Living on the Margins

Photo from the Russian film, Bumer

The protagonists of tomorrow are people who are off-line, somehow off the grid, unsophisticated or simply unimpressed by the general spectacle of information-overload and conspicuous consumption.

Real culture happens at the margins. Or maybe it would be more accurate to say that innovation or renovation in culture happens at the margins; on the sidelines so to speak. While the whole world seems to have its eyes fixed on the circus's center ring, the real show is happening outside.

Culture is renewed at the margins. Why? Because the center is too glaring -- too determined by contemporary opinion, market forces, or constraining ideologies. Culture might be defined broadly as humanity's efforts to represent life or classify it according to symbols and organized patterns of behavior and ceremony. Every cultural group, or society, has a material and intangible culture that is renewed by every generation. There is permanence and change; the permanence happens at the center, while the change occurs at the edges.

Margins Past

Take an example: the ancient Aztecs. Called the Mexicas by scholars, they were once a raffish group of wanderers from arid northern deserts who ended up in the lake-dappled Valley of Mexico after a multi-generational pilgrimage. For a long while they lived under the shadow of greater civilizations and city-states that dominated the region. Gradually, some innovations in their culture, such as their cult to warrior god Huitzilopochtli, allowed them to expand. Their well-known rituals of human sacrifice, as well as their ingenious adaptations to the high-altitude lake environment in which they founded their capital, Tenochtitlan, were both evidence of their cultural innovativeness.

It is doubtful the Mexicas would have been as successful if marginalization had not forced them to turn disadvantages into advantages. After their arrival in central Mexico, they were pushed out of more desirable land and forced to settle a marshy, insect-ridden territory in the middle of the valley. The Mexicas turned this curse into a boon. They created an amphibious city that Spanish historians later likened to a New World Venice, full of canals, aqueducts and bridges. They created ultra-fertile floating gardens, known as chinampas, on which to grow their food

The fact that they were looked down upon by the preexisting tribes who worshipped rain and fertility gods, encouraged the Mexicas' devotion to their war god Huitzilopochtli. Imperialism was the eventual outgrowth of this adaptation, and eventually their city became a stereotypically arrogant and overextended imperial city-state, a pre-Columbian Rome. But originally the Mexicas' bellicose religion was a genuinely innovative cultural response to stresses. Huitzilopochtli was the perfect God for a resentful clan with a bruised collective ego and no other claim to pride other than their prickliness.

As we know, the Mexicas or Aztecs were toppled by Hernán Cortés and a relatively small band of Spaniards in the early 16th Century. But to call them "Spaniards" is to miss the fact that these too, like the Aztecs themselves, were people mostly from the margins. Cortés was himself a man of the periphery, from Extremadura in Spain, one of the poorer areas of the Iberian peninsula. Extremadura was to become famous for pushing its most restive sons across the Atlantic to the Americas. Francisco Pizarro, the conqueror of Perú, was from the same region.

Mexico's history continued to be a story of the margins displacing the center. In the 19th Century, the Mexican Republic, displaced by French intervention, would be restored in a movement led by an indigenous political leader, a Zapotec Indian named Benito Juárez. Some years afterward, a revolution advanced by northern desert rebels and Indians hungry for land redistribution would shake dictators out of the Mexico City presidential palace. The story is the same each time, the cycle repeats.

Margins Today

It's popular to speculate about the end of history, the end of revolutions, the end of the avant-garde in art. These are all different ways to say the same thing: globalization, triumphalist capitalism, and high-tech progress preclude any momentous changes like those that shook the world in the past, and redefined history utterly.

Even a tragic event like the 9/11 terror attacks hasn't seemed to change the nature of existence on Earth or the rules of US culture. If anything, it seems to have reinforced preexisting trends: US imperialism, the proliferation of fundamentalism and terrorism, a neurotic millennial scrambling for, and squandering of resources.

Nothing is changing, one might say. The rules seem set. But what if global culture is metamorphosing out of sight, somewhere where we wouldn't know to look for it?

