Flow, Fissure, Mesh

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Monthly Archives: March 2014

Hearing John K. Samson’s "Highway One West"

We have been reading John K. Samson’s Lyrics and Poems 1997-2012 in one of my current undergraduate classes. One of things I want to interrogate critically about this book is the nature of that “and” in its title: what can these texts tell us, as close readers and as attentive listeners, about the relationship between lyrics and lyric, between song and poem? I’m looking to describe a certain nascent melopoeia in John K. Samson’s conception of how words work, in his conception of the cultural work of both singing and saying, of performing. What, he seems to be asking in most of these pieces (repurposing a famous provocation from Rainer Maria Rilke), what can singers and singing be for in a destitute time such as ours?
         I say nascent because, as you thumb through the book, you’ll see that most of the lyrics are printed as if they are prose, like brief essays or prose-poems. Spatially – at least, on the page – this visual arrangement in discrete typographical blocks echoes the cover design (which gestures, as well, at the cover for his 2012 album Provincial and at the graphic design of his webpage), a grid page from an old ledger, sections of which have been filled in with brown and blue hashmarks in pen. The effect, I think, is to gesture at an imaginary map of a parceled rural landscape, the Latin squares of prairie agricultural space. Hand-drawn lines – lines of ink but also lines of poetry – take on topographical resonances. These are songs preoccupied with articulating a human subject in space, with what amounts to placing oneself. In Canada, questions of who I am often become, following a lead from Northrop Frye, questions of where I am and where here is. But rather than fall back on mythopoeic cultural nationalisms – generalizing an Anglo-Canadian psyche as Frye might by locating and defining its (or our) territorial idiom – Samson queries that relationship, and tends to inhabit its inadequacies, and to create a pathos from and within that shortfall. In Vertical Man / Horizontal World, Laurie Ricou reframes the prairie psyche as nascent rather than determinate (and please pardon the gender bias here, which I think is symptomatic of the time at which Ricou’s study was published): “the landscape, and man’s relation to it, is the concrete situation with which the prairie artist initiates his re-creation of the human experience.” Ricou understands this particular landscape as initiating re-creation, as aesthetic disturbance, not as affirming a particular regional identity. The persona, the speaking or singing subject, of a Samson song is usually “left or leaving,” remaindered or else in the process of departure, “undefined” (as the lyric to “Left or Leaving” puts it), but always seeking a positional relation, for better or for worse, with a sense of home, tracking the “lines that you’re relying on to lead you home.” Those lines are also literally nascent, at least in their print form; reading the prose, you can hear metre and rhyme begin to realize themselves, as if lines were gently beginning to extricate themselves, audibly, from an undifferentiated (undefined?) verbal flow, a lineated poem emerging – although not quite emerged – from the prose. It’s not so much that the prose-poem aspires to the condition of song as it is that we experience a sort of hiatus, a space of what the lyrics for “Left and Leaving” might call “waiting,” between conception and realization, between text and song: a betweenity Samson thematizes as “and,” as an unclosed ampersand.
         The printed lyrics to “Highway One West” realize this betweenity both typographically and compositionally. The poem begins and ends with nine single-word lines. (The exception is the first line, which adds an extra word, tellingly the first word of the poem, another “And . . . .”) Framed by these narrow plummets, between them, are five lines of what look like prose – although they’re not prosaic in any sense, but tend toward metaphorical density:
And it
roll over the gravel shoulder, thump into the ditch,
engine cut, battery dying, the station metastasizing
tumours of evangelists and ads for vinyl siding,
the city some cheap EQ with the mids pushed up
in the one long note of wheat.
The 9 + 5 + 9 line-structure mimics a kind of overlapped sonnet. (“(manifest)” and “(past due)” from Reconstruction Site are both sonnets, in fact.) More than this ghostly resonance with literary form, however, the spatial disposition of the lines offers a visual analogue to the physiography in which the subject finds himself immersed. If you turn the page sideways, you can see the high-rise buildings of Winnipeg – or at least of “the city” – emerging in the centre of a flat prairie, the horizon created by a line of upended words. “Here,” the last word of the poem, is produced as a mimesis of distant surveillance, too far away to walk back to. The where of the poem is too far, moreover, from everywhere else; it is an elsewhere, alienated and alienating.

