Real Friends #1: Money Difference, Career Envy
From “Awful Things”, Lil Peep, Come Over When You’re Sober, Pt. 1, 2017
by Elias Tezapsidis and Anthony Strain
This is the first in a monthly series of conversations between two writers attempting to also be friends! Hilariously, this sort of exchange is the sort of thing they derided seeing online a few years ago, but oh well, 2018!
Hey Anthony. I am glad that we are attempting to do this on a more series-oriented way. Our friendship has always meant a great deal to me, and I have attempted to explain it to other people, but that is not easy to do. I no longer recall exactly how we met, but it was online and we were both into the things the other was writing at the time. Additionally, we were both trying to get something on The Awl and were forming a cool relationship with co-founder Choire Sicha, who we were somewhat stanning—and still are, right?—at the time.
I guess, if I were to summarize a chunk of the essence of how we became friends, I would steal from the intro to this Berfrois thing:
Anthony is a very close friend of mine. We met on Twitter and we talk almost every day, without this rapport ever seeming nor feeling conditional; we both respond in our own understanding of time, respectfully not putting our lives on pause in the time we have not heard back from each other. It is a privilege to encounter people whose creative opinions and views one respects. Spatially we are separated, for a large chunk of our friendship each representing a coast—I, the neurotic one, he, the vaingloriouser one. As in most friendships, this one too, featured a sharing of certain interests: musical, intellectual, visual. We both really enjoy, and frequently vocalize this, artists who use the internet both as a part of their process and in their construction of the public person they desire to present to audiences.
and add from your Frank Ocean thing:
A few days after Blonde dropped, I was talking to Yes abt it on Viber, the app we use to keep in touch now that he’s moved back to Greece. Affectionately, he accused me of being too topical bc I’d heard the record and he hadn’t. Then later, he sent me a video of him hearing “Nikes” for the first time, a master shot of him reacting and lowkey crying, a video he meant for his bf in New York but one he wanted me to see, as one of his designated watchers. Once he sent me a visual of him slamming, and this was almost more wrenching. Something about the way that song switches between weary dragging and witchy sweetness recalls one of my favorite lines of literature, from Ondaatje’s The English Patient: “There are stories the man recites quietly into the room which slip from level to level like a hawk”. (Ondaatje, pastiche royale, is a cutter if there ever was one.) There are stories we tell ourselves and stories we tell our loves. We think we see, just for a minute, the wings of an angel who has temporarily turned into a pickup truck. Or maybe we just hear them.
Starting with what we do for a living, I think it could be useful for us to identify both as full-time writers but also as people living in a material world, if that makes sense. So, I am currently in Greece, where I am paying back past debt to a former really close friend / roommate by working at the high-school I graduated from in a multitude of positions. I am simultaneously hating myself for thinking I was special enough to be able to support myself in New York City via writing, but I am also glad I did it, because it pushed me to write more than I would have had I not done that. It is hard to summarize how returning home after a decade of absence has felt, but we often share our intense feelings about how useless our mothers can make us feel, without even trying.
I think the approach I took was very risky, and I would admit that it didn’t ultimately pay off, but there were additional paragons, such as sex and drug addiction (I would rather not disclose in the first part of our series!) and being a foreign person in the United States. I spanned from profligate to destitute lifestyles within hours, for years. The sort of labor I was usually allowed to be in the US to perform was not what I wanted, but in industries I could be making more money. It just quickly spiralled out of control once I began being honest about how much I despised being around bro culture 24/7.
I’m a writer which remains difficult to define or at least defend. With my book-like thing, I’ve tried to make the labor of it more discernible by turning one wall in my place into a shot list of post-its with all the scenes to write, and when all the post-its are removed that means I’ve written all the scenes and I have something like a first draft.
But there are still a lot of post-its up so the whole thing looks like some kind of inanimate installation instead of work in progress.
My work for money/survival is as a bookstore clerk in downtown LA in a space that’s low on actual readers and more like a terminal of tourism. My store is kind of famous and it’s got a lot of inventory and it’s in a hundred-year-old bank building with the original vaults and fixtures and everything and people like that for some reason. Because people use books as props in the true sense—a prop is anything an actor touches—we’re constantly breaking up photo shoots. It’s really weird and not like the average bookstore experience. Because of this, employment at the store is both highly sought-after and cannily exploited by ownership. They know it’s zeroed-in on by every English major in LA, even more so than the more boutique-like shops like Skylight or Book Soup because there’s an invisible “fun” component and because it’s cool to be downtown, and they manipulate the status of that somewhat in lieu of other perks like benefits or raises. So it’s no more an exploitative space than anything else really but feels falsely incentivized.
