Author Archives: Pete Blum
What do you get for pretending the danger’s not real?
…the valley of steel
(Pink Floyd, “Sheep,” from Animals)
You pay attention to an instance of saying, or an instance of writing (or, by extension, an instance of singing). The hardest thing to notice is quite often nothing that is there; it’s what is not there. Oh yes, an absence can definitely be a presence, but I’m not just rehearsing on that saw again. This time, I’m thinking of what’s just not there at all, and does not demand your attention by its absence. Yet noticing its absence can change things. Maybe a lot.
So, what Lamb? What Lamb lies down? Which Lamb is it?
An easy answer that I explored before: The Lamb whose Supper was Ready in 1972.
But now let’s look at our text again. If you have your liner notes, please turn with me to Isaiah chapter 53, verse 6.
What do we actually know about this Lamb? It lies down on Broadway (Duh!!).
Meanwhile from out of the steam a lamb lies down. This lamb has nothing whatsoever to do with Rael, or any other lamb – it just lies down on Broadway.
Nothing to do with Rael, even though it’s our TITLE? Nothing to do with any other lamb? Would this include the Lamb for whom Supper’s Ready? It’s really only one section of the title song that tells us much of anything more than this(and it isn’t that much):
The lamb seems right out of place,
yet the Broadway street scene
finds a focus in its face.
Somehow its lying there
brings a stillness to the air.
Though man-made light
at night is very bright,
there’s no whitewash victim,
as the neons dim, to the coat of white.
When Rael meets the Crawlers, he notes: “There is lambswool under my naked feet.”
It seems as though that’s all. I can’t find any more right now. Not explicitly there, at least. In fact, there are no more lyrical references to The Lamb after the title track, except the wool.
This especially strikes me today. The album does not provide an answer to my question: What Lamb?
Push aside (though only for now; only for this look) the strong associations of ‘lamb’ with sacrifice. It occurs to me that a lamb is a young sheep. Notice the grammar here: “It occurs to me.” It is an event that happens to me. I’m the fly again, and it’s a windshield that I didn’t see coming. It’s not that I didn’t know it, in some broad and technical sense of ‘know.’ Sure, I knew it. But it just occurred to me. And when that word, ‘sheep,’ came as part of the occurrence, a whistle blew and I heard a voice shout, “ALL CHANGE!”
Take a look at the opening section of the article on ‘sheep’ on Wikipedia. It’s right here if you click. I’ll wait….
A sheep is a ruminant mammal. Rumination. “The process typically requires regurgitation of fermented ingesta (known as cud), and chewing it again.” (Wikipedia again). As my students like to say nowadays, “I just threw up in my mouth a little,” and I need to chew some more.
So let’s ruminate a bit on sheep. This is my suggested background for our next listen. (You are listening again each time, right? No, there will not be an exam. Not besides the exam that you administer yourself.)
The title betrays my first association. “All We Like Sheep Have Gone Astray” (You thought of Handel or Bach — or both — just as quickly as the Bible, or perhaps even more quickly, right? A body which was baroquen for you? Oops, we put aside the sacrifice thing, didn’t we?) Second association in the opening epigraph: Pink Floyd’s “Sheep.” Third association: John Brunner’s 1972 novel, The Sheep Look Up (its title a reference to Milton). More upbeat, following on the reference to Bach: “Sheep May Safely Graze.”
But here’s where the wool begins to rub. Sheep suggest peace, and the protection of a shepherd. I was a lost sheep, but the shepherd found me, and it’s so good to be back with the fold again. But sheep follow. Sheep go with the herd (not unlike cattle).
Meek and obedient you follow the leader
Down well trodden corridors into the valley of steel
‘Sheep’ is plural, so there’s no ‘s’ to remove in order to make it singular. Does it ever really become singular? We think of sheep as followers in a very negative sense. They are also boring in just the right way to put us to sleep if we count them. It may be only the clothing that is sheepish, the wearer being a wolf. If the sheep is black, we don’t want it in our family (which suggests racism, as well as having three bags full of wool). If the sheep are lost, leave them alone and they’ll come home.
Where in the flock is this associative chain headed?
My experiment this time is with taking the detour via the word ‘sheep,’ but then coming back to the Lamb.
If it is a Sheep that Lies Down On Broadway, what did that shout (“ALL CHANGE!”) portend? When we know that we don’t know more than this about The Lamb, how does this change how we hear The Lamb? If the lamb that lies down is not actually singular, even though it supposedly has nothing to do with Rael or with any other lamb (the latter being singular, perhaps?), what then?
