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Monday, October 13, 2003
Really wonderful Tom Ewing post about irony being an element of complexity. It's in response to a response (about which more later) to a Freaky Trigger article called "Irony And Its Malcontents." It's a great little piece, focusing in part on Johnny Cash. But it's also interesting because it has a companion piece in one particular section from The Fortress of Solitude, one seeming so oddly much like a direct response that I have to post it here.


The context for this excerpt is that the main character, Dylan (here referred to largely in the second person), grew up the only white kid in a Brooklyn neighborhood. With his (black) friend Mingus, he did things that the 2k3 Vice crowd would probably trade their own mothers for: tagging up with the original graffiti artists, attending DJ battles in public schoolyards, finding breaks in records and listening to Mingus freestyle, etc. But he's now going to the Stuyvesant magnet school, and, never much of a 'head anyway, has fallen into the punk thing here in the 1979 NYC scene. However, he has also invented a flying superhero named Aeroman with Mingus. Here goes.

(all errors mine)

Three white high schoolers cavort along West Fourth Street, returning from J&R's Music World to an apartment on Hudson where a certain divorced mom's not home, where they've got keys and the regular afternoon run of the place. All three are armored against late-fall weather in black motorcycle jackets, the Brando-Elvis-Ramones variety, leather skins studded with chrome stars and skulls, buckles dangling loose and fronts unzipped against the chill. The three grab-ass, swing incompetently from lampposts, talk in private tongues, nerd-punk argot.

November 1979: "Rapper's Delight" has just cracked the top forty. It's also cracked the attention spans of the white kids at Stuyvesant, including this bunch. The song is on the radio and on the street, leaking from stores and passing shoulder-hoisted boom boxes, a different sound, and impossible to miss.

But to really hear it for yourself someone's got to lay down cash and bring the thing home.

The Sugar Hill Records twelve-inch in its generic sleeve is bagged with their other purchases, Eno, Tom Robinson, Voidoids, Quadrophenia soundtrack. "Rapper's Delight"'s place on the pop charts is as a novelty single, late entry in the lineage of "The Streak," "Convoy," and "Kung Fu Fighting," and it's in this spirit these white boys have made their purchase: the record strikes them as inconceivably stupid and killingly funny, two concepts lately the opposite of mutually exclusive, Gabba Gabba Hey.

Self-loathing worn inside out as a punk's moron pride.

If one of these three knows more, he's not telling.

But put it this way: if one of those shops on St. Marks Place retailing punk fashion sold T-shirts reading PLEASE YOKE ME you'd buy one in a minute.

Then zip your jacket wearing it home from Manhattan.

Now, in the safety of the apartment, the other records are put aside while the twelve-inch is plopped on mom's turntable for instant-gratification hilarity. The needle is stopped and shifted backward a dozen times for incredulous confirmation of some sequence of chanted rhymes, I don't care what these people think, I'm just sittin' here makin' myself nauseous with this ugly food that stinks. The three white boys bust up, barely able to breathe for laughing.

"The--chicken--tastes--like--wood!" one gasps.

Jackets are shed. Divorced mom's boyfriend left a six of Heinekens in the fridge, the fool, and these are swiftly drained. A box of Nilla Wafers is demolished, down to the crumbs at the bottom of the wax liner, which are shaken out and inhaled. "Rapper's Delight" is played again, the punks doing an antic dance, pogoing on the couch, playing at break dancing, striking poses.

The record includes among others a passage mocking Superman, the rapper calling himself Big Hank mock-wooing Lois Lane with boasting couplets. He may be able to fly all through the night, but can he rock a party 'til the early lights? An excellent question for Superman or any other flying personage, really.

That's if flying wasn't the last thing on your mind.

Now the three begin quoting favorite lines, trying to mimic the rappers' inflection while keeping straight faces. "I understand about the food," says one, nearly weeping with pleasure, "hey, but bubba, we're still friends!"

Two of these harmless, pink-cheeked punks are Manhattan-born, were privately schooled until the year they switched to Stuyvesant to spare their parents the expense. For all they know this record might have been cut specifically for their private anthropological enjoyment, and they hear it with detachment suitable for an artifact fallen from the moon. They've never heard anyone rap before, anymore than they've met Fat Albert or Sanford & Son walking down the street. Consensus might be that what makes "Rapper's Delight" and black people in general so criminally funny is their supreme lack of irony. Hey, it's not racist to find blacks earnest as hippies, broad and embarrassing as a comic book. These boys is punks, and punks sneer. That's what they do, deal with it.

Lack of irony's scarcely a problem for the third in the room, the punk from Gowanus.

Tied in splendid baroque knots, that's him. Ready to pass any and all litmus tests for self-partitioning. But hey, if standing in your Converse All Star high-tops on the couch cushions rotating hips in awkward parody you recall Marilla's [one of the black girls who lived two doors down from Dylan] curbside hula-hoop instruction a million years ago, recall too your disappointment Marilla wasn't a blond [white] Solver, your guilt at this disappointment, your shame at your body's inexpressiveness, its unfunky failings--so what? Laughing at "Rapper's Delight"'s no revenge, and anyway it wasn't your idea, and anyway it's funny. Dean Street's [in Brooklyn] another story, a realm of knowledge inapplicable here.

You've just about finished leaving Dean Street, and Aeoroman, behind.

If this means avoiding the one who protected your ass all through junior high, the one you once ached to emulate, the one whose orbit you were happy just to swing in--if it means leaving the million-dollar kid's regular phone message in Abraham's precise handwriting unreturned--that's a small price to pay for growing up, isn't it?

This ain't no party, this ain't no disco, this ain't no foolin' around.

It's the end, the end of the seventies.

To me so far, this seems to be the key passage in the novel. And it does that novelistic thing of containing ambivalence in a way few other genres are able to. There's the expected half-guilt of white flight, gentrification, appropriation, unhipness, yes, but there's also the joy of it. The guilt is somewhere way back in Dylan's mind, and while it's no doubt clouded by the ability of us as 2003 readers to know just how lame the three punks are being, Dylan is still experiencing a lot of joy at this moment, and a joy most of us wouldn't usually think to contrast with something else. And I don't think we should. Should we feel guilty about liking (even pining for) the CBGB's / Max's Kansas City scene when there was a brand new artform being invented across the river? Not necessarily. Dylan, for instance, never seemed very happy in Brooklyn.

But the great thing about this section is that, in and of itself, it's an amazing piece of criticism. It reminds me of a Bangsian Golden Era review in a way, combining fictional situation, personal connection, intertextuality, historicism, and ambivalence into a glorious whole. It's an example of what criticism can be, another way of portraying the personal experience of music, but also another way of passing judgment, another way of thinking about music. It's really good.

Anyway, I think I'll come back to this when I'm all finished up, but for now, there it is.