Monday, February 18, 2019

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Stardust

He was the one. When I was in high school nobody but Bob Dylan mattered as much. His insouciance, even the titles of his books gripped us. I remember a copy of Parasites of Heaven being passed around one day in my grade eleven art class; Rhon, Char, Alistair, Andy and Ned all took turns holding it in their hands and looking at it, as if contained dynamite that could blow everything up.

Where did that book’s glamour come from? More generally, how did it happen that a poet became a star? Well, to begin with, by the time Parasites of Heaven fell into our hands, I and Alistair and the rest of us had metamorphosed: we had turned from rural kids smelling of the bush into West Vancouver hippies. A lot of factors contributed to this change, but people generally thought we wanted above all to distinguish ourselves from our parents. This was the “generation gap” idea. Everywhere you turned another magazine article took it up. What the hippies most wanted, the articles said, was to shame their rigid elders into accepting a new outlook on life.

We read these articles greedily. And for two reasons. First, they gave us images of what we yearned to look like. This was essential: if the magazines hadn’t contained photographs, we wouldn’t have brought such a sustained interest to the stories they were cranking out. The pictures fascinated us, they provided lessons in style, and for this reason they were a lot more important – a lot more open to study, you might say – than the text that accompanied them.

But the text (and this was the other reason we read these articles so greedily), the text offered us exactly what we wanted to read, as if all those apparently judicious sentences were really no more than buds of words secreted by the pictures that accompanied them. Without exception, these word-buds bloomed into a wonderful idea: if you were under 25, you were beautiful enough, virtuous enough, to provide lessons in ethics to the larger world.

Marvelous! But also inadequate. And really, beside the point. Because by stressing the ethical side of things, this argument entirely overlooked the activity of play-acting we were engaged in, an activity so intoxicating that many of us awoke years later with a kind of psychological hangover and only the fuzziest notion of what had occurred.

Think of those photographs, those pictures of Bob Dylan, Marianne Faithful, Donovan, Joni Mitchell, Jimi Hendrix etc etc that were constantly appearing in the magazines. More than anything else they offered us an image bank of style. There they were: you only had to pick through them, looking for details of hair and dress it would be possible to incorporate into your own persona. And what seriousness, what excitement went into this activity! If Newsweek had a cover story on Dylan and the “folk-rockers”, say, you would quickly leaf through the magazine and then freeze when you got to the pages in which the story appeared, as still as a statue, your cigarette held out, intent, fascinated.

And it wasn’t just the styles of heroes. Things themselves – certain kinds of jeans, Navy pea coats, Huck Finn caps, World War Two great coats made of itchy wool, off-road motorcycles, leather vests, moccasins – things themselves were swallowed up the way we would later swallow glasses of draft in Vancouver’s beer parlours, and with much the same result. That is, you remained aware of the reality of the situation around you but only in the way a drunken man might, a fact that was noticeable not just at the gatherings in which hippies got together to look at each other, but also in the department stores in which the things were bought – for us, in particular, the paradise for bourgeois teenagers that Eaton’s Park Royal started operating around this time.

These were the years from 1967 to 1970. I began them in West Vancouver and ended them driving back up to Canada from Houston Texas; and when I think of them now I remember the explosive romanticism of the time and the extraordinary difficulty I had in finding a place in the world. I would get into the most horrible fights at home, and even went through a period where for some months I refused to talk to my parents; but essentially I resembled my peers in that I lived in a world of my own creation and ignored the larger world except when it fed that creation. Something extraordinarily new hung in the air, and while you went through a lot of pain trying to get close to that newness, it felt worth it. It seemed that nothing so intoxicating had ever appeared before.

