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March 2006

March 24, 2006

The Jones Salvage Yard, or, How I Discovered Reading

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There is no frigate like a book to take us lands away.
--Emily Dickinson

Recently my memory has been bent on re-treading the days of my ninth year... I recall my classroom--warm--with green carpet. There's a small bookshelf and rain outside, and because it is after lunch it is Quiet Reading Time, a time I had always spent reading magazines or doodling secretly. But on this day I look hard at the 'shelf--the contents now mostly fuzzied with time--and pick up a copy of Alfred Hitchcock and The Three Investigators, a long-running kids' detective series about three young and exceptionally resourceful Californians. I'm holding book number two in the series, The Mystery of the Stuttering Parrot, first published in 1964, and it is still raining outside, hard now, the sound of water falling from a broken gutter obvious. I open up Parrot, and find "Alfred Hitchcock's" introduction. I sit down. As I read more and more of the series, the reading of the warm introductions took on the benevolent glow of custom, and I learned to savor the lightly reverential tone, transforming it into the generous twitches and curls of anticipation.
And now again with that green carpet. Old and warm, and I take my first copy of The Three Investigators and curl up on the floor at the base of the 'shelf. I finish the intro and begin to meet the gang for the first time. I say "hello" to the group's natural leader, Jupiter Jones, a precociously bright young man with a glutton's taste for fat-food, but an eye like Sherlock's; I extend my young hand to Pete Crenshaw, serious, loyal and athletic; a bright and happy illustration of America's potential. Finally, I am greeted by Robert Andrews, the Three Investigators' collator of data, a position invaluably assisted by his job at the local library, and his own deep-seated fastidiousness.
A good group.
Their headquarters are ingeniously implanted beneath the large and sprawling mass of junk which comprises Jupiter's auntie's salvage yard. The seemingly impregnable clutter secretly houses the boys' HQ--complete with telephone, filing system, darkroom and workshop, and made accessible only through the use of cleverly concealed entrances.
The Three Investigators' mobility is provided by their bicycles and the helpful assistance of adult sympathizers, and their individual talents, and their impressive sum, invariably lend themselves to the cracking of seemingly impenetrably bizarre phenomenon. But I won't here spoil the mystery of the stuttering parrot.

As I write this, many, many years on from that classroom and that discovery, Neil Young jangles out an extended solo and Edmund White's essay "On Reading: An Exaltation of Dreams" sits next to my laptop. I glance down at it, and immediately feel silly.
In his essay, White recounts a book he read at the age of 10 resurfacing in his life: "...there was Disenchanted by Pierre Loti, the tale of women's liberation in turn-of-the-century Turkey that had so engrossed me when I was ten. It was the same book I remembered, with the gold letters on the raincoat-coloured cover..."
Not for White the juvenile pleasures of the Three Investigators then, but that's okay. Reaching over the ledge of my mind's eye I can see, wafting upwards in a curious formation, chatters of scents and excitements encouraged by my falling in love with the young group of private eyes. For the first time in my life I appreciated the Emily Dickinson quote given above, and I was only nine. Trips to the library became great harvesting operations, and, if for whatever reason, my parents could not take me on the decided fortnightly run, then I would scream and throw things and become so generally unpleasant and unreasonable that a belated trip would be made.
I needed my fix.
True, for the remaining years of lower-school I read nothing but teen-detective pulp--Nancy Drew, Trixie Belden, The Hardy Boys. A much limited literary diet, it's true, but far richer than my high-school diet, which was non-existent. How I came to avoid reading for half a decade is another story--this little spot is for Jupiter, Pete and Bob.

Thank-you.

