Sunday, January 27, 2008
Colette: sex and dance in Fin de Siecle Paris
In 1905, Colette began a lesbian affair with Mathilde de Morny, known as Missy: ‘By the end of the year Colette had formally entered Lesbos on Missy’s arm. “With such insignia as a pleated shirtfront, a stiff collar, sometimes a waistcoat, and always with a silk pocket handkerchief, I frequented a dying society on the margins of all societies”. There were discreet parties in Neuilly to which the guests wore “long trousers and tuxedos”... There were clubs whose specialities were fondue and dancing, and cabarets where the blue haze of cigar smoke hung over a zinc bar and a contralto with a fake moustache sang Augusta Holmes. Mostly, there were late nights, curtained carriages, and opera cloaks that concealed the forbidden male attire. There was cruising in the Bois between ten and noon, and on the Champs-Elysees between four and dusk... There was a code of signs and gestures: a certain glance, a certain dog”.
In public, women's behaviour was sometimes tightly policed - for instance women were not allowed to wear men's clothes. In 1906 at a masked ball in Nice ‘when Colette began waltzing with a "svelte, supple blonde" in a satin train, she felt an arm on her shoulder and heard the brusque voice of a bouncer advising them to "separate, if you please, ladies. It’s forbidden here for women to dance with each other’’'.
In January 1907, Collete caused a scandal when she performed at the Moulin Rouge in a short dance piece called Reve d’Egypte. She played a mummy who ‘comes back to life in a jeweled bra, slowly and seductively unwinds her transparent wrappings, and at the climax of the dance, passionately embraces the archaeologist’ who discovered her – the latter role played by her cross dressing lover Missy. The Moulin Rouge management hoped for a sensation when it opened and they got it – wealthy opponents filled the theatre with hired thugs and when the curtain opened ‘The stage was immediately bombarded with coins, orange peels, seat cushions, tins of candy, and cloves of garlic, while the catcalls, the blowing of noisemakers, and shouts of ‘Down with the Dykes’ drowned out an orchestra of forty musicians... When the archaeologist took the unwrapped mummy in ‘his’ arms to give her a lingering and unfeigned kiss, the uproar reached a fever pitch’. The next night a man played the male part, by order of the police.
At the end of the First World War, Colette was still roaming the streets of Paris looking for ‘new sensations’ in the company of her friend Francis Carco: ‘He introduced Colette to those picturesque little clubs of the place Pigalle where pimps, thugs and their molls danced the java to accordion music, and where the tables were bolted to the floor so that they couldn’t be smashed up in the nightly brawls. Once says Carco, he took Colette to a dive in the rue de Lappe owned by Marcel Proust’s former valet. When the police made their usual entrance, swinging fists and nightsticks, the baroness de Jouvenal [Colette] climbed on a table and shouted ‘Hooray! At last, a bit of fantasy’.
Source: Secrets of the Flesh: a life of Colette – Judith Thurman (London: Bloomsbury, 1999)
Friday, January 25, 2008
They reel'd, they set, they cross'd, they cleekit,
If you've never read any Robert Burns (25 January 1759 – 21 July 1796), can I just recommend a look at his Tam O'Shanter, a tale of a drunken night and stumbling on 'a dance of witches' on the way home?
'Warlocks and witches in a dance;
Nae cotillion brent-new frae France,
But hornpipes, jigs strathspeys, and reels,
Put life and mettle in their heels.
A winnock-bunker in the east,
There sat auld Nick, in shape o' beast;
A towzie tyke, black, grim, and large,
To gie them music was his charge:
He scre'd the pipes and gart them skirl,
Till roof and rafters a' did dirl....
As Tammie glowr'd, amaz'd, and curious,
The mirth and fun grew fast and furious;
The piper loud and louder blew;
The dancers quick and quicker flew;
They reel'd, they set, they cross'd, they cleekit,
Till ilka carlin swat and reekit,
And coost her duddies to the wark,
And linket at it her sark!
Or in English:
Warlocks and witches in a dance:
No cotillion, brand new from France,
But hornpipes, jigs, strathspeys, and reels,
Put life and mettle in their heels.
In a window alcove in the east,
There sat Old Nick, in shape of beast;
A shaggy dog, black, grim, and large,
To give them music was his charge:
He screwed the pipes and made them squeal,
Till roof and rafters all did ring...
