finding some missing crew members and ordered a course set for the whale’s last known location.

Hast seen the White Whale?”

Ahab moves from a formidable inscrutability to a poignant—and tragic—transparency. As he becomes more revelatory the book takes on added depth and terror as it races toward its inevitable end. We want to believe: Ahab could change; he could. And by altering course save not only himself but his ship and crew. But he has lost the will to battle his fate, and, despite some final moments of heartbreaking longing and self-doubt, he plunges headlong into his ultimate three-days death-match with his nemesis, the White Whale.

Ahab is for ever Ahab, man. This whole act’s immutably decreed. ‘Twas rehearsed by thee and me a billion years before this ocean rolled. Fool! I am the Fates’ lieutenant. I act under orders.”

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Moby-Dick is America’s greatest book. It is the only book an American has produced which is actually larger than our country. America itself fits easily inside Moby-Dick. And yet, the book is of course only tangentially even about America; it has bigger fish to fry. All of us to whom life’s secrets have yet to reveal themselves succumb to self-delusion. It is in our grasping, desperate natures to grab, to cling, and, finally, to delude ourselves. With obsessions that masquerade as wisdom, with stories that function as truth. Melville cracks that human weakness wide open, revealing the utter glory and despair that is at the core of a questing sole whose illusions are laid bare before him. For we are all Ahab, ultimately. Some of us may be more polite about it than others, less selfish-seeming, less bombastic, cruel, messianic … but we are all Ahab and Melville has fixed us for all eternity in America’s greatest contribution to the literature of the world.

Candidate Statements—United States Senate

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There are currently 34 declared candidates in California for the seat of Barbara Boxer, who is retiring after having served four terms in the U.S. Senate. 21 of these 34 candidates have submitted Statements to the public via the Official Voter Information Guide, issued by the California Secretary of State, for the primary election on June 7, 2016. 15 of the 21 Statements are boring; 6 of them (appearing in full below) are not.

In 2014 I made some observations about the sample ballot for the “mid-term” primary held that year in California. I complained in that post about the ordinariness of the Candidate Statements in 2014. This year, the following half-dozen people have more than made up for that lack.

I admire these candidates and think that they make up in earnestness what they may lack in political polish. I wish them all well in their respective campaigns.

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“Rescue America! Rescue America!! Rescue America!!! Californian! Let us together rescue America from turning into a third world country. Enough is enough of American deep suffering. People in Washington has collapsed this country. Therefore, electing Dr. Akinyemi Agbede, as your next United States senator representing the golden state of California 2016 is the answer in order for our country to be reclaimed back.”

—Åkinyemi Olabode Agbede, Democrat, www.americamustregainitsgreatness2016.com

There are many things to love about this Statement. My favorite is the use of “Californian.” Dr. Agbede could have used the plural form, but he chose rightly here: his message is made more personal, as if he had just grabbed you by the lapel and whispered, “Californian!”

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“Run for God’s heart and America’s Freedom, challenge 10 giant chaos in economy and economy-related sectors.”

—Ling Ling Shi, No Party Preference, www.wellsARK.com

There are many, MANY different kinds of chaos in the world but perhaps none is quite so challenging as “10 giant chaos.” This woman is clearly a connoisseur of chaos, and we could do worse than entrust our future to her.

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“I am a follower of Jesus Christ. I stand for the poor, elderly, and disabled, environmental issues, unions, small business, , and represent the average citizen. My website is http://www.alternativevoicesforamerica.org

—Tim Gildersleeve, No Party Preference, www.alternativevoiceforamerica.org

Wait. A follower of Christ who actually seems to espouse the principles of Christ’s teachings? What’s the catch?

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“My education and expertise merits this prolific occupation in order to represent California, as United States Senator. I hold a Democratic Party platform with key issues for gun control, human trafficking, balancing the national deficit, and foreign policy initiatives. I am mainstream Facebook in social media! My core values drive America!

—President Cristina Grappo, Democrat, https://www.facebook.com/people/President-Cristina-Nicole-Grappo/100002770317473

While this is a wonderful Statement (perhaps my favorite this year), I am truly at sea as to why a woman who was already President would want to be a Senator. And, for the record, I, too, am mainstream Facebook in social media … but, really, aren’t we all?

