With awards season here, all the big films are leaked onto the web, free for anyone to download and get an opinion no one wants to hear. This year though, an oddly high number of these films have a strange undercurrent of “America Rules.”
There’s ‘Lincoln’ telling us how hard it was to overcome racism and slavery. ‘Django Unchained’ doing the same thing with more gun violence, and an hour of extraneous footage and racial slurs. ‘Argo’ glossing over US war crimes to say how awesomely the CIA once saved a few white people’s lives. And ‘Zero Dark Thirty’ saying how good the US are at getting revenge on an evil man.
Now, even though Lincoln and Django Unchained have the most in common on the surface, ironically, that’s a shallow judgement. Sure, DiCaprio is the antithesis of Day Lewis in creating a nuanced and enthralling character, who also has a weird beard and obsession with slaves, but that’s stretching it. Lincoln aligns more with Zero Dark Thirty because there’s a congratulatory agenda behind everything, and they skip over ugly facts to essentially say, “this is how it happened, isn’t it amazing? America! Stop hating on Obama!”
Argo however, tells you right away the US installed a dictator who was horrible (putting it kindly) to his people, then when that dictator was kicked out, the US protected him because they had multiple other dictators in other countries, who they’d lose if they gave up this one. That’s really, really uncool. And true. But the film then goes on with the great character development and suspenseful storytelling. Lincoln doesn’t do that. It just has a funny musket scene amidst 2.5 hours of unending seriousness. If all goes according to my genius plan, Affleck will take the Oscar, while Spielberg scratches his stringy, Lincoln-eqsue beard (my plan is to wish really hard). And Bigalow can make a gripping movie which isn’t about the amazeballsness of soldiers in the Iraq & Afghanistan wars.
Lincoln only proves that even if politicians are wearing silly hats and ridiculous moustaches, watching them argue and brood about how serious their decisions are, is boring. Yes, Day Lewis at this point, could win an Oscar for a cameo in a porno, but he gives us a tired old man with only hints at complexity – he’s a caricature hero. For all the emphasis on the moral crusade against racists, there’s barely a mention of women’s rights, or that their great nation had just spent 60 years buying up land, killing and displacing vast amounts of Mexicans and Native Americans.
Okay, history may not be completely boring, but it’s at least confusing and annoyingly dishonest, so just tell me a good story, please! That’s the way you learn about history. You see a good film and think “Wow, amazing, I wanna learn more about this!” Then you do, and it’s not at all that exciting, so you think “Aw, that sucks, but at least I know stuff now. Thanks Hollywood!”
MALE MODELLING FEELS LIKE BEING A ROCK STAR… WITHOUT THE TALENT
There’s a look you can see in a photographer’s face when they’re “asking” you to pose, that tells you this isn’t a serious job, and you’re not really important. In fact, you’re barely alive. When I first tried to become a male model, I was 18 and desperate to become an actor. The next time I tried, I was 26 and dating a model (…that didn’t work out). I saw the look each time, but my mind was riddled by youth so I didn’t think anything of it.
A million young men and women will pose for a professional and never notice this look, because modelling affects you too powerfully to have ever prepared for. Waves of self-importance, and validation, lap at your face and toes, you become enraptured by an idea, chained to a heavy hope, and submissive to a desperate trust in your looks. It just might ensure that your life won’t be as fraught with despair, uncertainty, struggle and loss as you’ve heard it is. After all, the world holds this up, you hold it up, as something special, and so it has to mean something, this “beauty”. But, then what?
For Andy Shelby, being a model was an excuse to feel in control, and to not feel; just another way of escaping any sense that he wasn’t the king of the world. In his mind though, it was about fucking the best looking girls possible, and not having to really work. I never knew him as a model, but I knew him well enough to understand the man he was while we lived in Amsterdam last summer; indulging the self, while claiming we were finding it. He wasn’t buff in any sense, just compact, toned, and proportional. He basically reminded me of a tanned Justin Timberlake, with a deeper voice. Worse than that, he only ever wore loose-fitting tank tops, and he took them off whenever he could. Even when they were on, he’d typically be playing with the sides, or lifting it all up to wipe off negligible amounts of sweat,
“I don’t know man, I run hot. I’m always hot. It kind of sucks sometimes, because I get so sweaty but like, the girls man, they like my body and everything….Last night, I was fucking this one girl, for like half an hour, and I’d had one of those pills and I hadn’t come yet, so I was dripping sweat on her, I mean burning hot, and she goes, ‘You’re on fire. You’re fucking me so hard, but you’ve gotta stop.’”
When I think of him now, I think of a clawing sensation, an abominable libido on the verge of assault, a constant desperation for money, tobacco, booze, drugs, or whatever anyone else had which he didn’t. Still, above all that, you’d like him right away. He bullied you into it but most people didn’t resist since there was a hidden shyness making him charmingly aloof.
He claimed he’d done close to seventy shoots within six months, meaning he was lying. Still, I believe that he worked for an agency, doing the kind of 1-3 day shoots I’d done for brands we’d never heard of, or at best knew in passing. Yet, that meant being around guys who worked with real names like Calvin Klein, and his obsessive jealousy overshadowed all of Andy’s crappy anecdotes. He pined for a job like that, with just a lazy desire for something to be given to him. He didn’t know what it was like to work, he didn’t even know that the guys who did that work found nothing lasting or satisfying in it, nothing but what they gave themselves. There just isn’t enough beyond the lens. You have to do something else, go into another industry to fill in the guts beneath a fragile surface, which spasms under the whims of passing trends. The eerie reality only seemed to flicker into my peripheral as I was looking arrogantly at my portfolio shots for the first time, and later it popped my eardrums with a flash while I was spending the money. It felt like being a Rock Star, except that I had nothing lasting to show for it. Modelling for an artist in a respected piece seemed valuable, yet you held only the seeds of whatever became of the piece your efforts, in an appearance, were pointedly ephemeral. If you wanted to last you needed more, you needed to step beyond.
Andy however, was setting up to chase it all, burn out, and never even know why. He was just a 20 year old kid who couldn’t grow facial hair, owed everyone serious sums of money, and had delusions of being a professional athlete, no education nor any job skills.
