By 1988, when Missing Foundation’s sophomore album 1933 Your House Is Mine was released, industrial music was approaching a crossroads. Leaving aside the weirdo experimentalism of artists like Current 93, Nurse with Wound, and Coil, its most visible proponents were groups making dance music for goth kids (not necessarily a bad thing), and Ministry’s Land of Rape and Honey was about to initiate the next seismic shift into straight-up heavy metal. Set against this backdrop, MF feels like something of an anachronism, a regression to industrial’s formative years spent straining radical politics, musique concrète, and performance art through a punk rock sieve.
It would be a stretch to describe 1933 as a “refined effort” compared to MF’s debut, but amid the fragmentary bursts of noise heard on tracks like “Kingsland 61” and “1933,” one could find tracks that more-or-less coalesce into structures that feel more conventionally song-oriented. “Burn Trees” is probably the most recognizably industrial-sounding track on the album, driven by an austere, endlessly repeated guitar figure and over which is laid a reptilian sample of front-man Peter Missing rasping the song’s title. Semi-title track “Your House Is Mine” lurches to its feet from a series of false starts and becomes an ominous funeral march to the beat of metal-on-metal percussion. Hell, “Jameel’s Turmoil” actually features an honest-to-goodness groove.
Of course, much of the conversation surrounding Missing Foundation has focused on their chaotic stage shows (they were accused of starting a riot in Tompkins Square in 1988), their unique iconography (the upturned martini glass graffitied onto buildings all along the lower east side) — in short, anything but their music. One could be tempted to believe that the apocrypha surrounding the group is more interesting than their output, but I would contend that this only speaks to both how successfully the group fused sound, visuals, and performance into an indivisible whole, and how supremely at home they were in New York of the 1980s. As Sam McPheeters of Men’s Recovery Project (among others) points out, Missing Foundation embodied a spirit completely in tune with their time and place. MF were fixtures of the lower east side squatters movement, and their post-apocalyptic sound — cobbled together from trash, primitive samplers, and whatever partially working instruments they could get their hands on — sounded right at home in a city that still contained neighborhoods that looked like they belonged in a third-world nation.
For that reason, 1933 is perhaps the group’s most emblematic work. The title is a reference to the fall of the Weimar Republic, which came into being in Germany at the end of the First World War and gave way to the rise of the Third Reich. It was a disorganized, ineffectual body, ill-equipped to deal with the near-insurmountable challenges facing its country: skyrocketing inflation caused by demands for war reparations, spiraling unemployment resulting from the Great Depression, and shattered morale and social unrest in the wake of Germany’s defeat. Looking back 25 years later, this analogy seems more than a little over-the-top, yet at the same time, it’s eerie how well this album resonates with our current political climate. “Your House Is Mine” may have been written as a screed against gentrification, but it could just as easily have soundtracked the wave of foreclosures that accompanied the housing collapse of 2008. “Invasion of Your Privacy” is more meaningful than ever following last year’s revelations about the NSA and PRISM, and songs about ecological disaster like “Burn Trees” are, unfortunately, unlikely to ever become less topical.
As we’ve previously indicated, New York in the late 80s was a hell of a good place to live if you liked your rock noisy. But even amid such formidable acts as Cop Shoot Cop, (a soon to be huge) White Zombie, and Swans, Missing Foundation took the art of confrontational musical performance to a level that was difficult to match. Yet, 25 years later, their music, which once represented the ultimate in nihilism and urban alienation, seems strangely hopeful, a desperate howl against capitalist excess from a more idealistic age.
Two-thirds into the opening track of Q and Not U’s debut album, No Kill No Beep Beep, we can hear the start of a revolution. “A Line in the Sand” transitions seamlessly from angular to dancey, where everything — the rhythm, the feel, the mood — changes. The album was released in 2000, just when a new trend was emerging, with bands regularly recycling the sounds of Gang of Four, Delta 5, Bush Tetras, Liquid Liquid, and tons of other punks who loved having enormous basslines driving their noisy, angsty songs. Soon, it would become the sound of independent rock for a couple of years and even occasionally crossover to the mainstream.
