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Unwritten Rules

By Benj DeMott

Excerpted from First of the Year: 2008 Copyright Transaction Publishers, New Brunswick, New Jersey.

It’s been an elegiac time for our crew lately. In the past year, we lost (among others) Hans Koning, Ellen Willis, George Trow, Kurt Vonnegut and, a year before that, Benjamin DeMott. They were First readers as well as writers for our tab. You could count on them to give it to you straight and there were occasions when one of their opinions could outweigh all others due to its cogency. There are no substitutes for irreplaceable elders but we’ll try to sustain what they valued in First by finding new originals to help carry us into the future. Which, sorry to repeat myself, remains unwritten (despite the chorus of that slack Natasha Bedingfield song).

The Future Is Unwritten, the new documentary about The Clash’s Joe Strummer (who died in 2002) made me feel less embarrassed about being locked on that phrase 25 years after it was first coined to cry up the Clash’s album Sandinista. It got me thinking (again) about how we’ll keep First burning down the road. The movie is built around blue-hours-in-the-cities scenes of Strummer’s friends reminiscing around campfires with dark waters behind them. (Their lost Promethean boy apparently loved a bonfire in the night.) Those scenes evoke Strummer’s attraction to social living (to use the Rastas’ term for socialism) and his openness to world musics/cultures.

First of the Year will never be as punctual as a culture-hero like Strummer in his youth, but we’ll always try to cultivate a timely internationalism. Some one of these days we should tell the stories of that white record producer/musicologist in Ghana who’s partly responsible for the rise of Afro-pop. It’s past time for us to cover Shack-Dwellers International which has enabled thousands of dirt-poor people to own their own homes. And something real social seems to have gone down behind the election of Bolivia’s first indigenous head of state, Evo Morales (though yammering by/about Chavez threatens to drown it out).

Going international is easier now because of the internet but the worldwide web shouldn’t screen out what’s up on the block. Or at the local Cineplex. Armond White’s beautiful catch of a graceful scene at the end of This Christmas – a formulaic holiday movie (“not-August Wilson, glib-Charles Burnett, sub-Tyler Perry”) for the Afro-American market – shows why First must always attend to American pop life on the edge of mainline culture.

The cast (the family)… all form a Soul Train dance line and boogie their own curtain call. The fact of celebration – of Black American cultural ritual – is in your face, unapologetic and joyous. The longer [director] Whitmore holds on the dance scene, the more amazing it becomes. Transcending Kubrick, past Straub and more physically beautiful than Tarkovsky, this sequence tells much about how families repair their differences and (pace Albert Murray) how Black folks “stomp the blues.”

It might help to know that the film is titled after Donnie Hathaway’s composition, “This Christmas” – a song as traditional to contemporary African Americans as “White Christmas” is to the mainstream. But the smiles and body-work of the film’s ending dance line has its own authentic meaning. And Whitmore’s long-take is so bold – and so satisfying – that there isn’t a single movie this year that offers more insight or greater pleasure.

White’s capacity to pick up on such good (all around) times rests on a rootsy sense of his people’s traditions, but he’s aware millionaire authentics may be a scam in the Age of 50 Cent. (See his “Tales from Behind the Black Curtain.”) It’s fair to say our crew is less upbeat about the possibilities of hip hop culture than we once were, though the future of rap remains unspoken.

Scenes from The Future Is Unwritten of the Clash hooking up with hip hop originators in NYC reminded me how fecund that early 80’s moment was and how far gone it seems now. The social energy generated by the Atlantic crossings of that period was one source of First’s sense of cultural possibility. But it was never the only vector that mattered. Most Firster’s are Strummer’s brothers and sisters on that score. Though punk originally pogo-ed away from the rock of ages past, Strummer himself acknowledged there were always cultural continuities. “We’re all hippies,” he said, late in his life. (And he was pretty beat too!) First of the Year will continue to reflect both the breaks and bridges in radical cultural flows. I think I flashed on First’s place in time when I heard the ender of a prose poem Philip Levine read during his 80th birthday celebration at Cooper Union. His poem evokes romance with a Spanish tinge that becomes an academic nightmare when his post-modern dance partner – a PhD in “critical theory” – whispers in his ear:

“I dream of tenure.”
It was the 50’s all over again.

First’s crew will never bow down to the weight of that past. Our felt sense of the 60’s protects us here. If First ever gets off track, we’ll go back with Charles O’Brien to the bridge of Aretha Franklin’s 1966 recording of “Think.”

