Wednesday, July 31, 2019

The End of Weird

The local hardware store used to rent out DVDs. Once, when I was lining up at cash, the teenage girl ahead of me handed over the card for Ouija. “Not gonna see THAT,” said the teenage girl who took the card. “My Ouija experience was freaky enough, thank you!”

“Mine too!” said her co-worker, and there followed an animated discussion amongst the three young women.

I came home and mentioned the exchange to my (then) teenage daughters. Was this a common motif among their classmates?

Indeed it was all but universal.

I cleared my throat and encouraged them (yet again) to give this sort of thing a wide berth. Reassurances were made. Then one daughter piped up, “They think you and mom are members of a religious cult, you know.”

Who? Your friends?

“No — their parents.”

This village, which once hosted three robust Protestant congregations with towering brick edifices, plus a Baptist congregation in its more staid mid-20th Century house of worship, is now predominantly populated by assured “Nones.” Here, if the kids dust off the parental board-and-planchette for some Friday night frights, nobody remarks on it. However, tying your shoelaces and joining the Sunday remnant at your local mainline Protestant church?
Kinda culty.
Anyway, I’m reading Erik Davis’ High Weirdness: Drugs, Esoterica, and Visionary Experience In The Seventies, and I’m . . . digging . . . it . . .

. . . more or less.

Some days more.

Other days less.

I listened to a bit of this podcast, and within the first 15 minutes Davis and his host reached the locus of my discontent with his entire project.

Cannabis is legal, but it’s strictly squaresville — for The Olds, daddy-o; meanwhile we’re microdosing our kids with LSD to ease their off-the-charts anxiety; mushroom tea? whatevs; Ayahuasca is a punchline; the One Percent have taken over Burning Man; gender and sexuality are increasingly splintered and specialized concerns — not only are kids not getting stoned, they’re not getting laid, the primary activity they are genetically hardwired to do at their age; comic book movies rule the cinema; our two leading public intellectuals are Jordan Peterson and Joe Rogan . . .

Et fucking cetera.

If Fukuyama can pin “The End of History” to 1991, I will pin The End of Weird to a quarter-century later: 2016.

Davis’ book remains engaging and will be an easy finish, at which point I will speak further (furthur?). So far I’ve read the first third, dealing primarily with the McKenna brothers, whose psychonautic narratives whipsawed from free-association psychedelic imagery to super-precise “It’s Science!” deconstruction.

At some point between my grumpy jottings in the margins, I began mulling over the story of Fritz Gerlich.

Ron Rosenbaum devotes an entire chapter of Explaining Hitler to the story of “Fritz Gerlich and the Trial of Hitler’s Nose: In which we unearth a lost classic of Hitler explanation by a murdered explainer:
It still has the power to shock: Adolf Hitler married to a black bride. More than six decades after this extraordinary photocomposite image of Hitler in top hat and wedding tails, arm in arm with a black bride in a scene of wedding-day bliss, appeared on the front page of one of Munich’s leading newspapers, this mocking representation of Hitler — in a context of decapitation, miscegenation, transgressive sex, and violent defacement — still gives off an aura of recklessness, of danger. 
And, in fact, there can be little doubt that this sensational visual and verbal attack on Hitler did turn out to be dangerous, fatally so, to its creator, the courageous, possessed anti-Hitler journalist, Dr. Fritz Gerlich.
It is, like the rest of Rosenbaum’s book, a ripping read.
You want 'High Weirdness'?
But midway through the telling Rosenbaum recounts how Gerlich “the skeptical, Protestant, rationalist historian . . . the no-nonsense newspaper editor” gets “taken in by [a] primitive, bedridden, Catholic mystic whose own church was skeptical, who claimed she lived for years on no food but Eucharist wafers, who produced great gouts of blood in the pattern of Christ’s wounds,” etc.

Gerlich did indeed fall — deeply — under the sway of Therese Neumann, a Bavarian stigmatic who vigorously encouraged Gerlich’s antagonism of the F├╝hrer, to the point where Gerlich actually converted, shortly before his murder in Dachau.

Rosenbaum is flummoxed by this seemingly apparent con which lead to Gerlich’s very public change of heart, and asks Walter Schaber, a survivor of the Weimar press wars, if he has any explanation. Schaber’s reply is sobering.

Anyway, we haven’t really arrived at The End of Weird — indeed, things seem poised to become a great deal weirder. It is just that what used to be weird — the sex, the drugs, the rock ‘n’ roll and woo-woo stuff — now in hindsight seems fixedly bourgeois: little more than a tawdry scrim that distracted us from the true weirdness taking root all around, and within.

