308 · 21 December 00
New Model Army: Eight
I have seen the face of Evil. Some weeks I have only banal observations to offer, some weeks I have grand insights. Or, more precisely: some weeks I think I have only banal observations to offer, some weeks I think have better. These categories do not necessarily transfer, however, so your results may mirror mine, or bear no relation. In any case, be forewarned that this is one of the weeks when it seems to me like I've discovered something important. It has, mercifully, nothing to do with the finally-concluded US presidential election, although various aspects of Evil (notably the conflation of justice with self-interest, and the obverse) were certainly demonstrated during its proceedings. My own ordeal was smaller, and for me at least, more unexpected and more profound.
As do many classic stories of encounters with Evil, this one revolves around three people, two of which are actually cars. The one currently sitting in my back yard, not yet fully comprehending the magnitude of its injury, while I figure out what charity to which to donate it, is a rumpled red 1991 Honda CRX named Zeb. I bought Zeb just over five and a half years ago, along with a kitchen table and a large number of lamps, after the demise of a relationship and the attendant removal of my ex-partner's possessions left me sitting on the floor of my dining room, in the dark, realizing that a) this was no civilized way to eat, and b) I didn't have any food to eat, anyway, because after living with a car-owner for four years I had lost the will to walk to the grocery store. It's possible I might have recovered the ability to provision myself as a pedestrian, but during the years of car-borrowing I'd also started playing soccer again, in a league whose fields are strewn far across the sprawl of Boston suburbs where public transportation does not go. The ozone-restoring properties of soccer matches are well-documented, however, so after some brief moral calculations I concluded that the right thing to do was to buy a car. As environmentally considerate cars for single city dwellers go, Zeb is nearly ideal. It is small, efficient, unobtrusive, faintly whimsical and, in my personal opinion, insidiously appealing. The CRX was my favorite car in the world when I was seventeen, and I finally got to own one.
The one less-than-ideal thing about a CRX, however, is that it contains only two seats. Most of the time, this is twice as many seats as I really need, but my sister does not drive, nor do several of my friends, and Zeb's limited capacity means that I have frequently been unable to perform what would otherwise be a car-owner's civic duties. Some of these duties are pleasant to avoid, of course. Some not so, like when two of my friends discovered that they are really too old for one to ride on the other's lap, especially on the way back from the restaurant. The penultimate straw was when my friend David, who used to drive our Friday group lunch trips to Boca Grande, moved out of Cambridge, thus losing the right to park in residential spaces, and after a few Fridays of circling the neighborhood waiting for one of the few metered spots to become available, declared that he would do without burritos until I bought a car with more seats. And the last straw is delivered when Zeb, despite a normally sunny demeanor, takes exception to sitting unattended in my parents' driveway for three days over Thanksgiving, and declines to start up for the return trip until it has been plied with various obscure maintenance substances, with the result that we end up in the traffic I had planned to avoid, and thus have six hours of what should have been a three-hour trip in which to contemplate exactly how unrefined an environment Zeb provides its passengers. Reluctantly, and even a little indignantly, I begin shopping for new car.
I start with the assumption that I want a CRV, Honda's car-based fake SUV, on the grounds that I've liked my Honda, and the CRV has not only a back seat, but also a built-in picnic table. My Honda salesman is subdued and responsive, but when he takes me over to the dank warehouse to find a CRV to test-drive three-quarters of them won't start, and he bashes another one into a wall thinking it is in drive when it's in reverse, neither of which is an auspicious sign. When we finally find one for me to try, it turns out I hate it. After the snug go-kart sprightliness of the CRX, the CRV feels like a riding mower. Plus, you can't get a CRV with a sunroof, and despite my cherubic susceptibility to sunburn, I find myself suddenly and inexplicably resolute that my next car will have one. Also, it occurs to me that I hate picnics.
