culture, music, and identity politics musings from a 20-something Australian-Asian living in Washington D.C.

Adam Gopnik at Politics and Prose November 28, 2006

Filed under: Literary,NYC,Uncategorized — itslateagain @ 6:17 am

books_feature2-1.jpgThis evening, I listened to Adam Gopnik read from his latest book, “Through the Children’s Gate” and wondered what it might be like to live his life. Atop the ranks of the self-described “creative class,” this New Yorker journalist spends his day weaving humanist theory into the recently acquired minutia of our time, railing against a life lived through screens and building up self-effacing tales of Starbucks etiquette enforcement. All of this set against the ever-popular facade of his Manhattan home, as opposed to the Paris against which his last autobiographical tome was written. A tragic life, indeed.

My friend told me that she goes to book readings more for the audience than the author, and I might have agreed with her if tonight’s writer was of lesser note. Nevertheless, the audience provided worthy competition for my increasingly wavering attention. Having arrived early at Politics and Prose, on Connecticut Avenue, I won myself the front row company of loose-gummed seniors and one bookish Asian girl. During the reading, the woman beside me provided the gentle beatbox accompaniment of the septuagenarian, a steady “ahh,” “hmm,” “u-huh” syncopated rhythm of acknowledgement that people of such age often mutter subconsciously. Another older lady to Gopnik’s left knitted away with a wide smile, and the goofy young Jewish man behind me offered knowledgeable opinion concerning the recent medical reporting in the New Yorker, all while the Asian girl scribbled away determinedly. I almost felt lazy for not multitasking, for providing my full listener’s attention.

Gopnik is one of the most memorable, outstanding essayists I’ve ever encountered. As he signed my book, I told him that when I read his piece on jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt in an old magazine whilst vacationing in Melaka (the ancient capital of Malaysia), that his writing was more memorable than the town itself, which is true. In what one would normally consider an unusual setting, I found myself more focused and open to the full pleasures that great, perceptive criticism offers. He told me that he’d written the story after a prolonged period of Django obsession, adding that though he loves to play the guitar, he does so poorly. He was in fine form tonight, gleaning excellent comic yardage from the minor absurdities of technological generation gap and “Kids say the darndest things” sweetness; consistently warm and moving, yet never straying into sap.

In person, I found Gopnik to be more effeminate and homoerotic than I’d guessed. He is perhaps what comes to mind when people imagine the archetypal New York writer: small, ethnically “unmistakably Jewish,” polite, slightly dainty in tone and nimble in mannerism, and clearly fleet minded. When fielding audience questions, he provided answers before questions had been fully formed and filled in questioner’s hesitant shared thoughts, partly in a way that suggested book tour redundancy, but largely I presume because he is so sharp.

In this city, as well as that in which his book is set, I have grown accustomed to being surrounded by Jewish greatness. And in light of the detestable, if not particularly recent remaining anti-Semitism “Borat” exposed, I must say, within my own experience, it’s a wonderful, gently soulful thing. To struggle, succeed, and prosper…these are the universal aspirations of the immigrant, but never have I seen them so fully realized and thoroughly articulated as by the Jewish intellectual class to which I owe so much of my American education. And, given the many similarities I’ve encountered between Jewry and Chinese diasporic communities throughout the Asia Pacific and elsewhere, I look forward to the eventual rise of an East Asian/Western body of thought and art of comparable significance.

Where young South Asian (Desi) Western-raised creatives are already beginning to take flight, I am still to uncover an equivalent development in the East Asian anglophile diaspora. But, given the economic and cultural transition of immigrants past, I see no reason why more humanities-inclined yellow folk such as myself won’t be charging through the gates in years to come. I think it promises for some exciting new voices and cultural artifacts for an entirely 21st century ethnic sub- and fusion culture that is developing and changing by the year.


The Living End at the Black Cat November 22, 2006

Filed under: Australians,Concerts,Music,Uncategorized — itslateagain @ 9:33 pm

November 21st, 2006.

What is punk rock?

This is a question of serious, impassioned debate within many circles, one of which is Food for Thought, the little café within Washington’s hallowed Black Cat club.

