Friday, November 20, 2015

Hippies vs. Punks: Shilpa Ray's Last Year's Savage (2015)

Shilpa Ray's Last Year's Savage, released this year, is filled with one great song after another. Of all of them I believe my favorite is "Moksha."

Shilpa Ray is a Brooklyn chanteuse who plays a harmonium; she is a mid-tempo Punk rocker who absolutely blows her better known Brooklyn peer, Sharon Van Etten, right off the Williamsburg block. Ray's lyrics are super-smart and edgy. I don't usually pay that close attention to words, but it is hard not to when they are in lines like "My dick’s bigger, my breasts are thicker, whatever power means" from the song "Johnny Thunders Fantasy Space Camp" or the following first verse from my favorite, "Moksha":
There’s no entry for the foreigners
I’m your native girl with my
Tail between my bleeding ass
And I’m off to the gates of heaven
I’ve been fakin’ my drunken stupor
And my absence from your real world
I’m just better than prostrating bitches
Who make believe they’re misunderstood
In the end, I'm a sound guy. And what is powerful in "Moksha," and throughout Last Year's Savage, is the droning pump organ, the walloping drums -- like a burlesque strip tease, or a rug on a clothes line being beaten with a kitchen broom -- and Ray's voice.

Yesterday walking home up the hill I tried to remember why I was thinking about the time my ex-wife's mother's live-in boyfriend, Chris was his name, horrified me with a tale about how he had stopped reading. At the time, I was a university undergraduate, probably 20 or 21. 

Chris was a nurse who worked in the same hospital as my mother-in-law. His story of how he had stopped reading went something like this: During college and for the first few years after he got out into the workaday world, he read fulsomely -- history, philosophy, the weighty fiction of the masters. But gradually his passion for the text diminished, and Chris found himself moving away from serious prose to lighter fare like pulp paperbacks. Eventually, as the years sped by, he even stopped reading Michael Crichton and Stephen King, settling for the local small-town evening paper. Finally, at the time of his confession to me in the mid-1980s, he had even stopped reading the evening paper. Capping off his narrative, he said something like, "Now all I can manage is reading a Time article while I am on the toilet."

This hit me like a thunderbolt. I lived to read; reading was my life. I was studying philosophy at the university, reading Kant, Hegel, Nietzsche, Marx, et al. The idea that there would be a time when I no longer read struck me as a kind of living death, life as a zombie where I would go, like Chris the nurse did, to work every day and then come home and smoke a joint and maybe go out for a run. The thing of it is, what made me panic at the time and seared the moment in my memory to recall this past week 30 years later, is that I knew right then and there that Chris was telling me the truth.

And sure enough, I, basically, like Chris thirty years ago, don't read anymore. Certainly, I try to read the newspaper every day, and a few comic books on Saturday. But the days of sitting down for hours with my snout in The Critique of Pure Reason or Beyond Good and Evil are long gone.

And then I remembered why I remembered Chris' story -- because all that reading of the Western philosophers I did while in college has never left me. I think about it all the time; it informs how I look at the world.

And one of those ideas, gleaned from Kant's Critique of Pure Reason, is that we can never completely know the future. The system is always open, must remain open. Any attempt to close the system and declare the end of history or the achievement of perfection is doomed to failure.

What the artist does is nibble at the outer edge of the timeline, the place where the present intersects with the future, where the atmosphere meets the void of space; she brings the future back to us (we, the consumers, the witnesses) and regurgitates it; we then consume it.

This is why it is essential to keep listening to new music. It is how rationality works. Shilpa Ray's Last Year's Savage, like Future's DS2, is pure ambrosia.


  1. The story about Chris struck me. The sad part is that he had to go through a Michael Crichton period before his final release from the tyranny of the written word. You don't mention a similar stage in your process, although some would argue that's what the comic books are about. People read for all sorts of reasons and their lives change and the reasons might go away, or perhaps the youthful inquisitiveness that led us to Kant and Nietzsche gets satisfied and we turn to other inquiries. Me, I'm a compulsive reader, a hoarder of books, both of the interior and of the physical objects archived in my garage, but your reading has a method and does not seem so pathological, and only superficially resembles Chris's experience.

    In your case, maybe you read and think for different reasons than before, and you might read a different brand of writing, but I don't think you read at a different pitch.

    I know this post was supposed to be about music, but that Chris thing, that really made me uneasy.

  2. I figured if Mark Zuckerberg could finish two books a month so could I. It was one of my resolutions for the year, realizing that my book-reading had cratered the last couple of years, and I met it until last month when the pope's encyclical on climate change has driven me to avoidance. Part of my problem is that nine hours of Sunday is chewed up in front of the TV watching the NFL. This holiday week I plan to get back on track and finish that encyclical. Thanks, as always, for your comments, J.O.