Stones In My Passway : Conversations With Greil Marcus
A rose is a rose is a rose no longer rings true. Roses everywhere have been tampered with to produce strains that more and more resemble one another, that bloom perfectly, flawlessly, and without blemish. Appealing as these new breeds may be to the eye, the slight catch is that their scent is weakening. The rose becomes replaced by its more perfect living representation. A rose is not a rose is not a rose. But what does it matter? I can barely smell anyway.
One of the saddest bits of prose, I=ve recently discovered. >At the banquet of life — good guests there, at least — we took a seat without thinking even for an instant that what we were drinking with such prodigality it would not subsequently be replenished for those who came after us. In drinking memory, no one had ever imagined that he would see drink pass away before the drinker.= So wrote Guy Debord in his Panegyric.
About the funniest thing I=ve come across lately in my studies has to be Alan Lomax=s 1968 book, Folk Song Style and Culture. The basis of the study is a comparison of folk song styles from around the world in an attempt to define the way the music of a certain culture sounds a certain way. But the result is something like fetish research. I=m sure that no one has before or since tried to think of music in this way. Amongst many impossible-to-read, pseudoscientific charts and graphs, there=s one chart with the spaces left blank, showing one of the many means by which the research was done. It=s a movement coding sheet, broken down into parts A through I with several things to check off, and boxes to fill in. Part A of the Lomax chart asks you to check off boxes according to the most active body part — there=s boxes to check if the whole leg moves, or just the upper or lower left, or if the hands move, and also the fingers, or does the whole arm or just the forearm move? Part B asks altogether how many parts of the body move as the music is played. Part C asks about body attitude — does the player sit straight up, or hunch over, and if he hunches over does he hunch to the left or to the right? Does he twist at all? Part I inquires into the spread of flow through the body. Is movement simultaneous — or, in other words do all parts of the body move together? Or else, is the movement peripheral — does the movement >start in extremities and spread to the centre=? Don=t worry, if neither of these choices apply, there are nine other boxes you can check off. You get the idea. This is what Bob Dylan was talking about, perhaps, when he said in 1966, Awith a certain kind of blues music, you can sit down and play it … you may have to lean forward a little.@
Admittedly, I=m bastardizing the research, but this is the science of cantometrics. It gets defined as Aa measure of song or song as a measure, a method for systematically and holistically describing the general features of accompanied or unaccompanied song performances … for example, if the same tune is sung by culture A in a wide-voiced, well-blended unison and by culture B in narrow, harshly blended overlap, two different songs are likely to be perceived because of a shift in three performance controls.@ This book is so intense, serious and thorough. It=s also unreadable. I could only skim it. Music was never meant to be brought this close to the microscope. If there is no humour in the book, then you have to find it. The funniest line I found was Lomax=s lament that Awe certainly wish that our sample were better. We know that we could have spent a century improving it.@ A century!!? That=s what=s so funny. I=m sorry, Mr./Sir Alan Lomax, you=d need a lot more than a century. You=d need 400 million fucking years, before you found enough to study. Cause one fucking high note that comes from totally out of nowhere will completely trash all your research.
It was easy enough for Lomax to categorize and pigeonhole cultures around the globe, but what Russia was to Napoleon (>as the French soldiers in the Russian campaign turned their dead horses into tents, and crawled into them,= writes Melville in Moby Dick), so Western Culture was to Lomax. So far, the only reference I=ve ever seen to Folk Song Style and Culture, was in David Toop=s Ocean of Sound. Toop quotes something that Brian Eno says about cantometrics: ABut when you come to our culture, this becomes much more complex. You hear a record like … Joe Cocker singing with some country singer. You hear, on the one hand, her voice, which is very pure, very feminine, distinctly of a culture of Western … almost prurience. Then you hear his voice, which is the lonely, dirty, fucking long-haired messy hunker. In the Lomax book, there=s no provision for the possibility that you could imagine a culture that plays with the elements of other cultures like that. It dons them like it dons masks.@
PLACE YOUR CONFIDENCE IN ME
The mask is effectively what separates the person from the speech. When Martin Luther King makes his address to the marchers in Washington, and near the end of the speech on phrases like ADown in Alabama,@ when it sounds like he=s trying to throw his voice right away from himself, and into the mouths of those who are listening, when he speaks with such strange pauses, speaking in rhythm and then breaking the rhythm for effect — this is speaking from under the mask. And when Edward Kennedy, a few years later, delivers the eulogy for his assassinated brother Robert, who himself announced King=s assassination, and his voice starts to crack, and the words shiver — what is cracking is not his voice, but the mask itself.
The Confidence Man, subtitled His Masquerade, has long been one of Herman Melville=s most overlooked and criticized books. In this, his last published book, the exuberance and the chatterbox style of Moby Dick is gone, replaced by a careful, meticulous, and restrained method of speaking. It takes place on a boat from St. Louis to New Orleans. The central figure, the confidence man, the word that would later be shortened to con man, smoothly talks people into parting with the money in their wallet. While amongst Melville=s vast range or characters, no one is quite as they seem. Phrases like,>with exterior calmness tremulous with inkept emotion,= all lead to the set of questions, >How? Does all the world act? Am I, for instance, an actor? Is my reverend friend here, too, a performer?= Melville himself switches voices and tones at will, while commentators have remarked on his method of imitating everyone from Hawthorne, to Emerson, to Shakespeare, to Tacitus. While each chapter sets itself up like a play, moving from conversation to conversation throughout the boat. One chapter opens with the paragraph:
The sky slides into blue, the bluffs into bloom; the rapid Mississipi expands; runs sparkling and gurgling over in eddies; one magnified wake of a seventy-four. The sun comes out, a golden huzzar, from his tent, flashing his helm upon the world. All things, warmed in the landscape, leap. Speeds the daedal boat as a dream.
There=s something in the language that makes me marvel. It=s so precise, unable to slip. It=s as if Melville has mastered language. When you have this much control, the world does tend to turn into a stage. When you know everything, all you can do is speak from under a mask. When you know all, the one thing you no longer can know is yourself. >The devil is never as black as he is painted,= writes Melville.
SUMMERTIME BLUES, “WHILE ANGELS WITH DIRTY FACES DISAPPEAR WITHOUT TRACES”
Okay, I=ve been waiting three weeks now to figure out the perfect sentence to begin this article with, and I=m sick of waiting. This article has been difficult for me to write. Maybe because I=m trying to walk on ground that has been tread too many times. In his book, Searching For Robert Johnson, Peter Guralnick writes, ASometimes I can evoke the breathless rush of feeling that I experienced the first time that I ever really heard Robert Johnson=s music. Sometimes a note will suggest just a hint of the realms of emotion that opened up to me in that moment, the sense of utter wonder, the shattering revelation. I don=t know if it=s possible to recreate this kind of feeling today — not because music of similar excitement doesn=t exist, but because the discovery can no longer take place in such a void.@
Society was once transmitted from generation to generation orally, and things got lost in the process. Our modern society is more terrifying, where everything is recorded, recorded, recorded, and everything is found, found, found. We are no longer permitted the luxury of thinking that we are thinking an original thought, cause with so much on record, everything we very well intended to do has already been done to us. It is with great sadness that I occasionally leaf through a book of quotations, and stumble across a clumsy quote, and I think to myself, >I=ve thought it before I read this. I could have, and equally important would have, wrote the same thought in a much more eloquent manner, and yet YOU get to have your name in the book of quotes, and only because YOU were there before me. Well, maybe I was there before YOU, and at some distant point in time I thought it first, and YOU only vibed my thought.= There=s a certain innocence lost once you start reading books on music, once you start hearing too much music. And what=s worse is that whether you=ve lost this innocence or not, other people will assume that you have. Through a build-up of first recorded music and then a great body of recorded criticism, the artist has really been denied the void to come out of. The right to come from nowhere is the most enviable of rights. That=s the promise of America, and the breaking of this promise is the cross we=ll have to bear.
One thing is certain, and that=s that the world doesn=t need another book about rock. It doesn=t need another book about the blues. It doesn=t really need another book. We need to start forgetting the ones we have. It was a funny feeling reading Peter Guralnick=s short book on Robert Johnson. At 70 pages, it might have been shorter, cause there=s really little to be said on the matter. The only thing understood about Robert Johnson is that he came from a shadowy world. It=s often said of someone that >he cast no shadow,= but in Johnson=s case you=d reverse the saying: >The shadow cast no man.= In fact, until Guralnick places Johnson in a twentieth century context by referring to his sister with a telephone and cars traveling on highways, I had not placed Johnson in any world at all.
It=s the first Johnson book I=ve read, but everything that could be said about Johnson was basically said in the liner notes to the 1968 King of the Delta Blues Singers liner notes that Greil Marcus writes so eloquently about in his essay, AWhen You Walk Into The Room@ (appearing in the Dustbins of History). If in 1968, Robert Johnson was >little, very little more than a name on aging index cards and a few dusty master records in the files of a phonograph company that no longer exists,= then thirty years later, as I write, this is not at all the case. Robert Johnson has been so written about, in sometimes stunning manner, that I really draw a blank on what to say. I=ve lost the ability to decipher what is my reaction to the music, or what is someone else=s reaction. And still no one has found Robert Johnson.
It=s no surprise that archeology is so popular, and that used record collectors shop with such gusto. Everyone wants to discover a piece of the past that they, personally, can bring back to life. Eighty plus years of recorded music, and there=s little doubt that every nook, crook, and cranny of it has been explored in and out. It=s a gold rush, and there=s not enough gold to go around. It=s unfortunate that recorded music hasn=t been managed like De Boers manages diamonds. Apparently, there=s way more diamonds than we know of, but they=re held off the market to keep the prices artificially high. A diamond isn=t quite as rare as you=d think.
