Saturday, July 31, 2010

My Country, Right-Wing Or Wrong

A blogipelago to which I'm quite sympathetic - IOZ, Charles Davis, and SMBIVA - have rightly gone apoplectic over Matthew Yglesias' spineless rationale for murderous imperial adventure:
From a Keynesian standpoint, I believe that with the economy depressed it’s better to spend the money in Afghanistan than not to spend it. But it’s kind of nuts that at a time when we “can’t afford” to do all kinds of things, this is what we can afford.
Now, most re-posts of this have omitted that last sentence, which Yglesias would surely feel deprives his argument of moral burden. And what a heavy load it is: how painful & difficult a decision it be to continue a 9-year military incursion based on bloodlust & revenge! Oh, how it pains us good, liberal Americans - if only it didn't make so much sense economically!

Rather than make Yglesias out to be a morally-sensitive, considerate man devoted to reason, that last sentence underscores how morally bankrupt & coldly calculating Beltway liberals are. Human dignity be damned; realpolitik and maintenance of the empire are the rules.

(Especially since the war doesn't actually make much sense economically. As Jon Greenbaum pointed out on Yglesias' own comment thread, "What’s the jobs multiplier on military spending?")

Something I'd like to hear much more, though, is calling out Yglesias for his recurrent Red-baiting. Like any good toady for neoliberal hegemony, Yglesias repeatedly & pedantically warns of the danger posed by (duh-duh-DUH!) international Communism while employing capitalism's logic of dehumanization & alienation (as when he refers to the very human problems posed by China's overpopulation as its "human capital issues.") Now this:
Newt Ginrich's spokesman told Salon in a phone interview today that building a mosque at Ground Zero "would be like putting a statue of Mussolini or Marx at Arlington National Cemetery."

Asked what the 19th century German philosopher had ever done to America, Gingrich spokesman Rick Tyler said: "Well let's go with Lenin then." Tyler explained that he was talking about Lenin, who died in 1924, as representative of the Cold War and ideologies opposed to America.
What upsets Yglesias is not the continuing false analogy between fascism and communism, but the implication that Islam is somehow fundamentally anti-American. An idiotic & xenophobic contention, for sure. (Why, what could be more American than blind faith in an expansionist ideology?) But Yglesias' knee-jerk rejection of leftism shows that anti-left reactionism has been so fully woven into America's banal nationalism, it's impossible to even consider socialism as a legitimate political mode.

SMBIVA's Michael Smith is dead-on when he says that, apparently, to "Think Progress" must mean finding "more cost-effective programs of mass murder."

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Double Je

Here's an anecdote I've been repeating often this week - I can't quite understand why it's been relevant to the various conversations in which it's come up, but funny enough...

A little over two years ago, I was visiting a friend in Lille, a Dutch-flavoured French city near the Belgian border. In the mood for some fine Flemish cooking (yes, there is such a thing), we wound our way down tiny countryside roads to a restaurant that couldn't have been more European: wrought-iron furniture on the patio! Wood & mortar structure! Implements & spoils of the harvest hung cadaverous from the ceiling! Dozens of exquisite ales whose delicate bouquets & subtle flavours swamp together after the fifth pint! Marvelous. I ate my own weight in dairy & meat that night.

Anyway, because this was a building of antiquarian peasant construction, the toilets were out and around the side. (Reassuring that Rule No. 1 has always been "don't shit where you eat.") Circling back towards the front entrance, a young couple passed me on their way out and almost gave themselves whiplash doing a double-take. Slowing their walk to a foot-dragging limp, they began whispering with beehive-loud sibilance, all the while staring back at me. I did my best to ignore them, until the man blurted out Tourettishly, "Kreestov Wil-ahm!"

"Excuse me?" I had no idea what had just been shouted at me. Was this some strange Ch'ti invitation to fisticuffs? "Kreestov Wil-ahm?" he repeated, more hesitantly. The women chimed in: "Aren't you Christophe Willem?"

Ah, a name! Mistaken identity. "No, sorry." They looked unnervingly skeptical. "You're really not Christophe Willem? C'mon, we promise we won't make a fuss. You're him, right?"

Dangerous territory: I looked like someone worth making a fuss over. What kind of fuss? Would I suddenly be set upon by the local S.W.A.T. team, like that unpleasant incident in Seattle? Was I about to get paparazzo'd and then accused of using my likeness to curry undeserved favour? Who the fuck do they think I am?

Keep in mind this entire exchange was taking place in French, adding a veneer of semantic surreality. "Look, I'm just come Canadian guy visiting friends. I don't know who you think I am." The couple deflated, apparently convinced by the nasal vowels of my affected Quebecois accent. "Oh... well, he's this French singer - god, you look just like him! You haven't heard his music?" They broke into an awkward disco stomp, as though arrhythmic caucasian hip-swiveling would make everything clear.
C'est comme ça, qu'est-ce que je peux, c'est comme ça...
I was unmoved.

