Common Sense

Some albums are collections of great songs, with varying degrees of consistency in style, mood, instrumentation and lyrical content, often not without a high degree of cohesion, but nevertheless without demanding to be evaluated as a single, unified work. Aside from these, however, there are those albums which somehow manage to be more than the sum of their parts by a significant margin. The albums that fall into the first category are almost too numerous to warrant examples, but how about The White Album, Who’s Next, The Heart of Saturday Night and every single Merle Haggard album. These aren’t necessarily just patchwork collections of songs, of course, but I want to distinguish albums like these from those such as The Wall, Red Headed Stranger, In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold us Back, and The Kinks Are The Village Green Preservation Society, as well as Tommy and most of the other various “rock operas,” “concept albums,” and album-length suites that have followed in its wake, that contain songs that cannot be divorced from their context without a certain amount of distortion. These aren’t perfectly lucid categories, largely because there are any number of albums that work both ways, which is to say albums that contain perfectly crafted songs that can make themselves at home on greatest hits collections, compilation tapes, and the radio, but at the same time need to be listened to in their entirety, and often in order, so as to be fully grasped (for some examples, how about Abbey Road, John Wesley Harding, Sticky Fingers, and Kind of Blue, and the list could go on and on). And some artists have so much cohesion that their work could almost be rearranged at will without significant distortion; every song on the first three Ramones albums is basically a hologram, containing a perfect image of the whole in every verse or riff.

Some albums are collections of great songs, with varying degrees of consistency in style, mood, instrumentation and lyrical content, often not without a high degree of cohesion, but nevertheless without demanding to be evaluated as a single, unified work. Aside from these, however, there are those albums which somehow manage to be more than the sum of their parts by a significant margin. The albums that fall into the first category are almost too numerous to warrant examples, but how about The White Album, Who’s Next, The Heart of Saturday Night and every single Merle Haggard album. These aren’t necessarily just patchwork collections of songs, of course, but I want to distinguish albums like these from those such as The Wall, Red Headed Stranger, In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold us Back, and The Kinks Are The Village Green Preservation Society, as well as Tommy and most of the other various “rock operas,” “concept albums,” and album-length suites that have followed in its wake, that contain songs that cannot be divorced from their context without a certain amount of distortion. These aren’t perfectly lucid categories, largely because there are any number of albums that work both ways, which is to say albums that contain perfectly crafted songs that can make themselves at home on greatest hits collections, compilation tapes, and the radio, but at the same time need to be listened to in their entirety, and often in order, so as to be fully grasped (for some examples, how about Abbey Road, John Wesley Harding, Sticky Fingers, and Kind of Blue, and the list could go on and on). And some artists have so much cohesion that their work could almost be rearranged at will without significant distortion; every song on the first three Ramones albums is basically a hologram, containing a perfect image of the whole in every verse or riff.


In any case, I am sure that there is at least one absolutely perfect specimen of an album where the songs cannot be removed from their context without suffering a serious diminishment in significance and impact. John Prine’s Common Sense (1975) is an astonishingly original piece of work that deserves to be considered a classic, at least if I have any say in the matter. Yet there probably isn’t a single song on it that I would include on a list of my ten favorite John Prine songs. This isn’t to say that there aren’t great songs, or that they entirely fall flat when taken out of context. The title track, “Come Back To Us Barbara Lewis Hare Krishna Beauregard,” “Saddle in the Rain,” and “He Was In Heaven Before He Died” sound just fine on Great Days, the Prine anthology released in 1993. But these fine songs become something more when considered in context, which is what I intend to do in this review.

Most of John Prine’s best-known songs are on his first album, 1971’s John Prine, which is a shame because he had not yet reached maturity as a songwriter or as a performer at that time. The album does contain two indisputable classics, “Paradise” and “Angel From Montgomery,” one probable classic in “Donald and Lydia,” several that sound like they should be classics but on closer examination miss the mark by a bit, and one, “Far From Me,” that is just as good as a classic even if it isn’t one. All of the songwriting is highly proficient, but some of it sounds, probably uncoincidentally, like a very young man with truckloads of talent but not enough experience to go with it. “Sam Stone,” which is one of Prine’s most celebrated songs and was even covered by Bob Dylan, has a satisfyingly catchy chorus but comes off a bit heavy-handed and silly overall. “Hello in There” has a beautiful melody, although listening to the 24-year-old Prine sing about encountering “hollow, ancient eyes” while walking down the street always makes me cringe for some reason—he’s probably thinking of a 52-year-old, I can’t keep from suspecting, and anyway the lyric is overdone here and underdone elsewhere (“We lost Davy in the Korean War/ Still don’t know what for/ Don’t matter anymore” is singsongy and banal). And in addition to all that, the album contains some out and out filler (“Pretty Good,” “The Quiet Man”).

And then there’s “Your Flag Decal Won’t Get You Into Heaven Anymore,” a very good anti-Vietnam song that seems to have earned Prine the tag “protest singer” for a while, a trade he also tepidly plied on his second album, Diamonds in the Rough, with the mediocre “The Great Compromise” and the mystifying “Take the Star Out of the Window” (unless someone can explain to me what “Take the star out of the window, let my conscience take the rest” means; I mean, it sounds like it should mean something, but I’m pretty sure it doesn’t) before mostly abandoning it. It’s hard to imagine John Prine being called “strident,” but if he had made a few different choices along the way perhaps he’d be remembered as the long-hoped-for amalgam of Dylan and Phil Ochs that could earnestly strap on the mantle of social responsibility along with his guitar. What’s more likely, though, is that he’d have been remembered as a semi-obscure folkie with a promising debut album.

“Rolling Stone” even accused Prine of excessive bitterness in its review of “John Prine.” With the benefit of 40 years’ perspective on Prine’s (continuing) career, it’s hard to imagine a less apt epithet for him. I would contend that Prine’s work could more properly be said to strongly militate against bitterness, while at the same time keeping an eye trained on all of the unpleasantness and heartbreak that seems to be the lot of mortals everywhere and always. If he does this with a sense of humor, it is nevertheless just as wrongheaded to accuse him of cynicism, as the “All Music Guide” goes so far as to do (which isn’t to say he’s never cynical; he sometimes is, particularly on Common Sense). His attitude to suffering is perhaps made most explicit on “Bruised Orange” (from the 1978 album of the same name); it may even be tempting to accuse the song of self-help vacuousness or Buddhist nonattachment when considering the chorus:

You can gaze out the window, get mad and get madder,
throw your hands in the air, say “What does it matter?”
but it don’t do no good to get angry, so help me I know.
For a heart stained in anger grows weak and grows bitter.
You become your own prisoner as you watch yourself sit there
wrapped up in a trap of your very own chain of sorrow.

This advice is tempered by the next verse which, far from asserting the transience of human suffering, manages with startling economy to put the listener in touch with the most universal, which at the same time means the most personal, feelings of sadness and regret, all the while insisting that full recovery will never be in the cards:

I been brought down to zero, pulled out and put back there,
I sat on a park bench, kissed the girl with the black hair
and my head shouted down to my heart: “You better look out below!”
Hey, it ain’t such a long drop, don’t stammer, don’t stutter,
from the diamonds in the sidewalk to the dirt in the gutter,
and you carry those bruises to remind you wherever you go.

If these are not the most uplifting words you’ve ever heard, neither are they cynical or bitter.

But if it was possible at the time of John Prine for “Rolling Stone” to accuse Prine of bitterness, that is because the 24-year-old who wrote “Sam Stone” could not have written “Bruised Orange.” In fact, for all the songwriting prowess displayed on Prine’s debut, there are times when he sounds like he just might be faking it a little. Prine’s slightly stilted, coffeehouse folk-singer vocals don’t help matters any, either. Not that it is a bad album; it’s a very good album, and almost even a great one—it’s hard to listen to “Paradise” and not get the feeling that the song is in a certain way perfect. But it’s also hard to agree with Kris Kristofferson’s comment in the liner notes: “Twenty-four years old and he writes like he’s two hundred and twenty.” Whatever a 220-year-old might write like, most of the songs on John Prine sound like they were written by an exceptionally talented 24-year-old.

Prine’s second album, Diamonds in the Rough, was panned when it came out, but in many ways it is an improvement over the first. While there is nothing that can match the perfection of “Paradise” or the pathos of “Angel From Montgomery,” the best thing about the album is that Prine starts to loosen up a little, and loosening up is the key that opens the door to the entire rest of what has priven to be a spectacular career (assuming, of course, that he won’t revert to being awkwardly earnest in his dotage).

Incidentally, this is also the album where Prine sounds the most like Bob Dylan. For one thing, his voice often sounds the way Bob Dylan looks on the cover of “The Times They Are A’Changin’” (if you don’t remember the cover, picture a young kid self-consciously trying to look like Woody Guthrie, who was himself plenty self-conscious in trying to look like a salt-of-the-earth proletarian). Add to that “The Late John Garfield Blues,” the most Dylan-like song Prine has ever done. Nevertheless, Prine never sounds like a lesser Dylan.

Indeed, it’s a remarkable testimony to Prine’s originality that he always sounds just like himself even though he has a voice a bit like Dylan’s and sometimes writes songs that could almost be Dylan songs. If “Sweet Revenge” were running from the cops, it could safely hide somewhere on side B of New Morning or Planet Waves until the heat was off. And “A Crooked Piece of Time” could hole up there too. “People Putting People Down” sounds like it could be on Oh Mercy; it makes little difference that it was released five years before Oh Mercy and covered by Dylan himself. Prine simply figured out a way for Dylan to sound before Dylan did in this case. But again, what’s remarkable here is that Prine can do songs like this with impunity, and nobody with any sense will question his originality.

There were little hints of the absurd or the whimsical on “John Prine” (mostly in “Illegal Smile,” “Spanish Pipedream” and “Pretty Good”), but on Diamonds in the Rough Prine develops these aspects of his writing even further with songs that sometimes seem to be just tossed off without much deliberation. Still, all of the songs that meet this description are winners, with the only clunkers on the album coming when Prine gets a little more serious on the two anti-war songs mentioned above, and perhaps Billy the Bum, which is a bit too long and slow to be as interesting at the end as it is at the beginning. If the first album took itself a little too seriously, Diamonds in the Rough has the feel of something intended to be a minor effort, which isn’t a knock on the album; in fact, that is precisely what makes it a step forward from John Prine. What is becoming evident with this material is that the more Prine allows himself to have a sense of humor, the better his work will be.

The third John Prine album, Sweet Revenge, is really just as good an album as anyone could ask for. Just on the strength of the songs, in fact, this is probably Prine’s best album ever, although I hope to explain why Common Sense could make a claim to that title, according to different criteria. From this point on in Prine’s career, there is no more self-consciousness, and even when the joists show through the songs are well-constructed; after Sweet Revenge, awkward lyrics are mostly welcome idiosyncrasies rather than mood-breakers. In other words, on Sweet Revenge Prine has finally settled into his style. And absurdity will be a big part of that style.

Whereas the material on John Prine sometimes sounds a bit forced, from Sweet Revenge on Prine sounds so relaxed about his songwriting he can at times be almost sloppy. The most extreme example is probably “Everybody Wants to Feel Like You” (from 1991’s The Missing Years), otherwise a very straightforward song. In the middle of the first verse Prine sings:

Everybody wants to be wanted
I mean, I ain’t no scarecrow cop
I don’t want no transalization
I don’t want no diddley-bop

What just happened? Apparently Prine had written some placeholder lyrics and decided to leave them in the finished song out of laziness, perversity or frivolity. Perhaps the recording is a demo he liked so much that he decided to use it; coming immediately after “The Sins of Memphisto,” the most sonically florid thing Prine ever recorded, it’s a solo number for voice and guitar. In any case, the lines neither enhance nor damage the song, they just flow right by and allow you to chuckle before getting you back into the song’s proper mood of mild indignation at never having the upper hand.

