Archive for the ‘music’ Category

Love, Poverty, and War

May 30, 2011

Reading Christopher Hitchens invariably provokes me to a cloudburst of scribbling. The content of his work, whether tackling God, revising Churchill, or casting the Iraq War as one of Kurdish emancipation, is (almost) secondary to the easy conversational brilliance of his style. Imagine a somewhat inebriate professor of letters who spent his youth alternating between a dinner jacket and dungarees, with an occasional sojourn to the front so he might shake hands with revolutionaries and fellow internationalists. Much like listening to live music in my relative youth instilled a desire to pick up a guitar at the immediate cessation, so does curling up with dear Hitch inspire a similar response.

Love, Poverty, and War borrows it’s title from O’Henry, who claimed no man could go through life escaping all three. It is a collection of essays on variable topics, and if there is a common theme to be found in the volume, it’s a general distate for anything approaching totalitarian, and a profound appreciation for irony and courage. Despite being forced on more than one occasion to duck lest a shot fired in anger do better than whine overhead, Hitchens avoided war for the most part, and I believe that in some senses he regrets it.

In both his memoir and in his essay on Churchillian revisionism, he makes mention of his father’s (the Commander, as he is remembered) naval service during WW2. He recounts the day his dad sunk a German warship that far outclassed his own, and chose “a better day’s work than I have ever done” to couch how he feels about his father’s finest hour. Despite the fact that Hitch was like his mom, a woman he looks back on adoringly as the person who instilled in him a love of literature, and the gentle but firm warning to “never be boring,” there is a subtle ache inside him, and perhaps in most men who’s fathers and grandfathers could count Hitler as a personal adversary.

Most of us will feel love and the pinch of hunger at some point in our lives. But war now escapes our personal reckoning. To experience war first hand one must make it their career, and come to the decision relatively early in life. Great conflict, full of sacrifice home and abroad, celebrated by endless books and films, and draped in polarizing but comforting terms like good and evil, is denied us. The greatest generation was not great for their deeds (though great their deeds were) but for the accident of their birth.

Are we right to be envious of blood, loss, and boredom? Surely, the daily life of the average solider is appositely captured by the cliched 90 percent boredom and ten percent terror (often used to describe commercial pilots, and occasionally by me to illustrate the life of a professional poker player). So why would anyone wish to be thrust into those circumstances, even if only temporarily? Because they will do a better days work than we will ever do, and maybe even more than one.

Portrayal of war is often criticized for being romanticized. For failing to convey the true cost, the pain, the senselessness of the destruction, the displacement of innocents, and the psychological consequences felt by the survivors. But the criticism misses a point. War is thrilling. War does facilitate and identify courage. War does foster bonds. There are many accounts of civilian Londoners (et al) in the aftermath of the blitz describing the time as one where they felt the most alive. The most purposeful. The most connected to their neighbours for enduring a common hardship.

There is no contradiction inherent in recognizing war as an unfortunate and evil manifestation of the human failure to resolve differences more pragmatically and morally, and feeling the unsated urge* to pick up a gun and kill a Nazi swell up inside you once in a while. You can exist in that conflicted state, and not have anything to apologize for.

Robin Lindsay


* I have heard some women describe a feeling of wanting to be pregnant – not have a child (necessarily) but an ineffable desire to be in the state of pregnancy. I think there might be an analogy hiding there somewhere.


The Virus of Mediocrity

March 11, 2011

To comfort the disturbed and to disturb the comfortable – Cesar A Cruz

There exists a conflict of idealized peaks in the world of art. Take a moment to chew on the following:

What you don’t read  (or watch, listen to, etc) matters as much as what you do read.

If you are like me, you think the above pretty much the case, that exposure to the lesser arts can only make you dumber, less interesting, corrupted, and soft. Many think that danger doesn’t exist, that one can move freely and without consequence between doses of  Goosebumps and Gore Vidal.

Imagine you are charged with picking one of two extremes for a high school student. In the first, the student is exposed to nothing but the lowest common denominator from the world of arts. Popular young adult situation comedies, top 40 radio hits, and mass market fiction. Their high school career spent ignorant of anything but what is easily digestible and then forgotten. In the other extreme is challenging literature, film, and music, all of which serve to enhance the students understanding and appreciation for the human experience. Your pick.

Now, those extremes are unrealistic and unfair, and it is obvious that one cannot spend 100% of their time in either the intellectually stimulating ivory tower, or caked in Pizza Pop residue and plopped in front of Melrose Place. However, if you accept that one extreme is preferable over the other (or even a more moderate version of the above scenario that nonetheless emphasizes one approach) then you must acknowledge that it matters what we watch/read/listen to.

However, the above is almost beside the point. The question at hand is whether anyone can be worse off for what art (or craft) they have been exposed to, not for what they have missed. Can the brilliantly erudite aficionado of the complete works of the artistic greats be somehow damaged for attending a Coldplay concert? I will argue he can.

