Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Conceptions of Fantesy and Escape

Y'all remember back when I was writing the lovely new album "Ghosts Dance Lightly on the Puncheon Floor" for Savage Ideal? Yeah... that thing is like done.... just final mixing stages... which I'm taking time with and not rushing. I've trying to give my ears plenty of time to relax between mixing sessions so I'm not constantly undoing and then redoing the same bits....

Well, that's cool... and that will either get picked up by some kind of better distribution than I alone can facilitate, or not... but either way that's not really the point of making this post.

I sold this powered speaker and used Christmas money to pay the rent and once again I'm contemplating the possibility of postponing job finding for another month. You must understand it has been rather cold lately in the mountains, windy and snowy, and I haven't gotten out there much... so I have this big drive to do that, live out of a car for a while, and cook stuff...

Temperature being a factor, as well as my own personal interest; I am drawn further South and West to the deserts. My favorite ones so far being located in Western Colorado, Eastern Utah, most of the state of Nevada, as well as the Mohave in the environs of Las Vegas and extreme Northwest Arizona... if any of them get visited it will probably be the more Southerly and Western ones, off the Colorado Plateau, that are warmer this time of year. Though I am a big fan of the Mt Taylor/ Northern New Mexico area... it's snowy there right now, and I need a break from that...

There's something else though, beyond just a repressed itch of climbing mountains I haven't done in a while. I think it's a schizophrenic, political question I'm struggling with, here in these weeks of gaza bombings and economic collapse... It's probably the same reason most of Savage Ideal has been "folksy" and "esoteric" and inspired by history and nature... As I contemplate the next Savage Ideal and/or Bajskorv album I am compelled to extrapolate, politically, this muddle from my head.

Life Pushes Down...

There are many responses to challenging political conditions... but I feel most strongly drawn to two of them. The first is "serious" political activism, which occupies that realm of meetings once a week, following up with people about what they're reading, making phone calls, editing list serve memberships, maintaining websites, reserving rooms, sending press releases, going to and organizing protests, sit ins, etc..., and all the while reading as much as you can about history, theory, and economics, in order to better understand and thus fight the system...

If you're in the mood for this I think the ISO is probably the most intelligent and serious group out there on the American far left with good, sober heads on their shoulders, and whose ideas about radical, "structural"/ revolutionary change are the most coherent.

There's another response too though, which I used to be a lot more likely to totally dismiss, but which I'm finding myself more and more drawn to. This is the urge to just not want to deal with any of it...

This feeling is born out of frustrating periods in which one tries to organize against inflexible and repressive political establishments. It's strengthened by a perpetual months' kaleidescope of news: always bad. I mean, every single day and night for practically the entire past year the economic news has been bad... The political follows... No one cares what the president thinks... no one trusts the people with the most power over the economy... and waiters are concluding they really ought to work as little as possible these lean years because there's far less motivation each night to show up, set up, and wait around reading the paper while former customers cook at home.

Everyone knows they're getting screwed, everyone sees the government bailing out the rich to the tune of inconcievable sums of money, everyone acknowledges how absurd and unaccountable it all is, and many people are just totally disgusted with the behaviors of politicians, bankers, "wall street types", and the like. Obama inspired many people with his messages of "hope" and "change"... We all thought, or at least "hoped", that he'd be different from the same old corrupt, Clintonoid, warmongering and corporate domination that has consistently been in control of this country's politics for longer than I have been alive.

It didn't even take him being inaugurated to dash those hopes with a series of horrid cabinet appointments which have proved to the establishment than he is more or less assembling exactly the kind of executive branch he railed against during the primaries...

Oh yes.... and there's still wars on... remember? Anyone still care about that?

There's a point where you read and hear so much of bad news that you stop caring. You're not just numb to it... it's something else... some kind of mixture of rage... but it's as much directed against the very inertia of the whole, teetering, mess as it is against the mess itself. Following politics, and being really engaged in what's going on in society becomes a lot less attractive, to say the least. Maybe mess is not even the right word... it could be "mass"... for there is the germ of misanthropy somewhere in there to be sure.

Outside of the System

I'm sure everyone, including every activist, has felt this way from time to time. Throughout the history of the American left, those who have managed to defy and in some way live "outside of" the system have about as often been idealized as heroes as have been those more directly engaged in day to day struggles. The Wobblies probably did more than anyone else to create a cult of appreciation around the "hobo", who, despite forgoing obvious material comforts, was at least able to live without bosses lording over him all day... if at least for a while... If you add a guitar to this hobo and produce some kind of Joe Hill... or perhaps, a Nightwatchman, well, that's like these people's king!

