Thank the Lord for Neil Diamond

Neil Diamond 2

Neil Diamond, Rod Laver Arena, Melbourne, 27 October, 2015

Neil Diamond is one of my guilty pleasures. The man’s music utterly seduced me as a naïve teenager. I found his voice beguiling and his lyrics profound. I heard a lonely ache in his voice that resonated with my growing dissatisfaction with my place in the world. I was a nascent solitary man, and I liked the fiercely independent, non-conformist streak in Neil Diamond songs like ‘The Boat that I Row’ and ‘Thank the Lord for the Night time’ (‘day time turns me off and I don’t mean maybe, nine to five ain’t taking me where I’m bound’). I also liked the wistful and nostalgic songs like ‘Brooklyn Road’ and ‘The Grass Won’t Pay No Mind’. Here was a sensitive, poetic, soul, I thought. I put a large poster of Neil Diamond on my bedroom wall. He was my first man-crush, my first pop idol. I guess he was a role model of sorts, although I didn’t really know the man behind the music. Of course, this obsession didn’t last. Along came punk, and it was pretty much game over as far as my public relationship with the man was concerned.

Ok, Neil wasn’t as radical as the Sex Pistols, but, fuck it, I couldn’t fully exorcise Neil’s tunes from my consciousness. A bit later, I went to university and became enamored with cultural studies — a ‘right-on’ academic subject that took popular culture seriously, and saw the consumption of music as a site of political resistance. I read the Adorno, and immediately felt like a capitalist dupe for investing so much energy in the products of the Brill Building song factory. In any case by the time I’d left school I’d discovered a plethora of much cooler artists, and became aware that Neil Diamond, the Jewish Elvis, was seen as something of a joke by serious music cognoscenti who dismissed the man as a Las Vegas hack, a sequined lounge lizard, a purveyor of sentimental pap. True, Neil’s post Hot August Night work never really appealed to me. He stopped playing his strummy acoustic guitar, and embraced overblown orchestrations, and big ballads, which he probably saw as musical progress. But, damn, those early recordings were catchy, and despite publicly renouncing the man many times for his sins against good taste, I never really lost my passion for Neil Diamond’s music of the 60’s and early 70’s.

 

So, after many, many years of keeping quiet about my love for Neil Diamond’s music, I decided to come out, or at least go to a Neil Diamond concert. My 16-year-old self would have been thrilled to be in such close proximity to his hero. I secured a seat close to the stage, and waited for the now 74-year-old star to make his appearance. I arrived about 15 minutes before the scheduled start, which was enough time for the solitary man sitting next to me to strike up a conversation. This bloke was big, lantern-jawed, friendly and a tad arrogant. Turns out, he was some kind of captain of industry, full head of grey hair, carrying a few too many extra pounds, and extraordinarily chatty. I was in no mood to talk, but I decided to overcome my natural inclination towards shyness and be polite. My new found friend remarked on the crowd, observing that they all looked quite old, he himself was in his late 50s, and his observation was right on the money. Neil’s demographic is pretty old, and, let me tell you, they are not the coolest looking bunch on the planet. This was nothing like say, a Nick Cave concert. Now Mr. Cave is not as old as Neil Diamond, but he’s no spring chicken, yet his crowd tends to be a bit more diverse than Neil’s. The prince of darkness attracts young people as well as my middle-aged cohorts. You see a lot of people dressed in black at Nick Cave concerts, and you don’t see too many people with grey hair (possibly because Cave fans are prone to following their master’s lead, and dying their aging locks). Anyway, Cave’s followers exude cool. Neil’s people, conversely, are just so middle-of-the-road. Now, this should not have been a revelation to me given the man’s reputation as an easy-listening balladeer, but I felt out of place amongst my fellow Diamond enthusiasts. Surely, I couldn’t be as old and uncool as these people, could I? Things go worse as the time ticked past 8.00pm. Neil was late, and my companion was just warming up, regaling me with questions about my occupation, marital status and even asking me whether my son went to a private school. This guy was seriously rich, and was not at all embarrassed about talking up his wealth, and expressing amazement on how people earning less that $200 000 could live a decent life. Oh, boy. Middle-fucking Australia!

 

Thankfully, Neil appeared. He was 20 minutes late, but I was thrilled to hear the band start up, and drown out the guy next to me. Neil started with one of my favourite songs: ‘I’m a Believer’. I was and I am still a huge fan of the Monkees. I remember feeling my love of Neil Diamond’s music was vindicated when I discovered that he wrote a handful of hits for the so-called pre-fab four (another critically reviled band that I happen to love). And the hits just kept coming. Classic after classic, some of the bigger, more up-beat numbers like Cherry Cherry, got the crowd up on their fee. Now one of the annoying things about concerts is that the people on the floor in the good seats usually remain standing throughout the performance. Even when fellow audience members shout them down, the fuckers remain on their feel oblivious to the fact that they are blocking the view of large numbers of people who have paid big bucks to see their idol (see my Bob Dylan concert post). Neil’s loyal band of enthusiasts could only intermittently summon the energy to stand up and shake their aging booties, so folks in the cheaper seats had an unobstructed view of the performance.

