WTM #1057: JG Ballard RIP


wReck thiS meSS ~ Radio Patapoe 88.3

Amsterdam ~ Ethno-Illogical Psycho-Radiographies


“It rots their brains… Tate Modern, the Royal Academy, the Hayward… they’re Walt Disney for the middle classes.”

• JGB, Millennium People

20 April 2009 // 17.00-19.00


RIP: Rest in Plangency, 19 April 2009

Stereoisomerism 2 > Aphasia [Stereoisomerism / Staalplaat]

Deep Listening > Skandinavien [Penumbra / Iris Light]

Sunday MSM > Steve Heimbecker [Montreal Sound Matter / Pogus]

Karekare Ambient > Karekare 

Underpass > John Foxx

Autopsy of the New Millennium (alternate) > Barcelona

Winded > Skinny Dip vs Domestic LoFi [Normal / Supermatik ]

Another Rainy Day > Skandinavien [Penumbra / Iris Light ]

Night Bus > Burial 

Warm Leatherette > Glomag 

Warm Leatherette > The Normal

Broken Home > Burial 

Addiction > Kode9 & the SpaceApe http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kode9

Drowned Word part 9 > by Clifford Norgate

Waiting for Tom Select > Kaly Live Dub [Hydrophonic / Dub Dragon & PIAS ]

A Voyage on the Marie celeste > Groove Corporation [Co-Operation Dub / Echo Beach]

Input From Origin > Skandinavien [Penumbra / Iris Light ]

Down in the park > Tubeway Army

Kingstown > Kode9 & The Spaceape

High Rise > Hawkwind

Atrocity Exhibition > Joy Division [Closer / Factory vinyl]

Living on the Borderlines > Skandinavien [Penumbra / Iris Light ]


The Teddy Bear’s Picnic > Henry Hall & His Orchestra 

Distant Lights > Burial

Future Now Interview with J.G.Ballard > Future Now

Living on the Borderlines > Skandinavien [Penumbra / Iris Light ]

Video Killed the Radio Star > Buggles

Autopsy of the New Millennium > Barcelona

Mausoleum > Manic Street Preachers 

Warm Leatherette > Grace Jones

Warm Leatherette > Erik Friedlander & Teho Teardo [Giorni Rubati / Bip-Hop ]

Warm Leatherette > Glomag


As a contrarian – something about genetics I’m afraid – I have always positioned myself as  opposed to any dominant line of thinking, any trend, fandemonium, gimmick that everyone just has to have, elephant bellbottoms, bands like XTC or U2 or even the Beatles, SUVs, whatever everybody just has to have, be or do is guaranteed to set me off on the opposite track.


This became clear when I just simply did not get it when it came to certain famous people/hypes recent bands like the Killers, the Arctic Monkeys, the Fill-In-the-blanks… Or so-called geniuses like Henry Kissinger or Bill Clinton or Tom Cruise or, I could go on for an hour about overrated things that I just don’t get. The Beatles I got but they were just so famous I started to investigate other bands – the disease of DJs, obscurantism, already dug deep into my soul – like the DC5 [I liked the sax and their sartorial splendor] but also Lovin Spoonful, Moby Grape in an effort to not only position myself [helplessly, hopelessly] outside of the norm but because I just could not figure out precisely why one became ultra-famous, another only mildly, while others were plainly undeservedly ignored.


I find myself in the same position when it comes to writers. I don’t know if this genetic predisposition for the margins is a curse or a gift, but it seems if you get a room full of flaming overtly in-your-face personas in a room I find myself gravitating toward the normal guy or gal in the sense that the normal one suddenly seems very exotic or at least less contrived. Put me in a room of suits or geeks behaving themselves in the name of career advance, looking painfully and soullessly normal and I will feel that sudden need to become hopelessly irreverent and funnier than I know what to do with.


