Before I begin, go ahead and shift-click this link so that you can see what I'm talking about. If you have a second monitor, go ahead and position that window so that you can refer back to it. OK? Oh, and one more thing: You really want to be using Firefox to open this site, not IE. Ready? OK. Here we go:
Taking liberties with this admittedly inane meme, I'll overreach a bit and talk about a entire object, for lack of a better word. This isn't about a song: it's about all of the things that come together to make a particular instantiation, a specific physical object. The object I'll be talking about today is A Big 10-8 Place, by Negativland, a "band" of sorts from Concord, California.
Let me start with a brief description of Concord. Concord is in Contra Costa County, a county in Northern California. I imagine that most folks have never heard of Contra Costa County unless they grew up in the Bay Area: it can hardly be said to contain anything of note (apart from a dentist's office referenced in the liner notes of Happy Hour by King Missile). Even the name is nothing more than an empty signifier: it means "the other coast," pointing out indirectly that it is not the interesting one, i.e. San Francisco, which is across the bay from western Contra Costa County.
Me, I grew up in San Joaquin County, which borders Contra Costa County. Keep this in mind; if Contra Costa County can be said to be suburban in relation to San Francisco, then Stockton can be considered to be pretty much Nowheresville by comparison. The first memories I have of Contra Costa County were in the 1970s - my grandfather had been admitted to a Kaiser Permanente facility in Concord (he lived in Livermore, a smaller city a ways south in Alameda County), and we made more than a few trips out there, usually taking California Highway 4 across the Delta to get there, passing by Discovery Bay, Brentwood, Clayton, and other fine rural Contra Costa County towns.
So: Imagine moderately affluent suburbia, most of it built after World War II. Know that it's close enough to San Francisco to almost feel Bay Area, but also that it's pretty damn close to the rural wastelands of San Joaquin Delta country. There's another town in Contra Costa County I'm familiar with from my childhood: that would be Antioch, a town on the Sacramento River that's best known for smelling really fucking terrible thanks to a large paper mill there. (Fun fact: some of the best wines in California hail from San Joaquin and Sacramento Delta river country. I'll be enjoying a Verdelho from Clarksburg, about an hour upriver from Antioch, later this evening). For reasons I don't even remotely understand, our family would often eat at a riverside restaurant in Antioch, where I'd enjoy fried seafood along with a snootful of that God awful pulp mill smell. Thanks, Antioch.
Paper: Given that you probably don't own a copy of this recording, let me describe it for you. I first encountered A Big 10-8 Place in Eagle Rock, California, as a teenager. My good friend Jesse had moved there to attend Occidental College; there, he'd heard Negativland's 3rd album Escape From Noise and had liked it so much that he'd picked up their 2nd album as well. Unlike most albums, the packaging was incredibly complicated. I don't have a picture of it handy - my copy is at home and I'm not even sure I'd be able to find it - but you'll have to imagine the following details: The album is packaged in a 12" plastic bag, which is not unusual for imported vinyl albums. However, what's inside is: instead of a cardboard sleeve, there's a stiff paper insert that is constructed so that it has flaps that fold over in the front, kind of like a bracket - [ - this way, if you look at the album from the back, it looks normal (all paper), but from the front, it has two strips of paper down either side. Inserted into the plastic bag is a bumper sticker in a matching green color placed diagonally so that the entire package approximates a capital letter N: paper strip, bumper sticker, paper strip. Behind the strip and in front of the record itself, you should be able to see a small yellow "Inspected By" piece of paper (not dissimilar from the "This errata slip inserted by mistake" object in that one Alasdair Gray book), a small Baggie™ of lawn clippings from an actual suburban lawn in Contra Costa County, and finally a folded newsprint poster that contains collage art as well as a giant map of Contra Costa County.
In short, without even listening to this thing, you should have a pretty good idea of what to expect: something elaborate, pretty damn cool, and also very specific to a part of the world which isn't generally well known. That is, exactly the kind of thing you probably know that I really, really go for. When I say that this "describes me," what I really mean is that this object is typical of the things I really, really care about in this world. Typography, in-jokes, maps, nerdtronica, localized references some folks may not get, site specificity, I could go on... it's all here.
But what about the music? Well... it'd be a gross oversimplification to call this music. Going back to my formative years as a music listener, the major technological advancements of the time were the advent of inexpensive home recording, especially compact cassettes (as opposed to reel-to-reel tapes) and affordable synthesizers. These are markers of two bands I particularly like: Severed Heads (from Australia) and Negativland (from the next county over). Both of these bands learned from Steve Reich and Edgard Varèse: both of them learned to use magnetic tape as a building block for music composition. If Severed Heads were more Reich - the aforementioned Alaskan Polar Bear Heater shares certain artistic tendencies with It's Gonna Rain - and Negativland was more Varèse - which we'll get to in a minute - then both of them went beyond in also producing accompanying physical artifacts that extended the audio somewhere else. Severed Heads sold cassette tapes packaged in broken TV sets; Negativland cheerfully produced unique, one-off, handmade covers for their first album and then this wonderfully Byzantine package for A Big 10-8 Place.
