1962: Sylvia Plath - “Lady Lazarus”
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 Each of the eight selections from her (then still unpublished) collection Ariel is underscored by a maelstrom of suppressed emotion, and the very best among them is “Lady Lazarus.”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.
1998: Cap’n Jazz - Analphabetapolothology
A few years ago, my cousin complained to me. Following my advice, he had went to see Cap’n Jazz on their reunion tour and told me they were awful. According to him, they had a minimal grasp of rhythm, and their screams were out of tune. Worse of all, the audience was yelling along with them. Not singing along. Yelling.
Cap’n Jazz, fronted by brothers Tim and Mike Kinsella, played avant-garde music for the broken-hearted and the perpetually nostalgic, people who treasured Catcher in the Rye from the very first page. Yes, we all know the word “emo,” but Cap’n Jazz went beyond the screams and power chords; they made music that was as tangled and knotty as their emotions. It embodied their rage and sadness in an explosive, responsive way. To me, they were the wimpy, dorky Stooges of that generation, except they knew that was bullshit and rejected themselves as such; they knew that nobody then needed someone to tell them that it was another year with nothing to do.
Their take on emotionally-charged experimentation can be heard on “In The Clear,” a song that flows in furious passages that you can sing along to, yet the most powerful moment comes when someone screams half the alphabet and concludes it with “lost!” It’s ostentatious, funny and yet incredibly earnest.
This is what I grew up with, what I get and what gets me (or got me back then); even if I didn’t have direct contact with the actual music, I instinctively responded to it. I bet the members of the band don’t mind not being understood, but I think that’s part of their appeal. It’s all heart and neurosis.
2003: Paddy McAloon - I Trawl The Megahertz
There’s been a long history of pop musicians going off the deep end and into the realm of experimental music. While these flirtations have been common since the 1960s onward, some of the most fascinating cases happen when the transition comes seemingly out of the blue. Tim Buckley’s Lorca and Starsailor albums may in some ways be some of the earliest and most radical examples of this transformation, but there are also the classic instances of Scott Walker’s and Talk Talk’s dark later work, as well as David Sylvian’s gradual descent into free-jazz-afflicted folk and onkyo-obsessed songwriting. However, despite the seemingly disparate nature between these artists’ experimentally minded compositions and their more commercial work, there’s always been something of a common thread. Walker’s “Farmer in the City” could easily have fit on Scott 3; Buckley’s virtuosic singing seemed to be a natural fit for the Ligeti-esque textures he attempted with Lorca and Starsailor; and Sylvian had been working collaboratively with experimental musicians such as Jon Hassel and Holger Czukay since his debut solo album.
With Paddy McAloon’s I Trawl the Megahertz, the aesthetic continuity isn’t so readily apparent. McAloon is best known as the leader of the harmonically rich twee-pop band Prefab Sprout, whose pop perfectionism doesn’t quite prepare one for the surreal, dark world of McAloon’s lone solo record. Of course, despite Prefab’s sunny exterior, it was clear with extensive listening that the band’s songs often hid their sadness under the catchiest of tunes. Take their hit “The King of Rock n Roll,” for example: it’s a pretty silly song, until you realize the lyrics come from the perspective of a washed-up one-hit wonder whose goofiest work overshadows all of his attempts at real artistry. But maybe it’s for this reason that I Trawl the Megahertz feels like something of a shock: it wears all of its sorrow on its sleeve and does away with McAloon’s pop-song mastery in favor of minimalist orchestration, bizarrely bleak spoken word, and an undeniably chilly atmosphere.
I Trawl the Megahertz is by no means an abrasive or dissonant record, but it is undeniably idiosyncratic and heartbreaking. All of these things are apparent from the opening of the title track onward. The title track is nearly 22 minutes long and consists of a gorgeous repeated theme (McAloon’s harmonic sensibilities are still in play here) that sounds like it could soundtrack the saddest Disney movie never written, with its lurching strings, vaudevillian whistles, and ghostly guitar. Early in the work, a woman’s voice comes in and delivers blunt observational lines, like the unforgettable, “I said, ‘Your daddy loves you very much/ He just doesn’t want to live with us anymore.” It’s a beautifully powerful work that suggests what might happen if Robert Ashley’s later operas had used full orchestration and were crushingly sincere.
