Tuesday, January 19, 2010

The world of distraction - Haiti, Jay Reatard, the seemingly cheap but necessary comfort of music and ESPN

Haiti - How to Help (Red Cross)
More info (Huffington)

Preface - Tune into almost any channel: all MTV networks, ABC, HBO, CNN, NBC, Comedy Central, VH1, CMT...to watch George Clooney, Wyclef Jean and Anderson Cooper co host a live telethon to raise money for the victims of the earthquake in Haiti - more info -

Jan 22nd - 8pm - tune in - help if you can

also recommended reading- Barbara Dehn - at Huffingtonpost

So onto some rambled essay

Jan 15 - 2010

I was disturbed by three things – an earthquake in Haiti, the sudden death of garage rocker Jay Reatard, and the eerie calm of the fervently churning and chugging elliptical bobbers.

At the gym, it is, not unlike handfuls of individual lap-topped sippers in a coffee shop, crowded solitude.

Like standing at a urinal, we, for a time, behave as though we’re in our own world – even if there’s a strider to the left and to the right, even if that one old dude’s shorts are definitely too short, even if they’re huffing louder than you and thus constantly reminding you of their presence and proximity.

No, most of them have headphones on anyway. Hooked up to their iPods. With everyone’s hearing blocked by headphones, you can actually say whatever you want to them, at a moderate level, and they won’t realize you’ve just said something. They are being swayed by their own personal soundtrack. What are they listening to? The Dead Weather? Vampire Weekend? John Mayer? Lady Gaga? Some personal playlist of their favorite Pearl Jam songs? Taylor Swift? The score to Avatar?

The pasty white quintessential grandma is rocking Public Enemy; the balding, ever-grinning, bespectacled 50 year old dude with the cake and cookies love handles is listening to the Twilight saga audio books; the awfully cute, book-ish looking mousy girl is giving David Lee Roth’s “Eat Em and Smile” a try.

Who knows. There are so few of us in this stuffy space of groans and sighs and coughs and the white noise of the whirring cardio machines, who do not wear headphones, who do not own iPods, who in fact, resign ourselves to subjection of the sounds of the gym.

The televisions, four of them, are all on mute. One of them displays the unspeakable tragedy, the aftermath and the preceding recovery, of the recent earthquake in Haiti. (Click here for more ways to help). The other screen displays an almost-pompadour’ed suited gentlemen, yammering with eyes flicking and waving eyebrows giving away his overexerted attempt at wittiness, while occasional video clips of retired homerun slugger Mark McGwire is spliced across his commentary.

And I, feeling alone as I do my own little urinal peeing workout, pause and reflect on how vulgar it feels – that, though the talking pompadour is on ESPN, an all-sports “network,” and the images of the earthquake victims wandering the rubble-laden streets is that of an all-news “network,” I can’t help but think, that

Wow…, pompadour has to come into work today and continue the same old song and dance of dissecting the off-the-court goings-ons of overpaid athletes, dissecting all the angles of a solitary play that took three seconds to occur, making predictions about which “team” will “win” and, most importantly, a longwinded explanation as to why and how.

And all the while, something that clearly matters more, the earthquake and the lives forever altered, the crumbling country, on the screen to the left, goes on, but is, not only unaddressed by the humans on the screen to the right, it is as if we’re watching two different worlds. One where, not only did the earthquake most certainly happen, but it is the main focus, fully explored, dissected. In the other, any idea or discussion of an earthquake is nonexistent. Earthquakes don’t happen in the screen on the right – the sports network, or the entertainment news program, or the reality-TV program, or the game show – because, it’s almost as if Earth itself doesn’t exist, while we’re there…

When our eyes can’t take much more of the screen on the left, we just turn to the screen on the right. Pure escapism. That is, for those of us not rocking an Eric Clapton best-of, or U2’s “Beautiful Day,” those of us stuck watching the volume-less tv screens.

It made me, I’ll admit, feel a kind of disgust for this callous, selfish escape that we slip to – the turning of the page, the flipping of the channel, the escape into headphones.

Well. Yeah. Shit. Ugh. It’s hard, it’s painful, it’s sad, it is a staggeringly poignant case of empathy. It’s an unspeakable, and for many of us in the Midwest, unimaginable, tragedy.

But we can turn on ESPN and hear an almost gossipy-feeling news report of Mark McGwire’s admittance to steroid-use. We need it to distract our emotional energy.

I think I related to the pompadour who had to come in to work, knowing the same news updates about the earthquake, and still do what is his job, his role, and provide us with what can feel like distractions, even if its his livelihood. Because I have to sit down and write album reviews, or think up keen questions to ask a British band I’m calling up for an interview later today. I have to work as a music journalist, just as he has to work as a sports journalist.

