Thursday, April 10, 2014

Stuck Inside Bob Dylan and Llewyn Davis Again

Inside Llewyn Davis: Singer with Cat I

Find the original version of this article here on the Huffington Post.
And now enter again -- and again and again and again and again -- Bob Dylan, the cultural hustler, specter, and master of disguise that will not leave us well enough alone.
First, there was the Super Bowl.
For those who were not among the 100+ million Americans and the many millions more around the globe who watched one of the worst NFL finales in history -- admittedly, I missed it -- Bob Dylan played a starring role in the barrage of ads that can be as banal as the game can be boring in an off-year like this one.
For what is said to have been a cool $5 million payday, not just Dylan's raspy, ironic Theme Time Radio Hour voice came to call upon the football nation and their friends, but Dylan in all his waxy, ghostly glory slunk about a cliché landscape of Americana. "Is there anything more American than America?" he asked.
Well, that's a tough question, Bob. You have asked and answered it since the beginning -- from the chaotic landings of you and the Mayflower and Captain Ahab and wishing Columbus good luck in "Bob Dylan's 115th Dream" to recalling that "patriotism is the last refuge to which a scoundrel clings" in "Sweetheart Like You" to a recent peek into a long-locked American cellar in "Scarlet Town."
But it's hard to level too much critique on a figure who has arguably meant more to popular culture than anyone over the past half century. Dylan may or may not care about the quality or accessibility of the product he creates on stage and on record any more than he cares what products his image and music sell. (He also allowed "I Want You" to serve as the soundtrack for an ad for Chobani yogurt during the same Super Bowl.)
We just do not know, as he once sang of the gangster Joey Gallo, "where he is reeeeeeally at." Is he winking at us because we understand the joke? Is he the suffering at the hand of his own "Dear Landlord," "trying to work too hard to have it too fast and too much?" Is he really out to save Detroit in that ad for Chrysler -- while saving yogurt and women's lingerie too? Is he a mercenary, pompous jerk making fun of us all? Indulging another quote, the answer to all of the above is probably "God Knows."
All we really know is that Dylan sucks in the marrow of culture and then spits it back out again. He turns up on unexpected corners to remind his audiences of almost anything it wants to see in him. He is a consummate, cosmic, karmic disrupter.
Like the recent video for "Like a Rolling Stone" -- produced almost fifty years after the original appearance of the tune -- which puts Dylan in the mouth of every presenter on every channel on the cable box, Dylan's appearance at the Super Bowl can mean whatever your ears and eyes want it to mean.
Bob Dylan: Singer with Cat II
And what does Dylan mean? What do his art and presence mean? These are the questions that quietly and hauntingly animate the Coen Brother's beautiful film "Inside Llewyn Davis." If struggling musician Llewyn Davis is a compelling and believable composite figure drifting amidst the Greenwich Village zeitgeist out of which Dylan emerged -- like Eve from Adam's rib or Athena from Zeus' head -- he is also a reversal, a luckless memory, a shadow, a just-miss, another Bob Dylan who was never meant to be.
If you are looking for him, you can find Dylan lurking in every scene of the film, particularly if your imagination was shaped by the music of the era or reflections of Dylan's autobiographical Chronicles or scores of other histories of the early Sixties folk scene in New York City. That's the dank, dark club, the old couch surrounded by records and books, the fifth floor walk-up, the crowded sidewalk, the steam grate, the winter wind sweeping through Lower Manhattan, the longshoreman's cap, the wool coat, the Martin guitar; and of course, those songs all sound like Dylan's songs.
Like Todd Haynes' film "I'm Not There" which was based on The Basement Tapes epic of the same name, Dylan is and is not there in "Davis" but for a single, brief glimpse in the flesh at a critical turn in the film. In that moment, Llewyn Davis is revealed as Lilith to Dylan's Eve, the face of a presence mutated and muted while another legend grows on.
A Man and His Mask
"Inside Llewyn Davis" is a kind of creation myth tracing the outlines of an age when self-conscious, over-serious, guitar-slinging, self-styled artists were challenging bourgeois assumptions about meaning and spirit that merged through Dylan directly into rock and roll. That music became the soundtrack for seeking community, fulfillment, fun, and meaning for many more people over many more lifetimes than watched this year's Super Bowl. But at the same time rock and roll became a soundtrack for cars and yogurt and underwear as well. As Dylan said back in the day, when it comes to popular music "it's easy to tell without looking too far that not that much is sacred."
What is happening underneath the mask of commerce and cultural stasis that Dylan wore to the Super Bowl? What is happening inside Bob Dylan and Llewyn Davis right about now? The answer is music, the last refuge to which both of these scoundrels cling. What this music can still do in the world remains the question.If you are looking for him, you can find Dylan lurking in every scene of the film, particularly if your imagination was shaped by the music of the era or reflections of Dylan's autobiographical Chronicles or scores of other histories of the early Sixties folk scene in New York City. 

That's the dank, dark club, the old couch surrounded by records and books, the fifth floor walk-up, the crowded sidewalk, the steam grate, the winter wind sweeping through Lower Manhattan, the longshoreman's cap, the wool coat, the Martin guitar; and of course, those songs all sound like Dylan's songs.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Live Through This: Rock & Rap Confidential 20 Years After Kurt Cobain's Death

It has been twenty years since Kurt Cobain took his own life. In June 1995, Rock & Rap Confidential  published a special issue, consisting of a 5,500 word exploration written by editor Dave Marsh.

