Junebug versus Hurricane


“Shooting Stars” – Keeping the Beat (and Bad Company)
May 26, 2010, 11:30 pm
Filed under: Bad Compant, brother, Dust, Elena Glasberg, Funeral Songs

Elena Glasberg

May 26, 2010

My partner Juney Bug’s been regaling our readers with the song of the loathsome, fearsome hag.  The hag — and don’t get this wrong, ya’ll — is no one to pity.  She is not a Christian figure, exactly.  No pity and no mercy for the white gal at the end of the bar, please!  She don’t need it.  She – unlike the rest of us – is Right With God.  She, with her tricks and manners, her suitors, a gin and a tonic to lean over, and the end of the night coming on too strong.  Like all the Lonely Girls and Barroom Girls, she doesn’t want the night to end.  Help our hag keep those colored lights flashing; come closer, and sit down beside her.  Tell her a story – if you can get a word in edgewise.  And if you’ve got that sad-eyed air about you, fella, hardly a nickel in your pocket, maybe those shoulders carried the weight better in younger days, well then, you just might be the hag’s long lost brother: the beautiful loser.  What the hag is to country and down home twang, the beautiful loser is to rock n roll and the Jersey shore.  While the hag never left town and her bitterness is deeply grounded, like her moneymaker, into that barstool, the loser couldn’t sit still.  You could say he was born to run, to ride his cliché 90 miles an hour down a dead end street.  Consequently he is always on the road, lost, and always coming home. 

Johnny was a schoolboy when he heard his first Beatles song,

‘Love me do,’ I think it was. From there it didn’t take him long.

Got himself a guitar, used to play every night,

Now he’s in a rock ‘n’ roll outfit,

And everything’s all right, don’t you know? 

“Love Me Do I think it was” – It’s a quote, of course, and thus the most genuine syllables of a song of love and theft.  A long hall of mirrors and the corridors of forgettings and violent crossings out of memory wind the lyric.  The stagey way that memory is produced – I think it was — and its middle class, polite locution gives away where these shooting star poseurs come from – mama’s house, or in the case of Bad Company, England.  This is the kind of bad company one finds in the discomfort of the suburbs (or 1970s Flatbush), the place where nothing is supposed to ever happen and the blues come borrowed all the way from the Delta through The Stones and Led Zep on to American top 40 ubiquity.   

Love me do I think it was.  And maybe it was.  Maybe it was for me, too. I used to listen all afternoon, piling the stereo arm high with vinyl LPs, the Beatles and Dylan, The Stones, and Judy Collins, Odetta.  Where was my little brother? All I remember of David is my excoriating disgust that when offered as a present any album in the world, the fool chose Tom Jones, Live.  He actually wanted to listen to an under-talented ass who swiveled his hips at the screaming female fans who threw their panties on stage.  It makes sense then that David would go on to love Bad Company.  Like Tom Jones they wore tight pants and glittery outfits to accentuate their heterosexuality. Liking them was the mark of a true boy, a suburban, melancholic boy.  A white boy, like my brother David. 

Johnny told his mama, hey, ‘Mama, I’m goin’ away.

I’m gonna hit the big time, gonna be a big star someday’, Yeah.

Mama came to the door with a teardrop in her eye.

Johnny said, ‘Don’t cry, mama, smile and wave good-bye’. 

It’s no accident that mama comes up in the second verse. She is the fount of the loser’s self-love, the lover he wants to escape and to perform for.  Little Rockstars are mama’s boys.  In their badness — especially in their rebellions — they prove themselves tied ever more to mama. Everyone wants to save the loser.  In this bath of unwanted maternal attention the loser perfects defenselessness as the ultimate defense.  His signature concession — You may be right – predicts another bender: Hey mama I’m going away. 

Remember the hag?  The lady sitting at the end of the bar?  Well, she’s gotta move over.  There’s another sibling rivaling for the bartender’s attention.  The lesbian with the dead brother is a new cliché (and oxymoron).  We coulda been him.  Maybe wanted to be him.  Weren’t allowed to be him.  Or refused to be him.  But in not getting what we wanted or felt we deserved, we survive all the guys we could not be.  Poor, unlucky, survivors. 

Johnny made a record, Went straight up to number one,

Suddenly everyone loved to hear him sing the song.

Watching the world go by, surprising it goes so fast.

Johnny looked around him and said, ‘Well, I made the big time at last’. 

Among my brother’s things is a notebook with cockroach brown pasteboard covers, the kind that you find in old-fashioned office supply stores.  In it the tab forShooting Star  is meticulously inscribed. My brother took up playing the guitar in prison the way Malcolm X taught himself to read.  In prison you do for yourself what you’d let others do for you in the outside world.  The results of the loss of freedom can be impressive.  By the time his sentence was complete, David played a pretty good guitar. 

One afternoon soon after his release, my brother performed an acoustic version of the strangely affable power rocker.  He was crashing at our mother’s apartment in Marine Park, one of NYC’s last havens of white ethnics.  He was home; I was visiting from grad school in the midwest.  I had been circling jobs for him in the local paper.  He shot down every demeaning suggestion, but gracefully, without rancor.  “This is a good entry level position,” I offered.  “You’re probably right” he’d evade.  How can a rock star be a bagel boy?  Yet as I was playing the sane older sibling I was fighting my surprise at his studious guitar playing.  I admit it: I was jealous.  You see, I had always been the rock star in the family.  I was the one whose band played CBGBs.  But I put down the guitar.  Who was I to tell him to get real about working some dumb job?  Wasn’t I in grad school studying literature, trying just as hard as he was to escape the fate of the ordinary?  We both nursed our rock star dreams.  Our narcissisms collided, overlapped. 

