As Though You Can Outrun Your Own Story
319 · 8 March 01
The Waterboys: A Rock in the Weary Land
I wish, harmlessly, to believe that I am still fundamentally the same obsessive, insatiable reader I was at fourteen, but I don't read as many books as I used to, so the sustenance of this belief requires a few well-placed rationalizations. Certainly I have a lot more distractions now. More pertinently, I think I have taken on one new reading burden and/or lost one talent. When I was fourteen I finished books or didn't, at least it seems to me in nostalgic retrospect, according solely to whether I liked them or not. There was no such thing, until much later, as a book I wanted to have read enough to finish even though I wasn't enjoying reading it that much. Or maybe it was just that I was so focused on reading for its own sake, at that age, that I could blast through anything, without getting drawn into the circularity of letting my progress be hampered by examinations of the character of my participation. Either way, the database query that keeps track of my gradual progress through my reading backlog reveals that for weeks on end I will breeze happily through a book every two or three days, and then I will suddenly disappear into something intransigent. In the first three weeks of this year I read nine books, varying from the plainly frivolous (two Mormon genre novels, a fascination I'll go into some other time) to the grueling (the parts of Eric Schlosser's Fast Food Nation about the meat-packing industry). On 21 January I started Anna Karenina.
This past weekend, thanks to a debilitating cold that kept me in bed for most of it, I finally finished Anna. It is a long book, admittedly, easily long enough to have taken me a week, or even two. But not six. Six means that I was going out of my way to let distractions get the upper hand. Six means that I would retire, read a few pages, and quickly find myself thinking that sleep isn't so much like death, after all. Six means that only the sheerest stubbornness got me through the thing at all.
It's not exactly that Anna Karenina bored me. But I wanted to be mesmerized, and there is simply no way to contort "mesmerized" to encompass the feeling of puzzled, leaden obligation I bore for six weeks of reading it. I had, perhaps incredibly, managed to get through the bulk of thirty-three years, including several in higher education, without learning much of anything about the plot of this novel. That is, I knew it involved infidelity and social repercussions in some way, I knew it was set in Russia, and I knew that Claire Danes' character in I Love You, I Love You Not was fascinated with it, thus its presence in my reading list to begin with. If forced to supply a speculative abstract in advance, I would have guessed at some sort of wintery combination of The Scarlet Letter and The Diary of Anne Frank, fluttery, cooped-up romance clashing against grim community disapproval. What I did not expect, at all, was to find that Anna Karenina is really two separate stories, which intersect in places and share several supporting characters, but whose natures, objects and effectivenesses all seem to me to be radically different. Anna's own story, my guess came pretty close to. Anna's ostracism is far more circumspect than Hester Prynne's letter-jacket, and her story much more constrained and introspective. And although I'm well aware that this is one of the venerable masterpieces of world literature, to me while I was reading it it was just a book, and I thought Anna's story and character were fairly ineptly portrayed. I was never convinced that anybody, including Anna herself, saw much more in her than really great hair. She leaves a dull but well-intentioned husband for a shallow flirt, and then claims existential torment over the resulting, and wholly predictable, estrangement from her son, despite showing no inclination at all to be involved in the upbringing of her subsequent daughter. Her thought processes are fragmentary to the point of systemic incoherence, her problems all seem to be entered into with the artificial inexorability of a slasher-movie co-ed fleeing into an abandoned warehouse, and although obviously my credentials for understanding the internal life of women are no better than Tolstoy's, I never had the sense that Anna represented any kind of useful insight. Her internal monologues read like the conjecture of an egotist to whom women are mercurial and incomprehensible, who thus assumes that they are also mercurial and incomprehensible to themselves. Her predicament is rarely advanced, and much of her sections are spent reiterating the specific current state of her torment, like the first panels of particularly melodramatic Spiderman strips. The occasional digression about a foreign author she's reading, or the bit about the proper role of portraiture in art and vice versa, are so animated and specific compared to the rest of her story that I begin to wonder whether there were contractual issues, and left to his own Tolstoy would have ditched her and concentrated on the other half of the story, where his own interests are so plainly invested.
