My Very Own Carnival

image by Maria Kristin Steinsson on flickr
image by Maria Kristin Steinsson on flickr

On Saturday I had gone to Covent Garden to get a few necessities and had to stop for a street performance. I never do this, having come to hate the bovine crowds they attract and the general baseness of the spectacle. But there was a tall, handsome man in a pinstripe suit on a giant unicycle, and he was about to juggle. With a little girl. Not juggle the girl, but the little girl from the audience was going to throw the pins to him. He’d asked her to catch him, and when she put her little arms out you could see his heart melt. What followed was a kind of sentimental physical comedy like I imagine true clowns could do if, you know, they weren’t terrifying. I haven’t laughed so hard or been so fleetingly happy for a very long time. I threw a lot of money in their hat.

On Sunday I went to Camden. I met my friends Amanda and Liza and we lost ourselves in Camden’s labyrinth of desire– there is no other place I know in the world that is so full of the phantasmagoria of hippie-gothness. And there is no other place that is also so very crowded, perpetually and inscrutably, with muggles.

Which brings me to the Dev, or the Devonshire Arms, the center of the London Goth universe until a recent pubco takeover. We were meeting Poggs for another friend’s birthday thingy there. Poggs had to give me directions to the Dev– I know, I lose serious goth points for that, but I hadn’t been in years. In fact, I had not been to the Dev since its takeover and reinvention as the Hobgoblin. It was a disappointment. The cider was off to begin with, and when I asked Poggs what is that smell? He clarified, “That’s wee.”

We sat at the kiddie table next to the main party’s table, and behind us were a group of crusties which momentarily gladdened me in a superficial way. I thought, foolishly, that this proof that someone was keeping it real in Camden. Not long after this fancy occurred to me, a seven-foot tall mohican entered with a dwarf in a box.

Yes, you heard me.

With an obvious sense of theatre this pair went about tussling, the dwarf not wanting to get into the box again and the mohican trying to pack him away. At some point the dwarf visited Poggs in an intimate and rather canine way and then later became fixated on a member of the party who he decided looked like Bono (the gentleman did share certain eyewear-choices, it’s true). Dramatic taunting and impromtu chants about the third world ensued. I was impressed with the restraint of Mr. Not-Bono, who was very Zen about being bullied by a crowd of crusties and a very angry dwarf, and this seemed to piss off the dwarf and his drunken friends even more, until the dwarf decided he was going to throw his beer on Not-Bono to make his point. I saw this about to happen, and I knew it was going to land on us, the cute goth girls in the party, and completely miss Not-Bono…but it was one of those stop-motion moments where you think you can stop it, get out of the way, avoid disaster somehow…but no.

All over Amanda ‘s skirt and my Sanrio purse…I think it was Staropramen, too. What kind of crusty-loving dwarf drinks Staropramen? Poggs had summed the night up nicely…life’s rich tapestry. Indeed!

Noisy

This weekend I went to Shoreditch with my friend Kate for a noise show there. There were 6 or so bands playing, and I only stayed for a few, having an unfortunate “how will I get home at 11:30 from here” moment, even though I really wanted to see Jackie-O Motherfucker. It sucks to live way out in Hanwell and miss all the good things. Anyway, The venue was really cozy and reminded me of places in SF that I loved. It made me wish I lived over on that side of town in Hackney.

Highlights were paranormal hi-jinx of The Polly Shang Kwan Band. Everyone should go listen to Victim and Survivor on their MySpace page now to hear something that sounds like the aural landscape of Walpugisnacht and the birthing of werewolves. I can’t believe I just told you to go to MySpace. You know it’s good if I’m doing that.

The duo with the unfortunate name of Talibam! blew me away with their touretted-jazz version of Smoke on the Water. Here you can see them playing a morphing version of A Love Supreme:

This was someplace else, but you get the idea. Dig the guy’s panther shirt. He was wearing that on Sunday, too. Rad.

My evening ended with a bang, thanks to the punk-lounge-cabaret act that followed the snore-fest that was Sounds of the Exquisite Corpse– (who all sat on the floor so no one could see what they were doing). Anyway, I was just getting ready to leave when I saw two American dudes in 60’s suits with a drum set tucked away next to the vendor table. One of them was the drummer from Talibam!. Pretty soon they’re wailing out Girl from Ipanema and I want to marry them both. And they were heckled by hipsters, which made me want to marry them again. They were a bit like James Chance by way of clown school.

ritz.jpg

Here they are playing in waist-deep Coney Island seawater.

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.

Ye Shall Know Them By Their Hucksters

Recently I’ve become fascinated by the Shoreditch ad agency responsible for the Orange ads that feature before films, the ITV sock monkey ad, and the Supernoodle “noodle mine” ad. The agency goes by the Orwellian name of “Mother”.

