June 25, 2014

Son House and Foucault on desperate passion

"Then the last type of madness: that of desperate passion.  Love disappointed in its excess, and especially love deceived by the fatality of death, has no other recourse but madness.  As long as there was an object, mad love was more love than madness; left to itself, it pursues itself in the void."

Michel Foucault, Madness and Civilization.

June 15, 2014

Jung on concealment and repression

"As soon as man was capable of conceiving the idea of sin, he had recourse to psychic concealment-- or, to put it in analytical language, repressions arose.  Anything that is concealed is a secret.  The maintenance of secrets acts like a psychic poison which alienates their possessor from the community.  In small doses, this poison may actually be a priceless remedy, even an essential preliminary to the differentiation of the individual.  This is so much the case that, even on a primitive level, man has felt an irresistible need to invent secrets; their possession saves him from dissolving in the unconsciousness of mere community life, and thus from a fatal psychic injury.  As is well known, the many ancient mystery cults with their secret rituals served this instinct for differentiation.  Even the Christian sacraments were looked upon as mysteries in the early Church, and, as in the case of baptism, were celebrated in private apartments and only referred to under a veil of allegory.

However beneficial a secret shared with several persons may be, a merely private secret has destructive effect.  It resembles a burden of guilt which cuts off the unfortunate possessor from communion with his fellow-beings.  Yet if we are conscious of what we conceal, the harm done is decidedly less than if we do not know what we are repressing-- or even that we have repressions at all.  In the latter case we not merely keep a content consciously private, but we conceal it even from ourselves.  It then splits off from consciousness as an independent complex, where it can be neither corrected nor interfered with by the conscious mind.  The complex is thus an autonomous portion of the psyche which, as experience has shown, develops a peculiar fantasy-life of its own.  What we call fantasy is simply spontaneous psychic activity; and it wells up whenever the repressive action of the conscious mind relaxes or ceases altogether..."

C.G. Jung, from the essay, Problems of Psychotherapy.

June 13, 2014

Get out of my head, Jack White. Or, how the music we love can backfire

In Madness and Civilization, Michel Foucault wrote of Renaissance-era "ships of fools", on which societies would load their madmen and send them out into the harbor to get them out of the cities and isolate them.  Or to isolate the cities from them, whichever.  On Lazaretto, Jack White sings of being put down in a lazaretto, those old island fortresses where the sick and disabled were quarantined.  That idea of separation, of isolation, has become pertinent for me lately and been much on my mind.

I got away from writing here regularly for a while, in part because everything I wrote was beginning to sound so self-obsessed and sometimes self-pitying, to the point that it was becoming tedious even to me, much less to anyone who might've stumbled across those ramblings on the interwebs.  But also because as I got deeper and deeper into Jack White's music, I became involved in the community of his fans.  It began at a message board, expanded to the Third Man Records Vault and another message board, to a couple of Facebook groups, and, most importantly, to people I've met face-to-face at his shows.  I still wrote about Jack's music here because there was so much in it that inspired me and that I wanted to dig into and mentally digest.  But more and more, I didn't need this place to get my thoughts out, I was able to do it in all those other places and get instant feedback, have dialogues instead of these rambling monologues.  I came out of isolation, at least via the written word.  Physically, I'm still separate, as all of these people I relate to are spread around the U.S. and I see them rarely, whenever we gather for a show.  The rest of the time, it's me on my own, until I sit down at the computer and reach out.

But lately something's been different.  It's been building up gradually for a while, a feeling of disconnection, of distance, from the community I've felt such a part of, from both the internet "friends" I relate to and the real friends I've formed an emotional connection with.  Is it my old pattern rearing its head, my apparent inability to have long-lasting relationships with people?  What's behind that, anyway?  Whatever it is, it started out early.  I was always one of those kids who was off by themselves with a book or exploring in the woods.  I had friends, but still spent a lot of time alone. Then an incident in 6th grade led to complete ostracism, turning me into one of those kids sitting shunned on the side of the playground.  High school was no better, especially after I became one of three punk rockers in the entire school and walked a daily gauntlet of derision from the jocks and popular kids.  Exposure to my parents' constant arguing didn't help, either, as it was just one more thing to block out, to build a wall against.

