Grinching

I was sitting at Denny’s this morning eating my short stack of whole grain pancakes, no butter, when Bruce Springsteen’s groaning, straining, herniated “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” erupted over the house stereo system, and I found myself suddenly overcome by an urge to punch somebody, anybody, in the head, until it stopped.

Fortunately, I’m a master of self restraint. But I’m needing to muster that self restraint more often, and earlier, this year than has been the case in the past, as it seems that all elements of the retail and hospitality world are colluding to bludgeon us with forced musical holiday cheer well before it’s necessary or desirable for them to do so. So, yeah, I get it, Evil Retail Greedheads: you want me to buy stuff. But when you make your manipulation so obvious, you bring out the contrarian in me. Not to mention the guy who wants to punch someone in the head every time you make me listen to Paul McCartney’s “Wonderful Christmastime.”

I wouldn’t mind the early over-saturation of Christmas music quite so much if Denny’s and Target and IHOP and Price Chopper were piping in quality renditions of, say, Michael Praetorius’ “Singet und Klinget ihr Kinderlein” or Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina’s “Hodie Christus Natus Est” or Benjamin Britten’s “A Ceremony of Carols” or Charles Wesley’s “Hark! How All the Welkin Rings.” You know, musical works that have some roots and resonance in the true spiritual traditions of Christmas, with centuries of traction and cultural relevance behind them.

But, no, we don’t get any of that, as retailers tend instead to have three distinct classes of Christmas treacle that they force into our ear holes at this time of year:

  1. Classic rockers or R&B artists mangling holiday standards (see Springsteen) or crafting their own bits of soul-sucking seasonal fluff (see McCartney).
  2. Baby boomer nostalgia trips into the soundtracks of those Rankin-Bass cartoons and stop-action puppet shows of our childhoods (see “Frosty the Snowman” or “Rudolf the Red Nosed Reindeer” or “The Little Drummer Boy”).
  3. Kitschy, over-the-top 1940s and 1950s renditions of carols loaded down with syrupy, teeth-rotting string and vocal arrangements (see the Andrews Sisters’ “Winter Wonderland” or Danny Kaye’s “All I Want for Christmas Is My Two Front Teeth” or Perry Como’s “Home for the Holidays”).

What do all of these categories of music have in common? They are all bad music, that’s what, which offends my sensibilities on so many levels. It takes garbage to make us buy garbage, I guess. And Retail America wants nothing more than for us to buy more garbage, each and every year.

Bah, humbug. I wish they’d just let me eat my pancakes in peace.

A Passing: Peter Christopherson (1955-2010)

British artist-musician-designer Peter Christopherson died in his sleep Wednesday night at the age of 55. His creative work has been an inspiration for me in many ways since the mid-1970s, when he first made his name as a member of the Hipgnosis design team, responsible for some of the more stunning album cover art of the era, including Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here and Animals and Peter Gabriel’s first three self-titled albums. He was also a founding member of Throbbing Gristle, arguably one of the most influential groups in the industrial and post-punk musical movements, and directed dozens of jaw-dropping music videos in the 1980s and 1990s for acts including Rage Against the Machine, Erasure, Ministry, Nine Inch Nails, Van Halen, Yes, Paul McCartney and Robert Plant. He had a keen creative aesthetic, and added equal measures of style and grit to each of his projects.

Any one of those accomplishments would have impressed me on its own, but the field of endeavor where Christopherson actually had the most profound influence and impact on me was in his post-Throbbing Gristle work with the experimental music group, Coil, built around his personal and creative partnership with John Balance. The duo and their revolving cast of collaborators were astoundingly prolific from 1982 to 2004, at which point Coil ceased to be, after Balance died tragically at the age of 42 following a fall in their home. Coil’s catalog easily ranks as the most challenging and rewarding creative canon I’ve ever encountered, as they were capable of truly frightening, gut-churning feats of musical alchemy (The Unreleased Hellraiser Themes and Constant Shallowness Leads to Evil come to mind, to cite but two examples), while also producing some of the most haunting, beautiful music I’ve ever heard. Their arrangements, instruments, lyrics, melodies, titles and package designs routinely made me pause, think, and explore. I learned a lot from them by looking and listening.

So in honor of Peter Christopherson, here in the time of his flying away, and in memory of John Balance, six years after he passed, I share three of my favorite Coil songs below, culled from the more beautiful end of their creative spectrum. It’s sad to ponder both of the group’s guiding visionaries leaving us so prematurely. They truly touched me with their art. Pay your respects to the vultures . . .



