Point/Counterpoint is a beloved feature that first appeared in the fall ’72 Telex edition of the Weeklings. PC/P is the product of an intellectual tradition hearkening back to storied Oxford debate squads and the golden age of radio, in which two authors match wits over random subjects while being forced to choose a side and defend it on the fly. Readers are advised to stand back, as the heat can get intense. This week’s arm wrestle involves novelist, musicologist, amateur ornithologist, and L.A. scene legend Mr. Matthew Specktor.
Ladies and gentlemen, we are now on the clock.
Spacemen 3 -
Point (Specktor): At a certain point in time —by which I mean both right now and approximately 30 years ago— Spacemen 3 strike me as the greatest English rock n roll band ever. Maybe not better than the Beatles (more of a pop band, really, anyway), but better than Zeppelin or Sabbath. This isn’t a defensible position. They can’t play (well, barely), they can hardly sing, they’ve never written a song that wasn’t essentially bolted together, obviously and somewhat clumsily, from the bones of other, better ones. In fact, most of the time, they could barely stand up —whether because they were strung out or simply not-that-capable, they insisted upon sitting down for gigs— so why, exactly, were they so fucking great? I guess it’s true that a pure, and ceaseless assimilation of influence goes a long way. The first song on their first LP (“Losin’ Touch With My Mind”) rewrote the Rolling Stones’ “Citadel,” and they went on from there to steal every last thing they could from the Stooges, Lou Reed, the MC5, the Red Krayola, Kraftwerk, Bob Marley, Chip Taylor, Juicy Lucy, the Electric Prunes, Roxy Music, Happy Mondays, the Staples Singers, Tav Falco’s Panther Burns —in short, from just about everybody. And yet they sound nothing like any of these bands. And where other records might make you want to dance, or drive fast, or fuck —whatever it is rock music is for, ostensibly— the Spacemen basically make me want to stare at the floor. (Even their beloved Velvet Underground had the common sense to fancy themselves a dance band. They didn’t just want to drone at people and make them lay down.) On top of which, the lyrics are terrible. I’ve tried all day to convince myself that the Spacemen represented some helixing of high and low romanticism —a deliberate intersection of Lord Byron with the Troggs— but then I listen to “Repeater (How Does it Feel)?” and think, Oh, right. This song is just DUMB. Then again, so were the Beach Boys (another band the Spacemen cheerfully ripped off), and the Ramones. Didn’t hurt them any. Might not hurt me, either.
Counter-Point (Beaudoin): I am a big fan of the wanton, unrepentant mess. The melody that soars over rehab. The addiction that drugs can’t touch because the impetus to be high is neither the expectation of euphoria or an expression of nihilism. It’s just another way of being awake. Of getting through twelve hours. There are some artists, some bands, for which dissolution seems inevitable, the product of rogue code or damaged protein chains that transcend stance or choice. The difference, say, between Nikki Sixx and Amy Winehouse. Sixx is all leather crotch and Bettie Page tattoos and management-procured dope, ready to walk away and zip up at any time. Winehouse’s line was written even before she was weaned off the carrot compote. That inevitable doom is an essential part of the American Musical Experience, a niche that is mostly ignored due to generalized embarrassment and misguided notions of propriety. Not to mention “protecting the children,” which almost always translates into “causing the children to immediately acquire and fetishize exactly what you forbade instead of spending the summer filling out applications to Tufts.” Yes, I’m talking about that weird dark corner of the groupie van where Syd Barrett hunkers next to Courtney Love. Where Roky Erikson and Hasil Adkins continue to party unabated. Where Chrome and Brian Jonestown Massacre and Spacemen 3 bang on their instruments like glazed-eyed chimps. I like that corner. I like a band that’s basically incompetent and yet delivers in a way the accomplished could never imagine. For instance, Iggy Pop being a vastly more interesting act, let alone musician, than Stevie Vai and his virtuoso histrionics. The Spacemen are fantastic, and clumsy theft is their calling card. A band that steals from the Velvet Underground with skill deserves a crushing lawsuit. A band that does it with enervated haplessness deserves so much more of our love.
