2014: The Year in Review – Part 1: Culture

Back in January I took the momentous decision to stop buying CDs, and start downloading music instead. (I am aware that downloading is passé, and streaming is where it’s at, but give me some credit for finally leaving the 1980s and catching up with the 21st century.) I’ve also been listening to the radio a lot more, mostly BBC 6, and the combined result has been that I’ve got into a lot of new artists, rediscovered some old favourites, and acquired loads of records this year. Far too many to list here (they’re all on my Culture Tumblr if you’re interested), so I’ll just feature the best tracks from my ten favourite albums, in no particular order:

Moaning Lisa Smile – Wolf Alice (Creature Songs)
An Ocean In Between The Waves – The War On Drugs (Lost In The Dream)
Your Love is Killing Me – Sharon Van Etten (Are We There)
We Are Coming Back – Marissa Nadler (July)
Can’t Be Too Responsible – Avi Buffalo (At Best Cuckold)
Woke Up In My Future – Haley Bonar (Last War)
Love Song – Dawn Landes (Bluebird)
Different Days – The Men (Tomorrow’s Hits)
White Fire – Angel Olsen (Burn Your Fire For No Witness)
Forgiveness – Bob Mould (Beauty & Ruin)

I managed to get out to see more live music this year too, from the relatively new (Speedy Ortiz) to the somewhat older (Television) but my favourite show was living legend Bob Mould, still as electrifying (and as loud) as when I first saw him in Hüsker Dü back in my student days.

Book-wise, I’ve been reading a lot of history, specifically 18th and 19th century military history, from the Seven Years War to the Franco-Prussian War. I was fairly familiar with the political history of this period already, but it’s always good to remind oneself that outcomes that seem inevitable in retrospect are often contingent on the actions of fallible individuals.

On the fiction front my main project was another attempt at Proust’s In Search of Lost Time – I managed two volumes, which is twice as far as I’ve got in the past, and I’m going to dive back into The Guermantes Way next month. I read a few more contemporary novels too, but nothing terribly memorable.

My favourite book of the year however was a piece of non-fiction from 1984; Janet Malcolm’s In the Freud Archives, a masterful and darkly humorous deconstruction of narcissism in the world of psychoanalysis.

I’m still not going to the cinema much. I seem to have completely fallen out of love with the whole medium; I hardly ever read the movie reviews these days, so I can’t even fake opinions on what’s been showing. I did see one great film this year though; Inside Llewyn Davis by the Coen brothers, who can always be relied upon to spin a slender narrative into something deeper. I found the title character particularly affecting, perhaps because I can identify with a man who can’t quite give up on his dreams, even though he knows that to compromise would make him happier, or at least unhappy in a more bearable way.

So there you have it, my year of culture, such as it was. I have, of course, skirted around the mass of low culture I consumed, in the form of YouTube binges (Russian dashcam videos a particular favourite), listicles, and other mindless internet ephemera, which wasted countless hours of my life that I’m never going to get back. It’s the general trajectory of our information-overload society I guess. I will try to be a little more highbrow next year…

Turn The Season

Well, that’s midwinter past (though, interestingly, the mornings will keep getting darker for a while yet), and Christmas is upon us, so I guess it’s time to come out of hibernation and start thinking about reviewing the year gone by. Though there’s surely time for a few beers and a mince pie or two before I get down to work…

(Here’s a song link, something we haven’t had for ages.)

Not far to reach

On one of my first trips to New York, back in the early 90s, I stayed in a backpackers’ hostel in a brownstone on the upper West Side, 86th street I think. It was pretty basic, about 20 to a room, mostly young Europeans, but a good place to meet people. It had a nice big kitchen, which was down in the basement, but the building was on a hill, so the room still caught the sun through large windows which looked out on an overgrown garden.

