Friday, November 27, 2009

Bandwidth Bandit Sub-Rosa Broadcast

I just moved from one side of the ward to the other, and consequently am again without internet access. (This seems an excessively recurrent condition for someone who lives in a developed nation...) Luckily, we've an indiscreet neighbour who doesn't password-protect their wireless signal, so tenuous & temperamental as it is, we've some means of being online in the meantime. The signal disappears between noon and sometime late in the evening (presumably when unseen neighbour departs to & returns from toil) so I'm having to occupy myself with matters of substance instead of blog-trolling all day.

But my god being off the intergrid relieves the mind of so much clutter. Yesterday, someone tossed me a sentence that included the nouns "American Music Awards", "gay dude", and "shitstorm" and I had no fucking idea he was talking about, yet felt effervescently unburdened for not knowing.

There are a several blog-pieces I'm cooking up behind the curtain for your pre-holiday hivernal entertainment, but they'll obviously be lighter on the links and probably considerably less au current than usual. For now, I offer you a piece of brain-tickling entertainment of a quality I can only hope to one day match: Cory McAbee's 2001 masterwork, The American Astronaut.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

What's Mandarin for "Your Band Sucks"?

Via the Daily Swarm, I see that NPR and CNN fashioned boderline-unethically-similar stories about the distending Chinese rock 'n' roll scene. Both articles focus almost exclusively on two bands - Carsick Cars and P.K. 14 - and the polestar of the Beijing live scene, D-22. Though two acts on a brief tour of the American east coast and a sole hotspot hardly recommend a monolithic music scene, that two giants of the narcissistic American mainstream media have decided it's attention-worthy suggests one of two things:
  1. It's a quirky, below-the-fold human interest piece that dovetails delightfully with coverage of Obama's pan-Asian jaunt.
  2. Rock music has reached critical mass in a nation with a full fifth of the world's population, so it's time we pricked up our ears.
"And why wouldn't it be?" the NPR piece smirks. "China has what seems like the fastest-growing everything else."

Anyone who's heard Carsick Cars' eponymous debut knows immediately why Sonic Youth asked them to open SY's inaugural Chinese tour: Carsick Cars sound like Goo or Dirty, SY at their most rockist & crowd-pleasing, minus any irony or subversion, plus a more pleading, earnest melodicism. Basically, like Death Cab covering "Teenage Riot". Or Bloodthirsty Butchers.

Meanwhile, I looked up P.K. 14 on YouTube - hey, if they can get out of Beijing to tour Chapel Hill & Brooklyn, I knew they wouldn't have been blocked by the Great Firewall of China. Judging by their music videos, while a snug double-bill with Carsick Cars, P.K. 14 are further from their tourmates' post-hardcore squall and closer to the lo-fi amateurism of mid-'90s indie-pop... Sebadoh, Hayden, et cetera ad nauseum.

Which is all well & good, but Mandarin lyrics don't provide the shock of the new as much as the tickle of novelty. An accent isn't enough to build a career on - just ask the Proclaimers, or Men At Work, or Gogol Bordello. Then again, if ever there was a time when western audiences were more willing to gulp back the festering leftovers of yesterday's sounds, I ain't lived through it. There may be hope for a "Mandorock" crossover yet.

There's something deeply disquieting about the very existence of Chinese rock. China - a country that has embraced the most pernicious facets of capitalism without loosening its authoritarian bridle - has incorporated an artform that's ostensibly about rebellion, freedom, and bucking convention into its sociocultural ethos. Not only does this testify to how toothless & co-opted rock music has become, but Chinese rock 'n' roll serves as a "soft power" Trojan horse for the CPC: shucks, they can't be that oppressive and despotic - look, they've got kids in leather jackets with CBGB's patches!

The commodification of rebellion is, obviously, the oldest trick in the book. But back when Columbia Records was courting hippies with corny "They can't bust our music!" sloganeering, regimes in the Eastern Bloc fought tooth & nail to keep the corruptive influence of rock's speaker-blowing hedonia off their doorstep. That the last such regime standing* is showboating its punk rock bands is a noxious con indeed.

My hope is that casual music fans, who could give a fuck about political pandering via sham cultural sycophancy, will be turned off by the second-rate mimicry & six-string minstrelsy of these bands. One of the musicians profiled in the CNN article, "a young Chinese rocker sporting lace-up leather pants and teased out long hair," calls himself Ricky Sixx, fer chrissakes! When will China stop selling the west shoddy, slapdash counterfeits of our own crap back to us?

Photo by Arion

(*) - I'm talking about Cold War-era state-corporatist regimes, now. There are undoubtedly worse rulers to live under these days than Hu Jintao.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Hydrochloric Shaved Weirds

This taxonomy of face fuzz has gotten out of hand - as any good beard does, I suppose. But it's balancing the equation from the wrong side: what do we learn of any recognizable subset by, first, isolating them, second, cherry-picking a shared stylistic flourish, and, third, coming to the conclusion that they're a recognizable subset? This is like scanning promo shots of the '89 Sub Pop roster and feigning surprise that the musicians share a fondness for flannel and ripped denim.

