Sunday, April 4, 2010

April Idling

It's been, thus far, a rather stoned and drunken early-spring of 2010 for your dedicated and accredited blogger; given the choice between embracing or eschewing reality I've often opted for the latter. And yet I've managed to find a little time, amid bouts of escapist revelry, to enjoy some fruits from our great cultural tree, and I thought I'd short-list them for the edification of my loyal readers. In no particular order:

Plan-It-X Invades Cairo
Somehow this little news story escaped my attention, though it was written up last month for Time Magazine by my esteemed penpal Aaron Lake Smith, and featured on Chicago Public Radio's 848. A fascinating little parable for our postmodern times, the story concerns the virtual ghost-town of Cairo, IL. Situated at the southern tip of Illinois, at the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers, Cairo was once a bustling city of 20,000, before decades of racial tension and industrial decline decimated its population, which now hovers around 3,500. Largely abandoned, the town lacks any real culture or commerce beyond a couple of fast-food restaurants and a Dollar General. Though on a smaller scale than, say, Detroit, Cairo's decline has been no less dramatic, and the town has earned some small renown as a modern-day ruin.

In steps Chris Johnston, the 36 year-old proprietor of Plan-It-X Records, a folk-punk record label which foisted upon the late-90s/early 00s underground the likes of Operation: Cliff Claven and This Bike is a Pipe Bomb. Long headquartered in the folk-punk mecca of Bloomington, Indiana, Johnston and his label espouse a DIY punk ethic which has always struck me as humorless, self-congratulatory and politically infantile, a belief-system which seems to regard dumpstering bagels as the ultimate revolutionary act. Not to deride Johnston or his pals unnecessarily, but I've long felt that Plan-It-X and likeminded endeavors were sort of the final nail in punk's coffin--punk had arguably survived several waves of commodification and relative obscurity, but for it to be emasculated like this, stripped of all its danger, excitement and feral rage and reduced to PC sloganeering and out-of-tune acoustic guitars, was too much. The whole "punk scene" began to feel like an Oberlin College dormitory, all potlucks, skillshares and ass-licking.

Anyway, this Chris Johnston character, this folk-punk maven, releases an album by one-time Moldy Peach Kimya Dawson, which is later licensed for use in the hit "indie" comedy Juno; Johnston walks away with a tidy little sum of cash, and decides to find a new home for his operation, further out on the wild prairie than safe, liberal Bloomington. Fishing around on a map--he knows he wants to settle down on a major river, rivers being the lifeblood of modern-day Punk Finns like Johnston--he lights on Cairo. It has the mythical name, it has the folksy history--the town was Huck and Jim's original destination--and it has the down-on-its-luck, hardscrabble realness that the kids all crave. It also has a sort of missionary appeal. Johnston decides he's going to save Cairo, by buying a building and opening up a coffee-shop. Putting on punk shows. And, y'know, distributing leftist literature.

It's not my intention to mock the man, or even fault him for his ultra-white naivete. But the residents of Cairo seem to share my skepticism. Gaudily painted, the Ace of Cups coffee-shop sits incongruously in central Cairo--

adorned with screen printed posters but lacking customers. Even the mayor, one Judson Childs, doesn't get it. "What are they doing?," he ponders. "I drive by, and it doesn't seem to be a thriving business." Aaron describes the coffee-shop's appearance as akin to a spaceship landing in the middle of town. Many residents have apparently mistaken the young punks for some new brand of Christian charity.

I'll not delve into a lengthy sermon on liberal cluelessness, white guilt, punk pretension and middle-class voyeurism--I'd rather you read Aaron's article, listen to his radio bit and draw your own conclusions. Johnston, for one, seems optimistic about the Ace of Cups; he envisions a sort of folk-punk outpost, lonely but proud, which, if it doesn't succeed in converting the natives, will at least attract the occasional punk tourist. Misguided or not, it's at least an interesting experiment, and I can't wait to hear how it all pans out...

