Love and Wrath
348 · 27 September 01
Ben Folds: Rockin' the Suburbs
I have my routines. I'm sure you do too. Five days a week, most weeks, I go to work. Weeknights there are sports and rituals: Monday, volleyball; Tuesday, record-shopping; Wednesday, writing; Thursday, softball and/or collapsing in a useless heap because I didn't get enough sleep Wednesday night. Weekends there's soccer. There are movies, concerts, occasional parties, dinners with friends. It is a circuit with its solitary loops, but it doesn't seem isolationist to me, on the whole. I am often out among people. The internet has not turned me into a hermit. Still, my public interactions are pretty well systematized. I may be out among people, but I am almost always out among them in a fairly constrained set of contexts. We are driving to work in our cars. We are playing. We are in shopping centers. We are at movies, we are in restaurants. We are yelling at Leo to get Jay away from the ref before he picks up another yellow card, or vice versa. We are together, but we are usually oblivious to each other, even when we're nominally collaborating; I don't know most of the people I play volleyball with at the Y any better than the people who make me burritos at Boca Grande. We are distracted by our purposes. In college we used to go sit in front of the Au Bon Pain in Harvard Square and watch people. When do I ever have (or take) time for that any more? Maybe it doesn't seem like it should make that much difference whether you are walking through Harvard Square on errands or sitting down and just watching, but it does. You cannot (and this is why I think carefully before taking my camera with me anywhere) be both a participant and an observer, at least not effectively.
Here's how little it takes to appreciate what you don't usually see: go out, tonight, maybe right around dusk, and take a long walk in your city. I don't mean a short stroll through your own neighborhood, I mean a walk long enough that in daily life nobody would do it. Dress properly and spend two or three hours at it. Walk somewhere you would normally drive or ride trains to. Walk through at least two neighborhoods whose residents never visit the other. These don't need to be new places; in fact, it's better if they aren't. You are not out to explore, you are out to observe, and particularly to see what you usually miss. Don't have errands in mind, don't have destinations, just walk and observe.
I don't think this exercise would ever have occurred to me on its own. I went on the first such walk because I'd bought hiking boots for my camping trip, and I needed to break them in. So I did have a purpose, technically, but there's not a lot else you can do, once you're out walking, to "concentrate" on breaking in hiking boots, so I was left to observe. And maybe it sounds like I'm building up to some concrete epiphany I had, that I want you to duplicate, but I'm not. Cities are not fables with morals, or puzzles to be solved. If I glimpsed truths, they were scattered and tiny. Like: The more I walked, the more endearing the whole city seemed to me, and the more benevolently I regarded each passing pedestrian, but each one passed wrapped in the same defensive shell, intent on their own transit, impatiently walking dogs or carrying take-out dinners they'd later hurriedly eat. I passed crowded restaurants with lines spilling out onto sidewalks, and a couple blocks away equally good restaurants standing empty with waiters slouching in their doorways. I watched eleven cars in a row drive through the "Yield to Pedestrians" signs at a crosswalk while a teenage mother with a double-stroller tried to get across the street. I looked into the apartment windows of neighbors who don't even know each other's names. I discovered which neighborhoods had trash pick-up the following morning. I found out where dog owners congregate and had a good business idea about glow-in-the-dark collars. I walked down blocks with locked spiked gates next to blocks with children's bicycles unattended in the driveways. There's a bright, cheerful Portuguese-speakers' community center I'd never noticed before, sandwiched between grimy body shops on a road that goes nowhere. There are antique stores and insurance agencies wedged into what I'd have thought were unrentable spaces. The higher the property values, the worse the sidewalks. The closer to bus stops, the more garbage in the gutters. Small children are not fazed to see a thirty-four-year-old white male with a shaven head walking slowly around a city at dusk wearing hiking boots, but their parents tense up. Dogs love everybody. Most things are closer to each other than you think. There are so many people. You couldn't possibly make up stories for all of them.
