Everybody Dies Frustrated and Sad and That Is Beautiful
122 · 29 May 97
Shoes: As Is
Why they even bother putting plot summaries on the jackets of Umberto Eco's books, I don't know. The two concepts are incompatible. It is no more sensible to summarize the plot of an Umberto Eco novel than it is to plot out the bass tab for a Gwar album. It's not impossible (it's not even hard), it's just pointless. His art, like most that is good, and Gwar's as well, is of perspective, not the depicted. You can say, of Christina's World, that it's a picture of a woman sitting in a field, but unless you're recovering from experimental retinal surgery, or the painting has been placed in a padlocked lead case by your assistant while you are sequestered in an isolation tank whose impermeability has been vouchsafed by a random member of the audience, the most an observation of this banality is likely to earn you is to not be invited to the next one of whatever it is. Eco suffers further, at least here in the US, from his publisher's practice of having his cover blurbs written by somebody whose closest exposure to the text was overhearing a fellow subway passenger paraphrase a remote cousin's tentative precis of the first two chapters. So The Name of the Rose comes off like John Grisham with monks (A Time to Pray, perhaps), Foucault's Pendulum like Deep Blue has gotten hold of the Zapruder film and lost all interest in chess, and The Island of the Day Before like Proust encountering the Marie Celeste. You can learn as much about these books by licking their bar codes and then making a shrill beeping noise (wait until somebody's watching, first).
The Island of the Day Before, for example, does involve a shipwrecked traveler, and does take place largely in the century indicated by the jacket text, but its genius and appeal, to me, revolve around two narrative tactics of which the summary gives no indication. First of all, the story is told, in first person, by someone wholly unrelated to the adventure's protagonist. Working only (so the conceit goes) from Roberto's diaries, supplemented by copious historical and geographical background research, the storyteller is able to construct but an episodic account of his character's movements, purposes and thoughts, sometimes forced, by uncertainty, to offer theories in place of scenes, or to step in and steer the tale himself, rather than following a trail. This layer of narrative remove interjects itself frequently, interrupting the flow of the story within the story, but of course the story of the telling of the inner story is as much of the weft of the book as the inner story itself. People temperamentally disposed to mashing their thumb down on the scan button through the middle of The Grinch Who Stole Christmas, growling "those Whoos had better get their presents back", will probably find the book's self-absorbed indirection and fractured pace incomprehensible and perverse. For those of us that enjoy labyrinthine recursion, though, this is a little like Borges improvising a synthesis of The Princess Bride and Robinson Crusoe.
The other detail that fascinates me in this book, here even more explicitly a theme than in Foucault's Pendulum, is Eco's portrait of the mindset of Seventeenth Century medical, geographical, astronomical, philosophical and theological (for these are bound inextricably together) inquiry. To Roberto, and the scholars and magistrates he encounters, truth is simple, but obscure. The machinations of the world are explicated with observations that are not complex, just rarely made. "Any body, however small, can always be divided into smaller parts, thanks to which our English dogs, guided by their sense of smell, are able to follow the track of an animal. Does the fox, perhaps, at the end of his race, seem smaller to us?" Although formulating the argument requires inspiration (and the men who possess wisdom conceal it secretively), comprehending it does not. This is the exact opposite of the state in which we now find science, where detailed explanations of the most esoteric phenomena may be readily obtained, but it takes an advanced degree to make sense of them. In a world operated under this modern belief system, discovery is never casual. There is no eureka, only a weary, uncertain sigh, as the trials mount towards statistical significance. For Roberto, universes could be inverted in a moment, entire life courses redirected with a flick of insight. There is much, I have thought many times, recently, to recommend a system of thought that supports transformation in this way. There is also, of course, much to recommend a system of thought that expunges amputation from the roll of routine responses to minor arm wounds, but we must not deceive ourselves that our augmented constitution comes without a price.
What Method has bred out of science, though, it has left untouched in Power Pop. The Romantic urge, which used to send adventurers out to sea, and to see, now locks them in their bedrooms, porta-studios for their sextants. Desperate, irrational longing, which used to throw lines across the meridians, now reverberates against posters tacked to walls, is shaped into plaintive songs with girls' names on them, and is bottled to be heard in other tiny rooms where the girls rarely venture. Hornby asks if this music appeals to us because we are sad, or if it makes us sad, but Eco counters, "Melancholics do not become such through love; rather, they fall in love to express their melancholy". And so Jeff Murphy, John Murphy and Gary Klebe, the trio that mainly constitutes Shoes, may all well be happily married by now; the bottomless ache in their voices as they sing these songs remains. Shoes are the band that Devo would have been if they were shy and serious, the band the Knack would have been without the self-confident sneer, the band the Beatles could have been if they'd grown up in Zion, Illinois and never become stars or heard Stockhausen or a sitar. If truth is simple, but obscure, then Shoes are the house band of Borges' Library, set up stage in some distant alcove so that you come across them only suddenly, through untraceable ways, and yet feel like every song they play you've heard inside your head a dozen times before.