Speaking of Orwell– In his Defense of British Cooking he argues that there are wonderful British dishes, but they must be home made. Wither British cuisine in the brave new world of the ready meal? It’s frustrating to admit the truth of stereotypes but since moving here I have been struck by many Brits’ complacency with really mediocre grub. This ad seems to capitalize on the “proud shite” food attitude– the love of kebabs and chips over anything green and leafy.

Granted, this ad is funny. One of the creative partners of Mother discusses the ad in an Independent article:

“Take Supernoodles. For years it was good mums, twirly forks, fun in the kitchen, and all that crap. Our strategic insight was that the brand truth lay not in mums giving it to kids but with guys who were too drunk, too stoned, too lazy or too stupid to eat anything else.” He goes on to say, “We couldn’t have done it without the strategic insight that the product was actually a 49p sack of crap…”

The sad thing is this ad echoes some British ideas about food. “Salad” is the sad piece of lettuce you peel off a boxed sandwich. Brown rice is hard to find in the grocery store, impossible in restaurants. I could go on… I was vegan when I moved to the UK, but after a year I realized that unless I cooked everything myself or decided I hated food, it would be near impossible.

The Mother agency is also responsible for the Egg credit card ads, of which Theft is Good reminded me. The Egg ads feature guinea pig consumers who are being observed by lab coated technicians. At the end of a recent ad, the animals visit a gallery where a miniature Barbara Kruger canvas extolls the virtues of the credit card. You can see the ad if you visit the Theft is Good blog. Barbara Kruger was once famous for her propaganda-like billboards subverting rampant consumerism with ironic slogans like “I shop therefore I am”

Theft is Good also called my attention to the Barbara Kruger installation for the Selfridges Department Store. In art school I attended a seminar with Barbara Kruger and was amazed by her contrary and cynical pose. It’s really no surprise that she would undermine the very content of her superficial work, with the help of Mother, by doing an installation for the equally cynical Selfridges department store. I need not bring up the Selfridges’ “Future Punk” installation last year at the Oxford Street store, where they had a bouncer and a velvet rope at the door. The suited Aryan’s shtick was to first deny you entrance to the space and then tell you if you came in you could look but not shop. I remember wondering at the time if I was indeed expected to shop as the ultimate FU punk-rock gesture. Rock and Roll Swindle indeed.

It’s also no surprise that Kruger would be cozy with the cynics at Mother, who often depict the consumers of their featured product as idiots. For instance:


Pimms “Holiday Camp”– where a toffee-nosed twit is too clueless to figure out he’s actually in a prison. But perhaps the “real” humor here is the idea of the unwashed prisoners drinking Pimms, which is considered in Britain to be a “posh” summer cocktail. When I was in a Hammersmith Hospital 20 bed ward, the guy in the bed across from mine was a prisoner from Wormwood Scrubs, the neighboring prison. He was in chains, shackled to two guards who kept alternate watch over him. When they brought us tea and a small cellophane wrapped muffin he looked over at me in my backless hospital gown , winked at his minders and said, “I am a lucky boy, hain’t I?”

Yeah, it would have been more amusing had they brought us all Pimms.

The funniest and most troubling of the Mother ads I have seen is the Pot Noodle “Fuel of Britain, Isn’t It?” campaign. The recent history of mining in the UK is full of strife and woe. Thatcher brutally broke the unions, calling them “The Enemy Within.” She closed mines across the country and there were battles between miners and the police. Miners families were starving and grass-roots food schemes fed them. No surprise the boys at Mother would then co-opt this history to sell nutrient-free grub. The men in the ad are workers at the Pot Noodle plant in Crumlin, Whales. The Crumlin mine was closed in 1967. The miners in the ad say things like : “You learn a lot about yourself in a noodle mine. Deep below the ground the noodle miners must carve through sheer Welsh rock to extract the delicate noodle.” and “For the noodles, golden noodles, in the land of my fathers…” This is funny only until you realize that many mining communities were quite proud and the history of mining in the UK is one of radical resistance.

When I taught writing in America, the critical thinking unit was most difficult. I would bring in fake ads from Adbusters and usually the students would not get them. They could not decipher the real ads from the satires. They had no distance from the ads at all, and could not separate themselves from the products represented. Often their identities were intimately tied to them. I may be a cassandra but I find this deeply disturbing. These product-mongers have marked our age, and without artists and writers countering them, they will define it.

Some people have commented that I take ads too seriously, that they are merely entertaining jokes intending to sell us something. But are ads not crowding out public space? Are they not infringing on cultural production, buying integrity, stealing authenticity from others who have labored to earn the right to their own dreams, free of commodification?

When ad agencies and transnational corporations are buying off artists, thinkers and those of us who should know better, Billy Bragg’s union anthem “Which Side Are you On” carries with it a new kind of meaning.

And now I leave you with something completely different– Martin Shakeshaft’s documentation of the Miner’s strike of 1984.