Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Weave Out The Fiction...

Clockwork Angels (The Novel), by Kevin J. Anderson
Clockwork Angels (The Album), by Rush

I am not not much the fanboy type, but there are any number of things I've come to like enough where you'd call me a fan. I have a few buy-on-sight authors, online and offline haunts, and if the running soundtrack to my life is (as every listener likes to pretend) somewhat open-minded, it actually ends up a little insular in practice, because I have always developed music tastes slowly, and because it's hard to break through and warp my mind to the state of fandom. But it happens, even to a special little flower like me. My theory is that it starts with a song that's good enough to listen to more than twice. To get me, there's something in there which rewards those extra listens, something I get itchy to explain maybe (it is often a question of why it fits a particular mood so well, and so much of favorite my theme music contains a very specific association, which can make it hard to ever talk about with anyone else), or to figure out how it's getting what it's getting right, maybe I can uncover more of the underlying trick, or, since my music appreciation skills are so minimal, find myself forever puzzling over the same parts. Enough of this kind of investment, and it gets comfortable enough to reside pleasingly at some appointed spot in my life, and the next CD gets an automatic listen too. That's when I become a fan.

So. Rush. They made it to soundtrack level back when I was a college kid, and if I've shifted away from heavy fandom, I can't deny it's brought me pleasure over the years, and I can't wait to see them in a couple weeks. In my freshman year, I distinctly remember a constant duel down the corridors of Crockett Hall between one kid who blasted his Rush CDs, and another who cranked back slightly more eclectic stuff--Nine Inch Nails, The Black Crowes, Living Colour--from the other end. I'd heard exactly none of it before, but it was the first guy that was my friend at the time, and before long I knew a bunch of other kids who were fans of the band too, and that's what got me through those off-putting vocals* into second- and third-listen territory. I liked the interplay between the instruments, how the bass carried a lot of melody, how the guitar-playing was amorphous and textural, but still filled in all the space it needed to (like nougat!), and how the beats were hard to follow but still got my feet tapping. I liked some of the themes.** I've painted the picture a handful of times by now, and my group of nerds was no more like the creepy little Objectivist retards of popular imagination than we were like the Cool Kids (who in 1990, let's point out, often enough had that chucklehead from two posts down featured on their mix tapes). And it is funny to see the band rise to sudden mainstream acclaim, pretty much just this year--garnering kind words from dozens of younger and now-established artists and writers, who act as though they're coming out, and they've even been nominated to the pointless Rock and Roll Hall of Fame--after almost four decades of critical unlove from the establishment that turned their fans into fanboys, and makes me, even now, itch to asterisk the living fuck out of this blog post.***

This is a book review, by the way, and all the buildup really does has a point. Clockwork Angels is a novelization of the album of the same name. The music itself is good: very riff-heavy, with a lot of precisely picked notes (maybe a departure from their older styles), heavy blocks of sound, simple verse-and-chorus structure (but don't ask me about the progressions, which to this tin ear seem random sometimes), and plenty of room for instrumental breaks. The songs which are more fully composed sound a lot better, and they do a nice job with their more thoughtful tracks. (I like The Wreckers as the best all-around song. Seven Cities of Gold is very rock-ish, and it drives.) You get bits and pieces of sounds that would fit into their last several albums, but the whole things sounds less Rush-like than usual. They claim to have been inspired to tell a story in a steampunk setting, and there is, as mentioned, a lot of precise timing going through it, although I'm surprised that Neil didn't get a lot more tickity-tock sounds in the drumming, even if they did sometimes gather up some worthwhile huffs and wheezes to fill up the background space.

If you read the footnotes, you may gather that Neil Peart is happy to read all manner of literary books, and he's not terribly shy about peddling their influences. This can be a good thing or not, depending on the original material and what he gets from it. Xanadu, for an old example, is an decent atmospheric song, but it's pretty embarrassing to stack up those lyrics against the Coleridge poem that inspired it, which is famous for a reason. The arc of Clockwork Angels roughly channels Candide, and it works well so long as the young optimist is treated as an archetype, venturing naively or discovering the real-world price for it, but it suffers when the comparison gets too specific. The Garden is a lovely song, but it has the same problem that Xanadu does, that it overexplains and overextends a line that was originally great for its subtlety and nuance.

When my kids were younger, we had a pile of these terrible Disney-licensed books that they always wanted me to read, short "chapter books" versions of the cartoon movies. Really painful stuff.  I always imagined that they were written by underpaid temps who stopped self-editing as soon as they hit the word count. They were crappy knockoffs of the original films, which were in turn, more often than not, uneven**** knockoffs of famous literature.

You can probably see where I'm going with this.

