Junebug versus Hurricane


Ballad of an Untimely Man: Bob Dylan at the Hollywood Bowl

Ballad of an Untimely Man: Bob Dylan at the Hollywood Bowl

Taylor Black

Never Ending Tour. Hollywood Bowl, Los Angeles, October 26, 2012.

Black, Taylor. “Ballad of an Untimely Man: Bob Dylan at the Hollywood Bowl.” American Quarterly 65:2 (2013), 397-404. © 2013 The American Studies Association.  Reprinted with permission of Johns Hopkins University Press.

Image

Figure 1.
“Bob Dylan, Live: By Paolo Brillo”

Unbeknownst to most of the very distracted and all-too-chatty members of the audience
for Bob Dylan’s Friday night show at the Hollywood Bowl on October 26, 2012, there was a moment when it became clear that the concert was something more like a war between Dylan and us.  An untimely hero, Dylan has already predeceased himself; the man we heard that night was a man paving his victory trail into a world-to-come. As he spat and echoed his way through the always menacing “Ballad of a Thin Man,” he had won.  Dylan rose up from his seat behind the baby grand piano, where he had spent most of the evening tapping his toe and crooning his hits, to grab a microphone, proceeding to prowl around the stage with a devilish grin and started in:

You walk into the room
With a pencil in your hand
You see somebody naked
You say, “Who is that man?”
You try so hard
But you don’t understand
Just what you’ll say when you get home

Because something is happening here,
But you don’t know what it is,
Do you, Mr. Jones?

A standout track from an already formidable collection of records making up Dylan’s 1965 album Highway 61 Revisited, “Ballad of a Thin Man” is a searing and grotesque send-up of the kinds of questions and ponderings that clutter the modern world and make it so noisy, as well as a thinly veiled mockery of a particularly rotund journalist that gained Mr. Dylan’s ire back on one of his infamous tours through England in the early sixties where he and his band electrified and busted up the genteel folk audiences who had at one time come to concerts to kneel beneath his gilded toes but who now called him Judas and screamed at him to go home. His fans wondered then why Bob Dylan had
forsaken them? Why couldn’t he respect the place given to him in the pantheon of American folk music and just sing the damn songs the folks wanted to hear? And how could this so-called voice of a generation commit sins of self-righteous individuality and still have the nerve to charge the public admission?

Still on the road and certainly still confusing and confounding audiences as he goes, Dylan has not escaped his own legacy enough to avoid the incessant drumbeat of passive-aggressive admiration and rabid nostalgia that his adoring public seems to love so much. In some ways, it may make sense that the man that we all know and refer to as America’s folksinger king may have made a quick escape from that sound and that scene just as soon as he was given credit and praise for making his way into it. Maybe the “folks” he has performed for and given himself to need Dylan even as they profess, as they always have and undoubtedly always will, that they don’t really like him anymore.
Maybe Dylan’s dedication to his “Never Ending Tour” is a prophetic one for him. Perhaps his path is led by a righteous dedication to singing to the reprobate consuming public, hurling his songs and his tricks at them like holy water on a possessed corpse. Perhaps Dylan just wants to show us how good and true a man can be.

Image

Figure 2.
“Bob Dylan, Live: By Paolo Brillo”

For Dylan, the disappointment and confusion that his live performances create for his audience are charismatic effects that he is conscious of—a performative challenge he is able to make the most of. His concerts are opportunities for fans and listeners to gather before him and enter into the very banal but always deceptively thoughtful remarks about Dylan’s talents that followed him through his electrified barnstorm tour of England in 1966 and that mutated and still remained in the Hollywood Bowl’s echo chamber last October. While not relevant or, more pointedly, young enough to warrant orgasmic and angry accusations of being a Judas, Dylan was the occasion for many conversations that swirled around me during that night’s performance. In a different time and place, the responses I witnessed were just as mean and just as simple as
the infamous ones hurled at him on his electric tour of 1966.

With their faces aglow in the blue lights of iPhone text messages and Instagram updates, the weary patrons of the Hollywood Bowl amphitheater all carried the same burdens through Dylan’s October concert. Sticking to the contemporary party line given to us by insipid and sniveling rock journalists and parroted endlessly, the same questions were on everyone’s minds and mouths that night: “What song is this? I don’t even recognize it!” “His voice sure is shot!” “Oh my God: he is old!” Spoken from the mouths of babies, the
criticisms and thoughtful reflections on Dylan’s music and career have and will always be the same. Neither given to them by God nor placed in their beaks by the Devil, the catchphrases and resounding remarks on Dylan are unfortunate productions of modern listeners and audience members themselves. Bob Dylan’s appearance at the Hollywood Bowl was, for me and in the long run, an amazing and exhausting experience. Leaning back in my chair and letting his angry shouts and horror movie Wurlitzer sounds astound me, I looked, listened, and watched while Dylan worked himself over on this undeserving and unsuspecting crowd: the same one that had always been there.

