Sunday, June 29, 2008

Helen Longland, paintings and drawings

The audience at The Pastels show filed out and I turned to Chris, who could have been forgiven for wondering what I was so upset about. ‘So, Granny died,’ I told him. It happened two days previously, we knew it was coming. When Stephen told his anecdote about the Bearsden cemetery, and during the song which followed, I remembered another time she had been bed-bound, for a few weeks, in her house in Bearsden, where my grandparents lived for 30 years. It would have been the early ’80s, so maybe The Pastels were nearby, spraypainting gravestones, working out how to turn garage rock into something gentle. I was six or seven, and Granny told me that generally speaking it was great to be able to lie around all day, but the toast crumbs were annoying. She liked to put things in a positive light. Writing about the gig afterwards, these were the things I wanted to say, but it seemed a bit tenuous. And scary, as I said at the time. On reflection, though, I don’t see why it should be scary. Someone dear is dead, but thats all the more reason to record these memories and associations. There are connections, too, beyond the circumstantial. Granny was a painter, her aesthetic as strongly impressed upon me as Pastelism, and not even too dissimilar. Think of all the abstract trees which made it on to Geographic record sleeves and flyers. Trees (Argyle trees) were a constant theme of Grannys paintings, and I can’t look at certain straggling types of tree, roots bursting through banks of earth, or moss and lichen forest textures without seeing them through her eyes: 2D cross-sections, but so enriched that they dont seem flat at all. Here is some of her art:




Continued on my Flickr page.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Tarssa Yazdani & Don Goede - ‘The Life, Art & Music of Daniel Johnston’

Picture that paddle steamer from The Confidence-Man again. Someone aboard has just pledged his confidence (and some money) to a herbal remedy, or a set of shares. He is wondering whether he has got a bargain, or been taken for a ride. There is no way to tell. The seller has disappeared from view, has perhaps even disembarked. In his place the boat has picked up a young man in a McDonald’s uniform: dark haired, smiling, talking enthusiastically to strangers before he’s even off the walkway from the shore. He has a knapsack from which he keeps pulling out cassettes in white boxes, which he insists that people take from him, for no remuneration that the new investor in the Black Rapids Coal Company can see. But still he is sceptical. ‘He’s after something,’ he thinks. Eventually Daniel comes his way, hands him a tape. ‘This is the best music you ever heard,’ he says, slightly shy, massively proud. Then he starts to sing: ‘Sometimes I feel like I am a boxer / Seems like I’m always standing in the rain.’ The man feels awkward, so he looks down at the cassette cover, which shows a cat in a tree looking down at a boxer with the top of his head missing. ‘And then I find someone’s been in my locker / Left me a note that says I can’t sing / I’ll do anything but breakdance for ya darling’ continues Daniel. ‘Why should I believe in you?’ asks the man, but he’s moved on already, to sing to other passengers, to hand out more tapes.

Daniel is a confidence man, of a sort. More intent on mass recognition than on convincing any individual of his worth, but still: he hawked his wares to get where he is; and as with the confidence men in Melville’s novel, it is not at all certain that it has been worth the effort, in materialistic terms. He is selling something of a different order, though. The central conceit of The Confidence-Man is that the men sell their ordinary, useful items (medicine, shares) using language more appropriate to art, for which the subjective point of view is far more important. Also, the undermining of the every-day by comparison with art: reality is nothing but stories. Daniel’s is an interesting case because of the whole lo-fi, rough edges angle, as Kathy McCarty points out:

One thing I noticed as time went by was that other artists could listen to the tapes and totally hear the song, but to most other people it sounds like some horrifying noise, like listening to someone have a nervous breakdown on tape, this disturbing thing, and they don’t really hear the song. (p. 83)

Play Retired Boxer to two people and they will hear two different records. One will hear a bad recording of a twelve year old boy thrashing around on a piano, an affront to his / her taste and / or expensive headphones. Someone already sucked in to the myth of Daniel will hear his performance drained of the vivacity found on the earlier tapes, and be incredibly touched at this post-breakdown attempt to put his songwriting back in order. This is the first time he seemed brave to be doing what he was doing, the first hint of detachment. If he had given up after Hi, How Are You?, gone and done something less personally involving, could he have preserved his mental health to a larger degree? This is what the tapes suggest, but it does rather ignore the medical aspect of his illness.

The best piece of writing here is the introduction by Kramer, who makes the bizarre claim that he didn’t want Daniel’s illness to impede or even be apparent on 1990, the album he produced. I listened to 1990 again recently, and it is pretty much the most obviously unhinged record of Daniel’s: the screams of ‘SATAN! SATAN! SATAN!’ during ‘Don’t Play Cards with Satan’, or the meltdown into tears during ‘Tears Stupid Tears’ are genuinely frightening. ‘Some Things Last a Long Time’ is one of his most beautiful recordings, of course, but as a whole 1990 is the most uncomfortable listen in the Johnston catalogue. Kramer says:

Once you have made direct contact with a song written by this mortally wounded troubadour, you will never be safe again. You may have devoted your entire adult life to cloaking yourself away from the smart bombs that decades of unrequited loves and failed passions have strategically aimed at your fractured heart, but all those efforts will have been for naught, should the stanzas of Daniel Johnston gain passage therein. He strips away the safeties we glue upon our souls. (p. xiii)

But are Daniel’s songs simply an outpouring of anguish resulting from his fractured heart? He’s been walking around with that mortal wound for a long time now. At times, they do seem to be. But as much as his life bleeds into his songs, his songs, and the stories they tell, have helped to construct Daniel’s warped but detailed reality. He lives in the imaginative world he has made through his songs and his drawings. I remember being furious to hear that Daniel and his muse Laurie had been re-united for the film The Devil and Daniel Johnston, thinking that this would be bound to have a negative effect on the man who had spent the 20 years since he last saw her writing her tortured love songs. But by all accounts they got on perfectly well, and Daniel says in this book that his memories of Laurie are useful to him when he’s writing songs, but he doesn’t think about her otherwise. His confidence has moved on, from her to the memory.