In its original form, it was music to protest and party to; it was angry and poignant, sure, but it was also festive. Considering that the patron saints of this sound were the fiercely political Gang of Four, one could offer the speculative reason that, in a post-9/11 world, we needed music that was both outspoken and frenetic enough to dance like there was no tomorrow (not that politics were explicit for this wave of bands). But it was still a somewhat regional concern: Dischord has always reflected the sound of Ian MacKaye’s bands. Early signees played out like Minor Threat companions, and most later bands embraced the paced, dexterous sound of Fugazi. Q and Not U surely took some cues from Fugazi, but they also seemed to be influenced by the dance music of the D.C. Go Go scene sound and the aforementioned post-punk bands.
Sure, The Rapture released an EP the year before and there were plenty of other offshoots playing in a similar fashion, but it’s rare to hear a band shift five years into the future within a single song. And most amazingly, “A Line in the Sand” and all of No Kill No Beep Beep still feels like a contemporary party, something that can’t be said about many subsequent “dance punks.”
Seven years after the dust has settled on its final golden year, we are now approaching the 10th anniversary of dubstep; or, rather, the 10th anniversary of its ur-release, Digital Mystikz’ Dubsession, a.k.a. DMZ002. Binding the rootical electronica of 90s digidub to 2step’s floor-friendly urgency, DMZ002 consecrated an emergent sound nascent in the productions of Horsepower and the DJ sets of Hatcha and Youngsta. On tunes like “Jah Fire” and “Ten Dread Commandments,” the Mystikz submerged the slinky rhythms of UK garage in oily pools of reverb, slowing the tempo to a slimy skank punctuated by the whip-crack of snare-bursts masked in echo. Best of all, Loefah’s “Horror Show” — murky with the haze of reverb-soaked howls and backmasked moans — stripped away everything that made 2step such a sickly head-rush, leaving only a fibrillating sub-lo riff and filigree patterns of tightly-enveloped kicks and snares. A plaintive two-note hook occasionally strobes in the darkness, tugging at the consciousness like desperate rope signals from a subaquatic rave, but for the most part “Horror Show” is thrillingly physical:
The final stages of a gurning comedown from the coke-sozzled delirium of 2step garage, Dubsession traced the outlines of a cavernous, futuristic dancehall from patterns of echo-space and bass-pressure. A renewed sense of the power of silence became possible in 2004, fired by sonic strategies of omission and distortion.
If these were uncharted waters, the idea of dubstep as a particular sound or genre washed up pretty quickly, leaving behind a fragmentary set of tendencies that continue to manifest unevenly across house/tech/pop boundaries. Dubstep’s frangible quality has been the secret to its endurance as something between a folk memory and a music genre. The word itself has become an empty vocable, drearily signifying, at the very least, electronic music with a prominent bass line. But despite the word being overused to the point of nonsense, it’s worth recalling that, for many producers, the discovery of dubstep was analogous to the discovery of a pocket of air beneath the deep freeze of mainstream reifications. Diverse outfits like Senking, Shackleton, Old Apparatus, Actress, and Machinedrum (etc., etc.) lack anything like a shared sound or style beyond a common ground in the space left behind by dubstep. It seems apt that a sound rooted in erasing and obscuring should be heard most clearly in the echoes left behind by its disappearance.
Every weekday night from 6 to 9 PM, Columbia University’s radio station WKCR 89.9FM NY (best known to some as birthplace of the Stretch & Bobbito Show) broadcasts a program called Jazz Alternatives. The Wednesday edition, known as the Musician’s Show, features songs specially selected by a guest co-host, usually an upcoming or established player who comes to the studio to discuss his or her music and influences.
So it went that one Wednesday evening in the spring of 2013, while driving from my old apartment in Huntington Station to my girlfriend’s old apartment in the Huntington Bay area, I tuned my radio to its second preset only to hear some jazzman, whose name I didn’t catch, introduce a song called “Elephant in the Room” by Gunhild Seim & Time Jungle with Marilyn Crispell.
Quite the mouthful, huh?
