Tag Archives: rock & metal

Kibble

An abecedarium of unfinished posts, fledgling thoughts, broadsides, aphorisms, quotations, addenda, notes, interludes, promenades, speculations, vignettes, & other kitchen sinks; 32 in all, all newly revised & edited into easily-digestible, individually-wrapped tidbits; artfully arrang’d & illuminated by yrs. truely, HELLDRIVER.

A

Analogies. Musical models have always guided and inspired the way I think about form in fiction and creative nonfiction. Codas, for example: short, closing sections, generally following a line break, that serve as an oblique comment, sometimes in gesture, sometimes in image, on what came before. (A mentor of mine: “End on an image and don’t explain it.” He was quoting a mentor of his.) I think about the climax of Strauss’s Don Quixote: contending, shouting horns; sudden silence; and then a series of quiet, descending trills from the violins. The abrupt about-face in mood signals the hero’s approaching death. The closing move of my story “The Stability of Floating Bodies,” for example, is indebted to this. And that story’s final image, of geese crossing the sky, has an even more specific source: it was an attempt to do in language what Rush does in the closing seconds of “The Fountain of Lamneth”: a few-second crescendo-diminuendo with a light “whump” at the peak. Of course, these musical models are themselves stories; the circuit goes in both directions. But it matters, I think, that the narrative has been filtered through music, perhaps because it serves to highlight form, strain out the muck of substance.

Sometimes it’s the oeuvre of a composer I admire that inspires an analogy, such as that between two stories I wrote back-to-back several years ago and Bartók’s fourth and fifth string quartets: one a tweaked romance, the other strident and abrasive (though they were written in the opposite order, the older of the two being my quartet #5). Or perhaps this is an attempt to inflate them well beyond their actual worth, and so inspire myself to fail again, fail better.

B

Birdsongs & cadences. Musicologist Peter Manuel’s article “From Scarlatti to Guantanamera” (see “Domenico in the Heart,” 3.28.21, note G), argues that what people hear as a satisfactory ending is at least partly culturally determined, so that, for example, the Spanish/Latin American practice of ending on IV, which a listener whose ear is conditioned to Western music may hear as somewhat irresolute, sounds perfectly fine to someone raised listening to flamenco, or to some Caribbean musics. Cultures, that is, produce their own sense of an ending. Now, is it possible there is a deeper conditioning, something we might look for in nature? I’m thinking of the animal noises in the locations where different cultures emerged, and above all, of birdsongs.

Birdsongs don’t sound like they resolve at all. Rather, they cycle; Messiaen captured this so beautifully in the fragmented, repeating texture of his Small Sketches of Birds, one of my very favorite pieces of music. In birdsongs, movement pitchwise is hard to parse, if it’s present at all. Perhaps they resolve rhythmically? What if rhythmic cadences originally underlay melodic ones, quanta where pitches naturally fit, not because of frequency ratios, because of the ratios in temporal “spacing”? What Rosetta-stone algorithm might match these ratios?

One day, maybe we’ll understand that, when composers imitate birdsongs, be it Rameau, Dolphy, or Messiaen, they are simply paying the birds back a debt owed. I can even imagine the migratory paths of birds linking the musics found along their trajectories. And maybe it’s even deeper than this, with the soundmarks of inanimate, always animated nature shaping a particular community’s sense of form. (For more on soundmarks, see “Archaeology of Noise,” 1.8.22, note D.)

C

Cheese. When I teach the captivity narrative of Mary Rowlandson, I like to mention Michael Pollan’s comments about the role of food in cultural identity. As the reader may remember, Rowlandson starts out calling the Indians’ food “filthy trash.” That is, until she starts starving; then it becomes “sweet” (thanks, of course, to the Lord). By the end she’s pulling boiled hooves out of little kids’ hands and gobbling them down herself. Anyway, Pollan uses cheese and the French as a shorthand example for the way food speaks cultural identity: the stinkier and rankier the cheese—that is, the less palatable to anyone who isn’t French—the better. In other words: cultural identity depends as much, and perhaps more, on unpalatability for those it excludes as the palatability for those it includes. This is how cultures develop an inedible rind, as it were, as well as protecting their native pungency from bleeding out. The concept works as well for music, of course: the music most unpalatable to others is what most clearly demarcates your identity; the bond of adherents to a particular genre is at least as much a product of the unpalatability of said genre’s music to those outside the circle. The distaste of the uninitiated may even be one source of aesthetic pleasure. What free-jazz lover hasn’t enjoyed the crinkled nose, the expression of incomprehension and patronizing disbelief, of some more straitlaced audience member who somehow managed to stumble into a free-jazz set—who was perhaps invited there for that very reason: to become a pillar, a sacrifice, an emblem of the outside around whose immolation we revel? (See “Torch Songs for LES,” 12.7.12.)

When we call something an acquired taste, we’re calling attention to the labor involved in retraining our receptors (and our minds) to engage with, rather than reject, an unfamiliar stimulus, as well as signaling a particular pleasure that is gained by making that effort—an effort, I should say, that is an act of free choice, not Rowlandsonian desperation. (If I were stuck on a desert island and all I had was NSYNC, would I start to like it? I want to say no, but like Rowlandson, I think after a few weeks I’d start to find it sweet, and I’d thank the Lord, too. Hell, I’d probably eat the kid along with the hoof, and thank the Lord for that, too.) As with cheese, so with cheesy: one person’s cheese is another’s fine fare. Tolstoy thought Wagner was cheesy, and many find the histrionics of flamenco (or metal) cheesy as well. Of course, genre is an imperfect boundary. I find Iced Earth unpalatable, for example—the Limburger of metal—but I have friends who absolutely wallow in the stuff.

Nothing risked, nothing gained, I always say. A certain amount of bombast, or sentiment, and you’re going to risk stinking a little. Not enough, and you’re dead boring. Me, I’ll take the cave-aged, and work backwards from there.

D

Damned by faint praise. Metallica: best cover band ever.

*

Deviance: a screed. The relationship between heavy metal and the broader culture—academic, elite, and mainstream—has always been pretty fucking weird. Take the academic: as I mentioned in “T-shirts and Wittgenstein” (5.24.13), in the ‘80s heavy metal wasn’t a style of music; it was a case study in social deviance. Academics—generally social scientists—approached the genre through so-called content analysis, i.e. “interpretation” of lyrics for clues as to the connection between metal and antisocial/sociopathic behavior. If you wanted to read anything peer-reviewed about metal in a CUNY library, you had to go to John Jay, the College of Criminal Justice. (The exception to this might be some early work on gender play in hair metal, stressing the subgenre’s indebtedness to glam rock.) Of course, the study of pop music more generally was firmly locked in content analysis, too; metal was just a particularly aggrieved version of this. Rap seems to have suffered the same indignity. Maybe it was their joint pariah status that drove the genres into each other’s arms in the late ‘80s? At least, that is, until hip hop became the darling of academy and critics alike—it’s increasingly difficult to tell the difference—and metal blew itself to pieces, and the pieces were buried in a warm place to germinate while a debauched frat-metal surfed the airwaves for a mercifully brief moment. But I’m getting sidetracked. The first full-length academic studies of the early ‘90s started to do more complex justice to to the music (Walser) and the scene (Weinstein). A decade later, thrash was revived; retro culture, which had started by gobbling up the sixties and seveties, finally made it to the eighties; monsters became misunderstood victims with whom it was cool to identify, and theorized to the point that one truly couldn’t help but pity them; metal found a new home in Brooklyn neighborhoods you couldn’t see or even train to from L’amour’s; and the genre was soon as fetishized as tattoos and black nailpolish and the X-treme Ballsiness of Facial Hair, together with a veganism more lifestyle choice than commitment to end the untold, endless suffering of our animal brethren.

I could go on—so many cultural factors help explain the mutations that have allowed metal to flourish in odd new forms in the tidal pools of the twenty-first century. But what most interests me here is metal’s acceptance by a broader mainstream culture. This seems to be recent enough, and so contrary to where we were in the eighties, as to merit special comment. (Well. Ahem. I should acknowledge that even People magazine had come around to thrash by the late eighties. I remember reading this in a doctor’s waiting room and feeling all warm & fuzzy. With one exception, of course. Can you guess? Slayer, of course. There should be a Slayer shirt that says something like “People magazine always hated us.” Maybe the roots of the genre’s downfall should be sought, not in the Black album or the death of Cliff Burton, but People’s endorsement of Master of Puppets.) Thirty-five years later, the buzzword isn’t deviance anymore. It’s empowerment. Everyone, it seems, wants to jump on the bandwagon of this once-discredited genre, to come out of some fantastical closet and reveal that, you know, they always did like metal, appearances and habits and comments to the contrary notwithstanding.

Why are people falling all over themselves to associate themselves with a genre that was once the province of pimply math nerds and shop kids, and the shop kids’ black-eyeshadowed girlfriends the pimply nerds fantasized about? Possibly because this genre, over the last decade and a half or so, has come to be recognized as a language of the disenfranchised. There is a longstanding appreciation for heavy metal in the Islamic world, as Mark LeVine documented in Heavy Metal Islam more than ten years ago. Slayer grafitti befouls billboards in Iran as much as the Bible belt. And there are micro-scenes all over the globe, as contributors to the anthology Metal Rules the Globe (Duke UP, 2011) explored and analyzed. Iron Maiden’s rabid worldwide fanbase is the envy of none other than Lady Gaga. I keep getting emails in my school inbox from some educational documentary film company advertising a movie about the Navajo metal scene and a band there that ended up recording with Flemming Rasmussen. The Sundance Film Festival this year featured a documentary, Sirens, about an all-female thrash metal band from Beirut called Slave to Sirens. In the after-film convo, one of the producers claimed that they were all metalheads there. I mean, she was wearing black, so, yeah, anything’s possible. But I admit I was a teensy bit skeptical. The filmmakers also went out of their way to stress the incredible musical talent of the young women, who are, after all, playing the sort thing that was once labeled caveman music. And so metal is no longer the knuckle-dragging Neanderthal genre of yesteryear. Today, it is the very contemporary music of vanguardist freedom-fighters, a common vocabulary of riffs, growls, shrieks and ostinatos through which they articulate their disenchantment with the status quo and their desire for liberation. The one-time dinosaurs have become velociraptors.

Well, that sounds pretty cool, right? So why the fuck am I so annoyed? I mean, empowerment beats the shit out of delinquency, doesn’t it?

I’ll tell you why the fuck I’m so annoyed. In a word: it’s patronizing, it’s hypocritical, and it once again runs roughshod over the music that, for most of the people I know who listen to it, is the only thing that matters. It’s clearly what matters to the young women in Slave for Sirens, whatever other interests the filmmakers might have.

I wonder if this shift says something about America’s inability to countenance the congenital injustice of capitalism. Lebanese fighting corruption and gender oppression is all well and good, and that young women in Beirut, for example, have found in thrash metal a voice for their anger is patronizingly endearing (i.e., their choice of means for vocalizing their anger is accepted because of their distance from American culture, rather like the way we laugh when non-English speakers swear). Navajo metalheads can be safely infantilized, too. But the idea that white working-class and rural Americans have a bone to pick is a lot harder for the (white) dominant capitalist culture to swallow, because it points to an ongoing economic violence which, while deeply inflected by and entangled with race, is not in itself racial. (To note that anger is misplaced onto scapegoats and manipulated by jingoistic politicians is not the same as saying it’s unjustified. Not for nothing King paired racism and capitalism in his later speeches.) If white working-class anger is unjustifiable, its musical expression must therefore be aesthetically flawed. But the same musical vocabulary, taken up by marginalized others, confers on the music dignity, and critics hear it differently. Funny, it still sounds like metal to me. (N.B. Sorry to ignore the middle-class metalheads here. Shit’s complicated enough; I’m just scratching the surface, and am fully aware the noise I’m making is uncomfortably grating. Anyway, this is a screed. Want nuance? Move on to letter E, and/or check out “Dr. Heidegger’s Punks” (4.16.16), which has a bit more about class and metal.)

So, yeah, all this acceptance, it leaves a bad taste in my mouth. I console myself with the idea that the fawning over metal will pass like all fads; critics will find something else once disparaged to fawn over, and they and the documentary filmmakers &c. will just leave us the fuck alone with our music. I’ll be able to find those old thrash records I missed out on collecting in the used bins again, and buy them for a reasonable price, no less valuable for having passed through the hands hipsters—hell, they probably took better care of them than the plumber who listened to them in the eighties. And then I’ll be able to listen to Slave to Sirens and all these other bands not as inspiring examples of struggles against oppression, but simply because they play good fucking metal.

O, to let deviance be deviance again!

[Addendum: I recommend Sirens, by the way. It’s a very good doc. I just felt like putting on my asshole cap for a minute. The problem with the cap is it fits so good that, after a while, it’s hard to get off.]

E

Essence. When a band or artist achieves their essence it’s always a beautiful thing. They become allegory, a transparent thing flooded with light. They achieve the form of whatever they were intended to be, which only comes into being at the moment of its achievement, but then casts a retroactive glow over their career, which we are now invited to view teleologically. As though perfection of form were so incandescent as to blind us to substance, or to make it transparent, reveal it as (mere) form itself. As though substance were no more than a frame through which perfection of form was meant to be apprehended. While these moments seem stable and permanent, this is an illusion brought about by their perfection. They are inherently unstable, like a skateboarder poised at the edge of a ramp, or those acrobatic families who form themselves into muscular houses of cards.

All this is true even for the most wretched bands.

Application: I’ve never cared for Van Halen. I’ve recently somewhat reconciled myself to David Lee Roth, but that’s between me and my conscience. I also had to distance myself from growing up in the era of Eddie Van Halen to really take stock of his genius. Anyway, if I ask, “At what moment, in what song, did Van Halen transcend their own crass misogyny and achieve the perfection of Vanhalenness?” that moment, that song, would have to be “Hot for Teacher”: the most perfect expression of the Van Halen essence. The paradox is that they do this—and it might be the only way to do this—by going full-throttle into what makes them what they are; as though identity flipped into overdrive rattled off everything that was ephemeral and contingent, like shaking dirt through a sieve to find, not nuggets of gold, but that the sieve itself is a golden mesh. The very excess of Van Halen’s puerility and narcissism and vulgarity in this song is what enables them to pull past it (N.B.: theory-heads, I’m thinking of George Bataille here). DLR was never more gross—he was on the cusp of making self-parody a career, if he hadn’t already—and Alex never more rote. But then listen again to that opening drum riff, doubled up like Zeppelin’s “Four Sticks”; listen to Roth actually acting out his pubescent mental and emotional age; listen to the boogie-woogie rhythm the band had fiddled with before but never otherwise adequately brought to the fore; listen, listen above all to Eddie, on the intro, and the way he phrases and accents the main chord progression, both clean and full-on distorted, and that main solo, of course, a master who plays with his whole body, the way Jimi did. In the video, EVH struts down a bar like I once saw the great blues guitarist Bill Wolf do at the Red Belle Saloon in Salt Lake City. But all this is just rationalization larded with nostalgia. You can’t analyze essence into its constituent parts any more that you can parse God. It’s the way the parts fit together, the way they coalesce in those four minutes, the way they capture the unselfconscious exuberance of being Van Halen, the band, that matters.

I swear, when that song comes on the radio I can almost smell it.

I remember a colleague of mine once commenting that when you watch AC/DC you see a band that believes utterly in what they’re doing, and that makes all the difference. Think “Dirty Deeds.” Think “TNT.” Think “Girls Got Rhythm.” Brainless to boot; all the clumsy bravado of toddlers. And so, so perfect. Maybe that’s all it is: an absolute, unwavering belief in one’s genius, or sexiness, or whatever, that spills over the edges of its container. And why not? They’re rock stars.

F

Fecundity. One thing that has always attracted me in art is the sense—call it an illusion—of inexhaustible fecundity of the creator. The number of gorgeous melodies Brahms crowds into a symphony; the feeling of absolute newness Sonny Rollins imparts to a solo with every chorus; the number of quirky, perfectly-drawn minor characters who populate a Dickens novel. It can provoke laughter, a sort of giddinness, like the gag with clowns getting out of a car: Where are they pulling this shit from? It’s like being tickled. It must be related to the sublime; only our consciousness of it as art, or here, the figure of the artist, provokes delight rather than terror.

G

Gravy. Metallica didn’t evolve; they congealed.

 H

Hooks. Over the decade of blogging I’ve grown attached to the idea that writing about music should inhabit something of the style of the music it speaks/about; that it should attempt to be at once mimetic and critical; that, to be adequate to the task of writing about music, there should be something in the language that embodies it, however that is imagined; and that the difficulty of doing this might help articulate something of the difficulty of music criticism. (See, for example, the first endnote of “Flesh and Steel,” 4.12.17.) It’s an oblique answer to the Burnham epigraph on the main page of this blog: a vision of criticism that rubs shoulders with the form, that attempts to occupy a fruitful border without falling into either the arid objectivity of the specialist or the besotted ecstacy of the fan (or what Burnham calls “be-here-now laziness” and “emotional groping”).

A corollary to the above is that criticism should develop discourses commensurate to the styles of music it seeks to articulate. The genre should determine the discourse, not the other way around. To presume otherwise is to miss its essence, to impoverish rather than enrich the reader’s perception.

Part of my beef with the latter-day acceptance of metal by rock critics et al. (see “Deviance” above) is that the old critical language, intended to find a way to valorize three-chord pop songs, simply can’t do justice to this genre. As rock critics have attempted to describe their strange and possibly guilty new infatuation, the critical vocabulary has not been updated to register that shift. Example: in the pop-critical lexicon, “hook” means an ear-catching melody, a word of great praise, ensuring as it does lots of clicks and sing-alongs. (I’ve probably used it myself.) But is this term of critical endearment really applicable to metal? Does metal give a fuck about hooks? Only, I assume, insofar as it bows to the dictates of pop. Which, of course, some metal does, quite effectively. But then a whole lot doesn’t.

Worst-case scenario: I fear a music that is subjected to and therefore tamed by a discourse that evolved to exclude it. To judge a genre by an inappropriate standard is to be deaf to that genre’s ethos and objectives, its unique contribution to music. It’s like saying Carl Dreyer’s films have problems with pacing and could learn something from watching Fast & Furious. Or Cronenberg movies are fine, except for all the latex critters. Or Moby-Dick shows that Melville could have used an editor. At what point do you clap someone on the shoulder and say, “You know? Maybe this just isn’t for you.”

Using a word like “hooks” to describe a metal song is like trying to eat a T-bone steak with a plastic spoon. No, metal needs a critical discourse analogous to its sound. That’s what so many amateur reviewers have done with their penchant for metaphor piled on metaphor: try to capture metal’s excess through an analogous excess of language, often through mixed, clashing, and Gongoristic metaphors. (See my article“Heavy Melville” for a fuller discussion.)

More broadly, if you like metal and want to write about it, here’s my advice: fuck rock criticism. Write against the grain by consciously undermining its shibboleths. Undermine the mainstream discourse of music criticism by coloring at its edges until the edges, not the picture, are all the reader sees. Write at great length, and then yet-greater length; become the behemoth you hear. Purge the critical vocabulary about metal of all but what can really speak it. Fill it again with a vocabulary consistent to the genre, a language of metal as much as for metal. A metallic language. You want hooks? Fine. Make them bloody, dripping meathooks. Coat them in tattered flesh. Grappling hooks for pulling carcasses down a slaughterhouse chute. The creak of the chains from the half-dismembered bodies swinging from them. The whine of Leatherface’s saw. Can you hear the music yet? Can you?

I

Instrumental. In one of his New York Notes, the great jazz critic Whitney Balliett wrote this about Charlie Christian: “In the manner of all great jazz musicians, what he played became more important than the instrument itself.” A doubly contentious point, given (a) Christian’s synonymousness with the foundation of jazz guitar as a lead instrument, and (b) the guitar’s status as an instrument where devotion to the idea of virtuosity is cross-generic; for many guitarists, the instrument has acted as a sort of wedge for expanding their taste into other genres that use the guitar, and dabbling in a number of styles (as I have, with astonishing lack of aptitude). My point is that the guitar, perhaps more than any other instrument, inverts Balliett’s formula: what Christian played—the handware in his hands—has been, for many a guitarist, more important than his contribution to that genre called jazz.

From the standpoint of composition, spontaneous or otherwise, I think Balliett underemphasizes the role instruments play in shaping what comes out of them. Great music doesn’t necessarily transcend the instrument or instruments on/for which it was conceived; it may, in fact, make the instrument glaringly present in the listener’s mind. Leo Brouwer’s sonata for guitar, for example: I can’t imagine it being composed on any another instrument; the guitar itself, its droning open strings, the arrangement of its fretboard, clearly shaped the notes on the page. And what a wonderful piece of music it is! Sometimes, what sounds like harmonically-advanced composition may simply be a path of least resistance. Like: are those transposed sustained-second chords really an example of quartal harmony … or just what came out from noodling with sus-2 chords up and down the neck?

I was thinking about all this one day while watching the great fusion guitarist Wayne Krantz at one of his (what used to be) semi-regular Thursday-night gigs at the 55 Bar. His style is so guitar-focused that it’s difficult to imagine on any other instrument; like Brouwer’s sonata, one gets the impression that it could not have come into being on anything but a guitar, nor could it be successfully reproduced one another instrument—and none of this diminishes its brilliance in any way. It’s a style partly dictated by sheer economy: he stakes out one part of the neck, often beginning with just one string, four or five notes in a line, exploiting half-steps and half-bends—his left hand stays put; his fingers seem to barely move—while his right explores rhythmic possibilities and different phrasings. He builds outwards from there: notes are added atop notes in half-bars, half steps above half steps, augmented with fuller bends and note clusters, each expansion itself augmented by increasing volume and tempo as his solos wend toward a climax. The guitar does have the advantage of having more than two full octaves within easy reach, and is particularly comfortable for this sort of minimalist exploration between the seventh and twelfth frets, where Krantz bears down. (There might even be something about an instrument that complements a venue and audience: I think of patrons, myself included, ducking under the neck of Krantz’s Stratocaster on our way to and from the 55’s bathroom.)

In a broader sense, I think we should take more care to consider the role of the evolution of instruments—that once-primary technology in the creation of musical sounds—in the evolution of music, and re-imagine “greatness” not as something abstract floating above the technology of musical production, but intimately connected with it, the god in the machine. The instrument—its shape and sonority, and the relationship between it and the body that plays it, hands feet lips tongue fingers—both inspires and delimits creation. Composition is never fully divided from performance, but part of a musician’s relationship to their instrument; improvisation isn’t something that happens in the brain prior to the note, but something that flows dialectically between mind and wandering muscles, which ideally collapse into a single entity.

Does the clear bifurcation of Prokofiev’s string quartet no. 1, revealing of the pianist’s two-handed mindset, weaken or invigorate that composition? Was Bartók able to push the string quartet in new directions because, as a pianist, he heard the quartet differently, and was less familiar with the limitations of the instruments at hand? (I think of him working with the great violinists of his day to expand the possibilities of the quartet; I think, too, of the sonorities, rhythms, and melodies of the gypsy violins he recorded that also shaped those quartets … and all his music, piano included.) What happens when musicians compose at the piano, and then take those melodic sketches to their own instruments, and begin to expand them in new directions, as, say, Coltrane describes doing with Giant Steps? The currents run in multiple directions: between instruments, between cultures, cross-composing and transcription, collaborative composition and virtuoso performance, all pushing instrumental music in new directions, and the possibilities of instruments into new ranges, which, for the following generations, simply become part of that instrument’s expressive palette. No instrument is ever “pure”; it exists within a matrix of other instruments, and composers and audiences write and listen in that context: the orchestra in a Beethoven piano sonata, the cello in Sam Newsome’s horn.

And so Christian: it may be that what he played—the guitar—had a strong influence on what he played—the notes—and that it was his outre (at the time) choice of instruments—a rhythm instrument he was dragging into the front line—more than any abstract thoughtfulness about notes and chords that exerted the pressure on advancing jazz as a style of expression.

J

Jazz inversion. Listening to Mastodon’s “Mother Puncher” the other day (Remission, 2002), it occurred to me that some extreme metal music inverts the traditional rock instrumental hierarchy dividing the rhythm section (drums and bass) from the lead (guitar, voice). It’s a code writ larger than rock, though which instrument occupies what position will depend on the genre and its development. But the repetitiveness of riff-based rock, and the ostinatos of metal, have morphed the guitars into the chief vehicles of a song’s rhythmic drive. Melody is pared back to the essentials; the listener’s attention is displaced onto timbre. And then, in much the way the walking bass in jazz frees the drums to participate more fully in the constantly-changing surface of improvisation, punctuating and emphasizing rather than carrying the backbeat, so the drums in some of these early Mastodon songs are liberated to become a solo instrument that stands over and above the rest of the music: the riffs and ostinatos become a backbeat against which the drums improvise. (Of course, you need a drummer like Brann Dailor to make it work … and make it work he does. See also Gunther Schuller’s point about Duke Ellington’s orchestration in “Pressure Begets Grace,” 9.13.20.)

K

Kiev’s Gate & Old Castle. In 2009 I was present for the finals of the Van Cliburn piano competition (held in Fort Worth, Texas) when the blind Japanese pianist Nobuyuki Tsujii (or “Nobu,” as he came to be known) shared the gold medal with Haochen Zhang. When he sat to play, he would measure from both ends of the keyboard back to its middle. Then he would begin. It’s not that he never missed a note; it’s how quickly he recuperated himself in the rare instances that he did. I was fortunate to be able to hear him again a year or so later, when he played Carnegie Hall—not Zankel or the Met, where other Cliburn medalists had performed, but Stern. At that time, maybe a decade ago, he had become something of a celebrity freak, as well as a national icon. Stern was filled that night with Japanese fans, a large number of whom, I would guess, had never been to Carnegie Hall.

Nobu’s gold-medal recital at the Cliburn culminated in a powerful rendition of Beethoven’s sonata Op. 57 (“Appassionata”). The climax of the Carnegie Hall recital was Mussorgsky’s great, underperformed piano suite “Pictures at an Exhibition.”

The irony, which the Times et al. likely considered too obvious to point out, leaving it to vulgates like me to ponder: that a blind man should play a piece whose purpose is to make us see things he himself has never seen. He occupies one part of a circuit: Mussorgsky, the composer, transformed the old castle, the hut on fowl’s legs, and the great gate at Kiev, into music, apparently from paintings, some of which have been discovered; the music, when it is performed, “reconstructs” these images in the listener’s mind; the performer’s ears and fingers become the prisms through which the images are re-integrated as sound.

This is all well and good. And yet, as I listened, I couldn’t help (silently) protesting: He has never seen the castle! He has never seen any castle at all! He has never seen, will never see, the Great Gate at Kiev! (Idiot. Have you? He’s never seen a keyboard, either.) What does he see when he plays these things? What appears in his mind? What spatial clues? Does he need to, to play them magnificently? Have they been described to him? Has he run his fingers over pictures in relief, as he did the keyboard? Has he been guided to the walls of gates and castles, touched them, walked through and under them? Is it better that he not know them as image, in order to become the emotional conduit of the notes, of pure sound, with the imagistic labor meant to be performed, never by the musician, but by the listener, and perhaps not even by them? The composer, after all, is “describing” an emotion arising from the picture, not the picture itself: the grandeur of the gate; the melancholy of the castle.

Anyway, he made the great gate present. A miracle, indeed.

A series of other things occurred to me, after listening to Nobu that night. Was imagism a Trojan horse for modernism? Some parts of the “Pictures,” like “Gnomus,” and even parts of “Kiev,” sound quite tonally advanced to my ear. Like the late Romantics grasping for the nuances and ambiguities of emotion, and twisting the rules of harmony to achieve them: might the same be true for those composers attempting to musically grasp a visual text? To what extent did the lure of the image serve as an excuse for breaking traditional tonal and structural boundaries—as though running music through the circuit of another artistic medium, or by the sheer force of attraction to some other medium, bends the rules of the original medium, forces it to rethink some of its assumptions? (Not, that is, by some internal pressure—i.e., the composer feeling that the compositional rules of the time are exhausted/overly restrictive—but outside: the composer trying to “adequate” music to the pressures of another medium.) And then, once this has happened, the program element becomes vestigial, is sloughed like old skin, and this new tonal or structural thing becomes enshrined as abstract music. I think of the way some of the most bizarre experiments in music happening toward the end of the nineteenth century—not Mussorgsky, but Richard Strauss—and then Debussy, of course—were programmatic in intent. Rather than say, “I broke the rules because I wanted to”—as Debussy happily did—the composer can say, “I broke the rules because the object I was describing demanded it.” (I could probably add Wagner here: the psychological state of a character becomes the “object” whose description demands an updated harmonic language.)

Some years after jotting down the notes for the above in a journal, I encountered this passage in Lewis Rowell’s Thinking About Music: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Music (Massachusetts UP, 1983): “The episode of the herd of sheep in Strauss’s Don Quixote, which was originally criticized for being blatantly overpictorial, now takes on a new significance because of the manner in which Strauss anticipates some of the trends in musical style since the 1950s” (156).

This also seems pertinent: the avant-jazz saxophonist and composer John Zorn has remarked on the way growing up with TV—particularly cartoons—reshaped his (and other composers’) sense of continuity and compositional integrity. (The comment is from Put Blood in the Music; I probably encountered it in the book Jazzing; see “Vasudeva on the Hudson,” 11.11.18.) Music used incidentally, to express something in the action, in a disjointed, perhaps episodic form, influenced the way composers of his generation conceived of musical structure (amply on display in Naked City, for example: Zorn music for a cartoon yet to be drawn). I discussed this briefly in the post “Silent Movie” (3.25.11), where the music of silent cinema, like cartoon music, “mimes” (the word I used there) the action on screen, following and amplifying the emotional character of the moment, punctuating or highlighting bits of action, even attempting to onomatopoeaically imitate non-present diegetic noise.

Today, the logic of narrative and the image have shredded old concepts of organic unity in music. Indeed, we seem to have come full circle: image and narrative have so overtaken music as to create a new constraint; what was once an impetus for transgression (if the causal argument above holds any water) has become the stultifying norm. Here’s hoping that some maverick of abstract music finds a way out for us … some blind savior of the future …

L

Light poles & paint cans. God bless New York, right? So many musicians, in the parks, on the street corners, in the subway stations. So poorly compensated. But this one, a drummer from a little more than a decade ago, clearly knocked me out, because I jotted down some notes in my journal. (You might even remember him; you might have encountered him elsewhere, or a handful of others like him.) He set up around the corner from MOMA, a block up 6th Ave. A portly middle-aged black man with a short grey beard and wearing—the day I recorded—a green shirt. He used thick, sawed-off wooden dowels for sticks. With his left hand he played the equivalents of bass and snare: the bass was the traditional overturned plastic paint can; the snare was a metal grate trapped under his stocking foot. He also played rolls against the edge of the bucket’s bottom. His other sneaker sat on the sidewalk, his socked foot hidden inside an aluminum cannister, with the sides dented, partly so that it would lay flat, partly to have clear surfaces to beat on, like a Jamaican steel drum. He played it inside as well as out; inside, he would produce a roll by fluttering his stick, bouncing it between the sides. There was a smaller grate on the sidewalk that he played with his right hand, and an empty propane cannister, also dented in places, for flourishes. A kit as baroque as any prog rock drummer’s, and the sort of thing that must have inspired avant-jazz drummers like Mark Giuliana when they started putting together their own DIY kits. And that’s not even all: he was set up next to a lightpost, which he would occasionally use as a ride cymbal; whacking his stick against it gave out a clattering ring-tone; the whole pole hummed. And he would just as readily play the sidewalk, the cement of which gave a dry, almost woodblock sound. There were only two things he didn’t play: the shopping cart in which he carried his equipment, and the plastic tub, just out of his reach, the bottom full of crumpled bills, like dried flowers in a wastebasket. I figured that, if I stood close enough, he would try to play me, too.

There are so many. In the parks, on the street corners, in the subway stations. You’d think the city would offer some sort of dedicated housing, just for itinerant percussionists like this. You wouldn’t want to live there, maybe. But you dream about what visiting would sound like.

*

Living. The jazz composer Maria Schneider, in conversation with Ben Ratliff: “Flamenco—it makes living possible. Blues and early jazz—it made living possible.” It makes living possible. Just keep saying that to yourself about music.

