From Per Petterson’s remarkable I Curse the River of Time, two visions of death. He seems to think that the first, and not the second is inevitable, yet he spends considerably more effort describing the second, more pleasant alternative, so which can he hope for?
…when it came to dying, I was scared. Not of being dead, that I could not comprehend, to be nothing was impossible to grasp and therefore really nothing to be scared of, but the dying itself I could comprehend, the very instant when you know that now comes what you have always feared, and you suddenly realise that every chance of being the person you really wanted to be, is gone for ever, and the one you were, is the one those around you will remember. Then that must feel like someone’s strong hands slowly tightening their grip around your neck until you can breath no more, and not at all as when a door is slowly pushed open and bright light comes streaming out from the inside and a woman or a man you have always known and always liked, maybe always loved, leans out and gently takes your hand and leads you into a place of rest, so mild and so fine, from eternity to eternity.
Jon Cook & Tony Bailey playing together; Crain @ the Cherokee 1995
I didn’t make it to Louisville in time for Jon Cook’s memorial on March 9th, but I was in Louisville recently and I did extract some Jon Cook gems from my archives. The first two feature Jon’s collaborations with a couple of other recently- and tragically- departed Louisville musicians.
“Unhindered Perception of the Happy Machine”
For some reason I always liked this song a lot, even if the lyrics are barely intelligible and the song meanders along. Never recorded in a studio, this is from a show in Chicago in the mid-90s, featuring versatile drummer Tony Bailey, who also left the earth far too early in 2009. Listen to how the song verges on falling apart near the end, but Tony manages to bring it back together. Critics usually call Crain “math-rock” which implies an incredible level of tightness. I don’t dispute that Crain went through a period like that, but a lot of late Crain seemed fairly loose, held together by solid musicianship and that elusive intuition that all musicians seem to chase.
“Broken Heart of a Neutron Star”
Live at a 1994 Simple Machine gala emceed by Jason Noble, who also died last year tragically young. Not really my favorite take of this tune, mainly since Jon Cook doesn’t sing it and it’s his song, but this version is notable mainly for Jason Noble’s hyperactive and hyper-enthusiastic introduction. Louisville is indeed a muddy horse farm as well as something of sprawling metropolis, at least if you are from elsewhere in Kentuckiana. The rumor in 1994 was that the original title of the song was “Noble Attitude” and that Cook had written it about his friend.
Not a Crain tune, but an Experimental Pollen tune. Experimental Pollen was a ferocious live band that featured Troy Cox from Evergreen on bass and engineer Will Hancock from 456 on drums. They played the party circuit ca. 1996-1997 and were most noted for headlining a New Year’s party at the Lausman’s family farmhouse on the outskirts of Louisville. An all-star AC/DC cover band featuring Cook, Britt Walford and Crain alumnus (and musician in his own right) Jason Hayden warmed the crowd up. This being New Year’s in Louisville, we didn’t need much warming up. Pollen took the ‘stage’ which was a hardwood floor, in front of several hundred sweaty, intoxicated kids with great anticipation around midnight. Will counted off, 1-2-3-4, and the crowd reared up, ready to jump as one to the sound of the rock. The first note rang out, the crowd all hit the floor at the same time, and there resonated a horrendous and violent creak — the sound of the floor giving way. The music abruptly stopped, the whole ugly engine of the bass and drums grinding to a halt. Cook sheepishly spoke into the mic: “Uh. I think we broke the floor.” One of the elder Lausman brothers ran downstairs, perfunctorily checked the foundations, and came back upstairs, giving the all-clear sign, and the rock commenced into 1997.
This song doesn’t have that raw energy but is a bit more subdued, which was another side of Cook’s songwriting. Experimental Pollen released a 7″ with guest appearances from noted producer Flood, which is pretty worth hearing (if memory serves) and also a split LP with Louisville heavies Wino. The split LP is worth hearing for the Wino songs; let’s leave the review at that.
Coming soon, I hope: a live 1992 recording of Crain doing the Misfits’ “Teenagers from Mars,” as well as more live material. Watch this space.
For most of us living with sidewalks and street lamps, death has become a rarely witnessed, foreign event. The most up-close death my urban-raised children have experienced is the occasional walleye being reeled toward doom on a family fishing trip or a neighborhood squirrel sentenced to death-by-Firestone. The chicken most people eat comes in plastic wrap, not at the end of a swinging cleaver. The farmers I take care of aren’t in any more of a hurry to die than my city-dwelling patients, but when death comes, they are familiar with it. They’ve seen it, smelled it, had it under their fingernails. A dying cow is not the same as a person nearing death, but living off the land strengthens one’s understanding that all living things eventually die.
You can’t revisit your childhood, because it no longer exists, I told myself.