As it turns out, there has always been a job opening for a Shooting Star:   

Johnny died one night, died in his bed,

Bottle of whiskey, sleeping tablets by his head.

Johnny’s life passed him by like a warm summer day,

If you listen to the wind you can still hear him play 

Don’t you know that you are a shooting star,

Don’t you know, yeah, don’t you know….. 

Every beautiful loser sings “Shooting Star” at his own funeral, years before he actually dies, in the mournful cadence of manly self-possession.  He’s long down the road from the boy who once cried out “look ma –.”  He knows now that no one can look away; no one can ever save him.  And it is his utterly calm refusal to be saved that draws us to the beautiful loser.  I mean, would you actually want Him to have come down off that cross, knowing his investment in his own sacrifice?  Until that afternoon I don’t think I ever realized how fully jealous I must have been all of my life of my beloved little brother, the beautiful loser.  

I think David might have learned more about what he wanted in prison than I managed to in grad school.  I know he never became a recidivist.  Yet I in my way have never gotten out of my institutionalization.  No, I seem to even be fighting my way in deeper. And he’s long gone.  

But if you listen to the wind you can still hear him play …..  

My thoughts so often come back to Dylan, who also wrote a Shooting Star of his own:   

All good people are praying/ it’s the last temptation, the last account

Last time you might hear the sermon on the mount

Last radio is playing 

Seen a shooting star tonight slip away

Tomorrow will be another day

Guess it’s too late to say the things to you that you needed to hear me say

Seen a shooting star tonight slip away 

Maybe Bad Company’s “Shooting Star” is the last song … playing?  If so, I often hear its opening guitar chords so balanced, detached, equanimous: All our deaths are sure to come.  Don’t You Know? 

Don’t you know, yeah yeah, Don’t you know that you are a shooting star,

Don’t you know, don’t you know. Don’t you know that you are

a shooting star, And all the world will love you just as long,

As long as you are.

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World Without Tears: A Devotional, Part 2
May 22, 2010, 6:44 am
Filed under: Uncategorized

And, at long last:

Entering Lucinda’s World Without Tears

Taylor Black

(Listen to) Real Live Bleeding Fingers and Broken Guitar Strings

Photographic dialogues

Beneath your skin

Pornographic episodes

Screaming sin

In my very slow, languid process of thinking and feeling my way through this record—and indeed in my outline for this very paper—my intention was to go through it song by song and in direct chronological order—until last night.  Driving around the empty, rain-soaked streets of Chinatown at three in the morning following an unproductive stint in New York University’s Bobst Library, I indulged this rare moment of desolate isolation that I’d normally have to embark on a long road trip out of the busy and cluttered atmosphere of the Northeast by putting World Without Tears on and turning up the sound.  With my car’s poor little CD-player accidentally set to random, the album began in an unusually loud and ragged way; instead of the sweet sad vibrato of her song “Fruits of My Labor” that normally eases you into Lucinda’s magnificent, horrible old world, I found myself being shouted at by the ragged, screeching sound of the guitar that makes up the introduction to her very staggering anthem “Real Live Bleeding Fingers and Broken Guitar Strings.”

Shattered nerves

Itchy Skin

Dirty words

And heroin blurs

Not one to be outdone by her band, however, the shocks and the reverberations that ensue past the musical interlude are all Lucinda.  Like the ordinary introduction to the album, this song is all about vibrato—a kind of dance or clash between the lead guitar that drips and shakes its notes out of itself and Lucinda’s voice that quivers and howls its way out of her worn old throat.  Unlike “Fruits of My Labor,” however “Real Live Bleeding Fingers” frightens and calls its listeners to attention rather than easing them into with something that sounds deceptively beautiful and tender.

You’ve got a sense of humor

You’re a mystery

I heard a rumor

You’re making history

To get back to my story, though: as I drove the streets of New York, wary of my aloneness yet comforted by it too, I almost turned the song to something a little softer; considering the remoteness of the atmosphere and the weariness of my disposition, I figured I really ought to play one of her long ballads and let it swallow both me and the humid, empty night up with its drippy lap steel interludes and plodding turns of phrases.  However, as to not upset fate or disrespect my dear Lucinda, I dutifully remained inside the space of “Real Live Bleeding Fingers,” a song—as I’ve heard her say—both about seeing lover after lover and relationship and relationship fall victim to “heroin blurs,” but also, oddly enough, about the solo work of Paul Westerberg.  As the song began to finish its march over my nerves as well as the sonic space of an unsuspecting Canal Street, the last verse shouted at me and told me exactly what I should say and think about my love not only of the music but also of the misery, of the disaster.

The Coda listed at the beginning of this piece constitutes the emotional and spiritual arch of my affection for Lucinda’s music.  But, to understand my true appreciation for her music it is necessary to think through my identification—nay, my devotion—for her.  You see, to really listen to music you have to not only engage with and open yourself up to the performer/composer, but you have to have faith in them.  This faith certainly takes time and is not something you can donate to every song you put you and your senses through, but this kind of pure listening experience is not only about enjoyment and pop pleasure, but also a kind of labor.  In order to love Lucinda, you have to cultivate your belief in her.  As she has proclaimed on high, this process of belief and adoration means you’ve gotta climb all the way inside her tragedy, and then get yourself right behind her majesty.

