Poetry, Punk, and Reporting

To overstate the influence of punk culture on my little life is not possible. Through BMX and skateboarding I absorbed the do-it-yourself, damn-the-man attitude of punk rock. I got to the music a little late, but Minor Threat, 7Seconds, Naked Raygun, and others made me think about things differently. Way differently. It’s the music, to be sure, but it’s so much more than that. Talking about it feels corny and writing about it feels worse, but these three books explore it well and in three very different ways.

If it weren’t for my early zine-making and review-writing, I might never have become a writer. Gerfried Ambrosh might say the same thing. His doctoral dissertation is now a book. The Poetry of Punk (Routledge, 2018) is a vivisection of the deep tissue of the language of punk rock. Poetry is certainly not the first thing associated with punk as a genre, but lyrical meaning is as important as any other aspect of the music. Traditionally punk is protest music, so the angry vocals carry lyrics that were often written with rhetorical intent. The Poetry of Punk is the product of experience, extensive research, and several dozen interviews with punk lyricists of all sorts.

“Punk is about making a statement,” Ambrosh contends. Having been in many hardcore punk bands himself (e.g., Carnist, Momentum, etc.), he knows.

Punk has given me a lot of friends I’ve known only through the mail or online. I’ve been in touch with Gerfried for a few years, and I’ve been getting mail from Jessica Hopper since my own zine days. Hers is a name I’ve known for over 25 years. I still remember the first flier for her publicity company I got, with the name spelled out in Scrabble tiles. She’s since written about everyone who matters for everyone who matters, a lot of which is compiled in her last book, The First Collection of Criticism by a Living Female Rock Critic (Featherproof, 2015).

In her latest, Night Moves (University of Texas Press, 2018), Hopper gets more poetic, more personal, and more autobiographical than ever before. Described as a love letter to Chicago, Night Moves chronicles Hopper’s punk rock nights in the city, riding bikes to shows, watching the times and the neighborhoods change. It’s part memoir, part autoethnography, part urban study, Night Moves is not all about Chicago, but the city’s shadow is on all of these pages. I currently live in the area where the majority of the book takes place, so it’s not only fun to read an old friend’s stories but also to be familiar with the streets, corners, and clubs she’s writing about (See map).

Here’s an excerpt from a St. Vincent show on April 14, 2007:

The people in front and in back of us, older daters; others, proactively tweemo. But next to us, boy-girl braces-faces on a giddy date. Then five drunk douches filled out the rest of our row. When Annie came on stage in her wrinkly school uniform via Balenciaga hot-ensemb, the show-talkers, who were obviously “in their cups” as they used to say, were yakking loud like they were trying to be heard over the sound of the Green Line train pulling into the station. One of the guys yelled in Borat-voice “I Like!,” and someone else wolf-whistled. Annie did not blink, she just pile-drove some din and some fancy-free hammer-on into our faces.

Unlike Gerfried Ambrosh and Jessica Hopper, Les Hinton came up in the old-school newspaper trade. A contemporary of Rupert Murdoch, Hinton spent 50 years as a reporter. In turn, An Untidy Life (Scribe, 2018) reports on reporting, digging further into not just the news but the newsmakers, from the Beatles to the Clintons, from Bob Dylan to Princess Diana. Almost all of Hinton’s stories contain era-defining events, the kind of media moments every writer waits for, looks for, longs for. Among many other things, Hinton describes the night he had a beer with Sid Vicious in Memphis, another where he went to CBGB’s with Johnny Rotten and unknowingly chatted up Johnny Ramone, and the morning he arrived in the lobby of the Hotel Chelsea just as Vicious was being carted out, cuffed under suspicion of stabbing Nancy Spungen, whose dead body was upstairs in his bathroom. An Untidy Life isn’t all punk-rock dive bars and dishing dirt, but the stories are all told from the front row.

If it weren’t for punk, I don’t know who I’d be. If it weren’t for writing, I don’t know who I’d be either. One is about as important as the other. In very different ways, these three books illustrate that over and over again.

I marshal the middle between Mathers and McLuhan.

Kathy Acker: King of the Pirates

“What’s this gay shit?” my friend asked, spotting my copy of  I’m Very Into You (Semiotext(e), 2015) on the bar. Funny, I doubt either of its authors would be offended by his words, perhaps not even by their context. Whatever one calls it, the brief relationship between McKenzie Wark and Kathy Acker lingers on 20 years later.

Kathy Acker

Wark met Acker in July of 1995 when she was visiting Sydney, Australia. The next year, he visited her in San Francisco. Their brief relationship, which largely existed between those two meetings, is chronicled via their collected emails in I’m Very Into You: Correspondence 1995–1996. I'm Very Into YouLike everyone who came in contact with her, Wark was irrevocably inspired. “She would just read a book and re-write it,” he tells V. Vale (2014). “Sitting cross-legged on the floor, she would just read Treasure Island and re-write it. You don’t wait for inspiration, you just get going” (p. 21). Acker left no stone unthrown, no line uncrossed. Wark continues, “When I met her, she had three books… And she was writing Pussy, King of the Pirates (Grove, 1996). It’s one-third Treasure Island and two-thirds something else, and she would just read these three books and, almost at random, re-write them” (p. 22). It was her version of the Burroughs and Gysin cut-up method, filtered through an abject letting-go of the bullshit. Call it feminism, call it punk, call it postmodernism, call it piracy or plagiarism; it’s Acker’s own brand of creative destruction.

Reading her critics, one gets the sense that they haven’t actually read much of her work. I am intentionally hedging on much of what is discussed directly in I’m Very Into You here because it feels just that raw. Reading it is by turns heady and heartbreaking, revelatory and naughty. Watching two minds of such depth and creativity unfold to each other is a lot to take in. As authorized as it might be, I’m Very Into You is the most intimate email leak ever. However, there is much to be learned in its disclosures.

When all that’s known is sick, the unknown has to look better.
— from Empire of the Senseless by Kathy Acker

Kathy Acker: Homage to Leroi Jones and Other Early WritingsLost & Found: The City University of New York Poetics Document Initiative just released Homage to Leroi Jones & Other Early Works (Lost & Found, 2015), edited by Gabrielle Kappes. This chapbook collects the works of a 25-year-old Kathy Acker who lives in Manhattan with a cat named Lizard and strips in a Times Square sex shop. Written in the waning months of 1972, these writing exercises, journal entries, and clipped poems are the prototypes of the deconstructed style Acker came to be known for, queering everything in its path. Wark once wrote of her that “…she wrote as a woman, inventing what that might be as she went along” (quoted in Acker & Wark, 2015, p. 139). These writings are the beginnings of that process.