Let us listen again and see. Yes, I will be doing it with you. There will be a number of us, over the next couple of days, on at least two continents (if Progarchy stats are believable), but who’s counting? Perhaps we should also try to be aware of each other, in some way.
Don’t think of it as following. Think of it as an individual choice to explore “following.”
And don’t fall asleep. If you do, it means that you were counting rather than listening.
Hurtling along the Ohio Turnpike earlier this week (a day before the nasty nasty weather hit again), I was listening to some old friends. One of them, in particular, exploded into my car with an unexpected revelatory force.
Crime of the Century is an album that I procured when it was newly released, when “Bloody Well Right” was reverberating across the airwaves in the U.S. I liked it, and listened to it a lot. It always struck me as enigmatically light-hearted, though I did get it, even then, that it was very dark. (Liking light-hearted darkness was probably a prerequisite for being a prog fan.) All along, I think I’ve classified it as “a great album,” but probably would not have placed it in my top five, or (a bit less sure on this part) even my top ten. Until now.
Supertramp went on to become huge, especially with Breakfast in America. Their output from that point on always struck me as mixed, and this was partly a function of many of the songs being over-played. I’ve always been aware that Crime is considered by many (including members of the band) as the peak of their career in terms of creativity and quality.
But I just was not prepared for the near-shock of listening through the entire album on Tuesday. During the opening lines of “School,” it suddenly occurred to me: This album was released half a decade before Pink Floyd released The Wall! That thought set the tone for my experience of the album that day. I was an enthusiastic admirer of The Wall when it came out, but I have since generally thought even more highly of Wish You Were Here and Animals as albums. But it had never hit me so hard before how much more of a borderline-psychotic edge there is to the dark alienation of Crime. Perhaps I was in just the right mood. The experience reminded me a bit of the first time I ever heard Keith Jarrett’s Köln Concert. That was in a college radio station in about 1978, over nice JBL studio monitors, and I was basically blown to emotional bits that splattered across the opposite wall of the studio. Hearing Supertramp’s magnum opus again was measurable on that same scale, though perhaps with not quite as high a reading, intensity-wise.
I hope that my attention was still sufficiently on my driving, but I couldn’t tell you for sure.
Ken Scott’s amazing production is a key player here, of course. I was very aware of producers, and knew this even back in the 7o’s. But I think some kind of blockage was jarred loose as I drove and let this latest listening wash over me. It had to do with my ambivalence about the band’s subsequent output, but I suspect there may have been even more to it than this. It was as if the blockage had an indeterminate number of tendrils, reaching out into my soul and anchoring the blockage at various angles, making it not only difficult to dislodge, but so much a part of my listening apparatus that it had never even presented itself as a blockage. Apparently, enough of those tendrils had been broken or loosened, and the blast had enough force that day, that the blockage just snapped away. It was as if I was really listening to the album for the first time on the one hand, though I already knew every sound, every aural nook and cranny of what I was hearing on the other hand. Everything old was new again.
Despite some of the edges actually being sharper (to my ear, anyway) than those we find in The Wall, they are deployed with an amazing subtlety and restraint, especially lyrically. “School” does in one song what The Wall takes most of its first side (of four) to accomplish. And it does it with a more deeply disturbing Hitchcock-like minimalism. When heard in its proper context, between “School” and “Hide in Your Shell,” one can hear the peppiness of “Bloody Well Right” with a more clear awareness of the droplets of darkness that fall from it’s edges. And then “Hide in Your Shell,” which otherwise might strike n0n-proggers as typically bombastic, is at just the right intensity. “Hide” has always been my favorite track. But perhaps you know that feeling of discovering even more depth and richness in a favorite.
“Asylum” comes across best in context, as does “Bloody Well Right.” Again, the Floyd comparison intrudes. Its positioning between “Hide in Your Shell” and “Dreamer” allowed me to notice, as I had not before, how similar is its austere power to the title track of Wish You Were Here.
Another aspect of the revelation came when I realized with some dismay that my interest on prior listens had always tapered off, at least a bit, after “Dreamer.” This is not too unusual in my experience of entire albums. I could name a bunch of them for which my interest begins to lag on the final side (whether a single or a double album). This is even true of my listenings to The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway. I’ve already noted elsewhere that the final track is my least favorite on the latter, and my recent efforts at listening with disciplined differences each time have not yet brought significant change there.