 

The minutes ticked by, and hits kept coming. Diamond is nothing if not a crowd pleaser, so his set, predictably, consisted of his biggest hits with a few tokenistic numbers drawn from his most recent album. Even the bombastic, America, with its garish use of the stars and stripes transcended simple-minded jingoism by coming across as homage to the migrants that built ‘the home of the brave’. I got the sense that Neil Diamond genuinely loves his audience by the way he purposefully addressed each section of the crowd, including those with obscured views of the stage. Age has not diminished his joie de vivre, nor has it significantly compromised his engaging baritone voice. There was something triumphant and uplifting about Diamond’s performance, and despite my feelings of unease about belonging to his legion of middle-class fans, I couldn’t help but feel grateful for finally witnessing a Diamond concert, and allowing myself to revel in one of my first musical obsessions. If I close my eyes I can almost hear the timbre of my old mono cassette player as it filled my childhood bedroom with music produced on a hot august night more than forty years ago. Thank you, Neil Diamond, may I never again take your name in vain, or feel embarrassed for finding myself in your beautiful noise.

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A Trick of The Light: The late, great David McComb

DMC

This is a photograph of David McComb, the lead singer and main songwriter for the 1980s band, The Triffids. I snapped this picture with a no-frills Praktica SLR as part of a class exercise whose purpose I can no longer recall  (I was a student at the Western Australian Institute of Technology in 1981, and David was a member of my photojournalism class). A few years ago, I found the negative amongst a pile of forgotten papers and files from my student days, and decided to finally bring it into the realm of visibility.

I took the photograph when David was 19 years old. He didn’t know it, but he’d already lived more than half his life. This is a tragic fact — he looks so young and innocent, almost cherubic. I didn’t really know David very well. He seemed an affable sort, and was always friendly and polite in class, but I only ever exchanged pleasantries with him on a few occasions. I was aware he was in a band called The Triffids, but I didn’t become a fan until a few years later, so I was unaware of his extraordinary talent when our paths crossed briefly all those years ago. At the time, I was also conscious of David’s charisma — he seemed to have many friends, and people spoke about him with admiration and reverence. By 1983, after attending my first Triffids gig, I knew why — he was a captivating, enigmatic performer, and, in my view, easily one of the best songwriters of his generation. The fact that relatively few people acknowledged his genius during his short life is inexplicable.

I’m the first to admit that the photograph is ordinary in technical and formal terms (I never pursued photojournalism as a career because I really sucked as a photographer). Largely, my fascination with the image is personal. David looks so cool, and, in a way, out of time, a bit like his music. His clothes and hairstyle, for example, don’t look like they belong to the 1980s. Of course, they were many people who dressed in a similar way during this period, although it’s hard to appreciate the fact when you look at films and photographs from the era. Mainstream hairstyles and fashion in the 80s look abominable today — women had a penchant for sticky product and poodle-like curls, and don’t get me started on men’s fashions, and haircut bands. Mr. McComb was nothing if not elegant and tasteful, even in his everyday student garb.

I wonder what David was thinking as stared into the lens of my camera, standing so tall and straight? I suspect he was hoping this impromptu photo shoot would come to a swift end. Who can tell? All I know is that the image evokes a strong sense of melancholy laced with a bittersweet nostalgia for a person and an era that has passed. Roland Barthes believed that the essence of photography lies in the brute fact that ‘the thing has been there’ (Camera Lucida, p. 76). Photography, in his view, is testimony: ‘what I see has been here, in this place which extends between infinity and the subject’ (Camera Lucida, p. 77). The photograph always speaks of the past, and, ultimately about death. David McComb was absolutely present at the Western Australian Institute of Technology in 1981, and the light reflected from his body, the light emanating from his corporeal presence preserved an ordinary instant in the life of an extraordinary man.

A thick sludge of nostalgia covers my memories of the Triffids. It’s sticky core is made from hot summer nights spent in smoky pubs and clubs, watching throngs of black clad bohemians shake, shimmy and stare at the band in wide-eyed wonder. As I recall, Triffids’ fans were not very good dancers. People would rhythmically sway to the music, jump up and down on the spot, or just stare at the mesmeric spectacle, lost in private reverie. I remember one devoted fan, a petite young girl in a little black dress who used to do an especially well-mannered version of the hokey-cokey every time the band played an up-tempo number (right leg in, left leg in, and shake it all about, daintily). I never spoke to her, or knew her name, but she’s part of the sludge, and I see her pretty, clear skin face, framed by straight black hair cut in a neat bob, through aging layers of wistful sediment.

