Why You Should Love Devo

(Note: This is yet another blog post recycled from the old website, but I felt a need to dredge it up thanks to a video posted by my friend Daniel Swensen…seriously just go watch that really quick then come back here…)

nnii0c6fih9iniiiAnyone who knows me will be well aware of my undying love of the 80’s weirdo mutant musical act Devo. Despite being known primarily (only?) for their strangely successful hit ‘Whip It’, Devo’s entire career – which continues to this day – was one of incredibly trenchant subversion.

Mark Mothersbaugh and his cohorts were no mere one-hit-wonder pop group; they were provocateurs of the first rank….serious-minded artists who used humor and wry intelligence to cast memetic molotov cocktails into American culture by way of the 80’s defining cultural artifact – the pop song. Mothersbaugh himself was and continues to be fascinated by the concept of mutation – the idea that unexpected change occurs within every system, no matter how rigidly controlled.

Devo exemplifies this concept – on the surface they look and sound like any number of oddball synth-pop bands of the era. The fact that they flew under the radar so well is actually a testament to how successfully they subverted the zeitgeist in which they thrived. Perfectly capable of churning out seemingly disposable, yet incredibly catchy, three-minute pop songs, Devo’s catalog is actually a full-on assault on the shallowness and banality of American culture.

Look at ‘Freedom of Choice’, for instance:

The opening lyrics suggest a world of endless possiblity…hey, you’ve got Freedom of Choice! You can do whatever you want!

A victim of collision on the open sea
Nobody ever said that life was free
Sank, swam, go down with the ship
But use your freedom of choice

I’ll say it again in the land of the free
Use your freedom of choice
Your freedom of choice

But it quickly descends into a cautionary tale about an uncomfortable truth of human nature: having Freedom is a burden…a burden most of us don’t really want.

In ancient Rome
There was a poem
About a dog
Who found two bones
He picked at one
He licked the other
He went in circles
He dropped dead

Freedom of choice
Is what you got
Freedom from choice
Is what you want

There’s a good chance most people who heard this song never gave the lyrics much thought, and sometimes that’s the danger in subversive art…when you get so good at the form that the function goes unnoticed. In some ways that may be Devo’s biggest crime…they were so goddamn good at writing pop music that most people just accepted what they did at face value.

Here’s another example – a bit more on the nose, but no less incisive.

Censorship sucks, m’kay? And by the way, you’re all fucking perverts – you just won’t admit to it.

Of course, this brings me around to the absolute zenith of Devo’s creative work, ‘Beautiful World’.

‘Beautiful World’ is perfectly written to mirror a pop song in structure and tone, but at every possible turn it subverts the very concept of a pop song – skewering the shallowness and pointless, useless cathartic-light sentiments typically sold as comfort or depth. It even has a hilariously perfunctory guitar solo 3/4 of the way through prefaced by Mothersbaugh intoning lamely (as one does in a pointless pop tune):

Hey you with the new clothes on
You can shake it to me all night long
Hey hey

I mean, here…just watch.

That bit at the end? ‘It’s a beautiful world. …for you. But not for me…’ That’s fucking savage – an absolutely perfect knife between the ribs of lame ‘It’s Morning in America‘ faux-optimism and in every way to the entirety of American popular culture.

And yet, they gain almost no recognition from the general public for this. Which, perhaps, does more to prove their point than any single message they could shove under anyone’s nose.

…but hey, look. Here’s a neat little artifact that might serve as a good coda to this weird reminiscence. In 1982 Devo was drafted to take part in a televised live performance – the hitch being that it was an experiment in 3D television. And, while the show was really fun the technical requirements and hoops Devo were required to jump through to participate were apparently pretty galling…so annoying, in fact, that the band chose to call out the program’s producers during their closing number…’Beautiful World’. Mothersbaugh, having adopted his Booji Boy stage persona, belts out the song with freakish gusto then proceeds to give the program runners a nice tongue lashing…all while maintaining his Booji Boy falsetto. It’s a wonderful example of watching some of the music world’s All Time Champion pranksters take a choice opportunity to bite the hand that feeds on live television.

…and, oddly…sometimes it really is a beautiful world…

The clip in question (which I shared on G+ last night sans context).

…and here’s the full performance, featuring opening act Wall of Voodoo.

 

Your humble narrator…and an energy dome.

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Brain Games

I should be happy right now – ecstatic, really. Two big projects (Broodmother Sky Fortress for Lamentations of the Flame Princess and Mike Evans’ Hubris setting for Dungeon Crawl Classics) which I’ve sunk a combined four years of my life into are hitting store shelves in the very near future. Together they represent a big step forward for me as a professional in the RPG industry and yet – I can’t shake the feeling that I’m worthless and unskilled. That anyone looking at those two books will know what a shitty hack I am and that all my faults and failures will  be there on the printed page for all to see.

This shouldn’t be read as an indictment of either of those books from a quality standpoint. Everyone I’ve talked to says they really like what I did and that I should be proud of my work – and yet…I can’t.

I hate myself for feeling this way. Every time I go into a project all I can see are the myriad ways I’m going to stumble and make a hash of it. That I’ll forget some niggling technical detail or that my depression and anxiety will overwhelm me again. Or that my skills aren’t up to the task. Every endeavor I undertake is done so under a cloud of dread and sick anticipation of the failure that lies ahead.

I gave my contributor copies of the last big release I worked on, Towers Two, to friends. I couldn’t stand to look at it. Didn’t want it on my shelf telling me what a fuckup I am, and how much better it could have looked if I wasn’t a worthless piece of shit.

