Into The Divine

Paris, rising in a frozen haze above its grand boulevards, is dreamlike in the first days of 1997. The city has always seemed to be a compound of the earthy and the erudite. But the closing years of the century bring this quality up and to the fore — as does the coldest New Year’s weather since 1962. All of it unfolds like a description in a book, wreathed in winter, well-documented yet somehow still inscrutable, which is more than you can say about most cities. It’s entirely classical, but the cell-phones, recessed computers and red-winking “no parking” lights update it readily to the present — providing a contemporary sheen to history, and to history a contemporary sheen.

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The Odeon Theater De L’Europe couldn’t be better named, set like a well-lit jewel on the Left Bank. Especially tonight: the theater premiere we are about to see is a postmodern compound of nationalities and creative energies, a true Euro-synthesis: “Time-Rocker.” Performed in German with electronically telegraphed French “subtitles” (actually, the translation flashes redly by on a zipper above the stage), the songs are in a German-accented English and written by Lou Reed; direction and scenography are by Robert Wilson. The fact that the creative parentage of the performance is American isn’t at all out of place — given the end-of-century circumstances and the artists involved (Wilson in particular made his name in Europe).

This is the European condition, after all — the only thing missing are ticket prices in “Euros.” But that’s not so far away either.

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Rising from the garbage-strewn metro, in which all the trash-cans have been welded shut from justified paranoia about terror bombs, the city appears universal, a definitive cosmopolitan construct, in which the piles of doggy doo-doo and otherwise deficient sanitation function to reinforce the idea that this is a metropolis of the future, not just the past. The dream of Europe lives here. It expands outwards luxuriously, encompassing the stony bridges of the Seine, the gargoyles of Notre Dame and the flare of landing lights as jumbos from Tokyo, Hong Kong and Sydney gracefully settle tonnage on frozen Orly runways.

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“Time Rocker.” At a time when Madonna, who is looking increasingly wild eyed and desperate as she strides forward through the late summer of her career, collaborates with Timothy Rice and Alan Parker to make a vast overblown epic about a vanished South American fascist heroine, the writer of “Heroin” collaborates with the man who almost single-handedly changed the late 20th Century conception of theater.

Apart from the posters hyping “Evita” all over Paris — giving the comparison a kind of context — examining these two careers side by side isn’t entirely out of place here. Madonna astutely took the fascinating contradictions of the so-called “Madonna-whore complex” (something still spinning at the core of the male-female conundrum) and turned them into her own personal marketing gimmick. It had great effect in the 80’s, but her exponentially increasing self-indulgence (itself a frightening concept) finally backfired in the early 90’s with the publication of a pedestrian book of not-very-interesting nudity, in which she was photographed frolicking with supermodels. (That book remains interesting only as a full metal jacket monument to self-obsession.) As for the ostensible “work” behind this career, which in the scheme of things was once something foregrounded when discussing an “artist” — well, we are speaking here of a woman who has never written her own lyrics or her own songs. A triumph of marketing over art. Therefore an appropriate icon for the 80’s and early 90’s, and in this case particularly appropriate to the subject matter.

Lou Reed, on the other hand, is a far different case. Here is someone who fused “thought and expression” so successfully in a long career that the phrase itself was penned by him. Reed had some commercial success, well before Madonna appeared on the scene (unlike Madonna’s, it came more as a fluke than from sheer crass calculation — nobody can accuse a songwriter penning tunes about the transvestites defining New York’s mid-70’s “wild side” of pandering to teenage suburban record buyers). By and large Reed has defined, then redefined, a path which remains stubbornly iconoclastic. In the process he decisively changed rock and roll. (It hardly needs to be said here, but along with Iggy Pop, Reed almost totally defined punk music and attitude — and long before John Lydon even knew what a safety pin was. And by now Lydon looks far more obsolete than Reed.)

Reed transmitted the use of capital “A” attitude from its Miles Davis-Brando-Dean 50’s nexus to the present and future. In fact, with a little help from abstract expressionism and Andy Warhol, he also went a long way towards anchoring New York City at the center of the cultural map in the 60’s and 70’s — all the while making the world safer for alternative lifestyles that even 60’s liberals couldn’t quite stomach.

