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Tom Petty+Steve Winwood

On the surface, the two rock legends don’t have much in common. Petty has made a name for himself with his jaunty folk-rock and hard-rock, the buoyancy of which is counterbalanced by melancholic lyrics that speak to the poetics of Middle American existence; Winwood, on the other hand, is known for his transition from precocious soulster with the Spencer Davis Group, to hippy groovemaker with Traffic and Blind Faith, to ambassador of gentlemanly blue-eyed soul. These are very different musicians making very different music, but what makes the Petty/Winwood double bill perfect is the sheer fact that both artists represent the pure diversity of rock ‘n’ roll at a time when we need its unifying qualities the most. If an originally African-American music can lead a boy from Birmingham, England to share a Madison Square Garden stage with a kid from Gainesville, FL, it can do so much for us in these times of fundamentalism and hyper-militarism. Damn the torpedoes, bring us a higher love!

Wed., Sept. 10, 7:30 p.m., 2014

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Hot Water Music

Unlike other bands from the emerging early ‘90s punk scene in Gainesville, Hot Water Music offered lyrics that could’ve come from a Bukowski poem (and a band name that shares a title with a 1983 Bukowski book) yelled over dual guitars and intricate drum riffs. Reconciling jazz backgrounds with hardcore influences, bassist Jason Black and drummer George Rebelo bring a spritzy, kinetic feel to what otherwise would just be yell-along punk songs, while Chuck Ragan’s raspy voice was made for inspiring mosh pits.

Mon., May 21, 7 p.m.; Tue., May 22, 7 p.m., 2012

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Less Than Jake

Since releasing their first major record (Pezcore in 1995), Gainesville hit-makers Less Than Jake have perfected the third-wave ska of brassy brashness, distorted guitar, and fast tempos. Fusing the music with punk to craft wry, upbeat anthems, the band joined the “skanking” scene that bands like the Mighty Mighty Bosstones first popularized. Chris Demakes’s almost adolescent vocals and tongue-in-cheek lyrics make them ideal for the Warped Tour demographic, but people of nearly any background can typically find something in the music to which they can relate, not to mention mosh.

Thu., Feb. 16, 7:30 p.m., 2012

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Justin Taylor Goes a Little St. Mark in The Gospel of Anarchy

Religious youth groups have long been a breeding ground for early, small-scale rebellion—a first kiss, sip, or joint. Less common is a collective that embraces faith in equal parts with sex, substances, and politics. The mix of defiance and belief championed by the anarcho-punks of Gainesville, Florida, in Justin Taylor’s debut novel, The Gospel of Anarchy, is called plainly Anarchristianity. Every Sunday, its founders hold a church service at their communal home followed by a night of debauchery, often ending in a drug-fueled orgy. Throughout the novel, it remains unclear who in the congregation is there to pray and who is there to party.

Taylor, a Brooklyn-based author raised in Florida, writes dreamy recollections of swampy youth, as collected in last year’s short-story collection Everything Here Is the Best Thing Ever. Taylor’s fantasy Florida, in his stories and new book, has kids considering radicalism and God with equal seriousness. They gather not in traditional churches with top buttons done or shirttails tucked, but in backyards, with filthy jeans and ripped T-shirts, bearing tattoos and untamed armpit hair.

Set in the summer of 1999, Gospel begins with the St. Augustine-style “Confessions” of David, a bored University of Florida student so obsessed with amateur Internet porn that he can only wriggle free of his own grip by drowning his laptop in the bathtub. After halting his chronic masturbation and quitting his soulless job, David is ripe for rebirth. When he encounters an estranged childhood friend dumpster-diving for dinner, David agrees to take a bite of a soggy, discarded falafel sandwich, a eucharistic ritual he does not understand in the moment, though it ushers him into life at the punk house called Fishgut.

Inside, there’s Thomas, the cynic and most compelling of this bratty brood; Katy, the pious matriarch; and Liz, the devoted lover, but with an expiration date. The Fishgut collective’s political and religious values are vague, inspired by their anointed, the disappeared prophet Parker. When Katy, the ascendant leader, finds Parker’s left-behind journal after a magical dream, the faithful distribute selections from the unintelligible writings as the Good Zine, the bible of their Anarchristianity.

But in The Gospel of Anarchy, Taylor muddles the alluring subject of disaffected youth with ambiguity as to whether he means to mock his characters or endorse their anti-capitalist paradise. By the end, the novel fails to convince on matters of character, politics, or faith, the story deviating into a half-serious manifesto, all ultimately unfulfilling.

The group’s bonds splinter or congeal based on their convictions, with the true believers edging out the skeptics, dampening the narrative by allowing the devout to preach. Excerpts of the Good Zine’s scripture, as printed in Gospel unadorned, are a mess of platitudes and uninspiring ideology that Taylor lets go on too long, even if he means to deride the chaos. “Joy is a better form of prayer than prayer, but prayer is also a better form of joy than joy,” Parker writes in one of his Seven Theses. Decoding who’s in on the emptiness of the gospel, or willing to ignore it in the name of belonging, feels futile.

