When I finally got my stack pass around the middle of the semester, I promptly signed up for a private carrel. Mine was located deep in the bowels of the library - on the very ground floor. You have to imagine a huge, windowless structure here - many university libraries don't have windows, I suppose (although my experience is largely located to the ones in Berkeley and Leipzig). This keeps fading to a minimum and helps with the climate control. To get to my carrel, you had a few choices: one, the main elevators (boring); two, tiny staircases barely big enough for bears (more interesting); and three, bizarre, tiny elevators that must have been installed at some point in the forties, I'm guessing (terrific fun). When I was done with class for the day, I'd often disappear down to the first floor, stash my bag in my carrel, and wander the stacks.
My primary obsessions haven't changed much throughout most of my adult life, and a lot of them can be traced back to Sunday school at the First Presbyterian Church in Stockton, California. Let me explain: my best friend Jesse Baird was not only the grandson of one of the church's earlier pastors, but was equally taken with Dan would probably describe as "difficult listening music." When we were younger, we'd put on a Devo tape and race around the building long after services were over; it was a cool old church with lots of twisty hidden passages and Shrivel-Up or whatever sounded really, really good in there. Later on, after exposure to stuff like Kraftwerk, Depeche Mode, and XTC, our tastes really started fanning out, largely due to the Tower Records next to Yen Ching in Stockton, which was accessible to me after family dinners; Jesse lived nearby so it wasn't too bad a bike ride. Both of us were lucky to have parents who gave us money on occasion to buy records (hell, I remember my Mom buying Abba: The Album for me at Gemco), and who were patient enough to wait while we studied what was available at Tower, and who were tolerant enough to allow us to use their Hi-Fi systems to play that stuff back. My poor Dad!
Thinking back, I'd posit that remixes were what really started to get us going in crazy directions... no, wait, side projects came earlier. I don't think I can thank Marc Almond enough, for example, for releasing records soon after Tainted Love that featured collaborations with the likes of Jim Thirlwell and Matt Johnson. Because their collaborations sounded so amazing, I found myself buying things like Soul Mining and Finely Honed Machine back in 10th grade or so. Things then fanned out from there; occasionally, we'd convince our parents to take us to Reckless Records in the Haight, or up to the big Tower store in Sacramento, and before you knew it we had all kinds of crazy shit like Psychic TV, Coil, Einstürzende Neubauten, Laibach... you name it. One of these days, I should probably map it all out: liking Soft Cell led to Dave Ball's solo album, which had Genesis P-Orridge on it, which led to Psychic TV, which led to Throbbing Gristle, and so on. Wild.
Jesse was especially interested in Cabaret Voltaire, and I'm not sure how that started. [For me, it started when I was a guest exchange student in Braunschweig for one week in 1986, staying with a family whose son Stefan was a huge CV and Samuel Beckett fan, both of which rubbed off on me.] Back in the day, there weren't any CD re-releases to speak of, and most of their early stuff had long since gone out of print, so it was a revelation when Jesse triumphantly returned home from The City with a copy of Three Mantras; I think it was the first time we'd heard music that relied heavily on tape loops and repetitive techniques. Before too much longer - I was DJing at the high school radio station - I had somehow found Severed Heads, and then their double LP Clifford Darling, Please Don't Live In The Past not long after that.
To sum up: By 1985, both of us had discovered - and found beauty in - a particular type of music that is founded in cutting things up, looping them, and manipulating them. Steve Reich's It's Gonna Rain is probably the best known example of this sort of thing, but hey, we were high school students in Stockton, California, so we didn't know about this. Any music education we received tended to revolve around things like The Liberty Bell March and China Grove, so we had no grounding in music theory, no knowledge of avant garde music, no nothing.
