A Memoir in the Margins of Other People's Books
224 · 13 May 99
Then Jerico: Orgasmaphobia
My book reading is far enough behind my book buying that I'm only now getting around to Michael Ondaatje's The English Patient, which I bought right after seeing the movie, going out of my way to find a pre-cross-marketing hardback, suspecting that my ambivalence about the film would make more sense recast as an elitist preference for the presumably more-refined contours of the original novel. I didn't think the romance in the movie merited the epic hues in which it was painted, but it seemed perfectly possible that the novel would fill in the essential, but less cinematic, details. I opened the book, then, expecting a dark, complex, timeless love story. And I've still got a couple chapters to go, so maybe one will coalesce at the last moment, but I've long since stopped thinking that's the point. Saying that the movie ruined the book for me is an exaggeration from which nobody particularly benefits, but I've certainly found myself, repeatedly, peering at the written story through the cloudy intermediation of the filmed version, trying to imagine the life the book and I would have had without it. The most astonishing thing about the movie, to me, now that I know where it came from, is not that the book and the film tell different stories, which isn't that unusual, but that anybody thought this story was the raw material for cinematography in the first place. Many of the most elegant, riveting, portent-drenched scenes in the movie are constructed from moments related so offhandedly in the book that I might barely have noticed them were it not for the shock of recognition. The scene where Kip hoists an old scholar up to examine an ancient ceiling mural by flare light, for instance, slides by in three terse, neutral paragraphs, almost completely devoid of suspense or commensurate poetry. Katharine, Kristin Scott Thomas' character, doesn't put in an appearance until nearly the halfway point, and her relationships with Count Almásy and with her husband, which I didn't think the movie depicted in sufficient detail for me to care properly about their intertwined fates, are barely sketched at all in the book. Thomas made Katharine luminous, and unmistakably present, but the Katharine in the book is rarely tangible at all, less a lover than the idea of one, a ghost that hovers in the margins of Almásy's oblique, morphine-fueled, autobiographical daydreams. The movie, it seems to me, tried to turn their thwarted passion into a sort of sand-worn, war-crossed Romeo and Juliet, overlain with a spy thriller and a mystery of identity. The book has almost the opposite construction, its tensions deliberately defused by pointing out dangers only in the course of explaining their resolutions, the possibility of crossed paths only by looking back from their intersection. The book is not about Katharine and Almásy's love affair, it's about the nurse, the patient, the sapper and the thief (what, in the movie, seems like an oddly elaborate frame tale), wrestling with the eternal (and largely unfilmable) dilemma about how we edit our experiences and opportunities into the stories we tell ourselves about how we have led, and will lead, our lives.
Or maybe, this week, that would seem like the theme of anything I read, as the book whose chapters I've been alternating with those of The English Patient is the Tenth Anniversary Report of my college class, compiled in anticipation of our Reunion in June. Do all colleges do these? Probably Harvard is more inclined to this sort of obsessive tracking of its graduates than most colleges, and probably its graduates are more inclined than most to track each other. The Report, arguably misnamed, as "report" implies some amount of analysis, which you actually have to supply yourself, is simply a list of all the members of the class of 1989, with as complete contact information for each of us as the alumni office has been able to elicit, and short descriptions, from those who volunteered them, of how they've accounted for themselves since we were last assembled. About a third of the class, by my quick rough estimate, sent in these brief self-portraits, each, obviously, without seeing what everybody else was writing, and the collection of them is striking in a number of ways. First, and I guess I'd have expected this if I'd thought about it, an enormous number of the bios could have been extruded from a single Mad Lib: "Has it really been ten years since we shook hands under [Harvard landmark] and headed our separate ways?! In some ways it feels like forever, and in some ways it feels like no time at all! After graduation, I spent three [units of time] [traveling/working/imprisoned] in [foreign country about whose medieval politics you once took a survey course]. That was a wonderful experience, but eventually I returned to [New York/LA/Boston/your hometown] and embarked on an equally exciting adventure as a [lawyer/doctor/graduate student] at [apparently-prestigious firm/hospital/college]. The work is hard, but to my surprise, I love my job! Who would have thought?! In [year] I married my lovely [husband/wife] [spouse's name], whose is truly the best thing that ever happened to me. Until the arrival of our first lovely [child/pet], [child/pet's name], who is the joy and focus of our lives! [He/She/It] is a constant source of wonder. Being a [parent/pet-owner] is exhausting, but incredibly satisfying. We'd love to hear from any 89'ers passing through [not-at-all-exotic location where you now live]. See you at the reunion!"
