Love is a topic that David Byrne avoided so consistently in the music of the Talking Heads that it feels like a gesture of opposition toward the music industry. In 1978, when the BeeGees were still yodeling and strutting in sequins, Talking Heads put out their second album, More Songs About Buildings and Food (1978). The title suggests a glorification of the mundane. I can imagine a record executive scoffing at the idea of getting radio play for a bunch of songs about concrete, glass, spinach and pasta. Of course the album is not quite so ridiculous, and the songs are killer. The pioneering spirit of the Talking Heads, and one of their contributions that I find so interesting is how much they say. At a time when the horizons for pop music seemed pretty narrow, they proved that there was so much to explore. And if the lesson of Buildings & Food was lost on the industry, I like to think of the songs on their next record Fear of Music- Paper, Cities, Air, Animals, Drugs, to name a few- as further creative calisthenics from Byrne; he’s literally throwing anything against the wall (even the literal gibberish of “I Zimbra”) to see what works. The dude’s a friggin capital-A artist on a mission to prove that love is not the only profitable language of pop.
So Byrne and the Heads get around to the subject of love, but in their own subversive style. Their one romantic hit, “This Must Be the Place (Naive Melody)” has a self-awareness that’s clear just by looking at the title, and was pushed to the end of the record’s B-side. The lyrics are mostly nonsense, and the music is saccharine: soft chords, high-pitched fiddly organ bits and the occasional cornball shimmer of chimes. As the lyrics gets carried away (Love me til my heart stops, love me til I’m dead) and the music swells at the song’s conclusion, he ends with a plea to be put out of his misery that makes me smile: “oh, hit me on the head.” God, I love David Byrne. And I ain’t hating on this song, seriously. It’s such a good tune, and one that I come back to again and again.
In Stop Making Sense, David Byrne dances with a floor lamp during the song’s musical interlude. This affection between man and furniture is strangely touching.
Just as Talking Heads music challenged the standards of the music industry, Stop Making Sense challenged the norm of musical performance. The band members are introduced one at a time throughout the first half; workers are plainly seen moving set pieces around, and no effort is made to conceal the cameras. Amp stacks, scaffolding, floor tape and other “unsightly” features of the stage are plainly visible.
Only at its conclusion does Stop Making Sense reach any conventionality, with theatrical lighting and a full band performing in an arena setting. Byrne focuses on the visal aspect of performance, and (quite brilliantly) takes the audience along on a dynamic, artful journey from start to finish. Like the rest of Stop Making Sense, Byrne probably put a lot of thought into the visual impact of the segment with the floor lamp. It compliments the tone of the song so well. It’s not lusty or passionate but a naive joy- the way that Thumper closes his eyes as he smells a patch of flowers in Bambi. And of course, Byrne’s dance with the lamp is a bit of a parody of love, just as “This Must Be The Place” is a bit of a parody of a love song.
This is a recurring segment, where I deride the work of much more talented and successful human beings out of personal bitterness. If you’re a hateful sort, I’m inviting you along with a gentle pat on the sofa cushion beside me. Join me, dear friend.
I recently re-read The Great Gatsby, for the first time since it was assigned in high school. I remember Eckleberg’s eyes over the Valley of Ash, and the ceiling being described as a frosted wedding cake. I remember the teacher discussing the literary devices in the description of the house with the French doors. I didn’t know what French doors were of course, so it damaged the visual impact (I just thought they were doors from France, doors that cost a pretty penny to ship overseas). I remember my literature teacher’s visible excitement. But I don’t think I really read the book. And it’s strange, because as much as I thought this second reading would flesh out the novel for me, it did not. It’s a novel with few footholds, and little meat on the bone. Despite all the high school discussion fodder I remember, now the novel seems resilient to examination.
There seem to be two novels present in The Great Gatsby: the novel Fitzgerald has given us, and the novel he thinks he has given us. Needless to say, Fitzgerald thinks he’s written a shining star to put on our town Christmas tree. But when the dialogue and the scenes start, they’re full of gossip, boredom, and self-indulgence. Or if there’s a party scene, there is gossip, drinking and dancing. The disconnect happens when majestic paragraphs unfold between these trivial scenes: Nick gets carried away with thematic words that clash like big brass cymbals! Love! Obsession! Idealism! It’s like you’re getting the novel and the literary criticism at the same time.
