White Trouble

‘You know what, people? I’m not black, but there’s a whole lots of times I wish I could say I ain’t white.’
-Frank Zappa

So, I don’t normally like to share ugly crap I’ve found on the internet, and I have been known to ask people not to do so, which I realise is a bit presumptuous of me. But I say this more as a warning than as a curio.

Tonight I opened a private browsing window and visited a white nationalist website I knew about and visited years ago, when I first became aware that there were such things on the internet. I won’t share its name unless asked very, very nicely in private, because I don’t want them to have the publicity. But if you track these things, you’ll probably know who I mean. Back then it seemed like a bunch of nutters in a dark corner of America. I thought, back then, that it was hideous but darkly amusing, because I didn’t see any way it could ever amount to anything.

It was still the same, in many ways. A core of nothing but racism, surrounded by an intellectual framework that was internally sturdy and consistent, just unsupported by reality. They want to live in a part of the world where there are only white people. They think people who aren’t white are inferior to them. They back this up with…well, as far as I can tell, nothing: made-up crime statistics without citations which don’t correspond to actual research, and quotes from other white nationalist people saying how inferior people are who aren’t white. But, because it’s prejudice, and because they know most people don’t agree with them, they wear it with the air of people who have reluctantly accepted the painful truth. (Of course, that’s a classic bullshit move: I was once a nice person like you, but then I got mugged by reality. But mugging victims shouldn’t be the only people who get to determine what happens to muggers.)

I was curious to see how they, or at least a respected member of their community, responded to Trump. I found an article written the day after the election by a guy called…no, fuck him, I’m not going to give him the publicity. I’ll call him Smegma McCock, because it’s not that far from his actual name, if you know your Celtic patronymics. He welcomed the Trump victory, because although he regards Trump as too pragmatic to be a white nationalist, he was enthusiastic about the fact that Trump had promised to deport immigrants. The numbers of immigrants that Smegma McCock wanted deported was far in excess of any that Trump himself had ever thrown around, but little Smegma clearly regards Trump as a useful idiot for white nationalism. He was looking ahead to 2024, and Donald Jr running for president. Smegma McCock knows that the traditional white nationalist base is declining in demographic terms, but he also knows that there are going to be millions of younger angry, uneducated white men out there who don’t think of themselves as white nationalists because they’ve never fucking heard of it, and he regards it as his and his pals’ job to be a white nationalist elite that recruits these people and educates them and mobilises them, so that 20-30 years down the line, they can have a white America.

It was frightening. I don’t think it’s very realistic. But these people now regard themselves as having a big chance, and they must be immensely heartened by some of the people who appear to be in the running for Trump’s administration.

One of the things that I read was the site’s Introduction, in which they were clearly trying to give a warm welcome to disaffected white people and make them feel at home and articulate their grievances. I’m not going to quote exactly, because I understand how google searches work, and if I did, you could then do a text search and find the article, but the gist of it was: don’t you feel angry at how many dark faces there are in the streets? Don’t you feel that immigrants are overrunning us? Aren’t you concerned for the future and for your kids, with all these Third World people running around?

In other words, it was the same old shit I encountered 14 years ago in Ireland when a small fringe group calling itself the Immigration Control Platform put a flyer through the letterbox of the house of my then-girlfriend, now my dear wife. (Read her blog. It’s way better than mine.)

And my answer is, no. If I’m angry, it’s because you presume to speak for me. If I’m concerned for my kids, it’s because people like you are out there. You presume to talk to me about ‘Western civilisation’? Do you even speak any language other than English, or maybe German? There was a quote from Horace on the homepage; needless to say, it was in the form of a rhymed English couplet, not the original Latin. Horace, of all people: the ultimate court insider, a self-confessed crap soldier, one of whose most appealing poems (Satires II.6) is basically A Portrait of the Artist as a Craven Political Functionary.