Though he idealizes vividly unreal group sex and cooperative self-sufficiency, Taylor also undermines the same pose of would-be transcendence he builds up. Like the worst of religion, both the author’s scorn and support are too dogmatic.

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Bye-Bye, Birdie

The great thing about animals is their blank-eyed/blank-slate capacity to mean anything, everything, or—better yet—nothing at all. Dive to the bottom of Moby Dick‘s endless allegorical depths and the fundamental significance of the white whale abides in his embodiment of signification itself. There’s plenty to think about when the donkey hero of Au Hasard Balthazar is understood as a Christ figure, but to my mind the nexus of Bresson’s spiritual allegory has always been that famous exchange of looks between animals at a circus, where Balthazar’s dark, round eye opens a semiotic void into which all interpretation collapses. “The only thing that matters in art,” wrote George Braque, that exacting painter of enigmatic birds, “is the thing you can’t explain.”

Some gnarly existential hurt is tied up with the winged creature in The Hawk Is Dying, and I hoped against hope it would never take flight into easy intelligibility. Until it does, disastrously, in the final reel, this is one seriously wild and deeply wounded effort from writer-director Julian Goldberger.

Paul Giamatti stars as George Gattling, an auto upholsterer in Gainesville, Florida, with hawk issues. To the rapt appreciation of his retarded nephew, Fred (Michael Pitt), he snares the birds in his yard, rears them in the closet of a house he shares with his obese sister, Precious (Rusty Schwimmer), and, with the help of treats and bathetic entreaties, attempts to train them in the art of falconry. The hawks respond by starving themselves to death.

Any rational, well-adjusted person—all of whom appear to have vacated Gainesville—would take this foolish endeavor as inordinately cruel, a passion for pets as twisted as that of the Enumclaw, Washington, horse lovers (more on that, vis-à-vis the ballsy docudrama Zoo, next month). And yet, in the way of small Southern towns, George’s albatross is taken in stride, just another tic in the sticks. It’s probably not the oddest thing going on in a neighborhood home to Betty (Michelle Williams), a pothead psych student who lounges in a bizarre, crypto-bordello flophouse spacing out to hipster electro and booty bass.

I’m not entirely sure what Betty has to do with anything other than filling in Goldberger’s canvas with some funky local color. But then Goldberger is wholly an artist of vibe and atmosphere, as evidenced by Trans, his delicately oblique 1998 debut. That whispering coming-of-age lyric thundered the arrival of a major talent, but seven years on (and some little seen ethnographic documentary later), Goldberger’s follow-up has been greeted with general disappointment, if not derision. No doubt about it, The Hawk Is Dying verges on the ludicrous, but it couldn’t be otherwise. This half-mad cine-Icarus risks a perilous Bressonian ideal: “The greater the success, the closer it verges on failure.”

When a tragedy in the family drives George’s obsession past the point of acceptable idiosyncrasy into full-blown dysfunction, Hawk embarks on a literal Walpurgisnacht. Cinematographer Bobby Bukowski engulfs his images in an oppressive mulch of shadow, while production designer Judy Becker externalizes the dank, boggy emotions of the material with heaps of Spanish moss and shitty carpeting. Composer Jonathan Goldberger scores a slow-drip dirge on obsolete instruments, perfectly keyed to the bruised tones of his brother’s vision.

The crew gets how Goldberger is less concerned with storytelling than sculpting an immersive, essentially non-narrative space—a sinkhole for the viewer to fall into and suffocate. I won’t pretend it makes for a happy night at the cinema, and it may require a leap of faith to succumb to Goldberger’s spell. But I leapt, and found it enthralling up to the point where this legitimately weird movie capitulates to the most conventional catharsis. I’d rather watch Goldberger fail than a hundred others succeed.

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Natural Born Shoppers

If James Twitchell weren’t a graceful, witty writer, his new book, Lead Us Into Temptation: The Triumph of American Materialism, would be excruciating. Twitchell, a professor of English and advertising at the University of Florida at Gainesville, seems to have deliberately crafted his tongue-in-cheek thesis to annoy as many people as possible. Consumerism, he argues, is not a bad thing; it is “democratic” and “liberating.” And scholarship that suggests otherwise is naive—a product of alarmist dumbbells whose reasoning has been muddled by Marxist ideology.

“The idea that consumerism creates artificial desires rests on a wistful ignorance of history and human nature, on the hazy, romantic feeling that there existed some halcyon era of noble savages and purely natural needs,” Twitchell writes. “Once fed and sheltered, our needs have always been cultural, not natural.” When we purchase an object, he continues, what we really buy is its meaning. And there is no escaping meaning: It is “pumped and drawn everywhere throughout the modern commercial world, into the farthest reaches of space and into the smallest divisions of time. Commercialism is the water we all swim in, the air we breathe, our sunlight and our shade. Currents of desire flow around objects like smoke in a wind tunnel.”

