Friday, September 29, 2006

Books I Read While I Was Writing, Part 2. "The Middle Passage," by Charles Johnson

I have sometimes wondered if descendants of slave owners write better books than descendants of slaves because the guilt in these men and women forces them to be three dimensional. Of course this is not always true, all the existential guilt of Conrad still resulted in racism in Heart of Darkness and the grievous issues brimming against her tongue did not stop Toni Morrison from writing Song of Solomon, a novel that showed that victims can be villains too.

In this realm is the truly daring Middle Passage, a novel whose time period defuses what it actually is. The novel not only dares to marry the classic ship voyage with the horrors of slavery but throws moral indignation aside and forces us to make our own conclusions. The fact that these men are in fact dealing with human cargo does not detract from us being riveted by their lives or liking and hating them as the story rolls on.

But Johnson, not content to let character or reader off the hook with a sea yarn, works the fact of slavery into the novel anyway and exposes motives and hearts that may stun the reader. It’s not every white reader who is ready to deal with a richly complex and sometimes principled Commander who also happens to sodomise the cabin boy, nor is every black reader ready to confront the fact of black complicity in the slave trade and Africa’s own perplexity that such a thing would be abolished. That he gets away with it is testimony to the rollicking, flawless prose that transports and changes the reader as well.

In novel, Rutherford Calhoun, a freed black man living by his wits in New Orleans, stows away on his ship to escape loan sharks and a forced marriage. Little does he know that this ship, the Republic (haha) is a slaver bound for Africa to trade illegally in human cargo (The Slave Trade was outlawed in 1807). Led by a mysterious and dangerous Commander and a crew of degenerates, the Republic takes on the last remnants of a mystical African tribe and a mysterious cargo to transport across the Atlantic, the ‘Middle Passage’ of the title. But more that a voyage of ship and cargo, the novel is a voyage of discovery, self discovery for Calhoun but also a discovery of all that is worthy or abominable about human nature. It’s also funny as hell.

Now that I am writing fiction set in the past, I’ve had to reach the point of putting down the encyclopedia to write as if I was there. Reading books of the time like Pride and Prejudice is useful, but contemporary fiction about that time may be even more so because it allows for a contemporary perspective, one that Jean Rhys had but Charlotte Bronte would not. I think, this contemporary perspective, this simultaneously deeply inward and expansively outward viewpoint, separates a novel set in the past from historical fiction. This is why Ivanhoe is historical fiction, but Wide Sargasso Sea is not. The past is the setting, but not the point. I have no interest in writing historical fiction either and I surrounded myself with books that made this difference.

The Middle Passage, and the similar Rite of Passage by William Golding transported me to that world and gave me the footing to write from it. There aren’t many novels about West Indian slavery, certainly not many great ones, but there are lots about the speech, bearing and conduct of the people of the time, something both books capture perfectly. Both books, and even Moby Dick before them, throw different peoples and ethnicities together and the result is a wonderful display of the possibilities of language.

Not being from that era, it’s easy to become entrapped by language, to be so lost in structure and grammar that one’s prose never moves. Charles Johnson never falls into this trap and neither does William Golding or Toni Morrison for that matter. In that way, their novels are (for me) as much research texts and they are works of fiction. I read them to unlock clues of speech, to learn the languages instead of copying them. I have a feeling that these writers did the same thing. I’m not striving for complete accuracy with my dialogue but I do want the sense of time and place to be reflected in it.

The Middle Passage gives me a sense of time and place without ever falling into the “historical fiction” tag. It reminds me that language was more musical and less short winded then and people were very big on saying one thing and meaning another. Also it reminds me not to fall into the slave traps that befall the black writer, some of which I had already fallen into before I read the novel.

Before Middle Passage, all my white characters were evil and all the black good. Before Middle Passage, all my white characters were believers in or complicit to slavery and all my black characters were not. Before Middle passage I had used the colour line to draw wickedness and brutality from humanity and suffering. Johnson, with a wink and a slap reminds me that it ain’t as black and white as that.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

How To Make Your Own Prince Masterpiece.

By now you should know how to tell your Prince masterpieces apart. Dirty Mind is the new wave masterwork, complete with rubbery synths and compressed drums. 1999 is the funk workout with nine-minute jams that should have been nine minutes longer. Purple Rain is the rock and roll monster, with songs like Computer Blue burning so hot nobody noticed that Prince forgot the second verse. Parade is the Avant-Garde opus, the one for the True Prince Fan and probably the most original music of his career. And of course Sign O’ The Times where it all magically comes together. But for a such a pop genius, where is the pop masterpiece?

