Sunday, November 15, 2009

R.E.M. Double Live

There aren't a lot of people around these days that care much for R.E.M. At least I don't run in to many of them. The people I talk to either hate them (in my opinion, because they are homophobic) or they think they used to be cool, but now they suck. I've heard that one since Out of Time. Lately I have been wondering how this came about. I suppose they did just get into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, whatever that means, and I know that if they went on tour it would be a stadium venture that would sell out everywhere. But we know that people go to shows who don't care about the bands. I suppose I just expect R.E.M. to hold the same status as U2. Perhaps I'm showing my age, but that is how I always experienced them. These were my two favorite bands for as long as I can remember being aware of their existences. I have always thought of R.E.M. as our, meaning America's U2, as the most important American producer of rock and roll since Bob Dylan.

I don't wish to dwell on all this, I just want to let you know who it is that is reviewing their new album, a double disc live set from a theater in Dublin. They call it a rehearsal, go online and read the details, I want to talk about the songs.

Merely to read the names of the tracks on set list offers many surprises. There are songs from the newest album and a few here and there from most of the albums back to Life's Rich Pageant. But the set is dominated by songs from the first three albums and the EP that preceded them. Songs from Chronic Town, Murmur, Reckoning, Reconstruction of the Fables (of Reconstruction) are performed with clarity and completeness the early recordings lacked. I would not say either version is better, just that the new performances of the old songs come alive in different, often unexpected, ways. There are no different arrangements, just details: you can understand the lyrics now, Mike Mills' backing vocals are more self-assured and more frequent and there are more textures of guitar. There are just more sonic layers overall which, again, is not to say that the songs are better than they used to be.

I listen and do not really here songs that are new to me, but performances that sound like the songs are new to the artists. These are not aging rockers going through the motions of playing their old shit. R.E.M. seem to have discovered that they wrote some very good songs 25 and 30 years ago. They don't trot out these tunes the way the Rolling Stones trot out Satisfaction. The songs from the first four recordings are vital, energetic and urgent. Perhaps this is why there's barely anything in the set that would count as a hit. No “Losing My Religion” or “Shiny Happy People.” No “Stand,” “The One I Love” or “End of the World as We Know It.” They perform “Drive” but not “Man on the Moon” or “Everybody Hurts.” All the quasi-hits are the old hits, but even then they are few and far between. “So. Central Rain” and “Driver 8” appear but not “Don't Go Back to Rockville” or “Radio Free Europe.”

For me this may be the best album they could have made. It makes me dream of the possibility that the bands I love will see this as an option. No Line on the Horizon is great, but I wonder U2 would make of October and Boy these days? I think this is one of the unique possibilities rock and roll affords. One need not be forever coming up with new material. Revisit and re-imagine the old material. Find new vitality in it.

Further Notes on the Contemporary American Man

My intellectual life is aimed directly at confronting Hollywood and everything it represents. My whole ideology is set in opposition to the values it represents and helps to indoctrinate. Even on an instinctual, emotional level I am predisposed to hating that which the mainstream. Somehow my life has brought me to this strange place: I have a sustained social interaction with an acquaintance who works in the writing branch of film studio. His day job as I understand it is to make notes and punch up scripts. This is the meal ticket for his freelance work that includes mainstream online publication at a major sports news outlet and selling a romantic comedy to a studio. Our interactions, which take place entirely over the internet, are sometimes polite and tolerant, but often bitter and sardonic. I don't like him, mostly because I have no respect for his work, but my dislike is exacerbated my fear that anything I say against him will be interpreted by others as jealousy.

Part of the problem for me is the self promotion. When he recently posted a link to an article he had written, I was immediately annoyed. The people in our peer group are generally a creative bunch. Most of us write; some of us perform, but none of us fish for compliments and/or brag about our successes save for one. Against my better judgment I followed the link and read. It was pretty typical of everything else on the website, which I may as well reveal is ESPN Page 2. All of it is nonsense more or less, inflating that which barely matters in human existence to life or death proportions. It is the raison d'etre of Page 2 to treat sport as if its shallow emotional resonances were deep, as if its mathematical calculations of statistics were intellect, as if the seriousness with which we look at it is spiritually appropriate. The best stuff on Page 2 has always been by Chuck Klosterman and the late Hunter S. Thompson precisely because they don't love sport. They are more interested in mass love of sport than in personal fandom. Little wonder that they are few and far between at Page 2, and that they were well-established cultural critics in their own right before being invited to contribute to ESPN.

First Notes on the Contemporary American Man

I recently had to cut off the tap that ran from ESPN into my brain. At least the so-called “analysis” portion which is really just guys who talk about their fandom and grossly overestimate the value of sport. I recall Dave Damashek once musing: “In these troubled times I fell sorry for people who don't have sport. What do they do? How do they escape?” These guys worship uniforms. And the question Damashek asks is buried so deeply beneath a foundation of unknowing, I would have no idea how to answer him in terms that would make sense. People read books, Damashek. They try to figure out what the hell is going on instead of hiding from it. They try to learn how to live life rather than escape from it.

I'll still watch a game or twenty, but my days for listening to podcasts are over. Except for Bill Simmons. I should explain. It isn't that I consider him an exception to the standard idiocy; in many ways he is a champion flying the Idiot flag. Though I am sympathetic to him in some ways, and though he occasionally offers genuine insight (but only when talking about the NBA), I would not call him a good writer. He knows a little about sports. I feel sorry for him when he talks about music. I cringe for humanity when he talks about movies. It is not that my standard is high, just that it is a standard at all. This is the problem with Page 2, with culture at large, everyone is just going through the motions.

I read Simmons because to me he represents the Contemporary American Man, and I have to keeps tabs on that spirit/ideology, because I regard it as what I am up against. He is the champion of the middle brow. The Contemporary American Man loves his any art that makes him feel smart and greets anything that confuses him with suspicion and hostility. Simmons loves mediocre sentimentality in movies and resents anything that looks like it may have been made by someone smarter than him. He has two phrases for this: “artsy-fartsy” and “too cool for school.” These terms cover anything that makes him feel stupid. This infantilism is the affliction of the Contemporary American Man. I suffer from it too, but my advantage is that I have diagnosed it correctly.