All of the Hubris Clenched in Our Fist Won't Punch Our Way Out of Here
72 · 13 June 96
Grant Lee Buffalo: Copperopolis
I'm not sure there's supposed to be such a thing as the reverse of a mid-life crisis, and even if there is, I'm not sure if that's what I'm going through, or if I'm just experiencing a prolonged bout of existential claustrophobia. Or perhaps I just took The Future Does Not Compute and The Dilbert Principle too seriously when I read them recently. Whichever it is, I recently caught myself sitting in my boxy, forever-tropical Cambridge apartment, listening to the brood of urchins who live upstairs from me drop billiard balls on a marble floor (how they produce this sound so effortlessly in an apartment I know to be carpeted, I will never understand), staring at my overloaded folding bookshelves, realizing that it's approaching move-or-renew-lease season yet again, and idly daydreaming about owning a ranch in the middle of nowhere, out of sight of the nearest neighbor, with a shady porch upon which I could sit, drinking lemonade and gazing contentedly out over my ravine. Many things are strange about this image. I don't really like lemonade, I usually prefer to sit inside where ravenous insects are less apt to besiege me, my CRX would never make it up the driveway of such a place, and I can barely imagine myself tolerating a parrot, let alone sheep or goats or whatever it is that ranch-owning licenses require you to cultivate. I mean, I don't even own plants. My mother delights in telling the story about me, at home for the summer after my first year in Cambridge, standing at the end of my parents driveway surrounded (as she tells it) by a hundred varieties of flora, dozens of insects, woodchuck burrows, deer tracks, the open sky and the sound of water crashing over the Croton Dam, and telling her that I was worried she was going to suffer sensory deprivation. I've spent the last eleven years, almost, living in a square mile where major universities outnumber wild animals, where people outnumber trees, and where books outnumber the people and trees, put together, by at least an order of magnitude. If you'd asked me, I'd have said that I couldn't imagine any other way of living. In fact, I might have said that even if you didn't ask me, and if you'd requested specifically that I refrain from spouting pro-urban propaganda I still might not have been able to avoid it. And just three months ago, in the course of reviewing the last Too Much Joy album for this very column, I said that though I could imagine giving up on the city, and the kind of life that implies, I wasn't nearly ready to.
There's something about denying things, though, that agitates the thoughts of them in my mind. And so ever since that protestation I've been picking restlessly at my faith in cities, trying to see what there is underneath it. Walking home past a homeless man urinating against the side of a building, I found myself thinking, "If I were designing my living environment, that wouldn't be part of it." Spiraling through my neighborhood at three in the morning on a search-and-rescue-pattern quest for a parking space, unable to use my own because the people waterproofing my apartment building had parked their crane in it for the tenth straight day because they kept getting rained out (and waterproofers getting rained out is an irony that becomes less amusing to you every day during which it involves your parking space, I can report), I thought to myself, "If I didn't live in a human ant farm, it wouldn't take me half an hour to find a spot of unoccupied land large enough for a CRX to sit in for six hours in peace." And I begin having thoughts like these: "Well, so what if I would have to drive to Harvard Square on Tuesdays to buy CDs? If I lived to the West of the city, it would be on my way home from work anyway." "I hate yard work, but what self-respecting suburb doesn't have teenagers eager to mow your lawn for you?" "Wow, if I had a basement, I could play guitar there in the middle of the night, without that embarrassing problem of knocking my headphones off my head while attempting to teach myself that Townshend windmilling thing." "How much of the rest of my life do I really want to spend sharing laundry facilities with the kid upstairs who I'm pretty sure is running a stolen-bicycle-fencing operation out of our building's boiler room?" And these lead to some much more frighteningly pathological conjectures like "Actually, mortgage payments wouldn't be that much more than what I'm currently paying in rent", "A two car garage would be a good idea in case I get married", and "If I have kids, I'd want them to grow up in a house they could come and drive by again when they're old". And at this point, realizing that the impermanence of my bookshelves and some tapping noises coming through my ceiling have led me to imagine the almost total rejection of what, until now, I have quite happily thought of as my lifestyle, I head for the refrigerator (thinking: "if I owned, I could buy a new refrigerator") with what would be the intention of drinking myself into a defensive stupor, except that I don't drink. Which cheers me, as it's at least one arbitrary life-policy I don't find myself questioning.