As Thomas glowered, amazed, and curious,
The mirth and fun grew fast and furious;
The piper loud and louder blew,
The dancers quick and quicker flew,
They reeled, they set, they crossed, they linked,
Till every witch sweated and smelled,
And cast her ragged clothes to the floor,
And danced deftly at it in her underskirts!
There's some interesting Scottish dialect words in the light of later wider usage - Burns uses 'dub' to mean 'mud', and 'cutty sark' - the name of a famous tea clipper now in Greenwich - means a 'short skirt'.
Saturday, January 19, 2008
In the wake of military defeats and conquest, millenarian hopes of divine intervention spread among the desperate Native American survivors of the West in the 19th century. The most widespread movement was the Ghost Dance, at the heart of which was the hope that a better world could be brought into being through dance. In 1870, a prophet called Wodziwob amongst the Northern Paiute people (who lived on the California/Nevada border) told of a vision that the ancestors would return on a train, the whites would disappear and heaven would be created on earth. ‘These miracles were to be hastened by ceremonial dancing around a pole and by singing the songs that Wodziwob had learned during a vision’ (Farb). Although the movement faded away, it was revived twenty years later by Wovoka the prophet, son of an assistant of Wodziwob. In his vision he was told by God ‘about a dance that the people must perform to bring the dead Indians back to life again, for the dance generated energy that had the power to move the dead’ (Farb).
The dance spread quickly to the Cheyenne, the Sioux and many other tribes. Some wore ‘ghost shirts – dance shirts fancifully decorated with designs of arrows, stars, birds, and so forth’ believing that they could ward off bullets. In 1890 Kicking Bear and his brother Short Bull brought news of the movement to Sitting Bull of the Sioux. Kicking Bear told of a vision he had of Christ: ‘Kicking Bear had always thought that Christ was a white man like the missionaries, but this man looked· like an Indian. After a while he rose and spoke to the waiting crowd. ..”I will teach you how to dance a dance, and I want you to dance it. Get ready for your dance and when the dance is over I will talk to you”… They danced the Dance of the Ghosts until late at night, when the Messiah told them they had danced enough.’ (Brown)
Saturday, January 12, 2008
Nazis and Jazz
The Nazis were hostile to jazz on racist grounds and various restrictions were placed on it. A complete ban was impossible to enforce, partly because it was difficult to define exactly what it was: "Americano nigger kike jungle music... The quote is from Joseph Goebbels, who had banned jazz, along with foxtrots and the tango. Although repulsed by the 'terrible squawk' of jazz, he soon realized that swing between the harangues held listeners. The extent of the ban and the definition of the music had both been vague anyway".
An example of racist anti-jazz propaganda is an article 'Swing and Nigger Music Must Disappear' by 'Buschmann' from the 6 November 1938 edition of a Stettin newspaper: 'Disgusting things are going on, disguised as 'entertainment'. We have no sympathy for fools who want to transplant jungle music to Germany. In Stettin, like other cities, one can see people dancing as though they suffer from stomach pains. They call it 'swing'. This is no joke. I am overcome with anger. These people are mentally retarded. Only niggers in some jungle would stomp like that. Germans have no nigger in them. The pandemonium of swing fever must be stopped… Impresarios who present swing dancing should be put out of business. Swing orchestras that play hot, scream on their instruments, stand up to solo and other cheap devices are going to disappear. Nigger music must disappear'.The nazi stance was admired by racists elsewhere in Europe. In Denmark Olaf Sobys wrote 'Jazz Versus European Musical Culture' (1935) arguing: 'Jazz was not born in nor has it ever been integrated into European culture. It was introduced from the violent need of a primitive race for rhythmic ecstasy and cannot grow organically here. It represents mankind's lowest bestial instincts. Jungle jazz rhythm is an expression of the primitive Negro's erotic ecstasy... The fact that the white race tolerates this sort of thing indicates our culture's decline. Denmark should follow Germany. When Hitler banned jazz, it was a great idealistic act.'
In countries under Nazi occupation, and indeed Germany, jazz sub-cultures survived in the face of official hostility and persecution. In France, there were the Zazous:
'Zazou boys wore pegged pants with baggy knees, high rolled English collars covered by their hair, which was carefully combed into a two-wave pompadour over their foreheads, long checked jackets several sizes too large, dangling key chains, gloves, stickpins in wide neckties with tiny knots; dark glasses and Django Reinhardt moustaches were the rage. The girls wore short skirts, baggy sweaters, pointed painted fingernails, hair curled to their shoulders, necklaces around their waists, bright red lipstick... They spent a lot of time in cafes, on the Champs Elysees or in the Latin Quarter... On Sundays they took portable gramophones to little exurban restaurants, played their swing records loud and danced...
