It’s that time of year again. This March, Portals is headed down to Austin for SXSW 2014—explore the event details and RSVP on our interactive site.
There is a palpable ugliness I avoided in art for a long time. Not just in my own meek attempts at creating anything, but also in my consumption of more popular and accessible art and in conversations about it. It was an aversion that had grown since I was twelve or thirteen years old and shooting photos of my friends in the faux-suburban-woods around our houses, carefully avoiding powerlines, parked cars, and whatever trash was lying around. Not only were these intrusions deemed compositionally unnecessary, but they dated the photograph. I wanted to create something timeless because everything I liked seemed timeless. It was all devoid of modern clutter, if only because it wasn’t very modern to begin with. I grew up in a land of strip malls, chain restaurants, and man-made lakes. I didn’t see a way to mine any beauty or honesty from those surroundings and I couldn’t see why anyone would care for that kind of honesty regardless.
Mark Kozelek has crafted in Benji an album that would have, at one point in my life, made me want to turn it off out of embarrassment and either find some way to make fun of it until I felt comfortable with myself again, or never speak of it with anyone and pretend I’d never even listened in the first place. Luckily, it’s found its way out into the world at a time when I’ve come to fully accept that ugliness that I used to find so uncomfortable.
Most reviews have undoubtedly covered [to death] the themes, style, and really, every aspect of Kozelek’s dense, dense album. While musically astute, it’s the word count (and sheer amount of detail) that’s drummed up debates over the album’s merit. Robert Ham’s review for Paste succinctly sums up one view by stating that it’s “yet another album that is solely for himself and those obsessive fans who want all the gory details of his past. For the rest of the world, there’s not much here to make any real connection with.” I’m not going to posit that the album is not selfish, and I’m by no means attempting to devalue or disparage Ham’s opinion—it just happens to be the piece that got me thinking about what the role of an album like Benji might be in 2014, or really any year.
There is an entitlement to the record, even beyond lyrical asides about “this beautiful musical world I was meant to be in” and the uniform, unending confinement to Kozelek’s head. Kozelek has crafted a record in Benji that would be a career-killing move for many artists with either less finesse (and vision) or less clout. One wonders if he’s as aware of this as he seems, especially when grousing about his more successful friends à la the closing track’s lengthy concern with Ben Gibbard’s most notable side project. It’s an ugly contradiction, and through and through it’s an ugly album. When I first heard “Richard Ramirez Died Today of Natural Causes” I was as jarred by how confrontational the recording style felt as I was offput by Kozelek’s listing of personal grievances in the latter verses. It wasn’t until I got to listen to the album in full that these awkward lyrical asides started to blur together into one long, hypnagogic whole—half narrative and half soliloquy. Maybe all soliloquy, even, but when taken together it shows itself to be something very different than just an aging musician listing the pop culture detritus and familial stories of his life. It’s a cunning, clever, wryly and knowingly funny album that is constantly doubling back on its own mythology and footnotes in a way that David Foster Wallace never dreamt of—that is to say, consistently and with purpose. Characters and details are never superfluous, as many reviews have noted, and rather than shuffling in to provide props for Kozelek’s current emotional state, they orbit around him, constantly tugging at and toying with the scenery even when they’re out of sight.
The night before I first listened to Benji, I watched Todd Solondz’s Happiness for the first time, which was an oddly fitting precursor to the album. Both Happiness and Benji are dense, challenging pieces, and both explore ideas of personal melancholia through an ensemble of characters. I thought about the film the entirety of my four-hour drive home from New York the next morning and I ended up listening to Benji in full probably eight or nine times that night. The next morning I woke up and had some terrible stomach virus. I’ll probably always tie that to the album and I haven’t really been able to listen to it since then except in brief bursts. That, in itself, is probably the most fitting summary of Benji I can think of.
That is, there is an ugliness to the album that’s very hard to stomach. Almost twenty-five minutes into the record, “Jim Wise” signals a shift from the longer and more meandering opening tracks to a brief, oddly ear-wormy song composed of nothing more than vocals and a bright Rhodes piano melody. Amidst one of the most heartbreaking and affecting stories I’ve ever heard (or read) are scattered details of the eponymous character’s life—his “long, white Amish man’s beard,” his Stevie Nicks records, the food Kozelek and his father bring him (Panera Bread), his catheter, and so on. It’s uncomfortable; it walks a line somewhere between unnecessarily detached and stunningly human. It’s also the greatest example of why Benji is such a triumph, whether you give a fuck about Mark Kozelek’s life, musical career, regrets, prostate issues, or anything else. Where he could have crafted a selfish, dull monument to himself, Kozelek instead has drawn in every character he’s come across who still haunts him in some way and let them all—himself included—flail against each other in a way that somehow feels both organic and orchestrated at once. It’s this sense of contradiction and his refusal to shy away from it or underplay it that makes Benji so unique and vital in 2014.
Benji is out now via Caldo Verde Records.
Residency is a four-part weekly journal entry brought to you by one of our favorite artists every month.
This week, Woodsman explores the work of experimental filmmaker Stan Brakhage.
This is a Portal: Three — Metaphors on Vision
We were introduced to the work of Stan Brakhage as film students in Colorado, where he made his home and taught for many years. There’s something about his approach to film-making that has inspired this band on many different levels. Maybe part of it has to do with the certain relationship a person develops with the landscape and the ability to communicate with one’s surroundings. Or maybe it lies strictly within approach and working from inside out rather than vice-versa. We’ve picked some films from Brakhage’s early years along with excerpts from an interview conducted in 1963, just prior to the release of Brakhage’s venerable “Mothlight” to help illustrate this relationship.
The hand painting was always in direct relationship to the particular kind of “closed eye vision” that comes only in dreams. The commonest type of “closed-eye vision” is what we get when we close our eyes in daylight and what the moving of shapes and forms through the red pattern of the eyelid. Since PRELUDE was based on a dream vision, as I remember it, it had to include “closed-eye vision.” Painting was the closest approximation to it; so I painted, throwing down patterns and controlling them in various ways. Shapes emerge out of that kind of eye-nerve action and reaction. The next step, once I had one whole strip of film was to start with the second, the superimposition strip. One can have three, four or more strips the full length of the film and superimpose one image on another wherever one wants. I took the strip that was largely determined by change and surrealistic operations and began editing a second strip to it. From this point on, everything that I laid down was hyper-conscious. I would go back and change shots to alter the form in strip number one as the need would arise in the developing from number two. Strip two always developed out of what was on strip one to structure it and to transform it into something that would be comparable to what could be remembered when one awoke in the morning. On one hand there was that incomprehensible mass of material arising out of surrealistic and chance operation concerns which I called the “chaos” roll; on the other hand there was the “structured” roll which represented the dream transformed and made accessible for conscious memory in the morning.
I see patterns moving that are the same patterns that I see when I close my eyes; and can also see the same kind of scene that I see when my eyes are open. At an extremely intensive moment I can see from the inside out and the outside in.
Dog Star Man
I kept saying “I think it’s going to be something like a Noh Drama in slow-motion.” I didn’t know why I said Noh Drama because I had never been concerned with it. I hadn’t really studied any form of the Noh Drama except what came to my by way of Ezra Pound. That was the literal structural sense that I was inspired by for the total form of PART 1. And yet I had to get the mind disengaged. I had to engage my mind in some area that would leave the rest of me free for the extension of love; and my trick for doing it was to question whether I could make the form grow stronger through change operations than through a conscious decision.
I would say I grew very quickly as a film artist once I got rid of drama as prime source of inspiration. I began to feel that all history, all life, all that I would have as material with which to work, would have to come from inside of me out rather than as some form imposed from the outside in. I had the concept of everything radiating out of me, and that the more personal or egocentric I would become, the deeper I would reach and the more I could touch those universal concerns which would involve all men. Now the films are being struck off, not in the gesture, but in the very real action moving out. Where I take action strongest and most immediately is the reaching through the power of all that love toward my wife and (she towards me) and somewhere where those actions meet and cross, and bring forth children and films and inspire concerns with plants and rocks and all sights seen, a new center composed of action, is made.
Residency is a four-part weekly journal entry brought to you by one of our favorite artists every month.
This week, Woodsman take us farther down the rabbit hole by imagining a conversation on human existence and reality with Philip K. Dick.
This is a Portal: Two
Original Audio / Visuals by Woodsman.
Philip K. Dick: A chamber is a static existence, a quarter, a room. It could be anything, it is your own reality.
Woodsman: Then what is reality?
PKD: Well, I will tell you what interests me, what I consider important. I can’t claim to be an authority on anything, but I can honestly say that certain matters absolutely fascinate me, and that I write about them all the time. The two basic topics which fascinate me are “What is reality?” and “What constitutes the authentic human being?” Over the twenty-seven years in which I have published novels and stories I have investigated these two interrelated topics over and over again. I consider them important topics. What are we? What is it which surrounds us, that we call the not-me, or the empirical or phenomenal world?
W: Phenomenal world?
PKD: Finally, in the story, the dog begins to imagine that someday the garbagemen will eat the people in the house, as well as stealing their food. Of course, the dog is wrong about this. We all know that garbagemen do not eat people. But the dog’s extrapolation was in a sense logical—given the facts at his disposal. The story was about a real dog, and I used to watch him and try to get inside his head and imagine how he saw the world. Certainly, I decided, that dog sees the world quite differently than I do, or any humans do. And then I began to think, Maybe each human being lives in a unique world, a private world, a world different from those inhabited and experienced by all other humans. And that led me wonder, If reality differs from person to person, can we speak of reality singular, or shouldn’t we really be talking about plural realities? And if there are plural realities, are some more true (more real) than others? What about the world of a schizophrenic? Maybe it’s as real as our world. Maybe we cannot say that we are in touch with reality and he is not, but should instead say his reality is so different from ours that he can’t explain his to us, and we can’t explain ours to him. The problem, then, is that if subjective worlds are experienced too differently, there occurs a breakdown of communication… and there is the real illness.
W: It’s like when I was fourteen and I got my first cell phone, I began to exist in two very separate realities, but who’s to say which one is legitimate?
PKD: So I ask, in my writing, “What is real?” Because unceasingly we are bombarded with pseudo-realities manufactured by very sophisticated people using very sophisticated electronic mechanisms. I do not distrust their motives; I distrust their power. They have a lot of it. And it is an astonishing power: that of creating whole universes, universes of the mind. I ought to know. I do the same thing. It is my job to create universes, as the basis of one novel after another. And I have to build them in such a way that they do not fall apart two days later. Or at least that is what my editors hope. However, I will reveal a secret to you: I like to build universes which do fall apart. I like to see them come unglued, and I like to see how the characters in the novels cope with this problem. I have a secret love of chaos. There should be more of it. Do not believe—and I am dead serious when I say this—do not assume that order and stability are always good, in a society or in a universe. The old, the ossified, must always give way to new life and the birth of new things. Before the new things can be born the old must perish. This is a dangerous realization, because it tells us that we must eventually part with much of what is familiar to us. And that hurts. But that is part of the script of life. Unless we can psychologically accommodate change, we ourselves begin to die, inwardly. What I am saying is that objects, customs, habits, and ways of life must perish so that the authentic human being can live. And it is the authentic human being who matters most, the viable, elastic organism which can bounce back, absorb, and deal with the new.
W: I like that, “universes of the mind.” So what about the authentic human?
PKD: The authentic human being is one of us who instinctively knows what he should not do, and, in addition, he will balk at doing it. He will refuse to do it, even if this brings down dread consequences to him and to those whom he loves. This, to me, is the ultimately heroic trait of ordinary people; they say no to the tyrant and they calmly take the consequences of this resistance. Their deeds may be small, and almost always unnoticed, unmarked by history. Their names are not remembered, nor did these authentic humans expect their names to be remembered. I see their authenticity in an odd way: not in their willingness to perform great heroic deeds but in their quiet refusals. In essence, they cannot be compelled to be what they are not.
W: So what about those alternate realities? How do we differentiate?
PKD: The power of spurious realities battering at us today—these deliberately manufactured fakes never penetrate to the heart of true human beings. I watch the children watching TV and at first I am afraid of what they are being taught, and then I realize, They can’t be corrupted or destroyed. They watch, they listen, they understand, and, then, where and when it is necessary, they reject. There is something enormously powerful in a child’s ability to withstand the fraudulent. A child has the clearest eye, the steadiest hand. The hucksters, the promoters, are appealing for the allegiance of these small people in vain. True, the cereal companies may be able to market huge quantities of junk breakfasts; the hamburger and hot dog chains may sell endless numbers of unreal fast-food items to the children, but the deep heart beats firmly, unreached and unreasoned with. A child of today can detect a lie quicker than the wisest adult of two decades ago. When I want to know what is true, I ask my children. They do not ask me; I turn to them.
W: So where does that leave “Us”?
PKD: Time is speeding up. And to what end? Maybe we were told that two thousand years ago. Or maybe it wasn’t really that long ago; maybe it is a delusion that so much time has passed. Maybe it was a week ago, or even earlier today. Perhaps time is not only speeding up; perhaps, in addition, it is going to end.
And if it does, the rides at Disneyland are never going to be the same again. Because when time ends, the birds and hippos and lions and deer at Disneyland will no longer be simulations, and, for the first time, a real bird will sing.
Week 1 | Week 2 | Week 3 | Week 4
Sessions are intimate performances filmed exclusively for Portals.
Artist Mix is an ongoing series of mixtapes curated by some of our favorite artists.
This month, The St. John’s, Newfoundland-based singer-songwriter Aaron Powell, a.k.a. Fog Lake, highlights a handful of his favorite songs—featuring Ricky Eat Acid, Elliott Smith, Neu!, and more.
01. Viet Cong – “Static Wall”
02. Ricky Eat Acid – “seeing dead cats in my dreams”
03. Atlas Sound – “777 (Walks Backward)”
04. Simply Saucer – “Bullet Proof Nothing”
05. Casino Versus Japan – “Lucky Lucious”
06. Elliott Smith – “No Name #3″
07. John Frusciante – “Running Away Into You”
08. Neu! – “Fur Immer (Forever)”
Fog Lake’s new full-length, Virgo Indigo, is available now via Orchid Tapes.
Residency is a four-part weekly journal entry brought to you by one of our favorite artists every month.
This month, the Brooklyn-based psych-rock outfit Woodsman—who recently released their new self-titled album—will be sharing unique pieces each and every Friday throughout the month of February. Their first installment features mind-bending visuals accompanied by some illuminating words from psychedelic philosopher Terence McKenna.
Woodsman: This is a Portal – One
Psychedelic drugs are as important to the study of UFOs as the telescope was to the redefining of astronomy. You can meet the alien. You can meet the alien tomorrow night if your connections are good enough. And you can meet the alien over and over and over again—you said this is what you wanted, baby. It’s on its way, it’s being served. Society feels anxiety about psychedelic drugs, which do not cause addiction, ruin lives, or inspire people to rob banks. Nothing has ever been adduced against them except that they give you funny ideas. Well, I think this is a crowd familiar with being stigmatized for dealing in funny ideas. They haven’t made UFOs illegal, but they certainly have made psychedelic drugs illegal. This is because they are the portal.
You are not to be a consumer of the UFO it is not for your amusement—it is for your transformation, and you can play the game of waiting with the uninitiated, or you can simply go look at the end of the movie. Shamans have been doing this for at least a hundred thousand years. It is a process of opening to an experience, not an ideology. Now you need to take it one vibratory level over and cut your teeth on what we’ve been putting up with for years, which is these alien entities that are so easily contacted and dealt with.
They are doing something. They use a language you can see. They can condense meaning before your very eyes. For them, syntax is not acoustical rules, it’s pictorial rules. They will scramble forward elbowing each other jumping up and down very excited and they will say look at this, look at this! And these objects themselves emit sound… Don’t give way to amazement… Just pay attention…
This week, Sea Oleena wraps up her month-long stay with some thoughts on Gwendolyn MacEwen‘s poem Dark Pines Under Water, Gabriel García Márquez‘s novel One Hundred Years of Solitude, the importance of confronting and releasing your day-to-day experiences, and more.
This land like a mirror turns you inward
And you become a forest in a furtive lake;
The dark pines of your mind reach downward,
You dream in the green of your time,
Your memory is a row of sinking pines.
Explorer, you tell yourself that this is not what you came for
Although it is good here, and green;
You had meant to move with a kind of largeness,
You had planned a heavy grace, an anguished dream.
But the dark pines of your mind dig deeper
And you are sinking, sinking, sleeper
In an elementary world;
There is something down there and you want it told.
-Gwendolyn MacEwen, Dark Pines Under Water
* * *
The first time I read Dark Pines Under Water, three years ago, I was sitting on a carpeted floor in the dim-lit poetry aisle of the Indigo book store on St Catherine’s Street in downtown Montreal. The second time I read it was thirty seconds later. I don’t remember how many times I repeated it, both out loud and within my own being, but it was many. I couldn’t believe that I was reading that exact combination of words, feeling that exact combination of feelings, at that exact moment. Something inside of me broke open. The book was bought that night and sits today on my windowsill, holding, still, the words that shook me so violently the night I first read them.
My second album wouldn’t exist in the way it exists today if it wasn’t for Gabriel García Márquez’s novel One Hundred Years of Solitude (which I urge—with a passion reserved for only my deepest convictions—every single one of you to read at some point in your life). Words are, for me, the most constant vehicle for inspiration; both receiving and relaying. This idea of differentiating between receiving and relaying is, however, a relatively new realization for me. Inspiration has always felt elusive in its own way; an abstract idea, something ***flying over my head in a million pieces,*** shaping itself in my mind whenever it felt like landing. So I would wait for it. Patiently or impatiently, I would wait until it saw fit to grace my life with its presence, not understanding that I had the ability to pull it down with my two hands from the air above my body. Most importantly though, I would wait for all inspiration in this way.
Words in the context of receiving—reading, hearing—provide the kind of reliable inspiration that drives me to write, in the way I would assume moving images provide inspiration to film makers, photographs provide inspiration to photographers. They are a kind of affirmation; a nod of encouragement as I step in the direction I’ve chosen for the time being. This is the inspiration I draw upon when I find myself struggling with momentum, drive, intent.
Words in the context of relaying—writing, speaking, singing—are what I turn to again and again in order to communicate the kinds of inspirations that can be found on a more universal level. The small moments I feel my way through and around on a daily basis; the colour of the sky seen through a curtain-less window upon accidentally waking at 7am. The larger movements I make on my path; sharp turns and slow arcs. These are the events that we all experience and that we all hold the potential to draw our own inspiration from, and, in drawing, open up possibilities within ourselves for release. It’s important to release. It’s equally important to realize that the release can look vastly different not only from one person to the next, but, within the realm of one person, from one day to the next, one year to the next, one week, hour, decade.
Before we release, however, it’s necessary to confront; to notice the world and our place within it. It’s important both to see life and to see where life is missing; to live with eyes open.
So, with a warmth and a love and a gratitude felt in all of my being, I will say thank you for reading through my ramblings this last month, and I will leave you with the final few words of a long poem I’ve been returning and returning to in the last few days.
* * *
Sail forth! steer for the deep waters only!
Reckless, O soul, exploring, I with thee, and thou with me;
For we are bound where mariner has not yet dared to go,
And we risk the ship, ourselves, and all.
O brave soul!
O farther, farther sail!
O daring joy, but safe! Are they not all the seas of God?
O farther, farther, farther sail!