Thursday, December 17, 2009

Faux Friendship by William Deresiewicz

facebook comic

"The new social-networking Web sites have falsified our understanding of intimacy itself, and with it, our understanding of ourselves. The absurd idea, bruited about in the media, that a MySpace profile or "25 Random Things About Me" can tell us more about someone than even a good friend might be aware of is based on desiccated notions about what knowing another person means: First, that intimacy is confessional—an idea both peculiarly American and peculiarly young, perhaps because both types of people tend to travel among strangers, and so believe in the instant disgorging of the self as the quickest route to familiarity. Second, that identity is reducible to information: the name of your cat, your favorite Beatle, the stupid thing you did in seventh grade. Third, that it is reducible, in particular, to the kind of information that social-networking Web sites are most interested in eliciting, consumer preferences. Forget that we're all conducting market research on ourselves. Far worse is that Facebook amplifies our longstanding tendency to see ourselves ("I'm a Skin Bracer man!") in just those terms. We wear T-shirts that proclaim our brand loyalty, pique ourselves on owning a Mac, and now put up lists of our favorite songs. "15 movies in 15 minutes. Rule: Don't take too long to think about it." >>FULL ARTICLE


Sunday, November 29, 2009

print the legend

See my post on Nancy Cunard HERE.


Nancy CunardNancy Cunard
above: Cunard, over 6 feet tall, with (I believe) Tristan Tzara.

Nancy CunardNancy CunardNancy Cunard

Monday, November 16, 2009

"The Beatles belong to the history of the 60s, but their musical merits are at best dubious."

by Piero Scaruffi.


"The fact that so many books still name the Beatles "the greatest or most significant or most influential" rock band ever only tells you how far rock music still is from becoming a serious art. Jazz critics have long recognized that the greatest jazz musicians of all times are Duke Ellington and John Coltrane, who were not the most famous or richest or best sellers of their times, let alone of all times. Classical critics rank the highly controversial Beethoven over classical musicians who were highly popular in courts around Europe. Rock critics are still blinded by commercial success: the Beatles sold more than anyone else (not true, by the way), therefore they must have been the greatest. Jazz critics grow up listening to a lot of jazz music of the past, classical critics grow up listening to a lot of classical music of the past. Rock critics are often totally ignorant of the rock music of the past, they barely know the best sellers. No wonder they will think that the Beatles did anything worthy of being saved.

In a sense the Beatles are emblematic of the status of rock criticism as a whole: too much attention to commercial phenomena (be it grunge or U2) and too little attention to the merits of real musicians. If somebody composes the most divine music but no major label picks him up and sells him around the world, a lot of rock critics will ignore him. If a major label picks up a musician who is as stereotyped as one can be but launches her or him worldwide, your average critic will waste rivers of ink on her or him. This is the sad status of rock criticism: rock critics are basically publicists working for free for major labels, distributors and record stores. They simply publicize what the music business wants to make money with.

Hopefully, one not-too-distant day, there will be a clear demarcation between a great musician like Tim Buckley, who never sold much, and commercial products like the Beatles. And rock critics will study more of rock history and realize who invented what and who simply exploited it commercially.

Beatles' "aryan" music removed any trace of black music from rock and roll: it replaced syncopated african rhythm with linear western melody, and lusty negro attitudes with cute white-kid smiles.

Contemporary musicians never spoke highly of the Beatles, and for a good reason. They could not figure out why the Beatles' songs should be regarded more highly than their own. They knew that the Beatles were simply lucky to become a folk phenomenon (thanks to "Beatlemania", which had nothing to do with their musical merits). That phenomenon kept alive interest in their (mediocre) musical endeavours to this day. Nothing else grants the Beatles more attention than, say, the Kinks or the Rolling Stones. There was nothing intrinsically better in the Beatles' music. Ray Davies of the Kinks was certainly a far better songwriter than Lennon & McCartney. The Stones were certainly much more skilled musicians than the 'Fab Fours'. And Pete Townshend was a far more accomplished composer, capable of "Tommy" and "Quadrophenia". Not to mention later and far greater British musicians. Not to mention the American musicians who created what the Beatles later sold to the masses.

The Beatles sold a lot of records not because they were the greatest musicians but simply because their music was easy to sell to the masses: it had no difficult content, it had no technical innovations, it had no creative depth. They wrote a bunch of catchy 3-minute ditties and they were photogenic. If somebody had not invented "beatlemania" in 1963, you would not have wasted five minutes of your time to read a page about such a trivial band.

The Beatles most certainly belong to the history of the 60s, but their musical merits are at best dubious.

The Beatles came to be at the height of the reaction against rock and roll, when the innocuous "teen idols", rigorously white, were replacing the wild black rockers who had shocked the radio stations and the conscience of half of America. Their arrival represented a lifesaver for a white middle class terrorized by the idea that within rock and roll lay a true revolution of customs. The Beatles tranquilized that vast section of people and conquered the hearts of all those (first and foremost the females) who wanted to rebel without violating the societal status quo. The contorted and lascivious faces of the black rock and rollers were substituted by the innocent smiles of the Beatles; the unleashed rhythms of the first were substituted by the catchy tunes of the latter. Rock and roll could finally be included in the pop charts. The Beatles represented the quintessential reaction to a musical revolution in the making, and for a few years they managed to run its enthusiasm into the ground.

Furthermore, the Beatles represented the reaction against a social and political revolution. They arrived at the time of the student protests, of Bob Dylan, of the Hippies, and they replaced the image of angry kids with their fists in the air, with their cordial faces and their amiable declarations. They came to replace the accusatory words of militant musicians with overindulgent nursery rhymes. In this fashion as well the Beatles served as middle-class tranquilizers, as if to prove the new generation was not made up exclusively of rebels, misfits and sexual maniacs.

For most of their career the Beatles were four mediocre musicians who sang melodic three-minute tunes at a time when rock music was trying to push itself beyond that format (a format originally confined by the technical limitations of 78 rpm record). They were the quintessence of "mainstream", assimilating the innovations proposed by rock music, within the format of the melodic song.

The Beatles belonged, like the Beach Boys (whom they emulated for most of their career), to the era of the vocal band. In such a band the technique of the instrument was not as important as the chorus. Undoubtedly skilled at composing choruses, they availed themselves of producer George Martin (head of the Parlophone since 1956), to embellish those choruses with arrangements more and more eccentric.

Thanks to a careful publicity campaign they became the most celebrated entertainers of the era, and are still the darlings of magazines and tabloids, much like Princess Grace of Monaco and Lady Di.

The convergence between Western polyphony (melody, several parts of vocal harmony and instrumental arrangements) and African percussion - the leitmotif of American music from its inception - was legitimized in Europe by the huge success of the Merseybeat, in particular by its best sellers, Gerry and the Pacemakers and the Beatles, both produced by George Martin and managed by Brian Epstein. To the bands of the Merseybeat goes the credit of having validated rock music for a vast audience, a virtually endless audience. They were able to interpret the spirit and the technique of rock and roll, while separating it from its social circumstances, thus defusing potential explosions. In such fashion, they rendered it accessible not only to the young rebels, but to all. Mediocre musicians and even more mediocre intellectuals, bands like the Beatles had the intuition of the circus performer who knows how to amuse the peasants after a hard day's work, an intuition applied to the era of mass distribution of consumer goods.

Every one of their songs and every one of their albums followed much more striking songs and albums by others, but instead of simply imitating those songs, the Beatles adapted them to a bourgeois, conformist and orthodox dimension. The same process was applied to the philosophy of the time, from the protest on college campuses to Dylan's pacifism, from drugs to the Orient. Their vehicle was melody, a universal code of sorts, that declared their music innocuous. Naturally others performed the same operation, and many (from the Kinks to the Hollies, from the Beach Boys to the Mamas and Papas) produced melodies even more memorable, yet the Beatles arrived at the right moment and theirs would remain the trademark of the melodic song of the second half of the twentieth century.

Their ascent was branded as "Beatlemania", a phenomenon of mass hysteria launched in 1963 that marked the height of the "teen idol" mode, a extension of the myths of Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley. From that moment on, no matter what they put together, the Beatles remained the center of the media's attention.

Musically, for what it's worth, the Beatles were the product of an era that had been prepared by vocal groups such as the Everly Brothers and by rockers such as Buddy Holly; an era that also expressed itself through the girl-groups, the Tamla bands and surf music. What the Beatles have in common with them, aside from almost identical melodies, is a general concept of song: an exuberant, optimistic and cadenced melody.

The Beatles were the quintessence of instrumental mediocrity. George Harrison was a pathetic guitarist, compared with the London guitarists of those days (Townshend of the Who, Richards of the Rolling Stones, Davies of the Kinks, Clapton and Beck and Page of the Yardbirds, and many others who were less famous but no less original). The Beatles had completely missed the revolution of rock music (founded on a prominent use of the guitar) and were still trapped in the stereotypes of the easy-listening orchestras. Paul McCartney was a singer from the 1950s, who could not have possibly sounded more conventional. As a bassist, he was not worth the last of the rhythm and blues bassists (even though within the world of Merseybeat his style was indeed revolutionary). Ringo Starr played drums the way any kid of that time played it in his garage (even though he may ultimately be the only one of the four who had a bit of technical competence). Overall, the technique of the "fab four" was the same of many other easy-listening groups: sub-standard.

Theirs were records of traditional songs crafted as they had been crafted for centuries, yet they served an immense audience, far greater than the audience of those who wanted to change the world, the hippies and protesters. Their fans ignored or abhorred the many rockers of the time who were experimenting with the suite format, who were composing long free-form tracks, who were using dissonance, who were radically changing the concept of the musical piece. The Beatles' fans thought, and some still think, that using trumpets in a rock song was a revolutionary event, that using background noises (although barely noticeable) was an even more revolutionary event, and that only great musical geniuses could vary so many styles in one album, precisely what many rock musicians were doing all over the world, employing much more sophisticated stylistic excursions.

While the Velvet Underground, Frank Zappa, the Doors, Pink Floyd and many others were composing long and daring suites worthy of avant garde music, thus elevating rock music to art, the Beatles continued to yield three minute songs built around a chorus. Beatlemania and its myth notwithstanding, Beatles fans went crazy for twenty seconds of trumpet, while the Velvet Underground were composing suites of chaos twenty minutes long. Actually, between noise and a trumpet, between twenty seconds and twenty minutes, there was an artistic difference of several degrees of magnitude. They were, musically, sociologically, politically, artistically, and ideologically, on different planets.

Beatlemania created a comical temporal distortion. Many Beatles fans were convinced that rock and roll was born around the early 60s, that psychedelic rock and the hippies were a 1967 phenomenon, that student protests began in 1969, that peace marches erupted at the end of the 60s, and so on. Beatles fans believed that the Beatles were first in everything, while in reality they were last in almost everything. The case of the Beatles is a textbook example of how myths can distort history.