Getting back to Sweet Revenge, then, the album is just as ambitious as John Prine and just as relaxed as Diamonds in the Rough. There is very little filler on the album, but it must be admitted that there probably is not a single John Prine album without at least one disposable song (with the exception of Common Sense). There is a pointless cover of “Nine Pound Hammer,” and “Often is a Word I Seldom Use” isn’t really unpleasant, but it isn’t really necessary, either. It’s a good title; Prine should have invented a hack songwriter (like Vonnegut’s Kilgore Trout) and just attributed the title to a non-existent song, because there’s not much else to like about this one. On the other hand, “Mexican Home” sounds like a throwaway the first couple of times through, but with repeated listening it opens up into something more, not least because of the poignantly understated lyrics:

Well it got so hot last night I swear, you couldn’t hardly breathe
Heat lightning burnt the sky like alcohol
I sat on the porch without my shoes and I watched the cars roll by
As the headlights raced to the corner of the kitchen wall

Well mama dear your boy is here, far across the sea
Waiting for that sacred core that burns inside of me
And I feel a storm all wet and warm not ten miles away
Approaching my Mexican home

Well, my God, I cried, it’s so hot inside, you could die in the living room
Take the fan from the window, prop the door back with a broom
Well the cuckoo clock has died of shock and the windows feel no pain
The air’s as still as the throttle on a funeral train

Well mama dear your boy is here, far across the sea
Waiting for that sacred core that burns inside of me
And I feel a storm all wet and warm not ten miles away
Approaching my Mexican home

My father died on the porch outside on an August afternoon
I sipped bourbon and cried with a friend by the light of the moon
So it’s hurry, hurry, step right up, it’s a matter of a life or death
Well the sun is going down and the moon is just holding its breath

Well mama dear your boy is here, far across the sea
Waiting for that sacred core, that burns inside of me
And I feel a storm all wet and warm not ten miles away
Approaching my Mexican home

In addition to classic material like “Please Don’t Bury Me,” “Blue Umbrella,” and “Grandpa Was A Carpenter,” Sweet Revenge contains Prine’s second song about masturbation—the first was John Prine’s “Donald and Lydia,” an excellent song, and “Christmas in Prison” is at least as good as that song. Both songs contain plenty of humor, but neither is primarily a humorous song or a novelty number. Rather, both songs deal with the anguish and sadness of a blocked pathway to others, in one case due to shyness and social maladaptation, in the other due to being in the hoosegow.

Such, at any rate, was the career of John Prine up to the point when Common Sense was released in 1975. The trajectory of this career would quite a bit different from the way I’ve given it if reviews were taken into consideration: a more standard view is that Prine released one brilliant, classic album, suffered a bit from the sophomore jinx and then righted himself with his third record, although he would never completely match the brilliance of John Prine. And, according to common sense on the matter, Common Sense stands in a similar relation to Sweet Revenge as Diamonds in the Rough does to John Prine. In reviewing an album that questions the sense of common sense, however, it is only appropriate to demur from consensus. And, while I don’t consider Sweet Revenge to be overrated, Common Sense is certainly an underrated album much like Diamonds in the Rough.

The album opens up with a fairly ordinary, off-the-cuff song, “Middle Man.” That is, the song starts out sounding ordinary, but the lyrics never quite attain anything like the discipline that would keep them making sense. The narrator meets a girl at a diner, named Flo, who purports to be looking for a “middle man,” sort of an ordinary Joe who doesn’t run too hot or too cold but sticks around and gives her the love and stability she craves. It is a commonsensical view of love, and the narrator expresses his willingness to fit the bill, but the lyrics keep taking off into flights of fancy; a scheme to sell half-dollars to the French and a half-baked idea to rip off Flo’s own money in order to support both of them seem to indicate that the singer isn’t quite as steady as the job description requires. However, on second thought, it appears equally likely that the world described in the song is so batshit crazy that these are legitimate schemes. A “middle man,” according to Flo, “has a left-handed manner and leans to the right,” and as the floor of the diner pitches, we get the sense that the middle is a place where you have to move around a lot just to stand still.

As unsettled as our common sense probably is after hearing Prine croak “Middle Man,” the next song gets right to the point, whatever that may be. “Common Sense” has a nice, commonsensical chord progression and a beautiful steel guitar, but what is it about? I’m not entirely sure. The chorus claims “It don’t make much sense that common sense don’t make no sense no more.” Prine’s own comments on the song, in the liner notes to Great Days, are helpful up to a point:

This was my Bicentennial tribute to that other great American patriot, Tom Paine. It’s a song about the American dream only existing in the hearts and minds of immigrants until they live here long enough for democracy to make them cold, cynical, and indifferent, like all us native Americans. It don’t make much sense.

One thing that strikes me about this is how unlikely it would be for any reasonably popular singer to say words like those today, as innocuous as they may have sounded 14 years ago. But after September 2001, the only criticism of the United States one is likely to hear in popular music is on the lyric sheet of some fringe rap album that rants about black nationalism, the New World Order, and space aliens running things behind the scenes in Washington.

Of course, it is still possible to be anti-war, and even to have a critique of capitalism to a certain extent. Michael Moore, after all, is still a popular figure. But in 2010, it seems like no remotely mainstream critic of any aspect of America can speak without bending over backwards and half-retracting everything that is said in a lame attempt to reassure everyone involved, both speaker and audience, that, deep down, everyone involved, both speaker and audience, is a loyal American. The most immediately familiar example of this is the absurd fact that anyone who criticizes the American involvement in one of this century’s interminable wars is required to avow that they nevertheless support the troops, thus immediately rendering their supposed opposition to the war nonsensical.

But that’s common sense: it doesn’t need to make sense, because it conforms to extrinsic imperatives. If it didn’t, it wouldn’t be necessary in the first place. And here I have to pause and proceed more carefully, because I have already begun to muddy things up, which is unavoidable, because the term common sense is ambiguous, which is to say it contains an excess of sense. On the one hand, common sense is something like the zeitgeist, the sense of what is possible and what is fitting that prevails in a given period of time. This changes with time, as we’ve already seen by comparing Prine’s remarks a decade and a half back with the sort of discourse that commonly goes on today. On the other hand, “common sense” can refer to something like a faculty or a capacity, our ability to conform to common sense in the first sense, as opposed to a foolish or pernicious tendency to deviate from it. These, then, are two senses that “common sense” has in common. And in this case, if there is a common sense that regulates what we say, if we have common sense we will conform to it as an extrinsic standard.

But there is more. The cover of Common Sense rather solemnly depicts a yokel stepping on a rake, the handle of which is coming up to meet his face. This seems to suggest that the common sense Prine has in mind is “horse sense,” which is not something that shifts with time—at least not as long as there are things like rakes. This is rather the sense that everyone needs to survive, regardless of circumstances (there will always be rakes); in other words it is entirely intrinsic, which is why it’s sometimes called “the sense you were born with.” Thus, it would seem that we are all born with common sense, but some of us lose it as we age. On the other hand, Humpty Dumpty repeats an old saying when he accuses Alice of having “No more sense than a baby,” and this would seem to suggest that things happen in quite the opposite way, after all.

This brings us to yet another meaning of the phrase in question: common sense can refer to old saws, bromides, proverbs or sayings that circulate throughout common discourse and maintain a certain amount of order in daily life, even if they do seem to contradict one another at times: although haste makes waste, a stitch in time saves nine; a penny saved is a penny earned, but if we worry too much about pennies we may be penny wise and pound foolish, which is all well and good were it not for the fact that if we take care of the pennies, the pounds will take care of themselves—and so on. And this again points to the primary ambiguity of common sense: if we have common sense, we have an intrinsic ability to conform to the extrinsic measure given in these sayings. On the other hand, perhaps having common sense means having the sense to know when common sense makes sense and when it doesn’t, when we should count the pennies and when it’s time to worry about the pounds. Common Sense is a tug of war between the internal and the external, and to resolve this conflict something beyond common sense is required. In fact, Jesus is required; someone to fulfill the law by negating and preserving it all at once. To resolve this conflict between external and internal, we need to somehow eat the law. We cannot understand this with common sense. Common Sense does not make sense.

All of these senses of common sense should be kept in mind when listening to the title track of Common Sense. The song starts out with a couple of lines that seem to bear more on the platitudinous sense of common sense than anything to do with Tom Paine:

You can’t live together, you can’t live alone
Considering the weather, oh my how you’ve grown

Here it doesn’t seem like we’re heading into particularly choppy water, especially with that piano swelling in the background. But if you’re looking for a song about common sense that makes sense, you’ll have to wait for 1991 and “It’s a Big Old Goofy World”:

Up in the morning
Work like a dog
Is better than sitting
Like a bump on a log
Mind all your manners
Be quiet as a mouse
Some day you’ll own a home
That’s as big as a house

Here you may think that Prine is setting you up for a box on the ears, but in this later song the message turns out to be that common sense does make sense after all:

Kiss a little baby
Give the world a smile
If you take an inch
Give ’em back a mile
Cause if you lie like a rug
And you don’t give a damn
You’re never gonna be
As happy as a clam

Listen, the singer seems to be saying, this is all true. And it all may sound a bit insipid, but the irony that the truth is insipid makes the song funny. And if the song is funny, then at least the song is not insipid, even if life is insipid. But of course it isn’t life that’s insipid, common sense is insipid by its very nature because it reduces life to certain formulae, and the truer the formulae are the more hackneyed they become, but when we live these formulae they make experience rich, vivid, and rewarding. And of course, this is all true. But in order to be true, it has to confine itself to a very narrow slice of what we mean when we talk of common sense.

By comparison, “Common Sense” is utterly chaotic. Since we just put the song aside for a while, let me reiterate the first two lines before quoting the rest of the verse:

You can’t live together, you can’t live alone
Considering the weather, oh my how you’ve grown
From the men in the factories to the wild kangaroo
Like those birds of a feather they’re gathering together
And feeling exactly like you

Birds of a feather flock together, we’re told. But what is that kangaroo doing in the factory? The only part of Prine’s Great Days comment that seems to apply here is, “It don’t make much sense.”

“Common Sense” isn’t nonsense, however. Sense that makes no sense is still sense, after all, and therefore different from nonsense. The song does not really push at the boundaries of sense, or even break away from common sense altogether; rather, it feverishly recombines elements of sense to show that common sense can make no sense just as easily as it can make sense. Parts emerge and abruptly break off, giving way to something new, which is why the song continually dupes us into thinking it’s making sense before pulling the rug out from under us again. “Common Sense” is like a patchwork quilt in which every square displays a pattern, but taken together as a whole there is no pattern. There is no overriding theme, except, of course, common sense, which isn’t so much a theme as the possibility of there being a theme in the first place.

The structure of the song is a little bit odd, too, although I wouldn’t go so far as to call it strange or adventurous. But after a single verse and chorus, there is the bridge, a short break, then a double verse and another chorus. The chorus consists of lines that are structured in such a way that they feel like they make more sense than they actually do, a common effect on the album:

They got mesmerized by lullabies and limbo dance in pairs
Please lock that door…

It’s hard to say who “they” are; if we grant Prine’s Great Days comment authority, perhaps it means “immigrants”; if not, then at least men in factories and kangaroos, or really just one kangaroo, as I can’t detect any sibilance at the end of the line, and the lyric sheet keeps it in the singular. (Of course, he could mean “the wild kangaroo” the way we say “the North American timber wolf,” but I don’t like that possibility, so I’ll ignore it.) And one kangaroo is more confusing than several; indeed, sense demands a plurality of kangaroos. Only what the kangaroos have in common makes sense; all sense is common, in this sense. The singularity of the kangaroo refuses to be made sense of; if sense consists in concepts, singularity is an outrage to sense. A single kangaroo can’t limbo dance in pairs; all he can do is form half of a single pair that keeps us from safely generalizing about the pairs. In other words, a single kangaroo subtracts from the sense of the situation in the factories. We don’t even know which factory the kangaroo is in. Or are they gathering somewhere outside the factories? Not on the kangaroo’s turf, however, else there would be more kangaroos hanging around.

