Friday, June 12, 2020

The House on the Borderland (1908) by William Hope Hodgson

THE HOUSE ON THE BORDERLAND by William Hope Hodgson. Ace 1… | Flickr

I enjoyed this brief trip into grand cosmic horror as a pleasant antidote to the restricted Virus Life I’m currently living in summer 2020. The book is an intriguingly original and very trashy combination of 19th century Gothic novel and 20th futuristic sci-fi by a British author who had clearly read H.G. Wells’ 1895 novel The Time Machine. Hodgson sets his time machine in an exaggerated campy version of a Gothic castle in a remote portion of the British countryside.

The characters are mostly cardboard but the mood is rich and the action constant, with many fun and illogical twists. Hodgson doesn’t care about realism or logic. The book is filled with a great combination of creepy images and playful concepts about space and time and infinity by an author who doesn’t try to be scientifically accurate although he likes metaphors that sound scientific.

Apparently H.P. Lovecraft didn’t read this book or any of Hodgson’s work until 1934, which seems surprising because The House on the Borderland feels like a clear transition between 19th century Gothic haunted house horror and Lovecraftian 20th century cosmic horror.

The fun, vivid and moody action is rarely emotionally gripping, which made it an easy-going pleasure despite the terror of the infinite that the author wants to explore. It’s a shame though that Hodgson isn’t a better writer on the level of sentences. Often he doesn’t seem to know how to use commas or more precisely know when not to use them.

I first read Hodgson years ago now after picking up one of the books in his Carnacki, Ghost Hunter series, similar works of campy, trashy horror fun, a series that Hodgson began writing in the early 1910s in an attempt to make more money.

Hodgson died in World War I at the Fourth Battle of Ypres in April 1918. He was 40 years old.

Thursday, May 28, 2020

Poetry Makes No One Poor

Poetry Makes No One Poor

Poets are not necessarily poor, and when poets are poor that’s not because writing poetry has made them poor.

At least in the U.S., most poets are like most people in that they are likely to remain in the social and financial class to which they were born.

In fact, one of the not-so-secret secrets of poetry is that quite a few poets are well off. Many of them come from well off backgrounds in which they had a range of opportunity available to them, including studying poetry and becoming poets.

Some poets who are born poor actually use their poetry and their interest in poetry to find opportunity and to rise in social class.

Of course, like people generally, poets are likely to have more opportunity the better off they are when they’re born and less likely to have opportunity the poorer they are.

It’s true that some poets stay poor or become poor, but that’s not because of poetry or even their poetry. It’s because they don’t find a job (of any kind) that allows them to be less poor, something that can happen for many reasons.

Poets, like most people, have to have jobs, unless they have enough money that they don’t need jobs. Writing poetry is not itself a job (though it’s certainly work).

Where does the idea that poetry makes people poor come from? Partly, it comes from a romantic mythology that poets themselves have often believed in. Even more commonly, it comes from relatively well off people who want their children to pursue work more clearly associated with money than poetry is. “Don’t be a poet, you’ll be poor,” is something said not by someone who knows poetry but by someone who cares more about money than poetry whatever social class they might be from.

In my experience, becoming involved with poetry has a huge range of benefits for people both in terms of their friendships, their quality of life experiences, and in some cases their financial opportunities.

Whatever risks there are in poetry, being a poet does not make somebody poor.

Thursday, May 21, 2020

A Robert Creeley Memory

In Fall 1990, I was the graduate assistant for the newly formed Poetics Program at the University of Buffalo, working with Robert Creeley and Charles Bernstein. Charles had just become a full-time professor. I’d taken a course with him the previous year when he had been a visiting professor.

I remember a meeting that the three of us had at the house in Buffalo that Charles was renting. I recall a screened-in porch, a back patio, and a good-sized dining room. I was in the house several times. It was where I first met some of the poets Charles and Bob were bringing to campus, including Susan Howe (who would be a visiting professor in, I think, the spring of that year) and Leslie Scalapino. I also probably first met there the artist Susan Bee, Charles’ wife.

Charles and Bob and I were sitting around the big dining room table as they discussed business I don’t remember that must have been connected to working with the funds from their endowed chairs. They used those funds to bring readers to campus and to help students start publications, including three I would later work on: Leave Books, initially with Juliana Spahr and Brigham Taylor and later, with others like Kristin Prevallet; Poetic Briefs, edited by Elizabeth Burns and Jefferson Hansen; and eventually my own little poetry magazine Situation.