Anyone can subscribe free of charge to Rock & Rap Confidential by sending their email address to rockrap at I recommend it. 

Dave Marsh's essay is printed - with permission - in its entirety below.

Last April 6, Kurt Cobain put a gun to his head. On April 8, a workman discovered his body. In millions of heads, including my own, the echo of that shot still has not died.

Kurt Cobain
For all that’s been written about Cobain’s death, its foreshadowings and its aftermath, what’s inside that echo has barely been explored. The power that his death holds over our emotions and imagination remains, for the most part, a mystery. It doesn’t come down to anything quite so simple as great songs, a great band, a great singer, or "the voice of a generation." The answer doesn’t lie in poring over the details of his life, either. There was nothing simple about what drove Kurt Cobain to leave this world; there’s nothing simple about what leads any person to choose death (or, in the most desperate instances, to reject death and continue living).

But if we can never know what combination of biochemistry, family background, drug addiction, neglect, celebrity, and self-hatred caused Kurt Cobain to obliterate himself, it’s still worth pondering what it says about the rock world, stardom, and our own complicity in it--as fans, critics, partisans, brothers and sisters within a generation and across the gap. If we can’t figure out what Cobain’s suicide says about him, we should at least try to grasp what it says about us.

Alternative rock may believe that it discovered the idea that stardom is lethal, that embracing fame and fortune represents a death wish not only for the star but for everyone involved in the process, but that’s a joke. The idea is there in the 1937 version of A Star Is Born, and before that in the story of Icarus, who soared too high in emulation of birds and the gods. But there is something new about the current rock scene’s attitude toward stardom, fame, and its own sense of community. The night that the electrician found Cobain’s body, someone who worked for him approached me in real distress. "I don’t understand how this happened," he said, in genuine mourning. "How do you get through to a guy who feels like a bigger and bigger failure the more people respond to him? And the more he says he’s a failure, the bigger the response."

For me, that exchange became part of the echo. It determined how I interpreted his suicide note, and that note deserves more analysis than it’s received. The excerpts Courtney Love read at Cobain’s memorial service last April reveal a lot about the thinking that led him to kill himself. And while it would be crazy to take anybody’s suicide note as the last word on why they did it, it’s equally crazy to ignore it and refuse its implications.

"This note should be pretty easy to understand," he wrote. "All the warnings from the Punk Rock 101 courses over the years since my first introduction to the, shall we say, ethics involved with independence and embracement of your community, it’s proven to be very true. I haven’t felt the excitement of listening to as well as creating music, along with really writing something, for too many years now.

"I feel guilty beyond words about these things--for example, when we’re backstage and the lights go out and the roar of the crowd begins, it doesn’t affect me the way in which it did for Freddie Mercury, who seemed to love and relish the love and adoration of the crowd..." At which point in her reading, Courtney Love paused and commented, "Well, Kurt, so fucking what--then don’t be a star, you asshole.

Then she read on: "...which is something I totally admire and envy. The fact that I can’t fool you, any one of you, it simply isn’t fair to you or me. The worst crime I could think of would be to pull people off by faking it, pretending as if I’m having one hundred percent fun."

"Well, Kurt," she interjected, "the worst crime I can think of is for you to just continue being a rock star when you fucking hate it, just fucking stop."

Well, he did.

Cobain’s commentary on his own demise is a muddle of half-digested contradictions that, in my view anyway, reveal a fundamental quandary that has beset pop stardom since before the advent of punk--since it began to incorporate ideas from the folk music world, really.

The "warnings" he mentioned are about selling out, a category that may or may not include commercial success. Selling out in this context really means displaying personal inauthenticity, which is the reason Cobain can express such admiration for Freddie Mercury, a star who lived his life in a closet but one who was true to his own fakery. Punk Rock 101 teaches that the greatest sin is not meaning what you’re doing; and as a perverse corollary, that if you really mean it, it doesn’t matter how jive you are. So we get acts of self-destruction like the Replacements drinking themselves half to death and making it look less like fun than an obligation; Courtney Love insisting her Madison Square Garden audience join her in bellowing racist insults; ordinary fans bruising each other, even breaking bones, in the mosh pit, all in order to "prove their cred."

Such an edict represents a curious thing in the annals of popular music. It is not an idea inherent in rock & roll. Who knows if Elvis really meant what he sang in "Mystery Train" or "Heartbreak Hotel"? (He obviously didn’t mean "Hound Dog" and "All Shook Up," and some people never forgave him for it, a fact Cobain might have found useful.) Who cares if Pete Townshend really wanted to die before he got old? Who is crazy enough to believe that Mick Jagger genuinely could not get any satisfaction?

Whether Bob Dylan really heard those answers blowing in the wind is another matter, though, and it was the arrival of Dylan and the folkies that begat rock’s cult of authenticity. Dylan was said to be a phony when he tried to sing like Blind Lemon Jefferson on his first album; when he failed to devote "enough" of his time to playing civil rights and other movement benefits after "Blowin’ in the Wind" hit, when he stopped writing and performing "protest" songs after The Times They Are A-Changin', and, of course, when he began playing with a band and electric instruments in 1965. Similarly, rock bands got away with all sorts of folderol in the studio for years, but when the Byrds, the first important folk-rock band, recorded with session musicians rather than just using band members, they found themselves excoriated for it.

