Tuesday, June 21, 2022

The Beatles II

YouTube playlist link: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PL1xE21yx1Z5Yp2wv3bCTSLby1-CPlkOwY

This is my attempt at an imaginary Beatles album released on Apple Records in 1971. In reality, the Beatles broke up in September 1969, when Lennon announced privately to the others that he was leaving the group (though this did not really become official until April 1970). However, earlier in Sept. 1969, they had discussed doing a further Beatles record, with Lennon and McCartney being credited separately and Harrison receiving more space than before. So, what would it have been like if they’d all for one reason or another decided to make that album and recorded it in 1970?

Though my song selections are subjective, there is some rationale for each (see below). I’ve tried to avoid making this simply a “greatest hits of the solo Beatles” and instead organized the pieces that I think best make sense together as an album (though, yes, a few are “signature” recordings). There are four Paul songs, three John, three George, one Ringo. Almost all have some kind of Beatles link, or in one or two cases at least fall within the correct time period and can be imaginatively associated with what would’ve been recorded for such a project.

Obviously, not all band members play on all tracks. The Paul songs in particular don’t feature other Beatles, but to my mind most of these recordings have similar production values. George plays on a John track, while Ringo overlaps a bit with George and John, etc. There is precedent to this; for example, John didn’t play on Let It Be’s “I Me Mine,” Ringo is absent from a couple songs on the White Album, and John’s Beatles single “The Ballad of John & Yoko” was recorded by John and Paul only. Eric Clapton, who appears on a few of these, famously played on “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” while Billy Preston (the “fifth Beatle” on Let It Be) appears on some too.

For an album title, perhaps Let It Down would be a clever follow-up to Let It Be, but to avoid one guy’s song being the title track, I’m using The Beatles II (like the White Album is simply The Beatles). The idea here is to listen to the whole, letting the songs combine in your mind as a fictional Beatles LP, rather than hearing them as familiar individual solo exercises.

Side 1:

“Cold Turkey” was written by Lennon during the Abbey Road sessions, offered to the Beatles but passed over, prompting him to release it himself as a single. But let’s say that instead of rejecting it, Paul had said something like, “Hold off on releasing this now, and let’s think about it as an album track next time around.” The 45 that John recorded features Ringo on drums and Clapton on guitar.

“Another Day” is a McCartney tune dating back to the Let It Be sessions and thus could’ve easily been a Beatles tune. Since it was his first solo single, let’s say he would’ve insisted it be included on the hypothetical new Beatles album. Though John later dissed it in “How Do You Sleep,” we’ll imagine the group embracing it in the spirit of compromise.

Harrison’s “Art of Dying” dates to 1966, and it serves to bring up the energy level and tempo, aside from just being a strong piece in itself.

Ringo began writing “It Don’t Come Easy” in late 1968, finishing it with the help of George, who plays on the 1970 recording, giving it a particularly Beatles sheen.

“Teddy Boy” is a Paul tune c. 1968, first recorded during the Let It Be sessions in 1969, almost ending up on that LP. Some have criticized it as another boring “observational” Paul song, but there’s something interesting happening with the chord changes and bassline here.

It’s well known that “All Things Must Pass” was inexplicably nixed for Let It Be, but in this imaginative exercise George now insists, and the other Beatles finally recognize the song’s greatness. Ringo’s here, and Billy Preston, so that’s three-fifths of the Beatles already.

Side 2:

“Maybe I’m Amazed” is one of Paul’s best, recorded 1970 and sounding a lot like his Beatles work (it was written while the Beatles were still officially together). Its connection to the actual Beatles is that the opening piano riff evolved from “Song of Love,” a draft piece played during the Let It Be sessions.

“Gimme Some Truth” was recorded at the Let It Be sessions in basically the same form. The Lennon recording includes George’s guitar work, giving it that Beatles feel.

 “Oh Woman Oh Why,” the B-side of Paul’s first single, doesn’t seem to have  Beatles ties but was composed at the right time and still stands as one of his greatest solo songs, though now mostly forgotten. It’s a heavy groove with Paul using his wild R&B voice, and would’ve made a good contrast to his softer compositions, showing that he could still rock.

John’s “Remember” sprang from the Abbey Road sessions, with him experimenting on piano during the 1969 recording of Harrison’s “Something.”

George wrote “Let It Down” in 1968 and again offered to the Beatles for Let It Be. There’s an interesting McCartney vibe to this piece, in my opinion, which makes it sound very Beatlesesque, with a sort of “Hey Jude”-like crescendo that ends the album with a bang.

Sunday, April 24, 2022

Interviewed by Chairman Ralph

Chairman Ralph (Heibutzki) interviewed me about my book The Music and Noise of the Stooges, 1967-71: Lost in the Future (Routledge, 2022), and the Stooges more generally, on his site.

Here is the link to the interview.

Ralph wrote an extensive article on the Stooges back in 1995 (published in Goldmine), and it was great to have the opportunity to bounce ideas off of him and his expertise.  In fact, he had also let me use extracts from his interview with Ron Asheton for my book.

We get into some of the things I write about there, and the tone is informal and conversational.  I didn’t even realize Ralph was recording till about midway through. 

Many thanks to Ralph.
 

My Poem “The Ewes at Imbolc” as Ambient

An ambient/electronic group by the name of these_nails has incorporated my poem “The Ewes at Imbolc” as lyrics/vocals to a music track, streaming on Soundcloud:

https://soundcloud.com/these_nails/imbolc

Saturday, April 16, 2022

Maurice Scully’s Things That Happen

Things That Happen (with some of its parts)

Maurice Scully’s Things That Happen, written 1981-2006 and finally published in complete form, one volume from Shearsman (2020).  I’ve been reading this gargantuan work in smaller pieces throughout the decades now, since approximately 2000 when I was living in Galway and editing The Burning Bush literary magazine.  I got in touch with Scully around that time, and I’d received a couple of his chapbooks from Randolph Healy, poet and publisher of Wild Honey Press.  I was immediately drawn to Scully’s work, along with that of other innovative Irish poets whose writing was finally beginning to come to prominence.  Scully and I exchanged a few letters (before email became the primary mode of communication), and he sent me some more of his books as well, and I’ve written about these and others in various essays and reviews — for example, online: of Prelude, Tig, A Tour of the Lattice; and about further of these book-excerpts in various print outlets.  Initially I approached them as self-contained chapbooks or what have you, but especially when larger pieces of Things That Happen began coming out from Shearsman and other presses in the early 2000-10s, the bigger picture began to emerge.  Now there is this single volume of approximately 600 pp., finally bringing it all together and allowing us to encounter it as one.  There’s something about the book itself, a big blue object, minimalist design, an object of apparent import even before being read.  “The book / is fat.”