The Beatles had the historical function to delay the impact of the innovations of the 60's . Between 1966 and 1969, while suites, jams, and long free form tracks (which the Beatles also tried but only toward the end of their career) became the fashion, while the world was full of guitarists, bassist, singers and drummers who played solos and experimented with counterpoint, the Beatles limited themselves to keeping the tempo and following the melody. Their historic function was also to prepare the more conservative audience for those innovations. Their strength was perhaps being the epitome of mediocrity: never a flash of genius, never a revolutionary thought, never a step away from what was standard, accepting innovations only after they had been accepted by the establishment. And maybe it was that chronic mediocrity that made their fortune: whereas other bands tried to surpass their audiences, to keep two steps ahead of the myopia of their fans, traveling the hard and rocky road, the Beatles took their fans by the hand and walked them along a straight path devoid of curves and slopes.

Beatles fans can change the meaning of the word "artistic" to suit themselves, but the truth is that the artistic value of the Beatles work is very low. The Beatles made only songs, often unpretentious songs, with melodies no more catchy than those of many other pop singers. The artistic value of those songs is the artistic value of one song: however well done (and one can argue over the number of songs well done vs. the number of overly publicized songs by the band of the moment), it remains a song, precisely as toothpaste remains toothpaste. It doesn't become a work of art just because it has been overly publicized.

The Beatles are justly judged for the beautiful melodies they have written. But those melodies were "beautiful" only when compared to the melodies of those who were not trying to write melodies; in other words to the musicians who were trying to rewrite the concept of popular music by implementing suites, jams and noise. Many contemporaries of Beethoven wrote better minuets than Beethoven ever wrote, but only because Beethoven was writing something else. In fact, he was trying to write music that went beyond the banality of minuets.

The melodies of the Beatles were perhaps inferior to many composers of pop music who still compete with the Beatles with regard to quality, those who were less famous and thus less played.

The songs of the Beatles were equipped with fairly vapid lyrics at a time when hordes of singer songwriters and bands were trying to say something intelligent. The Beatles' lyrics were tied to the tradition of pop music, while rock music found space, rightly or wrongly, for psychological narration, anti-establishment satire, political denunciation, drugs, sex and death.

The most artistic and innovative aspect of the Beatles' music, in the end, proved to be George Martin's arrangements. Perhaps aware of Beatles' limitations, Martin used the studio and studio musicians in a creative fashion, at times venturing beyond the demands of tradition to embellish the songs. Moreover, Martin undoubtedly had a taste for unusual sounds. At the beginning of his career he had produced Rolf Harris' Tie Me Kangaroo with the didjeridoo. At the time nobody knew what it was. Between 1959 and 1962 Martin had produced several tracks of British humor with heavy experimentation, inspired by the Californian Stan Freiberg, the first to use the recording studio as an instrument.

As popular icons, as celebrities, the Beatles certainly influenced their times, although much less than their fans suppose. Even Richard Nixon, the American president of the Vietnam war and Watergate influenced his times and the generations that followed, but that doesn't make him a great musician.

Today Beatles songs are played mostly in supermarkets. But their myth, like that of Rudolph Valentino and Frank Sinatra, will live as long as the fans who believed in it will live. Through the years their fame has been artificially kept alive by marketing, a colossal advertising effort, a campaign without equal in the history of entertainment.

Their history begins at the end of the 50s. Buddy Holly's Crickets had invented the modern concept of the rock band. Indirectly they had also started the fashion of naming a band with a plural noun, like the doo-wop ensembles before them, but a noun that was funny instead of serious. Almost immediately bands like "the Crickets" began to pop up everywhere, most of them bearing plural nouns. Insects were fashionable. The Beatles were the most famous.

Assembled to bring to Europe the free spirit, the simple melodies and the vocal harmonies of the Beach Boys (the novelty of the moment) more than for any specific reason, the Beatles became, despite their limitations, the most successful recording artists of their time. While acknowledging that neither the Beatles nor the Beach Boys were music greats, it must be noted that both were influential in conferring commercial credibility to rock music, and both inspired thousands of youngsters around the world to form rock bands. The same had happened with Elvis Presley. Although far from being a great musician, he too had inspired thousands of white kids, among them both the Beatles and the Beach Boys, to become rockers.

The "swinging London" of the 60s was a mix of renewal, mediocrity, conformity, non-commitment, cultural rebirth, tourist attraction and excitement, a locus of rebellion drowned in shining billboards, of young men with long hair and girls in mini skirts, of wealth and hypocrisy about wealth, a city of indifference. La dolce vita, English style. The Beatles were the best selling product of that London, a city full of ambiguity and contradictions.

The Beatles' birthplace was Liverpool. John Lennon was a rhythm guitar player with a skiffle group called the Quarrymen, founded in 1955, before forming the Beatles in 1960 with Paul McCartney. George Harrison, hired when he was still a minor, played lead guitar, with a formidable style inspired by the rockabilly of James Burton and Carl Perkins. They rose through the ranks playing rock and roll covers in Hamburg, Germany, then made their debut at The Cavern, in Liverpool, on February 21, 1961. Shortly after, Ringo Starr was called to replace the drummer Pete Best, and McCartney switched to the bass.

In 1962 two phenomena exploded in America: the Beach Boys and the Four Seasons. Both truly sang, in vocal harmony derived from 50s doo-wop, which they introduced to white audiences, with arrangements imitating the Crickets.

That was the year the Beatles began the transition from covers to original, melodic, vocal harmonies. One of the first recordings of the Beach Boys had been a revision of one of Chuck Berry's songs, one of the first recordings of the Beatles had to be a revision of one of Chuck Berry's songs. Brian Wilson played the bass for the Beach Boys, Paul McCartney would play bass for the Beatles.

Brian Epstein was the man who scouted them and secured their contract with EMI in November 1961, and also the man who created their image,their clothes, their hairdos (similar to tv comedian Ish Kabibble's). George Martin was the man who created their sound.

1962 was the year of Bob Dylan, of peace demonstrations, of songs of protest. Precisely in 1962, far removed, diametrically opposed really, to the events that dominated American society, the Beatles debuted with a 45, Love Me Do, recorded in September 1962, a jovial rhythm and blues led by the harmonica in the style of Delbert McClinton. By the end of the year the song had made the charts. In February 1963, the band reached #2 with Please Please Me. In the space of few months, a diligent marketing strategy, ingeniously managed by Brian Epstein, unleashed mass hysteria. Records sold out before the recording sessions actually began, mass-media detailed step by step chronicles of the four heroes, the world of fashion imposed a new hairdo. Epstein had created "Beatlemania".

The overflow of fanaticism around them demanded refinement of their style. They began to utilize new instruments. The more they dissociated themselves from their rhythm and blues roots, the faster their style became more melodious. Through From Me To You, the rowdy She Loves You (accessorized with the first "yeah-yeah-yeahs"), and I Want To Hold Your Hand (a heavier rhythm enhanced by clapping), all number one on the charts of 1963, they fused centuries of vocal styles - sacred hymn, Elizabethan song, music hall, folk ballad, gospel and voodoo - in a harmonious and crystal-clear format for happy chorus. A variant of the same process had been adopted in the United States by the Shirelles. For the most part it was Buddy Holly's jovial, childish, catchy style that was copied, speeding the tempo to accommodate the demands of the "twist". The twist was the dance craze of the moment: fast beat, suggestive moves and catchy tunes. The Beatles sensed that it was the right formula.

In the USA nobody had caught on yet, and only mangled versions of Please Please Me (March 1963) and With The Beatles (November 1963) had been released. In January 1964 EMI decided to invest significantly and I Want To Hold Your Hand reached the top of the charts together with the Beatles' first American album Meet The Beatles (Capitol, 1964). In the States, cleansed at last of the perverted and amoral rock and roll scum of the 50s, the charming and polite Merseybeat of the Beatles delighted the media. After their first tour in February 1964, and their appearance on the "Ed Sullivan Show", their 45s were solidly on top of the American charts. In April 1964 they occupied the first five positions. After all, their sound was drenched in American music: their vocal style was either that of the hard rockers like Little Richard, or the gentler call-and-response of the Drifters (echoing one another, stretching a word for several beats, screaming coarse "yeah-yeah", shrieking in falsetto), the choruses were Buddy Holly's, the harmonies were the Beach Boys' and the instrumental parts were remakes of twist combos.

The secret of the Beatles' success, in the USA as in the UK, was the simplicity of their arrangements. Whereas the idols of the time were backed by complex, almost classic arrangements, at times even by studio effects, the Beatles employed the elementary technique of surf music, completely devoid of orchestral support and surreal effects. At a time when singers had become studios subordinates, the Beatles managed to reestablish the supremacy of the singer. American youths recognized themselves in a style that was much more direct than the manufactured one of their "teen idols", and by default recognized themselves in the Beatles, precisely as they had recognized themselves in Elvis Presley after having become accustomed to the artificiality of pop music in the 50's.

The Mersey sound was designed to tone down rock and roll. Under the direction of producer George Martin and manager Brian Epstein, the sound of the Beatles also became softer.The captivating style of the Beatles had already been pioneered by Gerry & The Pacemakers (formed in 1959, also managed by Epstein). They reached the charts with their first three 45s (How Do You Do It, March 1963, I Like It, May 1963, You`ll Never Walk Alone, October 1963): very melodic versions of rock and roll with sugar coated versions of rock's rebel text. Practically speaking, the Pacemaker formula brought rock and roll into pop music. They replaced the rough and crude beat of the blues with the light and tidy rhythms of European pop songs; they exchanged the slanted melodies of the blues with the catchy tunes of the British operetta; they substituted the provocative lyrics of Chuck Berry with the romantic rhymes of the "teen idols." Epstein and Martin simply continued that format with the Beatles. The only difference was in the authorship of practically their entire cache. All the Beatles songs were signed Lennon-McCartney. (This was only for contractual reasons. In reality they were not necessarily co-written.)

The first student protests took place in Berkeley, California in 1964. Young people were protesting against the establishment in general, and against the war in Vietnam in particular. The rebellion that had been seething through the 50s had finally found its intellectual vehicle. The Beatles knew nothing of this when they recorded Can't Buy Me Love, a swinging rockabilly a la Bill Haley, the first to reach #1 simultaneously in the States and in Britain, A Hard Day's Night and I Feel Fine, using the feedback that had been pioneered in the 1950s by guitarists such as Johnny Watson and used in Britain by the Yardbirds. All three are ever so exuberant songs carrying ever so catchy refrains, that reached the top on both sides of the Atlantic. With these songs and with their public behavior the Beatles showed a whimsical and provoking way to be young. The Beatles were still a brand new phenomenon when A Hard Day's Night - the first surreal documentary about their daily lives was released, and their two first biographies were published. In the USA the marketing was intense: EMI was inundated by contracts to solicit the sales of Beatles wigs, Beatles attire, Beatles dolls, cartoons inspired by the Beatles. America was saturated with images of four smiling boys, the creation of a brand new myth that served to exorcise the demons of Vietnam, of the peace marches, of the civil disorders, of the student protests, of the racial disturbances, of the murder of JFK, of Bob Dylan, of rock and roll, of all the tragedies, real or presumed, that troubled the American Dream. In the end, it might have all been a form of shock therapy.

Sure enough, hidden behind those smiling faces were four mediocre musicians, and also four multimillionaire snobs in the proudest British tradition. Far from being symbols of rebellion, they were reactionism personified. The Beatles, optimistic and effervescent, represented an escape from reality. People, kids in particular, had a desperate need to believe in something that had nothing to do with bombs and upheaval. The Beatles put to music the enthusiasm of the masses and in return, in a cycle that bordered on perpetual motion, were enthusiastically acclaimed by the same masses.