As for the rest, I get the impression that the text of this book hasn’t been much improved by being brought up to date from The Definitive Daniel Johnston Handbook (2000), maybe because there’s not much new to say about his music from this decade. It is what it is, self contained and self sustaining. There is a section on touring, and an interview with Devil and Daniel Johnston director Jeff Feuerzeig. For much of the time the book is more focussed on the art than the music, and there is a great selection on show, along with an explanation of how the mythology all fits together (I never knew what Fly Eyes were before – they symbolise ‘a supernatural watchfulness over Daniel that is both comforting and sinister at times’ (p. 43), which is more than the song ‘Fly Eye’ tells you). Pages and pages from sketchbooks are reprinted, along with felt-tip drawings of Captain America, Laurie, Jeremiah the Frog, Vile Corrupt, Joe the Boxer. Looking through them, I’m not quite sure whether I got a bargain here, or whether I’m being taken for a ride (would Daniel’s art hold up without the music?) Sometimes, though, it’s good to put your confidence in an unlikely place.

Sunday, June 08, 2008

Herman Melville – ‘The Confidence-Man’

In my last year at school, my English teacher gave me a list of books he thought I might like to read. It was his first year as a teacher and he was only five or six years older than us – a class, oddly, of only five. I don’t think we were the remedial class, and it certainly wasn’t any kind of fast-track super class either: I think I was the only one who liked books, particularly. Irwin in the film of The History Boys reminded me of him, a bit, in his tricksy teaching methods. For instance, getting another class from the year below to make up some ‘poems’, then giving them to us to do practical criticism on. They were cobbled together from all over, and one contained the line, ‘Fuck me and marry me young’. ‘Oh,’ I thought, ‘that’s in a Sisters of Mercy song. I didn’t know they took it from a poem.’ This is how credulous I was / am. We remained fooled for most of the rest of the lesson, until he told us.

This list, though: The Third Policeman, The Crying of Lot 49, some things I have forgotten, and The Confidence-Man. It’s a reality-busting, perception-shifting list, of novels without plots, which set out to confuse and thereby point out how flimsy the stories which constitute the world are. How unreliable language is. I may have given the impression that I was interested in this kind of thing by going on about Throwing Muses, and possibly regurgitating some of Simon Reynolds’ literary-criticism-of-music pieces in my essays. But I wasn’t, really. I loved Throwing Muses because they blew my head completely apart, not because their lyrics weren’t linear. And, really, this is the way round it should be, the effect outweighing the method. I’ve never been interested in puzzle literature, or even in plots, very much. Reading (and failing to finish) the first two of the books mentioned above, I felt that they were subverting something I wouldn’t want to defend (plot), and sacrificing something I would (readability) in the process. A niggle must have remained, though, because here we are, years later, with another book from the same list.

The Confidence-Man’s motives are complicated. The plot, such as it is, consists of a series of approaches made by various confidence tricksters to people aboard a Mississippi streamer. It all takes place on 1st April, and the steamer is called the Fidèle. There is a herb doctor, who sells bottles of his ‘Omni-Balsamic Reinvigorator’ (p. 91), and ‘Samaritan Pain Dissuader’ (p. 103). One confidence man tries to sell shares in the Black Rapids Coal Company, which may or may not exist; another begs for alms, and is accused of faking his injuries. It is never revealed whether any of them is actually lying. Most of the book is taken up by conversations in which these men explain why people ought to give them their confidence, and therefore their money. The notes refer to them as ‘avatars’, as they are all essentially versions of the same character. It doesn’t take long for the word ‘confidence’ itself to assume a portentous ring, and Melville delights in introducing it in many contexts and guises:

No, no. This austerity won’t do. Let me tell you too – en confiance – that while revelry may not always merge into ebrity, soberness, in too deep potations, may become a sort of sottishness. (p. 161)

This quotation gives a flavour, too, of how arguments tend to get flipped around, generally with an anecdote backing up an untenable position. The most telling of these appears in chapter 40, entitled ‘In which the story of China Aster is, at second-hand, told by one who, while not disapproving the moral, disclaims the spirit of the style’ (p. 245). How unreliable do you like your narrators? China Aster is a candlemaker, able to scrape a living from his trade, but no more. A friend, Orchis, wins the lottery and insists on loaning him $1000 to develop his business. The point the anecdote is supposed to be there to reinforce, is that lending money to a friend is a bad idea: China Aster ends up crippled with debt, and dies a broken man. As it is his confidence in human nature (specifically, in Orchis’) which brings him down, it undermines everything the confidence men have been saying. And why would you believe them in the first place? Because, as Stephen Matterson’s introduction points out, their primary concern never seems to be the money they make (which is mostly very little): advocating confidence is for them an end in itself. They are preachers more than businessmen – but whether for God or the Devil, as Matterson says, is open to debate. And isn’t it true, actually, that it is impossible to get anywhere without confidence? That reality is defined in terms of the stories people absorb, whether individually or collectively, and that the confidence with which they are told is therefore very important indeed? The effect of The Confidence-Man is decidedly unsettling.

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