September 29, 2012

It's 2012 and I'm going to my first Smashing Pumpkins concert

Tonight I will see the Smashing Pumpkins perform at Rexall Place in Edmonton, AB. They were my favourite band from grade 7 to the beginning of university. Over the last year I've been rediscovering their early material, thanks to a series of excellent reissues that collect rare b-sides, demos, and concert footage. It's the both the best and the worst time to be a loyal Pumpkins fan. While the band's legacy is being repackaged and canonized for a new generation of listeners, Billy Corgan's current version of the band has begun a cross-Canada tour to promote its new album Oceania. He's given some remarkably even-handed interviews lately, but shortly after Oceana's release, Billy had this to say about the whole reunion tour thing, which is decidedly not what he's doing:
There are those bands that are essentially coming back only to make money — playing their old albums, and maybe somewhere in the back of their minds they’re thinking there might be a future. I am not in that business, obviously. I condemn anybody who’s in that business but doesn’t admit [he's] in that business. When Soundgarden came back and they just played their old songs, great. I was a fan of Soundgarden, but call it for what it is. They’re just out there to have one more round at the till; same with Pavement and these other bands.
Soundgarden has just announced an album of new material, and the dudes in Pavement never pretended that they weren't coming back to make money. Never mind that. Billy will always find someone to resent. He's had a rough go of it. When he released his one and only official solo album TheFutureEmbrace back in 2005, he also bought full page ads in the Chicago Sun-Times and the Chicago Tribune, where he revealed his desire to "renew and revive" the Smashing Pumpkins. Unsurprisingly, most of his former bandmates didn't take the bait. Jimmy Chamberlin, his former drummer, was the only ex-Pumpkin to answer the call. The immediate fruits of their lame reunion were displayed with pomp and grandeur on the epically bad Zeitgeist (2007), an album so forgettable that I'm just leave it there. Since then, Jimmy has abandoned ship and the group currently touring as the Smashing Pumpkins is about as far from resembling my favourite band as it's ever been. 

I became a Pumpkins fan during the last years of the 90s, and I was 12 years old when I finally got my hands on a tarnished copy of 1995's Melon Collie and the Infinite Sadness. Unfortunately, I was a few years too late to see the band peak (both in terms of coolness and commercial success). At the time of Melon Collie's release I was in grade 3 and thought that Sting's solo material was about as good as you could get. But I adapted quickly, and by 1998 I was ready for Adore (the album which, for most critics and fans, was the band's biggest misstep and the beginning of the end). Despite the fact that the Pumpkins quickly became my teenage obsession, I never managed to see the band perform live. Pretty tragic, I know. That's kind of how it goes when the closest city to your small town is Winnipeg (not exactly a regular stop for most arena rock tours) and all your friends have either moved on to nu-metal (see Korn, Limp Bizkit, Slipknot, etc.) or don't really listen to "secular" rock music in the first place.

So here I am at 26, finally able to see my favourite band in the flesh and, as to be expected, I'm feeling pretty ambivalent about it. Most serious Pumpkins fans who've stuck with the band this long recognize that it hasn't always been the Billy Corgan show. Meanwhile a lot of casual fans and critics consider the band's original lineup -- D'arcy Wretzky, James Iha, and Jimmy Chamberlin -- to be fairly inconsequential. When reviews for the new Smashing Pumpkins album, Oceania, started rolling in, many were quick to point out how similar it sounds to the early Pumpkins. Such critics are, of course, completely wrong. While Oceania is not the heavy mess of guitar sludge that Zeitgeist proved to be, it's still overloaded with gaudy guitar layering and Billy's vocals are still too polished. For some reason, this is all that some critics need to draw a comparison between Oceania and Siamese Dream. Blasphemy, I say! Still, this kind of comparison to the band's glory days is probably what Billy was going for with Oceania (incidentally, it was also what he was going for with Zeitgeist, but we'll do him a favour and forget about it), so I'm glad he's been able to read some positive reviews. 

