Monday, 14 July 2008

Irony, it's sort of like goldy and bronzy

There's a somewhat asinine debate not quite raging in the comments on this article about the New Yorker's Obama fistbump cover over whether Americans are culturally capable of understanding irony, versus the British who of course see the humour, darling.

I don't think it's as clear cut as that. There are of course dozens of Americans who are quite capable of understanding irony, possibly more, just as one finds the occasional Englishman who does not wear a bowler hat and drink tea while enjoying a multivarious sampling of modern wit. More to the point, the distinction has to do with who's "in charge" from a cultural point of view. It may have to do with the fact that the U.S. is still, on the whole, a much more religiously charged society than the U.K., or that we haven't had a true leftist as president for 30-odd years, but there is a backdrop of cultural conservatism that brings with it a sense that edgy humour (of whatever sort) is a fringe activity, not (as it is in England) a quasi-national pastime.

That's merely my own relatively naive opinion, but it was formed through continuous admonitions to avoid irony, sarcasm, &c. throughout my formative times in the California state school system. I can only wish for a day when these lost arts will be restored to the curriculum.

Monday, 7 July 2008

Bob Dylan, Paul Simon and Napoleon walk into a bar

(The bar says "ow", Dylan say "what", Napoleon says you can do what you want, but the next time you see me comin' you better run, or you might end up with a quite complex complex. Paul Simon says, able was I, ere I saw Elba, and whatcha doin' dragging Tom Lehrer into it anyway.)

The weird part is that Paul Simon has a brother who looks almost exactly like him. He came to our offices once when I was working for the McDonald's of the Web, frying up community sites, pre-2.0 style. He was pitching some sort of music label outreach site that seemed to have little to recommend it over the other thousand music label outreach sites that came and went in the late '90s. But the most amusing part was that every time he tried to come up with an example he would invariably pick something Paul Simon-related. The first time he did this I thought it was an ironic affectation, as he would even pause as if deep in thought, trying to come up with a musical example. "Let's say you wanted to find out more about an album," (strokes chin thoughtfully), "call it Graceland. You'd click on..." and so forth. By the end of the session the joke (if it was one -- I wasn't quite sure) had gotten pretty old. "Imagine you've got a track that plays here, call it, let's see, The Sound of Silence". "What you'd want to do here is show related artists, like, um, if you had Paul Simon, you'd show Simon & Garfunkel." He did seem to know a lot about Paul Simon, in a creepy, doppelganger kind of way. I considered asking him if he would fake Paul's autograph for me. In the end, I was sort of glad we didn't get the project.

Thursday, 3 July 2008

Insert some lyric here if appropriate

I always thought that as I got older, maybe I would understand. About Paul Simon, I mean. Here's a guy who starts off writing some dorky pop songs in the '50s of no real account, then goes to London for a while in his early twenties and comes back with a repertoire of amazing lyrics and music that completely transcends everything else in folk and popular music at the time.

When I was 14, my favorite band was Simon & Garfunkel. The Sound of Silence, Homeward Bound, America, Kathy's Song; lesser known ones like Bleecker Street, and some I didn't hear until much later, like A Church Is Burning and I Wish You Could Be Here. Then he writes a bunch more music after his return to folk-pop New York, most of which is decent to good, but very little that comes close to that brief cycle he wrote while in England.

And if you see him now the spark is gone. He plays his classics like a cover band at a bar, expensive karaoke. I saw him with Dylan at the Hollywood Bowl a few years back (snickering as I recalled the intense stage rivalry the two had in the '60s), but it was Bob who stole the show.

Maybe the biographies are right, and Kathy (of the eponymous Song) was his one and only muse. Their photo on the cover of "The Paul Simon Songbook" (the London album) shows a tenuous relationship, a love pervaded by distance. Maybe love at a distance was what inspired the songs. There are worse theories.

I still can't reconcile the Paul Simon that was, the Paul Simon that must have been, with the Paul Simon that remains. I suppose he's not the only old rocker you could say that of, but like so many of my musical heroes, they seem to burn brightly before I even have the chance to be part of whatever it is that they do. I think Paul Simon's a small piece of what brought me to London, some small hope that I could feel what he felt, or see what he saw. I think I realize now that that's not really possible, and it's freeing to simply appreciate what was, what happened, without trying to evoke its ghost from the cobblestones. I know I'm not explaining very well, but I hope that makes some kind of sense.

Tuesday, 1 July 2008

I wish I could write like Jack Spicer

This was in Harper's this month (which I admit to a tendency to buy every time I have to travel to the U.S., and whilst I'm annoyed I'll be seen as one of those people who reads Harper's, it's still pretty much the best generally available magazine on the rack), and, for want of a more articulate description, it kicks all the ass in the world.

The city of Boston is filled with frogheaded flies and British policeman. The other day I saw the corpse of Emily Dickinson floating up the Charles River.

Sweet God, it is lonely to be dead. Sweet God, is there any god to worship? God stands in Boston like a public statue. Sweet God, is there any God to swear love by? Or love--it is lonely, is lonely, is lonely to be lonely in Boston.

Now Emily Dickinson is floating down the Charles River like an Indian princess. Now naked savages are climbing out of all the graveyards. Now the Holy Ghost drips birdshit on the nose of God. Now the whole thing stops. Sweet God, poetry hates Boston.
(written ~ 1956)