Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Dreams, Piano and the Tyrant of Men

Lebensessenz is a pianist and songwriter who presently lives in Brazil, but would like to get gigs in the U.S. While his music is often lyrical and compelling, what's just as compelling is the intense personal story behind the compositions.

You can get hints of that story both in Lebensessenz's song titles and in his autobiographical essay "A Monologue About Lebensessenz," which can be found on his My Space page.

Lebensessenz says the motifs of the music are derived both from his "hard times" and "strong emotions." The hard times sometimes find musical expression in songs about dreams. (At least three songs have the word "dream" in the title.) The "strong emotions" aren't necessarily negative; for instance, Lebensessenz cites "happiness" (and perhaps in particular happiness over the recent birth of his daughter) as one of them.

But what's usually underlying his music is a keen sense of, and sadness about, loss or abandonment. Hard times related to loss have made Lebensessenz's music sensitive to matters related to love, intimacy and the denial of these. He's written a song cycle on The Sorrows of Young Werther — the best known literary work about unrequited love. And one gets an almost physical impact from the starkness of his 2008 CD title: "Tu deorum hominumque tyranne, Amor!" ("You, Love, Tyrant of Gods and Men." One of the record's songs is titled "Cruelty.")

As for the losses and abandonments that shook him hardest, in his essay he's explicit that these relate to his treatment at the hands of a distant father and to two important intimate relationships that ended badly. One reason we know the almost constant distance and apparent indifference of the father are important is that Lebensessenz writes a great deal about his feelings of rejection and sense of inattention on the part of his father and the effects of those feelings on Lebensessenz’s composing and compositions.

His father, who was, he says, a "fabulous musician," didn't live with him. The father, who was big on music theory, felt his son "needed to play with the correct methods" -- not something Lebensessenz was keen on at the time. As time passed, says Lebensessenz, "I wanted his help and his teaching, but, through a reason that I don't know," the father didn't want the same thing.

Even when the father was present, he seemed somehow absent. We are told he didn't comment on the early recordings of his son's music. “Why doesn't he say anything about what I do?" wonders the son. "It hurt me so much, but with time I just tried to forget it."

The result of all this was a son who was self-taught when it came to playing the piano. After the son’s composing began, the Father did, at one point, overhear the son playing the composition "Der Walzer von Lotte" ("Lotte's Waltz" – one of Lebensessenz’s most moving pieces and a surprisingly energetic work). The father told Lebensessenz 's mother that the songs were "sounding good." This Is the first time the father is seen as being aware and attentive to his son. It’s a moment Lebensessenz will mention more than once.

In a song cycle based on Schiller’s work The Robbers ("Die Rauber"), one song, “The Letter,” is about a character in the Schiller novel who writes a letter asking to be forgiven by his father. The son experiences "anxiety waiting for an answer."

Part of the result of Lebensessenz’s father’s distance and apparent indifference is the composer’s feeling of loss of the father. In the long process of creation behind the body of Lebensessenz’s work, there are times of fragmentation and total loss, at least as far as the work is concerned. He says that two early tapes of his music got lost in mysterious ways. In 2006, he says, he started to write a romance, but, in a statement that is itself mysterious, he says the romance now exists only in fragments.

Both in his writing and music titles, Lebensessenz makes frequent reference to states one easily associates with a sense of inattention at the hands of a valued object, or rejection by, distance from, loss of, such an object. The composer returns and returns to references to night, solitude, melancholy. "Most of my compositions,” he tells us, “emerged through nocturnal moments." The waltz Lebensessenz writes based on material in Werther is danced in the night. In 2005 he uses a computer to compose "Der Abend des Abschields" ("Farewell Night"). The title’s twin reference to night and separation is linked to music built on "longing, platonic passions" – the sort of passions one can develop for much sought-after objects who aren’t available. A 2006 composition is titled "Das Drama de Einsamkeit" (“The Drama of Solitude).”

When he became an adult, Lebensessenz asked his father "to help" him "with some exercises, but he was not so interested." He rationalizes his father’s lack of interest by considering that the father may think the son will lose interest. There is, perhaps, more rationalizing; in "refusing to help me,” writes Lebensessenz, the father wanted to give him “an answer to find my own way"

As years pass, Lebensessenz will engage in rationalization about his father that is more elaborately conceived and less convincing; he will state that he’s come to the realization that his father’s "silence of old times had its importance. He said few things, but it was sufficient ... “ And at about the time Lebensessenz realized this, he experienced a loss whose existence we don’t need to conjecture about: “In the same year, I lost him." In 2009, he is still rationalizing for the father; his album is titled Ihr Leben war fur mich ein Beispiel" ("Your Life Was An Example To Me"). But one song is titled "Days of Voluntary Exile." The solitude that has so often been the legacy he’s taken from his father is still with him.

After inattention, perceived loss, real loss of the father and a loss of two crucial intimate relationships lost as finally and as mysteriously (that is, with as little description) as the loss of the early cassettes, it is small wonder that Lebensessenz chooses to title a CD "Tu deorum hominumque tyranne, Amor!" ("You, Love, Tyrant of Gods and Men"). His music at this time is, he says, melancholic, introspective; his music continues to have "melancholy, sadness." Solitude remains, entrenched, and with its sometimes companion fragmentation: "Again I see myself alone.” Fragmentation of work still reflects fragmentation of life by the loss of key people; he says he remembers "the ruins of things that ended badly.”

But it is a distortion not to note the degree to which Lebensessenz says his music has been formed by feelings of happiness. The happiness is also expressed in the writings, and in particular in statements of such individuality that they are heartening and show the composer is driven by an energy that is, at least during much of his composing time, able to match the weight of the loss he carries. Here are some examples of the sort of aphoristic statements that Lebensessenz seems to be able to put to express with great facility:

The work, he says, is "a learning"
"There are no secrets in what I do"
"When I face good or bad situations, I play; when I'm quiet also, I play with all my heart."
"There are things that only me and my piano knows."

The music, which Lebensessenz calls neo-classical, always sounds like music of the 20th century and the first decade of this century. Quiet passages can sound like Satie or Poulenc. (There are also rare, extremely sparse passages that are reminiscent of Morton Feldman.) More complex, and slightly louder, post-Romantic stylings may sound a bit like, say Scriabin.

Then there are the pieces in which Lebensessenz performs in the neoclassicism so popular at the moment — a kind minimalist neoclassicism. While his pieces of this ilk can sometimes sound as calm and simply melodic as those of Harold Budd, more often they have the fast, driving quality of Robert Moran or Michael Nyman. In these driving pieces, which are liberally flavored by lyrical passages, the melodies are simple. The chord sequences are simple enough, and close enough to those used in rock, that even those who've never listened to classical music will be able to appreciate the music immediately.

A visit to Lebensessenz' My Space page will give you seven or eight MP3s of his songs to listen to, his blog, information about his CDs and books of essays, and ways to download or order.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

On True Crime

Would you convict a man who had a pet ant to life without parole?

That's a serious question. I'll say more about it at the end of this essay.

First, let me tell you a story a friend once told me about his trip to a porno shop. It's an uneventful tale. What struck me was an observation, which I think I can express in words close to an exact quotation: "As soon as I went in the store, I smelled that smell that porno shops always have, and I got that feeling you get when you're doing something taboo."

What interested me was that he felt sure he was breaking a taboo even though he was doing nothing illegal.

Many of our taboos have nothing to do with legality. Suppose I give a speech to a group you belong to. And suppose I begin by picking my nose, burping, putting one of my feet up on the podium, pulling up my trouser leg and calling the audience's attention to my bright white athletic socks. In this story, I break at least three taboos in a few seconds. But I do nothing illegal.

The taboo against going to porno shops is of greater interest than the trivial taboos in my speech story be cause pornography has an effect on American culture that's far-reaching, profound and — because porn is taboo — off-limits to analysis. Before the Internet and DVD came along and vastly extended the range of porn, the sale of XXX videos was a $20 billion-a-year business. One of every five videos sold was rated XXX.

Obviously, many millions of Americans were privately engaging in an activity that in public they would assert was taboo.  Such a phenomenon must indicate something significant about American culture. But outside of the Village Voice and a few academic journals on popular culture, the phenomenon receives no critique whatsoever for the simple and obvious reason that the subject is taboo in this country.

