in which the naked chimp is unmasked, his machines debugged, and his bugbears debunked

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

In search of lost time at the Smokay Corral

So you wake up one hungover Sunday in October. The usual fug and yawns, the clutching at a glass of water, the wondering what happened. The first of many terrifying memory flashes… the wishing for not remembering what happened. Maybe (if you’re lucky) the fridge is keeping the last slice of pizza cold for you, a slice which now awaits your mouth, which tastes and feels like the inside of Casey Stoner’s motorcycle glove. Your teeth, your teeth have socks on. It’s nasty, but hey, you’ve done it before, right? Probably the night before last. Odds on the week before that. Perhaps following a crippling pattern grooved deeply you're your routine over the course of a decade. You might not be getting better at it, ‘improving’, if you will – imagine if you’d poured all that money, time and energy into piano lessons instead – but you have survived. You live. And this might even be a fact worth celebrating, perhaps with a greasy breakfast behind sunglasses, followed (in no set order) by a half-assed wank, a DVD and a snooze.

But then that horrible little ebb smacks you in the fug – egad – it’s an hour later (even) than the midday you thought you’d managed. You don’t scream, you don’t cry (it would trigger a headstab) but there’s the feeling of something gone, irreparable. You spend the rest of the afternoon in your recovery pattern, but even as the haze lifts around the very, very late sunset, a realisation settles to replace it, one heavy with the sense of something little, yes, but gone totally. Never to be repeated.

Now think big chunk – close your wrinkling eyes and imagine being told with certainty that a decade had gone. How would you feel? I imagine the same sad settling would take place, on a crippling scale. A whole decade… never to be filled with the half-memories of hungover Sundays: no more cold pizza, no more half-assed wanks. No more Mondays back at work wondering where it all went pear-shaped and turned professional. It’s a depressing thought, surely. But oddly – despite the overwhelming evidence – smoking does not have that effect on people.

Indeed, walk past any of the new smokay corrals across our fine city, and you’ll see them out there: by themselves they look lavender soft and wistful – they’re thinking misty thoughts. In groups, they’re positively jolly, wheezing and rasping through a joke, sharing a light, rolling, lighting, and chatting each other up.

I saw them at my local, while I was on my way to rent some DVDs – they smiled at me. Could someone please explain why they’re so brimming with ashy smiles and tarry-eyed confidence? I wondered… and then I thought about Darwin and the Beagle. After returning from the Galapagos islands, Darwin realised that isolation would have a profound effect on the emergence of a species: separated populations, each in different microhabitats, and each with their own genetic inheritance and peculiar mutations, would, over time, create new species utterly unlike those on the next island, though separated by nothing more than several kilometres of sea.

‘Dodos!’ I thought, ‘what have we done?!’ In an effort to isolate smokers (and so further stigmatise and marginalise that original, mentholated, extra-mild ‘dying breed’ in our midst) maybe we’ve ensured their triumph over the deadly effects of their preferred harm. Maybe, rather than ‘bagging the fag’, what the ban has created is the conditions for eternal smoking. It goes like this: we know that people may be genetically pre-disposed to addictive behaviour. We know that only certain groups of people have the genes that increase their likelihood of getting cancer from smoking. And we would speculate that, generally, those people ‘still smoking’ are more likely, overall, to be the ones who have survived their habit, or at least for long enough to reproduce, inflicting their genes, their habits, and their tendencies on their offspring… but where will such offspring come from? Acts of reproduction, surely, but with whom? Well, given that smokers are now all concentrated in a small, isolated area with other smokers (small areas that now exist all across Australia, and, indeed, in the UK and elsewhere); given that smoking is social (many people smoke just to be able to start conversations with other people); given that, despite their poor fitness and lowered sperm counts, smokers can still sire children (and might even do a whole lot more siring than non-smokers, given their addictive tendencies) and given that, more than anything, that natural selection and mutation would tend, over time, to favour those who weren’t killed by their habit… can you see where this is going?