Glory, Glory //We’ve Killed the Beast!

(Listen to) Atonement

Come on, Come on, Come on

Kill the rats in the gutter

I do realize that it’s very gay for me to refer to the object of my affection and musical appreciation a queen, and you should know, if you haven’t already or always assumed, that I do in fact suffer from a debilitating case of homosexuality—however, I’d like to work through and around this very staid, over-determined notion of the tragic gay man and his love for his tragic diva queens, if only so that I may return to the term without all of its heavy metaphorical baggage.

Shake the clammy hand

Repeat the 23rd psalm

Make you understand

Where it was you went wrong

After all, there are, I will deign to argue, different types of these bruised, yet majestic icons of queer femininity and different sets of gay male subjects that inhabit their mighty kingdoms.  The most obvious and significant example of the gay icon is, of course, Judy Garland—not so much because of her performance in The Wizard of Oz, which actually constituted the more populist American image of her—but the tragedies and the public performances of addiction and some sort of psychosis that attract her many homo queens under her withering wings.

Blinded by glittery diamonds

Resting on crooked fingers

Shaded eyes they are the ones

Who’ll lead you to your deliverance

Believe it or not, I do not belong to the club of tragedy queens who bask in the undertow of Miss Garland and do not find much pleasure in witnessing the breakdowns, pill and gin ravages and on-stage failures that mark her late—and arguably, as a result, her entire—career.  Unfortunately for these queens, they get failure all wrong.  Like Wayne Koestenbaum’s very astute depiction of another kind of queen—the opera queen’s troublesome, failed tastes and the public reception of their pathological, utter pleasurelessness, all summed up in their questionable appreciation of the opera.

However these cultural metaphors also work to insult me, which is, of course of even greater importance and concern.  You see, terms—like failure, queen, tragedy—are sources of creative and indeed affective inspiration and fidelity for both me and my academic work, but because they so commonly understood as jokes on and about gay men and their tastes, I can’t seem to employ them explicitly with a straight face. You see, originary and constitutive as they are, as queer metaphors, they have been subtracted of any amount of emotional capacity or even discursive flexibility.  They are  so gay, so sad and, in the end, so  thoroughly understood and explained by the world that they work to constantly explain and insult us until we, like poor Miss Garland, find ourselves face down in our party dresses in piles of (what we hope is) our own filth.

Dry your tears.  The Tragedy Queen’s pitiful reign is over, but only if we really want it. The joke’s only on us if we let it.  The camp, glib relationship Garland’s tragedy queens approach her with is, on the one hand, tricky because it is sympathetic.  In other words, they love to witness Judy’s tumbles and stumbles from afar, and the highest form of emotional labor that’s required beyond this sort of ironic spectatorship is sympathy: who would want that?  Even more terrible is the sad fact that these sad old homos don’t even know that to real people, it is precisely this taste for tragic tragedy that tells them everything they need to know about the emotional state of all homosexual men in the world: sad.

Let me give you something good to eat

Bite down hard ‘til it sticks between your teeth

I do hope you I haven’t confused you, dear reader.  I realize that just before this castigation of tragedy queens I spent pages and pages flirting with disaster and ruin and hinting that I might lay out a roadmap for turning failure and tragedy into forms of amusement and pleasure.  So, you may be asking yourself, what’s the difference between Judy Garland’s tragedy queens and me, a homosexual who has already—and repeatedly—confessed his unquestioned and potentially problematic identification with and love for Lucinda?  After all, I am drawn to her, in large part, because of a strong desire on my part to bear witness to the many losses as well as partake and indulge myself in the great sadness with which she hones and performs her songs.  It is necessary to empathize with Lucinda in order to appreciate her, to, as I have explained, cultivate your faith in her and all of the beautiful tragedies that come along.

It’s time to come on (…come on, come on…) under Lucinda’s wing.  As you see in the lyrics I have chopped up and laid down for you throughout this section and also—if you follow orders correctly—hear, “Atonement” is a song that is composed of and composes religious decrees. More than just a topical, satirical take on evangelical forms of invocation and manipulation, this is, like “Real Live Bleeding Fingers,” another one of those songs that will break you down and turn you out, if you’re willing.  Indeed, as it marches on and on and over its audience, this very bossy, aggressive, jarring song constitutes Lucinda’s great march to victory.  More than that, though, it’s also a kind of blessing, or, rather, an invitation to any of us who would like to follow here into her kingdom.  Indeed, just like Lucinda, the song is hard to take, too much—but, if you resist the urge to turn the song down or tune her out, you might get the wonderful experience of having her swallow you up.   Remain in this lovely, debilitating sonic state, under the dizzying influence of the unrepentant sound of Lucinda’s frightening hoots and hollers that keep moving and moving and you will have received your blessing, and will then find yourself falling, like withering flowers at her feet.

