1). Respectable Street.
2). Alone Again.
3). Don’t Go.
6). Day and Night.
7). It’s Raining Again.
9). Swindon Town Song.
10). Something Else.
I participated in an ESRC-sponsored seminar last week on the theme of the politics and economies of attention, which was interesting and fruitful in all sorts of ways. Lots of the work on this topic turns around a distinction between ‘good’ forms of attention, which is focussed and contemplative and “deep”, and ‘bad’ forms of attention, which is fleeting, distracted. A certain sort of reading of a certain sort of text is the model against which other forms of attention are often judged in a great deal of high theorizing on this topic.
Trying to find something interesting to say about this topic made me aware of how the ways in which I work, both in relation to reading and writing, do not quite conform to the expected model of scholarly attention. I read with the TV on, and write while listening to music or the radio, and not serious Radio 3-type music either (it’s generally a matter of choosing between Taylor’s 1989 and Ryan’s 1989). This way of working may or may not be reflected in the depth of understanding of ideas and thinkers displayed in the things that I write. I actually find it rather odd to write, in particular, in silence. I am still in recovery from having finished a book manuscript, and found myself today, while sitting in a hairdressers, not having my hair done, constructing a list of songs that, more or less tangentially, capture something of the experience of writing the sort of book I have been trying to write for the last year and a half:
I have just returned home from a couple of weeks in Cape Town, not a holiday, but a research-trip related to the Leverhulme project on The Urbanization of Responsibility. An exercise in ‘learning from another region’, that’s how I would characterise it. Anyway, one of the things that happens when I am in South Africa is that I find myself needing to buy something, anything, to listen to, while working and/or driving. As a result, over the years, I have collected an odd assortment of CDs, which have become indelibly connected to South Africa by virtue of being the only thing I had to listen to for weeks or even months on end. So here is my Top 10 “Random songs that I have collected on trips to South Africa”, in no particular order, and with nothing else in common at all:
1). H.W.C. – Liz Phair.
2). Free Nelson Mandela – Special AKA.
3). Rudy – Supertramp.
4). Get on the Good Foot – James Brown.
5). Big Jet Plane – Primal Scream.
6). Nkalakatha – Mandoza.
7). Mr. Soul – Buffulo Springfield.
8). Sindiza Ngecadilacs – Miriam Makeba and the Skylarks.
9). No More Lonely Nights – The Heads.
10). Ndlovu Iyangena – Tokolo.
One of the thoughts I had when I started this blog was a semi-serious idea of trying to write about an asymmetry: I had been reading lots of Simon Reynolds, and was struck by a sense that while lots of late ’70s early ’80s new wave music was influenced by French Theory of a certain sort (all those art school boys and girls), French Theory itself is largely devoid of any pop sensibility at all (Roland Barthes is perhaps the exception who proves the general rule, and for that very reason, might just be the most interesting thinker of the whole lot).
Anyway, as I said, this is only a semi-serious, half-formed idea, which is what blog posts are for after all. Buy me a drink, or two, and I might be prepared to develop and defend some hypothesis of some sort around it. The canon of French Theory has impeccably modernist cultural reference points – Kafka, Boulez, Mallarmé, Artaud, that sort of thing. And a heavy investment in Kant’s Third Critique too. Not very ‘pop’ at all, really (maybe work on ‘Film’ is an exception, but actually, ‘Film’ is a terribly arty way of thinking about movies). Whatever hypothesis it is that I might want to defend should this thought ever become more than a half-formed one would be around the distinctiveness of ‘pop’ in relation to more serious sounding topics such as the popular, populism, the everyday, or the ordinary. None of which, however much you like them as concepts, have very much to do with fun. The semi-serious thought has to do with the idea that theories of culture, meaning, subjectivity and the like tend to be based on very select canons of favoured texts, which are thought to exemplify or allegorise or serve as best-case analogies for cultural processes in general. Or, just that it matters which cultural texts underwrite general theories of culture (should I admit that the only reason I know or appreciate anything about that canon of avant-garde modernism is because I once read too much Theory?).
The reason I have been thinking about this recently is entirely frivolous. We are about to embark on our first overseas holiday with our children, to France, and part of my fatherly role in this is obviously to make sure we have things to listen to in the car – I’m the playlist monitor. So I have been trying to construct a ‘French Pop’ playlist, obviously. There are certain rules – it has to have about 14-15 songs on it, so it can be burnt to a disk for playing in the car; it has to be able to sustain the interest of a toddler and a 6 year old on a long journey (so it’s an ‘experiment’); it consists of songs we already have (with a couple of exceptions – I learnt some things doing this); and it is flexibly francophile rather than narrowly French (in the spirit of the Frenchness of French Theory).
