Seven months ago, while holidaying in Athens, I made an argument about The nihilism of heat. Citing solid empirical data from reputable sources like Camus' The Outsider, Conrad's Heart of Darkness and Greene's The Power and the Glory, I stated that there was little doubt that a clear, demonstrable link existed between heat and nihilism. In the light of chilling new evidence, I want to revise that statement.
To recap my argument: A sense of rationality and fairness prevails where it's cold. Human life is worth more, and humane values flourish. "In cooler, more northern countries a fundamental sense of fairness informs the idea that sidewalks are for pedestrians," I wrote. As a result of this, traffic accidents are less common and less dangerous where it's cold, I claimed.
I want to change my mind. It's not that I was wrong about the nihilism of heat, or the cultural connection between hot places and a certain moral insouciance. It's that I didn't give the whole picture. There's a nihilism of cold too.
Let's start with the traffic stats. Sure, in general there are fewer accidents in more northerly countries. But when it gets cold and icy, when road and pavement alike are white, accidents happen. The BBC reports that "heavy snow and high winds have caused traffic chaos across Germany with at least three deaths reported nationwide. Conditions closed some motorways and caused long traffic jams on many others. Public transport in some areas has been shut down and police have advised people not to travel if possible." In these conditions, even getting into your car is dangerous. Let's not even talk about the slithery time I had on my bike yesterday as I traversed treacherous ice and snow to see the new exhibitions at NGBK and Kunstraum Kreuzberg. I'm lucky to be alive.
In sweaty Athens I may have painted too rosy a picture of the thrillingly chilly life of winter, evoking freedom organised with Scandinavian efficiency and cheerful fishermen reeling the umpteenth plump fish up through their ice holes. But how could anything other than nihilism and despair greet the news that snow and temperatures of minus forty have killed over a million livestock in Mongolia this winter, and threaten to grip the Mongolian people in a downward spiral of hunger and poverty?
It's not that I was wrong about nihilism and heat, it's that this winter has shown me there's a nihilism of cold too. I could cite all sorts of Russian literature to "prove" this with literary "data" and establish a correlation between extremes of temperature and states of the soul. But, to be quite frank, I can't be arsed. My fingers are too cold to turn the pages. The ink in my pen is a black solid, and my computer keyboard is sputtering out. It's minus ten here today, and I'm stocking up on orphans to feed the brazier.
Web 2.0? It's more like Job 2.0 sometimes. Have you updated your Flickr page? Put a witty new status update on Facebook? Have you responded to the 29 invites awaiting your attention there? They come from real people, you know! And hey, your editor wants to connect with you via Linkedin! Then there's the blog... Are there enough hours in the day?
Well, there might be if I just give you a Flickr slideshow today of some (only half so far) of my Japan trip photos (annotations on the Flickr page), accompanied by a rough scratch mp3 of some of the sounds I encountered on my travels (including Oorutaichi and Doddodo concerts)!
Japanscratch (7.5MB stereo mp3 file, 23 mins 41 secs)
Play them together!
1. If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you'll probably want to know is where I was born and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don't feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth. J.D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye, 1951
2. Don't read much now: the dude
Who lets the girl down before
The hero arrives, the chap
Who's yellow and keeps the store
Seem far too familiar. Get stewed:
Books are a load of crap.
Philip Larkin, A Study Of Reading Habits, 1955
3. You can read lives and obituaries of Salinger and all that Wikipedia crap elsewhere; I'm interested in the word "crap". It sits like a sprung trap right there in the first sentence of The Catcher in the Rye, the first word that really establishes the tone, the snare that catches our attention. If, in the glib formula, Salinger really did "invent the teenager", it's that surly, dismissive, deliberately anti-literary use of "crap" which starts the process. Like Prometheus making a man out of mud, Salinger creates the teenager from "crap".
4. So the teenager gets born with a jibe at poor old Charles Dickens, and poor young David Copperfield! It's understandable; by 1951 it was as important for a new writer to distance himself from the 19th century novel as it was for a teenager to distance himself from a pre-teen, or for an American writer to distance himself from a British one.
5. No reciprocal need was felt. British writers, post-war, weren't as interested in rejecting American idioms and models as the Americans were in rejecting theirs. In fact, British and American writers were more likely to find common cause in their embrace of a new informality, a new escape from the "fusty" literary past, and a couple of swift kicks at the dead shin of Dickens.
6. And so -- not for the first or last time -- a British artist makes the exact same gesture as an American one, a couple of years later. Larkin -- like Salinger, adopting, as a literary technique, a non-literary voice and a persona -- tells us that "books are a load of crap". Later, also following Salinger (who has Holden report some "fuck you" graffiti in chapter 25 of Catcher), Larkin will unfurl his own f-word, telling us that "they fuck you up, your mum and dad".
