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I’ve been listening to “Daydream Nation”, along with everyone else I guess, since I was about 12 (1996). The record wasn’t all that old yet. I saw them standing on that street-corner at night with all the blue denim and crummy t-shirts, and I wanted to go to that place immediately. The record doesn’t sound old to me in 2013 though, honestly. Everything it dredges up– emotions, cultural imagery, rock sounds & styles– seems more or less unchanged today. My mind has phosphor burn-in from this album like they used to warn you would happen to your computer screen. What this looks like is more like the awesome color-river you can see by putting a strong magnet to the other side of that glass, in synch. with your parents’ horrified eyes and open mouths as they watch you tempt permanent damage. I sort of wish DDN still made parents want to shield their kids from permanent mind-damage (if it ever was in that category).
Anyway, I’ve been thinking about the actual music on the album for a long time, too. I’m no music theorist, so the following paragraphs are gonna be a mixture of personal reactions and notes on harmony and rhythm I hear on the record. The songs reference aspects of the other songs a lot. It’s no accident that it feels like one whole thing (part of their anxiety about making a double record I’m sure– the post-60s “concept album” dreaded by punks). Anyway, here it is:
Major seconds and major pentatonic scales all over the place. The first three unique pitches, the guitar with chorus on it, are a fifth apart and a second apart respectively. None of it seems to be going anywhere though, just roaming. There’s that rumbling guitar noise far in the background (Lee’s Eventide-processed guitar?), vaguely ominous behind all this. Then a minor third comes in, then a major third. major pentatonic scales instead of minor, but otherwise the standard rock moves (1-4-5), but leans hard on the dom7 of the 5 chord. At least one guitar is tuned GABDEG, which certainly makes the seconds more natural to play on the neck. I don’t know this stuff too well, but that stack of notes in the tuning also reminds me of the harmonic series– the first nine or so harmonics. To me, it definitely feels good to play an electric guitar in that tuning very loud. It reminds me of Rhys Chatham’s stuff a little bit, which has links to spectral ideas in music, right?
Rhythmic figure on guitars during verse comes back as the rhythm of the hook in “Total Trash.” Major pentatonic feel comes back briefly for the “I’m the captive on the rock” bit in “Candle”.
Intro shifts back and forth between a major triad and an implied 9th chord (1-b7-9) which sounds really cool (to me). Common jazz chord but not so much in rock. Maybe I’m just not remembering or listening to the right songs. Neil Young does stuff like this a lot (“Ohio”). Also memorable is the little section in the middle with the Neu! drum pattern where it shifts back and forth between a major 7th chord and a major seventh sus4 chord. Those major 7th sus chords are one of my favorites (e.g., Steely Dan’s “Peg”, part of SY’s own song “Sugar Kane”). I love the lyrics to this song; capitalism delirium (“Come on down to the store”, “that big sign by the road / that’s where it all started”, etc.– culture-industry-managed consumption; “old machines / still and rusting now I guess” – production by manufacturing moves out of U.S. to periphery). I also really dig the title, referring to that mega-city from that William Gibson novel).
The whole thing is very ambiguous, mostly based on just two sus4 chords as far as I can tell. (The demo of the song included at the end of the “deluxe” reissue’s first CD makes this clearer). The fuzz-wah guitar, mixed way too loud on purpose a la Dinosaur Jr., sort of obscures any chord progression. So does the speak-singing vocal. The lyrics, modeled on Eric Emerson’s monologue on LSD from “Chelsea Girls,” just add to the feeling of disorientation.
Rhythmic figure on Thurston’s guitar (I guess) is very similar to the hook from Teenage Riot. Except this time around, it sounds angry and chaotic. Thanks in part to the amp-at-10 sound and the flat 9 interval he keeps throwing in.
The flat 6 interval is what stands out to me here. The hook figure that goes 5-10-11-10-b6-5-1, plus the “tone clusters” (as someone on youtube comments called them (!)) that constitute the repeating background figure of the verse, contains the same motion between flat 6 and major 6. An arpeggio over a minor 9th chord comes in right before the clusters, reminiscent of the 1-b7-9 in the intro. to “The Sprawl”.
I love these last two songs.
(1) “Slow it down / Song is sacred”
[from recorded version of “Shoot The Singer”, “Watery, Domestic” EP]
(2) “Slow it down / This song is not sacred”
[from a live performance of “Shoot The Singer” excerpted in the film Slow Century]
“The cognitive utopia would be to use concepts to unseal the non-conceptual with concepts, without making it their equal.”