So how much of “journalist” work involves preparing coverage on what can be, vulgarly in the case of arts and belittling in the case of sports, to “entertainment.”

I’m trying to decide if our embrace of the next television screen represents a need for quick, fleeting catharsis. Like that first big belly laugh, however long it takes to surface, after a funeral. Something to ease our cares and make us feel a new, happier or at least carefree emotion. If we flip to the next channel so quickly, does that mean that we are not completely cold and careless and selfish, that we can feel for them, and in fact, it hurts us and worries us and saddens us so much that we’ll grab at Mark McGwire’s steroid straws to give us that first-belly-laugh feeling.

Well, maybe. But I don’t know. One hopes we don’t change channels or turn pages before we find out HOW WE CAN HELP.

Anyway, even if I have my zealous, idealistic moments of romanticizing music as art – I have to reconcile that many people treat it as another distraction – like all these bobbers and striders here in the gym pumping up with overcooked Led Zeppelin in their ears, or Rage Against The Machine, or Feist or Christina Aguilera or whatever…

Are any of these grandmas and palookas listening to Jay Reatard? His latest album sounds so poppy and freewheeling, it could make for ideal escape (that is if you don’t listen to deeply to the lyrical depictions of isolation, feeling trapped, and casual suggestions of a looming death)– but that’s the other thing saddening me, is his, Jay Reatard, aka Jay Lindsey’s recent, still-mysterious/possible homicide death. I didn’t know him, I just listened to a lot of his music. I feel like I know him.

But, this week, it’s been a strange fluctuation of sorrow – the most extreme and utterly baffled sadness felt for the victims of the earthquake, and the more nuanced hit my heart takes when a favorite singer, or artist, dies suddenly, and so young, when a voice inside the chamber of our otherwise distractions, is silenced – and that that becomes the news that the journalists of the music journalist function, report.

I didn’t know him. Just like I didn’t know anyone in Haiti. And I don’t know any of these silent, awkward urinal standing work-outers.

But all those television screens up there, if just momentarily, made me think about the way we experience sorrow – and posit the amount of empathy we’re able to conjure for our fellow human. Why don’t we talk to each other more, when we’re here working out, get to know each other. Cuz, when the shit hits the fan, when an earthquake hits, we will need each other, we will have to depend on another to help us out and we must always be ready for that. As long as we remember that, as we flip the channel, as long as we know that tragedy is not silenced and is, often, still being documented, still actually happening back on that “last channel” and that that can be our real life any day now, well, then we’ll, in some small way, be ready. And be ready to talk to one another, call out for one another, when it does come.

Cuz if I pull my groin and cry out, will anyone with their iPod on hear me? Maybe not. But eventually someone will unplug and come help.


On a musical note, made to feel callous in the face of the Haiti tragedy, but more of a personal ode of a fan with his headphones and record sleeve...

– A quasi eulogy for Jay –

I was often disconcerted by Jay’s lyrics – especially in the song “Rotten Mind,” - “I see myself high up in the sky, people around me hoping I don’t die… I know where I wanna go and I don’t want to be this way / surrounded by people that want to watch me fall…” with the chorus, “I don’t wanna be / I don’t wanna be…be this way.” This coming from an artist who’d just signed with one of the most credible and well regarded indie-rock labels, Matador, for the release of his biggest-to-date and very well-received album, his now-final album, “Watch Me Fall.”

I was always blown away by his masterful blend of punk and pop sensibilities – and not in some cheap, sugary, contrived way, but in a very real feeling presentation, a blend of hard shredding guitars, obliterating drums, but such a tight delivery – and those his high airy voice could feel so chilly, there was a still a soulfulness to it. The quickest, easiest, dirtiest reference would be the Ramones impeccable ability to take classic 50’s pop head-bobbing giddy gush and glory with a seemingly leather-jacket-clad toughness. But unlike the Ramones, there was convincing pain and darkness – and not snotty, irrational, juvenile anger, but an almost poet-like sorrow at the mere desolation that can be apart of everyday life. There was such a sympathy to those who felt all alone in the world, but a simultaneous rejection of the pettiness of being accepted – “they don’t even know like me…” he’d sing on “Hiding In My Hole” –

The word is not yet in, on what caused his death – though authorities are now investigating it as a homicide. Perhaps I’ll say more soon – but the writing, his isolation and discomfort and self-loathing, was all over the walls of his last release – “I don’t deserve the best…” “They control me my feeble brain, telling me to go insane – I can’t do it anymore…”

It’s utterly tasteless, when specifically noting the strong somberness of the lyrical tone, but “Watch Me Fall” is still one of the most amazing, well-constructed pop/rock records of the last decade – seething with ravenous drums, blurring-blade guitar riffs, hard-jerking riffs and also, at points, a delicacy and charm.


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