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xXx -- notes from the emo-American diaspora -- xXx
I was born in 1990. The era of MTV and VH1. The first green-shoots of reality television sprouting into the collective unconscious. Sonic Youth was getting ready to pass the countercultural torch to Nirvana. George H.W. Bush was president. Like many Americans, I inherited a kaleidoscope of cultures with which I might try to construct an identity.
And like most Americans, I grew up between a few different worlds.
Occasionally at parties, I’ll self-describe as a Peruvian Jew, on account of my parents. This is true on paper (depending on how much of a stickler you are about matrilineal Judaism) but the prevailing narrative of my childhood was that my family had “escaped” Peru (described to me as a ‘horrible crime-ridden wasteland’), making me hesitant to ever wholeheartedly embrace my heritage as a child of the Incan Empire. On the Judaism front, I don’t think there was a single Jewish religious or ethnic tradition we ever practiced, other than kvetching.
My mom was a devout Catholic (still is) and my ethnically Jewish dad was an atheist. They agreed to disagree. Spiritually, I spent most of my life, including my 20s, as a self-described apatheist, a word I invented while writing my unpublished teenage fever dream novella The Pursuit of Apathyness. Apatheism, I’d explicate to anyone willing to listen, was a theological position based on not giving a fuck about the existence of God, who always appeared to not give a fuck about the existence of me. Nihilist agnosticism with an edge.
My intellectual justification for this so-called apatheism was that the goldfish is just not equipped with the hardware to understand who or what is changing the water in the bowl. Neither were we, as humans, equipped to ponder the existence of one or more deities substantially more complex and multidimensional than ourselves, and it was foolish and arrogant to think that we were capable of any meaningful insight there. This justification still holds a bit of water in my mind. What the hell is water? Only an anthropomorphized goldfish could care. Moreover, it was always unclear to me what relevancy theological pondering had to my primary late-teens / early-twenties objective of chasing hot girls and getting fucked up. Which is how I ended up taking stupid pictures like this in Vegas:
Growing up without any real ethnicity or religion to contribute any sort of cohesive narrative of who I was, it just so happened that the first real identity signifiers I self-consciously adopted were related to music.
“What really matters is what you like, not what you are like… Books, records, films – these things matter. Call me shallow but it’s the fuckin’ truth.”
John Cusack as Rob Gordon (in Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity)
What *I* liked was rock & roll: Electric guitars. Hot girls going topless, dancing on 40ft tall speakers at a Guns ‘n Roses concert. Jimi Hendrix lighting his guitar on fire at Woodstock. Yngwie Malmsteen playing TWENTY ONE NOTES PER SECOND on his shredtastic opus Far Beyond the Sun. (Goes without saying: Amps that went to 11)
On the far side of rock and roll was the raw emotional depth and vulnerability of emo. A much derided genre I will always unapologetically love. An image flashing of Jesse Lacey when he sings, “Watch me as I cut myself wide open / On this stage / Yes, I am paid to spill my guts,” in I Will Play My Game Beneath the Spin Light.
Rock & roll & sad bastard emo solved lots of my identity problems, but not all of them. Despite my dad’s Marxist proclivities, the cultural vortextual vacuum of my upbringing wasn’t immune to capitalist superstructure, particularly growing up on the outskirts of Silicon Valley in the wake of the dotcom boom and bust. So my IDGAF bona-fides were always for better or worse offset by a very pollyanna-ish 21st-century lust for garden variety success and external validation, ideally manifested via some kind of autodidactic polymathemagical life story.
The net result of that late-90s superstructural idea virus was that in 2009, a year after my dad died, back when I was still trying to make strides as a 19 year old novelist slash songwriter slash artist, I began to seriously doubt the likelihood of commercial artistic success and particularly in the context of late capitalism, which has a sordid history of condemning great artists to the poorhouse (plus, I wasn’t even sure I had the capacity for “greatness”). I have a low pain tolerance and was justly skeptical of my ability to endure a lifetime of suffering in service of artistic aspirations. So, at 20 years old, I executed, in one of the catalyzing moments of my life, on a hard pivot to the ‘Matrix,’ prioritizing lived experience over artistic catalog at the cost of selling out. This became one of the key anchor points of my life story, though I have now mythologized it to myself over the years to the point of perhaps being an unreliable narrator. (Well, none of us are reliable narrators of our life story, despite all of us being experts in the subject matter).