I can also see a group of friends singing along to the Triffids’ rendition of ‘Suspicious Minds.’ They’re young, definitely drunk and appallingly off key, but smitten with an exuberance and enthusiasm rarely found in people over 25. One of them takes large sips from a hip flask he’s snuck into the gig, as he whispers something in his girlfriend’s ear. Another fiddles with his Sony Walkman, which he uses as a surreptitious recording device. For many years, I couldn’t disentangle the music from these personal memories. I can’t hear ‘Beautiful Waste’ without thinking about my first girlfriend, Fiona, who gallantly endured my rabid proselytising about the band’s brilliance. My memories of Triffids’ gigs fill me with a warm glow, a sentimental longing for a generally happy time now long past. This is perhaps why it took me so long to appreciate their brilliance. While they never conquered the world or found commercial success during their heyday, the Triffids were a world class act, and David McComb was a song writing genius, one who fully deserves to share the penthouse suite in the tower of song with luminaries such Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan.

I lived in the band’s hometown of Perth, the world’s most isolated city, when the Triffids were at the height of their powers in the 1980s. I feel privileged to have been in the right place at the right time, for once in my life. For a local, I came to the band relatively late — I missed their early gigs at the Stoned Crow, and certainly didn’t attend any performances during their formative years. The band were already very impressive and accomplished when I first saw them in 1983. By this time, they no longer lived in Perth, but returned periodically for weeks at a time, playing regularly at venues like the Shaftesbury Hotel and the Red Parrott, both long gone (not even dots on today’s map of metropolitan Perth).

I saw The Triffids as often as I could, sometimes two or three nights a week. I even saw them twice in a single night once — the second performance that evening was memorable because a fight broke out between two drunken louts. I seem to recall McComb heroically restoring order by jumping off the stage and separating the principal aggressors.

I’m sure the band had its bad nights, but I don’t recall a single bad gig, although McComb was not averse to admonishing the sometimes complacent crowd for requesting familiar songs, and cover versions of other people’s hits (which the band appeared to enjoy playing). There was always one or two die-hard fans that felt the need to share their intimate knowledge of the band’s most ancient songs by rowdily requesting ‘Butterfly’ or, more often than not, ‘Farmers never Visit Nightclubs’. Depending on his mood, McComb would acquiesce or contemptuously dismiss these calls from the crowd.

Friendly hecklers notwithstanding, the band was palpably committed to their music — their shows comprised of furious sermons from the pulpit, atmospheric missives from a lonely place, and twee ditties delivered with just the right degree of irony. For all the dark and brooding songs in McComb’s canon, the band had a sense of humour, and revelled in playing cheesy Vegas-era Elvis covers alongside incendiary garage band classics like ’96 Tears’ and ‘No Fun’. Their version of the theme from Gilligan’s Island underscores their eclecticism and capacity for comedy. However, I think their affable presence, and droll irony often masked their brilliance. In any case, the energy and visceral power of the Triffids on stage resides only in the memories of those lucky enough to witness those astonishing gigs, although the band’s live recordings and videos capture something of their astounding prowess as a live act. However, as good as they were live, it’s the song writing I want to celebrate (even if my commentary does a violent disservice to McComb’s sublime compositions). I want to add my praise to the ever-increasing body of critical work devoted to McComb’s oeuvre by appraising the songs on Born Sandy Devotional, an album considered by most to be the band’s greatest artistic achievement.

David McComb brought a rare sophistication to the art of song writing, which is never more evident than on this album. His lyrics here are poetic without being forced or pretentious, and, more often than not, they’re imbued with a paradoxical sense of melancholy, tender and transcendent, deranged and insightful. His protagonists, often possessed by a feverish intensity and panic, wounded by a lover’s abject dismissal, find themselves marooned in a solitary space emptied of solace. The band creates compelling washes of sound that support the songs, providing a cinematic bed for these intricate ruminations on lost love. The songs explore various heightened states of being; states induced by love’s traumatic aftershocks.

McComb’s characters roam through his landscape of love, some delirious with fever, other stoic with resignation. They fall into its ‘frighteningly silent abyss,’ and few attempt resurrections. Of course, this virtual landscape has much in common with the Australian outback. The lonely, barren expanses of the island continent’s unpopulated land provide an appropriately desolate metaphor for songs about unrequited love, the album’s major theme. Yet, Born Sandy Devotional is no simple-minded paean to Australia. The country’s landscape is inherently mysterious, especially so for European settlers; McComb preserves its enigma by eschewing literalism in favour of a gripping ambiguity that demands close attention if the listener wants to appreciate its extraordinary nuances. The album’s very title is mystifying, and puzzling. It’s taken from a song that doesn’t appear on the album, a song McComb was never sufficiently happy with, so while the Triffids played the song live, they never officially released a definitive version (an incomplete take appears on In the Pines).