Well, you walk into the room
Like a camel then you frown
You put your eyes in your pocket
And your nose on the ground
There ought to be a law
Against you comin’ around
You should be made
To wear earphones

Because something is happening here,
But you don’t know what it is,
Do you, Mr. Jones?

The song in question is, I must sheepishly admit, not so much a critique of Dylan’s audience as it is a painful prodding of the music critic’s motives and insinuations. The sin Mr. Jones commits that I am not guilty of, however, is critical relevance and a real commitment to American pop culture. In the original Highway 61 version of the song, Dylan moves through the strange and warped scenery like a cowpuncher, delivering jokes and sneers about the pitiable Mr. Jones’s walks through rooms he doesn’t know and characters he just can’t get. Unfolding behind the sound of a horror movie house organ, “Ballad of a Thin Man” sees a twisted and grotesque world through the critic’s eyes; with evangelistic zeal, Dylan writes the critic’s story on the wall as one burdened by
the sin of cheap confidence and covetous critical accuracy. At the end of the song, Dylan hands Mr. Jones his throat back and says, “Thanks for the loan.”

What in the world can this inflammatory song about the dead end of criticism do for someone who finds himself engaging in that very, precarious, industry? Considering that Dylan’s antagonistic relationship with his audience is undergirded by and historically based on his more heated and nasty relationship with the press (and with rock journalism in particular), it is important for me to consider my responsibilities and check my own hang-ups having to do with taste and style as I attempt to work my way through the tricky task of writing about Dylan. As Sean Wilentz so aptly put it in the introduction to his 2011 book Bob Dylan in America, critical reception of Dylan’s music is always
and already polarizing (1).  Outside Dylan’s own insistence on this fact from the very first moments of his career, his commercial releases have received polarizing responses. That is, Wilentz argues, the very fact that Dylan has, we all know and he himself has admitted, released bad, or at least puzzling, albums (to name a few: Down in the Groove, Knocked Out Loaded, Live at Budokan, Self Portrait) has created two kinds of critical creatures: the Dylan fanatic and apologist who will accept anything from him and, as they say, would listen to him sing through the phone book, and the devil’s advocate who will, much
more carelessly and dangerously, always dispute the fact of Dylan’s genius and disregard anything he does. We take Dylan’s talent for granted as a culture when we consider his applications and performances of it; what we rarely do is humble ourselves before it or actually sit back and listen to what the man has to offer.

Devoted and dogmatic as I am with regard to Bob Dylan, I realize that it may be easy to lump me into the first of these categories. However, my interest in Dylan as a listener is and certainly ought to be different from my relationship to him as a writer and a thinker. At the heart of the critic’s reception of Dylan—either for or against—lies a cancerous and totalizing nostalgia that, Dylan himself would agree, is worse than death. Either through the apologists’ projections of themselves and their own histories with Dylan and his music or the naysayers’ annoying remarks about Dylan having lost his appeal (remarks
that, I hope I have made clear, have been there all along), the motor that drives critical responses to and affective receptions of Dylan’s work move through the world carrying nostalgia and sentimentality like a tumor.

The real challenge with situating Dylan is that to get it right the writer must take very careful steps through time and space—steps that understand the ways Dylan works against the grain of nostalgic time, marching his songs to the drumbeat of the future, toward an audience-to-come, an audience that might not, as Dylan well knows, ever get themselves together enough or get themselves to the great show at the end of the world. Moving back to his baby grand after “Ballad of a Thin Man” that night, Dylan and his band moved quickly into another strange number. Sounding like a futuristic take on Jimi Hendrix’s own version of the song, Dylan gave the audience a performance of
“All Along the Watchtower” that blended old and new, sounding like a song that had been around for thousands of years and that would still be sung a thousand years from now. Cinematic and visual as all Dylan’s songs are, “All Along the Watchtower” is a strange piece to consider among all his other works: clocking in at only eleven lines, Dylan still paints a horrifying picture of bleak land and scorched earth. Having once fought against the rigidity and spoiled sanctimony of American modernity, Dylan’s performance had a different effect that night at the Hollywood Bowl. Traveling away from and beneath the
homogenizing forces of our postmodern consumer culture and soaring into the aural space above his audience of mouth-breathing iPhone users and their constant comments over his songs, the lines in Dylan’s song took on new life as they imagined a new twilight of the idols.

