In 2003, I went to a Buzzcocks concert to review it for my campus newspaper. I asked the manager if I could interview them, he shut me down. Somehow, I got to talking to their then-bass player (Tony Barber, far from the original) and he was really awesome and said yes to the interview, whereupon he invited me to talk on the bus where it was quieter.
An interview with a non-original member of a band I love turned into an interview with the entire band, Pete Shelley and Steve Diggle included. As a bright-eyed 19 year old, the end of my for-the-age professional interview became my squeaking fandom moment. This is a bit of paraphrasing, because this is 11 years ago.
"So, umm, as a fan, I just have to ask: are you guys going to play ‘Why Can’t I Touch It?’"
Pete Shelley laughed, saying that they can’t play it anymore because he just can’t hit those notes. So I was a little disappointed, but who can blame the guy?
The band takes the stage of Omaha’s Ranch Bowl, a bowling alley backroom. They play a pretty fantastic set. They come back for an encore. The last song (I probably have the set-list buried somewhere in an old notebook, but don’t remember the song at the moment) slows down into a jam as the band sort of plays their way off the stage.
Then, the last few notes were the rhythm lines of “Why Can’t I Touch It?”
Hi all! My friend Laura and I are launching this blog, Sabbathing the Sabbath, wherein we’re doing a song by song analysis of the Black Sabbath catalog.
The entire Black Sabbath catalog.
We’re trying to post a song roughly every Sunday, and hopefully a bit more (maybe we could shoot for Friday at sundown too, for the Jewish Heshers out there.) But anyway, follow along. Especially when the going gets tough and we get to the real catalog dreck. (See also: Technical Ecstacy, Never Say Die, Seventh Star, Tyr, Forbidden.)
Because of the exorbitant cost, only a handful of missions—including the Apollo moon landings—have returned samples of extraterrestrial material to Earth. One scientist wants to change that with an idea for a spacecraft that could grab material
One proposal that recently won funding for NASA’s Innovative Advanced Concepts Program: an idea to build a Super Ball Bot that could bound across the surface of another world, going where rovers fear to tread.
Kepler-76b is about 25 percent bigger than Jupiter and twice as massive. It orbits so close to its star that it goes around in 1.5 days. But what’s truly curious about this exoplanet is the way scientists found it. Their method is called BEER, or beaming,
I’m living a vicarious childhood dream: talking to someone who discovered a planet.
You’ve probably set off a firework or two in your time, but do you know how fireworks work? This Fourth of July, we’ll burn our way through a few common examples of every stripe, flash, and boom. You’ve seen the lights. Now know the science.
NORFOLK, Va. — Citing acts such as “making my granddaughter so happy” and “holding open doors for me,” in addition to holding pleasant conversation at a reasonable volume last Thanksgiving, Mark Wittman has been named Nicest Young Man of the Year by the National Grandmother’s Association.
“It’s a real honor to be named to this prestigious award,” Wittman said at a press conference. “I guess it’s proof that I was raised right.”
This is Wittman’s first nomination, offered up by his fiance’s maternal grandmother, Gloria Radnor, the delegate designate of Northern Virginia. Wittman, a legal clerk for the fourth circuit court, met Natalie Goodman while both were attending law school at Georgetown.
Though Wittman met Grandma Gloria last year at Natalie’s father’s retirement party, it wasn’t until Thanksgiving that he made a notable impression on the 82-year-old.
“He was just so handsome and polite,” she said of Wittman, who is of average facial characteristics and is slightly overweight. “Natalie seems to adore him as well.”
She added: “I could just pinch those cheeks of his!”
The Nicest Young Man of the Year Award has been bestowed on recipients by the National Grandmother Association since 1952, shortly after the election of Dwight D. Eisenhower, whom most association members regard as “our finest president, and such a gentleman.”
Last year’s award winner, Thomas Michaels, had his award rescinded after being arrested for driving under the influence, attempted motor vehicular homicide and indecent exposure after ingesting bath salts.
I cashed in the box today. There was $65.88 in it. But no longer! It’s split between my IRA and my savings account. Starting over with a $3 thrift store bank, which has much more reuse and is much more hard to break into.