And if Shoes are the archetypes of wistful, unheralded, own-label power pop, then in music's geography this limited-edition two-disc collection, available only directly from Black Vinyl Records, is the last mile before the last peninsula slips into the ocean. The first disc, twenty-seven tracks long, assembles samples of everything from their first songwriting efforts and equipment experiments to mid-Eighties album out-takes to unfinished drafts to stray tracks from tributes and compilations. The second resurrects the band's first self-produced album, One in Versailles, from 1974-5, and its never-pressed successor, Bazooka, from the following spring. As followers of the rest of Shoes' career will be unsurprised to hear, this material, its roughness or age notwithstanding, is basically collectively indistinguishable from the rest of their work. 1994's Propeller is slicker and more confident sounding than 1977's Black Vinyl Shoes, the poles of the band's generally-available repertoire, and One in Versailles and Bazooka do follow the regression line a couple of years farther back, but the differences are, it seems to me, almost entirely superficial. Playing is a craft, but Shoes' pop songwriting is a gift, and it's my guess that most of the 1975 compositions, cleaned up and rearranged today, would sound like they were just written. For all we know, the Murphys' great-great-grandfather wrote a whole trunk of the things during a peaceful retirement after the Civil War, and they've filled the last two decades by just grabbing a couple handfuls of them every year or so. Or they've built a machine that can manufacture an infinite number of perfect pop songs, like Padre Emanuele's Aristotelian Machine constructs definitions and metaphor.
The result of this consistency, of course, is that it doesn't make a whole lot of difference where you start with Shoes. Propeller is fine. 1995's live album, Fret Buzz, would also do. Present Tense/Tongue Twister combines a pair of early albums on a single CD. The Black Vinyl reissue of Boomerang appends a charming live EP recorded at the Zion Ice Arena. 1984's Silhouette and 1989's Stolen Wishes, both with more synthesizers (the five-year gap undetectable in the recordings), edge even closer to Devo. There's a best-of, too, from somewhere along the way, if you think a single album of songs this elemental and timeless is all you'll ever need. And so, for logistical reasons if none other, As Is will probably retain its obscurity within obscurity, a cabinet of truths only opened by explorers for whom the existence of more insights is reason enough to continue the journey.
They Might Be Giants: Then: The Earlier Years
Between getting sick, discovering online Boggle, teaching myself to bake better cookies and other assorted time-filling occupations, I managed to drag out my reading of The Island of the Day Before for a good long while. Measured in reading time, it took no longer than the average 500-page book, but in elapsed time the hours of reading spread over several weeks. So last night, when I finally finished it, feeling the need to sustain my reading momentum, I sacrificed a couple more hours of sleep to speed through Scott Adams' new "serious" book, The Dilbert Future.
I never used to get Dilbert. My first job out of college was at Lotus, and from there I went to a then-new division of an intelligently-run (and privately-held, in case the identity between the two isn't obvious) publishing company, so for the first few years of Dilbert's existence I couldn't fathom it at all. It seemed painfully contrived and unrealistic, visually crude as if it meant to be thinly-disguised metaphor, but intellectually cartoonish despite the unassuming line-drawings. I knew people who thought it was hilarious, but I figured they were dense, or had attitude problems. I still figure they're dense and have attitude problems, actually. In December of 1994, though, when the brothers who inherited the publishing company decided they'd rather roll around in their money than pay people to publish computer magazines or develop online services with it (and I'm not criticizing this decision), the company was sold, and my division, bloated and laboring (we can see with hindsight) to produce an over-thought, over-engineered, next-generation online service for a world that, by the time we finished it, would have no interest in such a thing, got bought by AT&T. At the time I was happy about this. Some of the excitement faded when we discovered that we weren't going to be issued white hard-hats and zippy little company repair vans to ride around in, after all, but still, it seemed like AT&T had the corporate leverage and will to compete against CompuServe, Prodigy and AOL (ah, the days when that was the competition...), and thus that we were to be the cornerstone of an enormous online empire, and thus that the little decisions my coworkers and I made, tiny nuances about how our version of the virtual world would behave, had the potential to actually influence lives, and maybe improve them.