I've had several more opportunities for watching my city since I got back from the trip, as Marco, my Golf, despite functioning flawlessly, has been displaying an indicator implying that the flawlessness is a sad illusion, so he's spent some time back at the dealership getting random valves replaced. My VW dealer is a block from a subway stop, so I've been dropping Marco off before work and picking him up afterwards. This means I have literally been commuting to and from work on the subway, but it's been so many years since I did so routinely, and never on this particular line, that it has felt like a game, like I am just impersonating a commuter. The first time, approaching the trip like one of the walks, I didn't bring music or reading, not wanting to isolate myself from any aspect of the experience, but I quickly realized, watching the other commuters huddled in their shells, that isolation is now part of the experience. The second time I brought a CD player, intentionally using the big headphones that came with it instead of the ear buds I usually substitute, to exaggerate the implication that I wasn't paying attention to anything else. The subways, at commuter hours, are a very different place than they are at my more usual after-show hours, and make a lot more sense if you can't hear them. You need a shield of your own to recognize how other people's perceptions of their own shields affect their movements and attitudes. On one ride I spent almost twenty minutes standing eight feet from a woman who I initially thought was merely smoothing some lotion into her temples. As she kept at these quick, violent massage-circles, for minutes on end, I slowly realized there wasn't any lotion, and when she got a little round make-up case out of her bag, only to spend five solid minutes polishing its plastic exterior with a wadded up tissue, before embarking on an equally obsessive bout of superfluous eyebrow-penciling, it dawned on me with a lurch of nausea that there might be something seriously wrong with her. I wanted to say something, as I got off the train. "You looked fine already." Or "Excuse me, I'm a dermatologist, and you shouldn't do that." Or "Eyebrow pencil will not fool the people you're about to see into thinking you aren't crazy." But I didn't, of course. I left her there, safely encased in her invisible privacy capsule, and drifted out into the station pretending I had my own.
I never head off to work without at least half-a-dozen CDs in my bag for the day's listening, but the one I was playing on the first accompanied commute, Ben Folds' Rockin' the Suburbs, seemed so perfectly suited that I ended up just leaving it in my portable player. It was assertive enough to block out external noises, but not so immersing that I was likely to lapse into involuntary air-drumming or cease responding to my environment. The office/dealership trip takes about a playing and a half, and the walk all the way from my office to my house, one serene evening when Marco was on a sleep-over, takes about two. Many people have theorized that these terrorist attacks will end up having brought about the end of irony as a dominant cultural mindset, and although I think that's unlikely, we won't be able to meaningfully evaluate the contention for some time. The best we can do, for the moment, is try to understand what the state of the art was in ironic detachment before the attacks, and short of a Beck album with an 11 September release date, there can't be many better subjects for that inquiry than Ben Folds' first official solo album (which was, in fact, released on the eleventh). Not only were the Ben Folds Five geeky in physical presence and omni-deprecatory in lyrics, arguably they were one of the few bands, among hundreds with variously ironic demeanors, whose instrumental style was itself ironic. Maybe not Darren Jessee's drumming, but certainly Robert Sledge's fuzzed bass, and definitely Folds own clanging piano and plaintive voice, which always made me imagine the Beastie Boys staging a mock-Elton-John pageant. I sat out the twiddly Fear of Pop side-project album, but I like The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner, the final Ben Folds Five album, even after enough time has gone by for me to have had second thoughts, so maybe a solo album would be OK.
