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Monday, February 27, 2006
TOO FAR GONE
My Dad is Dead
The Taller You Are, The Shorter You Get
Homestead : 1988
One of the perks of being my dad is getting to answer the stupid questions I sometimes come up with: How do calculators work? (It's something to do with zeroes and ones.) What's the best age to be? (The best age to be is 42.) Did he ever smoke pot? (You know, there wasn't a lot of pot in Russia.) Why aren't there any stories about alcoholics in the family? (It's that Jews don't really drink like that.)
Oh, but they do, and to get a sense of how much, think back to the other night, when the mostly Jewish guests at our Astoria dinner party ran out of whiskey and switched ever-so-skippingly to tequila. Or consider the fact that, somewhere along the line, my father's son became Slate magazine's vodka expert.
I don't even drink vodka.
Not really. Mostly, I drink Wild Turkey, or something slightly fancier. Not so much that it gets in the way of whatever I've got to get done. I hit my marks, make my deadlines, deal with crises as they come. My balls are all airborne, my feet are roots, and I function much better than the functional junkies I worked with twenty years ago, when I lied about my age and got myself a job at Tower Records. Those guys would quote Chaucer in Medieval accents, cast interactions at the Customer Service Stall in terms of the master-slave dialectic, rattle the names of Coltrane albums off in alphabetical order, whilst sitting on the shitter with a belt between their teeth. Me, I never went in for the junk. I was holding out for foxy.
I didn't drink much, either. Not then, nor in college, nor for a few years afterwards. I didn't drink that much last month, or the month before. But I did drink a lot last week, which was in some ways a terrible week and in some ways a lovely week, and in most ways an exhausting week, and in one way, a week in which I really let go of the rope. Really; the rope. I'm not asking you for a do-over. But tell me: Have I looked deeply enough in the mirror?
The Staple Singers
Bealtitude: Respect Yourself
Stax : 1972
J. and I are talking - wondering, really - about how strange it is to go to bed one night feeling like a teenager, and wake up the next morning - a thirty-something - a future home-owner - a husband - a wife - a bestower of proud familial names - a real woman, or - for imaginative purposes, and keep in mind that I don't know you personally - a full-grown man. (Raymond Carver wrote one of his shitty poems about this once. Or was his about death?) This is not a subtle change. Calling it a shift in perspective is like calling the rhinocerous a shift in cows. I'm not convinced it comes to all - Stevens Tyler, Martin, and McQueen come to mind. But if it comes it comes suddenly, and it's not entirely unwelcome, and the reason I'm bringing up the rope, my grip, all the whiskey I drank last week, and what it's really like to finally feel like an adult is because, unlike the twenty-somethings running around my neighborhood, I know I won't be drinking so much next week, or next month, when I turn back to the life at hand. The something I'm getting at here has nothing to do with my drinking problem, or yours. I'm not interested in confessionals - one of the things I like so much about Joan Didion is that, up until this last book, her first-person was always a feint, and no matter how personal it felt to read her, you walked away knowing next to nothing about her. So, among other things, any drinking I might have done last week was entirely incidental.
A. and I are having this same, grown-up conversation, when she mentions Didion's essay on self-respect (written, if you can imagine such a thing, for Vogue). Which she (A.) remembers as being about the things one learns to let go of. The necessity of streamlining one's activities, interests, and personal ties, and sheltering some essential part of yourself from the world and all its demands. She's right, but when I read the essay (which is called - and, oh, the authority it takes to write like this! - "On Self-Respect") it seemed to me that there was more to it than that: "Self-respect is something that our grandparents, whether or not they had it, knew all about," Didion writes midway through it. "They had it instilled in them, young."
She goes on: "To have that sense of one's intrinsic self-worth which constitutes self-respect is potentially to have everything: the ability to discriminate, to love and to remain indifferent. To lack it is to be locked within oneself, paradoxically incapable of either love or indifference."
This stops me dead, in part, because the paradox Didion's describing seems so familiar, and it seems familiar because what Didion's doing is, she's casting something we used to call "despair" in secular terms, for Vogue readers.
Let it All Out
Philips : 1965
Available on: Lost and Found: Love Starved Heart
When I say "despair," I mean what Aquinas meant in the Summa: Sin against the Holy Ghost. Or, the one damnable sin (which is to say, the one sin God Himself cannot forgive). And the most paradoxical sin (because, paradoxically, the arrogance it takes to think that you are past hope - that you've sinned so badly that God Himself can't forgive you - and, therefore, that God's power is somehow limited - cuts you off from God in such a way that God's power actually becomes limited).
