Thursday, 17 March 2011

I Specialise in Revenge (II)

Overheard the sounds of horses' hooves, people fighting for their lives... / My brother was still watching me, back in the days of ‘83 / By 1985, I was as cold as cold can be, but no-one’s underground to dig me out and set me free...
- All from ‘Last Day of the Miners’ Strike’

Russell Senior may have been a flying picket, but Jarvis’s main experiences with miners involved them kicking the shit out of him outside nightclubs. Working class solidarity all too often carries with it an instinctive distrust of outsiders - you can sympathise with Jarvis, who was obviously too caught up in smaller, personal struggles, to get involved in a class war (more thoughts on this subject here). His streak of determined individualism was heroic in its way, but as time went on, he seemed to regret not showing more solidarity. Later on Jarvis would speak ruefully about how growing up in the sixties and seventies made him believe in better futures, the gleaming promise of modernism (‘we’d all be living in space‘), and how he had to watch this promise snuffed out, post-78, and replaced with a universal cynicism and deflation. The evidence of later lyrics suggests that he came to feel haunted by his own inaction at the time - how can an individual fight a class war, anyway?

Fast-forward twelve years, and four songs into ’Different Class’, we find surely the greatest class-related song in Pulp’s discography: ‘I-Spy’. This is a song about sexual conquest, to begin with (‘Just another song about single mothers and sex’ as Jarvis would later spit), but using that as a window to a world of more interesting tensions and energies than the mere thrill of sleeping with another man’s wife. It is that, to be sure, but what else?

In today’s world, structures of power are decentralised, and responsibility is diffused (defused) into faceless hierarchies. Managers, politicians, and other ostensible authority figures are all too quick to remind us how their hands are tied, how little real responsibility they have - they’re victims just like the rest of us. What kind of war can be fought by an individual against such systems? Who can Cocker blame for the death of better worlds? Yet the system that goes to great lengths to spread an attitude of corporate irresponsibility (it’s everyone’s fault, it’s no-one’s fault in particular, it‘s no-one‘s fault at all) is the same one that has dumped all of the troubles of human existence (poverty, unemployment, illness) on the shoulders of the individual, as their responsibility and their own fault.

But if no particular individual chose, deliberately, to destroy the lives of (for example) a generation of miners, this doesn’t mean that nobody bears responsibility. Cocker reaches the same conclusion as the terrorist groups of the last century - where the head of the structure is unreachable, fight your war against those individuals who (actively or passively) collude with it. Knowing culpability is not necessary, or even particularly relevant. How can one man fight a system? By inflicting suffering on collaborators - Cocker will channel his resentment and direct his campaign of sexual terrorism at one more or less blameless bourgeois couple. He is as careless and indiscriminate as the forces he has opposed himself to - it’s self-evidently unfair, but like policies of affirmative action, it’s unfairness being deployed to counteract an existing, wider, injustice. The couple don’t even need to be Tory hardliners - in fact, it works better if they’re assumed to be Concerned Liberals.

If you’re reading this, you have presumably heard the song many times - the stirring movie-theme arrangement, Cocker’s entirely believable delivery (even where the language verges on the absurd, as with his poker-faced recital of adolescent triumphs), all chosen to remind us that, like the victim, we should take him very seriously indeed. ‘I will get my satisfaction,’ he vows. ‘I will blow your paradise away.’

Fifteen years later, this phrase has an additional resonance - today, for better or worse, the word ‘paradise’ mostly comes up in the context of Islamic terrorism. Even in 1995, the explicit violence of the threat was jarring. What does it mean to blow someone’s paradise away? We might think of Marlowe’s Tamburlaine - raging on his deathbed at the intangible, unaccountable forces that have struck him down, threatening to ‘march against the powers of heaven / and set black streamers in the firmament / to signify the slaughter of the gods.’

