Utopian Turtletop. Monsieur Croche's Bête Noire. Contact: turtletop [at] hotmail [dot] com

Sunday, May 14, 2006

The 3rd tallest building in Chicago -- after the Sears & the Hancock -- is the Standard Oil Building, and in one way it’s the most striking of the three: it’s gleaming white.

Between 1984 and 1988 I wrote 6 plays which my friends and I produced, 5 short plays included in evenings of many short plays, and one full-length musical. My first 3 short plays I still like (in memory), the next one was all in rhyme and not so good (the first one had been all-rhyme too, until a long non-sequitur monologue that concluded it). My fifth play was full-length -- a musical. I haven’t read any of them in more than 15 years, but I have fond (and some not-so-fond) memories of the script of the musical, and I still sing a couple songs from it.

Then the company moved from college town Ann Arbor to Big Theater City Chicago, and I wrote one more short play before I quit writing them -- a play about the Standard Oil Building.

In the play, the architect is trying to give the building a hand job, because if it would come it would make the whole city feel good. I played the title role -- the Ghost of Electricity, which was: exhaust from burning oil. My costume was a white sheet. There was a chorus of Founding Fathers who spoke all in rhyme. I never learned anything about the building
s real-world architect, not even his name (I presume the architect was male), but in my play the planned hand-job didn’t pan out, and he was crushed. I remember the play fondly.

It was our first production in Chicago, and the evening of 6 plays or so got a generally good review, though my play got panned. The next production, the last I acted in, was the company’s 1st Chicago full-length, and it got raves, and the company’s been kicking out the jams to great critical success ever since.

A funny aftermath to my writing a play ridiculing the giant white phallus of Standard Oil on the Lake Michigan shore: once the play was over, I liked the building! So white and gleaming and phallic! So ingenuously self-parodic! And what’s so bad about a gleaming white phallus anyway!

A similar thing happened to me this week: After dragging the Rolling Stones and especially Mick Jagger through the rhetorical mud in among the thousands of words of comments to this 38-word post, I now really like the Stones again -- even Mick!

I looked for my Stones records but found that I had sold them -- “Some Girls” and an Italian import of early stuff, on vinyl. I heard a couple fave oldies on the Oldies station the other day and liked them more than ever. And today I found a really cheap used copy of a post-’60s comp called “Rewind” and dug a lot of it -- not only the rhythm section and the riffs and guitar interplay, but the melodies and -- Mick. He certainly plays the jerk often enough in his songs, but he’s an interesting and engaging jerk when he’s being jerky, and often enough he’s just an interesting guy. And good singer.
I still can’t hear him without thinking of Bush, but like I said the other day, and like my good friend Jake said more clearly, that isn’t Mick’s fault. It’s just the way it is.

I looked up what a couple of my fave rockwriters had written about the Stones. It appears my wild-swinging opinions aren’t that wild: I stole them.
Take it away Robert Christgau, from his excellent 1998 essay collection Grown Up All Wrong:
Jagger’s petulance offends some people, who wonder how this whiner -- a perpetual adolescent at best -- can pretend to mean the adult words he sings. But that ignores the self-confidence that coexists with it -- Jagger’s very grown-up assurance not that he’ll get what he wants, but that he has every reason to ask for it.
The petulant, perpetually adolescent, entitled swagger -- that’s Bush all over. Christgau again:
Their sex was too often sexist, their expanded consciousness too often a sordid escape; their rebellion was rooted in impulse to the exclusion of all habits of sacrifice, and their relationship to fame had little to do with the responsibilities of leadership, or of allegiance. . . . All [Mick] wanted was to have his ego massaged by his public or bathed in luxurious privacy as his own whim dictated.
These attributes are partly Bush, partly not, but this phrase is pure Bush: “the exclusion of all habits of sacrifice” -- as well as the complete disregard of allegiance.

And regarding my confusion over the Stones’ class imagery/personae (which Jake, again, in comments, elucidated better than I did), Christgau agrees: “due partly to their own posturing, the Stones are often perceived as working-class, and that is a major distortion.” Note: Christgau uses the typical antithesis of “working class” to “middle class”; the Stones grew up middle class, and all of their parents had to work (Watts and Wyman grew up in blue-collar households).

Christgau loves the Stones: he argues that if you say you don’t like the Stones, it “is to boast that you don’t like rock and roll” -- very much like what Jody accused me of in the comments!

More Stones commentary, from Nik Cohn’s wonderful 1969 book Rock from the Beginning, the first rock book I loved and still a fave:
In one way, though, the Rolling Stones were a breakthrough: they acted just as mean off-stage as on. Elvis, say, might have been sexual and slimy in a spotlight, but at any other time he loved his mother, his country, and his God. The Stones weren’t like that -- the looked mean, talked mean, and they were mean. They were revolt in the crudest, most vicious style possible, and they were loved like that, they caught fire. . . . Really, the Stones were quite major liberators: they stirred up a whole new mood of teen arrogance.
Again, the imagery of adolescent arrogance. I don’t know about you, but that sounds like Bush to me.

Cohn is more explicit about the Stones’s class masquerading and about their misogyny than Christgau would be years later:
There were some fierce songs written, cruel, and the girls in them caught solid hell, were put down and hit and discarded like total trash. The dominant fantasy had the singer as randy working class, surly and always dissatisfied, cold, entirely ruthless, who picked up debs like dust, loved to make them break.
The sex angle isn’t Bush, but “surly, cold, entirely ruthless” -- yeah man.