It becomes something of a feedback loop after a while. My brain is an echo chamber containing a perpetual motion machine that generates anxiety and self-loathing. I feel like I’m a second-rate character in a Daniel Clowes comic, bumbling through life…surfing on a crest of deep-seated anguish and at any moment I’ll collapse and drown.

wilson-p21I hate being like this. It’s not just about the freelance work…it rigidly defines everything about me, from the failure of my marriage to the flat career trajectory which keeps me stuck in a Groundhog Day of endless low-wage jobs.

Thing is – I know I’m not unique. We all face challenges in our lives. Some face the very same obstacles I do…and in some part I suppose that’s why I’m writing this.

I know quite a few people in this industry, and more than a handful share my problems. I know this because after I was diagnosed with depression and ADHD last year a good number of them opened up to me privately and publicly and frankly…I was astonished.

I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again: working on RPG’s is largely a labor of love. Very few people who work in this business do it full time. A great many of them, mostly freelancers – but also some independent publishers – maintain day jobs because the money pool in RPG’s is very, very small. But they do it – in the evening hours after the kids have been put to bed or on the weekends when they could be doing a vast array of other things. Often squeezing time for gaming projects into every spare nook and cranny of their lives. They do it.

That’s why I do it. It’s why, despite the fear and nausea I feel at taking on work, despite all the voices in my head that tell me I’m a fuckup – that the next project will be shit and that it will be shit because of me – I keep at it. My love of games and the people who make them are what sustain me – even though I haven’t really played anything in nearly two years…my lifelong desire to be part of this weird culture keeps me going. And I’m not alone.

Keep that in mind the next time you sit down with your friends to create some stories.

On abysses…and why we need our noses periodically shoved into them. (Repost)

When I was in college in the early 90’s, I once took a weekend trip to Ohio University for their annual Halloween revelry. I’m not by nature much of a party animal, but some friends urged me to go and I had nothing better to do that weekend…so I said ‘Fuck it…’, rounded up a friend, and drove the four hours to Athens, Ohio. Unwisely (or perhaps wisely, depending on your frame of mind) the only music I’d remembered to bring was a cassette single of Beers, Steers, and Queers by The Revolting Cocks. Undaunted, my traveling companion and I listened to that sumbitch repeatedly for the entire eight-our round trip. That was fun.

Anyway, the weekend was spent dicking around setting powdered coffee creamer on fire and hanging out with a girl I met up there, the roommate of a friend. We kind of hit it off and by the time I left she gifted me with a CD she said she didn’t really care for but that she thought I’d like and a small handful of Psylocybin mushrooms. I never did the shrooms – I threw them in a sock drawer when I got home and basically forgot they were there until I cleaned out the drawer a year later and ended up throwing them out.

The CD, on the other hand, was much more interesting to me. It was a copy of Coil’s second full-length album, Horse Rotorvator. And – damn if she wasn’t right. I listened to that thing several dozen times over the following week and essentially fell in love with Coil. (I kind of fell in love with the girl who gave me the CD, too – but I never saw her again. That’s kind of how my life works, if you haven’t noticed…)

One track in particular really stuck with me however, and still does to this day. If you’re familiar with the album you probably already know which one I’m talking about.

At the time, I had no idea really what the song was about…the lyrics were kind of impenetrable, but they embodied a sort of vague mysticism that appealed to me in ways I couldn’t quite grasp then. Even the title ‘Ostia (The Death of Pasolini)‘ was alluring and strange. What the fuck is an Ostia? And who the hell is Pasolini?

SALO, O LE 120 GIORNATE DI SODOMA - Italian Poster 1I’d known of Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom, Pier Paolo Pasolini’s final work,  for a while at that point – but I didn’t know the name of the director. I hadn’t actually seen the film then – I was only vaguely aware of its’ reputation as a nasty piece of cinematic grand guignol. You know ‘…it’s the movie about a bunch of kids being raped, tortured, forced to eat feces, and finally murdered…’

Grim stuff, right? Who would watch such a thing? It would be another ten years before I finally saw Salò and while I won’t say I fell in love with it, I certainly fell in love with the sheer fearlessness of the thing. That it existed at all was kind of remarkable to me. I mean, it’s relentlessly dark. And not just because of the content; Pasolini allows the story (a rough adaptation of the Marquis de Sade’s 120 Days of Sodom) to just unfold before you without judgement or commentary. He lays out his tapestry of misery and death the way one would set out Thanksgiving dinner and say ‘Here, enjoy!’

I think it’s this lack of fucks given in the delivery that shocks so many people. Pasolini never for a second dwells on the victims – the children – in any meaningful way. We never really enter their world to find out what they think of their plight. Pasolini never attempts to build a bridge between their suffering and our empathy. It’s almost like unceremoniously handing someone a manila folder full of autopsy photos and then walking away without explanation. We never really even penetrate the minds of the monsters perpetrating the atrocities. Yes, we have private moments with them – we hear their conversations and ruminations from time to time, but there’s never a moment where they reflect or consider the source of their impulses. We watch their mania unfold and listen to them talk about how much fun they’re having and what they plan to do the next day.

So yeah – it’s rough stuff.

I was kind of fascinated by the film at this point, so I dug up what information I could and learned quite a bit about Pasolini. And…it clicked. That song, the one on that CD given to me years ago…the lyrics started making more sense.

And the car
reverses over
The body in the basin
In the shallow
sea-plane basin.
And the car
reverses over
And his body rolls over
Crushed
from the shoulder
You can hear the
Bones humming

Pasolini was murdered in November 1975 in a rather unpleasant and violent fashion; he’d been run over repeatedly with his own vehicle, his testicles crushed by a blunt object, and his body burned. Initially the murder was attributed to Giuseppe Pelosi, a male prostitute who claimed that Pasolini took him for a meal and subsequently attempted to sexually assault him. Pelosi was convicted of the murder and sent to prison. Despite the confession, however, rumors swarmed that Pelosi wasn’t the actual perpetrator – that Pasolini had been killed by members of the Mafia or that he’d been killed by an extortionist holding stolen reels of Salo for ransom.

