Posts Tagged ‘Music’
When I was reading about the News of The World reporters in London hacking into the message services of celebrities and sports figures and royalty in order to find stories, I started imagining what would happen if arts writers could hack into iTunes to siphon off the “most played” tracks instead of soliciting end of year “best of” record recommendations. We’d learn what people really listened to, rather than what they want us to think they listen to.
“Best of Lists” always seem excessively calculated, freighted with calculations about how the choices will reflect upon the chooser. In 33 Tracks, a kind of autobiography as discography, Nick Hornby begins by saying that the song he’s played more than any other is “Thunder Road” by Bruce Springsteen, but he wishes that he could say that it was “Let’s Get It On” by Marvin Gaye, feeling that it would make him seem cooler, edgier.
Whenever I send a request to iTunes for the artwork for a CD that I’ve downloaded into the library, and it warns that the information is sent to Apple, I’ve wondered about the possibility of someone tapping into the data stream and figuring out who is playing what.
When I started as a music journalist, I didn’t have much of a frame of reference for popular music. I established more common ground with the musicians through the books that the musicians were reading. I always wanted to write stories that were conceptual art pieces, that simply noted what a musician was reading at that time and writing capsule reviews of the books. I wish I’d had the nerve to do it. I’d probably be having a career retrospective at MOCA in Los Angeles by now!
In the interests of full disclosure, as they say in the financial pages, here are my top ten most played songs, and (tied for equal first) most played album:
“We Have All The Time In The World” Louis Armstrong
“More News From Nowhere” Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds
“Blues In Orbit” Duke Ellington
“Diamonds Are A Girls Best Friend” T Bone Burnett
“Go Tell the Women” Grinderman
“My Ex-Wife” Don Walker
“Holy Rollers for Love” Jakob Dylan
“Splitting the Atom” Massive Attack
“Rich Girl” Hall & Oates
“Cow Cow Boogie” Ella Fitzgerald
Equal Most Played Albums
Blues In Orbit Duke Ellington
Laughing Clowns Live 2009
Detective Sam Tyler is playing “Life on Mars” on his iPod when he’s struck by a car in 2006 in the British series and 2008 in the American version and wakes up in 1973. Both series, named for David Bowie’s song, use popular music of the 1970’s as scenery. In the American version space-themed songs – David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” and “Starman”, Elton John’s “Rocket Man” and Lou Reed’s “Satellite of Love” – are clues that Sam Tyler might be in hibernation on an actual space voyage. A Mars rover frequently appears as an oracle.
There’s a tradition of cop shows using music innovatively. In 1986 Dennis Potter’s Singing Detective was a mystery writer with a chronic skin disease who hallucinated a detective who performed 1940’s show tunes. And The Wire uses music as a form of city desk reporting. It’s only heard when and where the characters would hear it. In the pilot episode a woman in thigh high red patent leather boots is dancing in Orlando’s strip club, the front for the Barksdale drug operation, to “Use Me” by Bill Withers. We move past her with D’Angelo Barksdale who is about to be reprimanded for an error of judgement, but we could follow her to Bill Withers’s Harlem: different city, different people, same story.
“a crooked delegation wants a donation to send a preacher to the holy land,
Hey Lord, honey don’t give your money to that lying cheating man,” Bill Withers sings in “Harlem”.
“Swear to God, it was never a cop show,” David Simon wrote in the introduction to Rafael Alvarez’s book on The Wire. “…It was about The City. It is how we in the West live at the millennium, an urbanized species compacted together, sharing a common love, awe, and fear of what we have rendered not only in Baltimore or St. Louis or Chicago, but in Manchester or Amsterdam or Mexico City as well. At best, our metropolises are the ultimate aspiration of community, the repository for every myth and hope of people clinging to the sides of the pyramid that is capitalism. At worst, our cities – or those places in our cities where most of us fear to tread – are vessels for the darkest contradictions and most brutal competitions that underlie the way we actually live together, or fail to live together.”
There are examples of musicians thinking like city desk reporters. In the 1920’s Duke Ellington was living in a tenement in Harlem. He told Studs Terkel that his tune “Harlem Air Shaft” was an assemblage of everything he heard coming through the space that ran from the basement to the roof.
“You get the full essence of Harlem in an air shaft. It’s one great big loudspeaker. You hear fights, you smell dinner, you hear intimate gossip, you hear the janitor’s dog. You smell the coffee. A wonderful thing, that smell! You hear people praying, laughing, snoring.”
And city desk reporters have caught the sound of music alive in the city in their reports.
“Friday was pay day in many of the offices and factories in the neighbourhood and Friday was ‘cabaret night’ at Dicks,” Joseph Mitchell wrote in 1939 in “Obituary for a Gin Mill”. “A beery old saloon musician would show up with an accordion and a mob of maudlin rummies would surround him to sing hymns and Irish songs. The place would be full of hard-drinking, pretty stenographers from the financial district, and they would be dragged off the bar stools to dance on the tiled floor. The dancers would grind peanut hulls under their shoes, making a strange, scratchy noise.”
City desk reporters take us to neighbourhoods we don’t normally visit and and we can see how other people live. Take away the city desk Season 5 of The Wire showed, and all we’re left with is what people want to sell us. The editor was concerned about the loss of prestige from the closure of foreign bureaus, too delighted about the possible circulation bump that might come from colourful human interest stories to question the veracity of the reporting, and untroubled about the way an understanding of the city was slipping from his grasp as city desk reporters accepted buyouts or were fired. Apply this to music and all we’re left with is a veneer of music manufactured to be hits and no indication of the music being made by small communities.
I was at the Genius Bar at the Apple Store in Sydney about a year ago and a statistic ran across the noticeboard. I can’t remember exactly what it was, something like the new iPod at the time having the kind of storage capacity that would allow you to drive from coast to coast in America a number of times without hearing the same song twice. It struck me as chilling, something sad. I started noticing how people were boasting about how many gigabytes of music they owned rather than talking about records they liked.
A couple of years ago I read an AP style guide for journalists that I can’t quote directly because it appears to have been stolen from the Customs House Library. There was a section on celebrity profiles, how they’re a moribund form based on a premise of false intimacy – a meeting in a hotel coffee shop – and that the limited access meant that journalists had to bring stories to life with banal details because they were the only details they had. So we learn a lot about hotel restaurant menus.
If an alternative to profiles of celebrity musicians is city desk reporting, observing music in the wild with patient and non-judgmental observation, how can this be achieved? I started thinking about music profiles as diorama rather than a zoo. In a zoo we come up close to a living creature in a restricted simulated environment. A diorama places a model of a creature in a detailed representation of its world and we imaginatively project ourselves into that world.
“It is one thing to echo the voices of longshoremen and addicts, detectives and dealers, quite another to claim those voices as our own,” David Simon wrote. “The D’Angelo Barksdales and Frank Sobotkas live in their worlds; we visit from time to time with pens poised above splayed notebooks.”
But what do we observe? If we’re not following musicians and going into concert halls how do we observe music in the wild? Since 1979 we’ve been moving through cities to private soundtracks played on Walkmans and iPods and smartphones. Select a hundred people wearing headphones from the mass streaming out of the train station in Martin Place in Sydney at 8.30 on a weekday morning. They walk past the glass window of a TV studio where a musician is talking about a new album, past the fountain where Neo and Morpheus discussed the illusory nature of life in The Matrix, past the Post Office Charles Darwin visited in 1836 that’s diagonally across the road from a shuttered Virgin Megastore, or maybe they cut through a food hall playing music videos on television screens. They might be plugged into a hundred different kinds of music that might not connect to anything but their own personal experience of the city. Those individual experiences are what we need to figure out how to measure and illuminate with music criticism.