It is a great accomplishment, and for me this has become one of the most important books not only in Irish poetry, but worldwide English-language poetry more broadly.  That said (about the English language), the glossary to this volume is primarily composed of translations of Irish (Gaeilge) phrases, and the mixing of languages is something that is especially interesting to me.  Sometimes Scully signifies on other Irish poets, as in the “Interlude” to “Livelihood,” in “Sear Search” (237-38), which is almost a (very) loose translation of the modernist poet Seán Ó Riordáin’s “Saoirse.”  In “Sonata” (at pp. 433-34), he reaches back to the late-Bardic poet Séamas Dall Mac Cuarta, while also perhaps alluding to Gerard Manley Hopkins in the same section (“the deity was / inventing conspicuous beauty. / praise him. & his mother.” — the Mac Cuarta line that occurs somewhat later in the piece is “le seinm na gcuach ar bhruach / na gcoille go sámh,” which is Hopkinsesque before Hopkins), as interruptions of a contemporary industrial-capitalist milieu.  Other times, the Irish phrases are just random phrases, but serve to widen the frame of reference (snippets of talk or thought) as do the bits of Sesotho (resulting from Scully’s time in Lesotho).  Cuireann sé seo uilig i gcuimhne dúinn go bhfuil snáithí éagsúla i gcúlra den obair seo.

There’s a poem called “Fire” (in “Livelihood”/“Steps,” actually one of many with the “Fire” title, this one pp. 319-20) that begins with the cosmic breath, being emerging and dissipating into nonbeing, and then some specifics of being in the world (forsythia in spring, “the bird in flight,” “hedges & trees,” “water in a river”), then moving into poetry itself, the act of poetry I should say, with gestures toward the ancient Irish mode.  The question “what’s in the news, then?” is probably an allusion to the anonymous 9th-c. Gaelic poem “Scél lém dúib,” while other lines of Scully’s reference the practice of composing in the dark (as elaborated in Daniel Corkery’s The Hidden Ireland): “dark cell / . . .flat on your back / stone on your belly.”  Possibly something as abstruse as “that vast / central column of / (     ) (being) / . . .connecting verticals” (occurring in the in the middle of the poem) can be linked to this, as a rendering of a similar kind of apophatic meditation where energy is seen to move or transform within the body (and is thus an immanent process rather than transcendent or metaphysical).  While the closing lines, a “predawn whimper of a pump / in the dust.” may seem at first glance counterintuitive, a move away from that “cool” Gaelic stuff, they of course make total sense upon further reflection — what is this if not the perfect metaphor of all existence (which the poet must seek to be in tune with), with its suggestions of also a certain kind of Chinese worldview (“dust,” and the pump like the bellows of the DDJ).  Things That Happen is made of interconnections but also, in instances like “Fire,” poems that can be read as self-contained (though with its themes being picked up elsewhere).

I know that in past essays (here and here) I’ve written about the immediately following poem “Four Corners,” a supposed “pastoral” that limns environmental degradation before moving to its powerful last stanza in which Scully announces,

      The book
is fat, contains code. The world,
the water planet. The code contained in
this thing in the world, the book, changes
the things, the world.  (322)
There are many ways to read this, but this time around I see it as a crucial observation on the nature of our reality, rather the way in which we perceive the world, and specifically how language (poetry) shapes our consciousness of our being/world/environment.  We might think that we are autonomous individuals who observe things then decide to write about them.  But it is really only in the writing (poetry) — the code in the book! — that we create (“change”) the world and ourselves.  Thus, subject-creating, a becoming-subject, rather than subject-existing-and-asserting-itself.  What is the nature of or experience of being in the world, etc.  Flipping through the recent Ken Keating-edited volume, A Line of Tiny Zeros in the Fabric: Essays on the Poetry of Maurice Scully (Shearsman, 2020), again, I note references to phenomenologist philosophers like Michel de Certeau and Jean-Luc Nancy, which helps to construct an apt body of criticism around Scully’s work.  Scully’s poetry is of the quotidian, often, but is never itself merely quotidian.  David Lloyd’s invocation of Theodor Adorno (with reference to a somewhat obscure [but eminently relevant] essay on Berg) — “Adorno’s remarks throw into relief the tension throughout Livelihood between its peculiar stasis and its constant, restless forward movement. . .” (Lloyd 63) — prompted me to go to Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory as I was writing this essay, and his observations about the transformation of quotidian material in W. C. Williams’s Paterson and elsewhere. Adorno: “When . . . William Carlos Williams sabotages the poetic and approximates an empirical report, the actual result is by no means such a report: By the polemical rejection of the exalted lyrical tone, the empirical sentences translated into the aesthetic monad acquire an altogether different quality” (123).  Paterson is one of Things That Happen’s obvious predecessors, and though the aforementioned poem (“Four Corners”) does not engage in the kind of “grocery list” strategies that Paterson sometimes does, and Scully does elsewhere in the book in his own way, it is indeed partly a “polemical rejection of the exalted lyrical tone” (rejecting, for example, the Heaneyan “pastoral” lyric; though, this observation is old news by now?), and it is via the translation into the aesthetic monad that both the code and the world acquire their meaning or no-meaning (the news that stays news).

Things That Happen in a sense contains a life, the way that Louis Zukofsky’s “A” does (and clearly it is this latter book that is the real model for the former, if there is one, the big, Big, BIG ongoing modern poem).  It is at once personal but transpersonal.  The details of a life are real (of course) but also like a dream (shades of Wakean dreamlogic?  Zhuangzi’s butterfly?), and as Scully writes in one of the “Sonnet”s of “Sonata,” “then I woke up.” (475) — that is, this is how he begins that poem.  As means of further illustration, the very beginning of the book and the very end.  Scully’s opening:
An old house     absence of sound    trees
moss     wildlife     that feeling of surface
over surface with smooth spaces between
                (“5 Freedoms of Movement” 17)
It is the gap in the concrete, imagistic details that Scully is really emphasizing here, in both the gaps (“spaces”) between words and the more overt attempt to describe the “feeling.”  As Aodán McCardle writes of this beginning (with specific reference to its accompanying photo, Yves Klein’s “Leap into the Void,” but which I think equally applies to these lines), Scully’s “idea [is] that we never really inhabit a singular moment in time” (in Keating, ed., 24).  Even when we try to capture the “things,” we are really getting layers of surfaces interspersed with spaces.  That is real understanding.  The book ends,
Dandelion & daisy begin.
Soon a sweetish whiff
of wallflower & walks
past the Ashtown Tin Box Factory
down to the pouring canal.  (“Tig” 603)
There is so much to interpret there.  The sensory images of the moment, the “ash” of Ashtown like the earlier-mentioned “dust,” maybe even the inevitability of death (“Box Factory,” as in the metaphoric coffin), to the pouring canal where we flow out once again into the stream of nonbeing (shades of Joyce’s “riverrun / a long the”).  But as a poet, what I also am really struck by is the heavy alliteration of this final passage, d-d, s-s, w-w-w, and the assonance of “ish”-“whiff,” “wall”-“walks,” “past”-“Ash”-“Fac”-“[ca]nal.”  As with the opening passage, it is the surface sheen, the poetry, that is the lens.  So I return to Adorno’s assertion about the translation into the aesthetic, which is not aesthetics for aesthetics’ sake, but rather for the sake of the world.


Saturday, March 12, 2022

On Kerouac’s Centennial

Today would have been Kerouac’s 100th birthday, if he did not die at age 47 in the year 1969.  Despite how the beginning of this essay (following) may be perceived by Kerouac followers, I love Kerouac.  I love what he did as a writer, and the seriousness with which he approached being an artist through the 1940s into the mid-50s.  I love the way in which he embraced life through art, his breakthroughs in merging a literary style with a study of the human consciousness (and subconsciousness) — this, I think, is his real legacy: his literary work.  Not the stereotype of the angry, reactionary drunk that he became in his later life, which is ultimately a terrible image to project but one that sadly persists in America at least partly due to Kerouac’s legend (though of course there are many others who promulgated the mode of masculinist drinker-artist).  All of this obscures Kerouac’s important insights and importance as a writer.