If you've ever read the book Cold Mountain (and I mean the book, not the film Jack White was in), you may understand when I say that I strongly identify with the main female character, Ada, who is described as "eccentric and bristly".  Ada's physical isolation in Black Cove is, of course, a metaphor for her isolation from people in general, which is due in large part to how she chooses to relate to those around her.  She has little patience for the accepted mores of the city culture she was raised in, and is at a loss in the completely unfamiliar realm of country society.  She frequently ends up saying the wrong thing in the wrong way, often as a means to keep people at a distance either intentionally or unconsciously.  As a result, there's a wall around her, built by her own hands using the bricks of other people's inability to comprehend her.  To say that I understand that alienation would be an understatement, despite the friendships I've formed over the last few years.

For the past couple weeks, that feeling's been intensely strong.  Part of it is envy of those friends whose schedules have allowed them to attend recent shows on Jack's current tour for the new album.  These are people I genuinely like and have enjoyed spending time with, but I find myself not wanting to hear from them because the few details I've heard of these shows make me bitterly resentful that I've not been there.  It's an ugly reaction, one that makes me loathe myself, and that makes me retreat even further from these people because I don't want to expose them to my ugliness.  But the last few  days, it's become even worse. Without any rational clue why, I've been peevish, angry, melancholy-- lashing out, crying while driving in the car, having arguments with people in my head that I wouldn't allow myself to have anywhere else, stuck in isolation inside my own brain instead of focused outward.  Then it dawned on me-- Part of it is this record, Lazaretto.  This depressed and angry mood's been with me ever since the night I received it last week, from the moment I read The Admitting of Patience, a play in one act at the beginning of the book that accompanied the album:


(one act) 

(Male or Female) 

 I fantasize about hospital beds, 
jail, work camps, the army. 
I thought of branding myself, 
 tattooing a message to myself 
With a symbol that I can't be 
at peace with anyone. 
 A raft, A boy in the water. I'm hurt, 
but not afraid of physical pain. 

 (M or F) 

 I don't feel very good about myself. 
People always leave me. 
Nobody can stand me for very long. 
I wish I could cut my tongue out, 
or take out the part of my brain 
 that has opinions. Or cares. 
I wish I could be simple. 
Be quiet, introverted, or shy. 
I'm half way in between a wallflower 
at a party and elvis presley. 
People love one or the other. 
In between is no place to be. 


 I see.

The impact of that practically brought me to my knees. It did bring me to tears, and I don't mean just welling up in my eyes. I mean shoulder-shaking sobs.  Good lord above, talk about identifying with something someone's expressed.  And then to put on the record and discover the song Alone In My Home, in which he sings 

These stones
That are thrown against my bones
Break through
But they hurt less as time goes on

And alone
I build my own home
To be sure
That nobody can touch me now

That's followed immediately by That Black Bat Licorice, with its refrain of 

Don't you want to lose the
Part of the brain that has opinions?
To not even know what you are doing?
Or care about yourself or 
Your species in the billions?

Listening to these two songs feels as if he's been in my own head, pulled out my own thoughts and feelings and experiences, all those incidents of feeling the wrong thing, thinking the wrong thing, saying the wrong thing, offending people and pissing them off, alienating and feeling alienated, and retreating into self-imposed quarantine.  I'm not quite vain enough to believe I'm the only person who's listened to these songs and felt such things, but that doesn't diminish the impact. It's not been good. I love both songs, one of them is very beautiful, the other very witty, but the effect of them has left me feeling a bit on the edge of madness, or at least sociopathology.  Far from the euphoric feeling Jack's music normally inspires in me.  How do I reconcile this?  Wallow in it and hope it passes on its own? Stop listening to these songs?  Smack myself upside the head in the hopes of knocking some rationality back into my brain?  

