The Sick Soul Spirit of ‘76, Views from the Styx, The Music of Sidney Gish

Illustration by Susan Coyne

This Week—the State of your Union—with FDR biographer Robert Dallek, journalist Tom Ricks, political scientist Vanessa Williamson and subway commuters in Cambridge, Mattapan and East Boston. Listen today at 2pm on WBUR or anytime on our website.

We hit the mean streets of Boston and Cambridge this week to ask citizens how they’re feeling about their country. Divided, mixed, rattled, fractured and headed towards oblivion they reported.

Producer Becca DeGregorio in Kendall Square

But folks we talked to this week were also tougher, smarter, funnier and more resilient than politicians give them credit for. They know the game; they know their government operates essentially without their best interests in mind. There’s power on the streets — in a growing resistance in organized protests and marches, but also in the quiet dignity and strength of ordinary working people who make up this rattled country.

Tom Ricks, a decorated Washington journalist and war correspondent who gave up the game after the Iraq War broke his heart, he told us, quotes George Orwell saying that the most difficult thing to see is what is in front of your eyes.

I don’t know why I immediately thought of Bob Dylan’s line “don’t follow Leaders, watch the parking meters.” The lesson is think for yourself. Observe the facts for yourself. Don’t listen to Donald Trump and believe him. Don’t listen to politicians. Believe the facts of your life. Look around you and see what happens. People are being diverted away from the facts that they feel in their own gut, and if you talk to people they know it’s true.

Ricks also has a reading assignment for all of us this week:

If there’s one thing I can ask every American to read it would be Martin Luther King’s letter from the Birmingham jail — which is so much the vision of Orwell — where he says the fact of the matter is that Birmingham is the most segregated city in America. The fact of the matter is that Negroes who stand up for their rights are met here with violence not only from citizens but from the police. And the fact of the matter is that all we are asking is the federal government to give us the rights the federal government says we have, which is the right to vote the right to free speech.

So hit the streets, people, and talk to your fellow citizens. Donald Trump might be right about one thing — the rank and file are great people!

Chris Lydon — on Tom Ricks’ evocation of Orwell:

We are a nation of flower-lovers, but also a nation of stamp-collectors, pigeon-fanciers, amateur carpenters, coupon-snippers, darts-players, crossword-puzzle fans. All the culture that is most truly native centres round things which even when they are communal are not official — the pub, the football match, the back garden, the fireside and the ‘nice cup of tea’.

—George Orwell, The Lion and the Unicorn: Socialism and the English Genius, February 19, 1941.

This is one of the Orwells I love — the contrarian lover quarreling with his
country and culture at the start of the second World War. This is the essay
that begins arrestingly: “As I write, highly civilized human beings are flying
overhead, trying to kill me.” It goes on to highlight and indict his own two-
faced country: “But is not England notoriously two nations, the rich and the
poor?” And in the pre-war decades was it not under failing management by
a decayed ruling class? “A family with the wrong members in control — that,
perhaps, is as near as one can come to describing England in a phrase.”
Orwell is taking inventory in the home country of an overripe, nearly
exhausted empire. He’s the “lower-upper- middle-class” fellow who’d gone
to Eton and chosen socialism. The sparkling detail in The Lion and the
is all-English, but the themes are bigger. What we need, I keep
thinking, is an ongoing portrait of our American condition, written with the
affection and the bite of Orwell’s, informed not by data but by the falcon’s

One can learn a good deal about the spirit of England from the comic
coloured postcards that you see in the windows of cheap stationers’ shops.
These things are a sort of diary upon which the English people have
unconsciously recorded themselves. Their old-fashioned outlook, their
graded snobberies, their mixture of bawdiness and hypocrisy, their extreme
gentleness, their deeply moral attitude to life, are all mirrored there.

Reading: Viewpoints Magazine, Issue 6—Imperialism

Conor Gillies: Add to the growing list of small, new left magazines to watch — like n+1, Jacobin, New Inquiry, and Salvage — an exciting online journal called Viewpoint. Founded by historian Salar Mohandesi and the writer Asad Haider, Viewpoint styles itself a “militant research collective,” and publishes a range of far-left writing, including original news analysis, book reviews, and translations of historic writings. In their new issue “Imperialism,”published last week, you can read perspectives on Cuba, Syria, and Libya, and, in time for black history month, a 1987 speech by Thomas Sankara on neo-colonialism, and Revolutionary Action Movement’s 1966 document “World Black Revolution.”

P.S. Keep an eye out for Asad Haider’s forthcoming book, Mistaken Identity: Race and Class in the Age of Trump. We’ve been reading it in the office, and it’s actually an interesting critique of identity politics that doesn’t devolve into either “class reductionism” or Mark Lilla-style conservatism (for a preview, read Haider’s excellent review of Coates and Lilla in Viewpoint Mag). Let us know your favorite writers and thinkers on intersectionality and identity, as we consider doing a show on the topic some time in 2018!