The roots of the folk scene’s quest for authenticity are deep, going back to the turn of the century when scholars like Francis Child first scoured Appalachian communities for the remnants of Elizabethan balladry and found a host of such songs, akin to the version of "Where Did You Sleep Last Night" that Cobain learned from Leadbelly, who called it "In the Pines." Child and others found great songs, musical treasures and some of the greatest examples of vernacular poetic and narrative writing in the English language, material that still informs the writing of Dylan, Neil Young, and Allen Ginsberg, among others.

The authenticity issue arose in trying to make sense of what happened to these songs when they moved out of the preliterate traditions of the Appalachians (or British village life) and into the stream of urban music-making. Folk music scholars insisted for the next century--some, like Alan Lomax, still do--that Tin Pan Alley songwriters who used folk elements created "inauthentic" songs; folk music arose and was passed along anonymously and orally. There were even supposedly inauthentic instruments on which folk music could not be played--the piano, for example, supposedly existed only in bourgeois households, though a single visit to a juke joint would have blown that idea out of the water.

Such thinking suffused the folk song movement as it developed an urban "topical" or socialist realist aspect during and after the Popular Front era of the 1930s. Thus, Woody Guthrie attacked the jukeboxes that entertained America’s working class, in part because such machines put live musicians like him out of work but mainly because, as he put it in a 1947 journal entry, "A folk song tells a story that really did happen. A pop tune tells a yarn that didn’t really take place." Well, after writing "Goodnight Irene," Leadbelly didn’t jump in the river and drown and I presume that Woody wouldn’t have wanted him to.

Nevertheless, this ideology had real staying power, finally foundering only when it met Dylan’s impossible challenges, beginning with "Restless Farewell" at the end of The Times They Are A- Changin’. Dylan stopped writing protest songs, I think, because the stream-of-consciousness material seemed "truer," more "real." Meaning that he hadn’t changed his position on authenticity at all, which was just as well, since neither had his audience, as the folkies proved at Newport ’65 by booing, and thereafter, by scrambling to catch up by immersing themselves in ever more "intimate" confessional material, until finally that whole stream came to a dead end in a welter of singer / songwriters as self- pitying as they were self-parodying, who were prominent among the artists who demanded the response punk’s initial assault provided. (Dylan had by then moved on to other things, including the wearing of masks and face paint.) The most prominent Dylan followers today--Neil Young and Bruce Springsteen--have made their strangest, bravest, and most ridiculous moves in the name of being true to themselves on those same old terms.

The shaky and querulous alliance between rock and the student left in the late 1960s reinforced the primacy of "authenticity." Political movements, particularly those as rootless and disaffected as the New Left, necessarily require a great deal of suspicion: Radicals need to prove their "authenticity" from time to time to demonstrate that they are not traitors, agents provocateur, or otherwise in league with the bad guys. But the anarchist ideologies of the terminal portion of the Sixties (and almost all of the post-civil rights movement Left, especially in America, became dominated by anarchist thinking) demanded authenticity of another sort: They demanded that people really meant what they said about making the personal political, and so we got, among other things, communes with enforced bisexuality run by the Weathermen, and the drop-out sloganeering of the French and English Situationists.

The Situationists were on to something--no need to keep a long face any longer, there’s more than enough material wealth to go around--but their elitism toward activists who did grassroots political work, as opposed to various sorts of "art" and media manipulation, scuttled whatever genuine revolutionary potential they brought to (and took out of) the crisis of 1968. It’s probably more appropriate to think of the Situationists as philosophers than as political radicals, and their philosophy was a species of nihilism: The central tenet, after all, was "Nothing is true, everything is permitted."

Punk inherited all this when Malcolm McLaren and his cohorts, notably graphic designer Jamie Reid, expropriated Situationist ideas to help build the image of the Sex Pistols, and Clash Svengali Bernie Rhodes followed suit. McLaren, Rhodes, and other punk entrepreneurs essentially took Situationist and anarchist ideas into the realm of promotion, marketing, and advertising. The Pistols, in particular, employed a phalanx of PR men so numerous and so astute they might have made Michael Jackson blush, which rather makes hash of the recent article in B.A.M. that looked askance at Epitaph Records for being so unpunk as to have marketing and promotion departments. Managers like McLaren, Rhodes, and even Miles Copeland, the decidedly non-anarchist C.I.A. scion who handled the Police and founded I.R.S. Records, found such rhetoric useful for a variety of reasons, not least of which was that it allowed them to assume superiority over the acts, who were supposedly mere instruments of theory, after all. (McLaren seems to remain unaware that the Pistols were a great band, or that they had an existence independent of his enterprise, even after he got his clock cleaned in court by John Lydon.)

In English pop, the punk revolution changed everything on the surface and nothing at the core; Dave Rimmer’s lost classic, Like Punk Never Happened, a book that traces the punk kids who became Culture Club, captures the result perfectly. Unless you believe that Morrissey is the voice of a generation, punk left British rock spent as a market force and laughable as a culture, depending as it now does on cannibalizing last year’s version of the recycled fads of some previous era.

