Thursday, November 30, 2006

Not the Top 1043 Classic Rock Songs of All Time!

Start with this: "Hey Jude" is 4th in the list of the Top 1043 Classic Rock Songs of 2006, according to the listeners of Clearchannel's Q104.3 FM Thanksgiving weekend poll, and "Let It Be" checks in at #10. These two late, sentimental McCartney ballads I take as signs of the deteriorating state of the Beatles' relationship, their inability to continue the creative studio work that had poured out over the previous three years, the fading of that multilayered instrumental brilliance that inhabits most of their later work, and a lack of collaboration that depleted even the infectious harmonies that were their trademark since "Please Please Me". Yet these soporific cuts sit 1000 places or so higher, in the collective estimation of New York's "classic rock" audience, than such energy-charged compositions as "We Can Work It Out" (next to last on the list at #1042), "Taxman" (1032), "She Said She Said" (1026), and "Nowhere Man" (978).

So apparently the slow and mournful ballad still reigns supreme, as it has for forty years, since songs like Procol Harum's "Whiter Shade of Pale" (still tripping the light fandango at 285) and Chicago's "Color My World" (as time goes on it drops off the radar) typically topped lists of this sort. Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Freebird" checks in as the third best song of all time(!); nobody seems to have noticed yet that it is by far the worst of their three songs (or is it four?) , with lyrics based around a tired cliche and an excessively long guitar break that lacks spontaneity. I've often wondered whether anyone would notice if the guitar breaks in "Freebird" and "Hotel California" were switched. The Eagles' singalong ends up all the way down at #12 "of all time" in spite of the best efforts of Q104.3 DJ's to play it so often that we hear it in our dreams. Pink Floyd's "Brain Damage/Eclipse" (35), surely the least inspired number on their most inspired album, "Shine on You Crazy Diamond" (31), and "Wish You Were Here"(13), all of which the station seems to have on a short tape loop, are not without many virtues; but again, it is curious that these lethargic anthems receive more votes than any of the equally tuneful but more energetic numbers on the same albums, like "Have a Cigar", "Money" or "That Great Big Gig in the Sky" (to say nothing of their more decidedly progressive earlier numbers - say, "Interstellar Overdrive").

And that's just the beginning. The biggest issue for me, as I suspect it would be for the vast majority of rock and roll fans I have known closely over several decades, is how the plethora of aesthetically challenged noise from the late 1970's and 80's that dominates this list would even make it onto a list of the top 1,000,043 songs of all time. Okay - I have come to accept, if not love, a precious few of these unavoidable numbers, like Aerosmith's "Sweet Emotion" (52), Boston's "More Than a Feeling" (51), and Ozzy Osbourne's "Crazy Train" (116). But these are exceptions that prove the rule. Well, rules. There are slightly different ones for the various subspecies of bad Top 40 music from this era. In the heavy metal corner the rule is: "Don't sing, scream; play the guitar very loud and fast but without taste; and don't have anything to say that is not typically said in bathrooms, at raucous parties, or between drivers vying for a lane". And this class is represented in the list at frequent intervals by their leaders, Kiss, AC/DC, Metallica and Osbourne, with occasional support from respectful followers like Ted Nugent or Queensrysche.
(AC/DC is so ubiquitous here that they offer a one-band reason not to listen to this annual Thanksgiving weekend countdown, unless you envy the fate of our feathered friends on this holiday.)

Right behind this crowd is a large supply of groups for whom the rule is, "Write pretentious and musically uninspired pseudo-progressive songs, overloaded with keyboards and block harmonies, with an occasional acoustic guitar sound to give the mix a touch of quaintness". Under this heading please find entries by groups like Styx, Rush, Journey, and Kansas. (You can argue with one or another of my choices but you know what I mean.) This is the sort of stuff caused me and my friends in the late 70's and 80's to largely drop out of the radio audience. Now when I hear the introduction to Rush's "Tom Sawyer" (127) the challenge is still to change the station before I am subjected to the vocals, an option that does not always present itself in less self-important music. On the other hand, no one would think an airing of "Dust in the Wind" or "Come Sail Away" even notable enough to do anything more than take a bathroom break (thus resembling a car or soft drink commercial in more than just a musical sense). Actual card-carrying progressive groups like Yes, King Crimson, Genesis, or the less popular Gentle Giant and Nektar, are nothing more than shadows in the Top 1043; almost the entire burden of prog is held up by Pink Floyd, though some of Genesis' more pop-ish recordings did receive a few votes. (Forget about seeing anything from The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway or Starless and Bible Black or even Close to the Edge here; what do you think this is, a ranking of creative talent?)