So anyway, after this suburban brooding had gone on long enough that attributing it to indigestion seemed overly wishful, I took the step of actually picking a suburb, more or less at random, and finding a real estate agent to show me what kinds of houses I could afford to buy there, just so I could see how I'd react, to it and them. This experiment was discouraging, encouraging and then discouraging again. The first bad news was that in the suburb I'd picked out, my budget put me in the tool shed market, not the house market. But a small setback; keep driving and the prices descend steadily, and the good news was that well less than an hour from where I live now, you reach a town in which I could plausibly expect to buy a house in which I could plausibly expect to live in some plausible semblance of uncrowded comfort. The bad news, though, hit me as I sat in my car in the parking lot of a Wendy's there, looking at maps, listening to people in the drive-through snapping at the attendant. If I put an hour of driving between me and the place where I connect with the world, I don't want it following me. I don't want to spend two hours a day in a car just to end up at night in yet another town where people are so harried by their lives that one, they don't have the time or energy to cook dinner for themselves; two, they don't even have the time or energy to go to a real restaurant; three, even with fast food they can't slow down long enough to walk into the Wendy's and eat at a table; and four, even at the frantic pace of activity implied by blasting through pick-up, they're still too impatient to be civil to the helpless, insecure, minimum-wage bozo who drew the short straw at the last shift-selection and got stuck wearing the dorky headset and listening to people shout "Biggie-Size my Spicy Chicken Sandwich combo meal" over the distorted thump of the Janet Jackson song being played too loudly on their crappy car radio. If I wanted to be routinely antagonized, I wouldn't need to move; that's sort of the whole point.
In the meantime, back in Cambridge, my day job, the one that keeps me in CDs and word processing equipment, and allows me to entertain thoughts about moving to the suburbs to begin with, has been taking an increasing toll on my morale. When I started it, four years ago, we were working on designing a next generation online service. At the time, that seemed like an incredibly exciting and potentially significant enterprise to me. I was entranced with the intense human connections that I saw people making on CompuServe and Usenet, using the crudest imaginable tools, and helping to figure out what a better virtual world to inhabit would be like seemed to me to have as much hope of improving the real world as anything. Since then, my attitude has done a slow about-face. The Web rendered the software I worked on largely moot, but the bigger problem, I realized, is that the potential I saw in the net had little to do with the net as a medium, and a lot to do with its youth. It wasn't a revolutionary new form of communication we were seeing, it was a short period of time in which a social phenomenon and a technical one coincided. The dynamism of the electronic frontier was a product of the frontier part, not the electronic part, and nothing stays in a frontier state long. The net, as I write, is now all but pacified, and the subdividers' surveying teams are measuring it off for the bulldozers and the prefab extruders. This column itself is an anachronism in two dimensions, a relic on one hand of the momentary historical delusion that the Time-Warners and the Microsofts of the world wouldn't crowd self-publishing out of the public attention space on the Web the same way they have everywhere else, and a resolute anti-hypertext and anti-multi-media holdout, on another hand, against the idea that a new distribution method necessitates a new art form. Where I once thought the virtual world was bright with promise, now it's come to look alarmingly like the turncoat vanguard of the forces of dehumanization to me, and where I thought I was helping to improve the human condition, now about my most ambitious thought is that if I can time it right when I throw myself under the wheels of the onrushing train, I might be able to get some petrochemical-company executive in the club car to spill coffee on his cell phone. Maybe soon I'll pull out of this bleak, misanthropic fog, or maybe bleak misanthropy is simply the era's proper zeitgeist.
This, then, is the emotional state and context in which I bought Copperopolis last week. Circa Fuzzy, Grant Lee Buffalo's 1993 debut album, I was pretty sure I disliked the band. The Texas allusions and blazing guitar in "Lone Star Song", the lead single off their 1994 follow-up Might Joe Moon, played on weaknesses of mine, though, so I bought that album against the ceremonial hiccup that passes for my better judgment where buying CDs is concerned. It grew on me with surprising tenacity. The band's odd fusion of sweeping drama with backwoods immediacy, something like an awe-inspiring sunset over the cabin in Deliverance, was an unexpected twist on the sort of experimentation with folk-country-Western-bluegrass heritage that Thin White Rope turned into the Twilight Zone, American Music Club turned into a Vegas bar, and Soul Asylum turned into something that made them millions of dollars but lost them all their fans. I don't recall making any extravagant claims about Mighty Joe Moon like the ones I'm about to make for Copperopolis, and I didn't immediately go back and get Fuzzy (I have now), but it was definitely one of those rare albums that keep me buying things that I don't expect to be impressed by (because how wonderful if I am?), and one album that good is easily enough in my system to justify purchasing the next one.
Copperopolis is, at least for me, transformational. It feels strange to me to say that a record could change my life. I ingest so many of them, and move on to new ones so fast (trying hard to not snap at the CD-store clerks, and trying to remember to write a song or two of my own every once in a while, to keep from becoming my own enemy), that it doesn't seem like the physics allow for it. What could a record say to me that my passion for music will not already have accounted for? How far into my psyche could an hour of music work, when I've only had it for a single busy week? And yet, I am in thrall. This is an album of the dream of open spaces. This is an album of the dream of having the physical, emotional and temporal isolations and connections necessary to escape from a life spent flailing at invisible mosquitoes buzzing around your head and hitting your friends, at least long enough to take a few unmonitored, unpreallocated and commercial-free breaths. I know, intellectually, that my reaction, and its power, have much more to do with how I received this record than what it consists of, and so what this will be for you, I haven't the slightest idea, but to me it is profoundly both humane and misanthropic, simultaneously. The weariness and the hope in Grant Lee Phillips' voice embodies both impulses, to resist and to share. Some of the words are relevant ("Hate is not a lone assailant", "Love...strikes fear in the pockets of bankers and generals", "The music of a Southern day, /... There hides no greater lie, / And no bigger myth", "Oh please don't hide your sorrow from me, / 'Cause I've held that emptiness", "All the wise men, / Strong men were drawn for miles, / Followed a star to Bethlehem Steel", "Logs and green moss are sealed from the city's violet exhaust", "Dear friends farewell, / Write down the email for me", "Oh creation myth and gun control / Are all up for grabs", "I've heard you sing with quiet voice of adverse things, / Now you've made the choice to overcome"), but mostly it is the sense of the music itself.