Notably, the song begins in performance with the looping repetition of the last segment (“Too far to walk . . .”), accompanied by a heavy, slow down-strum on the electric guitar, the repetition reinforcing the sense of resigned exhaustion, that “here” might be both everywhere and nowhere. The sounds coming over the car radio – not music but distant voices, a verbal garbage offering false promises of commercial or spiritual satisfaction – metastasizes into diseased noise, rough static. Sound technologies – both for recording and reproduction – offer another metaphorical (as opposed to metastasized) resonance to the geographical descriptors; that urban bump in the middle of the landscape mimics a graphic equalizer with the midrange sliders pushed up. The song gestures, in part, at the electronics used to produce it, and to reproduce it. But if, both visually and sonically, the lyrics and the recorded performance gesture at alienation and at loss, the text also frames and even recovers a degree of expressive potential – finds its voice – from within those horizontal margins, pulled over onto the shoulder of Highway One West, the Trans Canada. The page layout also mimics, coincidentally perhaps, a photograph of John K. Samson, used by The Globe and Mail, that looks like it was taken somewhere out on Highway One.
(I don’t know whom to credit for this photo.) The singer’s image, particularly with his back turned to the lens, echoes the middle section of the poem, while the highway and prairie skyline are picked up by the one-word horizontals. (Again, the page has to be turned sideways to see the mirroring.) What this accidental similarity suggests, for me, is a version of Ricou’s vertical man / horizontal world. The song itself has only a vestigial subjective presence: there is no “I” among the words, which are primarily objective and attenuated. But the voice, the speaking subject here, presents itself, ghosts itself into the song, as a hiatus, an opening in the mids and in the midst of this landscape.  The singer pauses on the shoulder, at the left-hand margin of the road and of the page, to look out and, especially, to listen. The song models, I want to suggest, a late or “weak” practice of attention, an opening of the self to audibility – both heard and hearing, left and leaving – that positions the subject as initiating its own recreation, cobbling itself together from interpellative fragments that he tries to hear, see and identify with as maybe, elsewise, his own.

Alias Fonds 1,2 (Justin Bieber Has Collapsed!)

Recent news items about Justin Bieber’s arrest in Miami (where he was charged in January with DUI and with drag racing) and about his subsequent mugshot, as well as earlier reports – to which I had access, like millions of others, via Twitter – of him vomiting milk during a performance and of him collapsing on stage at a concert in London, seem to offer opportunities to interrogate the collision of the body and image, of self and celebrity, and of lyric and media.  And to get a little wordy. I have ended up producing two texts, which I’m calling “Alias Fonds.” The headline for the report on Justin Bieber collapsing in London, when it appeared on a Twitter feed, read like a phase-shifted snippet from a Frank O’Hara poem, which set the composition of the first part in motion. I also overheard a conversation in a coffee shop at the time between two people I took for graduate students in actuarial science. The second part draws on the lyrics of a typical Justin Bieber song, mashed up with Dylan Thomas, W. H. Auden, some high school chemistry, and media reports on the arrest. There’s a lot of bent replication. The texts of the poems can be read here.
         Justin Bieber started out with homemade videos on YouTube. I’m no Bieber, of course, but the homemade audio is meant to gesture at these origins. There is only natural reverb, for instance, on the voice: no effects. I play the instruments – a baritone ukulele and a student-model Yamaha trumpet – and I programmed and sequenced the drum machine (a DM-1 cloned on an iPad) partly to reflect the 5-on-4 metre of the first section. (The second section shifts the rhythm a little, but it’s still there, ghostly-like.) I intend the trumpet loops to be an homage to Bill Dixon. The two poems were written in the space of about eight months. The recordings happened from October 2013 to March 2014. So there you go.

