Monday, 27 July 2009

The Blank Sheet of Paper

First off, sorry about the delay. I have a few (hopefully interesting) ideas for upcoming posts in the pipeline, but all of them, unfortunately, require a bit of preparation each and I have not yet had the time and opportunity to get to that yet.

Consequently, I've had a lot on my mind that I wanted to say, yet nothing on my mind that I could say at this time. Or perhaps more accurately, nothing I felt was interesting enough to share here.

Last night, however, I casually quoted a bit from an old favourite song of mine, Marillion's "Bitter Suite" from the Misplaced Childhood album:
It's getting late, for scribbling and scratching on the paper
Something's gonna give under this pressure, and the cracks are already beginning to show
A good friend of mine commented on this by saying that songs about writers were always golden in his book, and I could but agree.

And not only songs either. It is really, at least for my own part, about texts and stories about writers and writing. There is something almost perversely pleasurable to read or listen to tales about writers and writing. Perhaps because it becomes so self-referential. After all, this type of writing does represent one of various forms of metafiction, that is fiction that calls attention to itself as fiction or to its own narrativity and fictionality as it were. In other words, it speaks a little bit extra to those who themselves wrestle with ink and blank pages, keyboards and empty screens. To those of us who enjoy breathing in ideas and letters and then exhaling words.

The comment, in fact, made me think about one of my favourite issues of Neil Gaiman's Sandman. It's a single issue story called "Calliope" (found in the Dream Country TPB) and it's all about a writer by the name of Richard Madoc. Madoc is a desperate man, because he's the author of the successful debut novel The Cabaret of Dr. Caligari with a sequel due (if not overdue) at the publisher's and a severe case of writer's block. This causes him to seek out the help of an older, reclusive writer called Erasmus Fry (who actually has a rather unconventional remedy to Madoc's problem).

When Madoc first meets Fry, the old man goes into a speech on bezoars (something which Madoc has brought along as payment for Fry's remedy) and the pressed Madoc rudely interrupts him desperately screaming, "Will you shut up? I haven't written a word in a year -- Nothing I haven't thrown away! Do you know what that's like? When it's just you, and a blank sheet of paper?" Everything that follows, the mystical remedy and the eventual cost for it, stem from this desperation.

In fact, this phrase has stayed with me ever since I first encountered it at some point in the early 1990s. Even without the context of the story, there is something haunting about the phrase. At least it is to someone who can just imagine what that's like; i.e. someone who's life is strongly tied to texts and their production. Within the context of the story, the phrase is not merely haunting but properly horrific. It is, as stated, what brings everything that follows (and without revealing too much and spoiling the story for those of you who haven't read it, what follows is, as always, the price we pay for the success we claim). It is, in effect, the fuel that drives the action, but it is also the horror itself.

While novels like Stephen King's The Dark Half cleverly play on other fears a writer may encounter, in a manner of speaking, in Gaiman's comic (visually brought to life by Kelley Jones and Malcolm Jones III), which is equally based in a fictional dark fantasy/horror reality (allowing more than a little for intrusions of the supernatural), the horror itself is not of a supernatural agency. Sure, there are dimensions to how the story unfolds that is clearly both horrific and supernatural in a combined fashion, but the basic horror is something rather more tangible. It is something that can happen to any writer and underneath the surface of that horror lies an empty despair.

In short (to put these ramblings to an end), "Calliope" as a story, besides being a really good story generally speaking and a mighty fine piece of dark fantasy in the medium of comics, is horror for writers.

Sunday, 19 July 2009

Inside or Outside the Whale: Xenophobe's® Guide to the Swedes

I just finished off The Xenophobe's® Guide to the Swedes the other day (see my full review at Goodreads) and thought that I would, apropos of that, talk a little about perspective.

As I mention in my review, the book is part of a a publication series (Xenophobe's® Guide), which attempts to humorously describe peoples of various nationalities, and in the book at hand, the Swedes get their treatment from author Peter Berlin. Berlin, according to the author bio, "left his native Sweden the day after graduating from university, and has always looked back since. He maintains that you have to go abroad to view your country in perspective, for how can one size up a whale from within?" However, it seems to me as if Berlin ought to have kept in mind the old adage "size isn't everything."

