A Musical Initiation

Only one band ever visited the small, remote East Asian country I called home for the first fourteen years of my life. Why Boney M chose to play in Brunei I’ve never been able to discover. That summer Ma Baker, loosely based on the story of a legendary 1930s outlaw, drifted vaguely out of every shop front. We had really good seats for the concert, at the sides, not far back from the stage. There was some sort of a light show. I don’t really remember. Years later, someone told me that band member Bobby Farrell died in St. Petersburg, so in the same city and on the same day as Rasputin’s death. Boney M had a hit with a song called Ra-Ra-Rasputin-rhymed with love machine-about the friend and advisor of Tsar Nicholas II.

That was also the summer that Saturday Night Fever materialised. Birthday party games were set aside and, out of nowhere, all the other teenagers suddenly knew the moves to Night Fever. Awkward co-ordination and adolescent diffidence sidelined me to observing intently from the edges of the room. The strong beats and uncomplicated song structures had some charm, but what changed everything, looking out at that room full of dancing teenagers was spotting my first punk, not that it was called that at first. I don’t remember his name, or if I ever knew it. He wore a plain white cotton shirt customised with splashed paint, torn black jeans held together with safety pins and loosely spiked hair, dyed orange-blonde. I spent the rest of that summer annoying older boys with questions about this new wave.

Punk quickly became my playground, obsessive in the way things can only become when you live in a remote country, over seven thousand miles away from the heat of a phenomenon. For once going back to boarding school at the end of the summer felt like a release from flatness towards the furious energy of London. The NME became my sutra, reciting gig listings as though part of a solemn ceremony: Generation X at Brunel Rooms, The Adverts at the Nashville, Shame 69 and Menace at The Roxy Club. By the end of that year, school had effectively lost control as I repeatedly bunked out after lights-out to head up to The Nashville, West Kensington, the Electric Ballroom, The Greyhound at Croydon, and various student union gigs. On the nights when jailbreaking was impossible John Peel’s radio show was taped and listened to obsessively.

Punk ended for me as unremittingly as it began. I walked out of the Lyceum after a staggering night with Stiff Little Fingers, Gang Of Four, The Mekons, Human League and The Fall, and knew that, for me, something was over. I moved on. By the time I discovered punk, it was mostly over. I’m a child of post-punk: Joy Division, Two Tone and PiLThe Cure.

Pale Notes on Friendship

Agamben: “Friendship is inscribed in the most intimate experience, the one that is most one’s own, the very sensation that one exists. But this also means that in the consent and consensus of friendship, the very identity of friends is called into question. A friend presents me with another self, with myself as other and with another like myself. And yet this reduction of identity happens serenely, almost imperceptibly. It is one of friendship’s gentlest gifts.”

Our friendship was inevitable. It started as a consequence of elective affinities. We had in common a love for Beckett, Woolf, Duras, Rimbaud-though mine was perhaps more reverent. Beckett could do no wrong. Our first encounter took place at her sister’s apartment, overlooking the pretty church on Saint Germain des Prés, a block away from Les Deux Magots, where we would one day make a Salad Périgourdine and cheap bottle of Beaujolais last all afternoon. For some reason I was apprehensive, made even more so by her obvious nervousness. She devoured a bowl of walnuts, cracking each walnut shell with vehemence, a reflection, I thought, of our shared tension. We argued about whether Four Quartets or The Duino Elegies was the most sublime long poem of the twentieth century. I had no parents, she had three.

Lately …

Lately I’ve listened to a lot of music, intensely, for two to three hours a day. My musical taste is shaped by the punk era, though by the time I discovered punk, it was all over. I’m a child of the post-punk period. Those are my formative musical years – about the only time I wish I was ten, even five years older is when I dream of being present for the early years of the Sex Pistols and the Bromley contingent. But it is post-punk that I still turn to: bands like Joy Division, The Cure, The Psychedelic Furs, Killing Joke, Echo and the Bunnymen, it has survived a lot better than most of the earlier punk stuff, which sounds crusty.

I’ve also been playing a fair amount of classical music, Schubert, Sibelius, Pärt, Ligeti and, of course, Beethoven whose late music is rough, abstract, beautiful and I’m kidnapping him as protopunk. The whole 60s-70s musical thing bores me to tears, with the exception of 70s Bowie (and from time to time, Dylan). I’m glad that I’m far too young to not remember the sixties. Jazz, which mostly I don’t get and what I do like is inextricably caught up with context, mostly from reading Geoff Dyer’s But Beautiful and The Colour of Memory, hence Mingus, Monk, Chet Baker, but dominated by Miles Davis, mostly because he so fucking cool.

