31 October 2006

A repost of a repost of a riposte: BigMuscle.com 4

Am I freaking your shit out yet?

Please don't read this.

This is the fourth in a series on BigMuscle.com, which began as a sort of running critique of BigMuscle on BigMuscle. Most people on that site didn't give a damn about what I was saying, but I got some nice comments on those posts from time to time, nonetheless. You could read the first posts for context, but in this fearful new online universe all the choices are yours. Aren't they?

Don't read the first and second and(slash)or third posts.

13 May 2003

The mouth is an eye. Indeed, the mouth is the first eye, before even the eye is the eye (and our language reinforces this: we "drink" others with our eyes, or more aggressively, we "devour" them with our eyes). For all intents and purposes, the mouth is the original orifice through which we experience the world, though intent and purpose are very confused for the infant, of course; it can be said that neither exist initially because there is only this unnamed thing called "Hunger," and the care-giver, who takes it away. It seems like a pure dyad. Who knows what it is like for the infant, who perhaps is only capable of seeing the care-giver through the eye of its mouth without ever knowing it, itself, exists. Is this why we sometimes only feel we exist when we see another, and why the gaze of another carries such power over us? One reason, anyway. If we feel we don't exist, perhaps seeing another is enough. Perhaps being seen is enough. And here we have returned to the gaze again.

But to stay with the mouth, the first interface, the place that teaches us most cogently about inside and outside, about hunger, nourishment, and never far behind (how can it ever be very far behind?) love: that intimacy of the mouth, that enveloping warmth of feeding, being surrounded by the arms and body of the care-giver, warm, and warmth flowing inside through the mouth, the mouth which sees before the infant's eyes can focus: this is love. And is this why when we press our lips to those of another we do it to show love? How very queer indeed.

19 October 2006


As you returning readers may remember, I disdain posting stories of a personal nature on this blog. I try not to but from time to time I do put them up, for several reasons, the most important being that I think it's funny. The story, I mean. But also that I state over and over my dislike of autobiography of any kind and yet still give into it every now and then--that; I think that's funny. The idea that other people could possibly have any interest in what I had for lunch is so alien and absurd to me, that... well, you know. Don't you? Fortunately, this text is not about today's luncheon.

So, there's this bar in New York City called The Phoenix. Its name refers to another, very famous bar tautologically called, The Bar, which opened in 1978 at 2nd Ave and 4th St. This place, The Bar, was a hangout for ACT-UPers and fellow travellers back in the day, and I have many stories, which I will not share here, regarding that particular establishment. Well, it burned in 1998 making for a neat twenty-year arc, and Fluffy, the Cat, the house mascot was never seen again. Did she die in the fire? No one knows, but a new bar rose from the ashes, if you will, as The Phoenix, up on 13th St and Ave A.

The Phoenix is a fun enough place, but the thing I loved about this bar was the graffiti, and one graffito in particular, which someone had taken the time to inscribe on the wall, in pen, on the left side over the left urinal in the "Men's Room," and it went exactly like this:
I would like to be the air
that inhabits you for one
moment only. I would like to be
that necessary and that unnoticed.
I can't help you if you think this scrawl describes something sweet and romantic, I was revolted by the sentiment from the day I laid eyes upon it. My friend, Kikkoman, and I loved this poemlet so much that a ritual began where whenever one of us took a leak and came back, we tried to work it into the conversation. You know, he'd come back from the bathroom and we'd talk about some guy I was seeing and what a pain he was, and Kikkoman would say, "I know exactly what you mean, I've dated lots of guys like that, but the thing you always have to remember in these situations is that I would like to be the air that inhabits you for one moment only. I would like to be that necessary and that unnoticed."