As for Madonna and her filmic rock opera, she chose the right medium for the message. Fascism and film have a well known collaborative tendency; Joe Morgenstern called it “the triumph of her will” in the Wall Street Journal. In a recent issue of The New Republic, historian Enrique Krauze listed the horrors of Peronism evaded by the musical and film: the torture and murder of political opponents, often under Nazi instruction; the sheltering of war criminals; the destruction of the Argentinian economy — all of it groundwork laid for the “dirty war” of the 70’s. “It must not be forgotten… that this woman and her husband represented the worst of this tradition, the worst of our century,” Krauze wrote.

Madonna being single, we can assume he was referring to Eva Peron.

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Paris actually can’t help itself. No matter how stupid French politics, no matter how racist and exclusionary French immigration law, no matter how shit-speckled the streets, the city is a work of high art, and finally a call to civility. The Pompidou Center in late December and in January is almost entirely occupied by a vast exhibition titled “Art and History.” It threads its way through the century’s disasters, registering their inexorable impact on the visual arts, and it succeeds in subtly redefining the century at exactly the right moment in time. (It does this partially by updating the story to the end of the millennium.) The Museum of Natural History, meanwhile, renovated for several years, newly reopened, succeeds in giving New York’s own incredible space a serious competitor, presenting a surreal parade of stuffed African wildlife parading though an immense enclosed courtyard — a kind of taxidermist’s vision of Eden.

The French are sometimes arrogant. Yes. But not without reason. My attitude towards seemingly ludicrous knee-jerk conservative attempts to shield the language from English, and the French film industry from Hollywood influence, is one of understanding. Because a great culture has indeed been created on both banks of the Seine. By both banks, I mean the one that reaches to the Atlantic and the one that reached to the Mediterranean. That culture is palpably outnumbered; fighting a kind of Dien Bein Phu.

Still, (multi)cultural expressions like “Time Rocker” go a distance towards defining something inherently positive and progressive in European cosmopolitanism. And the larger stage set of Paris itself only underlines this fact. Europe just before the First World War also saw a kind of borderless cultural cross-pollination at play; it may not be a safeguard against disaster, but it does define what cultures in communication are capable of. At the very least.

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As for Robert Wilson — no Ljubljana audience really needs introduction to him, because even if they haven’t actually seen his work they’ve seen the stagecraft of any one of his numerous followers from Slovenia’s thriving “avant” theater scene — from early Scipion Nascice Theater to now. This is already an introduction. But how to describe it in words? For starters, suspension of disbelief isn’t really the operative factor, and there’s a work of visual art onstage. The rearrangement of various motifs and visual “cues” within the stage scene takes place in what Wilson himself has called “stratified, transparent zones of activity.” From a recent article in ArtNews: “You can have one world seen against another world. I can take a Louis XV commode and place a Louis XV object on the commode, and that’s one thing. Or I can take a Louis XV commode and put a computer on it, and that’s another thing. Maybe it’s easier to see the computer and the Louis XV commode.”

In short, Paris at the end of the century meets Paris at the beginning of the next Century.

So what happened? A well-edited series of brief, jewel-like scenes unfolded onstage. An alternating current of more low-key, discursive scenes blended with very loud rock songs sung by actors in costumes so exceedingly well-designed that I wasn’t surprised to hear that Wilson had a fashion show in Italy a few years ago (to give credit where it’s due, costumography was listed as designed by Frida Parmeggiani in the program). Above all, Reed’s songs were performed in a way that indicated to me that he simply made a demo tape for the cast, and the excellent band, to copy; the singing even contained some of his trademark ironic inflections. This worked exceedingly well — maybe even better with the Teutonic tone of the cast.

