Our new writer-owned publication Flaming Hydra has finally launched. There's been great stuff this week already from David Roth and Kim Kelly and Osita Nwanevu and others so check it out.
My first piece is a new short story. It will be out Monday I think. It goes in part like so:
He took a drag off of the spliff and its cherry combusted half ass and I thought of a wet log on a campfire and said maybe let’s go out into the street a bit more buddy. Waving my arm underhand like an usher and we walked up a ways and stood there under the punishing street light that floods my bedroom like a Broadway stage and were quiet for a minute or two within the smoking.
Do you hear that he said and I said that I did.
What are they chanting?
Some helicopters were wafting just there over the park or thereabouts. So many I started to sort of worry about them crashing into each other. A wind vortex of their own design compelling them inward.
Crashing like that if you can imagine what I mean.
That must be where the protests are Ryan said. I was gonna go he said and I said me too. I had meant to go to that I said. It’s funny they were just saying something about it on the news beforehand I said. About how bad it all was. But necessary also. Bad but necessary. Unfortunate was the word they said.
It started to rain kind of weird. Kind of sideways. We stood there not seeking cover for a minute or two. Dumber than dogs.
I can't imagine any way this could possibly backfire can you?
Been a bit of a rough patch of late in terms of losing subscribers for your old pal Luke. I guess there were a lot more Joe Biden supporters and Israel supporters and supporters of Joe Biden supporting Israel reading than one might have reasonably thought given everything else going on here. In any case subscribe if you can. You know the deal. Or maybe tell a friend?
As I’m sure I’ve mentioned in here before I have always been – for better or worse – a big The Smiths guy. I had the chance to interview 3/4 of the band over the years. I wrote an article for Vice once about rushing the stage at a Morrissey concert and touching his hand and crying over it. Uh don’t ask how old I was at the time. I also saw Johnny play a few years ago and cried over that too. I played in a The Smiths cover band for a bit and my last band was called no hope/no harm after one of their lyrics. I also unfortunately have a couple of The Smiths tattoos including a big Morrissey portrait on my shoulder. All of which is probably why the CBC program Commotion wanted me to come on and talk about The Smiths being played at Trump rallies lately. Long story short: Eh. That basically checks out.
Me and the host Elamin Abdelmahmoud had a good chat. You can listen to it here or read it below.
Elamin: You have heard this story before. Politicians hold a rally, and then they play a song, then the fans and the band are completely outraged. It seems like there’s one of these stories every election cycle, but this time it feels different. Take a listen:
That is Please, Please, Please Let Me Get What I Want by The Smiths. That song is from 1984, but what you just heard is that song being played at a rally for Donald Trump. But you heard some fans, some people singing in the background. But also, a lot of fans of The Smiths are really fired up. Mostly because of what The Smiths’ music meant to fans in the 80s, and what these songs said about their identity. And how strange it is to hear these songs played at a Trump rally. But is it that surprising? The band’s lead singer Morrissey has been pretty outspoken since the band broke up, and he’s taken some pretty controversial views on things. Here to explain how we got here is journalist and author, and I assume long suffering The Smiths fan Luke O’Neil.
Before we get into this Trump thing, let’s talk about what The Smiths music represented to fans like you. If you met another person who listens to The Smiths you go, oh, we have something in common. What does that mean?
Luke: Sure. They were one of the more beloved and influential bands of their time, and they continue to be, so it’s not like they’re this super niche thing, but the stereotype of The Smiths fan was always a sort of melancholy loner, or sad artsy type, always pining for unrequited love. Something that was captured very well in the lyrics. It’s not like it’s some secret club. Again, they’re a very famous band, but it is a nice basis for friendship, if you met someone with a similar affinity for the band.
Elamin: The saddest lyrics you ever heard and people connecting over those lyrics. That’s a beautiful basis for connection. What do you make of the fact that The Smiths are now this central part of Trump rallies?
Luke: It’s funny, you said up top, is it really strange, and that happens to be the name of The Smiths song Is It Really So Strange? But this is a bit more complicated than some of the stories that you hear like this every election cycle. Whether it’s Rage Against the Machine or Bruce Springsteen or someone like that whose politics clearly differ from whatever the Republican might be. In this case, Morrissey, and this surprises me, he’s not a fan of Trump. He’s said some anti-Trump things over the years. But like you alluded to he’s also spent the past ten, twenty years sharing xenophobic, anti-immigrant, sometimes downright racist comments that sort of align with a lot of the types of things Trump and his fans believe in.
Morrissey is also a blowhard who loves the sound of his own voice, and will do anything to get attention. Does that sound like someone else we know?
Elamin: I have to say, every time Morrissey the name is trending on Twitter, you see fans of The Smiths in complete despair. Oh no. It’s happening again. The person who gave voice to so much of our loneliness and heartbreak has once again said a thing that is going to frustrate me and everyone I know. It’s almost a recurring part of the news cycle every year. You get into the summer and you go what’s Morrissey going to say that’s going to make everyone upset this summer?