Skipping forward three years, I finally had complete and unfettered access to the UC Berkeley library. This was - for me, at least - an incredible gift. Even better: the University of California had just completed an online card catalog for the first time, which meant that I could search for pretty much anything I wanted information on, so of course I started researching the music that I'd been listening to. There was nothing on Severed Heads - I mean, c'mon, obscure Aussie quasi-industrial music? - but plenty on Cabaret Voltaire, largely thanks to their inclusion in Re/Search, a 'zine of sorts published locally. The Bancroft Library, which shares the same building as the main library at Cal, actually had issues of that, which were so rare you had to check your bag before entering their reading room and wear gloves to look at it. You can imagine how excited I was by this - and more so when I realized that there was a William S. Burroughs connection.
Burroughs... where to begin? I always thought my parents were irredeemably un-hip, probably because their record collection had stuff like The Folk Box and The Mormon Tabernacle Choir in it, mostly. However, they did have some interesting books that they kept out in the guest house bookshelf, and I suppose they never expected that they'd have kids who'd be interested enough in reading to go spelunking in there. Still: what did you expect with a title like The Naked Lunch? I found that book in seventh grade, and oooh man, it was dirty. Really dirty. Also, fun.
Now, I had no idea about anything else the man had written; again, not surprisingly, high school English is more about The Color Purple than Cities of the Red Night. So I caught up... Junky, Queer, you name it. And thanks again to Re/Search, who'd published an issue on Burroughs, TG, and Brion Gysin, I started to understand that cut-ups had been around quite a while, started to see how this stuff may have originated, started to realize where incredible works of art like Alaskan Polar Bear Heater #1 had come from. [Seriously. Google it, it's a Severed Heads piece.]
The big question here, though, is relatively straightforward: Why did I like this stuff? What was artistically and emotionally compelling about music that doesn't necessarily flow? Music that's filled with interruptions, exasperating repetitions, dropouts, static, noise, flaws?
Thanks to diesel_pioneer, I wound up ordering a back issue of The Wire last week (the one with Melvins on the cover). Somewhere in the back of it, there was a brief review of the reissue of Learning To Cope With Cowardice by Mark Stewart + Maffia. I hadn't heard that record in twenty years; I had jumped from Depeche Mode to that album via amazing On-U Sound remixes of Master and Servant and People are People that had completely, utterly destroyed the original DM source material in favor of something new and much, much more interesting than those songs themselves. It only took a minute to download the MP3s, so I found myself listening to this music again for the first time in two decades. Just as with those DM remixes - which I haven't heard in twenty years or so either, having stupidly sold my vinyl ages ago (anyone have a copy? please?) - the m. o. here is to take a song of sorts and destroy everything around it. What you're left with is a vocal, not perfect, that mostly exists as everything else goes in and out of focus. It reminds me of a painting that used to hang in the university art museum at Cal - it was, I think, of a standard Madonna figure, but it was covered in layers of what looked like beeswax so that you could just barely, faintly see it, if at all.
Time and time I again I find myself compelled by things like this, and these experiences show up in the unlikeliest of places. Max Tundra has a knack for ending his songs with a void. The final scene at the beach house in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is devastating because of the spaces in that conversation. The Limey is all about absence; often, the soundtrack and visuals are absent each other, and the holes reinforce each other. There's a moment in Socket where the movie stops for a second or two - the main character gives in to a hug - and it's quietly beautiful. Great wines do this too: the quaver, not resolving themselves, refusing to be pinned down. I had a Grosset riesling this week that darted between the feel of an ocean breeze, a freshly picked peach, salt caramels, and hay, without cease. The best concert experience I had was seeing Kraftwerk... and their pocket calculators failed, inserting an obvious gap into the smoothly planned flow of the evening. Florian smiled, and the moment was transcendent. And then there's the widely reviled Last Days, which I adore for a scene in which the Cobain character walks out of frame, leaving you with nothing but a meadow and nature on the soundtrack for a minute or so.
Anyhow : this post is too long. The next time you sit down to a new CD, watch a new movie, or see a new landscape, painting, photograph, what have you : try sticking with it even if you don't like it at first. Sometimes, you have to stick with it; sometimes, the discomfort conceals the beauty that will eventually sneak through the cracks and lay you bare. Just as our lives are never, ever unbroken pleasure narratives, some of the best art hides its beauty, surrounded by rocks.
Get out there.