I visit the gym a few times a year, more out of a perversity of spirit than out of an abiding interest in keeping my incipient dad bod in check. From time to time, the gym pipes in what my fellow silverbacks and I refer to as good music; I’ve heard the New York Dolls, Roxy Music, Bowie, T. Rex and Tears For Fears in a row (as well as various tracks from the Rocky sound track that will apparently never be retired from gym radio). When it’s a bit more modern, it seems that I simply zone out.
The quote “There are no second acts in American life,” from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Hollywood novel The Last Tycoon, may as well have served as his epitaph. He died before seeing the novel published, and though it long ago disappeared behind the shadow of The Great Gatsby, this little piece of it has been adopted as the de facto motto of American arts and letters, "There are no second acts..."
It has a fatalistic charm, and it certainly bounces around in the mind like a flea, unwilling to be extinguished easily. Furthermore, it has the virtue of being both ageist and defeatist, a sure-fire impedance to long-term planning. Yet it isn't exactly true. This being an election year, with its own built-in horrors, I'll try not to smear it too thick. Suffice it to say, the historical record for individuals is typically written to scale, thus early success, early failure, followed by continuing degradation...occasionally leavened by some success, small or large. Among the more famous instances: Gertrude Stein, Frank Sinatra, Iggy Pop, Gore Vidal, Audrey Hepburn.
Vladislav Surkov, the purported “Gray Cardinal” of the Kremlin, game theorist to the oligarchs of New Russia, Putin’s Rasputin, on the occasion of being sanctioned by the U.S. government, declared, “The only things that interest me in the U.S. are Tupac Shakur, Allen Ginsberg and Jackson Pollock. I don't need a visa to access their work. I lose nothing."
Think what you will of Surkov, or Putin even, but the U.S. is too invested in the Russians not to take heed. The most cartoonishly nefarious of Russians are extracting our essence, free of charge, sort of like the Republican Party, even as the rest of us seem to be dreaming backwards, preoccupied with reruns and reboots, debating their tastes in fast-food franchises, and collecting red-white-and-blue vinyl pressings of theForrest Gump
Or so it would seem. The recent run of tiny unlicensed boutique venues that catered to Houston’s underground art and music culture that flared up a few years ago has largely flickered out. Rents rise. Cops get called. People burn out on entertaining yokels in their living rooms every night. Transco disappeared overnight. Civic TV Collective shuttered about six months ago. Black Barbie closed shop a few weeks ago. Likewise, the rest of them met premature oblivion.
I’m all for the stalwarts, such as they are, even the places with the beer lights, but these smaller joints are also necessary places. Sports metaphors aren’t always well-matched to other endeavors. Music, despite what you may read, isn't a hierarchy of winners and losers, nor is it quantifiable. Small types of venues aren’t farm leagues. They pop up from time to time from place to place, and give rise to all sorts of new beasts. They write their own commendations, naming new streets and gardens after newly designated persons of merit.
The social groups they fostered are now loose on the streets, huffing Scotchgard, Tokyo drifting, buffing out tags for the city. The bands will survive, bands always do, but the warmth may not. The bands will move on across the wasteland, like animals fleeing a drought on the savanna on a National Geographic documentary. And like those drifting packs, they’ll be less fruitful, for a time at least.
But new construction projects continue, citywide. What are we building? For whom? The new Houston built for oil-exploration execs and fracking debutantes seems to be twitching in and out of being, like Marty McFly’s hand faking Johnny B Goode. The new Houston will now stand on top of the razed Houston like one of those invented Chinese cities, up-to-date and utterly depopulated. As the proverb has it, the flesh is willing but the spirit is weak.
As I was saying, whilst wheezing my way around the track at the "Y" the other day, I found myself thinking about metaphysical circularity and other extrapolations of the illusion that events or attitudes that the mind organizes in elliptical patterns are in fact historical recurrences. Blame SXSW. Blame the resurgence of grunge and emo-rock. Blame the art market, or high-waisted pants.
Anyhow, such horses as these dragged me to wonder the following: What if, after death, instead of simply snuffing out into oblivion, which is the most gentle, reasonable prospect before us, what if we persisted in being, as beings without bodies, just compressed frequencies of anger and our other compulsions, flying back and forth across an astral plane at horrible speeds, circumscribed only by the extent of the repetitive thoughts and activities that form the routines and restricted behaviors of our corporeal lives?
Nevertheless, as I continued my jog, my endorphins kicked in, switched up some tracks in my brain and the nightmare subsided. Even if the physical track upon which I was running remains a loop (and it doesn’t really, if you wanna get into any degree of detail, each time that orbit is traveled the carpet tears somewhat, the lights flicker in sympathy, the metal rails yearn to rust), our body changes and our mind follows suit. The late Houston painter Dick Wray once told me that his painting strategy was related to a Nipsey Russell routine: ‘Can we do it again?’ ‘No, but we can do something like it.”
