The Shocking, and Unconventional, Flaming Lips

In an attempt to top his never-ending parlor tricks, The Flaming Lips Wayne Coyne dressed in drag—an outfit that matched Stephen King’s Carrie, to be specific—in an appearance on Last Call with Carson Daly. It was a rerun of a 11/12/13 episode, and the Carrie costume was a Halloween costume that Coyne wore at a “Halloween Blood Bath” Flaming Lips tour stop at The Greek Theatre on Tuesday, Oct. 29, 2013, in Los Angeles. Some may call it a “tour-de-force” and “revolutionary” performance, but I ended up yawning a lot, and I eventually shut the performance off halfway through. I’ve seen my share of “revolutionary” and “tour-de-force” performances, from The Lips, and others, and this was just another one.

Lips“What did you expect from a group that has the word flaming in their name?” those that may think that I was turned off by the shock of a drag performance might ask. I didn’t expect anything different, I answer. Maybe that’s the point. Maybe it’s the point that our performance artists have so deluged us with shocking performances that we’re no longer shocked by them, and we’re all coming back to the point where we want the material back, and the shock and awe performances cause us all to yawn a little.

It may have something to do with the fact that I’m old, and I’ve witnessed “revolutionary” and “tour-de-force” moments from David Bowie, Marc Bolan, Alice Cooper, Kiss, Madonna, and Prince, and I now demand that “revolutionary” and “tour-de-force” material accompany “revolutionary” and “tour-de-force” performances. It may have something to do with the fact that The Lips, Of Montreal, Lady Ga Ga, Miley Cyrus, and Britney Spears aren’t trying to shock me, because I’ve already been shocked so often that my brains are scrambled, and I’m desensitized to it all, but one would think that the demographic they seek, the characteristically nonplussed young ones, aren’t easily shocked anymore either. They’ve grown up in an era of every artist playing king of the mountain in this shocking shell game, and they’re yawning and changing the channel on these performances as often as I am.

Those that have already found their formula for success in music, usually advise up and comers that the path to success has no pamphlet or road map. You simply have to carve a niche for yourself, they say. This doesn’t appear to be true in music. While there may not be a pamphlet, or road map, to success, there are advisers that have studied other paths to the top, and they advise those artists, of which they usually have a vested interest, to shock. If you don’t have the material —and most of those that make today’s headlines don’t— play with a snake on stage, wear a meat dress, insult America, tongue and twerk, or tell people that you hate America, Republicans, or you’re mom, and you will want to carve out sometime in your life for a stint in rehab … whether you actually need it or not. Unfortunate for most upcoming musical artists, this has all culminated in what most semi-talented artists should fear, the idea that something shocking will no longer be shocking to the yawners that are now turning their performance off halfway through.

The less flamboyant, creative peak of the Flaming Lips occurred somewhere around the Transmissions from the Satellite Heart and The Soft Bulletin era. There were some bright spots in the albums before and after these two albums, but few Lips’ aficionados would argue the fact that we are now on the downside of their creative peak. If that’s true, then Coyne and company appear to be doing whatever they have to do to remain viable. This isn’t to say that they’re making bad music, but those of us that were fans of the Lips prior to Transmissions, have such huge expectations. Each album appeared to be leading to that one great album, and The Lips delivered, giving us two seminal albums: one crunchy, weird, glam rock, and the other bleak and blissful. Each of them captured the range, that Lips’ aficionados saw glimpses of in all of the prior albums, but there’s something about being an aficionado that leads one to believe that these upward arcs will continue ad infinitum. They rarely do, and they didn’t in the case of The Flaming Lips.

Hard-core fans also don’t see an official end to that peak. Hard-core fans don’t read one book, watch one movie, or listen to one album and officially declare that it’s all over. They give that artist a chance in the future based on what they’ve done in the past, and they keep on doing this, until they begin to notice a trend with that artist. That trend is not immediately apparent either. It usually takes about three to four lackluster productions for their hope to begin to wane. Even hard-core fans know that these things end, but they’re not prepared to make it official, until they’ve exhausted all belief.

The “He’s dressed like Carrie!” introduction to the taped concert performance of The Flaming Lips brought an official end to the brilliantly creative era of The Flaiming Lips to my mind. Having never been introduced by a major talk show host, I don’t know it to be factually true that an artist has a hand in how they’re introduced, but I have to imagine that Carson Daily’s people went to The Lips people and asked them how they’d like to be introduced. If that’s true, it’s a sad statement that they didn’t want the brunt of their intro to call attention to the single they would be playing, or the album from which that single sprang. It’s a sad statement that they asked that the greater attention be paid to something superficial like Wayne Coyne’s outfit, regardless what that outfit was.

Anyone that has attended a Flaming Lips show knows that they are almost peerless in their presentation. The group goes balls out to provide their fans one of the best concerts currently available on the market. After three songs, at a music fair in Wisconsin, one guy turned to me and said, “This is the greatest show I’ve ever seen in my life.” I wasn’t sure if I was as deliriously impressed as he was, or if I was simply delirious from the contact high I received from other concert goers, but that Lips show elicited a sense of euphoria that this long-time concert goer had never experienced.

This concert combined shocking your sensibilities, and overturning conventions, with all of the great Flaming Lips material I have grown to love. The “He’s dressed like Carrie,” intro signaled to me that The Flaming Lips concentration is no longer focused on the material but shocking your sensibilities and overturning your conventions.

Kiss’ act, in the 70’s, was full of parlor tricks, as was Queen’s, David Bowie’s, and Marc Bolan’s, but for the most part these groups shocked sensibilities, and overturned conventions, at the peak of their career. The Flaming Lips appear to be reaching a peak in their shock, with their creative peak long since passed. You can still attend an incredible concert from the Flaming Lips, as it will contain all their greatest hits to remind you of the diverse and impressive catalog they have, and you’ll get their unconventionally shocking moments, but you’ll probably be taking breaks from your delirious euphoria when they start playing their new stuff.

Linda Ronstadt rejects the need for more fame: The Hall of Fame

It’s not anything I’ve ever given a second thought to,” Linda Ronstadt says of being elected to Rock and Roll’s Hall of Fame,  “I never thought of myself as a rock ‘n’ roll singer.  I’ve thought of myself as a singer who sang rock ‘n’ roll, who sang this, who sang that.