The solo album, actually, sounds essentially no different from the Ben Folds Five records. Folds plays everything himself here, but he plays the bass like Sledge, and drums like Jessee, and John Mark Painter supplies the string arrangements again, and an exasperated librarian somewhere inside my head complains that if he was going to sound the same without the band as with, he could have saved us a lot of alphabetization headaches by trading under his own name from the beginning. Folds' piano and singing were starting to sound subtlely less ironic to me on The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner, and although of course it's hard to tell how much of that was his style evolving and how much was me acclimating to a style standing still, whichever process it was has remained in effect through Rockin' the Suburbs, which I'm able to listen to without almost ever thinking it's a parody of anything. "Annie Waits" hangs on a simple, chiming, redemptive piano hook. "Zak and Sara" twirls on arpeggios, cymbal splashes and sighing harmonies, like a dB's song dreaming of growing up to be Supertramp. "Still Fighting It" is a grand, methodical ballad, "Gone" an expansive 3/4 strut, "Fred Jones Part 2" a mournful, string-lined elegy. "The Ascent of Stan" is distracted and falsetto, but "Losing Lisa" is a bouncy pop flourish worthy of a Randy Newman Sesame Street appearance. "Carrying Cathy" is probably the album's most conventional piano ballad, bass and strings underscoring any figures whose symbolic poignancy might otherwise have been overlooked, but "Not the Same" is an incipient Jellyfish anthem and "Rockin' the Suburbs" is a shameless gimmick-rock blow-out. Even if you didn't speak the language, though, you'd begin to wonder about the contents when the album doesn't end with what feels so much like a glib finale. "Fired" edges sideways into a blowzy rave-up maybe derived from the Beach Boys and the Doobie Brothers by way of Velvet Crush and somebody's bootleg General MIDI transcriptions of Little Richard. And "The Luckiest", which is the finale, is a deadpan lullaby, and you don't have to know what the words are to tell, from the sound of them, that whatever vulnerable sentiment they betray is still there at the end, unprotected, hoping you'll go back and learn what they mean after all.
And yes, "Rockin' the Suburbs" itself is a merciless, name-dropping, hook-stealing, profanity-brandishing, race-issue-trivializing, ridiculous self-parodying novelty track. But take that one song out and you'll have a hard time finding another moment of insincerity anywhere on the record. "Annie Waits" is a touching portrait of a too-tolerant girlfriend whose narrator claims "This is why I'd rather be alone" in the middle, to deny any personal stake, only to betray the truth ("Annie waits, / But not for me") right at the end. "Zak and Sara" starts off with what could easily have been the beginning of an epic cheap-shot ("Sara spelled without an 'h' was getting bored / On a Peavey amp in 1984 / While Zak without a 'c' tried out some new guitars, / Playing Sara-with-no-'h''s favorite song"), but quickly veers off in its own peculiar directions ("Zak called his dad about layaway plans; / Sara told the friendly salesmen that / 'You'll all die in your cars'"). "Gone" is a rare post-breakup letter to the old lover that manages to sound earnestly non-recriminatory. "Fred Jones Part 2" falls back on the somewhat underutilized rock trope of the last work day of an old laid-off office drone, but outlines some of the salient details with unexpected precision ("There's an awkward young shadow that waits in the hall" captures the security guard sent to walk him out; "And no one is left here that knows his first name" freezes everybody else in reciprocal anonymity), and reaches another level of empathy entirely by following the man home and adding an unexpected coda as he tries to go on with his life. "Fred gets his paints out and goes to the basement, / Projecting some slides onto a plain white / Canvas and traces it, fills in the spaces. / He turns off the slides / And it doesn't look right." "Losing Lisa", despite the ebullient music, is a bleakly confused relationship song. "Fired" is an odd song about someone who changes every room just by walking into it and wishes desperately she didn't.