The deluxe edition of the remastered album contains a revelatory booklet containing McComb’s various notes for the recording. On the back cover, he points to the title’s ambiguity by noting its grammatical structure. ‘Born’ is a verb, an action. ‘Sandy’ is a proper noun (a boy’s name or a girl’s name), or an adjective, a qualifying description (as in the line, ‘a sandy beach’). ‘Devotional’ can also be a noun or an adjective. So what does all this mean? We can read the title as being about devotion to some person called Sandy — an object of desire. Alternately, it may be about devotion to a geographical region — devotion to sand and surf as practiced by many West Australians. Thinking metaphorical, it may be about devotion to the childhood memory of sand and surf, devotion to some formative experience. The verb ‘Born’ conveys a sense of inevitability, pre-destiny, or perhaps vocation — born to be devoted to ‘Sandy’, whoever or whatever ‘Sandy’ might be. Of course, there’s no imperative, or injunction to settle on a definitive interpretation; it’s possible to luxuriate in the uncertainty.

While many uncertainties inhabit the album’s title, there is nothing ambiguous about David McComb’s talent, although he seems to have had his doubts. The aforementioned booklet that accompanies the album contains a note McComb scribbled sometime in the 1980s.

 

The biggest joy/spur is the perverse question hanging over my head 24 hour per day — am I the stuff of greatness, or am I just another of the thousands of ugly despicable beings in their bedrooms clutching glasses of vodka, with a bunch of filthy exercise book.

 

For me, the answer to the question is simple: David McComb was the stuff of genius,

This is a photograph of David McComb, the lead singer and main songwriter for the 1980s band, The Triffids. I snapped this picture with a no-frills Praktica SLR as part of a class exercise whose purpose I can no longer recall  (I was a student at the Western Australian Institute of Technology in 1981, and David was a member of my photojournalism class). A few years ago, I found the negative amongst a pile of forgotten papers and files from my student days, and decided to finally bring it into the realm of visibility.

I took the photograph when David was 19 years old. He didn’t know it, but he’d already lived more than half his life. This is a tragic fact — he looks so young and innocent, almost cherubic. I didn’t really know David very well. He seemed an affable sort, and was always friendly and polite in class, but I only ever exchanged pleasantries with him on a few occasions. I was aware he was in a band called The Triffids, but I didn’t become a fan until a few years later, so I was unaware of his extraordinary talent when our paths crossed briefly all those years ago. At the time, I was also conscious of David’s charisma — he seemed to have many friends, and people spoke about him with admiration and reverence. By 1983, after attending my first Triffids gig, I knew why — he was a captivating, enigmatic performer, and, in my view, easily one of the best songwriters of his generation. The fact that relatively few people acknowledged his genius during his short life is inexplicable.

I’m the first to admit that the photograph is ordinary in technical and formal terms (I never pursued photojournalism as a career because I really sucked as a photographer). Largely, my fascination with the image is personal. David looks so cool, and, in a way, out of time, a bit like his music. His clothes and hairstyle, for example, don’t look like they belong to the 1980s. Of course, they were many people who dressed in a similar way during this period, although it’s hard to appreciate the fact when you look at films and photographs from the era. Mainstream hairstyles and fashion in the 80s look abominable today — women had a penchant for sticky product and poodle-like curls, and don’t get me started on men’s fashions, and haircut bands. Mr. McComb was nothing if not elegant and tasteful, even in his everyday student garb.

I wonder what David was thinking as stared into the lens of my camera, standing so tall and straight? I suspect he was hoping this impromptu photo shoot would come to a swift end. Who can tell? All I know is that the image evokes a strong sense of melancholy laced with a bittersweet nostalgia for a person and an era that has passed. Roland Barthes believed that the essence of photography lies in the brute fact that ‘the thing has been there’ (Camera Lucida, p. 76). Photography, in his view, is testimony: ‘what I see has been here, in this place which extends between infinity and the subject’ (Camera Lucida, p. 77). The photograph always speaks of the past, and, ultimately about death. David McComb was absolutely present at the Western Australian Institute of Technology in 1981, and the light reflected from his body, the light emanating from his corporeal presence preserved an ordinary instant in the life of an extraordinary man.

A thick sludge of nostalgia covers my memories of the Triffids. It’s sticky core is made from hot summer nights spent in smoky pubs and clubs, watching throngs of black clad bohemians shake, shimmy and stare at the band in wide-eyed wonder. As I recall, Triffids’ fans were not very good dancers. People would rhythmically sway to the music, jump up and down on the spot, or just stare at the mesmeric spectacle, lost in private reverie. I remember one devoted fan, a petite young girl in a little black dress who used to do an especially well-mannered version of the hokey-cokey every time the band played an up-tempo number (right leg in, left leg in, and shake it all about, daintily). I never spoke to her, or knew her name, but she’s part of the sludge, and I see her pretty, clear skin face, framed by straight black hair cut in a neat bob, through aging layers of wistful sediment.