When the characters get together in one room, like a gossip magazine come to life, they bicker about who’s sleeping with who, or how in the world they’re going to get more cigarettes, or did you hear the new rumor about Gatsby? Occasionally Tom prattles on about some racist book he just read. to my mind, these scenes are not written very well. Or they are written well, and they’re just well-written scenes about uninteresting people. if this was a stage play, it would fall apart. there’s nothing… exciting that happens in these stretches of dialogue. And for a story full of infidelity, there’s really no suspense.
Daisy and Gatsby’s intimate reunion is immediately out in the open as soon as it happens, and the tense showdown in New York City between Daisy’s husband and her lover is silly. This scene is positioned as if it were the centerpiece of the story. But it left my very cold. As violent as Tom proves himself to be in earlier chapters, i was very surprised he didn’t take a swing at Gatsby. Instead, the two men sit in a room in front of everyone, discussing whom Daisy loves more. This continues for what feels like hours. More surprising still than Tom’s lack of violence, is that at the height of his rage, he just lets Daisy leave the city in a car with Gatsby. None of this behavior struck me as human.
Daisy’s lack of agency in this scene is painful to read, as Gatsby and Tom try to use Jedi mind control on her. They pretend to know all of the inner workings of her emotional mind, which they have no knowledge of, and instruct her what to do as if she’s clueless (“She’s leaving you.” “No she is not.”). I know this sort of thing may have been typical of the time period, but it’s silly and disgusting to read. It doesn’t lend any credit to Gatsby either, who’s supposed to be a gentleman.
From the argument in chapter 7:
Gatsby: “She only married you because I was poor and she was tired of waiting for me. It was a terrible mistake, but in her heart she never loved any one except me!”
“Even that’s a lie,” said Tom savagely. “She didn’t know you were alive.
Gatsby: “You don’t understand. You’re not going to take care of her any more.”
Tom: “She’s not leaving me!”
Kathryn Shulz makes a great point about Fitzgerald’s untimely misogynism in her write-up on Gatsby, which appeared recently in New York Magazine. She claims Fitzgerald has an “unthinking commitment to a gender order so archaic as to be Premodern: corrupt woman occasioning the fall of man. There is, relatedly, the travesty of his female characters—single parenthesis every one, thoughtless and thin. (Don’t talk to me about the standards of his time; the man hell-bent on being the voice of his generation was a contemporary of Dorothy Parker, Gertrude Stein, and Virginia Woolf, not to mention the great groundswell of activists who achieved the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment. Yet here he is in A Short Autobiography: “Women learn best not from books or from their own dreams but from reality and from contact with first-class men.”)” BOOOO…
So of course there are powerful, creative women doing important things during Fitzgerald’s era, just none to be found in his novel… It’s convenient that Schulz brought up Virginina Woolf also, because the prose styling that is so admired in Gatsby really plays second fiddle to Woolf’s To the Lighthouse.
Also, Nick’s narration is suspect. His sentimental intrusions into the story feel like cheating by the author. They are little course corrections made by Fitzgerald, to remind the reader how (s)he is supposed to feel about the events and the characters. I haven’t read a novel with a bona fide narrator in so long that I’m unsure about what their purpose is, but Nick didn’t seem to help the story. Seeing the events through his eyes felt like looking at the entire story through a dirty window. Aside from being voyeuristic, Nick is supposedly an honest everyman, a faithful messenger for the audience. But his fanboy attitude towards Gatsby is distracting, and when he eulogizes him for the last few pages, I simply could not muster any sadness. Gatsby is a shallow obsessive, a profiteer, and most damning of all: he shows no compassion for the victim of a murder which he is an accessory to.