Donald Sterling –
Point (Beaudoin): Fine. I’ll defend Donald Sterling. Or at least I’ll defend his right to be an asshole. Or, more specifically, his right to be an asshole in private. The 4th Amendment applies here, despite the fact that everyone in sports has known for decades that Sterling was nothing more than a cheap tube sock crammed with Cialis, unearned self-regard, and a management incompetence that bordered on performance art. Sure, he’s an old school Thurston Howell-style bigot, and about half as bright, but what this incident really proves is that the American Dream has always been about the package of exceptions that being a very rich man in a very exclusive club buys you. And it bought Don a nice, long inoculation from himself. So when the NBA finally sheds the various Sterling family members, acolytes, and mistresses after thirty years of looking the other way, it will be a day to rejoice. And not only because there will be one less white owner in a league that desperately needs fewer white owners. But here’s the thing: regardless of the positive outcome, we have to decry the secret recording. Especially when made by razor-eyed concubines. Recording someone surreptitiously, in their own home, and then selling it to TMZ should be illegal. Donald Sterling will ultimately get what he deserves, but so should V. Stiviano. I’m thinking 3-to-5 without the possibility of parole. The ability to speak unreservedly within four walls without fear of your every moronic thought being taped and sold to the highest bidder is the right of every American, regardless of wealth, intellect, or political persuasion. In the end, Donald Sterling is mainly guilty of sitting on his couch and revealing a purer version of the man everyone knew was there all along.
Counter-Point (Specktor): I’m exceedingly wary of people who profess themselves to be a certain way. Whenever anyone says, I’m a very forgiving person, I can only imagine a temperament so Sicilian that even the most minor grudge will simmer for decades. That said, I AM a very forgiving person. (Ask my ex-wife.) I tend not to hold grudges at all, and also tend to believe, with Goethe, that there is no crime of which I do not deem myself capable. We’ve all said things we regret, and I, uh, um—I’m sorry, I can’t do this with a straight face. Sean, thank you for taking the pro-Sterling line, so I don’t have to. There are human beings who don’t have any redeeming qualities whatsoever —in Sterling’s case, I can’t even point to the fact that he’s a good sports executive (as I did when Al Campanis was booted from the Dodger organization for making similarly-themed objectionable remarks). The guy’s a hopeless son of a bitch (that’s probably the kindest thing I could say about him). Fuckhead. I hope he burns.
The 90s -
Point (Specktor): Is it always too early for nostalgia? Fact is, the 90s were a terrible decade. The worst. I remember the 70s being criticized for a pervading sense of lethargy, anomie and self-interest. I remember the 80s being criticized for a similar sense of energy, gloss, and, uh, self-interest. The 90s (which feel just recent enough that I barely have to “remember” them at all) seemed to jettison everything except the self-interest. With the benefit, if it is a benefit, of hindsight, it becomes possible to view them favorably all the same. Don’t we miss Kurt Cobain, Quentin Tarantino, irony when it was a position more than a problem, Bill Clinton, Pavement, Third Eye Blind? (OK, maybe I miss Charlize Theron more than I miss Third Eye Blind.) Maybe a little, but for me, this decade will always represent untrammeled capitalism, a mood and spirit of deregulation —in short, the beginning of the end. At least, I hope the end. Fuck the 90s.
Counter-Point (Beaudoin): It’s becoming apparent that I did a lousy job of choosing an opponent/antagonist, because I could easily have written the above paragraph verbatim, and would like to echo every single word. Except the part about Third Eye Blind, who I hated then (as I do now) with the ferocity of a thousand dying suns.”How’s It Going To Be” haunted my lazy, self-interested ass from one corner of San Francisco to the other for at least 22 consecutive months and often when overhearing it (in bars, taxis, elevators, discount sock outlets) threw me into a near-murderous rage that could only be be avoided by taking deep, calming sniffs from the tiny canister of Cool Whip that I keep in my front pocket. The smell of Cool Whip has always inexplicably soothed my frayed edges.
In any case, to me the 90s can be neatly summed by five very distinct cultural artifacts:
1. A loathsome obsession with serial killers and their paintings. 2. That Four Non Blondes chick, whose vocal affectation always reminded me of the sound Cool Hand Luke makes while gargling his 50th egg. 3. Linda Tripp. 4. The rise of the goatee, the knit cap, and the goatee/knit cap combo. 5. The continued estimation of Henry Kissinger as a human being.