All of that is a belabored way of getting me to the point where I tell you that I frequently read true crime books even though I know it is taboo to do so. Just as it's easy to find evidence of significant consumption of porn, it's easy to demonstrate that many people engage in the legal taboo of reading true crime by noting the significant presence of true crime books in any bookstore.

The taboo nature of true crime is lampooned to splendid effect in a book that is itself taboo — American Psycho. I refer to the scenes in which the killer protagonist disgusts his dining companions with details about serial killers he's gleaned from his reading.

While the scenes are humorous, I think the author, Brett Easton Ellis, was playing around with the reality (as he was during most of the book). The truth is most Americans do know at least the basic facts about such notorious killers as John Wayne Gacy and Jeffrey Dahmer, and most who did not know would want to. Furthermore, Gacy's true-life story was less outré than that of the fictional sensation Hannibal Lechter.

In the situation depicted in American Psycho, the group aware ness of taboo arises when a speaker relates the dirty details of dirty deeds says something like, "Boy, I really get into reading about people who do stuff life this." Not until that comment was made would folks raise their eyebrows.

As an independent thinker, I read what I like without any concerns about whether the material is taboo in this or that place. I admit that if I'm in a bookstore whose counterperson has a sophisticated look, I won't buy a true crime book. There's still certainly that much of the bourgeois in me.

My motivations for reading true crime have changed over time. My first true crime reading spree began in the mid-1980s when I realized I was interested in what I called "marginal culture" — the culture of those who indulge in unusual acts or thoughts. At the time, I thought the gap between the marginal and the typical was much larger than I presently think it is.

These days I read true crime because reading it is the least demanding thing I can do without doing nothing at all. That's the case because I don't own a television.

At this point, I might as well mention that doing nothing is taboo. I say that not just to make a banal comment on the insanely frantic pace at which we choose to live, but also to point out that if a person genuinely does nothing — or comes as close as people can to doing nothing — he'll fear he's suffering from mental illness. In the psychiatric trends that obtain at present, "doing nothing" is a symptom of severe depression, and hence taboo. All of this may inspire even the most jaded person to think, perhaps at an unconscious level, that he "should" do something.

I fear that at times, such thinking is my motivation for picking up a true crime book. Reading true crime is a minimal way of doing something. It's an act that requires next to no intellectual activity. Like fictional works that fall in the category of subgenre, true crime is formulaic in the extreme. The reader never needs to struggle to impose order on the text.

Of course, it's the failure to use the formula in a thoughtful way that makes most true crime books the dreck they are. People read true crime books for one of two reasons: either they want to learn the gruesome details of crimes or they want to learn about the freaky personalities and idiosyncrasies of over-the-top criminals. The successful true crime writer will keep the focus on these motifs and never stray from them.

Most true crime books fall apart the moment the investigation of the crimes begins. In any major case, the sequence of events from the start of the investigation to the announcement of the verdict will involve dozens of individuals at various levels of the criminal justice system. Even a brilliant writer cannot develop so many characters. Yet most true crime writers try to do just that. The reader is inundated with banal detail about a multitude of players. Detective So and So, the reader is told, was tenacious, put in 14-hour-days, gobbled down Cheerios for breakfast at 5 am and paused once in a while for a Dunhill. Clotted with such tedious and pointless details, the book becomes a bore and is tossed in the trash.

I recently read the aptly titled book Rough Trade by talented true crime writer Steve Jackson. I kept noticing that Jackson rarely used even a sentence to describe one of the many individuals in the criminal justice cast. Often his only description was a short parenthetical phrase ("Police Sgt. Bill Smith, an old-school street cop, arrived ...").

Writers such as Jackson, or the more talented Jack Olsen, Ann Rule and Aphrodite Jones, keep their works engrossing by focusing squarely on the criminal at all times.

But why would one want to read such works, even when they're skillfully crafted? If one wants to
learn about freaky people in a fast, easy manner, or if one simply wants to make time pass, reading true crime is a viable activity. For those with no such desires, there's no reason to read it.

To say that true crime is taboo, has a limited audience and is usually poorly written is not to say it's worthless. Most true crime books provide a good view of the human condition, provided one is willing to read between the lines, and work backwards from the adult's expression of violence — the key subject matter — to the influence of the childhood role models for whom the criminal learned violence was an acceptable form of behavior.

Without exception, children who eventually grow up to be the subjects of true crime books are victims of repeated severe psychological, sexual and violent abuse by at least one caregiver, and usually by more than one. People who think criminals commit crimes because they read a particular book are people who haven't read true crime books.

The abusers who transform a child into a violent criminal are usually, though not always, relatives of the child. And it is inaccurate to assume the abusive caregivers are always adults. In the most dysfunctional families, children may be abused by caregivers who are 12 or 14 years old and have long since learned methods of abuse from adult role models.

But what does this have to do with the human condition? Aren't such extreme cases aberrations? They are. But the aberrations are skewed reactions to experiences that are universal. Early on, babies fear abandonment when they can tell a parent is leaving a room or house. And all children, when they are very young, fear they will be abandoned or rejected when they sense parents are displeased with their behavior. Parents with certain dispositions express disapproval of children's behavior by withdrawing affection from the child or becoming resentful or angry. Most parents, of course, will not do these things to the point of being abusive.

Children's fears of abandonment or rejection will be more or less pronounced depending on the parents' gifts at parenting. But even relatively minor childhood fears don't magically disappear when the child reaches the legal age of adulthood. Societies could not exist if people did not to some degree fear rejection or abandonment. Most adults deal with these fears by just coping with them in a catch as catch can manner or by channeling the fear into manageable neurotic symptoms.

The adult who's the subject of a true crime book learned from damaged caregivers that violence was an acceptable way of dealing with fear. At first, such adults don't seem to have much in common with us. But their behavior, extreme as it is, is a response to fundamental insecurities all people have: insecurities the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan described with the term "lack." Throughout their lives, said Lacan, people lack a sense of completeness; of being fully understood and accepted by another.

In the rare moments when the brutal criminal sneaks through the filter of violence and expresses the feelings that motivate the violence, what he expresses is the same sense of lack, of incompleteness, of ultimate alienation, we all carry deep inside. This explains why a talented writer who carefully interviews and quotes a vio lent criminal can create passages that move a reader to intense empathy — empathy, not sympathy — with the criminal.

This brings us to the case of Riggans, the man whose brutal crimes Steve Jackson wrote about. When Riggans was interviewed in the Colorado State Penitentiary, he didn't cry about the wives who'd divorced him or the women he'd killed or abused. But he cried profusely when asked about a pet dog he'd had as a child. In a home where the people dispensed no affection, Riggans found it in a pet. That led a prosecutor to wonder whether Riggans had a pet in his jail cell. He did. A pet ant.

The three judges who determined Riggans' fate felt it was painful to pass judgment on a man so severely alienated he sought affection from an ant. But they also understood that if Riggans were released, he would certainly murder again. Their solution: life in jail without possibility of parole.

The book is taboo; the story is worth telling.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Fat Millie's Lament and the Metal Machine

This entry is the result of an effort to generate interest in this blog by creating a piece that will contain a host of potential search terms. In this case, the terms will relate solely to music.

In particular, it's hoped the entry will attract the interest of those with special tastes for dark ambient music, doom metal, black metal, experimental classical music, triphop and drum and bass. To maximize the number of potential search terms, I'll simply list performers (and in many cases, composers or songwriters) who make the kinds of music I've listed.

The list for black metal includes bad-news-making Scandinavian bands, such as Emperor and Belphegor, and their American counterparts, the not-bad-news-making Xasthur and Azrael. A stunning Greek version is Rotting Christ, whose short songs, usually built with traditional pop structures (but not pop delivery) are replete with soaring and substantial melodies.

Xasthur makes the least structured music of the bunch, with a sound that mixes overlayered grinding guitars and the simple melodic chord progressions associated with all sorts of minimalism.

For doom, the earth2 recording has yet to be surpassed for its calming effect; for agitated or frustrated individuals, early Swans is ideal doom.

The reach of dark ambient is vast, embracing Lustmord, Metaconqueror, Lull, Robert Rich and the dozens of recordings of Steve Roach.

