Wednesday, August 17, 2011

800 Words: The Weekend America was Young: The Year Esteban Was a Rock Star 1

Jacopo: So we haven’t done one of these in a while.

Esteban: Indeed. It’s been about a fortnight now.

Jacopo: I was willing to do it the whole time.

Esteban: I just wasn’t feeling up to it.

Jacopo: Why not? You were certainly up to visiting your old landsmann in Washingtonia.

Esteban: Isn’t that enough of a reason?

Jacopo: Not in 2072 when you can beam between places.

Esteban: You can’t beam anywhere. You like that Star Trek revival show too much.

Jacopo: I know that. But haven’t you ever used Skype?

Esteban: I hated Skype when I was your age. I still hate it.

Jacopo: What’s wrong with Skype.

Esteban: If you think facebook chat was bad, try having to communicate by voice with people you never want to talk to again.

Jacopo: Can’t you just ignore them?

Esteban: Why even ignore them when I can just avoid them?

Jacopo: You’re crotchety.

Esteban: That’s hereditary.

Jacopo: Touche.

Esteban: Anyhow, so today I’d like to talk about the year I was a famous rock star.

Jacopo: You weren’t that famous Zaydie.

Esteban: You weren’t there. How do you know?

Jacopo: Bubbie says you weren’t.

Esteban: She’s just pissed we got married.

Jacopo: Bubbie always said that she married you because you looked like you were going to be more famous than you really were.

Esteban: We got married because your Bubbie was pregnant with your Papi.

Jacopo: Ah yes. la Inmaculada Concepción

Esteban: Precisely.

Jacopo: So were you decadent like a rock star?

Esteban: If I had the social skills to know how to party I certainly would have been.

Jacopo: Fortunately for Bubbie, you didn’t?

Esteban: I’m sure she’d have rather I had. It would have been a great excuse for divorce.

Jacopo: Is marriage really that hard?

Esteban: When we were first married I thought your Bubbie was going to kill me.

Jacopo: I’m glad she didn’t.

Esteban: She’s not. She’d be free now.

Jacopo: Does she know this?

Esteban: She’s thought it every day. It’s been fifty-seven years. Probably eighteen good ones. I’d say that makes us better than 90% of married couples.

Jacopo: Is that what I have to look forward to?

Esteban: You can always die younger. Frankly I’m amazed I didn’t.

Jacopo: So you were a rock star.

Esteban: I still am. Apparently all you have to cut is an album-and-a-half and music students travel halfway across the world to convince you to perform more.

Jacopo: Why didn’t you?

Esteban: Oh you know perfectly well how much stress performing is.

Jacopo: I do. Just signing autographs can be a horrible experience.

Esteban: Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Jacopo: Well, I can’t quit now.

Esteban: You were the one with dreams of being the world’s biggest tango-triphop fusion artist. I tried to discourage you.

Jacopo: I should have been a realtor.

Esteban: Probably. I got out of it before I got too big. I didn’t mean to but it turned out to be the best thing I ever did. I didn’t need the money and I was much happier writing songs for other people to perform.

Jacopo: So what then stopped you from becoming an American rock star?

Esteban: The fact that I was convinced there would soon be no America in which there could be rock stars.

Jacopo: And you were right.

Esteban: I was. The problem was that I got out twelve years too early. I probably could have done another ten albums by then.

Jacopo: You’re one of the world’s great songwriters. “A Time to Defecate” is a song that will live forever.

Esteban: That was a good song. But I still have a terrible regret about not continuing my performing career.

Jacopo: I thought you hated everything about performing.

Esteban: I did. But I was so scared for the life of my son that I missed the Golden Age of American Culture. Your Bubbie never forgave me for that, and half the time I don’t forgive myself either.

Jacopo: But you still accumulated quite a respectable oeuvre, and you only were a part-time musician.

Esteban: It was nothing compared to what I might have done if I had moved to Brooklyn or Hollywood. I might have become nothing. But I’d like to think I might have also fallen in with the All Music movement or the AV Order.

Jacopo: But you were completely settled in Baltimore by the time you turned thirty. When could you possibly have moved there?

Esteban: When I was twenty-five.

Jacopo: But then you’d have never written Voices of Washingtonia. It’s a classic of third-stream new wave alternative classical. Hell, they named the whole friggin’ country after your album!

Esteban: Well I suppose you’re right about that. To this day, that album is the one act of my life for which I never had a moment of regret. But I still feel like it’s a small part of what I could have done.

Jacopo: Greycer Bubbie always said that you were born in the wrong century. You should have been born a hundred years earlier so you could have been another Mahler.

Esteban: I could have never been anything close to another Mahler. Though I could have been another Ernst Toch or Egon Wellesz.

Jacopo: Who’re Erns....

Esteban: Exactly.

Jacopo: Oh.

Esteban: You have to understand, even in America I wrote in isolation. I neither came from a particularly cultural place nor was I a good student. When I came to Brazil and Argentina it was still worse because I didn’t speak the language. But no matter where I went, virtually all my friends were all professionals. So I wrote my stuff part-time in comparative isolation from most of the other musical currents that were developing. So instead of being the American version of a Mieczeslaw Weinberg or a Leo Weiner I had to settle for being a mere Berthold Goldschmidt.

Jacopo: Ouch.

Esteban: Well at least I wasn’t a Pavel Haas or Viktor Ullmann.

Jacopo: I think this joke is already getting old.

Esteban: No doubt. Though all these musicians were fine enough composers.

Jacopo: Is there a reason that you’re choosing composers that were all of the post-Mahler generation?

Esteban: Absolutely. Though Weinberg was Soviet and post-Shostakovich. But we were at the exact same point in American cultural history which Austria-Hungary was a century earlier. We were a dysfunctional, decaying imperial power living on borrowed time and charged with a dominance which was impossible to sustain.