I wrote this a while ago upon the passing of Henry Hill
I woke up to a text from one of the small handful of friends I still have in my hometown of North Platte, NE.
“Henry Hill is dead,” it said. “I’ll never forget that time he called me a motherfucker.”
The Henry Hill story is a bit of a punchline in my hometown. Or a headache. Or a weird blip on the radar. It’s certainly … something.
Our list of hometown celebrities is small. There’s Buffalo Bill Cody, a circus magnate who held the first major rodeo in North Platte in 1882, and lived on the northern edges of North Platte. There’s New England Patriots running back Danny Woodhead, who did something or other in that Super Bowl I didn’t watch. Glenn Miller, a big band leader. Zane Smith, a former player for the Pittsburgh Pirates who had one of baseball’s best mullets and played Little League Baseball in North Platte, a very important fact if you were playing Little League Baseball in North Platte in the early 90s (as I was) but whose name is largely forgotten now.
And then there was the time that, after getting out of witness protection, Henry Hill became a “celebrity chef” at a restaurant inside a hotel that’s now been raised to make room for an oil change and tire shop.
If you’ve seen “Goodfellas,” where Ray Liotta played him, you probably know parts of the Henry Hill story. A man who idolized the mob in his youth gets hooked in with the mob early through the Vario Family. In 1967, Hill and some associates robbed $420,000 from an Air France flight out of JFK Airport. Two years later, Hill participated in the murder of William Devino, a made man in the Gambino Family, who was pistol whipped and bludgeoned to death. After beating an FBI employees brother, Hill was tried and found guilty of extortion.
Behind bars, he started up a profitable drug trade thanks to a prison filled with mob connections, both inside and outside the cells. Considered a “model prisoner” he was granted early parole. He continued his bookkeeping pursuits, with clients including former Newark Mayor Hugh Addonzio and some NBA refs. He participated in the Lufthansa Heist, plotted by the Lucchese Family. When the magnitude of the heist caught the attention of mob boss Jimmy Burke, Burke set about having those involved killed. Hill began to fear for his own life, but not so much that it prevented him from starting a narcotics ring. He also became addicted to his own products, and was arrested through a wiretap investigation in 1980 on trafficking charges. Through this he became an informant. His testimony led to multiple convictions of former associates, including Burke and a member of the Vario family.
For his help, Hill entered Witness Relocation, bouncing around in places such as Omaha and Seattle. In 1987, he was arrested on drug charges, and claimed to clean up his act. However, sometime in the 90s he was booted from witness protection for multiple instances of criminal mischief.
Then, sometime in the early 00s, he landed in North Platte.
The Firefly Restaurant was located inside the Royal Colonial Inn on Jeffers Street in North Platte. Hill played an integral part of designing the menu for the restaurant with the owners around the time of the restaurants inception in 2004. In an interview with the Associated Press in 2005, he said, “I adopted about half the town already.”
At some point, it seems that fame and notoriety have an intersection. And there’s always been a cultural fascination with the criminal and the narratives it creates.
Henry Hill didn’t bring with him the mystique of celebrity of a former athlete or movie star. Until his last days, Henry Hill sold not only himself, but the mystique of the mafia. On his affiliated site, GoodFellaHenry.com, this personality was sold as much in trade as was the fascination with the mob.
Hill wasn’t the first mob associate in North Platte, of course. Early on (1860s and 1870s) it was a main fixture on the railroad lines, and it was a town with “a motley crowd of laborers, business men, gamblers and ‘toughs.’” By the 1920s, bootlegging operations, mob hideouts, brothels and other such “businesses” gave it the nickname Little Chicago. By the 1950s, the town had mostly cleaned up its act, though local lore still refers to some of its more lawless days.
And maybe that’s what led to Henry Hill being brought to the Firefly as a celebrity chef.
I went to the Firefly once with my family. A relative worked there as a waitress. She asked if we wanted to meet Henry. He staggered over, slurring to the point of being nearly incomprehensible. He came to our table, a bottle of wine or two into the night. He offered my parents and I a bottle of wine. My dad demured.
