My wife and I just got back from nine days in England. It was our honeymoon, delayed a year for various reasons, but coinciding with our first anniversary. I was going to write up a proper travelogue, but I'm too lazy to craft narratives, transitions and connections into something approaching passable prose, so I'm just going to barf out a list of stuff that happened and stuff I observed. Of course, it's gonna end up being longer than a travelogue would've been, but sometimes when you start barfing, you just can't stop.
Click through via that "Read More" button to the lower right if you're into that sort of thing.
Most people in the United States haven't heard of James, and those who have heard of them know them primarily through a surprise college radio hit they had with the song "Laid" back in 1993, later used in the "American Pie" movies. They're far more than a one-hit-wonder, however.
James has put out 13 studio albums with a 14th on the way in August. They've had scads of hits and top-selling albums on the UK charts and a fervent following there, in Europe and in Latin America. A seven-year hiatus in the early-to-mid 2000s notwithstanding, they have been and remain a working band and, unlike a lot of their contemporaries, they remain creatively vital. They put out a new EP and released a couple of songs from the new record a little over a week ago. Some of 'em are bangers.
My wife Allison has been a James fan for 20 years or so, has met the band, has friends she's met through James fandom around the world and has seen them live both in the U.K. and in America. We recently took a trip to the U.K., primarily for our honeymoon/first anniversary -- here's a fairly massive travelogue about the vacation -- but also to go see three James shows on a short tour they did of small venues in small towns across England, Scotland and Wales. As a super fan, Allison would've found a way to see them again eventually, with or without me, but this trip was my first time seeing them live. The first show, in Warrington, was the best show I've ever seen. The other two, in Blackburn and Halifax, were right up there. I'll spare you detailed reviews, but suffice it to say I enjoyed the hell out of myself.
Until I met Allison in late 2011, I was one of those people who didn't know much more about James than "Laid." In the past six and a half years they have become my favorite band. Part of that is a function of "guy meets girl who turns him on to some different music and the association sparks something," but there's more than that going on for me.
As we grew up and matured, men my age were never rewarded for feeling. The benefits of feigning indifference and affecting a pose of ironic and cynical detachment, on the other hand, were considerable.
As I entered adulthood, what one genuinely felt about anyone or anything was less important than the fact that people understood that one liked the right someones and somethings. The Gen-X-approved canon of music, movies, books, fashions, attitudes and personalities which were accompanied by a heaping amount of snobbery directed at those who did not share such tastes. For 1990s 20 or 30-somethings, one was living one’s best life to the extent one made it appear as if one’s life was directed by Quentin Tarantino, released on Matador records and written by David Foster Wallace. Those who did not fall into those general parameters were judged and judged harshly. Rob, from "High Fidelity" was a role model. It escaped us all, of course, that Rob was an emotionally-stunted jackass.
On a personal level, the archetypical Gen-X man exuded the sense that things were humming along just fine at all times and, if they were not, it was never much discussed. Staying in a narrow band of critically-approved tastes went hand-in-hand with portraying a nearly unshakable equanimity. Just as liking the wrong music risked judgment, deviating from a certain personal stance -- showing vulnerability and uncertainty -- was to invite uncomfortable personal conversation and scrutiny for which none of us were prepared.
Ironically, this highly regimented emotion-denying existence and self-imposed conformity was considered a sign of "authenticity."
Not that it felt phony or contrived. The cultivation and maintenance of the quintessential 1990s Gen-X male identity felt organic in the moment. The life I personally constructed around this larger ethos came to me naturally. I went to college, got married, began my career and had children, not just portraying every life event as if it were scripted and thus unremarkable, but feeling as if they were so. I was not some robot — there was happiness, sadness, joy, sorrow and confusion as life unfolded — but those were deviations from the cooler-than-the-room course one’s life was expected to take. Those deviations were expected to be temporary and were expected to right themselves over time.
In hindsight it’s no surprise that everything came crumbling down for me in the space of a few years. That the contradictions and self-denial my career presented and required of me were too great to ignore forever. That the problems in my first marriage were features, not bugs. That the strong and positive emotions inspired by fatherhood and by aging did not jibe with my well-cultivated sense of ironic detachment. I did my best to skate past the remarkable highs and the nearly unendurable lows of life with the help of just the right soundtrack, just the right wardrobe and enough culturally acceptable distractions to make it seem like everything was under control, but it wasn’t sustainable and never could have been.
I was in a very dark place when I met Allison and she knew it. Among the many things she did to help me get through that bad time was to play play me some James stuff.
The first song she played for me was "Tomorrow." The sentiment and structure of that song is pretty obvious and straightforward -- the singer once introduced it as a song he wrote "to keep a friend from jumping off a roof" -- but when you're emotionally stunted and emotionally raw, you need something straightforward like that. Having wallowed in enough dark, depressing music and sad bastard jams over the previous few months, "Tomorrow" was a breath of fresh air. It was the first music I had listened to in a while which suggested to me that things can and will get better rather than give me permission to embrace darkness and depression.