I'm of the opinion that the original lineup was actually quite unique and had a larger role in the band's sound than Billy has always claimed. Jimmy has often been compared to a gorilla behind a drum kit, but he has jazz training and probably more natural finesse than any of the other major drummers from the alt-rock era. James and D'arcy were also crucial pieces in the Pumpkin puzzle (even though, as Billy famously claimed, they rarely played their own instruments on Pumpkins recordings). D'arcy sang on Gish and Melon Collie and James wrote half a dozen quality songs that mostly appear as b-sides (if they appear at all); but, even if they didn't contribute directly to the music, their presence significantly improved the band's overall aesthetic. They were both unquestionably cool; cool in a way that Billy never could be. I'm also tempted to think that they had some editorial input. Billy may have called the shots -- he may have done it his way from start to finish -- but part of me thinks that their mere presence was enough to force Billy to rethink some of those first impulses. 

Presently, Billy is in complete control of his band, each of its highly skilled members handpicked (most notably, his current drummer won a try-out, despite being only 19 years old at the time) and the latest results aren't great. His guitarist Jeff Schroeder seems like a good fit, but he'll never stare you down like James, and I doubt that he ever really departs from Billy's artistic vision. No surprise, then, that Oceania is a heavily compressed mess of aimless riffing and spiritual platitudes: better than Zeitgeist, but still not as good as the Zwan's Mary Star of the Sea (2003). Billy may be embarrassed about Zwan (his attempt to form a cool indie rock band after the Pumpkins broke up), which had its own clash of egos, despite their initial appearance as a happy family (members included Paz Lenchantin, David Pajo, and Matt Sweeney). Presently, however, any strife on stage or in the studio is pure Billy, and I think his most recent material is all the worse for it. The Pumpkins in 2012 are a homogenous blob.

You can imagine my disappointment when I heard that the setlist for the Oceania tour would be made up of the entire album (this is the only reason I've been listening to Oceania) and would close with five or six classic songs from the band's golden era. Of course, these selections will probably be tracks that I don't much care for -- Bullet with Butterfly Wings, Disarm, XYU, Today, etc.  But I'm trying to keep an open mind and remember that this is probably the closest I will ever come to seeing my old, favourite band live, even if its members look and sound nothing like the band that I spent the better half of my life obsessing over. 

What I won't be expecting is anything from Adore. It polarized fans and drove casual listeners away. By the time Billy tried to advance his band's heavily textured sound on Machina: The Machines of God (2000), most people had stopped caring. But with Adore, the band was heading in the right direction. They were maturing. The claim may not be quite as contentious as I imagine, but I've always considered Adore as part of a near-perfect artistic progression that Billy ended up rejecting part-way through. The album remains consistent with what came before it: it showcases Billy's inward gaze, but this time, we see it at its most precarious and damaged; and unlike Siamese Dream it doesn't fall back on the booming electric guitars or the cheap irony that was everywhere in the early 90s. Aesthetically, it's the band's most cohesive release, with sparse arrangements and even sparser packaging. No colour, no egos. Just a bunch of acoustic/electronic meditations on Sex and Death. 

This is what I won't be expecting to see at Rexall Place tonight. Instead, it's going to be a working through of resentment and delusion (a few days ago, it was announced that Smashing Pumpkins show in Vancouver had been cancelled, probably due to a lack of ticket sales). But I will be there, basking in pale glow of Billy Corgan's newly energized ego, wearing my Smashing Pumpkins tshirt from the Adore era, gritting my teeth and hoping that someone else in the audience notices my hardcore loyalty to the old, fragile ideal of the band as I first knew them: pretentious as hell, but challenging and beautiful.