My last memories of him show a static journey, from smoking a joint while drinking at a bar with friends and various girls, to walking into the dawn, glad to never see him again:
Another familiar start, a few of us eat a pill we know is going to be laughably mediocre ecstasy. Sitting in a doorway with a different friend while talking to Dutch girls we’d just met on the street. Feeling my skin itch and suffering waves of uneasiness in my stomach. On to a new bar. Andy has been doing coke, and he drank my beer. Laugh at each other’s inability to make sense. A girl won’t do a body shot unless she can drink it off of me. The guys laugh at me, but it felt good. Smoke a joint in the smoking room. Andy has been doing a lot of coke. He’s paranoid about people following him. He flips from rubbing his chest, singing along to Justin Timberlake as though it’s a deep, deep song, to wanting to fight a guy in the corner that’s up to something. His voice had a cutting tension to it, as though someone was stepping on his chest, but that wouldn’t explain the coldness in his eyes; big and flicking around above a grinding jaw. It’s almost 3am. I can’t piss in the tiny men’s room because it feels weird. I leave the bar to find an alley. I don’t come back for 20 minutes. The other friend who ate the pill is laughing after every oddball sentence and stroking people as he talks. I think the pill is weird, but a lot is going on. I think about having one more drink and finishing a thought, then going home. Andy has been dealing coke all night, and ripping the buyers off. I snatch a fifty saying,
“I think you owe me this remember?”
“What the fuck do you think you’re doing, man?”
“You owe me another two hundred, I need this, ok? Good.”
“You better give that back!”
It goes on for a few beats, then he is trying to strangle me against the wall with our friends either side. I mutter “Thank you” to the Dutch police officers that are gruffly standing me up and patting me down for weapons. Andy is held firmly by two cops as a third questions him. I can hear broken lines of rapid-fire bullshit as he refuses to empty his pockets. I smile and the air fills my lungs easily while I try not to laugh, wishing I could take a photo of him now.
The following is an article I wrote as part of a First Person series called “Inner Life” for the London magazine CALM. It delves into what it is to be unemployed and on benefits.
One morning a couple of weeks ago my phone woke me up. It was a collection agent informing me that last month’s payment had not gone through. Obviously, like any curious person, he wanted to know why.
“Because there’s no money in the account. I’m unemployed.”
“Oh, I’m sorry to hear that. How long has that been the case?”
“Ahh, about three months.”
“Well what we can do Jarred, is reduce the payment size, on a temporary basis, until you get yourself sorted. What amount would be suitable for you?”
“Hah, oh well we can’t do –“
I hung up. The time was 9:13. I created a contact for that number called “Cunts” and went back to sleep. They’ve been calling me every few days and sending emails less occasionally. Two days later they called me from a different number and I answered because I hoped it was a potential job. That was just an automated message from the collectors, so I created a contact for that number titled “More Cunts”. They have old bank info and the wrong address. I think I’ll be fine. Don’t worry, they’re calling for, basically, a scam of a company because I made a dumb decision about six months ago, which has not paid off in any way. So fuck ‘em. The one comfort of being unemployed is being able to sleep, especially when it’s early, and cold. I really don’t like being woken up anyway – that’s when the thoughts and fears come back.
I’ve been unemployed for more than three months if I need to be honest. The last job was sales-based and I worked there for two months, but essentially made no money. My last real job was nine months ago, in Australia where my family is, and I left it to move back to the UK for artistic reasons. Not only that, but I moved to London with no girlfriend, or really any friends or family to speak of, and very little money to my name. That means I chose this shitty life, and it’s a bitch to deal with that, but I’m a good looking white guy, so I deserve a bit of “suffering” to try and even the scales I guess.
Getting benefits is a comfort. It is encouragement, I think – to stay alive, rest up, and prepare for when you need to go out and really try to battle the elements. But it isn’t enough, not to even cover my rent. As close to the edge of poverty as I’m getting though, I still don’t want to get up early almost every day, amd do something ridiculous just for money. Echoes of my father stay with me. I hear him boasting as he often did, drunkenly, about having “always been able to make money”, but it always felt like a justification that he was repeating for himself. Maybe he actually felt that he wasted his life? I don’t know, but I do love him. I may not be happy now, but I’m numb, and doing anything which isn’t exciting to me, feels like playing with fire; I know it’ll just be a matter of time before I’m burning with depression again.
How am I now? Christ, I wrote that down somewhere, and it was good. Not that I’m good, I couldn’t say about that. Every day I make breakfast impatiently though I have nowhere to be. Eating the four pieces of toast or cereal, depending on my mood, takes around five minutes, but I sit with the digestion and coffee for up to an hour. I try to watch documentaries or alternative news channels like RT on YouTube. I think about sex because the anchor Abby Martin is so smart and sexy. I know she uses her sex appeal to boost the ratings. I’m grateful, but I can’t masturbate at the start of my day; I’ll get sleepy and waste another hour.
I live with a couple. We have a small 2-bedroom flat in a council block in Hoxton. The walls are thin and the rent could be cheaper, but we only claim one person lives here to save on tax. I like the area and it doesn’t seem unsafe to me, but I don’t hang around the parks or streets, so I wouldn’t know much about that. I go to bars some nights with the few friends I have, and we drink cheaply from the Off Licence while smoking rollies outside. I mooch drinks where I can, and sometimes get drugs too. The good kind, just pot, pills or gak. Girls who like me often like drugs, and have scars, but I like that they need me, however briefly. I look into shop windows or cafes. I tend to look at everyone with a judging eye. I wonder how they got the job, and if I can, or could, do what they do. They don’t even have to be doing their job, just walking around the world in my line of sight. Sometimes, when I’m impressed or inspired, everyone seems better at everything than me, and when they don’t, I don’t trust my judgement.
When I look at council workers wincing in the wind, dragging tired limbs that seem numbed by cold and whatever else they have to battle, I see dignity at least. When I go to jobcentre I feel no overwhelming desperation there, but I feel like a fraud. I check facebook on my iphone while a woman in her late 30s has to come in to use the computers for her internet. But I still need the help. I look online at different recruitment or jobseeking websites. I fill out the same profile information of varying degrees and gradually build the lies and half-truths to make things better. What felt strong and persuasive a week ago, now reminds me of failure, or at best, seems foolish.
