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.

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.

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.

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.

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.