Lately my favourite novelist William Gibson has been championing the quality of being atemporal, accessing the whole continuum. It started me thinking about how I might have been an ineffective music critic in the early 1980’s because I pushed the continuum all the way back to the Big Bang. I grew up in the Flinders Ranges region of South Australia where outlandish fossils are always being dug up. I remember looking up at the night sky, as a child and wondering what existed before the universe. Cosmology and palaeontology and the Harlem-era jazz of Duke Ellington weren’t a great preparation for evaluating breaking news in popular culture.
After a couple of years I switched to writing about architecture and design and, once the world had opened up to me and I’d moved to New York and then California, began specialising in writing on engineering, and carving out a hyperspecific microniche writing about remotely operated robots.
I’d always thought of punk rock as a phenomenon of urbanism, young creative people moving into downtrodden parts of cities worldwide and creating their own worlds. Maybe it’s cyclical. There was a story today in the New York Times about arty types moving into abandoned industrial parts of cities and giving them a new life having reached a ‘critical mass’: a restaurant in a coffin factory in Paris, the fish-packing district in Iceland aping the makeover of the meatpacking district in New York as a place where art galleries and cool cafe’s and boutiques are congregating. I don’t know if it was in New York, but I read about a Comme des Garcons ‘guerrilla’ boutique in a former butcher shop where the clothes were hung on meathooks and the screens for the changing room were the fringes of heavy-duty plastic that act as flyscreens in butcher shop walk-in fridges.
The new life being brought to ruined and abandoned parts of cities worldwide was the most fascinating aspect of the punk rock era to me. But it wasn’t a city-council backed urban-renewal strategy with arts grants and marketing slogans and chambers of commerce collecting friends (customers) on Facebook. St. Kilda in Melbourne and Darlinghurst in Sydney and the Bowery in New York, for example, to the extent that the wider cities considered these areas at all at the time, weren’t considered to have been improved by punk rock.
I was obsessed with the holy trinity of the era: The Sony Walkman, William Gibson’s novel Neuromancer and Ridley Scott’s movie Blade Runner. “I knew I’d done a pretty interesting movie which, in fact, was extremely interesting but was so unusual that the majority of people were taken aback,” Ridley Scott told Wired in 2007. “They simply didn’t get it. Or, I think, better now to say they were enormously distracted by the environment … In Blade Runner, my special effect behind it all would be the world.” William Gibson has said he considered quoting “watch out for worlds behind you” from the Velvet Underground song “Sunday Morning” as an epigraph for Neuromancer.
The punk rockers were creating invisible personal worlds from music, film, art, literature. The Walkman made listening to music something private and portable, as Gutenberg’s printing method had done for reading. I deliberately misread William Gibson’s idea of ‘virtual reality’, a synthetic world conjured within a screen, as ‘distal reality’, the real but geographically far away world you’re in when you connect to the video feed of images from the Mars Rovers or Dr Robert Ballard’s robots finding howlingly ugly tubeworms using chemosynthesis to live at the edge of hydrothermal vents where the earth’s molten crust is constantly moving, or connecting over the internet to the robot arm that’s planting seeds, watering plants and weeding Ken Goldberg’s Telegarden.
THE STREET FINDS ITS OWN USES FOR YOU
William Gibson’s first novel Neuromancer, published in 1984, could have carried his observation “the street finds its own uses for things” as a tagline. In interviews he talked about how the inventors and manufacturers of new technologies can’t control, or even imagine, how they’ll be used. Drug dealers using beepers and pornographers making and distributing their movies on video aren’t the early adopters marketing departments dream of. And Grandmaster Flash creating a new musical form from scratching sequences from vinyl records together isn’t a predictable use for hi-fi equipment. “Other technological artifacts unexpectedly become means of communication, either through opportunity or necessity,” wrote William Gibson in an essay published in Rolling Stone in 1989. “The aerosol can gives birth to the urban graffiti matrix. Soviet rockers press homemade flexi-discs out of used chest x-rays.”
We’re in a post-cyberpunk world now: “In the city-as-platform, the street finds its own uses for you.” Justin Pickard tweeted this wry updating of William Gibson’s aphorism a few days ago. I’ve relied on the Google Maps application on my iPhone for the past two years because I have a chronically poor sense of direction. Now I just follow the pulsating dot down the purple line to my destination. Downloading the Twitter app a couple of days ago made me realise that nearly all of the apps I rely on work because they know where I am. There’s an etiquette. Launch the apps and they ask “may I use your current location?”. And I’m not sure that I can define ‘current location’. I live in Sydney but I’ve constructed an ersatz New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco through Twitter feeds that are equally ‘real’ to me. There’s an application called Museum of the Phantom City that maps ‘otherfutures’ onto Manhattan, with descriptions and drawings of projects imagined by “architects and other visionaries” for particular sites. I launch it and imagine what’s being presented. I can’t access any of the projects because, being in Sydney, I’m considered ‘out of range’ WAY out of range.
The technology in William Gibson’s novels of the twenty first century is what exists around him as he’s writing. “A friend of mine had been sending me links to locative art Web sites and I found it all excessively nerdy and very conceptual,” he said in 2007 while on an author tour for his novel Spook Country. “But I was drawn very strongly to the idea that the entire surface of the planet is literally divided up into a digital grid. I read about geo-caching and geo-hacking, but my needs as a storyteller were not being met. So I came up with something that was like the lowbrow version – locative art that would be on the side of vans or as it would be done by the people whose work is in Juxtapoz Magazine. And that generated [the holographic artist character] Alberto and his art, which I like a lot. The cognitive dissonance comes from the idea that this guy’s using it to make memorials to River Phoenix and Helmut Newton.”
ROBERT FORSTER, ARCHAEOLOGIST
Robert Forster talked about his collection of music criticism, The 10 Rules of Rock and Roll, and played a few songs at the New Theatre in Newtown last week during the Sydney Writer’s Festival. He’s as skilled as an archaeologist at divining whole worlds from a few artifacts. He said that this quality that makes his reviews so vivid began with the attention he paid in childhood to looking deeply into record covers and seeking out interviews with bands to read. “Great artists present a world,” he said. He considers the significance of the photographs and artwork on album covers and reads the liner notes and credits, looking for clues. Bands drop hints he said, everything we need to know is there on the record sleeve. He considers how and where a record is recorded, who produces it, when it’s released, and the affect it might have on its audience.
“To release an album in January or early February is, sometimes, to make a statement. There are two blocks of the year when most records come out: March to June, and September to November. July and August are European and American summer holidays, so little is released then. December is a favourite dumping ground, home to many a bad record hoping to be lost in the rush. That leaves January and February as the one time of tranquillity, the time when a light can be shone on something special. People have not been bombarded yet, so a record can slip through and travel on word of mouth, and if it does ‘bite’, the artists have the rest of the year to tour it.