September 25, 2012

Summer reading lite

White Noise by Don DeLillo
Like a lot of North American consumers, I've often found comfort in the sterile transcendence of the supermarket, with its white lights and rows of multicoloured commodities uniformly arranged. This summer, I finally managed to read a book that's been recommended to me by several friends and colleagues, Don DeLillo's White Noise. It features several memorable scenes that describe a similar kind of aesthetic experience.
Steffie took my hand and we walked past the fruit bins, an area that extended about forty-five yards along one wall. The bins were arranged diagonally and backed by mirrors that people accidentally punched when reaching for fruit in the upper rows. A voice in the loudspeaker said: "Kleenex Softique, your truck's blocking the entrance." Apples and lemons tumbled in twos and threes to the floor when someone took a fruit from certain places in the stacked array. There were six kinds of apples, there were exotic melons in several pastels. Everything seemed to be in season, sprayed, burnished, bright. People tore filmy bags off racks and tried to figure out which end opened. I realized the place was awash in noise. The toneless systems, the jangle and skid of carts, the loudspeaker and coffee-making machines, the cries of children. And over it all, or under it all, a dull and unlocatable roar, as of some form of swarming life just outside of human apprehension. (36)
The supermarket shelves have been rearranged. It happened one day without warning. There is agitation and panic in the aisles, dismay in the faces of older shoppers. […] They scrutinize the small print on packages, wary of a second level of betrayal. The men scan for stamped dates, the women for ingredients. Many have trouble making out the words. Smeared print, ghost images. In the altered shelves, the ambient roar, in the plain and heartless fact of their decline, they try to work their way through confusion. But in the end it doesn’t matter what they see or think they see. The terminals are equipped with holographic scanners, which decode the binary secret of every item, infallibly. This is the language of waves and radiation, or how the dead speak to the living. And this is where we wait together, regardless of our age, our carts stocked with brightly colored goods. A slowly moving line, satisfying, giving us time to glance at the tabloids in the racks. Everything we need that is not food or love is here in the tabloid racks. The tales of the supernatural and the extraterrestrial. The miracle vitamins, the cures for cancer, the remedies for obesity. The cults of the famous and the dead. (309-10)
Published in 1985, White Noise is a wonderfully angsty novel that articulates the kind of consumer malaise that, in the years to come, is going to become a cultural commonplace. I guess what I'm trying to say is that, here, DeLillo basically prophecies the kind of ideological tropes (especially the vaguely spiritual approach to store bought products--I guess you could just call it, commodity fetishism; as well as the obsession with meaning, pharmaceuticals, the paranormal, and ultimately with death) that I identify with authors like Douglas Coupland (whose Generation X now seems to me like it couldn't have happened without DeLillo) and David Foster Wallace.

But, yeah, also Radiohead.

I also decided to dive into the 33 1/3 series from Continuum. I wanted to prep myself for Jonathan Letham's mega-hyped contribution to the series (published in June), and to figure whether I had the chops to construct one of my own volumes.

Kid A by Marvin Lin
Lin's tribute to what remains my favourite Radiohead album was written by the founder of one of my favourite music websites, Tiny Mix Tapes. Some books in the series are more critical than others, and Lin's book tries to straddle the line between excessive fandom and cultural analysis.Theoretically speaking, the book is pretty hit and miss. But it succeeds in providing a lot of interesting contextual analysis for Kid A's release: the album was notoriously polarizing among critics and, for me at least, has always provided a helpful watershed moment (or, "event," as Lin calls it) for the digital age.

Fear of Music by Jonathan Letham
I wasn't familiar with Letham's style before picking up this book (I did, however, order his novel Fortress of Solitude immediately after finishing it), and I wasn't expecting Letham's writing to be so gutteral. It's definitely one of the most self-conscious books in the series, weaving in and out of personal recollections, meditating on each Talking Heads track, and attempting to articulate the weird relationship we construct with our past.
The punishing intensity we bring to the imperfect reflections we find in the mirror of artworks we choose to love, and our readiness to be betrayed by their failure to continue to match our next moves in the mime-show, our next steps in the dance, is likely a form of mercy. That, because it is a coping mechanism, a deflection of a punishing intensity we mostly wouldn't want -- except maybe once a week, on a shrink's couch -- to apply to ourselves. And any fan who has ever risked disappointment with their love, or any artist who has ever put themselves in the position to disappoint a fan, or a critic, if they are honest with themselves knows that the disappointment that ensues is above all a human situation. (140)