Third, there is the oeuvre of those singer-songwriters who at one point or another won grammys for "Best Pop Artist for Adolescents Who Never Experienced Music in the Sixties" : the ubiquitous Bob Seger, as well as Robert Palmer, Meatloaf (whose album covers suggest he would like to be classed with those evil heavy metal guys, but whose music actually sounds more like a twisted version of Elton John), Van Halen, Bon Jovi (how did he lose the "Jon"?), Bryan Adams, Dave Edmunds, and a bunch of others. Wait - where is the guy who started all this? It appears he nearly flew like an eagle right off the chart. Poor Steve Miller barely clocks in with a song or two somewhere way down in the 800's, I think. What happened? Did someone wake up and recognize that this overplayed pop was neither the successor to Elton John and David Bowie nor the predecessor to Elvis Costello and Joe Jackson, but rather a path through the woods and into the swamp? No matter how often this material is aired - and I think there are at least a half dozen songs each by Seger, Miller and Palmer (sounds like a law firm?) that I have heard often enough to recognize them by any 3-second excerpt - they do not improve with time. There were great singer-songwriters in that era and even in that genre - Bruce Springsteen is one; John Cougar (how did he lose the Mellankamp?) is another; Tom Petty yet another. At their best, these artists turned basic rock and roll into something more, reflecting in both music and lyrics a real spirit that spoke to more than the alienated suburban or small town youth who might have been their initial intended audience. So pop can do what pap does not: rise above the puerile vista from which it originates to say something more universal, and do it with crisp, original tunes that don't always sound like they were composed in an hour.

Slightly less debilitating than all this is the significant place held by what might generally be called "hard rock" groups, those which perhaps do not quite constitute a reason to take rock very seriously, but nevertheless make respectable efforts at writing serious but unpretentious songs. I'm referring to groups like Aerosmith, Foreigner, Pat Benatar, Joan Jett and the Blackhearts, Toto, Heart and a few others. They each offer some form of guitar-driven rock and roll, with sufficient momentum to draw you into the motion of their songs without quite convincing you that you have received everything you came for. If your concept of rock was formed by the British invasion, stimulated by acid rock and finally solidified by Led Zeppelin, Yes and Pink Floyd, you don't come away from a song like "Walk This Way" or "Cold As Ice" or "Hell Is For Children" or "Hold the Line" feeling like the musical ideas were brought off with as much creative energy as they could have been; but neither do you leave feeling gypped.

Well, I know this will generate some interesting comments, especially if anyone like the heavy metal aficionados I've met gets wind of this blog, but somebody other than Tipper Gore has to say it: the vast majority of this stuff is commercialized, white teeny-bopper junk, and it is a complete mockery of the whole concept of rock and roll to haul it out as belonging in the top anything other than "top overplayed undertalented pop tunes of all time". I am certain that there are entire albums full of songs that did not even make it onto this list, all of which are better than every AC/DC song. There are many groups that have one or two very fine albums, but are rather represented here by lesser work or nothing at all. Blue Oyster Cult's eponymous first album is one of the great accomplishment's in rock history; Queen's Sheer Hear Attack is work of creative genius from beginning to end; Grand Funk Railroad's Closer to Home sports consistently great songwriting, guitar-playing and vocals throughout; 10cc's The Original Soundtrack is a nearly flawless production with great songwriting and some of the most brilliant studio work ever; I can't look through the entire list (Clearchannel has made that very difficult by breaking it up into 50-song pages; they have not responded to my email request to offer a download of the complete list so I could search it), but nothing from any of these disks finds its way to the top 200 spots, and most are not represented at all. Queen, for example, is represented as usual by their overblown Bohemian Rhapsody, a schizophrenic song that barely hangs together, down from last year at #14; their second highest ranking song is the ridiculous "Fat Bottomed Girls" (90). Several other Queen songs of dubious merit appear before "Killer Queen", the most accessible but not necessarily the best song on Sheer Heart Attack, which checks in at #277 - just behind a slew of unregenerate late 70's pop and metal from AC/DC, Van Halen, Bob Seger, Rush, Kansas, Def Leppard, Metallica and Kiss (all between 258 and 272). Would one be unjustified in thinking that the goal of this list is to bury those artists who have actually at some point turned out rock music of lasting value beneath their own lesser efforts or those of trite, commercial recordings?

And that is to say nothing of the under- or mis-representation of the work of bands like Yes, Genesis, King Crimson, or, to go to another era, The Smiths, R.E.M., the Clash, the Pschedelic Furs, the B52's, the Talking Heads, or, moving backwards, Chuck Berry, the Beach Boys, the Four Tops, Jefferson Airplane, Tommy James and the Shondells, and other bands with enough great songs between them to fill all 1043 slots. The 1960's are represented mainly by the Beatles, Stones, Cream and Jimi Hendrix - who could argue with these choices, but again, aren't there 1043 songs from 1967 alone that belong on this list before a song like "Bat out of Hell" (67)?