To me this album feels like the completion of a trans-Atlantic cultural continuum that begins with The Crossing and Once in a Lifetime at the Celtic end, mutates into an American-influenced Celtic hybrid in The Joshua Tree, flips into a Celtic-influenced American strain for Emmylou Harris' Wrecking Ball, and now in the hands of Grant Lee Buffalo is finally wholly American. If Big Country and Runrig don't stir you the way they do me, this may not tell you much, but something instinctive in me responds to them, and Copperopolis produces the same instant soulfelt resonance. The lyrical themes are strikingly similar: Grant Lee Buffalo's "All of the hubris clenched in our fist won't punch our way out of here" is interestingly similar and interestingly different from Big Country's "The luck of a thousand stars can't get me out of this"; "Arousing Thunder" reminds me of Big Country's "Rain Dance"; and "Bethlehem Steel" gives us a mining song to place alongside "Steeltown" and the Alarm's "Deeside", where up until now we've been relying on Billy Joel's "Allentown", which isn't the same at all. And where Big Country and Runrig weave their anthems around square Highland stomp and pipers' jigs, Grant Lee Buffalo instead use mournful slide guitar, bluesy sighs, strained Dylan-esque vocal bends, roaring Neil Young-ish distortion and heartland ache, big cymbal splashes and ringing acoustic guitars, a little of Ellis Paul's urban-folk narrative presence, and at least one drum track that sounds like a machine, and set it all deep in reverb that speaks of a country with distance to spare. I've got plenty of albums that make me feel patriotic, in the generic sense, but this one is, and I don't believe I'm exaggerating here, the first album I've ever heard that makes me feel patriotic for this country.
All this socio-emotional tooth-gnashing, then, leads me around one final blind turn and deposits me, blinking and irritable, right in the middle of wondering what America is. I've been reading, purely coincidentally, Kim Stanley Robinson's Three Californias trilogy. The first book, The Wild Shore, is about a post-nuclear-attack Orange County that has reverted to a frontier-like state where you fish to feed your family and you hope to have enough fish left over to trade to your neighbor for a good solid barrel, and I'm about halfway into the second, The Gold Coast, in which the County is over-developed solid and people spend their days hallucinating in the back seats of their shitty auto-piloted fiberglass cars. And whereas before in my life I always much preferred Bright Lights, Big City to Huck Finn, this time I'm not so sure. This time I wonder how much of what makes us human we are determinedly breeding out of our selves and our environment. As the global village extends its tendrils around the globe, why do I have a feeling that "global village" is an insidiously rustic-sounding euphemism for the incursion of Pepsi billboards into rain forests, rather than any sort of "I'd like to teach the world to sing" Esperanto togetherness? And when you bring anything to the masses, my experience is that the masses have a disconcerting tendency to complain shrilly about how it doesn't work or costs too much, break it and all your extras, and then stomp around in their muddy shoes in the room in which you built it, drawing mustaches on the posters of your heroes and stealing most of your tools.
And yet, in a way, the frontier and the shopping mall and the slum are all either images or inversions of the same American Dream. I only wish I understood better what is American about it. In the bowl of the global cultural Cuisinart that the free market is busy looking for somewhere to plug in, what ingredient characterizes us? I keep hearing that our preeminent cultural characteristic is diversity, but I have a feeling that the people touting that as a virtue didn't do very well in set theory, and even if it's not oxymoronic, I don't want to be part of Misc. And I don't think I am, I don't think we are. I think there is something culturally unique about America. Other than the grim stuff about handgun fatalities, capitalist fatalism and garish amusement parks, I mean. Somewhere in this mess there is something noble that was invented by people who were born knowing that they were American, and who set out to live their lives in some way that reflects and is characterized by that identity and no other. This country was founded explicitly on principles, so it ought to have at least one left to cherish. I want to find it, to dig it up from wherever in our subconscious or our history it's been buried. I want to go abroad and feel like there's something missing when I get there, not when I get back. I want to point to something important and say that I'm genuinely, and personally, proud of it, even though it and I are connected by nothing but a common border.
I don't know what that thing is in words on paper, but I now know it exists, because I've heard it in music.