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Metaphors with eyes

Life of Mary MacLane

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Not really talking about women, just Diane

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Thursday
Apr162009

In Which He Is The Greatest German of His Generation

Space Dust and Stars

by JOSHUA BAUCHNER

Anselm Kiefer

1945-

In 2002 at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston there was a traveling show of Eli and Edythe Broad’s contemporary art collection, called “Jasper Johns to Jeff Koons.” In a stunted hall towards the end of the gallery, I first met Anselm Kiefer, in three massive paintings.

kiefer1.jpg

germany's spiritual heroes

I remember feeling betrayed by the exhibition’s guide, which described Kiefer’s gallery as one of Germans influenced by Pop art. It was summertime, and I had left my pencil grinding job of reviewing health surveys early that day to attend. Koons’ Michael Jackson and Bubbles greeted my friend and me. The show, heavy in Ruscha and Lichtenstein, was a sugar overload. Kiefer’s hall stuck out, emitting fumes of a forest, rank with dead undergrowth, ready for a blaze.

The back wall was filled entirely by his 1973 painting, Germany’s Spiritual Heroes, which at a size of roughly ten by twenty feet is one-and-two-thirds times me by three-and-a-third times me. The painting represents an attic and a meeting hall, a heavily wooded enclosed space with few windows, lit by torches. Walking forward, the attic’s small doorway seemed to recede as the torches grew in strength—the entire painting threatening to incinerate itself and me and the whole paying audience. My breath was catching, and I stepped back.

falling stars

Kiefer’s work is visceral, for obvious reasons: their size, heavy palette and splintered texture, from the weight of the materials. They are too large, too heavy, too thick, too textured. They are merciless. Reviews of his work tend to read like a twilight of the gods, caught up in his tar pit for misery of straw, mud and lead paint. For 40 years these have remained his immediate hallmarks, and they are fully present in two prominent displays of his recent work, at MASS MoCA in North Adams, Massachusetts, and the Louvre, in Paris.

Of course, half a lifetime of leaden books and crusty enormous paintings do not automatically qualify one for a permanent appearance at the Louvre. On top of his wallop, Kiefer clearly seeks a deeper target: a larger sort of German mythohistory. Kiefer is often grouped with Gerhard Richter, Heinrich Boll and Gunter Grass as Germans preoccupied with a memory through art and literature of the rubble. The ferocious director RW Fassbinder may be his closest compatriot; both are of a later generation than the others, both were born in spring of West Germany’s Year Zero, 1945.

margarete

To describe this sort of cultural work there is the term Vergangenheitsbewältigung, a German supercompound conveying a ‘coming to terms with the past,’ but Fassbinder and Kiefer do not engage so directly with this historical processing, a strategy that gives their work such immense, if subtle, power.

For Fassbinder, there is In the Year of the Thirteen Moons, in which the trauma of World War II is inscribed onto the body of the protagonist, the transsexual Elvira.

For Kiefer, there is Germany’s Cultural Heroes, representing at once the attic, a space of forgotten items for the postwar bourgeoisie, as well as both the great halls and claustrophobic crematoriums of the Third Reich. Germany’s massacred and missing Jews are a persistent subject, without either ever falling into Schindler’s List.

hortus conclusus

Kiefer described this task of the artist in bald, provocative language: “I do not identify with Nero or Hitler, but I have to reenact what they did just a little bit in order to understand the madness. That is why I make these attempts to become a fascist.” His often-cited first project is a quasi-literal attempt. In a series of photographs, Besetzungen (Occupations), the artist gives Nazi salutes in front of well-known German landmarks.

occupations

The landmarks include Brandenburg and Siegessaule. The photos are small and grainy, amateurish. In them, the artist looks frumpy, like a five year old woken early from his nap to play dress up. The use of Nazi symbols, illegal in West Germany, is strangely neutered in the photographs, transformed into the snap-shot detritus of any family vacation to Berlin.

