Shōgun: A Love Letter

It’s been a while since I blogged. Shit happens and your days get filled with things you hadn’t anticipated. “Life is what happens while you’re busy making other plans” as the divine St John of Lennon says.

Anyway. I have just been re-re-re-re-reading (I normally read it once a year, and first read it in 1990 – you do the math(s)) Shōgun, the incredible novel by James Clavell, and thought I should due obeisance to its wonders. (I also must give my appreciation to my dad, who gave it to me when I was but 11. He was in many ways a fuck-up, but he was a pathfinder, the one amongst his peers who discovered and passed on Tolkien and Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin and The Orb and all that good stuff).

In brief, Shōgun is a story of the first Englishman to set foot in Japan in the year 1600. Piloting a Dutch ship from Amsterdam which was the first ship outside the Portuguese and Spanish monopoly on the Cape of Good Hope and Magellan’s Strait, he lands with around ten men remaining from the three hundred who first sailed, all weakened with scurvy and a year-long voyage. Japan had then had Portuguese in it for around forty years, though in a far more controlled way than the Conquistadores and priests who had plundered and destroyed the civilisations of South America. Trading was restricted to one port, Nagasaki, though the priests were free to move where they would if they were decorous. Japan then was still largely a feudal society, its lands controlled by around two hundred warlords (daimyos), its people divided into castes with the warrior caste of samurai at the top, then peasants, then merchants (as commerce is widely despised) and then the despised eta, who butcher and handle the dead. What’s great is how Clavell immediately sets up these oppositions and conflicts: the immaculate and decorous Japanese landfall village of Anjiro compared to the cockroach-ridden, death-rich ship Erasmus; the polite Japanese villagers as against the foul-mouthed and unrestrained rabble of the remaining sailors; the arrogant samurai and the deferential and silent-hating villagers; the Portuguese desperate to retain their toe-hold on Japan and the English and Dutch aching to dislodge them; the Catholic and Protestant schism; the New World and Old; East and West… Clavell invests much of these in his characters and sparks fly right from the off. But these aren’t one-dimensional characters who only speak according to their types (if you’ve seen Wall Street you’ll know what I mean). The first daimyo we meet, Kasigi Yabu, has a torture fetish and the morality of a shark; the village head man is a Christian (and, as we later learn, a lot more besides); Blackthorne is an intelligent sea-faring man with five languages, a family he misses, a fondness for Shakespeare (a late scene with men digging for earthquake-lost swords is straight out of Hamlet and the gravediggers) and a temper; and Toranaga, perhaps the most complex and great man I’ve ever read of. (Well, maybe excluding Gandalf, if you count him as a man).

So immediately the setting is vivid, despite its complexity to someone four hundred years distant. What’s even better than that though is they way Clavell guides you, the reader, through the gradations of Japanese society, all the way to the highest daimyo, and to the intricacies of Japanese politics. Like R2D2 and C3PO in Star Wars, Blackthorne is our guide, the outsider in the midst of great events. After twenty years of Japanese unity under the dictatorship of the Taiko, he had died leaving only a seven year-old son and an appointed Council of Regents to rule until his heir comes of age at fifteen. When Blackthorne lands the Taiko had been dead a year and the Council split between Toranaga, the greatest general of the age, and Ishido, the Guard to the Heir and protector of Osaka Castle, the strongest military and political stronghold (where the Heir resides) in Japan. Clavell makes Japanese politics – its regard for “face”, the self-control, the concealment of one’s inner desires, the manipulation, the outer courtesies and protocol – wonderfully vivid. One way he repeatedly does so is to contrast what characters are saying in a dialogue, and what they are actually feeling. (You might say Shōgun predates Peep Show by thirty years in this technique, though obviously Peep Show does it for comedic effect and Shōgun more for dramatic purposes). This also heightens conflict, so that any conversation (with useful plot-moving properties) can have double the impact, or even more, if the character’s true feelings illuminate helpful backstory. For example, at one point Kiri (the chief consort of Toranaga) and Mariko (the daughter-in-law of Hiro-Matsu, Toranaga’s chief general, and one of the book’s leading characters) talk. Clavell fills us in about Kiri’s feelings about Buntaro, Mariko’s husband; about Mariko’s father, who is important to her psychologically and thus to the outcome of the whole book; and about the backstory of the Taiko and Toranaga, how they had battled together and won Japan). But on the outside the conversation is polite and little more than formal.