Let's talk about Led Zeppelin.
I would replace about half of the top 50 in the list with practically any song from their first three albums, or Presence, or In Through the Out Door." Stairway to Heaven" reliably lands in the #1 spot on this list and others like it, year after year; and "Kashmir" usually makes it into the top 20 as well. "Stairway" is again a slow ballad for at least half the song, though one can hardly deny the power with which it builds toward he final climax. I suppose it is this erectile-orgasmic structure that attracts people to the song, rather than the content, which I take to be a warning about drug addiction, though it could easily be taken as an invitation to climb that stairway. (I guess it depends on whether you think having your shadow taller than your soul might be a positive state of being.) But for my money there are a dozen or so Zep songs I'd rather listen to. (What? Okay - "Good Times, Bad Times", "Dazed and Confused", "Ramble On", "Since I've Been Loving You", "No Quarter", "Achilles Last Stand"... several more.) Plenty of Zep in the list, no complaint about that, no doubt thanks to the station's constant programming of Zeppelin, including a "Get the Led Out" show that goes a little deeper than usual into their catalogue. Zep is perhaps the one group that almost no one can fail to appreciate. They were also supposedly among the worst plagiarists in rock, having been sued by Willie Dixon and others. (I recently heard a concert by acoustic guitar legend Bert Jansch, in which he played an old tune of his that I was not familiar with; and to put it bluntly, the guitar part was a dead knockoff of Page's "Black Mountain Side". Which came first? I can't say for sure, but my money is on Jansch.) They were also accused (by Bill Graham of Filmore fame) of being among the most violent and mean-spirited bands in the business. (See Graham's autobiographical Bill Graham Presents, Chapter 15.) But musically they had almost everything - consistently inventive songwriting, brilliant instrumental work, frequently interesting lyrics, even a harmony or two (at least on their first and last studio albums) - and more than that, rhythmically and musically gripping song lines than run rings around a thousand imitators.

Okay, last essay: Elton Joel and Billy John (did I get that right?) Two guys who made piano-driven rock respectable, wrote dozens of excellent songs (and a good number of lesser ones, but everyone makes mistakes...) Last year I believe Billy Joel had more songs in the Top 1043 than anyone else; this year I'm not sure, but he is certainly in there frequently. One might wonder, how can the same people vote for all those Led Zeppelin songs and all those Billy Joel songs? It doesn't make sense. But I'm not so sure about that. You see, I believe that actually, a large number of people who vote in these polls do represent something like what David Hume called "the standard of taste". That is, they are not just frequent listeners to rock music, but critical ones, and can distinguish a tune that skillfully combines the various elements that go into making a rock song from one that maybe makes you hum along or tap your feet for a minute and then thankfully goes away. For when I hear "The Stranger" or even, say, "Allentown", I feel something of the same excitement as when I hear a great Zep song: I want to congratulate the songwriter (and his or her collaborators) and say, "Great song, great job, really well done". And what more can you ask? There's a reason why rock can embrace Led Zeppelin and Billy Joel (or, say, Bob Dylan if you prefer), Yes and Elton John; why John Lennon's quiet "Imagine" checks in at #15, just four places behind Zep's psychotic "Kashmir" :
as an art form, it allows tremendous flexibility in the nature of the underlying composition, but is pretty unforgiving in how you bring it off. Thus almost the whole second disk of Zep's Physical Graffiti seems to me pretty useless, the first disk consistently brilliant. Same style, but one group works, the other doesn't. Same with Elton John and Billy Joel: when it works, like almost the whole of Captain Fantastic or The Stranger, it doesn't really matter whether it sounds more like Frank Sinatra than Aerosmith, "it's still rock and roll to me". Now, having said all that, I do wonder why the representation of these two songwriters is not switched; for while Joel perhaps has more hits (though I'm not sure about that), John surely has many more consistently good albums, some of which could be transported wholesale into my top 1043 of at least some time (let's say, the 1970's). And again, it seems that being more of a rocker, which Elton John surely is, does not guarantee you a higher place in the 1043 Classic Rock list. For it's not about rock; it's about recently overplayed pop. And there Billy Joel definitely comes out on top.

Why make a big deal out of this? I mean, we know that rock is big business, that musical style is influenced if not controlled by the Sony-BMG-Virgin-etc. oligopoly, that voting in these "top so-and-so" lists is strongly influenced by what the stations choose to play, which is in turn influenced by what they think will attract listeners who will buy what their advertisers have to sell, and all that. Why even pay attention to Clearchannel's putative "top 1043" list when we know there is a ton of manipulation going on, and that the list reflects not quality or taste but crass commercialism? Well, for one thing, out of the endless dross of popular recordings, we might note how much great music has actually managed to find its way here in spite of the commercial environment; why indeed we now see Pearl Jam and Nirvana and Green Day creeping into the list. This needs as much explaining as why we can't seem to get Meatloaf or AC/DC out of it. Another thing to wonder about is the racial divide: relatively few songs by nonwhite artists make it onto the list, but on the other hand, Hendrix lives (as we used to say) - and why not, when the station programs three or four of his hits constantly - and one can find the occasional Bob Marley tune and some Motown hits.
Marvin Gaye's pathbreaking work on What's Going On? is finally recognized at position 955, which hardly does justice to one of the landmarks in popular music history. But compared with the programming of "classic rock" radio one might be tempted to call the list a model of integration. Contemporary pop stations like Z100 play music by white bands like Green Day or the All-American Rejects in a fairly even mix with Black rap, hip-hop and R&B artists; and while one can't say that the Top 1043 list is exactly a rebellion against the racial divide imposed by the music industry after the 1960's it at least suggests that this is not an audience-driven phenomenon.