To love Kerouac is to live with all kinds of contradictions.  Through my 20s, 30s, and even 40s, I was unaware of or perhaps suppressed that sense of contradiction, for a variety of reasons.  From where I am at now, I would sum up the reason for this as, to put it bluntly, whiteness.  I wanted to have the myth of America.  I wanted to believe there was some truth to the idea that America had let Kerouac down, that his sadness was of utmost importance, that he had no choice therefore but to drink himself to death, and that his big “fuck you” to the world had shown everybody.  I specifically remember thinking, for a while, that the bitterness expressed in this photo (below) was cool.  That was really stupid on my part.

 

The contradictions lie in trying to separate the art from the person, and from his avowed late-life conservatism (though how late in life this develops is open to question; the Barry Miles biography dates Kerouac’s support of Sen. Joseph McCarthy to 1954 [p. 202]).  There are conservative Kerouac fans out there who celebrate his sharp right turn and see no contradiction in this at all, so if I’ve lost you here, okay goodbye.  It seems to me, however, that to laud Kerouac’s conservatism is also to laud his crankiness and his increasingly alcoholism — all of which is inextricably bound up together, the negativity of his drinking and the negativity of his politics.  Both of these to one degree or another have their roots in the flawed sense on Kerouac’s part that his sentimentalism about America had been betrayed by “Communists.”  But all of it is just that, sentimentalism rather than reality.  Kerouac’s political stance never had any real credibility, and I myself never inclined toward his kind of politics, even at the height of my own “fandom.”  I thought it was funny that he responded to Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s interest in the Cuban revolution in 1960 with the retort, “I’ve got my own revolution right here in Northport — the American Revolution!” (Nicosia, p. 621) — but I never believed that it composed a serious politics.  (It doesn’t.)

America, though.  At one time I was deeply seduced by the myth of America, as expressed in Kerouac’s road novels.  I believed in the idea of “discovering” America and went “on the road” myself, driving cross-country many times.  I believed in the idea of freedom this represented, and the idea that you could live outside of restrictive or normative society by being in movement, or the distance that this provided from “home.”  I really had this feeling at the time, but I would also say that it is in part an illusion that is fostered by individualism and a lack of awareness of the wider contexts that facilitate the myths of individual freedom.  As Scott Obernesser writes in a 2020 essay titled “What It Means to Be On The Road: Mobility and Petrocultures during the Mid-Twentieth Century,” “Sal perceives the road as imbued with transformative power; yet, at the same time, the surface is a mixture of oil and repurposed earth. The play between material surface and transcendental pursuit is emblematic of the novel’s fundamental, yet largely overlooked conflict: submission to industry in the hope of increased personal freedom” (p. 494), further clarifying, “Though Sal is acting out his countercultural impulse . . . his mobility is always already incorporated into systems of capital and consumption” (p. 496).

Basically, I used to think it was all about me, and of course this is what Americans (especially white Americans) are trained to believe.  They are not usually asked to consider the ways in which their perceptions of their personal freedom bolster an often-exploitative system of consumer capitalism, the ways in which their own illusions about supposedly having rebelled against the system instead reify it.

Equally as complicated (and problematic) is Kerouac’s framing of race, with the obvious example of On the Road once again, the famous passage where he expresses that, as a white man, “I walked . . . in the Denver colored section, wishing I were a Negro. . . .” (there are other examples that could be used here too).  Kerouac’s view of Black life was that all was well before Civil Rights, and that Black people embodied ecstasy and joy, and so on.  I don’t doubt that Kerouac meant his comments about wishing he were Black as laudatory and affirmative, and this is the cry that always comes from Kerouac’s uber-fans even today: He meant this as a compliment.  But of course the authorial intent of these passages is not the end of the story.  We as readers have a duty to analyze, as well as to question the cult of personality within Kerouac fandom, and to allow for a more critical perspective.

The charge from those who would blithely defend all of Kerouac’s literary and personal stances is that we are imposing a contemporary, so-called “woke” view on something that was supposedly perfectly acceptable in its own historical context.  However, this is simply incorrect.  James Baldwin, in his 1961 essay “The Black Boy Looks at the White Boy,” rightly critiqued Kerouac/Sal’s Denver statement at that time, responding that “this is absolute nonsense. . . and offensive nonsense at that...” Baldwin’s essay appeared only four years after On the Road was published and still had great cultural currency, and thus puts the lie to the notion that criticizing Kerouac’s attitudes on race is merely judging him by today’s standards.

Then there is John Clellon Holmes’s 1963 interview with Kerouac, where Holmes asks him about all this.  Kerouac at least admits that it (the “wishing I were a Negro” line) was a “romantic” statement, but goes on to dismiss Baldwin: “James Baldwin wants to stir up as much interest in his Civil Rights fight as he can, get everybody involved, all the writers probably, but I have no time for politics, just Art” (The Unknown Kerouac, p. 320).  Fair enough, on one level perhaps.  But I don’t think you actually can separate art and politics in that way, at least not completely.  And the scornful attitude toward Civil Rights is telling, the idea that it is “stirring up,” rather than simply the insistence on justice.  Kerouac ended up on the wrong side of history there, and Baldwin was right.  Saying so triggers a lot of people’s white fragility, however.  I know this from personal experience trying to discuss these questions in Kerouac social-media forums, where the response is often a frantic defense by hero-worshipers of Kerouac against the perception that he is being accused of being a racist.

Obviously many have written about Kerouac on race long before me; it is not a new idea.  I don’t know if I could say whether “Kerouac was racist” or not, as the answer to the question depends on definitions, intention versus effect, individual versus structural, etc.  But this is the kind of complication that, speaking for myself, I can no longer ignore if I’m going to continue to engage with Kerouac’s work.  In reality, given the society that he lived in (and to a great extent we still live in today), it would almost be a miracle if he weren’t in some way racist.  These are facts about American society that people have been wrestling with since its inception.

The question then is whether it is worthwhile to engage with Kerouac at all.  Is it worthwhile to engage with myself?  Because of course as a product of American or “Western” society I undeniably embody many of the same dynamics, which in the scheme of things I’ve only recently started to seriously confront, trying to undo the assumptions created by one’s own whiteness and so on.  Maybe these concerns are not those of most Kerouac readers, and I know all of the resistance to what I’m saying, encountered it already.  But to me it is a valid question, the complication of how someone like Kerouac can on the one hand harbor some in my estimation problematic social and political views inculcated by the society around him/us, leaving those uninterrogated while at the same time making deeply meaningful and insightful observations about the nature of human existence, the relation of human beings to the natural world, to animals, to other people, about new cultural and social developments in society, in literature and art (including some very strong writing about bop jazz), being in tune with all of these in often affirmative ways, to observe the mind observing, and to render it all in a truly innovative poetic and prose style (often a poetic-prose style).  But not to pretend that one exists without the other, or in one’s own insecurity about oneself to feel the need to defend the negative aspects of the personality — the inability to accept complication and ambiguity as itself part of the reality of human existence.