I don’t know why or how the subject had turned to the practice of art and poetry, but relative to whatever it was, I was saying to Charles and Bob that I had always envied musicians in bands, who got to work with others in making their art, as opposed to writers who in order to write had to be somewhere alone.

The subtext for me was that I often felt lonely in my graduate school years, even though I also craved alone time to do my writing. In fact one of the reasons I loved Bob’s poetry was that he could write about loneliness in a modern way that never seemed hokey or contrived. I had always admired the artistic camaraderie of my friends in bands like Nixon’s Head (Andy Rosenau, Mike Frank, Jim Slade and others). I’d traveled with that band a few times to shows they were giving and I always felt caught up in something exciting, instead of the experience of confronting the void alone and feeling like I was headed nowhere, which was a common experience for me as a writer. In 1990 in Buffalo I was still writing and publishing occasional music reviews. It would be another year or two before my poems started getting published in poetry magazines.

I’m guessing the context of the discussion must have been around poetry and community, a term much used at the time (and still) and which I had already earlier begun to explore. My first forays into literary DIY publishing had been in my earlier master’s program in creative writing in Binghamton, when in 1987 and 88, my friends Keith Eckert and Joe Battaglia and I had published little chapbooks, mostly of our own work, under the name Triangle Press. Keith had taken a poetry course with Jerome Rothenberg that helped start us down the DIY road.

So I was saying how I envied the artistic camaraderie of my friends in bands and had always wished to have that kind of creative experience more than my own, more solitary one.

Bob looked at me with his one eye glistening in a way I associated with him, an expression friendly and amused both that he often used. He said, “Yes, but a pen goes anywhere.”

What he meant, obviously, was that the advantage of the writer was that you didn’t need fancy equipment and money and the complicated logistics of band travel but could have your artistic practice available to you easily, anywhere, any time.

I never forgot it. Partly I think that was because Bob handed me in that comment some power I’d been denying myself in my belief that essential to artistic practice was something out there, in the world, something that others had that I didn’t and that I needed somehow to share in so that I wouldn’t be left out of whatever transformative power there was in being an artist and a writer. His comment helped me see that the power wasn’t out there, in communities of others, but in the very simplest things possible. Things right in front of me that I was already holding.

Happy Birthday, Bob, and RIP.

Thursday, May 7, 2020

10) Double Nickels on the Dime, Minutemen (10 Rock Albums That Made My Sense of Music What It Is)

Ten (Rock) Albums That Made My Sense of Music What It Is

10) Double Nickels on the Dime, Minutemen

It looks like I have to get to #10 on this list before I finally reach an album that feels like it was of my own generation. Even though all the guys in the band were a good half decade older than me, above all others on this list this was THE album that felt to me like it was living closest to the actual world in which I was living. It had a unique sound, a different sound, a sound that felt like it was of my own moment. I can’t imagine what my own life as a writer would have been without Double Nickels on the Dime or this band.

1984 was the year that Americana punk rock (my term) hit its apex. The Replacements, Husker Du, the Meat Puppets, X, Dream Syndicate, the Blasters. Some of them had made excellent records in the few years before or had had moments of still developing excellence. All were bands that had been influenced by or been part of the late 70s early 80s American punk scenes (in various cities, maybe L.A. most notably) that were still playing punk that sounded a lot like American imitations of British punk.

Of course, the American hardcore scene had from the first sped up punk and pushed it to the edges of stridently aggressive political statement (the Dead Kennedys) or rageful and vulnerable poetic crashing and burning (the Germs). But the concept of short fast bursts of outraged thrashing (tightly and sophisticatedly played in the best groups) remained not just a norm. It quickly became a law of punk communities that you violated at your own risk.

By the early 80s, the limits of that hardcore law were all too apparent. Even one of the hardest hardcore bands, Black Flag, was caught trying to get outside strict and increasingly boring demands to maintain a purity of outrage and came out with an album that was at least as much Black Sabbath as punk. One thing that happened during the opening up was the exploring of regional American musical influence, something that allowed the influence of history to enter a music that had been defiantly about the present. Sort of a punk rock version of what happened in the later 1960s when rock and roll began to absorb country music influences.

