The Eye of the Needle

I want to say something about Robert Ashley’s death, but I am growing tired of memorializing. It’s not an easy situation.

Ashley’s voice always contained its own ghost anyway. I have played his Private Parts LP countless times, turning the record over and over. For an album so absolutely chock-full of words, I can hardly remember a single line. It has always been the entirety of the experience that has drawn me in. A seal of its perfection, as it were, is that it is so easy to forget. A sure sign of thoughtfulness about who one might have been.

It is a piece, much like his Automatic Writing, into which I tune in and tune out of at will, allowing it invariably to wash over me, rather than getting tied up paying close attention to the literal meaning of what is being said. The sound of his voice invokes a singular atmosphere. His voice itself is a testament to the very nature of speech (and, indeed, of all sound) as ethereal vibration. As I listen, my mind sees every aspect of my breath.

So much of what he created is extraordinary, but Private Parts is what I turn to when I want something I can get nowhere else, when I want a set of circumstances that is indescribable with my geometry. I remember, down to the smallest detail, the time I first heard it. It is one of the few records I know which, upon the initial listen, seems to have always existed, an explication of an emotional state I felt (and, in fact, still feel, even though I’m not the same person that I used to be) constantly but which had previously held no explicit form.

Robert, as it happens, is my middle name.

Robert Ashley 1930—2014
“He worked with the forwardness and the backwardness.”

Ashley

Arthur Doyle at Hampshire!

I will forever think of the early 2000’s as a magical time. Along with Aaron Rosenblum and John Shaw, I was involved in the organization of more shows than I can possibly remember. Between our two student groups at Hampshire College and the volunteer work we did at Flywheel in Easthampton, Mass., we managed to book shows for what is, in retrospect, an amazing cavalcade of weirdos: Michael Hurley, Magik Markers, K-Salvatore, MV & EE, P.G. Six, Lee Ranaldo, Idea Fire Company, Graham Lambkin, Roger Miller, Jim O’Rourke, Paul Flaherty, Wolf Eyes, Sunburned Hand of the Man, Joshua Burkett, Christina Carter, Eugene Chadbourne, Thurston Moore, Tom Carter, Double Leopards, Heather Leigh Murray, Pelt, Major Stars, Overhang Party, Dredd Foole, Joe McPhee, and many others who filled our nights with strange sounds and strange times. But unquestionably the story I’ve told the most is that of the first time we had Arthur Doyle play in the Hampshire Tavern…

We were so excited. We designed a typically crude poster and ran through the dorms taping copies to the mirrors in every bathroom. In those halcyon days before social media, this seemed like the best way to get the word out. It hardly ever worked. (If memory serves, three people came to see Wolf Eyes.) But for whatever weird reason, the Arthur Doyle show was packed, even with our steep $3 cover.

After opening sets from Katellus (a group that eventually modulated into xo4) and Son of Earth (Aaron, John, and myself) featuring a pre-Fat Worm of Error Neil Young Cloaca and Chris Corsano, Doyle stepped up to play. I can no longer remember why, but the room was almost completely dark. He climbed up on the flimsy risers that we used to push together to form a stage, still in his bright yellow winter coat, and started his set without much fanfare.

Arthur played music that came directly out of a long, rich jazz tradition, yet was still uniquely and utterly his. His formula was pretty simple: a riff would be established on the saxophone, it would repeat endlessly, and then he would remove the horn from his mouth and sing, almost invariably along with the melody with which he’d spent so much time entrancing the listener. When he played it sounded like there were years of dirt built up in bottom of his horn, but it didn’t sound shoddy. He was loose and the songs careened from one surface cadence to another, yet there was a guiding rhythm that never abated. When he sang it seemed like he was singing only when he felt like it, but it never strayed from that rhythm of his which managed to be at once intensely personal and invitingly universal. The room, still packed for reasons I cannot quite understand, listened intently the entire time. It remains absolutely indescribable, and all the more powerful for it, really and truly something else. I had seen him play before and I would see him play again, but here he was at my school, playing for people who for the most part didn’t seem to know who he was, and there was a downright magical quality to the night.

After the show, I walked Arthur across campus back to my dorm. I’d arranged for my next-door neighbor to stay with his girlfriend so I could put Doyle in his room. I opened the door and gave the best “tour” I could of the small space I was offering him. I told him he could watch TV and mentioned that there were sodas in the mini-fridge. His eyes widened. “There’s soda in there?!?” he said, “I’ve been waitin’ allllll day! Rightrightrightrightright.” He ended the majority of his sentences in this way, with these “rightrightrightrightright”s, in this friendly way that made any of the potential intimidation wrought by his not inconsiderable legend melt away. I was no longer talking to the person who’d played on Milford Graves’ Babi, the person who’d lent such force to Noah Howard’s The Black Ark, the person who’d reached such unpredictably amazing heights with The Blue Humans, not even the person who’d thrown most of my brain out of my 19-year-old head when I’d heard his Alabama Feeling album. In person he was Arthur, right in front of you and happy to be there. I left him to it and went off to bed.

A few hours later, I awoke to the shrieks of the fire alarm. “Shit! Arthur’s smoking in the room!” I thought as I leapt from my bed and darted into the hallway. I looked to my right and saw Arthur, one foot in the hall and the other in the room, frantically looking around.  He saw me and his eyes lit up. “Is this a fire drill?!?” he wondered almost joyfully. We suited up and headed out into the chilly night. I will never forget the confused looks on my fellow students’ faces as Arthur weaved throughout the crowd asking over and over, “Where the fire trucks at?”