Natalie Simpson and Jonathan Ball at Play Chthonics

Natalie Simpson and Jonathan Ball read yesterday evening (that’s Wednesday, March 19, 2014), for the last installment of Play Chthonics: New Canadian Readings at Green College at the University of British Columbia. It was a real pleasure to host them in Vancouver.
Before the reading, they graciously stopped by my undergraduate course on contemporary poetry and discussed their poetics with the students. The course focuses on British, Irish and Scottish poets, but they each lent a welcome Canadian presence to the class, giving the practice of writing an articulate immediacy that was both inspiring and provocative. Natalie Simpson spoke about the impact of Gertrude Stein and Lisa Robertson on her work, and described her own technique as associative and extemporaneous, building poems from sonic and phonemic echoes within and around text. Jonathan Ball talked about his interest in horror writing, and suggested that poems can act as trauma generators, pushing both readers and himself into new and surprising aesthetic relationships with language and with image. He said that he conceived of poems not as individual lyrics – he confessed to abandoning the lyric some years earlier – but as larger-scale sequences or books.
         At the reading, later, Jonathan Ball went first. He read from his collections Clockfire, Ex Machina and The Politics of Knives. “I noticed,” he said between poems, “I tend to use knives a lot.” He likes the idea of a poem as something that should cut you, engage you, to produce some kind of “ontological uncertainty.” He talked about the poem providing source-matter for, and also consisting in, the re-mix. And he suggested that poetry often inheres in moments of the loss of direction.
         Natalie Simpson read poems from Thrum, her collection forthcoming in April from Talonbooks. “Language,” she said, “is a likely state,” pointing up an aural and syntactic mesh in her work that seem to consist in sets of strange attractors. “Our form,” one of her poems declares, “is buffeted.” Her poems entangle listeners in a kind of attentively close sidewinding, a careful distraction. We find ourselves, as another of her lines has it, “adrift in plainsong tasked with swim.” At least, that’s how I heard it.

         Thanks to both poets for a terrific reading. And thanks to Green College for their ongoing support for this series.