But Kiefer’s historical ‘coming to terms with’ went beyond the Third Reich into older Germanic mythology. As Andreas Huyssen writes, he "insisted that Nazi culture’s exploitation and abuse of traditional German image worlds had to be worked through." In Kiefer’s world, one descries Wagner and Bismarck alongside Nordic legends Yggdrasil, Arminius, Kyyfflhäusser.

kiefer3.jpg

At MASS MoCA, A.E.I.O.U (Elizabeth of Austria) invokes the motto of 15th-century Austrian king Frederick III ‘Austria est imperare orbi universo,’ or, ‘Austria’s destiny is to rule the world’; across the room, we hear from classical Greece, and see Die Nachricht Vom Fall Trojas (News of the Fall of Troy).

This union of myth and history has won Kiefer great plaudits, especially among American academics; in 1987, the former New York Times art critic John Russell casually noted, “In the opinion of many a good judge [he] is the most remarkable artist to have emerged from Europe in the last quarter of our century.”

narrow are the vessels

In both North Adams and Paris, Kiefer occupies spaces unconventional for contemporary art most used to a gallery’s temporary, white drywall. At MASS MoCA, the former home Arnold Print Works’ textile industry, six paintings and a massive concrete sculpture sit in Building 4’s gigantic, empty shell of a second floor. The sculpture, Etroits sont les Vaisseaux (Narrow are the Vessels), is 82-feet long and indeed narrow; its strips of wavy concrete, stacked in a manner that strains to be haphazard but is exceedingly deliberate, sprout stained rebar like track marks exiting an arm.


Anselm Kiefer @ Mass MoCA from Mass Moca on Vimeo.

Four of the paintings are recent (2005‑2006). These are of a regular Kiefer scale, roughly 10 by 25 feet each. They all play on the same visual scheme, with varying palettes: from one point near the top of the canvas, cords of thick paint radiate at all 180 degrees. Halfway down the canvas, these cords splotch into exploded bullets of paint. It looks like an explosion or contraction, inexorable either way.

sol.jpg

Sol Invictus, 1995

At the Louvre, a painting and two modest piece-meal sculptures are pasted into the corners of a stairwell connecting the Egyptians to the Sumerians. The `painting, titled Athanor, features a whitish, naked man lying in a cloud of mud at its base. A thin line stretches straight upwards from his bellybutton, into an expansive night sky, swirling with space dust and stars. From both sculptures spring sunflowers, a gaggle of them in Hortus Conclusus and a solitary, almost drooping one in Danaë. The base of the former is a speckled hump, with the texture of papier-mâché; that of the latter, a stack of lead dipped books.

Die Nachricht Vom Fall Trojas

These installations give the lie to the most serious criticism of Kiefer. First, that he is a one trick pony of doom and gloom. His colors are mostly in the same territory of ash to char to spittle to clay, but there is something distinctly positive, almost affirming, about these works. The flowers in the Louvre and the speckles of light blue and purple in the Massachusetts paintings offer the prospect of rebirth and growth.

But more importantly, Kiefer builds on this prospect and manages something awesome: a tying together of place and art to create spaces of levity. He reclaims the scale necessitated by the buildings’ historical tasks, bringing the sites’ histories and his Germanic ones into the present and amplifying them once more. The visitor experiences the weight of the multiple histories as a sort of “feeling and formlessness,” the characteristics that the august philosopher and critic Arthur Danto pinpoints as the sublime.

twilight of the west

Throughout his career as a Teutonic brooder, Kiefer maintained such rigid form in his paintings—the size, the dirt, the symbols, the brimstone, the paint, the lead, the scrap pile—that, at one point, to call his work formless would have been an impossible contradiction, let alone feeling, a response which the exhibition glossaries that always follow Kiefer swiftly deny. But that is precisely his accomplishment with the two centerpieces: Etroits sont les Vaisseaux and Athanor.

Describing the crippled concrete of Etroits sont les Vaisseaux most reviews probably use the word ‘wreckage’ and imagine the horrific tempest that produced it. Such imagination is unnecessary—the shuddering presses of industry are long silent, but the sculpture itself reverberates in the cavernous brick oven. The recent paintings, with their visual sameness, coat the walls, the radiating lines of paint marching with the sculpture’s reverb into the gaping ceiling.

varus_1976.jpg

varus

The walk through the Louvre’s medieval basement and moat-like Egyptian tomb gallery to reach Kiefer’s stairwell is a quiet relief from the throngs; its length and sparse signage amp up the payoff.