“I remember one of the guys at my record company asked me once if I would induct somebody into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and I said ‘I really don’t like going to things like that.’  And he said, ‘Linda, you have to do it if you ever want to get inducted yourself!’

“I said, ‘I don’t care if I ever get inducted,’” she said. “That was a long time ago—in the ‘80s, and that was the last I ever thought of it.”

Ronstadt‘Heretic!’ the rock and roll intelligentsia is probably screaming.  ‘She’s lying!  She’s a witch!!  Get her!!!’  Some, more reasonable Americans, are probably thinking that her ambivalence toward induction has something to do with the fact that she can’t sing anymore due to her Parkinson’s disease diagnosis.  Others might think that Ronstadt fears that she won’t match up to other inductees, under this most, scrutinizing spotlight, but most are thinking that it’s just not rational that a living, breathing human being would leave any amount of fame on the doorstop before entirely fading away into obscurity.

How could you not be intoxicated by the fame a Hall of Fame induction might bring you?  Isn’t it every person’s dream to be enshrined in such a manner.  Isn’t that why you did what you did.  Doesn’t it put a punctuation mark on your career?  Are you lying when you say that you don’t spend every moment of your existence remembering your glory years?  Don’t you want to have your legacy properly placed alongside your peers?

It’s not enough, for some, to simply have their songs still played on radio, it’s not enough for them to know that they have had some form of artistic impact on millions of lives.  They want more.  What is more?  What you got?

Even though the brunt of their careers are now thirty years past, most artists still want more.  They still have agents, and public relations guys, and they are immersed in this competitive desire to have more fame, more money, more recognition, or more of ‘what you got’ than their generation’s peers. We’re so accustomed to every artist clinging to their moment in the spotlight that when one artist steps forward and basically says, “Enough.  I’m ready to move on in life,” we consider them to be either dishonest, or driven by an unseen agenda that we have to unearth to reveal them as the freaks they have to be.

I think it hurt Linda that she didn’t write (her own songs),” said one longtime Hall of Fame voter who asked not to be identified.  “Unlike (others), (Ronstadt) was viewed as a popularizer of songs, which isn’t as valued in the rock tradition as the pop tradition.  She also was more pop in some ways than country or rock or soul, even though she incorporated touches of all that in her music.”

It could have a lot to do with that, say those of us that aren’t attempting to evaluate Ronstadt’s position with an agenda.  It could have something to do with the fact that Ronstadt can’t sing anymore, and all these retrospectives and celebrations bring her feelings of pain and sorrow.  Or, it could have something to do with the fact that (hold onto your bootstraps) she no longer has a desire for unnaturally prolonged fame.

She boils her career down to ‘I sang this, I sang that.’  She said that she didn’t want to be considered the Queen of Rock, when she was declared so in the 70’s, and that she has either lost, or given away, all of the awards she has received in her life.  She then furthered her heresy, by condemning the Rolling Stone (the magazine’s) effect on music when she said: “There was a puritanical attitude about music that reeked out of Rolling Stone: The attitude that only a certain kind of music is hip, that you have to be funky.  Where does that leave Jimmy Webb or Paul Simon or Kate & Anna McGarrigle or so many other great writers whose songs have nothing to do with whether they are hip or trendy or what they’re supposed to be doing this week? People write music from the most personal point of view, and that process endlessly renews itself.”

Music, she says, “Should be about processing your feelings and helping you get through life.”{1}

Taken at face value, most music is simplistically pure, she seems to be saying, but those outside the art form (Rolling Stone critics and writers) bring so many personal agendas, and personal interpretations, and attempts at self-aggrandizement, that what is actually simple becomes complicated with all of these establishment attachments added to it.

Would the Sex Pistols have achieved any fame at all, if Rolling Stone magazine had never existed?  Anyone that was so subjected to the Rolling Stone definition of cool that they actually bought a Sex Pistols album, knows that they were actually pretty terrible, but they achieved worldwide fame on the basis of attitude, and that attitude fit perfectly with the Rolling Stone ethos.  Anyone that bought a Ramones album, based on the never-ending plaudits that every Rolling Stone writer attached to them, to gain their bona fides as a rock critic, knows how limited the range of the Ramones catalogue was.  Ask any Rolling Stone writer about Tom Petty, and they’ll say he was great.  Ask these same people about a similar artist, from a similar era (say Billy Joel) and they’ll point their thumbs down with a raspberry to follow.  Petty was traditional, and Joel was more oriented towards pop music, which Rolling Stone generally rejects as bad.  Michael Jackson, bad, Prince good; traditional rock good, arena rock bad; and punk rock good, heavy metal bad.  It’s the Rolling Stone ethos.

Taste in music is relative, of course, and I’m sure that there are some that actually preferred Jim Morrison’s voice to Freddie Mercury’s, but how much of that preference was personally decided, and how much of it was spawned by the Rolling Stone’s declarations of good and bad?  How many of us dismissed Bohemian Rhapsody as unserious bubble gum pop, that therefore shouldn’t be held in the same category as the more important song The End by The Doors.  You can like Bohemian Rhapsody, in other words, but if you put it on the same level with The End, you’re unserious, and you should be dismissed as such.

The effect this magazine, and American Idol, have had on music is unquestioned, and this is what Ronstadt rejects: “This sort of competition has nothing to do with art.  It’s so counterproductive to put everybody in some kind of category.  That’s got nothing to do with anything.  I just don’t like it. I think competition is really good for horse races.”  She was speaking of the American Idol effect with this specific quote, but the feet of Rolling Stone’s writers can be held to some of the same fires.

In our teens, many of us were confused, on a daily basis, on what we could like and what we couldn’t.  Was it okay to like Michael Jackson back then?  That depends on the mood of the cool kid of the day.  Was it okay to like Kiss?  It usually wasn’t, but there were days when you could catch the right cool kid, on the right day, and find out it was.  Was it okay to like Cindy Lauper and Phil Collins?  That all depended on the motif you were trying to create.  Did  you want to be a kitschy, retro, nerd, or were you seeking good music?  If you truly wanted to be in the know, it was probably safer to put the Lauper CD back and pick up a Patty Smith, or Aretha Franklin CD.

