David Foster Wallace: “I’d need some kind of cogent explanation of what Generation X is”

Today, I somehow ended up listening to a “rare” 1996 David Foster Wallace interview on Boston’s The Connection (I was purging a bunch of old stuff, student work, in my office, and, as I often do, put on YouTube as a distraction—the interview popped up after another vid I can’t recall, but one that featured DFW reading too). Here’s the audio:

The interview is pretty good, especially as it happens right before Infinite Jest explodes, but also in the midst of IJ’s marketing buzz, which posits Wallace-as-next-Pynchon, “voice of Gen X,” etc.

I consider myself Generation X, and I have to admit that although I know that much of how a generation is defined boils down to fucking marketing trends (look at how Millennial has been steadily pushed younger and younger over the last ten years), I’m still fascinated by broad-stroke characteristics. (I’m also just generally mad at boomers, as is my Gen X right).

Anyway, some of my favorite bits of the interview circle over Gen X and what it is or is not (prompted by caller “Don,” who wonders whether DFW is a Gen X Tom Pynchon).

Wallace, born in 1962, would be a late Baby Boomer according to many demographers and cultural analysts. (So would Douglas Coupland, author of the 1991 “novel” Generation X, born just a few months before Wallace. So too, for that matter, would be the members of Sonic Youth, born between 1953 and 1962).

The text below is from Kunal Jasty’s transcription:

Christopher Lydon: David Foster Wallace is our guest, his new novel — it’s his second novel and his third book — is this huge doorstop of a post-modern, experimental, funny, dark, incredibly compelling… my taste does not run to avant-garde fiction generally, but this is an irresistible book. I was dreading it, and then I didn’t want it to stop. Don is calling from Rockport.

Don: I have a short question. Just talking on your program months ago with John Updike about Thomas Pynchon, who gave a kind plaudit to him… is Mr. Wallace the Generation X’s Tom Pynchon?

Christopher Lydon: David Wallace, what do you think?

David Foster Wallace: I’d need some kind of cogent explanation of what Generation X is. I hear the term a lot and I’ve honestly never understood what it means. I don’t know Pynchon as well as you do, but for me Pynchon is a quintessentially sixties writer. His sensibility comes out of the late Beats of the sixties. One of the things that I think my generation misses is that real sense of unity and community in the sixties. One of the things I find amusing about Generation X is that it’s kind of a clumsy attempt to form some kind of rubric or community out of our generation. I’m 34, so we’re talking mostly about people who are younger than I, but I think one of the difficulties of my generation is that there’s a great amount of atomism and anomie, and there doesn’t feel like a whole lot of a community. There aren’t a whole lot of shared values. There aren’t a whole lot of shared ideals. I mean [Generation X] seems silly. It seems like it’s trying to impose some kind of sixties type agenda on a generation that as far as I can see is essentially very lost and lonely.

Christopher Lydon: There is an incredibly lost and lonely feeling running through this whole book, I’ve got to say, running through maybe all of American life at the end of this century. Can you talk about the lost and lonely piece?

David Foster Wallace: When I started the book the only idea I had is I wanted to do something about America that was sad but wasn’t just making fun of America. Most of my friends are extremely bright, privileged, well-educated Americans who are sad on some level, and it has something, I think, to do with loneliness. I’m talking out of my ear a little bit, this is just my opinion, but I think somehow the culture has taught us or we’ve allowed the culture to teach us that the point of living is to get as much as you can and experience as much pleasure as you can, and that the implicit promise is that will make you happy. I know that’s almost offensively simplistic, but the effects of it aren’t simplistic at all. I don’t have children but I’m sort of obsessed with the idea of what my children will think of me, and of us, and of what we’ve done with all we’ve been given, and why we are so sad.

Tom Violence ’87

Sonic Youth live in Düsseldorf, Germany, 1996

Sonic Youth live in Düsseldorf, Germany in April of 1996. As my buddy Nick points out in the email he sent me with this link: “ridiculously good quality and a killer setlist.”

Continue reading “Sonic Youth live in Düsseldorf, Germany, 1996”

The Thurston Moore Apartment Tour, 1988

 

I don’t know.

Jeez.