But Ford now makes a fake SUV too, called the Escape, and the one in the TV ad has a sunroof and comes in blinding yellow, so that's my next stop. Ford is a customer of the software company I work for, so there would be something vaguely loyal, and thus doubly patriotic, about my buying a Ford. If my Honda experience was disappointing, though, my Ford experience borders on farce. My salesman is unctuous and ignorant in a way I'd have thought decades of car-salesman jokes would have bred out of the species by now. After finding out I live in Cambridge, he exclaims that he worked at a take-out Italian bakery in Cambridge for fifteen years, a bit of local credibility that doesn't much enhance my confidence in his automotive knowledge. "Turns on a dime!", he yelps during every test-drive U-turn, apparently confusing the diameters of dimes and medium-size above-ground swimming pools. "Listen to that bass!", he scolds me, turning on an anemic radio I have already switched off twice in order to listen to the whine of the car engine rather than the whine of Christina Aguilera. When we get back to the dealership he pops and lifts the hood, presumably to point out salient internal components, and I reach helpfully for the rod to hold it open, only to have him squawk "Whoa, what are you going to do, take pictures?! It's an engine, guy!" and drop it closed nearly on my hand. While mangling the rear seat-belt anchors in the process of not quite showing me the way the back seats fold down, he relates a proud anecdote about demonstrating the vehicle's traction-control system by placing it on a tarp covered with shampoo and then stepping on the accelerator, at which point, apparently, "It shredded that tarp!" I don't have the heart to explain to him that the goal of this test would have been for the car to drive off the sheet, slowly and smoothly, instead of burning holes in it with pointless unchecked wheel-spinning. And for his encore, just to make sure I haven't missed any detail of the patriotic American car-salesman experience, he follows me out into the parking lot, all the way back to Zeb, squealing "These babies are going fast! But if you can move today, I can get you one loaded! Loaded! Loaded!" For all I know he is there, still, muttering "loaded" under his breath and using "babies" as the collective noun for a group of rattly $25,000 Tonka-truck shells with Taurus drive-trains under them without evident irony or self-consciousness.
But none of that is the Evil in question, that's just banal, insincere stupidity, which the world would surely be better off without, but if you're smart enough for it to bother you, you're smart enough to see through it. In between Ford and my house, though, along the route Zeb and I drive, Zeb feeling frisky, me feeling discouraged that I've so quickly eliminated the two cars I thought I was choosing between, there is a Mercedes-Benz dealership. I haven't really been taking the M-class, their SUV, seriously as a candidate, since it seems plainly too big and too expensive for my purposes, but I do like it, aesthetically, and I feel like I need a frame of reference (I tell myself), so I temporarily halve the average per-car value of Mercedes-Benz's parking lot by leaving Zeb in it, and go inside.
Mercedes is very, very nice to me. The only moment of my visit to Mercedes that has anything in common with my visits to Honda or Ford is a brief (and similarly underwhelming) turning-radius demonstration, during which the Mercedes rep has the good sense not to mention dimes. This salesman is quiet, attentive, patient, cogent and well-prepared, and has not, I am fairly certain, worked in the food-service industry in a really long time. And the car? I've seen plenty of them on the street, but this is the first time I've been inside one. It is nice. It is very, very nice. It's disconcerting, in fact, how nice it is. I grew up in a family with relentlessly utilitarian tastes and budgets, which meant that I got to go to college but I've never even had living room furniture as sumptuous as the soft leather and gleaming walnut trim in an ML430. The only use of "wood" I generally envision for an automobile is the paneling on the side of those old Country Squire station wagons. For the first minute I am inside, I have to strain to suppress giggling. What jaded lunatic would feel obliged to put this much expensive material inside anything you will have to get into and out of in the rain? Do people really place two-dollar cups of coffee in what must be three-hundred-dollar cup-holders? Is this interior intended as conceptual art? But after I've been in it for a little while it starts seeming less absurd. The aroma, in particular, has a certain inexorable internal logic to it. After all, it's not as if I like plastic. As the kind, gentle man explains the nuances of the hybrid manual/automatic transmission, the power of the oil-tanker-grade engine, the built-in GPS-based navigation system and the seemingly innumerable varieties of complimentary ass-kissing for which discriminating Mercedes owners qualify, I begin to see how my personality and this car's might accommodate each other. It isn't the sort of vehicle I see myself in, but then perhaps that is a failing of my imagination and self-image. I am, after all, an accomplished professional, recently promoted to a position with significant managerial responsibilities. Perhaps, by zipping down obscure Cambridge back-streets