Saturday, October 08, 2016

Nostalgia's False Memory Syndrome

Imagine seeing Patti Smith in 1978. Here she was at the height of her powers, her third album "Easter" about to drop, rather than swimming against the tide, she'd been the first wave on the punk shore with "Horses" and now she was an elder stateswoman of the movement. She'd even had a genuine hit with her version of Springsteen's "Because the Night." I guess a contemporary retelling of a concert from that period would cherry pick those first three albums, and create a kind of Greatest Hits set. We'd have "Land" and "Gloria" and "Pissing in the River" and "Kimberley" and "Rock and Roll Nigger" and "Free Money" and "Aint it Strange." I've been listening to "Easter Rising" an American radio broadcast from 1978 which - with a change to the law a few years back - is one of many semi-official releases from a wide range of artists which you can now get. It's a fantastic visceral performance and I highly recommend it. However, this is an unedited show, not an "official live album." There are just three tracks from "Horses", though a rampant "Gloria" is one of them, and nothing from difficult sophomore album "Radio Ethiopia." There's a blistering "Babelogue/Rock and Roll Nigger" to start the set, preceded by a rambling, powerful recitation "The Salvation of Rock." There's plenty of the new album, but there's also thrown away cover versions - "The Kids are Alright", "Be my Baby" - again not unusual for bar bands of the period (and of any period.)  Some of the new songs - probably written during endless touring - such as "Space Monkey", aren't going to be career highlights. There's much intersong conversation, a reminder that this live show evolved from the spoken word shows with which she began her career, and a couple of times she hands over the mic to the boys in the band. Mostly she's in rich, powerful voice, but the covers in particular seem thrown away, party songs to pad out the set or give (and us) all a breather from the harsher songs that make it onto record.

I used to buy bootleg tapes back in the day, mostly as souvenirs of gigs I'd been to - but occasionally to hear a band live I'd not seen. I've a stunning Dream Syndicate set from the early 1980s that surpasses their own excellent live album "Live at Raji's", peppered with cover versions, obscure b-sides, extended jams. This is the live band on fire. If you go to concerts these days you realise how processed the experience can be. You know from Twitter what time the band goes on stage, and from the venue curfew what time they come off. will tell you what they played last night. A set is carefully crafted, as audiences want a known thing. Usually it will be the new album with a few choice cuts from the last one. Surprises are few and far between. Go and see a new band and the set will evolve towards a debut album that bit by bit cuts out the chaff, yet its sometimes the chaff that makes the live show a different experience. It's probably why writers rarely mention gigs in their novels. It's hard to nail down the actual experience with the cliche.

Last week I watched a film I'd been meaning to for a long while, the German movie The Baader-Meinhoff Complex. My first memory outside of family life is sitting up in my parents bed and reading the newspaper or hearing the radio and asking my dad why anyone would want to murder athletes. This would have been 1972 - when the Red Army Faction murdered Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics. The film is taken from a book, that is seen as the best account yet of the R.A.F. One of a wide range of revolutionary groups that grew out of the student protest of 1968 across Europe and America, like ETA or the I.R.A., this wave of violent protest continued through the seventies and later. Yet if the aims of some groups is explicit - a United Ireland - the Red Army Faction were anything but. An outpouring of anger from a younger generation, drawn to revolutionary struggle, seeing Vietnam, Algeria and (particularly) the occupation of Palestine as part of a long-scale war between elites and the people, frequently from middle class families whose parents had been part of the Nazi administration or infrastructure, the R.A.F. appear, from this distance, as unknowable. Besides the moral ambiguities (not so ambiguous perhaps: most of the people killed by their actions were bit part players, collateral damage; though they also undertook political assassination), there's a sense that as a group involved in armed and violent struggle, rather than seeking a political solution, that they would now be uneqivocally called "terrorists." The film is reasonably good on these complexities. Whereas Baader is part petty-criminal, part revolutionary idealist in the Che Guevera mould, Meinhoff was a successful left wing journalist before she made the transition from reporting on the struggle to being an active part in it. She's a fascinating character, who gave up her children for the good of the "cause", who provided both an intellectual heft to the R.A.F.s pronouncements, but allegedly - as older than the others and with a different background - became increasingly isolated as the movement, driven underground, but supported by sympathisers, continued to terrorise. The deaths of Meinhoff, then Baader, Ensslin and Moller, in jail whilst on trial, the latter three in an apparently coordinated suicide, brought the story to some sort of closure, but what struck me about the film, and reading about them online, is that this is a piece of relatively recent history where the truth or objective truth has been almost completely erased. We have the facts of the deaths, of the murders - and some writing - but underground movements by their very nature aren't self documenting. (Unlike state terror, which tends to be immensely bureaucratic - hence the millions of words of the Chilcot report.)

For those in West Germany in the 1960s and 1970s, the repeat traumas of the German nation - the defeat of the First World War, the great depression of the 1920s, the rise of Nazism and Hitler, the militarisation of society during the Second World War, the defeat in 1945, the exposure of the Holocaust, and then the partition of the country and finally the building of the Berlin Wall - must have somehow seemed to be continuing with Baader-Meinhoff. The terrorist cell has power by being "anywhere" - a mass movement like a ghost. With the Cold War at its height, the increasing statism within the East, the sense that a revolutionary movement was everywhere amongst an alienated youth in the West must have created a strange sense of angst. As fascinating as the film was - I felt like I'd opened up a whole world of different questions - some of which remain today: e.g. the anti-semitism of the R.A.F., how did that fit in with their reaction against the Nazis? And also to what extent does state power control the narrative of history? Can we go back and imagine what its like to be in that time, in that place? Of course we can try, but we are different people. Looking around us, the petri dish that creates our choices is so different than for a previous generations... the circumstances are difference.

Nostalgia is different than an awareness of the past, I think its when that past is filtered, curated, and looked through with the lens of the present. Historians know the importance of contemporary sources; but also we see how "those who were there" can distort through contemporary lenses. Patti Smith has told elements of her own early story in "Just Kids" - we use these retrospective testimonies to uncover a version of the past; for the past doesn't exist at the time - for our present is never aware of it's future self - and therefore all looking back is nostalgic in some way, because the exact place and time can't be recreated. When we do this for legal reasons - e.g. the Hillsborough inquiry - or for artistic ones, "Wolf Hall", Jeremy Dellar's "Battle of Orgreave", there's a sense of isolating the incident, drawing a line around it. My testimony of Hillsborough is not an important one in itself. (I switched on the TV to watch the match and the terrible event was unfolding on camera...) But when you were there, you can at least remember something of the context of the times - if not what you were wearing, what you were listening to, what your day to day was.... nostalgia's false memory syndrome is where it discounts our own tangential testimonies, and replaces them with a shared myth. History - and official versioning of the past - has to somehow uncover what happened, even when that was deliberately not documented. I wonder, in this age of the quantified self, whether we will have a quantified space and time, as well, where a recreation of life through digital media can be made to some extent. The past is always a construct, perhaps we are for the first time building it as we go.


Tim Love said...

"Nostalgia is ..." - In September, New Scientist had an article about it: "Wistful thinking: Why we are wired to dwell on the past". If we feel insecure, home/past is a refuge, so we naturally make those memories happy ones.

And my favourite Patti Smith song (an earworm) is "Godspeed".

Adrian Slatcher said...

I guess the historian has a different relationship to the past to ourselves, where nostalgia comes in. Have a feeling art has a responsibility to get to historical truth, particularly in the recent past, but may be part of the problem. Godspeed's a nicely obscure one :)