Tag Archives: spring 2002

The City in Mind: Notes on the Urban Condition

The City in Mind by James Howard KunstlerJames Howard Kunstler
The Free Press ($25)

by N. N. Hooker

It is doubtful Kunstler enjoys being lost in Tokyo or Mumbai. His aesthetic is Old European rationality. Kunstler is an entertaining and lucid historian who balances detail and the sweeping statement. He deftly relates how Louis-Napoleon and his architect Haussmann transformed a Medieval shanty town with no working sewers or clean water into the enduring glory of the Second Republic that millions of tourists still seek out—broad boulevards, intimate little parks, small rows of trees, ornament. Paris is the mix of commonsense, ingenuity and taste Kunstler believes will make future cities worth caring about.

Kunstler can be a surprising writer. He sets up the strange and horrible history of Mexico City by revisiting Julian Jaynes's provocative idea that the underdeveloped consciousness of the New World suffered a personality crisis when confronted by the Spaniard's more evolved sense of self. The collapse of an entire civilization reads like a cosmic nervous breakdown. Other surprises are less momentous, but equally compelling, such as a short history of air-conditioning and an attack on the open-space movement in Missoula, Montana.

The overall structure of the book swings between European and American cities. Throughout, the evils of urban life are the automobile, Modernism, and our hubristic denial of non-economic costs. Kunstler's disgust is one of his charms.

the system had clogged up like the porkfat-lined vascular system of a baby boom Bubba behind the wheel of his beloved suburban utility vehicle (SUV)

But the predictable glories of the past and obvious horrors of "Modernism" blur any momentous theme. The prose glows like neon, but what's inside? Kunstler asks "Can the Classical Rescue Us?" and answers Yes. "We don't have to reinvent the idea of beauty (or even Beauty), we just have to restore it to intellectual respectability." And "Necessity may prompt us to once again think of buildings as things that ought to last more than a couple generations, and therefore ought to be memorable because they are beautiful." It is odd that Kunstler succumbs to such romantic thinking. Elsewhere he clearly nails capitalism and architecture:

Up to this point, then, the cycle of putting up and casually tearing down relatively large buildings, after a short period of use, has been economically rational—consistent with a particular period of American economic history: the age of national economy as Ponzi scheme.

A Ponzi economy based upon cheap petroleum, real estate speculation, and a gullible/desperate public. But this scenario makes all-too-much sense. Wal-Mart is economically rational. Not seeing that American hell is the result of too much capitalist rationality leads Kunstler to some odd, untenable conclusions. Looking to Paris, he asks if it will take an autocrat to repair our cities, but what neighborhoods need is less top-down authority. Most oddly Kunstler imagines Boston, that most European of American cities, as the hope of the future. Yet, the Big Dig is essentially an investment in the automobile. Harvard Square has morphed into an outdoor shopping mall with landmarks like the Wursthaus and the Tasty diner becoming an Abercrombie & Fitch. Kunstler needs to at least frame the big questions: how might the economy be revolutionized to support a more "humanist" aesthetic? Why do people enjoy repetitive experience? What drives our defiance of nature? What world will punish Burger King? To fall back on the laws of nature is to court the apocalypse. If anyone can construct some answers to the problems of capitalist architecture it will be a momentous achievement. And it won't look at all like Paris.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2002 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2002

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Looking for a Fight

Looking for a Fight by Lynn Snowden PicketLynn Snowden Picket
Dell ($23.95)

by Tricia Cornell

Boxing is, as I once heard an upscale clothing store buyer say, "trending." An upper-class, cleaned-up version of the sport can be found in nearly every health club: women learn balance, control and strength, tone their arms with air punches and tone their calves bouncing around on wooden floors. But these women never actually punch a real person. In the face of a real attacker, their choreographed jabs would be useless, despite the fact that some women even started the sport to learn self-defense.

When Lynn Snowden Picket took up boxing, she punched real people—hard, as it turns out. She felt cartilage under her fist, felt her own blood spurt out of her nose, and she bounced around a bloodstained ring—not a tidy aerobics floor—on hellishly blistered feet. Picket was, indeed, looking for a fight. Her recent divorce had left her feeling vulnerable and her training for the New York Marathon had put her in excellent shape. This combination led her straight to Gleason's, the famously unglamorous boxing club that started the careers of nearly every notable boxer ever to go pro, including Jake LaMotta, Muhammad Ali, and Riddick Bowe.

Picket is the consummate participatory journalist. She has worked as a stripper and a roadie, lived on an aircraft carrier and walked the beat with NYC police officers—all in the name of a story. To write her first book, Nine Lives: From Stripper to Schoolteacher, My Yearlong Odyssey in the Workplace, she landed nine different jobs in one year. During her year at Gleason's, Pickett immerses herself in the world of boxing, but it never accepts her. Even after she's been training for months, she writes, "The boxers who train with Hector barely look at me; I'm beneath consideration. Everyone else stares with a mix of curiosity, lust, and condescension."

