Thursday, April 16, 2020

Twin Peaks ACTUALLY EXPLAINED (Not Really)

With the whole of our realm under lockdown due to a sickness that is spreading, I found myself at last with time enough to devote to the 275 minutes of the YouTube video Twin Peaks ACTUALLY EXPLAINED(No, Really), which had garnered some respect and, of course, plenty of hate in fandomland. I didn't watch it in one stretch, but fortunately the theorist named Rosseter (according to the description, he doesn't introduce himself) is methodical enough that it's easy to pick up again an hour, or a day, later. I'll say a bit about Rosseter's theory before getting on to a mostly (but not entirely) rehash of my own.

Rosseter makes a good case for a rather lackluster theory, that Twin Peaks is a parable demonstrating that the banality of television is rotting our brains. And he might be right. Or at least, he's not entirely right and he's not entirely wrong. Twin Peaks is certainly at least in part “a show about the concept of television,” as he says. One need point to no further evidence than the mirror serial Invitation to Love in the first run of the show. The first two seasons (or season and a half, if you prefer) are clearly Lynch's critique of television in much the same way that his brilliant Inland Empire is a critique of Hollywood. But both of those explanations are pretty disappointing. The realms Lynch created in those two stories are far too fertile to be explained away that easily. So why leave it there? A critique of television may have been the starting point for Twin Peaks, but it wasn’t the end game. It might have been Lynch's code, but it’s not the story he wrote with the code.

Lynch clearly loves to make stuff. He lets his subconscious drive his creation (or certainly seems to, anyway). He is motivated by dreams, meditation, myth and symbolism. He loves the editing process and does not feel compelled to make strict sense. These seem obvious to me. It's not hard to imagine him abandoning a linear narrative thread in favor of something that suggests a strong but unclear connection of plot or visual elements.

That's where I'm coming from in this response that Rosseter triggered. I'm not going to try to pull his YouTube seminar apart. It's fun to watch and only occasionally belabored. Disagreeing with other people’s ideas is instructive, and after all, there are no wrong theories except for some of them. Twin Peaks is remarkably fertile ground for theorizing. It's a fantastically blank, and busy, canvas. Equally well-delineated theories have been posited, for example, suggesting that the whole story is about petroleum dependence. As FBI Deputy Director Gordon Cole (portrayed in Twin Peaks by Lynch) tells us more than once, it's all very interesting to think about. I'm more interested, however, in making the narrative work than unpacking the symbolism.

I write this with full awareness that I'm overlooking the crucial contributions of Mark Frost, who was often responsible for providing what narrative there was to the tale. I don’t do that to discount his involvement, but the enigma of Twin Peaks is the enigma of Lynch. It’s his yarn that wants unraveling, although the truly epic piece of storytelling is to both of their credit.

* * * 

Food is interesting; For instance, why do we need to eat? Why are we never satisfied with just the right amount of food to maintain good health and proper energy? We always seem to want more and more. When eating too much the proper balance is disturbed, and ill health follows. Of course, eating too little food throws the balance off in the opposite direction, and there is the ill health coming at us again.

Balance is the key. Balance is the key to many things. Do we understand balance? The word 'balance' has seven letters. Seven is difficult to balance, but not impossible – we are able to divide. There are, of course, the pros and cons of division.
— Margaret Lancaster (“The Log Lady”), introduction to Episode 15

The first thing I want to suggest is that in understanding the multiple realms of Twin Peaks, it's best to give up preconceptions of right and wrong. This isn’t to say that there’s no such thing as good or bad, but that taking a stance of moral relativism helps to understand the layers of complexity at work. What’s acceptable among insects, for example, doesn’t play among people. Twin Peaks is a story about entities who shouldn't be interacting.

The different sorts of entities depicted in Twin Peaks inhabit different realms and, in some cases, can traverse realms. Their realms have different mores, different codes of conduct, different moralities. Those realms used to be separate; a being from one realm stayed in that realm. But that was before the walls came down, the membranes were torn, the atoms were smashed. In 1945, a force was released on Earth that violated the laws of all realms. It was something manmade, something which should not have existed in any realm and which in a flash existed in them all. With the detonation of the atomic bomb, some entities saw and seized the ability to move between realms. Some found ways to use that ability for their own benefit. Others began working to restore an imbalance created by beings from one realm taking what they could from another.

In Season 1, we meet BOB and MIKE, two such realm-traversing entities. MIKE had once been in league with BOB as a sort of realm-traversing pirate until he saw the errors in his ways. In Season 3, we see MIKE working to restore the balance. The Fireman (as he is named in Season 3) is another such entity concerned with righting the imbalance.