Chan Marshall (Cat Power is the moniker for this one-woman band) and Beth Orton have a few things in common. Both are in their mid-thirties, and emerged in the mid-’90’s with records that made an impact: Marshall with her fourth album, Moonpix, and Orton with her debut, Trailer Park. Since then they have consolidated, but not gone supernova. Both have wandered; both have done good work and bad. Neither is prolific. Now, about ten years into their careers – always seen as a vital point in the arc of a recording artist’s life – they have albums out close to each other, in the early part of the year.
… Focus is not a problem for Beth Orton. She has gone to New York and hired Jim O’Rourke as her producer. O’Rourke is hip; so hip Sonic Youth asked him to join. He made a number of good, influential solo albums in the late ’90’s, filled with hypnotic guitar-figure songs. Since then he has carved out a role as producer, often working with bands with a more mainstream lilt than himself, such as Wilco. It’s a bold choice for Orton, considering the strength of the 14 songs she has written. Big names would have loved this job, but O’Rourke is the inspired choice.
… And yes, there’s something of the Swordfishtrombones, Achtung Baby and Blood on the Tracks about all of this: the artist unexpectedly shedding an old skin, and achieving the breakthrough. As so often, the key is simplicity: the long-sought-after alignment of an artist’s root worth with the means of expressing it.”
Robert Forster reviews Cat Power’s The Greatest & Beth Orton’s Comfort of Strangers
The records made by musicians of the punk rock era have built up a rich fossil record: the conceptual art piece Robert Rauschenberg made of the cover for the Talking Heads album Speaking in Tongues. The powerful, sere graphic identity of the records released by the Factory Label from Manchester. A craze for candy coloured vinyl: Television’s single “Little Johnny Jewel released on red vinyl”. In the American remake of the British television series, Life on Mars, not so much named for but generated out of the David Bowie song, Detective Sam Tyler, who has tumbled back into 1973 from 2008, goes into a record store he visited as a child. “This is where I bought my first Hall and Oates, er … my first Led Zepplin album,” he tells Policewoman Annie Norris. “What you see here, all of this, vinyl albums, they all become obsolete. Replaced with CD’s and digital music you listen to on MP3 players this big” – he holds his thumb and forefinger a couple of centimeters apart – “and the sound is, well, it’s much worse.”
We’ve lost a lot more than rich sound as music moved first to CD and then digital files, we’ve lost a lot of context, the equivalent of the soft tissue that indicates how a creature lived and the organic external features (hair, skin) that shows what it looked like. The size and proportions of CD covers aren’t as appealing as LP’s. And there’s an almost total eradication of context when buying music online: rarely any composer’s credits given for songs, no musicians and producer’s credits, and the year quoted may be when the album was made available on iTunes, not when it was recorded. And maybe the technological platform is about to shift again, from the contained, closed world of iTunes and iPods and iPhones to the cloud, where music will just sit amongst every other kind of data: spreadsheets, games, e-books, e-mail, twitter streams, and be pulled down onto any kind of device, whenever needed. This is the vision Google is sketching: “Cloud based music will represent the psychological with the idea that entertainment is somehow physical,” Farhood Manjo wrote in a post on Slate a couple of days ago. “In the future, not only will you not get a CD when you buy an album, you won’t even get a digital file. All you’ll have is an access flag tied to your account in a database in a server farm in some far off world.”
THE GOOGLE AURA
So where are the details now that Robert uses to construct the worlds of musicians? How are they presented and gathered? “One of the things I discovered while I was writing Pattern Recognition [published in 2004] is that I now think that any contemporary novel today has a kind of Google novel aura around it, where somebody’s going to google everything in the text,” William Gibson told Amazon.com. Readers can follow his footprints and what he calls a “nebulous extended text” is built up across blogs and discussion boards. He even leaves crumbs out for readers to follow, unexplained pieces of action that read like pages torn from a novel that already exists, but not yet in our time. Warm up exercises for his new novel began appearing on his blog last year. They featured the musician Hollis Henry, who’d become a journalist. She was one of the main characters in Spook Country from 2007.
“Eventually she sighed, asked the Italian girl for a white coffee, a cup rather than a pot. Got out her iPhone and Googled “Gabriel Hounds”.
By the time her coffee arrived, she had determined that The Gabriel Hounds was the title of a novel by Mary Stewart, had been the title of at least one CD, had been or was the name of at least one band.
Everything, she knew, had been the title of a CD, just as everything had been the name of a band. This was why bands, for the past twenty years or so, had had such pointedly unmemorable names. But the original Gabriel Hounds, it appeared, were folklore, antique legend. Hounds heard coursing, high up in the windy night, cousins it seemed of the Wild Hunt. This was Inchmale territory, definitely, and there seemed to be even weirder variants. Some involving hounds with human heads, or hounds with the heads of human infants. This had to do with the belief that the Gabriel Hounds were hunting the souls of children who died unbaptized. Christian tacked over pagan, she guessed. And the hounds seemed to have originally been “ratchets”, an old word for dogs that hunt by scent. Gabriel Ratchets. Sometimes Gabble Ratchets.
Inchmaleian totally; he’d name the right band the Gabble Ratchets instantly.”
From William Gibson’s blog. Material related to Zero History, to be released on the ninth of July.
Here’s how the iPhone has become my newspaper. I don’t read the local newspapers any more. Not The Australian, the Sydney Morning Herald or the Australian Financial Review. In Sydney every morning over coffee I read RSS feeds of blog entries by:
- the New York venture capitalist Fred Wilson
- the great New York humorous essayist Glenn O’Brien
- Canadian palaeontologist Michael J Ryan
- New York based classical music critic Alex Ross
- a trio of American and English economists who publish “The Baseline Scenario”
- Californian urban design critic Geoff Manaugh’s bldgblog
- novelist William Gibson, who lives in Vancouver
- Steven Johnson, the New York based critic and co-founder of the geotagged local news website, Outside.in
and I get e-mailed updates from
- the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, where Dr Robert Ballard is based
- the Berkeley Centre for New Media
- and the Rubin Museum in New York, which brings Buddhist artworks and culture into contemporary life.
What I know about Australia I absorb at a remove: Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s economic plans I read about through Google’s news portal or in the New York Times. I keep up with the plight of the Tasmanian Devil in foreign science journals. Recently I’ve realized the folly of being so disconnected to my surroundings: I learned of the recent bushfires in Victoria from a friend in Los Angeles who called me from Hawaii.
When my neighbourhood in Sydney suffered a blackout for several hours a couple of days ago I was utterly unprepared. My computer and iPhone only had a couple of hours battery life left. I didn’t have a torch, candles or a radio. I’m going to buy a radio.
A month ago I bought an Apple computer that replaced my ailing PC whose systems were slowly shutting down. I couldn’t back up and transfer my iTunes library to my new computer so I’ve been slowly reloading my (predominantly jazz) collection from disc.
I’ve been able to watch movies on DVD again. My previous computer was set on the American format and I couldn’t play Australian DVD’s. I’m strangely cautious about going to the cinema and rarely see movies there: in the last few months I’ve only seen Wall-E, Stephen Sebring’s documentary on Patti Smith, and Frost Nixon.
I was deeply immersed in watching everything from the 1930′s and 1940′s I could find on video when I lived in Los Angeles and missed The Matrix when it was released. I saw it last week, ten years after it’s release. I’m glad I saw it in Sydney, where it was shot. It’s meant to be a neutral everymetropolis -I sensed Los Angeles and Chicago – but it was pleasing to recognize so much of Sydney in it. It’s a peculiar fact that I feel more anchored to a city after seeing it in a movie I like.
