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Columns > Jesse Jarnow - Brain Tuba

Published: 2004/10/30
by Jesse Jarnow

War on War, parts 7-10

Music and politics, November 2004
parts 1-6
I take it as a sign of impending civilization that my gentrifying neighborhood finally has a box where I can pick up The Onion. As usual, they seem to be the only paper that is up front about how I feel. ‘Countdown To The Recount 2004,’ is their main USA Today parody infographic this week. They were the only paper to nail 9/11, too. Hard facts be damned, there is something so unquestionably real (to me, anyway) about their coverage of this time and place in American history.
It’s a fleeting time, of course, and (depending on when this gets uploaded) it could be all over by the time anybody else reads this. Or it could be just beginning. The Election next week (or the Recount) is, of course, what all this is building towards, and this is all just backstory. But what a backstory! Every day, there’s new drama — charges, countercharges, who said what, shot what, snorted what, hid what, revealed what, and the like. And The Onion deals with that on a very general level.
In junior high school, an English teacher asked me if I got all of my news from Saturday Night Live’s then-Kevin Nealon-hosted Weekend Update. I didn’t, of course, but it poses an interesting question. How informed would somebody be if he only read The Onion and, say, watched The Daily Show? How much fact is actually in there? ‘Republicans Urge Minorities To Get Out and Vote on Nov. 3’ reads one of The Onion’s headlines this week — a story only funny when one remembers that Election Day is on the 2nd. (It took me a good second to realize that…)
So, as news, it doesn’t really qualify, except that it uses facts as a starting point. But what drives the weekly’s political "coverage" home is their insistent counterpoint to daily newspapers’ vapid "human interest" stories. Directly above the continuation of the cover story is a piece titled "Study: 100 Percent of Americans Lead Secret Lives." "Average Americans engage in strange and obsessive behavior that, if revealed, would humiliate them," it says, before detailing the quirks of fictional Americans. And while these characters are fictional, they’re also very real. I think there is no question that The Onion projects a more honest image of the American psyche than pretty much any other popular publications.
In college, I took a fairly pretentious (though valuable) class called "Comedy and Post-Modernism" and wrote a fairly pretentious paper about why USA Today is funnier than The Onion. It is an opinion that I stand by. Going into this next week, it’s The Onion that I’d far rather have in my hands than USA Today, because who really knows what the fuck is going on? Polls? What polls? Kerry is ahead? Bush is ahead? These aren’t facts either, quite frankly, and I resent the psychodrama.
There was a full eclipse last night, the Boston Red Sox won the World Series, and my friends’ cats were going insane. Don’t talk to me about polls, man. It’s bad out there. I want to remember this, or at least remember how it felt to be in limbo.
A bit written immediately following the first debate between incumbent President George W. Bush and opposing candidate, Senator John F. Kerry on September 30th, 2004:
Good news in Bushwick tonight. For starters, there was the first Presidential debate. We gathered in our loft and watched PBS, ate take-out and ice cream, smoked bowls and drank wine. And, when it was over, we left David Brooks’ talking head chattering in the background and rushed to the computers — to fire up Air America, to vote in the viewer polls on MSNBC (as suggested by the widely spread email this afternoon), to check out Fox’s response (know thine enemy).
Senator John Kerry quite clearly "won" the debate with President George Bush this evening. Kerry was eloquent and direct, responding with cogently fact-filled rhetoric that sounded downright statesman-like. The President, on the other hand, frequently spoke in unsettling fragments, like a Coen brothers’ character struggling to express himself. He interrupted moderator Jim Lehrer, ignoring the rules his representatives absolutely insisted on. For us, it was a reassuring performance. Our shock at the President’s incoherence turned to awe, and soon to glee.
Perhaps misguided, though, because who knows if Kerry actually won? We’ll have to wait ‘til tomorrow, of course, to see what the New York Times and Fox News and everybody else says. And then we’ll have to wait longer to see what happens in the polls. But, shit, John Kerry presented himself as a calm, coherent human being. George Bush did not. The real frenzy is in the analysis. The debate, as seen live, is merely raw material for everything that follows, and it’s only the judgment that matters.
If one ever wanted to make an argument about the integration of post-modern concepts into mainstream culture, he needn’t look further than the coverage of tonight’s debate. Bubbling very near the surface of the national dialogue is a discussion about the reliability and tactics of news reportage: how the sausages are made. It’s not entirely the people in power, the makers of movies like Outfoxed are saying, but the way those in power build a consensus through talking points and careful editing. Maybe that good news isn’t s’good after all, but it’s gonna take a news channel to tell us so.
What is unquestionably good news, though, is the fact that – in the midst of all this – my roommate brought home the first finished copies of the new EP by his band, The Song Corporation, and it really fucking rocks. The three tracks are some beautiful combination of Sonic Youth and Yo La Tengo, and they are held together by those qualities that make The Song Corporation unique as individual human beings. As a roommate to three-quarters of the band at one point or another, I’m pretty aware of those quirks, and can hardly fathom a reasonable guess as to whether or not they make themselves apparent to total strangers.
But Raisin Bran in the Sun is a great EP. At least, I love it. My roommate wrote lyrics that feel emotionally right to me. During ‘The Bug Speaks,’ he sings of a Washington, DC overtaken by a fantastical totalitarian government — one part state-run socialism, one part Willie Wonka. It feels awfully weird to quote Mike’s lyrics but, fuck it, they’re really good, so here goes: ‘There’s a chorus of computers clicking in the dark / Deciding how much time you get and where you get to park / The noise they make is quiet, but it seems so very loud / In the caves beneath the capital, where you are not allowed.’ After three years of living together, we share some sense of imaginative fantasy in what we see (I think).

