(ETA: My friend Kevin added the following: ‘I am somewhat surprised you limited this to those affected by his ignoring AIDS. His policies in Central America, both under Reagan and on his own, went far further than was revealed in Iran Contra and resulted in untold deaths, mass impoverishment, and the overthrow of legitimate governments by USA backed and armed narco cartels who persist to this day.  Lastly we can point out that Bush and William Casey were responsible for the perpetuation of the Iranian hostage crisis, which cost Carter the election.’ These things are absolutely true, and any one of them could have earned another 500 words. The AIDS crisis struck closest to home at the time and is much in my thoughts these days for other reasons.)

I’ve been thinking about the death of George Herbert Walker Bush and why I won’t ‘dignify’ his memory by keeping silent. By 1988, HIV had been identified as the source of AIDS and AIDS had been named for three and five years respectively. Bush had remained silent the entire time, as had his predecessor, Ronald Reagan. (Reagan’s silence, even as friends of his such as Rock Hudson died, was despicable enough.) When ACT-UP and other gay groups protested in forms of extreme street theatre and were arrested for it, they were working in the same realm as the Freedom Riders two decades before, and playing for similar stakes. The people who risked and suffered violence and arrest at the hands of police forces coast to coast in many cases could have lived relatively quiet closeted lives, but as soon as they put themselves on the line for queer causes, they risked being disowned by their families (as the price of coming out had always included), firing, often their entire livelihoods. (This is why Harvey Milk pushed for all gays and lesbians to come out – to make it impossible to ignore that we were everywhere.)

s-e-dThis was a fair risk because their friends were dying. (I would so love to be able to say that I took the risks, but I lived safely then and rarely demonstrated, and generally only when it was safe. I won’t rewrite my own history.) Friends and lovers were dying horrible, lonely, painful deaths. Let’s not forget that the opportunistic infections associated with AIDS were slow and had few treatments. And there was no cure on the horizon.

As the leader of the free world, Bush had the responsibility and the duty to speak out, But, I hear you say, it wasn’t politically expedient to do so.

No, butt the crimes and death that result from political expedience are unforgivable. Instead of standing up and saying These are our brothers, sisters, sons, and daughters, he declared a whole segment of the population ‘Other’, a nuisance, and therefore disposable. That nuisance continued to die on his watch at an alarming rate. When he took office over 82,000 cases of AIDS had been reported in the US and almost 62,000 had died of it. When he left office in 1993, those numbers had increased threefold in the US alone. In his time in office, and in the succeeding quarter century, Bush has always been unwilling to stand up and own up and repent and do some kind of good work in this regard.

When his own Department of Health and Human Services produced a report on teen suicide that included the specific risks of gay and lesbian youth, Bush caved to far right groups and suppressed the report. The report was only released when its findings were leaked.

Bush’s successors have blood on their hands too, and I’m not willing to give them a pass, either, but in this moment of hagiography, I must say no. The man was not a saint of any kind. When the crisis was in its infancy, and leadership was required, he continued to do what was expedient. Were I the sort who believed in such things, I’d say that Hell had prepared a room.

ETA: The Rude Pundit has a column on this matter that’s a whole lot less nice than mine.

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And Nothing Hurt – 2018
Oh, man. Have you heard the new Spiritualized album? Dang.

My opinion is that it’s the best work Jason Pierce has done since about 2003’s Amazing Grace. Mind you, the peak is still 1997’s Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space. If our scale is 1-10, then Ladies and Gentlemen is a sold flawless 10 (a 14 or 15 in comparison to even the best albums out there, just not in terms of this band). That’s the gauge. Let it Come Down from 2001 and Amazing Grace come in at 8 or 9. The goal with the latter was to pull away from the excesses of the previous two. (Let It Come Down, for example, took four years and 115 musicians to record.)

2008’s Songs in A&E was recorded in the aftermath of Pierce’s near-death experience with pneumonia and respiratory failure, though mostly written before that. 2012’s Sweet Heart Sweet Light was mostly written on medication for liver disease and suffers, oddly, from both lyrical and arrangement-related excesses. Even still, these are both solid 7s on my Spiritualized scale.