But this time, with Crime, it was different. “Dreamer,” more than on any previous listen, truly announced the opening of the second act. The familiarity was still there for the final three tracks, but it was a familiarity brought before judgment. It was a familiarity challenged, asked to show its papers, please. And its papers were not fully in order. It was as if both Roger Hodgson and Rick Davies knew that I had always shirked in my listening on these tunes; I could hear it in their voices. I still had demons in my closet, and these guys had the number of those demons.
If I’m going to make further progress in coming out of my shell, in overcoming the tendency to hide, if I’m to discern how well I’m doing at not being complicit in the crime, then more listening (and more work, more soul-work) is required. That’s what I heard them saying to me this week.
They’re bloody well right, you know. And I will listen more (as opposed to simply listening again).
It is with unbridled delight that I report: The wondrous alchemy of The Fierce and the Dead is apparently fully compatible with ongoing servings of scrumptious solo work from guitarist Matt Stevens.
What occurs to me most immediately and forcefully is the word ‘LOOSED,’ though pronounced “loo-sid.” Mere Matt Stevens is loosed upon the world, and one cares little as he begins to play whether there is a center that holds, or if it’s some kind of periphery without center along which we are careering. To get loosed (loo-sid) is to be released. The loosed and lucid journey is one on which I am willing to go, for I’ve come to know that I’m in good hands when he is at the helm. (This is, at least in part, because he seems to know when NOT to steer.)
Lucidity is a kind of clearness. It’s a kind of consciousness for which the object of consciousness is accessible, near rather than far (even when it’s neither here nor there). Matt’s version of being lucid is not some algorithmic calculation that would still the rush of experience into a finalized stasis. We begin with an ecstatic embrace of tension that is built into the very saying of it (“Oxymoron”), and many of the tracks keep the motifs of motion and journey in the foreground (“Flow,” “Unsettled”, “The Other Side,” “The Ascent,” “The Bridge).
But soon we find some kind of mystery in “Coulrophobia” (fear of clowns). How strange, as I had not yet seen or heard this new disc when I wrote my last Look at The Lamb, where fearing clowns did come up, and where there was (among other things) some sort of plea that we NOT always insist on lucidity, at least in certain ways and in certain settings. I get no sense here exactly what it is about clowns that one might fear, but I do get the sense that this (i.e., not having that sense) is exactly the locus of its power.
“The Bridge,” by being the longest of the tracks, presents itself as a kind of exclamation, asking to be heard “over and above” the other tracks, in some sense. I hear it asking to be the key, as in a key to a map. Hearing the whole disc through “The Bridge” is encountering an unabashed, loving commitment to composition, with few points for comparison in broadly “prog” music aside from Frank Zappa and Robert Fripp. Like both, Matt will reliably entertain and amaze, but never at the cost of acting as midwife to the particular musical shape that is emerging in the clay on his wheel. My second listen to the disc was sideways, first “The Bridge,” and then back out into the aural archipelago that surrounds it, as if they were destinations reached by crossing that Bridge.
(“KEA” and “The Boy” especially remind us what a cornucopia the acoustic guitar remains, despite its being so ubiquitous for decades in popular music.)
If we stay with that “sideways” direction of listening, then consider the title track as the final one. Remember that we might use the word “lucid” not only to describe a way of being conscious from within, but also to mark the way in which the Other’s consciousness is there, is present, is detectable. If a healthcare professional pronounces someone “lucid,” it is based on output, on performance. Heard against the background of the entire disc, and as the answer to those exploratory questions, Matt’s answer is forthright and clear. Though I’m no professional in these matters, I’m willing to make the pronouncement nonetheless: Few guitarists, and indeed few musicians, are as completely and wonderfully musically lucid as Matt Stevens.
Check out Jon Michaud’s look back at The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway:
“My argument was that there aren’t many novels which are written by a committee.”
–Peter Gabriel (from Hugh Fielder’s The Book of Genesis, quoted by The Annotated Lamb Lies Down on Broadway)
Novel? Suggesting the new? Suggesting a sort of SERIOUS STORY (the unavoidable uppercase insinuating itself into any thought of that suggestion)? Sure, it’s like a novel. We’re used to calling it a “concept album” too, as if most albums are somehow without (bereft of) a concept. Both novels and concept albums had significant histories behind them in 1974, when The Lamb was loosed. One might say that they were “old hat,” though there are always folks around interested in wearing old hats, tilting them at what they take to be new angles, or perhaps sticking new feathers in them and calling them “Mac” or “Tony.”
It’s like a novel, like a concept album, like a sharp bend between genres. Taken to the stage on its infamous tour, it’s like a multimedia circus (remembering that some adore a circus, others think a circus puerile, and still others are just deathly afraid of the clowns). It’s like a Gesamtkunstwerk, in a Wagnerian idiom of “express to excess.”