I can also see a group of friends singing along to the Triffids’ rendition of ‘Suspicious Minds.’ They’re young, definitely drunk and appallingly off key, but smitten with an exuberance and enthusiasm rarely found in people over 25. One of them takes large sips from a hip flask he’s snuck into the gig, as he whispers something in his girlfriend’s ear. Another fiddles with his Sony Walkman, which he uses as a surreptitious recording device. For many years, I couldn’t disentangle the music from these personal memories. I can’t hear ‘Beautiful Waste’ without thinking about my first girlfriend, Fiona, who gallantly endured my rabid proselytising about the band’s brilliance. My memories of Triffids’ gigs fill me with a warm glow, a sentimental longing for a generally happy time now long past. This is perhaps why it took me so long to appreciate their brilliance. While they never conquered the world or found commercial success during their heyday, the Triffids were a world class act, and David McComb was a song writing genius, one who fully deserves to share the penthouse suite in the tower of song with luminaries such Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan.

I lived in the band’s hometown of Perth, the world’s most isolated city, when the Triffids were at the height of their powers in the 1980s. I feel privileged to have been in the right place at the right time, for once in my life. For a local, I came to the band relatively late — I missed their early gigs at the Stoned Crow, and certainly didn’t attend any performances during their formative years. The band were already very impressive and accomplished when I first saw them in 1983. By this time, they no longer lived in Perth, but returned periodically for weeks at a time, playing regularly at venues like the Shaftesbury Hotel and the Red Parrott, both long gone (not even dots on today’s map of metropolitan Perth).

I saw The Triffids as often as I could, sometimes two or three nights a week. I even saw them twice in a single night once — the second performance that evening was memorable because a fight broke out between two drunken louts. I seem to recall McComb heroically restoring order by jumping off the stage and separating the principal aggressors.

I’m sure the band had its bad nights, but I don’t recall a single bad gig, although McComb was not averse to admonishing the sometimes complacent crowd for requesting familiar songs, and cover versions of other people’s hits (which the band appeared to enjoy playing). There was always one or two die-hard fans that felt the need to share their intimate knowledge of the band’s most ancient songs by rowdily requesting ‘Butterfly’ or, more often than not, ‘Farmers never Visit Nightclubs’. Depending on his mood, McComb would acquiesce or contemptuously dismiss these calls from the crowd.

Friendly hecklers notwithstanding, the band was palpably committed to their music — their shows comprised of furious sermons from the pulpit, atmospheric missives from a lonely place, and twee ditties delivered with just the right degree of irony. For all the dark and brooding songs in McComb’s canon, the band had a sense of humour, and revelled in playing cheesy Vegas-era Elvis covers alongside incendiary garage band classics like ’96 Tears’ and ‘No Fun’. Their version of the theme from Gilligan’s Island underscores their eclecticism and capacity for comedy. However, I think their affable presence, and droll irony often masked their brilliance. In any case, the energy and visceral power of the Triffids on stage resides only in the memories of those lucky enough to witness those astonishing gigs, although the band’s live recordings and videos capture something of their astounding prowess as a live act. However, as good as they were live, it’s the song writing I want to celebrate (even if my commentary does a violent disservice to McComb’s sublime compositions). I want to add my praise to the ever-increasing body of critical work devoted to McComb’s oeuvre by appraising the songs on Born Sandy Devotional, an album considered by most to be the band’s greatest artistic achievement.

David McComb brought a rare sophistication to the art of song writing, which is never more evident than on this album. His lyrics here are poetic without being forced or pretentious, and, more often than not, they’re imbued with a paradoxical sense of melancholy, tender and transcendent, deranged and insightful. His protagonists, often possessed by a feverish intensity and panic, wounded by a lover’s abject dismissal, find themselves marooned in a solitary space emptied of solace. The band creates compelling washes of sound that support the songs, providing a cinematic bed for these intricate ruminations on lost love. The songs explore various heightened states of being; states induced by love’s traumatic aftershocks.

McComb’s characters roam through his landscape of love, some delirious with fever, other stoic with resignation. They fall into its ‘frighteningly silent abyss,’ and few attempt resurrections. Of course, this virtual landscape has much in common with the Australian outback. The lonely, barren expanses of the island continent’s unpopulated land provide an appropriately desolate metaphor for songs about unrequited love, the album’s major theme. Yet, Born Sandy Devotional is no simple-minded paean to Australia. The country’s landscape is inherently mysterious, especially so for European settlers; McComb preserves its enigma by eschewing literalism in favour of a gripping ambiguity that demands close attention if the listener wants to appreciate its extraordinary nuances. The album’s very title is mystifying, and puzzling. It’s taken from a song that doesn’t appear on the album, a song McComb was never sufficiently happy with, so while the Triffids played the song live, they never officially released a definitive version (an incomplete take appears on In the Pines).

