Wednesday, October 10, 2018

She's So High 'n' Robert Bly

In high school, I wasn’t a fan of Blur. But I was excited when Leisure, their debut album, and Bandwagonesque, an early Teenage Fanclub record, were promoted as signs that young U.K. pop bands were ready for the consideration of stateside listeners. Leisure’s cover portrayed a cute, smiling swimmer in a bathing cap and lipstick, an Amélie à la piscine, and Bandwagonesque’s depicted a bright yellow money sack over a reddish pink background. I had heard the shoegaze/baggy pair of singles, “She’s So High” and “There’s No Other Way,” from Leisure, and the tunes, the art, and the ads moved me to bring both CDs to my friend Elliot’s birthday party. But our friend Doug, way hipper than us, said something disparaging about the albums (or maybe the publicity), and that dampened things for me.

In college, Doug was listening to Blur’s second record, Modern Life Is Rubbish, and the clean, spiky sound of that and the band’s next two LPs filled my dorm rooms for years. On Parklife, I liked the pogo-friendly story of “Tracy Jacks,” a bureaucrat who loses it in the face of his particular kind of no future, and I loved The Great EscapeParklife’s more robust follow-up. Songs like the supercharged “Bank Holiday” and the sensual “Girls and Boys” made it seem like Blur were participating in the culture they were critiquing, but calling their record The Great Escape showed the band understood that culture perfectly.

Blur’s next, eponymous album was full of buzzy guitars and less British-oriented themes, and the cover art wasn’t cute at all: it was an appropriately blurry photo of a nurse wheeling a stretcher. One rock critic who saw them live mentioned the vigor of “Song 2,” a distorted burst of sound that might have been Blur’s answer to the Ramones. When I saw the band play the Orpheum Theater in Boston, I noticed the crowd’s joy when they played their early singles, “She’s So High” especially, which filled the room like a wave.

About 15 years after that show, I had the unbelievable luck of living across the street from Academy Records in Brooklyn. Sometimes the staff would prop open the doors, and the album on the store’s stereo would be audible in the street. One day, I heard a boyish voice and some thick electric guitar, and saw a copy of Leisure sitting on the now-playing shelf behind the register. I wondered how much they were asking for it.

I wanted the record for “She’s So High,” a song I had come to appreciate more with time. It’s just a massive, radiant mount of gazey rock with a message that everyone can understand: She’s so unattainableI want her. And that’s it, or so I thought until I remembered some lines by the English poet William Blake that the American poet Robert Bly included in Iron John, his book about masculinity in literature and ritual. Blake’s verse depicts a male infant’s surrender to parental dominance, which ends with the baby clinging unhappily to his mother.  

Struggling in my father’s hands,
Striving against my swaddling bands,
Bound and weary I thought best
To sulk upon my mother’s breast.

And here are the lyrics to “She’s So High,” which Blur’s lead singer Damon Albarn alternately intones, sings, and semi-wails:

I see her face
I see her face

It doesn’t help me
She’s so high
I want to crawl all over her

I think of her
I think of her

It doesn’t help me
She’s so high
I want to crawl all over her

She doesn’t help me
She’s so high
I want to crawl all over her

As a teenager, it was easy to imagine that the song was about a beautiful schoolmate in the hall. But Blake’s image of the unhappy baby, and what I’ve read about the unmet needs of children in Getting the Love You Want, a self-help book by the psychologist Harville Hendrix, has lately made me wonder. Because the first person we wanted to “crawl all over” was mum, someone whose face we saw, and who we thought about in infancy, all the time.

Albarn repeats “She doesn’t help me” as “She’s So High” nears its final chorus, and he could easily have had a cute, pop-loving peer in mind. But you never know. The song works as a longing for and protest against a mother or a crush. Either way, it’s a powerful expression of immaturity that’s stood the test of time.

Thursday, July 5, 2018

Central Park (just Central Park)

I did not know Central Park was so beautiful. Especially on a 90-plus-degree day, when the heat and brightness seem to overexpose patches of the world like 35-millimeter film. The large rocks are like the backs of dinosaurs buried in the earth. The foliage is ample, and the waterway that I saw, still and green, looks primeval. And of course there are people: so many people enjoying themselves. I remember how well cars and CDs went together; let me tell you, colored t-shirts on humans amidst huge rocks, green hills, paved paths, and occasional kiosks, comfort stations, and playgrounds are just as good a fit. I’ve lived in New York for most of the past 13 years, but I’ve rarely just come and spent time here.

I realize that the park’s splendor is not a news item. But for me, it was a revelation. If you pack a lunch and a book, or visit the Strand’s open-air store near 60th Street and 5th Avenue if you forget one, you’ll have everything you need. There’s plenty of shade, and the hills are comfortable to lie on.