Yes, it feels weird to analyze my friends’ lyrics, to think about them in the same terms as Bob Dylan or Jeff Tweedy or Jeff Mangum or any other musician that’s ever written a song that meant something to me. But why shouldn’t I? Because I’ve seen Mike in his underwear playing video games? No, Raisin Bran in the Sun doesn’t have that transcendent beamed-from-elsewhere quality that Blood on the Tracks does, which makes it a little hard to accept. I can’t really project myself on the music, because it is music made out of circumstances that I am very privy to. To pretend otherwise would be an exercise in futility. It’s not as emotionally clean to me as any of my favorite albums, but it is literally far more real. It’s good, and I’m proud of them.
John Kerry, as he carried himself in the debate this evening, was emotionally clean. His words were well chosen and self-contained. It was rhetoric, and rhetoric often unfolds into uncomfortable realities. On the surface, though, to those watching at home (and not having to deal with the nitty-gritty of actual policy decisions) it felt remarkably easy.
Give or take a Song Corporation EP here or a gig by The Changes there, I think it’s Big Albums between here and November. And choices, too, ‘cause Wilco is playing Radio City Music Hall the night of the Vice-Presidential debate, the Mountain Goats are playing the night of Bush v. Kerry II, and Brian Wilson on Bush v. Kerry III. I dunno what to do, frankly. For now, I’ll go to sleep and hope that good news in Bushwick is good news in the rest of the world.
As it is, when given the choice, I chose music. I saw Wilco while Dick Cheney and John Edwards were duking out. I watched the townhall bickering between Bush and Kerry in the confines of Tonic, just before Sex Mob took the stage. And, happily, I witnessed the Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson finally realize his long-lost SMiLE at Carnegie Hall on the night of the final Bush/Kerry match-up. In the cases where I wasn’t home, I set the VCR, then rushed back to watch ‘em with various friends for whom my roommate’s television is their only access to that world.
I didn’t really expect to choose otherwise. I have a good friend who listens fairly exclusively to the left-leaning AirAmerica radio. I’ve been over to his place during the day, with Al Franken and Janeane Garofolo on the air, and – besides Franken’s Grateful Dead bumpers – I can’t really take it. It’s a combination of factors. It’s hard for me to say this, as somebody who pretty vehemently supports John Kerry, but there is a certain amount of fear-mongering in AirAmerica’s tactics. I get more scared when listening to AirAmerica than I do when listening to Bush himself. Given their righteously muckraking approach, it’s probably the intended effect, but it leaves me in a deeper state of unease than merely reading the papers.
So I listen to music. It’s the hoariest of clichto call it a balm, but it’s worse to call it escapism. Music, at least in my life, has its own function. It is something that exists in a way that is every bit as real to me as the Presidential campaign, the basketball court outside my window, or the gut-wrenching smell that filled my loft during the days after September 11th. Just like politics, music is something that humans create; like the basketball court, they do it in specific environments; and, like that smell, it finds its way into obscure nooks of myself — and they all co-exist in my life.
There were no mentions of the debates at either the Wilco or Wilson performances (though Tweedy, like most other rock stars this season, encouraged people to vote). The creation of music, good or bad, is one of the most positive activities humans can engage in, ditto for the shared act of shared listening, and going to see live performances just felt good — as did seeing them in historically significant venues. A sense of history is a good thing.
For most of humanity, the idea of a 24-hour news source – or even enough news happening to fill it – has been utterly absurd. After days locked in doors, bits and bobs filtering in through the web and email, it feels good to get out and see music with friends. And that’s not a diversion. It’s not a matter of forgetting anything, or going to some fucking place where everybody knows your name. It’s part of life, and life can be great.
Or, as the debates reminded, life can be ugly. And we try to combat that — or, at least, balance it out. Sex Mob’s show at Tonic seemed to propose a good balance: a live airing of the debate (with Mystery Science Theater-style commentary from local comedians), a burlesque show, and a set by downtown jazzers Steve Bernstein and Sex Mob. Unfortunately, the pacing of the evening was all wrong. I was hoping for boobies, Bush, and Bernstein, in that order, hopefully with Bernstein and company providing braying accompaniment to the first act.

