Thursday, 27 October 2011

So Scratched into Our Souls #9: Discount - Portrait of a Cigarette

Before the supergroup swagger of The Dead Weather, the stripped down hit of the Kills, there was a cheap little teenage punk band from Florida called Discount. A short song: Portrait of a Cigarette. Where as the guitar seems to fall away in the background like discarded ash, Alison Mosshart draws a simple pictogram about the basic shape of things, a cigarette as a line and a circle, ashstray as a square in a circle. And from these geometric beginnings, she sketches out the shape of a relationship, any relationship, breathing in the burning, between the people who are square pegs in round holes, the temporary community of a promethean cadging, an offering of flame. The kaleidoscope of life paired down to each individual shape, through a fantasm moment, maybe just a single sung minute, of clarity and calmness offered by a friend smoked down to the filter, and it reminds me of when I was about eleven I remember coming across a riddle that went

Make three-fourths of a cross,
And a circle complete;
And let two semicircles
On a perpendicular meet;
Next add a triangle
That stands on two feet;
Next two semicircles,
And a circle complete.

And I was baffled until I scratched out the shapes and found that it spelt TOBACCO, and when the scratchy song finishes I flick back and press the triangle in the circle on the square and marvel at its shape again and when you screw down the cigarette sometimes you find the spell broken.

take a circle. and a straight line. put a match against the open end. feel it burning. see the burning. breathe the burning. until it's extinguished again. all those distinctions. clearly ashes in a circle on a square. i stare across it all at you. you stare through it at me. are you still there? are you bent up? being burned out. are you foggy. am i trying now? am i straightening? am i dumping out the circle but hanging on to you? are you lonely in this square? i'm lonely in this cube.

Sunday, 23 October 2011

A Weaselmania Of My Own: Part One

"Ben Weasel, he's an asshole/Ben Weasel, he's a jerk/Ben Weasel, you just hate him cos he don't have to work" - Ben Weasel, The Queers

So on March 18th of this year, as everyone who would possibly be interested in the topic knows, Ben Weasel punched two women in the face at a show at SXSW in Austin, Texas. The event and the resulting fallout were just depressing. Larry Livermore's reaction was probably the most balanced that I encountered, and he's someone who has known Ben Weasel for a long time, but for the most part people quickly divided themselves into two opposing sides. In one corner, long rants about the prevalence of domestic abuse and the social and moral implications of male violence towards women that basically came to the conclusion that Ben Weasel is a misogynist scumbag and patriarchy personified, and then on the other side, a series of outraged shouting about personal responsibility and how anyone acting in the way the first woman who got punched did should probably not be surprised when they find a fist in their jaw, you know those arguments which are generally summed up by a slogan made up of a brief rhyming couplet: EQUAL RIGHTS! EQUAL FIGHTS! or TALK SHIT! GET HIT! (this is something that seems to be especially prevalent in the discourse of the hardcore community, it's like Scott Vogel possessed by Etrigan, I'm wondering if you could start a twitter feed that consists solely of analysing the genre in this manner: NO FINER BET! THAN MINOR THREAT! BETTER NOT RISK IT! GORILLA BISCUITS! FRIENDS AND STRANGERS! WE ALL LOVE DANGERS!  I HATE THIS FAKE TOWN! I'LL EXPLAIN IN THE BREAKDOWN! EVERY EARTH CRISIS LYRIC OF NOTE! SOUNDS LIKE A PUNISHER QUOTE! I think it could be a success, although you'd probably quickly run out things that rhyme with 'x'.)

First things first, I don't think the women who got punched should've been punched. One of the them was clearly just instinctually intervening on behalf of a friend, and the other one, well, as obnoxious as she was acting, I think anyone in their 40s, man or woman, should probably have progressed to the stage that they don't respond with a haymaker to the almighty attack of a thrown ice cube, especially if the person who's suffered the infintesimally small indignity of being aggressively cubed spent 40-odd minutes beforehand deliberately provoking the group of people from which the fateful chip of frozen water was flung. But while I don't think those women should've been hit under pretty much any circumstance, I also don't believe that Ben Weasel is a misogynist.

