Canto-Pop Madness!

Canto-Pop Madness!

Teddy Robin Kwan performing in Alex Cheung’s New Wave cinema classic Cops and Robbers:

“To maintain peace, exterminate evil.” Awesomeness.

Sam Hui’s working-class anthem from his 1976 film The Private Eyes:

And finally, my favorite Hong Kong song of all-time, Diana Chang’s nineteen-fifty-something version of “Mambo Italiano,” re-worked as an ode to steamed pork buns:


Pop Songs: From English to Chinese to Chinglish

I understand just enough Chinese to be annoyed at what I perceive to be the stupidity of some of the things said around me. This is especially the case with Chinese pop songs. I hear the same few songs over and over again, at restaurants, at coffee shops, in malls, and even blaring out of open storefronts as I pass by them on the street. I’ll hear a word or phrase that I understand, translate it into English in my head, then think to myself, “Well, that’s dumb.”

But it occurs to me that I’m being unfair. Song lyrics are poetry, and poetry is about finding the exact right words, both in terms of meaning and even in terms of how many syllables they have and which particular vowel and consonant sounds they have and how those work, or don’t, with the surrounding words. So in order to really know whether a song has good lyrics or not, you have to be a native speaker of the language it’s being sung in.

The big song last year in China was Xiao Pingguo – “Little Apple.” The chorus is: “You are my little apple.” “Well,” I thought, “that’s dumb.” But on the other hand, in America we have a classic song where the chorus says “You are my sunshine,” and that song is still taught and sung in grade schools all over the country. Or at least, it should be if it’s not anymore, because it still makes me happy when skies are gray.

But maybe if you translate it into Chinese, it would sound dumb. I don’t know. What I do know is that a lot of the really bad English translations one finds in China are the result of Google Translate and similar computer translators, which Chinese people use in lieu of paying a foreigner like me a few bucks to tell them that “Egg With Fungus” is probably not a good choice of words for a food menu.

So I got to thinking: What if the lyrics to some popular songs in English were translated into Chinese, then re-translated into English using Google Translate or whatever god-awful thing they use to produce the bastard hybrid we know and love as “Chinglish?” I think they would look something like this:

Let It Be – The Beatles

When I discover that I have the era of problems,
Mother Mary comes to me,
Saying smart words:
Allow it to exist.

And in the black time,
She stands directly in front of me,
Saying smart words:
Allow it to exist.

Heartbreak Hotel – Elvis Presley

Since my infant departed from me,
I have discovered a new location to inhabit,
The place is under the end of the lonely road
Called Broken Intestine Hotel*

Where will I be?
I will be so lonely, infant,
I am being so lonely
I will be so lonely I am able to die.

(*The Chinese expression for “heartbreak” – changduan – literally means “broken large intestine.”)

Get Lucky – Daft Punk

We have come very far to renounce Who are we?
Therefore let us lift up the tavern and our cups to the celebrities

He* is awake all night for the sun
I am awake all night to obtain something
He is awake all night for proper amusement,
I am awake all night to become fortunate.

(*The Chinese 3rd person pronoun ta is gender-neutral, hence one cannot know if it refers to a man or woman without context.)

Listening to N.W.A. in the Suburbs

nwa-straight-outta-comptonI grew up in the midwestern United States in the ‘burbs, and I first heard rap music some time in the 1980s. The first groups to gain any popularity with mainstream (read:white) audiences were the clownish acts like the Fat Boys. I had an older cousin who suddenly decided that he wanted to be a breakdancer, and I remember watching him practice his moves to the song “Fat Boys Are Back” in our grandparents’ living room. There was a local radio station, perhaps an AM station, that played what my cousin called “breakdance music,” and we spent an afternoon listening to these strange, alien songs on his boom box.

But a few months later my cousin wasn’t into breakdancing anymore, and rap music didn’t appear on my musical radar again for another few years. Those old enough will recall that everyone initially dismissed rap as a fad, much the way they had rock n’ roll thirty years earlier.

Seventh grade was my first year of Middle School, and it marked a distinct and abrupt transition into adolescence. Gone was the innocence of Elementary, where 6th grade was somehow still closer to kindergarten than it was to 7th grade, only one year away in time but aeons away in culture and ethics. Suddenly, the clothes you wore were the most important thing about you, followed closely by the music, films and tv shows that you liked, as well as the words you used to talk about how much you liked them (“Gnarly!”) which all together went a long way in determining whether or not you were cool.

For us boys there was a standard uniform of cool: I.O.U. sweatshirt and Z Cavarricci pants rolled so tightly around your ankles that it cut off the blood flow to your feet, which were covered by Eastland leather loafers, no socks allowed. I was too poor and too uncool to rock this gear myself, but I would’ve if I could’ve.

For the girls, it was the age of lycra miniskirts and the Wall of Bangs. I admit I still think this look is hot, and I have vivid memories of a girl named Holly walking down the hall in that skin-tight miniskirt with a tucked-in t-shirt that said “Just Do Me.” I have no idea what the father of this 13 year-old hottie must have thought about this, but I know exactly what this 13 year-old pubescent boy thought about it.

Somehow, despite my lack of appropriate wardrobe, I managed to ingratiate myself with some of the cool kids that year. This was truly a stroke of luck since I hadn’t been popular since 1st grade, when it was still cool to be one of the kids that got good grades in class. (Then we all learned from tv that good grades were for nerds, and there went that.) I don’t remember how it happened – maybe it was my skills on the Sega Genesis – but I quickly figured out that liking the same music and watching the same shows as these guys was a way to stay in their good graces.