There’s nothing particularly American in any general sense about Double Nickels on the Dime. But the effect of region on it is clear. This is the world as seen from San Pedro, an industrial working class suburb of Los Angeles, a port and warehouse town. From the first, Minutemen had made their young, working class connections deeply apparent. Even as the band remained connected to big city urban arty punk, its understanding of social and political conditions was too specific for that degree of romanticism. Put it this way; what Jefferson Airplane is to the Germs is what Creedence Clearwater Revival is to Minutemen.

I mean, consider: here’s a band who’s signalling on the cover of their greatest album that they intend to drive the speed limit (of 55 no less) and follow traffic laws because it’s the ethical thing to do. How punk is that? I’m genuinely asking. The debate that could follow from such a question was just one specific example of why the band was unique. How punk is it to actually be concerned about how your ordinary daily behavior affects others? Much of punk is about raging at what others have done to you.

The band’s name was a pun, of course, referencing not only those pre-U.S. Americans ready to step up and fight for the revolution, but also the fact that Minutemen had begun with a first album of songs rarely more than a minute in length. By Double Nickels, Minutemen showed themselves moving further beyond that initial concept; one song on the record, “Mr. Robot’s Holy Orders,” is actually over three minutes long (it was later chopped from the CD version of the album). Several other songs clocked in at just over 2:50, including key tracks like “The Glory of Man” and the satirical anthem “Jesus and Tequila.” They’re epics.

Much more important than the fact that the band’s songs remained all short on this double record originally clocking in at above 80 minutes is the fact that the short tight structures have so much variety. It’s a three person band: one guitar, one bass, one drum set, and on this album, mostly one singer. And while there are some general templates that repeat (anthemic power songs; off kilter high speed songs with angular riffs and surprising guitar breaks, both incorporating elements of funk and jazz; noodly poetic rambles that bassist Mike Watt had famously named “spiels), the album doesn’t sound repetitious. Each new song often provides fascinating and unexpected transitions from the previous song. The only other double album I can think of that has this much variety and no unnecessary songs while also retaining an overall tonal coherence is the Clash’s London Calling.

The playing poises itself right on that fine edge between the energy of amateur accident and the precision of virtuosity. Minutemen was not the only band of this era to transform quickly from barely being able to play their instruments to being unique musicians of impressive ability, but the change was remarkable.

Of course, D. Boon can’t really sing, in any conventional sense, but his voice is so full of personality and nuance that his lack of conventional training usually, not always, becomes a strength.

I don’t think my favorite sections of the album automatically differ much from anybody else’s favorites. The nuanced build of the interconnections on Side One. The explosion of brilliance at the start of side two (the great “Political Song For Michael Jackson To Sing” followed by the equally remarkable and totally different “Maybe Partying Will Help” and “Toadies”). The huge historical sweep of “The Glory of Man” later on side two and the stunningly moving memoir “History Lesson Part II,” which says more about the personal aspects of the Do-It-Yourself value of punk amateurism that any other song by any band (“Wait and See” by Stiff Little Fingers is maybe my second favorite). It’s also a punk song that even now can make me cry. Talk about a rare combination.

Could any other band have written anything with a title like “The Politics of Time”? And the brilliance of “This Ain’t No Picnic” lies partly in the fact that the concept of the group picnic, factory weekend or family based, comes directly out of the world view of San Pedro culture immediately around Minutemen. Side four opens powerfully: “Untitled Song for Latin America” followed by “Jesus and Tequila.” I’ve remained sad about the fact that the band’s 40-second version of Van Halen’s “Ain’t Talkin’ About Love” was removed from the CD. It was both a great critique of that other band’s pomposity but also a precisely distilled great version of the song. It’s a good thing I’ve kept the original record, with its Richard Petitbon drawings on the gatefold.

A crucial thing for me about this album though is that I’m a writer. And like many writers, I’m inclined to take the lyrics of a song more seriously than non-writers often do. Among musicians, I’ve long noted the split between those who care about lyrics and those who really don’t. Crucial to the appeal of Minutemen is the revolutionary combination of poetry and political awareness that marks their music as significantly writerly. And not just writerly. This band seemed, somehow, to understand not just poetry but also political theory and literary theory and to still sound like a bunch of ordinary working men yet also punk musicians.

