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“Have you ever seen the crowd goin’ apeshit?” Beyoncé asks rhetorically, on the lead single that she and Jay-Z surprise-released last week, from their first collaborative album as The Carters. Sure. Who hasn’t? Later, she inverts the question, replacing ‘crowd’ with ‘stage,’ invoking the legendary madness of her live performances: if the audience was left wondering, Beyoncé gives a demonstration of “going apeshit” near the end of the video, violently shimmying and shaking in a flowing white gown, before the Nike of Samothrace, the winged but headless sculpture depicting the Greek goddess of victory. “She went crazy!” Jay-Z hollers during the breakdown, confirming firsthand just how apeshit Beyoncé is apt to go.
Most of us have an idea of what going apeshit means. But where did the term come from?
“Apeshit” was first officially observed in 1955 by the American Dialect Society’s quarterly journal, American Speech, as United States Air Force slang, meaning to “react in an irrational manner; go into a frenzy.” Apeshit appears again in Donald J. Plantz’s 1962 WWII pulp fiction novel, Sweeney Squadron: “If Captain Christiansen goes to base hospital,” Plantz writes, “I’m riding next to this ape-shit bastard.” In the October 1976 issue of the British magazine New Society, an article on contemporary youth notes: “The kids go ‘ape-shit’ — leaping high off the ground, as if on invisible pogo-sticks.” The OED defines apeshit in a July 2009 update as coarse slang for “crazed, infuriated, excited; mad, insane.”
Indeed, as evidenced most recently by the Carters’ be-bopping and scatting, we are living in the age of apeshit.
According to the Google Ngram Viewer, the vernacular use of the word apeshit has increased exponentially since the mid-1970s. The TV producer David Chase eulogized The Sopranos star James Gandolfini at his funeral in New York City in 2013, regaling mourners with a story of how the actor unloaded his frustrations on set: “The cameras rolled, and you opened the refrigerator door, and you slammed it really hard,” recalled Chase. “You slammed it hard enough that it came open again. And so then you slammed it again, then it came open again. You kept slamming it and slamming it and slamming it and slamming it and went apeshit on that refrigerator.”
Donald J. Trump has been known to go apeshit, too. Quoting Jeff Landry, former Trump campaign aide and current Attorney General of Louisiana, Douglas McGrath writes in a January 2016 article in The New Yorker: “You have to answer just right, or he goes apeshit.”
If there is one adjective that can accurately describe the US president’s hair-trigger actions and reactions, it is most assuredly apeshit. “Trump Went Apeshit Anti-Science This Week,” trumpets a headline on the blog Autostraddle: “Let’s Fight Back.” In response to his comments about “shithole countries,” a group of online vigilantes began trolling the Yelp pages for Trump’s hotels and properties around the world, detailing just how shitty they are. Vice noted of the comments: “people are going apeshit, and getting personal.”
Other instances of shit-talk are on the rise as well. In a May 2017 interview with MSNBC, the political strategist Rick Wilson’s tongue slipped on live television: “They’re afraid of the mean tweet,” said Wilson, of the president’s adversaries: “They’re afraid of Donald Trump going crazy, you know, ripshit bonkers on them.” That comment spawned a Slate article about the regional etymology and sense of “ripshit” by the lexicographer Ben Zimmer, in which he cites Kory Stamper’s Strong Language blogpost from 2014, entitled “Add -shit and stir: The intensifying affixal -shit.” “The way things are going,” asserts Zimmer, “I think we need as many words for intensified craziness as we can possibly get.” Even word nerds are going apeshit right now.
Yet, apeshit is distinct from other forms of shit — say, batshit, which also implies a sort of loose-cannon insanity, or chicken-shit, meaning cowardly. Like cat shit or rat shit, exposure to batshit can literally make a person go crazy.
To me, apeshit has a more combative connotation than batshit or ripshit, dipshit or jack-shit. We might imagine an ape actually throwing its shit, as apes are wont to do to visitors of zoos the globe over. Apeshit is arguably the craziest of all shits — it also, importantly, is black shit, and implicitly, the shit of desperate, caged animals. Which is why it’s so remarkable in the context of Beyoncé and Jay-Z’s song: presumably, the crowd goes apeshit because of a momentary liberation and delightful respite from disenfranchisement; the Carters go apeshit for precisely the opposite reason: no matter how much wealth or status Bey and Jay accumulate, or how much pleasure they derive from their creative work, they are at once emancipated and enslaved by the trappings of fame and fortune.
Still, there is something encouraging about apeshit. I am perennially reminded of what Slavoj Žižek wrote in his 1991 tome Looking Awry: An Introduction to Jacques Lacan Through Popular Culture: “When we become crazed in our obsession with idiotic enjoyment,” says Žižek, “even totalitarian manipulation cannot reach us.”
Perhaps apeshit is the operative mode proper to our current cultural moment — to do to art, music, literature, politics, society, what Tony Soprano did to that refrigerator door. Going apeshit is the idiotic enjoyment enabling not only sovereignty from structures and systems of oppression, but also the simple, fundamental freedom from having to give a shit.
[On 6 July 2006, I visited the legendary Canadian bank robber and author Stephen Reid in prison on Vancouver Island to discuss adapting his 1986 novel Jackrabbit Parole for the screen. Here are my notes from that visit. Swing low, sweet squad car, and rest in peace, Stephen.]
