(This essay was printed in issue 11 of Space Age Bachelor magazine.)
How Deep Is The Ocean?: The Sinking of the Titanic, and the Burden of Recording
I’ve spent all my money on records and equipment that no longer works. I have no love. But the good news is that I have no money left for drugs. Better to have lo-fi in high times, than hi-fi and low times. My shoes have holes. That’s how the water gets in.
On the 16th of April 1851, Herman Melville wrote in a letter to Nathaniel Hawthorne, “For all men who say yes, lie; and all men who say no — why, they are in the happy condition of the judicious, unincumbered travelers in Europe; they cross the frontiers into Eternity with nothing but a carpet-bag—that is to say, the Ego. Whereas those yes-gentry, they travel with heaps of baggage, and, damn them they will never get through the Custom House.”
… looking for reception for my mobile phone in Eternity … A recent article in a local paper detailed the loss of identity, when your belongings are stolen. Someone should write about when who you are becomes lost because of what you have.
… 500 or so CDs scattered about. There’s something vulgar about it. But as a music critic, a music lover, and a sampler of music, it’s an unshakable problem. It’s the sampler’s burden. I’m Atlas carrying the whole wide world of music on my shoulders. In the September of a year where I spent money more foolishly than in any other year of my life, 1997, my dumbest purchase was an 8-track player and 300 8-tracks. And no really, I’m not kidding. Already, my room was crammed with stuff. You wouldn’t believe how much space 300 8-tracks take up. I suppose the purchase would not have been so unfortunate, if the 8-tracks had been any good, but most of them were lousy, and the ones that were good all had mechanical defects. The lesson I learned was to never make the decision to purchase before you’ve even checked out the merchandise, and to never accept the first price offered when buying out of Buy & Sell magazines. In fact, I bought the Buy & Sell magazine, because I needed a fax machine. As I write this, I still don’t have the fax machine, because I wasted the money on the 8-tracks (and the maintenance of two phone lines, in spite of only fielding one or two calls a day). The purchase actually ruined my whole September. It became a metaphor, a symbol for every dumb thing I’ve ever done in my whole life—all the wasted opportunities and failed conquests. It made me do a lot of thinking about stuff and Stuff. I thought about how waste always leads to more waste, about how this terrible music might actually mean something to someone, about the recently passed-on man whose 8-track collection I had to my misfortune inherited, about how much money it would be worth to hear your favorite song, about just how completely and totally sad the idea of a turntable without the needle is. I’ve decided my greatest fear for my own music is that my record will be that record in used stores, which each month comes down in price, until two years later, there are five copies of my record in the bin for two bucks each, and still no one will purchase it.
You would be mystified by how many free CDs you can get from writing a music magazine as obscure and small as this one. But what is really shocking is to see the collections of promos that a full fledged magazine acquires in a short time. When I was in the eye weekly office in Toronto, I peeked in at the review-copies-yet-to-be-reviewed cupboard, and gasped as I saw thousands of CDs there. Most of them I’d never even heard of. There was something so depressing about it. What this is the cupboard full of failed hopes and dreams. This is people’s lives, and no one cares.’
It blows the mind to think of the refuse of the music industry.
One will be lucky to discover 20 CDs each year that might still get played in ten years time. What happens to all the rest?
It’s something I’ve wrestled with. It’s part of the reason that I’ve started to think that maybe there is at least some space in music for the idea of the limited edition to take root. Maybe in the future, music will not appear on form-ats at all. It’ll be recorded on computers, played on the Internet, and eventually disappear without a trace. The music returns from the form-less places it comes from. Kill the medium first, then the message. And wouldn’t it be nice, because all the music that has ever been made by anyone anywhere and still exists makes up a chain, or maybe a tangled web, that binds me. Sometimes, I wish the existence of so much of this music was never made known to me. How can I share the world, when I wish to disassociate myself from so much of it?
If there was one thing about the movie Titanic that made me squeamish, it wasn’t the dead bodies floating in the water, it wasn’t the body that jumped off the stern of the boat and hit the propeller on the way to a wet death, and it wasn’t the thought of ice cold water cutting like a thousand knives at once—what made me squeamish was the carefree nature of the Jack Hudson character. He’s the cliched guy from countless works of fiction without care, without responsibility, who travels with twelve bucks in his pocket, but always gets what he needs, and has a good time, who takes life and breathes it all in, who more than anything else gets to look and also to touch. And I, on the other hand, am the Titanic sinking with too much stuff, too much ambition, too much greed. What about you—where do you fit in?