Below, the stairwell is not marked, but the reddish base of Athanor which peaks down is obvious, a visual stain on the prevailing washed limestone. Ascending the stairs, the painting reveals itself, and the eye immediately follows the paint strand from the figure to the sky. I almost tripped on the stairs, my neck craned to reach the ceiling. The three works sit in carved out spaces, giving them a decorative feel—they are celestial palace decoration, but for us plebeians.

athanor

Of course, quoting Danto to ascribe to Kiefer sublimity has its own irony, as the philosopher is one of the artist’s most notable detractors. In his 1989 review of Kiefer at MoMA, Danto cast the artist as wanting nothing more than to be Wagner in a smock: “And there we have the good old command to think with the blood.” With the bracing aesthetic package, it is not difficult to see why Danto made this judgment. But here, at MASS MoCA and the Louvre, Kiefer has retooled.

kiefer2.jpg

Still resolutely unafraid of his double legacy of culture and barbarism, Kiefer seems to understand that he must take a step away to honestly look that legacy in the face. Nearly 20 years later, he lives among the same vulgar material, yet his brushes with history are no longer dizzying — they are open, soaring even. Leaving the MFA in 2002, I had in my gums a distinct, ashy taste, deposited by Kiefer.

Six years later, walking from his exhibitions in Massachusetts and Paris, I again carried a distinct impression, though not from any type of forge. I felt small—the concrete and stars, the rebar, the sunflowers and I, we were diminished together, all swept into the same slipstream.

Joshua Bauchner is a writer living in Massachusetts. This is his first appearance in these pages.

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Thursday
Apr162009

In Which Robert Creeley Heads West

Last Night

thoughts on san francisco, march-june 1956

by ROBERT CREELEY

There are lovely moments in the world when persons and place 'burn with a like heat,' as Olson would say. Who knows why, finally, except that some intuition or habir or simply coincidence has arranged that this shall be the case — and all those to be blessed, truly, will be present.

I felt that way, arriving in San Francisco in March of 1956. The city was humanly so beautiful, but that in fact would not have changed my mind in itself. I'd left Black Mountain just at the turn of the year, in real despair, with a marriage finally ended, separated from my three children, very confused as to how to support myself — and so I had headed west, for the first time, thinking to be rid of all 'easternisms' of my New England upbringing and habit.

I had friends living in New Mexico — a phenomenal place in its own right — and thought to settle there, but after a month or so I found myself restless, dependent, and in no sense clearer as to what might be my next move. A old friend and student from Black Mountain, Ed Dorn, was living in San Francisco, so that's where I headed — to see the Pacific Ocean, if nothing else.

ed dorn, 1977

I got there mid-afternoon, if I remember correctly. Ed and Helene gave me a whirlwind tour of the city, in their tiny Morris Minor, and we drank a lot in celebration. Ed told me that Rexroth had generously invited us to dinner but that he had to go to work at the Greyhound Bus Terminal at six. I in the meantime was getting drunker and drunker, and recall vomiting heavily in the street before going up to Rexroth's apartment. People had already eaten, but made no point of my late arrival. Later that same night, returning to the Dorns' apartment, I was charmed by the arrival of Allen Ginsberg at midnight (he got off work at the Greyhound Terminal at that hour) and we talked much of the night about writing and "Projective Verse" and his own interest in Kerouac and Burroughs.

jack kerouac

My information of the former was meager, but fascinating, i.e., Robert Duncan had told me that Kerouac was the man who had written a thousand pages in which the only apparent physical action was a neon sign, over a storefront, flashing off and on. Burroughs, in a story that had him confused with Jack, was said to have been asked at a party to demonstrate his expertise with revolvers by shooting an apple off the head of his wife. A gun was given him, he took aim and fired — and sadly killed her. His apocryphal remark was: I should never have used a 45. They always undershoot.

william burroughs

Rexroth's weekly evenings proved an intensive meeting ground. The Place, a great bar with genial host Leo and sometime bartender John Ryan, was another. One night Allen asked the Dorns and myself to meet him there after he got off work, so he could introduce us to Jack Kerouac, now back in the city. We got there early, and sat a small table in the front of that small space — and waited, peering about to try to figure out which one of the others might be Jack.