M

Metal w/o metal. VH1 once did a special on the most non-metal metal moments: moments, that is, where the cock rock codpiece dropped off, and the most beloved practitioners of the genre reveal themselves as the divas, whiners, and poseurs they really are. I wonder: What about the opposite: where ostensibly non-metal artists—and non-artists—suddenly reveal themselves to be, like, so fucking metal? I’m thinking about a moment from The Enigma, a documentary about the pianist Svatoslav Richter, where he is performing with a Russian singer in some isolated cabin. Watching that singer, my first thought was: Holy shit. That dude is SO fucking metal! But what exactly did I mean by that? What is metal, if it can be identified in moments that have nothing to do with the genre of music it purports to name? The sociologist Keith Kahn-Harris asked this question a number of years ago: can there can be metal without metal? (See “T-Shirts and Wittgenstein,” 5.24.13.) Is Robert Eggers’s new movie The Northman, like, totally fucking metal? (Indeed! (Is it good? An open question!)) Is it, then, more than just a genre, a culture that has grown up around the genre, which the music fed, and feeds, and sustains? Or perhaps just an attitude toward life and living? A full-throttle way of being present in and to the world? A presence that is the opposite of mindfulness? A marrow-sucking that never keeps us at peace? Moments of transport and sublimity, where one is at one and the same time Lovecraft’s blind, idiot god and the puny being cowering under him, threatened with his own annihilation?

*

Morning concerts: a resolution. Whereas, not all music lovers are night owls; and / Whereas, listening to music in the morning, even to jazz or metal, is neither lurid nor indulgent; and / Whereas, the metal breakfast, like the jazz breakfast, should be no more a thing of shame than the 6 a.m. Brandenburg concerto; and / Whereas, lunchtime concerts have found appreciative audiences around the city, and in no way equate to midday cocktails or pints, and are indeed often held in churches, possibly to make the patrons feel better about indulging themselves, and to give churches something to do on weekdays; and / Whereas, currently the earliest concerts seem to be at 11 a.m., and these generally on Sundays, as though they were surrogate services; and / Whereas, people have long used music, usually the radio, thas an alarm for waking, like farmers use roosters, like platoons use bugle-players; and / Whereas, a significant minority of jazz fans are so-called morning people; and / Whereas, many of us take our music as seriously as our coffee, which is to say, very seriously indeed; therefore be it / Resolved, that cities and towns around the country will make an earnest effort to offer concerts in the mornings, particularly on weekdays, between 6 and 9 a.m.; and be it futher / Resolved, that said cities and towns will revise zoning and noise-ordinance laws to accommodate said concerts; and be it finally / Resolved, that said cities and towns will foster a culture of morning musical appreciation and of combating prejudices against enjoying live music, particularly that of certain genres, before noon.

N

Nostalgias. As a child of the eighties—by which I mean my teenage years, those crucial years for the formation of musical taste—I get tired of hearing about the previous generation’s disappointment with post-sixties music. I’ve started to wonder if it’s not misdirected bitterness at that generation’s sense of their own failure. The revolution fizzled; the purported inferiority of the next generation’s music becomes a vehicle for feeling good about one’s own. I’m with Jello here: I loathe sixties nostalgia. I also hate this sort of editorializing periodization, and the vulgar Marxism and flawed isomorphism that assumes periods of conservative ascendancy couldn’t possibly produce anything of cultural value. As though the Zeitgeist was margarine, evenly spread throughout society, and hence either uniformly oppressive or uniformly liberating. Great music has always been around; genius, as somebody once said, is common as dirt. Scratch a little and you’ll find it.

The annoyance goes both ways: I get just as tired hearing my friends talk about how the eighties were the greatest period of rock bar none. I tell them how bad a drug nostalgia is, how they need to expand their horizons, buy some new records, go to a club, drink a glass of milk for fuck’s sake. Then I’ll sit down with some geriatric flower child telling me about how everything after the ‘60s sucked and how the ‘80s were the worst period ever, and I find myself defending the ‘80s tooth and nail—I mean, not hair metal or The Thompson Twins or anything, but you know. Ideally, I shouldn’t have to do either. Ideally, everybody would just shut the fuck up and listen to everybody else’s music.

But here’s a caveat in favor of the geriatric flower child. There’s something to be said for the way a greater or lesser degree of liberation in a society as a whole enables an across-the-board flourishing in the arts. A cultural rift like the one the U.S. saw in the ‘60s allows certain things to percolate up into consciousness that couldn’t otherwise. It has to. I get that. I could point to a lot of things from that era, but for some reason the text that always jumps to mind is Marat/Sade.

It has a transgressively weird quality that feels like a litmus test for an era. Could anyone make a Marat/Sade today? I sort of doubt it. As those weird-city bumper stickers suggest, we might be a bit too self-conscious, a bit too desperate, about our desire to be weird.

I’m still wary of writing off any period, or, for that matter, equating the art of any one period with the dominant culture. There’s always too much variation, too much going on. Anyway, as artists, we can’t sit around wringing our hands because asshole #143 is in the White House, and we can’t be looking around waiting for someone to start the revolution. The revolution starts one word, one note at a time. Grab the typewriter and go, man.

O

Overheard at Overkill. Circa 2014: “I was a hundred pounds lighter the last time I saw Overkill.”

P

Praised by faint blame. Megadeth: worst cover band ever.

*

Purloined clave. The clave, or key, in Latin music can refer to one of two things: a basic rhythm undergirding the music, its backbeat; or the percussion instrument (generally two thick wooden sticks) on which that rhythm is carried. If I remember my conga teachers correctly, different cultures have different claves—the clave in Brazilian music, for example, is not the same as in Puerto Rico. The clave in Puerto Rican music also comes in different times, 6:8 and 4:4. Same basic pattern—5 notes spread 2-3 over two measures—very different feel. When we think clave, though, we usually think of the 4:4 version of a basic salsa tune; anyone familiar with zydeco music, or its popularization in songs like George Thoroughgood’s “Who Do You Love,” knows the rhythm I’m talking about: BAM, BAM, BAM: BAM BAM! (N.B. If you want to hear the 6:8 clave at its awesomest, listen to Jerry Gonzalez’s Obatalá.)

But the Thoroughgood example also calls our attention to just how ubiquitous this rhythm is. It pops up in places where you least expect it, places much further afield than zydeco-infused rock. Once I learned the clave, I’d put on songs I’d been listening to for years, decades even, and it would suddenly occur to me: “Oh, wait, that’s clave rhythm!” A beat might be dropped in one of the two measures, but the rhythm was unmistakable. It’s particularly interesting when the clave appears in songs that are not making an obvious nod to Caribbean or “island” rhythms, the way The Who’s “Magic Bus” does, for example, or the beach-punk vibe of a song like “I Want Candy” by Bow Wow Wow. Primus’s “John the Fisherman,” The Beastie Boys’s “Paul Revere,” NWA’s “Gangsta Gangsta,” Carcass’s “Captive Bolt Pistol,” are all clave-based. From death metal to alt rock to gangsta rap, once you hear that clave, you can’t unhear it. Hence my choice of the word “purloined,” recalling Poe’s great detective story about a letter hidden in plain sight: the clave will often be there, staring us right in the face, but we won’t see it, because the genre in which it appears, so far flung from the clave’s natural environment, has rendered it inaudible.

(A fun experiment: try clapping the clave over songs where it absolutely does not fit!)

Q

Quiet. It’s easy enough to count rock songs that are paeans to the loudness that, at least once upon a time, was a defining trait of the genre. I remember the great violinist and worldwide musical ambassador Yehudi Menuhin noting that a Rolling Stones concert was the first live musical experience that had actually caused him pain. Stones aside, AC/DC’s “Rock and Roll Ain’t Noise Pollution” is my go-to loudness-themed anthem. (AC/DC may have more loudness-themed songs than any other band.) The slogan of WSOU, Seton Hall University’s metal-dedicated college station: the loudest rock. There was even a Japanese hair-metal band from the ‘80s called Loudness. Remember them?

That acknowledged, I’d like to put in a word for those rock songs that retain—and perhaps even gain—power when they are played softly. Judas Priest’s “Headin’ Out to the Highway,” for example: the lower the volume, the more power it has. I’m not sure why; maybe something to do with the song’s feeling of restraint, of anticipation. I’m reminded of what Miles once said about Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez, which he recorded a version of (arranged by Gil Evans) on Sketches of Spain, that anomalously-perfect meshing of Spanish music and jazz: “That melody is so strong that the softer you play it, the stronger it gets, and the stronger you play it, the weaker it gets.”

R

Reciprocity. One day when I was visiting my parents, my mother told me that the Prokofiev piano sonatas I’d burned for her and my father hadn’t left the boombox in the kitchen. They were on heavy rotation, so to speak. I was moved by her comment; I owe so much of my musical education to my parents, and giving some of that back was a small way to repay them. (And it wasn’t easy. They’re picky as hell.) It’s just one example of the circulation of musical gifts that has occupied so many of us throughout our lives, cementing friendships, creating bonds between and among generations, inside and outside families. The Charles Mingus and Steve Bernstein I mailed to Annapolis, and the Radiohead and Minutemen I got in return. The Anthology of Tom Waits, the title written in purple cursive by an old crush, on the flipside of a cassette label where her Japanese students had written the names of the Vanilla Ice songs they’d gifted her. I first heard Domeniconi’s “Koyunbaba” because a woman I went to grad school with who also played classical guitar taped it for me; I think I replied with Barrios; I’m no longer sure. And it’s not always music, is it. When my crazy Russian punk-rock comp student whose father taught physics at the University of Utah and whose punk rock boyfriend was a brick shithouse gave me Never Mind the Bollocks, I gifted her my library first edition of Brighton Rock (as I learned from her, Johnny Rotten’s persona was based on the thug in that book). I think of the mixes my partner made for me when I went abroad, and that my oldest friend made for me while we were all away at college, and even a tape the guitarist from my high school metal band and I sent back and forth, recording bits of songs we were working on; at the end of each recorded but we would say, “Your turn, [name]”—we recorded after, not over. Music to measure and ease and shorten distance. Handholds for long-distance relationships. I have so many cassettes with other people’s handwriting on them, and doodles, too. They’re as good as old letters, maybe better.

It’s not the same today, whatever people say. Old emails saved to a file aren’t letters. Circulation without objects isn’t circulation. The financialization of music is complete; the value of music itself has depreciated.

*

Rondo. I love the complete abandon of early thrash records to what might be called the logic of the riff. Listening to “Voracious Souls” the other day (Death Angel, The Ultraviolence), I thought about the musical form called a rondo. Instead of traditional verse-chorus-bridge structure, “Voracious Souls” uses every chorus as an excuse to strike out into new musical territory: not one but a slew of bridges, each of them landing us back at a verse, and reinvigorating the song’s basic material by doing so. I’m not making a case for conscious modeling here; I think there’s just something perennially attractive about this as a structure. It’s more coherent than the kitchen-sink approach of many a metal instrumental—including the 10-minute album-titler “The Ultraviolence”—which often seem to be agglomerations of awesome riffs that could not find a home elsewhere (see “Burnt-over,” 8.3.11). That excursion-and-return, les-adieux model undergirds allmusic, however we figure home—tonic, main riff, chorus—and the rondo, in both the multiplicity of allowable excursions and the mounting power of each return, makes it transparent. (Listen to pretty much any classical concerto third movement for an example; the third movement of Beethoven’s first piano concerto is running through my head as I write this.) It’s never, as they say, the same river twice. Each excursion finds a changed home; each journey brings the traveler back to shore with new eyes and ears.

S

Slayer, Hitchens, Sade. Slayer is to metal what the Marquis de Sade is to literature: a limit case in transgression (Slayer : metal :: Sade : literature). Other bands have taken this or that element—tempo, lyrical grotesqueness, abrasiveness of timbre—and pushed it to one or another extreme. But in no other band has the overall ethos been one of transgression in its simplest, rawest form. An awfulness that radiates out from the music and seems to infect everything around it. No other band is so at home in their vileness, and so willing to wallow in it. They have no peers, few aspirants, and millions of acolytes. Is there any other band that so convincingly revels in hatred, mayhem, and death? There should be a recognized musical condition. Slayerism: disease as style.

In Christopher Hitchens’s anti-religious screed God Is Not Great there is a wonderful moment where Hitchens describes the power of Mozart’s music. (I’m sympathetic to Hitchens’s argument, don’t get me wrong; I just found the tone of the book to be overly strident, as was true of Hitchens’s later columns for The Nation, really all of his writing after 9-11.) You don’t need God, Hitchens writes, to explain great art; but—with a wink—Mozart does make you wonder. It’s not a moment of doubt, but rather a nod to the seemingly superhuman beauty of Mozart’s music, intended to reinforce our wonder at human creativity. Certainly, many of us have felt this, listening to music, staring at a painting, or reading a great novel: that there are some artists so volcanic in their imaginations, so perfect in their productions, that we are at a loss to explain them without resorting to an argument for divine intervention.

A simple substitution, a revision of Hitchens’s formula: exchange the word “Slayer” for “Mozart,” and “Devil” for “God,” and you have as good an appraisal of the force and power of Slayer’s music as I’ve ever read anywhere. I mean, you don’t need the Devil to explain Slayer … but they do make you wonder! (We might call this a theological argument for the existence of Slayer.) Perhaps Slayer forces us to contemplate a troubling possibilty: that, far from evil being the absence of God, the deity (It)self might be malign. (This pace a comment at an ALA panel on Blood Meridian I heard a number of years ago; you can see the way this book keeps coming back.) In which case, why not call it the Devil and be done with it? Slayer, an argument for the absence of God.

I’ve never found the crackpot theater of black metal particularly affecting, though I like some of the music well enough. I mean, if you need to run around burning churches and shooting your fellow band members to make me hear the darkness in your music, then your music probably sucks. I should be able to hear those churches burning in your music. Really, if your music isn’t making going to church vestigial, try again. Try harder.

*

Subdiculous. If the sublime to the ridiculous is but a step, as Napoleon or someone close to him or maybe just someone somewhat like him famously said, then the reverse must also be true; and the way we imagine art will determine which step we believe to be higher, i.e., which direction goes against the force of gravity. Unless, that is, we imagine Napoleon’s step—surely a little step; he was a little man—to be along even pavement, perhaps without even a crack in it, let alone the abyss Armstrong spanned, bouncing along the lunar surface, holding the Earth between his thumb and forefinger, humans at last able to put our puny existence in something like a true perspective.

We’re intended—I think—to imagine a step down: the embarrassing failure when what is meant to be sublime falls short; the rocket, once proudly on course, drops flaccidly back to Earth; the moon remains intact, the stars vestal virgins. Things great are balanced precariously on their greatness; their pedestals come to a point; there are no wires; the equinox happens only two days a year; one easy push, and all the apparent grandeur disappears. Time can do this, of course; Time is merciless with Art. Falling short of the sublime, a work of art reveals itself as ostentatious, desperate to impress, and the experience of aesthetic rapture is deflated. The sublime is aloof to its audience; it does not ask for our rapture; it is self-sufficient; appreciation is unnecessary. The sublime, what makes us feel tiny, ephemeral, a speck in the cosmos, against the vastness and longevity of the thing contemplated; the ridiculous, what we belittle, what we pity, what we annihilate with our derisive laughter.

I wonder if we might hang Napoleon, or at least his idea, by the boots. The point, after all, is that these two aesthetic responses are really more kindred than they appear. If we consider, not direction, a tendency to fall from a higher to a lower state, but rather a matter of simple proximity, why can’t the circuit can run both ways, oscillate, alternate, one always on the point of shading into the other? Instead of a step, why not a switch, or a coin, or a mirror? (Isn’t the figure of Napoleon himself a good indication? Was he thinking of himself when he said this? Was Marx, when tragedy became farce? Can we run Marx’s teleological class-struggle engine in reverse? Has history already done so?) An experience that provokes laughter suddenly takes on an impressive clarity: our laughter becomes giddy, we open ourselves, and suddenly we are fully present to the aesthetic experience. Or something happens in the sublime experience that suddenly pushes us away, and make us see the representation from the outside, as in a miniature diorama, and we even see ourselves, tiny, staring at the diorama, through the wrong end of the telescope.

Can a failure to be ridiculous turn sublime? Or perhaps an exceedingly successful ridiculous? (Think of Donald O’Connor’s “Make ‘Em Laugh” routine in Singin’ in the Rain.)

We have all had these experiences, where music we love—as an insider—appears ridiculous to an outsider—or to ourselves, trying to re-engage with an aesthetic experience that had so impressed us, so moved us when we were younger. What was it, about the time, the crowd we hung with, the people we were in love with, that made it seem so? And then we can’t help but feel sorry for ourselves as we are now, resistant, unable to succumb. All the pleasure is inside; the ones outside are always unhappy, desperate. Outside is a deflated, ironized, dead world. A fallen, a disenchanted world. A moonscape.

The step is a matter of perspective. As in outer space, there is no privileged position from which one can actually tell up from down. Like an Escher engraving, the steps go in both directions. Art is always a gesture toward ridicule redeemed by faith. Surprise matters, too. The shock of the new. Again, time. We strive to lose the double consciousness of the knowing listener. (I was trying to get at something of this with my comments on a performance by Exhumed; see “Wintry Mix,” 3.20.15. And clearly, I still am.)

*

Sweat lodge. Remember The Stone? Son of Tonic. Remember Tonic? Son of The Knitting Factory. Remember the Knit? (Wait. I think it’s still there.) But about The Stone. I always admired its asceticism: devotion in brick and mortar. Like bullfights before stadiums, where the contest was carried on inside a circle of onlookers that shifted, expanded or contracted according to the movements of the spectacle it purported to contain. The Stone always felt shaped in this way by the music, by the people gathered to listen. You’ll hear other stories about how it got its name, but it was really to give it the illusion of some fixed existence beyond the essence of the music. (See “Master/class,” 11.23.12.)

The problem with a space so dedicated to listening was that they did things like turn off the AC when the music started, so that the sound of the fan wouldn’t interfere. By the end of a set—particularly when the place was full—you felt like you’d been abandoned in a container truck. Fanning yourself didn’t help much—and be careful not to crinkle your magazine when you do! Wiping yourself with your sleeve only made things worse; your shirt was soaked; you could feel the sweat trickled down your spine. You felt bad for the person who was going to take your chair for the next set; you should have brought a towel, like for an exercise bike at the gym. One night, I could clearly see the beads of sweat reflected on the arms and face of a guy leaning against the wall, who was no doubt leaving an enormous stain on the photo of Henry Grimes. (It was a Matthew Shipp set, in case that matters; he was toying with standards: “On Green Dolphin Street,” “Take the A Train,” etc.) Needless to say there weren’t any windows.

Indeed, the great trombonist Ray Anderson once called The Stone a sweat lodge, and it was considerably better the night I saw him there than some others I experienced. The term is really perfect for the sort of vision-questy feeling so many of us (adherents) have for this music. And Anderson did comment, appropriately enough, about all of us being martyrs for the music, about achieving transcendence through purification. He was playing with Bob Stewart (tuba) that night, the so-called Heavy Metal Duo. How could I let the heat hold me back?

Some years later, I saw Stewart again in the basement of the Cornelia Street Café (R.I.P., another great music space gone), and was he ever sweating—you’ve never seen a musician sweat till you’ve seen a tuba player playing New Orleans-style jazz in a hot NYC club in July. During the set, a woman threw her scarf to him to wipe the perspiration off his face. Like it was a bouquet. Stewart refused to wipe his face with it. It was all quite lovely—the scarf, the gesture, his demurring. (She told him it could be washed; he said something to the effect that they all say that.) Anyway, in the break he got a napkin from the bar instead, and he hung it on an unused music stand, right where he’d hung the scarf during the remainder of the previous set.

Just try seeing something like that at the Blue Note, or even the Vanguard. Try seeing it in the new New York. The Stone has since moved operations to the Glass Box theater at the New School, a beautiful little space, with a wall of windows looking out on 13th Street. Climate-controlled. Outside and around it, the ghosts of so many clubs. You can’t help but feel their presence when you walk around the Village. (See “Torch Songs for LES,” 12.7.12.)

T

Tabano. Every Coltrane should have his Dolphy. Consider those Vanguard recordings from 1961: whenever Coltrane’s playing gets lackluster, Dolphy’s on him like a horsefly. In one standout moment, Dolphy ends his solo with a series of cartwheeling trills on the bass clarinet—and then Coltrane enters on the soprano, trilling for what must be a good half-minute, all over the register, until Dolphy is absolutely annihilated. The imprint of Dolphy’s idea is still there, though, the raw material for Coltrane to worry.

You could call it cutting or one-upmanship, but it doesn’t feel that way. It feels more like two explorers taking turns goading each other up a mountain they’d never dare scale alone.

*

Todo tiene su final. When most people think of salsa they think of uptempo, brash, joyous dance music. This is not wrong per se, but it is limiting and somewhat patronizing, and suggestive of a legacy of racism and colonialism. Salsa is “fun” music; island people are perennially happy; they still live in the Edenic gardens Columbus described half a millennium ago; they know not the Germanic depths of tragedy, the heights of the sublime, etc.

And yet, salsa—itself a contested name—was music created by Puerto Rican immigrants during times of great hardship. If some of the upbeat joy of the music was meant as a way to escape, or, perhaps better, transmute that hardship, then something of the pain must be deeply inscribed in the music; the heights of its pleasure may simply be the negative impression of the pain it attempts to exorcise. As much as the blues, it seems to be a public working-out of a culture’s pain and angst. Wiggling your hips is not a bad way to transcend pain, and happily there’s a lot of salsa about wiggling your hips. There is also, in good pop fashion, a lot of broken hearts and sentiment. I always find myself returning to the quote from “Sonny’s Blues,” when Sonny looks out the window at a woman joyously singing at a revival meeting and tells his brother that it’s “disgusting” to think how much she must have suffered to be able to sing that way. I think, too, of Preston Sturges’s Sullivan’s Travels, where the Hollywood director of popular comedies, in an effort to make a “meaningful” film, goes undercover as a hobo, winds up in prison … and eventually comes to realize the power of comedy to transcend pain, in this case of the Great Depression. Comedy is simply another form of catharsis, laughter no less dignified than tears. There is, in fact, something more deeply human about it: rather than kowtow to Fate and the gods, we disarm them, belittle them.

That tragedy is a more elevated genre than comedy; that, in order to make salsa “serious” music, I have to reveal some hint of tragedy about it; that this requires me, the ersatz (at best avocational) music critic, to dignify it: these are longstanding prejudices, pitfalls to be avoided. So when I say that there’s a fair amount of salsa about political oppression, about the trials of being an immigrant, and about death, I don’t want to be misunderstood as somehow arguing this grants the genre a dignity it otherwise lacks. Sometimes, these themes are addressed with a sneering humor meant to balk at their power. Sometimes, what comes through is an eerie fatalism that elements of salsa as a form seem to emphasize.

Consider the classic Willie Colón record Lo mato. It appeared at a time when, as Will Hermes reminds us, “Salsa wanted to travel beyond the barrio—to be seen, and to see itself, as more than just a ghetto dancehall soundtrack. It was a virtuoso music with deep history and international pedigree; it wanted respect” (24)—this with regard to Larry Harlow’s Hommy, a salsa remake of Tommy that premiered at Carnegie Hall the same year as Lo mato. Colón was salsa’s bad boy, whose album titles and covers (e.g., his debut El Malo; Cosa Nuestra, where Colón is pictured “holding his trombone like a tommy gun” (Hermes 35); on the cover of Lo mato it’s an actual pistol he holds to an old man’s head—an image, perhaps, of the assassination of the Cruz-Puente era?) figure him as el barrio’s capo de tutti capi. After Hector Lavoe’s death, in ‘77 Colón would team up with Ruben Blades, whose socially-conscious lyrics were rooted in Nueva Cancion, and he himself produce records that seemed to scream for respect and artistic recognition (Hermes: “It was not usual ‘Baile!’ business” (223)).

But—much as I love Blades, with and without Colón—one hardly needs so-called symphonic salsa to hear the so-called Germanic darkness, tragedy and fatalism undergirding Colón’s phenomenal work with Lavoe on Lo mato. The album is about the harsh realities of el barrio, about toughs and street crime, machismo and bravado and stolen lovers, grim, sassy, and sometimes very funny (e.g., “Lola, please advise your boyfriend that, while he may have a machete … I have a machine gun.”). For me, though, “El dia de suerte” is the standout track for demonstrating how this upbeat dance music can tilt into something darker. The story of a hard-luck case who can’t seem to give up hope, its message is rendered all the more persistent both by the song’s stepladder melody and by its cycling over and over through the chorus: “Pronto llegará/ El día de mi suerte/ Se que antes de mi muerte/Seguro que my suerte cambiará” (Soon my lucky day will come; I’m sure that, before I die, my luck is going to change”) The chorus opens the song, and punctuates the six verses used to tell our hero’s life. Is this grit and perseverence, or just plain delusion? But then this is the reality of el barrio: if you don’t think things are going to get better, no matter how slim your chances—if you stop fighting—you won’t survive. It’s the chorus—the voice of the community—that reminds him of this, that bucks him up. But our hero remains uncertain; while Lavoe leads into two choruses with affirmation (e.g., “Y ya lo verá”: you’ll see), four times he asks the question that lingers over the chorus’s certainty: “Pero cuándo será?” (But when?) Even Lavoe’s teletype-style delivery suggests the broader, implacable engine of a malign fate that “betrays” him, over and over and over. This tension between hope and despair, will and fatalism, is inscribed in the form of salsa itself: the trading between chorus and sonero, chorós and tragic hero (though their roles in classical tragedy are inverted), community and striving individual trying to make it in America. Taken together with songs like “Todo tiene su final” and “Calle luna calle sol,” the tension rises above el barrio itself to become a broader statement of the human predicament, something closer to Ruben Dario’s great poem “El fatalismo.” (I know, I’m not supposed to say shit is universal anymore. But there it is.) No surprise that “Suerte” ends without resolving, the horns cut off in mid-phrase; the record absolutely needs the seven-minute “Junio ‘73” descarga at the end to bring about true catharsis.

U

Unity. One summer day in Central Park I found myself staring at a particularly beautiful tree, perhaps forty feet tall; I was just far enough away from it to be able to take it in in one view, though close enough for it to still appear majestic. I thought about one of Aristotle’s requirements for drama: the action should not last longer than a day. I wondered what was the musical equivalent to this. A tree, a tragedy, a symphony, artworks whose aesthetic pleasure results in part from an ability to consider them in the comprehensible grandeur of their totality. (NB: I misremembered unity of time as being about the spectator’s attention, not the diegesis. This is my comeuppance for artfully minimizing drama over the years so’s to have more time to teach fiction and poetry. (Sometimes I teach film instead.) I clearly need to go back to the Poetics;I could have sworn there was something in there about audience. Anyway, my apologies to Aristotle.)

V

Valentine. Chuck Billy: “You either left your old lady at home, or you drug her out to a metal show, right?” (Testament show at B.B. King’s, Valentine’s Day, 2013.) Helldriver: “Guilty as charged. I left my old lady at home. After the show, I headed up to the Broadway Dive at 101st Street and drank cocktails with a record producer while folks took turns singing songs about heartbreak from that little balcony alcove over the bar. I can’t remember where I slept; probably Metro North.”

W

Wrong guy. Think about all those records you listened to for years and years before you realized you were listening to the wrong musician. For me, it was Lenny White on those early ‘70s Al DiMeola and Return to Forever records, like Land of the Midnight Sun and Romantic Warrior. As a guitarist—as a teen—I couldn’t help but gravitate toward DiMeola’s shameless exuberance. (Okay: I still do.) Even when the jazz drummer who lived down the hall from me in college pointed out his favorite fill on “Elegant Gypsy,” I could sympathize with his passion, but I couldn’t pull my ear away from DiMeola long enough to appreciate the glittering rails White was laying down underneath him. Maybe it was the years post-college I spent listening to Max Roach and “Philly” Joe Jones, Lewis Nash and Jeff Watts, and Tony Williams, Tony Williams above all, that would make White so startlingly present to me when I put those records on again later in life. The malleability of the ear, the way what we hear changes over the course of years, as the matrix of our taste and our musical experiences shift, causes us to hear even the most familiar music differently. I’ve written about that a lot on this blog. Wisdom, perhaps: keep nostalgia and novelty in balance; use the one as a check on the other; temper the mad dash for the new with cyclical return to the old. Remember, again: it’s never the same river.

X, Y, Z

You. Thought I was going to say something else snide about Metallica. C’est fini. Ils sont morts.

 

Celebrating Vio-lence

If hindsight is 20/20, then Vio-lence was the greatest thrash metal band, period: the band in which the subgenre climaxed, and in particular the Bay Area sound that was its epicenter and still, I think, its purest expression. They were the meridian of the subgenre’s day, to put it in the terms of Judge Holden from Blood Meridian, whose discourses should be compiled into a pamphlet titled How to Listen to Heavy Metal. San Andres be damned: it was that northern tribe, the Cascadians, who would shake the thrashers into the sea. Would that those San Franners had built grunge-resistant edifices …

Today, on their Facebook page, fans call Vio-lence “criminally underrated” and “virtually unknown.” I suppose that, compared to Machinehead, the band guitarists Rob Flynn and Phil Demmel went on to found after the scene crumbled, that is true. But they forget, or perhaps never knew, these whippersnappers, the hype that surrounded Eternal Nightmare, Vio-lence’s maiden effort, when it was released in ‘88. I remember at least one genre ‘zine balking at the hoopla, claiming band and album were overrated. Be that as it may, Vio-lence quickly jumped onto a tour opening for Voivod and Testament; and when Voivod had to withdraw due to Piggy’s illness, they moved up to the second slot; at L’amours at least, Blood Feast filled in as openers. With the release of their second album, 1990’s Oppressing the Masses, the band found themselves headlining the national club circuit. I caught them at Baltimore’s Network. The date was mis-advertised; there was almost nobody there.

I explained this to Demmel after the show; I remember him claiming that the band had been outdrawing Voivod on that tour. I guess this was important to him, and is maybe part of the reason, aesthetic ones aside, he and Flynn moved on to bigger things. As did our conversation: we talked about the awesomeness of the guitar leads on Masses, which, like a true gentleman, and in a comment that reminded me of something Glenn Tipton once said about the guitar solos in Judas Priest—that people tended to throw “Beyond the Realms of Death” at him (with very good reason: it may be the most perfect guitar solo in the history of the genre), forgetting that some of the best Priest solos were the ones where he and Downing traded off—I say, like a true gentleman, Demmel emphasized the same with Flynn, highlighting “Engulfed by Flames,” where the solos are linked by way of an ascending series of trills played in harmony, and which he was good enough to both sing and half-air for me, there in the parking lot of the Network.*

In the thirty-plus years between that show and today, those two Vio-lence records have never left my rotation. If I focus on Nightmare for the remainder of this post,† it’s only because I want to highlight something about it that no other thrash record does, or does to the same degree: it captures the pandemonium of a great live metal show. It sounds like what Demolition Hammer called, in one of their finest song titles, an orgy of destruction. It is the sonic correlative to what Exodus expressed so admirably in the words of the chorus to “Bonded by Blood,” and which comes closer than anything to articulating the ethos of the scene as a whole: “Murder in the front row/ The crowd starts to bang/ There’s blood upon the stage// Bang your head against the stage/ And metal takes its price/ Bonded by blood.”§

So many things about Nightmare contribute to the “live” feel. The near-impossible tempos, of course; and even more, the way the rawness of this record—a rawness that characterizes the first records of so many thrash bands—allows us to hear the musicians straining against the limits of their collective ability. Nightmare is a record that drives all over the road, swerving from guardrail to shoulder and back: we listen for the anticipated collision. That’s not to say the band isn’t tight; they could never play like this if they weren’t tight as hell. But great thrash bands like Vio-lence never made it sound easy; they made you hear the blood and sweat that went into the music. More than athletic, it was downright gladiatorial, and Vio-lence were the Conans of the pit. Alas, that scraping along the guardrail of chaos, of the abyss: it’s something you don’t hear in metal anymore. Maybe this is one reason thrash still finds listeners today, listeners who miss the sound of the body in metal.**

To speed we must add endurance; for Nightmare is also an absolutely relentless record, one that sustains its ludicrous tempos for far longer than seems humanly possible. Genre critics sometimes speak of “withstanding” the sonic onslaught of metal, as though the listener was proving their mettle / they’re metal by willingly putting themselves in the way of the music’s Shermanic march to the sea. According to this formulation, the longer the songs—provided they sustain a certain level of intensity—the more valiant the listener. Had Slayer written “Serial Killer,” it would have been a minute and a half long, maybe two. But “Serial Killer” clocks in at three full minutes, and the longer songs on Nightmare max out at six and a half. When, like Vio-lence, you carry on tempos like these that much longer than the typical hardcore blurt, or keep stopping and starting that motor, returning over and over to that same blistering tempo, zero to 120 in no-time flat; and when, like Vio-lence, you forego, together with your subgeneric compatriots, the (then-nascent) doubled-up tempos of death metal, which blur into a drone, for the jackhammer pounding of thrash; and when, again like Vio-lence, you sustain tempos to the point of the body going into failure, the lactic acid searing holes in muscle tissue—when you do all these things, you don’t hear the tempos so much as feel them. The music becomes brutally, pitilessly tactile.

