Friday, October 28, 2011

Jeff Mangum Concert Prep: The Ten Best Neutral Milk Hotel Songs that Don't Appear on Any of Their Official Releases

If Jeff Mangum had completely eschewed the traditional music industry--if his output had been limited to concert bootlegs and self-produced, self-released, low-distribution cassette tapes and if there had been no official, Merge Records Neutral Milk Hotel discography--what would his legacy be? I'm thinking he wouldn't be playing a massively-hyped comeback show at Town Hall tomorrow night, for which tickets are going for $200 and above on StubHub. Chances are he'd be thought of as a kind of Daniel Johnson figure, a fringe, outside artist-type with powerful raw songwriting ability, buffeted by a winsome sort of nonchalance vis a vis production values, record labels, the vagaries of the modern world, etc. He'd be like Ariel Pink, pre-Before Today, a jelously-whispered secret among fans of the I-don't-give-a-fuck school of lo-fi bedroom rock. Or perhaps he'd be like the dearly-departed New York punk collective Live Fast Die, putting out 7-inch after 7-inch without ever sniffing mainstream success or ever hewing to traditional, formalized standards of musical production like The Album--and not caring about this, in any event. What I'm saying is that there's a precedent for fringe artists to stay fringe and revel in their fringiness and become important thereby; Jay Reatard was another serial 7-incher whose music hardly lent itself to traditional commercial packaging, and he turned out OK, except for the whole death part.

Mangum could have done this; in retrospect, it's a little surprising that he ever made a single traditional full-length, never mind two of them. The most productive period of his career arguably predates Neutral Milk Hotel's involvement with Merge, and between 1990 and 1993, Mangum produced about a half-dozen demos and tapes, almost all of which are incredibly rare in their physical form. Some of the songs he recorded on them ended up on later albums and compilations, but a lot of them did not. There are 20 or 30 songs and song fragments that never made it on to any official release, as well as 6 or 7 songs that were performed live but never recorded.

The demo format--and especially the live format--embodies the NMH ethos far better than the album or the EP, I think. One of the miraculous things about Aeoroplane is that it captures the stream-of-consciousness spirit of Mangum's home recordings without flying completely off the tracks. But this doesn't mean that the album is the format best suited to Mangum's particular talents. He's comfortable making music for small groups of people, for the friends who would get copies of his demos and tapes, for the few dozen people sitting in Jittery Joe's, for the hundred or so people at the old Knitting Factory, at the very most. He's comfortable playing snippets of sound collage for a Pitchfork reporter. But the intimacy, immediacy and sponteity of the demo--and of the live performance, a format that's only slightly more ephemeral than the early-90s, homemade demo--doesn't always translate to the album. The album, which is part artistic statement, part promotional instrument, is a more rigid, more tyrannical form than the ones with which Mangum was most at ease.

Which isn't to say that Mangum's unofficial work is superior to NHM's actual Merge discography. It definitely isn't. Many of his demos actually kind of suck! But they're a glimpse into the spirit that motivated all of Mangum's subsequent work. And again, if he never recorded an official album, Mangum would still be a semi-legendary figure, at least among a certain group of people. These ten tracks are part of the reason why.

So here they are--the TOP TEN BEST NEUTRAL MILK HOTEL SONGS THAT DON'T APPEAR ON ANY OF THEIR OFFICIAL RELEASES (and that you probably won't hear at Town Hall tomorrow night):

10. "I Love You More than Life" (1993 or so)

A twee, tender, and surprisingly non-fucked up lo-fi ditty (at least by NHM standards) from a 1993 demo. Add an electrified bassline and a tight rhythm guitar and this almost sounds like it could be a Sinead O'Connor song or something.

9. "She Did a Lot of Acid" (?)

It's 93 second long, but this song's importance is vastly disproportionate to its length. Not only is it narrative and surrealistic (and just downright disturbing) in the same way that a lot of the songs on Aeroplane are--it also just sounds like a classic-period NMH piece, and Mangum's voice begins to take on that frenzied, tortured quality that all but dominates his two albums. The fact that the track cuts off on the line "it makes me ill"--a line delivered in such a way that you know that this little story of suicide and child abuse, actually like, makes him ill--is probably accidental, but powerful nonetheless. The definitive NMH discography lists this as a live track with no corresponding studio version. But the poor audio quality and apparent lack of an audience mean that this is probably a pretty early track, back when he was playing for small groups of people who weren't in possession of professional recording equipment.