Posted by Martin McKenzie-Murray at 2:29 PM | Comments (4)

March 23, 2006

Iraq

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I was two months shy of my tenth birthday when Bush senior lit Baghdad up for the first time. As with the adults watching with me, the war existed only as a series of images, colourfully, if vacuously, commented on by Brokaw, Rather and Jennings, all hamstrung by a particularly censorious military.
The Pentagon had learnt some harsh realities from Vietnam, and launched Annex Foxtrot to ensure any My Lai horrors weren't broadcast live on the evening bulletin. No, the press were to be "followed at all times. Repeat, at all times," and so for me the war took on the agreeable glow of a computer game--all luminescent tracer fire, and precision bombing, the electronic bomb-sights happily televised live: 3-2-1... KABOOM!
It was all terribly exciting.
I remember keeping a diary while the action unfolded, the only time I have kept such a thing in my life. The diary's gone now, as has all sense of what was in it, and why it was kept, but there's a sense when I think back on it (hand-made pages, written on with blue and red biro) that I felt this was... important--important beyond the television coverage's aesthetic triumphs.
And then, 100 hours after the first bombs were dropped, it was all over. Iraq surrendered, Saddam stayed, and I was left believing my parents were wrong--real life was just like a computer game.

12 years later and now three years ago, Bush junior anticipated lighting Baghdad up again. I now sided with my parents--the world, whatever it was, was nothing like a computer game, although it could often be as bloody and compelling. I had decided that the war was ridiculous--there was little to no post-invasion plan and I had also decided that the world was nothing like the one our leaders believed in: a world on the brink of a Saddam-inspired annihilation, tempered by the Great and Universal struggle of Good and Evil. Yeah, fuck them, I thought.
But I had also decided that the majority of people I walked next to in the anti-war marches were fools, kinked with slogans and hippie-platitudes, who had reduced history and politics to crowd-pleasing protest couplets. Yeah, fuck them, I thought as I bit into a cheeseburger and wondered whether it would be one or two weeks before the first bombs were dropped. It turned out to be five days.
Three years later and the US's impatience, myopia and hubris have led to--surprise!--a bloody quagmire (that damned word again) with no end-date in sight. The US is still not evil, just critically inept, and undercurrents of masochism that fester in the US military's belly encourage fresh young men to subscribe to jihad. Saddam still remains a fuck-ass in desperate need of legal punishment and Bush has (nearly) three years left on his second term. He will no doubt leave a deep, deep scar on the Republican party, and their only hope in 2008 is a candidate proven to have been miles apart from this damned administration. This means McCain, who may or may not have a hope of beating the eventual Democratic candidate, widely believed to be Senator Clinton. I doubt, however, if any of Bush's gang will find meaningful employment in any future Republican administration, but I thank them for the various lessons they've taught me about greed and gain and failure.

Posted by Martin McKenzie-Murray at 3:17 PM

March 10, 2006

Reviewing the Reviewer, or, Smelling the Armpits of Lester Bangs & Realising I Don't Mind the Smell

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I must admit I had sat down at this here kitchen table with the intention of saying the unspeakable: that rock critic Lester Bangs just wasn't that good. And I must also confess this: that I had impure motives, o lord!, that the casual dismissal of received wisdom gladdened me, but I can see clearly now...

I had picked up Bangs' anthology Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung: The Work of a Legendary Critic last Christmas--an exquisite example of selfishness--and would thumb casually through it when the weight of Gore Vidal got too heavy. Last night the weight of Gore Vidal got too heavy, and so I read a number of articles which, in turn, exasperated, illuminated, excited and bored me.

For one, Bangs' Mailer-machismo got to me. Page after page of that hum-buzz-spittle-spat! language of the larger-than-life pop-intellectual-hedonist cramming aphorism and life-force into as small a space as possible. Mailer tried to do it all the time--grandiose insights (inspired by the Greeks, tempered by Muhammad Ali's lefts and rights) weren't enough of a show for him; Mailer wanted to concentrate these wisdoms, aphorise them; make them the literary equivalent of a black-hole--dense and throbbing illuminations of a unique intellect:

Henry Miller, however, exists in the same relation to legend that anti-matter shows to matter.