Driving along the winding green trail through Sidney and Metchosin toward the William Head Institution, one must keep all faculties alert. A search for a radio station, or single glance at the map – which is always folded around the wrong way – could see you well into the trees. Stephen Reid was somewhere in there. I wondered if and/or how much he was anticipating our meeting? Had he done this sort of thing before; known all the right buttons to push, the right stories to tell? I entered the parking lot fifteen minutes early, leaving the rental in a far-away space, no other cars on either side, front or back. A white bubble-wrapped Toyota. A single-serving soul-sucking teleportation device for the up-start capitalist and travelers on a budget. Or perhaps a bank robbery. Sure, these inconspicuous little cars that looked just like every other car would have been ideal for two, maybe three guys who wanted no attention. But what do I know about fleeing police pursuit? I was about to find out. Johnny Cash’s new (posthumous) single was rotating on rock radio – “God’s Gonna’ Cut You Down”. I couldn’t come up with anything better than that. At any rate, it would have been fiction.
I put my smaller possessions – keys, cards – in a locker, and proceeded through the metal detector, assisted by good-natured cops. At a whopping 125lbs, they knew I posed no threat to anyone; except perhaps to myself. I brought things like chocolate, juice made from berries, cigarettes. I had a copy of the novel which one of the guards referred to as something Reid had written “Once upon a time”. They wouldn’t allow cameras, tape recorders, laptops. I had my notebook, like some pimply high-school newspaper reporter. Fuck. The visiting-and-correspondence officer informed me that he was in the shower, and would be around shortly. I sat waiting at a table in what looked more like a heavily guarded cafeteria than a prison visitation area. Lunchrooms for naughty little boys who couldn’t sit still. I’m not sure what I expected from prison, but there weren’t any cells with guys exchanging messages with mirrors and matchsticks – at least not that they would let the general public see. However, there were still chicken-wire fences and towers where, presumably, armed guards stood to keep watch. I wonder what would prompt being fired upon?
He rolled around the corner so effortlessly, wearing sunglasses, and slightly heftier than in previous photos I’d seen. Was I just another victim, fallen prey to a more intelligent marketing scheme?
After the obligatory handshakes and pleasantries, we talked. It didn’t occur to me, but he began initially with his family: Sophie, who was seventeen. Her boyfriend had been causing problems for the family. He suffered a head injury, and his behavior worsened when he drank. Associates of Stephen’s, who he’d managed to contact from the inside, had apparently removed him from the family property. But Sophie persisted. That’s what seventeen-year-old girls do, especially when their father has been arrested, and is now doing time for bank-robbery and attempted murder. The outlaw energy is apparently quite attractive.
Sitting outside for a cigarette, he talked about the wildlife on the property of the prison – there were sixteen deer that inhabited the area, he said, and we witnessed a raccoon chasing a rabbit beyond the hedges and into a thick patch of brush. Stephen said that the Creator didn’t give raccoons a mask for nothing. Another jackrabbit, paroled. We sat at a picnic bench and smoked, talking about his daughters, art, drugs; I wondered how such a gentle creature could have perpetrated such undertakings? He was once of a rare breed of high-energy young men, swept up by the adrenaline and the thrill. What was the sheer thrill like? I didn’t ask direct questions, I let him lead the conversation.
He told me that heroin was comfort for him – the place where he could be alone and away from any pain and bad memories. I told him that heroin was death for me, or as close as I could get to it. I wondered if prison was the same comfort that heroin had once afforded him. The William Head Institution was a very safe environment, for a prison, very beautiful – colloquially called “Club Fed”. And unlike narcotic stupor, he seemed to be in complete control of it. The other inmates treated him with respect bordering upon reverence, as did many of the guards. He was the inverted professor of the William Head Institution Underworld. I got the feeling I could have stayed on for a PhD.
Was he a back-biter? A bald-faced liar? I couldn’t think so. There was something defeated in his eyes, a spark that was conspicuously missing since being sentenced for the last time in 1999. I was sorry, or at least empathetic. Whose fault was it that he was there? It was ostensibly his – he had robbed a bank in his own community, breaking his own rules, firing round after round at perusing police officers. His daughter ended up dating one of the officer’s sons – a cruel, ironic twist of real-life fate, almost inescapable in a small community on Vancouver Island. The claustrophobic Canadian element was all around us, like the water that surrounded the prison, on all fronts. There was obviously nowhere to go. Stephen had written about messages washing up on the shore – once appearing in such an arcane container as a pink vibrator. This was the connection to the outside world for him – and those lucky bastards who obtain fishing licenses, casting off the wharf jutting out into the lonely bay. Stephen had a connection to the land that I could never understand. B.C. was his landed home – like Alberta, for me. His roots were deeply embedded into the soil – this soil. He explained how this land had been used before White settlers, as a banishing area where those ostracized would be cast a-sea in a birch canoe for unspeakable crimes against the community. Had the function of the land changed in years, generations?
If so, was it getting better? Was there a chance for Stephen Reid to rejoin his family and live on the Queen Charlotte Islands like Susan has said was the intention? I hoped so – that’s why I was there. I wanted for him to have an honest legacy, even if it was founded upon thieving from federal banking institutions. In all honesty, who hasn’t wanted to take down a bank, especially now with the automated tellers, the tear-jerking commercials, the endless telephone menus? Who were we to judge?