September 21, 2012

Summer reading projects, briefly noted

The Politics of Friendship by Jacques Derrida
My encounter with Derrida's meditation on the Western secret of friendship and the limits of fraternity was short-lived. Our study group only met a couple times, and only managed to get through the first four chapters; but those chapters provided much to talk about and did a perfect job of articulating one of the fundamental tensions running through the third chapter of my thesis. I managed to work the insight into one of my footnotes. It takes up Derrida's aphorism, "The friends of the perhaps are the friends of truth": 
Derrida’s reference to the “friends of truth” is taken from Nietzsche’s projections of a future audience in Beyond Good and Evil. In Politics of Friendship, Derrida reads Nietzsche’s faith in the “coming philosophers” in terms of the German philosopher’s qualifying “perhaps,” and explores the conditions of impossibility that Nietzsche identifies with the “common good.” Following England’s Restoration, Milton may have shared some Nietzsche’s sentiments, at least with respect to his audience. Derrida’s attempt to engage Nietzsche on friendship (which, for the philosopher depends on the “I” and, occasionally, a “we”—what amounts to a contradictory community of solitudes) is an attempt to “honour (faire droit) what appears impossible” in Nietzsche’s anticipations (36). This chapter addresses a similar impossibility in the audience of readers anticipated by Milton’s 1671 poems.
What's going on here, in other words, is a revaluation of the Western tradition of friendship, an attempt to demarcate the limits of this tradition, and the conditions that define friendship for philosophers like Aristotle, Carl Schmitt, and the aforementioned Nietzsche. While the politics of friendship might suggest otherwise (and this "otherwise" is what Derrida is trying to get at by emphasizing "perhaps" of friendship: it's openness to the impossible, to who or what is "to come"), our idea of friendship emerges from an old boys club, a collection of citations from men who are singled out by the philosophical tradition, and at best resembles an oligarchy. 

Middlemarch by George Eliot
I'm two thirds of the way through what many consider to be the quintessential Victorian novel and I'm actually enjoying most of it. I was pleasantly surprised to find plenty of allusions to Milton in the figure of Casauban, the sterile scholar and clergyman whose intellectual pursuit of the "highest things" has lured the young Dorothea into a miserable marriage. Eliot's prose is full of wit and insight. It's not odd for me to laugh out loud while I'm reading on my daily bus ride to campus. Dorothea, the first of our protagonists, begins by treating every inconsistency or hindrance with joyful acceptance and even compares her supportive relation to her dry-as-dust-husband, Casauban, to that of Milton's daughters to their father, reading aloud texts they don't understand solely for benefit of the blind poet. Luckily, the irony that Dorothea lacks in her own life is provided by the narrator, whose constant refrain "poor, poor Dorthea" is enough to keep the reader mindful of her naive brand of saintliness. Of course, Dorothea doesn't suffer in isolation. As one would expect, Middlemarch boasts a typically large cast of characters, but the novel weaves through their various threads at a pretty manageable pace. (In other words, I'm much less confused that I thought I'd be.) In Eliot's hands, they're all brilliantly flawed, from the vain artist (Will Ladislaw) and the amoral doctor (Lydgate) to the pathetic student (Fred Vincy), who finds it nearly impossible to do anything on his own. I'll probably follow up on this one when I'm finally finished all 800 of its pages.

Marxist Feminism (reading group)
Orchestrated under the auspices of the Edmonton Free School, this group has been at work reading through texts that can be loosely grouped by their approach to the topic of gender and sexual relations more broadly. We began with Engels' Origin of the Family, and moved to some more recent interventions, such as Nina Power's One Dimensional Woman, Silvia Federici's Caliban and the Witch, and, most recently, a pair of essays from the 2011 anthology Communization and its Discontents (Ed. Benjamin Noys). Each text marks an attempt to engage sexual relations, not as a stable arrangement or simple binary, but from the vantage point of historical materialism; that is, as a site of social and economic reproduction. The theme of reproduction is obviously central to any understanding of sex and economics, and is reflected in the double sense of the term: as a biological effect--to reproduce the labouring class--and as the social function of the domestic realm--to sustain/care for such workers, such that they can continue to labour. For Della Costa and James, class exploitation is built upon the exploitation of women and their respective emancipation must therefore be thought together--thus, the famous call of "wages for housework" is, as Federici argues, a demand that must be made so that it can be rejected along with the role of the housewife.
We want and have to say that we are all housewives, we are all prostitutes and we are all gay, because until we recognise our slavery we cannot recognise our struggle against it, because as long as we think we are something better, something different than a housewife, we accept the logic of the master, which is a logic of division, and for us the logic of slavery. We are all housewives because no matter where we are they can always count on more work from us, more fear on our side to put forward our demands, and less pressure on them for money, since hopefully our minds are directed elsewhere, to that man in our present or our future who will “take care of us” (from "Wages Against Housework").

September 7, 2012

update & book review

A brief update: I passed my thesis defense with relative ease and have begun a program in design studies and illustration. The blog will, of course, continue in some form or another.

In other news, I've had a book review published for a web-based comparative literature journal that's being run out of the U of A. The theme of this issue is "Literary Violence." Here's a link to the review: Visionary Milton: Essays on Prophecy and Violence.