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by John Bergstrom

4 Jan 2010

For the past decade, Swervedriver seemed destined to be one of the Bands That History Left Behind. The hard-hitting, melodic, often thrilling music the band produced in the early-to-mid 1990s would forever be lost in a wash of bad record deals and bad timing. Anyway, what to make of a British band that sang about Ford Mustangs? Swervedriver were pigeonholed into the short-lived UK “shoegazer” scene because they had an indifferent image and made music that was as pretty as it was loud. Here, though, was driving music that was neither as obtuse as metal nor as bleak as Nirvana. 1991 debut “Raise was a strong enough feet-finding effort built around a trio of outstanding singles. 1993 follow-up, Mezcal Head, however, was a bona-fide masterpiece, with a devastating combination of great tunes, great playing, and great production. Thankfully, these thoughtful, rich-sounding reissues gave fans and curious music lovers in general a chance to catch up with a band that shouldn’t have been left behind in the first place.

by Bill Gibron

3 Jan 2010

Talk about tough! Even if this wasn’t a full time job, taking up as much of one’s life as any career plus concept of entertainment could, trying to pick out ten titles from an equal number of years is almost impossible. It’s not like television, which tends to keep its beloved entities on the air long enough to make a memorable impact. It’s also not like music, which can play in the background of one’s life sometimes decades after release. No, movies demand attention. They require patience and perspective. They are the most unique of artforms because they come at you complete. You can love a particular band or album even with one or two clunkers among the set list. No TV show is ever going to be 100% funny/dramatic/thrilling/thought-provoking all the time.

by Rodger Jacobs

2 Jan 2010

Cultural historians have given Bob Dylan his fair share of credit for significant contributions to popular music. Dylan’s reinventions of American folk, blues, and Appalachian song stylings have been so significant in rearranging the landscape of music that it could be argued that if not for Bob, Woody Guthrie would be a footnote (an important one but still a footnote) in the pages of Americana.

In The Songs He Didn’t Write: Bob Dylan Under the Influence, renowned Dylan expert Derek Barker devotes 508 pages to exhaustively and alphabetically catalog every song composed by another artist that has been covered by the man from Minnesota in recording sessions, concerts, and even private parties, from Guthrie’s 1913 Massacre to Carl Perkins’ Your True Love. Barker writes in his introduction:

Bob Dylan had begun listening to music as a child and by his early teens he had immersed himself in everything from rural blues and R&B and from country to rock and roll. These life-affirming sounds first reached young Bobby in his isolated Hibbing home via the knobs and dials of his radio set. When he began playing in the 1950s, rock and roll was his thing, Little Richard was his idol, and live covers of Jenny, Jenny, Ready Teddy, and Lawdy, Miss Clawdy were the order of the day. When he arrived in Minneapolis, essentially to attend college, he quickly traded his electric guitar for a Martin acoustic and set about learning to play every traditional, blues and Woody Guthrie number he could unearth. This material would become the cornerstone of live gigs during his apprenticeship around the folk clubs of New York’s Greenwich Village, and it was from these songs that his own greatest compositions would be born.

Using Barker’s words as evidence, one could easily deduce that Dylan understands and appreciates the circular and collaborative nature of the cultural environment. As Judge Alex Kosinski of the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit wrote in an opinion on a landmark copyright protection case: “Nothing today, likely nothing since we tamed fire, is genuinely new: culture, like science and technology, grows by accretion, each new creator building on the works of those who came before.”

With that much said, why would publisher W.W. Norton list Dylan as the putative “author” of Bob Dylan Revisited: 13 Graphic Interpretations of Bob Dylan’s Songs?

After more than thirty albums, fifty-eight singles, thirteen live albums, fourteen compilation albums, eleven Grammy awards (including induction into the Grammy Hall of Fame), an Academy Award, a Golden Globe Award, and a slot in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1988, does Dylan really need to cop credit for a book he did not author, or did someone at Norton drop the ball big time?

Presented as “a standing testament to the universality and transcendent vision of Dylan’s American music”, Bob Dylan Revisited is nothing more and nothing less than reinterpretations of the lyrics of thirteen classic Dylan tunes by leading contemporary graphic artists, many of them European.

Unfortunately, attempting to appreciate the work on display in this lush coffee table book is like visiting an art gallery without a guide or trying to understand Dylan’s own baffling shape-shifting persona without a fleet of psychiatrists at your side.