But those first punk kids in London envisioned waging a revolution against the corruption that had undeniably crept into a becalmed and boring rock scene. The terms in which they expressed their disdain for hangers-on and those whose post-hip credentials didn’t quite make it came straight out of the authenticity movements: "Poseurs" was the favorite epithet.

It was back in the States that rock’s two streams of authenticity finally come together. You can pinpoint the moment in a single song: Neil Young’s 1979 "Out of the Blue and Into the Black," the song that Kurt Cobain quoted in a part of his suicide note that Courtney Love did not read. Remember that when punk first began to take shape in New York in the mid-Seventies, Young seemed the archetype of the laidback California singer-songwriter, whining "Heart of Gold" and other such gems through his nose. By 1979, though, Young had undergone a couple more of his Dylanesque transformations and he sang "Out of the Blue" twice, once in a folkie acoustic guitar and mouth harp arrangement at the beginning of his album, and then again at the end, against a grinding grunge guitar: "Hey, hey, my, my / Rock & roll can never die," he sang, making it seem like a vampire’s curse, and then, a verse later, "Out of the blue and into the black / You pay for this but they give you that / And once you’re gone, you can’t come back / When you’re out of the blue and into the black." As a critique of suicide, it’s hard to beat.

But those aren’t the lines Kurt Cobain remembered when he wrote his note. The line he quoted is the line everyone remembers: "It’s better to burn out than to fade away." But those words don’t appear in the grunge version at all. Only in the folkie one.

Rock's quest for authenticity reached Kurt Cobain as legend as much as history. Cobain was eight years old when Patti Smith made Horses and the Ramones stormed England; nine when "Anarchy in the UK." came out; all of 15 when the Clash broke up. These events took place so far from Aberdeen, the little Washington logging town that was his Castle Rock, that they might as well have happened in an entirely different generation.

What Cobain received from the first generation punks was inspiration and a set of assumptions. If Kurt Cobain had grown up in the ’50s or ’60s or even the early ’70s--if he was anybody from Lou Reed to Melissa Etheridge--his early encounters with rock & roll almost certainly would have represented a glorious possibility, a chance to communicate across all the gaps in our society--gaps of class, race, region, gender, generation, education, you name it. Used this way, rock’n’roll became not just a "way out" of impoverished working class or straight-jacketed middle class existence but a method of absolutely transforming yourself, a means of becoming who you’d always dreamed of being, confronting your fears with the power to transmute them into assets, a chance to be a hero not only to others but in your own life; to articulate out loud a vision of the world you’d previously have been terrified to whisper into the mirror. Of such things is freedom constructed.

But for Cobain, and lots of kids like him, rock & roll offered no such hopes. Instead, it threw down a dare: Can you be pure enough, day after day, year after year, to prove your authenticity, to live up to the music? In short, can you prove you’re not a fake and keep on proving it, without respite? And if you can’t, can you live with being a poseur, a phony, a sellout?

Those questions present a classic double-bind: In the first place, demanding "purity" really means proving something you don’t have--that you lack all corruption--and no one can prove a negative. Besides, the elusive notions of purity and authenticity here can barely be articulated, let alone put on display; they are like the Puritan idea of grace, supposedly evidenced through worldly signs, here presented as a kind of hipness or "independence." But establishing such rigid qualifications immediately eliminates ease and freedom, the true hallmarks of independence and emotional authenticity. This setting really does make it easier for a professional poseur like Freddie Mercury than for a raw and amateurish, but heartfelt and insightful, artistic spirit like Kurt Cobain. So Cobain--but not Cobain alone--groped blindly, looking for a transcendence he could feel but which the rules of the game he was playing-at least, the game he thought he was playing-prevented him from reaching. Yet if you don’t reach that transcendence, then, in ways far too lethal to enumerate, you really are a fake. That’s the double-bind and Cobain buffeted around in it for a decade. No wonder his guts ached.

Again, there’s nothing inherent about rock stardom in this. John Lennon, to choose a performer in many ways similar to Cobain in his drives and insights, never had to worry about such things. Even at his most despairing, on Plastic Ono Band, Lennon never descended into nihilism, because he expressed his despair in terms that implied that any such obstacle could be overcome, if only the right mechanism--political, personal, psychological, religious--could be located. Even Iggy and the Stooges, by far the darkest band of rock’s first two decades (no "linger on, your pale blue eyes" for the Ig), sounded as if they believed in a way out--or, for that matter, as if the life force in their death trip songs might be so powerful it could drag them out of its own murderous maws. That way out might be painful, dangerous and not a little self-threatening, but it was a pathway out of nothingness, not just another route to describing it but a means of obliterating the hollow core of the everyday and bursting through into free space, beyond all doubt. When you did that, the music promised (and early results demonstrated), the world would change, at least as it presented itself to you, because you had changed.

Beyond any of that, Lennon and the Stooges played rock & roll as hedonists, for whom pleasure was central, not foreign. By maintaining their links to the world of Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly and Elvis, they somehow managed a last stand, out of which they took solace, relief--a good time. They could affect any pose they chose from village idiot to irascible artiste, snarling snob to bemused bohemian, so long as it worked--and what worked wasn’t what kept them pure, it was what let them experience this liberating sense of play. "Fake"’ might have been an epithet in which artists like Lennon and Iggy delighted. At the very least, "No Fun" was a situation they didn’t intend to put up with.