Performers melding all the sounds mentioned thus far, and power electronics as well, are Navicone Torture Technologies (the project of a fellow who calls himself Leech) and Abyssic Hate — two acts whose recordings can always be counted on for rapturous beauty.

Less rigorous in its demands on the listener, but sometimes as lyrical, is the work of such triphop DJs as DJ Spooky, Coldcut, DJ Shadow and others. Comparable melodies (thought to be vaguely in the tradition of jazz) are found in the breakneck drum and bass beats of Kenny Kenn, DJ SS and the David Bowie album Earthling. To venture further into experimental electronic music, and formulate lists of the talented crowd that gets classified with such tags and terms as experimental techno and shoegaze music, would be to introduce a number of potential search terms too big for this writer to manage.

As for experimental classical composers (whose work often overlaps with dark ambient or power electronics), the very long list includes such names as John Cage, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Luciano Berio (hear, for example, his Laborintus 2), Sal Martirano (for example, L's GA), Kenneth Gaburo (for example, Fat Millie's Lament), Maurizio Kagel, Luigi Nono. Such composers paved the way for the great, early nonacademic noise works, such as Lou Reeds' Metal Machine Music, the compositions and anguished and angry performances of Diamanda Galas and Joanna Went, and what I feel is the greatest recording of noise music to date, Yoko Ono's Fly. (For what it's worth, I'm guessing that New York No Wave owes a greater debt to experimental jazz than to experimental classical. While I'm not an unusually honest person, I'll admit I'm not familiar enough with experimental jazz to write about it with any kind of real authority.)

Additions to this very short list are heartily welcomed

Friday, April 23, 2010

Ding-A-Ling Prose And The Slippery Word

I sometimes have a little fun with self-help programs, which fall somewhere on my long list of targets. As a concession to potential opponents, I'll state that I think there are most likely a few good self-help programs floating around out there. I sympathize with those who try to use them.

What I want to do now is distinguish between solid self-help advice and fluffy feel-good prose. I never look at books with titles like Chicken Soup for the Soul or Everything I Ever Needed To Know I Learned in Kindergarten. First, I consider such titles an insult to my intelligence. Second, I have no wish to read vague, flowery prose whose sole purpose is to shut down readers' brains and give them a fleeting sense of animal satisfaction.

Some local publication recently published a piece of feel-good slop called "Ten Rules for Being Human." I'd like to amuse myself for a time by unpacking some of this ding-a-ling prose.

The so-called 10 rules are vague and nonreferential and imply a constantly positive valence. In short, they're designed specifically to make the reader feel good about himself regardless of the reader's condition or environment.

One of the wearying aspects about American culture is that one is always obliged to be positive no matter how dire the situation is. Even when people get a diagnosis of Alzheimer's, schizophrenia or incurable cancer, they feel they must come up with some sort of positive statement about the prognosis. In much less extreme cases than the three I just listed, I've sometimes found myself wanting to say to a person, "Well, I really don't see anything positive in your situation." But I just stay silent, because I know that it's pretty much forbidden to say things like that.

Having said that, let me go back to my description of this list as one of so-called rules. I want to be clear: nothing in this list is a rule. The items in this list are assertions about what it is to be human. For example, it is asserted that people will learn lessons, will repeat lessons and never stop learning lessons. A rule would have to take a linguistic form such as "You must learn lessons." There is nothing like that in this list. There are no rules here. There is nothing the reader is obliged to do or refrain from doing.

Let's start looking at the text itself. No. 3 on the list asserts "there are no mistakes, only lessons." Item four asserts "lessons are repeated until they are learned."

If there are no mistakes, how exactly does one "learn" a lesson? The assertion that one can learn the lesson assumes that there is a correct way to respond to the lesson — in which case it has been "learned." If one does not respond correctly, one has made a mistaken judgment about the lesson, in which case one has yet to learn it.

Now we are told "When you have learned [a lesson], you can go on to the next lesson." This is an assertion that human life presents lessons in a linear, sequential form. For example, one may first learn the lesson of what must be done to secure a job. Then one may learn the lesson of what must be done to secure an apartment.

The assertion leaves no room for the notion that lessons might overlap; might come in clusters; might come in an infinite variety of orders or in no order at all. There is no room for the notion that a lesson — say, for exam ple, the lesson of ways to enter new groups — would be accessible at some times and inaccessible at others.

No. 6 reads as follows: "'There' is no better place than 'here.' When your 'there' has become a 'here,' you will simply obtain another 'there' that will again look better than 'here.'"

Can we conclude from this item that people who live on the "here" of Riverside Drive do not feel that they live in a "better" place than the "there" of Ward 9 in New Orleans? Is it reasonable to conclude that a black male living in the "here" of Compton should think that a person living on Long Beach does not live in a "better" place? In New York, is the "here" of Harlem qualitatively indistinguishable from the "there" of Long Island?

I know from experience that while it may not always make sense to talk about places being "better" than other places, it certainly makes sense to talk about the cultures of some places being different from those of other places. In Southwest Louisiana, where I reside, difference is strongly discouraged and independent thought is blasphemous. People in this area are expected to be team players, refrain from the questioning of all authority figures and just basically get with the program. In Portland, Ore., where I lived at one point in the past, difference and the degree of one's independence of thought don't have any effect on social relations. Portland is the most libertarian city in a very libertarian state. The approach in Portland is live and let live. People there base their self-concept on what they have in their heads and what they do and accomplish. They don't feel the need to coerce others to accept their points of view about anything. It's taken for granted that a multiplicity of points of view is to be expected; is not a problem; and is never a hindrance to social discourse. It seems to me most unlikely that a sensitive or shy or introverted or creative person who has dedicated herself to the high arts or to complex thought or literature would feel as good in the "here" of Lake Charles as she would in the "there" of Austin, Taos, Ann Arbor, Santa Cruz or any number of places.

Now, back to the list. Time and again claims are presented in this list without one shred of evidence being offered in support of the claim. Let's look at No. 7, which reads "Other people are merely mirrors of you. You cannot love or hate something about another person unless it reflects to you something you love or hate about yourself."

OK. Let's apply this claim. If I hate my spouse for striking me with a closed fist, this means what I really hate is the psychotic aggression in my subconscious mind?

Did I get that right? If I hate to be beaten, that reflects my own hatred of my wishes to beat others — and that's the case even if I've never beaten anyone else or felt the conscious desire to beat anyone else. If I hate to be yelled at, that reflects my hatred of my own wish to yell at others, even if I'm utterly unaware of any such wish.

If I understand No. 7 correctly, I cannot hate what a sadistic, sociopathic thug or control freak does to me without at the same time concluding that I must subconsciously wish to engage in the behaviors of the thug that I find so repulsive and must therefore hate myself on that count.

I cannot get my head around No. 7. If a complete stranger is rude or treats me with lack of consideration, must I hate something in myself to hate what the stranger does to me? Just what in myself would I hate? Would I hate my preference that people treat other people with common decency?

On to No. 8. It's designed both to make the reader feel good and to lure him into the current pop psych fad of "empowerment."

"What you make of your life is up to you. You have all the tools and resources you need. What you do with them is up to you. The choice is yours."

Now, can I conclude from this that I can make my life what I want it to be if I have Alzheimer's, schizophrenia, severe mental retardation, leukemia or a painful terminal cancer? If I am paralyzed from the neck down at, say, age 18, can I just use all those tools and resources up in my head to make up my mind I'm going to feel chipper while I spend the next 60 years lying in bed staring at the ceiling?
What about the single mother of two children who's working a minimum wage job; has no savings and only a high school education; whose friends are as poor as she is; and who's just lost her last relative, who left her nothing, having nothing to leave her? What little miracle is this person supposed to whip up with her poor, skimpy network and the "resources" in her head?

What about the fact that more than 25 percent of this country's citizens don't have health insurance? Is it the case that a quarter of the population is just too lazy to make the choices and take the actions necessary to get health insurance? I don't think so. The insurance is overpriced and the people are underpaid. People can't change that basic state of affairs by thinking a certain way about it. It's not just a lie but a vile lie that gross economic inequalities can be erased with acts of individual will. On occasion, some single-minded, hard-working individual will rise out of destitution to a position of economic se curity. But for every one who does there are a thousand — or 10,000 — who are as single-minded and work just as hard and die on the treadmill of the working poor (and now, the middle class poor as well).