7. They seem unlikely rebels, the preppy Jewish recluse from New England and the bald Hull librarian. They bring swearing into literature almost against their will; Larkin tells John Betjeman, in the 1964 BBC Monitor documentary that peppers this page: "I read that I'm a miserable sort of fellow writing a sort of Welfare State sub-poetry, doing it well, perhaps, but it isn't really what poetry is, and it isn't really the sort of poetry we want. But I wonder if it ever occurs to the writer of criticism like that that really one agrees with them. That what one writes is based so much on the kind of person one is, and the kind of environment one's had, and has now, that one doesn't really choose the poetry one writes, one writes the kind of poetry one has to write."
8. In other words, these were not radical writers who loved swearing and could sing the praises of what Ken Tynan (the first man to use it on TV) called "the sweet word fuck". They were rather cautious conservatives with strong misgivings about the modern world, but men who nevertheless believed so strongly in literature's empirical duty to reflect reality that they had no choice but to use in literature the sweary words that people use on the streets.
9. The shock for readers wasn't so much in encountering words like "crap" and "fuck" as seeing them printed on a page published by a reputable and legitimate publishing house. The sword cut both ways: literature got some street cred, but swearing also received a literary blessing of sorts.
10. And with that mutually-beneficial exchange the whole game began to shift, and the values to invert. When I read The Catcher in the Rye in the 1970s it was already a literary antique, its street slang ("crumby", "phoney", "lousy") faintly quaint. The cutting edge quickly became more recent, more radical American authors like Kathy Acker. Far from disparaging Dickens, Kathy Acker sat down and rewrote Great Expectations, appropriating him word-for-word in a section headed "Plagiarism" then quickly branching out into her own tale.
11. In Acker's version of Great Expectations, published in 1982, "literary" and "street" reach a new settlement. You could say that Acker skips the 1950s empirical-street-literary model and goes back to the biggest, baddest European rebel writer of the 1940s, Jean Genet.
12. And this is where I have to chime in and say that I'm with Acker and Genet, rather than Salinger and Larkin. In a world in which informal has become the new formal, jeans and rock are the universal signifiers of normative respectability, couture kowtows to pret and the street is the new salon, the "subversive" thing to do is to resurrect and re-invent the maligned category of "the literary". My Book of Jokes (which has a chapter featuring the characters from Genet's play The Blacks) adopts -- as Genet did -- a deliberately high-flown literary tone all the better to contrast the obscenities and street smut it trades in.
13. As for Dickens and his "David Copperfield crap", I'm interested in getting closer to it. Dickens is actually a key part of the "signature specification" for my next novel, codenamed Super-Empathy.
14. The informal, empirical "street" tradition isn't dead, though. Writers can still shock us by putting clumsy everyday things into published books. Since the new street is the internet, the author currently doing this most shockingly -- and best -- is Tao Lin, who filled Shoplifting from American Apparel with apparently-inconsequential Google Chats. If you want today's J.D. Salinger, look no further.
15. Have a listen to Chris Harrald's radio play Mr Larkin's Awkward Day on BBC iPlayer. It isn't crap.
We're coming to the end of our time together, dear Click Opera readers, and it strikes me that there's a huge amount you don't know about me. Really basic stuff, too; the kind of thing that would be in the first couple of chapters of an autobiography. Just how major, traumatic and formative an event it was for me, for instance, to be transported from Athens (where my family had been posted by the British Council) to boarding school in Scotland at the age of ten. I spent three years in an Edinburgh Academy boarding house, wishing profoundly I were somewhere else.
I remember two things I said back then, one to my friend Thomson and one to myself. To Thomson I compared Edinburgh with Athens and called the Scottish capital "a cluster of shacks on the horizon". Now, this wasn't true at all; Edinburgh holds up well against Athens, objectively speaking. But it expressed my need for a here / elsewhere binary in which the elsewhere had the starring role. I was a Romantic, a little Lord Byron. I even started telling some of the boys I was Greek, not Scottish. I loosened my Scottish accent, adding some Thames Estuary vowels just to confuse people.
The other thing I remember saying -- to myself this time -- is: "I will be try to be less influenced by my surroundings". In Mackenzie House I was very aware of the pressure to conform -- to use the same slang as the other boys, to mimic their jokes, to read what they read and listen to what they were listening to. In some instances I let my resistance crumble; in the padded music rehearsal rooms and up in the Senior Common Room I was introduced to T. Rex and David Bowie, and saw no good reason to block them out.
But I very much wanted to hold myself apart from the culture that surrounded and threatened to engulf me. Books provided the secret, premonitory, consolatory world I could escape into: Joyce's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Dylan Thomas' Under Milk Wood, Eliot's The Wasteland, Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four and Burgess' A Clockwork Orange. If the bildungsroman offered an idealised portrait of myself, the political dystopia could mirror the "total institution" I was living in rather well, and offer methods -- more or less successful -- for resisting it.