The best of their cliches is summarized in a famous anecdote. Interviewed during their American tour, to the question, "How did you find America?", Lennon answered, "We turned left at Greenland!". Beneath this sense of humor, anarchic and surreal, lays the greatest merit of the band.

From 1965 the LP, in the preceding years not as important as the 45, became the new unit of measure of their work. The American releases had 12 cuts including the hits, the British versions had 14 cuts and generally none of the hits. A Hard Day's Night (1964) was the first release to contain material exclusively co-written by Lennon and McCartney. For Sale, released immediately after, contained six covers (but also Eight Days A Week, and the melancholy I Don't Want To Spoil The Party). Help (August 1965), with The Night Before and Ticket To Ride, marked the transition from the Merseybeat to a sound oriented more toward folk and country, though some of the songs bring Buddy Holly to mind. The Beatles of these days showed a formidable talent for the melancholy ballad, such as You've Got To Hide Your Love Away, and most of all Yesterday, the slow song par excellence written by Paul McCartney, to which Martin added a string quartet. However, their best work is to be found in more aggressive songs, such as Help, a gospel full of life adapted to their surreal style.

Rubber Soul (December 1965) completed the transition from the 45 to the 33, and also from Merseybeat to folk-rock. Following their U.S. tour, the influence of the Byrds is very strong. The rock and roll beat in Drive My Car and Run For Your Life, the exotic mood of Norwegian Wood (a David Crosby-ian litany accompanied with the sitar, already utilized by the Yardbirds, possibly based on what the Kinks had done a few months earlier with See My Friends), and the timid psychedelia of Nowhere Man and Rain (with backward vocals, but inspired by Eight Miles High, that had charted just weeks before) cover a vast repertoire of harmonies for their standards. In spite of the fact that the Beatles sought success within rock and roll, it was evident that their best work was expressed through melodic songs. The tender ballads Girl and Michelle (a classic for acoustic guitar, melodic bass and chorus, in the style of 1950s vocal groups) are truly excellent songs in their genre, but because they lack both rhythm and volume, they were considered "minor" at the time.

1965 was the year of the San Francisco hippies, of psychedelic music, of Indian gurus and experimental LSD. It all seemed to go unnoticed by the Beatles, who recorded another melodic masterpiece, We Can Work It Out, ground out on barrel organ and accordion, inspired by French folk music. They pursued the mirage of the "rave-up" with the hard riff of Day Tripper (stolen from Watch Your Step of blues man Bobby Parker), a pathetic response to Satisfaction by the Stones and You Really Got Me by the Kinks. Both songs, hard rockers, had shocked the charts that same year.

The Beatles finally freed themselves from the obsession of emulating others in 1966, with Revolver, an album entirely dedicated to sophisticated songs. The album, extremely polished, seems the lighter version of Rubber Soul. The psychedelic Tomorrow Never Knows (sitar, backward guitar, organ drones), the vaguely oriental Love You Too, the classic Eleanor Rigby, the Vaudevillian operetta Good Day Sunshine, the rhythm and blues of Got To Get You Into My Life and Dr. Robert, are all mitigated by an ever more languid and romantic attitude. The few jolts of rhythm are kept at bay by a tender effusion in I'm Only Sleeping (with a timid solo of backward guitar), There And Everywhere and For No One. With this album the Beatles left behind rock and roll to get closer to pop music, the pop music of the Brill Building, that is, a genre of pop that sees Revolver as its masterpiece. (At the time melodic songs all over the world were inspired by the Brill Building). Of course Revolver was a thousand years late. That same year Dylan had released Blonde On Blonde, a double album with compositions fifteen minutes long, and Frank Zappa had released Freak Out, also a double album, in collage format. Rock music was experimenting with free form jams as in Virgin Forest by the Fugs, Up In Her Room by the Seeds, Going Home by the Rolling Stones. The songs of the Beatles truly belonged to another century.

The formal perfection of their melodies reached the sublime in 1967 with two 45s: the baroque/electronic Penny Lane/Strawberry Fields Forever, released in February, an absolute masterpiece that never reached the top of the charts, and the hard rocking Paperback Writer, backed with the sophomoric Yellow Submarine, a mosaic full of sound gags and barroom choruses. Penny Lane represents the apex of the Manneristic style: Vaudevillian rhythm, hypnotic melody, Renaissance trumpets, folkloristic flutes and triangles. Strawberry Fields Forever is a densely-arranged psychedelic experiment (backward vocals, mellotron, harp, timpani, bongos, trumpet, cello).

1967 was the year that FM radio began to play long instrumentals. In Great Britain, it was the year of psychedelia, of the Technicolor Dream, of the UFO Club. The psychedelic singles of Pink Floyd were generating an uproar. Inevitably, the Beatles recorded Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band.

This concept album was released while the Monterey Festival was consecrating the sanctifiable, the big names of the times. Unlike most of the revolutionary records of those days, often recorded in haste and with a low budget, Sgt. Pepper cost a fortune and took four months to put together. The Beatles soar in the ethereal refrain of Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds, utilizing the sitar, distorted keyboard sounds and Indian inspired vocals; they indulge in Vaudevillian tunes such as Lovely Rita and When I'm Sixty Four, and they showcase their odd melodic sense in With A Little Help From My Friends. They scatter studio effects here and there, pretending to be avant garde musicians, in Fixing A Hole and Being For The Benefit Of Mr Kite, but in reality these are tunes inspired by the music halls, the circuses and small town bands. A Day In The Life is the culmination of the relationship between technique and philosophy. It represents the happy marriage between Martin's sense of harmony, employing a 40 piece orchestra in which everybody plays every note, and Lennon's hippie existentialism, that dissects the alienation of the bourgeoisie.

Everything was running smoothly in the name of quality music, now entrusted to high fidelity arrangements and adventurous variations of style, from folk ballads to sidewalk Vaudeville, from soul to marching bands, from the Orient to swing, from chamber music to psychedelia, from tap dance to little bands in the park. Everything had been fused into a steady flow of variety show skits.

Rather than an album of psychedelic music (compared to which it actually sounds retro), Sgt. Pepper was the Beatles' answer to the sophistication of Pet Sounds, the masterpiece by their rivals, the Beach Boys, released a year and three months before. The Beatles had always been obsessed by the Beach Boys. They had copied their multi-part harmonies, their melodic style and their carefree attitude. Through their entire career, from 1963 to 1968, the Beatles actually followed the Beach Boys within a year or two, including the formation of Apple Records, which came almost exactly one year after the birth of Brother Records. Pet Sounds had caused an uproar because it delivered the simple melodies of surf music through the artistic sophistication of the studio. So, following the example of Pet Sounds, the Beatles recorded, from February to May 1967, Sgt. Pepper, disregarding two important factors: first that Pet Sounds had been arranged, mixed and produced by Brian Wilson and not by an external producer like George Martin, and second that, as always, they were late. They began assembling Sgt. Pepper a year after Pet Sounds had hit the charts, and after dozens of records had already been influenced by it.

Legend has it that it took 700 hours of studio recording to finish the album. One can only imagine what many other less fortunate bands could have accomplished in a recording studio with 700 hours at their disposal. Although Sgt. Pepper was assembled with the intent to create a revolutionary work of art, if one dares take away the hundreds of hours spent refining the product, not much remains that cannot be heard on Revolver: Oriental touches here and there, some psychedelic extravaganzas, a couple of arrangements in classical style. Were one to skim off a few layers of studio production, only pop melodies would remain, melodies not much different from those that had climbed the charts ten years before. Yet it was the first Beatles album to be released in long playing version all over the world. None of its songs were released as singles.

The truth is that although it was declared an "experimental" work, even Sgt. Pepper managed to remain a pop album. The Beatles of 1967 were still producing three-minute ditties, while Red Crayolas and Pink Floyd, to name two psychedelic bands of the era, were playing long free form suites - at times cacophonous, often strictly instrumental - that bordered on avant garde. In 1967, the band that had never recorded a song that hadn't been built around a refrain began to feel outdated. They tried to keep up, but they never pushed themselves beyond the jingles, most likely because they couldn't, just as Marilyn Monroe could not have recited Shakespeare.

Sgt. Pepper is the album of a band that sensed change in the making, and was adapting its style to the taste of the hippies. It came in last (in June), after Velvet Underground & Nico (January), The Doors (also January), the Byrds' Younger Than Yesterday (february), and the Jefferson Airplane's Surrealistic Pillow (February) to signal the end of an era, after others had forever changed the history of rock music. (Several technical "innovations" on Sgt Pepper were copied from Younger Than Yesterday, whose tapes the Beatles had heard from David Crosby at the end of 1966). The uproar generated by Sgt. Pepper transferred those innovations from the American underground to the living rooms and the supermarkets of half the world.

With Sgt. Pepper, the sociology course in melodic rock and roll that Lennon and McCartney had introduced in 1963 came to an end. The music of the Beatles was an antidote to the uneasiness of those times, to the troubling events that scared and perplexed people. The course had the virtue of deflecting the impact of those events, the causes of political upheaval and moral revolution. The Beatles reassured the middle class at a time when almost nothing could reassure the middle class.

Every arrangement of that period - the harpsichords and the flutes, the prerecorded tracks and the electronic effects - was the result of George Martin's careful production. Martin was a lay musician, a former member of a marching band that occasionally had played in St. James Park. He knew that avant garde musicians made music by manipulating tracks, that instruments with unusual timbre existed, that rock bands were dissecting classic harmonies. His background, not to mention his intellectual ability, was of the circus, the carnival, the operetta, the marching band, London's second-rate theaters. He took all he could from that folkloristic patrimony, every unortodox technique. The results might not have been particularly impressive - after all he was neither Beethoven nor Von Karajan - but they were most certainly interesting. He was the true genius behind the music of the Beatles. Martin transformed their snobbish disposition, their childish insolence, their fleeting enthusiasm into musical ideas. He converted their second hand melodies into monumental arrangements. He even played some of the instruments that helped those songs make history. From Rubber Soul on, Martin's involvement got progressively more evident. Especially with Sgt. Pepper, Martin demonstrated his knowledge and his intuition. The idea to connect all the songs in a continuous flow, however, is McCartney's. It's the operetta syndrome, the everlasting obsession of British musicians of the music halls. The Beatles filled newspapers and magazines with their declarations about drugs and Indian mysticism, and how they converted those elements into music, but it was Martin who was doing the conversion, who was transforming their fanciful artistic ambitions into music.

Around the time of Sgt. Pepper's release, Brian Epstein died. (His death was attributed to drugs and alcohol.) He was the man who had given fame to the Beatles, the fundamental presence in their development, the man who had invented their myth. The Beatles were four immature kids who for years had played the involuntary leading roles in an immensely successful soap opera, a part that paid them with imprisonment. For years they didn't dare step outside their hotel rooms or their limousines. As Epstein's control began to lessen they began to look around, to take notice of the drugs, the social disorder, the ideals of peace, the student protests, the Oriental philosophies. It was a world completely unknown to them, full of issues they had never mentioned in their songs. The revelation was traumatic. Epstein's absence generated chaos, exposing problems with revenue, representation and public relations that eventually caused the demise of the group, but it also gave them the chance to grow up.