In any case, anyone who starts thinking that this song makes perfect sense, which you can do for at least a line at a time, mostly, should keep the kangaroo in mind. There are lots of kangaroos, in that sense, in this song. And then there’s “please lock that door…” Is something unsavory going on here? Is someone about to burn down the factory with the kangaroo locked inside? And the payoff line: “It don’t make much sense that common sense don’t make no sense no more.” Not only does common sense not make sense, it doesn’t make sense that it doesn’t make sense. How could it? Tom Paine is spinning in the grave, one imagines. If he made arguments for American independence that any reasonable person was supposed to be able to follow and agree with, Prine’s rhymes about American decadence are themselves decadent, just as frustrating to the reason as the corrupt and brutal social and economic obstacle course faced by immigrants in the factories, equally composed out of fragments of coherence that fail to add up to an overall sense.

The bridge vaguely hints at feelings of frustration, perhaps the frustration felt by these immigrants and their marsupial co-worker, with the first two lines drawing a false symmetry that rhymes well enough but reasons little:

Just between you and me, it’s like pulling when you ought to be shovin’
Like a nun with her head in the oven
Please don’t tell me that this really wasn’t nothing

A lot of effort has been expended, forehead veins are popping, don’t tell me this wasn’t nothing: it was nothing, but it was a nothing consisting of lots of little somethings, the way white can be generated by combining all the colors. Common Sense has been shown to be not nonsense but schizophrenia: meaning abounds, it spills out in all sorts of directions, ruining the big picture with its proliferation of detail. The kangaroo just doesn’t fit in a song about Tom Paine’s “Common Sense,” nor even in a song that says common sense itself no longer makes sense. Only a song that maintains that it don’t make much sense that common sense don’t make no sense no more can accommodate that lone kangaroo.

After the bridge, the pedal steel guitar comes in and suddenly makes any American with any sense at all feel sorry for anyone who isn’t American. The steel guitar is an evocative instrument in that way; one has to have a sense for it, just as a Frenchman would presumably have to feel sorry for anyone who isn’t French when he eats his buttered snails. I assume this is so, but of course it’s just a guess; I’m talking about a community of sense from which I am excluded, and I’m assuming that there is a sense even more common that links all of these communities of sense, a sort of meta-sense that allows me to draw an analogy between the sound of a pedal steel guitar and snails. Because you wouldn’t catch me eating snails, and yet people pay a pretty good price for the things.

I don’t mean to suggest that a foreigner couldn’t appreciate a pedal steel guitar solo, on the other hand; I only mean she couldn’t be expected to appreciate it properly. The pedal steel has a context, and the sense for that particular context is a sense we Americans have in common; but actually, we don’t all have it, only the ones who have it have it. This is the nature of taste: not everyone has it, but everyone should, and the only way to know what it is, is to have it yourself. But most people who don’t have it think that they do, so only those who actually have it know that they have it and are right that they have it. That is the perplexing nature of taste, as distinct from opinion; common sense assures us that everyone has opinions and, by virtue of this fact that we all have them, they are completely worthless.

On the other hand, taste, according to Immanuel Kant, posits an ideal community—the predilections of any actual community are, statistically speaking, always pretty ghastly. Kant says that taste relies on a sensus communis (Latin for “common sense”): if we didn’t all experience things in the same basic way, we would not be able to appeal to even an ideal community, because sense would be private and there would be no such thing as taste, or community for that matter—there’d be no common and no sense. So maybe every Frenchman doesn’t appreciate snails, but they all should, because they taste basically the same to all Frenchmen, which means they’re either good or they aren’t (they aren’t, of course, although I’ve never tasted one, but it’s only common sense). And that is one reason assimilation to another culture is difficult: play a room full of immigrants some Merle Haggard (who not coincidentally is one of the primary influences on John Prine, who in my opinion has good taste in music), and many of them will probably plug their ears (there’s no accounting for taste).

But in fact, the immigrant experience is intrinsically jarring to common sense; fragments of one community are thrust into another, which they can not understand until they begin to understand some of the ideal communities that both arise from and structure the actual collection of people at the factory gate, or anyway the many not-so-ideal communities that reflect the deformed taste of the many actual people, and the one true ideal community that reflects the genuine taste of the actual people who really do have taste, if anyone really does, but maybe just the kangaroo has it, to be honest.

Now we must leave our kangaroo, however, listening to Merle Haggard and reading the Critique of Judgment on his legally guaranteed 15 minute coffee break, if such laws apply to kangaroos, and return to the song after a pedal steel break that actually only lasts for a couple of bars. Long enough, however, for frustration to have turned to menace in the interim:

One of these days
One of these nights
You’ll take off your hat
And they’ll read you your rights
You’ll wanna get high
Every time you feel low
Hey, Queen Isabella,
Stay away from that fella,
He’ll just get you into trouble, you know.

On the other side of the break, we seem to have entered a zone of relative calm, at least as far as interpreing the lyrics is concerned. No more kangaroos, just police, drugs, and Columbus, certainly a more or less recognizable portrait of America, where the only wild marsupials are possums, and none of them know how to operate a drill press. We’re on a roll now, we get it, bad things are happening, even if the how, the who, and the why are pretty vague. And next we get another big shovelful of sense, even though it would make more sense to have the chorus here, since when songs have a double verse it is standard for it to be the first verse. But as a consolation for that small perplexity, now even the people who haven’t read the liner notes to Great Days will recognize some immigrants in the next line (although an uneasy thought appears at the edge of consciousness: if the song was really about immigrants, as Prine says, we should have had some in the first verse, instead of a kangaroo):

But they came here by boat
And they came here by plane
They blistered their hands
And they burned out their brain
All dreaming a dream
That’ll never come true

A dire enough picture. And to seek redress where sense is wanting is, sorry but I must say it, senseless:

Hey, don’t give me no trouble
Or I’ll call up my double
We’ll play piggy-in-the-middle with you.

And then “Common Sense” slides back into the chorus and comes to a conclusion. If the song is taken as a straightforward critique of the American system, it has gone from being incoherent to being merely vague after it has been patched together with some steel guitar. But the song is, of course, much more than incoherent or vague, although at this point it should be clear that this “more” necessarily defies summarization.

According to Wikipedia (although no source for this is given, so you’ll just have to trust me that I didn’t write it myself): “In America, the term pig in the middle is sometimes used as slang for being under pressure from both sides of a dispute. The similar term piggy in the middle means the same in the United Kingdom.” The newcomer to America, to the factory, to capitalist democracy in general, if there is such a thing as a newcomer to these things, tries to make sense of her experience and finds that sense is just a ball that gets tossed around over her head, always out of reach. There are plenty of chunks of sense getting tossed around, but they don’t add up to anything because sense is just another tool in that factory, which isn’t there to make sense, it’s there to make money, and not for you, at least not very much for you, but for the piggies that aren’t in the middle. But for consolation, there’s always the steel guitar.

After this, anyone would need a break, or at least anyone trying to interpret the lyrics. “Come Back To Us Barbara Lewis Hare Krishna Beauregard” makes perfect sense—at least, it does so in the way an easily interpretable dream makes sense. This song is also on Great Days, and this time Prine’s comments seem to get right to the point of the song:

At that time, there were a lot of people who were leftover hippies who never made it all the way to California, as if they got to the Rockies and went, “God, I can’t get over that,” and just settled in. Also, I had different friends of mine who went through the ’60s, from being totally straight or greasers, then turned into hippies, and then into a religious thing. So I created this character who had done all those different things.

The verses to the song, however, are pretty cryptic:

Selling bibles at the airports
Buying Quaaludes on the phone
Hey, you talk about
A paper route
She’s a shut-in without a home
God save her, please
She’s nailed her knees
To some drugstore parking lot
Hey, Mr. Brown
Turn the volume down
I believe this evening’s shot

You can work with some of this apparent nonsense (any number of interpretations for “a shut-in without a home” would work), some of it you can only shake your head at (nailed her knees to the parking lot? “Mr. Brown”?), but the overall effect is the opposite of “Common Sense”: here the big picture makes sense, even if we can’t do much with the details.

After this small reprieve, we’re plunged deep into obscurity again with “Wedding Day in Funeralville.” Whereas in “Middle Man,” stability could only be achieved by tacking from side to side, here we are hung up on the horns of a dilemma: “It’s wedding day in Funeralville what shall I wear tonight?” However, the tone of the song is not anguished, but rather somewhat lighthearted. It’s hard to listen to a song that is both anguished and frenetic; “Wedding Day” opts for frenetic, whereas the nest track, “Way Down,” expresses anguish. Although “Way Down,” along with the songs included on Great Days, is a song that could easily prosper outside of the confines of this album, it takes on more weight here as it comes on calm, stately, and serious, three qualities that have been in short supply so far.

And yet lyrically, “Way Down”is by no means out of place here:

The air is thin and the sky is fat
I’m gonna buy me a brand new hat
Wear it out and go insane
Christ, I hope it never rains.

But there’s nothing really very confusing about “Way Down”; anyone who listens to it will no exactly what it’s about, at least anyone over the age of 14, and anyone under that age will think they get it anyway:

Way down, way down it must be
I can’t stop this misery
It must be way down.

“My Own Best Friend” is a pretty cynical song, as far as I can tell, although I’m never sure exactly what its about, or if it’s just about seeming to be about something:

I’m a victim of friction, I just got too close to see
Yeah, we sparked in the dark and God hung a light on me
And the lamp gets real heavy, and it hangs from my heart
And it comes and it goes till I can’t tell the difference apart
But I’ve done it before and I’d do it again
‘Cause it’s the only time that makes me feel like I’m
My own best friend

Self-betrayal? A sense of impersonal beatitude? Self-mockery? Masturbation again?

In any case, if seeming to be about something without actually being about anything is something to be about, that’s exactly what “Forbidden Jimmy” is about. It’s a catchy sort of calypso number that churns along pleasantly with lyrics that I can’t even think of something to say about, I just have to quote the song in full:

Forbidden Jimmy has got a mighty sore tooth
From biting too many dimes in a telephone booth
He’s got half of his bootlace tied to the dial
Thank you, operator, for getting Jimmy to smile
“Call out the Coast Guard,” screamed the Police,
Forbidden Jimmy, he’s got three water skis
He put two on his wavelength, and gave one to his girl,
She’s a mighty fine person, it’s a mighty fine world
I’m gonna make all your sorrows bright, set your soul free
I’ll see you tomorrow night if I can still see
Ginger Caputo And Dorian Gray
Oughtta stay out of pictures if they got nothin’ to say
Stack ’em back on the rack, Jack—you know you’re hurting my eye
Forbidden Jimmy, he’s getting ready to fly
I’m gonna make all your sorrows bright, set your soul free
I’ll see you tomorrow night if I can still see
I got caught cooking popcorn and calling it hail
They wanna stick my head inside a water pail
You know they’re gonna be sorry they’re gonna pay for it too
Forbidden Jimmy he’s coming straight at you
I’m gonna make all your sorrows bright, set your soul free
I’ll see you tomorrow night if I can still see

The line about Ginger Caputo and Dorian Gray would seem to be a pretty clever witticism if Ginger Caputo were a silent film actress or something like that. But actually, a Google search for Ginger Caputo only turns up the lyrics to this song, along with some people on John Prine discussion boards asking who the hell Ginger Caputo is. As for the rest of it, it’s anybody’s guess.

