Friday, June 27, 2008

My wife, Siouxsie, Shane & Vice Magazine.

It's not only thirty-three or so years since the first flush for punk's pioneers but since I heard that music's first waverings via a few import 45's my high-school pal (born in Co Durham) had finagled along with an in-depth NME cover story on the emerging malcontents of '76. Leo gave me a copy of an apparently American Apparel-sponsored magazine that he picked up at a street fair in now trendy Los Feliz, "Vice." Issue 15:5 "The History Issue" breaks the in-house rule of no-celebs on the cover with our former student from Peter Gabriel and Phil Collins' old public school, the distinguished edifice built, suitably, on the ruins of the Carthusian foundation that somehow fit into the middle of London town, and where Thomas More had tried his vocation in that most ascetic of Catholic monastic regimens, then as now. I admire the sons and daughters of Chartreuse, as one of the few orders who refused any compromise with the political powers in their quest for simplicity, discipline, and commitment. It's a life nearly unimaginable, but that's the point.

Drawn in that mix, mirroring the first sights of punks, by fascination and vertigo, I opened the issue today to stave off a mid-afternoon, early vacation nap. Shane's iconic image prefaced Vice's array of the expected hipster assault of ads for fashion that revealed nearly nothing about the product, ads of bands I'd not heard of, reviews for the same with one I had leading this month's picks, The Black Angels. The laudatory acclaim may be more to said record enabling some afternoon delight with his main squeeze than the contents, but that's the verve of This Nation's Saving Grace (Shtick). No space given to The Fall despite my reference in last sentence.

No sex column, to my surprise, but wittily snarky captions to shots of scenesters in various stages of candid debauchery and sartorial offense. John Cheever gets a long excerpt from a bio and a photo shoot of louche sixty-somethings amidst leafy tracts for men's suits in suburbia. Bridget Cross (whom rock geek me recognized immediately as ex-Velocity Girl and Unrest) is now on the long comedown in Alaska; Sammy Davis, Jr. flirted with the Devil; Norwegian black metal, as a segue from Sammy; and the erotic element may be vitiated but not extinguished thanks to earnest Chuck Palahniuk's "Snuff" (soon to be a major motion picture I am sure) hyped here in a prosy teaser with decidedly non-stimulating drawings. Messalina-like Annabel Chong gets a shout-out, I might add, on pg. 85. Real name Grace Quek. I guess that's why even grad students and situational artists get porn names these days. MacArthur grants follow in time. Yeah, I'm jealous.

Along with such pop-cult chaff, unexpectedly appealing interviews, brief as they are since Vice gives as much space to pics as to print, with such as Howard Zinn, Lewis Lapham, David Wallechinsky (I bought both editions of his co-edited, trivially stuffed "The People's Almanac" around the time of punk's explosion), and Thomas Cahill, he of "How the Irish Saved Civilization." Along with Romans, Greeks, and Hebrews; more tribes pending future installments-- or half-repulsed with the same mixture of morbid fascination that drew people to gawk at the early safety-pinned, spiked, and sometimes swastika'd (heil Siouxsie before she issued the single "Israel") dressed to "epater le bourgeoisie." I find myself in the same position as another urban-raised lad of Irish Catholic descent, one John Lydon-- Ó Liodain being a good West Conamara name rooted around Roundstone/ An Clochan Mór. That is, not fitting in to one's exiled place of birth, but never being able to go back home and fit in. Johnny even tried to pick up a bit of Gaeilge on his visits to the folks back in Connacht, only to be ridiculed.

What sparks this regression? Siouxsie, born the same year more or less as Shane, Johnny (New Year's Eve '56), and my wife, tells in a typically thoughtful remark to Steve LaFreniere about her late guitarist, whom I greatly admire, ex-Magazine's John McGeoch. He characterized the band not as cartoon Goths, but "as more the tension of blood splashed on a daisy in the sunshine." (131) What a metaphor. Siouxsie speaks well of him, a musician whom I never thought got the acclaim he deserved in either band's contributions to post-punk's most intelligent evocations of walls of sound that created seduction, menace, disdain, and beauty all mingled into some fevered, bound, and post-coital melange.