in a drafty bobsled whose back hatch doesn't stay open by itself unless it's been sitting in the summer sun for a few hours, I am underestimating my own dignity. Arguably this isn't resistance I'm feeling, it's the frisson of crossing the border between what I used to want for myself, and what my proper status in the world accords me the privilege of aspiring to. We go back to the perceptive, articulate man's desk, and I listen to him detail the costs and options with a face it takes hardly any effort at all to keep straight. The way I'd want it (with, most importantly, a roof in which nine steel panels accordion back to expose nearly the entire interior to the sky, as close as Mercedes has come to delivering on the promise of the concept version of the M-class they used in Jurassic Park), this car will be nearly $50,000. Leased, though, an approach I've been dead-set against until the considerate, insightful man delineates its benefits, it comes out to only three or four hundred dollars a month more than the loan payments on a reasonable car, and thanks to having bought my townhouse right before Cambridge real-estate went crazy, I'm already saving (I tell myself) well more than that over reasonable apartment-rental rates. On one hand, it's a pretty big car, but on the other hand, it's a pretty small truck. I'll have to run some numbers, of course, but a man (a man) spends a lot of time in his vehicle, and why shouldn't I make that time as pleasant and expressive of my own well-being as my resources allow?
And that, in case you didn't notice it slipping by, is Evil. You want to know why it's harder to be a person than an animal? It is because we have separated morality from instinct, so to act morally it is not enough to examine your own reactions. You cannot trust your own nerves, they will confirm folly and offense. I think, for the first time, I understand the psychological insight at the root of the religious doctrine of original sin: it's not that we are accountable for moral transgressions that predate us, it's that we are born without reliable tools for avoiding our own. Slowly, over the course of the week after my Mercedes trip, glimmers of sanity reappear, and the story ends happily, but I came far closer to betraying my own principles than I'm comfortable knowing I can. I left my house in search of a back seat, and ended up with shaken self-confidence, an altered worldview and arguably my first firsthand exposure to how terrifyingly compelling excess can be. It is one small step from an ML430 to thinking "You know, I'm old enough that I ought to have a really nice suit." One more to "Now that I have the suit, I ought to wear it more often." One to "When I go to work in my nice suit, all the programmers laugh at me; I should take a higher position they can't afford to laugh at, one in which I'd associate with other people with suits and cars as nice as mine." And "Yes, George W. Bush isn't a yapping techno-geek or anything, but he's a man of integrity and conviction. We're lucky to have him. Plus, with the money from his tax cut I can buy a boat. I'm the sort of prosperous executive who ought to have his own boat."
What "original sin" mis-portrays, though, is the process of redemption. You don't have to undo your nature, or atone for it, you just have to be very, very careful. Learn to recognize the difference between "I like this" and "I'm supposed to want to be the kind of person who would like this". You will be offered options out of context, but you can put them back in. Maybe I could have afforded, in some weird isolated sense, a $50,000 car; but compare that to the combination, even if just in the abstract, of a $22,000 car and $28,000 left for everything in my life I care more about than driving, and the decision becomes much easier. So I put my M-class brochure into one of my many boxes of mementos from paths not taken (actually, there's just one box, and it holds a combination of mementos from paths not taken and, for reasons I don't intend to go into right now, moldy hand-puppets, but "many boxes" sounds humbler and more poetic), went over to Volkswagen, and bought a Golf. Its name is Marco. I brought it home earlier today, and it is now sitting patiently by my front door, in Zeb's old place, waiting for me to stop writing and invent some more errands to run. It is, more or less, a new Zeb, small, efficient, unobtrusive and practical at the expense of status, only with a back seat and ten model-years worth of additional modern safety features. It's black, not red, and for at least another few hours, until the sun comes up and the birds return to the tree above it, it's gleaming and thus a little more scary than whimsical. But I'm rapidly becoming fond of it, fond not of some other person it can help me be, but of the ways in which it could help me be the person I was already trying to be, better. Not doing evil isn't the same as doing good, I know, but I feel tentatively virtuous, all the same. I think Kant would have driven a Golf. Actually, Kant would have lobbied for cities in which people can live and eat and play soccer without needing privately-owned automobiles, but nobody would have paid any attention to him, so either he'd be reduced to begging rides from teammates (a clear categorical-imperative violation), or he'd buy a cheap used CRX (also, in the long run, against his rules), or he'd break down and go over to Volkswagen and buy a Golf.