Clockwork Angels the novel... there just isn't a whole lot there for me to review. It's as though Kevin Anderson tacked together the points of the songs with just enough verbage to cobble up the continuity necessary for a plot and setting, and not more than that. There's very little added depth--not enough character, and not enough world--not much more than stretched over the skeleton. It could have been an entertaining fantasy in the escapist tradition (and maybe it doesn't help that I just read a brilliantly written fantasy about an optimistic young kid who grew up in a weird clockwork society, that had parallel universes and everything), and given that it's fluffed up with a bunch of the compelling album artwork, it could have inspired a real kickass graphic novel, and it's a damn shame that they didn't go this way instead, because the scope would have much better fit. Maybe it was written to a younger audience, but I have to think people who'd be buying the book are well into their forties by now. Probably it was nothing more than a vanity project.  I will say, positively, that Anderson and Peart did seem to enjoy the idea of writing this thing, and that does come through a little bit in the text. The most entertaining reading experience was uncovering a bunch of Rush lyrics that got slipped in here and there (and if Anderson is quoting less-impressive songs like Countdown, then he's doing okay by me on the nerd spectrum).

Well, I suppose I didn't have high expectations, and I've been off my reading game lately anyway, so it was a good time to pick this one up. No more books cowritten by rock stars for me though.

*Yes, it's true that poor Geddy Lee sounded like he was shrieking through an autotuner a full quarter-century before the technology was even invented. I will argue that he's perfectly pleasant-sounding when he controls himself a little more, and even the wailing works fine when there's an appropriate spot in the song for it. And hey, if we weren't supposed to laugh at Robert Plant's emasculated moaning all those years--and that was basically Lee's starting point--then I don't see how we get to pick on this guy.

**The first two tracks of Signals were the ones blasted down the hall, and I picked up the albums Moving Pictures, A Farewell to Kings, and, when it came out, Roll the Bones over the next year. The themes from those selections, the ones that moved me, can be summarized as, "life is complicated but beautiful," "freedom is awesome when you're a kid," "compassion and understanding are important," and "authority is easily abused," which are by far the most common ones for the rest of their work too.

I bring this up because I already know what you're thinking. Yeah, "the genius of Ayn Rand" did get written into the liner notes of 2112, embarrassingly. Songwriter Neil Peart got rather impressed with the novella Anthem when he was 20 years old, but in his defense, (a) unlike all too many people who came across that dreck in their formative years, he by all evidence outgrew it before very long, and says as much when asked, (b) he gets caught up in left-wing literature (i.e., the entire rest of it) just as easily, and he pretty much comes to the same places with it, which (c) in the case of Rand, the parts of her "philosophy" that actually got into his lyrics, even back then, were much more an expression of individualism than the smug fuck-you-I-got-mine selfishness that the desiccated and sadly unforgotten hag foisted on the world. 

A reader or two may remember this happening, but getting into an argument with an Objectivist retard who did fit the fanboy stereotype was pretty much what convinced me it was time to walk away from the Slate Fray for good.  I spent two weeks (that I'll never get back) refuting his free market wackjobbery entirely using quotes from Rush. 

Peart is not completely forgiven--he projects a certain kind of humorless and instrospective self-regard that seems to require the other two guys to break up--but there's plenty enough good in there to enjoy, and I happened to stick around long enough to learn how to acquire the taste. The title of this post, in fact, comes from one of my all-time favorite lines in rock music, that he wrote. And I should say too, that for such successful people, and keeping in mind that I don't actually know them, all three band members seem like utterly decent human beings.  Those damn Canadians.


****Oh come on, we all hate The Mouse, but they do have their moments, and I was forced for a few years to become a connossieur of these things. I think the Mad Hatter scene in the Alice movie was brilliant, for one example.


UPDATE!  They played Boston on Wednesday, and it was badass.  They just jammed it out, lots of solos and long intros.  Before they got into the new material, they played a lot of tunes from the mid-eighties--maybe not their best period--but even least-favorite songs like Territories sounded pretty impressive live.  They still played the synth parts, but those songs sounded more guitar-heavy, which helped a great deal.  They noted that The Analog Kid (one of my all-time favorite songs) isn't remotely a kid anymore.

I bought two tickets, thinking I could drag a friend along, but I ended up going with my 15-year-old daughter instead.  Her comments: "those guys look pretty old, but oh my god, they're really playing the living crap out of the guitar and the drums."  She also opined that the vocals were getting a little Steve Tyler-ish by the end, and I think Geddy was pushing it by then too, but he did just fine for the first three quarters of the show. 