The other half, of whose existence I had no prior clue, is about an idealistic (if somewhat grim), thoughtful (if not especially bright), dedicated (if rather easily distracted) farmer named Levin. Levin is no paragon of clear thought and self-awareness, either, but his setbacks are never permanent, he is never blindsided by the perfectly obvious consequences of his actions, and Tolstoy wields him with gusto, banging him head-on into socio-economic theories, jamming him into political debates, dunking him into romantic anxieties and domestic epiphanies, and generally treating him as a living creature, acting and acted upon in combination, rather than a porcelain cipher useful only for staging allegorical tableaux that do not require posable limbs. Anna's sections read like Tolstoy is following somebody else's demographic guidelines, if not plot outline; Levin's read, at least to me, like Tolstoy cavorting enthusiastically through whatever topics he happened to be obsessed with at the time, himself. So Levin gets involved in politics and then gets uninvolved; prospers, fails, recovers; entertains a series of reformist notions about the economic structure of agriculture and its uniquely Russian challenges; indulges brief delusions that he is actually a peasant at heart; skirts Society as an observer; wrestles with his own senses of responsibility and entitlement; falls in love, gets rejected and sulks, falls back in love, gets engaged, gets frightened, gets married, gets frightened again, has children, learns some things about himself and his friends and even his wife. Levin's sections do, as a result, often feel less universal, more like Tolstoy's participation in the contemporary discourse of his society than in the timeless dialogue of Literature. So they may be less Great than Anna's, and they didn't necessarily fly by me any faster, but at least I believe that Tolstoy cared about them.
Released, finally, from my six-week trudge through Anna Karenina, and not quite released from my cold, I immediately charged through two more books in the next day and a half, and the contrast in reading experiences was probably far more instructive than anything I extracted from Anna and Levin. The first book was Whit Stillman's quasi-novelization of his own movie The Last Days of Disco, which at least one observant reader spotted on top of a pile on my desk in the photograph of me working that you may or may not have found hiding in a corner of this web site. I missed disco, both musically and culturally, and most of the characters in the movie were born ten or fifteen years before me, so on one level Stillman's early-Eighties club scene is nearly as foreign to me as Tolstoy's Moscow-St. Petersburg axis. But if the context is unfamiliar, the approach to it is not. The book, in a clever bit of Princess Bride-ish whimsy, purports to be less a novelization than a clarification, written by one of the characters portrayed in the movie, of the actual events and people upon whom the film was based. There are some extra details that the movie left out, a fair amount of running commentary about what the movie got right and what it got wrong, and a number of interesting meta-chronological points at which the character writing the book finds out, from the transcripts of interviews with the other characters, things he wishes he'd known at the time. There are some things (and the book itself points out this dilemma) that the movie was able to express much more fluently than the book (the music, most obviously, but Stillman's films are also heavily concerned with conversational dynamics, which are rendered very differently in print), but there are also things the movie couldn't deal with at all, most notably the vein of romantic regret that becomes one of the primary motifs of the book. I won't pretend this demonstrates anything but my own limited and obdurately ahistorical perspective on art, but to me The Last Days of Disco really does seem, in most respects, like a more sophisticated form of literature than Anna Karenina. The characters have simpler names, but more complicated personalities. The social milieu is less notable, but more precisely evoked. The plot seems to have been planned much more carefully in advance, and the storytelling is done with a single unifying intent and tone. I'm not saying The Last Days of Disco is a "better" novel, or one likely to prove anywhere near as enduring, or even a better example of its own form, and I realize that I read Anna Karenina in translation, so in a sense can't comment on its style, and also that I have a very strong personal preference for stories in which the narrator is also a character (which doesn't always mean first-person, although it does in this case). But I'm left with this truth about myself: I would rather read ten books like The Last Days of Disco than one like Anna Karenina. (And I'd have time to read about fifty.)
