Wednesday, February 24, 2010

The Fallen: Life in and Out of Britain's Most Insane Group by Dave Simpson

All terms used to describe The Fall almost instantly seem redundant and slightly pointless. Unique, prolific, shape-shifting, inspiring. Yeah, yeah, yeah - we all know that about The Fall. And yet, we also seem to know nothing about The Fall. Are they a mystery. Or perhaps so ordinary and straight-forward they just appear mysterious. As if we are desperately trying to find an answer to a riddle, when there wasn't a riddle posed in the first place.

This is the problem Dave Simpson faced and this is the problem that drove him slightly mad in the process of investigating it. Because you can't really get to the bottom of The Fall. All you can do - as many, many, many ex-members testify to in the book - is hang on for the ride and appear bleary eyed at the end, wanting more. I've seen the faces of members on active Fall duty - at a DC club I worked at in the late 90s - a particularly volatile time for the band. It was not pretty. After the gig, I saw all the Fallers, except for Mark E Smith, sitting on the steps leading up to the stage, each occupying their own step, each with their heads in their hands as if they'd witnessed some horrible, life-shattering event. And yet none of the ex-members, interviewed in The Fallen, regret their time in the band and all would take up arms again if Smith asked them to rejoin. No matter what perceived cruelties of injustices they faced while in the band - each of them would go back for more.

Why? Who knows. Simpson likens it to a cult. All are treated brutally by their charismatic leader and all love him with unrestricted devotion. Again, this seems simplistic and add layers to The Fall mystery that probably don't exist. But there must be something about Mark E. Smith? As the book points out, he is the last man standing every time. Hardly any of the 50+ members of The Fall have gone on to do anything worthwhile musically, certainly nothing approaching the influence and impact of their former band. Yet the Fall trundles on, releasing album after album, still relevant and endearing, with only Smith as the original member. So it must be him. Mark E. Smith is, was and shall be The Fall and all others fall into line, serve their time and are then disposed of, fresh blood entering the fray.

I've always been interested in obligation and why people persist in continuing with creative endeavours when its obvious that they don't enjoy and it serves no purpose. So many bands have staggered on, hating each other, hating their audience, hating the music industry - but compelled to continue for various reasons - mainly ego-driven. I think Smith is interested in this to and has to constantly shake up The Fall to ensure the life-blood continues to flow. He might hate the people around him, the music industry and the audience, but he'll never hate The Fall because he, just like us, never knows what is coming next. His own mysterious behaviour ensures this.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Feuchtgebiete (Wetlands) by Charlotte Roche

Woa. Last night I started reading Feuchtgebiete (Wetlands) by Charlotte Roche. It's a totally insane and amazing transgressive novel that was a best-seller in Germany and has recently been translated into English. The debates of erotica vs. porn really don't come close to encapsulating the total gross-out subversiveness of main character 18 year old Helen Memel's obsessions with bodily fluids and everything "disgusting" and "unfeminine" about sex and the female body. JD Salinger meets JG Ballard kind of approximates a description of the writing style, but really this is an irreverent, powerful female voice to rival Lydia Lunch or Kathy Acker or perhaps Lisa Carver. That said, it's not a politically radical text on every front. There is something here to offend everyone! As squeamish as I am about this kind of stuff, the book is totally making me squirm and laugh out loud at the same time. It's actually very funny. I have read 100 pages, so I can't assess the book in full, but I couldn't wait to post about it when I woke up this morning. Has anyone else read it? Here's a review I saw the other day.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Lucinella by Lore Segal