Modern day "trainhoppers", often donning the garb of "crusty", political punks, "hippies", and "anarchists", keep this tradition alive. It can of course easily be mocked for the obvious irrelevance it has on altering the course of those mundane day to day struggles the rest of us are forced to deal with, and I can see quite clearly numerous political problems emanating from this tendency. Murray Bookchin's short pamphlet, Social anarchism vs lifestyle anarchism- even if you're not an anarchist- is a great polemic against the more narrow minded adherents of escapism, and I endorse much of it.

Yet, the "escapist" tendency does exist, nonetheless! The simple condition of *not* being at a job, behind a counter, or in a kitchen; with no one to yell at you and no machine to have to punch and no one's permission to have to ask for anything is incredibly liberating. Add to that the mystery and the romance of travel, and it's pretty easy for even self identified Republicans to agree with me that sitting behind the wheel of a car on the highway is the most free I've ever felt.

Examples of people trying make a living, or at least a hobby, off indulging this urge as much as possible abound. Some are more directly related to politics, such as living "off the grid" alone in a mountain survivalist compound, a hippie commune, or in a tree in a redwood forest to protest logging.

Others involve a more traditional system of "work" and "bosses", but at least compensate for them with non-traditional (or confining) work conditions. Seasonal park rangers, trail maintainers and brush clearers, or even carnie folk (who yes, do still exist) occupy the intermediate territory between those of us with rent to pay and pay checks to collect, and those of us who, through some combination of savings or inheritances, or perhaps as often, proficiency in moochiness, petty theft, and/or street performance, are for a while at least totally free of such trappings... preferably in proximity to as much outdoors as possible.

Closer to actual civilization, yet at once apart from it, and very acceptable to "transience" would be the restaurant/ hotel industry. If you work for the Ritz Carlton you can pretty much live in any city you want, as long as you work there at least 6 months before moving again. If you don't mind finding new employers, this interval can be much shorter.

* * *

While material and political factors prevent everyone from adopting such a personal change in lifestyle to express their political frustrations, what *everyone* has been able to do is explore these feelings through art and literature. You may recall for example the popularity of early western trappers' and explorers' journals in the cities of 19th century America. In burned out, post-revolutionary France in the years immediately after 1815 and 1852, pastoral novels that emphasized the role of nature, religion, and mysticism soared in popularity. Perhaps the most well known such author to me is Chateaubriand, who as a political activist- college freshman I attacked in an essay for drifting too far out into this mush several years ago. Another could be George Sand (circa La Petit Fadette). A third, and much more readable author, would be Isaddore Ducasse/ "Le Comte De Latreaumont" of "Maldoror" fame.

Even goth culture in the United States during the late 1980s through the early 2000's is representative of this. Whether you're a "Mansonite" getting your culture from Hot Topic, or a "real goth" complete with Bauhaus posters, tight corsets, or frilly looking, Victorian shirts; what you are trying to do is immerse yourself into a dark mythology of the past. Hanging out in graveyards, dressing like people did 100 years ago, obsessing over "death", and trying to separate yourself as much as possible from "normal" people by wearing dark / vinyl / rubber / bondage clothes as much as possible is in the last analysis a rather consistent attempt to hide from, shall we say, the "stifling political reality" of the Reagan/Bush/Clinton/Bush corporate culture of conformity, dollar-worship, pop culture, and all around intellectual stagnation.

The late 60's, early 70's experiments in communal living were another example. Even better though might have been the general over-indulgence in sex and drugs that repressed generation saw necessary for its own spiritual development. Both cases had beautiful beginnings... and perhaps as well, tragically predictable ends?

I always thought goths and rivet heads (and more obviously, punk rockers) could be a great constituency for radical social movements, because all these people at least have some kind of ideology about society being "screwed up" that they believe in strongly enough to wear it on and with their bodies every day- social consequences be damned. The problem with this is that most of these people are so far involved with the tendency of trying to be "separate" and "apart" from the mainstream, "fucked", culture, that it's pretty hard to get them involved at all seriously in trying to change it through some kind of day in, day out activism... and not to mention, in a way that involves them having to compromise their own energies and ideals with those of others.

Bajskorv was for me an attempt to unite those two cultures, rivetheads and political activists. It has had mixed results so far. Playing at a "seriously political" fundraiser is hard. "Normal bands" bring bigger crowds and more money for causes, and doesn't tend to scare them off after the first song. There are some self identified "fascists" who have enjoyed Bajskorv shows for the music, while simultaneously telling us they wished we weren't trying to be so "political" all the time. Bajskorv's biggest crowd at a live show ever was at a goth night called The Church and the club, the Lizard Lounge, in Dallas. There were some good political conversations that night... mostly rhetorical agreement about how fucked up the war is... but the general sense of that entire crowd was that they wanted to dance to Combichrist or whatever... and us being weird, having songs without 4/4 beats, and vocals with ideas that you could actually hear... seemed to break that crowds' patience pretty easily.