The Zazous took nothing seriously. They opposed the regime by ignoring it, which was a political act whether they knew it or not. Wearing long jackets with wide collars and plenty of pleats is a political provocation during a highly publicized campaign for sartorial austerity. From time to time the police would raid a Zazou cafe and take them to the prefecture. They would be questioned and have their papers and addresses checked. Some were sent to the countryside to help with the harvest, after a haircut of course. One newspaper wrote: 'We are of the opinion that when the rest of the continent is fighting and working, the Zazous' laziness is shameful. The young men without their hair or collars now are going to get healthy sweating in the July sun, the girls will soon have thicker ankles, freckles on their sweet noses and calluses on their dainty hands. And then the world will be back to its natural order.'
'Danish "Swing Crazies" wore the same costume and hair-dos as the Zazous, they jitterbugged and were described by one journalist as 'an example of the depraved upper class and the result of too much permissiveness on the part of parents and teachers'.
All quotes from 'La Tristesse de Saint Louis: Swing Under the Nazis' - Mike Zwerin (London: Quartet, 1985). See also: The White Rose and Zazous
Pop! What is it Good For?
At one point Morley asked Robert Wyatt what a pop song is for, in the context of his memories of the first wave of pop in the 1950s and specifically Adam Faith’s What do you want? (1958). Wyatt’s answer, aside from some time and place-specific details, could surely still apply today: “it connects you with other people. You’ve got the scene here, you’ve got the cafe, the jukebox... you’ve got girls there with their pink lipstick on. And silence, except... awkward conversations. Then you put on the jukebox then suddenly the whole room, everybody knows it, everybody can tap their feet to it. It makes a big full warm living thing out of the room where it was cold separate isolated individuals before”.
Friday, January 11, 2008
Machine Music in an Age of Sweat
Techno is re-routed machinery. It is not metaphoric. It does not show us what could be achieved in the real world. It is a practical example of the seizure of the means of production, in this case weapons technology and found sounds; and the transformation of intended purposes through a technique of melting juxtapositions. The reality produced by techno machines is radically different and the vistas of possibility opened up are far wider than that envisioned by those who advocate the seizure of state power, or workers' control. The shaping of mass behaviour through the generation of aural ambiences is of greater significance for free desiring production than anything dreamed of through imposed political directives.
Techno is hardness. It forbids the seepage of humanity into its impervious structure. It is pure grounding, without mediated spirits disguising its nature. It is without representation, there are no mirrors. Movement must always be away from it. It is an architecture, shaping the possible movements and consciousness of those who skate its grooves. Techno is a surface.
However a certain slackness has appeared at the centre of the techno project, a contentment that reduces it to less than shopping mall muzak (a form that at least fulfils its own function, causing distraction from itself and attracting attention to its visual perception). For music to be negative it was usually enough to rely on loudness and speed, flooding received behaviour with temporary excitations which would override the reality principle. Any other formula must be considered affirmative in its relation to social production, only extremity is true. The Future Sound of London are most prominent in the unreserved positivity felt by techno-groups towards the technology used. This is compounded by a seepage of good vibes generally into ambient; New Age affirmations of spirituality strain upwards towards the light, severing all awareness of anal capital, such anti-materialisms are the essence of cringeful vulgarity.
That dance culture which is entirely celebratory in structure should reconstitute negativity is an unforeseen perversity that certainly has nothing to do with intent, or the political opinions of the people participating. In fact the dawning political consciousness of techno may be taken to be its formal capitulation into affirmative culture; in adopting political discourse it finds itself subject to the forces that generate it.
Amongst the harsh landscapes of junglist drums and bass, the wistful post-war drone of synths, the fragments of sound after the humans have left. Machined ambience, always melancholic, feels the absence of swarming human proliferation over its structures and can only connect to the dancing as those who are entirely alien to each other can, in a kind of mutual excited colonisation. Like all art forms it intuitively recognises its connection to a post-apocalypse; formalism is a process of exclusion and refinement - it denies the excess of the real world through clear lines, holding it back behind temporary artificial limits. The faculties of perception are tuned to engage more fully with the world as it floods back in and engulfs.