But four songs, scattered among the dozen here, are why I think this album is not just sincere, but courageous, and why irony was always a problem that would solve itself when it finally felt like it, without anybody needing to fly airplanes into buildings to try to accelerate the process. "Still Fighting It" starts out with some irrelevant detail about fast-food prices (the printed lyrics point out that the $9.95 quoted for a roast-beef combo is in Australian dollars), but then says two helplessly simple things, "It hurts to grow up" and "It's so weird to be back here", and admitting to being paralyzed by banalities is the first step towards universality. If you only listened to the choruses, you might mistake "Carrying Cathy" for a particularly cruel put-down (the "carrying" is metaphorical the first few times, but the last time it's her funeral), but the verses in between provide the details of both Cathy's painful and probably manic-depressive life (including the arrestingly poetic touch of turning the opening couplet, "Her window was hung like a painting, / She worried it might come to life", into the logistical and emotional explanation of her suicide, "Then one night she climbed into the picture frame, / Out into frozen air and out of sight"), and of the narrator's confused attempt to save her from it (a doomed relationship dynamic rendered vividly by his useless protest to his friends "You don't understand, / She's different when it's just me and her"). Where "Not the Same" is going, or ends up, I couldn't tell you, but I'm sure the bits in the middle, where somebody climbs a tree during a drug trip at a party and somehow in the process of coming down becomes born again, are the start of something. And then "The Luckiest", at the end, is a pure, uncluttered love song. "What if I'd been born / Fifty years before you," he wonders, "In a house / On the street where you live. / Maybe I'd be outside / As you passed on your bike. / Would I know?" "I'm sorry, I know that's a / Strange way to tell you that I know / We belong". And although I know it sometimes seems otherwise, especially from afar, and sometimes frankly from right up close as well, this, and not World Trade, is what we've built our cities for. Our policies in the Middle East? Most of us don't even know what they are. Yes, soulless corporate imperialism cannot be excused on the grounds that the workers don't really understand what they are cogs in, and yes, irony is symptomatic of a culture cut morally adrift. But by the same token, you cannot kill the corporations by killing the individual human beings trapped in them. None of those people who died in the World Trade Center or the Pentagon or on those planes lived there. They lived in houses you could sit outside of, on streets you could bike down, or some trivial structural variation thereof. They fell in love with each other, or with other people, or they wondered how their lives would be different if they hadn't. Their personal goals and struggles were so epically inconsequential that there was nothing to be gained in any moral system for killing them, and so heartbreakingly hopeless and beautiful that there was nothing even to be sought. As spiritual critique, the attacks were a total failure. Even as we count the dead, songs we wrote months ago are becoming anthems of our resilience of their own accord. "The Luckiest" would have been nothing more than an unassuming love song, but now when I hear it I see the face of a widow whose husband died on one of the planes, on TV a few days later saying that she -- that they -- had no regrets. I see David Letterman, in many ways far more iconic than the towers, back on TV after the attacks saying that New York City is the greatest city in the world. I see an entire nation of people, with all their flaws and ignorances and weaknesses and complicity, driven not to fear, or doubt, or a new awareness, or anything any enemy might have profited from, but to a violent confidence they probably didn't even think about before, that all these things, attacks and divisions and hypocrisy and mindless reactions and mock solemnity and real solemnity, however chaotic, and maybe especially in their incomprehensible chaos, are the birthmarks of providence. If you have attacked a people for doing their moral reasoning in movies, all you've done is prove that the movies are germane. If you have attacked a mediocre people, believing us devils, then now we think we're angels. You have broken homes, and now we will be in love forever.
Slayer: God Hates Us All
Some media can react instantly to events. The TV networks yank their premieres, power up their crisis centers, and switch to twenty-four-hour recapitulation of what is never, even this time, twenty-four hours' worth of news. Most other entertainment media have lag-time to deal with. Thus the intense surrealism, after the attacks, that they figured into every page of the newspaper, ads and content alike, except for the comics, where in the midst of the biggest American news story in half a century, Doonesbury was left still complaining about TV networks obsessing over a missing intern. Any movie with terrorist and/or urban-disaster elements will be deferred, with the bizarre result that when they finally do come out they'll probably be competing with dramatizations of the same real events they're trying to avoid resembling. A few imminent albums will be hastily tweaked. A couple may even be recalled and revised. But most of the ones that were already out, are already out, and if coincidence has rendered them poignant or excruciating or irrelevant in ways their authors couldn't have anticipated, so be it. Slayer does not negotiate with terrorists.