As for me, the live show was great.  They worked out the songs from Clockwork Angels a good deal better than they had on the album.  Neil's third solo used electronic percussion to generate those steampunk sounds I thought were wanting, and I think he's improvising these days too.  The videos and shorts were well enough done to support the "graphic novel" theory (instead of a blowoff novelization that sucked), and a shame, it was.  They had a string section for the second set, maybe ten cellists and fiddlers, and unlike any other time I've seen that with rock music, (a) it wasn't gimmicky, (b) they were really into it, and got visibly tired out well before the 60-year-old headline band did, and (c) it worked very well to smooth out the sound, and make the whole thing seem more intended.  If the progressions hadn't always lead me around where I thought made sense, the strings filled in those gaps, and one thing I've gathered from bluegrass is that long, drawn notes are often a good counterpoint to those fast finger-twisters.  It felt like the sharp edges were filed off.

Good times.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Great Argument! Uh, Except For That One Thing...

The Self-Destruction of the 1% by Chrystia Freeland, NYT Magazine

Oh, she has the right thesis.  Categorizing states as more or less extractive is a logical framework, and it's almost obvious to say that those which are less so, countries which have more opportunities for wealth, are more egalitarian and will have more dynamic economies, whereas those in which only a small group is allowed to get paid, those will do worse. Freeland calls out America's plutocracy as (a) extant, thanks to the concentration of power that goes with the concentration of wealth (i.e., they get to advocate for their benefit much more effectively) and (b) not especially good for the rest of the country (our social mobility is worse than socialist Europe's), and it's good to see something like this break through into mainstream reading. About time, in fact.  But it's a very frustrating article, and it cops out on arguing some of the major points. I wonder if she knows Tom Friedman.

1. In the light of population pressures, land overuse, climate change, and approaching resource pressures, I don't think "growth" is the success metric that the human race needs going forward. And I am highly ambivalent about growth when it comes to the economy of scale vs. the barbarity of scale. (I dunno, maybe you've read my blog?)

Clearly what Freeland is trying to do is present an impartial argument--that cornering wealth goes against the ultimate self-interest of the wealthy--and okay, it's true, kinda sorta, when taking a generalized view of the wealthy.  For individual families, maybe their behavior is not so irrational as all that: even if a more egalitarian economy did create more expansion, the future wealthy might very well be other people.  I am sure that it's fun to believe that you perch at the top of the pyramid by virtue of your sheer awesomeness, but who really wants to put it to the test? 

It's a subjective argument that's trying to masquerade as an analytical one. (And isn't this always the case with economics?) But if you made a straight-up moral case for a better distribution of opportunity, then you're accused of being hopelessly naive or something.

2a. I can't speak to her history of Venice, but I'm given pause, remembering my Machiavelli, that there were no doubt corroborating factors that contributed to its decline among the other Italian city-states. They did fight each other pretty much constantly for a couple hundred years, and supported a variety of governmental models.  The publication of the Golden Book was certainly repulsive (a moral case!), but did the Serrata lead to the relative decline of Venice (instead of just being evil on its own merits)? Maybe, but I do recall that ascending Florence was explicitly run by a banking cartel.

2b. I can speak a little bit more to American history, and this article has a gigantic flaming you-must-be-shitting-me moment at the very core of its argument.

In the early 19th century, the United States was one of the most egalitarian societies on the planet. “We have no paupers,” Thomas Jefferson boasted in an 1814 letter. “The great mass of our population is of laborers; our rich, who can live without labor, either manual or professional, being few, and of moderate wealth. Most of the laboring class possess property, cultivate their own lands, have families, and from the demand for their labor are enabled to exact from the rich and the competent such prices as enable them to be fed abundantly, clothed above mere decency, to labor moderately and raise their families.”
For Jefferson, this equality was at the heart of American exceptionalism: “Can any condition of society be more desirable than this?”
Is she fucking serious? I mean, we understand that Mr. Jefferson was a man of his times, and we tend to excuse a great deal of his business life out of respect for the rational principles he argued in other spheres. But this is a bad time to go here.

It's true that the laboring class in 18th century Virginia were not paupers. They were in even worse shape. Jefferson, sadly, had a difficult time seeing them as part of "our" population.

2c. Freeland follows with "[t]that all changed with industrialization." Well, that and a bloody civil war.

By the time we get from the 1860s to Roosevelt's 1932, we not only had an industrial revolution, but also a new population, this one of immigrants, getting ground into the gears to serve it. FDR may have warned in 1932 against the robber barons (which Freeland says "America may have needed"), but like the world of the Medicis, I don't think there's a simple argument that they stoppered growth. The building of the railroads, for example, was not precisely competitive and entrepreneurial. I agree that epic inequality made the expansion rockier and nastier, and may have limited it eventually, with too much investment money trying to capitalize on not enough demand.

More to the point, between 1865 and 1932, the labor force was getting agitated about being so expendable. It fills up the literature of the day, and it led to revolutions worldwide. Ongoing labor unrest at a time when the costs of inequality were salient: that fire lit under FDR's ass went far toward getting the benefits and the opportunities spread around.