[T.W. Adorno, Negative Dialectics]
So, what is this contradiction (or change?) from (1) to (2) about? The song is not sacred in the usual sense. It’s not holy music by anyone’s understanding.
So whatever sacred means in the recorded version must be something else, barring that it’s a joke / it’s facetious, etc.
And unless the song actually became unsacred between recording and performing it, or the performance was facetious or a joke, or the song that the song “Shoot The Singer” refers to is not itself, or the recorded version was in error (and the song was never actually sacred), then there is no contradiction between the two versions because “sacred” doesn’t mean in the second version what it meant in the first.
I can definitely see a sense in which you might want to call the song sacred. It’s a piece of idiosyncratic artistic work. The kind of thing that might have a special aura for the artist, especially just after committing it to record in some form. Before it becomes public “property”– performed, that is. And then it’s clear that, at least, the song might not be sacred anymore, once it’s performed. So it could be a highly self-aware move to change this line of the song while performing it.
But what does it mean to call a song like this “sacred?” The song is barely comprehensible, the product of wordplay, and singing whatever comes to mind or feels right. Whatever literal statements in it are obscured or just not actually intact, in the sense of conveying assertoric information. They’re expressions or images or something. Almost all of the early Pavement songs are like this.
So the song seems much less an intellectually calculated arrangement of words and more a record of half-conscious associations and sound-patterns. So it seems to me more like a product of the “unconscious” mind than the conscious one. But, as is pretty clear from the rest of this period’s song-lyrics (e.g., the “Watery, Domestic” EP), the world that formed that unconscious mind where these lyrics came from is not sacred. Or at least it seems so to whatever is the voice of these songs. From the name of the band to the references to suburban vapidity (“Lions (Linden)”) to the tossed-off lines referring to to some extremely mundane and ruined human geography (e.g, the “shanty town” in “Rain Ammunition” from the 1992 Peel Sessions), the perspective these songs frame is not rose-colored or otherworldly. As “Shoot The Singer” refrains: “don’t expect.”
Whatever unconscious mind formed these images is as much a product of decrepit public gymnasiums, asphalt and, in spite of itself, as often lived “beside the spiral staircase when the money’s coming in” as any other (“So Stark”). It’s not a sensibility super attuned to the sacred, whatever that may be. “I’ve been waitin’ here for oh so long / This is life / And it’s flat” (“So Stark”). Nor does this sensibility hold the usual distinctions sacred. The “natives fussing at the data charts”– are they on this side of the anthropologist’s notebook or the other (“Frontwards”)?
If anything I’m inferring is anything like true, there is serious ambivalence towards sacredness in these songs. Not only does the song pronounce itself sacred and not sacred, but it seems to cancel that ambivalence. It pronounces itself unsacred by its own self-aware implication in this sort of crappy world of its experience. Yet the song proclaims its own sacredness, from the petrochemical material of an EP record no less. Is the live performance a justified correction to the recording?
I don’t really think so.
As much as the words “don’t expect” echo in the concrete facility that houses these songs, they don’t just stop, either. In fact, most of them go on, and on, for some minutes past their natural pop conclusion. Mumbling increasingly tenuous homophones and dragging out bent distorted lines till they dissolve, pulled apart at the joints. The watchword is frustration. Not exactly the product of no (though maybe low) expectations). “Shoot The Singer” leans so hard on hope or expectation that it claims to have barely missed the holy men in its path:
At dawn, not only is the ashtray a treasured artifact but literal frustration remains: “you could put it out / But I can’t put it out.”
Magic wretchedness, or magical half-conscious expectations of wretched mundane things. These songs are full of that. Sometimes, to the point where I question if the “every building same height / Every street a straight line”-perspective from which they’re written has any experience of what it tries to drape in sorcery: “shanty town / Look at your lime sparks” (“Lions (Linden)”; “Rain Ammunition”). Or whether the “stunning bureaucrat” who’s “so fucking lost / Signing the letters / And cutting the costs” is really more lost than the guy clutching his holy ashtray at the end of the night. Still. By the end of that agonized scream,
“I can’t live / Beside the spiral staircase / When the money’s COMING IN”
the Iron Cage feels about as real as a 9:00am interview.
