"Those Breakdown Days Are Done": Growing Up With the Bands We Grew Up With (The Nostalgia Trap, Part 3.)

That line hits me like a ton of bricks every time. I have cited it to therapists in outlining my goals. And it seems to be a theme of some of the music I’ve enjoyed the most recently, and about which I have complicated thoughts. (Content Warning: Discussion of Eating Disorders.)

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Edgar's Book Round-Up, April-June 2019

First of all, I realize June is not yet over. But I have read fifteen of the thirty books on my Goodreads goal, so it seemed like a good time to do another book round-up. It’s been a bit of an odd go, for reasons that will hopefully become clear, but we’ll see. Also worth noting is that most of the links do go to Goodreads pages; they are not subsidizing me, but it seemed more useful than anything else. (Image is The Magician King by Lev Grossman, which is mentioned but not pictured in the piece.)

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Some Notes on Aesthetics

We have been taught, in a variety of ways that aesthetics are bullshit: in part, and not unreasonably, because what do Truth and Beauty (yes, with title caps) mean to a world that had, y’know, the whole twentieth century, and has so far made a fucking hash of the twenty-first?

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New Music with Edgar

So, last year, I did something possibly very dumb, and joined a group dedicated to emo music on facebook. I say “possibly very dumb” because the group has metastasized wildly, with spin-off groups proliferating like spider plants. But joining this group did have an unintended side effect: for the first time in years, I felt compelled to keep up with new music releases. And it was fun! It’s still fun! It even lead to me making a list of my favorites from 2018 (though somehow in writing the list I super forgot to even mention Cursive’s Vitriola, which I loved very much, and, of course, the fact that I only heard about some great 2018 releases after the turn of the year).

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Edgar's Book Round-Up, January-March 2019

I haven’t been reading as much this year, or at least not as many books. I think I’m still reading with the same frequency, but this year I decided to dial back my Goodreads challenge number, because I wanted to read some denser, odder stuff. I found that in trying to read many books (last year I hit 45, which I think is pretty good considering I periodically do other stuff), I was privileging briefer ones. That’s no bad thing — efficient style is nothing to be sneezed at, and frankly I think we should all be reading more poetry — but I had been eyeballing a few longer and more intense pieces for quite some time.

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No-Man's Land: World War One and Its Aftershocks

In episode five of Perdition’s Teeth, “Homestead,” the narrator informs us that, as he traipses across a barren expanse of farmland, Seeger is reminded of Flanders’ field and no-man’s land, the colloquial term for the space between the trenches of the Allied and Central powers. The dust-driven plains of the Great American Desert, and the waste land of mud and barbed wire that characterized the Western Front, on which Seeger fought, bear some clear similarities: their hostility, their alien appearance, and their silent threat of imminent danger would parallel one another in Seeger’s mind.

But what did World War One mean for America? For Americans? The United States didn’t join the war until April of 1917, after the release of the Zimmermann telegram (a drama of high intrigue by itself), though after the sinking of the Lusitania by German submarines, a movement towards “Preparedness” emerged. But initially, US popular opinion was against joining the war, with many different groups favoring neutrality for different reasons (Irish Americans because they were loath to aid the British, for the example, and many German Americans still had ties to Germany). Woodrow Wilson won a second term in 1916 in part thanks to the slogan, “He kept us out of war.” And even when the US did enter the war, they were beset by a variety of problems: the standing army at the start of the war was not large, and racial relations within the US military were fraught, to put it mildly. But, as David Smith noted last year in The Guardian, “[T]he war had seismic implications for the US economically, socially and culturally,” pointing out that in many ways US involvement in World War One paved the way for the cultural shifts of the twentieth century.

For Seeger, much as for John Dos Passos or Ernest Hemingway, his enlistment would have come about as the US hastily assembled almost five million troops to ship out to aid the Allied forces. With the French and British militaries in poor morale, the arrival of a bunch of Americans was looked on as a godsend. As Vera Brittain writes in her memoir, Testament of Youth:

“Look! Look! Here are the Americans! ”

I pressed forward with the others to watch the United States physically entering the War, so god-like, so magnificent, so splendidly unimpaired in comparison with the tired, nerve-racked men of the British Army.

Although American involvement in the war was relatively brief, and casualties relatively low with respect to raw numbers, it nonetheless affected a generation of writers — and disaffected many of the people called to enlist.

Though the American deployment only lasted a year and a half, American soldiers met the same horrors that their British, French, and Commonwealth allies had been enduring for three years when they entered the fray. The scars would last a lifetime, and within the fiction of Perdition’s Teeth, we can see those traumas lingering on Seeger’s mind. He puts on a blase attitude, but his actions show a desire for the world to make sense and for things to go back to making as much sense as it did when he was younger.