This is a record where literally everything is done to excess. It’s not just the tempos or song lengths, or even the boxcar appearance of riff after riff, but the fact that, on some of the longer tracks, every riff gets repeated in three or four different variations before the song pauses, finds a new riff … and proceeds to squeeze out the same amount of blood out of it. Good riffs, Nightmare tells us, are built for just this sort of wear and tear.

And then a something slightly muddled about the mix adds to the stumbling near-catastrophe that is this record: the good sort of muddle that allows the guitars and bass to surge together in a singe sonic tsunami. The guitars have a fat, crunchy sound—every chord sounds like stepping on a very large beetle—and Deen Dell’s bass, booming and farty, is well up in the mix. Sometimes guitars and bass operate together in a juggernaut, as in the riff that dominates “T.D.S. (Take It As You Will),” all three instruments trilling in tandem, triply heavy for charging abreast.

Listen to the surprise coda of “Bodies on Bodies,” maybe the moment on this record that best captures that feeling of centrifugality. The closing section of Metallica’s “One” makes a good foil here. The two-on-three cross-accents between chugging rhythm guitar and harmonized lead; the lockstep synchronization of rhythm guitar and snare roll at each turn: it’s brilliant, and exhilirating, and it’s what total control sounds like. The coda of “Bodies on Bodies” is the exact opposite: the turns (four hammered beats to announce a repeat) sound like afterthoughts; the accents of the rhythm guitar fall on and off the beat of the drums; the four-note phrases that climax the solo don’t match any of what the rhythm section is doing. Everybody sounds like they’re jumping in too late or too early. It’s a miracle they all manage to hit the final chord at the same time.

And what “Bodies on Bodies” does on the local level, album-ender “Kill on Command” does for the record as a whole. The last progression is repeated a half dozen times, transposed a half-step higher each time, the tempo pushed up a notch with each iteration, until—cued by a pick slide—it returns to its original register, but at the fastest tempo yet. Drummer Perry Strickland gives up at this point, he’s just whacking on his snare, and on the opposite beat (1-3 instead of 2-4); you can almost see him throwing away his sticks, throwing up his hands. It’s a perfect way to close the record, climaxed and abandoned in the same gesture. Thirty-five minutes since the Nightmare started, and no one, including the listener, is quite sure how we made it.

The madness is there for all to hear in Sean Killian’s maniacally distinctive voice, too, a voice that couldn’t be more perfectly suited to Vio-lence’s music. A friend of mine once described it as the voice of a demented carnival barker. I myself am sometimes reminded of a street vendor’s pregón, the way it rises and falls rhythmically within the same narrow range. During uptempo passages Killian’s delivery is clipped and breathless, sometimes dead center on the beat, sometimes slipping and sliding over it, not quite able to match beat to breath, once again adding to the feeling of narrowly-averted disaster. But the barker’s voice is also a matter of timbre, and tone: it’s the sneer that makes the voice, and that once again perfectly expresses the ethos of scene and subgenre: the mocking camaraderie of skate culture. We hear it most clearly in the closing words of “T.D.S.” (“No need for ties/ No ties to life/ The life you’ve left to linger/ It was your choice/ So hold your voice/ And don’t … point … your … fin-ger ….”); in the gallows humor that gives us moments like the bridge of “Calling in the Coroner (“Distorted features/ As I picked him off the road/ His body, mangled,/ Took ten hours for me to sew together …”); and in the anthemic closing lines of “Kill on Command,” where Killian, assuming the voice of a hired assassin, snarls, “Stand still, and make my job easier!”

My hardcore friends loved Killian’s voice because it was a punk voice; and so this record is, like all the best thrash, deeply hardcore-inflected as well, though more obviously and more on the surface than other non-crossover bands. Killian was a little like what Paul D’ianno was to Maiden, before Dickinson stabilized their NWOBHM identity. Vio-lence needed not to stabilize.

The dizzying back-and-forth between Killian and the riot vocals on songs like “T.D.S.” ups the ante even further, with Killian’s lines sometimes leading into or out of riot vocals (“Coroner” and “Bodies”), sometimes overlapping and sharing lyrics with them (“Kill on Command”’s “paycheck/ bloodshed/ your head” and “money, money, money, money, MONEY!”).

And then there’s the drums. Jesus. I used to chat about Strickland’s drumming with Adam Kieffer, a great drummer from my hometown and one-time member of Headlock, guitarist Adam Tranquilli’s post-Blood Feast effort. A sort of quiet awe reigned; there was a lot of head-shaking, and helpless little puffs of air.†† Thirty years down the road, I’m still looking for the words.

I’ve stressed tempo and timbre quite a bit above, but there’s a whole other side to this record, and to thrash metal, that warrants discussion: the mosh parts. Nightmare has some of the best. At shows, Killian would move his finger like he was winding a See-n’-Say, and few had the will to resist the circle that formed as naturally as a cyclone from the swirling patterns on a satellite map. When I speak about this band as the culmination of a half-decade of musical growth in a subgenre that was soon to be grunged out of existence, the idea that comes to mind is something backward-looking, traditional, the sort of band in which the finest elements coalesce and find their purest expression, rather than something that challenges the tenets of a genre and pushes its boundaries—a difference to which sociologist and metal scholar Keith Kahn-Harris has given the names mundane and transgressive cultural capital (see “T-shirts and Wittgenstein,” 05.24.13). The truth here is both-and. I could point to a dozen other bands with great grooves and amazing pits, from traditional Bay-Area stalwarts like Testament, to bands that were leaking/had leaked out in other directions/into neighboring genres, like the Tendencies, or Anthrax. The balance between speed and groove, circle and line (or many crossing lines), is what thrash evolved to perfection. But in Vio-lence, the combination of the power of their grooves and Killian’s half-spoken, highly-rhythmic vocals, as well as the interplay between his and the backing vocals, also reveals that moment when elements of rap were irrepressibly beginning to find their way into thrash metal, as these two underground musics of the ‘80s merged and mixed, into what would eventually become, post-thrash, the sound of bands like Pantera and Rage Against the Machine (and some of the later regrettable shit that smeared itself onto their coattails). While bands like Faith No More were beginning their rather dull and unconvincing experiments with crossover (now we sound like a rap band! now comes the metal part! now the pretty part, with piano! but somehow all exactly the same!!), the genre was already feeling the pull of rap on a much deeper level, inflecting the music of bands that weren’t necessarily thinking in that direction, and in ways that many fans probably couldn’t hear. A song like Slayer’s “Read Between the Lies,” on South of Heaven (1988), is inconceivable without rap (not for nothing they had moved from Metal Blade to Def Jam records in 1986). And those currents were washing back into rap, too (e.g., Public Enemy’s sample of “Angel of Death” on “Channel Zero” (from 1988’s It Takes a Nation of Millions)). Vio-lence’s 1988 compatriots Forbidden make another good reference point here: I’ve sometimes thought that Forbidden expressed the culminating fusion of thrash and the NWOBHM, but that would be to ignore a song like “Feel No Pain,” as rap-imbued a thrash metal song as ever there was.§§

I have a great memory of driving upstate to a friend’s place in Bolton Landing, by Lake George, where his parents had a cabin. Two skaters, friends of my friend’s brother, maybe three years younger than me, piled into the back of my car with their boards; my friend (also a skater) rode shotgun. One of the younger skaters in the back asked me if I liked rap. I remember being taken aback by his question. Rap was still up there with the Dead in terms of music metalheads weren’t supposed to like. (Thank goodness this still seems to be true of the Dead.) The two genres had been kept culturally so far apart that, even when I was hearing rap-inflected metal—outside the klutzy attempts at crossover like FNM, or Anthrax’s “I’m the Man” parody—I didn’t hear it, or maybe better, didn’t admit to myself I heard it. My answer must have been something like “of course not.” It’s so obvious in hindsight, as it must have been to them, those three years that separated us an eternity, at least where the ear is concerned. We listened to Vio-lence on the way up to the lake, I can’t remember what else. Not rap. I can still see the one, with his struggling beard and long, stringy hair, his board settled across his lap. Nice kids. Quiet. Almost reserved.

Anyway, if this makes Vio-lence as much a bridge band as a culmination, so be it. Probably all culminations are bridges of sorts. Listeners who are too mired in the genre simply can’t hear that, except, again, in hindsight. Others, who listened just as closely, but a little differently, and a little more openly: they just kept walking, even though they couldn’t quite see what was coming next. They’re the ones who got places.

*

I know the proclivity for ending with an(other) anecdote must be getting old, at least for the habitual reader of this blog, if I can imagine such a beast, which, hypothetically speaking, has the head of a chicken, the body of an ostrich, the legs of a capybara, and the tail of an ankylosaurus. But this is a good one, I promise, it’s worth finishing out the rest of this post, if for nothing else than to prove me wrong.

One day when I was a sophomore in college I saw these hippie kids in the cafeteria, and one of them was a girl I had a huge crush on. They were all sitting at the same table, of course, the hippie table, the one by the window, you know, the open window, and I, somewhat intrepidly, like a half-scuttled aircraft carrier, approached them, with my ratty sneakers festooned with band names and my ripped jeans and my Captain Caveman hair. (That was my nickname, or one of them; Plant Head was another.) Of course my notebook, and likely my sneakers, said VIO-LENCE in large letters. And one of them asked me, with self-righteous smugness, whether I was a fan of violence, whether I liked violence, whether I thought violence was cool or something. I mean, he didn’t say all these things, I can’t remember his exact words, but if you put these three italicized statements together you get the picture.

That look! That tone! I was being condemned, there in front of my crush.

She was the one who had attempted a second piercing of my ear a week or two before, at a party in my apartment, in the kitchen. (This might have happened after the cafeteria episode, I’m not sure, but for the sake of the anecdote let’s pretend it came first, I mean, c’mon, this was like thirty years ago.) I’m sure I initiated the whole thing. She put a cork behind my ear and started to shove the needle through the lobe. But she couldn’t finish. She was too squeamish. She sort of squealed and shook her hands in disgust. She left me there, half-penetrated. Some other unfortunate female had to finish the job, I can no longer remember who.

So there I was, in the cafeteria, standing by the hippie table, across from the girl who had been unable to finish penetrating me. I looked at her; I looked at my notebook; I looked at my sneakers. I thought of all my parents had taught me, taking me and my friends to see movies like Scanners and Humanoids from the Deep and Evil Dead and all that vile good stuff when I was a tween, and then a teen, but still too young to attend R-rated films by myself.

I was damned before I’d even made my way over to that table.

I said, Yes, of course I am a fan of violence, and walked away.

 

*  In terms of show epiphenomena, besides this conversation, I remember Killian laughing at my hair, a huge frizzy Eye-tie fro (note aborted attempt to dignify) that had already begun to thin in the middle. But then it seems Killian himself was already well on his way to boarding the Rogaine train. Revenge, a dish best served cold. Ha! Ha! saith he-who-laughs-last. (Killian was right to laugh, of course: my hair was ridiculous.) When Vio-lence re-banded and toured for the thirtieth anniversary of Nightmare—I had the pleasure of seeing them at the Brooklyn Bazaar; I’d have much rather seen them at St Vitus—I was disappointed to find that Killian had gone the way of so many middle-aged men and shaved his head. It seemed like a particular affront given that, back in the day, skins were beating up longhairs like him at shows.

†  I’m sorry to give Masses the short shrift here. Some of Vio-lence’s best songs are on it (I’m a huge fan of “Liquid Courage” myself, a personal fave), and Demmel was right to be proud of his and Flynn’s work: the leads are consistently top-notch, better than Nightmare’s; some of the work for the rhythm section (like the opening to the title track) is also standout. My only disappointment: given some of the song titles (such as the title track, and the opener “I Profit”), I always expected the lyrics to be a little more … Marxist?

Which reminds me: there’s a great article (or perhaps a great post) still to be written about progressive politics and metal. The genre tends to be pigeonholed as conservative, and while there is some truth to that, metal’s politics are much more complex and many-sided, partly a result of the longevity and diversity of the music people have called (heavy) metal, and partly a product of ideological crossover from neighboring genres. Thrash, and the extent to which it incorporated hardcore’s politics together with its pared-back sound and furious tempos, would make for a particularly interesting discussion.

§  Exodus guitarist Gary Holt explains the genesis of the song in a show at Ruthie’s Inn, the club which was the epicenter of the epicenter of the scene. (I love the irony of the name!) See Murder in the Front Row (Bazillion Points, 2012), p. 173. If you want to see this ethos translated into moving image, there’s a great performance available on YouTube of Vio-lence playing San Francisco’s Stone in 1989, which better than anything else I’ve seen captures the energy of a live show, the circuit between stage and pit.

By the way, there’s an interesting tension here between so-called album-quality live music (i.e., the band judged by how well they reproduce their sound on their records) and live-sounding recorded music (i.e., studio (as opposed to “live,” an oxymoron anyway) records judged according to whether they capture something of the experience of seeing the band live). As someone who deeply loves some bands known for playing album-quality live, I’m not really one to throw stones at the first, though I do find it a silly ideal. But I also don’t want to jump on the authenticity bandwagon here. I don’t think Nightmare is more “authentic” (or whatever) just because it captures something of the energy of live thrash metal. There are plenty of great thrash metal records that don’t do that. Nor is there any reason studio records shouldn’t take advantage of recording technology to produce the sound a band wants. I wouldn’t particularly care if every song on Eternal Nightmare took a hundred takes, was filled with overdubs, all the guitars quadruple-tracked. What matters is the sound they achieve on the final product, not how they got there. Anyway, if you want live music, go out and hear some, for fuck’s sake. At least, after we’re all vaccinated.

** In an endnote to “T-shirts and Wittgenstein” I tried to capture this shift; and, as I noted in a later post about Carcass, maybe the evolution to a more technocratic form of metal is simply an indication of cultural evolution around the way we imagine and perceive of the body. See “Flesh Against Steel,” 04.12.17.

As for embodied metal: I think I’m riffing on Linda Williams here—think, because I didn’t make the connection until later. In a germinal film studies essay, Williams aligned melodrama, horror, and pornography as the three “body genres,” all of which are to one degree or another unseemly to the mainstream because of their body-associated excess, whether sexual, emotional, or violent. Critics have tended to emphasize the transgressive sexuality of rock and other pop music … but have always seemed less comfortable with the unleashed aggression of louder, heavier rock, at least when it is not channeled in a safely progressive/ “revolutionary” direction. In music, metal is the “body genre” that rounds out the junta, together with weepie love ballads and sex-infused pop and rock. You could even argue that the existence of the latter two impulses in popular music makes the appearance of metal inevitable: there could be no thrash without hair metal, and vice-versa.

†† In this context, we shouldn’t forget that death metal tempos evolved when drummers stopped doubling up on the hi-hat for every beat on the snare: if you alternated, you could double the fastest thrash tempos. The drummer in my high school thrash band called this “cheating.” Such was the view from 1986. So, in the endnote to “T-shirts and Wittgenstein” mentioned above, I described Strickland’s drumming as having an (inadvertent) swing because his stick bounces on the ride as it tries to match the tempos, yet another chaos-courting imperfection, if it can be called that.

In an illuminating discussion in her founding book on the subject, Deena Weinstein compares metal musicians’ instrumental prowess to blue-collar pride in skilled labor, and the custom in performance of demostrating mastery of their “tools,” not just sonically, but through gesture (facial expressions, arm motions, etc.). I’m making a somewhat different point here. I don’t think Vio-lence is so much interested in dramatizing virtuosity as they are in courting failure. We’re still hearing and feeling and applauding exertion, but the point isn’t to admire or even vicariously participate in the thrill of mastery, but rather in the exhiliration of mere exertion, and the attendant risk. In the sort of metal Weinstein writes about, success is a given. In Vio-lence, we careen along the abyss without guarantees.

§§ There’s another great article (or post) still to be written (if it hasn’t been already; honestly, I’m always at least five years behind the scholarship, maybe 10), this one about the impact of rap and hip hop on thrash metal: one that looks beyond the usual proto-groove suspects, and instead examines the way the genre’s supposedly most “pure,” traditional expressions had already been inflected across the racial-culture divide of their fanbases. It’s a necessary complement to the nexus between punk and metal, which has already been beautifully explored by Steve Waksman in This Ain’t the Summer of Love (see my review, “Dr Heidegger’s Punks,” 04.17.16).

Pressure Begets Grace

Alex Lifeson and Grace Under Pressure

[One of the first posts I wrote for this blog (a decade ago) was a defense of Rush, prompted by the premiere of the documentary Beyond the Lighted Stage at the TriBeCa film festival (“Not an Apology,” 6.8.10). “Epicness” (1.15.11) followed shortly after. As I begin to look into the sunset of this blog—that is, as I watch Helldriver ride into the evening redness in the west on his fire-breathing mare, and my eyeballs, following him, begin to steam, and bubble, and melt down my cheeks in bloody, vitreous tears—I think it high time to add one more. Don’t imagine it’s the last Rush post. But future ones will have to await the Resurrection.]

 

During the first decade and a half of their history, Rush released three live records, one after every four studio albums. The live records were intended as both milestones and measures of growth—pencil-marks on the wall of their development: that year we were THIS tall

Somewhere along the way, these live-album milestones came to signify moments of transformation in their sound. There is some sense to this. Since the band has invited us to see each set of four studio albums as a chapter (e.g., the liner notes to All the World’s a Stage (1976) claim this first live record “mark[s] the close of chapter one in the annals of Rush”), they enter fan discourse as a shorthand way of referring to different periods in the band’s history, and to fans’ individual taste preferences.

The problem with the “chapter” idea is that it tends to overemphasize similarities among the four albums grouped together, and to obscure cross-chapter affinities. There is simply too much transformation within these chapters, and too many affinities across live-record milestones, to warrant a cohesive view of the band’s sound over any four records, however we try to group them. Caress of Steel, for example, has more in common with A Farewell to Kings than with Rush; the transformation from Hemispheres to Permanent Waves is at least as stark as anything the band did across live records; and so on.

That last comment might raise some eyebrows in the fan community. As every fan knows, 1982 was a watershed year. There is (the story goes) no chasm so wide as that between pre- and post-Signals Rush, which is supposed to denote the moment that keyboards overwhelmed the band’s sound, transforming them from a proggish power trio into something that sounded more like the New Wave. Word choice says everything: what to some ears sounds suffused in keyboards to others sounds smothered. But whether suffused or smothered, awash or overwhelmed, so stark is this purported division that the fan community is generally understood as divided into two irreconcilable camps: “old Rush” fans (i.e., pre-1982, with Moving Pictures as the culminating record, and covering almost the entire range of songs still played ad nauseum on classic rock radio); and those more ecumenical “Rush fans,” whose interest in the band has remained consistent up through their most recent efforts.* This tendency to see Signals as game-changer is further buttressed by the band’s subsequent decision to split with longtime producer Terry Brown, with whom they butted heads during the making of that record.

Conventional narratives have a seductive explanatory power. Given, however, that the meridian of objectivity is ever a dream, their illuminating light always casts shadows. Clarity comes at the expense of distortion; distance sacrifices details that only resolve on a closer view. Consider: keyboards were an integral part of Rush’s sound beginning with A Farewell to Kings (1977), when the Moog started to make its appearance in songs like “Xanadu” and “Madrigal.” Nor was the band a complete stranger to synths before this, as the spaced-out noises that open “2112” attest. Nor, given the bands that inspired them in 1975-6, like Floyd and Yes, would there have been much of an aesthetic hurdle to expanding the use of keys. (Interestingly, keyboards only began to form the contested border of Rush’s root genres of hard rock and heavy metal in the early ‘80s, and that likely in response to the very genres Rush embraced.) That said, keyboards in the four records pre-Signals were mostly ornamental, providing color and atmosphere for particular sections of songs (e.g., “Xanadu”), or texture to round out and enrich the trio’s overall sound (as happens throughout much of Permanent Waves and, to a somewhat lesser extent, Moving Pictures). We get hints of the broader role keyboards would come to play in “Jacob’s Ladder” (Permanent Waves), and then in “Camera Eye” and “Vital Signs” (Moving Pictures). Signals’s coup was to have the keys migrate out of bridges and transitional passages, into verses and choruses, though seldom both in the same song (see below); and much of the rest of the band’s eighties output would continue this trajectory toward a more expansive, central role, with the guitar more and more settling for the keyboards’ original role of providing ornament and color. Thus, rather than keying in on Signals as a moment of rupture, we might instead see the dozen years between Kings and 1988’s Hold Your Fire as a bumpy continuum, with the balance tilting ever more stage left.

Another reason Signals gets singled out as the band’s fall from grace is the well-documented infighting about the role of keyboards that clearly came to a head around this record. While Geddy Lee (bass, keys, vocals) spoke admiringly of Trevor Horn and Ultravox, and of the importance of the keyboards to create textures and “emotional colors,” and Neil Peart (drums) pointed to Peter Gabriel as an example of a musician “finding [his] feet” in the new musical moment (qtd. in Martin Popoff, Contents Under Pressure, ps. 102-3), Alex Lifeson—himself an admirer of many of the same bands and artists—seemed to be wondering what had happened to his guitar. He might even have been wondering what had happened to Lee, ensconced behind his wall of keyboards like a castled king, Lifeson himself a superannuated knight, tilting at sonic windmills. Signals also marked the beginning of Peart’s use of drum machines, though at this stage still behind the scenes; in the “diary” included in the Signals tour book, he writes about the humbling experience of having the Roland teach him new rhythmic patterns—shades of the chess master playing the computer. The electronic drums would only arrive with the next album, Grace Under Pressure (1984), and then only marginally; by Power Windows (1986), Peart’s kit was spinning around during performance, to reveal (quite literally) a whole other side of his playing, whose new sounds he incorporated into his through-composed drum solo. It was a Jekyll-and-Hyde transformation in reverse … though, despite his moniker as “the professor on the drum kit,” some fans clearly wished Peart would play a little less Jekyll, a little more Hyde.

In stressing continuity over rupture, I don’t wish to be understood as engaging in some teleological fantasy about the band’s evolution.† As every biologist knows, evolution is a lot messier than the slow accretion of traits a cladogram would seem to suggest. But I do think evolutionary change is a useful lens through which to view Rush’s music. It is perhaps the most curious feature of their history: on the one hand they are viewed as paragons of musical integrity, enshrined in their anthem “The Spirit of Radio”; on the other hand, there is perhaps no band in the history of rock that responded more completely to the currents of the moment. (Indeed, I remember visiting the radio station at my sister’s college, pulling out their copy of Signals, and finding some DJ or other had left a nasty note (imagine!) taped to the cover, to the effect that the band had no identity at all.) Were they any other band, fans would have labeled them sell-outs. The tension is generally resolved by the idea that their change was based on free aesthetic choice rather than on market expectations, an idea which the band promoted in ancillary materials (“somehow we became popular!” they exclaim in the liner notes to Exit … Stage Left) and encoded in their lyrics (e.g., “Tom Sawyer”’s “Changes aren’t permanent/ But change is,” or “Digital Man”’s “Constant change is here to stay”). (It is also resolved by a tendency among fans to view the band in a sort of vacuum, fandom encouraging a certain deafness to context, particularly unjust where Rush is concerned.) The band’s penchant for leaving fans behind only confirms their integrity, as does their favoring of newer material in concert over “jukeboxing” (though the ubiquitous medleys of their later years complicate matters). Whether we choose to place the emphasis on outside influences or the band’s morphing these influences into their own sound, Rush were clearly involved in a continuous dynamic exchange with a changing environment—musical, cultural, technological. Viewed in this light, we might say that their first dozen years were marked by constant rupture, and thus a paradoxical continuity.

If conventional narratives shape our understanding, they do so by shaping how—and even what—we hear. Once the standard narrative is accepted, it becomes part of our framework for listening, and even whether we choose to listen at all. Anything that bumps up against this intellectual construct is essentially muted by the assumptions we bring to our listening. This is a particular injustice to Alex Lifeson. For what is generally lost in the narrative of the sacrificing of the power trio on the altar of pop and the guitar’s asphyxiation under pillows of synths—and what is muted as well when we imagine the band’s history as a continuum of slowly-accreting traits—is the mighty bump that was 1984’s Grace Under Pressure. Two years after Rush was supposed to have “smothered” their guitar in keyboards, the band released what I like to think of as their last great guitar album. Rather than a knee-jerk reaction to the sound the band had adopted with Signals—rather, that is, than break out the Gibson doubleneck and ES-355—Lifeson evolved—in fact, had already begun evolving on Signals—to accommodate the evolving sonic matrix of his bandmates, itself an adaptation to changes afoot in the broader environment of popular music. All these pressures, and all this close listening to the musical moment, combined to nudge him into some of the most graceful guitarwork of his career

*

I’ve often wondered about the extent to which Rush’s identity as a power trio and their ethos of trying to reproduce studio albums live (without hiring extra musicians to tour) impacted their aesthetic decisions about how to incorporate keyboards. Given that Lee was never quite able to do three things at once, oscillation between the bass and keys was a given; and this oscillation had the effect of creating a split between “newer” (prog-cum-New Wave) and “older” (hard rock/heavy metal) sounds.‡ On Signals, the split runs right down the middle of the songs, between verses and choruses, amplifying what Peart called their “dynamic contrast.” “Analog Kid” is a good example: rockin’, riff-dominated verses yield to (for all intents and purposes) guitarless choruses of church-organ synth and delay-heavy vocals. “Chemistry” operates in much the same way; “Subdivisions” does the reverse.

“Analog Kid” is also notable for being the last bona fide burner of a solo Lifeson recorded. There are a few shreds of this left on the second side of Pressure, but nothing like the extended scramble that had defined many a Lifeson solo up to this point. That guitarist was laid to rest on Signals. Perhaps the competition from Van Halen clones and Yngwie wannabes had simply become too stiff; if so, then this was another evolutionary pressure to which Lifeson responded. What comes to the fore on Signals, and even moreso on Grace Under Pressure, is another side of his playing—the one that had given us such gorgeously different solos as “Bacchus Plateau” and “Limelight,” “Different Strings” and “Cinderella Man,” “The Trees” and “Camera Eye,” all of which are distinguished less by technical skill than an ear for melody and structure, timbre and texture. In some cases—“Cinderella Man,” “Limelight”—the bass is busier than the guitar: Lifeson seems more interested in milking the life out every note he plays (and “note” is rather stretching it … like he does).

Lifeson has cited the solo on Signals’s “Chemistry” as a personal favorite, and with good reason: the oblique approach to the song’s progression and melody, the highly gestural sound, the searching phrases he uses to build tension as he finds his way back to and then embellishes the song’s chief melody, all speak to a master soloist at work. But there are a number of other tracks on this record which, both as accompaniest and soloist, demonstrate more clearly the emerging style that would come to dominate Grace Under Pressure. Listen to him, for example, on the bridge of “The Weapon”: his guitar surfaces from a cataclysm of electronica, first matching the noise, then slowly finding its voice with a bugle-call arpeggio that morphs into an accelerating phrase—every element of the music heightening every other—; and then holding center stage alone for a breathtaking moment before the band picks up around him and carries the song back into its groove, its main progression, and its final chorus. Here, the solo no longer stands apart from the song in traditional front-of-the-stage, above-the music virtuosity; nor is it a “break” for an all-band jam (e.g., “Freewill”): it is an integral part of a developing composition. One could remove the guitar solos from, say, “Natural Science” and little would be lost (it sounds like blasphemy to my ears, but it’s true). Not so with “The Weapon.” The solo is too tightly wedded to the song.

Even the solo on “Subdivisions,” which seems an afterthought, bears the marks of an emerging sound: it hardly departs from the melody; all its rather limp energy seems geared toward ushering in the closing chorus. What I would most point to in this solo, however, is the brief, concluding chord progression. It seems so innocuous in the context of this song; viewed from the vantage of Grace Under Pressure, it is nothing short of revolutionary. (NB: Is it the embedded solos, the truncated stage for virtuosity, more than the oft-cited production or abiding presence of keys, that led to the feeling the guitar is somehow “absent” on Signals? Or does the negative guitar judgment of Signals largely rest on “Subdivisions,” which, together with the solo-less “New World Man,” are the only tracks casual listeners seem to know, the only ones occasionally played on the radio? “Subdivisions” is the song that most lives up to those keyboard pejoratives. Even a synths-heavy song like “The Weapon” has a lot more guitar; the synths are there more for atmosphere. By turns, at least, the sound on this record is a lot more balanced than “Subdivisions” (or a miffed Lifeson) would suggest.)

And then there’s “Digital Man.” It’s not the solo I want to call attention to here, filled with Lifesonian noise and wah, the interplay with the bass and drums closer to a “Limelight,” with which it favorably compares. It’s the guitar sound as a whole. You can hear it most clearly on the section leading into the solo: twangy, vibrato-enhanced chords that settle and fade over Lee’s walking bassline and Peart’s fickle ride. We hear something similar in the powerful introduction to “Countdown” (much the best part of that song). If that burner of a solo on “Analog Kid” was a swansong for the Lifeson of old, “Digital Man” is the grown-up Lifeson, and the grown-up Rush: the one whose rebellion Terry Brown couldn’t put down.**

The overall approach to the guitar for color and texture rather than riffs and blistering solos; the heightened attention to dynamics and effects; the use of chords in solos, from which single note phrases emerge, or vice-versa; and the integration of these solos into the overall composition: these are the chief ways Lifeson’s sound began to transform on Signals, a transformation that would come to startling fruition on Grace Under Pressure. Many years ago on this blog I made the somewhat exaggerated claim that some of Voivod guitarist Denis “Piggy” L’amour’s best work sounds like “one long chordal solo” (see “Deulogy,” 1.4.11). One could make a similarly exaggerated claim about Lifeson on this record. Once again, it’s difficult not to view these shifts in terms of evolutionary pressures: Lifeson, now competing with a more obviously polyphonic instrument, began to think of his guitar more like a second keyboard, and to investigate more seriously its polyphonic possibilities. In his atrociously-titled Contents Under Pressure, Martin Popoff writes disparagingly about “guitar-emulating keyboards,” but the reverse is at least as true: Lifeson’s becomes a keyboard-emulating guitar. “Emulating” is really too strong a word, though. Grace is a guitar record to boot; the instrument simply asserts itself in a way to which Rush fans, at least at the time, were not accustomed.

One of the ways the guitar asserts itself on Grace is simply a matter of pitch: Lifeson spends a lot more time playing in the upper register, the skinny frets, the unwrapped strings. Many years ago I heard a beautiful lecture at Julliard by the great Gunther Schuller, about Duke Ellington. (Julliard was always having free music-oriented events, which, as a chronically-broke part-time teacher working just a few blocks away, I tried to take full advantage of.) Schuller noted that, in some Ellington compositions, the clarinet, trumpet, and trombone played in opposite registers to a traditional Dixieland arrangement. In other words, Ellington had purposely reversed the ranges in which we expect to hear these instruments, in order to arrive at something new to the ear. A similar thing happens, I think, on Grace Under Pressure. Rather than the guitar’s heavy power chords undergirding Lee’s achingly high voice, on Grace Lee’s voice, which (as Chris McDonald notes) from Permanent Waves forward had come more and more to occupy a middle register, the guitar floats over the top with high triads, squealing noise, and harmonics. It fills the range Lee’s voice used to occupy.