Don't get me wrong, Berlin is an entertaining writer and the text is a fun read to be sure, but (and this is one of those important "buts") his details are sometimes off. This ranges from (as stated in my Goodreads review) the perpetuation of pure myths (e.g. the etymology of the Swedish word lagom on pages 11–12), describing localized phenomena as national (e.g. the description on pages 42–43 of the custom of eating surströmming, i.e. fermented herring, which in actuality, while available around the country, is scoffed at by many, many Swedes not stemming from the northern regions of the country), and sometimes even, more or less, downright inventing contradictory customs that aren't there. As an example of the latter, one needs only consider the following quote (page 48):
Having made it into a Swedish home, a foreign guest is immediately faced with the dilemma of what to do with his or her shoes. A rule of thumb is that in towns and villages one takes them off, while in the big cities one leaves them on.
Now, the first bit is quite true (and you'd better believe it). Swedes do as a custom take their shoes off indoors and not doing so would mostly be considered rude (unless the host has made verbal allowances for you to step inside shoed, for whatever reason). What is off, however, is Berlin's assertion that there is a difference depending on whether you happen to be in a big city or a town/village. I've spent most of my 34 years thus far in Sweden. First growing up in a small community outside of Göteborg (a.k.a. Gothenburg) and later on, for over a decade now, living in Göteborg itself (Göteborg being Sweden's second largest city). For the record, I've also visited people in Stockholm (i.e. the capital of Sweden and also its largest city) on occasion, as well as people in other, albeit smaller, cities around the country. All that being said, Berlin's statement considering the rule of thumb suggesting a difference in the customs concerning shoes comes as absolute news to me as a Swede. And it has been equally surprising to other Swedes I've tried this "new" rule of thumb upon.

On the whole, these things suggests to me that Berlin is slightly out of touch with his topic. It occurs to me that he's simply been outside the whale too long and consequently forgotten how the inside looks. It is true that an outside perspective allows you to see things an insider does not see, especially in terms of national character or the internationally speaking odd things which are taken for granted, but the Devil, as they say, is always in the details, and Berlin seems to have lost track of his details on more than one occasion.

The end result, while definitely enjoyable, nevertheless falters due to its failure to also be informative in a trustworthy manner, and the two are not mutually exclusive by any means. As an example of a successful combination of the two, I'd like to cite Colin White and Laurie Boucke's fantastically funny and informative book The Undutchables Version 3.1 – An Observation of the Netherlands: Its Culture and its Inhabitants (the 5th edition is available from, though I'm unsure of the version number there). The difference here is that White is an Englishman and Boucke an American, each of them bringing an outside perspective with them when they're, as it were, entering the whale. That is, while Berlin has left Sweden behind (stopping by only on occasional and obviously limited return visits during the years thereafter), White and Boucke have both had to face getting into the Netherlands. In many ways, it seems to become a question of, on the one hand, remembering the inside of the whale from the position where its full size can be viewed (but where the details inevitably get blurred or lost) and, on the other hand, being faced with the otherness of the inside, of the details themselves. The latter perspective does, undeniably, seem to be a better one, even a more accurate one. The back cover of my edition of The Unduchables sport a blurb by a Johannes van Dam, Het Parool, boldly stating: "In a very exact yet funny way, (this book) discloses all the secrets about us that we really would have preferred to keep to ourselves." It is a statement, which the Dutch people I know, who have read that book, have agreed with. Personally, I have a very hard time seeing Berlin's attempt at describing the Swedes receiving any similar accolades from any Swedes.

Still, I would not want to end on the wrong foot. As I said early on in this text, Berlin is an entertaining writer and his text is a fun read. In fact, I would recommend anyone who is interested in whiling away a bit of time in an enjoyable manner to give the book a chance. Just, you know, take it with two fistfuls of salt and don't mistake it for an accurate reference book, is all.

Friday, 10 July 2009

Revisiting The Fragile and Nine Inch Nails

After having lived somewhat on Bauhaus' "Bela Lugosi's Dead", as discussed in my previous post, I opted for giving Nine Inch Nails' double album The Fragile a spin again last evening on Spotify.

