04 November 2007
My all-time favorite wordsmith / lepidopterist Vladimir Nabokov (whose image on this blog appears left but is also captured right and captioned wrong - or maybe "write," anagramatically correct) was born into a White Russian family that fled the Red Revolution in 1917 when Vlad was 18. In 1922 in Berlin, his father was killed at a political rally, trying to shelter another man from an assassin's bullet. Perhaps these are among the reasons why EXILE and the AFTERLIFE are themes that echo throughout his writing. And perhaps this is why he liked to activate the arcane idea of Ultima Thule, "the northernmost region of the habitable world to ancient Greek geographers," to represent "a distant territory or remote goal or ideal" [http://www.libraries.psu.edu/nabokov/ zembla.htm]. In his memoir, "Speak, Memory," Nabokov called this "unreal estate." True North becomes a sort of imaginable but inaccessible celestial space. [I write this, by the way, having just witnessed Matt Lauer at halftime of the Sunday Night Football game reporting from the Arctic Circle]
I bring this up because last night I had a sort of vision of my own that leads me to concur with VN that distant northern lands may indeed approach heaven on earth. I saw Swedish pop singer Jens Lekman, whose wry wit, baritoned balladry, and lush orchestral soundscapes I've been enjoying for a short while. I thought that the show would likely be a fun, even whimsical experience but I did not expect Lekman to walk onstage smiling and trailing seraphim, a band of Scandinavian ladies (FIVE of them? SIX??) all in white. They played horns, strings, accordians, maybe a triangle ... and occasionally Lekman would quit strumming and defer to his DJ (the only other male on stage) and then he and the women would spin around gleefully in unison. Lekman's encore even included a solo cover of Paul Simon's "You Can Call Me Al," during which he coyly refused to sing the chorus. The crowd did it for him.
I don't mean to make this about the rampant adorability on stage (Jens included), because if I was drooling, I was thinking too. If an American singer leads a band of uniformly dressed women then he's Robert Palmer - and the women are ironic, objectified, and not really playing their instruments. Maybe it's the Social Democratic systems of Sweden and its neighbors - standard of living, health care, etc. There was unabashed joy on the stage last night. Now American rock bands can certainly bring joy about, but they wouldn't dare embody it, busy as they are with icy-cool posturing. [Yes, I've heard of the Polyphonic Spree]. The only other time I've seen vibrations this good was when I saw Architecture in Helsinki, another traveling co-ed indie rock bliss festival. Now they are from Australia, but their name is Exhibit B.
I know that 1) Norway has a really high suicide rate and 2) this association of "norths" with everything wonderful flirts with both Santa Claus and Hitler's eugenics. But risking traveling too far afield, I think, for better or worse, these might be Un-American activities. And speaking of dangerous generalizations and endangered gyrations, have you read or read about New Yorker music critic Sasha Frere Jones' complaint about the "whiteness" of indie rock ("A Paler Shade of White: How Indie Rock Lost Its Soul" in the 10/22 issue)? A provocative article indeed. He defends it here on his blog and a rebuttal can be found here from slate.com's Carl Wilson (which, by the way, is the name of the Beach Boy who sang lead on the gorgeous pet sound "God Only Knows").