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“01100101”

—Jason Hanania, No Party Preference, www.jasonhanania.com

In computer binary code “01100101” apparently means “e,” as in the letter e. According to his website, Mr. Hanania is making a statement about e-voting.

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“My platform is narrow. It’s more of a single board, really. Federal legislators are doing nothing to protect us from the threat of climate change. I will not do nothing. I swear on the graves of future Californians that I will not sacrifice our actual climate to our political climate.”

—Mike Beitiks, No Party Preference, www.iwillnotdonothing.org

This narrow platform/single board joke is the best one in the 2016 Guide. I may very well vote for Mr. Beitiks because I, too, am concerned by climate change. I also tip my hat to someone whose slogan is “I Will Not Do Nothing.” There is something refreshing about that promise.

 

The will of the people …

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I was watching Meet the Press and Face the Nation every Sunday morning by the time I was 9 or 10. By choice, if you can imagine. That’s the kind of geek I was. At 12, I ran for and won the vice-presidency of my elementary school. Later that same year, in the Spring of 1968, I was handing out “literature” for Robert F. Kennedy in my neighborhood in the fascist heart of Orange County, California. (Even at that young age I was a glutton for punishment.)

And then RFK was assassinated. Undeterred, I started high school that fall with a fire in my belly about race riots, Vietnam, and the war on poverty. I ran for something (Secretary? Treasurer?) that first year in a new school … and was unceremoniously defeated by a girl who was smarter and cuter and infinitely more popular than I. And so it was over almost before it started, my career as a boy politician.

(I did come out of “retirement” briefly in 1982 to hand out buttons and bumper stickers for Gore Vidal’s campaign for Senate … but I was no longer a true “believer;” I just liked the idea of a Senator from California who’d written Myra Breckenridge.)

I’ve voted in every presidential election beginning in 1976. But not until 2008 did I vote for a presidential candidate who won. With the sole exception of 2008, I have voted Democratic when a Republican has won, and Green, Libertarian, or Peace and Freedom when a Democrat has won. So, if you’re in the business of wagering on politics, consider my choice … and then bet the farm on the opposite candidate.

(I did vote Republican once, in 1996, for Bob Dole; partly because of my hatred for Slick Willie, and partly because at one of the last rallies of his campaign, when it was clear that he would lose, Dole let fly an off-the-cuff description of some children near his podium as “these cute little tax deductions up here.”)

But, over the last couple of decades, having finally realized that our politics do not produce elected officials whose primary focus is representing the needs of their constituents, I now find it easy to separate myself from the “horse race” aspects of campaigns and take a wider view. Since it is my opinion that this system is fatally flawed, I generally root for chaos, which is why I’ve enjoyed so thoroughly Mr. Trump’s Wild Ride through the GOP primaries.

It was apparent early on that there was NO FUCKING WAY his party would allow him to become their nominee. And now that their various methods of “stealing” the nomination from him are revealing themselves, we are in for a great deal of fun between now and the Republican convention in July. I will be sad to see Mr. Trump go. I never thought he would get even this far and I thank him for the memories: his odious blather has exceeded my wildest imaginings, and the unrepentant xenophobic racism his followers evince is a thing of terrible beauty. My lone remaining wish for the GOP is a convention in which they complete the task of ripping themselves to shreds.

(My chief fear, on the other hand, is the unlikely event that their nominee will be Mr. Cruz. Those of you who decry the hysterical antics of The Donald better be careful of what you wish for: Mr. Cruz is FAR more dangerous than Mr. Trump and would likely lead us down a thorny path to a Christian evangelical version of Shariah Law.)

On the Democrat side, it’s a far different kettle of fish. Mr. Sanders is an ideal candidate in many ways. I agree with most of his positions and find his geriatric hippie cool utterly charming. His reaction to “Birdie Sanders” landing on his lectern in Seattle was priceless; you just knew this was a good dude. It is also a tribute to Mr. Sanders’ basic decency that, when confronted with an opponent who is the embodiment of everything that is wrong with the corporatist stranglehold on our elections (Ms. Clinton), he has almost without exception taken the high road and confined his critiques of her to their differences in policy, rather than tearing into her putrefying carcass as a lesser man would.

