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Morrissey & David Hoyle Spent The Day in Bed

I recently got around to watching the video for ‘Spent the Day In Bed’, Morrissey’s first single from his new Low in High School album.

Since writing Saint Morrissey – which was something akin to an exorcism – I’ve taken a somewhat more leisurely approach to the Stretford Bard’s output. Perhaps I’m slightly disappointed that he didn’t have the decency to finally retire incommunicado to Bognor Regis after it was published over a decade ago.

Instead my 58 year-old subject has, very selfishly, continued to tour furiously, put out new albums, as well as open his big Manc mouth and managing to epater les bourgeoisie fairly regularly, getting his name in the papers. I’m positively dreading all the updating I’d have to do for a new edition. Just when you think you’ve pinned and mounted your butterfly….

To make matters worse, ‘Spent The Day in Bed’ is Morrissey’s strongest, catchiest, most lyrical single for years.

Yes, the themes are very familiar – you might almost say… ‘tired’. The lines ‘Spent the day in bed/As the workers stay enslaved’ could be a three decades on sequel to ‘Still Ill’: ‘And if you must go to work tomorrow/Well if I were you I wouldn’t bother…’. And also ‘Nowhere Fast’ of course, with its lying in bed thinking about life and death and discovering ‘neither one particularly appeal to me’.

‘Spent the Day in Bed’ and the video are full of lazy intimations of mortality and gallows humour – but this time, a third of a century on, and with recent cancer scares, the gallows looms rather larger. Those sheets for which he’s paid and in which he’s laid could also be winding sheets, just as those pillows are ‘like pillars’.

But why not lie in your bed mausoleum taunting death?

‘Oh time do as I wish/Oh time do as I wish’

And avoiding life. Or at least, the impostor version of it we have to submit to:

‘No bus, no boss, no rain, no train./No emasculation, no castration’

In the video, when he gets to ‘no castration’, I think I detect a flicker of a self-mocking grin.

The video is almost as darkly funny as the lyrics. Morrissey in a Whatever Happened To Baby Jane? wheelchair is trundled into what looks like a dimly-lit 1960s Manchester working men’s club by a smirking, fresh-faced Joey Barton (I’d like to think Moz insisted that he get a shave if he wanted to be in his promo).

Barton, a famous Morrissey fan, is a professional ruffian footballer and tattooed boy from Birkenhead – well, Huyton if you want to be pedantic. And who wouldn’t want to be wheeled around by him in their dotage? Especially since Bette Davis is no longer available. (Though a passable stand-in does make an appearance later…)

Moz then performs the entire song seated, head tilted backwards, perhaps to catch the little light there is, perhaps to stretch out his 58-year-old neck, while his band perform on their feet around him – finally falling off his chair and out of shot at the end. A reminder that:

‘Life ends in death/So, there’s nothing wrong with/Being good to yourself/Be good to yourself for once!’

Life ends in death, so pamper yourself. By rehearsing it.

But it is the dreamy ‘Oh time do as I wish’ interlude in the video which is the main reason I’m writing this post. I almost fell off my chair when my old chum the performance artist David Hoyle suddenly appeared onstage at this point doing some sexy dancing with something shimmy. Watched avidly by Morrissey and Joey Barton, the latter hungrily popping peanuts into his mouth.

David, someone I got to know in the early 80s in London when we were both teenage runaways to Sodom-on-Thames, now lives in Manchester but grew up in Blackpool – where as a teenager he performed Shirley Bassey numbers in working men’s clubs, rather like the one in the video.

Hoyle and Morrissey have a lot in common – both northern, scornful, working class poet-prophets of the absurdity of desire, both determined not to keep the customer satisfied, and both keeping on keeping on, though one rather closer to the breadline than the other. It’s about time they got together.

And in fact much of the sentiment of ‘Spent the Day in Bed’ is also present in many of David’s shows (you can see many of them on YouTube) – which are also chock-full of gallows humour.

David likes to remind his audience regularly that they’re all going to die, despite their precious identities, ideologies and Sainsburys loyalty cards. He also likes to urge them to not bother to go to work tomorrow and try a little bit of anarchy instead. No bus, no boss, no train, no rain….

