It is eight o’clock and I’m lying on my bed reading Miranda July. I’m reading No one belongs here more than you and I’m hearing Miranda July’s voice as I read – because I know what her voice sounds like. I’ve seen the movie she did, Me and you and everyone we know, and she not only wrote and directed the film, she starred in it. So it’s Miranda July non-stop, 24/7. Her voice is the voice of Miranda July the movie actor, not Miranda July the psychotic-sounding Kill Rock Stars recording artist. When I heard those CDs – and those CDs were the first I heard of Miranda July – I thought she must’ve been about as punk rock as it gets. Then I saw her videos at GIV, this place in Montreal that has a big library of artist’s videos – and DVDs now, I guess – and the projector kept fucking up on one of her videos and so we – there were other people there watching the videos too – we only got to digest this one video of hers in weird pieces, because it just kept stopping. Miranda July of the videos was definitely out to disturb the audience. Like the one with the baby – that was disturbing. Not disturbing like Ju-On, but disturbing like pushing the audience’s buttons to show the audience that hey, look, you’ve got buttons I can push to disturb you a little. By the time she got around to doing a movie, she’d toned it down. Same with No one belongs here more than you. Or maybe I’m just used to her now.
I often hear the author’s voice when I read – it’s something I really appreciate. That’s why you should all go out to see your favourite writers and poets read their works at a bar or café or even, if necessary, in a classroom. It adds another dimension to the reading experience, it brings the author a little closer to the reader if the reader has a good sense of the actual voice of the author. When I read Kerouac I can hear Kerouac. When I read Burroughs, I can hear Burroughs. Or right now, I’ve been hearing Bukowski as I read Bukowski. And local authors – I have heard so many local authors read their works over the years, and whenever I open one of their books, I hear their voices. Erin Mouré, just for example, recently. I don’t know if this is too intimate for some writers to bear, but it’s a fact. It’s a positive thing, I think …
I’ve got a couple of notes written down here, ideas for what to write about. ‘Ownership of the future’ is one topic, and the other, ‘the sound of garage, old school reggae …’
I’ll go with ‘the sound of garage’ first since it sort of relates in some way to the sound of the author’s voice. What ‘the sound of garage’ means is, that particular flavour that a recording has when it was done under particular technical constraints, constraints dictated by the time when it was recorded, by what technology was available at the time, by economic concerns …
An aesthetic response would imply some sort of cogitation, some level of conscious thought being involved in my initial interest in these sounds … but that only came much later. To start with, it was mainly on the somatic level that I formed my affection for the cheap, the fuzzy, the crunchy, the murky, the echo-drenched, the shambling, the just-this-side-of-falling-completely-apart sound of recordings done on the cheap. With records like Rocket To Russia by the Ramones, the first Clash album, Never Mind The Bollocks … and so on, part of the sense of immediacy was the fact that the production values were so much more minimalist. It seemed almost indecent, after a decade of bombastic overproduction values that spawned admittedly genius records like Wish You Were Here, A Day at the Races and Hotel California. It was as if these new bands were running around buck naked. No wonder they couldn’t get any airplay.
When I was going to UWO in the early 80s, there was a show called Young, Fast & Scientific on CHRW, the London campus radio station. The visionary producer and host of the show, Al Cole, presented a heady mix of 80s punk and 60s garage psychedelia that completely wigged me out every week. The show featured everything – Pistols-producing guitar maniac Chris Spedding, eighties faves The Dead Kennedys, the Canadian rockabilly band The Bop Cats, The Troggs, Screaming Lord Sutch, The Flaming Groovies, Mick Ronson, MC5 … the unifying theme of the show was simple – it was the sound of the tracks Al Cole picked. That gnarly underproduced sound. That analogue tape graininess and grit. It wasn’t necessarily murky – it could be sharp and trebly and bright – but the listening mind could pick apart the various elements and wonder at the magic wrought by so little. So little.
Around the same time I was listening to Young, Fast & Scientific, I picked up a Bob Marley album at the local Canadian Tire store for $3.99. Does Canadian Tire still sell records these days? I took the album home and threw it on and it was so alien-sounding to my then near-virgin reggae ears – I’d only recently begun exploring some of the Island recordings like Uprising – that I stuck it into my record collection and forgot about it. A couple of years later I’d moved to Halifax, and my room-mate was exploring my collection. He slapped on the Bob Marley album despite my warning that it was pretty rough going, and it was because of his enthusiastic reception that I made the effort to really give it a listen.
My LP was, of course, a hodgepodge of Lee Perry-produced Wailers tracks circa 1969-1971. After Marley became an international star, bootlegged Jamaican recordings of his early days flooded the market to the extent that, well, you could find them even at your local Canadian Tire store. The particular album I had included the magickal ‘Mr. Brown’, a track that was based on a swirling, gutbucket organ riff, anchored by an impossibly raunchy and outrageously recorded rhythm section. Marley tells the tale of Mr. Brown, who “rides to town on a coffin.” I’ve listened to this song a million times and I still cannot say for sure what is going on in it. But my room-mate got the song right away because he got the groove. He skanked around the little bachelor apartment to the rhythm of the bass and the drum. We both got stoned a lot that year, so I guess that must’ve helped our appreciation of the music …
The thing about reggae in general, and especially Lee Perry’s productions, was that my white boy North American know-nothing brain couldn’t figure out what was doing what on the track. Everything moved differently from the rock and roll four-four … and the hierarchy of the instruments themselves seemed inverted, as if the bass was standing where usually the lead guitar would be screaming in any given rock unit. One had to actually listen on a deeper level. And so my musical education deepened.
