“Gomorrah is a nursery rhyme
You won’t find it in a book
It’s written on your city’s face
Just stop and take a look”
—Sixto Diaz Rodriguez
Summer is often a bleak time for me. I tend to blame the decades of conditioning that made summer’s vast free time feel like a right promised by natural law. Whiling away those same lengthy hours in a windowless office with my eyes on a screen all day tends to darken my thinking. Perhaps spending six summers in Georgia added to the effect; the heat of summer there tended to have an undercurrent of madness to it.
Or maybe it’s just my current reading material: Greil Marcus’s Lipstick Traces. I’m also rereading Calvin and Hobbes again, and both have a lot to say about the pointless drudgery of adult life. This morning I was reading the Marcus on the bus as we took an alternate route to avoid the traffic snarls caused by the annual tourist bacchanal, Taste of Chicago, an event that lives in my memory chiefly for the time my younger sister was burned on the cheek by an asshole smoking a cigarette in a thick crowd of people.
Anyway, the new route took us through the South Loop, once a commercial dead zone and now newly built or rehabbed into a weird sort of Alphaville of a neighborhood (impressively sycophantic piece from the Chicago Tribune here). I lost count of how many high-end dental salons we passed, and I’d conservatively estimate that there are forty million condos for sale there.
Romantically, superpowers/empires/civilizations are thought to end precipitously—they fall with hordes of barbarians at the gates. Or they’re stricken by environmental catastrophes or diseases so swift and lethal they verge on the allegorical. Hubris and moral decadence—orgies literal and figurative—bring down that old divine wrath. The Bush years felt like the middle stage of just such a spectacular flameout. A country with a national death wish, led by the political equivalent of Columbine’s trench coat mafia: armed to the teeth and pissed off at the world for reasons that never really added up but could apparently be solved with mass murder. But the eschatological nightmares of liberals (and their flipside: the end-times fantasies of evangelicals) have more or less faded with Obama’s election, and now a putrefying kind of stagnation—political, economic, and cultural—seems more likely to me.
Allow me to maintain my habit of making sweeping political statements and then sidestepping the issue by talking about music. I’m too lazy to come up with a list of linkable support for this statement, but I believe there’s nearly a critical consensus that this decade has been one of the worst ever for music. And this morning I was struck by the horrifyingly cyclical implications of this passage from Lipstick Traces. Here’s Marcus writing about the mid-70s in 1989:
“Rock ‘n’ roll became an ordinary social fact, like a commute or a highway construction project. It became a habit, a structure, an invisible oppression. . . . There was no need for change; ‘change’ began to seem like an old-fashioned, sixties word. The chaos in society at large called for a music of permanence and reassurance; in the pop world, time stood still. For years that seemed like decades, you could turn on the radio with the assurance that you would hear James Taylor’s ‘Fire and Rain,’ Led Zeppelin’s ‘Stairway to Heaven,’ the Who’s ‘Behind Blue Eyes,’ Rod Stewart’s ‘Maggie May.’ It was all right; they were good songs.”
A few pages before that, Marcus quotes a list of slogans from the May 1968 uprisings in Paris, including:
Under the paving stones, the beach!
A good motto for summer.