It’s been quiet, too quiet around here.
There are reasons, there always are, but nonetheless I feel bad about having neglected this website just when it was showing signs of coming back to life. Last spring my friend Stefano did some repairs and gave it a tuneup, which in turn inspired me to start writing and publishing a few articles. but just when I was getting into the groove, well … if you’ve been around Planet Earth this year, you’ll know … stuff happened.
I sat out the first half of the epidemic in Singapore without too much pain or discomfort, and if it weren’t for visa restrictions, I’d be there still. But since June I’ve been in New York, and while, I haven’t personally endured too much more than inconvenience and isolation, all things considered, I’d rather be in Singapore.
Or any number of other Asian countries, or New Zealand or Australia, all of which have shown the ability and inclination to deal seriously with this disease. Adult countries, you might say, run by responsible grownups who take their duties seriously, and as a result have earned the trust and cooperation of their citizens.
Americans, by contrast, have displayed the self-discipline of nursery schoolers, perhaps subconsciously mimicking the temperament of their president (here in New York we’re doubly cursed, with a similarly childish and incompetent mayor also setting an example for us).
I was thinking of this the other morning, at about 3 am, as I made my way back from the supermarket. Whatever bad things I might say about New York, at least we still enjoy the advantage of being able to go shopping at hours when we’re unlikely to encounter infectious crowds, or, for that matter, anyone at all. But it was still enormously frustrating to realize that if we’d had the leadership – and the enforcement of basic health precautions – this epidemic would have been under control long ago, instead of raging out of control at a rate unmatched even in the most undeveloped of third world countries.
It seems as though the American doctrine – religion, even, you might call it – of rugged individualism, of supreme self-centeredness, of the delusion that the only person who truly matters in the world is me, myself and I (and perhaps in a pinch one’s immediate family) has finally come crashing into the implacable brick wall of reality.
“It’s my choice if I don’t want to wear a mask.” “If you want to hide in your house because you’re afraid of a virus, be my guest. I don’t have to give up my freedom to cater to your fears.” “It’s all just a conspiracy anyway, to brainwash us into taking some mind control vaccine. I read it on the internet, so I know it’s true.”
These are the sorts of things we’re hearing from allegedly intelligent and mature adults, some of whom have recently been elected to Congress, and one of whom has been (dis)serving as president these past four years. We’ve always known that there are crazy people among us, believing and doing crazy things, belonging to crazy cults and religions, and utterly incapable of making rational judgments that would allow them to function in a healthy society.
Such people exist in every country, hopefully in small enough numbers that their dangerous actions and attitudes can be managed. But ours is one of the only places where they are not only allowed to run roughshod over the well-being of others, but where they are literally allowed to run the country. The fantasy that everyone is free to do as he or she wishes without consequences to others may be the philosophical rock on which America founders. If indeed it hasn’t already.
Yes, but enough griping. You’ve no doubt heard all this before, if you haven’t said the same thing yourself. The reason I set out to write this piece was not to belabor the obvious but, as the title promised, let you know what I’ve been up to, and why you haven’t heard from me in so long.
Mostly I’ve been writing a book. A book that I’d long planned on writing, and long promised others that I was writing, but which seemed to go nowhere. Actually, it’s imprecise and borderline dishonest to put it that way. The reality is that it didn’t go anywhere because I didn’t do the work to make it happen. But starting this summer – in late August, I think it was – my brain came back to life and my fingers started flying over the keyboard.
I’ve recently hit a lull – that’s lazy writer talk for “I recently stopped working” – after finishing a little over half of the first draft. 68,000 words and 14 chapters may sound like a lot, but I expect it will be about 125,000 words and 24 chapters before I start the real work of editing it down into readable form.
That’s not to say that writing the original text isn’t work, too, but it’s relatively carefree work in the sense that you can write any old thing you want, safe in the knowledge that nobody is going to see it until you’ve spent many months cutting and polishing. Laying out the initial story is like a sculptor removing a suitably-sized block of marble from a cliff and dragging it home. To anyone else, it still looks like a formless rock; only when he or she gets busy with the chisel will the statue hidden within come into view.
So what am I writing about, you may or may not want to know? Well, in essence it’s the final chapter in my trilogy of memoirs, the first two volumes being Spy Rock Memories and How To Ru(i)n A Record Label. This one focuses mainly on the years I spent in England, but because those years unfolded before, during, and after the events chronicled in those books, it’s taken on a more free-flowing form, and headed off in some directions I wasn’t at all expecting.
It’s not unusual for that to happen when you’re writing fiction. Many writers have been befuddled and confounded when discovering that their characters had taken on lives of their own and could no longer be relied on to do what their creator had intended. It’s a little more disconcerting when it happens to a nonfiction character, especially when that character is yourself.