In a 30th anniversary large-format "Punk" volume (like Vice, more to look at than to read) that our friends, whom we will see again in a couple of days, Bob and Chris gave Leo on a birthday two ago, Siouxsie's bassist Steve Severin (that name itself an homage to Masoch's "Venus in Furs" protagonist) summed up punk as "the sound of being sixteen." I turned 16 in 1977, the summer that the movement finally began to reach even six thousand miles away. If Shane and Johnny had been mired in their parental West Tipperary hamlet or West Conamara farm, they'd probably not have heard the music except with a snippet in a British tabloid or a censored clip on RTÉ's news. It took me and my classmate from Durham about as long to hear anything, either.

Siouxsie talks of a common experience for those of us scattered pre-Amazon, pre-Virgin Megastore, pre-MySpace. "It was through being fans of music that we got hints of literary things." (132) You had to go seek out the books alluded to in lyrics or NME conversations with the latest rock cognoscenti. Siouxsie explains that was how you met up with like-minded outliers. "Of course back then you thought you were totally isolated and the only freak in the whole world." By connecting with those who became even today her friends, by concerts or by books, this cemented her own determination to succeed, despite no voice lessons, only raw talent and drive.

She laments today's youth, who having grown up with computers as that upon which I type this and you read this, may have lost links to the actual world of experience. I think of another misfit, Pauline Murray in the far north of England, Co Durham in fact, who insisted in her band Penetration's rousing song, "Don't Dictate." Today, as I suppose soon happened with Malcolm McLaren & Vivienne Westwood's Sex shop on Kings Road in Chelsea, it's all a commodity. But, this happened in 1977 as much as in 2007, albeit not in every mall as Hot Topic or American Apparel now dictates.

The key, she reminds us, is to connect if one wishes to create; the age of 14-15-16, as her bandmate noted, turns crucial for innovation, "when you're starting to form opinions and notions of where you wanted to go." For these innovators who blended looks and sounds and attitudes into what passed for the generation of my wife and myself as our version of youthful enthusiasms, the counterculture had taken a novel turn. Layne tells me that, in Fulham that year studying film, she went to see Tir na nÓg but not the Pistols in Soho. She still lived in London as punk burst practically oblivious; I only gained distant hints of tremors from reading the L.A. Times or hearing a song or two on what was then a fledgling start-up station ten miles away from me in Pasadena, KROQ. Who, I recall that year, played Steeleye Span's commercially catchy "All Around My Hat" and Fairport's earnestly tedious "Bonny Bunch of Roses," the only time I ever heard either group on the Angeleno airwaves. So, perhaps the perceived gap soon to open up between hirsute electric folkies and tartan-clad pogo-ers one can credit to marketing rather than style. Soon, Shane did what Horslips could not, and bridged said chasm, which as any fan of either Irish band can tell you, was a failure of imagination and clumsy P.R. anyway.

MacGowan, like Philip Chevron, Gavin Friday and others unjustly forgotten (read Neil McCormick's memoir "I Was Bono's Doppelganger," reviewed by me on Amazon US) who were floating around the Dublin-London club scenes, knew that both factions allied to a tradition that renewed itself by looking back and forth, to the past and to the present, and punks soon grew restless anyway with "one chord wonders" and began rummaging into the archives, whether rockabilly or sean-nos, in search of other subversive sounds. Pogues shotgun married their influences; Siouxsie and friends created art-punk-cabaret that mixed German expressionism into their awesomely metallic sheen, their gloriously crimson palettes. Lydon and pals dived into dub and Teutonic drone; members of Horslips went on to help jumpstart U2, homegrown Irish rock's infrastructures, and the foundations for I suppose punk-folk groups like Dropkick Murphies or Flogging Molly today. Play "The Scream" or "Metal Box" or "The Mekons Story" or "If I Should Fall From Grace With God" today and you hear, as with Horslips' '72 début, "Happy to Meet, Sorry to Part," the voices of young musicians eager to take on earlier styles and make them new again.