Friday, July 26, 2019

Rutger Hauer, 1944-2019

My favourite Rutger Hauer story comes from Jason Eisener, who directed Hauer in Hobo With A Shotgun (“A better poster than movie,” sez MZS, and I agree).

Eisener admits that once he landed Hauer for the title role, he basically blew his budget for the movie. Consequently most of the shooting was a fly-by-the-seat-of-everyone’s-pants exercise in minute-to-minute problem-solving.

Hauer, says Eisener, was completely into it. Difficulties with lighting and camera perspective were frequently solved by Hauer — “Oh, I’ve seen how you do this. Give me a second” — who gamely clambered into the rig and adjusted lights, reflectors, camera angles, etc etc etc.

Hauer’s thumbprint is probably larger in Hobo than it is in Blade Runner, but he will quite rightly be remembered for “Tears in the rain — time to die.”

I’m not sure why, but it gives me some pleasure to know he had a grandson. RIP, Rutger Hauer.

Favourite Rutger Hauer YouTube moments: Rutger Hauer keeps Max Headroom on his (non-existent) toes. Rutger Hauer shills for Guinness.
OK, now I'm not just thirsty, I'm ready to re-grow my mullet!

Thursday, July 18, 2019

Your “quiet time”

It’s pretty important. But if you need help with that, this 40-second clip from Cornerstone Festival ‘03 should do the trick:

I had a dream recently where I kissed you on the forehead, and touched my hand to the side of your face.

I imparted advice as well, but it was pretty general stuff — basically, you have the capacity to invest more deeply in the lives of the people you love. Don’t be afraid, go on.

Truly, if you’ve ever commented here you were in it — or some version of you. Well — my SUBCONSCIOUS’ version of you, really. Which is my subconscious version of me, ergo advice to myself, which I would do well to heed, etc.

But I’m still going to make it about you. This internet web-thing — anyone who still has enough self-possession to take a half-step back can see it is thoroughly torqued to make every one of its users crazy angry.

Shut it off. Hang with a friend. Commit to your Quiet Time.


Thursday, July 11, 2019

Leonard Cohen, agony aunt

It is remarkable to me how (some) rock stars from my youth have aged into elder statespeople. Patti Smith, David Byrne and (especially) Nick Cave were super-edgy at one time — now they embody the calming voice of compassionate consideration.

More to be said, possibly, but for now here is a link to a complete transcription of the single “agony aunt” column Leonard Cohen wrote for Details magazine, in 1993 (shortly after releasing The Future).

Thursday, July 04, 2019

Larry Norman — here we go. Again.

On a bitterly cold winter night in 1984 Larry Norman gave a concert to a packed gymnasium at the Winkler Bible Institute. Today Winkler is a thriving agri-industrial city in southern Manitoba, roughly a 90 minute drive from the Winnipeg International Airport. At that time, however, it was a small Mennonite enclave.

Norman had performed there before, a year earlier. The first concert was stock Larry Norman — a standard setlist peppered with the usual Norman anecdotes (“I played for the President. It was nice. He smiled.” (Flashes toothy Jimmy Carter rictus, audience laughs); reads ingredients off a packet of artificial creamer, (audience laughs) etc. He’d given a version of the same concert at the Pantages Playhouse Theatre in Winnipeg the summer of ‘82.

This night was different. Norman came out with his nylon-stringed guitar and launched the show with familiar toe-tapping crowd pleasers. But when he moved to the piano he seemed determined to stay there, singing one after another of his oddball dirges — including “Pardon Me.”

Late in the concert he took the mic and said, “I heard some rumours. About me.” There followed quite a list of behaviours that this group of mostly Mennonites would indeed have considered scandalous — “That I divorced my wife. That I divorced my wife, after she took off her clothes and posed for pictures in a magazine,” etc. The list grew longer and more tawdry. He pointedly never addressed any of the allegations, but went on at length excoriating The Church (sic) for trading in gossip and slander.

Finally someone in the audience piped up. “Hey Larry — how about some more music?”

“This IS music,” Norman insisted. “This is music for the soul.”

Norman did eventually return to actual music. He wrapped up the night with a few more songs and a “Thank you.” People in attendance applauded politely, and left with the impression that the entire concert had been about something other than the concert.

I was a Larry Norman devotee at the time. This was the first I’d heard any of these crazy stories. If Gregory Thornbury’s biography of Norman is to be believed, pretty much every “rumour” Norman trotted out that night was a fact.

