Tool’s Version of “No Quarter” is a Metaphysical Meditation.

Sometime in the mid-nineties, when I first heard Led Zeppelin’s classic “No Quarter”, I thought that Robert Plant was fretting about having no quarter, as in no 25 cent coin. I thought he agonized about not being able to call someone. If you’re over 30, you will remember that there were times when one needed a quarter to use a payphone. A quarter was the price of one phone call. I had no money back then, collected quarters all week to do the weekend laundry, thus I could sympathize with someone not having enough change to make a phone call. I fully believed that it was a valid reason for such a haunting song.

My then boyfriend, after he was done laughing, explained to me another meaning of the word “quarter”. He said that Plant was lamenting the lack of a shelter, a place to stay. That makes sense, I thought. For years afterwards I lived with this thought in my mind.

Wikipedia offers yet another meaning behind the song. There’s a military term “no quarter” that is used to describe a situation where the victor takes no prisoners (thus no quarter), and vanquishes the defeated. It’s even darker than the previous two situations. But still not dark enough. The band Tool took it to a whole new level.

Tool is a progressive rock band from the 1990s that has never achieved mainstream status. Instead it has gained a cult following. Some call it a “thinking-man’s metal band.” Its members and especially its lead singer Maynard James Keenan (MJK) are known for their seclusion and disdain for public spotlight. Their music is not available on iTunes. Given my own disdain for commercialization of everything I can’t help by commend them, even though I had to go through some maneuvers to get my hands on their albums. During their live concerts Maynard, crowned with a Travis Bickle haircut, stands in the back of the stage, avoiding spotlight; his goal is to connect with the audience through lyrics and delivery, not through showmanship. He performs, convulsing in a half-bended posture, his own private catharsis in the dark corners of the stage, away from the public eye. Such delivery is meant to appeal to audiences’ own personal struggles, to invite thought and self-examination, to make one a participant rather than merely a spectator.

Tool ventures into areas where others are afraid to tread. Perhaps this is the reason it has never become mainstream: mainstream is all about helping us through a hard day’s grind, to cheer us up. It’s Paul McCartney and Beyonce, or Pearl Jam if you’re socially conscious. But Tool is merciless in its candor. Its music is too haunting, lyrics – penetrating, delivery – visceral; an extinct combination of mastery nowadays.

Tool’s trippy, melancholic rendition of the song, already dark and brooding to begin with, is a meditation on our own restlessness, our existential agony. It calls on our deepest, Kierkegaardian anxiety, our metaphysical blues, a kind of sadness that is impossible to nail and put into words. This restlessness is what you think about when you lay in bed unable to sleep, when you commute to and from work in a state of supine trance. When you look at the water or at the fire. When you’re suddenly alone and your phone is quiet. When you drive late at night on an empty highway listening to Pink Floyd. Or that one time you took acid in your twenties. Maynard lifts up the curtain and invites us to look into a scary black void, a “path where no one goes”, a “no quarter.” We peek into this abyss and, horrified, pull back, grateful to be distracted back into our normal busy, thoughtless state by a phone call or a twitter message.

Busyness is a welcome distraction, a mind-numbing drug. We seek to avoid thinking about our universal loneliness – the kind of loneliness that is in the back of our minds even when we are surrounded by friends and relatives that love us. And how can one claim otherwise, how can one deny his loneliness today, in the age of a ubiquitous selfie and Instagram – tools designed primarily for the deliberate displays of staged fun, only to serve, ironically, as ultimate manifestations of loneliness? If it wasn’t for our busyness, then that nagging, baffling, suppressed despondence that we tuck behind the defiant cheer in public would drive us to religion or drinking or drugs.

This is the source of our melancholy. Maynard pierces our hard-built rationales to reveal their hollowness. He comes in and tells us there’s no Santa. He makes it difficult for us to keep pretending that we have made it work. He drags us, kicking and screaming, to come face to face with the question: “Why must it be like this?” But our entire lives we tip-toe around the answer. The answer is just too terrifying to contemplate. A search for answer would force us to examine our own state, our own actions, our accepted notions and customary ways, and we are ill-equipped and unprepared and unwilling to do so. We live the way we do because we have bills and responsibilities, but to think that we chose to have those bills and responsibilities is unfathomable. To think that such way of life wasn’t ordered upon us by some supernatural force, that it wasn’t predetermined would then prompt us to deal with it, but we have no tools and capacities to deal with it.