And never mind the disaster movies, any sane list of the ostensibly harmless things scheduled for 11 September 2001 that ought to have been retracted and rethought would begin with God Hates Us All, the new Slayer album. I don't think "ironic" is quite the right word, nor is it entirely accurate to say we didn't believe Slayer were serious before, but there was always a tacit understanding that their songs were portraits of possible attitudes, or examinations of what it might be like to believe horrible things, or somehow removed, at least one level, from their literal texts. This saving conceit always turned out to be more than a little difficult to sustain when I really scrutinized their songs, but I managed.
This time, it's impossible. God Hates Us All is the sickening, horrifying, unmistakable collective embodiment of every nihilistic, self-righteous, closed-minded hatred on the planet. There's no point in taking this album back and redoing any of it to be "cognizant" of the terrorist attacks the day it came out, it's already about every impulse that could have produced them. If the coming conflict really does turn out to be a radical Islamic jihad against the equally self-convinced retaliatory forces of Western "freedom", then nearly every song on this record could be a crazed diatribe from either perspective, or from three or four even uglier ones yet to emerge. It is an album of blind, unreasoning, intolerant rage. If Slayer have any regrets, listening to it again in what they now know will be its context, I have a feeling they're that terrorism is only explicitly cited once, that they didn't think to piss on a Koran while they were itemizing corrupt holy books, and that any number of momentary instrumental breaks in these songs could have been improved by having "Holy Fucking War!!!" screamed over them. Even according to the criteria by which Slayer albums are usually evaluated, this is probably their new masterpiece. It is far more bracing, musically, than many faster or doomier records, and Tom Araya's howling vocals seem to me to be at least an order of magnitude more menacing than the now-standard death-metal genre growl. The songs skid along the edges of dementia and emotional melt-down, and their succession is gruesomely relentless and remorselessly undifferentiated. This is what it sounds like inside a Bosch nightmare. This is what it feels like to listen to somebody chewing their own arm off because they don't have any other blunt object handy to beat you to a pulp with, except that every time they gnaw through the last sinew and you think the asylum of bludgeoned unconsciousness is near, a track ends, the mangled arm is miraculously reattached, and they start chewing again. Splatter-comic rap-metal is moot, Marilyn Manson effete, the worst punk merely petulant, the nastiest gangsta-rap gravely outclassed. And if the intent of this record is to disentangle the animus of violence from the knot of our motivations, rip it out and hold it up, dripping viscera, so we can see exactly what evil lurks inside of us, then for me it transcends Slayer's corpus and may stand as one of the most successful works of art ever executed in music, as compelling and convincing a rendition of hatred as Runrig's Amazing Things is of awe. I'm sure some significant amount of this reading depends on my existing exposure and openness to grim speed metal, so I'm not claiming this music has pan-cultural resonance (nor does Runrig's, for that matter), or that it wouldn't simply bore you. Would I have come to the same judgment, myself, if I'd heard it earlier in the summer, some calm Thursday evening after a victorious softball game, planet-consuming hatred far from my mind? Who knows, time no longer rewinds that way. It came out the day of the attacks, and I heard it a week later, when I finally got back to a record store, and now to me it constitutes the most elemental possible reaction to the events. You've almost certainly spent more than fifteen dollars and forty-three minutes absorbing alternate perspectives on recent events, already, and this one is more important than most of them. You should hear it.