Whatever the case, it was clear Pasolini had a lot of enemies and did not suffer a deficit of people who would have been happy to put him in an early grave. Pasolini was active in left-wing politics and a lot of his work took aim at those in power (sometimes even those who shared his own political leanings). Throughout his career Pasolini found himself running afoul of the authorities for his art, being charged with obscenity for his novels and films.

His final work, Salò, was a pointed political commentary on the dangers of fascism. Seen now, divorced from some of the immediate political context, the film seems a bit crass. Perhaps even pointlessly vile (although, anyone who thinks Salò is vile really should delve into the original work – if anything, Pasolini went to some lengths to tone down the horror and wretchedness of de Sade’s work).  But in art, context is everything. The political power structure in Italy at the time Pasolini produced Salò was filled with remnants of Benito Mussolini’s WWII fascist government.

Now, I’m not going to pretend to be an expert on post-War Italian politics…most of what I’ve been able to dig up is the stuff you’d find on Wikipedia and whatnot, but one thing is clear: Pasolini’s film was intended to vilify and shed light on the activities and legacy of a number of Italian fascists and right-wing elements who still held positions of power in Italy in 1975.

Say what you want about the content of the film, but I’d say that’s about as noble a purpose as you could ever want for a piece of art…to uncover and expunge elements of real suffering and misery, to bring them unwanted publicity and cast an eye on their crimes.

So – yeah. It’s not surprising that a lot of people thought (and still do) that Pasolini was murdered to silence him. Because his art was dangerous.

Looking now at that song, it’s clear that Coil were commenting on this very fact. Ostia (The Death of Pasolini) places the director’s murder in the context of a ritualized assassination, committed to protect the State and its’ interests.

You can hear the
Bones humming
Singing like
a puncture
Killed to keep
the world turning
Throw his bones over
The White Cliffs
of Dover
Into the sea
The Sea of Rome
And the bloodstained coast
Of Ostia

Killed to keep the world turning…”.  That’s pretty fucking chilling, when you get right down to it. Push the State too far and it will do whatever is necessary to protect its’ interests. That’s not conspiracy, that’s math.

quote-William-S.-Burroughs-artists-to-my-mind-are-the-real-92710Killed. Killed for art. Because art is powerful shit. Art gives power to the powerless. It allows those without a seat in the houses of power to have a voice – to speak truth to power, and inflict wounds on an enemy in a way that no amount of bullets and bombs can achieve. I know I’ve spoken unkindly of propaganda in the past, that art isn’t about certainties, it’s about creating uncertainty. But weaponized Art, wielded properly, has the ability to create tremendous change. This doesn’t mean that art produced for the purpose of political action is inherently good. The Nazis were incredibly adept at using imagery and ideas to motivate people to all kinds of terrible ends. But just as a hammer can be used to bludgeon someone to death, so it can be used to build shelters for the homeless.

I’ve long held the opinion that terrorists would go much farther in achieving their aims if they relied on wit and cleverness rather than blunt violence. I don’t expect any of them to relinquish their tools of death to take up my methodology, but I think they’d do well to consider it.

So – Salò. Much ink has been spilled over it’s value as a work of art, mostly because of its content. But I think such arguments miss the forest for the trees. Salò does indeed have value, for all the reasons I’ve outlined above. The fact of the matter is, art can sometimes be ugly. It can be downright vile. This is the price we pay for staring into the abyss. But it’s a price worth paying. Art isn’t always about beauty and light – often it has to reflect the worst aspects of our nature. You can’t comment on terrible things without reflecting terrible things…and if we as a society want to confront the monsters in our midst, we must occasionally be willing to see them for what they are.

So yes, Salò has value. It has value. It doesn’t make it an easy viewing experience, or the kind of art you turn to for reassurance. But it does make it a thing which should exist.

Arguing anything less is craven and misguided.

Just another nigger.

Yeah, I used the n-word up there. Nigger. NIGGER. Because I’m a pissed motherfucker right now in the wake of two more black men murdered in cold blood by this nation’s law enforcement community. Just a couple more niggers, right? Because the way cops in this country keep racking them up – that’s the way it starts to feel.

Just another nigger.

I know – this blog is supposed to be happyfuntimes with elfgames and metal music. But right now I’m not feeling it. It’s fucking open season on black people in this country and as the parent of four black children (yes, they’re bi-racial, but you know how that shit works. It only takes one drop for your kids to be called niggers by certain segments of this population) this has put me in a bit of a mood.

What’s it going to take? Another riot? A straight up uprising? How many more graves will be dug before people start taking this shit seriously? I can’t even begin to wrap my head around the gun control debate when the cops themselves are putting black folk down like it’s pest control.

Look – I have cops in my family. I know the score. Not all cops. I get it. There are good men and women on the street and if I was being assaulted you can bet your ass I’d be happy for a black and white to roll up on that scene and save my ass.

Feel free to call me a hypocrite if it makes you feel better – but right now I’m sitting here replaying the video of 37-year-old Alton Sterling in my head, his arm twitching as his lifeblood drains out the bulletholes in his chest and all I can think is that somehow the shitheels who did that to him are going to walk. Because they always walk.

Oh, there’ll be administrative leave. And an investigation. Maybe even a trial. But we know how that shit goes. I could go on and on and on about the School to Prison Pipeline, The TalkGhettos-by-Design, the Civil fucking War, blah blah blah and none of it would make one bit of difference because we live in a country where a black person’s life can be taken with impunity as long as you have a fucking badge.

Because what does one more nigger matter in the grand scheme of things?

Not a whole hell of a lot, it seems.

I will say this: to those who aid and abet this system, who support the pillars of institutionalized racism…you really should sort this out at some point. Because eventually someone’s going to sort it out for you. I don’t really need to spell that out for you, do I?