To be clear, I heard all of that but couldn’t remember it, especially not after my mind was blown by the song’s opening notes, an arcane yet oddly familiar piano melody as unsettling as it was beautiful. I was utterly enthralled and instantly obsessed, on some Phantom of the Opera ish. The riff soon became a foundation for the song’s other players (Gunhild Seim on trumpet, Arlid Hoem on alto sax, John Lilja on bass, and Dag Magnus Narvesen on drums) to build on, each contributing another brilliantly imagined, perfectly restrained piece to the proceedings. By the time Arlid’s saxophone solo came whirling in around the 2:50 mark, I had nearly reached my girlfriend’s place, but I knew I would never forgive myself if I didn’t find out exactly who and what I was hearing.
So, I looked up WKCR’s phone number and called in, and the host graciously answered, provided me with the names of the group and the song (which I jotted on the back of a post-it note pulled from inside my wallet), and thanked me for listening. Such is the magic of non-commercial radio.
A Google search for “Gunhild Seim & Time Jungle with Marilyn Crispell” would produce the Elephant Wings album stream (located at the bottom of this post), and additional inquiries about Marilyn Crispell herself would lead my girlfriend and I to attend a duo performance with bassist Gary Peacock at the Rubin Museum of Art, where we would stick around after the show to purchase the pair’s new ECM Records release, Azure.
All of this is well and good in its own right, but none of it can compare to the rush I experienced upon first hearing the beginning of “Elephant in the Room.” For me, then, this song is all about how a single melody, no matter how simple or unremarkable in its form, when played just right, can pique a listener’s interest and remain fresh in the mind no matter how many times it’s repeated. Perhaps this very concept is the elephant to which the song’s title refers, for in the worlds of free-jazz and avant-garde, repetition is sometimes viewed as a dirty word. Yet here is a melody repeated almost ad infinitum, an unwavering loop that, at least in this listener’s case, truly gave the album its wings, inspiring me to reach out to the project’s Norwegian originators and request that they send a copy my way. And despite the album’s other strengths — of which, I’m sure you will find there are many — it’s that elephantine melody that led me to put this post together in the first place.
1985 - 1998: Cop Shoot Cop and White Zombie
I want to talk about two bands that don’t usually get mentioned in the same sentence. White Zombie should be a familiar name to most. Best remembered today for serving as the springboard for director/musician Rob Zombie’s career, the band was a formidable force in the early- to mid-90s, helping to bring heavy metal to the masses with a pair of platinum-selling albums: La Sexorcisto: Devil Music Vol. I and (deep breath) Astrocreep 2000: Songs of Love, Destruction, and Other Synthetic Delusions of the Electric Head.
But before the hit singles, before getting plugged by Beavis and Butt-head, before signing to Geffen, and before moving to California, White Zombie was a modest noise rock band from New York City. Zombie and band co-founder (and then girlfriend) Sean Yseult spent a good chunk of the 1980s self-releasing records of testicle-twisting scum rock, playing shitty New York clubs, and rubbing elbows with bands like Sonic Youth.
Around the same time, Cop Shoot Cop was staging a proto-viral marketing campaign by plastering cryptic posters blazoned with their band name throughout the city. While beloved by fans of noise punk and industrial rock, Cop Shoot Cop have drifted into almost criminal obscurity (due in no small part to the fact that their discography has been out of print for many years). They gained some notoriety for their unusual lineup, replacing the guitar — the central weapon in nearly every rock band’s arsenal — with a second bass guitar, and complementing it with a sampler (or two) and whatever scrap metal or detritus percussionist (and current Swans drummer!) Phil Puelo felt like pounding on.
While the two bands ended up in very different places, they share more in common than might be apparent on first glance. First off, since C$C kicked off in 1987, they and White Zombie moved in the same circles (in fact, White Zombie played shows with Black Snakes and Dig Dat Hole, two bands that featured future C$C founders Jack Natz, Todd A. and Puelo, respectively). Both groups were snapped up by major labels during the alt-rock boom of the 1990s (though C$C was a little too slow in migrating towards a more mainstream rock sound, a failure that eventually led to poor album sales, irreconcilable tensions between band members, and a terminated contract). Finally and most significantly, both groups made extensive use of electronic sampling: White Zombie songs were loaded with audio tidbits from grindhouse cinema and campy horror films; Cop Shoot Cop made similar use of found audio, often arranging them into collages in lieu of recorded vocals.
I haven’t been shy about my love affair with Rob Zombie’s old band, and one of my absolute favorite songs by the group is Astrocreep’s “Real Solution #9.”
