Tuesday, September 23, 2008

I'll Wear That Jacket in the Nighttime Too

By far my most favorite lyric of Sunday’s evening at the Greek Theater with My Morning Jacket is from "If You Touch Me I'm Going To Scream, Pt. 2:"

If you touch me/I'm going to scream/because it's been so long/since someone challenged me

Although similar sentiments have appeared in Ani DiFranco, Fiona Apple, and even Sarah McLaughlin’s songs, I have never heard a male rock singer admit to this feeling. He's going to scream? Like, in a falsetto? Because it's so overwhelming to be touched by someone challenging? Yes. Yes he is.

The origin of my surprise: I have never seen an all-male rock band play a show that progressively threw off, then put back on, again and again, the mantle of aggressive masculinity that permeates most of their genre. My Morning Jacket has (maybe unintentionally) made themselves into examples of a new masculinity, in both their songwriting and onstage personae. This is a style of being male rock stars that my generation seems ambivalent about spotlighting in the mainstream. This is a masculinity not solely dependent on the phallus, however able it is to wield one. Rock music that isn't phallocentric has open spaces for listeners to get taken into trances; it creates a sense of enveloping, rather than a sense of driving forward motion. It is collaborative as much as (or more than) it is virtuosic. It can build to a climax without seeming goal-oriented. Watching a band so beautifully negotiate traditional male rock-n-roll-ness and some other, more cooperative, almsot vulnerable kind of showmanship is exciting. I call it “new” masculinity in part because it simply can’t be the same as the friendly 1970s-fuzzy-beard-and-tight pants-type of male sexuality which MMJ recalls more than anything I can find in our current culture. It can’t because we’re living in the textual-media-universe of 2008, where that style is blatantly nostalgic.

I'd heard MMJ described as a "jam band," and so as a Phish fan, I expected a certain longevity and looseness to the songs that MMJ have actually chosen against, for the most part. They work together, they improvise, but it's clear the whole time they're playing a Song, and that in the Song they want to go a few different places—granted they’d like to go to maybe three or four places, which is two or three more than you're allowed on a pop hit—but there's a plan to the journey. This is what makes them teeter on the edge of a traditional masculine aggression: they're following a structure and plan towards a goal, which is a masculine activity, according to literary critics. They often stand with their legs open wide and their guitars right at their crotches, like familiar icons from the 80s, which is a masculine activity, according to me. And yet, they're noodling around a bit here and there on their instruments, they're tossing their lovely locks all over the place, they're wearing capes and dancing around stuffed teddy bears, and they're singing in falsetto. Often.

Contrast this latter list of behaviors to another performer’s I saw recently: Nick Cave, who came out on stage looking like a goth pimp and growled "Get ready to shoot yourself" as an opener. Sure, he had flamboyant cuffs on his shirt and occasionally flipped a wrist around, but Nick Cave makes music that can't be mistaken for un-masculine, even if you don't find it sexy. He’ll bend you over anything waist-high and pull your hair while he’s at it—whether his sexual object is male or female, it’s clear he’s the top and the audience is happy to be the bottom.

My Morning Jacket tows an unpredictable line--multiple genres, multiple moods. Jim James won me over with a brief speech about how wonderful it was to see everyone "participating." I think that was the most incredible piece of the MMJ mystique: everyone is participating in something that is at times eerily familiar--a melody that sounds like an old Doobie Brothers song, a harmony that invokes the Bee Gees, a transcendent U2-ish chorus--and at other times so bafflingly surprising it must be brilliant. It was like seeing a nostalgia band and the Next Big Thing, at the same time. Is that possible? How does the band get people to buy into this craziness? They've somehow freed their audience from the "smug hedonism, short attention span, and hunger for hits" Camille Paglia once warned rock stars against, and transformed even coolness-paralyzed Los Angelenos into patient, willing attenders.