To write well about a piece of music is to effectively kill it. But the best music will die again and again, and still rise up each time alive and untouched. In his time, Greil Marcus has killed a lot of music, and much of what he has killed goes on living. Interviewing Greil Marcus was like confronting a university professor about a disastrously bad grade you=ve received, and then after speaking half a sentence, you look into the professor=s eye, and it dawns on you that you deserved an even worse mark. I=ve often bragged that I can write a whole magazine and lay it out in three weeks. Well, I could until I interviewed Greil Marcus. Now I=ve spent my whole damned summer trying to figure out a way in, a place to begin. And now, the summer=s over. And I=m still nowhere.
What=s difficult about interviewing Greil Marcus is that words matter. I mean, they really matter. You have to know exactly what a word means, its precise definition, before you use it. Cause if you just throw the words around carelessly, then he=ll catch you, put you in your place. On a question that=s off target or off base, he=ll reply with a simple >no= and then this deep silence fills the line. And I’ve never had someone say ‘no’ to me so many times in an interview. But if you ask him a well thought out proper question — and somehow he is a barometer that will sense which question is thought out — then he=ll beguile you with the most articulate paragraph you=ve heard, as if he could compose essays orally upon request.
Greil Marcus has written a lot. In the tapestry of American rock criticism, on each stitch you=ll find him somewhere — whether it=s a whole book or a footnote. He has edited Lester Bangs posthumous book, Psychotic Reactions and Carburettor Dung. He was an early editor at Rolling Stone, a key player at Cream magazine when it mattered, and his work is regularly featured in ArtForum and Interview. He writes the foreword to the most recent addition of Nick Tosches= Hellfire (in all this recent talk of top 100 novels of the century lists recently, this really should be number one — I can scarcely remember a book in which both God and the Devil feel so very real). I could go on, but the most fitting tribute might be that Pauline Kael, that great Dean of all film critics, was the first person to read the manuscript of Marcus= latest book, Invisible Republic.
How far can a song take you? If there=s one central question that could sum up everything Greil Marcus writes, this is it. And the answer is, at least in Greil Marcus= mind — pretty far. It takes a great talent to hear the story of centuries in one bar of notes. But maybe it=s an inevitable reaction — cause if there=s anything that proves the existence of eternity, that time really is, if not necessarily non-linear, made up of several lines. A spider spins a web from anything you give it to use, and time=s the spider. Or better said, in a passage that Marcus quotes, the Wailers sang in 1966, in a tacked on verse to Bob Dylan=s ALike A Rolling Stone@: >Time like a scorpion stings without warning.=
The only thing that music asks of us — singers, listeners, players, writers, and composers alike — is that you go where the music takes you, and not the other way around. Break this commandment, and in the midst of a rhythm you will break down.
SOMETHING IS GOING ON
Ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax makes his second appearance in this article via the first chapter of Invisible Republic. Lomax, along with Pete Seeger, is backstage with an axe, trying to cut short the performance of Bob Dylan=s set at the 1965 Newport Folk Music Festival. Dylan has done the unthinkable by coming out with a full band, and playing with an electric guitar. Marcus writes, AThough today there may be no person left on earth who would admit to having booed Bob Dylan at Newport, the result on July 25, 1965, was an uproar: a torrent of shouts, curses, refusal, damnation, and perhaps most of all confusion.@ In this context of rage and tension and disappointment, Invisible Republic begins by following Bob Dylan through the next year of touring, through hellish nights in Paris and London. It was as if every single night, Dylan would have to fight a war just to play a note. There were nights, when the band would play the opening bar of a song again and again for minutes just to begin to find a way in …
SAB – Okay. I guess, going back to Bob Dylan and the Basement Tapes. I just watched a video a little while ago with Bob Dylan called Don=t Look Back. I don=t know if you=ve seen it. It=s about his 1965 tour. I think it=s right before he went electric. If you=ve seen that video, do you think there=s something in the climate — I don=t know if you can call it a bad mood — but do you think there=s something in the climate of the video that foreshadows the events to come?
Greil – I think absolutely, you know, I think, as you mentioned, he=s very bad tempered, very angry, very irritable — at least what you see in that film. You see someone who is always taking whatever opportunity he can to jump on people, to put people down, to humiliate people. And I think what a lot of that is about is an utter dissatisfaction with his own music, and what he=s doing — an overwhelming boredom with his life as he=s living it. There are a couple things. There=s a scene in the movie where he and Joan Baez are singing, ALost Highway,@ the Hank Williams song — and I think that=s pretty near the end of the film — and when you listen to that, you can hear this is where ALike A Rolling Stone@ begins. ALike A Rolling Stone@ begins in this song, because it is very very similar to ALike A Rolling Stone@ in terms of theme. And Dylan talks about how he came back from England, and this song just sort of poured out of him — ALike A Rolling Stone@ much much longer than the version in which it was originally recorded. There=s also a very odd bootleg — it=s a 14-song bootleg of everything Bob Dylan did in 1965 that wasn=t released, except maybe AGoing To The Bathroom,@ and it includes a lot of concerts that were recorded in London in 1965, and they=re really boring. They=re dead. He wasn=t interested anymore. I think that=s a lot of what was going on there …
SAB – Yeah, I suppose that=s true. So when Dylan goes electric — I suppose it=s easier now to reconcile it — but back then, how did someone reconcile liking Dylan pre-electric and after going electric.
Greil – Well, it depends on who you=re talking to. You know, for myself and the people I knew, it was never a question. It was obvious that this was something that ought to happen, because Dylan=s music was so much richer than one guy with a guitar was able to get across. There was so much more rhythm, so much more melody, and what was the most exciting thing going on in the world in 1965? It was bands. That=s what it was. Living in California, people just weren=t interested in the kind of issues about folk versus commercialism, and purity versus corruption, and art versus money that seemed to so consume people in the East and in England. It was not an issue here. I suppose the first rock=n=roll version of a Dylan song I ever heard was AMr. Tambourine Man@ by the Byrds, and I loved the sound. I thought that the song sounded kind of dumb, because it sounded like the Beach Boys singing, and I just didn=t hear those Four Freshmen kind of vocals with AMr. Tambourine Man,@ but I loved the way it sounded, and the way it felt. So the hardest thing really in Invisible Republic for me was getting to a point where I could really understand, and then write about it so it would be clear to other people what this enormous controversy was about. Why people were so angry, why people felt so betrayed, because I was around during that period, and I never felt it.
It=s difficult to understand now what could be such a big deal about a simple switch from acoustic to electric guitar, and how the American folk music revival could feel so betrayed. What it comes down to is ideology. In ideology, A follows B follows C, and so on down to Z. If you get to J, and decide that F may have been incorrect, you quickly have to squash these doubts, because if F falls, then the whole alphabet crumbles. So in the folk revival, you find an anti-aestheticism translated into a simplicity of dress, an anti-dandyism, and you find the acoustic guitar, the harmonica, and other simple instruments employed. The country is favored over the city. Socialism is favored over capitalism. Money all hangs on labour, what you do with your hands, as opposed to the capitalist notion that money makes money. What the latter notion is about is amplification. The folk revival is anti-amplification. When you play the stock market, when you buy futures, what you get is more money without more work. In other words, your money is plugged in to a power supply. An acoustic guitar and an electric guitar take the same amount of energy to play, but the latter creates more noise. The folk revival is anti-noise, wishing for simplicity. The message, the slogan is given primacy. Politics is favored over music, at the expense of music itself. In Invisible Republic, Marcus writes, AWhen art is confused with life, it is not merely art that is lost. When art equals life there is no art, but when life equals art there are no people. The tobacco sheds of North Carolina are in it and all of the blistered and hurt and hardened hands cheated and left empty, hurt and crying,= Woody Guthrie himself wrote of Sonny Terry=s harmonica playing. He didn=t say if Sonny Terry was in it.@
Inevitably, politics will always need music more than music needs politics. Music, after all, requires nothing to validate itself. The folk revival needed a hipster poet as a figurehead. It was a reassurance to have a great intellect on board, and as a reward Dylan was made a kind of figurehead of the movement, leading the way with songs like AThe Times They Are A Changing@ and AGod Is On Our Side.@ So, in many ways, Dylan was the A, the B, and the C, of the folk movement. The folk revival needed him, like Christians need intellectuals like C.S. Lewis and Pascal — it is the power of endorsement. To tamper with this need is dangerous. Phil Ochs commented at the time, ADylan has become part of so many people=s psyches — and there=re so many screwed up people in America@ So when Dylan steps out of his role, when he jumps off the train, all hell breaks loose. As Marcus writes, ADylan=s performance now seemed to mean that he had never truly been where he had appeared a year before, reaching for that democratic oasis of the heart — and that if he had never been there, those who had felt themselves there with him had not been there. If his heart was not pure, one had to doubt one=s own … That was the source of the rage.@