Graffiti fascinates me. What does it take for someone to remember to bring a writing tool (hopefully, a Sharpie permanent marker) with him into the toilet and for the express purpose of displaying a secret message to strangers? People write anything from song lyrics to movie quotes to political opinions to personal attacks to URLs to poems--for a while some enterprising person was transcribing lengthy passages of Baudelaire in East Village Men's Rooms, which was lovely. What is it about the public/private in-between space of the toilet that makes a person write? I understand some of the reasons, especially if you've been drinking:
a) personal anger ("Dave Mastrogiovonni is a fucking asshole!!!" or "Stan B. gave me crabs!")
b) political anger ("Fuck Bush")
These are a kind of public service announcement as people might want to know about Dave, Stan, and/or Bush. Then you have:
c) humor ("Fags suck")
d) art/quotation (Baudelaire)
e) commentary ("Whoever wrote this needs to get a life!")
The coda to our story is a real life example from this last category. Time passed, as it does reliably, and the walls of the Phoenix Men's Room were finally repainted, obliterating the years of scribbles and snide remarks. I think Kikkoman and I had a conversation at Phoenix that went something like this:
K: So, did you hear? They painted the bathroom walls.
L: No! Is it...?
K: Yes. It's gone.
L: Oh. How sad I feel.
K: It saddens me as well.
L: You don't have a Sharpie permanent marker on you by any chance?
K: In fact. I do. (Hands L. the Sharpie)
L: Will you cover me?
K: (Standing) Nothing would make me happier.
So, yes, gentle reader, imagine as Kikkoman and I crept down to the toilet, and whilst he kept watch (not that it really mattered), I reinstated the sacred text back into the approximate spot where it had glowed all those years. It felt exactly like putting a tiny Lego of the universe back into its proper place.

You realize by now how I felt a special protectiveness towards those scant lines of earnest drivel that I'd repeated so many times over the years. It is not that I had changed my mind about the content itself, which if anything had become more repellent with every thrilling repetition, but those lines had become an old friend to look for and find every time I took at slash at that bar. So imagine my irritation when I went to that urinal just a couple days later and found someone had written "BORING FAG" in huge letters over the text and not next to it, as dictated by tradition, with a helpful arrow.

What amuses here is that the original stood unmolested for so long, but the copy exercised some humorless twit so much that he had to deface this text with his much-less-interesting, wit-free remark. There are two kinds of readers for this little poem, those who agree with it and those who don't, and it took the erasure and reiteration by me for the message finally to find its mark. And die. Now that's comedy.

But I am sure you're quite bored with this little exposition on my favorite graffito, O Reader, so I'll close. But do me this favor next time you look at someone's bathroom scribble, remember that I would like to be the air that inhabits you for one moment only. I would like to be that necessary and that unnoticed.

16 October 2006

I Post Song Lyrics Sometimes: Northern Lad.

Yeah, it's Ophelia all over again

Tori Amos is a problematic figure in pop music . Her first album (though not actually her first), Little Earthquakes, somehow managed to stand astride the barrier between the personal (and therefore, the political, as in feminist) and the popular (as in pop). Strangely piano-driven, the songs still had a hook that grabbed people, both despite and because of the lyrics. But then the words were conveyed by the most wonderful instrument of her voice, which is one of the odder confections to be found on the charts in the last fifteen years. She gasps, she grunts, she takes breaths in weird places, she willfully mispronounces and extends words in order to make them fit the arc of the music.

People who don't know Kate Bush dismiss Amos as a Bush imitator instead of understanding that she pays a deep homage extending the crazy space that Kate Bush more or less invented in pop music at the age of seventeen. Bush is essentially a narrativist; she is almost always telling a story, often derived from literature or biography, but transformed by her own strange take on that tale and whatever musical idioms are nagging at her attention. They are both crazy, brilliant bitches, but the real thing that Amos learned from Bush, in a strange counter-intuitive reverse-alphabetical order, is that when you personalize your work it takes on a powerful universal application. If you're passionate enough about what you're doing and you have the capacity to realize that vision, you can approach a song as deeply embedded in the popular conciousness as "Landslide" (or "Smells Like Teen Spirit" or "
'97 Bonnie And Clyde") and take the most remarkable and personal ownership of it.

