“There’s no such thing as the voiceless, only the deliberately silenced and the preferably unheard.”—Arundhati Roy
Post-crash, countless studies have shown that the impact of cuts and austerity has been borne predominately by women. A Fawcett Society study on the impact of cuts doled out by the coalition government in the UK stated that 75% of all cuts hit women. Women with disabilities, black women, working-class women, and single mothers were the hardest hit.
The Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission warn that 2010–2020 will be the first decade since records began that sees a rise in absolute poverty in the UK, with the gulf between the rich and poor as irreparable. When the economy tanks, it is predictably women who suffer. The fight for women’s rights is less a long, slow march, and more like a climbing wall: it is possible to climb as well as fall, so vigilance is essential at all times. The clawing back of the welfare state is a direct attack on women’s rights, but boardroom quotas make a tidier headline, based on the assumption that certain rights have already been won.
In reaction to the argument that “there is no alternative” to cuts and austerity, with Labour and the Conservatives in the UK singing from the same hymn sheets, women’s grassroots groups have started to fight back. The Focus E15 campaign grew in Newham in response initially to Newham’s “social cleansing” of the poorest households in the borough, targeting single mothers and forcing them to relocate to cities and towns hundreds of miles away from their children’s schools, families and support networks. In 2013, a group of 29 young single mothers, many of whom were teenagers, were served with eviction notices from their specialist hostel in east London. The Focus E15 foyer provided one-bedroom apartments for the women to live in with their children, or whilst pregnant, after being made homeless, and provided targeted skills training, literacy teaching, and specialist support to help the women back into work or training. Many of the women in the £125-a-week rooms were studying, or in part-time work in the area, and one mother said she was applying for universities in London.
The funding of Supporting People, designed to help vulnerable people live independently, was slashed in England and the foyer said that without funding for specialist support, the hostel would cease to be an appropriate environment for young mothers and children. Newham Council, tasked with rehousing the women, told them they should expect to be placed outside the borough and city. A change to Newham’s housing policy meant working families and people who had served in the armed forces received priority over single mothers like the Focus E15 residents.
Rather than accept their fate, the women took action. Starting from a weekly street stall in Stratford city centre, the women explained their predicament and soon rallied around supporters and other activists. This culminated in September 2014 with an attention-grabbing protest a few minutes’ walk away next to Stratford station. Coinciding with London’s Open House weekend, where iconic and listed buildings are opened to public tours, the Focus E15 campaigners, now comprising the mothers, locals, and seasoned campaigners, broke into two empty flats.
The flats, in the Carpenters Estate, had lain empty for years. Walking around the estate, it was remarkable how many windows were boarded up, so close to the 2012 Olympic site, which had promised regeneration and wealth for a poor area. Members of the Tenant Management Organisation, responsible for managing the site, told me Newham Council had refused to allow them to let properties that became empty if families moved out, slowly turning the red-brick estate into a ghost town.
Once in, the campaigners decorated the properties with toys, soft furnishings, banners and posters and declared their own Open House. Outside, green fabric banners decorated with the slogans “These Homes Need People: These People Need Homes” were unfurled, a simple message underlining the absurdity of the situation the mothers and other homeless families in the borough were faced with. On a sunny Saturday, the flats were thronged with visitors. One room I went into was being used as an impromptu crèche: babies were happily being entertained by two locals in a former bedroom. The living room was a campaign centre, with media phone numbers tacked to the wall, alongside lists of what was needed to make the occupation work.
What was striking about the flats was their state of repair. Curious visitors who popped in after hearing of the occupation via social media and news coverage were genuinely shocked at how immaculate the decor and fittings were. Wandering around, I noticed the wallpaper looked as good as new, and the kitchen was far better than many I had seen in my own rented flats over the years. The TMO said most flats were the same: perfectly liveable, but empty by command of the council. The campaigners pointed out that it would be far easier to move women into these small family homes than ship them miles from their own families, disrupting young children’s lives.
The campaign garnered a huge amount of media and local attention, initially through social media, before being picked up by The Guardian and The Financial Times. In The Guardian, one of the mothers, Jasmin Stone, wrote:
“We wanted to participate in Open House to show how many houses sit empty in London and what an easy solution there is to the housing crisis. This crisis, as it is usually covered in the newspapers, is one experienced by the middle classes, whose steady march from private renting to home ownership has been stopped in its tracks by the hugely inflated market. For members of the working class, however, the crisis is much more virulent. It involves not only the prospect of annual rent increases, the impossibility of home ownership and poor-quality housing, but also removal and displacement from the place in which you were born, leading to isolation in a place where you know nobody and opportunities for jobs are non-existent.”
The campaign, built up over years and still fighting homelessness and gentrification in Newham, meant that a process that usually happens to women silently was brought to public attention. Individually, families facing homelessness, often single mothers because they comprise the lowest-paid and most vulnerable households, are turned away from council housing offices and left to fend for themselves, or placed in unsuitable hostels miles away from their home. Focus E15 challenged this silencing and directly linked it to the rapid development of London due to unsustainably fast house-price growth tempting investors in to make a quick buck. Councils, with slashed budgets from central government, abdicate responsibility to vulnerable residents in lieu of making some quick cash from land sales, in the process (they hope) tempting in more financially flush tenants.
This exact scenario was relayed to me in 2010, when a Newham councillor asked me what I thought the biggest problem facing Newham was (I worked as a student welfare advisor in a university in the Borough). With students, predominantly women, coming in every day complaining about homelessness, poor conditions, or that they were experiencing domes- tic violence but couldn’t afford to move out, I replied that the biggest issue was the need for more social housing. “Oh no”, he said. “That just encourages undesirables.” Instead, they needed to build more new, metropolitan flats, the kind springing up around Stratford Station and the under-development Westfield Shopping Centre. The kind that attracted bankers from nearby Canary Wharf, not the sort of people who lived and worked in Newham already.
But “undesirables” have to live somewhere, and it sticks in the craw of the rich when these “undesirables” live in an area deemed desirable by the wealthy. The New Era estate in Hoxton was bought out in May 2014 by American property develop- ment company Westbrook Partners. Letters sent following the takeover informed the 93 families living on the estate that they faced a four-fold increase in rent. For the majority of the residents, this amounted to an eviction notice: few residents, some who had lived on the estate for as many as 70 years, could afford to pay those sums even if their only outgoing was rent.
Three women took charge of the fight to keep the residents in their homes: Lindsey Garrett, Danielle Molinari and Lynsay Spiteri rallied tenants and got word out about the conditions of the takeover. That the Benyon Estate, the family business of the country’s richest MP, Richard Benyon, had a 10% stake in the estate made it easier to argue their case. The women contacted The Daily Mirror, then other papers, organised a demonstration outside Westbrook Partners’ UK offices, and presented a 300,000-signature petition to Downing St.
After months of work, the campaign had won vocal and public support from politicians across the political divide, including the Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, and the Mayor of Hackney, the borough the estate resides in. For the investors, the level of attention and the volume of bad publicity made their plans untenable: shortly before Christmas, the Benyon Estate pulled out, quickly followed by Westbrook Partners. The estate was sold to Dolphin Square, a charity that is committed to providing low-cost homes to people on low incomes, and ten- ants were told not to expect rent increases.
Recovering from celebrations, Molinari told the BBC: “They underestimated us three women, but also all the residents on the estate, the community spirit and what Hoxton is all about”. Garrett, currently an NHS worker, is now planning to run for London Mayor in the 2016 elections, and has been elected chair of the New Era Tenants’ Association.
The 3Cosas campaign have campaigned for better rights for cleaners (predominantly women) and fought gender discrimination and unfair dismissal cases when Unite the Union refused to recognise casual staff.
In 2013, the Home Office introduced a billboard van that drove around with the message “Here illegally? GO HOME” with a number listed for undocumented migrants to call. What the government termed the “Immigration Enforcement Campaign” quickly gained a new, more commonly used name: the “racist van”. The glory of social media is that, as with the bedroom tax, you have little control over what people describe campaigns and policies as. Once the general public insists, by virtue of sheer wilful numbers, that they are going to use one term, your more strategic title is binned by most media outlets. One young woman, who writes pseudonymously as “Pukkah Punjabi”, called the number, left a voicemail, then toyed with the Home Office operator who called her back, saying she was just after a lift back to Willesden, as that was her home. Social-media agitators continued to deluge the hotline with similar calls, until the campaign looked less Judge Dredd, more Benny Hill. Southall Black Sisters have campaigned for women for years and again hit the headlines on August 1st 2013, when they were holding a women’s advice centre. Word reached the group of an immigration raid happening close by: the women gathered and drove the van away from their centre, before intercepting and surrounding the vans with supporters and megaphones as they attempted to carry out an immigration raid. “We were all so enraged by it that we emerged from our building and followed the vehicles around Southall
shouting ‘this is racist’,” Southall Black Sisters wrote on their site. “Many of the women have escaped domestic violence and have felt trapped by their immigration status to stay in abusive marriages.” Other groups have also worked to stop raids, notably the Anti-Raids Network, and often local communities act organically to attempt to stop raids, such as in south London in June 2015, when a UKBA van was surrounded, rocked, and had its tyres slashed by locals outraged at the attack on their community and neighbours.
These groups have secured victories and publicity, not by leaning in, behaving and striving individually, but by adopting very specific strategies. Direct action is key to each movement: while petitions and lobbying of local and national politicians have complemented each campaign, it is direct action that has put the cat amongst the pigeons, and allowed the women to fully expose the horror and unfairness of the causes they are highlighting and fighting for. If housing is your issue, why not occupy empty homes to show the claim there is nowhere for vulnerable women to go is a lie? If your community is being raided and your neighbours are being bundled into a van for deportation by state thugs, why let the UK Border Agency do so quietly? Show the world what is going on every day under their noses.
Social media has been a huge force in both mobilising and publicising campaigns and injustices. While a lot has been said about the abuse prominent women receive on the internet, the ability to get online and connect with potentially millions of people who would care about your cause if they heard about it is revolutionary. For women, the democratising potential of social media networks has helped bring attention to campaigns and causes that previously would have buckled without press attention. People speaking in real time, and consistently shar- ing information, has sustained and bolstered many campaigns. Politicians are still wary of social media: some have lost jobs over unwise outbursts, but there’s also a fear of the unpredict- able networks revealing actions (such as in Newham) that tradi- tionally would have passed without outside notice or comment.
Mutual support and solidarity between neighbours and networks have been integral to many of these campaigns. Housing activists in different boroughs in London regularly disseminate email call-outs for more bodies and supplies for ongoing occupations around the capital. Actions against the UK Border Agency’s immigration raids are only made possible by communities fighting back and refusing to see someone who lives or works alongside them dragged into a van only to disappear once deported. Again, social media allows bedroom-tax campaigners to discuss tactics and loopholes nationally and provide emotional support throughout fights to keep their home.
Media attention is still integral to a successful campaign, but has changed tack in recent years. Social media now drives much news —I’ve sat in many commissioning meetings where editors have been unenthused by a story, but journalists have pointed out it’s all anyone is really discussing on social media, so choosing not to cover it looks politically motivated. A successful campaign thereby forces coverage, and coverage is the final stage in cementing victory. Politicians and forces will push not to recog- nise campaigns even when they’re attracting mass attention, but the esteem for traditional media is still far higher, and often once newspapers or TV channels get involved, victory is not far away, as the New Era Estate campaign showed.
Sisters Uncut, Southall Black Sisters, and the bulk of housing and bedroom-tax campaigners are now women, and usually working-class women, often on benefits. They are at the van- guard of anti-austerity campaigning, refusing to accept the cuts that affect women disproportionately. While austerity may be temporary (though the Conservatives and Labour seem happy to accept that it is now ideologically permanent), the effect of austerity on women and children lasts a lifetime.
In her book on class and music culture in the Nineties, Clampdown, Rhian E Jones notes that class is an endemic problem in contemporary feminism:
In mainstream politics and media, there remains a tendency for working-class women themselves to appear in feminist discourse as objects to be seen rather than heard, expected to rely on middle-class activists to articulate demands in their behalf but considered too inarticulate or otherwise “rough” to be directly engaged with.
Will that change? Who knows. But the drive towards direct action by many groups run by women should be recognised as a constructive feminist movement, and will be by anyone sensible who recognises that gender is but one part of oppression.
By occupying, withdrawing labour, and refusing to be complicit in the state’s violence against the most vulnerable in society, they show that “leaning out” of the capitalist model is far more effective at securing attention, provoking change, and ensuring demands are met than “leaning in”. Few people ever get anything radical accomplished by continuing to play the game. The women on the frontline of the new feminist campaigning accept that capitalism and the political and power elites are no friend of women, and that to have a stab at a life that can support you and your children, the answer isn’t to internalise the hatred society casts your way, but to fight to reveal injustice and refuse to participate.
Lean Out is out now, available from all good bookshops & online.