“I didn’t want to owe him a favor,” my dad said after Hill had stumbled away from the table.
I’m still uncertain of how much my dad was joking that day.
At the heart of this all was a troubled man - continuously plagued by personal problems, unable to escape his past histories of criminal convictions and drug addictions. A man without a home who bounced between locations looking and hoping for a place he could settle in, but always finding that trouble wasn’t far behind. He would wear out his welcomes wherever he went - in the mob, in witness protection, in North Platte.
Hill would do guest appearances on Howard Stern, where he once attempted to sell videos of his own assault. His personal relationships were frequently turbulent, his temper short. During his time in North Platte, his cooking skills were often overshadowed by incidences of keyed cars and slashed tires.
Sometimes celebrity is as much public performance and public creation as it is spectacles, notoriety and meltdowns.
Henry Hill: Mobster, Murderer, Traficker, Chef. Local celebrity.
Convention contest: 2012 Republican National Convention, 2012 Democratic National Convention, 1998 Highlander Convention
Recently at a thrift store I chanced upon an irresistable offer: for a mere 95 cents, I could take home a video set to summarize the 1998 convention of fans of the Highlander franchise. For those unfamiliar, the Highlander franchise is a movie and TV series involving a group of immortals who like to cut each others heads off to gain more power because “there can be only one” for some reason that I’m currently too lazy to research. This find was of a unique providence, as it coincided (roughly) with the opening of the Democratic National Convention, an event I didn’t watch because I get bored easily. This came a week after the Republican National Convention, an event I didn’t watch because I think gays and women are people. However, I did watch some liveblogs of both conventions, with reactions ranging from “Clint Eastwood has lost its shit” to “I want to mount Joe Biden.” But I did watch all of the Highlander convention video, aside from fast forwarding through the last seven minutes. Here are my comparisons between the three. Like the Highlander platitude, in the end, there can be only one.
Highest Profile Musical Artist:
RNC: Kid Rock
DNC: Mary J. Blige
Highlander: Roger Daltrey
Footage playing at festivals:
RNC: Crying eagles or some shit
DNC: America’s downtroden or some shit
RNC: Clint Eastwood talking to a chair
DNC: Kal Penn bro-fist pumping Joe Biden
Highlander: TV Series Star Adrian Paul
Winner? RNC, for entertainment value.
Haircut era of attendees:
Highlander: Immortal(ly terrible)
Quotes on work ethic:
RNC: “America has a choice between Mitt Romney, who seeks to grow the economy, and Barack Obama who seeks to redistribute it. Which one do you think will liberate America’s entrepreneurial spirit?” - Sen. Rob Portman, (R-OH)
DNC: ”Of course, we need a lot more new jobs. But there are already more than 3 million jobs open and unfilled in America, mostly because the people who apply for them don’t yet have the required skills to do them. So even as we get Americans more jobs, we have to prepare more Americans for the new jobs that are actually going to be created. The old economy is not coming back. We’ve got to build a new one and educate people to do those jobs.” - Former President Bill Clinton
Highlander: "I wanted to be good. I don’t do anything half assed. I want to be good." - Actor Adrian Paul
Attendees reason for coming:
RNC: Defeat Democrats, destroy safety net
DNC: Maintain White House
Highlander: “I think the Highlander movies, from the movies on through the series, has a lot to say to people. Especially to the fifth series final episodes, (which) speak to me spiritually.”