This song, "Northern Lad," was on Amos' fourth album. After
Little Earthquakes, she released her "sell-out" effort, In the Pink, which seemed so calculated and under-done compared to the earlier disc. Then she brought out Boys for Pele--the album art for which depicted her as a hillbilly woman burning a mattress in one photograph and suckling a piglet in another--a fearsome declaration of independence from the market that was only underscored by her use of the antiquated harpsichord. This is an album so intense that I cannot listen to the whole things in one sitting. The title refers to boys being sacrificed to a volcano goddess (as opposed to girls), and has provovatively titled songs including, "Father Lucifer," "Professional Widow," "Muhammad my friend," "Agent Orange," and "Putting the damage on." All good songs, but the album is so full of rage and forgiveness that it's almost unbearable. After this she released her first disc with a band--this from a woman who was content to be responsible for all the sounds in her music. It's a great album, containing the best and a some of the worst of what she's capable of and yet is a breakthrough. She pairs, implicitly anyway, a racous song about the undue, damaging influence of a woman on a man (it could be a woman, it couldbe anyone) called "She's Your Cocaine"--a terrific, funky number--with a song called "Northern Lad." I wish I had the ability to upload the thing [Ed. Note: I now can, and I have --Feb. 2014] so you could hear what she's up to since I find this one of the most canny and moving pieces of music I've ever encountered. I know, it's always difficult to hear someone else speak in absolutes of any kind, but you have to understand two things: the refrain has an earthy and sexual logic that astonishes: "If you could see me now, /Girls, you've got to know/When it's time to turn the page/When you're only wet because of the rain"; the second thing is the way she sings this. The tune builds in the most lovely subtle way so that by the time she repeats the refrain, it becomes the most mournful keening. Maybe it's the image of rain in the song, but her voice takes on this elemental aspect, like a storm hitting or breaking. It is the sound of a voice describing the sky filling with light, and she does this without the words but only the tone, the grain, of her voice, which dissolves from this incandescent cry of loss into a weeping tremulo. It kills me every time I hear it. This sound she makes is an example of the sublime.

And now for the song.
Northern Lad

Had a northern lad,
Well, not exactly had, but
He moved like the sunset
God who painted that (there).
First he loved my accent;
How his knees could bend.
I thought we'd be ok,
Me and my molasses.

But I feel something is(n't) wrong,
But (like) I feel this cake still isn't done.
And don't say that you don't.

And if you
Could see me now,
'Said if you
Could see me now,
Girls, you've got to know
When it's time to turn the page,
When you're only wet
Because of the rain,
Because of,'Cause of the rain,'Cause of...

He don't show much these days.
It gets so fucking cold.
I loved his secret places
But I can't go anymore.
"You change like sugar cane,"
Says my northern lad, well,
I guess you go too far
When pianos try to be guitars. 'N'

I feel the west in you, but I
Feel it falling apart too.
And don't say that you don't.

And if you could see me now,
'Said if you could see me now.
Girls, you've got to know
When it's time to turn the page,
When you're only wet
Because of the rain,
When you're only wet
Because of the rain,
Because of,'Cause of the rain,Because of,'Cause of the rain,'Cause of
The rain

"Northern Lad," music and lyrics by Tori Amos, on From the Choirgirl Hotel, 1998.

02 October 2006

I Fag Out Sometimes: Fashion

Rita. Not Rita. (Valentino.)

