CC2K

The Nexus of Pop-Culture Fandom

Artist Profile: Dan Bejar

Written by: Jimmy Hitt, CC2K Staff Writer


No surprise: James Hittinger kicks off CC2k's new music section with a profile of an unsung musician. 

ImageEver get the feeling that CC2k is fast becoming an electromagnet for disaffected literature hounds?  Indeed, recent forum discussions continually stray further and further from the “movie geek” mold into topics as lanky as, well, literature itself.  Perhaps if one distilled our society’s basic entertainment mediums into one art form, literature doth lay at its core, methinks.  But who among us in the States or even abroad emphasizes literature’s importance to pop culture as much as the English majors among us?  Hell, I moved around quite a bit as a wee lad and only a handful of schools even trotted out this most elemental of studies along with the typical core subjects.

Remarkably, one of the last bastions of civilization in the South, Memphis, Tenn., doesn’t even teach English, Foreign Languages, or Algebra until ninth grade. My seventh grade “English” teacher was the first person to use the English books that stayed dusty and wrapped in plastic, stacked in the corner of our room under posters of great Southern writers like Truman Capote and William Faulkner.

{jgibox title:=[Side note about English teachers in Memphis (click me)] style:=[width:550px ;]}English classes existed, but were taught by gym teachers.{/jgibox}

I remember the moment clearly. She was an older broad, capable of great things with a three-pronged chalk holder.  One week, sick and tired, apparently, of reading Hardy Boys or whatever else passed for education in the BBQ capitol of the world, she had each of us remove the laminate from our English books and open to a section about verbs—weak vs. strong.  A weak verb IS like the one in this sentence. A strong verb FUNCTIONS like this one. The lesson left an indelible impression on this writer.  Sure, other future English lessons also stick in my mind, like the ones that say all prepositions are the work of Lucifer himself.  But goddamnit, sometimes you can’t write without using them.  

Regardless, one of the best ways to judge good writing involves the use of verbs.  Most novelists have this shit down by now, even John Grisham and Stephen King. Movies, of course, don’t count because they aren’t written, but rather, are spoken or what have you.  Music, however, acts much like a hybrid between poetry/prose and film. Things one can get away with in a song, much like a movie, would not work as writing. A little something called melodrama—the old showing vs. telling mantra—kicks in every time.  So, while U2 might sound great, Bono’s lyrical prowess ranks right up there with my balls.  For example:

With or without you
With or without you, uh huh
I can’t live
With or without you
Ha ahhh ahhh ahhh
Ha ahhh ahhh

Etc.

Image

NOT Photoshop’s progeny.

Take away The Edge’s jangly guitars and Bono’s amazing voice, and what are we left with?  Not a whole lot of substance.  Now compare this with the work of my favorite poet, Albert Goldbarth.  Here’s a little ditty from Library, his MFA thesis:

This book saved my life.
This book takes place on one of the two small tagalong moons of Mars.
This book requests its author's absolution, centuries after his death.
This book required two of the sultan's largest royal elephants to bear it;
    this other book fit in a gourd.
This book reveals The Secret Name of God, and so its author is on a death
  list.
This is the book I lifted high over my head, intending to smash a roach in
 my girlfriend's bedroom; instead, my back unsprung, and I toppled
   painfully into her bed, where I stayed motionless for eight days.
This is a "book." That is, an audio cassette. This other "book" is a screen
   and a microchip. This other "book," the sky.
In chapter three of this book, a woman tries explaining her husband's
   tragically humiliating death to their daughter: reading it is like walking
 through a wall of setting cement.
This book taught me everything about sex.
This book is plagiarized.
This book is transparent; this book is a codex in Aztec; this book, written
   by a prisoner, in dung; the wind is turning the leaves of this book: a
 hill-top olive as thick as a Russian novel.

While Goldbarth repeats “This book” endlessly, he provides entertaining and often profound little ruminations on his favorite work. We can only guess that “This book reveals The Secret Name of God, and so its author is on a death list” refers to Salman Rushdie, but that’s not the point.  The purpose of this poem stretches deep into my chosen major of English.  Books are all different, all unique in their own way, and all worthwhile, even Grisham books.  Plus, many of Goldbarth’s lines force an attentive reader to explore beyond the limits of the words themselves.  “this book, written by a prisoner, in dung;” tickles my imagination.  My point here is that with good poetry, no music needs to be played to mask or enhance the words.  The words themselves play their own music.