Sixth grade had been all about Def Leppard’s Hysteria and Guns N’ Roses’ Appetite For Destruction. But somehow this music couldn’t make the leap from grade school to middle, and so I was forced to leave it behind along with my Trapper Keeper and my G.I. Joe toys. (Actually, I secretly continued to play with my G.I. Joes well into 8th grade.) The first song I remember being popular – immensely popular – that year was M.C. Hammer’s “Can’t Touch This.” I don’t recall if Hammer’s parachute pants came before or after Cavaricci’s baggy-thighs tight-calves look, but I suppose it’s a chicken-or-egg question anyway. The transition from hair metal to Hammer’s PG-rated rap seemed abrupt, but in retrospect, it wasn’t as abrupt as the move that would come next, from PG to O.G., an acronym I wouldn’t learn the meaning of until Ice T made it an album title.

I first heard gangsta rap music from my friend Mike, who I’d known since grade school. Prior to this, we’d become friends over our mutual love of action movies and toy guns. Kids today have no idea how realistic and how awesome toy guns were in the late 80s – none of that bright orange barrel, see-officer-it’s-not-a-real-gun-don’t-shoot-me crap. We could spend an entire day from morning til night engaged in an elaborate ritual simulation of war, battling imaginary enemies in the woods or shooting at each other, keeping tallies of our imaginary wounds and arguing over whether a shot from the other was a hit or a miss.


Mike’s dad had a large collection of VHS movies which he recorded off cable and also from rentals, via the old two VCR, play-with-one, record-with-the-other method. All the great 80s action films like Missing In Action and Lethal Weapon, as well as T&A comedies like Mischief and Hardbodies, I probably saw them for the first time at Mike’s house. All of this is important because nothing happens in a vacuum.

Mike had gotten a dubbed cassette of rap songs from his older cousin – I guess we all get music from our older cousins – which had both N.W.A. and 2 Live Crew on it. Listening to N.W.A. made me feel the same way I felt watching R-rated movies on cable late at night. There were swear words that I wasn’t allowed to use but did when adults weren’t listening. There were fights and guns and killing, which of course are awesome to an adolescent boy whose only experiences of them have been pretend. And there was all kinds of talk about sex.

There was also slang and cultural references that I’d never heard before. Aside from being my first exposure to unadulterated ebonics, it was also the first time I’d ever heard of a drive-by shooting or a 40oz. Eazy E didn’t specify what exactly a 40oz. was, but he did say it was freezing his balls, which was pretty funny. I also remember that we started calling girls in our school “bitches” and “hos” only because of the influence of rap music. (The aforementioned Holly acquired the nickname “Holly the Ho”, perhaps not entirely undeservedly.) Eminem indignantly complained that he wasn’t “the first rapper to smack a bitch or say ‘faggot’.” Well, N.W.A. were the first, or at least the first to get famous in spite – or because – of it.

Technically, 2 Live Crew was not gangsta rap since they were all sex and no killing, but the profanity was enough to get them lumped in with N.W.A. and the other gangstas. Of the two groups, I liked them best – I guess even then I was fundamentally a lover and not a fighter. The songs on Mike’s tape were from their earlier records, and the one I remember was “Hey We Want Some Pussy.” Aside from being impressed by the sheer audacity of saying something like that on a record, I felt a deep resonance with the meaning of the lyrics. “Me too! Me too! I want some pussy too!”

I dubbed a copy of the tape and brought it home with me. When I told my friend Bill about it, going so far as to recite the lyrics from memory during woodshop, he told me about their new album, As Nasty As They Wanna Be. It turned out that a lot of kids already knew about gangsta rap, and I was a little late in getting on the bandwagon.

Some time later I went out and bought Straight Outta Compton and As Nasty As They Wanna Be, my very first rap records. I had gotten $20 in birthday money, and so I had my mom drive me to Radio Doctors, where I sheepishly grabbed both tapes from the small Rap section and took them up to the counter. Parental-AdvisoryThis was just before Parental Advisory: Explicit Lyrics stickers were invented, so my mom felt no need to check what I was buying, although the record store guy had to have known what was on those tapes. But then, I was with my mom, so he probably just felt really confused by the whole situation. I don’t remember if he gave me a knowing smile or not.

I had already heard N.W.A. from numerous friends, and so I was basically just buying my own copy for the street cred, or whatever the suburban equivalent of that is. (Hallway cred? Mall cred?) But I hadn’t heard 2 Live Crew save that one song on Mike’s tape. They did not disappoint. The lyrics were so pornographic that I got a hard-on just from listening to certain songs, although I was thirteen and got hard-ons for much lesser reasons, or no reason at all. I felt guiltier listening to this music than watching 2LiveCrew_NastyR-rated movies with sex scenes, because at least those movies had some other pretense, like being funny or heroic. You could watch an action movie or comedy with your parents and just feel awkward when the titties came out.  But how could I excuse listening to a song called “The Fuck Shop”?

My friends and I started listening to gangsta rap only months before it was all over the news media as the newest national controversy. Of course, the controversy just made us feel even cooler for listening to it. I remember seeing a Newsweek cover story about 2 Live Crew, probably shortly after they were arrested for performing, and wondering if my mom recognized the album as the very same one she had seen me buy a month or two ago. But she didn’t, and I quietly stashed my cassettes of As Nasty As They Wanna Be and Straight Outta Compton under my bed, away from the rest of my music collection, in case mom now felt compelled to sniff around and see what I was listening to. (She never found those tapes, but years later she did find both porn and pot on separate occasions of snooping in my room. Maybe I’d have been better off if she’d found the tapes and punished me early on. At least I might’ve learned how to hide stuff a little better.)

At the same time that we were listening to “Gangsta Gangsta” and “Me So Horny” (and the girls we liked were listening to New Kids on the Block) we were also really into comedy, specifically stand-up and sketch comedy. For the latter, it was Saturday Night Live and it’s yin-to-the-yang urban (read:black) equivalent In Living Color that stole our attention. Watching SNL over the weekend was an absolute necessity, because you had to be ready to quote from it on Monday at school. We could all talk like Wayne and Garth, and we could all do imitations of Dana Carvey imitating George Bush or being the Church Lady.