….the shabby houses of La Villette and Bercy, where famous poets spilled wine across their tattered and eternally unfinished manuscripts while dashing to the floor the inmates’ tiaras and robes de chambre in acts of romantic debauchery that, when publicized, bred ratlike sycophants, who, in seeking to nest in the shadows of the poets’ fame, infested these humble brothels and brought such demand for their women and the taste of the authentic poetic life they bestowed that the poets could no longer afford to frequent them and left behind nothing more than illicit tourist traps with re-creations of famous liaisons that had supposedly taken place there, to be viewed for ten sous through peepholes beneath bronze plaques from the Historical Society on the walls reminding visitors of whatever had taken place there during the Revolution as the proprietor shoved at them oversized coffee mugs printed with crude snapshots of their women as souvenirs, keychains with the professionally-designed logo of the brothel and its slogan in English, and oversized fanny-packs that were made in China with a secret compartment for coins, the silhouette of the Eiffel Tower stitched to the front, and an X-tra Fit elastic waistband that could stretch around the tourists to secure this distended artificial gut to the tourists’ cargo shorts, stained with McDonald’s condiments and sweat, on which they wiped their fingers after shoving a cheeseburger into their cola-scented mouths and, while chewing, bellowed their disdain for whatever painting they had, out of a sense of duty, left their Holiday Inn to see as their slimy tongues flicked little specks of mashed-up meat and bread onto the work in question to, when the accumulated cheeseburger residue came to obscure a certain percentage of the painting’s surface, be cleaned by professional art restorers, lamenting, as they delicately applied their vacuums and steam-brushes, the disrespect for the museum exhibited by the tourists, of whom few were half as destructive as one notorious visitor to France named Baruch Khazâd, future Lord Minimus, of the Isle of Minimus, a dwarf no elderly restorationist or museum owner could mention without a shudder as they warned their younger colleagues to beware tourists from the Isle, especially the male dwarfs on their plastronnage, as had been Lord Khazâd when, in 1934, having learned of the tradition when he immigrated to the Isle several months earlier from Ukraine, he rampaged through Paris in a drunken frenzy, attacking with a hammer ancient sculptures from Egypt and Greece, setting fire to paintings by Titian and Manet, and committing a lewd act upon the Arc de Triomphe, by which he claimed to be symbolically defiling all of French history as the police dragged him to the commissariat, where, as he peeked over the sill of the barred window at the city, chalk-colored under the lightly-clouded afternoon sun, they threatened him with all manner of brutality should he ever return to France, then beat him with their well-worn truncheons for a few minutes before shackling him naked to the roof of a prisoner train bound for Le Havre, as was the standard punishment in France for defacing artwork, with a ticket for a cargo ship back to the Isle, to be used should he survive the inclement weather, the storm that blew in that evening and drenched him while lightning crashed all around and filled the midnight countryside with a constant, flickering illumination that gave these fields and villages the look of the land of the dead and the two other art defacers shackled to the roof with him the look of crazed skeletons that had somehow come to life and sat themselves down on a train to terrify the clochards riding the rails in the other direction, inspiring tales of the “Vagabond-Fantôme”, who, after his myth reached the locomotive vagrants of the United States, slowly acquired the accoutrements by which this sinister figure is known today, including the tall, red top hat, the shredded tuxedo, stained with the blood of his victims, the monocle that reveals to him the sins of those he sees, the black velvet gloves over his six-fingered hands, the pair of neutered jackals named Dimnah and Kalilah on silver leashes named Rhaff and Rheffyn (fashioned by the finest craftsman of Surat and a nimble-fingered prophetess of Benares), the unspayed Tasmanian she-wolf named Amazon (left to wander freely and sniff out those guilty of committing any injustice against a vagrant or other downtrodden unfortunate), and the ivory cane, shaped into a tight spiral by the bonsai-master Prysgliach Gwrachell through binding, with a modified bonsai harness for twenty years, the living tusk of an enraged bull elephant in perpetual musth out there on the rainy northwestern peninsula of the Isle of Minimus, where, after the removal of this tusk late in its life by the Isle’s sole Nazi occupier for his own collection in 1940, the elephant ceased to patrol the peninsula as its territory and disappeared into the highlands to trample sheep, terrorize milkmaids, and evade the traps of Baruch Khazâd, still as stooped as a Béraud woman from his forced train ride six years earlier but determined to capture the legendary rogue elephant and thereby impress the young women of the Isle, who were ignoring him in favor of those dashing Resistance men fighting the Occupation from the seaside caves of the west coast and the forests of the central plateau, raiding the cities with their guns and homemade bombs to blow up a statue of Adolf Hitler in Dverberg or steal a jeep and drive it into the ocean, much to the delight of the women staring at them from the windows as they marched into town and occasionally running off to join them in their camps and cook for them or even accompany them on their attacks, as most of the Isle’s women despised the Isle’s Nazi for helping himself to food from their kitchens and groping them and their sisters or daughters in front of their subservient husbands and fathers, though not all these women shied away from his advances, and some actually made a great deal of money entertaining the Nazi in his private villa atop Bach Hill, overlooking the derelict Nouvelle-Chomedey harbor, sent there each night through the intervention of Khazâd, who used his familiarity with the Isle’s major brothel in Dverberg to secretly act as the Nazi’s “intermediary” in these matters in exchange for permission to hunt the rogue elephant, which he knew would give him the prestige to turn a few admiring eyes away from the Resistance godelureaux and toward himself, securing, through his marriage to one of the wealthier girls of the capital city, the necessary support to be named the next Lord Minimus once the Nazis, having completed their invasion of Britain and, succeeding in delivering peace to all Europe, sufficiently confident in their authority to allow the return of certain local customs they had felt it necessary to suppress during the conflict, reinstated that ancient title, which had languished, dormant, ever since the previous Lord Minimus, Carolino Gogoni, died under mysterious circumstances the day after the Nazi parachuted onto the Isle and received, despite the protestations of the Seneschal and part of the Minimal Council, Lord Gogoni’s immediate surrender, shocking this rookie paratrooper, who had undergone six months of training in anti-dwarf combat techniques in preparation for this invasion, expecting to meet heavy resistance from the famously nationalistic inhabitants, many of whom, instead, flocked to greet him and carry his luggage to the Bach Hill estate, where, after tea and boules infestées with the friendlier elders of the Council, he was led down to Lord Gogoni’s barely-seaworthy houseboat, moored in the harbor, and was formally presented, at high tide, with the Instrument of Surrender, signed by Lord Gogoni with one hundred different pens at a table set up on the houseboat’s roof, sheltered from the dismal weather by two menservants holding vast umbrella-lamps, which were printed in elaborate floral designs that threw spidery shadows across the Nazi’s face and made him appear far older when he stuck his pen in the mouth of one of the potted Venus flytraps that lined the roof and leaned back in his chair to brood on the sound of the foghorns guiding out of the harbor the boat evacuating to England a handful of families who had decided against the exercise of their patriotic duty to remain on the Isle during the Occupation while Lord Gogoni continued to pick out his name one penstroke at a time and hand off each pen as it was used to one of the many supporters filling the lower decks and spilling up the stairs, reaching out their hands as Lord Gogoni distractedly held out to them each used pen, each piece of history that would find an honored place in the home of every lucky recipient, who, years later, would, presumably, gesture to the pen on its marble dais in each of their heirloom salons and tell their grandchildren about that beautiful, sunny day they were there on Lord Gogoni’s houseboat to witness the Isle become one of the first members of the glorious Nazi empire that had now raised the swastika over every country and struck Communism, Jewery, and all other depravities from the face of the Earth, clearing the way for the Isle of Minimus to take its place at the head of human achievement, first among all nations in the eternal Reich promised by this Nazi, who sighed with boredom as he provoked the aloof flytraps and shifted uncomfortably in his tiny chair, shivering in the cold mist that blew up off the water and slowly soaked everyone on the roof, including the menservants with their umbrella-lamps, which had begun to leak water into their light bulbs and flicker ominously overhead, the dwarf octet that had, in lieu of their traditional Minimal instruments, taken up, out of respect for their German visitor, gigantic sousaphones, from which they struggled to force some semblance of Also sprach Zarathustra by Richard Strauss, and the excited crowd on the stairs, who jostled and tittered with looks of dumb joy on faces dripping with rain and seawater, then gave a raucous cheer as the Nazi was at last handed the document and welcomed by Lord Gogoni to accompany him to a celebration that night in the ancient Roman fortifications overlooking the heavily polluted Dormitory Fjord on the north end of the Isle, where, in the first century AD, the Roman tactician Flavius Phallosius Maximus had drowned after his banishment from Rome for his shocking habit of wearing embroidered sleeves and a primitive wool cravat known as a polemical, which, according to dwarf legend, when it washed ashore some time later near the dwarf settlement now known as Hudson-sur-la-Manche, was interpreted to be a message from the Gods, its ornate floral pattern a strange foreign language that only the mad shaman who then ruled over the western coast of the Isle claimed to be able to decipher, the same mad shaman many dwarf historians believe to be the basis for the myth of the Nain Rouge, but who is, otherwise, poorly remembered (since he almost certainly did not exist), known mainly for sequestering himself for one month in an unidentified cave in the central hills to translate this mysterious text, which, when he at last read it aloud in translation to an assembly of dwarfs from all over the Isle, was found to be a hymn to this shaman’s greatness, a prophecy revealing that, once he, in all his magnificence, had impregnated every woman on the Isle, giants would be forever barred from approaching its shores, and the dwarfs would at last have a homeland free of foreign domination, fulfilling the dream they all shared, even on the northeast coast, among the pirate dwarfs who had supposedly rejected the culture of the western half of the Isle, though few, according to the legend, even in the shaman’s own village of Dverberg, went so far as to allow him to impregnate their wives and daughters, adopting the view, instead, that this mysterious text should be read as an allegory expressing the gods’ wish that the Isle be united under a single ruler, that dwarfs should procreate as often as possible in order to give the Isle a greater number of soldiers to defend its shores, and that giants defiled the land with their presence, brought to it a curse through the stamping of their heavy feet and the bellowing of their brutish voices, the establishment of alien customs unsuited to dwarf life, and the worship of tall gods that held dwarfs in contempt and would never answer their prayers, never accept their sacrificed goats and lambs, and never cease to help giants oppress dwarfs everywhere, which constituted a worldview that served to guide the Resistance in their five years of struggle against the Nazis, to support them in their darkest hours, forming the infrastructure of their faith that to expel this invader would bring the Isle peace, comforting them there in those frigid little rooms somewhere up in the hills as, each evening, the setting sun seemed to drag down with it all their hopes for the future, as the earth cast skyward its limitless shadow and vague shouts from the Marcellaville concentration camp echoed over the land to mix with the sound of the bombs exploding in the cafés and the wail of emergency sirens of ambulances carrying the collaborators and other victims off to the hospital where, when the Isle was at last liberated in October of 1945, the procuretrix of the Dverberg brothel, the only person, besides the Nazi, who could identify Baruch Khazâd as the one arranging the Nazi’s entertainments, as Khazâd never spoke directly to the inmates themselves face-to-face when dealing with these matters, was brought with a gunshot wound to the head and expired immediately upon arrival, prompting the Nazi, as he shared one last dinner on the veranda of his Bach Hill estate alone with young Khazâd, to joke coarsely about the “skilled aim” of this future Lord Minimus, a joke Khazâd seemed to find in poor taste, surprising the Nazi, as he had never found Khazâd to take exception to any joke, no matter how vile, no matter how scatological, racist, misogynistic, blasphemous, or antinanoidic, not even the one about the young female dwarf whose nymphomania leads her to embark on an expedition into the heart of darkest Africa, where she meets a dissolute priest whose priapismic escapades have convinced the local populace of his godhood, a witticism with a punchline so revolting that it caused Serge Gainsbourg to double over in helpless laughter when Lord Khazâd shared it with him between takes during the filming of the scene in which Anna Karina hops from petal to petal on a giant cannabis leaf painted across an empty concrete lot with Gainsbourg in the center while chanting “il m’aime, un peu, beaucoup, à la folie, pas du tout”, changing her expression drastically on each petal representing each bit of amatory prognostication from the universe, cheering on the “beaucoup” petal, waving her arms and shouting with joy on the “à la folie” petal, and finally collapsing with despair on the “pas du tout” petal, causing Karina to narrowly escape the assassin’s bullet, which zips past harmlessly into the ground, and Gainsbourg to look up from his copy of Prophetic Dreams of Abraham Lincoln 1850–1860, part of a one-hundred-volume series entitled Prophetic Dreams of the American Presidents by Sigmund Freud, and shout with annoyance at Alec Guinness, revealed (with a gong sound) as the camera pans to the right to be standing nearby with, in his leather-gloved hands, an enormous gun Gainsbourg takes from him in a choppily-edited martial arts sequence, followed by a scene in which Gainsbourg ties this inscrutable Japanese agent to the statue of the Coq Gaulois standing in front of the French pavilion and pummels him in the rain in the foreground, out of focus on the left half of the frame while, in focus on the right, Karina and Bardot dance beneath their parapluies in their cuissardes à talons hauts to the rhythm of Gainsbourg’s hit song “Bondage spécial” (he also composed the film’s main theme, “Soixante-Neuf, agent provocatif”, which he famously sang with Bardot in what some called an “obscene spectacle” at the 1968 Venice Film Festival, where the film tied for the Leone d’oro) until Guinness admits that he is in league with a sinister alliance consisting of Anglophone Canadian Peter Sellers, Soviet Commissar Marcello Mastroianni, CIA spy Lee Hazlewood, MI6 agent Michael Caine, turncoat agent of the Office québécois de la langue française Steve McQueen, and the evil supercomputer voiced by Marlon Brando, assembled together by an unknown puppet master for the purpose of exterminating the French language, a revelation that so outrages Gainsbourg that, when, in the next scene, he makes his videophone report to le général de Gaulle from his place in Habitat 67, he implores le Général to grant him authorization for Method Extreme Hostility, authorization to openly wage a campaign of total obliteration with a maximum of violence against any and every opponent of the French language encountered by the agent without making the slightest effort to disguise his actions and without any concern for the diplomatic repercussions, something, le Général tells him, a regretful look on his face on the black-and-white telescreen, he could never do, since approval for Method Extreme Hostility could only come from a unanimous vote of the Académie française, and they had not granted such approval since the conflict in Algérie ended five years earlier…
There was a point about four or five years ago, a point I’m not bothered about confirming archivally but which nonetheless definitely occurred, at which football clubs almost uniformly, if you’ll allow the pun, changed the way that they marketed their new kits. Not so long ago, you’d have found a posed shot of a star player rehearsing some fabulous piece of technique or even, where the club had a meagre branding budget, a simple team photograph which could create other revenue streams from calendars and similar items. What superseded these more traditional forms of marketing was a style of image which offers the contemporary student of semiotics much to consider. Now, the background will be an electrolysed Blade Runner gloom, perhaps with little serifs of smoke indicating some recent conflagration or catastrophe. Against this will stand three to five players, one of whom will be a goalkeeper, another a winger or attacking midfielder, and yet another a looming centre half with a backwoodsman’s beard and sleeve tattoos. Their arms are crossed and resolute; they are indomitable. The language used to sell the kits will be pared down to abstraction: ‘[Club Name] 2015 Home Kit: We Are One.’ The general tone is a seriousness so ascetic it detonates into camp, unable to withstand the internal stresses on its structure of plausibility.
Nevertheless, for some it must have the appeal of gravitas or it would simply not work as an incentive to purchase. How, then, can it be explained? First, perhaps, with recourse to a certain type of pop-cultural hetero-masculinity which (re-) emerged in the early twenty-first century, initially – if I had to pick a particular moment – with the success of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings adaptations, but more lately underwritten and refocused with HBO’s preternaturally successful Game of Thrones. In these programmes’ fantasy second worlds
, manhood, if done properly and honourably, is a matter of disenchanted seriousness, a saddened and reluctant understanding of the inherently conflictual nature of existence. Any levity here can only manifest itself as grim irony – one does not simply walk into Mordor, remember – and all time between battles must be occupied with sorrowful renditions of stories of the travails of Good. The bearded, tattooed centre-half on the kit advert, then, is supposed to connote the fantasy version of ordeal, the effect of which is not limited to football’s contemporary image-system. Think, for example, of how car advertising has departed from its nineties staple of secure glamour to its present mood of quasi-military exertion, its stubbled protagonists surging through sodden Scandinavian or Scottish gloom in order not, as the case would once have been, to seduce, but to be reunited with family.
The last item in this chain of images is, of course, the military recruitment film, which has become, after a fashion, more honest and explicit about the danger and brutality of conflict in the period that I’m describing. In Britain, the army are no longer particularly reticent about depicting ‘live’ skirmishes in their propaganda, in part because they suspect that computer games are not far from offering a comparable intensity of experience anyway, but also because of a gathering idea which automatically associates soldiering with virtuousness. Ideally, the film prompting its audience to enlist in the Marines or for the Territorial Army shows a gunfight in Helmand, or on a generically be-jungled ‘African’ coastline populated by similarly generic ‘rebels’, before portraying the hero returning to the family that his actions have (somehow) safeguarded.
What I’m trying to get at here is how advertising aimed at men has undergone an elemental shift in how it desires, and in how it seeks to channel desire. The old, but not really that old, male utopia was one of ease, of frictionless libido cruising through a collage of Eurocentric sophistication, waking in Venice amidst the accoutrements of one erotic encounter and falling asleep in Monte Carlo amidst another’s. This no longer holds: it is perceived, understandably, as inauthentic and insufficiently austere for our times. Instead, the dream-work is of extended periods of sexual and romantic isolation in the still largely homosocial realms of military conflict or extreme exploration, interspersed with brief unifications with family. This is the logic to which football advertising in Britain increasingly appeals.
Clearly, nobody seriously thinks that the players of, say, Scunthorpe United visiting, say, Leyton Orient for an awayday is remotely comparable to a six-month tour of Helmand. Nevertheless, enough sticks from this metaphorical equivalence to make us think that footballers fulfil some kind of existential duty, something which exceeds the rubric of paid work, when they play for a team. It has long been the case that disloyalty has been the most atrocious crime a footballer can commit, but the economic insecurity of the historical moment seems to have amplified the notion that we have particular responsibilities to increasingly local social units. There is something especially interesting here in the way that football clubs now seem to be regarded as ends in themselves on this front, as entities more demanding and deserving of loyalty than the broad communities which they inhabit. One concrete example of the contrasting fortunes of club and community is Liverpool fans’ continuing failure to resist the acts of social cleansing taking place on behalf of the club in the vicinity of Anfield: evidence that This Football Club is regarded as a point of social allegiance in almost direct tension with its area. The player, in this case, is asked to behave as an avatar of that unit’s struggle in an increasingly atomised, conflictual world, and asked to buy wholesale into the ‘values’ of the ‘project’ even when those values and that project are things that have been conjured ad hoc by recently installed owners and managers whose heads have been turned by the jargon of ‘smart thinking’ books and TED talks.