I learned later that someone had pulled the alarm in another hall, setting off alarms throughout the building. Arthur’s illicit smoking was not responsible for the incident, and I am a prude for ever thinking that it had. In the morning I went to rouse him, only to find he’d already made his way to the dining commons, leaving four empty cans of Coke neatly placed in the dorm room trash can, each full of unobtrusive cigarette ash.

Aaron, John, and I were enrolled that semester in a class called “The Nature and Practice of Improvisation,” taught by Margo Edwards, who had studied under Cecil Taylor and been a member of The Pyramids once upon a time. Margot nurtured a deep, abiding love of free music, and had agreed to let Arthur Doyle run the class that day. After a brief introduction, Arthur stepped up in the front of the recital hall and launched into what remains, without question, the most enchanted and surreal academic experience of my life.

We had given him little more than the course title in terms of prep, but that didn’t really matter. He looked out across the classroom, composed primarily of white students, and proclaimed in his inimitable southern drawl that his music was about learning how to ad lib, and most white people do not know how to ad lib. He paused and considered his own statement for a second, then rectified it by saying that Paul Bley was actually someone who knew how to ad lib. None of this was a put down, it wasn’t dismissive, it came off more like a statement of purpose, a promise that he was about to do his best to help the class learn how to ad lib. Think about your life for a second. Think about what doesn’t make sense. Don’t you want to know how to ad lib?

He demonstrated some diaphragm exercises in case any of the horn players in the room (there were maybe two) wanted to improve their lung capacity, and after that he gave the greatest music lesson I’ve ever seen. He drew a staff up on the chalkboard and wrote out a melody. “See, you could play this, I guess,” humming the melody he’d transcribed. “You could even improvise off it.”

He then shuffled to the other side of the board and wrote the following:

YO YOO > HAO
UUP
TE

“Now this is what I’ve been working on for thirty years, rightrightrightrightright,” he chuckled. I recognized that what he’d written was the text from the cover of Alabama Feeling, but judging from the gobsmacked faces of my fellow students, I may have been the only one. Doyle had thus far been an eccentric presence, sure, but now he had suddenly shot off into the stratosphere, well beyond the realm of what anyone could possibly have expected of a person we had described only as a “jazz legend who played with Gladys Knight.”

Arthur picked up his horn and played the melody he’d written out.

“See, there’s that,” he said.

“But here’s what I’m working on,” and proceeded to play “YO YOO > HAO UUP TE” through his saxophone with chilling accuracy. He pulled the horn from his mouth with a wry smile and a “Rightrightrightrightrightright.” To this day I have never seen anything like it. Talk about school.

Arthur’s next move was to lead the class in a large-scale group improvisation. There was an electric bass, I’m sure someone played piano, Jeremy Starpoli had his trombone, and there was probably a drummer, but I can no longer remember the actual instrumental makeup of the class. John, Aaron, and I had brought recorders and sticks, so we banged chairs and made the weirdest sounds we could. Many of the students in the class seemed baffled. I neither blame nor pity them, but I do know that what Arthur Doyle brought to that class was exactly what a class about improvising needs: a potent dose of unpredictability. Looking back, the best part about Arthur’s visit was that after a certain point no one really knew what was going on (including those of us who “got it”). Somewhere in all of this I remember the incredible rush of realizing that I was actually playing with Arthur Doyle!

Arthur would pick up his horn and blare away, cutting through the cacophony of the rest of the room with such ease that it was enough to stop you in your tracks. Margo played her flute directly to him, and he’d play back. A number of times he took off his sax and set it down, listening to the sounds of the class. He looked at his watch a lot, since he had a train to catch, but he kept re-joining the group, screeching out when the energy started to lag. Looking back, those were his real moments of teaching. For someone who seemed like perhaps he was about to keel over when he spoke, he could play with an energy absolutely unmatched by any of the twenty-somethings in the room.

Eventually it was time to get to the train, so Aaron walked up and helped Arthur get his stuff together. The class played on, and never in all my days will I forget the sight of Aaron trudging out of the room, with gear and luggage in his hands, while Arthur Doyle followed behind, wearing a huge smile and sunglasses, waving goodbye with both hands.

And that was just the first time we had him play at Hampshire!

Arthur Doyle was unassuming in his presence and required little in the way of attention, but when he played or sang or spoke he commanded the room. He almost seemed like he was from another planet, but at the same time he was so completely human and so oddly in tune with what was happening in any given place at any given time. He was amazing. I am so glad I got to meet him, so honored to host him twice, and so thankful that I get to tell the story I just wrote down to anyone who hasn’t heard it.

Arthur Doyle is dead. Long live Arthur Doyle! doyle poster

Your Object

Diagram: A Your Object (Open Mouth)

Dan Greenwood has operated as Diagram: A for nearly two decades. Long before his home, Western Massachusetts, had anything resembling an active noise scene, Greenwood was altering old telephones, constructing masks and sleeves with built-in contact mics, amplifying tin cans, and fashioning an insular world of noise, obsessing over his own carefully-crafted systems of failure. Your Object, Diagram A’s third release for Open Mouth, devotes four sides of vinyl to his continuing task of tearing apart dead air to expose its rotting innards.   

The lead-off track, “Coyote Oscillation,” is a study of profoundly dysfunctional rhythm, a maddening, unrelenting, never-quite-repeating series of severe punches. As the cycle of distortion slams into itself, stutters, and tries to repeat, it’s difficult to tell if there are a few minutes being repeated and run through different effects, or if this is a seconds-long fragment hopelessly and continuously shorting out. The sounds themselves are harsh, yet a greater harshness lies in the frustration wrought by the inescapable mangling of rhythmic expectation. It is a startling piece of music.

