"The Feudal Unconscious:
Capitalism and the Family Romance"

October 159 (Winter 2017)
MIT Press

Now Available

Portuguese translation of THE MYTH OF POPULAR CULTURE (Blackwell Manifestos, 2010) now available from Tinta Negra (Rio de Janeiro, 2015)


O renomado crítico cultural americano Perry Meisel detona as noções convencionais sobre a divisão entre “alta” e “baixa” cultura.

O autor transita pela provocante teoria de que a cultura pop experimentou ritmos dialéticos. A hábil análise que o livro apresenta de três tradições culturais duradouras – o romance norte-americano, Hollywood, e o rock inglês e americano – nos leva a um ciclo histórico da cultura pop que tem Dante como ponto de partida e revisita ícones como Wahrol, Melville, Hemingway, Twain, Eisenstein, Benjamin, Scorsese e Sinatra.


The Myth of Popular Culture discusses the dialectic of "highbrow" and "lowbrow" in popular culture through an examination of literature, film, and popular music. With topics ranging from John Keats to John Ford, the book responds to Adorno's theory that popular culture is not dialectical by showing that it is.

Available as eBooks

COURSE IN GENERAL LINGUISTICS. Trans. Wade Baskin. Co-ed. with Haun Saussy. By Ferdinand de Saussure (Columbia University Press, 2011)

THE LITERARY FREUD (Routledge, 2007)




Program Note for Stan Salfas' Direction of Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew, Thirteenth Street Theatre, New York

A Note on the Production

Stan Salfas' boisterous direction of THE TAMING OF THE SHREW magnifies both the slapstick zaniness and the latent allegory of Shakespeare's comedy of "upward nobility." Setting the play in the sixties - and in the suburbs - Salfas is faithful to Shakespeare's own concern for rising in the world by virtue of the power of one's mouth, and also faithful to Shakespeare's quite intentional identification of sexual rise and fall with the erection of personality and the indelicacies of spending. Salfas has also achieved a remarkable linguistic ease from his actors, translating Renaissance roles into their modern American equivalents, accents and all. Salfas heightens Shakespeare's racy language in a way that shows how the play links its sexual comedy with its comedy of manners, producing in the process a profoundly contemporary view of sexuality as an economy of desire, strictly analogous to the formation of social desire in its literal lust for the good fortune of a proper match.

Perry Meisel
New York University

July, 1981


A P--k F--k Glossary

by Perry Meisel

Could there be life after the Ramones? Exemplary suicide on the altar of imitation: Manhattan's Stimulators (the best, ripeness is all), El Lay's Circle Jerks (the worst, regurgitation). The decline of Western sieve: an inability to digest. Beyond the Clash and Costello: neo-psychedelia and New Romanticism. The problem: a refusal to re-fuse. The solution: a p--k romance with funk as inevitable as the rhyme.
P--k f--k has had its harbingers ever since the release of Blondie's "Heart of Glass" coincided with the ascendancy of Hurrah in the winter of '79. The New Wave actually wanted a backbeat less subtle than the Ramones'! People wanted to dance while they thought. Head and body were already the same. Even David Byrne was turning Motown. Then the B-52s' sudden epiphany. They grafted - maybe just matched - the extended pauses of classic rhythm and blues with the de rigeur sparseness of p--k itself. The result: a loose, slappy sound, as if drums could twang, too; an approach to the beat with a lineage today in Polyrock and the Raybeats.
Add to these already convergent designs the rise of horn bands on the old Graham Bond/Air Force model (Noise R Us, Major Thinkers) plus Material's overt re-fusion in jazz over the last year or two (in-fused by James Blood Ulmer's harmelodix). A more genuine crossover than the Cobham/Corea style, since it takes p--k's lessons seriously (minimize, transistorize, assume) rather than laughing at rock and roll as a sly hype, as '70s jazzmen did. And add to pop p--k and jazz the third dimension of an all-synthesizer band like Our Daughter's Wedding slamming those machines into dance, Material at the Ritz this spring, and you can be sure something that transcends both technology and genre is afoot.
The formal announcement still belongs, of course, to James Chance and the Contortions, a/k/a James White and the Blacks. Grinding horns in collision with overdrive p--k guitar, James screams on top and yelps below and suddenly Papa's got a brand new boy. The discipleship was intentional enough, even though it reeked more of lame Jagger than the hommage to James Brown might suggest. But the key to its peculiarity lay in figuring out the confusing shift of names involved (Contortionist personnel shifted, too). Undecided, the Chance/White oscillation reads: "He's White by Chance." Thus Chance/White solves the old '60s "authenticity" problem by lifting the genetic (and generic) injunction: You can be some kind of James Brown even if you're white because, white or black, rock or soul, it's all arbitrary anyway - not biology but sociology assigns meaning to bag and color alike. If the Ramones ever had a conceptual rival, here he was, blurring the line between affect and affectation by making the color line a fiction too. A Major Thinker no matter the depth of his chops.
Chance is off on a European tour after increasingly lukewarm local response; his newest produkt is an hour-long compilation of live appearances, available on cassette from Reachout International Records (611 Broadway, Suite 214, NY, NY 10012). But Chance/White blew open a space for the new guys, almost too many to count with any accuracy. Narrative breaks down once you hit today, or at least two Sundays ago at Tompkins Square Park, where 99 Records (as in 99 MacDougal) sponsored a post-nostalgia festival featuring this stuff.
Needed: a synchronic glossary, a post-White whose who of local rock and role (some jazz, too) in the p--k f--k vein. Let the punny names do the talking. We've lost our heads anyway. Besides, it's fun(k). Choices are somewhat random, as they should be. All of the following groups have either played recently, released a record recently, and/or will be playing locally soon.
As in: Defunkt. By turns a spirited and sluggish brass/strut band with a revvy backbeat. The name gives the problem away: is funk defunct? The band would like to think so, but it stays too close to formula funk to pull the trick off with grace. Despite Joe Bowie's lineage as an "out" 'bonist (Lester's his big brother), the band as a whole sounds too much like a mellowed version of Tower of Power or Kool and the Gang to convince you that more than mindless dance music is their aim. Is playing strictly within genre a mode of ideological capture, self-erasure? Is that why funk may be defunct? How can you play rhythm and blues and not feel like a clown/clone playing just a groove thing? Answer: unless you've got the charms of an oldfashioned frontman - Joe Bowie definitely has 'em - you can't. Solution here: go ahead and play generic if you feel like it. Jeans, after all, aren't genes. If it's okay by Chance, it's okay by Bowie, too, whom Chance joined onstage during a late set last month at Interferon in a moving dis-play of good intentions. Gigs and record (De-funkt, on Hannibal) both exacerbate and occasionally relieve the anxiety.
As in: Liquid Liquid. Hottest thing on Sunday besides the weather. Representatives of the slaphappy school of p--k f--k: no contorted horns, no churning guitar overdrive; instead, slapping snares and toms, choral counterchords blowing open huge horizons of a sound we heard first on "Blue Jay Way" (co-opted with faint glimmers of intelligence recently even by Spandau). Is the name redundant? Hardly. It splays the signifier like a knife cuts brains: here "liquid" is both adjective and noun at the same time. What is the difference between the quality and the thing itself (e.g., between black and being black)? Answer: nothing. A thing is the mere play of its attributions. Jeans, not genes. Post p--k rock and role. You can get the record at 99 MacDougal, though it's hardly representative.
As in: Essential Bop. Young Brit whirlybirders in town for Sunday's Tompkins Park gala, slapping and clapping, sometimes missing. When their Raybeaty guitars and croony vocals fit the monkeytime drums, a fragile but real projectile; otherwise hazy, unripe. Dangerous word, "essential." Intimates unawareness of "end of essentialism" - the "essence" of p--k - asserted by Liquid Liquid.
As in: Julius Hemphill and Bob Moses's Punk Funk Octet. Blame the band for the moniker, not me. More "out" jazzies making the turn last month at Seventh Avenue South in line with Material, Ulmer & Co. The manic overdrive of two guitars challenged Hemphill's insinuating tenor as it negotiated drummer Moses's uncynical backbeat with caution; Hemphill kept his splattering Shorter/Wane Marsh runs sleek and sharp despite his appearance of indistinctness. But no genuinely dominant single melody or solo instrument; "coherence" emerged only occasionally as the band flexed between nerves and relaxation, often building to classic dramatic climaxes even as it eschewed teleology. So the real story is like Material's or Liquid Liquid's: rhythm is melody, so the melody instrumentals are . . . ?
As in: Konk. No joke here, and that's the problem. Konk! Are you knocked out yet? Another Sunday offering, this powerful polybrass conga/percussion affair, legato trumpets and sax accompany the rhythms rather than crack against them. An intentional refusal to force tension into the sound - theoretically interesting, but dreary in practice, especially with so fine a drummer and conga player.
As in: Funktionaries. Contortionistic-plus: tight though fuller horn lines punching the killing rhythmic floor, but fonder than Chance of "out" reed harmonies even on stompers like "Kiss My Funk . . . " and the signatory "Funktionary." Tom Ward (a/k/a Mal Funktion) may be the real James Chance. Not without flecks of neo-psychedelia, vestige of a decade in the Bay Area till a year ago. Defunkt at a more exact level of praxis. Is generic funk the music of a mere functionary? Someone who carries out orders, works in a tradition without questioning or reflecting? The pun situates the functionaries where every "artist" should be: within the necessities of an ideology but also outside them. You can be in two places at the same time. Watch out tonight, Wednesday, August 19, at the Playroom, formerly Trude Heller's.