“If there’s going to be interesting fiction written in America, it’s probably going to be by women,” Ken Wark tells V. Vale (p. 33). Here’s hoping the unearthing of more Kathy Acker writings unleashes another wave of women writers.

References:

Acker, Kathy. (1988). Empire of the Senseless. New York: Grove Press, p. 33.

Acker, Kathy. (2015). Homage to Leroi Jones and Other Early Works. New York: Lost & Found.

Acker, Kathy & Wark, McKenzie. (2015). I’m Very Into You. New York: Semiotext(e).

Vale, V. (2014). A Visit from McKenzie Wark. San Francisco: RE/Search Publications.

I marshal the middle between Mathers and McLuhan.

Kim Gordon: Femme Fearless

When I started discovering music on my own, Sonic Youth was already a band with records out. In that sense, I don’t know a world without them. I once wrote that they weren’t a band, that they were an institution. One could say the same about Kim Gordon. Her presence in the band and her relationship with Thurston Moore showed us what was possible—and not only that it was possible but that it was also sustainable. Writer Elissa Schappell said that they’d shown an entire generation how to grow up. And then it ended.

Kim Gordon in controversial t-shirt (according to MTV).

Gordon’s is such a singular story, and her memoir, Girl in a Band (Dey St., 2015), tells it in perfectly placed prose. From art to music and back again, she’s been at the center of so much important work. It feels so good to see her emerge as a force of her own through the book. Her sociologist dad coined the vocabulary for the high-school social groups that we still use: geeks, freaks, preps, jocks, and other members of the Breakfast Club. Her mom contributed her sense of fashion: a love of thrifting and mixing styles into something unique. Her brother’s shadow unfortunately loomed over much of her early years, and until reading this, I didn’t even know she had a brother.

Girl in a BandLong-time friends with such creative souls as Dan Graham, Cindy Sherman, Kurt Cobain, Tamra Davis, Chloë Sevigny, Spike Jonze, Kathleen Hanna, Gerhard Richter, William Burroughs, Danny Elfman (whom she dated in high school), and many others, Gordon came into her own as an artist when it meant the most. At five years old she knew art would be the center of her life. “Nothing else mattered,” she writes: “Sometimes I think we know on some level the person we’re going to be in our life, that if we pay attention, we can piece out that information” (p. 67). As a dear old friend once said of our own high-school years, “Who knew we were already who we were going to be?”

When Nirvana was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame last year, Dave Grohl asked Joan Jett, Annie Clark, Lorde, and Kim Gordon to sing renditions of Nirvana’s songs. Seeing Joan Jett sing “Smells Like Teen Spirit” with Pat Smear (whose first band‘s only record she’d produced in 1979), Krist Novoselic, and Grohl is its own kind of amazing, but Kim Gordon’s unhinged version of “Aneurism” is the absolute shit. She writes of the performance,

I sang ‘Aneurism,’ with its chorus, ‘Beat me out of me‘, bringing in all my own rage and hurt from the last few years—a four-minute-long explosion of grief, where I could finally let myself feel the furious sadness of Kurt’s death and everything else surrounding it (p. 272).

kSUncPXtE9k

I saw her walking up the sidewalk on California Avenue in Chicago last summer. We made eye contact, and her expression seemed to say, “Please, don’t recognize me.” I just smiled and nodded, and she did the same. The following passage from the book reminds me of that day:

One day I caught a glimpse of Warhol himself crossing West Broadway—the blond-white wig matching the white of his face, the black-framed glasses. It amazed me how in New York celebrities felt free to roam around the city with no one ever hassling them, in contrast to L.A., where famous people hid out in hidden gated hilltop communities. New York felt so much more real (p. 91).

Kim Gordon has helped define the art of her time, but she hasn’t been limited by it. Her art, performance, and writing all feel completely fearless. After reading this book, I can’t help but think that her story is just getting started.

I marshal the middle between Mathers and McLuhan.

Top 14, 2014

Depending on the fandom, our attention to music can span from the insignificance of wallpaper to the altar upon we sacrifice our days. It can be everything from decoration to downright worship. I probably tend more toward the latter than the former, but you probably already know that.

Of all the things that December brings, year-end lists might be the most polarizing, to some by their contents and to others by their mere existence. Regardless, these are the records that soundtracked my 2014, in no particular order. The links on this post, unless otherwise specified, link to the bands’ Bandcamp page so you can listen to them if you like.

Yob: Clearing the Path to Ascend

Yob Clearing the Path to Ascend (Neurot): If there’s any band that has yet to get their due, it’s Yob. They’ve been slowly building a stellar body of work for years, and Clearing the Path to Ascend illustrates just how refined their sound has become. It’s heavy and doomy, yet oh so subtle, their most personal and personable release: a near-perfect record.

Nothing: Guilty of Everything

Nothing Guilty of Everything (Relapse): Nothing came out of nowhere last year promising to update a sound that was all but lost to the past. On their debut full-length, Guilty of Everything, you can hear the presence of various bands from the 1990s: The Jesus and Mary Chain, My Bloody Valentine, Sebadoh, Eric’s Trip, Teenage Fanclub, The Boo Radleys, etc. But Nothing manages to take those sounds and do something all their own with them. For every influence you might trainspot, there’s always something ultimately unique about the way Nothing brings it all together. It’s a mesmerizing mix.

YAITW: When Life Comes to Death

Young and in the Way When Life Comes to Death (Deathwish): The mix of black metal with other genres in not new. Many bands have done it to great effect (e.g., Wolves in the Throne Room, Deafheaven, Panopticon, Myrkur, etc.), and the blackened crust of YAITW is a perfect alloy. The riffs that are usually missing from black metal are here en force. I can never seem to play it loud enough.

White Suns: Totem

White Suns Totem (The Flenser): White Suns, whose last record spent a lot of time in my ears, completely reinvented themselves for Totem. As they said of a show just prior to the record’s release, “You may notice that it is a bit different from our previous work.” The core of what they’ve done in the past is still here, but it’s much sharper, much more piercing. Here’s hoping that abrasive electronics like this and Wreck & Reference, whose Want (Deathwish; See below) was also in heavy rotation around here this year, continue to crush expectations.

GODFLESH: A World Lit Only by Fire

Godflesh A World Lit Only by Fire (Avalanche): I’m always wary when a long-defunct, all-time favorite band reunites years later. Not that I doubted Justin Broadrick and Benny Green’s getting back together, but I did have to wonder. The record that resulted, A World Lit Only by Fire, is a welcome return of a monster outfit. It fits well in their catalog and continues what they were doing when they split 12 years ago. The title evokes a flaming planet, cities and nations scorched in ruin, but it’s actually a reference to a book about the darkness of the Middle Ages by the same name. Both visions work well for Godflesh’s sound on this record. It’s dark, brutal, and could come from a tumultuous past or a post-apocalyptic future. Glad to have them back.