Food for Your Soul

1. I’m seeing two really great, exciting sports stories unfolding right now. On the home front, the College of Saint Rose’s women’s soccer team is ranked number one in the nation, is undefeated, and is playing in the national semi-finals next week, for the third straight time. And looking beyond our own market, the University of Connecticut women’s basketball team is poised to break the all-time college basketball consecutive winning streak (88 games, achieved by John Wooden’s great UCLA teams) sometime in the next month, barring a big, unexpected trip up. I’m stumped, though, as to why these aren’t much, much bigger stories, nationally and (in the case of Albany-based Saint Rose) in our own local media. I love Siena men’s basketball, sure, but seeing them on the cover of the local sports pages day after day as they struggle to a 1-3 start of the season, while the Golden Knights women are making waves on a national front with far less coverage, seems a bit odd and biased from where I sit. Likewise in the national sports news, where the usually-over-rated North Carolina men losing are bigger news than the Huskies women winning and winning and winning. It’s interesting to me that the general sports-following public seems to be engaged by athletic women when they compete in individual sports (e.g. tennis, golf, track and field, stock car racing, etc.), but rarely when they participate in team sports like basketball, soccer or softball. Except, of course, when the Olympics roll around, because jingoism is gender bias-free.

2. I’ve long upheld Network as one of the most prescient movies released in my lifetime, as the news-as-corporate-hucksterism paradigm it richly satirized in 1976 has become sickeningly real in 2010. I cringe, for example, every time I hear someone using the “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore” rallying cry with a straight face, clearly not realizing what that line meant in the movie and screenplay that birthed it. (Anyone who uses that line should be really shouting “I’m an easily-manipulated dupe, and I am doing the bidding of my corporate masters!”) In recent years, I’ve grown to consider another movie from that era to be equally prescient in its view of what was then a dystopian near future: the original Rollerball from 1975, which posited a “corporate controlled future, where an ultra-violent sport represents the world.” When I’m at the gym and can’t control what’s on the television, and I watch vicious hits in the NFL being replayed over, and over, and over again, until I become numb to the violent imagery, I see Rollerball. When I watch highly-engineered, human-packed rockets on wheels going around and around the NASCAR track, completely devoid of any compelling interest or meaning until someone bumps someone else and sets off a series of crashes, flips, fires or all of the above, I see Rollerball. When martial arts have been reduced to men getting into literal cages with each other and beating, kicking and choking each other until one of them loses consciousness, I see Rollerball. When it’s more important for us to put highly-paid professional NBA and NHL stars onto our Olympic teams, to make damn sure that U.S.A. brings home the gold, at the expense of up-and-coming amateur athletes who would probably represent us better in a holistic sense on the world stage, I see Rollerball. When I ponder the piles of money being made being the scenes in all of these public spectacles, by people like agents and promoters and lobbyists and advertisers, who have never once actually played or participated in the sporting events in question, I see Rollerball. I’d recommend you watch it again, if you’ve never seen it. It’s almost as chilling as Network when viewed through a modern lens.

3. What would a Thanksgiving week post be without a “what I am thankful for” musing? I am thankful that my daughter came home last night, and my mother will arrive tomorrow, so I will have house full of women I love for the weekend ahead, and (best of all) I will get to make them a feast tomorrow. I am thankful to have honest work in tough economic times, and hopeful that those who are struggling see their fortunes change in the weeks and months ahead. I am thankful for the general good health and happiness of the people in my life who matter the most to me, friends and family alike. And I’m thankful that the latest intellectual diversion to spill out of my head, this here Indie Albany thing, is growing into something cool and fun and good, with 14 writers and a bevy of readers having generated 180 posts and 880 comments in just under two months, with a highly-coveted WordPress Fresh Pressed gold star on our collective refrigerator to boot. It’s always nice to see a concept turn into a reality, especially when the concept involves shared artistic expression without the taint of commercial enterprise. I do not see Rollerball here. And for that, I am thankful.

The (Musical) Weirdness of Youth

I rediscovered a video recently that was produced by a film-maker friend around 2003, featuring a song I’d written in the 1980s. My creative aesthetic, such as it was then, largely involved being autonomous and independent, creating the strange sounds I wanted with enthusiastic amateur collaborators, mostly in the studio, though occasionally in live settings. I worked with guitars, basses, synths, and all sorts of weird analog equipment and non-musical elements, most of it used incorrectly. There was no such thing as too much signal processing in my world.

It’s weirdly invigorating, thirty-plus years later, to be able to listen to the musical weirdness of my youth. I must admit to flinching at how bad some of the lyrics I wrote in the late 1970s and early 1980s were, but without those baby steps at the beginning, I may never have blossomed into my current creative persona, such as it is.