Luke: Exactly. He’s very big on self pity and victim complex, again, which is why it sort of aligns with Trump. But being frustrated with Morrissey has been part of the experience all along. Some would say this stuff has been in his music all along. Songs like National Front Disco and Bengali in Platforms that were kind of controversial. But there was always this level of irony in the lyrics, and his entire persona is this sort of facade, so it gave us plausible deniability. It’s like he’s playing a character of a National Front skinhead or something like that. But over the past few years it’s become like, oh, maybe that wasn’t irony all along.
Elamin: I think The Smiths sort of engender a fandom that is really loyal, and really beautiful in a lot of ways. Because Morrissey, for years, was seen as rock’s outsider poet. He’s the guy who captures all the sad feelings in your soul. But he’s changed a lot, he’s disappointed fans. You mentioned some of the xenophobic posts or statements he’s put out over the years. How do you go about trying to reconcile being a fan of his music with the person he appears to have become?
Luke: We’ve all been having this conversation about how to separate the art from the artist, or whether or not one has to, for years now. Particularly in the past five or eight years, whatever it’s been. I don’t think there’s any hard and fast rule. If you talk to ten people they’re all going to be fans of someone who’s somewhat problematic, or maybe downright bad. We all have our own line that we draw. Whether it’s Michael Jackson…
Elamin: Or Kanye.
Luke: Or Kanye. I personally listen to The Smiths and Morrissey’s solo music a lot less than I used to, and I don't go to his shows anymore. I guess that’s one way people justify things like that. Well, I’m not giving him any money. But I guess the real thing that I do when I listen is I tell myself that I’m listening to a younger man who hadn’t said a lot of this stuff at the time this beautiful music was written.
Elamin: I love that as a way of working through it. I guess you have to say that to yourself because, listen pal, you’ve got a bunch of The Smiths tattoos! There’s no way through this except to figure out some way to reconcile it. And I think that’s important work. We don’t do enough of that reconciliation work. You mentioned that both Morrissey and his writing partner in The Smiths, Johnny Marr, have made anti-Trump comments in the past. Marr was quick to condemn that Trump used his music for the rallies. But Morrissey hasn’t said anything. You’ve interviewed both of these guys. Does that surprise you at all?
Luke: It doesn’t surprise me that Johnny came out right away and said something. He’s by all accounts a beautiful and lovely man that everyone loves. I am surprised that Morrissey hasn’t said anything yet. He loves to issue these little edicts through his website, or his fan website, from time to time.
Elamin: He says wearily…
Luke: Right! I will say, about that tattoo, I do have a picture of his face on my shoulder, but conveniently people always ask me if it’s Elvis. Not that Elvis doesn’t come with his own baggage, so you can’t really win here.
Elamin: I was gonna say! Slightly longer baggage. It’s aged in a different way. Maybe that’s the out you can use.
I read an article in The Guardian where the writer said if you asked ChatGPT to summarize every The Smiths songs it would narrow down to the sentence “nobody’s being treated as badly as me.” That does sound like something Donald Trump would say. Is it a surprise to you that the MAGA faithful are connecting with The Smiths music and putting it into the rotation?
Luke: No, I guess not. Like I said there is a lot of that self pity and the feeling that you are the singular, unique, put-upon main character of the universe. That seems to line up pretty well with Trump and MAGA type people. But then again there’s also this thing like, people, maybe there are some actual Morrissey fans and fans of post-punk type music involved? Punks get old. I can tell you that first hand. And a lot of people tend to get, not always, but oftentimes, their politics gets a little more conservative as they get older, so maybe they’re just aging into a different political demographic here?
Elamin: The reason it wasn’t a big surprise to me when I first heard The Smiths at a Trump rally is that I think a large part of the Trump appeal is the argument, making the argument anyway, that the people who attend these rallies have been alienated from mainstream politics, so to play music that fits in line with general alienation, that doesn't seem like a surprise to me. Is that part of the overlap you think?
Luke: It could be that. But I don’t know if we’re gonna see a huge uptick in sales of The Queen Is Dead over this. It’s probably just a little curiosity. It’d be interesting to see if there’s a change in demographics at his concerts if he does blow up among these people. A lot fewer aging goths and Latinos.
Elamin: I also have a hard time imagining whoever is making the playlist is trying to curate for an emotional landscape you know? I think they just like The Smiths. I think that’s probably what this comes down to. Luke O’Neil, thanks for your time. I look forward to talking to you the next time Morrissey says anything.
Luke: So you’ll have me back on tomorrow?
One last thing I meant to get to but didn’t have time to say on the radio about the whole appreciating art made by people with terrible politics thing is this:
I am – and you probably are too if you read this newsletter – pretty far left. So in this one way I sympathize with the right. How they’re always painting themselves into a smaller and smaller corner in terms of what culture they can enjoy. To the point where they’re gassing themselves up right now that winning Super Bowls and having sex with Taylor Swift is gay. If I had to limit the art and culture that I appreciate to people whose politics align with my own I would have almost no music to listen to or anything to watch on TV. The right is correct when they say all of Hollywood are basic normie libs they’re just mad about that fact for the wrong reasons.
I was reminded of this poem by Mary Oliver this morning and thought you might appreciate it as well.
I was also reminded of this old Hell World the other day and I wanted to share it again because I think it was overlooked as "one of the good ones." It had previously been for paid subscribers only but I opened it up for anyone to read.
I started watching the Game Show Network right around when the pandemic and middle age and suburbia all hit me concurrently none of which I have yet to and will likely never rebound from and something I still can’t get over two years later watching anew every evening eating our little coffee table dinner is how on most of the games every contestant is this kind of pure grotesquerie from California which is the most uncanny state in America the most uncanny country in creation. I haven’t gotten through the Rehearsal yet but I’m reminded of how when I used to watch Nathan For You and I’d think it’s a trick it’s all actors but no it’s just that people there are like that. Californians are a people who simply want to be able to drive two miles in under 90 minutes if they can time traffic right and who love to be insane. No one will ever figure them out. Not Steinbeck or Hammett or Chandler or Didion or West or Tarantino.
It’s all just pool balls clattering.
I don’t know what that is supposed to mean but it sounded like something.
I was trying so hard earlier to think of the other California writer I wanted to mention above in my little list there and all I could remember was that I had posted a picture of the book that I can’t remember on Instagram ten years ago which isn’t an especially efficient mechanism for remembering books. I scrolled down and down and down into my past last night aging myself in reverse and there it was in 2012 sitting on the side table of a hotel: Ask the Dust by John Fante. Let me look up a couple of quotes from it real quick to jog my memory.
"All of us were here for a little while, and then we were somewhere else; we were not alive at all; we approached living, but we never achieved it. We are going to die. Everybody was going to die."
"I looked at the faces around me and I knew mine was like theirs. Faces with the blood drained away, tight faces, worried, lost. Faces like flowers torn from their roots and stuffed into a pretty vase, the colors draining fast. I had to get away from that town."
Yeah that definitely sounds like the type of shit that I would have liked.
Oh and check out this act I was made aware of just recently. Really love this song in particular. Got a definite Jason Molina influence with some Pavement and early Flaming Lips in there.
"That's the good shit right there."
Isaac Chotiner has another good piece up this week at The New Yorker. This one is an interview with a pediatrician named Seema Jilani who spent a couple of weeks working at a hospital in Gaza.
There’s nothing that could have prepared me for the horrors that I saw. I think the lack of dignity is intense. I think every single factor of the tapestry of society has been affected: community schools, hospitals, food, and shelter.
And if I could offer an example around how that manifests: a seven-year-old had deep lacerations to his leg and needed some suturing. It wasn’t a life or death case—it was very simple—but the only pain relief we had was Motrin, which was frankly cruel, and a cruel undertaking. There was no ketamine. And so I tried to use one of my pediatric tools as a distraction. And so I had a light flasher, but he wasn’t interested in any of those designs that I put on the wall. So I tried to distract him from the pain. Usually what I would do is ask questions like, “So who’s your best friend?” I can’t ask that because what if his best friend’s dead? “What’s your favorite subject at school?” He hasn’t been to school in three months. “What’s your favorite food?” I don’t know when the last time he ate would be. Every single facet of their society has been ripped apart.
People blink this much when they are comfortable and telling the truth.
I can't say what I think should happen to this guy:
I know the messages are delivered in a different tone but is there really much difference between what the White House and Republican monsters like Mast here are saying in substance? A pretty clear illustration of how Democrats will cause and/or allow massive suffering to transpire but they'll at least pretend – often badly – to be sad about it.
Relatedly you might also read this recent statement from the World Health Organization's director Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.
As of today, over 100,000 Gazans are either dead, injured or missing and presumed dead.
WHO has faced great difficulty even to reach hospitals in southern Gaza.
Heavy fighting has been reported near hospitals in Khan Younis, severely impeding access to health facilities for patients, health workers and supplies.
During a UN mission on Monday, WHO delivered medical supplies to Nasser medical complex. Other missions to deliver fuel and food were denied.
Despite challenges, Nasser hospital continues to offer health services, also at reduced capacity.
The hospital is operating with a single ambulance. Donkey carts are being used for transporting patients.
Yesterday we made another attempt to get food to Nasser, but due to delays about 500 metres from the checkpoint, the food was taken from the trucks by crowds, who are also desperate for food.
Our teams on the ground report increasing food shortages for medical staff and patients, with only one meal per day.
The risk of famine is high and increasing each day with persistent hostilities and restricted humanitarian access.
Every person our teams talk to ask for food and water.
Decisions by various countries to pause funds for UNRWA, the largest supplier of humanitarian aid in this crisis, will have catastrophic consequences for the people of Gaza.
No other entity has the capacity to deliver the scale and breadth of assistance that 2.2 million people in Gaza urgently need.
We appeal for these announcements to be reconsidered.
We continue to call for safe access for humanitarian personnel and supplies.
We continue to call for the hostages to be released.
We continue to call for health care to be protected, and not attacked or militarised.
And we continue to call for a ceasefire.