‘Sport is a battle’, then, is the metaphor we are now required to live by as football fans. It came to light in a peculiarly candid way during the predictable period of recrimination following England’s equally predictable early exit from the 2014 Brazil World Cup. Even before the players had set off for home Harry Redknapp, the geezerish and journalist-friendly cockney who had been passed over for the England manager’s job in 2012 because of a pending court case, turned up in the press claiming that a number of English internationals were in the habit of begging their club managers to withdraw them from the national squad for friendly games. The allegation was stark: that some English players regard playing for their country not as an honour, but as an annoyance. England coach Roy Hodgson and his outgoing captain Steven Gerrard cannily took the sting out of Redknapp’s comments by asking him to name names, but the matter did not drop entirely. Former England striker and current light-entertainment go-to Ian Wright wrote in his column in the Sun newspaper that any player found to have shirked international ‘duty’ without good reason should be required to phone the parents of a soldier killed in Afghanistan to explain their decision to drop out.
This was imagined on Twitter in plenty of bleakly funny versions of how the transcript of such a call might read. Palpably, the suggestion was a piece of attention-seeking on the part of Wright, who has never, it seems, got over his early-career rejections or his marginalisation in the 1990s England team by more rounded strikers such as Alan Shearer. However, it spoke to something in England’s present-day ideological make-up, namely a resurgent patriotism of symbols which regards Englishness, whatever that might mean, as somehow under threat. The role the football player takes in this set of beliefs is intriguing. Wright was playing to the idea that the default setting for footballers is a patriotic one, that they feel a sense of pride in national symbols which extends beyond their utilitarian, team-bonding value. By linking this version of patriotic obligation to that of the soldier’s, he insisted tacitly on the relative unanimity of nationalistic sentiment amongst the working-class communities that both footballers and the rank-and-file military are drawn from.
This is an extract from a work-in-progress – No Less than Mystic: What do Lenin and the Russian Revolution mean to the 21st Century left? by John Medhurst. The book will be published by Repeater in late 2016/early 2017
The aim of this book is to present a new history of Lenin and the Russian Revolution that has a direct relevance for those today who oppose and resist neo-liberal capitalism. It broadly covers the period 1903 to 1921 in Russia and seeks to explain why the Bolshevik Revolution degenerated so quickly into its apparent opposite. Yet it is not only and exactly a work of history. It examines the issues and events of the Russian Revolution through the lens of a 21st century, non-Marxist libertarian socialism. It suggests that corporate capitalism must be opposed not with a set of “revolutionary” formulations which were questionable one hundred years ago and have even less relevance now, but with popular, pluralistic and democratic movements built on people’s needs and experience. As a result it is kinder to Russia’s non-Leninist socialists than are most histories. Although not blind to the many flaws of the Russian Mensheviks, Socialist Revolutionaries and Jewish Bundists I seek to rescue them from a century of misrepresentation. I do not automatically assume the knowledge of the subject that many Russian Revolution hobbyists take for granted, nor show much deference to those icons of Bolshevism, Lenin and Trotsky, still common today on the left. I suggest that socialist thinkers and activists such as Noam Chomsky, Michael Albert, Owen Jones, Naomi Klein and Arundahti Roy have more constructive and positive options to offer the anti-capitalist left today than do the sages of Bolshevism.
Some will ask why, outside of academic history, this should be of any interest? The contemporary left does not look to the events and lessons of the French Revolution of 1789-93 for guidance and inspiration so why does it still scrutinise and debate the Russian Revolution? Mainly because it is the first “modern” revolution – i.e led by the urban working class and with a socialist objective – in an era dominated by global capitalism. As such it is a key issue and intellectual point of contention on which subsequent argument about capitalism and its alternatives rests. Its centenary will no doubt generate articles in the liberal media and documentaries on BBC2. There will be learned retrospectives seeking to establish a consensus for future generations on the lessons of the Bolshevik experiment. Most of these assessments will fall in to two camps – a complacent condemnation of the revolution, and by extension all revolution, from the perspective of capitalist “liberal democracy”, or a defence of Bolshevism with an admission that because of civil war and the failure of the European proletariat to also rise up it degenerated into bureaucratic tyranny and Stalinism. This book adopts neither of those perspectives. It argues that the real revolution of 1917 took place in February not October, and was led by a wide alliance of socialists, trade unionists, peasants and populists in which the Bolshevik Party played a minor role. Despite the enormous difficulties involved in creating a durable democratic framework after the February revolution, it contained great potential for social and cultural liberation and a far better future for the Russian people than they had suffered under three hundred years of Tsarism or would endure under Leninism and Stalinism.
This revolution and many of its key players, whilst they made serious tactical and strategic errors, had much within it that today’s anti-capitalist campaigners should re-examine and respect. Whilst it is true that some elements of the Bolshevik revolution, most notably its attempts to provide greater freedom for women and a short-lived libertarian attitude to social and educational experimentation, were bold and emancipatory, that revolution soon established a power structure as monumental and oppressive as the Tsarism it replaced. Within a few months (in some cases days and weeks) most of the democratic freedoms offered by the February revolution were swiftly crushed by the Bolsheviks after they assumed power in October. For a variety of reasons, not least the undemocratic and authoritarian nature of Leninist doctrine, the Bolshevik Revolution had little to no chance of achieving a genuine socialist transition in Russia, much less in the rest of Europe.
This argument is not in itself new. It could even be said to fall under the rubric of the “continuity thesis”, i.e that the policies of the Bolshevik government from October 1917 laid the groundwork for the Stalinist dictatorship of the 1930s and were the genesis of the oppressive police states of the Soviet Bloc. But I do not advocate the simplistic version of continuity, which is that the decisions and policies of the Bolsheviks led in clear, linear fashion straight to the Gulag Archipelago. There were many forks in the road where a more democratic socialist alternative could have been taken. Some of these alternatives were argued for by prominent Bolsheviks in both the “moderate” tendency in the party in 1917-18, and the “Workers Opposition” grouped around Alexandra Kollontai and Alexander Shlyapnikov in 1920-21. Most crucially, the history told here does not absolve capitalist society then or now for its terrible inequalities and oppressions simply because the so-called “alternative”, an inherently authoritarian socialism, would be even worse. It denies that is the alternative
Nevertheless, I hope it gives the Bolsheviks their due. Between February and October 1917, especially after Lenin’s return to Russia in April, the Bolshevik Party became stronger and more significant as it took root in the Soviets (Workers Councils) of the major cities and campaigned for Peace, Bread and Land. In this phase it undoubtedly spoke for many, perhaps the majority, of the workers in the cities, and Lenin produced his supreme example of revolutionary theory, The State and Revolution. However this phase of the party’s work and the principles of State and Revolution were comprehensibly rejected once the Bolsheviks took power in October. The Soviets and other manifestations of grass roots workers’ power such as Factory Committees were swiftly curtailed and real decision making power was removed to the Supreme Council of People’s Commissars (Sovnarcom) and the Supreme Economic Council (Vesenka). Political and press freedom went the same way within weeks of October. Whilst the “bourgeois” parties were immediately outlawed even other socialist parties did not last long once Sovnarcom had firmly established its power. The Socialist Revolutionaries, the Mensheviks and the anarchists were tolerated for a while after the insurrection, but for a far shorter time than is commonly supposed. Most of their newspapers were instantly suppressed, for example. They were then persecuted, censored and finally banned as the Bolshevik Party became inextricable from the organs of state.
This is not the romantic mythology of the Russian Revolution. Nor is it the counter-myth of an inherently malevolent socialism imposed on a tragic, noble middle-class. It is a deeper tragedy of political authoritarians whose dogmatic philosophy, built into the DNA of the Bolshevik Party by Lenin from 1903 onward, led them to disastrous decisions whose consequences they could not foresee. One of those consequences was the suppression and destruction of independent bodies such as Factory Committees, trade unions and rural and urban Soviets that offered a path to a different form of socialism. This should not be a contentious thesis. Although the October Revolution was greeted by the international left as a great liberatory event that reaction was based on initial reports and was overwhelmingly emotional. It was not long before reliable reports from left witnesses and participants revealed a truer picture of what was happening inside the “first socialist country in the world”, and how far from any acceptable version of socialism that regime was.
From Marxist revolutionaries like Rosa Luxemburg to democratic socialists like Bertrand Russell many on the political left were critical of the Bolshevik insurrection from the first. Subsequent investigation and the course of the new regime over its first six months reinforced that criticism. In 1918 Rosa Luxemburg, writing of the limits and shortcomings of all institutions including democratic ones, concluded “But the remedy that Lenin and Trotsky have found is worse than the disease it is meant to cure”. Having seen the Bolsheviks’ strangulation of political and press freedom and the suppression of internal democracy in the Soviets, Luxemburg found that “Freedom only for the supporters of the government, only for the members of one party – however numerous they may be – is no freedom at all.” She concluded that under Bolshevik rule the only “active element” was the bureaucracy and that therefore Bolshevik rule was “at bottom a clique affair – a dictatorship, to be sure, not the dictatorship of the Proletariat however but only the dictatorship of a handful of politicians”.
From a different perspective, but equally unafraid to state honestly what he observed even if it shattered the illusions of those who saw in Bolshevik Russia some form of socialism, Bertrand Russell, in The Practice and Theory of Bolshevism (written in 1920 after a long visit to Russia and interviews with Lenin, Trotsky and Gorky) found that the Soviets had long died out as living democratic institutions because “no conceivable system of free elections would give majorities to the Communists, either in town or country”. This was hardly surprising given that the social and political system created by Lenin and the Bolsheviks was “…a slavery far more complete than that of capitalism. A sweated wage, long hours, industrial conscription, prohibition of strikes, prison for slackers, diminution of already insufficient rations in factories where production falls below what the authorities expect, an army of spies ready to report any tendency to political disaffection and to procure imprisonment for its promoters – this is the reality of a system which still professes to govern in the name of the proletariat”. This centralised state capitalism, presided over by a small political elite that denied political expression to any outside its own ranks, was not created by Stalin in the late 1920s and 1930s – Stalin simply added the physical liquidation of the Old Bolsheviks and a massive increase in the apparatus of state terror. On the contrary, this was the work of the Old Bolsheviks.
Naturally the propaganda organs of western capitalist states violently condemned the Bolsheviks from the very start. This criticism was pure hypocrisy. They did not make similar criticisms of the suppression of democracy in their colonial possessions in Ireland, India, Africa and Asia, or worry about the social and economic hardships suffered by their own working class. Their condemnation was driven not from sincere concern for democracy and civil rights but a desire to safeguard their wealth and privilege and ensure they did not share the fate of the Russian ruling class. It is little wonder many on the left gave no credence to such criticisms even if they were sometimes factually accurate. But it was not particularly difficult to find informed and honest critiques of the Bolshevik state from those across the Marxist and anarcho-syndicalist left who, in different ways, had taken part in or supported the process of revolutionary upheaval began in February 1917 and had seen at first hand its usurpation and corruption by the Bolsheviks.
A week after the Bolshevik insurrections in Petrograd and Moscow, the militant Railwayman’s Trade Union declared that it was strongly opposed to the seizure of power by one party and demanded that a broad based socialist coalition government be formed (it is often forgotten that Lenin’s justification for the Bolshevik coup was not rule by the Bolshevik Party, but to create a government elected by and accountable to the National Congress of Soviets, a promise never kept). Six weeks after October the newspaper Novaya Zhizn, edited by the writer Maxim Gorky, Lenin’s personal friend and a militant socialist, thunderously condemned the new regime. It said that power had not really passed to the Soviets (let alone “All Power”) and that the crucial 2nd Congress of Soviets, which had “ratified” the seizure of power, had in reality been faced with a fait accompli backed by armed soldiers who gave it little choice. The paper said that it was brutally clear that the slogan “All Power to the Soviets” meant in reality “All power to a few Bolsheviks”, and asserted that the new regime was in no sense a Soviet Republic but was actually “an oligarchic republic, a republic of a few People’s Commissars”(note).
But the most fundamental, best informed and ringing critique of Bolshevik authoritarianism came from the Russian socialist and Marxist left itself. Most especially the always present Marxist alternative best represented by the Mensheviks, led by Julius Martov, Lenin’s great opposite and antagonist since 1903 when the Russian Social Democratic and Labour Party (RSDLP) had split into Bolsheviks and Mensheviks. At that crucial juncture Martov had stood for a more inclusive and democratic organisation, one not consisting entirely of full time “professional revolutionaries” divorced from ordinary workers and rigidly controlled from the centre. On this issue, Lenin actually lost to Martov and failed to carry the majority of delegates at the 2nd Congress of the RSDLP (it was on a lesser issue to do with the composition of an editorial board that Lenin secured more votes than Martov, and on the lesser issue that the names “Bolsheviks” (majority) and “Mensheviks” (minority) came to stick to the opposing sides). As early as 1904 Rosa Luxemburg wrote a pamphlet called Leninism or Marxism? in which she identified the danger of giving the leadership of a revolutionary socialist party sweeping powers that “…would multiply artificially and in a most dangerous measure the conservatism which is the necessary outgrowth of every such leadership”. She concluded “There is nothing which so easily and so surely hands over a still youthful labour movement to the private ambitions of intellectuals, as forcing the movement into the straight-jacket of a bureaucratic centralism which debases the fighting workers into the pliable tools of the hands of a “committee””. Even Trotsky, at the time, was adamantly opposed to Lenin’s conception of the party, stating plainly his belief that when Lenin spoke of the dictatorship of the Proletariat he really meant “a dictatorship over the proletariat”. Ironically, Trotsky himself would later help Lenin construct it.
Martov remained Lenin’s most articulate and principled Marxist opponent from 1903 until his death in 1923. After October 1917 his critiques of the Bolshevik regime were relentless yet always from a position of support for democratic socialism and working class freedom. In the 1920s his acute and honest accounts of the new regime were available through trade union and socialist publications in Europe, although these were marginalised and forgotten as Stalinist ideological orthodoxy clamped itself on the thinking of the western left. For those with ears to listen, though, Martov had already in 1919 laid out the bare truth of life in Bolshevik Russia and the betrayal of the hopes and promises of October 1917. As he put it, “Reality has cruelly shattered all these illusions. The “Soviet State” has not established in any instance electiveness and recall of public officials. It has not suppressed the professional police. It has not done away with social hierarchy in production…On the contrary, it shows a tendency in the opposite direction. It shows a tendency towards the utmost possible strengthening of the principles of hierarchy and compulsion. It shows a tendency toward the development of a more specialized apparatus of repression than before. It shows a tendency toward the total freedom of the executive organism from the tutelage of the electors”(note). Whilst supporting the Soviet government against the reactionary “Whites” in the Civil War, Martov condemned the restrictions on press and political freedom and the suppression of other political parties (the Socialist Revolutionaries and Mensheviks were semi-legal for a short while but were banned by 1920, by which time the Bolsheviks had long since turned on the working class and trade union movement itself).
For many of today’s anti-capitalist campaigners the legacy and importance of non-Leninist, libertarian socialism has found its best expression in the positions taken by Noam Chomsky since the 1960s. Chomsky’s forensic and damning indictments of US foreign policy are rooted in his anti-authoritarian politics, which he sometimes identifies as anarchism and sometimes as libertarian socialism (he increasingly ignores academic pigeon holes and simply supports any and all initiatives by trade unions, social activists and indigenous peoples that resist corporate capitalism). Chomsky is also one of the few outstanding left intellectuals to unambiguously reject Leninism and Bolshevism as not just misguided but fundamentally anti-socialist, and “in my view counter-revolutionary”. Chomsky identifies “incipient socialist institutions” such as Soviets, Factory Committees and workers co-operatives that emerged in the period after the February Revolution, and asserts “Lenin and Trotsky pretty much eliminated them as they consolidated power”. He concedes that there are arguments about the pressures and justifications for so doing (i.e the need to win the civil war and the terrible privations it caused) but believes that “The incipient socialist structures in Russia were dismantled before the really dire conditions arose”. More detailed studies, such as Maurice Brinton’s analysis of Workers’ Control in the period 1917-1921, tend to confirm this.