(Listen to) Fruits Of My Labor: the Beginning and the End

Baby, see how I been livin’

You know, even though, like any good homosexual, I loved The Wizard of Oz growing up, I always hated poor old, pie-faced Dorothy.  To this day, I cannot forgive her totally unrealistic and style-less decision to forgo a chance to reign over the whole, plush kingdom of Oz at the end of the film and return to her drab, colorless existence back home in Kansas (even typing those words feels to banal for my own good).  But what really sealed the deal for me as a young man was that she threw a bucket of water on The Wicked Witch of the West: the only truly wonderful and powerful character in that film, and indeed the object of my affection and impersonation as a young thing (until my practice of dressing in a hate and cape and flying around may family’s home on a broomstick was wisely—yet too belatedly—called off around age eight). My adolescent love for this character, who had immediately caused fear and confusion in me has influenced my tastes as well as provided the ontological structure of my affective fidelity today.  I like sadness, failure and tragedy only out of a love for wickedness—in other words, I like that these terms which unsettle and unnerve nearly everyone else on the planet might be a way of living fabulously, egregiously and fiercely.

Lavendar, lotus blossoms too

Water the dirt, flowers last for you

Baby

sweet

baby

My desire to become, like the Witch, someone who frightened others and lived in an isolated, yet vast universe that was all hers is one way in which I overcame my own alienation as a very homosexual, strangely gendered kid in a fiercely monotone, Southern Baptist culture.  With the Witch as my guide, I then saw a way of moving around the debilitating effects of this isolation and loneliness that would have otherwise caused in me various personality disorders, realizing there was a more magical way to be the outcast—that if considered and maintained correctly, inborn deficiencies and insistent social and personal handicaps could actually be the source of power.

Tangerines and persimmons

And sugarcane

Grapes and honeydew melons

Enough fit for a queen

Lemon trees don’t make a sound

‘Til branches bend and fruit falls to the ground

So what’s there to say about my lifelong penchant for the absurd, the wicked and the truly tragic that can animate the rest of this little devotional to Lucinda?  And, what’s really so much more astonishing and unique about her and her whole suitcase of sadness and failure that she carries along with her?  Well, it’s that she cultivates and mitigates her own tragedies and weaves them into her persona in ways that are more awe-some than that Dorothy could ever be or those actually tragic, detached tragedy queens might ever imagine.  Indeed, that very religious and powerful word awe-some has become so commonplace and misused that, like tragedy and failure, has lost its capacity to really mean or do anything at all; it has become a dead word.

I been tryin’ to enjoy all the fruits of my labor

I been cryin’ for you boy but truth is my savior

But, how can we imbibe these terms with even more power than they may have ever had?  How can you stimulate and recodify terms and descriptors that are supposed to handicap and explain you away?  Thankfully, the kind of sorcery that is required to respond to this dilemma is my—and Lucinda’s—specialty.  As I have explained, Lucinda’s power over her personal failures is maintained through the hold she is able to have over her audience, whose total faith and devotion is absolutely a requirement.  Before this is possible, however, she needed a system of recasting tragedy into song, image and style—and thankfully, Lucinda—witch that she is—has been able to do just this.  Through her flirtatiously, evil version of this process, she has made a career of recasting and rephrasing her haggardness and sorrow into something that makes music and creates devoted followers.

Baby, sweet baby if it’s all the same

Take the glory any day over the fame

Baby, sweet baby

For her, failure is not simply about failing, but also about creativity and possibility.  Likewise, tragedy is not something to lament, but to wallow around in—a process of becoming-fabulous as well as a form of presentation that allows you to take hold over other people.  She is truly awe-some in all the ways we have forgotten God ever was: beautiful, alarming, imposing, magnificent, horrible, overwhelming, beautiful and wonderful.  Through her, the word is alive once again.



World Without Tears: A Devotional, Part 1

World Without Tears: A Devotional, Part 1

Taylor Black

May 2010

    Coda:

    I climbed all the way inside

    Your tragedy

    I got behind

    The majesty

Of the different shapes

In every note

The endless tapes

Of every word you wrote

Preface: Misery Loves Company

Just as that tired, worn out old saying says: misery loves company.  While the remark is normally intended as a kind of passive-aggressive jab directed at the kind of person who tortures their friends, family and really any poor charitable soul who will listen with a never-ending sympathy of complaints and woe-is-me’s, for me, it’s a way of life.  As you plunge your self and your own sympathies into this piece, you will see that my own love of misery’s company is really the motor behind all my thoughts and affections, weepy and strange as they may be.

And another thing, dear reader: whether or not you’ve figured it out by now, the string of ideas, gushes and aphorisms that might otherwise be politely referred to as a “paper” will be largely—and, I hope, wonderfully—self-indulgent. There will be more affection in my writing than analysis, and I will concern myself more with how things feel and sound as I say them than defend them as ground-breaking ideas or concepts—I will be writing about music after all.  At the very least, I hope you read things you want to hear and that the sight of me wallowing in my own wickedness is entertaining.

We are entering dangerous territory, or, rather, I should say I am entering into a project that’s about my absolute favorite album done by my absolute favorite artist.  Why is this dangerous?  Well, as most of my previous “academic” work has been conventionally analytical, I haven’t spent much time or intellectual energy lingering on the things in my life that I love.  I will shamefully admit that for a long while, my interpretation of doing scholarly work has been about making arguments about things or situating myself into theoretical discussions that have been raging on in one form or another for-probably-ever.  In this state of blissful recalcitrance, I found it easiest to make my arguments and my very defensive(?) claims about things I felt a certain detachment from; the idea of responding to and writing about something I love so religiously as music and a figure I identify with so wholly might lead me into embarrassing, confessional territory.