8. "I Hear You Breathe" (1993 or so)

This sounds like a slight, even throwaway track until about the 1:15 mark, when that tinny toy piano kicks in--a disquieting but somehow perfect bit of instrumentation that modern-day bedroom pop artists like Bradford Cox could probably appreciate. The lyrics get increasingly twisted and weird from that point on, and the string of abuse at around the 2:00 mark is reminiscent of "Idiot Wind" and a handful of other early 70s Dylan revenge tracks. Like so many other NMH songs, this song is far stranger and a good deal more existential than it appears.

7. "Sweet Marie" (1993 or so)

According to everything I've read about Mangum, he wasn't (and isn't) really a serious drug user. I don't know if this is true, but I'd like to think of the guy as just constantly being on his own, individual trip, like all the time. I like this track because it's undoubtedly the most psychedelic of the early NHM demos--hell, it could be the most psychedelic thing Mangum ever wrote. It's fun and upbeat (at least in its first half), and there's no menace here, at least none that I can detect. It's a pure sunshine daydream--although the digression in its second half prefigures the meandering song structure of his later work.

6. "Wishful Eyes" (1992)

The slow, repetitive strum on this one immediately brings "Oh, Comely" to mind. Mangum's characteristically deliberative, slightly howling delivery gives lines like "the time has come for leaving" a sense of near-apocalyptic gravity (like the line "the circus is in town" in Dylan's "Desolation Row," kind of). Some of the lyrics are fairly ridiculous and it sounds like Mangum made a lot of them up on the spot. But Mangum has a talent for making his nonsense seem utterly and infinitely profound--after all, even the most strung-together lines in this song culminate in the arresting realization that "the world continues on/whether or not you're still breathing"--a thought just powerful enough to hold the rest of this thing together.

5. "Candy-Coated Dream" (1993 or so)

Mangum shows some actual, conventional songwriting chops on this one. The chorus is huge--much bigger and more complicated than on any other of the early demos. And he really sells it, with the drums and guitars build into the chorus, his voice jolting from a whisper into the closest thing to a shout you'll encounter on a lot of these early and more subdued recordings. Everything about this suggests that it could have (or should have) been an Apples in Stereo song. But it's not. It's as plodding and pregnant with dread as just about anything else in the NMH catalog, and part of the song's strength is that it isn't as unambiguously upbeat as the stuff the Apples were producing at the time, even if it's fairly similar in structure.

4. "Little Birds" (1998)

This is the only Mangum song that definitely post-dates Aeroplane, and ho boy is it dark. It's arguably darker than anything on Aeroplane, like it's so dark that you sorta wonder how the person who wrote it can be anything other than deeply, deeply troubled. It draws attention to its own darkness in a way that "Two-Headed Boy Pt. 2" does not, but it's this high on this list because it points towards a future that never materialized--towards brooding, Nick Drake or Syd Barret-like masterpieces of isolation and psychosis, towards records that no sane or stable person could just casually listen to while they're cooking or driving or trying to get work done-- towards records that are practically discomforting in their intimacy. Mangum never made these albums. But he could have. "Little Birds" proves that Mangum didn't stop recording music because he ran out of ideas--but because those ideas might, inevitably, have gotten the better of him.

3. "My Dream Girl Don't Exist" (1991)

Because who hasn't thought the same thing, at one point or another? Of course this song is about suicide and possibly also genocide, if you think of the coda and in fact the entire song as a warmup for "Holland, 1945." But Mangum has a genius for shrinking the incomprehensibly horrible down to a comprehensible human scale. And while this song's about five-year-olds slitting their wrist and tortured, trans-historical lust, it's also a bittersweet kind of coming of age story--just like Aeroplane, it uses something abstractly horrifying to convey feelings more immediate and tangible. Worth mentioning that the chord progression here is almost identical to "King of Carrot Flowers, Pt 1."

