More Posts About Lyrics and Tunes #1: “Miracle Drug,” A.C. Newman

November 8, 2009 § Leave a comment

I am not one for pop-music criticism — you can find some wank defending anything with whatever flimsy criteria in whatever prominent forum you choose; let me just come out as a philistine and say that good popular music’s goodness resides in its making you want to listen and, if possible, move to it, repeatedly, and do we really need a theory for that? — but I thought I might introduce an occasional feature to highlight songs that I enjoy both as music and as a kind of literature: not just story-songs (although I’ll surely include some good story-songs), but songs which interest me in the narratives they create with their combinations of words and music.  Not critical appraisals, but notes on songs I like. Because, despite what I just said up there, I do think there are some fine narrative artists working in music.  Therefore, “More Posts About Lyrics and Tunes” (a strained homage to the Talking Heads album More Songs About Buildings and Food).

My current obsession can be heard here, by clicking on “Media,” then “Miracle Drug.”  (Apologies for the reroute; I’d like to embed but am both too cheap and too paranoid about copyright law to make the post easily available here.)

Are you back?  Okay.  I’m late to this, having missed The Slow Wonder for about six years despite the New Pornographers being more or less my favorite band of the past decade, and just got the album a few weeks ago.  (I am old: I buy physical things called “albums,” often on shiny “compact discs.”)  I love how compact this song is: just three verses, as cryptic as pretty much every A.C. Newman and New Pornographers song, but with a much stronger narrative throughline than usual.

There are many mysteries in this song — what’s the miracle drug?  what’s with these weird inscribed trophies? — but here’s the narrative I developed around the song: the first verse is about a somewhat pathetic suicide — or is it a murder? is he tied down to the bed by force, or tied like a heroin addict might be? — that “miracle drug” a poison, or overdose, after the receipt of yet another form rejection of the young man’s “great lost novel.”  Perhaps we then move back in time, with the desperate man deciding to try to “err on this side of divine” despite his “perilous slide into crime,” perhaps the crime of selling drugs, or just abusing them; and perhaps we move back even farther, as the young man finds himself “tied to a job selling miracle drugs” and receiving motivational (or mysterious) trophies for the work he’s doing.  Boredom and quiet desperation at being tied to a (possibly evil — what’s this “miracle drug,” anyway?) job; shift to crime as an attempt to find a way to freedom; last-ditch effort to redeem youthful dreams of the life of the artist shattered.  But of course, could be each verse is about a different “he,” or maybe I’ve overstated the first verse as being about a suicide attempt.  Anyway, I love the noir overtones of the song, how it works as the catchiest hardboiled story you’ve ever heard.

I love the recurring words “interest,” with its three different tones — devastatingly dismissive, hopeful, and menacing — and “tied,” with its different literal meanings but meaningful connection.  But what the hell’s up with “So why all the history now?”  Or is it “So why all the mystery now?”  That would make more sense, but it sure sounds like “history.”  It seems like it might be a line used only for phonetic and tonal purposes, without carrying any narrative weight.  Or perhaps I’m just missing something.

I also love the music, which works against and with the noir narrative in interesting ways.  Every time I listen to the song, I’m fascinated by that awesome beeping rhythm in the breaks: sounds kind of like a stylized alarm clock or phone ringing, and carries a lot of urgency along with sounding rad in Newman’s rich soundscape.  (What is that, anyway?  Melodion?  Synthesizer?  Can someone with a modicum of musical knowledge help me out here?)

Overall, the song keeps reminding me of “Paperback Writer,” mostly because of the content of the frustrated amateur writer but also because the songs are of virtually identical length, and both have that booming guitar hook.

The Trickster’s Exemption

August 11, 2008 § 1 Comment

Now reading: Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up to Me, by Richard Fariña.

Reading next: The Raw Shark Texts, by Steven Hall.

Lots of questions with this book. For one: Why am I reading it? (Well, because Fariña was a good friend of Pynchon’s when both were at Cornell in the ’50s, and I’m in this hippie-lit phase now anyway, and if not now, when?)

