Thursday, December 15, 2011

Bob Mould as seminal moment

Bob Mould released Workbook in 1989. I bought it a week after I  dropped out of college. I'd come back to Nebraska with no money and fewer prospects. It was a dark, dark time.

The record was written while Bob lived on a farm in upstate New York, trying to recover from the implosion of Husker Du. (They broke up the night before they were supposed to play a gig in Omaha.)  When I first heard the album, I connected very quickly with its images of rural life: "I walk through the day / through the open fields." These peripatetic rambles through a rural countryside inspired his imaginative productivity:
Imagine yourself in the middle of nowhere
Imagination runs away for a while
I play games about once a day or so
I don't know, that's where I'd rather go
Brasilia crossed with Trenton

I wish that I could tell my story
To all the people that listened to my story long ago
I knew that this would happen sooner or later
That I'd get disillusioned with it all
Just throw my hands up to the sky and say
"Oh Lord, what happened, what happened
To make things run this way?"
Being isolated in an empty space sets the imagination free. You can create games. You can pretend the mundane has become mythological. But when this creative process stops, you're often left with new insights into the reality of your present circumstances. You start to see yourself a bit more clearly. After writing the fantasy, you can craft a new narrative about your reality. 

Our culture's conceptualization of "imagination" comes from Wordsworth, as does our notion of the artist as a solitary wanderer, releasing slivers from one's emotional life into an unsuspecting and indifferent word.

Much of Wordsworth's poetry examines how rural imagery stimulates his imagination, and Bob's lyrics describe a similar process. MY job now is to focus our attention on the material production underlying all of that imaginative work. I choose agriculture because I believe that its metaphors, its rhetoric, and its earthiness all permeate Romanticism. I believe that the same processes are strongly influencing our culture.

Bob talks about how "fertile" this rural setting became: "Up on the farm in 1988 for Workbook. I was just like, wow--environment was so important to where I was in my life." In the lyrics, the fields are "open." Empty. So was my life in the aftermath of 1989. I was open to new imaginative ideas and images.

As I come so close to the completion of this project, one which has consumed the last five or six years of my life, one that's led me from the open fields of eastern Nebraska to the open fields of the California Central Valley and back again, I wonder where in the hell the idea ever came from. "What happened to make things run this way?" The high school classroom where I first read "Tintern Abbey?" A grad. school seminar 20 years later? Or was it Bob Mould?

Bob writes, "I wish I could tell my story." Wordsworth laments, "I cannot paint what then I was." For both of them, it's a rhetoric of impossibility.

Maybe finding that narrative is all any of us can hope for.

Bob Mould discusses and performs “Hoover Dam”

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