2. "Through My Tears," (1993 or so)

I'll admit that I have no idea what this song is about. The moaning vocals and ticking-clock like drum line always struck me as vaguely conspiratorial, both in the sense that there seems to be something fucked up going on in it, and in the meta-sense that the song's meaning is deliberately withheld from the listener. Where were you when what caved in? It isn't ours to know. This song evokes a profundity wholly divorced from meaning. The message is sent, but the message is also unknown. There are plenty of potentially-brilliant songs whose opacity really bugs me--"Senor (Tales of Yankee Power)," for instance. Here, the opacity is the point, and it's so well-plotted, so knotty and evocative, that it's actually one of the song's chief assets. And that opacity lends a gravity to everything that happens in it. "Where were you when it all caved in?" is easily one of the most sinister, most suggestive lines in the NMH cannon, even if I have little idea of what it means.

1. "Ferris Wheel on Fire," (1998?)

At the risk of revealing how my talents as a writer have deteriorated over the years, here's what I had to say about this song a long, long time ago:

Mangum eventually gave those dissonant, historical echoes a more coherent voice. Aside from his home-recorded tape loops, most of Mangum’s early demos were stream-of-consciousness reformulations of the problems that stalk most young adults: friendships, relationships, and the darker regions of the late adolescent psyche. But there are also songs that suggest a certain progression in his thinking—songs like “Ferris Wheel on Fire,” which seems like it could be based upon an actual event. And even if it is not, the song weaves together fragments of memory and experience in a way that echoes the disquieting, abstract sound collage.

Mangum sings,

Now I’m keeping stow
In someone’s bright carnival ride
All the crowd just cheers
As the bolts break and metal collides
Spiraling through
And flying up all over the hills
And now everything’s broken in two
And everything’s way over.

“Ferris Wheel on Fire” is a pre-Aeroplane composition that didn’t make it on to either of Neutral Milk Hotel’s full-length albums. But it introduces Aeroplane’s interest in forcing some catastrophe upon listeners, and Mangum places listeners in the middle it, making them think or feel their way through it even though the music serves as their only frame of reference. In “Ferris Wheel,” Mangum narrates as his emotional naïité is swept away by a world of senseless tragedy, and as the catastrophe becomes intertwined with the very innocence it disallows. The “bright carnival ride” is a vestige of uncomplicated youth turned into a smoldering symbol of the chaos and complication of the adult world.

But there’s more to it than that. In lines that could have been written about 9/11, Mangum sings,

But now most of all
I am holding you under my skin
Watch these buildings fall
Watch as each weak resistance caves in
All over you all over
And now finally fading from view
Is everything we ever knew

The narrative goes from a Ferris wheel on fire to two late-adolescent lovers clutching each other as their world is spectacularly destroyed. Perhaps the line about “weak resistance” equates the catastrophe to the crossing of certain sexual or emotional boundaries, or maybe the prospect of great personal upheaval is playing itself out in a figurative, personal apocalypse. Either way, to be young and exposed to the world’s traumatizing realities is catastrophic in its own right—in Aeroplane, Mangum takes this a step further and narrates the loss of everyone’s naïvité.

Because in Aeroplane, the Catastrophe is the Holocaust.

Fuck, what can I add to this. I can think of a half-dozen great songs about youthful disillusionment--"My Back Pages," "Dreams Burn Down," Deerhunter's "Desire Lines," more recently. None of them are quite the atom-bomb that "Ferris Wheel on Fire" is. This song is the pure, musical distillation of psychic disorder and change. Few other songs capture Neutral Milk Hotel's astounding talent for evoking life's rawness and messiness in a way that is neither self-pitying nor self-indulgent. You only have to listen to the last Antony and Johnson's record to understand how hopeless this usually is. But for two records, an EP and a handful of self-released demos, Mangum and company pulled it off perfectly.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Gilad is Still Alive

I have several other ideas for posts that would be easier and a lot more fun for me to write, but I have to cover this particular topic before the sense of urgency wears off, since the sense of urgency is already wearing off. I'm not in Israel, but I imagine that Gilad-mania, deprived of its organizing purpose, has ebbed over the past few days. At the moment, there's only one story about Gilad Shalit on the front page of the Jerusalem Post's website, although there are actually two or three prisoner swap-related articles on Haaretz's homepage, including one explaining why the deal isn't cause for celebration. And I agree. Maybe it's cause for relief, for a certain yet probably very small abatement of the psychic tensions related to the precarious nature of Israel's existence and the sacrifices that particularly its young citizens are forced to make on that project's behalf. But it's unseemly to celebrate the conclusion of a story so utterly tragic in its details, details that have been constantly cycling through my mind over the past few days--as they have been for the past few years, actually.