Here’s a review I wrote of one of David’s shows at the Royal Vauxhall Tavern in London in 1998, a frightening two decades ago, when he was still appearing as The Divine David (a persona he was shortly to kill off – before it killed him). All will be explained. Or perhaps not….

Joan and Bette together again

THE DIVINE DAVID AT THE ROYAL VAUXHALL TAVERN, LONDON

by Mark Simpson (Independent on Sunday, 1998)

Last year a one-man avant-garde whirlwind arrived on the London alternative cabaret circuit. Looking and sounding like Bette Davis meets Iggy Pop (and drinks him under the table) he proclaimed the death of drag and traditional crowd-pleasing en-ter-tain-ment.

Oh yes, and the redundancy of sexuality and gender as well.

“REMEMBER!” he would howl at the audience, after some crazed portrait-painting or singing Bowie’s Heroes in the style of Tommy Steele, “you may be standing there feeling very proud of yourself for being ‘a man’ or ‘a woman’ , ‘a straight’ or a” – spitting the word out like a piece of four-day old mince he found lodged between his teeth – “‘gay’, but you’ve all got something in common, something much more certain than any of these fragile illusions. YOU’RE ALL GOING TO DIE!!!”

“Now,” he’d add softly, “isn’t that lovely, ladies and gentlemen? Doesn’t that give you a warm feeling inside?”

But The Divine David has decided that this isn’t the kind of thing that the punters want. The embodiment of the avant-garde after the death of the avant-garde, the zombie Spirit of Humanity that used to urge audiences not to go to work tomorrow or pay any bills has gone corporate. A glossy colour leaflet advertises his latest show, Viva 5 Apathy, with pictures of smiling people in suits clutching lap-tops at board-meetings and includes a statement from the President, The Divine DavidTM, about how market research has convinced him that what is needed is a more consumer-led product.

“This time,” he concludes, “it’s corporate!”

Although this sensible mission statement is undermined slightly by a photo on the last page depicting The Divinely Skinny One snapped from behind in a pair of purple briefs, looking over his shoulder, sloppily lip-sticked lips parted coquettishly, mouthing a faux surprised “OH!”.

At the Royal Vauxhall Tavern, now re-named the Royal Vauxhall Conference Centre, Jay Cloth, The Divine David’s delectable-yet-efficient secretary and receptionist, takes your money (£3 waged/£3.50 unwaged), issues you with a name badge and does a spot of niche-market research, showing you some flash cards featuring fire, ambulance, police and mountain rescue and asking: “Have you used any of these services recently?”

The Vauxhall Tavern is a perfect venue for the Divine David’s reinvention of himself. Built in the mid-nineteenth century as a music-hall venue, after the Second World War it became a drag pub. In the seventies disco lights, black paint and a dj booth was added and it became a gay drag pub. Corinthian columns, flaking paint and a century of tobacco smoke, alcohol fumes and rowdy, anarchic performance reaches its apotheosis and nadir in The Divine David.

Except, of course, he’s now gone corporate. “I’ve learnt that people want entertainment”’ he announces when he finally steps out onto the stage, wearing a business-like mauve woollen twin-set with padded shoulders Herman Munster would have envied. “Audiences don’t want anything that will stretch them a bit. There’s going to be none of that avant-garde rubbish tonight. None of you need go home tonight to your rented accommodation feeling stupid.” He then performs a cappella quite the most disturbing version of ‘You Made Me Love You’ – so inane that it takes on meanings you never wanted to think about before: I didn’t wanna do it…

Entertainment over, David conducts a flip-chart seminar on how to “make a go of it” in business. “First,” he says, all schoolmarmish, “you take your self,” and writes ‘SELF’ at the top of the chart. “And then you get rid of that.” He strikes the word through. “And you become a what? Does anybody know?”

“A CUNT!” shouts out a drunken Scottish voice.

“Yes, a cunt that’s right.” He writes ‘CUNT’. “And what do you end up in?”