Aretha sings “Freedom!” Now up to this point, the lyric has said essentially, Don’t play with my love, think about what you’re doing. This cry for freedom doesn’t seem to follow. But it is not the song, “Think,” subject of a copyright, somebody’s private property, that engenders this cry. Rather the song’s (and Aretha’s) historical setting does that. Where she might have less exceptionally filled that bridge with an oo-whee, Aretha felt it just as natural to sing of freedom, as if oo-whee and freedom were interchangeable words, hitting on the truth that they probably are.

Aretha’s (and O’Brien’s) truth hit me all over again after Barack Obama spoke in Washington Square Park last fall. Music played as folks filed out or stayed inside the Park, hanging on to Obama’s final riff which he’d lifted (with acknowledgements) from a grassrootsy Southern Sister: “Fired Up! – Ready to go? Fired Up! – Ready to Go?” I hung out for a few minutes and then stepped off, but just as I reached the street there was a voice and song that turned me around. Aretha was singing “Think.” FREEDOM!!!

Obama, of course, isn’t stuck on the 60’s. He’s tried to distance himself from the decade’s hotter rhetoric and pointlessly polarizing culture wars. But the free thinking in that era will always be exemplary.

If we’re lucky, historian Lawrence Goodwyn will clarify the uses of the 60’s for Obama and the rest of us. He’s proposed to do a twofer for First – a review of Many Hearts, One Mind: SNCC’s Dream of a New America and another important new historical work, Unruly Americans and the Origins of the Constitution. Focused on lessons of the past, but in the moment, Goodwyn’s piece promises to illuminate contemporary American politics and uphold First’s tradition of infusing radical imagination with historical understanding.

The past won’t stay still right now. Check this passage from Jack Kerouac’s On the Road:

When daylight came we were zooming through New Jersey with the great cloud of metropolitan New York rising before us in the snowy distance. Dean had a sweater wrapped around his ears to keep warm. He said we were a band of Arabs coming to blow up New York.

Reading this now, as John Leland notes (in Why Kerouac Matters), “takes your breath away.” It’s “pure coincidence” but Leland points out that On the Road parallels another road book – “the Egyptian writer Sayyid Qutb’s Milestones based on his travels in America during the same years, which became a central text of the Islamist Jihad movement.”

Sayyid Qutb’s chief American critic (and mighty explainer) is Paul Berman whose accounts of the intellectual origins of Jihadism highlight Qutb’s modernity. Berman once guessed First of the Month would be too 60’s to comprehend bad new days. But I think he’d allow that First’s post-9/11 issues have been up to our minute. First of the Year will stay on time if we keep stretching radical traditions and refusing claptrap offered by the left’s “anti-imperialists” or the right’s fans of American hegemony. Two (ideologically incorrect) teachable historical moments come immediately to my mind here.

I learned recently from a History Channel program devoted to Saddam Hussein’s Hitler fetish that one of the most revered spokesmen for the Palestinian cause – the Grand Mufti, Al-haj Amin al-Husseini – was friendly with Adolph Eichmann and visited Auschwitz, where he is said to have pushed those tending the gas chambers to work harder. Not content with propaganda activities on behalf of Nazis, he became an SS General and military units he was associated with were notorious for committing war crimes in Yugoslavia. The Mufti evaded prosecution at Nuremburg and returned to rabble-rouse in the Middle East where he ended up becoming a mentor to his nephew Yassir Arafat who celebrated him as “our hero” in a 2002 interview (though Arafat may have shortened his own name to obscure his relationship with his Nazi uncle).

John Berger – a famous writer on the left – might have had such twisted history in mind when he wrote the following excuse for Arafat after visiting the Palestinian leader’s grave:

[Arafat] was nicknamed the walking catastrophe. Are loved leaders ever pure? Aren’t they always full of faults, not weaknesses, flagrant faults? Is this maybe a condition for being a loved leader?

Berger’s perception that human failings in a leader encourage deep identity politics seems wasted on Arafat. But it fits the case of another Middle Eastern local hero, Mohammad Mossadegh. According to All the Shah’s Men, Steven Kinzer’s riveting account of events that climaxed in the CIA coup that ousted Mossadegh from power in 1953, the Iranian Prime Minister was a profoundly quirky sort who suffered from a variety of illnesses that “led to fits and breakdowns.”

Neither purely medical nor psychosomatic, [Mossadegh’s illnesses] both reflected and became part of his persona. He was as dramatic a politician as his country had ever known. At times he became so passionate while delivering speeches that tears streamed down his cheeks…When he became a world figure, his enemies in foreign capitals used this aspect of his personality to ridicule and belittle him. But in Iran where centuries of Shiite religious practice had exposed everyone to depths of public emotion unknown in the West, it was not only accepted but celebrated. It seemed to prove how completely he embraced and shared his country’s suffering.