Well, it’s never fun to tread in the shit that is modern bigotry, but I will be on my guard for these fuckers, and I urge you to be, too. Education is the key. Let kids grow up around kids who are both different from them in ways that don’t matter, but also just like them in all the ways that do matter, and the sooner we can all get together and figure out how to fix this planet before it turns to a ball of salty dirt.

I will end as I began, with Frank Zappa’s great warning cry about racism. Reader, I don’t know you, but if you’ve read this far and not wanted to troll me, you’re okay by me.

White Trouble

Thinking about Zappa — and, to a lesser extent, Lou Reed

I’ve just spent a ludicrously long time writing an article about Frank Zappa for the website of the listings company I work for — so long, in fact, that all the things that would have been timely about it had I delivered it after a few weeks, namely the 20th anniversary of his death, the London production of 200 Motels and the Glasgow show by Zappa Plays Zappa have long since passed. I’ve never been able to master the journalistic craft of saying any old thing as long as you say it quickly enough. –That’s not true. I have been known to whip the odd thing up in half an hour, but basically, if I don’t have a deadline, I’m screwed, and since the Zappa article was commissioned on a send-it-when-it’s-ready basis, it took ages. It doesn’t help that I’m currently studying, or that my only regular writing time is between 10pm and 1am.

But I’m not moaning. It was fun listening to a lot of Zappa, and I came across and in some cases adopted some interesting opinions, among them that Joe’s Garage is one of Zappa’s masterpieces.

Here are some isolated reflections that didn’t make the final article:

You sometimes get inspired by people with whom you violently disagree. Much of my article was inspired by a 1995 article by Ian Penman called ‘Don’t Do That On Stage Anymore’, which apart from being a couple of thousand words of an attempt to turn people off listening to someone — which in itself is not a great use of anyone’s time, least of all Penman’s — served as a model of how not to write a negative article. Penman can’t really decide whether he hates Zappa or just people who like Zappa, but insofar as he tries to grapple with Zappa’s work, he fumbles:

‘When you’re a Zappa fan, you’re supplied with a number of get-out clauses from the idea of simple plain fun most of us plain simple folks get from popular culture.’

The problem here is that our relationships with the music we love tend to be fraught with all kinds of contradictions and resentments and more-or-less suppressed quasi-masochistic feelings that would have had Freud groping for a notepad. To be blunt about it, unless you’re a pre-teen, there is no ‘simple plain fun’ to be had in popular music, and maybe not even then. There’s fun, of course, always; but it’s always complex, contradictory, qualified, inflected by this or that effort towards self-fashioning.

When we, in relatively prosperous societies where music is regarded as most of all an object of aesthetic enjoyment, react to music, our reaction involves a certain amount of liking or not liking the music; but in the way that we articulate our response to other people, there’s also a certain amount of tweaking how one wants one to come across to them, which may or may not involve pretending to like music you don’t really enjoy, or pretending not to like music that actually moves you. In brief, most of us will pretend to like all sorts of music if we think that to do so will help us become more popular.

This reaction, which is pretty much the raison d’être of pop music, is something that Zappa seems never to have been taken in by, which is a reason why a critic like Penman found Zappa utterly inexplicable and therefore annoying. Zappa just loved music, and was indifferent to the fundamental yardstick of quality in the evaluation of popular music, which is to do with ‘taste’. Penman is all about taste; read the list of people he’s interviewed, and there’s basically nobody there who might not have graced the cover of Rolling Stone. Zappa is an insult to taste, and Penman was insulted, but being a hipster he found it impossible to admit that he’d been insulted. Instead, he had to resort to pretending that Zappa was inept:

‘The classical pieces? About as desiccated as bourgeois formalism gets.’

My guess is that Penman heard the phrase ‘bourgeois formalism’ somewhere, thought it sounded cool and decided to apply it to Zappa, without ever bothering to discover that it was the phrase with which the Stalinist cultural establishment condemned Shostakovich. The alternative, that Penman knew well what he was doing when he applied that phrase to Zappa, is surely to do Penman an injustice — I mean, surely he didn’t mean to make himself out to be an authoritarian prick?
And yet, apart from its stilted tone, the entire passage from that particular issue of Pravda might be straight from Penman’s article:

‘The power of good music to infect the masses has been sacrificed to a petty-bourgeois, “formalist” attempt to create originality through cheap clowning. It is a game of clever ingenuity that may end very badly.’

