April 28, 2006
We, the People: Dave Chappelle's Block Party
I was browsing through a bookstore yesterday when Gore Vidal's latest caught my eye: Inventing a Nation: Washington, Adams, Jefferson. The premise goes something like this: with these guys laying the foundation, just what the fuck went wrong with America?
Vidal's lofty ruminations on the first three presidents were sparked by a conversation he had with Jack Kennedy back in 1961, two years before his murder broke the spine of America.
Vidal isn't the only one asking this question. There are hundreds, maybe thousands, of titles in bookstores asking "what's wrong with America?" Our newspapers house the debates, our talk-shows broadcast the polemics and American anchormen explain socio-demographic models of America--blue and red coloured maps of the Last Great Hope. Ann Coulter and Bill O'Reilly prove that liberal-baiting is still a great way to get attention, Michael Moore wages war against Bush and credibility, while editors, academics, film directors and musicians carve up the States into segments of the urban and the rustic.
And that day in 2001 won't go away either. This month former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani testified at the death-penalty trial of Zacarias Moussaoui, the man who has admitted to conspiring with al-Qaeda to crash aircraft into American landmarks. Giuliani told the jury what he saw as he looked up at the smoking towers:
I saw several people--I can't remember how many--jumping. There were two people right near each other. It appeared to me they were holding hands.
The jury, nine men and three women, were to hear more: the emergency phone call of Kevin Cosgrove, an insurance worker trapped on the 105th floor of the south tower. As jurors listened to the tape, a video played showing the south tower at the precise time the emergency phone call was being made:
9-1-1: Okay. I'm still here ... still trying ... The Fire Department is trying to get to you.
KC: Doesn't feel like it.
9-1-1: Okay, try to calm down so you can conserve your oxygen, okay? Try to ...
KC: Tell God to blow the wind from the West. It's really bad. It's black. It's arid. Does anyone else wanna chime in here? We're young men. We're not ready to die.
Moments later, as the video footage showed the tower collapsing, Cosgrove is heard screaming "Oh God! Oh!". The call ends.
Red. Blue. War. Terror. If sentient aliens were to take the cultural pulse of America today, the grim and erratic results would stupefy. Words and screams and satire of the nightmare that happened to us; the nightmare of what we did in response to them. Us? Them?
If there is a salve to these discussions of division, it is Dave Chappelle's Block Party. If there has been much too much discussion of what is wrong with America, then Block Party tells us that there is much right. There always has been.
In 2004 comedian and hip-hop lover Dave Chappelle struck on the idea to throw a block party on the corner of two quiet streets in Bed-Stuy, a 'burb in Brooklyn. The idea was simple enough: he would fund the staging of some of America's best alternative artists--Mos Def, Talib Kwali, Erykah Badu, Jill Scott, Dead Prez and others (including a surprise reformation of The Fugees)--and people would come, and life would be experienced in all its American splendour. Simple.
Before the concert, held in September of that year, Dave travelled to his home-town near Dayton, Ohio, a very small town with wide-open spaces and little stores that sell you cigarettes. And he brought along gifts--golden tickets that entitle its owner to a return bus-trip to NY and accommodation once there, all so the lucky owner can catch the party. Tickets were free--this was all on Dave's dime--and the only requirement was that you like hip-hop.
Dave's America is a large one, and he approaches black parole officers, near-toothless white codgers on park benches, black youth and an elderly white lady who has been selling Dave cigarettes for years. She jumps on the chance.
One lady laments that she can't make it to Brooklyn that weekend because she's taking a trip to Canada. "Canada?" Dave quips, "tryin' to dodge the war?"
People of all types flock to Dave, and he happily receives them, chattering away, joking amiably, being funnier and cooler and more sympathetic than most people I have ever seen. In his eyes there is no sign of recognition of division.
Before Dave heads back to NY to organise the event, he chances upon a practice session of Ohio State University's marching band, rehearsing on what may be a paddock. He strolls up to the band's leader: "You wanna go to NY?"
A few days later the band, populated with smart and gregarious kids, are opening the concert with Kanye West. The joy in watching Dave watch what he's made is itself worth the price of entrance.
It is a film of a concert. Yes. It is also the most successfully political film I have seen, and that is said in wake of the overtly political--and skillfully made--Goodnight and Goodluck and Syriana.
