A Sea of Painted Faces and the Waiting Arms of the World
384 · 6 June 02
Idlewild: You Held the World in Your Arms
Music is what humans are best at. We have always made music, and our species' history, if it continues, will be a fitful, incremental and often excruciatingly slow evolution into creatures ever more willing and inclined to make music instead of whatever else they could be doing. This is the single biggest thing I believe I understand, and the one I most ardently and desperately hope to never decide I was wrong about. When the aliens come, and we join the galactic community, our economic participation will take three forms: tourism, because every place is strange and fascinating to somebody; the carefully-metered export of some native substance we don't really need that turns out to have hallucinogenic properties and a delightful fizzy texture for sybaritic mold-blobs from Denares VI; and music, to any place where the atmosphere is thick and thin enough to vibrate.
Tourism, of course, is as much about seeing what the funny creatures do as it is about seeing their funny plate-tectonics. And when the mold-blobs visit, on the days in between their marathon binges on sulfur-cured crab-apple stems (or whatever it is), they will want to go see us play soccer.
I don't understand sport the way I understand music. Or, put more accurately, I feel that I understand music, on some essential level, and I don't feel any similar surety about sport. I don't know if I think competition is necessary, or whether I believe sport is one of those things, like politics and multi-level marketing, that music will gradually displace. Athletic competition is a form of sublimated violence, and maybe the ultimate conclusion of the sublimation process is the elimination of all forms and heirs of violence, and we will simply lose interest.
But you and I will not live that long. For now, our food-chain origins still haunt us, and we have invented games in the hopes of exorcising our compulsions without killing each other. (Not, mind you, that killing each other itself has fallen completely out of favor yet.) The best game we have come up with, so far, is soccer. Soccer is still flawed (it should be more self-administrating, and less vulnerable to cynicism, and I don't know whether those are contradictory or complementary), but it's superior to everything else we've tried, both in theory and in enthusiastic practice. As best I can tell from some cursory statistic spelunking, there are just under two hundred countries on this planet at the moment, and just over two hundred "national" associations that belong to FIFA, so arguably politics is losing to soccer already. My spreadsheets counts 6,138,881,102 human beings on the Earth, all but 374,461 of which live in countries that participate, in some form, in international soccer. Every four years, from all these people, and all these countries, representative athletes are selected, and between them a belief-defying planet-spanning tournament is staged. (Two tournaments, actually, but the women's one is not yet as belief-defying and planet-spanning as the men's.) The last few games of this tournament are, in case you are so oblivious to human culture not to have noticed, being played this month in Korea and Japan.
The country I live in is called the United States of America. It is a preeminent world power in many fields of endeavor, and soccer is not, relatively speaking, one of them. We are embarrassingly insular, and antisocially apt to invent our own harebrained versions of perfectly good human things, so we've amassed our own voluminous repertoire of variously entertaining sports, and soccer does not receive our best attention, nor our best athletes. Our national team was good enough at it to qualify for the final thirty-two-country tournament in 1998, but lost all three of our games, and for the last four years we have had to listen to gleeful morons assert, obtusely, that we came in "last" place, as if they'd never encountered the idea of an elimination tournament in any other sport before. But we were good enough to qualify for the finals again, this time around, and so the US team is there, half a planet from home, to play against Portugal, Poland and South Korea.
We will lose. Everybody will lose. There are two hundred and four nations in FIFA, and two hundred and three of them will end this tournament by losing. One hundred seventy two of them already lost along the way. One hundred and ninety seven of those countries have never won the World Cup, and the seven who have have also lost it more often than they've won it. Sport, it is often said, is about winning. This could not be more wrong. Sport is about losing. In international soccer perhaps more overtly than anywhere else, anything your defeats lack in frequency, they will make up for in magnitude. We will lose. You will lose. Sport is not about winning, and never epitomized by victories, it is about the manner in which, when you finally lose, you lose. The American disgrace in 1998 was not losing, it was losing without grace, losing without joy or intensity, losing like the players forgot that they represent us in defeat even more than they could ever represent us in victory.
One day the United States may have a soccer team good enough to win the World Cup. Clearly we have the resources, and await only willingness and dedication. Will they come? I don't know. Give us time. We're still trying to work out a way for a quarter of a billion people to foot the living expenses of the couple hundred most talented soccer players, so they have a chance to develop their skills. In baseball and basketball and American football we have massive celebrity and astonishing wealth; in soccer, in 2002, we have cult heroes, and Spanish television in the middle of the night. Our team of cult heroes has gone to Korea to play three soccer games (and maybe no more) that for much of the rest of the world will do more to explicate our national character as any missile we fire or soda we export. They have gone to play, and they will lose. One day we might have a team good enough to win the World Cup, but this one is not it. We will lose.