See for my first few months of studying abroad in Israel, I lived alone in a cheap apartment on the far side of Katamon, just off HaRav Herzog, the six-lane road connecting the downtown to the far northern reaches of west Jerusalem. Whenever I walked downtown, I would have to pass the intersection of Ben Maimon and Derekh Aza, which, until last week, contained one of the most heart-wrenching juxtapositions in all of Israel, if not the entire world. In the center of the triangular intersection is Restobar, an upscale restaurant that was bombed during the Palestinian terrorist campaign of the last decade. On the other side of the intersection is a walled-off complex that includes the Prime Minister's residence--and in front of that was, until recently, a tent in which Gilad Shalit's family was keeping constant vigil, reminding whoever happened to reside in the building behind them that his or her work wasn't complete until their son had returned home--and, by implication, until the terrorists responsible for attacks like the one on Restobar returned home as well.

In those days the counter wasn't even at 1000 days, I don't think. Every time I walked past it, the tent itself was an invitation to the kind of sobering reflection that one must constantly avoid while in Israel, lest the place become just unbearable heavy and sad. Would the counter ever reach 1000?, was a thought I would often have, along with far more potentially troubling ones: where was Gilad Shalit? What was he doing right now? What was being done to him right now? What got him through every day? Was he even alive?

A less constant thought, but one that's strongly occurring to me now, as I write this: Deep in his heart, did Gilad feel horribly cheated and duped--did he feel like the ultimate freyer, exiled and beaten and starved and tortured, simply so that a nearly insoluble logic of violence and hatred could perpetuate itself? It's irresponsible, I think, to flippantly psychoanalyze an entire country, but I think that the most disturbing thing about Shalit's ongoing captivity was the public spectacle of generations of deeply-endured physical and psychological trauma being heaped upon the back of an anonymous, unassuming youth. Gilad was--is--a jarring reminder of the steep moral costs of Israel's continued existence, and of the perverse necessity of making young people shoulder them.

Would Gilad's safe return negate those moral costs, or lessen their perversity?, I sometimes found myself wondering when I walked past the tent. Sometimes I'd glance across the street at the plaque commemorating the victims of the Restobar bombing, and realize that no it wouldn't, that those costs would probably always be there, and that the fact that Israelis embraced those costs with a graceful, infinitely admirable, Kohelet-like stoicism was likely the sole reason that I or any other foreign-born Jew could safely go there. As a taxi driver in Tel Aviv once told me (in Hebrew, actually...) in America, you pay for things in money. Here, we pay for them in blood. Zehu.

In a less humane, less moral society than Israel's, people would just instinctively suppress any reminder that so shocking a formulation could actually be true. But when I was in Israel, I found that the last thing Israelis wanted to do was banish Gilad from their national consciousness. It's not that his situation embodied certain tensions that Israelis couldn't run from--it's that it embodied tensions that Israelis clearly didn't want to run from. His presence was pervasive. When I was sitting at the Beersheva bus station, a woman handed me a Tanach and told me to read a page at random, in the hope that greater Torah learning on my part would hasten Gilad's return. At a seudat shlishit meal, the host reminded us to keep Gilad and all the Jewish captives in our hearts during birkat hamazon. In Eilat, Gilad's sad-eyed visage would appear on the jumbotron in front of the beachfront shopping mall, eyeing me as I crossed the street. And there was the tent, of course, that daily shock to the conscience, that reminder of the unfathomable cost of everything I saw before me. For the past five years, Israelis have been bombarded with the suggestion that Shalit's predicament is an outgrowth of their own predicament. As I've said, there's a lot that's disturbing and actually sort of horrifying about analogizing the two. But this makes the Israeli obsession with Shalit all the more noble, in my mind. Yes, the idea of Shalit-as-the-ultimate-freyer is the dark obverse of the widely-embraced idea of Shalit-as-universalizable-symbol-of-the-Israeli-condition. But the latter possibility is dark enough already, thank you very much. Gilad-mania and a million other things (their famously sardonic sense of humor, for instance) prove to me that while Israelis do not wallow in the darkness, they don't willingly deflect of ignore it either.