Sure, we’ve heard of Thoreau, living alone by his pond, and Bertrand Russell with his praise of idleness, we’ve read all the clever books. We are all educated and aware of the predicament. Like Davos attendees, who make sure to mock, with faux self-deprecating chuckle, their own attendance at a posh retreat as an unavoidable chore because of “business”, we, mere mortals, in a similar manner, have no willpower or genuine desire to get out of the routine. We can only softly mock our complacency, in quiet resignation. We’ve made adjustments and accommodations – physical and mental, we’ve learned to maneuver, excel at survival, we are resourceful and flexible. Why isn’t THAT a virtue, Maynard? Oh, Maynard, have mercy on our feeble minds! We are just fallible humans, for Chrissake. We just want to get through this with as little thinking as possible. We already have enough to worry about.

We are all homeless who pretend, real hard, to have found refuge. It is cruel to deny us our little illusions, our meager “quarters.” Maynard, you heartless bastard.


My Little Homage To Atlantic City

Atlantic City is anti-Vegas. In Vegas, like at Venice masque-ball, all the life’s drudgery is hidden away; in AC it’s on open display, with not even a half-hearted attempt at disguising it. Vegas is a high class prostitute with silicone breasts and facial injections and perfect ass that will charge you a fortune and will leave you disappointed. AC is a 45-year waitress at Harrah’s, too old and unattractive to flirt, too weary of life, with saggy everything. Happy to have a job. At this point, AC doesn’t even try to sell you anything, because it knows it’s in the gutter and doesn’t have the money or desire to put on a mask. You get what you see. If you don’t like what you see you can go fuck yourself. The heart of AC is its authenticity. No city in America can command such connection to reality as AC. Well, maybe Detroit or Camden. Atlantic City is a Steinbeck-worthy shithole where all those polished, self-assured story-telling billionaires giving us lectures on CNBC wished they came from. Oh, what a perfect place to put on one’s resume, beefing up one’s down-to-earth, up-by-the-bootstraps, common man credentials! There’s just something irresistible about AC’s decrepitude with its boarded-up houses and hard luck and real-world sensibility. Even AC remaining patrons are symbolic of decline and loss. You see some retiree named Morty in the poker room all the time, and then, one day you realize you haven’t seen him in a while. He stops coming to the game. Maybe he got tired, or maybe he ran out of money. Or moved to Florida. Who knows. In the surviving casinos you will find a fine vertical slice, as they like to say on Wall Street, of society: at the poker table you have a smart-ass Asian guy to your right making fun of your Blackberry and to your left you have a grandpa with a flip phone. But still the slice is heavy on the down side: it’s full of hustlers and lowlifes and Jesse Pinkmans, and small businessmen with garish gold jewelry, hairy chests and oiled hair. In Manhattan such fashion choices would be considered good for Halloween. Here’s it’s the real deal. Cab drivers are grateful to give you a ride and are especially appreciative of an extra dollar you throw in as a tip. “50 dollars a day, on a good day,” one chatty driver told me about his daily haul. Maybe he was fishing for sympathy, but maybe not. It’s hard to imagine making much more driving people around this town: customers are scarce. AC is pristine in its realism; is ugly and beautiful as life itself. Pampered Manhattanites, desperate for a real, unstructured adventure, secretly nostalgic for good old times when Times Square had hookers and Washington Square Park had drug dealers, commute in a zombified state between the City and the Hamptons, without realizing what haven – not heaven, but haven – they have just 150 miles to the South. But fuck them. Let them suffocate, let them look in vain for thrills in the sterilized, anesthetized, risk-free Manhattan Green Zone. I don’t want them to contaminate my own little untouched, ungentrified playground with their Starbucks and yoga and irony. Oh, irony. How sick I am of irony. Irony is the last refuge of someone who has nothing to say. Atlantic City is devoid of irony. That’s what I like about it. It’s an antidote to all those effete, overeducated, self-conscious ironic types. It’s been down on its luck for too long to care anymore. It’s too battered to even pretend to keep up appearances. It shows the world a big fat middle finger and then goes about its business. If you come it’s nice, if you don’t – it don’t give a shit. It already lost all its family jewels. Revel was AC’s last attempt to live large, to splurge and to go down in style. It’s that Pontiac Firebird that Lester Burnham bought, on a whim, before leaving this shitty world. Now, when you approach Atlantic City it stands there, beautiful and dead, towering over the skyline, reminding us all of the eventual demise.