So, with all of that said, I would simply like to emphasize the fact that with this new turn in my work (let’s call it my musical turn for the time being), I am pushing my thoughts and my academic productions away from its defensive, readerly roots towards somewhere and something more celebratory.  The joke I brought up in the first sentence will not be, at the end of all of this, on me; as I ruminate on Lucinda Williams’ World Without Tears I will hold it up as an ode to loneliness and despair, all the while doing my own part to draw out and wallow around in the loooove in “Misery Loves Company.”

In terms of a method, mine will be not be very methodological.  For starters, you will detect a stark lack of citation in what lays ahead of you—this is not because (believe it or not) I don’t care what other people have to say about Lucinda or any of the musical genres her music and my depictions of her engage with, but because I want to resist the rather litigious urge in academic scholarship to prove what’s said critically and creatively by citing, engaging and situating compulsorily.  My thoughts and indeed the sonic space inside my head where they reside and are generated have not come from a vacuum.  In similar ways that songwriters can say that this or that piece is inspired by this or that artist or genre, there is a kind of interplay between this paper and the texts—in this case, Wayne Koestenbaum’s The Queens Throat, José Muñoz’ Cruising Utopia, Jimmy McDonough’s new Tammy Wynette: Tragic Country Queen and Hélène Cixous’ Three Steps on the Ladder of Writing— I have been inhabiting during the writing process.  While I engage with these pieces to the extent that their thoughts and modes of writing ring in my mind and my ear while I myself do work, I will not attempt to condense or be totally responsible for them, as I try and work with this model of residual, ghostly intertextuality through my own thoughts and feelings.

Secondly, I will confess that the idea of explicitly explaining, describing or deconstructing Lucinda’s music and the album I am approaching gives me even more angst than attempting to be responsible for the contents of a book.  Music, like literature and academic scholarship alike, is a process of creativity and failure, and its products and productions should not be approached in order to determine what is they represent or explain, but instead honored for what they do, as well as for what sensations, feelings, misgivings and thoughts they create in the hearing of them.  So, just as these authors and these books will be singing their songs in my head while I write, so too while the contents of World Without Tears play while I move from word to word and page to page.  As I move ahead, I will rarely approach a song in any literal way or attempt to take it apart—either lyrically or otherwise.  Instead, I will let my thoughts and feelings flow against the backdrop of particular tracks on the album, which I will dutifully and possibly excruciatingly play on repeat while I construct the different spaces of my piece.  When I have done so, I will list the song and request that my reader try and listen while they read so that they too can sense the rhythm and the affective space with which this piece comes to be.  When I do sense a particularly cogent or uncanny relevance of Lucinda’s lyrics for these songs, I will chop them up and place them—in italics—throughout the piece.

With all of that out of the way, I promise not to defend myself or my feelings anymore throughout this work, which is really more like a religious devotional than any kind of academic prose I can imagine.  I’m sure I will contradict myself here and there, and my love of Lucinda and tragedy may confound or even fatigue my reader, but I do hope you will at least appereciate my earnestness and the purity of whatever feelings I express here. But why?  And shouldn’t I be ashamed at such a disgusting display? Isn’t all of this self-loathing instead of self-loving?  Or am I just being ironic?  One very easy way to get out these pointed, if obvious, slew of accusations and doubts about my so-called love for misery and the truly miserable would be to revert to some kind of psychoanalytic explanation about being from the Bible Belt South and having internalized and maybe even romanticized all of the most terrible components of the melodramatic Fire and Brimstone culture I was brought up in; or worse, I could simply lean on my identity as a homosexual man and sight some well-known, meaningless tropes about queerness and tragedy as a way of placating you and letting me and my work off the hook as “camp.”

Her Wonderful Wickedness

(Listen to) Righteously

          • Think this through
          • I laid it down for you every time
          • Respect me I give you what’s mine
          • You’re entirely way too fine

In all kinds of rather obvious ways, my decision to undertake this Lucinda record is a mistake.  First of all, it’s not her most beloved body of work; 1998’s Car Wheels on a Gravel Road is the one album critics and journalists love to love.  With its cinematic, narrative songs that weave their ways in and out of moldy, humid corners of the Delta region of the American South, Car Wheels combines just the right amount of folksy realness with meticulously high-brow literaryness to please the kinds of critics who felt invested in roots music but isolated from the explosion of decidedly middling, middlebrow pop music coming out of Nashville.  Here you had something as conceptual and sophomorically intellectual as a Bob Dylan or Neil Young album falling from the heavy, weary lips of a woman who had not only conceived of, but actually lived the very southern stories she sung about, all delivered in her thick, muggy southern drawl. Even more exciting for journalists and critics alike was the gossip surrounding and the drama that weighted down the production of the album; taking over four years, three different incantations, three different producers and countless victims employed along the way, once Car Wheels finally came out, Lucinda had managed to gain a reputation for herself as a bitchy, histrionic perfectionist—and (the mostly male) world of rock criticism and journalism still, to this day, can’t seem to publish anything without using that “perfectionist” word, just like no one had ever said it or thought it before they regurgitated it.  Leave it to them.

    • Arms around my waist
    • You get a taste of how good this can be
    • Be the man you ought to tenderly
    • You’re entirely way too fine

You see, or as you already assume or expect, our Ms. Williams is a bit hard to take.  For one, she is a perfectionist, and, leaving all gendered epithets aside, doesn’t hide her emotions very well.  While most of her fans and critics are both men, their relationship is totally different, and what they see and hear in Lucinda varies completely.  For the detached rock critic, weighed down by their strange mix of irony and corporate professionalism, Lucinda’s story is sort of a joke on her, something to talk about ad nauseam.