“Americans are spoiled,” Bob Dylan declared to an interviewer in the late 1970s, “they expect art to be like wallpaper with no effort, just to be there.”

Oddly enough, Dylan’s sentiment employs the precise verbiage this writer would use to describe Bob Dylan Revisited, a work sanctioned and approved by the artist himself and Sony Music.

There are some outstanding artists onboard, such as Dave McKean of Sandman fame in an epic, operatic (and immensely disturbing) interpretation of Dylan’s Desolation Road, and Gradimir Smudja’s sepia-toned, semi-documentary approach to Dylan’s ballad Hurricane is certainly memorable, but, as the man said, writing about art is like dancing to architecture and to compound matters there is no there there in Bob Dylan Revisited.

Bob Dylan Revisited just lays on the page like yesterday’s dead fish wrapped in the Sunday funnies; absolutely no artist bios appear in the book and no creative or mission statements from the thirteen artists are anywhere to be found. Also absent is any form of an introduction to provide a framework for the collection. How were the artists selected? Were any of them major league Dylan fans before coming aboard the project? Why did I have to conduct my own online research to get background on these artists? Who the hell knows because those and many other questions are left unanswered.

The press materials that W.W. Norton sent out properly list the thirteen artistic geniuses as the authors of the book but everywhere else one looks—on the copyright page in the first American edition, in the listings at Amazon and Barnes and Noble online—Bob Dylan is cited as the author.

Sure, Dylan wrote the lyrics that incited the “artwork…filled with inspiring political messages, surrealistic flourishes, and deeply moving meditations” but that certainly does not entitle him to authorship over this work of spellbinding original art.

It is well-known that the gifted Dylan is a difficult and controlling public persona so one cannot help but wonder if his endorsement of the unique project came at the cost of overshadowing the artists involved in the creation of the book, keeping the focus entirely centered on the man and his lyrics.

As much as I admire Dylan—his music forms a virtual soundtrack to my life—this promising book reeks of a vanity project that seeks to downplay the artistic contributions of others while further promoting an artist who needs no further promotion and who most certainly did not arrive at his mythical status all by his lonesome.

The true authors of Bob Dylan Revisited are as follows: Alfred, Francois Avril, Bezian, Jean-Philippe Bramanti, Christopher Benjamin Flao, Jean-Claude Gotting, Mael Le Mae, Raphaelle Le Rio, Lorenzo Mattotti, Dave McKean, Henri Meunier, Thierry Murat, Nicolas Nemiri, Gradimir Smudja, and Zep.

by Bill Gibron

1 Jan 2010

It was an “interchangeable” year - no better or worse than some, events and influences neither as meaningful nor meaningless as many might consider. This was especially true for movies. From a Spring that promised major box office significance (Watchmen) and yet delivered little of same, to a Summer so up and down that theme park rollercoasters grew jealous of its whiplash ways. Fall is never very important - film wise, and when awards season rolled around, the usual suspects (Nine, The Lovely Bones) were struggling while another big budget popcorn blockbuster wannabe (Avatar) showed up and stole most of the little gold man’s proposed thunder. And out of that series of hits and misses, amongst the dross and the delights, we critics are supposed to create something semi-definitive? Good luck!

by Rob Horning

1 Jan 2010

William Deresiewicz has an essay in the Chronicle of Higher Education that provides a broad-stroke picture of the history of friendship in the Western world before zeroing in on a favorite Marginal Utility topic, how social networking is the opposite of friendship. The critique feels a little dated, since the plague of social networking has been with us for a few years now, but Deresiewicz adds a few new variations to the familiar theme.

1. I like how Deresiewicz puts friendship on a continuum with community and suggests that we are slowly peeling away layers of the social onion, and will continue until we are totally isolated by communication technology.

As the traditional face-to-face community disappeared, we held on to what we had lost—the closeness, the rootedness—by clinging to the word, no matter how much we had to water down its meaning. Now we speak of the Jewish “community” and the medical “community” and the “community” of readers, even though none of them actually is one. What we have, instead of community, is, if we’re lucky, a “sense” of community—the feeling without the structure; a private emotion, not a collective experience. And now friendship, which arose to its present importance as a replacement for community, is going the same way. We have “friends,” just as we belong to “communities.” Scanning my Facebook page gives me, precisely, a “sense” of connection. Not an actual connection, just a sense.

“Connection” has been flattened, become something that can be signified rather than necessarily experienced. If someone adds us as friend, “connection” is signified, even if the parties involved haven’t had any direct contact at all. It has become a “sense,” a derivative of itself. Real connection is not necessary to the signified “connection.”

