Aldous Harding is a Punk

I first saw Marlon Williams play at Bowery Ballroom, September 26th, 2016. He was a goddam revelation - full of swagger and salt, as I said at the time. It was a month later I discovered Aldous, through Marlon’s Instagram:

This is the post, which I saw about half an hour before she was due to start at Webster Hall. I made it by the end of the first song.

Ms. Harding was dressed head to toe in black wool. Black hair hanging, hunched in her chair, howling in a single spot. Her voice was assured when she commanded it, but she did so rarely: mostly it fell about listlessly, perpetually wrapped in a crone’s scowl. Any hint of freedom or possibility of flight was immediately snared off in bitterness. Very quickly, I came to live in the power of that voice, and to suffer its imprisonment. Between songs, only two messages:

“This is another one about despair. Sorry.”

“Thanks for being quiet, guys. I really appreciate it.”

This second was the through-line, repeated several times, and genuine. It wasn’t hard to figure out why. Deerhunter was the headliner; backwards baseball caps and gym shoulders, swaying unsteady under pastel-orange t-shirts, were much in evidence around me. Confirmation came like a claw near the end.

“Thanks, its still really quiet. I really do appreciate it,” she murmured, sotto voce. Then, after a pause, “I’ve had some real shitters on this tour.” Silence.

Then, whoops of encouragement. Which was nice. New York’s not like you heard. And you’d have to be a particularly dedicated meat-head not to be willing to embark with Aldous Harding. In the immortal words of Anton Newcombe: You will be richly rewarded for your courageousness. That great giant clear strength? Caged, tortured and foreshortened? In teasing flashes, at first, it escaped. I remember the first time she let it all the way out, very distinctly indeed. Swear to God (though only he would know) I pulled up and whisper-swore “I knew it!” By the end, the transformation was emphatic: there she stood, riveted to the stage, hands empty and busy, smashing the perfect hell out of ‘Wuthering Heights’.

Aldous Harding went on tour with Deerhunter and snarled weird art-folk at the bros and didn’t give a shit. Aldous Harding’s voice brooks no bullshit. And Aldous Harding is a punk.

After it was over, I wandered in a daze down to Fourth Avenue, pondering what was possible and what was right and what was a beautiful in this life. I came up with answers, I’m sure, that I have since forgotten. What I remember were the questions, and the desire, and the leap I took down the subway steps heading home. It was October 24th, 2016. Just about two weeks before the election.

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The night of Trump’s speech at the Republican National Convention, my buddy Jordan came through with a ticket to see Broken Social Scene play their first New York show in something like seven years. The speech had leaked early in the afternoon, and I had read it. I turned my phone off at the door. It made no difference. The air was saturated in dread, until it wasn’t (‘Anthem for a Seventeen Year Old Girl’). Amy Millan was in her third trimester and an ankle-length white dress. It was a night of fearsome catharsis. The world shifted underneath it.

A few days later, events conspired to give me a plus one for Flight of the Conchords in Central Park, so I was able to return the favor to Jordan. The afternoon of July 24th in central Manhattan was hot. So fucking hot. Brett’s suit jacket lasted one song. The boys were dumb as always. (I first saw them in a club in Wellington when I was about 16, with my parents and little brother. My dad let me drink a beer in the bar before the show. Cool. I needed to pee like crazy almost immediately. As I weaved my way back through the cabaret tables at the end of a song, Brett asked - reasonably - “Hey, where are you going?” “Nah don’t worry,” Jermaine explained, “He’s just going to write it down.”) In Central Park, they took gratuitous shots at Trump; they did ‘Too Many Dicks (On the Dance Floor)’ as a Simon and Garfunkel ballad. They did ‘Bowie’, too, which is a different song now. They played it near the end, after it got dark. They closed out the show with an extended dueling flute solo.

After it was over I bid Jordan farewell and wandered off in a daze through the still-steaming park. I checked my phone and discovered what had been up with Katherine Miller. Miller is the politics editor at Buzzfeed News; she had been tweeting links to music videos all day. (Mostly stadium-rock jams, as I recall, but also an excellent alternate cut of The National’s ‘Terrible Love’ that has stayed with me.) Turned out she had been psyching herself up to hit publish on a personal essay about Donald Trump and Barry Goldwater. It’s called “How Donald Trump Broke The Conservative Movement (And My Heart),” which tells you a fair bit about Miller, though I suppose not everything. For one thing, if you think take the defining characteristic of haiku as a single, immediately compelling and dynamic image, (Jack Snyder once said “A real haiku’s gotta be as simple as porridge and yet make you see the real thing,”) then Miller is a minor master of the art, interspersing a reliable stream of breaking news with occasional rock splashes:

Growing up in New Zealand, I imbibed the fairly widespread understanding that American conservatives were essentially religiously demented and moronic, in thrall to a mythic moment in the middle Fifties that offered salvation from the existential dread of contemporary American capitalism. Later, I read Burke and Buckley; I was convinced instead by Marx and James Baldwin and Hunter S. Thompson. Such younger American conservatives as I encountered I found, uh.. unconvincing. Yet Miller’s essay resonated across the gulf.

Partly it was the wry, unsparing humor that she directs towards a movement she evinces a decidedly ambiguous commitment to; her two sentences on the ACORN guy, for example, is worthy of Virginia Woolf:

The year after the conference in Charlotte, James O’Keefe — then hot off his videos that killed ACORN, the liberal organizing group — told everyone how he’d protested the Lucky Charms leprechaun in college to expose the fallacy of identity politics. (A middle-aged investigative reporter sat miserably beside him.)