This is, of course, an eminently reasonable outline of a life, and surveys like these self-select for people whose lives can be summarized this way. By the time I slogged through the fiftieth minor variation on it, though, it had started to depress me. Far too many interesting people became lawyers, for one, but the tone of these stories exhausts me more than the events and choices they share. Too many facts and names, like a timeline crumpled up into a paragraph to save printing costs, not nearly enough reflection. What kind of person looks back on ten years and doesn't try to figure out what it meant? Too many stories culminate in children with a gasp of relief, like the protagonists have been excused from finding any other direction for their lives. Why, for this of all audiences, blanch out the interesting failures and the hard lessons through which all these people almost assuredly lived? Oh, I know why, I guess, but I wanted us to be above competitiveness and stuffy pride. I wanted this report to be our collaborative ledger of what truths we've discovered, fanned out into the world for a decade, but instead much of it reads like people are answering the implicit questions "Are you keeping up?" or, even more defensively, "Was selling out so bad, after all?" And so the entries that thrill me, and I laughed and grinned at this book as much anything else I've read in recent memory, are the ones that do show sparks of awareness and individuality: aspiring writers demanding that classmates with publishing connections give them a call; my college girlfriend's deadpan announcement of her (fictional, thankfully) sex change; somebody explaining, in frankly excessive detail, how they have overcome their reluctance, due to having webbed toes, to wear sandals in public; a once-close friend I haven't talked to since graduation eschewing biography entirely, and instead sending in an excerpt from what appears to be the imagined context of some painting I can't place; a couple cheerful wackos; a few people donating some of their own word-space to the memory of a classmate who recently died. Ten years out of college, I regard my life as underway, but fundamentally unresolved, so naturally I gravitate towards other people who feel this way, feel it strongly enough to think that any report which didn't acknowledge their doubts would be false and worthless. I am interested in this reunion not for any journey it represents, in time or space (and since I never left Cambridge, and still visit Harvard Square two or three times a week, there will be no awe-struck, memories-flooding-back strolls through the campus for me), but for what we could make it mean, for each other, for what we can learn by seeing how many different paths led out from one place, and how many ways they've converged again since. People you knew ten years ago, and who knew you ten years ago, are a precious resource, even, or perhaps especially, if you haven't seen them in the meantime.
And some element of this, I'm sure, is part of why I stick, stubbornly, with every musician I ever loved too, even as they drift out of everybody else's consciousness. I don't know how many consciousnesses Then Jerico made their way into, in the first place, with their 1987 debut First (The Sound of Music) and the 1989 follow-up The Big Area, but nearly a decade away should be enough to extricate the band from most of them. Leader Mark Shaw made a solo album somewhere in the interim, which I haven't been able to find, but for Orgasmaphobia (which came out last year, but it's taken me several tries to get a copy shipped over here) he reassumes the band's name and, hearteningly, their legacy. It has become a stifling environment for grand gestures in music (for grandness of any sort, anywhere, really), but Shaw doesn't appear to have noticed. "Some People" surges to life with shiny, roaring guitars, springy bass, swirling vocal processing, twinkling synthesizers and Shaw's wonderfully flawed voice, perpetually on the verge of fraying. A cracking every-beat snare gives way to a humming, textural murmur in the yearning "All in All". The languid, wistful "Never Surrender" is like the Alarm's "Spirit of '76" revisited, now that we're older, no longer surprised that our conviction flagged, and trying to figure out how to reconcile muted adulthood with our collections of principles we keep refusing, whether they've gotten much use lately or not, to discard. "Feel You More" bounces cautiously, chime glissades a concession to pleasures for which kids are usually too impatient. The mid-album intermission "Iain Banks" is a slow synth-string meditation over which Banks reads an odd fragment about discovering language inside the split stones of a crumbling castle wall, but "Walking on Glass" is unabashed rock strut, complete with brass