“Live like a lamb,” Flaubert said, “so that you can write like a lion.” I think that is a quote of a quote by Henry Miller who I used to emulate not only in writing [that was long ago] as well as his attitude toward life. Womanizing, OK. But maybe he justified this behavior more than me emulating it. Anyway, in later years he had invested sufficiently in living the lion so that he could live like a lamb and writing like a lion about having been one. That is what reaching middle age means for a writer.


The ferocity of JG Ballard’s writing comes out of this dynamic: He had experienced a lion’s share of living in his early years and then spent the rest of his life living unassumingly, almost unnoticed, unglamorous, normal, everyday pleasures-pains, this norm, this discipline probably afforded him a kind of stability into which he could funnel his “insanity.” The notation of speculative ideas probably wouldn’t stand up well in a chaotic communal, shared bathroom lifestyle.


He chose a kind of Burroughsian normality in appearance or lifestyle that afforded him a kind of freedom. This normality as we look at his oeuvre was a necessary antidote to how intense his writing was. His style further conniving from us a certain acceptance or passivity – it seldom offends by overstatement, hyperbole, exaggeration and so in our placated state, the writing purring along is a little like singing subversive lullabies in a low whisper into your daughter’s ear. Yes, it, the subversion, the alternative take on the world as we would prefer not to know it, enters the back door and incubates in a part of the brain we don’t know even exists and there it festers, beyond the mainstream. When straight media types [NYT, NYer, et al.] are called upon to grace us with their best-ofs Ballard seldom appeared on these lists in part because of his being classified as a sf genre author, partly because he did not play the schmooze game in the same way, partly because despite what most people – Tarantino or slasher film fans included – couldn’t deal with was the deep and calm way he dealt with incredibly disturbing subject matter. 


But like many of those I admire in the arts, he became more and more admired, the more he was ignored [except Empire of the Sun] the more power and influence he seemed to gain. It was precisely this dynamic of [unassuming non-martyrish] contrarian, where he called the issues and concerns and obsessions of modern life better than almost anyone else that made him a celebrity and persona non grata simultaneously. The person you hate because he makes you envious so that you take the moral high road and call him perverse. The kind who just isn’t public enough to engage in Murdoch-crony-like disputations. It was precisely this quality of normality that made him exotic and unknowable, which only further made his fiction, the way the words sat next to each other like locusts about to attack one’s thinking processes to the point where the devastation or reorientation of an entire crop [hard drive, paradigm, mindset, way of living] was not only altered but it was like I received a transfusion via Concrete Island, Crash, High Rise, among others. 


I tried to write him this, although I would have preferred to have sent him some version of the above had I been able to articulate this in the 12 years or so I tried to communicate with him. I wrote maybe 6 letters in total and received several short innocuous responses, not impolite, not annoyed, but also not the kind of letter I might carry next to my heart and pull out in bars to show certain fellow travelers. That’s OK, especially the last 2 I sent over the past 2 years when I specifically insisted there was no reason to feel compelled to write me back but that I wanted to let him know how I felt – that many of the words he has written that I read I had already written, sometimes VERY close to exact phrases. Sometimes maybe it was a drifting influence like pollen makes you sneeze, ideas make you change course in your writing. 


I admit, in one letter I was fishing for an endorsement, some kind puff words, whatever, for the back of my novel BEER MYSTIC. This never happened. That’s OK. I even have the remnants of a short story that would have been a bit like Polanski’s The Tenant or Dostoyevski or Hitchcock’s Rear Window or Antonioni’s The Passenger. It would have to do with ID exchange, stalking, obsession, templates of contemporary life imposed over us like harnesses like orthodontic braces applied to our dreams. Suffice it to say, I never finished it.


Much of the music played I have always liked: “Warm Leatherette” in all its guises especially the original – I think I have 2 fairly obscure versions here that VERY few mention in any of the articles – and, of course, Joy Division, which lived inside my forlorn lovelorn empty tenement heart for some time as a squatter. I remember singing along to “Love Will Tear Us Apart” overandoverandover until I wore out the single. It is unplayable now, the song having evaporated into a hiss of white noise. Of dandy new wave I preferred John Fox over Ultravox and most of the other post-Bowiens. The recent discoveries of dubstep [dark apocalyptic dub electronica] especially Burial, Appleblim, Shakleton and Kode9 has resuscitated my interest in the gloomy dub with its ponderous beats anew. Here rejuvenated by sweaty palms touching an electric fence. and i forgot to include the interesting inspired “Drowned World” cd by Mo boma.