One of my most vivid memories of that trip is standing at the stove late on a Sunday morning, frying hamburgers and eggs for breakfast, looking at the mural which occupied the whole of the wall behind the worn couches that made up the dining area. It was a seaside scene, with girls in bikinis and guys in bermuda shorts, lying on bright towels, drinking and smoking while the waves crashed on the shore, all done in a charmingly naive style, Outsider Art almost. Around the edge, forming a frame, were the lyrics to Rockaway Beach, by the Ramones, no strangers to the outsider tag themselves.

I never actually made it out to Rockaway, but ever since that day that image, and that song, have represented a platonic ideal of summer for me, a moment of uncomplicated pleasure frozen in time, out of focus, just out of reach, like a girl glimpsed through the haze of a hot day by the ocean.

This came to mind today when I heard the sad news that Tommy Ramone, last survivor of the original lineup, had passed away, another sign, if I needed it, that time keeps moving on.

That hostel is probably an upscale apartment building now, the mural long gone, my fellow travellers scattered around the world, to whatever fate life held for them. Places, people, experiences, all slip away, leaving only my memories, which will die with me. The Atlantic still washes the sand at Rockaway though, and I guess boys still listen to music and dream of days with their girl at the beach, so it’s hard to believe that those moments will be lost forever. It may be true that no one will ever stand in that kitchen again, seeing that picture just the way I saw it all those years ago, but I like to think that we are but temporary vessels for the common emotions of humanity, and that the kind of joy which rises in my heart when I remember that day will be around as long as there are people alive to feel it.

Always hopeful, yet discontent

Second Life made a rare appearance in the mainstream media this week, when the Guardian picked up the story of new Linden Lab head honcho Ebbe Altberg’s interview with TheNextWeb.

It’s been a while since I’ve had the energy to get interested in the internal world of the Lab, but one thing in the piece did catch my eye; Altberg’s announcement that SL will be relaunched on a new technological footing in the next year or two. Presumably they’ll be throwing out proprietary standards like prims and LSL, and replacing them with mesh and C, or whatever the rest of the industry is using these days. “We’re not going to constrain ourselves with backwards compatibility,” says Altberg, worryingly.

I guess this means that I’ll be waving goodbye to my little virtual house, and all my virtual possessions, and starting afresh in a virtual Year Zero. I’ve not paid attention to TOS developments for ages, but I vaguely remember “ownership” of land and objects in SL being redefined as a revocable licence to use the service, so when they take my stuff I’ll be due precisely no compensation. (Of course, as a hardcore communist who doesn’t believe in private property, I can’t really complain about this, but still, it’s a bit annoying).

I’m all for progress, but the fact is that it’s been the comforting stasis of Second Life, the calming respite from the uncertainties of reality, that has kept me paying my subscription over the last few years. If that goes I’m not sure that I’ll have a reason to stick around.

Oh well, as they say, changes aren’t permanent, but change is. I suppose I’ll adapt…

Pete Seeger RIP

I have to admit that I’m not a huge fan of folk music, (though I did enjoy Inside Llewyn Davis on a rare trip to the cinema this weekend) but I was sad to hear that Pete Seeger had passed away today, at the grand old age of 94. His songs seemed to soundtrack much of US radical politics in the last 70 years, from pre-war labour struggles, through McCarthy witch-hunts, civil rights marches and anti-war movements, right up to the Occupy protests of the last few years.

I’m not sure that the protest ballad as a cultural form is quite so popular on this side of the Atlantic, but hearing Seeger deliver a fine old union song like Which Side Are You On? certainly still rouses some revolutionary fervour.

2013: The Year in Review – Part 1: Culture

After my poor showing on the cultural front in 2012 I set myself some rather modest targets for this year; every month get two new records, read two new books, and see two new films. How hard could that be? Harder than I thought evidently.

I didn’t do too badly with music, managing to acquire 30 albums, mostly new stuff, and getting along a few live shows too.