flourishes and more than one moment that strikes me as a compromise between INXS' slinkiness and some of the louder Roxette songs. The sampled moans on the title track seem like a lapse in judgment (although I can't think, offhand, of any song I felt was improved by simulated sex noises, so maybe this is just me), and the jittery drum-and-bass intro to "Breakdown in Paradise" threatens to be a impressively misplaced impulse, but "Breakdown in Paradise" turns out to be a glorious, unhurried dirge, halfway between the Alarm and Puressence. The dreamy, pulsing "Euphoria" is the sort of song every New Wave LP's second side used to have at least three of. A white singer saying "Be satisfied with what you have" in a song called "Brotherman" is probably dangerous, but the song is about how our own expectations often determine our fates as much as anybody else's plans for us, which seems to me like a fair and useful point, and besides, the music industry works very hard to make sure that black people don't listen to music like this. (I wish I had a clearer idea why. Who makes money from race tensions?) "Energy" sounds like it wants to break into Frankie Goes to Hollywood, but in the end never quite musters the necessary nerve. I feel a little like the whole album suffers from this last-minute failure of courage, like the scars from Then Jerico's first brief life have left Shaw reluctant to invest so much of himself in his music this time around, reticent about making these songs sound as distinctive as they could have, hoping that if he suppresses some of his youthful instincts, he'll get farther. I doubt it will work. I don't think the problem with Then Jerico was ever that they sounded too much like themselves, I think it was that music this open-hearted was only commercially viable for a short time, 1984 to 1987 or thereabouts (starting with The Unforgettable Fire and ending with The Joshua Tree, approximately), and Then Jerico missed it. It's never seemed any less vital to me, though, and with Adrian Borland's death there's one less master still willing to make it, so if I have to work a little to imagine how these songs would sound if they believed in themselves more firmly, I don't mind. If we imagine it hard enough, maybe next time they will.
Then Jerico: Radio Jerico
If you need a refresher course in what Then Jerico used to sound like, so you can superimpose it on Orgasmaphobia, there's also this unexpectedly sprawling two-disc compilation of radio sessions and live recordings, released a couple years ago. I bought a copy the last time I was in London, only to discover that it contained two of the second disc, and none of the first, and maybe only a few of you are obsessive enough to empathize with the pall of existential incompletion that has hung over me ever since, as various avenues to filling in the missing disc proved to be dead-ends. I've finally acquired a correct set, which means I now have one of the first disc and three of the second, but naturally that doesn't bother me.
Disc one contains sixteen tracks from three BBC radio sessions, covering the bulk of the band's two albums in a form not radically unlike the studio recordings. The precise relations between instruments are less carefully worked out in these performances than on the album versions, predictably, but the appeal of Then Jerico, to me, lies mostly in their audible commitment to the music, and that comes out of their hands and throats, not their devices, and so is captured here quite intact. The two versions of "Muscle Deep" are particularly instructive: when I listen to them back to back, I realize that they are quite different, the earlier one nearly unplugged in comparison to the dense atmosphere of the later version, but nine songs apart, here, I hardly notice. I could listen to nine versions of these songs, at least, without complaint.
Less dedicated listeners might run out of patience a little earlier, though, as after well over an hour of the first disc's radio sessions, the second supplies another hour of mostly the same songs, this time recorded in concert at the Hammersmith Odeon on the tour for The Big Area. The liner notes claim this is "an authentic attestation to the phenomenal live power of the band", but compared with live peers like The Sound's In the Hothouse or Runrig's Once in a Lifetime, this recording seems excessively sanitized, to me, the crowd faded up only at the very beginnings and ends of songs, so that often in the middle of songs Shaw sounds like he's been abandoned. The evident intensity of the band's performances suggests that the crowd's feedback was, in fact, electric, but the set would sound better, I think, especially paired with the audience-less radio sessions on the first disc, if we could hear their enthusiasm, instead of having to deduce it.
