Musicians And Their Favorite Books: Jonathan Ben-Menachem (Whitewash) – Gravity’s Rainbow

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Welcome to the first installment of Musicians And Their Favorite Books. Every month I feature a NYC musician who writes about one of their favorite books and how it influences their work. I also take a photo of the artist with their own copy of the book.

Jonathan Ben-Menachem is the bass player of Whitewash, whose latest album Shibboleth is out now on Sad Cactus Records. He is also the mastermind behind No Smoking Media. The following piece is in his own words.

Gravity’s Rainbow – Thomas Pynchon

I first came into contact with Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow in my senior year of high school. My AP English Lit teacher had a tradition where the seniors would read Mason & Dixon, Pynchon’s other great encyclopedic work of fiction, but since he was retiring that year he decided to screw with us and give us a much weirder/more difficult read.

It’s hard to introduce this work in only a few words – if I had to compare it to something else, it would most likely be Wagner’s Gesamtkunstwerk, which roughly translates to “total work of art.” Gravity’s Rainbow is not merely a work of fiction: it also exists as a volume of page-by-page illustrations which act as a companion to reading (actually all drawn by a pornstar – buy it here), and it includes intertextual references to things which aren’t really traditional ‘texts’ at all (early 1900s films, statistical formulas, cultural tropes, limericks, and so on).

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The plot centers around the creation and use of the German V2 rocket (which led to space travel) and the Battle of Britain. The main character, Lt. Tyrone Slothrop, is a victim of infantile psychological experimentation who finds himself used by various nationalistic and scientific entities over the course of his life. Basically, as an infant, he’s conditioned to be sexually stimulated by certain materials which are later involved in the construction of V2 rockets, and when he matures, his penis is intrinsically linked to the V2 rocket impacts (the ‘hook’ of the novel is that he keeps track of his sexual exploits with a date-and-time map that has the exact same statistical distribution as every single V2 rocket impact – so, does his dick call the rockets, or are the rockets making him aroused?).

The entirety of the 800-page plot is also based on Rainer Maria Rilke’s Duino Elegies, matching the elevation and eventual impact of the spiritual (literally God-like, worshipped) “00000” V2 rocket – the myriad of plot arcs and intertextualities makes Gravity’s Rainbow more than just a novel, a work that can probably never be fully understood.

In any case, this relates to Whitewash because we actually got our band name (in part) from flipping through the pages of the book. It’s included in a small lyric poem that a military official sings to himself (“whiter than the whitewash on the wall”) as he psychologically prepares himself to be sexually dominated by another military hiree.

I’m actually the only guy in the band who’s read the book (Sam Thornton [lead guitarist] found “whitewash” at random flipping through its pages), but I’m qualified to say that the intertextuality and reluctance to stay in just one artistic medium match our style pretty poignantly. It also incorporates our knack for choosing nontraditional references in music – it’s not too revolutionary to choose literary or theoretical song titles (the meaninglessness of “Logocenter,” the existential affirmation of “Saudade”), but many of our references span the weird boundary between personal experience and the stuff we think relates to our personal experience. You’ve only seen a little bit of this if you’re familiar with our work to date (see: “Reagan’s Death Star“), but our upcoming album(s) will feature a lot more obscure sample work and sound collaging that matches the sort of cinematic-yet-referential tone of Gravity’s Rainbow.

A point of difference, perhaps, is that we all find Wagner pretty effin’ dumb as far as the Gesamtkunstwerk is concerned, and we want to incorporate more contemporary hip-hop culture / less dead white male references.

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Gravity’s Rainbow is important to me as an artist because it’s always a humbling re-read. I read (most of) it on a yearly basis, and every time it’s revisited I become aware of how much I have (or haven’t) learned that year. That’s right – one book is an effective litmus test of my artistic knowledge, just because it has THAT MANY references and high-falutin’ theoretical goodness. I want to make art that does the same thing – maybe not ‘complete work of art opus magnum’ levels of intensity, but at least a work that people will want to revisit when it’s not ‘hip and trendy.’ The music industry is full of buzz bands who will be forgotten in six months – I don’t want Whitewash to be that. I would rather have fewer fans who are truly hardcore than ten times as many fans who just like our singles and not our deep cuts.

Gravity’s Rainbow is so rich in meanings (there’s a real excess of significance) that an artist was able to illustrate each and every page and have that be an independent work which makes sense even without the novel as a companion read. I want people to be able to make individual art pieces that correlate with our work just as much (or more) as I want them to sing along to our hooky choruses. Maybe that’s a lot to ask without being signed to like Sub Pop, though…

please enjoy this humorous Matt Groening reference.

(Pynchon is a hermit 8~) )

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You can find Whitewash via:

Bandcamp

Instagram

Twitter

Facebook

Upcoming Whitewash NYC shows:

9/5 Elvis Guesthouse (Raccoon Fighter, Shana Falana)

9/15 Baby’s All Right (Diane Coffee, the Lemon Twigs)

9/25 Don Pedro’s (God Tiny, Living Hour, Frog)

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New York City Serenade

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(Photo: Berenice Abbott via Brain Pickings)

Every Thursday is a free writing day, which means I write about anything I want. I try and keep it related to music, but sometimes I include non-music events or topics that I think are worth talking about.