I don't think Ben Weasel is a misogynist. I do think he's a massive fucking twat. The only thing that shocked me about the whole incident was that anyone could actually be surprised when Ben went all Rocky Marciano in Austin, everyone I know responded with something amounting to a resigned sigh and maybe a rueful "Jesus Christ, Ben." Because we don't hate Ben Weasel because he doesn't have to work. We do hate him because he is an arsehole, whatever Joe Queer might think. He's spent 25 years acting like a contrarian dickhead, and so it's not that much of a leap when that apparently pathological snotty desire to piss people off mutates in an angry uncontrolled moment of physical expression. Come And See The Violence Inherent In The System. Every single one of his MRR columns that I've read basically consists of him picking something people like and explaining why anyone who likes it is a fucking moron for liking it and should probably die. Okay, I'll admit that does sound like a fairly amusing act, but when it's all you ever do, then it stops feeling like an act. It's like that the Kurt Vonnegut novel Mother Night where he illustrates the way the lead character is tainted by their time working as an American spy for the Nazis and although he did his moral duty in a fine important way and helped the war effort, the pain he caused and the hate he inspired in his cover identity take their toll. Vonnegut sums up his theme in typically Vonnegutian insightful brevity with the phrase "We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful what we pretend to be." He's not saying there that if you're an Elvis impersonator you're going to end up dying on the toilet, what he's saying is that pretending to be an arsehole is in itself inescapably kind of an arsehole thing to do (just as pretending to be nice to people can actually result in you being nice to people.) If you want it in hardcore terms: fake it til you accidentally make it.

So he's an arsehole, but what are we going to do about that? Screeching Weasel's music means a fuck of a lot to me. It has pulled me through some really tough times. A lot of people who make really great art are shitty people, Bukowski was a complete dick, but his novels and poetry are beautiful evocations of the drunken washed-out struggle of so many people. Bukowski's hero was Celine, who was an even better writer than Bukowski, even more acute in his laceration of hypocracy and his wry amazement at the special little human moments, he was also an even bigger fucking cunt, a raving anti-semite and a complete misogynist, a misanthropic fascist who ended up despising pretty much everyone.  In punk rock, Bad Brains have a reputation for homophobia, but their best music still sounds vital 30 years after it was made, far more so than MDC's stringently left-wing responses to it. It really becomes trickier if a great work is in itself ideologically shitty, like DW Griffiths' Birth of a Nation which is massively important in the development of American cinema, but is also virulently racist in an incredibly vile way (though it should be mentioned Griffiths was so mortified by this accusation he immediately bankrupted himself with a massive budget film about the evils of intolerance and later directed the first attempt at an cinematic interracial romance), but that doesn't really apply here, there is nothing genuinely hateful in the music of Screeching Weasel, pissy, yes, but that's key to their appeal.

So he's an arsehole, but so what? My friend Tommy's response to the Weasel debacle was "Good thing we're punks so we don't have to have heroes." which made me smile as Tommy usually does, but it doesn't take it all the way, because while I don't want to get into a whole real Death of the Author debate here and while I think art can live beyond its creator, Ben Weasel wrote those songs, Ben Weasel sings those songs. And he's a gaping arsehole. And I think an important part of punk is recognising the fact that we identify with art made by arseholes, and that's probably because we're sort of arseholes too.

The fact that Ben Weasel is an arsehole is part of what makes him a good songwriter in his way, just as the misanthropy of Celine is what allowed his satire to be razor sharp let's stop pretending that we're into this music because we're all lovely unique glorious people, to a certain extent the noise of the music is mirroring those ragged shitty parts of ourselves that we can never really expunge, even if we wanted to, which we don't because we've built those shitty parts into castle walls and radio towers, fending off the besieging armies of conformity to an imaginary mainstream ideal, broadcasting our loathing and limp-wrist-in-the-air defiance to similar fuck-ups. If we were nice people then maybe we'd all just be listening to ethereal waft of flowery pop-folk, not twisted angry facsimiles of pop songs and unruly streams of noise and bloody-throated screams. If we were really nice people, we'd never actually know there was a distinct genre called crust, or powerviolence, or goregrind. And what greater example of that internal division of than a man who punched two women in the face on stage also being the man who sang (although didn't write) Going Home, the finest punk song about how the destructive power of gender stereotypes is harmful to everyone, male or female, about how it's not about a war of the sexes, the shittiness of these patterns of violence and mistrust is such that it's an indelible psychic stain on everyone obscuring our abilities to connect to each other as just fellow human beings.

