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THE PASSION OF BRYN JONES

October 28, 2023 - permalink

Bryn Jones died in 1999, and by many accounts he had barely left Northern Europe in his whole life, except for one trip to Japan to play a couple of shows in 1998. He had most definitely never been anywhere near the Middle East, a fact that interviewers seemed to love to bring up at any opportunity.

It was fair line of questioning. By the time Jones died, he had completed around 90 albums (!) as Muslimgauze, a musical project which was almost entirely focused on bringing light to Palestinian liberation, with some other very brief forays into Middle Eastern and South Asian politics. With titles like The Rape Of Palestine, Vote Hezbollah, Hamas Cinema Gaza Strip, and Betrayal (the word itself set upon an image of the 1993 handshake between Yasser Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin), and music that put traditional arabic instruments and scales in a blender with industrial textures and trance-inducing structures, it was an all-encompassing aesthetic from the very beginning. And I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t effective and affecting.

At least until you saw the guy.

Bryn Jones was a dorky looking white dude from Manchester, England. To look at him was enough for many people to take the piss from his extreme, militant-flavored discography, and dismiss him outright. He looked like kind of a dweeb, wearing a slightly-too-big leather jacket. And once people learned that he had never been to the Middle East, that was that on that.

But the context was (as always) more complicated: Jones had apparently been offered fully expensed trips from record labels, multiple times, and always refused. When asked about it,Bryn Jones in Chain DLK, Iss. 5 he would give plain answers along the lines of:

I would never go to an occupied land, others shouldn't. Zionists living off Arab land and water is not a tourist attraction. To have been in a place is not important. So you can't be against apartheid unless you have been in South Africa?

All good points, of course. What’s more, he showed no interest in Islam as a religion, and he also asserted more than once that he had no desire to insert himself into the material lives or mental landscape of Palestinians: “Muslimgauze have no link with any Palestinians. They have enough trouble without having a Mancunian’s music thrust upon them.”

Perhaps more interestingly, Jones claimed that if the occupation of Palestine were somehow magically resolved, he wouldn’t celebrate or change his overall approach — he would simply turn his attention to another region and situation of colonial violence, such as China’s occupation of Tibet. In a 1984 zine interview,Elephant Weekly No. 4 when asked about his “ideas for the future” of Muslimgauze (a project which had just begun), he responded: “Ideas for the future are political, (including) freedom to Afghanistan from Soviet oppression; unity of the two German lands, the destruction of the Berlin wall, and freedom to Poland and all lands occupied by Russia, a total return to democracy.”

We know Jones’ thoughts about these subjects because of the two-dozen or so articles and zine interviews with him when he was alive (and the 40-or-so articles written about him posthumously). His statements tend to be bombastic, simplistic, and posturing, but also somewhat well-informed. The interviews also betray a much different reality of his day-to-day life: Jones lived in his parent’s basement, never held down a meaningful semblance of a job, and by the sounds of it, only left his house (driven and picked up by his dad) to go to the library (presumably to read about Middle Eastern politics) and to a local studio to record. Most people say that he was very quiet in person, and avoided talking about politics at all, preferring to turn the subject towards musical gear instead.

I discovered Muslimgauze around 2000, shortly after Jones died suddenly of a rare fungal blood infection. I amassed around 30 of his albums (digital copies only) over the years, and still listen to some of them pretty regularly. He was staunchly analog, using a mix of field recordings, drum machines, synths, and live percussion, and claimed over and over again that he never used a sampler or even a computer. If that’s true, it’s shocking just how authentic of a sound he was able to put to DAT tape. He clearly wanted his music to be atmospheric and immersive, sometimes to a fault: certain pieces repeat and repeat with little if any discernible variation, becoming endurance tests.

The Palestinian cause was one of the key things that politicized me when I was younger. Listening to political punk music and reading Adbusters was a gateway to Chomsky. Reading Chomsky was a gateway to Finkelstein and by the time I started my undergrad in 2004, I could tell you a whole lot about what happened after World War I, and then 1948, and then 1967, and the first and second intifadas and the whole mess of what’s been happening since. Finding Muslimgauze in the early 2000s felt like finding a kindred spirit, in a way: another white person whose heart had been completely crushed by the project of Zionism, and was now fixated on communicating that.