I’m jealous of Jack Hudson, and not just because he’s blessed with Leonard DiCaprio-like good looks. I know I’ll never be Jack Hudson. And I know my material ways too well. I love jewellery. I love cashmere. I love silk. I love to shop. I love coming home from the record store. I love checking the mail and getting the new day’s new music. I love speed. I love skyscrapers. But what will I do with all this stuff? How can I go anywhere, do anything? Just twenty-one years old with three bank accounts, two credit cards, and not at all like the Bo Diddley character in “Who Do You Love” that is so immensely attractive. Do you ever feel like you can’t even move?
The Titanic made its maiden voyage in 1912. There were no movies, and there was no recorded music at this time. Talk about carefree. Of course, you’ve heard all its statistics by now, what with article after article, T.V. special after T.V. special concerning the movie—it was the biggest, fastest ship. It was, in a word, indestructible. But it sank.
For the James Cameron movie, they built a near replica of the ship. The replica which now sits in harbour somewhere on the East Coast is only 50 feet shorter than the original. I hope it sinks, too. And I’m sure it will. Just as all the oil will burn up, every single skyscraper will topple, every car will stop operating. In the crowded skies, more and more sattellites clutter the upper atmosphere. Like battling tops, they’re known to bump into one another. Eventually, sattellites will start to bear the logo of corporate sponsors. Someday, they may even drop from the sky. And I can’t wait. Cause I need to be purged of all this stuff that binds me. I want to feel the ocean deeper. I want to see the moon larger. I have had enough of the shore.
The most ghastly thing about the universe is its size. When something is that big, it is grotesque. I cannot stand to think of it. Focus on a certain black part of the sky, and perhaps even if it had the power your eye might never see anything. If you could pick one of these black points in the sky and trace a line, you could follow it forever and never run into a single thing. I had this horrible dream last year. I’m on a date with a girl obviously not interested in me. We eat dinner at a restaurant in silence. The food comes, and she suddenly gets very sick. We are in a town two hours from the city we lived in, but I find a hospital. I take her in, and then get distracted by something and drove home. Hours later I realize I’d forgot her there, and I start to panic, but then freeze when I see the sky. The whole sky is covered with stars so bright, perhaps brighter than they could ever be seen even with a telescope. And they all are grouped in different and impeccable patterns, far superior to any in an Italian cathedral, the most beautiful patterns I have ever seen, like linked snowflakes blown up into unheard of size and spread across the dark blue night sky. Order to the universe? I’m not sure I can believe it.
Think of the ten worst albums you heard last year. Now try to order them into the universe. Who ever said the occupation of rock critic was easy? I would sooner be an air traffic controller.
The Titanic cost 200 million dollars to make. Up until seeing the Titanic, I considered it somehow immoral to spend that much money on a movie, but I’ve since changed my tune. It is admirable that director James Cameron against the studio’s wishes, against all common sense followed the project through, pushing its budget out to ludicrous levels. It made a profit, to be sure, but it was not made for profit. It spent money for the sake of seeing what might result, rather than to make more money. One of the greatest losses of capitalism is its wasted opportunities. Of capitalism, Marx wrote, “It has accomplished wonders far surpassing Egyptian pyramids, Roman aqueducts, and Gothic cathedral.” But Marx is wrong. Capitalism has done none of this. Roman aqueducts are still in use today. The pyramids were in top form, right until they began to be looted and raped. Today, we produce works of absolute waste— complete and total garbage. The greatest crime the capitalist has ever committed is built-in-obsolesence. It is imperative that one always puts one’s best foot forward, and has the faith that an even better foot will follow. To deal with the refuse of a century will be an overwhelming task.
Some have argued that the pyramids were built as something other than tombs. The three great pyramids are alleged to have been built as monuments of knowledge, to convey all the knowledge of the day they were built not through knowledge but through perfect forms. I often think it is a shame, when working with our present-day mediums that there will be no way to convey them to future generations. So many of today’s works of art cannot exist in themselves. The compact disc needs the stereo. The movie needs the projector, and then the screen. In a sense, all film and music is an illusion. They cannot exist in themselves. They have no physical presence. They are apparitions. So fragile are they that depend on electricity. If there was ever a power failure, we could potentially lose music. And wouldn’t it be nice? Cause then I might be able to get with a girl and say, “Feel the morning when the day is new, And after that spend the day together, And hold each other close the whole night through.” I always get this picture of two lovers on a deserted island, cause this is the only place where it might be nice.