Next up is another anthologized number, “Saddle in the Rain,” which could have been a hit or at least an FM staple if catchiness were all that was required. As for the lyrics, again we have to consult the liner notes to Great Days, even though this time Prine’s remarks are not entirely helpful:

That’s another song about friendships and relationships, and being let down. Ever since I can remember, when I was a small kid, anytime I had a friend who really let me down, it would affect me. The disappointment was always large with me. So I guess that’s why that’s a theme I go back to every once in a while. I don’t do it with a lot of bitterness. If I’m going to nail somebody, I like to make sure that I give them all the rope in the world, along with a speech about their better points. So they’ll know I wrote it because I liked them. Like, “This is going to hurt me a lot more than it’s going to hurt you.”

So somebody let Prine down, and he’s getting his revenge in this song. Whoever they are, however, they probably never noticed, unless the following serves as a devastating put-down:

Try spending the night sometime
all alone in a frozen room
afterneath you’ve lain
your Saddle in the rain

That “afterneath” is probably the only time on the album where sense is distorted on the level of a single word. It goes by pretty quick unless you’re reading the lyric sheet, but if you were to hear the song out of context it would sound bizarre. But in the lyrical context of the album it isn’t entirely surprising.

The ensuing verse is pretty weird too, and it’s even harder to interpret this in the light of Prine’s Great Days commentary:

I dreamed they locked God up down in my basement
And he waited there for me to have this accident
So he could drink my wine and eat me like a sacrament
And I just stood there like I do, then I came and went
I came and went
Like a bird in a foreign sky
Couldn’t even say good bye
Or come and share the pain
My Saddle’s in the rain

This has a zonked-out prophetic tone that is rare for Prine, but it is quite evocative here, even if, as with so many other lyrics on the album, it’s hard to say what it means.

Prine usually comes off more folksy than prophetic, although I would choose a less condescending word than “folksy” if I could think of one. Once in a while he uncorks something like this, though; in the middle of “Everything is Cool,” a minor song on The Missing Years, we meet with the following lines:

I saw a hundred thousand blackbirds just flying through the sky
And they seemed to form a teardrop from a black-haired angel’s eye

The song slides back into mediocrity after that, but it’s a stunning lyric that sounds a little too creepy to be exactly optimistic, although the song asserts, with whatever degree of irony that the listener wants to detect, that everything is copasetic, even though bad things are happening. In “Saddle in the Rain,” the lyrics just hint at a general condition of misfortune, and I suppose it is probably bad to leave one’s saddle in the rain; even if the words don’t add up to a total statement that could be readily paraphrased, the song does not come off as incoherent so much as cryptic. “Wedding Day” and “Forbidden Jimmy” are more or less gobbledygook, but “Saddle in the Rain” is like a story told in a dream that seems to make sense until, upon waking, it is recollected.

And that’s about the way “That Close to You” works, also, which is to say that it does work, but oddly. A string of similes open the song:

Like a bolt of lightning, like a bolt of thunder
Like a cloudy day down at the zoo
Like a drowning man that will never go under
That close to you, yeah, that close to you

In the end, it seems that being “that close to you” is pretty much a good thing, but even that’s not certain. As for the rest of it, who the hell knows? This may be the weakest song on the album, but it’s by no means bad. If you put this on a mixed tape, you may get some funny looks. But at this point of the album, the listener isn’t entirely surprised find himself being asked to contemplate just how close (humid?) a cloudy day down at the zoo is to someone he loves.

“Middle Man” is a hypnogogic vision of an ordinary day in America, not quite the American “dream” but a precursor to the latter, which makes its appearance with the second song, “Common Sense.” And something like wakefulness only begins to return, slowly, with “He Was In Heaven Before He Died.” The song, then, is a sort of bookend to “Middle Man”—sleep is ending, but it hasn’t ended quite yet, or at least the song is still trailing streamers of dreamstuff as it stretches its way into daylight. Prine’s remarks on the song:

I was writing about friendship. My father died back around when my first album came out. I was thinking about the trips we used to take down to Paradise. We’d cut through Indiana and cross the Wabash River; I wanted to make a specific reference to that. That one started out with the picture of the rainbow of babies over a graveyard. Where do you go from there? I consider that a challenge, though, to paint myself into a corner and then get out. I figured out that what you’re trying to do as a writer is go to places that aren’t so comfortable, that you don’t already know how to get out of.

I’m not sure if he did get out of “Forbidden Jimmy,” but never mind that right now. Paradise is the town in Kentucky whence Prine’s family hails, and which he sings about in the song of the same name on John Prine:

When I was a child my family would travel
Down to Western Kentucky where my parents were born
And there’s a backwards old town that’s often remembered
So many times that my memories are worn.
And daddy won’t you take me back to Muhlenberg County
Down by the Green River where Paradise lay?
Well, I’m sorry, my son, but you’re too late in asking,
Mister Peabody’s coal train has hauled it away.

“He Was In Heaven” is similar in feel to “Paradise,” with a chord structure and melody that is strongly reminiscent of, although not exactly the same as, the earlier song. As Prine points out, the lyrics of the two songs are directly connected, and the lines of “He Was In Heaven” are rhythmically identical in length to the lines of “Paradise,” so that the lyrics of either song could be substituted for those of the other without needing to revise them. “He Was In Heaven” is in some ways a rewrite of, and a commentary on, “Paradise.” But there’s no rainbow of babies in “Paradise,” which wouldn’t fit in on this album anyway, any more than “He Was In Heaven” would fit in on John Prine:

There’s a rainbow of babies draped over the graveyard
Where all the dead sailors wait for their brides
And the cold bitter snow has strangled each grassblade
Where the salt from their tears washed out with the tide

These lines are just as convoluted as anything else on this lyrically convoluted album, but they need no explanation or justification, which is one reason why the song works well on Great Days. And in the chorus, daylight is finally streaming through the blinds, to continue the motif of dreaming and waking:

And I smiled on the Wabash the last time I passed it
Yes, I gave her a wink from the passenger side
And my foot fell asleep as I swallowed my candy
Knowing he was in heaven before he died

There’s nothing outlandish going on here; we’ve left Funeralville for a funeral back in Muhlenburg County, KY, with nary a kangaroo in a rented tux in the pews. “Heaven” in the tag line is a clear reference to “Paradise,” and this would probably be evident even without the benefit of Prine’s commentary, considering lines like these from the older song:

When I die let my ashes float down the Green River
Let my soul roll on up to the Rochester dam
I’ll be halfway to Heaven with Paradise waiting
Just five miles away from wherever I am.

The third line of the chorus of “He Was In Heaven” does give us one final twist on common sense; “my foot fell asleep as I swallowed my candy” is a line that’s so ordinary it sounds a little weird. The mundane details of a highway trip are not completely out of the blue after the wink and the smile brings us back from the reverie about dead sailors and flying babies, but they are nevertheless jarring here. That is because their only connection to the emotional state conveyed by the song is to remind us of the ordinary context in which the most extraordinary thoughts and feelings usually occur; the way that Prine’s body suddenly demands consideration in this line is like a crying baby interrupting a sermon.  In fact, my baby is crying right now; if that statement seems out of place in this review (if anything does after the kangaroo), it’s for the exact same reason Prine’s line about candy catches us by surprise.

A perfectly acceptable cover of Chuck Berry’s “You Never Can Tell” brings us back to earth as it closes out the album. One reviewer, in panning the album, said that this outclasses anything else on the record, but even if I felt like I could evaluate such a claim, it’s hardly fair. “You Never Can Tell” is a song by the first truly great rock songwriter, and is a commonsensical take on common sense: the young folks lack it, except when they don’t; common sense isn’t infallible, and if the old folks have statistics on their side, there’s an exception to every rule, as they say. So common sense even has sayings that cover the situations when common sense fails: it’s usually right, but you never can tell. The song functions here to ease us back into daylight, and is a wry comment on the rest of the album, which puts common sense through the ringer but allows it to have the final word, albeit an ironic one.

Another Act of Terror

I hold the world but as the world, Gratiano,-
A stage, where every man must play a part;
And mine a sad one.

William Shakespeare – Merchant of Venice Act 1 scene 1

On Thursday morning 53 year old Joesph Stacks got into his plane and began to fly. His steps into a single engine Piper-Cherokee aircraft were strides off a rigged playing field of capitalist social relations. Fueled by ressentiment, the Austin, Texas resident flew his craft low over the skyline before piloting his kamikaze vehicle into the Internal Revenue Service building. Plowing into the hulking seven story building just before 10 am, Stacks’ act of terrorism brought instant reminders of the September 11th attacks on the World Trade Center. Flames shot from the building, windows exploded, a huge pillar of black smoke rose over the city and terrified workers scrambled to safety. The Pentagon scrambled two F-16 fighter jets from Houston to patrol the skies over the burning building before it became clear that it was the act of a lone pilot.

“It felt like a bomb blew off,” said Peggy Walker, an IRS revenue officer who was sitting at her desk. “The ceiling caved in and windows blew in. We got up and ran.”

I hold the world but as the world, Gratiano,-
A stage, where every man must play a part;
And mine a sad one.

William Shakespeare – Merchant of Venice Act 1 scene 1

On Thursday morning 53 year old Joesph Stacks got into his plane and began to fly. His steps into a single engine Piper-Cherokee aircraft were strides off a rigged playing field of capitalist social relations. Fueled by ressentiment, the Austin, Texas resident flew his craft low over the skyline before piloting his kamikaze vehicle into the Internal Revenue Service building. Plowing into the hulking seven story building just before 10 am, Stacks’ act of terrorism brought instant reminders of the September 11th attacks on the World Trade Center. Flames shot from the building, windows exploded, a huge pillar of black smoke rose over the city and terrified workers scrambled to safety. The Pentagon scrambled two F-16 fighter jets from Houston to patrol the skies over the burning building before it became clear that it was the act of a lone pilot.

“It felt like a bomb blew off,” said Peggy Walker, an IRS revenue officer who was sitting at her desk. “The ceiling caved in and windows blew in. We got up and ran.”



Terrorism is a gesture of advertising: it’s a literary act, a form of representation before all else and Stacks with his feeble attack on the IRS that killed one (besides himself) and critically injured two others, publicized his hatred for an inept political system.
Stacks was kind enough to leave behind a suicide note before his fatal voyage that brings more depth to his act. It is in his words, that would have gone completely ignored if he had not piloted his plane into such a spectacular collision, that we see his banal motivations. Cheated by a governmental system that cost him over $40,000, ten years of his life and sent his retirement plans back to zero, he conveys his life history of miserably common working class failures. After all: “The capitalist creed (is): From each according to his gullibility, to each according to his greed.”
During his early years as a college student, still full of hope, Stacks lived next to an elderly widow. Her husband was a steel worker whose pension had been raided by corrupt unions, incompetent management, and of course the government, leaving the woman with only the pittance provided by social security to survive on. At one point he recounts a conversation between himself and the older neighbor in which “…she in her grandmotherly fashion tried to convince me that I would be “healthier” eating cat food (like her) rather than trying to get all my substance from peanut butter and bread.”
Stacks goes on to list his different attempts to solve the problems he has with the government, and the different ideologies through which he passes. Having spent at least 1000 hours and $5000 “mailing any senator, congressman, governor, or slug that might listen,” attempting to mount a campaign against the atrocity of unfair taxation, he realized the futility of his actions. Stacks finally grasped that “when the wealthy fuck up, the poor get to die for the mistakes… isn’t that a clever, tidy solution.” Having little recourse Stacks took up the decision for pointless martyrdom. Knowing that “… there have been countless before me and there are sure to be as many after. But I also know that by not adding my body to the count, I insure nothing will change. “
It is Stacks himself that points out the madness of his actions. Saying that “…the definition of insanity is repeating the same process over and over and expecting the outcome to suddenly be different.” Stacks perversely had some desire that his actions would some how wake up the “American Zombies” to the injustice of the reigning order. Yet as stated above others have thrown themselves against the Kafkaesque labyrinth of despair that is the governmental bureaucracy with equal effect, which is to say none.
Just days after his death, petty politicians of the left and the right are quick to denounce Stacks, each side pointing to the other for producing a mad man. The play of blame just quickens the process of recuperation, Stacks’ act is caught up into the order of things and quickly forgotten, after all Pamela Anderson’s new scanty outfit was a scandal and the Olympics are being played out. While pointing to the widely known fact that something is terribly amiss with the world today Stacks delusive deed becomes just another blurb in the spectacle of modern society.
What we really see in Stacks is the nihilism of his gesture. Nihilists constantly feel the urge to destroy the system which destroys them. They cannot go on living as they are. Stacks did not recognize the possibility for the transformation of the world, and so he becomes ossified into a role: in this case the “suicide.”
The nihilists’ mistake is that they do not realize that there are other with whom they can work. Consequently, they assume that participation in a collective project of self-realization is impossible.