OK. No. 9: "Your answers lie within you. The answers to life's questions lie within you. All you need to do is look, listen and trust."

Like all the items, this one suffers from sloppy language usage. Due to the nature of American culture, almost all Americans who hear or read the phrase "your answers" will assume that the answers are both definitive and positive. In the rush for a positive outcome, it may be forgotten that the choice we are given is often the choice of the least bad alternative.

There is no simple, positive an swer — whether within you or with out you — to the state of dying a slow, painful death in the twisted wreckage of a car. You will search in vain for "answers" to intense physical pain that lasts for a long period of time. Where is the answer for the myriad individuals undergoing torture, genocide, famine; for those who are being beaten or raped or murdered while I write this column? The author provides no evidence that there are any types of "answers" about anything whatsoever. She does not even provide an example of an answer. And I suspect I'm not the only one whose sense of logic is troubled by the assertion that while "there are no mistakes" there are "answers."

"All you need to do" to get the answers, we are told, is "look, listen and trust" what is "within you." First, that's bad grammar. One could look at, listen to and trust what is within one. Second, it's ridiculous for me to "trust" what is within me if I know I'm schizoid, bipolar, severely depressed or have a tendency to extreme guilt, shame or anger. If I am in such a position, I should, far from trusting what is within me, carefully scrutinize what is within me at each shift of mood to be sure I'm not creating my own problems with my neurotic or psychotic thought patterns.

Sloppy, vague, insubstantial, feel-good language doesn't give us psychic security or even psychic direction. Pain, adversities and unexpected reversals are going to come. We are not going to find "answers" to all of them. Sometimes, no matter what we do or how hard we try, we're simply going to feel bad. In most of the world, there's no law against feeling bad.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

The Great Book of the Couch

As I write this, it's 2:18 p.m. according to my Mac. Thus far today I've eaten two biscuits with gravy, half a link of sausage, two individual pizzas and three individually wrapped Reese's SnackBarz. Who knows what I will send through my stomach and liver before I finally take my sleeping pill and drift off into insomnia tonight?

I feel like the narrator of Saul Bellow's novel Henderson the Rain King, who tells the reader at the beginning of the book, "I'm a bum."

I could say I'm a slacker. But before I did that, I'd want to make clear that there's a long and great American tradition of literature about people who just kind of hang out and work little or not at all. Read the great 1960s and 1970s novels by Bellow, Norman Mailer, Walker Percy, Joan Didion (her essays too), Robert Stone, Marco Vassi, Thomas Pynchon, Richard Brautigan, Ronald Sukenick and on and on and on.

And all these people were working in the great tradition established by Herman Melville in the 19th century in his story "Bartleby the Scrivener." You remember Bartleby. He was the guy who answered every request (and order) with the phrase, "I prefer not to."

These books and stories are about people who've given up on that old American idea that you just have to show up and be ready to work and you'll be successful and happy. And the 1960s and 1970s fictional works were written in a time when Americans who weren't rich actually had some money.

So, having said all that, I go on to say, Call me bum. Call me slacker. If you ever see me with my mouth open, put a pork rind in there.

I used to blame my outrageously bad eating choices on stress. Now I think they're just habit. I don't feel right if I go to bed without having had at least two or three kinds of sausage during the day. And I go to bed early. Real early. Would you believe, say, 7 pm?

When I say I go to bed, I don't mean what most people mean when they say, "go to bed." What I'm referring to is not really going to bed; its going to couch. For me, the quintessence of slackerism and slackness is not eating biscuits and gravy with cracklins on top. It's lying on my couch doing nothing.
I thought I might one day follow in the footsteps of Ivan Goncharov, Samuel Beckett and John Kennedy Toole and write a book about a guy who did nothing but lie around all the time.

But then I decided there would be something not quite right about this. As I see it, my whole life has been a book about doing nothing. My life has been a long song of praise to lying on the couch, staring at the wall.

There are some who think doing nothing is a form of being lazy. That's a grave error. When I say I lie on the couch and do nothing, many, if not most, will assume I mean that I lie on the couch and watch television, or at least listen to music.

If that's what these people think, they and I are on two different pages. When I say I do nothing, I mean I do nothing. Absolutely nothing.

And thus it is demonstrated that what I do (or don't do) has no relation to being lazy. For if most people actually did nothing (as I do), they would immediately become unbearably bored. They would soon be in acute distress. They wouldn't be able to stand it. After five, 10 minutes max, they'd have to turn on a TV or grab a magazine or pick up the cell phone.

I'm light years beyond that. I lie down in absolute silence and I do not move.

Oh, I don't say I never get up and put a CD on the boombox. That happens once in a while. But I'll do such a thing only after a long period of deliberation about whether I'm up to doing it. And actually getting up off the couch will require a tremendous act of will. It'll be something I'll have to build up to. I'll lie on the couch thinking things like, "OK, Brad. You can do this. Come on. You can make it." Seriously.

Now someone reading this may think, "Why, this fellow's powerless to do anything. He has clinical depression!"

I'll go with that diagnosis as long as we both agree I'm suffering from junk-food-induced clinical depression. And if any person with the appropriate medical credentials is willing to give me free anti-depressants, I will happily take them.

But I don't want the basic nature of my life to change. I lie there on the couch, looking at all the books around me, thinking, "You know, Brad, you could get up and read one of those books." But then I think, "Oh no, not another book! You've read 10,000 and you've got another 10,000 to go. I'm tired of reading. Let's just defocus. Defocus. Ah. Now, doesn't that feel better?"

A book is a great project of diversion. And what is there about me that has changed after I've read yet one more book? I am, as the Floyd sang, "another day older and another day closer to death." All I've done is amuse myself for a few hours. And by the time I quit reading, it's time to go to sleep. There's no time left for just lying on the couch doing nothing.

I'm over half way through this essay and I still don't have the slightest idea what it's about. Let me just make up some topics out of the blue. Let's say it's about my perpetual tendency to do much, much less than could ever be expected of any American man. The idea of being successful, practical, ambitious; these things are inscrutable to me. The idea of staying active for the mere sake of staying active I find distasteful, and the idea of staying active because I'm expected to or supposed to is downright disgusting to me.

What about the idea that there's something wrong with me if I don't have a social life? I say, "Fine. Let there be something wrong with me. I'd rather have gangrene than have a social life." And the notion of taking steps to prepare for the future seems ridiculous. What? I'm supposed to prepare for the nursing home? That's crazy. I say let the nursing home prepare for me.

Even after I've trotted out and dismissed all those potential topics, the essay still seems a wee bit aimless. But that's OK. I have plenty of time to make up a topic before I get to the end.

What's it like to be the bum, the slob, the neurotic, the curmudgeon, the cynic, the introvert, the hermit, the underachiever? Well, I don't know if it's quite right to say that such a life requires a great deal of work. But it does result in a great deal of cognitive dissonance. To be such a person is to be a fish out of water. The moment I encounter a group of human beings, I'm lost. I don't care what anybody's children or grandchildren are doing. I don't care how cute anybody's baby looks. I don't bother about discussing current affairs because I know that if I do, the other people will just trot out their respective ideologies and shove them down my throat. And if I tried to initiate a discussion of philosophical ideas, why, they'd just look at me as if I were some kind of freak. And since they're already doing that anyway, why should I make the stupendous effort of forcing myself to say something they don't want to hear?

No, when I'm in a group, I just stand there, smile, look pretty, and think, "Make it stop! Make it stop! Make it stop!"

If I wanted to make myself sound better than I really am, I might compare myself to Sherlock Holmes. There's a Sherlock Holmes story in which a doctor tries to intimidate Holmes by showing off his physical strength and threatening Holmes. He insults Holmes' insular, intellectual, gentle life, calling Holmes "the meddler; the London busybody."

The doctor is macho; a man's man. I'd be scared to death of him and say, "No problem, sir. I assure you, you've seen and heard the last of me."

And in fact, Holmes says this is the most frightening case he's ever worked on — but not because of the doctor. Holmes is frightened by another aspect of the case that I won't mention here so as not to spoil the story.