As for stand-up, the unquestioned kings were Eddie Murphy and Andrew Dice Clay. We liked them for the same reasons we liked gangsta rap: because they talked explicitly about sex. diceman comethMurphy’s Delirious was probably our all-time favorite, followed closely by the even more sexually explicit Raw. I had entire routines from both committed to memory. Clay’s The Diceman Cometh HBO special was basically the stand-up equivalent of a 2 Live Crew record. What it lacked in humor and creativity it made up for in filth.  We all enjoyed spouting his dirty nursery rhymes for a while. (“Jack and Jill went up the hill, both with a buck and a quarter. Jill came down with $2.50. That fuckin’ whore.”) Unlike Delirious and Raw, which hold up pretty well as classics of stand-up, The Diceman Cometh was basically vulgarity for vulgarity’s sake, which is probably why it’s not remembered as favorably as Murphy’s work (although surely it’s good enough to warrant a proper DVD release, wtf?)

The contrast between the legacies of Andrew Dice Clay and Eddie Murphy mirrors that between 2 Live Crew and N.W.A. Whereas the current consensus holds that N.W.A. had relevance in the social and political milieu of their time, I doubt that a Luther Campbell biopic will be in the works any time soon. But then who can tell where the culture is headed? For all I know Luke will end up on Mount-friggin-Rushmore, because if you would’ve told me twenty-five years ago that a film glamorizing N.W.A. would not only get made but would dominate the box office, I would’ve said, a la Wayne Campbell, “Shah – right!

Nowadays I’m told – by no less an authority than Hollywood – that N.W.A. were politically astute social critics, fighters for free speech and against police brutality, pioneers of black-owned businesses throwing off the yoke of white corporate control; in a word, heroes. Well, maybe for some. But I smell a whiff of bullshit here, because some of these white liberals (and Latino conservatives: Marco Rubio!) who are now gushing over the film Straight Outta Compton are probably around the same age as me, and probably first heard this music under similar circumstances, even if their particular hometown wasn’t as trashy as mine.

For us, gangsta rap fit into the larger cultural context of foul-mouthed comedians, action movie exaggerated violence, and late-night softcore porn on cable. It was part of a nexus of negative cultural influences that basically enabled us to act like Beavis and Butthead for the better part of our teens. For me specifically, who grew up without a father, what I learned about girls and sex and being a man from these media substituted for the birds-n’-the-bees talk that I never got. That may go a long way in explaining some of my own problems with women over the years, but more importantly it shines a light on the impact of this kind of art on certain segments of the American male population, because I’m far from the only fatherless child in the land.

I don’t deny that Straight Outta Compton and other gangsta rap had some positive value. I’m told that many young urban black men strongly identified with the sentiment behind “Fuck Tha Police” because they’d been in similar situations. But as a young white kid with no experience of that sort of thing, my only reaction was “Whoa! This song has ‘Fuck’ in the title!” Furthermore, it was hard for any of us to sympathize with the group’s complaints against the police, since virtually every other song on the album has them bragging about various illegal activities. Gangsta rap did absolutely nothing to undo our stereotypes of and prejudices against black people, since most of it basks in criminality and misogynistic hyper-sexuality. Granted, this appeals to the raw masculine energy that is present in adolescent boys, but it hardly channels it in a positive direction.

I’m not singling out N.W.A. – Hollywood did that – because they were just one of many negative cultural influences that bombarded my teenage brain. But since nobody’s making a film reinventing Andrew Dice Clay as Lenny Bruce or claiming that the transformation of Cinemax to Skinemax was a great leap for mankind, I’ll focus my attention on the gangsta rappers currently being lauded as fine artistes.


The debate about gangsta rap is actually much older than the music itself. In Plato’s Republic, Socrates and his companions have a long discussion about what kinds of stories young men and women ought to hear for their edification, and what kinds they should be prevented from hearing. Socrates says that any tales of the gods’ misdeeds should be banned, because

a young man should not be told that in committing the worst of crimes he is far from doing anything outrageous.

I can forgive Ice Cube for telling a thirteen year-old boy – me – that “life ain’t nothin’ but bitches and money.”  He was basically a kid himself, and we all would like to be forgiven for the dumb shit that we say and do when we’re kids.  But I don’t forgive Jerry Heller and the other record company executives that promoted this crap and made sure that it wound up in my local record store, very far away from Compton.  They should have known better.  They probably did know better and just didn’t care, about anything except the money.

Tupac Shakur said that the reason his songs talk about terrible things is because he felt disgusted by these things and hoped that, by drawing attention to them, someone somehow could make them stop.  That’s another example of youthful naivete, at best.  Sorry ‘Pac, it just doesn’t work that way.  Art may initially imitate life, but life very quickly reciprocates, often in far greater proportion.

What has happened since the success of gangsta rap has actually been the gangsterization of the media at large.  Rude and in-your-face is now the order of the day, across the entire political spectrum, from Bill O’Reilly’s angry outbursts to Jon Stewart’s self-righteous snark.  Furthermore, selected incidents of violence are promoted to the forefront of national consciousness, virtually guaranteeing that they will spawn either imitation, retaliation, or both.

Give it a few more decades and it will be something like this:

Babyshambles: Beauty On The Verge Of Collapse

Down In Albion, Ten Years LaterDown-In-Albion-coverIt’s now ten years since the release of Babyshambles’ debut album Down In Albion. Though I would later come to be a big fan of Peter Doherty’s music, I had never heard of him, the Libertines or Babyshambles in late 2005 when a mix CD arrived in the mail one day from my old pal Kurt Tolu.

It was mostly American jams, but in the middle of the mix was a kind of Brit interlude, which was introduced by the Misfits’ “London Dungeon” and then went into the Kaiser Chiefs’ “I Was Born To Be A Dancer.” But it was the next track that stole all my attention.

