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The Doomed Sex Geckos Make Me Celebrate Life and Here’s Why

September 4, 2014

For the rest of our lives, we will all remember where we were on September 2, 2014, when we heard that the Russian Sex Geckos had died in space. These randy reptiles, who sacrificed their lives to make the vast emptiness of the cosmos safe for Astral Coitus, will forever be in our hearts, alongside other non-human pioneers who climbed the ladder to heaven for the sake of ethereal exploration: Laika the Canine Cosmonaut, Bek and Lek the Lunar Orbiting Tortoises, and ill-fated Gordo the Squirrel Monkey, launched by our very own country into the skies in December, 1958, only to drown without mercy when the capsule parachute failed to open.

This is Gordo. He is about to die for science.

(Sans pitié, I tell you, sans pitié! Wishing only for a warm nut and a cool patch of Florida grass to scamper upon, poor Gordo was sacrificed to the cruel, cold waters of the Atlantic.)

The brevity of the brave lives of the Sex Geckos and all the other dogs, rodents, chimps, and turtles who died for science has made me consider what a luminous, brief, and rare gift life is. Inspired by the lives these skybound creatures led, scraping the heavens to gaze with hopeful and tiny animal eyes at the face of God, I have decided to honor their sacrifice and the brief moments of joy, heroism, and lizard horniness they must have felt before the Space Reaper collected his pennies. To honor the extraordinary gift of sentient birth, full of the dust of destitution and the silver of desire, the glitter of cities and the sun-rich, loamy earth of the country, the prize of solitude and the sweet grasp of company, here is my list of things I am thankful for:

Fribbles. During the unsightly, bullying, hirsute, bloated, screeching, neon decade of the 1970s, I lived in the weak-Tudor suburbs of Long Island, that land of car dealerships, mod synagogues, and over-designed duck ponds; I screamed majorly, minorly, and hourly for the scratch and sass of Manhattan, dreaming every day of escape from the eternal wet November of the well-meaning Freeway Land. In the midst of this doomscape of blousy hair and teenage Porsches, the succulent succor of the Fribble, that delectable Delorean of ice cream treats, was like Mothers’ milk to the teen soul abused by the encroachment of conformity and mediocrity. Likewise, I am thankful for…

The Kinks. Before Punk saved our souls and turned all us Sauls into Pauls spreading the gospel of Bowery and Kings Road to a world dulled by Kansas and ELP, us wet-lipped outsiders who wandered in the cruel American desert bowed low before the golden calf of The Kinks, those delicious, British, bashing, effeminate, tender, terrorizing masters of songs most subtle and riffs most outrageous. They had a legend full of gorgeous back-story and self-destructive misery, making music for every mood and a song for every season, and they provided an immediate way to identify allies before the armies of the outsiders all cut their hair. Oh my Kinks, you were my first love. I am thankful for…

The Mighty Boosh. A century and a quarter after Weber & Fields discovered it was wildly funny (and equally lucrative) to go on stage portraying two men abusing each other with props and wordplay, you would have thought that the whole concept of the two-man comedy team could not appear vital, fresh, and ferociously funny. But the Mighty Boosh took all the clichés, pumped them full of hipster air and sealed it with dada staples, and produced one of the five funniest TV shows of all time. Like The Honeymooners, Fawlty Towers, and (most of) Blackadder, you can watch the Mighty Boosh’s three series of television shows again and again and be awed, over and over, by the creativity, the stunning scripted and visual invention, the startling and unexpected wit, and the ability of two amazing actors – Julian Barratt and Noel Fielding – to make the most absurd characters and situations appear utterly real, compelling, and draw-dropping funny. I am thankful for…

Two devastatingly perfect pure pop songs that you may not be familiar with, but which you will listen to right now: “Strolling on Air” by Kimberly Rew and the Waves and “Monsters and Angels” by Voice of the Beehive. The most exceptional pop music is like mirror-filled sugar icicle castles with butterscotch-granite foundations: exotic and unachievable, firm and monumental, but reflecting some undeniable truth about ourselves.

