Faith No More: Sol Invictus


Three things that are consistent with just about every review of Faith No More’s (FNM) latest output Sol Invictus: It’s been 18 years since 1997’s album Album of the Year; the single Epic was their greatest hit; and the boys in the band were considered zany back in the day.  The rock critics also make the leap from that latter point to suggest that that zaniness eventually created a rap/funk/rock movement that we’re all familiar with today.  (Side note: Anthony Keidis, and the Red Hot Chili Peppers have hotly contested the idea that FNM created this movement.)  Most of the critics also speak of the multitude of projects that the band members have been involved in since the 1997 album, and the fact that the album is named after a Roman Sun god.  What is not stated in any of these reviews is that the very idea of an FNM reunion is emblematic of the dire straits of the music industry as a whole.

Faith-no-More-Sol-Invictus-Cover1This isn’t to say Sol Invictus is a money grab, or at least it doesn’t sound like it was.  Yet, the reunion is evidence of something that members of this band, Pavement, and to varying degrees Soundgarden, Blur, and The Verve, said would never happen.  Or, if they never said “never”, they suggested it would be a cold day in hell before they even considered it.  FNM fans would probably argue that the reunion was spawned by how well the members of the band got along together in their most recent European, reunion tour.  If we conceded that point, and we have to to some degree, we could hit those same fans with the question: why did they get together for that tour in the first place?

In the eighteen years that have followed the dissolution of the FNM, lead singer Mike Patton was often asked about the possibility of them ever getting back together again, and on one occasion he said, and I paraphrase:

Every so often, a guy will approach me with a suitcase full of money and a plan for how the reunion of Faith No More will work.  Maybe if they would offer us two suitcases we could talk.” 

To be fair, Patton never hinted that there was animosity within the band, and he never said never, but he did leave the impression that it would be a cold day in hell.  Those of us that pined for a reunion, and parsed Patton’s words for hope, read him speaking about fond memories, and a recognition that none of what he did after FNM would’ve been possible were it not for FNM.  We read interviews in which he said he learned so much about the craft from those days, and that he was eternally grateful for the opportunity they gave him (my words).  We also read him say that he had learned to put the past behind him, and that he felt that they had all reached a creative peak with one another on their last album, and we read lines that amounted to him hoping that no one would hold it against him, but that he was just not interested.

Unless, perhaps, the industry fell to such a level that no one could make money anymore?  Unless the dire straits of the industry reached a point where wives were approaching the former band members with employment brochures from the local life insurance company?  Hell may not have frozen over, as it did with the Eagles, but there is an apparent point where even the most stubborn artist can no longer laughingly reject that guy with one suitcase full of money.

It may seem like unnecessary cynicism to include such a point, and it may be sad to think that it reached that point for these gifted musicians, but there does come a point where pole dancing around the elephant in the room becomes so tedious that someone’s got to jam a thumb in it.

One, almost universal complaint of the album Sol Invictus, from these rock critics, is that it is not breathtakingly original.  The track Sunny Side Up was singled out for the theme of criticism leveled at the album as an example of how FNM followed their soft-loud-soft formula a little too closely.  Any fans of the lead singer Mike Patton know that the man has not followed a formula in many of his works, and that he has numerous artistic, and largely inaccessible albums in his catalog.  My contention is that once you’ve established your bona fides as a risk-taking, boundary-breaking artist, you can go ahead and make more accessible albums.  There is a trade-off, in other words, in which a true artist shows that he can nimbly cross borders without doing damage to his artistic core.  And while Faith No More may be more accessible, and more formulaic, than many of Patton’s other projects, FNM’s definition of accessible and formulaic is far more creative and artistic than the many other, computer generated artists in the modern day lists of music.

The one track that some of these reviews list as a standout in originality, on the Sol Invictus album is: Matador.  Consider me too well-versed on 80’s hair metal bands if you want, but I consider this song to be heavily influenced by the Warning and Rage for Order-era Queensryche albums.  While this track may be original in the FNM catalog, it is not breathtakingly original as far as I’m concerned.  I do understand that most people don’t have a thirty-year reference base, but one would expect someone from the world of rock critics to pick up on this one.

One decent excuse for wanting the material on Sol Invictus to be more original comes from Ms. Zoe Camp from Pitchfork.com:

There’s nothing necessarily wrong with a band repeating itself. But because Faith No More have such a long history, and their members are responsible for music in a staggering array of styles, it’s hard not to expect more, to wish that they might in some way top themselves, or at least change direction.”

Among the influences that Zoe Camp, and Adam Workman of The National, list for Faith No More (FNM) is Nirvana?  Nirvana?  How could anyone listen to any FNM song and think Nirvana?  FNM actually came out before Nirvana is a point that I would make in this argument.  There’s absolutely nothing wrong with Nirvana, of course, but comparing the two sounds is like comparing Neptune and Venus.  They’re both planets, and their existence is influenced to varying degrees by the Sun, but the comparisons really end there.  I realize that one of the members of FNM was friends with Kurt Cobain, but unless these critics are privy to information I don’t have, I don’t know how anyone could list Nirvana as an influence.  One song Star A.D., was supposedly an homage to Cobain, but lead singer Mike Patton has denied even that.  Perhaps these two reviewers were attempting to frame the era in which these two bands were popular, but other than that I don’t see a Nirvana influence in any FNM songs or albums.

Most FNM fans, aching for new material, were a little disappointed by the November 2014 single MF.  For those unacquainted with the single, the full name of the single is the swear word.  We feared that this was a hint of the material to come.  The song itself is decent, but we feared that FNM was trying too hard to be racy, naughty, and that it was a cover for a lack of creative ingenuity in the manner that a stand up comedian with subpar material tries to tap into the audience’s preference for a tableau that is titillating and exciting through swears.  Not only that, but there was the “act your age” element to it that led some of to believe that these fifty-something rockers were trying too hard to sound young.

When the Superhero track was released, some of us were relieved.  Did it sort of plagiarize other material in FNM’s back catalog?  Or, could it be stated that it was a Patton-influenced Tomahawk-like track?  Whatever the case, it was an excellent re-introduction to the FNM sound.

Some of the reviews focus some of their space on Mike Patton’s lyrics.  In my opinion, as I’ve stated in a number of music reviews, when you isolate most lyrics from the music, they are actually pretty mindless.