When we re-entered the prison cafeteria, our conversation took a more subdued turn, although it did not seem apparent that we were being listened to. Melanie was flirting with her co-worker behind bars and sheets of bulletproof glass. It seemed that the guards were – for the time they were at work – just as much prisoners as the convicts. What person would take this job? But Melanie was sweet as they come, and she was sweet on Stephen too. He winked at me as his head nodded toward her armed cubicle – “I can’t let you leave with this script, otherwise I’ll have to tug my bangs, and bashfully ask her permission.”
He spoke softly, almost inaudibly over the sound of the television in the corner. A young couple – the guy probably doing time for drugs or theft – was watching ultimate fighting. He was a tough kid, baggy jeans, tight t-shirt, tight brown curls. She wore streaked blonde hair and pink camouflage capris. I wondered what natural environment she would be camouflaged in – our own, I concluded. They were hamming up this dramatic moment together. The young man probably just made a mistake. Stephen made at least 150 mistakes that the authorities could make stick. And he was 56 years old – as old as my own father, who recently bought a new rolling home for his prosperity to tour the free world. The aspirations were the same, only the means of acquisition opposed radically.
Stephen had been abused as a child. A family doctor in Northern Ontario had taken advantage of a common illness by administering subcutaneous injections of morphine, followed by 20cc’s of semen. This continued until he had developed a habit for opiates, before reaching his 11th birthday. His daughter Sophie had also found altered states before the teenage years; years which for so many others were constituted by the awkward talk from parents about menstruation, boys, and maybe smoking cigarettes in back alleys during gym class. But these were the girls of Stephen’s generation – Sophie was of this time, and a place on an Island so far removed and insulated, almost as much as that prison. This was a place where it seemed so easy to become entangled in those dramas, which enslave the spirit. Here was a man who was quite literally housed in his, unable to escape the choices that he made in the face of the world he inhabited. I asked nothing more about Sophie.
Charlotte was living on the islands that bear her name, and “spinning” records. Stephen wasn’t sure of the terminology, but when I corrected him, he was grateful, and said that it would be good for him to remember. Like wining points for street credibility with your children. At least he took an interest. She seemed to feel less the affect of living with an imprisoned father and a famous mother. According to Reid, she was a beautiful kid – sexy like Susan – who now ate organic food and twisted herself into pretzel-like positions. It wasn’t too long before restlessly, I nudged the conversation toward the novel. I wanted to know what and how much was true, and if I could confidently move forward with his blessing.
He had brought a script measuring 120 pages, and flopped it down nonchalantly upon the visiting table in front of us. It looked just like a script, bound by metallic pins, which buckled out to keep the stack in place. It began with a fade from white, and featured a significant amount of voice over on the first page; dialogue which intends to privilege the spectator with the inner mind of the protagonist, but ends up cheaply giving away the mode of storytelling, insulting both author and audience. I knew I could do better. Stephen thought so too – otherwise they wouldn’t have contacted me. It appeared highly unlikely that, bored as Reid may be behind bars, he would allow me to fill out the paperwork and travel to such lengths to discuss a project that he didn’t want to happen.
I recalled Susan’s voice upon our first telephone conversation. There was something manic in her tone and pace of speech. She seemed less bothered when I informed her dutifully that I had only just graduated from film school and didn’t have any money. What bothered her more was the possibility that I was just another liar who wouldn’t follow through. She sounded genuinely hurt when I mentioned, almost accidentally, that I had made the remark about Reid’s novel offhandedly in an online interview. Accusingly, she remarked: “So you were just joking about this”? I assured her that I wasn’t, and from that moment forward, ensured that she understood – and made Stephen understand – that I was not joking. They were not (com)oddities, and their story is still awfully real and painfully true.
There was one particular thread with which I was obsessed as a point of entry into the narrative of Jackrabbit Parole: the robbery, which despite every bungled routine, and beset by every black omen, did not end in their arrest. It was the blurb on the first page of my edition, meant to hook the perusing reader into the style, and story. On one of their scores, they had simply driven – all ski masks and duffle bags – right past (and I mean right past) a patrol car on their way out from a back alley behind the bank that was recently made their victim. Stephen used two cigarettes on the table as a visual aid to illustrate how he had been graced similar fortune. Minutes following a job in Ottawa, they doubled back toward the bank in order to at once confuse any passing authorities, and morbidly survey the carnage of their own score. And there, right on a two-way street in the middle of downtown Ottawa was a sedan-full of bank robbers, passing a lone black & white cruiser headed in the opposite direction. Both sides were analogously aware of each other, but neither side made the first move. How was it possible that they were not apprehended – that the pig didn’t take them in a hail of lawman lead? I supposed that if I were a cop – the first to arrive upon the scene of a high profile, and very possibly violent crime scene – I would protect my own ass too. Maybe he was a rookie; maybe he was ready to retire to the manufactured home and the missus. How their luck could have been altered if that cop had read too much Raymond Chandler and decided to play greatest American hero? I wanted to begin with this ‘scene’. Reid said that he too wrote from the inside out, and liked the idea of plotting that strand of story right in at the beginning. We were off to a good start. He elaborated that this particular incident occurred for his father in France during WWII, whereby their battalion stumbled upon a squadron of German soldiers in the dead of night. He described the darkness from beneath his handlebar moustache, and further under his breath: it was so dark that before they became mutually aware, they were quite literally on top of each other. But neither side fired a shot. They just kept moving into the blackness, like ships in the night, not even making so much as eye contact. Some men are now alive because of that.