Boarding school convinced me that males (the other boys and the masters) were ultraviolent bullies or vulgar clowns. They had power over me, but didn't have my best interests at heart. They were often out-of-touch; the housemaster, for instance, knew what a transistor radio was, but not what a cassette tape recorder was. When he caught me, down in the changing room one day, listening to a tape, I explained that the school rules banned radios but said nothing about tape recorders. "It's a radio!" said Quack Mendl, and confiscated it, just as he'd confiscated my American army cap, my copy of The Little Red Schoolbook, the Hair songbook, and even Roget's Thesaurus. He caught me reading that after lights out one evening by torchlight under the blankets. (Yes, I read the Thesaurus for pleasure. Yes, I was weird.)
Something else I resisted from an early age was relaxed, American-style populism. It made me shudder to hear The Beatles singing "yeah, yeah, yeah". The proper word was obviously "Yes". "Yeah" seemed vulgar and cravenly opportunistic to me, a caving-in to Americanism. It was the same with "Hi". Why couldn't people say "Hello" instead? If people said "Hi" to me I answered "Hello" back. As for television, it's just as well my parents forbade us to watch the commercial channel, ITV. It would have horrified me with its familiar vulgarities.
Where am I going with this? Oh, I remember now. I wanted to talk about the internet, and how odd it is that I still, quite often, want to take a hot shower after exposing myself to it. How could that be? Surely the internet is a place where you determine your own "programming"? No longer do you have to say "I will be less influenced by my surroundings"; on the web, your surroundings are whatever you make them. No longer do you have to practice subtle tactics of evasion; what you click on is entirely up to you. If you "watch" life-cheapening rubbish on the internet, there's no condescending programmer to blame, no idiotic audience of undiscriminating morons dragging everything down to the lowest common denominator. You chose this stuff. The moron is you.
So why do I know more than I want to know about the feud between Jay Leno and Conan O'Brien? How did Apple manage to make me so excited about a new product announcement? Why did I read stories about a comedian called Andy Dick, and watch the above video of him pissing on someone called Steve-O? Why did I read the entire saga of the feud between Alan McGee and Drowned in Sound?
It seems that I need vulgarity. I'm fascinated by it. The things I disapprove of define me as much as the things I approve of. Sure, I could spend all my internet time reading my digital copy of The Wire, watching the films on ("all avant garde, all the time") ubu.com, or listening to Arte Radio. But, even given the opportunity to be my own curator, my own programmer, I throw in some stuff that's compellingly appalling, some stuff I love to hate. Otherwise, what would there be to rebel against? How could I enjoy my trek to the cultural high ground? What would be the point in showering?
1. Outside, ice glazed the dark jagged rocks, but in the small mining hut lit by fluorescent tubes, decorated with old newspaper pages and heated by three blue kerosene stoves, a dozen of us clinked soju glasses. We ate spiced cabbage and ginger pork, drank the fierce, raw rice liquor, and shouted, sang and laughed until the windows were beaded with condensation.
2. I'm interested in the aesthetics of empathy. I find it easier to project empathically on Eastern people than Western, on poor people than rich, on people from other cultures rather than people from my own, and on people from the past rather than people from the present.
3. The images punctuating this page come from the wonderful NHK documentary The Silk Road (1980), in which a Japanese team -- helped by Chinese soldiers and officials -- travels to inaccessible sites along the Silk Road. Music is by Kitaro, a sort of one-man Japanese Tangerine Dream.
4. I've been watching hour-long segments from The Silk Road all week. Some of the commentary sounds like propaganda -- this was a Japanese-Chinese co-production made in a time when China was still very much communist. The script has clearly been vetted to eradicate any reference to tensions between the Chinese and Japanese, and to make Chinese achievements (like the "Happiness Railway" simulated in film 9, and actually activated before its completion by the Chinese government specifically for the NHK documentary) look good.
5. I don't mind that something is propaganda, in other words is an obvious lie. It can still serve my purposes, for instance embody a kind of plot in which cynicism and negativity has been completely, consciously excluded. It matters less whether something is true or false than whether it takes me somewhere.
6. "A toast to Comrade Pim!" called a colleague dressed in blue jacket and grey cap. "Without him, we could never have discovered the magnificent copper seam!" "To Pim, the model worker!" came the cry from a dozen throats.
7. During last year's Asian Women's Film Festival, the North Korean films fascinated me. I was very interested in how the machinery of plot works when you remove all negativity. I was particularly interested in plots which worked to establish the self-effacing goodness of a character, then showed this character passing due respect on to someone even more benign, diligent, indigent and self-sacrificing. Insofar as conflict drove these plots, it was the conflict of two people insisting on each other's greater worthiness.
8. I demurred, smiling, and held up a hand for silence. "It is our collective diligence that has achieved this breakthrough," I said. "Who built the tunnels that I crawled along to make my lucky discovery?" Comrade Jun smiled and looked at the floor. "Who operated the lift that brought us to the place where fresh copper was just waiting to be discovered?" Comrade Bu grinned bashfully. "And who toiled at ground level in always-difficult circumstances, maintaining the camp in this inhospitable place?" Here Comrade Pi ruffled his own hair, as if in confusion.