Back inside, I was still slightly baffled by what had just happened. Taking my seat across from my friends, I waited for a moment's pause in the conversation to ask them: who is Christophe Willem? Their faces blanked as they flicked through their cranial card catalogue. Suddenly the penny dropped, they gasped and pointed at me like a bodysnatcher gone red-alert.

"Putain, c'est étrange!" Evidently, I did very much look like this Christophe Willem chap, a young performer who had won the 2006 French version of Pop Idol and had since become one of the country's biggest stars. Well done indeed.

But I wanted proof that the resemblance was strong enough to turn heads in a random restaurant parking lot. Back at my friend's apartment, we fired up YouTube and searched for the hit single that had been sung at me (yes, at, not "to") by the dancing duo. Ah, there it was - entitled "Double Je", or "Double I" appropriately enough. Let's have a look...

Fucking hell, it's me! Okay, my glasses are round-framed and I don't half-ass the facial hair whenever I stop shaving, but otherwise... The abominable posture, the Pete Townsend beak, the limp-greasy mop of hair, even the ratty-ass military-green hoodie. I am he and he is me and goo goo ga-fucking-joob.

But the son-of-a-bitch sings in a stratospheric falsetto that would make the Bee Gees sound like baritones. Atop shit disco! Goddamn, this was even worse than all those times drunk salarymen in Tokyo pubs called me "Harry Potter." Couldn't I get mistaken for someone cool? Please?

Yes I can. Now that my hair is greying and I've sloughed off any youthful gloss, I'm compared almost exclusively to my favourite Beatle. (George fans, mad respect; everyone else, get stuffed!) Quite nice to be told you resemble one of the great musical revolutionaries of the 20th century - at least far better than resembling either a cotton-candy French twerp or a fictional teenage wizard.

Shortly thereafter, l'affaire Willem inspired one of my better songs of 2008, "Dinner With My Doppleganger". Yes, I realize it's misspelled. Yes, I should proofread my tracklistings before the record goes to press. So be it. Although Willem really only provoked the title; the song itself is more a meditation about my hypothetical "evil twin," whose yin is my yang and whose vice is my virtue, and the disappointment that we'd be more or less indistinguishable from each other. Not that you'd necessarily glean all that from the lyrics. If, however, you can guess the two songs of which this track is a conscious hybrid, congrats, you get a free copy of my latest album. And a cookie.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Lonely From the Heat

Like the rest of the whole damned planet, Japan is sweltering. For two weeks, the temperature has refused to dip below the thirties (the mid-eighties for you Yanks). Worse, the baking pavement of Tokyo creates a pocket of hot air that shoves aside any storm clouds that would bring relief from this sick, dense murk that squeezes like you were a sodden dish-sponge.

Not that this was unforseen, of course. I, for one, have been stepping outside only at night. But I'm not exactly a jolly-hockeysticks day-person anyway; I spend most of my time in dimly-lit rooms with chain-smoking cynics & embittered creative types (if with anyone). So really, I haven't had to re-tailor my routine at all.

Still, when hiding inside is less a preference than a matter of self-preservation, it's damned hard not to feel some pang of isolation & paranoia. Especially when the curtains are drawn all day. (A cardboard box is better insulated than the typical Japanese apartment, so any measures to repel sunlight are necessary.) I work from home, so unless I run by the grocery store to pick up more yogurt, I can easily pass an entire day without uttering a word - which is when strange things start ringing in my ears. Conversation is breathing room, both literal & psychological, allowing various threads to untangle in one's head. In silent isolation, it doesn't take long for those threads to fray or tangle into dense & troublesome knots.

Not terribly surprising, then, that so much of my current listening material sounds stir-crazy & paranoid. Not only are the songs often sung from fiercely antisocial points-of-view, but the production itself sketches in bold the outline of the very room in which the music was recorded. When music is heard as from within its own space, it's not escapist, not an invitation to some ethereal/immaterial non-space: it's a retreat, a withdrawal to that finite space in which you're trapped simply by listening.

So I'm exorcising my stereo of claustrophobia and passing it on to yours, given that you're probably reading this in air-conditioned confines outside which heat haze is heaving off the concrete. Click on the mix title to download.

