Saturday, November 10, 2012

God Damn These Vampires: An Exploration of the only two Mountain Goats Songs I’ve ever Heard

The title and the premise of this piece may not sound very promising, but neither did the premise of Nicholson Baker’s U and I, in which Baker explores his experience with John Updike despite having read very little of Updike’s work.  Now, granted, I haven’t actually read U and I, because I have a probably unfair prejudice against John Updike—Gore Vidal told me I should hate him—and I’m somewhat skeptical of Baker because Geoff Dyer, in his essay “Unpacking my Library,” which is a reference to the Walter Benjamin essay of the same name, comes across a copy of Baker’s mid-90’s novel Vox and speaks disparagingly of it, and this alarmed me, because Vox is one of the few Baker novels I’ve read, and I liked it at the time, but maybe I shouldn’t have? What’s wrong with me?  Does liking that book reflect poorly on me? Because you know who else liked it?  Monica Lewinsky.  She thought it was sexy and she allegedly gave a copy to Bill Clinton (and it would have been in one of those hideous Vintage Contemporaries editions, too).  Now, surely Monica Lewinsky is not a paragon of good taste.  But why not? Why shouldn’t she be?

But all of this is really neither here nor there, because it is not my intention to speak of Nicholson Baker right now, but rather of the two Mountain Goats songs that I know, and those songs are: “Lovecraft in Brooklyn” and “Damn these Vampires.” Here is "Lovecraft in Brooklyn":

I first became aware of “Lovecraft in Brooklyn” (and, by extension, the Mountain Goats), in 2009.  I was out with some friends, celebrating one of our birthdays, and one of my companions decided to purchase the Lovecraft-themed “Arkham Horror” board game at a game store in the Uptown neighborhood of Minneapolis.  This naturally sparked a conversation about H. P. Lovecraft and one of my friends said to me, “Have you heard of the Mountain Goats?” I wanted to say, “Those bearded, hill-bound, cuckold creatures? Yes, certainly,” were it not for that little article, and so I said, “No, no I haven’t, who are the Mountain Goats?” And I was told that (a) they were a band I might like and (b), they had a song called “Lovecraft in Brooklyn.” Now, already I had a good idea of what this song must be about, because I knew what had happened to Lovecraft in Brooklyn, thanks in large part to Michel Houellebecq’s monograph, H. P. Lovecraft: Against the World, Against Life, which is a wonderful title, and which I read in 2006, and clearly information about Lovecraft is always current, because this knowledge came to my assistance in 2009 when my friend told me about the Mountain Goats and it is assisting me now, in late 2012, as I write this blog post.

You see, in 1924, bug-eyed proto-Nazi H. P. Lovecraft (God bless him), left the rural New England haunts in which so much of his fiction is set and tried to establish himself in Brooklyn, where he sought to get a “real job.” The task of “getting a real job” proved remarkably hard for Lovecraft, whose bookish knowledge and literary proclivities apparently didn’t recommend him to work in a stock-broker’s firm or a lawyer’s office, or whatever the fuck kind of white-collar work someone like him could have expected to get in 1920’s New York.  Houellebecq notes that the typical Lovecraft character almost never has an actual job; either they have an inheritance of very old money to sustain them, or economic questions are so irrelevant to their (and Lovecraft’s) interests that they’re just overlooked altogether (I am reminded of the protagonist of Boris Vian’s novel Mood Indigo (or Foam on the Daze, or Froth on the Daydream, there is no consensus on how to translate the title), who has at his disposal a large supply of gold doubloons that spare him the hassles of conventional employment, and the origin of which is never mentioned (or if it is, I don’t remember it; certainly it doesn’t matter).