I was particularly drawn to a man who was sitting up against the back wall, on the way to the toilet, seemingly alone, sort of musing, with extraordinary eyes and a head that had somehow a larger than 'life size' intensity. When Allen came in, he asked us if we'd seen Jack, and we said, no — and then he pointed to this man I'd been watching, and said, there he is.

But we had little conversation that night, unhappily. Jack was pretty comatose from drinking, and when we all got back to the apartment he was sharing with Al Sublette to eat — the large steak, I remember, kept getting dropped on the floor in the process of being cooked — Jack passed out on a bed, and when I was delegated to wake him up, he regarded me with those extraordinary eyes and I felt like a didactic idiot.

creeley

Remembering now, it all tends to swirl. Great parties at Locke McCorkle's house out in Mill Valley — Allen and Peter charmingly dancing naked among a dense pack of clothed bodies, flowers at the prom! Jack and I sitting on the sidelines, shy, banging on upended pots and pans, 'keeping the beat.' Gary Snyder's wise old-young eyes, his centeredness and shyness also. Phil Whalen's, "Well Creeley, I hope you know what you're doing..." Visits to Mike McClure's with Ed — Ronnie Bladen upstairs in their undesignated commune. Mike practicing the trumpet (in the cellar?) — anyhow, blasts of sound, and talk of Pollock, energy. Lawrence Ferlinghetti, standing outside his great and initial City Lights Bookstore, asking me what living was like in Mallorca — cheap?

He'd had the care to review The Gold Diggers for the San Francisco Chronicle, and that was surely a first. Walking around the city with Allen and Phil, Allen reading us Howl, which he had in a big black binder notebook, each time we'd stop at a curb or in a cafe (Mike's — great Italian food) or just on a bench in the park.

Later I typed the stencils for a small 'edition' of that transforming poem — I was trying to get work and Martha Rexroth gave me the job, as I remember, Alenn had given her — prior to City Lights publication.

There were other dear friends of that time, James Broughton (an old friend of Duncan's), Kermit Sheets, Madeline Gleason. (Duncan himself was in Black Mountain, but his care that I should be at home in the city was so kind.) I'd go to them when I was exhausted, and that was frequently. I finally managed to get an apartment on Montgomery Street, though I never succeeded in living there. I did write some poems, though — on a huge typewriter Martha had got me. "Please", "The Bed", "Just Friends" (old Charlie Parker favorite), "She Went to Stay", "A Folk Song", and "Jack's Blues" among them.

One night I invited the gang over, like they say, and one of the company was a particularly ominous heavy, whose pleasure was turning school girls on (there were two with him) to heroin, and finally I got freaked. Peter Orlovsky, true angel, finally managed to clear the whole room of people, then paused himself at the door before leaving, to say, would you like me to turn off the light?

We talked endlessly, day and night. We rehearsed our senses of writing, possible publication, shop talk. Jack was not going to let the editors cut up On the Road the way they had The Town and the City — he was getting himself ready for Malcolm Cowley's impending visit, 'to talk it over,' which Jack rightly feared might be heavy-handed 'advice.'

Both Ed and I were asked a lot of questions about Olson and his "Projective Verse" — was it just more razzle-dazzle intellectualism? McClure and Whalen were particularly intrigued, and were at this time already in correspondence with him. Allen, as always, was alert to any information of process that might be of use.

So time went by — and it was so packed with things happening, it now seems strange to me it was just a short time — only three months. Came June, and I was restless again, and so headed back to New Mexico, with huge rocksack (I managed to get all my stuff and Martha's typewriter into somehow) and sleeping bag Jack had helped me locate in an army surplus store on Market Street. I still have them. The sleeping bag, in fact, is presently on the bed in the next room.