At the end of Season 2, Cooper is shown entering the Waiting Room, where he remains for 25 years. When he leaves, it is not as the human he was when he entered. (One doesn't leave the rooms between realms the same person they went in as. Phillip Jeffries sure didn't.) As a Lodge entity, Cooper has gained the ability to travel between realms. His re-entry is by no means simple, but I'm only considering the Cooper of the final episodes of Season 3. The beings manufactured by lodge entities are a different matter, but not one that contradicts the premise here.

Having gained the ability to traverse realms, Cooper (at the end of Season 3) goes rogue. He begins acting outside of the norms of the realm he is in, and does so for personal gain. The gains Cooper seeks are more relatable to us than those sought by BOB, seeing as Cooper (still) has the drives of a person of our realm. BOB’s drives are germaine to his realm and are, to us, barbaric. Cooper's drives are (what we see as) heroic. He is compelled to be perfect, to never do or never have done wrong. He uses the power he gains through the Lodge in an effort to satisfy that drive, to rearrange the world so that he won't be responsible for the deaths of Caroline Earle, Annie Blackburn and Laura Palmer. Because Dale Cooper is a hero. He saves women. He doesn't let them die. From a moral-neutral perspective, however, Cooper is no better than BOB. This is key, I think, to putting Twin Peaks into perspective. Good and bad are relative. Cooper and BOB both act outside their realms to satisfy inner drives. Cooper is no better than BOB.

By destroying BOB at the end of Season 3 (in what might be my least favorite visual sequences of the TP/FWWM/TP:TR trilogy), Cooper is attempting to kill himself, or at least he is acting out of the compulsion to kill himself, but his own drives overwhem that act and he goes on to create “bad” by doing “good,” by interfering with the reality of the town of Twin Peaks, WA. To borrow a line from the movie Network, he is meddling with the primal forces of nature. He (apparently) saves Laura from being killed, but trips a timeline in which she (Laura Palmer/Carrie Page) is a killer. He falls into a different realm, because the divisions between realms are breaking down. And despite the fact that Cooper is (still?) a law enforcement agent, he ignores the fact that she apparently has been involved in a murder. He ignores the corpse in her living room because he has his own agenda. It's more important to him to save her (Laura) from being killed than to get involved in the killing (note: of a man) that she (Carrie) seems to be implicated in. He doesn't so much as ask a question about it. Cooper wants (he doesn't need, he wants) to be the hero that saves Laura. Carrie the killer gets in the way of Laura the innocent, so he only acknowledges the part of Carrie that might be Laura.

* * *

Here's the cop-out that makes my take on Twin Peaks undisprovable: All of the realms exist. All possibilities are real. Why are there so many inconsistencies in what we're shown? Why does Diane send a text in all caps but Mr. C. receives it in lower case? Because both of those sequences happened. The walls between realms are breaking down as a result of the atom bomb explosion and subsequent bombs that literally broke apart the fundamentals of existence.

So, then, there's a realm where Laura's mother takes off her face and kills would-be rapists with a bite to the neck? Well, maybe. But there's a meta-explanation that I like better. Some academics have suggested that the depiction of Hindu gods with multiple arms or animal heads wasn't intended as a literal depiction but was a way of showing that their greatness was beyond our comprehension, that it was as if they had eight arms or the head of an elephant. Certainly there was a thread of Hindu thought and influence throughout Twin Peaks, one of the many belief systems drawn upon in the storyline. Maybe there are certain things in the story that are too horrible, too incomprehensible, to be shown. Maybe. In any event, it's all very interesting to think about.

There's so much symbology in Twin Peaks that once you commit yourself to a theory, you can pick and choose from hundreds of pieces of evidence in order to prove it. Twin Peaks is television and it's petroleum. This isn't the problem with the series, it's the fun of it. It's the brilliance of it. All theories become true in the symbiology of the symbolism. Twin Peaks is the water and it's the well. It's both the white of the eye and the dark within. How you see it is what it is. 


Wednesday, June 12, 2019

The Obey Convention’s Problems of Sense and Reference, Censorship and Deference

The essay that was previously posted here can now be found at Quillette.

I removed it under agreement with Quillette, which wanted to repost it and wanted exclusive rights to the text. After being assured that I would have approval over their final copy, I agreed to the arrangement.

