Friday, January 30, 2009


My favourite living author thinks my life would be so much better if only I do two things: Take that bloodclaat out of my voicemail greeting, and stop blogging. Turns out his creative writing students, while admiring my book seem to hate my blog. I’m not sure why they hate it, fine maybe I could be less opinionated about things, but his remark came right in the middle of unrelated but nonetheless similar expressions of blog/internet distrust, dismissal, and ignorance that I’d been hearing all that week.

I know that your reading this means I’m preaching to the converted, but I was so taken aback by the pointless webism of the people I spoke to that I thought I had to write about it. Webism, a clumsily created term to be sure, but it’s mine for misguided luddites who think they score points for authenticity or old-fashionedness by being luddites, but are actually elitists, reacting to a movement that moves laterally rather than through some top-down hierarchy. They’ve become the very kind of smug people that reach for a value of a past generation that never had such a value in the first place, people simply unaware that their elders grabbed for the innovations of their own time, knowing instantly what we do not; that these things are supposed to make our lives better.
But elitists are just ignoramuses with pedigree, a slightly exalted version of the people Chris Rock talked about whose greatest pleasure is to not know. I’m not amazed that in 2009 some people don’t have a cell phone, but I’m stunned that they think it’s a good thing. It only takes one child in an emergency and them unable to reach you for you to regret the error of such a position. And another thing, stop begging calls.

My friend will of course kick my ass for the previous paragraph but at least he has a website, so he knows what time it is. But even those among us who’ve given in to dreaded e-communication, blanch at Facebook, Myspace, and blogs for all sorts of reasons, none of them sensible. My good friend, an African poet recently snared at the very thought of a facebook page, and even now when I whip out a phone to update my status I get labeled everything from an attention seeking hound to a loser with no real friends. So while my friend was happy to boast of having no “space” page, I politely pointed out that the new wave of African literature was happening without him. Only last year, Binjavana Wainana mentioned that it was the Internet that allowed African writers to build community. Many of these writers, some still in repressive regimes have seen the means of communications co-opted by their governments. But the Internet has been one of the few things those governments could not fully control. So Wainana in Kenya can become friends with Chimamanda Adichie in Nigeria, and a new network, a support system arises that can speak truth to power or at the very least let the world know.

What would we have thought of the last flare-ups in Lebanon, had young Lebanese kids not grabbed their digital cameras, and uploaded to their blogs or cut and pasted to Youtube? Would you have known the real story and would you have been left warm and cuddly all over, the way we were after Desert Storm? Because if you’re not one for blogs and websites then you’re a sucker for spin. And while we’re on spin what about the stories that the traditional media refuse carry? If you’re a webist, you probably didn’t hear about Alberto Gonzales until the mass media started covering him. Congratulations, those of us in the blogosphere knew about this a year before you did. For almost two years Albert Gonzales was getting away with astounding corruption and only one source, Joshua Marshall’s blog, Talking Points Memo, was reporting it. In fact, the story would have died, and Gonzales still in office had TPM not stuck with the story, at risk to itself, until the mainstream media finally woke up. And if you think that was just a one off, you’re again, missing the point. One of the nastier stories of the Iraq War has been the military’s allegedly occasional practice of demanding that wounded and maimed veterans return their signing bonuses because they did not complete active service. Again, a story that would have caused national outrage had a single major newspaper been interested in it.

This anti-internet luddism came as a particular shock to me because I was at a low residency degree program, something that would have been unthinkable pre-internet. Without it I would still be degree-less and miserable in Jamaica, writing ads telling people how good we are at making them better. I wished I had a community of writers back when I started writing, somebody to tell me I wasn’t crazy for trying to do this.

I know them’s fighting words. But anti-internet snobbery is a blank and ignorant dismissal of something that has clearly empowered others. It makes me recall Kiran Desai’s brilliant takedown of Naipaul in The Inheritance of Loss, when a character said (I’m paraphrasing) that Naipaul was so up his own colonial ass that he may the only person to not realize that the most popular dish in the UK was Chicken Tikka Masala. Again ignorance with pedigree, a refusal to believe that anything good can come out of anything new. A refusal to see that his people have moved beyond his own tired stereotype of them. The truth is that people like Naipaul know, but may never admit, that the world has simply moved on without them. I can bet he’s never even heard of M.I.A.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Rocking My World: The Best Records of 2008