I’m not going to copy in here the lyrics for “Political Song for Michael Jackson to Sing” but you can look them up.

There were a few precursors to this kind of lyric, of course. The Clash, obviously, although they tend to avoid anything that sounds too nakedly like an idea. Maybe more obviously, The Gang of Four, who similarly made clear that they could talk politics on the level of concept and theory that was a match for philosophy.

How did Minutemen manage to be both working class guys and theory heads and never look like they were doing any posing? It’s nearly a miracle. I can’t immediately think of any other band who was ever able to match or repeat it.

I can’t stress enough how they served as a model for who I wanted to be as a writer, someone who could understand and live in worlds of literature and theory without ever abandoning or thinking myself superior to the ordinary life going on around me. This band showed me that it was possible to illuminate the big problems I saw in the world without thinking of myself as separate from people or more special than anyone else.

I saw Minutemen live, only once, at the 9:30 Club in Washington D.C., at what I’ve tracked down must have been their January 3, 1985 show. It was a fantastic experience, with all the energy and spontaneity they were known for. I met and spoke briefly with D. Boon in the hallway entrance to the club afterwards. He didn’t disappear into the downstairs band room but stayed upstairs, chatting with people.

When he died, only 11 months later, in a van accident in Arizona at the age of 27 (that infamous rock and roll age), I was as shocked and saddened as most fans of the band. His life had been reckless only in the sense that he had taken a lot of touring road trips in less than great vehicles. Because he was sick, he had been lying down in the back of the van without a seat belt. His death didn’t at all come as some kind of pinnacle of rock star excess. A single moment of bad luck and bad choices and his life was over.

The other band members eventually carried on with various projects, musical and otherwise. A number of other releases of Minutemen material, all with moments of genius, would appear.

But the magically transformative moment of three ordinary young men making one of the most brilliantly poetic and political albums in the history of rock music was never going to be repeated, not by them. And really, on this level, probably not by anybody else.

Thursday, April 16, 2020

9) The Velvet Underground & Nico, The Velvet Underground (10 Rock Albums That Made My Sense of Music What It Is)

Ten (Rock) Albums That Made My Sense of Music What It Is

9) The Velvet Underground & Nico, The Velvet Underground

The problem with best-of lists is that they’re almost always exercises in what has become called “virtue signalling.” They’re defenses of of the good taste (however defined) of the person making the list or of some other virtue (good politics, often). I’ve been trying to tell the truth as I remember it of my experiences of growing up with music. So my virtue has been that I’m telling the truth however pleasant or unpleasant it might be and whatever trajectories it fits or doesn’t. But I guess I’ve also been feeling secretly “virtuous” that my list shows both my stubborn independence of taste growing up in music, my commitment to art over entertainment, and also my openness to being influenced by others.

I wanted to avoid putting this record on my list. Liking it so clearly signals trying to participate in the cool alternative underground of rock and roll that it’s a cliché. But if I’m telling the truth, it can’t be avoided. Like nearly every American literary and art and musically-inclined young man (obviously, I won’t speak for women) I’ve known, I thought this album was totally cool.

In defense of my virtue (ha) though, at least I had to work to find the music. I’m not from New York City. I came to my interest in the album at a strange moment in music history when the albums of the Velvet Underground were, as has been often noted, entirely out of print in the United States. I didn’t come along in the first wave of Velvet fans, and it wasn’t until the later 80s that their music was easily available again. One of my college music friends or other must have introduced me to this band; if you know who you are, speak up. I don’t remember how I found my own copy of the album. It didn’t have the gatefold cover. It was just a cheap reissue that I got rid of long ago.

However I came to find it, there’s no doubt that I played The Velvet Underground & Nico over and over again, side one especially of course. It was still the era of albums and album sides. I played the second side quite often too.

One thing about this version of the Velvets, something that I noticed then and now, is that there are many ways that their makeup is like two other groups on my list, The Jefferson Airplane and Fairport Convention, even though their sound is entirely different. A loose ensemble of serious rock-oriented musicians willing to step outside the mainstream and take on daring, experimental rock structures; a prominent, quasi-independent female singer with a startling and unforgettable voice and who writes brilliantly original songs; inventive and daring songwriting by multiple people, with different singers taking the lead on different songs.

