12 min read

Back to Normal, via Monkey's Paw

The story of the Monkey’s Paw is a “classic ‘three wishes’ story that doubles as a horror story and a cautionary tale.” That’s according to Americanliterature.com, a site with an official sounding name that telegraphs authority and an Angelfire-tan design that gives off a Needful Things sense of devious antiquity. I’d thought the story, where wishes are made upon a disembodied primate claw, with disastrous results, was an author-unknown fable. But apparently it's an actual short story, written by the English author W.W. Jacobs and published in 1902. The story’s barely-post-Victorian origins give it a potentially Orientalist (or otherwise othering) spin that I haven’t nailed down yet, so if the reader feels the need to substitute a devil or jinn as the duplicitous actor in the following metaphor, I won’t cry about it. All that matters is that somehow a perfectly reasonable wish went horribly wrong.

And that wish was “I wish things would go back to normal.”

Maybe the wisher was a flaxen haired child, excited by stories passed down from an older sibling, of all the games and new friendships kindergarten was going to bring. Maybe the wisher was a freshly inked thirty-year old barback, off-the-books and ineligible for UBI, eager to test out, upon sludge metal concert attendees who’d once seemed countless, the panty dissolving qualities of his or her or their Gasmask Terror forearm piece. Maybe the wisher was a junior publicist at Grandstand, working with no promotional assets left but a now cancelled tour announcement. Maybe the wisher was an intern at Agency Group, fresh out of Oberlin, not yet booking shows, but still holding a hundred thousand guest list spots that were gold in January 2020 but, by March, were worth less than lead. Or maybe the wisher was just an itinerant tour manager of pop-punk bands who’d just discovered the “EXIT” sign out of New Brunswick and put their first payment down on a 2004 Ford Econoline. Maybe the wisher was you. Maybe it was me, young within the context of the youth bestowed by band shirts worn under a hoodie/blazer combo, and the inability to pay a doctor’s bill without the help of mom. Maybe the person wishing that “things would go back to normal” was just a nurse. With grievances entirely unconnected from missing live music. Or maybe a nurse with their own sensually impressive d-beat tattoo, who missed live shows as much as the aforementioned barback, and found the nightly pots-and-pans tribute to first responders to be a poor substitute for seeing Rocky & The Sweden perform “Green Riot” (with Warthog, Krimewatch, and Dollhouse as openers) at the Market Hotel.

Regardless, someone young (or young-adjacent) person with a bright future stretching before them like an album rollout, someone for whom even a hiccup in that future might feel like an anaphylactic shock, made a wish. And with that wish, whether spoken out of the mouth of a sullen drumtech hellbent on seeing Amsterdam once again from the window of a Black Dahlia Murder tour bus, or out of the toothsome piehole of a Raya verified megababe/boy wonder running low on rent and episodes of The Americans to watch, a monkey’s finger curled. A monkey’s finger curled into the coarseness of a monkey’s calloused palm. And from that creaking acuteness came the cliche curse that has laid low travellers of twilight zones, outer limits, and Machacchio’d crossroads universewide, ever since the devil first defied the memefication of Man and carved “ass, gas, or grass; nobody rides for free” into the bark of Adonai’s favorite apple tree. What we all wanted was “how things were in February. Maybe a bit better if possible.” What we got was Times Square if Disney had taken over in 1955, Friends without Joey or Pheebs, and American Psycho where Christian Bale’s Patrick Bateman is both reliable narrator and hero. And there’s no irony intended with the soundtrack.

As with many inverted dreams, the proof of a nightmare begins with brunch. Take a walk in just about any neighborhood on just about any Saturday afternoon. Everybody, no matter how fashionable the neighborhood, is decked head to toe in blue and white. Gone are the floppy hats, serpentine bracelets, and apolitical hairdos; all the witchy affectations of gentrifiers and spiritualists alike. Instead the lines to pay premium prices for flat champagne and hollandaise drowned chickadees are lousy with tastefully ripped bluejeans and college-sweat grey.  What should be, in the truest hope of “opening up,” be a population-wide promenade of celebratory dandyism, an ocean of horny youth re-virginized, dressed to the nines in frocks and leather, new kicks from rappers with improbable names, is instead an “All I Wanna Do” era Sheryl Crow convention. And not just brunch. Even after the mimosified hours of secular prayer, Life has become a Highway, to be pallidly ridden all night long. Indeed, even after dusk, when a post-pandemic society might reasonably indulge its most flapperish instincts for fashion debauchery under the cover of darkness, there is not a bead or bauble in sight. And the only fringes are from pre-distressed, natural fabric. In lieu of wide brim hats festooned with taxidermy or Left Eye Lope-d stacks of lavender over heroically exposed flesh, the monkey’s paw of Back To Normal has reimagined a world where everyone shops at VH1. And this is NYC. One shudders to think what kind of Luke Bryan-esque clock punching they’re getting down with on the brunch lines in Ohio.

At this rate, all the Richy Rich spaceflights will have to be cancelled because scientists won’t be able to tell where our nation’s denim drenched brunches end and the sky begins.