I’d been suspicious of The Matris, wondering if it was a sleek, calculated rip-off of William Gibson’s novel Neuromancer. I searched back through his blog and found that he’d been wary of it as well, but had been won over. “I thought it was more like Dick’s work than mine, though more coherent, saner, than I generally take Dick to have been. A Dickian universe with fewer moving parts (for Dick, I suspect, all of the parts were, always moving parts),” he wrote. “…Whatever of my work may be there, it seems to me to have gotten there by exactly the same kind of creative cultural osmosis I’ve always depended on myself.”
I recently browsed through the twentieth anniversary edition of Neuromancer at Borders on Pitt Street. It was a chunky, not handsome or luxe hardcover book published in 2004. The first line is “the sky above the port was the colour of television, tuned to a dead channel.” in the preface William Gibson wrote of thinking that no-one could really experience the first line as he did, referring to the static on a particular black-and-white television, but that readers filled in the imaginative gap.
I have some things in common with William Gibson. We both had out-of-time childhoods, caught in the past of our grandparents, his Southern grandmother’s life had the texture of the Civil War era and mine was living a 19th century Victorian English life in rural Australia. We both experienced life without television. And his route into contemporary life was through a transistor radio, as mine had been.
I marvel at the completeness of his visual imagination. A failing of science fiction is it’s sweeping generality, he said. He learned hyper-specificity from the novels of Dashiell Hammett. I don’t think I ever learned anything visual at all. I was drawn to fractally dense worlds that operate on scales way outside everyday human experience: quantum physics, cosmology, palaeontology. As a result I find the human scaled visual world and its artifacts difficult to decode. I suspect I have an unsophisticated appreciation of movies, that on many levels they’re visually incoherent to me.
The worlds I’d tuned in through my transistor radio became worlds carried around with me on my Sony Walkman. I bought one as soon as I was able to after it was released in 1979.
“The very first time I picked up a Sony Walkman, I knew it was a killer thing, that the world was changing right then and there,” William Gibson said in 2007. “A year later, no-one could imagine what it was like when you couldn’t move around surrounded by a cloud of stereophonic music of your own choosing. That was huge. That was as big as the iPhone.”
I don’t completely enter the worlds of movies. I feel as if I’m walking through them wearing a Walkman loaded with other realities. Assemblages make most sense to me: the strung together vaudeville routines of Marx Brothers movies, the dreamy episodes of Sofia Coppola’s movies, which I can break back down into books she’s read, music she ‘s heard and art she’s seen, and the world of Blade Runner, which is bigger than it’s story.
Blade Runner, William Gibson’s novels and Nick Cave’s songs ring true to me because they’re encrusted environments, old technologies, behaviour, the spiritual communications system of myths are carried forward and re-wired and welded into current experience. The Matrix illustrated William Gibson’s observation that”the street finds it’s own uses for things – uses their manufacturers never imagined.” “Once perfected, communication technologies rarely die out entirely, rather, they shrink to fit particular niches in the global info-structure, ” he wrote. Thing exist in this way in The Matrix, patched, employed to novel needs: Bakelite phones and analogue voice carrying systems serving as the getaway vehicles between simulated realities.
What disappointed me with The Matrix was the music. I found it too one-note perfect and obvious, a conventional orchestral score interlaced with popular music that fitted a marketing niche: industrial clubs playing industrial music, the grandmotherly Cuban oracle playing 1930′s jazz, Django Reinhardt and Duke Ellington.
It would have been thrilling to have a completely unheard form of music playing in the clubs frequented by the renegade programmers. Something encrusted, quoted, sampled, stretched, manipulated to sound as if it belonged to now, conveying the idea of realities continually churning and emerging from interlinked, contradictory thought patterns.
I have an entirely different soundtrack for The Matrix: psychedelic – the Jefferson Airplane’s “Go Ask Alice”, Jimi Hendrix, Gil Evan’s orchestrations of Jimi Hendrix’s music; jazz funk – Stanley Clarke, Weather Report, Herbie Hancock; and Roberto Foneca’s melding of sweet Cuban music with hard bop piano. Then it occurred to me that this is the music I’ve been listening to on my iPhone as I walk through the parts of Sydney’s CBD where The Matrix was filmed.
For a couple of weeks after the poster for the Sonny Rollins concert went up at the Sydney Opera House last year I’d stand in front of it debating whether to buy a ticket or not. Roughly 4.2 of the 7.7 days worth of music on iTunes on my computer is jazz. Much of the rest is taken up by the complete catalogues of Nick Cave and Nitin Sawhney and Bruce Springsteen (since The Ghost of Tom Joad). But I only have one Sonny Rollins record, the corny Way Out West, which I bought for his version of Johnny Mercer’s Hollywood cowboy song “I’m An Old Cowhand”. At 79 Sonny Rollins was still playing at the top of his game. “Perhaps hidden in his attic is a magical reel of tape, aging into a lump of flaking iron oxide, while he defies time’s gravity in life as in music,” wrote Gary Giddins.
But I had the sneaking feeling that I was mostly wanting to go to the concert to cross his name off the list of ’1001 jazz musicians we must see before they die’. Whatever appreciation I have of the experimental genius of Sonny Rollins comes from Gary Giddins’s jazz criticism and conversations with Laughing Clowns drummer Jeffrey Wegener. The same with Ornette Coleman, another one of the 1001 guys on the list, who also performed at the Opera House last year. I didn’t go and see Sonny or Ornette. What I really wanted was to see the Laughing Clowns again. But they hadn’t played for about twenty five years, so how likely was that to happen? Inevitable as it turned out. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds asked them to perform in the All Tomorrows Parties festival that they curated last month. The Laughing Clowns were sublime. “I loved that band,” Nick told Toby Creswell.
All Tomorrow’s Parties was a slice of time come to life again. Seeing the Boys Next Door and the Go Betweens and the Laughing Clowns on the same bill was remarkable in the early 1980′s. But that time was just a springboard and what these musicians are creating now is exponentially more remarkable.
I remember the excitement of seeing Grinderman perform in Sydney in 2007. Much had been made in the press of Nick turning fifty. This side-band of his was a brave blast of energy from people grabbing life by the throat and storming into the future. All of that rude energy acts as a Trojan Horse, cloaking smart, provocative lyrics. The Grinderman song “Go Tell The Women” is a folk song for our era; our problems, our delusions, our mistakes are described but at the end we’re encouraged to “come on back to the fray”. When Michael Almereyda explained his motivation for filming an adaptation of Hamlet in 2000 he quoted Emily Dickinson’s response to Shakespeare’s writing: “If I feel physically as if the top of my head is being taken off I know this is poetry.” This electrifying sense is what I always feel at performances by any of Nick’s bands and the Laughing Clowns, then and now.
I loved the Laughing Clowns on first sight twenty five years ago. The instrumental complexity was familiar to me, from jazz, and Jeffrey Wegener has always provided for me the equivalent of the sharp liner notes that were printed on jazz record sleeves. But what Ed’s songs and musical arrangements introduced me to, that has deepened slowly over the years, is an appreciation of the heart-lifting qualities of soul music. The sexy groove of the brass arrangements is exhilarating but the Laughing Clowns have a vast dynamic and emotional range and what was most moving for me was the sweetness in their quieter moments.
