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Stop Making Sense

As political book talks go, the one at UCLA’s Hammer Museum last Wednesday night started out grand. Janeane Garofalo turned up wearing a blingy orange cap over her bleached-blond head and squirmed modestly to Hammer director Ann Philbin’s introduction of her as a “celebrated actress”; Laura Flanders, less flashily dressed, sat graciously while Philbin announced that Flanders’ new book, Bushwomen: Tales of a Cynical Species, had just made The New York Times best-seller list. The room filled early, the audience listened intently, and Flanders seized the chance to read out loud from Lynne Cheney’s sexy Signet-classic saga of a “condom-carrying Wyoming woman,” Sisters, circa 1981.

Sisters has been overbilled as a “lesbian” novel in the way one might call The Da Vinci Code a “religious” book, but in fact, its main character, Sophie, is just an admirably promiscuous magazine editor who fucks her way across Wyoming because she believes in sexual freedom and reproductive rights. She longs, off and on, for a girl to love — not unlike, Flanders hinted, the vice-president’s mom.

“Did you know that Dick Cheney’s mom was on a softball team?” she asked.

The book was one pillar in Flanders’ argument that none of these self-reported born-agains bothered much about dirty words until, she said, “Jerry Falwell came riding over the hill” and Reagan demonstrated the value of campaigning on the anti-moral-decay ticket. “A lot of people,” said Flanders, “shed their skins in 1981, and they did it to get elected.”

Sisters also served Garofalo’s thesis: that the current administration seethes with hypocrisy, a belief she backed up with a comic’s gift for extending ironies to their logical extreme. On the matter of the recently passed “Unborn Victims of Violence,” Garofalo joked that current Republican compassion seems strangely confined to the “pre-sentient mass of cells — once you’re out, watch your back!” When Flanders griped that Bush had not united anyone in America, Garofalo jumped to remind her that “He has been a great uniter — he brought the Sunni and the Shi’a together for the first time in history. Now that’s teamwork!”

Not even the keenest wit, however, could compensate for the sense that we’d heard all of this before — or, if not exactly this, something like it: Layer upon layer of doublespeak unveiled, contradictions juxtaposed, insincerities examined; so many jokes and barbs at Bush and his cronies that this election year has come to seem like one endless roast, as if the administration’s opposition doesn’t realize there are better things to do than throw darts at the president and his coterie of low-hanging fruit, a gang so corrupt it renders conspiracy theorists superfluous. (“I mean really,” Garofalo huffed, “if you’re going to steal an election, shouldn’t you be dazzling?”) Little time remained for perennial liberal issues such as health care, raising the minimum wage, better schools or cleaner-fueled cars. To even contemplate the Democratic Party’s shortcomings seemed treacherous. When a man stood up to suggest the Democrats present a weak alternative, Garofalo, who admitted voting for Nader in 2000, gently corrected him. “With these radical dystopians, there is a difference. At least try to appear united.”

By question-and-answer time the room had grown fidgety and a little desperate, as if the four walls were closing in and only these two women had been invested with the authority to scream. It didn’t help that Air America, the alternative talk-radio station that carries Garofalo’s Majority Report, had just been bounced from its Los Angeles affiliate, or that so few reporters in the traditional media were making an issue of Bush refusing to testify to the 9/11 commission under oath.

“You know what they’re saying, don’t you?” Garofalo asked. “They’re saying, ‘You wanna talk about 9/11? Fuck you. Wanna talk about lead in the water? Fuck you.’”

She apologized for swearing, but it was almost refreshing. Even a zesty obscenity or two seemed preferable to the interminable task of comparing Bush’s deeds to his words, or the public perception of Bush to his reality, or the intellect of Bush to a monkey’s. Those easy exercises almost always yield some joke, but we’re starting to run out of jokes. Even Donald Rumsfeld, Garofalo asserted, must be amazed at how easily he dupes the public — “There must be some part of him saying, ‘What a bunch of saps!’”

Around five months ago, sex therapist Dr. Susan Block stood up at a party celebrating a spate of books critical of Bush to wonder how liberals would ever come up with a story to rival the Republicans’ tales of moral turpitude and foreigners who hate American freedom. Several Tuesday primaries and Falluja uprisings later, it seems even the best of Bush’s critics have given up trying.

 

“There is a reason some of these people gravitate toward the Republican party,” Garofalo offered in a mood of resignation. “It’s not about school vouchers and it’s not about small government. It’s because some of these people are douche bags.”

—Judith Lewis

Among the Ploverphiles

At twilight, on the patio of the downtown restaurant Ciudad, surrounded by brightly lit towers, the chef Fergus Henderson, of the renowned London restaurant St. John, gestured at a beautifully seared slice of veal heart that had just been passed as a canapé.

“We usually use ox heart,” he apologized, watching a friend reach for her third helping. “But today, we could only find hearts from younger animals. We hope that it’s all right.”

Henderson, a slender, bespectacled man whose whitewashed Clerkenwell restaurant is a few steps from the meat market that has been nourishing London for the better part of the millennium, was at Ciudad promoting The Whole Beast, a new American edition of his splendid, offal-intensive 1999 cookbook, Nose to Tail Eating. After the out-of-print original was praised in The New York Times last year, Nose to Tail became possibly the most prized cookbook in the world for a minute. Before I managed to snag an expensive eBay copy from a bookseller in Harwich, Essex, I and most of the food people I know made do with fuzzy third-generation photocopies that were passed around the food world like samizdat copies of Brodsky. Henderson’s straightforward recipes for things like rolled pigs’ spleens, gratinated tripe and crispy pigs’ tails had the weight of revelation to those of us who had previously had to rely on sketchy instructions from 19th-century housewives’ manuals.