Holmes defeats the doctor not through strength, but through his quiet, solitary Holmesishness. While the overconfident doctor strides around his estate like the cock of the walk, Holmes lurks in the shadows, waiting for the right moment, slowly and carefully working out all the right moves: an antisocial ninja of the 19th century British countryside who ends up snapping the manly doctor like a twig.

It would be a mistake to think that Holmes, for all his bitter pragmatism about humanity; for all his sideways, cerebral approach to experience; is really comparable to me in a fundamental way. You may recall that Holmes was driven; was only happy when he was working on a case. In that sense, he is a sort of mirror opposite, a sort of Janus face, to me — a person who's only happy when his life is free of work.

I could conjure up some kind of bogus philosophy of the couch, or actually try to write some sort of crudely lyrical paean to the couch. But that sounds an awful lot like doing something.

How much better it is just to type out the words as they come into my head. I type the words, I borrow money from my mother so I can pay my rent, my credit card companies charge me interest and the world goes round. What is wrong with this system? Well, there are a few things wrong with it. But it keeps me passive, so I like it.

And when I die, what will I, the consummate underachiever, have accomplished? What will anyone have accomplished? The ordinary person looks back over his or her life, and thinks, "I busied myself with this and that. And in the end, what did it all matter? What difference did it make in the general scheme of things? And now I feel it all drifting away. That's what I did. I busied myself with this and that."

As for me, I'll say, "I busied my self with this and that — only less so."

Like Holmes, I can take a certain pride in what I do. Yet again, I've managed to write a full length essay about absolutely nothing.

"Well, so what?" someone says. "Jerry Seinfeld put together a hit show about nothing more than 10 years before you wrote this."

Beaten to the punch again! An underachiever even at underachieving! I couldn't be more pleased.

When I leave this vale of tears, the great book of the couch will be complete. Floating on the astral plane, it will drift there, waiting for anyone who dares to plunge into this anti-epic story of the ordinary man who was nothing but what was in his head.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

"We Do Not Loan Out Our Under Things" — Pristine Gibberish and Deep South Music

Summer, 2010, ushered in two new CDs by a group of folks who are playing and promoting the music of Abita Springs, La. (home of Turbo Dog beer) and south Mississippi.

I Remember the Night Your Trailer Burned Down, by pianist, singer and songwriter Bobby Lounge, is a series of long New Orleans piano rolls in a variety of styles, including blues, ragtime, boogie woogie and gospel. The rolls are of the rapid-fire, bang-'em-out variety. This isn't gossamer make-it-sing stuff.

Even more impressive than the virtuosic fireworks of the piano playing is the raucous, absurd humor in the songs' lyrics. Lounge has staked his claim in Southern culture on the skids subject matter, and let his sense of the ridiculous run wild. Try not to laugh as you read these passages:

• "He won't show you nasty movies ...
"He won't take your night shift down at Popeye's fried chicken." -- "I Will"

• "They ran Tippy out of town on a morals charge ...
"Tippy met some Communist Chinese.
"They toasted him with wine until his head was swimmin'.
"They tattooed him all over with motorcycle women ...
"The queen said, 'We do not loan out our under things.'
"He said, 'Ma'am, just send me home to Abita Springs.'"
— "Take Me Back to Abita Springs"

• "It's pitiful, 'cause Shauna don't know who her mamma is.
"He said Rosa said the other evening she came in there and looked up at Rosa and said, 'Memaw. Memaw. Be my momma memaw. Be my momma memaw.'"
— "I Remember the Night Your Trailer Burned Down"

I can't remember the last time I heard such pristine gibberish on a popular music recording. Just keep this CD on your player and you can throw away your copy of Chicken Soup for the Humor-Impaired.
For more information, visit www.Bobby Lounge.com or write John Preble c/o Abitian Records, 22275 HWY 36, Abita Springs, Louisiana 70420.

The second CD, New Mardi Gras Classics, presents 16 songs about Mardi Gras that have been written over a 40-year period.

The Abitians, who have the lion's share of the cuts, are real genre-jumpers. In "This Is Endymion," the calypso sound is dominant, but there are nice touches of rockabilly and melancholy burlesque guitar. That same guitar, along with some sweet sock-it-to me organ, shows up on the tribal burlesque rocker "King Zulu." This cut would have been the perfect accompaniment for a screening of a stag film in the dark back room of a downtown New Orleans storefront in the 1950s. The calypso vibe is dominant again in "When the Levees Broke."

"The King of Bacchus" is a mock Dylan ballad, with such clever lines as "No facts-based logic could prepare me for this."

In one cut, a man with a gravely bass voice sings,
"I'll wear some high heal shoes and a boustier
"To some it may be a little risqué.
"I'll be the cutest thing you ever saw.
"I want to be the prettiest girl on Mardi Gras."

"Mardi Gras on the Mind" is purist hillbilly music.

But with all this genre-jumping and mixing, the Abitians are still perfectly comfortable playing "Mardi Gras in Evangeline," which is a straightforward traditional Cajun rocker.

"Mardi Gras Season" offers the most insightful line of the CD: "It's so much fun when you're not you."

This is a sound endorsement of a New Orleans Mardi Gras that has meat on its bones: that allows for absolute improvisation and near absolute self-indulgence in street theatre — the kind of thing one sees in Charles Gatewood's Mardi Gras street photos of the 1970s.

Dash Rip Rock, a band that's starting to work Lake Charles, La., venues, pulls down the best hooks on the record with "Orpheus Night," an upbeat pop number with lots of playful guitar twanging.

You can tell from the pictures on the inset that there aren't any woe-is-me 20-year-olds on these records. Some of these musicians have been at this a long time. It's a recording with good execution all the way through that never takes itself too seriously.

For information, visit www.abitianrecords.com.

Both discs are being promoted by the UCM Museum (pronounced You-see-'em Museum), 22275 Highway 36, Abita Springs, 70420. This place is a DIY art center. Don't expect to see any Blue Dogs paintings here. The museum caters to low-brow and outsider art and little models of old-fashioned service stations and the like.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Evil Word Gods And The Biological Telescope

If you're reading this blog, you're probably well aware that dozens, maybe hundreds, of fine rants appear on the Internet every day. In the reviews that follow, your correspond will introduce you to three that stand the test of time. They are guaranteed to provide satisfaction and amusement for as long as any freak anywhere is able to track them down. Prepare to be puzzled.

Val Valerian "The Markabian / Orion Scenario for Planetary Control" and "The Markabian / Orion Model of Earth's Future"

The long distant origins of this planet's culture, according to this author, were pleasant enough. Earth's culture was started by "fun-loving beings who created mock-ups of games" with "planets, forms, colors, sounds and lots of action and sensation."

If it weren't for the unintentionally humorous language — "fun-loving beings" and "lots of action and sensation" — this scenario would have a lot in common with the theological concept of the universe as the game of God, which is found in Buddhist, Hindu and Christian traditions, and perhaps in others.

Our author calls his version of this construct "the master game." Immediately after interjecting the phrase, he writes, "But that's another story."

So what story does the author tell? His story is one of "cosmic players" — immortals who go from one incarnation to another in a long effort to leave human beings "subjugated and enslaved."

The "master players" are "Markabians/Orion Group/Reptilian Groups." They've created the world we live in now — AKA "the Markan Scenario" — and appear to serve a "master player" named Xenu.

The master players first started messing with Earth 75 million years ago when Xenu undertook an "atomic blasting" that pretty much wiped out living things on Earth. In a fancy flourish, the reader is told "Xenu was his name and terror was his game."
Master players demand conformity from human beings. They get it through the use of "government extension" and "influence by mind control." The fear of government extension may have motivated the "Markabians" to "[work] flat-out to defeat President Reagan and Margaret Thatcher." Our author is perhaps working from a pre-neoconservative view of conservatism. One could hardly think of the Republicans of the W. era as taking a strong stand against excessive government control.

At any rate, Markabians are striving to bring about a "One-World-Police-State" through a tricky device: the offer of "peace, friendship, new technology, trade, and economic and political alignment," all of which is to be delivered by aliens called "Markab."

It's not clear how Markabians will deliver this offer to earth folk; it may come, says the writer, through a "biological telescope receiver."

The text confused me a bit when it used the word "Markab" to describe both the aliens making the peace offer and "world bankers."