“Fuck Forever,” the lead single off Down In Albion, is one of the most remarkable performances to ever be captured on tape. I can only compare it to the Beatles’ “Twist and Shout” and Bob Dylan’s “Like A Rolling Stone,” both of which were magical first-take performances. I don’t know if “Fuck Forever” was likewise a one-take wonder, but like these other songs, it has lost none of its power with the passage of time. It kicks off with a sonic blast by guitar player Patrick Walden, who is simply one of the best and most original guitar players I’ve ever heard. The opening chords are like a tear in the fabric of space-time, or more like a tear in the fabric of love, an even higher reality. And then the four chords that make up the chorus, played with a harsh staccato rhythm like stabs from a knife. The song is in B-minor, which Bob Dylan said was his favorite chord because it’s the most mystical. (See his 1975, “One More Cup Of Coffee,” especially the superior rendition off the Whites Stripes’ first record.)

I listened to the song over and over again. I called up Kurt the next day to find out more about this Babyshambles group. “Babe, I know, I KNOW!” Kurt yelled into the phone. “I tried to tell those guys at Rough Trade: ‘Do you even know what you have here?’ Nobody listens to old Kurt. The irony is that I’m the one who steered The Clash towards CBS for the U.S. release of their first record after nobody else would touch it, and now Mick Jones is the fuckin’ producer of Babyshambles. But people in this business got short memories, you know? The drugs don’t exactly help.”

No, the drugs don’t help. Except for that short time at the beginning when they actually do help. Every artist who gets into drugs makes a kind of devil’s bargain. All the creative energy that they have to expend over the course of their life is able to be concentrated and released over a much shorter time. The trade-off is that after that, there’s not much left. This partly explains the golden age of Pete Doherty’s songwriting and performing, from about 2002 to 2005 when he seemingly could do no wrong – musically, anyway.

Pete Doherty rose to prominence as one half of The Libertines, whose debut album Up The Bracket from 2002 is generally considered the band’s, and Doherty’s, best work. (But it’s not – Down In Albion is, though no one else realizes it.) After that, Pete’s well-documented drug use and chaotic lifestyle took its toll on the band, and by the time of their second eponymous album two years later, they were already broken up.

The dynamic between Doherty and bandmate Carl Barat was the fuel behind The Libertines. It was part best mates, part creative partnership a la Lennon and McCartney (though, in spite of the initial comparisons, we can now definitively say that Doherty and Barat didn’t even come close in quantity or quality of musical output) and part homoerotic flirtation. The cover of their second album, featuring an iconic photograph by Roger Sargent, shows the duo looking like waifish junkie extras from My Own Private Idaho. What interested me about the Libertines and especially Peter Doherty was the worldview espoused through the music. They made a by-all-accounts sincere effort to create their own private Britain, an alternative to the prevailing reality of the time, rooted in the European romantic and decadent traditions, and in the ancient mythology of the isles themselves. They harked back to Rimbaud, as all punk rockers are obliged to, but for them it wasn’t just about having spiky hair like France’s most famous enfant terrible, but about living one’s entire life as art. The Revolution of Everyday Life, as the Situationist writer Raoul Vaneigem would call it.

The Libertines’ alternate-reality centered around two main, ancient concepts: Albion and Arcadia. Albion is the archaic name for Britain, when it was a land of Druids and bards. Arcadia, although the name of an actual place in ancient Greece just north of Sparta, is a name associated with a kind of earthly paradise – specifically, a poet’s paradise. Ancient writers like the Roman Virgil wrote of Arcadia as a peaceful land of eternal springtime, with lush pastures, rich wine a’plenty, and the fairest maidens in all the world. (I might make a case for Guns N’ Roses’ “Paradise City” as being another veiled reference to Arcadia, but I won’t.)

The Libertines re-envisioned decaying 21st century Britain as “the good ship Albion” which was sailing towards the paradisal land of Arcadia, fueled by music and poetry, camaraderie, festivity, and a good amount of drugs.  It was an effort to break on through to the other side, if you like, giving them a kind of spiritual kinship with the Doors, even if their music bore no further resemblance. And in spite of their hark back to days of yore, they were deliberately forward-looking, cautioning against too much nostalgia on their first album: “It chars my heart to always hear you calling, calling for the good old days. Because there were no good old days. These are the good old days.” The Libertines were one of the first bands to make use of the internet to bypass record companies and concert promoters, going directly to their fans on forums and message boards to promote guerrilla gigs, often at a moment’s notice and in the most rundown sections of London.

But all the fights and the nights and the drugs and the pubs took their toll, and by 2004 Doherty had been kicked out of the band. He had taken to consuming massive amounts of drugs, including his preferred pair of heroin and crack cocaine, and going without sleep for days at a time. One of his Babyshambles’ entourage said at that the time that it wasn’t the drugs that really mess you up but the lack of sleep – it makes entire landscapes fly off into the ether. Doherty was by all accounts a mess during this period. He was also giving some of his best performances and writing some of the best songs of his career.

After being kicked out of the Libertines, he immediately formed another band, called Babyshambles after a nickname he’d picked up because he was such a, well, shambles. Rumors at the time were that Babyshambles wasn’t a real band, but just a publicity stunt so that Doherty could put on gigs in order to get drug money. In retrospect, it’s more likely that that story itself was the publicity stunt, since footage and recordings of their 2004 concerts show the band in fine form, most notably on the Up The Shambles DVD. The band cut their teeth playing a large number of gigs throughout late 2004 and early 2005, mostly in bars and small clubs. Finally, they made their first record.

Down In Albion was produced by Mick Jones, who also produced both of the Libertines records. His production style, which perfectly suited both bands, was basically to record them live in the studio and not try to fix what isn’t broken – even if it was cracked. This style, coupled with the character of the band at the time and the nature of their performances, gives the album its unique feel.