That Picket experiences sexual harassment—and sexual come-ons from her trainer—in the man's man's world of a boxing gym is hardly revelatory. Far more interesting are the changes she describes in herself. In the boxing ring, Picket learns violence—which is not the obvious statement it would seem to be. One would think that boxing would teach you form and technique, teach you to control your violence, to harness it in the ring. But for Picket--and for many other boxers—the violence they need to survive in the ring follows them home and onto the streets.

A writer used to waging battles with words, Picket finds herself reacting physically to situations. At a sports event, a man behind her spills beer down her neck and she punches him in the stomach. A group of boys taunt her while she is running in Central Park. She pushes one of them, hard. Her boyfriend's brother goads her at a party and she takes him down. It looks like play to the other guests, but she knows it is not. At Gleason's a well-dressed man and his son are watching her spar. The man keeps shouting advice to her, "Miss! Use your right!" She is furious that he should assume this familiarity—it's clear they are the only people of the same socioeconomic class at the gym, that she is the only woman. She's ticked off at his unsolicited advice. She stops the bout and throws her right hard onto his cheekbone. Right in front of his son. She is never fully repentant, but recognizes that a former self would never have done that. "What, I wonder, have I become?"

In the end, Picket abandons the world of boxing. She wins her first bout, then packs up her locker at Gleason's. But hundreds of women each year are entering the sport and staying. In 2000 there were 1400 female amateurs worldwide and 400 female pros—including the daughters of famous boxers, like Laila Ali and Freeda Foreman. Women in the ring, however, still make many people antsy. We have no problem with women learning self-defense, and we'd like to believe that's why women take up boxing. But picture a fight in which both contenders do nothing but defend themselves: It would hardly be a fight. We still have trouble coming to terms with the bloodlust in men's boxing and we refuse to see it at all in women's boxing. Worse, for some male viewers, two women sweating and taking aim at each other in the ring is sexual entertainment.

Throughout Looking for a Fight Picket proves that her powers of description are prodigious and her attunement to her senses is nearly perfect. When she describes the first blow she takes to the head, the reader recoils: "a strange noise implodes inside my skull, a dull roar, a muffled shattering, a sound like something falling and striking the floor. I don't see stars, or planets, but there's a definite impression that a plug has been kicked out of its socket." But even with all her masterful description, the words that will be most likely to stay with you will be the advice an ex-boxer gives her before she sets foot in Gleason's: "Think about it! The only way you can win in boxing is to separate someone from the one thing that distinguishes him from a dog or any other animal: a rational mind. Or to disfigure him physically, to maim him so the fight is stopped. Don't do it."

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2002 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2002

Amped: Notes from a Go-Nowhere Punk Band

Amped: Notes from a Go-Nowhere Punk BandJon Resh
Viper Press ($4.50)

by Kevin Carollo

With extended similes to rival Raymond Chandler—for example, "slobber over 'good' amps like a cheap salesman ogles middle-aged lap dancers after a few stiff drinks" and self-deprecating refrains along the lines of "in those first few weeks, we had zero chemistry . . . lacking any sense of musical cohesion," Resh's tribute to his former band Spoke is a funny and insightful document of what X called the "unheard music." From the dedication which thanks "everyone who stuck around for more than two songs" to the final pages when Resh implores the reader to "Start a band,² Amped is as much about the unsung people who seek out the unheard music as it is about Spoke's years in the punk underground.

Though the Florida-based band broke up in 1993, "because we wanted to, because the time was right," Amped illustrates how vital independent music continues to be for American culture. Making music allows us the possibility of being "born into something better." Resh encourages us to see the DIY aesthetic as an ongoing commitment to creating communities not defined by the acquisition of wealth or fame. His Viper Press maintains this ideal by putting out these notes at an indie rock price.

Resh¹s episodic narrative focuses on the myriad relationships that derive from being in a band—to each other, to the fans, to the music, to the road, and to one's equipment. It reads like an extended-play collection of greatest hits, with chapter titles such as "Hazards," "Pastacore," "Walterboro," and "Spokehouse." Amped's reverence for the punk scene (as well as the beautiful freaks of America) resonates throughout its 30 chapters. Though he consistently undercuts Spoke's importance and intentions, Resh knows that making music counts. As it encourages the reader to plug in and make noise, the memoir eventually crescendos to an unsettling epiphany about the nature of dissent, resistance, and making music. Combining the words of former Justice William O. Douglas, Operation Ivy's "Sound System," and the fatigue of a tour's final leg, these few pages alone are worth the price of admission. Now go start a band.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2002 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2002