Of course, the growth of the hippie movement coincided with a social crisis. And I think that our intoxication in rich West Vancouver stemmed from the fact that we were allowed to make theatre out of this crisis, to turn the realities of the sixties into a setting for self-display. This achievement – as well as the margin of safety which made it possible – had occurred before. In the last section of In Search of Lost Time, Marcel Proust describes the effect of the First World War on the young women of his milieu:

As if by the germination of a tiny quantity of yeast, apparently of spontaneous generation, young women….now wore Egyptian tunics, straight and dark and very “war,” over very short skirts; they wore shoes with ankle-straps recalling the buskin as worn by Talma, or else long gaiters recalling those of our dear boys at the front….the fashion now was for rings or bracelets made out of fragments of exploded shells or copper bands from 75 millimeter ammunition, and for cigarette lighters constructed out of two English pennies to which a soldier, in his dugout, had succeeded in giving a patina so beautiful that the profile of Queen Victoria looked as if it had been drawn by the hand of Pisanello.

Proust goes on to make an ethical argument about all this (the exact opposite of the one that was made about us hippies, by the way). But for the moment put that argument aside. Concentrate instead on the beauty of the “patina” that Proust describes.

In what did this beauty lie? To start with, it lay in the simple physical appeal of the English pennies. But more deeply, the pennies’ patina of use made visible the glamour that emanates from things that seem to hold in a concentrated form the experiences denied their beholder. You can see Proust’s women: young and frivolous, with nothing to do, they had been caught up first in a fever of pacifism; then, when the chips were down, patriotism had taken over, and now they wandered the stores of Paris with their heads full of images of war, looking for something that would represent the crisis they were living through, something both stylish and evocative.

And what could fit the bill better than a lighter made out of two English pennies? Such an object wasn’t just small and pretty; it was emblematic, since these pennies which had been handled by a soldier in the trenches had the aura of wartime experience around them in an especially intimate way – an aura that included death, since it was often through a soldier’s death that the pennies found their way into the stores.

Fifty years later a similar aura bewitched us students. There were the new clothes – the miniskirts, suede coats and shirts with puffy sleeves. But there were also the old clothes – the granny dresses, sport coats, logging boots and Army jackets – that spoke of adult experience, the realities of war and work and a life lived close to the bone. Lacking experience of our own, caught up in a crisis from which we were buffered by money and class (the phenomenon that produced Leonard Cohen’s popularity was almost entirely an upper-middle-class phenomenon) but which we wanted to somehow be part of, to master and, so to speak, represent in ourselves, we “put on” experience in the form of clothes that helped us feel adequate to the situation we were living through. In fact, appropriating the experience of others by wearing their dress was central to the dreamlife of the sixties as far as we students were concerned. Packed away in high-toned suburbias where there was nothing to do, where the bustle of work was nonexistent and where many of us couldn’t open the newspaper until our dads had finished with it, we succumbed to the glamour of other people’s experience the way children do to the glamour of aggressive, emotionally charged words when they are first learning to read. We were like Proust’s haute monde, subtly starved; hence the fierce attention we brought to the clothes smelling like old chesterfields in the St. Vincent de Paul down on East Hastings, to the black and white photographs on the inside covers of Blonde on Blonde, and to songs like “Cowgirl in the Sand” and “Hey Joe,” in which we found a world where words like “road,” “death” and “night” once more had meaning.

But let me give an example of what I’m talking about. In Houston I owned an old leather US Air Force jacket to which I had attached a couple of medals above the upper pocket. Decorating the jacket like this, I tore it out of the garment system to which it originally belonged. No longer a part of a uniform, it became an element in an entirely different system, my own. As a result, its nature was transformed. It no longer signified in its original, primary manner. Framed by my Zulu hair, subjected to an impertinence that staged and drew attention to it, the jacket “spoke” in an entirely new way.

And that wasn’t all. Once decorated, the jacket belonged to me. It was mine now. I inhabited it, and whenever I put it on I noted its weight, its worn leather and rubbed metal zippers, with a kind of thrill of appropriation. Moreover, the fact that the jacket was genuine meant that it now had an emblematic significance unknown to its original owner. You might even say it was war itself I put on when I wore the coat. So that along with the messages given off by my long hair and bellbottom jeans, there were further messages of death, violence, heroism – the whole range of mythic experiences associated with war – that I evoked as I walked down the street.