The most astonishing part of the text (aside, perhaps, from word of a massive nuclear attack circa 75 million B.C.) is the promise that all the people of the earth will hold a simultaneous "world vote" to decide whether to accept the Markab peace proposal. If the Markabians win, we are told, folks will lose their "chance for an exciting, independent, expanding future." No matter how many times I'm told I have a "chance for an exciting, independent, expanding future," the news always surprises me. How have I become so thoroughly convinced that my future, like my present, will be boring, dependent and meager in options? Perhaps it's Markabian mind control that's led me to believe these things.

As for the present texts, I can't imagine you'll find much reading material that will cram this amount of interesting information into four pages. The mythos presented here is almost as detailed as Lovecraft's and more systematic. "Markabian/Orion Group/Reptilian Groups" are at least as intriguing as sottoths, and as easy to imagine. (Really, what does Nyarlathotep look like? I have no idea.)

As for language, I think it'll be tough to beat such phraseology as "biological telescope receiver." Of course, any reference to mind control is always tantalizing.

There's much to recommend these texts; nothing that I can find fault with. This mythos is different, but has lots of bite.

(If you want to read Valerian's out-of-print 400-page-long books, you can find them for sale on the internet at prices starting at $100.)

Randy Crow "Antichrist Anointed President because of Rigged Diabold Voting Machines — Abominations Fault Ukraine Election"

While many Bush detractors have tagged the emperor with derogatory names, few have found as colorful a moniker as Randy Crow, who habitually calls Bush "antiChrist Little George."

Crow is just as colorful when it comes to describing the program he thinks Bush wants to institute: "a zioni$t communi$t police state." Crow's not afraid to play fast and loose with capitalization, spelling and the free exchange of one type of symbol for another.

For the most part, Crow's critique resonates with that of most of Bush's critics. But there are differences. One, the notion that Bush is a communist sympathizer, we haven't seen elsewhere (as far as I know). Information about such theories is welcome. Some may recall the popular right wing rant in book form None Dare Call It Conspiracy that declared Richard Nixon was a communist sympathizer.

Crow also maintains that Bush wants to "engage the United States is [sic] a self defeating war by attacking Iraq, Iran, Iran, India, and China." Were any country's leaders dumb enough to engage in an attack of all the countries Crow has listed, defeat would, I agree, be inevitable.

Of all the things Crow could pick as the No. 1 problem in the U.S., he chooses "communi$m." To this and 25 other problems he lists, Crow offers a "solution," which is this: "Tell the People the Problems and the People will Solve The Problems." Crow seems to have great confidence in the as-of-yet-unexercised will of the people to familiarize themselves with current issues and think them through.

Without really, as far as I can tell, explaining what the "zioni$t plan" is, Crow levels a devastating attack on it by describing it with the single word "stupid." He argues that "communi$ts" and "zioni$ts" are identical, and both are "paranoid."

This large, paranoid group, Crow asserts, will somehow persuade Russia, India and China to lob nuclear missiles into California and New York.

Near the end, the text degenerates into rant babble:

With zioni$t and blood flowing all over the globe and the end of the world a near done deal, Democrats, Republicans, zioni$ts$ will say OK God you're cool, we will vote for Randy, zioni$ts will give up their money is God religion.

I don't know what that means. But after it happens, says Crow, "the world will start acting right."
About time.

Gene Ray "Nature's Harmonic Simultaneous 4-Day Time Cube"


In this 76-page long manifesto, the author, who describes himself as "the wisest human," presents an often belabored and vague, and sometimes incoherent, explication of his concept of the "4 day Rotating Creation Principle of Cubicism."

To get the most out of this document, the reader should try to follow Ray's advice and "think cubic." The accent in this text is decidedly on the number 4, and in particular the relation of the number 4 to the ways in which people measure the passage of days and minutes.

Ray's phrase "4-Day Time Cube Creation Principle within 1 Earth Rotation" seems to mean that each 24-hour earth day contains within it 4 days. But the cubic principle extends beyond the traditional concept of one day per every 24 hours. For people too are cubics: "There is no human entity, just human Cubics — as in 4 different people in a 4 corner stage metamorphic rotation." This could mean that each person will, at some point, be at each intersection of some sort of unseen cube. On the other hand, it could mean a million other things or nothing in particular.

Sometimes Ray uses that old rant trick of simply declaring the opposition is not only wrong, but cerebrally challenged; for example, consider this mathematical foray: "-1 x -1 = +1 is stupid and evil."

Still, several of Rays recurring motifs — and there are many, many recurring motifs here — are appealing to this reader. Ray is skeptical of the notion of self, perhaps even feeling there is no such thing. ("You think self, you are evil.") We tend to believe these days that selves are constructed with words inside the head. Ray is also skeptical about words, feeling that they're inaccurate or misleading — at least in the ways they're presently used. ("You word murder your children ... Adult word worship is an evil adult scam.")

Since teachers, as Ray accurately asserts, use words to indoctrinate, they are, in Ray's words "evil word gods" who are "teaching commercial plunder of nature." That last clause indicates he may see a danger in a too-eager trust of words and a personal immersion in consumerism.

Fortunately for the reader, Ray's manifesto often turns into indecipherable rant word salad: "Evil 1 day Biblekills children."

In similar passages, he sometimes seems to be getting very close to something that sounds sensible: "Burn the bible, honor Childhood via which adults evolve. Babble Power is suicidal." But at other times, the meaning is just elusive: "Creation has two sex poles & 4 corner races of humans. God is cornered as a queer." So, 4 corners up, God down. Read this and maybe you'll get the message. For adventures in cubic thinking, this text remains unsurpassed.

Monday, March 22, 2010

On Bad Writing

When I taught university-level English courses, I told my students it was useful to study bad writing. The idea was that if we could figure out what things made writing bad, we could avoid those things, and thus reduce the likelihood that we might produce bad writing.

I also taught that all writers have two fundamental tasks to perform. They must:
1. Have something to write.
2. Write it in such a way that the reader can understand it.

In the bad writing I'm about to discuss, writers fail about equally on both counts.

Let's explore. The poorest writing I've seen is that done in a certain kind of periodical I'll call "true confessions magazines." I've only read one of these, but it was a howler.

Remember, the stories in these magazines are all supposed to be "true." The most badly written story of the bunch was one concocted by an author who claimed to have been the mother of a teenage son. The son, she wrote, had taken explosives to his high school and killed 16 students.

Immediately I knew the story couldn't possibly be "true." To state the obvious — if a student killed 16 students at a school, we'd all have heard about it innumerable times. As our media experience repeatedly demonstrates, the killing of even a single student at a school immediately generates a multi-day national media event.

Worse than the obvious falsehood about the killings was the explanation of the "mother" for the behavior of her "son." He did this horrible thing because he wore black clothing. That was the writer's sole explanation. It wasn't that the black clothing was a symbol or expression of deep-seated psychological disturbances. No, it was the mere fact that he wore black clothing. The kid was an all-American youth who immediately turned into a monster the day he put on his first black overcoat.

The writer failed on count one. She had nothing to say. She threw together a tasteless, facile rip-off of the Columbine story.

In trying to account for writing of such wretched quality, I keep in mind that the writer may well have been someone capable of producing good work who merely dashed off some fast, poor work in order to get fast money from a magazine with extremely low standards.

Harder to explain is the work of writers who are established in their fields and tend to receive positive reviews (at least in some quarters). Let me focus on genre writing, which is thought by serious critics to be little more than a refuge for bad writers.

Let's turn to point two above: The way in which the writer says what she intends to say. The characters in the books of horror writer Clare McNally use language that sounds so contrived and stiff that an attentive reader will refuse to see the language as credible. In the novel Ghost Light, a six-year-old character says to another character of his age, "Someone has fastened a lock to the door!"

I put it to you that no one raised in the United States would ever say such a thing. The standard spoken American English expression for what McNally tries to convey is something such as: "Somebody's put a lock on the door."

Almost as clumsy is overly formal language used in a popular literature narrative. Zero at the Bone, a true crime book about mass-murderer Gene Simmons, was written by a Paul Williams, who apparently has an academic background in poetry composition. He quotes his own poetry liberally throughout his book. He writes the sort of verse students are taught to compose in university creative writing seminars — verse that can be deciphered by those willing to engage in intellectual concentration, but not by Joe Sixpack. The book's title is a phrase from an Emily Dickinson poem. I see no application of the phrase to the life or case of Simmons. The writer just wants the true crime reader (of all people) to know that he knows his Dickinson.