(The veneration for face and self-control, in fact, makes you see politics in a different, less emotional light. I do sometimes despair of people who say they just want politicians to be honest, not seeming to realize that politicians reflect the hypocrisies of the electorate, not from any natural or developed drive. Drugs and tax policies are two of the best examples. This is not to say that I welcome the grotesque cynicism of Karl Rove or the pseudo-wonkery of Paul Ryan, but to say that you see political moves more analytically. Someone fucked you over? Well, are you going to need them tomorrow? Better stay on good terms. Rivals with someone? Better to conceal your disdain until ready to strike. And so on.)

Another marvellous aspect of the novel is the range of characters and the humanity Clavell displays in evoking them. It goes from pit-digging villagers (Uo, the fisherman, once won the inter-village farting competition) who bawdily lust after the beautiful geisha Kiku to the inscrutable grand vizier Jesuit Martin Alvito, thirty years in Japan and official translator to the leading daimyos, from the ferocious guileless aged general Hiro-Matsu to the plump primped pimp mama-san Gyoko, holder of secrets and threats. Toranaga stands supreme amongst them all, the spider at the center of an incredible web. His humanity too shines through: here is a man of majesty and power, with more men under arms than the King of Spain, but who prefers low-born consorts (always zesty and grateful) and simple peasant dishes and enjoys a piss and a fart. Then again he is no vulgarian: he is a man who enjoys poetry and expanding his mind. The scene where he encounters Blackthorne dancing a hornpipe and insists on learning the steps is indicative of Toranaga’s lack of ego, his hunger to learn, his openness to new influences. (No mean feat for a man in his fifties: already, in my thirties, I find it hard to keep my mind open to new music and books etc).

Shōgun is obviously a novel to savour, and it bears repeated re-readings. Despite the complexity (for newcomers) of its setting, the prose style is functional, and the story-telling always focusing on character. There are immense amounts of dialogue and surprisingly little amounts of physical description. The characterization, as I’ve suggested, is supreme: Clavell’s humanity and instinct for the desires of all sections of society are miraculous. This above all is what makes Shogun one of the best novels I have ever read, a trait he shares with other supreme writers like Shakespeare, Stephen King, and Dickens. (Clavell wrote a series of other Asian novels, with dates ranging from the 1960s (Nobel House) to the 1800s (Tai Pan). His novel King Rat has a very good film version, with a bunch of actors you’ll definitely recognise. But Shōgun is at the apex of them all, in its range, drama and exotic setting. Go read!

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The Guitar

I’ve recently made an iTunes playlist called “The Guitar” which, funnily enough, features songs which have great guitar. Here it is, with some comments. I restricted myself to one song per artist.

“The Act We Act”, Sugar Copper Blue
Bob Mould has surely got one of the best guitar sounds in rock. Played loud front and centre, the guitar here is so deep and loud, yet melodic – it’s rock for sure, but nothing like metal. I imagine he (as former Husker Du frontman) was pissed off that Nevermind was so successful, and wanted to really show off his chops. Great job, Bob.

“Columbia”, Oasis Definitely Maybe
This is an amazing song, easily my favourite by Oasis. (There’s not really much competition). The snarling guitar sound is terrific, and the pulsing riff and circular guitar lead could just go on forever.

“Only Shallow”, My Bloody Valentine Loveless
An utterly explosive opener to MBV’s magnum opus. The contrast between the overdriven guitar and the trancey, dreamy verses is delicious.