Kurt Cobain didn’t hear "No Fun" as a protest; he heard it as a description of how things were and how they would stay. In the world he was born to, he literally couldn’t imagine changing things. The best he could hope to achieve was to stay outside the corruption, stay true to his principles, not sell out, never become phony, never fake it. I’m not saying Kurt took no pleasure or solace in music. You can hear that he did all over Nirvana’s records, particularly in the beautiful Unplugged, where he sings songs by everybody from Leadbelly to David Bowie to the Meat Puppets. The love Kurt had for this music--and for his own songs, too--shines bright and hard, like a crystallized essence of what he’s trying to say through the petulance and recriminations of BleachNevermindIncesticide and In Utero. (One of the greatest series of album titles in rock history, incidentally, a set of images as bloody and beatified as the stations of the cross.)

On Unplugged, you can hear Kurt being all the things he dreamed: Unbridled combatant, at war with everyone and everything; self-defeating cynic ("I guarantee you I will screw this song up," he says, by way of introducing "The Man Who Sold the World," and then, so far as I can hear, redeems it); little boy ("Jesus Don’t Want Me for a Sunbeam"); and his final, lingering, incarnation as a man not yet dead but already haunted on Leadbelly’s "Where Did You Sleep Last Night?"

Cobain’s version of "Where Did You Sleep Last Night?", an ancient song known primarily in folk and blues circles (the New York Times ran a marvelous history of it last summer), may be as great a performance in its own way as "Smells Like Teen Spirit," which is only the greatest single rock & roll record of this decade. You can hear Cobain as the pure product of punk and postpunk culture in those songs, but you can also hear him struggling to break free from the cliches imposed upon him. Cobain is looking for several things here. First of all, he’s trying to find a route to community, as the only alternative to the atomized isolation that was killing him and his society. And secondly, he was trying to feel good about it, to locate that moment’s respite that could only come from opening his heart to the embrace offered by so many people who had mocked and ridiculed the geek he used to be. A terrifying possibility but the only life raft he could reach.

Undoubtedly, Kurt Cobain came to feel trapped by the adoration of the geek-bashers, the squares, the frat boys who heard "Smells Like Teen Spirit" as a party song and saw in its bizarre cheerleader video not an anomaly but a true reflection of the world they so comfortably lived in. Trapped, in short, just as Punk Rock 101 told him he would be. When he sings "There’s a friend, there’s a friend, there’s an enemy," he sounds like he’s counting the house at a post-Nevermind show. But oppressive as their presence may have been, the geek-bashers and squares and frat boys aren’t what pushed Kurt Cobain to suicide. How could they have done that? They lacked the imagination and the interest. If philosophical questions about how stardom backfires had arisen for the beer guzzlers in the mosh pit, they’d have moved on. No, I don’t think that Kurt Cobain killed himself to escape the intrusions of Nirvana’s legions of unpunk fans.

Which brings us to the punks themselves: an answered prayer to those who lamented the corruption of rock and the rest of popular culture, perhaps, but a sect with, shall we say, certain problems of its own. In a 1979 Village Voiceessay, "The White Noise Supremacists," Lester Bangs identified the problems as racism and sexism, and maybe 15 years ago you could limit them to that: "Sometimes I think nothing is simple but the feeling of pain," Bangs wrote at the beginning of his essay, concluding, 5000-odd words later by remarking that he had written "not because you want to think that rock & roll can save the world but because since rock & roll is bound to stay in your life you would hope to see it reach some point where it might not add to the cruelty and exploitation already in the world."

If we have learned anything since then, it’s that while feeling pain may be simple, figuring out how to stop feeling it is incredibly difficult and dangerous (maybe Kurt’s stomach really did hurt that bad, maybe the heroin really was the only thing that helped), and that within the bounds of hipness, it’s damn near impossible to figure out how to quit inflicting it--because that can only happen when you learn to feel the pain that you’re causing others, and that can only happen when you let go of your worries about purity and begin the very impure, perhaps unhip process of communicating your most vulnerable hopes and fears with others. In short, when you admit out loud that you can and do hurt, not in any mewling or fashionable fashion but right at the core of your being, which good little alternate rockers are supposed to shield with the true armor of their authenticity. I guess.

God knows, this defines perfectly well the dilemma of Kurt Cobain, who wore his abraded empathy more poetically than anyone since Lester Bangs himself. What I have come to love most about the grunge bands--beyond the sheer sonic fury, the slash and snap of their attack and its dark, muddy-yet-crystalline musical ambition that brings me back to my days with the MC5 and the Stooges more directly than even the punks of the ’70s--is their absolute disinterest in the art of the compromise. In the past two years, bands like Green Day and Pearl Jam have completely disrupted the American concert business and given time, they will do the same for records, radio, retail, and maybe even their audiences.

They will do this because such musicians operate out of some values that also emerge out of this very history I have spent so much time here describing and criticizing. But they don’t proceed to create from this history the anything-goes decadence that gave us Culture Club and a slew of other interesting British bands who then crashed, full speed, into a brick wall because, if nothing is true and everything is permitted, then finally, making distinctions of any kind becomes an absurdity. Everybody’s a fake.

