AUTUMN OF THE PATRIARCHS: James Parker on Richard Meltzer and Mike Watt (Arthur 14/Jan. 2005)

Originally published in Arthur No. 14/January 2005

Autumn of the Patriarchs
By James Parker

Reviewed:

RICHARD MELTZER
Autumn Rhythm
(Da Capo/Perseus)

MIKE WATT
the secondman’s middle stand
(Columbia/RedEye)

It’s Autumn, by God, and I couldn’t be happier. If you’re a writer, it’s the only season: the peak, the prime. Summer flattens you, Winter cramps you, Spring is a mere sizzling of the sex-urge, but Autumn flings open the furnace door to real transformation. On a high November afternoon, with the leaves in a life-and-death whirl and that tossing, brassy light all around, the writer creeps from his/her carapace and partakes in the vortex of Possibility. Out come the old, allergen-loaded sweaters. Yes! On goes the woolly hat, that incubator of thought. Upward fly the—well, I could go on, but the point here is to address our latest bard of the Autumn, the great Richard Meltzer, whose Autumn Rhythm (now out in glorious paperback!), is not so much about crisp weather and fiery trees as it is about Mortality (or mortali-T, as the Meltz, in his demented flippancy, might put it)—age, defeat—the Autumn of our days—“the ‘topic’ at hand: your time… my time… all our times running low, running out, or in any case running.”

Meltzer, in case you’re not sure, is a father of what he calls ‘rockwriting’—Sixties, Seventies, he did it, he lived and typed it, was legendary, boozed with Bangs, tyro’d with Tosches etc etc. He figured in LA punk rock, a great stimulus to the minutemen, had his own terrible band. It’s all in his previous tome, A Whore Just Like the Rest. And now, finding himself “on the cusp of fucking dotage” (his late fifties), Meltzer is taking the long view and using the essay form. He considers his life, and the possible cessation thereof. Is there any more good art to be had from the fact that we’re all, sooner or later, going to be combusted or ploughed under? Certainly there is. Take this: “A couple years ago I started quantifying what a day actually felt like, what its duration as lived existentially was, and the unit day, I surmised, was only four hours long. It now feels about three and a half…. What can you get done in three and a half hours? (Better not piss—that’ll cut it to three.)” Or this, from a piece about Meltzer’s father, touchingly entitled “The Old Fuckeroo”: ‘Of course he LOVED me (and I loved him) and all such nonsense—but that part was maybe the worst of it. A sentimental slob, a ‘40s romantic in desperate need of a compliant LOVE OBJECT, he inflicted his ardor on me in direct proportion to what he wasn’t getting from his wife, assuring me (as often as not) that I was the the most important being in his life. A sensitive little prick, I grieved for the guy in his loneliness…” This is top-notch, ranking with the most exalted literature of fathers and sons. “(And I loved him)”—oh, the brackets say everything.

Like a number of greying punk rock dudes one knows, Meltzer is a cat person. It’s almost a type: the hoary radical, the ex-crazy, childless (Meltzer has declined to Impose “the full slimy wrath of [his] being” on any progeny), spurning most human allegiance but twistedly into his cat or cats, relishing and respecting the fuck-you-ness and complication of the feline. Meltzer writes, at any rate, with unguarded passion about his own aging—dying, in fact—pet-friend. The prose totters pretty close to the sentimental here—“It tears my guts out that I can’t tell him anything he’ll understand ‘bout how come he can’t go outside no more”—but it’s the real man speaking, no question, the same crank who elsewhere demands that we “unplug from the cyber lifeline… it’s a fucking deathline,” and that “Any bar, meantime, where the TV is never off should be NAPALMED.” (hear! hear!)

Meltzer can be an extraordinary comic writer, a real Joycean nutjob, but Autumn Rhythm is—as a rule— sombre, shaded, down. For a freelancer or “writeperson,” reading him in this mode is like having a skull on your desk—the hack’s death’s head, with failure caverned in its eyeholes. Unrich, unredeemed, still pissed at all the mags he ever wrote for, the Meltz will be your memento mori. “May this heap-o-pulp likewise serve as the ur-expression of YOUR vanity. A foretaste of your own aftertaste, of your own extinction.” No laughing matter. Only once does the author uncage the humorist, the Joycean nutter within, in a blinding series of anagrams (with explanations) for “Twentieth Century”: “W.C.T.E: ‘NUTHER ENTITY? (is the Women’s Christian Temperance Enfederation really diff’rent from their Union?)… WET TEN-INCH RYE TUT (medium-size Egyptian novelty bread, after the rain).” Personally, I can’t get enough of this stuff—“NEUTER THE WITTY N.C. (Noel Coward should be desexed, humorless critics contend)”—but I suppose I should stop quoting it. Besides, it’s not all gold dust between these covers. There are “poems”—or at least vertical strands of collapsed prose—in here, mere beermat jottings really. “His life was like a fart…” “if the flies want me/ let the flies have me,” “does my dick have scales?”—yeah, well, okay. Dead-end complacency. Keep typin’em up, Mr. M, if it helps you stay loose… Alright, just one more: “TUNNEY ET IT W/ ‘H’ CERT (Gene followed lobster with a heroin-flavor breath mint).” Ha!