Wanted, Veronica Mars

The first thing we hear in the Veronica Mars movie is a snippet of audio from a telephone message, a young woman’s voice asking for her help. The same plea, the same phrasing – “Veronica, I need your help” – will arrive in Veronica Mars’s cellphone inbox, this time from her former boyfriend and antagonist Logan Echolls, a few minutes into the film, setting the main narrative in motion, a nouveau noir-ish tale about her return to Neptune California to investigate the murder of a pop star with whom she attended high school, and who was part of the privileged crowd of so-called 09ers around whom the storylines of the original three-season television series largely revolved. The movie revisits and remakes the series, of course, but this revision involves much more than nostalgically transplanting an extended new episode of the series onto a big screen. In many ways, the contrast between the cinematic and television screens is no longer an issue of screen size or aspect ratio, which are increasingly and asymptotically close, but rather a question of how that image-system is managed and delivered; Veronica Mars, you could argue, self-consciously puts this screen-to-screen medium-shift at issue, investigating how media wrangle and shape not only audience and fandom – our committed and even addictive reception of television drama – but also our shared perceptual apparatuses: how, as a public, we train ourselves to watch (both as onlookers and as surveillance) and how these communal practices of looking and of listening remediate our worlds. As viewers, I’m saying, we implicitly need Veronica Mars, or television like it, to help us.
         The opening scenes of the movie take place in a fictional office space and studio for This American Life, for whom Veronica’s current love-interest Piz – carried over from the third season of the TV show – works as an on-air personality. (We first glimpse him speaking into a microphone.) Now, I’m working from sketchy notes and memory, having only seen the movie once, last night, but as I remember it, Veronica gets the call from Logan as she and Piz exit the building where the studio and offices are housed, and a street musician with an acoustic guitar is playing a version of the opening lines of the series theme-song, The Dandy Warhols’s “We Used to be Friends”: “A long time ago, we used to be friends, / But I haven’t thought of you lately at all.” There are layers of sound, I’m suggesting, particularly of voices, in play at this moment. Here, talk-radio and theme-song offer us a metonymies of the detective-film voiceover (Kristen Bell’s narration defines the teen noir soundscape of the original show) and of soundtrack (an echo ghosted into Veronica’s displaced life, nine years and a continent away from Neptune). The movie literalizes on the screen what its lyrics declare. We hear Veronica’s inner monologue, what she’s “thinking of,” lately:  a snappy fusion of Philip Marlowe and Nancy Drew, maybe, but more than that a textual identification of Veronica’s subject-position, her point-of-view, with our viewership, inviting spectators to become co-investigators, and temporary friends. But we also hear in that contrapuntal layering of voices a fraught nostalgia, a “need” that Veronica will soon feel, the pull of her high school life (she has, we also discover in the scenes at This American Life, been refusing Wallace Fennel’s text-message invitations to come to their ten-year Neptune High reunion), but also that informs a return to the pleasures of television drama, as we are reunited as viewers with the show itself – although it’s been seven years, not nine, but who’s counting. My point is, I think, that this return, this nostos, this homecoming, is both shaped and managed by the textual and aural mediations of the voice, layers that we hear and (in word-bubbles, on screens, on paper evidence, and in the opening montage) also see.
         Veronica frequently frames her return as addiction. Logan, for instance, is the bad boy rich kid lover in Neptune she can’t resist, while Piz – in New York, where Veronica’s potential career as a lawyer is about to bloom – stands for everything a good guy ought to be. It’s important to recognize, though, that despite her attachments to boyfriends and to her father, and despite her character’s obvious uptake and re-purposing, on screen, of aspects of both the ingénue and the femme fatale, Veronica consistently refused in the TV series and continues to refuse throughout the movie to be contained or determined by masculine desire. The help that Logan or that anyone needsfrom her is not so much erotic fulfillment as it is a kind of necessary deconstruction, a subversion from within, of the stultifying constraints of a patriarchal social system choking on its own authoritarian narcissism. The new corrupt Sherriff Lamb in the movie, for instance, skeevily played by Jerry O’Connell, is taken down by Veronica’s manipulation of his vanity, his own perverse need to be in the media, as seen on TV. As with the original series, the movie concerns itself with the murder of a girl, this time a pop starlet with the stage name of