Language, the human presence does not belong in techno, only snatched, disembodied phrases which remind us that we are always in crowds, that our reality is always socially generated. Voices may swirl up from the depths of machine drums but they say nothing, their randomness is their effect. It is a music that does not participate in ideologies or representations but is a generating ground, literally a background. Human action occurs entirely in the foreground, across the surfaces which stretch out, against a backdrop of noise which determines movement in the simplest of base and superstructure models. Dancers connect into the architectural ambience of pure function in an unmediated reality. This is an economy of sweat; what was once a demeaning sign labour, the mark of a limit to the possession of the means of production and thus the time to enjoy the products of that labour, is now a free currency spent in a relation of pleasure. So many signs are dissolved in the reversal, supersession and forgetting of mediated object/subject relations that it's possible to observe a fleeting body which in shorting sign-systems becomes a thing itself.
The weakness of techno lies in the adoption of a formulaic criteria for the reproduction of this intensity, attempting to hold on to it, and not continue to alter its boundaries. Extremity lapses into this year's melody. The wholesale embrace of technology, of spurious New Age spiritualisms, marks the loss of the thing for itself, and the return of producing for the ear. Its the repenetration of the human in terms of quality, a rigid formulation of easily digested cliches, and the collapse back into the arena of art. What does not occur is the rigorous dispersal of the discoveries of techno, of the relations of aural ambient architecture and unmediated behaviour, into everyday life.
Wednesday, January 09, 2008
New Datacide Blog
'Electronically composed sound, communally celebrated has the effect of some collective plateau phase. Music becomes a device, a prosthetics that leads to a hypersensitization - an overspill that establishes a field of flow between listeners. This incessant repetition with its controlled highs and lows, its deep grindings is nothing other than the continuation of erotics by other means, an erogenisation without object or delimited locale. The carefully placed touches of digitalised breaks, tips of searing reverb and the conducting of frequencies through skins plays the body to effect a libidinal response… to take us elsewhere. The desire for music is the desire for erotic communicstion as diffuse sensuality. Dancing becomes the means of expending the build-up of energy that wells up as a result, not only, of sound stimulus but of the general confinement of social desires. Electricity abounds. Tension and friction. The walls are silver. Desire manifests itself in the broadest social field. Channels are opened up for the release of energies which are not necessarily directed towards the genital figure of pleasure but toward a prolongation through repetition of an endless deferral of accomplishment. Tracks that never end. The night that goes on without run-off'.
Tuesday, January 08, 2008
Ben Atar eviction: a cosmopolitan response
In other words it was the kind of autonomous social space found all over the world, and as with many other such spaces it ended up facing eviction. As in most cases, news of this was posted at Indymedia UK, to be greeted in some cases by a very strange response. Prompted by a claim that this was Israel’s only squat, one person posted the following comment: “The whole ‘country’ is squatted. Only squat? NOT. Evict Israel. Evict the lot” (24.11.07).
Now amongst the self-defined radicals who post and comment at Indymedia we might expect to see a range of positions on Israel and Palestine: ‘Two State Solution, ‘One Secular Democratic (and/or Socialist) State for Jews and Palestinians’ or some kind of anarchist variant of a stateless society where Jews and Arabs live in harmony.
A statement like ‘Evict the Lot’ is saying something else again. It implies that the millions of Jewish people living in that part of the world should be somehow swept away. ‘Evict the Lot’ is as clear a racist statement as you could hope not to find, since by ‘the Lot’ can only be understood the people defined as being Jewish who are to be distinguished by cultural, religious or pseudo-racial characteristics from the people allowed to remain. Of course that is exactly the view of Bin Laden who states that ‘We will not recognize even one inch for Jews in the land of Palestine’ from the ‘river to the sea’.
It may be true that the state of Israel, like most states, was born in violence and dispossession, and that the state continues repressive measures is unarguable. Of course exactly the same could be said about the USA and Australia, where unlike in Israel whole populations were exterminated as their lands were seized. Whatever radical measures are proposed to ensure social justice for the remaining indigenous peoples in the US and Australia nobody would suggest that all the descendants of settlers could or should be expelled. It would be a human catastrophe to even attempt it, just as it would in Israel.
