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by Mike Deane

23 Jan 2009

Work All Week

Work All Week

The third single put out by the Mekons is “Work All Week”, an anti-materialist anthem disguised as a love song.  Like “Where Were You”, it’s a song that reveals its true identity after repeated listens (you’ll have to get this song on your own as copyright does not allow me to post the original version, only the 2004 folk reggae version).  Though the song can, at first, seem to be a typical love and marriage tune, upon closer examination it bears that signature post punk cynicism and satire.  In most love songs the object of the speaker is to woo their potential partner, or to express their love/devotion/affection in some way, “Work All Week” shows that love and marriage seem to be impossible without killing yourself trying to make the money to buy the materials which signify happiness.  In a love song the object of the speaker’s affection is a person, in “Work All Week” the object of the speaker’s affection is the objects needed to barter for love.

The songs starts with a ‘70s-sounding “oriental” riff straight out of Carl Douglas’s “Kung Fu Fighting”, then moves into a lilting chord progression that’s a bit out of time with the drums.  An excellent bass run fills in the simple chord progression and gives a good background to the misleading lyrics.  The refrain of “I work all week” is a constant reminder that most things that the speaker discusses are impossible without constant labour. 

The first lyric is straight forward enough: “I work all week to buy a ring / I work all week / Extra hours to get real gold / I’ll buy you anything / You know I’ll buy you anything / I work all week / Not put off by signs saying sold.”  Love is supplanted with a ring—there’s no mention of who he’s buying the ring for or what the ring symbolizes, the goal of working seems to be the acquisition of a ring made of real gold.  The song is boastful when the speaker says “You know I’ll buy you anything”, as if these possessions are enough, the cost of love is the value of his person.

by Bill Gibron

23 Jan 2009

World War I. World War II. The Cuban Missile Crisis. The Cold War. The Rapture. The Harmonic Convergence. Y2K. And now, 2012. It seems like every other decade, the planet is threatened with outright extinction, either the direct result of something manmade or as part of a plan cosmically preordained. So far, it’s been Third Rock from the Sun several, the Apocalypse zero. Some think that may all change with the latest ancient prophecy turned multimedia profit. Famed schlock meister Roland Emmerich has even named his latest dithering disaster epic after the proposed Mayan meltdown. Talk about timely.

Of course, not every discussion of the possible end of the world is so cheesy. The Disinformation Company, noted contrarians and certified skeptics, are sponsoring Nimrod Erez’s latest documentary on the subject - 2012: Science or Superstition. And while many of the talking heads presented sound less than secure in determining the final sell by date for mankind, there are some interesting ideas being floated within their occasionally confusing pseudo-scientific analysis. At times, you feel like you’re watching a group of very well educated and considered individuals discussing the existence of pixies.

There are two main sides to the 2012 debate. According to the Maya Calendar, a specific time “cycle” will be ending on 21 December of that year. Successions or phases of existence was the preferred way for the ancient culture to map out their civilization - everything from planting and harvesting to greater concerns about gods and monsters. When 21 December 2012 arrives, it supposedly signifies some manner of completion for the Mayas. On one side are scholars who interpret this as the last tick of the Doomsday clock. When we hit that moment, everything we know about the world will simply cease to exist. Boom.

On the other side of the argument, however, are those who take a more inspired or spiritual position regarding the countdown. To them, 21 December 2012 is not the end of times. Instead, it’s a moment of consciousness raising, a chance for the people of the planet to come together and alter the cosmic perception. There will be no death or destruction, only rebirth and renewal. For most of 2012: Science or Superstition, we hear both sides structure their arguments, struggle for supporting evidence and theories, and eventually agree that most of what they are discussing is purely speculative. We even get a few descents of the Maya race who dismiss all the apocalyptic talk as sensational and misapplied.

The key to all of this is where, exactly, the Earth will be in conjunction with the Sun and where said star will be located come 21 December 2012. Within the Milky Way, there’s a ‘great rift’, a massive cloud of dense space dust which will supposedly wreck havoc with the planet’s sole source of heat and light. The sun will be sitting smack dab in the middle of it on 12/21/2012. Solar flares are the biggest concern, their magnetic fields and indeterminate destructive power capable of almost anything. For those who believe in the end of everything, this rare positioning if the indicator. When the Sun finally wanders into the rift, and then aligns with our world, we’re in for something quite cataclysmic.