All this flashed ran through my mind while at the video store. On the way back, despite the sunny afternoon and the sound of the bees in the bottlebrush, I couldn’t stop thinking about daylight saving, my stabbing head, and all that lost time. It made me blue in thought. Then, as I passed by the pub again, I noticed a man in his fifties, red in face and leaning against the rail of the smokers’ corral. He had nicotine-yellow hair, gold chains, and a twinkle in his eye. It was not the face of a man meditating on lost hours, it was the face of a man winding his way through the repeated highpoints of an extremely enjoyable afternoon. He saw me looking at him, then turned and offered the requested cigarette to a grateful looking woman in her twenties to his left. Then he turned back to me, and winked.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Visualise This (the horror, the horror, the horror ☺)

At all times, in many different ways, music needs spectacles. Every time I keep hearing some purists talking about a return to ‘authentic substance’ – you know, ‘real’ musicians making ‘real’ music for ‘real’ audiences who ‘really’ appreciate their work, I feel like disabusing them of this twentieth century fiction of ‘authentic substance’ and directing them to the reality of ‘appropriate content’ which the overwhelming majority of people infinitely prefer, THNK U VRY MCH ☺

Anyone who went to Parklife the other week will know the score. Apart from being oversold by thousands of tickets (and thus even more rammed to the gills with flouro and tan floozies), the one (and only) other distinguishing feature (apart from the conspicuous brutality of security) was the obvious fact that almost nobody could give a rubbished electro-shouty fuck about the music. Which was a good thing, considering that most of it was fucking electro-shouty rubbish. Horrible stuff.

After the horror of a plane crash, the forensic crew (or whoever has the expertise in these macabre matters) go hunting for the black box – no, not the Italian techno-pop group that gave the world ‘Ride on Time’. I’m talking about that little bomb-proof brick that records ‘the truth’ of the accident. But what kind of truth? Surely not the death-screams of the captain, the tears of the crew and passengers, the melting of the LCD panel, or the sound of the electronic equipment crackling and burning as it bursts into superheated, avgas-fuelled flames… or is that the new Mstrkrft single? Hmm… maybe it’s just a matter of being able to read the signs, like that joke:

What did the blind man say about the cheese grater?

(wait for it)

That’s the most violent book I’ve ever read.

Probably the black boxes spit out data that looks like the inscrutable way chess games appear when ‘written down’ in newspapers. The forensic guy hooks the box up to his laptop, then waits until something like the following appears on his monitor:

‘^&[OMG]8X96!--- 35Y5{LOL}4Z5$%|^ --“= ….. !!!’

After which he giggles (due to the subtle joke the box made in the first phrase) and calmly concludes: ‘Catastrophic Pilot Error’. To ‘laypeople’ who don’t get the joke or the horror, that’s the extremely weird thing about those black boxes – we rely on them as the thing that mediates between us (comfortably vegetating on our couches in front of the news) and the ‘truth’ of the horror of the crash, but it’s a truth they only convey by excluding almost everything about a plane crash that makes it so viscerally horrific.

Nightclubs are the exact opposite – anyone who’s been the first person to arrive in that empty black room will understand that the profoundest horror imaginable (and not only for the promoters) is to be left in a black box of a room with absolutely nothing between you and the music coming out of the speakers.You race to the bar for a drink, a prop. You fiendishly message tardy friends: ‘Where RU?! There’s nobody here! ☹’ No, it’s worse than that, actually there is somebody there (DJs don’t count)… It’s YOU – left alone to the horror of your own company and the music. The horror, the horror, the horror.

Unmediated experience (if it’s even possible) is something between a terrible shock and a horrible blur – spectacles are the comforting mediators. With glasses, I can drink the scene more clearly; among friends I can avoid the things I fear more than anything else, silence and myself. When you put your glasses on, you don't see glass, you see friends. When you flip open your mobile, you don’t see phone, you see new messages – a person who loves U and UR hand enough to write: ‘Where RU?! There’s nobody here! ☹’

Parklife, as the wolfmother of all spectacles, has nothing to do with music – and thank God. Props to the props, I say. As a friend remarked: ‘Nobody was listening to the music. Everyone was just standing around in stumbling, clammy circles, utterly munted with their phones in their hands, texting or posing for pictures of themselves and their mates, which they then just sent to each other.’

‘People Who Still Go Out to Listen to Music’ are no longer even a sub-species, they’re just a minor group on Facebook. They’re a deeply unpopular, weird, old-fashioned, and (if you’re under twenty-one) slightly sinister reminder of clubland’s contemporary sequel of the Blair Witch Project – a harbinger of the horror of a lone munter trapped in a black box, frantically texting, only to find out that, being underground, there’s no signal…

Monday, October 15, 2007

The Man in the Mirror (who wears the Pauline panties)

After the most recent of the many shootings at a US high school, one of the students interviewed for the soundbite said something revealing about the guy who went postal:

‘Yeah, he used to come to school every day and say ‘fuck the world’ and all that shit, but we never thought he really meant it.’