Is there no possibility that, having in 2008 elected a black man named Barack Hussein Obama, the nation might find it in its collective heart to elect a 74-year-old Jewish democratic socialist? Probably not, since every tool in his own party’s arsenal is arrayed against him. He will almost certainly not get the nomination, and Democrats will be left with Ms. Clinton, a weak candidate with no ability to inspire whose only hope (and it is a considerable one) is that the Republicans will nominate someone so ridiculous that she can serpentine through the assorted land mines of the general election unscathed and assume the mantle that she believes is justly hers.

In a very real sense, Mr. Trump and Mr. Sanders represent “the will of the people” this year. They are the ones whose stories are resonating and whose campaigns have energized their respective parties. The very real possibility that neither of them will emerge from this hellish season as nominees may make the general election an exercise in ennui and disaffection. Young people, especially, are likely to stay home in droves.

Which brings me to my final observation: might the shenanigans of this year ensure the destruction of BOTH political parties? If everyone, from white redneck meth-heads in Tennessee to Bernie Bro stoners in Colorado, feels that their parties have overridden their votes, what is likely to happen? A further retreat from politics in which our already anemic voter turnout levels shrink even further? Or an open rebellion against the idea that parties are needed at all, since their only function may seem to many to be to deprive the people of their choices?

The internet has broken down nearly all barriers between “performer” and “audience,” compromising the power of record labels, movie studios, and other “middlemen.” Is it not possible that social media and “virality” may likewise spell doom for our aged two-party system?

Lover of chaos that I am, I certainly hope so.

Something happened on the day he died …

 

David-Bowie

 

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“Something happened on the day he died
Spirit rose a meter and stepped aside
Somebody else took his place, and bravely cried
(I’m a blackstar, I’m a blackstar)

How many times does an angel fall?
How many people lie instead of talking tall?
He trod on sacred ground, he cried loud into the crowd
(I’m a blackstar, I’m a blackstar, I’m not a gangster)”

David Bowie died this week.

I never understood, really, why people got upset over the deaths of famous people they had never met. I guess the right person, for me, just hadn’t died yet.

And then David Bowie died. And I feel a little worse about it with every passing day, not better. I cry a little bit more about it, every day, not less.

I never met David Bowie. Never wrote him a fan letter. Never sent away for an autographed picture. Saw him perform live many times in the 70’s (and never since then), and bought nearly all his records … and that’s about it. And yet no public figure who was alive during my lifetime had more of an influence on me. I am who I am at least in part because of David Bowie. How the hell did that happen?

 

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Everything about him was new. And we were looking for something new.

Bowie had written a song for a band called Mott the Hoople. In the middle of “All the Young Dudes” were these lines:

And my brother’s back at home
With his Beatles and his Stones
I never got it off on all that revolution stuff
It was such a drag … too many snags!

That. That was what we were looking for. It wasn’t even on one of his own records and yet it helped define him as someone for whom rock royalty was … irrelevant. We sensed the coming bloat of stadium rock, felt the first stirrings of ‘what else you got?’ when confronted with the musical behemoths of the 60’s, wanted something of our own. That something was David Bowie.

His “breakout” record was released on June 6th, 1972—The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. Ziggy was a rock opera in which Bowie simultaneously celebrated and lampooned rock and roll. The music was glorious, and we took very seriously the admonition printed on the back of the LP jacket: TO BE PLAYED AT MAXIMUM VOLUME.

Bowie played the cadaverous snaggletoothed Ziggy with spiky orange hair grabbing guitarist Mick Ronson’s ass and kneeling before him in mock fellatio. This was the heroin chic velvet underground iggy and the stooges Bowie. When no one knew him and before he was a star. A skeleton of the night. He was a mainlined androgyne, a small scurrying warm-blooded thing in the midst of lumbering dinosaurs. And he was ours.

The final song on the Ziggy Stardust album was “Rock and Roll Suicide.” It also concluded his live performances on the fabled Fall 1972 tour of North America:

“Oh no love! you’re not alone
You’re watching yourself but you’re too unfair
You got your head all tangled up but if I could only make you care
Oh no love! you’re not alone
No matter what or who you’ve been
No matter when or where you’ve seen
All the knives seem to lacerate your brain
I’ve had my share, I’ll help you with the pain
You’re not alone!
Just turn on with me and you’re not alone
Let’s turn on with me and you’re not alone
Let’s turn on and be not alone
Gimme your hands cause you’re wonderful”

I know people whose lives were saved by those words. Who decided to go on because they’d found a kindred spirit. Some of them were gay men; others were not. We were odd, or “arty,” or didn’t fit in, and David sang to us: I’ve had my share. I’ll help you with the pain.