Lately I’ve been to the cinema at least once a week, mainstream films like American Hustle (intelligently written, captivating), Wolf of Wall Street (usual bloated Scorcese male-ego study), and Gravity (silly but technologically fascinating). Despite twice lapping up all fifteen hours of Mark Cousins’ The Story of Film, my film tastes feel uncultured. I’ll watch Jean-Luc Godard, Éric Rohmer and Yasujirō Ozu films with great pleasure, but also with the sense that I am missing a lot of depth and meaning. Watching Room 237 (after reading Molly Laich’s top 2013 films list) showed me depths to my favourite horror film The Shining that I hadn’t even considered after watching it at least a dozen times.

Lately, surprise, surprise, I’ve also been reading a lot. Grace Dane Mazur’s Hinges: Meditations on the Portals of the Imagination is one of the most intelligent, sensitive readings of art and literature that I’ve read, ever. Both Carole Maso books were worthwhile but I preferred Defiance to Ava. Defiance succeeded in making a female psychopath multi-layered and sympathetic. It is also deeply upsetting. There were many beautiful moments in Ava but for me its fragmentary form never quite cohered into a sustained narrative, and I’m ambivalent about the literary romanticising of cancer and death. I had a fascinating debate on Twitter with @DeathZen about Elena Ferrante’s The Days of Abandonment. In a moment of afterglow I compared it to Greek tragedy, a bit silly, but its portrayal of mental collapse and fury is reminiscent of the aftermath of Jason’s desertion of Medea. Ferrante is no Euripides but she can write with great potency, and to borrow a phrase from James Woods, is able to rip ‘the skin off the habitual’. I’m reading Alix Cléo Roubaud’s Alix’s Journal, which is quietly devastating, immensely personal, and also the best book I’ve read so far this year.

Music is Feeling

Clerkly Peter Quince, inept playwright of A Midsummer Night’s Dream is (loosely) the narrator of Wallace Steven’s early poem Peter Quince at the Clavier. I enjoy the poem for its “music is feeling, then, not sound.”

Music has expressive power, an ability to articulate that goes beyond language. Musicians and composers that sacrifice expressive meaning for superficial beauty might offer sensuality but can leave you frozen, the source, I suspect, of Beckett’s distaste for Bach, criticised for the ‘inexorable purposefulness’ of his music.

Attempting to describe how music can express a feeling or state of mind leads to inarticulacy, to the limit of language. Roger Scruton (I enjoy his writing on music far more than his politics) argues that concepts of pitch, melody, harmony and rhythm can only be described by recourse to metaphor:

It does not seem strained that Smetana’s music expresses the shining and silken qualities that we hear in it. Smetana’s music is not literally shining or silken. But its expressive power is revealed in its ability to compel these metaphors from us, and to persuade us that they fit exactly. Of course, it is a mystery that they fit. But the mystery is immovable. Every metaphor both demands an explanation and also refuses it, since an explanation  would change it from a metaphor to a literal truth, and thereby destroys its meaning.

Johnny Showbiz and Phoney Beatlemania

Perhaps a reader under 30 (if this blog has such a reader) can answer this question: are people still having those factional debates about bands? Once it was Rolling Stones or the Beatles? Then Queen or Status Quo? Then Clash or the Sex Pistols, followed by The Fall or Joy Division? (For the record: Stones, Queen, Sex Pistols and Joy Division.)

Time for an admission: I can’t stand the Beatles’ music. You can say that about most bands without incurring white people’s wrath but the Beatles have this sacred institution status. I think that is partly what I despise, those fat, conquering oligarchs of rock and roll, compared to the wild child reputation of the Rolling Stones (at one time at least, not the strutting embarrassments that should have left stage right so many  years ago).

I’m a child of the post-punk era, so never knew the Beatles when they were part of a subculture, only knew their ubiquity, the Beatles brand. My jam was PiL, Joy Division, Throbbing Gristle, Contortions, and Talking Heads. And The Fall. I missed out on the true punk years and regretted it, badly, though I wallowed in its reverberations as long as I could. By the time I reached album buying years I was seduced more by the starker, sparser, more introspective post-punk sounds. Production techniques owed as much to dub reggae as the shimmering distortion of punk.

I read a John Lydon anecdote this morning that tickled me:

The McCartneys would send me their calendars and invited me to their place. They got my address through a PR person. But I wasn’t capable of sitting down with Paul and Linda McCartney and having a regular conversation. The McCartneys wanted to make records with me. I could see that if I fell into that, then I would become Johnny Showbiz. The whole thing would be unreal and fake, and I couldn’t cope with it. One day Nora [his wife] and I were driving past Harrods in a cab. McCartney and his family came out, saw us, then ran after the car. I locked the door so they couldn’t jump in. The driver turned around and said, ‘Jesus, I’ve seen it all now. I remember when people used to chase him. Now he’s chasing you.’