He didn’t have many questions for me. He asked what my parents did, and was interested in my recent graduation and awards. I knew it made him happy that a man, who could be his son, took an interest in his life’s work. He asked me what ‘experimental’ film meant, which found me answering questions that I hadn’t anticipated. In art school, should some lame-brain ask you anything about your ‘Art’, the proper response was to flail arms wildly and pull out some socialist defense like a tapeworm from the nether-regions. But I wasn’t out to defend, and what I had there in the room – body, mind, spirit, notebook, cigarettes – was, in all honesty, all I had. I wanted all the intellectual bullshit I’d read about and seen in film school: narrative intransivity, jump-cutting, rock’n’roll, starting from inside the story – tones and colours rather than dialogue and characters. Sound. Surreal poetic realism. I talked about using different formats (super-8, cheap surveillance video cams, super-16), and different filmmakers, and their films upon which I drew instruction. He carefully, thoughtfully picked up what I was laying down – he read my mail. He loved the characterizations of Guy Ritchie’s films, and of course, I brought up GoodFellas. We batted Oliver Stone around like a ping-pong ball, and Stephen mentioned Jonathan Demme as the intended director for ‘The Stopwatch Gang’, the Columbia Tri-Star (un)release. According to Reid, the demand dropped out for true-crime action films after 9/11. Truth be (probably) told, there are a zillion reasons for the American market to lose interest, not least of which was the lack of gunshots and bloodshed. But how ‘bout us Canucks though, eh?
Stephen said he loved the Trailer Park Boys, and they loved him. I could see our minds synching at that point, realizing that the idea of “Stephen Reid’s Jackrabbit Parole” wasn’t that far-fetched. He knew Bubbles, and we again found common ground on the cheap (Canadian) aesthetic of reality-based pseudo-documentary. The lobes were humming. I could sense the spark of enthusiasm and creativity coming from two guys scheming around a jailhouse. In glaring retrospect, we really should have been passing shanks and dope under the brown arborite-covered tabletop. But for Reid, I knew those days were well over; for me they would never begin. But secretly, I did wish that he would have his escape plotted and planned by the time I’d arrived – all he needed for me to do was pull the rental around front, and peel away seconds later, at top Toyota speed. The cat was charismatic, and I could see how he inspired confidence, and the love of true poets.
I did ask if he kept in contact with any of the old crew. Paddy is still in Leavenworth, suffering from throat and lung cancer, ready for St. Peter’s scolding any day now. XXXXXXX lives in XXXXXXX, opting for a quiet life as an XXXXXXX. Stephen is suffering stoically, attending AA meetings and powwows when he gets the permission. It somehow doesn’t seem fair that such a Canadian icon should be caged this way – that an institution should be institutionalized. But I guess he had his chances. That doesn’t mean, though, that his family loves or needs him any less. What seems more fitting is that we go to Canada Council and Telefilm and the rest of those fuckers, and take them for what they’ve got. It would just be so fitting for the Canadian Government to fund this film – as a final exclamation mark on the most successful organized, though independent gang in Canadian history. And with the provincial expenditures on the Trailer Park Boys et al., it’s not that far a stretch. Mr. Reid, as I was leaving, said he hoped that we could attend the premier of this film, together, at some festival somewhere. I hoped so too, but there were 15 million little steps – like so many illegally obtained notes of legal tender – between those two days. I took exactly 77 steps to the Toyota, and started back home.
[The last time I heard from Stephen was in 2015 when he emailed to let me know that he’d finally sold the Jackrabbit Parole rights to a TV producer in Toronto. “Thanks for your continued support and enthusiasm,” he wrote. “JR will make the screen some day.”
To be continued…]
“Movement 1: Cognitive Awakening (feat. Gina Izzo)” – Pascal Le Boeuf – Into The Anthropocene – Periapsis Open Series
“Daddy, what’s it going to be like in the year 2000?” asks a child’s innocent voice in the introduction to Busta Rhymes’ 1998 album Extinction Level Event. “Well, sweetheart, I hope for your sake that it’ll be all peaches and cream,” her daddy responds, “but I’m afraid the end time is near — the cataclysmic apocalypse referred to in the scriptures of every holy book known to mankind.”
In the aftermath of this week’s deadly attack in Toronto, experts couldn’t wait to chime in and declare that it was not a matter of if, but of when. Every city in the western world will soon get their very own version of this catastrophe, like a McDonalds or a Starbucks franchise popping up in the infinite sprawling suburb that we are now living in. One pundit on the CBC announced: “this is the new world order.” What he meant, of course, was “this is the new normal,” but his misspeaking was revealing.
Acts of 21st century terrorism gerrymander our maps in the worst possible way. They redraw us into a two-nation world: one the victims of terrorism, and one their perpetrators. “#JeSuisCharlie” and “#XStrong” hashtags underscore this. Undoubtedly, the broadcasting of tragedy has taken up a particularly American medialogical perspective after 9/11 — the desire to never again experience any form of trauma that has not already been premeditated. Or, as literary scholar David Simpson wrote in his book 9/11: The Culture of Commemoration: “The prefigurative imaginative experience makes bearable the shock of the real.”
Visitors (2013) – Dir. Godfrey Reggio – Cinedigm
How do we look at others, especially when they are in the midst of unimaginable suffering? The camera eye is designed to be static and unflinching, to be able to train itself on that which might be intolerable to the human eye. It is up to the person behind the camera to direct it to look compassionately upon its subjects.