Maybe black folk in this country need to start Open Carrying the way redneck militia types love to do. Start packing AR-15’s when they hit the grocery store. Sure it’ll be uncomfortable for a while. But let’s face it – there is an oppressed group of people in the U.S. who should have a real, imminent fear of oppression and it’s not a bunch of right-wing survivalist types in Oklahoma.

And it won’t be much longer before Just Another Nigger becomes one too many.

UPDATE: Well, imagine that. As usual, violence begets violence.

 

(Not) A Review: The Glowing Man

swans-the-glowing-man-560x560I say ‘not’ a review because I just don’t do that sort of thing these days. I can’t remember the last time I felt compelled to review an album of any sort (although I do recall time I reviewed the Zeni Geva / Steve Albini disc All Right You Little Bastards and the album’s engineer emailed me to express his admiration for the writeup…that was nice.). But seeing as this will be my last opportunity to weigh on a new Swans album for a good long while, I figure why the hell not?

Anyway, I spent a good am0unt of time with the latest (last?) Swans release The Glowing Man this weekend and I gotta say – it’s a seriously heavy piece of work. Which is probably no surprise if you’re familiar with Swans. Gira and his rotating cast of collaborators have long been one of rock’s most legendarily uncompromising acts, and with The Glowing Man – which reportedly will be Gira’s last outing with his current stable – Swans are reaching back to levels of darkness and despair I’ve not seen from the band since their early days. In fact, I’d go so far as to say The Glowing Man reminds me of a more polished iteration of Filth, which is itself a seething monolith of anger and spite which to this day has few rivals.

Polished is a relative term, however – this isn’t Dream of the Blue Turtles-polished, but rather honed. If Filth was a sledgehammer, The Glowing Man is a straight razor. One thing is clear – after nearly forty years, Gira’s just as capable of turning darknesss into sound as he ever was. The tools might be a bit different, but they’re just as effective. Maybe moreso.

I’m trying hard not to mention the cloud surrounding this album’s release. If you Google Gira’s name you’ll see what I’m talking about. I have my own opinions about the subject which I’ll refrain from addressing – suffice to say it’s hard not to intertwine the allegations levied at Mr. Gira and the content of The Glowing Man…an album which speaks at length  about power, domination, and the violence that results from power imbalances.

His hands are on my throat / My key is in his eye / I’m splayed here on some curb / 
Shards of glass / A starry night / When will this pig-man stop? / His stink is like a dog” Gira’s wife Jennifer intones on ‘When Will I Return?’, a tune penned by Gira about his wife’s own experience with sexual predation. It’s harrowing and powerful.

At five-and-a-half minutes, it also happens to be one of the album’s shorter tracks. The latest iteration of the band has become known for crafting lengthy swirling soundscapes that start calm and build to a hurricane of fury and thunder. The Glowing Man doesn’t deviate from this pattern  – the album’s first two tracks, a pair of songs called ‘Cloud of Forgetting’ and ‘Cloud of Unknowing’ (described by Gira as ‘hymns’) end just short of the forty-minute mark.with the latter clocking in at a hair over 25 minutes.

There’s something remarkable about the Swans and Gira’s dedication to his singular musical vision. I’ve been listening to them avidly since the mid 80’s and I can think of few bands whose sound has changed so dramatically and yet, at the same time, stayed as true to their idiom as Swans. Even the Bill Laswell-produced The Burning World was, in its’ own weird way, a suitable addition to the fabric of Swans artistic tapestry (though Gira himself would probably blanche at the notion, having publicly disowned the work on multiple occasions. Also, I note with some amusement that the first two tracks of The Glowing Man are nearly as long as the entirety of The Burning World).

That said – if The Glowing Man represents a wake of sorts for the band’s current incarnation, it’s one hell of a high point to go out on. As I stated at the outset, there’s a fury to this thing that is iridescent – a white-hot rage that reminds me of the band’s early days. Norman Westberg, who was part of the band’s Filth lineup (and every lineup through 1995’s The Great Annihilator), certainly does his part to maintain the cacophony…but it’s not just the rattle and noise. The Glowing Man often descends into quiet, brooding malice – which is good, because Swans’ particular brand of noise works by being every bit as beautiful as it is ugly.

It’s interesting that – after 90+ minutes of seesawing between quiet anger and skull-hammering rage the album lands on its’ cathartic final note – the sparkling, beautiful ‘Finally, Peace’. It’s not unfamiliar territory – Gira has explored the lighter side of things before…but it’s nice to come up for air after nearly two solid hours of sonic anguish. And, as the final sound we’ll hear from this particular iteration of Swans, it’s perfectly fitting.

I hope this new period of torpor doesn’t last as long as the last one – I’d rather not wait 13 years for a new Swans album again. But if it does – or if this is the last we ever hear of them – I think I can safely say they left us on a high note.

Fuck Art, Let’s Kill

5727943_6226e57ac6_zIn case you hadn’t seen it, this blog post has been making the rounds lately – and like all such diatribes which call people to task people have been lining up on both sides of the equation.

The post in question is a scathing indictment of geekdom’s penchant for outrage, specifically the kind of outrage spurred when creative types make unpopular decisions regarding the things fans love. At heart is the question of whether or not fan entitlement has become an issue.

A point was raised to me yesterday regarding the degree to which we should accept the fringes of fan behavior as representative of the whole. While I’m willing to concede that it’s probably not wise to use the death-threat crowd as the yardstick by which you measure any given demographic, we need not go that far to see the degree to which fans of genre fiction feel a sense of ownership over the things they love.

Entire swathes of fandom have arisen out of a sense of entitlement regarding various intellectual properties. Fanfic is probably the one that most easily comes to mind. For decades (even longer, actually, when you think about it) fans of various genre properties have been wallowing in other people’s imaginations to spin original tales about Star Trek, Star Wars, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Doctor Who, Firefly, etc. See also: Fan Films, cosplay, filking…and a myriad of other forms of artistic expression fandom use to express admiration for their various obsessions.