If anything, we should seize upon a certain type of facial topiary, find who sports it across various genres, and then ruminate about what the common thread may be. For instance...


Name: Warren Ellis of the Bad Seeds and the Dirty Three
Genre: Dark Americana; roots rock

Name: Pharaoh Sanders
Genre: Avant-garde jazz

Name: Joe Preston of Thrones and Harvey Milk
Genre: Stoner rock; doom; drone


Name: Mos Def
Genre: Conscious/backpacker hip-hop

Name: Thijs van Leer of Focus
Genre: Prog ne plus ultra

Name: Rjyan Kidwell, a.k.a. CEX
Genre: IDM; glitch-hop; noise


Name: Anton Newcombe of the Brian Jonestown Massacre
Genre: Psychedelic rock

Name: Sly Stone
Genre: Funk; soul

Name: Glenn Danzig
Genre: Heavy metal; horror punk


Name: Holger Czukay of Can
Genre: Krautrock; electronic; techno

Name: Nick Cave
Genre: Dark Americana; post punk; gothic folk

Name: Glenn Hughes of The Village People
Genre: Disco

Not that facial hair should be interpreted as anything other than a snapshot of an artist, since it changes & evolves over time. I myself have sported all of the above (except the dreadful Abe Lincoln) at some point over the past year alone; Nick Cave was clean-shaven his whole career until Grinderman debuted three years ago; and Robert Fripp, who currently looks like your asshole Tory-supporting grandfather, once rocked the most righteous afro-and-sideburns combo this side of Sly Stone.

This quicksilver quality is, of course, also applicable to hairdos, as illustrated by both David Bowie's career and the Black Flag Haircut Continuum.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Sojourns in Meatspace

I always wince with a bit of guilt when I look back at this blog and see a scant couple of posts over as many weeks, like some expensive piece of exercise equipment gathering a visible layer of dust in the corner. That is more or less how I treat this site: as a means of streamlining my communicative M.O., of flexing my linguistic muscles, and of occasionally stretching my trains of thought. And just like everyone else's various exercise routines, it's neglected far too often in favour of more "pressing" and "immediate" concerns.

Such excuses are more often than not authentic (though they're excuses nonetheless). Outside of cyberspace, the end of the calendar year is such a Gordian knot of loose ends to be tied before singing "Auld Lang Syne", you'd think I had a legitimate job. Even the friends with whom I spend my cherished downtime ceaselessly needle me about how much I have on my plate:
Are you finished moving? When will the record be done? Have those friends come through town yet? Don't you have practice that day? How much more editing? Do you have an outline yet?
The good news is that it's by & large under control and I predict more-than-satisfactory results, so I'll be able to survey the past year with some satisfaction (in spite of my initial prognosis).

But I'm not entirely sure I can say the same of this blog. Sure, I've contributed a couple of interesting ideas, and I'd like to think I haven't let genuinely shit writing escape into the public sphere, but this site has been relegated to backburner status since I returned to Tokyo. I still enjoy sparring with anonymous antagonists half a world away, and I'll exploit as many outlets for my various projects as possible, but spewing invective online has been at most the third-most-important thing I've done any given day this year.

My banner year in blogging was 2008, when I lived in Hamburg and during which I was the least engaged with my real-world surroundings that I've ever been. This was as much my fault as anything, though that famous Nordische hospitality didn't fucking help. The point is, though, that the number of words I'd type per month exceeded the number of words I'd speak by a factor of perhaps dozens; I'd interact with as many online personas in a single day as flesh-&-blood humans in a week. I was communicating as often, efficiently, and prolifically as ever - the only difference was that I'd moved from meatspace to the electronic aether.

Sorry, did I say "the only difference"? Not quite: I was a goddamn wreck. The further I retreated into my online simulacrum, the more corroded my general mental state became. No matter how extensive the e-mails I'd write or receive, it was no substitute for the sizzle & synchronicity of a good conversation. What I needed was some sustained, resonant harmony among fellow human beings. But my contrary attitude towards my environment made it that much more difficult to engage in the kind of casual conviviality I needed. The horrid Catch-22 of any deleterious, addictive behaviour: the greater the need to be healthy, the harder it is to be so on even a minimal level.

The irony is that, now that I'm back amongst the living, everyone seems to be sinking deeper into the quicksand of cyberspace that I had at my most estranged from reality. Had Twitter been described to me a year ago, I'd have said it was destined to be the Pet Rock or Tamagotchi of Web 2.0, the most self-indulgent of attention-sapping trifles - not the fastest growing social tool on the net, and certainly not Time Magazine's "Person of the Year". Similarly, perhaps the greatest indignation I suffered in Germany was that almost none of my friends bothered to maintain even the most cursory contact. But barely a year later, I take for granted that the most meaningful relay of information I can expect from anyone outside of Tokyo is a Facebook status update. Of course, that I accept the new norm doesn't mean I must do so without bitterness.