In the dustbins of history, there are some who deserve their place. To quote them is to give them a rebirth — after all to quote, in whatever way, is to give credibility, simply by acknowledging a prescence. So, I=ll leave out the name, but a certain writer wrote an article in 1964 called ADylan=s Sellout of the Left,@ in which he contrast the predictable, tried-tested-and-true Phil Ochs with the wily, sneaky Dylan. AThe difference between the two performers became manifest: meaning vs innocuousness, sincerity vs utter disregard for the tastes of the audience, idealistic principle vs self-conscious egotism,@ the writer writes. A few paragraphs later, he would attack a Dylan song, AChimes of Freedom,@ accusing Dylan of trying to take on subject matter to great in scope for a song. It=s a contemptuous thing to say about music, and ultimately lies at the heart of all the reasons I have ever thought of in my whole life to hate folk music. In the words of DuBois, >the music is older than the words.= Music goes where the language can=t follow. If you believe that language can say everything, then music is already dead. And if there=s any victim in the realm of message music, it has always been music. Or as Marcus writes, ACould anyone imagine Pete Seeger demanding a world organized, ever for a moment, according to his foibles and perverse desires? Could anyone ever imagine him having foibles and perverse desires? In the folk revival such a subjective demand on the world was all but indistinguishable from nihilism — the nihilism, in Manny Farber=s words, >of doing go-for-broke art and not caring what comes of it= — and that was because of a fatal confusion in its fundamental notion of authenticity … at bottom, the folk revival did not believe in art at all.@
I have long considered folk music a contemptible form. But what I realize after being introduced to the American Anthology of Folk Music via Invisible Republic, is that I only had contempt for >what had been understood as folk music.= The real folk music, the traditional music that went back into the centuries of America, and further back into England, is the stone in the passway to the folk revival=s easy answers. In 1966, Dylan says, AObviously, death is not very universally accepted. I mean, you=d think that the traditional music people could gather from their songs that mystery is a fact, a traditional fact.@ On another occasion, Dylan says, AThe main body of it just based on myth and the Bible and plague and famine and all kind of things like that which are nothing but mystery and you can see it in all the songs. Roses growing right up out of people=s hearts and naked cats in bed with spears growing right out of their backs and seven years of this and eight years of that and it=s all really something that nobody can really touch.@
The essential argument made in Invisible Republic is that the songs Dylan would go to record in 1967 with the Band could be linked to the songs in the Anthology of American Folk Music. The Anthology (rereleased in a beautiful package around the time of Invisible Republic=s release) was a six record set, divided into three gatefolds, one for ballads, one for social music, one for songs. Edited by Harry Smith, it came out in 1952, >an elaborate, dubiously legal bootleg, a compendium of recordings originally released on and generally long long-forgotten by such still active labels as Columbia, Paramount, Brunswick, and Victor,= as Marcus writes. In many ways, the Anthology was the first and best mix tape ever made. Harry Smith, then, is something like the first modern DJ. The wobbling rhythms composed from the worst drum set you=ve ever heard — the American junkshop equivalent of the Caribbean=s steel drum (when you=re poor enough, you find uses enough it what is useless to everyone else) — of Clarence Ashley=s AThe Coo Coo Bird@ merge perfectly into AEast Virginia.@ Or else, songs flow together by subject matter, like APrison Cell Blues@ and A99 Year Blues.@
It has proven very difficult for me to access the Anthology. There=s such distance between us and this music that any suspension of disbelief is fragile. Once submitted to, the Anthology proves to be spellbinding. To know that some of these songs were recorded in New York in the time of Tin Pan Alley is a fact irreconcilable with what you hear. Even if the second track by Nelstone=s Hawaiians reminds me of Bing Crosby, this music is a long way from the slick Tin Pan Alley schmaltz that today fills the airwaves of chain bookstores and coffee shops to inspire purchases, by appealing to nostalgia. Our favorite moments of popular music come when the mask cracks. We all love the weak and vulnerable and soul searching Sinatra of records like Where Are You and In The Wee Small Hours the best. And it is the spooky, forlorned quality of Bing Crosby=s AWhere The Blue of the Night Meets the Gold of the Day@ that sticks with us today, and not the false sounds of ASwinging On A Star.@ In the Anthology, all pretenses are absent, and all guards down, or so you=re led to believe — cause really anyone who knows how to guard themself will know also how to give the impression of being unguarded. All I know is that no one sings in these strange voices any more. Like ALe Vieux Soulard et Sa Femme,@ which sounds like the sloppy, hilarious way you sing, when you think that no one is listening. And then there=s Didier Hebert=s AI Woke Up One Morning In May,@ which might be sung in French, but for all I know could be sung in tongues. There=s such a spirit of anything goes to these songs, always teetering from one brink from another, from overflowing joy to callousness. The opening notes of Ramblin= Thomas= APoor Boy Blues@ are such a mix of menace and woe. And then there=s lyrics like the one in AJames Alley Blues,@ which goes, AYou=re my daily thought and my nightly dream, Sometimes I think you=re too sweet to die, And another time, I think you ought to be buried alive.@ This is music made by people with nowhere to go, but to the grave, whether dead or not.
A friend told me a funny story as we talked one day about the way graveyards consume some of the best real estate in Asia. As a child, he told me, he spent much time worrying that there would one day be so many cemeteries, that we=d have nowhere left to live. In the world of the Anthology, this childish fear becomes a very real problem. Like Dylan says in AFrom A Buick 6,@ >I need a steam shovel, Mama, to keep away the dead.=
STOCK MARKET REPORTS
Or, as Jesus Christ says in the Gospel of Thomas, >The dead are not alive and the living will not die.=
To punish with impunity. That is the American dream. If all Americans want to get rich quick, then only a few realize that there will in the end be some expense to pay. In America, everyone is a stockbroker, and not only is the Kingdom of God brokerless, there is no God. On Wall Street or on the Lost Highway or anywhere in America, can you ever turn your back? You have to always have one eye open. Everyone=s trying to lure you into the calm, and then fuck you. America is a country of Pearls, a place where the majority of its citizens refuse to believe that actions might have consequences, that there might be such thing as Karma or divine retribution, that what goes around might come around, that ‘all the wealth piled by the bondman=s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk,’ that the past might come back to haunt the future, that there might be a relationship between the two, is a thought that gets little consideration.
On the 24 song Basement Tapes official release, that came out 8 years after the original recordings (Marcus wrote the liner notes), AThis Wheel=s On Fire@ ends the affair on a chilling note. AIf your memory serves you well, we=ll meet again,@ the chorus goes. In this song, you might discover that in every pain you=ve ever inflicted on anyone, you were only depositing pain in a bank that will be brought to bear on you on the final day. And likewise, you will have the chance to get revenge on every one that=s ever wronged you. Everything will be reckoned with and reconciled. And it will be nothing less than an Old Testament bloodbath. If all of life goes in circles, what about when the wheel catches fire? In listening to the Basement Tapes, one gets the distinct impression that graves are being dug up. In a house called the Big Pink somewhere near Woodstock, Bob Dylan and the Band had some fun. They reclaimed an America that was long forgotten, that was supposed to be dead. They reclaimed >the old weird America= as Marcus calls it, an America where the frontier remains to be discovered, a frontier that changes shape every time you look at it. Marcus writes, AWhat they took out of the air were ghosts — and it=s an obvious thing to say. For thirty years people have listened to the basement tapes as palavers with a community of ghosts — or even, in certain moments, as the palavers of a community of ghosts. Their presence is undeniable; to most it is also an abstraction, at best a vague tourism of specters from a foreign country.@ That some of these ghosts, like Dock Boggs, were still living, only makes the issue more complex. In one of many D.H. Lawrence quotes that Marcus uses, Lawrence writes, AThe Pequod sinks with all her souls, but their bodies rise again to man innumerable tramp-streamers and ocean-crossing liners.@ In Moby Dick, a dying Queequeg has his grave prepared just how he likes, before remembering that he has some unfinished business to attend to, and decides not to die, as if death is something he has dominion over.
SAB – It seems like you focus more on the role of Bob Dylan on the Basement Tapes. Do you think his role was a lot greater than that of the Band?
Greil – Well, I don=t know. I think that=s a hard question to answer. It=s something I thought about a lot while I was writing the book. I was perfectly aware that his role seemed to be getting bigger, and there=s was diminishing. I think that was partly a result of talking with Robbie Robertson and Garth Hudson, in particular, and just getting the sense that they were really following his lead. And particularily, Robbie talking about how he had a feeling that with a lot of the old songs that Dylan was educating them, in his words, taking them to school. And that while it didn=t strike me that way, when I first heard the music. When I first heard the music, it really sounded like completely a collaboration. Now, it sounded more as if there was a guide there, a pathfinder.
SAB – Okay, what do you think the process, or the link, is that goes from the Basement Tapes to From The Big Pink? What=s the transition there? What=s the difference, I guess?
Greil – Well, it sort of strikes me. I don=t think Music From The Big Pink or John Wesley Harding sound particularily like the Basement Tapes. And I don=t think they necessarily feel like the Basement Tapes. There=s a way in which — I mean, the songs on From The Big Pink are very carefully written, very well written, whether by Richard Manuel or by Robbie Robertson. They may seem very anarchic and very cryptic, but in terms of just the way the lines balance, and the way the orchestration works, it is fully worked out music. And I=ve always been struck on John Wesley Harding the way none of the songs have choruses, or almost none of them. Whereas, choruses are an essential part of the new Basement Tape songs. They=re really built around choruses, probably because choruses really give you the opportunity for more than one voice to be singing, and that=s what=s going on on the Basement Tapes. But there=s a way in which Music From The Big Pink really takes up and extends the funny, uproarious, don=t-give-a-damn spirit of the Basement Tapes. And John Wesley Harding extends the sombre, probing, very thoughtful, very dark side of the Basement Tapes. Maybe you can look at it that way. Certainly, people in the Band talked about the Basement Tape sessions gave them this new sense of themselves as songwriters, and they had this place, this clubhouse, where they could begin to work out their own music, and I=m sure that=s true.
SAB – Now with the Basement Tapes, one of the strongest things that comes across is something called Aaura,@ and I know it=s a word that you=ve used. But that=s a word that needs to be defined, and I was wondering what your conception of aura is?