Fashions come and go, and the great music of one era is usually very different from the great music of a different era, but mediocrity always sings the same songs; totalitarian stooges echo each other across the decades.

David Byrne, in his excellent book How Music Works, talks about how you have to put a frame around music before you can hear it properly. Pop music journalists have routinely placed Zappa in the wrong context. He was a rock star, but he wasn’t a rock musician. We like our first-generation classic rock musicians to be romantic heroes, barely holding it together from the quantities of chemicals they shovel into themselves, pumping out works of genius on something approaching blind instinct.

The downside of this is that a certain sort of rock musician tends to produce more crap than good stuff. It was beautifully fuckin’ illustrated by Sick Boy in Trainspotting:

I too like Lou Reed’s stuff, or at any rate some of it, but he’s the most glaring example of a talented rock musician for whom extravagant dissipation was both essential to his genius and also the breaking of it, insofar as for decades now he’s been both sober and boring.

Note written in February 2014: the above words were written in September 2013, at a time when Lou Reed was not yet dead. I stand by them, although I can’t help thinking that Reed died much as John Cleese said Graham Chapman died — ‘before he’d had enough fun.’ For the past three decades, which is to say for most of my life, Lou Reed had seemed like he was having a really crappy time. At this point, we’ve all read the stories about his less-than-lovable behaviour towards people working in the service industries, or for that matter professors of humanities at Stanford University, and supposedly we should forgive this behaviour on the grounds that the artist’s private behaviour doesn’t matter, only the work matters. The trouble with that is that rock musicians of Lou Reed’s generation were almost all Romantics, with a Romantic disdain for clear boundaries between the art and the life, and Lou Reed was one of the biggest Romantics of the lot. I mean, come on, even if it weren’t beautifully documented in Lester Bangs’ 70s writings about Reed, which as Bangs himself pointed out were mostly better art than the music Reed was making at the time (take that, Metal Machine Music!), there’s the music itself as evidence. Reed never, ever believed that his private grudges and disappointments shouldn’t feed into his music, so I don’t see why we should keep politely silent about his personal behaviour, seeing as he didn’t, even if he wasn’t exactly wholly honest about it.

As I write this, I’m listening to ‘Junior Dad’ from the last album Lou worked, the largely unloved Lulu, his collaboration with Metallica. Of all the people Lou Reed could want to collaborate with, why in the name of John Cale did he want to get into a studio with Metallica? Lou Reed was essentially a writer with a certain knack for plodding garage riffs, and to collaborate with the most meat’n’potatoes metal band out there was never going to be a good idea. I gather that ‘Junior Dad’ is regarded as one of the better songs on the album. To me it sounds like Lou playing with his new synth — that is, when it doesn’t sound like U2 unwillingly jamming with someone they feel intimidated by. As for what it’s about? Once again, Lou’s literary tendencies hobble him (as Lester Bangs said to his face, and only partly out of drunken bravo, ‘In your worst moments you could be considered like a bad imitation of Tennessee Williams’); ‘Junior Dad’ has the literary virtues of an OK short story, in that it’s clearly about a middle-aged middle-class protagonist vaguely realising something or other, but there isn’t enough here to fill the 19 and a half minutes that the track actually takes to hear.

Ah well. I never mentioned it in the article, but according to the Zappa family, Zappa really did admire Lou Reed’s songwriting (I forget where I read this), especially ‘Femme Fatale’ and ‘‘All Tomorrow’s Parties’ — but of course, anyone who doesn’t love ‘All Tomorrow’s Parties’ has a tin ear. It’s just a shame that Lou Reed never had the balls to express his admiration for Zappa while Zappa was alive.

Thinking about Zappa — and, to a lesser extent, Lou Reed