“There’s must be some way out of here,” said the joker to the thief
“There’s too much confusion, I can’t get no relief ”
Businessmen, they drink my wine, plowmen dig my earth
None of them along the line know what any of it is worth

Of course, not everyone in attendance that evening deserves my scorn and disapproving glances back in time. Inside the amphitheater that night, I could see a small population of Dylan fans who, like myself, knew all the words and anticipated each of Dylan’s gestures and affectations to songs that others pretended not to recognize. Bootleg brothers of mine knew full well that Dylan wasn’t just making up new lyrics on the fly that evening as he crooned and soft-shoed his way through a version of “Tangled Up in Blue” he’d been doing since at least the early eighties. Not one of us turned to our neighbors at the beginning of the show and asked “Where is he?,” not knowing that Dylan performs from behind a keyboard or piano almost entirely these days and that
the tiny guy dressed in a black suit, green shirt, and gray Spanish cowboy hat behind the organ singing “Ooh wee” through a jaunty version of “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere” was the man himself. Even worse, the LA Times itself, in a review of the show, perpetuated the audience’s general state of mind when it published complaints that the concert wasn’t aired on the Hollywood Bowl’s jumbotron that evening (2). No wonder the public was so consumed and distracted that evening: with no concert to see, what in the world were they to do? That night, thousands packed into the Hollywood Bowl, sat themselves in front of what even President Barack Obama has agreed is the most looming and
important figure to ever appear in American music and tuned themselves out (3). Thousands of hungry souls not knowing how to sit back and listen, plugged into pop culture and constantly interfacing with multiple forms of social media and digital communication squirming in their stadium seats, repeating every one of their doubts and perplexing questions at least twice to anyone who would listen to them that night. Almighty consumer citizens poured into the Hollywood Bowl that night only to leave estranged and wondering why they had made the effort in the first place.

Music critics and academic writers of pop cultural phenomena are, unfortunately, not much better than the audience at understanding and perpetuating musical and creative virtue when they see it. Like Mr. Jones, the cultural critic walks around with its eyes in its pocket and its nose on the ground—ever in search of relevance and meaning in any form of entertainment or popular media. Untimely as ever, it is not convenient that Dylan is still alive and performing himself and his music to audiences across the globe. No wonder our cranky and antagonistic bard is so set on his Never Ending Tour when most
forms of praise given unto him amount to passive-aggressive ways of telling him to drop dead. Having been called a legend almost from the word go, Dylan has been well aware of his precarious position in the mass production of himself as a musical icon and a spokesperson of a generation. “It’s like being in an Edgar Allan Poe story,” he told a 60 Minutes interviewer in 2004. “You’re just not that person everyone thinks you are. . . . [But then I realized] that the press and the media, they’re not the judge. God’s the judge. And the only person you have to think twice about lying to is yourself or God. The press
isn’t either one of them.” Like any untimely or heroic person, Dylan doesn’t believe he is God, only that he is closer to God than any of us. He has lived and experienced himself in this manner and with this in mind.

To write about Dylan is necessarily to answer the kinds of questions of time, history, and righteousness that all his songs insist on. You just can’t make it through “Ballad of a Thin Man,” for instance, without deciding which way you want to go when it is done: either you’re with Bob or you’re not; if you’re a writer or a critic, then the pressure is definitely placed on you as to what sorts of timely or untimely claims and phrases you want to fall from your mouth once the deal goes down. For the postmodern critic, relevance—be it political, pedagogical, or topical—is the trapdoor that is hard to miss when putting words to print with regard to this or that musical act of the moment. Like the iPhone-bound audience members witnessing but ultimately missing Dylan’s performance at the Hollywood Bowl that night, we are bound to lose out when we turn away from what’s happening right in front of us, when we put our ears to the ground and miss the songs being sung right to us. The tendency has been to dissociate the performer or the song from the present moment in which it is sung; to desire cross-wired mash-ups over pure productions of ingenuity and untimely grace; to stubbornly and clumsily seek out political narratives in order to announce an artist’s importance; to mistake hackneyed
nostalgia and overwrought citationality in pop music for futurity of some sort.

Like my bootleg brothers spread throughout the crowd at Dylan’s Hollywood Bowl show, relevance is not on my side. This untimeliness is, however, unlike nostalgia in that it points toward what forces and creative elements can’t be seen by contemporary logic rather than overindulging in scripts and narratives that we all know too well. Songs, if they succeed in any way in and of themselves, are concepts—rolls of the dice on a future moment and of a future landscape. When Dylan penned his “Ballad of a Thin Man,” he was surely venting, painting a picture of one or, more likely, a whole host of characters
who really did impinge on and limit his existence as an artist with confounding amounts and forms of media attention on him. Still, though, his castigations and grotesque lamentations remain as possible sites of future ideas and lines of flight toward righteous creative forms in the world to come. To hear and anticipate these thunderous echoes, all you have to do is listen. Against the maelstrom of noisy complaints and a glowing sea of cell phone screens, I held on tight that evening at the Hollywood Bowl as Dylan growled and his voice echoed through the amphitheater and out into the wilderness. Shadowy and imposing, Dylan’s words and his graven image conjured up, if just for those two hours he was onstage, a world lost and a world gone wrong.