Lyrics,” as Patton has said many times, “simply fit the music.  Lyrics, or vocals, at their best, should be used as nothing more than another instrument in a song.  No more, no less.”  (Paraphrase.)

If you are still a Mike Patton fan, at this point, you’re not one that demands that he fulfill some sort of unquenchable thirst for knowledge and philosophy you have in his lyrics.  A fairly decent chunk of his output involves non-verbal, guttural sounds, and some of it is even in a foreign language.  Some of the great lyricists in rock history have stated that they were surprised by the effect their lyrics had on people. The reason for this, we can only guess, is that it was not their intention to be thought-provoking, as much as it was to provide “cool” imagery in word collages made famous by William S. Burroughs, and later used by David Bowie.

Most lyricists are not trying to be philosophers, social commentators, or poets, and they’re not trying to write that college thesis that they never had the chance to write after dropping out of school to pursue the dream of being a musician.  The import given to most rock lyrics occurs in the creative minds of rock critics mining the material for something they can expound upon.  If I had the ear of a rock journalist for one minute this would be my plea, get over your obsession with lyrics, they mean far more to you than anyone else.

Chris Conaton of Pop Matters writes that:

Sol Invictus probably isn’t going to top Angel Dust or The Real Thing on most fans’ lists of favorite Faith No More albums, but it’s a step up from Album of the Year and holds its own with the strong but slightly bloated King for a Day, Fool for a Lifetime record. This is a solid comeback album that succeeds on its own terms. Namely, the whole band sounds engaged and enthusiastic to be working together, and that’s good for everyone that’s ever had a vested interest in Faith No More.”

The very idea that anyone that follows what “most FNM fans” think would consider The Real Thing for their top FNM albums’ list reveals that that person has no idea how most hard-core, longtime FNM fans think.  Most of them don’t even mention The Real Thing on FNM discussion boards.  Perhaps those that are just now learning of FNM, or those only familiar with FM radio’s version of FNM would consider that album for their top two.  For most of us, however, The Real Thing put FNM on the map, and we’ve moved past it to such a degree that unless we’re bit by the retro bug, it is growing dust in our basement.  Most true fans would surely agree that Sol Invictus is not going to cause anyone to forget Angel Dust, however, and the point about King for a Day, Fool for a Lifetime would probably lead to some debate, but Mr. Conaton’s greater point about Sol Invictus appearing to be more of a creative interest for the band, than a purely financial one appears to be a strong one.

Reading through the critical reviews of this album, and all album reviews, this reader gets the sense that most rock critics are less concerned with you actually buying the album, in question, than they are getting you to scroll up to see the writer that wrote the review.  They use huge, lofty words to describe the band’s history, and they use flowery language to describe the intricacies of the music involved on the album.  It is, of course, incumbent on them to prove some mastery of both in any album review, but some critics get so out of hand that it can appear a little self-indulgent at times.  Sol Invictus is a hard rock album that will remind you why you fell in love with the artistic brilliance of Faith No More in the first place, and just about everything that Mike Patton has involved himself in over the past twenty-five years.  The fact that the music therein will never cause the hardcore, longtime fan of FNM to forget Angel Dust; coupled with the fact that the lyrics will never cause you to forget Robert Frost should not deter you from purchasing an album that someone finally approached them with two suitcases (or the one that is now more valuable in the current climate of the music industry) shouldn’t deter you from purchasing what happens to be a damn good, hard rock album.

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Secret Chiefs 3 Book of Horizons: Folio A


“This isn’t Westoxification, this isn’t Drupad — it’s not Ram Naryan, its ROCK!”—Trey Spruance

Any person that attempts to review a Secret Chiefs 3 (SC3) album has their hands full. How does one describe such vast music in a simple blog, and keep that review concise enough to maintain a reader’s attention? Is SC3 classical? No, but it does contain elements of classical music. These elements may not be recognizable to fans of Mozart, Bach, and Beethoven, but they do carry the same revolutionary spirit that must have followed those composers in their era. Will SC3 remind a listener of Arab, or Middle Eastern, music?  Yes, but as the guitarist (and leader) of SC3, Trey Spruance, would tell you, if you played SC3 in any Middle Eastern country, “They would consider the music as foreign as your mother and father would.” Is the philosophy of SC3 based on Spruance’s interest in Persian philosophy?  Yes but not directly, as Spurance stated:

secret_chiefs_promo“It solved a philosophical riddle that I had always needed to find an answer to, and Secret Chiefs is the musical expression, the exploration of those thoughts.”  

Is the music similar to the type of music Ennio Morricone used in the soundtrack to The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly? Yes, but one cannot listen to SC3 without hearing the evolution, and personalized interpretations, of Morricone’s general ideas.

As Greg Prato, of AllMusic.com, writes, “(SC3) is a combination of Ennio Morricone movie scores, world music, experimental noise-rock, and heavy metal.”{1}

Blake Butler, of Allmusic.com, described SC3 as, “Indian/Asian-sounding melodies overlaid with wildly cavorting, techno rhythms and a tiny bit of metal, infused with a sense of mystery and paranoia from the thematic artwork based on number theory and assumedly Hindu belief systems.” He has also basically said that he didn’t think there would be much of a market for this kind of “skewed version of Indo/Pak music.”{2}

As with most artists, when Trey Spruance is confronted with anyone attempting to classify his creation, he finds such attempts limiting to the total scope of SC3 music. He prefers to refer to SC3 as technologized music, that is contemporary Middle Eastern music, combined with a discernible western influence.

Spruance, as indicated by this War and Peace length explanation of the totality of his vision, has as much difficulty describing the music of SC3 as any reviewer, or blogger. He is either being sardonically complex, when describing his philosophical approach to music, or it is so infused by a multitude of influences that it cannot be condensed to a simple chapter … of War and Peace. {3}

The History

For those unfamiliar with the band(s) Secret Chiefs 3, they arose out of the ashes of the late great Mr. Bungle. They are, basically, Mr. Bungle without lead singer Mike Patton. They are, largely, the work of Mr. Bungle’s guitarist and keyboardist Trey Spruance with the  assistance of two other Chiefs, formerly of Mr. Bungle, bassist Trevor Dunn and drummer Danny Heifetz.