9. In a way, altruistic virtue is our society's final taboo. I was interested to read an entry on my Friends List today entitled I am not the weirdo here. Lucy, who wrote this blog, reports that a friend criticized her recently, saying: "You're just too nice. You think people are essentially good and decent." Lucy went on to say she made no apology for being nice, or believing the best of people.
10. "Nevertheless," cried out the foreman, "this great achievement, which came at enormous physical cost to yourself, Comrade Pim, and in the face of great risk, will be reported to the chairman of the mining committee, and he will report it to the local party chief, who will in turn send an electric dispatch to Victory City, where word of this will surely reach the Dear Leader himself!"
11. I assembled a counter-argument in my mind, something I might tell Lucy. What if we weren't simply looking at the dimension of Good - Evil, but also of Boring - Interesting? Might goodness fall on the wrong side of that sometimes, the boring side? Had Lucy read Blake's hellish proverbs ("Energy is eternal delight!")? Had she read Sade's Justine? Or even seen Brecht's plays, with their message that niceness is a luxury most people cannot afford yet? What about TS Eliot's Murder in the Cathedral, with its very Christian awareness of the temptations of martyrdom and sainthood, its caution about spiritual pride?
12. It's not nice to hate, but what if the nice hate the interesting for not being nice enough, and the interesting hate the nice for being boring?
13. Adam Curtis, in his Century of the Self, showed how Cold War games played at the Rand Corporation fed into a Cold War mindset (you can see it in James Bond, The Man from UNCLE, and a thousand other places) of slick mistrust based on the calculability of mutually-assured destruction. He showed that the most dangerous thing, in the eyes of the architects of post-war paranoia, was the altruistic public servant, someone motivated by something other than self-interest. Altruism actually fucks up the economic self-interest and gamesmanship models by making individuals act on the behalf of others.
14. And all glasses were raised to the framed, faded photograph of the Dear Leader, whose eyes seemed to twinkle, now orange, now blue, in the light of the kerosene stove.
15. I'm interested in the challenge of writing (of me writing!) about "old-fashioned" values like altruism, diligence, honour, responsibility, virtue, trustworthiness and empathy. But a devil on my shoulder whispers: "And what if virtue is simply the behaviour -- a sort of non-behaviour -- of those who lack the imagination or the courage to get into trouble? What if nice people are simply too wishy-washy, cautious and conformist to be assholes?"
As the tech-savvy amongst you will know, Apple is set to make a major new product announcement tomorrow at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco. Most observers have guessed that Steve Jobs will be unveiling Apple's new tablet computer, and I can confirm that this is indeed the case.
How do I know? Because, since early December, I've been one of a tiny group of privileged iPad beta-testers. The day before I left for Japan, a high-security van -- the kind normally used for delivering cash to banks -- drew up at my house, and I signed for a package about the size of a pizza box, elegantly decorated with splashes of paint, the Apple logo, and the word "iPad". I also had to sign a non-revelation agreement, but since the final date for my period of public silence was listed as January 25th (Apple originally planned to unveil the iPad today), I'm free to speak now. This will all become public knowledge tomorrow anyway.
So, where to begin? The first thing to say is what an incredible machine! If I hadn't been using this gadget myself for the past two months, I truly wouldn't believe its specification possible. Imagine an iPod Touch with a ten-inch screen, running Mac OSX 10.5, and featuring a powerful projector that lets you blow up whatever's on the screen to a bright wall-projection which can rival, for resolution and brilliance, a cinema showing a 70mm film print.
Above you see me using the iPad as a Kindle (the text on the screen is The Book of Jokes), but its abilities so outstrip Amazon's device that it's not even funny. The Apple iPad, for instance, not only shows you the text of a book, but reads it to you. It also has what Apple calls "active catch-up"; if you lose your place in the book, or need a recap, or don't understand the plot, the iPad (in a soothing voice supplied by critic Frank Kermode) gets you up to speed, reminding you what's been happening, and what everything means. It's the semantic version of GPS: you need never be lost in a text again!
But that's just the beginning of the iPad's capabilities. It doesn't stop at reading; this machine can write too! I don't just mean via its touch-screen keyboard (though that's a vast improvement on the stabby, haphazard typing experience of the iPhone / iPod, of course). No, the iPad can actually compose. At the touch of a button marked "create text", the machine will generate any text required, from a blog entry to a technical report, a novel or a poem. Apple has developed a system of "predictive semantics" which learns as it goes along, so it pays to write a few things by your own hand first, just so the machine can get a grasp of your style and your recurrent concerns. After a month or so watching me write, the iPad grasped that I love to use the literary technique known as "lying"; to be honest, it's writing this entry for me now.
There are other powers hidden in the incredible iPad that you probably won't believe until you get your hands on one yourself; for instance, if you can tuck your bum onto the ten-inch tablet and hit the right button, the tablet computer readily transforms into a cross between a hovercraft and a flying carpet. You know how I claimed to have flown to and from Japan via a Finnair Airbus A330? Well, I can now reveal that I went on the iPad, whooshing merrily along a mile or so above Siberia. It was cold, but beggars -- and beta testers -- can't be choosers.