Eldorado: Adventures in the Path of Empire

Eldorado: Adventures in the Path of Empire by Bayard TaylorBayard Taylor
Heyday Books ($18.95)

by Mark Terrill

Travel writing is as old as writing itself. Back in the days when travel was still seen as an adventure and not as a consumer product, it was ship's logbooks, explorer's journals, and the tales of traveling merchants that served as the eyes and ears for a less mobile population back home. From its inception, travel writing was primarily written by people with little or no literary background whatsoever, its sole purpose being one of documentation, often as a stipulation laid down by the sponsors of said journey. Only relatively recently did writers such as Bruce Chatwin, V.S. Naipul, and Paul Theroux manage to wrest travel writing from its classification as sub-genre and elevate it to that of literature. But long before Chatwin, Naipul, and Theroux, there were other travel writers toiling to combine literary skills with the immediacy of a reporter in the field. One of the more successful and enduring results is Bayard Taylor's Eldorado, Adventures in the Path of Empire.

In June of 1849, Taylor was dispatched by Horace Greely of the New York Tribune to report on the California Gold Rush. Just 24, Taylor had already published two small collections of poetry and a travel book. Later in life, while continuing to write for the Tribune and other periodicals, he would publish nine more travel books and four novels, as well as books of essays, collected correspondence, and several volumes of verse. Taylor's reports from California were originally intended to be published as a series of "Letters" to the Tribune, but when faced with the wealth of material he found waiting for him in San Francisco, Taylor promptly decided that a full-length narrative was the only method for doing it justice.

In 1849, the region of California had only recently been acquired after the defeat of Mexico and would not become a state of the Union until the following year. The as-yet-to-be-defined state was part of a larger territory which included New Mexico, Arizona and much of Nevada, Utah, and Colorado, the total of which added 1.2 million square miles to the nation's internal empire, an increase of 66 percent. With the discovery of gold in 1848, people from all over the world converged on California; more than 100,000 in 1849, and exceeding 250,000 by the end of 1852.

Using San Francisco as a base, Taylor traveled by horse, schooner, and foot to the placer mines in the Sierras, the bustling city of Sacramento, the nearly deserted lands of the Spanish missions, and attended the first constitutional convention in Monterey that set the boundaries and forged the laws for the new state. With his keen eye and penchant for details, Taylor bestowed upon these tumultuous and anarchistic times an almost cinematic quality. Writing as he traveled, he managed to combine a sense of the poetic with straightforward historical documentation, underpinned with a wry sense of humor.

Taylor stayed in California a total of four months before returning to New York via ship and a harrowing overland journey across the interior of Mexico. Eleven months after setting out from New York, his book was in the stores, which became an immediate hit in New York and London, where it was simultaneously published. Reprinted in both countries before the end of the year, it went through multiple editions in the decades that followed. Widely regarded as a classic of western literature, Taylor's lively chronicle of the birth of modern California has lost nothing in terms of its initial freshness and vitality in the interim.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2002 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2002

Star Trek: The Human Frontier

Star Trek: The Human Frontier by Michèle Barrett and Duncan BarrettMichèle Barrett and Duncan Barrett
Routledge ($18.95)

by Rudi Dornemann

After thirty plus years, Star Trek has accumulated quite a body of material: multiple TV series and movies created by shifting teams of producers and writers, actors and crew. In spite of this behind-the-scenes change, the franchise has its ongoing organizing principles: persistent touchstone ideas, multi-episode story arcs, and long-term character continuity. There's more to be found sifting through the reruns, however, and, in Star Trek: The Human Frontier, literary and cultural theory specialist Michèle Barrett and her teen-aged son Duncan Barrett find thematic connections and intriguing continuities in Star Trek's treatment of humanity and its frequent foil, alienness.

The Barretts offer a perceptive and thorough reading of the several series and movies, organizing their discussion around the franchise's ideas of what it means to be, or not be, human. They find much to explore in Trek's various alien races, mirror universe excursions and plot-enabling transporter mishaps. Their examination of these ideas is generally insightful, as when they note "Star Trek is working with two different categories of organic humanoid aliens: those who 'carry' the burden of meaning of significant difference (such as a wrathful Klingon), that will probably lead to conflict, and those who, like Neelix, simply register 'difference' in their bodies and appearance." And fortunately, the Barretts' discussion of humanity ranges rather widely. It covers the obvious contrast between Federation culture and aliens like Klingons and Ferengi who offer some transformed reflection of humanity. However, it also encompasses the ways in Star Trek's occasional jaunts into possible futures or mirror universes that illuminate humanity through contrasting visions of the characters who have become so familiar from week to week.