Saxophonist Wayne Shorter delivered me to the Laughing Clowns. And Duke Ellington delivered me to Wayne Shorter.
Duke Ellington guided me through life. He had a reverent curiosity so he kept evolving and progressing and expanding the boundaries of his music, and he brought into his orbit younger musicians who had the same inquisitiveness. I discovered Charles Mingus when he made The Money Jungle with Duke Ellington. I discovered John Coltrane through his duet with Duke Ellington on “In a Sentimental Way”, which remains one of the most elegant pieces of music I’ve ever heard. They make sound feel richly soft, as if it were cashmere or velvet. In his autobiography Duke Ellington called John Coltrane “a beautiful cat” and rhapsodized about how smooth their recording session had been.
When Duke Ellington died in 1974 I was looking for another mentor. I read somewhere that John Coltrane had suggested Wayne Shorter as a replacement when he wanted to leave Miles’s band. Wayne Shorter is a Nirichen Buddhist. His musical portrait of Aung San Suu Kyi, who has never wavered from Buddhist principles of non-violence and compassion in her struggles with the brutal dictatorship that prevented her from governing after she won an election in Burma in 1990, was constantly referred to in news features about the riots there a couple of years ago.
He has Duke Ellington’s reverent curiosity: “I need to find out more about other people’s cultures with the time I have left,” Wayne Shorter told Ben Ratliff, the music editor of the New York Times, in 2004. “Because when I’m writing something that sounds like my music – well, not my music. I don’t possess music – but when they say ‘Wayne Shorter’s playing those snake lines,’ I should take that willingness to do that, and extend it to the desire to find out more about what is not easy to follow, what is difficult to follow in someone else’s life.” He supports the endeavours of new generations of musicians. Long before the pop world could accept the seriousness and strength of Joni Mitchell’s jazz impulses, Wayne Shorter played on her records. And last year he appeared on Herbie Hancock’s tribute to Joni Mitchell, River. Amongst new arrangements of her songs they played Wayne Shorter’s composition, “Nefertiti”, made famous by Miles Davis, and Herbie Hancock played Duke Ellington’s “Solitude”.
When I was a teenage journalist Wayne Shorter was the first person I conducted a long radio interview with. He was touring Australia with Weather Report. It was a great late line-up of the band with Joe Zawinul on piano, Peter Erskine on drums and the explosively soulful Jaco Pastorious on bass. It was thrilling to see a jazz band walk onto a concert hall stage lined to the rafters with stacks of speaker boxes. A heavy metal band might have emerged from the wings. Or Parliament might have walked onstage, plugged in their instruments, and stirred up some incendiary funk. Later the same night I saw Weather Report play an acoustic set at a small jazz club and what they played had a profound, painfully tender beauty.
A couple of weeks ago Ben Ratliff was taking questions from New York Times readers. He was asked which of the musicians he’s interviewed he found the most opaque or confounding. “Would be Ornette Coleman and Wayne Shorter, who are ninjas of the opaque,” he replied. “But I think there’s a reason we like them opaque: around the fifth time you read what they have to say – about harmony or memory or life and death or what happens when we name things – you see that underneath the oracular statements are some strong and simple ideas and a lot of humour.” It’s with that spirit I approached the Laughing Clowns.
There were long stretches where I saw them perform every week. They struck me as something highly original. In speaking with Jeffrey and Ed it became clear that there was little overlap between the jazz I was familiar with and what they listened to. I had practically no frame of reference for anything from popular music. It was obvious they were drawing from a wide range of inspirations but there was something about them that was entirely themselves. They inspired trust. I was less interested in trying to reduce them to something familiar than waiting for what was entirely new about them to become familiar on its own terms.
The bizarre thing that Ed has to deal with is that one of the legends he’s constantly being compared to is himself. Technically, the Saints independent single “(I’m) Stranded” is the big bang, an explosion of energy out of nowhere that brought the punk rock movement to life. There was magic and danger in the combination of Ed’s guitar and Chris Bailey’s voice. Punk rock was a global phenomenon, a response to a time not an artistic movement, and it now seems inevitable, but the Saints were first.
I was curious and grateful to see the Saints perform at All Tomorrow’s Parties. They hadn’t been a part of my world. It was probably Clinton Walker who played for me the records that Ed made with Chris Bailey, and I responded most to their third and last record together, Prehistoric Sounds, which is moving along the path Ed would take with the Laughing Clowns. Robert Forster wrote about the first time in thirty years that the Ed and Chris Bailey and original drummer Ivor Hay played together as the Saints, a year and a half ago in Brisbane: “The set is a dream run through the band’s early catalogue. Helped by a brass section that trots on and off the stage, the songs visit two camps. There are the big, driving ballads from Prehistoric Sounds: “Chameleon”, “The Prisoner” and “All Times Through Paradise”. And there are the very best of the short, sharp tunes scattered across the first two records: “(I’m) Stranded”, “No Time”, “Know Your Product” and “This Perfect Day”. The total effect is unrelenting quality and depth of vision. This is no punk ram-a-lam but a full showing of the original breadth and beauty The Saints were able to put out in an era and in a town (London) which demanded that punk bands play by punk rules. The Saints’ wilful bucking of the trends then allows the music to storm now. There is wonder here, and the brass section, with its stabs and swing, is no ‘soul music’ affectation or quote, but welded into the rock form like few other bands have ever managed … And then there’s Ed Kuepper … It’s a master class in electric-guitar playing which has you realising that he’s one of the very few Australian guitar geniuses. Obvious comparisons are with Neil Young or Kurt Cobain, sonic adventurers who can take sheets of electric noise and get songs out of them, while also being able to solo a hurricane of notes that mean something to the song.”
I had no obvious comparisons for Ed’s guitar playing when I first saw the Laughing Clowns. The wonder of seeing the band now is that I have no comparisons at all. Although the Laughing Clowns have been dormant Ed and Jeffrey have been performing together for many years, recently as a duo touring Europe with the Bad Seeds. Experience and maturity suits them, they’re radiant and relaxed. I was reminded of something that Duke Ellington said to someone who remarked of his band: “They’re all so relaxed! How can they look so casual and play such moving music?” “They’re free, that’s why,” he replied. “A natural man is a free man. If they were tense they would only pour out noise. Because they’re relaxed, they play music. It comes from inside them. How could jazz be otherwise?”
Jeffrey’s doing with his drumming has the power to knock you off your feet but there are many quieter moments that are spellbinding. There’s a lot going on, his style is complex, but there’s clarity. The usual metaphors we apply to drummers don’t seem to apply to him. He’s not a backbone or an anchor, there’s something more organic about his role in creating the sound, he’s more like a central nervous system.
What I sense in Ed and Jeffrey are qualities I admired in both Duke Ellington and Wayne Shorter: they’re still points in a shifting universe. They’re agents of change but have great composure. Rock writers tend to interpret music as literal autobiography and musical style as an extension of personality, so their brains overheat trying to link the powerful electric force of Ed’s guitar with his calm demeanour. But viewing the music symbolically, as poetry rather than prose, that coolness is the whole point, energy contained and directed rather than an erratic force. There’s a dazzling drama to some of Laughing Clowns songs, the trapdoors and false endings within “Collapseboard”, for instance, but also an abiding peacefulness, heard in “Eternally Yours”.