“Control Arm” begins life as a high-pitched, static buzz which quickly rips apart, exploding into a frantic series of distorted, violent twitches. One of the record’s highlights comes when the piece runs out of gas and tries to restart, a broken lawnmower lurching back into sputtering action. “Individual Cell/Cartridge Slot” finds a flurry of electric snowflakes echoing into the night and encountering blankets of static waves. Currents slide from side to side with eerie grace, offset by a manic dance of shards in the foreground.  

“Crypt of Lieberkühn” (the title betrays Greenwood’s interest in internal organs) rounds out the set. After an opening battle between a thick, round tone and some skittering scraps, the second half features the album’s most traditionally musical passage. A slow pulse, the first graspable rhythm of the record, is attacked by a creeping swarm of electric trash, and the mounting chaos creates an extended coda of real power. Of course, even this moment ends abruptly, pulling the plug on itself and flailing around like an unattended garden hose spraying amplified dirt as the record draws to a close.

These pieces act as frenzied snapshots of tedium, violence, and grotesque curiosity. Your Object is a potent statement from a tireless and devoted practitioner intent on forging the music of the guts. It is a reflection of Greenwood’s vision of our monstrous internal worlds, a place where physiology and psychology tear free of their normal operating systems and spill out in a horror show of malfunction and endless, screeching struggle.

An Open Letter to Bruce Springsteen

Dear Mr. Bruce Springsteen,

I hope this finds you in good health and fine cheer in this new year.

I am writing, quite plainly, to ask who the hell you think you are. While the “world-at-large” waits with baited breath for your new record, High Hopes, to appear on shelves and streaming across the internet early next week, I wonder if they know what you’re really up to. While I don’t need to fill you in on the details, as this is an open letter a bit of backstory may be required for those still kept mercilessly in the dark.

In February of last year (on Valentine’s Day, to be quite precise), a limited edition LP was released on a small but venerable Western Massachusetts label called Open Mouth. This LP was my creation, born of my own sweat and not infrequent tears, and was titled (and of course you know this already) High Hopes.

Under cover of night in a barn in Haydenville, Massachusetts in the summer of 2012, Bill Nace of Open Mouth filled me with organic pizza and cheap gin while I set up my dusty old Califone cassette machines. Jake Meginsky arranged his microphones for recording and we quietly went about the work of capturing some of my cassette music for posterity. While the creation of the cassettes themselves had taken almost two years, the recording of the album was quick and painless. If memory serves, one of the machines jammed once and we had to start over, but other than that, what you hear on the LP is what happened right there in the “studio.” Jake and I did some mixing and very slight overdubs (I’m sure you already know where those are, so I’ll spare you the details) and that was that.

After its release in February, the album received a fair amount of praise in the cozy world of the underground, going so far as to achieve the coveted “Tip of the Tongue” position (I’m sure you’re familiar with that as well) over at Volcanic Tongue. It was called “new classic music” by Vital Weekly and a “remarkable achievement” by Swill Radio. The small run of LPs sold relatively quickly, and we all went on about our business. I have, of course, continued to create new tapes as I look ahead to whatever next year may bring, buoyed by the support of a small but dedicated underground.

And now you come along, assuming that since the LP has been sold out at source for the better part of a year everyone has forgotten about it and you can make your move, climbing my ladder of acclaim. I’m not sure exactly who tipped you to my music, but I have to wonder if when you were getting your picture taken with Dylan Nyoukis and Sharon Gal at that festival in July perhaps Dylan mentioned something. Maybe he even slipped you a copy of the Straw Hat for a Madman CDR of mine he released. Just because it was in an edition of 60 doesn’t mean people aren’t paying attention, Bruce. Get real. This is underground music in the digital age and everyone knows about everything. Or perhaps your knowledge of my career goes further back, to when a certain Ben Chasny likened my group Son of Earth’s Pet LP to Nebraska. I don’t know. And I don’t care, but I’m on to you.

I know it’s an impressive piece of work, Boss. I’m sure you, like many others, harbor a secret soft-spot for hopelessly distorted pianos, out-of-tune tape loops of string quartets, crudely-edited montages of breaking glass, and reverb-drenched choral samples, but for my money a “Nice job, Matt!” would have sufficed. I don’t see why you felt it necessary to poach the album title, slap it on that picture that looks like two of you exploding from the crotch, and pass it off as though it had been your idea all along. It’s sad. Or it makes me sad, anyway, and I’m sure it makes all of the Krefting fans out there a little sad as well. You should see some of the emails I’m getting. I mean, really. If you’ve been performing Tim Scott McConnell’s song “High Hopes” since “the 90s,” as you claim, why wait until this year to craft an album around a song with that name? Pretty goddamned transparent, sweetie.

You seem like an ok guy. Your vocal on Lou’s “Street Hassle” gets me every time. It’s great. Anyway, what I propose is a High Hopes Smackdown. You bring your crew up to Western Mass and we’ll go toe to toe. I’ll perform my album in its entirety, you perform yours. I’ll even let you go second so you can really milk the crowd for all it’s worth. And we’ll see who wins. I’m sure I can get us a show at Flywheel in Easthampton with enough notice. I could sue you, sure, but a Smackdown just seems more honest and fun. (Besides, the Open Mouth legal team happens to be comprised of the rather ineffectual duo Dungberg & Holmes, a “force” that has yet to emerge victorious in even a single case on behalf of the label.) So put your makeup on and put your hair up pretty, Boss, and come on up. My tape machines and I are waiting.

Yours,

Matt Krefting

“All power is in yourself…”

Scott Foust asked me to write about this record for his latest Swill Radio catalog. This is an expanded version, complete with photo…

Anton Heyboer – Rules of the Universe (Kye)

Anton Heyboer was a Dutch artist best known for his paintings and prints. A promising career artist in his youth, he suffered a nervous breakdown in 1951 upon witnessing a dying cat. During his recovery, he developed a personal philosophical artistic system aimed at showing others the innocence of their lives. By the mid-80’s he made a break with the commercial art market, and retreated into a world of his own making, producing stunningly raw paintings, living with his many brides, and merging his life and his art as completely as he could.