Listening: Sidney Gish — No Dogs Allowed

Zach Goldhammer: This week, I’ve been hooked on the music of Sidney Gish. No Dogs Allowedthe latest self-release from the Boston-based songwriter and Northeastern student—is one of the catchiest records with Boston roots to come out in a long, long time (or at least since Gish’s 2016 debut record, Ed Buys Houses)

If you’re new to Gish’s music, check out the anthemic “I’m Filled With Steaks and Cannot Dance”. The song starts out sounding like it’s slowed down the riff from the Arctic Monkey’s frenetic, mid-aughts classic “Fluorescent Adolescent” and filtered it through lo-fi molasses. The lyrics open up layer after layer of ennui, as the narrator just tries “to advance through peacetime / in a trance.” But the song slowly transforms as a shimmering synth line dances into the low mood halfway through and opens up with the brilliantly brutal—almost triumphant—third verse:

So what practical matters must I settle first
What practical matters must be put down, which ones to
Shoot with tranquilizers, leave them falling on the ground
And made into a bearskin rug

Gish has been racking up comparisons to wordy, quirky NY indie rock darlings like Vampire Weekend and Frankie Cosmos as well as anti-folk stars like Regina Spektor and the Moldy Peaches. These influences do run undeniably deep in the DNA of Gish’s music, though they don’t overpower her individual sound. The video for “I’m Filled With Steak” also makes it clear that Gish’s own aesthetic tastes have been steeped in weird internet humor and shaped by distinctly millennial concerns and experiences. As Austin Brown notes, in a review for Get Alternative, Gish might be the first songwriter to reference meme group feuds and the joys of trying “to make straight white boys cry” on the internet.

Yet what’s most striking to me is the real sense of human fun and feeling that leaps out of her recordings. The jangly tambourines and gracefully jaunty melodica runs on “Where the Sidewalk Ends” make for some of the most joyful sounds I’ve heard recorded this year. And the hook on “Sin Triangle” (“two-faced bitches never lie / therefore I never lie”) is just instantly funny and endearing. And that’s just one of the many punchlines Gish manages to effortlessly land throughout the album. There’s almost none of the self-consciousness literariness and ironic distance which so often makes modern indie rock feel stale.

More than anything else, Gish’s songs remind me of Boston’s patron saint of songwriting (and my personal hero), Jonathan Richman, who built up his solo career by intensifying and celebrating the bittersweet aftertaste of feelings from his teenage years. Richman’s solo songs— filled with observational humor and twitchy, raw-nerved emotions— often mocked his own pretentiousness and mellowed his rock star guitar chops into simplistically pretty picking and strumming (ex. “Parties in the USA” & “Summer Feeling”). The 20-year-old Sidney Gish—a singer with perfect pitch, Berklee training, and jazz guitar aspirations (maybe)—seems to have already mastered a similar mix of deadpan humor, childlike energy, and sophisticated musical restraint.

On No Dogs Allowed, “I Eat Salads Now” might be the stand-out track. Its component parts are still relatively familiar and simple. Built around traditional pop song chord changes and doo-wop-ish background harmonies, the song highlights a sense of post-teenage weariness about the prospect of going out for the night. Again, the theme isn’t exactly new in modern indie rock: the push-pull ambivalence of maturity holding one back from partying echoes Courtney Barnett’s thrillingly small stakes drama, “Nobody Really Cares If You Don’t Go to the Party”. Even the killer couplet in Gish’s song—“I’m 20 / washed up already” —was lifted from Frankie Cosmos’s “I’m 20” (as a 26 year old, this line always guts me, no matter who sings it…), yet somehow the song becomes uniquely Gish’s own. The full force of the song’s refrain— “these sweet instincts / ruin my life” —doesn’t fully hit home until they reappear on the album’s penultimate track “Imposter Syndrome.” Though its unclear exactly what Gish believes those instincts to be—or what threat they represent in her life—they feel like the key to her music for me. A sense of sweetness and sincerity consistently sneaks through in her music, even with all the references to internet shitposting and silly mispronunciations. For an often irony-poisoned and extremely online generation, Gish’s music offers a sort of sanctuary for real sentiment without the self-serious pretension of the old New Sincerity.

For more on Gish, check out Nina Corcoran’s review of No Dogs Allowed in Pitchfork as well as her profile of the artist in DigBoston.

Watching: Wormwood

MM: Finally finished all six episodes of Errol Morris’ latest film. It’s amazing. Don’t binge on it. Watch one a night for a week. And then listen to our show with Errol. (You can also read Michael Ignatieff’s follow-up to his 2001 report on his friend Eric Olson in the most recent NYRB)

More Misc

Ben Tarnoff on data as the new lifeblood of capitalism. Alex Press on moving beyond carceral feminism. A.O. Scott reconsiders the his Woody Allen problem + (w/ Manohla Dargis) highlights 28 films for 28 days of black history month. Heather Ann Thompson to discuss inequality and incarceration from Attica to MOVE at Harvard on Monday. Adam Johnson on police spin. “Mr Boston” Gar Alperovitz outs himself as part of the Lavender Hill Mob that helped leak the Pentagon Papers to journalists. Amanda Palmer’s tribute to Delores O’Riordan.

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