In the week since it was reposted, I have had my motives questioned, both in private messages and on social media. I have been called a “Nazi” for being associated with that outlet, or at least have been told that other people would or had thought I am a Nazi, which strikes me as a cowardly way of saying the same thing.

I want to address the altogether mundane reasons why a freelancer might accept payment for a piece of writing here. I also want to stress that I consider my statements here to be an unfortunate trifling in minutiae.

1. Quillette asked to repost it and didn't change anything other than some edits for clarity with my approval, which only improved the essay. So if anything, it's "my politics," not "theirs."

2. The essay as it was, on my rarely used blog, had reached critical mass. Few people were likely to see it who hadn't already, which is maybe fine, but when they offered to put it on front of another audience, why say no?

3. Before putting it on my blog, I offered the essay to a fairly well known new music publication (not the Wire, for whom I was reviewing the festival). They replied that they don't want a response to the incident written by a white male—never mind that I was actually there. Two others also turned it down.

4. Covering a music festival is rarely a break-even affair; Let's not speak of actually making money for my efforts. I knew I would lose money covering the Obey Festival, but I thought it would be a nice trip for my wife and myself. The festival did buy me a plane ticket (1) and gave my wife and I tickets to all of the concerts. There were a couple of other “perks” offered which didn’t materialize. What Quillette paid me more or less covered the unanticipated expenses while we were in Halifax.

5. While Quillette might be a conservative outlet, it isn’t exclusively so. According to a story in Politico, "It’s not as though [founding editor Claire] Lehmann wants an echo chamber, either. 'I want to give more of a platform for people on the left who are in support of liberal values,' she says.”

After the attacks on composer Mary Jane Leach outlined in my essay (which can still be found at the link above) by the lefties of Halifax, I certainly feel no allegiance to them. Likewise, I feel no allegiance to people on the left who want to call me a “Nazi” (for God’s sake!) because of articles that might appear on the same site as my own writing.

Frankly, I'm getting tired of this whole affair.

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Sleep sound, Hardy Fox

I've got a story to tell—a story about a man who was a key part of telling so many stories to so many people. I think it's OK for me to tell it now.

It was October, 2006. a publicist from the Museum of Modern Art got in touch with me. The museum was adding the video works of theResidents to the permanent collection and he wanted me to write something to help promote the occasion. I jokingly responded that I would do so only if he could get me an interview with the band. To my surprise, he said he'd see what he could do.

I didn't expect anything to happen, not really. The guy sounded (understandably enough) more like a publicist than a fan, and I suspected he didn’t know that the band members’ identities were a closely guarded secret and that they didn’t do interviews. They left the talking to their management, the so-called “Cryptic Corporation.” My initial surprise was goosed a couple of weeks later when he called me and said the band was at the museum and if I could get there immediately, he’d introduce me.

I didn’t ask any questions. I ran outside and got a cab. When I got to the museum, however, he stammered and apologized and explained to me that he’d misunderstood, and that it was representatives of the band who were available. He introduced me to Hardy Fox and I promptly got the game. Standing before me was a Resident.

We sat in the museum’s screening room where a selection of the band’s landmark videos would be shown that night and chatted at length. He was pleasant and easy going. I asked him everything I could think to ask, all the while trying to keep my scalp from blowing off and wondering what I was going to do with this prized information, at that time still not known to most fans.

And that’s when I got the game at a deeper level. There was no reason to reveal that Hardy was a Resident. It was like, I reasoned, how in the ’70s all the rock mags had photos of the members of KISS (masked contemporaries of the Residents, oddly enough) without their makeup on but none would run them. What would be the point? Why ruin the game? So instead I held on to my little secret.

A couple of years later—again in October, as it happens—I got the chance to interview Fox again, this time on WFMU. I asked him questions about the band and he answered graciously and at length. I knew we were talking about him, not his clients, and I suspect he knew that I knew, but why say anything? When you’re in the chocolate factory, you respect Mr. Wonka’s rules.

Mr. Fox was responsible for most of the sounds of the band’s many iconoclastic records, increasingly so as time marched on. He helped to forge a conception of mutant pop that inspired countless others. With the Residents, he crafted a mutant meta-rock, pillaging and wreaking havoc upon beloved hits of the ’60s. The band was often at the forefront of new technologies, and evolved into one of the most unusual and enigmatic storytelling troupes in the history of audio recording technology. But over the span of five decades, they stayed true to their vision. Had they only released a few singles—a cover of Hank Williams’ “Kaw-Liga,” for example, or Elvis Presley’s “Don’t Be Cruel,” or Ray Charles' "Hit the Road Jack," or James Brown’s “It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World,” or the Rolling Stones’ “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction,” or the Beatles’ “Flying”—and disappeared, they would have been a clever novelty. But instead, they deeply mined an aesthetic, and continue to do so. They didn’t just make an artistic statement, they stomped one out.

