Los Angeles / I Heard Ramona Sing / Hang on to Your Ego / Fu Manchu / Places Named After Numbers / Czar / Old Black Dawning / Ten Percenter / Brackish Boy / Two Spaces / Tossed (Instrumental Version) / Parry the Wind High, Low / Adda Lee / Every Time I Go Around Here / Don’t Ya Rile ‘Em
Imagine you’re the front man of one of the most lauded bands of the past few years, put on a pedestal by thousands of fans and worshipped with as much enthusiasm by the music press. Your four albums are all considered essentials of the era, progress isn’t lacking, bands cite you as an influence and you go on tour with U2. However … there’s this bass player you don’t get along with. Oh well, there’s a lot of things going on that bother you, you’d like to be completely in charge, for instance, don’t want to share that huge piece of cake you’ve got. But, the problem is, that bass player might be one of the band’s secret weapons: the songs she contributes to and her breathy vocals make her the favorite masturbatory dream of thousands of alternative rock kids out there, while she also adds a certain coolness to the band (because you’re looking like the eternal student … in a chubby version). On the other hand, there’s the erratic behaviour, the nasty drug habit she can’t kick, and, well, she hates your fucking guts. What do you do? You set up a meeting to discuss it can’t go on like that anymore, that you’ve been rubbing each other the wrong way for too long? No, nothing like that: you pull a Frank Black (or a Black Francis – which is how he was called before) and you write history by announcing the band’s break-up on BBC’s Radio 5. BEFORE mentioning it to your band mates.
Black had been working on his debut while he was still in the Pixies (it appeared less than two months after the break-up), and I presume the others were fully aware of it and it probably wasn’t considered a problem, as Kim Deal also had The Breeders with whom she recorded the marvellous Pod a few years earlier. Frank Black was very much anticipated, but it became clear very soon that the fans were in for a vastly different ride this time. The tandem of Deal/Santiago/Lovering may not have been the most technically proficient one in the history of rock, but they proved the perfect match for Black’s healthily insane tales of madness, sex and a whole lotta nonsense. While the lyrics are still pretty undecipherable (“You heard about a criminal man of virtue, is there any doubt his minimal strands would suit you? Is a hard earned way, is a hard earned way”), the music’s become less extreme/abrasive/unsettling/original. However, despite a diminished lunacy factor, the debut goes to show what the attentive fans had always known: Black was a man with a vision – perhaps a quirky one, but at least he had one – and coupled with his undeniable gift for coming up with first-rate melodies, it could lead to extremely satisfying results. “Could”, indeed, as the subsequent albums share a wide-ranging sprawl, but also a frustrating unevenness. This eponymous album is no different: for each masterstroke (“Los Angeles,” “Fu Manchu”), there’s a song that’s merely pleasant (“Every Time I Go Around Here,” “Places Named After Numbers”), that betrays his personal stamp, but nothing more. An inspired Charles Thompson (C.T. for the friends) was/is capable of writing songs that can compete with those of his own heroes (Iggy Pop, The Beatles, Brian Wilson (proven by a slightly bloated take on Pet Sounds-outtake “Hang on to Your Ego”), Hüsker Dü, etc), but on Frank Black he also prooves that he’s a mere mortal after all.
“Los Angeles” kicks off the album on a tremendously ambitious note, though. Starting of acoustically, it soon transforms into a tough rocker, as if it suddenly remembers to be the sequel to Trompe Le Monde. However, halfway through, the song suddenly retreads to spacier terrain, sounding like a mellow, ethereal tribute to David Bowie’s 70’s rock. The other unquestionable highlight is the delightfully nonsensical “Fu Manchu,” a simple, stomping rocker that builds on Bossanova’s sci-fi rock, while the playful sax parts (courtesy of They Might Be Giants) are an original touch. Apart from these two, there’s nothing really earth-shattering here, but the dirty gutter-rock of “Ten Percenter” (allegedly a tribute to Iggy Pop) is suitably sleazy, while the breezy “I Heard Ramona Sing” is an inconspicuous gem that gets better with every listen. The concise pop of “Old Black Dawning” pays homage to the Pixies’ soft/loud-dynamics (albeit in a less extreme fashion), while someone clearly listened to some Johnny Marr before recording this. “Two Spaces”, on the other hand, is an enchanting ditty that tries to reconcile They Might Be Giants with askew XTC, “Adda Lee” does the same with ska and Weezer (still non-existent at the time), while the crawling growl of the guitars in “Parry the Wind High, Low” is a perfect accompaniment for the lyrics about Desmond Dekker and UFO’s. As suggested above, Frank Black also has its share of less impressive stuff: while there’s nothing that I’d call true filler, some of these tracks just don’t make the standard Black set for himself during the previous years. “Tossed” is a fun instrumental that’s overly long, “Brackish Boy” is mock mariachi he did so much better before (“Crackity Jones” anyone?) and “Czar” is decent rock with very recognizable bass lines. It should’ve been trimmed a bit (obviously Black himself thought otherwise – witness the second album) and it needs a few more stunners to be regarded as a classic, but Frank Black’s best moments proove there was an afterlife for the man who’d stop playing a leading role, while never succumbing to pap either. Well, not yet.
Teenager of the Year (1994)
Whatever Happened to Pong? / Thalassocracy / (I Want to Live on An) Abstract Plain / Calistan / The Vanishing Spies / Speedy Marie / Headache / Sir Rockabye / Freedom Rock / Two Reelers / Fiddle Riddle / Olé Mulholland / Fazer Eyes / I Could Stay Here Forever / The Hostess with the Mostest / Superabound / Big Red / Space Is Gonna Do Me Good / White Noise Maker / Pure Denizen of the Citizens Band / Pie in the Sky
Barely a year after the release of his solo debut (which was completely overshadowed by The Breeders’ Last Splash a few months later), Black already came up with the corpulent 22-song opus Teenager of the Year. At the time, you might’ve presumed he was suffering from an inflated ego and expecting too much of an effort from his fans (I know that my attention span starts crumbling down after 35-40 minutes), but then you’d neglect the fact he’d always been that prolific (and still is!), also with the Pixies, with whom he released on average an album a year from 1988 to 1991. The first difficulty (basically a luxury problem) with the album is that it’s actually 22 songs and not – like Zen Arcade, for instance – a bunch of songs with some interludes and transitional pieces thrown in. The second setback is that the song order is a bit peculiar to say the least, as the album starts and ends with the most energetic songs and has a first half that’s much more eclectic (and better) than the second half. Whereas the ceaseless stylistic swings of the first half keep you on your toes, waiting in anticipation for what’s shoved in front of you next, the last ten songs or so are considerably less enticing and basically demand that you clear your mind and listen to it as if it’s a different album. Therefore, the best way to approach these songs (and to give ’em the fair shot they deserve) is to immediately skip to, for instance, “Fazer Eyes” when you put the record on again.
Quality-wise, the first half hour of the album can withstand the intimidating Pixies-legacy. Seriously. It may be less “far-out,” less hysterical (although the opening salvo of “Whatever Happened to Pong?” and “Thalassocracy” is pretty fuckin’ intense to any band’s standard) and less wicked overall, but it also proves that Black really was the genius of his former band and that he, apart from a terrific shrieker, also an impressive neo-classicist craftsman is. As such, Teenager of the Year demonstrates that Black’s songs, despite the singular approach, didn’t come out of nowhere, as he has obviously learned a lot from a few decades op pop/rock, incorporating sugary Beatles-esque melodies and breezy Beach Boys-inspired surf-pop, while it’s also hard to imagine this album (and others) would ever have been recorded if David Bowie and the gentle folks of Pere Ubu (Eric Drew Feldman is still the main collaborator here) hadn’t pursued a career in music. So, the album starts off on a hectic note with two short, revved up punk-bursts (especially check out how the intro to “Whatever” almost sounds like a Led Zeppelin-tribute), but after that, one pop delight follows the previous one. For “Abstract Plain” and the irresistible pop of “Headache,” Black got the ringing acoustic guitars out of the closet; the lovely love-song “Speedy Marie” and the falsetto-including “Sir Rockabye” are delicate, concise dream-pop, “Freedom Rock” an almost epic rock song with a nifty reggae-ish break halfway, while “Two Reelers” reconciles Speedy Gonzales-punk with space-y synth-wave without falling flat. Even better than most of these songs is “Calistan”: incorporating piano, laying down a wonderful melody and betraying a marvellous knack for dosage (a slight problem earlier on), Black succeeds in creating a song that’ll haunt you for at least an entire day. As suggested above, the second half of the album isn’t quite as successful or rewarding: some of the songs are a bit underdeveloped or unsubstantial (“I Could Stay Here Forever,” “Space Is Gonna Do Me Good”), but the goofy pop of “Big Red” and the swift rock ‘n’ roll of “The Hostess with the Mostest,” “Bad, Wicked World” and “Pie in the Sky” (with short, demented solo by guest Joey Santiago) get by on the strengths of the Black-touch. The abundance of material does create a bit of an anti-climax after the extraordinary barrage of songs the album begins with, but what Teenager of the Year does above all, is confirm that Black was more than capable of doing it all on his own as well.