Chomsky’s general critique derived from “left Communists” such as Anton Pannekoek and anarcho-syndicalists such as Berkman and Rudolf Rocker, as well as an underlying and long established anti-statist radicalism best expressed by Michael Bakunin, the great seer and leader of 19th century anarchism. In debate with Karl Marx in the 1870s about the structures and policies of the 1st International, Bakunin predicted that Marx’s approach to revolution and socialism would lead to a “Red Bureaucracy” that would be worse than any form of oppression previously seen. Prescient as this was it is not necessary to be an anarchist to condemn Leninism as a departure from the core tenets of democratic socialism and from Marxism itself. Serious thinkers and leaders in the Marxist tradition such as Pannekoek, Rudolf Hilferding, Rosa Luxemburg, Paul Mattick, Karl Kautsky and Martov all condemned Leninism before October 1917 as well as after it. Lenin himself added credence to their analyses through his political activities and philosophy – from his clearly stated belief when the Bolshevik Party was formed that the working class was “incapable on its own of developing anything more than a trade union consciousness”, and required political leadership “from without” (i.e. from bourgeois intellectuals such as himself) to his blunt admission shortly after October that “socialism is nothing but state capitalist monopoly made to benefit the whole people”. Diane P. Koenker, in Labour Relations in Socialist Russia: Printers, their union and the origins of Soviet socialism (1991) summed up what this meant for ordinary Russian workers, which was “In the shops where one-man management (Lenin’s own preference) replaced collegial management workers faced the same kinds of authoritarian management they thought existed only under capitalism”.
This is an edited extract from Smile if you Dare: Politics and Pointy Hats with the Pet Shop Boys, by Ramzy Alwakeel, which will be published by Repeater next year.
Two decades on, there’s something implausible about Very.
The Pet Shop Boys’ fifth album snuck posthumanism and panic sex into the charts on both sides of the Atlantic. Its arrogant title said: here is our essence; an easy reference point; a convenient definition. But once you probed it, touched its bright orange case with trembling fingers, the conceit started to unravel.
You looked at the sleeve inlay and saw giant eggs, conical hats and beach balls before you spotted any human faces.
Then there was the music. Very didn’t so much showcase the Pet Shop Boys as reinvent them. The 12 career-best songs Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe recorded for the album glinted awkwardly like CGI skyscrapers in the artificial sun for miles – and years – in all directions. Somehow they were too near, or too large.
Even Very’s packaging was curiously oppositional. CD cases were meant to be shop windows, dressed by fancy designers to sell the silver discs’ invisible contents. This one was opaque. To date, the album has been sold in no fewer than seven different sleeves, but Very’s first edition remains one of the most recognisable items in British recorded music history.
Tennant and Lowe were bored of compact discs. Their pocket-sized artwork was a snivelling apology for the glorious 12-inch sleeve it had replaced, its pathetic scaled-down images shielded by flimsy transparent plastic. This was the conundrum they took to Pentagram.
Pentagram, which also designs buildings, gave them an orange box with three-dimensional polka dots on the front. It was a gamble – each of these unusual objects cost the Pet Shop Boys 40p – but Very’s limited edition was a success, rendering the album instantly visible in the racks: a flash of colour among hundreds of anonymous see-through cases.
The album’s vinyl and cassette versions mirrored the relief on the CD cover by arranging tiny photographs of Tennant and Lowe’s heads in the same polka dot pattern. It looked a bit like it was designed for babies, but novelty is sometimes the vehicle for genius.
As it happened, the CD case was an appropriate metaphor for what lay within: Very is rather difficult to miss. It’s a synth-pop obelisk, a wall of sound built from Tetris blocks.
After four smash hit LPs and a multi-platinum singles collection, one could have been forgiven for thinking the Pet Shop Boys had achieved everything, reshaping British pop music and surviving to tell the tale. Their 1990 studio effort, the stately Behaviour, had suggested a band whose members were growing old gracefully as they meditated on absent friends and Shostakovich.
Pop fans aren’t known for their attention spans, so by June 1993 it’s likely Tennant and Lowe’s 26-month absence from the UK top 10 had all but erased them from memory. They’d popped up as guests on a couple of tracks by Bernard Sumner and Johnny Marr’s Electronic project in 1991, and produced a version of ‘The Crying Game’ for Boy George the following year – but in real terms the Pet Shop Boys were already a catalogue act, the stuff of TV retrospectives and pub quizzes.
This made it even more satisfying when Very’s impertinent lead single put them back on Top of the Pops. Rubbing shoulders with Lisa Stansfield, ‘Can You Forgive Her?’ was an undercover policeman at a children’s party, its five o’clock shadow an instant giveaway. The song was a blinking night sky of whirring, motion-blurred synthesisers that, even when Tennant started singing, was every bit as unreal as the costumes. In the spaces between orchestra hits, he spun a cautionary tale of humiliation, innuendo and denial while – incredibly – Lowe danced with three women holding cricket bats.
The next few months would see them achieve their only number one album, make a string of iconic videos, and score a career-defining hit with a song someone else had already released.
This is an edited extract from JD Taylor‘s forthcoming book, Island Story: Journeying Through Unfamiliar Britain
By the local estate parade, where I’d been warned of ‘dodgy people’ who might despoil a traveller of their possessions, Gary’s out with his young son. ‘Yer fucken mad, you are’, he says, laughing at my alibi for asking. He flicks his head up proudly. ‘It’s marvellous. Some bits are good round ere, some bits are bad, like everywhere’. His mum and sister live round the corner. It’s a community, he presses. Like Jan, surrounded by her sisters in the nearby streets, in spite of Middlesbrough’s decline it’s still kept together families and communities, and this is what people love about it, something impossible in most growing English towns.
But how does one live? Within the 19th century, Middlesbrough exploded from a dozy hamlet to an ‘infant Hercules’ town of a hundred thousand, producing ships, metals and chemicals. Its Teesside docks and port were live-wired into global trade. But all this was another history lesson, and the last of those industries, ICI’s chemical works at Wilton and Billingham, had been wiped out in the 90s, with a rump of smaller firms operating in its place. Middlesbrough’s population has been plummeting, but there was no serious discussion about a responsible shrinking or ungrowing. Instead there were more retail parks, malls and call-centres promised, and receding memories of a future that had failed to arrive.
The sentiment wasn’t merely melancholic. Riding through Billingham among its belching chimneys and swerving juggernauts, air funked with astringent fumes, the Brunner Mond chemical-works later taken over by ICI had inspired Aldous Huxley to imagine his Brave New World. Likewise, the neon-lit towers and flares I’d passed last night at Wilton had inspired Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner. Both dystopic visions of the future, tagged to the Tees. A ‘space age coated in pigeon shit’ is how Owen Hatherley describes its town centre today, a 60s New Town built by ICI, now marked by its dereliction, a description given with a hint of deserving affection.
Bewley and Seaton Carew follow, disorientatingly bland suburbs, all cul-de-sacs, palisade gates and paved driveways, Sky dishes and CCTV pointed out to the world. Places one could fake one’s death and live untroubled in… as John Darwin almost proved. This was the future that had taken its place, one which, despite its ugliness, had succeeded in offering what more people wanted most, instead of needed. I press on into Hartlepool. Beside the deserted marina and ‘historic quay’, site of ye goodly ol’ HMS Trincomalee, is a binge of retail parks, fast-food drive-thrus, bingo halls and budget hotel chains. The effect is truly bizarre, compounded by its New York-style yellow taxis and the sheer emptiness of the place, as if a millenarian religious cult had massed in the town, built these totems and trophies to the consumer gods, then quietly disbanded after the Credit Crunch apocalypse failed to arrive.
An older couple drift by in the distance. Yvonne and Eddie struggle to explain the town’s present condition. A massive steelworks and harbour have closed, leaving behind a ‘lot of poor’ and unemployment. The retail-glut reflected the magical thinking of the Blair era, that wealth could be simply be magicked into creation, ex nihilo, just as if one could ‘create’ energy into being, rather than harness or redistribute it from elsewhere. One needed credit for these places, now that the jobs were gone, but even that was harder to come by. Eddie points to the empty but modern-looking marina opposite, now owned by the council. There are no plans to use it. ‘I’d turn it into a big sports centre, with football, tennis, badminton’. ‘Kids today sit at home in their rooms on the computer’, Yvonne adds, describing their grandchildren. ‘It’s just the age’.
County Durham. The relatively flat scene is akin to the Cleveland towns, gelded by the closure of the mines. The takeaway and off-licence constitute communal life. After Blackhall, I pull over in Horden for clues. A woman old enough to have been a miner’s wife during the Strike struggles to articulate its story. ‘They’re all gone, shut in 85’. What happened to the people here? She shrugs. ‘Nothing’. Another man of similar age repeats the same. ‘They went out six miles to sea. They reckoned it cost too much money’. He hurries off.
At (another) Easington, the village’s school and council offices are boarded up, their windows smashed through. The pubs are closed, even the neat red-brick miners’ terraces barricaded in places. One might expect this in Detroit or Chernobyl, but on our doorstep? The damage done is plain to see. An old boy pushes a broken lawn-mower down a back-terrace, and we chat. When Thatcher died, he recalls, people came from miles around to party. Some hadn’t returned for at least a decade. When the collieries closed, some miners were sent on computer courses, for certificates ‘not worth’t paper printed on’.
The terrain begins to steepen, then at Sherburn it collapses down again. Durham appears almost from nowhere, secluded from sight in a deep valley. The town is remarkably affluent in contrast to its neighbours, populated by aspirational student bars and luxury homeware shops, its cobbled lanes threading over a gushing river and up a hillock towards its vast, austerely-adorned Norman cathedral and castle. Young Americans babble loudly, and someone busks with a violin.
I pedal on to Langley Moor, an ex-mining village on its outskirts. Clarissa, a friend of my partner’s, lives out here. As we drink beer and wine in her back garden, surrounded by light industrial warehouses and a sports centre, she reflects.
‘There used to be a slag heap there, a colliery down there, even a little railway bringing the coal’. The pits and two-up two-down terraces have almost all been pulled down and eradicated, unlike Easington. ‘I do think it is as bad now as the 80s’ she adds. I wonder how, still struggling to mentally connect up these scenes, past and present. ‘Lots of unemployment’, her late-teen daughter says, her and her mate joining us. Lads join the army. The suicide rate is particularly high.
Perhaps it’s in the collapsing infrastructure, the true, hidden extent of poverty and unemployment. But as they talk, this sense of 80s-scale defeat is in something else. It’s at the level of desire and feeling. Since York, the towns have all been deserted. There are no pricks to kick against, just the stony silence and shame that comes with robbing Peter to pay Paul, of heavy drinking and anti-depressants to salve the pain. The local miners’ gala is now a formalised piss-up, as sheer hedonism blunts the boredom with special occasions for off-the-leash Saturnalia. We hear the radio news from the other room, distant headlines of London and a political elite rattling on about economic growth and employment, but it made no sense out here.[…]
I’d been told that Ashington had been the biggest pit village in the world, a century ago, employing ten thousand miners in five collieries. Then Thatcher waged war on the organised miners, and the productive mines were closed. The town’s other product, aluminium, had also recently ceased, leaving Ashington cut adrift. A young man’s tip in a newsagent directs me to the Woodhorn Colliery, the last of the mines still standing, open as a museum to this lost way of life.
‘Close the door on past dreariness’. ‘The will to work is the way to prosperity’. ‘Nationalisation 1947. The New Era: Welfare Education Mechanisation’. Queen blue and claret banners hang inside, produced by local branches of the NUM, like Ellington, Seghill and Sleekburn A, all nearby. They are defined by their headline fonts, their sentimental and often heraldry-like use of borders and scrolls, and their emotive depictions of grey and miserable slum terraces, like those of Middlesbrough and Gateshead, a past they wished to put behind.
Their progressive, mechanised future is that which failed to arrive, but there is a specifically working class English modernism to these banners which I hadn’t anticipated. Rather than seeking to defend an unproductive and dangerous form of work, they sought to improve it. The banners were produced in the late 40s, at a time when much still felt possible. Rather than appearing as things back in time, they seem like the artefacts of ghosts of the future. What would demands for welfare, mechanisation, education or nationalisation look like today?
The scenes of the ‘Pitmen Painters’ collected here present a way of life gone, perhaps mercifully too. There are blinkered pit ponies, wandering underground; a Friday fish supper; a Labour man addressing a packed-out pub of menfolk; a woman alone, the drudgery of domestic work before the era of cheap appliances; the death of a wife by tuberculosis. One image captures in cartoon-format the life of a 14 year old miner, who wakes up at two each morning to put in a long shift on an unproductive seam, often where new miners would start until an older relative could negotiate something better. Returning home, he’s too tired to bathe, eat, or see his friends. He falls asleep as soon as he gets in, only to be woken by his mam to go back to the pit. ‘Slept it through’ is the title.
But the paintings are intriguing also in how they were produced. The group began meeting through a branch of the WEA in 1927 in an old hut, and by 1934 they worked with Robert Lyon to develop their paintings, which were then exhibited to the world. Harry Wilson was one miner involved. ‘Here I found an outlet for other things than earning my living’, he said. ‘There is a feeling of being my own boss for a change and with it comes a sense of freedom’.
Their hut was pulled down in 1983, and the last mine in the area shut in 2005, Howard tells me, one of the museum’s volunteers, as I quiz him on the legacy beyond the exhibits. ‘Coal not dole’, the striking miners demanded. Today even the latter’s hard to come by. Paul had spoken of the local foodbanks struggling to meet demand, as numbers of people too poor to even eat were soaring, victims of four-to-thirteen week benefit sanctions, some caused by DWP cruelty, others mere incompetence. That basic right to freedom, to live and to live well, are not expensive or unrealistic demands. Far more is spent on housing benefit to private landlords than on building new social housing; far more is lost in loose tax regulations and tax-breaks for the rich over benefit fraud.
People in London or the South might think that I’m being too negative, ‘playing politics’ over the veracity of the narrative. Come up to Easington and Ashington, if you dare, and spend some time here, seeing, listening, talking with locals. Take a look at just how needlessly ravaged these places are, and think about the past and present political events that are causing this. Consider whether it is morally right that a person should freeze or go without food, or be punished for the crime of being poor and having a spare bedroom, or that they should be coerced into working without a wage, in a country presently the fifth richest in the world. If that is fine with you, continue voting Conservative. You may wish to close the book here.
For those of you who feel, like me, wearied and stunned by it all, then a position of sceptical impartiality or knowing inaction’s no good either, for these things will continue, whether we choose to look elsewhere or not. Trading our grumbles won’t interrupt the processes that protect bankers and billionaires whilst consigning the vast majority of young and old to insecure, low-paid and drudgerous jobs. ‘Close the door on past dreariness’ said the Ellington miners back in 1950. What does a brighter future look like, and how will it work for us all?
“…indifferent to the future…”
After consuming a Ritz cracker, two Valiums, half a can of Tab, and one weak, vodka-based cocktail, a girl named Karen slips into a coma one Friday night in 1979.
Seventeen years later she wakes up and the world has changed. The novel, Girlfriend in a Coma by Douglas Coupland, from 1998, shares its basic outline with the classic tale of Rip Van Winkle – or, for that matter, a great deal of the nineteenth century’s futurist literature: L’an 2440, Looking Backwards, The News from Nowhere, and countless others. But Karen doesn’t wake up in utopia. The contradictions of capitalism have not resolved themselves in her sleep. If anything, they have got worse.
“I’m not sure I completely like the new world,” she confesses to her friend Hamilton. “The whole world is only about work: work work work get get get … racing ahead … getting sacked from work … going online … knowing computer languages … winning contracts. I mean, it’s just not what I would have imagined the world might be if you’d asked me seventeen years ago. People are frazzled and angry, desperate about money, and, at best, indifferent to the future.” In the seventeen years she spent asleep, something disappeared from the world as she sees it, “‘meaning’ had vanished”.
