Friday, July 23, 2004

Just Rock On By ....

The summer I graduated, 1983, I worked in a furniture factory. I made decent money for my slouch-shouldered efforts, and frugally socked away most of it for my post-secondary education (the shape of which was yet to be determined). I was so frugal, in fact, that I chose not to spend $34 to see The Police on their Synchronicity tour. The morning after they played, I came to work and faced a proletariat populace clad in Synchronicity muscle shirts. Again and again that day I was told what an incredible show I'd missed.

I shrugged it off. "There'll be another album, another tour," I said. "I'll catch them next time around."

I can't remember if the group managed to stay intact for the tour's duration. All I know is: I missed my chance.

This became a habit. Def Leppard clothed my co-workers in a yet another swath of fabric: the inverted Union Jack. This was certainly my brand of music at the time, but I had already allocated seven dollars for the album, and chose to rock out at home with the headphones on. Months later, their drummer lost an arm and the band slid into obscurity. Judas Priest rolled into town with their enormous Iron Gods set-pieces, and Rob Halford on a Harley. Then Halford left, some kid named "The Ripper" hired on, and the band was demoted to the bar scene. David Lee Roth and Van Halen stopped by on their 1984 tour ("Full moon tonight - should be a crazy concert!" chortled one DJ); as ever, I checked the balance of my bank account and elected to stay home. As fate would have it, when I finally considered myself flush enough to attend rock concerts, the ultimate indulgence came forth and presented itself: the inaugural Lollapalooza tour, with its loud parade of delirious freaks. Definitely my demographic, but by then I was experiencing a sort of aural exhaustion. My musical diet had shifted to jazz, peppered with a bit of classical and world beat samplings. And so the audience enjoyed Jane's Addiction minus the pleasure of my company.

My recollection of these "misses" isn't bitter enough to qualify as genuine regret (and frankly, the list is a bit embarrassing), but I do sometimes wonder if my adolescence wasn't characterized by a level of self-denial that was perhaps a touch too rigorous. And so I now find myself at that stage in life where the yearly sell-out appearance of The Rolling Stones actually makes an inchoate sort of sense. I can just barely recall a day when Their Satanic Majesties were still considered "dangerous." Hard to believe, I know. But if, as Dylan once said, "Sometimes Satan comes as a man of peace," then I suppose he's equally capable of donning the guise of toothless self-parody.

Shortly before his murder, John Lennon commented that a Beatles reunion was an act of futility, because the issue wasn't really about getting the Beatles to make music again; what people were really asking for was a return to 1965, to be 16 again, and that just wasn't possible. Were we to catch Sir Mick in one of his more candid moments, he might beg to differ. And Lennon was just being disingenuous: what he was really saying was you weren't ever going to catch him taking part in a nostalgia act.

Is nostalgia the ultimate fate of all rock & roll? To what degree can the adolescent rock vehicle support maturity? These questions come to mind after seeing Metallica: Some Kind Of Monster. It's an engaging flick due simply to the novelty of watching a group of men in their 30s clumsily taking their first steps out of adolescence. On the downside, the movie is about 40 minutes too long, and the process of getting the band to create their "mature" album (with the mature title of St. Anger) is at times tedious and pointlessly convoluted. But the film completely immerses the viewer in a "behind-the-scenes" perspective that reveals a startling ordinariness rock audiences rarely guess at; I found it all compelling entertainment.

Getting back to my missed concerts, there are two reasons why I don't harbor any regrets. By now I've attended enough concerts to realize that 99.9% of them are a mediocre experience: the sound is lousy, usually you have to fight to get a good view, and when the band is on the verge of breaking up, they aren't having any fun, either. But more than that, by some miracle I managed to catch that .1% of magic: Jason & The Scorchers at the El Mocombo, an act which one NME critic said was one of the three most incredible performances he'd ever seen.

Come to think of it, I caught the Scorchers when they were fresh into their clean & sober period. Their music had always dealt with sin & salvation, but in their early days they made it clear they were well on the losing side of the equation. That personal reckoning fuelled their performances, giving them an unforgettable energy. When they sobered up, their final two albums came with a substantial shift in perspective, and though the Scorchers got tighter and played with more clarity, their urgency quickly faded. The band is now history. A few solo projects have seen the light of day - frontman Jason Ringenberg's most recent is a children's album.

It all gives me considerable pause, and Metallica fans - and band members – should take note: the future beckons.

Wednesday, July 14, 2004

Alcohol and "Flow"

"Walker Percy said it was because of the re-entry problem. You spend all day embedded in your fictional world, well, how do you return to Earth? To return to actuality, a lot of writers have a couple of drinks, sometimes more. But it's a law of diminishing returns. If you don't moderate, you have to quit, and that's the sad story." Jim Harrison, interviewed for The Globe & Mail by Rebecca Caldwell.

For the past two weeks, I've mulled over this analysis of the writer's relationship with alcohol. It's the first time I've heard "re-entry" named as a source of writer’s anxiety. "Writer's Block" is the more common bogeyman, and numerous writers frankly admit that a little lubrication gets the ball rolling quite nicely, thank you. Extreme practitioners of this school of thought (call it the Bukowski/Burroughs/Rimbaud model, if you like) ascribe to the notion that even if alcohol finally ruins the most prodigious talents, it's worth the risk if it somehow facilitates the early production of The Next Great Novel. It's the prerogative of youth to studiously ignore Harrison's words regarding the law of diminishing returns, but one hopes they can at least pay some heed to William Styron, who claimed it was fine if you wrote drunk, so long as you were sober when you edited.

This mode has never posed much of a temptation for me: the few times I've put pen to paper while under the influence have yielded some spectacularly embarrassing results, usually in the form of sentimental prose that lurches toward the maudlin. This business of using alcohol to soften re-entry, however, resonates with me. I've written some fiction - a novel and a few dozen short stories sit restively in the drawer - and can attest with Anne Lamott that the worst aspect of writing is everything that surrounds it. Distractions, getting started, finishing, editing and publishing (admittedly the latter aspect is to date something of a rarity) can induce considerable misery, but these dark specters disappear entirely, along with every other concern, when the words flow. In fact, "Flow" is the term psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi uses to describe this state of consciousness, a condition he portrays as both desirable and productive.

I can see his point, but perhaps my level of emotional maturity hasn't yet grown to better accommodate "flow." It is an undeniable thrill to be in "flow," but like any high, it leaves you with a rough ride back to earth. I do my best to regularly allocate a specific period of "flow time," but good luck trying to pull me out of it when the kids return from school, demanding afternoon snacks and help with their homework.

I think Harrison is right to point out that moderation is finally, for those of us who reside in the Land of Plenty, the challenge of our life. We can enter "flow" any number of ways: writing fiction or writing code, reading, cooking, playing basketball, tending to business - you name it. And it's a delightful state of mind to be in, but I question whether it contributes as much to a person's character as Csikszentmihalyi claims. For better or worse, our "character" is what responds to impertinent interruptions, and it requires a head that is moderately clear of intoxicants.

Friday, July 09, 2004

Promissory Note

My apologies for being so quiet lately. The summer got off to a roaring start, thanks to my friend's Surprisingly Tasteful & Intimate Greek Wedding in la belle Province. The event was certainly a delight, as was my first(!) exposure to Montreal.

I hope to nail down some thoughts and impressions in a few days, but at the moment my life remains abuzz as we set about properly celebrating the 50th anniversary of my wife's parents. Please stay tuned: words to come on Saturday.