New York, I Love You But You’re Bringing Me Down

From Allen Gisberg’s poem Howl:

“Moloch whose eyes are a thousand blind windows! Moloch whose skyscrapers stand in the long streets like endless Jehovahs! Moloch whose factories dream and croak in the fog! Moloch whose smoke-stacks and antennae crown the cities!

Moloch whose love is endless oil and stone! Moloch whose soul is electricity and banks! Moloch whose poverty is the specter of genius! Moloch whose fate is a cloud of sexless hydrogen! Moloch whose name is the Mind!”

 

One of the things I love about New York is how walkable it is. I’m staying in China Town. It’s a wondrous onslaught to the senses. Nothing and no one is static. Even the old Chinese men sitting outside their shops smoking are buzzing with electricity. The bustle can be dizzying if you don’t keep focused.

After a long walk today to buy a midi controller to write songs, I walk into the reception area of the hotel I’m staying in and I make myself a cup of coffee. There is a man checking in and a boy who I assume is his son, sits on the couch of the reception area playing with his phone. When my coffee is ready I call for the lift to take me to my room. Just as the door is about to shut, the man calls for the lift and the lift doors open. I hold them open for him while he drags his big suitcase in. He thanks me and the boy and I make quick eye-contact. The door closes and I press 6, he presses 3. As soon as the lift ascends to our respective floors, the man starts to cough. It’s a wet cough. The last cough brings up phlegm, and he spits it on the floor of the lift. The boy and I make eye-contact again. He seems embarrassed . I try to keep my face as neutral and as reassuring as possible, so as to say, “You have nothing to be embarrassed about, buddy. You’re not the one spitting gob on the floor of a lift.”

I tell this story because of how bizarre it is, at least to me. But this is New York and as it has always been advertised to the world: anything can happen, anywhere.

 

I’ve been here for a couple of days. The jet lag is starting to subside. When I arrived I felt a riveting sense of elation, and now it’s being usurped by a feint melancholy. I walk the city wondering how one could or should live here. Make no mistake, New York is the epitome of a cosmopolitan metropolis. It is everything I love about the urban world: it is edgy and rough, it’s always speeding forward, the people are beautiful and stylish, if you turn into the right corner you may find the most interesting shops and/or restaurants. But turn the coin over and the things that make it wonderful could also be the things that make it unbearable.

It’s hyperkinetic. It’s cripplingly expensive. It’s ugly and sometimes impersonal. I can imagine it being easy to be lonely here. Somehow it reminds me of Johannesburg.

Some of my favourite artists lived here – even though an overwhelming majority of them speak about how the golden age of New York has long passed – and it’s easy to see what was so inspirational about the city. It’s massive. The roads are wide and sprawling, the pavements too are expansive, the buildings are overbearing and monolithic. They feel heavy and they cast terrible shadows. I can’t help but be reminded of the Moloch* imagery in Allen Ginsberg’s seminal poem ‘Howl’.

*Moloch is the biblical name of a Canaanite god associated with child sacrifice. Allen Ginsberg equated the god to the many ugly and destructive things that are part of the life lived in the city, such as: the establishment, industry, the economy etc.

Sex With George Michael

When I was a teenager I was obsessed with George Michael. I still am. But my obsession was so apparent that one afternoon as I was chatting with my mom on her bed after school; she asked me what I would do if George Michael were to want to have sex with me. On some level I thought that this was my mother’s round-about way of trying to figure out what my sexuality was. I said “Of course I would have sex with him. It’s George Michael, mom! I’d bend over and take it.” My family has never been great with boundaries. She laughed and said “Nakhane, noooo. Really?” I nodded my head. At that age he was the only queer artist I knew. Even though he didn’t represent me racially, culturally, geographically etc.; he made me feel less crazy. When he was out(ted), he was so unapologetic. I needed that. I needed a queer person to be brazen on television and speak about their sexuality openly.

George Michael has always been important to me. Listen Without Prejudice Vol. 1 was the first album of his that I bought. I was performing in a band, singing jazz standards at Grahamstown National Arts Festival, and I spent the last of the money I had at the market, on the album. I had a Walkman then. I went to my room, pressed play and my life was never the same again. Reading the reviews of Listen… that were published in 1990 when the album was released, one senses that as much as the press understood that he was a brilliant artist – one comparable to Prince (he played almost all the instruments, wrote and produced the entire damn thing) – they were not ready for him to be more than an ass-shaking capital ‘P’ pop musician. They wanted a Faith Pt.2 . In hindsight we see that Listen… is not in anyway the misstep that some journalists mistook it to be. Robert Christgau mocked George Michael by asking if he had been listening to Morrissey, going on to say that he’s nothing but “a good-looking, replaceable, teenybopper idol”. You only need to listen to the epic ‘Freedom 90’ to be reassured how wrong those detractors were. It’s a masterpiece. It’s his ‘Heroes’, his ‘Purple Rain’.

The album is insular, a quiet rumination on the state of world and Michael’s personal life Listening to the album today with a queer ear, one can’t ignore the clues about his grapple with his sexuality. George Michael had become too famous for his own good. He didn’t want to be a teenybopper idol anymore. He  wanted to be an artist. And so he opened the curtain with ‘Praying For Time’. The song is flawlessly written, but suffers under the weight of the production. It’s too dense. It’s too effects-laden.  Live versions of it, especially his MTV Unplugged 1996 version demonstrate its subtle power. It strips the effects away, pulls Michaels’s voice forward and exposes itself for the weepy, desperate ballad it always was.

“It’s hard to love/When there’s so much/Hanging on to hope/When there is no hope to speak of”

PS: I fucking hate the 2017 reissue cover. Awful.