When I was at university, in the first years of the twenty-first century, it was considered practically a given that music could have no intrinsic meanings. A piece of music may be meaningful to you, or to specific social groups, in certain contexts, under certain conditions, but it does not in itself bear meaning. This notion, of music as mere “form moving in sound,” was not original when the critic Eduard Hanslick so phrased it in the midst of the 19th century’s war of the romantics. In fact, we can trace the idea at least as far back as Adam Smith’s essay, ‘Of the Nature of that Imitation which takes place in what are called the Imitative Arts’, first thrashed out in the years immediately after the publication of The Wealth of Nations made him the prophet of free market capitalism.
“Melody and harmony,” wrote Smith, “signify and suggest nothing.” Without the anchorage of poetry or pantomime, instrumental music was suitable only for a sort of contemplation “not unlike that which derives from the contemplation of a great system in any other science.” And even in the case of a piece of music – such as a song, dance, or opera – which did seem to have specific meanings attached by the association of another art form, the music itself could act only “like a transparent mantle,” which might lend a “more enlivening lustre” to the meanings and sentiments already expressed.[ii]
As the musicologist Lawrence Kramer suggests, the “problem of meaning” is a symptom of music’s modern separation from ritual. Today, he argues, “No ideas about music are more conventional than that music has no meaning, at least in the sense that words do, and that this lack is something to be treasured, something that helps make music special.”[iii] But even as Kramer wrote those words, the question of meaning was raising its head once more.
Just a few years earlier, another American musicologist named Leo Treitler had noticed a sudden avalanche of books about musical meaning. Treitler tells a story in which he is reading a story by Gabriel Garcia Marquez in the New Yorker and is suddenly struck by the line, “Inside the lights burned in the middle of the day and the string quartet was playing a piece by Mozart, full of foreboding.” So alien is such a characterisation – of a music unambiguously “full of foreboding” –to the formal discourse of musicology, that Treitler found himself “sucked into a fantasy in which Marquez is reading the story aloud and has just come to that sentence himself. A squad of young men and women rush up to him, outfitted in black leather boots, breeches, and vests. Their hair is close-cropped or slicked back. Their leader hands Marquez a summons.”[iv]
“…an outbreak of meaninglessness…”
The hyperbolic nature of Treitler’s little tale implies an awareness on the part of the distinguished professor that while most of us will merrily ascribe any number of meanings to all kinds of music without too much thought, the kind of vigilance represented by his squad of bovver-booted young musicologists remained largely internal to the confines of the academy. And there they might well have stayed. But in the last few years, signs of a kind of creeping panic over meaning have started to seep out of the ivory tower and into the world outside.
In 2013, the music journalist Sophie Heawood wrote a piece for The Guardian in which she confessed that since throwing out a record collection which once “drew out the short sharp words of feelings and turned them into illustrated sentences”, the music she listens to via internet streaming services on her laptop now sounds “about as deep as an oatcake”.[v] It is telling that Heawood relates the new depthlessness she finds in music to a change in the technology through which she experiences it. It was in a pit of depression induced by the years he spent embedded in the Palo Alto dot com bubble, writing Microserfs, that Douglas Coupland conceived Girlfriend in a Coma. The malaise was spreading.
As well as being a composer with a penchant for unusual wind instruments, Jaron Lanier was a pioneer of virtual reality who spent the eighties and nineties in the Silicon Valley thick of it, hobnobbing with the heads of Apple, Microsoft, and Google. So it came as little surprise when in 1999 he wrote an essay entitled ‘Piracy is Your Friend’. In this New York Times piece, Lanier insisted that the free distribution of MP3s was “an opportunity, not a problem.”[vi]
But in 2002, writing an open letter to the producer and theorist Paul D. Miller (aka DJ Spooky), Lanier began to worry that something had gone awry with mainstream pop music in the last decade or so. It was not so much that all the new music was bad; but that there was no new music. Not so much that the content was schlocky; but that there was no content at all. Still he insisted then that file-sharing could not be blamed, that the music industry’s obsession with Napster and the like was “such a crock” and that perhaps, had Napster been given the chance to develop, it could have been just the impetus music needed: a “new electric guitar”.[vii]
Except of course file-sharing has indeed developed, somewhat voraciously. And by 2007 Lanier was admitting, “I was wrong. We were all wrong.”[viii] In a book called You Are Not a Gadget, first published three years after this mea culpa, Lanier wrote extensively about his disappointment with the digital world he had helped to create. He worried that under the influence of social networks and software protocols like MIDI, people are “beginning to design themselves,” – and the art that they create – “to suit digital models” of themselves, and that consequently the ongoing “process of the reinvention of life through music appears to have stopped.” Perhaps, he mused, the ultimate consequence of the seemingly infinite abundance of words and melodies available on the cloud, is to be “an outbreak of meaninglessness.”[ix]
“…if all music had disappeared…”
In 2002, Bill Drummond had already come to a similar conclusion. One day in the spring of that year, the author and former member of arch-pop provocateurs The KLF, stepped through the doors of an HMV megastore in central London and felt a peculiar dread overtake him. Faced with “aisle upon aisle of CDs, rack upon rack in every genre possible,” Drummond thought to himself, “I know whatever I get here, when I get it home, it’s not going to be real. It’s not going to open another door in my head.”
That night, back at home working on his laptop, the feeling got worse. “It was as if every piece of recorded music from the whole history of recorded music – the past hundred and ten years or whatever that it has existed – is behind that screen laughing at me. It was saying, go on, download us!”
Drummond proposed a radical solution, “We’ve got to start all music again. I got into this fantasy in the end: wouldn’t it be great if all music had disappeared? We knew music had existed, but the CDs were blank. You’d go to the piano and you can’t do anything. Drum kits don’t work. It’s all gone. We’ve still got the emotional need to make music, but it cannot be done on any instrument.”
Drummond’s reverie tapped into a strain of hitherto dormant cultural catastrophism that had reared its head in the run-up to the millennium and never quite lain down since. To people still in the midst of the last century, it was pretty much a given that their leaders might capriciously elect to end all life on earth at the push of a button. However, from the phantom Y2K computer bug to the various Mayan apocalypses and ecological disasters (whether ultimately man-made or otherwise) favoured by post-millennial Hollywood film-makers, there lingers a decided whiff of Biblical chiliasm, of Nature’s angry vengeance wrought upon the folly of man. The bomb, at least, maintained a certain deliberate decisionism. It was an apocalypse with agency – no matter now madcap and divorced from the majority of actual people that agency may have been.
Today, though the internationally recognised Doomsday Clock maintained by the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists still stands at five minutes to midnight (closer, in fact, than it did for most of the sixties and seventies), we seem to worry little about the bomb.[xi] And yet in a strange sort of way, we live our lives as though the nuclear holocaust had already happened. Culture increasingly resembles not the gleaming fantasia of utopian dreams but the jury-rigged bricolage of post-apocalyptic nightmares.
“…every mark, blotch, and stain…”
An order of monks in a desolate wasteland, patiently copying and illuminating the shopping lists and trivial memoranda of a long-dead electrical engineer onto treated lambskin. The scenario is from a post-apocalyptic fable by Walter M. Miller called A Canticle for Leibowitz, set six hundred years after an atomic catastrophe. But it speaks just as eloquently about our own culture of reissues, remasters, reformations, and gatefold audiophile 180-gram vinyl editions of the long lost demos of some supposedly pivotal rock legend or other. As I read about the desire of Brother Francis (Miller’s protagonist) to duplicate precisely “every mark, blotch, and stain” on the holy relic (an old engineering blueprint) he had discovered in an abandoned shelter, I couldn’t help but think of the discussion between the singer Billy Childish and critic Simon Reynolds in the latter’s book, Retromania, about the fortunes spent on valve studio equipment, the fetishism of antiquated recording equipment and ‘stripped back’ production styles (mono, analogue, live, untreated, etc.).[xii] Reynolds’s book is all about pop music’s hopes for the future being crowded out by a series of compulsions to repeat the past. “Instead of being about itself,” he notes elsewhere in the text, “the 2000s has been about every previous decade happening again all at once: a simultaneity of pop time that abolishes history while nibbling away at the present’s own sense of itself as an era with a distinct identity and feel.”[xiii] It’s as though music has been gobbled up by one of the “time prolapses” in Brian Aldiss’s novel from the mid-seventies, The Eighty Minute Hour.
A weird, sprawling ‘space opera’ in which characters spontaneously break into arias set in verse form, the narrative of this novel is set at the very end of the twentieth century, several years after another world war. It seems as though the pollution from so many nuclear explosions has ruptured the very fabric of space-time, creating pockets of the past in odd places throughout the solar system, and leaving various characters lost and stranded in former centuries. “But suppose your references are all wrong!” speculates one of the characters at one point. “Suppose nothing has happened to us and we’re sitting comfortably back home on earth, 1999 A.D., only we’ve all spiralled round the twonk and are so ego-sick of progress that we’re sunk in a mass-hallucination about it?”[xiv] Our situation is more severe. Rather than hallucinating the time distortion effects of a real thermonuclear war; we have hallucinated the war. The fallout, however, is real.
[ii] Smith, A. The Works of Adam Smith, vol.V, London: T. Cadell & W. Davies, 1811, pp.278-302
[iii] Kramer, L. Musical Meaning: Towards a Critical History,Vol. I, Berkeley & Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2002, p.1, p.11
[iv] Treitler, L. ‘Language and the Interpretation of Meaning’ in Music and Meaning, Robinson, J. (ed.), New York: Cornell University Press, 1997, p.23-4
[v] Heawood, S. ‘Music has died now I’ve thrown away my CDs and only listen on my laptop’, The Guardian, Tuesday 4 June 2013, http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2013/jun/04/music-died-cds-listen-laptop
[vi] Lanier, J. ‘Piracy Is Your Friend’, New York Times, May 9 1999
[vii] Lanier, J. ‘Where Did the Music Go?’ in Sound Unbound, Miller, P. D. (ed.)
[viii] Laneier, J. ‘Pay Me For My Content’ New York Times, November 20 2007
[ix] Lanier, J. You Are Not A Gadget, London: Penguin, 2011, pp.39, 128, 174
All quotes from interview with the author conducted in July 2006, parts of which subsequently became an article for Plan B Magazine and Drummond went on to write many of the same things in his book 17, published in 2008 by Beautiful Books, London.
[xi] A timeline of the Doomsday Clock may be viewed online at the Bulletin’s website, http://thebulletin.org/timeline
[xii] Miller, W. M. A Canticle for Leibowitz, New York: Bantam, 1961, pp.60-70; Reynolds, Retromania: Pop Culture’s Addiction to It’s Own Past, New York: Faber, 2011, p.270
[xiii] Reynolds, 2011, op. cit. pp.x-xi
[xiv] Aldiss, B. The Eighty Minute Hour, New York: Leisure, 1975, p.75
The Austin Psych Fest was last weekend, but in the UK we were fully focused on the elections and associated depression/stoicism/recriminations/reinvigoration (delete as appropriate). So in belated celebration of the festival and the 13th Floor Elevators 50th anniversary reunion show (review/photos/video here), here’s an extract from Ben Graham’s new book on Texan psych, A Gathering of Promises (out in June from Zer0). There’s also an interview with Ben about writing the book on the Brighton Noise blog. – TS
On an outdoor stage on the banks of the Colorado River, a 63-year-old man is leading his band through a set of churning, rhythmic, hard-edged blues rock. His grey hair cut short and neat, George Emerson Kinney looks every inch the respectable Texas rancher, dressed smart but casual in pressed blue jeans and white shirt. Yet something in the intensity of his performance gives him away. With the sun starting to set behind him, he lets his electric guitar swing round onto his hip and clutches the microphone stand fiercely with both hands. “There comes a time of starvation, and it is true,” he howls. “If you believe in elevation it will happen to you.”
George Kinney has endured the time of starvation, in terms of appreciation and recognition at least. He wrote and first sang this song, Starvation, with his band the Golden Dawn some 47 years ago, long before many in the audience at this, the 2014 Austin Psych Fest, had even been born. Yet it is also true to say that Kinney never stopped believing in elevation; that is, the potential of the entire human race to ascend to a higher level of psychic understanding and spiritual evolution, a belief that inspired both the name and the songs of the Golden Dawn when they formed in Austin in 1967. It was a belief that the Golden Dawn shared with their close comrades, the 13th Floor Elevators (who Kinney is of course also acknowledging in the lyric), and it would appear that in the 21st Century, long after the original incarnations of both bands disintegrated under pressure and recrimination, things are indeed finally happening, both for them and for many of their psychedelic Texan contemporaries.
The seventh annual Austin Psych Fest is the largest yet, with over 6000 people from all over the world filling the campsite and attending the three day event, as well as enjoying pre-festival warm-up events in Austin’s clubs and bars. The music line-up is as international as the audience, with a broad definition of psychedelic music taking in acts from across North and South America, Europe, Africa, Australia and Japan. In 2014, the festival’s superlative reputation attracted the Brian Jonestown Massacre, the Dandy Warhols, Acid Mothers Temple, Loop, the Horrors, Lorelle Meets The Obsolete, Jacco Gardner, Unknown Mortal Orchestra, Terakraft and more than 80 other artists including co-organizers the Black Angels, who more than any other band revived Austin’s reputation as a center for psychedelic rock in the 21st Century. The festival also drew music journalists from all over the globe, and reportedly Hedi Slimane, creative director of fashion house Saint Laurent, diligently photographing audience and bands alike while researching his firm’s latest line, 2014’s ‘Psych Rock’ collection.
On the surface it might seem surprising that the upsurge in interest in psychedelic music, new and old, should be focused not on San Francisco or London or even Berlin (with the concurrent and related krautrock revival), but Austin, Texas. Yet the location of the world’s premiere psych festival is no accident, and the organizers, the bands and the audience are all well aware of the city’s rich and noble psychedelic history. What some may be less aware of is the extent to which the Austin establishment of the 1960s despised and persecuted pioneering psychedelic bands like the 13th Floor Elevators and the Golden Dawn, and how by the beginning of the 1970s the Texan psychedelic scene was considered dead and buried, an embarrassment to those who were a part of it, and a flash in the pan misfire before the era of progressive outlaw country that first put Austin on the map, and established its reputation as “the live music capital of the world.” For decades it was Willy Nelson, not Roky Erickson, who was the beloved face of the Austin music scene.
“If the Black Angels could go back in time, they couldn’t get a gig to save their lives!” laughs Billy Miller, a 13th Floor Elevators fan from the mid-sixties on. “They’d probably get run out of town on a rail by the music scene itself. So things have really changed; they are the music scene there now, and I’m glad to see it.”
Though all native Texans, the Black Angels deliberately moved to Austin in order to start a psychedelic rock band, attracted as much by the city’s heritage as by its reputation as a major contemporary music center. “When we first started there weren’t tons of people doing that kind of sound,” recalls singer Alex Maas. “You can’t really touch the 13th Floor Elevators. You can get close; I hear a lot of bands now that I’m like, man, that really sounds like the 13th Floor Elevators, it’s really good. But it’s like saying someone’s as good as the Beatles, you know, it’s not ever going to happen.”
When they co-founded the Reverberation Appreciation Society, the Black Angels began their transition to arguably the most important, powerful and influential band on the Austin scene. Set up to promote shows and release records by like-minded acts, the Society organizes not only the Austin Psych Fest but similar events around the world.
“The Reverberation Appreciation Society is me, Rob Fitzpatrick, Christian Bland and Oswald James,” says Maas. “We started this organization and gave it this weird long name to do stuff like the festival, and we wanted to be able to help our friends if they didn’t have an outlet for their music. We’ve met tons of great musicians over the course of our career, and tons that just don’t have an outlet, and that was kind of why the society was created. It was to keep the music going, the music that we believed in. So we’ll help them find outlets, whether it be stores that will sell their music or a presence online, or just developing the sound of a band.”