Browsing at the Strand three days ago, I found a copy of Sex at Dawn, which a fellow temp recommended three summers ago. I opened it, read a little about the sexual customs of the Mosuo, a people in China, and thought this is the book for me. The preface is extraordinary: it describes how one of the authors confronted a charging monkey in Malaysia by baring his teeth, extending his arms, crouching his legs, and screaming. The monkey backed off, and the author learned that he was a primate, too. I felt human while reading about it on a hillside in the park.

At some point, I thought about how for so many years I could not get past the allure of McCarren Park when I lived in Greenpoint. Discovering Central Park now is probably due to the fact that I’m fully employed as a teacher and on summer break. I’m more confident now than I was then, when I thought a lot about dreams and desires, didn’t act on them enough, and couldn’t bring myself to make the crushing and regenerative compromises that come with adulthood. I’ve also signed up for a daily French class at the Alliance Française, also on 60th Street, that finishes at 1 every day. Monday was the first class, and it felt so right. 

Oh yeah: I even heard the chorus of Lou Reed’s “Perfect Day,” a song that always makes me picture a scene in Central Park, in my head when I walked down the steps into the subway at Columbus Circle. Sure, I then remembered that the next line is “you’re going to reap just what you sow,” but so far, summer is a good harvest.

Sunday, July 1, 2018

Immigration Song

Yesterday morning, I left my apartment uptown to attend the protest to end the separation of families at the U.S.-Mexico border. Trump, in his finite wisdom, signed an executive order to end these separations, but they still happened, and news reports tell us that it’s unclear how the administration is going to reunite all of the families it tore apart. If you haven’t yet heard the audio of kids crying and moaning for their parents in a detention facility in Texas, you need to. There’s no excusing it.

After I packed my sunscreen and new baseball hat (Oakland A’s) to deal with the rays, I thought I would work on an unfinished piece to focus my attention. (And, yup, stimulate a b.m. before getting onto the Brooklyn Bridge, the main stretch of the protest route.) I had started this piece in 2017, near the beginning of my first year as a middle school writing teacher in Harlem. 

Here goes:

Sometime in autumn, something interesting occurred to me while waiting for the A train at 145th Street after work. I was with my colleague, Priya, who also lived uptown, and we were probably there within the latter half of the evening rush. We both felt that the train was taking a while to arrive, and it felt particularly wrong to me that it was the A train that was late. I figured that any line with a Duke Ellington Orchestra song about it should live up to its legacy, and get me home.

We were standing there, and it was hot, and we were both new teachers. I was wearing wool slacks and a tucked-in shirt and carrying a backpack with a laptop and lesson plans, plus a canvas tote with leftover food. My knees hurt from standing up in the classroom. There were a good number of people on the platform, and I think Priya commented that the number proved the train was late. “Look at all the people,” she said.

Then, a new wave of people came up the stairs onto the platform, where, like gas molecules intermingling with other gas molecules, they floated into positions along the track. I remember noticing a woman who may have been of East Asian descent among this new group. She was quiet, and looked self-possessed. Some of the new arrivals kept walking toward a second flight of stairs to another platform, but plenty of them integrated into the initial—initial to me—group that had been waiting for the A.

I probably wondered if those who were just arriving would cede the way to those who were already on the platform when the train did come. I may have thought that it didn’t matter so much, maybe because we were pretty far uptown and there would probably be space once passengers disembarked. I probably also hoped that they would make way, would notice that I was there first, that some kind of tiered grouping of commuters, based on wait time, would persist despite the intermingling. And this is when it occurred to me that what I was also thinking about, or looking at, was the situation of immigrants from the perspective of someone who considers himself native-born.

You’re tired, your knees hurt, you’ve been working all day, and you haven’t done anything to make the train late, but it is. You’ve been waiting for a while, and then another group of people comes to wait as well. You feel like you have a claim on any spots that are available on the train when it does come, but there’s no system in place to insure you do. And you don’t even know if the train is coming, or if there will be any spots; you just know that you were on the platform, waiting, before this second wave of folks arrived.

How you think about this second wave could be an indication of how you think of immigrants who arrived in your community after you or your family. You might feel like you should have first crack at getting a job or finding a home, but there’s no way you can guarantee either. All you can control is how hard you work and how well you treat yourself and others. And treating other people well, whatever your opinion on immigration policy, requires understanding one of the messages I saw at the march: “IMMIGRANTS are not dangerous. They ARE just PEOPLE looking for a better life.”

It’s also important to remember that unless you’re descended from an indigenous people, someone was here before your forebears arrived. One thing I don’t remember from that evening on the platform, when I was wondering how the newcomers would accommodate my presence, is who had already been standing there before me.