Back in high school, I’d never heard anything like it. Delighted as I was in White Zombie’s use of B-movie clips and fragments, I had to admit that they often occupied a somewhat superficial place in the compositions, serving as an intro or a coda to a song, or helping to fill out an otherwise sparse bridge. “Real Solution” was something different, though. Here, the band’s sometimes cartoonish fascination with cinematic horror collided headlong into the horrors of the real world. The constantly recurring lyric “Who will survive and what will be left of them?” is the legendary tagline from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, but most of the rest of the song’s trappings are derived from Zombie’s long-standing fascination with Charles Manson. The “#9” is an obvious nod to “Revolution #9,” from the Beatles’ White Album, which Manson saw as a prophetic document of the coming race war, and the track is peppered with excerpts from interviews with the Manson family.
The opening sample from a recorded statement by convicted murderer Patricia Krenwinkle sets the tone. Isolated and forced into a loop, that three word phrase “I’m already dead” takes on a grim musicality, weaving itself into very fabric of drummer John Tempesta’s beat. But it’s during the song’s bridge where White Zombie really outdo themselves. They lift from the long-running reality/exploitation television series Cops an exchange between a police officer and a woman (?) who appears to be in the throes of religious ecstasy, the cadence of her frenzied ravings syncing eerily with the groove Jay Yuenger and Sean Yseult are grinding out. It wasn’t the first or last time the band would incorporate a sampled vocal hook into a song, but it was without a doubt their most refined and effective attempt.
It would be well over a decade before I was introduced to Cop Shoot Cop, but hearing tracks like “We Shall Be Changed” and “Disconnected 666” took me immediately back to those joyously wasted hours spent pouring over Astrocreep 2000 as a teenager. My favorite of all C$C’s collage tracks would have to be “Relief” from their 1991 sophomore album White Noise.
The vocal samples, culled from some kind of church addiction support group, are chopped into an incongruously catchy hook and set against a backdrop of wailing sirens. The marriage of grim, some might say tasteless, source elements with EDM-inspired groove seems like a pretty clear precursor to what White Zombie wanted to accomplish on “Real Solution #9.”
I have no way of knowing whether Cop Shoot Cop’s audio experimentalism had any influence on White Zombie’s later work. After all, horror movie samples were finding their way into White Zombie’s music as early as 1987’s Soul Crusher, and there were certainly other artists engaging in similar exercises around this time. Still, the bands’ shared history and mutual flirtations with industrial rock make drawing such a connection seem very tempting indeed.
The 1960s was a time for pop innovation, especially when it came to big productions. With just four tracks to work with in studios, producers had to be creative to flesh out their sound. During this time, songs written and/or produced by Phil Spector, Burt Bacharach, Joe Meek, and Holland-Dozier-Holland were brilliantly and lavishly dressed. These artists and producers helped establish the act of recording as its own art, capable of being as unique as the songs themselves.
Although many recordings featured such lush production practices, Holland–Dozier–Holland’s production on The Supremes’ “Come See About Me” sees the Motown production team peeling back the layers. The song is presented with a minimum of instrumentation in a simple, stripped-down manner. Thanks to the drums and harmonies, the song sounds frenetic, despite the tempo and mood being relatively clam. It’s all about minimalism on this one, and it’s beautiful:
Southern California-based composer and improviser David Rosenboom is a figure for whom no real “school” is apt, and that’s what makes his work immediately accessible but primed to slip through certain cracks. Along with Donald Buchla, Rosenboom devised algorithmic methods for real-time composition (improvisation) with the synthesizer; proponents of “live electronic music,” their innovations are now a major part of the contemporary electronic music environment, including programs like SuperCollider. Rosenboom has also worked with brainwaves as a tool for improvisation and as a pianist recorded with reedman Anthony Braxton. Yet Rosenboom’s music is little heard outside of certain circles — his discography is fairly slim compared to peers like Alvin Lucier or Robert Ashley, but it is incredibly rewarding (check In the Beginning or How Much Better if Plymouth Rock had Landed on the Pilgrims, both on New World).