As for the repercussions of all this, we'll have to wait and see how they unfold when the machine goes public. Apple is anticipating big sales; they expect to build ten million iPads in the first year alone. Not everybody will be happy if this machine succeeds, though; travel agents and airlines, literary critics and authors -- not to mention cinema chains -- will all be joining Amazon and Microsoft, crossing their fingers and hoping fervently that each and every Apple iPad crashes, sooner than later, into a mountain.
Take a look at this video, in which a man called Dustin McLean (Dusto McNeato) has resung the Tears For Fears track Head Over Heels so that the lyrics reflect the actions in the video:
Now, Dusto has done a neato job here. Not only is his parody executed excellently (it really does sound like Orzabal singing the absurd actions of the video as they happen around him), it's a classic piece of Web 2.0 satire, or even art; something that couldn't really have existed -- and certainly not at this amateur level -- before the existence of YouTube and cheap video editing tools. Dusto has noticed something interesting about pop music: the fact that the concepts in the video are very different from the concepts in the lyrics. Video ideas are often a lot more eccentric and creative, whereas lyrical ideas usually reflect normative, conservative and "universal" sentiments. Here's the original, for contrast:
To put that another way, when a universal theme (such as being "head over heels" in love) has given a pop song commercial viability via an appeal to reproductive normativity (heterosexual reproduction, the contractual language of love and marriage), a certain kind of delirious excess and eccentricity can be permitted in the video, which can become -- as if to offset the slightly humdrum normality in the lyric -- thoroughly carnivalesque. It's almost as if the zany and expensive goings-on in the video conform to Bataille's idea in The Accursed Share that humans have an underlying need to conspicuously waste money and resources -- an impulse at least as strong as their need to manage their affairs and reproduce genetically in an orderly fashion.
By shepherding this carnivalesque absurdity back into the lyric of the song, Dusto McNeato creates a highly interesting parallel world where the distinction between normality and the carnivalesque is erased, as is the time-lag between "writing the song" and "making the video of the song". In Dusto's version, Orzabal is singing, apparently, his spontaneous reactions to the events happening to him in real time.
Dusto (a Current TV employee credited by Wikipedia as the inventor of the literal music video, circa October 2008) also erases the distinction between the distinct creative brains of songwriter Roland Orzabal and video director Nigel Dick, and deletes the distance between "what you're hearing" and "what you're seeing" -- a disjunct we're so used to in pop videos that we don't notice it any more.
In other literal videos by Dustin McLean we see a bit more satire, and diminishing returns; the Red Hot Chili Peppers' Under the Bridge becomes a satire on Anthony Keidis' pectoral vanity, Billy Idol's White Wedding is already so self-parodic it's hardly worth the trouble to take it further, Beck's Loser has unfortunately had its literal video squelched by Universal Music. Aha's Take On Me is enfeebled by the fact that the song and the original video are just as silly (and as hetero-normative) as each other, and a spoken dialogue concerning a fight over a "Magic Frame" gets a bit plot-heavy (though the line about "getting an assful of pipe-wrench" amuses some viewers).
But let's return to the best literal video, the one for Head Over Heels. According to Wikipedia's page about the original song, "the promotional clip for "Head over Heels", filmed in June 1985, was the fourth Tears for Fears clip directed by famed music video producer Nigel Dick. It is centered around Roland Orzabal's attempts to get the attention of a librarian (played by a Canadian model), while a variety of characters (many played by the rest of the band) take part in shenanigans in the library. The final scene shows Orzabal and the librarian as an older married couple. The video was filmed at the Emmanuel College Library in Toronto, Canada."
I can't dissociate the appeal of the 1985 clothes, hairstyles and spectacle frames from my fascination with this clip; 1985 is bang in the middle of the revival period I called, in The anxious interval, "the goldmine". The parody is also fuelled by the appeal of the original Tears For Fears song, whose lyrics seem particularly opaque, silly and meaningless to me (why is the narrator "dreaming he's a doctor", and why is it "hard to be a man when there's a gun in your hand", and why does "nothing ever change when you're acting your age"?), but whose topline melody, chords and hooks are sort of gorgeous.
Dustin's observations here are, in fact, rather neato, as an ongoing commentary on 1985: he has Orzabal note to the librarian "you have really big glasses", and then confess that he stole the flying index cards idea from Ghostbusters, which came out in 1984. It's as if a cultural historian had turned his commentary on a pop video into a song, or actually become one of the characters in the song himself. It's as if -- in the manner of David Foster Wallace or Alasdair Gray -- footnotes had become part of the text itself. Web 2.0, Postmodernism 1.0!