“One”, Metallica …And Justice For All 
That machine gun bit is still fucking incredible.

“Bron-Yr-Aur”, Led Zeppelin Physical Graffiti
Jimmy Page didn’t just do crushing riffs (see: “Immigrant Song”, “Heartbreaker”, “The Rover”), he is an amazing strummer. This accoustic worlout is from my favourite Zep album, Physical Graffiti, though Disc 2 (odds and ends) rather than Disc 1 (classics like “Custard Pie”, “The Rover” and “In My Time Of Dying”).

“Keep It In The Family”,  Anthrax Persistence of Time
Seven minutes of pure, focused, channelled aggression. The tightness of the riffing is amazing.

“Protest And Survive”, Discharge Hear Nothing, See Nothing, Say Nothing 
I deliberately put this after Anthrax because I first heard of Discharge through Anthrax’s b-sides compilation Attack Of The Killer B’s, where they covered this song. I found this album at a record sale (just check the back cover!) and was blown away. The guitar sound is incredibly powerful, hugely overcharged without distorting.

“Wah-Wah”, George Harrison All Things Must Pass
In which George gets out his anger at The Beatles.

“Three Days”, Jane’s Addiction Ritual de lo Habitual 
I love multi-section epic type songs, from “Bohemian Rhapsody” to “Paranoid Android”. This is a killer example, with outstanding guitar from Dave Navarro in numerous points – the guitar solo which brings in the instrumental section (from 4.43), the static riff generating enormous electric power and tension (from 7.08), the sitting-on-the-brink-of-nirvana chords (9.24)… One of the best rock songs ever.

“Friction”, Television Marquee Moon
Like all songs on Marquee Moon, this features exceptional interplay on the guitar.

“I Heard Her Call My Name”, The Velvet Underground White Light/White Heat
Though Lou Reed invented lots of different aspects of punk/alternative guitar (static riffing, feedback, massive distortion), this is an example of his lead work. Overblown to the max!

“Satellite”, Sex Pistols Kiss This
Steve Jones is one fine rhythm guitarist. This was only a b-side (to “Holidays In The Sun”), but with its massive overdubbed guitars and Johnny Rotten throwing himself into the eye of the hurricane, it is a fan favourite.

“One In A Million”, Guns N’ Roses G N’ R Lies
GN’R at the Stones-iest. The fuzzy lead (by Izzy Stradlin) over accoustics is very reminiscent of Sticky Fingers-era Stones. Fucking brilliant. Ah, what could have been…

“I Found That Essence Rare”, Gang Of Four Entertainment!
Punk you don’t associate with rhythm, but Gang Of Four manage to be funky and punky. I don’t see that much of them in Franz Ferdinand, but they’re supposed to be a major influence. Gang Of Four stomp on them.

“Bed Crumbs”, Fudge Tunnel Hate Songs in E Minor
A forgotten gem of British metal, Hate Songs in E Minor has some massive, distorted, echoing guitars. “Bed Crumbs” has this, and a crushing riff… wow.

“Hangar 18”, Megadeth Rust in Peace
Dave Mustaine took great pride in being named the best metal guitarist in some book – it can appear odd to people outside the magic circle just how sensitive to critical attention artists can be. He found particular pride/glee in being named ahead of Kirk Hammet: I guess the scars remain. Anyway, the technical level on Megadeth’s best album Rust In Peace is astonishing. The best song “Hangar 18” showcases this: the shifts in time, the fury, the solos, the slashing riffs, the mounting climax… yup, Mustaine could play.

“Porch”, Pearl Jam Ten
Pearl Jam were a bit earnest and right-on in comparison to Nirvana’s headlong dive into the chaos of punk. They were the affirmative Clash to Nirvana’s nihilistic Sex Pistols. This song is one of the punkier in their debut, Ten (which is reverb-rich and soft-edged), and has this wonderful sense of mounting excitement

“Black Math”, White Stripes Elephant
See, I do like some music after 2000…! Jack White is obviously a great guitar player, with a primal, bluesy sound. I love the careening, free-wheeling vibe to this song.