Originally published in The Village Voice, August 19 - 25, 1981



by Perry Meisel

Discerning teens will have told you a year ago or more that the s(t)eamiest p--k band in town is the Stimulators, a (naturally) Ramones-dented nuke/trash riot quartet guaranteed to make you feel nuts even on a lousy night. Singer Patrick Mack has to peel his flesh off the equipment after every gig - just last Saturday at Irving Plaza it melted into the machinery along with his voice. Meanwhile Harley Flanagan, legendary 14-year-old drummer, drove 'em through endless recrossings from five-chords to tonics, pounding your brains till they splattered against the nearest wall or person (the greatest tunes were "Run, Run, Run," "Crazy House Rock," and "Loud Fast Rules"). Some reggae/ska stompers intimated relief ("Blind Ambition," "Sick of George"), but picked up to curdling p--k excoriation before you could straighten your tie.
If the Ramones reduced rock and roll to three chords, the Stims go one better - they transistorize three down to two, minimalizing the minimal (rather than repeating it, like co-billed El Lay Circle Jerks). Almost another rhythm instrument, Pat Mack white-wines down from the five-chord to the one in virtual unison with guitarist Denise Mercedes - not (as in most bands) against it. That leaves skinhead Harley as the real solo presence, his heavy counterrhythms the sole/soul projectile in this post-Auschwitz vortex of a band. And if the Ramones affect affect (see "I'm Affected") - intentionally confusing the difference between feeling and affectation - the S(t)imulators simulate simulation. Not as farce (no sterile formalism here), but as a critical act of intemperate power - real rock and role. Like Mondrian or Gertrude Stein, it may look dumb, but it ain't.

Originally published in The Village Voice, June 17 - 23, 1981


Mapping Barthelme's "Paraguay"

by Perry Meisel

Therefore we try to keep everything open, go forward avoiding the final explanation. If we inadvertently receive it, we are instructed to (1) pretend that it is just another error, or (2) misunderstand it. Creative misunderstanding is crucial.

Jean Mueller, in "Paraguay"

To choose among Donald Barthelme's many stories and sketches a single one that could be called central or paradigmatic to his achievement as a whole is to enter that vortex of metacritical speculation and display that is often the precise subject of his fiction. Barthelme's novels, Snow White and The Dead Father, full of deadpan improbabilities and allegorizations of referents of which we have no secure notion, help us less here than we might expect; they don't organize and focus Barthelme's considerably larger and more characteristic project as a short-story writer so much as they caution us about the easy certitude with which we may seek or offer a single mythological formula - for example, pop or ideological in the case of Snow White, Oedipal in the case of The Dead Father - to explain or account for the vicissitudes of any discourse at all.
So we have to narrow the search to those tales that are overtly and exactly metacritical, that take the problem of coherence and organization as their own proper subjects, too, by reproducing the project of finding a plan or discovering a key or pattern as their manifest aim. Perhaps such stories can provide us with clues as to the grammar or structure of the imagination that produces them, and, so designated, certify themselves as the central or privileged kind of tale we wish to find.
Some stories in particular stand out from this point of view as clues to Barthelme at large - "The Expedition" (Guilty Pleasures), "The Discovery" (Amateurs), "The Explanation" (City Life). These, however, are boldly, badly burlesque, easy parodies of the questing sensibility and low on "endthusiasm"1 compared to the genuinely paradigmatic "Paraguay," the arguable centerpiece of City Life and a story that takes - and takes seriously - as its organizing conceit the exploration and ordering of an alien terrain whose intractability, like that of Barthelme's own prose, emerges only gradually to its navigator.
Apparently the narrative of an anonymous speaker who recounts his experience among strangers in a strange land in the unruffled tone of a cosmopolitan visitor or an ethnographer, "Paraguay" is an uneasy but highly formalized, at times parodically scientific, charting of the alien terrain and society its title seems only to name. Like the unexplained intimacy with which his Paraguayan hosts, Jean and Herko Mueller, greet him and show him about, the narrator's own coolness under obvious pressure imparts to us an unspoken assurance as to Paraguay's existence and coherence, despite its fantastic conditions and alarming incoherence - its "red snow" (39), for example, or its "flights of white meat" moving "through the sky overhead" (30).2 Organized by a series of titled entries, each one part diary, part field report, the story's composure seems to flow from no more than its confidence in its own manifest ordering devices, overcompensatory attempts as they are to keep organized what cannot be organized, to impose the structure of a familiar discourse on a culture whose rules differ markedly from the familiar.
A discursive map or ethnography, of course, the story looks like an informal taxonomy, an attempt to understand the codes common to any foreign country, no matter its exact geographical location. So in its action, at least from this point of view, the story internally doubles its reader's relation to it. Here the story itself becomes an act of criticism or interpretation like the one that tries to apprehend it, as the reader attempts to elucidate its own partially transparent discourse much as the narrator whose apparent diary he reads tries to do the same in relation to his fugitive, and perhaps phantom, Paraguay. "Paraguay," in short, is about how to read "Paraguay."
Diary and ethnography at once, this slight oscillation or shifting in the story's representation of itself as a map or charting of an alien culture and terrain reveals a constituent feature of Barthelme's language that helps to guide us in its interpretation. Highly figured behind a surface of simplicity, Barthelme's prose is intentionally multivalent or overdetermined, a transistorized or "software" (34) discourse that pressure-packs a store or inventory of various information systems even in a single term or trope like that of the map. Barthelme's reader may tease out or unpack those systems latent within it, and so discover the various implicit tropological options or possibilities by which his fiction represents itself through even a single such organizing - and already teased out or implied - figure.
The result, in "Paraguay" at least, is that bifurcated notion of organization in which the figure of the map has two simultaneous meanings or interpretations, one dependent on space, one dependent on time. The map of the ethnographer is a taxonomic table, a structural figure that accents the spatial and the synchronic in its in its quest for a set of rules by which a culture - or a text - generates its effects at any given moment. The map of the diarist, by contrast, is temporally inflected, an organization or mapping in time rather than space. Let us take up each subfigure of the map, then - table and structure on the one hand, diary and temporality on the other - and unpack the ways in which each one directs "Paraguay" and its attempt to provide a map or representation for the problem of fictional organization itself.

