June 27, 2012 · 0 Comments
By Charles P. Pierce:
Moral Hazard, the Irish setter owned for photo-op purposes by New York Times columnist David Brooks, enjoyed lying down on the fire escape outside the pantry of the Young Fogies Club, especially on hot days, when the breeze coming down the alley from 57th Street was so cool and refreshing that Moral Hazard hardly noticed that it also carried the aroma of the previous night’s sherry, much of which was had been loosed out the windows at the end of the previous night’s Young Fogies Club smoker, when everybody got overserved during the Peggy Noonan Lookalike Contest and things got completely out of hand. But Moral Hazard liked the fire escape because it made him feel like he was part of the city. It made him feel West Side Story all over.
In the hours that he spent stretched out on the iron platform, Moral Hazard got to know by sight a lot of the people who lived in the neighborhood. He especially like the couple in the apartment across the alley. He knew their names, John and Jane, because the boys in the alley would call up at their windows. Johnny would come out, and Janie’s sister would follow soon after, wandering down to the Franciscan chapel down the block to pray for God alone knew who. Some lost soul, probably, Moral Hazard figured.
He never figured out what Johnny did for a living, but he had some notion that it wasn’t entirely legal. The boys would call for him from down below and he’d be off, and then Moral Hazard would see Janie stick her head out the window, looking down the alley for where he’d gone while she was sleeping. That can’t be a good sign, Moral Hazard thought. He’s up to something, and those drag queens with the gold heels on their shoes aren’t telling, either.
Moral Hazard sighed, licked his balls in deep contemplation, and decided he wouldn’t go back inside for a while. Master had dipped into rock-and-roll music, and all the members of the Young Fogies were slightly awed by this daring walk on the wild side. He had ventured out into wilds of popular culture and come back alive. Moral Hazard felt the sweet breeze come back down the alley again. Summer’s long, but it ain’t very sweet around here anymore, he thought, and he fell into a dream. He was a police dog, backstage at a big outdoor summer concert barn, and the musicians all scratched him behind his ears as they ran up the steps to the stage. He heard a raw guitar and a saxophone begin to rev up. Yeah, dreamed Moral Hazard, that’d be cool.
They say you’ve never really seen a Bruce Springsteen concert until you’ve seen one in Europe, so some friends and I threw financial sanity to the winds and went to follow him around Spain and France. In Madrid, for example, we were rewarded with a show that lasted 3 hours and 48 minutes, possibly the longest Springsteen concert on record and one of the best. But what really fascinated me were the crowds.
Yeah, it was a rockin’ show, but my strange fellow humans most interested me. God, he’s a drag. You just know his friends bolted and left him to find his own way back to the hotel.
The oddest moment came midconcert when I looked across the football stadium and saw 56,000 enraptured Spaniards, pumping their fists in the air in fervent unison and bellowing at the top of their lungs, “I was born in the U.S.A.! I was born in the U.S.A.!” Did it occur to them at that moment that, in fact, they were not born in the U.S.A.? How was it that so many people in such a faraway place can be so personally committed to the deindustrializing landscape from New Jersey to Nebraska, the world Springsteen sings about? How is it they can be so enraptured at the mere mention of the Meadowlands or the Stone Pony, an Asbury Park, N.J., nightclub?
I’m not an expert, but I’m fairly sure that most of the Spaniards in attention were quite aware they weren’t born in fking Paramus. And how did so many Europeans become “enraptured” with Monument Valley just because John Ford set The Searchers there? How did the young Eric Clapton get so personally committed to Rosedale without ever having been to the Mississippi Delta? How did so many Americans come to want to jump the bones of Sophia Loren on the beaches of Corfu? Why did generations of Americans think that China was a land populated entirely by detectives and laundry workers? How does popular culture work, anyway?
My best theory is this…
Please, God, no. I will hold a telethon to beg him not to go any further.