In short, then, what I want to say is just that while the commercialization of rock radio seriously distorts anything like a "Top 1043" list, it cannot completely kill the spirit of the rock listener who appreciates rock as a contemporary musical art form. As should be obvious, by "art form" I don't mean just the most complex orchestral compositions, or those lighter numbers that approach the sound of a Schubert song or a Mozart aria. Rock of all types can have the spirit of art, which is in the end mainly a deep concern for the craftsmanship of the final product. From "Layla" (2) to Nirvana's "Come As You Are" (1037) it is clear that no amount of idiotic programming which emphasizes safe bets and superificial musical and lyrical ideas is going to stifle the spirit of creative energy that keeps rock going after six decades. It would be nice, however, to think that after the revolution (as we used to say) we will be able to get rid of pseudo-lists like this and have "classic rock" stations which dare to delve into the thousands of great, unplayed cuts that lie in the stacks waiting to be heard.

Clearly we're not there yet. As I drove through Brooklyn on Saturday I tuned in to our illustrious classic rock station, and what do you think were the first two songs I heard? I'll bet you got at least one right: "Stairway to Heaven" and "Born to Run" (7). Without apology, in fact with a discourse by the DJ on why it is so important that "Stairway" remain number One. So, as we wind on down the road, it looks like there are some challenges ahead.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Art and Espionage: An Addendum

I know the Casino Royale piece is long as blog posts go, but I can't resist doing a little historical addendum, one which speaks in a unique way to the intersection of art and public life, which is one of the main themes of this blog. In the summer of 1989 I spent a couple of weeks cycling around England. One day in London I asked directions to get somewhere (must have been at least five blocks away, I guess) rather than attempt to carve a path with my A to Z (that's Zed, in case you thought "Z" rhymed with "bee"...) There is nothing a Londoner likes better than being asked how to get somewhere in London, unless perhaps it is how to properly enunciate the word "garage" (rhymes with "carriage"). Having secured the desired information I set off on my bike through streets whose names I am far from being able to recall (I wrote in my diary only that it was "south of Soho"). But before I had gone very far I saw something that at that moment, for me, was akin to stumbling on an unknown Mayan temple: a perfect little dead end sidestreet, hardly traveled, but nevertheless sporting a perfect little pub, and a few outdoor tables. Nothing could have appealed to me more at that moment than sitting at one of those tables, sipping a pint of ale, munching on some pub food (a bit of black bread, a hunk of cheese, some pickled vegetables and such), and reading a little of Berkeley's Principles of Human Knowledge, which I carried with me at the time. (It was the summer before I began graduate studies in philosophy, and having had nothing but a single introductory course in contemporary philosophy as an undergraduate I was on a crash program to learn some history of the subject, in the hope of avoiding gross embarrassment later). So that is exactly what I did. I leaned my bike against a barrel outside (that's how quiet the street was, I was not even concerned about losing it) and emerged a few minutes later with beverage and victuals.

There was an elderly woman sitting across the street behind an easel, and once I was done with my meal I asked her if I could take some pictures of her. Being a visual artist herself she was quite forthcoming, so we began to engage in conversation. Reconstructing how it went will take a little imagination, since for some reason I recorded nothing about it in my diary, though I have thought about it dozens of times since then. It must have begun innocently enough with my asking her about her subject, which was of course the tiny dead end block on which we were located. But it soon led to something like the following:

Me: It is a very lovely and quaint block, I can see why you would have chosen it as a subject.
She: Is it? I think it is a very peculiar block.
Me: Really? Why?
She: I've been sitting here for three days, and seen the people that come and go. There's something odd about them.
Me: What? I've only seen one person pass, a man in an ordinary business suit.
She: They're not quite right, you know. A bit too determined, perhaps. They don't look about. And they always go directly to the same building.
Me: What building?
She (almost whispering): Can you see down the block without turning your head? That building at the end, that's what I mean. See if you can get a photo of it without turning around or staring at it.
Me (getting a little nervous, but also wondering if she wasn't a strange duck, or perhaps indulging in some of that hermetic British humor): Okay, I see it. I'll try to click without looking through the camera. But why?
She: Don't you notice anything peculiar about it?
Me (trying to look sideways without staring): Um, no...