1. Erykah Badu: New Amerykah: Part One (4th World War)

That’s the problem with a promise, even an American one: change the tone and it turns into a warning. Enter (or rather re-enter) Erykah Badu, with the bastard that finally spru
ng from Funkadelic’s three times knocked up earth. This is New Amerykah: Mama’s hopped up on cocaine, daddy’s on spaceships with no brain, meaning that his ass may be in flight, but negro never emancipated himself from mental slavery. Badu’s new agenda feels like an old one, from praising a male ideal that men can’t or wont match, to breaking down ghetto politics of the present, which only sounds like the past because we still haven’t learned the lesson. Even the mistakes are fascinating: Master Teacher’s two halves never connect, but there’s more going on here than in Neo-Soul’s entire catalog. My People never builds on its initial chant but hypnotizes nonetheless, and Honey is exactly the kind of faux retro that screams bonus track. Far better is Telephone, neo soul to be sure, but at 8 minutes it has the slow burn of a hard fought, well earned climax (and the best use of sirens since Public Enemy). New Amerykah is a call to arms for those who distrust arms callers. The Healer is the hip-hop remedy the music doesn’t deserve, much like Common’s I Used to Love H.E.R. but without that track’s tedious art as Madonna-whore sexism. The Cell is so funky it nearly collapses under its own weight, dissolving into an accapella chorus of post-gospel urban blues. And then there’s Twinkie. A shootout gets cut up in beat so old school it’s retrofuturist while bass and blips duel and duet at once. Badu, disembodied takes us into an urban nightmare that maybe only Obama can rectify. All together now: Started with a rhyme from old ancient times/ Descendents of warlocks/ Witches with ill glitches/ Children of the matrix be hittin' them car switches/ Seen some Virgin Virgos hanging out with Venus Bitches.

2. Deerhunter: Microcastle/ Weird Era Continued

It happened like this in 2008: At a Wolf Parade concert I fell allergic to all things indie. This is why it took me months to listen to Deerhunter, probably the biggest mistake I’ve made all year. Only a truly great band could release their most coherent and mature album yet, then top it with a bonus disc. Microcastle, the first half, can sometimes sound like alternative 101, name checking all the requisite influences; Pixies, Jesus and Mary Chain, lots and lots of My Bloody Valentine. But Weird Era is something else: a consummate gorging on those same influences to spit out something at once beautiful, monstrous and new—a threat to the very music that helped spawn it. Dare I call it a pop album? But pop in the gloriously wasted way of REM’s Out Of Time; pop of a band trying on ideas for size and seemingly unaware that the toss-offs are the gems. Credit Deerhunter for not being afraid of big sound and for not confusing epic with grandiose (See: Chinese Democracy). Microcastle is the first fully realized indie double album since Husker Du’s Zen Arcade.

3. Earth: The Bees Made Honey In The Lion’s Skull

Only 5 seconds into Earth’s latest and I already knew the planet was doomed. It’s the boom of course; equal parts drum kick, bass bludgeon and pure malevolence. A real boom that sounded like the echo of one, like Armageddon had already happened and we’re rocking out to the fallout. Makes sense then that Bees starts at a crawl and stays there. Odds things happen when one of the heaviest ever bands goes slow. For one all that droning turns into a hypnotic kind of beauty, still doom metal’s best-kept secret. Jazz guitarist Bill Frisell knows. A surprise guest on several tracks, he functions the way Nico did on the Velvet’s first: as finder of light in the midst of all that gloom. But this is post metal, post doom, post stoner, just heavy. I can’t remember the last time I’ve not missed vocals on a rock record.

4. Portishead: Third

Don’t call it a comeback. After we had consigned Dummy to epitaph status, who’d have guessed that 1. Portishead would return and 2. In a shape that we would have scratched our heads to recognize were it not that Beth Gibbons was as magnificently melancholic as ever? Third wasn’t so much a left turn as a back-the-hell-up-and-dash-down-a–new-road altogether. So instead of Wu-Tang beats and urban gothic, we got a psychedelic rock n’ roll death trip, as if all the bad will lurking in Dummy’s Glory Box suddenly came on full tilt. It says much that all the right people hated it. You know who you are, you cocktail party having, Buddha bar foreplaying, wedding reception planning, hairdo cutting, ‘I listen to all kinds of music’ loser. I saw you, turning down Machine Gun and wondering what the hell is this all about? If it makes you feel any better, Morcheeba haven’t changed a bit.

5. Q-Tip: The Renaissance

Does music make the times, or times make the music? Different question: Did Q-tip know something we didn’t? Released on Election Day, would The Renaissance have packed the same delirious punch had the other guy won? Instead we had the hopeful counterpoint to Badu’s dread with a 40 plus veteran not looking a day over 25 showing idiots half his age how it’s done. There hasn’t been a hip-hop record this inviting since, well, Tribe Called Quest’s Midnight Marauders. This is adult boom-bap, big people music. So Manwomanboogie samples Can and comes up with a better song, You revisits a fractured relationship with a maturity and wisdom that the music can sometimes seem incapable of. He even made Norah Jones cool, slipping her into the role rappers usually reserved for Badu. That’s only fitting: Badu was busy burning down the old so that Q-tip could ring in the new.

6. Aterciopelados: Rio

There isn’t much that this Argentinean band can’t do, but eclectism is an old trick, a lazy way to make one seem multidimensional without being actually talented. So credit this band then, for mastering everything including making motherhood seem like the sexiest state of existence. Andrea Echeverri’s husband must be the luckiest man in Latin rock.