Why does that matter. At times it seems all we have of the human possibility, to keep the faith — though why an old sleeping bag and a primordial army issue rucksack now looking like a faded grey ghost should be the tokens, one must figure for oneself. Every time I drive cross country, in the underpowered battered VW I likewise hold on to, hitting those Kansas spaces (where Burroughs rightly remarked, one gets the fear), I think of Neal Cassady and that Pontiac he could wheel round corners as if on a turntable. Pure burning energy. Listening to fantastic "Bombay Express" Indian record of Locke's Neal flagging the train on through...

People give you life that way. Things you didn't think you knew or could so. Suddenly it's possible. Answers you never expected to come out of your own mouth. One time — after a night-long party at Locke's — people had variously come to rest either in the house at the bottom of the hill, great sloping ground of musky eucalyptus and grass, or else in the small cabin towards the top, kids and big people all together in one heap — Jack proposed he and I sleep outside just to dig that wild soft air and tender darkness. I woke in bright dazzling morning light, with Jack's face inches from mine, asking in mock sternness: Are you pure? To which I replied, as if for that moment in his mind, that's like asking water to be wet.

Buffalo, N.Y.

September 13th, 1974

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Wednesday
Apr152009

In Which We Are An Old, Very Ancient Form of Them

What If God Were One of Us?

by ALEX CARNEVALE

The world of dinosaurs was very real to me at five years old. I had a complete set of flashcards, and I memorized them with the help of my father. We lived in Baltimore then, in a shitty apartment that barely had room for the crib of my newly born brother, whose facebook pictures now appall me.

Then came the 1990s, which we now know was the finest decade in American history. I had read everything about dinosaurs up to that point, so that the publication of paleontologist Robert Bakker's Raptor Red — a novel from the perspective of a velociraptor (my GOD!) was a major event.

But of course most of my finest hopes and desires coincided with the entry of the most formative contribution to the literature of those great, extinct things, Michael Crichton's Jurassic Park. It is easy to look back at it as simply an entry in the much shat-on genre of airport literature, but it was really a coming together of epic proportions.

Dinosaurs and humans...together? Why? How? For christ's sake, when?

It is difficult to recall exactly why the experience of the book and the movie was so different. For all its harrowing moments, the book was a safe space for humans and dinosaurs to meet each other. A book can discuss, even depict chaos theory, but a film can do so much more.

By then we were living in a rental house in New London, Connecticut, and the film's premiere was a hotly anticipated event. I spent most of the film's two hour plus running time sobbing in my mother's arms, for this was an all-too real coming together of man and beast. I was a little old for that, but since my more nerdy alter-ego was getting electrocuted off a 20 foot high dino fence, I think I was entitled to my grief. (The actor who portrayed Tim Murphy was born a mere seven days after I was.)

Now the CGI has aged poorly, and the images have grown iconic. But then! On a bimonthly basis I relive Wayne Knight's desperate existential descent to the docks to drop off samples sabotaging his employer. Later these corporate betrayals would grow prescient, but then it was only Dennis Nedry's contempt for an animal that spat venom and would eat him.

Sir Richard Attenborough attends a similar dilemma in the presence of the vulturous compys. He dies at the hands of those treacherous scavengers in the book, but gets saved that fate in Spielberg's film. In fact the great failing of the film and the book is that every single human was not consumed by his or her inane belief that they could master something they could never know as intently as themselves.

Articles constantly appeared in newspapers about whether Crichton's innately scientific mind had actually suggested something that might one day be possible — the replication of once dead beasts from amber, gold from gold. As it usually does, it fell to the Jew to sound the warning. Jeff Goldblum's utter handsomeness was at its nadir then, and he looked almost exactly like my father, rendering his calls of doom all the more sonorous.

Ian Malcolm was a mathematician, a role that somehow was necessary to have on hand before the park opened. Most mathematicians were like, "I can get consultant work like that?" but Goldblum's Malcolm just sacked up in a leather jacket and tried to hit on the nearest paleobotanist he could find.

Sam Neill was of course the gentile dinosaur establishment. Frightening small children at dig sites by pretending to be a velociraptor was his usual source of amusement, but this old fogey wasn't all fun and games when it came to showing two random children the pleasures of stroking a brontosaurus.