Avoiding things like Michelle, Psycho Killer, Roxy Music’s Song for Europe, difficult songs by Throwing Muses, various Blondie/Debbie Harry possibilities, as well as anything by the Violent Femmes or St. Etienne, and fully aware that I am exposing something about my own tastes which is perhaps left private, here is the list:
I’m not sure if the list is clarifying for me what exactly it is that my semi-formed hypothesis should be, other than to confirm that the lack of pop sensibility amongst a generation of French thinkers can’t be blamed on an absence of good pop. There is actually some Marx in there somewhere, as well as Cioran too, apparently, so something for the Theory-boys. As well as trying to be catchy, I’m assuming that listening to this as we drive across Normandy will help to refresh all those useful phrases one needs when holidaying in France: “Voulez-vous couchez avec moi, c’est soi?’
Why Theory? indeed.
A while ago now, I mentioned a coffee-table book I had been given about the ideal bookshelf. One of the contributors to this was Jonathan Lethem, who I may or may not have known about before. But we’ll come back to that. Lethem’s books also appeared on quite a few of the ideal bookshelves of other contributors to this volume, I seem to remember. I particularly liked Lethem’s thoughts on his choices of favourite books (not one of which I have read). I underlined this:
“The thing about this bookshelf is that each of these books is a vast experience unto itself, while also being both self-contained and superbly useless. Reading any one of them doesn’t get you anywhere particularly meaningful; you haven’t arrived or graduated; you’ve just gone and done something that passed the time. It’s like taking a long walk with a friend who’s got a lot to say. There’s no cumulative purpose to it – it’s just an excellent way to waste your life”.
I’ve ended up spending quite a lot of time in the company of Lethem, more or less accidentally bumping into some of his books over the last couple of months. Over Easter, in Covent Garden, I bought a copy of his collection of essays, The Ecstasy of Influence, under pressure from a 6 year old imploring me to hurry up and choose something. I bought it on the basis of the title, the colourful spine, and the vague recollection of the author’s name, and because it seemed to include essays on things like Otis Redding and Devo. It’s what Lethem calls a ‘bloggish book’ of short reviews, essays, and one or two fiction pieces, ranging from serious subjects like living in New York in the aftermath of 9/11 to a range of pop culture reflections on topics such as discovering The Go-Betweens. The title essay is a little manifesto on the creativity of copying, borrowing, and re-using – first published in Harper’s Magazine, it performs a grand exercise of plagiarism in developing ideas about the gift economy and public commons as the dynamic source of cultural life (the ideas and practice are further developed in Lethem’s Promiscuous Materials, which you can find out about along with other bits and pieces at Lethem’s website.
A week later, I came across a collection of his short stories while on holiday in Devon (the third surprising encounter within 10 minutes while strolling down the main street in Totnes), and then, a couple of days later, still on holiday, found a copy of one of his novels, Motherless Brooklyn, a great ‘crime novel’ of sorts.
Having spent some time with Lethem while on holiday, I then enjoyed his company again while in LA for a conference at the beginning of April. At The Last Bookstore, I found a copy of The Disappointment Artist, another non-fiction collection, but with a more coherent theme, a series of semi-autobiographical reflections on his attachments to things like comics, or pop music, or the films of John Cassavetes (that’s a great bookstore by the way, playing the soundtrack from Friday Night Lights while I was there, which was lovely). One thing I like about Lethem’s writing is a recurring concern with this issue of attachment, attunement, obsession, and immersion in specific cultural worlds – life as lived through the medium of fandom, being taken over by a series of works of some sort.
When I got back from LA, I then noticed that one of the books that Amazon had been prompting me to buy for a while was a book about the Talking Heads album Fear of Music. This is just one in a series of books on ‘classic’ albums, not the sort of thing I normally read at all (honest). Now though, having spent the previous month acquainting myself with Lethem, I noticed that the author of this little book was none other than the very same Jonathan Lethem. My algorithmic avatar suddenly coincided exactly with my situational self.