So, when Lovecraft was in Brooklyn, he was unemployed and this pained him.  What also pained Lovecraft in Brooklyn was the presence of different people.  The families who populate the crumbling estates of Lovecraft’s stories may be decadent and inbred, but there’s an aristocratic element to that inbreeding, as well as one of racio-ethnic purity.  Those debauched in-bred New Englanders are Anglo-Saxons, God damn it, or at least old Dutch families of long standing, and that’s almost the same thing.  In New York, it being New York, Lovecraft came into contact with people of every conceivable racial and ethnic background.  Here there were Italians, Jews, and Asians (the people he referred to in a letter home as “Italo-Semitico-Mongoloids”), black people, Polynesian sailors of the sort who would play such a prominent role in “The Shadow over Innsmouth.” On a related note, he would also find people of mixed ethnicity and mixed raced, and these people, along with the black people he despised so much, would provide the source for so many of the monsters and half-human-half-alien hybrids of his best fiction.

So, to feel like “Lovecraft in Brooklyn” means, first and foremost, to feel really, really racist.  In analyzing Lovecraft’s racism and its relationship to his work, Houellebecq perceptively traces it all back to a common origin: fear.  In Lovecraft’s case, there was the fear of poverty and the fear of the inadequacy that would be represented by his inability to get a job, and Lovecraft translated this fear into an animus against the different people he was encountering in New York, or perhaps it was merely magnified against people that he hated already.  His life is falling to pieces, and here he is surrounded by strange people, many of whom have jobs, and if these “inferior people” have jobs while Lovecraft doesn’t, well, then what does that say about Lovecraft?

Now, Houellebecq’s analysis doesn’t justify Lovecraft’s racism, but it does explain it with sensitivity.  And the Mountain Goats song, while focusing on a more generic depiction of the city as chaotic and loud and distressing to a person on edge, certainly allows for the discerning Lovecraftian to pick up the racial component involved.  The menacing people in the song, what color are they? Now, we progressive men and women of the 21st century, of Barack Obama’s America, we know that it shouldn’t matter, but the Lovecraftian knows that these are “people of color,” and that in Lovecraft’s warped and crumbling mind, that’s a part of the fear.

Well, I liked this song when I listened to it in 2009 (yay, a song about Lovecraft, I must have thought), but evidently I didn’t like it so much that I felt compelled to seek out the rest of the Mountain Goats’ music, or any of it, for that matter.  No, it was not until 2012 that, following a series of YouTube recommendations, I came upon a Mountain Goats song called “Damn these Vampires,” and, as that is an excellent title, I listened to the song immediately: 
And thematically, I found that it was remarkably similar to “Lovecraft in Brooklyn,” but tempered more by compassion and suffering.  Whereas the protagonist of “Lovecraft in Brooklyn” is on the verge of falling apart, we get the impression that his counterpart in “Damn these Vampires” already has, and on multiple occasions.  In the chorus, he sings, and with great pathos, although the vocal style is in that “almost-talking” register that you get with Death Cab for Cutie and similar bands: “Crawl til dawn / On my hands and knees. / God damn these vampires / For what they’ve done to me.” And if you want to see these songs as connected (and, as these are the only Mountain Goats songs that I know, it’s hard for me not to do so), the suffering protagonist no longer betrays evidence of racial animus.  He’s just a man who’s suffered terribly (at the hands of “monsters,” mind you, but at least they’re vampires, and vampires are typically white, Blacula not withstanding) but still has within him the strength to revolt and curse his persecutors.  There is great satisfaction in hearing him say, “God damn these vampires.”

And his sufferings must have been numerous and, in the nature of vampiric assaults, they sucked him dry.  It must have been a steady drip-drip-drip of persecution and harassment that wrecked him inside and out, for he goes on to say, “God damn these bite marks / Deep in my arteries.”

In the Jamaican context (or at least in the context of Jamaican music, which is the aspect of Jamaican culture with which I’m most familiar), to call someone a vampire is a supreme insult (well, almost supreme, I suspect the worst insult that homophobic Rastas have in their arsenal is batty boi, which is their slur for a gay person).  Lee “Scratch” Perry famously attacked Bob Marley’s producer Chris Blackwell for being a vampire and Peter Tosh, explaining his iconic guitar shaped like an M-16 assault rifle, said he used it to “scare all vampires.”

And so perhaps Tosh, were he not long dead (shot in the head during a home invasion in 1987) would join (somewhat ironically, no doubt) with H. P. Lovecraft (also long dead) and the Mountain Goats (still living, according to Wikipedia), in saying God damn these fucking vampires.  God damn them.