There could also be some who do say, “Why would I want to engage with this stuff at all then?” i.e. that given all the confused or outright fucked-up parts of him, the work is just not worth it, and no you can’t separate it, so why would I want to deal with a right-wing crypto- or not-so-crypto-racist?  To that, I can only say of course fair enough.  I’m not trying to convince anyone, and I can’t separate it either.  It’s the same argument about Pound, Eliot, Stein, and other modernists who expressed fascist sympathies to some extent or other; maybe the time has come to stop being so obsessed with them altogether, and write about other modernist poets who didn’t have fascist leanings, and whose work never got its proper due.  That totally makes sense.  So I’m only speaking personally here, and obviously much of what I’ve written above is connected to my own process of self-interrogation, and thus my own previous self-identification with Kerouac comes in for criticism (he is like it or not, a subject for me).  Yet, when I go back to Kerouac’s writing, there’s still something (what I wrote in the last half of my last paragraph) that seems to penetrate through the shitty personalities that a (frequently) shitty society creates for us.

We think we create our own personalities, that we have the freedom to create our selves, but this is another lie of capitalism and (often anyway) of white supremacy.  On some level Kerouac himself understood that, though he would never have framed it in those terms.  I’ve been rereading his Book of Dreams (1960), an often-overlooked novel(?) in his oeuvre, and it’s a compelling text, not least for its insight about the functioning of the mind.  Kerouac attacks Freud for his mere interpretation of hidden motivations (“Freudianism is a big stupid mistaken dealing with causes and conditions instead of the mysterious, essential permanent reality of Mind Essence” [Book of Dreams, 2001 edition, p. 282]), and instead (influenced by Buddhism) sees dreams as part of the same mind-matter that constructs the waking world as well as the sleeping world.  I think there’s an obvious component to subconscious dreams that do lend themselves to interpretation of/connection to daily quotidian conscious life, and clearly I subscribe to a certain degree to materialist “causes and conditions,” and I’d suggest that Kerouac’s unfiltered confessions in this book are in fact open to a variety of interpretations.

But again, these dynamics are perhaps merely the surface overlay of personality.  Though most of Book of Dreams is just that (the actual dreams, without attempt to explain or interpret), Kerouac at times does make comment about the nature of existence, consciousness, and art.  He writes,

words, images & dream are fingers of false imagination pointing at the reality of Holy Emptiness---but my words are still many & my images stretch to the holy void like a road that has an end---It’s the ROAD OF THE HOLY VOID this writing this life, this image of regrets------ (pp. 280-81)

We can’t escape these particulars or dynamics; they are the stuff of the world and inevitably of art.  We might perhaps be able to turn off the conscious mind’s investment in them only sometimes, through meditation, say (which Kerouac apparently was not very good at).  We (or I) might wish that Kerouac was sometimes better at negotiating the shit that the world threw his way; the alcohol didn’t help.  But before it all turned bad, and coexisting with the regrets (his or mine or everyone’s), Kerouac throughout much of his poetry (by which I mean also his prose) demonstrated tenderness for all living things, through his poetics lived deeply in the world, and elaborated an innovative style out of which good things came, and which is delightful in itself.

Sometimes the pathos obscures the poetics, the alcoholic bitterness obscures the knowledge of immanent interconnection, but there are these moments in reading him where a vision of beauty or a vision of being an artist unfolds with such deep understanding in a way, that still comes forth.  I feel it in the passage of Doctor Sax (written 1952) that ends “boyhood immortal night” (Grove/Black Cat edition, pp. 202-03), in any number of passages of Visions of Cody (written 1951-52) and really that novel’s whole groundbreaking, experimental form, in poems like “Mexican Loneliness,” “The Last Hotel,” Book of Blues, Old Angel Midnight, etc.  This vision is not limited by “what happened to Kerouac” but is transferable and still capable of inspiring joy today.

Or, even, when he writes in Book of Dreams,
The little cat I had in my hands that had such a sweet sad little funnyface with gray eyes and finally spoke to me in a pitiful voice, like Gerard’s, “J’aime pas demain” and I said “Moi too mon ange!” and felt like crying . . . that piteous note Gerard had . . . which is in my own voice when I address little names to my cats---this kitty was an angel, and spoke the truth---  (pp. 140-41)

There is an odd kind of emotion there, to do with loss, and what is the meaning of the cat’s oracular statement “J’aime pas demain/I don’t like tomorrow”?  But we all experience loss, and it is the joy of today that we want, in the face of the inevitable loss of tomorrow, and I talk to cats too.

All day, this photo:


 

Tuesday, February 01, 2022

Brigid and Poetry

Brigantia in Romanized form, Dumfries, Scotland, 2nd c. CE

From 2023 on, Imbolc (Feb 1.) will be a public holiday in Ireland.  This is an interesting development, which completes the official recognition of the traditional four Celtic holidays (the other being Bealtaine, Lúnasa, and Samhain).  Of course many have already been observing Imbolc in their own ways, all along.  In its Christian guise, it is St. Bríd’s (Brigid’s) Day, but it is surmised — from some specific references and the importance of the day itself in the Christian calendar — that, given that religion’s propensity to “take over” the preexisting pagan holidays, Imbolc would have to have been a pagan festival of fairly major importance long before the appearance of any saint.

For those “in the know,” the goddess Brigid is important for poets, as the Sanas Cormaic (circa 10th c. CE) describes her in this way:

Brigit i.e. a poetess, daughter of the Dagda. This is Brigit the female sage, or woman of wisdom, i.e. Brigit the goddess whom poets adored, because very great and very famous was her protecting care. It is therefore they call her goddess of poets by this name. Whose sisters were Brigit the female physician, Brigit the female smith; from whose names with all Irishmen a goddess was called Brigit. Brigit, then, breo-aigit, breo-shaigit, ‘a fiery arrow’. [The latter etymology is likely speculative on the ancient glossator’s part.]

The exact meaning and origin of Imbolc, though, seem to be in some dispute.  The word itself has been interpreted variously as (cribbed from Wikipedia):
i mbolc (Modern Irish: i mbolg), meaning ‘in the belly’, and refers to the pregnancy of ewes at this time of year. . . . the Old Irish verb folcaim, ‘to wash/cleanse oneself’, [referring] to a ritual cleansing, similar to the ancient Roman festival Februa or Lupercalia, which took place at the same time of year. . . . [Or] a Proto-Indo-European root meaning both ‘milk’ and ‘cleansing’. . . . [Or] from the Proto-Celtic *embibolgon, ‘budding’.

That it was a day of import in Ireland is not in dispute as this is mentioned in a number of ancient sources, such as the Táin Bó Cúailnge, the Hibernica Minora, and the aforementioned Sanas Cormaic.  Yet, I have more recently seen the connection between Imbolc and a goddess Brigid called into question.  It has often been assumed that the saint was essentially just a Christianized version of the goddess, who was therefore easily able to subsume the earlier pagan rituals and goddess cult.  What is unclear is the extent to which the goddess named Brigid/Bríd was worshipped in Ireland.  The suggestion is that maybe there was no such goddess in any real way in Ireland, or that she was a minor figure at best, that the association may be merely a retroactive conceit, despite the fact that the goddess is indeed mentioned in certain Irish texts (Sanas Cormaic [see above], and the Lebor Gabála Érenn), and there is evidence for her existence in Gaul and Britain as well.  Still, some would wish to dismiss the whole conversation as a fantasy, to say that “because of this technicality in the history of naming and documenting, your whole way of looking at things is wrong, and you are fooling yourself” (as if there is some other deistic religion whose stories are inherently more authentic).