So, if humanity loses something when we start thinking entirely in secular terms, then, among other things, Didion's essay seems to me to be an attempt to point to something we, as a people, have lost. (Self-respect.) But one more, slight, digression before I get back to my point (believe it or not, I'm coming around to talking about music):
I don't mean to say that "despair" as I've described it is a purely Christian concept. (For one thing, it's the flip side of pride, which the Greeks had plenty of.) Nor do I mean to suggest that despair went out the window when people like me stopped going to shul: To me, despair's not a bad word to use if you want to describe the state of our nation's ghettos, or the mental collapse of your downstairs neighbor:
The depressed person really felt that what was really unfair was that she felt able... to share only painful circumstances or historical insights about her depression and its etiology and texture and numerous symptoms instead of feeling truly able to communicate and articulate and express the depression's terrible unceasing agony itself. (David Foster Wallace, "The Depressed Person") Maybe despair's nothing more than the feeling that goes with being locked in an untenable, inescapable, position - a paradox - and Aquinas only articulated it especially well. But despair explains the ghosts of Richard III's murdered relatives, who gather around him and whisper "despair, and die" (they want to make sure he's damned first, and dead second.) And it explains a lot of things about rock and roll - which burst out of Pentecostal churches where the whole point was to work yourself into a state the Holy Ghost couldn't help but inhabit, but stripped the ceremony:
MARY DON'T YOU WEEP
The Swan Silvertones
VeeJay : 1959
of its religious connotations, in a way that barred the Holy Ghost from the equation. (Which is pretty close to Aquinas's definition of despair.) It's clear to me that the thing we've come to know as the "rock moment" has a lot to do with spirit possession - or what's left of spirit possession once we make room for Blackberries, antidepressants, anatomically correct sex dolls, and four dollar lattes - and if it's not clear to you, consider Iggy Pop's take on the music: "It's obvious that rock and roll is a religion," Iggy said. "It's formatted exactly as a religion." Or Jerry Wexler, who claimed to have come up with the phrase "Rhythm and Blues" (which is bullshit, but I'll let it stand), then turned around and said that, if he'd known better, he'd have called the music "Rhythm and Gospel."
Building Nothing Out of Something
Up : 1999
I know this date is going badly: I'm throwing a lot of shit at the wall. My inflections are off, I can tell. But really - you're the only girl I haven't lied to yet. So if you bear with me for one moment more, I'll tie up the threads and get back to Joan Didion on self-respect:
TIP ON IN (Pt. 1)
Excello 7": 1967
Available on: Slim Harpo: The Excello Singles Anthology
Slim Harpo - the sly and slinky Louisiana bluesman who is I suppose best known for writing "Shake Your Hips," which the Rolling Stones covered on Exile on Main Street - had a song called "Tip On In," which went:
Ah, lay it on me, baby- I submit that what Harpo was describing is a form of despair.
Don't stop now!
Let your hair down, baby-
We ain't goin' to heaven no-how.
I'm ready to burn, baby-
Right here and now!
WALKING WITH JESUS
Royal Albert Hall October 10 1997 Live
Arista : 1998
IMHO, "Walking With Jesus," above, also describes a form of despair. J. Spaceman reworked "Walking With Jesus" obsessively, both in Spacemen 3 and Spiritualized. Here, it takes the form of a gospel song.
TIME FOR A WITNESS
Time for a Witness
A&M : 1991
Like "Mary Don't You Weep," "Time For A Witness" is a straight-up call for divine intervention. Without it, everything in the world Glenn Mercer describes is unmoored, and uncertain:
Well it might be my salvation
It might give me some disease
I GOT A WOMAN
Atlantic 7": 1954
Available on: Anthology
When Ray Charles flipped through his hymn book and find-and-replaced every instance of "Lord" with "girl," something funny happened: Meant to be prayers, these songs kept their form, but lost a big part of their function. You can fall in love with a girl, or even pray for a girl to fall in love with. But you can't pray to a girl, because - unlike wishes - prayers aren't things girls go around granting. The songs Ray Charles ended up with might have been powerful, but in a strange way, they were also cut off from the source of their own power: Ray Charles is always praying because his prayers are never answered. And his prayers are never answered because he's sitting in the wrong pew. Ray Charles, too, is in some sort of despair. And the paradoxes multiply as you zoom out to look at the music itself: Here, for instance, is Michael Lydon, writing in Ramparts twenty-something years before Kurt Cobain blew his brains out:
Rock and roll is not a revolutionary music because it has never gotten beyond the articulation in this paradox [Lydon's just described rock musicians, and their followers, being "torn between the obvious pleasures America held out and the price paid for them"]. At best it has offered the defiance of withdrawal; its violence never amounted to more than a cry of 'Don't bother me.' THANK YOU (FALLETINME BE MICE ELF AGAIN)
Sly & The Family Stone
Epic 7": 1970
Available on: Sly & The Family Stone's Greatest Hits
I'm going to quote a bit more from Joan Didion here and (because Didion's a hard act to follow) leave you to go about your business:
If we do not respect ourselves, we are on the one hand forced to despise those who have so few resources as to consort with us, so little perception as to remain blind to our fatal weaknesses. On the other, we are particularly in thrall to everyone we see, curiously determined to live out - since our self-image is untenable - their false notions of us. We flatter ourselves by thinking this compulsion to please others is an attractive trait: a gist for imaginative empathy, evidence of our willingness to give. Of course I will play Francesca to your Paolo, Helen Keller to anyone's Annie Sullivan; no expectation is too misplaced, no role is ludicrous. At the mercy of those we cannot but hold in contempt, we play roles doomed to failure before they are begun, each defeat generating fresh despair [!] at the urgency of divining and meeting the next demand made on us. Oh, and for the record, forty-two is the best age to be because "you've finally begun to figure out what life might just be about, and you're still young enough to do something about it."
It is the phenomenon sometimes called "alienation from self." In its advanced stages, we no longer answer the telephone, because someone might want something; that we could say no without drowning in self-reproach is an idea alien to this game. Every encounter demands too much, tears the nerves, drains the will, and the specter of something as small as an unanswered letter arouses such disproportionate guilt, that answering it becomes out of the question. To assign unanswered letters their proper weight, to free us from the expectations of others, to give us back ourselves -there lies the great, the singular power of self-respect. Without it, one eventually discovers the final turn of the screw; one runs away to find oneself, and finds no one home.
posted by Alex