Friday, December 04, 2015

Haven't You Heard? Bacchus is Dead.

I'm not nostalgic for the 80s, when I was in my teens and twenties. Actually, that's not entirely true; my high school years were pretty exciting and there were lots of good times afterward as well. But I went from a year in art school straight into a high-pressure work world, back when a cocky 20 year-old could walk off the street and get a job with a decent salary and health insurance if he or she tried hard enough. 

But that was back before NAFTA and GATT and all the other salvos launched against American workers, especially young American workers.

The 90s though, the 90s are another thing altogether. I can't quite explain why. I suppose it was a question of my generational cohort discovering their potential and learning how to make things happen. Computers and the Internet had a lot to do with it, back when some of us were naive to believe they could be used as tools of personal liberation and not just tendrils of the global Panopticon. 

But the 90s were also a time when my cohort- Generation X- made their mark on the culture and came into its own, in a way that hadn't really happened since the late 60s.

The 90s started early, maybe as early as 1988. Music was a huge part of this, particularly the driving New York hip-hop you seemed to hear bursting from every corner. Jane's Addiction's Nothing Shocking was the first album of the 90s in many ways, followed by Nine Inch Nail's Pretty Hate Machine the following year. Those two albums marked out the territory, erasing arbitrary distinctions between dance music and hard rock that had been calcifying since the mid 70s. 

1990 was the touchstone, though. Especially in New York. In my mind, 1990 Manhattan is forever a landscape of dark beauty punctuated with the erotic, phosphene bursts of otherworldly intrusion. It wasn't a safe space. It was a very dangerous city but also a city alive with possibility.*

I prowled the streets with the zeal of a pilgrim after work or during lunch breaks, hellbent in digging out every cache of hidden treasure, every hidden record shop or second hand book or magazine store I could unearth. Though I had exoteric goals in mind, I realize now that was really out there to soak up the city's arcane energy, plugging straight into its sorcerous heart before its last gasp of magical possibility exhausted itself, which it most certainly did by the decade's end. 

Of course, I was surrounded on all sides by sigils, icons and totems, most placed there a century prior by men well versed in the esoteric sciences. These were all playing on my unconscious, as they did everyone in the city. I was just a little bit more tuned in than most,  so maybe they were driving me than I realized at the time. 

So much so maybe that a strange kind of New York eventually became the venue for my secret sun dreams and remained so for a very long time. (I should also mention I spent most of this time working in the Big Daddy occult obelisk of them all, the Empire State Building).

There were also the places like East West Books, which served every conceivable spiritual or occult interest and other, edgier shops where you could find all kinds of books on weirdness, conspiracy culture and underground politics. These places were usually stocked  with all other types of arcana and contraband; tarot cards, drug paraphenalia, fringe porn. 

Friday nights were spent with friends in Bacchus' embrace, at places that served up ten-dollar pitchers of Budweiser for NYU students on a budget. Later, I'd fall in with a different crowd and we'd set up at fancier places, specifically The Slaughtered Lamb in the West Village.

And in the middle of this came the last great cresting of the Rock n' Roll wave, the alt.rock explosion that followed in the wake of Nirvana. All of that music was dropping like cluster bombs during this whole period. It all came so fast it was hard to keep up with.

My last job in the city was in an art department on the 47th floor of the Empire State and it was like an urban treehouse. There were no suits around our little outpost and the radios blared in every room. And right on time; one instant classic after another dropped in our laps while we listened to the Long Island alt.rock station WDRE and later Q-Rock when it (ever-so-briefly) existed as an alt.rock station.  (We got artier sounds from Delphine Blue on WBAI, Trip-Hop out of England, neopop out of Europe).

Most of this the new rock music seemed to burst forth from the West Coast, Seattle most famously, but also California, which was once was the great laboratory for rock and pop, both as producer and consumer.

Of course, one of those classic West Coast albums was Stone Temple Pilots' 1994 sophomore effort, Purple. I was initially skeptical of STP, since their first album was hit or miss with me. But Purple felt like an instant classic, and plugged into the ferment of the time, the birth of the Internet nation and of course, the rise of The X-Files (many of the bands of the alt.rock explosion would contribute tracks to the various X-Files soundtrack projects, like Songs in the Key of X).

STP was part of a wave of bands who bypassed cornball 80s metal to return to the late 60s and 70s roots of hard rock, leavening the batter with punk/postpunk attitude and economy. STP was like many of the big acts of their time in that they had a great singer in Scott Weiland, who understood the value of light and shadow in hard music.