I've read a few critics of postmodern art and have a rudimentary knowledge of music, and so it seems clear to me that My Morning Jacket, which is both rooted in the familiar and spilling into a sense of newness, provides a rich text to work with even if that text is problematic (because it risks caricature, parody, and worst of all, pastiche). MMJ might have a song that ends up soudning too much like the Doobies, or another that falls flat because their repetition of two chords is less like a trance and more like a ring-tone. However, the reason I don't think MMJ slips into these problems permanently, and why they have far more moments of genuine greatness, is that they are willing to keep pushing forward with an authentic experiment that isn't on a delineated path towards the Ultimate Expression of a particular Genre. If they were trying to achieve only one new take on one old sound, they’d likely succeed commercially and fail artistically. It’s their lack of perfect marketing built in that makes them interesting. They actually manage to be unique, even though you could name all kinds of artists and genres that seem to have influenced them. The trick is you just couldn’t name one or two—you’d have to think of five. So the fact that they are as successful as they are actually gives me some hope.

People who like watching great rock musicians are impressed by proficient solos, naturally. But jam bands, especially those whose musicians are truly genius, are impressive in their accepting the challenge of collaboration in a genre that didn't set out to accomodate it. They have to have some kind of jazz-mind. This is yet another way in which MMJ tumble a notion of manhood on its side: as much attention as Jim James gets as a frontman, this is a band that needs each other. Onstage, they aren't a bunch of ego-driven virtuosos deigning to play together for the chips a record company has promised them. They are bouncing in rhythm as a team, moving towards each other during the jam sections to watch each other carefully. They’ve matured since the exclusive head-banging antics they once displayed on Conan O’Brien. And maybe that’s the greatest compliment I can bestow on them: they write for people with adult emotional complexities, and manage to escape the cynicism and irony-addiction that are so ubiquitous in 20/30somethings. I’m tired of music for large, libidinous children. I love My Morning Jacket for making music for grown-ups with kinetic brains and conscious bodies.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Accepting Destiny at Disneyland

I celebrated my 29th birthday, both the day of and the day after, at the Happiest Place on Earth with people I love. Love, represented here as the mirror in which you can see yourself, is one of the pieces of my destiny that ran through the days with strikingly loud colors. I wore heart-shaped sunglasses and a backpack with LOVE printed across it in bold letters. "So there's no ambiguity to your mission here," Anthony said. Love leads the way, and Love is what I'll leave in my wake. As I go even deeper into this transition time--not yet teaching, not yet moved in, not yet settled into routine-- I'm finding the importance of my fundamental missions gets distilled. Bono was right: only bring all that you can't leave behind. Turns out I don't need a home, a clean room, or a short-term plan, because I've got some other desires that should last me until I die.

I need Love. I need Art. I need Overcoming. When Sam Phillips sang "I Need Love" she tried to help us understand what it wasn't: "I need love/not some sentimental prison." I'm not talking about needing comfort, except the comfort of trusting that I will be told the truth. I'm not talking about ego-stroking or codependence or enabling or even basic consideration. I'm talking about the kind of love that actually breaks you open, feels dangerous because of its power, changes the way you do things. I'm talking about love that matters. I think I've spent most of my life cultivating this kind of love, even without being fully able to sustain it. I've always been drawn to people who believe in it--not just romantic partners, but other creators of community, friends who need no privacy, people who prioritize Love over conflict-avoidance or control. I've been drawn to it, I've been trying at it, but without a clear philosophy of what it was, I was engaged in the slow process of experiential learning. That's changing. (Read "A Little Book on Love" by Jacob Needleman.)

Last night at the Hollywood Bowl I listened to Spiritualized sing "All I want in life's a little love to take the pain away/feeling strong today/giant step each day" and I realized that it's a sad fallacy of our pop-psychology culture that we've started to confuse Love with all kinds of other, smaller, less noble processes that people rely on for well-being. Love CAN take pain away--it's the only thing that truly can. Self-love, partner love, community love. They aren't crutches. They aren't stop-gap. They aren't inferior to Prozac or quitting your job, they are the foundation from which all courageous life-changes are made. It's not wrong to want love--it's wrong to pretend you want love when what you really want is someone around to know a lot of your details. We can live with the knowledge of our mortality if we really have love. We can transcend and float in space, we can dig and burrow and taste the dirt.

