Holiday Jams: Choking Victim’s Dark Channels

Back in the 1990s, when I was living by a creek in Appalachia, I had a half-hour commute to high school. On unlucky days I had to ride the bus, so I would bring my plastic off-brand CD player; on better ones I’d catch a ride with a buddy, and we’d bump CDs in his secondhand Kia. Or we’d play mixtapes we had curated by pulling tracks off borrowed discs and the radio. Literal, material tapes! There is still a stash of these in my parents’ basement.

Despite having a stable family, decent-to-great teachers, and a path to college, I was a typical artfully disaffected American teenager. I was real white and real middle-class. Had my acne, my cynical hunch, my unkempt hair, my paperbacks (edgy stuff like Rimbaud, man), had my monosyllabics and mumbling. Two genres dominated my soundtrack: hip hop and punk. My early love of the former was genuine but way less self-aware than it is now—I was fetishizing black alienation and anger (Nas was trapped in Queens and I’m stuck in rural Virginia) without reflecting even a little bit on why that might be a problematic position for white kid from Alleghany County to take.

As for punk, I was a big poser. Outside of the Sex Pistols—whom I don’t actually like—and The Clash—do they count as true punk?—I was mostly ignorant of canonical acts. Ask me to name a Black Flag song and I’d have gone radio-silent. I definitely wasn’t living anything like a punk lifestyle: I didn’t skate, rock a mohawk or piercings, have tattoos, or go to many shows. My tastes were vanilla and West Coast aspirational. I went in for groups like NOFX and Blink-182 (yes) and Rancid, whose music contained elements of pop, sometimes heavy elements. I bought or copied a lot of Epitaph Records products. In terms of its origins (far away, on a magical skateboarding coast) and my consumption habits (punk paired well with driving and got me amped for soccer games) the music did not fundamentally challenge the world that I was supposed to inherit after I went to school and got a white-collar job. It definitely had some middle fingers for the United States, but it was no more deeply transgressive, for someone in my cultural position, than Bob Marley or On the Road.

But we’ve all got our kinks and sidelines, and a band that I loved, that I still keep on my jogging playlist, is the hardcore group Choking Victim. In 1999, at the height of the specious Clinton economic boom that would soon give way to Enron and a burst tech-stock bubble, they released their only record, No Gods / No Managers. Recorded by young men who were living on the grimy margins of golden New York, it was all the voyeuristic experience an anxious teenager like me could ask for. It mocks capitalism and Christianity, sneers at traditional media, excoriates the police, and has no patience for mainstream politics. In place of those institutions, No Gods / No Managers advocates a nihilistic portmanteau of squatting, shoplifting, heavy drugs, Satan, and louder music—hardly a program for a new world or a healthy life, but a genuine expression of alienation that spoke even to lucky kids like me. Ironically, as I’ve gotten older, passing into the scrum of student loans, the Great Recession, and post-middle-class American adulthood, I’ve probably gained actual reasons to imaginatively identify with this album’s tone.

Few records start harder. “500 Channels” is a tense, furious song, two and a half minutes of exuberant despair. While its use of satellite TV as the technological metonym for a degraded, adipose America is dated (social media has become the thing that supposedly ruins your mind), the track’s mood arguably suits 2015 better than it did the Clinton years. After all, back then one could at least pretend that something corny and critique-worthy called the American Dream existed, as an ideology, if not a material reality. Now that the narrative has withered, cynicism and insecurity are ascendant, especially for young people who will spend the rest of their lives renting, paying down education loans, and hoping that their 1998 Hondas make it a few more years.

To all general readers, Happy Thanksgiving, whether your plans are to “smoke some crack” and “shoot some dope,” or something more traditional, like “sit and stare at my TV.”





Happy Birthday, Mr. Stevens

As the Mad Hatter says, we all have 364 un-birthdays. But for Wallace Stevens, the greatest American poet who ever lived–epic like Whitman, possessed of Dickinson’s lyric intricacies, fleshier than Bishop, more national than Eliot, beautiful unlike Pound–October 2 isn’t one of those. This year he would have been 136. It’s too bad cryogenics haven’t advanced as much as sci-fi movies suggest.

I am lucky that during the 1990s and 2000s my home state, Virginia, had a superb public education system from K to college. In 1999, when I was seventeen, I spent a summer in the state Arts and Humanities Governor’s School at the University of Richmond, where I took strange, exhilarating classes on things like Critical Imagination and hung out with dancers, poets, painters, photographers, actors, and other weirdos.

In one of those classes we read poets like Yeats, Rimbaud (whom I was really getting into at the time, having discovered Enid Starkie’s biography of him), and Stevens. I remember reading the poem below, “Disillusionment of Ten O’Clock,” and feeling immediately, before I understood a word, that it was otherwordly, like Pedro Martinez’s change-up, a text uninterested in anything like philosophical or ideological Content and yet scenically intelligible and eager to show me something pleasingly, oddly beautiful. It wobbled and reverberated with magic Yeats and mad Rimbaud:

The houses are haunted
By white night-gowns.
None are green,
Or purple with green rings,
Or green with yellow rings,
Or yellow with blue rings.
None of them are strange,
With socks of lace
And beaded ceintures.
People are not going
To dream of baboons and periwinkles.
Only, here and there, an old sailor,
Drunk and asleep in his boots,
Catches tigers
In red weather.

In 2005 a dear friend gave me a hardcover copy of Stevens’s Collected Poems (the 1954 Knopf edition, still the standard). I’ve read the shit out of it ever since, that husky, taped-up, note-tattooed volume. My favorite poem is still, I think, at least in most moods, “Peter Quince at the Clavier,” which just vaporizes the century’s poetic competition. By turns soulful, satirical, straight-faced, erotic, and cinematic, long but brisk, with a continuous lyric intelligence underlying everything, “Peter Quince” was first published a century ago, in 1915, but it remains strikingly contemporary. You can imagine the guy in jeans, taking a selfie of the pool where Susanna . . . well, you’ll see. Full text here; final amazing stanza below. Happy weekend, y’all.

Beauty is momentary in the mind —
The fitful tracing of a portal;
But in the flesh it is immortal.
The body dies; the body’s beauty lives.
So evenings die, in their green going,
A wave, interminably flowing.
So gardens die, their meek breath scenting
The cowl of winter, done repenting.
So maidens die, to the auroral
Celebration of a maiden’s choral.
Susanna’s music touched the bawdy strings
Of those white elders; but, escaping,
Left only Death’s ironic scraping.
Now, in its immortality, it plays
On the clear viol of her memory,
And makes a constant sacrament of praise.
And let us remember: Stevens was an insurance executive at the company now known as The Hartford. An insurance exec!