As a place to map, of course, the tale's referent appears to be no undiscovered country at all, but - naturally, or so it seems - Paraguay, the Paraguay designated by the story's title. We all know Paraguay; or do we? Barthelme has a surprise for us in the second entry, "Where Paraguay Is":
Thus I found myself in a strange country. This Paraguay is not the Paraguay that exists on our maps. It is not to be found on the continent, South America; it is not a political subdivision of that continent, with a population of 2,161,000 and a capital city named Asunción. This Paraguay exists elsewhere. (30)
Like Borges's Uqbar and Tlön, or like Barthelme's own "Robert Kennedy Saved From Drowning" in Unspeakable Practices, Unnatural Acts, Paraguay, in Barthelme's signification at least, has no referent as such - no preexisting set of codes to which it points as a signifier, and certainly no discoverable, self-sufficient, extrasemiotic reality to which its name merely appeals the way the ordinary map or diary appeals to places and events we all know, at least from our reading. As static representation or ethnographic project, the story has no proper objects to work upon, since Paraguay is not a given space or place that can be quantified or categorized, but a place - an "elsewhere" - whose constituent terms are given only by the language of the story. Accordingly, Barthelme parodies and exhausts the notion of the grammar or table in the closing entry. As the tale concludes, Herko Mueller at last presents the narrator with "the plan," the chart or grammar the story as taxonomy has sought. "It governs more or less everything," says Herko. "It is a way of allowing a very wide range of tendencies to interact" (40). Instantly, however, "the bell rang and the space became crowded" (40). With "the plan" a failure the moment it is invoked, "marshals" must try to "establish some sort of order" (40) all over again.
What "Paraguay" maps, then, is the project and problem of mapping itself. By Barthelme's own testimony, mapping cannot be a straightforward, automatic reference to a self-sufficient world outside language that language simply points to. If Paraguay is not Paraguay, if it "exists elsewhere," we need to begin reading the story all over again to see how it constitutes its terms, how it manages to map - to fashion - a place that exists in a purely imaginative, purely Barthelmean "elsewhere." Here the figure of the map as static representation or as taxonomic table begins to give way to the rival dominance of the map as diary, and to its accent on the way language generates its referents temporally.
The bland description of the approach to Paraguay with which the tale opens turns out to be, as Barthelme's footnote tells us, a "slightly altered" citation from an old travelogue description of Tibet (30). This deadpan representation of a standard narrative opening, however, has curious results, skewing as it does the very teleology of journeying at the moment it calls it into play.
Although we expect proper names like that of Paraguay to point to their customary referents whenever they are used, Barthelme interrupts - even before he says so in "Where Paraguay Is" - the self-evident, apparently natural power with which they are invested at the start of the tale, in its title, by placing under the heading of the proper name "Paraguay" a description that properly belongs to Tibet. Of course, the story goes on to restore the name Paraguay at the close of the Tibetan passage, even though at this point such a restoration turns out to be not a restoration at all, but a fresh violation, a violation of the news that the description is really proper only to Tibet.
Surely this byplay suggests that "Paraguay" is interested in how easy it is to sever names from their proper referents, though just as surely this is not its principal thrust. No, what is interesting about this split, uneasy start that is not a start at all is that it makes the same kind of mistake at least twice - Paraguay is Tibet, but Tibet is also Paraguay. The boundaries of each one, in other words, are brought into relief only at the moment of their transgression, making each the effect of its crossing by the other. Hence it is the difference the names plot against themselves that allows us to think that the property referred to in each case is something different, even though it is, of course, (also) the same. Without Barthelme's footnote, we would otherwise be misled, happily and unknowingly, into reading about Tibet while journeying into Paraguay, and would very probably take the Tibetan place names the passage uses as nonsense or as a parody of the exotic. What the intentional confusion has wrought, in other words, is a sense of proper names as the product, not of their links to a real piece of property, but of their differences from one another. What allows "Paraguay" to signify Paraguay is also what allows it to signify Tibet, though to confuse the two, to violate the law that keeps each one in its place, is also to establish the law, to bring its operations to light.
Even more, the very act of reference here turns out to be a temporally plotted one, like the reference to a subject enacted by the diary with which "Paraguay" as a map refers, its narrator, the subject to which it refers as a diary, is equally unavailable, or at least available only in the way the "elsewhere" of Paraguay itself is available: as a linguistic function temporally installed. Even the proper referents of real diaries and autobiographies acquire their coherence, their existence, only proleptically and analeptically - as temporally constituted productions of the texts that claim only to report or narrate them. Reference or legibility in Barthelme turns out to be a similar process. In order for Barthelme's reader to fix the "elsewhere" of Paraguay, the reader must fashion what he can differentially, laterally, within the signifying chains or "cables" (to use the graphic vocabulary of The Dead Father) the story's surface texture provides. Hence the reader tries to line up signifier with its repetition according to the very law that is violated by the frustrated prolepsis of Paraguay when it is analeptically replaced by Tibet. Challenging itself as well as its reader in a double wager, the story charges us, as the price of its legibility, to seek retroactive confirmation of its signifiers in a process that allows us to discern its various possible systems of meaning.
Indeed, the temptation to call fugitive the objects a map or taxonomy like "Paraguay" wishes to coordinate or classify is by no means a simple response to the story's murmuring moral lament that language is too weak to grasp the elusive real; it is, rather, evidence that we have fallen, from one point of view at least, directly into the story's clutches, prey to its ability to convince us, despite its warnings, that language and the world are things apart from one another, and that language's sole function is to try its best to correspond to the world despite the usual "modernist" difficulties in doing so. To call the apparent objects of Paraguay fugitive is to invest them, analeptically, with a self-sufficient existence whose presence is in fact no more than the effect of its touted absence. Even the paradigmatic notion of structure itself, of the taxonomic chart or table, is complicit with those logocentric effects that produce the sense of an elusive real that escapes the text, for structure here becomes a logocentric referent, too, as impossible as those "attached photographs of the human soul" that appear in Guilty Pleasures.3 Like those méconnaissances that impute presence to the Freudian unconscious in the name of denaturing it, the interpretation of "Paraguay" as a text about a synchronic structure of reference simply reconstitutes the very type of referentiality the story excludes. Reference is not a site or structure to be discovered, but a process always in movement. Indeed, any such moment of rest is always subject to its reinsertion in another series of differences in which the cards may be reshuffled and a new combination of signifiers produced to decenter the momentary status of what came before. As The Dead Father tersely puts it, "a static 'at rest' analysis" gives way "to super series of unpredictable mathematical frequencies."4
The story even gives us terms for this second or alternative self-representation, a demystification of how the temporally organized process of reading actually proceeds, and how the sense a text ordinarily enjoys is really procured. The terms are to be found in a mundane but resonant remark characteristic of Barthelme's "software" prose: "Temperature," says the narrator, "controls activity to a remarkable degree" (31). Measures, that is, are a function of a threshold ("degree") of re-markability. So climate conditions in Paraguay and the kinds of measures or "temperature" by which its conditions can be known suggest that things emerge as such in its world only to the extent that they may be re-marked or repeated - to the extent that they can be identified a second time, or, to put it another way, to the extent that a mark can find its repetition. Not until its second appearance, not until the moment of re-marking or repetition, can anything even appear as such for the first time, a function as it is of its own repetition or ability to repeat itself.
Hence the legibility of the text ebbs and flows depending upon the re-markability a given element may have in the various signifying chains or cables that may be seen or said to support it. Indeed, Barthelme's prose is habitually overdetermined and yet still oblique because its overdeterminations don't as a rule add up in the same columns at the same time. Not only does "Paraguay" set such traps - Paraguay is Tibet, Tibet is Paraguay, and so on. This is also how Barthelme stories such as "110 West Sixty-first Street" or "The School" in Amateurs garner what readability they may have, constituted as they are along a series, for example, of puns ("bar," "will," "kidded"). These ambiguous notations or polyphonic registers (the "scales," "colors," and "table" in "The Indian Uprising" in Unspeakable Practices are at once names for the process and examples of it) create coherence as well as confusion - "a gigantic jiveass jigsaw puzzle."5 Thus, too, the burlesque - or not? - of the process of re-marking in the self-duplicating columns of a repeated word like"butter" in "Eugenie Grandet" in Guilty Pleasures, or its outright problematization in the list (?) of which City Life's "The Glass Mountain" is composed.
One overweening example of the process and its productive and deferred effects lies in the way the transparent discourse of the old-fashioned travelogue citation grows dramatically rich and problematic once it is re-placed under the heading of a Barthelme story. Suddenly, belatedly, the description of Tibet takes on the intricacies and wit of a page from Blanchot, finds itself amplified in ways it never knew before, and so exemplifies the precise kind of re-markable legibility "Paraguay" itself recommends. Hence the ingenious web of rhetorical strategies the passage (now) deploys to establish time, places, events that have not been - and apparently cannot be - supplied directly ("the plain that we had crossed the day before was now white with snow"; "the night as still as the previous one and the temperature the same"; "agreed-upon wage" - 29-30), all this together with the self-emptying device of "now white with snow," as though this (belatedly) postmodern text is intent to erase its coordinates even as it establishes them.