Because although never in my most exhaustion-addled dreams would I have expected to cite a Slayer album for revealing socio-critical insight, I've come to the terrifying conclusion that this album represents the single most cogent assessment of the state of the world, the source of its pain, and the nature of the only solution. As of the early morning hours, 27 September, we still don't know who planned and executed these attacks, nor why, but religion has become the medium of discourse for the responses, and it's incalculably difficult to imagine that it wasn't an integral part of the hijackers' willingness to die. They must have thought an afterlife awaited them. Except in isolated moments of disorganized panic, which carefully choreographed plane hijackings are assuredly not, you do not kill people, against every fundamental civil and religious stricture, unless you believe that the ultimate authority to which you are accountable for your actions transcends all mortal rules. You do not consciously commit abominations on this earth unless you believe there is a higher context in which they are justified. "What if there is no God, would you think the fucking same? / Wasting your life in a leap of blind faith?", Kerry King asks in "Disciple". This is a loophole in moral reasoning that we can no longer afford. Religion is not just a primitive phenomenon, and a primitive crutch, it is a primitive luxury. We cannot occupy a planet together unless we agree to be accountable for our actions and decisions here. We cannot live together unless we agree on a set of mortal laws for which there is no higher appeal. This is the unpleasantly credible point of "God hates us all": religion is destroying us. Or, phrased the other way, religion is the last thing with the power to prevent us from saving ourselves.
So here is what I'm sure will be a wildly unpopular thought experiment. Stipulate that historically every major world religion has been the agent and/or victim of massive human injustice. Stipulate temporarily that the motivation for these recent terrorist attacks was exclusionary militant-fringe Islamic ideology. Stipulate that if this last thing is true, and we're not ready to pack people into colony ships and send them elsewhere, then there will be no lasting solution short of eradicating an entire culture (which in theory could be done through conversion, but in practice will be attempted with bombs). Now ask yourself this question: would you renounce your god if it were necessary for world peace? I don't mean just stop going to church, and I don't mean only if your church espouses exemptions to "thou shalt not kill". And I don't mean would you say you'd relinquished your beliefs, and for the purposes of this experiment I don't care whether this is a practical solution on a global level. This is a personal question for you to pose to yourself: If we were to conclude, collectively and reluctantly, that Slayer and I are right, that God hates us and we can only survive without him, would you and could you utterly cast him out of your heart? For atheists, agnostics and borderline believers of some of the less bureaucratic religions, this may not be a very big deal, but I'm fully aware of the potential enormity of the question for much of the planet. If you believe that there is an infinite afterlife that consists of either bliss or torment, based on an evaluation, after your death, of your adherence to religious laws that are not subject to mortal adjustment, then I am asking you whether you are willing to jeopardize eternity by living the rest of your life, and raising every subsequent generation, in the complete absence of your religion and its guidelines, no matter how beneficent they seem, obeying only a human moral code that centers all responsibility and accountability in what you believe to be a transient physical world. Don't assume you know what this code would consist of; if we accept the burden of ultimate accountability, we may reach different conclusions on some issues than the positions we currently think of as "secular", and we will probably make some rules for our collective benefit that contradict your own personal moral imperatives. And don't even think about caviling for exceptions. "Keeping kosher doesn't lead to killing people", somebody will quickly object. But the social mechanism of keeping kosher amounts to prominent exclusionism, and the rules involved are a glaring example, taught to children at an age when their parameters for moral reasoning are still being established, of arbitrary doctrine that cannot be justified in any rational manner. The same goes for every other incidental religious prohibition, from blasphemy to idolatry to contraception. If this brutal hypothesis is true, then every remnant of these belief systems is socially toxic, a seed of division and distrust. So I ask again: Are you willing, if in fact we can find no other solution, to live strictly by mortal laws and trust that at your final judgment, if there is one after all, your penalty points for arbitrary doctrinal transgressions will be more than canceled out by your having participated in salvaging an imperiled human species? Unless you can say yes, and believe it, believe that your soul can be entrusted to the crazy people around you on the train, or in the buildings you walk past, or in countries you only see on television, then how can you possibly expect a jihad to stop? Unless you can stand up to your god, you whose god probably doesn't even ask you for that much, and whom you probably think doesn't hate you, then how can anybody? And if we cannot take responsibility for our own lives, all of us, then how can we expect to keep them?