Having a Bloody Nose –
Point (Beaudoin): I get them all the time and it makes me feel like Lupus from the The Bad News Bears. My pillowcases, shirt cuffs, and bath towels all look like murder scenes requiring expert analysis from David Caruso. Sure, there’s probably a medical explanation, something that should be immediately tested and aggressively addressed with powerful experimental drugs, but I’m too lazy to go to the doctor. I’m like a 16th century princeling with the Royal Disease. I’m like a speed freak chewing on rivets from a rusty silo. People give me space on sidewalks and in crowds. I smile and whisper “too much ketchup” but no one’s buying it. I swill Scope and Listerine and Dr. Tom’s Kerosene Throat Elixir like mother’s milk. I don’t have a point here.
Counter-Point (Specktor): I don’t know that I’ve had a bloody nose in decades. Am I missing something? Is it like ordering the creamed spinach at Musso & Frank? Whenever I DO have one, will I wonder —dear God, how have I lived without this sensation for so long? That said, I’m glad you bring Timmy Lupus into it. A little known fact —indeed, a completely unknown one— is that when I was a pup, my parents and I were having dinner at Michael Ritchie’s house (my parents were having dinner there, and I was scurrying around underfoot like the rug rat I was), when Ritchie said, “I’m making this baseball movie, and I need a kid to play the right fielder. Shy, unathletic . . . you know, the kind of kid who sits out there and prays they don’t hit it to him.” My mother took a mental inventory of my friends and said, “I know just the kid.” Thereby, poor Quinn Smith, my brother in first grade shyness, was conscripted into showbiz. I remember he spent much of third grade hiding in the boys’ room, trying to get away from other kids who wanted his autograph. I have no idea whatever happened to Quinn Smith, but I wonder if he gets nosebleeds? That’s a true story, by the way. Thank you for offering me a rare opportunity to tell it.
Celebrity Cameos –
Point (Specktor): After a while, you sort of forget where these began. Once upon a time, the “cameo” was a wink, a nod, a subtle —or not so subtle— loose thread in the large tapestry, maybe a way of disrupting the field just a bit, creating a sense of incongruity. Were we supposed to notice when Roman Polanski —nobody’s idea of a tough guy— showed up to threaten Jack Nicholson in Chinatown, or were we just supposed to allow the director’s anxious, squirrelly visage to inform the movie somehow? We were definitely supposed to notice when Hitchcock did it, but what, then, of the contemporary mania for them: the way Stan Lee crops up infinitely in Marvel Comics movies, or the Pixar/Disney/Muppets axis, which seems to consist of little but a latticework of quotations, cameos and references to other films? What of the irruption —there’s no other word for it— of the unbilled Tom Cruise in Tropic Thunder (another movie that groaned under the weight of God knows how many other cameos, besides)? By now, they seem effectively pointless. They also seem inescapable. We’re so late in the game with the movies —perhaps with the arts in general— that they can’t stop acknowledging themselves and one another. I’ve grown to hate cameos (they’re rarely funny or surprising anymore), but I accept them as necessary. Or at least, I accept that the film industry itself seems to view them as necessary. Which is another way of saying I totally fucking hate them.
Counter-Point (Beaudoin): Tom Cruise in Tropic Thunder was a highly calculated “I’m sorry for whole Dianetics/slowly draining Katie Holmes of her blood” mea culpa to his waning fan base. And it worked. Afterwards there was this groundswell of “Hey, Tommy C can take a joke, maybe he’s not a brainwashed shill who feeds David Miscavige grapes by the fireplace at SeaOrg HQ after all” for several months. But then Knight and Day came out, and all the credit Cruise had built up dissipated in two hours of Cameron Diaz’s no-longer-charming befuddlement. Here’s the thing, though: Bill Murray as Bill Murray sort of whiling away the apocalypse in a depressive funk all alone in his mansion was sort of a stroke of genius in Zombieland. Aside from that? Yeah, it’s sheer creative laziness. There hasn’t been a good celebrity cameo since Tallulah Bankhead in Lifeboat.