Now we can assemble the two parts or versions of the story's self-representation and see how they both oppose and require one another. The difference between table and diary, of course, corresponds to a difference in the story's very notion of reference itself. Is the story's notion of reference - its model for its own style of organization or readability - the synchronic one suggested by the taxonomy, the structure that is uncovered or discovered within or behind the language of the story, and that accounts, as a grammar would, for all its effects? Or is its notion of reference the temporal one suggested by the figure of the diary and founded on a process of repetition or re-markability that makes any stability or fixity of reference always a product of, always dependent on, a series of temporal operations within a system of differences? These alternative notions of reference also correspond to the difference from itself the tale has already displayed at its skewed outset. If the map as static structure or taxonomy presumes stable objects beyond the text which the text merely apprehends - even if that object is the structure of reference a narrative taxonomy can claim to find - the map as diary, by contrast, assigns all "discovery" to the effects of a differential system that generates the logocentric effects that we call the elusive real. What the clash of the taxonomic figure and the figure of the diary enact, in other words, is the antinomy or difference between an epistemology that discovers and one that produces.
Moreover, what is gained by denying the text a logocentric dimension is precisely what opponents of such a position claim such analysis loses: reference itself. For "Paraguay" is by no means a nonreferential or even self-referential text. Not only is the story capable of referring to those codes of social reference that allows us to produce a text's public meanings, it also takes that very possibility as the requirement for its own reading: only by attempting to read the story "straight" - taking Paraguay as the real Paraguay, and so on - do we find out the peculiar and particular nature of its own brand of serial lawfulness. The level of law at which the story operates requires the violation of customary linguistic lawfulness for its discovery. For Barthelme, language does not express or represent; it situates within systems of serially constituted differences. To find this out, Barthelme's reader must read according to the old model in order to gain access, through a mistake, to the new.6
And just as the story requires that normal codes of reference be observed so that their violation may constitute a new system of law, it also requires that we restrain our desire to endorse, as we have, one side of its double epistemology at the cost of the other. For, like the interdependence of Fatherhood and childhood in The Dead Father, the figures of the table and diary, structure and series, are, of course, interdependent, too, each one making the other possible:
Arbiters registered serial numbers of the (complex of threats) with ticks on a great, brown board. (37)
The labor (arbeit) of the random (arbitrary) series constitutes a "complex or constellation of "threats" to the purity of the synchronic table or "board," here infected by time ("ticks," as in clocks) and so "brown" rather than white.
What Barthelme here criticizes under the name of whiteness, "blankness" (35), empty signification - the model is the Le Corbusier design description he cites in the section entitled "The Wall," "Paraguay" as Borgesian Book of Sand - is that ideal of a purely formal structure of structure as the goal of a postmodern, metacritical fiction. Allied as such an ideal is with the synchronic and the structural, it is corrected or opposed by the story's rhetoric of temporality in an extended series of figures for Paraguay's climatology akin to the trope of "temperature" and its remarkable effects. Like the "white snow" we have misread as a sign for the story's self-erasure, or like the properly Paraguayan "red snow" that John Leland reads as a sign for "the machinery of ordering,"7 the "sand" that the narrator is surprised to find in his clothing (and that takes the rather opaque form of a sand dollar") is supposed to be "sifted twice daily to remove impurities and maintain whiteness" (32). Like the "silence," "white noise," or "white space" that comes with "the softening of language" (36), or, indeed, like the "vast blind wall" and its "expanse of blankness" that Barthelme cites from his Le Corbusier (35), the sifting of sand bespeaks the story's desire to keep its meanings free and open - to keep itself clean or propre - by referring, it seems, only to the structure of signification itself.
And yet the very mechanism of this s(h)ifting process by which the perpetually new reading - the sifting - is made possible by the shifting status of the same signifiers is premised, temporal as the process must be, on the very residue or impurity it wishes to sift or clean away. Hence the residue represented by the "sand dollar" reminds us of what sifting costs. For to constellate the same trace differently on different readings is possible not because its semantic inventory has been cleansed, but because its inventory continues to provide new possibilities for the establishment of new signifying chains that may be set into operation by those fresh series which constitute subsequent readings.
The story's larger, more motivated self-interpretations or thematizations are regulated by the same oscillation between its figural systems, between static ideal and temporal praxis. As a self-conscious piece of (post)modern fiction, after all, we would expect "Paraguay" somehow to render its judgment as to the state of both its language and the modern culture in which it is inscribed, though we should expect, too, that such judgment(s) will be delivered in the inevitably double or opposed terms with which we are by now familiar.
Hence two possibilities. On the one hand, the story's Wastelander or modernist option, that matrix of misreading in which the story situates itself as a story whose promise of narrative teleology and closure is constantly interrupted, waylaid in the face of the fugitive real. Here the world is fractured, fragmented, a world in which "men wander," "trying to touch something"; a world in which a misreading of Barthelmean semiotics advises that "everything physical . . . is getting smaller" ("walls thin as thought"), and which occasions that nostalgia for touch or presence expressed in Paraguay as a "preoccupation with skin," "possibly," says the narrator, "a response to this" (38).
On the other hand, however, emerges the story's anti- or postmodernist thematization in which Wastelander fragmentation turns out to be a misreading of serial abundance. Books of Sand are testimony, as are Freud's interminable analysis or Pynchon's paranoia, to the unending possibilities of interpretation, the broken or shattered texts really "calculated mixes" (36), as Barthelme's finally pop or mass vision puts it, "dispatched from central art dumps to regional art dumps, and from there into the lifestream of cities" (34). Moreover, it is the minimalism or "microminiaturization" (38) of such art that is witness for the abundance - rather than witness for dessication - since postmodern, minimalist "software" is really an exercise in the transistorizing that Barthelme calls, with some irony, "rationalization":
Rationalization produces simpler circuits and, therefore, a saving in hardware. Each artist's product is translated into a statement in symbolic logic. The statement is then "minimized" by various clever methods. The simple statement is translated back into the design of a simpler circuit. (34)
Hence "the softening of language," says the narrator in an exemplary moment of antimodernist candor, "usually lamented as a falling off from former practice is in fact a clear response," like "The Balloon" in Unspeakable Practices, "to the proliferation of surfaces and stimuli" (36). "Software," in short, is "more durable than regret."8
Our interpretations, of course, are by necessity serial ones, too, relying on particular signifying chains in the story at the cost of others, inevitable méconnaissances as are any acts of reading in the world of Barthelme's fiction. Indeed, to represent the story as a sequence through which its design emerges, or even to represent it as the opposition of two styles of self-representation, is to repress much of what it enacts. Even our retention of terms disallowed by the story's serial critique of structurality ("story," for example, or "structure" itself) requires their erasure despite their necessity to us, although it should also be said that deconstruction, too, needs the closure against which it is always articulated. For like the mediating figure of the map itself, which allows for a structural and serial epistemology at once, the story for which the map is both metaphor and metonymy also allows, indeed requires that its alternative self-representations be read as a constitutive difference rather than as a conflict to be won or lost by one model or the other.
And yet if we wish to acknowledge the relative dominance of the figure of the temporal diary next to that of the static map or table in "Paraguay," it allows us a radical notion of the continuity between Barthelme's fiction and the reflexive realism - that of Updike, say, or Bellow - with which it is customarily contrasted. Now that the temporal plottings required in any t(r)opological coordination of a map are mainifest, the diary's association with the figure of subjectivity reminds us that Barthelme's arguably privileged style of temporal ordering is also the style of (dis)order by which we know even the romantic self. Barthelme is different only in the position of the gaze, not in the articulation of its structure. Although Barthelme is to be distinguished from more customary writers in his lust for the aleatory rather than the determined, only the pressure of a determination superior to chance - or at least required by it - can account for the energy of his insistence.


1. Donald Barthelme, The Dead Father (New York: Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, 1975), p. 171
2. All references and citations from "Paraguay" are from the Quokka edition of City Life (New York: Pocket Books, 1978). References from other works by Barthelme will be given separately in the notes.
3. See "The Photographs," Guilty Pleasures (New York: Delta, n.d.), p. 153.
4. The Dead Father, p. 50. The equivalent opposition in The Dead Father is that uneasy coexistence of a series of fathers in "A Manual for Sons" with the Dead Father's own claim that his particular paternity is privileged. See also John Leland's reading of Barthelme's Snow White as a serial text in which seriality and openness are responses to and critiques of the closed structure of the myth proper of Snow White ("Remarks Re-marked: Barthelme, What Curios of Signs!" Boundary 2 (Spring 1977), 5: 795-811
5. "I Bought a Little City," Amateurs (New York: Pocket Books, 1977), p. 66.
6. Hence Lévi-Strauss's notion in the "Overture" to The Raw and the Cooked that seriality is without double articulation collapses here in accord with Eco's critique (see Umberto Eco, "Pensée structurale et pensée sérielle," Musique en jeu 5: 45-56), because the very méconnaissances that put the story into play at the outset, and which the reader must traverse in order to accede to the story's serial logic, are, of course, drawn from the public codes the story puts into play in order to violate. This, of course, deconstructs their propriety, and so meets Eco's requirement that seriality denature the apparently natural or proper status of its fist level of articulation.
7. Leland, "Remarks Re-marked," p. 797
8. See "Alice," in Unspeakable Practices, Unnatural Acts (New York: Pocket Books, 1978) p. 123.

Originally published in Fragments: Incompletion & Discontinuity (New York: New York Literary Forum, 1981)


Ramones Unpack

by Perry Meisel

Fans of the Ramones' original p--k minimalism will probably grumble about the band's new LP, End of the Century, although they should blame Phil Spector and not the Ramones for the bigger, creamier sound. Spector has been at loose ends since his glory days back in the early '60s, occasionally salvaging a major and in hindsight landmark project like Let It Be or botching Leonard Cohen's Death of a Ladies' Man. With the Ramones selling poorly even after continuous touring and three original LPs, as well as the Rock and Roll High School film and soundtrack. Sire - or somebody - seems to think the mythical Spector/Ramones pairing will salvage the Ramones, or at least put them on the radio.
The staged collaboration, however, has drawbacks as well as rewards. It would be easy (and correct) to mythologize End of the Century by saying that sons meet father, minimum and maximum coincide, two eras are bridged. It would also be correct (and easy) to say that on this album the Ramones finally shlock out. But neither judgment alone is a just estimate of this puzzling yet impressive disc in which the terrorist Ramones make peace with an institution.
On one hand, the Spectorization is logical, moving, almost too good to be true. Spector interprets the Ramones as a profoundly traditional band by nestling the guitar machine quartet at the center of his legendary "wall of sound." Suddenly, the shattering rock and roll turbine doesn't stand alone in its humorous/heroic way but occupies the hub of a sound it's always implied but never really spelled out - horns, strings, lead guitar lines and a depth of field different from the flat production style the band chose on The Ramones, Ramones Leave Home, and Rocket to Russia.
The cover of Phil's old Ronettes hit, "Baby I Love You," is the most dramatic departure from the usual Ramone austerity. Yet it's also the song in which Spector and the Ramones meet at a point most natural to them both. Sure, the big blasts of staccato strings blunt the edge of Joey's super-mannered singing by out-mannering it, but they also situate his voice in the early '60s context from which his hiccupy style emerges. This may be to call Joey's bluff, though he's still a decent enough crooner to face the r & b "authenticity" represented by strings and horns. The result is a classic Ramones paradox of artful sincerity, mannered honesty, committed nihilism.
The teasing double entendre in the title hook of "I'm Affected" explores the band's signature paradox and, in the process, the paradox of rock and roll itself. What is moving, what is loaded with "affect" or emotion, is also that which is "affected" or put on. For the Ramones, rock and roll is full of affectations that can still move us (the Ramones' phony family bit is another instance of the blood-fiction paradox). And Joey's yodel-plunge vibrato exchanges/identifies affect and affectation, matter and manner.
The new and characteristic ballad original "Danny Says" also counterposes the original rock and roll that inspires the tune and the inevitable mannerism of the latecomers who sing it. Spector's production - especially the gorgeous, nostalgic glockenspiel intro - inadvertently brings the tensions to a head. "Danny Says" threatens to become the traditional ballad the Ramones never quite wanted to play. Previously, they preferred not to emote directly.
Spector leaves the band's nervy tempos as pressured as ever on the rockers, though the "Lady Madonna" horn lines on "Rock and Roll Radio," for example, blue down the shredded-can edges. But while this civilizing process sounds good here, it risks resolving the Ramones tension between honesty and hyperbole.
What is impressive about Spector's production is also what turns out to be the trouble with it. Spector's overt traditionalizing of the Ramones shows how fine a line divides nostalgia-rock from innovative rock and roll that has fully digested its sources. In its lyrics, "Rock and Roll Radio" is too fond a glance backward ("Do you remember Hullaballoo/Upbeat, Shindig, and Ed Sullivan, too?"), low on the irony with which the Ramones usually fracture such a dumb/wholesome pose. Besides, the phony eschatology doesn't jive with the Ramones in practice ("Rock's just part of the past/'Cause lately it all sounds the same . . . /It's the end, the end of the '70s/ . . . the end of the century"). Shame on them for making like they wish they could go back when we already know how much they dig being inheritors.
Yet the music of "Rock and Roll Radio" is the regular Ramones with a vengeance, once you bracket the studio ornamentation and just listen to the central tracks. The fat here, as elsewhere, isn't the Ramones' anyway - it's Spector's. In fact, only a few of the tunes besides the ballads use the full Spector apparatus ("Rock and Roll Radio" and "I'm Affected"). Most of the others are VI-chord belly-shots, bone-and-hammer Ramones - more riff-mad than ever on "This Ain't Havana" and "Jackie and Judy" - with a rinse of gloss and guitar leads dubbed in by what sounds like an unnamed accomplice. Those detailed, precise guitar licks are literal--minded where the Ramones themselves are allusive.
Hence the weird scenario of a band moving forward along its customary lines while the veneer of production and lyrics seems to pull it backward, make it regressive and nostalgic. But the Ramones are famous for subtraction, not for the kind of multiplication that Spector imposes on End of the Century. The effect is to compromise - however slightly, and with real though ironic rewards - the Ramones' hard-won economy. Few rock bands have packed so much history into so few gestures played at such breakneck speed with so much residual funk and twang; been so affecting at so high a level of affectation.
Let's face it: Spector's is an older technology confronting a more evolved one. The Ramones, after all, don't just inherit Spector directly; they also inherit him via his (silent) presence in big-metal rock. Truth is, those droning thwacking Zep/Who guitars are already a transistorization, a microminiaturization, a "chip" of Spector's (largely) acoustic, "naturally" produced walls of sound.
The Ramones have already transistorized the transistors and so stand at two removes from Spector himself, who forces them to unpack, to undress; to decompress their influences and stand with the old relations for a family picture, to accept the kinship they ordinarily - and miraculously - escape. To go too far in this direction would mean nostalgia, repeating the past rather than reinventing it. Spector pushes the Ramones to the brink of nostalgia, but the center holds. The Ramones will likely stay the Ramones whether they sell (out) or not.