The Ability to Be Bad Is The Ultimate Gender Equalizer.

“Women are only good because they never had a chance to be bad”.

I saw “The Counselor” the other day, a movie based on the screenplay by Cormac McCarthy, the same guy who wrote No Country for Old Men and this post is a result of my ruminations on one of the film’s character. Spoiler alert: Cameron Diaz’s scheming and ruthless character kills Brad Pitt in an especially gruesome and chilling manner. For money – the most mundane and age-old reason of all. Some will find my thoughts and conclusions controversial. But here goes.

Women’s entire world, even when they are inclined to delude themselves about having some sort of power, revolved around the world of men. It’s the world built by men, with the rules written by men, so even when we think that we can achieve some sort of power, all we do is just play, real hard, by men’s rules. Sometimes we succeed, but those exceptions only confirm the rule. The bitchiness and cruelty that those of us who decide to wager into the man’s world develop is the manifestation and the confirmation of the man’s world. All this “Lean In” feminism that you keep hearing about is just a manual on how to be able to function in a man’s world. (A long, but dissecting and revealing account of what’s behind this movement.)

The ultimate gender equalizer is the ability to do evil. That includes the power to fleece the fools, to take advantage of the weak, to wage wars. True equality between sexes will be achieved not when a woman acquires access to tools of power she’s been denied for millennia; it will be achieved when she learns to lay them down after she’s had a good run. Women, especially at all those ubiquitous women’s conferences, like to think and talk of themselves as being better than men: we are nurturing, cooperative, benevolent, etc., etc. After all that uplifting talk women really begin to believe that they are better than those brutal apes, men. What bullshit! Women are only good because they never had a chance to be bad. It’s a feel-good fairy tale that women have been telling themselves for thousands of years just to cope with their second-class status. If you don’t have the power to do real shit then your only outlet in life, your only point of consolation is to “be nice”. When you are good out of weakness it doesn’t count, because you have no choice; you don’t get to pick a path, it’s been picked for you. How do you know if you’re truly a better part of humanity if you haven’t been exposed to and tempted with, at least not on a scale that men were, real power? Women think they are better than men because women never held that kind of power in reality – the power to do shit, not just depend on others to do shit. It is only during the last century we began to slowly shed those misconceptions. But here’s the kicker: once we, women, receive access to it, we are no different, no better no worse than men. That is a true equality – the ability to do things, sometimes despicable things, and only then the ability to abstain from doing them. Men had plenty of time to purge themselves of the bad things they were doing, to contemplate about their bad behavior; after all they’ve been doing bad things for a millennia. Men have had “fat tails” for generations (to use the statistical bell curve illustration): there are plenty of criminals, murderers, and vagabonds on the left-hand side of the curve among men; there are also a lot of geniuses and heroes on the right-hand side. Women’s bell curve looks much narrower: we don’t have as many delinquents and hobos, but we also don’t have as many outstanding statesmen and thinkers. We are new to this.

It is naïve to think that we can circumvent such natural evolution. First we have to have our own Raskolnikovs, Mussolinis, and Joe McCarthys in our midst; only then we can produce our own Rousseaus, our own Voltaires, our own Churchills. Only then we can sit by the fire, sip cognac and contemplate, in earnest, on the depravity of a human soul and our struggle to overcome it. Because then we will have a true understanding. Then we will know what it takes to lay down the power voluntarily, to refuse to use it to your advantage.

Benevolence and kindness of a woman had always carried a different flavor than a benevolence of a man. When a man is benevolent he projects strength; when a woman is benevolent she only does what is expected of her. A man doesn’t have to be benevolent; if he chooses to be it will come from his strength. If a woman is benevolent, she’s merely doing it because she’s weak.

Whether you like it or not, Margaret Thatcher waging war over Falklands was an essential part of that progress. That’s why we have to welcome even such cunts and dimwits as Ann Coulter and Sarah Palin – it’s progress; a hundred years ago they would just be voiceless housewives or spinsters. Having those public figures is natural growing pains. We despise them, but their existence is necessary to make way for future groundbreaking female leaders.

To achieve true equality we have to be bad first. We have to be bad for the next 2000 years. We will have to become the corrupt politicians, we will have to fleece the populace, to start wars, to fuck things up. We have to purge it all out of our system, to inoculate ourselves, so that later, hundreds or thousands of years from now, we can, this time genuinely, magnanimously, and without any social expectations, be good, show mercy. Then, we shall be truly equal.

