Of Pranksters and Pulitzers
By RACHEL TAVARES
STATIC and FEEDBACK editor
This weekend I decided to laugh in the face of rising oil prices and falling dividends. MGMT, Beck and Spoon were playing at the Hollywood Bowl in L.A., and I decided not to let a potential depression get me down. I filled my tank, loaded up on bad puns, and hit the road.
Beck, however, was not so cheerful. For the first time live, he performed with his father, conductor David Campbell. With a full orchestra, Beck played much of the 2002 album, Sea Change — an album that inspired Rolling Stone to write, “on every song, it sounds like Beck is the only one in the room, alone with his questions and stumped for answers.” But somehow I had missed the memo that this was, according to my husband, “the most depressing album ever written.” I had noticed it was a departure for the funk-folk-cowboy, but had somehow tuned out the lyrics. I suppose one too many references to nicotine and gravy and I had come to expect so much beautiful gibberish from Beck. An admission that made my friends, wiping damp eyes in the synthetic glow outside the Hollywood Bowl, vow to print out reams of lyrics in retaliation.
Consider the following from “Guess I’m Doing Fine,” the third track on the album:
It’s only lies that I’m living
It’s only tears that I’m crying
It’s only you that I’m losing
Guess I’m doing fine.
Touché, friends, I guess that is pretty depressing. But even here, it’s couched in a protective sort of irony. Yes, he’s admitting that he’s watching an inadequate life fall to pieces — but he has to add the barb at the end.
The subject was still fresh on my mind when Pulitzer Prize winner Junot Diaz visited Changing Hands Bookstore in Tempe, Arizona. His books, Drown and The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, both deal with extremely weighty material. They touch on poverty, heart break, murder, suicide, drug abuse and alcoholism, cancer — the whole gamut of human suffering. Each vignette, though, is smothered with sarcasm and humor. It’s a subject that was raised during his Q & A; a cynical voice rising from the crowd. “You’re funny,” said the voice. “But the passages you read tonight deal with a guy getting dumped by his girlfriend because he cheated on her, and a mom finding out with her daughter that she has breast cancer.”
Diaz responded, and I’ll paraphrase here, that “motherfuckers will tell jokes even at a funeral.” The truth is that life goes on, and it can’t be divided into neat compartments. In life, your memories aren’t classified as tragedy and comedy. Ultimately, everything is blended together.
Which of course sounded infinitely wiser coming out of his mouth; I suppose you’d need to have a way with words to win the Pulitzer. But nevertheless, it strikes me as a fairly brilliant thing to say. There are some things that are just too tragic to absorb – you have to laugh. And there are people who cry at weddings. But as Beck played the kind of music that could unite season ticket holders to the symphony and sneering L.A. hipsters, it became glaringly apparent that it’s an overwhelmingly grayscale world.
Sept. 25, 2008