What is up with Americans and their compulsive habit of making appeasing grimaces at one another? They’re like a troop of stressed-out Chimpanzees. Well, at least Lou Reed is a man after my own heart. You don’t see him walking around catching flies in his grill. He’s a real wipe-than-grin-off-your-face kind of a guy. And I know that he’s a Long Island boy, but I think he just telescoped through space-time and arrived at the heart of the Russian soul. Genetic memory of ancient Jewish ancestors scowling away in the pale of settlement? Because when the world wants to kill you, you don’t walk around signalling how friendly and non-threatening you are. Fuck smiling, it’s for weaklings.
It’s a near certainly that none of the people who rhapsodize about the wholesome superiority of small town life ever had to deal with being the only gay kid in a 50-mile radius. No who waxes sentimental about living in an environment where everyone knows all their neighbors ever dealt with being made a pariah by their own community. No one who has been taunted and made to live in fear by people they’ve known from childhood would be willfully naive enough to make a celebration of being geographically isolated and socially insular. Frankly, people who uncritically hold small town living up as being somehow inherently more wholesome make me sick. Sure, I grew up in a small town myself, and yeah, leaving your car and your front door unlocked is pretty great. But I didn’t have to be the gay kid going to a high school full of gun-loving hillbillies. I wasn’t the kid who had a mental breakdown and made suicide attempts. I didn’t have family members who did fucked up shit and went to jail for it. I wasn’t involved in any scandals or tragic accidents. I didn’t leave school to have a baby. I didn’t do, or fall victim to, any of the thousands of things that, in a small town, will get you labeled – forever – an outsider, an unwanted person, a object of derision, a designated victim. Things that, in any place with any degree of anonymity and freedom, a person can quietly move on from will stick to you for the rest of your life in a small town. You can’t even go have a drink with a person without everyone you know knowing about it. Forget the freedom to make, and not be defined by, mistakes. The implied violence of conformity is what allows small towns to feel safe, on the surface. To reiterate, there’s only one good thing about a small town: the feeling of leaving it the fuck behind.
Nina Hagen was the soundtrack of my entire 9th grade year. Her weirdness did a lot to transport me out of the petty misery of high school. It’s probably for the best that I didn’t have access to the visuals – it might have ruined me for real life even more than it did. Nina looks damn good as a man though, and her face shows the same flexible range as her voice. This kind of aesthetic excess belies Nina’s D.A.R.E.- approved message. “Smack ist Dreck” indeed, but clearly people don’t become like this by prudishly saying no to things. Apparently the song was written by Nina Hagen’s babydaddy, who was himself a heroin addict and eventually died of AIDS, so there’s an element of tragic irony at play. The real message impressionable little minds are likely to absorb is that being a wildly weird and interesting person requires the rejection of conventional mores of behavior aka doing dumb shit that might put you in the ground but at least you died interesting.
I am not the kind of person who skips over Keith Richards’ grackle-voiced contributions when I listen to Rolling Stones records. Nor would I want to listen to an entire album of his croaking either. Keith’s there to lend a little bit of soulful grit to what’s become a very shiny and polished enterprise, but he’s hardly a born frontman, in either personality or vocal gifts. Not all of the Keith songs are standouts, but they never fail to reset to the mood to an earthier level. As far as the obligatory “let’s let Keith have the mic” numbers go, this one is by far one of my favorites. It is such a poignant outro, without even knowing the knotty history behind Steel Wheels. It’s all there in his voice. You can hear the many miles and years logged to get to that precise moment, the history and tragedy and burned bridges and grudgingly given love that make the Rolling Stones the often barely-functioning family that they are.
Some things you can pry from my cold dead fingers, always and forever. A few days ago I was saying that about my beloved T. Rex records. Well, I had said it in a much more elegant way than that, but I think the gist of it was plain to see. The point is, some things, some cultural totems and personal touchstones, can only be pried away in death. You can add my Talking Heads records to that. You can pry Speaking in Tongues from my cold dead fingers, if that’s how you wanna put it. It’s a record that, besides being a famous classic and an instant party, is one of those works that doesn’t get older or worn out by too much familiarity. It goes beyond mere personal nostalgia, though of course, I did grow up with it. If something can remain meaningful across a lifetime, from childhood to adulthood, and exponentially so across generations, that’s the antithesis of personal nostalgia. Personal nostalgia is when we feel sentimentally attached to things we rationally know are actually valueless or downright bad just because we imprinted on them as ducklings; things that, from novelty pop songs to toppled political regimes, should really be best forgotten. When something that amused our childhood selves continues to be meaningful over decades, meaningful beyond just the ability to trigger memories, that’s your testament that art really is the only human thing that carries over. This is why we care so much about buildings on fire.
I’ve been listening to a lot of 80’s music lately – more so than usual – and, well, you all know what “80’s music” sounds like. I don’t have to explain to you how the 80’s were aggressively pop oriented and coated in many saturated shades of chartreuse, fuchsia and aquamarine. Then there was the obligatory kickback and rebellion, and – deep drumroll – the birth of the goth movement, created by and for people who felt that music was in dire need of more black lipstick, heroin and murder. Nobody stood in starker contrast to everything MTV friendly and candy colored than Nick Cave, a sepulchral creep whose exploits as a gutter punk soon became legendary. He was the ultimate alternative to the Aqua Net crowd, with the sickest imagination, the raggedest wardrobe, and the overall vibe of a hungry and mange-eaten street dog. (The coiffure looked like the result of months of rolling around in junkie effluvium, but I’m guessing he used the same damn Aqua Net as everybody else.) The murder-junkie aesthetic must have been a real shock to the system of anyone who stumbled upon a record invitingly titled Kicking Against the Pricks. I imagine a lot of people picked it up for the title alone, and their lives were never the same after.
I’ve said before that I don’t have much use for Peter Gabriel. But like everyone who’s ever had the experience of watching late-night MTV, I can’t get enough of his visually inventive Sledgehammer video. How many music videos can boast contributions from Aardman Studios’ Nick Park and the Quay Brothers? It was eye-popping in 1986 and is no less so to this day. It was really part of an industry-wide renaissance of video creativity, when ‘promotional videos’ grew from being merely promotional to being an integral part of an artist’s overall vision. The song’s alright too, though it’s slightly too bad that Gabriel chose to hang all that visual artistry on what’s basically a typical mindless mid-80’s plastic soul jam filled with crude 3rd grade quality double entendres.