For others: is it Beat or Hippie? Does it matter? (Not really, but fun to parse sometimes.) I think it’s mostly late-Beat, actually. As Vineland is a kind of post-hippie novel, looking back at the 60s to reclaim its ethos from the greedy 80s, BDSLILLUTM looks back at the Beat heyday, 1958, from crazy 1966. It’s ponderous and pretentious (as well as overreaching in the very special way that only first novels from those weaned on the Beats can be), with jazz, Joyce, and multiple layers of mythological allusion involved. (Actual onomatopoetic lines of jazz at some points, I guess to reinforce mood and tone, or at least that’s the excuse.) It’s also got that Beat frisson of misogyny or at least condescension to women. And everybody embarrassingly calling each other “baby.” And Gnossos, our hero, with this retarded self-aggrandizing idea about being a spiritual virgin, claiming he’s “laid” like a million women but never “surrendered” himself to any of them. (What a tool, seriously. This is the stupidest thing about this book.)

But I’m being hard on the book. There are some funny slapstick scenes, and some good writing. It’s only pretense if you’re pretending to be good, as they say, and Fariña definitely has good stuff. (He died, sadly, two days after this was published.) And it does seem to be at least in part about that anxious incessant identity-forming that was so much of the Beat project, and is so much of a part of growing up, getting out of the house and going to college and out on expeditions in hopes of receiving a vision (as Gnossos does, into the American West and the frigid North, before returning to Athene, the stand-in for Ithaca, NY, in the book). Right at the start, there’s this interesting passage, as we’re plunged into Gnossos’s thoughts:

I am invisible, he thinks often. And Exempt. Immunity has been granted to me, for I do not lose my cool. Polarity is selected at will, for I am not ionized and I possess not valence. Call me inert and featureless but Beware, I am the Shadow, free to cloud men’s minds. Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? I am the Dracula, look into my eye.

Exemption, immunity: Gnossos is a trickster, or at least fancies himself such. An invisible Mercury, a wandering Odysseus (yes, he’s very self-consciously Greek), a fly in the ointment of an uptight 1950s university town. This passage does a nice job of introducing some of the main symbol-systems used in the book: the physics and chemistry of the nuclear age (we learn later that Gnossos witnessed a nuclear test in the Nevada desert), the mass media booming in the ’40s and ’50s and forming a generation both homogeneous and terrified of homogeneity, the literary and the mythical.

And yet Gnossos also obsessively worries about “the monkey-demon,” another trickster figure from Chinese Buddhist legend (and there’s a fair amount of Buddhist allusion in the book, making me think this is a Buddhist monkey-demon and not one of the flying monkeys of The Wizard of Oz. ‘Course, could be both). He reminds himself again and again to watch out for the monkey-demon. At one point, at a crazy party/orgy, a scary spider monkey actually appears; his owners get him stoned for fun, making the monkey even scarier. Needless to say, Gnossos is freaked out.

The monkey-demon seems to stand for the dark side of the trickster/outsider identity, to Gnossos: the side of chaos, of destructive rather than creative force, the side that turns evil and frightened when its mind is altered. The perspective shifts in this book in tricksy ways, too, Farina often shifting from third to stream-of-consciousness first and back within the same paragraph or sticking to one or the other for pages at a time with a few sentences sprinkled in that could either represent the thoughts of either the narrator or Gnossos. Mentions of “the monkey-demon” or “beware the monkey-demon” are often like this: we can’t be sure if it’s Gnossos saying this to himself, or the narrator telling us and his eight-years-ago hero-self that danger is afoot. (Clearly part of this shifting perspective is the semi-autobiographical nature of the book, the trickster as the author of his own fictional story and “true” identity, the web-weaver and lie-spinner. The confidence-man. Anansi.) The problem I’m having is with that mention of Dracula, which seems to show awareness, and even an embrace, of the dark side of the identity Gnossos has cultivated.

This circles back to this whole male-spiritual-virginity thing: as “Book the First” ends, Gnossos has fallen in love with a co-ed named Kristin McLeod. “Exemption” means exemption from the rules of society, but it also, apparently, has meant exemption from being required to care about the person on the other side of sex. Is this why the dark trickster figures of monkey and wolf recur here, why Gnossos’s boozy Indian neighbors interrupt the consummation with a smile and a warning, “Much caution”? Although Gnossos longs, supposedly, to truly “make love,” is this a warning that immunity and exemption are only granted to those who remain outside of love’s circle?

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