The deluxe edition of the remastered album contains a revelatory booklet containing McComb’s various notes for the recording. On the back cover, he points to the title’s ambiguity by noting its grammatical structure. ‘Born’ is a verb, an action. ‘Sandy’ is a proper noun (a boy’s name or a girl’s name), or an adjective, a qualifying description (as in the line, ‘a sandy beach’). ‘Devotional’ can also be a noun or an adjective. So what does all this mean? We can read the title as being about devotion to some person called Sandy — an object of desire. Alternately, it may be about devotion to a geographical region — devotion to sand and surf as practiced by many West Australians. Thinking metaphorical, it may be about devotion to the childhood memory of sand and surf, devotion to some formative experience. The verb ‘Born’ conveys a sense of inevitability, pre-destiny, or perhaps vocation — born to be devoted to ‘Sandy’, whoever or whatever ‘Sandy’ might be. Of course, there’s no imperative, or injunction to settle on a definitive interpretation; it’s possible to luxuriate in the uncertainty.

While many uncertainties inhabit the album’s title, there is nothing ambiguous about David McComb’s talent, although he seems to have had his doubts. The aforementioned booklet that accompanies the album contains a note McComb scribbled sometime in the 1980s.

‘The biggest joy/spur is the perverse question hanging over my head 24 hour per day — am I the stuff of greatness, or am I just another of the thousands of ugly despicable beings in their bedrooms clutching glasses of vodka, with a bunch of filthy exercise book.’

For me, the answer to the question is simple: David McComb was indeed the stuff of genius,

Black Mirrors: The Entire History of You

The Entire History of You

The Black Mirrors are everywhere. Today, we stare at screens constantly; we bury our heads in smartphones, gaze at computer monitors, TVs and cinema screens. We gape and gawk at the world through glass whether we’re driving a car through a landscape, or looking down at the world from the window of a jet plane. However, these black mirrors are not passive devices, they don’t merely reflect ourselves since many of today’s black mirrors also collect information, and enable us to record vast amounts of data about our everyday experiences. If we so choose, we can already record highlights of our lives in crisp high definition 4K images on our phones. We can surreptitiously record snatches of conversation, and even take furtive snaps of strangers. And, of course, we can share all of these images, these snatches of everyday life with the world by uploading them to the cloud.

I found The Entire History of You an especially unsettling episode of the Black Mirrors series because we are already in the midst of technologies that enable us to capture our experiences. We leave large digital footprints in a plethora of media, and it’s only a matter of time before we can subject our identities to the sorts of critical analyses depicted in the episode. The characters in The Entire History of You have a recording device embedded behind one their ears that enable them to record everything they see and hear. The episode opens with a job interview scenario. A young lawyer, Liam is being grilled by an interview panel whose attitude towards the applicant is ambivalent. It’s difficult to apprehend whether Liam is making a good impression, or whether his interlocutors are politely fobbing him off. Liam attempts to get a better sense of his performance by replaying (or re-doing) the interview. He rewinds, pauses and slows down the entire scene in order to analyze the nuances of the event. He comes to the conclusion that he’s not going to get the job. Things become more complicated when he arrives at a dinner party and observes his wife vivaciously chatting to a man, Jonas, he’s never met before. It transpires that Jonas is an old boyfriend, and as the episode progresses we discover that Liam’s wife, Ffion, recently had an affair with Jonas. Moreover, the paternity of Liam’s young child is now in doubt since his wife’s tryst with Jonas occurred just before she became pregnant. Ffion protests her innocence at Liam’s accusation of infidelity, but is forced to confess her transgression when Liam demands that she replays the recordings of her affair. On one level this episode is little more than a stock love triangle, but it exceeds the limitations of the genre by presenting us with a series of probing questions about the nature of memory and fantasy in the age of digital reproduction. The estranged couple argue with reference to a digital record of their lives. They ‘re-do’ key scenes connected with their various disputes about the ‘facts’ of their lives and become, in effect, critics of their own lives. They study the nuances of each uttered sentence, and subject each movement and facial expression to close critical scrutiny. They are not just watching themselves, they are engaged in a sophisticated analytical procedure that determines the course of their interpersonal relationship.

One scene is especially thought provoking. After Ffion initially placates Liam’s suspicion, the couple makes love while scanning images of previous erotic experiences. This scene is not notable because of the presence of a futuristic technology, but because it reminds us that humans come equipped with a black mirror of sorts — call it what you will, memory, psyche, the unconscious. We have always had the capacity to ‘re-do’ life with greater or lesser degrees of fidelity. We can summon images, sensations and experiences from a vast organic repository for all sorts of purposes, and the erotic impulse is to a large extent always motivated and stimulated by fantasy. But what happens when human memory is supplemented or replaced by high fidelity technologies that record everything we do?