In her 2003 book Regarding The Pain Of Others, Susan Sontag wrote: “The other, even when not an enemy, is regarded only as someone to be seen, not someone (like us) who also sees.” What the filmmaker Godfrey Reggio captures beautifully and magically and effortlessly in Visitors is, quite simply, the act of the other bearing witness to otherness. In so doing, the film facilitates a rare and instantaneous recognition.
“Black Snow” – Oneohtrix Point Never – Age Of – Warp Records
In one bizarre scene from David Cronenberg’s 1999 film eXistenZ — a prescient hypothesis on biotechnology and virtual reality composed almost entirely of bizarre scenes — a black cloud of deadly spores erupts to infect a factory that manufactures living video game consoles. Similarly, the protagonist of Dan Lopatin aka Oneohtrix Point Never’s “Black Snow” video kicks up a toxic libidinal cloud that ultimately quarantines the creature into a state of perpetual isolated connectivity. Lopatin seems to be at once fascinated and revolted by his own alternating infectiousness as technologically endowed, digitally mediated virtuoso/trickster.
Every generation, a pop chart hero throws up.
“Everything Connected” – Jon Hopkins – Singularity – Domino Record Co.
Voice-over dialogue from a 1997 BASF TV advert: “At BASF, we don’t make the cooler, we make it cooler; we don’t make the jeans, we make them bluer; we don’t make the toys, we make them tougher; we don’t make the water-scooter, we make it lighter. At BASF, we don’t make a lot of the products you buy, we make a lot of the products you buy better.”
“Odana” – Alanis Obomsawin – Bush Lady – Constellation Records
Here’s a radical thought. The powers of domination and oppression and control require a degree of resistance to function. So stop resisting. Surrender. Let go. Kneel in the face of evil, for it is then and only then that you truly give evil the choice to do good, and thus a chance for eternal grace and salvation.
“Cut Grass 1” – Aqueduct Ensemble – Improvisations On An Apricot – Last Resort
As a kid, one of my best friends was called Devendra. He was a naturally funny guy, always with a wry comment or a quick response to anything. He had a big smile, too, which put everyone at ease. Everyone liked him, and I was happy to be his friend.
As kids, we used to do funny things. Everything we did was about making each other laugh. One of the things Devendra used to do to make us laugh was what we might now call the “Apu” voice. Devendra was of South Asian descent, his parents first-generation Canadian immigrants. They did speak like that. And we did laugh.
But now, I realize that Devendra was imitating his parents for our amusement as a pre-emptive strike, so that nobody else could imitate his parents in jest without the jest coming principally from his own self. He wanted us to know that he was laughing first. So, laughing at him and his family was a useless strategy, if strategies there were, which, of course, there weren’t, because we loved Devendra and his whole family.
It reminds me of the language around MIDI — the master-slave thing, which I talk about extensively in my book, which you should read. Master devices, slave devices. It’s abhorrent. It’s worse than abhorrent, because it’s language, and it’s the language we use every day, and language makes reality. Like the Apu thing. If someone tells you that something you do makes them feel bad, and you keep doing it, you are an asshole.
“Some Limited and Waning Memory” – Christina Vantzou – No. 4 – Kranky
In the 1998 film Hurlyburly, adapted for the screen by David Rabe from his 1984 stage play of the same name, about the intertwined lives of seven sex-and-drug addled Hollywood wannabes with severe issues, the main character, Eddie, played expertly by Sean Penn — I mean, who plays a coked-out motor-mouth better? — rants obsessively about weapons of mass destruction: “They’re not,” Eddie says of the apparent misnomer. “They’re very, very selective about what they destroy. They annihilate people, and preserve things.”
“You want me to be kinder? Softer?” he cries, delving as deeply into a character as Penn has ever done: “I say NO! Be harder! Be a rock. Or polyurethane. I say, be a thing. And live.”
“The Evas” – Hunter Lombard – Eris EP – Jack Dept.
I have a sample somewhere of Teddy Pemberton saying “right now we gonna give you guys like some dope, dope beats they just gonna be banging out your mindframe just bust your thing open, aight?” Basically, what he said.
“Brilliant Yes That Would Be” – Underworld – Smith Hyde Productions
I am so pleased that Underworld turned out to be the band from the 90s electronica era with the most staying power. Their catalogue has held up better than many of their contemporaries (say, who bought that 20th anniversary pizza box edition of You’ve Come A Long Way Baby?) and on this cut, Underworld prove that they need little more than one really cool patch to make something brilliant.
“Claustra” – Eartheater – PAN
Your friend and mine, Chal Ravens, beat me to the punch this week when she said this was like the acid trip sequence in Dennis Hopper’s 1969 film Easy Rider. That particular acid trip was nearly 50 years ago, and it’s still producing flashbacks.
2017 was a whirlwind year. There was scarcely a moment’s pause to be savored from one terrible news story to another — from hurricane Maria’s devastation of Puerto Rico, to the Grenfell Tower fire, to the daily cascading indignities of Donald Trump’s America.
Consumer culture, too, appeared to be operating at hyper-speed, as PR disasters in quick succession shook up companies like Pepsi, United, and American Airlines. The media, already churning out stories quicker than ever, zoomed by at an unprecedentedly frantic pace.
Online, the year’s most common responses to this rapid-fire chaos manifested in “Hold my beer” tweets and “Distracted Boyfriend” memes, each in its own way speaking to the ostensibly instantaneous escalation of events piling one atop another.