The Pointlessness of Telling Anyone More Than 5 Years Younger Than Yourself Anything-
Point (Beaudoin): I was in a record store yesterday and a familiar riff came blasting over the sound system. These two young dudes were across the stacks, checking out discs. The riff kicks in, and then the vocals, and one of the kids goes “This band is so totally ripping off Nirvana!” The other one laughs and nods, “You’re right. How fucking lame!” Now, here’s the existential dilemma: Do I (40’s, short hair, no outward indication of ever possessing a single iota of past hipness) stroll over like Alex approaching the girl with the impotent popsicle in A Clockwork Orange and go, “Actually, young dudes, we are listening to Killing Joke. This song is from the mid-80s. Of course, all bands steal from all other bands, but if there’s any theft going on, it’s by your boy Kurt.” Or do I just continue flipping through the 180 gram Ornette Coleman reissues and mind my own damn business, assuming the kid will either figure it out on his own or simply die wrong, in either case making absolutely no difference? In the end, I just stood there and said nothing. But you knew that already.
Counter-Point (Specktor): I try not to lecture people. My opinions are basically useless —they’re just opinions, and I spend most of my creative life trying to get past those into something valuable. (Janet Steen wrote an outstanding essay on this very site addressing this topic.) That said, I think it’s a function of age that everything starts to sound, read, or look like things you already encountered a long time ago. If sixteen year old me had had forty-year-old ears, wouldn’t REM have just sounded like the Byrds crossed with the Choir crossed with a million other bands I’d already heard on Pebbles comps? Surely not EVERY new band I heard in 2004 sounded exactly like Gang of Four, did they? My jaded ears were playing tricks on me? (Nah. They did indeed sound exactly like Gang of Four. Fuck.) Would I have enjoyed Jenny Offill’s exceedingly well-executed Department of Speculation more if I hadn’t already read and re-read Elizabeth Hardwick, Renata Adler, Evan S. Connell’s Notes from a Bottle Found on the Beach at Carmel, etc? Probably. These days, I hear a band like Parquet Courts and start laughing. I suppose I should just book my slot at the nursing home now and lay in all those volumes of Trollope I’ve been too young to really enjoy all my life. Screw it.
Martin Amis –
Point (Specktor): I’ve tried. Lord knows, I’ve tried, with Money, Time’s Arrow, London Fields, The Information. I’ve gone at Martin Amis over and again without success. I find the guy remarkably photogenic-at least, he used to be-but I just don’t find the sentences interesting. I find them rubbery and overcooked, self-conscious in their slanginess, somewhat too eager to affiliate with their avowed influences (Nabokov, Bellow), without . . . well, without being good. At least not to me. I do know Amis has written some actual bad books (I’ve yet to meet an admirer of Yellow Dog, and when I read that one too —hey, it was short— I could hardly believe it was the product of the same writer, whose other books seemed to all have very identifiable merits). But I’ve read most of what people assure me is the best of Martin Amis, and simply find myself out of step with it. Even Money, which shares certain subject matter —even a certain spirit— with my own most recent novel, leaves me completely cold. I do like the idea of Martin Amis. Enough that I’ll probably make another attempt —at least one more— to figure out just what it is that I’m missing. But y’know what? I’ll probably just wind up looking at pictures of him. Again.