MTV, the “wundaful world-o-videos,” is another of Meltzer’s apocalypses, like the TV bars and the Internet. “When the frigging MINUTEMEN did a vid,” he declares, “you knew it was completely over.” So speaking of the minutemen, and speaking of being completely over, let’s move on to the new Mike Watt CD, which details—really details—a more urgent autumnal event, a most drastic run-in with mortality. the secondman’s middle stand is about serious physical illness (and recovery), and like Watt’s previous contemplatin’ the engine room it takes the form of a punk rock opera, thematically unified, moving in suites. No guitar this time, no Nels Cline or flaming Joe Baiza—on top of the bass and drums is the B3 organ of Pete Mazich, summoning celestial overtones or carousel queasiness as required.

The sickness unto death, for Watt, began in the perineum, that dark notch between balls and asshole. A place of terror: less a place than a space—an eerie, sensate, biologically brooding nothing. Anyway, in 2000 Watt got some sort of explosive abscess right there on his perineum, on the black fulcrum of his being as it were, a boil or saddlesore that blossomed vilely upward and inward and swelled its canker until he quite literally burst, gushing infection through emergency blowholes. Imagine it if you dare, it was an authentic crisis—flashing lights, gurneys, surgery, “38 days of fever,” the mercury climbing in horror and indignation, Watt hovering in half-states, deeply drugged. He almost died. His health and strength were demolished. His recovery was inch-by-inch. “Many geisha boy steps to make the couple of blocks from my pad.” Geisha boy steps—that’s very good.

Fortunately, blessedly, Watt’s philosophy seems to have been a match for this. A proper materialist from his minuteman days, always wrestling with the actual, he was not dismayed to find himself splayed, helpless, reduced, a creature of “pissbags and tubing.” His interest in the conditions, his taste for the basics, prevailed. Adrift for a time in the the unlit precincts of his own body, CURIOSITY got him home. “Dicktube yanked out too/How I laughed when that golf ball bead came thru…” If you’ve ever encountered Watt in person you know that there’s a poetic totality to the man, a density of imagination in which everything—the mumble, the rumble, the word-hoard, the face-bristle, the bong-gurgle, the rumour and squelch of his bass—corresponds. It’s the whole Watt thing, and it feeds the art tremendously: in some respects it is the art. All experience is grist to Watt the mythifier and this here, this bodily drama, is his own “dark wood of error,” his existential pratfall. Can you dig a punk rock opera about a man whose ass exploded? I know you can. Three movements—Inferno; Purgatorio; Paradiso—hell-hot fever, convalescent limbo, the heaven of the healed return. Dante Alighieri hovers palely by, upper lip lengthened in slight disapproval: Watt has customised the Divine Comedy.

“Boilin’ Blazes” gets us rolling, as Watt does some big vomiting—“threw up mah guts”—and succumbs to fever. It’s the beginning of the “hellride,” a derangement of vile organ-blare and bombastic drumming. “Puked to High Heaven”—more vomiting, and the freakout becomes ontological: “In my head, a tightly packed flame…The moment has me seized!” “Burstedman” is the killer track: “Virgil! Beatrice!” cries the patient, as ungodly fluids splatter his “bulkhead.” “A life in the moment, is that what you’ve always wanted, Watt?” he taunts himself, his bass snicker-snacking. “Well here it is!” (Watt’s playing in general on secondman… is, if possible, more bulbous and ruminative than ever.)