Actually, that’s only one half of my point.  What happens when great music meets great lyrics?  Then, you have The Velvet Underground, Modest Mouse, or the subject of this article: Dan Bejar aka Destroyer and also a member of New Pornographers.  Bejar combines the lyrical/poetic density of an Albert Goldbarth with the sonic equivalent of just about any band you’ve ever heard, assuming they’re good.

Destroyer puts an album out for human consumption about once every one-and-a-half years, while Bejar himself proves far more prolific.  This year alone has seen him release both another proper Destroyer album, plus an album with New Pornographers, the Canadian supergroup comprising AC Newman, Bejar, and alt-country chanteuse Neko Case. Rumors also circulate frequently that Bejar, Spencer Krug of Wolf Parade fame, and some members of Frog Eyes will be putting an album out under an altogether different moniker before the end of ’06.

{jgibox title:=[Side note about New Pornographers being called a "supergroup." (click me)] style:=[width:550px ;]}I only call them this because every rock critic insists on calling them this.  In theory, “super” should imply that they are all stars of some kind.  In reality, they are all fairly unknown outside of cafés.  They are super-talented, but the term still comes across as a bit of a misnomer to this writer.{/jgibox}

But back to the music …

The reason I compare Destroyer to both Albert Goldbarth and literature in general comes across, first, in his typical eschewing/embracing of structure. Sounds weird, correct?  But let’s examine the novel itself. Even with authors such as David Foster Wallace, a man routinely suckled as the proverbial cow of existential whatever, structure remains intact. He uses chapters—much like individual songs—and also organizes the entire thing into one whole, i.e. the novel. What I’m poking at, really, is that while a musician can add quirky layer after quirky layer to a song, if he or she still relies on organizing the work into songs and those songs accordingly into an album, there’s only so much variation on the theme that becomes possible.  New Pornographers couldn’t be more pop if they tried. Destroyer, meanwhile, uses the pop aesthetic for far loftier goals, but still sounds familiar in a way.  

And that’s the rub. By performing variations on a workable theme, Bejar—even under the New Pornographers banner—manages to surprise and titillate accordingly. Bejar’s singular talent remains the ability to pack the end of a sentence with a few spare words that totally confound expectations. For instance, in the title song off of Destroyer’s Rubies, he croons:

The sketchy crowd shows me drawings, they're alright.
An alternately dim and frightful waste.
Now come on honey let's go outside.
You disrupt the world's disorder just by virtue of your grace, you know …

Three-quarters of the way through that stanza, Bejar essentially has said nothing of importance, merely blabbering away as he is apt to do at times.  But it’s that fourth line that pops out of the song’s simple structure, hovering on its own.  Much like the simple touches of a masterful director, Bejar realizes that follow-through is the most important portion of songs, stanzas, lines—everything, really.  Even when he’s just strumming along he manages to entertain me with his poetics.  On “The Sublimation Hour” from Streethawk: A Seduction, Bejar busts out not only pop culturally referential lyrics, but metafictional—now there’s a word to raise the hairs on the back of our collective English major necks; a sampling:

So put your hands together! I hear it's a must
until this phoney Beatlemania has bitten the dust.
It's alright… The Sublimation Hour!
I guess the streets will suffice till everybody makes nice,
but there's a rumor going round even Destroyers have a price…

What is “The Sublimation Hour” about?  Who knows?  I certainly don’t, but I do recognize a reference to The Clash when I hear it, and I love it when artists mock their own stature.

Bejar represents, for me anyway, the peak of great art.  No one working today injects his or her lyrics with the same literary flourishes while still striving to make amazing music to accompany them.  Plus, how many artists have a Wiki fansite and even a drinking game?  I would wager good money, or a case of good beer, that every single one of the bastards reading this article—assuming you’ve made it this far—would be endlessly entertained by this man’s various incarnations, especially if you fall into the category of disaffected literature hound.  After all, CinCity is the ultimate in highbrow, is it not?  Just look at the fan polls … a jar of Richard Marqand’s tears? What the fuck does that mean?  I once called Michael Pitt a walking, talking vagina on IMDB after seeing The Dreamers, and I still get confused by half the shit discussed on this site. Plus, I have no idea how to close out this article … it’s as open-ended a discussion as “Rubies” or any other Destroyer song to date. 

Discuss this article on the forum!

Author: Jimmy Hitt, CC2K Staff Writer

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