Yeah, funny that. But quite often the people who end up with blood on their hands have been trying to tell you ‘I really, really meant it’ all along. Michael Jackson is a perfect example. Think back to his song and album titles: ‘With a Child’s Heart’, ‘I Can’t Help It’, ‘Bad’, ‘Dangerous’, ‘In the Closet’, ‘Childhood’, ‘Give in to Me’, and ‘Scream’. I could go on. Of course, it’s our job to retroactively inscribe with pathos and hidden meanings all those ‘perfectly innocent coincidences’, now that we know what we know… but were they ever coincidences? Maybe the bigger mistake was just to dismiss the evidence that was staring us in the face the whole time.

Given his penchant for plastic surgery, wacko Jacko’s ‘Man in the Mirror’ has taken on a particularly sinister aspect. Jacko, after declaring that he’d been the victim of/a selfish kinda love, sung something like the following: I'm Gonna Make A Change/ It's Gonna Feel Real Good!/ Come On!/(Change . . .)/ Just Lift Yourself/ You Know/ You've Got To Stop It./ Yourself!/(Yeah!-Make That Change!)/ I've Got To Make That Change,/ Today!/ Hoo!/ (Man In The Mirror)/ You Got To/ You Got To Not Let Yourself . . ./ Brother . . ./ Hoo!/ (Yeah!-Make That Change!). I always wonder if dictators mutter similar ditties to themselves when they comb their beards or wax their scalps of a morning. Unlike most, Castro seems perfectly comfortable to live out the last of his days in a parasilk tracksuit befitting a retired Broadmeadows smack dealer, but most dictators (past and present) seem to indicate that they too are looking at ‘the man in the mirror’ and saying ‘na na na, na na na, na na’ to their reflection. But is this just what gives them a stiffy?

Certainly, When John Howard looks in the mirror, he’s unlikely to see any resemblance to Jacko, or a dictator – but the funny thing is, he’s looking increasingly like a weird blend of Michael Jackson and Robert Mugabe. Howard is a man who spent the past decade betting on white (and hating on black) after seeing the solid gold opportunities issuing from the mouth of that rural, redneck, racist redhead – the one who actually unapologetically expressed the deeply felt anxieties of Australian white trash – and he’s been cashing in her (fish and) chips ever since. The strategy is simple: you just take the most vulnerable groups in society (refugees, aboriginals, homosexuals, the poor), then you set them up as thee threat to the majority. You then say that this majority (who you represent), have been ‘silent too long’ and that you’re sick of being the ‘held hostage by your own decency’. Then you victimise the ‘threat’ (while saying that you, the victimizer, are the real victim, even to the point of saying that your victimization is something ‘they made you do’). Once you’ve softened the threat up in this way, you defund and eliminate them. And when they fail, you blame them for their failure and say to your supporters, ‘See, I told you so’ while stressing your unwavering concern and benevolence for them. You tried to help, but they wouldn’t listen.

But the tried-and-true recipe doesn’t seem to be attracting the punters, not when ‘the other guy’ does a better impersonation of you than even you’re capable of, these days. So what’s an aging leader to do? Mugabe-like, you clutch and grasp – anything but lose the thing, the power. Anyone who’s ever known junkies or watched Rocky and Bullwinkle will know how the riddle runs. ‘I’ve changed’, ‘this time it’s different’, 'This time for sure', ‘I really mean it’, ‘I know I’ve stuffed you round, but you gotta trust me’. ‘Just one more time… I love you, you’re the only one I can trust, etc’. This is also part of the abuse, you see (if you’re reading this and hearing your lover’s words, heed mine and leave).

