For the Record is an ongoing (I hope) series where I write a bit about albums that I have strong feelings about, good or bad.
Bluegrass is a weirdly bifurcated world. There’s a joy to the music; even when the lyrics are about heartbreak, misfortune, or murder, it’s impossible to feel too bad when you’re hearing fast picking and high harmonies. But there’s also a joylessness to the milieu out of which the music comes; no area of country music (or, indeed, of music in general, in my personal experience) is as hidebound and hung up on following the rules and doing it the way it’s always been done as bluegrass is. I know from direct experience that musicians-looking-for-musicians listings involving bluegrass will be the most prescriptive out there, and that to even think about getting into a bluegrass band is to run a serious risk of spending half your time bogged down in arguments about the right way to play bluegrass.
Which is part of why Buck Owens’ Ruby & Other Bluegrass Specials is such a goddamned miracle. It’s an experimental, bordering on trippy, take on bluegrass that actually does take the music to strange new places.
Quick note: this originally ran as two separate-but-related articles at the late, lamented Comics MNT. Alas, nothing is permanent on the internet; but I like these pieces too much to let them succumb to link rot. So here they are, together at last!
1. The Complicated, Slightly Better Manhood of Achewood
Remember Chris Onstad’s Achewood? If you care enough about comics to be reading the MNT and were online between 2000 and 2010, you must. For most of the first decade of this century, Achewood was one of the flagship webcomics when webcomics were an exciting new cultural space; it might not have had the reader numbers of some of the topical gamer strips, but its cultural presence was huge and it was very much the critical darling of the scene.
If you need a refresher: Achewood was a weirdly erudite, often filthy, funny-animal strip with minimalist Charles-Schulz-with-Adobe-Illustrator black and white art and aggressively unconventional lettering (almost certainly the only landmark comic to be lettered in the Chicago font). The cast was distinctive; the strip centered on Ray Smuckles, an oblivious but goodhearted thong-wearing rap mogul cat, and his depressed computer-programmer friend Roast Beef Kazenzakis. Other major characters included an avuncular novelist bear, another bear who loves food and The Cure, an eternally childish, bottomlessly naive otter, a couple of eastern European robots, and several others. And yes, all of these listed characters are male, and yes, that will become important later.
So I’ve been threatening for over a year to write a 33 1/3-style book about the Uncle Tupelo album Anodyne, which has been a fixture of my musical world for–jesus–almost 30 years. The idea was stuck in permanent “I’ll get to it” status for a long time, until I read Hanif Abdurraqib’s great book Go Ahead in the Rain: Notes to A tribe Called Quest. Sometimes reading a great book inspires you to get writing; so I did. And Abdurraqib’s repeated device of directly addressing letters to the members of Tribe seemed like a good idea worth borrowing. So: here’s the first little bit of stuff about Anodyne and Anodyne-related topics, and maybe being out here in the world will help make the rest of it come together.
So the weirdest thing is that, at least kind of, you seem to have written your own version of this letter (I don’t know to who; maybe you’re imagining someone like me writing it to you) in the form of the Golden Smog song “Can’t Keep From Talking.” It’s a great song about a fan reckoning with the weird imbalance in their relationship with a singer. “I know you don’t know me / but I know a lot about you / you’re the one who knows me / better than I do.” I think a lot about the neat turnaround happening with the language of those lines; but more than that, I think about the truth contained in them: fans know a lot about the artist, but are just part of an anonymous mass to the artist; but they became fans in the first place because the work of the artist so perfectly described what was going on in the fan’s head.
I lived with my grandparents during my senior year of high school. Surprisingly, given what was coming, this didn’t have anything to do with a big rupture with my parents or anything like that; my father had gotten a job in a tiny town in northwest Missouri, and I was convinced that graduating towards the top of a class of 8 people wouldn’t look as appealing to colleges as doing pretty well in a class of 230. So I suggested to my parents that maybe it made sense for me to stay in Blair, and they agreed. Legal guardianship was set up and, the day after I finished my junior year, I moved into what had been my grandmother’s bedroom.
It took me well into my adulthood to recognize that my parents were kind of crazy, but my grandparents were the kind of crazy that was easily visible at the time. My grandmother was both beset by legitimate health problems and an extreme hypochondriac; she also had absolutely no sense of personal or emotional boundaries (during my undergrad years, she would often call me and ask me when I was going to get someone pregnant so that she could have some great-grandchildren) and was very fond of building a metaphorical wooden cross and climbing up onto it. She was a heavy menthol smoker, but thought she was hiding it from everyone by doing all of her smoking in the bathroom with the door shut; this clever ruse was betrayed by the heavy menthol stank in the bathroom, and by the empty cartons of cigarettes jammed into the cupboard under the sink.
…is a free newsletter I’m starting as a birthday gift to
myself. Each installment will be a short-to-medium thought about art, working
with a very broad definition of art: visual arts, comics, movies, music,
literature, god knows what else; and covering both appreciating art, art
history, art theory, making art, all that. Sometimes focusing on individual
works of art or artists; sometimes wandering all over the place. I can’t
promise structure or high-quality copy-editing, but I can promise fun (and a
bare minimum of one post a month). And although I hope this’ll still be fun and
interesting for my pals from the world of academic art history, I want to aim
this more at people who like to appreciate art and culture but haven’t spent a
bunch of time in seminars talking theory.