Many of the men who came home were hollowed out by the experience, and they fought with the government for their pensions for years afterward. Many of these soldiers, while they had been paid at the time of their service, were required to wait for their whole payment — they were promised $1.25 for each day serving overseas, and $1.00 for each day serving in the United States (roughly $15 and $12 in 2018 dollars.) The exact amounts were agreed upon in 1924…but were not to be paid out until 1945, twenty-seven years after the war ended.

In the summer of 1932, a year before the events of Perdition’s Teeth, 17,000 out-of-work veterans, and 26,000 sympathizers, marched on Washington, D.C. under the banner of the Bonus Army, demanding immediate cash payment of the money they had been promised. On the 27th of July, former Major General Smedley Butler, in Washington to advocate for the Veterans, walked through the camp, ate with the protesters and stayed with them. The following day, he delivered an off-the-cuff speech to them. He told them that they were within their rights, and that they were fine soldiers. He told them that they needed to keep their humor and be mindful that the public eye was upon them.

This would prove to be an important moment.

Later that day, the protestors clashed with the police, and two of them were shot, but the police were driven off. The army was then dispatched: General Douglas MacArthur and then-Major George S. Patton personally led the 12th Infantry Regiment and the 3rd Cavalry Regiment, supported by six M1917 light tanks against the protesters. It was thought by many that the army was coming out to parade in honor of the veterans, and a crowd of spectators assembled to watch. They were quickly disabused of this notion when Patton ordered a cavalry charge, leading crowd to cry out:

Shame! Shame!

The protesters were then set upon by infantrymen with fixed bayonets and tear gas, who pursued them back to their camp in the Anacostia Flats and brutally demolished it. Fifty-five veterans were injured, one hundred and thirty five were arrested, and the violence resulted in one miscarriage and the death of a twelve-week-old infant.

Burning of the Bonus Army Camp, 1932. (Image: Signal Corps/National Archives)

Burning of the Bonus Army Camp, 1932. (Image: Signal Corps/National Archives)

MacArthur claimed that they had assembled and attempted to overthrow the government, but this was a transparent lie. This event led to the ouster of President Herbert Hoover, and the election of President Roosevelt, but it had more and further-reaching effects.

It is possibly this event that was the final nail in the coffin for Smedley Butler as a military man, leading him to eventually write in the Socialist magazine Common Sense:

I spent 33 years and four months in active military service and during that period I spent most of my time as a high class muscle man for Big Business, for Wall Street and the bankers. In short, I was a racketeer; a gangster for capitalism. I helped make Mexico and especially Tampico safe for American oil interests in 1914. I helped make Haiti and Cuba a decent place for the National City Bank boys to collect revenues in. I helped in the raping of half a dozen Central American republics for the benefit of Wall Street. I helped purify Nicaragua for the International Banking House of Brown Brothers in 1902–1912. I brought light to the Dominican Republic for the American sugar interests in 1916. I helped make Honduras right for the American fruit companies in 1903. In China in 1927 I helped see to it that Standard Oil went on its way unmolested. Looking back on it, I might have given Al Capone a few hints. The best he could do was to operate his racket in three districts. I operated on three continents.

It is not only the war itself, but its still-unfolding half-life, that would come to mind for Seeger as he makes his way towards the barn, and although he hasn’t yet — at the time of the story — become as disillusioned as Butler, he can no doubt sense his world crumbling around him.. The impact of the First World War, not only on our imagined detective or his historical context, but to this very day, continues to turn itself up, like long-buried landmines uncovered live (article dates from 2014).

"Rebel Woman": on Emma Goldman

I first heard of Emma Goldman at age 16, when I excitedly put on the second album by obscure singer-songwriter Daryl Scairiot, whose work I had found by chance. The first track, “Emma Goldman’s Arrest,” (the link opens in Spotify) is a haunting dirge, celebrating Goldman’s ideas (albeit very loosely), and memorializing… one of her several arrests; which one is unclear in the song. Her life was colorful, and spanned a couple of continents and several countries: of Russian extraction, she lived in the US, France, Germany, Russia again, Spain, and finally died in Canada in 1940.

While the similarities between Emma Goldman, known today as a political polymath of anarchist thought, who wrote on everything from the uses of violence to the theatre, and Ruth Doyle, our brash Bostonian union organizer, might seem tenuous, Goldman’s persona was intrinsic to the way Ruth presents herself. Goldman’s galvanization to political action, a combined result of her social milieu and the Haymarket affair, might easily have served as an influence on a real-life Ruth, as did Goldman’s committed anti-Capitalism and feminism. But Goldman’s real influence on Ruth — other than the arguable possibility that an historical Ruth could have read Goldman’s autobiography, which appeared in 1931 — is Goldman’s reputation as an orator.