Sgt Pepper represents a breaking point in their career on several levels. It's a very autobiographical conceptual take on self-awareness. It's a concept album about the discovery of being able to put together a concept album.

Two projects realized with unusual wit also belong to the same period, a period that bridged two eras: the television movie Magical Mystery Tour and the cartoon Yellow Submarine. In both works can be found some of the most ingenious ideas of the quartet. The grotesque schizoid nightmare I Am The Walrus and the kaleidoscopic trip It's All Too Much are exercises of surrealism and psychedelia applied to the Merseybeat. Magical Mystery Tour also includes the bucolic ballad The Fool On The Hill, the psychedelic Blue Jay Way, and the mantra Baby You`re A Rich Man.

Meanwhile the shower of hits influenced by the experimental climate continued: Magical Mystery Tour, the movie soundtrack, with trumpets, jazz piano, changes in tempo, and a circus huckster-style presentation, Your Mother Should Know another vaudeville classic, the anthem All You Need Is Love, Hello Goodbye, a catchy melody distorted by psychedelic effects, Lady Madonna, the boogie inspired by Fats Domino. But the Beatles still belonged to the era of pop music: unlike Cream they didn't pull off solos, unlike Hendrix they strummed their guitars without real know-how, unlike Pink Floyd they didn't dare dissect harmony. They were not just retro, they simply belonged elsewhere.

Hey Jude (august 1968), a long (for the Beatles) jam of psychedelic blues-rock, in reality another historic slow song by McCartney, came out after Traffic's Dear Mr. Fantasy and also after Cream's lengthy live jams had reached peak popularity. Paradoxically, Hey Jude established a new sales record; it was #1 on the charts for nine weeks and sold six million copies.

Having established the melodic standard of the decade, the quartet implemented it in every harmonic recipe that arose from time to time. By applying the industrial law of constant revision, they Beatles managed to keep themselves on top. So much variety of arrangements resulted in mere mannerism, meticulous attention to detail and ornament. The albums of the third period fluctuate in fact between collages of miniatures and melodic fantasies, but always skillfully keeping a harmonic cohesion between one song and the other, in the step with - consciously or unconsciously - the structure of the operetta.

By the time of their next LP release they were leading separate lives, each indifferent to the ideas of the others, and their album reflected the situation. It was clear that this new batch of recorded songs was not the effort of a band, but the work of four artists profoundly different from one another.

The double album The Beatles (November 1968), very similar in spirit to the Byrds' Notorious Byrd Brothers (June 1968), is a disorganized heap of incongruous ideas. No other Beatles album had ever been so varied and eclectic. Their new "progressive" libido found an outlet in blues-rock (Rocky Raccoon, Why Don't We Do It In The Road), and especially the giddy hyper-boogies (Birthday and Helter Skelter). As a consequence of this fragmented inspiration, the record includes a cornucopia of genres: classical (Piggies, a rare moment of genius from Harrison, a baroque sonata performed with sarcastic humour and a melody borrowed from Stephane Grappelli's Eveline), acoustic folk (Blackbird), the campfire sing-a-long (Bungalow Bill), ballads (Cry Baby Cry - one of their best piano progressions), the usual vaudeville-style parade (Don't Pass Me By, Martha My Dear, Obladi Oblada), and melodic rock (While My Guitar Gently Weeps, the jewel of their tunefulness). The album wraps up with a long jam, more or less avant garde, (Revolution No. 9, co-written by John Lennon and Yoko Ono) two years after everybody else, and three years after the eleven minutes of Goin' Home, by the Stones.

The so called White Album sampled the mood change of rock music toward a simpler and more traditional way to make music. It was released three months after Sweetheart Of The Rodeo by the Byrds, which in turn had followed Dylan's John Wesley Harding. It's also an album that reflects the passing of Brian Epstein.

In 1968 Great Britain became infected by the concept album/rock opera bug, mostly realized by Beatles contemporaries: Tommy by the Who, The Village Green Preservation Society by the Kinks, Ogden's Nut Gone Flake by the Small Faces, Odyssey and Oracle by the Zombies, etc. So, with the usual delay, a year later the Beatles gave it a try. Abbey Road (1969), is a vaudeville-style operetta that combines every genre in a steady stream of melodies and structurally perfect arrangements. It's the summa encyclopaedica of their career. It's a series of self-mocking vignettes, mimicking now the circus worker (Maxwell's Silver Hammer), now the crooner (Oh Darling), now the baby-sitter (Octopus's Garden, in the silly vein of Yellow Submarine), culminating in the overwhelming suite of side B. Starting with the primitive exuberance of You Never Give Me Your Money (a mini rock opera worthy of early Zappa) and Mean Mr Mustard, the suite comes in thick and fast with Polytheme Pam and She Came In Thru The Bathroom Window, and dies melancholically with yet another goliardic chorus, Carry That Weight (that reprises the motifs of Money and I Want You). It's the apotheosis of the belated music hall entertainer in Paul McCartney. And it is, above all, a masterpiece of production, of sound, of sonic puzzles.

As was the case with their contemporaries - Who, Kinks, Small Faces and Zombies - this late album/thesis runs the risks going down in history as the Beatles' masterpiece. Obviously it doesn't even come close to the creative standards of the time (1969), but it scores well. The result is formally impeccable melodic songwriting, although it must be noted that the best songs, both written by George Harrison, are also the most modest. Abbey Road is their last studio album, again produced by George Martin.

All efforts at cohesion notwithstanding, their personalities truly became too divergent. The modest hippie George Harrison became attracted to Oriental spiritualism. (Something and Here Comes The Sun are his melancholy ballads). Paul McCartney, the smiling bourgeois, became progressively more involved with pop music (every nursery-rhyme, Get Back and Let It Be included, are his). John Lennon, the thoughtful intellectual became absorbed in self-examination and political involvement. His was a much harder and/or psychedelic sound (Revolution, Come Together, the dreamy and Indian-like Across The Universe). They were songs ever more meaningless and anonymous. After all, the break-up had begun with Revolver (Lennon wrote Tomorrow Never Knows, Harrison Love You Too, McCartney Eleanor Rigby), and had been camouflaged in successive records by Martin's painstakingly arrangements.

The Beatles adapted their music to suit the styles in fashion: doo-wop, garage-rock, psychedelia, country-rock. Very few bands changed style so drastically from year to year. Perhaps they began to feel obsolete listening to Cream. Cream concerts were the first musical phenomenon in Great Britain to rival Beatlemania. Cream did all they could to make the Merseybeat sound terribly old, precisely what the Beatles had done to the sound of Elvis Presley. In 1969, Led Zeppelin changed completely the importance of radio and charts. [Led Zeppelin is the first enormously successful band whose album didn't get any air play on AM radio (only FM) and whose songs didn't make the singles charts. The change they brought about was significant because it shifted the importance of the charts from singles to albums. -Translator's Note] Since they used melody as a lever, the Beatles had a relatively easy time in following every shift in fashion (psychedelia included), until hard-rock - the antithesis of Beatlemania - came about. Suddenly the idol was no longer the singer but the instrument, the excitement was generated by the riff and not by the refrain, concerts were attended by multitudes of long-haired men on drugs who gathered on the street, not by hysterical teenage girls who assembled in theaters. Hard-rock negated their simple melodies. It is not by coincidence that the arrival of hard-rock marked the end of the Beatles.

In 1970 the Beatles broke up and every member began a solo career. John Lennon (murdered in December 1980 by a deranged fan) didn't do much worthy of the great singer songwriters of the time. Had it not been for his personal and political involvement, and his past as a Beatle, he would not have made it by his music alone. His solo career fluctuated ambiguously between hard-rock and ballads, the utopia of peace and love and domestic romanticism. His solo career actually began with Two Virgins (Apple, 1968), an album he made when he was still a Beatle, in collaboration with his famous second wife. Yoko Ono was the heiress to a dynasty of Japanese bankers, she held a degree in philosophy, had been a United States resident since 1953, was a member of the avant garde movement Fluxus, and a world renowned performance artist throughout the 60s. The album was followed by the more experimental Life With The Lions (Apple, 1969) and Wedding Album (Apple, 1969), and also a live album with Give Peace A Chance (a street chorus a la David Peel). Perhaps the best of Lennon can be found in the autobiographical album John Lennon/ Plastic Ono Band (Capitol, 1970), with a vibrant production by Phil Spector. The imprint of Spector's sound can also be heard in the single Instant Karma. Lennon found much more commercial success with the album that followed, Imagine (1971), which contains Imagine, his most famous song, besides Power to The People and Happy Christmas. Peace activism and involvement in humanitarian causes gave the couple more prominence than music ever did. Lennon scored a #1 hit with the duet with Elton John, Whatever Gets You Thru The Night (1974). An embarrassing string of mediocre albums ended with Double Fantasy (Geffen, 1980), released a couple of months before his death. It contains the hits Starting Over and Woman.

McCartney managed a few albums worthy of the Beatles (as chance would have it produced by George Martin), except they were not called "The Beatles". As a testament to rock consumerism and all the worst the genre embodies, McCartney's songs (solo or in the company of Wings ) regularly bounced to the top of the charts. Between boring lullabies (Maybe I'm Amazed, 1970, Another Day, 1971, Uncle Albert, 1971, My Love, 1973, Band On The Run, 1973, Listen To What The Man Said, 1975, Silly Love Songs, 1976, With A Little Luck, 1978; Coming Up, 1980, No More Lonely Nights, 1984, Spies Like Us, 1985), and duets with other singers (Say Say Say, 1983, with Michael Jackson, Ebony And Ivory, 1982, with Stevie Wonder), McCartney holds the record for #1 songs on the Billboard charts. Band On The Run (Capitol, 1973) is perhaps least mediocre of his albums. Mull of Kintyre, (1977) is the first British single that sold more that two million copies. Very few pop singers have been able to release songs so predictable. Each "return to form" album of the 1980s and 1990s was worse than the previous one until Chaos and Creation in the Backyard (Capitol, 2005), produced by Nigel Godrich but mostly played by McCartney himself on all instruments.

While a trivial guitarist and vocalist, George Harrison (who died of cancer in November 2001) was perhaps the only one who made songs worthy of notice. First the experimental Wonderwall (Zapple, 1968) and Electronic Sounds (Zapple, 1969), with help from Bernie Krause (Under The Mersey Wall e No Time Or Space), then the three-record box set All Things Must Pass (Apple, 1970), produced by Phil Spector, a reprise of the raga-psychedelic theme. Set in a bucolic-folk context, the album continues the discourse that Donovan had began in 1967 (What Is Life, Isn't It A Pity, Let It Down, Apple Scruffs, Art Of Dying, My Sweet Lord). This record has nothing in common with the music of the Beatles. A dedicated follower of Hare Krishna, among other platitudes of the 60s, Harrison organized the first grand concert to benefit a nation, Bangladesh, in 1972. In 1973 he recorded Living In The Material World with Give Me Love. Dark Horse (1974) and You (1975) also had a couple of hits. After a series of unfortunate albums, Harrison hit the charts in 1987, with I've Got My Mind Set On You, an old soul song by Rudy Clark. The following year he joined Dylan, Petty and Orbison to become one of the Traveling Wilburys.