(There is a connection between this deeper listening experience, and watching ‘slow’ movies like, say, Ingmar Bergman’s Virgin Spring. Young friends of mine – having no attention span is not inherently a good thing. Take my word for it. So do yourself a favour and watch some long, slow, visually-intense films for a change. Ones that don’t have a thriller plot and a flash edit every nanosecond. After you ‘get’ slow films, the next step – take a walk outside!)
My taste had changed by virtue of the enthusiasm of my roomie. My taste had broadened, and this opened the door for further explorations of the strange. The strange need not be feared, I discovered; the strange is just unknown is all. Next, the roomie picked up a collection of Buddy Holly’s recordings from the fifties – impossibly minimal proto-rock songs of steely vigor and eternal immediacy, done by recording one mono track, then playing it back and recording overdubs right on top of the first track. Perry did it pretty much the same way in his day, only he sometimes had the luxury of two tracks.
I’d already lurched back in time on my own, moving from the uneven, often over-produced sound of Lou Reed’s solo recordings to unearth the absolutely primitive sound of the first Velvet Underground LP. Another revelation – because despite the complete gnarl of many of the tracks, the sophistication of the songs and their arrangements is undeniable. The Beatles had produced the beautiful Sgt. Pepper’s LP in a four track studio, and it was state-of-the-art, up-to-the-minute pop. But The Velvet Underground seemed to violently burst the parameters of the studio, as if the band was some sort of uncontainable explosion of creativity, and the damage done to the limited recording technologies was evident on every track of the album. It was the garage psychedia of The Beachnuts and The Primitives, refracted through the druggy downtown art lense of Warhol’s Factory. And on a personal level, comparing that to anything Lou Reed had recorded solo, I had to say The Velvets got it right.
Through the decades, an innumerable number of bands have lost me as a fan, because they ‘progressed’ from lo-fi to overproduced bombast … Nirvana never got the chance, but what about Sebadoh? Listening to early Sebadoh was like listening to weird cassettes recorded by your neighbours late at night in their bong-equipped living room. Listening to later Sebadoh recordings was like falling asleep in a bus, and waking up with drool all over your shirt. IT DIDN’T NEED TO BE PRODUCED, it didn’t need to be polished to a high gloss. That goes for Michelle Shocked, Bruce Springsteen, The Dream Syndicate, ninety per cent of the post punk bands like Shriekback, Human League, Parachute Club and Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark, Gang of Four’s unforgiveable Hard … their later recordings are the worst. Numbed-out, blundering garbage.
Jonathan Richman got it right … maybe not in the sense of his lyrical evolution, but certainly in terms of keeping the music simple and present. Sonic Youth, despite being almost consistently annoyingly obscure and coy on a lyrical level, not to mention signing to Geffen of all things, alway retained and refined their original garage-born sound. Daydream Nation, six years after their debut, is an amazing recording, and sonically they’ve only improved on that landmark ever since. John Lennon got it right too … from his crazy field recording LPs with Yoko to the grunge masterwork ‘Give Peace A Chance’, recorded with a hotel-roomful of amateurs, one of them keeping time by banging on the hotel room door. Most of his post-Beatles albums sound almost anti-produced, despite the best efforts of the monsterous Phil Spector.
PJ Harvey has made the statement, and I would concur – sometimes the demos sound better than the ‘finished’ album – even if Steve Albini produced it! Albini! Mr. Gnarl!! Compare and contrast Rid Of Me with 4-Track Demos and you’ll see what she means. Harvey is always lunging after the half-finished sound, the hiss of the analogue tape recorder, the creak of the acoustic instruments, the rasp of the voice straining itself to the limit. She understands the beauty … listen to ‘The Desperate Kingdom of Love’ on Uh-Huh Her … she must have heard the sound you can find only on field recordings of old Southern Bluesmen captured on rocking chair verandas and pool room backrooms, or African griots in Mali, Senegal, Algeria … in the end the production isn’t the main thing, it’s the spirit of the performance that counts. It’s the spirit of the performance that carries it forward. If the recording is clean, and clear, and balanced, that’s often enough.
Numbered among my favourite demos are those by Neil Young – ‘Flying On The Ground Is Wrong’, ‘Out of My Mind’ – included with the Buffalo Springfield box set; the revelatory demos on the Nico collection The Frozen Borderline; Bowie’s acoustic demos of ‘Ziggy Stardust’ and ‘Lady Stardust’; Lou Reed’s acoustic demos of ‘Perfect Day’ and ‘Hangin’ Round’; numerous beautifully sloppy Dylan ‘copyright’ recordings; the list is endless, really. What was once throwaway, a sketch, nothing, becomes precious to listeners who’ve slowly absorbed everything a favourite artist has ever committed to tape (or digital file). Part of it is the zany completist mania that grips jazz heads who rush out and buy complete box set recordings of every dropped note Bird ever did. But part of it is that how we listen has changed over time – where once we’d cringe at Neil Young’s bootleggy-sounding behind-the-scenes recordings on Journey Through The Past, now it seems to sound, quite simply, authentic.
I love hearing what Sir Richard Bishop has brought back from his travels on his Sublime Frequencies releases; but I’d be just as tickled to hear that kind of audio travel journal done in indie rock country … kitchen jams, living room jams, back-of-the-bus jams, van jams, backstage jams, onstage jams, jams spilling out onto the street, jams on the porch, battle tapes, old mix tapes with stupid commentary thrown in, home recordings done on ghetto blasters and cheap recording walkmans, unearthed remnants of cassette mythos north and south america, people singing to themselves, the whistle of noses and the hawking sawing snores of people fast asleep and dreaming, being recorded by pranksterish room-mates …
If you think I hate anything that’s been overproduced, you’d be wrong. I have a deep and abiding appreciation of Steely Dan’s output, most of which is completely created in the studio. Prog rock by Yes and Pink Floyd can also please (especially when finding nice old vinyl copies in good shape for a buck purely by happenstance).