To me, it looked quite ordinary; a fairly new but in no way unusual piece of architecture that fit in reasonably well with the houses on either side, all of them three stories tall, with more or less flat facades and perhaps a minimal amount of decorative stonework. If there were fire escapes they must have been behind the building, for the front had nothing of the kind. Of the many interesting buildings I had seen in London, this hardly stood out. Pretty bad for an aspiring photographer, who should have as much of an eye for detail as a painter!

She: Do you see the bars in the windows?
Me: Yes, I do see some bars.
She: Not some. All. All the windows have bars.
Me: I see, they do. But what of it?
She: They are not the kinds of bars that people use to keep out burglars. They are there for a reason. Why would you have bars on a window three stories above the ground!? And not one curtain has opened on those windows in three days!
Me: Hmmm... I think you're right. This is very odd. Maybe we shouldn't be here.
She: I am just a dotty old artist to them, not of much concern I suppose. However, a young man with a camera, I'm not so sure. From what I've seen I would probably advise you not to stay here too long. There's much more than this to see in London, anyway.

And so I said goodbye and made a quick, quiet exit, half expecting a short, sharp shock as I rounded the corner. I have never forgotten that moment, as she spoke and I scanned the windows floor by floor, until it suddenly dawned on me that there was absolutely no normal explanation for thick metal security bars on the second or third floor windows of an inconspicuous little building on a dead end street. There I was, having seen On Her Majesty's Secret Service and many other Bond films, and read almost all the novels too (the torture scenes in Casino Royale and Thunderball being firmly planted in my mind), sitting there with camera and panniers and Berkeley tract, and staring at what I took to be a British Secret Service detention center, or something of the kind. At that moment, art and reality coincided: my companion's painting and the scene down the street, the Fleming novels and films and the threatening presence of a force that had license to detain, and, most likely, kill. So I did what anyone loyal to art would do, to preserve that oh so important separation, that aesthetic distance that provides an opening for the imagination: I left. And now I leave these memories to the imagination of others.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Casino Royale: A Bloody License, and the Logic of Bond-age

Casino Royale was the first James Bond novel written by Ian Fleming, and the last of his novels to be made into a serious feature film. The dubious 1967 comedy version hardly counts as a Bond film at all, even apart from its considerable deviation from the novel - rarely has such an illustrious cast (Orson Welles as Le Chiffre, Woody Allen and about a dozen other film greats) been employed with such tepid results. I saw it when it opened, and despite my growing appreciation for serious film and great acting, not to mention belly laughs, the only thing that made an imprint on my adolescent brain was Barbara Bouchet (Miss Moneypenny). If you want a great send-up of spy movies, see the film that is simultaneously one of the greatest spy films and the greatest satire on them, Our Man Flint. (Don't ask me how it does that; but in part it turns on the ingenius interplay between James Coburn and Lee J. Cobb.)

Casino Royale has been updated a bit - international terrorism is of course the enemy rather than Soviet communism, and instead of baccarat, Le Chiffre's game is Texas Hold 'Em! (Is that au courant or what?) A lot of the detective work centers on laptops and cellphones. But the film stays largely with the outline and many details of the novel.

Although my plan here is not to do a film review, I will say that some of the plot is none too clear in the film, especially towards the end. For example, in the book, Vesper Lynd is a Soviet double agent who ultimately commits suicide. It is not a problem that this outcome is slightly modified, but the status of Lynd becomes quite murky in the film after M explains to Bond that Lynd must have made a bargain with Bond's captors to save his life. If Lynd was a double agent then M is all wet here; for it is clear why Le Chiffre did not kill Bond (he never had a chance before getting the secret code to the bank account), so Lynd had no chance to make a deal with him; and she was actually reporting to Le Chiffre's masters, so why would she have to make a deal with them? (In fact she would presumably be the reason they hurried to Le Chiffre's dungeon.) Moreover, why is Lynd so tangibly upset when Bond takes out a couple of thugs who tried to bag Le Chiffre in the hotel? I thought double-agents were a little tougher than that. There are other rather cloudy connections in the film, though perhaps no more so than in any narrative with a plot that involves several layers. There are also some chase scenes long enough to make you wistful for the brief freeway sequence in The Matrix Reloaded (was it really half the movie or did it just seem like it?) I suppose these adrenalin pumps are intended to fill the gadgetry gap. Sorry, I'm a technology guy in my other life, I liked the gadgets. (Compare Cobb in OMF: "Flint, this briefcase contains 65 gadgets..." Coburn, holding up a lighter: "Sir, this has 81... 82 if you include the lighter.") On the other hand, From Russia With Love had very little gadgetry and was by far the best early Bond film from a purely dramatic point of view. I haven't seen enough of the later films to make that claim about this one, but it has some merits in the drama department. In spite of the length, I did not find myself wishing it would be over after a couple of hours.