Notes
1. Sean Wilentz, Bob Dylan in America (New York: Double Day, 2010), 4–5.
2. Randall Roberts, “Review: Bob Dylan at the Hollywood Bowl,” Los Angeles Times, October 27, 2012.
3. Natalie Jennings, “Presidential Medal of Freedom: Obama Honors Bob Dylan, Madeleine Albright, and Others,” Washington Post, May 29, 2012

Advertisements


Everything That Rises Must Converge

Everything That Rises Must Converge

A Queer Conversation With Amy Ray

Image

Following Amy Ray’s all-too-brief stop through New York supporting her new album Lung of Love (DaemonRecords.com), she was kind enough to sit down and speak with Junebug vs Hurricane, two faithful and always talkative listeners who, as you may already well know, live and breathe for Amy Ray’s music. 

The following piece summarizes our interview with Amy Ray and was first published for Velvet Park  (www.velvetparkmedia.com), so many special thanks to them for helping this come together. 

Image

Amy Ray is a harmonizer. She sings to get along. She even agreed to sit down with two fast talkers called Junebug and Hurricane – one a bitter old Yankee, the other an original Southerner young enough to know better. With these two it was good thing Amy Ray has what we call “a listening voice.” We nearly talked her ear off.  But that rich, calm and ever-yearning tone — the butch voice of Amy Ray — kept it all together.

We started late on a too-hot and blistering day in downtown Manhattan. Amy Ray was exhausted, on the road, just finishing an interview for WNYC public radio: a perfect venue that suits Ray’s call out into the wilderness of the nation across the radio waves, those waves mixing with her presence on Youtube and, most recently, on vinyl. Her new album Lung of Love, reviewed here, has been in our ears and on our tongues for some time now. It was, for us, a relief to finally sit down and hash out some of our ideas and inspirations with our faithful co-conspirator.

“Do people call you ma’am?”

Amy Ray: “Really polite southern boys, always.”

Imagine the three of us seated in a deserted deli called “Jazzy’s” on Manhattan’s lower west side: a menopausal Hurricane, a dumbstruck Junebug and our dear Amy Ray: three queers who know what it feels like to be out of time, who know something about lives of humidity, futility and queer belatedness.

Amy Ray says she’s always been “a little behind.” She recalls how meeting the members of the Durham-based band The Butchies in the late 1990s radicalized her, helped her figure out “where [she] was coming from, but didn’t even know it.”

She describes this consolidation-through-community as active intuition: becoming aware of herself, overcoming a more staid, middle-classness by learning how to join in and move in step with queer community.

Amy Ray shuttles between going out–the road–and sticking to her place. A resident of a rural north Georgia town–an expatriate Atlantan–she has dreams of hosting queer salons on her own turf. Migration, a journey, every-changing formation across boundaries, is the main theme in Lung of Love. This latest formation picks up flight from songs like “Birds of a Feather,” with its plaintive,”If we are birds of a feather//Why can’t we migrate?”

Ray loves community–being in a band, if not being the leader of one. She says that she’s not interested in being the sexy rock star; she wants her audience to feel sexy, to be inspired by her grooves. In songs from the last two albums, like “Bus Bus” and “When You’re Gone You’re Gone,” Greg Griffith, producer, and Melissa York, drummer and instigator, add a certain r and b swagger, a timeless and sexy sound that Amy hadn’t quite put her finger on in previous self-produced work.

Community requires solidarity, but Amy Ray fights stolidity. Transformations–of gender, politics, ethics–fascinate Amy Ray. In “She’s Got To Be” Ray asks “Is the body just a cage?” The answer is always yes and no. In Ray’s vision, people come apart and they come together: in butch/femme relationships, through bodily transitions, anti-racisms, in moments of encounter between species and in the notes and harmonies of the songs she sings.

Of the people in her life who are, as she says, “changing form,” Ray is sympathetic and attuned to their processes. Transitioning is a path Ray “might have chosen . . . if [she] were in another generation.” She “loves the trajectory” of these new men who must “go back to learn to hang on to their feminism” or, she warns, “they’re going to become one of the privileged gate-keepers of the world who we fight against.”

Image

For Ray, change sometimes comes in the form of not-changing, of, as she says, “waking up in the morning and saying, “this is you,” or recognizing “I don’t want to be in this body but at the same time I don’t want to change it.” The refrain in “She’s Got To Be” (“She’s got to be with me always// To make sense of the skin I’m in”) sings of and, ultimately, through this quotidian dilemma of managing self-love with her responses to and responsibilities in the outer world. “A partner,” as she says, to the title song on her new record, “She’s Got To Be” is, as Ray puts it, “both a love song to my partner and to myself,” she says that the meanings of the song morph every time she sings it. Like a form of Christian Mysticism, this song weighs and balances the mutually defining processes of Ray learning “to love myself and my partner.” It is as if the song becomes the body it talks about; the creation of an experience brought forth by her voice.