3. Also, it's not always good to entertain an opposing "reasonable" viewpoint just for the sake of doing so.
In his recent book on the white working class, the libertarian writer Charles Murray blames the hollowed-out middle for straying from the traditional family values and old-fashioned work ethic that he says prevail among the rich (whom he castigates, but only for allowing cultural relativism to prevail). There is some truth in [that argument].
Old-fashioned work ethic and family values? Yeah, that must have been what kept the laboring class from getting ahead in Jefferson's time.

[Charles Murray is not a go-to person to cite as a thoughtful opponent.  He's the creep who wrote The Bell Curve, that faux-intellectual justification for racism, which should be enough to remove the obligation to entertain any of his demographic arguments ever.]


It's too bad, because Freeland comes, I think, to the right conclusion. Inequality is wrong, and the current economic and political climate is making it worse. But she takes a full libertoonian account of history to get to that point. Even with my comic-book level of understanding, I'm kind of embarrassed to read this stuff.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Word To Your Mother

Posited: Paul Ryan is to serious political thought as Vanilla Ice is to serious music.

Stop.  Collaborate and listen....

And no, I don't really support the tactic of making fun of people for looking silly in pictures, but man, it's different when you pose, and Paul Ryan is a tremendous poseur.  Here is a man who chose to release this image because he thought he looked badass, with his hat on backwards like that, and those buff calves.  Deadly, no doubt, when he hears that dope melody.  If there was a problem, yo he'll solve it.  Kick it.

I am embarrassed for my generation.

Monday, October 08, 2012

Public vs. Private

Megan McArdle has again written a post, which is not remarkable in itself, other than the fact that I happened to read it days before I came across the deconstruction her writing always begs for.  McArdle is the sort of glib believer who's impervious to being called on her own bullshit, and it makes for an entertaining regular feature on various liberal blogs. Here's Susan of Texas really doing a marvelous job taking this latest one apart. The original piece is a criticism of the president's lack of private-sector work experience (which Megan claims isn't even important, but then tells you in the subsequent 2500 words why she thinks it is).

There's conflation and obfuscation abounding everywhere in Meg's piece, but what really got me about it--and I don't know how I managed to be surprised--is her insular definition of "working," what she thinks people in the private sector actually do, even what small business holders or hopeful entrepreneurs do.  In her view, the working world is entirely composed of management, networking, and office drama--it's "business" as a labor category that she's constantly returning to. We understand that this is the employment exposure that she's had and all, but still, businesses can be in the business of making things, developing things, and performing tasks, and those vital parts of enterprise don't enter a whit into her understanding of practical work experience. No labor theory of value for her.

It's a small universe for Jane Galt. The alternative she sees to corporate work is consulting. The opposite of business work that she understands is government. But man, the color of my collar's only a little off-white, but even from here, it's pretty damn hard to spot much of a gap between a career manager and a career bureaucrat. (People who have actually worked for a living tend to be at least occasionally aware that a lifetime of wearing a necktie can choke off the brain if you're not careful.) When comparing jobs at the same level (which, as Susan notes, Megan doesn't), the tasks are really similar, with a related emphasis on relationships, favors, paperwork, organization, and the necessity of looking at humans as resources. That's the actual argument for why a job in management is in any way relevant to one in politics, and you'd think that even a dink like McArdle would have put one that together by now.

Not that aren't differences between the public and private sectors, it just doesn't lie so much in the skill set. The real difference between corporate and government bureaucrats, of course, is what those various organizations they serve are trying to actually accomplish, and how they are treated publicly. When I think of the "increasingly mandarin elite, hygenically removed" from the little people,* my mind doesn't race straight to the hallowed academic halls, but more toward favored and fat sectors of the economy: finance, for starters.

If you're a private sector manager, certain lies can be afforded with a fair bit less contradiction from your industry or objection from the media. And if you're in the big game, you can more or less vote to give yourself a much nicer slice of the pie. I'm not a big believer in the claims of authority, corporate or otherwise, and I've been asking myself for years if the stories we tell really matter in the face of what people actually do, but for god's sake, explicitly tasking the powers that be with administering public welfare on our behalf has got to be a better narrative for the species than explicitly praising them for taking as much loot as they can say with a straight face that they deserve.

I know, I know, it's Megan McArdle, and what do you expect. Honesty about the comparison dispels the illusion that corporate types are doing something magically superior to anyone else who wears a suit, and that would be way less lucrative for her (and for them). It must be what they teach you in MBA school.

*Though to be fair, banks of sufficient size, insurers, and military contractors do in fact grub constantly for customers, which is how she went and finished that statement. It just involves more lobbying and coersion. I think I have her pegged on her context however.