Want to hear some of those baby steps? If so, the links below provide some representative songs for you, written as far back as my late teen years in the 1970s, and mostly recorded on cassette tapes in the mid-1980s. Collectively, they provide a little peek into the misdirected energy of my oblivious youth, some of them lifted raw from mixing boards, some of them demos with a little studio gloss applied. I’m sort of proud that some of the things I was doing way back then that weren’t of interest to anybody but me actually now sound like some other things that came later, by other people, and that garnered more critical credibility than I would have imagined possible as I tweaked my machines to make the noises that amused me, however horrible they were.

The Disinclined

I Just Count

Mechanical Walker

The Hum of Entropy

Barcelona

Anathematics

Every Morning Still The Same

Dream in a Stranger’s Car

SH7

Belaboring The Necroequine

Coda From Prodigality

God of the Pigs, Part 1

God of the Pigs, Part 3

Halloween

Wordlessly Going Mad Together

The Hum of Entropy

At the wedding on Saturday night, a bunch of musicians-in-remission got to discussing our glorious days of yore, when we trod various stages making big rock and roll sounds.

Well, except for me: I played on stage, but as a solo artist and in bands, I tended to make aggressively weird and experimental and noisy music, way back in the days before such things became critically cool.

But some (weird) folks liked the noises I made, and one of them (Amy Frushour Kelly) even went so far as to make a video for one of my instrumental songs, nearly 20 years after it was recorded, which I have posted above for your amusement (?). It’s a lovely short film, marred only by (a) my music, and (b) my acting.

For the record, the swirling piece under the opening credits is actually called “Coda from Prodigality,” with “The Hum of Entropy” beginning about 58 seconds into the movie, where the really tickety-tick early 1980s BOSS DR-110 Drum Synthesizer¬† makes its first appearance. The song eventually deteriorates into an ambient electronic whine, that I produced by plugging some things into each other in ways that you aren’t supposed to, and then holding mics up to the resultant mess to capture the feedback.

I’ll let you ponder this one for a spell, and then, maybe, if I’m really feeling like I want to punish you, I’ll post one of the songs where I actually sing. Oh, the horrors! There were actually words to “The Hum of Entropy” in its original configuration, though I never got around to recording them. You can sing along, if you wish, as follows, lyrics copyright JES, circa 1984 or 1985 or so:

The hum of entropy
Sounds as things cease to be
The end of you and me
The hum of entropy

The sound of things falling apart
The sound of the end of the start
The sound of the hole in your heart
The sound of things falling apart

The hum of entropy
Sounds as things cease to be
The end of you and me
The hum of entropy

Witness

The order had come straight down from the big man himself:
“You’re to stoke the fires seven times hotter than the norm.”
The King, though, didn’t understand just how my furnace worked,
since the walls themselves would have melted if it got that warm.
But I knew what he wanted, and I gave it my best shot:
when he brought that night’s victims down, my furnace would be hot.

I’d heard that there were three of them who’d refused to bow down
to the ninety foot tall gold statue out on Dura’s plain.
King Nebuchadnezzar had them brought down to the palace,
asked them point blank to bow on the spot. They refused again,
while everyone else in the room hit the floor straight away
when the horns, flutes, zithers, lyres, harps and pipes began to play.

The King pitched a fit at that point, had the three heathens cuffed,
and sent his order to my office, in the boiler room.
I got the slaves working up the engines and the bellows,
our central unit would be their crematory and tomb.
It was cranking along nicely, too hot to stand close by.
“It’ll be quick,” I thought. Still, though, not how I’d choose to die.

Now, here’s where my story begins to get real weird, real fast.
The guards who brought in the three prisoners collapsed and died,
and the King’s tightly bound victims fell down into the flames.
Before they hit the floor, their flesh and blood should have been fried,
so I went to cut the juice, just as I heard a wild shout,
and some jabbering about four phantoms walking about.

“Not a chance,” I thought, since I’d read the fuel gauges myself,
and knew just how hot the guts of that furnace really were.
But the King and all his satraps and prefects were screaming,
so I grabbed my welding goggles and peeked in to make sure.
I feel sort of funny even telling this story now,
but, it’s the truth: four guys were walking in that fire, somehow.

The King called the heathens’ names, and the three men climbed right out,
big smiles on their faces, fully clothed, unhurt and unburned.
Seems the fourth man was an angel that their God had sent down,
and with that bit of information, the King’s heart was turned.
Mine too: I quit my furnace work, cut all my palace ties,
and took a new job at Abednego’s Office Supplies,
(where I also work with those other two fireproof guys).