Asylum Walls

Today I had to go to Ealing Hospital to get some blood work done.  The hospital is huge, and I don’t think there is a more dire looking place in all of London.  It’s a concrete mass with all pedestrian entrances hidden amongst abulance ramps. It seems made of perpetually rain-wet, pebbly cinderblocks.  In back of that there’s an old 19th century pauper’s asylum backed up against the canal– it was at one time the largest asylum in the world.  The wall separating the asylum from the canal contained an entrance which has been bricked up, and that segment of the wall is a stone’s throw from my house.  The asylum is now run by the West London Mental Health Trust and my partner does assessments there.

The place has the agitated grimness that comes from trapped ghosts.  (I am not the only person who sees this, no doubt– the place has inspired a LiveJournal  fiction community and fake wiki page complete with a TB outbreak and a serial killer hide-out).

In 2008 the Hospital was rated the “Worst Hospital in England” based on patients’ ratings, which makes sense now that I’ve been inside its grim, seemingly windowless maze.

The pathology room has a number system, like a deli.  Multiple numbers are called at once and there’s a rush on the phlebotomists, who are all parked in a little room– ladies with needles making chit chat or glowering.  I always remind myself that even though I live in London, I still have time to be polite and thoughtful, to make room for the aged.  You’d think I would have learned by now: elbowed out of the way be pensioners who had the numbers after mine, I was told to wait outside, and then scolded for not coming up when my number was called.  I realized too late why the one pensioner had pushed me out of the way– she got the friendly one.  If I left the room I would never be called, so I stood there stupidly, as if I didn’t understand what was said to me.  Brazen obliviousness– I’ve used it on more than one occasion.  Eventually one of the mechanistic needle-weilders took me.

I didn’t feel a thing.

Happy Christmas, Dearest Reader

Christmas in London is a serious affair simply because everything closes. No tube, no buses. No shops or restaurants. The bustling, crowded city turns into a kind of ghost town. Other Americans have said to me, “I always dreamed of a London Christmas” and I’ve often wondered what exactly they meant– surely not the apocalyptic stillness I’ve encountered, having no one to see and no where to go on that day.

There is the argument that Dickens invented Christmas. Perhaps these Americans are thinking of A Christmas Carol— ragmuffins in the snow, conscience-pricking ghosts? Or is it something quaint, mulled and jolly– a received protestant memory? I suppose it’s where the archaic “Merry” comes from in the American “Merry Christmas”– this throwback of an idea. London is the Victorian city celebrating in ye olde stylie. Except it’s not. The only truth in these fantasies is that London at Christmas is a heap of juxtapositions, and maybe that’s why it’s amazing. It’s the one time of year you might have a Londoner smile at you for no reason, and that shopkeeper who you’ve seen twice weekly for years now might just let on that he remembers you. Of course, after the New Year things go back to brisk, slightly hostile anonymity.

Yule has always been my favourite time of year. I love the long nights and in London the nights are even longer. It’s harder to forget the pagan roots of the holiday– the lights and decorations are consolation in the darkness and the bitter cold. There’s less “Happy Birthday Jesus” and more puddings, ales, mistletoe and holly.

It’s easier to avoid the consumer cataclysm in London. I’m sure it exists on Oxford Street, the King’s Road and Carnaby Street, but if you don’t go there you don’t have to deal with it. If you do have to go to a store you’re more likely to hear a bizarre (to my American ears anyway), new-wave take on Christmas: Wham, Band Aid or even the Plastic Ono Band and Wizzard instead of the same schmaltz you’d hear in American retail establishments. Less Chipmunks and more Fairytale of New York.

And there’s something modest about the celebrations. As far as I can tell the big festivity here is the office party, and barring that, the coach ride to see relatives. Last night I was at our local pub and there was a table of celebrants having roast dinner. They all wore paper crowns (save two killjoys who took themselves too seriously. I believe you can judge the character of a person based on whether they are willing to wear the paper crown.). They read each other the stupid jokes out of the crackers which they pulled with childish glee, even though the lot were middle aged.