The cool kids that I hung around—those that refused to join the Echo and the Bunnyman, Elvis Costello, and R.E.M, inner circle of Rolling Stone magazine cool kids—faced a quandary with Ozzy Osbourne.  Was he cool, or was he a kitschy cool, cartoon character on par with Kiss?  Most of the high school students I hung out with knew nothing of Black Sabbath, or anything that preceded the bat-biting heavy metal dude.  Once we found out the man had history, transcendental history, it was cool to love Ozzy again.  I was so confused.

I don’t know if the cool kid status, is as confusing today as it was back then, but I do know that for most adulthood allows those insecurities to slip away, like a snake shedding its skin.  I do know that most people start to like the music they like, because they like the music, and they eschew all of the personal, and establishment attachments that are placed on it.  I do know that most adults are confident enough that they don’t need the constant reinforcement that it appears most aging rock stars do when they have their Rolling Stone, classic rock bona fides redefined by the Hall, and they get to feel like cool kids again, until they are so overwhelmed that they are move to tears by it.  Very few of them appear to be so confident, or comfortable, that they are able to opt out of all this foolishness and say, “Okay, that’s enough, let’s all move on.  I’m in my sixties now, and I’m simply tired of reliving all those events that occurred thirty years ago.”  Linda Ronstadt appears to be the exception to the rule, and her public proclamation appears to have reflected so poorly on the others that they need some sort of explanation for this most personal affront.

[Editorial update] Linda Ronstadt was inducted into the Hall of Fame in April 2014.  In the dignified manner Ms. Ronstadt has conducted herself throughout her career, she said:  “I don’t want to seem ungracious, but I’ve refused all comment about this.”


My Obsession with the “The Elder”

[Editor’s Note: Those seeking a review of the actual KISS album Music from “The Elder” will be disappointed. This is not a review of the album, as much as it is a review of the time and place when one kid loved music more than anything else in the world, and how the current world of music may make it impossible to return to that time.] 

It began with a dream, an actual dream that involved me finally purchasing the KISS album Music from “The Elder” (aka The Elder). In this dream, I ran home and plugged the cassette tape into my Walkman, and I knew that my life would probably not get much better than that moment. I woke with a peaceful and serene smile that my “not a morning person” personality didn’t often permit. For reasons I would only be able to properly collate later, as an adult, I became obsessed with the Music from the Elder.

“It ain’t no dream,” my friend said. His tones were loaded with ridicule. “It’s real. The Music from The Elder is a real album, it’s out there, in stores, and on actual shelves, and it sucks. You just have to find it, or if you can’t find it, have a store clerk order it for you.” He then turned to a third party to drill down on my humiliation, “He just had a dream about buying a KISS album last night.”

I deserved the ridicule that followed. Dreaming of buying an album was an odd, bizarre dream, but it defined my desire for that album in ways that were otherwise hard for me to define as a teenager. I wasn’t so simple-minded that I thought The Elder would act as an elixir to all that ailed me, but this desire for something, somewhat out of my reach, said more about me, and that era, when juxtaposed with the modern era, than it did about the quality of music on The Elder. The Elder might have been a symbol for all things out of reach. The magical, almost mystical qualities that I attached to it might have been similar to all things that appreciate the qualities we attach to a product of limited supply. Yet, I am still so obsessed with this album, decades after its release, that I think The Elder is not only a great album, but also the best album the rock group KISS ever released.

As that last paragraph suggests, this piece is not so much a review of the quality of music on The Elder, as it is that special quality attached to a product through inexplicable and irrational desire, the rebellion to group thought, and the influence scarcity can have on a product. This piece is also about how the current lack of scarcity –abridged in the modern “on demand” world of MP3, file sharing, YouTube, etc.– may eventually cause music to be so much less prominent in our lives than it was for an 80’s kid who loved music so much that he felt an almost unquenchable desire for it.

How many 70’s and 80’s kids called into radio stations to request that they play “my song”, only to have those annoying DJs wait about an hour to play it? How many of us grew excited when the DJ finally played that song and attach our names to it? “And now … as requested by Billy, in Millard, I give you Rhinestone Cowboy by Glenn Campbell.” How many of us felt a special affinity with Glenn Campbell in the course of that effort? How many of us thought that a part of the success of Rhinestone Cowboy was a result of our continued requests? Is it just me, or did this association have a mystical attachment to it, that bred an irrational, and inexplicable, brand of loyalty, that cannot be touched in today’s MP3 world of “on demand” listening experiences. How many penniless young ones dreamed of one day living in an “on demand” world where we had more control of the when, where, and how we could hear our music that didn’t require assistance from DJs? How many of us would’ve loved to have a YouTube source where we could punch a song title into a search engine and hear it in two seconds? We all did, but now that it’s here, we have a “be careful what you wish for” warning for the world of music and music lovers.

No radio stations would play a song from The Elder, and there weren’t internet resources back then. I had to sit and stew in the bouillon of my desire. This scarcity was not intentional, and it was not a supply and demand tool put forth by KISS, or any of its associates, to increase demand for their product, but for one kid in Omaha, Nebraska, that’s exactly what it did. The scarcity was a result of the almost worldwide condemnation of the project. Critics and fans attached the word “flop” to The Elder, and they declared it KISS’s first commercial failure, after the near unprecedented levels of commercial viability they achieved with their previous albums.

The Elder proved to be such an embarrassment to the remaining members of KISS that guitarist Ace Frehley considered it emblematic of the new direction of KISS, and he quit the band as a result. Some of those involved in the project, adamantly refused to have their names listed in the liner notes of the album after hearing it. It embarrassed the remaining members of KISS so much that they decided not to tour in support of it, and by the time I began searching retail outlets for it, five years after its completion, I learned, firsthand, the economic concept of scarcity.

This scarcity resulted in a whole lot of self-imposed hype. It resulted in me briefly befriending those fortunate few lucky enough to have heard it. “What did you think of it?” I asked them, panting with anticipation. “What was so different about it?” I asked. “Why is it considered so horrible?”

“It just sucked!” was the consensus of those I knew who heard the album. When I would ask for a greater, more detailed explanation, they would dismiss me with, “I don’t know. I didn’t listen to it more than once. I just know it sucked!”

For reasons native to my personality, I only found this universal rejection of the album more compelling. I would later display the same level of intoxication –purposefully erected against group thought– with the comedy of Andy Kaufman, the infamous Crispin Glover appearance on David Letterman, U2’s Zooropa, and the other music of Mike Patton (other than Faith No More). I needed to know why the music on The Elder was so much worse than all the other KISS albums I adored. It was almost inevitable that I was either going to love the music on the album, or I would find that it was not as bad as my friends were telling me it was, for reasons native to my personality.

