Thursday, January 18, 2007

Kiss Me Kiss Me Kiss Me

I have four friends in four countries. Our lives could not have been any more different save for one striking blast of synchronicity that still leaves us spellbound when we think about it. In the spring of 1987, almost 20 years before we became friends, we were a stoned mullethead in Chicago, an ex-punk picking up photography in London, a future lit major in Australia, a willfully mute artsy type in Kingston and a quasi bohemian in Paris. But for one magical summer in 1987 (magic being black of course) all five of us with no knowledge of each other’s existence, were doing the same thing at the same time: Marooning ourselves in our bedrooms to listen to The Cure’s Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me.

I don’t remember 1987 by any sequence of days and dates; I remember it by breaths I lost, gasping at “Just Like Heaven.” I can’t recall any major events but I do remember the sad drum clatter of “Like Cockatoos,” fighting against the thunder strings and the titanic, looping bass. I know at precisely which bar of “The Kiss” the vocals come in and I remember experiencing something between epiphany and euphoria when I screamed “Get that FUCKING voice out of my head” along with Robert Smith. I remember trying not to lose it in the middle of “If Only Tonight We Could Sleep,” because I thought right then that I would never experience love. I was in U.S. for the summer after the roughest school year of my life. To paraphrase what Oprah once said about books, great music, hearing great records was the first time I felt loved, ever. Records like Kiss me Kiss me Kiss me, and Sign O’ The Times, (another double album masterpiece released that year) were so loaded with riches that they felt like gifts I didn’t deserve.

All I know is that when I listened to The Cure everything that I hated about myself at the beginning became everything I loved about myself at the end. This was my mute season, the summer I stopped talking because I had grown tired of being one of the most hated kids in high school. I spent that Easter trying to devise painless ways to kill myself because I just did not belong. I wanted to be one of the normal, cool kids so badly that I decided that the only way to make my life better was to end it. People always mocked me when I spoke so I stopped speaking, leaving it up to others to decide whether I was sick or rude. Drowning seemed too violent and slashing my wrists meant, well, the slashing part. I heard that falling from a building was like diving into water. I was dead set on dying but instead I went to Chicago. I stayed with my uncle, aunt and cousins who were all wonderful people, but fundamentalist Christians who didn’t take too kindly to popular music. I remember waiting until everybody was asleep and tiptoeing downstairs to watch Friday night videos on Superstation TBS.

One day we were driving home from Wednesday church service when we stopped at a gas station. Somebody was switching stations on the radio. Out of nowhere the strangest, high-pitched voice burst through the little car stereo. “Everything you do is so ingeeeeeeeeeeeeeniousssssss! He-she-it said. Five seconds later that same voice was howling “Why, why why why why can’t I be yoooooouuuuuuu?” The radio was quickly switched off. “You like that?” somebody asked me. “No,” I said, the first but not the last time I lied about music. I didn’t know who the band was or the name of the song, but I bought Billboard the next day hoping that the name of the song was Why Can’t I Be You. There it was on both the college rock and dance charts. I bought the record in secret, and spent nights staring at the huge lip-sticked cover, dying to go back home so that I could play it loud with the headphones on.

As a writer what interests me most is the commonality of experience, how we co-exist even as we choose not to coexist. Or put another way, how all of us are living the same lives even as we choose not to share them. In 1987 my future friends and me spent summer being alone together. 1987 was a particularly lonely summer and back then Kiss Me Kiss Me Kiss Me and Sign on the times were the only friends I had. But Sign O’ the Times was drama on an international scale. Kiss Me Kiss Me Kiss Me was a private thing, an underground back when the word meant something. The Cure were a band whose exaggerated freakiness and geekiness underscored my own. A band that taught me to celebrate the very things about me that others disliked. I was a Jamaican kid in love with Love and Rockets and Echo and the Bunnymen and couldn’t understand why I was being crucified for not liking dancehall reggae. Kiss Me Kiss Me Kiss Me was one of the first true epics of the alternative nation, back when we were all swimming in our own innerspace, unaware that we had become a movement. That was something we would not realize until all of us; goths, nerds, punks, hardcore kids, straight edgers, artfags, grunge boys, Riot Grrrls, hip-hoppers, new wavers and no-wavers all showed up at Pixies Concerts.

I recently bought the re-mastered double CD and found myself doing what I always do: skipping to “Like Cockatoos,” then playing the rest in entirety. I think of Robert Smith’s puppy dog whelp and how everyone around me hated it. I remember that being the exact point when loving something everybody else hates became the greatest pleasure in the world. I extended this to loving other things, among them the Pixies, Shakespeare and myself. Maybe it’s a stretch to say that loving the Cure helped me to love myself but in my mind it makes perfect sense. Don’t get me wrong, Disintegration is their masterpiece. In fact my favourite song of the 1989 might be Love Song. Or Lullaby. Or Fascination Street. But Kiss Me Kiss Me Kiss Me is MY record. The one where I got to know and love not only this great band, but myself as well.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Pat Boone, the penguin

Fine, if Jack Nicholson can go unbilled in Broadcast News or Edward Norton in Kingdom of Heaven, then there is nothing particularly bad about such a thing. It may even work for the movie, Jack's appearance give a great film a greater jolt, and Edward Norton perhaps knew that his sheer grace in such a graceless movie would have caused critics to focus only on him, which they did anyway.

So maybe I'm making too big a deal out of Savion Glover not receiving any credit for his dancing in Happy Feet. I've heard even Glover's wimp-ass explanation, resorting to the "it's all good for the artform" excuse. I've even heard the lamer excuse that billing would have taken some of the magic away from the illusion of character. Funny, nobody was worried about Tom Hanks voicing a cartoon cowboy and Robin Williams doing a genie. But that's just a voice and nobody recognises voices right? My apologies if I just killed the illusion for you.