All of this made me laugh. Thurston Moore avoids being interviewed by riffing on the objects of the apartment he shared with (his then-spouse) Kim Gordon. He talks about his label Ecstatic Peace. He shares the old zines he made. He refers to the Beastie Boys as “legendary jerks.” He praises Michael Gira of the Swans. He showcases his files. He tries to give the director or cameraperson (?) a Sly Stone record. He grips an SST coffee mug, which hey why don’t I own that? He frequently praises Raymond Pettibon. He frequently worries that Ms. Gordon wouldn’t want him to be showing all this shit off. He frequently gets facts wrong. (Nick Cave is well known to be Australian). He discusses his bookshelf. He literally shows his dirty laundry. He plays a little piano. His tongue is always in his cheek. He eats shoe grapes. He fibs drolly. He is charismatic. He calls a suspicious Lee Renaldo about “Sonic business.” (Mr. Renaldo is watching Spinal Tap; both agree it’s a “very sad film”). He makes a case for Sonic Youth as a kind of pre-internet curatorial force. He makes me laugh.

Sonic Youth Play “100%” on Letterman in 1992

A Short Riff on They Might Be Giants’ Album Flood (Book Acquired, 11.18.2013)

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In the seventh grade, my friend Tilford gave me a copy of They Might Be Giant’s album Flood. This was in 1991, back when “alternative” music was far more varied than it is now. What I mean by this is that back in those halcyon days, we listened to anything we could get our ears to—and really listened. This meant TMBG, R.E.M, RHCP, KMFDM, Sonic Youth, The Pixies, Fugazi, the Dead Kennedys, The Dead Milkmen, The Meat Puppets, The Meatmen, The Minutemen—just anything different than what was on the radio. Lack of access to music meant that we listened to a wider diversity of bands than maybe Kids Today do. (These are all crotchety claims. Get off my lawn).

Anyway, Flood—the album, its freewheeling zaniness, its nasal vibe, its silliness, its diversity, its poppiness—so much of it is still imprinted on my brain. “Birdhouse in Your Soul” is probably the only TMBG song that I’ll still put on a mix CD (okay, that and “Minimum Wage”), but Flood is rich in its strange pop vibes. Songs like “Road Movie to Berlin” (later covered by Frank Black) and “They Might Be Giants” played on a loop in my brain in the early nineties. Other songs like the jokey cover “Istanbul (Not Constantinople)” and “Particle Man” pointed the way to the kind of kid-friendly skewed pop that would define the second half of TMBG’s career. “You Racist Friend” is one of the most direct protest songs I’ve ever heard.

I’ve never forgiven TMBG for quitting two songs in to their set when I saw them in 1996. John Linnell was too ill to continue, and called the show off. In retrospect, I understand why—dude was sick, really sick (I can remember his face)—but for me it was an easy break with a band that lacked the art rock verve that I found more interesting in the late nineties. I could write They Might Be Giants off as kid music. That’s undoubtedly an unfair assessment though.

S. Alexander Reed and Philip Sandifer have written a new book (in the 33 1/3 series) on Flood. In the blurb, below, we get a clear overview of how important this record was—even if it isn’t discussed along with Sonic Youth’s Goo and Dirty, R.E.M.’s Green, or The Pixies’ last record (not to mention all the “grunge” bands that exploded after those records). Here’s the blurb:

For a few decades now, They Might Be Giants’ album Flood has been a beacon (or at least a nightlight) for people who might rather read than rock out, who care more about science fiction than Slayer, who are more often called clever than cool. Neither the band’s hip origins in the Lower East Side scene nor Flood’s platinum certification can cover up the record’s singular importance at the geek fringes of culture.

Flood’s significance to this audience helps us understand a certain way of being: it shows that geek identity doesn’t depend on references to Hobbits or Spock ears, but can instead be a set of creative and interpretive practices marked by playful excess—a flood of ideas.

The album also clarifies an historical moment. The brainy sort of kids who listened to They Might Be Giants saw their own cultural options grow explosively during the late 1980s and early 1990s amid the early tech boom and America’s advancing leftist social tides. Whether or not it was the band’s intention, Flood’s jubilant proclamation of an identity unconcerned with coolness found an ideal audience at an ideal turning point. This book tells the story.

 

Watch Can–The Documentary, a Film about Can–The Band

RIP Lou Reed

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RIP Lou Reed, 1942-2013

I imagine other folks will put together overviews of Lou Reed’s career that contextualize his dramatic importance to contemporary music—to rock n’ roll—so I’m not gonna bother to do that. Instead, let me shoot from the hip here:

I’m surprised how sad I felt today when I learned that Reed had died. I don’t think I can overstate how important the Velvet Underground’s music was to me when I was young; more significantly, I still love their music today, still listen to it every week. Not all of Reed’s solo albums stuck in my brain, but many of them did, and so many of his songs are wedged so deep in my consciousness that I can hit “play” and hear them in toto without having to actually touch a stereo.

