28 February 2009
The election of Barack Obama as the 44th president has evoked a sense of history in the making for many people, both inside and outside of the United States. For Democrats who suffered through the mind-boggling ineptitude of the Bush years, it has meant a return to a more progressive and socially-engaged approach to governance. For African Americans, it has signified a long overdue acknowledgment of their place in American society. For Muslims, his family connections with their religious beliefs brings hope for a better future. For the children of mixed race families, his background, black father, white mother, promises to bring greater recognition of the challenges they continue to face.
But for me, the election of Barack Obama meant one thing and one thing only. The time of the thin man has come. Sure, he's a democrat, he's black, his father was Muslim, his family of mixed race. But he was also a tall skinny guy, one who regularly reflected on this in his stump speeches, commenting on the unlikeliness of a "skinny guy with a funny name" ever becoming president. It was this, he claimed, that made him an outsider. Not being black, not having a Muslim father. But being skinny. Now, after wandering for years in the wilderness of masculinity, and having sand in kicked in our faces for not being sufficiently athletic, muscular, or simply bulky enough, the thin man is back; it's hip to be skinny all over again.
No post-punk artist was as skinny as Vini Reilly. And no post-punk artist seems to have captured the reluctant sadness, the melancholy mixed with a restless stirring of hope that defines what it means to be thin in the steroid age. In his recollection of the forming of The Durutti Column, Tony Wilson writes, "What remained in the winter of '78 was two managers, an obscure advert for a bizarre offshoot of the anarchist canon, and a sick guitarist. Vini specializes in being ill. Playing guitar like no one else in the world, and being ill. He was ill then. Anorexia would be a gross oversimplification, sensitivity, idle flattery, he was ill." But out of that illness, out of that impossible skinniness, came some of the most plangent, most deeply moving music of the period.
In 1989, Vini came out of hiding, putting not only his name but his picture on the cover of his new album. Of course I bought it the same week it came out, despite it being a pricey import, and me struggling to get by on a scholarship that barely covered tuition to graduate school. I probably just did without dinner that week. And of course I took it home with me that Christmas, propping the album sleeve up in front of the family stereo system while the record played. My mother came into the room and smiled. Then my dad. They looked at me. They looked at the album cover. Smiling and smiling. "What?" I asked, wondering what it was that they were so smiley about. "The record," my dad said. "You've made a record." I looked at the record. I looked at them. And it dawned on me. They thought the picture on the sleeve was me. The long, drawn face, head cupped in the palm of a hand, as if it were too heavy to be held without support. I suppose it could have been me, and, in a sense, I suppose they were right. Vini plays guitar for all us skinny guys. He is us. We're him. And now, with the election of the first skinny president, we're not just back, we're in charge.
Here's Vini Reilly playing live at the Bottom Line, in New York, in October, 1986. He's supported by an array of drum machines and sequencers, with the ever-dependable Bruce Mitchell on drums, and John Metcalfe adding some lovely viola playing to the proceedings. Skinny music at its best!
-- Crash The Driver