At the conclusion of Bowie’s live shows in 1972, kids would rush the stage and David would scream “gimme your hands,” and audience and performer alike would stretch and reach toward each other, sometimes grasped, sometimes fingertips grazed.

 

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The summer of 1972 was a big one in my world. The Rolling Stones at the Long Beach Arena. High school graduation. Led Zeppelin at the Long Beach Arena. I turned 17. More pot and hashish than you could shake a stick at. We were misfit kings, my crew and I, masters of all we surveyed: we were in the summer before we all went off to college. And we were obsessed. There is nothing as unbearable as a teenager with an obsession. And mine was David Bowie.

We spent every day that summer in the water on either the north or south side (depending on where the swell was coming from) of the Huntington Beach pier, our Voit duck feet swim fins propelling us onto the faces of beautiful lefts or rights … and when the waves weren’t breaking we’d swim around the pier, keeping just out of the reach of the lines of bonito fisherman and hollering out “whale piss” and “polar bear piss” whenever we’d hit a warm or cold patch of ocean water.

Almost no one had heard of Bowie. He was ours. Ziggy had just come out. That record led us backwards, to explore Hunky Dory and The Man Who Sold the World and Space Oddity. And we bought the Mott the Hoople record in order to hear “All The Young Dudes.” But it was Ziggy we came back to that summer, always Ziggy, ultimately.

The beach was our home, had been for years. We were bodysurfers. We laughed at guys who used boards, considered ourselves the true “watermen,” learning to windmill our ways onto waves that other kids couldn’t catch. Learning when to be patient, when to explode, when to risk a hurtle “over the falls,” and when to pull back and re-position for the next set.

I’d seen The Stones right before graduation. People were envious, but it wasn’t really about The Stones, anymore. It was more about Zeppelin, my god, they were huge and if you wanted to stop people in their tracks you told them your Zeppelin stories, about how you scored your tickets, or the way they perforated your eardrum or how high you’d gotten by the time they came on and roared into “Immigrant Song,” and how Plant really did hit the high notes in that opening wail. Plus, chicks. All the chicks were into Zepp.

But Bowie. He was a secret. He spoke only to us. This was a difficult, troubled, haunted young man who at the conclusion of a glorious rock opera nightmare pleaded with us to give him our hands because we were wonderful. This was the underground rock’n’rollin cryptkeeper who was a science fiction horrorshow come to life.

There were radios every day that summer on the beach—but no David Bowie. And so one day in August, 1972, I decided to do something about that. I’d combine these two worlds. Bowie. And the beach.

 

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I came to a high place of darkness and light.
-Bob Dylan

And, oh, David got dark. He led us to Roxy Music, back to the Velvets and The Stooges, forward to Kraftwerk and Eno, and rejuvenated solo careers for Lou Reed and Iggy Pop. He produced great scary ground-breaking records while he was strung out, coked out of his gourd. He described one day in LA in the mid-70’s: he blew his nose and it was as if half his brains came out. He retreated to Europe and made more great records.

And then got less interesting as he became more mainstream. We got the tanned, healthy Bowie of Let’s Dance. He exploded then and became more popular than he had ever been. But after an uninspired 80’s he had the sense to go back underground, although he never quite again managed to capture lightning in a bottle. His tours became smiling, almost wholesome affairs and he reveled in his history and basked in the adulation. There were some good records and some bad ones but not until The Next Day and  (pronounced Blackstar, in spite of the red ink of the WordPress link) did he regain his form, truly, as an artist who reveled in the certainty of his vision, who did not chase trends, or pander to tastes.

He was never that popular. He went off on weird self-effacing tangents like playing keyboards and singing backup vocals in Iggy Pop’s backing band, or deconstructing his entire career by starting a hard rock band called Tin Machine with the sons of comedian Soupy Sales. He didn’t have a top-10 record in the U.S. until Diamond Dogs in 1974. , his final, nearly posthumous, record, was his first and only U.S. #1. Ziggy, often cited by critics as his best album, only cracked the top-100, peaking at #75.

He became world-famous, of course. But he was still a bit elusive, a bit of an acquired taste. And there was still something secretive about him. Something just between you and him, no matter how well-known he was. That was one of his gifts.