Fox quit the band a few years ago and subsequently outed himself as both gay and a Resident. He wrote stories and continued to make music. And then, on September 22, his website and Facebook profile were updated to read “1945-2018.” In keeping with his and the band’s macabre humor, it didn’t mean that he’d died, but that he expected to before 2019. He had brain cancer, it turned out, and had just weeks to live.

And on the day before Halloween, it was announced that he was gone, first in an email coming from his account and then in an official announcement from the Cryptic Corporation. Because why die on Halloween? The Residents always managed to stop short of the obvious.  

Thanks for all the weirdness, Hardy. 

 Crying eyeball graphic by Monika Weiss.

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Taking Tusk to Task

Not so long ago, as happens, I was in a Facebook debate about something I neither knew much nor cared much about. I won’t say with whom because I don’t want to mischaracterize his position. I don’t even remember what side he was on. But he certainly knows about music, which can often be a problem.

The debate—which involved a number of middle-aged know-it-alls, not just myself—was about the relative merits and ups and downs over the career span of Fleetwood Mac.

People—dudes, mostly—who know about music know well the Correct Fleetwood Mac Position (CFMP). According to CFMP, the band’s best period was in the 1960s, when they were a British blues band. When they met up with Californians Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks and became enormously popular, so goes CFMP, it all went downhill.

All-knowing music dudes (AKMDs) will tell you it was because of the influence of then-couple Buckingham and Nicks, but I would suggest that the AKMD perspective is tainted by the “enormously popular” part of the equation. AKMD’s are all too often incapable of admitting, for example, that Miley Cyrus has a fantastic singing voice or that Justin Timberlake has some tight jams. Some AKMD’s can’t even bring themselves to enjoy The Beatles or Prince, although they’ll say they recognize what’s good about it, because they simply cannot like music with broad popular appeal.

Fleetwood Mac started as a good—sometimes great—band in the mold of a bunch of other British blues bands in the 1960s and, in the 1970s, transformed into a band making music not quite like anything anyone had made before and playing it with remarkable musicianship. And remarkable musicianship and innovative music are what AKMD’s ordinarily flock toward. Unless it’s enormously popular, that is.

This wasn’t exactly what the Fleetwood Mac Facebook fight (FMFF) was about, but it is what I was thinking about at the time. And in that fight, I found myself defending not only the their 1977 album Rumours (which is just plainly obvious) but also the follow-up, 1979’s Tusk. It was only upon further reflection that I realized I don’t really know Tusk. I mean, I think I do, but I asked myself when was the last time I heard it. I’ve never owned a copy. I think I heard it, or at least some of it, from my cousin Chloe when it came out. I think I read a review that said it was their "White Album" and that must have impressed me terribly as a youth hungry for conventional wisdom. [Rolling Stone’s review, it turns out, read “Like The White Album, Tusk is less a collection of finished songs than a mosaic of pop-rock fragments by individual performers."] I remember looking at the record cover at the store and wanting it, but it was a double album! $15.98 was a serious investment at the time—and then the time was gone.

I asked in the wake of that FFMF myself what songs I could name off of the album. Not even call to memory, just name. Well, there’s the title track, of course, which I will always love, but the only other song I could come up with was “Sara,” and once I realized I was singing Hall and Oates’ “Sara Smile” in my head I couldn’t come up with the Fleetwood Mac melody. On an album with 20 songs, an album I was defending as great, I could remember exactly one. That’s five percent. That’s a nickel. That’s nothing. Apparently, I just like the idea of defending Tusk.

So, on Thanksgiving night, 2017, with the apartment to myself, I sat down to listen to Tusk, discs one through three of the 2015 remastered “Deluxe Edition” reissue, on Spotify: the entire set of songs thrice over in original and alternate takes, demos and remixes. (The last two discs in the set are recordings from the 1979-80 tour and contain material from other albums so they were excluded from this listening session.)

The first thing I discovered was that the song “Tusk” does not kick off the album, as it did in my memory. No, it’s the second to last song on the fourth side. At the same moment I discovered “Again and Again” is actually the lead-off song, a huge and enjoyable hit. The second thing I discovered is that, well, it all sounds like Fleetwood Mac. It was all familiar, pleasant, likeable, and certainly Christine McVie’s “Again and Again” and “Think About Me” and Nicks’ “Sara” (oh, right, that’s how it goes) were happy memories, but song after song passed me by like a gentle stream. That is, until a pair of Buckingham songs in the middle of what would have been side two.