Trans Am: Volume X

Trans Am Volume X (Thrill Jockey): The tenth album from Trans Am, the 21st-century’s own Kraftwerk Plus (Lily calls them “Krautwerk”), is no less confounding than anything in their nine previous lives. From their usual arty Krautrock to the surprisingly frenetic thrash of “Backlash,” Trans Am is well worth exploring if you haven’t already, and Volume X is as good a place to start as any.

Code Orange: I Am King

Code Orange Kids I Am King (Deathwish): This is another record that just makes you proud to love the band that made it. Code Orange Kids studied up, did their homework, and schooled everyone else trying to make any kind of heavy music. I Am King stays true to its hardcore roots while bringing all kinds of new noise to the network. This is the anthem.

Hail Mary Mallon: Bestiary

Hail Mary Mallon Bestiary (Rhymesayers): Even if I’ve strayed from Hip-hop with my several year metal kick, there are still a few folks I have to check in on. My dudes Aesop Rock, Rob Sonic, and DJ Big Wiz are among the few, and Bestiary illustrates why. This is just classic beats and rhymes with tight wordplay, the turntable on display, and an atemporal sense that it could’ve been made during any era. Timely, timeless, and right on time.

Wreck and Reference: Want

Wreck & Reference Want (Deathwish): This is the sound of despair. There’s no other way to describe it. Wreck & Reference defy genre conventions with machine-driven noise, anguished vocals, and abject nihilism. Want is as heavy as anything out, but it’s nothing you expect from heavy music: monstrous, wondrous, and somehow beautiful.

Perfect Pussy: Say Yes to Love

Perfect Pussy Say Yes to Love (Captured Tracks): Debates about punk being dead are over. Perfect Pussy keep it alive and kicking so much ass. From The Shoppers to Perfect Pussy, Meredith Graves is a force of nurture.

Panopticon: Roads to the North

Panopticon Roads to the North (Bindrune): Panopticon, Austin Lunn’s one-person band, continues to show why he’s such a force in American black metal. Where his work with Seidr is heavy on the heavens, Panopticon tends toward the trees. It’s as rural as it is dark and might be the only black metal in which you’re likely to hear a banjo.

Torch Runner: Endless Nothing

Torch Runner Endless Nothing (Southern Lord): After nearly wearing out Committed to the Ground this year, I found out that Endless Nothing had dropped. It’s a welcome 13 more songs of violent, ugly, hardcore grind. Just what I needed right when I needed it.

Earth: Primitive and Deadly

Earth Primitive and Deadly (Southern Lord): Earth are the undisputed kings of drone, and they expand their sound in subtle ways with every record. Primitive and Deadly includes more vocals than normal, courtesy of Mark Lanegan and Rabia Shaheen Qazi on two respective tracks, but all of the reasons that Earth is so revered are here in glorious form.

Pallbearer: Foundations of Burden

Pallbearer Foundations of Burden (Profound Lore): What else is there to say about Pallbearer’s break-out opus? This is the kind of record you always wish a band you love would release. Foundations of Burden is a beautiful blend of loss, rage, and hope. It’s heavy in every possible way and rewards the repeated listen. It’s a beast of a release.

If This List Were Longer: Boris Noise (Sargent House), Coffinworm IV.I.VII (Profound Lore), Thou Heathen (Gilead), Cult Leader Nothing for Us Here (Deathwish), Falls of Rauros Believe in No Coming Shore (Bindrune), Sguaguarahchristis Der Nacht (This Winter Will Last Forever), Mogwai Rave Tapes (Rock Action), Scott Walker & Sunn O))) Soused (4AD), Full of Hell & Merzbow (Profound Lore), Rob Sonic Alice in Thunderdome (OK-47), Trap Them Blissfucker (Prosthetic), Trash Talk No Peace (Trash Talk/Odd Future), Today is the Day Animal Mother (Southern Lord), Morphinist The Pessimist Session (Throats Productions), Theologian Some Things Have to Be Endured (Crucial Blast), Planning for Burial Desideratum (The Flenser), Panopticon/Falls of Rauros split (Bindrune), Wolves in the Throne Room Celestite (Artemisia), Floor Oblation (Season of Mist), The Atlas Moth The Old Believer (Profound Lore), Run the Jewels 2 (Mass Appeal), Murmur Murmur (Season of Mist), and Myrkur Myrkur (Relapse).

The One I was Mentioned On: My dudes Johnny Ciggs and Skweeky Watahfawls gave me a shout out on their collab record, See Us on the Dancefloor (Gritty City), on the song “Celebrate” (at around the 4:35 mark). The record is dope, and I’m stoked to have been a very small part of it. Can’t wait to see what the fam does next. Rock, rock on!

If I’m Being Honest: It should probably be noted that I listened to Deafheaven’s Sunbather (Deathwish) as much or more than any record from this year. I should also mention that this list was compiled in the shadow of intense anticipation of the new Xibalba record, Tierra Y Libertad, to be released next month on Southern Lord.

Special Thanks: I can’t imagine what it must take to run a record label these days. Many thanks to the people who do, especially the fine folks at Deathwish, Inc., Southern Lord, Profound Lore, The Flenser, Bindrune, Neurot, Sargent House, Thrill Jockey, Crucial Blast, Season of Mist, Rhymesayers, and Relapse: Power to you all.

I marshal the middle between Mathers and McLuhan.

Shakedown, 1979: Gang of Four and the Germs

To create a spike of novelty high enough to land in the history books depends on a lot of things aligning: an open-armed zeitgeist, an interested public, a little bit of chaos, and a lot of charisma.* Sometimes they become folklore, affecting only those who were there, like Woodstock, Altamont, or the June 4, 1976 Sex Pistols show in Manchester: Supposedly everyone there left that show dead-set on starting a band. There’s even a book about it. Other times these events are recorded, as great performances, art works, books, or records. Two of the latter that emerged from 1979 and have since been documented elsewhere are Gang of Four’s Entertainment! and the Germs’ (GI).

Kevin Dettmar, Hugo Burnham, and Dave Allen at Chicago's Seminary Co-OP bookstore.
Kevin J. H. Dettmar, Hugo Burnham, and Dave Allen at Chicago’s Seminary Co-Op.

Emerging at the end of the 1970s, Gang of Four‘s debut album tapped in to a tectonic shift in the times. 1979 was just close enough to Year Zero. As Mark Fisher writes in The Ghosts of My Life (Zer0 Books, 2014), “It has become increasingly clear that 1979-80… was a threshold moment – the time when a whole world (social democratic, Fordist, industrial) became obsolete, and the contours of a new world (neoliberal, consumerist, informatic) began to show themselves” (p. 50). It was also the dawn of post-punk. In tangents like tentacles, Joy Division, Wire, Gang of Four, The Fall, PiL, Talking Heads, and Television, among others, were stretching punk in new directions.