The literal video hasn't become as viral as other Web 2.0 micro-forms, partly because it's actually rather hard to do well, and because nobody can quite touch the originator. Tom Vondoom's Safety Dance is okay, but isn't very well sung, loses points for lines like "this is really gay", and has only scored a tenth of McNeato's views. Fever103's Sweet Dreams veers too wildly between literal commentary and far-fetched interpretation, with some strained, lame and vulgar fart and zit jokes thrown in:
Birdhouse in Your Soul fails as parody, since the original They Might Be Giants song and video were already unbearably whacky and random:
Deshem's take on James Blunt's You're Beautiful is much better: he strips everything back to Neato's original formula (just sing the actions) and achieves a Beckettian minimalism which made me chuckle quite a bit:
Today's entry complements and balances yesterday's, which looked at the downside to Berlin. Today I want to look (a little more personally) at the city's upside, and to ask, in passing, a question about geographic determinism: whether we're mere chameleons who take our colours from our surroundings. Underpinning this inner conversation is the question of whether I could do all the things I do in Berlin in Osaka instead. Whether, in other words, Momus is portable and platform-independent.
In the few days I've been back in Berlin, a couple of Berlin-specific work projects have come in. The Wire magazine asked me to review the upcoming Club Transmediale -- "Berlin’s unique Festival for Adventurous Music and Related Visual Arts" featuring "performances by exciting contemporary artists from undefined convergence zones between out-pop, experimental music, noise, art and media technologies". Then the Volksbuehne theatre asked me to stage an evening of performance art at a new event called Baron Saturday at the Roter Salon. My evening will be called Exploding Beowulf and will happen on March 27th.
Now, it would be easy to say that I, and I alone, came up with the adventurous idea of staging an exploded-diagram version of my song Beowulf (I Am Deformed) in which we separate the choreography from the story, interview the monster Grendel, project slides of the wounds and deformities listed in the song, play out alternative endings to the Beowulf story, and so on. It would be more accurate to say that I came up with the idea in response to curator Maximilian Haas' encouragement to put on an event somewhere between music and performance art. And, more generally, it would be safe to say that the city of Berlin (with its radical institutions, its semi-official taste for experiment) coaxed the idea of Exploding Beowulf out of me. "You can go a little further," Berlin seemed to whisper in my ear, "be a little weirder. We like that. We'll pay for that. In fact, if you don't do something like that, we won't pay you and you won't be able to eat at Yam Yam any more."
I recently ended an interview by quoting Kafka's line about "this tremendous world I have inside my head". That's the Romantic view of the artist: that wherever he roams he has this world inside him, fully-formed, just waiting to be birthed. Actually, I'm not so sure. I know myself to feel, and to operate, very differently in different cities. Here, have a read of this interesting essay by Paul Graham, Cities and Ambition. I was tipped in its direction by a piece on The Null Device sparked by the Click Opera entry about Osaka.
Paul Graham wonders whatever happened to the Milanese Leonardo. "Practically every fifteenth century Italian painter you've heard of was from Florence, even though Milan was just as big," he writes. "People in Florence weren't genetically different, so you have to assume there was someone born in Milan with as much natural ability as Leonardo. What happened to him? If even someone with the same natural ability as Leonardo couldn't beat the force of environment, do you suppose you can?"
This sounds like a sort of geographic determinism, but I think there's something in it. The Milanese Leonardo would have left Milan and settled in Florence, attracted by the work being done there, the congregation of like-minds, the buzz and hype resounding around Italy. I did very much the same, moving to London, then other cities, lured by the fact that art and culture offered more possibilities there than they did in my native Scotland. Momus as you know it is a product not just of "the tremendous world I have inside my head", but also the media industries, curators, gallerists, record label bosses, publishers, journalists and other cultural facilitators who made it possible for that world to spill out. They even, to some extent, determined the shape, form and texture of that spill. My life's work is the result of a continuous negotiation between me, these facilitating people, and the cities they were based in.
I'm not saying that I, Momus the artist, don't exist. I'm not saying that I couldn't exist in, say, Osaka (a city where, at the moment, I have no facilitating cultural contacts). What I'm saying is that my work has changed according to context -- according to who let me make it, what their agenda was, and what city we were in at the time. In Cities and Ambition Paul Graham is good on the theme of city-as-agenda: for him, an ambitious city can't really have more than one dominant theme. He boils LA down to fame, New York to money, Cambridge to intellect, DC to connectedness, London to hipness, Silicon Valley to power.
So what's Berlin's ambition-theme? For me, it would have to be the word "experiment". The city asks me for something rather advanced, serious, unconventional, experimental. Whereas London would want me to generate revenue stream or achieve some sort of tacky celebrity, Berlin demands something a little bit Utopian, a little bit experimental and futuristic (the theme of the Transmediale this year is "futurity now!"). It can't pay me much, but that's fine, because neither Berlin nor I require much money to operate. And we both think that making things new and exciting is what life is all about.