He disappeared for nearly 10 years, after a near-death “coronary event” while on tour in 2004. When he returned, three years ago, with the single “Where Are We Now?”, followed by the album The Next Day, it was as a mystic elder dispensing snarling dispatches from beyond time:

Here I am, not quite dying
My body left to rot in a hollow tree
Its branches throwing shadows on the gallows for me
And the next day, and the next, and another day

Which brings us to darkness become black in That record, viewed posthumously, is beyond hope and hopelessness. It takes blackness into a realm so black it might, just might, evoke a light at the center of it all. There is a spirit of courageousness, of unblinking resolve, of a wisdom gained by experience that makes this new record a spine-tingling achievement. David had always lived in that “high place of darkness and light.” And at the end of his life, he found yet another remarkable new way to make art of that dichotomy.

There is darkness at the beach, too: when you miscalculate, or get cocky, or just don’t get to the right spot in the wave, when you wipe out, when you are pummeled and held under by the power of the sea. You know that only a few feet away people are tanning themselves, kids are yelling, radios are playing … but for that minute or so you are not entirely sure you can make it back up in time before your lungs burst. It’s dark down there. It can even seem black.

 

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I wrapped my vinyl copy of Ziggy Stardust and my sister’s portable record player in my beach towel, grabbed my fins, and threw the lot into the back seat of my car and headed out. Picked up the gang. Drove to the beach. Parked. Got high around the corner from the Surf Theatre on 5th. Headed for the pier.

—What’s in the towel?

—Nothin. It’s a surprise.

We got to our spot. It was a raging summer day. Periodic nice sets rolled in outside, and there was a fair amount of decent shore break action, too. I spread my towel out, revealing the record and the turntable.

—Gentlemen, behold, I announced.

—No fuckin way. Bowie at the beach.

Set the player up. Slipped the vinyl from the sleeve and fitted it on. Dropped the needle on Side One, Track One … and Woody Woodmansey’s stoned intro drum pattern from “Five Years” began to play on the sands at Huntington Beach. People started to come over to our towels. One girl asked “Is that Bowie?” More chicks. “You brought Bowie to the beach?” This was going very, very well.

But, by the time “Soul Love” kicked in, something felt weird. Maybe it was the waves, the chatter all around us, the tourists and fishermen up above on the pier. No. Something was wrong. Ronson’s solo on “Moonage Daydream” sounded off, sounded … wobbly.

—Uhh, Kiley?

—Yeah?

—Your record. It’s melting.

And that indeed was what was happening. The merciless summer sun was warping the Ziggy platter beyond all recognition. Murmurs of appreciation turned to howls of laughter as I knelt to take the wavy disc off the turntable.

 

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Tonight I sit in a warm home, surrounded by love and light, and I am a very lucky man. I myself descend into the darkness now and again, to find a nugget, to pursue an idea, to retrieve a dream I might burnish into something worth telling you about … but I return by morning and am welcomed into the silver arms of a wonderful girl. But now something is gone. Irretrievably gone.

Why is it so sad? Why am I so sad? I can still listen to all of his music any time I want. So, why? At least part of it is the quality of . To have no more music after that pinnacle seems a crime. What new wonders might the man have revealed, given more time?

Is that it, though? No, not really. It’s my own mortality, of course. Someone who helped make me who I am has died. And now one day it will be my turn. That’s what we’re really mourning when we hashtag R.I.P. on our social media pages. We know our turn is coming. And we hope that we will all rest in peace.

This way or no way
You know I’ll be free
Just like that bluebird
Now ain’t that just like me

I couldn’t have been more impressionable than when I first discovered David Bowie. He was new, largely undiscovered, and 25. I was 16 and looking for … someone who’d had his share, who could help me with the pain. You did that, David, you helped me with the pain of being alive and aware and goofy and weird, and right now, at this very moment, I smile through my tears and would like to say, simply: thank you.