But there is the bizarro mirror, of course– being an expat here I see the British indulge in a Yank-style Christmas with I kind of sardonic guilt– it’s full on Hollywood romantic comedy, credits rolling over Louis Armstrongs’ It’s a Wonderful World. (The film Love, Actually kind of sums up this adaptation in a horrifying way.) Today two Radio 6 DJ’s I love to hate– Russel and John– played christmas music as they got drunk on cider and rose petal vodka this morning. And they played typical Yank Christmas songs, snarking all the way but still loving it, probably because they were opening gifts that contained even more alcohol. Damn if I didn’t get all warm and fuzzy, too. Especially when they played the atypical Ramone’s Merry Christmas, I Don’t Want to Fight Tonight. *sniffle*

But then, this time of year, almost anything sets me off, a song, a string of lights, a commercial for an ipod, even.

So today, after listening to Christina’s brilliant Xmas song, Things Fall Apart, I went for an astringent walk down the canal near my flat– frost-speckled webs drawn across the skeletal vegetation, only the thorns were left clinging to the frozen bank. The fog was so thick and ghostly, it blanked everything out– every tinselled sentimentality.

Too Close to Home

Shovlin Last Resort

Shovlin’s “The Last Resort/The Black Room” acrylic on canvas.

America– and particularly the post-Sixties pop culture of the American west coast– is the tint that colours everything. Here is a hall of mirrors. Look back at 1980’s suburban England…and you find strange reflections of Woodstock and Altamont, the Sunset Strip and the American Dream…

–Ben Tufnell in the Introduction to A Dream Deferred.

On certain occasions culture shock can take the form of Chinese boxes– an other looks at the otherness of another looking at the familiar in some other place. And this was the feeling I had looking at Jamie Shovlin’s A Dream Deferred at the Haunch of Venison.

I had a similar feeling when I saw a window display in a Primark which featured tee shirts that said “Sunset Beach Summer Camp,” “Seal Beach Sports Club” and “Humbolt Surf Team” (ok, I made that last one up, but you get the idea). Basically, the place I come from is marketed here as a fantastical, semi-ironic holiday destination.

Before seeing this show I was unfamiliar with Shovlin’s work and understood him to be a sort of young, art world prankster. While he was nappy-clad, crawling around in suburban England I was riding my bike around suburban Chicagoland, blasting AM radio playing most of the “classic rock” he riffs on in the current show. I begrudgingly grant him his nostalgia, simply because I would like someone to do the same for me, should the situation arise that I become, say, melancholy about France in May of ’68.


Shovlin’s “The Flag on High!” enamel on unprimed canvas.

I admire this play on the Op Art movement of the 60s, coupled with a nod to the sacred maze, superimposed over an Eagles album cover. This was the first album I ever owned, and this fact makes me terminally uncool. I saved up my change, and I remember walking into the record store in my clogs and hand-me-down rayon office lady shirt and laying down sweaty bills to buy it. The guy behind the counter frowned at me and even then I knew myself to be a rock-and-roll failure. But for a year or two this record gave me a solitary joy, which is all a suburban girl can ask of her vinyl.

I guess this is what troubled me about the show– I sensed nothing of Shovlin in it. It was as if he were yearning for other people’s memories. Even the title– A Dream Deferred– borrowed from Langston Hughes, is a kind of second hand bitterness. In America one would not “sample” Hughes and ignore race, but here it’s acceptable?  Reviews of the show and the eloquent introduction by Ben Tufnell seem to paint it as some kind of elegiac gesture for the Death of Hippie– not unlike the well loved film Withnail and I. To be honest I don’t see it.

And I don’t see the British gaze or context. Maybe I’m just too close to this material, too literal and possessive about it all.

Or maybe there just wasn’t enough there– I was most interested in the giant album cover paintings, and I wanted rooms full of them, in a kind of Christian-Marclay-esque, record geek fun house. I wanted them to reveal something, or perhaps start some dialog with the boomer generation, the children of the sixties, many of whom are still alive and well and who blew it– all that revolutionary potential– big time. To quote Hawkwind, “we’ve used up all of our magic powers trying to do it in the road.”