SO SIGN UP OVER AT SUBSTACK! I’m in the process of working through my mountain of ideas for posts, and I’ll start sending them out once there’s a moderately-sized pool of subscribers.
I hate Dad Rock. Not the music, at least not categorically; I
love it and hate it at more or less the same rate that I love and hate all of
the other imaginary categories of music. No, it’s the term I hate.
You’ve heard the term, right? Basically means safe,
nonthreatening rock (mostly) that appeals mostly to people over 35-ish. When I
first heard the term, it meant the “classic rock” that my generation’s boomer
parents were always listening to: Pink Floyd, Steely Dan, the Beatles, the
Stones, Van Morrison, you know the drill. As Gen X has gotten gray and paunchy,
I’ve started hearing Wilco, the New Pornographers, and the Mountain Goats get
put into the file.
Some of that is music I like, a lot of it is music I hate, but
the label bugs me either way. Part of it is the specific choice of modifier: “dad.”
I don’t have kids, I’m not going to have kids, and I’m irked at the intrusion
of child-having status as a qualifier in a situation where it doesn’t apply.
But really, that’s not the problem; again, it’s not really the music that I
love that’s getting the label (I was a Wilco superfan when I was younger, but I
drifted away from them around 2007; coincidentally, around the time they
started getting labeled as dad rock).
It always hurts to talk about when one of your heroes fails, but that’s what I’m out to do here. Charles Schulz is one of the great figures in comics; Charles Schulz sometimes fell on his ass. He did here. Acting with well-documented good intentions, he tried to do a good thing, and slid into what could most charitably be called mixed success. By introducing Franklin, a black character, into his immensely popular comic strip Peanuts, Charles Schulz wanted to harness his cultural power and use it to send a positive social message about racial harmony. He explicitly wanted to integrate his strip in a way that wasn’t demeaning or insulting. Thirty years later, though, Franklin was considered one of the prime exemplars of tokenism, a perception that has only grown as time has continued to pass.
Peanuts in 1968 was a cultural
juggernaut, appearing in well over 2500 newspapers. In an era when newspaper
comics carried a cultural weight nearly unimaginable today, Schulz was at the
very top of the profession, giving him one of the most visible platforms in the
country to trumpet any message he chose.
For the most part, Schulz avoided
politics in the strip, instead examining emotional and existential humor.
I’ve had a rough year. I
had two dogs die, my house has needed some expensive repairs, and my habit of
closely following the news has turned into daily exposure to toxic waste. We
all crave simple comforts in difficult times, and I’ve fallen back into an old
habit: when I’m in the mood to read comforting trash, I reach for Tom Clancy.
And after the current bender, I think we should talk about him a little.
Right now, through time and
space, I can hear the question you’re asking yourself: why do I care
about the work of some hack writer of right-wing airport trash who’s been dead
for a decade? And that’s a good question, one I’ve been wrestling with
inside my head for a while now. I have a few solid answers: first, because the
work of said dead right-wing hack writer really does provide a perfect
encapsulation of one of the dominant forces in our dyspeptic,
sliding-through-disasters-towards-even-greater-disasters political system, and
to understand that is to understand another corner of the current ongoing
shitshow. Tom Clancy’s books are by, of, and for Boomer Dads, and if
understanding the mind of the Boomer Dad isn’t sufficient to understanding what the hell is happening in this
country, I think it’s at least necessary.
my wife and I were flying into Berlin, I experienced a small wave of panic.
What had I gotten us into? Was this going to be boring? What was there to do here, really? My initial pitch for
Berlin as a vacation destination was that I wanted to go because of “all the
history.” That sounded great and persuasive, in a vague way, sitting in
Minneapolis. But now that we were about to arrive and spend a week in a foreign
city where we didn’t speak the language, what did it actually mean? A week of looking at historic-site
plaques? Was this going to be boring and dumb?
Happily, my little moment of freakout was entirely misplaced, and my initial instincts were right on point. Berlin isn’t a city with a lot of obvious, high-profile capital-letter Tourist Attractions; but it’s something much better: a fascinating, beautiful place where the weight of history is indeed so present and prevalent that if you’re interested in it at all, you can’t help but feel like you’re swimming in it.
I’ve been obsessed with World War II since I was 7, when I stumbled across a series of Time-Life books about the war, full of arresting, graphic photos, that my parents had left sitting around (my parents did a spectacularly bad job of shielding me from age-inappropriate material when I was a kid). My obsession with the cold war started about a year later, when my 3rd grade teacher rhapsodized proudly to my class about how our city of Blair, Nebraska, being just up the road from Strategic Air Command HQ in Omaha, would be one of the first Soviet targets when the missiles flew.