 

The Science Gallery in Dublin houses an experimental project that is

 

is focused on developing new assistive technologies based on lifelogging and they aim to capture as much of life experience as possible in rich multimodal detail. Using wearable sensors they gather a detailed and accurate picture of life activities. The sensors they use include wearable cameras (4,000 photos automatically captured per day), smartwatches and smartphones, resulting in about 1TB of data per year per person. This involves data analytics, artificial intelligence, search engines and human computer interaction.

 

https://dublin.sciencegallery.com/blog/2015/02/week3labyourdigitalmemoryself

 

What’s potentially very frightening is the fact that you do not need expensive technology to become a lifelogger. As previously stated, a significant number of people all over the world own smartphones that enable them to collect vast quantities of data about themselves. What’s more, this data is easily shared, sold, consumed and presented to the world on an unprecedented scale. What will happen to our sense of self when it becomes possible to record our entire lives? The Entire History of You is not a remote possibility, but an imminent reality.

Black Mirrors: 15 Million Merits and The Inoculation Effect

15 Million Merits and The Inoculation Effect

Bing reminds me of Sisyphus — that doomed figure from ancient Greek mythology who was condemned by the gods to endlessly push a weighty rock up a mountain without purpose or reward. For Camus, the plight of Sisyphus is emblematic of the human condition, which he characterized as Absurd. That is, in a universe devoid of rhyme or reason human existence becomes absurd, and, if we confront this absurdity, life is inherently tragic — tragic because consciousness of our plight, which is a consciousness of the futility of existence, removes the possibility of hope and redemption.

In the dystopian world of ‘15 Million Merits’, Bing is compelled to pedal an exercise bike every single day — it’s his Sisyphean rock. Presumably, Bing and his cohorts function as energy sources that power their planet. They are trapped within a world ruled by habit; they accumulate ‘merits’ through their physical labor, but also accrue points through their consumption of a endless torrent of low brow television shows (talent contests, reality TV and pornography). These TV shows are not mere distractions from the drudgery of incessantly pedaling the exercise bikes; they are ideological mechanisms that reinforce a false promise, for the only way to get off the bike is to become a contestant on one of the dire transmissions. Bing recognizes his bleak, absurd situation, and longs for some kind of authentic experience in a world dominated by simulacra. He longs for truth, passion, and reality. Bing thinks he may have discovered these qualities in the character of his fellow worker, Abi, a beautiful woman with an absorbing singing voice. Bing sacrifices his ‘merits’ so Abi can audition for Hot Shot — obviously a parody of popular singing contest shows like American Idol or The Voice. Abi gets on the show, and while the judges acknowledge her prowess as a singer, they feel they have too many singers, and coerce Abi into joining the cast of Wraith Babes, a pornographic reality TV show. Disgusted, and disappointed by this unfortunate outcome, Bing rebels. He works hard to accrue enough merits to appear on Hot Shots himself. Once on the show, he defies convention by threatening to kill himself on live television unless he is allowed to rail and rant about the state of his world. Bing gets his opportunity to express his contempt for his dystopian society. However, instead of being punished, he is given his own television show, which provides him with a sanctioned space to articulate his grievances.

Of course, this episode of Black Mirror works as satire because it’s an extended metaphor for our current predicament. We live in a world dominated by biopolitics. That is, a world that monitors our bodies, prescribes health regimes in order to make us more productive cogs in the capitalist machine. We need to accumulate ‘merits’ and consume mindless images to keep the whole stinking edifice in play. We live in the era of the quantified self, an era of big data, an era capable of taking, what Sadie Plant called, ‘the most radical gesture’ and turning it into just another commodity. Writing more than half a century ago, Roland Barthes drew our attention to what he called ‘the inoculation effect’ — in simple terms, his argument goes something like this: if a society wants to blunt political resistance and the desire for revolutionary change the most effective strategy for maintaining the status quo is permit people to express their grievances. By allowing taken protest, society inoculates itself from the greater threat to its existence. Packaged rebellion serves a dual function: it acts as a safety valve that allows people to let off steam, while simultaneously reinforcing the perception of freedom of speech. Bing wins, but he loses — the machine takes his situationist gesture and turns him into just another version of Sisyphus, one that accumulates even more ‘merits’ for the dystopian state.

RIP Glenn Frey

Glenn Frey in 1977. He was a great man and a good musician, but he was part of a truly bad rock band.