One of the most idiosyncratic and curious sets in Rosenboom’s discography is also one of the most obscure. Composed in 1979 and 1980, Daytime Viewing, a collaboration with vocalist Jacqueline Humbert, was released privately on cassette in 1983 and barely saw the light of day. Now it sees its first commercial issue on CD and LP via Unseen Worlds, which has built its aesthetic on minimal music, electronic composition, and populist sensibilities, combining accessible whimsy and romantic depth that brings new music to audiences weaned on indie rock.
Daytime Viewing is a song cycle consisting of six pieces; based on the absurdist theatricality of television soap operas as well as commercialism and family, Humbert’s voice and Rosenboom’s synthesizers are joined in places by the percussion of William Winant to create a landscape that is both lush and spry. Humbert’s soothingly rich, almost mechanized vocals set the stage for the record’s characters in a literal sense, earnest and necessarily removed. Rosenboom’s Buchla synthesizer is responsive and undulates with Humbert’s voice, taking flight where lyrics are absent. “Bareback” is a bizarre composition that toys with domestic foibles, Humbert’s lilting singsong matched perfectly by the circus-y billows and poots of Rosenboom’s knotty machinations. The tune’s weird coda delves into an overprotective mother’s physical relationship with her baby — a darkly effective component of Daytime Viewing’s lyric content, fleshed out further in the surreally powerful title piece juxtaposing an abusive partner with women’s fashion.
“Distant Space” heralds the second side with a poppy overture, Winant’s bongos darting amid grandiose, shimmering tone rows and Humbert’s soaring voice. An incredibly virtuosic singer, she moves through a range of inflections, from flatly electronic to nearly operatic, and her nuanced, clear Sprechstimme fits perfectly into the eliding region between organic and inorganic that Rosenboom occupies. “Talk 2” has a funky compulsion to it reminiscent of Annette Peacock and Paul Bley’s collaborations — pulsing whinnies, right-handed electric filigree, and Winant’s metallic accents create insistent accompaniment for Humbert’s round, full and reverberant phrases. It appears that by the second half of the cycle, the focus is a bit less on the specificity of Humbert’s language and more greatly on the cohesive framework of leider, folk song, jazz, and electronic pop. And however dark Daytime Viewing may get, there is a current of humor that is undeniable. It’s not that absurdity is necessary for vanguard art to be “accessible,” but the avant-garde deserves a hearty wink every now and then. While not the definitive Rosenboom album, Daytime Viewing is a fascinating set of music that deserves an earnest hearing.
1972: Cluster - “Plas”
I eat bullets for breakfast.
I take the 1 Train.
I get dropped off in the hangnail of town.
It is permanently foggy there. Not an eerie fog, though. Just one that smells like shit.
My face is permanently smiling.
I’ve got lockjaw from the barbed wire I gnawed on when I was a child.
I’ve a mug like a beaten pit bull.
I don’t smoke.
I broadcast my thoughts on three different frequencies: (1) 341.2 kHz, which can be accessed using an ordinary television antenna, a wad of dubble-bubble, and a hastily formed, phallic bunch of aluminum foil; (2) 260 Hz, or 1.6 Hz below middle C, which creates a slight dissonance; (3) — information unavailable.
In my bedroom, there is a modular synthesizer powered by the brain output of an incredibly furious mathematician whom I keep alive 22 hours out of the day via direct IV drip of vitamin C and an oxygen tank.
My goal is to find a meaningful way to play every single note in the Western 12-tone system at the same time.
If there’s one thing that expresses why you might (could/should/will?) find Flux de Bouche exciting, it’s this: for all the awesome shit that has come into music via technological advances, your synths and your samplers and your laptops, there’s still room for the exploration of what is probably the most basic way we have of making sounds — the human voice. We still don’t know what a voice can do!
The hilarious and perfectly representative cover of the album is a sequence of photographs of Jaap Blonk’s face captured mid-flow, bizarrely contorted with the exaggerated expressiveness of silent film. Comic and a little disturbing, it’s a kind of early warning for the extremes of Blonk’s grotesque and charming vocal athleticism. But it’s also an echo of a similar series of pictures of Kurt Schwitters, whose Ursonate, which Blonk learned by heart at an early stage in his career and has performed many times, was one of the main inspirations for Blonk’s own distinctive vocalizations. Blonk’s works belong to the category, such as it is, of sound poetry, but although obviously there’s plenty of use of literary techniques in the composition, Flux de Bouche is all about the performance. And Blonk also has roots in jazz; he played saxophone up until 1995, when he decided to focus solely on his vocal work, and has collaborated with various leading lights of the free-jazz scene. The sound poetry + jazz combination (reductive though that may be) emphasizes Blonk’s feel for the spontaneity of improvisation, the subversion of convention, and all that cool stuff associated with the two styles. But most importantly, while Flux de Bouche certainly isn’t brainless, it also doesn’t take itself too seriously.