The Fear of Music book is really excellent, if you like the sort of thing that Lethem likes, which it seems that I do, to a certain extent at least. He writes about the record by tacking back and forth between the experience of listening to it in 1979 as a 15 year old and his current, adult self. So, it turns out not just to be a nerdy fan book at all, in so far as it develops a serious account of the relations between one’s old, current, and next self. Writing about this record in the space between ‘the boy in his room’ and ‘the aging fan writing these words’, Lethem brings to light the degree to which avowals of cultural authority, taste, and judgment often turn on the performance of knowingness that is a disavowal of processes of learning and discovery – expressed in the the trick, or is it a temptation, of appearing to always already have known about an artist, or a chain of influences, or a line of significance that, in fact, one once knew nothing about, and which came after one’s initial seizure by a work: “The mind making retrospective sense of the artwork is a liar. Or a lie. Unspooling expertise and arcana, the critic spins a web of knowingness that veils its manufacturer, a spider shy of the light”. This theme of the knowing character of cultural taste is a feature of other essays by Lethem I have read, including ‘Dancing about architecture’, where he writes about the dorky knowingness of being a fan, where being able to spot influences and point out references to other sources is analysed as “a revenge of the seduced”. One way of processing one’s own capture by a song, a band, a novelist, a theorist perhaps, is to place one’s pleasure into a wider context of knowledge and prior disposition – it’s a way of acknowledging the force of the attraction while presenting this as something that still somehow remains under one’s own control.
Most recently, in Liverpool a couple of weekends ago, I came across another of Lethem’s novels, The Fortress of Solitude, again while stealing a minute from one of my children to book browse (or was it sharing a minute?). It’s about growing up in Brooklyn, again, and being a fan, and gentrification, and about not quite knowing what’s going on.
So I feel like Lethem is my new imaginary friend, he seems to share some of the same tastes as me, in films (I like Westerns too), in music, in literary theory, though he is, inevitably, smarter and more clued in than me on all these things and others. He seems like the older brother I never had; or needed. And he has a nice way of articulating the relations between learning, knowing, and pretending that make up whole worlds of intellectual anxiety and authority.
And I also identify with the idea of ‘used bookstore lag’ that Lethem refers to when describing his own pattern of learning and knowing – it resonates strongly with me, suggesting both a sense of discovering ideas late, after their time has passed; but also of discovering ideas unexpectedly, of receiving them as gifts of chance.
Entirely coincidentally, this week, the week that HMV went into administration, I have finally decided to get rid of my LPs and cassettes – the former unplayed since 2000, the latter briefly revived in a house move in 2009, but long forgotten before that. I already have duplicate CD versions of some of these, or CDs of greatest hits which do much the same thing; and I have ordered a dozen or so replacements on CD from one of those online sites that has hastened HMVs decline, on the principle that every household with two female children growing up in it needs to contain a copy of Liz Phair’s Exile in Guyville, as well as London Calling (and I don’t feel that guilty about HMV, I feel I did my bit to help them over the Xmas period). Nevertheless, this has meant deciding that there is a whole bunch of music I don’t want to listen to anymore.
I’m not a great believer in the idea that music sounds better on vinyl, or even in the ritual of taking records out of sleeves and that sort of thing; I do think having a physical object as the repository for music is crucial to how I at least listen – browsing a list of titles isn’t the same as browsing a shelf of poorly organised things. But there is something to be said for the LP as an art object, over CDs – I’m keeping Fear of Music ‘cos it has a weird corrugation pattern on it. What I have been going through, deciding what to chuck, what to replace, and what few to keep, is a distinctive aesthetic, not necessarily as constrained as even I remember: mid-to-late-80s-white-boy-Indie, sandwiched between the fading of New Wave and the horrors of post-Nirvana grunge. When the whole world seemed very jangly.
In most cases, letting go has been fairly easy. I don’t have any great desire to return to Big Black’s Songs about Fucking, one of the least sexy records ever; or Dinosaur Jr; or Polvo. And I’ve decided that I no longer need to keep either of my sisters’ copies of David Bowie’s Changes One, or the family copy of The Beatles’ 1962-66 ‘red’ greatest hits.
But I’ve also rediscovered things I had forgotten about – at the risk of embarrassment, or not, things like Pavement’s Slanted and Enchanted, Talk Talk’s The Colour of Spring, Eartha Kitt, The Colorblind James Experience, Dionne Farris, The Aquanettas, Scrawl, who I saw almost get electrocuted in Columbus, Ohio in 1998, even The Triffids, whose career was ruined by Jason and Kylie’s wedding. I’ve also discovered to my surprise that I seem to have acquired every record ever made by the Throwing Muses up to the mid-90s.
I have been left wondering what principle I used to apply when buying some things on LP rather than cassette – some sense that certain things might be listened to on the move, perhaps, or maybe a sense that some albums you were meant to buy as LPs because they were proper and serious. I can’t remember when I bought my last record on vinyl, although I have a feeling it might have been a second-hand copy of Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours in Reading in about 2000. The first was Remember You’re a Womble. They’re both going out.