In the first 10 pages of the book, Williams treats the reader to such obscure academic lingo as: "that iambic closure," "immobilis in mobile," "the isinglass patina," "an ell of the wall," "iambic tom-tom." Such language in a true crime book, a genre second only to porno books in hastiness and sloppiness of writing, is about as appropriate as a cycle of Latin sonnets.

Depending on the nature of one's sense of camp, one can see inappropriate language as amusing (as I did in the Williams book) or annoying (as I did in the McNally book, which I quit reading at page 50).

Let's now turn again to point one: what is written. Those who write either true or fictional stories ("narratives," if you prefer the fancy term) will earn respect for their work only if they make the effort to develop characters who are distinct from each other and are at least minimally interesting to the reader. Character development needs to be an essential part of what storytellers write.

The failure to develop characters is recognized by horror book readers as the most common flaw of horror writing. I quit reading John Shirley's fairly well-known novel Wetbones after 200 pages because I couldn't distinguish one character from another. The book's two male protagonists are young men who work together as script writers in Los Angeles. After 200 pages, the only way I could differentiate the two was by reminding myself that they had different names.

But Shirley's no fool. Consider the following observations he makes on the human condition in his novel: "Garner had to search for his little girl in this endless sea of irrelevancy and indifference and preoccupied people and deteriorating places. This is crazy, this is hopeless ... "

Or this: "Line up the ifs like toy soldiers, move them around the way you want, try to make yourself feel better. It's still just playing with ifs."

Or: "He had preached at himself by preaching at other people."

Shirley likes to take time to think about life. He won't take the time to contemplate what sorts of people might lead this life.

I quit Reading Richard Laymon's horror novel Darkness Tell Us after the first two chapters. Laymon introduces 10 or so characters in these chapters. I could only get a sense of one of them: the misfit and outcast (the character type that is, for whatever reason, the one that always seems to get fleshed out even in poorly written horror novels). The first sentence of the third chapter contained the name "Glen." I had to flip back through the first two chapters to see whether I'd been reading about a character who had that name.

In contrast is a novel by horror writer Edward Lee, whose many devoted fans seem to take pride in his reputation for bad writing. In Lee's Flesh Gothic, there are some clanky passages. But in this novel, the gaffes don't matter much. Lee's careful to begin by devoting a chapter to each of the more than 15 major characters. While this makes for a somewhat slow initial read, the approach pays off in spades in the last 300 pages, when the reader feels compelled to find out what happens to these characters whom he understands better than his own acquaintances.

It's not necessary that one identify or feel deeply for a character. But one must at least know enough about the character to feel an interest in what happens to her. It is no great feat for a good writer to create credible characters who are more interesting than the people we know.

When established horror writers create flat characters, they do so, I think, because they've gotten too caught up in the plot to take the time to envision the personalities of their characters. Novels by these writers build to a rapid sequence of shocking events: the payoff for the horror book reader. The bulk of the creative work has gone to the creation of what is the most exciting part of the narrative. The writer's intoxicated with the plot twists she's contrived to make the knock-out climax or ending.

In terms of how they write what they write, it's often possible for the writer to play around with or even mess up the words and still deliver a readable story. But if there's a story, character development seems to be a requisite of good writing. You can have fun with language. When it comes to character — watch out. I can imagine that some extremely experimental writer, such as Alain Robbe-Grillet, might write a good, solid story that contains a plot devoid of a series of discrete actions — for example, a plot that consists merely in the narrator's description of a photograph he is presumably looking at. But even in such writing as this, the intrepid reader (which is the only kind who will make it to the end) is working backwards to construct in his head the kind of character who's looking at the photograph.

In order to be interested in stories, whether true or otherwise, we need to know that the things that happen have happened to or been done by creatures that strongly resemble the people we are or we know. We can watch full-length movies about pigs and mice and dogs, provided these creatures act (and "talk" or "think") like people who are familiar to us.

And the tortured efforts that networks go to to convince us that the people on reality television shows are just like us convey a message that's all too true. If it weren't, how would any sociologist ever explain the popularity of the things?

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Cortez, The Distressed Hillbilly

Thanks to Aaron Thomas, a native of Southwest Louisiana, who brought by Cortez del Mar's recent CD You Did This To Yourself.

With a little imagination, you can see this CD as a musical portrait of the gothic backwoods mischief of a bunch of inbred country musicians who spend many long nights drinking Everclear and listening to albums by American Music Club. You pick up the vibe from such lyrics as "Here's to something sinister" ("Bigger Skies") and "You know I'm a little crazy" ("Sugar Skull"). And the "Cities of Gold" line "Just wait till I get you alone" doesn't sound like a promise of tender romance.

Gothic content notwithstanding, what makes the whole shockabilly approach work is that our skewed singer is relating tales that come from the hard living of real life. In "All Smiles," he sings to his lover about "all the pain there in your chest." In "Cities of Gold," he reveals the kind of honesty that only comes from people who've given up the effort to put up a good face: "I'm not sorry or sad. Should I lie?" Those are the kind of lines Johnny Cash felt compelled to growl out now and then.

Mar's recent CD You Did This to Yourself. I had the idea this band was from Lafayette, but I was mistaken. Thomas says most of the band's members live in Sulphur (right across the river from Lake Charles).

In the CD, Cortez leads with its strongest suit: a soaring, euphoric minute-long instrumental intro. Beautiful hooks are layered on by electric guitars and keyboards. It ends abruptly, and the audience is introduced to the distressed hillbilly vocals that will be its companion for the next 45 minutes. Think of the voice of Mark Eitzel after he's been through one of the prodigious drinking nights he's always writing songs about; or imagine Chris Isaak taking the mike right after he's chugged a couple of bottles of cough syrup.

Though there are lots of change-ups (which I'll describe), the default sound on the disc is a downbeat, quiet, steadily paced country-tinged rock with a melancholy cast. Departures from the default sound include "Sea of Sound," an upbeat power pop number with lyrical hooks that could have come straight off a 1980s SubPop record.

"Cities of Gold" starts as a mix of mariachi, a Cash Ballad and "Ghost Riders in the Sky." This chirpy little gem about personal and shared misery ends up with some good, creepy off-key guitar string plucking, weird off-key piano tinkling and what sounds like — of all things — a French horn solo. Compare this ending to the off-kilter cabaret music beginning of "Burning Whiskey River," with its fine Link Wray-style electric guitar decays.

I don't know whether Cortez fits into the postrock category. You can hear some of the crazed hillbilly stuff in Godspeed You! Black Emperor. But aside from that, I don't hear a lot of overlap. Don't buy this disc expecting to hear a Mogwai or Sigur Ros record. As for the shockabilly vibe, this disc sounds closer to the sort-of mainstream shockabilly of The Reverend Horton Heat than the psychodrama shockabilly of Shockabilly. The bottom line: if you're interested in avant country rock ballads on real-life topics, you'll want to have this recording. If you want to listen to country rock ballads about idealized life, just turn on the radio to any station that doesn't have an angry guy talking on it.

CDs like this one indicate there are almost amazingly talented bands right here in Lake Charles, La. But they don't stay here long. They don't have venues to perform in and thus can't build a big support base.

Of course, Lake Charles always has the option of embracing and supporting bands like this. Hell, for all I know, pigs always have the option to fly. But I don't expect to see a pig flying in my lifetime. Whether they fly or not, you can keep track of the band's progress on its site cortezdelmar.com.You Did This to Yourself

Friday, March 19, 2010

Neopets and Creepy Moves

It's never been news in my lifetime that we are living in both a material and a virtual world.

In theory, the virtual world of the present resembles by ever greater degrees our thoughts and feelings about whatever we mean when we use terms such as "reality" or "the real world."

It's true that none of the television shows that ran when I was a kid had anything to do with the realities of anyone's everyday life. But when I first heard the Rolling Stones' song "Jumpin' Jack Flash" on the radio, I knew it resonated with emotions I had; I just didn't know what the emotions were.