“Take my pound of flesh and sleep well.”
Joe Stacks
1956-2010

The Story of Crass by George Berger

In the fall of 1999 I was a senior in a rural high school outside of Albany New York. My friend from high school, who had previously graduated the year before, was coming home. He was the other punk in town. I picked him up from the greyhound bus station. His large glue encrusted mohawk barely fit into the car. He put the tape in and that’s when I first heard Crass. The discordant muck was jarring enough for me to classify it as punk and the righteously indignant lyrics fit my understanding of what it meant to be political.

Ten plus years later I don’t listen to Crass much. I prefer the more melodic songs of Morrissey, Bronski Beat, She Wants Revenge, and a slew of others who attained more than a modicum of skill with their instruments. While my musical preferences have changed my interest in who and what Crass were has not. When I saw a copy of “The Story of Crass,” by George Berger at a recent Gilman show I picked up the book.

In the fall of 1999 I was a senior in a rural high school outside of Albany New York. My friend from high school, who had previously graduated the year before, was coming home. He was the other punk in town. I picked him up from the greyhound bus station. His large glue encrusted mohawk barely fit into the car. He put the tape in and that’s when I first heard Crass. The discordant muck was jarring enough for me to classify it as punk and the righteously indignant lyrics fit my understanding of what it meant to be political.

Ten plus years later I don’t listen to Crass much. I prefer the more melodic songs of Morrissey, Bronski Beat, She Wants Revenge, and a slew of others who attained more than a modicum of skill with their instruments. While my musical preferences have changed my interest in who and what Crass were has not. When I saw a copy of “The Story of Crass,” by George Berger at a recent Gilman show I picked up the book.

The book is composed of interviews with the members (sans one) of the band and include the voices of Gee Vaucher, Joy De Vivre, and Eve Libertine. The predominant voice of the previous media about the band mainly centers on member Penny Rimbaud, no doubt due to his proclivity for writing (Shibboleth, The Last of the Hippies and The Diamond Signature). Hearing from the others of the band fills out the picture of Crass, although Rimbaud’s voice is still prominent with the author often referring to Rimbaud’s “The Last of the Hippies.”

The beginnings of Crass start with, gasp, art school. Gee Vaucher, a working class girl, met the middle class Penny Rimbaud at a local art school they both attended. Later Rimbaud would move into the Dial House located in the rural landscape of England. Rimbaud points to the importance of the Dial House when he says:

“The place was, and is key and central to Crass. I don’t think Crass would have had the physical environment in which to be created, it wouldn’t have had the background on which it based its creation.But not only that, the very fact that it was a very secure environment which had minimal upkeep and costs, which had sufficient room for a large number of people to live for bugger-all made it central. It was, and remains, a central facility. (p. 165)”

Rimbaud and Vaucher would go on to join the Fluxus inspired artistic theatre group Exit. In recalling Exit Gee Vaucher said “We were part of the Fluxus movement. And before that we were affectedby the Situationists. We were affected by street theatre – by the idea of taking something out of the four walls and off the canvas. (p.33)”

The backbone of a art gave the band a helping hand in the design department. Their infamous logo was made and soon became stenciled everywhere. Along with their iconic logo was the artistic collages of Vaucher. Each album was put together not only with a pre-fixed price record but a long booklet which included the ranting of Rimabaud and the poster art of Vaucher. As if that was not enough the band also began to dress in all black, defining an aesthetic that would separate them from the rest of the punks. This separation was taken further when they were deemed by the punks, and the critics, as living up to the ideals to which they spoke. The Dial House was communal, their diet vegetarian and their shows were often put on as benefits for various far left causes. The members of the band subsumed their individual desires for a collective existence as Crass, for better or for worse.

The band’s coherent aesthetic still contained problems. Talking later of “Yes Sir I will…” Steve Ignorant says “I hate that fucking record – that and Ten Notes on a Summer’s Day are just two piles of garbage. The fun had gone, but I didn’t know how to say it. Because we were Crass, and because Crass lived together, it didn’t ever stop. So your personal life was part of Crass, and Crass was part of your personal life – it’s all intertwined. So the way that you were was Crass and the way lived was…, you could never switch off. Even if I went to the pub or a gig, I was always careful not to get drunk in front of people cos it might backfire, I might get seen. So, yeah, it was quite a restriction and it stopped being fun. (p 244)”

While it was the style of Crass that made them popular it was the very same style (that pervaded their everyday life) that led them to breaking up, and becoming stagnant as a group and amongst themselves. Penny Rimbaud states how Crass’ opposition to the status quo, to their static position as an alternative authority caused , can become inadvertently crystallized.

“When creativity is in opposition to destruction, inevitably destruction prevails. To a very small degree, that was one things we initially didn’t realise. The moment creativity falls into the trap of being in opposition, it’s becoming defined – the whole purpose of creativity is that it’s channeling and describing undefined areas – its bringing form from formlessness. The moment the form is defined (by auhtorities, by the state, by the schools, by parents, by the church) then we’re no longer in a creative situation.”

The above quote smacks strongly of the idea of ressentiment, a Nietzschean term that depicts a sense of resentment and hostility directed at that which one identifies as the cause of one’s frustration. In Crass’ case their ressentiment was directed at the State and Capital, against society as a whole. With ressentiment there is a sense of weakness or inferiority and perhaps jealousy in the face of the “cause” which generates a rejecting/justifying value system or morality. Here we can see Crass’ embrace of vegetarianism, pacificism, and anarchism. This set of morality attacks or denies the perceived source of one’s frustration. The ego creates an enemy in order to insulate itself from culpability, it allows one to have a righteous anger against the enemy, a forever feeling of victim-hood.

While I thoroughly enjoyed this book, the way it highlighted the art background and hippy values of Crass was ultimately very disappointing for me personally. I hate hippies, and its sad that one of the greatest punk bands were hippies. Working class member Steve Ignorant saves the day, (a little bit, even if he wasn’t a hippy he sure did hang out with a bunch) when he said in reply to being called hippies; “That used to drive me up the right up the fucking wall! I hated that. … the hippy thing used to drive me mad because I never was a hippy and never will be. (p. 163)”

Phew at least one of them wasn’t a fucking hippy.

Getting Lost in Anarchism: Post-Anarchism Anarchy on Screen for Idiots

I respond to accusations of postanarchism’s elitism and offer an alternative conceptualization. Here I connect postanarchism to a broader cultural movement and demonstrate how this movement plays out in the hit American television show Lost.


I respond to accusations of postanarchism’s elitism and offer an alternative conceptualization. Here I connect postanarchism to a broader cultural movement and demonstrate how this movement plays out in the hit American television show Lost.



Boss Music?

A Review of Rick Ross, Port of Miami – by crudo

I first heard of Rick Ross when I watched Katt Williams’ American Hustle, which features Ross’s hit song, “Hustlin'” as it’s opener. “Any nigga that hustle, that’s our national anthem right there. Even if yo job don’t require no hustlin; even if you a librarian,” he comments after the song is cut off. I forgot about Ross for a bit, but then heard Ross on a Lil’ Boosie track later while in the library while working on the latest issue of Modesto Anarcho. Lil Boosie himself, is a southern rapper who has done some great stuff and is someone that I just recently heard about due to anarchists holding a banner at a Reclaim the Streets party in the south reading ‘Free Lil Wayne! Free Lil Boosie.’ Anyway, after hearing Ross on the Boosie track, I downloaded Ross’s 2006 album, The Port of Miami, largely because it included the ‘Hustlin’ track. About a year ago while in Phoenix, I read an article that Ross wrote in The Source about the Miami drug trade and so the reference to cocaine trafficking was neither lost on me nor surprising. For fans of the film Scarface it’s not a surprise, but for those that don’t know, Miami is one of the major entrance points for cocaine entering the United States, largely from Latin America. Ross’s album deals largely with these themes and the problems that erupt between the state and poor (black) people that sell drugs to make ends meet. However recently, accusations over Ross formerly being a prison guard have lead many people to question whether or not Ross’s gangsta rap persona should be taken literally at all.

A Review of Rick Ross, Port of Miami – by crudo

I first heard of Rick Ross when I watched Katt Williams’ American Hustle, which features Ross’s hit song, “Hustlin'” as it’s opener. “Any nigga that hustle, that’s our national anthem right there. Even if yo job don’t require no hustlin; even if you a librarian,” he comments after the song is cut off. I forgot about Ross for a bit, but then heard Ross on a Lil’ Boosie track later while in the library while working on the latest issue of Modesto Anarcho. Lil Boosie himself, is a southern rapper who has done some great stuff and is someone that I just recently heard about due to anarchists holding a banner at a Reclaim the Streets party in the south reading ‘Free Lil Wayne! Free Lil Boosie.’ Anyway, after hearing Ross on the Boosie track, I downloaded Ross’s 2006 album, The Port of Miami, largely because it included the ‘Hustlin’ track. About a year ago while in Phoenix, I read an article that Ross wrote in The Source about the Miami drug trade and so the reference to cocaine trafficking was neither lost on me nor surprising. For fans of the film Scarface it’s not a surprise, but for those that don’t know, Miami is one of the major entrance points for cocaine entering the United States, largely from Latin America. Ross’s album deals largely with these themes and the problems that erupt between the state and poor (black) people that sell drugs to make ends meet. However recently, accusations over Ross formerly being a prison guard have lead many people to question whether or not Ross’s gangsta rap persona should be taken literally at all.



First, we should look at Ross’s music. His themes are pretty run of the mill in the “cocaine rap” world; a genre that I find myself listening heavily to these days. In fact, Rick Ross takes his name from “Freeway” Ricky Ross who helped launch the spread of cocaine and crack sales into the United States in the 1980’s. Radicals should be keen on remembering this, as he was also the person that was moving that shit while the US government was racking in the cash from such sales and sending it out to the Contras in Nicaragua. History aside, unlike some of my currently favorite rappers such as Lil Boosie, Young Jeezy, Slim Thug, and Plies, Ross’s flows leave one often unsatisfied. He has a slow style that makes him come off as almost an overweight Mace; it’s often so slow it appears that he’s just talking and not rapping. Sadly however, unlike other physically large rappers who used their size as a way to project their voice (Big Pun and Biggie come to mind), Ross simply just kind of plods along in the songs, never really giving much emotion to what he’s talking about. Many of the hooks are catchy however, and this is what often saves the song. The first half of the album is saved largely due to this; songs like Push It, Hustlin, and Cross that Line (featuring Akon on the hook), prove this to be true.