So just what the hell is it? Or give that question a nastier edge with the “F-WORD,” implying a deep skepticism regarding whether it is, in any sense, FORWARD.
But does it have to be? Must it be? Muss es sein?
These gestures of “criticism,” this architectural dance — whether printed or blogged or just traded with intense sincerity on the floor of one’s room, between the speakers — has so often turned into a flippant flame, fueled by the expectation that whatever it is, it must be something novel.
I’ve recently been watching the TV-series, Castle, the one about the rich crime writer who teams up with the hot detective, and much murder and dark hilarity ensue. Novels are the business of the title character, but they are clearly the kind of novels that are not really meant to be particularly novel, at least not in the sense that they might eventually be discussed with great solemnity in future seminar courses in departments of English Literature. (Yet who can predict?) I love the program, not because it brings me something new, but because it does something that is NOT new, that is familiar, friendly, and it does it (in my estimation, at least, and perhaps sometimes more than others) exceptionally well. It constantly and deliberately teeters on the edge of the cheesy, embracing formulaic characters and dialogue with breathtaking abandon, concentrating not on breaking any molds but on filling and caressing every part of the mold, lovingly filling the mold and affirming its shape and texture. (And the frequent humorous references to Nathan Fillion’s earlier role in Firefly are a lot of fun.)
I don’t watch Castle with the same expectations that I bring to the BBC’s more edgy and exploratory Sherlock. Hopefully you get the picture.
So what does this have to do with The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway? No, no, don’t hurry me. The answer is not necessarily “everything.” It should be clear, however, that the answer is also a significant distance away from “nothing.”
It dawns upon me slowly, as I am writing this, that my impetus here is a polarity, a bidirectional field of force between a pole that is supposed to be new, innovative, groundbreaking, trendsetting, cutting edge, so-cool-only-hipsters-know-about-it on the one hand, and a pole that is content with breathing as much life as it can into something old, something “stock,” something cliché.
Having followed associations along an idiosyncratic path in the manner of the Freudian dream analyst, I arrive at the final word of the last paragraph, ‘cliché,’ and finally lay a hesitant hold on what I’d like to offer you in this Look at The Lamb. I’m reminded of Todd Rundgren’s song, “Cliché” (from the album, Faithful ). It exudes Rundgren’s trademark pop relational agonizing, and captures a certain heartfelt gesture of negation at the banality of the familiar, of the expected. “Who makes up the rules for the world?” “I vivisect and then pretend to know.”
So here’s my recommendation this time: Listen to that Rundgren song, and feel the painful, frustrated resignation in Todd’s inimitable voice.
Done that? OK, now go back to The Lamb. Listen and resign.
What the hell is it?
It is the jigsaw. it is purple haze.
It never stays in one place, but it’s not a passing phase,
It is in the singles bar, in the distance of the face
It is in between the cages, it is always in a space
It is here. it is now…
It is real. It is Rael.
Resign and allow it to be between the cages, always in space, not fixed at a pole but perpetually spinning between.
If it seems like a cliché, let it be so and listen for the loving caress. If it seems novel, let it be so and watch for “the big reveal.” But most of all, if it seems to be neither, please please just let it be so.
One of the best-known songs on The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway seems to have more than one name. I’ve always thought of it as “The Carpet Crawlers,” but it has, on various packaging, been identified as “Carpet Crawlers” (no “The”), “The Carpet Crawl,” and “Carpet Crawl” (again, no “The”). Sometimes the referent is the crawlers, sometimes the crawl itself. And what happens when there is crawl or crawler, but no definite article?
The crawlers sing, “We’ve got to get in to get out.” That chamber at the top of the stairs (Is Doktor Freud still in the house? He considers in his writings how often stairs are associated with intercourse) is the “in” from which there is surely a way out. Up the stairs, into the chamber, and OUT. Near the end of Stephen King’s Dark Tower books, Roland ascends the stairs, gets in, and gets out. Semi-spoiler alert! But it’s profoundly important that I’ve not said to what, or to where, or to when. It spoils nothing, for it reveals not the spoils.
Why crawling? A sexual posture? Having just Counted Out Time, cuddling the porcupine, the sad ending of the previous tune makes it a bit surprising that we are still headed along a carpet into a red ochre corridor. But Rael is not a crawler. Perhaps he could not have seen and understood the crawlers as he did, had he been one of them himself.