But you never quite emerge from your brushes with Evil unscathed. Yes, I bought a compact, economically-sensible four-door hatchback, but I got the fastest model, not the most fuel-efficient one. I got my sunroof, but to get it I had to take power locks, power windows, power mirrors and alloy wheels, and I didn't argue. Remembering Thanksgiving, I sprung for heated seats and the good stereo system. And for my one unapologetically decadent gesture, a $475 consolation to myself for the $28,000 of leather and walnut and GPS-fiddling I passed up, I got both the single-disc in-dash CD player and the six-disc changer in the trunk. You need the one for popping things in and out on short city errands, clearly, and the other for extended road trips. I'm sure Kant would concur.
Zeb, a simpler soul, has only a cassette player, and tends to insert raspy sounds of its own into the music when you attempt to raise the volume, so music hasn't been a large component of our time together. Many of my idle thought-cycles, then, during the week between when I signed the papers for Marco and his attributes and when I took custody of them, were devoted to deciding what the first music played in my new car should be. The most obvious choice, superficially, is Gino Vannelli's infectious "Black Cars", but that's actually a song about false beauty, and a sinister incantation of "Black cars look better in the shade" seems like the wrong opening line for Marco and my relationship. Tracy Chapman's "Fast Car" has an appropriately cautionary solemnity, but it's about a car as a way to leave, and Marco is a car as a way to stay. Gary Numan's "Cars" treats cars as solipsists' cocoons, and the whole point of buying a car with more seats is to be able to drive more people around in it, so that's no good. I don't think the Golf is quite large enough for sleeping in, which eliminates a good Roxette song. I was already a Nick Drake fan before VW used him in a Cabrio ad. Shampoo's "Shiny Black Taxi Cab" and Kenickie's "In Your Car" both seem a little too glib to mark the conclusion of such a scarring adventure, Rush's "Red Barchetta" too histrionic, lots of driving- and headlights-songs too awe-struck or too melancholy.
In the end I traded literal topicality for something closer to my chastened mood, and with Justin Sullivan's stern, plaintive old injunction "How do we tell the people in the white coats / Enough is enough?" in mind, I drove home from the VW dealer listening to the new (well, earlier this year) New Model Army album Eight. For a band I figured were done in 1991, when they followed the sort of stylistic cul-de-sac of Impurity with a postscriptural live album, and they figured were done in 1994, after The Love of Hopeless Causes failed to revive their fortunes (if, indeed, NMA's fortunes were ever vived in the first place), the new incarnation of New Model Army has done a fairly convincing job of making new records as if they mean to keep at it indefinitely. Eight sets out along familiar NMA roads, but to a man with a new car, old roads are fine. "Flying Through the Smoke" opens with a few stray Middle Eastern flourishes, but then stomps into a martial, pounding snare-and-acoustic-guitar rhythm under Justin's chanted, menacing vocal. The trademark howled chorus, "Tell me what was it you were trying to say?", is Justin's question to a suicide bomber, and where most people would ask rhetorically, judgmentally, I think Justin understands the nihilistic impulse well enough to wonder in earnest. "Too late to listen now", he concludes, as much a criticism of us for having driven the bomber to this end as of the bomber for expressing his desperation in an incoherent idiom. "You Weren't There" is slower, atmospheric, gauzy keyboard washes and mournful harmonica sighs over a dry, skeletal drum frame. "You weren't there", Justin repeats, fury veiled, a useful reminder to anybody who thinks news coverage is experience, or you can learn punk by listening to records. "Orange Tree Roads" speeds up again, and "Will you still love me when everything is changed?" touches, to my surprise, on the personal price of dissent.