But not yet. A few hours ago, as I write, the United States men's national team played its first match in the 2002 World Cup finals. The opponent was Portugal, a once-great colonial power now reduced to a peninsula nation with fewer people than New York City. In Portugal, however, they take soccer very seriously, and their team is very good. Luis Figo, current worldwide Player of the Year, plays for Portugal, and most pre-tournament analyses ranked them comfortably in the top ten, with the US comfortably in the bottom ten. The wildest American hopes were for a draw, and even those dissipated, as the game approached, as injuries depleted the line-up. The team took the field, at 4:55am 5 June 2002 EDT, without world-class goalkeeper Kasey Keller (benched with nagging injuries), without integral defensive midfielder Chris Armas (at home rehabbing an ACL torn in the third to last of what were only supposed to be warm-up games), without team captain and playmaker Claudio Reyna (nursing a damaged quadriceps), and without inspirational goal-scorer Clint Mathis (more knee injuries). After four years of building a solid, functioning team, Bruce Arena was forced to deploy a last-minute makeshift formation essentially missing its spine. In place of Mathis, a twenty-year-old who before last year was playing for a reserve team in Germany; in place of Armas, a converted defender who did not appear in a single qualifying match; in place of Reyna, depending on how you looked at it, either a converted defensive midfielder, or else play-making by committee; at left wing, former Revolution prospect Jamar Beasley's one-hundred-twenty-five-pound younger brother, officially the smallest creature in the whole tournament.
My simple-sounding plan to shift my sleep schedule seven hours back, so I could watch all sixty-four World Cup games live on television, has so far been a fairly abject disaster in execution. I have seen the games, except for nodding off during about ten minutes of the second half of Japan/Belgium and the last thirteen of Korea/Poland, but I've been basically useless for anything else. I had foolishly hoped that since my sleep habits are so poor in the best of times, they wouldn't have much strength to protest when I changed them intentionally. What I underestimated was that although I don't sleep enough, my wake/sleep patterns are extremely regular. I get up when coerced, I go to work, I come home, and I stay up until I collapse. I assumed that the hard part of reversing this would be convincing my body to treat 7pm as 2am, despite contradictory light- and sound-cues. In fact, the hard part, hard enough that I have not completed an entire day's cycle of the prescribed schedule, is convincing my brain that the important part of my day does not begin when I get home. The chemistry of lactic acid turns out to be trivial compared to the dynamics of all the things that build up in my head during eight hours of work. By the time I get home, I am in no state to sleep. I am in a state to play Scrabble, or practice kanji, or read old soccer books, or listen to death metal or Bump of Chicken, or pretend I know a fretless bass works, or watch Hope Floats again, or pan-sear scallops, or swing by the grocery store to see if the red-headed girl is there. So I go to bed, knowing I need to but wanting to do anything else, and lie there uselessly awake. When I eventually drift off, for not nearly long enough, I am plagued by visions. The Cup brackets and the Scrabble board merge, one night, and the whole tournament cannot proceed until I find somewhere to hook QIVIUTS for at least eighty four. Another night my coffee maker, which in reality has exactly two buttons, one of which I never use, has somehow become programmable, and I am required to re-implement the algorithms anew each time I want a pot brewed. I wake up with the clock reading 10:34, and it takes me thirty seconds to decide whether the little red dot means "pm", or "alarm on". I wake up with the clock reading 11:15, and momentarily have no idea whether I have slept through a match, work, both or neither. I stumble through the work day, checking every spec I'm supposed to approve twice to make sure I haven't imagined any of it. I need a piece of paper and a pen to work out whether I've had enough meals in the last twenty-four hours, or too many. After years of practice, I can play through one near-all-nighter a week, every week. But this turns out to be a specific adaptation, not a general flexibility. Pervert my sleep schedule any other way, and I am a hallucinating wreck.