But another syntactical trend emerged that I think indicates a more appropriate reaction to the raging tire fire that was 2017: the ellipsis. Those three little dots, which ordinarily signify a textual omission, have assumed broader significance and deeper cultural meaning in a year when we could barely seem to catch our breath.
By late-2017, ellipses were… everywhere. And not just in the usual, pedestrian places; more than simply denoting a redaction, or representing the trailing-off of a thought, ellipses came to characterize in text form the actual pace and cadence of spoken speech. Rather than tweeting, for instance, “Did Trump just say that?” one might have thumbed into their iPhone something more like, “Did… Trump just… say that?” “2017 was…mostly bad,” wrote music critic Rob Arcand in a twitter post sharing his end-of-year-in-music list; “Thank you, Facebook,” snarked GQ editor Kevin Nguyen, following the social network’s snub of his publication’s Colin Kaepernick person-of-the-year story: “So proud to work at… Magazine.”
The elliptical tendency infected mainstream journalism, too: Gail Collins of The New York Times wondered in a December 11th article about whether or not Alabama voters would care that Roy Moore was accused of pedophilia: “History would suggest … not so much.” And in a puff piece about a Newfoundland police constable delivering Christmas gifts to unsuspecting motorists, Jeremy Eaton of CBC News wrote: “For the second year in a row, the detachment in Bay Roberts was rewarding drivers for … being nice.”
It might be tempting to put this fashion down to the entrenching into contemporary consciousness of the three little bubbles that have become such a familiar sign of digital communication. Officially known as the “typing awareness indicator,” those flashing ellipses alert us that the person on the other end of our texting conversation is composing a message. They also appear at the end of nearly every social media post and URL that doesn’t fit into the allotted onscreen real estate.
A persuasive argument could be made that ellipses mimic the stilted, start-stop speech patterns, particularly of the millennial generation — a brand new talk that is not very clear. Like upspeak or vocal fry, the ‘stop-and-go lilt’ is a kind of affectation that has worked its way from the mouths of celebrities on chat shows into quotidian conversation across national and cultural lines. Still another plausible explanation could be twitter’s recently expanded 280-character tweet format. What do we do with all that extra space? Fill it up… with three dots!
But I’d like to see ellipses as something more productive — as thoughtful pauses, suspensions of speech that reflect consideration, gaps that otherwise might be filled with an um, or an uh, or a like. Those kinds of breaks in real-time communication are indicators of complex cognitive processes at work, a careful screening and selecting of the next thought, the next word, the next action. Pausing… it turns out… is a good thing.
One of the ways that a moment’s intermission can be of benefit is in exercising self-control. In the time of 24-hour news cycles, it isn’t enough to just be up on the news; one must also react to it in the appropriate span of time — which is getting ever shorter, due to the onslaught of newsworthy incidents, and the constant turnover of their coverage.
The Nobel prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman in his book Thinking Fast and Slow claims that our decision-making processes — the ways in which we make sense of the world — are influenced by two mental systems: System 1 reacts quickly to stimuli, much like a reflex would; System 2 is slower and more deliberative. System 1 is the part of our consciousness responsible for hitting a baseball, say, or tallying 2 + 2. System 2 is the part that compares appliances in a department store, or double-checks the validity of a dubious assertion.
One of System 2’s jobs is also, at certain times, to override System 1, if and when it makes a poor decision: “every human being has had the experience of not telling someone to go to hell,” writes Kahneman. A second’s delay, it seems, can be enough to stop us posting that nasty comment or inconsiderate reply.
Another way that delay could be advantageous is in reconditioning our ability to wait for things. In the online, digital world, we are so used to instant streams, and buying with one click, that we’ve lost the ability to recognize when the simple act of waiting is either favorable or necessary.
In his 2011 book entitled Wait: The Art and Science of Delay, the global market expert Frank Partnoy claims that the chief factor in what he calls good decision-making is our ability to manage delay: “That is why it is so important for us to think about the relevant time period of our decisions and then ask what is the maximum amount of time we can take within that period to observe and process information about possible outcomes.” We may increasingly want to see instant results to our actions, but timing is integral — a baby takes nine months; a harvest only happens in the autumn. Sometimes we just have to sit still.
So I see reflected in our obsession with ellipses a glimmer of hope for 2018. It shows that, on some level, we are thinking, processing, pausing, resting, resisting, anticipating, and imagining a better world.
Wait for it…
If you are reading this, congratulations. Well done on arriving at the end of 2017 without dying in a flood, an earthquake, fire, famine, nuclear war, terrorist attack, murder by police, new plague, white supremacist mass shooting, poverty, poison, revenge, hate crime, accident, or just by tossing your own stupid remains on some moonlit night into the depths of a quarry like a victim of the mob hit that was the past twelve months. You know when you’re on a particularly turbulent flight and all the passengers erupt in applause as the pilot finally lands the plane safely? That’s right now. You made it. You’re alive. A standing O for us all.
Welcome to my annual list of the top eleven albums of the year. A few brief words on how this list was chosen and assembled: First off, this is my list. It doesn’t have to be your list. I don’t claim it to be a comprehensive catalogue or accurate cross-section of musical production in 2017. I don’t care if it’s cool, and I definitely don’t care if it’s correct. It is, rather simply, music that I loved. If loving this music is wrong, then I don’t want to be right. Some of it is problematic. Some of it is uncomfortable. Some of it is sad. Some of it is hilarious. But all of it is brilliant, I believe. I hope that there is one record on this list that you have heard before, and at least one that you have not. That was my aim.