Mailer often failed, but it was fun to watch him try.

Hemingway was the best in showing so much in so little, and before he began plagiarising himself, he gave us some of the best sentences of the last century:

His talent was as natural as the pattern that was made by the dust on a butterfly's wings. At one time he understood it no more than the butterfly did and he did not know when it was brushed or marred. Later he became conscious of his damaged wings and of their construction and he learned to think and could no longer fly any more because the love of flight was gone and he could only remember when it had been effortless.

Bangs was not Hemingway, and didn't want to be. He was too impatient. He shares the energy and snarl and machismo of Mailer, and his exhaustive, manic search for the vague, ugly-beautiful life-force, performed, or divined, by the best rock bands:

Look at it this way: there are many here among us for whom the life force is best represented by the livid twitching of one tortured nerve, or even a full-scale anxiety attack. I do not subscribe to this 100%, but I understand it, have lived it. Thus the shriek, the caterwaul, the chainsaw gnarlgnashing, the yowl and the whiz that decapitates may be reheard by the adventurous or emotionally damaged as mellifluous bursts of unarguable affirmation.

But perhaps more so, Bangs shared similarities with Hunter S. Thompson. Bangs' rambling, ranting, invective-ridden prose (often coloured by drugs) resembled Thompson's gonzo exercises, and they both shared a cultivated iconoclasm, confident in their writing, their drugs, their drink, their Search....

I must say that I tired of Bangs' style--all spit and scream and cavernous, delirious insight. I also tired of Lou Reed featuring in every second fucking article, and (like Thompson) the continual self-reference and the drugs and the drugs and the drugs... but then I would come across something like this:

You always wonder how you will react to these things, but I can't say that I was surprised when NBC broke into the "Tonight Show" to say that John Lennon was dead. I always thought that he would be the first of the Beatles to die, because he was always the one who lived the most on the existential edge, whether by diving knees-first into left-wing adventurism or by just shutting up for five years when he decided he really didn't have anything much to say; but I had always figured it would be by his own hand. That he was merely the latest celebrity to be gunned down by a probable psychotic only underscores the banality surrounding his death.
Look: I don't think I'm insensitive or a curmudgeon. In 1965 John Lennon was one of the most important people in the world. It's just that today I feel deeply alienated from rock 'n' roll and what it has meant or could mean, alienated from my fellow men and women and their dreams and aspirations.

Clear and quick like a cool stream, and smart to boot. When I discovered Bangs' review of Van Morrison's Astral Weeks any thought that Bangs was a gibbering anarchist with no heart and amphetamine-charged antennae shifted: Bangs' was a talented, gibbering anarchist, with a great heart and amphetamine-charged antennae:

Van Morrison's Astral Weeks was released ten years, almost to the day, before this was written. It was particularly important to me because the fall of 1968 was such a terrible time: I was a physical and mental wreck, nerves shredded and ghosts and spiders looming and squatting across the mind. My social contacts had dwindled to almost none; the presence of other people made me nervous and paranoid. I spent endless days and nights sunk in an armchair in my bedroom, reading magazines, watching TV, listening to records, staring into space. I had no idea how to improve the situation and probably wouldn't have done anything about it if I had.
Astral Weeks would be the subject of this piece--i.e., the rock record with the most significance in my life so far--no matter how I'd been feeling when it came out. But in the condition I was in, it assumed at the time the quality of a beacon, a light on the far shores of the murk; what's more, it was proof that there was something left to express artistically besides nihilism and destruction.

Here Bangs is at his best--it sounds like he's breathing. He's also reassuringly instructive: "...it was proof that there was something left to express artistically besides nihilism and destruction".

Bangs was a guy that wrote rock reviews. He was talented, intelligent, and when the ego and the drugs and the spleen didn't crack the fabric, he was a superb writer. His machismo and obsession with Lou annoys me, sure, but the antennae never stopped searching--I can see him swaggering around the streets of Detroit with his earphones blaring (Metal Machine Music), taking it all in: the dirt, the hypocrisy, the shadow, but also, when he was very, very good, the light.