But back to Gilad. Gilad is a human being--one with almost super-human mental and moral toughness; a heroic figure whose survival should serve as an example to generations of Israelis and Jews and perhaps even human beings in general. He triumphed over homicidal evil, just by surviving--sort of like the Jews and Israel and maybe, one day I hope, human beings in general (we're still not out of our genocidal phase, I don't think). But I'm already slightly disgusted at myself for taking the metaphor even this far. Gilad is still alive, as the bumper stickers and tee-shirts once defiantly and quixotically claimed--and he must live every day of the rest of his life as a human being, and not as a metaphor or a scapegoat or a billboard or a near-fetishized symbol of a painful, national dilemma. Gilad is still alive, and maybe, in the end, that's the only takeaway I'm comfortable with here. Gilad is still alive.


A post-script, also on the Israel beat: Gilad was captured and imprisoned by Hamas, a terrorist organization supported by a band of pseudo-militant yahoos called the International Solidarity Movement. Vittorrio Arrigoni, the recently-murdered "peace activist" and anti-Semite who palled around with Hamas politburo chief Khaled Maashal, was an ISM activist. The ISM's website refers to the Hamas terrorists released as a result of the Shalit exchange as "political prisoners," which they were not. The ISM has numerous members actually living in Gaza, which on its own suggests a morally-compromising acceptance of the Hamas government. The ISM are basically the Larouche-ites of the Middle East, albeit with a paramilitary and international flavor that the Cheney-is-worse-than-Hitler brigades seem to lack.

I recently discovered that an old Hebrew school classmate of mine is now an ISM activist living in the West Bank. One of my best friends used to be an SJP activist at Hampshire, so anti-Zionism is wrong and horrible but clearly not disqualifying for me in a social context, for reasons that I myself am not consciously aware of and would probably rather not explore, in any event. But there's anti-Zionism, and then there's moving to the West Bank and turning anti-Zionism into your life's defining project. There's campus activism, and then there's proudly joining the ranks of Hafez al-Assad, Osama bin-Ladin, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and all the other psychos and mass-murders who are actively trying or did actively try to stricken the Zionist crusader state from the face of the earth. And you know what, I'm actually weirdly tolerant of a certain subset of that kind of work, in a vacuum, at least. A lot of so-called "civil society" groups in the West Bank are likely motivated by anti-Zionism, but nevertheless perform worthy, important work or the sort that makes a lasting, two-state peace more likely. But anti-Zionism can rise to the level of pathology, and the ISM is a case in point. So why did my old Hebrew School classmate join them? When did the ISM's pathology become his, and how?

I don't think his trajectory was the result of self-hatred so much as an absence of self-criticism. The most troubling thing about this--and the reason that I'm blogging about it--is that I suspect you don't know you're on the road to being an ISM activist until you actually become one. For the past ten years, my friend has been on a journey from being an obedient Hebrew school student (compared to me at least; I was fucking terror when I was 11) to being an enabler of terrorists and anti-Semites. Did he know or even suspect it at the time, I wonder?


RIP Kim and Thurston, who wrote the song for which this blog is named. Sonic Youth lasted for nearly 30 years, and it's a bit solipsistic to expect two people who clearly can't live with each other to endure decades of a loveless marriage just so that the band can last for another album or five. But one only needs to listen to the past few SYR records to understand that a vital artistic energy is being snuffed out.

