Friday, May 23, 2008
Suzanne Vega--Quiet Indictments
This can't end up as a blog entry. This, I think, will be longer than most will be willing to read for a blog entry. The reasons for typing this were brought on by the fact that it's once again cold and gloomy and chance brought me to it in web surfing. I was called back to an album that I got, not entirely by accident, but rather because I had signed up for that goddamned Columbia Music Club membership and I needed to fill out the 10, 15 or whatever free (plus extortionate shipping) discs that were part of their introductory membership.
It was Suzanne Vega, fer godsakes--her 99.9F album. I was never a fan of folk music, folk rock, or coffee-cafe music, and I thought that that "Luka" song, at the time, though earnest, was somewhat embarrassing. The strange new lives given to "Tom's Diner" while I was in college--Remixed by the faceless DJs DNA, or by others, re-ordered so that the Duh-da-duh-das scatted out the "I Dream of Jeannie" theme were rather fun, and gave out a sense that she wasn't taking herself as seriously as "Luka" let on. so I went ahead and ordered 99.9F, not knowing at all what it would be like.
What her then-new album turned out to be was a rather mindblowingly unified collection of songs that explored, in deadpan fashion, the hysteria and fear of the previous seven years of the AIDS crisis. Not that AIDS is ever mentioned over the course of the twelve songs on the album.
The disc was a departure for Vega, with lots of synthesizer and concrete noise. Without even knowing what the subject of the first song was, titled Rock in this Pocket (Song of David) one gets a sense of gravity "What's so small to you/ is so large to me/if its the last thing I do/ I'll make you see." In the late 80s and early nineties, the idea was to let shame take over--after all, those affected had done something horribly wrong--and to let those in control just leave things alone. Quarantine had been mentioned, by more than ill-informed politicians, but by those as close by as those who share my family name--put them all on an island and let them fuck each other senseless, and let them die, they said. And it wasn't once that it was spoken. And I may be wrong, I may be extending things, but I'm willing to say that at least some of them who spoke it then feel today that it was a shame, a missed opportunity, that their plan wasn't put into action back in '84, which was before they'd ever heard of the issue, anyway. "Pale as a candle and your face is hot," Vega sings in the title track, "...and if I touch you I might get what you've got."
A relative was in his residency at Riley when Ryan White was undergoing treatment and I was there when this uncle mentioned that he double gowned himself and triple gloved before entering the room. I'd heard that the disease was sexually transmitted, but gloves and gowns? I as a high school student knew little about the transmission of the disease--and though the conversation didn't blame White for any of his health issues, it certainly didn't exculpate those civic-minded people in society that, unknowing that they were infected, donated blood. But I hear the voice of White as well as quite a few others in one of the singles from Vega's album: "I think you might want to know the details and the facts/ but there's something in my blood denies the memory of the acts/So just forget it Doc/ I think it's really cool that you're concerned [...]/cos blood makes noise/ and I can't hear you in the thickening of fear."
And without even wanting to, I'm swept up in the starkly, clockwork-bluesy "In Liverpool," setting indicator aside, uses Victor Hugo's love story of Notre Dame as illustration of a character who dies for love. As the luckiest of us do.
The characters are there, Esmeralda seems to be the singer at times:
I'll be the one who sings for my supper
You'll be the monk whose forehead is high
He'll be the man whose already working
Spreading his memory all through the sky...
At the time I hadn't read the novel, but now that I have I think the juxtaposition is ingenious: that French Novel about illiteracy and desire and this new thing that so many people didn't understand--
"...the boy in the belfry he's crazy
He's throwing himself down from the top of the tower
Like a hunchback in Heaven
He's ringing the bells in the church for the last half an hour
He sounds like he's missing something or someone that he knows he can't have now
And if he isn't I certainly am.
If that isn't chilling enough, Vega tucks in, among the compressed percussion:
Homesick, for a clock that told the same time
sometimes you made no sense to me.
When you lie on the ground in somebody's arms,
you'll probably swallow some of their history.
Many people in the United States my age and five or so years older are dead now and no one talks about them. They have vanished. Simply gone. At best, a square of a very long blanket marks their being, their having been.
Several years before I'd gotten Vega's album, back in the last years of my undergraduate degreee, the work of Diamanda Galas, who was, for me, really out there, who started out as an operatic mezzo, whose brother died of AIDS in the early years of the epidemic and saw such things first-hand, composed a Plague Mass, with spirituals and shrieks, with conversations between patients and doctors "What time is it? / How much time do you want?"
That mass remains, for all its shock and blood and noise, a chilling indictment. We do not take care of our own. They aren't our own if we disown them. The character in Vega's "Bad Wisdom" says, in a meter most often left to limericks and comic verse:
Mother the doctor knows something is wrong
Cause my body has strange information
He's looked in my eyes and knows I'm not a child
But he doesn't dare ask the right question.
Mother my friends are no longer my friends
And the games we once played have no meaning
Mother your eyes have gone suddenly cold
And it wasn't what I was expecting
When I was high school age someone I still know, and who was smart enough to know better, told the following joke to me, thinking it funny, which I'll paraphrase.
A man with AIDS walks into the doctors' office and complains of various symptoms. The doctor listens sternly and prescribes a diet of oranges, grapefruit, and salad, and to see him in a week.
A week later the patient comes back, complaining of severe diarrhea. The doctor hears this with a serious expression and nods. "Change your diet to lettuce and peaches only and see me in a week."
A week passes and the patient comes back, exhausted, saying that the symptoms are worse than ever. He can hardly leave the bathroom. The doctor nods. "Good," the doctor says, "perhaps now you know what an asshole's for."
Such dismissal of suffering. These were the jokes circulating in 1987. These were the things I heard from people I have to admit I still care a lot for today.
I'm not at all sure where this post is going. It isn't a blog entry, certainly. It isn't a record review for an album released 16 years ago, which, if it were, is rather tardy. It's this realization that, through a 99-cent CD and a visit to a man incoherently trying to recover from a fall not discovered for three days and that, in reading various blogs, that many my age aren't alive now due not only to the toughness of a disease but also due to stupid priggishness, that something should be written, or said, or something. "What kind of rule," the final words of Suzanne Vega's album ask, "can overthrow a fool/ And leave the land with no stain?"