Whether or not a goddess named Brigid was the direct forebear to the hagiographical Christian saint, we don’t know for sure, but in a way it really doesn’t matter.  We do know that goddess worship was strong in Ireland (as it was in many places before the arrival of Christianity) up through the Iron Age, and for millennia even before the arrival of the culture we now commonly call Celtic.  It seems that the derivation of the name is ultimately an Indo-European root meaning “high” (with the connotation of “exalted”) and so could ultimately be an epithet applied to any significant goddess figure throughout different periods and places.  We don’t have to have an elaborate or even specifically documented explanation of a specific goddess Brigid whose identity was then coopted by the early Christian church as stated in their recorded annals, to surmise based on the texts we do have and the importance of Imbolc through time, that Imbolc has since early antiquity been a holy day connected with goddess worship in Ireland.

Whether the primary goddess was even called Brigid or not is of little import.  It is what many people have chosen to name her, for a long time now.  Though I’m not entirely convinced that the syncretic process of goddess→saint didn’t occur, either, it is enough that a critical mass of well-intended people have created such a tradition and termed a conception of a goddess figure “Brigid.”  For, ultimately, is not all religious thinking grounded in human ritual, cultural, and possibly mystic practice?  (The answer is: yes.)  (I don’t think anything I’m saying here is especially original, by the way.)

I suppose this raises the question of why the image of a deity, of whatever gender or form, is relevant at all.  I would not say that I personally especially believe in a divine incarnation of a goddess “officially” named Brigid/Bríd (or anything else), because whatever cosmic force may be immanent to the world or universe is certainly beyond our conception of names and forms (though, being immanent in the material world, is also not merely metaphysical or abstract).  As the opening lines of the Dao De Jing go, “The Dao that can be spoken of is not the true Dao; / The name that can be named is not its true name.”  I suppose then that personifying the ineffable, the reversion into deistic thinking and even language, only moves us further away from it, whatever “it” is.  (Now, if someone were to tell me that some kind of perception of or communion with a personified divine figure is indeed their experience, if Brigid comes to you in that form, then I can only say “fair play.”)

Language and images, however, are an inextricable part of how we negotiate the world and the society around us.  Thus, I approach the idea of Imbolc (and all such holidays) from poetic and (in some small way) ritualistic perspectives.  For me, it is not about paying homage to an actual divine figure, so much as it is about being oneself as an expression of the above-referenced immanent “cosmic force,” whatever that means exactly (“I do not know its name; / If I were to refer to it, I would call it ‘Dao’”, DDJ 25).  Maybe it is also about inhabiting a system of recognizable (and now to some degree in Ireland, anyway, recognized) public or “holy” days that represents a framework of thought that is counter to the dominant narratives.  Culturally specific expressions of holidays or of specific figures may orient us to the world around us, whether it be in regard to fellow human beings and/or to the environment.  This latter is especially relevant given the obvious connections to animals and the natural world embedded in what little we do know about Brigid.  The very early hints of the changes of spring are upon us, despite the cold — there is already regeneration within the seeming lifelessness of a northern-hemisphere February.  Etc.

And, in one of her triple forms, Brigid is said in the ancient sources to be the/a source of poetry.

My Imbolc poem (2016) is accordingly about embodiment, language, fellow animal beings who are us, or we are animals, or brightness of fire within the water temporarily frozen in snow forms?



Tuesday, December 14, 2021

Pushcart Prize Nomination 2021

Artwork: Scott Bolohan
Many thanks to The Twin Bill for nominating me for a Pushcart Prize, for my poem “Under Green Light.”

The Twin Bill announcement: https://thetwinbill.com/category/2021-pushcart-nominee/

My poem “Under Green Light”: https://thetwinbill.com/under-green-light/

i. m. Allen Kirkpatrick

Allen Kirkpatrick died on the afternoon of December 10, 2021. Allen was a life-long friend and artistic influence, a filmmaker and poet.  As an American experimental filmmaker, he was active in the avant-garde film scene beginning in the late 1960s and primarily in the 1970s, in New York City.  His first major 16mm film, Orange Jesuit (see below) is dated from 1972.  Neon (also given in the linked video file) is from 1971.

Orange Jesuit deals with conceptions of religion, demonstrated primarily through juxtaposition and contrast (the title itself is inherently paradoxical), informed to some extent by Mao’s theory of contradiction (which in turn is of course more broadly related to Marxist dialectics).  The film is also informed to a degree by Gerard Manley Hopkins’s poem “Hurrahing in Harvest”: “The heart rears wings bold and bolder / And hurls for him, O half hurls earth for him off under his feet”—with the filmmaker himself, who appears as the protagonist throughout, seen “off under his feet” at the conclusion.

Kirkpatrick began his artistic career as a poet in Philadelphia, before moving to Manhattan and into film and visual art as well as continuing to write poetry.  His magnum opus is perhaps Adrenalin Devours the Blood (1975), which includes live footage of Lou Reed.

Obituary: https://www.altoonamirror.com/obituaries/2021/12/allen-kirkpatrick/

R. Allen Kirkpatrick, 1937-2021.

Saturday, October 30, 2021

Poem in The Twin Bill


I have a poem in the latest issue of The Twin Bill, a journal of baseball literature and art.  I would say that the poem (“Under Green Light”) is not concerned with the realism of an actual baseball game, so much as it is with non-ordinary mind states and with absorption in an ongoing moment, non-linear time.

Read the poem here: https://thetwinbill.com/under-green-light/

Saturday, October 23, 2021

The Music and Noise of the Stooges, 1967-71: Lost in the Future

Cover photo: Douglas R. Gilbert
My book The Music and Noise of the Stooges, 1967-71: Lost in the Future, a critical study of the Stooges, is now published by Routledge.

Here is the webpage for the book: https://www.routledge.com/The-Music-and-Noise-of-the-Stooges-1967-71-Lost-in-the-Future/Begnal/p/book/9780367648435

Here is the back matter:

The Stooges have come to be considered one of the most important rock bands, especially in regard to the formation of punk. By emphasizing their influence on later developments, however, critics tend to overlook the significance of the band in their own context and era. The Music and Noise of the Stooges, 1967–71 addresses such oversights.

Utilizing the lenses of cultural criticism and sound studies (drawing on the thinking of Theodor Adorno, Jacques Attali, and Pierre Bourdieu, among others), this extensively researched study analyzes the trajectory and musical output of the original Stooges. During the late 1960s and early 70s, a moment when the dissonant energy of rock’n’roll was more than ever being subsumed by the record industry, the Stooges were initially commercial failures, with the band’s “noisy” music and singer Iggy Pop’s “bizarre” onstage performances confusing their label, Elektra Records. As Begnal argues, the Stooges embodied a tension between market forces and an innovative, avant-garde artistic vision, as they sought to liberate audiences from passivity and stimulate an immanent joy in the rock’n’roll moment.

This book, which includes new material gleaned from first-person interviews and engages with less-trodden archival texts, offers a fresh perspective on the Stooges that will appeal both to rock fans and scholars (especially in the fields of cultural studies, punk studies, and performance studies).