I have my issues with some of this stuff (which are probably more well-suited for a different blog post) – but on balance I think most of it is at best a nice playground for people to express themselves creatively and at worst a Mermaid’s lure for those who have more passion than talent. Fundamentally I think it’s healthy that these things exist.

However – I also think that as of late we’ve seen a disturbing trend towards a sense of ownership regarding the intellectual property of others. I’m not saying that this is entirely bad – it’s often wonderful to see people iterate on the ideas of others and create new things from them. However, what I find troublesome is when fans feel they should have a say in the direction of other people’s artistic expression.

The Misery example is a potent one. While the murderous rage directed at Misery‘s protagonist is certainly over the top, as an allegory of the demands fans place on creators I think it’s fairly apt (and if anyone would know, I suspect it would be Stephen King).

In a sense, I get it. As fans we pour so much of our energy and passion into enjoying the things we love that when the a creator makes a decision that doesn’t sit well with us it can feel akin to a betrayal. But it isn’t, really. We should have zero expectations that the things we love are crafted with us in mind.

Mona_Lisa,_by_Leonardo_da_Vinci,_from_C2RMF_retouchedI think, however, what’s really at play here is the idea of patronage. Back in the day – an artist would be lucky to find a wealthy patron who was willing to pony up sums of money and privileges to fund their bohemian lifestyle. What the patron got out of it was prestige, a filter to ‘cleanse’ their wealth by funding works of beauty, and sometimes they got a little bit of propaganda out of the deal. You know, a flattering portrait, or a commission to celebrate a specific cause or ideal.

Patronage still happens, of course. And as the commodification of art – and lets face it, nearly every single genre property or IP ever created is the result of ‘art as a commodity’ – has proliferated, those who enjoy such things view themselves as patrons in some small manner. ‘I help you put food on your table by purchasing (x), therefore you own me a little something in return…’. It’s not an explicit relationship, but when the chips are down and fans start grumbling in numbers about a thing…the petitions start flying, and people start talking about stuff like ‘voting with their wallets’. Cha-ching! ‘Give me what I want or I’m going to withdraw my patronage.’

Of course, many of these things are the products of corporate interests. Fans are something of a secondary patron…the real patron is the corporation who wants to reap the creative seed being offered by the artist in return for which they’ll peddle it to the masses and (hopefully) be rewarded for funding the right creative type.

It still boils down to the same question, though. As a fan/consumer – what right do you have to make demands of the creator in this equation? Yes, you have the power to withhold your money for things you find displeasing. That’s a straightforward consumerist choice – I don’t buy products that don’t work for me. It’s as true for Star Wars as it is for Windex. You also have the power to criticize – and you should criticize, when you feel you have something to say about a thing which you feel passionate about and want to express your ideas about what didn’t work for you.

What you don’t have the right to do – and I can’t express this harshly enough – is to tell creative types what they should do with their ideas. Seriously. You may own every fucking Star Wars toy, bedspread, and tchochke ever invented…but that investment of time and money gives you zero say in what Disney or the various creative types they’ve hired do with the stories they want to tell. Zero. Zilch. Nada.

I know that’s a hard pill to swallow, but it’s true. You may own the Sideshow Collectibles Sixth-Scale Han Solo figure, but you have zero ownership over what Gareth Edwards wants to do with Rogue One. It ain’t your film, brah. It’s his film. And if it doesn’t do what you want, or if he kills your favorite character – too bad, so sad. Write a blog post and express your displeasure all you want – the fact is, it ain’t yours. Never was.

Now, you might pluck away at your own Star Wars thing…and if you do it long enough, and develop some skill and get to know the right people, maybe Disney will give you money to make your own Star Wars movie. And maybe you’ll take all that passion for Star Wars, all that hard-won knowledge, and spend two or three years bringing that vision to life. And maybe a bunch of people on the internet will take issue with your thing and tell you how wrong you are and how it doesn’t represent their idea of what Star Wars is, etc. And you know what the correct response to that is?

‘Go fuck yourself.’

Seriously, you owe nobody anything on that account. But maybe Disney will get a little weak-kneed because a bunch of the fans are causing a ruckus over a decision you made…even though they haven’t even seen the fucking movie. Maybe they saw something in the trailer that sticks in their craw. And, inevitable Twitter death threats aside, the mounting criticism reaches the point where Disney comes to you and says ‘Hey, we know you’re passionate about this thing, but a bunch of the fans are screaming blue murder about it…why not take another couple million bucks and re-shoot that bit that everyone is complaining about…’

That’s bullshit, right? But that’s what happens when art is a commodity and when the people who consume it know it’s a commodity and that if they shout long and hard enough they can shape the thing to their desires, because…really…it’s all about putting asses in seats, right? It’s not about your vision, or your ideas. It’s about lining someone’s pocket. And fans can leverage that to get what they want – to protect their biased ideas about what makes good Star Wars, or Star Trek, or whatever.

The confluence of art and money is always fraught with danger, and art almost always loses in the end. That isn’t to say that nothing good ever came from patronage – I’d be straight up lying if I said that. The world is littered with amazing art, much of it because of patronage.

But we’ve moved beyond a situation where an artist creates a thing, and the people who view the thing interpret it and express their thoughts. We are now living in a culture where people feel they have the power and the privilege to vent their spleen at all stages of the creative process.