Greil – Aura refers to light, and it refers to a light that surrounds an object. And it emanates from it. But it isn=t something you can put your finger on. You can=t touch it, and you can=t define it. It proves that it=s really there. We use it in a much wider sense. It=s not just a light. It=s a feeling that we can=t put into words. It surrounds something that is valuable to us. But it=s also a feeling that is tremendously attractive and appealing, and suggestive. It=s powerful. And it also suggests, at least it does to me, a displacement in time. When something has an aura, you don=t know where it=s come from. It seems to have come from far away, and it=s only going to be present before you for a little while. You better look very hard at it, while you can.
SAB – Yeah, that=s kind of what I think it means to. But when Walter Benjamin wrote about it, he defined it as a unique moment in space and time, and I think it=s almost more like escaping time and space.
Greil – Yeah, it would be for me.
SAB – It seems like with a lot of this music. It seems like you=re writing about a lot of this music that is recorded in real time, but you=re trying to find these moments where time becomes non-linear. Do you think that=s true?
Greil – Well, I=m not trying to find these moments. I just think they=re all over the places. You know one of the things that I found so striking in trying to think about the Basement Tapes and where they fit into history, what period of time they sound like they were made in, and how difficult that is to pin down. I obviously thought a lot while I was writing this book about Doc Boggs. I wrote a whole chapter about Doc Boggs, pretty much about the music he made in the 1920s, although it was based on interviews he did in the 1960s with Mike Seeger. And it struck me that while in the book Doc Boggs functions as kind of a spectre of the past, he was not only very much alive when the Basement Tapes were being made, he was performing. He was very much a contemporary, so that threw me even more when sitting down and listening to a song like ALo and Behold.@ Where are we? Are we in the 60s, or the 20s? Or are we in the 1890s? Or are we in the 1990s? No particular date sticks to that music and that=s one of the reasons I was attracted to writing about it.
Dylan himself is a man of masks, the sort of artist who returns every album with a new face. The first thing you have to understand about him is that he changed his name, and you can never trust anyone who=s changed their name. But Bob Dylan=s American, and in America everyone has or would or will or frequently does change their name.
On top of this, he’s too much in love with words, and anyone guilty of this is always trying to pull something over on you.
I FORGOT TO REMEMBER
The first way to tell if a heart’s break is false is if it’s spoken of in someone else’s language … Tell me a new one, you blues one … at some point, the blues were new. They had to be. The blues tradition gets talked about so much, and with such reverence. Admittedly, I know little about it, but the blues is something like a joke now, as far as I’m concerned. Amongst musical forms, perhaps, it’s the fakest of them all. I thought the blues was about recognizing limits, and then trying to bang against them, and explode them. It always strikes me how content most of the blues sounds within the walls it has set up for itself. All this ‘have you seen my baby,’ ‘where is my baby,’ ‘gonna hurt my baby’ shit … all this anonymous talk that goes on so long that I really begin to doubt whether the singer really has ever had a baby. While the music is itself trapped in a million conventions. Today, it’s loser music. The blues is all about some distant loss, a loss so far gone and forgotten that everyone has forgotten what it was, and is forced to make up some pathetic sad story. Cause the only thing worse than a sad story is no story at all.
Gertrude Stein writes, “Now listen! Can=t you see that when the language was new — as it was with Chaucer and Homer — the poet could use the name and the thing was really there? He could say >O moon,= >O sea,= >O love,= and the moon and the sea and love were really there. And can=t you see that after hundreds of years had gone by and thousands of poems had been written, he could call on these words and find that they were just worn out literary words?@
SAB – When you write about music at the limits, that=s trying to go beyond the limits, do you think there=s a link between innocence and going beyond the limits — that only the innocent can go beyond the limits, or try to?
Greil – No, I don=t think so. I think what you=re suggesting, or maybe what you=re suggesting is that if you=re innocent, you don=t recognize that there are limits, so you can go beyond them. But I tend to write about people that do recognize the limits, and very purposely want to smash them, or get past them in one way or another. So I don=t deny that there might be a connection between innocence, and going beyond the limits, but it=s certainly not a precondition — at least it doesn=t seem that way to me. I think the two people that I=ve written about, who do that most powerfully, are Elvis and Bob Dylan, and I think they=re both very conscious that there were limits on what you were supposed to do, and ways in which you were supposed to speak or sing, a certain manner in which you were supposed to do it — and I think they very purposely went beyond that, tried to escape, tried to destroy those boundaries, and burn up the ground behind them.
SAB – Okay. I was kind of thinking. Partly why I asked that question was that I was thinking of the situationists. They seemed to have a certain naivete — I don=t know if that=s the right word — they seemed to lack a certain knowledge that what they were trying to do in many cases was impossible.
Greil – I think they were absolutely aware of the unlikeliness, or the impossibility of what they wanted, and what they claimed to be trying to do. And I think it was an absolutely conscious and intentional decision to adopt a sort of shillyistic, apocalyptic language where all things seem possible, and immediately possible simply to break the stranglehold that reasonable discourse had on public speech, whether it was political or artistic in the 50s and early 60s. I think that was a very conscious and intentional strategy on their part. I don=t think it had anything to do with innocence. You know innocence is really overrated as a concept, and as an historical reality, and particularily after the Second World War — really any one who claims to be innocent of human possibility for good or evil is to be suspected of either being dishonest or quite stupid.
SAB – Well, okay. Never mind innocence. Part of what I was talking about — well, it wasn=t what I was talking about, but I=ll say it now. When you mention the atrocity of the second war, and the knowledge that there are so many bad things going on today, do you think it is still an important step to love the world as is? Because it seems like no one is willing to love the world in the face of all these things.
Greil – Well, if you can=t love the world, if you can=t love life, then there=s no point in ever raising your voice about anything. Jonathan Edwards was one of the great denouncers of human behaviour, of the corruption in the human breast, of the despoilation of the landscape by human error, and yet one of the finest things he ever wrote was called AThe Beauty of the World,@ which talks about simply looking at the world, and acknowledging its symmetry, and its colors, and its balance in nature that the human mind can never achieve, and just being awestruck by that. And if there is no analogy to that — whether you=re an artist or a revolutionary or whatever — then you cease to be an artist or you cease to be a revolutionary. Che Gueverra made a very famous statement, something like, >this may seem utterly paradoxical, and utterly ridiculous, but the true revolutionary is motivated by great feelings of love.= That=s the stilted way he put it. That=s what that means. The true revolutionary is in love with the world as he or she sees it, and wants to make it more like his or her vision than it is.
SAB – That kind of ties into something Raoul Vaneigem said, that >to be in love is to live in a different world.= And it seems like to be in love is like a revolution.
Greil – Well, no, to be in love — that=s where the idea of a revolution can begin. Or you can say when you=re in love, you can say, >the revolution will make everyday like this.= You know, imagine these feelings projected out over the entire world and everyone in it. But being in love by itself, and by yourself is not the revolution. It=s being in love.
SAB – Okay, that makes sense. I can=t remember who said it, but somebody said it, what the situationists lacked was a conception of tragedy.
Greil – John Berger said that.
SAB – Okay, well I can=t remember where exactly, but in Invisible Republic, the phrase Atragic@ — I had it in my notebook, but I can=t find it — pops up again in there. And I was wondering what your thoughts on tragedy were, and what its role is, and what your conception of it is?
Greil – Tragedy, to me, means an acknowledgement of reaching a certain point in life, whether it=s your personal life, or whether it=s your social or political life, where you run up against certain things that can=t be changed, that are inalterable, that mock you, that trivialize your existence, that make sport of will and desire, and you suddenly realize that the best intentions can lead to the worst consequences, that control is an illusion, and that all your work may be worthless. When you run up against that, that=s when you realize that life is tragic, that life is made to enforce suffering and dissappointment. That=s what it=s all about. That=s an acknowledgement of tragedy. You know, Atragedy@ is a word that=s tossed about a lot these days, like if somebody dies of anything other than natural causes, we say, >oh, it=s a tragic death.= But sometimes, people die of anything, and they say, >oh, it=s a tragic death.= Well, most deaths aren=t tragic. Everybody dies. Some people deserve to die, and some people deserve to die earlier than they actually do. Tragedy is a very special dimension of life, but it is a dimension of life. It is not an anomaly.
SAB – Okay. Well, just to clarify what I said before, when I spoke before about security and insecurity what I was almost trying to say that when you realize this dimension of tragedy, as you just said, and then you try to remove tragedy, by taking control and trying to secure your fate, then this can be when you really unravel.
Greil – Well, I don=t know. I think what John Berger was trying to say about the situationists was that they didn=t acknowledge tragedy as a dimension of life. It was all possibilities for them, and without that acknowledgement, then there=s a way in which you=re going to be floating around in the air, and you=re never going to touch down, and you=re never going to share life with other people, you=re never going to live as most people live. I think that=s what he meant. I think what I was getting at in Invisible Republic is that for all the sense of danger and gloom and fun and humour and trouble that you find in Basement Tape songs and the songs behind them, there are only a few that take you to a point, where you say, >Oh my God, nobody told me that things were this bad. Nobody told me that all I had ever hoped for has been a horrible trick I=ve played on myself all of my life.= There aren=t many songs that do that. And I think AI=m Not There@ does that, when you realize how bad it can be. The same thing with ALast Kind Words Blues,@ the Geechie Wiley song that I talk about along with AI=m Not There.@ There=s a way in which AI=m Not There@ is so awful and so powerful. There=s a way in which that=s so because you can=t understand so much of it, that you yourself are so drawn into it. You have to sing the song, you have to write the song yourself. And that=s true also in ALast Kind Words Blues.@ There are parts of it that you can=t make out, that Geechie Wiley drifts away from the last lines of each verse. And you say, >No, what is it. Tell me what you meant! You know I can=t bear to imagine what you=re really saying. Just tell me.= And he won=t. And in that sense AI=m Not There@ is far more — there=s more tragedy in that song than in ATears of Rage,@ which is by comparison very plain and simple.