“Red Sector A” is perhaps Lifeson’s chief accomplishment on this record. The song has keys galore, true. But it’s impossible to imagine “Red Sector A” without the reefs of high triads Lifeson builds atop the throbbing electronic pulse and steady hi-hat beat. They dominate the choruses, extended versions of which appear in the song’s introduction and conclusion, and with which the mid-range arpeggios of the pre-choruses contrast. Even the verses, where the keys are most prevalent, work in call-and-response with the guitar (and, in turn, the drums). As for the solo—even the word sounds funny, what with the way the guitar participates in the movement through the song’s bridge—it is exemplary of Lifeson’s new sound. After the second chorus the song is almost driven to a halt—mostly by contrast; it is the first time the motoric electronic pulse drops out—and this in itself fills the moment with tension, which Lifeson capitalizes on with a series of chiming, widely-spaced harmonics. The solo develops into a sort of fanfare; drums up the ante, though without losing the tom-focused spareness that itself contrasts with the hi-hat-and-snare pattern that had dominated the song up to the break. Lifeson answers Peart with parallel chordal passages. And then the break returns, though the guitar’s approach shifts, mixing notes with delicately-strummed chords and arpeggios, alternating poignancy and anger, feeling out each moment, until a full bar of assertive strumming calls back the beat. In good pop form, the song climaxes here, and transitions back into the pre-chorus, but with a new urgency: Lifeson’s heavier attack, Peart’s fills, and above all Lee’s voice. The nuanced emotional tableau—the mix of horror, despair, resignation, and hope of life in the camps—is carried by Lifeson’s rich and evocative playing, and the way he both responds to and participates in creating the developing composition. Again, there are inklings of all this on Signals, but no real precedents. It was what needed to happen in the musical context of Grace Under Pressure.

Other songs on this record show a similar shift in approach, if a little less dramatically. In “Afterimage,” an upbeat rocker about loss, Lifeson’s solo emerges piecemeally from an extended bass-and-drum crescendo, which, for a time, the guitar does little more than rupture with splashing, reverberating chords that fade, as per “Digital Man,” inflected with vibrato. Whistling synths slowly rise in pitch and volume; Peart doubles up on the snare; the listener waits for the guitar to arrive and fill out the sonic space it has repeatedly approached and abandoned. When it does, it is almost anticlimactic: a rather resigned chord progression, played over a more fully fleshed-out beat. The second time through the chord voicings change, ornamented with added notes and rhythmic flourishes, slowly climbing the neck into “Red Sector A” territory until, on the third and final chorus (in the jazz sense of the term) the guitar emits one strangled, descending phrase—the only single notes in this “solo”—before a final chordal scream. The whole is little more than an embellishment of the underlying progression, a recycling of the musical materials at hand; its power is its restraint, its refusal to abandon the song’s modest framework.  “Distant Early Warning” follows a similar pattern. In fact, both songs alternate between repeat-note riffs and traditional hard-rock chording, though “Warning” moves the reverberating chords into its reggae-infused verses. Here, the bridge opens with a transitional passage of ornamented chordwork much like “Afterimage”’s that, after one repetition, gives way to an eight-bar “break,” Lifeson playing a descending five-note, minor-key phrase punctuated by the bass and drums, repeated, transposed up the neck—and then another eight-bar section, cool to the former’s hot, where the full band “cruises” over the music of the verses, now driven along by a steady rock beat, the guitar playing a combination of single-note phrases and high triads. Much like “Red Sector A,” the section flows naturally into climactic pre-chorus, chorus, and finale.

There’s often a playfulness about Lifeson’s guitar that, in the midst of all this high seriousness—a high seriousness that often overcomes me when I try to write about music—I would be remiss not to mention. The wonderfully raucous solo of “The Body Electric,” for example, reminiscent of Jeff Beck’s second excursus on “Blue Wind”; “Kid Gloves”’s 5:4 campfire-song main riff, and solo as manic as anything Lifeson ever put on record—a running game of tag between self-comping and free-association-riffing; the moment where he leaps from a false-harmonics squiggle to a series of open-string harmonics that he lets ring together before stamping on the whammy bar is like the ethos of the whole song, condensed into a single bar. It’s miraculous, in part, for the way it manages to both do justice to and transcend the inherent limits of the material. For almost alone on this record, “Kid Gloves” has a stunted, preserved-in-amber feel. As much as “Subdivisions,” it is about the alienation and struggles of suburban teens. But how stark the difference in tone, and effect. “Subdivisions”’s power comes from simultaneously embedding us in the teen outcast’s drama and rising above it, to encompass the broader, suffocating Levittown pattern and “you are here” (and nowhere else) mall map: middle-class alientation as tragic fate. Despite “Kid Gloves”’s dark themes of scrums and bullying, the air of schoolyard naivete it captures so well never quite gives it space to breathe—except, that is, when Lifeson takes the gloves off to solo. Then again, maybe like “Analog Kid,” a more riff-centric rocker like “Kid Gloves” wants to take us back in another way: it feels weirdly nostalgic for “old Rush.” (Maybe Peart’s warning here was at least partly self-referential, about the bare-knuckle infighting that had left the band producerless, and unsure about where to put the new fulcrum for their sound.)

The importance of The Police to the band’s sound at this time can’t be overstated; it comes out particularly strong in the Police-inspired—almost Police-pastiche—“The Enemy Within.” But the whole record bears The Police’s fingerprints, and so it might be worth thinking a little about Lifeson’s style on Grace in relation to Andy Summers. It’s actually a pretty short step from “Vital Signs” to (leaping over Signals) the ska-infused “Enemy”: the staccato wank-wank-wank “Roxanne” chords punctuating a frenetic bass line and tight, static, Stewart Copeland-style beat. With Signals and Grace Lifeson had definitely moved in Summers’s direction of muted mid-range ostinatos, arpeggios, repeat-note phrases, and a combination of shimmering/sustained and stacatto chords. And yet, there is nothing in The Police’s oeuvre that sounds anything like “Red Sector A,” or the bridges and solos of any of the songs discussed—let alone the power-chord rocking that dominates sections of much of the material on Grace. Lifeson, more accustomed to playing a leading role (like everyone in this band), continued to give himself more liberty to move around; he was much more prone than Summers to announce his presence by altering his chord voicings and rhythmic patterns, to inflect his sustained chords with wah and flange, and, of course, to solo. (Even on the verses of “The Enemy Within,” each first chord Lifeson lets ring out; the other three he clips like a ska player. Would Summers have clipped all four chords? I think so.) In a 1984 interview with Free Music’s Andrew McNaughtan (retrieved from the website Power Windows), Lifeson cited Summers together with Midge and the Edge as guitarists he admired. His reason: “I think he [Summers] plays a really good role in that band. The guitar is just where it should be.” Fitting words to close with, this sense of Lifeson trying to find the place “where the guitar should be.” Perhaps that is what makes this period of his playing, and this period in the band’s history, so rich: as he (and really the whole band) retreated from the shoulder-jostling virtuosity on which they had cut their teeth and made their name, they were all working to find where they should be relative to each other; and this tension—this pressure—in Lifeson’s case between soloing and accompanying, and what that would sound like circa 1982-4, created a sort of musical estuary: the border between river and sea that teems with creation.

*

There is a wonderfully comic moment in Beyond the Lighted Stage where a woman recognizes Geddy Lee in a diner and asks him for his autograph. Lifeson is with him at the table; Lee stammers something like, “He’s in the band, too.” But the woman keeps gushing about Lee. The exchange speaks to something every fan sort of knows: Lifeson is the underdog. He is the least recognized, and (arguably) the least accomplished member of the band—the least likely to be voted onto one of those rock “best” lists. For bass and drums, the pantheons remained relatively stable, even stagnant. But rock, a guitar-driven genre for at least its first few decades, used to squeeze out a bushel of new guitar virtuosos every year, with every year marking new milestones in speed and technique. As a professor of mine once memorably imagined it, riffing on Emerson’s critique of talent: they pushed their elephantine testicles around in a wheelbarrow.

Lifeson was thus pressured to play the role of jester among kings; and, happily for him, it suited his personality. He may indeed be (as the band claims) the funniest man alive; he certainly comes across that way in interviews. It may be a reason the band’s chemistry worked for as long as it did. Another dour Peart, another workaholic Lee, would surely have broken them—never mind some testicles-in-the-wheelbarrow, arpeggio-perspiring Yngwieite. But from a technical standpoint, it also means that Lifeson was never taken as seriously as a musician. He’s written some marvelous songs, some wonderful chord progressions, some indelible riffs. But because it’s Rush, he’s expected to excel as a soloist as well, to be a putative virtuoso in his own right. It’s part of the band’s image and mystique, which McDonald suggestively compares to the integrated competitiveness of a string quartet. Of course, one can be a great guitarist without being a virtuoso in the narrow, classical sense.†† But not in a band like Rush.

Maybe a year or two after I started taking guitar lessons, I brought A Farewell to Kings to my lesson and played my teacher the solo from the title track. The lessons were always structured so that the first two-thirds or so we worked on sight reading, theory, chords, and so on, and the last ten minutes or so were dedicated to stuff we brought in—the sugar to the help the medicine go down. And so these poor martyrs to the Vanhalenization of the suburbs were reduced to trying to figure out crappy rock riffs and solos for their teenage would-be jukebox heroes, so that the parents paying for the lessons wouldn’t come in and give the studio’s proprietor an earful about how disappointed their kid was, the studio would remain solvent, and the teachers would remain gainfully employed, or at least as gainfully employed as was possible for those pursuing a career in music. Sad but true: when my original teacher left, my new teacher proved uninterested in helping me figure out the latest Iron Maiden solo, and I didn’t last very long after that. I thought he was sort of an asshole, but I probably should have spent more time looking in the mirror.

Anyway, I can’t say that Matt, my first teacher, had it all bad. He was the guy who introduced me to DiMeola and Holdsworth and McLaughlin (“You want fast?”). He introduced me to Jeff Beck, too, and he wrote out the chord progression to McLaughlin’s “Thousand Island Park.” We learned Steve Howe’s “The Clap” together—I can’t imagine that wasn’t fun for him—and DiMeola’s “Vertigo Shadow,” one of the master’s finest early-eighties acoustic compositions. He planted in me the seed of Wes Montgomery. He was the guy who pushed me, chided me, when I brought stuff in that I should be able to figure out myself. And he was right: it was easy, if I just leaned in and listened.

And when I played him the solo from “A Farewell to Kings,” he said just one word under his breath: “Sloppy.” I asked him what he had said. He said he hadn’t said anything. But we were both pretending. It’s what Mako says to Chuck Norris in An Eye for an Eye, after he knocks out some Bad Guy with a telephone. Sloppy.

If I’ve never forgotten that sotto voce takedown, it’s probably because I’ve always wondered if my lionizing of Lifeson was warranted; if what I really liked was the band, and my liking for the band prompted me to inflate his ability. And then maybe the fact that I liked the band so much prompted me to inflate all of them. And if it’s easy enough to harbor such doubts about our greatest infatuations, it is particularly easy with a band like Rush, about whom so many rock writers, and later so many of my peers, would tell me over and over that they (Rush) were among such childish things it would be best for me to put away. Of course, as Deena Weinstein wrote long ago about metal, the idea of being part of a beset minority is just the sort of thing that nurtures hardcore fandom. (Come to think of it, it might be this as much as musical affinities—the idea of being part of an oppressed, frenziedly devout minority—that accounts for the significant overlaps between the audiences for Rush and heavy metal.) If Rush is already a cultural underdog—and the band certainly cultivated this image with a virtuosity that outpaced even their musicianship—then Lifeson is the underdogs’ underdog, about whom I must double down on my devotion.

And so the constant argument with myself. No, Helldriver, Lifeson never quite reached the level of maturity as a composer that Summers did on that haunting, ethereal accompaniment to “Spirits in the Material World.” (But neither did Summers, before or again. Or was it Sting? Sometimes one song, like a short story, has an incandescence the author never touches again. This is cause for celebration, not despair.) Lifeson’s chording was never as sophisticated as Jimmy Page’s, nor was he so adventurous about exploring different styles and sounds. (But then why should breadth be the marker of greatness. I do not ask this of many of my favorite writers, like Genet or (Flannery) O’Connor or (Cormac) McCarthy. Their own voices are enough.) Lifeson never quite constructed a solo as beautiful as some of David Gilmour’s. (But then

It’s little silly, isn’t it, these who-is-greater rankings? Browser clickbait creeping into the workings of our aesthetic consciousness. Maybe this paean to the underdogs’ underdog is just another attempt to shore up my faith. But let me be at least a little charitable, with both Mr. Lifeson and myself: it is an attempt to give the underdog his due, by shedding a little light (I hope) on a moment in his career that, to my mind at least, has been inadequately considered, and too-scantly praised. There’s a lot more going on here than “he’s louder in the mix.” There is a full-scale reinvention of his playing. The distance Lifeson traveled, the ways he responded to the currents of his time and his fellow musicians, his bandmates first and foremost: these things seem to me the essence of conscious musicianship, of conscious artistry.

Anyway, if I can’t speak about this in aesthetic terms, I have little desire to speak about it at all. The frustrating thing about the social-science turn in the humanities is that it has constricted and even eroded our language for talking about aesthetic experience, or at least for doing so in ways that are not immediately judged as naïve, often in the mind of the very person going out on a linguistic limb to say them. It’s a good thing, of course, to be conscious of the limits and blindnesses of our ingrained language. Then again, as Scott Burnham as noted, we may simply not have a language adequate to really say what music does; the social sciences have simply rushed in to fill the discursive vacuum. In doing so they have tended to disenchant the experience. We second guess our response to everything; the very language we would use to try to describe it is continually pulled away from us; and all the while, the music remains that something “out there” our academic writing can’t touch. Somehow, our language to speak about music must re-enchant the experience. It cannot be the language of besotted fandom. But it has to, through a trick of consciousness, double back on that experience if we are to have any hope of understanding it, not in terms of the arid language of ever-proliferating mediation, but as the soul-enriching and transcendent experience of contact. There is a poetry out there somewhere that can do this; there is a language awaiting invention. Maybe this is why the language on this blog tends to go on and on, a continuing thrust and parry with—and perhaps dodging of—truth. I admire Coltrane for this very reason: he goes on and on and on because he can’t quite get there. I always listen to him with a slight but nagging disappointment which, in hindsight, becomes a weirdly hollow satisfaction. Then I want to listen again.

I never particularly resented the sound Rush adopted over the course of the ‘80s—I say this as a guitarist—though I do think their compositions lost quality toward the end of that decade. To my mind, as they tried so hard to color within the lines of the standard pop song (a worthy, though perhaps not noble, goal), the colors themselves lost vibrancy; the eccentricity of their sound, its rougher edges in all senses—time, timbre, melody—slowly disappeared. As their songwriting focus shifted from riff and instrumental counterpoint to vocal melodies and texture, the juxtapositions of their three voices, so much the meat of what I’d listened for—what, that is, I’d been culturally prepared to listen for—and the bizarre and wonderful vocal lines as Lee tried to wrap himself around Peart’s cerebralisms, mostly vanished. If I am an “old Rush” fan, I am so with this difference: I think some of the material on their poppiest, synth-heavy records stands comfortably with their best music up through Moving Pictures; it’s just fewer and farther between, a case of diminishing returns.

Such an assessment leads me back to the uncomfortable questions asked above. After all, one way to manage one’s fandom is to periodize it. I am the most statistically average Rush fan: a white, middle-class, male professional, and an amateur musician, born circa 1970 (1969, in my case). I was fifteen when Grace Under Pressure appeared. This steady disenchantment and sunsetting of my fandom over the latter half of the eighties: was it a coping mechanism? We seldom stop to think about the way our feelings for artists are caught up with our emotional responses at certain ages, let alone the way these responses are mediated, not just by the juggernaut of the pop-music industry, but by a variety of other factors. This band, which for a time was everything to me, has shrunk over the years to occupy a small but significant place in my musical pantheon. Sometimes I listen to them the way I might look at a Disneyworld ride: less swept up in the world than admiring the craftsmanship. Other times I am caught off guard. (A strange expression to use about listening to music; for what is music for, if not to catch us off guard?) A song that never spoke to me thirty years ago might take on an unexpected resonance based on the way my taste has shifted since, and vice-versa with those songs that become the equivalents of things we wrap in gauze and put in the back of a dresser drawer, the ones I can only view through the lens of craft or the haze of nostalgia. I suppose we look at all youthful loves in a similar way. Maybe all human endeavor looks paltry in the pitiless gaze of hindsight. I am comfortable with the illusion of contact, if illusion it is—and I can’t know—and nobody can—and this is a terrible thing, isn’t it, this—if we are to be honest with ourselves, I mean—absolute and total lack of certainty. I am on the one hand unable to convince myself that my continuing love is just nostalgia, and on the other equally unable to convince myself that it is not; and this is true, to a greater or lesser degree, of all the music from that period in my life, an uncertainty exacerbated by the changing attitudes of the surrounding culture. “He can neither believe,” Hawthorne famously wrote about Melville, “nor be comfortable in his unbelief.” I wonder if it has a name, this suspension between two equally-inaccessible peaks, both natural, inevitable, and yet unable to be joined, any more than two moments in time.

Maybe we each give it our own secret name. By writing it, I have decided to make mine public.

 

*  See Chris McDonald, Rush, Rock Music, and the Middle Class, p. 182. McDonald himself focuses less on keyboards than on “Rush’s [declining] emphasis on its original heavy metal and progressive influences,” noting that, so long as “Lee was actually playing chords and melodic figures on synthesizers with his own fingers, fans generally accepted the instrument’s role”; he contrasts this with the rise of “pre-sequenced patterns” beginning with Power Windows (1986), which clashed with fans’ “conservative” definition of musicianship. I think McDonald would agree that it is difficult to separate the infusion of keyboards from the bands and genres that influenced Rush at the time. Anyway, his point is well-taken. In fact, his whole book is well-taken.

†  That said, it is tempting to think teleologically: the band’s own well-publicized perception of its evolution, as well as Peart’s comments about their records working in cycles between “experimental” and “definitive” records, the “chapter” idea, with the fourth record in every set serving as a coalescing statement for the period (2112, Moving PicturesHold Your Fire?). Then again, while Peart saw Grace Under Pressure as definitive, at least at the time, Popoff sees it as preparatory, the first glimmerings of their later ‘80s sound. It’s difficult in hindsight to see any record as definitive. (N.B.: I’m aware that “evolution” is a fan buzz-word, or “discursive mantra.” The term belongs to Matt Hills, from Fan Cultures; McDonald adopts it for his monograph on Rush. Where Rush is concerned, these “well-worn discursive mantras” (158) cite “the band’s integrity, its willingness to change and evolve” and their “down-to-earth attitudes” (159). More on the last of these below.)

‡  John J. Scheinbaum once observed that, for all its classical pretensions, progressive rock “is still a subgenre of rock,” one that “highlight[s] the tensions, frictions, and incompatibilities among these very different musical value systems [i.e., of classical and rock music]. The progressive rock repertory does not construct a synthesis at all, but instead occupies the spaces between the value systems” (in Progressive Rock Reconsidered, ed. Kevin Holm-Hudson, ps. 29-30). His observation might be applied to Rush’s incorporation of keys in the 80s, less synthesis than “occupying the spaces between the value systems,” in this case mediating their roots in prog- and hard rock with the accretion (and perhaps layering) of later influences and styles.

**  According to band history, or legend, inasmuch as we can distinguish one from the other, this is the song over which the band broke with longtime producer Terry Brown. It couldn’t have been the keys per se that got up Brown’s nose; “Digital Man” is one of the least keys-infused songs on the record. Was it the growing tendency toward a groove, which, for this band, had always been a bumpy, angular proposition? If it was the groove that threw Brown from the pommels of Rush’s horse, then why wasn’t the deal-breaker the eminently danceable “Weapon”? As Peart tells it, the band had been struggling with the song’s chorus, which they eventually resolved by hitting on a sequencer pattern everybody but Brown liked. Clearly the straw that broke the camel’s back, even if, as a rebellion against the band’s use of pre-recording, it can be seen as symbolic of a break with the whole direction the music was tending. Just as it is revealing to contrast Lifeson’s guitar on “Digital Man” with “Analog Kid,” so with sequencers as well: that wub-wub-wub moved from a brief transitional passage and outro to the very heart of the song.

The loss of their long-time producer after Signals, and then the trials of trying to find someone who would fit, was one of the “pressures” to which Grace Under Pressure alludes. From Lifeson’s perspective, we might say the band was looking for someone to restore the balance he felt had been lost—and “balance” is a term that weighs heavily in the band’s mythology (cf. the climactic lyric from “Hemispheres”: “We will call you Cygnus/ The god of balance you shall be”: who would this new Cygnus be?). It’s funny to contrast Peart’s writeup for the Grace Under Pressure tour book—in which Peter Henderson is lauded as the right man for the job—with later revelations that he was actually a disaster. The band was clearly used to a strong-willed producer, one who acted as a sort of fourth member; the long-term relationship with Brown had clearly enabled him to play that role. Henderson turned out to be a fine engineer but terrible producer, at least by these criteria, and the band was very much set adrift to make their own decisions. Lee was apparently as disappointed with Pressure and Lifeson was with Signals; he felt the guitar was too prevalent in the mix, which “smothered the record’s melodies” (qtd. in Popoff 112; my emphasis); and it may have been their experience with the singularly unhelpful Henderson that led to Lee’s long-range assessment of the band’s changing in the ‘80s from “players” to “producers.” (Somebody’s always smothering somebody; isn’t that the way of the world? Segue the lyrics to “The Trees.”) But if Henderson was a non-starter, I can’t help but thank him for the producerly vacuum that allowed Lifeson to come back to the fore, and blossom there. It reminds me a little of the production on P.J. Harvey’s first record, Dry: super bass-heavy; the drums sound like rattled cans; I can’t help but think some producers listen to it and think it sounds like shit. I mean, none of her later albums sound anything like that. But to my ear, it is absolutely, daringly perfect. Only such rare sonic catastrophes become masterpieces! By God, if it’s ever “remastered” I’ll storm the winter palace of Island Records. Fair warning.

††  I mean, isn’t that what those romantics-in-cynics’-clothes, the illuminati of the Rock Critical-Industrial Complex, are always telling us—that technique is a liability, a gag on the barbaric yawp? As has probably been clear from many a post on this blog, I have a bone to pick with the Rousseauvian school of rock criticism that equates authenticity and expressive capability with an absence of technique. I will desist from listing the Four Chief Fallacies of this position; this post has already gone on far, far, far, far, far too long. (Really, Helldriver? You? Really?) If you want to hear ‘em, post a comment that says, “Helldriver, DO share,” and I’ll be happy to oblige. Then we can argue about it. Or not.

By the way: “mantra” or no, I always found it refreshing that, in the teeth of an industry that valorizes self-promotion above all else, Rush always came across as pretty humble about their musicianship. I remember reading an interview with Lee many years ago where he said that if I wanted to hear a real bass player, I should listen to Jaco Pastorius. It wasn’t hard to take my guitar teacher’s advice about listening to fusion when he was echoing the bass player for my favorite band. It may leave a funny taste, coming from a rock star whose catalog is replete with look-at-me soloing. But at least it’s a positive message, one befitting the overall wholesomeness of the band’s image, so well captured in the controversial photo on the back of Grace Under Pressure: the conventional middle-class appeal, the themes of integrity and honesty and romantic individualism, the Protestant-work-ethic musicianship, the intellectual airs, the relative restraint of their proverbially rock-and-roll lifestyle. Maybe being a fan means an inability to fully divide that feeling of kinship from the rational understanding that it is part of a constructed public persona, the ability, that is, to bear that cognitive dissonance. The music should be enough, and yet it comes entangled in all these accessory media. Maybe this should be the goal of writing about music: to disentangle the one from the other, to undo this Gordian knot. No one has yet convinced me that, if we could undo the knot, there would be nothing else. And no one has yet convinced me the knot cannot be undone. The question is finding a language to help us cut through it, to the hidden heart.

Two Saints

After the uncollected diptychs of Herman Melville.

I. Saint Nick’s

It lay not far from the northwest entrance to the 145th Street station of the A-B-C-D trains.

A nondescript brown door, open dusk to gloam, a few up from the fish-n-chips place, Devlin’s, I think it was called. You heard it before you saw it. Then the light coming from inside. A few steps down. Always down.

The whole place blinked like a jukebox. Smelled like a warmed-up tube amp. (I also smelled: gasoline, perfume, leather, piss, cigarettes.) People, rubbing against you like starving cats. Nobody could help it; the place was too small; there were too many of us; there was no fire code to speak of.

There was no no-talking policy. There was an anti-no-talking policy. The music had to fight its way into the here and now or it wasn’t heard at all. It was never given carte blanche, the way it is in the shrines to the south. The legendary toughness of the Harlem crowd: Show me. Prove it.

The tables between the bar and the band were mostly (though never entirely) occupied by tourists. The foremost tables were pushed right up against the musicians. There was no bandstand, of course.

Oh, hell, I give up. I have no coherent memory of this place anymore. Only bits and pieces. And I can’t go back. It must be almost a decade since they shut the door of the St. Nick’s Pub. Maybe I should abandon Melville and write more like Joe Brainerd, even if that means the memories are mixed up with other memories from the eight years I lived in Harlem. Like this:

I remember the talking drummer dancing while he played, one hand fluttering against the drumhead. The bass player had a small gap between his front teeth, and hair I envied.

I remember the paunchy geek dancing by the bar, all sharp elbows and sharp chin and Fabio hair. When the percussionist headed for the door between sets, the geek gave him such a good-natured whack on the arm you’d have thought they were old friends. I only heard the last words the percussionist said: “Just don’t hit me again.”

I remember the bandleader walking around with a collection plate, people talking into his ear.

I remember the harmonica player in the D.R. wifebeater pumping his arm like he was blowing a train whistle, the women shimmying at the table in front of him.

I remember the drunk airline pilot trying to pick up a woman by the door.

I remember the bartender made me a special whiskey sour one night. It took him a good five minutes, walking from one end of the bar to the other, for this and that. I have no idea what he put in there. Maybe he was taking me for a ride. It tasted good.

I remember the Japanese barmaid. And wondering what the connection was between the Japanese and Harlem. There was a Japanese sax player one night, too.

I remember my neighbor, telling me the dresser we were thinking of buying in one of the other apartments in our building had belonged to the Japanese woman seen cradling Malcolm X’s head in the famous photo from his assassination. Possible, but I wish my neighbor’s wife had been there; she was good at calling him on his bullshit.*

I remember standing at the bar hearing Greg Porter sing “1960what?” for the first time over the PA, and somebody saying he was a St. Nick’s regular made good.

I remember the jazz pictures tacked or taped up around the pipes and such. Bird next to the fire extinguisher. Lady Day over the payphone. There was a picture of Lionel Ritchie, too, and a painting, “The Man,” though I’ve forgotten who The Man was, or what He looked like. Just that He was present.

I remember the cutout H-A-P-P-Y  B-I-R-T-H-D-A-Y on a string behind the bar. The bibs made of napkins they tied around the neck of your Sugar Hill beer. And Christmas lights, of course.

I remember the food, on a table just past the bar. Paper plates and a checkered plastic tablecloth. You can only really hear the music if you know there were paper plates and a checkered plastic tablecloth.

I remember a horn solo. A broken diva. And a keyboard player who moved his body like a marionette, rolling his shoulders, flattening his hands against the keys …

I have no coherent memory of this place. But I do have the distinct impression I heard better music here than anyplace else in the City. Maybe anyplace else period. That this place was closer to the spirit of music, closer to the essence of what music is. Even with Sugar Hill turning to salt, the bitter taste of highrises going up over bulldozed lots, the gut-renovated brownstones, the lives cast into dumpsters up and down 145th Street (“you can fit a whole neighborhood in a dumpster,/ if you really try”), all the real-estate bullshit that throttled and continues to throttle the spirit of music (and pretty much everything else) in the City, there was still this little unvanquishable mecca.

I’m know, I’m romanticizing. I don’t care.

It may be history now, but it was so adamantly not historical—not a place interested in preserving some PBS image of jazz, but present and vital, there in the African diaspora community that I have now been away from for as long as I lived there.

I was holding these notes for a celebration, a reopening. Instead, they have become a piecemeal elegy. I had to dig them out of old journals. Some of them were no longer legible. They’re not enough. They’re all I have. They don’t add up to anything. They ease my longing, a little.

 

* E.g.: “Jimmy Baldwin! Jimmy! Honey, remember when I introduced you to Jimmy?” “I remember you pointing him out to me from across the room.”

 

*****

 

II. Saint Vitus

It lies not far from Gowanus Canal. But that is immaterial.

“Meet Me at St. Vitus.” An anthem, & a bit of Satanic doggerel, in honor of St. Vitus Bar’s successful Kickstarter campaign and impending not-really-post-pandemic resurrection. Sung, obviously enough, to the tune of “Meet Me in St. Louis.” Music by Kerry Mills. Lyrics by Helldriver, who would like to acknowledge the assistance of Profs. Hafen S. Bergius and Baciyelmo in preparing this authoritative edition.

Ahem.

 

When Vitus got home from the pub

To dismember the corpse in his tub

He called Apollyon

But his wifey was gone

Without leaving him one shred of grub.

 

A note had been stuck by his wifey

To the door with an old butcher knifey

It ran, “Vitus, my dear, a demon growled in my ear,

Said he would buy me a shot and a beer,

So I’m off now to start my new lifey.”

 

“Meet me at St Vitus, Vitus

Meet me at the show

Don’t tell me there’s a darker place

A hundred miles below

 

“We’ll dance the selfsame Vitus

Till our feet swell with elephantitus

the blood runs from our eyes

and our flesh liquefies

If you meet me at St Vitus, Vitus

Meet me at the show.”

 

Vitus grabbed his spikes and his leather

And an umbrella for the balmy weather

Abbath drove the train

Through the gaslit subterrane

Of the region referred to as nether.

 

Some hell-wench was working the door

her forearms all slathered with gore

She said, “What’s that? The show?

It’s as sold as my soul,

And don’t try that I’m-on-the-guest-list shit, either.”

 

So he showed her three sixes branded

To the top of his behornéd head

Said she with a grin,

“Why didn’tcha say so? C’mon in!

Elevator’s on the left. Push nine.”

 

He’d gone four, five, six circles down

When he cried, “What on earth is that sound?

Like a Cerebus-pound

Or some cursed Injun mound

Where the infants are ground

Where the demons are crowned

And the fire’s kept stoked all year round, all year round,

And the fire’s kept stoked all year round.

(And what’d she write on that note that I found?)”

 

“Meet me at St Vitus, Vitus

Meet me at the pub

Don’t tell me there’s a finer partner

For drinking than ol’ Beelzebub

 

He’s got a hollow leg—or three—

And cheeks as red as a cherub

So meet me at St Vitus, Vitus

Meet me at the pub.”

 

Then opened the door on a scene

From a nightmare well-leavened with spleen

The sludge-stench of unguents

Crotchless-Todd-Rundgren pungent

And the nuts of Ted Nugent

Roasted more than was prudent

By enslaved, undead culinary students

Told the presence of all things unclean.

 

In a booth was his dear wifey pressed

In a bodice of leather was she dressed

Asmodeus to her left

His hoofage all cleft

With Jaeger her invertedly blessed.

 

Took Vitus his Jaeger sans chaser

When the music hit him like a Taser

The bartenders all carved

“SLAYER” into their arms

With the blade of a dull, rusty razor.

 

Said he, “Well, it’s not what I’d planned …

But can you beat that motherfucking band?

I’m shutting my Bible

For if I don’t, I’m liable

To wind up worse off than the damned.”

 

Now he’s stuck in this place all eternity

For the devil has proved his paternity

And the music’s sure fine

be it punk, thrash, or grind

Or sui generis a-reek with slatternity.

 

Soooooooooo … [everybody!!]

 

“Meet me at St Vitus, Vitus,

meet me at the show

Don’t tell me there’s a darker place

A hundred miles below

 

“We’ll dance the selfsame Vitus

till the angels all spite us

the demons be-(k)night us

to acts of violence incite us

like Andronicus Titus

to executions invite us

rabid mambas to bite us

pestilence to blight us

If you’ll meet me at St Vitus, Vitus

Meet me at the show.”