Second, it’s interesting to look at Ross’s background as a prison guard. In as issue of XXL Ross commented after months of allegations when rumors began circulating once photos of Ross in a prison guard uniform appeared online. “Me not answering or addressing that situation has nothing to do with my career,” he’s quoted as saying. “I’ve accomplished enough, and I’ve made enough money for me to be good. … Yes, it was me in those pictures. But I’mma tell you this. Me taking that job, I was doing my job. You understand what I mean?” He goes onto state, “But, just to let you know, that’s what I witnessed. It’s a reality. I cannot discuss certain people that’s still in the streets, and I will not. I took a street oath, and I’mma live by that, and I’mma die by that. And it’s not about a music career, ’cause that shit, I’m good. It’s about me and being in the streets.” I’ll leave it to the commentators on the streethop.com messageboard to level the critique: “Well I see it, the “image” these fake ass niggas wanna have of being tough guys selling rocks on the streets and running from the Police..,” claims one person. Another person writes, “like i said this just shows how fake the rap game is today. how a nigga go from a prison guard to a rap star. damn only time a real nigga see the inside of a prison is when u doin hard time not when u a watch dog.”

Letting go of the issue of Ross being a former guard, we can then move on onto critiquing the videos that came off that album. Starting with “Push It,” which features a sample from the song “Push It to the Limit” by Paul Engemann, which was one of the main songs from Scarface. It’s no wonder why Ross decided to sample this song, as his version and the video deals with the ins and outs of the Miami drug trade and the video apes much of the film. However, it’s hard to tell where Ross’s experiences begin and what is simply gleamed from drug and popular culture. Some of the lyrics of the song are redeemable, as they deal with the realities of class society. “All I seen is the sruggle/Its like im trapped in this slum/Niggas were badly paid/No water we barely bathed/Better be better days on the way/Thats on my daddy grave.” The video for the hit song ‘Hustlin,’ is much more interesting, and suggests that Ross himself might have something more interesting to say than just reticulated bits of pop culture. At the start of the video he states, “Miami, a playboy’s paradise. Pretty girls, fast cars; that’s just a facade. The bridge separates south beach from my Miami; the real Miami, Mi-yayo, this is where we hustle.” The video moves from a scene of bright colors and scantly dressed women, to a more starker shot of a ghetto with people posted on corners and people slanging various wares from out of their cars. We then see Ross as he drives through this area collecting money from various pushers and a woman who we can assume is a prostitute. Certainly not the “Pimps down Hoes Up!” perspective of class antagonism that rappers such as the Coup would promote, but then many would argue that performers like Ross are simply telling us how it is and not as it should be.

Still, Ross constantly portrays himself as “The Boss,” and we can assume that he at least enjoys having himself (or people thinking of him) at the top of this pyramid of ‘black market capitalism,’ not gripping about the effects of such or his position at the bottom of it. However, Ross still comments on the realities of the drug trade, “See most of my niggas really still deal cocaine/My roof back, My money right/I’m on the pedal, show you what I’m runnin’ like/When they snatch black I cry for 100 nights/We got 100 bodies, serving 100 lifes.” Probably my favorite lyrics on the whole album is from the track, “Cross that Line,” which is probably just because it features Akon and includes some of the most class conscious lyrics on the whole album. “I was birthed in the crackhouse/But what made it worse every first is a packed house/Little brother knowin’ life illegal/No toys just playin’ with pipes and needles.”

Going back to the end of the Hustlin’ video however, I find it interesting because it shows Ross on top of a mansion, surrounded by red flags, with scenes of drug underlings and prostitutes doing their thing and stacking paper, and Ross firmly placed at the top, rapping about it. Perhaps this is what is troubling and ultimately most boring about artists such as Ross: there’s always going to be something interesting about illegal activity for the sake of making money in defiance of the law, but why do we always hear about those at the top? Wouldn’t it be more interesting to hear something that a prostitute or a low level drug employee in such an underground organization has to say? Who wants to hear from a “boss” anyway, much less a former pig? Be it at McDonald’s or the coke game.

10 reasons that Sons of Anarchy works

as an anarchist fairy tale

Mainstream culture is not capable of using the A word in any context where it can be identified with or celebrated. The best one can hope for is farce. So would this program have been if it were on network television.

Television has come a long way from just being a wasteland of empty smiles and variety shows, or from a national fireplace where we all sit around and are delivered a package of Americana and late night blue humor. Approximately 70% of households subscribe to cable (and satellite) television, which have fractured the way that media is consumed, so much that while the quality of all mass visual media can still be debated, it can’t be argued that the place where experimentation happens (such as it is) is in cable programming.

as an anarchist fairy tale

Mainstream culture is not capable of using the A word in any context where it can be identified with or celebrated. The best one can hope for is farce. So would this program have been if it were on network television.

Television has come a long way from just being a wasteland of empty smiles and variety shows, or from a national fireplace where we all sit around and are delivered a package of Americana and late night blue humor. Approximately 70% of households subscribe to cable (and satellite) television, which have fractured the way that media is consumed, so much that while the quality of all mass visual media can still be debated, it can’t be argued that the place where experimentation happens (such as it is) is in cable programming.



This experimentation, namely with adult themes, began with HBO and shows like Oz and The Sopranos but networks like Showtime, Fox’s FX and even AMC (American Movie Classics) are programming for the adult audience that has been passed by in the blandification of network (over the air) television.

Each of these networks seems to have a different attitude that informs their choice of programming. HBO seems to have the long view, believing that box sets and subscriptions can fund the telling of long form story-telling. Their shows have dwelt on the ambiguity of morality (Carnivale), government failure in the inner city (The Wire), and human scale of military life (Generation Kill). HBO represents the height of a twentieth century liberal education.

FX inhabits the other side of a story telling and motivation. Perhaps in the same way that the documentary American Nightmare tells a story of John Carpenter’s Halloween as a conservative casting of the liberal mores of the seventies, FX recasts each television genre it touches. This makes compelling television in the case of the existential recast of the hero show (like Rescue Me) and disturbing television in the case of black hat civil servants (like the ones who populate The Shield).

Sons of Anarchy is the newest show on FX that falls somewhere, genre wise, between the A-team and The Shield with action, chase scenes, and a kind of cop-proof invulnerability real outlaws would love to have. Furthermore Sons does work as a kind of anarchist fairy tale (anarchist in the opposing State and Capitalism sense of the word), weaving together a rich set of relationships that has only a convenient and non-ideological connection to money and (state) authority.

In no particular order here are ten reasons why Sons of Anarchy is a modern anarchist fairy tale.

1. Female Characters

Finding consistent strong female characters is becoming more likely in the era of actual adult dramas, still it isn’t exactly common. Gemma Teller is played by Katey Sagal who was both the female lead in the atrocious sitcom Married with Children and the voice of Leela on Futurama. She serves as the lead female protagonist (next to Ron Perlman’s male lead) and the emotional center of gravity for the show. She is played as a believable, take no bullshit, queen of the gang. Tara is the second female lead who pales in comparison to Gemma but is clearly placed as the next generation. Maggie Siff (who plays Tara) doesn’t have the gravitas of Sagal but holds her own as a well-written strong woman. Additional strong roles are played by the wife of Opie, the “old lady” (Luanne) of Big Otto, and even the Federal Agent (ATF) Agent June Stahl (played by Ally Walker). This many strong women in a program is a testament both to the writer/producer Kurt Sutter (who also plays Big Otto) and Katey Sagal (who is his wife IRL).

2. Shakespeare

If you are going to make art that is designed to have staying power in this culture odds are pretty good that you are going to draw deep from the well that is William Shakespeare. He continues the be The Mythologist of Western Culture and sets the frame for our most prevalent understandings of ourselves including romantic love, revenge, treachery, familial relationships, and on and on. Sons of Anarchy is the story of Hamlet set in an imaginary California small town trapped in the 1950s. The protagonists are all the leaders of an empire in parts. Charming the imaginary small town placed somewhere between Sacramento and Redding. SAMCRO (Sons of Anarchy Motorcycle Club Redwood Original) is a motorcycle enthusiast club with chapters across the west headquartered in Charming. Finally, through their ability to arm and disarm the different factions they rule the entirety of gangland Northern California.

3. Outlaw Culture

Anarchists position themselves, in literature and through their political strategy, on the fringes of the world that they live in. They play the role of firebrands and vagabonds, troublemakers and petty criminals, theorists of revolt and sabotage. A motorcycle gang is the self-organization of a life (or a set of lives) outside the law of man but in the world that man has created. For all the intellectual cover that anarchist provide lawlessness they are, by-and-large, mostly law-abiding and only lawless themselves in a few spectacular moments.

Illegalism, criminality in the service of anarchist passion and projects (like printing presses and social centers), has largely disappeared as an anarchist practice. To the extent to which it still exists, it has degraded into petty larceny and trespassing rather than burglary, assassination, and robbery. This is because the members of society who find themselves having radical political pretensions aren’t typically from the same socio-economic classes as those who find themselves felons. In a society where felons are media figures juxtaposed by cops and prisons, those whose understanding of themselves-in-the-world comes from a screen, rather than poverty, violence, and felonies, are naturally going to shy from felonious action.

The assertion of criminality, violence, and aggression into the practice of living isn’t an anarchist practice but will probably have to be for anarchists to leap off of the headlines (outside of spectacular protests) and into world-changing. SAMCRO is a presentation of this as plausible fiction.

4. Believable violence

Both the Sopranos and Oz, arguably the progenitors of our new wave of adult dramas, set the definition of adult themed as “having lots of extreme violence and explicit sex”. Since Sons is on FX and not HBO this option isn’t quite as available (as the FCC rules are different) but there is a fair share of violence and partial nudity on the show. Oz was the most extreme in its application of gratuitous sex and violence (it was set in a prison) but The Shield, also on FX, was in the same category of shock and awe violence (which clearly the FCC has less of a problem with than they do sex).

Sons is a violent show but the violence tends towards being appropriate (given that the context is outlaw culture). SAMCRO usually can be found pushing each other around, and maybe taking a swing at each other, about once an episode but there isn’t nearly the amount of bloodshed you would expect given that their primary money-making operation is gun running. They wave guns around more than they shoot them. They intimidate more than they beat people down. Taking the best lesson from chess, the potential of violence is used intelligently in place of action-scene after action-scene (unlike, for example, the unending barrage of implausible bullet dodging in The Shield).

5. Survival in this world

Any transgressive belief system has to come to terms with its own survival in a world not of its creation. For outlaws and anarchists, this means that a straight job is usually necessary and that transgression “adds to” rather than replaces survival. In Sons this question of survival is played out in a subplot involving Opie, a recent parolee, who has to cope with the question of whether working a shitty job (doing timber work) is enough, financially and existentially, to survive. His answer is the usual answer of anyone who tries to keep their foot in both worlds. It isn’t easy.

This experience, of being in this world and against this world, is both common and highly dis-functional. The modern phenomena of schizophrenia, of shattered people held together with duct tape and bailing wire, poorly acting out roles required of them, is the story of SAMCRO and the community of Charming. It’s also a major subplot of the show Mad Men but I’ll cover that another time. This survival-story isn’t one that ever ends, which is one of the reasons why the medium of television (with its traditional 24 part arc, cut to around a dozen for Sons of Anarchy) is a great way to share the story part of it. The twist for Sons, and what makes this an anarchist tale, is that survival is an assumption that most mass entertainment glides right over. For every Good Times there are 1000 Love Boats. Or perhaps to put this in the twenty-first century, for every Sons of Anarchy there are 1000 Desperate Housewives. To the extent that television entertainment is about escape it is exactly not about the misery of survival that its consumers face during the rest of their lives.