I remained very much affected by the subject until the first year of my undergrad, when the topic came up in a discussion and a TA stated bluntly that “white guys love talking about Israel and Palestine but don’t want to talk about drinking water on reserves in Canada.”

Touché.

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I’m a firm believer that, in our current screen-damaged state of being, we have been bamboozled into thinking our opinions matter way more than they actually do, or should — that we must have a “take” on everything. That if we don’t have a “take” on something, we somehow aren’t “standing with” the oppressed, as if adding an overlay to our profile photos and posting long rants places us in solidarity with anyone on any level, other than our particular social media algorithm group. And of course, it’s not enough to just have any take, it must be The Right Take, correct and air tight, lest you step outside of the Overton Window.

I’m not immune to the judgments of it all. I mean, I see the takes, and I judge them, even when I don’t participate (and I tend not to want to participate at all in the public performance). I’ve been thoroughly disgusted by the hand-wringing and the support for colonial state violence, drenched in both equivocation and false equivalency — as if rockets and missiles are the same thing, as if the power to turn off access to water in itself isn’t a tremendous enactment of violence. I’ve been sickened by the unquestioning repetition of spurious claims about things like beheaded babies,The claim — arising from one reckless reporter repeating a claim made (with no documentation or evidence) by one soldier, has traveled around the world at light speed. Despite some pretty thorough debunking efforts, it’s very hard to re-tube the toothpaste. Palestinians blowing up their own hospital,Anyone who has followed Palestinian resistance for any length of time knows that Palestinian rockets tend to do very minor damage to large buildings, and they have never done the kind of damage seen in the hospital blast. Add to that the fact that Israeli military was warning for several days that the hospital should evacuate, and the “misfired rocket” narrative seems even sillier. or the nature of the strike on October 7th.While the rest of the world has relentlessly used the discourse of a “terrorist attack,” Hamas has called it a military offensive. The reporting by Ha’aretz of the list of those killed seems to support the latter: about 60% of those killed were military personnel. There are also questions about how many Israelis were actually killed in crossfire from the IDF, according to Israeli survivors themselves. It’s just fucking gross, and the whole purpose of it is to bolster state violence and give a pretext to genocide.

And yet, you can’t really be Polish without feeling a close kinship with Jewish people: the atrocities of the holocaust are completely intertwined with the history of our country, and those visceral memories are still so fucking real in the Polish mind. The holocaust is imprinted on Polish culture, and will be forever. Poles also know a thing or two about occupation — or more specifically, being occupied, having our borders relentlessly re-drawn at the whims of nation states with significantly more military power than ours. It’s possible to hold two seemingly contradictory feelings at once.

At my most compassionate, what I’m able to muster is an understanding that being a “Canadian” is fucking uncomfortable at best, and that many Canadians can’t fully stomach the idea of supporting Palestinian resistance because of what it would imply for “our own” nation. One of the more jarring things I’ve seen is how people have transitioned from having LAND BACK in their bios to decrying Hamas completely whole cloth, as if they are not an elected government who has a mandate to defend their territory militarily.The idea that Hamas is a terrorist organization that wants to “wipe Israel off the map” is also an outdated claim. They are an elected government, and the most recent Hamas charter, adopted in 2017, supports a return to 1967 borders. Of course, since 2017, much has happened to further Israeli settlements.

What the fuck do people think LAND BACK means? LAND BACK but only if you ask nicely?

And as soon as I start to really get revved up to go full on into this, I stop myself. I really don’t want to have a “take” on this, because any take feels cheap at this distance. My heart breaks for Palestinians now, as it has so many times over the years. And when I find myself slipping into equivocation, too, my mind floods with questions that help me regain perspective.

How many times would you suffer going through a checkpoint and being interrogated by an 18-year old who treats you like a piece of shit before you fought back?

How many homes of your family and friends would have to be bulldozed before you would take up arms against the bulldozer drivers?

How long would you have to be backed into a corner, and how many of your family and friends would have to be killed before you did something about it?