When you run your hand

All up and run it back down my leg

Get excited and bite my neck

Get me all worked up like that

You don’t have to prove

        • Your manhood to me constantly
        • I know you’re the man can’t you see
        • I love you Righteously

I

The song “Righteously” that is blaring in my ears while I write this is an anthem to power and glory through abjection.  In some ways related to Tammy Wynette’s epic song of total, devastating and, in the end, failed devotion to her man, Lucinda’s song is, in some ways, a promise of hers to the man she’s got in her life.  However, it’s also a wicked line of flight away from the sentiments expressed in “Stand By Your Man”; beyond and behind her coy promises of righteous love is the real power of this song, which actually, magically stimulates, entices and interpellates her man’s devotion. For the middle aged white men I see at her shows, however, there is a spark in their eyes and a look of abject devotion on their face that lets me know they get it: they don’t look down on Lucinda, they look up at her, and while the sad and sorrowful definitely falls out of her whenever she opens her mouth to sing, it is her fierce, flirtatious and wicked delivery and composure that transforms her tragedies into an elixir that draws her devotees in and brings them down to their grateful knees.

Arms around my waist

You get a taste of how good this can be

Be the man you ought to tenderly

Stand up for me

Approaching Lucinda, Our Beautiful Loser

(Listen to) Sweet Side

      • So you don’t always show your sweet side…

Just this side of strange in comparison with the other men at Lucinda’s concerts, I will admit that the main reason I enjoy myself at her shows, though, is mitigated through my sense as well as my perception of her anxiety that is normally—almost ritually—played out each evening she performs in a certain chronology.  When she finally makes her way on stage (always very belatedly, in my notable experience), she brings with her an unsettling sort of presence.  Lucinda’s affect and disposition is weighed down by a stony, stoic, silent stage fright for the first third of the set, as she moves her way through a handful of amazingly slow, overwrought, plodding, pitiful old songs (the kinds anyone else would tell you to not perform in concert, much less for the first part of the damn set!) allthewhile averting the gaze of the audience and dissociating her from the stage she is performing on.

        • You run yourself ragged tryin’ to be strong

You feel bad when you done nothin’ wrong

Love got all confused with anger and pride

So much abuse on such a little child

Someone you trusted told you to shut up

Now there’s a pain in your gut that you can’t get rid of

After this, thanks to nerves and/or whatever liquor she’s got in her cup up there on stage (she says she drinks Grand Marnier to coat her throat, so there’s at least that…), our once sheepish heroine warms up a bit, maintaining her anxieties and displeasures about her surroundings.  Peppering—or, if you’re not into such tenuous forms of spectatorship, cluttering—her performance with false starts and vulgar outbursts, Lucinda has come out of her shell a bit (the last example that comes to mind is her, very seriously and angrily, stopping mid-song to say “Who do I have to fuck to get a fucking fan up here? It’s fucking hot!” Other times I’ve heard her scold people for talking during her set, asking them if they’d like to “fucking do it” themselves)—finally opening herself up to the crowd, only to turn, venomously and breathtakingly, against them.

You were screamed at and kicked over and over

Now you always feel sick and you can’t keep a lover

        • You get defensive at every turn
        • You’re overly sensitive and overly concerned

Few precious memories no lullabies

Hollowed out centuries of lies

A Lucinda Williams concert then, and finally, comes to an end in a flurry of hard-rocking, loud songs that are as frayed at the edges, but orgasmically so.  By the time you’re ready to leave, Lucinda has certainly done what a good showman is supposed to do, which is give you your money’s worth by keeping you on the edge of your seat and the tips of your toes.  The angst and constant fear of total disaster that guides both Lucinda and her audience through the evening come full circle by the final bows, as she drags out the blaring, cathartic portion of the evening until everyone is drunk and damn well spent.  Bill Buford, in his—confused, rather patronizing—depiction of Lucinda published in The New Yorker not long after the release of Car Wheels summed up one of her shows in this way:

    “. . .it’s still possible to see a live show in which she gets a little carried away-and she always seems to be on the verge of getting a little carried away-and hear almost the entire oeuvre, as was the case about eighteen months ago at New York’s Irving Plaza, when Williams’s [sic] encores went on longer than the act, and the audience emerged, after nearly two and a half hours, thoroughly spent, not only by the duration of the program but also by the unforgiving rawness of the songs.”1

What I cannot grasp here—and indeed what I intend to turn on its head, is this very expected, boring depiction of Lucinda as merely a crazy bitch who happens to have written some amazing songs—that being a fan of hers or even being in the presence of her is a thoroughly harrowing thing for someone to be put through—is the lack of empathy that Mr. Buford carries in his self-confessed appreciation of Lucinda’s music.  And, of course, he’s not the only person or journalist to put Lucinda and her concert performances in such a glib light (incidentally, a Time Out New York blurb that hinted at possible trainwrecks and meltdowns at one of her concerts was the cause of a night of drama and bitching from Lucinda, who did not get over or stop mentioning it for the entire evening); perhaps this condescending sketch of Lucinda-the-crazy-person is their backhanded, backwards way of complimenting the strength of her music, which they appreciate and understand through very staid tropes of the beautiful loser: the outsider/tortured artist whose brilliance shines in spite and at the expense of themselves (think: Townes Van Zandt, Janis Joplin, Billie Holliday, Tammy Wynette, and on and on).  You see, for these folks, Lucinda and her music alike are only fascinating because she’s a train wreck; all descriptions of her, in turn, quickly become cautionary tales.