Let's also stop pretending that people fit in to simple categories of good and bad, let's stop imagining that every artist, friend, hero, politician, relative, cop, person isn't a complex human being built from an assortment of contradictory beliefs and experiences that may not sit logically with each other according to some grand scheme. Solidarity is fucking great, but it's slippery. It's a constantly shifting bind of allegiances and shared aims, vicious disagreements and mutual antagonism. It's fucking the human condition is what the fuck it is. We're not all beautiful delicate flowers, we're not all pricks either. We're roses. (OH GOD! That was such. A. Fucking. CHEESEBALL. Line. Though it fitted so well that once it popped into my head that I knew immediately that I was both going to use it because deep down [or on the surface maybe] I'm a high school poetry sort of motherfucker, even if I kind of hated myself for thinking of it and knew I'd probably have to parenthetically acknowledge its shitty corniness to prevent large swathes [4 people] of the readership bailing immediately as soon as they comprehended the full scale of its cheeseball nature. I apologise)

We're not perfect beautiful models of perfection, no one is, but especially not us, because in the embrace of punk rock to me there is an implicit rejection of that search for a smooth unblemished notion of beauty. You can still dress up nice, make yourself up, do your hair, reject every crust-punk convention, but the love for something so raw and angry betrays an essential coarseness to you or to me. We don't just accept those broken bits, we mold them into a shield, into a fluttering proud standard. We're the sort of ugly people that find ugliness beautiful. That live and love in the dry cracks in skin, the flabby folds in flesh, in the dirty smears on grinning faces, singing loud songs, telling each other sick jokes and desperate stories and all of our scars are norse fucking sagas.

(This sort of point cropped up in a discussion I was having with my friend Drew about cultural redemption narratives and their relationship to punk rock. "I get almost resentful, like it takes trauma to be broken enough to walk down that road. Most of my real trauma happened because of, not as an impetus for, punk rock." which led me to liken punk rock to a Simpsons joke, and because he is in the same age demographic as me and the joke was from seasons 1-8, even though I did not specify the joke, he immediately knew which one I was talking about, as you probably do reading this. THIS IS A TEST.

From this I can only extrapolate that punk rock's IF IT AIN'T BROKE, LET'S BREAK IT! spirit is equally applied to people as it is to nation-states, police cars and guitar strings and my friend's friends were all secretly dancing with glee behind his back chanting "ONE OF US! ONE OF US!" as they led him into a series of a confusing and messy social situations and relationships. It's a serious drug, you just want the high, but you don't realise that there's no way of getting there without embracing all the strung-out inhuman mess that comes with it.)

It's a scene made up of the kind of guys that put Code Blue on a mixtape for a girl they really like, the kind of girls that give their boyfriend about whom they're just starting to believe there's more there than a fun fling a copy of the SCUM Manifesto on their one-month anniversary, lovingly inscribed (i's with hearts for dots and all) with the dedication "This is why you are beneath me", as well as a whole fuckload of people who don't really care for the whole boy/girl deal but instead of trying to fit in or not make a big deal about it walk round with a mouth full of "Fuck you. This is who I am. Take your prehistoric binary notions of gender and sexuality and choke on them, you fucking relic."

So shocked that we find ourselves in a place where people often seem really interesting and smart or at least dumb and fucking cool, we test it. We push it to see how far it will accept us. We compete to show off our disaffection and distraction from the notions of conformity, and in doing so of course just create a different type of conformity that then must be reacted against as well in this endless fucking stupid pisshearted chain of chimerical explosions, regrettable tattoos and basement shows.

It's a scene made up of those kinds of people, who do those kinds of things, and then still get the uncomfortable inner tug that maybe they stepped too far outside the lines this time. Because we don't live our lives as Johnny Rotten or Poly Styrene or Guitar Wolf or Jello Biafra or Pig Champion, though we ache and shoot for that, though we use them as crutches and patches, bright crusty stitching on Gein-chic skin suit chainsmoke mailroom disguises. We spent most of our time stumbling on through as John, Marianne and Seiji, Eric and Tom, and that duality, that snotty-mouthed swagger/snotty-nosed terror, run-your-mouth/heart-in-your-mouth dichotomy that we bounce and swing between is exactly the teenage freakshow that Screeching Weasel at their best have always been able to perfectly articulate.