The reports of the Mr. Bungle’s demise have it that Mike Patton could no longer deal with the work ethic of some of the members (see Spruance) of the band. The reason we can specify Spruance, in our interpretation of these relatively vague Patton complaints, is that Patton worked with Dunn and Heifetz soon after Bungle’s breakup. On that charge, history has vindicated Patton, judging by the number of bands, and the total number of projects Patton has involved himself in in the intervening years, versus those of Spruance.

Spruance, for his part, has argued that while he considers most of Patton’s post-Bungle works to be interesting, quality works, he thinks some of them sounded rushed, and that they probably could’ve been perfected with time. Thus, it could be said that, at the very least, Spruance’s approach to music is more methodical and patient than Patton’s. One has to hope that the breakup of one of the best American bands wasn’t as simple as that, and that doesn’t appear to be the case with Spruance, as he stated that Patton was an egomaniac that wanted everything done his way:

“Patton’s subsequent resentment towards me is a fairly predictable outcome. You don’t stand up to him and stay off his (dung)-list. A bummer, yeah, but it’s essentially a self-protecting reflex action – something I don’t really feel a need to hold against him too much. He has his way. It won’t change.”

That having been said, it appears as though time does, indeed, heal all wounds, as Mike Patton is the vocalist on one of the best tracks of Book of Souls: Folio A: La Chanson de Jacky. This song marks the first time that Patton and Spruance have worked on a released track together since Mr. Bungle’s demise in 2004. It is a cover song of a 1965 Euro song that has a feel –or to use an old, hippie adjective– a vibe that would have fit in quite nicely on Patton’s Mondo Cane.

The wait

Those that loved the SC3 album The Book of Souls: Book of Horizons later learned that it was the first of a trilogy that we assumed would be available later that same year, or soon thereafter.  Patient fans soon began to think that they may not live long enough to see the completion of that trilogy, started in 2004. It appears as though that day has finally arrived, as Folio A is the first part of a two part release that will be followed by the release of Folio B, which Spruance declared to be soon to follow. Longtime fans hope that soon to follow does not amount to another ten years.

“Time scales don’t really apply to Secret Chiefs 3,” Trey Spruance.

Between the two Book of Soul albums, SC3 fans have been treated to a greatest hits album, Path of Most Resistance, a couple EPs, a brilliant soundtrack for a movie-never-made called Le Mani Destre Recise Degli Ultimi Uomini, and an interpretation of John Zorn work’s Xaphan Book 2—The Book of Angels Volume 9. The latter work put to rest any speculation that Zorn and Spruance were still feuding over The Weird Little Boy session. Spruance claimed there was never a feud between the two of them, but that he didn’t care for Zorn’s free form jazz, and that he simply preferred to work in tighter arrangements. This begs the question, had Spruance never heard Zorn’s work, or his style of production, before this project? (Note: Zorn produced Mr. Bungle’s 1991 self-titled debut.) Weird Little Boy was released in 1998, and it is exactly what Spruance complains about: free form, unfocused, and nonsense, music that is John Zorn (and jazz in general) at his worst, in this author’s relatively informed opinion.

The music and philosophy of Book of Souls: Folio A

For those familiar with prior Chiefs’ seven releases, Folio A has that vibe that was originally unearthed in most of the songs on the landmark, Mr. Bungle release California. Spruance, of course, states that the artistic impulses behind SC3’s music began years before Mr. Bungle, but those that are used to reading artists describe their productions, know that very few artists will allow a simple description to go by without, at least, attempting to add some form of complication to it. If the impulses began before Mr. Bungle, it’s safe to say that they saw greater maturity, and probable fruition, during Mr. Bungle, particularly the California sessions.

Longtime listeners hate to admit that they enjoy the familiar sounds on an otherwise complicated barrage of music hitting you over the head, but there are times when a listener needs some sort of familiarity as an introduction to the music. SC3’s version of the Theme from Halloween, titled Personae: Halloween is such an intro for uninformed listeners, and those having a little trouble digesting the complicated Folio A album may want to consider listening to this song as an intro. All of the SC3 songs on the Foilo A album have the IndoPak/Euro feel to them, with an ever present Ennio Morricone feel attached.

There are six short tracks on Folio A that provide elaborate radio station identifier sounds, but it’s the other seven that will probably form the base of long time listening for any fan.

Trey’s careful, methodical approach takes what could be discerned as chaos on first listen, but the music eventually grows on you, until the careful structure comes out on repeated listens. Folio A has a base sound, in other words, but each song depends on the varying approaches brought by each sub-band within the band.  As Spruance describes:

“UR is sort of a rock version of Western tonality, and Traditionalists is more of a cinematic, soundtrack thing, whereas FORMS harks back to an earlier age of Western music, sort of a late romantic era being played by automated machines, band organ, that kind of thing. 

“Ishraqiyn is more the quasi-Pythagorean tonalities, referring to the more Eastern tonal system. Holy Vehm is sort of crushing those things together in a violent collision, and Electromagnetic Azoth is actually the center of the whole thing, distributing all the different tonal systems and sometimes coming out seemingly chaotically, but it’s actually very structured. Electromagnetic Azoth is the band that takes the seed motifs and distributes them to the different bands. So the different band’s tonal approaches are used to reinterpret each motif.”

Seven different bands (six sub-bands), seven different ideas, and seven different approaches to seven different songs, (Ishraqiyn and UR each have two songs on the latest LP) for a unified whole. This could lead to chaos, but as described earlier, Spruance has carefully, and methodically, worked them into a structured umbrella.

Spruance described this approach to Progsphere as such:

“There might be one motif, or ‘theme’ for each of these (songs), a philosophical concept that gets tossed around in the music. It gets redistributed around, think of it like filters or a prism; how a prism reflects different colors, but takes in one force of light that gets refracted, it’s like that. Scattering the lights into different modalities, that’s the best way I could describe it.{4}

In an attempt to describe how he approaches the instruments that he plays throughout all of the SC3 albums, Trey said:

“I’m not really an instrumentalist. I’m more of a composer, so that wasn’t going to be fulfilling to me (to simply play, and progress, with the guitar). So I started studying the musical systems of antiquity to try to understand what made them tick and what they were invoking.”