As interesting as this central exploration is, it's bracketed by two briefer sections that are not as thorough, but are perhaps more incisive. The Barrett's introductory chapter examines Star Trek in the context of the seafaring literature of the great age of sea-going sail and steam, with its connection between nautical exploration and colonial exploitation. In grounding their discussion of humanity in Star Trek in Melville and Conrad, C.S. Forrester and Patrick O'Brian, they find nautical roots not only for the series' shipboard command structure and nautical lingo, but for its multi-racial and multi-species crews. They point out that sea-going and space-going narratives alike place the captain in the privileged decision-making position, because, in both cases, authorities at home are too far away to make moment-to-moment decisions. Their closing section contrasts what the Barretts describe as the "modern rationalism" of The Next Generation with the "post-modern flexibility" they find in Deep Space Nine and Voyager, as evidenced by the treatment of religion and of madness in the different series.

These sections feature what's best throughout the book: a thorough knowledge of the Star Trek canon, along with a perceptive analysis of what all that exploration adds up to.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2002 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2002

The Complete Idiot's Guide to Understanding Buddhism

The Complete Idiot's Guide to Understanding Buddhism by Gary GachGary Gach
Alpha ($18.95)

by Charisse Gendron

In the introduction to this do-it-yourself manual on the history, teachings, practices, and applications of Buddhism, author Gary Gach feints, "A few people may scoff that this is sacrilegious, or something." Yes, reading about suchness (the "unrepeatable interpenetration of impermanences") in the standardized format of a Complete Idiot's Guide is ironic. But Buddhism, of all religions, embraces irony and paradox. Think of this book as a koan, as the sound of one hand clapping.

Anyway, modernity has already adopted Buddhism as a life-style; as Gach points out, "zen influence (lowercase) has extended to martial arts, gardening, haiku, motorcycle maintenance, you name it." You can't get through the day without hearing something described as "very zen." Yet enlightenment cannot be commodified! It's always already there for free. That's why the Buddha is smiling.

On balance, idiocy is not a bad approach to Buddhism. Even in the West, the idiot (from the Greek idiots, layperson) points to the wisdom of emptiness (Shakespeare), ineffability (Dostoevsky), compassion (Faulkner), and alterity (Iggy Pop). The Buddhist term for idiot's (or layperson's ) mind is "beginner's mind," or "don't-know mind," a precious state in which we see things unfiltered by preconception.

True to the series' format, Gach uses contemporary expressions and references to describe the indescribable, as when he explains duhkha (universal human suffering) by way of the Stones' song "Satisfaction." Turns out everybody really is a buddha, from Yogi Berra ("When you come to a fork in the road, take it"), to Thelonius Monk ("Simple ain't easy") to Mel Brooks ("Now thyself"). And everything has buddha nature, as modern artists already know: "Dawn sunlight tingeing cloudtips rose-peach is no less lovely than the orange green iridescence of the wings of flies buzzing around some dung on the mosaic of the ground." And vice versa.

Simple ain't easy. While Buddhists everywhere—Tibet, Vietnam, Japan, the United States—share core beliefs in impermanence and interconnectedness, Buddhism combines with local customs wherever it travels, resulting in an elaborate menu of manifestations, from the austere meditation halls and neutral robes of Japanese Zen to the crammed temples and saffron and maroon raiment of Tibetan Vajrayana. The Buddha himself seems to have loved both reduction and amplification: he meditated under a tree for seven years, then he came up with the Four Noble Truths, the Eightfold Path, the Three Jewels, the Three Poisons, the Three Dharma Seals, the Four Sublime States, the Four Bodhisattva Vows, and the Cardinal Precepts (there are five of these).

Frankly, not many books give as good an overview of the varieties of Buddhism as The Complete Idiot's Guide, since most Buddhist writers aim for depth in a specific tradition. One may have sat zazen for years without knowing about the Vipassana technique of noting, which consists of voicing a sensation, without subject or object, until it passes: "tingling, tingling, repulsing, repulsing accepting, accepting." This technique is said to ameliorate the pains of meditating for 40 minutes in the lotus position.

Besides Zen, the most popular Buddhism in the United States is Tantra (favored by writers at The Jack Kerouc School of Disembodied Poetics at Naropa University), and Gach's caution in approaching Tantra makes it all the more attractive to the uninitiated. Without "declassifying" secrets, he tells us that it "engages human emotions as levers of transformation takes the end as the means work[s] with what is, rather than trying to transcend it." One of Tantra's techniques is visualizing (and identifying with) "wrathful deities." Powerful stuff—not for idiots.

Gach plants the guidebook's sidebars with little gardens of etymology. "The word sutra, from Sanscrit, means a thread, such as for stringing jewels or prayer beads. It also carries the connotation of story, the way we hear tale in the word yarn. It comes from the same root from which we derive the word suture, meaning to sew, to connect." Sutra/suture—there's a poem in there. One also discovers that the opposite of symbolic is diabolic and that Shazam is a Hebrew word.