The virtual world that exists 40 years after the release of "Jumpin' Jack Flash" has this distinction: it's interactive. One can make choices about one's place in it. If I have the right program, I can make "Jumpin' Jack Flash" sound any way I want it to just by moving a mouse around. In an online game, one can go down one hall or another; talk to another character or keep quiet; even take actions that will get oneself killed (in a virtual sense).

How does virtual interactivity affect the life of the typical American consumer? The marketing think tank Trendwatching (see trendwatching.com) gets at it when its representatives write (in somewhat overworked prose):

"The new consumer ... creates his or her own playground, comfort zone, universe ... At the core is control: psychologists ... agree ... that human beings want to be in charge of their destiny, or at least have the illusion of being in charge. And because they can now get this control in entirely new ways, aided by an online, low-cost, creativity-hugging revolution ... consumers now weave webs of unrivaled connectivity and relish instant knowledge gratification. They exercise total control over ... identities in cyberspace at a whim, wallow in DIY/ customization/personalization/co-creation to make companies deliver on their terms. (They make) ... virtual worlds in which they can truly be whoever or whatever they want to be."

In its description of a general on-line virtual experience, Trendwatching listed, by my count, 12 states of interest to the contemporary consumer: possession, comfort, a sense of control, economical alternatives, access to new technology, acquisition of information, gratification, socialization, a sense of identity, collaboration, an opportunity to create and reality creation.

In the long passage I quoted above, Trendwatching didn't specifically mention Internet games. When it turns to online gaming, Trendwatching quotes experts who see gaming as meeting consumer's desires for these states:
• escapism
• the "drive to explore" (Mediaedge)
• the "promise of reward" (Mediaedge)
• a sense of accomplishment (economist Edward Castronova)
• the experience of "feeling ... be friended" (Castronova), and
• "feeling ... loved." (Castronova).

Now we're moved into the uneasiness many associate with the "simulacrum." What's the simulacrum? Philosopher Jean Baudrillard believes contemporary consumers — that is, you and I — live entirely in an illu sory world created by electronic media. He calls this the simulacrum — a fancy term for the imitation.

An imitation is by no means bound to afford an accurate representation of what it imitates. Reality, Baudrillard would say, is seeing a space ship blow up with your own eyes at the very place where it blows up. The simulacrum is seeing and hearing 1,000 media representations of a space ship blowing up.

Let's use the term "simulacrum creepiness" to describe a situation in which my experience of electronic media inclines me to experience potentially dangerous states of mind or symptoms of mental illness, such as, say, unwarranted terror or traumatic disappointment.

Consider the idea that a game makes me "feel loved." I can easily understand that a person would have nostalgia for a game he spent a lot of his youth playing. But when a person tells me he thinks the game loves him — or even that a participant in a mas sively multiplayer on-line game "loves" him — I start thinking "ther apy."

Does a corporation that puts its advertising in a on-line game want the user to feel loved? If it did, it would presumably at the very least have to insert an ad that works.

Let's start with the basics. What makes an ad in a game effective? Trendwatching can get us started:

"In-game communication [such as advertisement] should always facilitate escapism ... There's a delicate balance between enhancing realism and obstructing escapism. Wizards with cola cans or aliens brandishing chocolate bars are almost certainly wrong."

In one respect, those who advertise in games are realists who have the advantage over idealists, cynics and Luddites; Nicholas Longano, CMO of Massive, describes the advantage: "If (the game is) set in the 20th century or beyond, you expect to see advertising. Advertising enhances the sense of realism," he tells Business Week.

Smart marketers know that if they can figure out a way to integrate their brand smoothly into the game's story line, there's a possibility they can get gamers to use their products and services. A 2005 study by Nielsen Interactive Entertainment found that in-game advertising increased players' awareness of the product by 60 percent. Product awareness isn't the same thing as product consumption, but it's enough to put a smile on the marketer's face.

Locate the role of the simulacrum in this quotation from MediaEdge: "The opportunity and challenge for brands is to figure out how to add something relevant to virtual worlds: providing players and inhabitants with experiences they actually enjoy and could even co-create with you."

I felt a shiver of simulacrum creepiness there. Can I really co-create with companies run by people who have 100,000 times the amount of assets I have? Does the owner of a chain of multi-million dollar seafood restaurants co-create with an oyster shucker? I doubt that happens even in the virtual world.

Let's look at the specs of ads imbedded in games. Games about race cars can have brands on the virtual cars or on billboards along virtual race tracks. One expects race cars to bear advertising to begin with, so when an ad appears on a virtual car, the ad seems perfectly realistic. Such an ad — one that seems to belong — is called "imbedded." It's one of the millions of details imbedded in a long believable storyline.

Virtual billboards can be changed at any time. Brands using them include Honda, Cingular, Reebok, Coca-Cola, Comcast, Honda, NBC, Verizon, Warner Bros., and a few jillion others.

In the NBA's cleverly named 2K6 video game, more than 200 of the virtual basketball players wear Nike shoes in the game. Users improve their performance by collecting various types of Nike shoes and storing them in the game's "Nike Shoe Locker."

The PC game of the television show "CSI" was a collaboration between Visa and Ubisoft that resulted in a game plotline in which credit-card fraud protection was a central motif. Visa got 10 minutes of exposure in the game CSI 3: Dimensions of Murder. Nokia and General Motors also worked in ads.

Before we get stuck in games, let's look at imbedded, as well as pretty much open, advertising in virtual "being spaces." A being space, such as the 50-million user Habbo Hotel, is a virtual meeting place where people can communicate with friends or strangers online and engage in a multitude of online tasks and diversions. Being spaces aren't games that one wins or loses. Consider them gigantic online communities.

Each of the 50 million regular users of Habbo Hotel creates an online persona called a "Habbo." Habbos explore the hotel and create and decorate their rooms with furniture ("furni") that are purchased with "Habbo credits." Habbo credits are paid for with real-world credit cards, whether mom's or dad's or the user's.

Habbo rooms can be named after an advertiser. The advertiser's virtual billboard is placed in its virtual hotel room. The virtual maids and personnel who come and go in the room speak ad lines that promote the product.

In Habbo Hotel Germany, L'Oreal's Party Proof Gel opened two sponsored rooms: the Party Proof Club and the Party Proof Lounge. At mid-year, the first had been visited by 174,920 users and the second by 99,996.

In Canada, Habbo Hotel leased its largest club space to "Miles Thirst," a Habbo who's a virtual walking, talking advertisement for Sprite. Not only does Miles have Club Thirst, he has "virtual pouring rights" in Canada's Habbo Hotel, meaning Sprite's the only virtual soft drink users can get there.

Miles Thirst opens up his penthouse to all Habbos twice a week. If you visit, you get two Habbo credits, which are worth 40 cents in real-world money.

Sprite ran a television commercial for its Habbo Hotel set-up on MuchMusic. After that, Club Thirst became the most popular site in Habbo Hotel.

Here we come to another simulacrum creepiness moment. Most people are aware of risks that can arise when users start to think of virtual characters as actual flesh-and-blood people. There's a host of users who adore the set of electrons that is Miles Thirst. "Miles" has gotten more than 9,000 emails. Many include accounts of very personal experiences and of daydreams and fantasies that center on Miles. I realize we're mainly talking about kids here. But when a kid is expressing intense personal emotions to an ad, what's going on? Is the kid all right?

Speaking of kids, there's concern about advertising in the Neopets site, since it's geared towards children. The site draws 70 million Neopet owners ("Neopians"). They can communicate electronically with each other, and play more than 160 games in several zones. Zones and games are sponsored by such companies as Nestlé, McDonald's, General Mills, Atari, Frito-Lay and Disney. Neopets is itself owned by the monster corporation Viacom.

I don't know that I necessarily find all this troubling. In an age when every consumer is disconnected from every other consumer in the material world, it may be helpful if some consumers find solace in the ad-imbedded virtual world. And I know that marketers have to earn a living.

If one has a concern, one can look toward the source of the marketer's clout: the corporation. Aside from the occasional Enronesque fiasco, the corporation is always silent.

Don't shoot daggers at the player; don't rage at the imbedded ad. Ponder what is imbedded within the imbedded ad.

If the corporation wants me to believe the corporation loves me and co-creates with me, I may find myself wondering what the corporation really wants to do to me. The corporation is the entity on which I depend for my shelter, water, food, clothing, heat and health care. Can I afford to ignore its moves — however imbedded they may be?