You could hardly ask for a more deranged manifestation of my lost hold on reality than the series of absurd delusions that came over me this morning when I was supposed to be watching the US try to keep the Portugal game close. I dreamed that we got a corner kick in the fourth minute, and John O'Brien, who looks alarmingly like my best friend Mike when we were kids, banged in a rebound to spot us a 1-0 lead before the game had really even begun. I dreamed that Landon Donovan, trying to serve a cross from way out on the right wing, banked a Harlem Globetrotters shot off the side of a defender's head, the goalie's left hand and the inside of the near post into the goal, 2-0. I dreamed that Tony Sanneh floated another cross in, a few minutes later, and two great Portuguese defenders politely fanned out to give Brian McBride plenty of room for a diving 3-0 header. I dreamed that I kept calling my sister, after each goal, and neither of us could do anything but gasp hysterically into the phone. I dreamed that the Portuguese got one back before halftime, but the Americans didn't crumble. I dreamed that Jeff Agoos, playing in his first World Cup match after a decade of crushed hopes, got himself into the highlights with an own-goal that had all the grace of a cerebral hemorrhage in mid-pole-vault, and it didn't matter. I dreamed that after four years of looking for a credible left back, anywhere on the planet, who was willing to marry an American girl, we played Frankie Hejduk there and he got through ninety minutes without costing us a single goal. I dreamed that we played the second half without Earnie Stewart, either, and even had to pull Eddie Pope before it was over, and still didn't fall apart. I dreamed that Figo, the best player in the world, spent the whole game within twenty yards of the left midfield flag, alternately kicking balls out of bounds and waiting, scowling, for the Americans to throw them in again. I dreamed that for the last ten minutes of a game against one of the best teams on the planet, a game that counts, for which there could ultimately be no excuses from anybody, Cobi Jones, DaMarcus Beasley, Joe-Max Moore and Tony Sanneh took turns running the ball into the corner and standing on it. Portugal eventually won, of course, not even a dream could prevent that, but we lost in style. We lost proudly. We lost in a manner befitting a true peer in the community of nations. Whatever American soccer does or doesn't accomplish, from now on, we have a moment we can remember, a game when we were human beings.
And it's later now, and I've had some sleep, and it's hard to believe what the net is telling me, but I can't see how anybody could have mounted a prank this comprehensive so quickly. Apparently all of those visions, save the last one, took place on my TV screen, not just my visual cortex, and other people saw them, too. And in the end, with Cobi and Joe-Max playing keep-away, there was no miracle for Portugal. Three minutes of stoppage time ebbed agonizingly away, and the game ended. US 3, Portugal 2, and I was watching. If this turns out to be my greatest moment as a lifelong soccer fan, that will be fine. I wake up to find people not debating whether it happened, but searching for criteria by which to say whether this is a bigger upset than former French colony Senegal nipping defending champions France 1-0 in the opener, or bigger than once-British-colony America tweaking England 1-0 in Brazil in 1950, or bigger than the North Koreans outlasting Italy 1-0 in England in 1966.
But a 1-0 upset requires one breath of luck and ninety minutes of murderous dedication. A 3-2 upset, and especially a 3-2 upset that went 1-0 2-0 3-0 3-1 3-2, is the stuff of epics, a ballad of momentum swings and disbelief and hopes and terrors. Sport is a catalog of metaphors, and there are many schemas for fleeting triumph (among them Russia patiently waiting for Tunisia to make two errors two and a half hours before, or Ireland's last-minute tie-as-win equalizer against Germany two and a half hours later), but this one will do. Maybe this one is more definingly American than the others, anyway, taking a surprise lead and then doggedly holding off the inevitable comeback. And the sensation of victory is, of course, as temporary as always. We have to play energized co-hosts (and, incredibly, co-group-leaders) South Korea next, and then a presumably well-chastened Poland, and all sorts of bad things could still happen. It is never too late for a new disgrace. If we squeak through the first round, somebody will trounce us in the second. Or maybe we'll eke out another improbable 1-0, only to get obliterated in the quarterfinals. Or maybe we'll win it all, standing the entire soccer world (and thus the entire world) on its back pole, only to get mulched by St. Vincent and the Grenadines in the qualifying for Germany 2006. None of that will diminish this moment. More: your defeats, past and future, frame your victories, give them context, give them substance. Thank Sanneh and Donovan and McBride for this one, if you want, but the real list is so much longer, a roll call of everybody who threw themselves in the path of failure to get us here, with blanks for everyone who will carry us into and out of darkness in years to come. Thank you to Joe Gaetjens and Paul Caligiuri for the goals in 1950 and 1989. Thank you to Lothar Osiander, Bob Gansler, Bora Milutinovic and Steve Sampson for all the ideas that didn't work. Thank you to Alexi Lalas' hair and records. Thank you to Mike Burns for a selfless international career now forever reduced to that one ball slipping under his arm. Thank you to Tony Meola for abandoning the Wizards to Bo Oshoniyi in order to sit on a Korean bench watching Friedel and Keller. Thank you to Jason Kreis and Steve Ralston and Roy Lassiter for enviable professional careers that never translated to anything at the international level. Thank you to Ante Razov and Tab Ramos for scoring goals in qualifying and then having to stay home. Thank you to Stern John for the T&T goal that beat Honduras so that the US could qualify in the first international game after 11 September. Thank you to everyone who didn't believe, and everyone who still won't be converted, and everybody too busy coping with their own metaphors to notice. Forget the Dream Team's showboat routs, the Cold War fuck-you of the Miracle on Ice, all the plucky Toms River urchins. We constructed those triumphs, wrote their rules. This one is bigger. Once, one summer day in 2002, we played the world's game well.