SAB – Now with AI=m Not There@ — I have the double disc anthology of the Basement Tapes, but that=s not actually on it.
Greil – No, it isn=t.
SAB – Is it still a bootleg?
Greil – Yeah.
SAB – Yeah, I actually haven=t heard that one. Maybe I don=t want to hear it.
Greil – But it=s also a song that is unsurpassingly beautiful. It is tragic, and it=s awful, and it=s painful, and it=s scary, but it=s also one of those pieces of music, where you say, >My God, how can anything be this perfect?=
SAB – Yeah, I=ll have to try to pick some of this stuff up. After reading Lipstick Traces — and for me it was a really moving book, it took me into some dark places in my mind — and it seems in a way, excepting AI=m Not There,@ that the Basement Tapes and also Music From The Big Pink — it seemed like this music, and as you said before it=s non-megalomaniacal, is almost like a healing music for this other stuff. Do you see what I mean?
Greil – I know Paul Williams says you can hear healing taking place in the Basement Tapes, and I don=t really hear that. I hear people having a good time, which is maybe the same thing.
I like to think of Bob Dylan’s 1997 album, Time Out of Mind, as a Panegyric. The dictionary definition that opens Guy Debord’s final book of the same name goes, “Panegyric means more than eulogy. Eulogy no doubt includes praise of the person, but it does not exclude a certain criticism, a certain blame. Panegryic involves neither blame nor criticism.” In Panegyric, Debord is the drinker who has outlived the drink. He has discovered the world, and he has discovered a carcass. “When did the last train leave the USA?,” Marcus asks at one point in Invisible Republic. Somewhere else in the book, Dock Boggs says, ‘when a dollar was worth a dollar,’ and this age-old saying suddenly contains all the sadness of someone who has lost everything they ever loved.
Time Out of Mind was released months after I heard reports in the newspaper that Dylan was practically on his deathbed, a time, when I felt like I cursed Bob Dylan like I would later curse Frank Sinatra. You see, Dylan was supposed to play in England late that Spring, and I told a friend, a big Dylan fan, “you’d better go see him now, cause it might be your last chance.” It’s a good thing we can’t buy stocks in our heros, cause they would all be dead by now. Time Out of Mind, along with immediately previous releases like World Gone Wrong and Good As I Been To You, reconnects the present Bob Dylan with the Bob Dylan of yesterday. The new material is of high enough quality that we no longer have to speak of him as if he’s dead.
The Dylan here has discovered the carcass. He is the one who has gone from singing, “when you got nothing, you’ve got nothing left to lose,” to “just when you thought you had nothing left to lose, you can still lose some more.” In the building of America, which is 110 stories high, even if you stand on the fifth floor, it’ll still hurt like a bitch when you slip off the ledge. And if you’re already on the bottom floor, then you get crushed by the falling bodies.
“Sick of Love” opens Time Out of Mind with dramatic, twanging guitars and dubwise, heartbeat-metered rhythms, as Dylan sings, “I’m walking, through streets that are dead.” It perfectly sets the tone for the whole album. Dylan, unable to die, is left walking in the shadows, left behind, while the clock ticks. And he sings, “sometimes I want to take to the road and plunder.” When Bo Diddley sang lines like “got a graveyard mind, just 22, and I don’t mind dying,” there really was something to plunder. But now Dylan’s left trying to wreck what’s already been wrecked, trying to eat an apple that’s already been puked up, trying to chew the core, but not managing very well, cause his teeth have fallen out, and it hurts like hell to press anything between his gums. In the beautiful, lush “Standing In The Doorway,” he’d do anything to be with you, but the worst part of it is, that even if you came back, personal pride would force him to deny you. And that’s the worst spot to be in – to want what you can have, and not allow yourself to take it.
This is the sort of record, where what is spoken in the present tense gets immediately translated into some distant past tense. When he sings, “My brain is exploding,” it rings so false. His brain couldn’t explode, if he wanted it to. Now, he’s just going through the motions, trying to have a last word in a conversation where the other person has been gone so long that they’re probably dead, taking the last laugh with them to their grave.
If Time Out of Mind was so well received by music critics in 1997, then the reason is simple – it makes no demands. The words that Dylan ends “Dirt Road Blues” with — “I’m gonna have to put up a barrier to keep myself away from everyone” – everyone thinks of in private. We all want to leave society before it leaves us.
THE BETRAYAL OF AMERICA
First published in 1923, D.H. Lawrence=s Studies in Classic American Literature is probably the first book I would recommend to anyone as a way into American studies. I felt like my understanding of this great country doubled in one afternoon spent reading. The themes in this book are indispensable to a study of America, especially when you=re reading Greil Marcus. Marcus doesn=t hide his debt either — quotes from this great, little book appear in both Mystery Train and Invisible Republic. It is Lawrence that first writes, AMen are not free when they are doing just what they like. The moment you can do just what you like, there is nothing you care about doing.@ In Dead Elvis, this is how Marcus describes the freedom that is more like a prison that Elvis wins with his unsurpassed success. Or else, looking beyond Marcus, think of the Dean Martin that Nick Tosches presents to the world in the biography, Dino. A picture of Dean Martin not giving a shit about anything, just watching television until he dies, >content in the void.=
In another instance, Lawrence writes on Herman Melville, who got married and settled down at the young age of 25, spending the rest of his life looking for something he wouldn=t find: AHe had been. He knew. He had even told us. It is a great achievement. And then what? — Why nothing. The old vulgar humdrum. That=s the worst of knowledge. It leaves one only more lifeless.@ I can=t help but wonder if a 22 year old Nik Cohn read DH Lawrence. Greil Marcus called Cohn=s early book, Rock At The Beginning (later retitled Awopbabalubop), Athe first, best book about rock.@ Well, what Cohn did for American rock music, examining it right as its first, brightest period came to a close in 1969, when Bob Dylan had killed off everything he loved about rock music and replaced it with something else, DH Lawrence first did for American literature. Cohn, after all was British, and as Lawrence writes, AThe Americans refuse everything explicit and always put up a sort of double meaning. They revel in subterfuge. They prefer truth swaddled in an ark of bulrushes, and deposited among the reeds until some friendly Egyptian princess comes to rescue the babe.@ What I=m driving at, what I want to know, is had Cohn read Lawrence=s words on Melville, when he wrote his own chilling epitaph for the still living Phil Spector? Cohn writes, AHis big stumbling block has been the problem that every major pop success faces and hardly anyone solves: when you=ve mde your million, when you=ve cut your monsters, when your peak has just passed, what happens next? What about the next fifty years before you die?@
AAnd that=s a scary scary sentence,@ says Marcus, who introduced me to this chapter on Phil Spector. I said what I thought was the logical response to Cohn, that what you have to do is aim higher, to have another dream coming. Cause if you dream just one dream, what if it comes true? AHow can you aim higher than ABe My Baby@? How can you aim higher than that?@ That=s Greil Marcus= response. I=ve come around to his way of thinking, but when I later told a friend about the passage, it=s funny, cause he said exactly what I said — you have to aim higher. After he read the Cohn passage, all he had to say was, >You=ve got a lot to live up to.= A scary sentence in itself.
But alas, I=m sidetracked. I=m trying to write about D.H. Lawrence. I=m trying to say that his Studies In Classic American Literature is one of the cornerstones upon which American rock criticism, and especially Greil Marcus, is built upon. Well, more specifically, there=s one quote that resounds through the books of Greil Marcus. Lawrence writes, AThe deliberate consciousness of Americans so fair and smooth-spoken, and the under-consciousness so devilish. >Destroy! Destroy! Destroy!,= hums the underconsciousness. >Love and produce! Love and produce!,= cackles the upper consciousness. And the world hears only the Love-and-produce cackle. Refuses to hear the hum of destruction underneath … The American has got to destroy. It is his destiny.” In the great American story, George Washington cuts down the cherry tree, and then confesses to it. Everyone always talks about the confession, but no one ever thinks to ask, ‘why did he cut the cherry tree down, in the first place?’ Did he want to be the same lizard in the spring that Marcus writes about in his mindblowing descriptions of Bascar Lumford’s “I Wish I Was A Mole In The Ground”?
Lawrence writes, “But we’ve got to grind down our old forms, our old selves, grind them down to nothingness.” And America has tried to grind itself down to nothingness, but you can never really achieve nothing. Zero times zero might equal zero, but good luck finding a zero to multiply in the first place. Instead of nothingness, America lingers in a permanent state of decay, preparing to first destroy itself, and in turn take everything down with it. A once wild and noble country filled with promise, a model for the whole world, replaced by strange fetishes and the consumer society.
“Tears of Rage,” on the Basement Tapes, contains the betrayal of America, at least the way I hear it. When I think of aura, I think of songs like this. Within five seconds, it’s apparent that this is one of the best songs ever written. “We carried you in our arms on Independence Day, And now you throw us all aside, And put us on our way,” the words go, a father throwing his arms in despair as his daughter betrays everything he has worked for, and believes in. “When you went out to receive, all that false instruction, which we never could believe,” and it’s as if the daughter has chosen Madison Avenue over the frontier, “And now the heart is filled with gold, As if it was a purse.”