High Profile Factions
RNC: Tea Party supporters, Ron Paul supporters, old white dudes
DNC: centrist Democratic Leadership council, people who look the other way with NAFTA support, progressives who are tolerating their drunk uncle of a party
Highlander: Something called “Clan McSlut” and something else called “Clan McNut”
Winner? DNC, despite the entertainment value provided by Ron Paul supporters
High Profile People Skipping the Convention:
RNC: both Presidents Bush, former veep nominee Sarah Palin, embattled Representative Joe Walsh, pretty much any senate candidate in a toss-up seat
DNC: SenatorsClaire McCaskill and Jon Tester, every Democrat from West Virginia save Jay Rockefeller
Highlander: Christopher Lambert, Clancy Brown
RNC: Artur Davis, former representative and gubernatorial candidate from Alabama
DNC: Former Florida governor and senate Candidate Charlie Crist
RNC: Angry white dudes
DNC: Really, really hopeful people
Looking to the future, from the de facto leader
RNC: “f I am elected president of these United States I will work with all my energy and soul to restore that America, to lift our eyes to a better future. That future is our destiny. That future is out there. It is waiting for us. Our children deserve it. Our nation depends on it. The peace and freedom of the world require it. And with your help we will deliver it. Let us the begin that future for America tonight.” - Mitt Romney
DNC: ” America, I never said this journey would be easy, and I won’t promise that now. Yes, our path is harder, but it leads to a better place. Yes our road is longer, but we travel it together. We don’t turn back. We leave no one behind. We pull each other up. We draw strength from our victories, and we learn from our mistakes, but we keep our eyes fixed on that distant horizon, knowing that Providence is with us, and that we are surely blessed to be citizens of the greatest nation on Earth.” - President Barack Obama
Highlander: "We always thought that - wouldn’t it be great when you went to the theater to see Highlander that immortals could be sitting next to you and you wouldn’t know it?” - producer Peter S. Davis
Approaches to healthcare:
RNC: “You would think that any president, whatever his party, would make job creation and nothing else his first order of economic business, but this president didn’t do that. Instead, we got a long, divisive, all or nothing attempt to put the federal government in charge of health care. Obama Care comes to more than 2,000 pages of rules, mandates, taxes, fees and fines that have no place in a free country.” - Vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan
DNC: “And under Obamacare, insurance companies can no longer discriminate against women. Before, some wouldn’t cover women’s most basic needs, like contraception and maternity care, but would still charge us up to 50 percent more than men—for a worse plan. They said women who had C-sections or survived breast cancer or even domestic violence had “pre-existing conditions” and would deny them coverage. But this president made it illegal to discriminate against women and ended the practice of insurance companies charging women higher premiums than men for the same coverage. This president ensured women’s free access to preventive services like breast cancer screenings. Being a mother is no longer a liability, and being a woman is no longer a pre-existing condition! That’s what change looks like.” - HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebellius
Highlander: "I enjoy the thought of immortality - what I could do for the world or what I could create or what would happen if I was immortal - would I be as good at it as Duncan is, or the other immortals?" - random convention goer
RNC: None at convention, millions at wars
DNC: None at convention, many members supported wars under GOP
Highlander: 10,000, according to series villain Silas
Level of Discourse:
RNC: According to this, Ann Romney’s speech was written at the educational level of a 5th grader
DNC: According to that same source, Michelle Obama’s speech was written at the educational level of a 12th grader
Highlander: According to a convention goer, “The discussions that take place on the newsgroup are often at the level of a graduate philosophy seminar. They dissect the motivations and the meaning of every episode, and almost every line in every episode.”
Speakers brought in by satellite:
Highlander: Actress Elizabeth Gracen
RNC: No, but a lot of dick wagging
Highlander: Oh yeah.
DNC: Sympathetic millionaires
Highlander: Prop motorcycle auctions
RNC: Cardinal Dolan
DNC: Cardinal Dolan
Highlander: producer David Abramowitz
Winner? Tie between RNC / DNC. I guess. I don’t think Dolan sung his prayer in awkward Latin, unlike Abramowitz.
RNC: How will presidential nominee overturn the healthcare law he himself implemented in Massachusetts, and what tact will he take in the general election, especially as he’s shown a willingness to change issue positions to win elections?
DNC: Will the president deliver on his political points during a second term, or will he pay lip service to his party’s base while continuing domestic and foreign policies created under his reviled predecessor?
Highlander: “What would happen if you tried to kill an immortal and split them in half? Would they grow back together? It’s been bugging me.” - Convention goer Christine, no last name given
Final Point Tally:
Now if only we could get a comment from Nate Silver …
A) It’s kind of amazing to me that, with latent interest in new wave sounds and rediscoveries, Godley and Creme hasn’t been among them. The duo were known mostly for the number 16 hit "Cry", which was their only charting US single. But in their native England, only four of their 16 singles charted, and one of those was a “Cry” remix. Compared to the success of their groups predecessor, 10cc, it barely made an impact.