Henderson, who is not just a chef’s chef, but a chef’s chef’s chef, spent most of the evening munching deviled kidneys and discussing one sort of animal protein or another, even plover, a thick-kneed shore bird better known for its delicious eggs.

“We have three types of birds in England,” Henderson said, flinging his arms toward the moon. “There are the birds it is permitted to shoot and eat, and there are the birds it is permissible neither to shoot nor eat. Plovers fall onto a third list: birds that must not be hunted, but may be eaten if they are ‘accidentally’ killed. It’s not often that we get them, and when we do, it isn’t many.”

Is there general rejoicing among the ploverphiles?

“Oh, they’ll call us — they know somehow — and we’ll generally reserve a bird for them if they ask; put it in a bag; write ‘Mr. Brown’s Plover’ on it; and put it in a separate refrigerator. Although to be honest, we often end up cooking the birds for ourselves. It eats very well, a plover.”

In Britain, where the outbreaks of foot-and-mouth and BSE were recently so pestilential that a Cabinet secretary once felt compelled to reassure the populace by eating steak tartare on national television, Henderson’s menu of wholesome, plainly cooked marrow bones and pigs’ heads and lambs’ brains at St. John seemed as revolutionary in the late 1990s as the Sex Pistols, and it became fiercely fashionable to dine on the kidneys, jellied tripe, and even roast beef with horseradish that his customers’ grandparents would have once considered stodgy. Traditional English cooking had become avant-garde. Although it was still English.

“With all of the mad cow and such in England at the moment,” Henderson said, “we are very, very careful to follow government regulations to the letter concerning bones and nerve tissue and such.”

“So you won’t find grilled spinal cord on the menu?” someone asks. “It’s very popular in Argentina.”

Henderson looks unamused.

“No grilled spinal cord. They eat a lot of things in South America, but it doesn’t mean that Londoners have to eat them.”

—Jonathan Gold

Anti-turntablism: Vinyl Is Heavy

The instruments of choice at the Knitting Factory last week were six or so PowerBook G4s, one Toshiba, four Dells, one VAIO, one VPR Matrix and something called My First Laptop. It wasn’t a new-music ensemble, but the Los Angeles qualifying round of the Laptop Battle, a national tournament for laptop DJs founded by the Seattle-based, geek-hipster collective Fourthcity Studios. Sixteen contestants each had three minutes to do a live DJ set from their laptops — head-to-head against an opponent in single elimination, à la 8 Mile — before a panel of five local judges and the audience (whose vote counted for half). Winners from the qualifying rounds advance to September’s national battle at the Decibel Festival in Seattle.

“‘It’s like watching someone check their e-mail’ was the cliché about laptop shows,” admits Kris Moon, a skinny and gregarious 29-year-old Seattle DJ, record-store clerk and member of the group that started the one-on-one showdowns. “We were trying to break out of that mold and add a competitive edge.

 

“It’s the judges’ job to discern ‘Is this hand-crafted or is it just a sample of a Jay-Z loop?’” Moon explained. “And if it is a Jay-Z loop, did he fuck it up, add his own touch?”

Several CalArts students were coaxed into battle by the elder statesman of the competition, Mark Trayle, new-media chair of the school’s music-composition program. Trayle has played experimental electronic music since the late ’70s, and in his spare time improvises around town with avant-luminary types like Nels Cline and Vinny Golia. Of his own style, he said: “I’m a complete misfit. I used to like to call it ‘table-core,’ because I just had everything up on a table.”

Most of the CalArts contingent, who along with Trayle bowed out in the early rounds, played IDM (intelligent dance music) or noise — a defiantly un-danceable subgenre characterized by chaotic experimental soundscapes. Very “computer if computers smoked crack”–sounding and occasionally “Um, hey, is that broken? Could you turn it off? It’s hurting my ears”–sounding. Even so, the crowd was appreciative of the more cerebral music, if not so much inspired to get their swerve on.

The contestant I cheered loudest for was Ensenada’s 27-year-old Ignacio “Nacho” Chavez (a.k.a. Plankton Man), a co-founder of the Mexican electronica troupe Nortec Collective. He studied computer programming, has never performed on turntables and showed up in a navy tracksuit lugging the F.A. Porsche–designed VPR laptop in a backpack: “I made a lot of loops, and then I’m gonna improvise. I have Mexican guitars, trumpets, tubas . . . and some plug-ins, to tweak and fuck the sound up.”

The final round came down to Paul Fuhr (the Demix), a 25-year-old recently terminated from Maverick Records’ new-media department who spins on Tuesdays at Star Shoes, and 20-year-old Aaron Raab (Dream Electric), also recently terminated from his design gig at an online auction company. Raab, the winner, admitted that he mostly just triggered samples he created the week before the competition, but his emphasis on, as he put it, “getting people movin’ on the dance floor” did help influence a friendly audience over judges who seemed more impressed with improv.

The most engaging performance of the night came from Jeff Landis, a 25-year-old L.A. native who painted a Rollie Fingers–cum–Dalí handlebar moustache and monocle on his face and brought a sandwich and a kid’s toy called My First Laptop onstage.

When his three-minute shtick began, Landis dug into his sandwich and announced that he was going to get on the Internet and check his e-mail, while at the same time thumbing the goofy toy laptop’s brightly colored, kid-sized buttons and making it bleep/blorp. He then intimated that the thing must be broken, flipped it over and removed the base plate, as if to “fix” it. (People have figured out that you can rip open Speak & Spells and analog toys that emit weird synth sounds, solder on new modified, or “bent,” circuit boards, and then touch some insulated metal cords to the exposed parts while pushing the buttons at the same time in a process that elicits gleefully wacky and wholly unintended sounds from the toys.)

Landis described his style as “poppycock hogwash dorkcore 2004.” That sounds about right.

—Mark Hefflinger


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