While 2012: Science of Superstition eschews digital recreations of major catastrophes, there some to be a kind of consensus on what might happen - melting of the ice caps, a complete reversal of the poles (a very intriguing notion which gets little more than a cursory mention) and an increase in natural phenomenon like flooding, earthquakes, volcanoes, and hurricanes. There’s also talk about the rotation of the Earth’s core, a fudging of orbits, and other sci-fi sounding disasters. In fact, one of the flaws in this otherwise entertaining film is the rampant hyperbole. Without much proof, these well educated minds free associate on the Apocalypse like it’s a personal hobby.

Of course, there are skeptics, the minds that measure out logic and reason and then dismiss everything except the bare bones scientific truths. They cannot deny the astronomical data, there’s no way to circumvent what decades of research has more or less confirmed. But there are aspects of the science that still sound sketchy. Some is based on the work of a Russian thinker whose theories appear unproven (something to do with the entire galaxy passing through a huge unsettled interstellar mass). Others use an erudite form of guessing to give us insight into what might happen a little over three years from now.

So why indulge this exercise in extrapolation? Why give Disinformation and its otherwise cracking sense of contrarianism a whiff of respect with regard to this conjecture? The answer is easy - 2012: Science or Superstition is actually very engaging, in a kind of mental jumpstarting way. There’s a certain level of indirect audience participation here, an inherent aspect that allows viewers to draw their own conclusions and shout (silently) back at the screen. Since Enez is not out to confirm the comments of his participants, he allows them to say their peace, and then provides just enough contradiction to allow the home video witnesses to make up their own minds. Many will come away thinking that Independence Day‘s Emmerich has just as much right to destroy the Andes with a tidal wave as these intellectuals have in stirring up their own brand of fear.

In the end, 2012: Science or Superstition does little except put the idea of a possible apocalypse out there like so many others have before. And one imagines that, just like the Christians who are still back peddling about their prediction that The Rapture was coming in 1988 (among many divergent years before…and after), these thinkers will be revising their theories when, as one interviewee puts it, “your bills are still due come 1, January, 2013.” However, there is some amusement to be had in contemplating what ancient cultures thought about the way the world ended, and when you add in the well spoken if frequently freaky explanations for what may occur, the whole experience becomes surreal. Maybe the cosmos will indeed have the last laugh come 21 December 2012. Here’s betting we’re around to hear the anticipated chuckle.

by Alice Singleton

23 Jan 2009

Eugene O’Neill’s Longa Viagem de Volta Pra Casa  (The Long Voyage Home)  runs 21-25 January 2009 at Goodman Owen Theatre, Chicago.

Comedian Wanda Sykes has a stinging, yet accurate observation on the moral high ground the common street thug has over an Enron executive:” The thug, well he just rips you off of what you have on you, maybe an ambitious thug drags you to the cash station and makes you take out the day’s draw. But those Enron f———?  They took peoples futures! Their whole futures. Their damned kids futures. Gone.”

Such is the fate of Olson (Roberto Leite), a beaten-down slightly reformed drunken sailor in Brazil’s Companhia Triptal’s Portuguese-language presentation of Eugene O’Neill’s The Long Voyage Home under the direction of Andre Garolli. Olson meets his living damnation in the bosom of a bar fly possessing the heart of curdled arsenic. Olson has never seen better days – matter of fact his days have been a haze of drunkenness and self-destruction, gone for so long from his native Sweden that his planned return is less for leisure and more for seeing his elderly mother before she passes.

Sick from the waves (sailors riding the waves to Perdition is the running theme for O’Neill’s “Sea Plays” series, which the troupe will perform in its entirety for the Goodman run), sick of the pestilence, loneliness and the frittering away of his money to the bottle, Olson dreams of returning to visit his mother one last time, buying some farmland, planting some crops, and sifting the soil through his fingers.

“I don’t like…this place”, his shipmate Ivan (Pepe Ramirez), a drunken Russian bear of man, declares over again between inebriated nod-offs and slobbing up a hooker’s delights. Olson’s comrades-of-the-sea know “this place”, they’ve been here before, knowing shipmates Driscoll (Guilherme Lopes) and Cocky (Bruno Feldman) warn him that drinking the brute barkeep Joe’s fortified swill will surely bring unconsciousness and immediate poverty of one’s soul and wallet.