 

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Months after that bleached-out day by the HB pier, in October of 1972 at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium, he strode onstage to strobe lights and Wendy Carlos’s synthesized intro from Beethoven’s Ode to Joy off the A Clockwork Orange soundtrack. I swore to my friends he was an alien. The way he moved, the way he cocked his head, the way he jerked under the lights. He was an otherworldly marionette who put us on notice, right up front:

If you think we’re gonna make it, you better hang on to yourself

An hour and a quarter later, I was there, at the front of the stage, reaching up, trying to give him my hands. Our fingers never quite got there, our eyes never quite met. But David Bowie touched me, all the same …

On ★ by David Bowie

Blackstar-vinyl

David Bowie is a savvy enough consumer—and manipulator—of popular media to understand that he will never produce another “TVC 15,” another “Ziggy Stardust,” another “We Are the Dead.” Those days are long gone and his gift has morphed over the decades into … something different. There have been peaks and valleys since his remarkable 10-album run in the 70’s, but even the peaks (1. OutsideBlack Tie White Noise, and Heathen, e.g.) paled in comparison to the earth-shattering impact of his best earlier records.

The Next Day, his “comeback” album from 2013, was a strong addition to the post-70’s Bowie oeuvre, but ultimately played as too derivative and self-referential to be memorable. Its charms evoked past glories in a nearly convincing way, but it broke little new ground and therefore—for a Bowie record—it felt like a lesser effort.

George Carlin once said that “it’s important in life if you don’t give a shit, it can help you a lot,” and David Bowie, on his 69th birthday, with the release of ★, has clearly arrived at his quintessential moment of not giving a shit. While there were tunes aplenty in The Next Day, ★ (Blackstar) is memorable more for its difficulty, its unusual syncopation, its oblique messaging, and, yes, its hard-earned thorny beauty. The lack of any detectable desire to be “commercial” has proven to be its creator’s liberation.

And speaking of giving a shit: as with The Next Day, you can certainly wonder whether anyone who is not already a Bowie fan will care much about ★. That is the curse of the few remaining “classic rock” musicians still releasing new music … no one cares. People will still line up in droves to see human jukeboxes like The Rolling Stones perform their greatest hits (almost all of which were recorded during a 5-year period in the late 60’s-early 70’s), but no one outside deep fandom wants or would care about a new Stones album.

But Bowie, in his deliberately obstinate way, has burrowed into that paradigm and eaten his way out the other side: he refuses to tour (which is the current working musician’s only reliable way to make big bucks), he grants no interviews, and he drops new music with (relatively speaking, at least) little advance fanfare. It’s as if he knows no one cares … and yet in his very withdrawal from the PR game, he has recaptured that one element that eludes almost everyone else in his field: a sense of mystery. What’s he on about? What does this record mean? A 10-minute chamber-pop single with three disparate sections tied together? A backing band of jazz musicians? One guitar solo on the whole album? Where’s “Rebel Rebel”? Where are the damn rockers?

His only real remaining peer in popular music is Bob Dylan. Both have drilled down deep into the heart of their respective mythos and produced late-career records that can stand comparison to those of their youth.

One of the first things that leaps out at you after even just a few listens to ★ is what a “band” album this is. (Here’s the core band of ★ in action, away from David Bowie.) These guys are amazing and are as integral to the ambience of ★ as Bowie himself is. The record feels “of a piece” and the stuttering grooves the band lock into, overlaid with waves of unearthly synths and the mind-blowing honking skronk of bandleader Donny McCaslin’s sax, conspire to make ★ feel in some ways like one extended suite.

Reinforcing this sense of cross-track continuity are the two (so far) music videos Bowie  has released in conjunction with the new album. In the short film for “★”, Bowie plays three characters, one of which is a stumbling, twitching man who wears a blindfold of gauze bandages and who stares out at the world with black buttons for eyes. This same character (now institutionalized and doing his twitching in a hospital bed) is one of two played by Bowie in the music video for “Lazarus.” Typical of Bowie, these videos are haunting, cryptic, and open to endless interpretation; one possible view is that it is only in helpless blindness (those black buttons) and removal from the modern world (by virtue of insanity) can one possibly hope to actually “see” with any profundity.

Bowie’s voice is relatively restrained throughout the new record. He sounds beautiful, frail, exhausted in places. There is a sense of a scarred seer having gained the mountaintop after a lifetime of bloody battles on the plains below. His singing has glorious moments, especially when he doubles his own lead vocal line or drops in achingly touching harmonies, but his fabled power-croon rarely makes an appearance; rather his voice has an ethereal, wispy vulnerability that bespeaks both timelessness and mortality.