There’s something about the very notions, the very words, ‘in’ and ‘out.’ Something about the way in which they are places, but they are places neither “in particular,” nor “in general.” They require each other so that the “in,” no matter where it actually is, must be the “in” of its own “out.” That’s what makes the crawlers’ logic seem unassailable. Given that this IS an “in,” there must be an “out,” AND there must be a way. Corridors and staircases are ways.
But here is the rub (mankind handkinds): All of this is unassailable only if this IS an “in.”
IN the cage. Back IN New York City. “…[A]s the notes and coins are taken out, I’m taken IN…” “You’re IN the Colony of Slippermen.” And like a woof to the warp of “in” are the “outs.” There are many (look for yourself). But does it somehow hinge on this strange locus called “in”?
It’s never clear, at any point in our story, that Rael moves — unambiguously passes — from an “in” to an “out.” Always the suggestion of a way out (“to get out if you’ve got the gripe…”), but never is there an “out” that shows its whole face, thus proving the existence of “in.”
Out! Out, damned “In”!
There must be some kinda way out of here, if here is an “in.”
But I’m thinking about that Tat Tvam Asi sort of ending, and wondering if we’re supposed to wonder, to wonder as we wander: Is there really any “in” in here?
Perhaps we’ve gotta get in to get out. Perhaps “in” is something that we don’t usually get, and The Lamb is trying to point this…
Since being invited onboard as a progarchist, I’ve come more fully to terms with my clear status as an old-timer. I’m especially aware of this at year-end, when everyone feels the impulse to produce a “best of the year” list of some kind. When it comes to music, I’ve never been a good multi-tasker; when I listen to music, I’d rather not be doing anything else at the same time. That puts some pretty serious constraint upon the time I can devote to listening, unlike a number of my prolific friends. Then there’s the fact that “prog,” as much as I adore its early history and gladly greet its ongoing vivacity, is far from the only genre vying for my ear-time. Even the wide-net application of “prog” applied by our great Proghalla leader, Oleg Birzer, doesn’t help me very much.
Don’t miss Big Big Train’s English Electric discs, The Fierce and the Dead’s Spooky Action, and Spock’s Beard’s Brief Nocturnes and Dreamless Sleep. Beyond that, if you need guidance on 2013, pay attention to the other distinguished progarchists. I’ll be the one still mostly stuck in the 1970′s.
So, to continue the tradition that I inaugurated last year, I’ve done a thorough and grueling ten minutes’ worth of review via Wikipedia (they could use a donation if you use them and can spare anything, by the way). I give you this brief reminder of what was going on in the general vicinity of what was defined as “progressive” four decades ago.
1973: London faces bombings by the IRA, along with the first death attributed to arsonist Peter Dinsdale. In the United States, Richard Nixon begins his second term, the televised Watergate hearings begin, and U.S. involvement in Vietnam officially ends. The Supreme Court decides on Roe vs. Wade, and the World Trade Center (New York) and Sears Tower (Chicago) both open. George Foreman defeats Joe Frazier, and Billie Jean King defeats Bobby Riggs.
In music, The King Biscuit Flower Hour, The Midnight Special, and Don Krishner’s Rock Concert all begin airing. The stature of the Beatles is manifest in Capitol’s release of the Red and Blue compilation albums. Bruce Springsteen begins making his mark with not one, but two albums. Paul Simon continues to enjoy solo success with There Goes Rhymin’ Simon. Led Zeppelin breaks the Beatles’ previous record for concert attendance in Tampa, also recording/filming their Madison Square Garden shows, which will be released in 1976 as The Song Remains the Same. Elvis Presley’s concert in Hawaii is the first worldwide entertainment telecast to be viewed by more people than had seen the moon landings. Late in the year, vinyl shortages due to the oil crisis lead to delays of and limits on new album releases. My selection of highlights here is subject to all sorts of personal bias, of course, but you can search online yourself for more complete lists of events, people, and other memories if you’d like.
Of greatest interest to our readers, presumably, will be the following list (not necessarily complete!) of prog and “prog-related” (by my arbitrary definition) albums released in 1973. The first five are MY top five favorites from that year (as of today; such things may vary). After that, they are listed in no particular order.