The grunge bands upended that aesthetic by standing up and saying, "No. These things are true, and those things are not permitted." And in this respect, it is unquestionable that the original grunge / neo- punk standard bearer was Nirvana, which took such risks--and standing up for what you believe in, whether that means wearing a "Corporate Magazines Still Suck" tee-shirt on the cover of Rolling Stone or playing a pro-choice concert on the site of the first abortion doctor murder, is a risk in truth, a risk among other things of getting caught being sincere but wrong, in either attitude or action, which could cause some to label you: Fake. Phony. Poseur. So not compromising, all by itself, becomes as much a dead-end as just shilling for the bucks. Proving you’re not a fake doesn’t make you feel real--that’s what his suicide note struggled to tell us. And it was then, if at no other time, that Kurt Cobain really did become a spokesperson for his rock & roll generation.

"Nothing is true, everything is permitted." At one time, back when it became so beloved of Situationists and Satanists, this statement completely invalidated social conformity. But today everybody feels that way: Newt Gingrich, Kurt Cobain, Neil Young, O.J. Simpson, CNN, and most likely, you and me. The credo no longer expresses an undercurrent of rebellion; it’s the prevailing value at the center of everything from the Contract with America to Steve Albini’s production on In Utero to Young’s sad attempt to explain away the consequences of writing "It’s better to burn out than to fade away" on Sleeps With Angels.

The song "Sleeps with Angels" doesn’t say a thing to me, although I think it’s the song that’s meant to eulogize Cobain. What does connect to the tale I’ve been trying to tell is "Change Your Mind," a melodic rewrite of "Heart of Gold" and "Down By the River," whose lyric sounds like Neil pleading with Kurt to do the one thing that Young derives his alternate rock credentials from not doing: Consider the consequences. It's Young’s dilemma that touches me most deeply, maybe because nobody who’s spent the past 25 years helping create and define the rock & roll world can help but feel some similar complicity in the Kurt Cobain story, maybe because Young struggles so palpably to convince us (convince himself?) that his ideas could not have had such consequences--and fails.

Today, "Nothing is true, everything is permitted" rebels against nothing and liberates no one--and what is rebellion without liberation except the essence of what Kurt Cobain is talking about in that suicide note? What the ascendance of this form of nihilism has given us is another heartless rebuff to a world conceived in exactly such terms: Dirt to those who don’t have riches, spit in the eye for the ones who ain’t hip, contempt for anybody who’d actually try for connections, and above all, a suspicion verging on contempt for anybody whose empathic resonance is so great that an entire generation or even an entire nation would respond to it. The saddest, most pathetic moment in his suicide note comes when Kurt Cobain talks about how much he lacks empathy, how much he envies those who possess it--this from the author of all those songs.

And yet, he did connect. No one, not even him, could entirely deny it. People may have taken what they heard, not what Kurt wanted them to hear, but they took great things from Nirvana’s scabrous and beautiful music. In the end, Kurt Cobain may have found this the most frightening aspect of his whole life and career. He thought he was alone in what he felt, and it turned out that in feeling alone, he connected to just about everybody. Such a realization would scare almost anybody; having to live with a truly penetrating awareness of how isolated and beyond solace most everybody in our world feels could scare almost anybody to death.

In this respect, Kurt Cobain’s death differed utterly from 1994’s other nihilist suicide, that of Guy Debord, the philosophical eminence behind Situationism and thus a grandfather of punk. Debord shot himself to death last November 30. His friends weren’t surprised and nobody else paid much attention. For a philosopher who devoted his work to writing about representation and communication, it would be hard to define a greater failure. But Debord was no Icarus; he didn’t soar. His theory kept him grounded. Or mired.

Kurt Cobain, on the other hand, died as something more than a star, a symbol, or even a generational martyr. He died like the painter Mark Rothko, who killed himself, it would seem, from an excess of feeling. Unlike Rothko, though, Cobain died from being a modernist (a modernist being a person "whose social history is that of a spiritual being in a property-loving world," as Robert Motherwell wrote fifty years ago) who tried to live up to postmodern values. What I have come to believe is that Kurt Cobain did not die because he could not fit in, but because he did. Which is why I can take my solace not from Neil Young’s stumbling for an explanation (much as I relate to it) or from Courtney Love’s vainglorious effort to put the principles that doomed Kurt into practice (compelling as I find Live Through This) or in my friend Gina Arnold’s bittersweet efforts to put the passion of Nirvana’s fans into words, but only in the half-intelligible singing of Michael Stipe on Automatic for the People--a fit epitaph for rock & roll’s first celebrity shotgun suicide, if there ever was one

Stipe said later he and Cobain had been talking a lot, while planning a collaboration; I don’t know what Michael tried to say to Kurt in their last few conversations, but in my imagination, he sings him a lullaby that says, "when you’re sure you’ve had enough / Of this life...well, hang on."

I don’t know what really happened--in those talks or in the last days of Kurt Cobain’s life. I do know that those of us left behind had better start singing such things to one another or we will find our way to the ocean, not like the water that runs down so beautifully at the end of Automatic for the People in "Find the River," but like lemmings.

Hang on.