There is very little upon which all sides can agree upon bar the obvious. Clay Aiken is not punk rock. Eating pork rinds in a pick-up truck: clearly not punk rock.

But knitting needles? Totally punk rock.

See where the complication sets in?

When young college graduates who grew up idealizing punk philosophy enter the white collar industries — well-known for providing the necessary antithesis against which the character and appeal of punk was originally carved — they struggle. Not long previously, they’d been telling each other about how they would never sell out, and how they knew they would differ from the generation of ex-hippie CEO-types who, not uncommonly, happened to be their parents.

“A 9-to-5 office monkey? Harumph!,” our friend would exclaim at the vegan co-op, pinning up his Feminist Solidarity flyer as the proto-reggae primal magic of the Slits pumps from the old sound system.

“Maybe in, like, thirty years or something…but even then, it’s hard to imagine.” The other volunteers nod agreeably.

Three months following which we find this same individual within a massive Art-Deco edifice, nodding and articulating at interviews, shaking hands by a water-cooler, copy and pasting company signatures into his Outlook Express account.

So, can one really achieve what is commonly considered impossible, and fuse the hard-fought punk gene of his formative years to this vastly different, barren landscape of inter-cubicle emailing and such other “knowledge economy” realities? Undoubtedly, many have been tried before, and though these suit-and-tie anarchists, these power-breakfasting riot grrrls might possibly exist, they haven’t exactly made themselves very visible.

The Living End has a reputation for thunderous, all-out rock and roll live performances, and last night’s Black Cat gig was clearly no exception. Their first album was seminal in my early Australian high school years, and eight years after its release, it was with a certain combination of nostalgia and national rock duty that I arrived at the show.

Not many people seem to like their latest album, “State of Emergency,” and I have to agree with the general verdict of: “too much pop, not enough punk.” Thankfully, they mixed the unspectacular new tracks with plenty of popular fist-pumpers from their early catalogue, including the funky anti-developer-themed “All Torn Down” and anti-death penalty sing-along that is “Second Solution.”

The End trio are musically seasoned and very tight, and they play a style of punk rarely heard within the current musical landscape. Oft-associated with the Clash –punk’s most musically innovative group — and 80s heroes the Stray Cats, the End are strongest when playing hard and fast rockabilly. 10 years following their breakthrough, this remains the heart of their musical vision. I think rockabilly is so inherently pleasing because it speaks to the core essence of rock and roll; its helter-skelter marriage of country and R&B music was the first real white permutation of what was previously exclusively black musical territory. Infused with the additional charge of punk rock, as the Living End does so successfully, rockabilly is utterly compelling: slap-back rhythms scream youthful excess, political sloganeering demands for scream-a-longs and fist pumping galore.

Last night, Chris’ voice was as full and tuneful as ever, his thunderous riff thrashing as pleasing to the feet as his solo chops were to the head. Towards the end of the set, he played an extended contrapuntal solo jam. I found it a little too messy and directionless, but fun nonetheless, and besides…this is supposed to be punk. As I’d hoped for, Scott hopped up on to his double bass several times, thumping away swiftly at the under-utilized but oh-so-stylin’ instrument. Andy Strachan, formerly of Polyanna (another popular Aussie rock group), seems to have settled in admirably to what must be one of the more coveted positions in Aussie drummer circles.

Scott, clearly not performing at the Black Cat

It was during the extended introduction to crowd favorite and greatest Aussie anthem of the 90s, “Prisoner of Society,” that I could resist no longer, throwing myself into the mosh pit and reveling in the sweaty stench, the heaving pulse of the crowd, the spit of full-throttle singing.

“Cause I’m a brat! / And I know everything and I talk back!,” I yelled, staring into the similarly crazed eyes of some greasy-haired high-schooler, “Cause I’m not listening to aaa-nyyy-thing you SAY!” This, as temporal and small as it seemed, felt right. It was about as close to punk truth and self-righteousness and liberation as I’d gotten since leaving my teens. Borrowed time though it might have been, I couldn’t imagine a single place I’d rather have been during that song than flailing around to the Living End at the Cat.

Afterwards, I felt rejuvenated: it was two delicious, wholesome minutes of a recently android-aping life picked up and thrown into the furious fray.