But both are, in my opinion, fairly tame. The new album, however, nails all the best things about Spiritualized in one gorgeous package.

Spiritualized-And-Nothing-Hurt-1528723857-640x640Now, this is the thing about Spiritualized – They (Pierce and whoever he ropes in when he’s ready to work) do a crazy amalgamation of soft balladry, krautrock-inspired drone, psychedelic space rock, and straight-up rock and roll. Sometimes in one song, but usually over the course of an album. And they’re not the only band that takes this kitchen sink approach – but they may be the only one these days to do it so successfully. They’re sort of like the Grateful Dead – the only band to put all these disparate pieces of rock and roll history together and make it work. Anyway, And Nothing Hurt is the return to form I’ve been waiting for. From the ambivalent sweetness of A Perfect Miracle through the nearly eight-minute rampage of The Morning After, to the gospel closing of Sail On Through. Thematically, there’s love, lust, abandonment, road tripping, and suicide, but what’s most touching is the combination of themes in single songs. A Perfect Miracle and I’m Your Man both combine the desire to love and be the best partner with admissions of both past and future failure threaded through. ‘I could be faithful, honest and true…but if you want wasted loaded, permanently folded…I’m your man.’

Here It Comes (The Road) Let’s Go sounds from the title and the opening twist of an AM radio knob like it should be a tale of an actual road trip, but it’s simply directions to a partner to drive ‘a couple of hours’ to visit where ‘we’ll get stoned all through the night’. Looking about on YouTube, it seems this song dates from the Sweet Heart Sweet Light tour on which it was performed in pretty much the same arrangement. Musically, it’s probably my favourite song on the album.

Let’s Dance builds from a slow piano figure as the narrator tries to convince a girl to dance as the bar they’re in is closing up, ‘The hour is getting late / They’re putting all the chairs away’, but ‘if they’ve got Big Star on the radio, they’ll let us stay’. Gotta love a Big Star reference. And this is another one that’s been gestating for a while. There’s a little viewed live video from 2013 with somewhat different lyrics.

And with On the Sunshine, the album kicks into a higher gear. Yeah, it’s another drug song (‘you can always fix tomorrow what you can’t pull off today’) but powered by organs and horns and without much of a bridge, it just barrels into your ears as sweet as can be.

And then Pierce pulls it all back with the lullaby Damaged. Lyrically, it’s Pierce’s narrator (again – this is a theme across many Spiritualized albums) laying the blame for his unhappiness on a lover who’s left, ‘Darlin’ I’m lost and I’m damaged / Over you,’ but the combination of piano, strings, and fuzzed guitar behind Pierce’s sadness bring all his pain to the fore.

But, then there’s the rocker, The Morning After. Of course, the rock and roll is subverted by the lyrical subject, another Jane (see Sweet Heart Sweet Light’s Hey Jane, for example) who decides her parents are the problem and decides to ‘hang herself up by the bathing pool’. Musically, it kicks right in with a Velvet Underground riff, to which a horn section is added and by the song’s midpoint, it’s moving into free jazz territory.

The album closes with two more slow pieces, The Prize and Sail on Through. The first of these is a lovely waltz in which our hero addresses his love over and over saying I don’t know if I should stay or go or if it’s too late to say goodbye. As is often the case, the objective listener is pretty sure the narrator isn’t himself a prize catch, but the intonation is so beautiful that it may not matter for a while. And in the end, Pierce brings it back to the opening with a direct admission that he doesn’t need the object he addresses:

I tell no lie, I tell the truth
You know I just don’t need to be with you
If I could hold it down
I would sail on through for you
If I weren’t loaded down
I would sail on through for you

There’s no more ambivalence, just resignation. Over the closing, notes, we hear the Morse code found on the cover for the album’s title. Having let go, nothing hurts anymore.