Into hospital we go, and Watt gives us—joyously—the wadded dressings, the catheters, the incidental bladder infections, the nitty gritty: “yankin’ it out… and shovin’ it in!” The mood of “Tied a Reed Round My Waist” is… wonder, oddly enough, Pete Mazich’s B3 doing soft throbs of awe as Watt goes swooning under the knife of top surgeon “Doc Hopkins.” “Beltsandedman”—again with the blue-collar metaphors!—is a beautiful evocation of post-traumatic smoothness, clarity of perception, with fuzzed bass-notes lingering and Petra Haden’s harmonies leavening the Watt-growl. See Watt on the back of the CD, pounds lighter, purged and streamlined: the eyes are heavy-lidded but clear, afire, and there’s a sort of rinsed brilliance to the complexion. It all appears to have been quite good for him.

"Leminiscences": James Parker on the autobiography of Mr. Kilmister (Arthur No. 10/2004)

Originally published in Arthur No. 10 (May 2004)

Leminiscences
James Parker on the autobiography of Mr. Kilmister

Reviewed:
White Line Fever
by Lemmy Kilmister with Janiss Garza
(Citadel Trade)
320 pages, $14.95

When I was at an English boarding school in the Seventies, a sweatless boy among sweatless boys, all of us with scuffed shins and hard little minds, there was a brief craze for fainting. It swept through the school like some hot new type of dance. Chapel was the place for it: eight o’clock in the morning, leaky grey light, prayers humming their moth-wings, and the pale unbreakfasted boys would sigh and slump from their pews, one after another, in mild reversals of boy-energy. Low blood sugar had something to do with it—we were scandalously, I would say almost criminally underfed—but you couldn’t doubt the narcotic properties of the prayers themselves. There was this Marian chant from the 15th century which we would do from time to time: the Litany Of Loreto. A real trance-inducer. “Mystical rose!…PRAY for us…Tower of David!… PRAY for us… Tower of Ivory!… PRAY for us”—and so on, repeating and building in pounding, swaying dactyls until the brain cuts out. Years later I heard this rhythm again, in the same call-and-response measure, on a re-release of Hawkwind’s live album Space Ritual—“Time we left… (This world today!)… Brain police… (Not far behind!)… Trying to make you… (Lose your mind!)” Bastards! I smelled again stale pieties of incense, and felt a draught upon my knees as if I were in short trousers.

But this is all by the by, and only slenderly related to my theme, which is the new book White Line Fever, by Lemmy with Janiss Garza. Lemmy was of course in Hawkwind, playing his bass, and for a while he was the best thing about them—Space Ritual is dark hippy wreckage anyway, a huge crude monomanic bummer with drums dolefuly thrashing and vocals following sax following guitar following bass through riff after drug-blind riff. Quite impressive, in other words, but one wearies of the mindfuck. One wearies of Bob Calvert sneering “Sonic attack—in your dist-rict!” through metallic sinuses, the seedy psychedelic warlordism of it. Only the steady, earthy rumble of Lemmy’s bass keeps you listening. I love his sound on this record—surging, human, refusing the pull of outer space and the gnawings of paranoia. It’s not the definitive Lemmy sound, not the tremendous slobbering chordal attack he perfected in Motorhead, but it’s full of personality. In the midst of the Hawkzone, it’s comforting. Lemmy is very funny about Hawkwind in White Line Fever, about DikMik’s fit-inducing sound machines and Dave Brock’s regular delusion that he’d bitten his own tongue off, or his habit of leaning out of his car to shout “Spank! Spank! Spank!” at passing schoolgirls; “Hello girls! Spanky-spanky!” About Nik Turner—“one of those moral, self-righteous assholes, as only Virgos can be”—Lemmy is candidly bitchy, which is even better. Only prolonged night-after-night exposure to Turner’s farmyard sax-playing, his bleats and clucks and moos, could have distilled this weary disenchantment: “He was holding the saxophone and capering–he was a great caperer, Nikky.” Or (my favorite line in the whole book) “He’d get drunk as a cunt on wine.”

I’d like to know precisely how White Line Fever was written, the mechanics of authorship as it were. Behind every book like this is a very interesting sub-book, which is the story of the hack and his or her subject, and how they got it together, how long it took, and how they suffered mutually, etc. White Line Fever smells of Lemmy in his quarters, his LA apartment with the curtains drawn against the late afternoon and the walls prickling with WW2 memorabilia, and the great man filling ashtrays and bullshitting away, forgetting names, remembering dates, swirling through anecdotal loops, mumbling and thinking and chuckling. Nine-tenths of it is unmistakably Lemmy’s speaking voice, the voice of a roughened but still elegant old-school raconteur: “But back to Robbo. I’d known him for years—we met under a table at Dingwalls.” Lemmy’s memories—his Lemmories or Leminiscences—have a patchy, refracted fog-and-strobe quality, which is just as it should be. It gives them depth; early in the book we get a prismatic flash of the Beatles at the Cavern, playing odd-shaped guitars, telling jokes and “eating cheese rolls while singing” and headbutting hecklers. They sound as violent as the Marx Brothers. “Hard men,” says Lemmy, and goes on to disparage the Rolling Stones: Continue reading

