July 27, 2006

Dense Pessimisms (Take 2)

Western democracy as we know it can't survive technology's relentless democratisation of access to the technologies of destruction.

Technological advances increase individual access to destructive power, from simple things like guns and mines, through information warfare and truck bombs, to more extensive things like nuclear or biological (etc.) weapons. Open access to technology is a democratic imperative (and technological progress is technology's own imperative); but as you open up access to weapons or technology to everyone, you end up giving that access to those within a democracy who believe democracy is the enemy. You can't have a reasonable democracy with individual privacy rights (where "privacy" is broadly-defined to include protection from goverment and corporate surveillance or interference) and open access to technology and have any sort of stable basis for democratic security.

Western democracy is based on an optimism about human nature and the effectiveness of democratic processes in curbing the worst effects of resentment, rebellion, psychoses, etc., that seems ludicrous in the face of a human nature that can also produce lethal fundamentalisms and irrational Belief-based cultural and political crusades. There's no evidence that all sociopathies or destructive fundamentalisms (leftist, rightist, or religious) can be cured or even supressed by economic or purely-political means -- quite the opposite, despite more than a century of Marxist, libertarian, and leftist analysis. Technological fixes for technological destructiveness are historically prone to unintended consequences, and in any case usually point to even worse destruction and things like arms races. And it's difficult to predict what effects a new (or even well-established) technology may have in the wrong hands; almost any technology has the potential for destruction and death (as I've said before, technology isn't a pact with the devil; it's a Faustian bargain with ourselves (which may amount to the same thing). Technology magnifies human impulse...).

So the democratisation of access to technology can lead to two different results: an increasingly-reactionary State that restricts access to technologies, and that uses technologies of surveillance and control to (perhaps slowly, and with the consent of a large portion of its citizens) repress democracy and individual rights in the name of safety (or even Democracy); or, alternatively, a truly-open society evolves where nothing is hidden and everything's visible, even (especially) the day-to-day things we now define as private. Unfortunately, that sort of truly-open society -- a sort of information society Panopticon -- is itself a form of tyranny, a totalitarianism of the masses in the name of democracy. A transparent, totalitarian, democracy.

I gotta wear shades.

July 22, 2006

Those Ungrateful Iraqis

"Congress needs to be more proactive and aggressive in evaluating what is the progress in Iraq," [US Republican congressman Jim Gerlach] said. "The Iraqi government shouldn't feel like it's got a blank check on American lives and American dollars". ("Republican Lawmakers Losing Positive Tone On Course Of War", SF Chron 22/7).

Wow. First we invade them on transparently false pretenses, then we cause years of lethal chaos due to our arrogance and the imposition of deeply stupid and utterly oblivious policies designed mostly for domestic consumption… and then we have the cheek to accuse them of drawing a blank cheque on American lives and wallets?

July 20, 2006

Short Shameful Confession

I'm really (and quite unironically) fond of Ravel's "Bolero". The orchestration's exquisite.

July 16, 2006

Stepford

One of the churches across the Estuary just off Park Street in Alameda has a sign on it saying "THIS IS NOT THE STEPFORD WIVES CHURCH". You have to wonder what prompted that little gem — was it someone accusing them of being the Stepford wives' church, or are they doing the old reverse snobbery thing (from the vantage point of one of the grandest churches in the area)?

July 12, 2006

Jubilee

Derek Jarman's "Jubilee": overheated, both over- and under-acted, ludicrous, laughable, telegraphic, dated... the reek of art school anti-Art Schoolness in every shot. Thank Christ I didn’t see this when it came out, I’d have probably given up on Jarman completely (I really liked the Derek Jarman I knew from his writing, his painting, his TV appearances, etc., in London; I just can’t connect this film with the generosity of spirit, empathy, urbanity, humour, and perceptiveness he always seemed to have then. Perhaps that’s the whole point...).

Definitely not a punk film, or a film about punk; more a film about a certain claustrophobic London way of losing sight of the rest of the world. London's answer to a John Waters film, without the humour or good-naturedness.

(Part of Flix).

July 06, 2006

Glebe

Tactics second album Glebe has inhabited me for twenty-five years, and news that David Studdert is working on releasing a remixed version prompted me to finally say a few words about it here. As always, a warning: I knew most of the people involved fairly well at the time, so this isn't an objective review. And some of the specific remarks below are based on the remixed version, which has a few significant production changes from the original (but in most other ways is pretty close to the original).

* * *

Glebe was recorded and released in 1981, less than a year after the first album, My Houdini. As with My Houdini, most of the songs on Glebe had been written and honed live before going into the studio, and, with a few exceptions (Garry Manley on bass, Nic. B. on additional vocals and percussion) the core musicians remained pretty much the same as on the earlier album.