It is common, if not exactly mandatory, that films which sport a lot of violence - most Westerns, crime films, horror films, war films, and espionage films, for instance - should venture to get beneath the violence to explore the characters and their relation to what is going on in the film. So Martin Campbell's Bond is a human Bond. He is, for example, a Bond who makes mistakes, badly misjudging Le Chiffre's poker tactics, the woman he falls in love with, and a few other things of some consequence. Moreover, this flaw is one of character, not just circumstance: Bond is frequently chastised for his egoism and recklessness, the dark side of his virtues of self- confidence and courage. (Every virtue has its excess, as Aristotle tells us.) The dramatic architecture of the film is to some extent based on Bond's struggle to overcome his negative side, a quest that seems to be fulfilled when he declares his love for Vesper Lynd and tenders his short-lived resignation from the service. Only after this re-centering of his identity does he recite his famous byline: "The name is Bond, James Bond."

Even as film technology helped make the depiction of violence ever more graphic, directors like Stanley Kubrick, Martin Scorcese, Francis Ford Coppola, Sam Peckinpah and many others insisted on penetrating the souls of their violent characters and flushing out whatever it is that makes them tick. Scorsese's current film,
The Departed, in part explores a theme that had previously been handled quite well by Mike Newell in Donnie Brasco, the tendency of the mob infiltrator to become more and more like those he is supposed to destroy. This in turn harks back to a classic theme about imitation and personal identity - as with the Sean O'Casey character who asks, "What harm could there be in being the shadow of a gunman?" - the grim answer to which unfolds in the second act of the play. So it is hardly surprising that our new Bond (Daniel Craig), though not exactly the introspective type, has a few things to say about the human condition. Nothing, however, very salutory. Confronted by Lynd after the hotel killings, Bond admits that he doesn't have much feeling about the people he kills: "I wouldn't be very good at my job if I did." I see. Well, that is not exactly the kind of answer one would want to hear from your local cop on the beat, I suppose. Or even the guy at the dog pound who disposes of unclaimed pets. It is rather the kind of thing we might expect from a Mafia capo. Is that what the soul of James Bond amounts to?

Consider the premise of the Bond role, the "00" number: the "license to kill". What exactly
is a "license to kill"? I guess it is like a fishing or hunting license, correct? Those are, after all, licenses to kill; you pay your $25 or whatever and get a license to kill. But get this: here is Bond, in the opening sequences of the film, "earning" his double-0 status by putting a couple of nogoodniks (we assume) out of their misery. It appears that according to the logic of Bond-age the way to earn a "license" to kill human beings is to kill a couple of them. I suppose that shows that you can do it. Now, why doesn't that work for fish and deer? Let's see, um... Yes, there's something just a little too self-fulfilling about it. It's kind of like a driver's license - first at your own risk, and if you manage to survive, you get a license. Hmmm. This "license to kill" is supposed to be a very serious thing, but it turns out to be more or less like someone dragging a couple of carcasses into the game warden's office and demanding a license to hunt. The warden with any sense will take this as a demented prank and have the perpetrator dragged to the local clink. When the guidelines of his service rest on such mediocre logic, how can we expect an agent to offer anything deeper than the thought that killing is his job?

But the problem with the violence in this movie - and there is plenty of it - does not end with this licensing scheme. The "license" idea merely reflects the much wider effort at making death and pain seem unremarkable. This we might call the dark side of the introspective tendency in films about violence, a side that Quentin Tarantino has indulged quite a bit: the exploration of character humanizes the perpetrator of violence so much that gratuitous bloodletting seems like an ordinary aspect of life, like eating eggs or washing your car. Worse yet, it is unremarkable only from a strictly moral point of view. From another side, it is positively uplifting. As one reviewer commented, "I left the theater with the distinct reaction that I wanted to be James Bond". And that's just the point, isn't it? To leave feeling the thrill of having that "license", that lack of feeling for one's enemies, that pureness of animal instinct. I do not think this is an unfair way to put it. For we are meant to identify with Bond, and the evil nature of the characters he knocks off gives us a right to identify with his liberal use of that "license" as well. We want that license to take matters into our own hands. We would love to be the one-man army that shoots and knifes its way through a squadron of Al Queda thugs to take out Bin Laden; all we need is a bit of Marine training, a wireless account that works anywhere from Afghanistan to the African steppes, and a license! Bush has a license - the Iraq war resolution. Now we can too, at least in our imaginations.