When the lineup that Nick and the Bad Seeds had selected for the All Tomorrow’s Parties festival was announced I was fascinated to see that they’d presented history as the future. With Nick’s success in particular there’s been a growing interest in the creation myth of that time. All Tomorrow’s Parties showed that it was a social history: the cumulative effect of so many different bands and people that created a whole world. Names of clubs, city landmarks, anecdotes about escapades, and trying to place a society by noting the credits on record sleeves won’t bring that world to life.
But Robert Forster’s song “Darlinghurst Nights” does. He captures the yearning at the heart of this time, that all of the big ideas and grand sonic experiments were trying to fill up an emptiness. The rich, soul stirring experiences of life always seemed to be somewhere else. They’d have to be willed into existence through music.
“I’m gonna change my appearance every day
I’m gonna write a movie and then I’m going to star in a play
And then I’m going to go to Caracas
’cause you know I’m just going to have to get away…”
“Darlinghurst Nights” The Go Betweens
The song reminds me of standing under the Coca Cola sign in Kings Cross looking at the traffic going up and down the ski-slope of William Street, feeling a little as if I were floating, and wondering just what was out there in the world. The song is an exquisite portrait of a group of people at a particular time. It fades out on a brass arrangement, hazy and magical that reminds me of the Laughing Clowns, who were part of the world of Robert’s song.
When I bought that Go Betweens record and heard that song, I remembered that there was something enchanted about the Laughing Clowns and yearned to see them again. There were always silk-screened posters of old-fashioned white-faced clowns stuck up on the walls of boarded-up buildings around Darlinghurst as if they were summoning people to roll up for a circus. And there was always a sense of occasion in going to see them, no matter how dingy the club was. A set of multi-coloured lightbulbs was strung up across the front of the stage, and the band had a theme song. If I’d known anything about mythology at the time I might have been able to quantify that sense of magic. Maybe a circus is where we “face the irrational savage beast within” as Joseph Campbell suggested we need to do if we’re to live without fear. People putting their heads between the jaws of lions, doing death defying feats on high wires, and clowns, taking the role of their ancestors, the court jesters, being the only ones who could tell the truth about life and not lose their heads. There’s a vague sense, in the lyrics to the Laughing Clowns theme song, that this might be the case. It’s a hopeful song.
After living in America for so many years I had a lot of Ed’s records to catch up with, and I’ve been gradually buying them through iTunes. The diversity and range of his music is awe-inspiring. There was the thrill of finding Chris Abrahams playing piano on “King of Vice”. I was a child when I first heard Duke Ellington’s music and loved it with a child’s intensity, listening for the piano because it was his instrument. As I grew into a more critical appreciation of music, piano continued to be special, and there’s no piano player more special than Chris Abrahams: lyrical, peaceful and quietly joyous. One of the many treasured experiences of the All Tomorrow’s Parties festival for me was seeing Chris’s band the Necks for the first time. And on Ed’s Starstruck record the meditative Indian beats over a layer of electronic sounds locked into sounds I was mesmerised by in India. I’ve been buying the music directly onto my iPhone and the mobile version of iTunes provides even less information than the full program on a regular computer. Without a context I felt as if I was being distracted by exotic surfaces and not getting to the heart of the music.
I’m on surer ground with the pop standards he’s recorded and I’ve concentrated on buying and listening to songs whose histories are known to me. Ed’s version of “Ring of Fire” is simply phenomenal. He’s taken a song that chronicles lightning striking in two people’s lives, that seems to suggest complete destruction, and in his arrangement moves forward in time to show that far from ruining their lives, this was a turning point that led to eventual happiness. Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire” is part of his legend, the driving rhythm of the song was his musical signature. Wild, out-of-control Johnny Cash impulsively falls for June Carter, tearing his family to pieces. He has a wife and four young daughters. On the record his eldest daughter Rosanne wrote after her mother, Johnny Cash and June Carter died within eighteen months of each other, she has a song, “Burn Down This Town”, about him storming in and out of her life when she was a child. The song which describes Johnny Cash’s casket being carried in a black Cadillac is underpinned by the Doors song “Riders On The Storm”. Ed’s arrangement reflects what we know with a lifetime’s hindsight. That Johnny repaired his relationship with his daughters, that June Carter became a deeply loved stepmother, and that reaching out to her was the smartest most life-affirming thing he ever did. Ed captures the whole life of the song. He slows Johnny Cash’s beat, sweetens the song with Mariachi horns, and sings it in a conversational tone. He takes it out on soft, solemn marching drums.
The reborn Laughing Clowns have limitless opportunities. It would be fascinating to hear them re-record their old repertoire as standards, reinvented and moved through time as Ed has done with standards on his solo records. On Cockatoo Island he said to the large, enthralled crowd, we’re an arthouse ensemble and you’re asking us to turn it up? But that’s the unique character of the Laughing Clowns. They have strong, dependable songs that can reel you in and hold you, at any volume, and skilled musicians who can, especially with the ease and intuitive understanding between Ed and Jeffrey, take those songs anywhere in performance. Unlike jazz bands who can fail to summon the magic between the musicians without an audience and the dynamic of a concert, the Laughing Clowns will be able to record new songs that are equally and differently alive in the studio.
The first time around the lyrics suffered. The small clubs often had inadequate sound equipment and the vocals could be lost. And it was a time between formats, analogue was dying and digital wasn’t yet ascendant. I never taped the Laughing Clowns records and listened to them on my Sony Walkman. I’m discovering now that Ed’s songs unfurl when listened to on my iPhone and I now realize just how much I’ve missed. Jazz was my default musical setting and to me was something almost entirely instrumental. Most of the jazz I liked had titles I considered to be punchlines from songs I didn’t get, yet! Perhaps I’d subconsciously linked the Laughing Clowns to a form of jazz, composed by Charles Mingus, that made me feel seasick and unsettled as a child that I grew to find exquisitely, unconventionally cerebrally, beautiful and love to distraction.
The titles of Laughing Clowns songs: “Mr Uddich Smuddich Goes To Town”, “Theme From Mad Flies, Mad Flies”, “Holy Joe”, “Ghlst Beat”, I found darkly, charmingly witty and pleasingly odd: more punchlines I didn’t get, yet! But there’s something else in Ed’s lyrics themselves, the quality of an interior monologue, that’s compelling and seems prescoiently invented for the way the Walkman made music part of our own interior monologues. He doesn’t seem to be telling a story but capturing a thought at a particular transformative moment: a single, unthinking gesture that changes the course of a relationship or a moment dramatic and deathly in the present that seems banal when thought back upon. Ed’s rearrangements and rerecordings of particular songs seem less about musical styles and sonic reinterpretations than memories, the way that perception changes with the passage of time, or considering something from another’s viewpoint. The angle of thought shifts and so does the way the song sounds.
“How do we produce work that touches the heart?” Leonard Cohen asked rhetorically in an interview with the New York Times in 1992. “We don’t want to live a superficial life. We want to be serious with each other, with our friends, with our work. That doesn’t necessarily mean gloomy or grim, but seriousness has a kind of voluptuous aspect to it. It is something that we are deeply hungry for, to take ourselves seriously and to be able to enjoy the nourishment of seriousness, that gravity, that weight.”