I think that is Around the World in a Day, but don’t be surprised if you don’t know it or don’t agree. I didn’t agree either for years; ten years in fact until the CD burning-Ipod era came upon me. The Ipod is doing many drastic things to music, and whether good or bad is a question for another era, but there is no question that it has changed the way we look at music. Now we can ditch the songs we hate and break the rules of the album experience, something that has been both good and bad in that we now have a whole new generation who cannot appreciate an album as a work of art.

But the Ipod has allowed us to not only ditch songs but recontextualise them so that an album is now no longer a document of the recording experience but the listening one. Now I get to decide how an album flows. So now I can insert the funky version of Honky Tonk Women in Rolling Stones' Let It Bleed instead of the lame country original and suddenly a great album becomes rapturous. Suddenly I can alter one of rock longest running Achilles heels: the poorly sequenced record.

You know them don’t you. Albums that are lesser than the sum of their parts, records that are great, song for song but fail because of how the songs are strung together. Albums like Jane’s Addiction’s Ritual de lo habitual, Billy Joel’s The Bridge and Prince’s Around the World in a Day. No offence, but sometimes an artist, even Prince, is a poor judge of his own work. The hits were obvious but there were also buried between long stretches of art wank. Lugubrious bad acid trips that were probably fun to make but were a slog to listen to.

So I got to work by ditching the utter crap first. Gone was The Ladder, the pointless faux gospel written with his Dad and gone was Condition of the Heart, which some classify as an epic, but is really just an overblown soul number that took way too long to start. The rest though, the rest is something else. I opened the album with:

1. Temptation.
One of prince loudest rock jams with perhaps his rawest guitar playing ever (just try to get over the squall that opens it). He was never this unhinged again and when the drums and horns (?) come in you know he’s a goner. Prince is too busy screaming to actually sing, but you’ll be too busy rocking to actually care. Of course 4 minute of balls out rock give way to 4 minutes of artsy pretension but you have to take the good with the bad sometimes. The dialogue, between a stern god and a horny prince over a fine girl was silly then and is ludicrous now, but just go along with it because after nine minutes of temptation comes...

2. Raspberry Beret.
It’s easy to forget how brilliant he is at a simple pop song. After Temptation ends in a dirge the famous Raspberry Beret percussion is a welcome wake up call. And those swelling strings still sound as great as you remember.

3. Tambourine.
After three minutes of super pop, it’s time for the funk jam. That is Tambourine. Buried originally after that snore Condition of the Heart, Tambourine sounds even better put beside a great song. Better than Housequake? Maybe.

4. Paisley Park.
After Tambourine I’ve put a psychedelic triptych that now forms the emotional core of the album. The three songs crystalize the themes of the entire album: escape, utopia and the struggle to move beyond just sex. Paisley Park is actually one of Prince most underrated songs, cushioned as it is by a sprawl of spiraling guitars. Yes you read right, listen to it again.

5. 4 the Tears in Your Eyes.
Since two songs are gone I had to put two new songs in but couldn’t go too far or that would be cheating. Instead I stuck to songs from the same sessions. 4 The Tears in Your Eyes was originally put on the We are the World album, but it make more sense here as it may be his most successful psychedelic work. Even more utopian than Paisley Park it still boasts a killer beat and harmonies from Wendy and Lisa.

6. Around the World in a Day.
The title track. Every bit as stunning as when you probably first heard it, the Moroccan strings and Arabian nights percussion still sound like transmissions from a lost David Lean movie.

7. America.
Fine, the Reagan-democrat lyrics were lame then and lamer now, but this one of those unabashed party starters like Purple Rain’s Baby I’m a Star. The band, probably knowing that their leader was knee deep in bullshit played like they were committing mass murder.

8. Pop Life.
My favorite song on the album. A rare moment of lyrical focus on such a trippy record, Pop Life is where the pixie dust effects wore off and perhaps the first sign that Prince was getting tired of it all. “What the matter with your life? Is the poverty bringing you down? What's that you putting in your nose? Is that where all your money goes?" He sang, prefiguring the social consciousness that would explode on Sign O’ the Times and Lovesexy. But if the lyrics are maudlin the music was miraculous.... until the bridge. Near the end of one of Prince’s lightest melodies comes his darkest moment. The song collapses on itself and you hear lots of disorienting crashes and bumps followed by loud cheers. Taped way back in 1981 during his disastrous opening slot for the Rolling Stones, the sample is actually the crowd booing and stoning him off the stage. You can hear a man shout “throw the bum out,” and the crowd cheering as Prince, beaten, leaves the stage.