Taking these songs as a whole, my impression is that the magic takes place in some kind of triangle between low expectations, ashtrays, and paroxysmic screaming at businessmen. Which actually sounds pretty reasonable to me. I’d like to say “whatever it takes”, but the point is that you don’t seek out the saints and the lime sparks in this crap. Or else you don’t see them at all. And a conceptual can-opener for the non-conceptual can might be cognitive utopia, but I wouldn’t expect it.
Like a year ago I posted a list of women who play bass guitar and were in (mostly Northeast U.S. noise-) rock bands in the 80s. It’s been popular. I also posted it when I was on one of my jags for romanticizing professional musicians. At the expense of romanticizing my own “day job,” which is being a phd student in philosophy and a grader or TA in logic. In fact, I seriously considered what my life would be like if I quit grad. school.
I got over the feeling that dredged up all that, roughly by last September. But I wouldn’t hide the fact that I still feel weird about how my musical life and my philosophy-professional life fit together. It’s actually worse than the problem of how my political thinking (always) / practice (rarely) fit together with the profession, because those two at least share content via language. There’s political philosophy, though I’m not thrilled with it, and there’s Marxian theory, and most serious people acknowledge that it’s pointless to be a leftist at least without eventually thinking about your principles. Now you’re essentially doing philosophy– just like that. “What does it all mean? Indeed.”
There is no shared *anything* between professional philosophy and the thing that does it for me in music. The only person I can really explain this to in less than a book is my brother. We hashed it out one night, for a long time, and it turns out that this thing that does it for me in music is not only not exclusively present in music, or in all music, but it’s utterly hopeless to explain and probly not even traceable from any objective evidence. That being the case, as they say, it stays separate from my professional life. I don’t think that’s a problem you can solve, if it is a problem. OK.
I’ll try to update this list if I find more people, especially people closer to peers of mine. That’d be neat.
“I heard you say / You know, I hate myself / But I love everybody else / I heard you say / I can’t escape myself / And then you do / And now there’s no one else to blame”
— Sonic Youth (“Junkie’s Promise,” 1995)
I’d like to share these lines and this video to mark something that rings true for me. The people behind them have been more important to me than they or most others know. The hardest part of entering that era when there’s no one left to blame is that giving your sources adequate thanks is harder than blaming your surroundings ever was.
Bernie: Do Television practice a lot?
Tom: Yeah, we really work out. When we first started we rehearsed six days a week for four months before we even played live; then we still stuck. We were awful, y’know? Now we rehearse four nights a week if we have a job or are breaking in new stuff. If we have a month of no jobs, we might rehearse three nights a week. We have problems finding a place to rehearse, though. If we get some more money… We’ll get some money with this record deal… we probably won’t get a dime after it’s all… ya know lawyers take this, and managers take this, taxes that this, producers take this… and that’s the end of it. Then you buy a new set of drums and a couple of new guitars and you have to go play live for a year.
–Tom Verlaine on rehearsing, from interview available at http://ffanzeen.blogspot.com/2010/06/talkin-with-televisions-tom-verlaine-at.html
“Runoff Copies” is going up on bandcamp at http://ahde.bandcamp.com.
Five tracks up, one to go.
Turn around, go back down, back the way you came
Terror is on every side, though the leaders are dismayed
Those who put their faith in fire, in fire their faith shall be repaid
Oh God, the pride of man, broken in the dust again
Turn around, go back down, back the way you came
Shout a warning to the nations that the sword of god is raised
On Babylon that mighty city, rich in treasure, wide in fame
It shall cause thy tower to fall and make it be a pyre of flame
Oh God, the pride of man, broken in the dust again
Oh thou that dwell on many waters, rich in treasure, wide in fame
Bow unto a god of gold, thy pride of might shall be thy shame
Oh God, the pride of man, broken in the dust again
And only God can lead the people back into the earth again
Thy holy mountain be restored, thy mercy on thy people Lord
These are some lyrics from “Pride Of Man,” a favorite song of mine. Written by Hamilton Camp, about whom I know very little. Performed by Quicksilver Messenger Service in the late 1960s. I do know something about QMS. They were Northern CA guys who really liked cowboys, reverb, marijuana and quasi-modal-jazz jams with trembling guitar vibrato. Though their live shows were clearly in the service of jamming, QMS had a talent for selecting cover songs that seem to reflect their tastes, in lyrics and music alike. “Pride Of Man” suits their musical tastes, with its minor key and changes that suggest bad things on the horizon, a likely soundtrack for a silent movie conflict. Nearly as I can tell, it’s a straight-forward plea to give the biblical God of Wrath his due. “Don’t be cheeky, or he’s gonna get you,” more or less. Now, I can see how that warning might have appealed to vaguely counter-cultural types in the late ’60s. The Old Testament gets read as anti-humanist (which, I guess, it really is). The technocratic invocations of objective progress for human civilization that are often on the lips of corporate spokesmen, with the obvious subtext that this progress will break quite a few eggs along the way to its glorious omelette, etc. 1 + 1 = 2: ecocidal corporations and their lackeys had better watch out for that “flash of fire / ten times brighter than the day.”