– Thomas Bernhard, Extinction
Jon Cook from Crain and Rodan, two of my favorite homegrown bands, was finally taken off life support tonight, ending two days of tortuous rumors and speculation. He was a bright spot in Louisville’s underground in the ’90s, which makes his senseless death sadder still. I guess he had been going through a long decay for most of the last decade, maybe longer: drugs, alcohol, dereliction.
Crain’s music was huge; sometimes angry, sometimes delicate, not unlike the people who made it. But more than the music, Jon was a rallying point, someone who repeatedly left our little provincial burg to travel the country in a van, bringing treasure and glory (well, not much treasure — it was rock ‘n’ roll, after all) back to us.
I remember running into him at an all-ages club one cold night in fall 1992. He and Crain had just gotten back from Albini’s studio in Chicago, where they’d recorded songs for a new EP. He was energetic; manic, almost, but who wouldn’t be? Steve Albini was a legend to anyone who played non-commercial pop music in the ’90s; the fact that a kid in a band could just drive up to his studio and record was special, particularly from a teenager’s viewpoint. People like Jon fulfilled that basic need to feel part of something bigger, important to a frustrated adolescent.
Jon was a friendly and kind man. Bands wanted to come to Louisville because in the ’90s brought he every touring act on the indie circuit — from Fugazi to the Jesus Lizard, from the Riot Grrl! bands to the Rollins Band, from Sleepyhead to Hammerhead — to Louisville and let them stay in his mom’s house, where she’d make them hearty spaghetti dinners.
Later, the old Victorian mansion he owned called the Rocket House became a sort of creative crash pad. There was always a band playing there, or maybe staying there while on tour, and the walls were festooned with the numbers and names of virtually everyone in the ’90s underground — Ian McKaye, Kathleen Hanna, Jenny Toomey, Corey Rusk — written in magic marker. If you stopped in, you might see Jeff Mueller making a sculpture out of junk, or you could hand Bob Weston your joke band’s demo, or you might end up as the extra in an indie movie, or you could hang out with older, perhaps not-always-wiser people.
But what I didn’t think of as a teenager was that Jon Cook had a Victorian mansion at age 21 because his own dad had passed away, I think, in a house fire started by a cigarette. I met his mom, Peggy, on several occasions. She was nice, too, and I thought it was funny that a woman my mother’s age would pour me such stiff gin and tonics. Maybe there’s something to be learned there that I still don’t know.
Back in the ’90s, I heard he was supposed to take meds but didn’t. I heard a lot of stuff. I heard he wrote a novel. He definitely drew cartoons. He kept making music. Once, I walked into a bar and saw him play on guitar, unaccompanied, a song written by a friend of mine that I didn’t think anyone else knew very well. He played it beautifully, and then indie legend Lou Barlow got on stage and played. And then Jon was nowhere to be seen. The last time I saw Jon was in summer 2010 and he seemed friendly — too-friendly; unbalanced. I got spooked, and I took off.
We have an idea that someday, we can go home and things will be a little bit like they were when we left. But the people that defined my home keep leaving for good. Tony Bailey, Jason Noble, now Jon Cook — these people who were larger than life once keep leaving life behind. What they leave behind is a gaping void.
Goodbye, Jon. Rest in the peace that seemed so hard for you to find, and rest knowing that for the brief period you were on this planet, it was a better place.
What’s going on with hipster music? It’s an interesting question. About ten years ago I wanted to write a piece for my local weekly, Baltimore City Paper, on how the fuzzed-out, overdriven indie rock of my youth, largely springing from the AmRep and Touch & Go labels, had been replaced by another genre with the same name but sporting not only a totally different style of music, but seemingly a different ethos towards life. They never bought my pitch and I moved on to other things for most of a decade. In that decade, it seems like rebellion turned into reflection which turned into introspection which just devolved wholesale into whining.
This week we’re got the LA Weekly treating us to a pretty snarky, if not accurate, takedown of the 20 most annoying hipster bands. I take some issue with putting TV on the Radio, who treated me to a phenomenally energetic and sweaty set in London in 2004, on the list, but for the bands on the list I’ve heard, it’s spot-on. Beirut has the sound of a precious kid who just discovered world music, pilfering from the Balkans and the Middle East equally blithely. The Decembrists play the same sort of bland pop that was just taking over a decade ago. As for Black Keys, remember Jon Spencer Blues Explosion? People accused him of stealing from the black musical tradition (a silly premise, given how most of what’s good about American music comes from free-flowing musical miscegenation), but at least he smashed things and “fucked shit up.” Most of the music in the LA Weekly piece is more about image and solipsistic preening than the raw emotional release that blues, rock and punk are famous for. It’s a funny piece, but there is some anger in the last write-up, a takedown of Bon Iver:
What happened to us as a generation that this guy gets to bear our sonic torch? Those who came before us rocked, bumped and grinded. They exuded raw sexuality and riotous anger; sweaty human realism. They hoovered drugs or angrily rejected them, they humped strangers in club bathrooms in adolescent indiscretion; they broke shit, laughed, cried, partied on rooftops or in warehouses, exercised cultural demons and personal failures, made spectacles. We, instead, get a whiny guy who built his own studio in the woods; perfectly exemplifying that narcissistic hipster ethos of “Whatever man, I’m just gonna go over here and be chill, I don’t want to be bothered or have my mellow harshed.” Bon Iver coos the celebratory ballads of hip poseurs who refuse to get their hands dirty, that is, unless that filth is quaint and photogenic.