Those three songs feel prefatory to me, though, like the "Previously, on..." montages at the beginning of ambitious TV dramas. The album proper starts, I'd rather think, with the becalmed, growly "Someone Like Jesus", which quietly traces three paths from speech to song, upstaging Bono's similar attempts decisively enough to remind me that I still think "Green and Grey" is about him. The lyrics dwell on the doubt inside most certainties, and when the band next blasts into "Stranger", a roaring, old-style slow-burn agit-punk anthem steeped in disgust and betrayal, the central line is "Once we went back to the house we were born in; / The glass was smashed and there were boards on the doors", the refrain is "I only know that it is worth something", and there's a ray of hope (as there are in most grim NMA songs, a lesson detail too many nth-generation punks like Trent Reznor and Marilyn Manson overlooked) that even if we misjudge significances, at least we have a sense of where the turning points are, so when we realize we're lost we know about how far to backtrack. The seething "R&R" is the shouty slam-dance soundtrack half of Three Colours Red's songs dreamed of being, and I have to think twice to realize that "Wake me in a thousand years" is both an expiration of patience with this era and a sneaky confidence that its problems aren't terminal. "Snelsmore Wood" is a ringing protest song about the environmental impact of a bitterly-opposed British highway project, and I can easily imagine Ani DiFranco joining in, but Justin's chorus is half threatening ("You can let your anger burn crazy"), half self-aware and nostalgic ("These are the days that we'll recall / When the masks are off the faces"), and I don't think Ani has reached the stage of appreciating resistance for its meta-purposes yet. The distracted "Paekakariki Beach" might be another environmental lament, but all I've been able to find out about the titular location is that it's a park outside of Wellington, New Zealand which caters to vacationing families but also features a deranged amusement-park ride called "Fly By Wire" whose mere description (it looks like they strap you to an oversized bottle-rocket on a leash and then fire you in circles around an extremely tall pole, as if begging Godzilla to emerge from the South Pacific in the mood to play tetherball) is sufficient to make me feel panicky. The muted, rumbling "Leeds Road 3am" is structured like another terrorist's tale, but on examination it seems to me that the four sets of characters (a night watchman, four men in a car on some illicit errand, an immigrant restaurant owner and his son, a young couple driving home) share the city by coincidence, not by plan, and I wonder whether Justin means to imply that there's as much random pain in the world as there is intentional hurt. Mark Feltham lends an unmistakable harmonica squall to the rattling "Mixam", which ends up sounding like a cross between The The and Adam Ant, and thus slightly out of place, but then Eight ends with its most distinctly un-NMA-ish track, "Wipeout", a spiraling rock song that owes as much to Blue Öyster Cult and Jefferson Airplane as it does to NMA's bass-sprint past. Art resolves into dissent, dissent matures into wisdom, and wisdom bifurcates into artlessness and timelessness. After the car crash in "Leeds Road 3am" I expect something grim, but instead this song ends with a couple pulling their car to the side of a coast road and getting out to dance in the headlights.
And so this album is topical, after all. Ubiquitous rail-lines would cut down on pollution, traffic delays and accidents, but the freedom they would provide would also be regimented and constrained. If there's no train running at 3am, to the right twist of coast, the night and the sea will have to do without you. An M-class may be a dumb car for Cambridge, but it's a fine car for the suburbs, and although I do mean, in part, that one betrayal deserves another, if there weren't so many people willing to buy anonymous houses in anonymous suburbs and spend years of their lives driving back and forth on nameless commuter roads, I wouldn't get to live here where they don't want to, driving my little cars down all these narrow streets they're not allowed to park on. We make these machines, and these albums, and Evil, so of course we see ourselves in them. If intelligent Luddism is a matter of figuring out where to draw the line between technology that restricts us and technology that extends us, which is just another way of rephrasing my dilemma between a machine I fear would have corrupted me and one I hope will be an instrument for my improvement, or between Evil and Good, then maybe, if the people in the white coats are us (and of course they are), we have found a way to explain the difference between observation and insight, or why being a person is hard but also interesting, or how tracing the boundaries of your resources and your instincts may be science, but isn't art.