Gang of Four: Entertainment!One of the more significant of these, Gang of Four combined the lean muscle of punk with the bare bones of funk. Lyrically social and political, their lanky limbs swung hard and wide against the “middle-class malaise” of the 1970s (Dettmar, 2014, p. 36). Satire of such subtlety and impact wouldn’t be seen again until the rearing of Radiohead.

Like Kevin J. H. Dettmar (invoking Simon Reynolds and quoting Gina Arnold), I never knew “punk in the present tense” (quoted in Dettmar, 2014, p. 3). The closest I came was in the aforementioned tangents: post-punk, hardcore, and new wave. The first time I heard Gang of Four’s Entertainment!, suddenly much of what I was already listening to made much more sense. Fugazi had a lineage. Naked Raygun had context. Wire had contemporaries. During the post-Lollapalooza package tour phase, I finally saw them live in 1991. It was a woefully crippled line-up that only included Andy Gill from the original Four, sharing Atlanta’s Fox Theatre stage with a motley mess of bands: Young Black Teenagers, Warrior Soul, Public Enemy, and The Sisters of Mercy. Years later, I met and worked with bassist Dave Allen and am since proud to call him one of my best friends.

The original Gang of Four reconvened in 2004 for a brief run, but ideological differences would drive Dave and drummer Hugo Burnham out of the fold again by 2008. When it came to recording new material, half the band wanted to go the traditional route. Dave, having consulted many bands on negotiating the music industry’s new digital landscape, wanted to do something new, something different. He told me at the time, “If we don’t own the idea, there’s no point in doing it.”

Darby Crash

And we don’t know
Just where our bones will rest
To dust I guess
Forgotten and absorbed into the earth below
Double cross the vacant and the bored
— Smashing Pumpkins, “1979”

While the Germs one and only studio album is often as high on the influential list as Gang of Four’s debut, its foundation—personal, personnel, and otherwise—wasn’t near as stable. The Germs’ enigmatic leader struggled with fame, substance abuse, and his sexuality while the other band members struggled with him. Their lone record, (GI) (Slash Records, 1979), produced by Joan Jett, represents one of the very few times Darby Crash found himself in a studio. The record pre-dates Entertainment! by several months. Often touted as one of the first documents of the hardcore movement, (GI) is a thin slice of the West Coast chaos the Germs helped stir up in the wake of punk. Darby’s five-year plan to take over the L.A. scene culminated in his suicide on December 7, 1980, only to be over-shadowed by the death of John Lennon the very next day.

Lexicon DevilSome say he was a lyrical genius, others accused him of just plagiarizing Nietzsche. Either way, it is notable that before they recorded (GI), Darby distributed photocopies of his lyric sheets instead of a demo tape. Brendan Mullen, Don Bolles, and Adam Parfrey’s oral history, Lexicon Devil: The Fast Times and Short Life of Darby Crash and The Germs (Feral House, 2002), is a very even handed account of Darby’s brief and tumultuous time in this world. Lexicon Devil‘s compiled quotations from the people who were there provide a slightly less aggrandizing but no less entertaining picture of Darby and the Germs than Roger Grossman’s biographical film What We Do Is Secret (Peace Arch, 2007).

Both of these bands illustrate the undeniable chemistry that great teams have. Think Sonic Youth, R.E.M., Pink Floyd, and Rush. Darby Crash proved that he, Pat Smear, Lorna Doom, and Don Bolles were something special together when he reunited the Germs after an abortive attempt at forming The Darby Crash Band (many tout the 1980 reunion show as their best ever). And everybody knows that Gang of Four is only really Gang of Four when it’s Jon King, Andy Gill, Dave Allen, and Hugo Burnham. It’s never just the one thing or the one person. It takes a team, a network, personality, and persistence.

References:

Corgan, Billy. (1995). 1979 [Recorded by Smashing Pumpkins]. On Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness [CD].  New York: Virgin.

Dettmar, Kevin J. H. (2014). 33 1/3: Entertainment!. New York: Bloomsbury.

Fisher, Mark. (2014). The Ghosts of My Life: Writings on Depression, Hauntology, and Lost Futures. Winchester, UK: Zer0 Books.

Mullen, Brendan, Bolles, Don, & Parfrey, Adam. (2002). Lexicon Devil: The Fast Times and Short Life of Darby Crash and The Germs. Port Townsend WA: Feral House.

* I’m borrowing the concept of novelty from Terence McKenna‘s Timewave and the idea of nodal points from William Gibson‘s Idoru (1996). The former is a computer-generated time-line based on chaos theory and the I-Ching, in which the peaks represent increased human novelty (e.g., artistic innovation, scientific discovery, etc.). The latter is a sort of subconscious pattern recognition where certain seemingly mundane data converge into sharp points of interest. Influential and classic cultural artifacts like records are excellent examples of both.

I marshal the middle between Mathers and McLuhan.

Grow Up? The Answer is Never

Growing old gracefully sounds and seems so dignified and appealing. I have no idea what that would look like for me. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve certainly gotten better at handling responsibility, being a student, meeting deadlines, dealing with adversity and change, and knowing what all of that means in a larger context. At the same time, I became a better skateboarder in my thirties than I ever was in my teens, I’m more into music than ever, I’m still riding little-boy bicycles, and I still don’t own a suit or a pair of dress shoes. As Fight Club‘s narrator famously puts it, “I’m a 30-year-old boy.” The phenomenon is what anthropologist Victor Turner calls “liminality” (1969) or the “betwixt and between” (1967): an interstitial state without status.

How can children grow up in a world in which adults idolize youthfulness? – Marshall McLuhan

Turner’s forebear, Arnold van Gennep (1960), defined what we think of as rites of passage, celebrations of transition from one stage of life to another. As these are mostly studied and most prevalent in other cultures, I have often wondered what makes an adult in the Western world. It seems that we can now pass the tentative tests—getting a driver’s license, graduating school, getting married, having sex, having babies—and still emerge as unscathed youth.

All his peoples moved on in life, he’s on the corners at night
with young dudes. It’s them he wanna be like
It’s sad, but it’s fun to him, right? He never grew up.
Thirty-one and can’t give his youth up.
He’s in his second childhood. – Nas, “2nd Childhood”

Ageing and Youth CulturesAgeing and Youth Cultures: Music, Style, and Identity (Bloomsbury Academic, 2012), edited by Andy Bennett and Paul Hodkinson, explores the second childhood between adolescence and adulthood predominantly as it pertains to pop culture. From straight-edgers, punks, and ravers to B-boys, B-girls, and feminists, so many of popular interests and causes are tied to youth. Using methods familiar to anthropologists, sociologists, and other social scientists (e.g., ethnography, interviews, etc.) the scholars in this book examine the conflicts between growing up, growing old, and staying true to ourselves that are more and more evident in 21st-century, Western culture. Our memories are fallible and ever-more mediated, yet they are important to study. “They tell us about the ways in which people construct the past,” writes Mary Fogerty in her study of ageing breakdancers, “and within this practice they reveal the value systems highlighted by different generations…” (p. 55). We construct and cling to pasts that our presents can never live up to.