I need Art. I can't think of anything better for me to do or experience on a daily basis. It's an emotional imperative, a moral choice, and also a practical discipline. My commitment to writing in particular is now so embedded in my self and life that I don't even think about "how" I'll do it. I quit asking questions about when there would be enough time, where I'd have space, to whom I'd show my work. Writing and all its ancillary acts like taking notes, exploring, traveling, listening, and so on have become the rhythm and structure of my days and nights. The state of sensory overwhelm, which happens in the uniquely precise world of detail that is Disney, is nourishment.

I need Overcoming. This is the Nietzchean way of fear-conquering. This is the disentanglement of terror and resentment. I need to no longer resent or hate that which causes me terror. At Disneyland, I rushed into Introductory Overcoming on Splash Mountain, which is a ride I've dreaded and still tried every few years since it was built. Every time I make that drop, I feel I might die. I cry and shake and hate it. Not this time. This time Anthony and I marveled at how beautiful the ride was--the animatronic characters I'd loved as a child from "America Sings " were all brightly lit and dancing. We noticed the mother rabbit's fear of The Laughing Place (metaphor for what? drugs? vagabondism? premarital sex? Rock n' roll?) just before our log plummeted eight stories into the briar patch. I leaned forward, screaming like a warrior, and came out delirious: laughing, crying, high on adrenaline, soaked head to toe. No less fear than before, just less attachment to it, and no trauma afterward. "Once you've decided what you think is best to do, the terror is irrelevant," I told Susan on the phone.

The next day Louis took me to the Hollywood Tower of Terror, and I passed a lesson in Advanced Overcoming by allowing a Twilight Zone elevator car to rise and fall and rise and fall--faster than gravity would demand, it seemed--with my body inside. With Splash Mountain, I knew my foe. The Tower was an unknown entity, far more overwhelming in its magnitude. I came out unable to speak at first. I had to slump against the wall and cry even harder, laugh, and shake so violently I couldn't lift my bag for a few seconds. "Did you see that weird out-of-control breathing thing I was doing?" I asked Louis a few minutes later. "You mean the hyperventilating?" he said. Oh. So that's what that was. It had never happened to me before.

For nearly a half-hour my heart was pounding. I wanted to punch and kick things. I was very, very proud. I apologize here, publicly, to all the people in my life who've tried to get me to go on roller coasters over the years. I still cry at the end, you see. But I don't hate that feeling, I don't hate the world for having stimuli in it that causes that feeling, I don't hate the people who want me to get over that feeling, and I know I need to keep going towards it when it appears. This was the lesson of the zipline as well. It's not only physical danger that drives me to terror, but physical danger is reliable in that way, and therefore a good teacher for me. I don't like thinking any doors are closed to me because of my own resistance. My life is now totally encompassed by Project Limitless.

Maybe another thing I need is Incorporation, so I don't have to keep taking the same lessons over and over again...

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

And Then, We Burned

For a description of the scope and purpose of Burning Man, I encourage everyone to visit and read around on the website. There are pictures, lists, musings, and stories all over the web, and I will not take it as my project to separate fact from stereotype here.

What I'd rather do is sift through a few of the experiences in the overwhelming file from that few days and think with you about the art, about the community, and about what it means for any of us to want to live by the principles of radical inclusion, radical self-expression, and radical self-reliance.
In an experimental, temporary community as large as Black Rock City, there will be half-baked, flawed, and problematic manifestations of these concepts. There were unwelcoming art cars, who should have been offering rides. There were pieces of art
that broke down or couldn't handle the volume of visitors. There were burners trudging the playa without a requisite level of joy on their faces. Sure, of course there were. It's a 49,000-person city! Someone will screw up and be cranky.
Thrillingly, there were also gems of totality in purpose and execution--at the level of art, costuming, and attitude. One interactive art space, called the Dust City Diner, was created by masters of concept and design, and it was where I had one of my more profound moments of appreciation for what Burning Man seems to be "doing" in the world.