6. (anti)Manichean

SAMCRO is a gang in a world of other gangs. The mission of this gang is maintaining the burb of Charming as an enclave removed from the fabricated, processed, post-crack cocaine culture of the rest of the world. Naturally this defense is both hypocritical and conservative. As are the rival gangs and their missions.

Sons is a world of rival faiths. In the first season the struggle is a three way between Aryans, Mayans (a Mexican motorcycle crew) and SAMCRO, but other gangs include the Irish, a black gang (from Oakland naturally), the Feds & county law enforcement, and in season two, it’s between SAMCRO and high end Aryans (crewed up with Adam Arkin and Henry Rollins– !!!).

This is not a world that is black and white, or Good cop/Bad cop. It is tectonic with factions pushing on one another using the means at their disposal. The relationships are meaningful and the costs have metrics that would still be measurable in a world where Capitalism did not exist.

7. Motorcycles

As an adjunct to gang culture, which is generalizable as a form of social organization, the culture around motorcycles adds a couple things to Sons. Setting aside Harley culture(largely degraded into a very expensive hobby for the yuppie set), the act of riding is an actual form of anarchist practice.

Anarchists valorize Solidarity, Mutual Aid, Direct Action and individual autonomy. All of these can also be found in motorcycle culture. Solidarity in even the simple act of greeting every other rider on the road with a wave (sidebar: Harley riders don’t actually participate in this greeting other than with other Harley riders). Mutual Aid in the simple acts of sharing rides & resources, pulling over when you see another stranded, and an atmosphere of mutuality not seen in car culture. Direct Action and autonomy in the simple act of riding and being physically connected to moving quickly through the world.

Mostly riding a motorcycle is exhilarating and fun in much the same way as those moments when one is unleashed from the order of this world; when the cops are in retreat, when you eat shared food that no one paid for, when you ride for free.

8. Ambivalence of this world

Sons is set in a world much like our own. There is a USA, there are mortgages and parole, there are bills to pay and federales to avoid. To the extent to which SAMCRO is ideological it is in the style of the classic Marine hierarchy (God, Country, Corps), which makes some sense as most of the original members of SAMCRO were paratroopers in the Vietnam War. Rhetorically SAMCRO are true Americans while practically they are outlaws, parochial, and non-ideological. This distinction is the difference between ideas-above-experience and the practice of everyday life. Self-described anarchists often get lost in these distinctions.

In Sons there still is a world of greed and power-over, but it is outside of the club and, largely, outside of Charming. It is the world that is being defended against and is at the heart of the myth. This ambivalence toward the conceptual framework of the world of Globalization, Finance Capitalism, and Nation States isn’t a dialectical relationship but an argument for The Stroll, life as the journey shaped by ideas of a small scale.

9. Charming

The hypothetical town of Charming has no box stores or chains. It has a main street where people meet, barbers clip hair, and the police station stands at one end. Drug dealing and prostitution only exist outside of town and there is plenty of motorcycle parking.

It is also a town where you actually grow up, live, and die. It isn’t filled with a million transplants or lost souls passing through. Charming is a place where your high school sweetheart marries a buddy of yours and you still see each other at picnics. Where a person having problems isn’t a plot device to demonstrate how inhumane the central gang is but an opportunity to develop diverse relationships. One ongoing plot device involves a character who has a problem controlling touching himself and the character is still used to the extent of his abilities in productive capacities. Charming is a mythology for the obvious superficial reasons but also because it is a place where broken people can find places to fit in.

10. Anarchy

Sons of Anarchy is deeply influenced by Hamlet. The protagonist of the show stands in for Prince Hamlet, his mother (Gemma) is Gertrude, his step-father (Clay) is King Claudius. The ghost of Jax’s lost father is played by a journal of his fathers writings, a manifesto about the kind of club he wishes SAMCRO would become. One of the central alliances in the second season is between Jax, his father’s ghost, and Piney, one of the founding members.

This ghost could also be described as the anarchist heart of SAMCRO and the Sons of Anarchy. The most explicitly (politically) anarchist things in the show are in the narrations from the journal. The ghost uses this manifesto to loosely direct Jax. In one episode the ghost leaves a note for Jax on the wall of an underpass:

Anarchism stands for the liberation of the human mind from the dominion of religion and liberation of the human body from the coercion of property; liberation from the shackles and restraint of government. It stands for a social order based on the free grouping of individuals…

-Emma Goldman

Sons is not an anarchist show. Its politics aren’t explicit and aesthetically the show has as much in common with modern anarchism as a show set in high school locker room or law office. But the presentation of a community with, at its heart, a complex set of relationships, protected by outlaws, who are ambivalent toward the illusions of this world, is one where an anarchist can see themselves.

The Witcher

The Witcher (2007) is a single-player role playing game (rpg) for the pc, created by CD Projekt from Polish short stories and novels written by Andrzej Sapkowski.

If you are one of those people who have somehow avoided being bitten by this particular computer game bug, here we are to poke at you. We’ll start out with intro info that will at least explain my take on some tropes.

The Witcher (2007) is a single-player role playing game (rpg) for the pc, created by CD Projekt from Polish short stories and novels written by Andrzej Sapkowski.

If you are one of those people who have somehow avoided being bitten by this particular computer game bug, here we are to poke at you. We’ll start out with intro info that will at least explain my take on some tropes.



Computer Role Playing Games (crpgs) are games in which you play a character (or a team of characters) that progresses through levels of a story, periodically gaining a series of skills and abilities (“leveling up” is when the character has gained enough experience points to assign skill points in the field of your choice). Within the parameters allowed by the game, you get to choose what your character is good at, and how your character interacts with other characters. You take on a role as different from or similar to your real life persona as you like (and as the game provides for). A good crpg includes enough variation in the story telling that playing as different characters means a notable difference in playing the game. If you are a noble-born thief, sneaky and cocky, you would expect a different story line than if you are a lowborn cleric, or an elven warrior, because people would realistically expect different things from you and you would be a different person. (Yes, I used the word “realistically” in the same sentence as “elven warrior”; this is only one of the many perqs of being a science fiction reader and game player.) Frequently this difference is mostly in how the fight mechanics work. Does the game have fights that work for a sword-wielding barbarian–close in and physically strong but susceptible to magic, as well as a wispy elven archer–excellent reflexes and usually smarter, but not as strong, as well as the frail mage–smart and will powery, but physically weak? (And yes, as should be obvious from these examples, most rpgs exist firmly in the realm of tolkienesque mythology, with orcs, dwarves, elves, demons, etc, as well as religious hierarchy. For example clerics are stereotypically healers and magic users.) But in the best games, the difference is also in how you can solve problems – when faced with a recalcitrant body guard, do you steal the key, persuade, threaten, sneak in the window, bribe, or kill? The writing of most games allows for a single distinct fork: one path of good, and the other of naughty, with subtleties in dialogue depending on whether you’re rude good (for example) or polite naughty.

One of the interesting things about playing games in general and these games in particular is what they tell you about yourself. A friend of mine, for example, ruefully admits that it took her years to figure out that she always chooses the skills that go with a thief (sneaky, smart, reflexy, persuasive) but always fights like a warrior–going straight in, using swords, no running, no traps or poisons. (She denies that this has anything to do with her real life.) To the bewilderment of her friends, another person has been known to play the same game multiple times, cheating outrageously through the fights (after the first time). She explains that she is trying to follow all of the dialogue and relationship options to see where they lead. This really highlights crpgs as interactive fiction*, and the similarities between crpgs and books, like stephenson’s cryptonomicon series, like vonnegut’s works (like our lives): each quality crpg has multiple books contained within. If the character or the world or the situation or the humor is compelling enough, then it’s worth the time to follow all the options.

Philosophically, role playing games are all about ambiguity: we can be and are many different people. In real life we are usually not encouraged to explore or even acknowledge the variables that we incorporate. We want to save people, but also to kick their asses for needing to be saved, and then maybe to make fun of them for relying on random saviors. We want to be heroes and to be left alone, to be lauded and to have no expectations put on us. Rpgs allow us to do these things that are normally considered mutually exclusive.

In the context of crpgs, moral ambiguity in particular is the term used to discuss three distinct (but connected) things: a) you’re allowed to make decisions that are seen as bad in real life (kill or abandon the desperate witch); b) you can make that kind of decision and it doesn’t impede the game (you kill the witch and you continue to have as many options to play the game—even if they’re different options—as you would if you’d chosen not to), and c) the level of moral complexity in the choices you’re presented with (the witch needs to be saved from corrupt villagers, but she is also a blackmailer).

This last example was taken from The Witcher, and is a perfect example of one of the main ways this game shines. The story is full of choices that are not easily distill-able to good and evil. You make the choice you do for reasons that are about your own values, which encourages you to think about what your own values are, in a world that is enough like our own to be useful, and enough not like our own to be fun.

In The Witcher you are Geralt–white-haired, un-sleeping, soft-spoken, potion-dependent–part of a small, elite but failing, group of monster-killing mutants. You get drunk, fight in bars, have cheap (or sometimes meaningful) sex, protect princesses and prostitutes, and try to recover your memory, to rediscover who you are. And as a being who exists somewhere between human and not-, at some point you have to choose a side, either with knights or with outcasts. (I haven’t yet played an ally of the knights. I keep trying but I just haven’t been able to force myself. I’m a bad rpg-er. )

Here are my problems with the game: occasionally dreadful voice acting; clunky sex scene handling; oddly disconnected cut scenes (Hello? There’s a troop charging you! Walls are collapsing! Monsters are threatening! Why so languid?), and my own preference not to have to play as a guy, much less as a guy who has to choose between two women.

But this is more than made up for by the richness of the world (building on multiple short stories and novels by the author), the depth of the decisions, the consequences you deal with, and by the fighting, which is just twitchy enough to keep you engaged without having to micromanage, realistic enough to make my martial arts friend happy, and pretty to watch.

Games are getting more sophisticated and cynical — the anti-hero is alive and well — but this polish import offers (along with its somewhat unfamiliar mythology) a dark weariness that u.s. games just don’t have. It’s not as simple as the sense that the only choices you have are bad ones – the geneforge series does that more brutally (and is too depressing for me to play anymore) – nor is it that you can choose to be bitter and rageful – since most rpgs offer threads with those components. Perhaps it’s the nuanced choices combined with the music and design (the loading shot is a beautifully bleak landscape with two small dark birds flying by), but the nihilism (for lack of a better word) of this game is very appealing to those of us who, like Geralt, keep acting in the world without expectation that our behavior will have any major effect.

p.s. Throughout this I have used “in real life” as a way to distinguish our characters from the lives that we live where other people can see them. But (as even that description concedes) this is a false dichotomy. Much in the way that we are alive through our imaginations, games are not false. They are differently real. This different realness is increasing in our lives, and it serves us to think about it, to incorporate it into our understanding more quickly than we seem to be doing. (An internet community is not the same as a meatspace one, how are they different? What does safe space mean in a world of anonymity? How does this world of a cyber imagination reflect and differ from the worlds of, for example, religious, spiritual, and/or drug-aided imagination?) But these are questions for a later time: they will be revisited.

*(IF is usually used to refer to games that have no significant graphics, games in which your interaction with the game is through reading and typing text.)

About Us

Contestation

We are those who think about, write about, and are involved with this world. We suffer the fate of writers. We have lived too much of our lives in books. We desire worlds that we know are possible and yet are out of reach. We are observers of this world.

But we are also participants in the contestation of this era. We are not satisfied with simple solutions to the large problems of this world or with its discontents. We live lives, freely chosen, of contestation and The Anvil is a record of that choice.

Transgression

Contestation

We are those who think about, write about, and are involved with this world. We suffer the fate of writers. We have lived too much of our lives in books. We desire worlds that we know are possible and yet are out of reach. We are observers of this world.