Friday, December 6, 2013

Carl Jung, John Lennon, and Joseph: The Shadow & the Beautiful Boy

John Lennon had a very painful childhood that both shaped and embittered him for years to come. Son to an absent father, given up by his mother when he was 5 and raised by an aunt, Lennon still overachieved thanks to and in spite of his shadow, doing nearly as much as any contemporary figure to fight a Joseph-like fight against spiritual and emotional famine as an artist. The beauty of “Beautiful Boy” is not just a love song of a father to a son, but a song of integration of shadow and light Lennon sings to himself. He is the beautiful boy — cast off and then becoming wildly successful like Joseph — who now finds a measure of peace with himself as a father.

More on Carl Jung, Joseph, and John Lennon here.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Shalem College Opens -- from the Forward

An excerpt from the Forward's piece on the opening of Shalem College:

Campus Focused: Shalem College wishes to foster an American-style college experience by encouraging students to stay on campus.
Shalem College, Jerusalem

“The traditional research university is focused on frontal interaction with students,” said Hazan Arnoff. “We’re pursuing an experience where students are asked to learn in different modes for thinking about and experiencing ideas. The whole campus, city and country is our laboratory.”

Read the entire article from the Forward here.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

The Book of Ruth, Desire, and Rock and Roll

This article originally appeared on the LABA Journal.
Ruth lives in the age of Judges. “Joshua Judges Ruth,” the title of a 1992 Lyle Lovett album, aptly summarizes this age by reciting the New Testament order of the books preceding her story as a kind of ancient J’accuse.
Early in his eponymous story, Joshua exhibits a Moses-like order and authority: he rules as a judge and general for a single tribe knit together from the patchwork of Israelite ancestors. But by Ruth’s era this has become a mere remnant of tribes whose only connection is its disorder.
Lyle Lovett
Lyle Lovett
In this context, the story of Ruth is one of heroic, implacable desire. She fights back and wins. The hard, judgemental stare of history culminating with the time of Judges appears only so that Ruth can drive towards the realignment of Israelite destiny. The Book of Ruth is a her-story of his-story restored thanks to Ruth’s unexplainable desire to make it so.
But before she can restore a path towards Israelite destiny, she must conquer the Bible’s Wild Wild West. No one is King in Judges because every little pissant prairie punk thinks he already is a king. Stories of aimlessness, warlords, sexual violence and random killing cover the land. Long after the promise of the Promised Land that Joshua and his disciples had been meant to deliver, starvation — as it always does in the Bible — marks a time for urgent change. Emerging from a famished Beit Lechem (Bethlehem, literally the “House of Bread” in Hebrew) Ruth’s hunger is both the literal pain of an empty stomach as well as the ethereal longing of an aching soul of a people that must find a way to make sense together.
No one wants Ruth at first, not her husband and not her husband’s mother Naomi and not any of her klan. The song "She's Leaving Me Because She Really Wants To" on “Joshua Judges Ruth” could have been written about this kind of loneliness — Ruth’s rejection, the Land’s rejection of its people, and the seeming absence of the divine force that had once made so many promises through Moses and Joshua.
Ruth must follow her desire out of a hollowed out landscape not unlike Bob Dylan's “Scarlet Town:”
Scarlet Town, in the hot noon hours,There's palm-leaf shadows and scattered flowersBeggars crouching at the gateHelp comes, but it comes too late...In Scarlet Town, you fight your father's foesUp on the hill, a chilly wind blowsYou fight 'em on high and you fight 'em down inYou fight 'em with whiskey, morphine and gin...
Ruth anchors her desires and ultimately Israelite destiny by finding Boaz, literally “the one in whom there is strength.” Boaz is a man of power and insight, an enlightened lord, but the strength of the tale is Ruth’s commitment at risk of death to seek a destiny only she can understand. Out of Boaz and Ruth comes Jesse and Jesse is the father of David, the King, flawed as he may be, who grounds the Israelite remnant in a kingdom promised, and almost lost, long ago.

Lyle Lovett might have been thinking about Ruth’s courage and desire on another album in the terrific song “Which Way Does That Old Pony Run:”
So this good life you know I must leaveYour new carAnd your color TVBut what's riches to youJust ain't riches to meAnd if you're staying out hereThen I'm headed back east
We never know what needs our desires might fulfill or to what riches they might lead. But surely the greatest riches are when our desires serve a good beyond our own.
In a lot of ways, that’s the story of rock and roll. In its sloppy, arrogant, unrelenting way rock saves souls. I started to understand this truth when I discovered the Kinks as a kid. In “Rock and Roll Fantasy,” the Kinks praise the work of creative desire that has no clear reason at first, but ultimately saves many more souls than their own:
Look at me, look at youYou say you've got nothing left to proveThe King is dead, rock is doneYou might be through but I've just begunI don't know, I feel free and I won't let goBefore you go, there's something you ought to knowDan is a fan and he lives for our musicIt's the only thing that gets him byHe's watched us grow and he's seen all our showsHe's seen us low and he's seen us highOh, but you and me keep thinkingThat the world's just passing us byDon’t want to live my life, living in a rock and roll fantasy
But that’s the magic -- when desire and destiny meet in a place that ignites fantasy but is also truly of use to others.

