Friday, January 22, 2010

Souvenir Part 2: Then I Had Worry

Continuing a look at the albums that logged the most spins on my stereo over the Aughts.

The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, Now I Got Worry
The Jesus Lizard, Liar

For the past thirty years, the personal evolution of the rock musician has traditionally functioned as follows: an angry young man or woman spends hours by the radio or MTV, bedazzled by guitar-slinging demi-gods, wishing it were them on the airwaves. Then they hear their older brother - or maybe a hipper friend - spinning either the first album by the Clash or some Void 7" and realise that anyone can pick up a guitar and start bashing out a glorious noise as long as the amp's cranked up enough. They start a band with their friends, and though it sounds bloody terrible, they don't care - they're making music! Then someone moves away, or takes umbrage that the guitarist won't turn down and quits. Instruments are swapped, a new member or two is introduced, and vocal duties are handed to the least-unwilling candidate. The band is still atrocious, but slowly a synchronicity develops. The playing gets tighter, the songs become less derivative, and total strangers start approaching the band after shows to inform them earnestly of how much it "rocked."

After a few years of this, either the band breaks up as everyone decides it's time to get that bachelor's degree in engineering or marine biology... or they sacrifice the comforts of middle-class existence to couch-surf, to drive thousands of miles in an Econoline van with a cracked windshield, to live off instant ramen & Subway sandwiches, and to bring their punk-rock gospel to the people. Onstage, the band is a rhythmic maelstrom, but their records never capture the crackle of their "incendiary live shows" (or so the critics say). But as their age inches closer to 30 than 18, their musical tissue begins to stretch & soften. Why are they still writing fuck-off anthems about their parents? Why do Abba and Burt Bacharach no longer disgust them as they once did? And have you heard Giant Steps by John Coltrane? Who knew there were so many chords available to play!

No more interminable bouncing between the I and IV chords. No more reliance on the relative minor as a harmonic trick. The time has come for musical sophistication, and hence there are any number of musical fates that await. They may shift from shaman to showmen, from music-as-exorcism to music-as-discipline (Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds). They'll perhaps ditch snarling wit to write tender confessionals, augmented by "serious" instruments like the piano & acoustic guitar (Joan of Arc). They could very well mistake gratuitous technical exercise for aesthetic substance (The Mars Volta). On very rare occasions, they may just become a better, more engaging band (Fugazi) but don't count on it.

This isn't what happened for me at all: I came to punk rock the wrong way round. I spent high school ripping off Mingus basslines for my own bad psych-funk songs (a la Primus) and studying Ligeti scores. My ex-bandmates covered Weezer to approving hoots; my own band covered Pizzicato Five to awkward golf-claps. What I didn't get was that music was supposed to be less an intellectual exercise than an existential one, an understanding that didn't sink in until a friend showed me the Fugazi documentary Instrument. That I was enjoying it should've been anathema: these clowns were missing chords, botching cues, speeding up/slowing down, and the dude with the Rickenbaker was dancing like a girl. It wasn't until the climactic single-chord seige of "Glue Man" that I got it - the total surrender to excessive sound, the pentecostal fervor, the physical transgression of performance.

"So that's what punk rock is really about," I muttered to myself.

Around the same time, my buddy Mike was schooling me on the finer points of rockabilly- and surf-tinged retro. Mike wasn't a crate-digger exhuming unheard-of garage 45s; his cup o' tea was decidedly more absurd & theatrical, like The Rev. Horton Heat and Southern Culture On the Skids. Grateful for the education, I wanted to return the favour and bought him The Jesus Lizard's Down for his birthday. I knew Duane Denison's gnarled twang would please Mike, but since my punk-rock Damascus moment, I was personally more taken with the jackhammer rhythm section and frontman David Yow's gleeful malevolence. Either way, the album scarcely left Mike's car stereo during our countless drives to & from the Towson Diner.

I spent most of 2000 and the first half of 2001 working as a tour manager, during which the Blues Explosion's Now I Got Worry had become my favourite on-the-road record. I'd picked it up before a particularly epic trek when I'd asked a record store clerk for "something like Southern Culture minus the gimmicks," and I've rarely since been so perfectly recommended a record. It had more than enough explosive riffs & wailing (ha!) energy to keep me awake during marathon nocturnal drives, and the locomotive rhythms meshed nicely with the steady thrum of the interstate beneath the van's wheels. It was also a civilised compromise between the band's current album du jour (Massive Attack's Mezzanine) and my own (the Dillinger Escape Plan's Calculating Infinity).

Fast-forward to the fall of 2001: I was living in Toronto and, in spite of the city's myriad wonders, was a miserable son-of-a-bitch for a combination of dull personal reasons and the spectacular trauma that scarred the world at large. Bandless for the first time in five years, I had to exorcise stress through my stereo and so began pursuing the most pathologically pessimistic, unrepentantly vengeful music that didn't collapse into the cartoonish cosplay of, say, black metal. This eventually led me to fire-and-brimstone post-punk of the Birthday Party, but for most of the autumn I listened endlessly to the Jesus Lizard's Liar - a flurry of bare knuckles & spit that doesn't relent until the elegaic penultimate tune, "Zachariah". The songs' industrial-strength rhythms lock like Swiss clockwork, and it's arguably Steve Albini's finest hour as a documentarian of live-in-the-room fury. I may have been stuck furious & fulminating in a room myself, but I relaxed at least a little knowing that a man like David Yow lived to rage on behalf of all us other sinners.

Next: Six-string strum & clang.

1 comment:

Paul Rayson said...

Always good to get to the party early. When was it you posted this? Five months ago? Ah well, lovely post all the same. I was in one of those bands that couldn't play, got into Spinal Tap-type arguments, got nowhere and then split up for university. Happy times. Have a look if you get the chance at what I fully expect to be my first of many Jon Spencer posts. I don't know where you got that image from but I nicked it.