I have been reading Simon Reynolds’ Rip it up and start again, his history of post-punk and new wave from 1978 through to the mid 1980s. One of his recurring themes in the book is about not falling for the Punk-derived idea that pre-Punk pop of the early and mid 1970s was a cultural wasteland. A theme which works well enough when one can track relations between Bowie and Roxy Music (and 1970s French theory too), and Scritti Politti or the Gang of Four. On the other hand… the ‘wasteland’ hypothesis is given some credence by the current run on BBC4 of weekly episodes of Top of the Pops from 1976. I have found this utterly captivating, because it brings back memories of a sort (those of an eight year old watching older sisters cavort in front of the telly in high-wasted denim trouser suits), but also because it is so utterly banal for the most part (with the exception of the weekly helping of Disco). There are a couple of blogs commenting on each show – Yes It’s Number One includes links to video of various songs beyond this 76 ‘canon’; and trip-tv reviews each song, each week. The last episode I saw still had the Wurzels at Number One, having finally displaced The Brotherhood of Man, bringing back further memories, of Country Dancing for school (a competitive sport in Gloucestershire), and of being pilloried as a ten year old when we moved to Sussex for speaking like a Wurzel; but also bringing things bang up to date – they are still playing live ’round theze partz, it turns out, as far afield as Brean and as close as The Bell round the corner from us here in Swindon.
I accidently bought David Byrne’s concept album about Imelda Marcus just before Christmas, while out trying to buy gifts for other people. It’s called Here Lies Love, and is co-produced with Fatboy Slim. It’s full of suprisingly good dance songs, with guest lyrics by all sorts of mostly female singers, including favourites such as Kate Pierson and Róisín Murphy. I also read Byrne’s book about cycling and cities in the summer, while on holiday, which is kind of a blog-book, and was actually one of the things that sparked the idea of trying to write a blog myself. Between them, these two ‘works’ have reminded me of just how much I like David Byrne as a ‘thinker’, and just how important his style of ‘thinking’ might have been in shaping, or confirming, some of my own intellectual inclinations. Talking Heads was the first pop music that I discovered as ‘my own’, in the sense that up to that point (about 1983) I was entirely dependent on listening to things already in the house (my mother’s Neil Diamond record, who I still harbour a soft spot for; my dad’s Johnny Cash album, ditto: David Bowie’s Changes, which both of my sisters’ had copies of, as surely did all sisters who were teenagers in the 1970s; I was less inclined to the Billy Joel, Rush, or Black Sabbath). One of my sisters did in fact send me Talking Heads’ 1983 album, Speaking in Tongues, but alongside albums by Oingo Boingo and X, and without quite knowing what she was doing I think. Talking Heads were my route away from mid-1980s rockism defined by Dire Straits, Pink Floyd, and Marillion, towards a ‘I wear black on the outside because black is how I feel on the inside’ world of the Jesus and Mary Chain, That Petrol Emotion, the Cocteau Twins, Pixies, and Throwing Muses.
Anyway, where was I? Talking Heads songs always had this great geographical sensibility, I think – they are about ordinary experiences of places, of living in cities, of travelling, of meeting new people, of being out of place. They are also about the absurdism of these ordinary experiences, of course. I haven’t really followed Byrne avidly since the end of Talking Heads, although the Bicycle Diaries is just one example of how this geographical imagination has continued to flourish in his work since then – it is part of a serious engagement with issues of contemporary urbanism he is involved in. I do sometimes tune in to his radio station – he posts a monthly play list on his website, of more or less coherently themed songs – sometimes this contains things I am already familiar with, sometimes it opens up new musical avenues to explore, or not.
I’m not sure if pop songs are meant to count as intellectual influences – and I suppose Byrne is one of those people of whom it could be claimed that they are not really ‘pop’, since his work from Talking Heads and on has always been more or less ‘arty’. On the other hand, I remember once having a conversation with a cultural geographer interested in geography and music, who was quite disdainful of my response of ‘Talking Heads’ to his question about whether there was any popular music that was ‘geographical’ (this was a drunken conversation late at night at a party). On his understanding, ‘popular music’ really meant some sort of quasi-organic, placed-based more-or-less-folk music that evaded commercialization. Oh well. I still think that Byrne is ‘pop’, not least in having a sense of wonder for the potentials of commercialised public culture. But I’m not sure I either can or should seek to intellectualise about the sort of pop culture he produces, or why it matters to me.