This essay will try to give an overview of two interpretations of Rear Window, both of which focus on the gaze and voyeurism of the movie, and both of which can be situated (to a greater or lesser extent) within a psychoanalytic context. Mulvey’s interpretation is explicitly inspired by psychoanalysis and feminism, while Žižek’s interpretation has to be situated in a Lacanian context and is an attempt to come to terms with the “Hitchcockian Blot” – the uncanny moment in a Hitchcock movie.
The Voyeurism of Rear Window.
It is a commonplace to say that Rear Window deals with curiosity and the need to pry into the lives of others. Jeff’s curiosity begins harmlessly enough, but gradually, this innocent curiosity turns to semi-professional spying. For example, he starts to use a photographic tele-lens and binoculars from his job as photographer. At this point, it also becomes obvious that being curious is Jeff’s job. His nurse Stella and his fiancée Lisa feel very uncomfortable and accuse him of being an immoral voyeur, a Peeping Tom. Moreover, they do not believe his story about Thorwald. Stella calls him a “window shopper”, someone who “should have [his] eyes put out with red hot pokers.” After Lisa starts spying too, she says they are “two of the most frightening ghouls [she has] ever met”. The other characters in the movie indeed present Jeff as a typical voyeur:
“The voyeur is presented as a ‘diseased’, often paranoid, violent individual who violates the norms of everyday life. Films validate these depictions of the voyeur by having persons in power (family members, editors, supervisors, the police) articulate how and why the voyeur is a sick or deviant person and why his or her gaze is inappropriate.” (Denzin 1995: 3)
They analyze Jeff’s obsessive gaze as inappropriate and immoral. However, very soon they cannot escape becoming Peeping Toms themselves.
Firstly, Jeff’s voyeurism gives him an insight in his own future choices with regard to his relation with Lisa. The different windows represent images of Jeff or Lisa or both. The windows are held up as mirrors, and the people inside could become, or already are, their doppelgängers. For example, in Mr and Mrs Thorwald, Jeff sees a man who is stuck with an invalid and nagging wife. In the case of Jeff and Lisa’s relationship, Jeff is the invalid, and Lisa is the nagging wife. Indeed, Lisa wants Jeff to commit himself to her through a marriage. Lisa and Jeff are reflected in Miss Lonelyhearts and the lonely composer. Miss Torso displays a similar exhibitionism as Lisa. In the future, they could be the newlyweds, or the sterile childless couple whose only joy in life is their little dog.
Laura Mulvey’s psychoanalytic and feminist interpretation.
This analysis of Rear Window can be complemented by, for example, Laura Mulvey’s interpretation of the traditional Hollywood narrative film. In “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”, an article written in 1973, and published in Screen in 1975, Mulvey adopts a radical critique of contemporary cinematic discourse by using psychoanalytic and feminist discourse to analyse “the way film reflects, reveals and even plays on the straight, socially established interpretation of sexual difference which controls images, erotic ways of looking and spectacle.” (Mulvey 1989: 14) Her article revealed classic Hollywood film as an expression of the patriarchal ideology, basically establishing the woman in an inferior position subjected to the male gaze. An ideal case in point in Laura Mulvey’s analysis is the so-called voyeur’s film – like Rear Window – which mostly “deploys an investigative narrative structure, often presupposing a male hero ‘in search of the truth about an event that has already happened, or is about to come to completion’.” (Denzin 1995: 8) The action in such a film is usually defined from the male point of view. Moreover, the woman is often the object of investigation (as in most films noir). At the same time, the woman can function as the dangerous femme fatale or as an obedient wife or girlfriend: “Within this framework, the voyeur’s film […] probes the secrets of female sexuality and male desire within patterns of submission and dominance”. (Denzin 1995: 8) Mulvey argues that Hollywood film is profoundly phallocentric, the woman being the danger, which the man at once desires and denies.
Central in Mulvey’s article is the concept of ‘scopophilia’, or the pleasure in looking, which cinema offers. Looking itself becomes a source of pleasure. Scopophilia was originally linked by Freud to the component instincts of sexuality, which he associated with taking other people as objects to be subjected to someone’s controlling gaze. In its most extreme form, the pleasure of looking becomes a perversion “producing obsessive voyeurs and Peeping Toms whose only sexual satisfaction can come from watching, in an active controlling sense, an objectified other” (Mulvey 1989: 17). This of course aptly describes Jeff in Rear Window.
Mulvey also links the experience of watching a film to this, arguing that film often produces a similar kind of separation, and plays on the same voyeuristic fantasies as, for example the child’s. The spectator’s position is, in essence, one of “repression of their exhibitionism and projection of the repressed desire onto the performer” (Mulvey 1989: 17). This situation arises by taking the other as object of sexual stimulation. In contrast with this, the pleasure of looking can also be related to Lacan’s mirror stage. Jacques Lacan’s analysis of the mirror stage denotes the constitutive moment when the child recognizes its own image in the mirror and identifies with an image of itself, resulting in the articulation of its subjectivity (which is of course not based on the ‘real’ self, but on an image of the self). Analogous to this is the identification of the ego with the objects or subjects on screen. Contrary to the first scopophilic position, this position arises through narcissism, and is the result of the identification with the image seen (in a mirror/on screen), and is a function of the ego libido.
In the traditional movie, the woman has been displayed as an (erotic) object for both the other (male) characters within the movie and the (male) spectators in the audience. At the same time, a male/active versus female/passive dichotomy is at work controlling the narrative sequence. The man both holds control of the action, and of the gaze (character and spectator): “As the spectator identifies with the main male protagonist, he projects his look onto that of his like, his screen surrogate, so that the power of the male protagonist as he controls events coincides with the active power of the erotic look, both giving a satisfying sense of omnipotence.” (Mulvey 1989: 20) The importance of the look “of the spectator in direct scopophilic contact with the female form displayed for his enjoyment (connoting male fantasy) and […] of the spectator fascinated with the image of his like set in an illusion of natural space, and through him gaining control and possession of the woman within the diegesis” becomes obvious (Mulvey 1989: 21). The woman, in this type of movie, becomes “isolated, glamorous, on display, sexualised” – which is how not only Miss Torso is presented in Rear Window, but also Lisa.
In this psychoanalytic interpretation, the woman also represents the lack of the phallus and is as such the symbol of the man’s castration anxiety: “Ultimately, the meaning of woman is sexual difference, the visually ascertainable absence of the penis, the material evidence on which is based the castration complex essential for the organisation of entrance to the symbolic order and the law of the father.” (Mulvey 1989: 21) Voyeurism, which is set to demystify and investigate the object (the woman), is one of the ways to channel that fear.
An example of this is Jeff’s relationship with Lisa. In the beginning he does not really show any interest in Lisa. He is afraid to commit to her through marriage. Lisa’s display of sexuality (a form of exhibitionism accented by her insistence on clothes and jewelry) triggers this sense of fear, the symbol of his castration anxiety, in Jeff, and which he consequently has to try to channel. The female threat has to be eliminated (hence Thorwald’s murdering of his wife as Jeff’s dream scenario) or neutralized (e.g. by a marriage). Subsequently, Jeff’s anxiety for Lisa’s sexuality (and exhibitionism) can only diminish when she becomes a part of the world he looks at from his window, when she can be gazed at and controlled like the other objects in his gaze. We can therefore argue that Jeff’s submissive gaze at Lisa canalises and neutralises his fear. Lisa only becomes desirable to him (sexually) when she enters the perspective of his window (1).
The woman means a threat for the man, she is the evidence of his castration complex: “Thus, the woman as icon, displayed for the gaze and enjoyment of men, the active controllers of the look, always threatens to evoke the anxiety it originally signified.” (Mulvey 1989: 21) The man has two solutions for this: voyeurism or a “re-enactment of the original trauma” which has sadistic overtones, or, “disavowal of castration by the substitution of a fetish object or turning the represented figure itself into a fetish” (Mulvey: 1989 21). Generally speaking, both solutions can be found in Hitchcock’s movies. Mulvey’s psychoanalytic and feminist analysis provides an adequate critique of traditional narrative film as similar to the patriarchal ideology: “women in representation can signify castration, and activate voyeuristic [Rear Window] or fetishistic [Vertigo] mechanisms to circumvent this threat.” (Mulvey 1989: 25)
Taking this analysis one step further, we see that spectators are, moreover, almost forced to identify with Jeff’s male gaze objectifying the woman. However, we should also remark that the female spectatorial look works somewhat different from the male look in this situation. On the one hand, she (the female spectator) is described as a passive exhibitionist. Miss Torso is the extreme representation of this exhibitionism as a character in the movie, but Lisa’s accent on clothing is also an element contributing to this exhibitionism. On the other hand, the female spectator is also able to identify with the gaze of the male hero, which turns her look into a masochistic look (as opposed to the male spectatorial look which is sadistic), at which point she turns into an active voyeur rather than a passive exhibitionist.