From there, the record moves into a frosty Philip Glass-like suite of instrumental pieces that eventually give way to the two other tracks with vocals, “I’m 49” and “Sleeping Rough.” “I’m 49” sounds quite similar to the territory that Oneohtrix Point Never has been mining recently with its pastiche of talk-show voices, electronics, and beautiful cascading arpeggios. “Sleeping Rough,” on the other hand, is an unbelievably devastating song featuring McAloon crooning like a slightly less depraved Scott Walker. “Sleeping Rough” is perhaps the only transparent reference to the experiences that inspired I Trawl the Megahertz’s elegiac glacial tone. “I’m lost, I’ll grow a long and silver beard,” McAloon sings. While this lyric could be read as a meta-commentary on the stylistic change of the record, it becomes heartbreaking when you realize that the singer/composer had temporarily gone blind due to illness while writing this material. However, despite the seemingly bleak-sounding nature of I Trawl the Megahertz’s various components, McAloon’s arrangements and tonalities make it clear that the singer remained hopeful and artistically forward-looking, despite the seemingly dire situation of his health.
Much of the album’s arrangements are quite reminiscent of a number of contemporary experimental musicians who have recently made forays into more texturally rich material. Sean McCann’s Music for Private Ensemble comes to mind when listening to the mixture of MIDI, live orchestration, and natural sounds on the album’s instrumental tracks, and the record’s title track would not feel too out of place on a Julia Holter record. McAloon may never work with this particular set of tools again, but it’s clear that he has many like-minded contemporaries employing similar resources in their own work nowadays. I Trawl the Megahertz may be an anomaly in McAloon’s discography, but it’s an anomaly that sounds more beautiful and relevant than ever.
1987: Rudimentary Peni - Cacophony
For as legendary and influential as Britain’s Rudimentary Peni have been among fans of goth and deathrock, they’re not widely appreciated outside those tight-knit circles. There’s nothing particularly surprising about this fact. Between the band’s jagged, lurching, and mercilessly compressed compositions and Nick Blinko’s strangled delivery, RP were destined to be an acquired taste from the start. Add to that the group’s peculiar working habits — long stretches between releases, refusal to tour (or even perform live, for the most part), and Blinko’s well-known aversion to doing interviews — and it’s actually kind of a miracle anyone outside the UK was able to learn about these guys at all in the pre-internet days of the 1980s.
Truth be told, they might have escaped my attention if not for Southern Records’ recently initiated project to reissue the band’s out-of-print discography, which was serendipitously preceded at the beginning of this year by Chelsea Wolfe’s excellent Latitudes session Prayer for the Unborn, an EP’s worth of reworkings of Rudimentary Peni songs. Wolfe’s own exposure to RP was perfectly in keeping with the group’s cult status: one day she walked in on her roommate listening to them. Wolfe became fascinated by the records, their intricate black-and-white album art (designed by Blinko himself), and the group’s bleakly surreal, existential lyrics — so much so that some of the selections off Prayer were composed without her even having heard the original songs they were based on.
Cacophony is considered by many to be the band’s finest work, and it is undoubtedly their most ambitious. The album was recorded following the first major disruption in the band’s career, a four-year hiatus during bassist Grant Matthews’ bout with cancer. Cacophony finds Blinko assuming control of the songwriting duties, which had chiefly belonged to Matthews prior to his illness (“Well, I thought that Grant felt that his lyrics weren’t relevant anymore or something,” Blinko explains in a rare interview from 1992). Under Blinko’s lead, the band fully detached from its anarcho-punk roots and grew into an honest-to-goodness deathrock band. Leftist politics was Matthews’ thing; Blinko was all about Lovecraft. The album shows a deep immersion in Lovecraft’s life and work, appropriating his mythology (both literary and personal), lapsing into his grandiloquent diction, and tracing the sordid lineage of his macabre visions. While RP were never strangers to the gothic (their previous album had sported tracks titled “Cosmic Hearse” and “Flesh Crucifix,” after all), Cacophony was the album that would forever endear them to the black eyeliner set.
In terms of its complexity, diversity, and sheer density, the record was a giant leap beyond anything the band had previously attempted. While Blinko’s voice seemed to max out at a piercing rasp in the band’s early work, his vocals on Cacophony are so protean and unpredictable one could almost believe he was playing host to a demonic legion. He employs well over a dozen voices throughout the record: inhuman utterances (the dry croaking on “Crazed Couplet” and “Nightgaunts,” the ghastly keening at the end of “The Only Child”), distinct musical personae (the clinically detached narrator of “Better Not Born” and the reedy, crisp diction of the speaker on “Dream City”), and dramatic spoken word interludes (the frantic newscaster at the end of “The Evil Clergyman,” the Shakespearian monologue in “Brown Jenkin,” and the wizened New Englander who mourns Lovecraft’s wasted talents on “Imps of the Perverse”). There’s also Gregorian chant, drinking songs, and a track that’s mostly just fart noises.
