July 12, 2008

Shameless Revisionism: Genre-Bending Gonzo

This week's edition of SR is sort of a mixed bag: three music reviews, a weepy political post, a faux-gonzo email exchange, and a two-part email interview with a U.S. soldier in Iraq. They don't really all fit together under any special category, so in the interests of shameless revisionism they're now honorary Dubious Ventures posts, and since there's no over-arching thematical thing going on let's get to it:

Dealing with the Hassle (Jan. 18, 2002)
I wasted lots of UCSB's time when I worked in the Human Resources office in 2001 and 2002, mostly writing emails to the guys in Honey White (and, well, everyone else I knew too), testing the fiction waters, and spewing out quickie music reviews of my favorite artists and albums at the time. This one's all about Superdrag's third album, an indie-rock tour-de-force called In the Valley of Dying Stars. I...well, I liked it. A lot.

Everything sounds the way it should, every tune is sequenced perfectly, a short enough running time for vinyl audiophile nerds, etc etc etc. Frontman John Davis lays the record’s themes on the line right away in the first lines of “Keep it Close to Me”: “I want rock and roll but I don’t want to deal with the hassle; I know what I know but I don’t want to feel like an asshole!”—a to-the-point intro for an album that simply sounds like a band having fun at what they do best- admitting they "can't concentrate on melody waiting for some kind of tragedy".
Harsh Realities at Crunch Time (Feb. 17, 2002)
This one's actually a joint review of two albums that fit well together in my mind: Elvis Costello and the Attractions' Blood and Chocolate (1986) and Camper Van Beethoven's Key Lime Pie (1989). The two records both represented messy endings for both bands concerned, and both bandleaders (Costello and Camper's David Lowery) were two of my big inspirations as lyricists and songwriters. I also identified a bit too much with their monomaniacal (or so I thought) ways of record-making, as I'd just done the minor-league version of that when making the final Mojo Wire disc in 2001.
There comes a time in an artist’s career when brute force seems like the only course of action needed to complete a project. In almost every case, the effort is a Herculean waste of stamina, ego, and willpower- a last gasp of desperation before the known world crumbles. That is essentially true for both of these albums, but not necessarily the whole story, as both were creative impulses dominated by a single, unswerving totalitarian vision, namely that of Elvis Costello on the one hand and David Lowery on the other. Both albums are a hard listen at first, but ultimately succeed if heard as the final statement of unadulterated artistic ambition and the dashed hopes that inevitably result from one person’s attempts to make their idea a reality via a group effort.
Pulling Off the Perfect Con (Jul.18, 2002)
A review of U2's Achtung Baby for that bastion of tastemaking known as Amazon. I was still in the middle of my tenure writing for the @U2 fansite, and some of my more egregious enthusiasms spilled over into this one. Even so, it's interesting to see what I made of the 1991 album eleven years later, considering 1) it exerted so much aesthetic pull on me at sixteen, and 2) I'd actually written my senior thesis for a Techno-Gothic Lit class on the postmodernist similarities between U2's Zoo TV tour and Bladerunner.
I think what really happened was that the band was fucking desperate, and they stole what sounds/ideas they needed, perhaps knowing that their own creativity (and back catalogue) would fill in the gaps. In doing so, U2 behaved just like a sampling rap group- let's say that they slummed, but mostly innocently, for this record. It's almost like inverse development of the stereotypical rock-star ethic—U2 were socio-politically conscious first (however childlike and sincere) and then applied what they learned from that to their material on a more personal level, in effect creating an album more human and arguably easier to relate to. Also, this album has as one of its central traits the only really good thing about "postmodernism"—the placing of the individual's needs above any desire to universally emancipate mankind. It may be a coldhearted gesture to many, but it reminds the person doing this of who they are and who they can become.
Worst Birthday Ever (Nov. 3, 2004)
You'd think that in a compilation including not only my first stumbling tirades at the Daily Nexus, but also my fanboy-rants from @U2, I'd have nothing more embarrassing than those examples of misplaced passion. You'd be wrong. See, once it became clear that the Kerry/Edwards ticket would get stomped by Bush/Cheney in the '04 presidential election, I began to...take it personally. For whatever reason, I'd forgotten the cynical lessons I'd learned as an impressionable youth during the Clinton vs. Gingrich craziness of the 1990s—not to mention the quasi-education I'd gleaned from Hunter Thompson's political screeds. I include it here to illustrate how much I've had to jettison when trying to get back to the healthy skepticism of gonzo that the 2008 campaign demands. I'm not really there yet. The only good thing about this pathetic whining was that I got some great "buck-up-kid" responses from sympathetic friends and family. Oh yes, I'd mass-emailed it to everyone. Ick.
So. I'm now 28 years and some hours old. It's 2am and it's hard not to take this election result personally. Next time I swear I'm gonna be one of those people who only pays attention to politics for 5 minutes a year. It'll be a hard habit to break- I've been on it since the 5th grade- almost as long as my addiction to rock&roll and only beaten by my jones for baseball. But you all know me, that's what I do- I take things personally when I shouldn't. I mean, I have a good job where I can be creative. I live in a nice California beach-town apartment with a beautiful woman who loves me. I'm white, straight, male, educated, and American. I'm even 1/4th of an ass-kicking rock & roll band (we still have an album to finish, too). I have everything going for me, right?