I don’t know if I’m alone with such concerns, but in the last couple of years I’ve found it relatively depressing to learn how little some of my favorite artists had to do some of their best works. With some artists, it’s obvious how little they had to do with the work that happens to carry their name, but there were others that I always believed had near-dictatorial control of their projects. I found it relatively depressing to learn that some of them came into the studio at the 11th hour and wrote some lyrics, and put some cherries atop the pie. I could list names here, but that isn’t what this is about. It’s more about celebrating the standards set up by those few micromanagers that say that if my name is going to be on it, I’m going to micromanage this thing to death, until it reaches my definition of artistic truth. Spruance, Patton, and John Zorn (other than most of his 20 Book of Angels projects) appear to be these types of artists.

“I feel like I have to take on all of the burden myself; micromanage everything. If you’re going to be putting in a million hours into making this record, if your heart’s not into it, then it’s not going to have any power to it.”

As I said, it’s difficult to review this music. As with most other music, a reviewer can say that when one listens to this music I’m reviewing, they’ll hear a dash of artist A, a mixture of artists B and C, and a heavy dose of artist D. A listener just can’t do that with the Secret Chiefs 3, if their frame of reference is largely western rock. I suppose if one grew up on Morricone, Persian, Arab, and other Middle Eastern music, they could say that it’s derivative, but I would find that surprising. Trey has said that his audience is all over the map, logistically, and demographically, but I have a hard time believing that young westerners, that prize rebellion from parental concerns for their musical identity, will find much appealing in SC3’s music. I’m guessing that the majority of Sc3’s demographic is composed of forty-somethings that are tired of all the usual music out there. For it’s not music that will tick off anyone’s parents, but it may cause them to worry about their child’s mental stability after they close the door and crank it.

{1} http://www.allmusic.com/album/second-grand-constitution-and-bylaws-hurqalya-armarillo-mw0001016363

{2} http://www.allmusic.com/album/book-m-mw0000591048

{3} http://www.markprindle.com/spruance-i.htm

{4}http://www.prog-sphere.com/interviews/an-interview-with-trey-spruance-of-secret-chiefs-3/#sthash.7E1f9dF5.dpuf

James Joyce: Incomparable or Incomprehensible?


Those of us who are always on the lookout for edgy, racy content have heard the term “Joycean” thrown about with little discretion over the years. Critics appear to be enjoy using the term than they are in properly applying it to the product they are reviewing. The question that those of us driven to the source would have for Joyce, if he were still alive, is: Were your final two works the most erudite, most complicated pieces of fiction ever written, or were they a great practical joke played on the literature community to expose these reference makers and your elitist, scholars for who they are?

James Joyce

James Joyce

Readers who seek to up their erudite status by reading difficult books, have all heard of Joyce’s final two works: Ulysses and Finnegans Wake. Some literary scholars list the books as some of the most difficult, most complicated works of fiction ever created. Some of us have attempted to tackle them as the challenge that they are, others have attempted to read them for entrance into their subjective definition of elite status. Most are confused and disoriented by the books, but some have the patience, the wherewithal, and the understanding of all of the references made, and languages used, in these books necessary for total comprehension. Those readers either deserve a hearty salute, or the scorn and laughter that Joyce provided, as a gift to the havenots, who openly admit that they don’t understand these books.

I don’t understand either of these books, and I have gone back numerous times to try to further my understanding. Some have said that Ulysses is the more palatable of the two, but I have found it to be too elliptical, too erratic, and too detail-oriented to maintain focus, and I have purchased three different aides to guide me through it. Some of those same readers readily admit that Finnegans Wake is ridiculously incomprehensible.

Most people enjoyed Dennis Miller’s tenure as an announcer on Monday Night Football, but most of those same people complained that they didn’t understand two-thirds of the man’s references. I didn’t keep a journal on his references, but I’m willing to bet that at least a third of them were Joycean in nature. Miller stated that his goal, in using such obscure references, was to make fellow announcer Al Michaels laugh, but any fan who has followed Miller’s career knows that he enjoys the motif he gains by using complicated and obscure references to make himself sound erudite. There are, today, very few references more obscure than those who recall the work of James Joyce, a man who described his last book, Finnegans Wake, as “A book obscure enough to keep professors busy for 300 years.”

Andy Kaufman referenced James Joyce when trying to describe his method of operation. The import of the reference was that Kaufman wanted to be a comedian’s comedian, in the manner that Joyce was a writer’s writer. He wanted to perform difficult and complicated acts that the average consumer did not understand, and the very fact that they didn’t “get it” was what invigorated him. He wanted that insider status that an artist uses to gain entrée to the “in the know” groups. After achieving some fame, audiences began laughing with Kaufman in a manner that appears to have only bored him, and he spent the rest of his career trying to up that ante. By doing the latter, we can guess that there was something genuine about Kaufman’s path in that he was only trying to entertain himself, and his friends, and if anyone else wanted on board that was up to them. Perhaps, Joyce and Kaufman shared this same impulse.

Anytime an artist creates a difficult piece of work, there is going to be a divide between the haves (those who get it) and the havenots. When Mike Patton formed the band Fantomas, he never did so with the illusion that he was going to unseat the Eagles Greatest Hits, or Michael Jackson’s Thriller, atop the list of greatest selling albums of all time. He knew, or should’ve known, that he was playing to a very select audience.

What is the audience for such difficult subject matter? Most people seek music, as either background noise, something to dance to, or something to tap their finger to. Most people read a book to gain a little more characterization and complication than a movie can provide, but they don’t want too much characterization, or too much complication. Most people only buy art to feng shui their homes. Most people don’t seek excessively difficult art, and those who do are usually seeking something more, something more engaging, and something more provocative that can only be defined by the individual. The audience for the difficult generally have such a strong foundation in the arts that they reach a point where their artistic desires can only satiated by something different.

Yet, different can mean different things at different times to different people. Different can be complicated, and discordant, but it can also be limited to style. At this point in history, it’s difficult to be different, in a manner that cannot be called derivative of someone or something, so most people seek whatever separations they can find. When the latest starlet of the moment twerks in a provocative manner, has a construction worker find her pornographic video, or accidentally has her reproductive organ photographed, we know that these are incidents created by the starlet, and her people, to get noticed after they have exhausted all other attempts to be perceived as artistically brilliant and different.