The trailer for the Ghostbusters remake is particularly telling. Misogynist subtext aside, an enormous amount of vitriol has been cast at this film – a film which hasn’t even been released yet – based on a single trailer.It’s patently silly. Especially for a franchise which consists of one beloved film and a fairly wretched sequel. I don’t care what anyone says, this new movie would have to be pretty awful to rate lower than Ghostbusters 2. But the fact remains – almost nobody knows whether or not this film is going to be good or bad. The trailer is not the film. It’s some marketing person’s idea of what they think will get people to put their ass in a theater seat. That’s it. And yet, people have been going after this movie with pitchforks and torches for months.

It’s ridiculous. And yet, it’s how the internet – and people on the internet – do everything anymore. Nobody is content to just wait until they see the finished product – they have to kvetch and bellyache about it forever and a day – and in all likelihood, it’s having a detrimental effect on the production side. There’s a reason why American cinema is littered with middle-of-the-road unambitious garbage for the most part…because film executives have learned to pitch hard for the middle-ground. That’s where they think they can make the most people happy…by producing films of low risk in the hope they can maximize their profits. The Force Awakens was a perfect example of this. It’s a weird, bloated reanimated corpse of a Star Wars film. It has the face and mannerisms of the one we love but the heart isn’t beating any longer. All our favorite characters are back, and we get some new ones – but…it’s paint-by-numbers. It hits all the narrative beats we expect from a Star Wars film, but it doesn’t really do anything we haven’t seen before.

Now we get word that studio executives are ‘terrified’ about Gareth Edwards’ new Star Wars film, and that Disney is calling for expensive re-shoots. Knowing what I know about Edwards, this probably means he turned in a really good film with measured pacing and Disney is freaking out because his movie doesn’t beat the audience over the head with an endless repetition of effects shots and OH FUCK moments. And probably everyone dies. Which would be awesome, and appropriate. And Disney is probably worried that the same fans that drove Abrams to turn in a shockingly vanilla (yet successful) Star Wars film will pillory Edwards’ work.

Ultimately, who knows. But if money is in the driver’s seat for these things, then fans know with alarming clarity how to get exactly what they want. The death threats aren’t the issue here. The problem is, in fact, entitlement.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Jerry Cornelius – Agent Provocateur

1054357I first encountered Michael Moorcock’s pansexual rock’n’roll secret agent messiah Jerry Cornelius at the tender age of 14. By then I had become steeped in Moorcock’s work thanks largely to the Elric books, which represented a wonderful antidote to the army of Tolkien clones (and to no small degree Tolkien himself) littering the sci-fi/fantasy shelves of my local bookstore. After years of devouring tome after tome of rote wish-fulfillment fantasy of questionable depth or nuance, here was something I could fall for: Elric, an anti-social albino freak – an outcast even among his own kind, the Melniboneans…a degenerate race of sorcerer-kings and demon worshipers. Elric consumed drugs to sustain his weakened frame, slept with his cousin, and wielded an intelligent, soul-draining sword which had sinister motives of its’ own. This was no Bilbo Baggins, that was for sure.

Of course, Elric is but a small corner of Moorcock’s oeuvre – even if one were to merely look at the Eternal Champion books. Moorcock has been roundly dismissed for his fantasy work, which many view as an attempt to piss in the pool of pulp fantasy and as such is merely a reactionary thumb of the nose to literature he deems beneath him. I think this is a bit uncharitable, but it I’ll spill no more (virtual) ink in his defense on that account here.

Whatever else one might say about Moorcock’s Eternal Champion stories, there is surely one weird permutation which lies apart from the rest – that, of course, is Jerry Cornelius. My first exposure to Cornelius was through the single-volume compilation of the first four Jerry Cornelius books; dubbed The Cornelius Chronicles, the bright orange paperback collects The Final Programme, A Cure for Cancer, The English Assassin, and The Condition of Muzak in one handy tome. I’m not sure what possessed me to purchase it other than a desire to read pretty much anything with Moorcock’s name on it. Whatever the reason, I bought it, read it, and was thoroughly confused.

This was unlike anything else I’d ever read by Moorcock, and practically unlike anything I’d ever read period. The first book, The Final Programme, was clearly inspired by the early Elric stories (particularly The Stealer of Souls, which saw publication in 1961, four years before the first Cornelius story). The three stories which followed, however, were very much their own thing. Surreal and defying all logic, characters who died in earlier stories reappeared without explanation. Jerry himself would shift into new forms – in the second book Cornelius is a sort of negative version of the himself, jet-black skin and ivory-white hair. The books take place in late 60’s / early 70’s England and Europe but these are clearly not the England and Europe we know. England has become a proxy state in the Cold War, with both Israel and the United States occupying and fighting over portions of it. Jerry Cornelius also takes Elric’s androgyny and sexual proclivities and dials them up to 11. Jerry’s love affair is not with his cousin but his sister, and he seems to have few barriers regarding who he will sleep with or why, taking lovers of both genders at whim.

Yeah, you could say that as a young teenager my mind was pretty thoroughly blown.

That said, I didn’t really get Jerry Cornelius. He was steeped in a lot of cultural touchstones I wouldn’t grokk for another decade. I simply didn’t have the context to appreciate him. Which didn’t prevent me from touting Cornelius as an important influence on my young mind. And if I couldn’t directly get Cornelius I could certainly see the effect Cornelius had on various other creators, chief among them being Grant Morrison…who would go on to influence my life in similar ways.

Later I would come to appreciate the British new wave science fiction movement, counting authors such as J.G. Ballard as fundamental groundwork for interests I would develop as the years passed.

But it always nagged me that I didn’t fully appreciate Jerry Cornelius the way I should have. I picked up subsequent volumes of Moorcock’s Cornelius work – and enjoyed them. But I’ve long wanted to re-visit those first four books with a fresh mind steeped in several decades of appreciation for Moorcock and the context in which the stories were written.