A Floppy and Useless Scion of Gonzo (Feb. 22, 2005)
Immediate and woeful reaction to the suicide of Hunter S. Thompson. For better or worse Thompson was my foremost inspiration to write, and his death, though not surprising, was still a big bummer to read about in the middle of a rainy weekend. My buddy Jon Neal was the first to call me about it, and in thinking about his gonzo-rific adventures in politics, it occurred to me that a fitting tribute to Thompson would be a celebration of my friends like Jon who were, in their own ways, chasing the nth-degree impulse of True Gonzo: Sean Blashcke in west Africa, and Nick Clemente in Iraq. At the time I'd thought that my vain work in music and writing didn't add up to Jon's, Sean's, and Nick's efforts in politics, peace, and war, but these days I think I was being a little too hard on myself.
Jon Neal called me sometime between Saturday afternoon and Monday morning to leave a glum message that Hunter S. Thompson had fatally shot himself....but I didn't have the heart to call Jon back and talk about it. He has been in the middle of several political campaigns by now, and I thought that meditating on the genius of Thompson's documentation of the 1972 presidential campaign might hit a little close to home. Either that or dredge up long-dead tales of various late-'90s maniacal substance-fuelled episodes in the nubile cesspool of Isla Vista, which I won't do here. The pissing rain that drenched southern California this weekend put me in an equally pissy mood that only this coming Saturday's gig might cure. Nor will I subject everyone to my history of Thompson-appreciation. The people who'd care about that already know anyway, and since I'm not as big a fan or as eloquent a writer as so many others offering up obligatorially astute reminisces about the Doctor I won't bother about that. It did make me think about people I know who are off pushing life to their own particular limits, however, while I sit floppy and useless creating things for my own amusement.
Desperate Notes from Diamond Bar and West L.A. (Mar. 15, 2005)
"Desperate Notes" is only three emails between me and famous Mojo Wire frontman (and Bryn's best friend) Adam Hill, but the extenuating circumstances (Adam's move to Newport and Hunter Thompson's death) apparently goosed us to appropriately manic flights of gibberish. It was so much fun to write—and the first real gonzo I'd written in quite a while—that in the interests of my own creative sanity, I decided to get back into the cultivation of periodic Thompson-esque bursts of verbiage. Thanks to Adam for filling in the role of Super-Duper Special Guest Star.
Hot damn, dude! The sybaritic shindigs at Rodman’s Newport mansion pale in comparison to the yakuza crack dens of Diamond Bar. Jesus creeping shit indeed. Dare I ask if you speak of these things from personal experience? Or have you only innocently “heard tell” of such awful things from more, shall we say, “well-traveled” individuals? I’ll admit that much of what I know of illegal controlled substances stems from the experiences of others, as for the past five years at least the mere whiff of even the most flaccid joint sends me into a jabbering tailspin of paranoia in the thirty seconds it takes for me to stagger to a horizontal position and lose consciousness. Many would laugh, but I know better, for I am Doobie, the Original. Steve Imbilli had no clue as to the eventual ramifications of his harmless epithet for me.
A Second Lieutenant's Grim Commentary from Iraq (Jun. 22-24, 2005)
Special Guest Star number two graces these two posts—my old high school friend Captain Nick Clemente, who was at the time serving as a 2nd. Lt. tank commander north of Baghdad. I interviewed him over email, for the edifying benefit of myself and everyone in his address book. In Part I, he answered a series of general questions I had about events on the ground:
"The final thing I always notice is FEAR. Everyone is afraid and not too many people are doing anything about it. In America if a car blew up on your street people would be outraged, would organize and fight anyone who jeopardized their kids. It doesn’t work like that here. People have been brutalized for so long that it seems as if they are just accustomed to the violence and feel powerless to stop it. Lastly, they are frustrated that the USA has been unable to solve their problems already. The way they see it, if we can put a man on the moon how come we can’t get the power working? A pretty reasonable question but not a simple one. This frustration undermines our relationships but we do our best to combat it."
For Part II, he elaborated on a few follow-up questions, and one in particular is worth emphasizing:
I can’t give my true opinion of what is going on over here because I am an Army Officer which precludes me from enjoying many of the freedoms I defend, however let me make one thing clear...Anti-war sentiment does not derail my morale nor do war hawks bolster my morale or that of my men. When you are where we are, “knee-deep in the shit” as we say, the only thing that matters is accomplishing the mission and getting you and your people home alive. And, sorry to say, when it comes to a lot of the missions that we do here, getting home alive actually becomes number one pretty quick. As the character in Black Hawk Down says, “I think it don’t really matter what I think...when that first bullet flies by your head all that politics goes right out the window.”
Nick also gave me a great band name:
"Feel free to use the name I thought up the other day, 'Jam Nut Actuator and the Tubeless Regroover.' Those are all things on tanks that make a good name for a funk band."
And speaking of bands, for next week's edition we'll be going back into the sordid history of the Mojo Wire and Honey White. Not so revisionist, but pretty shameless.

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