So rock on Ruth, Bob, Lyle, the Brothers Davies, and all of those others who, in the words of Neil Young, “keep on rocking in the free world.” And the words of another band I first encountered in that crazy year of discovering rock and roll, as I sign off after five years of writing Rock Midrash for the LABA Journal: “For Those About to Rock, We Salute You.”

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Greil Marcus: How the Division of High vs. Low Robs Culture of Its Essence

With thanks to NYC's School of the Visual Arts which honored Greil Marcus with a doctorate and invited him to give its 2013 Commencement address, below is a wonderful talk on the false dichotomy of high and low culture and more evidence for how wise critique not only makes us better thinkers and about art, but inspires and empowers making it. 

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

One, Two, Three Angelinas: On Dylan's Angelinas and Isaiah's Fast

This Rock Midrash originally appeared in the LABA Journal
There are two Angelinas in Bob Dylan’s musical canon. Each offers an approach to human ambition and humility in the face of divinity, and each remains partly hidden in broad daylight for many years. 
The first figure is the namesake of “Farewell, Angelina.” Written by Dylan in the mid-60s as the first wave of his career crested, he did not release his own recording of the song -- though it was a part of Joan Baez’s repertoire for decades -- until the The Bootleg Series Volumes 1-3 (Rare & Unreleased) 1961-1991 more than twenty-five years later.
The second Angelina is the character whose name punctuates every verse of “Angelina,” one of the most beautiful compositions of Dylan’s so-called Born Again Christian era. “Angelina” was written and recorded in 1981, but like “Farewell Angelina” it was also held back from the public until the triple volume The Bootleg Series  was released.
“Farewell Angelina” features Dylan full of hubris and invention. His is a post-modern hipster having nearly shed the folk persona that brought him first fame. As art historian Thomas Crow has explained, the Dylan of the period of “Farewell” was not only flexing his muscles as one of the prototypes of the rock star era, but also stood with the likes of Andy Warhol as a trendsetter predicting the global impact of pop culture for many years to come.
Here Dylan looks at the vista of history unfolding and finds the world corrupt and chaotic, a pop hero speaking both confidence and wonder to an apocalypse awaiting beyond the humdrum domesticity that Angelina offers:
Farewell Angelina
The bells of the crown
Are being stolen by bandits
I must follow the sound
The triangle tingles
And the trumpets play slow
Farewell Angelina
The sky is on fire
And I must go
This Dylan sees the godhead and the world as a landscape for a war for glory he wants to march upon, leaving his sweetheart behind as if part of a newsreel-comic book-oldies movies cliche.
“Angelina” is a very different kind of work, a ballad of a man no longer a rising star with a sense of power and rich circumstance before him. This song is built on many parallelisms, opposites canceling each other out which also almost cancel out the hero himself. The sky still on fire, the narrator is now dreaming of returning to Angelina rather than spending more time in a world that cannot be conquered:
Well, it’s always been my nature to take chances
My right hand drawing back while my left hand advances
Where the current is strong and the monkey dances
To the tune of a concertina
Blood dryin’ in my yellow hair as I go from shore to shore
I know what it is that has drawn me to your door
But whatever it could be, makes me think you’ve seen me before
Metaphors and scenes in “Angelina” are discordant -- “a black Mercedes rollin' through the combat zone” and “a god with the body of a woman well endowed and the head of a hyena.” The narrator, rather than accepting a call to action as in “Farewell, Angelina,” is a witness to many opportunities missed.
These two songs can be heard as echos of the same cast of characters separated by two and a half decades of life and change, the narrator of “Angelina” reflecting on who he was and what he wanted through the presence of his lover, muse, and friend. In the second song, when he sees “pieces of men marching; trying to take heaven by force” just as he once marched -- as Dylan’s contemporary Phil Ochs once sang -- he “ain’t marchin’ anymore.”
Isaiah says:
Yet on the day of your fasting, you do as you please
and exploit all your workers.
Your fasting ends in quarreling and strife,
and in striking each other with wicked fists.
You cannot fast as you do today
and expect your voice to be heard on high.
Is this the kind of fast I have chosen,
only a day for people to humble themselves?
Is it only for bowing one’s head like a reed
and for lying in sackcloth and ashes?
Is that what you call a fast,
a day acceptable to the Lord?
As a figure of humility who sees dialectics of justice and injustice, peace and strife, and left and right twisting upon themselves into a riddle that cannot be solved, Dylan’s narrator of Angelina as both witness and witnessed separated by a quarter of a century shines light on the shadowy illusions of human ambition. We cannot influence the divine through a fast without intent; nor can youthful hubris outflank the hard realities of a life lived.
At the close of “Angelina” Dylan offers an image of both ascent and descent symbolizing how his narrator’s spirit has come to a humble draw with the world and ultimately the divine itself:
Beat a path of retreat up them spiral staircases
Pass the tree of smoke, pass the angel with four faces
Begging God for mercy and weepin’ in unholy places
Angelina is the narrator’s angel, a divine presence both acting and acted upon in the human realm as a means of teaching people what is real. Conflating divine and human love, witnessing and being witnessed, service and being served, “Angelina” in light of “Farewell, Angelina” suggests that only a hero on his knees in an unholy place submitting to tears -- perhaps in both joy and sorrow overflowing -- can urge his eyes to really see.