‘Tides’, the Nitin Sawhney instrumental, plays on the turbocharged sound system in the warm-up session at Body and Soul, a Sunday tea dance with a difference. Danny Krivit, Joe Claussell, Francois Kevorkian busy working their magic on the decks, the session itself, even at this nascent alaap stage, largely picking up where the legendary Paradise Garage left off. But it’s a sombre Gotham of shadows and sobriety that the soundtrack finds. The twin towers were felled less than a year ago but the city still seems cagey, suspicion the new watchword in an ever changing vernacular.
I tried to get a cab that day and you know what, they were all at home. It’s like they knew.
It’s not bad, this instrumental cut, and with eyes wide shut and a certain amount of generosity, there are shades of Andrew Hill here. Ok, it’s no ‘Illusion’ but then again this ain’t that time. Even so, how grateful, how pathetically grateful we are for this ethereal snippet of something we might actually recognise, beyond the cabbies and the service sector, and the model minority and the conspiracy theories.
It’s an embarrassment of riches otherwise, a dire landscape of overachievement and apology. Doctors, lawyers, engineers and denial. The liberal kids all playing at being outsiders, though it’s a season in the not-so-urban jungle they really favour. Older siblings already at home in the cash rich/time poor equation of risk analysis. Ivy League, Wall Street, with the only thing worse being the ones who believe their season at the circus, more likely a semester of Sociology, somehow disqualifies them from membership of the corporate crowd. Foucault, and Fuck You, but none of them actually alert to where a genuine threat might originate in this life. Empiricism and methodology as ever no salve for actual experience.
Ooh yeah, baby, the taste of fear. Cordite on the tongue and the howling of sirens. Or was that cutthroats in the alley and a brief regret at skipping class? Is that what drives their ‘fieldwork’ in the caliphate? Holidays in other people’s misery, the age old tic of the imperialist. Doing God’s work. The civilising mission, which more often than not these days means the brown man’s burden. Though it’s a particular type rather than any specific race we’re talking about here. Unhappy and indulged, if not exactly unhappy at being indulged. Look past the smoke and mirrors, and it’s all there in plain sight. The wrong kind of flirtation, nothing so much as the thin skin and entitled faces, the manufactured grievance and pitiful whining, laid bare by the vernacular. Spoilt kids playing at revolution, coddled at every turn. Liberals and language always primed to jump in on their behalf, this phobia and that culture the greedy beneficiaries of so much concern. The Left, clueless, rudderless for so long, just grateful for a renewed sense of purpose, some realignment in the shadows.
The why, you ask? Well that’s easy, my friend. A powerful aphrodisiac, this proximity to violence, a downpayment on cruelty for the perennially weak. Practically irresistible for the disciples of the book. (Marx, in case you were wondering). When you’ve been mocked by the bankers, by your peers, by the entire political class, any alliance, however spurious, which gives the illusion of flex, might just outweigh the humiliation. Oh that’s right, didn’t anyone tell you? You’ll be catching, my friend. It’s the other lot who’ll be pitching. The other lot. That’s right. Them. The unhappy coddled ones. The ones who love death, but not half as much as they love Twitter. And your scorn. Them. Yeah, you know, as in…Nobody knows the trouble they haven’t seen. And OMG it’s just so hard being them, us, me, me, me.
The way they look at me, and the things they say, you wouldn’t believe. Tent, Ninja, Terrorist.
The noblesse oblige of this now.
So no great shock at how skittishly this fragment gets claimed as our culture, whatever the hell that means any more; a sonic footprint of our own in the hip underground of the gay, black, New York demi-monde. Decent enough tune, ‘Tides’, but then again so was ‘Dancing Queen’.
Though it’s a warm up, and the real crowd is yet to arrive, the familiar sound feels like a gift. There’s something tragic in that too. But not entirely surprising when you think about it. Consider how sad diaspora kids, especially Asian ones, often appear, perhaps always have been; how anxious and neurotic and watchful – just look at those early years photos and see what I see – apprehension, not joy unconfined. Circling the edges of life at a time when one should be racing through the pleasures of childhood. Maybe that’s why stuff, all stuff – food, insults, sport etc – seems to matter so much to these kids; why it can never be just a game, or a meal, or a bit of fun; why for the solipsistic refugee this is not simply another detail of everyday life.