I remember reading some years ago that the Velvets and the Airplane disliked each other when they met. I can see why. Look at the combination of similarity and difference in the sound and the regional differences in personality. Dark NYC / European brooding historically-informed experimentalism vs. darkly playful San Francisco folky amateur experimentalism; an angry, interior vision of decadence, doom, addiction and collapse vs. an angry, extroverted explicitly political revolutionary communalism. What would these bands have hated more about each other: what they had in common or what they didn’t?

It’s yet another album about which the songs have been talked to death. Still, “Sunday Morning” opens the album with a medium tempo number that’s both sweet and slightly jarring and describes greeting the empty early morning city streets with a distraught life behind you that might creep up on you again at any moment. If Jefferson Airplane is about reaching for the future, the Velvet Underground is about being mired in the past. Or, frankly, being chased by it.

“I’m Waiting for the Man” is, like pretty nearly everybody knows, just about the coolest song ever recorded: the relentless groove; the instruments grinding and popping out of the mix in an aura of remarkable presence; the “just another ordinary day waiting to score drugs” perspective that doesn’t try to prove it’s cool. The narrator is waiting to buy drugs like the rest of us are waiting to go to work. I don’t think it’s accidental that the metaphor of “The Man” applies both to drug dealers and to corporate bosses. Those under their thumb are exhausted and have to pay up with blood, sweat, and tears.

And it’s not until after those two songs that Nico even enters the scene. Then she does, on “Femme Fatale,” in full doom goddess image and deep, deeply feminine voice, filling the listener (of whatever gender perspective, I would think) with both fear and desire. On an album full of death drive songs, this is the song that’s most powerfully about the seductiveness of destruction (and the destructiveness of seduction). Has any other song ever captured that as well?

Okay, here goes: I have to admit it. “Venus in Furs” is this album nearly doing a parody of itself, and yet at age 20 or 21 I loved it so much. It felt like I’d been waiting for this song for years. The sadism and masochism and doom connected well to my upbringing in the doomier side of heavy metal. The modernist European decadence appealed to my literary side. Plus, the romanticism on display in the song was something the younger me wanted to grab and hold onto. There’s a whole alternative world in the song, its values not so much opposed to mainstream values as they are exploring the dark underground of a world defined by those values. The Marquis de Sade, by the way, is not opposed to dominant aristocratic values. His writing takes those values and pushes them to their logical limits, the desire to inflict pain on others because of the pain in ourselves that we secretly or not so secretly enjoy.

“Run Run Run” is yet another version of “I’m Waiting for the Man,” in a sense, making the need for escape from the man, and its impossibility, clearer. It’s a step further along the junkie continuum, like getting to hear the song twice when it’s an entirely different excellent song, almost like, later on, “I’ll Be Your Mirror” is the tender side (pseudo-tender maybe? isn’t it just a little creepy?) of “Femme Fatale.”

Similarly, the two grandest melodramas on the album, “All Tomorrow’s Parties,” which used to be the end of side one when albums had sides, and “Heroin,” which used to be the start of side two, are also songs which form another kind of mirror of each other, back-to-back “Let’s compare how our destruction will go” numbers. Both melodramas push past logic and reason to their inevitable conclusions.

In “Parties,” Nico chronicles the dismal wind down of a life of empty elite glamour and pleasure and decadence, with the longing for stylish romance revealed as the final empty lie. It’s Lesley Gore’s “It’s My Party” playing on repeat until the possibilities of the character go the way of all things, which, in case it’s not clear, is according to the Velvets exhaustion and death.

On “Heroin” the character Lou Reed creates embraces death more directly. Addiction is wrapped up in the life of a city that turns out to be the story of a death drive in perpetual motion. You want to know what dystopia sounds like? This is it, the sound captured in the ebb and flow of the discordant music in an ever growing crescendo, the city as murderous hellscape, Metropolis + 1984 + Blade Runner.

About the controversial end of the album: it’s true that “The Black Angel’s Death Song” and “European Son” are what other music friends of mine called “needle lifters,” the kinds of songs easy to skip, especially once you know an album. I’m not going to try to make a case for these sound experiments as more interesting, on their own terms, than they are, although I can imagine they would have been very fascinating to hear live. Still, I think the sound experiments on the next Velvet’s record, White Light White Heat, are for the most part more enjoyable and successful.