“A FOOKIN’ NIGHTMARE!”.

“A nightmare, exactly,” agrees David in a businesslike fashion, writing ‘= A NIGHTMARE’. “Does everyone see how that works? That’s lovely.”

The Divine David, corporate or avant-garde, doesn’t have much time for sentimentality. At one point he declares his support for Tracy Edwards: ‘Any woman who kills a man is a friend of mine.’

A little later he ruminates: “When I’m at a garden party or some such social occasion, people often come up to me and say, ‘Oh, David, there’s a gay over here, you must meet him.’ And I say, ‘Oh a gay, I know all about that – that’s about gristle up your shitter – if memory serves me right….’.

Not very fond of ‘men’ or ‘gays’, The Divine David has what some might call a certain distance on his predicament. Others, of course, will accuse him of ‘self-hatred’. But the whole point of The Divine David is drama and conflict, a refusal to become what you are supposed to be, a refusal to relax into identity, into niche markets and corporate/corporal values, into predictability. Or profitability.

So before the second half of his performance, we hear him announce over the p.a.: “Ladies und gentlemen, I’ve a confession to make. I’m terribly sorry, but I’ve gone avant-garde again!”

Out he prances on stage in an alarming vented black body-suit, stretched over his gangly frame and his head, leaving a mad little oval of smeared red lips and melting mascara eyes. To the tune of a disco rhumba he then dances and mimes in a delightfully demented way with a couple of hoops, including an hilarious wheelchair moment straight out of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?.

The Divine David is back – quite the scariest, funniest, smartest, truest, noblest thing you can see for three quid. Invest now.

In the 21st Century David Hoyle is on Facebook.

Isherwood & Bachardy’s Furry Love Letters

Mark Simpson reads the collected love letters of ‘Dobbin’ & ‘Kitty’ and gets covered in hair

(The Independent 20/9/13)

Contrary to what the pop songs tell you, the language of love is not universal. It really isn’t the same the world over or even on the same street. Everyone’s love affair is utterly unintelligible to everyone else. It’s perhaps the whole point of having one.

Which can make reading other people’s love letters a baffling if not slightly pointless experience. Katherine Bucknell’s The Animals (Chatto & Windus), a collection of letters between the famous British-born novelist Christopher Isherwood and his lover the American portrait artist Don Bachardy, who lived together openly as a gay couple in Hollywood at a time when most were closeted, isn’t pointless. But love does speak in animal tongues. Cloying Beatrix Potter animal tongues.Ki

Bachardy, who was just eighteen when a 48 year old Isherwood met him on a Santa Monica Beach in 1952, is ‘Kitty’, ‘Fluffcat’, ‘The Fur’, ‘Catkin’, ‘Sweetpaws’, ‘Dearest Darling Puss’, ‘Sweetcat’, ‘Snowpuss’, ‘Angel Lovecat’, ‘Velvetpaws’, ‘Sacred Pinkness’, ‘Sweet Longed-For Flufftail’, ‘Pink Paws’, ‘Beloved Fluffpuss’, ‘Whitewhiskers’, and ‘Claws’ – the latter epithet being perhaps the most salient to this reader of Bachardy’s waspish missives.

Isherwood for his part is ‘Horse’, ‘Drub’, ‘Drubbin’, ‘Rubbin’, ‘Dobbin’, ‘Old Pony’, ‘Dear Treasured Love-Dub’, ‘Slickmuzzle’, ‘Naggin’, ‘Drudgin’, ‘Drubchen’, and ‘Dearnag’. If this seems an unfair distribution of gushy epithets this is because it was meant to be. As Bachardy wrote in a letter dated 6 Feb 1961:

‘The horse Kitty loves has always been an old grey mare, so sweet and dear and never one of those greedy and faithless white stallions. And besides grey is more becoming to Kitty’s white fur. Two white animals would never do.’

The language of love may be unique to each couple, but one rule of sexual syntax everyone understands: there’s only room for one prima donna in one relationship.