The paradise at stake here is a smaller, meaner one - the paradise of James Dean posters, endowment plans, and figurines, or schools near the top of the league, as disgustedly mapped by Cocker in various songs - all in a world that has long since ‘drowned the heavenly ecstasies of religious fervour… in the icy water of egotistical calculation’. The nausea and anxiety this world seems to inspire in Cocker is well documented, but here the fear is balled up and turned into anger. We are left to reflect on the image of some cluttered estate agent’s dream home, in some super-gentrified exurban Avalon, being obliterated in a firestorm - and this is before it gets really venomous.

The idea that this a tale of straightforward revenge-through-sex is belied by the lyrical content - the female of the couple is mentioned in one verse, and addressed in only a couple of lines. The sexual attraction may be genuine - Ladbroke Grove looks and all that - but his concern for her is limited. He feels moved at one point to show something resembling contrition (‘It’s not a case of woman v man’), and that’s as far as the conversation goes. It’s nothing personal - just business.

Here there’s an echo of the most famous self-created avatar of vengeance in literature - Dumas’ Count of Monte Cristo. At one point the Count finds himself begged by his old lover to end his near-demented, decades-planned campaign of retribution, for the sake of his love for her. He is torn - the only time the implacable Count’s mask slips - but anguishedly agrees to end the vendetta. All we can conclude here is that Jarvis is far more dedicated to his purpose, and would never let any personal feelings get in the way of his operation.

Nothing personal… just business…

Jarvis always had a talent for spitting his adversaries’ words back in their faces (best seen in later solo effort ‘Cunts Are Still Running The World’). Early in I-Spy, he whispers ‘I don’t do these things for real; I do these things just so I survive’. Partly a ghost of an apology to the used lover - mostly a mocking echo of the words his target might use to excuse himself of any blame, if he were only given the chance. ‘Look, we’re good people underneath, we don’t really believe in any of this’ - the victims are people who keep the appropriate ironic distance from the implications of their actions. It’s the disavowal required to operate in a rotten system, and Cocker viciously taunts them for it. This, above all, is why the song makes most sense directed at people who are, at least in theory, progressives. If this distaste was still more or less inchoate in 1995, it had crystallised by the time of ‘Cocaine Socialism’ three years later (‘You owe it to yourself/ Don’t think of anybody else’).

At the crucial point in the song, as the music drops away and Jarvis gloats in his half-second of triumph, he uses the same technique again. ‘I can’t help it - I was dragged up…’ he sneers, slipping into cartoonish proleface, a caricature of some mindlessly hostile estate dweller - ‘take your year in Provence, and shove it up your ass!’ But if the intricacy of Cocker’s scheme belies his victim’s casually contemptuous views of the urban poor (‘Your minds are just the same as mine’), the sheer vindictive glee of the delivery reminds us that, as well as being a rhetorical ploy, the bluntly hostile car parks / birds monologue is also true. The views Cocker has arrived at through his long campaign of studying and planning happen to coincide with the unthinking knee-jerk reaction the victim might have expected. Cocker has, by the most circuitous route, reached a concord with his own class.

Toward the end of the song, following his not-quite-apology to his lover, Jarvis solemnly informs her that ‘it’s more a case of haves against haven’ts - and I just happen to have got what you need’. Deliciously, for once in the whole setup, Jarvis is the ‘have’ - he possesses the commodity in demand (in this case, his well-rehearsed ‘second-hand excuse for technique’), and, as any good laissez-faire economic liberal knows, the market must not be interfered with. We can imagine him cackling over his defeated victim - ‘Come on, what’s wrong with you? Up your game! You could be where I am if you only aspired a bit fucking harder!’

How can one individual make a difference? By turning himself into a vengeful revenant, dragging the Last Men back into history one at a time, reminding them that scores remain unsettled, that we’re not all middle class now. If we concede that it’s not going to achieve anything constructive in the long run, surely none of us could begrudge the man his satisfaction.


For more of the same, only better, why not buy Owen Hatherley’s forthcoming book ‘Uncommon’?