I would not say that the almost universal reaction to The Elder was my first experience with group thought. I knew about it, and I think I explored it on certain levels, but whenever you’re face to face with it, it feels like the first time. I’m also not going to pretend –as so many others do– that I’m impervious to group thought. I hear what other’s think, I read what critics think, but I’m more apt to force myself through such a hole if everyone dislikes something I decide I might like. I find intrigue in having an opinion that differs from group thought. I tend to find myself trying to have a converse relationship with it. Some believe that I do this to be difficult, or complicated, or artificially different, and that may be the case, but if it is, I’ve convinced myself of this lie so well that I now believe it. In the case of The Elder, however, my initial allure was such that I either never recovered from my desire to rebel against group thought, or the album wasn’t as bad as group thought suggested it was. I leave open the possibility for either in the case of The Elder.

In the space of the decades since its release, The Elder has spawned two camps: those who further their initial proclamation that it’s one of the worst albums ever made, and those who suggest that it now has a campy quality, similar to the movie Return of the Killer Tomatoes. Very few will suggest that it’s simply a good album with quality music on it. Q Magazine has ranked Music From “The Elder” 44th in their list of The 50 Worst Albums Ever. The same magazine ranked the album 6th in their list of 15 Albums Where Great Rock Acts Lost the Plot. The website Ultimate Classic Rock, quotes Paul Stanley saying that the Music from “The Elder” “Was pompous, contrived, self-important and fat.” “Critics pounced on the record and fans stayed away in droves.” The website KISS Elder Book states that Gene Simmons attached zero stars to it, and Stanley and Simmons have both admitted that they were “delusional” with the Bob Ezrin project. [Note the attempt to distance themselves from The Elder, by saying it was a Bob Ezrin project. A practice those who know their KISStory know all four members engage in when a project wasn’t well received. The album Destroyer was also a “Bob Ezrin project, but the four members climb all over each other to claim credit for it.] Ace Frehley said that he thought the idea of a Ezrin’s idea of concept album with The Elder “wasn’t a good idea to begin with.”

When almost everyone, including the band, crushes a brutha with group thought, the notions that we still like the album usually implode with “I don’t like it either” or “I like all of their albums, except The Elder” qualifiers that send shrapnel throughout the mind, until that person convinces themselves that their initial stance can no longer be maintained.

Maintaining such a stance can lead one to believe they are in the middle of a battlefield with friendly fire penetrating their belief. This lone soldier begins to believe they have no allies, especially when they cross the big four oh (forty years of age), and the idea that they still enjoy any KISS music proves to be a little embarrassing. At that point, a person has to qualify their affinity with words, sentences, and sometimes paragraphs that lead their friends and family to believe that they simply love the kitschy campiness of the act. By doing that, the soldier may gather some like-minded allies that say, “Well, I still like Duran Duran, Leo Sayer, or Michael Jackson, so I understand the attachment.” Saying that one still likes The Elder, however, will even cause like-minded KISS fans to strive for distance. “Sorry brotha, you’re on your own here,” they say to suggest that some loyalists are in too deep for them.

What makes defending The Music From The Elder so difficult is that I still don’t know why I love this album so much. I’m not sure if the reasons lie in those aspects of my personality that loves things other people don’t, or if I romanticized the album so much in my youth that I can’t defeat the feelings of nostalgia I feel for that time and place where I desired the album to the degree that it invaded my dreams one night. I also can’t determine if the music on the album simply appeals to me in that intangible manner that some music appeals to one person more than others, or if the album contains great music that people “won’t” like, because they fear the counter arguments (see ridicule) from their peers.

What I do know, or guess based upon my interactions with current, young music fans, is that this relationship with music may never happen again. It’s the human condition to want what you want, when you want it, but the reality of actually getting it “on demand” as many times as one wants it, often results in little satisfaction, no irrational, magical qualities that they can’t explain attached to it, and no loyalty. At some point in the process, songs become nothing more music. One song may be more creative than another and that may be why we like it, but we lose all personal attachments to it when we can listen to it hundreds of times, on our own time. It’s the want, the chase, and the desire, that ultimately defines the irrational love of the intangible.

This isn’t to say there isn’t demand for music anymore, but it pales in comparison to the youth-driven demand that caused young girls to swoon at Frank Sinatra, scream at Elvis and the Beatles, or fire up radio station, phone lines for the latest Hall and Oates song. We later experienced the magic of albums like, Appetite for Destruction, Nevermind, and Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness. Is that magic still there for young music lovers? It may be, brilliant music is still brilliant music, but that relatively unquenchable demand for songs that spawned loyalty may never happen again due to the ubiquitous availability of music on the internet today. I’m sure there are still “some” albums that are hard to find, but for the most part the “on demand ‘if you want it, you got it’” era of music that those of us once dreamed of, is now here in the form of MP3’s. If you can’t find it in the MP3 universe, you can go to file sharing sites, or YouTube. There’s no more want any more for a young kid who loves music, because the idea of scarcity is almost nonexistent, and as a result, there’s no such thing as hyping something up to the degree that you’re so consumed by it, that you dream about it one night, and you’re still somewhat embarrassed to be obsessed with it decades later.

Is That All There Is?

The human mind is built on expectation.  We may fail at various times in our lives, and we may succeed in others, but we never let these moments get us too high or too low, because we know that the Sun’ll come out tomorrow.  There’s always hope, there’s always something more to life, and there’s always some extraneous force that put us in our current perdicamant.  We live in a perpetual state of looking around the corner for the next event that will fulfill all of our expectations.  We look forward to the weekend, to vacations, to moving, to promotions, retirement, and the afterlife.  We are eager beings who believe that tomorrow will be a better day than today.

