Category Archives: hometowns

Songs I Like #6: The Stingers, “Give Me Power”

Do suburban white kids still listen to reggae? Before the internet, and without a radio station to show me myself and goad me to a scene, music was my brother’s school jazz band, car rides with my parents’ home-dubbed cassettes (Rubber Soul, Hank Williams, old tapes of Ruth Brown’s Harlem Hit Parade radio show) and afternoons with my best friend Drew at the city library music shelves.

I still think of Everett’s library. There must have been a lonely and brave soul somewhere in their purchasing office behind the stacks, because their music selection was weird, brave, and beautifully cosmopolitan, a cry into the vacant vast surrounding of Navy yards, shady cul-de-sacs, and slumbering malls. Drew and I fixated on Rounder and Trojan’s old reggae anthologies. Ska was cool that year, so, thanks to our anonymous librarian, we followed it backward to its Jamaican progenitors– groups like the Skatalites, who played commercial dance music, a hard-offbeat open-air-dancehall take on American R&B– but where we really sank in was into rocksteady.

That slowed-down (Jamaica’s summer 1966 was supposedly too hot for ska’s quick clip), re-Africanized, and increasingly political reorientation of Jamaica’s music spoke to us. Our vague alienation felt some answer, I guess, in the tension, urgency, and militant stirrings of the music. As a suburban youth-grouper, I found the might of Rastafarian prophecy transgressive and familiar at once. And, of course, we worshipped Lee Perry, the ranting mystic and studio wizard, whose beats sounded tough and whose productions sounded (in its parched vocals, sudden bursts of found sound and toasting, and dissolves into echo) three-dimensional. Give Me Power, one anthology said simply. The harmonies on its title track (from one of Perry’s many one-and-done groups) were delicate, the sentiment was mighty, and the strength couldn’t be shaken off.

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Lately They’ve Told Me

From Finite and Infinite Games by James P. Carse:

The exercise of power always presupposes resistance… Power is never one’s own, and in that respect it shows the contradiction inherent in all finite play. I can be powerful only by not playing, by showing that the game is over. I can therefore have only what powers others give me.

 

Michel Foucault, from The Foucault-Chomsky Debate on Human Nature:

…Those who resist or rebel against a form of power cannot merely be content to denounce violence or criticize an institution. Nor is it enough to cast the blame on reason in general. What has to be questioned is the form of rationality at stake. The criticism of power wielded over the mentally sick or mad cannot be restricted to psychiatric institutions; nor can those questioning the power to punish be content with denouncing prisons as total institutions. The question is: How are such relations of power rationalized? Asking it is the only way to avoid other institutions with the same objectives and the same effects, from taking their stead.

 

George Oppen, from “Of Being Numerous”:

…consciousness

Which has nothing to gain, which awaits nothing,
Which loves itself

 

My bike last night, locked out in snow:

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I’ll Never Forget You

I have to admit, I hated how much I loved Hüsker Dü. I spent my whole late adolescence put off by and hooked on their melodies, sour-and-sweet, the trebly, overwhelming wash of Bob Mould’s guitar. Zen Arcade—their double-LP hardcore-and-more concept record—jumped out to me between Human League and Janice Ian CDs at the satellite branch of the Everett Library, scuffed but still playable, when I was fourteen. Who was that music librarian? “Something I learned today, black and white is always gray.”

I took Zen Arcade home and listened to it on a C90 cassette, with their cover of “Eight Miles High” appended to fill the tape’s last minutes, every day for about four years. The music felt like me and it felt like my hometown: Zen Arcade’s screaming and the compression and chiming guitar, the spasms of psychedelia and the long acid jam at the end of Side 4, the gorgeous melodies, felt as big to me as my teenage emotional life, when getting off the local bus I’d get overwhelmed—by nothing, by a pine tree or knocked-over mailbox—you know that teenage time when people slipped notes in lockers, smoked out behind their jobs, and handwrote letters.

“Spilled my guts, you just threw them away.” If home had been Brooklyn or Arcata it might have been different, but Everett, where I lived from eight to eighteen, was teeming around the edges, gray and hollowed-out-feeling in the middle. Punk rock, especially the sheet-metal noisemakers, seemed to fit our county: noise stripmall-white, rolling out of my ears over the hills and sagging tract houses and strawberry farms near Highway 2 and rising up to the overcast. There were times I couldn’t stand it: “Somewhere satisfaction has no name.” Even the gray- and crayon-colors of Zen Arcade‘s cover felt like me and the land. Now, ten years after I moved away, I only listen to Hüsker Dü when a similar big-self mood fills my heart and I feel like nothing but that wash will match me, or meet me. It’s not often.

(And, just for the record, I only listen to them on record: never remastered and never really mastered all that well to begin with, the album sound compressed and remote anywhere but on LP through a good, dirty set of speakers. Never decide anything in good taste, only in good appetite. Over and out!)

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