Omni on the World Trade Center

Thee Maximalists
by S.J.Russell

1. I Led The Blind  October 2001
2. Historic Heatwaves  November 2001
3. Chicks with Bricks  December 2001
4. Two Become None  December 2001


I Led The Blind

Domes are helping to define our age, much as they did in the Baroque era. Then they were containers, now they are lids. Then they rose in bounteous Russ Meyer-scaled cup sizes, literal crowns of architectural and cultural achievement, now they hover, pallid, limpid, saucer-flat and inert, and no matter what their intended use -- Olympic, Millennial, or Bio-- they are almost without exception regarded as stillborn white elephants, or exhausted, juiced, gravity-defying rinds.
                    As a tonic it's worth it to contemplate the great leap into space made by the many many domes of the Baroque era. Domes exist in a state of technical hardness and self-support but also an aesthetic softness and roundness. The sacred and the profane could both exist in those soft-hard heights. Baroque minds were ripe with the reasons and the means to build domes and they gleefully did. Perhaps it's that those reasons and that glee are so distant that I have difficulty judging the Baroque. It can actually bounce off my eyes. Why is that? I mean, in many ways we are still very much children of the Baroque; In the thirst of our culture for celebrity and for ingenuity and in general anything novel; In our professed reverence for all men but our manifested infatuation with the very rich; as well as in the creeped-out self-awareness that allows appreciation of a 'meta' bag of tricks including revival, pastiche, kitsch and irony.
                    So in my confessional Gothic Guilt I'll heed my fear-factor challenge of understanding the nuts and bolts of what scholar Wylie Sypher calls the "spillover" of Baroque "puffiness" and the Baroque space's "explosion into infinity" in his tome 'The Four Stages of Renaissance Style' (1955, Doubleday, New York). Being a hyper-catagorizer myself, I find much to like in said volume. I admit the learning curve is notably curvaceous. If I end up on my intellectual ass, well, you'll be there to pick me up right?
                    Not to mention the rewards that wait for us all in heaven of course.