The thing about beginner's mind is that one cannot preserve it; one has to lose it to find it again. Gach quotes a Zen saying: "Before I studied the Way, mountains were mountains, and rivers were rivers. After I'd practiced the Way for a few years, suddenly mountains were no longer mountains, and rivers no longer rivers. But now that I've practiced the Way for many, many years, mountains are again mountains, and rivers are rivers." To study Buddhism is to become engrossed in its forms, at least for a while. This book is a not an undignified place to start.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2002 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2002

Dance of Days: Two Decades of Punk Rock in the Nation's Capital

Dance of Days: Two Decades of Punk Rock in the Nation's CapitalMark Andersen and Mark Jenkins
Soft Skull Press ($20)

by Steve Burt

Between 1979 and 1995, the kids, bands and record labels of greater Washington DC invented—mostly with help, on occasion single-handedly—the following developments in rock music and culture: (1) the early-80s sound of American hardcore (very young, very fast, very loud); (2) the lifestyle called straightedge, with its sometimes commonsensical, sometimes dogmatic opposition to drink, sex and drugs; (3) the anti-corporate, do-it-yourself ethos of the long-lived, small-scale record label, and the tactics which helped those labels endure; (4) "emo" (emotionally intense post-punk rock, often with a focus on anguished male vocals); (5) coalition tactics which linked post-punk bands and audiences to broad political issues; (6) the melodic Anglophile sounds of the subgenre called American indie-pop; and, finally, (7) the young feminist rock-and-politics movement called Riot Grrrl. DC punk and its offshoots matter to any story of American rock over the past 25-or-so years; moreover, DC (like almost any metropolis) has not just one but many stories about individual bands, labels, scenes, musicians, worth hearing (and hearing about) for their own sake. Other folks have tried to tell bits of those stories—in years of zines, in alternaweekly newspapers, on websites, even in a book of photographs (Cynthia Connolly's Banned in DC). This volume, though, tell most of the stories at once; it's the most reliable, most thorough, guide I've ever seen to a local rock scene, and it's well-written enough to hold at least this reader's attention from first to last page.

DC had a punk scene, as many big cities had a punk scene, in 1978. It became exceptional in part with the advent of Bad Brains, who for a few months in 1979 were the fastest and most charismatic punk band on the continent, the font in some ways of all later harDCore. (Bad Brains leader HR soon turned from the self-help philosophy of their punk singles towards Rastafarian dogma and reggae, and later into vicious homophobia and serious mental illness.) Most of the story here, however, concerns the people and bands on the Dischord record label, started in 1981 by the high school-aged Ian MacKaye and Jeff Nelson to release singles by their band Teen Idles (whose signature song, "I Drink Milk," made a virtue of an underage necessity). In 1980 MacKaye would became the charismatic and intensely ethical front man for Minor Threat; Dischord would sponsor other seminal so-called "harDCore" bands, and find itself somewhat unwillingly at the head of a national subculture of sometimes moralistic, sometimes inspiring straightedge youth. "I consider my life a protest," MacKaye once said. Fans thought so too, and some idolized him, then turned on him for the slightest of imagined sellouts.

Bankrupt or unpredictable venues, hometown and out-of-town violence, and personnel changes (often, high school graduates leaving for college) meant that these bands and their members were constantly changing: some of those changes looked like decline. The label and its people would rally in the so-called "Revolution Summer" of 1985, marked by the first, and the best, "emo" band, Rites of Spring. "In the place of unfocused anger," Andersen and Jenkins explain, RoS's "passion suggested that any given song could be about the end of a relationship—or the beginning of a new world." Ex-MT and RoS members later formed Fugazi, whose national tours still draw thousands of fans, and adhere to the anticommercial agenda Andersen and Jenkins describe: "all ages shows, low door prices, minimal PR, no rock 'n' roll bullshit." Political organizing by bandmates and friends created an organization called Positive Force, which begat protests and meetings, which begat the Olympia (Washington)-Washington, DC fanzine and rock band axis, which in turn begat Bikini Kill, Bratmobile and Riot Grrrl.

Most people who read this book will enjoy its detailed accounts of those influential bands. And yet, Andersen and Jenkins show, those bands' tales are hardly the only ones DC has; show by show, single by single, person by person, this book explores an entire scene, or congeries of interlocking scenes, trying very hard to focus as much on one-gig bands, friendships, rallies and basements as on big-deal outfits and sold-out shows. (Even the title conveys that decentralized focus: it names a song by the "minor" Dischord band Embrace.) That consistent multiple focus—along with the show-by-show, person-by-person, sometimes day-by-day detail—let Andersen and Jenkins pursue discoveries larger than any individual musician's story.