TEN OUT OF 5: A comprehensive guide to the MC5’s recordings, for the curious, the enthusiast and the hopeless completist

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photo: Leni Sinclair

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This guide was originally published in Arthur No. 9 (March 2004) as one of a set of articles on the MC5 in that issue that ran over several pages (see two of the section’s two-page, 22×17-inch spreads above.) Copies of Arthur No. 9 are available for $25 each (our stock is almost out, that’s why the price is that high) from the Arthur Store

TEN OUT OF 5
A comprehensive guide to the MC5’s recordings, for the curious, the enthusiast and the hopeless completist by Seth “The Seth Man” Wimpfheimer, James Parker and Ian Svenonius

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"Metal for Wintertime" by James Parker (Arthur No. 15/Jan. 2005)

Originally published in Arthur No. 15 (Jan 2005)

“Metal for Wintertime”
by James Parker

Reviewed:

JESU
Jesu
(HydraHead)

HIGH ON FIRE
Blessed Black Wings
(Relapse)

OM
Variations On A Theme
(Holy Mountain)

DEAD MEADOW
Feathers
(Matador)

What a band was Godflesh. In the person of Justin Broadrick, with his combat boots, and his black clothes, and his electrode-ready shaved head, and his searing, clattering guitar tone, and his militant drum machine, and the traumatic circular lurching and nodding thing he would do onstage (which recalled to me unavoidably the movements of a cage-maddened polar bear I once saw in London’s Regents Park Zoo), a particular strand of post-punk disgust seemed to have fused—at very high pressure—with a severe religious impulse: here, one sensed, was a real ascetic, a world-class world-rejector. Of course, there was a lot of it about at the time —Eighties, early Nineties. Plenty of bands were disgusted, there were plenty of bleak and black-clad zealots with guitars for whom flesh was pain, existence gaol and society nothing but a species of sausage-grinder, but with Broadrick all that grimness and refusal was sublimed into something beautiful. Like a proper heretic, like a martyr in an El Greco painting, he had his eyes on the beyond; he was going down to rise above; even in Godflesh’s sickest, most imploded moments you could still hear that rage for transcendence. Slavestate… mindfuck… circle of shit etc (this was the tenor of Godflesh lyrics). Vivisection… the void… blah. But there was always beauty, somewhere about. On a chemical trace of melody Broadrick could compose an anthem.

Almost in passing, wrestling with machines, he invented industrial metal, Fear Factory and I don’t know who else, but Godflesh was never so much about ‘musical development’ as it was about the steady excavation and elaboration of a mindset, the dogged unburying of psychic material. The final album, Hymns, was the masterpiece—higher and heavier than ever. Ted Parsons (Swans, Prong) played drums, and that was beautiful—instead of the pedantic tang! tang! of the artificial ride we had the knelling cymbal-strokes of Ted, making his powerful human difference. He’s playing again in Jesu, Broadrick’s new thing, now here with a self-titled album. In Jesu all the high-low dualisms of Godflesh are magnified—decelerated, chilled down and magnified. The music moves with a dolorous processional slowness, at times hitting Swans-speed – that castigating trudge—but layered over the top is all manner of loveliness. Guitars prickle and expire over glacial, grinding bass-phrases. Keyboards float, entranced, above gulfs of noise. You need your ears for this one; there are exquisite and almost-painful things going on in the upper frequencies. (Swans-meets-My Bloody Valentine? I’m no good with the rockcrit formulae.) Broadrick sings for the most part in a prayer-like murmur, with reverb bouncing his prayers back at him—“I know the stones I’ve thrown/ They come back twice as strong”—and refrigerated puffs of ambience sailing by. (Swans-meets-My Bloody Valentine-meets-Boards Of Canada? On Ketamine? Still no good.) Passages of Jesu are crushingly beautiful—really. I almost cried.