Weiland was also like many of his contemporaries in another, less fortunate way. Drug problems were almost de rigeur for big name rock stars (legend has it that record company publicists would even invent drug problem rumors for artists who had none) but Weiland's generation came out of the cauldron of punk rock, whose thermonuclear intensity tended to deaden one's responses to normal stimulation. It was a major problem for a lot of people I knew.

Weiland's addictions shortly overshadowed his considerable musical talent, at least where the press was concerned. At first vital, lithe and aggressive, he came to seem increasingly fragile and brittle as his demons had their way with him.

His bandmates reached the end of their ropes more than once, forming ersatz STPs with new singers (Talk Show and Army of Anyone) before finally sacking Weiland for Linkin Park singer Chester Bennington for the short-lived MKII incarnation of STP. But all they accomplished was prove how much they needed Weiland to hammer their often-obtuse riffing into actual songs with proper melodies.

Weiland formed a new band and began working the third-tier circuit, where he died on Thursday. His performances were famously erratic, with videos of disastrous misfires circulating on YouTube. But he seemed just as often able to summon some of the old magic, most recently a New Jersey show I wanted to attend but missed. I'll never have the opportunity again.

It seems all too fitting that this Californian golden god would die the day after California was murdered. California has been a terminal patient for a long time, the longtime American promised land now the land of the nation's worst poverty and inequality

In the early 80s San Bernardino was the setting for the Us Festivals, ersatz Woodstocks thrown by Apple cofounder Steve Wozniak. He used his millions to hire every rock band of any importance at the time, presenting the festivals as a showcase for his vision of a brave new future driven by an embrace of Globalism ("unite us in song") and technology. Today San Bernardino a notoriously high-crime city in which even the shooting of 31 people wasn't seen by locals as overly shocking. 

But it's not alone in its misery. California's once mighty middle class has been decimated or sent packing and the state is now populated by a feudal elite lording over the poor, its very landscape cursed and forsaken by the gods, who smite it with fire, earthquake and drought, not to mention more mysterious afflictions.

So it's all too fitting that California's last great Dionysus finally succumbed to the years of self-abuse and heartache. These are terrible times for most working musicians, no matter how much propaganda you might hear to the contrary from the pirate lobby. No 48 year-old man wants to spend his life on the road, traveling from one small theatre to another mid-sized club, remembering the glamour and good times of the gravy days. Don't let anyone tell you otherwise.

Another shaman with deep roots in both New York and Southern California also succumbed to the lifestyle around this time of year some thirteen years ago now. Although the press had it that Joe Strummer died of a faulty heart valve, one of his biographer's discovered that the coroner's report told a different story. 

Strummer (who played at the Us Festival with the Clash) was playing the same game Weiland was, working the third-tier circuit and offering up a mix of new songs and old. He was famous for his all-night blowouts while on tour, and his much younger band later complained of his endless partying. Of course, middle-aged men can't stay up for days on end without chemical augmentation and doing so plays havoc on your cardiovascular system. 

Like Weiland, Strummer  was probably bipolar (one of STP's greatest songs is called "Bi-Polar Bear") but could take audiences out of their heads on a good night, even into middle age. The last time I saw him (in Brooklyn in 2002) was one of the most intense performances I'd ever seen from any artist. I'm amazed more and more with the passage of time.

Strummer's rebirth bookended the collapse of the Generation X dream, as he returned in 1999 (just as the dotcom boom began to crack) and died in late 2002, as the post 9/11 economic order dug its teeth in.  

Strummer and The Clash had become icons to the wave of punk and ska bands that emerged in the wake of Grunge's collapse (many GenX veterans of the first wave punk wars like The Mighty Mighty Bosstones) and his death seemed to presage the passing of another era, as Generation Y would rise soon after and a new sensibility took root. 

Meanwhile, Scott Weiland joined forces with members of Guns n' Roses for the Velvet Revolver supergroup, disappointing many STP fans who thought he was slumming with glorified bar band hacks. The project ran its course before the curse of Dionysus did what it does and Weiland was fired or quit, depending on whose story you believe.

Make no mistake, the new order has no place for Dionysian ecstasy. A wall of darkness is descending across the world as the chessboard is arranged for the next Great Game of Nations. There is no free expression as the term is generally understood, there is only provocation and reaction. A new generation begs to return to the safety and certainty of the daycare environment that formed their consciousness, such as it is. There's no place for Dionysus anymore. 

Not even in the timeout chair.

 For all its over the top violence, Abel Ferrara film King of New York takes a snapshot of that very unique moment. There are other artifacts that do as well even if no one has ever given it a name. The films Flatliners and Jacob's Ladder also give you a taste of the times, if not the place.