If a theme did emerge this year, it was one of late-style, in Adorno’s logic—what Edward Said described as “surviving beyond what is acceptable and normal.” In this list is what can be characterized as late-career works from artists like Slowdive, Godspeed You! Black Emperor, and Jay-Z. None of the records I chose was a debut. “In addition,” Said continues, “lateness includes the idea that one cannot really go beyond lateness at all, cannot transcend or lift oneself out of lateness, but can only deepen the lateness. There is no transcendence or unity.” I no longer believe this to be true. The last album of his storied career, David Bowie’s Blackstar was among his best of works, and Gord Downie’s final record may have been his very finest.
Stubbornly, this is a list of albums—not tracks, EPs, 12”s, mix tapes, reissues, archival releases, and the like—because I still believe in the indelible format of the long-playing recording, regardless of its medium. There is good reason why we use the same word for collections of songs and of photographs: they are both recordings of events, inscriptions in sound and light, and as such, albums are compendia of our most glossed-over and unvarnished memories. This is why certain records can be so evocative of a particular place and time—invoking every single sense—and I think it’s why we tend to want to make wrap-up lists like this one each year.
Finally, this list is unranked. Instead, I chose one song from each album, and curated the songs into a playlist. Unfortunately, there is no single platform that contains every song I chose, so I arranged the playlist in the form of the blurbs and links below. I designed this playlist to be listened to in order, in its entirety, one song after another. (Revolutionary! I know.) If you like it, I also encourage you to buy the music on this list, either from an independent shop, or directly from the label or artist. The songs herein conveniently fit neatly onto a CD, which is the way I still like to compile and listen to playlists. It’s my version of making an album. I hope you enjoy it. I care because you do. So thank you for reading, thank you for listening, I love you, and see you in 2018.
“Ascent” – Kate Carr – From A Wind Turbine To Vultures (And Back) – Flaming Pines
Have you ever climbed a mountain? If not, I recommend it. There is nothing quite like being higher than anything else around you. A popular cliché says that it’s lonely at the top. The reason for that is because most people can’t be bothered. It’s a lot of work climbing a mountain. Sure, you can helicopter your way to the top, but there is an immense sense of accomplishment reaching a real summit on your own steam, and looking on at the vastness and relative emptiness of this still-beautiful world.
If you want to, you can skip over Kate Carr’s incredible augmented field recording, a strange document of rare quality and precision. It is twenty-seven minutes long, and you’d be forgiven for thinking, initially, that not much happens. But in doing so, you will have skipped over the literal and the figurative ascent, and will have ab initio missed the point of this excursion entirely.
“Ab Ovo” – Joep Beving – Prehension – Deutsche Grammophon
Like a lot of kids, I took parent-enforced piano lessons when I was young. My teacher was a stern Polish woman who had a reputation for smacking her pupils’ knuckles with a ruler whenever they played a wrong note. Music lessons began when I was three years old, with basic rhythm training. I remember walking in circles on the Afghan rug in my stern Polish piano teacher’s apartment, little drum in hand, counting and beating in time with a wooden mallet. In addition to that drum, my mother brought home shakers, bells, and a triangle with which to make percussive noise. At four, I graduated to the piano keyboard, taking Royal Conservatory lessons until high school. I went to several teachers: Mrs. Peedee from the neighborhood; Mrs. McNaughton at Alberta College; Yana Tubinshlak, a sturdy Russian Jewish woman with two massive, ornate, and ancient pianos sat side by side in her drawing room. She never smacked my knuckles. But she did say things like: “What orchestra are you playing with?” if I accidentally struck a discordant tone. Mrs. Tubinshlak was my favorite teacher.
But, like a lot of kids, I hated practicing. In the summertime, I would have rather been outside shooting hoops or riding bikes with friends. In the winter, I wanted to be playing hockey and throwing myself down snowy hills on a toboggan. Instead, I spent two hours a night, every night of the week, practicing piano.
Our piano was made in 1916 in Woodstock, Ontario, by the D.W. Karn Piano and Organ Company. It was an upright model—known as a “Cabinet Grand”—built of quarter-sawn oak in the Mission-Arts and Crafts style. My parents bought it for $350 when I was born, and made sure I made good use of it.
Each year, I took the Royal Conservatory exam at the Edmonton House, an apartment hotel on the edge of downtown. According to urban legend, the Edmonton House, with its upper balconies exposed to the river valley, was a popular place for people to commit suicide, although there was no clear correlation to piano exams.
Every Friday afternoon in our elementary school, we had assemblies in the gymnasium. Everyone from grades one to six would sit in neat rows on the floor. These were like a cross between pep rallies, recitals, and talent shows, at which students would dance, sing, or otherwise show off. One Friday, I was supposed to perform “Für Elise” on the piano. I had been practicing for months. I had it down. I knew it backwards. But somehow, when I got up on stage in front of six hundred other students, I froze. All that practice drained from my brain. I couldn’t seem to summon a single memory of how to play the song. Looking back, I imagine that the impetus behind musical automation, and the drive for digital perfection—for MIDI, and for instantaneous, permanent memory—was determined at least in part by the overwhelming embarrassment and trauma of experiences like mine. The sheer terror of performance now belongs to the machine.