In Studies in American Literature, D.H. Lawrence writes, “When women bear children, they produce either devils or sons with gods in them.” This quote sprang to mind recently as I watched Kurt and Courtenay, the documentary by Nick Broomfield. Courtenay is Pearl, the destroyer of one of America’s sweetest souls. You can’t believe she’s even for real. You half expect her to peel off her skin, and have a host of demons spring out of her head. While posing for six-page advertising spreads with Versace in the pages of New Yorker and other magazines, the conspiracy theories gain momentum, as the mainstream American music press turns a blind eye, writing with blood on their hands. The girl I went with to the movie walked out in disillusion at the realization that the ACLU and Courtenay might be in bed together, while I thought a lot about the Devil’s Advocate, a movie much better than anyone gave it credit for.
THE DEAD OUTNUMBER THE LIVING
And so Jesus says, “If you ate dead things and made them living, what will you do if you eat living things?” What about when the dead eat the living?
Recorded without any intention of ever being released, the Basement Tapes are a sort of apocrypha. A hundred odd songs were recorded, much bootlegged, until eventually eight years later 24 of them were released. The rest are still unreleased. They are out there somewhere. The bootlegs are available, but I=ve still never heard them. So, to me, they remain the stuff of legends, never fully revealing themselves. Greil Marcus writes about them in a language that is at times is almost apocryphal.
So, after a summer spent thinking about these songs, it is to the Apocrypha that I turn. It is the text that was edited out of the Bible for whatever reason. That God might have had more words to say than are featured in the Bible, the word of God, might be the greatest coup d=etat of all. Apparently, the early Church intensely edited the Bible, burning old texts, and eliminating passages and scriptures that would make people think in two different ways. I still haven=t fully felt the impact of it yet, but recently I tracked down and read the Gospel of Thomas. Without the formal, dogmatic setting of the New Testament, what emerges is an entirely new picture of Jesus Christ. We=ve always wanted to believe that he was funny, that he could crack the greatest jokes of all at will. And this is the Jesus that is found in the Gospel of Thomas. As someone raised in the Church, and still more than a little confused on issues of faith, I=m not sure what to make of it. Should I take it as the word of God, or shouldn=t I? That=s the question I wonder about. I had semi-consciously hoped that I might find something in this lost gospel that might bring me back into the fold, that might put my doubts to rest. In the end, the Gospel of Thomas won=t push me back towards Christianity. In fact, it does the opposite, because it makes the issues ever more complex.
Unlike the four gospels of the Bible, there is no narrative element to the Gospel of Thomas. The text is simply 114 riddles, aphorisms, proverbs, or whatever you want to call them, attributed to Jesus. The language is catchy and funny and playful. It reminds me more of Guy Debord=s Society of the Spectacle, a book of Chinese proverbs, or Oscar Wilde=s prose poems than it does of anything in the Bible. Though it does stop far short of saying anything like, >Do as they wilt shall be the whole of the law,= Jesus= moralistic agenda is only hinted at. The parable is told, but you have to discern what the moral of the story is — unlike the Bible=s gospels, which interpret the parables for you. The statements Jesus makes are incredible. As in the Bible, there=s the occasionally difficult thing to reconcile oneself with, like the gospel=s final sentence which goes, AFor every female who makes herself male will enter heaven=s kingdom.@ This is a sentence you would have expected to find coming from the canon of classic literature, and extracted by Camille Paglia in Sexual Personae.
It feels funny to critique what might be the word of God as a work of literature, so I must attempt to walk carefully around it. Suffice it to say, though, some of the things that Jesus says here are so deep, so profound, so cryptic. Here=s a sampling: in the second saying, ALet one who seeks not stop seeking until he finds. When one finds, one will be troubled. When one is troubled, one will marvel and rule over all.@ On the apocalypse, or lack there-of, in the 113th saying, AIt will not come by watching for it. It will not be said, >Look, here it is,= or >Look, there it is.=@ In the fifth saying, AKnow what is in front of your face and what is hidden from you will be disclosed to you.@ In the 17th saying, AI shall give you what no eye has seen, what no ear has heard, what no hand has touched, what has not arisen in the human heart.@ In the 39th saying, AAs for you, be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves.@ In the 56th saying, AWhoever has come to discover the world has discovered a carcass.@ In saying 44, one that is in the Bible for sure, cause D.H.Lawrence uses it in Studies in Classic American Literature, Awhoever blasphemes against the holy spirit will not be forgiven, either on earth or in heaven.@ This latter saying sends chills of terror through me, because in defining law on the abstract basis of the holy spirit, and when so many spirits enter one all the time, how is one to know which voice is the Holy Spirit? Inevitably, I=m forced to ask these sorts of questions more than I wish to contemplate. Once I ran towards these sort of abysses, and now I run from them. To the surface, to the surface, to the surface! Lest I drowned.
In the 66th saying, AShow me the stone that the builders rejected: That is the cornerstone.@ Following this logic, the Apocrypha must be the cornerstone of the Bible, for it is that which has been rejected.
You can always tell a Christian in the eyes, because the abyss floats just in front, glazing them over. The abyss is so obvious, because every other part of the Christian=s disposition tries to deny it, while only highlighting it. I think the passage that drives so many to Christianity is the one in Revelation, chapter 7 verses 16-17, that goes, ANever again will they hunger; never again will they thirst. The sun will not beat upon them, nor any scorching heat. For the Lamb at the centre of the throne will be their shepherd; he will lead them to springs of living water. And God will wipe every tear from their eyes.@ What terrifies me about this logic is that, for Christians, it creates a vested interest in the apocalypse. Secretly, like DH Lawrence=s prototypical American, the Christian (and what other nation is so firmly rooted in a puritanical Christianity) might want the world to end sooner, cause the faster the world ends, the faster they=ll be in the company of God.
The Christian is the one that asks >Why= so much that suddenly there=s no reason to do anything. Seek and you will find, but who ever finds? They search until they get themselves to a brink, where all is terror, because so much is contradiction. There are many different sorts of personalities on Earth. Many are fortunate that they never need to contemplate the beyond, and they happily breeze through life=s ups and downs. But many people are compelled to always be seeking. Many arrive at a kind of brink, and many of us fall, going too far into the depths of the human soul — much farther than we should go, than we=re meant to go. Others will come to the brink, and fortunately be able to pull away, to put the abyss behind them, even flirt with it on a later occasion, but always know when to stop playing games. After all, the abyss never asks the truth of us, so why should we ask the truth of it?
Many have spoken of this child like leap of faith undergone by a Christian, but no one has ever said what is actually being leapt over. It is the abyss that gets bypassed in one great suicide of the imagination. And after this, every impossible question can be answered with simple sentences, repeated like mantras — everything always tautological forever. Sentences like, AGod is truth,@ which never satisfy anyone unwilling to make the leap. Cause then you ask, >What is God?= And they=ll say, >God is Jesus.= And you=ll say, >Who is Jesus?= And they=ll say something about Jesus in the Bible. And then you can ask, AWhat did Jesus do, when he wasn=t in the Bible?@ The gospels add up to not more than 400 pages, and as we all know a life is more than 400 pages. So the phrase AGod is truth@ essentially passes over matters of the abyss for God to deal with, which I imagine, given that God is obviously so incredible, is not much of a burden to God. But how can we know? In the eternal life of a God, who knows how many abysses deeper than the deepest point of the ocean might exist. On the question of who made God, Saint Augustine said, AHell is made for people who ask such questions,@ so maybe I shouldn=t even be writing. I mean, cheeky as I might be and have been in the past, I hope I don=t come across disrespectful, cause I do hope and pray that whatever is out there takes some mercy and pity on me. Cause each and everyone, being human, is bound to meet weakness in the face more than once in life. Each one of us will have an hour of need.
So forget about all this Rimbaud business about how AMan is God,@ and bla-bla-bla. Well, we all know we only use 10% of our brain. Do we want a God that only uses 10% of its brain? Yeah, man is God, I don=t think so. It=s such a ridiculous thing to even contemplate. We can scarcely charm the pants off the strangers we meet, and yet have the gall to contemplate that we might be Gods. And forget about all this Benjamin-Franklin-perfectibility-of-man business. It=s all such a laugh. The first thing that anyone loses in the quest for perfection is the self.
THE WORLD IS YOURS
SAB – Okay, then. What roles do you think megalomania plays in the sort of works you write about, with the songs and the situationists, too?
Greil – With the songs and the situationists?
SAB – Yeah, well, with this megalomania, this sort of idea of wanting more than you can have, and wanting everything …
Greil – Well, there=s a big difference between wanting more than you can have, and wanting everything. I mean almost all artists want more than they can have. Wanting everything is a kind of disease, or a kind of temporary insanity that often results in fabulous art, and also self-destruction. Richard Huelsenbeck in Lipstick Traces is definitely a megalomaniac, this person who has these megalomaniacal moments. And maybe Bob Dylan does too, in 1966, when he=s on stage, and the audience is getting more and more viscious, and he=s lashing with greater and greater power. And it=s as if all that is good and evil depends on what he might do in a given moment. That=s megalomania, when you feel that the nature of being, the fate of the earth, the history of humanity depends on you and what you do. The Basement Tapes are the ultimate in unmegalomaniacal art. So in a lot of ways — and there=s a way in which Doc Boggs is very megalomaniacal. There is a hot centre in a lot of his songs, where nothing else matters, where the world falls away, and only what he wants — and I don=t mean Doc Boggs himself, but the person that is in the song (side A of tape ends, and I change the side) … takes a different cast. You need maybe that kind of extremist background to any art that=s going to last more than a few minutes.
SAB – Okay. Now when you said with Doc Boggs with this person that comes through in his songs — so what I want to ask is what role do you think authorship plays in this music that seems to be summoning up, something more like ghosts?
