Then a strange imperative wells up in him: either stop writing, or write like a rat . . . If the writer is a sorcerer, it is because writing is a becoming, writing is traversed by strange becomings that are not becomings-writer, but becomings-rat, becomings-insect, becomings-wolf, etc.
Deluze & Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus (240)
Walking with the beast
Desparate for something new, I mined an old tape case, and pulled out some music I hadn’t listened to in years. My listening habits have changed since I became more of a bibliophile. I don’t listen to music while reading like I used to. When I do listen, I tend to listen more deeply, and often repetitively. I suppose I got that habit from Slim.
Before I left on my trip, I had just received a copy of “Exile in Guyville” by Liz Phair, one of those records I didn’t pay any attention to when it first came round. I think I listened to it four times in a row, while getting the stuff together for my trip. I keep wanting to buy something new, but when I cruise the CD listings I balk at paying $18 for a CD. I tend to cruise for gems that I might have missed over the years, and buy the bargain CDs. This was a good choice, a real gem that I hadn’t heard before. Sometimes history seems so deep that it is hard to expend the energy on keeping up with the present.
My old tapes are split into three categories: live tapes of things I don’t want to risk to a car tape deck (probably about 5 or 6 hundred), a core group of around a hundred old beer-soaked and sun-bleached tapes that used to get me down the road in crazier days, and around a hundred tapes I made for archival purposes when I was living in a record store.
It wasn’t really a record store, it just had more records than many small record stores. It was the only time that I had a roommate. In a tiny ghetto apartment, Rick Hodgson paid half my rent, even though he spent most of his time with his girlfriend (now wife). He had a collection of around 2,000 records, and it sat in the same room with my collection of 1,200 or so. So I frantically taped a lot of his stuff. There was only a little overlap, though we did have many points of coincidence in our collections. He was more of a “hippie” type (though he had short hair) and I was more of a punk (though I had long hair). I never sold him on the Minutemen, but he never sold me on the Grateful Dead. It was fun for both of us to try though.
I pulled out a tape of Creedence Clearwater Revival albums, “Cosmos Factory” and “Willie and the Poor Boys” that I made from Rick’s albums, sometime in the early eighties, and a few beer soaked tapes from a little later than that from those old beat up tape cases, and hit the road.
From the moment that “Las Vegas Story” by the Gun Club started playing, I was transported back. Though I favor the Ward Dotson line-up (“Fire of Love” is one of my all-time favorite albums), it was a refreshing blast of tribal power. Music sets up territories, creates communities, and has a social function beyond its entertainment value. There is just something bestial about this music, then and now, and I was reminded just how small that community was. It was all about the tone. I never managed to sell many of my friends on this tone. They missed the point; it wasn’t about songs, lyrics, or chord structures. It was the tone.
I know a lot more about it now. Looking back, I can see that The Cramps had it; The Scientists had it; Neil Young and Crazy Horse had it; The Wipers had it. And the next forgotten gem on that tape, The Toiling Midgets “Deadbeats,” had it. So what was it?
Researching Defoe’s The Journal of the Plague Year has pointed to the power of historicity over and over. I think that has a lot to do with it. Rex, who turned me on to most of these bands, used to always say in the mid-eighties when we would listen to local schmoes pounding out their cover classics that “They have deep musical roots all the way back to 1977.” I think that’s it. What the tone I became sensitive to was the echo of a chord stretching all the way back to Robert Johnson and beyond; it was muscular, it had a power that refused to let go. Jeffrey Lee Pierce tapped into that tone, and like Johnson, he was walking with the beast. The claim to historicity gives weight and substance to any argument, and seemingly separates it from myth while it creates myths all its own.
When I heard the long versions of “Heard it through the Grapevine” and “Effigy” on that Creedence tape for the first time in 20 years or so, I realized that it was that same tone. A primal tone stretching back to the moment when humanity first began to make sense of pain through music. I resist all tendencies to abolish history, particularly that part that resonates inside me. That’s the problem with most Internet histories; they want to deny those things that ultimately, refuse to die. It’s the animal inside.
But some people just don’t hear it, and can’t hear the difference between the antiseptic studio perfection that some bands strive for, and real human tone. I’m not that interested in perfection. I’m in it for the beast. Sloppiness isn’t a guarantee of it though, I still believe that the Grateful Dead definately never had it. I suspect they were just too stoned to let the beast in.