This helping hand would also soon extend to the older bands that influenced the Black Angels, like the 13th Floor Elevators and the Golden Dawn. “It only makes sense and it’s only fair to give back to that community and that ball of energy that we were inspired from originally. Whether that be Roky Erickson or the Seeds or the Moving Sidewalks or Simeon from the Silver Apples.”
Maas also has his own theories about why Texas was such a nexus for first generation psychedelic rock music. “It seems like with any action there’s always an equal and opposite reaction,” he says. “So if you have a conservative culture you will have a very liberal underground, whether it’s powerful or whether it’s modest in its approach to how it wants to grow. Austin’s always been a kind of liberal town, and I think the conservative culture in Texas has naturally bred this interesting art escape, this opposite effect to escape from that.”
Initially however the establishment response to the appearance of drugs, long hair, youth rebellion and talk of peace and love in Austin was far from liberal. The psychedelic freaks in Texas had to fight much harder just to survive than their brethren in California, London or New York, and this is perhaps what gives Texan psychedelia its distinctive punk edge. Unlike many of the Californian bands to whom the term was first applied, like the Grateful Dead or Jefferson Airplane, psychedelic rock out of Texas is characterized by an aggressive urgency and desperation that has actually helped it to age far better than its more mellow West Coast equivalent.
Christian conservatism and repressive drug laws were countered by a strong belief in the freedom of the individual and a frontier spirit that could apply to mind expansion as much as lighting out for open land. There is much to be said though for the big skies and the sense of space to be found in the Texan desert and hill country, not to mention the visionary qualities of the native peyote plant, used as a shamanic sacrament by generations of native tribes and curious adepts. The active compound in peyote is mescaline, referred to as “Texas Medicine” by Bob Dylan; mescaline was also the drug taken by Aldous Huxley in his celebrated account The Doors of Perception, and was used by notorious occultist Aleister Crowley in his proto-psychedelic Rites of Eleusis performance of 1910. Though LSD became as popular in Texas as anywhere else, an initial grounding in natural psychedelics like peyote helped distinguish the Texan scene from its Californian equivalent, as George Kinney points out.
“LSD can be a very helpful psychedelic experience, but when all is said and done it is an artificial substance,” he says. “When one starts to really get ‘high’ in the psychedelic sense, one begins to distrust such contrived substances. Psilocybin mushrooms and peyote are natural plants and have a long tradition of being used to enhance the awareness of humans. There is a sense of authority and security in ingesting these medicinal plants that is absent from taking LSD. The result is an experience that is both transcendent and natural simultaneously. One can experience the divine aspects of one’s nature and still remained meaningfully connected to Mother Nature. The outlook and behavior, especially the music, expressed this distinction. That’s why even the most psychedelic voyagers from Texas remained so down home. The main benefit, to me, of psychedelic music was to combine the transcendent elements of intellectual thought with a very physically moving rhythm and sound.
“Texas itself is a very powerful geographic location. The land and the history there is very unique. Texas used to be its own nation and the fierce independence of the citizens is a tangible ambience that pervades all areas of social and community life.”
That “fierce independence” is crucial. Despite the often draconian enforcement of law and order, Texan mythology has also always idealized the rebel, the outlaw and the hard-bitten underdog fighting against the greater power. Nowhere is this last case more obviously exemplified than in the Battle of the Alamo, surely the most powerful archetype and central myth in the collective Texan psyche. Perhaps the brave heroes of the Texas Revolution, who died defending the Alamo Mission in San Antonio against impossible odds, set a precedent that Texas’s 1960s psychedelic revolutionaries were already unconsciously following. And if Lubbock’s martyred icon of early rock n’ roll, Buddy Holly, had already captured the essence of the psychedelic experience in his song Slippin’ and Slidin’ (as Jason Pierce of Spiritualized has suggested), then perhaps his El Paso contemporary Bobby Fuller had already written the whole story of Texan rock, psychedelic or otherwise, when he penned his classic I Fought The Law (And The Law Won), shortly before his own premature and still-mysterious demise.
Certainly, Texas’s outlaw tradition and proximity to the Mexican border gave it a certain primacy in the American marijuana trade, which in turn meant that Texans had a greater connection and interaction with their fellow heads on both coasts that did any other southern state. Unlike in New York and San Francisco though, Texan psychedelia developed from first principles, and in this sense was truly gnostic, stemming from direct personal experience of acid and peyote rather than being filtered through the media or fashion. Also, Texan psychedelic bands were under far less pressure to temper their vision and make it commercial; being so far from the major centers of the music industry, chances are they were never going to make it anyway. Almost all of the records discussed in this book were released on small local independent labels, that didn’t have a clue about this strange new music, but the kids seemed to dig it so what the hell, they thought, let’s put it out anyway and hope it will sell.
And ultimately perhaps, the simple truth is that Texans just don’t do things by half measures. If they’re going to rock, they’re going to rock hard; if they’re going to drop acid, they might just take enough acid to kill a buffalo. And if they’re going to make weird and freaky music, then it’s going to be the weirdest and freakiest music you ever heard in your life. Enjoy.
When 18-year-old Rayward Powell St John arrived in Austin in the fall of 1959 as a freshman at the University of Texas, the city was almost unrecognizable as the high-tech metropolis it would one day become. The computing and dot com boom that would transform Austin’s fortunes during the eighties and nineties was still the stuff of pulp science fiction, and the city that would come to describe itself as “the live music capital of the world” was still a relatively quiet, conservative community with a population of roughly 180,000; 20,000 of which were students.
“Austin was a beautiful city, a big town,” Powell remembers. “And I was right in the middle of it, enrolled in a major university and living on my own. The living on my own part was the best part of all.”
Powell St John had been born in nearby Houston in 1940, but had grown up in Laredo, close to the Mexican border. His father had owned a farm, and his earliest memories were of exploring the territory, roaming in the desert and along the banks of the Rio Grande River. When Powell was ten years old his father sold the farm and returned to his original career of teaching; the family moved to town, and Powell began attending Laredo’s Martin High School, where his father now taught English and Algebra.
While some high schools gain prestige for their academic scores and others are known for the success of their sports teams, Martin’s claim to fame was its first-rate school band, and potential players were recruited early. Although he had no experience as a musician, and didn’t come from a particularly musical family, Powell had grown up avidly listening to the country music played constantly on the radio in rural Texas during the 1940s; Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys, Kitty Wells, Ernest Tubb and Hank Williams, whose 78 single Jambalaya was the first record he owned. Once he’d got used to living in town the idea of playing music himself began to appeal, and when the Martin band director came to his grade school with a selection of instruments for the kids to try out on, Powell immediately put himself forward, settling on the flute. After about a year in the Martin school band however, Powell was forced to give up his first instrument when he began to suffer from horrendous ear infections that left him writhing on the floor, screaming in agony. It was discovered that he had unusually large Eustachian tubes, and doctors theorized that playing the flute was actually blasting the infection out of his throat and up into his ears. Powell quit the school band and the flute, but he was determined to keep on playing music.
Given his condition and the doctors’ diagnosis, it’s perhaps unusual that Powell selected another wind instrument to replace the flute, but it was one that would remain his axe of choice throughout his life; the harmonica. He bought his first harp from the Laredo Woolworth’s, having spotted it in the shop window on the way back from the Saturday morning picture show. On the back seat of the bus home, he mastered the Stephen Foster tune Uncle Ned, and with no apparent aggravation to his ears either, although those of the other passengers may not have been so lucky.
Powell soon convinced his parents to upgrade his dime store mouth organ for a chromatic harmonica that had all the notes on it, and set to learning his chops with a vengeance. But there were few accessible influences or inspirations for a lonely young harmonica player to turn to; on the radio, his role models were more or less limited to ensemble players the Harmonicats, or the likes of John Sebastian (father of the future folk-rocker and singer-songwriter of the same name, himself no mean blues harpist) and Larry Adler, who played backed by a full symphony orchestra. Powell turned instead to jazz musicians for ideas, gamely attempting to apply to his harmonica the innovations that players like Sidney Bechet and Coleman Hawkins were bringing to the saxophone. Unaware at the time of pioneering blues harmonica players like Sonny Boy Williamson II and Little Walter, Powell mostly resigned himself to simply wandering around his backyard, blowing Ruby to accompany his dreams.
Powell had no thought of becoming a musician when he first arrived in Austin; enrolled in the Art Department and the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps, he had vague hopes of becoming a painter or of pursuing a career in the army. But although Austin was still relatively small, compared to Laredo it seemed like the big city, and Powell soon found that his horizons were being widened by life at the University of Texas, generally known as UT.
“Laredo was a border town of about 6500, known as the Gateway to Mexico,” he says. “Coming from that environment I was very callow and clueless. Austin seemed big to me then.”
Austin of course was also the state capital, and as such was a hotbed of lawyers, politicians and campaigners, best captured in local author Billy Lee Brammer’s classic 1961 novel, The Gay Place. One of the first radicalizing influences on Powell was the student Civil Rights movement, or more specifically, the staunch resistance it encountered from the authorities and the establishment.
“For my part I was very naïve, and coming from a community where I was a member of a minority group the correctness of the Civil Rights Movement seemed like a no-brainer,” he says. “Therefore I was taken aback by the controversy swirling around the issue. That was my introduction to Austin conservatism, and it was an eye opener.”
Although UT was one of the first southern universities to admit blacks, albeit as recently as 1956, in 1960 its dorms were still segregated, and its 200 African-American students were excluded from varsity athletics, drama productions, student employment and the University Long Horn Band, among other activities. Powell would soon realize that this casually institutionalized racism was typical of a pervading atmosphere of repressive conservatism and paranoia.
“While I felt free and liberated, the town was a very conservative place,” he says. “The University tried to make up for the lack of parental control by providing a strongly paternal atmosphere and closely monitoring the activities of the student body.” According to Powell, the University’s conservatism was at least partly down to its reliance on certain Dallas billionaires for endowments. “They were very concerned about the Civil Rights Movement for one thing, lest it be a destabilizing influence. And when drugs came to Austin the reaction of the authorities was nothing short of hysterical, and the tension ratcheted up dramatically.”
Nevertheless, Austin’s reputation as a beacon of free-thinking liberalism compared to the rest of Texas was already in existence, though at this stage it was based on a small minority of left-wing students, artists, folk musicians and bohemian holdovers from a previous era. “UT was a major university and there were forward thinking individuals and cutting edge work going on there,” Powell admits. “It seemed to me that there was a tension between new attitudes, social movements and outside ideas, and the conventional and conservative ideas of the establishment.”
Powell’s introduction to Austin’s limited counter-culture came via Ramsey Wiggins, his roommate when he was finally able to live off campus at the beginning of his second year. Up to this point Powell had been working hard and trying to fit in, but had remained socially isolated; Ramsey was an equally scholarly young man, but also a member of the Austin Unitarian Youth Group. He began inviting Powell to some of the group’s social functions and parties.
Unlikely as it may seem, Austin’s Unitarian Youth Group were considered by some to be the hip kids in town. They were young intellectuals and aesthetes with strongly held left-wing beliefs, the sons and daughters of liberal Democrats and veterans of the Labor Movement who had been brought up to believe in peace, social justice and equality. They also held a passion for art and music, and folk music in particular.
At the very beginning of the 1960s the folk music revival, which would soon claim Bob Dylan as its Messiah and then its Judas, was in full hootenanny swing. It had yet to really penetrate the mainstream however, and remained largely the preserve of the socially-concerned, college-educated elite. While their younger brothers and sisters were listening to Elvis Presley, Little Richard and Buddy Holly, these liberal folkniks upheld a sometimes spurious but always well-meant cult of authenticity, and sought out the unsung originators of the blues and folk music the more celebrated rock n’ rollers expanded upon, or commercially exploited and diluted, depending on your point of view. The more committed and thoughtful would also risk their educations, careers and in many cases their lives to support the African-American struggle for equal rights, as well as workers’ rights and the peace movement. They spoke out against the spiraling nuclear arms race, were environmentally concerned, and were generally the originators of what would become known as the 1960s counter-culture. For these young people folk music was inextricably bound up with notions of political struggle and the voices of oppressed people around the world, and Texas and the other southern states were on the front-line of the battle for Civil Rights. Though already an instinctive egalitarian, Powell was relieved of much of his small-town naivety by the Unitarians and their liberal allies.
“These people showed me a lot about life, and the way things work in the real world,” he recalled to the website It’s Psychedelic Baby in 2011. “Whereas a year before I had been a spit and polish ROTC cadet passing in review every Thursday, I was now marching in a protest line trying to bring racial integration to the movie houses just across the street from the UT campus.” As a result of the protests, the State and Paramount movie theaters both agreed to integrate in September 1961, and University housing was finally integrated in 1964. However, as late as the fall of 1963 Austin’s 24,413 African-American residents were still barred from over half of the city’s white-owned restaurants, hotels, motels, business schools and bowling alleys, and discrimination in housing and employment was sadly commonplace.
Simultaneous with Powell’s political awakening was his introduction to folk music. Ramsey Wiggins’ teenage younger brother, Lanny, was an accomplished singer, guitarist and banjo player, who scoffed when Powell told him that he didn’t know any folk songs. “Do you know The Ballad of Jesse James?” he asked, almost rhetorically as the song was a part of most every Texan childhood. “Sure,” said Powell, for whom it also held a special personal resonance, as he was brought up with the cherished and oft-repeated legend that his family was actually related to the famous outlaw. “Well, that’s folk music,” Lanny replied, and began playing the song, encouraging Powell to join in on harmonica. Powell had found his métier, and the two became a folk duo: the Waller Creek Boys.
The Waller Creek Boys were named after an urban watershed that meanders through downtown Austin and makes its way towards the university, becoming an area of shady, wooded parkland where students would traditionally gather to relax before or after classes. In 1969 it would be the scene of violent confrontation between student protesters and the authorities, when 40 trees were cut down to make way for an expansion of the University Football Stadium, and later fell into disrepair. In 1961 however the name still evoked a laid-back, urban-pastoral vibe, and associated the duo with a particular social scene among the students.
The Waller Creek Boys performed at student parties, summer picnics and anywhere that people were prepared to listen; one regular haunt was the weekly Folk Sing held every Wednesday evening in the UT Student Union, organized by Stephanie Chernikowski. Starting in early 1962, this was an informal gathering where anyone could get up and sing or play a song to their peers. Though small and unambitious to begin with, the Folk Sing would prove a vital cultural catalyst, and as the folk scene became increasingly hip and received attention in the mainstream press attendance snowballed. Starting with an initial group of a dozen or so amateur musicians, at its peak the Folk Sing would see nearly a hundred music fans and general non-conformists, including many younger kids who were members of the Folk Music Club at Austin High School, crammed into the student cafeteria, known as the Chuck Wagon. A more selective and low-key hangout was the backyard of a rundown apartment complex where a number of older artists, musicians and leftover beatniks lived, a building that Powell soon nicknamed the Ghetto.
The Ghetto was former officers’ quarters, built during World War II and, like many such buildings, sold to the public once the war was over. A two story structure that had been converted into apartments, it was located at the end of a gravel drive somewhat off the street and behind another house, hence its unconventional address: 2812 ½ Nueces Street. Through the late fifties and into the sixties, this building was home to a collection of poets, writers and artists who made up Austin’s somewhat belated Beat Generation.
“Let me stress, these were not sumptuous accommodations,” says Powell, who says that when he later moved into the building he paid sixty dollars a month, utilities included; cheap even for 1962 (other accounts put the monthly rent as low as thirty dollars). Because of both the low rent and the privacy afforded by being off the street, the building attracted individuals from throughout Austin’s small but active bohemian community, and a younger crowd soon moved in as the beats moved on. It also became a place where like-minded spirits knew they could hang out and socialize without being threatened or ostracized by the straight majority.