Lung of love, this failing breath//The compass of a heart that won’t rest

The murmur’s beat, the stalling gait//The compass of the heart that won’t wait

Every queer that rises must, one day, converge. The title song “Lung of Love” takes up a new approach to the organic expression of feeling.  The heart, now an over-determined and perhaps overly-cited, source of angst and joy, takes a back seat in this song that conjures up feelings that, like breath itself, make us and constantly fail us: “We are learning to breathe–we will pursue this trick our whole lives. And when we have finally mastered it we will become the breath–there will be no more separation.”

In her wisdom Amy Ray has produced a record that sings with confidence and that seems more self-assured than anything either of us have listened to in a long while: by her or by any other contemporary music makers. If there is a reason for this, though, it is not just age and maturity that give this record, and indeed its title song, its depth of meaning and of pleasure. Mysteries reveal themselves throughout the album the same way they do in nature: through the experience of time passing through and by our ever-failing bodies. In the end, Ray sings: “I pray that you get this tune//And that it don’t leave you lonely// This fruitless sorrow we feel//We come by it honestly.”

Image

Her butch voice sounds so smooth, made up of vibrations we can hear come together. It’s a voice that tries to erase itself, saying “I guess I should have been listening.” And yet it still sings. The voice–that she has honed, that we all enjoy and that adds a sweet and sexy swagger to all of her songs–keeps it together for our ears that wait and listen.

Part of Ray’s new composure and more sure, deep voice comes through in her not being afraid, these days, of exhibiting a little grouchiness, or of demanding a little more. “Glow” is sarcastic about low blows and lower goals. As Ray says, “If that’s [my] best day, well then, I’ve got more work to do . . .” But sometimes Ray wishes people would just calm down, stop “trying to win.” Relationships, in particular, can seem like endless occasions for complaint. The road song that in “Bus Bus” (from Didn’t It Feel Kinder) had its “heart on vibrate,” still trying out the “lovesick troubadour” routine that in “Bird in the Hand” has worn out, the femme just saying “get in line// stop your wandering.” In Lung of Love‘s “I Didn’t” the road runs out and the butch-femme couple are “Just looking for a fight// to make all that hurt seem right.” And, yes, all these songs do make the hurt seem right.

With melodious complaints,”Do You Have to Be the Rolling Train// Do You have to be the wounded bird// Do You have to be the only voice I hear, crying in the wilderness?” Ray is building a trove of songs memorializing a relation of love that is becoming historical as we listen, as the tune fades. Butches and femmes. To the butch, femmes are women who categorically did not belong to us and yet give themselves to us. The femme in this song–Ray’s latest chapter in this unsung, and possibly dying, lesbian tradition–is always pushing: “we got this mountain we got to climb,” and Ray, riffing on her own song, laughs: “I’m weary!” She’s weary of having to play and replay the past in her own relationships and in our communities. “I Didn’t” sings of and camps the queer relationship: it reacts to the well-known form of processing with a kind of dismissal: no, I’m not your parent’s alcoholism or your ex-lover’s aggression. Amy Ray wants you to know: She didn’t.

Image

In her own world and in our queer communities, Ray sings, observes and listens; she sings in order to get us to harmonize, in order for our experiences to collectively overcome their circumstances.  If she’s weary, it’s because she finds herself in a world she didn’t create. If her songs have any political import it is that they carry with them, and in their refrains, a utopian overcoming of our present circumstances,  a breath of something-else-to-come that may be somewhere off in the distance.

Amy Ray doesn’t like easy slogans. She didn’t even always like our easy reads of her songs, which trade on doubles–in theme, metaphor and intention. “Give It A Go” takes up the problem of gay suicides and the national ‘It Gets Better’ campaign, improving on that slogan with her way cooler, “stick around for the show.” But it’s the music from the mysterious past, and Ziggy Stardust himself, who returns to the jumping bridge. Ziggy, the glam rocker returns from Ray’s childhood, a “touchstone” from a time of innocence, when “we didn’t even know all the words.” But some breath returns, though it can’t save everyone. Ray admits that she’s had a hard time talking about what she perceives as a campaign that “square[d] out” with too much celebrity involvement and too little of a sense for the rich bestiary of loveable losers and freaks. Too little of what Flannery O’ Connor would appreciate as the sacrifice of the freaks, the way they are “a channel to the creator,” Ray says.

Everything that rises must converge. This is Ray’s migration, her movement and transformation. She migrates harmonies across borders, species, all sorts of bodies. When asked about her tendency to make deep connections, she explains that her father was a radiologist, a reader of X-rays, and that these images filled her house growing up, “It’s just the lens I see things through.” This lens, it seems, is about the body that waits to breathe; the world-to-come that lies, waiting to emerge in our very next breath.