“Amazing Journey/Sparks”, The Who Live At Leeds 
Goddamn. Just… goddamn.

“Can’t You Hear Me Knocking”, The Rolling Stones Sticky Fingers
Is it just me or were the Stones only really good when Mick Taylor was in the band? Well, that and Beggars Banquet. This song has a ferocious fuzz guitar intro (by Keith Richards) and an outstanding solo by Taylor.

“Painkiller”, Judas Priest Painkiller
I can see the evolutionary importance of Judas Priest, in their twin-lead guitars and stripping-out of any blues influences (whereas Black Sabbath used to, you know, be a blues band). But apart from Stained Class, I don’t think their albums really that much cop. Painkiller was a roaring return to form after a pretty indifferent decade in the 1980s, featuring magnificently over-driven guitars and a solo that threatens to burst out through the musical score.

“Symptom Of The Universe”,  Black Sabbath Sabotage
In which Tony Iommi invents thrash metal, eight years before Metallica’s Kill ‘Em All.

“Atrocity Exhibition”, Joy Division Closer
Bernard Sumner (nee Albrecht), like other guitarists in bands with stand-out bass players, often used his for texture and commentary rather than melody. Here, he make teeth-grindlingly abrasive shards and yowls, over a lop-sided rhythm and bass played as lead. It’s a fascinating step-change from previous album Unknown Pleasures.

“Theresa’s Sound World”, Sonic Youth Dirty
I love how this modulates from arpeggios to a beautifully controlled rising-tension section, ebbing and flowing several times, before building to an ambiguous climax. Compared to the simple telelogical pleasures of rock music, with its massive resounding resolutions, this is pleasingly open-ended and enigmatic.

“Some Girls Are Bigger Than Others”, The Smiths Strangeways, Here We Come
What I’ve previously called “the beautiful gossamer shimmer” of Johnny Marr’s guitar. Magnificent.

Books About Music

The Definitive Miles Davis Biography

I still haven’t written much about books yet, huh? Well, allow me to combine my two main interests with a list of the best books about music which I have read. Sadly, in comparison with literary figures, the biographies of rock musicians are often rather unimpressive efforts, with most writers happy to retell myths and legends, and few going to the trouble of footnoting and citing their information. When I think of a truly impressive biography, I think of Richard Ellman’s masterful biographies of Oscar Wilde and James Joyce, for example: these not only follow their subjects in close detail, they illuminate their subjects minds and philosophies through deep learning and deceptively-simple explication, and they place them in their precise cultural and historical settings. This, obviously, is no mean feat. But given the intense interest in rock music, it is unfortunate that few if any biographies of major musical figures have been written which aspire to such high academic standards. Similarly, far too many books on rock (and even jazz) are content to titillate with stories of drug intake and sexual conquests. I’m thinking of books like Hammer of the Gods (about Led Zep); The Dirt (Motley Crue); Slash (um… Slash); I Am Ozzy; and so on. Yawn yawn fucking yawn. Such tawdry transgressions always (it seems to me) devalue what rock is about.

Never mind. There are nonetheless numerous good and substantial books on music out there, so let me share the ones I have found the best.

England’s Dreaming by Jon Savage

Few rock books might have the academic standards of Richard Ellman, but this one perhaps comes closest. With unbelievable detail (he must have interviewed several hundred people), Savage traces the birth and trajectory of (English) punk through the prism of the Sex Pistols, from their origins to the death of Sid Vicious through to the final legal victory of Lydon over McLaren. Savage also gives an overview of the careers of other luminaries such as The New York Dolls (at least, in terms of their involvement with McLaren), The Clash, The Damned, Siouxsie and the Banshees, X-Ray Spex, Throbbing Gristle, Public Image Limited and many more – though not The Stranglers, whom he seems to detest – and most importantly, places it all in a political, cultural and philosophical context. He explicates the souring of 1960s idealism, explains the relevance of postwar philosophies such nihilism and situationism, and combines this with a strong understanding of working-class hedonism and street-culture, from the Teddy Boys to Northern Soul to Mods and Rockers to Glam and Bowie. His reading list and discographies are also magnificent achievements in themselves, ideal resources for any would-be historian (would that there were more!) or even interested reader or listener. Not only that, it’s a fun, zippy read, able to mix high drama with sordid crimes, deep philosophical discussion with anecdotes about Sid Vicious’ hairstyle methods, and serious musical analysis of some of the most basic and visceral tunes put to record. Needless to say, it is a fucking brilliant book.