Which is all to say: Why Should The Devil Have All The Good Music: Larry Norman & The Perils Of Christian Rock is one weird trip.

But before I get into the text let me be candid.

My wife and I have been married for just over a quarter-century. And — here comes the candour, get ready — in those years we have had some tense discussions about household finance.

Now: how many of those discussions do you suppose I or my wife felt compelled to record on a reel-to-reel tape recorder?

Thornbury was given access to the fabled Norman “archives,” including at least one such tape where Larry beseeches his then-wife Pam to take responsibility for her spending — among other fraught, potentially marriage-ending, behaviours.

Norman was a notorious hoarder. In amongst the piles of ephemera and detritus of Norman’s lived life — epistolary exchanges, napkin scrawlings, and press clippings by the bale — are these reels of recorded conversation. Apparently Norman brought this monster to every discussion that could potentially conclude in being chiseled out of his fiduciary due — or any other scenario that could benefit from a Larry Norman performance.

From this bloat of self-obsession Thornbury pulls together a portrait of a man whose ambition and artistry and depth of cultural penetration was truly remarkable. Thornbury’s portrait argues against  Norman’s cultural legacy amounting to little more than a quickly forgotten footnote. That this is nevertheless so is due chiefly, Thornbury posits, to the milieu Norman stubbornly worked in and with — American “John 3:16” Evangelicalism.

Norman devoted his life to the cause, whilst rubbing the fur the wrong way and putting a two-handed grip on Evangelical third-rails like integration, the environment, GOP loyalty, etc. Evangelicals never troubled themselves to return the devotion, instead pillorying Norman whenever he stepped outside the box. Sure, he had his faults — his need for control occasionally resulted in overreach, and it appears there may have been at least one indiscretion that, uh, occurred after years of frustration with his reckless peers, perhaps borne (an attentive reader might suspect) out of jealousy over former-BFF Randy Stonehill’s effortless way with the ladies. But Norman's insistence on being a prophet in his own house was finally the element that did him in.

Eyeh — Norman's attitude won't have helped cement the legacy he was hoping for, I will agree. But another portrait emerges from Thornbury’s telling — unconsciously, I suspect — which lies closer to the shadow-portrait Norman painted of himself 35 years ago in Winkler, Manitoba. The dude wanted desperately to believe his own press. All of it — the uncompromising evangelist; the cultural pioneer; the “close, personal friend to the stars”; the reckless lover; the scamp who, broken, crept back to the foot of the cross; the mysterious figure at the centre of unseemly rumours we hadn't heard about until he showed up in town, alone; the beleaguered soul who begged The Church to stop gossiping; hey, over there — the cross! repeat. In other words, The Compleat Larry Norman Myth.

Two-thirds into the book I was wondering why anyone not invested in this scene would be the least bit interested in this perpetually self-aggrandizing clown. MSM gave Thornbury a lot of lurv, but while the book is competently written I had to force myself to finish it. One major reason — it’s not 1984 anymore. And brother, there is a shit-ton of Larry Norman rumours. Characterising the man as “occasionally difficult” is a kindness beyond absurdity.

But the music! Bob Dylan digs it — he said so, right to Norman’s face, in an airport! Black Francis is a fan! Attention must be paid!
Guy in the middle's a fan -- that's worth something, no?
Hey, that is an argument I am up for. My three favourite Norman albums are (in descending order) Only Visiting This Planet, Something New Under The Son (Norman flat-out apes post-Exile Stones here, but he does it well, it’s catchy) and In Another Land. If you're new to the man, see if you can make it through any of those.

Or stream the singles. Start with “I Wish We’d All Been Ready.” If you want to quit after that, go ahead. That one song right there is the grand total of Larry Norman’s legacy on American — indeed, Global  Culture At Large. It is a superficial reading of a miniscule clipping from a first-century Christian text. Yahoos like Norman have been interpreting it this way for 2000 years, and for 2000 years Christian theologians have decried that interpretation as crap theology, but it is the most contagiously viral religious meme you will encounter anywhere.

If that’s your idea of art you’re welcome to it. I prefer “Song To A Small Circle Of [Really Glamorous] Friends,” but never mind. Either way I call this sort of thing “religious kitsch” and Evangelical Protestants produce a staggering abundance of it. So it goes — the firmware they opted into renders them, as it did Norman, incapable of better.

Footnote it is.

End-notes: my reaction to Larry Norman's passing; my review of David DiSabatino's Norman doc Fallen Angel, which summoned a prompt "schooling" from one of Norman's toadies.