I moved to New York City in early June, and I have been trying to adjust to this city for a little over a month, which is just enough time for any sane person to realize that unless you were born here, or have lived most of your live here, then you can never adjust to New York City.

You can become accustomed, but never adjusted.

Life is now a series of crowded train rides, late night car horns, wondrous skylines, pizza slices, tiny apartments you can’t afford, beautiful women, and the many little victories that get you through the day, like when you eat a crappy New York bagel that equals to a pretty great bagel anywhere else, when you realize that you don’t have to take the G line late at night, and when you finally find your bodega. My life is now constantly on the move, which is exactly what this 22-year-old recent college graduate wants.

But you have to walk fast in New York, or else you’ll get run over.

I’m sure you know that New York City is big (the most densely populated major city in the U.S., over 8 million people living on 305 square miles according to Wikipedia), but when you begin to live here, you actually feel how big this city is. Nearly everywhere you go, there is a heavy, sometimes overbearing, sense of isolation, a sort of weight that brings you down. It’s the feeling, especially if you’re a transplant, that you will never fit in, that this city was not made for you. No matter how many years you’ve live here or how many Susan Sontag or Henry Miller books you’ve read, you will never penetrate the inner circles of the Wall Street bankers, the wealthy residents of West Village and Tribeca, the still-relatively-rich dwellers of the Lower East Side, the Williamsburg yuppies pretending to be hipsters, the Bushwick hipsters pretending to be from Williamsburg, the people of East Brooklyn and Queens battling gentrification, the exotic inhabitants of Staten Island, or the proud people of the Bronx. These are not your people, and this is not your city.

Yes, it smells here, people are not friendly (but, contrary to popular belief, are not assholes), and there are rats everywhere. Right now I’m smelly, tired, and lonely like I’ve never been before.

And I wouldn’t change a thing.

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(Photo: Link)

So far living in New York has been exactly what I thought it would be; it is an experience I both salute myself for going for (“Look at me, big shot New Yorker coming through!”) and scorn myself for putting my poor self through (“Why the hell did I move here?”). To live here is to love and hate it equally, but more importantly, to live here is to embrace this strange relationship with a city that is as charismatic, demanding, and complex as any human being. What other city can you describe like a person?

I now understand what F. Scott Fitzgerald was talking about when he wrote in The Great Gatsby that,” the city seen from the Queensboro Bridge, or any bridge, is like seeing the city for the first time, in its first wild promise of all the mystery and beauty in the world.” It is a city full of dreamers, go-getters, and outsiders like myself whom have watched too many Woody Allen films and romanticize the city all out of proportion and give it too much credit for being a place that, if you just stick it out long enough, will make all your dreams come true. All you need is a quick glance above to find the Empire State Building, the One World Trade Center, or any of the East River bridges to remind yourself why you’re here in the first place; to feel important, to feel larger than life, and to feel like somehow, without much effort on your part, that you’re a part of something special and exclusive.

However, I now also understand, and agree with, what every person who has actually lived in New York has told me; the city smells, your apartment is a closet, and everywhere you go you will encounter people who are more wealthy, better dressed, and more successful, in career, love, or whatever, than you will ever be. This is also a city with such a horribly unbalanced distribution of wealth that your sense of what is normal is skewed to disturbing proportions, and you become desensitized to a kind of poverty that you rarely see in other cities.

But people don’t move to New York for comfort or convenience. E.B. White, who wrote one of the best books about New York City, was right; I came to this city in quest of something. I came to experience New York City, in all its glory and ugliness (whatever that means), and to see if I could somehow stand it.

I’m still in transition, but I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.

With all this said, things have calmed down a little bit, and I’ve started to get into a routine of balancing work and play (on a really tight budget). It’s especially good to get back into writing. With everything around me changing, it’s nice to have one constant in my life where I can lock myself in my room and write.

I’m going to try and keep Thursday a free writing day in which I can write about anything I want. I’m still trying to figure out what a “free writing day” exactly means – whether it’s more of a journal post like this or just another typical post that can stand on its own and be shared all along the social medias. This isn’t really a post that’s going to get me more Twitter followers or is SEO friendly, but then again, this whole website’s lack of effort to get “hits” comes from my focus to take the time and effort to write about what I think is worth writing about. If that means I miss out on sharing all those hot new song that are already on Brooklyn Vegan and all the countless other music blogs, then so be it.

I’ve know I’ve missed a lot of music while I was gone, so to make up for some lost time here’s a Spotify playlist of my favorite songs of 2015 (so far). Go ahead and follow this playlist, since it will be continuously updated throughout the year as I hear more music. Next week I’ll post my specific favorite albums of the year so far, so stay tuned for that.

Since being in New York I’ve also gotten more into photography, specifically taking photos of concerts on an actual camera and not my phone. It’s a work in process, but I enjoy the hard work of getting just the right lighting and angle to snap a great photo.