In 1976, EMI released the LP She and She as One, a mysterious-sounding recording for harmonium and voice. Now, nearly thirty years later, Kye issues Rules of the Universe, a double vinyl collection of private recordings made between 1993 and 1995. For a label that has regularly favored field recordings and the sound of the everyday, Rules of the Universe may stand as the most legitimately documentary entry so far in the catalog. According to one of Heyboer’s wives, Lotti, “He played and sung sitting on his beloved red couch, while one of us would be cooking or doing the dishes, the dogs all around, phone ringing, doorbell, whatever. Joke, the one who looked most after him, simply turned on the cassette player. Preferably without him knowing it. Sometimes though he liked it, that we found it important enough to record it.”

And so we are cast into Heyboer’s strange world. Rules of the Universe consists primarily of Heyboer’s voice, joined by wheezing harmonica, atonal guitar, occasional harmonium, and the sounds of the life around him. Doors creak and close, dogs bark, phones ring, and yet he continues, unperturbed. The sense of wonder is both endearing and enduring. The harmonica playing is forlorn and lonely, aimless without worry, pleased with each breath. The voice moves from trembling falsetto to weary, low, near-mumbling intonations, at times swinging unexpectedly to full-bodied, almost operatic confidence. He alternates between vocal personas – the droning old man, the wildly ambitious operatic, the cynical whining misanthrope. 

What Heyboer calls “innocence” could perhaps more appropriately be understood as a particular and gentle sort of individuality. Innocence, at least in his conception, is a state that is entirely impossible to achieve in the context of current cultural life, and so he pursues and expounds innocence through removal. His negation of the world-as-given is not a nihilistic death wish, but rather a dive through the looking glass and into a realm of truly particular being. His method is brave and confounding. The context and scope of his program, its sheer openness, is both its greatest strength and its greatest flaw, and as such contains something of real interest.

He can’t possibly be held up as exemplary: the very concept of “example” seems to crumble as soon as it touches his ideas, he’s far too singular, and yet what he creates from this place can serve as a lesson to all of us. His cry for innocence is little more than a call to everyone who hears him to be fully themselves, to exist in the world as freely and individually as possible. Heyboer’s rejection of the art market is a rejection of a monetization in no way aligned with his vision of what the function of art can  be. To truly engage with art is to constantly be willing to think outside of its structures and, more importantly, to build new ones. Remember the hacienda.

Rather than working his way towards or against predictable musical forms, Heyboer sounds as though he is somehow discovering music for the very first time as a possibility. The set ends on one of these notes, the voice slowly coming to a pause, its quavering silenced, if only for now, seemingly in awe of what it has created.

This collection casts a spell. We are sent beyond what we are able to conceive of as the everyday or the expected. It represents a tear in the fabric of what is generally considered to be reality, and in so doing throws open a door to an entirely different series of concerns. It is there in the story of the artist, in the quality of his voice, in its innocence and its wisdom. “Do you know what it means to love in art?” Heyboer asks. Well, do you?

 

Image

“To be here without you…”

A quick holiday postscript…

 

“Walk on the Wild Side,” Lou Reed’s most famous song, was a love letter to New York nightlife. Candy Darling, Holly Woodlawn, Jackie Curtis, Joe Dallesandro, Joe Campbell, and the streets they walked were put on parade. Drag queens. Drug people. Back room beauties. There was a new character for every verse along with little pictures of things they did: “Shaved her legs and then he was a she.” “She never lost her head even when she was giving head.” “A hustle here and a hustle there.” The song slid along to Herbie Flowers’ unmistakable bassline, an immediately catchy, unthreateningly sleazy piece of portraiture that took these people out of the underground and put them on the radio and into everyday life. All of a sudden they were front and center and regular-old-people were snapping their fingers and going “do do do” right along with them.

Jump ahead 17 years…

“This next song is about a parade we have in Greenwich Village in New York where a lot of people are dying of AIDS, so this is a song about AIDS called ‘Halloween Parade.’”

The song lopes, a little upbeat and a little sad, and we watch the parade pass. Greta Garbo, Alfred Hitchcock, Tinkerbell in tights, a “tacky” Cary Grant, Joan Crawford, no fewer than five Cinderellas, and others all go by, and as we watch them we are reminded of others who are no longer there; people with great, suggestive names like Peter Pedantic and Rotten Rita and Brandy Alexander. Reed was fond of pointing out that he never wrote a “Son of Wild Side,” but if there was one, this is it. Everyone’s in costume, and there is always a degree to which costumes allow us to be ourselves, especially when the world doesn’t want to deal with who we really are.

“Halloween Parade,” like “Walk on the Wild Side,” is a love song. It’s an elegy, a topical song that doesn’t rely for a second on the tired language of “protest” or “political” music. Reed made no secret of the influence Delmore Schwartz had on his writing, specifically the short story “In Dreams Begin Responsibilities,” which he said was “one of the greatest short stories ever written…. Imagine being able to do something like that with the simple language that is available to anybody. It’s mind-bending. Now imagine putting it into a song. It’s so simple, it’s ridiculous.”

It is in this language available to anybody that Reed writes “Halloween Parade.” The images are direct, clear, and evocative. Through a simple catalog of who is in the parade and who is not, he conjures an entire social reality. Like any good art, we are not told what to think. There is nothing dogmatic present. A scene is offered, a perspective established, and the audience must make its way through the rest. 