Not that any of this received anything like direct expression. In fact this entire range of experience was a closed book to me. (And I certainly wasn’t protesting the Vietnam War when I wore my jacket.) No, my putting on the jacket showed my need to wear clothes that would make a statement that would speak for me. The trick was to incorporate the world’s vitality into your own much-pondered persona, to simultaneously neutralize the rawness of the experience your clothes spoke of and retain the glamour of that experience in the form of fashion.

This desire to make appearance itself speak for you is above all the desire of those whose personal experience is felt to be without value. And in our culture nobody feels this more than young people. For them, more than for any other group, consumer goods have become emblematic of what might be called genuine experience. You can’t buy real experience. But you can buy (and listen to, or wear, or mimic) the things associated with real experience. Accelerated change and anonymity on the one hand; on the other hand the possibility of choice and the exercise of taste: this is the contemporary adolescent situation.

You have to wear a helmet when you ride a bike; at work you have to serve people and hope for tips. Increasingly, your sexual difference – your masculinity or femininity – just gets in the way. You have never fired a gun or even worked at a dangerous job. You live a cocooned life; and at every level things are changing. Faced with these changes you feel inadequate, insignificant; as you enter your twenties you desperately want to be something as an individual yet you’re still so much less than those seductive stars who seem best to express the alluring, terrifying world you’re cut off from. Out of this sense of inadequacy comes a need to “express” yourself, a need whose exacerbation and fulfillment a big chunk of capitalist culture – TV ads, CDs, movies, magazines, the internet etc. – encourages.

By around the age of twelve taste comes into play. Style becomes a personal matter; and that entire self-conscious, subtle and yet utterly serious appropriation of the glamour of other people and their things is born. You watch the rappers, the girl- or boy-groups, the stars; you mimic their dress, their moves. Sometimes you imitate them directly; more often, you adopt a watered-down version of their extreme presence. The trick is to incorporate their aura of power, the thing every adolescent most wants, into your own much-pondered persona, to simultaneously neutralize the actuality of the experience these living objects speak of (killing people and having promiscuous sex aren’t what twelve- or thirteen- or fourteen-year-olds really enjoy) and retain the glamour of that experience in the form of fashion. It’s a poignant – and, as Cohen recognized – powerful trick, the trick at the very heart of consumer culture.

Here are some passages from Cohen’s verse that show this trick at work:

For you
I will be a doctor jew
and search
in all the garbage cans
for foreskins
to sew back again

For you
I will be a Dachau jew
and lie down in lime
with twisted limbs
and bloated pain
no mind can understand

*

The cage where he ate and slept
Was furnished with gems and flesh
So he would not bruise when he fell
Or his vision ever grow dull

Garnets are brighter than angels,
He sang as he made his poems.
Garnets are brighter than angels,
He sang as he crushed his loins.

*

Like an empty telephone booth passed at night
and remembered
like mirrors in a movie palace lobby consulted
only on the way out
like a nymphomaniac who binds a thousand
into a strange brotherhood
I wait
for each one of you to confess

*

I would like to remind
the management
that the drinks are watered
and the hat-check girl
has syphilis
and the band is composed
of former SS monsters
However since it is
New Year’s Eve
and I have lip cancer
I will place my
paper hat on my
concussion and dance

The heroic pose, the lyrics using the beautiful language of love to evoke grotesque subject matter, the narcissism, the coy glamourization of failure and terror – all this hit home to me and my teenage friends. Of course we didn’t have any real understanding of the severity and pain of failure. But in Cohen’s poems, just as in songs like “Desolation Row,” we found a romantic mode of writing that provided an access to a realm of experience that might otherwise have proved overpowering and unassimilable.

And how much beauty Cohen had at his command! For all my subsequent disenchantment, much of his early poetry fell upon me like leaves from a tree in a fairy tale. Failure and grief were elements in the work, for sure. But from the start Cohen’s boulevardier gallantry and Prevert-like lyricism – that whole leafy bower of fine writing – ensured that my daydreaming adolescent mind could enter his world without fear and rock back and forth in time to the sweetest of tunes.