Meanwhile, back in Concord: Is there a chance that Mark Hosler of Negativland had ever heard Varèse's Poème Électronique? Well, who knows? It seems plausible to me. Mills College, which in some ways is the Western Hemisphere's version of Boulez's IRCAM, is just over the hills to the west in Oakland. More than anything else, though, I think it's safe to say that an obsession with ham radio, crappy suburban television, commercial radio, and cheap recording technology all led to Negativland and to this album in particular.
That window over there to your right? If you're at work, ignore it: the point of it is to make some noise. If you're at home, headphones work really, really well for this; ideally, you'd also have the stereo on loud at the same time you're listening to the headphones. Go ahead and click on the PLAY button to listen to the first track for a minute. Pay attention to the first few seconds: radio static/interference/jamming, a girl saying "I" (repeated three times), a 1960s radio commercial kind of voice saying "Everybody welcome," and then The Weatherman (explaining who that is is beyond the scope of this post; let's just say that he's, um, a local character) starts in, singing. As Maude Lebowski would say: The lyrics are ludicrous. That, of course, is the point. (If you listen carefully, you'll hear the phrase "seat bee sate," for example; that was printed on a small button included with their first album. It's a Weatherman-ism and doesn't mean anything.) Pretty soon, though, we'll move on to local place names: Richmond, Orinda, Pleasant Hill. Very stupid. Very stupid. What does it all mean? Again: I have no idea, but there's something here that's deeply, deeply satisfying to me. Growing up in a similarly unexceptional town, I imagined that I too could write an album singing the praises of Morada, Lodi, Calaveras, and Escalon.
Let's move on to the second sample on Negativland's Web site: A BIG 10-8 PLACE Part One. It's here where this album really, really gets going (at least for me). We're well and truly beyond any kind of "music" or "songs" here: instead, we get tape collage, Burroughsian cut-ups (or is that Gysin?), postmodern intertextuality, references a go go, you name it. All of those afternoons I spent watching Captain Mitch on Sacramento Channel 40, all of those strange filmstrips I watched at David Elementary School, all kinds of Hunter S. Thompson-esque cultural seepage and badness from the 1970s... it's all here, all here. There's not nearly enough of a sample on the Web site to get an idea, unfortunately, of how carefully and beautifully it's all been spliced together (carefully, by hand, mind you! this is long before the age of digital cut 'n paste); but you can at least hear "now go to sleep doubting" and "Concord... end of the line, all passengers please disembark," "I," "We're in Concord," and other snippets. I do remember riding BART (the San Francisco Bay Area subway) from Concord into San Francisco the week it opened with my Mom, so part of me remembers those BART announcements well; at any rate, the point isn't mere nostalgia, but the way it's all so skillfully woven together into what (to me) approximates the threatening stasis of growing up in American suburbia, the horrible feeling that you're hemmed in on all sides by cheerful radio salesmen ("The door opens automatically to let you in!"), Koonsian banality ("clowns and ballerinas!"), and some unnameable dread, some Pynchonesque paranoia fusing it all together disguised as a loving parent ("Now go to sleep, Donny") who is probably plotting to murder you in your sleep ("I smell gasoline"). It is unarguably brilliant and probably the finest album to have ever come out of Contra Costa County.
OK. We're 10-8. The number is 180 and the letter is G. There is no other possibility.
Finally, the reason this album reminds me of, well, me so much is that there's an insistence of getting out of The City ("you have to head East") in order to experience something undeniably strange (e.g. renting a Rug Doctor at Safeway in Concord) that just wouldn't happen to you if you stayed at home. This album represents both an inversion of what we all believed to be true as children (that we had to go somewhere else to find truth, or at least a decent taco) - for the first time, someone is proposing that we leave the culturally vetted City and head East - as well as liberation from the canon, an open invitation to create your own art, to produce something that is deeply personal and locally specific.
If I were talking about this in wine terms, then of course I'd point out that one of the most striking examples of this or any other great album is this: that it couldn't conceivably have been made anywhere else or by anyone else. There are thousands upon thousands of albums that sound absolutely fantastic, but which are ultimately interchangeable with thousands of other albums - Whitney Houston comes to mind - and then there are albums that don't sound like they could have been written, performed, or recorded by anyone else - Nick Drake and Boris come to mind, for example. This is one of the greats.
Me, for one, I'm proud to be from Stockton. Not all great art comes from the academy or from the City. Some of it comes from us, from somewhere underneath the shag carpets and burnt orange appliances looking out over empty Delta fields.