Posted by Martin McKenzie-Murray at 12:46 PM | Comments (1)

March 6, 2006

Things Fall Apart, Or, A Crazy Motherfucker Named Ice Cube

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There are landmark moments of the apolitical and nihilistic in US history. My favourite is President Richard Nixon--his damning White House tapes and eventual resignation.
Another favourite is a recording released 14 years after Nixon's resignation, and it too deeply burnt the American psyche. The recording? NWA's Straight Outta Compton.

The group, composed of Ice Cube, Dr. Dre, MC Ren, Eazy-E and DJ Yella, scared the bejeesus out of America with an album that bled apocalyptic forecasts for the LA ghettos--streets filled with the blood of women and punks and cops; where drugs and cum are currency; and where the only politics that matter is who's shooting who.
There's no doubt that the recurring themes of violent misogyny, rape, and murder are unsettling still, and when Cube rapped:

young nigga on the warpath/ and when I'm finished, it's gonna be a bloodbath/ of cops, dying in LA/ yo Dre, I've got something to say... Fuck tha police!

white-America suffered apoplectic seizures, and the rich-white mobilized to demonize the album and restrict its dissemination. It was too late, and LA rioted four years later: 51 dead and 1 billion dollars in damages. Things fall apart.
Straight Outta Compton read like a queer interpretation of Churchill's "We shall not flag or fail" speech, except that the orators were gun-slingin' gangstas who wished to defend nothing except their right to smoke cops and shoot bitches. Young children played in the smoke of a burning LA, rapping word for word "Gangsta, Gangsta"--the record was, very certainly, the poor and black's nihilistic version of Churchill's call to arms. But rather than the defeat of an unequivocal enemy, it seemed NWA's victory was that their apocalyptic rants were coming true.
What made NWA's record so frightening was that the brutal violence was a-contextualised. Public Enemy were causing their storm with smoother beats and an eye to history--they were still angry, but smarter and cooler. NWA were unremittingly bleak, placing their stories of the ghetto out of history's reach. Their lyrics of drug dealing and murder enjoyed no arc of redemption. Everything, just simply, was.

I was given my first ever album by a kid down the road. I was twelve.
I had provided him with a blank tape, swiped from my parents' stash, and he had responded by pirating NWA's Straight Outta Compton on his dual-cassette deck. I loved it.
For a white, middle-class kid, the album provided its owner with a righteous sense of rebellion. But with further listens, the album yielded things of greater interest.
Of course, the politics (or apolitics) of the ghetto were lost on me. I was simply thrilled by the profanity, and amazed at the stories: murder without remorse; the rise and fall of drug empires and the cruel and unusual treatment of women. None of it made any real sense, but I remained curious and entertained, just like I was when I read the Hardy Boys or the Three Investigators.
I was piqued by News From Another World, a world where the rules were strange and adult and black. A world whose one underlying rule was that there weren't any rules, and the vicarious pleasure this afforded its young, white listener is obvious. I was the young voyeur of race and class, and my now barren ant-farm I received for Christmas was forgotten for this greater, more interesting microcosm.
Of course the music itself left its mark, and my favourite track on the album was (it still is) "Express Yourself," a song preaching the virtue (and dangers) of free speech. It sampled the inexplicably funky Wright brothers' riff from their song of the same name, and it floored me.
My ownership of this record was kept secret from my parents, and so when they left to do whatever boring things white middle-class folks do on Saturday mornings, I commandeered their stereo system and blasted "Express Yourself" as loud as I could. Right now, 13 years later, I'm doing the same thing on my stereo, and whilst my love for the song hasn't diminished in that time, the excitement of playing it cannot rate with those days.
"Express Yourself" was the one moment on the album where the claustrophobic greys of nihilism were lifted and replaced with colour--"Express Yourself" presented things that they believed in, urged along by one of the great funk riffs. For me, it was an intermission. A coffee break which was better than anything that went before or after.