Savion Glover is not just any tap dancer, he's the world acknowledged Genius of the form, even if he doesn't seem to know it. I'm not surprised that he would be Pat Booned, but I am surprised that he has been done so by a cartoon penguin and nobody, not even Glover thinks anything is wrong with it.

Saturday, January 06, 2007

On Tolerance

The irony isn’t lost on me that New York was once called New Amsterdam. The evidence is everywhere that NY has more in common with a European city than the rest of America. That is why I could write months ago that even though I’m not an American citizen, nor do I live in the states permanently that I am a New Yorker. Even by European standards the New York Metropolis is quite striking for its tolerance. In fact I’ll go out on a shaky limb and say that New York is even more tolerant than European cities, where the absence of overt racism and disenfranchisement causes far more insidious and subtle versions to endure. My Brit friends raise unholy hell when I mention this (and there is the fact that I’ve never been to London), but they are always struck dumb when I mention that New York’s terrorists were at least imported, not born and raised natives of their own city. Instead New York flies all freak flags at full mast, glorifying her melting pot magnificence, patting herself on the back for tolerating all manner of kinds on the subway, including the less than sane. There is really no place on earth like it.

This is also a problem that New Yorkers in their sometime blindness don’t recognize. When tolerance is elevated to the highest moral value it creates as many problems as solutions. Lord knows tolerance is better than bigotry, but this is also the laziest of solutions, a beginning treated too often like an ending; a way of doing nothing that reassures us that we have done something. Diversity is of course a wonderful starting point but tolerant societies mistake this for a goal. This creates a whole slew of problems, nowhere better seen than in New York.

Enter gentrification. But not in the way you might think. Concerned citizens watching New York’s boroughs becoming split between only the very rich and the very poor have demanded housing that reflects greater economic diversity. But this move not only fails to solve the problem but also fools us into thinking that we have solved it. Housing may be set aside for the poor but where are the good, affordable schools to educate their children? Where is solid childcare, health and wealth benefits, and job security—anything that would usher the poor into the middle class? A maid may find an apartment near Central Park South but if she can never afford NYU then she and her daughter will remain maids. And let’s look at the plight of the incredible shrinking middle class for a second. Nothing proves the healthy mobility of a society more than a vibrant middle, the existence of which means the poor are getting richer and the teachers, civil servants, police and firemen are finding opportunities for economic and social stability. But the middle class is going the way of the mastodon in New York, a move that will have its backlash as soon as the state remembers that this is the class that pays all the taxes. In the absence of a vibrant middle there is the stagnant poor. Tolerance, far from a force of social change has become instead, a tool of human resource development departments, two or three lines at the bottom of a recruitment ad, nothing more. This is not progress.

The fact is liberals are to a commanding extent well educated, if not always well paid (and that’s relative, people). Liberals are also and have always been afflicted with a case of blind snobbery that would be offensive were it not well meaning. Take for example the film Borat. Liberals had more problems with it than conservatives. Critics, while lauding the dark humour also expressed concern that Borat’s flagrant anti-Semitism, homophobia and sexism may have been misinterpreted as endorsements by “Middle America”. Here again a well-meaning concern betrays the damning cultural snobbery that liberals are frequently (and correctly) accused of, the type of that led Chuck D to exclaim in 1988, “Better a Klansman than a liberal.” Where is this American who is so backward that he would not get this type of joke? I’m not saying that he does not exist, but what about the many Americans, millions who are not New York liberals, who consider themselves open-minded, but was just slotted into an unsavory geographical stereotype without their consent? Again, without realizing it, the liberal has declared himself more intelligent than so-called Middle America and offends the very populace he thinks he’s defending. The “I am smart enough to get it, but my backward brothers will not,” logic. The Dixie Chicks were so lionized as victims that nobody noticed when they turned into antagonists, alienating potentially supportive women such as Reba McIntire and dismissing many of their devout fans as backward rednecks that they never wanted in the first place.

And what is a Middle American anyway? I’ve met farmers if Ashland, Oregon and they are nothing at all like the farmers I met in Florida. Most people I’ve met have no problem with a man willing his property to another man even they don’t like the idea of gay marriage. Most of them believe in God but not religion and most have no problem with abortion. And even if some are conservative or even racist as we often believe, isn’t it a greater offence to simply write the whole territory off as one kind of creature? And yet the more tolerant breed of American does this all the time. Nobody in Middle America calls himself a Middle American, at least nobody I met.

Tolerance is a cop-out, a positive value with no emotional quality. It is hence quite easy, so easy that what most of us think is tolerance is not even that. Case in point. Go back to the beginning of this blog; replace tolerance with Apathy and you will notice that the tone of the article has not changed one bit. Tolerance is a quick way to reach for diversity without ever admitting that diversity is not equality. Racial equality is wonderful but when only 3 percent of that race can afford a good education, it means nothing more than a guaranteed seat on the subway. Because tolerance is a first move mistaken for a final step it reinforces far more serious problems than the ones it fixes.

The poor don’t need you to hold their hand and sing kumbaya. They need opportunities to become less poor and more rich. By the way society moves two things might happen: The poor become wealthier, a restored middle class that will need a new set of economic opportunities that the city has yet to provide. Or the poor are given nothing and the lack of opportunities despite social diversity will create societal fissures that explode, sometimes on a national scale. London’s terrorists were homegrown after all and the Rodney king beating, trial and riots happened in LA, not Alabama.