- King Crimson, Larks’ Tongues in Aspic
- Emerson, Lake & Palmer, Brain Salad Surgery
- Todd Rundgren, A Wizard, A True Star
- Rick Wakeman, The Six Wives of Henry VIII
- Mike Oldfield, Tubular Bells
- Pink Floyd, Dark Side of the Moon (one of the best-selling and most widely recognized albums in popular music, remaining on the charts from 1973 until 1988! )
- Camel, Camel
- Electric Light Orchestra, ELO 2 AND On the Third Day
- Roxy Music, For Your Pleasure AND Stranded
- Hawkwind, Space Ritual
- Yes, Yessongs AND Tales from Topographic Oceans
- Gong, Flying Teapot
- Jethro Tull, A Passion Play
- Genesis, Genesis Live AND Selling England by the Pound
- Flash, Out of Our Hands
- Can, Future Days
- Gentle Giant, In a Glass House
- Renaissance, Ashes are Burning
- Robert Fripp & Brian Eno, (No Pussyfooting)
- Mahavishnu Orchestra, Birds of Fire AND Between Nothingness and Eternity
- Carlos Santana & John McLaughlin, Love Devotion Surrender
My recommendation for today’s nostalgia hit: Listen again to Larks’ Tongues in Aspic, and keep reminding yourself what year it was released.
If I could only point at something immovable,
Point or gesture, with complete accuracy
Accuracy dependent on no general context
Dependent on no central metaphors
Like Lamb or Broadway or Knock and Know-All
It shouldn’t even be “I” who points, but only
A pointing, only a line of force gone out
From no particular finger, to a meaning that
Hangs there nowhere, above nothing, nothing
Providing anchor or hook for hanging, as if
Hanging were no death sentence at all, but
A gesture that no one could misinterpret
Or no one even there to interpret, why not
The thing itself, ripped from Wallace Stevens’ verse
Presented without these images caked with mud
With blood, with sinews of significance that hang
Together so stubbornly, despite my rage for clear
And distinct seeing that is not seeing by any eye
If meaning could hang in midair, simply meaning
(without division like that, as noun and verb)
Then Rael would never have had to die, the lamb
Would never have had to lie, the meaning
(Whatever that “thing” might be) would freely float
The pointing only being at itself, and to itself
The interruptions are what I notice today, the songs
That elsewhere sing, but jut out into the Lamb’s domain
With lights that are always bright, or clouds that
Wander lonely as a single word, or the man
Who can’t be a man if he doesn’t smoke Winstons
Knocking and knowing as if it were rocking and rolling
Referrals that leap across chasms of signifying space
With nothing on Evel Knieval aside from invisible
Rocket-powered turbo-booster fuel-injected nothings
Pushing meanings that need no push, that cannot move
At all, because context isn’t needed after all
Pointing, meaning, indicating, showing, having in mind
They all require difference, don’t they? Distinction or
Maybe “long division,” that phrase that scared us silly
As schoolkids, when we first were learning that truth
Instead of sitting nowhere, somehow requires our work
Requires a toil, a test, an effort extended into a quest
A narrative form with suffering and death and noise
And uncomfortable silence too at times. Difference.
John and Rael are like that, have you noticed?
Difference, sameness, difference, oscillation of identity
Seeming in the seventies nearly trite or formulaic
With all that Eastern stuff, that Cozmik Debris said Frank
Dessert must be Eastern though Supper was Christian
The difference like John vs. Rael is the gesture
The pointing that signifies only from symbolic friction
From images bumping and grinding and sparking
Only with violence meaning what they mean
Ravine and rapids, a rip in the world as text, as story
Cage and cave, an eddy in a semiotic flux and flow
Windshield on freeway, an apocalyptic anticlimax
Freudian Slippers slimy with ambiguous tension
Can’t the said here simply be said, a saying
Accomplished, enthroned, entombed, embalmed
And mounted on an appropriate plaque to hang
(Again with the hanging?) upon a museum wall
But no, there’d still be seers, trooping by on tours
Not the fixed, denoted gesture minus pesky context
If Rael is a gesture, if Rael’s story is a gesture
If every word about Rael is a gesture the whole
Damned thing is a gesture and nods the direction
It wants understanding to go from its context
Not from a hardbound volume or notarized script
If The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway’s a text
It only succeeds as a text within a larger text
The texts get larger, but never cease being texts
Rael dies, and loves, and suffers, and cries for
The brother that all of us long to find the same
But is stubbornly endlessly infinitely Other
Listen to the otherness there in The Lamb that is
Really no otherness at all but the same cursed
Otherness always required for anything anywhere
Anytime at all to have a meaning. For whom?
For anyone other than The Lamb who would listen
Though listening makes the difference dissolve
And mean, and point, and gesture at something
That we wouldn’t have without Rael and John
And have it we can, though the having is never
A having and holding for death does its part
Listen in context, be taken from context, and shown
Within context that context is always required
And we never break out from context to meaning
But never is context all there is. Never.