The musicians may have been pretty much the same, but the results were quite different. Glebe typically gets overlooked or disliked in ways that My Houdini doesn't — reactions seem to vary from indifference or condescension through active hostility; I don't think I've ever read anyone praising Glebe except in faintly-damning terms.

The problem seems to be that Glebe isn't My Houdini MKII, and was never intended to be, despite the expectations of almost everyone except Tactics. My Houdini was a Statement; Glebe was an exploration. Glebe's a pretty obvious product of Studdert's circumstances and state of mind then: sardonic, reflective, intimate, slightly bitter, tentatively hectoring, thoughtful. For the most part Glebe strikes me as being about unease, about the things that might keep you awake at 3am, about the little dead ends and false starts beneath the surface of any real life, of the tremors and shifts, about the shimmering complexities of depth, of the shallowness of those depths for a lot of people.

And that comes through in the music itself: a lighter more tentative tone, airier, more mysterious, more subtly-textured, lots of stops and starts that mirror the explorations. My Houdini was busy; Glebe can be intricate. Listen to the alternately turbulent, lyrical, and exuberant horn lines on Running Downhill, for example, or the interplay between David's and Nic's very different voices, layering the vocals and images in interesting ways (there should have been more of it). But it's rarely delicate: the familiar driving Tactics rhythms can push things along just as relentlessly as with My Houdini. Listen to the way Garry's loping bass line works with Robert's drumming on something like "Gold Watch", or the stop-start rhythms on "The Noise Upstairs" (now there's a metaphor…). But there's no denying that the production on the original album was often poor, with an attenuated and unimaginative sound; unlike My Houdini, Glebe was recorded in a rush, in a studio in Paddington that never seemed to quite understand (let alone care) what Tactics was all about.

Lyrically, Glebe's not about the Big Issues (at least not directly), but it touches on the issues that often seem big in any real life, and that form your responses to the Big Issues. It's full of evocative, intimate, small-scale observations — "cloudless sky / simple as the sky in religious painting", "factory girl passes by / her ears have just been pierced / two drops of blood…", a character who feels he's bouncing through events like a chair through several sets of hands — that (for me, at least) are suggestive without grabbing you by the collar. The imagery and narratives are usually less overt and more subtle, fractured, and complex than on My Houdini, with the result that they tend to stay with you longer. And the singing's often more subdued, sometimes nearly whispered, which adds to the atmosphere.

* * *

So what happened when Glebe was released? Not much. People really were looking for a My Houdini MkII, I think, or another Great Statement, a Grand Gesture, something that would serve as an unambiguous banner for Inner City Oz (or Sydney) Rock — more of the same, dammit — and what they really got was something elusive, something more thoughtful, something that definitely wasn't intended to become the icon or symbol for any movement or genre, something not so tied to the particulars of its time and place, either lyrically or musically. For some of us at the time, increasingly tired of being bashed over the heads with hectoring simplistic nationalist or musical party lines, or surrounded by a sort of slacker culture before its time that seemed to feel that seriousness of intent was faintly embarrassing or distasteful, it felt like a breath of fresh air. And while it was absolutely never intended to be The Great Australian Album, it's definitely got an unforced, unremarkable, more complex Australianness than was common at the time. For me it's Australian in the way it's outward-looking and engaged, unafraid to make easy and unselfconscious use of both local and international referents, but without drawing attention to the effort. It's definitely not a product of the Little Oz of so much imagination of the time, both musically and politically.

The result is that — for me at least — Glebe's aged very well; it sounds less dated than almost any other release from that time and place, including My Houdini. And that's a real achievement….

(Part of both A History Of The Sky and Punk (and Later)).

July 04, 2006

Independence

People ask. I respond by saying I don't really live in America, I live in a small part of the Bay Area that — with some exceptions (the light, the landscape, the climate, the accents) — could as well be London or Sydney. I'm surrounded by the same sort of books, the same sort of films, the same sort of music, a similar sort of attitude, even a variant of a common sort of politics, as I would be in either of those places (no, I don't really do TV). I even occasionally do a doubletake when I see an American flag on a building.

July 02, 2006

Everyday Deaths

More than sixty people died in a bombing in Iraq yesterday, but the headlines here today are showing more enthusiasm for focusing on the slight possibility of six people dying in a space shuttle screwup. Cruelly, I know which lives — and deaths — I'd chose to experience; I also know which lives and deaths weren't a matter of choice, just effectively random allotments lived or suffered as best they could have been in the circumstances.

And I know which deaths would get the most attention…


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