How long could you live in a country that is half the size of Toronto, not allowed to leave or return? How long could you do that as you watched another part of “your country” be completely atomized and controlled under the boot of occupying forces?

How much could you take? How much would you push forward with peaceful protest marches and in that, watching your fellow people gunned down or disabled — shot in the knees to make sure they’d never fucking march again — before you lashed out?

We condemn Palestinians when maybe we should be commending them. It’s actually kind of incredible how much restraint they’ve shown, completely disproportionate to the indignities and atrocities they’ve suffered for the past 100+ years. But we don’t commend active resistance to settler colonialism because we could just as easily be the targets of that resistance. That is a really hard thing to sit with, isn’t it?

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And just like that, I find myself with a “hot take” that feels like it could double as Muslimgauze liner notes, and it doesn’t feel great. It’s hard to fully throw down with the aesthetic and bombast of Bryn Jones — mostly because he tended to veer far too easily into anti-semitic tropes, like a car driving in the right direction can still veer into oncoming traffic. It was never really clear whether Jones was a fetishist, or a scholar, or both (or neither). He hated explaining his music in specific terms, prefering to make really broad political statements, with fervor. And fervor never sits well alongside nuance.

Nuance is important, of course, but there’s even nuance to using nuance. In the wrong hands, nuance becomes a weapon just like a hammer, or perhaps more like a knife that can stab holes in a larger, more important idea.

There is no nuance in a bulldozer destroying a home.

There is no nuance in penning in a whole country and its people behind walls and checkpoints.

There is no nuance in cutting off electricity, and water, and hospital and communications infrastructure to help speed up a process of genocide.

If Jones were still alive, his discography might be in the mid-triple digits by now, and he’d still be laser-focused on Palestinian liberation, because the situation has only gotten worse and worse.

For all of the faults and weirdness around his body of work and legacy (or lack thereof), one of Jones’ redeeming qualities was his optimism. He didn’t just feel like Palestinian liberation was possible, but that it was inevitable: when asked to speculate on the future, he’d always say the situation would resolve in a free Palestine. He believed in Palestinians’ ability to defend themselves and determine their own future.

That outcome doesn’t feel inevitable right now. As this gets sent out, Israel has cut off water, electricity, and communications infrastructure to Gaza. It seems to be spinning out of control further by the day. I know it feels disempowering to watch this happening from a distance — but I urge you to sign the Commons petition for a ceasefire, and attend any solidarity events that you’re able to.

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NOTHING COMPARES

August 1, 2023 - permalink

In 1978, Karol Wojtyła was appointed the head of the global Catholic church and elevated to the position of Pope. He was the first non-Italian Pope since the 16th century, and for Poland — a nation where more than 90% of people are Catholic — this was a BIG deal. He took the name of John Paul II, partially in tribute to the short-lived Pope Paul VI, who preceded him and died after only 33 days of papacy. JPII was his Pope name, but Poles around the world always knew him as Karol.

I was born in 1981 in Poland, to two Polish Catholic parents, and I was part of a generation of young boys who were named Karol in tribute to the given name of the Polish Pope. I knew about my namesake from a very young age, because as I attended Polish School, I learned all about Karol Wojtyła and how proud I should be to be named after him.

But it wasn’t just at Polish school that I learned about Karol. I saw his image everywhere — images of the Polish Pope were all around my childhood home, I saw his face on the walls of the Catholic schools I attended as a young child, and anytime there was something religious going on in the news, I would see his face there, too. My parents (along with hundreds of thousands of other people) went to go see him on his first papal visits to Canada, and those photos of him visiting Midland, Ontario were so valuable to them.

It’s kind of hard to overstate how much this guy’s face was woven through my life as a kid. And yes, on top of that, I was named after him.

***

I was a voracious listener of music, even back as a small child. My parents had helped me acclimatize to life in Canada with transitional selections of the pop music that was popular in Poland and also happened to be massive in Canada: ABBA and Michael Jackson. In the 3rd grade, a friend’s brother had made me a dubbed cassette of Slayer, Sepultura, Metallica, and Ministry, which tore apart my idea of what I believed music could sound like. I was also a dutiful viewer of Much Music, which helped to bridge the chasm between those two extremes. One face that I got very used to seeing in the early 90s on Much Music was that of Thee Sinéad O’Connor.