Like many gay relationships, Bachardy and Isherwood’s was open though, perhaps understandably given the large age difference, more so on Bachardy’s side. ‘Dobbin’ often encourages ‘Kitty’ to enjoy strange saucers of cream, but is always anxious that Kitty return to his ‘basket’ and the primacy of their relationship not be threatened: ‘Dobbin is only happy if Kitty finds consolation – ONLY NOT TOO MUCH!’ Many of the letters resulted from separation caused by Bachardy’s prolonged dalliances with others abroad, such as the London theatre director Anthony Page.

Isherwood – who had a pronounced fear of the dark and hated being alone at night – attempts to explain and justify their campy, furry archetypes in a letter dated March 11, 1963:

‘I often feel that the Animals are far more than just a nursery joke or a cuteness. They exist. They are like Jung’s myths. They express a kind of freedom and truth which we otherwise wouldn’t have.’

The irony for the reader is that this is stated in a letter, written immediately after a face-to-face row, which dispenses with the Kitty-Dobbin shtick and stands out as perhaps the most direct, heartfelt and unmannered letter in the collection – and one that suggests that much of the time, like many couples, they are not so free or true after all. As Isherwood writes:

‘Oh – I am so saddened and depressed when I get a glimpse, as I do so clearly this morning, of the poker game we play so much of the time, watching each other’s faces and listening to each other’s voices for clues. I was so happy the other day when you said that about Dobbin having been a jailer and now being a convict…. Masochism? Oh, Mary – what do I care what it’s called.’

In her excellent introduction Bucknell does a skilful and brave job of trying to interpret the lovers’ talk for the reader. Apparently Bachardy reminded Isherwood of his younger self – and indeed there was a remarkably strong, possibly slightly disturbing physical similarity. The letters end in 1970, and Isherwood died in 1986, survived by Bachardy.

But thanks to The Animals Isherwood’s devotion lives on. As a typical sign-off from Dobbin put it:

‘Love from a devoted old horse who is waiting day and night with his saddle on, ready for his Kitty’s commands.’

The Anti-Christ Has All The Best Tunes

The P2P revolution is like Gutenberg plus Protestantism plus Punk all rolled into one highly compressed file, by Mark Simpson

Sean Fanning

 (Independent on Sunday, August 2001)

Perhaps the best thing about digital music is that it doesn’t only make listening to music more convenient and less irksome: it actually does part of the tiresome job of listening for you.

ISO-MPEG Audio-Layer-3 – mercifully shortened to MP3 – is the digital file format for music exchanged on the Internet and very possibly the acronym of doom for the record industry. It is a form of extreme algorithmic compression of sound files that uses “psychoacoustic” models that account for what listeners actually notice when they hear music or other sounds. “Unnecessary” data is stripped away to make the file as small as possible to facilitate easier storage or uploading and downloading. In other words, MP3 anticipates and interprets mu­sic for the listener before she or he actually hears it.

Of course, this job used to be performed by record companies, with their A&R men and marketing departments. But, like so many before them, they appear to have been automated out of a job—dis­pensed with by algorithms, the Internet, and a bunch of geeky kids in their bedrooms. A whole class of intermediaries and authorities have been liquidated.

The Internet has often been compared to Gutenberg in its im­portance. However, after reading John Alderman’s detailed account of the online music revolution, Sonic Boom: Napster, P2p and the Battle for The Future Of Music, John Alderman, I have a hunch it’s more like Gutenberg plus Protestantism plus Punk—all at once, in a highly ‘compressed’ form.

Thanks to the personal computer and the Internet, every man is now at home with his god—downloading The Sex Pistols’ EMI. The corrupt, uncool suits and cassocks who used to intercede have been swept aside and the Word can be enjoyed directly and free from distortion, com­pressed by pure, clean mathematics, not dogma. The free ex­change of information—which is all that digital music amounts to in cyberspace—is the credo of what one might call the Nettist Movement: the true believers in the web and everything it represents.