I don't know. But I told someone the other night that I'd caught myself wishing I could be like a crazy homeless person, standing on a street corner ranting and talking to myself.  It would be easier than trying to be a normal, civil person, at least until I can figure out how to get back out of this state of isolated insanity. 

June 8, 2014

Modes of transportation: How fast is a black castrum doloris?

Thanks, Wikipedia

"She's built for speed like a black castrum doloris..."

Delightful irony from a man who professes to dislike irony, at least of the hipster variety.  One of the best songs on the new album, too, one that I had a feeling I'd love based on the title alone-- That Black Bat Licorice.  The rest of Lazaretto, though...?  After being bowled over when I first listened the other night, I ripped the record for the car the next morning and went out for a drive.  There's something about listening while driving that gets me deeper into music, probably because the music fills the car in a way that it doesn't fill my apartment and, in the right circumstances, there's nothing else to distract me from listening fully.  And I've written before about the combination of high speed and good tunes being my favorite, most easily-accessible high.  Somehow, though, I came home from that drive feeling distanced from the music.  The drive to and from work the next day was the same.  As a devoted addict, it scared me a bit that I might not be able to connect to this record.  I felt that all of the songs were good, but I just wasn't having the visceral, emotional reaction that I normally have to Jack White's music.  I wasn't getting the junkie rush I've gotten from every one of his other albums.  Was it jetlag from the previous week's business trip in Las Vegas?  Was it the the songs themselves not grabbing me as much with repeated listenings?  Did I overreact on first listen because I'd been anticipating this record for so damned long?  I dunno. But today I threw my bike on top of the car and went for a drive with Lazaretto again, heading further from home, out into more rural parts of Maryland.  Past the congestion of traffic, able to flow swiftly along first the highway and then curvy backroads, the songs began to sweep me away and I was suddenly transported by them the way I'd expected to be.  Would You Fight For My Love?, in particular, soared on the highway in a way that it couldn't in the distractions of heavier traffic closer to the city.  That Black Bat Licorice, however, is a great rush hour tune, having inspired me the previous evening to roll down the windows and let it rattle its way out of the car at full volume as I inched along one of downtown D.C.'s main arteries.

So when I arrived at my destination, I pulled the bike off of the car and hit the trail.  And damned if the songs didn't come with me.  Entitlement, Alone In My Home, Fight For My Love, Black Bat, all played through my head while riding, interweaving with each other.  Fight For My Love, again, turned out to be a galvanizing song to move to. When I turned around to head back after a bit over 13 miles, it began a repeated refrain in my head as I kicked into high gear, both literally and figuratively, and began flying along fast enough that I prayed more than once I wouldn't end up having to dodge any snakes or squirrels. (Rabbits are fine, they hop off the trail when they hear you coming.  Squirrels, on the other hand, dash back and forth like dingbats before deciding which way to go. And snakes just lie there in the way.)  Then Black Bat Licorice and Three Women began alternating and I got into a zone, keeping up the high gear, high speed pace for miles.  Got back to the car with rubbery legs and a big smile on my face.

Sometimes the journeys music takes us on just don't follow the road we expect.  Does this mean that I broke through my temporary disconnect with Lazaretto?  I've no idea. Could be just another phase in my exploration of this record, with today's good vibe expedited by great driving conditions and a terrific bike ride.  But that's fine.  As the old cliché goes, after all, the journey can be more important than the destination.  

So how the hell fast is a castrum doloris, anyway?

June 4, 2014

Lazaretto: The first listen is fortunately not a case of staircase wit

For anyone who feels the same as the anonymous troll who posted a comment a while back blasting me for my fan-girlism, just click away now and pretend you never saw this page of the internet 'cause I'm going to babble about Jack White's new record, Lazaretto.  Its official release date is next Tuesday, June 10th, but as a member of the Vault whose name begins with the right letter for a change, I got it a handful of days early.  The subscription package it came in includes not only a split-color version of the Ultra LP, but also a 45rpm 7" of  demos of two songs from the album and a hard-bound book of lyrics, images, and notes about the record.  I was as excited about that book as about the record itself, as I adore both lyric sheets and any insight I can gather into the creation of art.

