Tuesday, April 28, 2020

Prayers should be said during the day, when if-there-is-a-God is awake. Stories should be told at night, the time of dreams.

I just read The Trojan War Museum by Ay┼če Papatya Bucak, a collection of recent short stories. The stories show a lot of variety, but the overall vibe is sort of Kafka and Chekhov relate tales they learned from Scheherezade. Which is a pretty good vibe. I am also reminded of John Keene's Counternarratives, in that Ms Bucak has her eye on issues of gender, race, history, and war. The title story, which covers several thousand years of history (from a few centuries after the fall of Troy and projecting into our future), wonders how we and our gods should think about war:
Apollo sat in the garden, backward upon the horse, for half a day. He did not like how Homer had made him screech like a a lust-for-blood cheerleader: Kill, you Trojans, kill. It hadn't happened. Not like that. Had it? He did not like that he could not remember. It had seemed so important at the time. He disliked, too, how the gods seemed such ill company. If they were not friends to each other, what friends did they have?
Another story is set in the Turkish Village at the 1893 Chicago World's Fair. After the exhibits close down for the day, the Turks gather in a cafe where they eat their first meal of the day and tell each other "folktales, family tales, tales of the fair," all beginning in the traditional Turkish way.
Once there was and once there wasn't, in the time when genies were jinn and camels were couriers: An elderly British man fell in step alongside Mehmet Bey and Ahmet Bey as they carried his daughter, a solid woman of middle age, in their sedan chair. "I have heard the Orientals have a weakness to their legs," the old man said to one or the other or neither of them. "That is why they are so often seen sitting or lying down. In your case," he continued, turning first to Mehmet Bey and then to Ahmet Bey, "this does not appear to be true." "Perhaps," Mehmet Bey said. "Perhaps not," Ahmet Bey said as he pretended to buckle at the knees and the British man's daughter let out a small scream as the back end of the closed-in sedan chair dipped down and her whole self tilted backward with the bend of Ahmet Bey's legs. There was quiet for a moment as the British man stood staring and astonished, and then came a call from inside the chair: "Please. If you would. Do it again."
It's not all fun and games, though. There is a good deal of sadness as well, damage done to the lives of innocents and not-so innocents, and a steady motif of confusion and the utter unknowableness of the future, or maybe even of the present.
 In the desert, Mejnun met an old woman and asked her to bind him in chains, to pretend they were beggars--to be beggars--so they could approach Leyla's house unnoticed. But when the old woman did as he asked, and they entered Leyla's house as beggars, and he glimpsed the object of his love, all Mejnun could do was break his chains and run to the desert, where his love was housed.

A pretty damned good book, I tell you. When I finished The Trojan War Museum, I thought about reading The Iliad again, but then I remembered that I still had yet to read H.D.'s Helen in Egypt, which I picked up a few months ago. The book-length poem, based on a fifty-line fragment from a Sicilian poet named Stesichorus (640-555 BC), as well as on the better-known myths and legends surrounding the Trojan War, is--how to put it--absolutely gripping. Great stuff. It took me about twenty pages to really get comfortable with the structure (short episodic poems with brief prose introductions, the introductions making me wonder if H.D. didn't trust the strength of the poetry to let it stand on its own), but by the time the shade of Achilles is arguing with Helen about what really happened, and why, I had stopped caring about any of that.
You say, I could not see,
but God had given to me,
the eyes of an eagle;

you say, I could not know
how many paces there were
from turret to turret;

there was bitter discussion and hate,
she could leave by a secret gate,
and the armies be saved;

why does she hold us here?
the winters were ruthless and bleak,
the summer burnt up the plain

and the army with fever;
they fell as the ears of wheat
when a reaper harvests the grain;

is this the harvest?
year after year, we fought
to enter a prison, a fortress;

was she a prisoner?
did she wanton, awake?
or asleep, did she dream of home?

an arrow would settle it,
but no man dared aim at the mark
that taunted and angered us
et cetera, just brilliant. The arrow remark reflects on Achilles' other thoughts, that he was killed by an arrow because his leg armor had a defective buckle, and for no other reason. Helen knows it was not the buckle that did Achilles in, but rather the gods. Achilles and Helen dispute, and then he is gone:
who are you? where are you?
I call Achilles but not even an echo
answers, Achilles:

Achilles, Achilles come back,
you alone have the answer;
the dream? the veil?

is it all a story?
a legend of murder and lust,
the revenge of Orestes,

the death of my sister,
the ships and the Myrmidons,
the armies assembled at Aulis?
I will be happy to get back to this book later tonight.

Monday, April 13, 2020

The kiss of death, the embrace of life

I recently read Bryan Waterman's Marquee Moon, one of those books in the "33 1/3" series about pop albums. I've been aware of this book series for decades, I suppose, but Marquee Moon is the only volume I've read. I picked it up because Mighty Reader and I were waiting at Easy Street Records for a table to open up in their cafe side, and as I wandered past the very large display of "33 1/3" publications, the book caught my eye. "Marquee Moon," I thought. "That was a pretty good album."