To many Nettists, anyone who attempts to stand in the way of this Reformation Superhighway is the Papist Antichrist, or the fascist re­gime. And of course this means anyone who doesn’t share their holy zeal—anyone who is non-Nettist. Record companies are about as non-Nettist as you can get. After all, they have most to lose from the free exchange of digital music. All their frightfully expensive CD printing presses, distribution deals and back catalogues melt at the press of a button in someone’s bedroom. If indulgences no longer have to be bought but can be plucked from the air instead, then where is the temporal wealth and power of the record business to come from?

For the record companies, the leaders of the MP3 revolution are seen as heretics who have to be made examples of; burnt at the legal stake so that others may not be tempted to stray. Against the cries for info freedom, their lawyers invoke the Mystery of copyright. Digitising music, just as printing the Bible in German did, puts it within the grasp—and control—of the laity. And like the leaders of the Counter-Reformation, they see themselves as acting in the interests of the people they burn.

You think I exaggerate? You think I take this Reformation, Counter-Reformation metaphor too far? Well, just listen to Edgar Bronfman Jr., heir to the mighty if not exactly holy Roman Seagram Empire, quoted here by Alderman: “I am warring against the culture of the Internet, threatening to depopulate Silicon Valley as I move a Roman legion or two of Wall Street lawyers to litigate. I have done so… not to at­tack the Internet and its culture but for its benefit and to protect it”.

Is Shawn Fanning, the boy who at nineteen founded Napster, the famous MP3 file-sharing “peer-2-peer” online service, a Luther for our times? And is Napster his Wittenberg Theses, nailed to the door of the music industry? For a while, in our accelerated culture, it looked that way. Twelve months after the launch of Napster in June 1999, there were over 200,000 souls praying in his church nightly. By the end of 2000 there were over 50 million registered users and Fanning was a very famous young man indeed; his criminally young, beatific face shining out from the cover of magazines.

But Fanning was no ideologue or evangelical; merely an American boy who saw a need which he believed his software could fill. From his time spent chatting on the Net, he knew that people were eager to trade music files, but find­ing good music was the problem. He joined with two online pals, only slightly older than himself, to solve this with smart code. To­gether they wrote the Napster program, which allowed users to share files by plugging their computers, in effect, into a giant, global network.

Because Napster hosted no music itself (the files were stored on user’s computers and traded), it was hoped by Fanning et al that they would be free from any taint of blasphemy and heresy in the form of copyright violations. They were very wrong. In the opening blast of what was to prove a merciless barrage, the fearsome Recording Industry Associa­tion of America filed a copyright lawsuit against Napster in Decem­ber 1999, just six months after it had launched.

And who could blame them? For the record industry Napster was a disaster of, well, biblical proportions. Practically a whole gen­eration of college kids who didn’t even have to pay for the college computers or the Internet connections they downloaded the MP3 files with, stopped buying CDs. Not only was Napster free, Napster was easier than going to a record store and it was even easier than ordering CDs online. Emusic.com, an e-tailer of digital music, was reduced to giving away MP3 players (worth $150) to anyone who bought just $25 worth of music.

A year and a half on, under the epic weight of various lawsuits and in­junctions brought by the record industry and Lars Ulrich of Metallica, who famously discovered that three unfinished versions of a song he had been working on had been traded on Napster (along with his entire back catalogue), the Church of Shawn Fanning is not what it was. Napster got into bed with record giant Bertlesmann— one of the few record companies to respond to the MP3 revolution with anything other than public burnings—in an attempt to turn Napster into a legal, mainstream, subscription-only service which, crucially, paid royalties to performers.

The issue of intellectual copyright and rewarding artists is a thorny one and not so easy to dismiss as “record company greed.” Ulrich is certainly not the only professional rock and roll rebel to take indig­nant offence at the “criminality” of online file trading. Ultimately though, the feelings of artists or even record companies may not count for very much. In a sense, file trading is what the Internet was designed for—and it was also designed to survive some­thing even more destructive than a music company lawyer: nuclear war.

There is perhaps a tad too much jargon in Sonic Boom for the IT agnostic, and the narration doesn’t always quite match the raciness of the title or the import of the revolution it docu­ments, but it’s a valuable, insightful book for anyone interested in where our cul­ture is headed.