From there I began to listen to some other James stuff and I liked what I heard. While, critically speaking, one can slot them in with a lot of their Madchester and Britpop contemporaries, they don't fit in terribly neatly. They have been described by some critics as the "outcasts" or the "freaks and geeks" of that scene. I get that. They opened for the Smiths once upon a time, played with New Order and traveled in the same circles as The Stone Roses, Happy Mondays and all of those wonderful bands, but unlike a lot of their contemporaries they mined veins of positivity and non-conformity not typically covered in 1990s rock. Maybe this explains why they never broke big in an America which, at the time, was into far darker and sludgier sounds. I'm no music critic and I can't be totally sure about that, but I do know that I really needed to hear some positive, even anthemic music in late 2011 and James delivered.
The immediate need to pull myself out of a funk soon passed, but I have returned to James pretty frequently since that time, listening to their music both old and new. Doing so has helped address the larger problems associated with that emotionally-stunted world view of the typical 1990s Gen-X man I described before.
Allowing myself to feel things -- to like things, even if they're not cool things, without apology, excuse or shame, and to be fearless in doing so -- has been critical to my mental and emotional health and personal development over the past several years. It'd be an overstatement to say that getting into some band from Manchester has been the primary reason I've been able to do that, of course. Therapy, emotional reflection and support from and good examples set by loved ones has been far more important. But given that pop culture played a big hand in messing me and my contemporaries up in the first place, listening to a band that embodies that more open and positive ethos certainly helps.
When you're trying to grow as a person, you need to shed your skin. To strip away your protection. To laugh at the wonder of it all. To cry at the sadness of the world. To dip on in, to leave your bones, leave your skin, leave your past, leave your craft and leave your suffering heart.
Or so I'm told.
UPDATE: If you don't know that much about James, I made a playlist of my favorite songs. They may be too obvious for serious James fans, but it's a good introduction to the band.
This evening I did a segment on BBC World News about today's announcement that the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox will play a two-game series in London next year. They allowed me on the air even though I spent most of the day trafficking in the silliest British stereotypes and mocking the monarchy.
Come for me talking about baseball, stay for the Shrek Funko Pop! figurine I had forgotten that my children put on my mantlepiece.
Saturday was Karl Marx' 200th birthday. I hope your party went well. Hope you brought enough cake for everyone, making sure to cut it into equal-sized pieces. If you took too big a piece, I hope someone expropriated it from you.
I make a lot of tongue-mostly-in-cheek Marx and communism jokes. I also own a decent amount of commie kitsch artwork and stuff like that. I have since I was a teenager and didn't know my ass from my elbow when it came to history, economics or political philosophy.
My taste for such things developed as a reaction to growing up in Reagan's America. I am not some sort of revolutionary or iconoclast, and while I'm something of a non-conformist, there is more about me and my life that is unremarkable in that regard than I usually care to admit. Still, when most of America zigged toward materialism and the glorification of business and capitalism in the 1980s, I zagged. It didn't hurt that my father was a government employee and my relatives and the parents of most of my friends were union workers. The cultural zeitgeist of the 1980s tried to tell me that they were what's wrong with America, that simply did not compute, nor has it ever, and thus you get a kid like I was, playing around with subversive ideas even if I didn't understand them.
In college I actually took the time to study history, economics and political philosophy, getting my degree in the latter category. In those courses I read plenty of Marx, Hegel, Smith, Mill, Keynes, Rawls, Weber, Kant and a bunch of other guys. Because I was short-sighted and more influenced by that 1980s materialism than I let on, I ended up going to law school and thus spent a good 14 years zigging back into the glorification of business and capitalism I had zagged away from when I was younger, but I eventually remembered what I cared about and started doing more fulfilling things. Despite the passage of time and a far more relaxed reading regimen than that which I undertook 25 years ago, I feel like I still know enough about all of that political philosophy to at least hold my own when it comes up. Despite some pretty big changes in my life over the past couple of decades, I think I'm more comfortable with where I now stand politically than I ever was before.
There's still something of that high school contrarian in me, though. I often joke that I'm not a Marxist, but I play one on the Internet. There's more than a little bit of truth to that. Despite what people with whom I argue say about me, I'm not a Marxist or a communist. I lean pretty hard to the left and, when I envision an ideal way to set up society it contains a lot more public ownership and regulation than what's viewed as desirable by most folks running things today, but I'm not an actual commie. When I cite Marx or someone like him in an argument or a tweet it's usually for rhetorical purposes or, sometimes, because I'm just goofing around.
It's much easier to pretend to be a Marxist in modern America than to actually be one, of course, for reasons that have very little to do with Marxism itself.
