A Glass Asylum
...So I was driving down the street on my way to work on the morning of January 1st, 2017 and I got the impression that the entire world was hungover, if not still intoxicated or totally unconscious. Any hangover I might've had was actually pretty slight, I'd only had a few beers, an absinthe martini at Sidebar, and what I think was a glass of complimentary champagne at Hanny's at midnight (though things get a bit fuzzy around that point). And somehow I'd managed to get home early enough to get a full night's sleep before I had to wake up at 9:30 and go in for a late opening on New Year's Day.
The way down 7th Avenue was mostly empty, except for a few slow moving drivers who either had just woken up or had never slept at all. It was grey and bleak outside, drizzling here and there with murky clouds and slick rain puddles on the road. I was listening to David Bowie's Diamond Dogs album on Spotify, first Sweet Thing - Reprise and then Big Brother, the album's quasi-apocalyptic and dystopian overtones eerily fitting and prescient. The year was finally over, there were the celebrity deaths obviously, Bowie's included, that's what everyone was talking about, and then there was the little matter of a certain President-Elect taking office in just 19 days. With the year over, there really wasn't much more putting it off. January 1st was the comedown that everyone had been avoiding, but knew that they'd eventually have to face up to. No matter how wrecked the world got around us, we always had an essential sense of security in our deeply flawed, yet curiously reassuring, political system. I suppose these things are always a long time coming though, it's just easier to ignore them until they finally do.
Bowie had to the face the comedown himself, between the years of 1971 and 1976 he was one of the biggest rock stars on the planet. This eventually came to a head in '76 when he recorded Station to Station, one of my personal favorite albums, not only of Bowie's discography but perhaps of all-time, which was accomplished over a ten-day period in which his cocaine habit had reached such aggressive highs that he actually had no coherent recollection of having recorded it. At the worst of it he was living an increasingly desperate existence in Los Angeles, snorting amounts of cocaine which could only be described as medically fascinating, given he weighed in at little more than 75 pounds at one point, and this lifestyle only bolstered a growing paranoid obsession with the occult. Shortly thereafter he left the States for Berlin, with Iggy Pop in tow, and promptly cleaned up. In the process of which he recorded "The Berlin Trilogy" (Low, Heroes, and Lodger) with Brian Eno, which was perhaps one of the most wildly experimental and inventive periods of his career. A seemingly non-stop pushing of creative boundaries, a fearlessness which could only be attained by reaching the edge of the precipice, looking over, and turning back.
And then on the other hand Grant Morrison, for instance, has at times likened the comedown to the eerie minimalism and outright weirdness of something like the Beatles' White Album following the psychedelic highs and experimentation (both chemical and musical) of The Magical Mystery Tour and Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. The White Album, along with its two predecessors, is also one of my favorites.
January 1st 2017 was a very White Album day to me, the emptiness of the streets, the blankness of the overcast, the on-off drizzling sky. The party has to end sometime, and when it does reality comes creeping up to the door. Reality, stinging the tender nerves with its bright, even light and the monotonous whine of the baseline frequency. I took my time driving, conscious of the other drivers, and reflecting on things while I listened to Big Brother, a song which is in fact about the figurehead of the totalitarian state in George Orwell's novel 1984. The album was initially envisaged as a 1984 concept album, but Bowie couldn't secure the rights from the Orwell estate, who didn't want to see his classic novel reduced to the likes of a rock record. Even so it still maintains the novel's presence, especially so on tracks like this one, which was very sobering on a day like that.
It's actually happening, it wasn't a joke or a dream. Meanwhile war rages in Syria, dangerous far-right wing politics are sweeping across Europe even faster than refugees are, and acts of senseless politically motivated violence are growing more and more rampant. And all of this is happening as a byproduct of a world that's losing faith, with good reason, in its long-standing institutions. The reactions and the reactions to the reactions are essentially the same; buckling down, racing towards extremes, fundamentalism, isolation, locking the doors and loading the guns, the old "us vs. them" adage. An unfortunate habit of the human species that's regulated vast sections of human history to cycles of pattern and repetition. People lose power, people gain power, back and fourth, one ideology tries to overtake another totally, to control human consciousness, and ultimately fails. Ideas, unlike human beings, have the potential to last forever, trying to extinguish one, especially a good or true one, will never ultimately work. So it's a back and forth war of ideas, good and bad, the bad ones usually manifesting as ideologies, because they require a manifesto to convince you of their validity rather than being able to do so through a plain and simple word.
In the song Bowie refers to Big Brother building "a glass asylum", the implication being that we'll all be subjugate to a society where all of our thoughts and actions are transparent to the ruling power. I remember the lyric really striking me as I stopped at a light, the Light Rail skidding by with a make-up ad on the side displaying two massive blue eyes further extenuated by sparkling blue eye shadow. I've seen it countless times while I'm driving home or to work in the car, sometimes I'll see it at work from the window as I work at the trade counter. It's always hit a real Gatsby chord in me, the eyes of God looking down, or whoever's assumed his place these days. We're all aware privacy no longer exists, partially as a product of the gross overstepping of boundaries by various government agencies during the post-9/11 fervor, as seen in the various media revelations over the past few years, and partially by our own willing participating through social media. On one hand our institutions have betrayed us, on the other they've become exactly what we've asked them to as a society.
It was Huxley's contention that the rulers need permission by the ruled in order to rule, and his theory, which has proven truer and truer with the passing years, is that this would take place by the population becoming immersed in pleasure through technology. David Foster Wallace talked at length about the subject as well, but more in the sense that we would all fall victims to it, and there is no distinction between the abused and the abuser. That really we are all in this together, and that combined accountability is implicit even in Huxley's projections, because the social impulses that elect a reality TV star president or make technology a consumer-capitalist commodity first and a benefit to humanity second, at the end of the day, come down to us and only us. And that ultimately we have the power to choose.
The things which we value as a society will come to define us as a civilization. It's hit critical mass at this point, I won't lie, problems are widespread, ignorance is standard and greed is king. If you step back and look at the general cultural state, not just in America, but all across the world, we look like a massive schizophrenic organism uneasily spilling itself across the planet and smothering it's last chances at recovery in a mad-grab for resources, for power, for whatever.
So, if privacy is dead, if we're living in a glass asylum, both in transparency and fragility, right on the precipice of an era in American politics where just about everyone is pretty certain that things will go utterly and totally wrong, I say use the opportunity for everything its worth. Be completely and totally honest, not just with everyone else but yourself, dig deep and express the things you absolutely need to say. Hide nothing. Make art. Write. Communicate. And if you're angry, frustrated, and indignant, as you should be, use that energy constructively to motivate yourself, and express a better idea than the ones that exist. After Station to Station, Bowie recorded his Berlin trilogy and changed music forever, his sound reverberating and giving birth to everything that followed. And after the wave crested on the psychedelia of the 60's, and the Beatles came down, they finally said, "Let it Be" and the world listened. Because construction is the only thing that will mend destruction, and love is the only thing that will render hate irrelevant. Blur duality. Break the pattern. Rewrite the script. It's punk rock, it's Burroughs-esque.
I pulled into the parking lot at work and cut off the engine. The only cars in the lot belonged to myself and my coworkers, there was no one battering down the doors to get in to buy or sell, no one waiting. For the moment it was quiet, and there was nothing but the sound of stray drops here and there, from a blank sky.
I got out of the car and carried on.