But if I could somehow show a future generation what we, humankind in the twentieth century, have achieved, I would like to show them Titanic. It is a movie of two parts weaved together. First of all, it is an anatomy of romance, of true love. Second, it is an anatomy of destruction. Thus far, Hollywood destructions have been crude. Die Hard II blew up an actual plane, but compared to Titanic, it is merely sound and fury signifying nothing. Hollywood can blow things up, but can it put them together. In a sense, Titanic does both. Never before on screen have I ever seen such a meticulous destruction, and the unwinding gains its strength from the understanding of its construction. Viewing the movie, we are made to understand how the ship is put together, we are allowed to see its weaknesses, and then we are shown how it comes apart. The sinking of the Titanic is so detailed, so precise, so chilling.
I saw the Titanic early in 1998. I was feeling good about the New Year. My friend and I drove to an area of Greater Vancouver called Richmond. We drove through the district’s core, and passed by the huge box shaped warehouse stores that spring out of the landscape. The Future Shop has the right idea—they stock only major label CDs, and only top selling CDs new and old. Blessed is the person who shops exclusively at Future Shop, and sleeps comfortably at night unexposed to the fact that there is other music, so much other music. Those that shop at the Future Shop have only seen the tip of an ice berg, and can never understand that only 10% of any ice berg is visible above the water. Also, we took a trip to Ikea. After looking for a parking spot for half an hour in a world that might at that moment have been all parking lot, I was pleased to buy my first piece of furniture ever—a table and two stools—oh, I know, I will never be Jack Hudson. And then we got in our cars, and drove some more.
We drove along highways with deep ditches on other side, filled with water. Suddenly, and to the blind all things are indeed sudden, this mega theatre exploded out of the landscape. The size was unbelievable, and the gall to build it even more so. For some strange reason, all of the best agricultural land in the Greater Vancouver Region is always the first to get developed—in a world with a doubling population, where is the logic to this? The Famous Players’ Silver City, Riverport location is a giant box painted pink, blue, and yellow in the ugliest pattern possible. The theatre’s slogan is, If you build it, they will come,’ and it’s as if this theatre built in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by parking lots, bowling alleys, 8 hockey rink megaplexes, and car dealerships, is prepared to become a new city centre. Like the rest of Richmond, it lies just below sea level.
The Vancouver International Airport is in Richmond. I had a dream a few years ago, where I was running and then falling, getting up and running and falling again, on an airport runway. I could see power poles sticking out of the ocean, and wires that used to be thirty feet above the ground, resting only feet about the water. It was an earthquake, and everything around me had sunk. I don’t make a claim to a gift of prophecy, but nevertheless I’ll think twice before I build my future in Richmond. Nevertheless, it remains a nice place to visit.
On the weekend I was there, this theatre, Silver City at Riverport, Richmond, showing Titanic grossed tenth for all theatres in North America in box office receipts. Famous Players has since announced plans to create another movie theatre complex in Coquitlam, also part of Greater Vancouver, that would almost dwarf the one at Riverport with its planned 20 screens, making it potentially the biggest theatre in Canada. In the same week, I read in the newspaper that Vancouver’s GM Place, with its 20,000 capacity, was ranked the second best venue in North America for entertainment and sports. And a week later, I read in the newspaper that a $500 million theme park has been proposed for elsewhere in Greater Vancouver.
Rarely has a movie ever so moved me as Titanic. Of course, sceptics, and there have been so many, have denounced it, mocking its phoney dialogue, its moralistic pretensions, and even its special effects. I am not one of these people. I gave all of my heart to the screen, while watching the movie. When Jack and Rose made love in the spacious backseat of a car in the ship’s storage compartment, and they looked in each other’s eyes, lost in the frenzy of the lover’s gaze, and shook with joy and bewilderment, then I shook, too. The movie was like a perfect dream, and the scenes that have been criticized as fake or nostalgic looking only served to further this dream effect. But like any wonderful dream, it hurt to wake up.
Never have I left a movie so thoroughly miserable as when I left Titanic. I wish it never ended, so lost was I in its raptures. Never has a movie made everyday life seem so pithy, so ridiculous, so wasted. Right now, pleasure and fun and romance and everything else is so close at hand, but I cannot touch it. To borrow from one who borrowed, the only thing that stands between us and revolution is the megaplex. It is that complex.