Melville House makes beautiful books, and not that many of them by women, so I was happy to pick up Lucinella, by Lore Segal, which is part of MH’s Contemporary Art of the Novella series. It’s a reissue of a book that originally came out in 1976. Lore Segal has written a few other books for adults (including one that recounts her experience fleeing Austria on the kindertransport to England during WWII) and some children’s books as well, including, I was pleased to discover, one of my old faves, Tell Me a Mitzi.Lucinella, the book’s protagonist, is a poet in early 70s New York. She attends Yaddo, the artists’ colony, and accumulates a group of poet/editor/reviewer friends (many of whom I imagine are meant to be satirical versions of actual literary figures, though I don’t know which ones). I could see the book feeling esoteric to those that aren’t in any way invested in that literary world, but I think that Lucinella herself is a compelling enough narrator to carry the novel, as she is alternately pained and elated by the writing process, friendships and love relationships, the state of her apartment, party chatter, mortality. There’s somewhat of a Jane Bowles quality to the writing—the way that Bowles characters speak in completely uncensored fashion, as if totally unbeholden to any recognizable social conventions, and the world sort of shrugs and goes along with it—not in a confessional way, but maybe a kind of frankness taken to the extreme. Lucinella’s observations about her friends and the world they all inhabit are also smart and often very funny: from the Contact paper salesman who has every possible variety of contact paper in the world except for plain white, to Lucinella’s chatter at a party at the house of a famous magazine editor: “I’m writing a poem about parties,’ I say, ‘which explains why we can’t simply say ‘Thank you, I’ve had enough of you and walk to go and talk to someone else.’”

Segal was also fascinated with fairy tales—she wrote some translations of Grimm—and that influence is present in Lucinella as well. Though the book takes place in the familiar terrain of New York apartments, department stores, Times Square, there is also a Yaddo poet named Zeus (hint: his wife’s name is Hera), and a scene near the end of the book where Lucinella scrambles up the pants leg of her estranged husband, and into his pants pocket (not to mention the appearance, about 2/3 of the way through the book, of a couple alter egos: Old Lucinella and Young Lucinella). I think Segal’s mix of the surreal and the mundane works because, in many ways, that’s what the process of writing is all about. It’s the intersection of the imagination—the stuff in your head—and the real world (the body you’re in, the geography, the people around you) that you inhabit when you’re writing. Lucinella at times reveals to the reader some self-consciousness about the writing process—“Notice how I elide my sentences and keep my books short. I’m watching for signs of a yawn”—but at the same time makes the case for the essentialness of writing, the ways in which it is such a part of her existence: “Writing is like brushing my teeth, without which the day is misspent.” In Lucinella we get to experience not so much the life of a writer, but the mind of one.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

I Change Worlds by Anna Louise Strong

Today is the anniversary of the Seattle General Strike, which took place February 6-12, 1919. Anna Louise Strong, a radical journalist who was involved in the action, wrote an autobiography called I Change Worlds: The Remaking of an American that is totally amazing. I didn't discover this book until I was in my mid-20's, and even then it was through an English friend (thanks Dale!). We were not taught this history in school and even though I had studied radical history in college and grew up in the Northwest, I didn't know about this book or remember her name. It's important to keep the history of dissent alive and remember the women who came before us. It's also inspiring to read about an anti-capitalist labor movement shutting down an entire city. It makes me wonder if something like this could happen again. People say the Battle of Seattle is proof that radicalism and resistance is still alive, but that was more than 10 years ago. What is happening today? I'm going to study Howard Zinn for ideas.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Girl Power: The Nineties Revolution in Music by Marisa Meltzer

Girl Power traces the influence of OG "riot grrl" groups (Bikini Kill, Bratmobile, Heavens To Betsy) to the Spice Girls, covering "foxcore", Sleater-Kinney, Le Tigre and Ladyfest as well as several other pop stars and other all-female alternative/indie rock groups along the way.

The book is written for a mainstream audience and suffers from some of the awkwardness that comes along with trying to explain this stuff to the general public. Marissa comes across as a former indie-rocker who felt she didn't really fit into the punk scene, yet was invigorated by the feminism (and celebration of girlhood) that happened during riot grrl. This makes sense, as she admits she found out about the movement through Sassy (her previous book is a love letter to the pro-girl teen magazine) She argues that riot grrl's "media blackout" led to its demise and wishes that the original groups would have stuck around and tried to find a larger audience. Describing an experience of seeing Sleater-Kinney play to 13,000 people, she recalls wishing that riot grrl had been able to sustain itself. Paradoxically, she acknowledges that, while the Spice Girls were cool in some ways, their "girl power" was limited to marketing and questions what that means in terms of empowerment. Quoting Kathleen Hanna, she points out that buying a Spice Girls notebook is not going to change the world. This makes me wonder what would be different if it had been Bikini Kill notebooks the girls were buying.