There are a couple of different issues going on with rock music lately — Sasha Frere-Jones is particularly trenchant in his examination of the lack of miscegenation in a New Yorker piece from a few years back. He also points out that “pop music is no longer made of just a few musical traditions; it’s a profusion of strands, most of which don’t intersect, except, perhaps, when listeners click ‘shuffle’ on their iPods.”
For this reason, Michael Jackson was the last pop star in the way that Kurt Cobain was the last rock star — there are so many subgenres and subsets now with the new media that it seems like it might be hard to have that one unifying figure. More to the point with punk and guitar music, one can see some kind of clear line between the fifties rebels, the hippies, the punks, and grunge/aggressive nineties loud guitar music. “Wild Thing” played really loud is a pretty great anthem no matter what decade you’re in, if you’re into guitar sounds. Black Flag covered “Louie Louie” as a sort of goofily, violently frustrated punk anthem in the eighties, and the glorious Laughing Hyenas covered “I Want You” by the Troggs regularly — reclaiming heart-on-the-sleeve anger for the grunge generation from the MC5′s revolutionary fervor. A lot of the early punk sounds a lot more ’50s than ’60s. There was continuity.
Many of the bands slammed in the LA Weekly‘s piece emphasize style over substance, image over guts and cuteness over beauty. (Watch Nataly Dawn’s precious annoucement to her fans if you don’t believe me.) Even in deep in the underground this has been true for most of the last decade. For example, in my erstwhile home of Baltimore, bands were always high on the theatrics but there was also a core of good rock songwriting underneath — Buttsteak and Lee Harvey Keitel Band took pleasure in outlandish names and bountiful literary and philosophical references, but they were good musicians and songwriters, too. A bit later, Oxes dominated the Baltimore scene. They wrote instrumental math rock, played wireless, and their schtick was to run around the audience mugging. Seen once, it seemed to push boundaries — but seen more than that, it seemed like self-conscious schtick. Later still, Dan Deacon got huge with his whole Wham City collective, basing his style on audience participation and performance with laptop electronica songs.
Rock and roll’s death has been proclaimed many times, and each time it proves its resilience. Lately maybe it’s a bit zombified, to borrow from another hipster trope, by navel-gazing one-man shows backing themselves up. But some good can come of all this: one of more intriguing acts I’ve heard lately is Adam Brewer from Hazard, Kentucky who follows in the great tradition of other Appalachian hollerers such as Hasil Atkins. But this isn’t backwoods psychobilly — it’s raw rock and roll. It seems like no one else in Hazard was interested in playing live with him, so his shows are him singing to a backing tape of his band, of which he is the only member, the Globsters. Some is abrasive noise in the mold of Slap-a-Ham records, but much of it actually displays a refreshing honesty laid over genuine melody; a shiny penny of a song emerging from a zombie-grave dirtclod.
Check out “Pretty Women” (“pretty women, rockin’ and rollin’, gimme a beer, I’m high as a kite”), “Freddy Krueger” (“I’m not afraid of Freddie Krueger, I am absolutely horrified by you/you’re the one/you’re the one that keeps me up all night”) and “Roll You Up and Smoke You” (“you’re so cute/I just wanna roll you up and smoke you/ we were sitting on the couch/listening to records/I just wanna pass a bowl and smoke it with my baby girl”) are honest youth anthems of rebellion, love and angst. Perhaps there is some hope for rock and roll after all.
I knew Jason Noble was sick about two years ago, and I knew it was a nasty cancer, and I knew he’d beaten it for the moment. I didn’t know he was sick again so I was surprised this morning when a fellow refugee from Louisville told me that he’d passed. Jason, along with his musical cohorts at the Rocket House and at ear X-tacy made being a teen in a city where open-mindedness did not come easily a lot more palatable.