I was mulling this over with a friend the other day; he just recently reconnected with the internet after eight-years of online abstinence. Having been without even the slimmest online existence while everyone else expanded their personal brand via MySpace, flickr, Twitter, Blogger, and Facebook, my friend has had to adjust to current cyber-conditions at whiplash pace. Understandably, he's fascinated with how ornate* a "life" somehow external to "reality" can be, and invoked the prophetic words of William S. Burroughs:
Man is an artifact designed for space travel. He is not designed to remain in his present biologic state any more than a tadpole is designed to remain a tadpole.
Obviously, Burroughs was thinking more specifically of inner space (of which he considered himself a "cosmonaut"). I doubt ol' Willy B. had enough interest in the objectives of the Apollo missions to have meant outer space, nor do I think he cared enough about computer engineering to have specifcally predicted a communicative network of autonomously-manned machines. But in terms of man's future lying in some ethereal non-space, some subjectively-construed fog free of any realist metrics, Burroughs was absolutely right.

Regrettably, continuing the trend since the first neanderthal spurred sparks from between stones, our technology exceeds our understanding of its potential & power. As thrilled as we are that we can globally broadcast our most menial brainfarts, or watch every imaginable congress of naked people, we don't fully appreciate the danger the internet presents by allowing the from-scratch construction of our own bubble realities. Specifically, we don't appreciate that our online "lives" are pseudorealities predicated upon & filtered by our personal biases, and yet we profess shock, shock! when the bulk of online communication is profane headbutting between bullheaded fusspots who'll never see the other side. We bring our real-world certainty, our empirical surety into the scramble-suited paramnesia of the online "world", in denial that our realist epistemology is inapplicable in such a shape-shifting hallucinoscape.

Reality has always been a hard sell & an even harder purchase, far before the fluidity of the online "world" entered the picture. Most disconcerting is that the internet is the first "netherworld", the first extradimensional space (supplemental to the traditional four dimensions) of which we have direct experience & evidence. For all the talk of tooth fairies & deities, of heaven & hell, of grandparents staring benevolently down from some cloudy resort, no one has even been able proffer a single scrap of evidence thereof. But I know, without doubt or hesitation, that friends with whom I only communicate online exist, since I experience their presence in what can reasonably called a "real" way. Yet, in contemplating these "virtual" friends from my place in the world of bone & blood, I regard them as I regard other friends or family who no longer exist in meatspace: with sadness, with some sense of loss & lack, as "departed" and no longer corporeal. They are phantasmic in a way not dissimilar to the deceased, because their intrusions upon my quotidian existence are equivalently vague, intimated, and memorial. They are not "real" enough.

Or, in the unacademic candor of Mr. Patton Oswalt, "You can replace the Internet with five really smart friends."

(*) - He hesitates, as I do, to use the word "rich".

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

The Circle of Life

Were you to indulge an interest in poorly-written English-language far eastern news publications and check the Japan Times right now, you'd see the following above-the-fold stories stacked neatly on top of one another:
  • Police arrest Ichihashi in Osaka: Tatsuya Ichihashi, the only suspect in the 2007 murder of a British woman, was arrested Tuesday after managing to elude police for 2 1/2 years.
  • More body parts of college student are discovered: The torso and part of a thigh bone of a beheaded female college student from Shimane Prefecture have been found on a mountain in Hiroshima Prefecture near the site where her head was found last week, police said Monday.
And the great cosmic Rube Goldberg machine spins & whistles along its merry way! I'll not indulge in the prejudicial speculation about whether or not Ichihashi will be (a) beaten to death with a spiked, LSD-drenched bat because he murdered a foreigner, or (b) slapped across his backside and sent home because he murdered a foreigner. Instead, I'll just remind myself how lucky I am to live in a city that doesn't see an average of 270 of its citizens killed every year, and where my wife can walk home alone at night without a can of mace & six months of aikido lessons under her belt.

Of course, this presents a timely opportunity to examine the strange nature of crime in Japan - which is to say that, to the infinitesimal extent that it exists, it is spectacular and grotesque. The average national crime rate (33.7 per 1000 people according to the UN) is a full 50% above the Japanese overall crime rate (19.177 per 1000 people), but that's nothing compared to the stupefying fact that the average national murder rate is twenty times that of Japan (a near-nonextant 0.00499933 per 1000 people).* Yet, when a murder does occur, it's a horror that could've sprung from the imagination of Wes Craven on bad methamphetamines: children chopping each other up, young nightlife workers defiled & dismembered by men, men dismembered by despondent spouses, knife-wielding lunatics lashing out at anyone within arm's reach, or deformed, cannibalistic shut-ins butchering little girls. Absolutely unspeakable.

But a timely opportunity to examine the strange nature of crime in Japan though it may be, I'm damn tired and haven't the stomach to ruminate at length about the above atrocities right before bed time. Besides, attempting to either legislate around or prepare for psychopathologically-driven assaults is like trying to do the same for lightning or earthquakes.

*Discussion of the fact that Japan, on the other hand, has more than double the average national suicide rate will likewise have to wait.