The second book was even more appropriate, Anthony Giardina's slim short-story collection The Country of Marriage. Reading the first seven stark, oppressively mundane stories about marriage in this book just after Tolstoy's dueling investigations of the same subject, I am gripped by the conviction that art makes progress. Giardina may not be better than Tolstoy, either, but the harrowing relationship epiphanies in Giardina's stories are like relativistic physics to Tolstoy's plane geometry, to me. We know so much more about ourselves, now, and about how to explain what we know about ourselves, and evoke our fears. It's the same feeling I have looking at representational paintings done before and after we perfected perspective. Maybe the artists before were every bit as inspired, but their craft was not yet mature. And maybe the art of writing interior monologues that read like human thoughts, instead of gossip columns enacted in puppet shows, hasn't been "perfected" yet, either, but it's come a long way, through Hemingway and Salinger and Carver, since Tolstoy. You could not have written this way in 1877. And, I think, you probably cannot, neither as a reader nor a writer, now that writing this way is possible, go back to pretending it isn't. I don't mean all literature before The Catcher in the Rye is obsolete, since plenty of it doesn't rely on interior monologues, and I can't think of anything in particular about Tom Jones or David Copperfield, for example, that we're any better at now than Fielding and Dickens were then. And Tolstoy isn't obsolete, either. But art is changed, and with every new thing that becomes possible, something old passes from living art into dead history.
The first seven stories in The Country of Marriage are reasonably depressing. "I'm not going to tell you about infidelity here, " says the narrator of the first one, "because as far as I know there isn't any to tell about." The stories don't share characters, though, and by the time the first seven are done we've seen just about every betrayal, weakness or catastrophe to which marriages are susceptible. Most of the stories end with what might qualify as hope, or cathartic clarity at worst, but the overwhelming meta-messages are that marriages are not fundamentally joyful, and that the primary key to their survival is merely reconciliation, or even less dramatically, acceptance, not any of the more glamorous things commonly suggested in fashion magazines. Several of them confront the exact question Anna Karenina opens with, a husband who is no longer physically attracted to his wife, but Oblonsky regards his wife's aging as an affront, and a license for philandering, and Tolstoy never attempts to argue the points, avoiding them in Anna's case by the blatant cop-out of pitching her under a train, and in Kitty and Levin's by ending the story while Kitty is still young. Part of the problem, of course, is that society makes progress, too. "Still, they stay married, so something must be there", stipulates one of Giardina's narrators, in preparation for heading off in searching of it; but in Anna's case she stays married and there isn't anything there, at least not the way Giardina means. Tolstoy's characters rarely make any decisions as personally difficult as the ones Giardina's make, but then they're not nearly as free to. And if your primary challenge is self-actualization, novels about hunting and gathering are never going to seem as vital.
But the last two stories in The Country of Marriage turn it into a different kind of book, for me, and maybe betray a deeper sense of human potential than the others admit to. The second to last one, "The Second Act", is a brief fantasia on the premise that F. Scott Fitzgerald's heart-attack at forty-four wasn't fatal. He survives, he takes some steps to improve his health, he finishes The Last Tycoon, and he takes Zelda back. It isn't a sentimental story, and like the others in the book its resolution isn't "they lived happily ever after" but just "they lived". I can imagine some people regarding it as a desecration, co-opting such vivid, tragic characters to be the dull participants in yet another vignette of diminished expectations and ambivalent persistence, but to me it's heroic, rescuing people from an entombment in caricature. The last one, The Films of Richard Egan, is a short meditation on the career of a minor actor, mainly focused on his one closest approach to stardom, and the moment a few films later when a young boy sees his own terrifying future in the actor's eyes. But Giardina has picked his actor to fit the particular epiphany with which he wants the story to end, and the book. There are others. There are other epiphanies that could be derived from more or less the same scenario, even. I haven't seen The 300 Spartans, but I'm pretty sure, from Giardina's description, that you could write a scene around it like the one in Sports Night about watching a Spring-Training pitcher discover that he's not done yet. Any of these stories of marriage could end with rebirth. Perhaps the most stunning thing about them is the fact that they don't, and the immense negative space that implies. They could be, if this is what we choose to make of them, the meticulous cartography of dead-ends, and thus maps of what our futures can now avoid becoming. A thousand quiet moments when we stop fighting may await each of us, but interspersed among them, if we care enough, we can make some loud moments when we refuse.