Links of the Week

Many of these links have been tweeted in the past, but here I can tag and categorise them for future reference. I hope you find some of them interesting too. Please feel free to discuss in comments or on Twitter. Some of the links to PDFs change or disappear, so if something interests you download it quickly.

Kathy Acker
Kathy Acker

I came across Kathy Acker’s work while pursuing my passion for all things Patti Smith. Smith and Acker (and Mapplethorpe) were close friends. The Language of The Body is central to Acker’s extraordinary body of work.

Djuna Barnes chapbook The Book of Repulsive Women [PDF] collects eight poems and five drawings. It is more a curiosity than one of Barnes’s finest works, she came to view it as an embarrassment.

I’ve not deeply read Giorgio Agamben’s work yet, but from my first study expect to find his work in accord with philosophy as a form of life. The Man Without Content [PDF] looks difficult, but as far as I can tell contends that before the 20th century art was more essential to people than it is today.

Written by David Miller, this Very Short Introduction to Political Philosophy [PDF] successfully summarise the main arguments of a huge subject. As Miller writes, political philosophy is “an investigation into the nature, causes, and effects of good and bad government.” As always with this series, the Further Reading section is invaluable.

Colin Ward was Britain’s greatest contributor to the much misunderstood political philosophy of anarchism. I consider his Very Short Introduction to Anarchism [PDF] required reading for anyone that realises no government is ever going to offer tolerable administration.

Nicholas Royle, co-writer of my favourite theory primer: An Introduction to Literature, Criticism and Theory, wrote What is Deconstruction? [PDF] as a letter to the editors of the Chambers Dictionary in disgust at its treatment, in 1998, of the word ‘deconstruction.’ The letter is not only funny but gets close to a working definition.

Derrida’s Letter to a Japanese Friend [PDF] is the closest that Derrida got to providing a comprehensible definition of the word ‘deconstruction.’

Though Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak is not one of my favourite Derrida disciples, her treatment of post-colonialism is exceptional, particularly her development of the concept of subaltern. The Critical Thinkers guide [PDF] is a superb introduction to Spivak’s interests.

Late Lyotard [PDF] presents Derridean scholar Geoffery Bennington’s presentation of Jean-Francois Lyotard’s late themes.

Crass, formed by Penny Rimbaud and Steve Ignorant, were my band, my introduction into the circle of South London punks who adopted me in the early eighties.

Links of the Week

Many of these links have been tweeted in the past, but here I can tag and categorise them for future reference. I hope you find some of them interesting too. Please feel free to discuss in comments or on Twitter. Some of the links to PDFs disappear quickly so download them promptly.

Naked Lunch Screenshot
Naked Lunch Screenshot

William Burrough’s seminal Naked Lunch [PDF], a great book to dip into, to read in any order. Great stuff, as is Cronenberg’s film interpretation.

I’ve read Rilke since adolescence and, in a sense, cannot imagine how differently I would view art and beauty without his influence. The ten letters in Letters to a Young Poet [PDF] have enriched me immeasurably since first reading the lines, “Nobody can advise you and help you, nobody. There is only one way. Go into yourself.”

In The Animal That Therefore I Am (More to Follow) [PDF] Derrida looks at the animal in Western Culture.

Derrida’s Writing and Difference [PDF] collects many of his early essays and lectures. Derrida’s writing at this stage is vibrant and, by Derridean standards, approachable. Included in this book is Cogito and the History of Madness, in which Derrida notably takes on Foucault’s concept of madness.

In this last Derrida link {PDF], he interviews jazz saxophonist/composer Ornette Coleman, revealing on both sides.

Deborah Parsons’ Theorist of the Modernist Novel [PDF] traces modernism through the texts of James Joyce, Dorothy Richardson and Virginia Woolf.

Maurice Blanchot’s short, dreamlike novel, The Last Man [PDF].

William Gass’s short essay on language in fiction, The Medium of Fiction [PDF].

everything lost is a curiosity, an obscure, early notebook written by William Burroughs in Latin America during 1953, provided in handwritten and transcribed form.

Sometimes I think that Vladimir Nabokov’s lectures are better than his fiction. Lectures on Russian Literature [PDF] is brilliant. You won’t agree with Nabby on everything but you can’t fail to be stimulated by his arguments.

A brief, worthwhile essay on trauma narratives: Mending to Live: Memory, Trauma and Narration in The Writings Of Kazuo Ishiguro, Herta Müller and W. G. Sebald [PDF].