Nowhere in this film will you hear discussion of Washington. Nowhere. In fact, the film's very politics are located in its failure to ever mention Washington. Its politics are in portraying Dayton, Ohio and Brooklyn, NY as the same, but different. This is Dave's America, where there are only people--of different races and postcodes, yes, but people, all the same. The politics of this film are in realising that the real politics are in the streets. Are in organising people for good. Are in creative freedom and honest and skilful music. Its politics are in Dave's subtle understanding of the responsibilities the White House has given itself. Its messianic idealism. The discovery that the White House is about re-shaping the Middle-East, not helping East Harlem.
It's about knowing that the White House is irrelevant, and so is shouting about it.
Dave's politics are also in his celebration of hip-hop, a quintessentially American gift. He celebrates it, revels in it, and for the sole reason that it's enjoyable. This film is Dave realising that he has the freedom and the money to enable his sharing of that enjoyment. And when Dave addresses the camera and talks about the great talent of Thelonious Monk, he does so not as a jingoist, but as a fan. That's patriotism.
Dave had a dream: to use his fame and fortune to put on a free gig of great music. In doing so, and having the smart Michel Gondry film it, we have a sunny and truly patriotic vision of America that we should all be proud of. A vision which should re-shape our understanding of what politics are, and can be.
April 26, 2006
Kurt Vonnegut's Last Days: A Review of A Man Without a Country
Sometime in 1974 Kurt Vonnegut wrote a review of Hunter S. Thompson's Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail '72 for Harper's magazine. It is a neat and concise affair, notable for its sympathetic observation of Thompson's damaged nervous-system. Vonnegut writes of Thompson's condition:
The disease is fatal. There is no known cure. The most we can do for the poor devil, it seems to me, is to name his disease in his honour. From this moment on, let all those who feel that Americans can be as easily led to beauty as to ugliness, to truth as to public relations, to joy as to bitterness, be said to be suffering from Hunter Thompson's disease.
The disease eventually caught up with Thompson. Last year, his health deteriorating, Thompson violently polemicised Bush's second term, considering the President's electoral success a final, humiliating blow. In February 2005, Thompson's disease proved fatal.
Vonnegut now shares much in common with the dead man he reviewed all those years ago. Vonnegut is vehemently anti-Bush, increasingly manic in his public commentary and gleans meaning from the writings of Mark Twain. But more than this, like the suicided father of gonzo, Vonnegut has had more than his fair share of blood and politics. Like Hunter, Vonnegut has had enough. He is not just tired anymore; it is beyond that. He is an unmediated misanthrope. We know this because of Vonnegut's latest book, A Man Without a Country, a collection of rueful bits and pieces.
It is alarming to contemplate the sharpening of Vonnegut's pessimism, which was always famously pointy. In the 1974 review of Thompson's book, Vonnegut responds to Thompson's fear and loathing of American politics with this:
I hasten to testify that the American atmosphere isn't really that terrifying. I am only saying that we have in our midst some people, like Hunter Thompson, who are super-sensitive. Practically everyone else feels fine, just fine.
Vonnegut would not say so anymore. Vonnegut now compares Bush to Hitler, and tells us that men with psychotic personalities inhabit the White House. Vonnegut tells us that his last words should be: "Life is no way to treat an animal".
I would like to adopt Vonnegut's own advice here. In his review of Campaign Trail '72, Vonnegut says that Thompson writes the way he does--violently and grotesquely, using words as carnival mirrors--not as a reflection of objective truth, but as a reflection of his own sensitivity. Well, Vonnegut's latest writings reflect his sensitivities. They are the sensitivities of a walking suicide, a misanthrope, and yes there is much sadness in this world, but Bush cannot be compared to Hitler. More from A Man Without a Country:
Albert Einstein and Mark Twain gave up on the human race at the end of their lives, even though Twain hadn't even seen the First World War...
Like my distinct betters Einstein and Twain, I now give up on people, too. I am a veteran of the Second World War and I have to say this is not the first time I have surrendered to a pitiless war machine.