A Steely Dan concert is akin to witnessing the passage of a single multiplex vehicle the size of a motorcade or convoy, its various segments comprising limousines, ice-cream wagons, hearses, lunch-carts, ambulances, black marias, and motorcycle outriders, all of it Rolls-grade and lacquered like a tropical beetle. The horns glint, as it rolls majestically past, splendid, a thing of legend, and utterly peculiar unto itself.
William Gibson’s blog
Dock Boggs. From Wikipedia.
When William Gibson released his first novel, Neuromancer, in 1984, he considered opening it with a line from a Velvet Underground song, “Watch out for worlds behind you,” from “Sunday Morning”. In an interview in 1986 he talked about how limiting he found the questions journalists were asking him. They asked only about books that had inspired him, and even more particularly, just science fiction books.
“The trouble with ‘influence’ questions is that they’re usually framed to encourage you to talk about your writing as if you grew up in a world circumscribed by books,” he told Larry McCaffrey. “I’ve been influenced by Lou Reed, for instance, as much as I’ve been by any ‘fiction’ writer.”
William Gibson and Nick Cave have been the two poles of my compass ever since I began reading and hearing their works, from Nick’s first record and Gibson’s first book. What they share is a vision with a level of detail that William Gibson described as ‘superspecificity’ and that he learned from Dashiell Hammett.
“I remember being very excited about how he had pushed all of this ordinary stuff until it was different,” he told Larry McCaffrey. “Like American naturalism but cranked up, very intense, almost surreal. You can see this at the beginning of The Maltese Falcon (1930) where he describes all the things in Spade’s office. Hammett may have been the guy who turned me on to the idea of superspecificity, which is largely lacking in most SF description, SF authors tend to use generics.”
Although Gibson is credited with the invention of what we now recognise as the computer era, because he described it so well, and Nick is generally assumed to be inventing scenarios around Old Testament parables, what draws me to their perspectives is how vividly they describe worlds that that are real, that they see because they’re paying attention. Their artistry comes from combining the observations they’ve made about in unusual ways. Their works resemble nothing we’ve ever seen before, in that way, so it’s assumed they must be inventing comic book futures or transcribing fever dreams.
“I suppose I strive for an argot that seems real, but I don’t invent most of what seems exotic or strange in the dialogue,” William Gibson told Larry McCaffrey, “that’s just more collage. There are so many cultures or subcultures today that if you’re willing to listen, you can pick up different phrases, inflections and metaphors everywhere. I use a lot of phrases that seem exotic to everyone but the people who use them.”
My own interests can be cross-faded with Nick’s and William Gibson’s. I’ve always comprehended that their works lay down on paper (or in music, alive in a stretch of time) the soul’s eternal struggle with itself. It’s the sadness at the heart of what they both create that I’m most drawn to: the sorrow that makes it possible to measure happiness. “We each have a need to create and sorrow is a creative act,” Nick said in a lecture about love songs. “The love song is a sad song, it is the sound of sorrow itself. We all experience within us what the Portugese call Suadade, which translates as an inexplicable sense of longing, an unnamed and enigmatic yearning of the soul and it is this feeling that lives in the realms of imagination and inspiration and is the breeding ground for the sad song, for the Love song is the light of God, deep down, blasting through our wounds.”
Today a list of William Gibson’s ten favourite songs is published on the New York Times book blog. He mentions a song from The Boatman’s Call among his favourites. On his blog, at the time he published Pattern Recognition he expressed admiration for Nick, saying that he’d like to write a novel as good as The Boatman’s Call. Gibson’s description of a song by Dock Boggs, an early twentieth century Appalachian white bluesman, is exactly the feeling I gained from reading William Faulkner’s novels, after they’d been recommended to me by Nick.
“On finally learning to hear this music, you literally become some different, more primal manner of flesh,” writes Gibson. “There is simply nothing else like it. It is an Ur-thing, sere and terrible, yet capable of profound and paradoxical rescue in the very darkest hour. Dock Boggs lived in Wise County, Virginia, not far from where I grew up. I am haunted by the possibility that someone could have listened to this recording in Paris, in 1927, the year it was released.”
U2 at the screening of their 3D movie at Sundance. Photo by MyBono at Flickr.
U23D is William Gibson’s vision of virtual reality completely realised: a layer of synthetic experience that naturally melds with your material existence. The 3D movie was shot on the South American leg of U2′s Vertigo tour. William Gibson wrote about the Seattle and Vancouver concerts of that tour in Wired.
“My wife and I stand in Seattle’s Key Arena, noses level with the lower swoop of what U2 calls the Ellipse, the elevated stage loop the band traverses in performance. We’re here because U2 is the early 21st century’s biggest – and arguably most technologically innovative – touring group, the one that continues to define and redefine the spectacle that is arena rock. For more than a decade, they’ve been driving both the technology and the form of the megatour while providing huge audiences with a powerful yet intricately managed sense of intimacy.”
William Gibson. U2′s City of Blinding Lights: 12,000 daisy-chained LEDs. Spycams controlled bya PlayStation. The Vertigo tour is a monster concert machine – and the ultimate rock-and-roll R&D lab.
The band’s conceptual mastery of the technology and the movie’s polish made the 3D effect seem natural and inevitable.
Gibson asked The Edge about the technological artworks displayed during the concerts and the band’s collaboration with artists. “It’s a co-op,” replied The Edge.
“It’s finding like-minded people who have something to contribute. Ever since ZooTV, we’ve found people who’ve got stuff, and we go delving through their collection of images. But in the end, all of the imagery is there to underscore what the music is already saying. It’s a way to shed light from another angle.”
One form of light they deal with is spiritual, and the Christian symbols in Bono’s lyrics are given a context, in 3D, that makes it apparent that the songs are animated with the same kind of urge to ponder the human relationship with God that underpins religious art.
In the same week I saw excerpts from the video imagery that Bill Viola created for the staging ofWagner’Tristan and Isolde by the L.A. Philharmonic, and I heard him speak at the Art Gallery of New South Wales.
He talked about developing as an artist while video technology was also developing, that he studied engineering alongside art in order to have a hand in creating the tools he needed to realize his vision. With high definition video he said he now feels that he has a full palette of tools. He showed an excerpt from his new work, Ocean Without a Shore.
A black and white surveillance video camera from the 1970′s filmed people walking towards an invisible wall of water. As the actors broke through the wall (a laminar flow that takes three days to calibrate) they became ultra-real, shot in the kind of high-definition digital colour video cameras that George Lucas shoots movies with. The work ponders the way that the dead, or how they remain spiritually with us, ebbs and flows.
Bill Viola said of the exquisite, lifelike detail in Northern European Renaissance painting, “that’s HD.”
We can now take technology for granted and see the common spirit in works created in different media, in different ages, and we can concentrate on the experience of the works. Bill Viola’s parents have died in the last few years and he recalled being at a gallery and standing in front of a Renaissance painting of the Virgin Mary and beginning to weep. He wasn’t an artist considering the technique and materials and concept of an artwork but a human being taking his cares and troubles to Mother Mary, he said. U2 are unavoidable but I’ve never really paid close attention to them, and in the few days since I’ve seen the movie I’ve looked up videos of their songs on YouTube. Bono has performed new lyrics he’s written for Ave Maria, alongside Luciano Pavarotti singing the traditional, ancient hymn-version. Bono takes his cares and troubles to Mother Mary. “Where is the justice in this world,” he asks her. “The wicked make so much noise, Mother. The righteous stay oddly still. With no wisdom all the riches in the world leave us poor tonight.”