“You want to see your mother? You want your farm in your homeland”, Driscoll asks.  Driscoll and Cocky are vested in Olson’s reconnection with mother and motherland, both struggling with – Corky, the loudest and most melancholy, with “havin’ never had no mother”.  To be without parentage, a mother, is an idea of constant voice for O’Neill, the writer having been shipped off to boarding school by his own parents and left to navigate the emotional waves of abandonment and vulnerability to a world devoid of morality.

As Olson’s shipmates buy into drugged-spiked whiskey and booze-spiked hookers in the backroom, Olson rents a seat at the bar, sipping the cup of water that accompanied him on his night out. But Olson’s newfound sobriety and social virtuousness is no match for Joe, a brutal entrepreneur with an employment incentive plan that includes beating the bar flies to “sales” increases for the bar, and taking precious little interest in one of his long time girls as she withers into death’s realm in front of Joe’s very eyes. He looks away, turning his gaze to the deep pouch that keeps his profits.

Joe brutally commissions Miss Freda (Juliana Liegel – a dead ringer for Courtney Love at her worst) to take Olson for all he’s worth. She could offer him a warm place to lay to substitute his new aversion to alcohol.  Instead, she saddles up to him like a personal relationship banker, inquisitive, questioning, conversational, and making suggestive add-ons to his dreams of his new life in Sweden. Miss Freda assures and reassures Olson that he’ll return to see his not-long-for-this-world mother once more, and sift the sweet earth of Sweden through his fingers.

But what kind of man would not drink to his new life? Miss Freda uses all of the seller’s terminology and tricks, including a last minute buyer – a ringer to “up” the price, make the loss palpable. After a quick visit from “Mr. Michael Finley”, courtesy of Joe & Ms. Freda’s teamwork, Olson is forever lost– to ship, mates, family and future. His initial sign-on to a simple deal literally spirals into a balloon payment request of his future. A waking ghost, gone. Indeed.

by Rob Horning

23 Jan 2009

These are deep thoughts occasioned by playing 1942, so measure them accordingly. The problem I faced was defeating the first big plane you encounter, about 10 stages in. I found it to be ridiculously hard and was entertaining implementing the cheat code that let’s a player destroy it with one hit. But then I began thinking about optimal frustration and about the difficulty game creators must have in finding the ideal balance between frustration and progress. Obviously games need to be just hard enough to keep you pressing reset (or, back in the paleolithic days of arcades, dropping another quarter in) when you are foiled. You have to be persuaded by the game that you can make it past the obstacle even as the game is at the same time thwarting you. What emerge from this apparent contradiction is a sense of how frustration structures the feeling of progress. When the cheat code is enabled, there is no sense of progress in 1942—only a curiosity about what’s next keeps me going. Oh, neat: the red planes now criss-cross instead of flying in a spiral. The thirst for this sort of novelty only takes me so far, and in fact what’s revealed is how idiotic it is to care about what comes next in 1942. (It’s like the elementary-school teachers say: “When you cheat, you’re only cheating yourself.”) A measure of difficulty, of friction, is necessary to transform the arbitrary novelty into progress.

This dynamic perhaps holds true for consumerism generally—we want more things because we imagine these things will enhance or enrich our lives in some way, offer some sort of progress toward a self-concept or goal. Consumerism seizes upon that impulse as the source of profit and thus seeks to gratify it. But because maximizing the volume of exchanges ultimately suits producers best, their efforts are focused on eliminating the difficulties that impede them—they seek to enable the cheat code, as it were, and let us get what we want as soon as we think of it (and can afford it). But without any difficulty in accessing more stuff, our pursuit of novelty never gives us a feeling of progress or accomplishment. Without the frustration, our frivolous impulses can’t ripen into meaningful desires. If there is no friction, our concentration is not engaged in the same way—we don’t stoke our creative problem-solving abilities or become invested emotionally. The problem (i.e. the new thing we want to integrate into our life) takes on no metaphoric resonance or depth. To make another maudlin videogame allusion: each new impulse remains just another dot to consume as wend our way, Pac-Man-like, through the meaningless maze of existence.

Obviously, as the internet facilitates our access to cultural goods, frustration becomes harder to find. In a recent post (via BoingBoing), tech enthusiast Kevin Kelly argues that more and more culture products will become readily available social goods. He argues that access is better than ownership, and therefore society will move in the direction of providing access while eroding the barriers set up by ownership.