And this is why, too, I spend so much time following musicians who are neither current nor classic enough to matter to most people. Only two readers wrote in to express total incredulity that I said Joe Jackson made last year's best record, but I'm sure they represented a real constituency. Neither one had heard the album, and maybe they wouldn't have liked it if they had, but it is idiotic and profoundly offensive to assume, as the music industry so desperately wants us to, that all the most vital music is done by newcomers. This idea is in the music industry's best interest, as it's far easier, at least in the short-term, to manufacture new novelties rather than cultivate long relationships, and it also avoids the inconvenience of having the balance of power shift to the artists. It's in lazy critics' best interest, too, as it obviates the need for research or long-term memory, and keeps you out of the dangerous situation of having to state an opinion on something before it's abundantly clear what the opinion is supposed to be. But people can get better at art. Moreover, they can get worse, and then get better again later. Anybody whose most interesting work doesn't come after their moment of most intense notoriety probably didn't produce that much interesting work before it, either. Careers are hard, probably harder artistically than they are commercially, so when somebody musters the courage to keep one going, our first impulse ought to be encouragement, not derision.
Mike Scott is nearing the twentieth anniversary of the first Waterboys EP, which came out in 1983. I can't follow the logic by which he decides whether to credit his records to himself, solo, or the band, but this is the first new one under either name since 1997's Mike Scott album Still Burning, and only the second as the Waterboys (after 1993's Dream Harder) since the demise of the original band. I thought Still Burning was a pretty exciting return to form, and I'm willing to go a step further now and say that A Rock in the Weary Land is as confident and forward-looking as anything he's done, another expansive rock album in what I'm not going to think of as a comeback any more, as there's no reason to assume it isn't a long line of them whose end we're nowhere near. Part of the justification for the cult of the new, in the rare event that anybody bothers to try to justify it, is that once art becomes self-conscious it loses the capacity for brashness, passion and noise. Bullshit. Mike Scott knows exactly what he's doing, and this album is as borne up on its own sense of possibilities as anything any three seventeen-year-olds ever conjured out of the cement floor of one of their garages. "Let It Happen", the opener, seethes with eerie background noise, ticking drums and clipped verse guitar before crashing into the cheerfully bleary and redemptive choruses. "My Love Is a Rock in the Weary Land" is practically gospel, sweeping and unhurried, the London Community Gospel Choir probably unnecessary given Scott's own capacity for musical reverence, a point made rather succinctly by the pensive, hypnotic song after it, "It's All Gone", which consists of just Mike, a twelve-string guitar, some keyboard ambience and the complete lyric "It's all gone / So send the rain", yet verges on the muted grandeur of U2's "Bad". Chiming piano cascades over surging guitar noise in the distraught, furious, lovelorn "Is She Conscious?", which a little voice in my head suggests could be about Princess Diana before I quickly shut it up. "We Are Jonah" is as simple and grand as rock anthems get, guitar and piano solos and everything, somewhere between the Call, Meat Loaf, Elton John, and Ian McNabb's time with Crazy Horse. "Malediction" is a weird amalgam of clipped folk rant and incongruous macho posturing ("In my wake are seven women who tried to steal my soul", "My enemies you pimps and thieves prepare to meet your nemesis at last!"), but "Dumbing Down the World" is cacophonic and brutal, like a Nine Inch Nails remix of an old Jethro Tull song.