The Nettist Movement itself continues its onward march undaunted. Napster and Fanning may have recanted, but most of his 50 million disciples that Bertlesmann hoped to convert into more orthodox customers have left and are now praying at lesser known online P2P sites. And there are always new, more convincing Luthers. Programmer Ian Clarke, for instance. He believes vehemently that information should be free. But he isn’t going to try too hard to convince you with words; he’s won the argument already with code by designing a system called Freenet which allows users to post and retrieve files with complete anonymity. Unlike Napster, there is no central server—this is a church which really has no walls and whose congregation is invisible.

Clarke likes to tell reporters that he couldn’t take Freenet down if someone put a gun to his head. Which is all very well, but Alderman doesn’t tell us what Clarke would do if Edgar Bronfman Jr. sent a Roman legion of Wall Street lawyers after him.

Copyright Mark Simpson 2001

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OO62vBK-KMw

How to Spot a Sodomite

Mark Simpson reviews some famous Victorian bum holes in Neil McKenna’s Fanny & Stella 

(the Independent)

“I had never seen anything like it before… I do not in my practise ever remember to have seen such an appearance of the anus, as those of the prisoners presented.” So testified Dr Paul in shocked tones at the trial of Frederick Park and Ernest Boulton, two young, crossdressing clerks charged with sodomy in 1870 – a crime that then carried a penalty of a lifetime’s penal servitude.

Park and Boulton had been arrested in the Strand Theatre dressed as their coquettish, lascivious alter egos Fanny and Stella. The trial of “The Funny He-She Ladies” as the press dubbed them, was the sensation of the age. Largely forgotten until now, Neil McKenna’s highly readable recounting brings it roaring back to life.

According to the medical authorities of the day the signs of sodomy were easily detectable. A wearing away of the rugae around the anus, making it resemble the female labia. Elongation of the penis, caused by the “traction” of sodomy. And dilation. Dilation was the biggie. The way one tested for it was by the insertion of a professional finger. Repeatedly. If the sphincter failed to show enough resistance to the learned finger-fucking then you were dealing with a sodomite.

The appalled police doctor was, as we’ve seen, convinced he had fingered major sodomites. Six more doctors lined up to inspect the upraised rectums of Park and Boulton and insert their digits, repeatedly. After two fetid hours, five declared there were no signs of sodomy to be found on or in either arrested anus.

In fact, both Park and Boulton were guilty as proverbial sin. Their bottoms had been rogered senseless by half of London – though, unlike the good doctors, their partners usually paid. From respectable middle-class backgrounds they enjoyed working as brazen, hooting cross-dressing prostitutes in the evening, as you do. The single dissenting doctor had a few years earlier treated Park repeatedly for a syphilitic sore in his anus.

But because the medical probing had produced the opposite medical opinion to the one hoped for, and because sodomy was such a serious offence (carrying a penalty of life with hard labour) the Attorney-General had to withdraw all charges of actual sodomy. Instead Boulton and Park were charged with the vaguer but still serious catch-all of “conspiracy to solicit, induce, procure and endeavour to persuade persons unknown to commit buggery”.

Seventeen dresses and gowns; quantities of skirts and petticoats; bodices and blouses; cloaks and shawls; ladies’ unmentionables, all a bit whiffy and worse for (working) wear, were paraded through the court as evidence. Although cross-dressing was not in itself a crime, and was actually a popular form of burlesque entertainment at the time in which both Fanny and Stella had enjoyed some success, the Victorian state was keen to make the case – presented by Attorney General Sir Robert Collier himself – that their cross-dressing was part and parcel of their abominable sodomy and the “confusion” of the natural and godly gender order it represented. The male anus dressed as a vagina. This approach also backfired, spectacularly.

Digby Seymour for the defence asked the court, “Would young men engaged in the exchange of wicked and accursed embraces put on the dresses of women and go to theatres and public places for the purpose of exciting each other to the commission of this outrageous crime?” In other words, the very obviousness and shamelessness of Stella and Fanny’s (deliciously outrageous) behaviour was presented as proof that they could not possibly be guilty. Which, in a strange, 20th-century gay pride sense, was sort of true.