The fact is, I loved Cohen’s work. His combination of stylized metropolitan reality with the most old-fashioned and incantatory elements of the ballad tradition allowed him to produce poetry so intoxicating to me that his very books seemed enchanted. Poetic content and the actual physical reality of the pages could hardly be separated; and when I moved to Texas and came across an American edition of Cohen’s work in which the verses were squeezed together in a standardized format, I experienced an abrupt disillusionment: it was as if the spirit concentrated in the original typography had been somehow dissipated.

So why did I stop reading him? Well, as with e.e. cummings, another poet I admired, the very intoxication I felt marks the point at which Cohen’s weaknesses can be observed: the playing to an audience, the easy stylization of experience. Vanity was Cohen’s element, just as a black leather sports coat was his favoured dress, and the consequent staging of the personality that I now sense everywhere in his work meant that an infatuated intelligence instead of an alert one was the order of the day so far as his readers were concerned.

Henry James, who had a finger on the tendencies of the modern audience, once wrote a passage that lights up the kind of reception us neophyte hippies gave Cohen. “The great chroniclers,” James wrote, have always been aware of the need for a “person capable of feeling in the given case more than another of what is to be felt for it”:

they have at least always either placed a mind of some sort in possession of the general adventure…or else paid signally, as to the interest created, for their failure to do so. We may note moreover…that this failure is in almost no case intentional or part of a plan, but has sprung from their limited curiosity, their short conception of the particular sensibility projected. Edgar of Ravenswood, for instance, visited by the tragic tempest of The Bride of Lamermoor, has a black cloak and hat and feathers more than he has a mind; just as Hamlet, while equally sabled and draped and plumed…has yet a mind still more than he has a costume.

With this distinction James goes to the heart of the matter. Indeed, when he notes of Edgar of Ravenswood that “the centre of the subject is empty and the development pushed off, all round, toward the frame – which is, so to speak, beautifully rich and curious” – he touches on precisely what fascinated us Cohen readers. It was the element of display, of romantic self-presentation, central to Cohen’s poetry.

James favours a realistic character – a figure who is placed in a complicated world in which he seeks self-definition. The most important thing about him – his spirit – can only be an intimate phenomenon. It can only be appreciated “up close.” Its fluid, perplexed nature demands this.

Edgar of Ravenswood, on the other hand is essentially inapproachable. A figure on display, petrifying in the romantic space he creates around himself, he asks to be viewed, to be allowed the distance granted an icon or a movie star. So that instead of the clear-eyed attention someone like Hamlet demands, Edgar of Ravenswood demands a kind of daydreaming attention, a rapturous empathy. And so it was with Cohen and the other sixties celebrities who intoxicated us students. The demand for a rapturous surrender to the image implicit in their work can be sensed everywhere in Cohen’s verses. Consider the following lines from “You Have the Lovers”:

You stand beside the bed weeping with happiness,
you carefully peel away the sheets
from the slow-moving bodies.
Your eyes are filled with tears, you barely make out the lovers.
As you undress you sing out, and your voice is magnificent
because now you believe it is the first human voice
heard in that room.
The garments you let fall grow into vines.
You climb into bed and recover the flesh.

This swaying, incantatory verse communicates a dream experience. Instead of a line whose precision shows you the real world, Cohen offers a line whose images of slow-moving bodies, of singing and tears, are suffused with a surrender to distance, and so loosely attached to the world that only that distracted empathy described above could make use of it.

Distracted empathy! When my friends and I listened to records, sitting in living rooms facing each other, our empathetic distraction was so striking that we seemed to be under a spell, our personalities not so much muted as obliterated. There was something unsettling at times about our impassivity before each other: it was as if we were woodsmen sitting around a fire. In fact, inspired by the music, we were ourselves on display, each of us an Edgar, and you would have had to have seen this in us to know just how intimately linked we were to the women described by Proust.