There were better moments... getting a copy of Iraq: The Logic of Withdrawal into the hands of a resident of Columbus, Mississippi, who might otherwise not ever have heard of it, was certainly great to get to do. Some songs, like "Pais de Sangre" I think helped, albeit in a modest way, weigh in strong on a national debate with an articulate passion that a lot of people who bought Scars and Stripes or saw the live show might not have otherwise been exposed to.

In general though... results have been mixed. I'm feeling less punky and less energetic these days... I don't think a song like What Side You On or Birth of a Nation could be written today. It is time to write more songs though... innovation always happens... people's sounds never stay the same... But I can't quite get my head around what Savage Ideal is doing politically... I may ask,

"Is removing yourself from society, and writing songs that don't have anything to do with it, a form of musical "resistance" to the banality of the status quo, or is it basically just political backsliding into an accommodation with it?"

If nothing else... it does fill a need. When times are bad, people don't want realism. That's why we have fiction, romance novels, sci fi, and fantesy genres... I seem to have been leaning further in this direction lately in those creative endevours I undertake. I mean... writing a guide to ghost town exploring, or running through forests with a video camera to sample the sounds that streams and old mining equipment make, is a little more serious of a commitment than just playing guitar in the park once a month, eh?

Commercially you might say, my plans of writing albums about the tragic history of the American South, or what I am now thinking about: the beauty, desolation, and dramatic, empty waste that is the desert... might be exactly what people need. People already know politics are fucked up. They don't need a musician to tell them that. But when people know politics are fucked up, not because they're read it in a book, but because they are living it in their own lives, what they need most from art is something different, special, beautiful, and hopeful to think about for a while.

Does this justify the banality of pop music? I'd like to think not.... for I feel that what "unreality" most pop stars have to offer in their lyrics is simply an idealized version of the current [economic-political] reality, in which we can all, allegedly, be happy, fall in love, and not worry about the fact that the factory got outsourced. The music's repeated melodies aren't designed to open minds, stimulate imaginations, or inspire the listener. They're designed to rudimentally correspond those mathematical formulas our own brains equate with dancing.

Mathematicians encourage their students to listen to classical symphonies, because they "open the mind" to be more imaginative, and thus, they are more likely to be able to figure out arithmetical problems. It seems the purpose of "pop music", in its crudest variety, is precisely the opposite. The "unreality" of glitz and glam and the ever-present predictability of lyrical content forces our minds into boxes, with high walls over whose boundaries we're taught never to explore. The "bright lights" disilluminent the pain of everyday life...

To put it another way.... the dichotomy is not between "political" vs "non-political" music, as that crude, mechanical, way of boiling all things down redundantly would have it. Music serves political functions, but it doesn't do this simply by having lyrics or samples or song titles about overtly political things. No song or artist "starts" a social movement. Artists are inspired to write political songs because a social movement already exists which has touched that artist. Maintaining one's involvement in that movement requires a lot more than just repeating its core, theoretical mantra over and over. It requires passion, imagination, and hope...

In this sense I feel that it would not be political "backsliding", for me to write an album about the desert... The desert is a source of fantastic inspiration and beauty. John Westley Powell's account of his exploration of the Colorado River is I think about a thousand times more attractive a thing to read than is today's copy of the Wall Street Journal. Times are bad and people need something to lift their spirits and raise their imaginations a little. What they decide to do with those spirits is the job of politicians to convince them of. But the fundamental act of that uplift, and that opening of the mind, is itself a radical act, and one that is inherently at odds with both ideological conservatism and "pop culture".

What do you think?


  1. well thats what I call some extended commentary. all of that reflection is good. with hope you will find a peace of consciousness.

  2. I don't think there is anything wrong with making an album about the desert. Everyone needs some relief from this crazy world sometimes, and art can be used in the service of politics but I don't think it should be a slave of politics. I listen to a lot of indie music and watch cartoons like Aquateen Hunger Force/The Simpsons/Family Guy etc to escape when I can. It looks like there will be a lot more fightback this year already, and that can be energizing too! - Nikki

  3. I will say that those freakin' Dungeons & Dragons kids do tend to annoy me. I mean, sure some of them are okay but I've never met a more apolitical crowd in my life.