Of course, just because Flux de Bouche is a solo voice record, doesn’t mean it all sounds the same — far from it. Blonk displays a monstrous kind of virtuosity far removed from the skewed adolescent conception one sometimes still encounters (y’know, that kind of virtuosity that involves people thinking that hitting as large a range of notes as possible as quickly as possible is a worthy end in itself). Instead, there’s a frightening array of vocal textures, unusual techniques powered by a lack of inhibition or respect for what vocal cords “should” be doing. Some more striking examples include the plosive sequence on “Popocatepetl” that resembles a kind of deranged beatboxing until Blonk erupts into a kind of (planned?) coughing sound, or the linguistics-influenced phonetic exploration in “Rhotic” that can invoke only jealousy in anyone who is, like I am, a non-rhotic speaker of English. Blonk also uses a multiplicity of different languages (Dutch, German, and English among others, as well as host of garbled in-betweeners), which results in post-Babel nightmare of semi-communication and mishearing. Language and meaning are put on trial: the semantic content of the spoken word is methodically stripped down to varying kinds of animalistic proto-expression. Some of the tracks are originals by Blonk, others interpretations of works by other poets; some seem wholly improvised (“Flux de Bouche,” for example, is “a more or less random fragment of the flow of my mouth at time I cannot help uttering,” according to the liner notes), others produced according to certain methodological procedures.
By my lights, particular highlights include the two versions of “Der Minister,” which descend from an intelligible sentence (“Der Minister bedauert derartige Äusserungen”) to nonsense by the systematic removal of consonants and vowels, respectively. These two tracks are also great examples of how in Flux de Bouche the formal principles behind the compositions are always rendered almost irrelevant given the corporeal nature of the execution, aleatory happenstance, and the limits of the body’s endurance. My personal favorite, though, is the album’s closing number “(brüllt),” an interpretation of a poem of Tristan Tzara’s and — speaking from experience — the track most likely to cause an innocent bystander, chancing across the unholy act of someone enjoying it, to question the sanity of both Blonk and the enthusiastic listener. The majority of the track’s nine minutes consist of Blonk shouting one word, over and over, his voice becoming increasingly ragged, until around the seven-minute mark, it cracks — and still continues this tortured repetition, right up until the almost offhand last words of the album: “der sich immer noch sehr sympathisch findet” — who still considers himself quite likeable! Fair enough, I’d say.
If you’re the kind of person who regrets the lack of “humanity” in certain kinds of music “these days” (no comment), you might be happy to know that, as the album proclaims, “no electronics have been used on the voice sound.” But Blonk’s recent work and certain collaborations have extended into sampling and other electronics. And even more excitingly for the technologically-minded Blonk fan, there’s an iPhone app, the YappoPhone, and its slightly more limited online predecessor, the Blonk Organ, both using sounds produced by his vocal chords. Blonk may work with a particularly primitive instrument and draws heavily on tendencies of an avant-garde now almost a century old, but he has an eye to the present and to the future. And, sound poetry never having really been enough in fashion to go out of it, Blonk seems to be finding intriguing ways of ensuring he doesn’t stay stuck in the past. There’s always something to be said for taking something as everyday as the human voice and turning it to something as weird and surprising as Blonk does.
You can hear the whole thing on Ubuweb.
On the surface, Random House’s Voice of the Poet series offers something that should be irresistible to any self-respecting lit geek: the opportunity to hear some of the biggest names in 20th-century poetry reading their own greatest hits. In practice, though, it was kind of a mixed bag. For every poet who struck the right notes (T.S. Eliot’s fussy, clinical diction seems oddly appropriate to the state of spiritual desiccation he chronicles in his work), there seemed to be plenty of others whose readings were tonally awkward or just plain boring as shit.
