Wednesday, February 28, 2007

My Top Ten Books

I love memes. They save me the trouble of having to come up with new blog ideas every week, because all this thinking sometimes leaves me with brain fever. What's more I've given up sarcasm and chicken for lent and you can only guess which has been harder. I mentioned in my "books that made me want to write books" blog that those books weren't even for the most part my favourites. But these are:

1. One Hundred Years Of Solitude, Gabriel Garcia Marquez
2. Song Of Solomon, Toni Morrison
3. The Obscene Bird of Night, Jose Donoso
4. Dubliners, James Joyce
5. Guerillas, V.S. Naipaul
6. Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain
7. The Master and Margarita, Mikhail Bulgakov
8. Wide Sargasso Sea, Jean Rhys
9. My Name is Red, Orham Pamuk
10.Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Satan is Real, You Nigger Lovers

I could explain to you why the core of Jamaica Reggae is country music but that's another blog, which I promise I will write soon. If you want to see the roots of reggae and gospel forget Aretha Franklin and the Staple Singers and reach for the Waylon Jennings, Jim Reeves, Tennessee Ernie Ford, Marty Robbins' Gunfighter ballads and The Louvin Brothers. The Louvin Brothers especially managed to mesmerize and influence reggae and gospel artists, who still sing "Satan is Real" in church.

This must be one of those ironies that gives God a good chuckle because the Louvin Brothers were two of the virulent racists ever to strum a guitar and they would have been horrified to know that just near the equator hundreds of negroes were loving their music. Ira Louvin died in a car crash and Charlie has kept on going, becoming something of a mini-legend, to country artists and alternative artists who still struggle for authenticity because well, rock and roll is just a little too plastic. Mind you, Charlie is so authentic that up
to a few years ago he was still giving the coons, jigaboos and niggers lots of hate.

So Elvis Costello, Jeff Tweedy, Will Oldham, Tom T. Hall, Tift Merritt, Marty Stuart, David Kilgour, members of Bright Eyes, Lambchop, Clem Snide, Superchunk and more have all guested on Charlie's new album. No doubt they wetted themselves on being in the same room as a man who walked they way they talked. But I wonder. Would the sessions have gone so smoothly had Cowboy Troy showed up? What about Charlie Pride? Did any of these guests care that had they brought their black friends along that would have caused problems? Or maybe these artists don't have black friends. I could take a cheap shot at Elvis Costello, who should have known better given his past, but I'll leave that for somebody else. The irony about this is that there are Jamaicans who will sing along to "Satan is Real" and in the same breath call Elvis Presley racist.

But this I know. Elvis never said "The only thing Negroes can do for me is shine my shoes and buy my records." Some claim he said it in Boston but Elvis had never been to Boston. Some claim to have heard him say it behind the scenes of CBS's Person to Person. But Elvis never appeared on the show because CBS wouldn't pay a fee. Elvis has always given credit to black musicians, never deluded himself about where rock and roll came from and went to a black church for most of his life. Hell, the man wasn't even homophobic.

This I also know. Elvis worshipped the Louvin Brothers. Elvis worshiped them so much that he asked them to tour with him in the fifties. The Louvin Brothers with typical Louvin class turned him down. As they eloquently put it, they would never tour with a 'niggerlover.' But hey, if George Wallace can change, so can Charlie Louvin, right?


Sunday, February 11, 2007

Five Note Mojo

Nicholas tagged me with this, where bloggers say five things about themselves to various degrees of revelation. So in the interest of perpetuating this stream of Revelations here goes.

1. I had an exorcism at age 33. I just felt that there were things I needed to get rid of and a spiritual make or break was the only way to do it. Deliverances as evangelicals call them are as frightening as you think but also not what you think at all. My head didn’t do a 360 but I did speak in voices not my own and vomit up two buckets of I-know-not-what since I made sure not to eat or drink anything that day. The thing is, since my deliverance I’ve been more apart from God than ever before. I still believe he exists, but I’ve just lost faith in his ability to do anything. Last year I drove past an accident where a woman was crushed by a truck. If God thinks that something good has come out of that because all things work together for good, then one of the two of us is nuts.