But the group itself seems ripe for rediscovery, and Birds of Prey feels like a genuinely forgotten gem. Opening with “My Body the Car,” an unusual acapella number hewing close thematically to J.G. Ballard. It’s like a doo-wop “Warm Leatherette.” It’s a catchy pop song with some deeper pathos underlying it.
And the rest of the album is just as strange, catchy and experimental. The bridge between radio friendly new wave and more experimental and, at times, abrasive post-punk can be found here. For instance, the second track, “Worm and the Rattlesnake,” is a song that would fit somewhere in between early, tweaked out Scritti Politti paranoia-pop and their latter day successes with genuine pop hits like “Perfect Way.”
Each song on the album contains different textures, different moods, different effects - in essence, it’s their overlooked work, painfully out of print like much of the rest of their catalog. Had I not heard “Out in the Cold” on WPRB, I might never have discovered them as a group capable of great music beyond “Cry” - and that’s a shame.
B) It wasn’t until well into college that I met people who had never had a driver’s license. I knew plentyish of people without cars, but without the ability to so much as drive them? I think I knew more people previously who couldn’t ride a bike.
In Western Nebraska, driving was really the option. I still am shocked sometimes going back the short distances that are driven rather than walked or biked. A bike is relegated to almost strictly a recreational tool, not a serious intra-town travel option.
I recently got rid of my car. It was showing its 13 year age, and its make - Saturn - is at its core a cheap car option, mostly built with plastic and prone to cheap but weird breakdowns. For instance, there was the constant clutch problems which ended up being two pieces of plastic, no more than $10 a piece if you did the right eBay hunting. But there were also the terrifying times when that plastic replacement piece would pop out in the middle of something like, say, traffic and you’d have to list the center console and pop it back into place - leaving that in constant disarray as screwing it back in place wasn’t worth it in case something like that happened again.
I had owned the car since 2007, when I received it as a graduation gift after finding it on Facebook, of all places. I had sought it out for its fuel efficiency and comparatively low emissions to other GM models, which is a surprisingly thorough thought for someone just out of college. No real flash, aside from it being the Saturn “sports car” which usually led only to “cool car” compliments from 12-year-olds who think anything with a spoiler is the pinnacle of automotive engineering.
The car had a tape deck, and with that I accumulated a set of cassettes - music I wouldn’t have otherwise been enthused by, mix tapes created for their “drivability,” or tapes like The Grateful Dead, whose purpose seemed to be having relaxing music for my driving frustrations and anxieties.
There are plenty of frustrations and anxieties that go along with having a car. There’s the physical act of driving, something at that has a lot of x-factors beyond just your ability or inability to drive. It’s also how you respond to other people in traffic, how you work with outside events, whether your blood pressure can hack endless traffic jams or the maniacal driving of those on I-95.
But there are also the financial responsibilities. Depending on where you live, there might be state inspections - free in, say, New Jersey, but an expensive proposition in Pennsylvania. While checking around to get my car inspected, the quotes ranged anywhere from $50 to $150 to run some engine diagnostics and a tailpipe test.
It was this that “broke” the car. Throughout the winter, I had to use it for a job, scuttling back and forth across the Philadelphia area running volunteer tax sites. It put a lot of strain on the car - for instance, midway through tax season I had to replace the thermostat or else run the heater at all times as not to overheat the engine. And it’s been the joke in my family for a long time that I’ve never been much of a car mechanic, so when I thought such things as “I can do this myself” I ended up spraying freon in my face and having to get the thermostat replaced AND my AC recharged - and also ended up frantically Googling “freon poisoning” in the way we sometimes do in moments of panic.
But when I discovered a $41 ticket on my dash from Philadelphia’s wonderful parking authority that told me my tests were out of date, I figured I should probably go get that done or risk their wrath.