Laura Mulvey thus explains how identification mechanisms work different for the female and the male spectator. In doing so, she elaborates on the analysis of Rear Window as Hitchcock’s most self-reflexive movie, which takes the movie as a metaphor for cinema itself.
This analysis takes Jeff’s apartment as the ocular centre from which the action is described. The spectator’s view is limited to Jeff’s view, since we often see events through the limited vision of his lens. This makes it particularly tempting for the spectator to identify with Jeff, an element of the movie, enhanced by the use of the subjective camera.(2)
The theme of reflexivity, mirror effects and doubles can be worked out on another level. Jeff’s specific position in his apartment looking out on the different windows/screens is reminiscent of a viewer in a film theatre. In this self-reflexive analysis, Jeff’s double is the spectator in a theatre. Jeff himself admits that he can be looked at by the other characters in his fictive world: “Of course, they can do the same thing to me – watch me like a bug under a glass if they want to”. However, the same holds for the world outside of the fictive world on screen. The spectator, from his safe seat in the theatre gazes at Jeff, the way Jeff gazes at his screens/windows. This self-reflexive meta-narrative moment complicates Rear Window. The cinematic apparatus automatically turns the movie spectator into a voyeur gazing at a window or a screen himself. The “voyeur watches a voyeur gaze” (Denzin 1995: 3). Jeff is the spectator’s double, like the spectator is Jeff’s double.
However, Jeff’s gaze is doubled on yet a third level by the perspective of the director behind the camera. This is, for example, symbolized by Jeff’s profession as photographer. But, the spectator is allowed to see only what the director wants him to see. The spectator’s vision is thus reduced both by Jeff’s lens and by Hitchcock’s camera: “[In Rear Window], a paradigmatic instance of reflexivity, the film performs the metalinguistic dismantling of the structures of scopophilia and identification operative in dominant cinema generally.” (Stam & Pearson 1983: 137)
In a psychoanalytic interpretation, voyeurism generally establishes a separation between the object gazed at, and the source of the ‘drive’ (the eye) producing this gaze. The voyeur tries consciously to establish a division between object and eye, between the object and the own body. This happens in Rear Window as well. There is a clear separation between Jeff and the objects he gazes at. He is not a part of the world in front of him, but sits in his dark room and insists that Stella and Lisa do the same. However, this distance proves to be only illusory and in the course of the movie that distance is progressively broken down. This happens for example when Lisa consciously turns on the light, exposing Jeff to the world outside of his window, or when Thorwald looks out of his window and Jeff tries to hide. Another instance is when Lisa herself steps into the space of the spectacle and Jeff asks in a panic: “Lisa what are you doing? Come on, get out of there!”.(3)
In a theatre, the distance between object and eye is normally too remote for the spectator to be aware of his own gaze. Because the images he sees are produced by an absent entity, the spectator usually looks without hindrance. The film voyeur is a stealthy spectator. His viewing pleasure is no more authorised than the viewing “pleasure” of a child in front of the “Ur-scene” in which a similar prohibition is at work. However, on the other hand, even if the kind of voyeurism that takes place in a theatre is as such not authorised, it is certainly an institutionalised form of voyeurism. Film is a legitimised practice of a forbidden gaze. In contrast with the primary voyeurism of the “Ur-scene”, going to the movies is a legitimate enterprise. The “Ur-scene” is doubled in the spectator’s view, which in turn is doubled in Jeff’s gaze. Moreover, Jeff’s situation is described as if he is spying through a keyhole sitting in his dark room. Stella, for example, explicitly calls his lens a portable keyhole.
Feminist critics like Laura Mulvey argue convincingly how women are often turned into passive objects of the male gaze in Hitchcock’s movies, also in Rear Window, and how this also affects the spectator’s viewing habits.
Slavoj Zizek and the Hitchockian Blot: The Uncanny.
Slavoj Žižek’s interpretation takes Lacan as starting point. This interpretation more explicitly deals with the uncanny moment in a Hitchcock movie, something which Žižek calls the “Hitchcockian Blot”. This element is in accordance with the effect, which Lacan would call the “point de capiton”: “a perfectly ‘natural’ and ‘familiar’ situation is denatured, becomes ‘uncanny’, loaded with horror and threatening possibilities” (Žižek 1991: 88). In the case of Rear Window, this element is constituted by the gaze itself, and is most aptly demonstrated by one of the last scenes of the movie. At that point Jeff’s gaze is returned by Thorwald, which very much creates a doppelgänger effect, as I will point out. However, before focusing on that last scene, an explanation of Žižek’s analysis of what constitutes this “Hitchcockian Blot” is in place.
Žižek distinguishes three ways of how an event can be shown on screen, based on the different stages in a person’s libidinal economy: oral, anal and phallic. He places Hitchcock in the third category. The ‘oral’ stage can be compared with the silent slapstick movie, in which a scene is simply shot, the spectators just ‘devour’ the scenes with their eyes. However, a seemingly direct natural rendering of reality is, already in this oral stage, an illusion. Indeed, we see only fragments within a well-specified frame. Reality has already been manipulated. The ‘anal’ stage of a movie is introduced by montage. As a result of montage, the illusion of continuity is lost completely. Montage, e.g. parallel montage, introduces metaphorical meanings. In this type of montage two courses of action are shown alternately, linking the first course of action to the second one in doing so – this is a horizontal process. The ‘phallic’ stage no longer just plays on a horizontal, but also on a vertical level. The threat is not to be placed outside one action sequence, but within, it “under it, as its repressed underside” (Žižek 1991: 89). The uncanny aspect of an everyday scene is introduced. For example, suddenly someone sees too much (e.g. at a dinner table), and becomes a ‘man who knows too much’, resulting in a sort of “surplus knowledge” which has “an abyssal effect on the perspective of the host (and ours with it): the action is in a way redoubled in itself, endlessly reflected in itself as in a double mirror play.” (Žižek 1991: 90) There is a clear link with Freud’s analysis of das Unheimliche. Das Unheimliche, as well, is not something completely unknown, but an anomalous aspect in that which is already known: “things appear in a totally different light, although they stay the same” (Žižek 1991: 90).
Analysed within the libidinal economy, desires, visions or hallucinations are internalised or repressed:
“What we actually see becomes nothing but a deceptive surface beneath which swarms an undergrowth of perverse and obscene implications, the domain of what is prohibited. The more we find ourselves in total ambiguity, not knowing where ‘reality’ ends and ‘hallucination’ (i.e. desire) begins, the more menacing this domain appears.” (Žižek 1991: 90)
This is what Žižek calls ‘phallic’: the element (in a scene) which does not really fit, something which renders a scene uncanny, the point of anamorphosis:
“The element that, when reviewed straightforwardly, remains a meaningless stain, but which, as soon as we look at the picture from a precisely determined lateral perspective, all of a sudden acquires well-known contours.” (Žižek 1991: 90)
This is exactly how Lacan also defines the phallic signifier.
