[The Karma Refugees, 2017, Walter Benjamin, William Blake, John Keats, James Ensor, Courtly Love, Intellectual and physical ruin]
When Tom Daddesio and I started our exploration of reggae music and cultural theory, we had no idea we would someday play the music. We approached it as scholars and collectors of obscure Jamaican records. Sometime around 1991, we attempted to approach the music in a less scholarly and more holistic way—by learning to play it. Our first recordings were on cassette tape. Digital recording eventually supplanted analog tape but developing a format to present our new digital recordings presented a problem. With the help of CSBSJU media consultant, Adam Konczewski, I developed a webpage and that page has evolved over the last ten years. Because our music grew out of the study of reggae which is also the study of slavery in the capitalist system, we always saw social theory as our main reason for making songs. As we began making songs, recording and production technology changed again and we have now updated this website. All along the way, we have discovered what we are doing while we are doing it. Each step taught us something.
This year, one of our first projects was to revisit the song, “Courtly Love,” written in the early 1990’s and recorded with an African rhythm by The 1 Drop. I no longer saw the song as an African courting song. This version began to emerge from a little riff I played on the electric guitar. I felt like I had finally found the song and was eager to rerecord it.
The latest edition of the Karma Refugees includes Tom (bass and production, webmaster), Mike (vocals, guitar, and production) Caitlin Brutger (keyboard, vocals, and production), Mysterious Madame X (vocals, production). Brian Heilman (vocals, guitar, and production) joined us this year and bravely volunteered to mix the song. We gave him all the tracks we had recorded and he crafted this version of the song.
I started writing songs with the conscious desire to integrate some aspect of social theory into each song. As I did this, I found myself also integrating lines of poetry, personal and public narratives, works of visual art, and other songs—all fragmentary remnants of a broken cultural landscape. I see now that my songs have been smashing these fragments into each other in a method Walter Benjamin describes as “montage practice.” Benjamin’s flaneur-character—the decontextualized urban walker—wanders through the mental and physical debris of the dominant culture. The ruins entice and repulse the observer.
Benjamin writes: “Far from experiencing the crowd as an opposed, antagonistic element, this very crowd brings to the city dweller the figure that fascinates. The delight of the urban poet is love—not at first sight, but at last sight. It is a farewell forever which coincides in the poem with the moment of enchantment. (169)
James Ensor, Masks
Thus, the flaneur, who might look a lot like me or you, wanders the streets of any modern city or small college town on a Saturday night. The night sky is cloudy and rain blows on the wind. People move among bars and coffee shops enacting variations on prescribed gender roles and consumer behaviors. Lines of old poetry flash in the mind’s eye and merge with the other old ideas or aging buildings or decrepit social roles. Juxtapose John Keats’ “cloudy symbols of old romance” with William Blake’s’ “marriage hearse,” and the montage takes on the depth of an aimless desire. The flaneur does not know what to look for and searches for connections in the “dialectical fairyland” of the modern world. Each step may or may not teach something.
John Keats, “When I Have Fears.”
When I have fears that I may cease to be
Before my pen has gleaned my teeming brain,
Before high-pilèd books, in charactery,
Hold like rich garners the full ripened grain;
When I behold, upon the night’s starred face,
Huge cloudy symbols of a high romance,
And think that I may never live to trace
Their shadows with the magic hand of chance;
And when I feel, fair creature of an hour,
That I shall never look upon thee more,
Never have relish in the faery power
Of unreflecting love—then on the shore
Of the wide world I stand alone, and think
Till love and fame to nothingness do sink.
James Ensor, Self Portrait in Clown Costume
“He saw her there among the clowns,” said the song.
“Courtly Love” (Just a Dream)
When I behold upon the night’s starred face,
Huge cloudy symbols of a high romance
Clouds like desire hand in the air;
People huddle everywhere.
They hurry to avoid the rain
They hurry to enjoy the pain.
They clutch each other in the dark.
The flashing ruins seem so stark.
He saw her there among the crowd;
He saw her there among the clowns.
And he thought she knew
He thought she knew
It was just a dream.
Knights in armor do the town;
Dark-eyed ladies glance around.
They promise her the “ancient curse.”
They promise her the “marriage hearse.”
“Cloudy symbols” of old romance
Slip through the clutching hands of chance.
The fragments glitter at her feet.
Their darting glances chanced to meet.
And she thought he knew
She thought he knew
It was just a dream.
Now she is free to chase her dream
Where things are always what they seem,
Knights guard their possessions well,
Lovers rovers rescue her from hell.
Now he is free to chase his dream
Where things are never what they seem,
Shapes collide in darkened rooms,
Lonely lovers write their poems.
They thought they knew
They thought they knew
It was just a dream.
Benjamin fears we may not awaken from the modern dream. He writes: “Conditioned by phrases like ‘Keep Smiling,’ amusement parks—‘the fun fair,’ ‘Dodgem cars’ and other similar amusements is nothing but a taste of the drill to which the unskilled laborer is subjected in the factory—a sample which at times was for him the entire menu” (176). The landscape and our perceptions of it have been broken and scattered. The flaneur carries fragments of culture and meaning to guide him. Benjamin notes: “technology has subjected the human sensorium to a complex kind of training” (175). The training tells us we’re lost.
“The fragments glitter at her feet,” said the song.
James Ensor, White and Red Clowns Evolving.
In our earliest jam sessions, we were just trying to learn to play a song—never mind record or produce one. I always brought a William Blake book to those sessions and we tried more than once to put his words to music. He witnessed the emergence of the modern city and the decontextualized crowd. Fragments of his work have wandered into this song.
William Blake, London
I wander thro’ each charter’d street,
Near where the charter’d Thames does flow.
And mark in every face I meet
Marks of weakness, marks of woe.
In every cry of every Man,
In every Infants cry of fear,
In every voice: in every ban,
The mind-forg’d manacles I hear
How the Chimney-sweepers cry
Every blackning Church appalls,
And the hapless Soldiers sigh
Runs in blood down Palace walls
But most thro’ midnight streets I hear
How the youthful Harlots curse
Blasts the new-born Infants tear
And blights with plagues the Marriage hearse.
“Mind forg’d manacles,” said the poem to the song.