It’s a fine performance (back to Howard…errr… Jacko): “See The Kids In The Street/ With Not Enough To Eat/ Who Am I, To Be Blind?/ Pretending Not To See/ Their Needs/ A Summer's Disregard/ A Broken Bottle Top/ And A One Man's Soul/ They Follow Each Other On/ The Wind Ya' Know/ 'Cause They Got Nowhere/ To Go/ That's Why I Want You To/Know/ I'm Starting With The Man In/ The Mirror/ I'm Asking Him To Change/ His Ways/ And No Message Could Have/ Been Any Clearer/ If You Wanna Make The World/ A Better Place/ (If You Wanna Make The/ World A Better Place)/ Take A Look At Yourself, And/ Then Make A Change/ (Take A Look At Yourself, And/ Then Make A Change)/ (Na Na Na, Na Na Na, Na Na,/Na Nah)”

Honest John even seems to have difficulty believing what he’s seeing in the mirror as he sings for salvation… but maybe that’s because the real money shot is hidden. He said (about reconciliation), “Some will no doubt want to portray my remarks tonight as a form of Damascus Road conversion.” About two thousand years ago on Damascus Road, Saul – who was formerly the cruellest and most brutal persecutor of the Christians – thought better of it, and became Paul, Christ's most zealous supporter. Around eleven years ago, little Johnny became a bit Pauline himself, taking the ruder parts of Hanson's imagination of the ideal body politic and secreting them about his person. Howard’s real ‘dirty little secret’ was that one day in 1996, while appearing to publicly smack up the Ipswitch bitch, Howard was secretly changing’ his pitch up by snow-dropping her flag-themed undies and putting them on underneath the grey suit. Shhhhh…. Never mind Elle Macpherson intimates, singlets and thongs are our national dress in a way far more intimate and unnatural than you previously imagined. The swing to the right began with the little dangle that John packed tightly into the sexy, snug satin of Pauline’s dirty laundry, and these are garments he’s never stopped wearing, simply because, as rude and dirty as they are, no matter how much you try to smear them, they’re impossible to spot.

Monday, October 08, 2007

From being like a virgin... to learning how to like aversion

Now you’re all grown up, you know the brownness of avocadoes can’t hurt you – but don’t you still cut those ‘bad’ bits out? Bruised bananas taste perfectly fine, but how often have you removed the bad bits or even thrown away the whole bent banger, simply because of the way it looked? Aversion, the power of yuk, is the second technique a baby learns to use in order to manipulate the world around it. The first one happens when the baby realises, ‘If I cry long enough, they come back.’ Shortly after that, it realises that you cry, they come, they give you ‘what you want’, then all you you have to do is reject what they’re trying to feed you, and voila, you’re the boss. You’ve learned that ‘no’ beats ‘yes’ every time, and now you can rule dinner. They don’t call it a high chair for nothing.

The power of yuk survives into adulthood – essentially, ‘picky eaters’ are just trying to regain or retain some influence over an out of control world in which makes them anxious, using one of the first techniques they ever learned. The second oldest trick in the book. A technique that has served them for many years just like they like it, with all the pickles picked out.

That’s one interpretation.

The other one is more direct: the shit really does taste awful. Beer, liquor, cigarettes… all the ‘adult pleasures’ taste disgusting to most kids. I remember male friends of mine ‘forcing’ themselves to drink beer until they liked it, simply because they’d realised early on in the piece that both their social life and their masculinity depended on it. Bottoms up, Aussie blokes.

So what is it? Martinis, caviar, oysters, truffles, cigars and cocaine are all supposed to be signs of class, the very stuff of that distinguishes the finery of high living monied adult sophistication from the ‘greasy kids stuff’ of chicken, chips, sauce, lollies, chicken noodles and icecream. To kids, they all taste yucky. Does this prove that kids have ‘immature taste’, or that adults have ‘bad taste’?

It’s worth thinking about in terms of what we know of the cruel honesty of children. If a kid calls you fatty, it hurts the most because you know that, from the child’s perspective, it’s true. That’s what makes them such great bullies, and why their meanness hurts so much – they really mean it. They’re not capable of those other hallmarks of adult behaviour – hypocrisy and disavowal – they call it like they see it. ‘Colonel Blimp’ is not the respected CEO of a Liquor Empire, he’s just a big fatty boomba getting even more enormous by eating slimy food and smoking gross cigars.