 

[de rigeur blistering electric something-or-other solo; then, climactic reprise:]

 

“Meet me at St Vitus, Vitus,

meet me for a beer

don’t tell me bangers are banging

thrashers are thrashing

moshers are moshing

eyeballs a-popping

bunnies a-hopping

Azathoth a-flopping

anyplace but here, but here,

anyplace but heeeeeeeeeere!”

 

[Clap. Clap. Clap.]

 

[follows a list of variants from previously published versions]

 

1-5] VX(+((0))): When Vitus awoke all hungover/ Looking like death unwarmedover/ He rolled over in bed/ Kissed a severed head/ And cried out, “Who bisected my lover?”

8-9] R!sq&i: Vitus, by goll,/ Quart’ring corpses is dull,

54-60] ^^^ugh^^^: Here be rituals dominated by victuals/ Unidentifiable meat-substitutes on the griddles/ While Norman Castavets/ Plays his bone castanets/ To a tune on thirteen out-of-tune fiddles.

92-95] sNogg?eeeeee: Call up the demons/ And theorems by Riemann/ Pour out our libations/ With baskets of crustaceans

 

[follows a comment box for suggested new verses, as per the original. don’t be shy, now. and don’t be f—-d, either, writing doggerel is d—-d hard!]

[In fact, here is a little story perfect for a new verse, open to the first versifier who dares: “It was the frontispiece of an old, smoked, snuff-stained pamphlet, the property of an elderly lady (who had a fine collection of similar wonders wherewith she was kind enough to edify her young visitors), containing a solemn account of the fate of a wicked dancing party in New Jersey, whose irreverent declaration that they would have a fiddler even if they had to send to the lower regions for him, called up the fiend himself, who forthwith commenced playing, while the company danced to the music incessantly, without the power to suspend their exercise until their feet and legs were worn off to the knees! The rude woodcut represented the Demon Fiddler and his agonized companions literally stumping it up and down in ‘cotillions, jigs, strathspeys and reels.’” (John Greenleaf Whittier, The Supernaturalism of New England, 1847 (Oklahoma UP, 1969), p. 50; Whittier’s emphasis)]

Punch, Annie

St VincentPhoto by Dana Distortion (https://www.instagram.com/danadistortion/)

It went down like this: a friend I was going to see in North Carolina happened to mention that Esperanza Spalding was playing in Asheville. I said, Esperanza who? I toggled over to YouTube, and before I knew it the night was old and I was on Amazon, ordering CDs. A few months later, seeing another friend in Baltimore, I played him my favorite track from Emily’s D+Evolution (2016), “Ebony and Ivy.” He noted that her voice, at least on this song, sounded like St Vincent’s. I said, Saint Who? (Cue “ignorance” leitmotif.) He put on “Black Rainbow,” from Actor (2009).*

One thing about friends: they know your taste. They know the chinks in your armor, your Achilles’ heels. They know the things that’ll make your cochlea sit up and beg. I could blame my friend here, either, or both, just as much as I could blame Esperanza, or St Vincent herself; but pretty soon we’d be having a philosophical debate about efficient and final causes, free will and determinism, and so on, rather than talking about music.

If you don’t know “Black Rainbow,” or Actor, or St Vincent, let me describe the first for you, and use it, as it was for me, as a gateway to the other two. The song is built around a single four-minute-long crescendo, but it feels more like a gigantic sucker punch. An innocuous beginning, led, as is so much of St Vincent’s music, by her musing, quietly seductive voice, accompanied by a sort of minstrel troupe of string players, and something that sounds like a carny organ. The troupe is only active when she’s not singing, that is, as commentary; when she is, the organ carries the harmony in a fretting ostinato. The chorus, again like much of St Vincent’s music (and many pop songs besides), comprises two parallel phrases and a tag, the whole repeated once. In hindsight at least, one recognizes it as a harbinger: the voice tumbling forward and pulling back, the tag pitched higher, unresolved. But then the whole song looks forward in this way; the sense of expectation has been building from the first note. New sounds appear, layer: in the second part of the first verse, a peep on every second pulse, tracking between channels before lodging itself in both; a fuzzbox dud on every fourth pulse of the first chorus, every second of the second chorus; something that sounds like a saw (a theremin, perhaps?) follows the melody through both choruses, and then pursues our heroine into the bridge. The minstrels introduce more and more shades of dissonance into their commentary. And all the while, the dynamic level has been rising, almost imperceptibly.

Thus, while the song cycles through a typical verse-chorus-bridge structure, all the other elements ignore it, pursuing their own linear objective. Whatever the garden in which things started, whatever clouds were there to begin with, the day has certainly gotten darker.

The bridge is a small masterpiece of rising tension. Still there is no resolution; the last word, fittingly enough, is “louder.” Had I been interrupted here, I probably would have ended up intrigued, and filed St Vincent away, to come back to at some later date (or not, as so often happens). But oh, that ending, or outro, or whatever. The word “louder” having rung out, the fuzzbox pulse suddenly (and noticeably) steps up in intensity, and the song never looks back. Pounding, ascending absurdly stepwise, the strings getting at once louder and more strident, the bass crunchier, heavier. An analogy I made a few years ago on this blog to try to describe the sound of High on Fire’s early records (see “Arcless,” 12.29.14), particularly Surrounded by Thieves, applies equally well here: that movie of the bridge being shaken apart that so many of us watched (gleefully, it must be said) in our high school science classes. And indeed, while it’s true that metal forms one lens through which I hear all my music, the feint to metal—the reason the sucker punch really connected with me—is hardly out of place: he (my friend) knew what he was doing, though he slunk around the kitchen as though he didn’t, just as much as she (St Vincent) did. To my ear, it sounded like the heavier parts of the bridge of Metallica’s “Phantom Lord,” or “Master of Puppets.” But it wasn’t just the incredibly overdriven sound that grabbed me, or the pounding of it; it was the relentlessness of the repetition, the daring of saying, We’re going to do this for like two fuckin’ minutes, longer than these little songs are supposed to do anything, longer than many pop songs themselves—it’s gonna feel a whole lot longer—and heavier than half my fans might care to hear; and then some, and then some, and then some. It sounded like heavy artillery against pop’s aesthetic logic, in particular that cliché of transposing the chorus up a step at fade-out. Sure, I’ll transpose, just like I’m supposed to; and then I’ll keep transposing, one step at a time, louder instead of softer, until you choke on it. And right when I’d begun asking myself those Burkean-sublime questions—when does it end? does it ever end? were the brownies “special”?—it ends, drops—no fade out—it has to; there’s nowhere else for it to go.

The best musicians, I’ve noticed, have an intuitive grasp of how to manage excess.

My love for St Vincent was born at that moment, the moment, that is, the song relinquished me. Not just because the first half of “Black Rainbow” is quite good in its own right, but because the second half—the black part, as in sabbath, as in fade to—rewrote my expectations about what this particular artist was willing to do with form and sound. When it works, it can make a pinhole in your carefully-groomed generic identity; and, if you fall through it, you find yourself in a wonderful new universe, like one of those sea caves under the ocean floor. All of this is not to say that St Vincent can do no wrong. Rather, because of this initiation, she becomes that rarest of artists: the sort to whom you always gives the benefit of the doubt, in whose darkest clouds you always look for the outline of a (black) rainbow.

*

It’s indicative of the strength of St Vincent’s catalog that I came to this post wanting to write about “The Party,” another song on Actor that I find remarkable, and ended up wanting to write about everything, at least everything I’ve made time to dig (into) so far.

I should begin, as she so often does, with her voice.

It’s a voice that achieves a paradoxical balance between distance and intimacy. Raw, naked, direct; it groans, cracks, gasps, drags; it’s breathy, gravelly, and sometimes sounds so lethargic that the music, with its usually static pulse, feels like the only thing pulling her along: she sings as if she’s just turned over in bed. It’s a voice firmly lodged in the body, like the slurs and smears of a jazzing horn. And yet, particularly as one moves forward from Actor through Strange Mercy (2011) to St Vincent (2014), it’s a voice that seems to be at its most confessional when it’s most produced. A processed intimacy. You can reach out and touch it … and then again you can’t. A voice that seems unable to exist except in extreme close-up, an intimacy that can only exist because of technology. Think those nature programs where the actions of flora and fauna, invisible to the naked eye, are slowed down and magnified. There is a J.G. Ballard story about a scientist who does what those nature cams do with the audio recording of a kiss: to the colleague for whom he plays it, it is unrecognizable, horrific. So the “intimacy” of St Vincent, the seductiveness of her voice, of her music: even as she invites us closer and closer, until we can hear every pore, she remains inaccessible; our contact with her is always mediated. We never quite feel the eros of the artist who has flayed herself for our delectation and catharsis. The power dynamic runs the other way. (Is this the paradox of pop stardom, of stardom period? Perhaps St Vincent has merely crystallized this.) “Rattlesnake,” the opening track on St. Vincent (2014), is a great example: at once so hooky, so sexy (almost the first thing she says is that she takes off her clothes), and so mocking (the post-verse/pre-chorus). When she says that the only sound she hears “out here” is her own breath, it’s hard not to think of her mocking even her own style—here, the choruses (“running, running, rattle behind me”) are half-gasped, or hiccoughed. And yet, for all the anxiety of this frenetic plena, and whatever the words she sings, she never loses her teasing poise, never allows herself the overwroughtness of a Kate Bush, whom she sometimes seems to emulate, or the tantrums of a PJ Harvey, who lets us hear the violence her emotions do to her (admittedly rougher) voice. Anyway, unlike PJ, St Vincent doesn’t bring her love to anyone: it’s you—all of us—who have to bring your “loves” to her, enthroned on the eponymous album’s cover.

At the same time there’s something girlish, something sweet and thin and too-pretty about her voice; like the intimacy, it verges on caricature, on the grotesque. This is where the guitar, in all its textures and timbres and odd phrasings, becomes so crucial. Because there’s a danger that such a voice—and sometimes such melodies, as I’ll discuss shortly—could become insipid. But then she’s holding that guitar behind her back like a fuggin’ lead pipe, ready to club the shit out of you. Just one more step. Right there. She keeps it always with her, shadowing her voice, or vice-versa, guitar and voice working in tandem to propel the music, though often running in opposite directions. In this way the guitar reinforces the fractures in the voice, exposing the rough, wounding edge of that “sweetness.” So “Dilettante,” perhaps my favorite track on Strange Mercy, shuttles back and forth between the enormous seductiveness of her voice, accompanied only by alternating bass drum and snare (and those words: “Don’t make me wait …”), and a heavily overdriven guitar riff, cluttering that space, and opening a canyon around her each time it pauses. The guitar follows, commenting, like the minstrels in “Black Rainbow,” and is eventually brought into sync with her voice. Perhaps she’s domesticated it, or perhaps she’s let its roughness possess her—or perhaps it’s a little of both. It’s not just the caricature of intimacy, then, but the danger of it. For the straight male listener, there may be something of the misogynist Rousseau here, the desire to be courted and resisted. And yet, hers is not the fait accompli of affected weakness stroking the male ego, but rather strength masquerading as / mocking weakness—the sucker punch again. I wonder if something of all this is intimated in the images on her record covers as well: the starkness of the photography on Actor, at the same time that the album title calls attention to a faux intimacy; the cover resembles a head shot, like she’s auditioning for our ear. Or the open (screaming? biting?) mouth teething the milk-white plastic (?) to which it is half-molded on the cover of Strange Mercy

That guitar, is it the violence of the bared soul, displaced from the voice? Or is it the force of recoil against us, the voyeurs who would presume to have access to that soul—presume that the role of the artist, above all the female artist, is just such an emotional disrobing? I think the latter. After all, the guitar is just as artfully crafted as the voice. An unlikely guitar hero to be sure, if only because of the way the label has been traditionally conceived.† There she is, thin as a flapper, coaxing this enormous sound out of her guitar—not to mention any number of bizarre, monstrous timbres, and gobs and gobs of Frisellish noise. A pixie riding a dragon; David with a Goliath strap-on. The list of guitarists bundled into her sound is eclectic and impressive: here Bill Frisell (and John Scofield), there Mark Knopfler (I’m thinking of the fourths and open strings on “Neutered Fruit” vis-à-vis “Money For Nothing”); she has cited Adrian Belew and Mark Ribot, fairly enough (what couldn’t she do with Tom Waits?); and of course Hendrix, Hendrix, Hendrix. For even more than the lovely riffs, St Vincent is about making the guitar sound like anything but a guitar. And yet, just as her voice manages a paradoxical combination of distance and intimacy, so in the guitar, no matter how drowned in effects, we can in all but a few cases (the very blue fuzzed-out distortion on “Rattlesnake,” reminiscent of Hendrix’s sound in some versions of “Red House,” and maybe “Bring Me Your Loves”—both of these on St Vincent), hear her, hear the contact between body and instrument. Her sound is all attack. It’s a perfect word: the violence inherent in sound-making; the rending of air. When she really unleashes it, when she goes all PJ on our asses, as she does, say, in the second half of “Huey Newton” … watch the fuck out.

It’s to the guitar we owe the dirtiest, heaviest textures; but it’s also just one element of her music’s overall density—although with the sounds she gets, and all the layering and processing, it’s not always easy to tell what’s guitar and what isn’t. Amazing, too, how much each brief little song packs in—not in terms of development or melodic fecundity, but in sheer quantity of sonic resources employed, serially and simultaneously; the breadth of her sonic palette, built from deep reconnaissance into music history’s musty warehouse: moogs and wurlitzers (that cheesy run filling out the absurd exotic on “Year of the Tiger”); sequences of tones like cassettes used to make at the end of the lead (“Digital Witness” … analog noise); clicks and beeps and whistles (think R2D2 going apeshit); pings and blurps, chimes, blocks, blips … I’ll stop before I end up sounding like a brawl in the old Batman TV series. As my discussion of “Dilettante” suggests, the perception of density also arises from contrast between moments of fullness and emptiness. What has been noted about tempo—that shifts are more effective than a steady pulse for creating an impression of speed or slowness—is as true of dynamics and texture. So, in “Strange Mercy,, at that beautiful “Ten Years Gone” iteration of the verse at its climax, the Page-inspired strums, already big, are rendered God-huge by contrast with what comes before and after. It’s just these sorts of contrasts that a “Black Rainbow” or “Huey Newton” capitalizes on; their second movements are rendered that much fuller by the relative thinness of their first. The same thing can happen between choruses and verses: “Save Me From What I Want”’s pause to all but the barest pulse (and a wonderfully unsettling chime) for the second chorus’s prayer; or conversely, “Laughing With a Mouth of Blood,” her voice alone in the midrange, like on “Mercy,” the keys providing intermittent splashes of color, before giving way to a heavy guitar in the chorus. And then in so many songs she appears alone—that is, her voice—wearing only a soft halo of noise: the choral synth accompaniment to her quiet torch-song crooning in “Prince Johnny”; or the ambient, reverberant ballad “I Prefer Your Love,” sung through a haze, her voice set off with pings: the contrast appears not within the songs, but between them.**

The heaviness and noisiness, amplified by contrast, do make a nice scratching-post for this old metalhead. But it’s also the eeriness of her sound that attracts me. In fact, like the guitar and voice, the two often work together to produce a dark ambience. If this is, as noted, pop with a (pleasantly) abrasive edge, created and perpetuated in no small part by her cat’s-tongue guitar sound, it’s also some of the most gothic damn dance music I’ve ever heard.§§ Sometimes it’s the synths alone that do it (“Champagne Year”); other times, the keys and guitar work together, even bleed into each other. In “Marrow,” for example, her dissonant, clanging guitar goes hand-in-hand with the grisly textures and overdriven production; a dry bass thuds along at mid-tempo, too heavy to lift your feet to. In “Cheerleader,” it’s the combined keys-guitar snarl of the choruses (but how do you really feel, Ms Vincent?). Her voice, too, can be enlisted in creating this eerie atmosphere, sometimes floating over the music like Miles’s horn, sometimes becoming absorbed in the overall texture. So “Chloe in the Afternoon,” where the throttled, metallic, percussive guitar line and wub-wubbing heartbeat, all the noise of the verses, empties out—that contrast again—in the choruses to just her ghostly voice and synth line … and this other, sludgy, trailing thing. Or “Save Me”: the aforementioned chime as a bass riptide pulls her away, and she cries, teasingly, her voice doubled, “Save me … save me … save me from what I want.” Those four words, like the whip-epigram at the end of a sonnet, may be another sucker punch, but they can’t dispel the unsettling feeling of that cry; even the top-down cruising of the verses seems infected by it. The whole thing starts to sound like a bad trip.

Although the shifting, sculpted textures contribute enormously to the appeal of the music, it’s worth noting that she almost never abandons herself to ambience as an end in itself; there’s always a groove, a pulse, just as she always fleshes out that groove with her arrangements. (The sole pulseless example that comes to mind, “The Sequel,” is more coda to Actor than stand-alone tune.) Sometimes it’s the mellow H-band groove and/or slow clop/loop beat/steady funk plus synths of a Portishead, though her range is greater, her voice, as noted, closer-up (“Save Me” jumps to mind, as do “Champagne Year” and “Surgeon”). Sometimes, though, it’s the floored accelerator of “Actor Out of Work,” a song that matches Radiohead’s “Bodysnatchers” for sheer forward momentum. But here, as with “Black Rainbow” and so many others, texture—the “Live and Let Die” feel of the strings—combines with pulse and dynamics to amp up the song. All the elements similarly work together in the crescendos, catastrophic endings, and edge-of-the-earth silences that form the predicates / apocalypses so many of her songs—songs that get thicker and thicker, heavier and heavier, meaner and meaner, before ultimately blowing themselves apart.

I promised to say something about melodies before moving on; particularly in the verses, they tend to be short, constrained in range, and repetitive: music boxes, children’s and campfire songs. But every melody, no matter how slight, is also an opportunity for excursion into noise, for her voice or axe or laptop or God-knows-what to hack it up into lit-tle pie-ces, to bleed some darkness from it we didn’t know was there. I’ve made much of contrast and tension as the motor of St. Vincent’s music, and this one—between melody and noise, earworm and Conqueror Worm, pop and anti-pop, nodded to in my initial discussion of “Black Rainbow”—seems to me the generative one, the one that sets her at odds with all the labels to which music critics and customers-also-bought algorithms might unhappily marry her (and that makes of the label “alternative” a sort of basin to catch everything that falls through the cracks). One last example should suffice, from “Cheerleader.” The title, not surprisingly, is undermined in the choruses: over the snarling keys-guitar combo, set off by four hard punches on a stuttered “I” to knock the verses flat, her pouting “I don’t wanna be a cheerleader no more.” I love the narcissistic high drama: the world is just as big as her room; her “no” is earth-shattering. This is St Vincent: “Hey, Mickey … go fuck yourself!”

*

Not a bad segue into “The Party,” if only because the two songs share melodic material in their verses, even as their choruses pull in opposite directions. “The Party” is like “Cheerleader” without the “go fuck yourself”; and, as I’ve noted, it’s the go-fuck-yourself that first grabbed me about St Vincent. “Black Rainbow” had to grab me because of the way it jives with what I already love. But I think that if an artist is to have sustaining power, it’s going to have to be because something about his or her music captures you that is different from what you traditionally listen to, something about his or her own identity as an artist. “The Party” is that song for me. It is comparatively quiet, comparatively spare—compared, that is, to the guitar-driven noisiness I usually covet—yet still very much within the idiom I’ve tried to outline above. Her voice is at the height of seductiveness, delightfully strained, tempo rubato, either dragging a fraction behind the beat, or entering on beat but sliding or cracking to the melody note (think bent guitar strings, false harmonics). How small that voice is, spare, half-spoken, for our ears only; and yet, how much sonic space it occupies, how much of our attention.

As for the melody itself, the verses, it’s in the slight, simple mold of so many others, though with an interesting twist. The 2 + 1 structure is based on a fulcrum note around which its two parts seesaw. The whole sequence is transposed down, and then this whole is repeated once, with the small but significant variation of a sharper leap, her voice cracking at the high note.†† The piano then repeats the vocal melody, though only the two higher parts. (I.e., if we describe the vocal melody as A-B-A’-B, the piano plays only A-A’. Interestingly, when this song first subjugated me, I would hum the piano melody, but hear her voice in my head; my brain elided the lower part.) The opening interval is the same as “This Old Man,” and in fact it’s the sort of thing that would sound lovely sung in imitative polyphony (“Row, Row, Row Your Boat”).

Unlike, say, “Black Rainbow,” where the chorus continues the work/walk of the verses, amping up the tension, “The Party”’s chorus provides the answer “Black Rainbow” never does; and the song as a whole is a beautiful example of antithetically-constructed parts joined in a magical synthesis. Where the cadence of the verses is half-spoken (aided by the talky lyrics), the choruses, sung in falsetto, abandon words entirely, and showcase the voice as an instrument; where the melody of the verse zig-zags around a fulcrum, repetitive and playful, the chorus is two long rolling sequences, much more complex and ornate than the verses. There is a parallel shift in the use of the piano: rather than repeat the A-A’ of the vocal melody, in the choruses the keys become a romantic background swirl that further ornaments the vocal melody. Finally, the rhythm of the chorus shifts radically, from an easy 4:4 into waltz time. It’s as if the voice had suddenly grown up between verse and chorus (and then regressed again at the next verse); or perhaps better, had dreamed of growing up. The choruses pull us out of the draggy lethargy of the verses, up, into an ideal haze … precisely the opposite of “Cheerleader,” whose similarly antithetical choruses drag us down into the grunge, negating the verses (“I don’t wanna …”) instead of sublimating them.

Given the myriad differences, how are the two parts made to fit together so well—again as opposed to “Cheerleader,” which quite deliberately leaves a gaping wound between its verse and chorus? I’m not sure, but a couple of possibilities. First, the opening note of the chorus resolves the sequence of high notes of the vocal melody, rising first a step (from A to A’), then a step and a half (from A’ to the first note of the chorus); we are thus primed for it by the logic of the melody in the verse. Second, even as the rhythm is completely altered, the tempo of verse and choruses is identical: the pulse, as so often in St Vincent, stays even.

After the second chorus the song pauses; a densely-layered arrangement of voice and instruments enters, reprising the chorus, over and over; they are soon joined by a stuttering snare and flubby bass drum, retarding, retarding. “The Party” ends like a carousel winding down, as though we were slowly moving away from it, or it from us; our vision of it seems to become more obscure, or blurred, as though we were looking at it through a mottled pane. This is the slow braking/ breaking of the night, St Vincent’s aurora. Rather than building to that “Rainbow” zero-point, here the density seems to weigh the song down, and then stop it entirely, releasing us from the retarding cycle of the choral melody on a lydian #4, a note that seems more to suspend (and does, in fact, only slowly fade) instead of resolve. For once, we’ve been brought gently down; the sun’s come gently up. But where are we? And how on earth do we get back?

*

With 2014’s St Vincent St Vincent seemed to arrive at a crossroads. As per the title, this should have been her coalescing moment, the record that brought together all the elements that make her her. But if my reading is correct, it actually does the reverse: it separates out those elements, foregrounding the dissonances between them; it is an anti-coalescing record, an exercise in self-analysis rather than the intuitive construction of a new whole … perhaps even the sonic equivalent of the sloughing of skin. That is: even as it veers more fully into pure dance/pop than its predecessors, it is also—as if in compensation—the most crunchy, dissonant, distorted, guitar- and riff-heavy of her records. When she is able to synthesize these competing drives, the result is some of her best material. “Rattlesnake,” unlike “The Strangers” or “Chloe in the Afternoon” (the opening tracks on the preceding records), is a dance tune through and through, though, as noted above, an awesomely mean one: frenetic, mocking, seductive, violent, and paranoid. “Bring Me Your Loves” is another dance-floor anthem, complete with breaks (“I took you off your leash”), synthed out, her voice quasi-autotuned on the choruses … yet once again, an eerie, gothic dance tune, with a hyper-distorted touchstone melody and a Phantom of the Opera synth track competing with the dance-floor feel; at its peak, it sounds like an overworked motor flying to pieces. There’s “Birth in Reverse,” with its strummed dissonances, and the much-discussed “Huey Newton,” which a little like “Black Rainbow” analyzes the (in this case) dance-funk and metal elements into separate movements. More generally, there’s an interesting new fracture between vocal melodies and music, which, on the earlier records, tended to work in lockstep, distinguished solely by rhythm and timbre (cf. “The Party” above; hear also “The Strangers”).

But then there are a number of songs that seem to delight in pure pop, with little else for the ear, at least mine, to crunch on: “Northern Lights,” “Every Tear Disappears”; “Hysterical Strength”’s Berlin-sounding 80s pastiche; “Psychopath”’s any-rock-song guitar sound and warm and fuzzy choruses, words notwithstanding. Well … okay. Maybe it’s time to move on, or go back and listen to Marry Me (2006). Maybe, as so often happens when artists move in directions we don’t care for, I’ll find someone to fill her shoes. She did this much for me, after all. PJ Harvey left a gaping hole in the early ‘00s. Is This Desire? (1998) was for me the end of her great period, the counterpart to (though so different from) the ineffably brilliant Dry (1992). (There are a few great tunes on Stories of the City and Uh Huh Her and White Chalk as well; after that I lost track.) As far back as Desire her trajectory was similar to St Vincent’s, into more electronica, dance, and ambient music. I admit it: STV is my long-awaited PJ surrogate, differences be damned. I’m only sad that, unlike with PJ, whose Dry I got on a tape from a friend the year after it came out, and whose career I was able to follow until we parted ways, with St Vincent I seem to have discovered her just as she began to drop over my aesthetic horizon.

Or perhaps not. After all, the eponymous record has grown on me. They all have. And I haven’t even delved into her new (2017) one … though what little I know (reports, a video) suggests the needle has moved in the direction of the less-Helldriver-friendly material on St Vincent. Now, I could have listed “Digital Witness” among those weak tracks … except that it’s not. It’s so perfectly pitched and grabby that I like it, quite helplessly; and who’s to say but that a track like this, like “Black Rainbow” did a couple of years ago, might be the next pinhole, the cave under the cave under the ocean, the song that pulls me so far outside of my original aesthetic universe that I never find my way back? When do I run out of air? I should add that this is partly a function of age: the older one gets, the more difficult it is to find the pulse of the present (or any pulse at all!); one compensates, I think, by being more reflective, which implies greater and more consistent retrospection. In this sense, the “wisdom” of age is less synthesized knowledge than something to fill the temporal lags created by a decelerating biology. Then again, this might also be a function of a historical moment (i.e., today) when the present seems to have lost all duration, and all reality, pace Faulkner, something we watch receding behind us from the window of a train. In such a time, at such a moment, the only way to construct a durable present is retrospectively.

A post like this one is a clear expression of love for a musician, and a labor of love it has been—more than any in recent memory, perhaps because I’m working in a genre with which I am largely unfamiliar, and perhaps because, the longer this blog goes on, the more I feel the need to account for absolutely everything. And so posts bloat like drowned corpses, until the body they once pretended to be effigies of becomes unidentifiable. Whatever the case, I bring my love(s) to these musicians by going through the excrutiating, and always ultimately dissatisfying (this one, once again, moreso than most), process of trying to find correlates in words for their personas in sound. It’s similar to a painter painting his or her beloved—trying to find the posture, color, expression, tone, etc. that will speak them—or a sonneteer writing the same. Or perhaps the opposite is true: I love musicians the most about whom I can, or desire to, find the words to speak; about whom, when I listen, something in my (linguistic) imagination is set going; and this sense, a sort of premonition, is what compels both my love for them, and for writing.***

I should probably touch on gender before calling it a day. I’ve written around 90 posts about music since this blog started, many of them idiotically long, with perhaps two-thirds of these about individual artists or bands, and precious few women among them. There’s one about Linda Oh somewhere back there, another about Kazzrie Jaxen; there are a few female classical pianists, such as Helene Grimaud, bundled into concert reviews, as well as mixed-gender ensembles, and one “hidden” woman (in “Dreaming American,” the unnamed jazz pianist is Mamiko Wantanabe). All in all, a negligible percentage of the whole. There’s notes for an extended piece on Irene Schweitzer, and a fantasized magnum opus on Dry … but these are two among myriad prospective pieces, many of which will never be written. And now that I’ve added another actual post about a female artist, it seems I can’t refrain from speaking the language of eros. Not that I’ve ever been shy about expressing love for music and musicians throughout the history of this blog; but I don’t generally resort to such language to do so. In fact, the only other time I can think of that I spoke in such unabashedly erotic terms about an artist, it was … Goatwhore.

Okay. I’m going to call my analyst now. Or a priest?

 

* My friend disputes this anecdote, claims he never plays individual songs, only whole albums. This sounds like him—the album as integral work. It’s possible he put the whole record on and “Black Rainbow” was simply the first song that caught my ear. Still, that’s not the way I remember it. And my version makes the better story.

§ Like St Vincent but moreso, Harvey tends to make herself the subject of her album covers, which tend to the grotesque and/or to Cindy Sherman-like stagings.

† But then she seems as radically unfit for the label of singer-songwriter, or, for that matter, pop diva, again, as these have been traditionally conceived. But then all such categories evolve. Have these sorts of mismatches become part of women’s alternative today? I’m thinking of Mitski, by the way, who I discovered poking about (me, I was the one poking) on Ben Ratliff’s 2016 top ten list.

** This is perhaps most clear on the eponymous record. Take, for example, the move from the end of “Huey Newton,” which achieves as heavy and distorted a climax as “Black Rainbow” does, to the bubbliness of “Digital Witness.” The feel of those guttural “faithless”‘s at the end of crunching “Newton” couldn’t be more different from the leap to falsetto and horns that opens “Witness.” “Newton” is rendered that much more heavy in hindsight, “Witness” that much more bubbly.

§ In case there’s any question about whether this is me projecting something onto her music, watch the horror anthology XX (2015), to which St Vincent contributed the second, and stand-out, segment—too snarky for my taste, but wonderfully dark, and with a memorably horrific ending.

†† I don’t know but that STV would disavow any interest in Pearl Jam, but I have to pause to note some melodic similarities: the A-A’ of “The Party” with “Better Man,” and “Strange Mercy,” less perfectly, with “No Way,” from Yield (1998).

*** I’m reminded of a wonderful moment in a Gary Giddins interview (recorded in the book Jazzing, by Thomas Greenland, which I should be reviewing presently): “Oh, I could really go to town on this!” Giddins is talking about how the decision to write about a particular artist or work presents itself to him. He doesn’t explicitly state that his love for an artist presupposes his ability to access them in language, but the excitement of finding an artist whose music makes the synapses start firing is palpable. His enthusiasm strongly resonates with me.

Refined

Some months ago, on my way home from the animal shelter where I volunteer, I was listening to Boris and Robyn, the morning DJs on my local classic rock station, WPDH. With the way I’ve paid out on classic rock radio in the Pit Stop recently (“Classic Rock Radio,” 1.27.18), and on classic rock more generally (e.g., “The Unwearable Leatherness of Loverboy,” 1.11.18; “Dry Hump,” 7.3.15), you’d think I could find something more congenial to listen to. But the truth is I like a fair amount of classic rock, and I like radio, too, and there’s precious little of it that’s even halfway decent once you move outside a certain radius of New York. There are actually two classic rock stations almost back to back on the dial, and a meh alternative rock station a little further down. In the upper-eighties ghetto there’s an excrutiatingly dull classical music station, and a “jazz” station that plays something that sounds more like adult contemporary. There are a few bright spots, of course, in the borderlands of the low nineties: 90.7 WFUV plays a decent assortment of pop, though it goes out the closer I get to the Hudson; and there’s Vassar College’s station, 91.3, whose eclecticism almost makes up for how mediocre-to-bad everything else is. [N.B.: For an addendum on area radio, see the end of this post.] One day, in the parking lot of the Adams Fairacre Farms store on Route 9, I tapped into a crackling signal playing … death metal. It was like a beacon from another world; I’ve never been able to find it again. WBAI actually comes in a few places, but the signal is more fickle than FUV’s, and anyway, BAI’s, political programming feels about as realistic in upstate New York as stories of kidnappings by space aliens. I love driving down the Taconic and, when I get past Peekskill Hollow, WKCR and WSOU and WFDU start to peek around the corners of the hills, their signals growing in strength with every mile covered.