I wear clothes and I have what amounts to a personal style by default, but Fashion is not my forte. I appreciate it, don't really follow it, and tend to enjoy it as a simultaneously evolving and degrading network of signifiers where colors and styles refer to other things: images, cultural ideas and stereotypes, history, and other fashions and styles. This description probably seems needlessly cumbersome with the added advantage of being vague, but if we accept that "fashions" begin with high fashion--not just classic couture but the various big designers--and then disseminate over time out into cheaper, lower-quality, and less sophisticated hybrid permutations, then it makes a kind of sense. At least I hope it does. Other styles and fashions have subcultural, ethnic, and class markers, and don't necessarily depend on high design, though they may borrow from (or be inspired by) it from time to time. In fact, frequently the converse is often true and high fashion finds its inspiration in any number of style traditions or cultures, reshaping them, ironizing them, and otherwise converting the naive, banal, traditional, or declasse into "couture." Simultaneously, clothing and "looks"--let's say sensibilities--come in and out of "fashion" as designers work against, extend, or reject what came out in previous seasons; on top of that, it takes a year or two, usually more, for ideas and styles to work their way down to the Gap and K-Mart. This is why fashion is in a constant state of evolution and degradation as every season brings a new series of lines that are absorbed into the culture and then filter out--or better, metastasize--into other markets. So, while high fashion appears newly each season and thus redraws the field to some degree for the immediate present and the near future, the popular, diluted, and fragmented ideas from two to five years ago are finding their way onto shelves at the same time.

The fashion system I've been elaborating, or belaboring, is an undeniably reductive one. There is no monolithic "Fashion" handed down from the rarefied heights of the couture houses and the high fashion industry that decomposes into "bad" fashion as it is taken up--too late--by other, cheaper, markets. But some things--and, yes, I'm going to use "things"--hit hard each season, and others don't. The stuff that hits finds its way through specific, overlapping communicating media, most visibly, celebrities (media stars, politicians, the very wealthy, and events such as awards shows and First Lady appearances). The value of these "things" comes first from contradictory impulses where the people who can afford these items want either what everyone else is wearing ("everyone" here being an incredibly tiny and affluent percentage of the general population) or what no one is wearing. Also, specific "hot" designers receive special attention in the press--imagine a world where film actors were not asked "who" they are wearing as they file into the latest awards spectacle. The news and entertainment media's obsessive projection of this information into the world has fostered a most widespread awareness of trends and designers.

What interests me is the circulation of aesthetics, images, sensibilities, styles, periods, and philosophies in fashion; and, yes, I am focusing on the way couture becomes culture and decomposes in the world of the markets until it is slowly replaced by other decomposing trends.

There are other times to discuss the other "group-related" domains of fashion that are based on the
utility or aesthetic of ethnic, class, professional traditions which consequently change very slowly, glacially in comparison (an easy to spot example in the fast-paced "Fashion" industry are epaulets, which were borrowed from a military context, and reappear now and then on dress jackets, trenchcoats, and windbreakers). But out and among these other domains, exists the milieu of "everyone else" in a clothing-sense--we could call this a style without style because the main concerns are practicality and thrift. We speak here of the graveyard of fashion, where all trends end up and eventually die. They dwell here as a fossil record of the last few years of fashion, and you can read these trends fairly easily when you look at color, cut, ornament, and so on. The trajectory I'm describing is neatly summarized in The Devil Wears Prada when the Streep/Anna Wintour character explains that the reason Anne Hathaway's Gap sweater is the particular color of blue that it is derives from a conversation had five years previous in the very room where they stand.

Most people are fairly thoughtless about their clothing and generally go for the demure, standard, and everyday (which is to say the unnoticable)--this describes the legions of citizens, women, in the Midwest, for one example, whose choices in, and awareness of, fashion is quite limited. The fact that they really don't value fashion at all is the reason they can be said to have no style (whatever fossilized trends can be found in what they wear), because a real style is chosen, and what these people are wearing was chosen for them, as though the clothing industry were some monstrous mother dressing her fashion-hapless children. If clothing choice is a way of choosing a kind of identity, then the clothing Midwestern moms wear expresses no identity, because there is nothing individual about it.

For the individual, fashion must be used; style must be chosen. It is a system of play that sends a message of who you think you are or who you want others to think you are--and sometimes that decision changes on a daily basis. The truly savvy--and the kind of people designers watch for ideas--wear whatever they want. If everyone aspired to this level of play and sophistication, fashion might be no fun at all, because the thing that sets the wealthy and the savvy apart from everyone else when it comes to fashion is knowledge, access, difference, attention, and invention. Those with no style lack all these qualities.