Some of the other allusions I frankly was unaware of and some are annoyingly passable although perhaps on a weirdo-abject level ok for a few listens – the attraction of a band like Hawkwind has always been a mystery to me.


Good article: Modest Muse: Author J.G. Ballard’s influence on modern music, by Mike Doherty [CBC] October 2, 2006 


Literary trends and cults come and go, but for 50 years now, James Graham Ballard has been one of the coolest authors on the planet. The artists he has influenced show the wide reach of his bizarre, provocative and unsettling work. They include fellow transgressive authors like Martin Amis and Will Self, as well as disparate directors David Cronenberg (who adapted Ballard’s 1973 novel Crash) and Steven Spielberg (who filmed the author’s 1987 book Empire of the Sun). Perhaps most fascinating, however, has been Ballard’s influence on modern music.


The British author, now 76, is often said to have inspired the entire genre of industrial music , and his fiction certainly explores its central preoccupations. Ballard writes about the increasingly intimate relationship between humans and machines (most infamously with Crash, in which characters become aroused by car crashes) as well as the disturbing atmosphere of mind control created by the prevalence of mass media (as found in the experimental 1970 story collection The Atrocity Exhibition). As well, the post-punk era would have been radically different without Ballard’s writings on the murky future of human relations. Joy Division lead singer, Ian Curtis, was an avowed devotee, while original Ultravox  vocalist John Foxx once accused himself of “reading way too much J.G. Ballard.” The Buggles’ smash hit Video Killed the Radio Star was inspired by the Ballard short story The Sound-Sweep; Britain’s Comsat Angels took their name from another of the writer’s tales.


Nowadays, Ballard’s following is more diffuse — from Madonna (whose 2001 Drowned World tour was inspired by the novel of the same name) to  Chilean/German “jazztronica” duo Flanger to the new English “punk rave” buzz band Klaxons, whose upcoming debut album is named after Ballard’s 1982 short story collection Myths of the Near Future.


It comes as somewhat of a surprise, then, to find out that Ballard’s favourite piece of music is the old Tin Pan Alley song the “Teddy Bear’s Picnic.” 


“When I was a small boy,” the author recalls over the phone from his home in the London suburb of Shepperton, “I was given one of those wind-up gramophones [and] Teddy Bear’s Picnic, which I played hundreds of times in my bedroom. By the time I grew up, I couldn’t bear the sound of that song — everything about it drove me mad. And then I discovered, in my 60s, that actually I rather liked the song again. Perhaps I felt that my childhood was slipping away from me for the last time. Now, I could listen to it happily forever.”


Any suspicions that the author is abandoning his surreally dark worldview and succumbing to nostalgia should be erased by his new novel, Kingdom Come, in which Teddy Bear’s Picnic makes a crucial appearance. In a vast shopping mall called the “Metro-Centre,” the white inhabitants of the fictional English town of Brooklands have created a fascist state where consumer capitalism is an all-powerful ideology and even becomes a form of religion. Three giant, motorized teddy bears who move to the mall music preside over the Centre from a circular plinth and grow from mascots to idols. (Ballard says they were inspired by a similar real-life trio in Kingston upon Thames, near his home.) When things start to break down, as they inevitably do in a Ballard novel, the shoppers make offerings of honey and treacle to the bears, and start to pray to them, singing Ballard’s favourite song.


When music appears in Ballard’s books, it tends to accompany erratic events and bizarre behaviour. In Cocaine Nights (1996), disco music soundtracks a scene of sexual violence. In The Day of Creation (1987), African guerrillas with “looted radios and cassettes” create a scene which is “part party and part lynch mob.” In The Drowned World, a doctor further disturbs a mentally unstable patient by playing phonograph records of drumming as an experiment.