Not long after re-locating to the Seattle area I picked up another copy of The Cornelius Chronicles – the very same book that turned me on to Mr. Cornelius to begin with. And a couple months later I found a copy The New Nature of the Catastrophe, a collection of Cornelius stories that emerged from the circle of authors who ran with Moorcock’s offer to use Cornelius in tales of their own. So – it seems like this is as good a time as any to dive back into Mr. Cornelius’ strange world and re-acquaint myself.

Next: The Final Programme (including a comparison between the book and the film)

Shamanic Terrorism: Games as Hypersigils

In retrospect, I think it was probably only a matter of time before I started practicing magick.

Looking back at the weird, winding path that led me to my current place in the fabric of spacetime I can see a clear pattern of constantly fermenting my brain – or having it fermented by others – in a weird stew of strangeness and absurdity. My mother is an artist and introduced me to the dreamlike works of Marc Chagall and Toulouse-Lautrec as a child – and would later turn me on to Warren Publications stuff like Creepy, Eerie, and Vampirella by slipping them into my Easter basket each year. I was reading sex -and-occult charged weirdness by folks like Alex Niño, Esteban Maroto, Pepe Moreno, etc. long before I took an interest in ‘people in tights having fights funnybooks’. Left to my own devices I sought out strange beauty wherever I could find it – the music of Brian Eno and Philip Glass and the haunting imagery of H.R. Giger.I found a copy of his Necronomicon in the University of Salt Lake City bookstore at the age of 9 and obsessed over it every time I visited…and was gleefully horrified seeing his vision turned reality later that year when my older cousin Steve took me to see Ridley Scott’s Alien upon its’ theatrical release. A year later I was introduced to the work of Werner Herzog by my father, who took me to a screening of Nosferatu at the local Playboy club.

I could write an entire blog post about the cocktail of ‘Things Kids Probably Shouldn’t Be Exposed To That I Was Exposed To As a Kid’ (and probably will someday) but I think you get the point. I was into some weird shit.

I don’t say this as a means of saying ‘look at me, I’m a goddamn special snowflake’ – lots of people are into the stuff I listed above. But there was a moment in the 70’s where being into that stuff meant something about you. I don’t have a name for it, but there’s a weird geeky subculture that wallowed in Heavy Metal magazines, Ralph Bakshi films, Dungeons and Dragons, black and white European horror comics, the shit Devo recorded that didn’t make it on to MTV, Frazetta paintings, etc. If that was you at nine, there’s a good chance that you at 25 will be listening to gnarly metal and punk, probably some experimental stuff like Coil and SPK. You might be hanging out with a bunch of hipster college students who read Aleister Crowley and various books about alternative spiritual paths because Neil Gaiman’s Sandman was like sooo deeeep and it gives their conservative parents the heebie jeebies.You may even have given some of that shit a shot, because you were bored and never really felt comfortable with the whole Chuch ‘n Jesus thing. But you didn’t stick with it and life happened and you spent your thirties and forties bouncing between watching your dreams dwindle into the distance and trying to commit yourself to ascending a corporate ladder that never really existed. And pretty soon your world sort of collapses into a black hole (or, rather, a black sun) and you start looking for ways to put your life back together.

That’s what led me to magick. Again, looking back, I can see an undercurrent of thoughts and ideas that made it more or less inevitable that I’d invest myself in magickal practice whole-hog. Strangely, though, one connection I hadn’t made until recently was the connection to magick and roleplaying games. It’s a rather obvious one, in retrospect. To hear Alan Moore tell it (and Grant Morrison, as well, in a slightly different context) all language and art is an act of magick – comics, a blend of several storytelling methodologies…visual and linguistic…therefore has great potential for the working of magick. Both his Promethea and Morrison’s The Invisibles are ostensibly works of magick (Morrison’s in particular, but we’ll get back to that in a moment). Roleplaying games, being an act of collaborative storytelling, are also potent magick.

Let’s step back a bit, though, and take more detailed look at this idea.

I came to magick partly through friends (and later Grant Morrison) who introduced me to concepts I’d later find were actually core concepts of a thing called Chaos Magick. I’d like to avoid the risk of turning this piece into ‘What the Fuck is Magick: 101’…there are a lot of resources on the internet if you really want to find out for yourself…so I’ll stick to the bits relevant to the point I’m trying to make.

WIthin the practice of Chaos Magick there lies a specific technique called Sigil Magick or sigilisation. The basic idea is to create a magick symbol, a glyph or as practitioners call it a ‘sigil’ to represent an intention or desire you want to achieve. You then empower this sigil through a method of your choosing and then, having charged it, destroy it. The destruction of the sigil carries the empowered thoughtform into the universe at large in the hopes that it will affect the outcome of events in a manner consistent with your intention or desire. Imagine tossing a pebble into a pond – the ripples created by the pebble entering the water are not unlike the effect the sigil has when cast. You may be aware of something called the Butterfly Effect – a scientific concept attributed by Chaos Theorists (no relation) to describe the concept of ‘sensitive dependence on initial conditions’. The example often given to explain this is a butterfly’s wings affecting weather patterns in some far-flung location because of the manner in which small-scale local changes propagate outward from the source.

Okay – so…how do you make this work, exactly? Well, the generally accepted method for using sigils is to write an intention. Like: I WILL GET MY DREAM JOB AS AN ARCHITECT.You write that out on a piece of paper…then you remove all the vowels (yes, you disemvowel it). Thus, with the above given intent you would be left with:

WLLGTMDRMJBSNRCHTCT.

Then, you remove all the repeating consonants.

WLGTMDRJBSNCH

Looks like gibberish, right? Okay – so then you take those remaining letters and combine them into a magickal symbol – the sigil. (By the way, if there are any budding architects out there who want to use this sigil, be my guest…)

Okay, so now you have this weird squiggly design made of a bunch of letters on a piece of paper. What now?