Kinzer’s account of the passion of Mossadegh is immensely pertinent today. It shows how American and British power smashed a process of democratization in Iran that went back to the beginning of the 20th Century. That process has been subverted once again by the mullahs. But Americans must understand that our government’s initial, indefensible assault on Iran’s sovereignty means we owe that country’s democrats even as we confront a common clerical enemy. All the Shah’s Men earns the Harry Truman line that serves as the book’s epigraph – “There’s nothing new in the world except the history you do not know.”

A scene in The Future Is Unwritten underscores how volatile history is in our post-9/11 era. A passionate interlocutor claims Joe Strummer despaired at the thought pop fans might mix up rationales for war in Iraq with the pleasure principle of the Clash’s biggest hit, “Rock the Casbah.” But, on the real side, Strummer had zip to apologize for. Written around the time the Ayatollah banned rock music in Iran, that novelty song hints how the Clash’s engagement with their times gave this band a common touch that cut deeper than personal opinions of any individual member in the group. Thrown back on himself years later, Strummer may have wanted to disavow his prophetic lyrics about an Islamist despot who tries to ban (and bomb!) “boogie-men” – “Fundamentally he can't take it. You know he really hates it!” – but that kind of hater needs mocking now more than ever. While “Rock the Casbah” never amounted to a case for shock and awe, there’s seems to be a teleological truth to the Clash’s old imperatives. Consider how “The Future Is Unwritten” talks back to a proverb that incarnates Arab/Islamic fatalism: “It is written.” Strummer’s own wishes notwithstanding, class-based clashes aren’t likely to sublate the Clash of Civilizations until “moderate” Muslims stop writing off Islamist crimes against humanity.

The Future Is Unwritten, with its foregrounding of huddles around bonfires in cities that have been recent targets of bombers (New York, London, Madrid), is a bit of a tease on this front. Spectacles of provisional solidarity in these cities have an eternal charm, but in our time of danger such scenes inevitably call up memories of collective responses to terror attacks. Yet no-one in the movie acknowledges that Stummer’s (and so many other’s) pre-9/11 ideas of “cultural revolution” need rethinking. There are other teases in the movie too. L.A. campfire scenes focus on celebs (Johnny Depp! John Cusack!) who bring nothing but star power to their interviews. And Bono gets his own campfire, though he doesn’t have much to say either.

The presence of those stars highlights how hard it is to resist celeb-mongering. Walking out of The Future Is Unwritten, I thought of how I once wandered around the Upper West Side searching for Mick Jagger’s New York City apartment so I could slip him a First. When I missed him there, I sent stuff to his friend Jann Wenner. Two birds at one Stone. I wrote Wenner (the truth) that I’d grown up reading his magazine and asked him to pass a First on to Jagger and take a look at our sheet himself. I’ll allow I hoped he might consider investing money (as a tax-write-off?) in First. Wenner did the right thing by his lights. He had an assistant send on the package to Jagger and he sent me a polite note that consigned First to the wilderness – “First seems to be a worthwhile publication that ought to continue. I didn’t read it.” (Emphasis added.) We deserved no more particularly since First once published Richard Meltzer’s lines on Rolling Stone:

“I was done with that sorry useless publication in less than two years. People I run into still hit me with “Ooh, didn’t you write for Rolling Stone?” “Yeah,” I say, “but at least I’ve had the smarts never to put my prick in a garbage disposal.”

First of the Year will keep providing alternatives to disposable culture. But as long as we have nothing material to offer the Meltzers of the world, real writers might be better off rolling with Mr. Wenner. He’ll pay them after all. For their sake, let’s hope First of the Year sells out in a way First of the Month never could.

Money changes everything. (Another lesson implicit in The Future Is Unwritten since Strummer and The Clash couldn’t handle success.) But some transitions are easier than others. Whatever happens, First’s family will need to maintain a sense of unity that’s not predicated on consensus. We’re not the Movement but (as per Ella Baker) we can’t eat on each other when we disagree.

Back to The Future Is Unwritten one more time. As Strummer’s oldest, conflicted friends sat around their campfires thinking back on prickly moments with their lost comrade (who wasn’t always so comradely), I was reminded of Karl Marx’s line when he was asked as an elder: “What abides?” The Old Moor replied: “Struggle.”

If our writers (and readers) stay in struggle and think beyond the given, First of the Year might fire up the next left.

From July, 2008