Category Archives: Life

Achieving Nirvana

When I heard that Nirvana, or at least what remains of Nirvana, were to reunite this year to perform for the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame, my excitement was inevitable. But a recent email conversation with a friend gave me pause to reflect upon the genesis of this excitement, and whether or not it is truly justified.

 

Turns out it is.

 

So rather than attempt to recreate that verbose justification for you here, it’s much more economical for me to simply repeat our exchange. I think I did a fairly good job of summarising my feelings. Interesting perhaps to see which camp you fall into…

 

James:  You’ve seen this, right? http://youtu.be/Ag643ahnUC8

 

Friend:  Yes I had seen various offerings over the last couple of months of the Hall of Fame thing.. Personally I wish they would never play as Nirvana sans Kurt no matter how great Lorde is or anyone else might be.. It usually just sounds wrong to me and I can’t enjoy it.. What are your opinions on the matter?

 

James:  I’m glad they did it. I wanted them to do it. I thought the whole affair was a magical and fitting tribute to a gifted songwriter and performer who truly deserves this recognition.

I just really wish it was better.

 

Friend:  It’s nice to have a fitting and uplifting tribute and all but I’d much rather see a bunch of people play their own songs that were perhaps inspired by Kurt Cobain/Nirvana.. Or perhaps original songs by people who were inspired to make music by the music of Kurt and Nirvana.. Like yourself..

I have to call you up on this line man: “I thought the whole affair was a magical and fitting tribute to a gifted songwriter and performer who truly deserves this recognition.”

Really? Being inducted into the Rock and Roll hall of fame.. I am probably considerably less clued up on his feelings about fame than you but my gut tells me Kurt would have baulked at the idea of being included in a hall of “fame” no matter how well intentioned a tribute it was..

Kurt Cobain truly deserves what recognition man? He’s dead..I’m not sure how this is getting him anything that he deserves.. I doubt very much he was presiding over the event from the heavens and if he was I’m sure he spent alot of time cringing! I’m not sure who that thing was for really.. I’m sure dead folk don’t give much of a damn and I can’t help but feel a little cynical regarding the motivations behind alive folk doing such things.. Unless of course it’s not really bad.. But then it was bad wasn’t it?

I may just be a very cynical human being but I can’t help but think that this was a moneymaking promotional event and nothing much more.

 

James:  First of all man I think it’s wrong to assume that what a drug-addled mind perceives as cringeworthy at 27 still holds quite so true by the time you reach middle age. The anger and blind resentment fades. Even Steve Albini is no longer the rasp-tongued abusive punk elitist he was in his more naive youth. And so too have Krist and Dave found a more mature approach to navigating the injustices of the world rather than spitting venom at anything even remotely regarded as “commercial”, whatever that word actually means (in any case, this event seems to have honourable enough intentions). So would Kurt be, if physical laws permitted, sat on a cloud cringing? If of the same mind as at the time of death then yes, probably. But that was a mind that elected to shoot itself, so I’m not sure how ethically reliable that opinion may be. Maturer minds may perhaps see the worthiness of such an event. One of life’s ironies is that we all grow, in one way or another, into the establishment. That’s not necessarily a bad thing man.

As for me, I loved that band. They meant so much to me. They inspired my life, for better or worse. And watching that video made me cry for reasons I couldn’t necessarily control or articulate. Repeatedly. I found it moving. I heard Michael Stipe’s brilliantly articulated speech speak to me on such a personal and profound level, as a quiet person who struggles with emotional difficulties, constantly feeling ousted from a world I simply don’t know how to access. It made me realise that it is no coincidence I took that band to my heart. And likewise I found the image of Kurt’s friends and family united on a stage to celebrate his life and works to be utterly, utterly moving, and yes, magical, particularly the very last song – all the Nirvana players united for a last stand beneath his angel winged torso, singing his words one last time, bringing him to life once again. From each artist to the next, our life and influence is passed down, and it’s fucking incredible. I am right there celebrating that.