Fleetwood Mac was a remarkably talented outfit. The rhythm section of Mick Fleetwood and John McVie pounds without letting you know they’re pounding. Christine McVie brings a welcome maturity (not in age but in wisdom) to the songwriting while Nicks is the obvious allure but let’s face it, her presence necessitates McVie as a ballast. A band with Nicks as the only woman would be pretty hard to take, almost as bad as Jefferson/Jefferson Airplane/Starship/Starship. But Lindsey Buckingham, with his electric finger-picking and his under-control fury, is what puts the band above and beyond such cocaine-fueled yacht-rock compadres as Ambrosia, America, Orleans and the Eagles.

The one-two Buckingham punch of “That’s All for Everyone” and “Not That Funny” was the first time I felt glad to be listening to the record, for what I now felt like was maybe the first time. The songs aren’t up there with his contributions to Rumours  (“The Chain,” “Go Your Own Way”), but they’re intelligent, enjoyable pop. Side two ends with “Sisters of the Moon,” a great Nicks song. Or is it just great because it’s on the heels of the Buckingham double shot? No, it’s great and it’s on the heels of a Buckingham double shot. Fleetwood Mac is all about chemistry and pop albums—at least back when they were sold on physical media—are all about sequencing.

Nicks holds fast, kicking off side three with “Angel,” a song that seems to be about losing an angel but that she sings with such defiance you know she’ll find another. Then there’s a toss-away, two-minute Buckingham country stomp and then a pair of McVie songs. Why is it so hard to love McVie’s songs? Was the band toying with us by setting up the gypsy and the matron, so that when we get the latter we are left wanting the former? Unfair, I know, and I almost always like her songs whereas I can hate a Stevie Nicks song. Even “Don’t Stop,” her biggest song and likely the band’s best-known song, doesn’t hook in a way that can’t be unhooked. I was intrigued by the Buckingham/McVie record that came out last year. I excitedly listened to it once (via, I believe, an NPR stream), extolled its virtues on social media and never listened again. So, yeah, a pair of McVie songs. I’m sorry, Christine. I’d like to like you more than I do. And then a forgettable Buckingham song. They happen. More than occasionally. And from there the album kind of goes limp again. Until the second to last song. Ahhhhh… the second to last song.

The album’s titular and penultimate track opens with an indifferent crowd vacillating, wavering. It’s mysterious—are we at a concert? a party? a train station?—but we can’t focus long enough to consider the question because our thoughts are flattened by pounding drums. “Tusk” (the song) picks up from the reprise of the Beatles “Strawberry Field Forever” and gave us Gwen Stefani’s “Hollaback Girl” (another song that AKMD could never admit is good) and then it’s gone. Three minutes, thirty-eight seconds, right in the ballpark for a pop song, but no matter how many times you hear it, you can’t get to it. It’s as impactful as it is ethereal. It was an unlikely hit single (#8 in the U.S., #6 in the U.K.) in a particularly unstable year for popular music.

Leaving it there wouldn’t have worked. Nothing on the album anticipates it, there’s no real right place to put it, but putting it last would have been selling us a beat bag. McVie’s “Never Forget” cradles us in its arms in the way she’s so good at. It’s just a pop album, she says, we’re just a pop band. Don’t worry about who’s hurting whom (she would, of course, know the proper usage of who and whom). We’ll all be fine, yourself included.

The deluxe edition reissue doesn’t add much more than minutes to the album. There’s multiple versions of “Tusk” as well as Buckingham’s “I Know I’m Not Wrong,” and we get the unreleased slightly-punkish-in-a-Richard-Thompson-sort-of-way Buckingham tune “Out On the Road.” But more is rarely better and it isn’t here. 

Rumours sold 10 million copies in the year after its release. Tusk sold 4 million in its first year. It was reportedly the all-time biggest sales decrease from one album to the next. But sales figures are unimportant. The question is, do I still want to defend Tusk now that I know what I’m defending? Well, I will argue that listening to the 70s version of Fleetwood Mac, listening closely, is a joy, even when the songs aren’t great. Pick a song and pick an instrument to follow. I guarantee you’ll be surprised at what you never noticed before. That doesn’t make it a masterpiece, but it does make for a band that can sustain the years.