Oblivion Demo Tape, 1985


Oblivion is a band I co-founded in Philadelphia in the fall of 1984. Originally, the band was the four-piece lineup of Steve Lukshides (who had formerly been bassist in YDI), Marc Fernich (ex-Kremlin Korps and Vatican Commandos), and myself (formerly of Wasted Talent), with Todd Cote on vocals. After Todd left the band, Dave Wynter replaced him as singer, and Fil Cerny was brought on as second/lead guitarist. Oblivion played frequently in the Philly punk/hardcore scene between 1984-86, finally breaking up in late ’86.

Our two-song demo tape was recorded in 1985 at Philly's Spectrum Studios.

See also the Oblivion article at Freedom Has No Bounds.

Tuesday, September 14, 2021

Poetry Controversy, “Free Speech” Debates, and the Power of Poetry

The recent controversy in the poetry world, centered around Barren Magazine firing an unpaid editor (Danielle Rose), is interesting and thought-provoking in a number of ways.  To briefly recap, Rose tweeted this on Sept. 3, 2021:


This led to widespread Twitter contention over whether or not poetry can be “powerful.”  Many replied that poetry was indeed quite powerful for them, in various different ways.  Barren came down on the “poetry is powerful” side of things and fired Rose, issuing the following statement on Sept. 4:

Before I get into what I think is noteworthy and thought-provoking about all of this, I want to firstly say what is not.  This is not some kind of “free speech” issue, and it is not a question of whether Rose was being “censored” or “canceled” by Barren.  The magazine has every right to put forward its own particular literary vision, and they have no obligation to continue to work with someone who doesn’t share it.  Rose’s position was unremunerated, and she does not appear to have been harmed by the parting of ways (aside from receiving a few not-especially-nice internet comments).  If anything, as she herself has pointed out, her profile and stature may even have been increased:


Whether or not she actually now has “power” is of course open to question, but to frame this as a “cancellation” or some similar silliness is, in my opinion, absolutely the wrong way to look at it.  Not only that, but doing so gives succor to right-wing trolls who want to say that “politically correct” “liberals” wield some kind of undue, despotic influence in the cultural realm — and indeed in the wake of this recent brouhaha, some commentators have tried to claim just that.  This reveals the flawed thinking behind many contemporary “free-speech” or anti-“political correctness” arguments.  Ostensibly, they defend the principle of free speech against supposed attacks “on both sides,” and assert the primacy of the Western values of debate and democracy, but in reality the argument more often than not becomes a stick with which the right attempts to undermine the credibility of progressives or of the left.  Even certain well-meaning people have been duped into avouching the bogeyman of “cancel culture,” but you have to ask what does their investment in “the principles of Western democracy” really signify in our current moment?  Note that the Prøud Bøys (for example) define themselves as “Western chauvinists.”  (Of course I believe in free speech and democracy; I’m simply pointing out that to frame the Rose/Barren rift as a free-speech issue is a massive red herring, which has wider, perhaps unintended consequences.)  (For further discussion of the spurious argument against so-called “political correctness,” see here.)

All of that said, the degree of uproar over Rose’s tweet was surprising, and I do think that Barren’s response was overblown, even if it falls well within their rights to fire her.  Rose’s initial statement, as many pointed out, was not very dissimilar from W. H. Auden’s oft-quoted line (from his poem “In Memory of W. B. Yeats”) that “poetry makes nothing happen,” and as such was a relatively uncontroversial notion that poets have been debating in some form or another for decades (even centuries).  Certainly, to my mind, this is hardly a fire-able offense.

But at the same time, others began pointing out the ways in which poetry can be, indeed is, powerful, and I agree that poetry is powerful both personally (many would say it’s given their lives meaning, perhaps even saved their lives in one way or another) and in building community.  I think what Rose was talking about was the way that some poets might impute to themselves, or to poetry generally, a level of importance that it doesn’t have outside of their own perhaps insular poetry circle (and of course there are numerous different poetry circles out there), and I think she was trying to puncture that inflated sense of self in the broader context of the society at large.  Poetry does often seem to be completely ignored by what Rose termed “the general population,” and so it is always a good reminder to check ourselves and our egos, especially in the face of the relative lack of attention to poetry “out there” in the wider world.

It is also, however, good to be reminded of how powerful poetry really is for the minority of us who practice and read it, and I affirm all of the various expressions of that that ensued.  Moving away from such eminently valid individual attestations of the importance of poetry, two particular texts come to me that further articulate the power that poetry can have.  One is Audre Lorde’s essay “Poetry Is Not a Luxury” (1977), which I return to frequently.  While I realize that I am not Lorde’s primary audience in that essay, with my own position(ality) in mind I am nonetheless always struck when she writes,

Poetry is not only dream and vision; it is the skeleton architecture of our lives.  It lays the foundations for a future of change, a bridge across our fears of what has never been before.
 …
The white fathers told us: I think, therefore I am.  The Black mother within each of us — the poet — whispers in our dreams: I feel, therefore I can be free.  Poetry coins the language to express and charter this revolutionary demand, the implementation of that freedom. (38)

Here, not only does Lorde delineate the power of poetry as personal, political, and beyond, she also critiques those very same Enlightenment values that the Western chauvinists invoke in their quest to uphold white supremacy — the notion that “logical” debate is an inherently positive value (i.e. rather than one that historically tends to benefit white, male, privileged property-holders).  Actually, while Lorde skillfully exposes the tyranny of rationality (here expressed in the Cartesian mind/body split of “white father” thinking), she goes on to identify the fusion of thought and feeling as the best framework for approaching both poetry and political action, and her essay is one of the best I can think of that expresses why, as her title argues, poetry is not a luxury but a necessity in the lives of many.  (Even Auden, in his poem, went on to assert that poetry is “a way of happening, a mouth.”)

The other text is Gary Snyder’s The Real Work: Interviews & Talks, 1964-79 (1980).  In a 1977 interview, Snyder responds to the Auden line by pointing out that poets “are out at the very edge of the unraveling cause-and-effect network of a society in time” (71).  For Snyder, poets do have a social and political function (and what is “power” if not the function of politics?), though it might be out of the mainstream discourse and thus unrecognized as powerful.  Snyder goes on to elaborate that poets are also
tuned into other voices than simply the social or human voice.  So they are like an early warning system that hears the trees and the air and the clouds and the watersheds beginning to groan and complain a little bit. . . . They also can hear stresses and the fault block slippage creaking in the social batholith and also begin to give out warnings. . . . Poetry effects change by fiddling with the archetypes and getting at people’s dreams about a century before it actually effects historical change.  A poet would be, in terms of the ecology of symbols, noting the main structural connections and seeing which parts of the symbol system are no longer useful or applicable, though everyone is giving them credence. (71)

For Synder, poets are (or can be) a kind of advance platoon (even a century in advance) of cultural experimenters who critique existing certainties and in their work register the limitations of dominant narratives.  Both Snyder and Lorde see poetry as existing at least partly in the realm of the dream, and thus point to non-Cartesian, non-rational means of making meaning and even making arguments.

In a way, this is the true sense of the term “avant-garde” — to make that new meaning through new forms of art and modes of living (rather than avant-garde in the mere sense of now-recognized stylistic departures) — Lorde’s “dream and vision” and “skeleton architecture.”  What is becoming increasingly clear, wherever you stand in the recent Rose/Barren-related exchanges (and again, I don’t think it’s an either/or situation), is that political systems and social values, no matter how much “everyone [supposedly] is giving them credence” (per Snyder), which privilege a dominant class and thus inherently oppress others (whether classes of people or even non-human animals and nature), should no longer be given such credence — in poetry or elsewhere in the social discourse.