That was the stupidly naive version of the future. The unfolding truth was that AT&T hadn't the slightest idea what to do with us, we were quickly suffocating under the weight of our own ambition, and the rest of the world was moving to the web anyway. We got the service running, at last, but too late for it to achieve the necessary critical mass, and it wheezed a few fitful breaths and then expired. A series of idiot reorganizations followed, then lay-offs, then another sale, and a few weeks ago the last surviving remnant of the enterprise, bearing little resemblance to the original conception and even fewer original parts, rolled its eyes into its head and finally quit whimpering. Thankfully by that point I was long gone. Somewhere in the middle of this experience, amidst much valuable education and much pain, I came to appreciate Dilbert. A year of first-hand experience in AT&T, even at the safe (we thought) distance from New Jersey to Cambridge, turned the strip from irrelevant to uncanny. You can measure the health of a company by the number of Dilbert strips posted on cubicle walls, and the timbre of the laughter as people pass them. Actually, you can probably measure the health of a company by the number of cubicle walls, whether they have Dilbert strips on them or not. By the end the laughs sounded like death rattles, and we had cubicles inside of cubicles, and cubicles lining the hallways that we referred to as "voting booths" ("urinals" was suggested, but somebody pointed out that urinals both identify and satisfy a genuine customer need, while voting is anonymous and ineffective, so voting was definitely closer to what was going on in these cubes), and the only thing that kept any surfaces free of excruciatingly relevant Dilbert clippings was the fact that the crappy cubicles we had tended to shed pushpins according to their own whims. Or maybe the executives knocked them off when we weren't looking. But that's the past, and although there are a few Dilbert strips up here and there at my new company, they're the ones with self-contained engineer jokes, not the ones with moronic managers rerouting their lives.
Having been initiated into the world of corporate insanity, though, I keep a leery eye on it even from afar, and The Dilbert Future has more than enough universal insight about human stupidity to transcend its specific corporate milieu. On the surface, and this is why I read it when I did, Adams and Eco could hardly be farther apart. I suppose Cheese Sandwiches for Dummies would be a little farther from Eco, but you get the point. Eco is abstruse, verbose and obfuscatory, possessed of either a nearly limitless patience for researching historical arcana or a natural gift for making it up; Adams uses numerous reprinted cartoons to make the book long enough to heft, and may be the only professional writer in the country even less willing to get out of his chair and look something up than Dave Barry. Eco defies summarization, while Adams summarizes himself so succinctly that at many points his book threatens to preempt itself. Eco is an Italian professor of semiotics, while Adams did nothing in particular at a phone company until he lucked into a fortune drawing lumpy outlines of sarcastic talking pets. Still, get to the end of The Dilbert Future, to the part where Adams suddenly gets serious (overtly serious, that is), and suddenly you find Adams talking about the double-slit experiment and Schroedinger's cat, and from there it's only a short jump to the idea of effective action at a distance, and we're back to Eco's Powder of Sympathy and his ingenious method of long-distance communication via tortured dogs (presumably this is how you phone Omelas). And then, when you start thinking about it, at least if you're me and it's 3am at the time and you've been reading for several hours straight, you realize that Eco's conception of the accessibility of truth is, at the core, the same as Adams'. Adams' trenchant business maxims are the exact analogs of Eco's scholars' convoluted formulations of natural law. The things Adams says, in jest, ring true partially because they do parallel more complicated social phenomena, partially because they become self-fulfilling, partially because it comforts us to believe them, even if they're actually wrong. And so, too, the surreal collages of homeopathy, coincidence and eloquent superstition with which Eco's navigators reckon longitude, and his physicians succor the infirm.
And I can even complete the circle. If there is a rock band to go with Dilbert (and some age problems confuse this, if we're being strict, but we aren't), it's They Might Be Giants. If Weezer is the band of overeducated slackers, and Phish the post-Dead champions of a subculture to whom programming is a life-style, not a slot in a corporate hierarchy, then They Might Be Giants are the band of precocious network administrators barricaded into their cubicles behind ramparts of discarded XT chassis, smart, alert, nerdy, funkless young white men who tolerate stultifying irony and bureaucratic torment because the work is easy, pays well, and generally supplies excellent toys. They run Windows 95, but there is always a DOS box open somewhere; they know what TCP/IP, ISDN, SMTP and IETF stand for; they genuinely don't understand why anybody ever puts in the screws that hold the PC case on other than to move it; and they know all the words to "Ana Ng" and "Particle Man". And what Eco does to his novels, layering them with symbols and reference, slowing them down but increasing their traction, They Might Be Giants also do to their songs. The idioms are different, so Eco weaves into Escondida and the Rosicrucians, while TMBG dodge through Esperanto, World's Fairs and Chess Piece Face, but the resulting torque is the same.
