Imagine if you can that you’re Tina Turner, and you’re sitting by your swimming pool, and down below your house in the hills the city is on fire, and there’s bits of ash drifting down to you and glowing cinders are falling into the pool with little hissing sounds, and you just shrug your shoulders and laugh, and you do another line of coke off the glasstop table at your elbow, because you’re Tina Turner and the world is burning down and you don’t give a fuck.
I’m going to see Marilyn Manson, who is apparently so down on his luck he’s performing solo-style at people’s houses. I’ve arrived at the house, which is somehow also a Taco Bell, I spy my friend Megan in the parking lot, which is shiny with fresh rain, little puddles all rainbowed with gasoline.
Inside, it’s like being in the Good Room at your grandmother’s house, full of fragile, uncomfortable furniture done up in old lady florals. An entertaining parlor no one ever uses. My friend Charlotte is there, and it seems we are the only ones here, or at least we’re very early, which is odd, because before I came inside, out in the parking lot, I’d seen Manson, wearing a bathrobe with his hair wrapped up in a towel, leaving his dressing room and waving to fans who were pressed up against the house/Taco Bell’s huge front window.
There is a low, baby blue sofa in the parlor. Charlotte goes to sit down on it only to realize there are two huge great danes the exact color of the sofa resting on it. There is also a white ferret skittering about.
It is the custom for Manson—despite being reduced to playing house parties—to open his shows by having two of the Blue Angel stunt planes fly overhead, and dangerously low. The first plane screams over, to wild acclaim. No one actually goes outside to watch. Rather, from behind the stage, a large mirror is attached to the very top of the wall, where it meets the ceiling, and we can watch the plane as it passes over us. The first flyover is a huge success but the second much less so. The plane crashes, bouncing back and forth between parked cars before bursting finally into flame.
No one says anything for a time. It’s a somber moment. Will the show be cancelled?
It will not. Manson, in his Mechanical Animals androgynous bodysuit, enters the parlor, mic in one hand, and begins leading everyone in a happy, handclapping singalong.
It feels sometimes like I’ve lived with this album for so long. I’ve had the horn riff from “You Can Call Me Al” stuck in my head for probably twenty years—I hum it to myself or tap it out on the steering wheel when I’m alone, or bored, typically without even realizing I’m doing it, without even making any conscious connection to the album, or the song. It’s soaked down deeply enough into me that it seems its own elemental thing, idependent of me or any other association.
I only knew “You Can Call Me Al”, though, until I was fifteen or so, and the church I attended got a new pastor. He and his wife were both young—I’d guess maybe in their early thirties—and had two small children, and were definitely not bound to remain in the small town they’d settled in. Our church was very small, and populated mostly by elderly people, and of course very conservative, which contrasted greatly with Charlie and Angie, who probably in all honesty were not all that radical, but compared to the congregation in general probably came off as a couple of hippies. They remained at the church for a year or so, I think, and then left to become missionaries in Africa.
I was pretty close to Angie, and she gave me a copy of Graceland—and also The Joshua Tree: they were those kind of Christians—and I just let it wash over me. There’s no telling how many times I’ve listened to it. Enough times that I don’t have to listen to it to hear it. I just know it.
I let some time pass, though, without playing the album. I almost forgot about it, I think. Then one late night on my way home from work, “Homeless” was on the radio, and it absolutely went right through me, the hair literally standing up on the back of my neck.
There was a documentary on PBS about the album on TV last night, and watching it, I was struck by how, apart from Graceland, I’m pretty ambivalent about Paul Simon. I wouldn’t argue that he’s a great songwriter, and his hits are all good, but there’s always seemed a kind of coldness to his work, almost an overintellectualization, that keeps me at a distance. Really, even his presence on Graceland might be the thing I’d miss least, and I suspect that it’s because the best songs on the album are the ones that are based—to what exent I’m not entirely sure—on the existing South African songs Simon was accused of pillaging for the album.
I never knew all that much about the whole “colonialism” thing, and I shrugged it off as kneejerk PC liberalism. But watching the footage and interviews with Simon, I felt myself sliding the other way. There really was something disquieting about watching Simon on Saturday Night Live, front and center, while Ladysmith Black Mambazo dance around him, a man on vacation grinning for a photograph. And then finding out that some of the songs—“The Boy In The Bubble”, for example, one of the best songs on the album, and one of Simon’s best songs ever, by far—are more than “based” on popular South African singles, but rather are those singles, with Simon’s words and melodies on top, my own suspicions of Simon and his motives grow darker. But I don’t have any problem with sampling, and Simon gives credit to his cowriters, so what’s my problem?
What’s my problem? I don’t know. I think the album and its music is bigger than whatever controversies do or do not exist, and bigger even than Simon or of myself. Which of course is some kind of rationalization, probably even the worst kind.
I remember that, for awhile, if was almost unusual to not hear “One Way Or Another” by Blondie or “Blitzkrieg Bop” by The Ramones in commericals, but either these two songs have been almost entirely exhausted by advertisers or I just don’t watch enough TV, but I hadn’t heard either of them being used in ads for awhile, until the other night, when I saw a Coppertone commerical that used “Blitzkrieg Bop”, and all I could think of was how odd it was, not because they were using punk rock in a commerical setting—that’s a horse I think has been beaten plenty—but because it was a sunscreen commerical using music by four guys who looked like they’d never once been outside.
“What’s New Pussycat?” My friend Amy reminded me of the lyric about how ”I’ll soon be kissing your pussycat lips,” which I always forget. But every time I hear it—which, admittedly—thankfully—isn’t all that often—I’m just as disgusted as if I’m hearing the song for the very first time. Truly, it’s the gift that keeps on giving.
“You’ve gotta hear this song, it’ll change your life,” the girl in the movie said, and people snort in derision, a derision, I suspect, that has less to do with the song or the band and more to do with the notion that we could ever have been so earnest to believe that such a thing was ever possible.
Regarding that last post, about The Arcade Fire and what I called their “cheap uplift”—when their second album came out, I liked it a lot. I thought it was considerably better than their first album, and I, with what in hindsight seems a little bit hyperbolic, included it in my top ten albums for that year (“No one made a better album about fear and loathing in America this year than The Arcade Fire…the music…splits the difference between the hysterics of Bright Eyes and the hysterics of Bono”). But when I go back and listen to it now, I don’t really hear any of whatever it was that made me think it was so great. My love for it waned, and I don’t think that’s such a terrible thing. It happens with a lot of music, which probably more than any other art form, seems to have an incredibly short shelf life.
And that’s okay, I think. There’s still albums and bands I loved when I was a kid that I like as an adult, but there’s just as many that worked for me at that time that I’ve moved away from—it’s not them, it’s me, in other words. Like so many other things, I tend to associate this fading of enthusiasms with getting older, which tends to make you reconsider some of the loves you once had. Currently, for example, I really like The National, and one of the reasons I do is because they seem to tap into a deeper, more grown-up set of emotions than most of their peers. But it’s possible that in five years I’ll look back on their albums and just see moodiness and melodramatic wallowing.
But that’ll be fine, really. Because for whatever reason, that’s what’s I need—or want—at this point. It’s like that old Uncle Tupelo song—a song I still like, but not as much as when I was 20—says: not forever, just for now.