At the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in Paris, on the 28th of May in 1913, there was what many have characterized as a near-riot. The hostile and even violent reactions from the audience in the theater were in response to the premier of what was presented as a piece of music, but was perceived by quite a few in attendance as noise. That it was presented as music was, in the estimation of a significant number of witnesses at the time, a joke at best, and completely tasteless and deeply offensive at worst.
The alleged music was Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring.
The level to which the unrest of the crowd grew at the time was surely due, in part, to the fact that some members of the audience greeted the premier of the piece with great enthusiasm, responding with delight at its transgression of conventional musical standards of the time. A joke is one thing, but the possibility of an obscene offense both intended seriously and taken as such by apparently demented listeners is quite another thing.
I’ve often played the first parts of the ballet’s music for students, asking those who don’t already know what it is whether they think there’s anything particularly strange or disturbing about it. Nowadays, they find it beautiful at best, or simply boring at worst.
In 1975, I was 16 years old, and not yet familiar with the story of the premier of The Rite of Spring. I was generally aware of the work’s existence, and had at least heard it once, mostly because I had heard that Stravinsky was an important influence on some prog artists (at the time, especially on Yes). But by that year, I was listening to WMMS out of Cleveland, Ohio (when we could pull it in; I was far enough away that reception varied a lot). I remember one of the DJ’s announcing that the station had just received Lou Reed’s latest album, Metal Machine Music. (The DJ may have been Denny Sanders, but I’m not sure; it could have been Kid Leo. I’d bet there’s someone else out there who heard it who remembers.)
The DJ, obviously deeply excited by what he was sharing, was lionizing Reed as a rock hero for having released MMM on the heels of a series of albums that had been (albeit to somewhat varying degrees) commercially successful. He then played an excerpt from the album. I don’t remember how long he let it play, but I don’t think it could have been more than about a minute. Fading out the brief sampling, he returned to explain, with near-adoration, that this was a DOUBLE ALBUM and that it was ALL LIKE THIS!!
I knew who Lou Reed was, and had heard some of his music, including especially the Transformer and Rock ‘n’ Roll Animal albums. Though I had not actually listened to any of the original Velvet Underground recordings yet, I was aware that they had, by the mid 70′s, already attained a sort of mythic status.
It was clear to me at the time that the primary reason why the WMMS DJ was so deeply enthused was because he understood Reed’s new album to be a gigantic “F$@# YOU” gesture at his own commercial success, and an indication that he was not interested in “selling out.” What I also remember from that first exposure to MMM is how much I liked — actually really LIKED — what the DJ had played. I liked it AS MUSIC, while also fully realizing that what most delighted the DJ was the fact that most people would NOT recognize it as music at all (to say nothing of recognizing it as good music).
I didn’t buy the album at first (due more to priority-setting than anything else), but I don’t think that year was gone before I borrowed it from someone. Now, here I will make a claim that some may doubt. My memory can be wildly inaccurate at times. But I do remember listening through the entire album, which is a little more than an hour in length. Even if this memory is inaccurate, there have been at least two occasions since 1975 when I know for sure that I sat down and deliberately listened to the entire album. (To my own copy, by then.)
By the time of my second complete listen (or if you’re skeptical, my first remembered-with-certainty complete listen), Which I believe may have been in about 1979 (it seems to me that it was earlier in the same year as Pink Floyd’s The Wall), I had become familiar with the events of 1913, associated with the premier of The Rite of Spring. Ever since the first moment I knew of the latter story, it has been connected in my musical psyche with Metal Machine Music.
Lou Reed, who left us just a few days ago, was a shadowy and uneven presence during my teen years. It was not until I was well into my 40′s that I actually became interested enough in Reed generally to go back and listen carefully to his entire catalog, including all of the available VU recordings. My appreciation for him became profound and deep relatively late. It is sufficiently profound and deep that I cannot forgo an opportunity to pay him tribute. But as I’ve thought in the last few days about how to do so, what I am most clearly drawn back to is the effervescence that washed over me when I first heard Metal Machine Music. The music that I most favored in those days was prog, though I was also enjoying a fair amount of what I was hearing from the Home of the Buzzard. I knew that there were at least some indirect connections between Reed and prog, especially by way of Bowie and “glam.” (Did you know that Steve Howe and Rick Wakeman are both credited on Reed’s first solo album?)
