The Experience Music Project’s Pop Conference is coming up in just a few days, and as someone who has attended this annual gathering for many years, it always gets me thinking about what French “urbanist” philosopher Paul Virilio describes as the “art of the accident.” Every year at this event I hear academics and journalists often hurling their ideas past the green lights of shared enthusiasm, sometimes into the stop signs of cultural relativity, but it’s usually the speed of life or a Crash almost as engaging as those in J.G. Ballard’s novel of that title. This year’s theme is “Technology” but that makes it no less penetrating; in fact, it might be weirder and more wonderful than ever.
In preparation for experiencing the Pop Conference v. 2010, I have been reading a lot about communities related to music. Because the Pop Con is no longer merely the “happening” of presentations, and beyond the physical gathering of a distant milieu, its relation to locals from the music scene and regional pop culture writers, and the interaction with workers at the EMP who play in bands or are in the science fiction scene, have mutated it into a Soviet Union of Sound Theory. Or a United Sonic States. Or whatever silly nationalistic phrase most of its finicky patrons would probably fuss about or refute immediately.
Speaking of refusing categories, when I think community, the first group that comes to my mind are anarchists. George Berger, a British music trades scribe and author of the Levellers history ‘State Education/No University,’ knows about both music and the energy of protest in academe. His biography of the notorious art-terrorist music collective Crass, The Story Of Crass, is a very focused account of some people working out political liberation on a very personal level. The energy of anger and the transcendence of continuous change form the subtext of a compelling work begun by protest rockers Steve Ignorant and Penny Rimbaud, and precisely documents the dizzying challenges the British anarcho-punks faced in raising the black flag high above the music scene and beyond.
Crass has always been a mystery to me, their stencils and stark graphics pushing the cover art and titles of randomly caustic, texturally diverse, musically schizoid releases like The Feeding Of The 5,000 EP, Penis Envy, Yes Sir, I Will, and their apex of rage, Christ - The Album. For people a little fed up with the apolitical nature of most pop and indie rock, this book is an excellent guide for how to empower yourself to make songs as charged as “Do They Owe Us A Living?” (answer: “Of course they fucking do!”) and yet is honest about feelings of persecution, impotence, and struggles to communicate with others of your own amorphous ideology when you take the pirate’s path. Bands like Conflict and other second and third wave Brit punks keep the music pure to its very poor, very tense beginnings, but it was Crass who made agitation and ennui an art-form and a reason to live. For a lot more people, including American kids, than is acknowledged now. Berger has done a distinguished job with the narrative of a prole mob quarreling as much with the world as with themselves. And what value was their resistance? The secrecy of their private lives are kept intact otherwise, as you will not read these accounts elsewhere. The ideology remains hidden in the mainstream press and from hack bands as rock music still reacts more than gives us action.
Emergency Press is based in New York but has done Seattle a lovely service by publishing the first book by Tom Hansen, American Junkie, which is a memoir of a heroin dealer in the days when tiny punk shows ballooned into media-crawling major venue grunge events. Hansen lost his thrill for the music when he was in the Fartz after they locally opened for the Dead Kennedys; then a whole new void opened beneath him.
American Junkie takes you to the gristle-chewing tracks of the gnarly Emerald City before the first wave of Sub Pop-loving kids arrived, back when our dreams here had more to do with New York City and Los Angeles than being known locally. It fluctuates through time like all the best drug stories: From a kid raised in the 1960s, near woods with a father who promised to pay Hansen a nickel for every page he read of the Hardy Boys; flashing to a hospital assessment describing the heroin dependency, abscesses, severe malnutrition, and virulent diarrhea of what had become of him by 1999.
But that’s the starting point: It’s the period of post-punk fear and desperation that drives Hansen through most of the book that rings true for anyone who lived in the wastelands where the city’s clubs would spring up, before The Crocodile and the new wave of club action, back in the days of SCUD and musicians who had gotten used to a music scene where no national bands wanted to play and shows often as not brought cops barreling down. The opiated alternative doesn’t seem like such a bad choice in a port city with little respect for its young people; not until your IV wounds are oozing liquid the color and consistency of olive oil and you’ve long ago forgotten about playing out.
Rapture Ready! is about a whole other kind of opiate, this one the religion of the masses. (Wait a second, it’s the other way around, right?) “Adventures in the Parallel Universe of Christian Pop Culture” (Soft Skull) by Daily Show writer Daniel Radosh (who besides collaborating with Jon Stewart has also written for Playboy, Esquire, and GQ) is continually as much sharp-witted, side-splitting fun as a jolting episode of that Comedy Central staple.
But deeper than that, Radosh, who describes himself as a “Humanist Jew” (he lights candles on Friday but gets squicked out on prolonged supernatural discussions of faith) wholeheartedly wallows in a scene that bewilders him and reports every good and bad thing he finds there. He has extended conversations with the academic author of the Encyclopedia of Contemporary Christian Music, suffers for us enduring the depravity of evangelical theme parks and holy haunted houses, reads and meets the authors of religious horror novels sold in Bible bookstores, and pokes and prods at the whole current fetishization of belief-based culture.
Rapture Ready! surpasses a lot of other really good books on a similar topic, such as Body Piercing Saved My Life, in the amount of dirty work done in the field of pop culture salvation. My favorite scenes involve a “History of Christian Music” at a Bible-believing theme park where Monk chants are given three part harmonies to make them more palatable to suburbanites, and they stopped selling Middle Eastern food because Americans fear it; and the vulnerable, apparently trustable insights from Jay Bakker, Jim and Tammy’s horrified child turned advocate for authenticity.
Radosh is genuinely obsessed with how consumer culture can connect to concepts of “personal holiness,” and though Body Piercing is still essential for its Dave Bazan interviews, this book is the most wide-ranging and irresistible read on this Bizarro World.
The New Busy is not the too busy. Combine all your e-mail accounts with Hotmail. Get busy.