Of all the entries in the series I’ve sampled, however, Sylvia Plath’s is far and away the best. While other poets provided readings, Plath offered an actual performance. The album is made up of recordings from two separate sessions. The first, recorded in 1958, shows Plath to be an adept interpreter of her own work: her lips move like surgical implements through each complicated strain of syllables, carving out stanza after stanza in her even, sonorous voice. It’s the second session, recorded a mere four years later, though, where Plath comes fully alive as a performer (and, according to most, as a poet). Each of the eight selections from her (then still unpublished) collection Ariel is underscored by a maelstrom of suppressed emotion, and the very best among them is “Lady Lazarus.”
I’ve been out of school too long to attempt anything like a close reading of the poem, but by way of brief summary, it deals with a narrator who, wanting to die, finds herself repeatedly dragged back to the land of the living. Plath draws upon common images of rebirth — the resurrection of Lazarus from the Gospel of John, the myth of the phoenix — but recasts them as obscene parodies: a carnival sideshow, a grotesque striptease, a Nazi medical experiment. The doctors who labor to save her life and the friends and family who crowd around her bedside are seen not as caring or benevolent figures, but as diabolical nemeses and vampiric voyeurs feeding and profiting off her pain. The traditional reading of this poem places it fully in the confessional mode, as an expression of the author’s own rage and anguish. It’s a compelling interpretation, given Plath’s tendency to incorporate biographical details into her poems and, of course, in light of Plath’s own tragic death, which looms like a 500 lb gorilla over any discussion of the author’s work. Revisionist scholars, however, attempt to place more distance between Plath and her narrator.
(I would also feel remiss if I did not mention, at least in passing, that Plath’s appropriation of holocaust imagery as a metaphor for personal pain — be it her own or her fictional narrator’s — is narcissistic at best and highly offensive at worst. It’s up to the individual reader to decide whether this is something he or she can see past.)
One of the most remarkable aspects of this very remarkable poem, however, is Plath’s intense awareness of style. Literary scholar Helen Vendler notes that “almost every stanza of ‘Lady Lazarus’ picks up a new possibility” for the poet’s voice. To bring such a work to life, a reader must be able to keep up with each writhing, twisting line as it darts off into unexpected territory. Plath not only navigates the mottled stylistic patchwork of her poem, but also tames it to such a degree that her reading carries a narrative arc all its own. Plath spits out the opening stanzas like a boast, proclaiming the uniqueness of her “gift,” even as she draws comparisons between herself and some of the more horrifying relics of the Nazi death camps. Yet listen carefully around the 30-second mark, where she intones:
Can you deny
The nose, the eye pits, the full set of teeth?
The sour breath
Will vanish in a day.
You can hear the arrogance draining away, replaced with a horror so weary and abject it feels spontaneous. When she warns us that “Soon, soon the flesh/ The grave cave ate will be/ At home on me,” she sounds nearly in tears. The sense of despair is so palpable, you half expect Plath to falter and beg off, but by the time she lights on the next stanza, a hint of playful mockery has crept back into her voice. It’s as though a death shroud has been peeled back from a corpse’s face to reveal a frozen, contemptuous grin.
This tension, this back-and-forth tug between the narrator’s strength and her vulnerability, is what fuels the drama of this particular recording. It’s as though she wants to take back ownership of her life and her condition by feigning a cavalier attitude toward her awful twilight existence. She builds up walls of irony and disdain in an effort to present a powerful and terrible face towards the sadistic doctors and gawping, “peanut-crunching crowds,” but her own hurt, bitterness, and fear keep finding a way through the cracks.
The poem ends with a stern warning, not just to the doctors and the rubbernecks, but to God and the Devil themselves:
Herr God, Herr Lucifer
Out of the ash
I rise with my red hair
And I eat men like air.
These stanzas are the last reversal, the final frames of every revenge fantasy in which the tormented protagonist visits terrible punishment upon those who have done her wrong. Yet there is nothing triumphant in Plath’s delivery, no force behind her blasphemous threat. There is only the infinite fatigue of one who no longer possesses the conviction to lie to herself. How strange and frightening that, in Plath’s own hands, her boldest assertion of personal power comes off sounding like a hopeless capitulation.