The notion of self-definition through the amassing of objects is hardly original, though Twitchell’s fierce, intentionally outrageous defense of it is. His argument has four main points. First, humans by nature are consumers. Their materialism, however, does not “crowd out” their spiritualism; rather, “spiritualism is more likely a substitute when objects are scarce.” Second, consumers are not dupes; they know they are more interested in “aura than objects, sizzle than steak.” Third, consumers do not invariably succumb to buyer’s remorse. Many genuinely like “over-priced kitsch” and are reassured by having lots of it around. Finally, production and consumption are not the polar opposites that Marxist analysts would have us believe they are. “Do we work in order to have the leisure to buy things,” he asks rhetorically, “or is the leisure to buy things how we make work necessary?” “Getting and spending” is an active process involving self-invention; it is often more meaningful to an individual than working.

Woe to the scholars who have historically disagreed. Twitchell accosts them with attacks that are amusing to the extent that they are unfair. Thorstein Veblen, for instance, who coined the term “conspicuous consumption,” is revealed to be a sourpuss whose distaste for the leisure class was stirred up when potential employers ignored his talents, not to mention his Yale Ph.D. “Although churlish to speculate, one wonders how Veblen would have reacted had he been able to find a job,” Twitchell sniffs.

Twitchell doesn’t reserve his scorn just for ideas or scholars he seeks to discredit. He heaps it on everything—from organized Christianity (“the appropriate precursor of modern materialism” because it trades a “surplus product”—redemption—for the “attention of a willing populace”) to television programs (“the scheduled interruptions of marketing bulletins”) to Ralph Lauren’s layered look (“borrowed from a Westport drunk”). And although Twitchell asserts that diverting one’s religious impulses to consumption is good, his word choice when describing this process undercuts his argument. The contemporary Eucharist, he argues, merges a product’s consumer with that product’s celebrity endorser, exemplified by the Gatorade “Be like Mike” ad campaign,which uses Michael Jordan: “If you replenish your lost body fluids with their greenish slime”—a less-than-appetizing characterization of Gatorade—”you will not just be drinking Mr. Jordan’s brand but will be participating in his majesty.” I couldn’t, however, discern whether Twitchell self-consciously undermines his case to provide ironic distance from his proconsumer cheerleading, or if he is so chronically dyspeptic that he can’t express himself another way.

Oddly absent from the bibliography in Lead Us Into Temptation is another book that it parallels in both tone and content—Paul Fussell’s Class: A Guide Through the American Status System. Published 16 years ago, Fussell’s book explains how social groups signal their place by surrounding themselves with certain status-coded objects. Excluded, however, from the lemminglike patterns of other-directed consumption is what Fussell terms an “X Class,” consisting mostly of college professors like himself, who consume objects associated with all status levels and playfully juxtapose them.

One almost gets the sense that Twitchell’s apologia pro consumerism is a response to books like Fussell’s. “The middle-aged critic, driving about in his well-designated Volvo (unattractive and built to stay that way),” lacks “insight into his own consumption practices,” Twitchell growls, though “he can certainly criticize the bourgeois afflictions of others.” To Twitchell, class itself may be a dated notion—the manners, gentlemen’s clubs, and political affiliations that helped build character in Victorian fiction have been replaced in contemporary fiction by branded objects. Regardless of what a character writes, if he scribbles it with a Mont Blanc pen instead of a Bic it says something about him. This is not a lazy shorthand on the part of writers, but a honing in on what has resonance in our culture. “‘Tribe’ would be a better descriptive term than ‘class’ to describe the way we live now,” he explains, “and the tribe you affiliate yourself with probably has more to do with the brand of refrigerator you just bought last Tuesday than with your income, age, education, job, bloodline, religion, or country club.”

Near the end of the book, Twitchell reveals that he drives a Mazda Miata—indeed, that he succumbed to the Japanese manufacturer’s ad campaign, which invests the undistinguished little car with the aura of a legendary British racing vehicle. You can imagine how uncomfortable this might make him, among the insular academic Volvo crowd of Gainesville. Having admitted that he himself prefers sizzle to steak, he is eager both to defend his weakness and to project it onto others.

Lead Us Into Temptation is strongest when Twitchell’s considerable wit works in harmony with arcane, irrefutable facts to buttress his thesis. Too often, however, Twitchell’s reasoning resembles sniping at a faculty dinner party. When, for example, he dismisses the Voluntary Simplicity movement, a fad that involves supplanting material possessions with more abstract, often spiritual ones, as “appealing to those for whom simplicity is a preexisting mental condition,” the reader cannot help but be amused by his sarcasm. Yet one wonders why he feels so threatened by people cutting up their charge cards. Is he in earnest? Or just desperate to show that his sly, nimble sports car can outperform his colleagues’ boxy Scandinavian clunkers?