And the hangover gave us the grand cheeze of classic rock. I found the Foreigner album cover rendered in pine tar and terpentine entitled “At Home Abroad” to be particularly pithy in this regard. And strangely relevant to my own nostalgia for British hippiedom. (I did just quote Hawkwind, didn’t I?)

Only in “A Ghost is Born”, the hand-drawn reproduction of Abby Hoffman’s obituary, is there any sense of personal longing. Or maybe I’m projecting again. After all, Hoffman described himself as an “orphan of America” and this is a feeling I know well.

Nearer the Record Bin of History

I met my husband in a used record store where he worked on Hollywood Boulevard. That store isn’t there anymore.

In high school I used to go to a record store regularly with my first real crush. We would drive out to some other suburb and pour over the bins in this little red-walled hole. I could only afford maybe one record at each visit, so it had to be the right one. I picked out things like The Smiths, which disappointed my friend. He took pity on me and made me mixed tapes. But a record never really made me cool. It was such a luxury, an object I could bond with. I’m sure that little shop in the badlands of the Chicago suburbs is gone now, too.

I’ll admit I was spoiled by the grand Ameoba Music store in San Francisco and Los Angeles. (Where the guy at the electronic counter would actually set things aside for me like Hecate and Ove-Naxx with a secretive glee– no one in London would ever break out of their numb-cool pose to do that.)

Shopping for music in London is shit. The Virgin Megastore is this tourist hell of eviscerated top-down marketing. The Oxford Street HMV cavern broadcasts billboard-sized videos of the geriatric Stones flailing around silently, overlayed by the most recent Justin Timberlake or Gwen Stefani or what have you. All the employees have to wear shirts that say “HERE TO HELP” in giant pink letters and every one of them is soured by this lack of dignity, spending a lot of time sculpting their hair so they can at least look indie-vidual on top. Looking at the displays, where everything’s a “bargain”, you feel like all of London is listening to the same five records and you can’t even blame the radio now– people are actively subscribing to the monoculture.

And there’s Sister Ray in Soho– sad, sad, sad. I’ve gone in there asking for things and always get the same vague sneer. I mean, how dare they when really their store only offers things like the Pixies back catalogue and Baby Shambles tee shirts. Like a fucking bargain basement of indiesease. No Metric? No Frog Eyes? Not even any Sons and Daughters? What’s wrong with you, Sister Ray?

There was Fopp, which I loved (for Americans, it had a bit of the early 90’s Tower Records wacky stock about it), even if it was hunt and peck, outside of Rough Trade it was the best London had. As of a few weeks ago, it is gone, every store. (The one Cambridge Circus location will reopen in name only, owned now by HMV.)

Economic analysts are blaming music downloads for these closures, but I’m not buying it entirely. (From Fopp’s now-dead website: “Our store chain is profitable, well regarded and loved by our loyal customers and staff. However we have failed to gain the necessary support from major stakeholders, suppliers and their credit insurers to generate sufficient working capital to run our expanding business.”) Blame boredom and greed– a handful of corporate culture-makers saturating everything with their own perverse choices, categorizing cultural production into demographic consumables.

I looked at the squawking image of Mick Jagger dwarfing me in HMV and thought yeah– Jack-the-Lad 60’s boomers– you’ve done it, clinging to your now-linty cool-points, you own everything. My generation has had to invent itself in their shadow. I had my day, my secret joy of dusty-record-bin discovery. At least I know it’s over. In “Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung” Lester Bangs writes about buying a new record:

...The real story is rushing home to hear the apocalypse erupt, falling through the front door and slashing open the plastic sealing “for your protection,” taking the record out– ah, lookit them grooves, all jet black without a smudge yet, shiny and new and so fucking pristine, then the color of the label, does it glow with auras that’ll make subtle comment on the sounds coming out, or is it just flat utilitarian monochromatic surface, like a schoolhouse wall…And finally you get to put the record on the turntable, it spins in limbo a perfect second, followed by the moment of truth, needle into groove, and finally sound…

I won’t say I don’t miss it.