The first Lou Reed song I heard was “Walk on the Wild Side,” which I heard on the fucking radio, some time in the late 1980s, when I was still a kid, when I was perplexed and stunned and weirded out by Reed’s storytelling, of Holly and Candy and Jackie,  when I didn’t know what to make of a signal phrase like, “And the colored girls go…,” as much as I loved the “Doo do doo do doo do do doo…”

In 1991 my dad gave me a Sony Discman which I lived a good part of my life through. I bought a number of albums through a record club–maybe BMG or Columbia House, probably both (how to explain these scams to kids today…)—and the most important one in the first batch was The Best of the Velvet Underground: The Words and Music of Lou Reed. The songs and the liner notes opened up new avenues of what music could do. After that record I bought Magic and Loss, an album about loss and grieving and mortality that was just way too mature for me, but I loved and still love the single “What’s Good?”

I was one of those kids who scrawled Velvet Underground lyrics all over notebooks in high school; I still remembered the squareheaded jock who sat by me in American Government leaning in to mock the phrase “it’s so cold in Alaska” which repeated over my binder. I guess what I’m trying to say is that, like a lot of you weirdos, the Velvets were and are important to me, they helped me to live.

The cliche that everyone will cite is that line about the Velvets, how they didn’t sell any records but that everyone who did buy one of those records went and started a band…that cliche is true. The Velvet Underground birthed not just bands but whole new genres, art forms, experiences. It’s so hard to explain against the backdrop of the internet, this wonderful tool that grants immediate access to so much music, to the history of music, but pre-internet bands like the Velvet Underground—and the bands they engendered, like R.E.M. and Sonic Youth—were deeply important as curators, as taste makers, as starting points to access the real stuff.

Lou Reed, like any good artist, was an asshole, or at least that’s my suspicion informed by the many, many interviews and articles I read about him, an opinion informed deeply by Victor Bockris’s biography Transformer; I wrote about that book years ago on this site so I’ll cannibalize that writing now:

Lou Reed is a weirdo, and Victor Bockris wants you to know about it. Starting with Reed’s Long Island youth (complete with electro-shock therapy), Bockris’s biography covers pretty much everything right up through the Velvet Underground’s early nineties reunion: Reed’s early apprenticeship in the Brill Building, the nascent days of the VU (plenty of Warhol anecdotes, of course), punk rock, several doomed romances, his years living with a transvestite, his karate skills, his yoga skills, and his all-bran diet, and of course, the drugs. Oh the drugs. Also, Reed’s solo career is also examined (including plenty of material from guitar god Bob Quine). Bockris seems to feel Magic and Loss is something of a watershed moment in modern rock (anyone who accidentally bought this album knows otherwise).

Bockris’s book employs a bitchy, dishy tone, rife with catty comments from everyone whoever worked with Reed: apparently Lou was a total asshole. Bockris reprints some painful comments (e.g. Reed on Springsteen, 1975: “Isn’t Springsteen over the hill?”); the most awkward moment comes in the book’s appendix, in a transcript of a meeting Bockris arranged between Reed and William Burroughs. Bad idea (Reed can’t remember the name of “that book you published”–Naked Lunch).

As I’m putting this together, a friend texts me to chat about Lou. We were in a band together, this friend and I, years ago…We got to open for Moe Tucker’s band, that’s the closest we got to Lou Reed. My friend tells me that he wishes he could “trade Bono” to get Reed back.

It’s strange to feel surprised that a rock star who wrote a song called “Heroin” is dead, but I thought he’d keep living. I don’t know why. All those weird projects (Lulu?!), all that collaboration. And here is where I write some hackneyed line about Reed still living, still being alive through music, some nonsense, and then later when I get in my car with my kids to drive to a pumpkin to buy pumpkins to carve into jack o’ lanterns for Halloween, I’ll push the “next” button on my CD player through tracks from the Smiths and Talking Heads and Luna and Beach House, tracks that I already know are on the mix CD in there, I’ll push through to “Rock & Roll,” one of those songs that inevitably ends up on half of the CDs I make for myself.

(This Is Known As) The Blues Scale — Outtakes from 1991: The Year Punk Broke

Skeeno H.C. Rules — Sonic Youth

Sonic Youth Live in ’87

Put More Blood into the Music (1987 Documentary on Sonic Youth)

RIP Mike Kelley

RIP artist/musician Mike Kelley. (Obit/more).

How to Write a Review for Pitchfork

1. Brainstorm: Good writing always starts by brainstorming. You need to figure out the Official Editorial Position Pitchfork will be taking on the artist being reviewed: are they an old favorite trying something new? Are they an old favorite that are not doing something new? Were they once-loved but now no one’s sure how to feel about them? Figure out how your audience should feel about the album ahead of time, as this will make it easier to review the album when you actually listen to it. Remember, millions of kids are reading the site everyday; they need to know who to think is cool and who to think is washed-up and who to never give a chance to at all (it might be worth pointing out that the Official Editorial Position should be neatly summed up in the album’s 0.0-10 “score,” making it easier for the semi-literate to quickly figure out how they should feel about the album).