So apparently my take-away from the Mountain Goats can be summed up as, “Christ, fucking vampires.” But surely anyone who’s ever felt him or herself sucked dry by the vagaries of life (to which Houellebecq found Lovecraft thoroughly opposed) would agree with the sentiment, “God damn these vampires for what they’ve done to me.”


And just a reminder, in case someone has to have this explained to him, no, I don’t approve of Lovecraft’s racism and anti-Semitism or the homophobia of pretty much every Rastafarian musician who’s ever expressed an opinion on the matter.  The art and the life are two separate things, and if they weren’t, we’d be fucked.  Take English literature, for example.  With a few examples, virtually every British writer of the twentieth century was a casual anti-Semite up until World War II.  Now, does that mean we can’t read the anti-Semitic British writers of that period? Because that’s basically all of them (the same goes for nineteenth-century Russian literature; here’s a fun drinking game: read Turgenev’s Sketches from a Hunter’s Album and take a shot for every story that somehow finds a way to disparage Jews, even if they have nothing to do with the plot).  So no, no, of course it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t read them.  If you’re an adult, then you can hopefully make the adult distinction between a work of art and the life and opinions of the artist who created it.

Monday, November 5, 2012

The Apocalyptic Style in American Politics; or, who would T. S. Eliot Vote for?; or James Spillane’s Handy Presidential Election Guide

Americans, I have bad news: You’re fucked.  You’re really fucked.  Obama doesn’t know how to fix your economy and his administration is full of the people who fucked it up to begin with and, in case you’re forgotten, he believes it is his right as president to carry out extra-judicial murders around the world, including the killing of American citizens.  So it will be terrible to vote for Obama.  On the other hand, if you vote for Romney (and his Objectivist side-kick, Ryan), you’ll be electing people who are basically caricatures of American Republicans.  They’re right, white, wealth-worshipping plutocrats who openly hold poor people in contempt.  They would gut what’s left of the welfare state in the US (Medicare, Medicaid, social security, disability coverage) while carrying on Obama’s overseas killing spree.  And who knows, maybe worse.  Romney seems hell-bent on starting a trade war with China (on his first day in office, no less), a new cold war with Russia (the greatest threat to America, he says), and possibly a hot war with Iran (although everybody boasts about going to war with Iran, they’ve wanted to go to war with Iran since at least Bush and probably since Carter, it hasn’t happened yet).

America is economically and politically fucked.  American government barely functions because the right is actively trying to obstruct it and the center (the Democrats) lack the willpower and the skill to do anything about it.  There’s nothing to stop another economic crisis from taking place, of the sort that we had in 2008 or far worse.  It is quite conceivable that the next US president will have to contend with the collapse of the eurozone and the global economic turmoil that that will entail, and the American government that brought us the 2011 let’s-almost-default-on-our-national-debt-just-because fiasco isn’t up to the challenge.  These times require visionary leadership.  There is none.  We need a Roosevelt and all we have is an Obama.  And we might get a Romney.

Now, to my foreign readers, this is why you’re fucked too.  Because if the US is going to suffer catastrophic decline, I can’t imagine its brilliant political and military leaders won’t try to take with them as many foreigners as they can.  For a lot of Americans, Obama just isn’t aggressive enough when it comes to blowing up Muslims, and this from a president who has blown up thousands of them, many of them civilians, many of them children, many of them outside warzones.  Obama’s drones sometimes carry out “double-tap” attacks, in which the drones hover overhead after an initial massacre and then open fire on the people who show up to render medical aid or at least try to recover the bodies.  He’s also launched attacks on the funerals of drone victims, based on the logic that “militants” are likely to be in attendance at the funerals of militants (along with their wives and children, of course).  I put militants in scare quotes because we know that the Obama administration considers any military-age male that they kill to be a militant unless they are presented with a posthumous vindication of the victim.  So they’ll concede that you weren’t a militant, but only after they’ve killed you.  It should be noted that it was this logic—that all military-age males are inherently military targets—which provided the impetus behind the Srebrenica massacre of 1995, in which Bosnian Serb forces murdered some eight thousand Bosnian Muslim men and boys.