Dance of Days shows how the development of an artistic style—the earnest, propulsive post-punk of most Dischord bands—interacts with everything else in the artists' lives. High-school kids chuck out 60s song forms for faster, simpler music which expresses their independence, then discover that the older forms and disciplines can be harnessed to express the same ideals. Minor Threat learned, and spread, this lesson with their punk-rock covers of 60s songs—"Stepping Stone," "Good Guys Don't Wear White"; later outfits from Gray Matter to Q and Not U picked it up fast and well. Later DC punk bands found their own paths between spontaneity and songwriting, between energy and organization, and not least—between "white" and "black" musical forms; some of the bands that interest Andersen most matter not so much for what they accomplished as for what they tried to do. (Beefeater, for example, tried to merge late punk with early funk and performance art; their records sound terrible, but their shows mattered a lot.)

Other overarching stories here bring in age, race, sexuality, and gender in other ways. Every 50 pages here, or every two years, a new crop of teen bands arise to challenge, as it were, the staid twenty-something scene: no matter how naïve the kids' expectations seem, their new bands always add something—musically, personally, organizationally—to what already exists. Bad Brains were African-American, while almost everyone else in these bands (and in other U.S. hardcore scenes) was white: the DC scene of the early Eighties included genuine racial violence along with idealistic organizers who wanted to make an anti-racist scene. Punk and its offshoots (even more then than now) were largely music by, for and about young men: national tours and local events brought violent homophobes into confrontations with out gay punks. (I was less surprised by the bashings and slurs recounted here than by how early—1982, say—many punks spoke out against homophobic peers.)

Though DC New Wave (like New Wave in New York and Boston) included plenty of women musicians, the harDCore sound, and the Dischord roster, remained for years almost all male; only in 1986 did the label release its first woman-fronted band, the underrated and prescient Fire Party. Andersen and Jenkins show how MacKaye and others at the scene's "center" (if that's the right word) gradually realized, and worked to mitigate, the music's links to male dominance and aggression. (Fugazi's first EP included a powerful, controversial song about sexual harassment.) Musical and moral leaders—not just MacKaye but Tomas Squip and many others—worked hard to disarticulate punk message of independence and strength from the hypermasculine violence which so often accompanied harDCore shows. (Peripheral players in the Dischord scene—like the young Henry Rollins—seemed to thrive on the violence instead.) Later chapters—in which Andersen himself enters the story—show how leftie organizing and DC's post-punk musical became more heavily intertwined, and how Andersen's own anti-capitalist ideology clashed with the anti-corporate but entrepreneurial agenda of people who actually ran record labels (especially Tsunami's Toomey). The last chapters here describe the dizzyingly rapid—and widely discussed—rise of Riot Grrrl: this is a story we'll likely hear over and over, and Andersen and Jenkins offer mostly (as they know) a sympathetic, DC-based outsiders' perspective.

As Jenkins' foreword indicates, this is "overwhelmingly Mark Andersen's book." Andersen moved from Montana to DC in 1984: he ended up organizing, and in part directing, Positive Force, which sponsored events like the famous Punk Percussion Protests, owned a house in Arlington (across the river from DC proper), and offered groups and labels meeting space. Andersen seems to have conducted most of the (many, many) interviews: he also provides the personal reactions which dominate the last few chapters—"it is hard to build a movement for broad social change," he reflects, "out of moments occurring erratically in subterranean enclaves." He's upset that harDCore and its descendents built—in the last analysis—an art movement with political beliefs attached, rather than a more durable instrument for a social and moral cause. Jenkins—the very articulate longtime rock critic for DC's City Paper and, latterly, the Washington Post--brings to the coauthored volume (I suspect) a feel for good prose, and a knowledge of the pre-Dischord, late-70s scene—from the raunchy Slickee Boys to the geeky brilliance of Tru Fax and the Insaniacs. Readers who want to read about the music—rather than just about people and their beliefs—will recognize and appreciate Jenkins' work.

This collaboration gives an understandably Dischord-centric view of the DC scene (with timeouts for Bad Brains and their bad behavior). For most of the book that makes sense; near the end, it doesn't. Andersen and Jenkins do follow the newer, poppier, labels and bands of the early 1990s—not just Tsunami but, say, Shudder to Think—though coverage there ends up neither as supportive nor as detailed as it might be; bands with no Dischord links and no politics (like those on the Teen Beat label: Unrest, Eggs) get ignored almost entirely. But this is only to say that there remain other stories to tell. (Simple Machines has told theirs very well, as any web search will attest.) Rockers past, present and future—not to mention anyone interested in rock scenes, youth organizing, and youth culture—need this book on their shelves.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2002 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2002

War of the Words: 20 Years of Writing on Contemporary Literature

War of the Words: 20 Years of Writing on Contemporary LiteratureEdited by Joy Press
Three Rivers Press ($14)

by Laird Hunt

Once upon a time, the Voice Literary Supplement was capable of busting balls and warping minds. Writers like Dorothy Allison, Gary Indiana, Kathy Acker and Lynne Tillman inhabited its gritty anti-uptown trenches, and explosions of definitely downtown trend-setting brilliance were rife. So, at any rate, goes the legend (legend to those of us who came to the tamer VLS of recent years), one that War of the Words, a collection of 40 pieces culled from the supplement's 20 years of existence goes quite some distance towards bearing out. This is a welcome reminder, as today's VLS seems a shrunken thing, a slender hodge-podge of articles that, while still capable of publishing the occasional terrific piece, has lost its edge and celebrates much the same work in much the same way that the uptown venues do.