“The Second Time Around” for Amy Ray’s “Laramie”

— Again

Elena Glasberg

November, 2010

hunting season's over

I’ve got a queer hangover and it is NOT getting any better.  Actually, it’s getting harder and harder to be me.  I mean at 51, finally the world cannot stop speaking of my categories in the most emotional and righteous of ways.  If it’s not Israelis killing innocent Palestinians in the name of God-knows-what, it’s gays beaten and killed by “neighborhood bullies.”  Or, as some lament, not being allowed to kill (unlike those universally conscripted Jewish Israelis) for their country.  And now, “gay suicide”: gays killing themselves before anyone gets the chance.

Life for gay kids was once easier.  Before the “It gets better (so you can become normal)” tidal wave gathered and struck.  I remember as an undergrad at Purchase College in the late 1970s I had a chance to take a course on gay culture with a now-foundational anthropologist.  She was a Jew and a butch.  No way, I thought.  Why would I want to study what I already knew?  I was so dumb!  I could’ve caught a case of identity studies as it was on the rise and begun a profitable career in my self.  But no.  I took astronomy and Medieval literature, though I was neither sidereal in nature nor was I of the past.  I was just trying to live my girl-obsessed punky little life.  I showed up one time to the (newly forming) gay undergrad club that met in a room in the basement of the dorm.  Scanning the room of fatties and dweebs and seeing not one female who didn’t make me hate myself almost as much as I was likely to come to hate them if I stayed, I fled back to the light of apolitical prettiness and joyful exclusion.

Forgive me, Amy.  I didn’t know any better.  I was a rocker.  Loved Lou Reed and Patti Smith.  Television, Neil Young.  Screaming guitars.  Lucinda, Dylan.  I did not associate with lesbian-feminist women’s music festival any more than I could tolerate Melissa Etheridge’s middle American high school version of the lesbian loner peeking in straight girls’ windows.  Earnest and direct politics worked for Woody Guthrie.  But for everyone else, it’s musical death.  But with typical missionary zeal, Junebug showed me the error of my ways.  Now the scales have fallen from out my ears holes, I can hear Amy Ray’s commitment and her experience with multiple communities and genres: rural kids, Homocore, women’s music, bluegrass, Native land rights, protest songs, anthems.  And as it turns out, she was weary, weary of the coerciveness of communities of outlaws and of the highjackings of injury and loss of the normative movement of gay politics.  Given the recent and seemingly natural (or as they say on the internet where everything happens now, “viral”) expansion of national gay rights production of an evidential “epidemic” of gay bullying and suicides in the “It Gets Better” videos, it just might be time for a second time around with Ray’s 2001 Song about Matthew Shephard’s murder, “Laramie.”

Amy Ray sings the connections of the US landscape, from the old fields and plantations, dirt roads, and highways.  She’s been riding the rails between a place called home and the road, like a good American troubadour.  When she’s on the road she’s dreaming of a dirt road.  When she’s sitting at the end of that dirt road, she’s singing about getting back on that open road.  That’s what troubadours do; they trouble space and the air with their songs.  When she’s not hurrying on to some woman down that road or trying to make her way back to the one she shouldn’t have left, Ray’s road songs are actually thinking about those spaces, fences, and networks that trace and create the political landscape of the US. Now is the time to revisit one of those places at the end of a road, Laramie.

The road to Laramie is a weary one.  “We all heard about that mess.”  We’ve been hearing it and replaying this dirge of young men martyred in the name of hatred.  Or was it freedom?  The campaigns for so-called “gay” marriage and for open military service and the repeal of don’t ask don’t tell policy more than ever define gay politics.  These moral, political goals leave behind the “mess” of actual sexual politics as it forms bodies and classes of people not unlike the way barbed wire created the Plains by fencing things in and keeping things out.

Laramie’s liquid la la syllables invoke the “open plains” of cowboys and Indians.  Of course cowboys and Indians has never been a simple set of stories.  Laramie’s associations of conflict, enmity, and racialized hatred have deepened since Matthew Shepherd met his end on the side of a road, leaned up against a barbed wire fence, the same cheap and flexible fences that helped create the “open” space of the plains and a cattle industry.  The same fences that helped drive under Native ways of living on that land.

The “road to Laramie” comes at you with a heavy downbeat.  It comes with Neil Young’s electric guitar distortion, catching at your mind like the barbs on the wire catch at the animals, the weeds, all the lives trying to pass through.  And it comes now with a new myth, one to replace the dead Indians and the wide open: a little blond boy beaten to death by ignorant, hateful and doubtless desirous white thugs from hometown Laramie. 