There are also some other artists who are different for the sole sake of being different. This is often less than organic, and it often disinterests those of us seeking a true separation from the norm, because we feel that this has been thoroughly explored to the point of exhaustion. Andy Kaufman created something organically different that can never be completely replicated, in much the same manner Chuck Palahniuk, Mike Patton, David Bowie, Quentin Tarantino, and Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David did. Can it be said that James Joyce’s final two books were different in an artistically brilliant, and cutting edge manner that all of these artists’ creations were, or were James Joyce’s writings more symbolism over substance? Put another way, was Joyce a substantive artist who’s true messages need to be unearthed through careful examination, or was he simply twerking in a provocative manner with the hope of getting noticed by the elite scholars of his generation after exhausting the limits of his talent in other works?

Judging by his short stories, James Joyce could’ve written some of the best novels in history. Those who say that he already did, would have to admit that his final two works were not overly concerned with story, or plot. Those who defend his final two works would probably say that I am judging Joyce’s final two works by traditional standards, and that they were anything but traditional. They would probably also argue that the final two works sought to shake up the traditional world of literature, and anyone that dared to take up the challenge of reading these works. They would probably say Joyce sought to confound people, more than interest them, and if they did concede to the idea that the final two works were different for the sole sake of being different, they would add that he was one of the first to do so. Those who defend his final two works say that they are not as difficult to read, or as complex, as some would lead you to believe. These people suggest that reading these two works only requires more patience, and examination, than the average works. Anyone who states such a thing is attempting to sound either hyper intelligent, or hyper erudite, for it was Joyce’s expressed purpose to be difficult, complicated, and hyper-erudite.

To understand Ulysses, one needs an annotated guide of 1920-era Dublin, a guide that describes the Irish songs of the day, some limericks, mythology, and a fluent understanding of Homer’s The Odyssey. If the reader doesn’t have a well-versed knowledge of that which occurred nearly one-hundred years prior to today, they may not understand the parodies, or jokes Joyce employs in Ulysses. Yet, it was considered, by the Modern Library, in 1998, to be the greatest work of fiction ever produced.

“Everyone I know owns Ulysses, but no one I know has finished it.”  —Larry King.

To fully understand, and presumably enjoy, Finnegans Wake, the reader needs to have a decent understanding of Latin, German, French, and Hebrew, and a basic understanding of the Norwegian linguistic and cultural elements. The reader will also need to be well-versed in Egypt’s Book of the Dead, Shakespeare, The Bible, and The Qur’an. They also need to understand the English language on an etymological level, for one of Joyce’s goals with Finnegans Wake, was to mess with the conventions of the English language.

Some have opined that one of Joyce’s goals, in Ulysses, was to use every word in the English language, and others have stated that this is a possibility since he used approximately 40,000 unique words throughout the work. If this is true, say others, his goal for Finnegans Wake, was to extend the confusion by incorporating German, French, Latin, Hebrew, and other languages into his text. When he did use English, in Finnegans Wake, Joyce sought to use it in unconventional and etymological ways to describe what he believed to be the language of the night. He stated that Finnegans Wake was “A book of the night” and Ulysses was “A book of the day”.

“In writing of the night, I really could not, I felt, use words in their ordinary connections . . . that way they do not express how things are in the night, in the different stages – conscious, then semi-conscious, then unconscious. I found that it could not be done with words in their ordinary relations and connections. When morning comes of course everything will be clear again . . .  I’ll give them back their English language. I’m not destroying it for good.” —James Joyce on his novel Finnegans Wake.

This use of the “language of the night” could lead one to say that Joyce was one of the first deconstructionists, and thus ahead of his time by destroying the meaning of meaning in the immediate sense. Those obsessed with James Joyce could interpret the quote, and the subsequent methodology used in Finnegans Wake, to mean that Joyce had such a profound understanding of linguistics that normal modes of communicating an idea, bored him. He wanted something different. He wanted to explore language, and meaning, in a manner that made his readers question their fundamentals. Readability was not his goal, nor was storytelling, or achieving a best-seller list. He sought to destroy conventions, and common sense, and achieve a higher realm of perfect, in which timeless abstractions cannot be communicated to those who adhere to common sense. This makes for an interesting conversation on high art, and philosophy, but does it lend itself to quality reading?

“What is clear and concise can’t deal with reality,” Joyce is reported to have told friend Arthur Power,  “For to be real is to be surrounded by mystery.”

In the modern age, there is much discussion of the widening gap between the haves and the have nots. That particular discussion revolves around economic distinctions, as it has for time immemorial, but in the Joycean world, the gap involves those who “get” his works, and those who do not. Those who get it usually prefer to have deeper meanings shrouded in clever wordplay. They usually prefer symbolism over substance; writing over storytelling; and interpretation over consistent and concretized thoughts.

The two schools of thought between the haves and the havenots can probably best be explained by breaking them down to the Hemingway manner of writing and that of Joyce. Hemingway wrote clear and concise sentences. Hemingway stated that his methodology was to write something that was true:

“The hardest thing is to make something really true and sometimes truer than true.”—Ernest Hemingway.

Putting Joyce’s final two works through the Hemingway school of thought, one could say that Joyce’s methodology was: Some of the times, it’s more interesting to make it false and let others define it as true. 

“Though people may read more into Ulysses than I ever intended, who is to say that they are wrong: do any of us know what we are creating? … Which of us can control our scribblings? They are the script of one’s personality like your voice or your walk.” —James Joyce

Those of us who have had a deep discussion, on a deep, multifaceted topic, with a deep thinker know that sooner or later a declarative distinction will be made if we stubbornly insist that we are not wrong. “You don’t get it, and you probably never will,” is something they will say in a variety of ways. We all know what it feels like to be summarily dismissed as an anti-intellectual by a deep thinker? Those who aren’t snobbish in an anti-social manner, often avoid openly dismissing us, but even the polite snobs give us a vibe, a look, or a chuff that is intended to let us know our place.

“Well, what do you think of it then?” is the response some of us have given, after being backed into an anti-intellectual corner by deep thinkers.

If they are an anti-social, elite intellectual snob, they will say something along the lines of: “I simply choose to think deeper!” It’s a great line, and it purportedly puts us stubborn types in our place, but it’s a self-serving non-answer. Those of us who are more accustomed to interaction with deep thinkers, will then ask them to expound upon their complicated, deep thinking? Pushing deep thinkers deeper will often reveal a lack of substance beneath their piles of style, and the careful observer will find that the results of their deep thinking is no deeper than the deep thinker cap they wear to the pub.