To take up the metaphor I used in the beginning, perhaps the relevant spectacle isn't happening in the circus tent, but on the great clearing, or parking lot, outside. What is this "outside" in the present world? One would have to look for it away from the floodlights, spotlights, searchlights and stage-lights of the military, media, and entertainment worlds. Most likely the change is happening somewhere obscure, where there is still some space to breathe, and not all is awash in megabytes, cell phone jingles, and broadband-enabled information overload. Where?

Finding the Margins

In a famous 1932 essay, "The Argentine Writer and Tradition", Jorge Luis Borges essentially argued that the great advantage of being a writer or thinker living on the geographical or cultural margins of the world is that the whole palate of global culture becomes yours to draw from by default, since no portion of it is given to you.

Borges understood that it was a great advantage to be distant from the center, because in reality it is the center, and not the periphery, that is provincial and narrow-minded. The resident of the center, the capital, never has any incentive to venture out beyond the city walls. Why should he? He has everything he needs within arm's reach: markets, universities, concert halls, etc. New York, the current "center of the universe", we all know, "has it all".

As anyone who has grown up in a small town knows, the center beckons. The rural or small-town dweller, if he is at all a striving or curious type, will travel to the capital, the big city, if he wants to see the museums, read the books, find the jobs, etc.; only the center can offer all those things. The traveler from the margins may never become as urbane as a lifelong city-dweller might be; but he has the advantage of covering more ground, knowing all the vast territory around the center, and the methods for entering and exiting its bubble of knowledge and pretension.

Not only that, but being marginal creates a certain kind of voraciousness, akin to that of someone living on a small island or in a prison, who devours any news from the outside world. I live in Argentina, a country isolated geographically on the tail end of the South American continent, and I see this instinctual hunger at work even today. An average Argentine is conversant with what is happening in the United States in terms of politics and pop culture, but also knows something about what's happening in the rest of Latin America, and also in England, Spain, France and Italy.

"Our patrimony is the universe," writes Borges in his essay, speaking as an artist from the margins. But today, his statement needs qualification. One of the effects of globalization is that the person in the center, the average citizen of the United States or Europe or Japan, also has access to all the cultural production that might have once been termed marginal. In reality, that is one of the most overlooked consequences of globalization: the commoditization of peripheral cultural production (for example: different genres of "world music", exotic dance troupes, obscure Asian comic book titles or meditation practices) and their increasing mainstream status in the center, which is not really monolithic anymore but more like a great bazaar in which all the peripheral productions compete for attention. And within "marginal" countries, significant segments of the population (among the wealthy) live as hyper-connected as any I-pod, cell-phone, YouTube-posting teenager in the center might.

Which leads back to the question, Who are the Aztecs of today, banished to a marshy swamp, sidelined by history, cast out, unfortunate, but destined to reinvent the very civilization that rejected them? Probably the unconnected, the different, the unequal (these terms were developed by Mexican-Argentine anthropologist Néstor García Canclini); the protagonists of tomorrow are people who are off-line, somehow off the grid, unsophisticated or simply unimpressed by the general spectacle of information-overload and conspicuous consumption.

Wherever a broadband or fiber-optic cable doesn't slither, that is the margin. Wherever a screen isn't broadcasting some celebrity idol, that is the margin. Wherever information isn't cascading, that is the margin. Wherever craft triumphs over industry, silence over babble, meaning over access, that is the margin. That is where culture is happening, outside the wi-fi zone.

This isn't meant to vilify technology. The Internet and computers are propagators of great possibilities and opportunities. And it's important to remember the advice Borges gave for the person operating on the margins: he possesses the freedom to travel regularly to the center and appropriate what he needs there, without being beguiled into believing that only the center exists. This is the fallacy that undermines residents of big metropolises, great empires, and powerful networks: that the margins don't matter. They do matter, and history shows they'll eventually take back the center. The difference is that today the margins are not found in a distant place, they exist everywhere, which is a great advantage to those who would like to slip in and out of them.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.

8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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