Friday, July 02, 2021

Wasted Talent - 3 Songs from The Master Tape Vol. 2 LP (1983)

Wasted Talent was a hardcore/punk band I co-founded in 1981.  These songs were recorded on Sept. 15, 1982, at Red Dog Studios (Filmspace), State College, Pennsylvania, as part of our demo tape (cassette album) titled Self Rule (released late 1982).  In spring or summer of 1983, we remixed these three songs for The Master Tape Vol. 2 compilation (Affirmation Records, 1983).  When we were asked to be on that compilation by Paul Mahern of the Zero Boys and Affirmation Records, we decided to go back to the studio and remix the three songs because we had felt that the guitar on the demo tape was too low in the mix (and we had mastered it with the Dolby on!).  These are the remixed versions, which only appeared on that vinyl album, and what you hear in this video file is a vinyl rip.  The studio tape of the remix has since disappeared, and so these versions only exist on the vinyl compilation album and the digital transfer.


Sunday, June 13, 2021

Recap of May IAWA Salon Reading


Here is a recap of the May 11, 2021, Irish American Writers and Artists “Salon” reading. Along with my couple of poems, and other readers and performers, was Malachy McCourt. The linked post says some nice things.
 

I chose this photo because the IAWA’s mission states that “IAW&A is committed both to bringing together the Irish American creative community in new self-awareness and to being a force for inter-ethnic and interracial solidarity, understanding and active cooperation.”

Monday, May 24, 2021

Tropospheric Clouds Reviewed at Elliptical Movements


My chapbook Tropospheric Clouds (Adjunct Press, 2020) is reviewed by Billy Mills at his poetry blog, Elliptical Movements. Mills writes, among other things, that “This expansive economy is typical of Begnal at his best, and he is at his best here.”
Read the review: https://ellipticalmovements.wordpress.com/2021/05/24/recent-reading-may-2021/

Get the book: https://adjunctpress.com/chapbooks/tropospheric-clouds-by-michael-begnal-2020/

Thursday, May 20, 2021

John Goodby’s The Ars

John Goodby’s short collection The Ars (Red Ceilings Press, 2020) does double-duty as a serious statement (an ars poetica) and as ludic undertaking (is it all a big joke, ars = arse?).  As such (as both), its central theme is the artifice of language and thus the artifice of poetry.  It is very earnest as a project that foregrounds language as a construct (very Language Poetry), but this seriousness is constantly undermined by the double-entendres and plays on words that proliferate throughout.  To steal something of Goodby’s modus operandi for a moment, just now I accidentally typed “undermind” in place of “undermined,” and I suppose I could end the review right there, because that may be his real aim, to show through poetry the workings of the mind as constructed by language, the workings of the mind underneath our perception of a stable world.  All throughout these poems we think we are on the verge of true meaning, only to find that it eludes our grasp, exposed as a metaphor or resonance of sound.

For example, the poem “N” ends with the lines:
Time hip-hops the resent tense
With counter winds as walls
Face off flow, coasts lose face.
And, facing the head-on seas,
The lowly feel like winning.
The soundplay here is so dense that it wants to take over from the attempt to parse meaning out of this.  Additionally, there are multiple meanings, of “resent[ment]/recent/present,” something about the nature of time and verb-tense, then the various senses of “face” and “facing,
losing face versus “winning,” even an oblique gesture to the verbal jousting of hip-hop performance.  Similarly, the poem “Ultras” has a “flash / like morning // flesh,” and then the imperative “Plough on black fur / till the broken / star turns and grows // a first dropping in think.”  It’s the soundplay again that drives the poem — “flash/flesh,” the assonance of “fur/turns” and “broken/grows” — and which creates the illusion of a kind of symmetry. Only, we find that it doesn’t finally add up, and the summative phrase “dropping in think,” which suggest an idea, is deferred by the just-slightly-off-kilter syntax.  But that is the point, that it graphs the mind’s attempts to make sense from the nuts and bolts of language that don’t necessarily compose a finished object.

Reading these poems is something like being in the midst of a dream, where we feel we’ve just about grasped something, only to find that it is vanishing right in front of us.  One would be tempted to say that Goodby’s work creates its own dream-like world of the mind.  Of course, as soon as one says “dream-like,” the immediate association is James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, or even more likely surrealism.  These poems do employ some of the strategies of surrealism — e.g. in images and metaphors such as “feathered crazy footage / Of statues, hydrants, the gas beach / Unleashed in spurts” (“Day in the New” vii) and “We distorted torsos of foam into sand, / Matter-energy of the insurgents of air” (“Surgical”).  Here, on the surface at least, the methodology seems to correspond with André Breton’s.  However, it is not so much a question of dragging the unconscious or illogical into the light of the conscious or logical, as it is of exposing the sand of logic itself as made of foam or air.  But then, my analogy here assumes that sand is hard and concrete as opposed to the abstractness of foam or air — yet, sand is also metaphorically “shifting sand,” “castles made of sand,” etc.  It is all matter-energy.

Like the protagonist of Jorge Luis Borges’s story “The Circular Ruins,” who seeks to dream into existence a man “with minute integrity,” Goodby dreams these poems onto the page only to reveal that we are all part of the dream, reader and poet alike.  As he writes in “The Ars” (the title poem), at first “he cannot imagine yet / ripped space”; finally, however, “his dream inscrutably feeds / on itself wrings pain bodies dry.”  The body “dry,” the table-soccer player of The Ars’s cover photo (taken by the author himself), a simulacrum, the seam of the mold visible from the crown of the head on down.  As the concluding poem, “Llu” (meaning “power” in Welsh), reminds, “To happen is finished and about to.”  That is, it is “finished” by fashioning hands, or in the case of the figure in the photo, not so finished; indeed, these poems are always about to be, but never quite, and in this manner, are.

Sunday, May 09, 2021

Reading at IAWA Salon, May 11

I’ll be reading a couple/few poems at the Irish American Writers and Artists (IAWA) virtual salon, on Tuesday, May 11, at 7pm Eastern (midnight Irish time, 4pm Pacific time).  Aside from myself, the event includes Patricia Brody, Brendan Costello Jr., Derek Dempsey, Alexandra Williamson of the Darrah Carr Dance Company, and others.

Register for the Zoom link here: https://us02web.zoom.us/meeting/register/tZYrc--srD0sHdfWJYRRhHldBKC75pR-KlIG

 

Wednesday, May 05, 2021

Punk/Hardcore and (Political) “Authenticity”

Anyone who knows me knows that I was in the hardcore (punk) scene in the early to mid-1980s, and that punk still informs my worldview to a very significant degree.  It should also be said that punk is not just historical, and though I personally haven’t been seriously involved in a punk scene since about 1987, there are many good new young bands out there now, and I know many people from the old days who are still in bands, and who are doing some really good stuff.  And I also know that there never was any one specific political (or otherwise) meaning of punk, that there has always been a spectrum of viewpoints within punk, many of which have claimed, sometimes even contradictorily, to be authentically punk.