MC Ren eventually slipped into obscurity, Dre and Cube discovered the main-stream, and Eazy-E, high on Marquis de Sade perversities, succumbed to AIDS in 1995. LA's smoke cleared, only for long-standing prejudices to be resumed quietly. Programs of gentrification cleaned up the streets of LA, breaking the bloc of black insurgency, and of gangs and blood, but poverty is never abolished, just swept around, and the rich and outraged began to successfully use the riots as evidence for the dangerous influence of gangsta rap.
The mainstream eventually tapped into the commercial viability of black street battles, and when Tupac and Biggie were gunned down, as many whites mourned the loss of their pop-leaders as blacks. I am reminded again of my ant-farm.
LA's race hostilities quieted down, lessening the appeal of gangsta rap, and as NWA, Ice-T (another hardcore rap instigator who would discover the mainstream) and other gangsta rappers were forgotten, Dre introduced the world to G-funk and Snoop Dogg and a whole universe of celebratory hip-hop emerged, commensurate with newly discovered commercial success.
Rappers were richer, white America was less scared, and this young listener had been introduced to a (so-far) life-long love for hip-hop. So it goes.

Posted by Martin McKenzie-Murray at 11:43 AM | Comments (13)

March 1, 2006

Hunter S. Thompson: One Year On

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I was thinking of Hunter again the other day as I re-read the text messages received from friends and family when news of his suicide came through--one-year ago--and I brooded on the strange sentimentality required for this preservation. My brooding yielded nothing other than evidence for a soft and simple heart, but I was forced to reassess Hunter's legacy, more out of consideration of my completed thesis on the man, than the bogus obligation an anniversary might suggest...
I had begun my Honours on the day Thompson killed himself, and the shock was, surprisingly to me, severe. It was Thompson's iconoclasm, more than his words, that inspired me; I took a moral consistency, an abhorrence for received wisdom, and a love for literature to be its inspiring hallmarks. Lofty and naïve, perhaps, but we all need standards...
I wrote on this blog a year ago that Thompson's relevance and quality began fading quickly after Nixon flashed those peace signs and hopped on the 'copter... I would re-assert that here, but perhaps colour the re-assertion with something like... disappointment? Where Thompson's writing was at once inflammatory and instructive, it became hijacked by drugs, and the colours became blotchy and dull. It is disappointing because Thompson was once a great traveller and a strong and lucid reporter--on the road with the Hell's Angels, or roaming South America observing despotism in its rawest forms. And he reported back--pre-gonzo days--with vigour and an intention of righting the wrongs of insular, or uninspired, journalism. Thompson took his journalistic cues from Twain, Crane and, of course, Hemingway, and this reader is grateful.
But Thompson stopped travelling--in the ages of Bush and Clinton and Bush, Thompson took ever-increasing amounts of drugs and barely left his compound out in deepest Colorado. He wasn't out there, the roaming Mencken/Papa/kinked cartoon super-freak that documented the violent '70s. No, Hunter fired guns and screamed in isolation, his words losing relevance and coherency, as he lost sense of himself--the myth and the man blurring out in the wilderness...
Not even the national shock of S-11 could inspire a return for the man, and this, for me, was the greatest disappointment. While Thompson's reportage from the '60s and '70 is both entertaining and stylistically curious to me, it can not possibly be as relevant as it was back then--times when abstracted debates on freedom were taken from the classroom and literally fought in the streets, and written about by Thompson. So where was Thompson in the new millennia? In our age of Bush and theocratic fascism? Seemingly suffering a massive crisis of conviction, brought on by myth and drugs and drink and the varying banal forms of madness that affect us all, sooner or later.

Posted by Martin McKenzie-Murray at 12:29 PM | Comments (3)