It seemed all fairly logical. I’d hoped and assumed that Sex Mob would play within seconds of the debate’s end, providing an immediate musical commentary on what had just happened. Instead, I had to sit through two kinda creepy stripteases, and at least one truly horrific stand-up (the skinny tie variety that I thought went extinct in the late ’80s) and, eventually, Sex Mob played. Well, perhaps, um, next time.
The most natural combination came by accident. When I returned home from the Brian Wilson performance, my new roommate and his girlfriend were about to go to sleep. They’d watched the debate, and didn’t particularly wanna listen again as they drifted off to slumber. "Do you mind if I put on some music, man?" he asked.
"Sure," I said.
So, my neighbor and I fired up the debate, and Mayur put on the second disc of Nightfall of Diamonds, the ‘Dark Star’ set from the Grateful Dead’s October 16, 1989 performance at Meadowlands, and about as perfect as late ’80s Dead sets got. With the television balanced so as not to wake people up, and the music adjusted so as not to drown out the debate, we found a fairly amazing counterpoint between the Grateful Dead of 15 years ago and the Bush/Kerry sparring of earlier that evening. Garcia’s guitar offered beautifully ethereal responses to the candidates’ simplified claims, blurring them into the translucent ambiguity of most human decision making.
Watching the debates surely didn’t change whom I was voting for (though I did come away with a previously absent appreciation for John Kerry’s skills and intelligence, and a renewed enthusiasm for voting for him). Like listening to A Ghost is Born and other Big Albums, it felt necessary and important to watch the debates, even – by the third time – knowing pretty much exactly what would be said.
Participatory democracy, for me, is a tiny thing. My vote counts (I hope!), but it’s a drop in the bucket. Most of my actions, be it public journaling or marching in protests, are fairly irrelevant, but I proceed because – like listening to music – the actions fulfill the emotional/intellectual requirements my brain churns up to be a well-rounded human being.
Jon Stewart’s appearance on Crossfire circulated with historic speed through the Internets. "He’s our Walter Cronkite," one friend gushed, and he might be right, backlash or no. It’s nice to feel represented. I mean that in all sincerity. Stewart’s ranting on CNN was, in some ways, crassly opportunistic, but so is running for office. And, even though I wish he’d given more specific examples to back up his righteousness, it was absolutely eye-opening to have somebody so lucidly attack the major media’s theater of the absurd.
Michael Moore, that other great Movement figurehead, is also a showman, but there is something far less spontaneous about his style. Much of this has to do with his two great fascinations: Fortune Sons and Commonfolk. Nearly every Moore production, from Roger and Me through his fictional invasion parody Canadian Bacon, have pitted the two against one another like ancient, opposing forces. His interviews have to be, in some ways, rhetorical. For better or worse, they must serve the purpose of his narrative.
This lends an air of going-through-the-motions when Moore confronts Fortune Sons. What do you expect that Congressman to say when you point a camera in his face on a street corner and ask him if he wants to send his son to Iraq (as Moore does in Fahrenheit 9/11)? He’s gonna blink stupidly, smile politely, and run away. The mechanics of confrontational journalism (or left-wing infotainment or what have you) have a surprising nuance to them, which – at least for his Crossfire appearance – Stewart navigated deftly.
Perhaps it was a fluke. Perhaps Stewart’ll never do it again. Or perhaps he’ll repeat it until it, too, becomes a rehearsed showbiz stunt. Either way, when I watched the clip, it felt like an amazing, momentary spot of brightness. It’s a reaction I don’t much have these days, except for the rare occasion when my iTunes spits up random Bill Hicks tracks. I wish I had that feeling more often.
For now, it’s something to hold onto – a singular moment, like what you get buried somewhere in a really good night of music – as we head into what could conceivably be even stranger waters. As somebody recently emailed me: Vote hard. Ahoy.

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