It’s hard to describe theater. No web-work of theory or flesh-toned transcription machine can do it correctly. Suffice to say that, when theater is presented accompanied by devastating but well-placed changes in volume, sending audience blood adrenaline and EKG readings surging, and when the scenes succeed each other with such brevity and arrive onstage with such visual clarity, theater goes a long way towards appearing not as the last gasp of an archaic form, but as the first expression of the future. (The fact that “Time Rocker” is a kind of loose adaptation of Welles “The Time Machine,” only with trips to the future as well as the past, is only incidental to this observation).

Why? Because suddenly the three-dimensionality of performers onstage, when not accompanied by archaic clanking sets and pre-MTV rhythms, but rather a shift of scenography as accomplished as the hyper-kinesis of film or video editing, seems to spring full-blown from the 21st century, not the 18th. It is as if the form has made a full circle. (I remember having a similar perception once when, after smoking a couple joints, I watched a TV documentary on Egypt and realized that there must have been some mistake in our collective perception of time: the iconography and design of the Ancients couldn’t have predated everything else; it was too frighteningly accomplished. It could only have descended from — us. Its apparent successors. Too refined to have been from the past; it must be from the future.)

No doubt to old theater hands Wilson’s visual effects, and their conceptual brio, are already old news — they would probably say that he’s merely repeating himself, that he said it all with “Einstein on the Beach”, etc. Well, may they live to a ripe old age, but I don’t care. It seems to me that in redefining the possibilities of their art, both Wilson and Reed come out the winners; what’s more the lack of a mass-media reach for this work practically insists on its renovation and repetition. And so an old New York master artists and an old New York underground rocker together close the triptych Wilson started with Tom Waits in 1990 with “Black Rider”, and passed the half-way mark with “Alice” in 1992, also with Waits. According to the New York Times, Wilson now plans to put them all together and make a giant all-day performance, to open and close with Act I and Act II of “Black Rider”, and with “Time Rocker” in the middle, itself encased by Act I and Act II of “Alice.” More power to him.

The songs? Fragmented impressions remain — but enough to put the work up there with Reed’s best later music (including “Songs for Drella”, “Magic and Loss” and “New York”). Reed’s well-publicized pairing with Laurie Anderson evidently didn’t affect his lyrics or musical approach. Despite time travel and Wilson’s dazzling fabulation, they remain as grounded in gritty reality as a skyscraper is planted in Manhattan granite. A fragmented catalogue of lyrics: “a river of blood is a river of PISS to me” … “an ice-cube as big as the sun.” The man’s earthy wit hasn’t faltered: “I got a head on my shoulders, two legs under my ass.”

There’s a certain specific tone to Reed’s later album work — an unforced sense of “just taking notes” (“The other night, we went to see Sam’s play/ Doing the things that we want to/ It was very physical, and held you to the stage/ Doing the things that he wants to…”). It doesn’t necessarily work on the page — it needs music to provide some of the additional “poetry” — but it certainly works on the stage.

Tonight Reed himself proves this, appearing with Wilson after numerous encores, and performing a few bars of “Into The Divine”: “I think you’re so beautiful/I think you’re so kind/And I think I would miss you/If you disappear into the Divine.”

* * *

Even if Paris is too expensive, and it’s people sometimes seem lost in self-contemplation, and the economy groans under the strain of adaptation to one currency, and the population marches angrily on the streets, and the government seems lost in vacillation, and French foreign policy irrationally demands control of the US 6th Fleet, and Jacques Chirac contends that democracy is a “luxury” that African countries cannot afford — it’s still the city where Apollonaire wrote the line: “At last you are weary of this ancient world.” And it’s still the city where Beckett translated it into English.

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A friend of mine, formerly a producer at MTV, e-mails me from New York: “Wilson is not one of my favorites, but Lou Reed is someone I admire. He continues to make music from the gut, to speak with a poetic minimalism that is part existentialist noir, part love-struck romantic. During my MTV years I had several conversations with him, and he always struck me as the most grounded and no bullshit artist among those who had had some success. You can’t help but love a guy who still admits he’s confused and angry, knocked out by the redeeming qualities of a woman’s love and terrified by the mystery of death. Happy New Year Lou, wherever you are.”

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Couldn’t have put it any better myself.

–Michael Benson
February 2, 1997

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