Part of the problem is cognitive. Our brains’ ability to create and store new memories simply slows down, to a near-stop, therefore making our most cherished memories those of our youth. And when we remember those times, we reify them, making them stronger (Freud called the process “Nachtraglichkeit” meaning “retroactivity”). So, being stuck in the past is basically a somewhat natural state for our brains—and our technology lets it linger more than ever.

About the “betwixt and between,” Turner (1969) also writes of “the peculiar unity of the liminal: that which is neither this nor that, and yet is both” (p. 99). If I can be both grown up and not grown up, then I refuse to choose: I’ll take the good and bad of both. As James D. Watson puts it, “…there is no good reason ever to be on the downward slope of experience. Avoid it and you’ll still be enjoying life when you die” (p. 93). Never mind growing old gracefully or being age-appropriate. Let’s concentrate more on having fun now—and from now on.

References: 

Bennett, Andy & Hodkinson, Paul (Eds.). (2012). Ageing and Youth Cultures: Music, Style, and Identity. New York, Bloomsbury Academic.

Jones, Nasir. (2001). 2nd Childhood. On Stillmatic [LP]. New York: Columbia Records.

Marshall McLuhan & David Carson. (2003). The Book of Probes. Berkeley, CA: Ginkgo Press, p.138.

Milchan, A., Uhls, J., Linson, A., Chaffin, C., Bell, R. G. (Producers), & Fincher, D. (Director). (1999). Fight Club.  Beverly Hills, CA: Twentieth Century Fox.

Turner, Victor. (1967). The Forest of Symbols: Aspects of Ndembu Ritual. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Turner, Victor. (1969). The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-Structure. New York: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

von Gennep, Arnold. (1960). The Rites of Passage. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Watson, James D. (2007) Avoid Boring People: Lessons from a Life in Science. New York: Knopf.

Weyland, Jocko. (2002). The Answer is Never: A Skateboarder’s History of the World. New York: Grove Press.

I marshal the middle between Mathers and McLuhan.

Drugs of a Feather: Jeff Noon’s Vurt 20 Years On

A young boy puts a feather into his mouth… The Stash Riders: Scribble, Beetle, Bridget, Mandy, Tristan and Suze… The Thing from Outer Space, Game Cat, Dingo Tush, Bottletown, robodogs, droidlocks, and dreamsnakes… It’s about drugs and droogs. It’s about their misadventures in this and that Other world: Vurt. Scribble’s sister, his lover, Desdemona is lost, lost to the Vurt, that feathered, nethered world spinning somewhere inside of this one. If he is to get her back, if he is to grab her, he has to let go of something else.

Jeff Noon: Vurt

I’m not telling this very well. I’m asking for your trust on this one. Here I am, surrounded by wine bottles and mannequins, salt cellars and golf clubs, car engines and pub signs. There are a thousand things in this room, and I am just one of them. The light is shining through my windows, stuttered by bars of iron, and I’m trying to get this down with a cracked-up genuine antique word processor, the kind they just don’t make any more, trying to find the words.
Sometimes we get the words wrong.
Sometimes we get the words wrong!
Jeff Noon‘s Vurt, (p. 151)

In his introduction to Noon’s Cobralingus (Codex, 2001), Michael Bracewell writes, “Much of Noon’s best known imagery… derives its power from the literalizing of poetic language and the concretizing of images: the sudden opening up, within the landscape of the prose itself, of new routes to character and narrative, enabled by altering the meanings of words within the containers of their language” (p. 6). The Shining Girls author, Lauren Beukes says that Vurt blew her mind, “not just for the story and the characters which absolutely caught the mood of where we were, but pushed language in insanely playful ways and delivered a kicker of an ending.” In her introduction to the new edition, she cites Noon’s best known aphorism: “Form is the host; content is the virus.” To wit, Vurt‘s virus has infected everything from Beukes’ Moxyland (Angry Robot, 2008) to Steven Hall’s The Raw Shark Texts (Canongate, 2007).

According to Jeff Noon, Vurt started as half a play. “I’d spent a good number of years trying to make some money by writing plays, with no real success,” he writes, “So I took a job at Waterstone’s bookshop in Manchester. Someone else working there was a fringe theater director and was always asking me to write him a play.” Noon took Octave Mirbeau’s 1899 novel The Torture Garden and adapted it through the then new idea of virtual reality news of which was trickling over from America via magazines like Mondo 2000. When his director friend moved to Hong Kong, another co-worker started a small press and, being a fan of his plays, asked Noon to try writing a novel. He agreed. “And quite naturally,” he adds, “I took the basic plot I’d added to The Torture Garden as my starting point. It grew organically from that seed.”

Why? A voice told me to do it.
Which voice? The one that never stops.
— Jeff Noon’s Vurt, (p. 177)

VurtI found Vurt via the blurbs on the back of Doug Rushkoff‘s first novel, Ecstasy Club (1997), sometime during the wild-at-heart and weird-on-top 1990s. The music of that time is woven deep in the language of Vurt. Music is “without doubt my favourite art form,” says Noon, “and the one that saturates my waking life from morning till night. So, I always try to use techniques invented by musicians in my novels and stories, simply because musicians seem to get there first these days, in terms of an avant–pulp interface.” Among its pages you can hear the manic Madchester music of Happy Mondays, Stone Roses, The Charlatans, and Inspiral Carpets. Bracewell writes, “More than any other writer of his generation, Jeff Noon has assimilated the techniques developed in the recording of music and pioneered their literary equivalents” (p. 5), and Noon explains, “My main insight was to realize that words, whilst seemingly fixed in meaning, are in fact a liquid medium. They flow. The writer digs channels, steers the course.”

Through the looking-glass course of Vurt, one can see shades of Twin Peaks, A Clockwork Orange, Neuromancer, Snow Crash, Star Wars, Donnie Darko, and Philip K. Dick, among other things. Vurt won the Arthur C. Clarke Award in 1994, and William Gibson called it “really fresh and peculiar at a time when we were constantly being told that lots of SF novels were really fresh and peculiar, but they often weren’t, particularly.” It is certainly fresh and peculiar — even now. The thing that makes it not only so poignant but also timeless is its passion. Under all of the made-up slang, vivid imagery, adjacent dimensions, drug talk, and other detritus of rave culture, there lies the urgency of a real human heart beating, the heart of a writer who cares about things.