Here’s this year’s mix tape (and here it is on Spotify, with a couple of substitutions for tracks that aren’t available):

Untitled 28 – The Twilight Sad (Killed My Parents and Hit the Road)
Nil - The Twilight Sad (No One Can Ever Know)
Holy – Frightened Rabbit (Pedestrian Verse)
Xcommunication – My Life With The Thrill Kill Kult (I See Good Spirits And I See Bad Spirits)
Girls Are The New Boys – Saloon ((This Is) What We Call Progress)
Partners in Crime – The Strokes (Comedown Machine)
Subway – Yeah Yeah Yeahs (Mosquito)
S.O.S. In Bel Air – Phoenix (Bankrupt!)
Husbands – Savages (Silence Yourself)
Magic Bullet – Wire (Change Becomes Us)
W/ Glass In Foot – Guided By Voices (English Little League)
Turn Each Other Inside Out – Primal Scream (More Light)
I Sat By The Ocean – Queens of the Stone Age (Like Clockwork)
Bad For My Body – Deap Vally (Sistrionix)
Bagboy – Pixies (Bagboy)
Tomorrow Tomorrow – Eleanor Friedberger (Personal Record)
Athsma Attack – The Fiery Furnaces (Gallowsbird’s Barkl)
Navy Nurse – The Fiery Furnaces (Widow City)
Canary Island – Houndstooth (Ride Out The Dark)
Morningstar – Grant Hart (The Argument)
Low F – Superchunk (I Hate Music)
Pandora’s Box – Throwing Muses (Throwing Muses)
Hitch – Speedy Ortiz (Major Arcana)
State Of Mine – Sebadoh (Defend Yourself)
Joan Of Arc – Arcade Fire (Reflektor)
Opiates – Throwing Muses (Purgatory/Paradise)
No Shelter – Blouse (Imperium)
Turning Violent – The Flaming Lips (The Terror)
I Need My Girl – The National (Trouble Will Find Me)
Only Tomorrow – My Bloody Valentine (mbv)

I’d have to admit that my musical tastes haven’t changed much in the last 20 years, hence the somewhat retro look of the above selection. My favourite album of the year – Major Arcana by Speedy Ortiz – is a new band’s debut, but the sound is distinctly 90s. Similarly the concerts I attended – Pixies, The Breeders – had a definite nostalgic edge.

It’s downhill from here I’m afraid. I only managed eight full-length novels, though in my defence I would say that I was on a bit of a modernist binge, and books like Gravity’s Rainbow, To the Lighthouse and Umbrella take a while to get through. Rewarding though, and in particular I found Will Self’s tale of psychiatric exploration and wartime loss both structurally intriguing and professionally fascinating, which made it my favourite read this year. In lieu of serious literature I did consume a lot of shorter pieces; reviews, essays, medical and political articles, and rather too many blog posts and other bits of online trivia. I like to think that this is a reflection of the fragmented nature of contemporary cultural discourse, but it probably has more to do with my ageing brain’s declining attention span.

My cinematic experience was similarly underwhelming; I just about managed one film a month. Behind the Candelabra was probably the best of these, and I also liked Before Midnight, though it wasn’t quite as enjoyable as the previous instalments in the series.

So, pass marks for music, but could do better for books and movies. Will things improve over the next twelve months? I’m not sure that I’ll see more films, since I seem to have lost my old cinema habit, but I have bought a few volumes that were on the critics’ “Best of 2013″ lists, so I might catch up on current literary trends, albeit a year behind. We’ll see.

The Spy in the Cab

As if we denizens of Second Life were not paranoid enough already, we learned today that US and UK intelligence agencies have been covertly recording our in-world activity over the last few years.

In reports published in the Guardian and the New York Times, drawing on files provided by whistleblower Edward Snowden, it was revealed that the spooks viewed virtual worlds like SL and World of Warcraft as a “target-rich communication network”, which could be used by terrorists and subversives as a tool to plot the overthrow of Western civilisation. At one point “so many C.I.A., F.B.I. and Pentagon spies were hunting around in Second Life … that a “deconfliction” group was needed to avoid collisions”, and “while GCHQ was testing its ability to spy on Second Life in real time, British intelligence officers vacuumed up three days’ worth of Second Life chat, instant message and financial transaction data, totaling 176,677 lines of data, which included the content of the communications”.