Bonnie DeVille – the “good demon”? – a victim whose Catholic guilt (her recent  album is called Confession) seems to be getting the better of her celebrity. Bonnie’s manufactured and sanitized image begins to crack, and to expose its fraudulence and underlying depravity, a disclosure that’s abetted by Veronica’s visual acuity, as she and we begin carefully perusing video, photographic and textual clues. The crime behind the crime, involving another murdered girl, also hinges on a crucial photograph, which the murderer possesses, and uses to blackmail those complicit in the girls’ deaths. (I’m pulling my descriptive punches here, a little; I don’t want to spoil the plot, for those who haven’t seen the movie.) The help that Veronica offers her friends and offers us, at her own peril, is a corrective, a remediation of how we look at images and what we see. It’s about solving a mystery, of course, but she also proactively fixes what amounts to an uninterrogated and even deadly male gaze by actively directing us to re-think, lately, what we have missed.
         In his introduction to a 2006 “unauthorized” collection of essays on Veronica Mars, creator Rob Thomas – who writes and directs the movie – claims that the show “saved [his] career and, less importantly, [his] soul,” and that it does so by allow him to participate in the remediation of the medium of television itself:
I taught high school during my mid-twenties in Austin, Texas. I have clear memories of sitting in my living room watching TV and wondering how clearly god-awful programming made it on the air.
He needed and TV needed, he suggests, Veronica Mars’s help as much as the rest of us. Framed as cultural pedagogy, a late return to the unfulfilled social promises of high school. Veronica Mars, in 2006 when he writes, is imperiled as a program and will very soon be cancelled, but Thomas is keen to articulate his gratitude for the transformative work that Veronica Mars continued to undertake, a transformation that hinged on an emerged viewership, a fandom, tied to visual and narrative acuity, to paying close attention:
We’re in the middle of our third season, so we’ve defied the odds, and I can say with absolute certainty, there’s nothing about Veronica Mars that I take for granted. Sure, we don’t do well in the ratings, but our fans are fervent, and they pay attention to detail.
Veronica Mars, for him, is about this renovated – and I would say critically-focused – attentiveness, about thinking of you, lately and carefully. The movie was made possible by a Kickstarter campaign that raised in short-order over five million dollars in crowd-sourced funding from donations by more than 91000 fans (donations for which they received early access to digital versions of the completed film). The movie is, in many ways, a love-letter to those fans, but I think it might be better understood as something like a response to the need for help, and for friendship, that the opening telephone message articulates. (Fandom, a potentially psychotic fandom, might also be the motive for the murder Veronica investigates.)
         At one point, Veronica has flowers delivered to Gia, one of her not-so-friendly friends (and whose name, coincidentally, resonates at least for me with the final syllables of nostalgia), and of course the bouquet contains a bug. Veronica tells Logan, over the cellphone, that she has had to use some “old school” tech she has swiped from her father, an FM transmitter that narrowcasts to what she thinks is an unused frequency on the public dial. Meanwhile, she sets up her camera – the one with the huge telephoto lens, an iconic holdover from the TV series, reproduced on the movie poster – across from Gia’s apartment, and, through a set of cinematic echoes of Rear Window  (including the lens itself) – we listen to and watch Gia through a grid of windows. Again, the film layers media and voices, reminding us – in the impurity of the audio or the grid-work of the window panes – of the thickness, of the materiality of mediation. We see the graphic surfaces and hear the interferences, the apparatuses that get in our way as much as they enable our access – to information, to character, and even to Neptune’s imaginary spaces. The movie, in my view, feels like television, and I’m not entirely sure why, but part of that sense has to do with its attention not only to smallness, to luminous particulars, but also with its audiovisual self-awareness. Tele-vision – as “distant” seeing – hinges as a medium not only on the feint of intimacy, a scopophilia inherent in surveillance and in the sharp visual analysis on which Veronica’s “investigations” depend, but also on a kind of telephoto thickening, a quality of light. The burnished visual textures that I have come to associate with the fictional Neptune – the red light, for instance, suffused by stained glass throughout Keith Mars’s office – become symptomatic in the film of an almost tactile proximity, a mildly hellish twilight that betokens the lateness, the late return, in which the show is enmeshed. It also draws us in, inviting to reconsider and to investigate our own desires to watch, to look, to see.

