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It Was One of Those Days

November 22, 2011

I usually only give myself a break from posting if I have a lot of writing or editing to do, or there are a lot of errands to do, and then, only if I finish what I set out to do, which with editing isn’t always as easy as it sounds. The truth is, though, that I was visiting relatives. This in itself wouldn’t normally keep me from posting; quite the opposite in fact. The laptop tends to come with me on every visit. However, this time I left it at home because I was expected to do a lot of computer tinkering on other computers instead, and wouldn’t have time to do any writing on my own.

And so I come before you, your honour, with hat in hand, begging your pardon.

What I’d really like to do, though, is shut the laptop down and go to sleep, because I am so completely exhausted, I’m too tired to mind the pain in my bones and joints from the weather.

But I won’t. Not until I get a topic. By the fourth paragraph, one should have a topic, wouldn’t you think? So here’s the bit where I come up with a topic off the top of my head. *Reaches into skull and rummages around*

Recycling. Right. Of course.

But not what you might be thinking of. I’m a slightly lax but devoted environmentalist, and I don’t care who says what about landfill, water tables, the pollution index or the ozone layer, anyone who denies that things are getting worse is frankly being belligerently ignorant to get out of having to shape up and be a good citizen of the planet. I won’t lecture, but frankly, it rather invalidates anything else they have to say to me about the state of the world today, even as my arguments and stance must do so with them.

And no, I’m not going to recycle a previous article. I AM going to try to make this as broad as I can, but what I’d like to talk about is Cultural Recycling.
For instance, I’m curled up in bed with a laptop on the remains of a small 1950’s Heywood-Wakefield knock-off end table, while chatting with my agent, who is curled up in bed reading a new Mercedes Lackey fairytale on her eReader, and the musical selection of this evening is Cream. I grew up listening to things like this, but never really had a taste for it. But as I’ve gotten older, I find that themes and sounds and styles from my childhood or earlier have been growing on me in ways I can’t readily define. I still yearn for a plus-perfect future, but I now ask that ‘my’ future have some classic Art Nouveau or Arts and Crafts lines in warmer tones than my PowerBook’s clean, serene, 90s-modern aesthetic can provide.

Cream’s music has aged without any concession to grace or elegance. The music is brash and barbaric, and nothing that has been rehashed and rerecorded in recent years has really repeated it. Psychedelic Rock, along with the Baroque’n’roll and Space Rock styles of the mid-to-late 60s, has certainly influenced a lot of music that has come out in the last twenty or so years, but I think the last contemporary songwriters I heard who deliberately took a solid stab at nailing the Cream sound was Them Crooked Vultures, and it has to be said that it’s hard to appreciate their first album unless you did grow up with a smattering of Cream music in your back catalogue. Fascinating stuff, but it’s the pedigree of raw innovation and sheer unselfconscious pretense that makes most of its contemporaries look and sound sad. Cream. Hendrix. And I’ll be damned if I can think of a third that doesn’t sound more than a bit goofy to me now. Maybe, just maybe Steppenwolf. NOT Iron Butterfly, I am sorry to say. They have aged so badly that I still can’t listen to them without wincing. My apologies to their fans. I extend the same olive branch to early Mothers of Invention fans, despite being a pretty serious fan of Frank Zappa’s later ‘solo’ music.

So what does this have to do with recycling? Well, it’s an interesting feature of recycling, but no matter how much old stuff you process, you rarely ever get a perfect simulation of the original when you seek to recreate it in the modern age. So much of the technology has changed that, even if you try to recreate the sound from the amps on up to the tube-fed soundboard, something in the process has been perfected, smoothed out, made crisper and cleaner than the old remasters of the originals sound. The very fuzziness that aggravates and infuriates us turns out to be the same emulsifier that gives the music its distinct character. The lack of (consistent) sheen actually belongs there. You can’t listen to the classics of that era without hearing the tape hiss and the hum of the near-blown tube amps. Everything teeters on a knife’s edge. It’s almost impossible to get that level of raw experimentation and recklessness without getting something more akin to Broken Social Scene or Godspeed You Black Emperor (insert the exclamation where you like; frankly, I love their stuff, but think they’d be serviced better by an interrobang). You rarely get anything as bold but as similar as the original trend-setter.

Even the immediate imitators start to sound like pale drones. Look how the sound of Deep Purple, Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath became imitated with cleaner production values as the sound of Pearl Jam, Soundgarden and Alice in Chains, only to become the assembly-line-perfected sound of Creed, System of a Down and Nickleback.

Okay, so far, I’ve expressed this theory in terms of pop music. The same things can be said about art, cinema and literature. Not to knock the efforts of any modern creators, but how many of us, myself included, aren’t vamping off of some accepted style or flavour that appeals to us and, presumably, our audience, but which is essentially an echo of something done twenty, fifty, a hundred years ago or more? Precious few, I’d wager.

I don’t say this to piss anyone off. I believe in looking back to learn the way forward. What I find is that, no matter how much I enjoyed a classic piece in its time, there is only so much I can take with me as I move forward, and if I choose to linger and make a few statements in the oeuvre of someone whose work I greatly admire, then I may prove myself to be a brilliant mimic, but I can’t truly lay claim to the title ‘innovator’, which is a benchmark for quite a few of us creative types.

And it extends beyond our rarified artistic communities to the wider world around us. People still do jobs and perform tasks that are very much in the mold of what people were doing fifty, a hundred, two hundred years before. We have tweaked and perfected these processes tot eh point that they are almost unidentifiable as the same thing, but it takes very little abstract thinking to see where the antecedents are. The serial numbers on some of this stuff are barely filed off.

Making an assertion like that deserves some examples, but I’m exhausted, and really, if I made an argument that publishing, for instance, is still operating in the footsteps of the era when periodicals gave way to the modern novel, beginning in the early 20th Century and smoothing out its approach over the decades to become something so crass you’d hardly think you were talking about a product or medium that may be hailed two hundred years later as ‘the book that changed the world’, the way we do about things like Shakespeare’s plays or the stories of Dickens or Wilde or Conan Doyle. Can you identify, with certainty, the modern novel that will most certainly be praised in the fashion Shelley’s Frankenstein or Stoker’s Dracula, in their day no doubt seen as puerile and sensationalistic, like how we perceive the pulps of the mid 20th Century?

Can you point to a modern comic book and say ’In 200 years, people will be studying that in school to learn how to become better writers and teachers’? I can think of a few I’d like to see studied, but frankly, comics have seen a few too many rises and falls over the year to take bets on their longevity as a medium. Visual storytelling has been with us for centuries, millennia, really. But the comic book, or graphic novel, is such a new form of serious creative expression that many still haven’t figured out that the world changed. And yet, none of those writers would be so arrogant as to assert that there was every any sort of elevation or divine influence to their work.

Getting sleepy. Time to sum up: What modern art and literature have given us is a willingness to reprint older ideas with new colour schemes, which isn’t as bad as it seems, and the people who count the beans, who rather insist that all recompense be standardised, because it makes the counting easier.

It’s not just what you say but whom you steal the format from that defines much of what our society has taught up to believe. What we have to do is somehow learn once more the fine art of speaking our minds frankly and without fear of retribution. For those still fighting for their freedom. You need to change your game plan and start moving forward at speed. The times, they are a changin’… except for the corpselike sections that refuse to be budged.

Time for bed.


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