On the original issue of Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space, the title track quoted Elvis Presley’s Can’t Help Falling In Love both lyrically and musically. The Presley estate objected and later pressings used a remix of the song without those references, though they’re restored on later pressings still. I mention this because the two-note phrase that opens A Perfect Miracle is also lifted from that song, a little gift for music geeks like yours truly who obviously live for that sort of thing.

So I’ve reread James Joyce’s Ulysses in the last couple of months. I hadn’t read it in its entirety since I’m not sure when, but I grabbed a digital copy on Bloomsday this year and it’s been my middle of the night reading. I’ve got a couple of thoughts that probably aren’t original, but the novel has struck me rather differently at 51 than it did at 22 and 35, for certain.

Usually when I write something like this, I take the trouble to add citations and build a semi-cogent argument, but I’m not handing this one in.

Ulysses men by John Conway V2Coming to the end of the Ithaca chapter, I found Stephen’s departure more mythological than I used to. The assumption (or the presentation made by more than one college professor on the matter) is that Stephen leaves his encounter with Leopold Bloom in order to go into the world and become James Joyce. I think that while there’s pedagogical merit to stating it that way, there’s more of a mythical parallel here. Homer gives us the romantic conclusion to the story (Odysseus passes Penelope’s test by knowing their bed can’t be moved because one part of it is a tree trunk), and Tennyson extends it with Odysseus rallying his troops to ‘sail beyond the sunset’ and engage once again the forces of the world. In the Greek myths that Homer retells, we never learn much of how Telemachus comes into his own. Stephen Dedalus, similarly, steps from the house of this strangely parental figure, Leopold Bloom, into the sunrise, and into his own mythology. As the last act before parting, Stephen and Leopold urinating in the back garden of the Blooms’ flat, one could argue that Stephen quite literally pisses off.

The entire effort of Ulysses is about bringing the loftiness of Homer’s epic poetry down to earth, and this is another symbol of it.

Molly Bloom’s urination and masturbation in the course of the monologue that makes up Ulysses’ ultimate chapter are redolent of this same earthiness. Leopold has his own reasons for not making love to Molly that are associated with the death of their infant son, so Molly takes her desire elsewhere. We get the impression from her recounting of her loves, that it’s also in her nature to express her desire where she will. I’m not the first to compare Molly with Emma Bovary, the difference being that Molly isn’t punished for her desire. More than one professor has argued that Joyce, through Molly’s soliloquy, has successfully portrayed women’s inmost feelings and desires. What hit me in this rereading, is that what Joyce seems to have performed more successfully is to project common fears about partner infidelity and assumed lack of respect onto Molly. Or perhaps Joyce simply represented an accurate projection of his own such fears about his partners’ inner lives.

What he’s also gotten right is the estrangement between partners who aren’t open about their desires with one another. Molly, in the last bit of her fantasy delves into topping Leopold and making him do dirty things to her. What she touches on in this fantasy is right out of Bloom’s fantasia at Bella Cohen’s brothel. While it’s hard to tell whether any of that fantasia actually happened from a story continuity point of view, we are, I think, supposed to believe that what Bloom is shown to experience is at least a projection of his own desire.

What’s disheartening is the realization that with a little discussion, Molly and Leopold could have a more mutually satisfying relationship. (The reader has this same feeling when they recognise the gap between Gabriel and Greta Conroy as The Dead shifts from the party to the time the Conroys have alone together.)

It seems that while Molly loves Leopold, she neither likes nor respects him. The fear people have about what others feel about them is here writ large. Molly considers Leopold a failure at life, in terms of job security and home security, and something of a failure in the way he goes about expressing his desire. She especially mocks how he behaves around other women. While Leopold has an emotional response to Molly’s assignation on the day of the novel’s action, he also feels out of contention regarding the partners she takes on (which he enumerates in Ithaca, though possibly inaccurately) or has taken on.

There’s also the number of traumas they’ve suffered which haunt the space between them. Molly’s first lover, Mulvey, is killed in the Boer wars, and there’s the loss of their son Rudy, and Leopold’s father’s suicide. It doesn’t seem as though they have ever examined these events together.