What Comes Into My Yard Is Mine

1. Shellac - "Didn't We Deserve a Look At the Way You Really Are"
2. Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds - "Cabin Fever!"
3. Lungfish - "Oppress Yourself"
4. Sonic Youth - "Shadow of a Doubt"
5. Ennio Morricone - "Grotesque Suspense"
6. Glenn Branca - Symphony No. 6, Fourth Movement
7. The Fall - "Neighbourhood of Infinity"
8. This Heat - "Twilight Furniture"
9. Fugazi - "Stacks"
10. Ben Frost - "Through the Glass of the Roof"
11. Swans - "A Screw" (Live)
12. Z - "500万円"

Monday, July 19, 2010


Whenever I read remarks about the dire state of music journalism, I'm shot through with potential guilt - until I go read the examples of what constitutes genuinely shit writing. I then thank/curse The Internet for operating upon such a gross baseline of stupidity that someone of moderate talent (such as myself) sounds like Bangs or Christgau by comparison.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Occupational Hazards

Coming off the road is a retread of the same agonizing steps. First: faced with the divine form of a private bed with clean sheets, I drop my gear and sleep for a solid 16 hours. Second: I'm awoken by caffeine withdrawal clawing holes into my brain. Third: as I contemplate my muscle aches & callused fingers over a cuppa joe, I wonder how in the hell I managed to survive going on tour again.

Any working musician who tells you that going on tour is straight-up fun is either lying or facing one motherfucker of a come-down when the drugs wear off. That's not to say touring's no fun at all; it's some of the most fun you can have, legal & otherwise. But touring takes its toll, as attested by the wrecked relationships, band breakups, chemical casualties, and creative burnout it can leave in its wake.

Mercifully, I've so far avoided the most abysmal pitfalls. None of my bandmates have been junkies; no relationships have been sacrificed on the Dionysian altar; any accident has been the kind from which everyone walked away; and I've never even stayed on the road for a single stretch long enough to forget why the hell I play music in the first place. The worst episode of my touring experience - i.e. no fun then, not funny now - was when, in the boondocks of Pennsyltucky, a drummer was suddenly acquainted with a previously-undiagnosed congenital heart condition. A frightening moment, but obviously he bore the brunt of the misfortune. All I had to do was kill two days' time while he was in hospital (though in Johnstown, PA that's a Quixotic mission at best).

But narcotic indulgence, sexual frivolity, or lengthy estrangements can have ill effects even outside the context of, say, the sawdust-floored bathroom of some mildewed punk bar in Winston-Salem. Perhaps the furtive sociality & itinerant lifestyle of the touring musician make such excesses more accessible than if I was working at an office supply store around the corner, but sex, drugs, and nervous breakdowns have more to do with being human than rock 'n' roll.

What's genuinely strange about touring is the quotidian reality of it: it begins & ends familiarly enough (with slumber) and features the same dull hurdles everyone faces in their day-to-day (e.g. inane small talk, the occasional meal, lots of waiting). But this routine is lived through the warp of a funhouse mirror. The waiting isn't for a train or a slow-moving supermarket line; it's for a large, balding, bearded man called "Jerry" or "Bo" to duct-tape frayed cables so you don't burn to death in an electrical fire. The meals bare only fleeting molecular resemblance to food, and the dining establishments are provincially weird beyond a Cohen brothers movie. The small talk consists of the same Q-&-A with a new set of strangers every day, coalescing into such a reflexive script that you begin to wonder whether or not you have anterograde amnesia. What little sleep is had is in a different place every night, usually under dubious circumstances. (You'd think with the infinite spectrum of stains' colour that no one would bother with white sheets anymore.) For want of some kip, the average touring musician becomes functionally narcoleptic, nodding off in odder places than the average Baltimore junkie.

Speaking of which, I don't mean to make the musician's existence sound like the nadir of human experience. It's still nowhere as dangerous as growing up in Lexington Terrace, or as stressful as being an ER resident. But it's an incredibly odd milieu for anyone to choose, given the relative comfort & credibility most musicians willingly sacrifice in the name of the most ephemeral of arts.

Of course, there's no accounting for how people get their kicks, even in such a semi-masochistic schizogonzoid idiom. I wouldn't do it if I didn't really enjoy it, and I appreciate the musical world's capacity for the ridiculous... as evidenced by the above pic (snapped backstage by Misato from Kacica) of GEAR & myself doing our best to look like world-class pricks.

Oh, and since I've made no prior efforts to substantiate that I'm actually in a band, here's the second half of our set from the gig in Osaka last night.

Friday, July 09, 2010


A couple of friends have remarked that, noise-peddling in Manchester aside, I've been mute on the G20 riots that recently blighted my onetime domicile. Well, late to the punditry party, it hardly bares rephrasing & rehashing what more incisive commentators like Dennis Perrin have already said: charred police cars & smashed storefronts make great headlines, but so what? Nothing was accomplished. Protesters polite enough to play by the state's rules were treated like Perdue chickens; what little transgressive potential they possessed was deftly redirected from world leaders at local police, whilst the mayor et al. congratulated the protesters on courteously exercising their freedom of expression.