Years ago, on a cross-country trip, I came up with the following formula for civilization:

FM/AM > 1

If the ratio of FM to AM is less than one, you know you’re in the middle of nowhere. If it equals one, well, proceed with caution: the barbarians may be at the gates, or the zombies at the sandbags, or the real estate tycoons in the White House, or whatever your preferred metaphor for the decline of empire happens to be. That said, with the hindsight of age and six years upstate, I must admit that any such attempt to quantify civilization, appealing as it might be to a budding young technocrat, ultimately falls short. Quantity may be a necessary precursor, but it’s hardly sufficient, at least for what I think of when I think of civilization.

Anyway, like I said, I was driving home that morning listening to The Boris and Robyn Show, which, if you’re reading this anywhere in the United States, sounds pretty much like every other morning DJ team on a classic rock station. They play juvenile call-in games with listeners for prizes, manage the local news and traffic reports and weather, quip about strange goings-on in the world (read: Hudson Valley), and take care not to be too controversial (this is New York). They also recite advertising jingles and make guest appearances at local events and businesses for charity. The show’s producer and sometime-game participant is called Meat Sandwich; he also “reviews” new movies by reading from the Rotten Tomatoes website. The traffic report is brought to me by some fabricator of chips, potato or micro. Believe it or not, all of this makes for good company during my near-daily twenty-minute jaunts to shelter, hike, café, supermarket, or train. What with my hearing going out like those NYC radio signals around Peekskill Hollow, and what with how loud my old Corolla is, particularly now that the bearings are shot—it sounds (and feels) like I’m driving a dryer with a cinder block in it—listening to human voices, however snarky, silly or reactionary, can be more tolerable than muddled music, at least until the commercials start pummeling. Oddly enough for someone with my politics, I’ll take The Boris and Robyn Show a million times over the nasal autotune of NPR; a mere five minutes of exposure and I feel like buying a pick-up truck with a gun rack, and flying a bedsheet-size American flag off the tailgate.

I know I’m going pretty far afield, but hey baby, I’m broadcasting.

On the thrice-mentioned morning in question I was (as noted) driving home listening to Boris and Robyn and the phone line was open for requests. The caller was a construction worker or day-laborer of some sort. Boris asked him where he was calling from. “Newburgh,” the man said. This is the town right across the Hudson from Beacon, where I volunteer; I believe it still has the distinction of having the highest per-capita murder rate in the state, though recent reports suggest crime is down somewhat. Following on the art-ification of Beacon (which now houses Dia), there has been some development around the Newburgh waterfront; but such gentrification projects, as all of us who have lived in New York know, do much more in the way of relocating poor people than solving issues related to poverty.

It turned out the caller wasn’t a Newburgh resident. He was working a job there. As he put it, he was “in the ‘hood” for the day. Boris asked him for his exact location, which the man gave—the corner of two streets. “Oooh,” Boris sympathized. “Not a good area.” And what did he want to hear? Def Leppard, “Pour Some Sugar On Me.”

A fascinating exchange, yes? And in so many ways. Music-oriented as it is, I thought this quasi-public venue a fit place to unpack it, or perhaps lance it, if I may borrow Martin Luther King, Jr.’s metaphor about Birmingham boils.

First, there is the quite obvious racial text—you can’t really call it subtext. The caller, like the vast majority of classic rock listeners, was quite obviously white. “The ‘hood,” the place where he was working and, apparently, taking his life in his hands, was not. If I could remember the names of the streets at whose dangerous crossroads he was meeting the devil that morning, I could verify this assertion … but do I really need to? That race was never explicitly mentioned in the conversation only made it more present.*

And so the purpose of the call, the request, during which conversation the caller felt the need to answer the question “Where are you calling from?” the way he did: What was Def Leppard (and by extension, “classic” rock) to this man but a shield, a magic circle of whiteness, that the dangerous blackness of the ‘hood could not penetrate? What was cranking Def Leppard there but an act of sonic flag-planting—the white standard borne by the army of an invading culture, an adjunct to the police siren? No wonder composer and soundscape studies-originator R. Murray Schafer called it sound imperialism. “A man with a loudspeaker,” he wrote in The Soundscape, “is more imperialistic than one without because he can dominate more acoustic space” (77). And so a man with a radio … not to mention a Caterpillar, a backhoe, a jackhammer, a concrete mixer, etc.

All, that is, the artillery of gentrification. How is a ghetto blaster (or whatever it’s called today, whatever its current incarnation) supposed to compete? I will not be forgiven, perhaps, for extending this scenario imaginatively. But like The Who, authors of the greatest classic rock song of all time, I don’t need to be forgiven. I think back to the gentrifying neighborhoods I have lived in or near—Bushwick ’02-‘04, the fringes of Sugar Hill ’04-‘12—and about the fledgling gentrification of Newburgh. It’s not hard to imagine the white construction worker engaged in just such a project. Blaring classic rock, the first sonic shockwave that razes some buildings, guts others, leaving just their shells standing. It is the pre-soundtrack of gentrification, the prow before the Tiny Desk Concerts of the genteel class arrives. It reminds me of those pioneer log cabins that precede the respectable middle-class farmers in Hector St John de Crevecoeur’s vision of the settlement of America: the underclass that logs, hunts, and moves on, pushing the Indians back and back as they go.

That this task, to be the prow of oncoming civilization, should fall to Def Leppard is … is … well, if you laughed when you read the title of the song requested, then we’re probably operating on the same wavelength. I mean, it couldn’t even be decent Def Leppard, could it—you know, the better hits on Pyromania, or “Bringin’ on the Heartbreak,” at least before they added that dud keyboard riff? No, it had to be the most sugar-pop cotton-candy shit Def Leppard.

I remember the bodybuilder who used to manage the community pool where I lifeguarded walking around singing this song; he looked like Hulk Hogan without the mustache. Today, “Pour Some Sugar on Me” makes me think of burly construction workers standing underneath dumptruck chutes pouring the sweet white stuff all over the streets and the people living there, all over themselves. My brain automatically toggles to that Simpsons where the Duff (Leppard?) workers douse protesting feminists with beer; when the spray vanishes they’re wearing bikinis and their signs say “Get me drunk.”

Need I add that this lunkheaded anthem finds its perfect architectural equivalent in the White House, as it is molded to fit its current occupant?

I digress, again. But I write to digress. In case no one’s ever told you, all writing, down to the tiniest metaphor, that vibrating quark of language, is controlled digression. The vehicle of a metaphor is a digression from its tenor. A sentence is a digression from its subject, a paragraph from its topic. Face it, without digression, we would live dull lives encased in substantives. There would be no movement. No music!

Okay. This is not a post about how the Leppard lost its spots. Or perhaps it is. Because in some ways, the whole dynamic of this call-in story simply recapitulates the history of rock, and of popular music in the twentieth century: the whitewashing of jazz for downtown audiences, the white “blues scholars” who made the blues palatable to white audiences as rock, not to mention profitable for themselves. All these are acts of cultural gentrification. And so with Def Leppard. We might call their devolution from hard rock/NWOBHM to pop metal to pop pure and simple a process of refinement. The irony is the way that, by the end of this process, the origins, even this band’s own origins in the blues-infused classic rock of the British ‘60s and ‘70s, had become so obscured, or so repressed, that the product can now be turned back like a firehose against the population whose culture birthed it.

At this juncture it’s impossible not to cite what Henry Louis Gates (I believe it was) called “the most reviled poem in the African American canon,” Phillis Wheatley’s “On Being Brought From Africa to America.” Here is the closing couplet of this notorious octet: “Remember, Christians, Negroes, black as Cain/ May be refined, and join th’angelic train.”

The blackness of Cain; the blackness of cane. The raw stuff, the stuff the slaves picked. Mingus’s Wednesday night prayer meeting, Coltrane shrieking for God’s attention, work songs and spirituals and dirty brass.** It’s the stuff of rock, too, it has to be, the tether that makes even the most classical-inflected prog still worthy of the name. Some of us like our tethers longer, our orbits wider, comets instead of asteroids, Pluto not Mercury, the competing pull of other great masses, breathing their own unrefined life into our music. But that dark sun remains the same.

One wants to ask Wheatley, “But will there be anything left of these Negroes? What is the price of your refinement?” Perhaps the answer is in the poem. After all, to join th’angelic train, one must lose one’s life, the blood must all be drained. Those Christians to whom she appeals, they’re like Aylmer, Hawthorne’s mad scientist, trying to remove his wife’s birthmark, her only flaw, and finding out too late it’s called humanity. The mark of Cain: not a patina that contact with white civilization can buff out, but the core of one’s humanity. And not, finally, the beating wild heart of darkness, but one’s culture, one’s … civilization.

Considered this way, th’angelic train starts to look like a loaf of Wonder Bread, each tasteless slice a seraphim. Hark—aim your ear at the sky! What are they singing! Yes, it’s “Pour Some Sugar On Me”! The ultimate in processed music!

(Thank God rock is haunted by its origins. It’s always had the power to renew itself at any number of generic wells, whether it consciously acknowledges them (and pays them) or not. Something of it always manages to escape the corporate stranglehold.)

The problem is that I live in an area now where people don’t seem to understand that refinement isn’t bleaching. It’s a coloring process. And that means grabbing your radio dial and turning it, turning it and turning it, ever more finely, until you find the heart of the radio’s ‘hood.

 

* A few disclaimers are in order. (1) I don’t mean to minimize the problems of economically depressed neighborhoods, or the struggles such communities routinely face with drugs and violence and environmental quality. I simply question how we respond to these problems as a society. Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow—a book I wish every American would read—puts it eloquently: “It is perfectly understandable that some African Americans would be complicit with [as opposed to supportive of] the system of mass incarceration, even as they oppose, as a matter of social policy, the creation of racially isolated ghettos and the subsequent transfer of black youth from underfunded, crumbling schools to brand-new, hi-tech prisons. In the era of mass incarceration, poor African Americans are not given the option of great schools, community investment, and job training. Instead, they are offered police and prisons” (210). (2) I understand, of course, that I am privileged to be volunteering on a Tuesday while this man is earning his bread and butter, and that my sneering tone in this post bespeaks a life of privilege and Sundays spent grading papers. I have no good answer for this. Oh, wait, I do: UNIONIZE. (3) I also understand that, at least initially, I am in danger of reifying the binaries through which black music has been understood, and what made it historically attractive to the white middle class: black music as wild, primitive, libidinal, authentic, etc., and white music as civilized, sophisticated, desexualized, corporate, etc. I’m even calling in the old gendered rock-pop binary. Though I draw on this binary to understand the role of race here, I do hope the end of my analysis manages to see beyond it. While I’m hoping, I’ll quote, at loving length, my beloved James Baldwin. This is from The Fire Next Time, another book every American should read (and that I would guess quite a few more have read since I Am Not Your Negro): “In all jazz, and especially in the blues, there is something tart and ironic, authoritative and double-edged … White Americans do not understand the depths out of which [singer Big Bill Broonzy’s] ironic tenacity comes, but they suspect that the force is sensual, and they are terrified of sensuality and do not any longer understand it. The word ‘sensual’ is not intended to bring to mind quivering dusky maidens or priapic black studs. I am referring to something much simpler and much less fanciful. To be sensual, I think, is to respect and rejoice in the force of life, from the effort of loving to the breaking of bread … [Baldwin goes on about lousy bread, then:] Something very sinister happens to the people of a country when they begin to distrust their reactions as deeply as they do here, and become as joyless as they have become. It is this individual uncertainty on the part of white American men and women, this inability to renew themselves as the fountains of their own lives, that makes the discussion, let alone the elucidation, of any conundrum—that is, any reality—so supremely difficult. The person who distrusts himself has no touchstone for reality—for this touchstone can only be oneself” (55-7). You can say we’re living a half-century after Baldwin wrote these words. I would answer, yes, but we’ve just made America great again.

** I’m riffing on Geoff Dyer’s chapter on Charles Mingus here, from his beautiful But Beautiful (North Point Press, 1996), yet another book every American et cetera.

ADDENDUM, 8.1.18. There’s nothing like publicly staking a claim for inspiring one to do research. After kvetching about area radio, I’ve been spending a little more of my drive time digging in. FUV, it turns out, is not local at all; it’s Fordham University’s station. Maybe it’s the antenna on Montefiore that fooled me; it does come in a tad better than other New York stations. How surprising, too, that the only other halfway-decent station I’ve turned up should be (a) college-based/non-commercial and (b) not local. That still leaves WVKR, the Vassar station … and this one is turning out to be a real gem. Some of the music programming is spectacularly good (if only they’d interrupt a little more often to tell me what I was listening to!). They also play Democracy Now on weekday mornings (though this doesn’t much change my perception of area politics, or, for that matter, kidnapping space aliens). There’s even a lady who reads from books about labor history on Tuesday afternoons. This week, it was Kellogg’s 6-hour day; last week, the IWW. Finally, there’s a station at 106.3, WJZZ, that bills itself as “real jazz.” I can’t vouch for it yet, because my reception, once again, has been spotty. But it does seem promising, at least BGO-level promising; it would be churlish to ask for anything more up around here. Plus it’s only a few years old, a public station … the sort of thing that needs all the support we, the local folks, can give it. (If I’m going to write about radio, maybe I should invest in … an antenna?)

Classic Rock Radio

An Epic in Verse*

 

Boston.                                                                                                                                                        Foreigner, Van Halen, Steve Miller,                                                                                                        Boston.                                                                                                                                                          ZZ Top, The Who, Led Zeppelin,                                                                                                                 Foreigner,                                                                                                                                                   Boston.

Foreigner.

 

Boston.

 

Boston.

 

The Rolling Stones, Boston.                                                                                                                         Billy Squier, Boston.                                                                                                                                    Bad Company, Boston.                                                                                                                       AC/DC, Boston.                                                                                                                                             ZZ Top, Boston.                                                                                                                                        Boston, Boston.                                                                                                                                       Boston, Boston, Boston.                                                                                                                          Boston Boston Boston Boston Boston.                                                                                                Boston Boston Boston Boston Boston Boston Boston Boston Boston Boston Boston Boston Boston Boston Boston Bos                                                                                                                      The Who.

Van Halen, Foreigner.                                                                                                                                  ZZ Top, Foreigner.                                                                                                                                     Led Zeppelin, Foreigner.

Boston, Foreigner.

Boston, Foreigner, Boston, Foreigner, Boston, Foreigner,Boston Foreigner Boston Foreigner

Foreigner                 Boston

Foreigner                                             Boston

Foreigner                                                                                             Boston

Foreigner Boston Foreigner Boston Foreigner Boston Foreigner Boston Foreigner

Foreigner         Foreigner         Foreigner         Foreigner         Foreigner         Foreigner.

Boston             Boston             Boston             Boston             Boston             Boston

Boston. Foreigner.

 

Foreigner

 

Led Foreigner.                                                                                                                                            Bad Foreigner                                                                                                                                       Rolling Foreigner                                                                                                                                       Foreigner Foreigner

Van Foreigner                                                                                                                                             Van Foreigntop                                                                                                                                          Van Squiertop                                                                                                                                            Van Toppentop                                                                                                                                          Van Fuckyourself

Top Halen Van Billy Who ZZ Miller Company Tramp Bad Led AC Van Bostontop                          Zep Van Bostonsquier

Miller Van Toppentop

Billy Van Millercamp

ToppenCompany ZZ Van Billy Company BadTop HalenDC Foreigntramp

ZZ                                                       ZZ                                                       ZZ

ZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZ

Boston.

Foreigner.

Foreignton. Bosener.

Boseigner Forton Boseigner Forton Boseigner Forton Boseigner Forton Boseigner Forton

Toptonboszzhalenforvaneigner.

Ledtopenzzner

Whobadbozzener Led ZanVVHalentopper

Bosled Zan vivvy doopspil ungletracken bongwasser spllindurnas

Commercial.

 

 

 

Conmercial

 

 

Commercial.

 

Commercial.

Commercial.

Commercial.                                                                                                                                            Commercial.                                                                                                                                            Commercial.                                                                                                                                                     Boston.

Commercial Boston.

Commercial Foreigner.

Van Commercial                                                                                                                                           ZZ Commercial                                                                                                                                          Billy Commercial                                                                                                                                          AC Commercial                                                                                                                                       Miller Commercial                                                                                                                                     Bad Commercial                                                                                                                                        Led Commercial                                                                                                                                       Who Commercial                                                                                                                                  Commercial Commercial                                                                                                                          Commercial Commercial Commercial                                                                                                   Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial                                                                             Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial           Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Co

Boston.

 

Boston.

 

 

 

 

Boston.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Boston.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Boston

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Boston

 

 

 

* Besides WPDH, my “local” classic rock station, I should cite as an inspiration for this poem the random poetry generator developed by Dr Angus Forbes (early in his programming studies) at Metalab Communications, an internet start-up in the Tribeca of old (my old, 1997), where I worked as office manager. The most primitive version of the program simply asked the user to input words, and then randomly generated poems—no syntax, no grammar, just the words selected. It was hours of fun to play with, and produced some of the funniest poems I’ve ever read. (One other note: the formatting is wonky because the WordPress template does not match what appears published on the blog. I was reduced to using the space bar and toggling between template and preview to even get close. Argh! Talk about primitive!)

 

The Unwearable Leatherness of Loverboy

Consider, if you will, the heartbreaking immortality of Loverboy.

The catastrophic pathos of Loverboy.

Of being Loverboy in 2018. Of having been Loverboy for forty years.

Tennis thugs gesquozen into corsets of red leather, festooned with bandannas.

I set myself the absurd task of writing a thousand words about Loverboy. I quickly realized the only way to succeed was by negation.

Even brute Ajax had his fanboy in Ovid. But who will sing the praises of Loverboy? No one. So I will write the epic of Loverboy as an epic of negation, the only such record that can ever be made, adopting the voice of Odysseus taunting Polyphemus. (N.B.: Ovid distrusted sly Ulysses.)

I understand this mockery is directed at a monster who, even in his boulder-hurling tantrum, the high drama of his anguish, is really an actor only as big as the one playing Odysseus, which is why they can never appear together in the same frame, except via trick photography. Stardom works this way. We can only cut such monsters down to size via Odysseian wiles. Force them into the frame with us, as it were. Look them in the eye.

*

No thirteen-year-old’s infatuation with rock music will ever be predicated on first hearing Loverboy. Loverboy will never be anybody’s favorite band, not even their second- or third-favorite band, not even for a few weeks in early adolescence. No high schoolers past, present or future will ever cover their spiral-bound notebooks with Loverboy’s logo. No high-school senior will ever sum up their wonderful four years at Fort Something-or-Other High by quoting Loverboy under their yearbook picture. Nobody will ever come to a memorable climax in the backseat of their father’s car to a Loverboy song on the radio, etc. No girls will ever be knocked up to Loverboy; if they were, every baby so conceived would be aborted or miscarried; were any such child ever to be born, it would be left to die of exposure, or to be eaten by bears and/or jackals. No tobacco products will ever be consumed in post-coital lethargy to any ballads, power or otherwise, written by Loverboy. No one will play Loverboy at their wedding, not even for the strangely incestuous ritual of the Dance of the Father with the Bride; and no wedding band will ever include Loverboy in their repertoire. No groupies will reminisce about one-night stands with the members (ha!) of Loverboy, except as a blip between Darryl Hall and John Oates, or after sleeping with that really ugly dude from REO Speedwagon. Nobody will ever fondle him- or herself to frame-by-frame images from a Loverboy video. No animals will ever be harmed in the making of a Loverboy video, except those previously harmed in making their gratuitous leather wardrobes. No classic rock stations will endlessly loop Loverboy’s hits, except by some error in the algorithm according to which said rock station playlists are statistically constructed. No one will ever call in to request a Loverboy song; if they did, no DJ in their right mind will ever deign to play it. No rock stars will point to a Loverboy performance for the epiphany for their choice of careers. No rock stars will tearfully recount the importance of Loverboy to their artistic development during their induction ceremony into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, just as no bands will ever dress up as Loverboy to commemorate the latter’s induction. No rock critics will pause to recognize Loverboy. Nobody will go to the mat, so to speak, in defense of Loverboy’s contribution to the rock canon. There will never be a VH-1 retrospective devoted to Loverboy, nor a classic rock, leather apparel, or what-the-fuck-were-the-80s-anyway documentary that includes a clip from Loverboy, no matter how brief, or seeks an exclusive interview, unless said documentary is focused specifically on: Canada; Alberta; Calgary; or Uncle Fucker. No musicologists will find significance, musical, cultural, or other, in anything related to Loverboy. No one will call Loverboy the voice of the decade, except to deride the decade in question.  Millions of thumbs with flip by millions of Loverboy records in used record bins without pausing, first in the two-dollar bin, then in the dollar bin, the fifty-cent bin outside the store, the please-take-this-it’s-free bin, the dumpster. Yea, even at garage sales and flea markets, Loverboy’s albums will be passed over. No fashion designers will ever look to Loverboy for sartorial inspiration, not even those who devise the Halloween costumes sold at 99-cent stores, or the track suits for expensive Manhattan gyms whose clientele have an overdeveloped sense of irony. No one will proudly wear their old, torn, and/or faded Loverboy shirt to work, not even in jest. There will be no auctions in which Mike Reno’s nalgas-hugging red leather pants fetch obscene amounts of money, unless they are unearthed by a future civilization (cf. Belloq’s quip to Indiana Jones: “Who knows, in a thousand years even you might be worth something!”). No one will bid on a T-shirt from the band’s first headlining North American tour on Ebay, except ironically (cf. Eddie Murphy’s joke about white people voting for a black president). The singer and/or guitarist for Loverboy will never perform stool-bound acoustic versions of their hits at clubs founded by other washed-up rockers of their generation while their one-time fans munch pasta and drink Zinfandels and text their kids’ babysitters. No one will ever wish a Loverboy fan club had existed, or regret its demise. Loverboy will never appear in any rock festivals, except those driven and derided by nostalgia (e.g., the M3 festival, its “nine years of rock moments” suggesting said festival is already running on nostalgia about nostalgia, a perfect recycling of cultural energy), which is to say, all of them. None of Loverboy’s 232,000 Facebook followers will actually join them on the “80s Cruise,” for if even a tiny fraction of them did, the 70,000-ton vessel would explode, capsize, and then sink under the ballasted ordnance of their nostalgia. No charitable organizations will be founded by members or ex-members of Loverboy, not even anonymously; nor will members ever be included in telethons or pledge drives for public radio or TV stations. There will be no Loverboy tribute bands, except those from the most depressed neighborhoods of Tokyo: they will be villified by their own people; yea, their very neighbors will smite them. There will be no reality TV stints for members of Loverboy, except on satellite stations broadcasting from untraceable locations, encrypted to appear as though they emanated from Pittsburgh. No one will ghost-write Loverboy’s tell-all band biography, because no one would ever buy it, or could be imagined buying it; or, could they be imagined buying it, be imagined reading it, as all those who might be imagined reading it are functionally illiterate. Loverboy will never be the subject of scandals with superannuated supermodels, child pornographers killed in Amtrak derailments, grope-happy Hollywood producers, or on-line poker enthusiasts. The passing of Loverboy’s drummer will not be announced on Yahoo, etc., unless it involves mass shooting, white slavery, aspirated vomit, or all of the above. Loverboy’s Wikipedia page will contain no scholarly citations, rather it will be larded with warnings about a lack of credible sources: Loverboy will remain a spurious, apocryphal band. No one will ever understand how Loverboy came to have three multiplatinum albums, or to be one of the top five touring rock acts of all time, except when considered in the light of other absurd commercial phenomena, such as pet rocks and Beanie Babies. No one under forty-five will ever know who Loverboy is, except through a needle’s-eye afterlife of micro-cultural references on TV sitcoms and video games. No one will ever begin a discourse about Loverboy with the words, “Actually, they were pretty good.” As they will not die a natural death, and as their fans will continue to feast on the congealed blood of their own and each other’s nostalgia, they will have to be clubbed to death by nameless hordes of sadistic bloggers. No one will hum “Workin’ for the Weekend,” “Lucky Ones,” and “Turn Me Loose” endlessly as they blog about Loverboy, as I am doing right now, as I have been doing since I started writing this post, endlessly, helplessly, to the point of desperation and hampered sanity, writing, writing, trying to kill the Loverboy within me.

AIAI, Loverboy! And alas, Helldriver!

Flesh Against Steel

Carcass’s Surgical Steel is one of the best metal records of the century.

Man, it feels good to say that. So good, in fact, that I fret I am being too conservative. Instead, I should go the whole hog, and proclaim Surgical Steel one of the great metal albums of all time … ignoring the inconvenient fact that metal has only been around for the tiniest sliver of recorded time, let alone all time. In fact, were the entire history of the human species, represented by a hair’s breadth at the end of the 360-foot-long Cosmic Pathway at the American Museum of Natural History, expanded to cover the distance of the entire Cosmic Pathway, the history of rock music would amount to just ten times that—the breadth of ten hairs!*

Of course, this should hardly make rock feel small, or metal smaller, since Beethoven, Petrarch, and even Homer don’t do noticeably better measured against deep time. So let’s drop all time and get back to the quasi-human scale.

Once upon a time, in the latter days of the twentieth century, you were only allowed to speak in the arbitrary shorthand of decades—“the greatest albums of the nineties,” “the indispensible records of the seventies,” and so on. And in the first decade of the twenty-first, you couldn’t claim anything was the “best of the century” without tongue firmly in cheek. You could, of course, more circumspectly call something “the first great record of the twenty-first century,” as though you were starting a collection of the New Century’s Great Things, and you had just gotten to put your first shiny new Great Thing in your Great Things Box, while simultaneously jettisoning everything that came before.

We are, however, living in the latter half of the second decade of this new century. Why shrink back under the flaccid umbrella of decades, and, using the much-too-silly rubrics of the “oughties” or “teenies,” pick yet another list of best albums to match yours for the nineties et al.? Why, when you have a whole new century at your disposal, and sixteen years of it behind you? Indeed, what could be more sublimely brash, more brilliantly arrogant, than sweeping judgments about a century whose second half you will never even “see,” except maybe as a pickled head, or a microchip onto which your “brain” has been downloaded?

This is a golden window, my friends. An opportunity not to be missed. Think about it: in 2019, the fiftieth anniversary of Black Sabbath will poison any best-of-new-century claims regarding metal, because everything will have to be considered in terms of metal’s hemi-centennial. By 2030, everyone will have forgotten about Y2K (huh?) and how it felt when the millennial odometer switched from 1-9-9-9 to 2-0-0-0. Then, as the century rolls forward toward 2050 (gasp!), and we approach rock’s first centenary, all new records of whatever genre will be measured against Chuck Berry and Buddy Holly, The Beatles, Stones and Who—not Judas Priest, not Metallica; certainly not Cradle of Filth.

Ergo. It’s of the utmost importance to squeeze in the most grandiose claims you can about your favorite new metal records in the next two years or so, before the inexorable march of generic time renders them obsolete.

*

Having placed Surgical Steel in one corner of my Great Things of the New Century box, the time has come to admire it. Go ahead, pick it up. Turn it in the light; run your thumb along its edge.

Ah, but Carcass is anything but a new band, or any sort of flagship for a rising genre in a new century. They’re old hat. Vintage. Okay, putrescent.§ We should talk about this.

Where metal is concerned, a few spots in my Great Things box must be reserved for so-called “comeback” records. Metal, after all, is a comeback genre. 1995, as Carcass frontman Jeff Walker declared at the band’s Gramercy Theater show last August, was “the year metal died.” (An exaggeration; but then such a tendency to mythologize is the very stuff of metal.) While emerging genres fed on its rejuvenating remains, metal was recouping its un-dead energies by feeding on the blood of those genres (how insidious, pilfering the necrophage graverobber!), as well as the flesh and bones of dead ones … including its own (how repulsive, this necrophagy-as-autophagy, this masturbatory cannibalism!). If Simon Reynolds is correct that popular culture in the new century has been played entirely in “the key of re-” (to use my old lit theory prof Henry Staten’s mnemonic for the postmodern), the re-surgence of metal was inevitable—not simply because everything comes back, but because the conservatism and tradition-worship for which the genre has been both lauded and criticized would, in the context of today’s cultural retro-faddism, suddenly seem dorkily avant-garde (or arriere-garde, as Reynolds quips).

Of course, valorizing the intrageneric past is only one part of the equation; the other parts—a scissors-and-paste attitude toward the past-as-text, and the ironic distance that accompanies it—have traditionally sat less easily with the genre. But then metal is a different genre today than it was twenty years ago, and the past is a different past: less a series of begats than an amorphous blob which, Reynolds cautions us, threatens to gobble up the present … and future.

Regardless, as a new generation of fans has taken advantage of the opportunity to explore metal’s back catalogs, so they have provided the opportunity for a number of older bands to reboot their careers. Metalographer Ian Christe traces metal’s return to the Black Sabbath reunion at the end of last century. The reappearance of some of the more successful extreme metal acts from the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, however, probably owes more to the galvanic shock provided by the thrash revival that peaked in the mid-to-late oughts. That the window of the revival appears to be closed† (occasional drafts notwithstanding) has hardly deterred a resurgent old guard from continuing to release records and/or tour with a relentlessness reminiscent of their peak years.

Among comeback records, Surgical Steel is something of an anomaly, and not only because it arrived so late in the game, after much hemming and hawing on the band’s part. With few exceptions (e.g., Anthrax’s Worship Music), comeback records tend to carry a whiff of formaldehyde, some faint, some strong enough to knock you down. And the revival stuff, good as it sometimes gets (Municipal Waste’s Hazardous Mutation and Art of Partying are probably the most lasting), still can’t help smelling a bit like something just taken out of the shrinkwrap. But Steel is all fresh maggotry: evidence of flesh well-ripened, as though the band were waiting, like forensic entomologists, to see what exactly would crawl out of their putrid hearts and jellied brains after almost two decades of delicious decay.

As much a mystery is why it landed in my lap, because this old-fart metalhead/one-time Fangoria intern never listened to Carcass in their gorelicious heyday. Even though my interest in underground metal peaked just as Carcass were appearing, they never made it onto my radar. Then, when Metallica shat themselves and the genre blew itself into shrapnel, I—like so many of the faithless in that apostate time—moved on: greedily lapping up Pantera and the occasional strong offering from Slayer and Testament, but otherwise listening to grunge and Tool and other Lollapalooza-sanctioned alt-musics, when I was listening to new rock at all. The deathiest I ever got was “cusp” bands like Demolition Hammer, and a few Deicide songs on a mix.

“What is the sword compared to the hand that wields it?” James Earl Jones as Thulsa Doom.

But such is the logic of the retro-century that Carcass and I would cross paths in our respective middle ages. I bought Steel on a whim, mostly because I saw it on somebody’s year-end best-of list (year, as opposed to decade, century, or planetary lifespan): somebody with more time, energy, new-music ADD, and/or record-industry freebies than I’ve ever had or wanted. And it was the great strength of Steel that hurtled me headlong into the flesh of early Carcass, as though to test Thulsa Doom’s great axiom, “Steel is strong; but flesh is stronger.” And if such a counter-temporal history feels twisted, I wonder how twisted it really is, in this age when so much old music is so readily available, when crowds at metal shows tend to run the gamut of generations, and when chronology, history, and to a certain extent community have been replaced by business-dominated algorithms of marketing and consumption. What follows, then, is partly about Carcass, yes; but it is as much about this Borgesian encounter with a parallel musical past, and what such retroactive discoveries mean for the way we hear and value music.

*

Seeing Carcass at the Gramercy last August was anything but a typical clubgoing experience for me. In general, for the much-loved older bands I go see in their various reunited and resurrected guises, I can put on the thousand-yard stare and talk with other old fans about having been in The Shit (= the pit at the old L’amours) back in The Eighties (= the decade which is to metal what the ‘60s is to rock as a whole; in the terms of the old Scholastic Aptitude Test, rock:’60s::metal:’80s). This is true even when part of the bill is occupied, as it so often is, and was, by a band or bands whose music I know/knew only tangentially—songs on a mixed tape someone made for me, or songs that got radio play on the college metal station WSOU (Jer-sey!), or even a video.

Given my age, then, I should have been the old Carcass fan getting his new live Carcass fix. This would have been the assumption made by most people seeing me, bald and Voivod-T’d. But by actual knowledge of the band, I was much closer to the people there half my age, whose contact with the older material would more likely be mediated by the “comeback” record. But then again, I would not hear Carcass like they did, since my formative experiences with the genre would have been much closer to those of the people there twice their age. A weird, twinned position to occupy, like I’d been split it two, but belonged nowhere: to both “halves” of the crowd, I was a fraud, a … poseur.