Beauty on the verge of collapse. That was the phrase that came to me at the time to describe Down In Albion, and ten years later I still think that’s what the album captures. Not only the beauty of the music, played in a chaotic, drug-induced delirium in which it barely holds together (but for exactly that reason seems to flow effortlessly) but also the beauty of Peter Doherty’s soul, ravaged by the loss of his first band, his best friend, and by the excesses of fame and drug abuse.

Those of us who pay special attention to lyrics, who have to have good lyrics in order to really like a piece of music, knew that Doherty was a poet from the first. He showed an ability to turn a phrase with wit and intelligence, half hipster-genius and half literate bookworm. He seemed hungry for experience, as great young men are, not necessarily as an end in itself but as fuel for the fire, as raw material with which to make art. Even his abuse of crack cocaine, previously the most uncool of all drugs, became something to make music about, as in “Pipedown,” a double entendre meaning both “Be quiet” and “Put that damn crack pipe down, Pete.” When Babyshambles formed and then announced that they’d be putting out a record, people expected essentially a new Libertines album. What they got was something different, albeit with a few songs that had previously been bandied about in Libertines rehearsals and on informal demos that Pete had given out free on the internet. The album begins with “La Belle et la Bete” featuring Doherty’s then-girlfriend Kate Moss on backing vocals. The track shows off Drew McConnell’s bass, as well as Pete’s gift for lyrical dexterity, beginning the album as a storytelling venture. “I’ll tell you a story but you won’t listen, it’s about a nightmare steeped in tradition. It’s the story of a coked-up pansy who spends his nights in flights of fancy. He met two fellas over gin and mixers, they talked for a while and soon got the picture. One was a souped-up Soho mincer and the other was a Pikey with a knowledge of scripture.”

That last line could also be “of another description.” One of the unique things that Doherty does with his drug-slurred singing is to give an air of indeterminacy to certain phrases within the songs, as in the above example. It’s a variation of a technique that some rappers use when they need to make two words rhyme that don’t quite rhyme – they’ll change the pronunciation of one or both words to bring them into alignment. But here it’s more like a quantum wave that could actualize as several different particles, but remains in its wave form, blurry and stretched out between two different possibilities, or two different realities, suggesting both but not committing to either.

The group spans a wide range of musical styles and influences on the album. “Pipedown,” “Fuck Forever” and “8 Dead Boys” are rough rock in the vein of The Stooges or The Dead Boys, while “Pentonville” and “Sticks and Stones” are reggae-tinged. “Back From the Dead” sounds like The Cure, while “Loyalty Song” takes an old Irish nationalist folk song and transposes it onto the chords of The La’s “There She Goes.” “What Katy Did Next” and “In Love With A Feeling” are sweet love songs, but the latter is about a love of getting high – if Richie Valens had written “Donna” about heroin instead of his girlfriend, it would sound something like this. Finally “Albion,” originally a Libertines song although not on any of their official albums, is a classic ballad with a beautifully delicate melody and melancholy, nostalgic lyrics paying homage to Doherty’s particular vision of Britain and Britishness.

It is Peter Doherty’s vision and personality which unite the disparate elements of the album, which are scattered around the various tracks like syringes and notebooks in his loft apartment. One theme of the album is certainly as simple as Pete’s late friend Amy Winehouse’s lyrics: “They tried to make me go to rehab. I said no.” In “A’Rebours” (named after the quintessential decadent novel by J.K. Huysmans) he says, “I defy you all … If you really cared for me, you’d let me be,” sounding like he’s lashing out at a would-be interventionist. Another theme of the album is the demise of the Libertines and his relationship with Carl Barat. “Back From The Dead” and “Sticks and Stones” are both concerned with this. And then there is “Fuck Forever.”

On one level the song is an answer to the Libertines’ “What Became Of The Likely Lads” with it’s question, “What became of forever?” But because Doherty is a true poet, the song transcends its personal inspirations and becomes an expression of what Albert Camus called “metaphysical rebellion.” It is a raging against the dying of the light, the cry of the finite against the infinite, the temporary against the eternal, the creature against the creator. “Fuck Forever” is one of the most powerful, brutally nihilistic songs ever made. I used to put it on mix tapes as a follow-up to Bukka White’s “Fixin’ To Die,” not so much for the second meaning it gave to “fixin” (though admittedly I thought that was clever) but because the foreboding, somethin-ain’t-right feeling of that song was the only thing I could find that could stand up next to “Fuck Forever.”

The great mystics of world religions speak of oneness. But there is another kind of oneness that is found in depression and despair. “One and the same, it’s one and the same,” the song begins. “So what’s the use between death and glory? I can’t tell between death and glory.” This is a nod to the Clash song “Death or Glory,” but much more than that it’s an expression of an existential crisis, a recognition of the futility and meaninglessness of one human life in the face of eternity. We usually think of life and death as extreme opposites, but they’re not. At the extremes, the opposition is between the total embrace of human life, making the absolute most its possibilities and seeking after its highest rewards, and the total rejection of life, the most extreme expression of which is suicide, but which also has plenty of lesser expressions as various forms of apathy, forfeiture, defeat and acquiescence. Glory or death, death or glory.

But what is glory, even the greatest glory that a man might achieve, in the vast expanse of time? In The Odyssey, Homer has Achilles say that it’s better to be even a slave on earth than to be a hero in the land of the dead. A man may succeed greatly or fail miserably, and in a thousand years, what will it matter? And therefore, what does it matter now? This lamentation is as old as Ecclesiastes; probably older. Later in the song he repeats this line and then says, fighting against this awful realization, “No, it’s not the same, it’s not supposed to be the same.” Throughout the song, Doherty slurs, shouts and drags out the words as though they were globs of black bile being expelled from his system. It reminds me of how Darby Crash used to “sing” Germs‘ songs.  During the bridge, there is a terrible, menacing guttural sound like the coughing up of blood, which he repeats again and again in a brutal rhythm. “Aaaaaaand a way, to make you toe the liiiiiiiiiiine – I sever my tie!” This severance is doubtless a reference to his ties to Carl Barat and the Libertines, but in the larger context, it is nothing less than the tie to the eternal, to God.