Carole King's Really Rosie
Yes, that Carole King--but bear with me. A nearly-forgotten pearl from my own childhood, this album was a collaboration between King and hallowed children's author/lyricist Maurice Sendak that was released in 1975, concurrently with an animated TV special. It tells the story of Rosie, a sassy, fun-loving imp of a 10 year-old girl growing up in 1950s Brooklyn, who dreams of movie stardom and drags the neighborhood kids along on her wildly imaginative flights of fancy, promising all the while that talent scouts and producers will be showing up any minute. Like any children's entertainment worth its' salt, the songs don't shy away from darkness, danger and complex emotion; branded into my memory is the scene in which Rosie sings to the assembled brats, who are crowded into a cellar, waiting out a thunderstorm, about the make-believe demise of her little brother Chicken Soup--he died, she riffs, while choking on a chicken bone, and it happened on an ordinary day like today.

Even the more preschool-oriented tunes can be pretty grisly; the cautionary tale of Pierre, with its inevitable moral lesson (Care!) features an apathetic boy who lets himself be eaten by a lion. But then the album takes a decidedly adult turn, about midway through. The haunting Avenue P imagines the heroine's street as it ought to be--not some block of run-down tenements but rather a primordial wilderness where "the tom-tom beats/The tiger carouses/the jungle creeps over the red-brick houses," and where giant gorillas chase away all the naysaying neighborhood adults. The theme continues on My Simple Humble Neighborhood, where the young girl's dreams are "crowded on a stoop/Pecked and pushed and hustles just like chickens in a coop." In Rosie's fantasy-world, famous producers and directors ("the hoy-polloy") flock to her little Brooklyn enclave; they're floored by the raw talent and cast Rosie as Dracula's wife, a part she brags she was born to play--"Me in a cape, and fangs in my head/Loving a guy who's mostly dead." But the life of a make-believe celeb is not all it's cracked up to be, the girl comes to find in the wrenching Such Sufferin'. "What a life it is," she sighs, imagining her future self as a fading starlet whose days are "full of sufferin'--and Bufferin." The song is a wonderfully blunt ode to chronic depression, especially on an album meant for the K-5 set. "I've really learned the hard way," Rosie kvetches, "That castles in Spain/Are just a big pain/That life is inane/If you're sufferin'".

I don't mean to suggest that the album is anything more than a great kid's album, and the make-believe, rags-to-riches genre has already been well-mined. But the story has a wonderful Brechtian swagger to it; it feels closer akin to the Threepenny Opera than Annie. And King, a Brill Building songwriter before her solo career took off, comes as close to psychedelic as she probably ever would; she sounds, at times, almost like Bowie, letting the songs meander at length and laying down come choice guitar licks when the occasion arises. The album seems to have fallen into an unfortunate state of neglect, though it's infinitely weirder and groovier than anything Hannah Montana or Dora the Explorer are laying down these days.

Chat Roulette
My experience with this recent internet craze is minimal, but enough to seriously pique my curiosity. For those that haven't yet had the pleasure, Chat Roulette is basically what it purports to be; the user "chats" via streaming cam with a succession of randomly-chosen partners. You log on, hit 'start' and find yourself face-to-face with a Chinese college student, or a trio of French teenagers, or a couple of 12 year-old girls; you're free to skip those partners that don't interest you, and others are likewise free to skip you. What follows is a rapid-fire census of cyberspace, in all its diverse perversity--a global meet 'n greet where the population is phantasmal, nothing is "real" and actions have no consequences. The partners you encounter on Chat Roulette are most frequently either masturbating, flipping you the bird or staring dumbly into space. There are a surprising number of beautiful, bored-looking women haunting Chat Roulette; one gets the sense that they've tuned in for some idle entertainment whilst painting their nails. Very little chatting seems to occur--this has much more to do with voyeurism than any actual communication; Facebook with no speed limits, parameters or familiar signifiers--a new frontier for the bored, lonely and wi-fi enabled. There are chortling youths, and tattooed thugs, and sad-looking old men smoking cigarettes, or doing nothing at all; some participants seem to forget entirely that they're on camera, accustomed as they are to the boundless exhibitionism which the internet offers. You're hard-pressed to find anyone looking their best--Chat Roulette, almost by definition, seems to catch people at their most debased and demoralized. Anthropologists take note! Man is once again revealing his true visage!

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