Originally published in The Village Voice, February 18, 1980.

Sample view:


Neon Dream, Rock Reality

by Perry Meisel

Stranded: Rock and Roll for a Desert Island. Edited by Greil Marcus. Knopf. $12.95, $5.95 paper.

Up and Down With the Rolling Stones. By Tony Sanchez. Morrow. $17.95, $8.95 paper.

Far from celebrating rock and roll's vaunted - and wholly artful - primitivism, these two new books are remarkable instead for the (largely unconscious) ease with which each celebrates the surprisingly conventional nature of rock and roll culture. Not that the guts have gone out of the backbeat, mind you; I don't mean for a moment to suggest, even sardonically, that a rhetoric of crisis or a lament for authenticity intrudes in either book. No, what links Tony Sanchez's Up and Down with the Rolling Stones with Greil Marcus's collection of original essays by 20 of the country's best pop critics - and what separates both books from outmoded raps about rock's ties to the '60s and its precarious status in an age of conformity - is a sense of rock and roll and its allied technologies as regular, coherent, even lawful. A good thing, too, since today the music is in unprecedented health, and only a style of criticism that looks beyond the ideology of the Waste Land has any chance of apprehending rock as it moves into the 1980s.
Sanchez's gonzo memoir of life with the Rolling Stones is a stone riot, a trifle lightweight at first glance, but ultimately riveting for anyone who loves rock and roll. Ornery reviewers may have a case when they complain, as some have, about Sanchez's lack of attention to the Stones's music (his memory of Brian Jones's love for Elmore James early in the book is the only real exception). But what fascinates Sanchez is the same backstage life that fascinates any Stones fan; his book is a fiesta for rock-and-roll yentas.
A gofer for the Stones since their early days, Sanchez seems to have satisfied most of his ambitions through his intimacy with Keith, Mick, and, as he reminds us more than once, Marianne Faithfull; it's a satisfaction that apparently survives the humiliating errands and other services he had to perform for Keith-steady Anita Pallenberg as well as the head Stones themselves. The suicide scandal in Anita's bedroom last July had its plain roots in 12 years of cheap thrills that Sanchez helped orchestrate, and orchestrates again as he rewrites the past from the tranquility of post-addiction care.
Interestingly enough, however, Sanchez's persona exudes an uncanny integrity throughout the decidedly foul proceedings and seems to owe its credibility, both for Sanchez and for us, to his early history and enduring self-image as a hardboiled nightclub man. In fact, Sanchez's style of identity is little more than a rock-and-roll variation on the professional journeyman we know from, say, Howard Hawks or Raymond Chandler. Such implicit mythologies inform Sanchez's notion of himself from the start, and just as compellingly as the more central myth of the rock star proper informs the grander and more troubled characters of Jagger and the rest, not only from an outsider's point of view, but even, one is forced to conclude, from within.
This is surely to romanticize Sanchez and the whole sleazy business of the Stones' supposedly private lives. But romance, after all, is a precondition of the genre and should remind us that rock and roll's very allure lies in the overt mythmaking that is essential to its speech. Hence Sanchez's book turns on a joke that is precisely - and maybe not unwittingly - the point. For there is, after all, no "inside story" to speak of (despite the subtitle) since the "inside" is no more than the story of a story, just as regulated by manners and conventions as the music is. Does it have to be argued that the Stones have been fashioned by the same conventions that fashion their fans? Sanchez's book is less the revelation of things hitherto unknown than it is the calculated filling in of particular details, names, and places in the mythic structure of Stones life as we already imagine it.
Like the music and the scene, rock criticism is a pensee sauvage, funky on the surface but girded underneath by ineluctable regularities. In fact, it's even more disingenuous about its own powerful determinations than the music is, perhaps because its determinations are even more tangled. After all, the criticism, as everyone knows with varying degrees of pleasure, is drenched not only in the music and hip culture, but also in the academic languages that have trained most rock critics to one degree or another. The defensive custom that accompanies the training, however, is the obligatory put-down of analysis itself - a denigration that closes many of the essays in Greil Marcus's Stranded collection, and turns out to be just as conventional as the intellection it (polemically) abjures.
One reason for the primitive pose, of course, is that it's a strategy that allows rock criticism to rip off the vocabulary of high culture in the act of challenging it. In so doing, however, rock criticism also - and ironically - reproduces the very ideology of the high culture from which it supposedly flees. After all, the notion that the authority of rock and roll - and of literature, for that matter, in the high-culture version - issues from its privileged access to a plenitude of natural, spontaneous, quasi-divine energy ignores the real sources of its energy, which in both cases is social. This confusion persists despite rock criticism's particular - and heavily compromised - mission to valorize the achievements of mass culture instead.
Of course, the separation of high and pop cultures is untenable in any case, since the domain of high culture is, in practice, no more elitist in its critical or creative procedures than rock and roll. What blinds us to the continuity is that high culture (like a good deal of rock criticism) customarily mystifies and idealizes the humble tinkerings of the poet, painter, or critic in order to keep his priesthood and its divinity somehow segregated from the mass, a project it pursued with the greatest (because overcompensatory) energy in its "modernist" moment.
Marcus more than grazed the problem of rock and roll ideology in his 1975 Mystery Train, and it turns out to have focused his new book around similar concerns (how consciously at the outset it is hard to tell) by asking his writers to choose a single rock and roll LP for sustenance on the proverbial desert island. But as Marcus himself implies in his preface, the conceit is more interesting as a symptom than as a pure act of imagination perhaps because the resonant figure of exile that underlies it gives away the peculiar need the desert-island routine is designed to fill - the need to maintain rock culture as a graphic culture apart, and so endow it with a whole mythology of modernist isolation (remember Martin Decoud on his desert island in Nostromo?) that makes it not just adversary but also - and alas - solipsistic.
This is the usual contradiction, since the modernist and high-culture stance of the exiled, isolated, privileged individual is especially incommensurate with the qualities of mass culture that rock criticism means to celebrate as a form. (Antagonism to the dominant culture has, of course, its political roots as well, although here, too, we're thrown back on an ideological, hence rhetorical, paradox of "vanguardism" in the service of the mass - Marxism, too, as symptomatic modernism - as well as a misreading of Anglo-American High Modernism in particular, in which technical revolution has been mistakenly supplemented in some quarters, e.g. Joni Mitchell, with an impossible political counterpart).
In many ways, rock itself forgot all this in the '60s, and then progressively recovered from the lapse as the '70s proceeded. In the criticism, however, the split remains largely intact, as it were, a rifted enterprise whose contours emerge in Marcus's title and persist throughout the book in a rather strict way, despite the apparent disarray created by his critics' wide choice of eras and artists. (Bands and artists range, by the way, from early rock-and-roll groups like the Ronettes and the Five Royales to seminal p--ks like the Velvets, the New York Dolls, and the Ramones, with stops in between at Bruce Springsteen, Van Morrison, the Eagles, Jackosn Browne, and the Kinks.)
John Rockwell's essay on Linda Ronstadt displays the kind of tension that gives almost all the essays their peculiar energy and shared ground; it oscillates violently between a profoundly technical and a profoundly personal assessment of Ronstadt's singing. Now a musicologist, now just a pal, Rockwell even tends to rediscover the structure of his own argument in the structure of his subject - for like his prose, Ronstadt's music also "embraces strongly articulated alternatives." The rhetoric that organizes the book is thus regular in its irregularity, the modernist appeal to personal authenticity and direct feeling alternating with a postmodern appeal to contingency, preconditions, context.
If M. Mark, for example, argues in her essay on Van Morrison that he sings "about the pursuit of direct emotional response" and about "recovering innocence," she insists at the same time that he sings with a voice tutored in sources, burdened by forms. This latter quality would seem to deny Mark's former contention, since quest for immediacy is, strictly speaking, doomed in a world that is largely inherited. And yet the energy of Mark's self-divided argument is never dissipated by the contradiction, even when she attempts to resolve the differences by claiming that Morrison does so himself. Indeed, the discovery of Morrison's source packs a relish all its own, especially when Mark cites "Mustang Sally" as the resolving text for the "huh's" in Van's phrasing. And just as in Rockwell's essay, the split in Mark's prose between a rhetoric of natural feeling and a rhetoric that acknowledges the pressures of craft and history is replicated in the split between images of ripe nature and images of (even hot) circuitry in Morrison's own lyrics.
Simon Frith's essay (the only one by a British critic) helps to focus and magnify the defining split or contradiction in Mark and Rockwell by identifying the central preoccupation of the Stones' Beggars Banquet according to the customary terms. What Frith calls the Stones' "acute, almost contemptuous grasp of their own paradoxes" is best expressed in their album's title, which Frith reads as an oxymoron that poises isolation against community - natural self against society - only a little less exactly than Exile on Main Street will a few years later on.
Hence, too, the opposites that structure Jim Miller's image of Phil Spector. Spector's "aesthetic of excess," Miller argues, allows us to "unpack . . . the litter of his imagination," that grabbag of American odds and ends gathered all the way from Harlem to the Brill Building. But despite its public contents, the net effect of Spector's art is "an obsessive - and unlikely - solipsism." Miller's definition of the thrill of rock and roll listening - "the first time, again" - dramatizes in a single phrase the impossibility of modernist immediacy in the face of repetitions, copies, imitations, all those manifest characteristics of pop culture that stand against the privileged individual and put him in question. Ariel Swartley even chooses a favorite deconstructive figure of speech (wittingly?) to describe the unevenness of these discordant mythologies as they appear in Bruce Springsteen, and so provides us with an exact image for the rhetoric of rock criticism, too. "It's not like the songs lay out in neatly knitted metaphors," says Swartley. "One tug and they're unravelled."
Not everybody, of course, is so balanced or even in the oscillations between rhetorical alternatives. Paul Nelson oohs and aahs about Jackson Browne on the basis of some murky personal logic that doubles (and deserves) Browne's own, while Grace Lichtenstein's essay on the Eagles is almost entirely dependent on a notion of rock and roll as a record of one's personal associations to particular songs and singers. Langdon Winner, by contrast, leans the other way in a resolute attempt to find music that is utterly devoid of public or social references (his choice of artist, fittingly enough, is the wacked Captain Beefheart), whose only real referents are other texts. Although a modernist/isolationist wish-fulfillment to begin with, Winner's discussion of Beefheart's desire "to disconnect and reorder things" actually magnifies rock and roll's thoroughly public musical heritage as well as its "inherited store of fantasies" that together cancel any possibility of "authentic voice."
Ellen Willis's essay on Lou Reed is more bifurcated than either Rockwell's or Miller's. Reed, says Willis, once again (re)discovering the ideology of rock criticism in its subject, embodies "a fateful connection between two seemingly disparate ideas - the rock-and-roller as self-conscious aesthete and the rock-and-roller as self-conscious punk." By implication magnifying the disparity already at work between high culture solipsism and mass culture sociability, Reed's "use of a mass art form," as Willis puts it, "to express his aesthetic and social alienation" brings the paradox to a pointed head.
But while Willis seems willing to live with the contradictory ideal of the aesthete-punk, she suddenly decides that the uneven pose is "a metaphor for transcendence" as though there really were a telos or end to interpretation that would resolve, unify, centralize Reed's requisite oppositions after all. Indeed, in an astonishing lapse into existential trivializing, Willis touts Reed's "nakedness" and the "glimmer of redemption" it provides, even though both contradict her earlier ironic notion of Reed's identity as an odd and uneasy ensemble of gears and different parts - a set of differences that are definitive rather than dialectical.
It is above all the Ramones who have opened up the post-modern arena of ironic edge that the music itself now occupies and Tom Carson maps the terrain with considerable lucidity in his essay on the Ramones' Rocket to Russia: "More than any other band they had defined the music in its purest terms, a return to the basics which was both deliberately primitive and revisionist at the same time, a musical and lyrical bluntness of approach which concealed a wealth of complex, disengaging ironies underneath." Carson's sense of irony well summarizes what is often only implicit in the volume's other essays, and well summarizes the ironies that define rock and roll itself.

