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Turn Your Quivering Nerves in My Direction

What’s up with Scots and psychedelia anyway? I decided to take a night off Grant Morrison to seam up the shirt I’ve been knitting and generally lounge around, which meant I finally got to watch my new copy of The Incredible String Band movie, Be Glad for the Song Has No Ending. My mother watched, alternately amused and chagrined by her own memories, since it was her records that had made me a fan of the band in the first place. In fact, I’m not only a fan of the String Band, but I think many of the musicians I’ve come to like since share common traits with them, most notably Robyn Hitchcock and Rose Polenzani.

But I felt like a fool watching a movie that far predates me of a band that disbanded before I was born, because my first thought was, “They look so young!” And they were young and blooming with exuberance and honesty and songs I love, making it an endearing movie. One thing I noticed quickly was the way my relationship to The Psychedelic has changed since I was a teenager. Then I was mostly put off by the idea of drug use, which hasn’t particularly changed, but there wasn’t any of that visible in the film anyway, and I don’t know to what extent it was a part of their reality. Instead what I realized is that I’d been intrigued and repelled by psychedelic imagery because some of the ideas resonated with me but they were couched in what seemed to be nonsense gibberish. And at that point I realized I hadn’t avoided thinking about Morrison at all.

See, stories in which magical drug insights give a character (or author, I suppose) insight into reality-as-it-is always seemed unsatisfying to me. Morrison seemed to undercut the sincere spirit journey version in Animal Man with all the scenes in The Invisibles that suggest that while you can believe you’ve taken a drug, you can never trust yourself to believe you’re in reality. New X-Men has an awkward anti-drug slant, and drugs other than sex and reality seem to be basically absent from The Filth, which is odd. OK, they’re not absent, but they’re not consciousness-altering either. Tony needs his cat medicine, though what medicine and for what condition is both unclear and crucial. And the president has to take drugs to become a crack whore, so I’m not sure if that means the drugs he takes bring him into closer contact with his real self or not. And then there’s the medical marijuana sequence at the end, in which a guy who nearly killed himself while stoned prolongs his painful status quo (and maybe dulls the pain) with more drugs. So apparently I was crazy in thinking drugs don’t figure in much, but it still seems odd to me that drugs don’t show up more in the filth of the world than they do. I guess it’s still significant that they don’t seem to bring any extra awareness or sensitivity and that just living “normally” clouds your mind too.

What I found revealing about Be Glad was that contrary to what I’d gathered from their songs, The Incredible String Band didn’t believe there were lots of gods in the world. They believed they were gods, creating for their own enjoyment and amusement, and audience was of little concern. I like being ignored like that, because it means they don’t bother to pander to me. It might be that this is what Grant Morrison does too. Some readers think what he does is just playing with whatever he finds intriguing at the time, and I can’t totally disagree. I just think I have enough overlap that the ideas remain interesting without so much that I find them trite, but I guess the question is whether this matters to Morrison. It only matters to me inasmuch as I’ve described; the way he writes is interesting to me, and so I stay interested, not very exciting. And sometimes I think he fails completely at synthesizing things, and that’s interesting too. But while The Incredible String Band was not commercial (or at least I hope they didn’t have commercial aspirations, since their fame was fleeting) and could stand to say heartfelt but unhelpful things to Newsweek interviewers, beaming while their girlfriends embroidered tunics in the background, Morrison is making a real living writing comics and doing fairly well. Does this mean he has an obligation to give his audience what it wants? My standard answer when this question arises in comics is that that would be a horrible idea, because I really don’t want to see Wolverine battling a set of breasts the size of Connecticut. But obviously Morrison has to take audience into account to some degree if he wants to make any money, and I really don’t know how he or others manage this.

So I didn’t talk about The Filth much, but that’s because this was a night to think about what it means to be creating a good world in art and in life. I’m never sure I’m up to it, but there also doesn’t seem to be an acceptable alternative. And there’s another gnomic statement you can use to sum up The Filth. Perhaps I ought to start collecting them, and maybe that would be a start.

And I bid you good night.


  1. David Fiore says:

    I’ve never heard of the Incredible String Band Rose, but I liked this post!

    “the way he writes is interesting to me, and so I stay interested”

    As far as I’m concerned, that’s the Ockham’s razor of literary criticism!


    — 11 June 2004 at 1:50 pm (Permalink)

  2. Rose says:

    Ah, Dave, I figured a lot of people haven’t heard of The Incredible String Band, but I figured if no one minds when you mention The Ramones, they can google for more obscure stuff. I’m never sure quite how to describe or recommend the Band, but you should start with The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter if you ever run across it in a cheap bin. They play any instrument they can find (one of the segments in the documentary part of the film is Robin going to buy a hurdy-gurdy) and have a joyous poetry in their very-60s lyrics.

    I’m not sure it’s any more useful than Ockham’s razor, Dave, but I figured I might as well be up-front about it, though I usually think it’s not worth mentioning.

    — 11 June 2004 at 2:09 pm (Permalink)

  3. Steven says:

    This isn’t too closely related to your post, but you implied something about Morrison’s writing that is one of the reasons he’s one of my favorite writers. His texts are like an ongoing conversation with himself, and he never gets in the last word on anything. The different attitudes toward drugs in each text is a good example. Then there are the kid asking “Is there a Hell for monkeys, dad?” and the dolphin saying “Don’t fucking patronize me,” in The Filth, clear responses to passages in Animal Man.

    — 11 June 2004 at 2:48 pm (Permalink)

  4. Shane says:

    You’re going to make me get The Filth trade if you guys keep this up.

    — 11 June 2004 at 2:59 pm (Permalink)

  5. Rose says:

    Damn you, Steven, scooping me on my Animal Man relationships post, but you’re right, of course. What I find most appealing about that “dialogue” is that it’s not a thesis-antithesis-synthesis setup, but almost an experimental process in which conditions change and scenarios are replayed but they’re not leading to any clear or overarching conclusion. I think there’s a connection to Morrison’s insistence he’s written or is writing a holy trilogy, yet he’s never sure which volumes comprise it. Of course, this is all related to the cool ideas thing, and I think some people may not like the purposelessness of it all.

    And Shane, pal, if we had that much power over you, don’t you think we’d be making you send us money rather than squander it on comic books? But yeah, if you want to be one of the cool kids, I guess you’re going to have to get The Filth!

    — 11 June 2004 at 3:03 pm (Permalink)

  6. David Fiore says:

    “What I find most appealing about that ???????dialogue?????? is that it????????s not a thesis-antithesis-synthesis setup, but almost an experimental process in which conditions change and scenarios are replayed but they????????re not leading to any clear or overarching conclusion”

    I love this too! This is probably why Morrison inevitably forces me back upon my Emerson–the “cool ideas” are never the point of these works, they merely provide the energy. Emerson claimed to “read for lustres”, and he wrote for the same type of reader. So does Morrison.


    — 11 June 2004 at 3:21 pm (Permalink)

  7. Shane says:

    Do I make the check out to Rose, Steven, or Peiratikos?

    — 11 June 2004 at 5:50 pm (Permalink)

  8. David says:

    Nothing much new to add here, but I just want to say that this is a great post, and a great comments discussion — between the lot of you, I think you’ve hit on why Morrison’s work continues to engage me so fully, despite my occasional frustrations with it.

    — 12 June 2004 at 9:42 am (Permalink)