When I opened up my package this evening and slid all the pieces out, my first thought was "Damn, the book is so small".  It's only about 6 x 7 inches in size, which obviously implied that photos would be small and insights limited.  But then I opened it and read the first page, a play in one act entitled The Admitting of Patience, and, before I even read the next page or unwrapped the album, found myself standing in my kitchen reduced to weeping.  

It's things like that short little one-page, three-character play, just like the liner notes of the first White Stripes album, that I identify with so strongly that they reach through my ribcage, grab my heart, and move me to tears.  They're also the things that make it so hard to separate Jack's words from him, to hear them as stories, the way he wants them to be heard, instead of as confessions or exposures of some kind.  He talks about such things in interviews-- sometimes directly, sometimes implied-- and then he writes about them and it's pretty much impossible to not make assumptions.  I've gone through that, analyzing (or over-analyzing, as the troll accused me of) the shit out of his lyrics with friends, analyzing him through his lyrics, but for what?  Yeah, the man is as intriguing as they come, but what does thinking I understand him get me?  And the stories are fascinating in their own right, as much as any novel or film that deals in love, relationships (intimate and otherwise), and human nature.  So I'll take Jack at his word and view the pronouns in his songs as something pliable, come up with my own faces and figures for them, let the stories play in my mind's eye with characters of my own making.

Three Women is an easy one to impute to Jack himself, considering the hair colors and cities mentioned in the song, but then he goes and credits Blind Willie McTell as co-writer in the liner notes and it becomes even more obvious than it needs to be that this song is an homage.  It's Jack making it clear that he's following the lineage of the old blues storytellers, the family that it's always been his goal to be a part of.  In that regard, it's completely fitting that this one begins the album.

Lazaretto, the title track, puts me in mind of Icky Thump's Little Cream Soda, with its conversation with a God who answers with no answer at all.  But while Little Cream Soda's protagonist is lost and wandering, feeling that he's getting nowhere, the hero of Lazaretto may be imprisoned and trying to escape, but is in no way lost. He knows who and what he is and it's clear this quarantine situation ain't gonna last long.

(Remember:  All pronouns, Jack's and mine here, are completely flexible and substitutable.)

Temporary Ground is a song I slightly dreaded hearing the first time, as there's a snippet of it in a recent NPR interview that makes it sound as if backing vocalist Lillie Mae Rische dominates the song.  I've never been a fan of female singers, there's something about pretty female voices that has just always turned me off.  Rische sounds a lot like Emmylou Harris on the snippet I'd heard and I was indignant that Jack might ruin an otherwise lovely song by overwhelming it with a sound that's always made me cringe.  But damned if he didn't make the song overall so beautiful that I found myself overlooking her voice and focusing on his, the music, and the words.  One line in particular reached out to me right away-- "Screaming without sound"-- reminding me of a conversation waaaay back in high school in which I talked with a friend about being desperately unhappy and she told me that I shouldn't keep my problems inside, all to myself, that I shouldn't "scream silently".  I've no idea yet what the rest of the song might be about, but that line alone creates a connection for me, one worth ignoring an annoying female voice for.

I think that Would You Fight For My Love? is a song meant to be played live.  I heard it that way earlier this year at Record Store Day and felt that it strongly resembled the Raconteurs song Blue Veins.  While the latter song is a declaration of love and trust and this one struck me as more anguished, the drama of it was comparable.  Jack writes in the book that it's constructed of three separate songs and I wonder if that's why it's lacking in passion on the record, because it wasn't just one outpouring.  In the studio version, it's just not as effective as Blue Veins is on Broken Boy Soldiers, but I think that, like Blue Veins, it will become something else altogether when played live, when Jack is wired from feeding off of an audience and pours all of his energy and passion into it.  