So can Kurt comprehend that? Of course not. He’s, as you rightly say, dead. But we, the living, where his memory and his music still lives on, can. His mother can. His wife and child can. His band mates can. And his millions and millions of fans can. The people, just like me, that he has reached with the power of his music, who would never ever otherwise see a current performance from a band so fucking important to them, if they can see past their blind cynicism for just a minute, can appreciate that tributes are there for the living to celebrate those lost. To remember them. And to be thankful for their gift to the rest of us, lest you cancel remembrance Sunday and tear down war memorials in defence of your all-pervasive quest for literacy. I’m surprised at your opinion here.

So what’s a good celebration of a talented songwriter? Play his fucking songs. Who is best placed to play them? His fucking band.

Did they sound like Nirvana from 20 years ago?

No. There’s a myriad of reasons why not that should be too obvious for me to spell out here. But did it bring joy to his fans to see his name indelibly etched amongst the upper echelons of musical talent? From a one-person field study, I conclude yes. Call that cheesy if you like. But, in words that are sadly not my own, you know what goes well with cheese? A glass of red wine.

Right, I’m off to bed.


Honesty

There is a fundamental and perpetually overlooked tactic worth employing in the game of social interaction that we find ourselves playing every day, which preserves dignity and integrity and renders us fairly impervious to detrimental criticism. That tactic, as the title suggests, is honesty.

Honesty is a powerful weapon, but one that is continuously overlooked by everyone, every day of their lives, viewed instead as a potentially hazardous exposer of guarded vulnerabilities. I suggest that this need not be the case, and actually honesty is the one virtue that we have that allows us to take pride in who we are, present a true depiction of ourselves to the world, and progress through life in the most efficient fashion possible. Unfortunately however, a presentation of honesty to the world at large also means an admission of honesty about oneself, with acknowledgement of one’s own shortcomings. Perhaps this is why honesty is a less than tempting option for most people. Pride is a particularly pointy object to swallow, and it often leaves an unpleasant taste in the mouth.

Everybody lies. They do it every day. You lie. I lie. We tell tiny little lies here, there and everywhere. We don’t even realise we are doing it. Here’s an experiment: try and catch yourself in the act of lying. Watch out for it, and see how long it takes before you notice yourself doing it. You may be astonished to discover how little time goes by before you fall foul of it, if indeed you maintain your awareness of such a subconsciously hidden act for long enough. But when you examine your motives for lying, you may be equally astonished at what purpose it is actually serving. For the most part, I believe that we all harbour deep insecurities about ourselves and our place in the world. Our perception of who we should be, relative to our perspectives of everyone around us, often fail to meet certain self-imposed expectations, and so we often feel we need to tell small face-saving lies to mask our supposed shortcomings, without the slightest consideration that everyone else around us is doing exactly the same thing.

I used to have a friend who was a compulsive liar. Lies would trip off of his tongue as easily as thoughts would arise in his brain. He would lie quite casually on a regular basis about even the most trivial details of his daily life, apparently unaware that everybody around him was perfectly cognizant of the inconsequential truths that he worked so hard to conceal. But it follows that such compulsive deceptions were merely a smokescreen for deep felt insecurities, which presumably a potent sense of shame compelled him to keep hidden. But his failure to tell the truth from moment to moment could only possibly deny him much needed introspection, such that he may have pursued avenues towards personal growth and understanding, every bit as much as everyone else’s failure to point out the obvious disparities between his version of events and the real world evidence.

In this sense, perhaps we feel that we are lying in order to spare someone’s feelings. Surely these are “good” lies? But, really, ask yourself, what good do such lies actually do in practical terms? For one it is a massive act of presumption to arrogantly assume that we are the best guardians of other people’s feelings, such that we must deny them knowledge to certain truths about the world or their surroundings. Telling someone the truth, however hard, can only help them to make proper decisions based on real information. I think it is fair to say that probably anyone who reads this has found themselves saying “I love you” when they didn’t really mean it. I might even suggest that this is possibly the most common lie of them all, and it is one I know I have previously been guilty of. But, however easy it may be to say something like this in relation to the long, painful conversation incurred by the alternative, what ultimate benefit is this to anyone? All it ensures is that everyone’s time is wasted within an alternate reality, whilst a greater truth is fantasised about but never admitted.