A number of attempts at reading Joyce have led me to believe that he probably didn’t have much substance beneath his piles of style, so he muddied the waters of his message with puns, songs, gibberish, abstractions, foreign languages, and overly complicated complications. He did this, in my opinion, to conceal the fact that when compared to his colleagues, he didn’t have all that much to say. If that’s true, he was definitely artistically accomplished in saying it.

Who can forget the many sayings that Finnegans Wake dropped on our culture, such as the transcendental sound of the thunderclap that announced the fall of Adam and Eve from the garden of Eden:

“bababadalgharaghtakamminarronnkonnbronntonnerronntuonnthunntrovarrhounawnskawntoohoohoordenenthur-nuk!”

What about the mirthsome giggles we have had in social gatherings with the catchphrase:

“A way a lone a last a loved a long the riverrun, past Eve and Adam’s, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs.”

Or the ever present: 

“(Stoop) if you are abcedminded, to this claybook, what curios of sings (please stoop), in this allaphbed!  Can you rede (since We and Thou had it out already) its world?”

If you just read those sentences three or four times, and you still have no idea what it says, and you just went back to read them again, because you want to be a have that “gets it”, you’re not alone. If these passages were merely anecdotal evidence of the difficulty involved in reading Finnegans Wake, that would be one thing, but these difficulties litter just about every sentence of every paragraph of the book, as evidenced by the exhaustive assistance provided at the site Finwake.com for readers who have no idea what this writer is going on about. 

Finnegans Wake is reported to be in English, but it’s not the standard version of English where words have specific meaning. The “language of the night” was intended for linguists who are tired of reading words that have exact meanings, and it was intended to be playful and mind-altering, and rule breaking. James Joyce made references intended to be obscure even to the reader of his day who may not have Joyce’s wealth of knowledge of history, or the manner in which the meaning of the words in the English language have changed throughout history.

“What is really imaginative is the contrary to what is concise and clear.” —James Joyce

James Joyce was a stream of consciousness writer who believed that all “mistakes” were intended on some level that superseded awareness. In the 500+ page book, Finnegans Wake, Joyce found 600 errors after publication. He was informed of some, if not all of these errors, and he was reported to have fought his publishers to keep them in. Later editions were written to correct many of these errors, and provide readers “the book in the manner Joyce had intended.” If Joyce didn’t believe in errors, however, how can those who corrected them state that the corrected edition is the definitive edition that “Joyce intended”?

“The man of genius makes no mistakes, his errors are volitional and portals of discovery.” –James Joyce

Throughout the seventeen years Joyce spent writing Finnegans Wake, he began to go blind, so he had a friend named, Samuel Beckett, take dictation over the phone to complete the novel. At one point in this dictation setting, someone knocked on Joyce’s door.  Joyce said, “Come in!” to the knocker, and Beckett wrote the words “Come in!” into the narrative of Finnegans Wake. When this error was spotted by Joyce, and the confusion was sorted out, Joyce insisted that Beckett, “Leave it in!” On another occasion, when a printer’s error was pointed out he said, “Leave it. It sounds better that way than the way I wrote it.”

There are three different versions of the text: The first and second are the editions that Joyce submitted for publications with all of the errors intact. The third edition has the errors that the editors located, and the 600 corrections that Joyce spent two years locating, corrected. Some would have you believe that first two editions are the definitive editions, but you have to be a Joyce purist to appreciate them.

Can it be called anything short of egotistical for an author to believe that his subconscious choices and decisions, are somehow divine? If, as Joyce said, and Picasso later repeated in regard to his paintings, mistakes are portals of discovery, then we can say that’s great, and incredibly artistic in the process of creation. To leave it in the finished product, however, and subject your readers to the confusion, just seems narcissistic. “Here’s what I was thinking at the time,” Joyce is basically telling his readers. “I don’t know what it means, but this is a higher plane of thinking than simple conscious thought. Isn’t it magical? Maybe you can make some sense of it. Maybe you can attribute it to your life in some manner.” This method of operation may say something profound about the random nature of the universe, but when we’re reading a novel we don’t necessarily want to know about the randomness of the universe, unless it’s structured in a manner that leads us to your statement. 

Not everyone can write a classic, and some realize this after a number of failed attempts. Once they arrive at this fork in the road, they can either write simple books that provide them and theirs an honest living, or they can grow so frustrated by their inability to write classics that they separate themselves from the pack through obscurity. The advantage of creating such an alleged contrivance is that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and the beholder can assign their own relative beauty to it. Some would say this is the very definition of art, but others would say even that definition has limits. Some would say that the most obscure painting is art, because they “see it”, where others see only schlock for elitists to crib note to death, until meaning is derived.

James Joyce is considered the exception to this rule, fellow writers have told me, and if you are going to attempt to write an important novel in the 21st Century, you had better be familiar with him. I’ve tried, and I now believe that I’m destined to be a havenot in the Joycean world … even with Ulysses. The question that arises out of these ashes is, am I going a long way to becoming more intelligent by recognizing my limits, or should it be every aspiring intellect’s responsibility to continue to push themselves beyond any self-imposed limits to a point where they can finally achieve a scholarly understanding of difficult material? If this is a conundrum that every person encounters when facing challenges to their intelligence, is Ulysses, or more pointedly Finnegans Wake, the ultimate barometer of intelligence, or is it such an exaggerated extension that it had to have been a practical joke James Joyce played on the elitist literary community to expose them as the in-crowd, elitist snobs that they are when they “get it” just to get it. Do they really “get it”, or are they falling prey to Joyce’s clever ruse to expose them as people that “get” something that was never intended to be “got”?

Chuck Klosterman on who wears the black hat in our society


Chuck Klosterman’s new book I Wear the Black Hat is mostly a list of villains throughout pop culture and History.  The list, at times, is a little kitschy, and at times it’s a little serious, but whether you agree with him or not, Klosterman always has plenty of material to back up his claims.