Ballard himself professes not to have thought of this connection, but the association of music with chaos does not surprise him. “I’m not in any way musical myself,” he says. “I haven’t got a single cassette, record, CD [or] a record player of any kind. If my girlfriend is playing some Mozart on the radio, I take great pleasure in listening to it, but I’ve reached the age where rock music just gives me a headache.”


He claims not to have had any dialogue with the musicians who are influenced by his work. “I’ve heard that some of these groups were interested in my stuff, but I never met any of them. I would have been a big disappointment, I’m afraid, because I’m a big musical ignoramus.”


Nonetheless, the traffic between Ballard and popular music culture has not taken place on a one-way street. He recalls reading the weekly British magazine NME  religiously in the mid-’70s, when his daughters, then in their early teens, started bringing it home. “I had no idea of what was being reviewed or discussed,” he admits, but says that punk’s “political dimension” intrigued him, as well as the “terrific vitality” of the writing.

“It expressed sentiments about politics and society, and longing for rebellion and change, and all sorts of social factors — sexual revolution, drugs — carried within this charged-up prose. The moment my daughters brought the week’s issue home, I’d grab it from them and start reading avidly, because it seemed to convey the news — not about rock music, which I wasn’t interested in, but about the larger world. I was sad when [my daughters] went off to their colleges. I was tempted to buy [the NME] once or twice, but it wasn’t quite the same thing.”


Ballard was interviewed in the NME in 1985, where he commented on punks:  “Bourgeois society offered them the mortgage, they offered back psychosis.” The bourgeoisie’s own psychosis has been a preoccupation of Ballard’s over the last 10 years in Cocaine Nights, Super-Cannes (2000), Millennium People (2003) and now Kingdom Come. All four depict nightmarish, not-implausible near-future scenarios, where the well-to-do use violence to make themselves feel more alive. Typically, devious psychiatrists serve as catalysts, prescribing selective raids and riots to increase the morale of people living in suburbs and gated communities. Violence is “something that late capitalist societies may fall back on in order to keep the pot boiling,” says Ballard. “This is what bothers me.”


The punks, he believes, partook of a madness that was both beautiful and dangerous. “They hated everything about bourgeois, middle-class England. To some extent, they were right: for them, madness was a sort of freedom, the only freedom left. I think that the tragic death of Sid Vicious proved the point, but it was a wonderful movement while it lasted. Now I get the impression that rock music has been deeply absorbed within the commercial music industry. The Rolling Stones are now every bit as part of the establishment as Bing Crosby was, and just about as seditious.”


Crosby himself famously sang Teddy Bear’s Picnic, but only Ballard could use it to express a seditious sentiment. Indeed, if punk and the Stones have been defanged, and if so much pop music seeks to repeat past glories with diminishing results, can literature provide a viable way to conceive of rebellion against boredom and stultifying social norms? Ballard seems ambivalent. Near the end of Kingdom Come, he writes what could be read as a self-defeating passage about how hope of “freedom” dies when “people begin to talk earnestly about the novel.”

“The middle-class version of boredom which we live today has a number of distinguishing signs,” he says. “One of them is book groups earnestly discussing the novel. The whole teaching of English literature — all that earnest do-goodery that is said to 19-year-olds, the illusion that moral dimensions in serious fiction help us to keep our bearings — that’s a huge middle-class delusion. And delusions are dangerous because they lead to false hopes of security.”

But when asked whether cautionary fiction simply preaches to the converted, Ballard demurs. He cites Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Brave New World, and 1984 as examples of fiction that have influenced many people’s ways of thinking, and adds, “I’d like in a very small way, in a modest way, to think that mine did, too.”





Shameless self-promo dept: My short story “Forensic Science Proves Auto-Erotica”  from WIGGLING WISHBONE, led a number of reviewers to compare it/me to JGB. As well, my new short story “Overpass: Junction US Interstate 696 & Interstate 275” will be appearing in an anthology of writings illustrating Foto Sifichi architectural photos. Photo by Foto Sifichi.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s