“In the back of my mind I was afraid it could be true/In the back of my mind I was afraid that they meant you.” It’s both the most explicit and mysterious moment in the song. Who has he been talking to this whole time? Whether he’s talking to a departed friend or talking to himself, it’s sad as shit.

Brendan Toller said to me the other day that Reed’s death “really puts all of that New York crowd into perspective—how they  altered consciousness and certainly gave a voice to the voiceless.” It’s true. This song is about people many of us never saw at all, let alone will ever see again. Who was Peter Pedantic, anyway?

“See you next year at the Halloween Parade.” But we won’t see Lou Reed at next year’s parade any more than we’ll see Peter Pedantic or Rotten Rita or countless others we did or didn’t know…

How do you think it feels and when do you think it stops?

In June, after Lou Reed’s liver transplant, I wrote in an email, “I have to think that he’s had a good run. He injected lethal doses of amphetamine into his body for years on end, he drank fifths of scotch in an hour’s time, he smoked heavily into the 2000s. Despite all of this, he has stayed alive somehow, like a prehistoric lizard too stubborn for extinction. He has meanwhile managed to funnel his incredibly human problems into a body of work that is absolutely unparalleled in its emotional complexity. From the lyrics to the sonics to the performances to the strangely obsessive sound of his studio work, he’s offered more than most ever dream of offering. And he’s managed to be ‘cool’ without seeming to have an ounce of self-consciousness. Where did this man come from? He’s the product of a series of conflicting social desires, literary pretensions so grand they’re hard to believe, electroshock therapy at a young age, astounding chemical intake, and a love of the sound of rock and roll, and he just makes no sense.” I was trying to say that I wasn’t too concerned about what “life without Lou” might be like, but I know now that I was lying to myself. Lou Reed’s death hit me like a tidal wave, a completely unexpected rush of tangled emotions. How can those of us who have built so much of our emotional vocabulary through listening to records deal with such an event? When those who have been our mirrors leave us, we feel like some part of our vision of ourselves has been erased. It feels hollow and lonely. And so….

The word “outsider” is bandied about with such deeply offensive regularity that it has been all but robbed of its meaning. What do we mean by it? “Not like most people?” Who are “most people?” “Not like us?” Who is “us?” The concept starts to fall apart fairly quickly. And yet it makes perfect sense when talking about Lou Reed.

No one ever spoke so directly for misfits and freaks. His music, in its genius and its flaws, in its poignancy and its awkwardness, arose from a conscious and explicit desire to give a voice to the voiceless, to express the truths of people who were always told that their truth had no value. He was all over the place. One moment he was the poster boy for faggot junkies and the next he was buying a house with a nice yard in the suburbs. He was a walking mess, and his work wore these conflicts on its sleeve. Lou Reed’s music was always complicated, and not always in ways that he himself seems to have understood. I love The Bells because it sounds like a person who has almost completely lost control. It’s a record full of such severe internal warring that it can’t hold itself together—it has no choice but to end with the narrator throwing himself off a building. “Everybody always talks about the poor homeless orphan waifs, but what about the homeless fathers?” Lester Bangs wrote in his review. “Lou Reed is a prick and a jerkoff who regularly commits the ultimate sin of treating his audience with contempt. He’s also a person with deep compassion for a great many other people about whom almost nobody else gives a shit.” That is the kind of writer Reed was. He cast no one out. The wretched were always welcome at his table, people frozen within their realities and their inability to assimilate.

There was violence in his music that made the tender moments ring true, just as there was tenderness that made the violence all the more stunning. At the Knitting Factory in 2000 when I first heard “Rock Minuet” I felt shocked. The song was cold and cruel and deeply unhappy. After a career full of songs like “Heroin,” “Sister Ray,” “The Blue Mask,” “Street Hassle,” and countless others, it shouldn’t have been that surprising. But “Rock Minuet” hurt me. Lou Reed was aware of the social forces that constantly and aggressively threaten to cheapen our lives, and he wrote from there. A song like “Rock Minuet,” which traces the bleak life of a sexually and psychically warped man with alarming Oedipal extremity, can only exist in the depths of the most genuine compassion. As Reed drags us through the song, it lives and breathes in such a way that we believe that Lou himself is sexually aroused by torture, that he actually wants to have his wind pipe cut. It’s that dark and troubling idea of suicide as an “ecstatic movement” that he laid out in “The Bells.” Reed was drawn to that place where agony and ecstasy meet, a place of pure feeling that exists outside of boring and inadequate concepts like ethics or morality. “Obsessions, paranoia, willful acts of self-destruction surround us constantly,” he wrote in 2003. “Though we age we still hear the cries of those for whom the attraction to mournful chaos is monumental…. Why am I drawn to do what I should not? I have wrestled with this thought innumerable times: the impulse of destructive desire—the desire for self-mortification…. Why do we do what we should not? Why do we love what we cannot have? Why do we have a passion for exactly the wrong thing? What do we mean by ‘wrong?’”

In life and in song he was wholly unafraid to experiment with cruelty, and in many ways it was this cruelty that made his art trustworthy. He wrote about and through people who were in such incredible pain that it would normally defy description. His work resides in a place that is often legitimately uncomfortable. Watch the way David Letterman found himself unable to deal with the gravity of “Caroline Says II” when Reed performed it on The Late Show in 2008. When the song ended, Letterman barely looked Reed in the face; he gave him a slap on the back, turned away, and almost shuddered as he did his professionally mandated plug of the Berlin live CD.