Of course, developments since biblical times in the desert (a favorite setting for QMS anyway), make this inference problematic. Can we still believe that might makes right in this way? God destroys this or that– that makes nothing right or wrong, per se (nor does it make it right because he wanted us to do it). I wonder if there’s anything to the idea that late ’60s counter-culture in the U.S. shows an anti-humanist tinge that later counter-cultures had to deal with, even if they mostly rejected it. I say “that later counter-cultures had to deal with”, not “that political movements had to deal with,” because the vague anti-humanism I mean is pre-political, and the only social change that developed it into a political position was the conservationist or ecological protection movement– which couldn’t openly espouse anti-humanism and remain in the political mainstream. By anti-humanism I mean a claim at least as strong as, “what ultimately makes events good or bad is not just whether they make things better or worse for some humans,” whatever “better or worse for some humans” might be taken to mean. QMS, or Dino Valenti, their later lyricist, continued to write songs with this theme (ex: “What About Me?”, written from the P.O.V. of the earth!) An appreciation for the value of things other than us or our affairs, to the extent that it makes a person imagine our violent death with satisfaction, shows up in lots of counter-cultural popular music as at least a theme in the lyrics. Ex: heavy metal (lots of doom, death, and black metal; Sleepytime Gorilla Museum).
I guess I’m not the first to say that metal and certain offshoots of ’60s counter-culture entertains themes as anti-humanist as much of the U.S. Christian Right wing (but I don’t know what to cite on the matter). On one face of this observation, it looks like a case where U.S. cultural remains of left-wing consciousness, perhaps only partly acknowledged as such, attach themselves to the obvious analogy between that righteous “flash of fire” and the sensual intensity of the sounds that attract a lot of people to rock music in the first place. Searing guitar lines as purging fire from God, come from the sky to smite the people presumably responsible for industrial, global capitalism. On this side, it looks like an expression of pathology on the U.S. left. Better that God come back (from the dead?) and kill off the baddies (us?), than to let them continue to ruin the environment and wear suits. More or less? Looked at from another side, this theme in American music lately recognizes, dimly, the unbridgeable distance between art’s sensual and formal aspects, and its political significance. Sure, these SF hippies seem to enjoy playing the fuck out of a conservative, wrathful God song. But the point of doing that is the feel of the song, and playing the fuck out of it, not agreeing that God should burn us right now. But the feel of the song is attractive because that musical form means something to us, to Americans in a sense of the term not limited to citizens. And the logical link between the way that song makes us feel and what that musical form means to us, culturally, could be real complicated.
I’m thinking of some big, contradictory, satellite in imaginary American la-la-land made out of stage cowboy outfits, Fender spring reverb tanks, California beach sand mixed with Mojave desert sand, and the head of some kind of righteous, psychedelic American Indian out of white-guilt hippie dreams with the body of an angry Old Testament God, wrenching soul-fuzz out of a charred Stratocaster. I’m not enthusing about this.. uh, cultural artifact itself, but pointing out that when I listen to QMS, it seems to have a hand in making that experience quite awesome– in the ’80s slang senses. I don’t exactly feel personal guilt about this, but I do feel very confused about where I stand when I feel that way. Because the part of that awesomeness that involves some actual awe seems to indicate that part of me communicates with that cracked American satellite described. How much awesomeness-potential can you lay at the door of mere musical form and timbre?
Listen to 0:57 of “Kracked” on You’re Living All Over Me. Now listen to “‘Cross The Breeze” from Daydream Nation at 5:53. I guess SY weren’t kidding when they said the album was Mascis-influenced 🙂