Noon says of Vurt, “Like many a first novel it came out of a weird Venn diagram of influences: Gibson, Ballard, Borges, Lewis Carroll, techno music, dub culture, Mondo 2000, graphic novels, 1970s punk, and everyday life in the North of England in 1993. It’s amazing to think that Vurt is still on its journey, still travelling, and still finding new readers.” The newly released 20th Anniversary Edition boasts a new three-part introduction by the always stellar Lauren Beukes that makes me feel like I can’t write about anything, much less about a book as imaginative and innovative as this. It should also be noted that new new edition is set in a much more readable font than the original version and hosts three new short stories set in the wild, weird world of Vurt. So, if you’ve yet to take the trip, your yellow feather awaits.

GnOgjRaFd5U

We’re all out there, somewhere, waiting to happen.
— Jeff Noon’s Vurt, (p. 87)

I marshal the middle between Mathers and McLuhan.

B-Side Wins Again: Punk Aesthetics

From an early age it was instilled in me that people judge you by how you look, how you dress, how you wear your hair, how you carry yourself. My dad won’t leave the house to do business or see someone without styling and dressing appropriately. We communicate something through every stylistic choice we make. As Umberto Eco (1973) writes, “I speak through my clothes.” To wit, I have seen firsthand many books misjudged by their covers. Still, coming up with this stress on conformity alongside the drive for expression inherent in art, skateboarding, and punk rock, I can’t help but toy with the conflict. In the Summer 1988 issue of Homeboy Magazine, pro BMXer R. L. Osborn wrote,

Homeboy MagazineMy girlfriend doesn’t dig my Megadeth t-shirt. ‘You’re going to shave one side of your head? Holey Levi’s? Throw ’em away. Your hair’s too long. Your hair’s too short. Why does your hair look like a rainbow?’ Everyone feels the heat from friends, family, and whoever else about independent style, yet I can’t help feeling that sometimes envy is covered up with uncool remarks. Hey. let’s be straight about this, it’s your life, your feelings, and your own personal way of expressing yourself and showing the true you (p. 81).

The piece was accompanied by photos of street kids with wacky hair with odd angles and colors, leather jackets with lots of zippers, spikes, chains, and other scary accessories. I was 17 when that issue came out, and though Osborn’s proselytizing wasn’t the first time I’d been exposed to punk aesthetics, it stuck with me. So, when I saw my DIG BMX Magazine colleague Ricky Adam‘s new zine, I immediately thought of R. L.’s words.

Glad to See the Back of You

Ricky Adam’s zine, Glad to See the Back of You (Trajectories, 2013), is full of tattooed attitude. It’s a compendium of punk self-expression mostly in the form of custom jackets with back patches. Glad to See the Back of YouBack patches are largely the domain of bikers or crust punks, the latter of whom fill this zine’s pages. Punk back patches are often cut from old screen-printed t-shirts and hand sewn onto denim or leather jackets or vests along with other patches. The hand-done aspect of them is rarely disguised and gives the look a D.I.Y., provisional feel, and their literal patchwork lends them to subversive bricolage (see Hebdige, 1979). By mixing patches as signs together, punks engage in what Eco (1972) calls “semiotic guerilla warfare.” They express their lack of desire to reunite with the parent culture and celebrate, even parody, the alienation that causes it so much concern (Hebdige, 1979). The crust-punk style takes this alienation to the extreme. Its a war is waged against the established look via its sardonic and scathing rejection thereof (Brummett, 2008; Hebdige, 1979).

Greil Marcus (1989) outlines the complexities of punk’s signification this way:

[A] load of old ideas sensationalized into new feelings almost instantly turned into new clichés, but set forth with such momentum that the whole blew up its equations day by day. For every fake novelty, there was a real one. For every third-hand pose, there was a fourth-hand pose that turned into a real motive (p. 77).

None of this is new, and it might still seem juvenile, but the underlying sentiments haven’t changed. Who cares what’s been co-opted? And who knows what authenticity means anymore? My friend Mark Wieman recently observed how thick and long The Long Tail™ has become. There’s simply no real mainstream anymore, and when it comes to punk and authority, I still feel like my 17-year-old self. I don’t own a pair of dress shoes.

The punk aesthetic of doing it yourself isn’t about doing it like everyone else. It’s about liberating what’s unique about yourself, exposing what makes you you. As Osborn concludes, “Show us who you really are.”

——————–

Ricky Adam’s Glad to See the Back of You is out in a limited run of 300 (mine’s #154), so get yours now.

References:

Adam, Ricky. (2013). Glad to See the Back of You. Leeds, UK: Trajectories.

Brummett, Barry. (2008). A Rhetoric of Style. Carbondale, IL: The University of Southern Illinois Press.

Eco, Umberto (1972). Towards a Semiotic Enquiry into the Television Message. WPCS, 3, University of Birmingham.

Eco, Umberto. (1973). Social Life as  a Sign System. In D. Robey (Ed.), Structuralism: The Wolfson College Lectures, 1972. New York: Oxford University Press, pp. 57-72.

Hebdige, Dick. (1979). Subculture: The Meaning of Style. New York: Routledge.

Marcus, Greil. (1989). Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the Twentieth Century. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Osborn, R. L. (1988, Summer). Page 65. Homeboy Magazine, 80-81.

I marshal the middle between Mathers and McLuhan.

Joy Division: The Rest is Mystery

In late May of 1980, Joy Division had planned their first tour of the United States. Planned, that is, until just a few days before they were board the plane, Ian Curtis committed suicide. Life had been a few notches higher than hectic for Curtis for the months before the planned tour. He was juggling a family (Debbie and their one-year-old daughter Natalie), a girlfriend (Annick Honoré), and a band on the verge (they’d just recorded their second record, Closer, and were all set to tour the world), not to mention his epilepsy getting the better of him both on and off stage. They’d had to cancel several shows in England, and he’d already made an attempt on his life on April 6. All of the above would have been heavy load even without the disorder. Something had to break.

Joy Division

Even with his life’s story on film with the Anton Corbijn-directed Control (2007) and many books written, there remains so much mystery around Ian Curtis. “He seemed able to surrender control of his life as if it was nothing to do with him at all,” his widow Debbie writes of him at the time of his overdose (p. 115). Indeed, he wasn’t much in control as the band went straight back to doing shows. “Ian went straight from his suicide attempt to a gig at Derby Hall, Bury, on 8 April 1980,” Debbie writes. He only sang two songs at that fabled show, which ended in an outright riot. Something, nay, many things had to break.