As I said, the aspect in Rear Window, which makes those scenes in a similar way uncanny, is the gaze itself. To exemplify this I refer to one of the last scenes (4), which has a particular accent on the gaze and the eyes. When Thorwald gazes back at Jeff, Jeff is taken out of his voyeuristic passivity very much as if his double looks back at him. At the same time, the spectator who has identified with Jeff is confronted with his own gaze, and is left with the bad taste of embarrassment:
“The shock of our gaze’s intrusion comes when Thorwald, the ‘murderer’, sees Grace Kelly gesturing across the courtyard to Jeff at the wedding ring on her finger. The camera pan shots from Thorwald’s glance at the ring then to his sudden gaze back across the courtyard at Jeffries, whom he sees for the first time. At that point, the gaze is a weapon turned back upon his abuser.” (Orr 1993: 68-69)
At this point, the separation between voyeur and his object proves an illusion. Jeff is confronted with his own desire, which can be illustrated by the questions Thorwald asks repeatedly: “Who are you? What do you want from me?” This is even intensified when Thorwald in return invades Jeff’s privacy, literally, like Jeff has done before by his gazing. When Thorwald storms in, Jeff tries to ‘blind’ him – again to be taken literally – by flashing the light of his camera. Jeff tries to remove the source of the threat, Thorwald’s eyes, which constituted his own crime as well, of course. At the same time, he closes his eyes not to be blinded by the light himself. However, Jeff cannot avoid a direct confrontation with Thorwald: Thorwald pushes Jeff out of his window, the frame of his safe neutral world. This whole scene is intensified by the fact that it is shot in a wholly ‘unrealistic’ way:
“Where we would expect rapid movement [the repeated flashes of the lightbulb], an intense, swift clash, we get hindered, slowed-down, protracted movement, as if the ‘normal’ rhythm of events had undergone a kind of anamorphotic deformation.” (Žižek 1991: 91)
Jeff’s initial fascination with Thorwald and his wife, stems, as already indicated from the fact that Thorwald reflects Jeff’s own desire. Jeff too aims at evading a sexual relationship. Žižek argues that Jeff transforms his own impotence in his relationship into power through his gaze: “he regresses to an infantile curiosity” (Žižek 1991: 92). His window is a fantasy window through which he sees his own possibilities reflected back to him (5). Moreover, after this confrontation with Thorwald, Jeff is ready for marriage, because “he has been confronted by the darkness that Hitchcock sees as underlying – or as surrounding – all human existence: the chaos of our unknown, unrecognised “Under-nature” (Wood 1989: 106). In other words, the end is only possible because Jeff has submitted himself to the process which lies at the origin of his voyeurism:
” the indulgence of morbid curiosity and the consequences of that indulgence: a process which in itself is a manifestation of his sickness. Only by following it through does progress become possible for him” (Wood 1989: 106).
The solution for Jeff lies in not ignoring his problem, but in coming to terms with it, accepting it. Characteristically, the end does not show Jeff as the ultimate victor, but both his legs are now broken. Moreover, the end scene shows Lisa dressed up in men’s:
“Order is restored, within and without – in the microcosm of Jefferies’ personality, and in the external world which is on one level an extension or reflection of it; but we are left with the feeling that the sweetness-and-light merely covers up that chaos world that underlies the superficial order.” (Wood 1989: 107)
Of course, when she sees that Jeff is not watching, she just picks up her woman’s magazine once again. In this way, we can again refer to the ‘familiar’ aspect within the uncanny. There is still a stain left, an incongruous element, a Hitchcockian blot.
As a final point, I would still like to say that Žižek also mentions the soundtrack of Hitchcock’s movies, which can bring out the uncanny, more specifically the background sounds. There are different sounds coming from the different windows in the apartment block and we can always attribute the sound to a particular person. “All except one, the voice of an unidentified soprano practicing scales and generally emerging just in time to prevent the fulfilment of sexual union between Stewart and Kelly.” (Žižek 1991: 93) The bearer of this voice is not visible through Jeff’s window: “the voice remains acousmatique and uncannily close to us, as if its origins were within us.” (Žižek 1991: 93)
(1) Although this is clearly the overall tendency in the movie, a certain nuance is in place since at several points in the movie both Stella and Lisa have an active gaze as well. Jeff’s voyeurism seems to be quite contagious and Lisa and Stella who were very cautious at first, start to gaze at their neighbours too. And, without Lisa’s crucial (female) interference, Jeff would not have solved the mystery: it is Lisa who finds Mrs Thorwald’s wedding ring.
(2) Note, however, that at several important points in the movie, Jeff’s gaze is broken, e.g. in the flashlight scene at the end, cf. infra.
(3) At this particular moment in the lecture this scene from the movie is shown.
(4) At this point in the lecture, another scene from the movie is shown.
(5) Note that the Hitchcockian ‘blot’, the uncanny moment in his movies, is formally brought out by the typical Hitchcockian tracking shot. Žižek explains this quite thoroughly and links it to Lacan’s objet a. However, the scope of this paper forces me to refer to Žižek’s book for more information about this (Žižek 1991: 93-106).
– Hitchcock, Alfred. Rear Window.
– Denzin, Norman K. The Cinematic Society. The Voyeur’s Gaze. London: Sage Publications Ltd., 1995.
– Mulvey, Laura. Visual and Other Pleasures. Houndsmill, Basingstoke: MacMillan, 1989.
– Orr, John. Cinema and Modernity. Cambridge: Polity Press, 1993.
– Stam, Robert & Pearson, Roberta. “Hitchcock’s Rear Window: Reflexivity and the Critque of Voyeurism.” Enclitic 7 (1): 136-145.
– Wood, Robin. Hitchcock’s Films Revisited. New York: CUP, 1989.
– Žižek, Slavoj. Looking Awry. An Introduction to Jacques Lacan through Popular Culture. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1991.
Radios in Motion / Cross Wires / This Is Pop / Do What You Do / Statue of Liberty / All Along the Watchtower / Into the Atom Age / I’ll Set Myself on Fire / I’m Bugged / New Town Animal in a Furnished Cage / Spinning Top / Neon Shuffle
Despite its quirkiness, White Music might very well the XTC album most representative of the (punk) era it was released in. Although the band would evolve into something of a classic pop band with lots of disregard for all things trendy, in the late ‘70’s they basically sounded like the next pop-punk band with a wicked edge. On the other hand, that was nearly normal at the time: Squeeze also released their weirdest and most angular album in the same year, Adam Ant would deliver his debut in the following year, and overseas Devo let their cerebral/jerky take on pop loose on the masses. Devo was probably the most successful band on an artistic level as well, because I’ve never seen an XTC-fan who thinks their debut is essential (correct me if I’m wrong). OK, it does contain some good singles (“This Is Pop,” “Statue of Liberty”), and a few decent tracks, but just like U.K. Squeeze it suffers from occasionally sloppy songwriting and silliness. The good thing is that they already betray a musical prowess that’s quite surprising for a debuting band, but of course they’d been around for some years. Some of these songs even seem to hint at later accomplishments by Gang of Four because of their off-kilter angularity, jerky rhythms and unusual vocals, while the ridiculous-sounding keyboards of Barry Andrews (who’d end up playing with Robert Fripp) often adds an extra dimension of idiocy.
Whereas both Partridge and Moulding would become first-class songwriters, this album’s clearly dominated by the Partridge songs. The frenetic album opener “Radios in Motion” immediately opens on a high note with a thudding bass line (“Psycho Killer” on speed) and Partridge’s effective accentuated singing. Other highlights include the infectious single “This Is Pop,” with its (at the time) outlandish combination of glam and wave, while the clean-produced “Statue of Liberty” would fit in nicely on Joe Jackson’s Look Sharp! (1979). More decent Partridge tracks come in the way of a sing-along “Into the Atom Age,” complete with demented keyboards and lyrics (“My wife’s getting lazy going gadget crazy, wants a palette shaped coffee table and a matching settee”) and the proto-Minutemen funk (just ignore Barry Andrews and listen to that rhythm section!) of “Neon Shuffle” which allegedly dates back to ’73 when the boys were still called The Helium Kidz. Unfortunately, these songs are about the only ones here that can capture my attention, as the remainder of the Partridge songs consist of unsuccessful ideas or are underdeveloped (“I’m Bugged,” “New Town Animal in a Furnished Cage”). Moulding, who would write several XTC classics (“Making Plans for Nigel,” “Generals and Majors,” “Life Begins at the Hop,” “King for a Day”) contributes three songs: while “I’ll Set Myself on Fire” has those rather annoying yelps and “hahahas,” “Cross Wires” (2:03) and “Do What You Do” (1:14) don’t even have the time to go awry. They’re both playful and hushed, but only work on a curiosity level. It’s hard not to shake your ass during the festive vaudeville of “Do What You Do,” but it’s only fun as long as it lasts. Finally there’s their rather atrocious cover of Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower”. While it admittedly gets one hell of a funky bass line, it’s never really made clear what the intention was. Rendering a near-unrecognisable version of a classic song is fine, but in that case you’ll have to come up with some effective ideas to replace the original ones. Annoying keyboards, jerky harmonica and the worst vocal delivery of your career (imagine Joe Strummer slurring drunkenly in Hungarian) isn’t an effective recipe for success. White Music has a handful of good songs (though none of them is a stone cold classic) and a few decent ones, but the amount of merely decent or nearly average songs is too large. There’s nothing much here that hints at the band’s later – often glorious – albums and therefore this should not be your first XTC-purchase. Unless you’re the one who always says I’m wrong about everything.
Note: there are about 7 billion versions of this album around, and the most common one (the one that I have) puts seven extra tracks in the middle of the album: three from the early 3D EP, three B-side tracks and an outtake. Of these, the frantic single “Science Friction” is by far the most interesting, as it’s one of the best of their early singles.