With a dolorous atonal chord Ray calls out, “Hey coalitions/ Lay down your mission/aries” to skewer the morality of the aggressive new missionary mode of gay politics.  And it applies even better to this understandable but no less lamentable recent move to counter-missionize “at-risk” youth.  The viral “It gets better” videos point to the truth of the slur that gays “recruit.”  They missionize.  Of course they do.  Surely, MS was on a mission that night at the bar in Laramie – to get laid, to find friends and acceptance.  What he ran into were the fences and the barbs.  But Laramie wasn’t any different from the rest.

it gets better

Ray won’t give into urban-centered myths of freedom: “those boys just doing what the fancy people think.”  They’re the cowboys who unrolled and strung out the bales of wire fencing that made the plains.  But more often as not they’re just frat boys now, bewildered and diminished manhoods roaming the range to which Amy Ray aims another wall of noise: “Hey motherfuckers! Party season’s over…” Not just for them, but us too. Those boys in Laramie are not a party, a people “out there.”  They are not an enemy.  And not only are we not martyrs, the martyrs are actually not us.  Despite the outpourings of facile identification and developmentalism implied in the “It gets better” viral reproduction, no one really knows what it was like for the suicides.  Or for Matthew Shephard.  Further, these deaths and failures to connect, victimizations and murders may not add up to anything we know call homophobia.  For example, few consider the persistent utility of homophobia in the expression of so many religious leaders as more an effect of historical sectarianism than a real hatred of gay people.  In fact, with the “It gets better” campaign the public gay movements now slavishly imitate religions, states, and as the term campaign also suggests, military strategy.  In other words, Ray suggests that the Coalitions are missionary.  Imitators of what they seek to upend.

For coalition, Ray offers Neil Young, a connection through rock n roll, distorted guitars, songs like “Pocahontas” and “Powder Finger.”  And it makes sense Ray has been covering these relatively obscure Young songs for her young-er audience, carrying on the tradition of redressive resistance.  “Pocahontas,” despite its creepy moccasin-fever, animates the myth of the dead Indian: Pocahontas is a living, seeing presence in the aural landscape.  “Powder Finger” is a Faulknerian take on coming of age with Civil War.  From its opening alarm, “Look out Mama, there’s a white boat coming down the river” it tells the story of the brief life of a boy caught up in a war that comes to his quiet town.  American history never sounded like this, it never looked like this.  The boy might have just as easily been on the banks of a river in Viet Nam, too.  All the rivers, like all the roads converge on a young man “just turned 22” and not going to make it to the last line of the song, dying in a war he had no idea of.

There’s a connection Ray is trying for, between Young’s generation of the Vietnam War and civil rights protest movements and the contemporary resurrection of that national sacrificial figure.  Now, post-nation, “post” civil rights, we get gay martyrs as representative of a real rights-bearing category of civil life.  Before “all [this] mess,” Matthew Shepherd might have been another boy dead from war, drinking, class anger, syphilis, AIDS.  But now that sexuality fights its way through injury towards a rights-bearing condition, a gay martyr emerges from the murk of people just doing wrong.  And it is no accident that he was – and is – that type of the white male citizen, soldier, martyr.  Yeah, we all heard about that mess.  “But that town ain’t any different from the rest.” The sentimental attachment to male martyrdom and to suicide in particular distort understanding of what can change politically – and for whom — in the area of sexual freedom and policy (or rights discourse).

Laramie was also the end of the road in the gay rights imaginary—both an impasse, or a turning point in time where they said ‘enough’s enough,’ invigorating their homonationalist campaigns for rights at the end of the century.  Imagine all the concerned left and east coast homos who descended on Laramie in the years following the incident like ‘49ers, picking at the memory of this poor dead boy and mining that poor dead town for all the political and cultural metaphors they could fit in their knapsacks and take back home with them, back on the campaign.  Can a town’s political metaphors/usages be stripped mined out until the landscape is bare?  Will the fair-haired white gay martyr continue to be the gold standard of the gay rights movement at the expense of the all the land, the rest of the people, a fuller accounting and connection through history and geography?

When this country or this gay rights movement can use a different kind of martyr, well, the need for civic sacrifice will itself most likely have died out.  “Party time” will one day be over.  In that case, with Amy Ray, I say RIP.



The Final Case Against Miss Gaga

The meat goes in the pussy

A Benediction

Sunday, 09/19/10

We know what you were thinking: so much for Junebug vs Hurricane!  Those two dolts haven’t gotten enough executive between the two of them to finish an email, much less keep a blog up and running for very long!

Well, dear reader, you’re very wrong – and I must say, you shouldn’t say or think such nasty things about us!  Have some faith!  We were simply taking the summer off to recoup and deal with other things: our good friend Hurricane met a lady-friend and spent that time being punch drunk, and I my sweet summer months wandering the streets of London and New York just plain drunk.

You can rest assured that you’ll have access to our wonderful thoughts and musical asides in the cold weeks to come, but for the moment we have felt it necessary to emerge from the sticky warmth of our hibernation to set the record straight once and for all on every last conversation having to do with dear Miss Gaga.