Anything Box: Elektrodelica
Synth-pop, perhaps for reasons as simple as that it has a genre-sounding name, from which you can also sort of deduce how to make it, has survived in a somewhat more coherent form than the Big Music, and although nobody's making much money from it at the moment, unless you count Savage Garden, there are enough bands like the Pulsars, the Moog Cookbook, Joy Electric, the Magnetic Fields and Vitesse for a small community to sustain critical mass. Anything Box were historical latecomers, as well, descendants of Yaz the way Then Jerico followed U2, the Alarm, Big Country and the Sound, but by now they've been around long enough to qualify as the old guard. The most charming thing about their early-Nineties albums Peace and Hope, to me, was their stunning guilelessness. Alison Moyet's singing with Yaz was hardly world-weary, but Anything Box made her sound like Debora Iyall. There was also something about the production of those two albums, some industry-standard reverb trick the band hadn't learned, that lent them an elusive, but pervasive, austerity that I found heartbreaking, like dance music for dancing alone, an inherently melancholy art form. Elektrodelica, the first new Anything Box album in a while, purports to be such a departure that Claude S. calls it "the destroyer of all genres" in the liner notes, italics his, but I take this to be a rather spectacular example of failing to understand how your own work will be heard by others, as despite a fair amount more EMF-like noise and chaos than on the earlier records, this album seems to me to have exactly the same central appeal, and what genres he thinks it destroys I have literally no idea. Claude S.'s voice is no less fragile and earnest than ever, not even on the songs where he distorts it and tries to sound like Richard Butler, and his arrangements still rely on strangely tentative rhythms that I can't internalize completely enough to stop noticing everything else. The thing I thought was important about Peace and Hope was that they sounded solipsistic, but aware of and bothered by their insularity. It might be too pretentious of me to demand that synth-pop comment on the way humans and machines interact, and the way humans interact with each other via machines, but most of my favorite examples do: Thomas Dolby tried to restore romance to science and technology, Devo mocked machines and people interchangeably, Gary Numan postulated that machines had a unique psychology and tried to learn it, Missing Persons and Berlin draped Dale Bozzio and Terri Nunn over their gadgets like bikini models at a sleazy car show, Kate Bush turned circuits into extensions of her nerves and Jane Siberry found angels hiding in the wires. Even Yaz, who didn't often let a lack of intellectual substance trouble them, had "In My Room", which more or less amounted to a machine for saying rosaries. Anything Box's contribution to this dialog, to me, is that they sound lonely. Instead of trying to overcome the constraints of machines, or compensate for them, their songs accept and regret them. Elektrodelica, which darts around, making more-frantic efforts to escape the box, is even more revealing when it fails. This is a crucial study, I believe, itemizing the ways in which mechanization presents obstacles, and then figuring out how the obstacles we can't circumvent can be persuaded to conduct human emotion, nonetheless.
Anything Box: Elektrospective
Anything Box, too, has a remedial-listening course to go along with the new album, this one a newly-issued collection with the companionable title Elektrospective. From the outside it looks like a best-of compiled by a complete idiot, since it omits the band's one genuine hit, "Living in Oblivion", and listening to it it kind of sounds that way, too, but after some careful A-B comparisons I can testify that the songs that also appear on Peace are, in fact, different versions here, some demos and a couple remixes, and the ones that aren't are apparently non-album tracks from the same period. A-B comparisons reveal, actually, that the demos here are even more spare and naive-sounding than the album versions of these songs, and it's a testament to the subjectivity of memory that listening to them in isolation I didn't realize they weren't the same. This is exactly how these songs have come to sound in my head. I'm not sure whether stealing my morphed memories and pressing them onto a CD is Anything Box's way of conceding the point, or of mocking me.
Gary Numan: Exile (Extended)
Possibly the strangest manifestation of synth-pop revisionism is Gary Numan's new habit of releasing two versions of each album differing only in editing rigor, begun with 1994's Sacrifice and now continuing with the extended version of the 1997 album Exile. A cynic might speculate that this is done to wring more money per album out of Gary's diminutive, but unblinkingly loyal, fanbase. An apologist might counter that some listeners would rather have a forty-seven-minute album than a seventy-four-minute one, and some vice versa, and this gives them the choice. The cynic would then point out that if that were Numan's goal, waiting a year and a half before releasing the long version, by which point everybody has given up and bought the short one regardless of which one they really wanted, is an odd way to address listeners' concerns. And as with the extended version of Sacrifice, I am skeptical that there are any people who prefer the forty-seven-minute album. These songs are so monotonous, to begin with, that if you're going to hate them, you're going to hate them long before the forty-seventh minute. The only way to survive the short version of the album is to appreciate Numan's aesthetic on its own terms, and if you can do that, I'm pretty sure you'll want to hear the parts he left off of it. I even think the album is better balanced, this way, the extra instrumental sections helping to relieve the oppressive bleakness of the lyrics. But then, I'm almost always partial to the long versions of things. I'm running out of pages in The English Patient well before I've run out of patience. I'd love an extended version of this class report; maybe faced with two pages, instead of two paragraphs, more people would feel self-conscious about saying nothing. Maybe if people were forced to justify themselves at length, more often, they'd feel self-conscious about doing nothing. I won't argue that brevity isn't the soul of wit, any more than I'd argue that writing a memoir in the margins of other people's books would be more compelling on film than a plane crash, but there is more to life than plane crashes and wit.