Lastly, this is a very bourgeois story. Rich people doing rich people stuff throughout. This is all well and good, but it represents a very very small percentage of American life for a novel that is hailed as the great American novel bar none. I don’t think Fitzgerald knew how to write a working class character. George Wilson is sort of close, but his shop is in the middle of a valley of ash. The suburbs, the farmlands, a blank expanse where nothing happens except the migration of dust clouds, it’s all the same to ol’ F. Scott, it seems. There’s old money, there’s new money, there’s the city where the two go to mingle, and everything else is ash. if this is supposed to be an ironic anti-capitalist message, as in… the rest of the country has been destroyed by industrialization and brute capitalism, for the benefit of the wealthy and indulgent, it’s genius. but i don’t think that’s Fitzgerald’s perspective. I don’t even think this is meant to be a cautionary tale about greed, because Gatsby is revered by Nick, and he seems just as bad as the other rich people that Fitzgerald dismisses as “careless” people who “makes messes.” As much as he seems to speak out against the ills of the Jazz Age, refined F. Scotty put on his suit and drank champagne with all of ‘em. If he is a satirist, he is also, as they say, a poser, dude.
“Mary! Who is that boy?”
“It’s your grandson, Clyde, Grace’s eldest.”
“Did he come to see the tallest tree in Pakistan?”
My grandmother waves me into the sitting room,
where the Scrabble board is set upon a sewing table
the wax plants make do with
windowlight through a membrane of dust.
She wins the draw for first play,
picks one by one the tiles off the rack,
emptying it upon the board.
Her 82 points are begrudgingly scrawled-
a good hostess never wins.
Stranded with vowels
I counter with “pi.”
I see her rely on tally marks for my score.
Family pictures on a lace runner atop the piano,
and books. eagle-clawed feet of the playing stool.
As a pupil, they were a refuge for shame-heavy eyes,
after my fingers failed to navigate
a scattergraph of troublesome notes
above the treble C.
“Do you want to see the tallest tree in Pakistan?”
My grandfather, irritable, sends this request from another room.
She leaves and I hear her gently scold.
It won’t be the last time today.
The specter of lunch hangs in the air,
pan-fried cumin chicken,
Served with skim milk, an awkward blue in her favorite glasses,
with etchings of northern birds.
A painting of a Kansas farmhouse hangs in the hallway
with portentous crows rushing from the dust devils,
next to a colorless photograph of her, unmistakably a mother.
Resolute in a plaid dress and head scarf,
clutching the armpits of a naked baby above
the soapy well of the kitchen sink.
Grandfather laughs at the sight of me
and retrieves his cane from atop the
stacks of newspapers and magazines
congealed upon the coffee table.
His reading habits seem to sprout legs at the corners.
The backyard is thick with birdseed,
and an earthenware dish full of water
sits at the base of an old pine,
the center pip of his planting pattern,
inspired by a five point domino.
Like a “C” struggling to close,
his eyelid stretches across the empty socket.
He no longer wears his false eye.
My grandmother’s reminders of convention
are met with grumbling words of “why”
All together we trust the intangible order,
society is polite flesh upon animal frame.
His gaze ascends the trunk of his tallest tree…
I don’t see what he sees, this man,
who is either sick or enlightened.
I don’t know if his tree ends in breezy sky,
or if it’s peak skewers the clouds,
miles above the lead feet of my youthful vision.
My morning job is tediously physical. Music saves me from noisy thoughts that are invoked by the monotony. But lately, my headphones have made matters worse. One channel is dropping out because of a wire short, and I only hear half of the song. Maybe just the vocals and the drum beat, or a keyboard and guitar. I found a way to sort of wrap a portion of the cord around my phone and put it in my pocket, and it would stop the problem for a while. Over time, even this make-shift solution quit on me. If I get some good luck and things are working properly, I walk robotically around, fearing that a bend in the leg or a stretch might upset this delicate cord situation.
There’s a reason why this problem has persisted. Get new headphones, right? But I’m a stubbornly frugal person. At the grocery store, it’s exciting when my items total up to less than I thought at the register, and I get a little turned on by all that value. Food for weeks! I also don’t like making the same expense twice. I struggled with an 8 year old laptop for years, replacing parts and purchasing new charger cables. I feel there’s a morality somewhere in this. Like God is an accountant who will reward me for minimizing expenses. This is all very exciting to women, by the way, when I talk about it at parties.
On Tuesday, I decided that I simply could not live with the irritation of a crackling stereo channel. I’m a human being, god dammit! I went to radio shack, and for $4.79, I purchased a replacement 1/8″ plug. On tuesday night, I repaired the very headphones which were generating so much negative energy in my day. It took me weeks to actualize the fact that items are often repairable. A couple of snips and a small struggle with a soldering iron, and it worked! Huzzah!