Cohn was 22 when he wrote his book, and he loved the Stones: “They are my favorite group. They always have been.” Is it significant that two of my favorite rock critics pick the Stones as their beloved archetypal rock band despite complete cognizance of their sexism? What does that say about rock and roll? What does it say about me that these guys are two of my favorites?

Clearly, some of the stuff is generational, and just doesn’t translate completely any more.
[T]he Stones had a wild stage act, . . . they put on the best pop show I ever saw: final bonanza, hysterical and violent and sick but always stylized, always full of hype, and Jagger shaped up genuinely as a second Elvis, as heroic and impossible as that.
I officially get off the bus here. Elvis is Elvis. None of the ‘60s white rockers come close to him as a singer, certainly not Mick.

My friend John de Roo, who hipped me to Cohn’s book when we were teen-age rock and rollers together, wrote to remind me that Mick’s persona is about sex. Cohn agrees:
And then Mick Jagger: he had lips like bumpers, red and fat and shiny, and they covered his face. He looked like an updated Elvis Presley, in fact, skinny legs and all, and he moved like him, so fast and flash he flickered. When he came on out, he went bang. He’d shake his hair all down in his eyes and dance like a whitewash James Brown; he flapped those tarpaulin lips and, grotesque, he was all sex.
I’ll probably hate the Stones again some time -- or at least Mick -- but right now I’m digging the band and having a giddy Standard Oil Building relationship with Mick’s singing. Yeah, he’s misogynist and petulant; oddly, I find myself liking the petulance.

It's all about anima, animus, and the shadow man. I wish I had a link to it, but Hannah Levin had a good article in the Stranger a while back trying to make sense out of how her feminism somehow manages to more or less co-exist with her love for big, dumb, macho (and often sexist) hard rock. I think she was conflicted about it for a while, but ultimately concluded in the article that it made more sense to just try and embrace the contradict and take the joy where she found it.

Hard to escape the shadow parts of ourselves. We're drawn to them, whether it be the positive attraction of the macho dude to the frilly femme girl, or the button pushing splendor of being outraged by someone else's behavior.

For as some 12 stepper evidentally once said: "if you spot it, you got it." I take that to mean that the things we find the most annoying in others are often the shadow parts of ourselves that we see reflected off of their actions.
Dude, what's up with you calling me petulant?

No, I think you're onto something. I've often noticed my utter irritation at someone doing something and then realizing, hey, I'm just like that, I do that thing too! Hadn't thought about it in terms of Mick & me before now, though. (Or me and Bush.) I'll think about it.

One thing that occurred to me today after posting: For Cohn and presumably others of his cohort, Mick's sneering attitude was liberatory. For me, much younger, Mick's sneer was already dominant by the time I was paying attention; J. Rotten's sneer was the contemporary liberatory move that I hooked up with in high school. That and the Loud Fast Hard of power-pop-punk like the Buzzcocks.

I also noticed that neither Cohn nor Christgau talk about Mick's attitude in terms of sneer -- his clearest affect, for me -- and I wonder whether that change in focus is generational too.
Could be. Also, just so it's clear, I wasn't calling you out personally with the comment above. Just talking in a more general way.

But I agree with this: I think the thing we lose from a distance is the way in which the pre-rebellion '50s and '60s had a lot of make nice hypocricy to them.

If the Topworld pre-rockism norm was to try and pretend that life was like all those '30s and '40s movies and musicals you like so much, then I suspect that anyone who came along, sneer or not, and basically said out loud in polite society "that's bullshit" was going to to greeted warmly by the many young people who were rapidly experiencing some heavy cognitive dissonance around the "make nice" fantasy.

It's easy to lose sight of just how sheltered a lot of middle and upper middle class white kids were in that time. Their parents had come up in the Depression. And they were hell bent on trying to erase that experience from their postwar reality (and that of their children). Sanatize it. Make it clean.

Do you think anyone has ever believed more in the textbook story of how America works than did the white middle and upper middle class core baby boomers born in the 1946-1953 period? I mean that's like the start of the most prosperous, self-aggrandizing period in the history of America (and perhaps in all of human history).

Can you imagine the sense of betrayal one would feel as you grow up and come to realize that the story you have been told doesn't nearly square with the facts? It certainly didn't surprise the many Red Diaper Babies who formed the core of the early New Left. Everyone else was well intentioned but in the dark. They'd had the civics lesson in school. They'd been told how democracy worked. And when they found out that in practice it didn't always work the way the textbook explained, they were outraged.

"Something's happening but you don't know what it is, do you Mr. Jones?"

Maybe the prosperity of the 1990s has brought a rebirth of some of this energy to the younger generatiion. But I can't imagine anyone who grew up in the 1970s being surprised by anything that happens in the America. I might not have been born cynical. But by the time Nixon had resigned in 1974, when I was what 11, I had already acquired a healthy dose of it, which I have carried with me ever since.

Mostly, I just sit around feeling thankful that things aren't even worse than they seem. And from that vantage point, things like Mick Jagger sneering seem pretty inconsequential.

But I can see how that symbolism might have had transgressive power at one time, even if it seems kind of tired 40 years after the fact.
Sorry -- I know you weren't calling me out -- I was trying to reply petulantly. For comic effect. I should have made that clearer!

Your observation about the affluence of the post-war period has a lot to do with how '60s rock happened in many many ways. From one perspective, the Doors, "We want the world and we want it now," sounds revolutionary, but coming from an American, there's nothing revolutionary about it at all. It's just American -- at the height of its hegemony.

Thanks, as always, for your comments.
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