Hounslow Homegirl Does it Again

M.I.A.’s new video Boyz. She tried to get “every dancer with a name in Jamaica” in the video. I love her– her music, her 80’s radioactive tropicalismo aesthetic, everything. When I hear her music I think, that’s a London I love– screw the estate agent buckle-down, the “white girl respect your race” knuckleheads on the bus. Somewhere in her music I hear new London’s marching orders, burning up every St. George flag into a day-glo pixel kaleidescope.

Them Be the Bells of Bow, Yo.

There’s this song that’s still at number two here in the charts and it sums up everything I hate about British pop music right now. They play it all the time on BBC 6 and now it’s stuck in my head. Kate Nash’s Foundations— OK, so she’s cute– much cuter than Lily Allen whose tough-girl pose is really tedious. Even the guy in the video is cute. The sock fight– nauseatingly cute.

If you want to see the video, go here as none of the YouTube links work. (To watch the video on her oh-so-quirky-cute site you have to give up an email, name and phone number and even an address I think. INSANE. but let’s move on.)

Nash’s song is better than any I have heard from Allen but she’s basically an Allen clone. She’s taken Allen’s game and bettered it for the 20-something-new-mortgage-from-daddy demographic, whereas Lily Allen was aimed at teenage girls who don’t remember white reggae from the first time around in the 80’s. Nash’s demographic actually has some money to spend, so, even though she’s a MySpace success story, maybe the A&R people are honing their game.

On the web many sites claim Allen and Nash are Cockney and that’s just rubbish. Neither were born within the sound of Bows Bells, if we’re going to get purist about it. Nash is from Rickmansworth, a north west suburb of London. And Allen was born in West London to a film producer an actor. I would like to say that accent is put on for the American market, but their songs are hits here.

It can only mean that Brits want to see themselves in a certain way– a juxtaposition of worldly wit and (pastoral throwback?) innocence with a sprinkling of East End grit (More akin to Dick Van Dyke tap dancing than any pearly king). The fashion for faux Cockney accents is a sure sign that it no longer refers to a specific people and culture, but a fiction. Kind of like in the current popular imagination, pirates are no longer sailors who raped and robbed people but ragamuffin swashbucklers with sexy eye makeup.

But it does seem the best way to be a pop star in Britain these days is to pretend you are Cockney. (though this can work even if you are a duo from Detroit) white stripes

It’s ironic. The East End, now totally gentrified, has become the bastion of the trendy, edgy and wealthy few who have pushed out the poor there so what remains is a mythology.

Something’s dead, gone, changed in London, even if there’s no real pointing to the Cockney mask per se, which Peter Watts refers to as “Mockey”. Hence the weird theme of nostalgia that crops up in so much white British hip hop. There are many examples but I’m thinking of Lady Sovereign’s “Those Were the Days.” where she’s wistful about her days growing up on the Chalkhill estate. Unlike the others I mention above, she actually did grow up on an estate, even if it was also in the west.

It becomes even more poignant when you realize she she’d be priced out of London if she weren’t a pop star.

And here Jamie T’s “Sheila” featuring the actor Bob Hoskins who is famous for playing Cockneys among other things. Here he is lipsynching the song with his scary white teeth. This is actually one of the worst videos I’ve seen in a really long time and it pretty much ruined the song for me.

And, though it’s not hip hop, I love Pulp’s nostalgic “Mile End” It’s old at this point, and recontexualized in Danny Boyle’s brilliant Trainspotting. I have no idea if what the song refers to was closer to reality than the faux-grit on the charts now. I have heard that it is about Jarvis Cocker’s first “home” in London, but I’m sure it too is creating a myth of a gritty London up for grabs, a London for anyone. (Not just a city of estate agents and property-ladder climbers, but anyone who could find a vacant corner, anyone who could live low rent — make art or music or write. Anyone who could tend to the city’s soul, but I digress.) In a lot of ways the city of this song, or the vision of London in Kureshi’s London Kills Me or even the parallel vision of Edinburgh in Trainspotting is more hopeful than this London I live in now that is doing so “well” if you believe the hype, a London that’s polished and primed, the richest city in the world, full of high street chains.