★ comprises 7 tracks and clocks in at about 41 minutes. The best way to experience the music is via the ancient Side One/Side Two rhythm of an LP. Plus, you get a lovely package (die-cut gatefold cover, 180g vinyl, and glossy black-on-black combination lyric sheet/photo book). Some track-by-track notes:

SIDE ONE

“: The record’s masterpiece. A stunning three-part 10-minute suite that evokes “Station to Station,” not in a musical sense, but in the way that that lengthy multi-part leadoff title track set the tone for the marvelous record that followed. The opening and closing sections of the suite are reminiscent slightly of Earthling-era drum’n’bass … but here the groove is way deeper, and the Middle Eastern vibe is wonderful and ancient. The mid-song r&b section is lovely and hysterically funny: “I’mma take you home/take your passport and shoes/and your sedatives, boo.” Really, a majestic achievement.

‘Tis a Pity She Was a Whore“: McCaslin’s horns are just ridonkulous on this wicked up-tempo rave-up. Bowie can’t contain himself, either, whooping (atypically) “whoa” at the sax solos toward the end of the song.

Lazarus“: Lovely, lovely guitar-sax intro leads into Bowie’s pleading whisper. Nice cascades of electric guitar. More funny shit: “Look up here, man, I’m in danger/I’ve got nothing left to lose/I’m so high it makes my brain whirl/dropped my cell phone down below/ain’t that just like me.” The track climaxes with some of Bowie’s crooniest, most passionate singing on the record … and then outros brilliantly for TWO MORE MINUTES of vintage McCaslin sax work and the return of the pretty electric guitar figure that began the song.

SIDE TWO

Sue (Or In a Season of Crime)“: Drummer Mark Guiliana drives this odd tale about god knows what, playing patterns that are tricky at first but ultimately irresistible. The band really wails in, around, under, and on top of Bowie’s weird, sometimes nearly atonal lead vocal. Fascinating stuff.

Girl Loves Me“: Employing a kind of Clockwork Orange-y patois, this song at first seems a bit of a lark, kind of a lighthearted break from some of the heaviness of its predecessors … but the sheer aching drone beauty of the “girl loves me/hey cheena” chorus eventually breaks you down and you realize you’re in deeper waters than you thought.

Dollar Days“: Pretty piano and acoustic guitar, simple, lovely, a bit of lush mournful sax, and then David’s pleading “it’s nothing to me, it’s nothing to see.” This one feels a bit generic and it certainly is the song on the record that makes the least use of his tremendous band. The repetition of “it’s nothing to me, it’s nothing to see” (which becomes “I’m trying to, I’m dying to”) elevates the track periodically … but not quite enough.

I Can’t Give Everything Away“: Can’t figure this one out. It has a harmonica (!), whose childlike presence seems almost shockingly warm in the midst of all this angst. Is David really singing about his entire career here? “Seeing more and feeling less/saying more but meaning less/this is all I ever meant/this is the message that I sent.” That is truly awful stuff. Would give “sophomoric” a bad name. Bowie has made a career out of confounding expectations in the most innovative and infuriating ways, of weaving complex and contradictory narratives throughout his work … to have that all reduced to “this is the message that I sent” would be criminal, and if that is the way Bowie wants to leave us, if this is in fact his valedictory track on his final album … Jesus, I’ll punch the guy in the nose if I ever meet him! Maybe I’m missing something here and will feel differently about the song one day. I have friends whose opinions I value who absolutely love it, so chances are there is something I’m not seeing. But this one and “Dollar Days” make for a disappointing end to an otherwise ravishing sonic experience … for me.

So, that’s it. At 69, in spite of how the world has turned, in defiance of how his industry has mutated almost beyond recognition, David Bowie has written, recorded, and released an album of new music that is unusual, difficult, experimental, brilliant, maudlin … it’s amazing the heights that not giving a shit and following your muse can allow you to scale.