And you kind of feel sorry for Ben Weasel a bit, because I think as you get older you generally kind of get a bit better for the most part at reconciling the furious certainty that makes up some of your teenage years, and the chaotic insecurity and self-loathing that makes up the rest of it, the circles merge until it's no longer a dichotomy but more like a happy chubby Venn diagram we've found a warm spot in the middle of, but Ben Weasel does not seem to have done that. Just as Celine's hatefulness was what provided him with the perfect outsider perspective to lance societal hypocrisy, it was also what warped him into a fascist prick, Ben Weasel's continual oscillation between stark self-awareness and self-justificatory blather has led to so many perfect anthems of alienation, fun TV party ditties and ra-ra-ra-Ramones riot story songs, it's also led to him being a fucking dickhead burning bridges like they're dandelion seedheads. He's been an adolescent for three decades. And I am so fucking grateful to have struggled out of my teenage angst somewhat (mid-20s angst is a fucking piece-of-piss in comparison), I couldn't imagine dragging that amount of weight for another 20 fucking years.

But he's finally left that dance behind it seems for the most part, and just decided to stick with the self-righteous angry part. The final song on Screeching Weasel's 2011 offering, First World Manifesto (which is catchy as anything) is about the stupid notion of punk celebrity with apparent specific aim at Brendan Kelly of the Lawrence Arms, but every single line feels like it could be about the person singing it. Maybe he knows this, maybe it's all a bigger subtler joke than I'm giving him credit for but it doesn't seem to be. He's finally broken out of the pattern of catch-an-epiphany and release-hell, but rolled out, not into the quietitude that many aging artists find, the confidence of self-knowledge, but into the almost sole fury of the Unimpeachable Weasel. Maybe he's losing it, or maybe it's just that he can't seem to modulate himself with other people as well as he used, but stuck in this anger rut, it's been a turbulent snipey few years for Mr Weasel, even by his standards, and the few moments where he does seem to get that he's not all that (I mean, he's ALL THAT sometimes, but he's all that because he didn't always think he was all that, or always say he was) then he's switching back quicker and more sharply between something recognisably identifiable as the work of a person who knows they're a person (the initial humility of his apology after SXSW) and the self-righteousness with which he crafts his public missives (the long, rambling [I'm kettlepotting tremendously with those two words used in a pejorative fashion] half-smart half-stupid all-pretty-fucking pathetic comeback blog post where he explained exactly how perfectly right he was about everything after all). He increasingly seems like he believes his own bullshit, or to put it another way, he's stuck as Ben Weasel and can't remember who Ben Foster was, whereas his creative spark was always the introspection and humanity of Foster delivered with the salty smirk of Weasel. And man, that's gotta be shitty, there's not gotta be a lot of peace in that.

You kind of just want to give Ben Weasel a hug and say "Look, you don't have to push against us so much. We like you. Some of the time. If you could tone down that whole "I'm Ben Weasel. Fuck you!" just a little bit, it'd be really great. This is a cool place. And while we're not going to agree with everything, you're going to say, we really are as good as you're gonna get."

Of course though, that sort of genuine honesty is probably not going to get past this hard outer shell of disaffection and anger, so he'll continue doing the dumb shit we hate, but his music, at its best (and it is currently really really not at its best) can save a fucking life. And I know that, because when I repeat those magic words of "punk rock saved my life" that many have uttered sheepishly, declaimed loudly, carved into desks and brick knowing them to be true as a sunrise, Screeching Weasel are one of the bands at the forefront of my mind.

"I am here not by choice but by my birth. For so many years I doubted my own worth it's no coincidence I ended up where I'm at now I'm here to tell you that you can't kick me out 'cause I'm a permanent part of this society the blackest sheep amongst a crowd of them I'm not the glue that holds this scene together but I have arrived here by way of dirty looks and rejection and head scratching shrink and frustrated parents and teachers just like so many did before me and will after me go ahead and laugh at me you can afford to laugh I can't 'cause this is all I have I'm not proud I'm not ashamed but this is all I have and it's good enough for me and I am through following your truth I'm making my own rules. My own world, my own rules."