I now see that there is something very significant about this prog connection, in relation to how I experienced MMM. The element of boundary-transgression, the “go to hell” attitude toward attempts to place it outside the boundaries of music (political, like so many contested boundaries), the positive reactions rooted in bohemian delight of transgression more than real appreciation for artistic value. These elements have found numerous routes, more or less paved by now, into what gets called “prog.” But what I come back to here more than anything else is the fact that I really LIKE this album, as transgression, yes, but also AS MUSIC. It prepared me to take seriously some of the more extreme offerings by John Cage, the early minimalists (remember Steve Reich’s early tape-loop works?), and Alvin Lucier. It stood side-by-side with work by Frank Zappa in opening my ears to a cornucopia of musical expression, all of it following Charles Ives’ advice not to expect sounds that are “pretty.” (Reed’s well-known antipathy toward Zappa, by the way, is one of the things about him that I find difficult to forgive.)
For pushing me along toward this opening, I owe thanks to Lou Reed that could never be contained in a blog post. I owe it to him to keep telling people how much I like MMM, as well as how much I came to appreciate and admire ALL of his output in recent years. I owe it to him to recommend to you that you listen to Metal Machine Music, all the way through. You may not be able to do it. You may continue to think that both it and my recommendation remain no more than a joke. Whatever.
But you may be surprised. And if a few of you are, THAT is much closer to the homage that I want to offer to Lou Reed.
So, here is the eagerly-awaited new release from The Fierce and the Dead, their first on Bad Elephant Music, and it’s difficult to imagine a more appropriate title. Whatever else might be meant by the title, the music that you’ll find here is quite rightly described as “spooky action.”
Those who were paying attention probably caught the effusive note that I wrote for Progarchy back in May, just after I had really discovered TFATD. I was ushered into this sound-world from the antechamber of guitarist Matt Stevens’ solo recordings (apparently, just as Matt himself fell into TFATD). Do you remember that scene from the Wizard of Oz, when Dorothy opens the door from the spooky (artfully unsettling) black-and-white Kansas landscape onto the spooky (attractive, but even more unsettling?) color landscape of Oz? That first experience was, for me, that powerful, that attractive, and that blissfully unsettling.
Does Spooky Action live up to the expectation set by its predecessors? No. “Live up to” is (if I may resort to somewhat technical language here) totally lame. What we have in the music of TFATD, and what shines as brightly as we might have hoped on this new set, is the spooky action that is music-making. Not just writing songs and playing them. Not just outstanding playing (though it certainly is that too). The music that these guys make is a sort of alchemy, transforming sonic base metals into gold. Gold, that is, of the sort that gives in just the right way when you give it a trial bite.
Naturally, a number of earlier influences make themselves known in these tracks. As with earlier TFATD, I hear the sort of minimalist spirit that made its way so strikingly from Steve Reich into the early XTC. I hear the grungy (not grunge, but grungy) soil-like qualities of early 1970′s King Crimson. I hear collages of textured audio drawn from some of the same esoteric tomes consulted earlier by Sonic Youth. But what makes the musical action here so spooky is the alchemical feel, the je ne sais quoi that makes the sounds you are hearing music in the deepest and richest sense. Rhythmic complexity doesn’t come across here as contrived, as “lookie what we can do that isn’t 4/4,” but as a breathless invitation to join the band in an invigorating dip into a pool of ecstatic expression. The making of music should be a spooky action, and here it is so.
Do any of the tracks on Spooky Action have weaknesses? Limitations? Faults? I bet I could find some if I keep listening. But some music gives up its weaknesses early on, and having listened to Spooky Action twice now, it gives with an open, immediate generosity and profundity that outshines about everything new that I’ve heard lately, except perhaps the very different but equally enthralling sounds of Big Big Train. If the first listens are considered as a surface, at which I splash tentatively, gently lowering my face into the liquid warmth, then I see no immediate evidence that it has a bottom. There’s no measure for its depth available to the naked ear.
Having some familiarity with prior work by TFATD and by Matt Stevens, I suspect that one of the main ingredients in its depth is an overt avoidance of excess gravity. (Hmm. Can an avoidance be overt? I think it is here.) This is music that reaches the depth and richness it reaches precisely because it does not take itself too seriously. These guys are having fun, and that’s one of the keys to their achievement of a nearly perfect level of seriousness. The shortness of the tracks (especially by prog standards) enhances the intensity of the fun but fierce and deadly seriousness.
At a time when a fair amount of good music is being released at a fairly steady rate, The Fierce and the Dead have already made recordings that stand out, and by my initial listenings, Spooky Action is no disappointment. Matt Stevens, Kevin Feazey, Steve Cleaton and Stuart Marshall are an amazing unit.
Listen to it! And in case you haven’t seen it yet, here again is their delightful video for “Ark”: