“That’s The Story of My Life” (The Velvet Underground)

Lou Reed has only a pair of observations to make, and then repeats. First: “the story of my life” has been a moral one through and through, and its guiding thread is “the difference between wrong and right.” On the other hand, Billy Name (a key participant in La Monte Young’s Theatre of Eternal Music and Andy Warhol’s Factory scene) has clearly told Lou: “both those words are dead.” The world is now beyond right and wrong, or good and evil, as Nietzsche might say, and Billy and Lou are exploring superabundant life and the will to power in New York’s gay bars and with the help of methedrine. And that, too: “that’s the story of my life.” In short, the singer finds himself between two worlds, in two distinct historical contexts, and each acts as both a break with and an ongoing dialectical critique of the other. Relaxedly gliding between these moments in the ongoing history of nihilism, Reed’s vector points two ways and suggests that metaphysics has been weakened (but still has a part to play).


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“Thrown to the Wolves” (Death Angel)

JoAnna Russ’ narrator in We Who Are About to . . . attempts to practice ars moriendi while her companions on a possibly uninhabited planet are preoccupied with the survival of civilization. While she doesn’t realize that her antagonists are also practicing the art of dying in a modern way, there is the realization that either option demands extreme violence. Analogically, different iterations of the christian guidebooks—or, currently, “best practices” manuals—to ars moriendi, at times, rehearse familiar debates about the propriety of innovation. This trax, from the album Ars Moriendi, exploits this tension by refocusing. The “pack” coming for you values “no compromise,” and managed banishment is their praxis. You won’t be left alone. The assault is constant and demands ritual sacrifices of whatever type of family you’ve culled together. There are no future decisions. One remains “hiding,” “choking,” and “beg[ging]. The key is that you’ve been “betrayed,” as there once was a promise since withdrawn by the state. What can be picked from the remains? Here, it’s the interruption of “worth” and the “dignity” of it all.


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“Freedom Death Dance” (Eugene McDaniels)

Tritone half-steps—no half-steppin’—lope forward then back, while a ballad alternates with admonishment. Apocryphal stories have either Spiro Agnew or H.R. Haldeman calling Atlantic Records and condemning the album, Headless Heroes of the Apocalypse, leading to its burial. And it’s really a burial that McDaniels wants us to consider. Rather than “ignore the graves we dance upon,” there’s a question of praxis involved. In an easy vein, we could take the trax at face value. Take note, hedonists, hippies, and the young: nothing you do will stop nuclear destruction, global hunger, or the spread of unfreedom. You’ve lost your way and insult those revolutionaries that came before you. But hold on. In “The Parasite (For Buffy),” the Pilgrim’s domination of natives begins (and continues) an incessant narrative of power choosing division over “breath[ing] freedom.” Likewise, McDaniels pegs the military-industrial complex as the owners of the “chess board” in “Headless Heroes,” resigning Jews and Arabs, left- and right-wings, and “niggers and crackers” to duke it out among themselves. How should we properly memorialize the dead? By founding a new sense of experience and dancing in a different way. To “speak of the future,” the checklist of basic liberatory goals and desires should be recategorized as a basically banal bare minimum. The “amount of dancing” we do won’t “make us free.” “Be[ing] in touch with your own humanity” initiates dissatisfaction with a liberal recognition and a move toward some new “news.” “Gather ‘round” and “be free” if and only if what you want exceeds the possibilities that this limited sense of the world offers. That way, “justice and equality” won’t have to be brought to anyone.

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“Revolution 1” (The Beatles)

Renounces violent legal and institutional change in the present, in favor of a preliminary project of individual moral reformism (“free your mind”): the final, most sinister implication of the doctrine, “All you need is love.” Backing track downshifts the impulse to “rock” toward quietistic, contemplative, shooby-doo-wop shuffle. The famed altered lyric in this White Album version, “Don’t you know that you can count me out/in,” amounts to a bit of pandering, really, toward all self-styled revolutionists. Let’s compare it to Marx (Groucho, that is), and his more general allergy to community and inclusion: “I don’t care to belong to any club that will have me as a member.” Marx will have none of it; Lennon, on the other hand, doesn’t want to be bound to the insurgency and its strictures, but would like to continue to serve as sniping, spiritual advisor from the sidelines. Coming off more than a bit Fabian in inclination (and no, not Fabian Forte), it’s useful to remember that the Fabian Society was named after the general Fabius Maximus (280-203 BC), known as the “Cunctator,” or the “Delayer.” Putting off revolution while remaining comfortably glum.


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