It would be wrong to single out my employer as being all that egregious in terms of paying a living wage, as they’re known for paying better than most of the other bookstores in LA. But one of the cruel twists of working in a labor stream that is at least parallel to the one you as a writer account for, and idealize (i.e. being paid to write full-time, getting a book deal, marketing it with readings) is that you’re constantly reminded of how rigged the publishing game is. The major houses rarely, if ever, publish unknown commodities and while this isn’t exactly news, New York-style book publishing is kind of the only art/commerce engine that does not account for the accidental talent. Music does it, film does it to some extent. New people go viral in TV all the time. There is no equivalent to a SoundCloud rapper blowing up in book world. Zero, and that’s both archaic and demoralizing. At least from my vantage it’s still where you went to school and who you know. Or it’s like Kathy Acker said (I might be paraphrasing): getting into books is like getting into opera. And she said that in like 1988 or something, and it’s even worse and more stagnant now. So being just a reader and an autodidact and a bookstore worker glimpsing event planning and book buzz and sensing the exclusion baked into it can be depressing.
In terms of dealing with that particular depression, of not knowing why you do something when chances at compensation and recognition are like atomically small, a macro example I like to use is Robert Caro living his life as Lyndon B. Johnson’s self-appointed biographer. That’s his eulogy and he is gonna keep doing it till he kicks, similar to like 12th-century construction bosses who started on a cathedral knowing it would take decades and they’d pass the completion of the project on to their large adult sons. Robert Caro is a millionaire, but still.
A micro example is Robert Lowell saying he wrote literally to pass the time. That, I identify with.
So, I am not sure you will want to name names, but there is a certain someone we have watched since before she had BOOKFORUM and ARTFORUM bylines, whose career makes me jealous, because I do not consider her particularly talented, but who definitely has a clear voice: truculent but intellectual, even in its highfalutin artifice. It is also difficult to think about discussing her without stating that n+1 (online, not that this matters to us, but it seems to matter to her!) is responsible for her success? Is she objectively successful? I think in my book, I would have to say yes. She is also more than a decent writer, but I totally cannot put up with her fake way of bragging, online. I much prefer someone bragging, like Cat Marnell does, than the fake-removed-yet-so-calculated approach she has taken. I think, again, it is important to add that I am also jealous, and this is an annoying feeling to have about any writer, but in some sense, doesn’t that also inspire good writing? Kraus→ Acker→ Sontag… It is nothing new. Though I must admit: I do prefer when I only admire someone.
Speaking about creative value and people who are worth getting a reaction from a wide audience, I feel like I am an awful person to realize how amazing Lil Peep is after he no longer “is.” I think I suffer from this on a broad scale, where I idealize the work of the dead more than the work of the living, and this is always a somber topic to discuss, but I find that in my case it is valid.
I think what I like most about him is that he is an angsty crossover between what used to be grunge and now is rap. The writing is good, but the mixing of ’90s rock and more current non-white sounds is what makes me tingle, as a listener. Also, I love the look. My biggest dream I will never go through with is getting a bunch of face tattoos. Not sure why I want that, but I guess it might be stupid for me to make it happen.
I don’t love “Awful Things,” but love the video clip. I like some of the lyrics which make apparent his obsession with death: “Burn me down/ till there’s nothing left.” But I can listen to “U Said” on repeat for hours, and fully adore that it is essentially two tracks, separated in the middle. I also think it is a very relatable sentiment, the yearning to not feel for someone, the necessity of doing drugs to get your mind off of them, but eventually the easy fix becomes an issue, because it ain’t a fix: you still have to deal with the thoughts and feelings you are trying to suppress. I think the first part is melancholic and the second is indulgence: deciding to not go on, to not get over your problems but get further into them.
I have been listening to Lil Peep a lot more seriously since his passing, and we have talked about his mom’s eulogy.
I also found Peep late but got it immediately. It sounds like Heaven Knows What and y2k and malls. Someone on YouTube called it trap by Blink-182 which seems about right. I admit I am drawn to drug aesthetics and depravity, especially when it’s by someone you could easily see walking down the street in Echo Park. My friend Asia was at his house at all the time. The records are evocative and feel gritty and real and aren’t as facile as some of the other jokier drug music on SoundCloud. Some of that scene—there was an episode of Popcast that talked about this—is kind of problematic and violent and clearly there is active drug-seeking behavior and invitations to abuse. It’s heavier because these are seriously kids, like kid-like kids. I went to the Peep vigil at Echo Park Lake and couldn’t believe how young everyone looked. There is at least a visual innocence to them that I don’t think you get with artists like Sky Ferreira or Lana Del Rey who are teen idols but are also these big immense stars in the mainstream, with fanbases that are practically universes. Teens who like Sky look 25 like her.
Peep was famous but only, as I think you put it, if you read cool internet. So he’s a pop musician with almost no adult fans, or at least none who don’t follow music professionally or who don’t feel a little weird or self-aware about it, which makes the death feel sadder and more contagious––not just bc he was so young, but bc his fans are.
There’s a trope that techno cannot be taken seriously as a genre because it has yet to produce a notable suicide. That’s glib and obviously techno is a serious genre. But it’s also the music most thought of as being drug music (along with house and all the subgenres and hybrids) and a lot of kids die in clubs but there’s no face for it, no suicide or accidental death of a star. Peep can hopefully be a kind of avatar for the nu-emo/internet rap community, put forward as the face of one chosen adventure. And that you can hopefully choose another one. Fortunately reports indicate some of these dudes are starting to scale back––Uzi for example. Or at least they were immediately after.
So, let’s continue with what we are reading next time, which we have agreed will be “Notes of a Crocodile.”