“It was an island of hipness in a sea of conformity,” Powell remembers. “Being poor and feeling marginalized and under-appreciated by the dominant paradigm, we tended to hang together, fearing that if we didn’t we would hang separately. For that reason the place was called the Ghetto, in reference to the Warsaw Ghetto where another group of people had been brutalized.”
Though the Austin authorities were convinced that the Ghetto was a viper’s nest of subversive intentions, in reality it was just a rundown party space, where individuals of a liberal and pacifist bent would gather to drink beer and play music. There were two apartments on the ground floor and three above, one of which was a small studio apartment over a garage. This was taken by the first of Powell’s circle to move into the building, long before he gave it its distinctive nickname; a musician named John Clay.
Though not widely known, Clay was a hugely influential figure in the early Austin music scene. A singer-songwriter and banjo player, he was often known as John the Dishwasher, from his job at a North Austin coffee house. Long and lean with close-cropped blonde hair, Clay was also a Linguistics student and a familiar sight around the UT campus, always dressed in blue jeans and a white t-shirt (before such a look became the unremarkable norm) and carrying a banjo.
“The first time I became aware of John was one day when I was in line at the cafeteria in the UT Student Union,” Powell recalls. “A rather unusual individual was in line behind me, pushing a food tray with one hand and clutching a banjo with the other. It was early for dinner and some of the dinner offerings had not yet emerged from the kitchen. As we approached the cashiers’ station and I was paying for my food this person leaned over and addressed the lady taking the money. Stabbing with his finger, gesticulating and struggling to form his question and get the words out he said, ‘How, how, how long for the hamburger?’ That was my first experience of John Clay.”
Clay’s stammer mirrored a corresponding lack of physical co-ordination, which hampered his banjo playing and made many see him as a gawky clown. The banjo was not taken seriously as an instrument anyway, unless one could play with showboating, rapid-fire dexterity like Earl Scruggs. “Many times when he would attempt to play a song he would get into it about halfway then make a mistake and stop,” Powell remembers of Clay. “He would then start the song again from the beginning. As one can imagine, this made it very frustrating for an audience to listen to John’s performances.”
Clay’s major gift though was as a narrative poet and songwriter, capable of crafting song lyrics that were by turns droll and amusing or thoughtful and sensitive. Many told long stories packed with historic and social detail. “I credit two individuals with giving me the idea that I could write songs,” Powell states; “John Clay and Bob Dylan.”
Dylan of course was in the ascendant nationally, his first few albums proving that it was possible to write new songs within the folk tradition, and with a unique individual voice that seemed both ancient and modern. But Clay was proof that one could be a songwriter closer to home too. “He was much further along in his study of traditional music than I was, and his study was more detailed,” Powell admits. But nevertheless, Clay’s songwriting was something that Powell could aspire to, and soon Powell’s own original compositions began appearing in the Waller Creek Boys’ sets, alongside Lanny Wiggins’ vast store of traditional material.
Alongside the Civil Rights crowd, the art students and the folk music aficionados, another group that contributed to the small but lively counter-culture in Austin at this time was centered on the alternative student magazine, the Texas Ranger. In stark contrast to the straight-laced official campus newspaper, The Daily Texan, the Texas Ranger was satirical and irreverent in its intent, and was renowned beyond the university campus, winning several national awards for best college humor magazine. The unpaid staff and hangers-on around the magazine were a hip and hard-drinking bunch who styled themselves ‘the Rangeroos,’ and included some of the future founders of the 1960s underground comix phenomenon. Artist Jack Jackson (AKA Jaxon) and writer Dave Moriarty shared an apartment above Powell St John at the Ghetto, and from 1962 the Texas Ranger was edited by a rangy 22-year-old graduate student and cartoonist named Gilbert Shelton. Shelton’s most important contribution to the magazine was the ground-breaking superhero parody Wonder Wart-Hog, which began that year and would soon gain fame and notoriety around the world. The strip’s vicious parodies and deconstructions of everything crew-cut America held to be right and true, along with its visceral, grungy and apparently careless art style, set the tone not only for the tiny Austin underground but for the wave of street hippy and even punk culture to come.
These people were the natural audience for the Waller Creek Boys, an anti-establishment, post- beatnik social circle that valued honesty and authenticity above all else, and were quick to ridicule anything that reeked of humbug, pretension or hypocrisy. They were angry about injustice, in love with art and music, and in unqualified revolt against the bland, status-seeking conformity they’d been all but smothered by all their lives. But although they had the attitude down, the Waller Creek Boys were nothing particularly special musically, as Powell would be the first to admit. All this would change however when they recruited a new singer; a first year UT student by the name of Janis Joplin.
This is an extract from the introduction of Starry Speculative Corpse: Horror of Philosophy Vol 2 by Eugene Thacker. It is the second part of a 3-book series, which began with In the Dust of This Planet (Zer0, 2011) and will continue with Tentacles Longer Than Night.
Vol 2 & 3 will both be published by Zer0 on 24th April 2015 – TS
Descartes’ Demon. Sometime around 1639, René Descartes sat down at his desk to write. At issue for him was a simple question concerning knowledge. Philosophy, theology, mathematics, astronomy, medicine, the arts, and the natural sciences all claim to know things. From them a cumulative understanding of the self, of others, of the world, and of the cosmos is made possible. But how do we know that what we know is actually true? What is the foundation on which these disparate fields of knowledge are based? Are there questions that cannot – or should not – be asked, lest they undermine the knowledge they are designed to produce? How much uncertainty is tolerated before knowledge becomes doubt, and when does doubt come to a stop, if ever?
An abyss opens up. For Descartes this was a personal as well as a philosophical problem. As he writes, “Some years ago I noticed how many false things I had accepted as true in my childhood, and how doubtful were the things that I subsequently built on them and therefore that, once in a lifetime, everything should be completely overturned and I should begin again from the most basic foundations…”
Being the astute thinker that he was, Descartes set out a method for addressing this problem. The task was, as he notes, ambitious, and Descartes writes that he had been waiting for a “mature age” at which to undertake this project. Whether the age of forty-three was the right age or not is hard to say. He felt he had been waiting long enough, even too long, and so, Descartes writes, “today I appropriately cleared my mind of all cares and arranged for myself some time free from interruption. I am alone and, at long last, I will devote myself seriously and freely to this general overturning of my beliefs.”
The result of these exercises in skepticism are well known to students of philosophy, and, when The Meditations on First Philosophy were published in Paris in 1641, they immediately attracted a whole range of responses, not least of all from the ongoing debates over the relationship between philosophy and theology, reason and faith.
Descartes’ most lasting application of his methodological doubt comes in the first of his meditations, where he considers how our senses deceive us. Dreams, hallucinations, painting, and other examples are discussed as instances in which we think we know something based on sensory evidence, and are in fact deceived. But at least in these instances we can learn, from experience, to distinguish dream from reality, and the image from the thing itself. Our senses are reliable, if used properly.
But Descartes pushes his doubt even further. What if our senses are, by definition, deceptive? What if deception is, as it were, hard-wired into our very modes of being? Descartes raises this question through a kind of thought experiment:
Therefore, I will suppose that, not God who is the source of truth but some evil mind, who is all powerful and cunning, has devoted all their energies to deceiving me. I will imagine that the sky, air, earth, colours, shapes, sounds and everything external to me are nothing more than the creatures of dream by means of which an evil spirit entraps my credulity. I shall imagine myself as if I had no hands, no eyes, no flesh, no blood, no senses at all, but as if my beliefs in all these things were false.3
Another abyss opens. Often dubbed the “evil demon” or “evil genius,” here we see Descartes pushing his doubt to an extreme point, a point at which no knowledge is possible because nothing is for certain. One thought is as good or as bad as another, every- thing relative, arbitrary, haphazard, pointless. Subject to continual deception, prey to the cunning of unknown entities, dismembered and insubstantial, Descartes has let himself to stand on the precipice of philosophy and peer over the edge. And what he finds there is a terrifying abyss, where there is neither certitude nor knowledge, nor even a single thought – just a tenebrous, impassive silence.
“But this is a tiring project and a kind of laziness brings me back to what is more habitual in my life.” Can we blame Descartes for stepping back from the precipice? Thinking is hard work, yes, but the negation of all thought is, perhaps, harder. What Descartes inadvertently discovers is at once the ground and the greatest threat to philosophy, the question that cannot be asked without undermining the idea of philosophy itself.
Traditionally, the Socratic tradition in philosophy has a thera- peutic function, which is to dispel the horrors of the unknown through reasoned argument. What cannot be tolerated in this tradition is the possibility of a world that cannot be known, or a world that is indifferent to our elaborate knowledge-producing schemes. Descartes’ Meditations begin – and end – in this mode. But along the way there are gaps, fissures, and lacunae in the philosophical edifice. With the evil demon Descartes stumbles upon a horror intrinsic to philosophy: the thought that philosophy cannot think without undermining and annulling itself. In order to continue its work, philosophy must ignore it, or gloss it over, or skip it altogether.
And so, in the following meditation, a foundation is provided by Descartes, in his famous formulation cogito ergo sum: “…let him deceive me as much as he wishes, he will never bring it about that I am nothing as long as I think I am something. Thus, having weighed up everything adequately, it must finally be state that this proposition ‘I am, I exist’ is necessarily true whenever it is stated by me or conceived in my mind.”4 From this flows an entire legacy of philosophical thinking, in terms of Cartesian space, Cartesian dualism, and the privileging of human consciousness over all other forms of being. But it is not so easy to shake Descartes’ demon, which continues to haunt his philosophical treatise to the end. It is always there, threatening to undermine whatever conceptual edifice Descartes has constructed. Better to not deal with it at all – and continue philosophizing. Descartes even confesses: “I am like a prisoner who happens to enjoy an imaginary freedom in his dreams and who subsequently begins to suspect that he is asleep and, afraid of being awakened, conspires silently with his agreeable illusions.”5
Kant’s Depression. On the 12th of February, 1804, Immanuel Kant lay on his deathbed. “His eye was rigid, and his face and lips became discoloured by a cadaverous pallor.”6 A few days following his death, his head was shaved, and “a plaster cast was taken, not a mask merely, but a cast of the whole head, designed to enrich the craniological collection of Dr. Gall,” a local physician. The corpse of Kant was made up and dressed appro- priately, and, according to some accounts, throngs of visitors came day and night. “Everybody was anxious to avail himself of the last opportunity he would have for entitling himself to say, ‘I too have seen Kant.’”7 Their impressions seemed to be at once reverent and grotesque. “Great was the astonishment of all people at the meagreness of Kant’s appearance; and it was universally agreed that a corpse so wasted and fleshless had never been beheld.”8 Accompanied by the church bells of Königsberg, Kant’s corpse was carried from his home by torch- light, to a candle-lit cathedral, whose Gothic arches and spires were perhaps reminiscent of the philosopher’s elaborate, vaulted books.
In his book A Short History of Decay, E.M. Cioran once wrote: “I turned away from philosophy when it became impossible to discover in Kant any human weakness, any authentic accent of melancholy, in Kant and in all the philosophers.”9 Indeed, for many, the name of Immanuel Kant has become synonymous with a certain type of elaborate, grand, system-building philosophy that characterizes works such as The Critique of Pure Reason, first published in 1781. Indeed, so decisive was the impact of Kant’s later, “critical” philosophy that textbooks on the history of philosophy often refer to philosophy before Kant and “post- Kantian philosophy.” The significance of Kant’s philosophy is, however, counter-balanced by its notorious difficulty. Reading through the table of contents alone, with its dazzling and labyrinthine array of sections, sub-sections, and sub-sub- sections, is a task in and of itself. Nevertheless, if Kant’s philosophy achieved one thing, it was a renewed optimism in philosophy, much in line with Enlightenment ideals concerning the advantages of secular reason and the “maturing” of humanity as a whole. Reading through Kant’s works, with their patient and rigorous divisions and sub-divisions, there is a sense of philosophy as an all-encompassing, totalizing endeavor. Philosophy, in its Kantian modes, knows everything – it even knows what it doesn’t know.
That Kant suffered from depression may come as a surprise, especially given the ambition of his philosophical books and the enthusiasm of his wide-ranging intellectual interests (his lecture courses cover everything from philosophical logic to anthro- pology to chemistry to predictions about the end of the world). But in 1798, in a letter to a colleague on the topic of “the art of prolonging human life,” Kant commented on his own struggle with depression. The comments are rare for Kant, both in the sense of being personal and in the way they serve as a confession of weakness. In typical fashion, Kant first defines depression as “the weakness of abandoning oneself despondently to general morbid feelings that have no definite object (and so making no attempt to master them by reason).”10 A thought without an object is a troubling thing in Kant’s philosophy; it can lead to endless train of fickle thoughts without any ground, similar to the speculative debates in Kant’s time over the existence of God, the origin of the universe, or the existence of a soul. Reason becomes employed for no reason – or at least, for no good reason. At issue for Kant is not just the employment of reason over faith or imagination, but the instrumental use of reason – reason mastering itself, including its own limitations. This was as much the case for everyday thought as it was for philosophical thinking: “The opposite of the mind’s self-mastery… is faint- hearted brooding about the ills that could befall one, and that one would not be able to withstand if they should come.”11
And when the coherence of reason is threatened, so is philosophy. Or rather, so is the philosopher. A little later on, Kant offers this strange confession: “I myself have a natural dispo- sition to hypochrondria because of my flat and narrow chest, which leaves little room for the movement of the heart and lungs; and in my earlier years this disposition made me almost weary of life.”12
Elsewhere Kant drops hints of this depression. In the Critique of Judgement, for instance, he allows that “misanthropy” is preferable, and even has the character of the sublime: “Falsehood, ingratitude, injustice, the puerility of the ends which we ourselves look upon as great and momentous… these all so contradict the idea of what men might be if they only would, and are so at variance with our active wish to see them better, that, to avoid hating where one cannot love, it seems but a slight sacrifice to forego all the joys of fellowship with our kind.”13
But Kant does not give in so easily to this “pathology” of thought. Philosophy is the panacea. Kant distinguishes “philosophizing” from “philosophy,” though both play a therapeutic role in reason’s self-mastery. Philosophizing, for Kant, “does not involve being a philosopher,” but instead “is a means of warding off many disagreeable feelings and, besides, a stimulant to the mind that introduces an interest into its occupations.”14 At another level, there is “philosophy” proper, “whose interest is the entire final end of reason (an absolute unity),” and which “brings with it a feeling of power which can well compensate to some degree for the physical weaknesses of old age by a rational estimation of life’s value.”15
This is all fine, from the critical distance of philosophical self- mastery. But things get a little more complicated when Kant discusses depression (in the same essay he also discusses boredom, diet, and sleep). What Kant doesn’t consider is that reason might actually be connected to depression, rather than stand as its opposite. What if depression – reason’s failure to achieve self-mastery – is not the failure of reason but instead the result of reason? What if human reason works “too well,” and brings us to conclusions that are anathema to the existence of human beings? What we would have is a “cold rationalism,” shoring up the anthropocentric conceits of the philosophical endeavor, showing us an anonymous, faceless world impervious to our hopes and desires. And, in spite of Kant’s life-long dedication to philosophy and the Enlightenment project, in several of his writings he allows himself to give voice to this cold rationalism. In his essay on Leibniz’s optimism he questions the rationale of an all-knowing God that is at once beneficent towards humanity but also allows human beings to destroy each other.16 And in his essay “The End of All Things” Kant not only questions humanity’s dominion over the world, but he also questions our presumption to know that – and if – the world will end at all: “But why do human beings expect an end to the world at all? And if this is conceded to them, why must it be a terrible end?”17
The implication in these and other comments by Kant is that reason and the “rational estimation of life’s value” may not have our own best interests in mind, and the self-mastery of reason may not coincide with the self-mastery of us as human beings (or, indeed, of the species as a whole). Philosophical reason taken to these lengths would not only make philosophy improbable (for how could one have philosophy without philosophers?), but also impractical (and what would be the use of such a “depressive reason”?). What Kant refers to as depression is simply this stark realization: that thought is only incidentally human. It would take a later generation of philosophers to derive the conclusion of this: that thought thinks us, not the reverse.