Raoul Vanigem’s The Revolution of Everyday Life is a key text of the Situationists, covering broadly similar ground as Adorno, the ways that late capitalist society can pervert communication and depersonalise “subjects”.

Catholicism, Freedom and Patti Smith

I’m possibly the only person to perform a Roman Catholic for greater freedom. Brought up in south east Asia, my only religious encounters, before going to an English boarding school, were the local muezzin’s call to prayer. Religious attendance at my boarding school’s sixteenth century chapel was compulsory. It quickly became clear that Christianity had little to offer me. At the time I had an interest in mysticism, which would intensify over the following twenty years, but Christianity appeared rather constrained by conventional banality. As we shuffled off to chapel each Sunday my curiosity was aroused by three boys that left the school grounds, unaccompanied. Investigation revealed these boys to be Roman Catholics. The school had no Roman Catholic housemaster so these boys walked to mass at the nearby Catholic church. I sensed a way to evade the crushing boredom I felt at sitting for almost two hours in chapel.

At the age of eleven boys transferred from the preparatory school to upper school. At the first day in my new boarding house, I nervously informed the house master that I was a Roman Catholic. “There are two of you,” he said, “so P_ and you will go with each other on Sunday.” We attended mass once, that first weekend, mostly to check that there wasn’t some form of roll call. Thereafter we’d sit in the adjacent cemetery for an hour and a half each Sunday, eating sweets and conversing about our mutual love: music. A year later our routine changed and, for a while, we’d go to the house of an older school friend, a day boy, and listen to his Patti Smith record.

In this way Roman Catholicism not only provided freedom from the stifling monotony of an Anglican church service, but also lead me to Patti Smith’s anarchic album, Horses, which, in turn, lead me to punk rock.

Don’t you love Robert Mapplethorpe’s photograph of Patti Smith?

Portrait of Ella Fitzgerald, Dizzy Gillespie

Tremendous photograph of Ella Fitzgerald and Dizzy Gillespie, from the Library of Congress’s flickr collection:

Portrait of Ella Fitzgerald, Dizzy Gillespie, Ray Brown, Milt (Milton) Jackson, and Timmie Rosenkrantz, Downbeat, New York, N.Y., ca. Sept. 1947
Portrait of Ella Fitzgerald, Dizzy Gillespie, Ray Brown, Milt (Milton) Jackson, and Timmie Rosenkrantz, Downbeat, New York, N.Y., ca. Sept. 1947

Caption from Down Beat: An impressive photo of a truly impressive singer Ella Fitzgerald at the Downbeat, with Dizzy Gillespie making like a faun in the background. Dizzy has gone on his own way, while Ella is still keeping the club on the beat.

 

Links of the Week

Many of these links have been tweeted in the past, but here I can tag and categorise them for future reference. I hope you find some of them interesting too. Please feel free to discuss in comments or on Twitter.

Boyd Tonkin Indy piece: Curator of miracles in Milan: How Roberto Calasso mastered the art of publishing.

Whatever his blind spots about soulful crooners of the Sixties, how many other free-range intellectuals can match Calasso for the breadth of his erudition and his boldness in bringing it to new audiences? In Britain, George Steiner; in this city of Milan, Umberto Eco. Arguably, with his immersion in Indian as well as European art and belief, Calasso spans more ground than either. Remarkably, he has also spent half a century not in academe but as a busy publisher.

The Lost Pasolini Interview.

Fascinating interview with Djibril Diop Mamberty, “The most paradoxical filmmaker in the history of African cinema.”

A Cixous Tribute: “Hélène’s metaphor of the reader setting light to her words all over again.”

The Reception of Clarice Lispector via Hélène Cixous: Reading from the Whale’s Belly.

An introduction to Speculative RealismSeminar with Robin Mackay on Vimeo.

“Nothing will have taken place…”: Meillassoux and the Repetition of Failure.

Conceptual writing and Notes on Conceptualisms by Vanessa Place and Robert Fitterman.

How to Read Lacan‘ by Slavoj Žižek (‘the return to Freud’).

Full text of Hélène Cixous’ brilliant The Laugh of the Medusa.

Larval Subjects’ post: Intellectual Love of God and Commodity Fetishism.

Debating Lenin and Philosophy -
Q and A after Louis Althusser’s presentation of his important 1968 lecture Lenin and Philosophy.

A short account of obsessional neurosis in Freud/Lacan (inc. the ‘Rat Man’ case).

“I read out of obsession with writing.” Cynthia Ozick’s Paris Review interview.

Surrealism and Automatic Writing: The politics of destroying language.

Salman Rushdie’s (1992) tribute to Angela Carter: Angela Carter, 1940-92: A Very Good Wizard, a Very Dear Friend.