- Screeching Weasel, The Scene

Yeah, we've all felt like that sometimes, right? But Ben can no longer claim that position, because every new piece of news on the band still meets dozen of detractors ripping the piss out of the whole Weasel canon or praising the gloriously funny Max Levine Ensemble diss EP it will also have at least a few obsequious fanboys repeating by rote the screeching wheeze that PUNK IS ABOUT PISSING PEOPLE OFF AND HE DOES THAT! Or that PUNK IS ABOUT REJECTING TRADITION AND HE DOES THAT! which is exactly the same colossal pile of magic bullshit that Michael Graves trotted out for the ridiculous  ConservativePunk website that sprung up in response to PunkVoter around 2004. (For the record, and I cannot reiterate this enough, punk rock is not really about breaking from tradition, it is about the right to choose which tradition you fit into, building and inhabiting a system of your own not necessarily smash all systems, because the world is so old and so big that everything has a tradition and everything is systematic, and rejecting all tradition is in the Futurist traditon, and smashing all systems is done systematically.) The very existence of those Weaselites disproves their entire point, because Ben Weasel is not a lone voice in the darkness speaking up against the oppressiveness monolith that he imagines to be whatever he considers 'the punk scene' today, if he really was then he wouldn't have that captive audience ready to lap up all of his tortured logic bullshit and spring up at any time in defence of him. On a broad conceptual level his criticisms have a place as a significant aspect of punk rock is recognising the failings of your own scene and puncturing dogma and preciousness with giggling bile (and there are plenty of great songs about it like Electro Hippies' Am I Punk Yet? or Propagandhi's Back to the Motor League, Turkish Techno's Meth Not Meat, Screeching Weasel's very own Slogans etc.), but Ben Weasel has stopped doing it in that sort of scattershot 'I don't know who's right but you're fucking wrong' entertainingly sarcastic way, he does it in a patronising 'I am right! WHY CAN'T EVERYONE BE MORE LIKE ME?' way. He may be an outsider in certain circles but it smacks of someone who's on top (boasting about his five figure show guarantees) applying downwards pressure rather than lone misfit doing it with upwards pressure which aways soils that sort of thing.

Would I go and see Ben Weasel live? Yes, but I'd put on a full-face helmet first! Boom. But, yeah, I would, but, despite the fact that I just wrote a billion fucking words about him, or who he appears to me to be, it's not about him. Yes, the fact of who he is, what he's like, has led him to not only this unenjoyable impasse with reality but to document feelings and sensations that I fucking hated having but were entirely grateful for having elucidated by someone to prove I wasn't insane and alone, but the songs birthed from his creative loins still do exist without him, and will continue to exist without him, outside of him, whatever Republican politician he brags of voting for, and I love love love a lot of those songs, as much as I love any work of art in the world, and, as I think I have gone on about before, the communal experience of a song is what finally completes it. Yeah, I identify with art made by arseholes, but so do others, and they're gonna be arseholes of the same sort as me, and I want to scream those words with them, whoever the fuck's on stage. If I could go see a Screeching Weasel cover band which I knew would have as many people in the crowd as the real Screeching Weasel and that the crowd would be as completely into it were ol' Weasel there himself, then I would be just as happy with that. It's what I want to sing along to, not who I want to sing along to, just as I'm massively excited to see Ted Leo's Misfits cover band close out Friday night at Fest, almost as much as I would be if it were a Danzig fronted 'Fits (but less so than I would be were it The Misfats).

So basically, this article has been knocking around in draft form for about 4 or 5 months and soon Screeching Weasel are releasing a new EP, The Carnival of Schadenfreude, with a regular band, this would be a celebratory post of their power to inspire and my love for them, their dogged determination to exist in some form, rather than what this is, which is a sort of a complicated mealy-mouthed shrug. Now, maybe he'll snap back again, maybe he'll drag himself down from his perch and make great music again someday, but not today (or it doesn't sound like it from what I've heard of the new EP) but shit, I'm not gonna renounce my love for Screeching Weasel. Yeah, there have been times throughout this year where I've felt like I was moving past them, leaving them behind, few weeks ago I put on my personal Weaselmaniacal Greatest Hits playlist for the first time in a while and every single song hit me just like it used to, from the goofiness of Joanie Loves Johnny to the profundity of What We Hate. So I come not to bury Screeching Weasel, but to praise them. As the spiderhead psychopomp Tim Timebomb might say, "Dis isn a stowaree bout how Ben went doowaarn, is abowt how he wen uuerp." I just first wanted to indulge in some bullshit armchair psychoanalysis on the hard-to-love cunt behind the music to help maybe illuminate all the stuff I'm gonna say in what I'm about to do, which is a series of posts detailing my 50 favourite Screeching Weasel songs. Yep, 50. There are not many bands where I even have that many songs (there are plenty of my favourite bands that don't even have that many songs.) I probably won't get it all finished for a while, they'll be posts on other subjects in between and I'm off to Fest on Wednesday for a couple weeks of American dreams but 50 songs, 50 scratches on my souls, is what I'm gonna do, because in all the shit about Ben Weasel's personal conduct, there have been people laughing and sneering about how they were always a terrible band and they don't know how anyone could ever really care about who Ben Weasel is anyway.

And fuck that with an asteroid, because they were fantastic. Stay tuned for exactly why.