2. Research: Okay, you can go ahead and listen to the album now that you know how to feel about it. While you’re killing time, troll the internet for any juicy or salacious info on the artist in question that might come in handy: is there a gimmick or an angle to the artist? Are they fat? Black? Brother-sister team? Crazy? People nowadays want more from their indie music than just good tunes. Figure it out (conversely, maybe the fact that the artist is “trad” indie–four-on-the-floor white guys–could be your angle. Just sayin’).

3. Outline: If you don’t outline your writing, you’ll end up with an amorphous blob of a review. You probably have less than 800 words, and you don’t want to waste them on peripheral and superfluous info, like a description of the music or the lyrics. If you need help developing your outline, refer to the steps below.

4. Introduction: Normally when one writes, it’s a good idea to introduce the subject with a thesis right away, so that the reader knows what’s going on. However, Pitchfork’s Editorial Staff clearly sees itself as continuing the tradition of the Lester Bangs school of music criticism; therefore, it’s a good idea to start off your review with a tedious personal anecdote or seemingly unnecessary condensation of the band’s history up until now. You can even wax pseudo-intellectual on some of that deconstruction shit you learned in college, especially if you’re reviewing superior music that no one can understand because it’s so superior and odd and seemingly unmusical to those who just don’t get it (noise music, f’r’instance). You need to contextualize the Official Editorial Position right away. This is where that research will come in handy. It’s also good to be cryptic and vague about your position on the actual music–that’s what the album’s score is for, after all.

5. Body: Again, normally when one writes, the body of the essay should contain specific evidence that supports the thesis proposed in the introduction. However, if you’ve written your introduction properly, you shouldn’t have a clear thesis and therefore you don’t have to worry about supporting it. This frees you up to riff on whatever you feel like–social trends that are bugging you, a movie you recently saw, girl trouble, politics–whatever. It’s important to come off as cool and hip and authoritative here. If you get around to it, you can talk about a song or two, and even some of the lyrics or music. Just be careful not to go overboard describing the way the music sounds (which shouldn’t be too difficult, because describing music in words is actually not so easy).

6. Conclusion: Is it even possible to write a real conclusion in this post-modern world? Challenge your readers by finally giving them a thesis of some kind. This will insure that they’ll have to go back through the review to figure out what you were trying to say (as if that Official Editorial Position album score wasn’t enough). Or, better yet, leave them hanging–give them a question to chew on, or a quote or something. That’s some deep shit, man.

7. Diction: Remember, you’re writing for a hip internet site and your vocabulary needs to reflect that. Whenever possible use verbs that “pop”–don’t worry about how inappropriate or unfitting they may seem, if they invoke a strange action, especially one that doesn’t seem to go with listening to music, go with it. Also, don’t waste your time describing the musicality of the album when Pitchfork has already created its own lexicon to help you. Using vague adjectives like “sun-kissed” and “art-damaged” will lend authenticity to your review and make your readers nod their heads knowingly.

8. Score: As I mentioned, Pitchfork reviews score the album on a 0.0-10 scale. Although no one really understands this sliding scale, it’s important to note that most people won’t really read your review: they’ll look at the score and skim it (hence the need for all that diction that “pops”). Still, it seems like any score below a 7.0 is not passing; 8.5 or higher is reserved for the cream of the crop. Special cases may call for a 0.0, like the review of the Flaming Lips’ album Zaireeka, an album that must be played on four CD players at once (of course this album warranted a 0.0; who could possibly take the time to find three friends with CD players, share the communal experience of quadrophonic sound the Lips intended–actually listen to the album–and write a review in time for a deadline? Not possible). Save 0.0s for Big Editorial Statements (I’m reminded of the “we don’t love you anymore” message sent to Sonic Youth after NYC Ghosts & Flowers). Similarly, really high scores should be reserved for Grand Artistic Statements by new bands that no one will care about next year.

9. Parting Thoughts: Remember, have fun with it, but not too much fun–after all you’re writing for the hippest music site there is, one that even has it’s own weekend festival dealie now. So just remain calm, cool, and collected–you have the weight of the Official Editorial Position behind you, so you’re allowed to let a nasty, hipper-than-thou attitude seep into your criticism. Finally, as was elaborated repeatedly above, whatever you do, don’t focus too much on the music at hand. Got it? Now you too can earn the fame, fortune, and crazy free sex that every aspiring Pitchfork writer deserves.