Jacopo: But it was also the United States’s cultural Golden Age.

Esteban: America had at least four cultural Golden Ages, maybe seven or eight. But yes, that was the last of them.

Jacopo: But everyone refers to the End-Of-The-American Century as the “Great Flowering.”

Esteban: That’s because it’s the era which did the most to shape the world as we currently know it. That phrase comes from Simon Schama. He actually called it the ‘Great and Final Flowering.’

Jacopo: He must have been at least ninety when he wrote that.

Esteban: “Cultural History of the American Experiment” came out in 2040. I remember the year it was released because I had your Uncle Koosh ship me an English copy from New England. Schama must have been at least ninety-five at the time it was published, but a historian is one of the few professions in which you get better as you age.

Jacopo: It was obviously a landmark book.

Esteban: Indeed. It was probably the book which helped the world lay America to rest. Until 2040, there was all sorts of talk about reunification - still more wars threatening to break out in what was once America to preserve the union. I don’t think it’s exaggeration to say that it was that book which helped the world realize that America was over and that it had the greatest run of any country in history.

Jacopo: Well, let’s talk about that run. What would you define as the America’s Cultural Golden Ages?

Esteban: Well, it’s difficult to pin them all down, but all throughout American history we see cycles in which culture flowers only to be beaten down by the forces of reaction. I suppose that is true of every great civilization. But America was unique in how repetitive that process was. There was never a time in American history when the culture was as miraculous as the fin-de-siecle culture in Paris or Vienna or Berlin, though I suppose the Great Flowering came quite close. Instead, America had two-and-a-half centuries of reasonably steady achievement in all the arts, and the sum of achievements in all those mini-Golden Ages surpassed any cultural work in any other country at any point in history. Achievement in one artform or place would weaken only for great achievements to spring up in another artform somewhere else. And because there was two-hundred-fifty years of reasonably steady creation, the destruction had to be that much more lethal to destroy what was built.

Jacopo: Well, what were the most significant of those mini-Golden Ages.

Esteban: Ah. Well that’s an easier question. Though it will still take a while to explain.

Jacopo: We have time.

Esteban: Well...Schama would say that there are no less than eight which are particularly important. But he would also say that you have to consider American History as a game two halves, like soccer.

Jacopo: Football.

Esteban: Whatever. The first half of American History is the story of a Young Titan. America was a relative cultural backwater isolated from the great European civilizations and whose growth was completely unimpeded by competing powers. During this period, America grew a completely independent culture from Europe in almost complete isolation. The second half is America is the Old Giant which dominates the world and grows lazy from being so accustomed to power. America was no longer the backwater, it was the cultural Emperor. And, according to Schama, within each of these halves there are four seasons. There’s spring, when America is in love with the possibilities of its future. There is summer, when America enjoys the fruits of its growth. There is fall, when America reaps the punishment of its growth. And there is winter, when America must mourn what it once was.

Jacopo: Is there any chance at all that America is in a third period?

Esteban: I doubt it. The ultimate reason that Obama should be viewed as the great leader of the 21st century was that he created the conditions that allowed America to be dismantled rather than allow it to become a modern Roman Empire. Even in the midst of financial collapse, it would have been all too easy for America to turn itself into a military dictatorship that ruled the entire world by force. The Third World War cost two billion lives. But it ended with a relatively peaceful era in which lots of liberal democracies could flourish. An American Emperor might have killed at least as many worldwide in as little time and ruled the entire world in a totalitarian empire that could only run itself by spilling more blood every year.

Jacopo: There’s still talk of unification between some of the countries.

Esteban: For all I know, what was once the United States could reunite into two countries in another fifty years. But whatever what was once the United States of America becomes, it would be entirely different from what it once was. Texas, Nuevo Mexico and Deep Southland are semi-democracies with whites who still disenfranchise whatever of the hispanic and black population that hasn’t moved either north or south. All the other countries belong to NALA - the North American Liberal Alliance, which exists to isolate the Southern Countries.

Jacopo: So if American History has only two basic periods, what happens in them?

Esteban: Well, Schama’s history ran two volumes and each was divided into four parts. In each part, he took a representative figure of the era and built the history around them. If I remember correctly, the eight representative figures were Thomas Jefferson, Walt Whitman, Mark Twain, T.S. Eliot, Louis Armstrong, Orson Welles, Bob Dylan and Matt Groening.

Jacopo: What made them representative?

Esteban: Each of them represented a particular period in American History and what they meant to America’s development.

Jacopo: But weren’t Eliot, Armstrong and Welles all roughly contemporaries?

Esteban: Yes, but no society changed as quickly as America during that period. In fact, if you wanted to make a case for a true cultural Golden Age, I would still argue for the period between the two world wars.

Jacopo: Why?

Esteban: It was the Golden Age of Movies and Jazz. And even if they weren’t Golden Ages America still produced wonderful literature, poetry and popular music during those periods.

Jacopo: Also, why were the first figures all writers?

Esteban: It was an odd thing about Early America. It had a fantastic literary culture, which I suppose they inherited as a vestige of being a British colony. But there were few great painters and fewer composers. In fact, almost all of the great music of Early America was written anonymously for use in the Church or the Tavern.

Jacopo: But why these four in particular?

Esteban: Because they represented the four most basic strands of writers: Jefferson the philosopher, Whitman the poet, Twain the novelist and Eliot the critic.

Jacopo: But wasn’t Eliot primarily a poet?

Esteban: Indeed he was, but Eliot’s poetry would have been impossible without the encyclopedic knowledge that only a critic can accumulate. In any event, we have a long drive ahead of us. Why don’t we stop at least until we get to the beach.

Jacopo: Sounds good.

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