Ultimately, however, I think that most lies arise as a result of failing to understand our own minds, or to successfully intellectualise the emotions we are feeling. We are every one of us entangled in a confusing mess of sensations, trying desperately to interpret them in as intelligible a way as possible, each experiencing them subjectively, and attempting to present an outward appearance to the outside world that conforms to our perception of expectations placed upon us. And it is hard to reconcile these two distinct perspectives. But if we keep needlessly lying, constantly afraid of the imagined consequences of telling the truth, then we constantly deny ourselves the opportunity to grow, whilst affirming that our true nature is something about which to be ashamed and kept hidden from others. This is a falsehood. We are all human beings and we all make mistakes and we all make poor decisions based on the substantial weight of our emotional states. This is a struggle we all share, and therefore the trick is not to attempt to conceal such a fact as if it is something exclusive, but notice it, admit it, and probably gleam empathetic understanding as a result of it. Therein we will find the strength to truly improve ourselves and our interaction with others.

And so here is what I suggest: I advocate total honesty in all possible scenarios, barring rare extenuating circumstances. There is no shame in admitting the limitations of your own knowledge. If you don’t understand what someone is talking about, it means that, through no fault of your own, you don’t happen to have encountered the same information as that person. Pretending you have is a futile endeavour, and places you directly in the firing line for embarrassing exposure later on. This is something I would especially encourage in my particular line of work, where many people assume knowledge based upon having heard the same words used in the same context enough times to have memorised them for pseudo-authoritative regurgitation later on.

Please note however that honesty is not synonymous with either rudeness or undue frankness – we can tactfully tell the truth, or even refuse to speak on matters at all on grounds of discomfort with the prospect of doing so, so long as we are honest about it. By presenting an honest depiction to those around us regarding our thoughts and feelings, maybe we all might just find a bit more harmony in our correspondence with each other, feel less of the stress and anxiety that comes with trying to navigate our way through life, and understand ourselves just that little bit better. If we just drop our pretences and the self-imposed shame that makes telling the truth seem like a painful thing to do, then maybe we’d be on a better course to find that happiness we’ve all been so desperately looking for.

 

Just a thought.

 

 

To read in more detail and greater eloquence about the concept of honesty and the social and personal detriment incurred by dishonesty, please read Sam Harris’s book “Lying”.


Criticism

A word about criticism.

Criticism is a necessary fact of life. It is required to regulate a democracy and ensure that the actions of empowered individuals and bodies are scrutinised against a consensus. Politicians, as elected representatives of millions of people, invite criticism for their conduct. So too may anyone who holds influence significant enough to palpably affect the lives of others – religious leaders and their espoused doctrines, captains of industry, health service officials – these people and others like them are rightly open to the strongest criticism, particularly from those whose lives they may affect.

Such a statement is obviously true, and it is a premise which provides a certain lubrication to the mechanics of society.

But where I feel the outlines defining the function of criticism start to become distinctly blurred, and also where the opinions of each self-appointed critic hit new heights of vitriol is, rather bizarrely, in the criticism of art. And it is something that we are all not only capable of, but have been guilty of at some point in our lives. I’m sure even you, dear reader, can distinctly remember a specific occasion in which a piece of music, television, film, theatre or art has stirred such a hurricane of negative feeling within you such as to condemn those responsible for its creation to an eternity of suffering and damnation for the incomprehensible sin of unleashing such an abomination upon the world and therefore even creating the possibility that you might one day have to sit through it. “Miss Y created artwork X. I hate artwork X. I therefore hate Miss Y and wish nothing but pain and misfortune upon her”.

This, I would like to suggest, is demonstrative of a cavernous moral blind spot. Not only this, but such opinions are far more telling of the person making them than of anything to do with artwork X, or Miss Y.