2. I often make the point that social networking is like ham radio, that it is broadcasting. Deresiewicz comes to the same conclusion and emphasizes how this reduces our friends to an audience.

Now we’re just broadcasting our stream of consciousness, live from Central Park, to all 500 of our friends at once, hoping that someone, anyone, will confirm our existence by answering back. We haven’t just stopped talking to our friends as individuals, at such moments, we have stopped thinking of them as individuals. We have turned them into an indiscriminate mass, a kind of audience or faceless public. We address ourselves not to a circle, but to a cloud.

Our desire for the unmediated reciprocity of friendship is being edged out by a new possibility—quantifiable attention that delimits our public notoriety. Recognition gets commoditized through social networks, becomes something tradeable as opposed to something that emerges as a by-product of time spent with another person. We simply announce our identity using the new media tools and wait for anyone to notice and validate it. It no longer matters if that proclaimed identity matches how we actually behave over stretches of time.

3. Friendship, commodified by being mediated, presents the same problems as the superfluity of consumer goods. We have access to more goods then ever, but have never felt so bereft. It’s never been easier to be “in contact” with other people, but we are lonilier than ever. A paradox sets in: “The more people we know, the lonelier we get.”

4.Our online presence must conform to the social networking medium, which distorts who we are and who our friends appear to be in the medium. Trying to use Facebook, Deresiewicz laments

the whole theatrical quality of the business, the sense that my friends are doing their best to impersonate themselves, only makes it worse. The person I read about, I cannot help feeling, is not quite the person I know.

Social networking lets us focus entirely on self-fashioning and identity-mongering as species of human capital, as productive immaterial labor. We have to keep reinventing ourselves, to keep identity signifers circulating to enhance their value. The developing real-time components of social networks accommodate this serial publishing of new editions of ourselves. Seen from the outside, Facebook is an alienation machine, forcing us to make ourselves repeatedly strange in the effort to capture some new catchy essence of ourselves to market.

5. Deresiewicz says this of those odd random people who come out of the past to friend us out of the blue:

They don’t matter to you as individuals anymore, certainly not the individuals they are now, they matter because they made up the texture of your experience at a certain moment in your life, in conjunction with all the other people you knew. Tear them out of that texture—read about their brats, look at pictures of their vacation—and they mean nothing. Tear out enough of them and you ruin the texture itself, replace a matrix of feeling and memory, the deep subsoil of experience, with a spurious sense of familiarity. Your 18-year-old self knows them. Your 40-year-old self should not know them.
Facebook holds out a utopian possibility: What once was lost will now be found. But the heaven of the past is a promised land destroyed in the reaching. Facebook, here, becomes the anti-madeleine, an eraser of memory.

 
Facebook is a false utopia, based on the idea that we never outgrown anyone, that friendships never really end but can be relived and consumed again like old TV shows. Inthat fase fantasy, friendships are not reciprocal but something we engage in passively. Chasing that dream flattens out memory, indulges nostalgia until everything once precious becomes trivia.

6. The crux of social networking is naturalizing the idea that identity is nothing more than consumer preferences. Then it entices us to elaborate ourselves in those terms, enhancing the value of various brands and commercial services. Social networks encourage us to think that

identity is reducible to information: the name of your cat, your favorite Beatle, the stupid thing you did in seventh grade…. that it is reducible, in particular, to the kind of information that social-networking Web sites are most interested in eliciting, consumer preferences. Forget that we’re all conducting market research on ourselves. Far worse is that Facebook amplifies our longstanding tendency to see ourselves (“I’m a Skin Bracer man!”) in just those terms.

Baudrillard foresaw this in the early 1970s, extrapolating from the consumer society’s “system of objects” the inevitability that we would reduce ourselves to the code of signifiers. AT that point every attempt to escape is just another signifying gesture of neutralized rebellion.

7. The contrast between mediated “friendship” and the sort of friendship that is disappearing:

Posting information is like pornography, a slick, impersonal exhibition. Exchanging stories is like making love: probing, questing, questioning, caressing. It is mutual. It is intimate. It takes patience, devotion, sensitivity, subtlety, skill—and it teaches them all, too.

Consuming the personal information is liek consuming pornography as well—done alone in front of a screen, an indulgence of idle curiosity on one’s own terms entirely, with no emotional investment. This is how friendship is sacrificed to the god of convenience.

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