Go 2 (1978)
Meccanic Dancing (Oh We Go !) / Battery Brides (Andy Paints Brian) / Buzzcity Talking / Crowded Room / The Rhythm / Red / Beatown / Life Is Good in the Greenhouse / Jumping in Gomorrah / My Weapon / Super-Tuff / I Am the Audience
Yes, you read that correctly. A 4. And I regret it. I promised myself I’d try to be honest about my grades, so there you go. Although this band would become one of the most important and consistent (well, in my opinion at least) British bands of the eighties and nineties, their first two efforts are decidedly sub-standard. Whereas White Music was “saved” by a handful of good tracks that were scattered over the album (check out my picks), there’s nothing much here to redeem the painfully weak second half of the album – especially Andrews’s two songs – that barely transcends the band’s dreadful cover version of “All Along the Watchtower.” But let’s return to the highlights that are neatly grouped on the first half of the album first. The juddering “Meccanic Dancing” has verses as fractured as they come, with weird ska-like guitar accents, cheap keyboards effects and Partridge’s nearly hiccupping his lyrics in a robotic way. The chorus is fairly conventional, though, and leans closer to the band’s later pop stuff. Surprisingly relaxed is what “Battery Brides” sounds like, as the moderate pace, the recurring bass-line and the sci-fi keyboards remind both of the ‘70’s ambient of Eno (to whom the song is dedicated) and of The Who’s “Baba O’Riley” (I swear I’m not making this up!). Add to this the pleasant ska-punk of “Crowded Room,” and there you go: the worthwhile songs.
Oh wait, there’s probably more that might tickle your interest or satisfy your cravings for mechanized wave: maybe the ascending/descending patterns in “The Rhythm” sound well thought of to your ears, or the nervy and disjointed ska of “Red,” and maybe even the militaristic barks of “They use the head and not the fist!” in “Beatown” will crack you up (weirder things have happened). But please don’t try to convince me of the merits of painful experiences such as “Buzzcity Talking” that probably has the most aggravating chorus of the entire album (and consequently of the entire XTC-catalogue), while also Andrews has no business appearing over and over again. Equally infuriating are the dragging pace, weak vocal performance and returning poetry of “Rather be a plant than your Mickey Mouse” (and those “Ahahahas”!) in “Life Is Good in the Greenhouse.” To make matters worse (indeed, the torture hasn’t stopped yet), Andrews’ refined compositions aren’t suitable candidates for Song of the Year either. The “I wanna take it out on her with my weapon” (from *enter drum rolls* “My Weapon”) is probably the silliest line in an XTC-song ever, while also “Super-Tuff” is a lie, by being Super-Boring. The remainder of the songs that I haven’t mentioned didn’t really succeed in insulting me, although the fact that I can’t think of anything memorable about them either – despite several listens – speaks for itself. The funny thing about the whole deal is the album cover, which is probably one of the smartest around. Instead of offering a visual attraction it’s merely a long text discussing the nature of the album as a product and the music fan as a consumer: “We’re letting you know that you ought to buy this compact disc because in essence it’s a PRODUCT and PRODUCTS are to be consumed and you are a consumer and this is a good PRODUCT.” They’re right when they claim the album is a PRODUCT, but unfortunately it is not much else. This consumer doesn’t think it’s a good product at all.
Note 1: the CD-versions that are currently available all add the single “Are You Receiving Me?” that’s luckily (and sadly at the same time) the album’s highlight.
Note 2: shortly after the release of this album, Andrews left the band and was replaced by guitarist Dave Gregory. The classic era could begin …
Drums and Wires (1979)
Making Plans for Nigel / Helicopter / Day in Day out / When You’re Near Me I Have Difficulty / Ten Feet Tall / Roads Girdle the Globe / Reel by Reel / Millions / That Is the Way / Outside World / Scissor Man / Complicated Game / Life Begins at the Hop / Chain of Command / Limelight
Enter new guitar player Dave Gregory and producer Steve Lillywhite (U2, Psychedelic Furs, etc). Because of the change in the line-up, XTC became a much more guitar-oriented band (hence the “wires”), which is a good thing, as Andrews’ hit-or-miss keyboards-contributions often led to frustrating results. Fortunately, not only Gregory’s entrance meant an improvement for the band, as the song-writing of Partridge and (especially) Moulding progressed with leaps and bounds at once. Although Moulding wrote only 4 out of 12 songs, two of his contributions have become classics in the XTC-catalogue (well, in my fairly unimportant opinion that is), while another one is also among the highlights here. Partridge’s efforts are generally quirkier, wilfully difficult songs that are nice complements to Moulding’s more accessible material, but sometimes they’re overly silly or based on half-assed efforts. Similar to the first two albums, Drums and Wires starts off exceptionally well: Moulding’s “Making Plans for Nigel” is an outstanding representative for the album: deceptively accessible, but in reality far from conventional, it introduces a new rhythm-heavy era in the band’s history. With its propulsive bass line, awkward drumming and angular guitar patterns, it’s really not that surprising that Primus’ Les Claypool acknowledged it to be a major influence on him (and he further proved it by covering several songs – on stage ànd in the studio).
The winning streak continues with the opposites of “Helicopter” and “Day in Day out”. While the first one reminds you why they often were considered an odd band (a tag that would disappear slowly during the next decade), because of the nearly robotic, ultra-tight rhythm and Partridge’s frenetic performance, the lazy and more conventional pop of Moulding’s “Day in Day Out” is as charming as they come. By the way, am I the only one who thinks this song is exactly the stuff Blur’s ex-guitarist Graham Coxon must have been studying? “When You’re Near Me I Have Difficulty” has some pretty inane lyrics (“Now I’m feeling like a jellyfish, just a spineless wobbly jellyfish”), but the song works well, although it’s dwarfed by the song it precedes. Starting off with some acoustic guitar, but transforming itself into a delicious piece of jangly pop, “Ten Feet Tall” is another of Moulding’s triumphs. Nothing spectacular on the surface (one of the ‘normal’ songs on the album actually), but everything – from the restrained vocals to the acoustic/electric guitars and those wonderful verses – clicks, making it an overlooked gem in the band’s catalogue (even though it was released as a single). Frustratingly, the album’s least impressive cuts then all gather in the middle section, hereby burying the good wave-pop of “Reel by Reel” between sub-par experiments that suggested the band really needed to cut short some of its tendencies. Both the extended dirge “Millions” as well as “Roads Girdle the Globe” go to show the band became better musicians, but didn’t always know what to do with their capabilities. Even though his previous contributions were terrific, Moulding’s “This Is the Way,” has, above all, a talent for annoying me to no end … during the verses, that is, when vocals and contrary rhythms are fighting for attention, while both are ugly.
All this is redeemed, however, towards the end of the album, which picks up the frantic energy of the nervy art-punk of the first two albums: “Outside World” isn’t anything marvellous, but its sudden twists and turns at least seem to make sense, while Partridge’s exaggerated vocals didn’t bother me at all. The album’s last two cuts also confirm that they weren’t a “classic” pop band yet, as the hero from “Scissor Man” is the completely nutty version of a Marvel Comics-hero, the music being appropriately nervous and confusing (but in a good way). Album closer “Complicated Game” certainly is a remarkable entry in the catalogue, a truly creepy dirge, Partridge’s vocals sounding totally perverted when he mumbles, stutters, moans lines such as “A little girl asked me should she part her hair on the left, no-o-o-o-, little girl asked me should she part her hair on the right, nooo.” As the song progresses, also the music becomes more abrasive (noise bursts, voice manipulation), making it their darkest, most threatening song yet (and ever). A remarkable improvement on Go 2, their breakthrough album (in the US at least) succeeded in combining their early experimentalism and crankiness with a newly found pop sensibility they’d turn into their advantage on subsequent releases. If it weren’t for a few songs that lack focus, it could’ve been their first excellent album, but now it’s “just” a good album with a few wearisome moments (though nothing is comparable to Go 2’s “My Weapon”).
Note: There are several editions around, but the one you’ll find in the shops is probably the recently re-mastered re-issue that I have. On top of the original album, it also adds the excellent party single “Life Begins at the Hop,” the amusing freebie single “Chain of Light” that originally accompanied Drums and Wires, and its B-side “Limelight” during which the band, again, sounds like a demented version of Madness and Squeeze at the same time.
Take Away/The Lure of Salvage (1980) by Andy Partridge
Commerciality / The Day They Pulled the North Pole Down / The Forgotten Language of Light / Steam Fist Futurist / Shore Leave Ornithology (Another 1950) / Cairo / The Rotary / Madhattan / I Sit in the Snow / Work Away Tokyo Day / New Broom
Preliminary note: I don’t have a separate copy of Andy Partridge’s Take Away/The Lure of Salvage (who has?) – I even doubt whether it was ever released on CD separately. However, it’s also included – along with the Go+ EP – on the compilation Explode Together – The Dub Experiments 78-80 (1990) that I got my hands on. Since the compilation contains the two releases in its entirety and isn’t a mishmash of cuts from various sources, following the chronological order makes more sense than suddenly stuffing it between Oranges & Lemons and Nonsuch. Or doesn’t it?