        • You’re tough as steel and you keep your chin up
        • You don’t ever feel like you’re good enough

Well, as I’ve said and will say again and again, this tale about our Miss Williams will not be a cautionary, ironic or detached one.  In order to love her music, you’ve got to appreciate the angst, romance in the disaster and wallow along with her as she moves through her songs and makes them work.  True listening is an act faith on the part of the listener—and when the image of the singer/songwriter is just as present in the song as the notes and the lyrics that guide them through, a determined empathy and, dare I say, a religious affection are both completely necessary.

    • I’ll stick by you baby through thick and thin
      • No matter what kind of shape you’re in

Cause I’ve seen your sweet side…



No Thoughts On Writing

Stop the Music for a Minute

fit to be tied

Taylor Black

May 5, 2010

No Thoughts on Writing

My reading of Roland Barthes’ S/Z could not have come at a better—or, depending on how you look at it, worse—time in my life as a thinker and reclusive academic.  Telling as it may be, most of my energies and worries lately have been about my profession and my professional community.  Specifically, I have been concerned about the prescriptive and sometimes limited ways in which scholarship and critical discourse get carried out and received in contemporary academia.  You see, I have had a sinking feeling over the past few years that the well of what we call “critical analysis” might have run dry long ago—that maybe there are only so many arguments that we can make as academics and cultural theorists without eating ourselves alive or, worse, devolving into a world where everyone is arguing and no one is listening.

Thankfully, M. Barthes’ essay seems to be heaven-sent: sent at just the right time and delivering just the right message for my world-weary soul.  While it seems to have been decided that both academic labor and cultural theory ought to be affirmative, positivist and invested in the endless production of arguments and new ideas, S/Z focuses on the creative aspects of writing and reading in order to imagine new ways of thinking about conducting flows of thought, literature and ideology. The classical, prescriptive concept of a text is a religious one.  Even in spite of years of post-structuralism and deconstruction, there is still a certain reverence and awe given to pieces of literature and philosophy that holds onto the assumption that there are definitive answers, connections, metaphors and clues imbedded inside the pages of a book that, with the proper equipment and know-how, can be dug up and put on display for all to see.

The compulsion we as academics have to argue the truth or the validity of a text treat the process of reading in a liturgical manner.  The goal of these sorts of academic regulations and conventions represent a literary ideology: a “monster” that those of us employed in the profession of scholarship and academic reading that makes dead objects of pieces of literature and paranoid consumers out of its poor, pitiful readers.[1] All the rituals—the ten minute talk, the twenty page paper, the conference presentation, the question and answer period, the research, the thesis, the argument, the point—that we maintain in the holy name of professionalism and what’s often referred to as good academic work are only ways in which we foreclose the creative in the name of the critical, leave out the listening in the name of the prescriptive reading and unfortunately allow for the kind of prose that even the writer themselves can’t bear to read once it’s done.

There are, even as I’m writing these very words, scores of undergraduate students whispering to each other in the cold, dead halls of English departments across the world, trying to figure out what this text or that essays is about or represents so that they may walk into class with a confident air about them, prepared to tell their teachers just what they’ll expect to be hearing.  This habit of approaching pieces of literature as dead object that contain within them mummified information that the professional scholar must necessarily be able to seek out and cite like some sort of necrophilic archaeologist is what Barthes refers to as “the readerly.”  The ultimate goal of the readerly reading of a text is to sort out right away and without a doubt what it is that a book represents.  Sort of like writing an obituary, this kind of consumption of a piece of writing proclaims with theological certainty how an object of literature should be remembered.  It carves it into stone.

Failure to comprehend a literary work or piece it together so that it might be explained to those poor, lost sophomoric souls roaming the halls of academia everywhere is exactly what the readerly attempts to avoid in its self-confident, almost scientific rendering of a text.  The same finality that gets carried by an obituary is, in Barthes own words, a product of the readerly: “To depart/to travel/to arrive/to stay: the journey is saturated.  To end, to fill, to join, to unify—one might say this is the basic requirement of the readerly, as though it were prey to some obsessive fear: that of omitting a connection.”[2] The idea behind readerliness, and indeed behind what’s considered responsible literary scholarship, is that professional duty lies in the academic’s ability to succinctly and effortlessly piece various works of literature together—both in and of themselves as well as in conjunction, or religious association, with each other.  Once someone is able to successfully defend and articulate their own positions on this or that literary body then they can call themselves—at least to those who will listen—an expert, nay a doctor of literary analysis.

So, while Barthes refers to the readerly text as simply what we conceive of as a “classical text,”[3] as a thing, I also believe he has imagined it for us as a process.  The experience of consuming a classical text allows for a certain kind of freedom, he says, that allows them to decide “either to accept or reject the text.”  Readerly reading is, then, “nothing more than a referendum…[representing] what can be read but not written.”[4] Both the archaeological ways in which, as I have described, works of literature get approached, taken apart and put back together as well as the pious manner in which literature gets remembered and associated weigh this freedom that Barthes lays out for us.  The “right” of scholarship and academic reading lies in the ability of the professional critic to have something distinctive and utterly, horribly communicable to say about the mass of literature that they indulgently refer to as their “field of research.”