The car failed every test possible. The potential repair bills were wracking up - brakes, windshield repair, whatever untold bounties were hiding behind getting the emissions up to snuff and figuring out the root of the Check Engine Light which had just gone on that morning. It was sounding like a $1000 ordeal. My biannual insurance bill of around $350 was swiftly approaching. $1350. Gas. Accursed gasoline. Around $60-100 a month, depending. And this is after coming out of a period of unemployment at the tail end of an Americorps year - in other words, my income wasn’t exactly at its highest point, and this car was seeming more like a burden than a boon.
Or I could junk the car. Given that it’s a Saturn without much metal in the frame, the car would get $200. And I wouldn’t have a car that wasn’t a necessity in a city with decent public transportation infrastructure. The repair shop people joked that it was “good bike money” and my brain leaned toward agreement.
So I did it. So, for the first time since I was 15, I went carless. And I don’t regret it. And I don’t miss it. A gigantic financial burden was lifted from me, and my mobility wasn’t impaired - just the travel times to other neighborhoods stretched a bit more.
But here I am, one of those people rare to my hometown but oh so common on the east coast - someone without a car.
The State of Affairs in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania
Everybody knows the narrative – in 2010, a sweeping election ushered in a number of ultra-conservative politicians to power nationwide – not only in the U.S. Congress, but in governor’s mansions and statehouses.
While governors like Scott Walker of Wisconsin and Rick Scott of Florida have captivated much of the headlines with their far-right policies, there are other, Governor Tom Corbett of Pennsylvania is certainly doing his part to make things as hard as possible on his own citizens.
Corbett, the former Attorney General for Pennsylvania, came to power after defeating a weak candidate in the governor’s race in Dan Onorato, the county executive for Allegheny County, which contains Pittsburgh. Corbett took similar tactics to now-Michigan Governor Rick Snyder – hew closer to the image of a non-idealogue, as can be seen in his campaign website, which reflects a solutions oriented potential administration.
But once in office, Corbett made it obvious from day one what kind of business he meant from day one – and since then, it has shaped into a narrative that if you’re an energy company, this land is your land. If you’re poor or a woman, you’re on your ass.
That last quote has a bit of irony – perhaps the GOP efforts to distance themselves from the Bush administration instilled the idea that we should, in fact, do just that. Certainly Corbett has taken it to heart, such as when he re-imposed a stringent asset test on Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (food stamp) recipients. Have more than $2000 in savings? Well you certainly can afford food – nevermind if those savings are all you have to your name. It’s not the only safety net program to feel the sting of Corbett. The General Assistance fund, which provided cash support to individuals and families in need, was eliminated entirely, as were state programs for the homeless, the elderly, those with disabilities and recovering drug addicts. AdultBasic, a popular state health insurance program for low income adults was eliminated, with enrollees being told to sign up for a private program that costs up to five times as much as AdultBasic. The AdultBasic insurance wasn’t funded out of the general tax fund, but instead through settlements from the Tobacco Master Settlement Agreement.
And thanks to Voter ID laws, many of those affected won’t be able to show their disgust at the polls.
But of course, Corbett’s draconian vision doesn’t end there. If you’re a woman trying to exercise your right to choose, you’re also screwed.
When trying to pass a fetal ultrasound bill amidst criticism from women’s groups, he simply told those seeking abortion services to “close your eyes” during the screening. That is, for those who can find a place to have the procedure done, thanks to Pennsylvania reclassifying abortion providers to ambulatory surgical facilities, subjecting them to minimum spacing laws that many of the 22 abortion providers in Pennsylvania won’t be able to accomidate. In fact, thus far, only 14 pass muster – and only one of those past 18 weeks.
So who isn’t hurting in Pennsylvania now? If you’re a natural gas extraction company, you’re doing just fine. Taxes can only be levied in and by affected counties – and no money for investigating potential environmental impacts. And according to the states own Public Utilities Commission, those meager drilling fees – which could economically bolster many of the hemorraging programs in the state – will lower more and more each year.
I believe Kurt Vonnegut was a writer who took some of these same conditions and turned it into a force of good. A cursory look at his essays confirms a strong secular humanist worldview intent on alleviating the suffering of others, while his fiction at times self-indulgently explored his own personal demons but tempered them with humor.