There are some great achievements in the last forty years of post-Ramones power pop, but I honestly think nothing, not even the mod thrill-rides of the Barracudas, nor the balsa-light studious frippery of XTC or even the sibilant Mersey-heaven of the La’s, can compare to the these two songs. When asked to preserve the best pure pop of this generation, I hope these two songs go up in the Viking spaceship. I am thankful for…

The only known photograph of Buddy Bolden. He stands behind the guitarist, sneering forward at the Pop Century he is about to invent

Buddy Bolden, because what could be more beautiful than the fact that the man who is the lodestone for 20th Century music, and who is the blueprint for every tragic and self-destructive star of the American pop era, was never recorded and only photographed once? How exquisite, how truly and purely magical it is that the Pop Century begins with sparks exploding in the hands and mind of someone so mysterious that he might as well have never existed? I am thankful for…

The fact that as I write this Kate Bush has EIGHT albums in the UK top 40 album charts; only Elvis and the Beatles have had more albums in the British top 40. Even those who don’t love Bush’s almost hyper-real gifts and skills have to honor this: this almost unprecedented success proves that if you do something different from everyone else AND DO IT WITH ALL YOUR HEART AND ALL YOUR MUSCLE, the world will open it’s doors. I have always, always, always said that the surest path to success is to a) make a record that someone doesn’t already own and b) make a record that you can’t find in your record collection but really, really want to hear, and clearly, Kate Bush has done both these things, with brilliant execution and studious commitment, over and over again, and anyone and everyone who ever desires to create music can learn something – everything – from her.

This short list is only the beginning. It omits The Undertones, Benny Tudino’s Pizza, Bruno Ganz, Oskar Matzerath, Henry Pulling, Evelyn Waugh, Richard Farina, Huey Long, Thich Nhat Hanh, Jennifer, Emily, Bo, and Maddy Brout, Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche, the incredible Prettiots, the Aurora Borealis, and a billion other things. Life is full of small and large miracles and brilliant and staggering and gorgeous things to see and hear, from the mesmerizing tic-tic of a signal indicator on an automobile to the transcendentally evocative howl of train whistle in the distance, to the shadows of Caligari to the monumental dreamscapes of Brazil, to the golden bridges over the Danube in Budapest to the warm, old, unmoving stones of Avebury Henge.

And it took the death of a Sex Gecko to remind me what a miracle this strange incarnation is.

Oh, and Neu!

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I tell The Turtlenauts of Zond 5 about the Replacements, Joe Ely, Phil Ochs, the Mekons, and the lack of a true self

August 29, 2014


Although tortoises are not mammals, humankind should remain in awe of the achievement of Bek and Lek, two tortoises who circled the moon on September 18, 1968.

This is not fantasy: In 1968, the Soviets Russians were frantically attempting to beat the Americans and the Apollo space program to the moon.  They launched the Zond 5, with Turtlenauts Bek and Lek on board, to see if living creatures could survive a trip to the moon and back.  They did, and our two shell-back friends became the first living creatures ever to reach the moon.   The Soviet’s plan to follow up Lek and Bek’s pioneering adventure with a manned flight was abandoned when it turned out the Apollo program was much further ahead of schedule than the Soviets had imagined.

Yes, I said Turtlenauts.

Recently, I asked myself the following question:  What if Bek and Lek returned from space as fully sentient creatures, but Soviet secrecy and the equally obfuscating bureaucracy of the post-Soviet Russian governments prevented them from leaving the grim lab in the Urals where they had been ensconced for 45 years?  When finally exposed to the daylight of the modern world (having been freed by a quirk of the very same bureaucracy that had imprisoned and forgotten them), what kind of questions would Bek and Lek have that I, a noted pop-culture and music authority, could answer?

Bek & Lek:  Tell us about the fabled American Beauty, the Mayim Bialik.
Tim Sommer:  She inspires great men to stirring deeds. In this sense, she is like Zipporah, the wife of Moses, or Jolene Brand, the wife of Laugh-In producer George Schlatter.
B & L:  I know of this show Laugh In!  “Sock it to me,” and suchlike hijinks.
TS:  Yes.
B & L:  Tell us a little about this band, The Replacements.
TS:  Every musician must recall that at any given show, perhaps 80 or 90 percent of the audience is seeing them for the first and likely only time.  Whether they are playing in front of 8 or 8,000 people, a performer needs to treat their audience as the only audience they will ever play in front of, the best audience they will play in front of.  Therefore, an artist must never throw away a show, and no band, not even the freaking Beatles, is better than the worst show they play. Personally, I saw the Replacements play five times; I guess I saw five “off” nights.  If they were a truly great band, and I understand a lot of people feel that way, the band simply didn’t feel that every audience was important enough to know that, and that’s just horrible.  Also, the alternative music fanbase in the 1980s was largely made up of geeks and the bullied (myself amongst them); I think the Replacements fulfilled a certain need we may have had to believe there was a Van Halen-esque licentiousness and devil-may-care attitude within each of us, when really, we were just people excited about finding out-of-print Lyres 45s and over-paying for Echo & The Bunnymen import 12-inch singles because they had non-album b-sides.  The Replacements are also romanticized for a few over-sensitive ballads, but I can show you a dozen artists from that period who did that sort of thing far better, or at least as well, and they did it without despising their audience and abusing the extraordinary privilege of being able to play original music in front of people for money.  I mean, start with Chris Bailey and the Saints, listen to their fucking ballads.