Her cover of Prince’s “Nothing Compares 2 U” — and the stark, raw, and vulnerable video that came with it — catapulted her into the televisions and living rooms of homes around the world, including mine. It’s still one of my favourite music videos for everything it doesn’t do, and I see echoes of it in videos by other iconoclasts like D’Angelo. It’s hard to get across just how much it stood out among its cohort. As videos were cutting faster and faster, sometimes averaging an edit every 1-2 seconds, “Nothing Compares 2 U” said “fuck it,” let’s just linger here, on her face, for the whole goddamn video (and throw in a handful of vague religious images for good measure).

Sometimes a cover can be so goddamn good that it becomes the cultural property of the covering artist. I know a lot of people feel this way about Johnny’s Cash’s version of NIN’s “Hurt” — I respectfully disagree. It’s a great cover, and Cash rules. But it’s still Trent’s song. “Nothing Compares 2 U,” on the other hand? From 1992 onwards, that song belonged to Sinéad.

Anyhoo, One of the most important places to see new music in the late 80s and early 90s was Saturday Night Live, and I watched that show pretty much every goddamn week. Sinéad being on SNL was not some far fetched idea — I mean, she was one of the biggest “pop stars” on the planet at the time, and that show was a crucial stop for artists releasing new works and trying to get (or keep) their names into the public consciousness.

Every musical act on SNL gets two songs. First up, Sinéad played “Success Has Made A Failure Of Our Home.”

The rest is history.This recently unearthed old interview is worth watching to better understand Sinéad’s perspective on that moment, which she articulates very clearly. She does not mince words and she does not stumble. In fact, when speaking about The Moment she even lets a slight smile cross her face. Bless her.

I was 11 years old, and I remember this very clearly. I wasn’t repulsed, and I wasn’t upset. I wasn’t mad. But, I had just watched a person that I admired greatly rip up a photo of my namesake, after a jaw-droppingly intense a capella performance, and then proceed to tell the whole world what she expected us to do about it. I was completely overwhelmed with a sense that a lot of what I had been told for a long time was not right.

It was not unlike the feeling of hearing Public Enemy for the first time the year before, or Rage Against The Machine for the first time, a year or so later. In both cases, I heard their anger, set forth with such clarity of purpose, and was drawn to it intensely. While I wasn’t equipped to understand the entire context and content of what they were saying, I could feel in my fucking bones that it mattered. The way they expressed it, it felt like maybe the only thing that mattered. It felt like it was my job to try to understand it.

I realize now that what happened in that moment on SNL and the moments that followed, was that I trusted Sinéad O’Connor and her voice more than I trusted all of the voices of the authority figures and older people around me, all of the people who told me how great the Pope was, all of the people who praised him, and what he represented, unconditionally. She stared right down the barrel of the camera, singing with such goddamn righteousness. I had no doubt about it. Her singular voice outweighed the cumulative weight of all of the others. It wasn’t even close.

This industry is a motherfucker, though. And what happened next is history as well. I don’t need to rehash it all because there are a million thinkpieces flying around about this right now, and I hate me a reactionary thinkpiece. But I will say this: there are many different ways to neutralize a threat: you can meet it with all of your might and pound it into the ground; you can convince other people of the threat and have them fight for you; you can try to become part and parcel of the threat, and dilute its power by yr presence alongside it; you can ridicule the threat until it loses its power on a psychic level. There are as many methods as there are threats.

What I didn’t know was that the Pope incident was the culmination of a growing hostility between Sinéad and the industry.She articulates her antipathy for the industry very well in this Arsenio Hall interview, talking specifically of the commercialism of the Grammys, and the exclusion of rap artists from the awards. It was bound to come to a boil, and it did, as anyone could predict now with the benefit of hindsight.