But the defence’s ace in the, er, hole was a final, irresistible appeal to patriotism. “I trust that you will pronounce by your verdict,” intoned Digby Seymour, “that London is not cursed with the sins of Sodom, or Westminster tainted with the vices of Gomorrah.”

The jury did its duty and the “foolish” young men, as their defence termed them, were acquitted – having fooled most of their customers, the doctors, the courts and the imperious Victorian state.

The Few, The Proud: A Jarhead memoir of the First Gulf War

The mythology, the rituals, the dogma, the cult of masculinity and most of all the haircut, set US Marines apart. Mark Simpson takes a look at a memoir of the First Gulf War.

(Independent on Sunday 23/03/2003)

It may seem odd that the United States Marine Corps, the elite fourth branch of the US Armed Services, larger and better equipped than the whole British Army, heroic victors of Iwo Jima and Guadalcanal, spearhead of the last and current Gulf War, should be best known for, and most proud of, its hairdo. But then, the USMC is a peculiar institution. Magnificent, but very peculiar.

“Jarhead”, the moniker US marines give one another, derives from the distinctive “high and tight” buzzcut that Marine Corps barbers dispense, leaving perhaps a quarter of an inch of personality on top and plenty of naked, anonymous scalp on the sides. Like circumcision and the Hebrews, the jarhead barnet has historically set US marines apart, marking them as the chosen and the damned: monkish warriors. Or as one of the Corps’ mottos has it: “The Few, The Proud”.

Image is important for US marines, perhaps because of the burden of symbolism – for many, the USMC is America. Or perhaps more particularly because the USMC is John Wayne. Jarheads, or rather, actors in high-and-tight haircuts, are invariably the stars of Hollywood war movies; the other services just don’t have the glamour and the grit of the devildogs. As a result, the mythology, the rituals and the dogtag dogma of the Marine Corps cult of masculinity – boot camp, the DI, sounding-off, cussing and hazing, tearful graduation, test-of-manhood deployment, and that haircut – are probably more familiar to British boys than, say, those of the Royal Marines.

The relationship of real jarheads to their actress impersonators is confusingly close. When 20-year-old Lance Corporal Anthony Swofford and his buddies in a scout/sniper platoon get the order to prepare to ship out to Saudi Arabia in 1990 in response to the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, they spend three days drinking beer and watching war movies. Ironically, their favourite films, such as Platoon, Apocalypse Now and Full Metal Jacket are ostensibly “anti-war” liberal pleas to “end this madness”, but for fighting men they only serve to get them hot: “Filmic images of death and carnage are pornography for the military man,” explains Swofford, “with film you are stroking his cock, tickling his balls with the pink feather of history, getting him ready for his First Fuck.” Take note, Oliver Stone, you pink feather dick-tickler: “As a young man raised on the films of the Vietnam War, I want ammunition and alcohol and dope, I want to screw some whores and kill some Iraqi motherfuckers.”

In fact, Swofford’s ”Jarhead: A Marine’s chronicle of the Gulf War’’ is an avowedly “anti-war” memoir, powerfully written (pink feathers aside) and well-crafted, by someone who was clearly embittered, not to say damaged, by his experience of the USMC and his participation in the First Gulf War. Nevertheless, it isn’t clear whether Swofford, for all his reflectiveness, and of course his authenticity, is much more successful in demystifying war in general or the Corps. Telling us that war is hell (again) is rather counterproductive: hell is after all a rather interesting place, certainly more interesting than heaven, or civilian “normality”. Moreover, the quasi-religious, dramatic tone Swofford strikes of despair and ecstasy, loneliness and camaraderie, and the awful- but-fascinating baseness of war is not so different from that of Stone or Coppola (or for that matter, of Mailer). And while there are not quite so many explosions, there’s no shortage of pornography.

When sweating in Saudi in 1990 waiting for the war to start, Swofford’s unit find themselves being ordered to perform for the media, playing football in rubber NBC suits in 100-degree heat. To sabotage the hated propaganda op, they start a favourite ritual of theirs, a “Field fuck”, a simulated gang rape, “wherein marines violate one member of the unit,” Swofford tells us. “The victim is held fast in the doggie position and his fellow marines take turns from behind.”