Coldplay are catchy. They are also nauseatingly sentimental, two dimensional, obvious, uninspired, and totally lacking in anything  substantive. The fact that adults listen to this worthless and altogether trite dredge is a tragedy, but they are catchy. Catchy isn’t a problem, and nor is it easy. Many a band attempted little more than to compose a single head-bobber and failed. But Coldplay’s catchyness is the musical equivalent of thinly veiled propaganda serving as a vehicle for  shallow poetry and cynical contrivance.

But here I was not six months ago walking along and idly muttering a melody “Look at the stars, Look how they shine for you…” They got me. Stuck in my peon brain is this tired dreck. It took no conscious effort to summon the lyrics and melody – they are with me forever, potentially inserting themselves into whatever other endeavor I attempt, musical or no, and maybe even without my knowledge.

No artist exists in a vacuum is obvious to everyone. What might not be so obvious, is that maybe they should do their best to do just that.

Robin Lindsay


Bent Double, Like Old Beggars Under Sacks

February 23, 2011

There is little less masculine than a profession of love for poetry.

No one can claim ownership of the words masculine or feminine. Some things in this world are rough, tough, and angular (or handsome, ruthless, and stupid, in Dorothy Parker’s idealized conception) and some are soft, bending, and curvy. Whether those extra broad generalizations can be safely applied to men and women is outside the domain of this discussion. Suffice it to say: dogs are boys, cats are girls, PCs are boys, Macs are girls, and for whatever reason you care to cite, we all seem to agree.

Poetry is graceful, pretty, emotional, and flowery. The flow of the words; the sound they make when repeated back to oneself is paramount, and while it is inescapable that poems have meaning, for words mean things, deciphering the hidden meaning, if  there is any to be found, is missing the point at best. However, a man’s love of things graceful or pretty or emotional or flowery is supposedly limited to what he can fuck, and any further pronouncement of joy at the sight or sound or experience of delicate waff, makes him a poof, a nancy boy, or a fag.

Nothing new in the above. We are all too aware of the reputation risked by any boy brave enough to carry Emily Dickson without camouflage, but the cliche to my limited experience is abnormally felt, and I wonder at the cause. Men like music and lyrics, can appreciate a turn of phrase wittily and adroitly presented,  read books, and seem to run the gamut of stuttering neanderthal to elegant wordsmith with the same frequency as women. Social pressures, no doubt contributing, cannot possibly explain everything. There must be something specific to the art form or its reputation making the males in my social group bored at the mere prospect.

Boring. There it is. That word. There is nothing worse than boring (perhaps homicidal or smelly if we are talking about people). I was manifestly uncomfortable and terribly annoyed at being forced to read E.E. cummings or Robert Frost in high school. And rightly so. The beauty of language is not a subject worth discussing with partially developed minds, and Shakespeare elicited a similar response. No, what the dreary high school matron (my English teachers were invariably dull and female) was left with was a search for meaning. An accounting of facts. An exercise in: “Well, why the fuck didn’t he just come out and say it then?” Sure, some of the students were ready for poetry, and genuinely enjoyed it. They tended to be girls. No, not tended, were girls.

But I loved books, and was perfectly happy to engage fully with a difficult metaphor and not feel in the least put out for having to decipher it. Be that as it may, the contradiction in finding poetry irritating for failing to be direct, and not holding literature to the same standard, has only recently struck me.

Nowadays, I can approach a poem without any precedent angst, but it required a genuine effort to displace the notion that deciphering meaning was the task. I was never scared of being called a fag.

Try this. I dare you not to get a little moist.

Robin Lindsay


The Final Velvet Nail in Pavement’s Coffin

September 29, 2010

The only remaining parallel left to establish between Pavement and The Velvet Underground was drawn (for me) on September, 18th, 2010, at the Agganis Arena in Boston, Massachusetts. The legacy of Pavement, having broken up in 1999, was the only open question for the band, as their critical darlinghood and even-at-their-peak obscure status was already fact-checked and confirmed.

Someone once said, and probably more than once and by more than one person, that everyone who bought a copy of The Velvet Underground & Nico formed a band. Kids today still listen to VU despite zero MTV presence, proving that the organic influence of cool older kids keeping great music alive by word of mouth and example can still compete with cynical and market driven forces.

Let’s do the math. The Velvet Underground & Nico charted at 171st, and Pavement’s best selling album 121st (that translates to a paltry 237 000 copies world wide). In other words, both bands barely registered on the cultural radar when they were still together. On September 18th, 2010, a reunified Pavement sold out the 8000 seat Agganis Arena.

The kids must be listening to Pavement. Pavement played clubs and not arenas when they were still producing new records, and in the week following the Boston show they were due to play four nights in Central Park in NYC. I doubt a single commercial radio station lent a hand.

So, if the word parallel had any ‘Ts’ or ‘Is’ they could be crossed and dotted with confidence when speaking of Pavement and The Velvet Underground, if the comparison wasn’t obvious enough already to anyone who has ever listened to them.

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