I think those conditions can be stretched into the whole umbrella of Gonzo journalism - a need for it to be druggy and weird and seem to many to speak a truth, but instead speak an account of the truth through the lens of the author and their own concepts of reality. And thus it tends toward this same narrative.
Bangs himself summed up this attitude, indirectly, with his writings on The Marble Index by Nico: “So I guess my editor and I are smitten. But the quality of the smiting is more than just peculiar; this article was assigned and written for fear as much as love, or the love of fear. In his poetically definitive book Stargazer, Stephen Koch, in trying to come to some understanding of his subject Andy Warhol, resorts to a quote from Baudelaire: ‘Half in love with easeful death.’ Then, just to drive home the point he is making about the intimacy between narcissism and Warholian deathly otherness, he writes: ‘Half in love. Exactly.’”
Art is not more interesting with suffering. Art is more interesting with how you use it and a wide range of other emotions too. Art does not have to be dark in order to be art.
These arguments can stretch into music and self-fulfilling prophecies and narratives in the music of misery. Which we all listen to at times as a cathartic experience, but when we live them (Ian Curtis, Elliot Smith, Kurt Cobain) it becomes an entirely different beast.
This is not to undercut the experience of depression, which is a horrible, infectious creature. But rather to say that when we romanticize the spectacle of it and treat things as a visceral experience then we’re dooming ourselves into repeating this same values system.
I didn’t write this. That should be obvious from the fact that this ran in the New Yorker and I’m not at that level. Yet. But it does remind me that one of the first times my interest was piqued in writing was discovering rock criticism.
At the time, I did it through the highly romanticized movie Almost Famous. And Phillip Seymour Hoffman played Lester Bangs. Upon seeing him, I almost certainly had to read what he wrote and after graduating from high school I hunted down a copy of Psychotic Reactions and Carburator Dung and consumed it. That’s what I wanted to do. I wanted to write like that and be like that. I tried so hard to be that upon entering my writing “career” at our student newspaper. Sometimes, I even drank Nyquil recreationally, not realizing the punch wasn’t remotely narcotic, but just sad.
But here’s the thing - at that age, when you’re weird, when you’re male, when you don’t like your friends much, when you don’t seem to know what your life is or what it means - you end up with the exact heroes you shouldn’t have. People who romanticize misery. People with druggy hazes around the aura they’re trying to project. People who, had they not picked up a guitar or typewriter, would almost certainly be in a gutter. And even then, sometimes, they still ended up in the gutter.
Take Lester Bangs. He idolized the beats - a group that are vaunted for their literary genius but steeped instead in misogyny, or open pedophilia like Burroughs, or romanticizing the use of heroin or or or … In other words, for every reason to like them there are two or three not to. The genius cuts off when you realize that this isn’t just about your idols but what they come to represent and how that reflects on you. Kerouac’s supposed stream of consciousness was the writings of an inveterate drunk. And for all the mystification of him in the counter culture, he was a cultural conservative and a racist who supported the Vietnam War and loathed the counter-culture itself. And even Allen Ginsburg - who, along with Amiri Baraka, I find to be one of the few beats to write home about and I can at least enjoy that Greg Orlovsky had a chapbook called Clean Assholes - at one point joined pro-pederastry organization NAMBLA in a supposed defense of the First Amendment. I guess the right to say that you’re a pederast?
At any rate, Bangs grew up worshipping the Beats, and their freedom. He himself resisted the allure of supposed “street drugs” and ended up instead scummily guzzling Romilar cough syrup and aping, at points, Kerouac’s miserable alcoholism. He wanted to write stream of consciousness rants about music - and while it worked sometimes, at other points his own sad misery shown through as he laid himself bare. Bangs, the wannabe moralist who couldn’t get over his own obsessive need for self-destruction. Bangs, bordering on misogyny and who brandished a shirt with the N-word on it in some supposed edginess. Bangs whose tender care for beloved musicians was matched by withering reviews often bordering on spite. And it’s the latter attitude that infects much of rock criticism. It’s hard to write about a good album and get to the core of why it’s good. It’s better to insult a mediocre album to the point of oblivion. It’s easier to hate than to embrace, and it’s a cynical, repetitive mindset less about the music than about some form of inward misery and how this mediocrity reflects on your own need to destroy the mediocrity. Because maybe your insecurities are what are really at the core.