Very likely, in the near future, I won’t “own” any music, or books, or movies. Instead I will have immediate access to all music, all books, all movies using an always-on service, via a subscription fee or tax. I won’t buy – as in make a decision to own—any individual music or books because I can simply request to see or hear them on demand from the stream of ALL. I may pay for them in bulk but I won’t own them. The request to enjoy a work is thus separated from the more complicated choice of whether I want to “own” it. I can consume a movie, music or book without having to decide or follow up on ownership.
For many people this type of instant universal access is better than owning. No responsibility of care, backing up, sorting, cataloging, cleaning, or storage.  As they gain in public accessibility, books, music and movies are headed to become social goods even though they might not be paid by taxes. It’s not hard to imagine most other intangible goods becoming social goods as well. Games, education, and health info are also headed in that direction.

That is a pretty friction-free world that Kelly is imagining, which will may erode some of the meaning that we derive from such cultural goods. Instead of engaging, it will be easier than ever to say, “Next?”

But what also may happen, as the sources of friction that we are accustomed to are eradicated, we will produce new, synthetic ones—we will create frustration to preserve our sense of making progress. Or we will cast about looking for frustration, though calling it something else to ourselves. My thinking about this is a bit inchoate, as you’ve probably observed by now, but it seems to me that consumer capitalism, by making it easier to get more and more things (while convincing us that this is life’s end-all and be-all), has had the effect of preventing us from experiencing a feeling of progress—we are trapped instead on a treadmill of novelty. But what makes this painful for us is that we may invent frustrations to make up for the lack of friction in our acquiring things, imposing arbitrary limitations on ourselves in the absence of external limits—those problems of exchange that our existing social relations had equipped us to deal with. So these arbitrary limits can perhaps take pathological forms—crippling self-doubt, optional paralysis, inertia, dysthemia.

Essentially, this is a variation on a joke from Manhattan, where Woody Allen’s character is tape-recording an idea for a short story (and this is a paraphrase I lifted from an Amazon.ca review) “about people in Manhattan who are constantly creating these real, unnecessary, neurotic problems for themselves, because it keeps them from dealing with more unsolvable, terrifying problems about the universe.” I think consumerism has distracted us from taking on the existential problems and hung us up with the self-created problems which turn out to be far worse, as they are not constrained by any real facts about our lives.

by Matt White

23 Jan 2009

How many times have you heard a b-side of one of your favorite bands and thought “WHY wasn’t this on the album?” It is even more frustrating/confusing when there are tracks on the album that are weak and if replaced with this hidden gem of a song, could elevate the album to a great (or at least considerably better) record.

The four-disc b-sides and rarities collection Join the Dots, released in 2004, showed the Cure to be a band that consistently casts aside great songs to b-side status, often in favor of questionable experiments. I’m all for variety on an album but 1996’s aptly-named Wild Mood Swings could have done without “Club America” and it’s bizarre low-octave croon from Robert Smith. As the second song on the record after the strong opener “Want”, it was probably seen by first-time listeners as an early sign of a disappointing album and seems to cast a dark cloud over the rest of the (actually quite good) record. If you ask me, it’s one of the main reasons Wild Mood Swings is so looked down-upon.

Now if Smith had replaced “Club America” with the “Mint Car” b-side, the gorgeous “A Pink Dream”, the album just might have been received a little differently and perhaps remembered more fondly. It is an almost ridiculously upbeat, sunny slice of pop. It starts out with heavy cymbal crashing and a mix of electric and acoustic guitars, fooling you into thinking it’s darker than it is. Then the momentum picks up and the clouds break. The bright, fiercely strummed acoustic guitars recall “Inbetween Days” and Robert spits lyrics like “I rub my head and stumble out the door / Head into the bright new beautiful day”. The production is pristine with every cymbal hit sparkling, every guitar strum exuding rays of sunshine. Not only should this have been on the album, this should have been a single. 

There’s an abrupt shift of mood in the last verse when Smith sings “It was all so far away, so long ago / I hardly ever think about her anymore / Except sometimes when the summer twilight breeze carries me the scent of faraway rain…”, showing off how easily the Cure can slip from mindless joy to nostalgic melancholy. These two emotional extremes have always been what the Cure does best. The fact that the same guy who wrote “Pornography” also wrote “The Love Cats” (and within a year of each other!) is proof of that. I can’t help feeling Wild Mood Swings would have been a better showcase for these two strengths if “A Pink Dream” had been included in the tracklist. Alas, it remains a song I can put on mix-tapes/CDs I make for people knowing they’ve probably never heard it, thereby introducing them to a perfect piece of pop.

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