Revolution In The Head by Ian MacDonald

None of the Beatle biographies have been fully satisfying. We still await the book to place either Lennon or McCartney (or, indeed, both!) in their full cultural and philosophical context, as musical creators and innovators to rank alongside any classical composer you might care to mention. Really! This might be because the story is too big and too mythic for words to even begin to convey; or it might be that Yoko Ono and Paul McCartney are still alive and jealously protecting the sacred image of Lennon/McCartney. (I suspect the latter). It is, to say the least, a crying shame that an edition of Lennon’s letters has not been produced. The great books that do exist about the Beatles are those which concern themselves less with the lives of the people involved and which instead document their musical, professional activities. I’m thinking of Mark Lewisohn‘s magnificent The Beatles Recording Sessions and The Complete Beatles Chronicle which documents their studio work and general activities to an astonishing degree. Ian MacDonald’s book on the other hand looks at every recorded song individually, noting who played on it, the date(s) of its recording, when it was released and in what format, with a short(ish) essay about it. (Tim Riley’s book Tell Me Why does a similar job, but keeps to the music rather than the context. Riley also displays rather a tin ear, misreading songs on far too many occasions). While MacDonald is far more of a music critic than me (he knows about scales, modes and all the musical arcana), he really does get to the bottom of each song, relating it to where The Beatles were at that moment and in what they were trying to achieve. Thus, the entry for “Tomorrow Never Knows” is one of the longest, as he analyses the effect of LSD on Lennon and in 60s cultural generally, and explains its “dazzling aural invention”. (On the other hand, his entry for songs like “Altogether Now” and “Dizzy Miss Lizzy” are dismissively short). His bibliography is also excellent, though his introduction, bewailing the demise of popular music, is a bit silly. (He would have been better off noting that music, like other cultural forms, has a fragmented from a unifying medium to a Balkanized means of near-solipsistic consumption).

Dear Boy: The Life of Keith Moon by Tony Fletcher

As rock biographies go, this is one of the best. Not only is it astonishingly detailed (it’s about 800 pages long!), it avoids the prurient salacious detailing of drug and alcohol excess. This might sound odd, given Moon’s well-known proclivities, but Fletcher to his credit never sounds impressed when detailing Moon’s intake – rather, he sees it as evidence of his disturbance(s). I also really like the way that he gives great detail to Moon’s drumming, detailing the complex rhythms which Moon made sound so easy. Though the book can sometimes seem a bit overlong, it does really get to the dark heart of who Moon was. It is also, of course, a good overview of The Who, especially their early days.