Back to the real world, for a moment. A former Russian spy is poisoned with an exotic isotope and every major newspaper in the world carries the story. People are horrified, if fascinated with the technique. But Bond, in the ordinary course of business, destroys embassies, buildings in Venice, numerous spys and their henchmen; and the only hint that anything is notable about this (a newspaper report on his shooting an unarmed man at an African embassy) quickly disappears. Finally, standing over one of his painfully wounded targets, he calmly announces he's "Bond, James Bond". Hannah Arendt's phrase "the banality of evil" comes to mind, morphed into something like "the banality of violence in general". The point is, life constantly presents us with the reason why we should not be "Bond, James Bond", why pain and death matter, why one man must not substitute his "license to kill" for more social forms of justice, and why violence is not after all "banal", but exceptional and deplorable. So we may walk out of a Bond film wanting to be Bond, but by the next morning life has surrounded us and reminded us that this is not where it's at.

Perhaps that means that film violence can just be fun, and we should not worry about it much. I suppose that is the message of Bond in actual bondage, as he laughs ascetically while being tortured by Le Chiffre: this pain is not real anyway, so why not enjoy it? Well, I doubt that many of Pinochet's victims, or Sadam's, or Bush's, have seen it that way. But does film violence, served up with licenses and the charisma of a "secret agent", affect our behavior in the long run? Maybe there is some connection like this: as long as the violence is far enough away, it is no more real than those phantoms on the screen. So until I start seeing the body bags come home, why worry about it? Besides, you know what everyone carrying a military dog tag has: yes, that coveted certification, a license to kill.

Saturday, November 25, 2006

What's It All About, Mr. Monk?

Not too long ago a co-worker of mine was explaining to me what a "blog" was and mentioned that he had one himself. To the extent that I understood the explanation, and in spite of the fact that I liked and respected him, I could not understand why he would have a blog. I was happy to listen to him hold forth in my office, and at a party no doubt he would be a pleasant partner in conversation. But what on earth, I thought, could he have to say that would ever convince people unknown to him to spend their precious time logging in to his blog and reading his words of wisdom? That perplexed thought set me off on a journey which meandered through Technorati and Blogwise and MediaBistro and the present illustrious site, through blogs of the rich and famous and those of the poor and nameless (an opposition I owe to fellow folk musician Mark Levy), and finally to the realization that, like Moliere's doctor-in-spite-of-himself, I have always been a blogger and didn't even know it! Recording and expounding my daily thoughts on things has been an ever-present urge, fulfilled in notebooks galore, computer files, and the ears of not-always-appreciative companions. At times I thought this was a defect of my personality, the need to comment and analyze everything. Then along came the Blogosphere, to give succor and (more importantly) templates to these narcissistic impulses! So here I am starting yet another pursuit to add to the list at the left (at least it's at the left if I chose the right template...)
Before starting my more topical posts (tomorrow's always another day, as blogging goes) I would like to say a little about about my conception of this blog. But rather than continue this in soliloquy mode, I am inclined to turn it into a dialogue - er, with myself, that is. So here, for posterity and possibly the last time, is an official H.A. Monk self-interview:

Self: So, Mr. Monk, what is this blog going to be concerned with?
HAM: Culture, the arts, sports, technology, philosophy, the body politic, and anything related. Which is to say, everything. But seriously, I hope to explore things from a certain angle - first of all, from my perch in the heart of one of the cultural capitals of the world. Second, I tend to move, in good philosophical fashion, from the details on the street below to higher ground - they don't call me the "winged blogger" for nothing. (I know I'm going to hear it from the owl of Minerva for that one.) Third, a lot of what I will write about will be at the intersection of art or culture and public life - meaning anything from film violence and reality tv to the aesthetic impact of a new piece of architecture, the sociopolitical foibles of the recent world championship chess match to the economic demise of a dance studio or art gallery, our fetish for "period instrument" performances to the impact of money on the game of baseball.
Self: Okay, but where are you getting all this material from? I mean, you can't be doing some cultural activity every night!
HAM: Right, I can't. Damn. In fact I am constantly flagellating myself for missing so much cool stuff that's right under my nose. Yesterday I logged into a concert tour web site and discovered that a band I have wanted to see for about 20 years played in Manhattan just three nights ago! I had never even heard about it. Not too long ago I had every intention of trotting up to Lincoln Center for a free, outdoor gig by one of the jazz legends, Sonny Rollins. But it was raining all day, I tried and failed to get cancellation information from the not-always-helpful 311 line, and at the last minute decided that it would either be canceled or very uncomfortable, and went to see The Illusionist instead. Of course, when I came out of the theater it was dry and pleasant outside and I was ready to kick myself. (Not that I didn't enjoy the film; it was a decent consolation prize, but not a one-of-a-kind performance.) But that says a lot; in NYC it is always a choice of what is best to do, and your limitations are time and money and availability of tickets. Besides, if you want to experience the arts in NYC, you look out your window at the latest Frank Gehry building or stop for the mimes or break dancers or the Russian Gypsy violinist on a subway mezzanine. But having said all that, I will probably get a lot of background stuff and some main themes from The New York Times and other local newspapers. In other words, my reports will often respond directly to my experiences as an arts observer in NYC, but there is a lot to say that comes more from the general experience of a person immersed in a sea of culture, politics and money.
Self: Boy, you are rather wordy for a blogger. Is this going to be your usual style?
HAM: Sorry, I was born that way. I expect my main posts will be somewhat longer than the average blog post. I expect that I will often supplement these with shorter thoughts on various timely subjects.
Self: That sidebar on your many interests and occupations...
HAM: Sorry, I forgot a few... poet, skier, hiker, vegetarian chef...
Self: Thanks, that'll do. But which of these do you really do seriously?
HAM: My fulltime job, though not necessarily my passion, is in computers. I have taught college courses in Philosophy for eight years. Over the last couple of decades I've performed as a classical, rock and folk musician, recorded a CD of original music and written various compositions. My undergraduate degree is in music, Ph.D. in Philosophy. When I was a bit younger I studied photography; my main influences were my uncle Harold Roth, who was a semi-professional photographer associated with the New York photorealist school, and instructors in various workshops. I've written a fair amount of poetry but never published any. From high school until I was in my late thirties I occasionally did some film criticism, political commentary and other journalistic stuff for small newspapers. In philosophy I write about the philosophy of art, ethics, and a fairly influential guy named Ludwig Wittgenstein.
Self: Why don't you join a philosophy group blog?
HAM: The ones I have seen have very little to do with what I want to do here. They get into arcane discussions that don't really have any relevance or interest for most people. I don't mind getting into an arcane discussion in a journal; there you know you are talking to sixteen people worldwide who understand the jargon of poststructuralist aesthetics or Husserlian phenomenology or analytic philosophy of language. That's not what web logs are for, to my mind. Besides,
as informal discussions, these kinds of subjects wear thin quickly, and you see the blogs going dead for months at a time.
Self: Do you have a particular philosophical perspective you are going to try to promote, or is it going to be more like an off-the-top-of-your-head thing?
HAM: Squawk! I mean, yes, I have some philosophical views and theories and such, but I am not going to "promote" anything here. I will use them to the extent they help me organize my thoughts. Trained philosophers or really obsessive readers will eventually be able to back out some of my philosophical ideas from what I write, but I am much more interested in being relevant, entertaining, informative and thoughtful than in lining up people behind a program.
Self: What about your political views?
HAM: There are some shamelessly reactionary political blogs that get a lot of attention, for reasons I can't fathom, and if I manage to place a feather or two on the other side of the scale
I will be perfectly happy. Given the results of the recent election it would appear that liberals are no longer an endangered species. Then again, I'm not exactly a liberal. So what am I? Well, no time to play twenty questions here, but the best way to get a good view of a parrot in most habitats is to do a little bushwhacking. Anyway, birds of a feather must stick together, and since the storm clouds in this country usually seem to blow towards the right, I usually stick with those who are flying against the prevailing winds.
Self: Speaking of birds...
HAM: Endangered birds! Someone is poaching our nests!
Self: ...where did you get this name, "The Parrot's Lamppost"?
HAM: I'd love for some Internet sleuth to figure that out. It would probably take all of five minutes. But I will say what I like about it. I like the idea of the aerial perspective, which befits a somewhat philosophical blog, and the parrot, which fits anything that talks, and also its colorful plumes, a good symbol for the arts. And the fact that its perch is itself an urban symbol, the lamppost, which again combines the concept of light, so long associated with the philosopher (think of Plato's cave and Diogenes' lantern), and that of the "post" which is here a double entendre. And finally as a sometime poet I appreciate how the initial letter of the first word turns into the central double letter of the next, mirroring back to the double letter in the first word...
Self: Jeez! It must have taken you a while to think of all that. Whoever said "what's in a name" didn't know you, obviously!
HAM: Wish I knew him. Truth is, it's one of the reasons I didn't start this blog on 11/1, which was my goal. Took a while to get a name I could live with. I probably would have settled for "Parrothead" if a certain seafaring singer-songwriter from the South hadn't surreptitiously siphoned it off.
Self: Thanks for the alliteration, but all the same, I think we're running low on ink, so let's move on. Is "H.A. Monk" your real name, and if not, do you have a story to tell about that too?
HAM: No and yes. And no. I have one, but I'm going to leave that to the Internet sleuth. But I will say one more thing about parrots: the name started to gel shortly after I sat in my apartment looking at one. And the bird was not in my apartment.
Self: Okay....
So how often will you post?
HAM: Not sure, but I will initially try to do a main post at least a couple of times a week, and perhaps some shorter blurbs almost every day.

Self: Do you have any other blogs?
HAM: I'm planning to start another one shortly, on technology and ethics. There is a lot on the Net on this subject, but I think I have something to say and a good background in both areas. I'll be sure to announce it here.
Self: This was exhausting. Anything we didn't hit?
HAM: Got any crackers?