Civilization invented Baroque when we got tired of trying to reach God with our yearning Gothic antennas and Renaissance study sessions. Baroque was humankind's heart-on-the-sleave effort to coax God even for a moment down into an earthly boudoir --church as banquet hall as ballroom as bedchamber in a tour-de-chutzpah impersonation of heaven hungover. We tinkered with it as one might tinker to optimize the contents of a dangerously-stuffed spiritual piñata. Did it fail? In the intervening few centuries we've pretty much stopped springing (or pretending to spring) from opulence to transcendence. Opulence now is simply and solely its own reward. And in tandem with that: poverty is certainly understood now as a punishment, rather than a state-of-being, Godly in its own right. If I look around for the home of Baroque today, I think architecture has been forgone. Sure there've been park pavilions and state capitols that wear the lingerie, but a honeypot for the Great Force?  Hardly.
                    The most convincing gestures of late actually sneak by in the form of pop songs. These songs are 3 or 4 minutes long, they assert themselves for a couple of months and fade disbelieving in their own reverberating doppler dust. When the ample ambition of the more imperious songs is deflated by transitory success, it seems to sting the song. Yet the success of a couple of months perfectly matches the achievement in a 4 minute song. We will not celebrate pop songs like we do Blake or Donne or Milton. When a song writer strives for that level of horsepower and fails and understands the failure on some level, all in under 4 minutes, that is in itself an interesting and worthy exercise. Next to a church that it took 30 years or 3 centuries to build these are miniaturized and immature. Yet next to a "fake" baroque park pavillion, their honesty and failure is splendidly Baroque. Everywhere is the Baroque sense of "puffiness", "spillover" and "explosion". Inner dialogues communicate anxiety, unworthiness. Yet these are popular songs, as well-known, as fecund briefly in their day, as Baroque domes were. So there is a successful communion of some sort. There is revealing depth in the superficiality; and like so much bullshit, it fertilizes. Undo a button. Prepare for the meeting of God and Creation, regardless of respective chicken or egg status. I'll never claim these songs are all good but a contact high is still a high, and bad lyrics can be a good trip.
                    'Feelings'? Feelingful. 'Time in a Bottle'? Love the Sinner (Dylan), Hate the Sin (everyone else). 'Hotel California'?, 'Gangsta's Paradise'? The low spark of absinthe keg parties. 'Like a Prayer'? Hey I said bad lyrics! 'Purple Rain'? 'Bridge Over Troubled Water'? 'Theme from Mahogany'? 'Survivor'? 'My Sacrifice'? That's more like it! And what about 'Total Eclipse of the Heart'?
                    Metaphoric bottles and bridges are grand, but the people these days are convinced the treadmill is "better for ya", and so they seek the type of mentally lean workout that artists like Alanis can provide. Yet metaphor hangs pictures with heavier gauge wire. For instance in 'Total Eclipse of the Heart' --a potent almost-cliché of inside meeting outside, as in 'mind's eye'-- "the Heart" is a different sort of heart than is found in more recent vulgar 'soft rock' filibusters like "My Heart Will Go On", theme song from The Titanic. There clearly the singer's "Heart" actually does "Go On": it jumps off the prow of her tongue during another of her interminable wails and paddles madly for the safety of the iceberg. That "Heart" has no metaphoric legs at all.
                    And further down the timeline? Perhaps the Forties, Fifties and Sixties were a more Gothic time for pop music. Music was an act of faith. Music made linear progression within a fixed dimension (yes especially The Beatles). People who were likely to hear the music would be likely to believe the music. After the 'Renaissance', perhaps the Velvets or Marvin Gaye for questionable example, this was no longer true. People could tell "good" from "bad", rock criticism and journalism spread the word, and most music, good or bad, was formed under the self-conscious pressure that it couldn't please everyone anymore; that of those who would hear it, many might be only potential friends; and some, potential enemies. Audiences learned to cultivate music, to change it and be part of its evolution. There is a struggle with these new vertical dimensions in much of the music to which I refer, good and bad -- it forms the stuff of music now. There is no going back. Nostalgia is absolutely impotent. Faith is still possible but it's different. The jump from 'Magic Town' to 'Marquee Moon' can't be reversed. What's that you say? The Sixties wasn't all "tra lah lah"? No it wasn't. But there were believers, there were the devout. 'Helter Skelter' inspired Manson. 'Marquee Moon' inspired squat. 'Invisible Touch' inspired parody.
                    And what of 'Total Eclipse of the Heart'? An eclipse: massive, cosmic, cold, and silent; and also dependent on the angle of view. If you are outside the cone of effect, elsewhere in the solar system or on earth, it just doesn't register. The eclipse is transitory, yet physical; not a trick of light or mind, not accidental, yet still a puzzle of position and timing. There is the essential third body, there are the different subjective views of the event: these things have possibilities, literary, scientific, whatever. A total eclipse of the heart suggests the heart in two lights, being overridden in either case: The heart as sun-like source is blocked out, or the heart as earthbound receiver falls into shadow. Or both. These essentials do have interesting parallels in Renaissance then Mannerist, then Baroque art and science, where perspective and multiple-perspectives were tangible innovations of the age.
                    Which whooshes us to the early Eighties:'Total Eclipse of the Heart', authored by Jim Steinman, is a number one song. Maybe you knew or guessed that Jim Steinman has a great sense of humour. I had no idea. Then last week I saw him talking about writing Meatloaf's 1978 'Bat Out of Hell' album and I could start to put a face and moreover a mind to all those songs. I'd always understood the romance-of-everything bombast wherein the inhabitants of the Brill Building, Portuguese fortune tellers, the burghers of fin-de-siècle Vienna, and the Norse Gods themselves are all drafted in a war against teen celibacy. But in interview he proffered the unexpected: it all was a joke! He didn't actually say "it was a joke" but he clearly revealed for anyone one who knew the material: "hey, it was a bit of a lark, some fun, a send-up". And I had never seen it that way. I mean obviously it was a joke, it was intentionally and absurdly over-overwrought. But to think that it was all a droll deftly concocted gentlemen's sport --that was new. Like any good joke, you can't just say: "this is a joke" any more than you can say "I am a liar" to a computer. But great jokes don't need to be got anyway -- it's quite beside the point (think Johnson's Glass House). I now feel silly that I took Steinman at face value, but mostly I feel relieved that he's not serious. So when Steinman wrote 'Total Eclipse of the Heart' I now assume it was as much in monumental jest as anything else he did. Call it an "extreme black light song" to go along with "extreme car sex", "extreme motorcycle crash" and "extreme sex-on-the-beach" songs --a mini-multitude of amberized adolescent rites. It was an extreme comeback vehicle (as everything is with Steinman) for Bonnie Tyler, who gave voice and more to it in 1983.