Throughout the 90s McCartney and a few discographers desperately tried to keep the Beatles myth alive by launching new commercial enterprises geared toward nostalgia. These ventures were followed with interest by the same tabloids that followed Lady Di and Princess Grace of Monaco.

After the breakup, the role of George Martin became evident. We'll never know what the Beatles would have been had they not encountered Martin, but we do know who Martin was before he met the Beatles. Even without the Beatles, George Martin would have been himself, a successful producer who reached the top of the charts with a collection of catchy tunes. And we also know what the Beatles were without Martin:four mediocre singer songwriters. Their solo records tell us how good they were without Martin.

The Beatles made history for their melodies and their arrangements. Beatlemania was created, justifiably, in response to the exuberant rock and roll they played in 1963 with electrical instruments and drums, that managed to revitalize a genre drowned in sugar coated orchestrations supporting teen idols. Revolver must definitely be credited with having created a new sophisticated living room pop art. However, Sgt. Pepper, their most famous album, is nothing more than a hypocritically commercial album, a collection of traditional pop songs masked as psychedelic avant garde music. It nevertheless served as a prelude to the baroque suite Abbey Road, the apex of their formality. Similar parallels can be found in almost every band of those times, but few listeners know the records of those bands.

Even at their best the Beatles didn't represent the spirit of their generation. When they tried they were late, or even against the mainstream. At best they expressed the values of the generation that preceded theirs, the 40s. Those values were moral, musical, and social order, and respect, the very values attacked in the 50s by rock and roll. Thus the fact that the songs of the Beatles were similar in lyrics, music and arrangements to those of Tin Pan Alley shouldn't surprise anyone. Some of those songs will forever be listed in the annals of melodic music: Love Me Do, Hard Day's Night, I Feel Fine, We Can Work It Out, Penny Lane, Hello Goodbye, A Little Help From My Friends, Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds. For what it's worth, the everlasting refrains of those songs took rock and roll all the way down to a level of silliness and childish humor, separating it from its violent rebellious roots.

With out a shadow of a doubt, the Beatles were great melodists, but at a time when melody was considered a reductive factor. As a matter of fact their melodies marked a regression to the 50s, to the type of singer the recording industry was desperately trying to push on the audience and against whom rock sought to rebel.

The Beatles tried every fashion exported by the US: Chuck Berry's rock and roll, the vocal harmonies of the Beach Boys, the romantic melody of Tin Pan Alley, the baroque sound of Pet Sounds (Beach Boys), the rock opera Absolutely Free (Frank Zappa), the psychedelic arrangements of the Electric Prunes and the like, the hard riffs of the blues-rock jams (Cream), the synthesis of folk-rock (launched by Dylan and the Dead), and so forth. Yet the audience credited these innovations - brought about by others - to the Beatles. All things considered, their success is one of greatest paradoxes of the century. They Beatles understood absolutely nothing of what was happening around them, but the success of anything they copied was guaranteed. By buying their records, one bought a shortcut to the music of those times.

The influence of the Beatles cannot be considered musical. Music, especially in those days, was something else: experimental, instrumental, improvised, political. The Beatles played pop ditties. Rock musicians of the time played everything but pop ditties, because rock was conceived as an alternative to ditties. FM radio was created to play rock music, not pop ditties. Music magazines were born to review rock music, not pop songs. Evidently, to the kids (mostly girls) who listened to the Beatles, rock music had nothing to say that they were willing to listen to.

They were influential, yes, but on the customs - in the strictest sense of the word. Their influence, for better or for worse, on the great phenomena of the 60s doesn't amount to much. Unlike Bob Dylan, they didn't stir social revolts; unlike the Jefferson Airplane and the Grateful Dead they didn't foster the hippie movement; unlike Jim Morrison and Jimi Hendrix they didn't further the myth of LSD; unlike Jagger and Zappa they had no impact on the sexual revolution. Indeed the Beatles were icons of the customs that embodied the opposite: the desire to contain all that was happening. In their songs there is no Vietnam, there is no politics, there are no kids rioting in the streets, there is no sexual promiscuity, there are no drugs, there is no violence. In the world of the Beatles the social order of the 40s and the 50s still reigns. At best they were influential on the secret dreams of young girls, and on the haircuts of young nerdy boys.

The Beatles had the historical function to serve as champions of the reaction. Their smiles and their choruses hid the revolution: they concealed the restlessness of an underground movement ready to explode, for a bourgeoisie who wanted to hear nothing about it.

They had nothing to say and that's why they didn't say it."

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Bill Hicks: The Goat Boy Rises by John Lahr

published in The New Yorker, 1993.


"On October 1st, the comedian Bill Hicks, after doing his twelfth gig on the David Letterman show, became the first comedy act to be censored at CBS’s Ed Sullivan Theatre, where Letterman is now in residence, and where Elvis Presley was famously censored in 1956. Presley was not allowed to be shown from the waist down. Hicks was not allowed to be shown at all. It’s not what’s in Hicks’ pants but what’s in his head that scared the CBS panjandrums. Hicks, a tall thirty-one-year-old Texan with a pudgy face aged beyond its years from hard living on the road, is no motormouth vulgarian but an exhilarating comic thinker in a renegade class all his own. Until the ban, which, according to Hicks, earned him “more attention than my other eleven appearances on Letterman times one hundred,” Hicks’ caustic observations and mischievous cultural connections had found a wide audience in England, where he is something of a cult figure. I caught up with Hicks backstage on a rainy Sunday last November at the Dominion Theatre, in London, where a record-breaking crowd of two thousand Brits was packed so tightly that they were standing three deep at the back of the dress circle to hear Hicks deliver some acid home truths about the U.S.A., which to him stands for United States of Advertising. Hicks thinks against society and insists on the importance of this intellectual freedom as a way to inspire others to think for themselves. “To me, the comic is the guy who says ‘Wait a minute’ as the consensus forms,” Hicks told me as we climbed the stairs to his dressing room. “He’s the antithesis of the mob mentality. The comic is a flame—like Shiva the Destroyer, toppling idols no matter what they are. He keeps cutting everything back to the moment.”

Even then, the talk about courting comic danger had Hicks worrying about his prospects in America. “Comedy in the States has been totally gutted,” he told me when we’d settled into the dressing room. “It’s commercialized. They don’t have people on TV who have points of view, because that defies the status quo, and we can’t have that in the totalitarian mind-control government that runs the fuckin’ airwaves. I can’t get a shot there. I get David Letterman a lot. I love Letterman, but every time I go on, we have tiffs over material. They love me, but his people have this fictitious mainstream audience they think they play to. It’s untrue. It doesn’t exist. I like doing the show, but it’s almost like working a puzzle: How can I be me in the context of doing this material? The best thing I do is make connections. I connect everything. It’s hard to do it in six minutes.”

Hicks certainly went for broke and pronounced his real comic self in the banned Letterman performance, which he’ll be reprising in New York at Caroline’s Comedy Club on October 27th, and which he wrote out for me in a thirty-nine-page letter that also recounts his version of events. Hicks had to write out his set because the tape of it, which the Letterman people said they’d send three weeks ago, had not yet reached him. He doubts it ever will. But the routine, which he had prepared for a Letterman appearance a week earlier (he was bumped because the show ran long), had been, he wrote, “approved and reapproved” by a segment producer of the show. Indicating stage directions and his recollection of significant audience response, Hicks set out some of the “hot points” to which the network took exception.

(watch Hicks' banned Letterman performance HERE.)

You know who’s really bugging me these days? These pro-lifers . . . (Smattering of applause.) You ever look at their faces? . . . “I’m pro-life!” (Here Bill makes a pinched face of hate and fear; his lips are pursed as though he’s just sucked on a lemon.) “I’m pro-life!” Boy, they look it, don’t they? They just exude joie de vivre. You just want to hang with them and play Trivial Pursuit all night long. (Audience chuckles.)
You know what bugs me about them? If you’re so pro-life, do me a favor—don’t lock arms and block medical clinics. If you’re so pro-life, lock arms and block cemeteries. (Audience laughs.) . . . I want to see pro-lifers at funerals opening caskets—”Get out!” Then I’d really be impressed by their mission. (Audience laughs and applauds.)

I’ve been travelling a lot lately. I was over in Australia during Easter. It was interesting to note they celebrate Easter the same way we do—commemorating the death and resurrection of Jesus by telling our children a giant bunny rabbit . . . left chocolate eggs in the night. (Audience laughs.)
Gee, I wonder why we’re so messed up as a race. You know, I’ve read the Bible. Can’t find the words “bunny” or “chocolate” in the whole book. (Audience laughs.)

I think it’s interesting how people act on their beliefs. A lot of Christians, for instance, wear crosses around their necks. Nice sentiment, but do you think when Jesus comes back, he’s really going to want to look at a cross? (Audience laughs. Bill makes a face of pain and horror.)
Ow! Maybe that’s why he hasn’t shown up yet. (As Jesus looking down from Heaven) “I’m not going, Dad. No, they’re still wearing crosses—they totally missed the point. When they start wearing fishes, I might go back again. . . . No, I’m not going. . . . O.K., I’ll tell you what—I’ll go back as a bunny.”


Hicks, who delivered his monologue dressed not in his usual gunslinger black but in “bright fall colors—an outfit bought just for the show and reflective of my bright and cheerful mood,” seemed to have a lot to smile about. Letterman—who Hicks says greeted him as he sat down to talk with “Good set, Bill! Always nice to have you drop by with an uplifting message!” and signed off saying, “Bill, enjoy answering your mail for the next few weeks”—had been seen to laugh. The word in the Green Room was also good. A couple of hours later, Hicks was back in his hotel, wearing nothing but a towel, when the call came from Robert Morton, the executive producer of the Letterman show, telling him he’d been deep-sixed. Hicks sat down on the bed. “I don’t understand, Robert. What’s the problem? I thought the show went great.” The following is a condensed version of what Hicks remembers from the long conversation.

“You killed out there,” Morton said, and went on to say, according to Hicks, that the CBS office of standards and practices felt that some of the material was unsuitable for broadcast.

“Ah, which material exactly did they find . . .”

“Well, almost all of it.”

“Bob, they’re so obviously jokes.”

Hicks protested that he had run his routine by his sixty-three-year-old mother in Little Rock, Arkansas, and it passed the test. Morton insisted that the situation was out of his hands. He offered to set up another appearance and, according to Hicks, shouldered the blame for not having spent more time beforehand editing out the “hot points.”

“Bob, they’re just jokes. I don’t want to be edited by you or anyone else. Why are people so afraid of jokes?”

“Bill, you’ve got to understand our audience.”

“Your audience! Your audience is comprised of people, right? Well, I understand people, being one myself. People are who I play to every night, Bob. We get along just fine. We taped the show at five-thirty in the afternoon, and your audience had no problem with the material then. Does your audience become overly sensitive between the hours of 11:30 p.m. and 12:30 a.m.? And by the way, Bob, when I’m not performing on your show, I’m a member of the audience of your show. Are you saying my material is not suitable for me? This doesn’t make any sense. Why do you underestimate the intelligence of your audience?”