And I wouldn't have predicted that I'd have a soundtrack for this. We don't do Cup songs, in the US, and unless you're Scotland you're in a bad position to criticize, since your Cup songs invariably suck. I'm an album listener, anyway, and my shredded consciousness doesn't have any album-length spaces in it at the moment, and isn't likely to until the match pace lets up for the quarterfinals. At work I ratchet through albums five minutes at a time, in the car ten, in between games twenty. The pile of things I haven't listened to at all yet is manageable, but the pile of things I've only played once or twice is getting worrisome. Music is still in my mind and heart, but albums have temporarily lost their place in my schedule. Singles have a better chance; there are halftimes, after all.
And in this compressed frame of mind, two singles strung together are actually enough to feel like an album to me, anyway. I'm so frayed that even repeating the title track helps. But after a few weeks of listening to these two Idlewild singles with increasingly obsessive fondness, it takes an effort of will for me to remember that there is an album on the way, and to imagine how good it must be that four of these five tracks won't be on it. Every previous British band like this has disappointed me, I think, certainly Stereophonics and Longpigs and Travis and Marion, and plenty of vaguely similar American bands along with them (most notably Everclear). But with the World Cup in Asia, and my desk littered with J-pop, but Pedro the Lion and the Reputation campaigning again for rock, a brash British guitar-rock band feels as American to me as anything.
And football songs usually feel obliged to talk about football, understandably, but if sport is metaphor, to begin with, then there's no good reason why its anthems can't be metaphorical as well. "What if you held the world in your arms?", Roddy Woomble repeats until it becomes a mantra, and as we gamely play our grandest tournament of sportsmanship and common values under the shadows of terrorism and suicide bombing and missile posturing (by, I note, countries whose teams got eliminated a while ago), a love song to the world seems just about perfect to me. Flip the channel to news, and there's somebody from Johns Hopkins dryly estimating how many people a nuclear war between India and Pakistan would kill; flip back to Univision and two guys are yelling in Spanish over BBC pictures of a stadium full of ecstatic Japanese with Swedish flags painted on their faces. I want to believe that every human alive instinctively knows which of these two is an image of insanity, but obviously if that was true, the news channels would be carrying nothing but the Cup, too. "It takes a certain amount of originality to describe this place as home", Idlewild sigh on "All This Information", and that's as close as anything to how I feel, suspended between loving humanity and fearing for it.
"You Held the World in Your Arms" is epic in arrangement, as well, sawing strings criss-crossing around the gnashing guitars and firmly whacked drums. "All This Information", the first part-one b-side, is simpler, opening with just vocals and a bleary guitar-hook before the drums and bass and shards of hoarse backing vocals smash their way in. "No Generation", the second, starts with a blast of noise, but reverts quickly to churning guitar and clattering drums. I've stopped, finally, worrying that Idlewild will slip into pop lilt à la Teenage Fanclub, or clipped snideness à la most American bands currently operating in this aesthetic. Woomble's muted bellow risks weariness on the way to wisdom, and resignation on the way to affection, and ends up something like Johnny Rotten or Richard Butler without the snarling disdain, as if the working class has finally realized that class-war is the wrong distraction.
Usually when I listen to pairs of singles I skip the title track on part two, but with these two it's never felt necessary or appropriate. These six tracks cohere so tightly, for me, that the recurrence of "You Held the World in Your Arms" feels less like the same song again than like a meta-chorus, or a restatement of the theme in preparation for the second set of variations. "You're convinced that where you're born is where you're from", Woomble observes in "A Distant History", the first b-side on part two, mirroring the questions about place and presence in "All This Information". The song leaps into keening, distorted guitar blurs in the choruses, and out again into little barbed, squawking riffs around the margins of the verses. "I Was Made to Think It", the sixth and final track, is in parts anxious and redemptive, choppy and anthemic, directed and adrift, won and lost. Big Country are gone, and Everclear might as well be, and the Reputation aren't ready for stadiums, and so as the world celebrates, and I grope for music during the commercials, I'm currently between nominees for the World's Best Rock Band. But if the new Idlewild album is even better than these singles, they may be in line, and even if it isn't, for today they'll do. For another one hundred and twenty hours you can't even prove that the US aren't the best soccer team on the planet, so how will you ever disagree with me about bands? "Moments follow one another", they sing, and the clock in the corner of the screen counts implacably towards ninety. "It's not right; it's not supposed to be right." Somebody shoots high, and the ball sails into the waiting crowd. Into a sea of painted faces and the waiting arms of the world.