I think back to my sister and cousins, dancing around the living room to Madonna’s ‘Like a Virgin’, blithely mouthing lyrics they would not grasp the adult meaning of for another ten years or so. Lucky them. But maybe what Madonna was really treating us to was not a description of a petal-browning deflowering so much as a subliminal lesson. Maybe what she was really singing was not, ‘Like a virgin’ so much as ‘Like aversion’, a hidden version contained within the virgin version…

The song would make a whole different kind of sense, one that I think carries a truth – most of the things that adults do are really, really yucky. Maybe this is what Madonna was really saying when she explained how she’d ‘made it through the wilderness’ – after a lot of practice, she’d come out the other end enjoying the very things that caused her so much disgust and distress as young’un. Or maybe this is why thugged out, blinged up rappers are so keen to show themselves enjoying a number of disgusting pleasures at once: Cristal, XO, LV, Escalade, bling – their mastery is a matter of juggling eight yuks at once with the practiced ease of an old pro. Look mum, no hands, ice grill – say cheese.

So listen here, kiddo, this is the world you’ve been offered: you can either show your aversion and reject it with an ‘I don’t want to, it tastes yucky’ attitude and ostracise yourself for having ‘kiddy tastebuds’. You get to keep your icecream, but you’ll never make it in this industry, baby. If you wanna do that, you’re going to have to learn to do what all the successfully adult men and women have learned to, and actually enjoy eating, drinking and doing the most disgusting things. Bottoms up, chin chin – say 'yum, blue cheese'. Learning to enjoy what formerly repulsed you – that’s what it really means to become a (wo)man, kids.

Monday, October 01, 2007

Busted Flush (how [not] to polish a turd)

We’ve all caught ourselves doing it at some point, always much, much too late. You think you’re on a winning wicket. You’re the wiggling, jiggling, singing, whistling, version of Leonardo DiCaprio’s character on the prow of the Titanic. You’re barking ‘I’m the king of the world’ at the sky. At the time you were thinking: ‘I’m the shit. This is the shit.’ Now, you look back and think: ‘I was (full of) shit.’ The busted flush, ladies and gentlemen. ‘You can’t polish a turd’, as the saying goes. But the thing is, you wouldn’t if you knew you were doing it. This is the living tragedy of the turd polisher – you buff and you wax and you think, ‘Gee, this is pretty good. I’m pretty good. She’s pretty nice. These people are all friendly, talented, and not at all manipulative, talentless and evil.’ Nobody knowingly polishes a turd. And this is exactly why there’s so much turd polishing going on, and why the whole sticky, stinky process involves people so much. For so many people, a what might seem to you or I like a sticky date with the less than magic pudding could be a dream date with destiny, fame and fortune.

Every week, Australian Idol brings into our homes condensed samples of what a ‘polished performance’ looks like, performances that could be either pungent or poignant, depending on where you are in the polishing process. Australian Idol is all about offering the world the most ‘polished performance’ possible. But of what? Think of any of your favourite singers, the ones who have something truly great about them. Or any that have personality. Or that are just odd. Kate Bush, Bj√∂rk, Joanna Newsom, Cat Power – all famous for their weird and wonderful voices. And none of them would make it past the casting. And they can sing at least – what about Bob Dylan or Lou Reed? Idol is practically a turd polishing machine, a guaranteed, patented process that week by week, in countries all over the world, whittles its specimens down to a finished product that is both incredibly polished and undeniably shit.

Celine Dion is the quintessence of this idea – her accumulated work is a veritable backlog of the unspeakably awful, all sung with enough polished perfection to shatter every crystal on board the Titanic. It’s actually hard to be that shit, if you’ve ever tried. Celine is so good at being so bad that her lung busting chords would stretch even the most adept karaoke buff, leaving them virtually prolapsed, gasping and spluttering for air and octaves as their rendition of ‘the one about ship going down’ sinks into the mire. Dion’s most famous work is associated with Titanic, and this is no coincidence – especially given that Dion would not only easily win Australian Idol, but that she is in every way the exemplary specimen, the very thing they’re all looking to emulate and exceed. As far as Idol is concerned, she’s the shit.

The successful Idol contestants, like Dion, will be doomed to a lifetime of sitting in their mansions polishing their trophies, those gold-plated reminders of their prize nuggets whose gleaming, steaming presence makes them wonder how on earth people listen to wretched shit sung by people who can’t. Probably they’re so rich they can employ someone to polish their awards for them, allowing them to focus on the release of their new fragrance, which their fans will (of course), buy and spray all over themselves, hoping that a little of that magic will rub off on them. And no doubt a bit of it will. Ah, the sweet smell of success.

(M by Mariah Carey)

The Author

[almost nothing] about me

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PC is an animal of the antipodes believed to be related to a gibbon.