2. I buy black music because I don’t want to seem like the Oreo I’m frequently accused of being. Lil’ Wayne made my list of best albums this year and to tell the truth I have never listened to his mix tape. Race as a concept bewilders me and because of that I feel that other people feel I’m not black enough. I listen to less rap than white people. I don’t buy R&B records. If I’m near a reggae artist I’m probably producing his video and I’m the token black guy at a Dungen Concert. The band’s Swedish. I went to a Toshi Reagon concert because I was going with black friends but spent all night kicking myself for not catching Deerhoof. I bought Mary J’s last album but have never listened to it. Yet I can sing along to every Peter Bjorn and John song even though I’ve never seen a lyric sheet and my favourite records last year were Joanna Newsom's "YS," Boris' "Pink," Mastodon's "Blood Mountain," and Gnarls Barkley, which for some downright confirms Oreo status.

3. To quote somebody from History Boys, I’m not happy, but I’m not unhappy about it. I have a journal that I write in everyday. I’m terrified of anyone reading it, but I wish somebody would.

4. I throw away Patti Smith’s albums every year. Every time she scowls “Kid can’t you show me nothing but surrender,” I feel she’s talking to me, cussing me for failing to live up to my potential. It’s like she’s saying look at me, I’m at 10 and you’re still at 4 so step up or step off. So I step off. I throw her records away because I can’t imagine living my life with such honesty. Then I buy them back and go look, I’m doing this now, and I’ve thrown away that now. Maybe one day it will be enough.

5. I hate meeting famous writers. I met Derek Walcott last year and got the name of his dear departed friend’s wife wrong. He promptly corrected me and I felt like a fool. I never have anything to say when I meet these people. I like to think that maybe all that needs to be said is in their work but there may be more to it than that. I just feel like an awkward fan and not a writer and I hate feeling awkward. It's better when we immediately think of a neutral subject, or if somebody introduces me, but otherwise I feel like a leech taking up people’s time. I still sweat over what dumb shit I might have said when I met Russell Banks. Strangely enough him remembering me for saying something stupid stings less than him not remembering me at all.

On Privacy

Nearly a decade ago in Wired Magazine, the futurist Esther Dyson, proclaimed that privacy was dead. The concept died years ago she said, we just haven’t yet realized it. In privacy’s place would or should come mutual responsibility and accountability. Now that secrets were over we had no choice but to hold each other in check since we all knew what the other was up to. The striking thing about such a worldview is that like Marshall Macluhan or even Phillip K Dick, Dyson ended up being both right and wrong.

I’m thinking of Dyson because of a rather revealing issue of TIME OUT NY that focused on New Yorkers living with their neighbors; an issue I found both inspiring and depressing. If privacy is over, nobody told New York City where eight million nations of one all live together apart. What was striking about the neighbors being ‘introduced’ to each other was not that they needed to be introduced or that they live apart by design but rather how adamant there were about keeping it that way. At the end of two of the matchmaking interviews it was clear that even though the neighbors were happy to be more familiar they were also clearly not going to reach out to each other again. There is this effort to deny the natural human tendency to socialize, to relegate it to work and neutral areas in order to protect the sanctuary of home. Home as a refuge from people as opposed to a place to welcome and entertain.

Sitting in my apartment in New York I tried to calculate how long it would take for me to be found if I had a stroke. I would die of course but how near would I have to be to the door before my corpse stinks up the hallway and how stink would it have be before the neighbors raise an alarm? I think of Vincenzo Ricardo, the man who sat dead in his Hamptons Bay house for a full year because not one neighbours thought to check on this old, blind man who had not been seen in months and whose letters were falling out of his mailbox. It’s incredible to me how far we will go to protect our right to not have anyone be a part of our lives. I think that at this very moment somewhere in this oh so developed state another Kitty Genovese (pic 1) is learning the hard way that she is on her own. There is a price to be paid for this of course. Privacy comes with a curse. While it may shield the hard working yuppies from nosy neighbors it also shields a Jeffery Dahmer from being found out, even when the stench of his pile of bodies becomes unbearable.