 

January was a bad month for music lovers. The world lost David Bowie, and Glenn Frey, guitarist, and songwriter extraordinaire. Yes, that’s correct, Mr Frey was, in my not so humble opinion, a great songwriter. There, I’ve said it, and what’s more I’m not ashamed to declare my love for Frey’s band, the Eagles, an incredibly popular, but much maligned outfit — maligned mostly by my gang of post-punk pals, and one Gersh Kuntzman. Kuntzman wrote, ‘No disrespect to Glenn Frey — whose death this week is a cause for genuine mourning — but the Eagles were, quite simply, the worst rock and roll band.’ He goes on to vilify the band further by characterising them as soulless and generic. Indeed, I’ve often heard the Eagles described in these terms. The band apparently represent the worst excesses of 70s corporate culture in popular music by purveying ‘easy listening,’ ‘commercial’ music with the sole aim of making millions of bucks. In short, these corporate cowboys are not artists, but businessmen. It follows, then, that their music is a mere commodity, devoid of authentic feeling, and intellectual substance. The Eagles, for many, are the raison d’etre for punk — a politically oppositional genre, supposedly uncontaminated by the ugly commercial considerations of capitalist record companies.

 

 

Let’s be perfectly clear. I’m a huge Bowie fan, and I can’t begin to express how shattered and impoverished I feel by his death (I’ll elaborate on this in another post). Now, while I don’t think Frey was in the same league as Bowie in terms of cultural impact, stylistic flair or musical innovation, I do think the man could craft a melody like few others, and I do respect his success, and ability to connect with a vast audience. Obviously, I didn’t know Glenn Frey, but he did touch my life in a number of important ways (which I will go on to enumerate at a later point). If you don’t like the Eagles, that’s fine by me, but, please, think carefully about what you’re buying into when you start to spout this ‘corporate rock’ bollocks. The ‘hipper-than-thou’ attitude articulated by Kuntzman, and his ilk sticks in my craw because it’s so fucking hypocritical. All popular music is commercial. That is, it’s made and distributed for profit, and whatever its other merits may be, no album financed by a big, badass record company floats above the ugly capitalist market place. Now, it is possible, and perfectly valid, to compare and contrast Bowie and Frey in musicological terms, but I suspect the Kuntzman camp hate Frey’s music because it doesn’t resonate with their self-image as ‘right-on’ oppositional pop connoisseurs. Popular music is never just about music. In my view, it’s mainly about identity formation, a way of making you feel like you belong to some exclusive club. We all invest in fantasies about who we are and who we would like to be through our patterns of consumption. In short, we are what we consume, and in the affluent Western world people tend to fetishize their purchases in order to consolidate a sense of self. We divide into tribes based on various factors, but, for the middle class, our taste is music, film, television, food and various other commodities define our identities, especially when we are young. Sure, in terms of my personal identity, I’d rather invest in the Bowie fantasy — I’d like to see myself as a shape-shifting, radical Starman; an alien that doesn’t respect conventional generic and gender boundaries. This fantasy is far more appealing that the Eagles fantasy, at least for me. I’m sure there are many people out there, that saw Frey as a kind of ego-ideal, but I digress. If the truth be known, I’m not talented; certainly not gifted as Glenn Frey, and light-years away from David Bowie’s genius. I am, like so many other people, very fucking ordinary, which is why I have so much respect for those artists that can help transcend the banal, dull world of my everyday life. Bowie and Frey, each in their own ways, contributed to giving me momentary respite from the various social and political forces that constrain me, yet my love for their music is not purely about identity, fantasy or flight from ‘reality, ’for music also acts as a repository of memory par excellence.

Music often takes me back in time, and enables me to revive long lost reveries. Frey and his confreres transport me back to my long lost teenage world in suburban Perth, a world characterized by fiercely hot summer days spent lolling around the Swan river, and balmy nights spent in front of the stereo listening to a wide array of tunes. The Eagles, though, were, for me, the sound of summer, and their melodies will eternally float on the dope smoke I usually exhaled while listening to the band compete with the sound of chirping crickets. If you listen carefully, there is something inherently spooky, and mysterious about Hotel California, something that resonated with the inhabitants of a city on the other side of the world from where the music originated (Hotel California was on high rotation on Perth radio in the latter part of the 1970s). The Eagles also sang, like so many others, about longing, loneliness and loss — listen to Desperado or ‘The Best of my Love,’ and, for better or worse, this is the music that attached itself to my earliest experiences of sex, drugs and rock and roll, and this is why I take offence at Mr Kuntzman’s lazy critique. That greatest hits album still manages to lift my spirits and make me smile, so fuck you, Kuntzman.

Rock and roll may occasionally shake the political order of things in ways that are usually very difficult to quantify, but let’s not kid ourselves that badass rock and roll actually changes very much. For all its posturing, preening, ranting and raving, rock, in my view, remains locked in the realm of fantasy. At best, its part of a complex web of cultural artifacts that allows us to vicariously experience danger and participate in rebellion while distracting us from many of the material forces that actually make our lives a living hell. So, friends, pass the spliff and play the music fucking loud! RIP Glenn and RIP David. I loved you both.