I basically discovered NIN through this particular album back in 2000. Don't get me wrong, I'd heard of the band before. I'd really enjoyed their cover version of Joy Division's "Dead Souls" that is found on The Crow Soundtrack (I actually heard this cover before I heard the original version). But I was originally discouraged by the "noise" factor when checking out a full album in a record store. In retrospect, I realise that that album must have been The Downward Spiral, which I nowadays count among NIN's masterpieces, but which I clearly was not yet ready for back in the early to mid-90s.

NIN wasn't totally lost to me in the time in between though. I did grow to like tracks like "Head Like a Hole", "Closer" and "The Perfect Drug" on the dance floors of a few goth rock clubs (and beyond). Yet never enough for me to actually pick up an album, the previous discouragement staying with me.

In 2000, however, I got to borrow the magnificent double album that is The Fragile from a friend and absolutely fell in love with it. Utterly and without regret. At the time, I spent quite a bit of time in the Netherlands, or in transit between that country and my own native Sweden, and the album travelled with me; a more or less constant companion in my headphones. In fact, since I was an active reviewer at the Dutch Progressive Rock Page in those days, and since the album (albeit more commonly being categorised as industrial rock) qualifies as one with some pretty strong elements and influences of progressive rock, I wrote a review of it for that site (found here for anyone interested).

Revisiting the album again last evening made me realise exactly how great it is. I would easily rank this among my favourite albums any day of the week and think I would be surprised to find it missing on a top 25 list of the greatest albums ever (though the internal ranking might change and vary). Dark, beautiful, musically fitting and lyrically spot on... music simply doesn't get any better than this. Not really.

Thursday, 2 July 2009

"The Bats Have Left the Bell Tower"

Okay, so after just having posted a belated update yesterday, I thought I'd make up for that belatedness by a brief additional offering here and now.

The thing is over the last few days I've been more or less obsessed by one specific song. I've had the original single version (taken from the 1998 compilation Crackle) in the music player on my cellphone and both that version and a very good live version (taken off the brilliantly titled live album Press the Eject and Give Me the Tape) have been played extensively at Spotify. Simply put, I've listened and re-listened to it, and then listened some more.

At this point, I'm betting some of you might be wondering, "which song is he referring to?" (Although I'm sure a few may also have cracked the riddle, if not by the post title then at least by the album references.)

I am, of course, speaking of Bauhaus' brilliant song "Bela Lugosi's Dead" (appo-pologies to those who don't have Spotify) with which they hit the music scene in 1979. It's a track, which clearly is foundational for the entire goth rock genre, and Bauhaus are considered the founding fathers of that genre (arguably together with Joy Division with whom they share many characteristics), while still having clear punk sensibilities at the same time (consider a track like "Dark Entries" for instance).

Anyway, the track is hard not to like. It has atmosphere, no– correction, it has great atmosphere. The lyrics are on the verge of poking fun at the whole genre of early horror films (Bela Lugosi, for the uninitiated, was the original Count Dracula on film), but Peter Murphy's vocals give the words an almost uncannily sombre mood. Lines like
the bats have left the bell tower
the victims have been bled
red velvet lines the black box
bela lugosi's dead
simply become a haunting celebration of a past era, an old film genre and an older literary genre still. This is part of the beauty of the song, and also part of the beauty of the band.

Murpy's vocals and the eerie musical atmosphere of the band can also be heard very clearly in the song "Hollow Hills" (the first one I ever heard by the band and immediately fell in love with). Especially the live version from Press the Eject... recording, where the distorted guitars soar almost out of tune like a screeching banshee.

Anyway, this is what has more or less possessed my ears and mind for the last couple of days, repeatedly. And I just wanted to share the wondrous sounds and atmospheres.

Wednesday, 1 July 2009

The King Is Dead, Long Live the King!

So, Michael Jackson is dead. 50 years old, well a few months short of 51 really. And my reaction... is mixed to say the least. But most of all, I cannot seem to shake off the inherent irony involved in the passing of this particular pop icon.