I shared the stage with Lou once. In 2008 Thurston Moore opened for him in Northampton, MA and asked me to join. We each brought records along. Thurston brought Rock N Roll Animal, I brought The Bells. We were like nervous kids. We never got our records signed because Lou walked directly off stage after the set and into his tour bus, which promptly pulled away. But we were there backstage with him, we shared a few stilted, awkward words with him, I snuck into the closed soundcheck and watched him drill the band on “Pale Blue Eyes,” and my older brother came up from New York for the show (he really started all this shit by turning me on to Lou Reed in the first place) and was asked not to take photos from the side of the stage during Lou’s set. It was a night I’ll never forget. I took down the “LOU” sign from his dressing room and it lives in my copy of The Bells. As Thurston wrote to me today, “It was meant to be — Lou coming to Northampton, us being able to share his stage… He was our rock n roll hero more than all…”

And it’s true. Just start listing out songs and it quickly becomes overwhelming. “I’ll Be Your Mirror.” “Some Kinda Love.” “Sweet Jane.” “Leave Me Alone.” “Kicks.” “What’s Good.” “The Kids.” “What Goes On.” “European Son.” “Heroin.” “Street Hassle.” “Sister Ray.” “The Bells.” “Kill Your Sons.” “Dirt.” “Beginning to See the Light.” “All Through the Night.” “Like a Possum.” “Head Held High.” “Walk on the Wild Side.” “Waves of Fear.” The list is endless. Give me a break.

He was a great guitar player. He was hopelessly in love with the potential of the instrument. Again there are too many exemplary moments to list. “I Heard Her Call My Name.” “Run Run Run.” “This Magic Moment.” When he performed Berlin in Brooklyn in 2006, his solo on “Men of Good Fortune” made me feel like I was being crucified in my seat. At the Knitting Factory show his solo on “The Blue Mask” felt like music itself was coming apart in his hands. He was a guitar player who understood intuitively that the conflicts and confusions of the characters in his songs needed to be placed in a musical setting that was appropriately abrasive and gentle. Shrieking feedback, stuttering rushes of electricity, soft, delicate pulses, alien oceans of sound – they were all present, often within the same song. He used the language of the guitar as bravely as he used verbal language.

And there is Metal Machine Music, a record that delivered on Luigi Russolo’s promise of noise-as-music in a way no major recording artist had ever even dreamed of, a record that in its own way invented “punk” and demolished it in the same moment. “My week beats your year,” read the liner notes, while the record consisted of 64 minutes of roaring feedback sped up, slowed down, cut up and re-assembled, a dive deep into howling caverns of sound that wouldn’t really be explored again by a rock artist for years. This incredibly radical music somehow ended up in the rock bins in record shops! Who else could have pulled that off? In high school I invariably had to listen to it alone—no one I knew could stand it. But I found it fascinating and visceral then and I find it fascinating and visceral now.

Consider the scope of what he presented—it’s outrageous. His death demands that perspective be applied to what he did, and as soon as I try, it becomes apparent that Lou Reed left behind a body of work so formidable in its cultural impact that it is almost impossible to discuss. Listen to “Sister Ray” and try to imagine that it ever happened. You can’t. The same person wrote “Pale Blue Eyes” and made Metal Machine Music. He was as mean as he was sentimental. His bad ideas were almost as interesting as his good ones. He claimed in his song “Average Guy” on The Blue Mask that he was, as the title might suggest, “just an average guy,” but the claim was preposterous and he knew it. His entire life was a bomb designed to destroy the very notion of normalcy. He was erratic in the extreme, unpredictable in the most glorious way. Lulu, his collaboration with Metallica and the last record he made, was as strange a concept as anyone could fathom, and the amazing thing was that for all of its inconceivably ill-matched qualities on paper, once it made it to the stereo it came to life with the extreme weirdness that marked the finest moments of his career. He maybe would be easier to deal with if he’d only done the Velvet Underground records, maybe Transformer and maybe New York, but there was so much more to his constantly unraveling story.

“That band changed my life.” You hear it all the time about a million bands. But Lou Reed changed all of our lives. Lou Reed changed the culture. Lou Reed didn’t do what Elvis did. He didn’t do what Little Richard did. He didn’t do what Albert Ayler or Aretha Franklin or La Monte Young or Dion or Nico did. He couldn’t have. He did something else entirely: Lou Reed walked into the room in leathers and sunglasses, in makeup and nail polish, with a dog collar around his neck, with a bad mullet or a shaved head, bloated by booze or reduced to a twitching twig by speed, full of self-hate and unimaginable ego, with a book under his arm or a syringe hanging out of it, and when he walked into the room he wanted to blow it up. “Her life was saved by rock n’ roll,” he famously sang in a song where he cast himself as a teenage girl listening to the radio. That girl was me and everyone I know. We were moved by Reed’s music is a way that was foundational. It borders on religious, as disgusting as that sounds. He was our mirror, in all its ugliness and wonder and hope and despair.

How many lines can you possibly quote in tribute? Almost all of them. “Ride into the sun.” “Here come the bells.” “Death means a lot to me.” “Something flickered for a minute and then it vanished and was gone.” “Linger on.” “I’m beginning to see the light.” “I’m set free.” “I am the water boy.” “Stick a fork in their ass and turn them over, they’re done.” “It’s so cold in Alaska.” “Set the twilight reeling.” “I’m glad I spent it with you.” “I want to fly away.” “Please don’t slip away.” “Why don’t you just slip away?”

But the one that sends the biggest shudder down my spine today is this:

“Now the coal black sea waits for me me me
The coal black sea waits forever
When I leave this joint
at some further point
The same coal black sea will it be waiting”

Late last year, I was in New York and I ran into Lou Reed in John’s Pizza on Bleecker St. I had two Lou Reed books with me in my bag at the time and I’d been thinking about him so much I wasn’t even that amazed when he walked in and sat at the table next to me. He ordered a pizza with “extra garlic but not too much garlic.” I figured I had to say something but I couldn’t think of anything I really wanted to say. So what I did was, at the end of the meal, I paused next to his table and told him that The Bells was my favorite record of all time. I half expected him to tell me to fuck off and leave him alone, but his strange little eyes lit up behind his glasses and his eyebrows raised in what I can only assume was something resembling surprise.