I’ve had to go for more than a few sales jobs every time I’m unemployed, because I didn’t go to university, and with my interest in doing comedy, I can’t work bars or night-work without giving up the gigs. One to watch out for is the charity subscriptions. There’s no dignity there: they advertise with euphemisms like “Events Coordinator”, and you are not hired by the charity itself. The offices are small and rented cheap. They call the job a “position”, and reinforce the need for determined, hard workers who want to build a career. This kind of talk is to intimidate you by putting the idea in your head that the job is in demand, and you need to want it, so you convince yourself you do want it, but the truth is, no one wants it. You will be going door to door, begging people for their bank details on the supposed behalf of a charity. I am too prideful and too assured of my inevitable and bitter failure in that “job” to ever do it.
In all of this, one thing is certain: whenever I do get up, it is probably better to not just jerk off, and then think about the absurdity of life, or where I could have done better in my youth until the smell hits me and I have to clean up and look for a fucking absurd and probably useless job. I’m just not exactly sure what the better thing to do is.
This is the first chapter (in my current draft) of a novel I am writing (slowly slowly). In it, a freelance journalist is sent to Byron Bay, Australia for a 4 day music and lifestyle festival. The ensuing coverage reveals more of himself and youth culture in general than it does about the music. As the days pass, his friendship with an elusive accomplice puts him at odds with himself all for the sake of women, and one women in particular whom he is trying to get back to.
Chapter 1: Hangovers are not for everyone, and neither is love.
I was woken up too early and from a sex dream that wasn’t going well. Hunger pangs bled all over the double shot of regret and self-loathing; I wanted to throw up, crap, or just make it all stop. To be fair, I didn’t eat well yesterday or at all lately, but that’s just the entree to my misery. Fucking entree, yeah. My problem, the problem, is that I remembered how it feels to be punched in the soul by some kind of love, for her. Her that stands above me, but looks up to me, looks toward me, and I’m weak dammit. By her, for her. Then, twenty hours later, I was alone in a café heading to the airport wearing her shirt, and waiting for the world to fall back into place.
A waiter with too much gel in his hair, too much sparkle in his eye, and too much five o’clock shadow in his face for a man of that age wandered by, lingering in the hopes I had more for him to do. Unfortunately, I wasn’t going to order anything but a second coffee even though I was hungry. I just didn’t trust my guts, plus café food is always bittersweet and unerringly sad, if not deliciously salty. After relaying the order, he came back out, tightened his black shirt and moved around the tables to adjust salt shakers and sugar jars. I was sitting on the edge of the inside and outside section because I like symbolism. The outside area was larger than inside in accordance with the laws of anywhere sunny, and it had a courtyard garden theme. Pot plants demarked sections and a wooden trellised fence hemmed it in from the already quiet street.
Her perfume was listless in the denim, and her stink whispered to me whenever my gravelly face sank towards it. She’d taken mine, and so this was just there, giving me an excuse to keep her with me. Don’t worry, the moment’s dead – we didn’t fuck; we didn’t even make love – so this was the cruellest thing I could do without taking the burden of thought for it. Sorry. I don’t know how it all went wrong, and it didn’t matter right then, since more lay ahead. It was all just fading. The dopamine, the endorphins, the serotonin, the lust, the I-don’t-know-what, was all starting to crackle on the dried skin of a comatose hopeful, who’s stranded on an ugly sun-drenched beach. But I wasn’t on the beach yet; the real beach, where I was headed for this article, was a few hours away.
Byron Bay is the hippy paradise of Australia: close enough to the tropics to keep it beautiful all year round, and encased enough by mountains to keep it quiet and lush. That was the new home to the country’s biggest music, arts, and lifestyle festival: the Blues ‘n’ Bloom. With an average of 25,000 attendees over 4 days, it held 6 stages, 3 camping areas, 2 “stylised living quarters” (Tepees and cabins), 2 General Goods stores, 7 bars, close to 60 fashion/craft/merch stalls, 3 separate dining areas and a fuckload of drugs being used with glee or desperation to heighten the whole mess – this was where life touched fantasy, this was where hopes and friendships met, this was where we all came together, and this was where I needed to save my magazine from collapse.
It wasn’t my magazine, but freelancing is lonely, and this one felt like mine. The other writers assigned for coverage would write dull reviews, listing a hundred bands at once, and talk to musicians as though there was any purpose beyond mentioning where and how to buy their shit. All the while a whole society ran around in the sun and mud, and I would be looking at them for the meat and crumbs of the article, because that’s where the music actually is. Although, I wasn’t sure yet, I just had an unshakeable feeling that this festival tried to be everything to everyone, and no matter what, would always leave you with the stench of ticket sales and merchandise. Still, as yet I had no plan on how, or what to write.
There was a raging silence in the café but, as tempted as I was to put in some earphones and pound heartsick music into my listless mind, lethargy prevailed. Two pocket-sized notepads were laid atop a bigger, serious notepad, and I just stared at them knowing it was important to plan this article out properly, but not if there was even a point of all of it. What kind of questions did I want to ask the musicians, and what was I going to look at specifically in this fuckfest of hope? If that’s a way to describe one of countless multi-day festivals littering any given summer in the youth nations across the blue globe?
Staring at the rings of froth in my cooling coffee glass there it suddenly tasted bitter. I grabbed it lightly at the rim and swirled the liquid to wet the rings, but they were adamantly caked on. Time and its effects. Putting the glass gruffly back into place I thought that there really was no need for a plan, since I’ve never been able to stick one. I’d just meet up with the Pianist and things would happen as they do. I hadn’t spoken to him in weeks, but even if he wasn’t on the bill at some point, he’d at least be there for the kicks, and around him, I wouldn’t just be that morose prick by the side, whining into a notebook with too many over-priced beers in his gut.
Ugh, I feel nauseous. Not then, now. When’s now? As I’m writing it? I don’t know, but we don’t care. No one ever wants to talk about that. Move on dickbrain!