Don't get me wrong, Michael Jackson has really had an impact on my life. I think my entrance point was really in 1987, when Bad hit the market. I'd probably heard "Thriller" and possibly some other song before that point, but Bad was the tape I bought (as a kid I had a tape copy of Thriller, though I think I actually got that after having bought Bad). Still, those two albums, and later Dangerous, did have an impact on me. The music was good. The performance aspect, which sadly I only ever got to see in videos, was absolutely amazing – what a dancer!

I went through most of secondary high school with a hat which I was given by a friend's mother after having borrowed it for a silly Jackson impersonation while preparing for a party. And that hat meant a lot to me over the years (the tattered remains still lie on a shelf), so... obviously an impact in many ways. But I digress.

Jackson's music is really good pop music. As an adult I've bought the three above mentioned albums on CD, as well as Off the Wall, which I clearly missed out on in my younger years. For anyone genuinely interested in the pop music genre, Jackson is a must. He's carved out a space for himself and in his lifetime reached the status of icon. To be sure a status that was helped along by his weird behaviour in many aspects of his life; his best friend being a chimp, his sleeping in a plastic oxygen tent, the never-ending surgeries, the move from being black towards being whiter and whiter (which quite frankly provided quite an irony by the time he wrote and released "Black or White"). Yet he was an icon and the title King of Pop was truly his, even though his star was clearly and undeniably descending in later years.

Then, of course, there are the many, many, many accusations of his being a paedophile. Now, I'm no fan of paedophiles to put it mildly, but I do think his case is problematic. First of all because, if it's true, it strikes me that too many people have been bought off too easily over the years. I mean anyone who is prepared to take a huge lump of money from a sexual predator who has molested their child and then let said predator go free and move on to new prey... well simply put, such parents aren't much worth a damn in terms of parents or human beings in my opinion. They would in fact be a crude part of the problem.

And if they aren't that, then that would mean they're just rumour mongers and crude blackmailers not even necessarily dealing in uncomfortable truths so much as tossing a lot of crap around.

I honestly don't know which version is the truth, but I will say this much: While it wouldn't surprise me if Jackson was at least guilty to some of the cases he was accused of, I don't think he'd be easily classified as a simple sexual predator. In all honesty, he always came across as something of a big child himself. In some sense, he was a perpetual, real life Peter Pan, trapped in his own lost childhood which he never really ever got to have.

Let's remember that he started out as a very young performer and his life seemed to be a constant and continuous attempt at reclaiming that lost childhood. As such, I'd venture as far as an hypothesis that he may well have committed some of the actions he's been accused of, without necessarily falling into the "type A" category paedophile, but rather something perhaps more harshly akin to somebody who due to mental deficiencies never truly reach adulthood or adult reasoning. Don't get me wrong, I'm neither suggesting that Jackson was "slow" in any mentally handicapped manner nor that any such deeds committed by him would be excused by what I'm suggesting. It's rather a notion of perhaps considering the potentially cautionary tale at hand.

At any rate, I doubt we'll ever fully know the truth of what he did or didn't do anyway. What we're left with is the passing of an icon, the King of Pop, and that in itself is worthy of consideration. Because he didn't gain that status for nothing. He did something to earn it. He made music that has lasted to this day. He performed in manners that have influenced many performers after him. And he most certainly had an impact on the burgeoning medium of the music video back in the 80s. Jackson's videos pushed at the boundaries of that art form, just like others of his peers of that time (e.g. Bowie and Gabriel), with tremendous results.

Yet at the end of this eulogy (because it is a eulogy of sorts), I find myself nevertheless back at the inherent irony in the passing of this icon and everlasting child. Jackson spent an enormous amount of time and money, not to mention engaged in some weird and bizarre practices, trying to chase down, if not immortality then at least longevity. This was the reasoning behind his sleeping in an oxygen tent and constantly wearing gloves and a face mask. The irony I'm referring to is, of course, then that Jackson died at such a tender age. Not merely the everlastingly childlike Peter Pan, but a man not quite 51 years old. That is not longevity by any means, and that is ironic.

All this being said, however... There is another sense of longevity; a sense of which the bards have sung down the centuries. This sense may be best summarised in the Latin saying "Ars longa, vita brevis" (which roughly translates as "Art is lasting, life is short"). And in this sense, I believe, Michael Jackson has earned his longevity.