There is no pleasure in the holy kingdom of academic literary studies, only proclamations, theses and one defended paper after another, marching off into the abyss.  The rolling hills of this great dark land are filled with the gravestones of classic, readerly, texts and teeming with busy-bodied academics and critics searching, digging and scratching away at surfaces looking for the one last idea that hasn’t yet been uncovered, the decomposing trace of something, anything, that hasn’t already been said.

And then there’s academic writing.  We have become so professionalized, so very guarded about what it is we say and do as professional scholars that we have let our fears and conventions get the best of us.  Just as there is no pleasure in the act of readerly reading, there is also no fun in the writing of critical analysis.  When what you’re told you have to do is make an argument, prove your point or exhibit some sort of fool-proof comprehension of a text then there’s little room for mistake.  The failure of completion—whether it be of your own vision of a book or body of work or simply of the weight of your argument itself—that makes readerliness such a paranoid, safeguarded venture saturates what we now know as academic prose.  The thing that makes a thesis good or worthwhile in the world of academia is its ability to convey confidence, finality and achievement; likewise, the one thing that makes a piece of professional scholarship itself is no real person–or even, really, academic person—would dare read it!

Literature, in our minds, expresses, and its use language creates metaphors. The job of the professional scholar is to uncover, situate and show an astute understanding of how these things are imbedded in whatever body of work they are approaching and defending to death.  The essay is, then, a kind of challenge, an investigation of the individual academic’s fortitude; the professional reading of the essay, in turn, works to declare whether or not a scholar has succeeded or failed at showing and expressing their total comprehension of a text and of literature in general.  Just like the undergraduate students I painted earlier in this piece who stand outside of their classrooms explaining texts to each other and getting the gist of what’s happening in their literature classes so that they can be examined once they walk in and take their seats, literary scholars of all stripes attend conferences and pore over peer-reviewed journals in search of holes in each others’ arguments, looking for a way into the great academic party.  Our writing, then, is really just an expression of readerliness, as it gets soaked with the weight of referendum that Barthes has described for us.  In the name of professionalization and academic success, we mask our failures—of understanding, of investigation, of comprehension—with conventions and false confidence.

Good academic prose isn’t supposed to express, that’s what, at least as we say to ourselves, literature does.  Instead, our writing distills our knowledge, it represents our abilities to read.  Even now, I am working against my better judgment that says that even though I have been assigned to respond to a text that really I should be showing an omnipotent understanding of it—that there should be less of me talking and thinking through my own reaction to my reading of S/Z and more of me making definitive statements about it and clear associations with the bodies of scholarship that I have found myself invested in.  What I ought to be doing, or rather, what’s come to be known as a proper academic response to something, is making claims about Barthes’ book, searching for an argument in order to situate my essay amongst all the other essays that have already been written about S/Z.  But, to situate myself is to do away with myself; to make a claim that can be rock steady and can live on its own.  Never mind the text itself or even the event of my reading it, the real goal of the scholarly—or, if you’d rather, the readerly—is to record my own success over a literary work.  After this, my response can live on its own, and if something as unfortunate as publishing happens to my piece of scholarship, my arguments can crystallize and lay waiting until some other wayward academic soul comes and shreds them to bits.

The problem with scholarly writing is, as I’m sure I’ve made abundantly clear, that its fascinated with its own success—indeed, to argue at all is to be invested in the business of being right and proving value.  But, what if writing didn’t argue?  After all, to concede yourself to an argument leaves open the possibility that you might—and considering the fastidious energy of literary critics, probably will—be wrong.  The answer to this conundrum, and the way out of this wicked fantasy of success that academic inquiry holds so close to its heart is a kind of wonderful failure, a resignation and romantic dedication to what Barthes calls “the writerly.”  Instead of working to overcome disorder in a literary object, the writerly text is only focused on the experience, or the event of the language being heard and read.  Unlike the scholarly paper, which attempts to codify and broadcast the academic’s success over a work of literature and makes arguments that are past even before they’ve been published in journals, the writerly text is, in Barthes’ terms:

“A perpetual present, upon which no consequent language (which would inevitable make it past) can be    superimposed; the writerly text is ourselves writing before the infinite play of the world (the world as function is traversed, intersected, stopped, plasticized by some singular system (Ideology, Genus, Criticism) which reduces the plurality of entrances, opening of networks, the infinity of languages.”[5]

So, if the readerly text ought to be read authoritatively and the scholarly argument is meant to convey success and completion with a kind of religious fervor, then I would like to humbly suggest that the writerly response necessarily be a record of failure—to investigate, to piece together, to associate, to understand, to communicate.  Instead of reading to understand and writing to explain, we could write to write, respond to respond and express what is already expressing.  While people read books like treasure maps and write essays like Bibles, the writerly text can write the things that need to be heard.  Writerly readers can listen to language the way we allow ourselves to listen to songs—to be taken over by them, to be perhaps discombobulated by them, or even to be confused or ambivalent about the content that they may or may not carry with them as they are uttered and echoed off into the distance.  You can argue and defend your self into oblivion or maintain your rights of failure and expression.  Instead of training myself to succeed at this academic profession I have placed my gilded toes upon, I will dedicate myself to protecting and expressing the kinds of personal failures—to explain, to be critical, to be scientific and precise—that got me here in the first place.


[1] Barthes, Roland.  S/Z: An Essay. New York: Hill and Wang, 1970. 97-98

[2] S/Z, 105

[3] S/Z, 4

[4] S/Z, 4

[5] S/Z, 5