All in all, these were the raw components of my first real life, and to see them going off the rails so suddenly and violently was a nightmare I carried for some time afterwards, in the darkness of my closet, in the innocent suggestions of classmates and teachers, in the frailty of my parents. We would all be redeemed or stranded and left to ancient creatures who knew nothing of our ways?

For most it was an innocuous wait until Spielberg finally granted us the adaptation of Crichton's winsome sequel to the world he made, The Lost World. Forever answering the question, "Should we build an auxiliary island to our dinosaur theme park?", all the major figures head to Isla Sorna, where dinosaurs run wild and free, and represent an incredible investment opportunity for the right financial mind.

And yet it was simply another descent into madness. My father (Jeff Goldblum) had inexplicably fathered a child with Julianne Moore. That's the kind of news you just don't want to wake up to. Before I had viewed the world with a fairly bifurcated eye: things were either to be loved or feared, and sometimes both. Dinosaurs perfectly categorized my unending respect for other things and people: I both treasured their insolent leathery ways and was scared to death by what they would tear me into if it should come to it.

Thus irony had advanced bounds but my reaction to dinosaurs hadn't. Say what you want about the willful ignorance of Jurassic Park's characters, but it was a genial not-knowing. With the introduction of a set of mercenaries "evilly" trying to capture a few dinos for a stateside attraction, I learned of one additional way to react to the world; not everything had to be feared or loved, things could also be profited from.

I was a little older by then, and not childishly frightened by the threat. And yet The Lost World is probably one of the most unappreciated films of 1990s. An absolutely insane sequence turns the healing of a young T-Rex into a fight for survival against its mommy and daddy. On that island, for a couple hours, Goldblum in particular is forced to relive the horror all over again, but this time he does it with his closest friends and family.

Isla Sorna had its own set of slightly wilder characters. Julianne Moore replaced Laura Dern, so that dinosaurs could be seen in contrast with gingers for the first time in human history. The film's moral angle was that the dinosaurs deserved to live on this island alone and not be imprisoned. They didn't offer a reason why, but what the hell.

Vince Vaughn played the sad-eyed jack of all trades, and like Julianne Moore's martyring paleontologist (what is it with Ian Malcolm and paleontologists?), he is an archetype that no longer exists in cinema, for we have lost all that once stood for unquestioned joy in dinosauring. I blame Lindsay Lohan mostly, but I also blame Lou Reed.

The Lost World ends in a very unsatisfying way — as if a lone T-Rex in Los Angeles would last more than mere minutes before being taken down by any and all military weapons!

I started to realize that dinosaurs, in the right settings, could be controlled. I had never before felt so apart from Ian Malcolm, with his adopted love child and little island family. I felt like the lawyer in the first movie, and I never wanted to get off the can.

Soon enough, there was talk of Jurassic Park III. The millennium was coming on, and most people had moved onto other things: scarves, theatre, women. The list goes on and on. I was still like, "Did you guys hear what they discovered in Montana?" No one ever took that bait. I lived my dinosaur life on in pictures, and forced some weak-willed person to screen the third film with me in Waterford, Connecticut.

As I watched the film, I struggled in vain to think of what kind of violence I would perpetuate on the person who cast Tea Leoni and William H. Macy as a couple in a feature film. That's the worst kind of insanity, like letting Spielberg saunter on and make a fourth Indiana Jones movie. We need boundaries in our lives, not JP3...or 4.

My struggle to empathize with humanity came to a head with that film. I shudder as I think of the pitch meeting where Spielberg was like, "This one's Die Hard and Jurassic Park combined!" When you're as alienated from humanity as I was during the 1999-2003 period of American life, you can see yourself a lot better in a raptor. And in fact the scientific plot point here was that the raptors were way smarter and could talk to each other. Gag me with a fucking spoon.

We are an old, very ancient form of them. They are reptiles, but they cared for their young as perhaps only OctoMom could. We see their import everywhere: in our children, in Starbucks, in Jesus. (There's a pterodactyl Jesus, I know it in my heart.) We live with what they did and left us. They could have stuck around, but instead they wanted us to be the ones to really fuck things up.

Alex Carnevale is the editor of This Recording. He tumbls here.

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