In this quest for a greater tomorrow, say songwriters Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, we are frequently disappointed.  The song, written in November 1969, is called Is That All There Is?  The song’s lyrics detail the nature of expectations and the disappointments of life that began in childhood.  It talks about the circus, and how we believed that the moment that circus began, we would experience the greatest moment of our life.  We were so expectant that we could barely contain ourselves when the first clown made an appearance.  We would laugh wildly at everything the clown did, even though they weren’t really funny.  If they did the same thing without makeup, would we even smile?  We did laugh, however, and our laugh was borne of expectation.  When we saw the magnificence of elephants walking around, yards away from us, our little faces just beamed with awe, but they usually didn’t do anything that met our expectations.  They would walk around in circles, and they would even do a few tricks, but we were in awe with images of the beasts that  were built on the extent of their capabilities.  We saw a beautiful lady in pink tights flying high above our heads, and we cringed with the expectation that she might fall, and then she didn’t, and then it was over, and we walked out of the auditorium disappointed that our incredibly high expectations weren’t met.  We couldn’t help but think that we missed something.  Is that what everyone was talking about?  “Is that all there is to a circus?”

Is that all there is?
If that’s all there is, my friends, then let’s keep dancing
Let’s break out the booze and have a ball
If that’s all there is

PJ Harvey

Sung by Peggy Lee (then PJ Harvey) Is That All there Is? moves to more depressing matters as the song progresses.  It talks about how even the most horrific moments in life, such as a fire, can be a little disappointing when one is all hyped up about its horror.  When the afterlife is discussed, the lyrics detail that how they don’t want to die fearing that final disappointment.  The theme of the song, as evidenced by the above refrain, is that if that’s all there is to life, let’s live life to the fullest.  Let’s break out the booze and keep dancing if all these overhyped joys and horrors turn out to disillusion us in reference to what are supposed to be life’s greatest joys and horrors.

When we talk about the power of America in the world today, we talk about how she has the ability to shape the world in its status as the world’s lone superpower.  When we talk about the technological advances she has made in her 200+ years of existence, we talk about it being the lone beacon in the world for individual achievement.  Even after acknowledging this ingenuity and creativity, we are still vulnerable to insecurities that lead us to believe that there is something bigger, brighter and more powerful out there just waiting to expose us as frauds.  We don’t know what that is, but we know that we meager humans can’t be all there is in the world.

We fear China for this very reason.  While few would say we have nothing to fear from China, our unexplainable fear of them is borne of expectation.  They’re the unknown.  They number into the billions, they speak a funny language, and they’re a very industrious people.  In our greatest fears, we portray them as almost machine-like.  They have less regard for human life and human suffering than we do.  They pay their workers peanuts, and they rip off our creativity and ingenuity, but does all of this equate to superiority?  If we were to construct a line-by-line comparison, we might find that they are not superior.  They have their areas, of course, but on the whole?  How about in the future?  Ah, there’s the rub Skippy!  The future is the unknown quality.  The Chinese may be more organized, they may be better at math and engineering, and they may be so disciplined that they can they march in lockstep?  But, are they superior?  We don’t know, and the insecurities are killing us.

We fear aliens from outer space for these same reasons.  Aliens are superior to us.  They have technological advances we haven’t even dreamed of yet.  Some have claimed that their culture may be thousands of years older than ours, so they must be thousands of years more advanced than we are.  Some have even claimed that what comparatively little technological advancements we have made are based on what we’ve learned from various alien visitations.   There is one small problem with all of these assertions: they may not exist.  They may not exist, but if they do they’re superior to us.  At least with the Chinese, we have tangible evidence for our fears, but the fear of aliens from outer space is a manifestation of our insecure belief that we’re limited by human constraints, and we can’t compete with them, and their superior intellect and machine-like abilities.  The fact that we engage in these hypothetical fears is all is built on the expectation that this can’t be all there is.

Is that all there is?
If that’s all there is, my friends, then let’s keep dancing
Let’s break out the booze and have a ball
If that’s all there is

What would we do if we learned of an alien visitation from an individual who claimed the aliens that visited him were not as superior as we were led to believe?  What if he said, “They may have been exceptions in the species, but I think I just got visited by a couple of alien hicks.  When they stepped out of their incredibly advanced flying saucer, they were drinking and belching, and the way they spoke made me think they were swearing.  I can’t be sure, but I swear they were drunk.  Then, when they violated me, I think they were laughing while they did it!”  Would we believe this person, or would their story violate our expectations of their superiority so much that this would be the lone alien visitation story that we didn’t believe?  How convincing would this the poor person have to be to override our need to believe that there is something spectacular out there that we have yet to experience?

Alien visitation stories also feed into fears of our ultimate destruction.  The subject of the visitation usually relays information from the overlord, alien visitors that suggest that our reliance on war and technology will have an ultimate price if we don’t stop now.   Most aliens appear to be anti-corporate peaceniks.  Due to the fact that aliens are superior, we know that they’ve seen the horrors technology can have on a society, so we could do a lot to stave off our Armageddon if we’d just put our iPods away and go back to our primitive nature.  The advice the aliens give us tend to follow the subject of the visitation’s political philosophy, and it’s usually advice that is as simplistic as the subject appears to be.  “When ordering from a fast food menu, lay off the Biggee portions it’s not good for you,” the wizened alien says in his alien tongue that has been translated to English by the subject.  “Stop driving SUVs, and lay off the cigarettes.  Doobies are fine, but those cigarettes are killing you Tony.”

If rational people are going to accept that we’re not the only life forms in the universe, they must accept the possibility that there are superior life forms out there.  But they must also accept the possibility that there are inferior life forms out there, and if we have been visited by these life forms, we should’ve been visited by some them too.  Some alien visitation “experts” would counter that the aliens we encounter are basically their astronauts—their best and brightest—so we probably won’t ever see the hicks of their species.  That would bring us back to square one if we didn’t witness their technology and believe that theirs is thousands of years more advanced than ours.  Most people who indulge in alien folklore don’t even question alien superiority or inferiority.  For these people, the evidence is in, and their fundamental belief system is based on ALF superiority.  This is based on their frustrations with life on Earth.  This is based on the fact that they don’t make a whole of money in a job that they hate, their family hates them, and they don’t have a lot of friends.  They need something to believe in, and believing in a God just isn’t cutting it for them anymore.  They need something bigger, better and brighter than the stuff their stupid parents believed in.

Some people fear UFO people, some fear the Chinese, some believe in God, some believe in Wiccan style control of their destiny, and others believe that with the correct federal government legislation on the books they can avoid total failure.  Most of us have some belief in a controlling authority that controls our fate, our daily lives, and our failures and successes, and psychologists say that this is actually quite healthy.  It gives us some distance from our failures, and it gives those that have had their expectations damaged throughout their lives some hope that things will get better, or if they don’t they have someone, or something to blame.  For if this was all that there is, as the song says, we might as well break out the booze, and get loaded, and dance to hopefully forget the fact that this is all there is, and we’re not entertained by it.