9. She’s Always in my Hair.
Such a cold moment needs warm relief. Originally the B-side for Raspberry Beret, She’s Always in My Hair, is one of Prince's live showstoppers, right up there with How Come you Don’t Call me Anymore. This song is all excess. It’s too loud, too long, too drippy, too yellow brick road, in short the perfect album closer for a Prince record.

So there you have it. There were other considerations of course. I had to force myself to stay away from other 1984 tracks that were more associated with Purple Rain, like Erotic City. I also had to choose between the original title track and the super-rare funk version that only few people on this planet have ever heard. I have it on cassette and the quality stinks. So there you go: Around the World in a Day Redux. Is it better then Lovesexy? Maybe not but it’s better than every single record that followed that one.

Monday, September 25, 2006

Why Jamaicans Can’t Rock

Our rock and roll is bigger than your rock and roll. I know this because in the mid 90’s Jamaica’s Rock scene made the cover of billboard (the music industry Bible, if you don’t know) all without an album or single to its credit. That was the mid 90’s after all, and just about anything could be covered in flannel and labeled alternative, even if it sprung from the Caribbean sea and floated by on a trustafarian carpet of entitlement and a cloud of spliff. It would be too easy to say that such an article seems silly nowadays, but what journalist Elena Oumano didn’t get was that the article was ludicrous even back then. There in no such thing as a Jamaican rock scene and no amount of Cure covers, late night concerts on Tuesday nights or dilettantes in Urban Outfitters T-shirts can make one. As an unabashedly bigoted rockist, it pains me to say that my countrymen and women can’t rock but the truth is we can’t. Here’s why.

1. Too self conscious
Jamaicans who try to rock can’t seem to get over the idea that they are Jamaicans trying to rock. Like men who raise their children or dogs who walk on hind legs, it not that they do it well but that they do it at all that makes the jamrockers ecstatic. Jamaican rockers can get rapturous when talking about their mission and several can give you the whole they think I’m a freak for rocking story. But rock and roll is sex and drugs, rebellion and excess, sound and power, none of which these guys possess. They are neat to a fault, despise distortion, too proud of their lyrics to actually write any and are too caught up in being a rock star that they never actually rock. In the sixties rock and roll split into two camps, those who refigured rock as a bohemian underground (the Velvet Underground) and those who translated it as adolescent rebellion (everybody else). But both rocked for and against something. Jamaican rock stands for nothing and as a result it falls for anything, chief of which is reason number two.

2. Too many dilettantes.
It’s not their fault. Rock has always been even, at its showiest, based on the sexy myth of the underdog climbing to the top. Gram Parsons aside, I’m not sure a person of privilege has ever managed to fake like a real rock star so I’m pretty sure a Jamaican can never hope to. Jamaica rock is the rock of boys and girls who could afford their instruments and all the worse for it. There is no hunger, which you should know is the single essential element for great rock and roll. For some warped reason several Jamrockers think precision is what matters; how better a player you can be, as if punk rock never happened. When heard of my worship of Wolfmother, a rocker friend of mine was disgusted. All they know is Blues in C! He yelled. This is of course true. This is also of course irrelevant for the wolfies have more rock and roll in their stolen riffs then anything a Jamaica can make up. The comment also shows a fatal misunderstanding of the one of the very basic rock and roll fundamentals, something even Madonna understood: You’re supposed to steal, beeyatch.

3. Too self congratulatory.
Jamaica rock is the Scene That Celebrates Itself. Make no mistake— the Jamrocker’s biggest fan is the other Jamrocker in the front row. This creates a weird kind incest where the music is what emerges retarded. Because these guys are in such awe of each other, play together and are not overtly critical, nobody sees that the emperor is naked. It’s a strangely closed off scene, defined by its limitations where one feels that if they ever got over the self perceived Jamaican anti-rock bias and had to actually rock a real crowd they’d shrivel. So they play mostly to each other. Some call this a scene. I’d call it a cult but that would imply a certain devoutness. One reason Jamaicans can’t rock is that nobody believes that they were made to do this and can do nothing else. Can you imagine Mick Jagger trying out medicine because the rock thing didn’t work out? Didn’t think so.