The truth is, we suffered from the same ludicrous, paralyzing snobbery that made the haut monde such a great subject in Proust’s book. Not only did the length of a person’s hair speak far more decisively to us than anything that came out of his mouth; language itself was degraded to a mere aspect of appearance. Slowly you’d push your hair back behind your ears, take a toke, and to some comment say, “Far out, man.” In the same way that sunglasses mask the eyes’ complexity, producing an image at once blank and impassive, we students attempted to mask every trace of the intimate, perplexed, thoughtful aspects of the voice. Even your laugh became something you attempted to make wise and strong: too bad for you if the fresh notes of adolescence poured forth!

This effort at dissimulation was of course rooted in adolescent uncertainty. But we were also addicted to images. And while much was made in those days of the need for “openness,” our breathtakingly formulaic approach to language was far less the result of “openness” than it was a symptom of the inner rigidity of those who, in surrendering themselves to appearance, can no longer trust themselves to speak.

So was it all bad? Not entirely.

We had spent our childhoods in the bush. Neither I nor my friends had seen a TV set until we were ten or eleven. And then, with the suddenness of a riptide, everything changed. The surrender to the image which characterized our reading of Cohen, the fascinated way we listened to “Desolation Row” and which so worried our parents – these responses showed our reaction to the change; they revealed our stunned, complicated, almost sleepwalking reaction to the new environment we had come to.

At least that was what our parents saw. But from another point of view this distracted surrender enabled us to find a space for reverie. We had known reverie in the bush. We had daydreamed for hours. But now we were in a world that didn’t encourage daydreaming at all. Once you understand this, you can begin to understand the embryonic morality that the poets and singers who fascinated us were trying to give birth to.

Think of the fairy tale figures in Neil Young’s “Sugar Mountain,” the images of slow-moving bodies in Cohen’s “You Have the Lovers,” the dreamlike landscapes in Bob Dylan’s "Visions of Johanna" and Phil Ochs’s "Pleasures of the Harbour." In all these works, incantation took precedence. Instead of an abrupt line, the line of a rapper, say, full of shocks that demand to be met by an aggressive presence of mind, these poets gave the reader or listener a line imbued with a sense of distance. Their works relaxed him, thereby making him receptive to the ceremonial presence of the image. The boundaries between dream and reality were worn away by the sway of the words.

And so these works were therapeutic, aids to fantasy in an environment which stressed in a hundred different ways that nothing was less useful than the ability to daydream, nothing more important than the concentrated, disciplined intelligence. Oh, that middle class suburban life with its endless sidewalks! its chores! Its need for cleanliness! Its timetables! Its self-conscious punctuality and keep-your-nose-to-the-grindstone work ethic! Its cocktail parties and screaming fights!

Think of it like this, and the retreat into the world of the dream which characterized me and my friends can be better understood. Remember Mister Natural? The idea of going into the country – to a cabin, with tall grasses growing outside the door, with boredom, silence and wind part of your life, with your old lady baking bread while you played the flute and got your shit together – buried in this idea was a relationship to the world my friends and I had known as kids. Certainly our rhetoric was confused and ludicrous. Nevertheless we saw something: we saw that for those who have assimilated the disciplines of contemporary life, the image which intoxicates isn’t the one that induces a daydreaming surrender. No, the image which intoxicates is the one that provides the maximum stimulus for the alert consciousness – in the realm of feeling, the image which provokes those “brief and bestial emotions” that Valery mentions in an essay he wrote on city life and which in our own time has led to pop music of an almost pornographic crudeness. This is the “stigmata that life in a metropolis inflicts upon love,” and I believe that the best way to understand the romanticism of the sixties is to see it as a quickly swept-away reaction to that stigmata. I don’t bother with Cohen now; but when I was writing love poems to my first real girlfriend, his imagery made its way unerringly into my lines.

4230 w. April 21, 2004

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Bruce Serafin

Bruce Serafin lived and wrote beautifully about Vancouver until he died in June 2007. His first book, Colin's Big Thing, was published in 2004. A posthumus collection of essays, Stardust was published in October 2007 by New Star.

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