Love the one you’re with, until they love you back

We’re disinterested in what we have and interested in what we don’t.  The forbidden fruit is exotic and provocative and just beyond reach.  The love we have lies on the ground.

In music, I hear potential.  I crave it, and it disinterests me.  Why can’t it be more and less at the same time, more or less.  I want the exotic and the provocative, until I have it, until I have the pattern of the complicated piece down, then I want more and different.  Patterns are never quite as exotic as the pursuit of them.  I want more complication, more simplicity, more harmonizing, less linear equations, and pursuit of that which is forever beyond reach.  I crave that perfect song with every element of my being, until I find it.  I want something new, complicated, simple, something that flows in a non-linear pattern that I have to figure out…until I do.

We love to love, and we want reciprocation for every feeling we have, and there’s something psychologically wrong with the person who can’t reciprocate.  Why do they only want to date people that give them the cold shoulder and treat them like a dog?  Why can’t they love nice guys who would do anything for them, we think, until they do, until we find that perfect person who gives us everything we ever wanted.  We know it’s a mistake for them to do that, that’s boring, but that’s what we want from a prospective mate.

Reciprocation is boring.  It’s simplistic.  We want pursuit.  We want a challenge.  We find reciprocation boring, but that would be something a mean people would say, and we’re not mean people.  We develop some kind of excuse to break up with them.  We rehearse it, until we believe it, and we deliver it, so we can renew the hunt for that one person that was meant for us.  We shouldn’t have to settle, no one should.  What do we call someone who loves us completely?  Lunatics?  Are they smothering us?  What it wrong with them?  When do we reach a point where we realize there’s something psychologically wrong with us?

This reaction occurs throughout the animal kingdom though.  It’s a natural reaction, an inclination in children and dogs to be attracted to the one person in the room that’s ambivalent to their existence.  So, what does it say about that girl that dumped you in high school, because you were too nice to her?  What does it say about her that she dates the guy that you both know won’t care about her, that bad boy that cares only about himself?  What went wrong in your relationship?  What’s wrong with that girl you thought you knew?  How could she turn on you like that?  How come she doesn’t see you the way the only girl you will date in school sees you?  That girl would date you in a heartbeat if you said yes, but she has no boobs, her face is so plain the fellas wouldn’t give you any prestige for dating her, and she laughs like those nerds in movies.

They won’t tell us  what we did wrong when they break up with us, and this is a source of great frustration for most of us, as we want to know exactly what we did wrong, so we can rectify it.  Most people, of a given age, don’t dump on a whim.  Most people have calculated reasons for dumping another person, even if they can’t express them properly, and even if they aren’t true.  Most people have no idea why they dump one guy to date another, and the only person you can ask about the dumping is the only person who will date you in high school, but she’s harmless, boring, and she has no boobs.

The person who loves too much wants a return on investment.  They love every aspect of the identity you’ve given them, and they want more of it, until they have all of it.  Even if they don’t know what it is you’ve tapped into, and now they want some sort of commitment that you’ll see to fruition.  They’re rarely happy in the present, or if they are, they’re sure that they’re going to be happier if they are secure in the fact that you’ve promised them a future that promises to complete them in a way they’ve lacked to this point in their lives.

They tell you who you are, and this is usually who you are to them.  This is the person they fell in love with, and any deviation from this perceived person is a disappointment.  This is manipulation of the passive aggressive variety that the subject fails to see, until they are free of it.  The person who loves another in a rigid structure wants to love themselves, but insecurity prevents them achieving such a plane independently.  They seek your guidance, as long as you follow their narrowly scripted path.

If it’s possible to give them everything they want, they’re disinterested with the accomplishment.  How is that possible?  It’s innate in children and pets.  It’s learned behavior in adults.  The path to perfection is littered with imperfect sighs, and imperfect leadership, until you’re left alone with the thought that all guys are jerks.

The Nonconformity Market

Cool dudes are out there, and nonconformity is their thing. They seek out that which others consider odd. They know that they are trendsetting fashionistas, and that everyone they know, knows it too. They know it better than we do, and they know that they’re not rebelling. They don’t care for labels. This is just who they are. They preach their nonconformist tastes to every fake nonconformist in their inner circle, and they get off on the fact that we don’t understand them. They are the only true nonconformist they know. They don’t fall prey to the whims of the Man, that fat cat, or the Scooby Doo bad guy, CEO that smokes cigars he lit with $100 dollar bills. They are an individual with selective, refined tastes that supersede everyone else’s tastes, and this is your status in their world. They are the true nonconformist.

noncomWhat they don’t understand is that the world is immersed in nonconformist rebels, and that they are so numerous that there are nonconformist rebel markets created for nonconformist rebellious consumers that rebel against conformity. What they don’t understand is that the capitalist pig system abhors conformity for the most part, for if nonconformity didn’t exist there would be very few stores in a mall, there would be little stratification of prices in each store, and there wouldn’t be the large number of products in the large numbers of stores in every mall.

In our youth, it was possible for supermarket chains to have multiple items in the breakfast row. They had the cereal section, in that row, and that was bracketed by other breakfast-related items. The variety of cereals have grown so varied that there is but little room in that side of the aisle for Pop Tarts and other breakfast related items. A shopper is more apt to find maple syrup, and other smaller items on the opposing side of the aisle, or in another aisle altogether.  

Walk into any cell phone store, and we’ll see a number of phones that conform to the function of nonconformity, but we’ll probably see that store for what it is after a while. We’ll start to realize that these stores appeal to our sense of non-conformity, or our elevated knowledge of the technology of one phone versus another that we’ll end up skipping that store to go to the one three stores down that appeals our knowledge and our sense of non-conformity. If we are so well informed that we know that neither of these stores provide the degree of technology necessary to suit our needs, boy, have we got a store for you online.

If you’re willing to pay a little bit more for a socially conscious store, we have a whole line of products for you, and they are friendlier to the environment, they have “We support Green Peace” stickers on all of their products, and anything and everything we abhor about what is being done in the South American rain forests. Let those poor suckers continue to buy their inferior products from store A, but they should do so with the knowledge that they are not down for the cause.