In one of the passages of his book, Chuck Klosterman informs us that it’s no longer PC (Politically Correct) to call the PC movement PC.  He says that the very term PC is now nothing more than a “quaint distraction” that “no one takes too seriously anymore,” and “it feels like something that only matters to Charles Krauthammer.”  Klosterman says that the last time it was a “correct term to use to describe the linguistic issue in America was (roughly) between 1986 to 1995.”

Klosterman

It drives some of us “really, really crazy” when an individual tells us that a term, or phrase, that we use to describe a movement no longer properly describes that movement.  These people are prone to say, “You should stop using that term,” or something like, “That is so yesterday dude.”

‘Ok,’ I mentally respond, while reading this particular condemnation in the book I Wear the Black Hat (Or should I say African-American Hat). ‘What term, or phrase, would Mr. Klosterman prefer we use to describe the current incarnation of the PC movement?’ The answer, we find by dutifully reading on, is that we don’t replace it, unless you’re Charles Krauthammer.  It’s, apparently, just not a phrase that people should use anymore.  In other words, the cynical would respond, “it drives certain people (like Klosterman’s wife) really, really crazy” to try and defeat the idea that some people are trying inflict speech codes upon our language, so just drop it, and we can all get along a lot better.

If the import of Klosterman’s message on PC speech codes were that I’m not to be considered hip anymore when I use a term like PC, I’ll take that, because I’m admittedly about as far from hip as one person could possibly be.  If he’s telling us that the term PC is no longer an apt description of the attempts to control language, however, he’s going to have to provide us with a substitute.  I wouldn’t use that substitute, of course, but it would strengthen his argument to do so.

I was going to argue that the PC movement may not be as overt as it was between 1986 to 1995, but it is, we’re just more assimilated to it now.  Those of us that railed against PC speech codes in that era, as Klosterman later points out, simply lost the war.  The difference between the culture that existed between 1986 to 1995 and now, is that it’s simply less shocking to us now when someone tries to control how we speak.  It’s one of those sad but true facts that we’ve all learned to accept and a code we now have to lived by.

It used to be shocking to some of us when someone, be they a politician, or an obnoxious member of a particular group, would tell us that we weren’t speaking correctly, and it would elicit rebellion back then.  That rebellion was put forth by many, but in Klosterman’s opinion no one did it more often, or as loudly, as Andrew Dice Clay and 2 Live Crew.  Klosterman states that PC climate of that era provided an historical window in which an Andrew Dice Clay could become a megastar, and that “he would not have been a megastar in any other historical window—if (Dice Clay) had happened at a time when vulgarity somehow felt less important.”

Klosterman declares that that PC era was “painlessly oppressive” and those in that era experienced “low level anxiety” when they argued in public in which “Even casual conversation suddenly had the potential to get someone fired.”  He describes how sexism and racism were given birth, or at least re-birth, during this era, and that the “backlash was stupid and adversarial.”  In other words, if we are to read Klosterman correctly, we presumably should’ve all acquiesced to the PC crowd a lot sooner, so they could’ve won the war a lot quicker and saved us a whole bunch of adversarial exchanges.

I don’t know much about Klosterman’s life, and if he has experienced the hammer of the PC police personally, but those of us that have know that the PC police don’t just go away. They move onto the next thing, whatever that thing is.  To some of us, it is very important, and at the risk of inflating it beyond reason, vital to the the free speech clause that we continue to provide them the “stupid and adversarial” backlash that keeps them somewhat close to being in check.

In the final portion of this chapter, Klosterman does concede that the winners of this war, these advocates of speech-limitation, “Didn’t necessarily make a better argument, they just wore the culture down.  Almost everything that these advocates wanted in 1990, have been adopted by the world at large, in that we now err on the side of caution for the potentially offended.”  So he basically admits that the PC crowd is still on the march, but that it’s just not PC to call them PC anymore.

The Villians

The much ballyhooed (and selling point for the book) chapter on O.J. Simpson doesn’t live up to the hype.  The hype that the publishers used to try to move the book, was that Klosterman was going to tell us O.J.’s second biggest mistake.  The second biggest mistake O.J. made, in Klosterman’s opinion, is that O.J. didn’t go into hiding after the trial exonerated him of the brutal slaying of his wife and Ron Goldman (yawn).  Klosterman advises O.J., as O.J.’s adviser Alan Dershowitz advised O.J., that he should’ve kept a low profile, or move, or do anything but what he did by going out and living the O.J. lifestyle that O.J. knew pre-incarceration.  Klosterman, would’ve advised O.J. against writing that book, or going on talk shows to give his side.  A much more interesting chapter, as if it hasn’t been covered already, would’ve been to focus on our society’s reaction to O.J. post-verdict.  It would’ve been interesting to read Chuck’s analysis of the young kids (who never knew O.J. the running back, announcer, or Naked Gun star) asking for O.J.’s autograph, the manner in which he was fawned over in public, and he could’ve tied this into the culture’s glorification of bad guys dating back to Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid, Billy the Kid, and those that wore the black hats.

The most interesting chapter, in my opinion, other than the “Eagles” chapter that was covered in one of my previous blogs, is the chapter concerning how Muhammad Ali is a villain.  Klosterman takes on this icon’s current, glorified status, stating that Muhammad Ali ruined a man’s life (Joe Frazier) for the expressed purpose of getting in the man’s head to win a fight.

I must painfully admit that I have been on Muhammad Ali’s side for much of the history of the Ali/Frazier story.  I was too young to have firsthand knowledge of the fight, or the debate that followed, and much of what I’ve seen, heard, and read has been after the fact analysis.  I was also very young when the debate started springing up around me, so I took the star’s side.  When I later learned that that put me on the same side of this debate as TV personality Bryant Gumbel, I knew I was on the wrong side. I didn’t yet know the specifics of why I was wrong, but I knew that Gumbel was consistently and obnoxiously, on the wrong side of history.  Thanks to Gumbel’s obnoxious takes on the matter, I began to strive for more objectivity on the story.  The productions I watched from that point on, including the one put together by HBO, “The Thilla in Manilla”, convinced me that Ali was a bad guy, and a bully, that would stop at nothing to humiliate Frazier, until it reached what some have termed an historical level of betrayal.