Well, this is where it gets fun. You charge it. How, you ask? Well – you concentrate on it as you engage in some task which creates mental and physical excitation. You could exercise, mountain climb, run a few laps, do some acid…whatever. A lot of people who practice Chaos Magick tend to use, ahhhh, sexual energy…either with a partner or through plain old self loving. So, yes – the easiest and most pleasurable way to handle this is simply to jerk off. Then as you reach the point of orgasm you destroy the sigil – burn it, flush it down the toilet, eat it…whatever. Then you forget it.

The forgetting is the hard part. Sounds weird, but it is. Some practitioners write a handful of them out then when they feel like charging a sigil, just grab one out of the bowl and do the thing. That way you really don’t know which one you’re charging making it easier to forget the process.

So okay – at this point you’re probably thinking ‘Are you suggesting we turn our next D&D session into an orgy?’ Erm, no…that’s not where I’m going with that (unless your group is into orgies…I mean, who am I to judge?).

No, what I’m suggesting is something more like a hypersigil.

So – what’s a hypersigil then? A hypersigil is work of magick extended over a length of time.A long-form magic ritual, if you will. Grant Morrison, who popularized the idea of a hypersigil, conceived his book The Invisibles as a years-long magic work designed to create Invisibles in the real world. Here’s Morrsion from his classic essay Pop Magic!:

The “hypersigil” or “supersigil” develops the sigil concept beyond the static image and incorporates elements such as characterization, drama and plot. The hypersigil is a sigil extended through the fourth dimension. My own comic book series The Invisibles was a six-year long sigil in the form of an occult adventure story which consumed and recreated my life during the period of its composition and execution. The hypersigil is an immensely powerful and sometimes dangerous method for actually altering reality in accordance with intent. Results can be remarkable and shocking.

[…] incorporates elements such as characterization, drama, and plot.’ Sound familiar? What is a roleplaying campaign if not a work which ‘incorporates elements such as characterization, drama and plot’ extended through the fourth dimension?

It gets better. Morrison also developed an idea he dubbed the ‘fiction suit’. In Morrison’s mind, the act of creating little fictional worlds full of characters is like opening a dimension into a pocket universe…and if one wishes, one can step into these pocket universes by donning what he calls a ‘fiction suit’. The most famous example of this concept, unsurprisingly, is the character of King Mob in The Invisibles. A fiction suit is essentially an identity one assumes to enter a work of fiction or a fictional world. Morrison claims King Mob was a fiction suit he created to exist in the world of The Invisibles. (In one often cited example of the power of the fiction suit, Morrison claims that he came down with a life-threatening staph infection at the same time the character King Mob was infected with a form necrotizing fasciitis…and that he was only able to properly recover after relieving King Mob of his malady.) While the concept of the fiction suit has been extended to creating a fictionalized identity as a means of self-actualization akin to Leary and R.A. Wilson’s ‘reality tunnel’, for our purposes the original concept is good enough. After all, when we create characters to play various games – are we not in fact creating fiction suits which allow us to interact with the fictional world we are creating at the game table? Much has been made of the degree to which roleplayers identify with their fictional identities – and while I find the stereotype kind of awful and dismissive of gaming, it’s not hard to see how useful something like that can be if one were to turn it towards a purpose…like engaging in a hypersigil.

So – I think by now you have some sense of where I’m going with this. Magick is art and art is magick. Creating stories, fictional worlds, is magick. I’ve often remarked how odd it is that we often spend months – even years – gathered around a table spinning these stories, often about the same people, creating worlds and engaging in shared fictional spaces…a ‘consensual hallucination’ to coin William Gibson’s term. Ask any gamer to describe a long-running campaign and at some point they’ll start to describe the events that occured during that span as if they really happened, and that they were engaged in these activities – not some fictional character which only exists on paper as a scribble of stats and numbers. On some level, it’s as if – while gaming – we are actually inhabiting these worlds.

Okay, so this could get into Mazes and Monsters territory, you say. Talking about RPG’s in this manner hews perilously close to the kind of weird stereotype the media warned us of in the 1980’s.

No, not really – that’s not what I’m advocating.

What I’m saying is that…I think it should be possible to conceive of an RPG campaign as a longform magic ritual. A hypersigil – full of characters and things and events that somehow effect a change in the world. How, you ask?

That’s the hard part. I really don’t know. I’m sorry if that’s a bit of a letdown. But again – let’s look towards The Invisibles as a template. I think it would be easy to argue that The Invisibles did exactly what Morrison wanted – that, after the last issue appeared on the stands, that a seed had been planted. That a number of people who followed Morrison on that six-year journey – maybe not all of them, but a few – got it. Understood what Morrison was up to, even on a subconscious level – became real-world Invisibles.

Let’s face it, You wouldn’t be reading this blog post if that wasn’t true on some level. I’m well aware of the effect The Invisibles had on me, and I’m not alone.

So how do we do that with games? That’s a very good question, and sadly I’m not sure I’m equipped to answer it – at least not yet. I’m not saying that all games should do this, or that there should even be a movement towards roleplaying with this intent. But I think it would be an interesting experiment. Maybe a game should be designed with this in its’ DNA. Perhaps it’s time for that Jerry Cornelius game I keep hoping someone would make to be made…if not by myself, than by someone else.

I see RPG’s as something not unlike computer programs – instructions which, if followed, create specific kinds of output. The rules of a game influence and determine the kind of fiction that unfolds at the table. So maybe that’s where we start, with the rules.

Then again, my Chaos Magick leanings tell me to go the opposite direction – that the rules are a guideline, and that pragmatic discovery and action should be the guiding principle. That rules are dogma, and breaking the rules – or making your own – are the way.

I simply don’t know. At this point, the idea of gaming as a hypersigil is a curiosity – but it’s one that tweaks my brain in the middle of the night every once in a while. And like many ideas which refuse to disappear entirely, perhaps someday it will blossom into something strange and wonderful.