But we are also participants in the contestation of this era. We are not satisfied with simple solutions to the large problems of this world or with its discontents. We live lives, freely chosen, of contestation and The Anvil is a record of that choice.

Transgression

We are boundary crossers. We are travelers across a landscape where we are not invited to anything but shopping and auto-annihilation. We suffer labels and resent them. We work and we are precarious. We play and feel the emptiness of not playing for keeps. We suffer for being bridges and are thankful for this.

This world is one of circumscription. The Anvil is a place to temper tools for digging and cutting our way out.

Engagement

Given the troubles we face it is hard to believe that we still choose engagement, even when “checking out” could be so much easier. The people in our lives demand nothing less than our attention and every effort to our project: whether simple or large. Therefore we are engaged in many aspects of social life from the politics of the newspaper, the street, and a thousand back rooms, to the theories of other lands and this one, and the devouring of our media rich, digitally disconnected world.

The Anvil is not a review site of detached observers but of people utterly engaged in the tensions of our times with our bodies, our minds, and each other.

Strike the iron of this world while it is hot!

The Theory Of Bloom

In a sense they foreshadowed what was to come, in their own sad and skeptical way, which led them one by one to the abyss.

-Roberto Bolaño

Tiqqun was a two volume journal published in France at the turn of the 21st century. The first volume appeared in 1999 and included a text entitled Théorie du Bloom. In 2000, the text was augmented by the authors and published by La Fabrique Editions. In the two volumes of Tiqqun, the idea of the Bloom appears throughout the interrelated texts. Its clearest articulation resides in the augmented, book-length version of The Theory Of Bloom.

In a sense they foreshadowed what was to come, in their own sad and skeptical way, which led them one by one to the abyss.

-Roberto Bolaño

Tiqqun was a two volume journal published in France at the turn of the 21st century. The first volume appeared in 1999 and included a text entitled Théorie du Bloom. In 2000, the text was augmented by the authors and published by La Fabrique Editions. In the two volumes of Tiqqun, the idea of the Bloom appears throughout the interrelated texts. Its clearest articulation resides in the augmented, book-length version of The Theory Of Bloom.

The book begins by narrating a scene of total, entropic disconnection between passengers on a train. A woman yells through the phone at her ex-husband, the two of them negotiating time with their child and time with their respective boyfriend and girlfriend. While she talks she is propelled forward on a train, sitting in a seat identical to all others in a car which is identical to all the others. The detachment of everyone on the train, the “strangeness” between them, is something we all share in common. This “strangeness” is also called the Bloom. We only experience it as a “strangeness” because we are so separated and so masked to one another. But in fact, the Bloom is the common power we all share. Bloom is the name given to the nameless.

From there, the book dives into the history of the 20th century, narrating the development of Biopower from 1914 onwards. Biopower, the science of control, is the “ benevolent power, full of the solicitude of a shepherd for his flock, the power that wants the salute of its subjects, the power that wants you to live.” Working hand in hand with Biopower is the Spectacle, “the power that wants you to talk, that wants you to be someone.” You must have a social role in the Spectacle, you must be recognizable and clearly distinct so as to be better classified in its shows, magazines, soap operas, social scenes–its theater of masks. As Biopower and the Spectacle’s control grew more total in scope and effect throughout the course of the 20th century, the Bloom had to survive and adapt. It had to exist with the bombardments of the radio, the television, advertisements, moral duties, mandatory military service, and the conditions in modern factories.

But soon, the Bloom caused the strategies of Biopower to shift. Too many people concentrated together would produce too much resistance. The common ground had to be pulled out from under the Bloom. The workplace had to be diffused, more and more had to become automated, and the workers had to be stripped of their collective power. By being made easily replaceable and anonymous, workers fell deeper into the grips of Biopower. At the same time, the worker became disinterested in crumbling truths regarding living wages, job security, and fair employment. All ties the Bloom once had to economy started to fade, and are still fading.

KEEP A GOOD FACE, before the domain of ruins.

-Tiqqun

The Bloom is forced to fixate on certain social roles in order to survive. Worker, housewife, professional, student, citizen, all of the roles are but masks, donned and rarely removed. The Bloom must remain positive while wearing these masks, ignoring its own power and sovereignty. “The Bloom is the masked nothing.” But underneath the mask is the pure potential of every person.

To catch a glimpse of one’s pure potential most often causes either fear or destructive elation. On one end, the fear invoked by one’s own freedom makes people cling ever more tightly to their masks. “At first I was lost without my cage,” said the canary. This produces the western hipster, the devotee of nothingness, the champion of the mask. Hipsters are neutralized beings, forever terrified of what they could do, might do, and will never do. “The hipster is the Bloom who offers himself to the world as a bearable form of life, and in order to do so forces himself into a strict discipline of lies.” The hipster is a finished being, “ever-already disappeared, ever-already forgotten.”

On the other end, the intoxication of one’s own freedom, finally experienced, causes the Bloom to lash out, to affirm its power as the ability to kill and destroy. The school shooters, the cop killers, “the maniacs of nothing,” expend themselves asserting their sovereignty over the systems which once dominated them. The book references the Columbine shooters and children killing their parents as examples of these eruptions of pure potential as death. But the authors stress that their “aim is not to lend an ordinary revolutionary signification to such acts, and hardly to confer an exemplary category to them. Instead, we wish to understand the way they express fatality and to seize upon it so as to explore the depths of the Bloom. Whomever follows that view will see that the Bloom is NOTHING, but that this NOTHING is the nothing of sovereignty, the emptiness of pure power.”

One path leads to the nothingness of commercial society, the hipster. The other path leads to the nothingness of death. The authors of The Theory Of Bloom suggest a different path, one which leads to neither death or perdition, but towards the “strategic community of the Invisible Committee.”

At the conclusion of The Theory Of Bloom, the positive objectives of the Invisible Committee are elaborated. After having taken the reader through an erratic genealogy of western literature, religion, philosophy, and capitalism, the authors lay out their prescription. They ask the reader to not “merely struggle against the dominant schizoid state, against our schizoid state, but to begin there.” By making use of our dual natures of public and private, of worker and party animal, of criminal and model citizen, we are to “coordinate in silence a sabotage of grand style.”

Only those who know the meaning that they will give to the catastrophe retain calmness and precision in their movements. By the type and the proportions of panic to which a spirit allows itself to go, one can tell one’s rank.

-Tiqqun

The goal for the reader is to understand the context and significance of their situation, to not run in terror from their pure potential, their total freedom. They recommend experimentation, massive experimentation in which the reader detaches themselves from their detachment “using a conscious, strategical practice of dual self.” In this way, one becomes part of the Imaginary Party, the anonymous sea of actors who cannot help but hinder the movements of civilization. But rather than be a hipster or a school shooter, the agents of the Invisible Committee move anonymously through their environs, composing strategically within a collapsing system, refusing to be frozen in popular culture or sacrificed to the Spectacle as a psychotic killer.

To embrace the Bloom in oneself is “the practical experience of the self as trickster.” Everything which exists in the world of the Spectacle and Biopower can be utilized but must never be embraced or championed. It is all at our disposal, every bit of it, ready to be re-appropriated. “To not only survive in the constant immanence of a miraculous departure, to not merely force oneself to believe in the job that one does, in the lies that one tells, but to begin from there, to enter into contact with other agents of the Invisible Committee.” The Invisible Committee is “an openly secret society, a public conspiracy…the name of which is everywhere and the headquarters nowhere.” All defectors, all deserters, all escape artists can take part in the “inassignable plan” of the infiltration of every echelon of society. The book ends by telling the reader, very simply, to leave the rank “without appearing to.” The authors tell the reader when to do this. NOW.

“In the metropolis, man purely undertakes the trial of his negative condition. Finitude, solitude and display, which are the three fundamental coordinates of that condition, weave the decor of the existence of each within the grand village. Not the fixed decor, but the moving decor, the combinational decor of the grand village, for which everybody endures the icy stench of their non-places. ”

-Tiqqun

It is very difficult to synthesize the various conclusions in this book. All I have done here is present a few of their main points. The book itself, according the Junius Frey, the author of the books intro, does not act like a book. It is what he calls an “editorial virus” which “exposes the principle of incompleteness, the fundamental insufficiency that is in the foundation of the published work.” It is not meant to leave the reader feeling satisfied as they would be with a book they could read on the beach and then throw away. It is meant to bring the reader to a position where their withdrawal from its conclusions “can no longer be neutral. ”

The Theory of Bloom is a very dangerous book, filled with warnings against fascism, laziness and stagnation. It describes our era as one whose defining characteristics are display, finitude, and solitude. We display ourselves to each other because it the only way to be seen. We are finite beings, forever sealed off from each other, only able to display our masks in a grand masquerade. And we are all alone, solitary, stumbling over each other when the dance is over and the masks have grown uncomfortable. In times of decadence, people get to the bottom of things, growing disgusted and tired with their masks. We are all orbiting around the gravity of our potential power, unsure of and afraid to use it. But that power is not something which only one group may access. Fascism is simply another response to glimpsing ones power, ones pure potential. Fascism is the mass-experience of freedom as death. It is a very real, ever present danger.

The book is terrifying in its simplicity, nearly overwhelming in its descriptions of modern culture. The fact that it was written over a decade ago is a testament to the resonance it still carries within it. There are dozens of passages describing familiar scenes which still hold true today and are no less potent because of their age. This book is one of the main keys to the two volumes of Tiqqun and the later work of the Invisible Committee, The Coming Insurrection. It holds everything which was to come later, and contains to seeds of what is still to be sown. This book should be read and read again.

Evidently, it has no other end but devastating this world; this is even its destiny, but it will never say so. Because its strategy is to produce the disaster, and around it, silence.

-Tiqqun

Frequently Asked Questions

1. What is civil conversation?

The fact that this has to be stated explicitly speaks to the way in which "new media" is actually bad media for many people. Something to avoid rather than to participate in. Radical content attracts people who are marginal and that is a pleasure and a curse. A curse because every attempt at having a certain kind of conversation (in this context we will call it a building-idea kind) can be disrupted by nonsense. A pleasure because the place where people are starting the conversations can be enlightening.

1. What is civil conversation?

The fact that this has to be stated explicitly speaks to the way in which "new media" is actually bad media for many people. Something to avoid rather than to participate in. Radical content attracts people who are marginal and that is a pleasure and a curse. A curse because every attempt at having a certain kind of conversation (in this context we will call it a building-idea kind) can be disrupted by nonsense. A pleasure because the place where people are starting the conversations can be enlightening.

The Anvil will enforce civil conversation by the subjective view of the editors. This probably means that we will use Drupal to "unpublish" comments that are shrill in tenor. We will try to keep the critical "meta" conversation about site procedure off the pages where we are having the conversations that this site is actually about…

Contestation. Transgression. Engagement.

2. What is a review essay?

We would like to believe this is a wide open category that includes poetry about something that was inspiring and an angry rant against something infuriating. Most commonly we expect a readable, informed, article by someone who is arguing as if they have something at stake.

Criticism has, for too long, been something that is either seen as something that people do in university or only do with their enemies. We are trying to create a place where we can talk about the things that we care in a way that honors how complex our feelings often are.

3. How do I submit my writing?

You can use the form on the lower right hand site (Create Content) or send an email to anvil@theanvilreview.org. Either way is safe but email is faster and can provide some way for us to have a dialogue about the content before it is posted.

4. Print? Is it dead?

Yes and no. Print is not financially sustainable and isn’t going to be for the forseeable future for interesting content BUT it is the intention of The Anvil to release a print edition every 3-6 months anyway. How will we do it? Excellent question. We will probably offer subscriptions and a couple of generous doners to get started… but that chapter has yet to be written.