“Thank you!” he squeaked.

“Absolutely and without discussion,” I said.

His eyes brightened again. He chirped out another “Thank you!”

I walked out of the pizza shop and into the street.

Sleep well, you fabulous and contradictory and hilarious and problematic and eloquent and life-changing weirdo. You rocked my world…

Austerity Dogs

Sleaford Mods – Austerity Dogs (Harbinger Sound, 2013)

There is a remarkable moment at the end of “Fizzy.” Jason Williamson has been barking “FIZZY!” throughout the song, a one-word chorus with so much anger that the word seems unable to contain itself. It splinters apart in his delivery, two raging pieces more sound than syllable. After his last “FIZZY,” after tossing the last shredded barbs of the word out of his mouth, he is still furious. Despite a delivery so vitriolic that it’s genuinely frightening, Williamson emits one more, truly final, open-mouthed grunt, a full-throated wretch of utterly discouraged contempt, a sound that cannot be translated into letters, let alone words.

This is the mood that occupies much of Sleaford Mods’ Austerity Dogs, a seemingly out-of-nowhere LP on Harbinger Sound. What is Steve Underwood thinking releasing a “hip hop record?” At first it almost boggles the mind – the label is well into its second decade as a platform exclusively for noise. Where are The New Blockaders? Putrifier? Ramleh? There is no piercing feedback or breaking glass to be found on Austerity Dogs. But if noise is, at its core, interference, if it exists as a force to disrupt existing systems and distort our expectations, Harbinger is the perfect label for Sleaford Mods.

From what can be gathered from the few extant interviews, Jason Williamson was born in Grantham (not Sleaford), famous not only for being voted the most boring town in England but also as the birthplace of Margaret Thatcher (Austerity Dogs, get it?). He spent years bouncing around, eventually ending up in Nottingham. He wanted to be in bands, but became frustrated and impatient at every turn. One day he started ranting over a metal track, which the engineer turned into a loop, and he was off, channeling his resentment into a series of hard-edged, hilarious songs. Consciously embracing his regional accent and employing a series of phrases that can seem as impenetrable to outsiders as the most intentionally alienating graffiti, Williamson hasn’t built a world so much as reflected one, grinding what he sees through a funnel of cynicism, resentment, and despair.

After a while he was joined by Andrew Fearn, who handles much of the work of building the tracks and provides additional vocals. The group’s on stage presence is formidable. Fearn presses play on a laptop and stands by almost passively while Williamson orates, gripping his pint glass so tightly it could burst. Williamson is now 42 years old, and rather than turn his frustration into a reason to give up, retreat, and grit his teeth as he makes his way towards death, he has forged ahead and created music that is both original and alive without allowing any space for itself to lapse into contrivance.

Austerity Dogs, following in the wake of a host of CD releases, is a rare thing these days: a new record that actually feels exciting. It’s so full of attitude, so perfectly produced. The tracks roll into one another without an ounce of breathing room, just as the words rush ahead unceasingly against the stark, inventive instrumental tracks. The atmosphere is so tense that a bass and tambourine can sound like the most menacing sound on earth. Keyboards play a subtle but crucial role, and tapes pepper the songs tastefully, as Williamson tells brutal tales of “people ripped to shreds by the whip of exploitation.” He snarls that he’s worked his “dreams off for two bits of ravioli and a warm bottle of Smirnoff under a manager that doesn’t have a fucking clue.” He takes well-deserved stabs at a harsh, unfair world in a manner so rapid-fire you find yourself wanting to take the needle back time and time again to catch something you missed. It’s exhilarating.

A special level of spite is reserved for bad music. Williamson’s seen it up close and personal, and he’s sick of it. “I fuckin’ hate rockers/Fuck your rocker shit/Fuck your progressive psych sleeve of tattoos umpler lumper blow me down with a feather/Cloak and dagger bollocks.” It’s a line that could so easily be leveled at the happy valley from which I write and all of its New Weird America lineage. Fuck your band. Fuck your email list. Fuck this blog.

That much of Williamson’s venom is directed toward the music industry serves only to strengthen our trust in him. As a musician who’s been around, he levels his anger directly at that which has wronged him: a world full of uninspired, shallow, shit-eating, back-slapping, locker room horseshit and self-congratulatory, self-aggrandizing, money-laden do-gooding practiced by superstars who spend more money advertising the fact that they run charities than they actually raise for those charities. In that sense Sleaford Mods’ project is quite simple: two people who steadfastly refuse to play the ridiculous games necessary to get into the business, but too in love with music to not create it.

And “Brian Eno/What the fuck does he know?” is a line so perfect it’s almost impossible to believe that it hasn’t been done already.

On “Kill it Clean,” the last track on the record, Williamson asks over and over “Why’d you all sound the same? I came to check it out.” It is the most moving piece of the whole album: “I feel funky/I came to check it out,” Williamson says, telling us that even after an entire LP’s worth of dissatisfaction, he still expects something. What is bemoaned could be a single disappointing night at a rock club, but it could just as well serve as a commentary on the state of music in general. It is not applicable only to whiny indie pop sycophants vacuumed into tight jeans and spouting pseudo-poetic nonsense interspersed with “confessions” so trivial they could have sprung from the diary of any thirteen year old – it applies to any number of “scenes.” How do sweaty wastoids with stringy hair and black t-shirts pumping their fists to the repetitive dirge of the newest noise band differ from the tuxedo-clad ad men who scratch their cologne-drenched chins while trying to shield themselves from the glimmer of their wives’ pearl earrings at the opera house? How do the Budweiser-enhanced throats singing along at Bruce Springsteen show differ from the pot-clouded minds convincing themselves at every turn that the latest retro synth-based Krautrock rip-off group is the voice of a new dawn? They do not. It is engagement that matters, it is actually caring about the culture one imbibes. So much is received and accepted without thought. We just make the scene, man. In a land of no surprises, the Sleaford Mods are throwing their arms up and asking for somebody to fucking surprise them.