What I will say in favor of these songs, though, is that they were a big introduction for me to the idea of music as atonal noise. Shortly thereafter I would also be listening to the atonal noise of later John Coltrane records, and Ornette Coleman, and within a few more years the whole jazz avant garde. There’s no doubt that these two songs paved my way for understanding those sounds as “music” (another band I discovered not long after, Pere Ubu, would take me even further in this direction).

Soon enough I owned the first four Velvet Underground records, several on what we’re probably pirated European imprints. Not that long after, with the 1985 release of what was mostly a “lost album,” V.U., and further odds and sods in the 1986 release Another View, the band was back on its way to being in print. The several years of underground virtue I might have bestowed on myself for loving this band turned quickly into part of the biggest pile on of “cool,” “alternative” and “underground” fans in the history of rock and roll. All these people defined their uniqueness by liking the same exact thing.

But if loving this band is now about the most obvious marker possible of wanting to find and celebrate rock and roll outside the mainstream, the fact of the matter remains that at least the band is worthy of precisely that level of acclaim.

Monday, November 25, 2019

8) Squeezing Out Sparks, Graham Parker (10 Rock Albums That Made My Sense of Music What It Is)

10 (Rock) Albums That Made My Sense of Music What It Is

8) Squeezing Out Sparks, Graham Parker

You have to understand, my friends in college were huge Elvis Costello fans. They were all over his work like cheese on crackers. I’m a Costello fan too, and it’s clear that in some ways he has the edge on Parker; more complex and original arrangements, a better and more unconventional rhythm section. But I never could have loved him as much as my friends did.

Maybe it’s just because I can’t jump somebody else’s train (as the Cure once put it), but personally, I always found that Parker’s music spoke more to me. Maybe because his lyrics are simpler and more direct and, to me, more involving. Maybe there’s something about Costello’s sense of distance, his ironic removal, his cleverness that makes his music not as gripping to me.

Then again, any way I break the cracker, This Year’s Model is one of the greatest rock records ever. Get Happy! is just as good, and Imperial Bedroom and Armed Forces are just behind those. I’m not actually saying I don’t love Elvis Costello’s music.

I just felt connected to Parker's tough-because-I-have-to-be sensitivity, his lyricism. I love the sound of his band The Rumour, with their edgy, r & b and soul-based rock chops.

Caveat #2: I’m not even sure that Squeezing Out Sparks is the Parker record I most enjoy playing, now. These days I put on on Howlin' Wind and Heat Treatment just as often, both of which have more variation and a more subtle groove.

But Sparks was, no question, the Parker record that brought him fully into the modern world, and it was the one that when I was in college hit me hardest. Compared to earlier Parker records, the band suddenly had an updated, more metallic, hornless, heavier sound. There’s nothing roots about it. It’s not quite r & b, not hard rock, and not punk either, but it takes elements of all those histories and creates a biting rock sound that no other band has and that no other band has really followed.

His lyrics also took a big step into the future on this record. The contexts are contemporary; the conflicts and situations in the songs suddenly have a contemporary politics and absolutely up-to-date reflections on problems of love and gender.

One reason that the lyrics are so good is that Parker puts his narrative persona at the center of the conflict, with songs that talk about how the desires of the narrator create problems for other people. On earlier records the lyrics come from a more consistently righteous persona. The lyrics on Sparks have guilt, longing, frustration, cynicism, and (crucially) complicity: the narrator blames himself at least as much as others and usually more.

The first side is one of the great sides of rock and roll. Every song is focused and doesn’t let go and never lags. It’s one of those album sides on which time seems to vanish in the sense that I never find myself stepping out of the songs and noting where I am; I’m just there, in the music, until it’s over.

The lyrical greatness of “Discovering Japan” and “You Can’t Be Too Strong” have been discussed too often maybe; I’ll just add that one thing that’s amazing is the positioning of the narrator, who’s aware of what’s not right about his behavior even as he knows he never intended to behave any other way. Most lyrics to most songs try to find the justification or the blame and leave it at that; these songs see through the justification and blame, knowing they’re there and knowing also the ways in which they’re besides the point.

“Nobody Hurts You” is a song that spoke to me instinctively when I first heard it and still does to this day; the fact that the hurt we often feel is based on a hurt we’re doing to ourselves. And “Passion Is No Ordinary Word” really earns the way it includes everyone in the situation; it’s a statement not just about the narrator but about the emotional line that people cross from sincerity into insincerity at a moment that can’t always be recognized.