Still, after it boiled over, I don’t think it’s semantics to say the industry didn’t “silence” Sinéad. She continued to put out records for another two decades, and tour, staying true to herself and her ethos all the way along. Chrysalis didn’t drop her, and Atlantic even picked her up for a record after her Chrysalis contract was up. She got a Grammy nomination on her next record. She kept putting out vital music, and it even moved some units, including four subsequent gold records. She collaborated with and played alongside so many seriously dope artists, often for very important causes.

But, those industry motherfuckers fought a stealth war, and they just made sure that any word of her, from October 3 1992 onward, had an asterisk beside it. Sometimes the asterisk was obvious and sometimes it was implied, but it was always there. And that asterisk referred back to a little note on a desk somewhere that said “this far, but no further.” They didn’t silence her, they just made sure the microphones she was given were piped into an echochamber, drowned out in the reverb, and coated with a dusting of “this woman’s crazy” just in case you ever forgot.

I’m not a Sinéad O’Connor expert by any means. Apart from her first two records, the only one I’m really familiar with — and the one that I’m particularly enamoured with above the others— is her headlong dive into reggae on 2005’s Throw Down Your Arms. I think she had always been partial to rastafarianism… again, I’m no expert, but I think the fact that the Pope Moment was catalyzed through a cover of Bob Marley’s “War,” and that her stage setting contained a shawl or scarf with the rasta colors seemed like a nod. The Throw Down Your Arms record proper shows a deep reverence for the form and function of reggae, but it’s the dub versions on the second disc that really bring the material to life in a different way. The live performances from that era, always with Sly & Robbie, are goddamn sublime.The influence of reggae on Sinéad would persist, often with thrilling results. She took on the material with profound sincerity. It amazed me how much she thrived in the spirituality of it, how much spirituality had remained a throughline in her work, how much she embraced singing for god as she continued to rail against institutional religion. Fuck.

The reviews from that era are mixed. For every one that praises the authenticity of her approach and interpretations, there is a review that asks “why do we need these faithful covers of roots reggae material when we have the originals?” Of course, the same question could be asked of almost any record — why do we need this? Reviewers rarely shift perspective and ask “why did the artist need this?” Listening to the record and watching the performances, it’s clear that it was something Sinéad needed to do, and did it with the most heart she possibly could, just like always.

***

I’ve always liked my name; I’ve always appreciated that it was a bit weird and unique (in Canada) and even if I didn’t like where it came from, I liked the name itself. Around the time I was 13-14, though, a few years after The Incident, I started making a point of writing my name in all lowercase whenever possible. This wasn’t often possible, and years of academic bureaucracy, jobs, and government documents are a testament to that. But anytime I could spell it lowercase, I did. I still do. I feel really lucky that in my current job / career, I work for an organization that honors this and allows me to spell my name in lowercase in all of my public accounts and communications, even on the “Team” page of our website.

The other night, July 21st to be exact, my search history shows the ghost of this feeling following me closely:

can i change my name to all lowercase legally in canada
ontario change name legally all lowercase

To be honest, I don’t know how much I can say that seeing Sinéad O’Connor tear that picture up led me to this point — and I’m always hesitant to reverse engineer motivations to fit a neat narrative.

But, seeing her tear up a picture of the “Polish hero” I was named after really was a formative moment. It was like an axe being swung through a wall of institutional religion and nationalism around me, cracking it open to let this blinding light in. I was a bit too young to wrap my head around it, but that was actually better for me, I think. Her act of defiance encouraged me to stretch my mind across a gap of understanding to see what was on the other side. And goddamn, I needed that. We all need that. I think it had a profound effect on me, and at the very least, it contributed to me wanting to reclaim my name, in some small way.

Sinéad’s whole career was about challenging people to stretch their minds across these chasms. Watching her performances from the Throw Down Your Arms era, I’m struck by how much she seems like she’s turned inward, concentrating on the words, never grandstanding above Sly and Robbie, and it’s clear she has a deep reverence for their contributions and their presence. And by her very presence there, the axe swings, asking us to stretch our minds to understand how a bald-headed white woman can be singing passionately about Jah and Babylon, with the support and musical accompaniment of two of the genres founding fathers.

What does it mean to pay respect and engage authentically? What does it mean to resist? What are you willing to stand up for, regardless of the cost to yourself? What are you willing to actually risk to speak truth to power?