Leopold has an intellectual, or pseudo-intellectual, approach to the world that Molly doesn’t appreciate and, in her thoughts, mocks, but which is essential to his characterization. We know a sentence or a thought of Bloom’s instantly because of its expression in his thought processes, especially in his (pseudo-) scientific examination of the world around him. Molly finds finds this ridiculous. On the other hand, when Leopold thinks about Molly’s less intellectual, more physical approach to the world, he seems to smile at it. He doesn’t berate her. He seems amused by her taste in smut, but may not even know of her love for Byron’s poetry. It’s another piece to the puzzle of their non-communication. And then there’s the matter that at the last, Molly blames her infidelity on Leopold’s redirected desire. He doesn’t want to lose another child, and so stops fucking her, and they have never yet found a way together around that.

As I said, just a few thoughts on it. Rereading Dubliners now and, again, getting a far different richness from it than I did in my first readings.

Of all David Bowie’s albums, Let’s Dance is one that’s had very little airplay in my headphones. Which might be a shame. I’ve been listening to it lately and trying to place myself in the shoes of someone giving it an honest listen in 1983. Fans had waited three years for a follow-up to Scary Monsters and Super Creeps, his last album for RCA which had spawned minor US hits in Fashion and Ashes to Ashes. In the meantime, MTV had launched and given some airtime to videos from his previous albums. I recall seeing the videos for those two songs and DJ from 1979’s Lodger. That said, the title track from Let’s Dance landed like a bomb on MTV, followed by Modern Love and China Girl. Those three songs and a reworked version of Cat People (Putting Out Fire), originally recorded for the closing credits of Paul Schrader’s film of the same name and released in March 1982, comprise half of the album’s eight tracks. A fourth single from the album, Without You, didn’t get much airplay and didn’t chart.

db-ldThe problem, for me, is that by the time I listened the album in its entirety a few years after its release, those first three tracks had turned into background noise. Modern Love barely sounds like a Bowie song at all – the piano and horns driving the sound instead of the guitar, and lyrics that don’t seem to be about anything at all. The live video didn’t give a story to it. Mind you, that’s what was expected of 80s videos and even 35 years later, when I listen to the songs that did have story videos – China Girl and the title track – I still see the videos in my head. And by the time Modern Love was released as the third single in September, we’d spent the summer being bombarded with tracks two and three.

China Girl is a reworking of a song Bowie had written and produced with Iggy Pop seven years earlier and released on Pop’s The Idiot.

And then there’s the title track. I’ve heard those opening snares and Ah Ah Ahs hundreds of times and tried to feel that moaning ‘tremble like a floooow-ah’. But the album version is a different beast. Clocking in at seven and a half minutes (as opposed to the single/video at just over four), it takes the listener on a different journey. Dub elements which at the time were used to create club mixes sit right in the middle of the album mix and pull it into the fade out.

Without You relies on Bowie’s falsetto, and what sounds like plinking keyboards but is either Stevie Ray Vaughan or producer Nile Rodgers who shared guitar duties throughout. It doesn’t have the drive of the other songs on side A, but as a simple declaration of love it’s not without its merits.

Whereas side one has one song that’s not so well known to me, side two’s Ricochet, Criminal World, and Shake It are all tracks I’ve never listened to much.

Ricochet is proper weird Bowie. Sometimes, its underlying sax lines sound lifted from Low; elsewhere the song is much funkier. Lyrically, it seems to be addressing industrialization and fascism, some of those big themes that he’d explore in songs like Loving the Alien and Time Will Crawl later in the 80s. Moving on, Criminal World is a cover of a 1977 song by Peter Godwin’s band Metro – musically it fits with the rest of the album because Rodgers has arranged it (and the whole album, for that matter) to flow.

And then the album concludes with a throwaway piece of disco/funk called Shake It. Lyrically it doesn’t have much to say – the most interesting lines are ‘We’re the kind of people who can shake it if we’re feeling blue / When I’m feeling disconnected well I sure know what to do.’ In his catalogue, it seems most connected to the discofied John I’m Only Dancing (Again) released around the time of Young Americans. That’s not to say that it’s bad, just that it’s not worthwhile as a Bowie song.