In general, we try and keep our noses out of so-called pop cultural trends and discussions that are beneath both our tastes as well as our radars, but, as you might imagine, the Lady Gaga phenomenon is not one we have been successful at hiding from.  Consider this intervention more like a benediction: this is the last thought that you or either of us will need to think about Gaga, and this is the last conversation having to do with the cultural trend that she represents.  Anything you enjoy or appreciate in the blog entry to come you may credit both me and my partner in crime with duly; however, if you find yourself offended you should feel free to direct your blame and anger at me, Junebug, since I know my much wiser and more tactful friend would surely have worded this in a much different way.

So, without further prefacing or adieu, we present to you:

The Official Junebug vs Hurricane Dismissal of Little Miss Gaga:

1.  Her music is horrible, and you know it.

2.  We do not accept her as a so-called “queer” artist and do not find it interesting or even remarkable that scores of homosexuals find her interesting.  For one thing, queers from either side of the aisle have never been—and apparently will never be—known for their taste in music.  Let us not forget Quentin Crisp’s decades old, but still pertinent and wise words on this matter: “A lifetime of disco music is a high price to pay for one’s sexuality.”

3.  Neither her “music” nor her “performances,” whether on stage or off, “do” anything.  No, Miss Paglia, she is not stealing or appropriating anything from Madonna or anyone else—plagiarism is, we fully admit, part of the creative process and not something to get up in arms about (mostly because it can lead to very tiresome and tautological kinds of discussions, on both ends).  However, criticism and scholarship from the queer academy and from better bred members of the pop culture press that attempt to credit Miss Gaga’s music, performances and public appearances for “doing” anything both oversimplify and miss the point of musical production to be worthwhile in and of themselves without having to intervene in any political movements, change gender, do gender, represent sexuality or uplift queerness.  Music is music and it is only valuable for being music.  Music is capable of producing music.

4.  We think it’s very annoying that Miss Gaga has decided to become the new gay diva.  Admittedly, she is smart for recognizing a space for herself in the queer market place.  It has been a while since homosexual men in America, the UK and worse have had someone to look up to or to weep over since Whitney is too busy being a crackhead, Beynocé has proven herself to be a fair-weather friend, the pale and weepy homos that once followed Tori Amos have been restless lately and it doesn’t look like poor Judy Garland will be lifting her pie-faced self out of the grave anytime soon.

However, we snub our noses at everything she has done and wonder why other otherwise intelligent queers have fallen for it hook line and sinker—we know they can’t love her for her songs!

4a. We are annoyed with Lady Gaga-the-political-leader in the following ways: from her maudlin attempts at shoring up the hearts and minds of the gays with all of her “You are my little monsters!” business to her very misguided and nosey intervention in “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” proceedings in Congress to the stupid new title of her stupid new record “Born This Way.”

Divine did it for our sins.

5. Who cares if she wore a meat dress to the VMAs?  We all remember Pink Flamingos and know full well that Divine already stuck a big slab of cube steak in her panties way back when.  This is not a who-done-it-first kind of claim, mind you, but a Divine-shoved-meat-in-her-cunt-years-ago-for-our-sins kind of claim.  I mean, we’re supposed to be schocked by Miss Gaga when we have the memory of Divine written into our very souls?  Please?

As a matter of fact, to (roughly) quote John Waters on the Gaga thing: “I’ve seen it before.  The only thing nice I’d have to say about her is that she’s got a pretty ugly face.”

6. Lady Gaga is a trap.  She only represents a new trend—in fashion, pop culture criticism, journalism and homosexuality.  Fashion trends are arbitrary sets of rules that change arbitrarily from year-to-year without doing or saying anything interesting, unique or queer in the least.  In times of doubt, let us not look to or participate in fashion trends for our sense of our selves, our community or our politics.  The visibility Lady Gaga offers queers in the marketplace and in the middle of American pop culture is a trap, and we suspect that those of us who have not relished our time in the darkness wisely might have fallen for the insulting invitation into the ugly and banal spotlight that her presence has offered us.

7. Did we say her music sucks?  It does gey stuck in your head, true, but that just reminds us of the feeling we get waiting in the lobby at the Dentist’s office or getting carsick in the back of a cab while someone else (someone with no taste or sympathy) is controlling the radio dial.

So, to sum up our little rant: Lady Gaga is annoying and so are arguments for or against what she does or doesn’t do to culture and politics.  These kinds of conversations abound, but are all based in knee-jerk reaction and very generous and misguided uses of political theory and cultural studies.

If anyone involved in these kinds of discussions needs a cautionary tale they only need look back upon the very embarrassing “debates” around poor little Madonna from the eighties and early nineties—we all thought those conversations to be terribly pertinent and relevant at the time, but look at her now!  The bitch’s off speaking with a Scottish accent doing God knows what.

I shudder to think at how silly all this will seem once the dust settles, the wind blows in a different direction and we have all accepted the utter hollow and annoying essence of our dear Little Lady Gaga.



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