No doubt this has a lot to do with the fusion of uptown and downtown sensibilities that occurred over the course of the '90s, when articulate writers with both brains and scruff (e.g. David Foster Wallace, Rick Moody, William T. Vollman, Mary Gaitskill) were on the ascendant and began to seem relevant to the denizens of the East Village (or Williamsburg) and those on the Upper West Side. As current VLS editor Joy Press, who put the collection together, writes in her introduction, "Today, of course, it's much less clear what 'bohemia' or 'underground' signifies than when the supplement was founded. From music to films to the literary scene, left-field ideas cross over with disconcerting speed, a process that depletes them of content while sapping the community that originally nourished them." One might have hoped, however, despite such obstacles, that given its mission to treat "literature as something intimately entangled with the conflicts and confusions raging outside the realm of paper and ink," the VLS would have found a way to stay restive, lively, cantankerous, brash.

War of the Words certainly is. Press has chosen well—the book abounds with razor-sharp, sweet and sour gems. Take Peter Schjeldahl's prescient essay on the importance of Denis Cooper's proem Safe; C. Carr on Kathy Acker's Don Quixote; Thulani Davis on Buppie writers; Greg Tate on inveterate mind-blower Samuel Delany; and Jeff Yang on Chang-Rae Lee's terrific Native Speaker, and you'll get some idea of the spice and riches on hand. Not to be missed either are Dorothy Allison's investigation of smarts and eros in Anne Rice's work; Paul Elie's skewering of John Cheever; Guy Trebay's breezy but poignant look at The Andy Warhol Diaries; and Lynne Tillman's brilliant precis on the future of fiction.

Press has organized the essays into five sections, each demonstrating a different aspect of the VLS mission. Thus in section one, younger writers take on classics like Gertrude Stein, or some day classics like Don Delillo, and in section two, we get essays on deserving writers whose reputations have become a bit musty or need recasting (e.g., Zora Neal Hurston, Thomas Bernhard, Angela Carter). Sections three, four and five are devoted to general cultural issues, pop culture and emerging writers, respectively. Prefacing the essays is an engaging "Short but Sweet Oral History of the VLS", in which a host of key players talk about their relationship to the publication over the years and give testament to the powerful impact it had on them and the wider literary scene. Something one wishes, perhaps selfishly, that the once mighty VLS could have again.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2002 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2002

Before and After: Stories from New York

Before and After: Stories from New York edited by Thomas Belleredited by Thomas Beller
Mr. Beller's Neighborhood ($13)

by Thomas Haley

Novelist and essay-writer Thomas Beller had for a couple of years been asking people to write to his website (mrbellersneighborhood.com) and express themselves on New York events, locations, and people of personal importance to them. Beller was just preparing to compile his favorites from the site into a print volume when the terrorist attacks occurred, rendering the project, in his own words, "exhausting and beside the point." Almost immediately after the Twin Towers fell, though, the website began receiving hits again, and Beller realized that the material his project had gathered and was still gathering was "not only relevant, but possessed of an urgency that it hadn't had before." Before and After: Stories from New York is Beller's selection of the most relevant and most urgent of these very short personal essays, divided into sections labeled simply "Before" and "After."

Many of the "Before" essays are, perhaps surprisingly, sharp and resonant; they do not suffer from the sense of triviality or naivete one might expect of pre-terrorism musings on the city. Maura Kelly's "Kissing the Cab Driver" is a sweet and gritty account of her terminally failed New Year's Eves, focusing on the Millennium's Eve that culminates with the desperate title event. In "The Parakeet Book," Josh Kramer tries in vain to train a bird given him by his now ex-girlfriend. "Johanna gave me the birds because she thought they would be therapeutic for me," he writes, and the detached and helpless curiosity he feels while watching the parakeet take flight and slam into his living room wall will be familiar to anyone who has suffered the end of a relationship.