Then: The Earlier Years is a two-CD set, each disc of which appends all contemporaneous b-sides and a pile of assorted Dial-a-Song recordings and other leftovers onto one of the band's first two albums. Both records were individually in print until rather recently, and many of the EP tracks already appeared on the collection Miscellaneous T, so fans will have to decide whether the nineteen bonus tracks new to this package are worth about a dollar each. In most cases I can report without much fear of contradiction that this is not the case. It's amusing to hear them stumble through "Number Three" in garbled Greek, the accordion original of "Hope That I Get Old Before I Die" is beery and endearing, "Weep Day" is a real song huddling under its boom-box production values, and the tinny recording of cheerfully out-of-tune schoolchildren singing "Particle Man" over their teacher's solemn, "Let It Be"-like piano accompaniment is simply phenomenal. Conversely, the other fifteen entries are little more than debris. Not that it isn't interesting to pick through other people's garbage, mind you, but only once.
For anybody who has managed to elude these two albums entirely, though, or the b-sides, the span of music this set compiles is one of the most remarkable and inventive in recent musical history, and this is one of the rare historical documents that I recommend having around even if you don't actually like it. TMBG's synthesis of cheap technology, acoustic playfulness, convoluted wordplay, pop-culture impishness and flashes of purist songwriting brilliance was singular, and these two albums capture it before the band had a chance to mature or be co-opted (your choice) into something more competent, but far less distinctive. Neither album is notably short of moments that are guaranteed to annoy somebody, but nothing lasts for more than a few seconds, good or bad, so brief intervals of teeth-gritting should be all the fortitude you need to get through to the bits that seem hilarious or magical.
And for me, at least, there are several of these. "Number Three", "Nothing's Gonna Change My Clothes", "Youth Culture Killed My Dog" and "Rhythm Section Want Ad", on TMBG, are a classic quintet of self-referential mock anthems, the last, in particular, one of the frankest self-assessments ever committed to tape. "(She Was A) Hotel Detective" is one of rock's goofiest blues stomps. With better promotion "Hope That I Get Old Before I Die" could have made polka what ska is today. "Alienation's for the Rich" is a hokey country drawl that begins with one of my favorite genre-parody verses ("I got to get a job, / Got to get some pay; / My son's gotta go to art school, / He's leaving in three days"). "The Day" puts up a brave, shouty front, but is sad and sentimental at heart. "Don't Let's Start" is a jerky Eighties pop masterpiece, and "She's an Angel", even with the bit about the Shriners, can actually make me cry. And the Don't Let's Start EP featured two distinguished b-sides, "We're the Replacements", which I think belongs on the all-time honor roll of tribute songs, and the surprisingly invigorating "The Famous Polka". Lincoln, a notably more coherent record, I think, adds the bouncy "Cowtown", the charged and snappy "Purple Toupee" (which I only just now realized isn't saying "I remember the book of Daktari where they crowned the king of Cuba"), the sinister "Cage & Aquarium", the touching "Piece of Dirt", the Bobs-like "Santa's Beard", the demented "Shoehorn With Teeth", "Snowball in Hell"'s amiable canter, and the violin-tinged lounge-strut of "Kiss Me, Son of God". Edging over toward straight pop songs, "Where Your Eyes Don't Go"'s ABAB alternation between electric drive and acoustic lilt is achieved with remarkable self-restraint, "I've Got a Match" is jazzy and cool, and the pained chorus of "They'll Need a Crane" nearly redeems the fitful remainder of the song. Of the b-sides, "It's Not My Birthday" is propulsive sing-along folk, "Nightgown of the Sullen Moon"'s old-fashioned charm is only partially obscured by its impatient drum track, and "Hey, Mr. DJ, I Thought You Said We Had a Deal" is a sixth pop diatribe. And then, of course, Lincoln also contains (indeed, starts with, which often dims the rest of the album for me) what I consider to be the greatest pop song of all time, "Ana Ng". "I Melt With You" is easier to quote, and "Throwing the Election" is wrapped more tightly in its own sense of pathos, but "Ana Ng"'s combination of choppy guitar, rustling autoharp, breathless accordion and the cosmic injustice of two people, any two, meant for each other but stranded on opposite sides of the globe (and so we return to Roberto, marooned on the ante-meridian, dreaming of Lilia), reaches into my heart and undoes some catch that usually holds important things together.
It is the Powder of Sympathy, perhaps, tugging at me from someplace where I was once hurt. Or maybe this hollow sadness is how I wish to feel.