Just four years earlier on June 4, 1976, the Sex Pistols played another much-fabled show in Manchester to a few dozen people and even more empty chairs (the scene in the movie 24-Hour Party People supposedly has it about right). Supposedly everyone there left that show dead-set on starting a band. There’s even a book about it: I Swear I Was There: The Gig That Changed the World by Dave Nolan (Blake Publishing, 2006). In attendance were Pete Shelley and Howard Devoto (of the nascent Buzzcocks, who organized the gig but weren’t ready to play), Kevin Cummins (photographer who took many great pictures of the British punk and post-punk scene, including the one above), Mark E. Smith (The Fall), Mick Hucknall (Simply Red), Tony Wilson (TV personality and future Factory Records owner), Paul Morley (writer; chronicler of the Factory scene for NME; future co-counder of The Art of Noise), Rob Gretton (future manager), Martin Hannett (future producer), Morrissey (duh), and Bernard Sumner and Peter Hook (who of course went on to immediately start the band that would become Joy Division). Peter Hook gets all of this down in his newly released Unknown Pleasures: Inside Joy Division (!t Books, 2013), and like Debbie Curtis, he was right there when it all went down, albeit facing a different facet of there.

Peter Hook: Unknown Pleasures“Inside Joy Division” is an apt subtitle for this story as Hook was as inside as one gets. Playing high on the bass, as apparently Ian liked it, Hook’s bass-lines are some of the most distinctive in rock music of any kind. Hook’s prose in the book is even-handed, heartfelt, and hilarious. He’s open about what he remembers and what he can’t, and he struggles throughout with the mystery surrounding Curtis. As troubled and tortured as he was, Curtis always said he was okay, and everyone believed him to the very end. A lot of it was apparently written right in his lyrics, giving them an eerie hindsight prescience. Debbie, Annick, Tony, Martin, Rob, Steve, Bernard, Peter–no one near him believed he was singing about himself. It was his art.

Like Kurt Cobain, Jim Morrison, and Darby Crash, Ian Curtis was the stormy center of an iconoclastic young band. They were all “serious young men with important things on their minds,” as Tim Keegan describes Joy Division in The First Tim I Heard Joy Divsion/New Order (see below). All of these singers left behind a legacy of longing, but Peter Hook’s book helps explain the groupthink that may have contributed to their early deaths. It’s tragic and truthful, complex and comedic, and essential reading for any fan of the band.

The First Time I Heard Joy DivisionAs many did at the Sex Pistols gig above, everyone has that moment with a band. Scott Heim has set out to capture them–poignant and palpable–in his The First Time I Heard... series. The Joy Division/New Order entry boasts tales from members of Lush, The Jesus & Mary Chain, Maps, Rothko, Stereolab, Swervedriver, The Wedding Present, Bedhead, Silkworm, and Jessamine, as well as writers such as James Greer (once of Guided By Voices himself), Daniel Allen Cox, Sheri Joseph, Mark Gluth, and Sylvia Sellers-Garcia, among many others.

Having missed his one chance to see Joy Divsion before Curtis died, Philip King describes seeing New Order for the first time a few months later: “My memory of the show was the band looking very numb and solitary as though they were all on their own separate islands, having to deal with their grief on their own–and there being a very conspicuous space, center stage, where Ian Curtis would have stood.” The song “Ceremony” stands in that liminal space between Joy Division and New Order, between the presence and absence of Ian Curtis. Joy Division only performed the song live once just a week before Curtis died, and it became New Order’s first single. Illustrating that middle, and the lasting influence of both bands, here’s Radiohead doing a rather Pixiefied version of “Ceremony” [runtime: 5:01]:

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Like that song, The First Time I Heard Joy Division/New Order illustrates the how important the Ian Curtis mythos is to the experience of these two bands but also how much it’s just about rocking out to great music.

I’ve got the spirit, but lose the feeling.
— Joy Division, “Disorder,” Unknown Pleasures

Chris Ott: Unknown PleasuresChris Ott describes Joy Division’s music as “potent as any drug: overwhelming, stupefying, and certainly addictive” (p. xvi), and Simon Reynolds cites Unknown Pleasures as one of the trinity of “postpunk landmarks” from 1979, along with Talking Heads’ Fear of Music and Public Image Ltd’s Metal Box (p. 164; to which I would add Gang of Four‘s Entertainment!). Joy Division’s odd conventions are among the “hallmarks of indie sound” (Reynolds, 2007). One can hear their punky proto-goth in everything from Low, Codeine, Radiohead, and Godflesh to the more obvious Bedhead, Bloc Party, and Interpol — the latter of whose resemblance prompted my friend Max Bristol to quip, “Joy Division is a band, not a genre.” Joking aside, their legacy still lingers.

Listening to Joy Division as much as I have over the years and particularly in the past few weeks, a few key things about them emerge. As most of the above witnesses and writers are quick to point out, their chemistry is undeniable. As large as the presence and subsequent absence of Ian Curtis looms, Joy Division was the distinct product of these four guys. Think about most other truly great bands: They are something beyond their sum. It wouldn’t be what it is otherwise. Another thing that becomes evident is that they were still growing. Joy Division only recorded two full-length records and a handful of singles. Some of them are rock n’ roll romps reminiscent of Chuck Berry, some of them are Sex-Pistols punky, some of them hint at the goth/industrial bent that others would later pick up, and some of them are something else entirely. Their sound just wasn’t quite developed yet. With that said, it’s also obvious that they are one of the greatest groups to ever do it. There’s no mystery about that.

References:

Astor, Tom (Producer), Gee, Grant (Director), & Savage, Jon (Writer). (2007). Joy Division [Motion picture]. United Kingdom: Hudson Productions.

Corbijn, Anton (Producer/Director), & Greenhaigh, Matt (Writer). (2007). Control [Motion picture]. United STates: 3 Dogs & a Pony.

Curtis, Deborah. (1995). Touching from a Distance: Ian Curtis and Joy Division. London: Faber & Faber.

Eaton, Andrew (Producer), Winterbottom, Michael (Director), & Boyce, Frank Cottrell (Writer). (2002). 24 Hour Party People [Motion Picture]. United Kingdom: Revolution Films.

Heim, Scott (ed.). (2012). The First Time I Heard Joy Division/New Order. Boston, MA: Rosecliff Press.

Hook, Peter. (2013). Unknown Pleasures: Inside Joy Division. New York: !t Books.

Nolan, Dave. (2006).  I Swear I Was There: The Gig That Changed the World. London: Blake Publishing.

Ott, Chris. (2004). 33 1/3: Unknown Pleasures. New York: Continuum.

Reynolds, Simon. (2006). Rip It Up and Start Again: Postpunk 1978-1984. New York: Penguin.