For some interesting reflections on this issue I would recommend a recent discussion paper by David Hirsh, Anti-Zionism and Antisemitism – Cosmopolitan Reflections. Aside from the specific points Hirsh makes about the use of antisemitic tropes by parts of the left, I was struck by his call for a cosmopolitan critique that ‘disrupts a methodological tendency to view the division of the world into nations as being more fixed than it is’ (e.g. the notion of Israel or Palestine as homogeneous entities) and focuses instead on the idea that, in the words of Robert Fine ‘human beings can belong anywhere, humanity has shared predicaments and… we find out community with others in exploring how these predicaments can be faced in common’.
Part of the interest at this site in music/dance scenes is precisely this cosmopolitan aspect – how common human experiences of rhythm, sound and movement can undermine fixed certainties of social categories and point towards alternative ways of being. We can see this in Israel not just in places like the Ben Atar squat and the small anarcho-punk scene, but in the popularity of dance cultures with an implicit critique of military values (and sometimes an explicit one – see the Rave Against the Occupation parties). We might also consider the way that in Israel, as in many other countries, dance scenes have been a means for the assertion of a confident queer culture in the face of intense conservative/religious fundamentalist opposition – no mean feat in a region of the world where gay men can still face execution in some countries.
It is in spaces like this, and their even more precarious counterparts in Arab countries, that the possibilities of breaking out of the cycle of nationalism and war can be posed in various ways. Limited as they may be, they deserve our solidarity, not only against the usual police and corporate interests that tend to squeeze them out but against those who want to bomb them out of existence and drive their denizens into the sea.
About Indymedia: the comment criticised above was the view of one person and all kinds of idiots leave random posts in reply to Indymedia articles. I am not therefore claiming, for instance, that Indymedia is antisemitic – only pointing out how racist comments can slip into some 'anti-Zionist' discourse in all kinds of places.
Friday, January 04, 2008
Clubbing in Kings Cross - end of the line
My first visit was there in March 1995 for Glitterati at The Cross, a glammed-up house night with Danny Rampling DJing (flyer pictured). The Cross had a small terrace with palm trees and seats from fairground rides. On that night it did indeed feel very glamorous, no mean feat for a couple of railway arches, but I guess that was down to the crowd.
The glamour had worn off by the time I went back the following year for a Renaissance night, perhaps because Renaissance had built up such a hype about the incredibly luxury of their events. My diary of Saturday 20th January 1996 records "First the highlights. The bloke passing round a bottle of champagne on the dancefloor at 2 am... the (German?) women who said to me'Luuuuvvly shirrrt oooh from Hyper Hyper!.. The people from Dublin who took our picture''. On the negative, there was the door policy: "two blokes in front were turned away because one had steel toe caps; so did one of our party but the bouncers didn’t even look at this boots. Was it because he had pink trousers on... perhaps, though my pink hair wasn't a problem. In fact I was only asked one question - how many of you are there, and how many are girls?". The night was billed “The Italian Renaissance” on account of Italy’s Alex Neri being on the promised DJ line up along with Boy George and Ian Ossia. It was £15 in and the famous Renaissance decor consisted of "a couple of polystyrene cherubs, a tatty cross and some red material".
Bagley's was much more messy, definitely more like a rave than a club. My main memory of it is going there for me and my partner's joint stag-hen do in June 1997. The night was Freedom (which ran from 1996 to 2001), based on the premise of having different kinds of music playing rather than a single style. I wrote at the time 'Bagley’s is a huge place with at least four big rooms playing a range of music from garage to techno. Unfortunately this meant that at any one time about half the people there were wandering from place to place looking for something better (with little joy in my case). Although the place was busy, there wasn’t much of an atmosphere, and it all felt a bit grim. The venue itself felt like a squat party without the imagination. There were no hangings or interesting decor, just a few sad trees in one room. One of the few things in its favour was that there was plenty of fresh air, with access to an open air terrace outside. I’m sure on a starry summer night it would be great, but it was too wet to appreciate'. Not one of my best nights then, but I know other people had some great times there.
It is the nature of club spaces that they come and go, but there are broader questions about what happens in a city when the marginal, semi-derelict zones where nightlife flourishes are replaced by the bright shining surfaces of redevelopment. There are apparently plans for new clubs in the area, but another chapter in the history of dancing in London has definitely come to an end.
Do you have any good Kings Cross stories? Post in comments.