Sonic Youth had (has?) a radically inclusive sense of a rock band's artistic mission. The SYR series are ten self-released records that run the gamut from drone jams to Steve Reich covers to skronk-heavy post-jazz. Some of it is conventional (comparatively speaking...) and actually pleasant to listen to; I remember thinking that SYR 2 had some of the best guitar effects of any Sonic Youth release, which is saying something. But some of it is cheerfully impenetrable, like 2008's SYR 8, which contains a single, 56-minute jam with jazz experimentalist Mats Gustaffson. It's a record that is by turns abrasive and plodding, a work of no-wave maximalism that only the most open-minded listener could endure, and that only the most open-minded rock band could create.

SYR 8 is a stunning insight into the artistic mentality of late-period Sonic Youth, for whom being a rock band meant doing everything, or at least trying everything, or at least mapping out new creative territory with an energy and fearlessness that no other contemporary act could match. Sonic Youth maintained its wildly creative ethos until the very end, and as this Thurston Moore-Mats Gustaffson jam hopefully demonstrates, that ethos was anything but bullshit. As much as I love Daydream Nation and EVOL (and Sonic Nurse, and Murray St., and A Thousand Leaves, and Washing Machine, and...), it's records like SYR 8 that made Sonic Youth so special--and that help explain why I'll miss them so much.

Monday, October 17, 2011

The Existential Blood-Sport that is IndyCar, Then and Now

The 1964 Indianapolis 500 was a bloodbath. Although "Hell on Earth" is probably more apt a cliche, since here we have the era's great monuments to technological progress and human ingenuity--as well as a placid, mid-American afternoon, and what was at that point the most American of all non-football, non-baseball-related sporting events--consumed by a fireball surreal in its sheer massiveness and destructive scope. Thirty-one of the 33 drivers in the 1964 Indy 500 were American; this was also a period when auto racing served as a proving ground for experimental or even slightly conjectural automotive technology, much of which was actually produced in the United States back in those days. But what are hope and optimism and American-ness compared to the near-Biblical pillar of fire unleashed in only the second lap of the race, a conflagration that claimed the lives of fan favorite Eddie Sachs, as well as Dave Macdonald, one of the most dominant American-born drivers in open-wheel history? It's as if hidden, infernal forces were mocking some collective belief in our, i.e. America's ability to contain them.

Which partly explains what happened next: they actually finished the damn race. After the accident, the race was suspended for the first time in Indianapolis 500 history. Sachs's car was tarped and wheeled into the paddock, where his dead body was pried out of the cockpit. Macdonald died of smoke inhalation a few hours later, but by that point the 500 had already restarted. AJ Foyt won. It couldn't have happened any other way: see paradoxically, auto racing in the 21st century is both a more globalized and more standardized than it has ever been. Chassis, engines and fuel delivery systems are basically identical throughout NASCAR and IndyCar. Indy specifications are fairly strict; a stock car is basically a souped-up version of a typical compact car, and is far less technologically complex than you're typical, circuit-level open-air vehicle. This means that American auto racing is arguably a purer test of driving ability than it used to be. But it also makes it easier to forget what American auto racing used to be--a competition between people courageous enough to drive wildly experimental vehicles at heinously unsafe speeds; a test of individual technological mastery as well as physical and mental endurance, and the only sport where scientists and visionary, forward-thinking engineers and designers could join the athletes in the winners' circle (just check out this picture of the 1963 Indy 500 field. The cars are not identical.) Win on Sunday, sell on Monday, the saying went in the auto industry. Auto racing was the sport of optimism and progress. Reading Sid Collins's impromptu, on-air eulogy for Eddie Sachs during the 1964 Indy 500 radio broadcast, it's obvious why all the fires of Hell (as well as, arguably, basic human decency) couldn't convince race officials to call the thing off:

You heard the announcement from the public address system. There’s not a sound. Men are taking off their hats. People are weeping. There are over 300,000 fans here not moving. Disbelieving.

Some men try to conquer life in a number of ways. These days of our outer space attempts some men try to conquer the universe. Race drivers are courageous men who try to conquer life and death and they calculate their risks. And with talking with them over the years I think we know their inner thoughts in regards to racing. They take it as part of living.

A race driver who leaves this earth mentally when he straps himself into the cockpit to try what for him is the biggest conquest he can make (are) aware of the odds and Eddie Sachs played the odds. He was serious and frivolous. He was fun. He was a wonderful gentleman. He took much needling and he gave much needling. Just as the astronauts do perhaps.

"Some men try to conquer the universe. Race drivers are courageous men who try to conquer life and death. " Today, American racecar drivers are thought of as slick corporate shills or corn-fed good ol' boys. But back then they were like earthbound astronauts, gambling with their lives in the name of an oddly American form of spatial, technological and even metaphysical conquest. Did Collins realize how ironic this formulation was, in light of the hell he'd just witnessed? See the reason contemporary auto racing is so standardized (other than the fact that standardization is a savvy business move for suffering auto producers and cash-strapped racing leagues like IndyCar) is because standardization helps achieve a baseline of on-track safety that simply didn't exist in the 1960s. The MacDonald-Sachs crash was so catastrophic because MacDonald was the only one on the racetrack driving a newly-designed, high-clearance car with an 80-gallon fuel load contained in rubber bladders placed on either side of the cockpit--i.e., he was driving a lightening-fast experimental vehicle laced with potentially-lethal design flaws. Wrecks like this one (both of MacDonald's rubber fuel tanks exploded, as you can see in the video....) hastened the era of standardization in motor sports--after the 1964 race, drivers were forced to pit at least twice per contest, taking away any justification for rolling with humongous and poorly-designed fuel tanks. And it's standardization that robbed drivers of some of that heroic, astronaut-like quality.

So drivers are human beings now. And when Dan Wheldon was killed yesterday, in a crash that was every bit as difficult to watch as the one I've embedded above, the Indy World Championship did not continue. The consensus is that he didn't go out in a blaze of glory, but that this was a senseless, tragic accident, and a horrifying reprise of the sort of incident everyone had hoped the sport had been purged of. Dario Franchitti told ESPN something to the effect that you go out and you race and try to win a championship and then something like that happens and you're reminded that it just isn't worth it, that nothing's that important. In 1964, as Sid Collins put it, "the race continues," metaphorically as well as literally ("we’ll be restarting in just a few moments," Collins told listeners at the end of his eulogy). In 2011, it's just like fuck. Fuck.

Cultural changes are only part of the reason why. Wheldon was one of the 10-15 greatest drivers of his era. He prevailed in arguably the two most memorable Indy 500s of the past 20 years. He played the spoiler in Danica Patrick's coming-out party in 2005--if I remember correctly, Patrick led late but was forced to pit during a crucial final stretch. And the recently-fired Wheldon played the spoiler in this year's race, passing J.R. Hildebrand (his replacement at Panther racing) after the race leader skidded into the wall on the contest's final turn. Wheldon has the distinction of being the only driver to history to win an Indy 500 without leading a single lap. Even then, the accomplishment was slightly marred by the possibility that Wheldon passed Hildebrand during a yellow flag, which would have resulted in caution laps, a restart, and a possible one-lap penalty for Wheldon himself. Wheldon's win wasn't clean, but it was cleaner than say, the travesty that was Helio Castroneves crossing the finish line under a yellow flag in '02. It was also fluky. This isn't to take anything away from Wheldon: when you consider that Will Powers basically blew his shot at this year's Indy series title by clipping a lapped car in a race a couple weeks ago, it's clear that flukyness is intrinsic to auto racing, one of those things that drivers have to cope with and eventually master if they want to race at a championship level.

Wheldon was both the victim and beneficiary of the sport's randomness. He went from champion to unemployed in five short years--only to beat the man who replaced him in one of the wildest finishes in Indy history. And five months later, he died on the track, partly as the result of an accident that Hildebrand had a certain involvement in starting (Hildebrand's car was clipped by another car that swerved out of control while trying to switch lanes on a crowded banked turn. Why drivers were going four-wide at 220 miles per hour on a banked turn, on a nearly-circular track with maybe a few hundred yards of actual straightaway is a question that needs to be answered at some point in the next few months...). There's something old-school, folk-songy, even mythological about the chain of causality spanning Wheldon's inevitably lethal trajectory, something suggesting that auto racing is a kind of existential blood sport, a struggle between randomness and control, or a struggle between the conditions that man imposes upon nature and the sheer senselessness that nature imposes upon all of us--like bullfighting with cars. I'm slightly ashamed to admit that this is, in a sense, why auto racing is compelling, and why I've been an on-again off-again Indy fan since I was 8. Wheldon might have been one of his era's all-time great spoilers. But whether it's propelling a talented driver to victory or taking away his life in a smoldering, 15-car cataclysm, happenstance is a greater spoiler still.