Reynolds, Simon. (2007). Bring the Noise: 20 Years of Writing about Hip Rock and Hip-hop. London: Faber & Faber.

——–

Full disclosure: I have an essay in the forthcoming collection The First Time I Heard My Bloody Valentine.

I marshal the middle between Mathers and McLuhan.

Jonathan Lethem and David Byrne Explain It All

Jonathan Lethem and David Byrne were both featured in Seed Magazine‘s “Seed Salon” in 2007 though not in conversation with each other: Lethem was in the March issue with Janna Levin, while Byrne was paired with Daniel Levitin in the June issue.* In his This is Your Brain on Music (Penguin, 2006), the latter writes,

David Byrne is generally known for his abstract, arty lyrics, with a touch of the cerebral. In his solo performance of ‘Lilies of the Valley’, he sings about being alone and scared. Part of our appreciation for this lyric is enhanced by knowing something about the artist, or at least the artist’s persona, as an eccentric intellectual, who rarely revealed something as raw and transparent as being afraid (p. 244).

How Music WorksIn How Music Works (McSweeney’s, 2012), Byrne reveals less fear and more fearlessness. He eschews what he calls the “crowded shelf” of aging-rock-star biographies and instead brings together a career’s worth of insight on the practice and process of music-making, from performing and using studio technology to building a business and maintaining a community. Byrne’s attention to the neglected factors that contribute to music-making (e.g., the physical context of its performance, the physical context of its reception by the listener, the available recording technology, live amplification, collaborators, producers, instruments, etc.) make this book a must-read for anyone interested in music or making it. It’s also beautifully put together, with tons of color photographs and an elaborate, cushioned cover.

Twenty-six years ago, Byrne predicted that computers would have little influence on the arts by 2007 (Long, 1987, p.94), but How Music Works more than makes up for his former oversights. It’s as comprehensive as it is constructive. As with previous books, Byrne strays in ways one wouldn’t expect, and always in ways you’ll want to follow.

Talking Heads

Byrne credits CBGB for the scene he and Talking Heads came up in. “The mere existence of CBGB facilitated the creation of the bands and songs that touched our hearts and souls,” he writes. “It was the right size, the right shape, and in the right place” (p. 253). In relation to the other New York bands of the time, James Wolcott describes Talking Heads as “deceptively light, a model airplane with a erratic flight pattern” (p. 135). NME‘s Paul Rambali wrote that their 1979 record, Fear of Music, “doesn’t sound like an album at all, just songs caught in full flight and grouped together in a pleasant combination” (quoted in Sheppard, 2008, p. 322). Jonathan Lethem, who wrote one of my favorite novels of all-time partially concerned with flight and partially set in the New York of the time (Fortress of Solitude; Vintage, 2004), triangulates his musings in Fear of Music (the book; Continuum, 2012) using Fear of Music (the record), his adolescent self (who first heard the record), and his grown-up self (who’s writing the book). Initial sketches of the album were recorded by a mobile studio van parked outside Tina Weymouth and Chris Frantz’s apartment in New York. With cables running from the van up through the windows, they hashed out the basic tracks. It was art as ephemera, a provisional situation at best, and it gave them the creative constraints that both Byrne and collaborator Brian Eno crave so much.

Fear of Music

On “Mind,” David Byrne adopts the voice of a “paternal narrator without flaw or dysfunction,” as Ian Gittins (2004, p. 53) puts it. Lethem characterizes the song as decidedly liminal, a narrator arising from the negative space between identities. Much of Fear of Music (the book) emerges similarly in interludes between Lethem’s song-by-song analysis. The interstitial chapters pose such questions as “Is Fear of Music a Talking Heads Record?,” “Is Fear of Music a David Byrne Album?,” “Is Fear of Music a Text?,” “Is Fear of Music a Science Fiction Record?,” and “Is Fear of Music a New York Album?,” Lethem looks for the heart of the record from all angles. The Bottom Line is that if you love this record, you’ll love Lethem’s book — and that’s not necessarily true of all of the books in this series.

Brain Eno, who’d also produced 1978’s More Songs About Buildings and Food, joined in again as the fifth Talking Head on Fear of Music. His collaborations with Byrne and the band redefined the studio-as-instrument idea. On the funked-up “Animals,” Eno ran the bass drum signal through a synthesizer, added an echo, then filtered out the distortion (Tamm, 1995). Practices like this eventually became commonplace, but Eno and Talking Heads were pushing boundaries. All of their pushing on “Animals” landed them squarely On the One (that start-stop hallmark of Classic Funk). “A studio is a situation with literally infinite possibilities,” Eno would later say (quoted in Sheppard, 2008). Even so, as Byrne discusses at length in How Music Works, as a band Talking Heads were still very much a live act. Eno pushed them beyond that on Fear of Music, with “more overdubs and wiggly treatments,” as Byrne (2012) puts it (p. 46). Ever tying the record and book together, Lethem relates the urgency of “Animals” to “I Zimbra” and its structure to “Memories Can’t Wait.” If he didn’t find this record’s heart in this book’s pages, no one else is likely to locate it.

Most of the entries in the 33 1/3 Series show a propensity for close reading, but Lethem’s Fear of Music is exactly what these books were made for: lyrical geeking-out, unfettered fandom, great writing about great music.

A conversation between Jonathan Lethem and David Byrne would be undeniably generative, especially given their obvious overlapping areas of interest. Reading these two books together hints at a small piece of the awesomeness that such a dialogue might entail.

References:

Bly, Adam. (2010). Science is Culture: Conversations at the New Intersection of Science and Society. New York: Harper Perennial.

Byrne, David. (2012). How Music Works. San Francisco: McSweeney’s.

Gittins, Ian. (2004). Talking Heads: Once in a Lifetime: The Stories Behind Every Song. London: Carlton Books.

Lethem, Jonathan. (2004). The Fortress of Solitude: A Novel. New York: Vintage.

Lethem, Jonathan. (2012). Fear of Music. New York: Continuum.

Levitin, Daniel, J. (2006). This is Your Brain on Music. New York: Penguin.

Long, Marion. (1987, January). The Seers’ Catalog. Omni Magazine, pp. 36-40, 94-99.

Sheppard, David. (2008). On Some Faraway beach: The Life and Times of Brian Eno. Chicago: Chicago Review Press.

Tamm, Eric. (1995). Brian Eno: His Music and the Vertical Color of Sound. New York: Da Capo Press.

Wolcott, James. (2012). Lucking Out: My Life Getting Down and Semi-Dirty in the Seventies. New York: Anchor.

———

Special thanks to Doug Armato for the tip on James Wolcott’s book.

* Both of these conversations are included in Adam Bly’s SEED Salon anthology, Science is Culture (Harper Perennial, 2010).

I marshal the middle between Mathers and McLuhan.