Getting into the spirit of things, the jarheads shout out helpful remarks such as: “Get that virgin Texas ass! It’s free!” The victim himself screams: “I’m the prettiest girl any of you has ever had! I’ve seen the whores you’ve bought, you sick bastards!” The press stop taking notes.

Swofford reassures us that this practice “wasn’t sexual” but was instead “communal” – however, even in his own terms it seems that the distinction is almost superfluous: it’s the hallmark of military life that what’s sexual becomes communal. Elsewhere he tells us about the “Wall of Shame” on base: hundreds of photos of ex-girlfriends who proved unfaithful – frequently with other marines.

Swofford’s obsession with the marines had a media origin, beginning in 1984 when the USMC barracks in Lebanon was bombed, killing 241 US servicemen. He recounts watching the news bulletins on the TV and how he “stood at attention and hummed the national anthem as the rough-hewn jarheads… carried their comrades from the rubble. The marines were all sizes and all colours, all dirty and exhausted and hurt, and they were men, and I was a boy falling in love with manhood…”. Manhood in Swofford’s family was intimately linked to the military: his father served in Vietnam, while his grandfather fought in the Second World War. The desirability of manliness was the desirability of war.

It is probably not so strange that his obsession should have begun with an almost masochistic image of suffering and death: taking it like a man is an even more important part of the military experience than giving it. Sure enough, at boot camp Swofford finds his Drill Instructor to be a fully-fledged sadist of the kind that civilian masochists can only fantasise about: “I am your mommy and your daddy! I am your nightmare and your wet dream! I will tell you when to piss and when to shit and how much food to eat and when! I will forge you into part of the iron fist with which our great United States fights oppression and injustice!” Like many recruits, Swofford signed up to get away from a disintegrating home life and the flawed reality of his father and found that he had married his superego made barking, spitting, apoplectic flesh.

The DI’s job, as we all know from the movies, is to humiliate and break down the recruit, shame him, strip away his civilian personality and weaknesses and build him up into a marine. The DI is obsessed with inauthenticity: finding out who is not “really” a marine. He asks Swofford if he’s “a faggot… you sure have pretty blue eyes”. During one of these hazings, Swofford pisses his pants – an understandable reaction, but intriguingly it happens to be the same one that he mentions earlier in the book, when, as a young boy living in Japan (his father had a tour of duty there), he received “confusing and arousing” compliments on his blue eyes from Japanese women.

For good measure the DI also smashes Swofford’s confused shaved head through a chalkboard. Later, when this DI is under investigation for his violent excesses, Swofford shops him. However, he feels guilty about this and daydreams about running into the DI and “letting him beat on me some more”. Like I said, the USMC, God bless it, is a peculiar organisation.

Of course, Swofford isn’t your average jarhead. “I sat in the back of the Humvee and read the Iliad” is a memorable line. Other days might see him buried in The Portable Nietzsche or The Myth of Sisyphus. Swofford also seems a little highly-strung: he attempts suicide, Full Metal Jacket- style, fellating the muzzle of his rifle after receiving a Dear John letter from his girlfriend. He’s saved by his returning roommate, who takes him on a run “that lasts all night”. More physical pain to salve the existential variety. By the book’s end, we are left with an image of Swofford, long discharged, wrestling with despair, not least over the sights he saw in action in Kuwait, but now without the distraction of physical suffering and discipline. Sisyphus without the rock.

Mind you, “jarhead” does suggest something that can be unscrewed: brains that can be easily spooned out. It may be true that some men become soldiers to kill; but it may equally be the case that some join to be killed, or at least escape the burden of consciousness. Swofford appears to feel cheated that life not only went on after the Gulf War (like most U.S. ground combatants he was a largely a spectator of the massacring potency of American air power) but in fact became more complicated and burdensome.

Under these circumstances, I think most of us would miss our DI.

© Mark Simpson

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