“Oh I’m so clever. But clever ain’t wise.” This line has the ring of a deep, personal confession. Anyone who has a way with words knows something of their power to persuade, to enthrall, even to enrapture. So often in life we mistake eloquence for honesty. But what is well-said may not, for all that, be true, nor even good. Clever ain’t wise; the sophist is not the philosopher, the wiseass is not the wise man.

“So fuck forever,” he says. Fuck heaven. Fuck eternity. Fuck love. “If you don’t mind,” he adds, ever the gentleman, apparently. Doherty was raised Catholic and is also a fan of the novels of Graham Greene, especially Brighton Rock, which is about a young street criminal who believes in God but actively rejects Him and the heaven that He offers.  (As an aside, the resemblance between Doherty and Sam Riley, who plays the main character in the newest film version of Brighton Rock and who also plays Ian Curtis in Control, is uncanny.)

But in the end, for the one who tries to say no to the All, the joke is on them. It’s his misfortune and none of God’s own. There’s a recognition of this in the song when he says, “Cuz I’m stuck forever, stuck in your mind.”

For a mystic, the supreme goal is to achieve total union with the universal mind, or God. But this possibility is an affront to the ego, which thinks itself separate and wants, in its extremity, to be completely separate, completely cut off from everything, to sever the tie, because that would be the supreme proof its independent existence. This is one meaning of the myth of Satan’s rebellion against God. That rebellion exists to some degree in all of us, and is always, ultimately, doomed to failure.

The feeling of exhaustion and imminent collapse pervades the entirety of Down In Albion. Its energetic songs are the rush of a drug high, its slower and sweeter songs the peaceful peak of the experience. Its emotions are all over the board from anger to tenderness. I think sincerity of emotion has always been one of Doherty’s strongest points as a songwriter. “Albion” was the album’s biggest single and is a lovely song. But the most beautiful is the closing track, “Merry Go Round.” Originally called “That Bowery Song,” Doherty began performing it around 2004. It’s built around a very simple, droning two-chord rhythm that is absolutely hypnotic. The song perfectly evokes the atmosphere of aftermath – a messy room at dawn, empty bottles and empty people strewn about all over the place, with a small few still awake, still high, and singing a last song. “It was the first one of the day, it was the last one of the night, oh hold me tight, hold me tight. They said you were a wrong’un, but I could see in your eyes that you were gentle and wise.”

At the end of the track, the music stops except for Adam Ficek’s drums and Pete’s vocals, which become faint and echoed as he stumbles around the studio looking for (presumably) his crack pipe, and changing the lyrics to match. “I been so good to that boy, why did he steal my lighter?” And then we hear “Whoa!” as he stumbles over something and collapses in the studio. It’s the perfect ending to what is, in its way, a perfect album. Not perfect in its craftsmanship, or technical execution or anything like that, but perfect in its naked honesty and transparency. There is no lying in any of this music; or rather, if there is, it is the artist lying to himself, which paradoxically becomes a kind of greater honesty when he puts it on a record and shows it to the world. Like that line in Scarface, “I always tell the truth. Even when I lie.”

Rock n’ roll, like other religions, loves its martyrs; those who bear witness to the higher truths of the faith and lay down their life for it. Around the time of Down In Albion, there were Dead Pool-style bets being made about how much longer Doherty had left. He seemed to be riding William Blake’s road of excess all the way to the end, pedal to the floor. But against the odds, he survived. He has, as Carl Barat observed, “a mammoth constitution.”

The great irony is that, had he not had this reservoir of strength within him and had he died of an overdose as almost everyone thought he would at the time, Down In Albion would be remembered as one of the great last testaments of a rock god, spoken of alongside In Utero, Electric Ladyland, and Joy Division’s Closer. They would have used those last lines as an epitaph: The tabloids said you were a wrong’un, but I could see in your eyes that you were gentle and wise. Or damned clever, anyway. But because Pete is still with us and Babyshambles continued to make music, recognition of the album’s greatness never came.

And the music has never really been the same. Down in Albion was quickly followed by The Blinding EP, which featured neither Patrick Walden on guitar nor Mick Jones on production. Neither would work with the band again. Walden’s guitar was especially irreplaceable – one need only compare Down in Albion to the other records. When Shotters Nation was released in 2007, it was widely praised in the music press due its relatively slick production, but it was not half the album that its predecessor was. The Blinding and Shotters Nation both had some good songs, to be sure; but the raw energy of Albion was not there anymore.

Nor should anyone expect it to be, anymore than one could expect Bob Dylan to make another Blood On The Tracks. Stephane Mallarme said that poetry is the language of a state of crisis. This crisis that Peter Doherty translated into music seems to have subsided, but the album will have relevance long past its personal meanings for the artist, because we as a civilization have known, since Oswald Spengler told us so, that we have been in a state of slow collapse for several hundred years, and thus the poetry of exhaustion always has a peculiar resonance for us. In the image of a talented young man who feels an affinity for the old world that is already gone, and can find no solace in this modern world except drugs and nostalgia, is a symbol of our age. Perhaps it’s fitting that no one recognized it.