All fucking day, when another train of thought should’ve thundered through to an actual feeling, everything snapped back in a hyper-speed slide-show. I’d be breathless and flushing cold at the end, again and again, seeing her hand hanging limply in the air, reaching toward mine in the neon and steamy dawn. It was a muddle I couldn’t make sense out of. I think I needed to find a girl and talk to her with lies of happiness and playful imagery.
No. NO, no, no. All you have to do is dumbly dive in without structure, and keep a smile slashed across your face while you keep those eyes alight. Then, you’ll be rolling around in sex that changes your life, drugs that expand your world, and music that punches through your guts, fondles your baby-makers, then shoots up and throttles your heart. You have imagination, you have a fire, you can amuse and inspire; you are life worth living and will give her reprieve! But oh h oho, fun is the reprieve that you are in need of my friend who is not my friend. Yes, you are the latent manifest burden of someone I knew, created just to keep out my own darkness, which crawls around inside but does not beg. Oh no, dear dear dear, it is lucky that I am a piece of shit who is able to walk among the stars and the daylight as though not constantly afraid. Walking with a huge smile always always always. Fuck you kill me kill me kill mine mind fuck.
Boom! The trail of thought faulted beneath a burst of noises that shook the café like it was in a snow-globe. Metal chair legs scraped on the concrete, a table shook and glass shattered quickly. Across the yard, there was a middle-aged woman wearing jeans and a cardigan making cries that sounded confused, in successive pops undercut by a drawing squeal. She was being pulled out of her chair. She was alone and even though I could barely see, the way the young guy stood above her leaning back to the gap in the fence I instantly knew just how you do reading it.
Time did not stand still, nor drag in a dramatic pause before the action. I felt like it was all over, that it was just something else for the journal, something more than dick ruminations. I wondered how it was going to feel later, when shock gave way to severe empathy. Then I realised it wasn’t over and that I was still in the thick of it. The woman had her arm hooked deep in the strap and her weight low. She was barely out of her chair; a foot propped against a table leg. The thief looked like just a kid in a tracksuit, maybe scrawny, maybe not. With enough bravado there’s every chance that I could knock him to the ground, and hold him there, if not lay into him. I’d want to kick, punch, and generally crush his torso underfoot.
I couldn’t do any of that easily; it was just adrenaline warming up in my glands, and coldness on my hands. I needed to get out of my table and around more than four empty tables in between me and the attack. That’s what I was about to do. Then time snapped again. She was viciously thrown to the concrete with a huge tug. He’d arched his back, lifted a foot and thrown her down while in the same movement, pivoted to the gap and shot around the fence up the street. I breathed out.
The waiter burst through the door behind me and chased after the desperate fucking kid. I breathed in. It was hard to hear and my jaw felt tight while my leg twitched. I hoped the waiter would catch up and be the hero. I wondered if I could even run for more than a minute before collapsing. I wondered still, which would be the quickest way to get to the unlucky lady; by leaping over 3 tables that could easily topple with my weight, or try to throw the tables out of my way, or just run around the whole set completely. Then the waiter came back in failure. The manager walked out to apologise while calling the police from his phone. Two women edged their way from inside with a curious and sympathetic eye. The woman was helped up and comforted by the waiter who sighed heavily, a look of frustration and disgust on his face. She wasn’t bleeding, except for deep grazing on one hand as far as I could tell, and I didn’t leer long. I chucked the note pads into my bag, walked inside to grab that second coffee to-go and pay my bill.
Published in Tasmania’s Warp Magazine in two parts, this piece examines two aspects of the use of Alter Egos in Music.
PART I: The Power and the Fun
I hate myself and I want to die. I wish I was someone else and never woke up to the memory of this failure, to this too-slowly dying sack of over-aware privilege. Don’t fret child, you’re not alone. Oh, that hurts even more? To be insignificant and unspecial? Right, because of the whole, “you’re an artist and you’re special, and you can’t deal with your issues, because no one understands you” thing. So you’re just going to stay safe while everyone ogles you behind this fourth wall? Well yeah, I guess you should pull the trigger Kurt Cobain. Or you could just be someone else?
Alter Egos are the suicide prevention of all serious artists. They’re a tool to both protect and to extend the creative reach of the artist. While the regular person is laid bare on stage and in recordings, having to be wholly accountable for any flaws, a fictional character has no accountability to laws of morality, society, or even a defined past. By the simple virtue of reality, an artist has a three dimensional depth and a humble history of some kind, where they existed in a vulnerable, innocent state. However, an alter-ego is a character that is tied to no such reality.
Keith Thornton has spent close to 30 years playing with no less than 16 different alter egos. Not all are given equal say of course; the most notable are Kool Keith, Dr. Octagon, Ultra, Dr. Dooom, and Black Elvis. All that time and all that recording can’t be summarised fairly in a couple of sentences, but what’s remarkable about Thornton is how he engages the abstract and the explicit with varied motivation, seeming at once childish yet soberly manipulative at the same time.
In a 2011 interview with the AV Club, Thornton elaborated on his decisions to resurrect a murdered alter ego only to destroy him again,
“I was pissed off about it – Dr. Octagon 2 and the way it was handled. They (DreamWorks Records) took advantage of the project by not putting it out for five years, and doing remixes the way they wanted to.”
He went further to confirm that he knows full well what he is doing, and is amazed that people cannot keep up,
“Dr. Octagon wasn’t my life. I’ve done tons of projects. I had groups. I worked with different groups and myself. I rapped on Prodigy’s ‘Smack My Bitch Up’ ya know. I’ve done a lot of things that were totally around different things. People tend to confuse my music with my mind. I write, and do, weird things sometimes as though I’m on drugs, or just crazy. I mean, you got rock stars out there that gotta get high just to make the records I make sober.”
The majority of people out there, wavering between crying, cumming and cooing over their consciousness, have contrasting interests and personality traits; it’s not unique. Most do not need to define themselves with a new name and persona whenever they feel one aspect dominate more than the rest. However, the nature of art, in especial, music, is tied to the beautiful creation of a defined and tiny world. Thornton may not be stable, he may not be self aware, or particularly intellectual, but he successfully uses a progression of personas to layer the music with a mythology that is a true escape for both himself and the audience.