Reading Patti Smith

[This essay, focusing on Patti Smith’s early songs, emerges from teaching and writing I’m doing around an undergraduate course on the poetics of song lyrics and pop culture studies.]
Patti Smith Complete 1975-2006 is more than an anthology of lyrics, and it’s also hardly complete. Patti Smith’s writing – along with her music and photography – is marked and informed by an essential contrariety, by a conflictedness suggested ironically in the book’s blandly generic title, which gestures, I’d say, toward an admixture of excess and fragmentation, of spontaneous overflow and fraught insufficiency that drives her thinking around the making of poems and songs and around her performance style.  She frames this set of contradictions, her sense of voice and of self as embodied contradictions, in the snippets of memoir and reflection scattered throughout the book; commenting on the lyrics for “Birdland,” a track for Horses spontaneously and collectively realized by her and her band in the recording studio, she says that the “concept of improvisation” – and it’s worth nothing that she says concept, rather than practice – “has long repelled and excited me, for it contains the possibilities of humiliation and illumination,” that is, both of the degrading and the vatic. “Sha da do wop da shaman do way sha da do wop da shaman do way,” she sings at the close of her extemporaneous soliloquy; song, as contingent melody, emerges (as in “Land”) off-and-on in the piece from passages of loosely narrative spoken word; the final gently looping chorus blurs doo-wop girl-group nonsense syllables into a vestigial chant of the word “shaman,” and it’s as a kind of nascent and androgynous rock’n’roll shaman that Smith wants here, at the outset of her singing career, to position herself. In a New York Times review of her 1978 collection Babel, a precursor to the “complete” collection we’re now reading in our course on song lyrics and popular culture, Jonathan Cott nicely encapsulates the contradictions that inhere in Smith’s stagy shamanism as he traces out the complexities of her performance persona, of her onstage self-fashioning:
Patti Smith has taken this magic amalgam and manifested it in what she calls “3 chord rock merged with the power of the word,” claiming that rock-and-roll is “the highest and most universal form of expression since the lost tongue (time: pre-Babel).” . . . [B]y adopting a paradoxical theatrical stance – one that confuses male and female roles and that combines the acoustic magic of Rimbaud and the Ronettes – Patti Smith has been able to develop, explore and create a certain shamanistic presence that has eluded many aspiring rock-and-roll seers and heroes.
Counterpointing bits of scripture with caustic fragments of French symbolist poetry, her performative “magic” emerges as an uneasy blend of what she calls – ventriloquizing Jean Genet’s poemLe Condamné à mort” on the back cover of her 1979 album Wave – a doubling of menace into prayer, of prayer as menace.  (In the pages of her Complete, the crux of the line – “Use menace, use prayer.” – becomes an epigraph to the section reproducing the lyrics for Easter [90].)
The infamous first line of “Gloria” – the first track and the first single from her first album, Horses – combines the liturgical and the blasphemous along this same trajectory: “Jesus died for somebody’s sins but not mine.” As an opening gambit, her declaration doesn’t simply articulate what sounds like a resiliently agnostic, existential individualism, but also voices an entitlement – hers, “mine” – to her own deliberate marginality. Her rock-and-roll “magic,” understood as a gestural negation, isn’t so much about belief and shared redemption as it is about disturbance, about a faith – a belief both in and as resistance – that wants uncompromisingly to test its limits and to refuse any vestiges of comfort or assurance. While never quite rejecting Christian iconology and aesthetics (especially the ritual of Roman Catholicism, as the tone poem “Wave,” for example, makes abundantly clear, as well as a very recent photograph of her meeting Pope Francis) Patti Smith describes her Jesus, in the wake of viewing Pier Paolo Pasolini’s film The Gospel According to St. Matthew, as a  “revolutionary figure”: “I began to see him in another light – a teacher, a fighter, a guerrilla” (96). Her Easter is closer to an Easter uprising, a rebirth in turmoil that implicates her in an uncompromised, if not violent, self-remaking. As she appropriates and repurposes the glorified masculine desire that informs Van Morrison’s (as one of Them) original 1963 single “Gloria” (“And oh, she looks so good. Oh she looks so fine / And I got this crazy feeling that I’m gonna make her mine”), the subject position that defines itself in a tirade of possessives (“And I’ve got to tell the world that I made her mine made her mine / Made her mine made her mine made her mine made her mine”) degenerates into a repetitive chant that pulverizes poeisis, making, and diegesis, telling, into thudding particulate phonemes: her voice, the “I” that sings and by singing both hails and possesses its feminine other, becomes drumming, becomes unclosed, brutal and primeval rhythm, a beating. Liturgical responsorial from the Latin mass – gloria in excelsis deo– is both secularized into an erotic object and pulled apart, as she intones each letter of Gloria’s name, into the molecular fragments. The song at once catalyzes into insistent, thetic syllables and disintegrates into undifferentiated verbal noise: pronouncing and dismantling a beloved name that, through the poetic agency of the lyric itself, becomes simultaneously both mine and not-mine, supplement and other.