In preparation for writing Ruth’s speech in episode 3, I sought out the text of some of Emma Goldman’s speeches, leaning especially on her speeches on patriotism and conscription, to reproduce a rhetorical pattern that would have been familiar to someone from Ruth’s background. Her style is emotional and intense — which isn’t really surprising, given that she described her first experience with public speaking as a kind of personal transport: “The audience had vanished, the hall itself had disappeared, I was conscious only of my own words, of my ecstatic song.” That feeling of political ecstasy is one with which Ruth is intimately familiar, and Goldman’s stature as a writer and a speaker — to say nothing of her involvement with the assassination attempt on Henry Frick during the Homestead Strike — would not have been unknown to Ruth.

Goldman died in 1940, and her reputation waned somewhat, until her rediscovery in the 1970s, but her specter as a figure of political commitment and eloquent warrior against social injustice — even making statements against homophobia and transphobia as early as 1923, in her reported correspondence with Magnus Hirschfeld (which is unfortunately lost). Her commitment, too, to a radical movement that encompasses “freedom, the right to self-expression, everybody's right to beautiful, radiant things” is inspirational to this day — not only in Perdition’s Teeth, but to everyone.

Listen to Chapter 1 of Perdition’s Teeth here

How to Pick Up Hitchhikers: the Co-Writing Process

My memory is terrible. That's probably why the first distinct conversation I recall having with Cameron about what would become Perdition's Teeth was around the time he posted something on Facebook, canvassing his friends for interest in working on a podcast together. And while we'd played through a brief tabletop RPG campaign set in a similar world, that story had featured a huge plot derailment due to a character having a bunch of drugs on his person, so I wasn't really sure how it would go. And then when we got together with some of the friends from the initial Facebook thread, Perdition's Teeth wasn't something that was high on my list for potential projects -- but it's the one we all got behind, and in retrospect, I'm really glad that it's the one we went with.

It's not just that I'm in love with the characters, or that I got to learn a lot about things like labor organizing in the 1930s. In a lot of ways, I think this was an ideal project for a crash-course in co-writing and collaboration.

For context: Cameron and I have been writing next to each other, as it were, for a long time. We've been reading and critiquing each other's writing for over ten years. We know each other's strengths and weaknesses pretty well, at this point -- but we had never written anything collaboratively. And while both of us had been involved in theatrical productions in the past, we had never been behind the wheel. It was, in a lot of ways, a wild ride.

Cameron, as both the originator of the concept and the better plot-forger (by leagues), created the initial episode-by-episode breakdown of the action in a table format. Now, I can't plot my way out of a paper bag (I mean, I can, but it's really hard), but I am, I think, pretty good at writing characters. So once we had that episode-by-episode outline, Cameron passed the table off to me so that I could detail the characters' emotional arcs as the action progressed. When the table was complete, we met with Alex and the rest of the cast, and talked with them about the proposed course of the story. They had some thoughts; we had some thoughts; we changed things until we were all reasonably happy with how they would go. I mean, maybe not happy, given the ending and all, but satisfied.

From there, we began the real work.

Another thing I learned a lot about on this project: CeltX. I swore a lot.

Cameron and I decided early on that, even if one of us wrote the bulk of the episode, the other would have to sign off on it. We also decided, in the case of a few episodes, that one of us would be wholly responsible for producing the script because, in one way or another, given episodes played to our specific strengths.

Cameron wrote all the exciting stuff; I wrote all the stirring speeches.

It was when we started recording, however, that I moved deeper into another role. As the "character czar," I had written a lot of the character-heavy content, or at least edited it in some way. During the rehearsal and recording process, I used my authority (ha!) to act as a kind of director. It's different from what I thought of as directing, for sure: no movements, obviously, but a lot of heavy-duty voice work. In practice, this meant a lot of talking through the characters' emotional states as they spoke, and putting the characters' words into the context of their actions, as well as a lot of semi-incoherent statements like, "You wanna kinda build up to the comma here, right? And then drop it right down," accompanied by dramatic gestures. Unsurprisingly, the task grew easier with practice, but fortunately, I was working with a very talented and receptive group of people. Everyone involved had taken direction in the past, and fortunately, they were able to help me in turn when I had to pinch-hit on minor characters.

While my involvement in the genesis of the project was more as a sounding board, towards the end, in some ways, I was able to guide things on a pretty high level. Like a hitchhiker who, at first, seems like dead weight on the engine, I eventually got to move into a navigator role, riding shotgun on a project that has grown to be so much more than any of us, I think, initially thought it could. I'm really proud of my own involvement -- but the characters came to life in the voices of our friends, and the story couldn't have been told without any of the people involved on board.