Here are some concert photos I’ve taken since I’ve been in New York. Follow me on instagram (bradywgerber) to see more photos:

Clearance 3

Clearance @ Shea Stadium (6.20.15)

Lost Boy ? 4

Lost Boy ? @ Shea Stadium (6.20.15)

EZTV 1

EZTV @ Baby’s All Right (6.23.15)

No Joy 1

No joy @ Baby’s All Right (6.23.15)

Jamie Frey 1

Jamie Frey @ The Gutter (6.25.15)

The Brummy Brothers 2

The Brummy Brothers @ Brooklyn Bowl (6.27.15)

Love Canon 4

Love Canon @ Brooklyn Bowl (6.27.15)

Until next time, and by next time I mean tomorrow’s Week In Review.

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Headphone Nation Is Moving To New York City (and needs a little break)

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Hey y’all,

A lot of big changes are about to take place, and I need to give you guys a heads up.

The next couple of months are going to be some of the most hectic, yet exciting months of my still-very-short life for a variety of reasons. Very soon I will be graduating from college, I will be attending my mom’s wedding, and I will be making the big move from Bloomington to New York City to begin my post-grad life with a brand new job in a brand new city. I will be working in Brooklyn with a job that I couldn’t be more thankful for – a kind of position that will allow me to get in greater touch with the music industry and will allow me to continue my writing.

I want to put in as much focus and energy as I can into enjoying my last days of college, and once I’m in NYC I want to spend as much time as I can getting to know the city. This is a huge transition, and I need to step away from my computer and be present in these moments; for me, writing is an enhancer, but not a replacement, of life, and sometimes it’s better to step away and experience something new.

In this time I won’t be able to give Headphone Nation the time or energy that it takes to produce meaningful and consistent content. So to make things easier on myself, I am stepping away from Headphone Nation for the next couple of months.

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But don’t worry, this is not the end.

In fact, this is the beginning of something even better.

Headphone Nation has always worked because I could find all the music that I needed through the Internet, but moving to NYC will allow me to gain access to so much new music that I’ll be able to write about and share with you. I cannot wait to be in a city full of bands and creative types, and I can’t wait to share the kind of music that you won’t be able to easily find on the Internet.

Once I settle into my job and have a better sense of what kind of time that I’ll have to write, I will come back to this website with all sorts of new ideas and a new energy to make Headphone Nation even better.

I cannot express enough how much I love running this website and what its modest success has meant to me, and I am forever grateful for this small yet loyal community that has grown around this website. I started this little music blog in high school as a means to express my love for all the music stuck in my head (and to stop annoying my friends and family with all my yammering). I didn’t have a clue what sort of direction this website would (or could) take, but Headphone Nation has opened so many doors for me and has introduced me to so many new writers and musicians whom I would have missed.

The greatest satisfaction, however, is all the music that I’ve been able to share with so many different people. That ability to share something meaningful is what drives me to make this blog the best that it can be; one of Headphone Nation’s taglines is “We Want To Make Your Life Better”, and I would like to think that, in some small way, we’ve done just that.

Thank you all for keeping up with us, and I hope you stick around for just a little bit longer.

I will still be active on my own personal twitter (@BradyWGerber) and I’ll try to continue posting interesting things I hear or see on our Tumblr and Facebook page. I am also a music contributor for Dingus and Cultured Vultures, so be on the lookout for my pieces there.

Thanks again for being a part of this. See you soon.

Tune in. Tune out. Live on.

-Brady

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Dave Van Ronk – The Real Llewyn Davis

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The new Coen Brothers movie Inside Llewyn Davis follows the fictional Llewyn Davis as he tries to find success in the early 60s New York folk scene. Davis is loosely based on the legendary Dave Van Ronk, the Brooklyn-born folk singer who was one of the early leaders of the famous music era. Ronk might not be as well known as he is critically acclaimed, but his music career is rooted in the same folk tradition of Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger, and he was a mentor and friend to many young musicians, including a young kid from Hibbing, Minnesota who came to New York knowing no one and who would find guidance from Ronk.

Ronk was nicknamed “The Mayor of MacDougal Street”, the street within Greenwich Village that was home to all the coffee houses where most of the folk music was being rediscovered by a new generation. He was a highly respected spokesman of the scene who knew and shared nearly every folk standard that was being played, and even today he is still consider one of the most important musicians of folk music.

Bob Dylan describe Ronk in his Chronicles like so:

“I’d heard Van Ronk back in the Midwest on records and thought he was pretty great, copied some of his recordings phrase for phrase. […] Van Ronk could howl and whisper, turn blues into ballads and ballads into blues. I loved his style. He was what the city was all about. In Greenwich Village, Van Ronk was king of the street, he reigned supreme.”

Very kind words from the man who usually gets most of the credit for the 60s folk revival, a revival that many argued was furthered thanks to Dave Van Ronk.

 

And here’s the trailer for Inside Llewyn Davis.

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