I like the me that Berlin helps produce, and I'm very aware that the mes other cities would produce would very possibly be less interesting ones; Momuses who don't write The Book of Scotlands (a product not just of my imagination, but of Berlin publisher Sternberg, Berlin editor Ingo Niermann, and so on), don't make records like Otto Spooky and Ocky Milk, don't explode Beowulf. Berlin has been my context and my creative midwife for most of the past decade, and I'm not at all sure I could easily replace her with a better one.
In 455AD the Vandals -- the tribal name people from the area of today's eastern Germany and Poland were called back then -- sacked Rome, which is where we get the modern sense of the word "vandalism", meaning "senseless destruction, particularly in diminution of aesthetic appeal or destruction of objects that were completed with great effort." But wait, we're jumping ahead.
It's cold in Berlin. Very, very cold. Today's maximum temperature here is forecast to be minus 11c, and its minimum temperature minus 15c. This is colder than the seasonal average, and a lot colder than Osaka, my last city of residence, which today is ranging between plus 1 and plus 9 centigrade. I'm suffering from culture shock.
Dirty ice and crusty snow weighs heavy on Berlin; the pavement might have a little plowed catwalk you can mince cautiously along if you're lucky, but mostly you just have to slither and plod across it. The bushes outside my living room window were unlucky enough to develop a canopy of snow which kept getting heavier until the plants caved in completely. They now lie crushed under a massive snowdrift. Step outside and you're apparently wearing no trousers, and someone's apparently spraying hydrochloric acid in your face.
In these conditions you try to avoid going out into the Muscovite murk, the Martian perma-grey. You avoid the pain and hassle of the city. When you do make a trip outside, there's a palpable sense of exhaustion; Berliners have been facing these conditions for almost two months now, and they might continue for two months more. The novelty of snow soon fades, leaving a certain kind of Siberian despair in its wake.
That's the attitude of the downtrodden-looking middle-class majority, dowdy in jeans and boots and fleece jackets. But -- compared with Japan -- Berlin is also full of "underground people" who seem, in winter, to be more mad and desperate and poor than usual. The squat types with their big dogs look more embattled, the illegal U-Bahn ticket-sellers won't take no for an answer, and the alkies are drunker and more intrusive.
Coming back from my Brel interview at the BBC bureau at the Schiffbauerdamm yesterday -- on a weekday at lunchtime -- I shared a carriage with a shouty bunch of youths who'd obviously been drinking too much, because one of them vomited continuously on the floor while the others whooped with laughter, egging him on. Soon the whole carriage reeked sickeningly of the acid insides of his stomach. I got off as soon as I could only to board another train with a set of drunken youths on it. One of them sat next to me and suddenly began tugging my hat off, patting my trousers, and asking me which of the embarrassed women opposite I'd prefer to 69. "You've been drinking, haven't you?" I asked, in English. "It's not impossible," replied the geeky thug, in German.
My trips to and from the Berlin airport at either end of my Japan trip were characterised by similar encounters. On the way to Tegel in early December I was menaced by a madman who shouted (rather presciently) "Japan! Japan! Okay? Okay?" at me, but in a super-threatening way, as if I was personally insulting him. (I was dressed in Japanese style, with tenugui and cloak.) On the way back, on Monday evening, it was people shouting "Pirat!" My nerves were frazzled by 12 hours on jets, and having to lug heavy suitcases across the snow (the bus-driver decided, just two stops from the airport, for reasons of his own, to dump us at the kerbside), and I felt a sudden urge to pile into the idiots shouting at me. Six weeks in Japan had raised my standards for public behaviour to levels that Berlin doesn't come anywhere near.
It isn't just random, drunk rogue males on trains who menace you here. There are also petty officials to deal with. At the building the BBC shares with Reuters and other media companies I entered by the wrong door and stood in a corridor ringing a non-functioning bell marked "BBC". A German security guard approached, seeming highly skeptical that someone like me could possibly be a BBC interviewee. Even when I'd given him the name of my contact and explained that I was here to be interviewed, his manner didn't change; I was still some kind of intruder.
When the time came to exit the building the lady at the front desk called out a challenge so peremptory, rude and familiar that I assumed it couldn't possibly be for me, and walked straight past. Alarmed that she hadn't signed me in, she was in fact demanding which company I'd been seeing. It was her tone, though, that was so brash, entitled, authoritarian. I wish I could say she's a one-off, but there are times when everybody in Berlin seems like that. You go into a shop, just back from Japan, and expect the local version of a cheerful irrashaimase! Instead you get a sort of scowl that seems to say "What the fuck do you want, you weird pirate-looking guy?" Even when you say "Guten Tag!" you may well get no response.
Of course, the commercial classes mistrust the customers because the customers are often the very thugs and hooligans, alcoholics and shoplifters I've described tangling with on the trains; a class of people who, in the name of some ill-defined "anarchism" or "anti-globalism", smash shop and bank windows at any opportunity, and start drinking at breakfast.