Miles: The Autobiography and Miles Davis: The Definitive Biography by Ian Carr

I’m going to lump these two together, because I read them at about the same time, and because they are very complementary. The Autobiography is a demotic street-voice stew of feeling, anecdotes and opinion. It’s written as though in Miles’ actual voice, and so is initially hard to read, diving straight in to talk about how “Bird played bad as a motherfucker” and the like. (I didn’t know that “Bird” was Charlie Parker). While Miles was of course an educated, Juillard-attending man, he liked to present himself as a guy from the street, despising the cultural eliteness that calcified jazz – see his 70s urban funk recordings (particularly On The Corner) as his direct riposte – and so there is a deliberate coarseness that sometimes strays into bravado, as when talking about his mid-70s slump into the depths of cocaine and “taking white bitch’s money”. There also isn’t much detail in the music: just lots of “he played like a motherfucker”. Nonetheless, you really get the sense of his voice and character through the book, and particularly of his lifelong dedication to his artform and his search for “the new thing”. Ian Carr’s book on the other hand is a traditional critical biography, with a great understanding and ability to evoke Davis’ classic recordings. Given that Davis’ style changed so considerably and so frequently over the years (compare with the Rolling Stones, who have had a similarly lengthy career!), Carr displays a tremendous ability to appreciate bop, cool jazz, modal, time-no changes, jungle funk to the jazz funk of the 1980s. He also gives more detail than Davis is willing to do about his relationships, both romantic and professional, and writes with clear relish when Miles twice arises after an addiction seemed to strike him out of contention.

How about you?

Nirvana – 20 years on

It sometimes frightens me to find that Nirvana’s Nevermind was released 20 years ago. It also makes me feel both old – although I was only 12 at the time – and sad, as I don’t think there’s been a rock band to rival Nirvana since then. (I say rock band, to distinguish from heavy metal, which seems to be doing just fine as a genre). The passion, intensity, hookiness, honesty, and energy in their music were stupendous. The videos still attest to their power – “Lithium”, with Kurt running into and bouncing off a bank of speakers and Krist’s shaggy-dog leaping; Live! Tonight! Sold Out!, with that astonishing scene of Kurt lashing out at the meaty bouncer who punches him; the impossible anarchy of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” (surely the most exciting song since “Anarchy In The UK” or “White Riot”); the the sepulchral elegy of Unplugged. 20 years on, they’re all as potent as ever.

In many ways Kurt was the last great rock star. But this is to see him in the traditional sense, as part of the Classic Rock Canon, up there with Hendrix, Morrison, Jimmy Page, Eric Clapton, Chuck Berry, Janis Joplin, Joe Strummer, Angus Young – all the acts venerated by tedious retrospectives like Classic Rock and Mojo. In a sense, this is true, of course – Nirvana were a great rock band. But there’s more to it than that. Unlike the others, Kurt despised rock music and actively destroyed it. Rock music’s hegemony as the main cultural force in Western youth died – not along with Kurt, but following his trashing, his ironising, sarcastic mocking and inverting, of the very fundamentals upon which rock was based. Once deconstructed, no one has ever been able to put them back together without irony. Straightforward rock has since then bifurcated into harmless, insipid craft (sometimes known as “mortgage rock” ) or metal; no-one has been able to pull of the masculine swagger necessary for rock music since.

What do I mean the fundamentals upon which rock was based? Rock music, while written and performed by outsiders and wannabes, is music which almost by definition seeks to convert others. It is expansive, unifying, all-embracing. Its basis on driving rhythm, riffs and energy, make it easily translatable across nations and cultures: everyone can join in. At its best, as seen in bands like like Queen, Led Zeppelin, U2 and AC/DC, it is utterly transcending, unifying audience, artist and music in an exchange of energy that goes beyond the individual. Think of Freddy Mercury holding 72,000 people in the palm of his hand at Live Aid, or of U2’s jaw-dropping “Zoo TV” spectacle (surely the greatest stage show ever), or of The Beatles performing “Hey Jude” on David Frost, being joined by all sorts during the magnificent singalong coda.

Rock music also has a perhaps inherently masculine ethos. This comes through in a ridiculous number of ways – from the gang of brothers concept of the band to the strutting sexuality of the music to the iconography of guns and violence to the music videos with women as objects (we’re talking about the 1070s and 1980s here). (While Spinal Tap deliciously satirised many of these elements, they did so within the context of rock, in straightfaced deadpan; it seemed to protest at excesses and stupidities, rather than undermine the foundations). The amplified, distorted electric guitar, rock’s essential musical ingredient, also is designed for masculine appeal, with its energy and transgressive distortion. It is the sound of boundaries being broken, of aggression, of violence, of primal spirits being unleashed. Pretty, it ain’t. This is not to suggest the rock music, or the sound of the electric guitar, does not appeal to women – obviously, that would be an absurdity. But clearly the preponderant obvious for rock music is male, often adolescent. Perhaps Bill Drummond expressed it best:

In our inner heaven, the old gods are all still there: Odin, Thor, Zeus, Athena, Artemis, Dionysus, Buddha, Allah, and yes, of course, Jesus Christ and the Virgin Mary too. But these are just names and, if we burden them with too many facts and figures, whats and wheres, whens and whys, then we get no further than Albert Goldman did in his book Elvis: we will just be left looking at the bloated corpse of a Southern lad allowed to live a life of selfish excess, instead of recognizing the man who shared all out closed doors and inner hungers. The difference between us and him is that this man’s doors were flung open by the influence of of the untamed dark continent, and inside him was Dionysus in perfect working order, bursting to get out. And he did: Dionysus was made flesh.

The sleeping Dionysus in all us young tender white males understood the clarion call. This clarion call grew and grew, went out around the world. Echoes. Echoes of echoes answering back from continent to continent, from year to year, from generation to generation. Gangs of young men went out into the world armed only with the buzzing, howling and chiming of single-coil and Humbucker pick-ups and the clatter of drums, screaming their war cries and moaning their laments…

Fads and fashions fanned flames then flickered away. Intellectual snobberies muddied the water. Technical prowess tried to hold us – the hordes – at bay. But through all that, Dionysus staggered on, leering and lurching. He was on the loose for the first time in almost one thousand years. He had been banished since the last Viking raids, since the old gods, the Norse gods, the Olympian gods and the Celtic gods, banished but not killed, just locked deep in our souls.

So don’t look for him in Elvis’s quiff, or in his tough-but-tender looks, or John Lennon’s ache or Dylan’s rhymes, or Bolan’s boogie or Bowie’s masks or Johnny Rotten’s disdain, or in any other of the thousands who have heard the clarion call and made arseholes of themselves across the world’s stages. Generation after generation has grabbed this birthright – and yes, it is a birthright… Rock ‘n’ roll in all its ugly, debased, exploited forms, torn out of and built up from the black man’s basic twelve-bar blues, is the soundtrack to every Viking voyage. Once again the white boy can rape and pillage, lie and lick, lust and kick, swagger and swear across the known and unknown universe, the chains of Christian doctrine smashed on a pagan altar.

Similarly, the vast (and I mean vast) majority of journalists, liggers, A&R men, producers, and record execs were men. The culture which developed around rock – its commercial exploitation, the industry players, its marketing – was self-reinforcingly masculine, even macho. One can see this with female performers in the rock world – they  were either marketed as sexual fantasies (Lita Ford) or as one of the guys (Joan Jett): either way, according to a masculine perspective. (Acts which would not play along with this, such as Patti Smith or The Slits, never gained  a mass audience – or were never marketed to a mass audience, perhaps more accurately).

Finally, the imagery of rock, with its conflation of guns, guitars and penises, were clearly macho. If the 1980s were a decade of the heroic protagonist, this was as true in music as in films. There is surely a parallel between the heroic action heroes in Schwarzenegger, Stallone, Norris, and Van Damme and the heroic front-men postures of 80s rock music. You can see this the heroic male figure in films like Top Gun and Young Guns (soundtracked by Bon Jovi), in Rocky III (the first where Rocky is a heroic, unreal figure – and the first with a rock soundtrack), and in bands like Dio, Motley Crue, Ratt, Poison, and so on, even unto absurd groups like Manowar and Krocus. The emotion range is one of triumph, exaltation of the male desire and satisfaction, and unalloyed emotion signalled in vast gestures. The symbolism is of guns,  guitars and swords (i.e. penises),  castles, towers, dragons and monsters (life’s hardships and trials), motorbikes and “steeds” (empowerment), and women as objects (juvenile sexuality).