“Bill, it’s not our decision.”

Morton apologized to Hicks, explaining that the show had to answer to the network, and said that he’d reschedule him soon. The conversation ended soon after that exchange, and in the intervening weeks Hicks has had no further word, he says, from Morton or Letterman. He has, however, heard indirectly from the CBS standards-and-practices office. A man who heard an interview with Hicks on the radio and was outraged over the censorship wrote to CBS to upbraid the network for not airing Hicks’ set. He faxed the reply from CBS standards-and-practices to the radio station, which faxed it to Hicks’ office. “It is true that Bill Hicks was taped that evening and that his performance did not air,” the letter said. “What is inaccurate is that the deletion of his routine was required by CBS. In fact, although a CBS Program Practices editor works on that show, the decision was solely that of the producers of the program who decided to substitute his performance with that of another comedian. Therefore, your criticism that CBS censored the program is totally without foundation. Creative judgments must be made in the course of producing and airing any program and, while we regret that you disagreed with this one, the producers felt it necessary and that is not a decision we would override.”

Hicks, who refers to the television set as Lucifer’s Dream Box, is now in Lucifer’s Limbo. He can’t get the Letterman show to send him a tape of his performance. He can’t get to the bottom of who censored him. And, as yet, he has no return date on Letterman. I called Robert Morton two weeks ago, and, when pressed, he finally grasped the nettle. He had begun by saying that the decision not to show Hicks’ routine was made jointly by the Letterman show and CBS and ended up telling me that the producers of the show were solely responsible. “Ultimately, it was our decision,” he said. “We’re the packagers and owners of the program. It’s our job to deliver a finished product to the network.”

“It’s been a strange little adventure for Willy,” Hicks told me at the Dominion last year, referring to his American comedy career. And so it has proved—stranger, in fact, than Hicks’ most maverick imaginings. The farce came full circle in the week following the Letterman debacle. A friend called Hicks to tell him about a commercial she’d seen during the Letterman show—a pro-life commercial. “The networks are delivering an audience to the advertisers,” Hicks said later. “They showed their hand. They’ll continue to pretend they’re a hip talk show. And I’ll continue to be me. As Bob Dylan said, the only way to live outside the law is to be totally honest. So I will remain lawless.”

Outlaw is how Hicks was styling himself last year for the Dominion performance as he put on his black rifleman’s coat and Stetson in the dressing room. When the curtain came up on his performance, Hicks was revealed in his hat, long coat, and cowboy boots, while behind him huge orange flames licked the air. Images of heat and hunting are the perfect backdrop to Hicks’ kind of comic attack. He was a hostile sharpshooter taking aim at the culture’s received opinions and trying to shoot them down. The British, who have an appetite for this kind of intellectual anarchy, embraced Hicks with a rare and real enthusiasm from the moment he stumbled onto the vivacious English comedy scene in November, 1990, as one of eighteen comedians in “Stand Up America!,” a six-week limited engagement in the West End. The next year, Hicks was at the Edinburgh Festival, where he outclassed the native talent and won the Critics’ Award. This led to his 1992 “Dangerous Tour” of Britain and Ireland, which culminated in appearances in the West End, at the Queen’s Theatre, that May. The response was overwhelming, and now Hicks was doing one of the final performances of the “Relentless Tour,” his second lap of honor around the British Isles in one year. Hicks was at home with the English, whose sense of irony made them more receptive to his combative humor than the credulous American public had been. “There’s a greater respect for the performer,” he said. “If you’re onstage, people think you’ve earned it. In America—I’m not kidding—people bark their approval.” I looked at him dubiously. “Ask around,” Hicks said, and he simulated the sound. “They bark like animals. It’s frightening. It’s what American society has reduced people to. Ironically, in this show I call myself Goat Boy. They shouldn’t be barking, they should be baaing.”

My first encounter with Hicks was his Gulf War routine, which had been broadcast during the postwar euphoria at the beginning of 1992 on England’s Channel 4. My sixteen-year-old son, Chris, was bellowing from the living room for me to come quickly. It was midnight, and he was sprawled, laughing, on the sofa, watching Hicks at the Montreal Comedy Festival calling a massacre a massacre. “So scary, watching the news. How they built it all out of proportion. Like Iraq was ever, or could ever, under any stretch of the imagination, be any threat to us whatsoever. But, watching the news, you never would have got that idea. Remember how it started? They kept talking about ‘the élite Republican Guard’ in these hushed tones, like these guys were the bogeyman or something. ‘Yeah, we’re doing well now, but we have yet to face . . . the élite Republican Guard.’ Like these guys were twelve-feet-tall desert warriors—’Never lost a battle. We shit bullets.’ Well, after two months of continuous carpet bombing and not one reaction at all from them, they became simply ‘the Republican Guard’—not nearly as élite as we may have led you to believe. And after another month of bombing they went from ‘the élite Republican Guard’ to ‘the Republican Guard’ to ‘the Republicans made this shit up about there being guards out there.’

“People said, ‘Uh, uh, Bill, Iraq had the fourth-largest Army in the world.’ Yeah, maybe, but you know what? After the first three largest armies, there’s a real big fuckin’ drop-off. The Hare Krishnas are the fifth-largest army in the world. And they’ve already got our airports.”

Most TV comics trade in brand-name jokes or jokes that play off physical stereotypes. They don’t question their culture so much as pander to its insatiable hunger for distraction. But Hicks’ mischievous flights of fantasy bring the audience back to reality with a thump. Hicks is a kind of ventriloquist of his contradictory nature, letting voices and sound effects act out both his angst and his appetites. Occasionally, the instinct for Goat Boy comes over him, and Hicks, a man of instincts, goes with it. Goat Boy is Pan, or Hicks’ version of him—a randy goat “with a placid look in his eyes, completely at peace with nature”—through which he celebrates his own rampaging libido.

“I am Goat Boy,” he would say in the act that night, in a grave baritone. “Come here, my little fruit basket.”

“What do you want, Goat Boy?” he answered, in a coy Southern falsetto. “You big old shaggy thing.”

“Ha, ha, ha, ha,” Hicks growled into the microphone. “I am here to please you.”

“How?”

“Tie me to your headboard. Throw your legs over my shoulders, let me roll you like a feed bag.” Hicks brought the microphone close to his mouth. He snorted, slurped, and finally screamed, “Hold on to my horns!” Then, as suddenly as the impulse had come upon him, Hicks broke off the fantasy, saying, “I need professional help at this point.”

The secret of Hicks’ psychic survival has always been comedy. He started writing and performing his jokes as an alienated thirteen-year-old in Houston in 1975, and, by his own count, for the last five years he has been performing about two hundred and sixty-five days a year, sometimes doing as many as three two-hour gigs a night. Few contemporary comics or actors have such an opportunity to get their education in public. Hicks uses the stage time to write his material in front of an audience. “I do it all onstage, all of it,” he said, and then began to relate how he’d started on his eccentric journey. “When I was about eleven, it dawned on me that I didn’t like where I was,” he said, speaking of the subdivision where he lived, which was called Nottingham Forest; of Stratford High School, which looked like a prison and where he was bored out of his skull for four years; and of his father, who was a midrange executive with General Motors. The Hicks family lived in “strict Southern Baptist ozone.” The memory still rankled. “One time a friend of mine—we were nine—runs over and goes, ‘Bill, I just saw some hippies down at the store.’ I go, ‘No way.’ He goes, ‘I swear.’ My dad goes, ‘Get off this property! We don’t swear on this property!’

“We were living the American dream. This was the best life had to offer. But there was no life, and no creativity. My dad, for instance, plays the piano. The same song for thirty years—I think it’s ‘Kitten on the Keys.’ I don’t play the piano, but all my friends are musicians. My dad goes, ‘Do they read music?’ I go, ‘No.’ ‘Well, how do they play it?’ I go to the piano and I write a song. What’s the difference? He can’t improvise. That, to me, is the suburbs. You get to a point, and that’s it—it’s over.”

Once he’d seized on the idea of writing jokes, Hicks closeted himself in his bedroom and went to school on comedians. He started watching Johnny Carson. “I thought he was the only comic in the world, because I never stayed up later,” he said. Soon Hicks began burning the midnight oil, taping other comic acts on television. “I’d take their jokes and also write my own. I performed them around school, and what I loved was when both got equal laughs. I knew which one was me and which one I’d seen on TV the night before. I learned how to mesh these things. How to get into character. I was very, very popular and known as a comedian at school. I’d always have to have material, constantly, all day. It got to the point where my English teacher gave me five minutes to do before class. My older brother Steve encouraged me. I typed up about two pages of jokes—whimsical stuff in the Woody Allen vein, which really appealed to me—and slipped them under his door. He came in later that night and said, ‘What’s this?’ I said, ‘I dunno. I’m writing these things. They’re jokes.’ He couldn’t believe it. ‘These are funny, man. Keep doing this.’ “

Hicks’ first partner in comedy was Dwight Slade, with whom he formed the act Bill and Dwight in the eighth grade. A tape exists of Hicks and Slade giggling through some of their early routines, which involved pretending to be brothers with “many, many problems.” “Ladies and gentlemen, the comedy sensation Dwight Slade and Bill Hicks. And here they are!” it begins, and then the two of them collapse into roars of amusement at their own vain attempts to strike adult postures while reading gags about God, sex, abortion, and parents.

The jokes illustrated Hicks’ precocity, and suggested how comedy both masked and admitted the hostility that kept him sullen and virtually silent around his family. “I can remember being at dinner when Bill would come down to eat,” Steve Hicks told me. “He’d sit there with his face buried in a book. Absolutely no conversation from him or to him. Nothing. Then he would go up to his room and close and lock the door. We had no idea what he was doing.” Hicks’ room, which had nothing on the walls but a guitar, was a cell of rebellious solitude. He kept a typewriter under his bed and hid his pages of jokes inside its case.

In 1976, there were no comedy clubs in Houston. Except for school, the only outlets for Bill and Dwight’s routines were talent shows and night clubs. They scoured the paper for auditions, and often rode their bikes the seventeen miles into town and back for a tryout. That summer, when they were both fourteen, a talent agent to whom they’d sent a tape liked it enough to get them airtime on Jerry Lewis’s Telethon from 2 to 2:45 a.m. Their big break posed three immediate problems: (1) they didn’t have forty-five minutes of material, (2) they’d never performed as Bill and Dwight in front of a live audience, and (3) they had to tell their parents. The first two problems were surmountable, but the third proved the sticking point. Hicks’ parents said no. Hicks and Slade had to cancel, explaining that they were too young to drive themselves to the job. But in 1978, when the Comedy Workshop opened on San Felipe, in Houston, they talked their way into the lineup. This time, they made the gig. To get to it, Hicks had to climb out his window, shin down the drainpipe to the garage roof, jump from the roof to the ground, and hightail it to the Catholic church behind his house, where Kevin Booth, a friend who had a car, picked him up and then drove both performers to the club. Bill and Dwight did fifteen minutes—a kind of double solo performance, each doing Woody Allen shtick without the actual give-and-take of a comedy team. “What was really funny was when my friends would come and I’d go, ‘I . . . uh . . . I have trouble . . . trouble with women,’ “ Hicks said. “And my friends would go, ‘No, you don’t!’ I’d go, ‘My parents are very poor.’ ‘No, they’re not!’ They were amazed we were in this adult world. They were seventeen and could drive us there, but when they got us there we were in the adult world.”