The book--and I propose the single-case theory that all of the books in this series follow the same formula--gives a history of the band Television, situates them within their contemporary cultural and musical world, and then discusses the album "Marquee Moon", track by track. Waterman, who seems like a nice guy, is not a musician (as far as I can tell), nor is he a music critic. He teaches American literature and culture at NYU. Waterman was not part of the New York scene that gave rise to Television; he was about five years old and living in Arizona when Marquee Moon was recorded.

I mention this because I became interested while reading Waterman's book in the idea that some historians, possibly especially cultural historians (if there is such a thing, and if it's a different sort of historian than, say, Edward Gibbon or Tacitus), seem to be following the lure of false nostalgia, seduced by the idea of an era they did not witness, and driven to chronicle that era in what appears, at least in Waterman's book, to be an attempt to create a sort of prehistory of themselves. Waterman, after all, occasionally writes himself into the Television narrative (inserting a passage of himself cycling through lower Manhattan, and later recommending wandering through the Bowery while listening to "Marquee Moon" on headphones). Waterman states in his introduction that "The authentic past eludes us precisely because we ritually sacrifice memory to create mythical accounts of origins--and endings." Waterman's book is a ritual sacrifice of memory, though he has no memories of his own; the book is a quilt of interview excerpts from the rock press of the mid-1970s. Waterman picks through what he's read about the early days of the NY punk scene in order to create an origin myth. And also, as he hints at in the passage I just quoted, a myth of the End of Time. I have noticed that many cultural historians seem to be convinced that the end of something they love (the cancellation of a TV show, the death of a rap singer, the closing of a theater, etc) must be a tragedy, which makes the telling of histories a form of grieving as well as myth-making. Perhaps myth-making, I wonder, is after all a kind of grief? A grand form of false nostalgia, where what could've been is positioned as what should've been, had the world been a better place. The band Television, in Waterman's showing, was the historical locus that led to the birth of punk rock, and also new wave and post-punk music. Television should've been famous, man. So a yearning not only for an imagined past, but also for an imagined present in which the author's heroes have attained widespread legendary status.

But I am too hard on Waterman, because I understand this sort of nostalgia, and reading Marquee Moon carried me back to my own days in bands. Which remembering led me to my second observation about this book and books like it: whenever I read a description of an art scene as written about by someone who has never been in an art scene, the resulting writing never feels like a scene. Mighty Reader, over lunch today, asked me what the hell I mean by that. What I mean, I think, is that there is no passion, no idea that anyone was pursuing ideas that really interested them; there is neither drive nor desire of any form. There is merely a sequence of events and commentary made by participants at the time. There is no aboutness; only a list of characters and sets. Maybe this is a problem with journalism; I don't know. Maybe it's a problem with language itself.

I will say that Waterman's subject, the Television album "Marquee Moon," is a work with which I'm pretty familiar. I've been listening to some of those songs for decades. I could probably grab my guitar right now and play "See No Evil" for you. Not that I will, but I will say that Television's debut album is uneven, but it still kills. Go listen to "See No Evil," "Friction," and especially "Marquee Moon." Terrific stuff, and timeless. It's hard to believe this was all written in the mid-70s. Someone should get Franz Ferdinand to cover a Television song.

Though I was a fan of Television, I probably only ever knew all the lyrics to a handful of their songs. There's a variety of reasons for this, not the least being Verlaine's singing, but in general I've listened to rock primarily for the guitars, the beat, and the arrangements rather than for the words. Once I learned how to write rock songs--once, that is, I learned that there are forms or templates, fill-in-the-blank structures--I really only heard a song's first lines, the chorus, and how the sounds of the words (not the words themselves or any alleged meaning behind them) fit with the sounds of the music. I was not one of those young men who sat up until dawn, listening over and over to one track on a record, trying to figure out what the singer meant, what it was all about. The sound itself was the meaning, to me. Television had a great sound, both on and beneath the surface.

Most good rock songs have an interesting first couplet or verse, a catchy chorus, and a whole lot of filler by way of bad rhymes and incoherent argy-bargy to pad for length. You may disagree, but in my opinion, the lyrics to a rock song don't much matter. And Television, for me, was always about the guitars, the intertwined riffs and melodies that eventually informed bands like Throwing Muses, possibly the Belew/Fripp incarnation of King Crimson, and my own little bands. Two electric guitars and a bass playing counterpoint over solid but shifting drums, some asshole shouting over the top of it: my kind of music. Even with my first primitive trio, I tired to make my one guitar sound like more than a single instrument. A lot of the time that meant playing long lines against drones as in this piece. Sometimes it meant playing suspended chords over moving bass lines, as in this other piece. Sometimes it just meant a lot of arpeggios and as much digital delay as the atmosphere could bear.

I wore out the grooves (as they say) in my copy of "Marquee Moon," but I never got very familiar with the rest of Television's catalogue aside from the song "Little Johnny Jewel" (the live version of which I listened to as I typed this post, and O my God but what a terrific extended tapestry of guitar noise in the middle of an innocent pop tune). Over the years I bought four of Verlaine's solo albums, which are good but they did not move me the way "Marquee Moon" did. I won't be writing any books about those records.