Thursday, June 26, 2014

Giving Up

When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways.

 For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.

 And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.
-1 Corinthians 13:11-13

For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the basic elements of the oracles of God. You need milk, not solid food; for everyone who lives on milk, being still an infant, is unskilled in the word of righteousness.

But solid food is for the mature, for those whose faculties have been trained by practice to distinguish good from evil.

 -Hebrews 5:12-14

In the last 5 years, I have managed to accomplish most of the cliches typical of someone in their 30's. I finished school, began a long term career, got married, had children, started going to bed earlier, and, of strange importance, started to give up on popular culture. Popular culture is a plastic womb lined in fake fur, an artificial environment that feels more at home to me than the outdoors ever could, all of it mediated through plastics and lighting and wiring and synthesizers and amplification. Nearly all of it are faint echoes spanning decades, though not going back longer than the advent of the recordable or transmittable mediums. Even those works of art that go back even a little further stand at the end of a living chain of development or improvisation or adaptation, squashed dead and crystallized. They are, with little exception, the results of mass media. Nothing was transmitted hand to hand.

Popular culture also has an endless obsession with youth and, as a product of that culture, I am too. It's greatest artists flourish in their middle-to-late twenties. No 16 year old will put a picture up on his wall of Robert Plant in 2014. It has to be 1973, during their legendary Houses of the Holy tour, when Plant was a "golden god", free from any of the depressing worries that plague adults. His young son Karac would not be dead for another 4 years. His current irritation at staving of Led Zeppelin reunions is met with much ire because everyone else wants it to be 1973. He maintains that it is impossible: he wants to live in the present. He's also a 65 year old man.

I noticed the anxiety of aging when my hair began to grey and I began to lose much of it. I felt paranoid at others noticing it. I wanted to hide the bald spot or dye my hair. I didn't see my body teaching me lessons and I felt ashamed. I saw pictures of myself at 18 years old, the only time in my life that I wasn't terribly overweight and my hair was long and black, and I wanted it all back. As my twenties faded I felt uncomfortable when someone 10 years younger than me would discuss music. Art has always meant so much to me but I could no longer stay up to date on everything happening that week. When I worked at a music store I could discuss new music with authority but now I couldn't invest the amount of time and energy needed to keep up.

That image of the 18 year old fades as time brings me farther and farther away. I'm only 33. 

In my 30's I also had older friends. Becoming a co-worker, a husband, and a father put me in their league. I now had more in common with them than I did a 15 year old. These new roles also created a divide among my most immediate peer group. Many remained unmarried and unattached. They looked at "parent-culture" or "divorcee culture" or "homeowners" with contempt. We sold out, paragons of mediocrity, embracing conventions and cliches. Maybe we dreamed of greater things but they were only fantasies. 

I felt that contempt, that divide in myself. Did I have a right to make art and worry about insurance? Could I make music and put my kids to bed? Did I have any right to anger? I've been conflicted. That conflict speaks: "you are too old for this, this is just sad". I tend to agree. I can't stand when older people try to be young, to sing young songs with an old man's voice or hide age. Age can only be hidden poorly. Concealing the marks of time does not make you look young or old, both of which grant a certain grandeur and dignity. They put you in a third category of appearance, where the attention gained is not what was intended.

On my 30th birthday I worried like other 30-year olds do. At 15, a 30 year old is very old. These gaps of time are relative, but I didn't always understand that. When I was 5 years old, I looked at the 13 and 14 year olds on my school as fully formed and intimidating adults. There was a great chasm in my mind, where children stood at one end and everyone over 13 stood at the other. At that time, there wasn't a whole lot of difference in appearance between them and my parents or my aunts and uncles.  

On my 30th birthday my mind turned almost immediately to David Bowie. David Bowie is one of a few artists in popular culture who found relevance in every era he occupied. Let's Dance was a period-appropriate album, danceable New Wave and utterly contemporary. Tonight was pure adult contemporary. He even managed to transform the title track, a cover of one the best songs that came from his collaboration with Iggy Pop on one of Iggy Pop's most important albums, into the kind of palatable banality that was of that time. It's really wonderful. David Bowie also wrote Rebel Rebel. His first breakout single, Space Oddity, capitalized on the "space race" and the obsession with ethereal cosmic frontiers invoked in popular culture, in Looney Tunes and in 2001: A Space Odyssey. He was of every era, transmuting disparate elements of the fringe cultures into something common and approachable. Like Quentin Tarantino in Kill Bill, dozens of influences played together as though made for one another, even if they weren't. His mind and his craft revolved around two principals: collaboration and synthesis. He collaborated with contemporary artists and thinkers, either by proxy or within his bands, visual artists, and producers. Most importantly, he synthesized all these elements into his voice and movements. Each album, each video, each song were densely packed time capsules. They invited you to read a new book or see a new film or to artistic experimentation.

Wes Anderson is usually derided as being a product of the pretentiousness of twee, hipster culture. He isn't. He's another great collaborator and his work celebrates astute aesthetic synthesis. Each film is an open invitation to more art. He doesn't claim these influences as his own: Stefan Zweig, Satyajit Ray, Louis Malle, the Stooges, the Velvet Underground, Boys Life Magazine, Saturday Night Live...his is an invitation to the blurred boundary between high art and common culture and the way they occasionally flirt with one another, where they attend one another's parties. He doesn't celebrate an artist for their obscurity but for their forgotten accessibility. 

On my 30th birthday my mind turned to David Bowie because at 30 years old he began his "Berlin trilogy", a trio of albums that came from his collaborations with Brian Eno and Tony Visconti, as well as Iggy Pop, Robert Fripp, Carlos Alomar, and others. They represent Bowie's greatest artistic achievement. Bowie and Iggy Pop moved to Berlin in an attempt to get off of narcotics. Watching Bowie's degradation between the eras of Ziggy Stardust and Station to Station is depressing. His face thins and his eyes grow more distant. Don Cornelius had to chastise him during a taping of Soul Train where Bowie was under a narcotic haze, reminding him that it wasn't every day that a white artist was invited to the show.The art he was making was great, but it threatened to destroy him.

The three albums - Low, Heroes, and Lodger - are sober and efficient while utterly free, experimental, and, for at least half of each album, pure pop music. He accomplished something impossible: he gave the world Can and Kraftwerk in a way they could understand. He also had very little in common with an artist even 10 years younger than him. He already had a marriage fail. He had already reinvented himself many times. His songs were often abstract and even a little silly early on, but he had also sung about the death of his brother, of existential brokenness, and about those corners of existence closed off to younger people. They wouldn't understand. They couldn't understand. But maybe they'd dance.

Ideally, experience is a reward for aging. Experience is also a frequently forged document. Lesser skills are passed off as something greater and deeper. But there are some experiences you can't fake. You can't fake having been hungry. You can't fake the sudden or tragic death of someone who made you who you are. You can't fake real sacrifice or long hours of work. You can't fake a marriage. Or fatherhood. Or adulthood. Or, most of all, maturity. I admire the Bowie who made Heathen and Reality and who married Iman. I admire the Bowie who repudiated the man who made some of his greatest art without denying the art itself. He didn't just have to grow to become that man. He had to age.

I obsess over age, about how I have spent time and how much I have left. It's not death that scares me. It's wasting time, of wasting art and learning and giving what you've been given and what you've developed towards the common Good.