When we are children, we invent these detailed imaginary worlds that the child psychologists call “paracosms.” These landscapes, sometimes complete with imaginary beasts, heroes and laws, help us orient ourselves in reality. They are structured mental communities that help us understand the wider world.
They also helped Walt Disney get incredibly rich, and he didn’t need a fancy psychological trem of art to do so. See also: Aesop.
We carry this need for paracosms into adulthood. It’s a paradox that the artists who have the widest global purchase are also the ones who have created the most local and distinctive story landscapes. Millions of people around the world are ferociously attached to Tupac Shakur’s version of Compton or J.K. Rowling’s version of a British boarding school or Downton Abbey’s or Brideshead Revisited’s version of an Edwardian estate.
Tupac Shakur was born in East Harlem, which is on the East Coast. Compton is in California, which is on the West Coast. Tupac Shakur got murdered
as part of a feud between East Coast and West Coast rappers (apologies, and thanks to ace commenter Joshua Malbin for reminding me that, really, Tupac did most of his work out of Oakland). He had as much to do with Compton as regards his music as Bugs Moran had with Al Capone as to his choice of garage. Perhaps Brooks is thinking of Ice Cube and NWA. Perhaps he has wandered into rap music the way a possum wanders onto the interstate.
Over the years, Springsteen built his own paracosm, with its own collection of tramps, factory closings, tortured Catholic overtones and moments of rapturous escape. This construction project took an act of commitment.
Also, Garry W. Tallent can really play.
The most interesting moment of Springsteen’s career came after the success of “Born to Run.” It would have been natural to build on that album’s success, to repeat its lush, wall-of-sound style, to build outward from his New Jersey base and broaden his appeal. Instead, Springsteen went deeper into his roots and created “Darkness on the Edge of Town,” which is more localized, more lonely and more spare.That must have seemed like a commercially insane decision at the time. But a more easily accessible Springsteen, removed from his soul roots, his childhood obsessions and the oft-repeated idiom of cars and highways, would have been diluted. Instead, he processed new issues in the language of his old tradition, and now you’ve got young adults filling stadiums, knowing every word to songs written 20 years before they were born, about places they’ll never see.
Of that “oft-repeated idiom,” as Tupac once said to Biggie over a blunt, contains “Racing In The Street.” There are six songs that reference either cars or driving, including the title track. You’d have to be deaf to call the sound of that record “spare.” (Again, I think Brooks is thinking about Nebraska here, but who in hell knows?) And I know every lyric to “Ferry ‘Cross The Mersey” and I’ve never been to Liverpool in my life. This has nothing to do with my creating a “paracosm” of Liverpool. It has to do with the fact I heard the damn song about 15 times a day back in 1965, and that I still enjoy hearing it today. This kind of thing turns nostalgia into an exercise for lab rats, which, I’ve long believed, is basically Brooks’s take on all of his fellow humans.
It makes you appreciate the tremendous power of particularity. If your identity is formed by hard boundaries, if you come from a specific place, if you embody a distinct musical tradition, if your concerns are expressed through a specific paracosm, you are going to have more depth and definition than you are if you grew up in the far-flung networks of pluralism and eclecticism, surfing from one spot to the next, sampling one style then the next, your identity formed by soft boundaries, or none at all.
Nope. I don’t know, either. I do know that, if somebody had written a paragraph like this the day after Elvis’s first appearance on the Louisiana Hayride, rock and roll would have died of boredom right on the spot. And, not for nothing, but what I think is Brooks’s entire thesis here is completely blown to smithereens by the careers of both the Beatles and Bob Dylan, unless he thinks Lily, Rosemary and the Jack Of Hearts were real people.
The whole experience makes me want to pull aside politicians and business leaders and maybe everyone else and offer some pious advice: Don’t try to be everyman. Don’t pretend you’re a member of every community you visit. Don’t try to be citizens of some artificial globalized community. Go deeper into your own tradition. Call more upon the geography of your own past. Be distinct and credible. People will come.
In other words, Mitt, four more wives and you’re home free!