Greil – Well, that=s a question that — I=ve never been terribly interested in that question of authorship. And I think maybe one of the things that drew me to the Basement Tapes is that they seem so authorless, even the original songs seemed to have always been there, seemed to be constructs made out of pieces that were lying on the floor that no one else had noticed, done anything with. There=s a feeling in the Basement Tapes — obviously, it isn=t strictly true, and it might not even be a little bit true — that it=s a tradition that is being drawn on, that it=s the tradition that is the author, and the author is a medium. That=s the feeling in the music. At least, to me.
… In Lipstick Traces, Greil Marcus took me so far into the abyss, that to this day I=m amazed that I even emerged from it. I scarcely want to speak of it even now, or even dwell on it. More than anything one image sticks with me — a picture of some official staring down, the most peculiar expression on his face, at a pile of corpses, maybe 30 bodies or more, and the bodies are all so skinny, that they look more like aliens than people. Then, there=s the picture of the mutilated faces of World War I survivors. You can hardly look upon it. You almost throw up. Lipstick Traces is not a >neat= book. It=s not a good Christmas present. It=s the worst Christmas present. Promise me — never ever give Lipstick Traces as a gift. If you=re led to read it, compelled to read it, then read it, but not otherwise.
… Of course, I=m way off track, if I was ever on track in the first place, and I=m losing the thread, I=m losing the point, I=m losing sight of the article, I=m losing sight of the Basement Tapes and American music, but who cares? So what if I=m a little incoherent? I don=t believe you can trust anyone who=s too articulate on matters this grave, anyway. The falsest words are always the ones most well articulated.
Now, confidence is, I think, a funny thing. The word comes up again and again, in describing the stock markets. It is almost as if the only thing holding the world back is lack of confidence. If enough people are confident, the markets boom. When confidence is on the wane, the markets recede. When they recede further, a depression results. A depression then is nothing then but lack of confidence.
I have this early memory of a television show, or it might have been a movie. There=s a teenage guy, who has a big crush on a girl at his school. Meanwhile, his mother, an Elvis obsessive, is depressed. The guy and his friend kidnap the middle aged Elvis. And as it happens, Elvis ends up having a nice little holiday, kindling a brief romance with the mother. Anyway, the details are foggy, but what I remember most is this guy asking Elvis how to pick up this girl. And Elvis says the most important thing is confidence. It=s that simple. You believe in yourself enough, and quickly everyone else follows.
But in the American way, the goal is to get other people to give their confidence to you. And when you can steal everyone’s confidence, then you’re the strongest person in America.
AThere=s something in the gospel blues that=s so deep the world can=t stand it,@ Rosetta Tharpe says in Invisible Republic. I=ve always found gospel music and it=s various forms very fascinating, though I have yet to give it proper attention, and given its depth I might never let myself into it, for fear of being swallowed whole. Listening to Mahalia Jackson going through a medley of ASummertime@ and AMotherless Child@ or ATrouble of the World,@ I find such a spooky core in the songs. But it=s comforting music to me, all the same — maybe because it=s honest. Cause most of the light, flaky, praise music that I heard in Church as a kid, or see advertised on TV, never has sounded quite honest to me. It=s such an affirmative music that it becomes a music of denial. Too much affirmation of God becomes as silly as self-affirmation. Does anyone who looks in the mirror everyday and says, >I=m special, I=m loved, I deserve to be happy,= ever really believe it? If you have to keep on telling yourself something, again and again, to believe that it=s true, then it probably isn=t true. The truth is more often found in something you can=t even put into a sentence, like music for instance. And besides, if an expression like >it=s too good to be true= can exist, then what does that say about truth?
Out of all the sections of the Anthology of American Folk Music, my favorite is the second disc of Social Music. It=s more like gospel music as catharcism. It feels good, it feels free, it feels like a lot of fun. In this place, Judgement Day is every day, and every day is fun. This is not music that seeks what comes after the apocalypse, but music that realizes the Apocalypse is the funnest thing of all. Life flows through these songs. This is more carefree than the most carefree moments of the Basement Tapes, more carefree than 4th of July, where golden showers light up the night sky. It=s a raucus, rollicking music, like AIn The Battlefield For My Lord,@ where amongst a ramshackle, pawn shop orchestra, it sounds like the singer is just glad there is a battle to be fought.
SAB – Now there=s that Nietzsche quote, which you use — >Stare into the abyss long enough, and the abyss starts to stare back at you.= Now with this. You=re writing about a lot of this music that sits in this abyss. Now with you personally as a writer what can you say about this experience of constantly looking into the abyss, and its effect on you?
Greil – Well, I don=t think I constantly look at it. I think I=m drawn to music that admits that the abyss is real. I don=t know if it goes much farther than that. But that can be a significant distance. I remember having a conversation with a friend of mine about her ex-husband, who was a music writer, and he had written a piece about Altamont. He had been covering the Rolling Stones tour in 1969, and she and I had also been at that same concert. And for both of us it was one of the worst days of our lives, and also the scariest, and there was just no sense of that at all in what her ex-husband had written about it. And we were trying to make sense of this, and finally she says, >Greil, he doesn=t know there=s an abyss.= And some people don=t know that. Some people don=t recognize that. Some people don=t understand that there come points in your lives, in your life when everything can fall apart, when you can fall, when you can reach a point where nothing is true any longer, when you cannot trust or believe anything, that that=s a part of life, and some people don=t believe that. Some people will never admit even, if they do believe it.
SAB – Yeah, do you think these events — I mean, it=s kind of a dumb question, because of course they can, to the same extent is more what I mean — do you think these events can happen twice?
Greil – What events?
SAB – These events where life is suddenly shattered.
Greil – It can happen a lot more than twice.
SAB – And you can guard against it, it=s not like a losing-your-virginity sort of thing?
Greil – No.
SAB – Okay. One of the funny things I=ve noticed about these situations where everything does fall apart, and everything seems meaningless that after the fact these situations are often some of the most meaningful situations in someone=s life?
Greil – Sure. They can be great turning points. But they can also send someone on a downward spiral that takes years to escape from, if they ever escape from it.
SAB – And one of the things that happens in your books with these events, is that people continually, continually come back to them. There=s this almost nostalgia, like the way the Dadaist Richard Huelsenbeck was still talking about it sixty years later.
Greil – I don=t think it=s nostalgia at all. I think it=s an attempt to confront an event that you know shaped you, that you=ve never quite been able to understand. You understand that you cannot repeat it. And yet there was an excitement, and a sense of risk, and danger, and possibility in that moment that you can=t surrender. And so you do have that impulse to try to repeat it, even though you know that=s completely and utterly pointless. I don=t think it=s nostalgia. It=s not looking back to a time when things were better. It is a sense that this — you know, the term Anostalgia@ is sometimes defined as a longing for things that you never knew, that never existed. Well, this is certainly not like that. This is a refusal to deny the possibility that your past, that something that happenned in the past, and is irrecoverable, and unrepeatable might be more meaningful than anything that=s happenned since, or that ever will. And that is an unpleasant thing to contemplate, particularly if that happens when you=re young. As Nik Cohn put it in maybe the greatest passage in his book Pop From The Beginning, or Awopbapalubopalopbamboom ….
There=s only sixty more years to run.
THIS MAGIC MOMENT #1
The bongos kick in, settling into a perfect loop. I=ve never heard of upright bongoes — you know ones that play themselves like a piano roll — but these must surely be the only time they=ve been used on record. Cause it sounds to me like the singer must certainly be alone in the studio. Well, you can=t really picture him in a studio at all. The way he=s singing, you=d guess he=s not singing from his body at all, that he=s just floating in the air. Definitely, now that I come to think of it, there is no corporeal presence involved here.
A blue moon is that rare occurrence, when a full moon appears twice in the same month. And when this happens, you get a second chance at the love you lost. And believe me the blue moon is rare. Since I have discovered what the term means, there has been no blue moon, and as I look ahead into my astral calendar for 1998 there will be no blue moon. Which basically means, you and I are shit out of luck.
So what happens on a blue moon, when you=ve got nothing to hope for, or you=ve hoped your last hope, when you=re standing there all alone, without a dream in your heart, without a love of your own, and how do you hit such high notes, and why is it that these high notes seem to cut the deepest? So you=ve got your second chance, but somehow the minor detail of your first chance was overlooked. You have your date with destiny. You=ve done everything right to get there on time, and you=re looking fine, much better than ever. You=ve scorched the earth behind you as instructed. You=ve arrived precisely where you=re supposed to be. You=ve come out of a tunnel, you=ve walked 400,000 miles, just like you were supposed to, and you get there, but everyone=s forgotten about you, forgotten that you=ve ever lived, and where the tunnel leads to has long since been removed, and it just leads to nowhere. Destiny=s fucked it up, got the plans mixed up. You=ve fallen through the cracks. Maybe a celestial secretary forgot to make a back-up copy. The network=s shut down. Someone hit delete by accident. By default, you=ve suddenly become the master of the universe, but the only trouble is you have now become the whole universe. You=ve got your second chance, alright. You=ve got your second chance at nothing. And you just sing into this void, cause no one else is listening.
I take a break for a moment. Turn out the lights, and go out onto the balcony with my glass of ice water and watch the moon, and behind me the moon is reflected on the apartment window. And what with the trees in front of me, I feel for a moment like I might be somewhere else. For some reason, I am reminded of this strange occurrence that has happened to me at least twice in my life. I wake up in the middle of the night with this distinct feeling that someone is in the bed with me. And it=s the most comfortable strange feeling I=ve known, and then it disappears. And so I come back into my apartment, and I think I=m seeing a ghost. And I turn the lights back on. In a moment, I=ll have a second try at going to bed. I=ll turn off the lights, and see what happens.