I lose focus a little bit in the middle of the album, as "His Word Is Not His Bond" never quite arrives at a chorus, to me, and the sampled "Yeah!" from a 1927 preacher's sermon isn't quite enough text to lend the sub-one-minute ersatz-Filter instrumental "Night Falls on London" much meaning, but the slow crescendo of "The Charlatan's Lament" lures me back. "The Wind in the Wires" is spectral and becalmed, but the Alarm-scale finale, "Crown", pulls out all stops, a shiny mock-brass intro yielding to pulsing guitar noise for the muttered verses, the band only joining in after the lyrics are complete, but leaning into a jam with all the demented energy of EMF, the MC5 or maybe the surf band Godzilla started, Godzilla himself contributing by noisily eating pianos. I persist in hearing the reference to "the band played endless mindless", in "Let It Happen", as a botched reference to Nirvana's blaring "Endless Nameless", and this ending, thus, as a return question, half cheating but twice as necessary without Kurt to respond. If noise, passion and brashness aren't functions of youth or torment, then what are the functions of youth and torment?
The Waterboys: Is She Conscious? EP
The appendix to A Rock in the Weary Land is this six-song, nearly-album length EP released a few months later. Besides the album version of "Is She Conscious" there's an acoustic demo of it, a busily mangled extended reworking of "Let It Happen" retitled "Sad Procession", a quasi-traditional Celtic trifle called "The Faeries' Prisoner" that's probably best suited for children, and a short run-through of the old hymn "My Lord, What a Morning". But the substance of the EP, beyond much doubt, is the belief-defying sixteen-minute 2000 concert version of the Waterboys' "Savage Earth Heart", which makes a series of incredible cases: that this is one of the greatest live rock songs ever devised; that more than just a song, it is a complete framework for the live performance of rock music and personal revelation; that Gaian pantheism is the native spiritual idiom of rock music; that the only problem with Spinal Tap's "Stonehenge" was that it was a stupid execution of a perfectly decent idea. If the planet listens to songs about her, this is one to be proud of.
Mark Seymour: King Without a Clue / Live at the Continental
My last mail-order package from Australia brought not only Hunters and Collectors' farewell live album but this 1997 solo album from H&C singer Mark Seymour. H&C were an ensemble band in a way that the Waterboys never were, so in the three years I'd had to wonder about this album before finally hearing it I imagined outcomes as distressing as a Buster Poindexter-style novelty act and as drearily predictable as a limp attempt to teach some session players to provide the same kind of backing Seymour got in H&C (and attempt that would almost certainly have been doomed, since in H&C the music wasn't "backing"). In the end this proves unnecessary, as sometimes-H&C guitarist Bruce Palmer produces, plays lead guitar and co-writes a few songs, Mark's brother Nick (of Crowded House) plays bass and Australian veteran drummer Peter Jones and organist Bruce Haymes fill in around them. Helen Mountfort and Hope Csutoros from My Friend the Chocolate Cake show up to add cello and violin to a couple songs without lending them much MFtCC atmosphere to them, and in toto this album follows the most basic first-post-group-solo-album sonic pattern, expanding on the old band's palette without trying to replicate or repudiate it. Without H&C's collective lungs to inflate these songs, Seymour is left to survive on either his own fervid presence or refined songwriting skills, and I might have guessed he'd incline towards the former, but I'd have been wrong. If anything he's quieter than ever, perhaps welcoming the challenge of writing some smaller songs. "Last Ditch Cabaret" is sturdy and mid-tempo, "We'll go cheek to cheek / As we squeeze into the crowd" in the sparkly chorus a faint echo of "Shed your skin and let's get started". The sighing "You Don't Have to Cry Anymore", with pattering hand-percussion and a hushed chorus hovering on the edge of falsetto, is open-hearted and unforced. The chiming "The Ghost of Vainglory" sounds in parts like it could be Mark's version of Extreme's pretty songs, but the chorus adds amiably shuffling drums and a touch of country twang. The verses of the title track are farfisa coy, but the chorus is a yearning, crunching H&C throwback. "Look What She's Done to You" is a little meandering for my tastes, but "Home Again" is an elegant lullaby and "Deathwish" is delicate and enchanted. "Cry Wolf" sounds like a sanded-down H&C song to me, but "Can't Crawl That Way" is simmering blues. Vika Bull supplies airy backing vocals on the ardently simple, gracefully soaring "The One You Love", maybe the album's least cluttered pop song. The ending makes me think, briefly, that Mark and I have different ideas of his strengths, as he opts to go out with "Until the Day They Die", a dubious-marriage song heavy on narration and light on melody.