Political philosophies don't have actual public relations firms working for them, but if Marxism did have one it sure as hell did a bad job. Of course, even the best P.R. guy would have a hard time spinning that whole "multiple tyrannical regimes killing millions while claiming to follow your teachings" thing. There isn't a Powerpoint deck or Harry & David gift box that can change a lot of minds about that. It's something that's rather hard to be massaged, as they say.
There is a technically correct defense of Marxism that notes how, actually, those murderous regimes weren't truly practicing Marxism, but you're not gonna win that argument with most people. Shouting "scoreboard" isn't always an intellectually honest way to win an argument, but it sure is a damn effective way of ending one. Leave your "actually, the Soviets weren't Marxists" argument alone, comrade. It's not gonna go well for you in most contexts.
Maybe an even tougher problem for the Marxist P.R. Firm is the fact that, irrespective of the mass murders, Marx's central thesis was discredited in the eyes of most people by events on the ground for a long damn time.
For the bulk of the living memory of the people running things today -- and for the living memory of the parents and teachers of nearly everyone else -- the very foundation of Marxist observation wasn't panning out and seemed hopelessly out of touch with reality. Part of this was because of intentional reforms made to the capitalist system during the Depression and in the postwar period. Stuff like the success of the labor movement and subsequent pro-worker regulations and the advancement of civil rights improved the lives of the folks who Marx predicted would rise up in revolution. Accidents of history helped too, such as, you know, a massive global war decimating the planet, paving the way for insane economic growth in the parts of the world that didn't get bombed to bits. America in the postwar period was a place of so much abundance that the proletariat's chains weren't nearly as uncomfortable as Marx predicted they would be.
Between the murderous tyranny of those waving Marx' banner and the postwar progress in countries like the U.S., it was completely understandable why two or three generations of Americans dismissed Marx completely. Given what could be seen with one's own two eyes, what possible reason would there be to take anything but a derisive look at this seemingly discredited, hirsute radical? It's hard to sell any kind of revolution in that environment.
I think it's fair to say, though, that the America of 1945-1980 was a historical anomaly. The progress of that time, measured in terms of growing economic and social equality and the improving wages and conditions for workers, is the historical exception, not the rule. Since the 1980s the progress we witnessed in that period has been slowed and, in some cases, reversed. Indeed, one of our two major political parties sees reversing that postwar progress as its mission. As a result, we are falling into patterns that have historically persisted.
As was the case in Marx's time (and most other times) a very small number of people own and control most things. Conditions and compensation for workers are degrading. Even people's health and life expectancy is degrading. This is talked about as a crisis -- and and it is a crisis -- but it's not unprecedented. Historically speaking it's merely reversion to the mean. As someone once said, history repeats itself. I'll leave it to the drama critics to decide if its doing so now is tragedy or farce.
Which brings us back to Karl Marx. As a philosopher who sought to put thought into action -- he did not think of himself as some mere thinker; he truly aspired to be a revolutionary -- he was obviously lacking. As Lennon (not Lenin) put it, "we all wanna see the plan." Marx didn't have anything approaching a specific one, those who took up his mantle had some horrifying ones and, as such, we can't took to either Marx or to his followers for instructions on how to set up a good and just society. I am a lot of things, but one of those things is a pragmatist, and this is why I don't call myself a Marxist or a communist. Proof-of-concept matters to me.
That does not, however, mean that we should ignore Marx. His observations about the current capitalist order being thought of by its proponents as inevitable (note: it's not), the flaws and injustices which come with that order (note: there are many), and the need for that order to be reorganized or, at the very least substantially reformed for the good of humanity (note: it is great), are worthy and instructive.
We must contend with those questions. We must ask ourselves whether current conditions are just and optimal and, if not, how they can be improved. To do so, we are obligated to critique capitalism and to rein in its excesses rather than pretend that the capitalist system as currently constructed was ordained by God Almighty and that questioning it is heresy or treason. If it weirds you out to call those observations, critiques and any subsequent reform derived therefrom Marxism, fine, don't call it Marxism. If it weirds you out to even read Karl Marx, well, don't read him (note: Das Kapital is a boring slog, but The Communist Manifesto is a banger). As a child of the Cold War, I get it: commies are bad and evil and even acknowledging their existence makes Lady Liberty cry.
But unless you look at the current economic, social and humanitarian conditions that persist and say "This is great! This is absolutely perfect and we mustn't change a thing!," you must contend with and seek to fix capitalism's flaws. Marx did that first and a lot of folks who are seeking to do that now -- hopefully to more humane and practical effect -- have followed that path.
That may not justify you putting on a fake beard, going to Denny's and asking for a free meal in honor of Marx's birthday, but it does mean you can't dismiss him or pretend that he and his ideas never existed.