Most people who know this record think that the second side isn’t as good, and I agree. “Saturday Night Is Dead” has a fantastic sound, heavy and fast and sharp, but the lyrics aren’t great. On lesser Parker tunes, his anger and intensity sometimes overwhelm the subject matter, with the result that he sounds overly hot about something minor. This song is a perfect example, with its central statement seeming more untrue and petulant than clear-eyed. “Love Gets You Twisted,” which follows it also has a great, tight sound, but lyrically it’s not as good as “Nobody Hurts You” and “Passion.” The theme feels a bit tired, a bit general and overstated, after those better songs.


My friend Jim Slade likes to talk about songs that “most fill the objectives of rock and roll.” Speaking for myself, the third song on side two, “Protection,” might be more what rock and roll is all about than any other single song. At times in my life when I’ve been looking for a rock song to save me from something, half the time it’s this one.

The riff is brain-searing, the lyrics are at the perfect pitch of desperation both individual and social; only the Stones’ “Gimme Shelter” is, for me, comparable. The vocal and instrumental bridge is an incredible tour de force, a lightning bolt combination of the Stones and the Clash, I think, in its combination of big metaphor with political specificity. It just keeps pushing and twisting, going further than can be expected and even further beyond that. While “Gimme Shelter” speaks in a prophetic tone that tries for a universal myth-making that’s very much of the 60s, “Protection” has a narrator who has been abandoned by all the big narratives; in fact those narratives are part of what’s closing in and closing him down.

I remember some evenings when I’ve played that song maybe six or eight times in a row, because there’s no other song in the history of music that will do.

After that, “Waiting for the UFOs" is lighter social criticism, a small song with a sense of humor, something Parker often lacks. Then there’s “Don’t Get Excited,” this album’s final masterpiece, not the grandest tune on the record but a perfect match of sound and sense that brings the album effectively to a close. It’s a song that counsels that the way to get through difficult things is to steady oneself and not fall apart.

Squeezing Out Sparks was Parker’s last great record, although I really like some of the songs on The Up Escalator and The Real Macaw. By Steady Nerves in 1985, his new music didn’t interest much anymore, and I actually have barely heard anything from him from after that.

Squeezing Out Sparks is one of the best records there is about not falling for anybody’s lies and not dishing out any lies of your own. It’s about trying as hard as possible to be honest, and to not let either yourself or others get away with anything phony.

Monday, October 14, 2019

7) Never Mind The Bollocks, Here's the Sex Pistols (10 Rock Albums That Made My Sense of Music What It Is)

10 (Rock) Albums That Made My Sense of Music What It Is

7) Never Mind The Bollocks, Here’s The Sex Pistols, The Sex Pistols

My first two years in college, my central musical interests continued to revolve around bands who had come to fame fifteen or even twenty years earlier. My closest pal during those first two college years, Dan Neuburger, still one of my favorite human beings, was similarly taking his cues from the past. His taste ran towards what we then called art rock (Progressive rock? Come on? There was nothing hugely progressive about the longing of most such bands to claim the cultural authority of classical music) and the singer songwriters of the early 70s, while my focus was still heavy metal and electric folk rock. And of course both of us loved the obvious Beatles / Stones / Who touchstones.

It was getting along into the 80s. I knew a certain amount about new wave and a bit less and only a little about punk. I was a big fan of Blondie’s Parallel Lines (another album that could almost make this list) and I’d even heard a few Clash songs. But suburban Maryland, when I’d left there, was still country rocking and choogling and boogieing until it dropped. Beyond one or two people, including my friend high school friend Dave who had turned me on to Blondie and the B-52s, no one out there went near anything that sounded too urban. So I didn’t know anyone much who had ever pointed me in the direction of all that was going on with contemporary urban sounds.

I was soon to get an awakening that was, no doubt about it, rude.

In my third year, Dan connected me up with some of his other friends, a year younger than us, including Andy Rosenau and a bunch of other people who don’t hang around Facebook. Andy’s pals in his band Nixon’s Head, including Jim Slade, came to campus at times to hang around or to play shows. These guys had totally different tastes, developed through British pub rock, new wave, Elvis Costello (more on that later) and yes, punk.

I remember clearly the day my relatively new friend Greg Bologna told me, huffily, to “Take that stupid shit off!” when I started playing Deep Purple’s Machine Head. It was a call out long before that sort of thing existed as a named concept. He was still worked up about it several days later when he demanded that I listen to The Jam’s All Mod Cons. And yeah, that was an excellent record. Urban and up to date and energetic and, most of all, smart. Really really smart. Even if the Jam sometimes resemble too much The Who 2.0

I’m not sure who first played me Never Mind The Bollocks but soon I was playing it constantly.

So, I get it that The Clash is a band with a much bigger range of sound. I get the power of their influence. They’re the punk band that really established the clear-eyed progressive social critique that was what my literary friends often loved about them and that was a big influence on many many bands, including another punk band I love, Stiff Little Fingers.

The Sex Pistols, though, are not a band with progressive politics. In their lyrics, their goals are destructive. They call for anarchy and not of the theoretical kind. They want to fuck shit up, and that includes you. In “Holidays In the Sun” they go to the dark heart of everything that’s wrong with European history and roll around in it for some deeply psycho kicks. The infamous “Bodies” is, yeah, a song attacking abortion, it’s that backwards, but it’s also using abortion as metaphor for what’s happened to them, and to the dispossessed and forgotten in young in England, a song that wants listeners to know they’re all being aborted together, that they were never allowed to be born. And, okay, maybe it was partly all a pose, but listen to “Anarchy In the U.K.” and tell me these people in this song don’t mean it.

I don’t think I really need to analyze all the songs on the record, but I will point out that even the lesser known songs on the record are as nasty and unapologetic as the others. “No Feelings” (think the singer Johnny Rotten is kidding? maybe?) and especially “Submission” with its hard-edged minor key groove are among my favorites of the not-automatically famous songs on this album in which every song is infamous.

I’ve never been sure whether the Sex Pistols wanted to turn England into a cesspool or knew it already was. Both, I think. I guess the goal was to make that cesspool so clear that people would not be able to forget about it again, ever, but were forced to acknowledge that they were already drowning in it.

What makes this record so unmatchable though, along with the destructiveness signaled perfectly by Johnny Rotten’s voice, is the sound of the band. Guitarist Steve Jones and bassist Glenn Matlock keep up a focused roar on top of the drumming by Paul Cook that never bogs down.

And I do mean a roar. I don’t think there’s any rhythm section in the history of rock and roll that can match it for unrelenting intensity. There are better rhythm sections (the Stones, Fleetwood Mac, the Attractions) and some that are just as driving and tight (AC/DC), but Never Mind The Bollocks holds together its lyrics about everything falling apart with a sound that is thick and driving and that never lets up. The music isn’t sloppy, never falls apart. It propels its chaos at listeners and doesn’t let go.

Listen to it these days, and it sounds slower and heavier and more precise than much of what came later in punk music. I can see that what’s heavy about it appealed to my earlier interests, even though the danger that this record exudes makes almost all heavy metal bands sound like little boys noodling around. But don’t get me wrong; there’s nothing slow really about anything on this record.

Johnny Rotten famously said that he wanted the band to be the end of rock and roll. I’ve always taken that to mean that he wanted everyone to understand that as a supposedly revolutionary counterforce to capitalist and totalitarian cultures, rock music had become a pathetic parody. But it’s not really The Sex Pistols that made that obvious. A record like Boston’s first album did more than Never Mind The Bollocks to show that rock and roll (even very good rock and roll) was usually little more than another corporate product.

And to point out the obvious, the more politically future-oriented punk music that was rising at the same time, a music for which The Clash are only the most obvious representative, was crucial in forming the rise of a new counterculture that was directly involved in connecting music to political protest and to the formation of alternative social communities based on values different than the mainstream values of their cultures. The Sex Pistols have some role in generating that, but they also stand outside it. Mr. Johnny Lydon is not exactly these days a spokesperson for progressive politics

I think The Sex Pistols are maybe the only band in the history of rock to release only one record in their life as a band and to have that record become one of the most essential albums in the history of its genre.

By the way, just in case anybody cares, Never Mind The Bollocks, Here's the Sex Pistols sounds as great in the car on the highway in California as it does in a small east coast apartment. The roar of the apocalypse can go many places and sound just as dangerous.