My copy of this album comes with its own appendix, however, a six-song live acoustic set with a different band, and I'm quickly reassured. "Radio Death Song" is morbid but self-contained and voluble. "Can't Crawl That Way" loses most of its blues cast and reminds me more of the Alarm's version of Neil Young's "Rockin' in the Free World". "The Ghost of Vainglory" is even more charming here, erratically paced and unevenly harmonized. "Home Again" and "Look What She's Done to You" aren't much different than the studio versions. And faced with what must have been a strong temptation to throw in one H&C song for instant-nostalgia's sake, Seymour instead substitutes a jangling, howling version of "Richard Cory" that reinstates some of the labor-anthem intensity that Simon & Garfunkel's lacked.
Luka Bloom: Keeper of the Flame
And the song that's implicitly excluded by "Richard Cory", the one Seymour will almost inevitably spend the rest of his life returning to, Luka Bloom takes a turn at on his arguably throwaway new acoustic covers album Keeper of the Flame. He tones "Throw Your Arms Around Me" down, actually, which surely would be the opposite of most people's impulse, turning it into a somewhat diffident Irish ballad. Most of these songs end up sounding more than a little like diffident Irish ballads, which is neither surprising nor, if you happen to like Luka's way with diffident Irish ballads, unpleasant. What fans of these songs in their original forms will make of their transformations, I'm mostly not sure. Dylan purists may well not like how much "Make You Feel My Love" comes out sounding like "Danny Boy". The Cure's "In Between Days" is hearty and animated, not glum in the least. U2's "Bad", the only actual Irish song here, winds up spare and over-enunciated, like Luka is channeling his father's generation. Joni Mitchell's "Urge for Going" is almost a sea shanty, Billie Ray Calvin's oft-covered "Wishing on a Star" dark and subtly flamenco-infused. Bob Marley's "Natural Mystic" is how I imagine Harry Belafonte would have done it. I don't know Tim Hardin's "If I Were a Carpenter" in any other form than this devout Sixties folk treatment.
The two trick songs that hope to make the album, I think, are two polar opposites Bloom almost manages to unite. The bleak one he humanizes is Radiohead's "No Surprises", whose weary guitar line he doesn't much alter, but whose vocal he transforms just by singing it in his own deep, rich voice instead of Thom Yorke's chilling sigh. The giddy pop song he slows down, at the other end, is an impishly deadpan Celtic-lament rendering of ABBA's "Dancing Queen". Little tendrils of fiddle creep in at the end, like the song's dance soul can't ever be entirely subdued. And as the album drifts off, the songs start to blur together in my mind, "no alarms" mutating into "throw your arms", and the resulting "Throw your arms, / No surprises" chorus playing call-and-response with the ABBA violin riff. And as much as I liked "Idioteque", and am expecting to like the other new Radiohead album, now Luka has me thinking about what you'd get if you could combine Radiohead and the Corrs. The Corrs, of course, are exactly the people to do the disco-opera remake of Anna Karenina in which Anna really is just pretty and wonderful and the rest of Society scrambles to accommodate her desires. Radiohead's nihilism is exactly the threat under which Anthony Giardina's marriage truces are formed. In between, between no-consequence ebullience and silent surrender, all the real stories unfold or unravel, all the truths I believe in myself, more personal than socialism, more contemplative than "Good Times", sure that there's some third option besides cheating and lying, and thus some third fate besides being born tomorrow, or dying then.