My overall assessment is that it holds together or hold up not as a David Bowie album, but as a Nile Rogers or Chic album that just happens to have Bowie doing the singing and most of the words. Lyrically the album is half-baked and musically, it’s mostly disposable. According to interviews in a recent issue of Mojo, this is, on a certain level, what Bowie was after. At the height of New Romanticism, Bowie heard his own influence on new music and felt the current crop had drained the life from pop. Having not had a serious hit stateside in almost eight years (Fame), he made the leap, and spent the next six years barely involved, by his own admission, in his own music making at all.

This past weekend included a listen to Joy Division’s Substance (1988) and continued reading of bassist Peter Hook’s Joy Division memoir Unknown Pleasures. I first heard Joy Division in 1987 when I went out record shopping with my friend Natalie. She and I had a lot of overlapping tastes, but she was a proper goth and I was just into the music. I knew a lot of Joy Division-adjacent stuff, but hadn’t heard anything by them. She recommended their second album, Closer. I was 20, living in San Francisco, and (as I would for several years) spent a lot of my time not processing my father’s death the previous year. I was hard to reach and generally hard to communicate with. The thing Joy_Division_Closerabout Closer, and JD in general for me at the time – I knew a little of the history – I’d even seen New Order (the band formed out of the remains of Joy Division) perform. That would have been in 1985 at the Santa Monica Civic – hadn’t heard any of their music prior and the show was boring – listening to live recordings from that period now – yeah, they were a dull live act). I recall playing this album a lot that year, and feeling all kinds of despair associated with it, primarily because I knew of the untimely death of lead singer Ian Curtis. One of my flatmates at the time told me it was familiar and asked if he would have heard something else by the band. It’s possible, I probably told him, but this tastes and mine were quite different. Yeah, I listened intently to Closer, but I didn’t know (yet) their biggest hit, Love Will Tear Us Apart, which was a little weird. But this was before someone could send you an email saying ‘you’ll like this song’ and before you even read the next sentence, you could be listening to the song.

So, yeah, Lawrence probably had heard Joy Division before me, though hipster that I was, I was loath to admit it.

Anyway, Closer threw me into a funk that was hard to escape but I was compelled to listen to it more and more. I bought Substance the following year and found that I especially liked the post-punk stuff (Atmosphere, Love, Dead Souls, These Days), but really didn’t know what to make of the earlier, punkier tracks. Later I’d buy the Short Circuit compilation (which includes At a Later Date recorded when they were still a punk band called Warsaw) on the same day I purchased Iggy and the Stooges’ Metallic KO. The following week, a friend told me the apocryphal tale of Ian Curtis committing suicide on the eve of Joy Division’s first American tour because he believed they’d never make a record as good as Metallic KO. A cursory search indicates that Curtis played Iggy Pop’s The Idiot and watched a Herzog film before taking his own life at the age of 23. His epilepsy wasn’t a secret to those nearest him, though in the late 70s, people didn’t know so well how to be supportive of an epileptic friend.

Hook notes that everything Joy Division recorded was classic – something he credits to band chemistry, youth, and Curtis’ lyrical brilliance. With this in mind, I can probably say that everything JD recorded , especially after An Ideal For Living, supersedes everything on Metallic KO (much as that document of two late shows from the original incarnation of the Stooges, including their last show in 1974, is brilliant in its own twisted way). Whether JD’s work supersedes The Idiot, well that’s a bit subjective.

Later I would have a huge poster of the cover of Closer on my wall, next to a huge poster of the cover of Aladdin Sane. As usual, there’s no real conclusion to this story. Even the fact that I’m reading Hook’s memoir right now is a little random. I purchased it for the kindle months ago when it was probably on offer for 99p, about what it cost to see Joy Division open for the Buzzcocks in 1979. It simply came up when I was scrolling through to find what next to read.