His long time collaborator, KutMasta Kurt explained in the same 2011 interview, “When you do these things, it’s as if you’re making yourself a superhero. A majority of these hip-hop guys have been, and still are, into comic books. With Keith, one guy is a serial killer; another guy is the porno guy… then there are others. Basically his solo career was his hidden self – he just amplifies his different personality facets.”
Another Hip-Hop artist with comic book ties is Watkin Tudor Jones. He disbanded his successful Hip Hop group Max Normal in 2002 to work on a multi-media concept involving a graphic novel with soundtrack and live show. That project became The Constructus Corporation and they lasted roughly a year and produced an 88 page graphic novel which pegged two kids on a giant futuristic floating world/shopping mall called The Ziggurat. It did come with a soundtrack CD on which Jones plays several different characters, as well as a blank CD and instructions on where and how to download a second part of the album.
Five years later he re-emerged with Die Antwoord, a band that perfectly exemplifies the use of Alter Egos to manipulate reality and expectation. They mask their intentions as well as their true identities not just with stage names, but by living these personas as though the stage names really are them, and critics are split as to how much is intentional and how much is just simple minded South African gibberish. By looking at their past and the overall effect it is clear that they create music and imagery specifically designed to feel hyper-real.
Jones uses the stage name Ninja for this effort, which includes himself and the mother of his child (and former PA) Anri Du Toitis under her stage name of Yo-Landi Vi$$er. Jones has recorded under several names since 1995, such as Max Normal and MC Totally Rad, while Vi$$er is more of an exaggerated version of her assumed name Yolandi Visser. They have recently grown in notoriety for their 2nd album TEN$ION’s merits as a questionably ironic rap-rave album, while their debut in 2009 along with the viral video for the single “Enter the Ninja’, was mocked for being ridiculously pompous and absurd, as well as just being South African it seemed.
Songs like ‘I Fink U Freeky’ left everyone torn as to how good they actually are and how much they believe what they’re doing, aside from the generic conversations about musical composition. Not nearly prominent enough is how a mature group with as much experience as they have, would not be creating explicitly cheesy 90’s rave music if they believed it was high art. They are at peace with the drug high of it all and know that it’s just a ride, but a fun one, a really fun one. However, since these personas are not tied to the harsh reality where these debates take place, they do not have to waste time apologising or explaining. Instead, Ninja and Yo-Landi can laugh in your face with Zef slang and float off into space at will.
In a 2010 VICE interview they elaborated quite in character on what they do and what their music is about,
“Ninja: We’re from the hip-hop family, but we do rap-rave next level shit.”
VICE: Umm, rave’s been a bit quiet lately.
“Yo-Landi: It’s never been quiet in our homes.”
“N: Here in South Africa the taxis play rave music fokken loud my bru. You can hear it from the next city when the taxi comes through, you hear DOOM DOOM DOOM—they got the rap-rave megamixes pumping like a nightclub. “
“Y: Our whole philosophy basically is, like, drive fast and play kak music loud. It’s a zef rap-rave jol, with lasers, smoke machines, 3D graphics, rappers… and everyone’s gonna be there.”
“N: Zef is our flavour, our style. It means fucking cool. But even more cool than fucking cool. No one can fuck with your shit. Zef’s the ultimate style, basically. To sum it all up, in this place, South Africa, you get a lot of different things: whites, coloureds, English, Afrikaans, Xhosa, Zulu, watookal—I’m like all these different things, all these different people, fucked into one person. I am Ninja. I am Zef!”
And in a Vine.com.au interview from March 20TH 2012 they peeked out from behind the characters with much less bravado and showed the conniving behind their success, while still playing it off as accidental,
“N: We don’t listen to anyone. The new album is first on Zef Records – our label. We don’t really speak to anyone; anyone who doesn’t listen to us is irrelevant.”
“Y: It’s nice to travel around the whole world and do your shows, but that was just from putting our videos on the interweb. We just feel that’s the new medium; you don’t need to go through any major thing anymore.”
“N: You see, we were messing around with form and one of the things was like, “Fuck!” I didn’t pay attention to the internet much but when someone said, “You can make all this shit straight away,” that as fast as I could make my shit I could put it out. I was like, “Jesus! That’s the fucking answer.” The name Die Antwoord means The Answer, so it came from that.”
Referencing their anti-establishment antics at Occupy Wall Street last year, they again played coy,
“N: We just strolled by there and were like, “What the fuck are all these people doing here?” Then people told us about the 99 per cent thing and we were like, “That’s pretty cool.” Then I made a 99 gang sign and I threw it up next to a cop. If you’re going to take a photo of me, take it next to a cop. I made the sign, got the photo, and we then got about 50,000 more fans on our Facebook all of a sudden.”
Part of any intrigue with their career will definitely be how they play with the truth, and what they are willing to admit to. As alter egos, they do not need to own anything they say or do, because they can sacrifice or abandon those shells at any point. And they’ll probably have nice comfy houses to hide in too if their mythology turns sour and they can no longer take their masks off.
Next month, I’ll talk with musicians who’ve lost control of their Alter Egos and if there is any coming back from the underside of hyper-reality.
PART II: The Mask Becomes a Cage
Last month I wrote an appraisal of how musicians like Kool Kieth and Die Antwoord use Alter Egos to extend the reach of their music and save themselves. The freedom of hiding behind an unaccountable character gives their music a mythological depth that protects their egos from over exposure. Nothing is pure or easy to hold on to, so there is always a fall, so this month I look into the minds of some musicians who’ve lost control of their Alter Egos.
Tasmanian Comedian/Musician (aka Spaz Hipster Genius) Justin Heazlewood on the other hand is a world away as a man fighting his Alter Ego’s right to a very existence. The persona of The Bedroom Philosopher was born accidentally when Morning Radio DJs at Triple J gave the dumbly young kid with a few ironic songs a compliment about his “bedroom philosophy” sound. Ten years have passed and in speaking with Heazelwood, there’s a weight hanging as to how this decision serves him at this point in his career as opposed to then,
“I liked the idea of being someone with a stage name, like Bright Eyes or Eels. It was rare in comedy to do that”
Heazlewood used the power of the Alter Ego to gain safe distance from the sentimental, reasoned or simply moral ties that our society needs. By using an exaggerated version of his mind, he has injected his ego with enough protective bravado and confidence so that it does the hard work while deftly masking most of his insecurities and vices. This is the signature benefit of an Alter Ego. You mask your ego in a kind of armour while the shallow character becomes a puppet that can be as boisterous or antagonistic as the puppeteer likes, yet they themselves never need admit to the action, or even its root desire. Out of any myriad of inhibitions, or because they are simply ridiculous, the Alter Ego in this form is a puffed up kernel of truth surrounded by fatty air.