(Two Sentient Soviet Turtles now know The Saints are infinitely superior to the Replacements)

B & L:  Tell us about Joe Ely.
TS:  Excellent question. Joe Ely, Joe Strummer, and Bruce Sprinsgteen are all essentially the same artist, and that’s a beautiful thing.  Each has attempted to channel Woody Guthrie via Sun-era Elvis; each wants to tell the story of the American experience via the character of a muscular guitar-slinger, sensitive but with sand in their teeth.  Each wanted to simultaneous wear Dylan’s wise-ass bookishness and Marlon Brando’s muscle-tees, each wanted to feel the world through the boots of the workingman yet see the world through the owlish-eyes of Ginsberg.
B & L:  That’s a very impressive description.
TS:  Yes, I thought so too, thank you.  If you want to turn that trio into a quintet, add Patti Smith and Paul Sanchez, each of whom have a very similar worldview and ability to translate that vision into extraordinary art.  Patti adds some shady, shadowy art to the mix, Paul adds some hot sauce.
B & L:  Speaking of “devil may care,” Is there a God?
TS:  You are sentient, talking turtles that have been to the moon.  Shouldn’t I be asking you that question?
B & L:  No.
TS:  Well, there is Abba, and there is Nick Lowe’s production on his Jesus of Cool album — these may be a sign of some higher power.
B & L:  Who are the quintessential American artists?
TS:  I’d have to go with Louis Armstrong and Phil Ochs.  Each told the story of rich, troubled century, spotted with joy and tragedy.  Each spoke in an essentially and exclusively American vocabulary, discarding the frippery of England or San Francisco. Here, you should listen to the Ochs’ song “When In Rome.”  It tells the story of America, a place of hope and disappointment, through the eyes of one deeply troubled troubadour, a once optimistic man that experience has turned cynical.

B & L:  But it’s 13 minutes long.  Are you going to make us listen to that whole thing?
TS:  You watched eight straight episodes of American Horror Story Coven last night, I think you can spare 13 minutes.
B & L:  We’re not sure.
TS:  Tell you what:  just listen, at your leisure, to Ochs’ Rehearsals For Retirement album.  It tells the story of the death of idealism in America.
B & L:  Gee, that sounds like fun.
TS:  If you want fun, listen to Slade or BTO. By the way, “Hey You” by BTO is an extremely satisfying song, plus it is essentially the template for all Nirvana and Pixies songs.
B & L:  If we only have time to listen to one song right now, what should it be?
TS:  “Where Were You” by the Mekons. It reduces rock’n’roll to its absolute essence:  two chords and thwarted desire.

B & L:  I count four chords.
TS:  I am not counting those passing chords between the verses and I don’t think you should, either.
B & L:  We have to go to lunch, and then someone is going to show us how to set up a Kindle account and explain to us the cultural context of the British “Carry On” film series.
TS:  Don’t bother buying Ulysses by James Joyce just because you think you should.  You’ll never read it, or much of it, anyway, and if you want to feel smart yet still be entertained, you are far better off reading Rushdie or William Gaddis.
B & L: — Before we go, Tim, do you have any final words of advice?
TS:  Whenever even the most cursory examination is applied, one finds that the self is made up entirely of non-self elements.  Seriously.  Remove the word “I” from any idea, or dialogue — especially a self-dialogue — and very remarkable things happen.  That’s because there is no “I.”  There is no homunculus sitting somewhere in our brain consistently infusing some consistent or permanent idea of self into all our actions and decisions.  There are just an infinite number of ever-moving, ever-changing parts adding up to the constant reality of dependence arising.  As Chandrakirti said, “Afflictions and faults arise from the false view of a transitory collection.  Having understood that the object of this is self, negate self.”
B & L:  Homo-what-culus?

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