Meanwhile, the Black Bloc reconvened for their annual bar-b-q and private-property-piñata party, accomplishing little beyond offering Hipster Runoff another chance to bite the hand that feeds it. But I'm sure the cops were thrilled that they got to use tear gas for the first time in Toronto's history! Hell, had a streetcar been burned, they might have even gotten to roll out one o' them newfangled LRADs. Cheer up, lads, Caribana is just around the corner!

Assuming the Black Bloc isn't by now comprised entirely of agents provocateur, they need to come to grips with how flaccid & ineffectual their tactics are. It might be a fun form of anti-capital primal scream therapy, but not only does it give the authorities a chance to hone their containment techniques, it provides blowhard reactionaries with demonstrable evidence that suppression of protest ought to be even more draconian - all while effectively failing to challenge the status quo. If the self-identified avant-garde of anti-globalism can't even muster half the imagination of fictional Hollywood anarchists, why shouldn't the "protest movement" be carrot-and-sticked into the margins like the intemperate children they are?

The Black Bloc is an adolescent shadow of Ye Olde Leftist Militants (e.g. the Weather Underground) who function solely as a bullet-point on why local police departments deserve bigger budgets. Enough of this cutesy Baader-Meinhof roleplay. If we can't yet devise protest techniques that destabilize as opposed to counterbalance & buttress global power, then let's at least act as if we can.

Wednesday, July 07, 2010

Behind the Counter

There are multifarious venues in which men pursue their ostensibly macho yet embarrassingly geeky hobbies: paintball courses, model shops, video game arcades, automobile showrooms, firing ranges, sports stadiums, and record stores. Each arena has its own unspoken protocols & faux pas, and fraternal jocularity barely veils competitive contempt.

After many years of compressing my music collection to suit my itinerant lifestyle, I finally got back into the record-collecting game - coincidentally just as several friends were doing the same. Our rationales for doing so were myriad: the archival character of a good LP collection; the concerted listening the format forces; our disdain for the contentless stockpiling that digital culture encourages; the likelihood that analog media will be the only ones that survive the imminent collapse of civilization. (Okay, maybe that's just my concern.) But we all grudgingly confess that a chief motivation is that golden smugness of watching jaws drop in jealously at a particular gem in your collection.

The great lie of record collecting is that you can find anything if you just look hard enough. That's like saying you can be a rock star if you just try hard enough. It overlooks the primacy of location & luck in achieving success. I was reminded of this (not that I needed to be) while doing some crate-digging along Oldham Street in Manchester: some speedy-fingered bastard beat me to the last copy of The Fall's tenth single by a couple of hours. Right place, wrong time. But while my leisurely breakfast cost me "Kicker Conspiracy", I was able to score a couple of records well below what I'd have to pay either online or back home in Tokyo.

It only took me about two hours to scour every record store in Manchester's north quarter (at least the stores that weren't dedicated wholly to techno). Mancunian bin-divers obviously rely far more on luck than location to unearth microgroove jewels. It's quite a different story in Tokyo - but of course it is. The megalopolis has 28-times as many people as Manchester, packed into 19-times the space. There are more record stores within a 10-minute radius of my apartment than there are in all of City Centre. Why shouldn't it be easier to find damn near any LP in Tokyo than in Manchester?

The peculiar thing about record-hunting in Tokyo is the method of vinyl's valorization. As opposed to a straightforward expression of supply-V-demand, records are priced according to their cultural cachet - regardless of their physical scarcity. For example: between post-rock's place as a dominant idiom in Japanese rock, and their 2008 reunion tour, My Bloody Valentine are currently enjoying unprecedented popularity among the Japanese hipoisie. This means that it's almost impossible to find a copy of the Glider EP for under ¥3500, even though there are sometimes several copies in the same store. Conversely, Nick Cave doesn't carry much currency in Japan, which means I can scoop up a copy of From Her To Eternity for pocket change (as opposed to the extortive $45 for which it's currently listed on eBay).

In such instances, it's very tempting to feel superior to the shop stewards, as though I've robbed them while staring eye-to-eye. The truth, though, is that pricing records according to their social value is probably another expression of Japan's collectivist tendencies. The record market isn't built around speculation & scarcity; if I'm lucky enough to find an album I adore for a bargain-bin price, it actually impoverishes my social standing, marking me as an outsider instead of ahead of the curve. An unloved copy of an obscure album is the sound of Japanese society shooing me away: "No one cares about your weirdo musical proclivities, nerd!"