It’s taken all of these 3D techniques to see U2 at human scale.
Recorded music has always had a dual identity, singles and albums played on radio and music videos are simultaneously artworks and advertisements for the artworks. In William Gibson’s twenty-first century novels, Pattern Recognition and Spook Country, the prime villain is Hubertus Bigend, the Belgian owner of a global advertising agency. He creates an ethically dubious form of viral marketing by having people in bars covertly recommend products during the course of normal conversations. And he tries to find a marketing advantage in he way that most inventive applications of new technologies are created by either artists or the military.
On the ZOO TV tour U2 played in front of television footage pulled in from satellite dishes they brought to the arenas with them.
“We’ve spent a crazy time dissecting TV and adverts to make a parody of the chaos they cause,” Bono said at the time. “The irony is that ZOO TV has now been taken over by the advertising world and at the moment there are three or four international campaigns inspired by what we did.”
U2 seem sincere, close-up in 3D, in a way that minimizes the marketing aspect. They can seem bombastic and cartoonishly oversize in the regular world, but within the infinite vista and scalelessness of the digital realm, in 3D, are just life size. “Saint” Bono’s concerns, that can seem self-aggrandizing and overwrought in their global scope, within the digital world, with its natural tendency to create links and form clusters is heartfelt, inclusive and far-sighted.
The larger than life symbol in the concert is the Rev Dr Martin Luther King Jr. In 2004 King’s widow Coretta Scott King, acknowledged Bono’s humanitarian work.
At the event, Bono became emotional as he discussed the impact Dr. King had on him growing up in Ireland during that country’s civil war, according to the Associated Press.
He said, “We despaired for the lack of vision of the kind Dr. King gave to people in the South,” and added that he wrote the 1984 hit “Pride (In The Name Of Love)” based on King’s teachings. Bono also said, “When Dr. King spoke about having a dream, he wasn’t just talking about an American dream. It can be an African dream, an Irish dream. That’s why I’m excited to be here.”
U2 performs “Pride” in Brazil, on the Vertigo tour.
US Senator Barack Obama, campaigning to become President, uses U2′s song “City of Blinding Lights” in his appearances. It’s not a stirring anthem but a quiet musing about the alienating quality of contemporary urban life. It presents uncertainty. He made a speech at the groundbreaking ceremony for a memorial to Dr King in 2006 that dwelt on triumphing over uncertainty and flaws.
By his own accounts, he was a man frequently racked with doubt, a man not without flaws, a man who, like Moses before him, more than once questioned why he had been chosen for so arduous a task – the task of leading a people to freedom, the task of healing the festering wounds of a nation’s original sin.
And yet lead a nation he did. Through words he gave voice to the voiceless. Through deeds he gave courage to the faint of heart.
By dint of vision, and determination, and most of all faith in the redeeming power of love, he endured the humiliation of arrest, the loneliness of a prison cell, the constant threats to his life, until he finally inspired a nation to transform itself, and begin to live up to the meaning of its creed.
Like Moses before him, he would never live to see the Promised Land. But from the mountain top, he pointed the way for us – a land no longer torn asunder with racial hatred and ethnic strife, a land that measured itself by how it treats the least of these, a land in which strength is defined not simply by the capacity to wage war but by the determination to forge peace – a land in which all of God’s children might come together in a spirit of brotherhood.
We have not yet arrived at this longed for place. For all the progress we have made, there are times when the land of our dreams recedes from us – when we are lost, wandering spirits, content with our suspicions and our angers, our long-held grudges and petty disputes, our frantic diversions and tribal allegiances.
Filming the movie at concerts in Buenos Aires, Santiago, Mexico City and Sao Paulo emphasized the connection U2 feels to those who are struggling, worldwide. The South American countries have fiery and exuberant, warm cultures, Bono said, that he identifies with. And, like Ireland, these countries have experienced the furious passion of religious conflicts, terrorism, war and poverty.
Karen Armstrong describes religions as “spiritual technologies” in The Great Transformation, a study of the age in which the compassionate responses of Buddhism, Hinduism, Confucianism developed in a savage and violent world.
But in William Gibson’s science fiction novels of the twentieth century, those who pursue the magical new technologies in hope of attaining power, immortality and riches seem limited and lacking in character, while the seemingly less fortunate characters have an inner dimension, unquestioningly linking up older spiritual systems with new technologies.
Christian motifs already intermingled with Cuban voodoo, co-exist with synthetic realities. In Buddhism all is illusory. The wholly digital Japanese Idoru evokes the practical mysticism of Tibetan Buddhists, seeing nothing contradictory in believing in seemingly arcane magic but willingly adapting and giving up beliefs if science proves them untenable. The Latin cultures already have a form of virtual reality that requires no digital equipment, in the magical realism of their literature. In an interview Gabriel Garcia Marquez said that the realism in his novels isn’t “magical” but that all of the fantastic events in One Hundred Years of Solitude are absolutely real.
“It always amuses me that the biggest praise for my work comes for the imagination, while the truth is there’s not a single line in all my work that does not have a basis in reality. The problem is that Caribbean reality resembles the wildest imagination….[The tone] was based on the way my Grandmother used to tell her stories. She told things that sounded supernatural and fantastic, but she told them with complete naturalness. “
Gabriel Garcia Marquez. The Paris Review.
Towards the end of the movie the digital effects appear to be suffering from vertigo, slogans, then individual words, then just letters, in English and Spanish, rushing then subsiding until the band is alone onstage.
When I came out of the cinema Keanu Reeves was arriving for the premiere of his new James Ellroy police drama, Street Kings, in the same cinema complex. The actual, flesh-and-blood Keanu Reeves seemed less real than the digital Bono. People pushed and shoved behind the barricade of a shabby red carpet, to take photos of him with their mobile phones. It was a diminished and tacky approximation of the old-fashioned heady glamour that the ritual of a premiere is supposed to invoke. The closeness and warmth of 3D redefines intimacy. We no longer need to parade the actual human beings in front of the film in order to feel a genuine connection to them.
As Neo in The Matrix Keanu Reeves questioned the nature of reality and human life experience. In the New Yorker, Adam Gopnik wrote that The Matrix “spoke to an old nightmare. The basic conceit of The Matrix – the notion that the material world is a malevolent delusion, designed by the forces of evil with the purpose of keeping people in a state of slavery, has a history.
It is most famous as the belief for which the medieval Christian sect known as the Cathars fought and died, and in great numbers too. The Cathars were sure that the material world was a phantasm created by Satan, and that Jesus of Nazareth – their Neo – had shown mankind a way beyond that matrix by standing outside it and seeing through it. The Cathars were fighting a losing battle, but the interesting thing was that they were fighting at all. It is not unusual to take up a sword and die for a belief. It is unusual to take up a sword to die for the belief that swords do not exist.”
Lights go down, it’s dark
The jungle in your head
A feeling is so much stronger than a thought
Your eyes are wide
And though your soul
It can’t be bought
Your mind can wander
I’m at a place called Vertigo
It’s everything I wish I didn’t know
Except you give me something I can feel, feel
The night is full of holes
As bullets rip the sky
Of ink with gold
They twinkle as the
Boys play rock and roll