Whereas the "Before" essays tend towards calmer reflection, the "After" pieces are turbulent meditations and frantic recountings. Bryan Charles, working on the seventieth floor of World Trade Tower 2, sits at his desk reading a Kurt Cobain biography when he hears "a series of muffled booms." A man from accounting named Leo Kirby started yelling. He didn't stop." Joseph Lieber, an ex-New Yorker living in Boston, wrestles helplessly with his frustration at being so far away from the city he still thinks of as home. He writes: "From the moment I learned of the attack, I felt an urgent need to be home, home in the city of my bones, home among my people. I slumped down over a kitchen chair, feeling the enormity of our loss, the enormity of my loss."

And certainly one of the most compelling issues raised by Beller's collection is that fine line between "our loss" and "my loss." Despite the scale and reach of September's paradigm-shifting events, the collection's "After" essays are no less introspective than those under the "Before" title. The self-absorption of the pieces does not make them trite, though—in fact, the best of these essays remind us that ultimately we suffer tragedy alone, drawing from our own store of memories and experiences to make personal sense of things.

Despite several essays that are not themselves particularly good, Before and After is a stirring and impressive catalog of voices. With a few exceptions—Philip Lopate, Luc Sante, and Jeanette Winterson among them—the writers here are not terribly well known, if known at all. Indeed, the sincerity and authenticity of Beller's selections are in part the result of their shirking the kind of "literary" writing generally found in such short pieces of prose. There is no mistaking, in other words, that language is here at the service of the subject; the book is so saturated with vivid humanity, with nightmarish specificity, with the undeniable realities of ashes, concrete, smoke, paper, and tears, that even the weaker pieces raise the questions that will continue to haunt us for some time.

Click here to purchase this book at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2002 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2002

Soliloquy

Soliloquy by Kenneth GoldsmithKenneth Goldsmith
Granary Books ($18)

by Doug Nufer

Kenneth Goldsmith has a novel approach to poetry: He records chunks of experience and releases the transcriptions as books. The books resemble fiction, as his observations take prose form, but his focus on the bits and pieces of language (to the exclusion of fiction's standard preoccupation with plot, character, and theme) gets his work consigned to a peculiar dustbin of poetry. No. 111 2.7.93-10.20.96 (The Figures, 1997) displays sounds and phrases he collected over the period noted in the title. Fidget (Coach House, 2000) is his tape-recorded notation of the moves his body made in a single day. And now, Soliloquy consists of every word he said in one week.

This book is less refined than his earlier transcriptions, in that the author doesn't mediate his observations as he does in Fidget or arrange phrases as he does in No. 111. It's even less refined than a: a novel, the minimally edited (and somewhat designed) series of transcribed tape recordings produced by the Andy Warhol Factory in the 1960s. Yet Soliloquy is perhaps the purest example of Goldsmith's transcription methodology. It is a quintessentially unwritten book. Sentences veer all over the place, crashing into fragments as they're jammed one after another into long stretches that break only at the end of the day. Each day gets a chapter, called an "act." For almost 500 pages all you get is what Goldsmith says, in nonstop one-sided conversations with his wife, friends, pets, and everyone else he talks to, in person or on the phone, in a chatty vernacular that's mercifully devoid of overt self-conscious displays of wit and wisdom. He refers to his project once in a while, but a hidden microphone lacks the intrusive absurdity of the cinema verite camera as it monitors the stuff of everyday life. Now that anyone in terrorized America is subject to surveillance, Soliloquy might even cultivate sympathy for those poor bastards in the intelligence sector who must listen to every scrap of verbiage that comes over the wires and through the air.

So, in addition to being unwritten, is this book unreadable? Like Goldsmith's other books, Soliloquy defies anyone who would read it straight through while also inveigling the curious to pick it up and have a go. Skip around, zoom ahead, avoid the website shop talk of his day job, cruise the prattle of the dog walks, savor literary gossip over lunch with Marjorie Perloff, and ogle the unspeakable practices of natural acts. Despite its fidelity to quotidian tedium, the book does manage to generate a kind of plot as you may wonder and the subjects finally discuss how they feel about more or less exhibiting their intimate moments. While the bulk of all of this is necessary for the book's sheer existence, it's not necessary to read the whole thing in order to appreciate it.

What is necessary? This is the question experimental work often poses, even if such inquiry exposes the work's weaknesses. Although Goldsmith's recorded experience is much different from that of Warhol's dopey superstars, Soliloquy takes a certain risk by replicating a technique that may well have been exhausted by a previous avant-garde. Then again, techniques that don't draw attention to themselves or question the necessity of their existence stalk the literary earth with all of the clout of dinosaurs. Publish a novelized memoir and the slightest deviation from the standard issue of tropes may get you accused of originality. Publish an experimental work that is substantially unique but for one or two predecessors, and you're a copycat.

The value and fun of Soliloquy is that it raises such questions and refuses to explain them away by taking dead aim at the meaning of it all.

Click here to purchase this book at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.

Click here to buy this book at Amazon.com

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2002 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2002

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