A driver-themed song:

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Pynchon's Tribute to Steve Jobs

appears on page 668 of Mason and Dixon:
"The true humiliation came at the end of each Exhibition, when Vaucanson actually open'd me up, and show'd to anyone who wish'd to stare, any Bas-mondain, the intricate Web within of Wheels, levers, and wires, unto the last tiny piece of Linkage, nay, the very falling Plummet that gave me Life,-- nowadays, itself 'morphos'd, so as to fall without end....They pointed, titter'd, sketch'd exquisitely in the air,-- Indignity absolute. He would never allow anyone the least suspicion that I might after all be real. Inside me lay Truth Mechanickal,-- outside was but clever impersonation. I was that much his Creature, that he own'd the right to deny my Soul."
The speaker here is a robotic duck built by the Enlightenment-era inventor Jacques de Vaucanson. This duck, it is worth noting, actually existed, although it was a kind of glorified (although, considering its remarkable theoretically underpinnings along with the fact that was built in like 1706, pretty audacious) wind-up toy that never achieved quite the level of self-awareness that Pynchon depicts. But no machine has, and neither do most human beings for that matter. See the freaky thing about this passage is that it's almost dizzyingly self-reflexive--the duck, which knows on some purely intellectual level that it's actually a network of wheels and levers and wires, etc., is struggling to understand how and why it is even capable of struggling to understand how and why it exists. And the questions it poses are maddening. What is this sublime, un-explicated Truth Meckanickal? More importantly, how can anyone or anything redeem itself from a state of soulessness? The poor duck is trapped in the kind of paradox that can only be made sense of with the help of an especially twisted sort of metaphysics (or negative metaphysics or what have you). Which is to say that it's condition is our condition, basically.

To pivot away from Pynchon for just a moment, I suppose one of Apple's signal accomplishment is to make us realize how little control we actually like, want to have over the technology we use. Apple's business model is an especially energetic form of horizontal integration. Hardware, software, fabrication, retail and even product maintenance operate as a seemless whole. On top of that, Apple products are just stupidly easy to use. But this integration works on the psychic level as well. Apple's programming architecture is notoriously rigid. There's a reason you void your warranty when you jailbreak an iPhone. You're not meant to countermand the choices that Apple has already made for you; to do so is to violate the entire spirit of the product. As best I can tell, Apple's success proves that we want our interaction with technology to be as simple and homogeneous as possible. Simplicity and homogeneity are a virtue when it comes to technological design, but excuse me for pointing out that they're virtuous in few other contexts, and are downright corrosive as far as matters of social, intellectual or moral import are concerned. In fact, "simplicity" and "homogeneity" are really shitty things to organize a society around.

Now I don't think Steve Jobs had some kind of evil plan to co-opt some basic passivity or laziness endemic to human nature, and then conscript as much of the human race as possible into his vision of how technology should work and what role it should play in our lives. But that's sort of how things have turned out, and this is both an exhilarating and terrifying thing to consider. Would that we, the children of this modern-day Vaucanson (at least according to Farhad Manjoo), have as self-critical a spirit as Thomas Pynchon's talking duck. Outside is but clever impersonation...

...Posts I'm gonna write at some point over the next couple weeks, roughly in order of urgency:

-Gambling, and what I learned about myself and the moral and spiritual composition of the universe whilst occasionally doing quite poorly at it--but also, at times, quite well.

-This, and why it was all I could think about when I was jogging the other day (I think that has something to do with matters of personal choice and political first principles, and how abstractions like "personal choice" and "political first principles" might end up being completely meaningless in the end...).

-Venture Bros. vs. Archer, the defining cultural debate of our time, if you really think hard enough about it and are the type of person willing to take a wildly contrarian and deliberately provocative argument like that one at all seriously.

Gamar chatima tova, everyone.