The subject of my sermon today will be Motörhead, and, as may be deduced from my title, herein I will also be concerned with the topic of genre. When Motörhead began putting out records, there was often a bit of confusion as to whether they should be shelved as punk or heavy metal, but the …
In 1960 the Japanese author Yukio Mishima wrote the horribly beautiful story “Patriotism.” There is no possibility of ‘spoilers’ in this review, because it is announced on the first page that this is the story of the ritual suicide (‘seppuku’) of one lieutenant Shinji Takeyama (and we are also told, almost as an afterthought, of the accompanying suicide of his wife Reiko). The action of the story takes place in 1936. In a nutshell, the lieutenant has just been informed of a failed mutiny against the Emperor, to whom he is loyal, that was perpetrated by men to whom he is also loyal. He knows he will be called upon to suppress the mutiny and fight and kill his erstwhile comrades, an untenable situation. Fortunately, his culture provides him with a way to deal honorably with untenable situations—seppuku.
The entire story takes place in Takeyama’s home, and involves the preparations he and his wife make to end their lives; their rather intense relations leading up to the act, in which everything is done by the book, as it were, but there is still plenty of room for passion and steamy sex; and, of course, the grisly act itself, which is described unflinchingly, without romanticizing the mechanics of the thing or the necessary human frailty involved in carrying it out. The story has been quite aptly described by a friend of mine as “fascist pornography.” It is told without any irony or attempts to undermine the motives or honor of its characters; in fact, Mishima was to commit seppuku himself ten years after writing the story. The general feeling conveyed is a sort of grim exaltation in the face of fate.
This month I want to say a few words about Thomas Ligotti, an author of short stories in the horror genre. This is not a genre I am particularly well-versed in; although I have been since my teenage years a huge H.P. Lovecraft aficionado, and am reasonably familiar with a lot of the Weird Tales-era pulp material that formed Lovecraft’s milieu as well as some of his literary progenitors like Poe, Machen and Blackwood, I don’t really have much of a sense for horror as a genre, and am almost entirely ignorant of late 20th century and current manifestations of the medium. I have read very little Stephen King, no Clive Barker, and am not even sure what other names are important enough to horror that my ignorance of them is relevant to this review. Thus, I am not capable of analyzing and contextualizing Ligotti’s work in a way that would be attentive to the larger thematic and stylistic conversation he doubtless sees himself as taking part in, or of writing a review that would satisfy a real fan of horror.
If one function of ideology is to make things that have a history appear natural, then perhaps ‘nature’ is the ideological concept par excellance. On the other hand, if ideology forms a distorted or deceptive image of the real, something like nature is an indispensable correlate to ideology, without which a critique of the latter would be meaningless. This ambivalence is inherent to the concept of nature; for all the conceptual pairings it seems to so naturally elicit—nature/culture, nature/civilization, nature/artifice, nature/humanity—it refuses to be limited to one side of a pair. Nature, as much as ‘nature,’ is the ultimate colonizing force: it appears where it is least expected, even—I should say especially—when it was thought to have been banished. Not only is this as true of nature as it is of ‘nature’; more, the seemingly obvious distinction here between the reality and the concept of nature is dangerously unstable. Nothing is more natural than the unnatural.
“You’ve got to keep the bluegrass music pure.” Thus spake Bill Monroe, or words to that effect. It was late in his career when he said this, no doubt; late enough that bluegrass was already considered a more or less distinct genre of music, and Monroe had become known as its “father”; late enough that he’d finished fiddling with electric guitars and pianos on some of his recordings, so that the style had become codified as string band music played by guitar, bass, banjo, fiddle, and Monroe’s instrument, mandolin (although some bands would include dobro, an instrument Monroe hated, but which became more or less the semi-official sixth bluegrass instrument thanks mostly to Flatt and Scruggs, whom Monroe for a long time also hated). The message was clear: bluegrass was, and is, a fundamentally conservative style of music. Unlike Jazz, where innovation is often privileged, bluegrass is a genre that must be maintained as it is, and innovation is often tantamount to corruption. Never mind the aforementioned guitars and pianos (and, once, even seagulls); even though most of the first generation of bluegrass musicians even recorded with drums once in a while, today they are banned from the stage of most bluegrass festivals. Not just frowned on—literally banned.
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.