High Ball Stepper blew me away when I first heard it back at the beginning of April, when this album was first announced.  I loved that Jack introduced the album to the world with an instrumental track, and it surprised me that I loved this so much. I get into music through words and voice, especially Jack's music, so to love an instrumental track so much was completely unexpected.  But I listened to it on repeat for days without feeling that anything was lacking.  It's buzzing and vicious and literally, physically, feels as if it's scraping my sternum.

Just One Drink is like Missing Pieces, from Blunderbuss, for me.  The old story Jack learned from Son House of "ain't it hard when you love someone who don't love you", told fairly conventionally but with great imagery.

Jack writes in a section of the book "i got so sick and tired of editing these songs at times, frustrated, and disinterested, only to find myself in love with the song the next day and drawn back in.  the challenges that keep you up at night, that seem to cause strain, sometimes are the locked door that once opened, relieves you of other stresses in your life.  music does that a lot for me, and it makes me scared to think of what could ever take it's place".  Replace "music" with "love" or "friendship" or any other word that involves our dealings with other people and life in general, and he's really on to something.

Ghosts are mentioned a few times on this record, and in the thanks at the end of the book.  All those mentions remind me strongly of the song that initially yanked me into his music, 300mph Torrential Outpour Blues, with its opening line of "calling out to ghosts that are no longer there".  The song on Lazaretto that's the most full of ghosts is Alone In My Home, and here again I was brought to tears.  It echoes too many of my own thoughts and feelings, the feeling of being separate from the rest of the human race, some sort of alien in a crowd of people.  Like 300mph Blues, it hits way too close to home and, yeah, the pun is fully intended.

And yet again, That Black Bat Licorice brings to mind songs from Icky Thump, the record that introduced me to his music.  It's got the same witty and whimsical wordplay as tunes like 300mph Blues, Little Cream Soda, Rag & Bone, and Martyr For My Love For You.  I've no idea what the hell the metaphors and references in this song mean, but it doesn't matter. Again, the imagery is so fucking pervasive and vivid that you can get lost in it. Marry that imagery to crazily driving music and vocal delivery and, like Rag and Bone, it's almost too easy to miss the parts that are meant to make you think.

Comments from people who'd listened to Entitlement before I was able to immediately branded it as Jack's most blatant "cranky old man" song, to the point that I was completely taken aback to find it so damned pretty.  The music is lovely, as is his delivery of the words.  To me, he brilliantly softened the edges of what other people have taken as a complaint and, again, given those who are willing to accept it as such something to think about.

It's going to take me a while to figure out the story of I Think I Found the Culprit, and I've got no problem with that.  I can't help, though, but be reminded of an interaction I had with him a few years ago in the Vault chatroom, when I popped in only to find he was there, being inundated with questions from dozens of people, and I began to tell the story of The Crow and The Magpies, an allegory of the chat experience when he's there.  I got as far in my tale as describing a flock of magpies descending around the crow when he threw out the line "two magpies together but silent".  And here, in this song, two birds perfectly still. Lovely little personal coincidence that means absolutely nothing but still makes me smile.

If for no other reason, I love Want and Able for the fact that it's truly Jack solo.  Two tracks, one of his voice accompanied by himself on piano, and another of him singing along with himself on acoustic guitar.  It's simple and beautiful and I wish there were more like it (Temporary Ground, for example).  The story's a universal one, though I find it interesting that a very meaningful bit of the lyrics that are in the book were left out on the record.  Also interesting that the genders were switched from the time of writing to the time of recording, a great example of how fluidly Jack's pronouns should be perceived.  

Love or hate this record, there's so much wisdom buried in the words of these songs. And there's the irony, the contradiction that Jack has always summed up and presented so well-- Wisdom doesn't make life any easier.  Understanding these elements of human nature doesn't keep us from fucking up, from tripping in the minefields constantly laid by ourselves and others.  And this is why his stories resonate.  They're our stories as well as his own.