Mostly, however, the shock of recognition came from Miller’s evocation of just how lame it was to be politically active at university in the late 2000s. Reading her description of the conservative Young America’s Foundation (“Yaff!”) meetings – the sense of going through the motions of something fundamentally ridiculous and archaic – I immediately heard my professor slapping his hands against the pile of papers in his lap and exclaiming in exasperation: the only rational solution remained a revolutionary uprising in which the workers seized the means of production. There were typically about twenty people in attendance at Otago University International Socialist Organization meetings, ranging from pimply teenagers to greybeards. I’m not sure if my professor was expecting cries of revolutionary affirmation. After a pause, he got solemn nods.

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The last gig I saw before the election was Hinds, four days after Aldous. They played the Warsaw in Greenpoint, which is the greatest venue in New York on the strength of its Polish drinking food alone. The girls are ineluctably charming from the moment you meet them, and are especially easy to love if you grew up on New Zealand pop – the raucous easy genius of ‘Waiting For Your Love’ and ‘Beatnik’ and ‘Forty Yeahs’; the liberating twist of approaching American rock and roll from outside the Anglo-American vernacular. Their lyrics are a mighty mess of longing and sex and defiance; the music is intimate and not without force; ’Warts’ and ’Easy’ and ‘Garden’ are all perfect garage-pop. They weren’t the greatest band I saw in 2016 – Brian Jonestown Massacre played Webster Hall May 9th, and Anton is sober these days, terrifyingly sober, twice as intense, but also able to finally achieve the obsessive perfection that caused so many meltdowns, and deliver his classics like they’re Mozart, which they are – but Hinds was definitely the most fun. They’re rockstars, generous and light-hearted ones, committed to the kids and the craft. (I doubt very much they’d do what I’ve seen another, far more heavily-promoted set of up-and-comers do twice now: play drunk and/or strung out, and massacre ‘Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here With You’ in the process). They inhabit the tradition with ease, and people at their ease are the best people.

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(At left: the author, blinking.)

Eleven days after the Warsaw, it was Katherine Miller who first said it out loud in a way I realized it was true: “And if he wins those [a string of red states], he is going… to… win this presidential election”. She was sitting at the desk on the Buzzfeed Election Livestream with maybe three other reporters. The broadcast had presented an air of stunned confusion for at least a couple of hours by this point. Consciously or not, most of the correspondents had abandoned any pretense they knew what the hell was happening. Amidst the shell-shock, the reporters all leaned intently towards their editor, looking for answers. When she said it – matter-of-factly, but not without a sense of the implication – all three leaned back and exhaled. I did too, rocking back from my computer and yelling HOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOLY SHIT at the ceiling. It broke my own trance. I grabbed my jacket and headed to the bar, very late. I found tears and anger and powerful intimacy, in the cavernous venue where we had all laughed at the tangerine buffoon’s claim that “No one has more respect for women than Donald Trump”.

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I saw Aldous Harding play again this weekend. All in white, this time. I know her songs now: ‘Horizon’ is a towering monster; ‘What If Birds Aren’t Singing’ a spiral of playful unease. The snarl has been tuned, and set to work. Aldous has blown up. She is very ready: her unrelenting self-assurance makes every dragging second of this interview comic gold. She is touring now until December, she told me after the show. “Stop it,” I murmured, impressed. “I can’t,” she smiled. “Not until December.”

Other things have changed, too. The forces of reactionary nationalism have been beaten back by neoliberal cosmopolitanism and Old Left populism, respectively, in France and the U.K. Someone finally gave Eve Peyser a column. Donald Trump’s breezy disregard for both law and competence has led to an Administration every bit as frenzied as his campaign, yet one that has nonetheless achieved numerous awful things that will do long-term damage to America and the world. Buzzfeed is being sued by a Russian bank for publishing a dossier that alleges the existence of Kompromat on the now-sitting U.S. President. Kirsten Gillibrand is cussing in public and people are taking it as a signal she will run for President. Twitter remains wild as hell.

Nearly a year later, Miller’s essay holds up. Not least: its closing, generational reflections. Having come of age in a period that began with 9/11 and ended with the global financial crisis, Miller suggests, “perhaps we in our late twenties are on the seams of change in the United States in a way that others are not.” She continues:

The reality is that there we’re currently witnessing rapid shifts in: the geopolitics of Europe and the Middle East, the politics of U.S. and Russian hegemony, the demographic makeup of the United States, the way we buy things, the way we communicate. The reality is that Hillary Clinton is the last globalist, the last interventionist, the last corporatist left in the race. The American tradition for a century has been globalist, interventionist, corporatist. But traditions can end, parties can change, ideologies can die out. We are living through the end of an inflection point that started 15 years ago. Do not underestimate that what happens next could be something you’ve never seen before.

Traditions can change... but mostly, they don’t. To anti-Trump conservatives like Miller, democratic socialists can say, I think, in terms both kindly and damning: welcome. Interesting times, amiright?

More than this, though, what I like about the essay is that Miller has the gall to throw down a marker all of her own on the state of America. Every generation has to get right with the tradition, shake it out and remake it and see what fits and what goes (which, for the record, in the case of conservatism is still plenty.) In music, in politics, that intoxicating sense of being ready to spit in the eye of the olds and face the careening absurd disaster on your own - and to do it with fearless love and ironclad humor - is an indispensable treasure. If 2016 made anything clear, it’s that we’re gonna have to be our own heroes.

Gabba. Gabba. Hey!

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