There are people in the world participating in acts of unimaginable evil, specifically designed to cause suffering and pain to innocent people. There are corrupt governments, liars, cheaters, rapists and murderers, all doing so to further their own agendas at cost to others. Then, by contrast, there are people who feel compelled to create works of pure self-expression through utterly peaceful means, harming no-one in the process of merely attempting to put their little stamp on the world. “Miss Y waz ‘ere”. It only takes a quick glimpse through some of the comments on your favourite YouTube videos however to see that the strength of negative feeling directed towards these two groups is very often analogous. Why exactly should this be? What does it say about us that we should think in such terms about those who dare to present their work to the world? And please, don’t pretend you have not been guilty of it in the past. You know you have. I know I have. It’s an ugly facet of the human condition that is hidden deep beneath our subconscious, but when examined most likely reveals very ugly truths about the individual making such remarks, or even thinking such things in the first place, whether expressed or not.

The distinction however, should be between those who realise it and therefore make attempts to intellectualise it and use it to increase self-awareness and therefore become a better person and a clearer thinker, and those whose thought process grinds to a halt at “I hate artwork X and I hate Miss Y”, and who then take the opportunity to express such tedious and inconsequential opinions to the rest of the world, these days through the instantly yet superficially gratifying and undeniably faceless medium of the internet. The internet has indeed been an astonishing revolution in bringing the power of communication en mass to the global civilisation, but yet where it gives with one hand, it takes with the other, for it instils ill-conceived empowerment in each and every one of us to act as critic to every piece of honest personal expression we stumble across in our daily cyber lives. We have the power to actively humiliate each other within the context of a wider audience, and it is an activity many people seem to revel in at every available opportunity, with deeply unsubstantiated claims about how “shit” a particular piece of work is. Such a sentiment is no more than baffling, since it totally neglects the innate narrow-mindedness of the human individual that generates such biases, not to mention the distinct failing of humanity in favour of caressing one’s own ego. It’s easy to forget that there is a real person with a real emotional investment on the other end of your ill-considered words. We wouldn’t for example stand out on the street outside Miss Y’s art exhibition shouting “Miss Y is shit” through a megaphone at passing members of the public. It’s curious that people are so readily able to perform the equivalent act online. Why do you suppose this is?

The problem ultimately begins within the critic themselves, that is to say, each and every one of us. We all have the misfortune of observing the world through the blinkers of our own minds. Well-trodden neural pathways instil an innate bias in us that gives no one of us an authority over someone else’s work than we have to describe another person’s experience of seeing the colour red. It is a purely subjective phenomenon. This is because we are inherently unable to empathise with the thought process and emotional journey that led to that piece of work being created in the first place. Let’s say a guitarist sat up late one night, feeling considerable emotional pain regarding some personal issue, and chose to use her guitar as an outlet for this. She closes her eyes and allows the feeling to pour from her fingers into the strings and subsequently into the surrounding air particles. It is a beautiful process of energy transference from the very core of her tortured being into the air that surrounds her. Music falls from her subconscious and the beginning of a song is born. The next day she takes this embryonic material to her rehearsal session where she re-performs what she had previously extracted from her soul. The band connect over this and begin jamming to it, each member understanding each other on a profound level, connecting over the shared experience of creating something new, and enjoying the immense satisfaction that is gleamed from doing so. The song is worked into a structure, lyrics are written by the singer who poetically conveys her dark inner feelings and a new song is created. A pure expression of a genuine feeling, and a description of a beautiful, healthy process that speaks of individuals united. Somewhere down the line the song is recorded and sent to a reviewer for an opinion that will hopefully increase the artist’s chances of being able to undergo the cathartic process again in the future, with the support of a growing audience. With baited breath the artist opens her inbox one day.

“This is shit”.

And with that, all the honesty and emotion that the artist had poured into her work is at once undermined. A process abundant with such beauty and integrity, regardless of the musical underpinnings from which it emerged in her subconscious, is trampled upon. Who can we say is the person lacking understanding in this scenario? Who is lacking insight? And is it right for an artist who is guilty only of expressing something so personal to be insulted in this way? What kind of person must you be to feel that you have a right to offend someone in this manner?