It’s rare in the narcissistic, instant gratification-fueled world of 21st-century communications that a person with a public persona passes and is genuinely mourned. To a geeky, bored, often angry kid seeking any kind of interaction beyond teachers and churches, Jason was a kind, gentle and open soul. His art — from post-rock epics to simple sketches — made perfect sense to those who grew up in the same fishbowl. He clarified the distortions and gave voice to the frustrations.
RIP, Jason Noble. As a writer greater than this scribbler once said, his spirit shines through him.
On a hot August evening, the sun was setting over Barricata beach out on the Po Delta. The beach bar was deserted and the lifeguard-cum-barman started up his tractor and began to pick up the sunbeds. To do his work he put on the sound system and turned it up, loud. Sandwiched between the usual forgettable pop, the opening chords of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” rang out.
Twenty years later after Nirvana blew apart the stilted, machine-produced world of pop music, the commentariat is busy trying to answer a question first posed by fellow travelers Sonic Youth: Nevermind — what was it anyway? Interpretations range from the interesting — Nirvana burying rock machismo, for a bit anyway, to the blatantly commercial and sentimental.
I bought the record the week it came out — convinced by a friend to pick up the new one when I had my eye on Bleach for pure street cred — and spent the next few weeks learning most of the songs. The prevailing order of the day — sarcasm and apathy — meant that I had to act completely blasé about Nirvana’s successes. It wasn’t purely baseless: it would have been hard to be a stranger to the independent record label world that begat Nirvana in the home of Squirrel Bait, Slint and Kinghorse. And our “little group” quietly celebrated the mainstreaming of our underground: what else could get a gang of teenage boys to rush home on a Saturday night to watch TV? In this way, Cobain succeeded where our parents did not.
The 1990s were the era that birthed the sensitive man, for a variety of cultural reasons beyond the purview of this post. This new-found sensibility bore heavily on Cobain, who rejected fame’s embrace and embraced the rejected, using his celebrity to openly discuss gayness, feminism, domestic strife, drug use, and depression — conditions that pop culture accepts as part of its landscape now. Because of this, grunge had a gravity that escaped the happy nihilism of most of the first wave of punk bands.
Contrast Cobain’s desperate howl with the gleeful madness of Johnny Rotten telling listeners he’s going over the Berlin Wall. Cobain mumbles along for most of Nirvana’s hit before exploding in yawps of “a denial” — of what, exactly, it’s never said. Pleasure? Pain? Fame? Life itself? A few years later the man himself exploded tragically, while today, most first-wave punk bands have been able to soldier on, either for lucre (Sex Pistols), pleasure (Buzzcocks) or sheer cussedness (the Fall).
Just as Michael Jackson was the last great pop star, Cobain was the last great rock star. He presented himself as an iconoclast, who stood for ideals and ideas that he thought were greater and better than the dreck that brought him up and enveloped him. It’s unlikely in today’s atomized world of pop music, with its countless sub-genres, that there will ever be another. The songwriting, which could appeal to the most craft-oriented REM fans or to the most noise-devoted Albini enthusiasts, reflected this completeness of vision as well.
Nirvana’s meaning and accomplishment will continue to be discussed, debated and exploited. If they did nothing else, the fact that two decades later in an isolated place far away from Aberdeen, Washington, one can hear a song written by a real human being and not manufactured by a profit-driven industry is no small feat.
And what will she do with Thursday's rags when Monday comes around ?
The fashion week party, or rather, pre-party drink like one of those early punk shows I went to when I was a boy: you feel you have total freedom to do whatever because everyone is doing anything. A man is a fluorescent toga-like dress with his whole head shaved except for a little random-seeming tuft on the side with a long lock sticking out of it attracts no attention, and his example was only the most egregious. There were weird Americans with platinum hair and bangs eating cherries that the bartender popped into their waiting open mouths, strange Milanesi discussing the best clubs in (actually outside) the city in English to each other and telling me the ones in town were filled with ‘rednecks, politicians and mafiosi,’ a hyper-active, hyper-competent bartender who fulfilled my request for ‘un negroni – FORTE,’ Germans dressed for a soccer game, and a tortured electronic version of ‘Killing an Arab’ blasting from the DJ booth. As I was waiting for my drink, which was suitably strong, one thought went through my head: ”Men from Kentucky and Italy are dying in Afghanistan to preserve this way of life.” I didn’t see the picture of Hemingway hanging up on the wall which, until I got there, was the only thing I knew about the place.
In the middle of the throng on the street was our humble little Meet-Up group of mainly Italians looking to practice English: the mag ed dapper in his blazer, drinking a beer from a bottle and wondering why he didn’t check that it was fashion week before, and above us, the mass of the Duomo, stained glass ablaze for the third time this year, watching over us all, the gold eye of the Madonnina peering down to via san Raffaele of a Thursday night in September.