The capitalist pigs of the cell phone industry, the clothing industry, the electronics industry, and the leather wallet industry know more about your selection process than you do. They know that our discerning, refined tastes are such that we would never buy a candle wax that is distilled from “Big” oil. Our preferred candle is composed of a wax carefully removed from honeycombs created by bees, so as to not disturb their honey making process or their larvae storage. They also know that to cater to their clientele, they will be required to provide an example of this process to all concerned consumers in a video on their website. These stores know, probably more than any other outlets, that the success of their niche market depends on making their customers feel more socially conscious, more knowledgeable, and more empathetic, and as such it will be required of them to provide their customer base an outlet through which they can further detail their pleasure, or complaints, with the products they sell in their store. As such, they will have some sort of comments section on their website that they will have to monitor on a daily basis, for even the most simple reply to the comments on the website will substantiate the long-held beliefs of their customer base. All they will have to say is something along the lines of “You’re right Doogie Howser232, we will address your valuable information at our next meeting.”

We are all victims of our own knowledge of markets and political consciousness. We make decisions in life, based on what we read and know. Our discerning tastes based on knowledge are studied and commented on in board meetings, and there is nothing special about us. We are members of a demographic, and if we do manage to somehow become an outlier in anyway, there will be a new market created to suit our new stratified needs and desires.

This new market will want to know how much we now “know” about phones and clothes, and they will soon find a way to appeal to us on a new, knowledge level. They want to understand what shaped our new knowledge, and why we think that way, and they want to have that perfect product ready for us when we’re ready to open up our pocketbook.

But I am a true nonconformist, rebels that doesn’t give a durn about any of that nonsense. The capitalist pig machine can shrivel up and die for all I care, but you’re adding to it poopy bear. We’re all creating, and adding to, a diversified and stratified market that has existed longer than we’ve been alive. We can say we’re rebels, but the month after we claim a new discerning taste, a rebel store will open up with all kinds of new, rebel paraphernalia to appeal to us. You’re a punker you say? Well, where did you get all your punker gear? Did you make it by hand? No, well, what else do you have in that Punkers R’ Us bag?

It’s called consumer rebellion, and it’s become such a primary staple in the capitalist pig, American system that capitalist pigs have opened up a store in just about every mall in America just for us? We wear a constant, nonconformist snarl, how can a capitalist pig sell a snarl? We can’t, but we can give you everything you need to bracket that snarl. We can sell a suitable get up that frames that snarl in such a way that it can make it more powerful during rebellious consumption. We can buy a tongue stud at this store, but for those who want spikes in the shoulder pads of their leather jacket we may have to go to the store three doors down and across the hall, and to buy the latest rebellious, nonconformist punk rock album, we’ll have to go down to the first floor. The current, capitalist pig system in America today needs you! and your rebellious consumerism to survive and thrive.

Tattoos were once the epitome of rebellion. An individual could define himself as an outlier with one simple, strategically placed tattoo that was somewhat visible, but not so visible that it was obvious. An individual with a tattoo attained instantaneous conversation status. Everyone has one now, so the true rebel got two, then three, and finally four, until four wasn’t enough, and the whole body art market rose from the back alley to strip mall status. How embarrassing is it to thee true rebel, tattoo aficionados that this market rose to the level where a consumer in Omaha, Nebraska found that tattoo parlors began to compete with Burger Kings in the total number of locations?

People, from the lowest marketer go to the fat cat CEOs, want to know what we’re buying and what we’re consuming, so they go to our favorite Euro bar to find out what the latest nonconformists are wearing, drinking, eating, and in all ways consuming. There’s a whole lot of consuming going on out there, and it takes a whole team of studious marketers to understand it all. These studious marketers then present their information to that fat cat CEO, with that mighty bank account, to create a fashion line that brackets your snarl and appeals to that nonconformist ethos that we have to tell the world that we just don’t give a durn about nothing.

The 50’s and 60’s were a relatively homogenous era that built a fairly homogenous market. It was the Leave it to Beaver, Dragnet, Davy Crockett era. It was an era where fat cat CEOs dictated to the populous what was hip and fashionable. If they wanted everyone and their brother or sister to buy what they were selling, they had Marilyn Monroe and Marlon Brando wear it. They had The Beatles sponsor it, they had Milton Bearle smoke it, and it all gave birth to the ‘keeping up joneses’ meme. Marketing and commercialization have always dictated style of dress, home décor, and artistic tastes, but the power they had back then was considerably stronger before the late 60’s. The late 60’s were a time of nonconformist sophistication that brought forth some degree of individualism, at least when it came to clothing and music, but the markets didn’t sit around and lick their wounds over the power they lost. They adapted. The nonconformity market was born. It was a submarket that up and coming, risk-takers, otherwise known as entrepreneurs, adapted to, and they left the conformists in the dust, until the nonconformist consumers adapted and bucked the current nonconformist trends, and the market adapted again and again, until they started appealing to the nonconformist goth with a snarl. These sub markets were all created to appeal to those that marketing and commercialization didn’t. Up and coming, risk taking entrepreneurs saw dollar signs in tie dye shirts and bell bottom pants, and Ocean Pacific shirts, and Vans shoes, and on and on, until there was a market for every form of nonconformity a hip, nonconformist dude could think up. Our level of nonconformity is actually conformity in America today, and we are no more special than the nonconformists that we are laughing about here.

As David McRaney states in his book, You are Not so Smart: “Poor people compete with resources. The middle class competes with selection. The wealthy compete with possessions. You sold out long ago in one way or another. The specifics of who you sell to and how much you make – those are only details.”

How to Succeed in Writing III: Are you Intelligent Enough to Write a Novel?

I write one page of masterpiece to ninety-one pages of (poor fiction),” –Hemingway confided to F. Scott Fitzgerald in 1934. “I try to put the (poor fiction) in the wastebasket.”

The key to writing great fiction is streamlining your story. Cut the fat! Some of the greatest authors of all time have admitted that the best additions they made to their novel were the parts they deleted. Somewhere along the line, in their writing career, they achieved objectivity. Somewhere along the line, they arrived at the idea that not all of their words were golden. Somewhere along the line, they realized that some of their words, sentences, paragraphs, and even some of their chapters were quite simply self-indulgent, wastebasket material. These self-indulgent portions, or the “ninety-one pages of (poor fiction),” of any novel are usually found in the asides.