The comedy team performed five times before Slade moved to Portland, Oregon, where he still lives, working as a standup comic. Hicks put his anarchic energy into a hapless punk-rock group called Stress, in which he sang a song called “I’m Glad I’m Not a Hubcap (Hubcaps Don’t Get Laid).” At some point in his seventeenth year, Hicks’ parents took him to a psychotherapist. “There was no connection between me and my parents—none,” he said. “They had no idea of who I was. They still don’t get what I do. How could they have understood it fifteen years ago?” The therapist met with the family, then with Hicks. At the end of the session, the therapist took Hicks aside. “Listen, you can continue to come if you feel like it,” Hicks recalled him saying. “But it’s them, not you.” Soon afterward, at the beginning of Hicks’ senior year, his father was transferred to Little Rock, Arkansas. He and his wife left Hicks behind in the house and left him the keys to the car. Hicks began doing comedy every night. His parents thought he was studying. The comedy club put him on first, because he had to get home early. Sometimes the phone would be ringing just as he walked in the door. “The conversations were like this,” Hicks said. He fell easily into his father’s Southern accent: “ ‘Where were you?’ ‘Library.’ ‘Again?’ “ Even after his parents left, his material was almost entirely about them.

To this day, Hicks continues to mythologize his parents and his relationship with them, in comic routines that spoof their Southern propriety. But this is only professional acrimony, and doesn’t stop Hicks from thanking his parents on his record albums or turning up regularly for ritual family occasions. Hicks, like all comedians, picks at ancient wounds to keep open the soreness that feeds his laughter and to demonstrate his mastery over the past.

In 1982, Hicks’ parents finally saw him perform. They had been visiting Steve in Dallas, where the family had assembled for Thanksgiving, and his parents decided to surprise him. The plan was to drive the three hours to Austin, see the show, and drive back to Dallas the same night before setting out the next day for the six-hour ride to Little Rock. Steve and his wife waited up for them but finally fell asleep around 3 a.m. At nine, their phone rang. The Hickses had been so appalled by their son’s act that they’d got in their car and driven non-stop to Little Rock. “They were in a state of shock,” Steve says. “They didn’t say a word to each other for nine hours. They didn’t even realize they’d driven through Dallas!”

At one end of Hicks’ long, corridor-like dressing room at the Dominion was a window overlooking the stage. Hicks walked over and looked out at the paying customers. “It’s about that time,” he said. Isolation suddenly fell over him like some fog blown in by his unconscious. Showtime was approaching, and he wanted to be alone. Fifteen minutes later, he brought his aggression roaring onstage. The narrative swung into attack as Hicks, like a man driven to distraction by the media, fought his way free of its overload by momentarily becoming its exaggerated voice: “Go back to bed! America is in control again. . . . Here . . . here is American Gladiators. Watch this! Shut up. Go back to bed. Here’s fifty-six channels of it. Watch these pituitary retards bang their fuckin’ skulls together and congratulate yourself on living in the land of freedom. Here you go, America! You are free to do as we tell you! You are free!”

Hicks worked at a tremendous rate, pounding away at the absurdities of American culture with short jabs of wit and following up with a flurry of counterpunches. “Ever notice how people who believe in creationism look really unevolved?” he said. “Their eyes real close together. Eyebrow ridges. Big, furry hands and feet. ‘I believe God created me in one day.’ Looks like he rushed it.” Later, near the end of the evening, Hicks drew one final lesson. “The world is like a ride at an amusement park,” he said. “And when you choose to go on it, you think that it’s real. Because that’s how powerful our minds are.” A young Englishman three seats away from me shouted “Bollocks!” And, without missing a beat, completely caught up in the dialogue he was having with his audience, Hicks said, “There is a lot of denial in this ride. The ride, in fact, is made up of denial. All things work in Goat Boy’s favor!” Thrilled by the improvised insight, the audience burst into applause, and then Hicks guided the rest of the show smoothly to its conclusion, which, for all its combativeness, ended on the word “peace.”

Hicks came to my house the next day for tea. He was tired and a little distracted, and was wondering out loud which way to take his quirky talent. “Once this stuff is done, it’s over with—I’m not married to any of it,” he said. “Goat Boy is the only thing that really intrigues me right now. He’s not Satan. He’s not Evil. He’s Nature.” Hicks paused and added, “I’m trying to come up with this thing about ‘Conversations with Goat Boy.’ “ Then, suddenly, the interrogator and Goat Boy started a conversation at my tea table:

“You don’t like America?”

“I don’t see America. To me, there is just a rapidly decreasing wilderness.”

Hicks stopped and smiled. “That is Goat Boy. There is no America. It’s just a big pavement now to him. That’s the whole point. What is America anyway—a landmass including the Philippines? There are so many different Americas. To him, to Nature, it’s just land, the earth. Indian spirit—Indians would understand randy Pan, the Goat Boy. They’d probably have a mask and a celebration.”

My son wandered into the kitchen and lingered to eavesdrop on the conversation. At one point, he broke in. “I don’t know how you have the courage to say those things,” he said. “I could never talk like that in front of people.”

Hicks smiled but had no response. Saying the unsayable was just his job. He analyzed the previous night’s performance, which had been filmed for an HBO special. (It was broadcast in September to good reviews.) “People watch TV not to think,” he said. “I’d like the opportunity to stir things up once, and see what happens. But I’ve got a question. Do I even want to be part of it anymore? Show business or art—these are choices. It’s hard to get a grip on me. It’s also hard for me to have a career, because there’s no archetype for what I do. I have to create it, or uncover it.” To that end, he said, he and Fallon Woodland, a standup from Kansas City, were writing “The Counts of the Netherworld,” a TV comedy commissioned for England’s Channel 4 and set in the collective unconscious of mankind. Hicks was doing a column for the English satire magazine Scallywag. He was planning a comedy album, called “Arizona Bay,” a narrative rant against California with his own guitar accompaniment. Should he stay in England, where he was already a cult figure, or return to America? He recounted a joke on the subject by his friend Barry Crimmins, another American political comedian. “ ‘Hey, buddy,’ this guy says to him after a show. ‘America—love it or leave it!’ And Crimmins goes, ‘What? And be a victim of our foreign policy?’ “

As Hicks was about to go, he said, “We are facilitators of our creative evolution. We can ignite our brains with light.” The line brought back something his high-school friend Kevin Booth had told me: “Bill was the first person I ever met whose goal was to become enlightened.” At various times in his life, Hicks had meditated, studied Hindu texts, gobbled hallucinogens, searched for U.F.O.s—anything to make some larger spiritual and intellectual connection. His comedy takes an audience on a journey to places in the heart where it can’t or won’t go without him. Through laughter, Hicks makes unacceptable ideas irresistible. He is particularly lethal because he persuades not with reason but with joy. “I believe everyone has this fuckin’ poem in his heart,” he said on his way out."

Elizabeth Kolbert on SuperFreakonomics (re: Global Cooling)



Monday, November 9, 2009

"(If anybody feels like perspiring [cough], I'd advise you to go ahead, because I'm sure going to. In fact I'm gonna [mumbles while pulling up his gown and taking out a handkerchief from his pocket].) Greetings ["parents"?] and congratulations to Kenyon's graduating class of 2005.

There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says "Morning, boys. How's the water?" And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes "What the hell is water?"

This is a standard requirement of US commencement speeches, the deployment of didactic little parable-ish stories. The story ["thing"] turns out to be one of the better, less bullshitty conventions of the genre, but if you're worried that I plan to present myself here as the wise, older fish explaining what water is to you younger fish, please don't be. I am not the wise old fish. The point of the fish story is merely that the most obvious, important realities are often the ones that are hardest to see and talk about. Stated as an English sentence, of course, this is just a banal platitude, but the fact is that in the day to day trenches of adult existence, banal platitudes can have a life or death importance, or so I wish to suggest to you on this dry and lovely morning.

Of course the main requirement of speeches like this is that I'm supposed to talk about your liberal arts education's meaning, to try to explain why the degree you are about to receive has actual human value instead of just a material payoff. So let's talk about the single most pervasive cliché in the commencement speech genre, which is that a liberal arts education is not so much about filling you up with knowledge as it is about quote teaching you how to think. If you're like me as a student, you've never liked hearing this, and you tend to feel a bit insulted by the claim that you needed anybody to teach you how to think, since the fact that you even got admitted to a college this good seems like proof that you already know how to think. But I'm going to posit to you that the liberal arts cliché turns out not to be insulting at all, because the really significant education in thinking that we're supposed to get in a place like this isn't really about the capacity to think, but rather about the choice of what to think about. If your total freedom of choice regarding what to think about seems too obvious to waste time discussing, I'd ask you to think about fish and water, and to bracket for just a few minutes your skepticism about the value of the totally obvious.

Here's another didactic little story. There are these two guys sitting together in a bar in the remote Alaskan wilderness. One of the guys is religious, the other is an atheist, and the two are arguing about the existence of God with that special intensity that comes after about the fourth beer. And the atheist says: "Look, it's not like I don't have actual reasons for not believing in God. It's not like I haven't ever experimented with the whole God and prayer thing. Just last month I got caught away from the camp in that terrible blizzard, and I was totally lost and I couldn't see a thing, and it was fifty below, and so I tried it: I fell to my knees in the snow and cried out 'Oh, God, if there is a God, I'm lost in this blizzard, and I'm gonna die if you don't help me.'" And now, in the bar, the religious guy looks at the atheist all puzzled. "Well then you must believe now," he says, "After all, here you are, alive." The atheist just rolls his eyes. "No, man, all that was was a couple Eskimos happened to come wandering by and showed me the way back to camp."

It's easy to run this story through kind of a standard liberal arts analysis: the exact same experience can mean two totally different things to two different people, given those people's two different belief templates and two different ways of constructing meaning from experience. Because we prize tolerance and diversity of belief, nowhere in our liberal arts analysis do we want to claim that one guy's interpretation is true and the other guy's is false or bad. Which is fine, except we also never end up talking about just where these individual templates and beliefs come from. Meaning, where they come from INSIDE the two guys. As if a person's most basic orientation toward the world, and the meaning of his experience were somehow just hard-wired, like height or shoe-size; or automatically absorbed from the culture, like language. As if how we construct meaning were not actually a matter of personal, intentional choice. Plus, there's the whole matter of arrogance. The nonreligious guy is so totally certain in his dismissal of the possibility that the passing Eskimos had anything to do with his prayer for help. True, there are plenty of religious people who seem arrogant and certain of their own interpretations, too. They're probably even more repulsive than atheists, at least to most of us. But religious dogmatists' problem is exactly the same as the story's unbeliever: blind certainty, a close-mindedness that amounts to an imprisonment so total that the prisoner doesn't even know he's locked up.

The point here is that I think this is one part of what teaching me how to think is really supposed to mean. To be just a little less arrogant. To have just a little critical awareness about myself and my certainties. Because a huge percentage of the stuff that I tend to be automatically certain of is, it turns out, totally wrong and deluded. I have learned this the hard way, as I predict you graduates will, too.