That is why it is too easy to focus on the record’s acerbic nature, to react only to the more sensational aspects: the almost unceasing anger, the bottomless pit of attitude, the relentless nature of the music. But that’s a surface take; to romanticize the gloomy streets of Nottingham in the service of somehow contextualizing the music is to deprive it of its humanity and power. What is striking time and time again is that this is also a sensitive record. The wordplay and sentiments are too fine-tuned to be the mere barkings of a dissatisfied savant, just as the backing tracks are too angular and unpredictable to simply be described as “loops.” To describe it as a hip hop record or to say “it sounds like The Fall” is to force it in a category that it doesn’t necessarily belong. Williamson makes no secret of the fact that he is an ardent fan of the Wu Tang Clan, but what of the fact that he claims not to be that familiar with The Fall? In the end, neither of those facts matter. The music has too much personality of its own to abide by these typical, one-to-one comparisons.

The danger of even discussing it is that we are too likely to fall back on popularly received modes of talking about culture. “This person met this person in this other person’s backyard” as a way of describing things. It’s nonsense, it says nothing, it’s the worst way to discuss anything. This record is so fed up with the ways people think about music, so annoyed with the slovenly mess of absurd, money/popularity/acceptance-driven ways in which most music is made. When Williamson says “do you think I’ve ignored fame and fortune for the fucking fun of it?” he is putting our reasons for liking anything on trial. He is imploring us not to be lazy.

The real challenge posed by this music, both to itself and to its audience: what next?

“You have used a word
Which means nothing.
You have given a word
The power to send men to death.
Men are not free who are sent to die.
Only those who send them are ‘free.’
You should have freedom stuffed down your fat throats.”

—Kenneth Patchen

 “I don’t want to improve my fucking life for you/You make more money out of my existence than I do.”

—Jason Williamson

xo4 Exile

Some time back I wrote the one sheet for xo4′s Exile LP. Here it is.

xo4
Exile LP
Open Mouth OM25

xo4 is the trio of Jake Meginsky, Bill Nace, and John Truscinski. In 2004 the group began a stunning series of live shows, primarily in the Pioneer Valley, which served as home at the time. They quickly established themselves as a formidable entity, and moved on to record LPs for Ecstatic Peace and Ultra Eczema.  While all three work regularly in other contexts, there is a melting of personalities present in xo4 that is unique and truly remarkable.

Exile is the group’s strongest statement yet, a moment of perfect harmony and emotional intelligence. This is music born of tremendous patience and restraint. Periods of near-silence are punctuated by unidentifiable sounds, creating an atmosphere both tense and natural. Events occur with such an unhurried rhythm that time itself seems elastic, toyed with, slowed down, thrown out the window. Whether the changes in atmosphere occur through improvised playing or editing is inconsequential, what matters is dramatic unity. An uninterrupted series of cinematic landscapes, desolate and romantic. Early morning mist. The ability to find comfort with the insects crawling on the skin. The flicker of fire against another’s face in the dark of night.   

Not only does it sit outside codified genres or scenes, this record is that rare thing that exists as an event in and of itself. Disaffection finds its pure form in the bareness of speed, as they say, and here you find that you are well out past the end of the desert, moving neither forward nor backward, suspended in air.

 

Matt Krefting
Easthampton, MA

David Bowie – Effigy (1990-2013)

On January 8th of this year, David Bowie shocked those who cared by announcing that he had completed work on a new record. Two singles were released with accompanying videos, followed by the record itself. All in the space of two months, all without comment from Bowie. No interviews, no press statements, no television appearances, no live dates in the works.

Last week, Rick Moody became the only writer thus far to get anything out of Bowie on the topic. In response to a request for a “work flow diagram,” Bowie supplied him with a list of 42 provocative words.

Moody took this list and wrote a truly wild piece in response, a piece I read with the sweaty-palmed excitement of the enthusiast. At its conclusion, Moody created a fictional Bowie anthology focusing on material released since 1990.

After a bit of back and forth the day the piece appeared, Moody asked me to provide input for possible amendments to his anthology. I sent him a few songs, then came home from work and started playing through Bowie’s music from the last 23 years.

Now, four days later, I have assembled my own hour-long anthology covering this era. I tried to respond, in terms of both content and sequence, to the curious atmosphere conjured by Bowie’s 42 words….

David Bowie – Effigy (1990-2013)

1.) “The Motel” (Outside, 1995)

2.) “I Would Be Your Slave” (Heathen, 2002)

3.) “Jump They Say” (Black Tie, White Noise, 1993)

4.) “New Killer Star” (Reality, 2003)

5.) “Sunday” (Heathen, 2003)

6.) “Thursday’s Child” (‘hours…’, 1999)

7.) “I Can’t Read” (Tin Machine, 1990)

8.) “5:15 The Angels Have Gone” (Heathen, 2002)

9.) “Brilliant Adventure” (‘hours…’, 1999)

10.) “Slow Burn” (Heathen, 2002)

11.) “Dirty Boys” (The Next Day, 2013)

12.) “Conversation Piece” (Heathen bonus disc, 2002)

13.) “A Small Plot of Land” (Basquiat: Original Soundtrack, 1995)

14.) “Heat” (The Next Day, 2013)

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