Pirate Booty, and the Grace of God

Life in China does have its perks. In my neighborhood is a small DVD shop. I plead total ignorance as to whether these ridiculously inexpensive discs are officially licensed releases or not. After all, what do I know about what Chinese DVD releases are supposed to look like? How do I know that the awkward Chinglish description which reads like an arbitrary excerpt from a website review is not what Sony Pictures has approved for the overseas market? My copy of The Avengers lists the production credits for Titanic on the back of the case … but how do I know that this isn’t the result of some massive marketing strategy born of an in-depth study of the East Asian love of romantic slop? Zhende, jiade? (“Genuine, or fake?”) As a lowly Roman prefect once asked,Zhende? What is zhende?”

So the other night I watched the new Russell Crowe film The Water Diviner, which hasn’t been released in American cinemas yet, but is available on DVD here. My copy has an English title, an Italian description, and embedded Korean subtitles. (Again, how do I know this isn’t merely an official nod to multiculturalism and globalization by the production company?) The film is good, and I recommend it to you (when it finally hits theaters in your country and you have to throw down twelve bucks to go see it – suckers.) But what really hit me was the song that plays during the credits, a hauntingly beautiful ballad by one Kris Fogelmark called “Love Was My Alibi.”

The Water Diviner Chinese DVD

Every so often a song comes along that I like instantly, and by “like” I mean “become obsessed with and listen to repeatedly until I’ve memorized every second of it.” Ten years ago this happened when I first heard the Babyshambles’ song “Fuck Forever” from their debut album. That song is as haunting in its utter nihilism and brutal despair as this song is in its soaring heights of heartbroken gratitude. Whatever else I might say about aging, I am in a better place emotionally than I was a decade ago.

So after rewinding the credits to listen to it a second time, I set out in search of an mp3. My first stop was iTunes, of course, because I always opt for the legal download that soothes my conscience with sweet tithes to the record label gods. But the song was not to be found there. So next I googled it, as the devil on my other shoulder whispered hopes of pirate booty on the seas of cyberspace. But it was not there either. The only thing I found was a lot of youtube videos ripped from the end credits, and a few that have the whole song but in a horribly tinny and low quality version. Nonetheless, it would have to be cha bu duo, as we say here in China – “good enough.” After listening to the song a few dozen times or so in the last several hours, I felt compelled to write about it.

The best love songs are those that might just as easily be about God as about a lover; those that blur or defy the distinction between earthly and divine love, sacred and profane. The religious traditions of the world are filled with love songs. I’m not talking about the stuff you hear on Christian radio, where some guy proclaims love for Jesus with about as much real verve as a mall Santa. Rather, I’m talking about the love poetry of saints and mystics, people like Rumi and Dante Alighieri. Both of those men wrote beautiful love poems to God. But this love was mediated by another. In the case of Dante, it was through his muse, Beatrice. In Rumi’s case, it was through his guru Shams.

God gives the beloved to us as a gift of grace, as a means to experience Him because, as the New Testament tells us, God is love. This simple three word formulation that sounds like it came from a Hallmark card is actually an encapsulation of the greatest, most profound mystery. The love that is God is simply too big, too all-encompassing, too all-pervasive, and so all-too-easy to miss or mistake. As my Lutheran catechism class taught me, human beings and their little hearts are simply incapable of fully loving God. Because of this, for the devoted seeker God can manifest as one person, who embodies the divine qualities of goodness, beauty and truth.

This was Dante’s understanding of his love for Beatrice. He met her for the first time when they were children, and he fell in love with her instantly. Although both married other people and they were never able to be together, Dante loved her more than any other for his entire life. Whoever sees in that love only a man’s feelings for a girl sees nothing, because for Dante the appearance of Beatrice in his life was nothing less than a theophany, the appearance of the divine as and through the beloved.* The love we experience for the beloved both is God and is a means to ascend to God. Those wishing to know more about this should study Plato’s Symposium.

For Rumi, his love for God was realized through his love for his spiritual teacher. This is more difficult for Western people to understand, for whereas we are quite used to being melodramatic about the power of romantic love and extolling its supreme virtues, we are not accustomed to thinking in this way about a relationship with a guru. Yet, in all the major religious traditions of the world, at least in their esoteric aspects if not in their public forms, this relationship is held up higher than all others that a person can have. (The Vajrayana Buddhist teacher Traktung Yeshe Dorje demonstrates this point most forcefully in his book Original Innocence.)

I don’t know who Kris Fogelmark is or what he was thinking when he wrote this song. (For that matter, I don’t know if I should be wondering this about him or about Russell Crowe, who is listed as the song’s principal author.) What I do know is that “Love Was My Alibi” has all the earmarks of a song of guru devotion. If that’s not in fact what it is, then it’s all the more remarkable for that. Perhaps something like Carl Jung’s theory of the Collective Unconscious can explain it then.

Let’s look at the lyrics, as best as I and my friend Nora over at WrittenChinese can decipher them:

Time – will be the enemy

When you’re lost in a world of pain (hate?)

Days go floating by

It just doesn’t change

It just stays the same

Then you came along

Showed me how to start

Now the sun shines in my heart,

The sun shines in my heart

I was so lost

Now I’m found

Like the song they used to sing

On Sunday afternoon

Love was my alibi

All my life long

You made love my reason

You made love my truth

Now the sun shines in my heart

Time – now a friend to me

You make me feel aglow (adored?)

When I look into your eyes

It’s like I’ve never been

Never been loved before

You showed me the way

You showed me how to start

Now the sun shines in my heart,

The sun shines in my heart

The reason the song works so well as a guru hymn is because of the imagery it uses. Everything in the lyrics is a traditional symbol or reference to a dharma teaching. The song opens with a kind of scream, the singer drawing out “Ti-i-i-i-ime” or perhaps “I’ll” which is what all the other lyric transcriptions have. (The latter makes more sense grammatically, but “time” makes more sense in terms of meaning. Kudos to Nora for calling that one.) Either one works, since both time and the sense of ‘I’, of being a separate, isolated individual, will be the enemy when one is “lost in a world of pain/hate.” Maybe it’s not “Time” or “I” but just a kind of primal scream.