Here is just one example of the total wrongness of something I tend to be automatically sure of: everything in my own immediate experience supports my deep belief that I am the absolute center of the universe; the realist, most vivid and important person in existence. We rarely think about this sort of natural, basic self-centeredness because it's so socially repulsive. But it's pretty much the same for all of us. It is our default setting, hard-wired into our boards at birth. Think about it: there is no experience you have had that you are not the absolute center of. The world as you experience it is there in front of YOU or behind YOU, to the left or right of YOU, on YOUR TV or YOUR monitor. And so on. Other people's thoughts and feelings have to be communicated to you somehow, but your own are so immediate, urgent, real.

Please don't worry that I'm getting ready to lecture you about compassion or other-directedness or all the so-called virtues. This is not a matter of virtue. It's a matter of my choosing to do the work of somehow altering or getting free of my natural, hard-wired default setting which is to be deeply and literally self-centered and to see and interpret everything through this lens of self. People who can adjust their natural default setting this way are often described as being "well-adjusted", which I suggest to you is not an accidental term.

Given the triumphant academic setting here, an obvious question is how much of this work of adjusting our default setting involves actual knowledge or intellect. This question gets very tricky. Probably the most dangerous thing about an academic education -- least in my own case -- is that it enables my tendency to over-intellectualize stuff, to get lost in abstract argument inside my head, instead of simply paying attention to what is going on right in front of me, paying attention to what is going on inside me.

As I'm sure you guys know by now, it is extremely difficult to stay alert and attentive, instead of getting hypnotized by the constant monologue inside your own head (may be happening right now). Twenty years after my own graduation, I have come gradually to understand that the liberal arts cliché about teaching you how to think is actually shorthand for a much deeper, more serious idea: learning how to think really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience. Because if you cannot exercise this kind of choice in adult life, you will be totally hosed. Think of the old cliché about quote the mind being an excellent servant but a terrible master.

This, like many clichés, so lame and unexciting on the surface, actually expresses a great and terrible truth. It is not the least bit coincidental that adults who commit suicide with firearms almost always shoot themselves in: the head. They shoot the terrible master. And the truth is that most of these suicides are actually dead long before they pull the trigger.

And I submit that this is what the real, no bullshit value of your liberal arts education is supposed to be about: how to keep from going through your comfortable, prosperous, respectable adult life dead, unconscious, a slave to your head and to your natural default setting of being uniquely, completely, imperially alone day in and day out. That may sound like hyperbole, or abstract nonsense. Let's get concrete. The plain fact is that you graduating seniors do not yet have any clue what "day in day out" really means. There happen to be whole, large parts of adult American life that nobody talks about in commencement speeches. One such part involves boredom, routine, and petty frustration. The parents and older folks here will know all too well what I'm talking about.

By way of example, let's say it's an average adult day, and you get up in the morning, go to your challenging, white-collar, college-graduate job, and you work hard for eight or ten hours, and at the end of the day you're tired and somewhat stressed and all you want is to go home and have a good supper and maybe unwind for an hour, and then hit the sack early because, of course, you have to get up the next day and do it all again. But then you remember there's no food at home. You haven't had time to shop this week because of your challenging job, and so now after work you have to get in your car and drive to the supermarket. It's the end of the work day and the traffic is apt to be: very bad. So getting to the store takes way longer than it should, and when you finally get there, the supermarket is very crowded, because of course it's the time of day when all the other people with jobs also try to squeeze in some grocery shopping. And the store is hideously lit and infused with soul-killing muzak or corporate pop and it's pretty much the last place you want to be but you can't just get in and quickly out; you have to wander all over the huge, over-lit store's confusing aisles to find the stuff you want and you have to maneuver your junky cart through all these other tired, hurried people with carts (et cetera, et cetera, cutting stuff out because this is a long ceremony) and eventually you get all your supper supplies, except now it turns out there aren't enough check-out lanes open even though it's the end-of-the-day rush. So the checkout line is incredibly long, which is stupid and infuriating. But you can't take your frustration out on the frantic lady working the register, who is overworked at a job whose daily tedium and meaninglessness surpasses the imagination of any of us here at a prestigious college.

But anyway, you finally get to the checkout line's front, and you pay for your food, and you get told to "Have a nice day" in a voice that is the absolute voice of death. Then you have to take your creepy, flimsy, plastic bags of groceries in your cart with the one crazy wheel that pulls maddeningly to the left, all the way out through the crowded, bumpy, littery parking lot, and then you have to drive all the way home through slow, heavy, SUV-intensive, rush-hour traffic, et cetera et cetera.

Everyone here has done this, of course. But it hasn't yet been part of you graduates' actual life routine, day after week after month after year.

But it will be. And many more dreary, annoying, seemingly meaningless routines besides. But that is not the point. The point is that petty, frustrating crap like this is exactly where the work of choosing is gonna come in. Because the traffic jams and crowded aisles and long checkout lines give me time to think, and if I don't make a conscious decision about how to think and what to pay attention to, I'm gonna be pissed and miserable every time I have to shop. Because my natural default setting is the certainty that situations like this are really all about me. About MY hungriness and MY fatigue and MY desire to just get home, and it's going to seem for all the world like everybody else is just in my way. And who are all these people in my way? And look at how repulsive most of them are, and how stupid and cow-like and dead-eyed and nonhuman they seem in the checkout line, or at how annoying and rude it is that people are talking loudly on cell phones in the middle of the line. And look at how deeply and personally unfair this is.

Or, of course, if I'm in a more socially conscious liberal arts form of my default setting, I can spend time in the end-of-the-day traffic being disgusted about all the huge, stupid, lane-blocking SUV's and Hummers and V-12 pickup trucks, burning their wasteful, selfish, forty-gallon tanks of gas, and I can dwell on the fact that the patriotic or religious bumper-stickers always seem to be on the biggest, most disgustingly selfish vehicles, driven by the ugliest [responding here to loud applause] (this is an example of how NOT to think, though) most disgustingly selfish vehicles, driven by the ugliest, most inconsiderate and aggressive drivers. And I can think about how our children's children will despise us for wasting all the future's fuel, and probably screwing up the climate, and how spoiled and stupid and selfish and disgusting we all are, and how modern consumer society just sucks, and so forth and so on.

You get the idea.

If I choose to think this way in a store and on the freeway, fine. Lots of us do. Except thinking this way tends to be so easy and automatic that it doesn't have to be a choice. It is my natural default setting. It's the automatic way that I experience the boring, frustrating, crowded parts of adult life when I'm operating on the automatic, unconscious belief that I am the center of the world, and that my immediate needs and feelings are what should determine the world's priorities.

The thing is that, of course, there are totally different ways to think about these kinds of situations. In this traffic, all these vehicles stopped and idling in my way, it's not impossible that some of these people in SUV's have been in horrible auto accidents in the past, and now find driving so terrifying that their therapist has all but ordered them to get a huge, heavy SUV so they can feel safe enough to drive. Or that the Hummer that just cut me off is maybe being driven by a father whose little child is hurt or sick in the seat next to him, and he's trying to get this kid to the hospital, and he's in a bigger, more legitimate hurry than I am: it is actually I who am in HIS way.

Or I can choose to force myself to consider the likelihood that everyone else in the supermarket's checkout line is just as bored and frustrated as I am, and that some of these people probably have harder, more tedious and painful lives than I do.

Again, please don't think that I'm giving you moral advice, or that I'm saying you are supposed to think this way, or that anyone expects you to just automatically do it. Because it's hard. It takes will and effort, and if you are like me, some days you won't be able to do it, or you just flat out won't want to.

But most days, if you're aware enough to give yourself a choice, you can choose to look differently at this fat, dead-eyed, over-made-up lady who just screamed at her kid in the checkout line. Maybe she's not usually like this. Maybe she's been up three straight nights holding the hand of a husband who is dying of bone cancer. Or maybe this very lady is the low-wage clerk at the motor vehicle department, who just yesterday helped your spouse resolve a horrific, infuriating, red-tape problem through some small act of bureaucratic kindness. Of course, none of this is likely, but it's also not impossible. It just depends what you what to consider. If you're automatically sure that you know what reality is, and you are operating on your default setting, then you, like me, probably won't consider possibilities that aren't annoying and miserable. But if you really learn how to pay attention, then you will know there are other options. It will actually be within your power to experience a crowded, hot, slow, consumer-hell type situation as not only meaningful, but sacred, on fire with the same force that made the stars: love, fellowship, the mystical oneness of all things deep down.

Not that that mystical stuff is necessarily true. The only thing that's capital-T True is that you get to decide how you're gonna try to see it.

This, I submit, is the freedom of a real education, of learning how to be well-adjusted. You get to consciously decide what has meaning and what doesn't. You get to decide what to worship.

Because here's something else that's weird but true: in the day-to day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And the compelling reason for maybe choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship -- be it JC or Allah, bet it YHWH or the Wiccan Mother Goddess, or the Four Noble Truths, or some inviolable set of ethical principles -- is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things, if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough. It's the truth. Worship your body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly. And when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally grieve you. On one level, we all know this stuff already. It's been codified as myths, proverbs, clichés, epigrams, parables; the skeleton of every great story. The whole trick is keeping the truth up front in daily consciousness.

Worship power, you will end up feeling weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to numb you to your own fear. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart, you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out. But the insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they're evil or sinful, it's that they're unconscious. They are default settings.

They're the kind of worship you just gradually slip into, day after day, getting more and more selective about what you see and how you measure value without ever being fully aware that that's what you're doing.

And the so-called real world will not discourage you from operating on your default settings, because the so-called real world of men and money and power hums merrily along in a pool of fear and anger and frustration and craving and worship of self. Our own present culture has harnessed these forces in ways that have yielded extraordinary wealth and comfort and personal freedom. The freedom all to be lords of our tiny skull-sized kingdoms, alone at the center of all creation. This kind of freedom has much to recommend it. But of course there are all different kinds of freedom, and the kind that is most precious you will not hear much talk about much in the great outside world of wanting and achieving and [unintelligible -- sounds like "displayal"]. The really important kind of freedom involves attention and awareness and discipline, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day.

That is real freedom. That is being educated, and understanding how to think. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default setting, the rat race, the constant gnawing sense of having had, and lost, some infinite thing.

I know that this stuff probably doesn't sound fun and breezy or grandly inspirational the way a commencement speech is supposed to sound. What it is, as far as I can see, is the capital-T Truth, with a whole lot of rhetorical niceties stripped away. You are, of course, free to think of it whatever you wish. But please don't just dismiss it as just some finger-wagging Dr. Laura sermon. None of this stuff is really about morality or religion or dogma or big fancy questions of life after death.

The capital-T Truth is about life BEFORE death.

It is about the real value of a real education, which has almost nothing to do with knowledge, and everything to do with simple awareness; awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us, all the time, that we have to keep reminding ourselves over and over:

"This is water."

"This is water."

It is unimaginably hard to do this, to stay conscious and alive in the adult world day in and day out. Which means yet another grand cliché turns out to be true: your education really IS the job of a lifetime. And it commences: now.

I wish you way more than luck."