I’ve liked Yo La Tengo for a really long time. And not only because they’re from Hoboken and play Maxwell’s pretty much every week. I wouldn’t call them a favorite band, but most of their singles from the 1990s are some of my favorite songs. I find that they don’t really release great albums, and they don’t really release bad songs: they release great songs and good songs, and their albums are made up of some combination of these.
The great title of this album, is something of a misnomer, as you might expect a riled up and raucous record. And the first song, the nearly 11 minute squealing guitar rave-up “Pass the Hatchet, I Think I’m Goodkind” goes along with that premise. But some of the middle songs like the piano ballad “I Feel Like Going Home” and the 8 minute instrumental ballad “Daphnia” are mellow, and rather pretty. In fact, the album is kind of all over the place. Some songs really stand out: “Mr Tough” and the long opener and closer are really great. The middle is a bunch of solid, well-crafted songs. For some reason, not too much left an impression on me, even though I enjoyed the disc while I was listening to it.
[READ: July 18, 2008] Player Piano
When Kurt Vonnegut died, I made a note to myself to read more, if not all, of his books. I had read Slaughterhouse Five and Time Quake maybe one or two others, but I figured I’d make the effort and start from the beginning.
Player Piano was his first book. And what a way to start. The time is the future, after the next war; the second industrial revolution. Machines now do most of the work that people used to do. In fact, machines now determine what job you are allowed to do. If your IQ is tested high enough, you can become an engineer (or manager) of the machines. If not, you get assigned to the Reeks and Wrecks: Reconstruction & Reclamation Corps, or basically, manual labor: fixing the roads and other maintenance projects. It imagines a future in which machines can do everything. And, it’s pretty horrible.
The book is set in Ilium, New York, a city split in half by a river. On one side of the river live the engineers: in modern, hi tech buildings. The other side is the Homestead, a place where enjoyment is taken in bars and in watching a little boy float boats down a hydrant stream. But, lest you think that the engineers are happy, their main focus seems to be on watching TV. It’s a depressing world, in which machines dictate what goes, and there’s no room for latitude.
Dr. Paul Proteus is the main character. He’s an engineer at the Ilium Works, the creator and controller of EPICAC, (a none-too-subtle twist of ENIAC, the first general purpose computer) the electronic brain that runs the country. Proteus’ father is a famous man in the history of Ilium–and the world in general–as he was instrumental in setting up this new mechanized world. Paul’s has been groomed to follow in his father’s footsteps.
As the book opens Paul finds himself going across the bridge to the other side where he is able to buy some liquor for a party. The bridge is under repair, and the Reeks & Wrecks are repairing it–a funny detail is that so many people are lumped into R&W that there are several people for every job: one fixes the bridge and the others watch. In a telling detail, one of the workers notices that Paul’s car sounds broken and he is able to fix it with the tools he is using on the road crew (But he could not get a job as an engineer). When he gets to the bar Paul has an uncomfortable encounter with a number of Homesteaders who could or should be working as anything other than Reeks and Wrecks. We also see the titular player piano.
Proteus’ wife, Anita, spends most of her time trying to encourage Paul’s career as he moves up the company ladder. She rides on Paul’s success because she would be living in Homestead if she had not married Paul. In something of a misogynistic portrayal, she comes across a pretty negative stereotype. This could be because of the time it was written, or as a remark on society itself. (I don’t know enough about Vonnegut’s attitude to say much about that).
Proteus starts to have feelings of unease about their great society. It hits home when a fellow engineer is laid off and made redundant. Once he is unemployed, he is essentially unemployable. And this is true for everyone. The computer simply shuts them out of the system. Paul can’t help but wonder how many people this has affected, and how many lives it has ruined.
Ed Finnerty is Paul’s old friend with whom he came up through the ranks of Ilium. They have become somewhat alienated over the years, especially since Finnerty refuses to change his clothes or his hair or even so much as bathe. Anita is repulsed by him, and Finnerty certainly eggs her on. He is instrumental in creating Proteus’ feelings of unrest.
Paul and Finnerty return to the bar. Coincidentally, (or is it?) they meet Dr Lasher. Finnerty is captivated by Lasher and more or less leaves with him. It turns out that Lasher is the head of the Ghost Shirt Society.
Proteus grows so disillusioned with his life that he actually buys a house that by contract cannot be upgraded with modern technology. He envisions himself as the farmer of the land with his wife as his dependable farmer’s wife. His wife, however, does not agree with this viewpoint.
Proteus is due for a promotion and he is pretty much a shoo in. Anita tries to prep him for the inevitable interview. However, his misgivings are causing him great concern. And, when he is seen with Finnerty, and allows him into the Ilium premises without an escort, his supervisors start to question his loyalty. And so, Paul is put on the spot…he is asked to denounce Finnerty and the whole Ghost Shirt Society publicly.
The day of reckoning is pushed back however, as the company’s Games are fast approaching. In what may be the funniest sequence of the book, all of the Ilium Works are sent to The Meadow for a week of corporate fun and games. The workers are randomly assigned to teams who will all compete during the week. There are songs and skits, all of which are designed to boost loyalty (not necessarily morale) about their company. I’m not sure if such excursions existed in 1952, but if not, then Vonnegut very scarily predicted (or corporations stole his idea) corporate team building retreats. Proteus is called upon to be the head of one team, to his wife’s delight and his own dismay. Shepherd, a man with designs on Proteus’ position, but whom Paul sees as no threat, will head one of the other teams.
While the games are underway, his supervisors discuss with him the possibility of being seen as a public scapegoat to tear down the Ghost Shirt Society. They will then reveal that he has been acting as a double agent for Ilium and the Ghost Shirts and he will be announced as a hero. But Proteus has had enough and wants to quit Ilium for good. He stands up and announces he is quitting, but the leaders believe that he is playing a role and they encourage him to quit. Unsure whether he has actually quit, Proteus is unceremoniously kicked out of the retreat. While waiting for the boat, he discovers that his wife has been seeing Shepherd behind his back.
Upon Paul’s return to Ilium he is seen as a traitor, and is hounded underground, right into the hands of the Ghost Shirt Society. In his absence, the Ghost Shirts nominated him as the figurehead of their organization. They have already decided their plan of attack and are on the verge of setting it in motion. The Society’s plan is to dismantle all of the automated parts of the country, and they rampage…. To see if it works, you’ll have to read the book (since I gave away just about everything else).
There is also a subplot about the Shah of Bratpur, who is on a tour of the U.S. to learn about the countries mechanized features. There are some very funny scenes with him, and it gives Vonnegut a character who is outside the system who can have the system’s idiosyncrasies explained to him. His story line ends somewhat abruptly and a little unsatisfyingly, but it is a useful character to have in the story.
I enjoyed the book quite a bit…it dragged in a few places, but I was delighted with how well everything stood to the test of time. Having read his later works, it was interesting to see how relatively mellow this book was. I’m looking forward to the rest of his works. Next up: Sirens of Titan.