This brings me to the word “repair,” a word which was sadly neglected by the EPA when they created the “reduce, reuse, recycle” campaign. Repair is efficient. Repair is economical. Repair is anti-waste. Repair is empowering. So let us celebrate the sewing needle, the soldering iron and the screwdriver.
Everybody: repair your stuff!
as time moves forward, the universe expands. the expansion creates more space between stars and galaxies, this relationship being a basic principle of cosmology. for the time being, scientists cannot prove whether the universe will continue to expand indefinitely, reach a happy medium, or collapse upon itself. but the fate of the universe is not our concern on this blog. i’m only bringing this up because it’s a nice model, one which illustrates a useless and self-indulgent notion that struck me while driving to work today.
this graph shows us three possible outcomes for the universe’s expansion: open, flat, and closed. there is a point on the graph, just as there is a point in a life, where it cannot be determined which of these outcomes will become reality. For uncertain astronomers, that point is right now. In terms of eccentricity, that point is somewhere between one’s teenage years and the end of their twenties.
Let us say that our state of eccentricity is like this line in our “fate of the universe” graph. the trajectory of our deviation from the norm depends on the force in our own initial big bang. just as the universe began in a brilliant explosion of heat and force, our birth and childhood propel us forward in time with pre-ordained amounts of eccentricity potential.
Just like the universe in the graph, if one’s eccentricity is unchecked, the individual will be flung away from others irretrievably. But if an individual fails to develop enough momentum, they will be crunched to mundane nothingness. The ideal state of eccentricity rests somewhere between collapse and unlimited expansion, between investment banking (a closed universe), and collecting decorative toilet seats (expanding too rapidly for society).
To begin my career, I chose a book of Spanish poetry.
“I pressed a stethoscope upon its vault.
I tweaked the dial and I cracked the lock.”
With a proud hyphen, I typed my name
beneath my Translator’s Introduction.
I tacked up a backdrop of bed sheet.
I fixed an umbrella like a shield
between the flash bulb and myself,
because that’s just what you do.
Erect on a kitchen stool,
with my best beard and my scholar’s turtleneck,
the tripod and the timer set:
my dust jacket photograph was finished.
I prepared the .jpeg for attachment,
and awaited contact from the intern
at the Prize for New Translation.
(My things shown at the campus museum
will be a nuisance, but I’m a patient man.
I purchased a second desk, in the event the curator
includes this old one in the exhibition plan.
I sent them carbon copies of my letters, with yellow
marker on my favorite parts. Do they scan?)
I admit the Spanish gave me trouble.
The preterit imperfect tense,
unfixed prepositions spread out like a field of mines,
an entire lexicon with built-in rhymes. Who wouldn’t
feel small before such a task?
I noshed the lovely language into cud.
And when I deciphered the final couplet,
I cringed to see the poet’s payload was a dud.
(I gave the dreadful book away.)
“Horses of sadness similar to my soul,”
concluded my alchemy with words.
No gold was made. No matter.
I guess I’m not much of a poet either.
Dylan Thomas is a Welsh poet with an unmatched understanding of the acoustics of language, and a lust for life that I adored when I began reading him many years ago. After reading Thomas’s love letters and John Malcolm Brinnin’s terrific portrait, Dylan Thomas in America, and with a mounting obsession, I purchased Under Milk Wood… but the slender paperback was somehow forgotten on a bookshelf. Years later/just yesterday, I found the book again, and with an evening’s free time my enthusiasm for Mr. Thomas was renewed.
First performed in 1953, Under Milk Wood is a surreal and tender chronicle of a day in a Welsh sea side town. The narrative flits about the imaginary village of Llareggub, collecting the songs, hunger pangs and peccadillos of its inhabitants with the whoosh and whimsy of a butterfly net. The story has so much local color in fact, that it functions as a sort of ethnography of rural Wales. It is a habit of mine to jot down unknown words while reading, and the lists always prove to be interesting: like ingredients that have been reverse-engineered from a completed dish. The following is a collection of all the language, slang or otherwise, that sent me to the dictionary during this go-round with Thomas, as well as my findings:
A cockle is an edible saltwater clam abundant along parts of the British coastline. Cockles appear often in the play. Cockle Street is one of the main roads in the town, and Mr. & Mrs. Floyd are cocklers by trade. They are also used decoratively: Mary Ann Sailors walks “down the cockleshelled paths of that applepie kitchen garden, ducking under the gippo’s clothespegs, catching her apron on the blackcurrant bushes, past beanrows and onion-bed and tomatoes ripening on the wall….”