This double move is, I think, characteristic of many of Patti Smith’s lyrics, which often assert a confidently singular subject while gesturing to the iterative, collaborative and unsettled character of that voice, of her voice. The sexual ambiguity of “Gloria,” for example, as Patti Smith’s lyrics overtake and then fall into a cover-version, a repetition with difference, of Van Morrison’s original (sung, as the lyrics claim, to “twenty thousand girls” at an imaginary stadium concert), disturbs any clear sense of the erotic narrative in the song: Is this a woman ventriloquizing heterosexual desire? Does the song become a queer paean to same-sex desire? The indeterminate androgyny of Patti Smith’s stage persona unknits any normalizing of the dynamics between man and woman, suitor and ingénue. “Because the Night” (from Easter, two or three years later) thematizes desire as belonging, assembling want and succor into an amalgam of contrarieties that becomes more a testament to faith than its deconstruction: “Because the night belongs to lovers / Because the night belongs to us.” Notably, that belonging is shared, ours instead of mine. Smith describes herself as reluctant to listen to a demo cassette of an early version of the song, supplied through producer/engineer Jimmy Iovine from its composer, Bruce Springsteen. Taken by what she describes as its “anthemic quality,” she finishes the lyrics and “somewhat begrudgingly” presents it to her band to record (100). The resulting hit song, she says, is a “testament to Jimmy Iovine’s vision and the co-writer’s New Jersey heritage,” which is also close to her own. As with “Gloria,” what emerges on record isn’t so much a cover or a version of someone else’s song as much as it is a collaborative mix of voices and articulations. For instance, one line that I take to be closer to Smith’s idiom than Springsteen’s (though who can tell or separate them out?) offers in an archly poetic inversion a strong disavowal of the imperious first-person singular: “Have I doubt when I’m alone.” While such a declaration might easily be taken as an avocation of conquest (and assertions in the lyric about “the way I feel under your command” would likely only reinforce such a reading), it seems to me that what we also hear – given the ambiguity and even absence of gender markers for example – is an unsettled and androgynous collaboration, an affirmation that belonging consists in shared desires rather than in their satisfaction through erotic subjugation. When the song asks us to feel and to heal through touch, to “touch me now” in its performative moment, subject and object are inverted in the imperative form, as “I” becomes “me.” Demand and uncertainty produce a temporary hiatus, an almost: contact suspended in the looping repetitions of the refrain. For me, as a listener, this persistence of desire sounds itself in the rhythmic phase-shift of the chorus; because of where it’s placed metrically, “becáuse” becomes “bécause”, and the song gently but persistently jostles against its own formal limits.
Smith’s songs, though, are hardly ever so gentle. (There is nothing, nothing gentle about “Rock n Roll N****r,” an in-your-face provocation that offers a sort of blasphemous flipside to “Because the Night.” [The actual b-side on the 45 was “God Speed.”] I can’t bring myself to type the word without self-censoring: to me, it’s unredeemable and ugly, a verbal violence out of which Smith draws an insurmountable and irresolute alterity, a brutal vocal enactment of Rimbaud’s grammatically fraught claim that “Je est un autre.” There is a good discussion of much of the background to Smith’s reappropriation of the term n****r here.)
The sequence “Land” (also on Horses) begins with a spoken-word piece “Horses” that builds from rubato free-form narrative to four-on-the-floor incantatory, blistering rock. “Horses” sketches a tale of Johnny and his mirror-image, a nameless boy, who confront each other in an unspecified hallway. This doubling is also echoed, literalized, in the restrained overdubbing of another vocal track by Smith, out-of-synch with the lead, her words softly clashing and crashing into each other, as her delivery becomes more emphatic. As the boy approaches, “a rhythm was generating” the song tells us. Johnny is penetrated by the boy as he’s pushed against a locker. (Is this a high school hallway?) The boy disappears, but Johnny starts crashing his own head against the locker, a violence that seems to produce either delusion or vision, concussion or transcendence: either way, the “rhythm” Johnny now sees and hears with increasing intensity in his head, in his ears, sounds like the hoofbeats of fire breathing horses, a pounding verbalized in a chant-like repetition – similar to the chorus in “Gloria” – of a single word: “He saw horses horses horses / horses horses horses horses horses.” The surging drums and guitars behind Smith’s vocal reach a vatic climax – these are versions of the horses of the Christian apocalypse – only to find release into a high velocity version of “Land of a Thousand Dances.”
As with “Gloria,“ the group inhabits in the fierce present tense of their performances a dynamic trajectory through rock’n’roll history. The apocalyptic horses transform, in the first line of Wilson Pickett’s top 40 hit, into one of a set of teenage dance crazes: “Do you know how to pony like bony maroney” Smith wails. Whoever her Johnny might have been, as a representative disaffected teenager, he now appears to find a moment of catharsis and of shared vitality in the song’s hypnotic repetitions: it’s an old song recovered and made new, and it also asserts an insistently driven 4/4 rhythm in which you can’t help getting caught up and pulled to your feet – “Got to lose control and then you take control [. . .] Do you like it like that like it like that.” Spontaneity and self-control collide and smash; what you (not I and not even we, but the vocalist’s externalized other, her audience) . . . what you get to like in this music – liking taken both as likeness, as in the mirrorings and identifications inherent in popular music, and as Eros, as liking what you feel – what you get to like in this music are the conflicted pleasures of its own creative unmaking, its audible gristle.