 

 

 

June 2014

Julian Jaynes—THE ORIGIN OF CONSCIOUSNESS IN THE BREAKDOWN OF THE BICAMERAL MIND—Houghton Mifflin, 1976

THE COLLECTED SONGS OF COLD MOUNTAIN—Red Pine (tr); intro by John Blofeld—Copper Canyon Press, 2000

Stephen Mitchell—THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO JESUS—Harper, 1993

Prokofiev—The Wartime Sonatas (Piano Sonatas 6, 7, 8)—Sviatoslav Richter

LES REVENANTS (THE RETURNED), Season 1—Netflix—Canal +

Mozart—Oboe Quartet K.370—Harold Gomberg, Galimir Str Qt

Bach—St Matthew Passion—Gardiner, English Baroque Soloists

Shostakovich—Str Quartet No 15 Op.144—Beethoven Qt

Beethoven—Piano Sonata No. 32 Op.111—Jeremy Denk

Morton Feldman—Piano & String Quartet—Aki Takahashi & Kronos Qt

HIGH MAINTENANCE (web series)—Vimeo

Silencio—Gidon Kremer & Kremerata Baltica—Part, Glass, Martynov

Barbara Tuchman—THE GUNS OF AUGUST—Ballantine, 1994

Carl Barks—ONLY A POOR OLD MAN—Walt Disney’s Uncle Scrooge—Fantagraphics, 2012

John Allison—BAD MACHINERY: THE CASE OF THE TEAM SPIRIT—Oni Press, 2013

Enchanted Lion Books—A Remarkable Childrens Book Publisher

I am not as familiar with kids book publishers as I once was, but have stumbled upon a terrific one: Enchanted Lion Books in Brooklyn.

They appear to specialize in translated picture books and I have read some doozies the past few days: The Bathing Costume by Charlotte Moundlic (illustrated by Olivier Tallec), Big Wolf & Little Wolf by Nadine Brun-Cosme (illustrated by the same Olivier Tallec), and Wait! Wait! by Nakawake Hatsue (illustrated by Komako Sakai).

But the piece de resistance so far is the gorgeous and ingenious Ballad by Blexbolex. This book is struturally innovative and employs a storytelling technique that relies on repetition and variation. The narrative (which is mostly visual) builds tension through a series of fairy-tale-like occurences and the book veers delightfully from playful romp to dreadful nightmare.

Highly recommended!

Now on to Mister Orange, by Truus Matti, which was just awarded the 2014 Mildred L. Batchelder Award by the ALA. (Mister Orange seems more like a mid-grade book, since it employs very few illos.)

Do yourself a favor—whether you’ve got kids or not—and check out Enchanted Lion Books!

A Few Words About Godzilla and the Inexorable

There is a new Godzilla movie. Last month the posters that were slapped up around Los Angeles on plywood fences around vacant lots employed as background elements the Japanese katakana characters: Go-Ji-Ra.

This was an attempt to harken back to Godzilla’s origins in Inishiro Honda’s GOJIRA (1954).

I first saw this movie (in its bastardized but still wonderful Raymond Burr version known as GODZILLA, KING OF THE MONSTERS!) in the early 1960’s, late one night on the Million Dollar Movie on KHJ-TV 9 in Los Angeles.

I could not believe my eyes. I was paralyzed in the presence of this creature. I also thought about Japan: a country which had been A-bombed had created for itself a nuclear nightmare in the form of Godzilla. Which made no sense to me.

At around this same time, we started duck-and-cover drills under our desks at school. JFK was assassinated. For a few years, the world seemed full of things that were simply too large—and horrible—to be stopped.

My concept of terror is linked to the idea of the inexorable. Something that cannot be stopped, an outcome that cannot be altered.

Godzilla’s origins were clear to me: he was the direct descendant of Frankenstein and The Mummy. He was large, he was slow. And he could not be escaped. You should be able to outrun these inexorable monsters. But you can’t. Because they operate in the realm of dreams and nightmares. You can’t make your feet go fast enough, they are set in concrete, you look back, you trip, you just can’t get away.

Godzilla has the patience of death. He has all the time in the world. His head appears over the crest of an island hill. He trudges down a boulevard, his cold dead gaze scans the upper floors of department stores and apartment buildings.

I wonder what it must have been like to have grown up with The Xenomorph from ALIEN, The Predator, the raptors from JURASSIC PARK … these lethal blink-of-an-eye creatures from whom even the idea of escape is ridiculous. There is nothing elemental about them, nothing that nags at the subconscious the way that a plodding prehistoric beast operating with dream-logic does. You should be able to get away from Godzilla; it should be possible; you just can’t.

Godzilla has the patience of Death. He will be there, waiting, at the end. He is not an athlete, a fast-twitch raptor; he is a nightmare.

No matter how we distract ourselves along the way, Godzilla is our inevitable death. He is a monster. A nightmare. He is slow, inescapable, inexorable, and his is the logic of dreams.