I hope wherever she is now, she knows just how much her work mattered.

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REBOOT

March 16, 2023 - permalink

Cue the music: it’s been a while.Don’t be shy, you can sing along if you like.

Every few years, I think about doing this again. What I mean by this is hard to define.

You can read a skeleton outline of the history of this site over at the about page, and I don’t really want to belabour any of that in another post. But as I prepare to give this whole having an active website thing another spin, I can’t help but think about why I have this compulsion at all.

Why do I think about doing this again so often? What is it that I’m reaching for?

I guess you could say that I miss the Old Internet.

That statement has become so overused in the past few years, almost to the point of cliché — in certain circles, it’s already well past that point. And I can see why: the New Internet or the Now Internet is a machine that creates bad feelings and horrific thought patterns from deep within its code, covered brilliantly by the veneer of being a dopamine dispenser. How did we let it get to this point? How did we drift so far off of the path?

I can’t pretend that the Internet was ever a truly utopian project, or a utopian place. I’m far too aware nowThough I’ve long been aware of the military origins of the Internet and the related concerns that are inherent to something like that, I owe a recent debt of gratitude to Surveillance Valley by Yasha Levine, a book that really clarifies the depth of and breadth of the Internet as an all-encompassing project of empire. Highly recommended. of just how much the Internet was always intended to appear as one thing while being something completely different. How can I miss something that was never what I thought it was?

Everything exists within certain bounds of reality, and pretty much every thing hangs in a cradle of contradictions. I’ve become comfortable with that concept over the years, and I’ve learned to revel in some of the tensions that a good contradiction can create. Sometimes the tension of a contradiction is one of the most exciting aspects of a given thing; I think I feel that way about the Internet.

Sure, the entire thing was something that was borne out of government desires for total surveillance and security awareness. Sure, it was a place where anonymity reigned and where you had to be on yr toes. Sure, it was difficult, slow, and at times annoying to use. But, in spite of all of that, it felt like a place that was mine and ours, a blank slate, a huge chunk of marble that could be carved into some new and fantastic shape.

The Old Internet was exciting because it existed largely out of the view of mainstream society. For much of the 90s, most people thought the online world was a fad, and that it was the province of nerds, freaks, and shut-ins... and to be honest, I think most online denizens preferred it that way. While there’s certainly a kind of thrill that comes from getting millions of hits on a website, the presence of that number of eyeballs starts to beget other problems. I’m not someone who bemoans all of this as a Long September,Ernie Smith wrote a great blog about gatekeeping and the Internet that really put this into perspective for me. and I am a proponent of DIY in virtually every aspect of my life. But I think part of the thrill of DIY is having a degree of difficulty. What happened during the 00s is that being online went from being a little too difficult to a little too easy. To properly commercialize the Internet, companies needed to make it like driving a car: something that was relatively easy to learn how to do, even if you had absolutely zero clue about how the machine itself worked. And once you learned how to use it, you still didn’t need to know how it worked... in fact, it was probably better if you didn’t.

I, too, was wooed by these tools that improved the Internet’s ease of use. I drifted away from coding things and understanding how every bit of my own website worked to using WYSIWYG,What You See Is What You Get drag-and-drop editors that made things significantly more convenient. I did this despite my better judgement — in my day-to-day work, whenever I get asked about some new convenient Internet thing, I always remind anyone who will listen: convenience is balanced against security and autonomy, and you decide the balance.

The convenience of the commercial Internet was and remains alluring. For pretty much anything you desire, there’s an app for that. There’s a service you can rent. It’s intoxicating. But in the same way that you can wake up with a mean hangover after a night of overindulgence, I keep waking up with a pounding headache and the nagging sense that I’ve drifted much too far from shore. This thing that used to bring me great joy and a deep sense of satisfaction has become a dopamine machine that no longer dispenses any, and anything I build with a drag-and-drop editor feels vacant and vapid.

I suppose this is my way of saying that this is a reboot. This is a confirmation of a commitment to the old ways, to reconnecting with code and to finding joy in the task because of its holistic and DIY nature. I may not save anytime, but this is one of the only ways I’ve ever saved my soul.

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