Yesterday was a strange and interesting day. I began it by joining the March for Peace, Justice and Democracy on Broadway. The marchers carried banners saying "Fuck Bush" and chanted "1-2-3-4, We don't want your fucking war, 5-6-7-8, Fuck the cops, smash the state". I couldn't help wondering what kind of peace demonstration calls for things to be fucked and smashed, and, as a socialist who believes in the state and in civic order, I left the demo rewriting the chant in my head: how about "improve the cops, improve the state"? No? Too wishy-washy for you?
These thoughts were focused beautifully at the Whitney's Peace Tower demonstration in the evening. An event which could have been sanctimonious, worthy and boring turned out to be nothing less than explosive, full of fascinating contrasts.
The idea was to celebrate the original Peace Tower built in 1966 by Mark di Suvero as a protest against the Vietnam War. This tower has been reconstructed in the Whitney courtyard by di Suvero and Rirkrit Tiravanija. The evening began with a blonde lady singing Dylan's "Masters of War" (complete with Martin Luther King samples and Muslim calls to prayer) in a sententious "invocation" reminiscent of the very American moment when some over-wrought soul singer warbles "Amazing Grace" a capella in a baseball stadium. Call it "motivational melisma". This was followed by some of the veterans of the original peace tower in LA reminiscing about it, 60s radicals who'd been hounded by the security services for their political activities (one brandished his FBI file, full of hilarious references to "young men of unkempt appearance demonstrating against the war in art galleries").
I then sang five songs (Morality is Vanity, Beowulf, Frilly Military, I Refuse To Die and Tinnitus), executing my usual deformed twitches, Japanese girl poses and fake folk dances. There were more speeches, which I missed because I was clearing my gear out. When I got back, thrashcore band Apeshit started up. They played a set of screeching, jerky noise. I screwed in my earplugs, and noticed children in the room covering their ears in dismay. The older people, the 60s veterans, also looked pained, and many of them left. Basically all the frail people, the people who need the benign protection of other people, left the room. The strong remained.
I saw John Giorno pacing about, looking pensive, while Apeshit played. How would he follow this punky, nihilistic din? But Giorno is an old pro, a master of the crowd as well as a world-class poet and veteran Beat. He performed two long lyrics from memory, enunciating forcefully and clearly. Here's the second one, an excellent political allegory about a tree:
There Was A Bad Tree
After Giorno, a Japanese (well, the drummer is Chinese) group called New Humans set some fluorescent tubes on the floor and began slowly fading up pure feedback from their instruments. Intense, still and concentrated, they looked like Buddhist monks meditating. Rhythms began, an organic tattoo played with sticks on the back of a speaker cabinet. Then there was a "song", but strikingly original, sculptural, made of sheets of harsh concentrated noise. I thought New Humans were great, fresh and pure, proof that rock music doesn't have to be Dionysian, sharky, populist, fascist; it doesn't have to use exhausted rhetorics and hackneyed structures to whip up the crowd.
It was at this point that the evening took an extraordinary turn. DeeDee Halleck of Deep Dish TV, the radical video-makers whose excellent documentary about Iraq Shocking and Awful can be found in between the gift store and the toilets (the Whitney have taken some flak for siting it there), took the podium. She told us that she'd brought Faiza Al-Arji, an Iraqi woman whose blog A Family in Baghdad details everyday life in Iraq under the American occupation. But, close to tears, DeeDee told us that Faiza had decided not to speak, and had left. "I think it was the music that did it," she said. "I think she felt it was the kind of music that the American soldiers in Iraq listen to in their tanks."
At this, Ian Vanek of Japanther, who was setting up his drumkit for the band's performance, exploded in rage. "That's fucked," he interrupted. "What do you mean, the music they listen to in the tanks? We're trying to set up a fucking rock show here, and you tell us this is the music they listen to in tanks? That is so fucked! We support our troops in Iraq!"
Halleck left, looking bewildered. Other speakers calmed Vanek down with calls that he at least respect Halleck's right to speak, and someone tried to smooth things out with the statement that "A lot of the artists who performed tonight are motivated by deep anger at the way things are, and they need to express that anger in the music they play".
I ran over to the fraught Halleck and told her that I thought she'd made a good and important point. What does it mean to advocate peace using the textures, rhetorics and semantics of war? How can you be into peace when you're talking about fucking x and smashing y? And what does it mean that a representative -- the only representative -- of the people supposedly being helped by this evening's events, the Iraqis, sensed a deeply alienating menace and aggression in the music being played, and associated it with the spirit of the occupation?
Having shouted down a radical video-maker, Japanther took the stage, and played a populist set accompanied by two giant styrofoam puppets, grotesque Garfield-type figures decorated with fanged skull motifs and Satanism-ready, Thanatos-friendly phrases like "Moloch" and "Pack of Spades". One puppet was a lion with a knife, the other a chainsaw-wielding cat, and they proceeded to dance about in the crowd, hacking each other to bits like a gigantic Tom and Jerry. In other circumstances it might have been fun, but in the light of Vanek's disgusting dressing-down of Halleck and (by implication) her Iraqi friend, it was actually pretty obnoxious. Japanther's music showed none of the formal originality of New Humans' sheets of abstract noise; it's punked-up surf music, a lo-fi, speeded-up rehash of 90s American alternarock.
I left before the end, and met the Japanese musicians from New Humans on the street. They were also skipping Japanther's set, riding the subway home with a nice guy who turned out to be a friend of Marxy's. (Here's an mp3 compiling some of the evening's sounds. You hear the Broadway peace demonstrators, followed by Apeshit, followed by New Humans, followed by Japanther.)
Back home, I googled Japanther and found a Brooklyn girl called Laura talking on her blog about the swimming pool gig the band played last week. The conversation turned to clothes, some boutique called F21, which Laura thought sounded "like a cool code... or a fighter jet".
It's a small detail, but, like the fanged skulls on Japanther's puppets, it really brought home to me how little Americans in their 20s care for the iconography, the textures of peace. The Whitney's problem, in trying to assemble a 1960s-style program combining peace speeches and music, is that rock music today comes from a subculture that doesn't celebrate peace. It comes from a dark, nihilistic place more in love with death than life. Forty years ago that wouldn't have been the case. The rock music of 1966 would have been charged with Eros, not Thanatos.
The plant imagery of Giorno's poem, and its humane message, marked him out as someone who loves life, and his poem is about peaceful co-existence with nature. These are the values of the 1960s Peace Tower veterans, but they're also values I can see in the blogs of young Japanese -- Rinko Kawauchi's photojournal, for instance. The flower imagery Kawauchi loves so much is mirrored in the photos Faiza Al-Arji takes in her Baghdad garden and shows in Pictures in Baghdad, her photoblog. Unfortunately, on last night's evidence, America's rocking and awful subculture seems more in love with power than flowers. It really does sound more like a man stuck under a tank hatch or glassed into a jet cockpit than a woman watering her garden.