I think part of the deal is that the period I’m writing about is well over half my life, from the mid-70s to almost the present. Also, because I’m pretty sure this will be the last memoir I write (the only exception I’m inclined to make is if I do something more remarkable than anything I’ve done so far, which I’m not planning on, though you never know), I want to include everything. It’s like making soup and throwing everything from the fridge and the cupboard into it because you’re afraid it’ll go bad if you don’t use it now. Sometimes the results can be delightful, sometimes not so much. Unfortunately, if you find yourself in the latter situation, the only solution is either to add still more ingredients or to throw the whole mess out.
Originally I intended the story to be mainly about how I made the adjustment to living in a new country and culture, along with some anecdotes about some of the amazing and bizarre characters I encountered there. And there’s plenty of that, but I also find myself flying back and forth across the decades, dredging up memories of how I got to be the way I was – and am – with a few random rants and diatribes, the kind of things I used to write in Lookout, MRR, and Punk Planet thrown in to spice things up.
Quite a bit of that will probably be cut down or cut out in the mix – for instance, I currently have almost half a chapter devoted to griping about Joe Strummer, who was my near neighbor in London, and who I accuse – among other things – of being a gentrifier. Thing is, even though I have a few bones to pick, I also liked his band, and since he’s not around to defend himself, I think it might be wise to go a bit easier on him. I have a go at Billy Bragg, too, again – at least based on the couple times I met him – a nice guy who I probably have more in common with than not. The trouble with doing most of your writing in the middle of the night, which has been the case in the upside down world produced by Pandemic 2020, all the petty demons and gargoyles of the soul feel much freer to come out and romp around.
Another thing I’m learning in the course of fact-checking and research (to make sure my romanticized memories don’t stray too far from what actually happened) is just how much was going on right under my nose and that I never noticed during the years I lived in Notting Hill. Some of the most famous records in history were recorded just down the street from me, very possibly while I was blithely walking home with my shopping from the Portobello Road Tesco. What I missed, it turns out, is often more amazing than what I saw, and I saw quite a lot.
Anyway, that’s enough about that for now. If there’s anything more boring than writing about writing, it’s got be reading about it. Hopefully by tomorrow I’ll be back to work and on to Chapter 15. Anyone looking forward to reading this epic, feel free to nag me about it if it doesn’t seem like I’m making enough progress.
Meanwhile, things are in, as they’d say in the UK, in rather a state. The long-awaited election is over, but maybe not really. We still don’t know if the United States is going to remain even nominally a democracy or if the right-wing extremists and religious fundamentalists are going to devise a way to cling to power in spite of the will of the people.
Most Americans will have a hard time imagining such things could happen in what they’ve always been taught is the ultimate land of the free. I have a hard time processing it myself, but I guess after you live long enough, and travel far enough, it begins to sink in that no country or people is immune to decline and decay. In fact, just as with individual people, sooner or later, it’s almost inevitable. When the USA started running into trouble – it’s hard to say when that was; one could make a case for the 60s, the 70s, definitely the 80s – I used to comfort myself with the notion that we were still a very young country, and had merely embarked on a troubled adolescence. Eventually, I felt confident, we would emerge as a healthy adult, but instead, we look in danger of, as Oscar Wilde among others observed, traveling from barbarism to decadence without the usual interval of civilization.
If Trump had managed – or does manage – to cling to power, I would put our chances of survival as a constitutional democracy at less than 10 percent. Without him, I still wouldn’t bet on more than 50-50, a virtual coin toss. Young people often ask me, “Is this what it was like in 1968?” and I have to say, no, this is far, far worse. In 1968 there were those of us who believed that the country was on the verge of revolution and/or societal collapse, but because we were clustered together in a few big cities and college towns, we didn’t realize how few of us there were, or how profoundly uninfluential we were in the larger scheme of things. Today there are millions who have lost all faith in our democratic institutions, and millions more who have transferred their faith to religious or political tyranny.
Still, we live in hope, as one does, when little else appears on the horizon. If we get through this in more or less one piece, we can at least count on the dangerous myth of American exceptionalism being well and truly laid to rest. It turns out that we can easily be led down the garden path by the most common of conmen, just as has happened to so many once-great countries before us. Humility is a great teacher, and America is much in need of its lessons.
What to do while I wait to see how this all unfolds? Well, I doubt I’ll be out fighting in the streets, no matter what. I’m a little old for that, and no longer nearly as certain of the all-pervading righteousness of my cause (you see, I’ve had my time in the barrel with humility as well). I had planned on living on another 20 or 30 years, writing at least a couple more books, learning more languages, and traveling the world, and I still profoundly hope that will happen.
Yet I recognize that it may not, and disappointing as that might be, it makes it all the more important to tell as much of my story as I can while I am still able. Whether it’s of value to a handful of readers, or millions of them, or only to myself, it’s what I do, it’s what I have to offer. And with that, I think I will stop talking and get to work.