The press release from Holy Mountain pluckily hails the new Om CD (their first) as “the triumphant return of two-thirds of Sleep!” Might have been a good name for the record, that—Two Thirds of Sleep. Better, perhaps, than Variations On a Theme which is its actual title. Anyway, two-thirds of Sleep is what we have here: drummer Chris Hakius and bassist/vocalist Al Cisneros, who earned their place in history as Matt Pike’s partners on the monumental Jerusalem, 52 minutes of bloody-fingered bong-metal mastery. In the great fission of Sleep Pike went flaming off with the high end and the songs, leaving Hakius and Cisneros to rumble along the drone-continuum in 20-minute guitar-free groove orgies. A vast monotony presides over the Om project, from the affectless ‘zen’ singing to the unsmiling, weed-inflated lyrics—“latitudinal ground elliptic motion sets Unveil” (alright!)—but Cisneros and Hakius do make a lovely racket together, a fluid, inventive Sabbath-esque churn, and besides, monotony is clearly the point: chamber upon chamber of nullity: I mean, how high are you, anyway? Because Om are ready for you, they’ll go there, they LIVE there, they’ll play through these rocking sludge-cycles until Time peels back and the imp Infinity tips his tiny red hat.

Blessed Black Wings, High On Fire’s third album, is produced by Steve Albini. What a pleasure that was to type. I’ll do it again. Blessed Black Wings, High On Fire’s third album, is produced by Steve Albini. It’s a metalhead’s wet dream: HOF’s mad-dog pummelling preserved for us with the crushing exactness, the awesome pedantry of the recorder Albini, every ‘i’ dotted and ‘t’ crossed. HOF is of course the baby of Matt Pike, the other third of Sleep, and Blessed Black Wings is everything we’d hoped it might be. “Devilution,” the opener, is fantasyland—Des Kensel’s warrior-charge toms fading thunderously in, a riff that sounds like Hell clearing its throat and then Pike hits us with the screaming heavy metal prophecy: “MAN’S DONE! BABYLON! EAT THE FRUIT DIVINE!” You won’t hear anything more thrilling this year. The chorus could be Discharge. Conspicuous lack of interest in tunes has never been an obstacle to heaviness; Pike’s warthog shriek regularly falls to pieces and his solos have a kind of sealed autistic fury to them, but this is the glory of HOF—their bestial limitedness. Did I say bestial? I meant beastious, as in “Stepping on the curse/Inflicting its beastious wounds” (“Cometh Down Hessian”). The point is, HOF keep it narrow. They keep it bloody. They keep it orc-like. Which is smart; there are a couple of “interludes” on Blessed Black Wings, moments of quasi-lyricism when Pike dips the volume, climbs off the effects pedal and twanks a few melodically-organised notes, and it sounds like he’s playing with mittens on.

A couple of things have changed. Theres’s a new bassist here: Joe Preston. And while one regrets the passing of George Rice, with his excellently un-metal name, from the ranks of HOF, Preston (ex-Melvins, Thrones, Earth) clearly has the pedigree for the job. Also, on Blessed Black Wings HOF have rediscovered forward motion, with that “Ace Of Spades”-style oompah! oompah! that no one really does anymore. It suits them, to a degree—they can flail along. Me, I liked it when their music just STUCK, roiling and roaring in circles and vortices, impaled on a single point of intensity (see “Hung Drawn and Quartered” from the last album.) But what the fuck, this is an amazing record. It kills. It’s totally beastious.

I’m sure DC’s Dead Meadow have had quite enough of being called a comedown band, but really, the new record Feathers is such a nice place to regather your shredded faculties. Gently lumbering drums, body-temperature bass, Jason Simon’s trailing, gaseous tenor and incense-laden guitar, now and then the leviathanic stirring of a riff—the brain’s root gets a solid, loving massage. Anton “Send the waitress up here RIGHT NOW!” Newcombe, from the Brian Jonestown Massacre, has produced them (not this album) which makes sense; Dead Meadow have BJM’s shimmering near-vapidity, the airy jingle-jangle, but there’s muscle in here too, some proper dead-eyed Om-Style groove commitment, boring backwards through hard rock into a gaping psychedelic sprawl. Fairies wear boots, as Ozzy observed. I don’t have the lyrics in front of me, but I’m told that they are fantasy-encrusted, steeped in Tolkienry etc. Sounds fine—you can never have too many elves—although in the general drifting-off of Simon’s vocals one hears not legends or narratives but fugues, suspensions—self-doubting orcs, doped-out dwarves looking muzzily at their dropped tools. It’s gorgeous, utterly. The ground shifts, the music raves and sways. Watch the princes shed their armor. Come on down!