The feeling of changelessness is a pretty good indicator of a state of delusion. The nature of reality is that everything is a constant state of change. But our experience of this can vary dramatically depending on whether we are trying to cling to happiness or push away unhappiness, which can either make time seem to speed up or slow down, even grind to halt in the case of extreme suffering. Whether it be pain or hate, the result is the same: restless suffering.

Buddhist teachings describes human beings as being lost in samsara, a Sanskrit word denoting a state of perpetual confusion, like being trapped in a maze or a hall of illusions, unable to find the exit. People try all manner of activities and tricks to try to make their lives better, but in truth, they don’t even know how to start to make real improvement in their condition. The reason for this is that, left to our own devices, the ego will always steer us away from anything that would bring about real spiritual growth, because that is a threat to ego’s perceived existence.

This is especially true for spiritual teachings. Chogyam Trungpa wrote of what he called “spiritual materialism,” the ego’s diabolical ability to convert even sublime wisdom teachings into dung fertilizer for its own nourishment and growth. The world of gurus and religions is overflowing with such people, who substitute the normal egoism of average people for the grandiose egoism of pseudo-spirituality, which masquerades as egolessness. The subtle selfishness of “spiritual” people is often more grossly nauseating than that of people who at least put on no such pretense.

But these “spiritual” people always have an alibi for their despicable and despotic behavior, and that alibi is love. Like an abusive husband, they always claim that everything they do is out of love, is for your own good, even though you don’t understand. These can be the claims of a would-be teacher, or just a would-be good person. I’ve heard enough people say to me or others, “I’m a good person,” that now I pretty much assume they are trying to convince others and themselves because it’s not true. Claims of goodness or of enlightenment always ring hollow unless the person is well and truly a conduit for the highest love, the “love supreme” as John Coltrane says.

The coming of the teacher is a grace, like the coming of a lover. One should be grateful but should not think that one has merited it, for no limited amount of merit can earn the infinite. What does the teacher teach? The Way. That’s what the first Christians called it, before somebody else brought their -anities and -isms to the table. That’s what Laozi called it, even though the first thing he said about it is that nothing can be said about it and it shouldn’t be called anything. That’s what the Buddha called it, and he said that his way, his noble path, had eight components. We can call it the Way of Truth, or the Way of Love. We can call it the Way of spiritual growth, or spiritual realization. But maybe Laozi was right, and it’s better not to try to say too much about it.

In Sufism, God is called the Friend. The one who introduces the Friend to the student is the teacher. When I hear the lines that say, “Now a friend to me / You make me feel aglow / When I look into your eyes / Like I’ve never been / Never been loved before” I feel like I am reading Rumi singing to Shams, and to God. No earthly love can compare to divine love, love that has not been refracted, separated, filtered through the mesh of ego, which the Sufis call the nafs, the “little satan.”

The most important esoteric tradition for all three of the major Western religions – Christianity, Judaism, and Islam – is Platonism. The greatest of the early Church fathers were Platonists who translated Plato’s mystical and rational insights into the language of Christianity. Platonism informed the Hebrew Kabbalah and also Islamic philosophy and mysticism. For Plato, the mind attains union with the Highest Good by use of the rational intellect together with the love of wisdom and truth. His understanding of the human soul was of a tripartite unit consisting of desire, courage, and intellect. But the intellect itself had two parts: a calculating, cognizing aspect which he called dianoia in Greek, and a higher, more mysterious aspect called nous, which was capable of intuiting, directly knowing the highest truth, because that is where it came from. In medieval Christian theology, this became the distinction between ratio and intellectus.

The point of doing philosophy, as Plato conceived it, is to unite one’s mind and heart, through the faculties of knowing and loving, with the Highest Good. He used the metaphor of being trapped in a cave facing the wall. To realize the truth and be set free was to turn around and see the light of the sun.

The sun is perhaps the oldest and most universal symbol for God in all of human existence, whether it is Plato’s understanding of the sun as the visible world’s corollary of the invisible world’s supreme power, or the image of the heart as a flower which opens to the sunlight of God’s love. Such a one who opens to God’s love, who unites with the highest good, becomes a conduit for that love and goodness to burst forth like sunbeams into the world. The heart, rather than being the sickly love-starved organ of an ordinary being, becomes aglow with the light which in truth it always contained, which is no longer impeded by delusion or constriction. Buddhist teachings call such beings bodhisattvas. Christianity calls them saints. Plato called them Guardians. They are those from whom a light shines forth into the world.

St. Paul says that in order for people to become such, a radical change is needed. The Greek word in the New Testament is metanoia, which means something like “change of mind” or “turning” of the mind, echoing Plato. The soul uses its imperfect reason and imperfect love to strive for that which is perfect, and if it succeeds, it undergoes this change, this metamorphosis, this becoming what it is. One’s reason is no longer the ordinary reason of calculations and figuring, but the transcendent logic (from logos, another name for Christ) of love. One’s truth is no longer the truth of deduction and computation, but the Truth which is yet another name for God, the Highest Good, the Way and the Life Everlasting – Love. Then time is just an ornament of eternity. And the sun shines in the heart.


So there you have it.  Kris Fogelmark / Russell Crowe: hidden disciple of a spiritual master?  Or this author, man with too much time (“Ti-i-i-i-i-ime!”) on his hands and reader of too many books?  I’m sure I can’t say.

UPDATE: The song is finally available for purchase here.  The Water Diviner is also available on DVD here – sorry, no embedded Korean subtitles.

* Henry Corbin writes, “…the young girl who was for Ibn ‘Arabi in Mecca what Beatrice was for Dante , was a real young girl, though at the same time she was ‘in person’ a theophanic figure, the figure of the Sophia aeterna [eternal Wisdom].”