The pivot was a full-pivot, and, other than occasional chipping away at the Great American Novel (never finished, but lots of chapter 1’s), I basically gave up on art, leaving a void. Into this void came politics, but since the only identity I had was ‘sad young literary man’ (slash ‘milquetoast heartbreak balladeer’ (slash ‘electric guitar shredhead’)) and because the only thing I ever really believed in was ‘sex, drugs, and rock & roll,’ I was a man without a party. Literally and figuratively, pun intended.
Growing up, I had watched the politics of the United States turn over its factions. No point boring readers with a recounting of the drab political alliances that formed and reformed in perpetual dull equilibrium in the early 21st century, as the West processed the collapse of the USSR and 9/11 and the financial crisis and all that jazz but, as we all know, we ended up with our existing twenty-twenty-two-party system of team red vs. team blue. I ended up siding with the team blue, mostly because they seemed hornier for sexual liberation. This was, for awhile, my only political hot button issue. I even interned at the Clinton Global Blah Blah Blah, despite being convinced that the Lewinsky scandal was a wasted opportunity for the leader of the free world to extoll the benefits of free love and polyamorous open relationships. Looking back on it now, I guess that might have been a foolish ideological capitol hill to die on given that politics will always and forever be about pragmatism not ideology.
PORTRAIT OF THE ARTIST AS A YOUNG MAN:
Speaking, by the way, of sexual liberation and dying on hills that make no sense to die on, I found myself getting divorced during the COVID19 global pandemic, an experience which in a few of its worst moments meant being alone in my apartment in an anxiety death spiral for days and days on end, acutely aware of the unpleasant fact that my ex was dating someone - and oh by the way the world was burning - and oh by the way we were all going to die. The real kicker though, was that because I was sans what was referred to as a ‘quarantine bae,’ I was probably going to die alone, living in the lyrical erotic nightmare of Mr. Brightside, a song I don’t even like.
“Every time I go into the darkness… I return with a fistful of jewels.”
Everyone had a weird 2020, but for me the darkness gave me the opportunity to re-evaluate my relationship with complex multidimensional beings who may or may not be fucking with me, and to appreciate the uniquely human beauty of pondering the metaphysics despite our limited faculties. In darkness, some light eventually dawned on me that when all is said and done, God is our only reliable forever companion on this treacherous and fantastical adventure through human consciousness. But I still don’t know how to answer when people ask me about religion, having now come to the pantheist panpsychic conclusion that the monotheistic God of Abraham is only motherfucking thing that’s really real. In my mind, I guess it makes me a real Jew or a born-again Christian, even possibly a Muslim. However, you might disagree with me if you’re interpreting the book in a more concrete less abstract way than I am. Or if, like most, you mostly care about culture and not just Wittgenstein’s unutterable metaphysics (which, maybe it’s a Kierkegaardian leap, but I sort of assume that’s the thing he wasn’t uttering).
Dropping, eventually, in the spirit of self-inquiry, the philosophical albatross of hedonism, I also came to appreciate the perpetual quantum-state of my self-conception as a rare gift, the ultimate inoculation against groupthink in a world of identity politics.
I am no longer team blue or team red. The teams don’t really exist, if you ask me.
BUT. I still love sex, drugs, and rock & roll. And I apparently still love writing songs, making music, and cranking up the distortion. And I still occasionally re-enter the darkness. Which, speaking of re-entering the darkness, my last jaunt sparked the inspiration for my latest track, SnooZe, engineered with Craig Levy at Little Pioneer. The tune owes a great debt to my former high school bandmate Justin Bonifacio, now making music as Big X, whose vocal melodies resolving to the major 3rd over distorted I-iii-IV minor chord progressions and double time polka-punk beats imprinted on me, as a teenager, the unique possibilities of an underground post-punk sound. For that, I dedicate this song to Justin, in honor of his fierce originality and relentless creativity. If you dig the sound, I invite you to go check out his trip pop, which is a much more sophisticated take, 10 years evolved from this throwback jam.
That’s all the squiggles for now.
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