4. Too Jamaican
No self-respecting British rocker would try to make “British rock” for he would find the idea ludicrous (This is why nobody listened to Menswear, guys). Rock and roll has no national address. Nobody told this to the Jamrockers who keep feeling pressured to stamp their own identity on their music. Nothing wrong with that on paper except that they usually do this the only way they know how: Reggaefying rock or rockifying reggae. Black rockers in the USA also shot themselves in the foot when they all felt they had to be funky. So a band does a hard rock version of the Jamaican national anthem, but what is the point? Nothing is wrong with stealing an idea from Jimi Hendrix, but there is no thrill in the theft, not outrage in the violation, no understanding that Hendrix was building the anthem up but also ripping the thing to bits, forcing beauty to copulate with ugliness to make something both pretty and monstrous. Years ago the band Rockabessa remade the Stones’ horny boy anthem, Satisfaction as a light, lilting reggae number straight out of the Jimmy Buffet songbook. Sure it sounded Jamaican but it was one the silliest and stupidest misunderstandings of a rock song since Born in the USA.

This smacks of people trying too hard to connect to an identity, one’s roots so to speak. Silly rabbits you have no roots. We keep making the mistake of thinking that authenticity comes from where we’re from and not where we’re at. And when that address is a place of privilege it forces the worst aspects of trustafarianism; a faux authenticity that screams for consciousness, or ghetto glory or twelve tribes Rasta fervour or dancehall bridges in the middle of hard rock songs, stuff that shouts hey, I’m Jamaican too! The fact is the reggae-rock masterpiece has already been made. It’s called Exodus, kids, look it up.

5. Too much crap music.
If there is one thing that links everybody from Mick Jagger to Prince to Jack White to Tapes and Tapes it is an absolutely unimpeachable taste in music. Prince is a perfect example. When he used to wax rhapsodic about Led Zeppelin and Joni Mitchell we ended up with Dirty Mind and Sign O’ the Times. When he stopped listening to everybody but those bimbos he was trying to sleep with we ended up with The Batman soundtrack. It’s astounding how bad the taste of some of these rockers can be. Instead of Nirvana they gush over Bush copying Nirvana. Stone Temple pilots was an epiphany for many and I even hear a rumor about a rocker friend of mind taking his whole band to see Hoobastank, but I refuse to believe that one. I once asked a folkie, which was her favorite Joni Mitchell record, and she responded with who? Maybe they believe as many ludicrously untalented writers do that by listening to others they would be “influenced” by them. Of course. These guys are such perfectly formed geniuses already that who am I to disagree.

6. Too little to show for it

The proof of any music scene, movement whatever must boil down to actual records. Many of the guys mentioned in the Billboard article are still in the scene, still playing music, still forgetting Jimi Hendrix’s walking bass in Hey Joe and still trying to lace nu-metal with Jamaican Patois. But where are the records? Where are the documents of their era? Most will give you an excuse like a Funkadelic line. They are standing on the verge of getting it on. So why don’t they? My belief is that they can’t and probably already know it. Maybe, just maybe, they are not rock and rollers at all, but fans whose love of the music coincided with the ability to buy instruments. This is by no means a bad thing, but stop charging people 300 dollars to have people watch what your money bought.

Monday, September 11, 2006

Can you hear them, the helicopters, I'm in New York...

So it's been five years since Osama Bin laden blew a big hole in the middle of everything that we took for granted as safe and sure. This year, like last time I'm in New York for 9/11. I don't know if what I write next will make any sense. I have a student visa and a visitor's visa, I don't live in the United States even though I'm here all the time and I'm certainly not American.

I am however, a New Yorker. I spend pretty much half of each year here, but more that that, I've seen and heard my transformation to a New York State of mind, something that is equal parts worldliness, defensiveness, open-mindedness and impatience. I'll defend a freak's right to be freaky on the subway, but lose all sense of tolerance when I come across slow walking tourists on 34th and 7th. I know one person who died in Trade Center but also the last person to leave the building alive. 9/11 still seems like a surreal event, not like a film necessarily but like an unwelcome dream that refuses to leave my self conscious. I still can't believe what happened.