Vonnegut's view of our mortal coil has always been grim and whimsical. Understandably. His has been a strange and sad life. When Churchill gave the green-light to "area bomb" Dresden on Valentine's Day, 1945, Vonnegut was deep in the city's bowels. One of thousands of Allied POWs, Vonnegut emerged from his bunker to survey a city ravaged by fire-storm--25,000 civilians dead and the destruction of a city globally admired for its baroque splendour. Vonnegut famously wrote about the experience in Slaughterhouse-Five:
Billy told her what had happened to the buildings that used to form cliffs around the stockyards. They had collapsed. Their wood had been consumed, and their stones had crashed down, had tumbled against one another until they locked at last in low and graceful curves.
"It was like the moon," said Billy Pilgrim.
On Mothers' Day the year before, Vonnegut was granted a temporary leave of the military and returned home. There was news for him: his mother had committed suicide the evening before. From then on his books would receive the theme of suicide like priests receive strangers into confession booths.
Vonnegut began a life of chain-smoking filter-less Pall Malls, describing the habit as "a classy way to commit suicide". But by the early '80s it seems that that way was taking too long, and Vonnegut attempted to shuffle off with an overdose of booze and pills. It didn't work. Vonnegut went back to the Pall Malls. At age 83 he is still smoking fiendishly high levels.
So with this latest book, what's changed? Vonnegut's pessimism has deepened considerably, and his sense of humour seems to have suffered. Humour had always gracefully tempered his earlier, better works, allowing for tones of fortitude and openness and charm. Further, Vonnegut believed in children, in students, in youth. In a speech Vonnegut gave the graduating class of Bennington College in 1970, he said:
Do not take the entire world on your shoulders. Do a certain amount of skylarking, as befits people your age. 'Skylarking', incidentally, used to be a minor offence under Naval Regulations. What a charming crime. It means an intolerable lack of seriousness. I would love to have had a dishonourable discharge from the United States Navy--for skylarking not just once, but again, and again and again.
The sad thing is that Vonnegut has taken the entire world on his shoulders. He can't help it. He is too sensitive. Vonnegut once mentioned that the role of the artist was much like that of the canaries sent into early coal mines--the canaries would keel over if there was a poisonous gas in there. The importance of the canary--and the artist--was their super-sensitivity. Poor Vonnegut. The great legacy of a great many things haunt him, and his sensitivity has rendered his nervous-system a spaghetti-junction of sparks and sadness.
A great many artists keel over still, often to little attention, and sadly sometimes at their peak. Not with Vonnegut, who sadly is no longer inspired or inspiring. In A Man Without a Country he describes the life of one of his "heroes" Ignaz Immelweis, a doctor who, according to Wikipedia, "demonstrated that puerperal fever... was contagious and that its incidence could be drastically reduced by enforcing appropriate hand washing behaviour by medical care-givers". Immelweis' advice was scorned by his peers, and he later killed himself.
Vonnegut's hero is a man who, unlistened to, ends it.
Reading A Man Without a Country I got the most horrible feeling. That Vonnegut regretted terribly not doing the job with the booze and the pills back in '84, and considered his failure to redress the attempt in the ensuing 20+ years as great cowardice. It is never overt. Rather, Vonnegut's suicidal wrenches, his self-loathing, his general disgust, is like a smoke--a thick, acrid, nihilistic stench that stretches wide over the pages:
Do you realise that all great literature--Moby Dick, Huckleberry Finn, A Farewell to Arms, The Scarlet Letter, The Red Badge of Courage, The Iliad and The Odyssey, Crime and Punishment, The Bible, and "The Charge of the Light Brigade"--are all about what a bummer it is to be a human being? (Isn't it such a relief to have somebody say that?)
I don't blame Vonnegut for giving up on people. He's seen too much. As for this book, I thank him for evoking Abe Lincoln, and, in a brief clearing of calamity and smoke, for giving me this wonderful piece of advice:
But I had a good uncle, my late Uncle Alex. He was my father's kid brother, a childless graduate of Harvard who was an honest life-insurance salesman in Indianapolis. He was well-read and wise. And his principal complaint about other human beings was that they so seldom noticed it when they were happy. So when we were drinking lemonade under an apple-tree in the summer, say, and talking lazily about this and that, almost buzzing like honeybees, Uncle Alex would suddenly interrupt the agreeable banter to exclaim, "If this isn't nice, I don't know what is".