7. Dungen 4

A dense, ambitious, crazy psych-rock masterpiece that reveals more than anything, that lead singer Gustav Estes probably still thinks he’s making rap music.

8. Robyn

What does it say for the state of pop music that the year’s finest pop album came out four years ago? Listen to Anytime You Like where an already broken Robyn helps her own boyfriend break her heart twice.

9. Hercules and Love Affair: Blind

Arthur Russell’s ghost hasn’t been this happy in years. An honest to goodness DISCO record, unabashedly gay in every sense of the term. Blind is fighting it out with Machine Gun and Single Ladies for single of the year.

10. Grace Jones Hurricane

Not a comeback so much as a reminder, Jones may be the youngest, craziest 60 year old on the planet. Judging by her recent buck nekkid layout for Dazed and Confused, she’s lost none of her ability to shock. But the real shock here is heart, especially for someone usually praised and damned for being robotic.

Thursday, January 01, 2009

January 1, 2009

So my new year begins with friends at midnight. But I call days by when I see the sun, so the real New Year began at 8am with me listening to The Pixie’s Doolittle and Queen’s A Night at the Opera. The last record I heard in 2007 was Deerhunter’s Microcastle. I can still map my life to records if I try hard enough, but I’m 38 and it’s a new year and perhaps the first which I’ve entered with neither anticipation nor dread; not Zen like either just calm. Or maybe it’s because I was just downstairs in my friend Alex’s apartment, talking about sexual misadventure (his not mine), smoking cloves and digging Pixie’s Bossanova; and I realized that I would much rather be here with someone I’m always happy to see, than in New York for another Jan 1, wondering if I’m so very entertaining why am I alone tonight? Sorry, it doesn’t take much for me to slip into the Smiths.

It’s barely 12 hours old, but I love 2009 already. That might be because I have a new book coming out in a month and a half. It not that I’ve piled on this year with expectation or that I expect some fulfillment of promise. It’s not even that I made a resolution. It’s just that after so much building, and changing and growing in 2008, I can enter this year saying whatever happens— lottery or car crash, it’s all good. Maybe I am Zen. I don’t pray much anymore. Okay I don’t pray at all, nor am I sure that I still believe in the or a God, but I do believe there is a fundamental rhythm to the universe. Rhythm that is, not order; the universe has to allow for out of sync shit, wonderful or horrendous to happen, with the only reassurance being that it absorbs both with equal nonchalance.

Several years ago I used to spend my New Year’s Eves in church. It’s not that I believed so much that I was desperate for something to believe in. Now I’d like to think that I’ve outgrown belief. That I’m perfectly fine with reason and do not need faith. Who needs the evidence of things unseen when what is plainly visible is enough to make you gasp in wonder sometimes? What will happen will happen, but we also make our own fates and play the key role in our redemption or destruction. I’d just rather have mine right now instead of in some afterlife. Something about the Christian definition of eternal life— the idea of eternity being nothing more than unending reward and punishment for how you spent your first 70 years—always seemed stupid or at the least not very eternal at all. I like the idea of eternity meaning not living forever but living beyond whatever forever means. Maybe I’m just realizing that I was born quite fine the first time, thank you very much.

In 2008 I killed myself six times. It just hit me one day, that there were so many versions of me around the place, a new one to suit the different kind of friends that I’ve always surrounded myself with. I used to think that this was to ensure that I’m always around different kinds of people, but see now that it was merely to make sure that I never got close to any of them, or rather that any of them got close to me. There is a version of me that still likes Graphic design, another that used to counsel Christian kids, and one that expected to get married one day. Then there’s another version that wrote things like these, fearing somebody would read them, but hoping just one person would. And hopefully that person would realize that I do not have my shit together and would just help me without me having to ask. I gave that version a titanic kick in the ass, but took a lot from him. The version I’m sticking with is everything in the last sentence, but is also the person who read Sula, and cried when the dying Sula, is response to Nel’s asking what did she have to show for herself, said, “Show? To who?”

It’s the last year of the first decade of the second millennium. I’m still waiting for the 21st century to start. For me that would begin with our ditching ridiculous attitudes from the 20th — hell, 18th century. I’m thinking about this because my good friends Chad and Jude have been married for four years and now have the most beautiful baby I’ve ever seen and the friends of mine who have a problem with this sentence are exactly the friends that I probably wont be friends with anymore. I’m sorry if that means you, but it’s not that I’ve changed but that I realized that my eyes are in front of me and the only thing behind me is my ass, so I don’t even know anymore how to look backward, or carry on a backward attitude. Turns out George Clinton was right: free your mind first and your ass will follow. I think I’m going to put on Funkadelic's Maggot Brain right now, or maybe John Lennon’s Plastic Ono Band; a new year’s kiss-off if there ever was one.

I leave you with this, a slightly changed Nirvana line: Forget your enemies, save your friends, find your place, speak the truth. And Oh yeah, buy my book.

Happy 2009.