I knew Marissa around 96/7 when she lived in Olympia and had a cute all-girl accapella group called The Skirts. In the interest of "full disclosure"--I was a big Skirts fan and she was my favorite member! It was a weird time period. It was interesting to read her take on things as someone who admits (somewhat reluctantly) that she moved here to go to Evergreen after getting into riot grrl and even "semi-stalking" Kathleen. I wish she would have told more of her own story here. Her voice comes through loud and clear when she is critiquing what she calls the elitism of independent culture. She belongs to the camp that believes that it's exclusive to play basement shows, failing to see how this can be a more inclusive model. By booking our own tours and creating a DIY feminist network through the mail, Bikini Kill encouraged girls to meet each other and start their own scene. Sure a "scene" can be clique-ish and Olympia was/is no exception, but the idea we were were working with is that if we can do it here, certainly you can do it where you live. Only a few bands can get on MTV or sign to a major label. It's far more populist to encourage kids to put on shows where they live and take their own work and friends seriously. To her credit she does acknowledge that Ladyfest was a successful attempt to take this idea to another level.

I was interviewed (via email) for the book and am quoted a lot, which is kind of embarrassing, as I don't think what I'm trying to say really comes through, which is partially my fault, not thinking about who the audience for the book would be and just neurotically rambling on to her about how strange it is to have been a part of something that had such a big cultural impact. I remember telling her how weird and hard to talk about a lot of this is for me without going into a lot of detail. I tried to explain my perspective. On the one hand you want to take credit for your work, especially because women are encouraged NOT to take credit for anything. On the other hand, it's embarrassing. Sometimes I feel like I'm lying when I talk about this stuff because what actually happened is so surreal and bizarre that I often have a hard time believing it myself.

Personal weirdness aside, I think it's cool that someone wrote this book for a mainstream audience. My hope is that teenage girls and young women who don't know this history will get inspired to find out about riot grrl. It would be really cool if it inspired girls to create a new young feminist movement rooted in their generation.

The book made me think a lot about documenting history from a strategic perspective. How could this story be told to incite participation in girls? A big part of the original "girl power" idea, was to get girls to stop being consumers of male-dominated culture and start producing our own. I guess my fear is that this kind of pop-culture history could encourage girls to simply consume "girl-culture", thereby claiming the identity of "riot grrl" or "feminism" through the act of buying a record, as opposed to starting their own band or fanzine or putting on a show. To me the point is to encourage girls to start their own young feminist movement, not just to copy what we did. That is the danger of nostalgia I think...

So I'd be interested to hear what people think about this. How can we tell our story without feeding into this consumer-oriented nostalgic trap? Or is that inevitable?

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Remembering Phyl Garland

I didn't know that Phyl Garland, who wrote The Sound of Soul: The Story of Black Music (1969), died, back in 2006. I didn't know too much about her, but have always appreciated the research she did on women in soul and thought she was an interesting writer.

In 1981, Phyllis Garland became the first African American and first woman to earn tenure at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.

She loved jazz, ballet and soul music and believed deeply in the power of the arts. She taught her students to cover them as thoroughly as they would city hall.

Ms. Garland, a native of McKeesport, died Wednesday of complications of cancer at Calvary Hospice in Brooklyn. She was 71

In addition to teaching journalism, she was the editor of EBONY (The New York Times says Essence Magazine but I think they got it wrong) for several years, had an extensive music collection and sang at her own retirement party with an all-girl band backing her up.

The Sound of Soul is one of the only full length books about popular music (that I know of, there may be more) from this time period written by a woman. It's not that hard to find if you look in used bookstores. Nice cover too. I couldn't find a picture of it online.