So I do the same now, and so do my kids and grandkids. And I urge you to please notice when you are happy, and exclaim or murmur or think at some point, "If this isn't nice, I don't know what is".
I took his advice. Last week, lying next to my girlfriend, on a good bed, with opened windows and a gentle breeze and kisses and books, I interrupted our agreeable banter and said: "If this isn't nice, I don't know what is".
But I must leave Vonnegut now. He has given up on most things, and I'm not yet ready to do that. I haven't seen as much, and maybe never will. I'm not as good a writer, and may not be as sensitive. But I haven't given up on all that much, except, as I look upon Vonnegut's beaten brow, his ability to inform and inspire me anymore. His canary's heart is weak and flickering now. He has taken a helluva beating.
April 8, 2006
The Golden Age: Hip-Hop 1992--1996
For hip-hop, the years 1992-96 are deservedly legendary... a bright and fizzy nadir populated by the likes of A Tribe Called Quest and De la Soul; Nas and Smif 'n' Wessun; Diamond D and Biz Markie and so on and on....
Until recently I was willing to accept the warm glow of the records from those years as the subjective hum of nostalgia's trickery--those records were my soundtrack to my youth... virtue enough, musical criticism be damned. But, no--there was something else, something truly remarkable; a magical creative consistency blessing the records of that time with the same retrospective awe that graces the guitar records of the Summer of Love.
When Stephen Webb came into computing class some time in April, 1994--pale and shaking slightly--and told me that Kurt Cobain had blown himself away, my response was: "who?" Shocked and repulsed, Stephen turned away from me and chewed over the tragedy in silence.
As wan Goths and self-appointed teen leaders of angst and apathy sought masochistic comforts in Nirvana's music (and strange and vague vindication in their sudden demise), I was entranced by Tribe's and De la's studied removal from gangsta rap, filling the violent vacuums of rap with jazz-laced elegies and indie-innovations. Tribe's first three records are remarkable--fun, fleshy, jazzy exercises, sharpened with lyrical sophistication and boundless confidence. It was truly celebratory music, in that it celebrated music--the bright miasma of creative opportunity.
As Cobain's blood was being mopped up in that dingy spare room in Lake Washington, and Cobain's widow began her strange career as a graceless time-bomb, the hip-hop world was enjoying its creative zenith--unhindered by the (as yet unrealised) commercial gaze of white A & Rs.
As a white middle-class kid, much of hip-hop's politics was lost on me, but if we are to accept music's transcendent qualities, then the golden age's fruits exercised enormous meaning to me. I may not have had much in common with the Ol' Dirty Bastard's dangerous eccentricity, or Nas' street poetry, but Kurt Cobain's chilling nihilism sure as fuck didn't represent me either, and the musician's mourning masses uncomfortably introduced me to notions of conformity.
So what were the records? Perhaps the finest hip-hop record ever released came in the year that Cobain ended it. Illmatic by the then 20-year-old poet laureate of New York's ghettos, Nas. Nas has never equalled this record, which gave us the Pete Rock-produced gem of self-affirmation "The World is Yours" and the sunny, harmony-laced "Memory Lane (Sitting in da Park)". Nas' grand self-advertisement "It Ain't Hard to Tell" eloquently announced his arrival:
"It ain't hard to tell, I excel, then prevail/
The mic is contacted, I attract clientele"
It is an amazing record--sharp, arresting beats, infectious samples and loops and found melodies, and unrivalled lyrics. A landmark. 1994 will be remembered for a famous capitulation, but if there was some justice beneath our moon, it would also be remembered for its great creative triumphs.
The previous year a shadowy band of martial-arts obsessed rappers from Staten Island, NY, dropped their debut--Wu-tang Clan's Enter the 36 Chambers. Like Nas, their debut was never to be equalled, a beguiling bomb of charismatic lunacy, notable for its disarming originality. It would spawn some impressive debut solo records--Chef Raekwon's Only Built for Cuban Linx especially--but nothing the group would put out collectively would match Enter.
A shame this piece should descend into detailed discography--suffice to say that a golden moment was realised, the period fleeting, but the fruits enduring, and I was lucky enough to have my eyes open to see it, not as so I can profess an imagined sense of belonging, but as so when I return to these records now I can sigh contentedly...