All a critic can really do – if we are to accept that criticism can have a legitimate function free from the considerable bounds of a knee jerk reaction based upon a neural underpinning of which there is very little conscious awareness – all we can do as every one of us a critic, is adopt a scientific approach in our analysis of other peoples’ hard work. It is the only fair way to describe to an audience the relative success of a piece of material with reference to the intentions of the artist. It is a simple process – Miss Y seeks to achieve objective Z, she therefore creates artwork X. Now, where should the focus of criticism be? Well, how successful was Miss Y in achieving objective Z with artwork X? In our previous example, our guitarist’s objective was to express her personal feelings through her music, and then offer it to another in the hope that they may be empathetic to the emotional journey she had taken, such that it could connect with another soul and ultimately help her pursue a career in which she can continue the process. The subject’s musicality, or its place within the context of the current cultural landscape may still be scrutinised, but not without maintaining respect of the fact that this artwork really means something to the person who created it. Anything else is an analysis based upon a scientific method; an analysis of results with reference to hypothesis.

Yes, we are all free to have and express personal reflections on what someone has created as a catalyst to the emotional response that arises within us, but it is nevertheless critical that we each acknowledge that it is an emotional response unique to the individual, and ultimately talks only of our own subjective experience rather than the work that we are responding to. Uttering such banalities as “artwork X is shit”, speaks exclusively of the perceiver’s own summation of “shitness” based upon years of subjective experience filtered through a very particular set of neural programs, themselves subject to an overwhelming myriad of environmental factors, the extent or weight of which can never be truly realised by the perceiver, but whose influence, combined with certain preconceptions about him/herself and the validation of their place in the world, congressed to initiate the process of vomiting the words “artwork X is shit” from their mouth or fingertips. In fact, the most that the phrase “artwork X is shit” can possibly mean to the artist is “I am clearly not the right person to be reviewing this”.

Criticism as I see it should be as just and unbiased a reflection on a work as is possible for the human mind to conjure. It should not be an attempt at personal slander via the indulgence of an initial emotional response to something without any attempt to understand the intent, method, or relative outcome. To do so is crass, lazy, hurtful, unnecessary and steeped in personal insecurity. Hatred is rife in the world. Surely humankind would do well to refrain from transparent attempts to achieve peer validation by undermining others and their work?

If this particular piece of hearsay is correct, then I am to believe that John Peel once made a profound statement regarding this very topic. He said (as paraphrased by Steve Albini), “when I get a record from somebody and I don’t like it, I assume that it’s my problem and that the band would not have made that record if there wasn’t something valuable about it”. This is a rare admission that an artist’s work not being to your taste highlights your own misunderstanding of what that artist is trying to achieve, and the satisfaction they garner through the process of creating it. And that is a line of thinking so profoundly absent from the droves of pseudo web journalists out there, each offering a critique of people’s work by way of labelling it “shit” as if such a lapse in critical thinking and journalistic expression could actually convey anything worth reading to any audience. Such a person shows a failure of empathy, intelligence, literacy and critical faculties of such contemptuous proportions that they succeed only in demonstrating their own shortcomings and insecurities. Yes, by all means point out that a piece of music may fail to meet the artist’s objectives as you see it, and by all means justify your reasoning based on your particular experience. But go online and declare to the world that something is “shit” at your peril, because to do so is to present yourself as an intellectual and social ignoramus.

Because the phrase “this is shit” is actually a code. And it does not take a degree in psychology to decode it. If you are the kind of person that likes to throw contempt at those trying to peacefully create work and exhibit it to others via fatuous reviews, forum comments, YouTube comments, or any other such medium, please know that this is what you are actually saying:

“This is shit” =

“I wish to assert my dominance over you. I take the submission of your artwork as an invitation to do so. I therefore look down upon you because it accredits me with a sense of validation for my existence and my opinions, whilst demonstrating to my pack that I am a dominant player deserving of respect, and to the opposite gender that I am a person of strong will and conviction and therefore a good choice for a mate. The fact that I feel compelled to attain these things, particularly through such means, does however ultimately demonstrate deep seated insecurities about me about which I am not directly aware. I consequently have problems with empathy and am unable to realise my own shortcomings and therefore prove myself to be a person of extremely limited intellectual and emotional insight. I am however glad I have the internet to use as an outlet for my insecurities because it allows me to create a persona for myself that differs considerably from my treatment of people in real life. All I really want is love and respect, and I’m afraid to die.”