Grill your idols…

I was reading Ben’s blog, as I usually do whenever he posts something new and found his piece about Johnny Ramone really interesting. He talks about how one of his idols, Johnny Ramone, holds strong political views that differ a great deal from his and reminisces about interviewing Johnny for Panic Button.

A lot of people, particularly those of us who self-identify as being a part of the punk rock subculture, have a real problem with the idea of enjoying the work of someone whose political views diverge strongly from their own. In fact there are plenty of so-called punks who simply cannot accept that someone can disagree with them regarding politics and still be a decent human being. Oddly enough I generally find that punks who share my political views annoy me in the flesh a lot more than most folks whose views I disagree strongly with. Now granted I’m not interested in kicking back to throw down a few beers with a card carrying Klansman or neo-Nazi, but that’s different. Those folks don’t just disagree with me, they’d like to kill me, and that sort of overrides any chance that we’d be pals right there. But the thing is that I’ve often found myself admiring the work of even straight out racists and fascists.

I was a literature major in college, and I was really drawn to poetry. People who can make words musical and rhythmic impress the hell out of me. It’s something that’s utterly and completely beyond me, so I’m drawn to it pretty strongly. The first time I read Ezra Pound’s “In A Station Of The Metro” it was like being hit with a bolt of lightning. 

The apparition of these faces in the crowd;

petals on a wet, black bough.

With fewer words than even a Haiku, Pound managed to draw what I consider to be a perfect picture in words. Not only that, if you read the poem aloud you’re immediately struck by the fact that even though it’s terriffically brief the poem still has a cadence and rhythm to it. That’s dead fucking cool. I read that poem for the first time nineteen years ago and I’ve still never read any poetry that moved me as much. Reading the rest of Pound’s work I was just flabbergasted by his facility with words. I was even more bowled over when I learned that Ezra Pound was a card-carrying fascist who spent WWII defending the Italian fascists and the Nazis on radio broadcasts originating from his adopted home of Rome. He was a particularly nasty anti-semite and was eventually arrested by the conquering US troops in 1945. He ended up having a complete mental meltdown which likely saved him from being tried as a traitor and spent thirteen years institutionalized in a mental hospital and living out his days mostly quietly until his death in 1972.

My own political and social views were pretty much fully formed by the time I first read Pound, and certainly were by the time I learned that his own views were what I would call appalling. I spent a few years really troubled by the fact that my favorite poet was a fascist and an anti-semite. I twisted and turned on the problem in my mind trying to figure out if my attraction to his work indicated some sort of sub-conscious fascism or anti-semitism of my own. I was embarrassed by the fact that no words I’d ever read had moved me the way that Pound’s had, that an authoritarian wingnut had produced my favorite poetry. Ultimately I was saved by literary theory. Specifically, I was saved by the literary theory that teaches us that the author is irrelevant to one’s appreciation of the work. Poetry, and prose, in fact all art, happen in the mind of the receiver of the art, not the author. The creator of the work is usually very remote from the work itself. When we read a story or a poem we’re experiencing our personal interaction with the printed word, not the intentions of the author when he or she wrote it. When you view a painting what you are experiencing is your mind interacting with the colors, texture and light on the canvas. The same is true of recorded music. Your experience resides in your interaction with the sound as it comes out of the speakers and moves your ears and your physical body (sound is created by currents of air pressure, which is why dorks like me love playing bass out of a huge Ampeg 8×10 cabinet – we like to feel the air move around us as we play). To some extent even our experience of live music is an interaction between what we see on stage (and in the crowd) and what we hear and feel of the music, rather than any actual interaction between ourselves and the artists performing on stage.

Essentially, it doesn’t matter what the author of a work, the painter of a painting or the composer of a song was trying to tell us with their work. Once we receive the work it’s ours, and our experience of it is utterly removed from the intent of the author. Not only did embracing this view of art free me of being troubled by my adoration of Ezra Pound’s work, but it also liberated me from the unfortunate tedium of trying to understand art by analyzing the artist. It also made me realize that musicians who make their politics the central part of their image and presentation to the public are dreadfully boring and misguided. Not only did Johnny Ramone help to unleash some of the greatest music of the last century, but he was wise enough to know that no one bought tickets to a Ramones show to hear what he, Joey, Dee Dee and Marky (and Tommy, and Richie, and C.J., etc.) had to say about politics. Although even if Johnny didn’t like Bonzo Goes To Bitburg he sure played it like he did, and the song manages to be worthwhile in spite of its loaded and by now thoroughly dated lyrics. 

I love talking politics and economics. Heck, I enjoy it so much I drive most of my friends nuts. And one of the things I enjoy most is talking politics with people who disagree with me. In fact some of the people I most respect in this world think my political views are rubbish and vice versa. It’s sad that so many people, particularly punk rockers, are so unsure of their politics that they insist on surrounding themselves with only those who agree with them. It’s even sadder still that so many punkers insist on passing their record collections through some sort of social or political litmus test. If I did that I’d be listening to godawful Propaghandi and Chumbawamba all the time. I’d rather eat a dog turd and ground up rat innards pie. Likewise, if I insisted on only keeping company with folks who agreed with my worldview I’d be surrounded by tedious, smelly retread hippies who wouldn’t know a sense of humor if it gave them a handjob on the bus on the way to work. 

It’s cool to hear from Ben that Johnny Ramone was a nice guy. It’s a bit of a pity that he’s as enamored of Dubya as he is, but there’s something important to learn from that and remember, especially in this election year – people who disagree with us don’t suddenly become hideous monsters. In the last election Dubya got a lot of votes (not as many as Al Gore did, but that’s another rant all by itself). It’s the height of arrogance and stupidity to write off every single person who voted for Dubya as either stupid or evil. Sure, plenty of stupid and evil people voted for Bush in 2000. But and however, lots of stupid and evil people voted for Gore as well. Being wrong is not the exclusive privilege of the stupid, nor is being right the sole property of the intelligent. Nice and smart folks often see the world very differently from one another.

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