The dramatic shifts in persona are matched by a musical accompaniment that’s ready and able to change tempos or time signatures at a moment’s notice. The album contains some of RP’s heaviest tracks up to that time (check out the plodding riff on “Zenophobia” and Jon Grenville’s thundering rhythm on “The Only Child”), pointing towards the almost-heavy-metal leanings of their more recent work. Yet other tracks, like the instrumental “The Evil Clergyman” or “Dream City” move into a post-punk territory that sounds like a more amped-up version of The Cure. And while Blinko may be the most visible member of the trio on this release, it’s impossible to calculate just how important Grant Matthews is to making these songs pop. Matthews’ bass sits high in the mix and works its ass off to earn that place of prominence. He continually finds unique ways to introduce wrinkles into what could otherwise have been overly-pat melodies.
Trying to take Cacophony in as a whole is an experience not unlike trying to look upon one of Lovecraft’s Great Old Ones. The totality of it is too mottled and gnarled, its form dictated by a geometry not of this universe — it’s not for nothing Piero Scaruffi dubbed the album “the Trout Mask Replica of British Punk.” But sinking into its peculiar madness is a sweeter fate than that experienced by Mr. Delapore or Robert Olmstead. The more time you spend with this eldritch tome, the more you may come to realize you’ve developed a taste for its ghastly pleasures.
1985: The Ramones - “Bonzo Goes To Bitburg”
In 1985, The Ramones penned “Bonzo Goes to Bitburg,” a song that’s obviously not as popular as “Blitzkrieg Bop” or “I Want To Be Sedated.” In fact, The Ramones, at the time, were in their wilderness years, hopping from producer to producer and releasing albums with the hope that one would “break” them. They wanted to be popular and live the good life. As we all know, it didn’t happen that way.
The Ramones were not known to take on causes or make strong opinions on serious matters, but “Bonzo Goes to Bitburg” was an exception. The track was inspired by Ronald Reagan’s visit to a cemetery in Bitburg, Germany, where many Waffen-SS soldiers are buried. Reagan’s discourse during his visit was that, while he didn’t excuse the systematic mass murder of millions of people, these soldiers were “victims” or just “simply following orders.” To many ears, the then President was making excuses for genocide.
The Ramones were notorious for their occasional use of Nazi symbols — thanks to main songwriter Dee Dee’s fascination with WWII memorabilia — but this time, the band didn’t joke about Nazis in love. While Joey was Jewish and helped pen the song, it is said that Dee Dee was the one who wanted to say that there was no excuse for that kind of demonstration. The track is also notable song because it criticizes a Republican politician, something they had stayed away from since Johnny became a supporter of the conservative party. (Johnny plays on the song, but he requested it be renamed to “My Brain is Hanging Upside Down” for Animal Boy.)
The story of the Ramones is filled with clashes of personality that (arguably) held them back during their lifetime, but it’s amazing that a song so polarizing to the various individuals could not only happen, but also become one of their finest moments.
1989: Haruomi Hosono - “Pleocene”
I should tell you that, on a Saturday night early in 2012, I told my roommates that I was staying in and found something on the internet. It was late, around 1 AM I think, when I found this thing on the internet, and it became very important to me, inarguably the most important thing. Around 4 AM, when my the roommates returned from the bars, I was awake with this thing in my room.
See, what I found on the internet was a song, but first it was a black-and-white video shot from the passenger seat of a car to music. The car in the video drives slow down a road empty but for its dirt and coursing foliage; a single moth flashes white hot early on, lit up by the car’s headlights, but other than that. Then the road becomes paved, teeming with life, or signifiers of life: cars passing other cars, a tunnel, lights that threaten overexposure: structures and infrastructures that humans build. The camera wobbles, but I don’t know that it trembles, because trembling requires a person to tremble, and there are no people in sight.
Midway through this video, credits somehow roll, and I became very nervous for the song, absurdly. This song is the single most important thing, and it wouldn’t be right to do it so wrong. But the car continues and ends, as the song does, abruptly, early, wrongly, as expected.
I found the song in its complete version that same night, not much later. I got to know it, and I was so happy. By the early morning, the song became for me a part of a record, but I still prefer it alone and disfigured, as it was that one time on camera.