The context for the Dust City Diner is the "deep playa." This means that the real hectic noise of Black Rock City is quite a few minutes away by bike, and in the dark one can barely see the forms of various art installations spread out across the hard-packed desert. We had ridden across treacherous dust dunes six inches deep that unexpectedly arrest and disable even hardy mountain bikes. We had lost and found and lost and found each other in the dark, searching for the signature glows: Lindsey and I with bunny ears, Max with red loops down the side of his leather
jacket, Anthony with flashing red devil horns. (you must light yourself at night or fall prey to the blind forward inertia of other bikers and art cars!)

The Dust City Diner does what any city diner should: provide oasis at 4am to bleary-eyed travelers. In this case, however, it is a true oasis in the Platonic sense, providing beauty and refreshment in the middle of an enormous stretch of barren land. It was unreasonably well-decorated with a perfect retro-graphic sign, vinyl-covered counter stools, sturdy counter tops, metal napkin dispensers, a short-order kitchen, and waitresses who all wore the same pink dress, white apron,
and platinum wig, regardless of their gender. We four hovered on two stools together, drinking tea and coffee, munching grilled cheese sandwiches with Lowry's seasoning salt off of real dishes, listening to the other "customers" and talking about what we'd seen already that night. We were in a diner. We were ouside on the playa. Without any monetary exchange we were fed. The contrast of urban cues in the diner and the utterly desolate and difficult natural world of the playa reminded me of how arbitrary our little worlds can be. We remember this in times of crisis: an earthquake, a fire, moving out. We see that it's all temporary and permeable and filled with mortality. I get so easily lulled into feeling "at home" with my stuff, in my little walls and boxes, as if living with the knowledge the Temporary would destroy me. But it doesn't. Sitting in an un-walled restaurant, which is a "real" restaurant despite having a different deep playa location every night, I felt that deep acceptance of entropy and chaos that ultimately describes what is real beauty in the world. We can never repeat anything. With that truth, nothing is mundane, and the truly transcendent is miraculous.Max, Kelsey, Me, and Linz interact with the shiniest spheres of pure purpose.

Louis flies above the familiar.

This is not the kind of trip that gets compartmentalized and forgotten. Not only do I hate that practice anyway, it would be blasphemous to the often unspoken mission of Burning Man: to change the Default World. BRC is not just a gathering of self-selected givers, who want to massage their hippie potions into each others' tanned shoulders for a few days before driving back into their forgettable jobs. There is an urgency to the act of "burning" (literally setting fire, also a way of living and existing at the event characterized by constant curiosity, willingness, adventuring, opening to change, etc.) that tells me our country needs more Bacchus, more Dionysus, more room to bounce high, bounce hard, fly, fall, make stuff, break stuff, and make more. That many people I know believe they can't dance without a few drinks is evidence enough for this problem.

On Saturday night, after the ceremony of burning the Man had occurred, a reporter from the BBC asked me to articulate what I thought it meant. In the chaos of those thousands, with the lights and the music and the drums and the thrumming of my blood, I told him it was a marker of the most important death: death of the old self. Death of the anxiety, denial, lack of awareness, passivity, hiding, and exhaustion of a self that has been dictated by past pain. Once that self has died, the new self rises from the ashes--I saw all those dancers, I know they were giving birth--and the committment to living wide awake can get made. But that committment can't get made without some fireworks, some violence, some brief terror that it wont WORK, that we're on the brink of madness here, that it's impossible and too terrible to try. And then, we burn. And just after it seems like it will never end, I found the triumph of living beyond that moment, of finding my body strong in the heat, my will strong in the crowd, my love glowing like a neon heart above my face.

Why would anyone want to do that? My grandma asked me.

Susan has given me a line from Rilke to respond with:

Let everything into you: beauty and terror. Just keep going.

The dust coated our skin and hair and made us look as wizened as we felt. Now, we embark on the grand task of descending into the world with our newness, our energy, our missions, and continuing the burn.

thanks to Anth for the pictures!