Being particularly pleased with the results of Go+ (1978), an EP that came as a bonus with early copies of the band’s sophomore album, Partridge set out to record an entire dub-styled album, which he described as “… a collection of tracks that have been electronically processed/shattered and layered with other sounds or lyrical pieces.” As he suggests, these songs weren’t created from scratch, as earlier songs (or parts of songs) were turned inside out or completely mutilated. Indeed, “mutilated” is the word, because I’m sure that no sane person will admit to liking this one, except for maybe a few single-minded, hardcore XTC-fans or those who are into this kind of avant-rock that seeks to rob music as much as possible of its humane character. Because of the use of bizarre sounds and noises, keyboards, and randomly placed eccentric vocals delivered with a mechanical pronunciation reminiscent of the one used in Devo’s “Satisfaction,” it’s as hard to get into as your average Captain Beefheart-album that isn’t Unconditionally Guaranteed or Bluejeans & Moonbeams.
Sometimes, these soundscapes are quite hypnotic and not that different from what the Krautrockers and Eno (with the Talking Heads) were doing, but the randomness of it all and the sense that most of its was a) tossed-off without much planning (“The Forgotten Language of Light,” based on the percussion track of Drums & Wires’ “Millions”), b) relying on conveniently muffled vocals (“Shore Leave Ornithology”) or c) largely nonsensical (“Madhattan”), remains dominant. Occasionally, you’ll also feel sorry for the original versions that are abused: “Steam Fist Futurist” is a horrid take on “Reel by Reel,” “The Rotary” a headache-inducing assault on “Helicopter” AND the senses, with improvised vocals on top of it, whereas the obnoxious “New Broom” is a robotic deconstruction of “Making Plans for Nigel” at 17RPM. In a certain way, it’s quite admirable that such a young Partridge had the guts to release such an inaccessible record (and allegedly, he insisted that the label (Virgin) asked a maximum price of 3.99 pounds), and admittedly, some of the bearable songs (“Commerciality,” and um, maybe “I Sit in the Snow”) were even precursors to an approach that would gain more prominence later on, but for the most part, Take Away/The Lure of Salvage is the kind of album that gives experimentation a bad name. Nowadays Partridge doesn’t seem that pleased with the results either (and how often have you seen copies of the album or Explode Together?), which strengthens my belief that there lies no masterpiece waiting to be uncovered under the ugly surface of this utterly forgettable solo debut.
Black Sea (1980)
Respectable Street / Generals and Majors / Living Through Another Cuba / Love at First Sight / Rocket from a Bottle / No Language in Our Lungs / Towers of London / Paper and Iron (Paper and Coins) / Burning with Optimism’s Flames / Sgt. Rock (Is Going to Help Me) / Travels in Nihilon
Boasting no less than five singles (all with insignificant success) and the big sound that was introduced on Drums and Wires, XTC’s fourth album (in three years) finally succeeds in delivering a consistent batch of songs. Whereas the previous albums all had a handful of highlights (often the singles) that suggested they were capable of greater things, Black Sea is the first of their releases that’s completely devoid of half-assed attempts at uniting classic pop and frenetic quirkiness. On top of the increased quality, the duo of Partridge and Moulding also came up with a bunch of better lyrics this time around, repeatedly stressing their infatuation with typically “English” matter, offering songs about suburban superficiality (“Respectable Street”), the “Towers of London” and army officials yearning to reinstall Britain’s former stature. As before, the show is stolen by the singles (to realize what a great singles band they were, get a copy of the magnificent 2-CD set Fossil Fuel – not one weak track), the best of which is probably the hard-hitting album opener “Respectable Street.” While Partridge’s vocals could still be described as “manic yelling” (actually quite a contrast to the main theme in the song – trying to be anonymous/unnoticed behind the hedgerows of shiny suburbia), the band’s attach is less wicked, but as relentless as ever, with especially drummer Chambers showing off his considerable skills.
Moulding only turns in two songs, but at least one of them is a classic in the XTC-Songbook: his jumpy, ska-indebted anti-war song “Generals and Majors” treats a serious theme with an ironic lightness of touch that makes it even more likeable. It’s an example of XTC in the “classic-mode”, rivalling the great British songwriters on the ‘60’s (Lennon & McCartney, Davies, etc), while the silly boy scout-whistling adds a extra quirky touch to it. Moulding’s “Love at First Sight” is more about that immediately likeable rhythm and melody than anything else (not that there’s much else), but it’s an oddity that still qualifies as “pleasant” instead of “silly.” Another highlight is “Towers of London,” kicking off the second half in Beatles-esque fashion with that great, laidback chorus. While it doesn’t more than paint a picture of a time gone by, the song’s impressive sound and impressive musicianship (what an asset Gregory was!) make it a third classic on the album. “Sgt. Rock (Is Going to Help me)” is not far behind though: driven by a great repetitive riff and a rhythm section that kicks out the jams throughout the entire song, it’s ultimately about that infectious chorus (that seems to deal with some kind of super hero who’ll come to Andy’s aid when he’s trying to impress the ladies) and a whole lot of droll nonsense. Now that I mentioned it already a few times, the choruses are a few of the songs’ biggest asset: “Rocket from a Bottle” would’ve only been decent if it weren’t for that enjoyable chorus and the dragging verses of “No Language in Our Lungs” are made up for by a terrific sound. More imposing are “Paper and Iron” and “Burning with Optimism’s Flames,” two typically restless XTC-songs that just can’t settle down with one idea: while the forceful drum salvos and noticeable ska-influences of the former are just a few of the details that turn it into a weird, but enjoyable song, the latter’s ridiculously wordy verses and original phrasing set it apart. OK, I’ve stressed enough that the majority of this album’s songs are blessed with an abundance of great melodies, but there are also a few out of step-tracks, such as “Living Through Another Cuba,” which somehow tries to bring Joe Jackson (the vocals on Night and Day’s “T.V Age” (recorded two years after this album) might as well have been inspired by Partridge’s blustering rant) and Talking Heads’ world-groove together, and actually gets away with it. Similarly, the extended “Travels in Nihilon” (basically not much of a song), is mainly a great showcase for the rhythm section of Chambers and Moulding, both of whom deliver the goods with a frantic energy. Earlier albums already contained tracks that were proof of this band’s immense talent, but apparently it took them a few years to become better editors of their own work. As it is now, Black Sea’s seamless succession of good-to-great stuff became their first terrific album and suggested the band might eventually become one of the key-bands of the ‘80’s and beyond.
In one of the relatively few articles that have appeared about him, Jandek is regarded as “the longest-running, weirdest, loneliest enigma in popular music.” Basically, nobody knew anything about Jandek, except that he
released more than forty album on the Corwood Industries label (presumably Jandek’s own one man business) between 1978 and 2005
never performed in public
never willingly gave an interview
recorded some of the bleakest albums under the sun
Ideal fodder for obsessive nutcases to ponder over (Seth Tisue, who runs a website on Jandek, has gathered an amazing amount of information about a man whose music still raises so many questions), and over the years, the myth has only attracted more and more adventurous music listeners and fans of outsider music in particular (Irwin Chusid included a section on the artist in his book Songs in the Key of Z: The Curious World of Outsider Music). Like other outsiders – ranging from icons of the psychedelic era like Skip Spence and Syd Barrett, to the nearly alien confusion of The Shaggs, Daniel Johnston, Wesley Willis and Hasil Adkins – Jandek records and releases music that almost bears no resemblance to traditional pop music anymore. Whereas Johnston is obviously indebted to the classic rock & roll-tradition, with often lovely, intriguing and original music as a result, Jandek’s 43 (!) albums reside in their own continuum. Stylistically, he mainly hovers between folk and country blues, but it’s so far removed from any tradition that its advantage is an almost timeless quality: it could’ve been recorded last week, it could’ve appeared on Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music. The one problem with Jandek however, is that the categorization is entirely built on his preferred instrument (acoustic guitar) and plaintive voice. If you’re looking for nicely structured songs with verses and choruses, pretty vocals and traditional playing, you’re in for a disappointment.