And yet. Still and all? It’s nice to see the good people of the kingdom of metal, even when you feel like something of an exile.

The Gramercy show was at least Carcass’s third time in the U.S. since Steel’s release. St. Vitus had sold out, as usual, and the second time around they had skipped New York. This tour, dubbed “One Foot in the Grave,” was supported by younger’uns Ghoul and Night Demon, and old-schoolers Crowbar. Jesus, Crowbar! Even they were closer to me than Carcass, if barely; I remembered a few sludgy tunes from back in the day, and pictures of a girthy man in big shorts and high-tops. And there he was! the girthy man of my youth, just grayer and maybe balder, with a second girthy man right beside him, as though from meiosis, both of them sporting Duck Dynasty beards (I know, too easy) and stomping around the stage like Japanese movie monsters. They played exactly the sort of plodding, pummeling, tuned-down music for which I vaguely remembered them; a sort of literalization of their name, so that name, look, performance, and music all cohere and flatten around the same blunt-force ethos.

At the merch tables after the set—what with four bands, there was merch spillover into the lounge—I noticed that Crowbar’s frontman (Kirk Windstein) actually has a Crowbar tattoo on the back of his neck. The placement suggests he understands the connection between the back of his neck and mortality; for it is true that I could have told his age by counting the rolls there, like tree-rings. But then on a tour of fogeys dubbed One Foot in the Grave, headlined by a dis- and (fondly) re-membered band named Carcass, mortality is by default a central theme. All those stale jokes about getting old, for example: as metal ages, and the retro-generation gives more and more old bands the opportunity to re-enter the circle, such comments are bound to become as much part of a show as headbanging. Of course, this being metal, bands tend to dramatize aging’s effects on the body in a way I just can’t imagine, say, the Stones do. Windstein, for example, bitched about (a) baldness and (b) shitting himself (not that he had shit himself, but he figured it was coming down the pike). Later, Carcass’s Walker, to goad the crowd louder, used the old saw that his hearing wasn’t so good anymore. And when, after steaming through a raft of great new material, he announced that they were going back to the early ‘90s, he dubbed it “granddad music.”Ω Again, such feints to the vicissitudes of the flesh are of a piece not just with Carcass’s music, but the genre as a whole: since bones are reverenced and tradition venerated in metal in a way that always set it apart from many other rock genres (at least, used to)—since “dinosaur” means not “passe” but “awesome”—all such comments, while apparently self-deprecating, serve as backhanded appeals to authority, just as much as Crowbar’s announcement that they had been on the road for thirty-six years.

For all the digestive angst and inverse-ironic nods to aging, Carcass were pure presence. A convincing metal act has to appear larger than life—to find a language of the body consummate with the sublimity the music aspires to—and Carcass does this with an effortlessness few bands can match. While Crowbar leveled imaginary skyscrapers, each member of Carcass stayed rooted in his particular quadrant; rather than moving, he expanded to fill it. Walker, front and center, encircled his mic in classic bassist/vocalist horse-stance (think Lemmy, or Ron Royce of the old Swedish thrashers Coroner), pointing his axe at us now and again in emulation of Father (Steve) Harris. He even turned it upside-down, like a pistol in a Tarrantino movie. I only wondered at the fan that blew on him for the duration of the show, occasionally turning him into a travesty of Fabio, or a transvestite Pippy Longstocking. From the sublime to …

I spent as much or more time watching Steer (Steer! what choice did the man have but to become the guitarist in a band that would one day sing the horrors of the abattoir?), Carcass’s other founding half, thrashing away to Walker’s left. A Perpetual Thrashing Machine he was, and the perfect complement to Walker’s Colossal Pyramid. It wasn’t regulation headbanging, but rather that horse-head-swinging that even better communicates the abandon of the music: face obscured by his blond hair, shirt half-open, skinny arms working away … it is older and deeper than thrash, older even than metal, though for me it finds its iconic representation in my memory of Ozzy’s Jake E. Lee.

At one point during the show, Walker informed security that it was okay for people to take pictures. “We don’t wear corpse paint or make-up,” he said. On the one hand, the typical metal appeal to authenticity. And yet, what was Walker saying but we look our age? He might as well have quoted that old quatrain, “Remember me now …” for those younger fans looking into the mirror of the music.‡ There was neither the urge to cheat death nor to represent it as a mask.

To be death: that is a different thing. That is Carcass.

*

But art defeats death, time’s handmaiden, does it not? I could, and probably should, write about Carcass’s career backwards, beginning with Steel, which, in my inverted listening history, acts as a template for everything that came before it, with every other Carcass record refracted through it. After all, a comeback record is only a comeback record if one comes to it with the expectations created by earlier fandom. Perhaps this helps explains why Carcass felt so present to me at the Gramercy, beyond, that is, simply the mechanics of putting on a great show, and despite the plethora of icons through which I was helpless but to see them.

With the exception of Steel, though, my impression of each individual Carcass record is contaminated as much by the ones that followed as the ones previous. Versus the one-to-two year wait between records that generally characterizes a band’s output in their historical moment, I heard Carcass’s entire early ouevre for the first time almost concurrently, and without consideration as to their historical order. To me, though they are differently dated, they are all contemporary with each other, embedded together in a spatial matrix, like coffins in a graveyard. Or, to use a better (if less Carcassian) figure: a wheel, with Steel at the hub, and the earlier records at the ends of the spokes. As such, while acknowledging that Steel acts as my hidden lens, I could, like a good historian, re-impose chronology, try to trace causes and effects, untangle threads of development, and so on. Thus:

Listening to Carcass’s early records in chronological order is a little like watching silt settle in a pool. At first you can barely make out the objects beneath the surface; little by little they resolve themselves, until, by Heartwork (1993), they have achieved a pristine clarity. No, wait: I’ve fallen out of genre again. What on the early records sounds like a mess of undifferentiated organs—a sound that finds its visual analog in the collage that adorns Symphonies of Sickness’s (1989) record sleeve (the collage, that staple of metal record sleeves, which usually features pix of the band on stage, hanging out with friends, etc., shows instead mangled flesh and body parts: flesh-as-collage), becomes, with Necrotism (1991), autopsy and anatomy lesson. By Heartwork, the technologies of the body and of death, the body-as-machine and machine-as-body, have replaced gore as the band’s overarching metaphor, a shift captured in both tighter music and scrubbed production. From charnel house and churchyard to the dis-assembly lines of the pathology lab and abattoir, Carcass’s breakneck evolution reads like a history of Western attitudes toward death and the body. This is also evident in the albums’ cover art: from the cartoonish flesh-orgies of Reek and Sickness to Heartwork’s eerily bloodless conflation of the surgical, prosthetic, and anatomical. In this regard, Steel’s abandonment of the body for an aesthetic of the instrument, captured in its disturbingly devotional cover (pic above left), completes the trajectory begun in the late ‘80s—one reason, perhaps, that Steel is sometimes regarded as the long-deferred “true” follow-up to Heartwork, with Swansong (1995) indicative of the band’s—and the genre’s—demise.

How to define Carcass’s early sound? On Reek through Necrotism, gruelly and tinny on the high end, sludgy on the low; more grate than crunch, more Exodus or Megadeth than Metallica, yet much more tuned-down and unpolished than American thrash had deigned to be. Reek stands on the cusp of impenetrability, and even Sickness is in constant danger of slipping into its own murk. These first two records actually sound filthy, like the aural equivalent of trying to look at something through dirty glass. The vocals, which split thrash’s mid-range into the extremes of high-end hiss and incantatory guttural accompaniment, sound unnervingly close to an imagined black liturgy; at other times, like somebody retching—an absolutely nauseating sound. But to lump the two together is a disservice to Sickness, which expands Reek’s one-to-two minute blurts into three-to-five minute statements—and highly unpredictable statements at that, with shifting tempos and riffs metastasizing from riffs. The overall murkiness of production probably abets Sickness’s unstructured, chaotic feel, like the effect of poor light on a pattern: part bleeds into part, and recapitulations become difficult to recognize.

The eeriness and brutality of Sickness remain largely intact on Necrotism—vocally, in the guttural voice that shadows Walker’s, and in the ranting of Walker’s own, which obeys less a song’s rhythms than its own rabid logic; musically, in an even greater reliance on riff-metastasis and rhythmic instability. But Necrotism is a much more musical album than Sickness, balancing excess with greater precision (both instrumental and in terms of production), and expanding song structures into rambling suites that sometimes top the seven minute mark. They are full of false doors and non-endings; songs seem to be rising to a conclusion, with the (unexpected) re-introduction of an earlier theme, say—and then another riff will appear, another lead—the rhythm will shift a few times under said riff—and then, boom, the whole thing abruptly collapses. Thematic inventiveness and quasi una fantasia (oscura!) organization are not the only ways Necrotism broadens Sickness’s palette; there is also greater attention to texture and color: (brief) passages of undistorted guitar and effects-massaged production, and guitar harmonies redolent of the NWOBHM that Carcass had written off in the late ‘80s.

The shift from Necrotism to Heartwork is generally regarded as the most dramatic in the band’s history: a reversal of aesthetic priorities, a right-angle turn from the linear development of the first three records. Many of the songs are whittled to traditional verse-chorus-bridge structure, with introductory themes returning to fill one or another role. They also have more (and more obvious) hooks; this is a Carcass album you walk around humming. The tendrils reaching back to NWOBHM and thrash are more obvious; the sound is crunchier; and the guttural vocal accompaniment has disappeared. But as the words “more” and “many” in much of the above signal, the difference is—like the difference between Sickness and Necrotism—more one of degree than of kind. While overall slower and more controlled, Heartwork shares with its predecessor rhythmic flux (less intense, but present), athletic musicianship, and melodic inventiveness. Conversely, it is possible to see in Necrotism (if perhaps only through the lens of Heartwork) the beginnings of both a tighter melodic imagination and a more disciplined compositional style, the latter directed toward the development of a central theme rather than the willy-nilly appearance of new ones. Lesser bands have been undone in the attempt, and some greater ones as well: many of the bridges on an album as canonical as And Justice For All, for example—like Heartwork, a fourth effort—are dull precisely because Metallica seemed unable to vary or extend their central riffs imaginatively.

As noted, Swansong, while another step in Carcass’s evolution, is mostly a step backwards: the sound of a band in retreat. The lyrical subjects, so much outside Carcass’s typical obsession, sound weirdly incongruous with Walker’s vocal style; and some of the titles, at least, suggest, rather than the reckless fun of children rioting in an open cadaver (intestinal sandbox?), a tired ironizing of their earlier themes (e.g., “Keep On Rotting in the Free World”). Right from the opening arena-rock drum break, and, a few minutes later, the interjection of a cowbell—yes, cowbell—one gets the impression that this is Carcass fiddling while the genre burns. (It’s true that drum breaks are no stranger to Carcass; they go all the way back to Sickness. Perhaps, by analyzing each in turn, they might serve as a microcosm of the band’s development? Some other time, perhaps.) And while the tracks that bookend this record sound most like capitulations to the major-label powers-that-be courting some of the more successful extreme metal acts at that time, it is difficult not to generalize this feeling to the whole. With few exceptions, the record ambles along at a genial mid-tempo clip; little remains of the rhythmic variety or structural openness that gave the early records so much of their punch; songwriting and arrangements suggest a bit less the ‘80s influences that had crept into the band’s music beginning with Necrotism, a bit more ‘90s parallel afterlives (such as Rob Halford’s Fight) and ‘70s hard rock (and, in one happy instance, Sabbath). Even Steer’s solos sound watered-down, though perhaps only because he is attempting to infuse a blues-rock feel that was muted on the previous albums, to go, I presume, with the more streamlined sound.

That Swansong is sometimes regarded as a bloodless version of Heartwork points, once again, to the general consistency of Carcass’s oeuvre amid the differences. The album is certainly not without the occasional inventive bridge, strong melody, or heavy break. I want to be able to say that, if Carcass’s decadence is symbolized by Swansong’s cowbell, Surgical Steel doesn’t just get rid of the cowbell: it dismembers the very steer that rung it. But such a baby-and-bathwater take on Steel is simply incorrect. If it is indeed the album that redeems Swansong, and so Carcass’s recording history, it does so, at least partly, through inspired imitation. Particularly for the listener time-warping back from the future, some of the best material on Swansong is highly “reminiscent” of Surgical Steel, as though drafts for ideas that would come to fruition on that record. Walker has noted that Swansong represents only part of the original seventeen tracks written at the time (seventeen tracks, seventeen years: numerologists, take note!), and has claimed that some of the material not recorded for Swansong was stronger than what ended up on that record. Given the clear parallels, I can’t help but wonder to what extent Steel represents a reworking of unrecorded material from that time … and so even more that true, missing fifth album that 1995, “the year metal died,” left Carcass fans craving.

*

Considered thus summarily, the pace at which Carcass evolved (or devolved, depending on your perspective) over their original seven-year run is startling. They are generally credited with helping found two sub-subgenres: goregrind (a subset of grindcore featuring gory lyrics, often replete with medical terminology; see my “Thesaurus Metal,” 9.4.10) with their debut and sophomore efforts, and the seemingly oxymoronic melodic death metal (an offshoot of death metal with more pared-back song structures and hookier themes reminiscent of the NWOBHM) with Heartwork. As such, for some goregrind purists, true Carcass ends with Sickness, while Necrotism represents the sort of bloated excess more appropriate to prog and classic metal. More commonly, Necrotism is regarded as the peak of the band’s discography—not just an early-career capstone or transitional record, but their magnum opus. According to this narrative, Heartwork is sometimes regarded as a “sell-out” record, an about-face into the more melodic, traditionally-structured, and slickly-produced music that would bottom out on Swansong. Conversely, for fans of melodic death metal, something like Sickness (let alone Reek) is beyond the pale: Heartwork is the masterpiece, the moment when Carcass managed to fuse death metal excess with tighter, grabbier songwriting. And for those fans who appreciate all phases of the band’s brief career, there is always the relatively disappointing Swansong to signal decline. Since it is partly posthumous—the band had broken up by the time it was released—it can be fairly easily dismissed from the “authentic” discography. Once again, this creates a wound that it is all the more necessary for thrusting, stabbing Steel to retroactively fill.

A certain factionalism about Carcass’s fanbase is only logical: since founding new subgenres is generally perceived as an act of violence by adherents of the parent genre (involving, as it does, the importation of elements foreign to said genre, whether instruments, rhythms, themes, etc.; hence my preoccupation with the cowbell above), at least Reek and Heartwork would have been a sort of coup d’genre in their day. And yet, browsing through fan reviews on the web (on Amazon.com and the Encyclopedia Metallum), what stands out is the general high regard in which the band’s whole catalog is held. This is also logical, once the dates of the reviews are taken into account: the earliest ones on Amazon only go back to the late ‘90s; in the Encyclopedia, the early ‘00s. What would have appeared as a rupture in its historical moment is, once the subgenre has established itself and the new sound has found its niche in broader generic history, reabsorbed into a narrative of development; hindsight blurs what was disruptive, or at least balances it with what remains constant—as should be apparent from my own rearview sketches above. On Amazon, for example, all of Carcass’s records rate above four stars (out of five); with the exception of Reek, more than 90% of reviewers give the albums four stars and above; and scathing reviews are very infrequent. The Encyclopedia’s reviews are a bit more fractious: out of a possible 100, Sickness and Necrotism rate in the 90th percentile, Heartwork eighty, and Swansong and Reek in the mid-seventies. I will consider this difference presently. For the moment, suffice to say that, in hindsight, all pre-Steel Carcass is canonical.

In some ways, the weird new-old hybrids called “comeback” albums are even more freighted with conflicting expectations than new ones—and all the more when a band’s aesthetic is as protean as Carcass’s. The reception of Steel bears this out; perhaps it even suggests the fractiousness with which the band’s earlier records were once received, the ruptures we can no longer fully hear. In the Encyclopedia, while by and large the album receives high marks, a significant minority respond with visceral dislike, pulling the overall rating down equivalent to Swansong and Reek. The key word here is visceral. Browsing reviews of all three poorer-polling Carcass records, one finds about a third of the ratings at 50% and below. But only Steel’s reviews dip down into the single digits; one person even gives it a 0%. At least today, then, Steel is the band’s most contentious album. Perhaps this is (once again) logical: just as time would have muted and smoothed over the dislike of the other records as fans reconciled themselves to generic shifts, Steel is fresh, is now. It is almost as though one function of the “comeback” record was to give an opportunity for the earlier factionalism, so long buried, to rear its head again.

Interestingly, this is not true on Amazon, where Steel’s overall rating is the highest of any Carcass record for which a statistically significant number of reviews exist. Obviously, there is an enormous margin of error: rating systems are without a standard rubric, and on Amazon it is hard to disentangle different editions and packagings, so that negative reviews sometimes wind up being about consumer expectations rather than the music. But they are suggestive. To explain the disparity, I would guess that the reviews on Amazon include more first-time, young, and casual listeners than the Encyclopedia, many of whom would be hearing Carcass’s oeuvre from a certain distance, and perhaps (like me) mediated through a first-time encounter with Steel.

The fan-reviewers on a site like the Encyclopedia, on the other hand, clearly position themselves as connoisseurs, a metal critical elite. (This is surely also true of a subset of Amazon reviewers; they are just more diluted. Put differently: there are no blurbs in the Encyclopedia, only more or less exhaustive analyses.) And the negative reviews of Steel published there are admittedly among the best-written and most thoughtful, while the strongly positive reviews occasionally tend toward the geysering one associates with amassed teenyboppers and/or severed major arteries.

So, what are the naysayers’ chief arguments against Steel? Lack of authenticity is the big one: they accuse Carcass of pandering to fans. Why, that is, didn’t Carcass surprise us with their new record, put out something entirely unpalatable, something we were going to respect but not love, at least for the next few years? Why didn’t they once again rewrite the generic playbook? Rather than trying so hard to sound like themselves—and the point of the critique is all contained in that word like—the most authentic Carcass would sound like anything but the Carcass of old. Of course, as some of the reviews also note, the entire genre of the comeback record is compromised in this regard. As usual, Simon Reynolds captures the dilemma brilliantly: “When fans buy new albums by reformed favorites of their youth, at heart they’re not really interested in what the band might have to say now, or where the band members’ separate musical journeys might have taken them in subsequent decades; they want the band to create ‘new’ songs in their vintage style”: they want them, that is, “to cover themselves” (Retromania, p. 39).

Ironically, then, what made early Carcass good is precisely what makes new Carcass bad. Well, sort of. Because if the answer is not simply that comeback records per se are a priori crap, then one must make distinctions, judgments that show the new material at a disadvantage compared to the old. In other words: Sure, it sounds like Heartwork, BUT … it’s unmemorable, unimaginative, clichéd, you can tell they’re just phoning it in, etc., etc. It lacks, that is, those three great intangibles: a heart, a brain, the nerve.**

It’s quite possible that the way the band marketed Steel influenced how both its proponents and detractors heard it. In an interview published on Invisible Oranges the day of Steel’s release, Walker was quite candid about their approach to both the new record and their fans. Deliberating about whether to record, they had decided to see if they would come up with something that “sounded like Carcass.” Walker goes on: “We know what people want […]. We’re not stupid. We went into the rehearsal room and the studio well aware that people would have been quick to put the boot in if we didn’t deliver, you know? And at the same time we don’t want to shit on the Carcass legacy. So it’s not a cash cow. We went in using our own money. So if we weren’t confident that we could deliver on that, we wouldn’t have bothered. We weren’t going to gamble all that money away.” And, regarding how to deliver: “Play to your strengths”; “try to avoid the dumb shit and clichés”; and “give a nod [to their early career] without plagiarizing.”

Plenty of ammunition there for the aspiring cynic, to be sure. To me, though, Walker sounds more pragmatic than pandering. No matter how many powers to which the “sub” in “subgenre” is raised, it’s naïve to think that a band’s aesthetic choices are innocent of their audience’s expectations. Why would Walker divide “giving people what they want” from “avoiding the dumb shit and clichés” when, as he suggests, Carcass fans are thoughtful and discerning? Or is this flattering of the audience’s powers of discernment meta-pandering? It’s hard to tell, so much of what Walker says is generic and vague, like an athlete cornered post-game (e.g., “We just played our hardest and tried to keep a positive attitude,” etc.). As for “sounding like Carcass”: it’s true, as Reynolds says, that (most) fans want their favorite old bands to “create ‘new’ songs in their vintage style.” I am just not sure this means the comeback record as a genre is innately depraved. Clearly, Carcass took the challenge of sounding like themselves seriously: the emphasis on distinguishing self-plagiarism, for example, from the overall style and sound which, regardless of the band members’ “individual journeys,” their collective identity (in this case, Walker and Steel) gave rise to. Perhaps the comeback record should be considered a genre unto itself, one that cuts across the standard popular music genres, and is judged according to its own rules of self-performance and pastiche.

Of course, part of the point of dismissing Steel as “inauthentic” is to create a sense of the reviewer’s authenticity (hence authority), and the inauthenticity (hence ignorance) of the album’s proponents: I knew and loved the band pre-Steel; all of you who actually like this record can’t hear that the true Carcass has been replaced by a brainless, heartless, nerveless forgery. Note the implied ethics: Steel isn’t just bad music; it is cynical, manipulative, ultimately dishonest.§§

I don’t fault Steel’s detractors for dealing in intangibles. Feel, swing, inspiration: words like these pepper this post, and other posts on this blog. Anyone who writes about art is damned to deal in intangibles all the time, while desperately trying to ground intuitive judgments about such things in sensory data and paratextual materials. That said, judging Steel comes back, if I may beat the horse carcass a bit more, not to questions of taste, but of time, personal history, and perspective. Were I an old Carcass fan, maybe I, too, would smell the formaldehyde I’ve smelled on many another comeback. I might even find myself joining the small chorus of naysayers on my blog: “Ah, it’s just warmed-over Heartwork! How disappointing! How cynical of them! And look at the sheer number of times Walker mentions money!” That I am, alas, only old; that, for me, Steel is not a comeback record; that I cannot hear Necrotism or Heartwork the way they sounded when they were released—and yet, paradoxically, cannot hear them the way someone half my age does, given my experience of the milieu from which Carcass emerged: all these elements converge to influence the way I hear Steel. As is likely obvious, to these old-new ears the riffs are just as memorable (and as copious), the songwriting as snare-tight, and the technical excursions at least as impressive as the best of Carcass’s early work.†† And if it sounds like Carcass “covering themselves,” this might be because Steel, more than any other Carcass album, reminds us that early ‘90s Carcass was forging ahead in part by forging together elements from generic history: from the open letters to NWOBHM stalwarts Priest and Maiden (“1985,” which opens the record, should have been called “1982,” after Judas Priest’s “The Hellion,” the opening instrumental on Screaming for Vengeance, which it mirrors, right down to the ending gong), to the heavy, structuring, dolefully beautiful harmonies of Testament and Megadeth.

One is never without reservations. The propensity to break for a new riff on one guitar, then harmonize it in thirds, for example: it’s the sort of thing that would get old fast, if the raw material wasn’t so strong. The album isn’t perfect. So what is? When it hits its stride—as it does on the middle five tracks, with additional high-points on the earlier and later tunes—I can’t think of any metal I’d rather be listening to. And that’s saying a lot.

*

In Retromania, Reynolds blames today’s instantaneous, unlimited access to recorded music for stunting listening habits and creativity, both of which which have tended more and more toward the archival and ironic. A confessed “futurist zealot,” Reynolds despairs for the pop-music future, a future which seems to have become “unimaginable”— though he does end the book on a note of wistful hope. There is much in Retromania with which I deeply sympathize (gushing review forthcoming, someday). And yet, for those of us whose ears are relatively conservative, whose processing speeds are stuck somewhere in the dial-up era, whose adaptability to changing trends is challenged at best, and whose habit of listening recursively is deeply engrained—in fact, is affirmed to be the very stuff of what it means to listen at all … for those of us, having easy access to the plenitude of recording history is an important part of how we make sense of a recent history that seems to go by in an always-accelerating whirlybird blur.ΩΩ

I lost touch with metal as a young adult, just as it began toward the noisiest of extremes on the one hand, and toward pop musics that mostly bored me on the other. Re-discovering said genre in my mid-thirties as a dynamic new form was thrilling. But just as thrilling was the ability to go back to that lost decade and try to connect the dots with the contemporary. Mastodon’s first few records, for example, at least one of which would most certainly go in my Great Things of the New Century box, are inconceivable without Carcass’s early ‘90s records. (N.B.: Having grown up in a household where everyone we listened to was dead, I am comfortable with the idea of listening as an act of exhumation.)

Just as thrilling, however, is finding retroactive merit in things I was not prepared for at the time they appeared. I never could have enjoyed Sickness, and perhaps even Necrotism, back when those albums were released. I probably couldn’t listen to them now, were it not for the decade-long sojourn I took through free jazz, modernist classical, the postwar avant-grade, and other things often labeled non- or anti-music. (And then there was salsa, which helped break down the barriers to at least some of the pop I had once dismissed as merely frivolous.) Even Metallica had initially been a tough sell for my classically-formed ear, more comfortable with the complexity, virtuosity, and melodicism of prog rock and classic metal. My taste would have been much too orthodox, and likely too America-centric, to be able to digest the noisy assaults of the early death & grind bands from Britain. Still today I find a good deal of it unpalatable. Which is to say that the aesthetic breach dividing me from other people my age at the Gramercy show was as real as the generational one dividing me from those who could have been my kids. I want to believe that I somehow “missed out” on hearing Carcass in their prime, and mine. The truth is I was not the person that I sometimes want to imagine myself to have been (cf. “Vinyl Pasts,” 2.6.11).‡‡

So: flesh or steel? Were the person I am today to travel back in time: flesh, Necrotism, the hand that wields. But how can I, who was born into Steel, see Necrotism but as it is reflected in Steel? And yet, to give Steel absolute primacy and stability—the hub of the wheel—that isn’t entirely correct, either, because my impression of it necessarily changed after my contact with the earlier records. I can’t simply impose the logic of history onto autobiography, and by doing so efface my initial emotional response to the music. Desire and understanding are never entirely congruent. I can superimpose one upon the other, as I have tried to do here … but I cannot join them into a single, cohesive image. I know, or think I know, that Steel is closer to Heartwork, and to Swansong, than to Necrotism. But that doesn’t stop me from wanting Steel to be what Walker says it is: a union of Heartwork’s tightness and Necrotism’s riff-mill; what Gary Giddins so beautifully called the “elusive grail” of music, a form that is at once open-ended and contained; the dialectic between chaos and order, spontaneity and composition, wildness and civilization, that gives music so much of its power.***

 

* De rigeur exclamation point for scientific fact meant to provoke awe and wonder. Italics optional. This thought experiment brought to you by the AMNH’s Powers of Ten exhibit.

§ Since this is an extended consideration of Carcass, it will be swollen, even to bursting, with analogies to/puns about violent death, decay, and exhumation. It is the chief rule of the microgenre (practically an idiogenre) to which Carcass commentary belongs: a sort of spinoff of the band’s lyrics, as though all comments about the band were already sewn up inside the band. It is not just that I have no intention of breaking said rules; I do not think it is possible to write about Carcass in any other way. I may believe I am being clever when I say Carcass is “putrescent”; but it is actually the inexorable tendency of the discourse to search out images of and language about evisceration, laceration, contusion, etc. as soon as one begins writing about Carcass.

† Invisible Oranges dates its end to 2012. See their excellent “Re-Thrash: a Postmortem.” Regarding the 1987-or-so fetish: “At its peak, thrash was not just crossing over [with hardcore punk], it was also producing arena rock ballads and progressive rock epics while mutating into death and black metal. Thrash moves forward, literally and figuratively. It was foolhardy to try and trap that lightning in a bottle by going backwards in time.” (See my “Glee Metal,” 3.17.12, as well as “Burnt-over,” 8.3.11, for some echoes.) And this, which I blathered about in “Two Quixotes” (5.11.14): “The re-thrashers dealt in escapism, not history. If everyone in Black Tide was 20 in 2007, there is no way the members themselves remember the ’80s. Their music recalls the ’80s the way those boys have been exposed to it: through the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and SOD records. It cannot authentically recall the cultural zeitgeist of that time.” Then again: “Fantasy’s been a part of metal since the beginning—I see no objective difference between romanticizing previous lives in the viking age or in the 1980s.”

Ω This comment recalled for me one of the most endearing moments at 2013’s Heavy Metal and Popular Culture conference. One participant, who had taught a class on heavy metal to undergraduates, said that one of his students had taken the class because he wanted to understand his father better! (Is one function of the growing number of geriatric rock acts that the window of time suggested by the adage “Too old to rock ‘n’ roll, too young to die” shrinks to the merest crack, until it is only at the moment of recognition (“My God, I am too old to rock ‘n’ roll. Am I—”) that death strikes?)

‡ “Remember me as you pass by / As you are now, so once was I / As I am now, so you must be / Prepare for death and follow me.” This quatrain, which is not uncommon to see on old gravestones, is quoted by Megadeth in “Mary Jane” (on 1988’s So Far, So Good … So What?).

** Critics of Steel also point to some “cringe-worthy” lyrics, with the chorus of “Thrasher’s Abattoir” held up for particular contempt: “Hipsters and poseurs I abhor / Welcome to the thrasher’s abattoir.” Yep, bad. But I am trying to decide how this is more cringe-worthy than any of the nonsensical (but often hilarious) gibberish (replete with misspellings) that makes up the grotesquerie of early Carcass lyrics. In his defense, Walker claims said lyrics were intended to be “lighthearted”: a Pythonesque playing with gore. I’m with it. But then the same could be said about the risible couplet from “Thrasher’s Abattoir”—Steel being (according to Walker) a return to the early lyrical style that was partly abandoned on Heartwork, and entirely on Swansong. At other times, however, Walker can’t seem to decide whether he wants his lyrics to be taken seriously or not. Too much, he claims, has been made of the band’s vegetarianism; they are not trying to proselytize anyone (for which he condemns Barney Greenway of Napalm Death, Carcass’s Oedipal rival). Then what precisely is “serious” about the lyrics of Heartwork or Swansong? It doesn’t help that he is utterly disinclined (at least, within limits) to stop anyone from reading their own meanings into the lyrics—such as the I.O. interviewer’s suggestion that Surgical Steel’s lyrics are “sad,” rather than horrifically “celebratory.” It goes back to metal’s fraught relationship with politics: most try to stay out of it (grindcore as a whole and a few other individual bands excepted), while politically-charged lyrics tend toward the ambivalent (see Robert Walser’s excellent analysis of Judas Priest’s “Electric Eye,” Running With the Devil (Wesleyan UP, 1993), ps. 163-4). Walker’s caginess is thus par for the course. And yet, sometimes that caginess can sound like irresponsibility. Perhaps better not to read interviews. Perhaps better to ignore lyrics altogether.

§§ For more about the relationship between ethics and aesthetics in judging popular music, see Simon Frith, Performing Rites: On the Value of Popular Music (Harvard UP, 1996) ps. 70-74. Perhaps most germane is his discussion of authenticity, which he defines as “a perceived quality of sincerity and commitment” (71). Judging sincerity, Frith notes, “is a human as well as a musical judgment. And it also reflects our extra-musical beliefs.”

†† A few picks, so as not to clutter the text. Memorable riffs: “Noncompliance to ASTM F 899-12 Standard,” “The Granulating Dark Satanic Mills,” “Unfit for Human Consumption.” Copious riffage: the outro to “Mount of Execution”: we added this on at the end, the band seems to say, because we could. Technical brilliance: the intro to “Noncompliance” and bridge of “Captive Bolt Pistol.”

ΩΩ I am not being quite square with Reynolds here. He is most concerned (as am I) with the sort of shallow and one-dimensional toggle-listening encouraged by the web, and so would likely second my call for recursive listening and slowed-down processing. (Hilariously, with the exception of Reek, all my back-catalog listening to Carcass was on compact disc!)