After a decade of work, he’s haunted by the idea that Comedy feeds on relatability. In severing the link to reality, and more burningly, vulnerability, he’s taken on a challenge that he hasn’t satisfactorily lived up to, “Perhaps I’ve limited my audience by seeming a bit aloof and pretentious.”
In a conversation with Heazlewood for a July 2011 Warp interview, he expressed concern over the selfishness of any persona since the performer, ultimately, has to acknowledge their audience,
“Life’s confusing enough as it is. [People] just want to know what they’re gonna get.”
Rarely doing comedy on its own, people in the industry and the general public, seem to demand that his songs be “funny”,
“I’m trying to be a musician in my own right, and despite crafting albums that are equal part funny and pathos, there’s a still a bit of a ‘gags or else’ attitude. I’m pretty close to a point where I will drop the name”
Admitting that it’s very common for artists to start under stage names, to then come out under their own names, and vice versa (Smog, Crayon Fields, New Buffalo), Heazlewood is nonetheless trapped. His true persona is just as equally wrapped up in comedy, and unlike Kool Keith or Die Antwoord, his Alter Ego has not saved him; it’s enslaved him.
The subtler side of an Alter Ego is the Stage Name, which can be with or without a recognised and separate persona. This would be the difference between Ziggy Stardust and Eminem or Prince, but not between ZS and Slim Shady or Camile. None of which however, deal with the alter ego within the context of a band such as Die Antwoord. Those two are consciously attacking pre-conceived notions and mocking expectation at the same time as they give audiences what they want, knowing that it is ridiculous, yet valid as entertainment.
Not all of the musicians using an Alter Ego will be accepting of its consequences. Some will start their careers enjoying the costume, and feeling protected by it. Yet slowly it will become filthy and rigid; choking them, or simply becoming tiresome to look at, and full of putrid smells. The punk/blues band The Snowdroppers use stage names and always perform in clothing which is technically a costume. The name ‘Snowdropper’ is from ‘20s slang (for cocaine) and they always perform in clothes from that era, while playing heavily on the themes and imagery of that world, but when I first met them for an interview at the 2011 East Coast Bluesfest they were dressed in their stage gear four hours before their set. When I opened the interview by casually using the word “costume”, I must have fingered an emotional scab,
“Costumes!” (All four laugh) “Yeah, I guess we’re a manufactured pop band really. We just do what our manager tells us, whatever they dress us up in and wheel us out for press y’know. Dance puppy dance dance, make the money”
That was their frontman Jeremy Davidson, aka Johnny Wishbone, and his sarcasm in that moment had a lot of fatigue in it. It even had some regret and conflict. As a live act, they’ve taken care to define their attitude and refine its presentation. This can translate cheaply as being theatrical little shits who don’t care about the poetry of music. To understand them, and what they do, you need to envision someone crawling on top of both pre-war jazz and rockabilly, then in a beautiful ménage, thrusting and spitting some punk energy into them. Or really, you could just look into Wishbone’s eyes while they jitter and bulge, nearly exploding during any given song, if you want to know what you’re dealing with.
I spoke with him again for this article, to clarify some things, to see where they stand on their characters, and how far removed they are from the mythology of it all,
“The Snowdroppers just started how all great bands started, we met at Uni, and we started the band with another mate as manager and he suggested nicknames. The first gigs we did were for a burlesque show which unsurprisingly had a 20s/30s theme, and hence the clothes. From there while we were just kids playing rock music seriously for the first time, we quickly found that these quasi alter egos helped us perform. For me, it let me “act” a part, which helped me get over my nerves. That’s not a factor any more, but I also don’t feel so removed from my onstage persona. I don’t really need “Johnny” anymore – it’s just something that’s stuck.”
Dispelling any notion that there was a careful plan to everything, Davidson revealed that they also suffer from the rash decision to take on pseudonyms and create some theatricality. While at first it’s clear they felt freed by the Alter Ego, that sensation has a fairly definite half-life.
The contrast of these examples has been more than simply background or genre. While all of them have a strong need, whether admitted to or not, to become something other than themselves, each has realised in a sober moment, the power of using Alter Egos to step beyond the pain or limitations of reality. In order to make their music not just better, but more truly complete, it could have saved their lives. Whether it’s in Science Fiction, Hip Hop, Graphic Novels, Burlesque or comedy, the Alter Ego is a means for the artist to set their ego alight with a fire that can either be controlled at will or engulf them completely. I still kinda wish I was someone else though.
My Singles Review Column from this month’s issue of Warp magazine
‘To ask the hard question is simple, the simple act of the confused will. But the answer is hard, and hard to remember.’ Those are lines from a W.H. Auden poem that I, coincidentally, read a day after doing this interview. They couldn’t be more pertinent unless they said “Beware the ego of an artist in need.” Just maybe, more poetic.
This interview isn’t great; I’ll make typos, skip over intellectual gems or relevant expositions, and I’ll fail to put references in context. I won’t even analyse the music we’re talking about in a truly methodical way. Given that, it’s just like the review I’d published a few days beforehand of Jeff Martin’s first album with his new band 777. That review was the first thing I’d reviewed without being more or less obsequious. In fact, I called it self-conscious, tiresome, pretentious, and lacking in true emotion.
Jeff Martin 777 – The Ground Cries Out
Jeff Martin’s newest album is familiar, hopeful, flawed, and above all, it reveals some ugly truths and shallow convictions.
He combines his three most effective formats to both satisfy old fans, and reinvigorate his skills. There is Bedouin-infused rock, dripping 12-string balladry, and pre-war sounding blues. However, the metaphors droop and the imagery tangles itself up, failing to strike any allegories or create affecting tales. He is utterly self-conscious and completely self-unaware.