SIDEBAR/ENDBAR: Fashion can be read in other ways, of course: for the ways it represents a larger cultural view of gender (flamboyance and flash are still largely reserved for the female of the species), for the ways it incorporates war as fashion, the ways it reiterates earlier trends in the name of "retro," and so on and on; because the turnover is so fast the domain is great and yet strangely finite. This reading, this semiotic, of fashion requires a longer view than what I mean to describe here. I speak not of signs, of ideas that have specific cultural referents, but of signifiers of images. A semiotic, which concerns meaning, is different from a genealogy, and the genealogical is what this discursis circulates about. Fashion is a history of surfaces. Fashion is the first guard, the avant-gard, the armor, of the self. Those who put on their armor every day know the value of this. Moreover and furthermore, this whole setup I've outlined is a useful metaphor for the way other systems work, like history, hairstyles, and genre television: the infectious movement of Fashion reveals the way ideas move generally in culture. And you thought Fashion was just stupid and useless. Silly, reader.

So, I told you that story to tell you this one. Congratulations on getting this far.

Through a series of circumstances I prefer to keep anonymous, I recently acquired an haute couture item that belonged to one Mary McCarthy. Now, I don't know what is more bizarre: that I have high fashion in my home, or that it was worn by that wonderful and acerbic essayist, critic, and novelist, whom no one knows about anymore.

I gave the piece to Jeph for his birthday, and it has still a pricetag on it, Minnie Pearl-style, from a gallery sale in which the previous owner thought, with advice, it would go for $3,500. Though it didn't sell and was given to me, most generously, I am fairly certain that the price listed is not far off from its "value," which makes it the most expensive, non-appliance, thing I have ever touched, excluding the Rosetta Stone (which is now under glass) and a van Gogh at the National Gallery (which is not). Yet unlike those precious items it lives with me. And not only is it valuable because it is a vintage piece of couture, it has Mary McCarthy's DNA on it. This is exciting. This is dramatic.

Let's discuss the piece for a moment: it is a gorgeous, cream, satin, double-breasted coat, made double-wide to be worn over a ballgown, or some other formal wear for women circa 1958 or so, one that has many, many petticoats. Moreover it was designed by Lanvin, the oldest of the Parisian fashion houses. The oldest. Mind you, it was not made by Lanvin herself, who was long dead by 1958, or her daughter, who was, and still is, also dead. No, this is a coat made by one of the most respected fashion houses in Paris, who take, or took, their heritage very seriously. But the fossils are evident in the make of the thing, in its very large satin-covered buttons, and the way it fits a dress that would never be worn today, outside of California where there is no need to wear overcoats on formal dresses, fabulous or otherwise. If I had a decent picture of it, I'd post one, but for now you'll just have to use your imagination. Instead, I offer these images from the Metropolitan Museum of Art's costume closet of classic Lanvin. Enjoy. [See below.]

UPDATE. I took some crappy pics. It needs cleaning and pressing, but:

But you really need to see the large satin button detail:

And now, for the frocks.

Evening dress, 1939, Jeanne Lanvin (French, 1867–1946) Steel-gray silk taffeta embroidered with metallic sequins and pink beads. Gift of Mrs. Harrison Williams, Lady Mendl, and Mrs. Ector Munn, 1946

Evening ensemble, ca. 1934, Jeanne Lanvin (French, 1867–1946)
Black silk taffeta with metal plaques. Gift of Miriam W. Coletti, 1993

Evening jacket, 1936–37, Jeanne Lanvin (French, 1867–1946) Silver lamé with black fox trim.
Gift of Mrs. Leon L. Roos, 1966

Robe de style, 1924–25, Jeanne Lanvin (French, 1867–1946) Ivory and black silk taffeta
trimmed with pink and black silk velvet rosettes. Gift of Mrs. W. R. Grace, 1956