‡‡ There is something about metal that aligns it with extreme sports and horror movies, fight clubs and jackass movies, drug culture, and other boy-heavy endeavors: the question “how much can you take?” looms over them all. The metal devotee is expected to push himself to listen to less and less palatable music; the less palatable, the more “heavy,” the more authentic, and the more authentic an acolyte one proves oneself to be, with the genre ideal measured against a vanishing point of volume, speed, and/or weight. And so it has always been difficult, for the metal devotee, to admit to not liking extreme metal. As per food writer Michael Pollan, it is like a French person saying, “Well, I’m sorry, but I just don’t like really stinky cheese …” (And as long as I’m footnoting, here is Greil Marcus’s perfectly apropos definition of nostalgia: “the desire to reach back and touch the person you never were” (qtd. in John Street, Music and Politics, p. 156).)

*** The tendency away from the spontaneous in metal finds its expression in the overly processed, mechanically synchronized sound of too much of the music today. Against it, the metal of thirty years ago must sound either disappointing or exhilirating, depending upon one’s age, listening background, and orientation within the genre. To this older pair of ears, the relative looseness of much early metal—not the self-conscious amateurism of punk, but the desire to push tempo and musicianship to a breaking point, and to capture rather than correct that on recordings—is where much of the power of metal derives from. I think of Lombardo’s double-bass in early Slayer (e.g., the break in “Angel of Death”); the bouncing stick on Perry Strickland’s (of Vio-lence) ride, leaping a fraction ahead just to keep tempo, and so creating an inadvertent swing; the extra beat given to Away’s fill in the reprise introduction of Voivod’s “This Is Not an Exercise.” I wonder if the virtuoso double-bass/guitar synchronization that ends Slayer’s “Mind Control” in 1994 (on which you can hear veteran drummer Paul Bostaph and the rest of the band slip out of time with each other) marks one of the last such instances where failure-as-power was allowed to remain intact. In all of the above examples, it is as though trying to run the machine full-throttle overloads it. The ultimate demonstration of power, after all, is not decibels achieved, but amplification blown: pure overload, total distortion.

 

The therapeutic use of distortion, particularly of the infrasonic, Crowbarian variety, begs study. Who knows but, some day, a future Dr. McCoy will run his tri-corder over some sick soul’s thorax, and instead of that little machine chirping, what will come out is … Crowbar? – Baciyelmo

Dr. Heidegger’s Punks

Waksman, Steve. This Ain’t the Summer of Love: Conflict and Crossover in Heavy Metal and Punk. Berkeley: California UP, 2011.

 

In one of my favorite Nathaniel Hawthorne sketches, “Dr. Heidegger’s Experiment,” the eponymous doctor invites four aged friends to taste a water he claims will restore their youth. After demonstrating the effect on a half-century-old rose, Heidegger expresses the (sardonic?) hope that, in their second youth, his friends would become models of virtue rather than succumbing again to dissipation. Of course, his guests assure him, clamoring for a drink. The effect of the water is immediate: all four are rejuvenated, and end up parading around the room, admiring themselves in the mirror and ridiculing their former infirmity. Heidegger himself only watches. His friends’ behavior under the “delirium” of the elixir is enough to convince him that its magical properties are not for him. He is a different kind of mirror, a moral one, as so many a Hawthorne character and narrator is. Nor is the actual mirror in Heidegger’s study devoid of said quality. As the three men vie for the attention of the newly “girl widow,” “by a strange deception, owing to the duskiness of the chamber, and the antique dresses which they still wore, the tall mirror is said to have [!] reflected the figures of the three old, gray, withered grand-sires, ridiculously contending for the skinny ugliness of a shriveled grand-dam.” Just in case the reader was looking for stable footing, the narrator claims that he himself “bears the stigma of a fiction-monger.” And so—again, typical for Hawthorne—there is a delicious, crepuscular ambiguity as to whether the transformation is real, or Heidegger is watching four old fools captive of a delusion.

I thought of Hawthorne’s sketch more than once while I was reading Steve Waksman’s excellent revisionist heavy-rock history This Ain’t the Summer of Love. In Greil Marcus’s classic formulation, the arrival of punk onto the scene in ‘76 was a “pop explosion”: “a moment of anxiety and rupture that created […] a stark sense of ‘before’ and ‘after’”; the “historical slate” had been “wiped clean” (Waksman 148, 149). And yet, as Waksman shows, for “a small but vocal minority” of rock journalists, spurred by “a mix of nostalgia, narcissism, resentment, and rebellion” (65), the “explosion” of ’76 was not really an irruption of the New; it was the Second Coming. For ’76 simply fulfilled the promise of Nuggets, Lenny Kaye’s legendary 1972 compilation of mid-‘60s garage rock, that last last great moment in rock ‘n’ roll history, whose youthful energy had been dissipated by the anathema of prog-rock pretentiousness and the tuned-in, introspective listening of the audiences for psychedelia (see Waksman 30).* Nuggets, Waksman writes, “embodied the search for a way to channel the most unleashed qualities of rock in new aesthetic directions and the desire to counteract the growing hierarchies—economic and artistic—that had developed around the music during the past half-decade” (66). Despite the emphasis on the “new” here, Waksman is quite clear that Nuggets was first and foremost an act of nostalgic reclamation (69). I can’t help but see them—Lester Bangs, Greg Shaw, Lenny Kaye et al.—standing around with their fingers crossed, haranguing passers-by with their vinyl pamphlets, like Jehovah’s Witnesses on the subway platform. Never mind the messiah, here’s the Sex Pistols.

There is something deeply romantic about this vision,§ and Waksman is not slow to point it out. Shaw, a self-proclaimed “rock purist” (50), believed that by the early ‘70s rock had “lost the ability to represent youthful desires in […] a direct way” (52-3; my emphasis); and it was by this lizard brain-to-neocortex ratio that the worth of all rock was to be measured. Ideally, the denominator must approach zero, and so the ratio infinity, until the audience brushed up against the asymptote of a Maenadic orgy of self-annihilation. To live suspended between two utopias, watching, waiting for the next artist who would “save” rock ‘n’ roll—by which we can only mean ourselves from the consciousness of our own aging and imminent death—strikes me as simply the Heideggerian impulse writ large. Indeed, it is the very warp and woof of post-‘60s America.

I think it was Jello Biafra who said he hated punk nostalgia. How ironic, then, that punk should turn out to be all nostalgia; that the answer to the perennial question “How to keep rock young?” (Waksman 145) should be through periodic injections of the past. Of course, this is as much a polemical exaggeration as Shaw’s: the “new aesthetic directions” are as important as the spirit of rock revived. I will return to this later. For the moment, suffice to say that punk as “pop explosion” is a hyperbole of wish-fulfillment. The story is clearly more complicated than razing history by cultivating the barbaric yawp of hormone-addled teens, and Waksman’s task is to tell this more complicated story. How is it that this odd beast called Heavy Metal, hardly the tiny mammals of the paleontological imagination, survived that icon-shaped meteor called Punk? Why did Metal, as The Dude would say, abide?

*

The mythology of punk had to be constructed against something, and that something would be metal, wayward child of prog and the blues, the dark twin from which punk was separated at birth. Indeed, the labels—punk, metal—are historically so fractious that we’ve forgotten the days when Bangs et al. were singing the praises of early Grand Funk (and even Black Sabbath) for carrying something of the “squalid” (66) garage-rock aesthetic into the era of the stadium, and when GFR could be lumped together with MC5 and The Stooges around ideas of spontaneity, unleashed desire, and populism (67). This Ain’t the Summer of Love is a fine remedy for the cultural amnesia that has hampered our understanding of these two genres’ tangled histories.

“Metal and punk,” Waksman writes in his introduction, “have enjoyed a particularly charged, at times even intimate sort of relationship that has informed the two genres in terms of sound, image, and discourse” (7). Rather than a fixed boundary between them, he posits a “continuum,” through which “generic boundaries have been continually tested, sometimes to be remapped and other times to be reinforced” (10). Waksman is interested in re-telling the story in such a way that punk and metal mutually illuminate each other, and to highlight not just tensions and antitheses, but the reciprocity and cross-pollination of their imbricated evolutions. By redefining the relationship between overtheorized (to the point of fetish) punk, and the until recently (and perhaps still) undertheorized heavy metal, the study spurs us to “question some of the assumptions that have led to the canonization of punk as the last great moment in rock history” (17) … and as such, to hear rock history differently.

Waksman might quibble with me here (and there, and everywhere), but This Ain’t the Summer of Love strikes me as deconstructive in spirit.† By unearthing the nostalgic wish-fulfillment that impelled the “canonization of punk” as the antithesis of “dinosaur rock,” Waksman dismantles a critical binary by which the two genres have often been distinguished. The goal here is neither to invert the hierarchy (metal rules!) nor to eradicate distinctions (metal IS punk), but rather to reveal the role of ideology—where metal simply becomes the foil against which to shore up punk’s authenticity, the scapegoat onto which punk can cast anything it cannot countenance in itself, the representative of the worst excesses to which the spirit of rock can be degraded, in order for punk to believe its myths about itself—in the way the two genres are understood and understand themselves, as well as to map how each genre has impacted the other in that “charged, intimate relationship.”

For example: the desire for mass success has generally sat better with heavy metal than with punk, which repudiated the machine of rock stardom. In this formulation, heavy metal comes to represent the capitalist means of production of the “rock-industrial complex” (stadium show, major label, etc.), punk the conscious, liberated masses (however un-massed they might be) existing in authentic relation to the band. And yet, early punk bands found it difficult to spurn the crowd or the major labels when they came knocking. Were said bands therefore un-punked, “sellouts,” their authenticity just another pose? Writes Waksman about the uncategorizable Dictators: they “thumbed their noses at the terms of rock-and-roll success but still continued to struggle mightily for it” (127). It is a comment that could be applied more broadly.

Of course, binaries are like rabbits, or characters in the Pentateuch: one is continuously begetting another. Slow versus fast, pretentious/arty versus gonad-driven, spectacular versus intimate, passive versus active, hierarchical versus democratic, centralized versus decentralized, amateur versus virtuouso, etc. … I will not presume to identify the pater-binary here. While it is true that differences in musical practice and production are expressions of differing ideologies, the genre labels have the effect of exaggerating them, erecting artificial barriers along the “continuum,” distorting how we hear the music, and deafening us to points of merger and cross-influence.

I would take this one step further and argue that, from the perspective of heavy metal, music and ideology form a binary of their own. That is, metal would like to believe it has no ideology, would understand itself as a purely aesthetic phenomenon, with music and musical practice at the center of the subculture. This makes sense, given its historical love-hate relationship with the mainstream. Punk, on the other hand, was always conscious of its ideology, or of itself as ideology. The music was of a piece with it, but was never understood as an entity separate from it. For punk, the music was a sort of caulk to hold the subculture together, present in every nook and cranny, but not itself the scene. The opposite is true of metal: the music is the scene; the metalheads fit themselves into those cracks, bearing up the music together. Music creates solidarity in metal, rather than being one (perhaps the highest) expression of it. (According to this formulation, no matter how punk-influenced metal has been, the answer to the question, “Is there metal beyond metal?” which was posed at the 2013 Heavy Metal and Popular Culture conference (see “T-Shirts and Wittgenstein,” 5.24.13) must be “No.”)

Perhaps, if punk is more a creature of ideology than of its aesthetic expression (e.g., anti-virtuosity and -complexity), it is as much in need of metal to give it musical life as metal needs that other thing punk has from time to time given it: attitude; energy; the dismantling spirit of noise and a dissonance edging into atonality (and anarchy) that visits rock whenever it becomes too enamored of its own edifices. Without metal, punk burns itself out; without punk, metal ossifies. Again, since metal pretends it is not ideological, it is happy to draw on punk for inspiration, including musical inspiration; whereas for punk to do the same can only appear a betrayal, since one cannot delve into metal without dragging the whole kit-and-caboodle of its (reactionary, hierarchical) ideology behind.

If we look to the New Wave of British Heavy Metal (NWOBHM) era, we are left with the fascinating and troubling suggestion that metal became metal via punk, found its voice because of punk. (It reminds me of the scene in Invisible Man where the protagonist makes white paint by stirring black paint into it …) Here, metal becomes metal not via the mirror of its Other, but by incorporation—that is, because of a certain level of “impurity.” So, just as there was no pure rock in some past utopia that we can remake in the present, so there is no pure or true genre; it is essentially contaminated, always in the process of making itself, cobbling itself together from the bric-a-brac of the musical past, subject to the forces of media and market. Its achievement is aspirational, and endlessly deferred. Ah, these quixotic attempts to redeem the sinner and refine the defiled! The “purity virus,” as we might call it, can be quite as debilitating as what Bangs called the “superstar virus” (Waksman 54). Now, in “taking in” punk, was metal paradoxically infected by the purity virus—the very same virus that leads punk to define itself against metal as ur-representative of the musical past? Perhaps. But it may have been just enough to inoculate it: to create a firm yet still-porous membrane that would allow both a relatively stable generic identity and the possibility of change … and thus the preposterous longevity which has so flummoxed its detractors. Perhaps punk was necessary to show metal that it does have an ideology, and so to help it come to consciousness of itself as a genre.

And punk? Since punk is the privileged term, it has the privilege of pretending to be sufficient unto itself: punk is punk is punk. Or: punk is pure negation, an anti-genre, nothing without the contours of the generic history it mythologizes itself razing to the ground, an energy that “infects” other genres, and that is the essence of its paradoxical purity. Or: punk is … punk is …. After a time, defining punk comes to seem as elusive as locating the proverbial True Scotsman. Punk, the fleeting utopia (was it actually ever there?), the grail-shaped elementary particle created in fiery collision, decaying at the instant of its detection.

*

There is a danger here, no matter how fine a blade one uses, of treating the genres monolithically, of re-stabilizing the very generic binary Waksman would have us think about fluidly, historically. (Notice how much of the above is written in the present tense.) All this talk about binaries is making me hungry … for history, that is. And since the above admittedly weaves far away from Waksman’s study, which is so firmly grounded, it is high time we re-grounded ourselves in the text.

Perhaps something of the foregoing discussion can help reveal why metal’s place throughout the book feels a little problematic. The idea that punk was a sort of reservoir from which metal could draw energy, “revitalizing” it during periods when it was flagging, and pushing it in ever-more-extreme directions, makes metal the dependent genre. Only when metal had developed “an underground energy of its own” (239) would the current be freed to flow in the opposite direction, helping to release hardcore from the mirror of its fetishized purity, polluting it with the dungheap sounds of Black Sabbath, Ted Nugent, and AC/DC, and producing first crossover as a self-consciously hybrid genre (D.R.I., Suicidal Tendencies, C.O.C., S.O.D.), and eventually the more thoroughly-digested hybridity of grunge. Then again, perhaps the feeling of imbalance is an inevitable product of the way rock history has been written; the Standard Model always exerts a gravity on any counternarrative, be it about minority populations or minority musics.

Regardless, the history Waksman tells is compelling: nuanced in argument, deeply researched, and smartly contextualized by cultural changes in twentieth-century Britain and America, from suburban male tinkering to the changing meaning of postwar youth culture. Not surprisingly for a book about “crossover and conflict” between countergenres,** chapters are dominated by pairs—GFR and Nuggets, Alice Cooper and Iggy Pop, The Runaways and The Dictators, Iron Maiden and Def Leppard. “Death Trip,” the Cooper-Pop chapter, is particularly insightful about these two figures who stood at the headwaters of the generic division that would emerge over the ‘70s, initiating both aforementioned founding differences (e.g., large-scale spectacle versus intimacy and authenticity) and shared fixations (victimization, death, gender ambiguity). In the third and fourth chapters, Waksman turns his attention to early attempts at crossover. Some of the most interesting material examines the way ‘70s bands’ hybrid identities and competing agendas made them unstable. For The Runaways, for example, the tension between Joan Jett (punk) and Lita Ford (metal) tore the band apart. A few years later, Iron Maiden would more successfully navigate a similar tension by ejecting the offending matter—original singer Paul D’ianno, whose voice, stance, and look screamed punk—and consolidating their image around the operatic Bruce Dickinson (201). With D’ianno, Maiden had been touted as a crossover band; even the original Eddie, the band’s endlessly-mutable mascot, clearly bore the marks of both genres (see 196).

What happened between The Runaways and Maiden that allowed the latter to enjoy at least a few pre-thrash years straddling the two genres? One word: Motörhead. Only peerless Motörhead, mother of all crossovers, get their own chapter. They were noisier and dirtier and less bassy than other metal bands, albeit proficient enough instrumentally; in Waksman’s lovely phrase, “their music was all distorted rushing surface” (165). Both punk and metal writers in Britain claimed Motörhead as their own, whether as the fulfillment of the sound Johnny Rotten prophesied, or as stripped-down heavy rock without a political agenda and a biker look to boot (160-1). Audiences for Motörhead were motley assemblages of punks and metalheads, a phenomenon that would continue with Maiden and the NWOBHM. For Sounds writer Geoff Barton, for example, a 1979 concert of NWOBHM bands featuring Maiden “showed that punks were not so ready to leave the musical past behind as they were often portrayed, and that heavy metal retained a vital degree of currency amid the social divisions that defined the British music scene” (177; the words are Waksman’s).

Punk’s impact on metal would become increasingly transparent—and oft cited, though not without occasionally disparaging comments on punk musicianship (166)—as the ‘70s drew to a close, penetrating to all levels of musical activity: independent labels, local scenes (even if these were meant as stepping stones to stardom rather than ends in themselves), and more extreme styles. It was NWOBHM bands like Raven and Venom who would push the quest for a new, metal-specific authenticity the furthest—that first injection of “punk attitude,” as both D’ianno and Venom’s Abaddon put it (195, 199)—and so have the biggest impact on the rise of the ‘80s metal underground. Mixing a noisy, DIY sound with metal themes, Venom claimed to prefer a punk label to being classed with “unworthy” heavy metal bands (194). In their marginalization from the heavy metal mainstream, they became the genre’s “ultimate purveyors” (195), using punk to scour away any and all extravagances, and redefining the fringe as the new center.§§ A couple of years later, as the meaning of the New Wave shifted, so did the NWOBHM, toward a pop-friendlier sound of short, tight songs with catchy leads (e.g., Def Leppard). Thus, as the different sounds, fates, and degrees of influence of Motörhead, Maiden, Venom, and Leppard show, the impact of punk on metal in late ‘70s/ early ‘80s Britain is ambivalent, even contradictory. While it is true that NWOBHM was an attempt to “come to terms with the impact of punk,” “metal bands of the time were as likely to be reacting against punk as incorporating its values and features, and may have been doing both at the same time” (209).

This true-versus-mainstream divide arising from British metal’s uneasy late ‘70s/early ‘80s interaction with punk would soon take on a decidedly Atlantic cast, with the distinctly un-punk and orthographically-challenged Leppard pandering to American audiences, the same audiences who would soon be buttering the bread of SoCal proto-hair bands like Quiet Riot and Mötley Crüe.†† Meanwhile, independent American labels were beginning to foster stateside underground scenes, helping to pave the way for American crossover. SST, founded by Black Flag guitarist Greg Ginn, grew away from hardcore dogma so that, by the mid-‘80s, their catalog was offering a mix of punk and metal—including Black Flag’s own divisively metal-inflected My War (1982). For Waksman, SST helped “legitimate the inclusion of heavy metal in the independent realm” (228), even as he notes that metal was already creating its own version of DIY culture via its European connections (the Danish fanzine Aardschok, for example, and the NWOBHM). With the emergence of originating thrash metal bands like Slayer and Metallica further up the coast, hardcore ‘zines began to sit up and take notice; some began to call for détente between and even unity among the two scenes.*** Independent Metal Blade would go on to record crossover pioneers D.R.I. and C.O.C. Eventually, the “Seattle Sound” would be built from the bricks and mortar of these crossover tendencies, fused by the isolated and closely-knit musical culture of that city. For Waksman, SST and Metal Blade each had a role in fostering crossover, but only Seattle’s Sub Pop “made the combination of metal and punk into the basis for a broad-based youth culture that reshaped the rock music industry in the first half of the 1990s” (254); it was “the one genuinely mass-oriented music phenomenon […] predicated on the interplay between heavy metal and punk” (301).

This Ain’t the Summer of Love ends like a classic novel: in marriage (with children!). But did the couple live happily ever after? The outcry over Metallica’s headlining Lalapalooza, five years after they went “alternative,” suggests that grunge was only a partial, or momentary, resolution. Waksman’s reading of the evolution of Lalapalooza is brilliantly on-target: “It was almost as though the 1960s-70s shift from festival rock to arena rock was being replayed all over again in the context of a single annual event” (304). By beginning at the dawn of the ’70s and concluding with the Blue Öyster Cult song from which the book takes its title, Waksman suggests that, to truly understand the evolution of punk and metal, one has to go back to that very shift, to the genres’ dual emergence on the other side of the Altamont faultline. BOC’s “This Ain’t the Summer of Love” is a postmortem for “the pastoral, communitarian mythos that surrounded [rock ‘n’ roll] at a particular point in time […] 1970s rock is not about going back to the garden, it’s about riding into the night noisily and with abandon” (297).

As Waksman shows, there are different kinds of gardens; garages will do quite as well for flowers as Golden Gate Park. But the anti-nostalgic impulse carries a danger as well: the fantasy that history can be scraped off of the present, and time begin anew. (Indeed, the anti-nostalgic impulse may be just cloaked nostalgia.) If punk and metal were “efforts to reinvest rock with meaning after the perceived demise of the 1960s counterculture” (18), then what meaning(s)? To what extent revived, imported, contemporary? The central question of the book may be not about the mutual influences between musical genres, but about how to engage with the past without succumbing to either nostalgia or resentment; or without, as James Baldwin once wrote, either drowning in it or replacing it with a fantasy.

*

Some twenty years later, where are we? Sometimes I wonder if, for people of my generation, the genres are as polarized as they ever were. Waksman’s personal story, which he glosses in his introduction, is familiar to anyone who grew up in the ‘80s and invested him or herself in either or both of these genres. He identified as a metalhead; his heavy metal T-shirt marked him as “other” in that epicenter of hardcore, Orange County. But he listened to some punk, and, after his punk college roommie discovered him spinning a Black Flag record, he started going to shows. I grew up three thousand miles away, but everything about Waksman’s narrative resonates with me. We grew from Led Zeppelin and Rush toward something starker, darker, heavier, filtered into punk or metal depending on a variety of social and cultural circumstances. I had metalhead friends who drew a more or less firm line between metal and punk, and others who tried to find their own positions between the two, and even among Brit-lithium bands like The Smiths and The Cure. One, a diehard Metallica fan, floated me my first hardcore: early Tendencies, D.I., and Blag Flag’s Family Man. Another, a one-time skinhead, later became an enormous influence on my taste, seeding me with Beefeater and SNFU while I did the same to him with Voivod: places where divided currents rejoined. We all have stories like these, friends like these: holes poked in the seemingly impregnable walls of genre, notes and cigarettes passed between, smoke blown through, this no matter how wedded we were to our perfectly masturbatory musical identities.

Today, I find that those who held a firm genre line tend to be nostalgic for a certain tribalism, before everything got thrown in the hopper and blended up—before, say, a band with a violin could be called metal, and kids in Brooklyn listened to country. Waksman’s point about grunge’s tangled genealogy, its deep hybridity, is borne out by the way these hard-line friends hear it, whether they subscribed to the metal or punk-cum-indie rock side of the line. Kurt Cobain, for example, is contested terrain. He is generally understood as a punk hero by indie rockers, and the antithesis (one even sees this in Waksman) of grunge’s other multiplatinum success story, Pearl Jam. My nostalgically metalhead friends (you know, the ones who think music died with the ‘80s, was briefly resurrected in Pantera, and then died for real) also have a hard time swallowing Pearl Jam … but some of them claim Nirvana for metal. Alice in Chains has always gone down a lot easier, and even Soundgarden, despite their propensity for parodying metal. But the reticence about miscegenation runs deep as identity. On my end, I love Pearl Jam—I hear not just ‘70s rock, but punk, The Beatles, and much more—and never developed much of a taste for Nirvana. Then again, listening to my iPod on shuffle in the car, I find myself increasingly skeptical of the old allegiances. The music jumps from Queensryche’s Operation: Mindcrime to Slayer’s South of Heaven, both from ‘88. To what extent was it ever possible to understand these bands as belonging to the same all-encompassing parent genre? My beef is not with evolution per se, of course. I just sometimes marvel at the arrangement of the phyla, always a conventional frame laid over what is indeed a continuum, and—at least where the consumption of music is concerned—usually done so by forces outside of our control.

And the “kids” today, where are they at? Barring statistics about tastes and attitudes, the only evidence (once again) is anecdotal. And what anecdotal evidence I can muster is ambiguous, even contradictory. On the one hand, the taste of younger crowds seems to run the gamut—“genre be damned!” seems to be the rallying cry today—and bands post-grunge happily draw on both “energies.” Cobain himself has acquired the same legendary, common-property status that Jimi or Joplin have; he seems to be the only such figure that has currency among today’s youth audience for rock (which is also why he is contested terrain). In the local music ‘zines where I live, the same publications appeal to both metal and hardcore fans, although there is still a good deal of attention paid to which aesthetic a new local band more or less subscribes. On the other hand, genre has splintered to such a degree that micro-identities seem to isolate audiences within not just genres, but subgenres. If the resulting constellations are not always predictable and channel-able as they once were, they can be just as fiercely guarded. “Crossover” bills may make money, but perhaps only because they gather enough people from different audiences and scenes, not because the audiences themselves cross over … even if the Cro-mags fans aren’t kicking the shit out of the Slayer fans anymore (I wonder if this was the case back in ’79 in Britain as well). Add to this the retro- aspect of today’s audiences, with neo-punks and neo-metalheads digging deep into ancient catalogs, and constructing identities from the bones of their forefathers, and one begins to wonder if that nostalgia for tribalism, be it around punk or metal, propagated by music media, has been absorbed by the youth of today as a way of shoring up their own identities against the endless stream of available music. Or perhaps it is simply natural for youth to crave the sort of ready-made identity that popular music provides.

From the standpoint of contemporary politics, there is a (for me) happy payoff to Waksman’s study. For one of the great values of This Ain’t the Summer of Love is that it so well demonstrates the contingency of the border between the two genres and scenes. For the most part—and I will focus on America here—the suburban youth who patronized hardcore were as alienated from the traditional working class as they desired to be from the plastic world of their parents; the proletariat remained theoretical. Meantime, the working class was listening to arena rock/ metal; their politics were reactionary and populist. (Surely a large number of suburban youth also populated that audience, and became much of the audience for ‘80s underground metal: one that aped the working class, as Deena Weinstein showed … but was devoid of both working-class roots or a revolutionary ideology.) Between a working class that embraces capitalism aspirationally, and which finds its greatest exponent in the Horatio Alger rock star, and a disaffected suburban youth without any authentic connection to that working class, who scowl and sneer at “the system,” but are entirely impotent to effect change: “punk” and “metal,” labels that help drive the ideological wedge between the middle and working classes, pitting them against each other for the benefit of the 1%.

But to return to aesthetics, and to my beloved monoliths. Punk and metal have always needed each other to check each other’s worst excesses; they are perhaps best construed as warning labels: stay away from idealized poles, where ideology is mistaken for life. What else could have saved hardcore from drowning in the mirror of its own purity, or from the delusion that it was the vanguard of the apocalypse? And what could have saved the lumbering, masturbating spectacle of metal from itself, if not the noisy anti-energy of punk? Each of us might put our fulcrum in a different place along Waksman’s “continuum,” but some Cygnus there must be. There must be a similar balance, I think, about the way one approaches the past—between, that is, nostalgic romanticization and anti-nostalgic rebellion; between death by drowning and a life of fantasy. For Waksman, the success of grunge seems to have been its ability to negotiate both generic and generational pitfalls: “resources from the past became the means to counter the orthodoxies of the present and to create a new synthesis that melded hardcore’s radical sense of refusal with the ambivalent embrace of heavy metal excess” (298). For the artist of today, weaned on notions of the anxiety of influence and in a culture that is at once hyper-aware of the immediate past and with the technological means at its disposal to both endlessly confront and endlessly recycle it, negotiating the opposing pitfalls of nostalgia and rebellion seems the essence of the creative struggle.

*

Oh, dear. This is a ramshackle house of a “review.” Some very nice individual rooms, you will agree: so pleasantly decorated, the grillework so fastidiously done over, the wallpaper fascinatingly intricate, and mirrors, my God, mirrors everywhere, making everything appear larger than it is. But it is true that, viewed from a distance, it is a bit of a monstrosity: an amalgamation of strange, misshapen additions, as though there had never been a hearth. I won’t even tell you about the rooms left on the drawing board; the Alice Cooper-Iggy Pop one was particularly beautiful; perhaps they will become future additions, or better yet, outbuildings. For now I am running—running, abandoning the place, before I have the urge to grab my tools again, and build yet more rooms, and renovate old ones … and even to re-decorate rooms that will later fall to the sledgehammer! When I have reached a minimum safe distance in time, the great gravity of this house only enough to make my teeth sing, and my pen has turned into a pillar of salt, then, then I can begin to dream of returning.

 

* Perhaps even nostalgia about nostalgia, a Third Coming. In his third chapter, “The Teenage Rock ‘n’ Roll Ideal,” Waksman takes us even further back, to the lost teen utopia of the 1950s: America’s Garden of Eden, the competing figures of Gidget and The Wild One, the beach kid and the juvenile delinquent (111-112). America, Christopher Hitchens once noted, seems to have a talent for misplacing its innocence. Anyway, among the many strengths of Waksman’s book is its close attention to the pivotal role media—journalism, radio stations, record labels, and anthology recordings—play in shaping musical genres, and by extension music history.

§ Bangs may masquerade as a cynic, but … what a gloriously seductive costume. I can’t think of a rock writer I read with more pleasure. I am generally too happy getting lost in the whorls of his language to bother stepping back to disagree. N.B.: Bangs, for one, recognized the tension between what he called “The Party” and self-consciousness (see Waksman 56), and tried to solve it in typical Bangsian fashion, that is, by recourse to his methamphetamine style.

† Deconstruction itself has become (must become) an object of nostalgia. It does seem oddly apt to use an intellectual tool that came to prominence in the ‘70s and ‘80s to discuss changes in music in the ‘70s and ‘80s. To each time, its tool. That said, I am not sure why intellectual tools should fall out of use. If I am trying to pull nails out of the floor (of culture, in this case), a claw hammer is going to serve me as well as anything since invented, and perhaps better than anything yet invented. Interpretative frameworks—generally cobbled together from different disciplines, grafted with varying degrees of success—are as maniacally sought after, and just as prone to obsolescence, as any other commodity … and therefore, as much a product of the ideology they are ostensibly used to critique, no? Anyway, a new area for eBay to exploit.

** The term is Heather Dubrow’s; I might have done well to raise it earlier. Countergenres are genres that “work according to a set of norms that are implicitly or explicitly drawn from and at times opposed to each other” (Waksman 9). Waksman notes that relationships between genres and the transformation of genres are undertheorized.

§§ Waksman draws on the concepts of mundane and transgressive subcultural capital to analyze Venom’s role (184-5). For a fuller discussion of these concepts, see Keith Kahn-Harris, “‘You Are From Israel and that is Enough to Hate You Forever’: Racism, Globalization and Play Within the Global Extreme Metal Scene,” in Metal Rules the Globe (Duke UP, 2011); and my own discussion of Kahn-Harris’s argument in “T-Shirts and Wittgenstein” (5.24.13).

†† One of my favorite anecdotes in Waksman’s book tells of Def Leppard’s Joe Eliott stripping off the union jack to reveal the stars and stripes. The equation of authentic or true heavy metal with Britain is nowhere better stated than by Rob Halford a few years later: “The USA still looks to Britain as the true origin of Metal […] I honestly don’t think that there has ever been a true American Heavy Metal band!” (333). Judas Priest, as Robert Walser once noted, aspires to be genre-defining. For the irregular ways in which claims to authenticity intersect with masculinity and social class, as well as with nationality, see pages 201-206 in the Waksman.

*** A shout-out to Pushead (Brian Schroeder), who wrote so passionately about punk-metal crossover for Maximum Rock ‘n’ Roll: “Now the crossover has happened and the 2 underground energies are colliding. This is speedcore. There is still hardcore and metal, but in a general sense, the ferocity and quickness brings a unity for those who enjoy it” (239). Today, Pushead is best known for the artwork he produced for Metallica. He should also be remembered—fondly? disturbedly?—for fronting over-the-top speedcore band Septic Death.