In trying to recapture the passion of Splendor Solis and the Edges of Twilight, he has forgotten what that in fact was, and all he’s done is buttress echoes with aluminium. There is an extremely oppressive lack of true emotion as all throughout you can see and hear a feigned, strained, lying and insecure voice. The songs feel rushed, limited and formulaic when they seem to be building, yet simply return to a repeating and simple riff with little or no biting complexity.
His sultry voice can still enthrall, but he knows this and it’s ultimately tiresome, devolving into a tepid whimpering or an intrusive concupiscence. For all the pain he has felt in recent years, he offers none of it up for digestion or dissection, side-stepping the due vilification of his infidelity.
There is also a guitar instrumental which touches no new ground, but is a mere simplified extension of his signature sound (a la The Badger), an odd aural interval of supposed sounds of the “Mekong”, which feels pretentious, and thus taints album’s worldly atmospheric attempts.
It seems that he wants to make earth shattering rock, but Martin has only beat his fists against the gates of super-stardom, offered up brutal effusions of sophistic masculinity, then fallen to the ground and writhed about on Persian rugs and decorative tapestries which are mockingly rich in artistic depth.
You can sympathise with his lover at the empty promises and evident weakness - fueled by a compulsive egotistical behaviour - as he comes crawling back, “Will she take me back?” Probably, but the question is “Will you change Jeff?”
If Martin wants to achieve astounding heights, he needs to try much harder than this. Above all, he needs to step out of his comforts, away from his sycophants and especially steer clear of groupies. This record has too much cock and no balls; he’s risked nothing.
The acid I was on when first listening to the album, gave a pointed razing to the sympathy, and sentimentality, I held for Jeff Martin. The day after submitting my review they offered an interview slot, which I grabbed out of habit. Before it was scheduled however, my editor passed on concerns from Martin’s publicist about the writer of such a critical review having the reigns for a full page interview. This could have meant no interview, and no further relations with Jeff Martin. Up until now I’d idolised the guy, ignorantly, and hoped to be welcomed into an inner circle. I’d tasted that misty high when we spent the night drinking and talking following a show of his in November 2010. I also got to sleep with one of his “groupies”.
I had no intention, or desire, to make him look bad, I just wanted to see the man, and not the PR image that comes along with a new album and tour. There was a story he’d told me candidly about meeting Jimmy Page when he opened for him on the mid-90s Page and Plant tour. There was the fact that he feels he’s always had to work more or less alone, without a truly deep and symbiotic creative partnership, so what were his friendships like as a young boy? There was the unexplored situation of having a wife & child in one house on the west coast of Australia, and a girlfriend in another house on the east coast. There are the rich allusions to mysticism and poetry in the album, but what do they all mean? And then there was the hanging question of the rumours that the new album would be produced by EMI, did his own production company falter, and was he crawling back to the professionals and money-makers?
From the start I felt no more rapport coming from him even though the questions were easy,
“Where are you right now?”
“Ah, I’m at my home, in Bryon Bay”
“You’re not in Canada anymore?”
“No, just, we just got back a couple days ago, so six weeks in crazy cold y’know. But ah, it was very successful, they’re receiving the new band well, and the records doing great, good reviews, so it’s ah, it’s all cool.”
“What was it like to return to Canada, not just going home, but in terms of touring there?”
“I haven’t been back there since the demise of the Tea Party, and especially with the new power trio, I had set the bar pretty high. But yea, once the band started, from the start really in Vancouver, everyone just embraced the band with open arms, and it occurred to me that I need to go back to Canada more often.”
“And what about your family, let’s talk about young Jeff Martin, who is there in your family?”
“Basically, what’s left for me in Canada is my mother and father. They helped me, but they’re getting on. It was nice though, I hadn’t seen them for about a year, so it was good to see them again… and to have my mom do my dirty laundry…(laughs)”
“Did Canada feel like it had changed much?”
“Not really, I mean the only thing that changed was the music industry.”
“You’ve covered the origin story before, how you heard The Beatles’ ‘Within You, Without You’ as a teenager and that stuck with you so deeply that you sought out exotic instruments and sounds. You even reference that same principle in this album, “Within, Without, the Ground Cries Out”. But can you tell us about some of the pilgrimages you made as a young man to Asia, the Middle East or North Africa?”
“Well, what I did, success came pretty much immediately with the Tea Party, and the 90s were the Halcyon days, especially for Rock music. The cheques were a lot bigger, so what I did with the money, I felt very blessed when it came to me and I put it into travel, to taking these musical sabbaticals to places that as a youngster I could only dream about or connect to through records. I decided to take on these cultures first hand. I lived for a time in Luxor, Egypt and spent a lot of time in Turkey (in Istanbul)… ah I spent some time in Morocco… I’ve always come from a point where, if I’m going to express something in my music, it’s gotta come from a point of truth.”
This was the start of a digression wherein he attempted to put himself into context, and I wondered if he had read the review, or if this was habitual. It was evident that he was driving at something, trying to assure me, and anyone else, including himself, that he has had a lasting impact, which supersedes the trivial and possibly derogatory comparisons to Jim Morrison and Led Zeppelin. I personally did not want to yet again allow any mention of his influences and those worn out references.
“When was the last time you went back to some of those places?”
“Oh I did some shows in Lebanon, in Turkey, ah spent a little bit of time in Jordan just recently. There is a tremendous love that the people there have when a musician, when someone from the West comes, and embraces their music and their culture, especially in such a way that I do it with Rock n Roll.”
In trying to go back to his childhood and his family, I motioned toward religion, because a career will eclipse the man, so to find the man, it’s easiest to find the boy.
“You frequently refer to “souls” and other esoteric religious concepts, where does your own religion stem from and how dogmatically do you adhere to beliefs in trying to be a good man?”
“Trying to be a good man… (laughing)… Yeah well, um. I started off like a lot of people did - a catholic boy. From a young age Catholicism just didn’t make a lot of sense to me, being riddled with guilt as you are. From my exploration of music from India, from the Middle East, I started to explore other aspects of the culture. My understandings of those things [Belief/God and the Soul] became more open. I spent some time living with a Sufi family and seeing the Whirling Dervishes in Turkey played a huge part, and especially with The Ground Cries Out, y’know that title comes from a poem by the Sufi poet, Rumi.