And then the alaap, a brief, unexpected moment of transcendence; something sublime which lets all those anxious, toasted marginals throw off the shackles; in those piano stabs an invitation to dissolve the despised mask of mimic men the world over. For those few moments there is just sound and succour. Kit bags appear and once upon a time talc would have been poured. Northern Soul. Except it’s not. Something else entirely, a lifetime and an ocean away from Wigan. Still, in the bags a murmur of the North, though which one, twisted wheel or dark satanic mills, is anyone’s guess. But as with all things fleeting, the moment soon passes and before you can say ‘Frank Wilson’ the serious dancers are already taking their stage. And it’s back to circling the edges for our mimic man.
Look at it another way. Remove the alaap and what’s left? Longing, maybe, yearning, for sure, but no real outlet for all that pent up desire. In its place navel gazing or a whole lot of…nothing really.
And your clothes never fit, and your skin’s the wrong colour, so you make do with fear, you get more than you need.
But those aren’t your lyrics, and deep down you know that Dave Wakeling didn’t mean you. Two tone. The monochrome set. Black and white, and for some you’ll always be too close to one and not enough of the other. So you root around in pop culture for some other kind of prop. And away from the Harringtons and the swagger you think you’ve found it in the bargain basement of self-help.
Simple colours, and crucially, team colours.
You’re one of us now. Kind of.
Is that why the flag is draped around so many uncertain shoulders nowadays? Why it’s embraced even when it is the most humiliating of shrouds?
Arrivederci it’s one on one and that’s the best it will ever be. St George and Ingerland every couple of years. Unless it’s on the pitch, though, it’s still jarring for anyone with a memory that stretches beyond this self absorbed present. Old timers bemused by so many brown and black faces sporting the colours then joining in with the car crash karaoke that follows the national team. Though there’s always some bright spark on hand to point out that this constitutes progress. It’s not about that any more. We’re all in it together, apparently. The that of bovver boots and straight arm salutes neatly folded away with the rest of our memories. Especially the ones that embarrass the present.
Even so, for the ritually diffident this may well be what a bargaining counter looks like these days. And no one’s saying they don’t get it. It’s hard to be too preachy about this in these end times. Particularly when the only other psychic transference in town seems to involve the suicide vest and its oddly sado-masochistic fantasies of self. In its own way too just another variant of the one-size-fits-all dysfunction which seems to bedevil so many of today’s youngsters. Yet more boys and girls just trying to belong, though their sublime turns out to be another kind of kingdom altogether.
This tale rarely ends well either.
Steeped in self-pity, it plays out as a sad, psychotic attempt to prise agency from the death grip of urban panto, along the way throwing down a few signs of its own: the urbane as mimesis, the ‘boom bap’ as terminal alterity, the one moment of velocity in a life otherwise thoroughly ordinary. ‘Good boys’ who know precious little of their own towns, of life beyond the tip of their parochial beaks, suddenly transformed into scholars of global martyrdom. Their unravelling every bit as predictable as the denials which will follow.
‘He was such a nice kid, always very polite. I can’t really believe he did it. We used to play football together every week. That’s what they’re saying in the media, but where’s the proof? Show me the proof.’
If we’re being generous, we might say this is the darkside of the science lab or of the service sector, the negative reflex of its knowing camp. Young men from interchangeable suburbs, replica weaponry on show for the requisite martyrdom video. But underneath the panto and the regional accents, forever mimic men, palms still clasped, sweaty bellwethers in their supplication of the future. Leading pathetic lives, in truth, fearful and wracked, only briefly emboldened by the promises of the afterlife, and yet more deferred gratification.
For once, though, the coded glamour of the demi monde has its day. Shirts are off and in that unholy dark it’s a mass of sweating, gleaming abandon. The first bars of Cymande’s dread/funk classic ‘The Message’ pour out of the huge bass bins. Arms aloft the mimic man lets himself breathe in that black, British memory. But in some profound existential way just doesn’t get it.
Make your way, don’t help me
Don’t watch where I go.
No one sees the kit bag. No one thinks to ask.