This is not my imagination. The New Neo-Normal, life reduced to its logical conclusion, is everywhere. I don’t want to continuously relitigate the current UK Post-punk invasion, but what is it if not an unprecedented post-epochal-trauma skipping-over of disturbing art? Punk and hardcore were never granted their wish to “be good again.” Instead the Monkey’s Paw of the hyperreal jumped us all directly to New Wave/New Romanticism. I love both “New”s, so this is not criticism. But all the Mark E Smith mannerisms and occasional Touch & Go guitar scrapes in the world can’t disguise what is, at heart, a countrywide Spandau-Ballet-A-Certain Ratio-Circa-‘85 revue. And, stateside, what is The Armed, with its journeymen collectivity and retrograde gloss, if not J Geils Band making Milemarker songs palatable for the slightly edgier brunch crowds of every Pleasantville’s Brooklyn? What is the Fifth Wave of Emo but college rock skipping Sorry Ma… Forgot to Take Out The Trash and getting hot and heavy into Paul Westerberg being coy about Winona Ryder in the August ‘91 issue of SPIN, right when the first wave of post-war hyper normality was about to hit? (Again, not a criticism. I like some of these bands quite a bit. Just pointing out that Emo’s Fifth got to Fueled By Ramen diary rock without so much a “hey howya doin’” to the sobbing spazzcore of Gravity Records. You don’t have to believe specifically in mischievous jinn to find that a tad suspicious!)

It could be argued that all of the above is a continuation. People enjoying loose fit denim, low stakes synth rock, and the heartfelt melodicism of Joyce Manor. Not proof of a reality shifting wish, twisted by the malignant powers of a demonic monkey’s doom inducing pinky.

But bear with me. Heed my words before it’s too late. Before the Monkey’s Paw makes waxworks of us all. Before all transgressions are limited, by universal forces, to that of Rhys Ifans’ grubbiness as the roommate in the 1999 British-American romantic comedy, Notting Hill. Before all emotions are circumscribed into the lowkey joys and minor despairs described in the 1999 British-American romantic comedy, Notting Hill. Before all hairstyles are limited to that of Hugh Grant’s cut, as Julia Roberts’ love interest, William “Will” Thacker, in the 1999 British-American romantic comedy, Notting Hill. All this, plus constant, interminable jokes about the deliciousness of bacon.

You can see The New Neo Normal as the two decade American occupation of Afghanistan is to be ended, with not so much as a “my bad.” More specifically, you can see (if you want) the hypernormal in “The United States of Al,” the new CBS show about an Afghan interpreter (played by an Indian actor from South Africa, speaking in an accent from literally nowhere on Earth) finding a new home in Columbus, Ohio. Hijinks, as mandated by the esoteric dream subversion of a hairy thumbed doom taliman, ensue. The TV show is the sort of exhausted tropes, complete with Balki-esque “America or Burst” signifiers of inhumanly innocent otherness, that a million satires (from Married… With Children to South Park to even Family Guy) were supposed to have made aesthetically impossible. But executive producer Chuck Lorre has always been complicit with whatever forces, innate or interdimensional, conspire to keep the brain smooth, the soul sedate, and human art miles away from any hint of grace or sublimity. Lorre’s oeuvre isn’t anti-life so much as a rejection of the sublime. Like that band, Sublime. And as obvious as making jokes about that band Sublime. So, with or without the aid of a Monkey’s Paw, The United States of Al has been placed into a post-COVID void where 9/11 may have happened but The Simpsons did not. As a meta commentary on the American public’s inability to ever acknowledge Afghanistan as anything beyond a sickening plot point for the backstories of various prestige TV antiheroes, the probable low ratings of The United States of Al could be brilliant. But aside from that, the show is further evidence of what happens when the wish to undo tragedy is granted in its inanest extreme; a nation’s complicated sorrows depicted in a style that should have ended with the Cold War. Hyper-normalcy, Love American Style, w/laff track. ALF minus the tensions of an imperilled family cat. A geopolitical Battle of The Network Stars (a ‘70s/’80s show, where medium-tier celebrities competed for sub-Hollywood Squares relevance,that was the embodiment of televised kitsch). Without even M.A.S.H.’s Loretta Swit to let you know there was ever a war on.

Such examples abound, to the point of, true to our conspiracy minded times, the burden of proof is on those who don’t believe in a Monkey Paw curse rather than those of us lucky or unlucky enough to be born wearing They Live sunglasses. As “indie” music is my main interest, I’m more sensitive to the hyper normality within that arena. Of course it pains me, as Iceage’s Number One Fan, to point out that the new album from Denmark’s sexiest aristocats is further evidence. I’ve decided that I like Seek Shelter, deciding that the album works best if you just think of it as Sonic Boom using Iceage to make fun of Spiritualized, but I know that as a fan I’m prone to rationalizing. While I do really dig the record (more and more with every listen), I can’t deny that it’s charisma-dependent bloozocity is rife with the sort of faithless religiosity that post-Exile Stones trafficked in during the ‘70s, before disco redeemed Jagger et al ever so slightly. My back gets up when peers compare Iceage to Oasis, the most normal band to ever exist. But the comparison is a bed my beautiful boys, presumably in concert with a seductive, banana scented claw, have made for themselves.