Nirvana turned all this on its head. Their early music was as angry and abrasive as any rock band – often more so – but from the start their lyrical preoccupations were completely antithetical to the prevailing rock ideology, and their approach to their audience and their music were just as oppositional, not only to the mainstream but to the prevailent rock culture, which by then by so ossified as to be barely countercultural at all. Their first album Bleach, for instance, explicitly mocks the macho figure in “Mr. Moustache”:

Easy in an easy chair
Poop as hard as rock
I don’t like you anyway
— Seal it in a box

Now You
Damn You

and mocks himself relentlessly – no braggidacio and heroics here:

I’m a negative creep (x3)
And I’m stoned!
I’m a negative creep (x3)
and I’m … (x2) (Negative Creep)

 

Big cheese, make me
Mine says, go to the office

Big cheese, make me
Mine says, what is it? (Big Cheese)

 

I’ll take advantage while
You hang me out to dry
But I can’t see you every night, free
…I do

I’m standing in your line
I do, Hope you have the time
I do, Pick up number two
I do, Keep a date with you (About A Girl)

Barney ties me to the chair
I can’t see I’m really scared
Floyd breathes hard I hear a zip
Pee pee pressed against my lips

I’m ashamed
I’m ashamed
I’m ashamed (Floyd The Barber)

This sense of self-loathing, self-mockery and alienation goes directly back to punk. One is reminded of Ellen Willis’ great line about US punk “making up in alienated wise-assism what it lacks in [UK punk’s] shit-smearing belligerence”. There’s a touch of both in Bleach, but mostly the former, as Kurt refuses to posture as the macho frontman which rock then demanded, instead being the victim, the servant, the supplicant, the “negative creep”. But as the music tends towards (as Allmusic has it) “grinding sub-metallic riffing that has little power, due to lack of riffs and lack of a good drummer”, there’s no real drama. It’s just aggression pointed at the self rather than others – which is of no great merit.

Nevermind advanced on Bleach in every way – in terms of songwriting craft, sonically, dynamically, in attitude, and in self-dramatisation. Nirvana no longer sound aimlessly angry; every song has a point and a perspective, as Kurt allies his songwriting to his beliefs and hobbyhorses. The power and freedom of punk, Women’s Lib, the freedom of the 60s, the intoxicating power of love, the stupidity of the macho figure (again), alienation, depression and low-esteem: these all wind their way through the songs, sometimes clearly (as in “Polly”), sometimes fragmented (as in “Come As You Are” and “Terrirorial Pissings”). Throughout, Kurt takes clear potshots at the macho posturings of rock, projects himself again as weak and alienated, and rejects the idea of rock as all-embracing:

He’s the one
Who likes all our pretty songs
And he likes to sing along
And he likes to shoot his gun
But he knows not what it means
Knows not what it means
when I say yeeeaaahhh (In Bloom)

And I swear that I don’t have a gun
No, I don’t have a gun
No, I don’t have a gun (Come As You Are)

Never met a wise man
If so it’s a woman (Territorial Pissings)

I’m so happy. Cause today I found my friends.
They’re in my head. I’m so ugly. But that’s ok.
‘Cause so are you. We’ve broke our mirrors.
Sunday morning. Is everyday for all I care.
And I’m not scared. Light my candles. In a daze cause I’ve found god. (Lithium)

Underneath the bridge
My tarp has sprung a leak
And the animals I’ve trapped
Have all become my pets
And I’m living off of grass
And the drippings from my ceiling
It’s okay to eat fish
‘Cause they don’t have any feelings (Something In The Way)

Nowadays, when artistic power relative to record labels seems lower than any time since the 1950s, it’s remarkable to hear a song dismissing its audience, as in “In Bloom”. But this is very much a punk rock concern: despite the rhetoric of “the kids” and being of the streets, punk was very much an elitist affair. It

(still to be finished)

don’t have gun

non-teleological?

attitudes – antisexist/homophobia etc