These obsessions were the initial impetus for wanting to see Berlin. My last-minute panic was based on a fear that neither the cold war or World War II lent themselves to spaces that made for fun vacation visits. My salvation was that this didn’t matter when the fabric of the entire city is visibly and irreparably altered by events. I can’t say that it’s fun to stand in the Tiergarten and read a plaque about how the trees surrounding you were all completely deforested by air bombardment and by Soviet troops advancing over the ground you’re standing on, or to stand in front of your hotel and look at the memorial cobbles commemorating Holocaust victims who once lived there; but it’s affecting and awe-inspiring in a way that transcends fun. It hits you on a different, deeper frequency. It drives home the way in which you are part of a larger continuum of human experience.
It’s one thing to walk into a museum and look at art and artifacts. It’s another thing entirely to see bullet holes in the interior wall of that museum and realize that what you’re looking at is evidence that there was a firefight in this building between people trying to take the building’s contents and people trying futilely to defend them. Again, that’s not fun, but it’s profound and affecting on an entirely different emotional spectrum.
(And about that fight: the scene I’m describing here is in the Neues Museum, which is largely full of Egyptian artifacts looted from Egypt by Prussian archaeologists in the 19th century; the top few floors, though, are European objects. Several gallery labels and signs on those floors pointedly mention that objects formerly on display here were looted by Soviet soldiers, taken to Moscow, and never returned. The irony of this kind of complaint in this kind of building is exactly what makes the historical experience of Berlin so mesmerizing.)
Consider this: in central Berlin, on land that was once part of the Berlin Wall and its “death strip,” is the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, an immersive, block-wide labyrinth of pillars that is one of the most viscerally affecting memorials I’ve ever experienced. On a block adjacent to this memorial is the nondescript parking lot that is the former site of the bunker where Hitler killed himself and was cremated. Running between these two blocks is a street named after Hannah Arendt. The historical resonances of Berlin come in a very strong, undiluted form.
History is a river. Things happen, and subsequent things downstream are driven by what happened previously. Hitler hijacked the German political system, started a war and conducted genocide, and Berlin was occupied and nearly leveled as a result; and then, downstream from that, the occupying forces eventually split the city in half, traumatizing the city with an unnatural internal boundary for half a century. That trauma, and the subsequent jubilation and rebirth, are as plain to see in Berlin as the immediate effects of the war. In place names (Rosa Luxemberg Platz, Marx-Engels Platz), architectural styles, and even traffic signage, the old separation between west and east is still plain to see if you bother to look for it. And that’s ignoring the hunks of the wall itself that have been left up as commemorations or memorials or just plain tourist attractions.
I can’t think of any American cities that have left me this strongly with the sense of standing amid the structure of history. The closest I’ve come is the southern end of Manhattan. New Orleans probably can provide the same effect if you walk around with your eyes open in the right way. I haven’t been to Boston, but I’m sure it has some amount of resonance. But overall, American cities operate under a couple of different conditions: no American city has undergone repeated traumas as massive as Berlin, and the American mode of operation is to march stridently away from the past, not to acknowledge it. You’ll find precious few memorial cobbles scattered around American cities to commemorate the victims of slavery or the Native American genocide. And as far as that goes, I’m painfully aware of my own white middle-class nature here; when I say that “no American city has undergone repeated traumas as massive as Berlin,” I recognize that, say, Dakota people currently living in Minneapolis no doubt have an extremely different viewpoint on that matter.
To my perception, at least, the everyday culture of 2019 Berlin had a laid-back, free-spirited vibe that I found immensely refreshing. In all kinds of little ways, from casualness with dogs to willingness to abruptly repurpose old buildings to surprisingly low levels of fussiness (and disclaimer paperwork). In the aggregate, this seems to me to add up to a much greater tolerance for uncertainty and risk in Berlin than one finds in litigious, fear-dominated America. Maybe that’s just the German national character now, or at least the Berlin civic character. But maybe it has something to do with living in a city that’s been through several different flavors of hell within living memory, much of it self-inflicted, and then undergone a rebirth. After all you’ve been through, all of which you still viscerally feel just walking down the street, why worry about whether people on a bike tour are wearing helmets? What’s the worst that could happen?
In 1933, a fire gutted the Reichstag building, giving Hitler the political opportunity to consolidate power and bring the Weimar Republic era to a formal close. In 1945, the shell of the Reichstag building served as one of the final redoubts for German soldiers defending the city, and the central objective for Soviet soldiers fighting through the Tiergarten and across the river Spree. After Germany reunified, the building was rehabilitated to serve as the seat of the new German parliament. To symbolize the new era of governmental transparency, the Reichstag’s original 19th-century dome was replaced with a large glass beehive lined with spiraling walkways, from which one can climb up and look out at the city, or down at the legislative chamber directly below. The vagaries of trip scheduling dictated that we could only get in to climb the beehive at 9:45 on the last night of our time in Berlin, so we visited it on a clear, slightly chilly spring night. It is by far the most beautiful and aesthetically powerful governmental building I’ve ever been in, so emotionally affective that even the presence of an enormous group of rowdy Italian teens wasn’t enough to stop it from being wonderful, standing there at a focal point where history happened and where the future is created, staring out at the rest of the city. It turns out that Berlin does indeed have some world-class tourist attractions.