Basically, the majority of Jandek’s output sounds like a huge atonal mess. It’s monotonous, excruciatingly slow, dissonant and extremely inaccessible. It’s an avant-garde in itself with occasional ventures into clamorous electrical music (early 80s), demented noise (1992’s Lost Cause) and solo piano music (1999’s The Beginning). If you’re looking for artists to compare him with, not only the obvious outsiders could be mentioned, but also folk-oriented artists like Simon Joyner (the relentless darkness of his early work) or Bonnie “Prince” Billy (whose semi-rambling style and conversational vocals are somewhat reminiscent of Jandek’s). Despite all these cons, there are also redeeming factors for the man’s art, as the weirdness of the music itself is already a bonus. The stream-of-consciousness approach that seems to run through so much of his music, as well as the singular style, hints at a form of expression that’s entirely unique. As such, many people claim they see a purity in his work that’s unparalleled and untainted by other traditions, trends and outside influences. By disbanding conventional rhythm and a melodic sense altogether, Jandek is said to have reached an emotional and artistic purity and integrity that sounds so personal that it feels like wandering inside somebody else’s mind. It’s a trip through a barren inner life, a wasteland that’s engulfed by desolation, solitude and a vast array of unpleasant emotions ranging from disappointment, despair, loss, depression and melancholy to loneliness. Jandek doesn’t smile.
The intriguing story got an unexpected, almost shocking twist when the news got out that Jandek had performed in Glasgow (Scotland) on October 17th of 2004. The performance, which was given at a festival for experimental music was, according to Jandek’s unofficial biographer, “not publicized in advance or even identified as it happened,” while the organizer of the event admitted a “representative” of Corwood had performed, without even mentioning Jandek’s name (apparently a decisive condition). Of course, things got crazy in Jandekland, as the cult (grown quite sizeable in the meantime) wondered whether more shows would be scheduled. They had to be patient, but in 2005, Jandek finally decided that almost three decades of silence was enough. He appeared twice in Britain in the spring of 2005 (Gateshead and London), had five American shows scheduled in the fall of 2005 (once of which – in New Orleans – was cancelled because of hurricane Katrina), and five more in Europe: three in Britain, one in Finland and one… in Hasselt, Belgium. The show was put together by the folks at indie/experimental music label (K-RAA-K)³ and it didn’t come as a surprise that the cult hero would perform in a full house. The set-up was already an omen – an under-lit stage with only a piano on it – but when Jandek finally stepped (or “slowly strode”) on stage, you could immediately sense that expectations were high and this wasn’t your average artist. He was dressed entirely in black, with a black hat and took off his jacket without even blinking at the silent audience once. He walked to the piano, sat down, put a little digital clock on top of it, opened a notebook in front of him and started playing.
While it was immediately obvious the man is an experienced player, you also wondered whether the instrument was properly tuned, as the minimalist monotony that came from it hovered between Satie’s quiet miniatures and a tuneless, floating series of notes without any discernible melodies. It went on for a few minutes and all the while, Jandek’s pale complexion, subtly bowing movements and almost catatonic calmness created an increasingly creepy atmosphere. The effect of this eerie performance started to become hypnotic, but then the man started singing. However, no one would call it “singing,” as his lyrics were basically spoken, but some syllables stretched according to a logic I didn’t understand. Previously, Jandek usually played with local musicians, with whom he only rehearsed just once (the afternoon before the evening’s show), so I presume the eight songs he played in Hasselt were entirely new. Usually, his lyrics are written before a show and especially for that particular show, and this also must’ve been the case this time. The problem with it, however, was that he used an approach that got almost sickening over the course of an hour. While the music is already strictly personal, steered by the moment’s impulses and free from rules, the lyrics came off as a caricature of depression. In more than half of the songs, Jandek referred to the “blues” that bugged him, that pained him, that confronted him with his death wish. The fact that his misery was delivered directly, without any (or hardly) interference of metaphor or style figures almost made it shocking. Most writers will avoid a journalist’s factual register and try to lively up their prose/poetry with tools that allow them to express emotions indirectly. Not so with Jandek, who was left behind, in his misery, waiting to die. He expressed his wish to lie down on railroad tracks, to escape from his miserable life, the pain inflected upon him by other people. He expressed these feelings and wishes in such a detached, matter-of-fact way that you (I’m speaking for myself here) didn’t know how to act: laugh out loud at such a cartoonish portrayal of misery, fall into a depression yourself at the sight of so much self-hatred and unhappiness or file it away at the back of your head.
Granted, I’ve never seen and heard anything like it, but over the course of a few songs, the non-stop barrage of depressing lyrics (you hurt me/you left me/I have no life/I got no reason to live, etc) and – especially – the way in which they were delivered, turned it into something that was almost unbearable to watch. It constantly walked the thin line between a rambling monologue at the shrink’s office and a teenager’s desperate cries for help and attention. When a song had ended, the audience clapped and some cheered, but there was no reason to cheer. And Jandek, he flexed his fingers, turned the page of his notebook, didn’t even nod, smile or glance at the audience. Eight songs plodded on like that, slowly, miserably. The sixth song promised something different for a while, as it started of with randomly hammered keys in the lower and higher register, but eventually also settled for the same alienating stumble. When you’re discussing an artist like Jandek, who’s never been part of any tradition, you cannot expect him to conform to your (or anyone else’s) expectations. This also creates a luxury position, of course, as the man would’ve gotten away with anything. Reports of previous shows, where he usually played with other folks (Jandek handling guitar, harmonica and even drums) were said to have moments that were almost accessible and conventional, but the performance in Hasselt completely defied categorisation. That doesn’t imply it was a good show, though – although I presume many people in the audience weren’t waiting for something “good.” An artist with a lesser reputation, one who would “neutralize” his bad news with a grateful smile, nod or muttered “thank you,” would never have made such an impact. It was definitely an experience to witness this artist, but the appearance and demeanour were so out-of-proportion, so exaggerated and so devoid of actual substance (the occasionally ridiculous lyrics in particular) that any sense of humanity remained absent. After his eight songs, Jandek closed his book, took his clock and calmly left the stage to disappear backstage. He’d sung about loss, about being left behind, about being treated badly, yet the main question that you were confronted with was whether this person could actually be capable of maintaining satisfying relations with other human beings. Before you can lose a friend or lover, you have to win one. It’s a pity we didn’t get to see that side of the man. As a result, the only thing you can say about the show is that it was disturbing.
If you see a * next to the name of the band, it means that I reviewed all ‘official’ albums by that particular band (that means not including EP’s, website-only albums, superfluous compilations, and bootlegs).
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My ratings explained: a subjective approach
I won’t deny that my music reviews offer subjective ideas and opinions. I’m not the one to tell you objectively which record is interesting, captivating or good and which is not. Moreover, I don’t believe in an objective approach. More than anything else, music is something which I experience, not something which I can measure, capture or control. I do know that some albums are more revolutionary than others, or that some albums contain technical virtuosity while others could have been played by almost anyone with a basic knowledge about music. I will mention these elements in my reviews (if I’m aware of them, that is), but in the end, these will not be the decisive factors. If we were to use objective criteria and focus on technical prowess/virtuosity for example (which can, in a way, be measured), then the best of-lists would probably be crammed with loads of fusion and prog rock. Some albums (Zappa’s Hot Rats or Steely Dan’s Countdown to Ecstasy, for instance) do impress me because of the impeccable high standard of playing, but there has to be more (and those two albums have more). I don’t really know what element the decisive factor is, and it’s probably a combination of several. For convenience sake, I will call it the x-factor. Why do we like one band or album more than another one? This may be influenced by our first music discoveries (if you were exposed (out of your free will) to lots of hard rock, it’s very likely that you’ll still like that genre 10 years later, when you’ve built up a larger music collection), what you value most in music (I for one, I’m always looking for a certain…uh… call it ‘sincerity’ in music, some sort of energy that makes an album rock and roll, even if it’s a solo acoustic effort), the degree to which it makes you feel good/bad/different after you heard it, etc. So, I repeat: the reviews are subjective ‘stories’ of how I experience certain albums, but maybe someone out there will agree. This means it’s perfectly possible that I rate an album by a virtually unknown artist (e.g. Johnny Dowd’s Pictures from Life’s Other Side) higher than an album that’s considered a revolutionary masterpiece (The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band). Of course, if I ever get to the latter, I will stress that we’re dealing with an important (though flawed) album.
Aren’t your ratings a little high?
I don’t think so. Well, you may give some albums lower grades, of course, and that’s your prerogative. I’m very glad that the biggest part of my LP/CD-collection are items that I really like. I discovered some artists by accident, some because a friend recommended one of their albums, others I first listened to after I got them from the library, and still others after I read a review written by a critic who I tend to agree with. I simply don’t have the money to buy every friggin’ album in the world, so I’d rather spend my money on an interesting album by a small band, than a rotten tomato by a highly regarded rock band. I know that some people may argue that I can’t get a complete idea of a band’s history without carefully listening to all of a band’s albums, but so be it. Why would I spend my money on albums I don’t like? I don’t need the Stones’ Dirty Work. I heard it, and it sucks. I am willing to complete a small catalogue with some minor efforts, but a dozen weak albums by one artist? No, thanks.