So here we are. I'm all about history and actuarial forecasting, but experience transpires in a linear rather than a circular way. The platonic ideals in whose shadows we labor without relief or much hope are only phantoms, and our foregone conclusions involving the possible are themselves forfeit. As Dostoevsky's underground man says, “The whole work of man really seems to consist in nothing but proving to himself every minute that he is a man and not a piano key.” So, we’ve all got work to do, the spit valves need clogging, the guitars want a good kicking, the writers need a few quick slaps or tickles. But tread gingerly; like a newborn lizard's tail, every moment is sensitive to handling.
In 2003 the Russian poet Kirill Medvedev, his star on the rise, renounced the copyright to all his works. I could take you to where this overlaps literally with our music concerns, but in doing so, I’d have to pound this particular skirt steak pretty thin. To wit, Medvedev is a sometime member of protest-folk group Arkady Kots, and has performed alongside the far-more-famous Pussy Riot. Here’s a second act, albeit not an American one.
Kirill Medvedev is free, while the rest of us labor under the constraints of a pretend business that produces nothing but neuroses. Just think of a poet’s business prospects, sadder than those of a band trying to do whatever a band does. And yet, by rejecting the internalized racketball game of intellectual property-and-how-to-weaponize-it, he has injected some dignity into the world of artists, loosened up the horizon somewhat. Unaligned with the publishing industry, disconnected from the prospect of earning by the word, nonetheless he hasn’t imploded. He’s better known than ever before, more widely published, more widely translated, more widely read.
I’m retaining my copyrights, for the time being, 'cause like most Americans, I'm going to be rich, rich, rich someday from my hard work ethic and my astute refusal to invest in predatory capitalism and the military-industrial system, but like I suggested before, you can shout "Wolverines" as loudly you like, per Red Dawn or Red Dawn the remake, but the Russians seem to play the game more seriously than we do.
RIP Garry Shandling, you beautiful human.
Anyhow, Easter bunnies. Here’s the rundown.
Defunkt #9 feat. Traducer, Nikhoo + PLXTX, Acid Jeep & Daed
Red Light Room at Springbok, March 25
Defunkt presents its ninth night of modern music that explores the many things a transistor can accomplish, a memory chip can remember and a flashing light can suggest. A drum machine isn't necessary to make good music, but it helps. And Luddites, you needn't fear not the hate-speech of Microsoft’s AI program, Tay; this isn’t a get-out-what-you-put-in kind of a deal. Instead, this night is grounded in utopian principles and proceeds from decent-minded algorithms, demonstrating in various ways the erotic, psychological prospects of human-machine couplings, all of which will be cascading from a roof on Main street to the welcoming ears of a teeming Houston below.
High Functioning Flesh, Body of Light, Buoyant Spirit, Spit Mask
Walters Downtown, March 28 at Walters Downtown
The accidental clustering of similar or thematically resonant names in show listings fascinates me. Usually it runs a morbid or obviously redundant line — black this and black that and death this and murderous that. Here we find a syllogism of sorts that celebrates the body, from flesh to body to spirit to spit. Certainly, there’s some sort of Brion Gysin-William Burroughs game of the subconscious being put into play. L.A.'s High Functioning Flesh developed in part out of a similarly inclined electro-punk group called Branes, who played the soft opening of Walters Downtown back in December 2011 with Tense and Black Leather Jesus.
Except for their Howard-Jones-on-a-meth-kick style of dress, High Fashioning Flesh reminds me of TENSE, which is another way of saying they're a modern band influenced by Cabaret Voltaire, Nitzer Ebb, Front 242 and other EBM often heard at Numbers on Friday nights. What I want you to understand is that people will be better dressed here than they will be anywhere else on a Monday. Leather jackets, cool hair, tall boots, what real music-lovers call the whole enchilada. Nor is that some sort of faint praise; the eyes and the ears have a deal, and they don’t like it when you break their trust. Buoyant Spirit is a quieter sort of electronic music, fixed in melancholy and less choleric elements. Spit Mask is industrial music along the power electronic sideline of fetish aesthetics and extra shouting. Body of Light is from the Arizona-based Ascetic House company, who have done their part to ensure that Arizona has long been the most-goth state.
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March 30, The MATCH
Completely unrelated, except in the most fundamentalist interpretation of the psycholinguistic magic of the Gysin-Burroughs cut-ups game from beyond the beyond mentioned above, the long-running Australian group the Necks comes to the MATCH bearing gifts along the lines of Matthew Shipp, Alice Coltrane and the great, ever-changing tradition of improvisation, free jazz and ambient sound. They would make a good sound track to a dream-machine session, however, as their multi-modal playing says something different to each of the lobes of our brain.