I Hope You’re As Bad As Me

November 8, 2011 § 1 Comment

Relax, it’s not an actual review/report on Bad As Me, the new (and excellent) album by Tom Waits. I’m not going to get review-crazy, especially so soon after the review from Sunday, but I am going to talk a little bit about it.

From my experience, a lot of people don’t really like to listen to Tom Waits. His voice is grainy and coarse, he’s primarily a blues musician which is far from popular these days, and he is, well, weird. Not only are some of his songs just plain out there, he has no qualms about presenting himself as such. Which, y’know, is fine with me!

The two of them had a drinking contest soon after this photo was taken. The chicken won.

That picture, coincidentally, is of Tom’s character from Mystery Men, one of the best movies ever. You should go see it. NOW. In any case, Tom’s music can be described as folk and blues. He’s very classically “bluesy”, but he’s not afraid of ballads or upbeat, almost swing music. I linked to one of the songs, “Chicago”, in my last post. It’s well worth a listen. Or 15.

But whether I think his music is good or not just dances around one of the man reasons why I like him so much. While I like “I Don’t Wanna Grow Up” as much as the next kid, the reason that I keep going back to Tom is for his sad songs. Who remembers their Aristotle? What? You haven’t read Poetics? Well, neither have I. But I’ve certainly read my Sophocles.

"I prefer Leonard Cohen, myself."

Of course I’m talking about catharsis. If there’s one idea that’s shaped a good deal of my writing, it’s that grief and sadness are topics that need to be addressed. More than anything else, this is done best through art so that those feelings can be vicariously (but still actually) drained from the viewer/listener/reader. Hence, the blues. Hence, Antigone. Hence, “Guernica“.

Yet one of the problems that I’ve got with modern Western media (and yes, there are many) is an inability to deal with grief, which became so strong that I made it one of the inspirations for starting Crown of Ash and Dust. By this point (I do hope you’ve been keeping up with the story), it should be clear that the protagonist’s children are dead. What precise role he played in their deaths isn’t yet clear, but they are dead and gone. He is literally unable to deal with his guilt to the point that whenever he thinks about them, physical memories actually try and choke him to death.

But let’s compare this with, say, the worst movie I’ve seen in the past few weeks. In Crazy Stupid Love (which should not be watched unless you really really like Ryan Gosling. Hell, even Emma Stone doesn’t hang around long enough to justify her salary) Steve Carrel’s character is pretty much forced to get a surprise divorce from his wife. This is a life-changing moment that has nothing good about it. Sure, it’s a rom-com and there has to be a happy ending, but I would expect some level of balance. The man’s (and woman’s, but the movie doesn’t follow Julianne Moore’s character as much as Carrel’s. I believe it also fails the Bechdel test!) life has been destroyed. I would expect Hollywood to treat this with tact and distinction. So how does the movie show his grief?

He gets a little drunk at a bar and talks to a bunch of random people about his divorce. That is, until Ryan Gosling shows him how to pick up women for easy sex. Not only is that a regular Wednesday night for me, it’s offensive and stupid (and amusingly ironic, as easy sex is what killed the marriage). Seriously, this movie isn’t that good. It also featured a weird, weird sub-plot involving a 17-year old girl lusting after Steve Carrell and taking nudey photos of herself. I was in no way involved in the making of that movie, and I still felt wrong watching it.

Why was the 40-year Old Virgin so much better than any other movie I've done?

(That’s another problem to talk about later: how lots of modern media conflate lust with love. But that’s for another day. Currently: grief. And Tom Waits. Who also deals with lust, but he’s kind of old and not that attractive, so I also don’t want to think about that now. Or ever, really.)

That’s grief. That’s sadness in this day and age in the West, where almost no-one dies suddenly and sadness is portrayed as something that can be purchased away. I’m not going to bemoan all of modern society and say that we’re hopelessly ruined (we’re not), but I notice that we are particularly divorced from tragedy in a way that other societies and people are not. There’s the common joke of the office that gets a new guy from South Africa, and suddenly, all their lunch-time kvetching is suddenly so trivial. I’m reminded of G. K. Chesterton’s famous observation about the Irish:

“For the great Gaels of Ireland
Are the men that God made mad,
For all their wars are merry,
And all their songs are sad.”

The inability to accurately model grief (and sub-par writing, and emphasis on heteronormative relationships, and ass-backwards approach to sex, and tired, formulaic plotting and why did I watch this movie again? Did I really expect a rom-com to be good? Come back, No Strings Attached! I’ll forgive you that one line that ruined the movie for me! Oh wait, no I won’t. That line sucked) was one of the reasons I disliked Crazy Stupid Love, because people have to cope  in real life, people have to work through emotion and then let it out. Sometimes we all need our relief, and relief can come from sad things we willingly subject ourselves to.

That’s why I occasionally put on “Come on Up to the House“,  “Anywhere I Lay My Head”, and, if I really want to feel it, “Fawn“. It’s not some sort of  vain desire to remember what feelings actually feel like, or to drug myself on emotion. I do it because it is difficult to be alive, and sometimes, you’re the only person who knows it.

That said, there are more reasons to listen to Tom Waits than for the cathartic effect. His lyrical genius is one, his bitter playfulness is another, and his weird magnetism is a third. If you’re looking for something to listen to (and you haven’t picked up the new Florence + The Machine album yet), then I would highly recommend you listen to Bad as Me. 

If only so, y’know, you can be as bad as me.

Quick-fiction Chaser!

“The zombie the necromancer raised lurched unsteadily towards her, rotting bones giving it an unsteady gait, but the arms were outstretched for a macabre embrace. The breath wheezed in an out of the creature’s pitted lungs, and for a second, she feared the spell had failed, that they body was too corrupt to retain any living memory. It suddenly wheezed out a single word: “Ma..ma” Nagthast, the Dread Necromancer of the Western Wild, fell to her knees as tears forced themselves out. “Mama’s here, son,” was all she could manage as she returned the dead thing’s embrace.

And some happiness? Why not!



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