If the above doesn’t convince. If Biden’s dog controversies don’t convince. If the NYT trying to make slang invented by almost-old rich kids with fake jobs a thing doesn’t convince. If a Mortal Kombat remake doesn’t convince. If movies starring Anthony Hopkins that we take on faith as existing winning Oscars doesn’t convince.  If Taylor Swift rerecording all her old songs exactly the same doesn’t convince. If the dubious reader needs a crowning piece of evidence that we are living through a placidly plasticine Bermuda’s Triangle of supernaturally induced banality, I can provide the dubious reader with that crown. And that crown is a song called “The Gathering,” by the English folk punk musician Frank Turner. Just one listen, and the reader will know, beyond any doubt, that we are living under a Chthulicly absurd, stultifyingly monkeyified, Tussaudly tedious, hellsprung spell of demonically idiotic proportions. The song is, in its fashion, a wonder.

Art of “The Gathering”’s platitudinous power, to be accepted as proof of mystical forces at work, must be divorced from the artist. So we set aside Frank Turner’s history as a popular, reasonably talented singer of quasi-protest songs, as a liberal in “the classic” sense, as recipient of alleged violence at the hands of certain luminaries of the UKHC knuckledragger scene. We set all that aside, and take “The Gathering,” a song about songs about the COVID lockdown, about the potential emotional heft of those songs, as the iconic, singular anthem it clearly sees itself as.

The music of “The Gathering” is unexceptional. Notably so. A repetitious sparkle-free glam riff that sounds like it was discarded by Italian professional glam re-enactors, Guida, as “too pastiche.” I take no pleasure in noting the blandness of the guitars, but even who plays on it is relevant. “The Gathering” features guest guitar by Jason Isbell. If Phoebe Bridgers is the Taylor “for girls with crumbs in their bed,” then Jason Isbell is the Taylor for boys who bought Ryan Adams’ version of 1989 and are casting their nets to repent. Also, like Bridgers, Isbell is a talented songwriter, a charming tweeter, and an able singer who wouldn’t be half as famous if he was ugly. He’s fine. Maybe he just did the solo here, which is also fine.

Under the guitar riff and an equally canned organ soar, the drums and handclaps romp and stomp adequately, at times almost approaching the passion of a keyboard preset button with “Gary Glitter” wisely scratched off. Apparently it’s the drummer from Muse. I have no opinion of Muse, but their drummer’s participation is hardly an argument against a Monkey Paw’s refusal to just let us get back to basement shows.

It’s tempting to quote the lyrics to “The Gathering” in full. Turner calls his own beat “mythical” and himself a preacher. His sermonizes about communal catharsis in such a self-aggrandizing way that even when he sings about “closing the gaps between us,” it’s clear that he sees himself as a first amongst equals, as though punk never happened. Self-importance hasn’t been rendered so prosaically since the golden age of The Silver Bullet Band performing “Turn The Page” or The Doobie Brothers writing “Give Me The Beat Boys.” Turner would undoubtedly take the comparisons as a compliment. They are not. If you don’t have Bob Seger’s talent (namely the ability to pull off Bob Seger songs) then you're just Bad Company. Say what one will about bands like The Hold Steady (and I do, often), their takes on “songs about the power of songs,” while clearly indebted to Bob Seger’s worst impulses, are infused with enough specificity (no matter how haphazard) and intelligence (no matter how irritating) that it can’t be equalled by, as Turner does, just aping Craig Finn’s finger-snap vocal fry. That’s where the monkey’s paw normalcy doubles down on itself. In trying and failing to write a Hold Steady anthem, Frank Turner has instead recorded a power ballad for the troops. Like a 3 Doors Down ad for the National Guard. And the valiant troops in question are Frank Turner fans who have gone a year without being able to sing along with Frank Turner. If kitsch is, as Milan Kundera says, “the absolute denial of shit,” then “The Gathering” is punk rock rendered as a porcelain doll collection, suffering is just part of the Harry Potter-ian journey to selfhood, and COVID is the friends we made along the way.

As far as Monkey’s Paw carnage goes, things could be worse. I myself have made enough wishes for the dead to return. It's a miracle that we’re not in the midst of a full zombie mom apocalypse. But I also don’t think I’m alone in being less than content with yet another buffet stocked shit-full with gamey and overcooked lesser evils. All of us, at one point or another, wished for a return to normalcy. And we got it. How were we to know, and then somehow collectively agree on, a curse-proof wording? How were we to know that the devil not only doesn’t sleep, but that he’s endlessly hanging out in the Abercrombie & Fitch breakroom of our collective soul, waiting for our dumb asses to slip? In this time of deep revelation, we can only put on our They Live sunglasses and see that under the “Abandon All Hope” text hanging over hell’s gate, there’s a second sign that simply reads; “I Put Bacon on My Bacon.”

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