Originally published in The Village Voice, January 21, 1980


The World of Wasp

by Perry Meisel

The Stories of John Cheever. Alfred A. Knopf. $15.

The deceptively modest self-portrait that John Cheever fashions in the preface to his newly collected Stories ("Naive, provincial . . . almost always clumsy") well accords with our customary sense of Cheever as a natural, as a self-reliant and largely homespun historian of the manners and morals of the upper middle class. Despite the elegant contrivances and highly figured language that have always called plain attention to Cheever's exertions as a stylist in both his novels and his shorter pieces, Cheever's image of himself as the innocent realist is a tempting one to maintain.
One principal advantage is that it allows us to suspend our moral exasperation with Cheever's dreamy and passive characters by shifting the blame for their indecision and frustration away from the author. We assign it instead to the world of WASP custom that Cheever renders with such sympathy and exactitude in his early portraits of prewar Manhattan, and, later on, in his sketches of the disguised Westchester suburb known in his fiction as Shady Hill. More abused than abusive, the usual Cheever hero tends to be, like Ralph Whittemore in "The Pot of Gold," a "prisoner of his schemes and expectations"; the unsuspecting and ironic casualty of his single decisive conviction in life, "an uncompromising loyalty," as Cheever puts it, "to the gentle manners of the middle class."
As a result, we can attribute the loneliness of the Cheever hero to a world of conventions no longer adequate to experience but still impossible to break away from (a "rigid script," as Cheever calls it in "Metamorphoses"). Such a reading shores up our sense of the Cheever hero as the hapless or pathetic victim, different in tone from the victim in Jewish fiction perhaps, but still consistent with the approved modernist hero at odds, like Conrad's isolates, with a world of received customs and beliefs.
The first real attempt to canonize Cheever came with the publication of Falconer in 1977, for Falconer seemed, on the face of it at least, to place Cheever securely in the kind of modern tradition that justifies inaction as an indictment of society; that exploits the familiar figure of the prison to express the way culture captures and confines the self. But if Falconer prison was the key to Cheever's triumph, it was not so much because it served a vision of modern life as a life of imprisonment and isolation, but because Cheever used it to measure confinement as our ruling notion about ourselves. A metaphor about a metaphor rather than a metaphor about life, Cheever's prison suggested that the real function of confinement was to produce, as its necessary yield and support, the notion of freedom.
If we inquire into the arguments and architecture of the Stories, here, too, we will find a very different kind of drama from the Christian and modernist one that supposedly liberates and resurrects Farragut as he emerges from a shroud outside Falconer's walls. There is, after all, no overwhelming burden or hypocrisy in the confinements that the quotidian world places on Cheever's characters in the Stories (imagine Ned Merrill in "The Swimmer" making his neighborly rounds without the obligatory drinks he takes at each house along his way), for it is a drama of accommodation to the duties of daily life that is being played out.
It is probably even inaccurate to say that character in itself is Cheever's particular focus. For all the richness of incident, each affair, each frustration, each hero is a variation on another. Sometimes whole dramatic situations are virtual contractions or extensions of one another, as in "The Music Teacher" and "The Country Husband"; sometimes mirror images, as in "The Cure" and "The Housebreaker of Shady Hill." In fact, character and scene alike are memorable less for themselves than for the particular angle of vision they provide on a world they behold in common.
The moral corollary, of course, is that Cheever's characters are the decided instruments of circumstance, unable and unwilling not only to act but even to react, whether to a pathetic rival in "The Season of Divorce," or to the regular provocation of a burned dinner and a sour wife in "The Music Teacher." One of the most irritating examples in all of the Stories comes at the start of "The Country Husband," when Francis Weed returns to Shady Hill dazed and battered by a near-calamitous crash-landing on a flight home to Idlewild from a business trip. When the exhausted Weed tries to tell his brawling kids and distracted wife about it, no one even hears him - the husband and father, alas, victimized by the very household he has created. But what looks like a refusal to engage moral questions by retreating into the fantastic turns out to be an attempt to determine what is decisive in the formation of character and what is not.
Even "The Enormous Radio" holds a more problematic meaning than its rather weak moral patina suggests. Though Jim and Irene Wescott have bought a new radio for the pleasure of listening to music, the mysterious machine forces them instead to listen in on the sad and sometimes brutal private lives of their neighbors, and appears to jolt them both into the discovery of passions and pains of their own. What is shocking about the story's final scene, however, is not the substance of Irene's sudden moral attack on her husband for his past sins, but that the imperturbable and virtually blank Irene (at the start of the tale she has "a wide, fine forehead upon which nothing at all had been written") has suddenly acquired the abusive rhetoric of intimacy from overhearing the lives of others.
Hence the energy of a plot in a Cheever story lies less with what we think of as the customary driving force of short fiction - the moral dilemma, the emotional tension of a conflict to be pressured or resolved - and more with engaging the reader in a wish to uncoil the enigmatic structure of motivation and desire, to track down the origins of identity through the names and images that determine it. This is the privileged obsession of Charlie Mallory in "The Geometry of Love," an engineer whose marital squabbles and "lost . . . sense of reality" impel him to "decipher," for each significant moment in his life, "the chain of contingencies that had detonated the scene," and thus to express in miniature Cheever's own enterprise in the Stories at large.
So in a single strategy that combines his lyric gift for the particular with his visionary inclination for what is abstract and paradigmatic, Cheever focuses not on character as a thing in itself, but on what he calls in "The Sorrows of Gin" "the literal symbols of life" - a familiar object or a scene from the past - by which a particular character finds his own relation to life concentrated in a particular image or situation. "The Lowboy" is a prime example of how an object allows Cheever both to evoke a world and take apart its mechanisms in a single stroke. Like those haunting summer houses in the more familiar stories in the volume, the old and once-forgotten piece of family furniture that gives "The Lowboy" its title raises powerful memories of childhood and primitive rivalry in two brothers, memories deriving from a scene or object like those of Proust's madeleine or like the symptoms of Freud's hysterics. The Stories might even be arranged in terms of the "symbols" or situations that locate and define the self from tale to tale - the allure of Broadway for Evarts Malloy in "O City of Broken Dreams"; the ancestral summer place in "Goodbye, My Brother" or "The Summer Farmer"; the moving van that becomes an icon of humiliation and flight in "The Scarlet Moving Van"; even a particular day in a family's history like the one that gives "The Day the Pig Fell into the Well" its title, and that allows a fractured and embittered collection of relatives to reaffirm its stamina as a unit by recalling, from various points of view, the circumstances that surround the decisive event.
If there is melancholy and hesitation in Cheever's world, there is, however, no anxiety in our recognizably modern or Jewish sense, no struggle for self-mastery or coherence because life is already coherent as it is. The inability of Cheever's characters to take action or even to feel anxiety or rage about their circumstances is not, then, so much a moral vision with problems as it is a moral problem beyond or apart from the moral as we normally conceive it. For Cheever, culture precedes the individual and subordinates him to it - makes him possible in the first place - through the constitutive power of the "symbols" it supplies (thus Victor and Theresa Mackenzie in "The Children," who wander from situation to situation with no identities apart from those they can assume by attaching themselves, for love and money alike, to a wealthy family or an ailing estate). The Cheever of the Stories has a less coherent nostalgia for the natural than the pastoral Cheever of the Wapshot novels, and so a less coherent notion of culture itself as evil. Indeed, the "moral chain of being" that Cheever identifies in the preface as one of the "constants" he meant to find in life is most profitably understood as a notion of the "chain" of "mores" that links the moments of life to one another, and that provides whatever sense life may hold for Cheever's characters. Rather than rail against the "chain" as though it represses nature and desire, Cheever prefers instead to analyze the way the "chain" of culture produces what thoughts and feelings we have. To characterize Cheever's project in this way not only suggests his links with James and Hawthorne before him, but also his less manifest links with postmodernist contemporaries like Borges or Pynchon. Despite its realist premises, after all, Cheever's art, too, is in search of a means to represent, not life itself, but the representations that structure and determine our experience of life. By remaining at the same time resolute in its obligation to render that experience in the sympathetic terms of the particular individual and his relation to the quotidian, however, Cheever's fiction wins for itself the additional distinction of maintaining two apparently antithetical modes - one realist, one antirealist or surfictional - in an equilibrium that would collapse in less knowing hands.