Privacy allows secretive people to hide on plain sight. One reason why Michael Devlin could get away with kidnapping Shawn Hornbeck (pic 2) and holding him hostage for four years is that whether consciously or not he counted on his neighbors to not give a damn what he did. He counted on his neighbors to be as self centered and selfish as he was. My roommate in NYC is from California and I’m from Jamaica and both of us found the willful anonymity of New Yorkers bracing and disturbing. The idea that I could take the train every day and not tell a single person good morning is foreign to me. I remember last year when I was stranded at JFK and called every person I considered a friend to help out. The response I got from all was “well, let me know how it turns out.” Now it could have been that maybe I was overestimating my closeness to these people, but I think it goes deeper than that. I think people in big cities think privacy; the right to exclude any and everybody from their lives is the only measure of true power that they have left. Selfishness then becomes survival mechanism and personal expression at once.

The only time that New Yorkers broke this rule was 9/11. Not surprisingly the only place now that bears little trace of 9/11 is New York. A question like “how much do you know about your neighbors?” immediately takes on an ominous tone. We are so obsessed with shielding ourselves from potential bogeymen that our very mode of self-protection breeds them by the truckload. Going as I do from one country to the next it has been interesting to see the concept of privacy versus community bend, shape and shift. In America, a new form of human contact has exploded with no need for actual human contact or at least person-to-person or flesh-to-flesh. My Space and You Tube are communities as large as any neighborhood. My best buddy Bill is somebody I see at the most twice a year and our friendship developed totally on MSN. In Jamaica we are coming apart and settling into mini-communities of one. The irony is that the American achievement of new community and the Jamaican devolution into isolation is fueled by the same source: the Internet.

Through the internet Americans have found a new way to interact while Jamaicans have found a new way to cut off from community, perhaps to build what they have always wanted instead of the what they have always been subjected to. This is not necessarily a bad thing. It means for example that gay Jamaicans won’t feel so alone again and teenage Jamaicans can mature without the crushing sense that they have already outgrown the country at 15. But is this a real community? We can interact with each other on the web but I’m not sure we can hold each other accountable. Unlike real life (for the most part) we control what of us people see and hear on the web. I’m sure the web me is more articulate that than the real me. He certainly is better looking, since I used a photoshopped pic from five years and 20 pounds ago (not the one on this blog, I promise, ladies). In a curious way we have managed to be online yet still out of sight and out of mind.

But while I not ready to call an online community a real one yet, that may be just me. I realize that maybe anonymity and community can co-exist. That’s the whole point behind blogs such as this one, for instance. The Internet as a forum for gut truth also blows me away. On, people confess things they would never reveal in church, or to loved ones. There’s rarely any interaction but the onslaught of honest expression results in a community of sorts. It’s the best of ironies, a website for secrets that proves that we are all dying to lose them. My friend knows of a preacher who has an online church and strangely enough because his congregation can be more honest online than in real life he scores more breakthroughs than real churches. But here is why it can never be as good or better than real contact, at least not for me. Even with so many online friends, colleagues and contacts I still spend a Saturday night alone and feeling loneliness so heavy that it’s almost a sickness. And there has to be more to a community than lonely souls being lonely together. Sometimes privacy is just another way of choosing loneliness and sometimes loneliness is as sad as the Beatles told us in Eleanor Rigby.

Still not convinced that privacy is loneliness by choice? Try this experiment. Think or make a list of all your friends. First subtract all that you have met through work. And yes if you’re an artist or musician your fellow artists and musicians count. Now subtract all who are actual family members. Subtract all you met in college. Subtract all who are not really friends, just drinking buddies. Subtract your significant other’s friends. Now subtract all friends you have known more than six years. Still have friends left? Good for you. At least that’s not one of the things you’re keeping private.