Interestingly, while Blizzard have denied they were aware of the WoW snooping, both Philip Rosedale and the current Linden Lab management declined to do likewise when invited to comment by the NYT, which also reported that Cory Ondrejka, then Chief Technology Officer at LL (and also apparently “a former Navy officer who had worked at the N.S.A. with a top-secret security clearance”) had “visited the [NSA’s] headquarters at Fort Meade, Md., in May 2007 to speak to staff members”.

I used to believe that no one would ever bother to trawl through the minutiae of SL interaction looking for subversion, but it seems that my faith in the anonymity of the virtual crowd has been badly misplaced. It’s certainly made me think about some of the political conversations I’ve had with people in SL over the years, which, for all I know, may have triggered all sorts of automated warning bells, and landed me on some agency’s watch list. Scary stuff. I’ll certainly be more circumspect in the future.

First thing you learn is that you always gotta wait

Sad news about Lou Reed this week. I have to admit that I’ve never been a great fan of Reed’s post-Velvets work – I have a copy of Transformer of course, but it’s on vinyl, so I haven’t listened to it for years – but The Velvet Underground & Nico is still one of my all-time favourites. I’m especially fond of I’m Waiting for the Man, which always reminds me of the one and only time I bought dope in NYC (at Washington Square Park rather than uptown), when I managed to score $20 worth of the city’s finest cardboard.

My God Is The Sun

Normally around now is when we start posting gloomy pieces about the falling leaves, the lengthening nights, and the looming onset of yet another brutal North European winter (usually shoehorning the change of season into some clumsy metaphor for the dread of mortality), but this year my characteristic summer contentment has persisted well past August for the first time in while, and I’m actually feeling fairly upbeat about the coming months.

This may be because I had a relatively straight-edge summer – I didn’t sign the pledge or anything, but I did largely eschew intoxication in favour of healthy outdoor pursuits. Back in high school they told us that a natural high was sweeter than any drug, and while I probably wouldn’t go that far, I will say that it was different, and it’s certainly left me in a better physical shape than I’ve been for ages. Perhaps it’s this echo of youthful vitality that’s allowing me to face the winter without the gnawing subconscious fear that I won’t see the spring, or it could just be that I spent enough time in the open air to be healed by the fire from above.

Either way, I can feel my natural slothfulness reasserting itself, so I expect I’ll soon be slipping into my default winter mode of minimal exertion and comforting overconsumption, and undoing all the good work I did over the summer. On the positive side this should mean that I have time to devote to more cerebral pursuits, like reading and watching movies, or even blogging, so there might be a little more activity in this space than there has been of late.

Green Typewriters

And we’re back… Slightly longer summer break than usual this year, for various reasons, not all connected to idleness. Mostly connected to idleness though.

But who can blame us for staying away from the internet? What with twitterised death threats, cyber-bullying, extreme porn everywhere, topped off by the NSA snooping on us all, browsing the web these days feels less like strolling around a virtual utopia, and more like dodging the cops in the town’s sleaziest neighbourhood.

It’s hard to believe that only a couple of years ago everyone was saying that social media was going to save the world, and even nominating the internet for the Nobel Peace Prize. One might almost suspect that these scare stories (mostly concerning phenomena which, while obviously serious, have been around for years) were being hyped up by the authorities, and their allies in the old media, to convince us that we should steer clear of any online content that isn’t government-approved.

Anyway, I’m thinking that we should take a tip from the Russians, and start producing SLS on paper, with typewriters. We could hand out hard copies in the street, to anyone who looked vaguely interested. Our productivity and readership couldn’t be any worse than they are now…

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