Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Back from a terrific weekend at the Newport Folk Festival. Newport itself is just festering with wealth, with immense and often beautiful mansions surrounded by immense and beautiful yachts; as Elvis Costello said Sunday, surveying Narrangasset Bay, "It makes you think, the squalor some people have to live in." The New England landscape has a powerful effect on me, a legacy from summers spent in Maine when I was a child. And hey, the music was great too. I'm no folkie, but fortunately neither were many of the artists. After a long day in brutal sun on Saturday I was moved to my feet and to the front of the stage by a performance by The Pixies: they were electrifying and plenty loud on putatively acoustic instruments. Black Francis and Kim Deal have charisma to burn, especially Kim smiling enigmatically behind her enormous bass guitar with a cigarette clamped in her teeth. Sunday was even better: the sun wasn't as punishing and there were two performances invoking the war that created that unified the crowd in a spirit of agape that I haven't felt since Election Day. The first was by Conor Oberst, aka Bright Eyes. I hadn't really listened to him before and was skeptical at first, but he totally won me over. The man has incredible star power: it was instructive to see him taking the stage with two other very accomplished musicians, M. Ward and Jim James. They were fine players and singers, particularly Ward, but when Oberst was on stage you couldn't take your eyes off him. The showstopper was a long sort of ballad that moved from an articulation of the usual twentysomething angst into something more powerful, a narrative that captured the alienation of all of us on the Left who for all intents and purposes have no voice in public life right now, at least not on the national level. In the crucial moment, eyes burning, Oberst sang a line that went something like, "And if you're still free, you'd better start running, because we're coming for you!" and then swung away from the audience in a gesture that elevated rock star contempt into something more complicated: the shame and self-loathing we feel at the things done in our name, mixed with a purifying rage. That may be something art can do: gesture at the space we already occupy, pulling people together and reminding them that solidarity is possible. The second such performance was Elvis Costello's: a terrific showman, and his showstopper was a haunting performance of "Scarlet Tide." When he sang, "Admit you're wrong, and bring the boys back home" (and then refrained it as, "Admit you LIED, and bring the boys back home"), we were all on our feet and crying. I think we all felt a glimmer of the old countercultural soul of the festival, not quite effaced in spite of corporate sponsorship and the maudlin melancholy of a few of the performers. It is possible for music to be political, to manifest a political will. It is possible.

Speaking of self-loathing and rage, I've been following the controversy over Kent Johnson's Lyric Poetry After Auschwitz with growing bemusement and distaste. I suspect that after a great deal of polemical scurrility (and some very low blows) we still haven't heard what's important about this book. Kent has sent me a copy and when I've read it I expect I'll have a few thoughts.

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