But like millions of non-Americans, my horror at 9/11 was also mixed with disturbing ambiguity. There's a part of me that could not believe what I was seeing but also a part of me that thought America had it coming. I was shocked, but not surprised. I've seen the very best of America at home and the very worst abroad. I found myself holding back tears even as I was getting all Malcolm X-like, muttering that the chickens have come home to roost. Sorrow and schadenfreud is not a pretty mix, but once were talking about the USA they are as inseparable as Sodom and Gomorrah. The New Yorker in me was grieving even as the foreigner in me was using everything from CIA policy's in North Africa to apocalyptic theory to explain to myself just how inevitable it all was.

I'm not actually in New York. I'm at a hotel in Pennsylvania listening to the radio on how 9/11 transformed the rest of America. The first thing I notice is that there's only one place that has moved from that day and that's New York itself. Like London, the act of moving on is just prefigured in our DNA. The only way forward is through and New Yorkers get through almost everything through sheer force of momentum. New Yorkers do not do inertia—that's for the rest of America to grapple with.

So I'm moving and grappling. It's hard to separate America's foreign policy from America itself. Bill, my best friend in the USA has also been the brunt of my most furious debates, about the ridiculousness of Americans asking non-Americans not to kill them while the American military decimates their country. I asked him if he really thought that an Iraqi woman who just lost her family should take a quiet moment, ponder a little and then come the conclusion that it was the American Government that did this, not the American People?

Yes he said.

I see his point. If the reason for living in this world is to become better citizens of it then we should all appeal to that world's better nature. But not so fast. His brother was not killed in Iraq. His family's home wasn't just destroyed to clear the way for a Haliburton Truck. And try as he can to show me how he has no power to change his government, that flies in the face of the whole freedom to choose that even the most average American boasts about.

Like many Americans, Bill was asking a question that I'm not sure he has the right to ask. He was asking non-Americans not to kill his family even as his own government was trying to kill theirs. He was saying that he tried to change his government and failed and that he shouldn't have to pay for it; that killing innocent people wherever they are is just wrong and no ideology can make it right. I understand that. But I also understand why such a statement is met with little sympathy outside of America. America convinced us that if we didn't like our governments, we simply have to change them and that was that. Now Americans are telling us otherwise. More than that, Americans are asking us an impossible favour, that we show them our best even as they or rather their government insists on showing us their worst.

That's a gift I'm not sure the world can deliver. The New Yorker in me wants to protect this city and make sure 9/11 never happens again. The foreigner in me who knows names like Larry Devlin and Henry Kissingerr and terms like destabilisation is still shaking a fist. The foreigner in me who watches as American creations like Osama Bin Laden, Sadam Hussein and Manual Noriega become monsters laughs at the blowback and concludes that the country had it coming. Bill is asking for me to look at him as simply another human being, not realising what a tall order that is. We look at American as angels or demons, or celluloid forms, not real people trying to make it through a day like everybody else. Americans are just people trying to make sense of a senseless event and trying to find some perspective in which everything might fit.

The trouble with that is that while every right thinking person in the world became an American on 9/11, most of us renounced that citizenshipp when Bush invaded Iraq. Americans stopped being a nation of people again and returned to the globally imperialist machinery that we have always known it to be. We find it hard to separate Americans from their government largely because America spent so much time convincing us that their government was chosen by the people. That makes us think that every American is to an extent responsible and there is really no such thing as an innocent victim.

But that perhaps is my own cop-out. As a Jamaican I know full well the feeling of being powerless in the presence of my own government. I just would not have expected such a feeling from an American. But when I say to the Bills of this world that I don't understand his frustration I'm hiding behind ideology, or put another way, I'm lying. I'm just not ready to accept the American citizen as being as scared, angry and confused as I am. I'm not ready to accept the American as victim or even human. I remember the first time I came to the U.S. and was stunned that all the women did not looking like Farrah Faucet all the men didn't like Patrick Duffy. I was stunned that America was a land of people and not types and that it was people who died in 9/11. That in war there are only victims and some of those victims are the ones who fired the first shot. That eye for an eye leaves the world in blindness and shot for shot leaves it empty. I'm not trying to give American a hug (well maybe new York), but I am looking for a conversation.

Saturday, September 02, 2006

So Many Books, Not Enough Time...

Jennifer Egan, Claire Messud, Thomas Pynchon, Richard Ford, Richard Powers, Charles Frazier, Joe Meno, Edward P. Jones, George Pellecanos, Alan Moore, Barry Unsworth, Mark Haddon. I'm so glad I have no book coming out this year. I'd never have a chance.