Turnaround, Every now and then I get a little bit lonely and you're never coming round
Turnaround, Every now and then I get a little bit tired of listening to the sound of my tears
Turnaround, Every now and then I get a little bit nervous that the best of all the years have gone by
Turnaround, Every now and then I get a little bit terrified and then I see the look in your eyes
Turnaround bright eyes, Every now and then I fall apart
Turnaround bright eyes, Every now and then I fall apart
Bright eyes piques the interest: could this be about an expired or expiring pet? That would be full-on Steinman. I mean don't we need a really good pet death song for the ages?
And I need you now tonight
And I need you more than ever
And if you'll only hold me tight
We'll be holding on forever
And we'll only be making it right
Cause we'll never be wrong together
We can take it to the end of the line
Your love is like a shadow on me all of the time
I don't know what to do and I'm always in the dark
We're living in a powder keg and giving off sparks
I really need you tonight
Forever's gonna start tonight
Forever's gonna start tonight
Flashback 1980: Steinman convenes his fact-checkers who read only Freud, Greek tragedies and the Post. They resolve to get in touch with his feminine (or should we say feminesque?) side --after all, it is the eighties. He can wish the wish but can he wash the wash? As you've noted, he has problems as a woman, choosing in his sexual disorientation, to play it safe. The result is a sexual vacuum of sorts (not half as much fun as it sounds), though he presciently casts the Velcro®-lunged Bonnie Tyler to somehow redeem the mess. Tough gig: Steinman burned-out two female vocalists (forgive the cringe-worthy term but that's what we called 'em back then, rather than "Ellen Folley" and "Karla Devito") on a little duet a couple of years before. So Bonnie has really got to work it: this thing obviously ain't going to sing itself. As farmyard jobs go this one is like trying to hang a big jangling ankh on Phil Spector. Hell I'd prefer to geld the Tasmanian Devil.
                  1983: The year this song was inescapable is the year Johnson's triumphal Baroque AT&T pediment was being scooped out and buffed up. Johnson came from Cleveland, made it big in NYC. Steinman was born in NYC but had his masterwork released by Cleveland entrepreneur Steve Popovich on Cleveland International records. These mortals and their backstage passes...
Once upon a time I was falling in love
But now I'm only falling apart
Nothing I can do
A total eclipse of the heart
Once upon a time there was light in my life
But now there's only love in the dark
Nothing I can say
A total eclipse of the heart
And finally redemption. It took nerve for him to wait that long. Mind you it's the name of the song too so no one's going to miss it are they? And sometimes a good title is the main thing (I think Glass House again). And the music itself is good, it's practically tidal. And Bonnie? She steps up like a yearbook editor with a lousy poem: she she frames it, she gives it its moment, she delivers it to its people. In effect it's a "total" victory for her and for her dignity. And then --I'm not sure... was that the whole idea? Did she cast the preening Steinman in her pantomime? Steinman/Tyler. God/Man. Chicken/Egg. Baroque ambivalence/ Baroque rapture.
O dark, dark, dark, amid the blaze of noon,
Irrecoverably dark, total eclipse
Without all hope of day!
O first created Beam, and thou great Word,
"Let there be light, and light was over all,"
Why am I thus bereav'd thy prime decree?
The sun to me is dark
And silent as the moon,
When she deserts the night,
Hid in her vacant interlunar cave.
Since light so necessary is to life,
And almost life itself, if it be true
That light is in the soul,
She all in every part, why was the sight
To such a tender ball as th' eye confin'd?
So obvious and so easy to be quench'd,
And not as feeling through all parts diffus'd,
That she might look at will through every pore?
Then had I not been thus exil'd from light,
As in the land of darkness, yet in light,
To live a life half dead, a living death,
And buried; but O yet more miserable!
Myself my sepulchre, a moving grave;
In the words of Samson, from John Milton, 1671.

But then again I never thought twice about that song. Its self-conscious solemnity laid claim to a "totalness" that I never saw as anything more than "total" narcissism. Let alone the end of the world. Please. Show me the way. Go your own way. Follow Me Follow You. Sorry, I'm stalling. I'm lost of course. We have to backtrack because I'm leading, but I'm blind. Sorry just shuffle backwards, because the edge is right here. If you read more slowly maybe I've got a chance to figure out the end. I'm trying to backtrack in order to mend things. So many things need mending. Maybe you've noticed that I've told this story backwards? The story of Jim Steinman and Bonnie Tyler and what they did. It seemed like the least I could do. But it's the most I can do.
                    If you (heart) NY, you know the total eclipse.
                              Historic Heatwaves November 2001

 

 

 

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