Counter-Point (Beaudoin): Yes, Yellow Dog is infamous for being truly awful, and I do not strenuously disagree, although it has recently been re-appraised in some quarters. A failure of that magnitude (as with the retrospectively atrocious Time’s Arrow/years of nuclear war bleating) just makes me like Amis even more. Why shouldn’t the Prince of British letters have produced a novel that is widely regarded as so shitty that some conspiracists insist that another author actually wrote it in his name? Recently, Mr. Amis was quoted as saying he’d “have to have brain damage” to write a YA novel. As a YA novelist, I could have taken that as a major insult, but again, it made me like him even more. I love an unrepentant prig. I love someone who does not couch their quotes to mollify. I love someone who has made a career of offending the easily offended and writing books whose reputations often trump the prose. Listen, Money is good. So is The Rachael Papers (ironically more or less a YA novel and would be shelved as such if released today). London Fields has long stretches of bravura vocabulary and lingual gymnastics that make the novel a success even if it fails to hold the center and collapses in on itself like a blancmange by the end. I couldn’t finish his most recent effort, The Pregnant Widow, which got a terrific review in the New York Times that I’m now assuming came mostly as a favor. But did I feel resentment for the waste of time and fourteen dollars? No. If anything, I felt empathy. It must be an unbelievable burden to constantly attempt to fuse Nabokov, Bellow, and the outsized expectations of your father into every goddamned sentence for your entire life. In any case, I just dig that Marty exists. We need him, or an approximation of him, to occupy a very specific version of the Oxford Bad Boy. If not, we’d have to settle for the caricature of Irvine Welsh that Irvine Welsh presently offers us. But you know who I really like? Kingsley Amis. Lord Jim is one of the great comic novels of the twentieth century. Actually, no, that was Conrad. Lucky Jim is the one you want. It’s brilliant. And Kingsley continued to produce another thirty more affairs-and-gin sitting room comedies that are all pretty hilarious in a “we’re still a colonial power, plus don’t forget about my erection” sort of way. Read them.
The Final Season of Mad Men -
Point (Beaudoin): What does it say about me that I always want less, especially of things I once enjoyed and admired? One album, two seasons, three novels. Take them all away. I am interested in characters up until the point that they reveal themselves, and then I want a divorce. I don’t care at all about Don Draper anymore. His ties, his affairs, his booze, his diffidence. I can’t stand to watch him smoke a single additional cigarette. I’ve wanted less January Jones since the middle of the first season. I suppose I could be talked into staring at Jessica Pare for an additional few episodes, but only if Zou Bisou Bisou is the only thing that comes out of her mouth, ever. I do like Harry Hamlin, mainly because his closeted Jim Cutler is so diametrically opposed to the insanely pretty young man beheading scorpions in Clash of the Titans that it’s nostalgically fascinating. Actually, the only truly compelling character left is Kiernan Shipka’s Sally Draper. I’d like to take a semester’s worth of classes at a desk next to her, trading funny notes. But Michael Ginsberg cutting off his nipple and giving it to (yawn) Peggy in a jewelry box? Of course, “jumping the shark” should have been excised from the national lexicon long ago, but even more so now that it must clearly be replaced with “snipping the nip.”
Counter-Point (Specktor): I’m a notorious want-less-er, myself. I tend to bail after the second album, think Scorsese’s last great film was actually Raging Bull (not Goodfellas), etc, etc. But for whatever reason, I’m still on board with Mad Men. The drift is part of what interests me. A lot of people on the show have worn themselves out. Betty Draper, ages ago, Bobby Draper (who is this kid? They seem to recast every 20 minutes), whatever the fuck her husband is called, Pete Campbell, Peggy, even, to some extent. I tune out for vast chunks of it. But I’m still in on Don, for reasons that are a little hard to pinpoint. Maybe because his fate remains unclear. He still saws, weirdly, between pathos and aspirational virility, and you just don’t know what to make of the chinks, the slips in his armor. Plus, I like drift. Part of the reason dramatic television (the medium, in general) is so vital —even if it’s not nearly as vital as it’s most passionate advocates say— is because it allows an uncertainty that studio movies haven’t for decades. Which I guess is akin to saying it’s OK to make a triple album if there’s one decent song buried on side four. But it is! It is OK. I think.
Ladies and gentlemen, we have reached the finish line of this week’s Point/Counter-point. Thank you once again for participating. The votes are being tallied and will be released to the public after they’ve been verified J.D. Powers and Associates, as well as the Washington State Attorney General.
Matthew Specktor was born and raised in Los Angeles. His father was a talent agent and his mother was a screenwriter. Specktor worked in film development for many years, and has written several screenplays. His writing has appeared or is forthcoming in The Paris Review, The Believer, Tin House, and Salon.com, among other publications. He is a senior editor and founding member of the Los Angeles Review of Books. His novel American Dream Machine, is out in the UK on Little, Brown and in the US on Tin House Books.