“HEAT FROM THE SUN, SOMEDAY SLOWLY PASSES”
ANow it is words no longer: now in very truth
the earth is staggered: in its depths the thunder
bellows resoundingly: the fiery tendrils
of the lightning flash light up, and whirling clouds
carry the dust along: all the wind=s blasts
dance in a fury one against the other
in violent confusion: earth and sea
are one, confused together: such is the storm
that comes against us manifestly from Zeus
to work its terrors. O Holy mother mine,
O sky that circling brings the light to all
you see me, how I suffer, how unjustly.@
- the end of Prometheus Bound, by Aeschylus
So goes the last speech of Prometheus Bound, the Greek tragedy by Aeschylus, in which Prometheus is left to hang on a cross for a thousand years by decree of Zeus. His crime was to bring humanity fire. I can imagine a more terrifying ending: What if Zeus forgot about Prometheus, and the thousand year sentence was suspended indefinitely?
Indefinitely — now that=s a word with a little terror around the edges.
THIS MAGIC MOMENT #2
ADoo-wop was a music where the feeling put into words overwhelmed the words themselves, until the highest moments were often those when the soaring, breaking voices cut loose from the words altogether.@ This sentence jumped out at me the other day as I read Greil Marcus= chapter on Deborah Chessler in his anthology, Dustbins of History. Cause immediately I=m reminded of something my friend said to me about a remix of Tricky=s APumpkin@ (from Maxinquaye). Listening to the original, you strain your ears against all odds to make out what the woman is singing, cause it sounds important. On the remix, you realize that she=s just singing in tongues, or worse yet babbling. The backing tracks are all removed, and what=s left is senseless. My friend, in a sentence deeper than he might have realized, complained, AI used to like >Pumpkin.= I thought it was some sort of cool doo-wop track, and then when I heard the remix, it was meaningless.@
They say there=s a calm at the centre of any storm. I don=t know who said this, and how it is known. Personally, I=ve never been to this centre, and I don=t know anyone who has. But I can imagine that if anyone has ever been there, and if this person tried to record something, it might turn out not unlike the Orioles= AIt=s Too Soon To Know.@ It=s the 1949 track written by a Jewish lady, Deborah Chessler, that became a huge doowop hit delivered by the vocal group of five black guys led by Sonny Til.
Talk about words no longer. Of all the songs Marcus has written extensively about, this one must surely be furthest from comprehension. How to begin to describe it? The two bars or so of piano that open the track are innocuous enough, and then it=s as if the whole bottom of the song falls out, and there=s just these strange, forlorned voices coming from out of nowhere. Marcus writes, AThe Orioles didn=t soar, they hovered. Sonny Til=s keening tenor moved so slowly, with such caution, desire, and dread, that it was as if you could hear him shaping every word.@ And upon hearing Til sing, >Though I=ll cry when she=s gone, I won=t die, I=ll live on,= Marcus writes in Lipstick Traces, AYou don=t believe he=ll outlive the song.@
The adjectives Marcus chooses — words like >hover= (actually an adverb), >dread,= >caution,= >desire= — really couldn=t be more appropriate. The Columbia Encylopedia defines dread as >To be in terror of,= or >to anticipate with alarm, distaste, or reluctance: dreaded the long drive home.= But it=s worse than that. Dread, as a word, is something you can=t get to the bottom of. Or maybe, in its pathetic example of >the long drive home,= Columbia nails the word completely. For all its eternal qualities, AIt=s Too Soon To Know@ is that perfect song for that Sunday night feeling, when you have your whole week ahead of you. That hollow feeling is so disproportionate to what is at stake that you feel ashamed for feeling it, and you can never explain it. But the emotion that Sonny Til and the Orioles are going through in is AIt=s Too Soon To Know@ is something like the feeling of your life slipping away, yet with no death in sight. It just goes on and on and on. And this deep, deep sadness fills the soul. Emptiness and fullness — they=re two sides of the same coin.
AIt=s Too Soon To Know@ isn=t a love song, and it=s not a falling-out-of-love song. It=s more like the shock of realization that all love is something akin to a lie, and that all lovers lie to themselves. It=s that world weary knowledge that everything is passing, dying even before it starts. It=s the realization that all anything has is motion. He=s the lover that sees the end at the same time he sees the beginning. And if all anything has is motion, then the Orioles= AIt=s Too Soon To Know@ is the most gigantic Ano@ ever pronounced. And what it=s refusing is movement.
JANUS HAS MORE THAN 2 FACES
SAB – One song you=ve written about quite a lot is the Orioles= AIt=s Too Soon To Know.@ I got a record — and I haven=t read everything you=ve written, so perhaps you=ve mentioned it — I was wondering what you=re opinion was on this, and if you knew about it. The Orioles have a record called something like It Was Twenty Years Later, and they go back to the old songs, and they do AIt=s Too Soon To Know,@ and that particular Ano@ which you emphasized when you write about it — they=ve really made a big deal about that particular Ano@ when they rerecord it twenty years later.
Greil – I don=t know that record.
SAB – Okay, it=s a really really drawn out Ano@ anyway.
Greil – I doubt it was the Orioles. I imagine it was Sonny Til. Cause he never recorded with the original Orioles again after 1954, 1955.
SAB – Well, it says ASonny Til and the Orioles.@ That=s what it says.
Greil – Yeah, Sonny Til was always Sonny Til and the Orioles after the Orioles broke up. He kept the name — the Orioles. But the original members of the Orioles were never again part of the Orioles after 1949. So it=s not the original singers, except for him.
SAB – Yeah, let=s see here — what question should I ask next. (I=m stammering here for about 15 seconds — I=m flustered, because I=d been dying to ask that question for years, and now I find out it=s not the original members.) Okay, there=s a passage in Invisible Republic about the Great Divide — >The Great Divide is where the two sides of the country separate, but it=s also where the two sides meet.=
Greil – That=s in Mystery Train.
SAB – Yeah, okay, I got mixed up in my notes. Okay now, do you think it=s a clear line, this Great Divide? Because …
Greil – Have you ever been there?
SAB – No, I haven=t.
Greil – The continental divide is a line that runs down the side of the Rocky Mountains. It=s a geographical feature. At a certain point, the rivers run east, and the rivers run west. That=s what the continental divide is. And it=s a metaphor as I used it, and as the Band uses it in the song, The Great Divide. They take the concept of a Great Divide from this geographical feature, the continental divide. But they expand it into a metaphor that speaks of divisions between all different types of people, or any particular region.
SAB – Yeah, I never thought of it as a physical feature. I just thought of it as a metaphor to begin with.
Greil – No, it really exists. In Colorado, well, it=s most noticeable in Colorado.
SAB – Yeah, I suppose I can=t dispute that it=s a clear line, when it=s actually there.
Greil – Well, it=s not a clear line. You know, it=s not like there=s this fissure in the middle of the earth and you can fall into it. It=s something that=s been mapped by geographers.
HOW DEEP IS THE OCEAN?
The other weekend I watched the Truman Show. For reasons I haven=t fully formulated yet, it was a massive disappointment. There was one moment that rung so false, and in my eyes the whole movie must be condemned for it. Truman, the Jim Carrey character, is the first ever child to be raised by a corporation. An evil producer masterminds a town, a perfect little town probably something like the town Walt Disney would have liked to build, located in a huge bubble. It=s supposed to be a harbour town. Its beaches look out every day on the most perfect sunsets known, where the moon mingles in the orange wash of the setting sun. There=s 5,000 plus video cameras, and the town is filled with actors. It=s an extension of the childlike fancy that the whole world revolves around you. In this case, the world revolves around Truman. Anyways that=s enough background, cause whoever hasn=t seen the movie has seen the millions of commercials. So, Truman tries to make his escape. He overcomes his fear of the ocean, sails his boat out into the deep blue, overcomes lightning storms and a near shipwreck, and the skies clear up, and it=s clear sailing, and then … BAM! The stern of his boat rams right into the wall of the dome. Suddenly, the blue sky is clearly just a one dimensional painted surface. The plaster is cracked by the impact.
Now what=s false about the movie is that Truman overcomes this — that he doesn=t blow up in despair right on the spot. At this point, how would Truman even know that there is another world beyond this wall? Think about it — if someday you realized that everywhere you looked, even when you were outside, was a wall with nothing beyond it, would you survive? What would you do if you couldn=t see your reflection somewhere far beyond the clouds, cause all they are is the final wall? Well, for starters, your entire life would flow out of you. You wouldn=t even be able to scream. You=d just collapse, never ever gain your sanity ever again. It=s inconceivable to even contemplate. That=s why I hate the movie. It poses a question of the gravest matter, too grave to even be asked, and then goes on to pretend that the question was never asked.
In a deeply affecting essay on Moby Dick I once stumbled across in a library, Lewis Mumford writes a Amortally intolerable truth; that all deep earnest thinking is but the intrepid effort of the soul to keep the open independence of the sea; while the winds of heaven and earth conspire to cast her on the treacherous, slavish shore … Better is it to perish in that howling infinite than be ingloriously dashed upon the lee, even if that were safety.@
Heed the words. It=s a radical way of viewing the abyss, the deep beyond. In as much as we have to walk carefully around it, and when we must navigate the waters we do it with caution, we do need the ocean. We don=t need Jacques Cousteau to tell us that it is the source of all life on the planet. Deep in the ocean, all time slips away. Primitive, ancient things from epochs gone by — one quarter developed species from millions of years ago, legs without bodys, and bodies without arms and legs — still live there today in waiting.
Waiting for us to fuck up.