He wandered back to a planned course of vindication, explanation and promotion for the new band, all the while, distancing himself from The Tea Party tome. I realise now that I failed to cut in and drive the interview to where it should have gone.
“I used to be a King of the five-syllable word, ‘temptation’, ‘salvation’, ‘frustration’… But I’ve learned over the years that I don’t need to use so many words, I’ve learned to distil my thoughts and make them more clearer, more potent in trying to get something across. But it’s all there for the listener to explore, some of it may need a bit more of an explanation, which is what I’ll do with some work on the website, for songs like Santeria, which is a Voodoo song.”
“Could you explain what the Ground Cries Out means? The song, what are you trying to say in it, and also, what emotion do you most want your fans to feel when listening to your music?”
“Joy. I want to make people happy.”
Linger on that will you. I still don’t know what the fuck he’s on about with the Ground Cries Out, unless it’s as puerile a sentiment as Avatar was.
“I would love for everyone who listens to this album to feel the same joy that we felt in making the record. What you have to understand is that, I now live in Australia, I live in paradise, my life is very good. While I can still access the darker side of the psyche for the sake of storytelling with songs like the Cobra and The Pyre, there’s a lot of joy in this record, there’s tongue in cheek because y’know, it’s only Rock n Roll. For me, this record, emotionally and as far as my spiritual development is concerned, for me, this is my most successful record.”
It then devolved into a complicated analysis of that sentiment when it has been expressed previously in the Exile and the Kingdom, and the Armada records, as well as the nature of an artist’s compulsion to create. We spoke over each other and left a mess of unclarified ideas. Martin rebuffed the position I was foisting on him, as a conflicted and complex man, restating that
“[M]usic is just expression ~ it’s not about making money. I don’t have to make a new record.”
He then stressed that 777 is not a solo effort by any means, and I asked about the song ‘1916’ which lyrically expresses a tenuous love affair.
“Is it about any struggles you’ve had with your wife, or other, past lovers?”
“No, I don’t really have any struggles mate, y’know, everything in my life, as far as my private life is concerned, it’s a beautiful situation. ‘1916’ is basically, it was the year that my Harp Guitar was made. So I was using that guitar, and the harp part as well, and it just stemmed from a jam in the studio and those lyrics, I was just scatting on the floor. Those were the words that just came out. What we discussed before, this is a Rock n Roll record; it’s meant to be fun.”
I then put that song in context with the most lascivious track of the album, ‘The Cobra’ in which a man seduces a woman, stealing her from her room and teaching her the ways of love “Behind the veil.” This seems to illustrate a compulsive lust in him as the songwriter, but he again dismissed analysis, declaring that the song references Tantric sex magic symbolism.
“But are you then saying that you are not emotionally invested in that song?”
”No, I’m emotionally invested in everything. Obviously everything has to come from a point of truth or experience, but I’m a storyteller y’know, these are stories. So, while they may come from some spark of my personal life, but you can’t take it too far y’know, it’s not like, yea you’ve got to be careful, you can’t blur the lines…”
The question I was positing regarded the motivation, the underlying conviction of his process, and thus, why he wrote the song, not what the song is, clinically removed of itself.
“I can understand that, however, what I am trying to get to here is an expression of vulnerability.”
“Yeah, everything comes from a personal truth, but then the storyteller takes over y’know. With ‘Temptation’ I was baring my soul at that point, but sometimes when you do that, you get burned.”
“Did that album and that period scar you?”
“I think that whatever doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger.”
“Is that a statement of passion?”
“I suppose it is.”
“Have you ever been in a physical fight?”
“Um… It wasn’t much of a fight. It ah, it takes a hell of a lot to get me to the point of violence, but if you cross the threshold, it ends quickly.”
“No other details about how it started?”
“No, but I have a question for you though.”
“It’s, I’ll give you an observation first, and then ask you a question.”
“You’re in a club that is a very small minority, and the reason being that, I read your review of the record… (pregnant pause)”
“And I’m wondering, after talking to me… Has your opinion changed about the record?”
What I didn’t notice at that instant was a piercing vulnerability in his voice as he reeled off that last sentence. It was the only time his voice lost the typical sonorous depth, but I wasn’t listening for that through an internal din of anger and terror. Angry that the interview was a sham, and terrified of this awkward moment, as well as the consequences for my relationship with an object of great admiration.
I could only hold my ground as being honest and steadfast against sycophancy or bias. The hesitancy kept the positive analysis and commendations from being expressed in elaboration of the critique. Being confronted with a full blown, bared ego like that is to walk on a wire, unable to shift your weight.
“It has become more informed, especially with regard to the imagery and language used, but I am torn as a fan and a rock journalist, to be objective, I cannot be a sycophant –”
“I don’t want you to be. I want you to enjoy the record.”
“I do enjoy the record, in fact I was just listening to, um, Santeria, and I enjoyed it more than I did a week ago –”
“Well good. That’s all I wanted to hear.”
With that he dismissed me. I fought the dismissal, of both myself and the criticism and insights within the review, but I was summarily dismissed. There were anecdotes Martin held more dearly such as that the record could easily be mistaken for one by Led Zeppelin, and that was told him by a former producer for Led Zeppelin records. It was not Jimmy Page however – the primary producer for all of their albums. The safe haven of assurance that he meets the standards he gave himself as a boy blocked my assertion that this is actually a good album, ‘The Ground Cries Out’ is at least 3 stars and all criticism is against his over-confidence that it is 5 stars. After all, the album review was imperfectly written, and so may this be, but do I think that referencing W.H. Auden dignifies it? We can all listen to the album and decide ourselves. Whether or not you do acid at the time I leave open, but time will have to pass before we can see the objective merits or success of Jeff Martin 777.
This interview conducted in March 2011. Less than three months later, it was announced that The Tea Party were reuniting for an international tour, after 777 had failed to meet the success EMI hoped for, and unnamed issues caused the band to fall apart.
These were good days. We were crawlers once… And young too (Taken with Instagram)