It would be lovely to paint it as principled protest, but let's face facts: some Berliners have a self-righteousness about their incapacity, their unemployment, their non-participation in what they call the Scheisse-System. It's an attitude of arrogance-in-failure you just don't encounter in Asia. Osaka has a lot of poverty, but you sense that everybody tries their best, and that there's a warm glow of positive affect towards society, and towards collective property. The ugly tagging and name-scratching (and what could be a better symbol of the assertion of an ugly, arrogant individualism over collective property?) that blights every available surface (except, inexplicably, private cars) here is largely absent from Japan, where clear train windows and pristine plush fabric seat covers are still possible. In Berlin the council covers windows and seats with ugly patterns designed to deter taggers and name-scratchers.
It's white Germans who are the worst -- totally disinhibited, arrogantly lazy, proud of not fitting in, beer bottle in hand, ready to assail and insult strangers. The immigrant quarters are oases of responsibility and industry; in predominantly-muslim Neukolln alcohol is shunned, which is already a huge step towards a more civilised urban environment.
"Goths and Vandals, a rude Northern race," wrote the poet Dryden of the sack of Rome, "did all the matchless Monuments deface." I'd love to say it was a groundless, baseless stereotype, but here they still are today, these rude northern people. They ride the trains, they grab your hat, they deface the walls and windows of all available public (but not private) property. It's odd that they get so antsy in the midst of their long, harsh winter, because winter is the time when we realise how dependent we are on society, on co-operation, and on harmony for our basic survival. Even the proudest and bitterest of us must raise our hands to the Scheisse-System, thankful for its heat.
Hey, there's this band called Vampire Weekend, and they're actually pretty good! Oh, you knew about them already? I see, I see. Yes, I'm always a bit late picking up on these things. Now I think about it, I was vaguely aware that Contra, their new album, isn't their first release. There was a bit of excitement a couple of years ago around their debut, wasn't there? In fact, it even reached Click Opera, didn't it? It's all coming back to me now. Rostam from Vampire Weekend sent me their first album, and I wrote a piece entitled Fan mail to the future.
Now, that particular month (February 2008) you weren't allowed to be lukewarm about Vampire Weekend -- you were either supposed to love them or hate them with a passion. So my response to their debut album got relayed by various music publications to an astounded, incensed world as Momus to Vampire Weekend: Bugger Off!.
In fact, I was far from saying "bugger off!" What I actually said was much more muted and tentative: "I haven't really had my Vampire Weekend moment yet. They've sent me their album, and I've listened to it, and I can hear the basic appeal -- the directness, the economy of means, the well-written lyrics, the happy feel. I get a weird sense that there are possibilities in this music ("Wow, pop can do this!"), and yet the possibilities are all in the past. Taken a bit further, this bit could become Talking Heads, this bit could become The Beat, this bit The Police, and this bit Prefab Sprout... Perhaps Vampire Weekend will work with a producer who gives them enough experimental edge to make my penny drop."
After reading this, Rostam wrote me back: "Perhaps in a weird way I expected as much, but in fact it's inspiring because it means things aren't nxtlvl enough on our end..." Unlike the music press, he got exactly what I meant. Pop music has to keep taking things to the next level. Otherwise it begins to die.
My own "next level" with Vampire Weekend was meeting vocalist / lyricist Ezra Koenig in New York on May 18th, 2009. Ezra chose a vegetarian Indian restaurant called Saravana Bhavan, where we each dipped a big dosa into a delicious array of little sauce dishes. Ezra told me he was thinking of calling the next Vampire Weekend album "Contra" and asked what my immediate associations with the word were. I said: Oliver North (Iran-Contra), The Clash (Sandinista!), Hegel (the Hegelian dialectic of thesis and antithesis, which would mean their third album would have to be Synthesis) and the idea of the internet troll or contrarian. The following week several Vampire Weekends got the table of honour at the three-hour Momuthon concert I played at the Highline Ballroom.
And now Contra is out. I don't have a copy yet, but the tracks I've heard on YouTube -- the ones splashed across this page -- bode very well indeed. I think my favourite is the most experimental. This is called California English:
And this is California English Part 2:
The "disorienting autotune" effect reminds me of an early version of my song Zanzibar, A Canterbury Tale, but VW have a more zingy chorus and better production. In fact, it's the production on this album that excites me most. There's an excellent use of space, an avoidance of rock sludge, some wonderfully crunchy percussion rolls which nevertheless drop away to leave some good space when they're finished, and a nice early 80s synth bass sound which reminds me of The Passage:
There are still, of course, reference points and influences. From Afropop, from Paul Simon, from The Police, from Two Tone ska, from Elvis Costello circa Armed Forces, from Talking Heads. But my fuzzy feeling this time is much warmer, and not just because of Ezra's charm offensive. This sounds to me like a band taking old things and making them new, making them brashly fresh. It's rather like seeing the way Japanese culture takes things from the West and recompiles them just askew enough to make them fresh, appealingly strange, and unmistakably Japanese.
To my ears, from what I've heard so far, Contra is more original and innovative than the first release, without losing the infectious, accessible pop edge. Vampire Weekend did indeed take things NXTLVL.