So Obama has killed an enormous number of Muslim civilians, but for so many bloodthirsty Americans, that just isn’t enough (or something, I don’t understood how these people can believe that Obama has been “appeasing” Muslim militants when he can’t go a day without killing a bunch of them and anyone who happens to be standing nearby).  Jesus, if Romney gets elected, how many Muslims will he have to kill before his supporters are satisfied?  Certainly he’ll kill a lot.  The result of Obama’s drone war will have been to make these sorts of assassinations and extra-judicial murders the bipartisan norm.  America’s so-called Left won’t have a platform from which to criticize Romney, because he’ll be doing the same thing as Obama, and they didn’t object to it when Obama did it (it’s almost as if… they’re hypocrites!)

It’s become something of a cliché by this point to dismiss the entire American political class as a bunch of corrupt, power-hungry assholes, but that doesn’t mean it’s not true and it doesn’t mean we can overlook it.  If America continues down the path of economic decline and lawless imperial warfare and murder, nothing good will come of it.  America’s increasingly militarized police forces are already getting their hands on drones, and it won’t be long before the tools of imperial oppression, honed on recalcitrant natives overseas, are brought back to the US.   Historical examples abound, but for considerations of space, here are just two of them.  This is exactly what happened near the end of the Roman Republic; the Generals Marius and Sulla went off to fight a foreign war in Libya and they ended up bringing their armies home with them and plunging the country into civil war.  More recently, the French Fourth Republic was brought down by the threat of a coup from soldiers trying to suppress the Algerian Revolution. 

Now, I’m not saying we’re necessarily going to see tanks in the streets in the US; far from it.  Americans are an acquiescent bunch and they would gladly sacrifice their freedoms on the altar of “security” (in Zbigniew Herbert’s elegant little book of myths, The King of the Ants, he describes a fictional Roman deity that he calls Securitas, to whom one sacrifices everything).  Tell the Americans that the Wikileakers are making us vulnerable to al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (or al-Shabab, or Ansar al-Sharia, or whatever the Islamists in northern Mali are calling themselves), and they’ll gladly sacrifice their freedoms (of speech, of dissent, certainly of religion if that religion happens to be Islam).  And the American republic will end not with a bang, but with a whimper, with a whimper (to continue my trend of incorporating famous T. S. Eliot lines into my blog posts).

And speaking of bangs versus whimpers, this brings me to my tepid and deeply reluctant of endorsement of Barack Obama.  The election of Mitt Romney would destroy America with a bang (death to social services, death to the poor, death to labor unions, government control of women’s reproductive systems, war with Iran, war with the Muslims in general), whereas the election of Obama will continue America on the path to a slightly quieter but no less irreversible decline.  He will kill Muslims, but fewer of them.  He probably/hopefully won’t go to war with Iran, unless Netanyahu does something stupid, in which case any American puppet-president would jump at the opportunity to attack Iran if it first attacks Israel.  On the economic front, we’ll see the same stagnant non-recovery that Japan has been experiencing ever since the bursting of its “bubble economy” circa-1990.  And as for social issues, this might be Obama’s only redeeming point.  Obama does not hate gay people, he does not think women are stupid and incapable of making decisions about their own reproductive health, he doesn’t hold poor people in contempt.  So that’s nice and it’s in marked contrast to the Republican position on these issues.

This endorsement of Obama is not a glowing endorsement.  In my heart of hearts, I want to vote for Green Party candidate Jill Stein, who holds genuine leftist positions and probably wouldn’t bomb anyone.  But when it comes down it, I’m afraid I’ve accepted the logic that a vote for a third party candidate by a leftist like me is like a vote for Romney.  And I really don’t want to see Romney elected.  I would much rather see the American republic end not with a bang but with a whimper.


Also, in case anyone was wondering, T. S. Eliot, were he still alive, would probably vote for the Constitution Party’s Virgil Goode, because they’re both arch-reactionaries.