But asides are what we enjoy in a novel you say. Asides can provide setting, pace, and drama. Asides can also build suspense and fortify the characteristics of a character, but they can also kill your novel. Most asides are unnecessary in the grand scheme of things. As anyone who has read a novel can attest, most novels could be written in forty pages, but that’s a short story, and short stories don’t sell as well as novels. They don’t sell as well, because readers want involvement. Readers don’t usually want snapshot stories. They want a world. They not only want to know the humans that they are reading about, they want to be involved with them. They want to see them breathe, they want to hear them talk to an employee at a Kwik Shop, and they want to feel the steps these characters take from place to place. They want to know these people, so when something happens to them, they can care about them.  They want to know the minutiae of the human they’re reading about, but they don’t want to get so caught up in the minutiae that they’re taken off pace, and they don’t want to read a self-absorbed writer that thinks it’s all about them.  Cut the fat!  Get to the point already!

“I’ve met a number of intelligent people throughout my life, and I’ve met a number of people I consider brilliant. I’ve met very few that were able to combine the two.” –Unknown.

This desire to be perceived as intelligent is a strong, driving force in all of us. How many stupid and overly analytical things do we say in one day to try to get one person to think that we’re not a total idiot? This desire to prove intelligence is right up there with the drive to be perceived as beautiful and likeable. It’s right up there with the desire to be seen as strong, athletic, independent, and mechanically inclined. We spend our whole lives trying to impress people. Even those that say that they don’t care what others think are trying to impress us with the fact that they don’t care.

In my first era of writing, I wrote a lot of these self-indulgent asides that contributed little to the story. I was a new student to the world of politics, and I was anxious to prove to the world that I was one smart cookie. I also wanted to show that half of the world that disagreed with my politics how wrong they were. So, I put my main character through an incident, and they came out of it enlightened by a political philosophy that agreed with mine. In various other pieces, I wanted to inform the world of all of this great underground music I was experiencing. My thought process at the time was: “Hey, if Stephen King can get away with telling us about tired rockers that we’ve all heard a thousand times. Why can’t I tell a few readers about a group they’ve never heard before?” Copy the masters right?  I wanted the world to know both sides of my brain in the same artistic piece. After taking a step back, and rereading these novels, I achieved enough objectivity to realize that it was all a big ball of mess.

If I was going to clean this mess up and start writing decent stories, I was going to have to divide my desires up.  I was going to have to cut the fat.  I was going to have to discipline myself to the creed that should be recited nightly by all aspiring storytellers: Story is sacred. I was going to have to learn to channel my desire to be perceived as smart into political and philosophical blogs. I was going to have to channel my desires to have people listen to my “discovered” music into reviews, and my stories, my novels, and my short stories would be left pure, untarnished stories with no agendas.  By dividing these desires up, I would be able to proselytize on the role of the Puggle in our society today, and the absolute beauty of Mr. Bungle’s music, without damaging my stories or boring the readers of my stories. I learned the principle the esteemed rock band Offspring tried to teach the world when they sang: “You gotta keep ‘em separated.”

There’s one writer, he-who-must-not-be-named, that never learned this principle. This author presumably got tired of being seen as just a storyteller. This author knew he was intelligent, and all of his friends and family knew he was intelligent, but the world didn’t know. The world only knew that he was a gifted storyteller, and they proved this by purchasing his books by the millions, but they didn’t know that he was so much more. This author achieved as much in the industry, if not more, as any other writer alive or dead (It’s Not King!), but he remained unsatisfied with that status. He needed the world to know that he wasn’t just a master of fiction. He needed the world to know he was as intelligent as he was brilliant, and he wrote the book that he hoped would prove it. It resulted in him ticking off 50% of his audience. 50% of his audience disagreed with him, and his politics, and they (we!) vowed to never read another one of his novels again. This is the risk you run when you seek to be perceived as intelligent and brilliant in the same work.

thomas-mannBut politics makes for such great filler, and to quote the great Thomas Mann: “Everything is political.” Well, there’s politics, and then there’s politics. If you’re one of those that doesn’t know the difference, and you don’t think your politics is politics, you should probably be writing something political. If you’re one of those who wants to write politics into your novel simply because it makes for such great filler, however, then you should try to avoid the self-indulgent conceit that ticks off that half of the population that disagrees with your politics. You’ll anger some with this, you’ll bore others, and the rest of us won’t care that you think it’s vital that your main character expresses something in some way that validates your way of thinking. We will just think it’s boring proselytizing from an insecure writer who needs validation from their peers. Stick to the story, we will scream, as we skip those passages or put your book down to never read anything you’ve ever written again.

You will need to be somewhat intelligent though. You’ll need enough to know your punctuation and grammar rules, you will need to know when and where to make paragraph breaks, and you will need to know how to edit your story for pace, but these aspects of storytelling can be learned.

“I am not adept at using punctuation and/or grammar in general…” A caller to a radio show once informed author Clive Barker. She said that she enjoyed writing, but it was the mechanics of writing that prevented her from delving into it whole hog. “Are you a clever story teller?” Clive asked her. “Do you enjoy telling stories, and do you entertain your friends with your tales?” The woman said yes to all of the above. “Well, you can learn the mechanics, and I encourage you to do so, but you cannot learn the art of storytelling. This ability to tell a story is, largely, a gift. Either you have it or you don’t.”

Be brilliant first, in other words, and if you can achieve brilliance, you can learn the rest. You can gain the intelligence necessary to get a thumbs up from a publisher, an agent, and eventually a reader, but you cannot learn brilliance. You cannot gain artistic creativity, and it’s hard enough to prove artistic brilliance. Why would you want to further burden yourself by going overboard in trying to also prove intelligence, and thus be everything to all people?

Let the people see how brilliant you are first! Gain a following. Once you have achieved that pied piper Wildeplateau, you can then attempt to display your intelligence. The preferred method of achieving all of your goals is to ‘keep ‘em separated’, but there are always going to be some who need to prove their intelligence and brilliance in the same Great American Novel. Those people are going to say Stephen King is a much better example to follow to the best-seller list than I am, and he achieved his plateau with a little bit of this and a little bit of that sprinkled in his prose. The question you have to ask yourself is, is he the rule or the exception to the rule? If Stephen King’s model is your preferred model, and these political and music parts are so germane, so golden, and so uniquely special to your story, keep them in.  As Oscar Wilde says, “You might as well be yourself, everyone else is taken.”