In that regard, though, punk emerges as limited as a philosophy unto itself, because there’s always the reductio ad absurdum of arguing about what punk truly means.  (Adam Arola has a really good article about this called “The Tyranny of Authenticity: Rebellion and the Question of ‘Right Life’.”)  Is punk really conservative Johnny Ramone, or is it liberal Joey Ramone?  Is it left-wing Maximum Rocknroll, or is it libertarian, anti-public-welfare Agnostic Front?  Is it the politically involved DKs or is it the personal focus of Minor Threat?  Is it the shock-rock of the Meatmen, or is it the earnestness of Articles of Faith?  No matter how much evidence you might assert to show that punk is “this,” there’s always some way to show that “this” can’t be true punk, because true punk is “that.”  Maybe that’s the point, that it’s all things and nothing.  Maybe there’s some value to that in a way — if it pushes a person to think critically — but it’s also not much to go on in another.  It means anyone can invoke their “punk rock” authenticity to bolster whatever silly claim they want to, and so ultimately punk has no inherent definition. Maybe punk is about having “no values,” but then “no values” is a specific kind of value itself.  And so on, and so on.

What often happens, then, is that punk becomes a field where all kinds of arguments about other things (i.e. besides music), especially politics and the “culture wars,” are elaborated.  Thus, it’s no surprise that recently there has come into focus a segment of what passes for the contemporary hardcore scene that is politically right-wing, prone to conspiracy theories (e.g. about covid vaccinations and social distancing during the pandemic) and phony persecution complexes about supposed oppression from the imaginary forces of “cancel culture” or “political correctness.” Those who put forward these views claim that they are “neither right nor left,” and that they embody the “real” spirit of punk in their anti-government or anti-institutional views (even when a policy is simply common sense for protecting people’s health, such as the longstanding CDC recommendation that you wear a mask in a pandemic).  Instead of expressing a genuine form of rebellion, however, such stances merely play into a reactionary libertarianism that ultimately aligns those asserting them with the January 6th seditionists and conservative political figures like Mike Pence.  While they may claim merely to be upholding “punk” values, they are also aligning themselves, purposely or not, with the extreme right.

(Hope not...)

This was recently demonstrated in the debacle of the April 24th show in Tompkins Square Park, Manhattan, that was supposed to have a socially distanced crowd capped at 500, but admitted 3,000 mostly unmasked, unvaccinated people, moshing and stage-diving in direct physical contact, thus creating a potential super-spreader event. The production company defended itself with obfuscations, gestures to punk rebellion, and in one instance by making an absurd comparison with Black Lives Matter protests. The social-media feeds of the production company and some involved with it promote various anti-vax conspiracy theories and on at least one occasion a retweet from the likes of Ron Johnson.

This comes from a particular, revisionist segment of New York Hardcore (NYHC) who have attempted to control the narrative of and set themselves up as spokespeople for what was originally a diverse and multifarious scene that began in the early 1980s.  While there has been a certain strand of libertarian conservatism in NYHC and hardcore more broadly, it is revisionist to claim that this was the one true or only version of hardcore all along.  Again, punk, including hardcore, always comprised a broad spectrum of different stances and worldviews, and to say it was really instead their one particular thing (which is now being tacitly expressed as right-wing libertarianism) is ignorant at best and hypocritical at worst.  You can’t have it both ways — you can’t say “But punk was never really only _____” when someone’s discussing it in ways you disagree with, but then say “Punk is really _____” when it suits your argument or involves your ability to put on shows.

Clearly, my own stance is coming through in this writing, but as I said at the start, I realize punk is limited as an epistemology, and I don’t care if you want to try to say that therefore I’m “not punk.”  Yet, I am struck by how there’s a group of people in punk nowadays, who in their old age (or whatever it is) have gotten really wacko with the anti-government conspiracy theories and fake victimhood, weird political flexes (again, usually under the guise of it being somehow “neither right nor left”) that put them in the same camp as the kind of people who stormed the Capitol on 1/6.  It is really galling to see how some of these people take the rhetoric of punk and use it as justification for their quite fanciful views, as if this were truly punk and you’re not.  But, no, it’s actually not a good idea to admit 3,000 people in close physical proximity while we’re still trying to overcome a pandemic; we just aren’t there yet (and won’t be if not enough people get vaccinated) — and that’s not some “government bullshit” that we need to question because it’s “punk” to “question everything” (as one latter-day NYHC band’s singer exhorted from the stage). It’s just a reality, and some people don’t seem to be in touch with reality anymore.

A similar confusion was recently expressed by Glenn Danzig in his Rolling Stone interview of April 29. In it, Danzig claimed that

everything’s so cancel-culture, woke bullshit nowadays, but you could never have the punk explosion nowadays, because of cancel culture and woke bullshit. You could never have it. It would never have happened. We’re lucky it happened when it did, because it’ll never happen again. You won’t have any of those kinds of bands ever again. Everyone’s so uptight and P.C.
Leaving aside the more obvious fallacies about punk rock here, the notion that there’s some actual “cancel culture” or “political correctness” regime that is somehow able to stop people from thinking or saying whatever it is they want to think or say, is ridiculous.  Yeah, there might be pushback, but that’s part of free speech too (and for that matter, as a punk in the 80s, I got plenty of resistance and outright harassment from mainstream society back then — there certainly was no great welcome for punk in the 80s).  But, the fact is nobody can stop anyone from being punk, and nobody can stop anyone from expressing themselves, as Danzig’s widely read interview, available on one of the world’s biggest music media platforms, clearly demonstrates.

Instead of striking a blow against some oppressive (but in fact nonexistent) “cancel culture,” what Danzig’s comments actually accomplish is to align him with the former Vice President Mike Pence, who on the same day as Danzig’s interview was published was also railing against “cancel culture” on Twitter:

I have no idea whether or not Danzig would explicitly support Pence, or if he has any particular political philosophy at all.  Again, though, it’s a situation where whatever the intent is, the result is that Danzig is using punk rock as a justification for what are in essence right-wing talking points.  It’s remarkable how similar Pence’s rhetoric is to Danzig’s and to that of the anti-vax/anti-mask segment of NYHC. They all situate themselves as rebellious individuals, but the effect of their talk is to reify a kind of individualist essentialism that has always been part and parcel of bootstrap capitalism, the “fuck-you” egotism that justifies those in power exploiting the rest, the kind of ideology that the right has always promulgated in American politics. Pence’s tweet says it all — he’s against “cancel culture,” except when he wants to cancel modes of thinking that threaten his sense of himself or his own power.

And so it seems to have become for certain sections of punk rock: It’s “punk” if it supports your own bizarre conspiracy theory, but if on the other hand you think that, hey, maybe it’s not such a great idea to have a moshpit while we’re still in the midst of a pandemic, or that maybe that Dame Vivienne Westwood swastika shirt just wouldn’t have the same desired meaning anymore, then you’re just a “sheep.”  Let’s at least call that what it is — another political/culture-war argument dressed up as punk authenticity.

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[Addendum: Hilariously, and right on cue, John Joseph of NYHC fame, who was involved in staging the above-mentioned show, was quoted by conspiracy-theory news website Breitbart (May 6, 2021) saying Cancel culture can go fuck themselves.” Im not going to link it because I don’t want to give them clicks, but heres a screen-grab of a share:

You couldn’t make this stuff up!  It almost like they’re reading from a script. . . .]