I love all of this lush food imagery, and how the people of Llareggub are always thinking with their stomachs.
Laverbread is a Welsh delicacy of boiled seaweed, typically served on toast. Apparently it’s the first thing that Llareggub’s spirits of the dead inquire about:
How’s it above?
Is there rum and laverbread?”
senna pods – herb commonly used as a laxative. In Llareggub, senna pods are suggested as punishment for a misbehaving child.
Send him to bed without any supper
Give him sennapods and lock him in the dark
Off to the reformatory”
kipper – a herring, a small oily fish commonly enjoyed as a snack by the working class, pre-WWII.
And in one of my favorite scenes, Miss Price describes her delicious breakfast:
“…Me, Miss Price, in my pretty print housecoat, deft at the clothesline, natty as a jenny-wren, then pit-pat back to my egg in its cosy, my crisp toast-fingers, my home-made plum and butterpat”
(I wouldn’t mind having a dab of that home-made plum butter)
A cosy is a cover for keeping things warm, especially eggs. (cozy, indeed!)
I love this little detail about the egg cosy, which is basically just a sweater for your food. How funny. It speaks volumes about the climate in Wales: it’s so cold even your food needs winter clothes!
A butterpat is simply a piece of butter formed into a ball or other ornamental shape for table use.
There are also a number of textiles, tools and structures mentioned in the play that had me curious.
trousseaux – possessions such as clothing and linen that a bride assembles before her marriage. Curiously, “trousseaux” is derived from the French word for little bundle, which was commonly used to describe the sack of belongings fastened to a stick and carried by tramps.
bombazine – a fabric of silk that is twilled or corded and used for dress-material. Although the fabric became unfashionable by the beginning of the 20th century, it was used typically for mourning wear. The churchgoers of Llareggub wear bombazine: “It is night in the chill, squat chapel, hymning in bonnet and brooch and bombazine black, butterfly choker and bootlace bow, coughing like nannygoats, sucking mintoes, fortywinking hallelujah”
anthracite – hard coal that burns with very little flame
ormolu – alloy of copper and zinc used to imitate gold. Used in clocks and lamps, also known as “gilt bronze”
byre – a shed for cows
truncheon – billy club, baton
besom -broom or brush commonly made of twig
primus – a portable paraffin cooking stove, often used by campers. Paraffin is a word used in the U.K. and South Africa for the oil that Americans call kerosene.
and of course, the Welsh fauna:
neddy – donkey
whippet – type of short-haired dog, physically similar to a small greyhound.
peke – short for Pekinese, the dog that Mr. Ogmore dutifully searches for fleas.
jenny-wren- a small brown bird with a white underside. very plain and nondescript.
And finally, Mr. Edwards, the draper, and his dizzying assortment of fabrics, all inferior to his beloved:
“I am a draper mad with love. I love you more than all the flannelette and calico, candlewick, dimity, crash and merino, tussore, cretonne, crepon, muslin, poplin, ticking and twill in the whole Cloth Hall of the world.”
merino – a type of sheep prized for its soft wool
crepon – a type of heavily crinkled fabric,
dimity – a lightweight, sheer cotton fabric, commonly used for curtains.
tussore – silk woven from the cocoons of wild Asian silkworms feeding on mountain shrub. The diet of the silkworms determines the quality and type of tussore.
candlewick – a traditional form of embroidery based on the Colonial knot.
muslin – a loosely woven cotton fabric which originated in India.
So Mr. Edwards is quite the worldly draper.
I thoroughly enjoyed Under Milk Wood. To me, its dazzling array of sensations, tactile pleasures, colors and the unusual use of language puts it in the same neighborhood with other pranksters and playful creatives such as Picasso, Wes Anderson, Georges Perec or Julio Cortazar.