It’s a dialogue for the lonely depressives that, at the same time, reinforces the loneliness and the depression.
I remember wanting to be the person to destroy albums and artists. It was harder for me, at a young age, to write about what made something good. To construct why something can be great. Or to listen to something that doesn’t affect you at all. Or, in turn, to write supposed defenses of schlock or “skronk” as Bangs would call it by way of Robert Christgau.
This is not to say that Bangs - and those who follow him - are incapable of empathy or joy. Self-indulgent as he could be, he seemed to have a lot of heart that he couldn’t always adequately muster.
But it’s sort of like High Fidelity, a state of arrested development. At 18, the three record store clerks are the pinnacle of cool, the tastemakers, the people you want to be. You want the obsessive evisceration of the mundane, to take the boring and raise it to the status of the infidel. You want songs to be a reflection of your own life - even if it self-reinforces notions of negativity, or makes you fall into the “nice guy” trap of seeing yourself as the victim of heartbreak because despite your best efforts you seem unlovable - and you want to project that it’s not your fault. Or something of the ilk.
This piece points out David Foster Wallace’s own love of Lester Bangs - two men intwined by misery and pomposity and a need to correct their flaws with more flaws or inadequate Band-Aids. Both men whose writing was steeped in moments of self-indulgent sadness.
It’s seemingly a mostly male phenomenon. And why wouldn’t it be? The Beats were, a handful of exceptions aside, almost uniformally male and writing of the male experience. It’s hard to create a safe space for women when your resident junkie pederast shot his wife in a game of William Tell. And music writing is of a similar ilk - still, to this day, a boy’s club where women struggle with preconceived notions of both what their writing can be and in performers what their art can be. And I’m not entirely sure where to put David Foster Wallace in literary canon - we haven’t had the need to do some revisionist naming of it - but he is most certainly in that breadth of self-indulgent male writers like Dave Eggers and Jonathan Franzen. And when this canon of post-9/11 literature is written, where will the women be?
I still enjoy Lester Bangs. I would probably enjoy Infinite Jest if I had the will to take the time to sit down and read it. I still have a collected Allen Ginsburg that survives every book purge. I still will pick up almost any music book, whether history or criticism, and it’s the genre I most often finish instead of trailing off and returning it to the shelf. But these are people whose works we can enjoy while trying to avoid internalizing their actual lives - lives of misery, lives steeped in ultra-self awareness and also oblivious to how that interacts with the outside world. Lives lived not in hiding but in tempering expressions of sorrow with expressions of joy. Lives where we’re not a victim of life but a participant. We can enjoy these writings without internalizing a cynical world view. We can appreciate them as art without imitating them.
In other words, we shouldn’t idolize the behaviors of these authors, even if we find ourselves gravitating toward their writing. We can take the parts we like but try to extract from this the problematic elements. We can try to not reinforce another generation of male writers ultra-aware and also completely oblivious to their own faults, and not reinforce them as debilitating failures. We don’t have to kill our “idols,” but we can become better people by not reinforcing their behaviors.
Now I can say Cory Doctorow and I were in the same breath in the same article!
Here’s my specific contribution:
I became an iffy believer in the concept of God sometime around when I was 13. And I was in Catholic school at the same time, which put me in a weird, weird place. After being told the concept of God and Heaven for so long, suddenly the most terrifying thought to me was the concept that of consciousness ending and that being it when I die. So of course my iffy understanding of science led me to the ultimate idea for an invention I couldn’t possibly implement: I wanted either a robotic body I could put my brain into and live forever, or I wanted to entirely digitize my brain and be able to live as a sentient computer program, like a really boring version of The Matrix entirely design to allay my fear of death. Some of the details of the robotic body have changed—I no longer need it to withstand the vacuum of space—I’m not entirely sure I’ve given up on this dream.