Legend has it that Kant’s final word on his deathbed was “enough” (genug).18 The aged peripatetic philosopher of Köningsberg let out a word that was also a sigh, and depressive reason seems to have had the final say.19
Nietzsche’s Laughter. Nothing is more indicative of human culture than the obsessiveness with which it has depicted its own planet. When the Earth was decentered from the universe by Copernican astronomy, this was more than compensated for by the innumerable images of the Earth produced over the years by artists and scientists alike. The Earth was, and is, in many ways, still at the center of things. In this sense, the first televised images of the Earth can no doubt be regarded as the pinnacle of a species solipsism, one that has its underside in the many computerized film images of a disaster-worn, zombie-ridden, apocalyptic landscape. We are so fixated on the Earth – that is, on ourselves – that we would rather have a ruined Earth than no Earth at all.
Astronauts often refer to their first view of Earth as the “overview effect,” suggesting that the view of the Earth from space produces a shift in consciousness – that we as human beings are not separate from the planet on which we live. The general message is that of sublime wonder and unity: national boundaries disappear, and over its surface the planet reveals strange, luminous patterns of color, cloud, and light (otherwise known as cities, smog, and the electrical grid). Thanks to digital technology the overview effect can now be an everyday experience.
However, in its appeal for a planetary consciousness, the overview effect tends to reveal something different – the indifference of the planet vis-à-vis our repeated attempts to render it meaningful. It is in this context that one is reminded of Nietzsche’s oft-quoted passage from “On Truth and Lie in an Extra-Moral Sense”:
In some remote corner of the universe, poured out and glittering in innumerable solar systems, there once was a star on which clever animals invented knowledge. That was the haughtiest and most mendacious minute of “world history” – yet only a minute. After nature had drawn a few breaths the star grew cold, and the clever animals had to die.20
Here Nietzsche gives us a different take on the “overview effect.” In this version, we have never been one with the planet, nor does the planet require our cleverness and technical ingenuity to save it – from ourselves. It is tempting to imagine Nietzsche himself as a present-day astronaut, going up into space, turning back and seeing the Earth, and noticing the contrast between the indif- ferent, glittering planet and the equal indifference of the busy and clever animals on its surface. No doubt Nietzsche’s ill-health would mean that he would fail to complete the astronaut training. And so he would settle for writing it down.
But Nietzsche’s capacity for undermining the human is perhaps needed now more than ever. On the one hand, we who are still on the Earth’s surface cannot escape an awareness of the impact of climate change, beset as we are by disasters that increasingly refuse the distinction between the natural and human-made. On the other hand, the process of recuperating the planet for us as human beings continues unabated. Whether we can “save” the planet is one question – whether the planet needs saving is another.
Nietzsche encapsulated this dilemma in the title of his third published book: Human, All Too Human, a book that captures the polyphony of voices in Nietzsche’s writing – by turns sarcastic, enthusiastic, naive, spiteful, meditative, joyful.21 For example, in the second volume of Human, All Too Human, Nietzsche gives us yet another, much more sardonic variant on the overview effect:
There would have to be creatures of more spirit than human beings, simply in order to savor the humor that lies in humans seeing themselves as the purpose of the whole existing world and in humanity being seriously satisfied only with the prospect of a world-mission. If a god did create the world, he created humans as god’s apes, as a continual cause for amusement in his all-too-lengthy eternity… Our uniqueness in the world! alas, it is too improbable a thing! The astronomers, who sometimes really are granted a field of vision detached from the earth, intimate that the drop of life in the world is without significance for the total character of the immense ocean of becoming and passing away… The ant in the forest perhaps imagines just as strongly that it is the goal and purpose for the existence of the forest when we in our imagination tie the downfall of humanity almost involuntarily to the downfall of the earth…22
As Nietzsche jibes, the strange endeavor of human thinking tends to eclipse the world, until we become so philosophically solip- sistic that even the non-human – by its very name – begins to look a lot like the human. Nietzsche caps off his rant with the following: “Even the most dispassionate astronomer can himself scarcely feel the earth without life in any other way than as the gleaming and floating gravesite of humanity.”23
But Nietzsche’s phrase Menschliches, Allzumenschliches has several meanings. Certainly it evokes a sense of disappointment – the “all too human” as less than human, as the failure to live up to the various standards, criteria, and values that we associate with being human. And, as Nietzsche repeatedly points out in his book, this itself has become a hallmark of the human. But the phrase also evokes a more critical sense of failing to challenge our most basic and habitual ways of thinking and living – including the questioning of those same criteria and values that demarcate the human from the non-human.
At the same time, Nietzsche’s invectives against humanity are outstripped only by his refusal to dispense with the term “human,” much less imagine a romantic, transcendent realm “beyond” the human – itself the height of humanist thinking. Nietzsche repeatedly affirms this notion of the human, all too human, even as he rails against it. Human beings are all too human not only because we fail to live up to the human – and what we assume it means to be human – but because we are merely human, only human, and in a way that refuses both the divine fiat of science as well as the natural history of religion’s chosen peoples. This is Nietzsche’s own, tragi-comic brand of humanism: that there is nothing special about the human.
When Nietzsche began writing Human, All Too Human around 1876, many changes were afoot – the thirty-two year old philol- ogist was forced to retire from his teaching post at the University of Basel due to a series of health issues, which included stomach problems, arthritis, migraines, nausea, vomiting, and rapidly deteriorating eyesight. He had also alienated himself from Wagner and his cultist circle, opting instead for the life of an itinerant scholar. Deciding to relocate to a better climate, he traveled to Sorrento, where he wrote the bulk of the first volume of Human, All Too Human. 1878 saw the publication of Human, All Too Human: A Book for Free Spirits, comprising some 600 aphorisms. Of the 1000 copies printed, only 120 sold – the remaining volumes were subsequently rebound together with the second volume for the 1886 edition.24 The following year another four hundred aphorisms would be published with the title Assorted Opinions and Maxims, and the year after that, another 350 aphorisms with the title The Wanderer and His Shadow. Writing in Ecce Homo some twelve years after its initial publi- cation, Nietzsche would characterize the book as “the monument of a crisis” and a “spiritual cure.”
The change in lifestyle was echoed in Nietzsche’s writing style as well. While in Sorrento, Nietzsche began writing in the brief, aphoristic style that would characterize some of his best-known works. But Nietzsche’s aphorisms are not of a single mold, and his turn to the short form manifests itself in different ways, from mini-essays in the vein of Montaigne to taut maxims reminiscent of La Rochefoucauld. We also get dialogues, parables, poetry, even jokes. Indeed, Human, All Too Human not only reflects Nietzsche’s experiment with style, but with reading as well. One anecdote has Nietzsche reading La Rochefoucauld’s Sentences et maximes on the train to Sorrento, but Nietzsche himself gives the detective in us a number of clues: in addition to scholarly works on Greek tragedy and philology, Nietzsche is reading Chamfort, Lichtenberg, Montaigne, Pascal, Vauvenargues, Voltaire (the dedicatee of the first edition of Human, All Too Human), and of course Schopenhauer, ever Nietzsche’s “educator” and paragon of misanthropic aphorisms.
Human, All Too Human is a master class in fragmentary writing, an exegesis on the virtues of the “incomplete thought,” as prescient today in our era of the “overview effect” as it was in Nietzsche’s era of Darwinism, the Industrial Revolution, and Spiritualism. It is no accident that such experiments in the incom- plete thought take as their subject the problem of the human. Above all, the phrase “human, all too human” signals the beginning of a trajectory that would reach across all of Nietzsche’s writings, and would continue into the rediscovery of his work by generations of twentieth-century philosophers and theorists. The “overview effect” rendered as the “gleaming and floating gravesite of humanity.”
Were Nietzsche writing today, he might very well regard the flora and fauna of contemporary philosophy (posthuman, transhuman, inhuman, non-human, and so on) as so many varieties of this impulse to redeem the human, through the back door, the side door, a trap door… But Nietzsche himself was not immune to such impulses. For every misanthropic statement there is a statement of almost ecstatic, almost embarrassing affir- mation, and for every impulse to start a project there is the equal impulse to abandon it. An entry from Nietzsche’s notebook in the fall of 1878 simply reads: “A novel. A volume of poetry. A history. A philology.” An entry from the summer of 1879, perhaps during a bout of illness, reads: “All I lack is a homunculus.” Another note, from the fall of 1879, reads: “I am thinking of having a long sleep.” In his notebook, Nietzsche puts the phrase itself in quotes, but does not give a reference.
Horror of Philosophy. When Descartes stumbles across his demon, he discovers a thought that potentially undermines his entire philosophical project. A dilemma presents itself. If Descartes accepts the demon as actual, he has remained true to his method of skeptical doubt – but then his project is futile, since there is no ground for his thoughts, and nothing can be known for certain. If Descartes rejects the demon, either by ignoring it or by glossing it over, he can carry on with his philosophy, but he has effectively abandoned the original impetus behind his philosophizing to begin with. And so philosophy becomes a kind of pantomime, the passing of time, wasted energy. Either way, it seems that philosophy has to confront the real possibility of its futility – and the equal possibility that one will never know for sure whether philosophy has been futile or not. This is the crux of the “horror of philosophy,” which we see in
Descartes’ demon, Kant’s depression, and Nietzsche’s wrestling with an indifferent cosmos. Put simply, it is the thought that undermines itself, in thought. Thought that stumbles over itself, at the edge of an abyss. That moment when the philosopher stumbles upon (Descartes), or cannot avoid (Kant), or actively confronts (Nietzsche) the very thing that undermines their activity as philosophers. Being philosophers, they cannot simply switch tracks, and opt for poetry or mathematics. So they continue the labor of philosophy, all the while under the tenebrous, impersonal gaze of the horror of philosophy.
Far from dismissing philosophy, I would argue that this makes philosophy interesting. Particularly if one “mis-reads” philosophy in this way. If we were to adopt a method, it might be this: read works of philosophy as if they were works of horror. Of course, this is not to ignore the differences between, say, the narrative fiction of Poe or Lovecraft and the analytic, discursive language of Plato or Kant. But, at the same time, we know that many philosophers make use of literary elements (Plato’s dialogues being a prime example, not to mention Augustine’s use of autobiography and Kierkegaard’s use of the parable). And we know that many of the classics of the horror genre, from Poe to Lovecraft to the “new weird” in fiction, are largely idea-driven stories and make extensive use of the discursive mode in their narration or dialogue. One imagines Descartes, the accidental necromancer, making hesitant pacts with demons; one imagines Kant, swaying before the looming abyss of a gothic maelstrom; one imagines Nietzsche, reveling in the fin-de-siècle extinction of the species and the attendant exhaustion of vampiric thought.
The proposition that governs this book, Starry Speculative Corpse, is that something interesting happens when one takes philosophy not as a heroic feat of explaining everything, but as the confrontation with this thought that undermines thought, this philosophy of futility. Certainly, there is a bit of tongue-in- cheek in this method of reading philosophy as if it were horror; and, like all methods, it is not to be taken too seriously. But the focus in the sections that follow will be on those moments when philosophy reveals the thought that undermines it as philosophy, when the philosopher confronts this thought that cannot be thought.
Admittedly, the title of this series of books – Horror of Philosophy – is a bit odd; in one sense, it is something of a joke. Anyone who has, as a student, been forced to read a philosopher like Kant (or worse, Hegel), has no doubt felt a certain horror of philosophy. The sheer heft of a book like The Critique of Pure Reason is intimidating in and of itself, never mind the pages upon pages of jargon-filled divisions and sub-divisions that make a mockery of any notion of “plain language” or “common sense.” Much of philosophy today prides itself on instilling this intel- lectual horror in the reader – it is too serious to be taken lightly, too full of gravitas to joke about, replete with relevance, rigor, authority. But this is not just limited to the obscure corners of academic philosophy; our public intellectuals and pop philoso- phers also leverage this intimidation factor in the guise of the know-it-all, the self-help guru, the philosopher as the person authorized to say something about everything, obliging us to stroke our collective beards in rehearsed gestures of profundity. As a reader, my reaction is something out of a B-horror movie – I recoil in terror.
But if the phrase “horror of philosophy” is a joke, it is because it simply reverses the phrase “philosophy of horror,” thereby pointing to a basic assumption we have about philosophy itself.25 A “philosophy of horror” implies a relation between philosophy and its object. Specifically, that philosophy will either explain its object (whereas in itself it is confusing), give meaning to its object (whereas in itself it lacks meaning), or render its object clear, apparent, and transparent (whereas in itself it is opaque and hidden). This applies to any formula of the type “philosophy of X” where X is philosophy’s object, an object that stands apart from philosophy, and because of this, can be analyzed, unpacked, and dissected. Today we not only have the philosophy of religion, the philosophy of nature, the philosophy of mathematics, and political, ethical, and moral philosophy, but also the philosophy of cognition, the philosophy of technology – even the philosophy of… philosophy (that is, meta-philosophy).
Questions arise. Is philosophy’s object always separate from it? What happens when the critical distance of philosophy collapses? Does philosophy really have the ability to explain everything? Is philosophy’s specialization its universality? And if philosophy can’t explain everything, how would we know this, and what language would be appropriate for expressing it? At what point does a philosophy of futility become indistinguishable from the futility of philosophy?
The three volumes of the series aim to take up these questions in different ways, using different forms borrowed from the history of philosophy. The first volume – In the Dust of This Planet – introduces the general themes, particularly regarding the limits of the human and the idea of the “world-without-us.” This volume – Starry Speculative Corpse – aims to, as I’ve said, read philosophy as if it were horror, while the third volume – Tentacles Longer Than Night – aims to do the reverse, to read works of the horror genre as if they were works of philosophy.
Starry Speculative Corpse is published by Zer0 on 24th April 2015.
As a big fan of both Bowie and Chris O’Leary, it was as hard to select an extract from Rebel Rebel as it is to choose a favourite Bowie song; each song is covered in a self-contained entry, and they’re all fascinating.
In the end I chose a series of 3 posts which make chronological/conceptual sense, and shed entertaining light on Bowie’s complicated relationship with late ‘60s hippy culture. Also contains The Prettiest Star, which is far from his best track but which, for sentimental reasons, remains one of my all-time favourites.
Rebel Rebel (Zer0, 2015) is out on March 27th, there’s a list of stockists here.
Recorded: (demo, “Lover to the Dawn,” unreleased) ca. mid-April 1969, 24 Foxgrove Road. Bowie: 12-string acoustic guitar, harmony vocal; Hutchinson: lead vocal, acoustic guitar; (album) ca. late August-early September 1969, Trident. Bowie: lead vocal; Christmas: 12-string acoustic guitar; Wayne: lead guitar; Renwick: rhythm guitar; Wakeman: electric harpsichord; Lodge: bass; Cambridge: drums. Produced: Visconti; engineered: Sheffield, Scott or Toft.
First release: 14 November 1969, Space Oddity. Broadcast: 5 February 1970, The Sunday Show. Live: 1969-70.
“Cygnet Committee” was, consecutively, a break-up letter to a communal arts center Bowie co-founded, a scattershot attack on the counterculture and a desperate self-affirmation. Deep in this gnomic, nearly ten-minute screed was a struggle to find a workable design for the years ahead, Bowie pledging himself to a life of creative destruction while keeping clear of professional revolutionaries. It was the sound of Bowie willing himself to become a stronger artist, hollowing himself out to let a greater creative force, for good or ill, take hold in him. The possession took. In fleeting moments, you can hear the apocalyptic, utopian voice of “Five Years” and “Sweet Thing,” of “Station to Station” and “‘Heroes.’” The man who was able to write those songs had to go through the crucible of “Cygnet Committee” first.