“Sugar for the Pill” – Slowdive – Slowdive – Dead Oceans
The shower-masturbation sequence in Gregg Araki’s Nowhere, twenty years old this year, which Slowdive incidentally soundtracked, is among the sexiest, funniest, and most accurate sex scenes in all of cinema. From now on, I can’t fathom an encounter that won’t be masturbatory. Good thing I love me.
“The Pendulum” – Daniel O’Sullivan – Veld – O Genesis
The opening track to Grumbling Furrier O’Sullivan’s solo record sends Enya-worthy shivers southward, spineward. Note in particular the acoustic phenomenon of “beating,” where the superimposition of two similar frequencies creates within the interstice a third frequency, a modulation of amplitude, and one of infinite natural instances where 1 + 1 = 3. This album is alchemy.
“B.H.S.” – Sleaford Mods – English Tapas – Rough Trade Records
When Sears Canada began liquidating its merchandise in advance of the company’s insolvency, it secretly started hiking its prices higher than an octogenarian’s socks. Sure, the competition bureau was called in to investigate, but what are they going to do? Penalize a company that no longer exists? The problem with capitalism is that it holds no one to account. CEOs waltz away from financial disasters with seemingly zero consequences. Rather, the best and brightest capitalists are rewarded for stripping off everything of value from a fire sale, like sharks in a Hemmingway novel. Nobody sees and says this more clearly than Sleaford Mods, the punk-as-fuck UK duo for whom 2017 was a goose with golden eggs for material.
“Grit” – Pessimist – Pessimist – Blackest Ever Black
There’s an old joke that goes: the difference between an optimist and a pessimist is that the optimist believes that things could never be better, and the pessimist fears that the optimist is right.
“Carbon 7 (161)” – Jlin – Black Origami – Planet Mu
“The Story of O.J.” Jay-Z – 4:44 – Roc Nation / Universal Music Group
The powers that be managed to deracinate, fatten up, and otherwise silence Kanye West in a year when we needed nothing more than for a ballsy American to go on international television and say straight into the cameras that the president doesn’t care about black people. What we got instead was Jay-Z singing the blues, because Kanye tells it like it should be, and Jay-Z tells it like it is. One reason why 4:44 works so well as an album, rather than a mere collection of songs, is because of the uniformity of its vision at the hands of a single producer, No I.D.—the name alone ironically suggesting effacement and ubiquity at once. The result is a sharply focused record, an account of a true baller late in his game, grappling with the trappings of his own success, coming to maturation in Trump’s America.
“America” – Scott Wollschleger – Soft Aberration – New Focus Recordings
Unlike Simon and Garfunkel’s whimsical Beatnik-era search for identity, or Neil Diamond’s bombastic nationalistic anthem, or Nas’s prophetic cautionary tale, Scott Wollschelger’s “America” is a more mournful invocation of what once was the land of the free and home of the brave. In this piece, rendered meticulously imperfect by the cellist John Popham of the outstanding trio Longleash, are echoes of Aaron Copland’s quintessentially American “Our Town,” as well as something as unexpected as James Horner’s Field of Dreams score. To be sure, there is little neither free nor brave about America now, its president and citizens hiding behind the glowing screens of mobile phones, betrothed to hands both more powerful and yet tinier. Let us be haters, we’ll marry our misfortunes together.
“Fam_Famine” – Godspeed You! Black Emperor – Luciferian Towers – Constellation Records
I wish that Godspeed would take themselves seriously already. I’m joking! God. Don’t take yourselves so seriously.
All kidding aside, Godspeed have never donned wigs and stockings, simpering with painted faces, attempting a masqueraded escape lowered to sea-level in lifeboats amongst women and children, as the captain and his crew have quite clearly done. I think that our hometown house band may have found a way to take themselves just seriously enough, doing the solemn duty of playing until the ship goes down.
“Bedtime” – Gord Downie – Introduce Yerself – Arts & Crafts
Following a diagnosis of glioblastoma, the aggressive brain cancer that ultimately ended Gord Downie’s life, he did not, like so many of us would have done, rest on his laurels, and sink quietly toward his own expiry. No. What Gord Downie did was to take his band mates and best friends of three decades The Tragically Hip on one last road trip across Canada, and then record not one but two exemplary solo albums: 2016’s The Secret Path, and this year’s heart-gnawing collaboration with Broken Social Scene’s Kevin Drew, Introduce Yerself. Each of the record’s twenty-three songs is written to a person. I assume that “Bedtime” is for one of Downie’s children, and if you’ve ever had a child—or been one—this song, which resides at the exact meeting place between “It’s A Good Life if you Don’t Weaken” and “Lover’s Spit,” will leave you in pieces. Downie’s inimitable talent was to take the everyday, the quotidian, the seemingly small, something as simple as a creaking floorboard, and like a master toy-maker, imbue it with an intricately moving sense of magic realism, yet without slipping into saccharine sentimentality. This album is not for everyone. It is for those of us who loved Gord Downie, and its weight and heft seem to reveal how much he loved us back.
There could be any number of valid readings of this song—that it’s a metaphor for Downie’s more frequent returns to the stage near his end of days; that death itself is not final—but what I take away is the profoundly valuable lesson that everything important in life must be done twice. Like a bad drive off the first tee, or a foul ball, this year was a do-over, in the Daniel Stern-in-City Slickers sense, only far darker.
We can do better. We must do better.