Originally published in Partisan Review 3, 1980

Pazz & Jop Product Report 1979

"Each critic votes for between zero and 10 'yea' records per month and awards each one 10 (masterpiece), 8, 7 (recommended purchase), 5 (borderline), 3, 2, or 1 (shades of listenable) votes."

Perry Meisel's votes:

January 8, 1979:

YEA: Jesse Colin Young: "American Dreams" (Elektra) 8; Albert Collins: "Ice Pickin'" (Alligator) 7; Al Green: "Truth n' Time" (Hi) 7; Brian Eno: "Music for Films" (Antilles) 7; Van Morrison: "Wavelength" (Warner Bros.) 7; Phoebe Snow: "Against the Grain" (Columbia) 5; Cornell Dupree: "Shadow Dancing" (Versaille) 5; Peter Tosh: "Bush Doctor" (Rolling Stones) 3; Billy Joel: "52nd Street" (Columbia) 2.

February 12, 1979:

YEA: Buddy Holly: "Legend" (Coral Import) 10; Elvis Costello and the Attractions: "Armed Forces" (Columbia) 8; "No Wave" (A&M) 7; Woody Shaw: "Stepping Stones - Live at the Village Vanguard" (Columbia) 7; J. Geils Band: "Sanctuary" (EMI America) 5; U.S. Ape: "You're in My Car"/"Hell on the West Side" (U.S. Ape) 5; Milton Nascimento: "Journey to the Dawn" (A&M) 5.
NAY: Blues Brothers: "Briefcase Full of Blues" (Atlantic) -3.

March 12, 1979:

YEA: El Molino: "Mezcal Road/"Tell Me" (Joey single) 8; Beach Boys: "Here Comes the Night" (Caribou disco disc) 8; "C'est Chic" (Atlantic) 7; Cedar Walton: "Animation" (Columbia) 7; "Homesick John O'Leary's Greatest Hits" (Fly by Nite disco disc) 7; Bee Gees: "Spirits Having Flown" (RSO) 5; The Police: "Outlandos d'Amour" (A&M) 5; "Dire Straits" (Warner Bros.) 3; Cramps: "Domino"/"Human Fly" (Vengeance single) 3; Cramps: "Surfin' Bird"/"The Way I Walk" (Vengeance single) 2.

April 9, 1979:

YEA: "Living Chicago Blues: Volume I" (Alligator) 7; "Living Chicago Blues: Volume II" (Alligator) 8; Allman Brothers Band: "Enlightened Rogues" (Capricorn) 8; Beach Boys: "L.A. (Light Album)" (Caribou) 8; "Dire Straits" (Warner Bros.) 8; Wings: "Goodnight Tonight" (Columbia disco disc) 7; Devadip Carlos Santana: "Oneness: Silver Dreams - Golden Reality" (Columbia) 5; Frank Zappa: "Sheik Yerbouti" (Zappa) 5; Curtis Mayfield: "This Year" (RSO single) 3; Felix Pappaiardi: "Don't Worry, Ma" (A&M) 3.

May 7, 1979:

YEA: Charles Mingus: "Nostalgia in Times Square" (Columbia) 10; Theolonious Monk: "Always Know" (Columbia) 10; Graham Parker and the Rumour: "Squeezing Out Sparks" (Arista) 8; "Living Chicago Blues, Volume III" (Alligator) 8; Joe Jackson: "Look Sharp!" (A&M) 5; Holy Modal Rounders: "Last Round" (Adelphi) 5; Arthur Blythe: "Lenox Avenue Breakdown" (Columbia) 5; John Mayall: "Bottom Line" (DJM) 3; Billy Thorpe: "Children of the Sun" (Capricorn) 2.
NAY: Hank Crawford: "Cajun Sunrise" (Kudu) -3

June 4, 1979:

YEA: "The Lester Young Story/Volume 4: 'Lester Leaps In' " (Columbia) 10; "Clifford Brown and Max Roach Live at the Beehive" (Columbia) 8; Blondie: "Parallel Lines" (Chrysalis) 7; "The Roches" (Warner Bros.) 5; James Taylor: "Flag" (Columbia) 5; "The Bizarros" (Mercury) 5; "Patti Austin Live at the Bottom Line" (CTI) 3; Dixie Dregs: "Night of the Living Dregs" (Capricorn) 2; Jennifer Warnes: "Shot Through the Heart" (Arista) 1.

August 6, 1979:

YEA: Nick Lowe: "Labour of Lust" (Columbia) 8; Dave Edmunds: "Repeat When Necessary" (Swan Song) 8; Nils Lofgren: "Nils" (A&M) 7; Bobby Hutcherson: "Conception: The Gift of Love" (Columbia) 5; Scorpions: "Lovedrive" (Mercury) 5; Tony Williams: "The Joy of Flying" (Columbia) 5; "Jasmine" (West 54) 5.

September 10, 1979:

YEA: Ellen Foley: "Nightout" (Cleveland International) 7; Marc-Benno: "Lost in Austin" (A&M) 7; Southside Johnny & the Asbury Jukes: "The Jukes" (Mercury) 7; Heartbreaking: "Live at Max's Kansas City" (Max's Kansas City) 5; Squeeze: "Cool for Cats" (A&M) 5; Steve Khan: "Arrows" (Columbia) 5; "John Cougar"(Riva) 3; "The A's" (Arista) 3; "Carolyne Mas" (Mercury) 2; Alan Price: "Lucky Day" (Jet) 2.