“We Jam Econo – The Story of the Minutemen” (2005) / Mike Watt + The Secondmen (USA)
Ancienne Belgique, Brussels
Mr. Thudstaff’s Pissbag Tale
We were lucky, as the gig by Watt and The Secondmen was preceded by the recently released feature-length documentary We Jam Econo, which does a terrific job at capturing the history and essence of one of most unique bands of their (or any) era. Comprised of live footage and a dizzying amount of interviews – both from the present as well as from when they were still around – which offers a hushed, kaleidoscopic take on the Minutemen not unlike some of the band’s releases, We Jam Econo manages to render a truthful, chronological account of a story that’s alternately surprising, hilarious, emphatic and sad. While Watt’s memories and anecdotes (ranging from how he met D. Boon, to clumsy struggling to learn how to play music, being accepted by the punk scene, getting spit on and finally, be respected) serve as a red thread (along with additions from drummer George Hurley), they also serve perfectly to illustrate the exceptional bond between him and Boon, two childhood friends intent on expressing their ideas as honestly and dedicatedly as possible – feeding off of whatever they could get their hands on – that in the process, and because of their special bond, created one of the most eclectic catalogues in the history of American punk rock. Even though they hardly met the expectations of single-minded punks (the “real” ones), The Minutemen were in a way the ultimate punk band, stressing the importance of freedom, sincerity and expression above the herd-mentality and louder/faster-aesthetic of many of their contemporaries. Oh, their songs were often ridiculously short and speedy (even though that was never why they called themselves The Minutemen – a common misconception), but the band members looked nerdy when compared to other SST/punk-outfits, combined the most unlikely influences (folk-rock, funk, pop) into their songs, which also sported often political and philosophical lyrics that were a far cry from the recurring “I hate you (but myself even more)”-tendency of many punk bands at the time. The wide range of interviewees almost reads like a Who’s Who of punk/indie at the time, as not only peers like Richard Hell, John Doe and Jello Biafra add their two cents, but also “colleagues” such as Henry Rollins, Greg Ginn, and Dez Cadena (Black Flag), Ian MacKaye (Minor Threat, Fugazi), Milo Auckerman (Descendents), musicians that were fans and/or influenced by the trio – J. Mascis, Flea, Thurston Moore, fIREHOSE singer/guitarist Ed Crawford – but also non-musicians like Raymond Pettibon (who designed several classic SST-covers), music journalist/lyricist Richard Meltzer (an avid fan and collaborator) and even Watt’s own mother. The main absentees were probably the Hüsker Dü and Meat Puppets crews, as they formed the “trio of trios” with The Minutemen, but who’s gonna dare complainin’ after such a wealth? The live fragments are only taken from a handful of shows and even though they’re certainly not very professional and hi-tech, the essence of the band (and their dance moves!) gets across, as they tear through memorable/essential songs such as “Little Man with a Gun in His Hand,” “Bob Dylan Wrote Propaganda Songs,” “Corona,” “This Ain’t No Picnic” and many more. We Jam Econo (a line from Double Nickels on the Dimes’ “The Politics of Time,” but also the band’s key ethic – play as often as possible with the limited means you’ve got) on the hand feels like it’s way too short, as you feel all these people could’ve told so many more things about the band (and did), but it does an admirable job at giving the history of a band that was cut short by Boon’s tragic death on December 22nd of 1985. We Jam Econo is essential viewing for anyone who’s into American punk / indie rock and anyone who’s even remotely interested in the music of The Minutemen and the story behind ’em.
Since 1985, Watt has kept himself busy with an insane amount of bands and projects (ranging from temporary ones, like Crimony, Ciccone Youth and Porno for Pyros, to longer low-key projects like Dos and Banyan, to high-profile gigs with Iggy Pop and the Stooges more recently) and has succeeded in keeping the adventurous spirit and relentless dedication intact. He never did things the easy way and stubbornly sought the most original and pure expression of his ideas, and while not everything led to great results, his contributions and small solo catalogue are a testament to his commitment and an ongoing tribute to D. Boon. While 1995’s successful Ball-Hog or Tugboat? attracted many because of the impressive list of collaborators (several of which appeared in We Jam Econo), 1997’s Contemplating the Engine Room was an unexpected and personal album that told the story of his father, his friendship with D. Boon and his own evolution. His third album, The Secondman’s Middle Stand (2004) goes even further. Much further. It’s not only one of the oddest and most idiosyncratic albums Columbia/Sony ever released (as far as I can remember, anyway), but it’s also as close to a rock opera or a fully-fledged prog album any punk musician ever got – and the story about how it came to be is even more intriguing. In 2000, Watt suffered a burst abscess in his perineum (use Google to find out the details about that), which almost caused him the loss of his life. Treatment and recovery were long and painful, but they gave Watt interesting material to work with. Roughly following the structure of Dante’s Divina Commedia, Watt has himself travel through hell (illness), purgatory (treatment) and paradise (recovery) and you’re not spared any details, as you’ll end up knowing more about fever, pain, vomit, pissbags and tubings than you ever wanted to. Then there’s the music, an awkward mix of rock, jazz, gospel, soul and something I’ll conveniently call “avant-garde”, which is performed on bass, organ and drums. That’s it. With song lengths running from 5-7 minutes (the only exception being the brief convulsion of “Puked to High Heaven”), and structures that defy traditional notions of what a rock song should sound like, it’s definitely not an easy listen – demanding, opaque, head-scratching even – but like with many albums that ultimately stand the test of time, it’s a grower that simply lives in a universe of its own. While Watt was helped out by Pete Mazich (Hammond B3 organ) and Jerry Trebotic (drums) on the album, he’s backed by Raul Morales (drums) and Paul Roessler on organ (Crimony, DC3, 45 Grave, etc) during this “El mar cura todo in Europe too” 2005 tour. Even though I didn’t really know what to expect (and quite honestly feared Watt’s performance would alienate most listeners, myself included), it turned out to be one of the most unlikely victories I’ve witnessed in recent times. Watt & Co. tore through The Secondman’s Middle Stand it its entirety, with the wordless communication of a jazz outfit, the tightness of a funk band and the energy of, well, The Minutemen. All this wouldn’t have been possible if the sound hadn’t been this stunning: there was no 6-stringed instrument to be seen, yet the word “ROCK” popped into my head before they were even 20 seconds into “Boilin’ Blazes.” At first, a large part of the audience seemed at a loss – this had nothing in common with the short & sharp-approach of the minutemen, in fact it almost came off as its antithesis – but as Watt kept on plucking, slamming, caressing and hammering his strings like a possessed maniac and howled, roared and whispered the details of his illness and its complications, symptoms and everything else it involved – it became apparent that the performance was one delivered by skilled performers at the peak of their powers. Morales was a powerhouse drummer, combining all-over-the-place rumbling with odd accents and finesses, while Roessler’s organ was a nice counterpart to Watt’s eccentric bass playing that seemed to incorporate 60’s jazz, 70’s funk, 80’s punk and a dose of insanity. Not one word wasted and the band jumped, rocked and strutted their way through the perversely bouncy gospel-rock of “Puked to High Heaven,” and the schizophrenic “Burstedman,” which filled up the gap between The Minutemen, Captain Beefheart and Medeski, Martin & Wood. Baffling. The “purgatory”-part of the set lowered the intensity/volume level a bit, with the playful “Pissbags and Tubing” and fuzzy drone of “Beltsandedman” (perhaps the only moment of the set when thing seemed to settle down a bit for a few uninterrupted minutes), but after that, the band struck back with the stomping “The Angel’s Gate”, which sounded simply colossal, the childishly optimistic “Pluckin’, Pedalin’ and Paddlin'” and the gentle “Pelicanman,” which finished the set. By that time, the audience howled and roared and yelled and whistled, and Watt – visibly touched by such a response (perhaps also it was the 100th time he played the “opera”) – extensively showed his gratitude for the audience’s acceptance of such “difficult” music “and “Start your own band!”). The band returned for an encore, which turned up the intensity level again, with an awesome, incendiary cover of Dylan’s “It’s Alright Ma, I’m Only Bleeding” and The Minutemen’s “Corona,” but we already knew enough. Of course, a large part of the audience consisted of hardcore Minutemen/Watt-fans, but that unique thing was in the air, as Watt, Morales & Roessler delivered a memorable concert that will resonate for quite a while. And if you’re the kind that only reads the conclusions or final paragraphs of reviews, make sure you don’t miss this:
It was fantastic.
This photo was shot by Razzi in Hasselt, May 8th, 2005. Copyright Razzi’s Photolog.