Your most favorite 5-10 seconds of music.

A few days ago someone posed a question on Twitter: what’s you most favorite 5-10 seconds of any piece of music. I didn’t have to think long, few came immediately to mind.

1. Intro/Opening guitar riff on Money for Nothing, Dire Straits;

2. Jimmy Page’s entry on Bring it on Home (at 1:45) and almost immidiate follow by John Bonham (at 1:49)

3. Opening riff for Travelling Riverside Blues.

On Old Men (Off Topic)

It’s quite easy to misinterpret the essay titled “On Old Men” as a piece on the older men. It is not. It is a peek at and a short ode to those 80 years and older, the Greatest Generation as Tom Brokaw, himself a soon-to-be member of that club, calls them.

Watching old men has long been a secret hobby of mine, sort of like bird-watching for some. Luckily I’m provided much opportunity to do just that when, bored and waiting for a good hand at the poker table, I’m surrounded by an ample pool of retirees. Unlike young jocks or pretty girls, old men are unaware that they are being watched, thus making the entire surveillance even more worthwhile as you will always catch a grandpa in his natural unselfconscious state. Saggy pants up to his chin, an almost universal absence of a rear, bended-knee gait propped up by oversized sneakers, an old-fashioned, square-shaped baseball cap with USMC or Korean War Vet logo, shaky hands deformed by arthritis. And a permanent sad smile. Life’s battles, victories and defeats are firmly behind him, nothing more to prove, no more skirts to chase, no more dicks to measure, he’s finally free to be himself. Not that he needs that freedom at this point, especially if the Mrs. has imprudently checked out earlier, condemning him to a quiet resignation to quotidian routines – his own meals to cook, his own shoes to tie and no one to talk to. Old age does something to men – it’s rarely that I meet an old man full of malice. Crankiness, yes, but not spite. Even when they are angry, they express it in a bygone-era terms that makes it sound almost charming, and not hard-hitting and offensive. Sort of like William F. Buckley’s “Stop calling me a crypto Nazi or I’ll sock you in your goddamn face and you stay plastered” variety. Such old-time, gentlemanly manner almost makes me uncomfortable to tell a dirty joke in their presence, which is rather odd, because clearly an old man would be the most qualified person in the room to appreciate it, as he has seen it all. Seen it all, and yet the most dirty word in his vocabulary is ‘goddamn’.

Sometimes they approach me for a talk, because when they catch me in my curious gaze, I can’t help but smile back in a way I smile when I see a puppy. Engaging an old man in a conversation that, more often than not, is a monologue about a bad poker hand or, once he got the ball rolling, his past life, the wife who passed away, the union job they used to have is always rewarding. The stories they have to tell, however trivial, rarely have other welcoming audience. Who would want to listen to an old fart? But I enjoy the uncharged, undertone-free exchange I can have with an old man. Even his clumsy attempts at flirting carry a hint of innocence, like that of a pre-adolescent boy.

The melancholy of seeing a lonely old grandpa dragging his feet through the park is always more penetrating than seeing a lonely grandma. I don’t know why. Perhaps because old ladies always form a little coterie – a generations-old tool to deal with the expected widowhood – and continue on living. Old men never form such a self-help club. Like a small child separated from his parents in a crowded and busy train station, old man is often lost when he suddenly finds himself alone in the waning years. Evolution did not equip them to deal with the old age, as they were not supposed to make it that far.

They come from the time of a mandated military service, the time of the important wars, they built the country we inherited. They know how to do the right thing, not the thing that pays off the most. Old men are capable of having a genuine expression of joy and grief, as the mechanisms that have enabled them to suppress it have worn off or became useless, or perhaps because the lives they lived did not require a fake façade. To me, witnessing an old man tearing up is one of the most arresting experiences to have, for he knows something I don’t, he has seen something I haven’t. It ain’t lost money his crying about.

I wonder if it’s just a matter of time that the current roster of self-absorbed meanies can metamorphose into those harmless and mellow senior citizens. I certainly hope that this is the case. But in the meantime, try the following exercise: next time you encounter an arrogant jerk, imagine him 40 years from now, quietly sitting on the park bench, a walker by his side, thinking to himself: “Kids these days.” You’ll never look at him the same way again.