October 8, 1979:

YEA: Bob Dylan: "Slow Train Coming" (Columbia) 7; Brian Eno: "Music for Airports" (Ambient/PVC) 7; Graham Parker and the Rumour: "Live Sparks" (Arista promo) 7; "The B-52s" (Warner Bros.) 5; George Juanita G. Hines: "Jesus, My Wonderful Friend" (Solar) 5; Lowry Hamner and the Cryers: "Midnight Run" (Mercury) 3; Chic: "Risque" (Atlantic) 3; Michael Jackson: "Off the Wall" (Epic) 3.

November 5, 1979:

YEA: The Pop: "Go!" (Arista) 8; Peter Green: "In the Skies" (Sail) 7; Sports: "Hit Single"/"Who Listens to the Radio" (Arista single) 7; Genya Ravan: ". . . And I Mean It" (20th Century) 5; Yonah: "Cats in California"/After the First Time" (Free Flight single) 3; Alias "Contraband" (Mercury) 2; Whispers: "Happy Holidays to You" (Solar) 1.

December 10, 1979:

YEA: "The Beat" (Columbia) 8; Bob Marley and the Wailers: "Survival" (Island) 8; Blondie: "Eat to the Beat" (Chrysalis) 7; "Buy the Contortions" (Ze) 5; John Hiatt: "Slug Line" (MCA) 5; Turley Richards: "Therfu" (Atlantic) 5; Aural Eciters: "Spooks in Space" (Ze) 5; James White and the Blacks: "Off White" (Ze) 3; Garland Jeffreys: "American Boy and Girl" (A&M) 3.

Rush to Indiscretion

by Perry Meisel

I may be weary of object-lessons at gigs, but a prime bluesman like Otis Rush must get even wearier. At 45, Rush, like Albert Collins, has the usual underground reputation, and the hassled history of lame recording deals and poor management to go with it. At Tramps September 20, he also had a pick-up band from Boston with a hyperactive second guitarist who cluttered up the spaces that normally cradle his sound and let it radiate.
Seven or eight years ago, Rush had the most relaxed back-up I'd ever seen (old guy on tenor played three notes so sweet you couldn't help the tears), maybe my very first lesson in the apollonian restraint the blues requires of sidemen no less than stars. Without the minimalist discretion of those "primitives," Rush's chewy guitar (and raspy/elastic voice) would've been trivialized. Even last year at the crowded Lone Star, Rush hurdled and whispered by turns with whatever band it was, pumping silence as well as steel.
Rush's current back-ups, Sugar Ray and the Bluetones from Boston (where else?) are actually a pretty strong shuffle unit in their own (far rockier) way thanks to a rhythm section that includes the late Hound Dog Taylor's former drummer. Even guitarist Ron Horvath pulled a dazzler or two on the openers. But once Rush hit the stage, Horvath's almost constant chord wash left Otis nothing to listen against when he took his meditative pauses phrase to phrase. Least impeded on his celebrated "All Your Love," on stauncher shuffles he hopped intervals in unexpected (for him characteristic) combinations, though the superadded inflections sometimes got lost in the band's muddy dynamics. Otis: Please leave second guitarist home next time.

Originally published in The Village Voice, October 1, 1979


Lowe's Labours Last

by Perry Meisel

When I first heard Rockpile at the Bottom Line last year, Nick Lowe, Dave Edmunds & Co. sounded no better to me than an energetic bar band stranded somewhere between a Vassar mixer and a roadhouse further upstate. Nor did Lowe's Pure Pop tag help me understand what was going on. The only trouble with calling Rockpile's music Pure Pop is that there's nothing pure about it. Rockpile is all alloy. And that's the hugely ironic source of the band's uncommon wit and power. Not just because Lowe (re)assembles nearly every rocking shtick there is into an uncanny synthesis that makes the familiar new again, but because he overhauls the the existential stance of the rock (Brits read pop) star in the process.
Tom Hull rehearsed the complicated history of Lowe and Rockpile collaborator Dave Edmunds in these pages a year ago, tracing Lowe's urbane roots from the pub-rock Brinsleys, whom the rawer Edmunds produced in 1974. Lowe himself soon graduated to production work for Graham Parker and Elvis Costello, and was already the cultist's cultist before emerging as a star in his own right with the release of Pure Pop for Now People in 1978.
But though they're London rockers, both Lowe and Edmunds still managed to sound like real Colorado duffers - and believed that they were! - when they cooed sweet country harmonies over a band that could do anything at Central Park's Wollman rink on July 9. Rockpile's repertoire - two parts Lowe "originals," two parts Brinsely-mafia originals, one-part classics - proved a what's what of rock and roll as they hurtled through Berry Blazers ("Trouble Boys"), ride-em high-honkers ("Crawling from the Wreckage"), and orthodox stompers ("I Hear You Knockin' ") with energy I haven't encountered since the Clash at the Palladium. Though Lowe is a cunning master of the studio (as early efforts with eight-track equipment testify even more eloquently than his newer work with whatever gimmick he wants), in concert all he and Edmunds need are non-stop drummer Terry Williams and premier second guitarist Billy Bremner to rival any gigging band you can name. In Rockpile's hands, the minimal rock and roll unit becomes what the Who (appropriately) called maximum r&b, not boiled and shrivelled artpunk but big-boned stuff spoiling for a fight.
Usually Edmunds prefers a rockabilly accent (viz Get It and Tracks on Wax 4) so perhaps Lowe is the more interesting artist because he prefers no accent in particular - he digs 'em all, as Pure Pop aptly demonstrated in its apparently sincere command of more styles of rocking than any honest artiste is supposed to have. Though he and Edmunds have collaborated in Rockpile since 1977 or so, they continue to record as solo artists. No ego hassles here - what's really amazing about it is that two such peerless musicians would want to combine energies at all.
Edmunds relies on neither originals nor standards on his new album, Repeat When Necessary, but largely on tunes by tried and true colleagues like Parker and Costello. In fact, Repeat When Necessary has the big range of bags and nuances-into-the-distance that you tend to expect from Lowe himself, who delivers all that and more on his new record with Rockpile, Labour of Lust (Love's Labour's Lust?). No sequel to Pure Pop (which unlike Edmunds's Tracks on Wax 4 was not a Rockpile album), Labor of Lust pits breadth of musical allusion against recurrent crises of desire and exasperation ("I don't think it's funny no more," croons the desperate voice aswim in "an ocean of emotion" on the J.J. Cale cop, "Cracking Up") and teases you into thinking that Lowe has finally decided to dramatize the way traditions strangle the personal when he appears to lament the mechanical aspects of acquired behavior in the sexual allegory "Skin Deep" (why just "belly to belly," he asks, and not "eye to eye," too?)
But compared to an overtly theatrical band like Blondie, which headlined Monday's Central Park bill, Rockpile is aggressively self-effacing conceptually. Though Lowe seems to be "dying," as he puts it, for want of some action on a country bumper like "Without Love," his belief in the twanging, two-beat formula not only gets him through, but even makes his desperation irrelevant in the face of non-stop musical celebration. The imbalance of sentiment and groove is in the service of an aesthetic that focuses on something other than the Romantic assertion of coherent personality as the crucible of the rocker's art.
My first serious take on Lowe was that he labored under the particular anxiety of McCartney's influence, at least on the evidence of some habits he seems to have when he sings. Even on the new album's opener "Cruel To Be Kind," Lowe's voice doesn't just seem to choose the McCartney vocal model (in preference to the Buddy Holly or the Everly Brothers who are also suggested), but seems to settle pretty completely into a full-blown McCartney head - Abbey Road harmonies, early Wings acoustic guitar, even the Harrison timbre of the electric guitar coming out of the solo. But tracking allusions in Lowe is an impossible business, despite your momentary certainty that you know exactly what song or riff in the rock archive is being alluded to.
Lowe's genius is clearest when his strategies are compared to those of personally ambitious rockers like Bryan Ferry, who write songs or arrangements as direct and unmistakable answers to very particular sources - the voicings from "As tears Go By," for example, that Ferry uses as an intro to his cover of "It's Only Love," turns both songs inside out and awards a belated power over them to Ferry himself (just as Blondie's "Sunday Girl" is a rewriting of "Georgy Girl"[!] and represents Deborah Harry's new priority as heartthrob of the moment). The drama in such cases is the struggle of the newcomer to reverse, or at least to neutralize, the influence of specifiably oppressive classics that rob him/her of originality and that require direct answers to direct precursors in image, music, or both. Lowe and Edmunds have no such axes to grind, not because they're not strong artists, but because they've shifted the very terms in which "art" gets articulated.
So even though Lowe's voice is resplendent song to song with momentary - and convincing - personality, there's no particular attitude you can point to and say with conviction, "This is the Basher" - hence the nine ways of looking at a pop persona on the cover of Pure Pop. Lowe is every rock and roll voice as well as none in particular, never just "himself" because he has no "self" other than the one the groove of the moment gives him. This is what Pure Pop really seems to be: the medium speaking for itself, with the singer/songwriter just the (witting and willing) vehicle for something bigger and impersonal that speaks through him.
Modernism, then, gives way to the post-modern, Mick Jagger to Nick Lowe. For Lowe replaces an aesthetic of expression with an aesthetic of interpretation, and in the process exchanges the usual rock project of self-discovery for one of self-production instead ("I'd make a knife out of a notion," sings Lowe on "Cracking Up"). The New Wave has already prepared us for this jaunt beyond rock existentialism - Rockpile's brand of Lowe-life gets the mainstream there, too.
Originally published in The Village Voice, July 23, 1979

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