Now there are headlines about interest rates closing out first time buyers from the “property ladder.” But all this talk of building new homes on brown sites is too little too late. We didn’t have no where to live, / we didn’t have nowhere to go / til someone said /I know this place off Burditt road…

This new hegemony of the estate agent has made me wistful for squats. Maybe I should work on my Cockney accent and write a pop song about it.

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot

It hurts me to post this, but here you go:

Eugene Hutz and and Sergey Ryabtsev backing up Madonna doing the traditional Romany song Lela Pala Tute to the tune of La Isla Bonita at the bogus Live Earth performance at Wembley Arena:

Hell has frozen over.

I am a fan of Gogol Bordello, and I admit to adoring Eugene Hutz more than a grown woman should. I saw them live before they got big, and it was the best live show I’d ever seen. The band created a rare and transcendent temporary autonomous zone that I will never forget. Hey, I guess Hakim Bey says they’re temporary for a reason.

But Eugene, why’d you have to go out like that, as Madonna’s organ-grinder monkey? Madonna is infamous for her parasitic relationship with authentic others, using them for her own mediocre ends– don’t you know this? If you start believing your own hype, you’re going to be the next lame Borat punchline.

On the Gogol Bordello fan sites major fights are erupting, and the whole band was not behind this decision to play with Madonna. There’s a camp of fans that’s saying it’s stupid to be upset about the Live Earth performance– more fame and exposure is good for the band, and there’s either good music or bad– the performance with Madonna changes nothing. I can only think that people voicing this argument grew up without understanding music as a subversive political force. Music isn’t just “good” or “bad.” In a time when voices of dissent are marginalized in the press and news media, often the most subversive information can be coded in a song or live performance. And music, poetry and fiction are the only mediums that can really capture the emotional ambiguity of struggle. I was radicalized by the Clash, way before I picked up a copy of Maximum Rock and Roll and learned that the Clash were sellouts. Gogol Bordello’s music was political– subversive. I thought Gogol Bordello’s “Underdog World Strike,” and “Gypsy Punk” were more than just poses, but maybe I was mistaken.

As the band became more popular over the last six years, the shows were packed with new people– many of them hostile, “world music mosh pit” idiots. This was the case at the oversold Astoria show where at certain points it was so crowded there, thanks to a write up in Time Out, that I was so crushed between people that my feet were not even touching the ground, and I was bruised for days afterward, and I was nowhere near the front. So my jealousy of the band, which I’d listened to since their first album in 1999, began. Why couldn’t I just love them in peace with this tribe of people who “got it”? Why did I have to share them with boneheads?

Why did Gogol Bordello cancel shows in Prague to do this favor for Madonna? Why did I have to hear Lela Pala Tute mungled with a Madonna song I hated as a teenager, a song that represented every empty thing about pop music I had come to loathe?

Eugene’s erotic power and magnetism is significant, and that he now has hoards of pissed off fans only testifies to the passion he and his band have inspired in so many. I leave you with this– Eugene singing Lela Pala Tute to Pavla Fleischer, director of The Pied Piper of Hutzovina. (The film is, according to Fleisher, a kind of lovesick ode to Eugene.) There’s intimacy in the way he sings to her. We are voyeurs. I know the look in his eyes– that singular boyish attention, and it’s the kind of thing that can make the heart into some fluttering creature that will betray itself. He surely knows this. Fleischer posts a long diatribe along with this youtube video, with the vehemence of a jilted lover. “But to think that [Madonna] also wants Eugene to sing Pala Tute to HER – that’s a bit too much of a territory invasion :)! Madonna, with all the respect I have for you, I was there first!! :)” And this has gone beyond gossip for me. Pavla’s impulse to make a film based on a romantic obsession is creepy, and her possessiveness of Eugene’s iconic presence is a bit pathetic, but I see myself in her.

Eugene, come back. I’m wearing purple.