The other illuminating fact Chuck unearths, that I must say I didn’t know, is that Ali met with the KKK to discuss their shared belief on the evils of interracial marriage.  One has to think that even the obnoxious Bryant Gumbel would not have been eager to agree with Ali on this point, as Gumbel’s mother, and his wife are white.  If you have ever watched Gumble interview a subject he sides with, however, you have to think this may have been a possibility.  Gumble is, if nothing else, consistently obnoxious. The likely outcome, if Ali brought this up in a Gumble interview, would’ve been a surreptitious edit.  It is possible that this obnoxious, succumbent to African-American stars may have found a surreptitious way of agreeing with Ali, and he may have found a way of calling those that opposed  an “(effing) idiot” for disagreeing with whatever  “the greatest” had to say on the matter.  Klosterman concludes this piece by asking how many icons, other than Ali, could’ve survived with their image intact after such a meeting with the KKK, and such a shared belief, as that.

Klosterman also states that Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is a villain, because he was once mean to a guy from Pearl Jam.  Klosterman says that the guys from Pearl Jam are nice guys, and they have a history of being appreciative of their fans, and Jabbar purportedly does not.  These facts, when put together, should lead the reader to believe that Jabbar is a villain.  Did Jabbar thump an autograph-seeking child in the forehead, did he push an old lady to the ground, or did he set Mother Teresa on fire after a particularly heated debate on the virtues of altruism?  No, he was mean to a guy from Pearl Jam.  Mean may even be a relative term in Chuck’s description of what happened.  I read dismissive more than mean, but apparently no one can be dismissive of guys in Pearl Jam, or they’ll write a song about them, and Klosterman will like that song so much that he’ll feel enough allegiance to call the one that dismissed them a villain on that basis alone.

Chevy Chase is also a villain in Klosterman’s view, and this is based on the fact that Chase doesn’t take his role in entertainment seriously enough.  Klosterman does lay out the fact that none of Chase’s co-stars in movies or on TV showed up for his roast, and that that pretty much means that those co-stars didn’t care for him.  Chuck revisits a fight scene between Bill Murray and Chevy Chase, where Bill Murray called Chevy a “medium talent”, to suggest that Chase was overrated and underachieving at the same time.  Chuck writes that the book “Live from New York, as oral history of Saturday Night Live” is littered with people taking pot shots at Chevy, and that the creator of the show “Community” called him a bad word, but Klosterman believes the nut of why Chevy is a bad guy exists in the fact that Chevy hates himself.  Klosterman writes that one of Chevy’s most famous lines: “I’m Chevy Chase, and you’re not” is not something he’s happy about.  Klosterman also writes that Chevy “never opted for the serious roles that so many comedians vie for throughout their careers.”

Now I agree with Marlon Brando that it doesn’t take a lot of talent to act in movies, but perhaps Chevy feared some sort of revelation of his “medium talent” in those roles.  From the rare glimpses we’ve seen of Chase’s obnoxiousness, it’s hard to believe he’s a good guy, and as Klosterman writes, we can take some of Chevy’s cohort’s criticism as jealousy, but to suggest that he’s a villain based on the fact that he didn’t take his career serious enough might be a bit of a stretch.

In the “Eagles chapter” that has little to do with the villain premise, except perhaps thematically, Klosterman writes that he doesn’t think certain bands, and singers, are bad guys, he takes a moment to suggest why Mr. Bungle is not as great as some people think.

Mr. Bungle “was way more interesting than it was” writes Chuck Klosterman.  Klosterman claims Mr. Bungle was a “self-indulgent side project”.  He calls it “my real world introduction to The Problem of Overrated Ideas”.  He says that Mike Patton, in particular, was “improvisational and gross.  Musically and otherwise: He (Patton) stated that he would eat huge portions of mashed potatoes and chase it with schnapps,” Patton told MTV News, “Then he would sneak into his local laundromat and vomit into washers and dryers.” The fact that Klosterman does not mention Mike Patton by name, only as the singer, suggests that there may be some personal animus that drives his review of the band, but I could be wrong. Klosterman also basically claims that Patton should’ve stuck with the more mainstream Faith No More.

First of all, a decent study of Mike Patton’s history would show Klosterman that not only was Faith No More Patton’s other band, but it was his side project (not the other way around).  At one point in his career, Patton did give Faith No More his full concentration, but it was mostly viewed as a promotional vehicle for Mr. Bungle.  As evidence of this, Faith No More’s first video “Epic” shows Patton in a Mr. Bungle T-Shirt.

All personal preferences and disagreements aside, it says a lot about Klosterman’s listening habits that they’re, at least in part, dictated by things said in interviews he finds distasteful. Klosterman writes that Patton’s improvisations are “gross musically”, and this leads the informed reader to believe that Klosterman has probably only listened to the first Mr. Bungle album.  I’ve listened to this self-titled debut ad nauseum, and I’ve basically reached a point where I’ve deleted all of the silly and gross improvisations from that album on my iPod, and I used to delete the same portions from the audio tapes I recorded the album onto.  What you’re left with, when you delete the silliness, is a great piece of work from a bunch of teenagers.  (As a side note, Mr. Bungle’s other two albums succeeded without such deletions.  Those albums were tight in their musical structure, and all the silliness lay behind them by this point.)  Perhaps, Klosterman should do more homework on a subject he apparently knows little to nothing about.

Are you telling me, Chuck, that Ozzy Osbourne and Motley Crue never did anything silly and gross (like biting the heads off bats), and they’re never been immature in interviews? How old were your peeps when they snorted a line of ants?  The guys in Mr. Bungle were teenagers when their self-titled, first album came out, and teenagers love bathroom humor and fart jokes, but the members of the group eventually grew up and produced two of the best, most consistent, and serious albums of music I’ve ever heard.

I’ve always thought that the best reviews were those that dissected a book in a negative manner, as opposed to those glowing, sound bite style reviews (“A Tour de Force”) that the reviewer writes, so that he might get his name on the cover of the book.  It may be just me, but I’ve always thought that negative reviews act as an EKG monitor for the heart of a book, and positive reviews usually act as a fawning mechanism for the star status of the author.  I also don’t care what a person’s personal review of the book is, if it’s based on the fact that they like Muhammad Ali, I want to know if it was a good book or not, and I think a thorough dissection of a book, can only be done in a negative manner.  If you do want my opinion, however, I Wear the Black (African American) Hat is an excellent, fun read that dissects our era (Chuck and I are about two years a part) in a manner, it appears, that only Chuck Klosterman can do this well.