The beast in me

Fresh tracks and timely insight.

Vanessa Wagner, “Inverness” (InFiné Music)

Vanessa Wagner, “Inverness”

Gus Van Sant’s first film is a wonderful black-and-white low budget job called The Discipline of DE. Based upon a William S. Burroughs short story, or “routine,” as Burroughs termed them — he was, after all, one of America’s most astute and funniest 20th century comedians — Van Sant’s film outlines an elementary blueprint for seamless modern life. D.E. stands for do easy — the easier, the better. View every one of life’s little tasks — putting away the dishes, say, or tying your shoes — with the stated aim of making the job as effortless as possible. The discipline comes in when you make this worldview your life’s guiding principle. It takes practice. If an error is made, for example, dropping an item on the floor, or stubbing one’s toe on the way to the bathroom at night, repeat the action until that action can be performed error-free without so much as a thought. Easy does it.

The idea is, since there are incalculable piddly little seemingly unimportant undertakings that we do every day, we might as well make them more efficient. Although they seem insignificant, these tasks add up, physically, emotionally. The more we can do simply, properly, faultlessly the first time, the less struggle and strife we might exert having to correct or redo later. And the more we can perfect these little duties, the less stress their repetitive and quotidian nature causes us. It’s basic American Pragmatism. It works.

Leifur James, “Sirens,” The Year Turns to Air (Night Time Stories)

Leifur James, “Sirens”

Before the advent of recorded sound, urban noise was of the natural kind. You might have heard your neighbours living their lives, talking, shouting, the clinking and clanging of dishes and glasses, pots and pans, laughing, fighting, fucking. If there was music, someone was playing it. It’s incumbent to consider the noise we make.

I often wonder what my next door neighbour hears when I am listening to some of the music I cover in this column. It alternately has the qualities of every type of nuisance noise a city can produce. Field recordings of automobiles and traffic, horns, actual bells and whistles; trains and airplanes, steam exhaust from distant ships, squeaking and rattling wheels; mechanical and industrial rhythms, pneumatic drills, rivets, hoists, elevators, escalators, sputtering motors; garbage trucks, Ubers, Skip the Dishes and other express delivery services; busted synthesizers and skittering samplers, defective switches and distorted connections; barking dogs run through delay pedals. In the distance, sirens.

Robin Hatch, “Mockingbird” (feat. Nick Thorburn), T.O.N.T.O. (Bandcamp)

Robin Hatch, “Mockingbird” (feat. Nick Thorburn)

Of all the drugs in the world, alcohol is the worst in terms of human behaviour under its influence. The idea, macho in origin, like most bad ideas, that a person can “handle his liquor,” is always false. It’s a sliding scale. Alcohol affects the system within seconds and it is impossible to overcome its effects. Tolerance helps. But tolerance only goes so far towards this loose definition of “help.” Eventually, alcohol will have anyone, no matter how big and tough, behaving like a depraved beast. Hunter S. Thompson wrote that the man who becomes a beast relieves himself of manhood’s existential burden. The problem is that the beast wakes up and the burdens return tenfold.

The first step of AA’s 12-step program is to admit that you are powerless over alcohol. This phrase always struck me as odd. It made alcoholics, and addicts in general, out to sound like desperate, weak people. To me, it seemed like you had to admit that you could not not say no to a drink. And that’s not the way that most people drink, even problem drinkers. The vast majority of people who drink can exert some degree of willpower over whether or not they do so. The real powerlessness comes not before but after that drink is consumed. There is a saturation point where alcohol will literally overtake the body’s ability to control itself. Alcohol, instead, powers the person.

Suss, “Ash Fork, AZ,” Night Suite (Northern Spy Records)

Suss, “Ash Fork, AZ”

An old boss of mine used to say, “There are two types of people in the world: those who do things, and those who try to stop people from doing things.” Want to take this road? Pay the toll. Want to do that? Do this first. If All Cops Are Bastards, and All People Are Now Cops, then what? There are far more middlemen out there than there are folks at the top or the bottom. 

Jessica Moss, “Contemplation II,” Phosphenes (Constellation Records)

Jessica Moss, “Contemplation II”

I love cities at night. There is nothing quite like the energy, the electricity teeming through a nocturnal metropolis. Skyscrapers seem to do just that — scrape at the sky. The brightest of lights, intended to illuminate the paths betwixt modern urban spaces, also create the deepest and blackest of shadows. There is mystery about the nighttime city. 

New York is famously known as the city that never sleeps, making it a strong contender for the world’s greatest city after dark. It certainly possesses the mythology. Coming of age in the 1980s, Late Night With David Letterman introduced me not just to New York City, but to New York City from midnight on. Gotham’s equally romantic and seedy metropolitan underbelly overturned on TV just after bedtime.

Montreal is another great nighttime city, arguably at New York level. I think it’s got something to do with the palimpsestic nature of the architecture and infrastructure. A city needs age to be interesting. Darkness obscures the city’s blemishes. But darkness reveals just as much as it conceals. A person’s true face emerges in the peripheral clarity afforded by a void of light. And so, too, does Montreal’s true face shimmer in the moonshine. ■

This column originally appeared in the November issue of Cult MTL. 

To see previous editions of Play Recent, please click here.