Here's a short excerpt from Chapter 8 of my "rock'n'roll book" which I have been writing for 82 years now. The writing is sophomoric, communicating very precisely the self-indulgence of adolescence:
___ had these hippie friends and I fucking
hated them. The types who would wear strings tied around their wrists, not
flush the toilet to save water, whose idea of a good time was to plan going to
Alaska for the summer to make “a ton of easy cash,” and who believed that smoking
pot and talking about Jethro Tull's Thick as a Brick was the coolest thing that ever happened to
them. One time, in November, we went to see Pink Floyd at the Summit in Houston
with those kids, and once we got on the road, they cranked up the stereo with
“Magic Carpet Ride” by Steppenwolf. Yes, "Magic Carpet Ride" by Steppenwolf. I just about jumped out of car and let it
run over me. Please kill me right now. The concert was horrible. Pink Floyd was just patently horrible--if sucking itself could suck, a kind of a auto-sucking, that would describe the show.
The next day, my roommate and I went to see R.E.M. at G. Rollie White,
our little basketball stadium on campus. R.E.M., touring in support of Document, were brilliant. This was the
most stark display of the old vs. the new. The ‘60s were dead. Live and breathe
now or die. R.E.M. played with scalpel-sharp precision, alternating between the
heaviness of their Wire cover (“Strange”) and the implosive beauty of “So.
Central Rain.” The singer came on wearing an oversize suit and a hat, all of
which he gradually disrobed before ending the show bare above the waist,
wearing baggy pants, huge combat boots, and a shaved head with a strand of long
thick black ponytail hair sticking up from the top of his head. He also had
thick black marks that underlined his eyes. He looked like a shaved raccoon. I
thought that was cool as shit. In “Disturbance at the Heron House” from the new
album, the singer repeatedly raised his arm in time and in salute to the beautiful,
ascending notes of the intro:
at the heron house
at the monument
To liberty and honor under the honor roll
And something about monkeys too:
They're numbering the monkeys
The monkeys and the monkeys
The followers of chaos out of control.
Lots of monkeys, I see. I had no idea what a heron was. Still don’t. To a mute audience,
the singer described the band Suicide as one of his favorite defunct bands. “Go
out and buy their record,” he said. I didn’t, but they sure sounded cool. For the show, my roommate and I put hairspray on our hairs, wore a bunch of earrings, piercings, and bangles,
and got super-dressed up in black (pants, shirt, combat boots, chains). There was a small-scale intensity about the show, all things that I took for granted over the years: the fact that I was pretty much standing right in front of the band, that there was no laser show, no dry ice, just four misfits totally rocking out. It was the first concert I ever went to where I
sensed I belonged. Fuck Pink Floyd.
1990 was a weird year for me. It was transitional for sure. I shared an apartment with, umm, someone on Wellborn Road somewhere between Bryan and College Station, Texas. There were train tracks next to our apartment complex and everything would shake when they passed by. Those trains lasted an eternity when they passed by. A whole cigarette = one train. I had long hair, I'm embarrassed to admit, very long black hair. I wore black all the time. Not good looking or anything, but kind of nondescript. Average. I had a car that barely ran, some sort of a Chevy type thing, also very average.
Bill Sparks, our resident anarchist/nihilist, walked by me one day on campus, and mumbled something, like he was reading a poem to me or something. He was always acting like he was reading a poem that he'd just written, when in fact, he was just simply talking to you. He mentioned the Swans. "You gotta hear this shit." What did I know of them? Nothing, really. The year before, they had released an album, The Burning World. It seemed that everyone was talking about it. I went out and got it. It seemed vaguely folkish to me, not the kind of music I was listening to a lot at the time (Big Black, early Sonic Youth, Screaming Blue Messiahs, White Light/White Heat). Ironically, later, I learned that Swans themselves had emerged from that crazy nihilistic machinery-of-violence no-wave aesthetic. This album, The Burning World, was but a small false clue, a peace offering, a folk music pause from all the horrible noise that Swans inflicted upon the world. Let me put it this way: there was probably NO band on Earth in the 1980s that sounder louder and more deranged and skull-poundingly heavy as the Swans. (My favorite lyric: "The sex in your soul will damn you to hell!!!" repeated ad nauseam in ALL CAPS for 10 minutes while music that sounds like four thousand Terminator robots marching into your brain screams out of the speakers).
So in 1989, The Burning World was a surprise, because it was so ... lush. Lead Swans architect Michael Gira [pronounced "Jeera"] has since disavowed the whole album as a mistake, and quickly returned to a less "commercial" sounding aesthetic in a series of albums in the early nineties. These subsequent albums had the same repetitive, monolithic drones of earlier Swans but without the noise. Kind of like folk drones. You could find kernels of beauty among the minimalism. (The best of the latter period was White Light From the Mouth of Infinity. For my previous concert review of Gira, see here.)
But that summer, in 1990, I listened to The Burning World a lot. It wasn't their best album (which was and still is undoubtedly 1987's Children Of God). But the songs seemed to mirror my anxieties about things. There was one song, in particular, that I gravitated to a lot, called "Saved." It still seems amazing that Gira would allow himself to sing a song so tender as this, so full of longing and regret rather than his usual hatred and disgust. I always keep coming back to this one lyric:
When sunlight falls on your shoulder You look like a creature from heaven You're holy, when you open your eyes And look up, inside that sheltering sky
And you're an angel, I'll never betray you But I'll always be ... an only child
It's a powerful moment. You know what he means.
In January 1991, we moved to another apartment closer to campus, at Las Casitas, probably the shittiest apartment complex in College Station (or the world, actually). These pictures here might actually be the exact apartment we lived in in that spring of 1991. Oh My Jesus God. By that time, you know, things were kinda falling apart. But I tell you this, there were a lot of parties that spring and summer. I met a whole lotta people and did a whole lot of dubious things. I've forgotten the names of almost all of the people I met. Except Ted. Ted Townshend? He was an MD student. He was good looking, he kinda looked like a Nordic God with long hair. Ted, where are you these days? But more important, I wrote some damn good songs that year. Damn good songs.
Anyway, tonight I have to admit, "Saved" is a good song to play. That it is.