These records never fade, never sound dated. Can't say that for many from the supposedly fresh later 70s. Like The Mekons or The Fall, the longest-lived bands from that class of '77, they invigorated their music with intelligence. They buried clues into their music, their liner notes, their interviews for us to follow in libraries and bookstores, a "secret history" unearthed in every generation by the restless and the iconoclasts. They knew that much in the British histories and Celtic chronicles fit into later rebellions into style, sound, and shapes.

Greil Marcus overshot his critical acumen when, being the Ph.D. in PoliSci from of course Berkeley, he wrote "Lipstick Traces" as if a twenty-year-old J. Rotten consciously drew in his lyrics from the (original) Diggers, (non-crustie) Levellers, and Christopher Hill's "The World Turned Upside Down." But, there's a more generally defensible reaction. As every cultural trend hits the highway to platinum chartbusters, a few hop off the glitzy bandwagon. They veer onto byways worth pursuing, record sales or packed stadiums be damned. They may get lost, or they may survive to send us back messages coded on small labels and import releases. So, cult favorites preached to a few of us stranded introverts and dispersed devotees. Simon Frith expounds in "Art into Pop" about all this with a truckload of theory for the British rock scene; Britta Sweers in "Electric Muse" did this for 60s-70s folk insular parallels. My interests, of course, fall in between both camps. Marxian Mekons, the autodidact Mark E Smith, and clever Éamon Carr of Horslips, like owlish Ashley Hutchings of Fairport and Steeleye, did their research diligently, and constructed links for their music that threaded intricately into their lyrics and chords and riffs. None of them turned down a fiddle for an arrangment, either.

I realize in retrospect that such ideas as I was exposed to in haphazard reading and listening opened up glimpses of attitudes, arguments, and philosophies that undermined my Catholicism. (In one example of inexplicable tangents, my classmate went on to be ordained, and died suddenly last year. He was a good priest, in a Church that needs such men.) I wonder, flipping to Shane's ramblings on Irish history in these same pages, if I can find any confirmation of similar transformations out of faith into doubt (what Salman Rushdie in "The Satanic Verses" which I finally started posits as the true juxtaposition for the human condition, as solid disbelief is merely another form of devotion) from our drop-out Carthusian. Outside of a nice phrase that DeValera "did what Stalin did, but without killing all the people, know what I mean, yeah?" (128) and a dubious summation that RFK "also got shot because he was an Irish Catholic immigrant," (129) there's little new to a professional Hibernian the likes of meself. But, he was playing (presumably one of those RTÉ video compilations) trad folk music from broadcasts during the 50s and 60s while he talked, white wine with vodka in a mug labelled "Morphine" and chain-smoking hash, from the comfort of his home in comfortable Donnybrook. This may account for the brevity of what could be salvaged from such a conversation.

Briefly back to our hostess. Siouxsie Sioux looks, I add admiringly, true to her well-maintained public image, stunning as always in a catsuit, bettering for her brains and her poise any lightweight woman half her age. (Second sexiest woman born that Year of the Rooster, runner-up to my devoted spouse. I think she and the former Susan Dallion would get along like a house or two on fire. From what I've heard about Shane, if I could understand what he mumbles, I'd like to have a long chat (with subtitles?) about whatever with him. He made a slight mistake in that Vice interview; the IRA ceasefire after their failed Operation Harvest Northern campaign happened in 1962, not '64, for the very few who counted themselves in its depleted ranks back then.) Siouxsie adds that as an artist, she may have some influence still in getting listeners younger than she is to "leave the virtual world." Not to mention her own make-up skills; these are duly noted in the acknowledgments. Siouxsie: "You can only inspire someone to do something they wouldn't have before. With me it was getting into music, and specifically the type of music it was had a big effect."

Credit another Co Durham tie-in: miner's son Bryan Ferry's concert tour promoting Roxy Music's "Siren" was when, in 1975, Siouxsie met her future bandmates. Just like me, it took some distantly felt, faintly art-school pairing of music with image, style with idea, to sell the avant-garde to council tenancy sons and daughters, suburban trendsetters in Bromley, and two Southern California boys tired of hearing endless rotations on rock radio in supposedly the global capital of cool. To think we in El Lay had half a dozen stations playing Kansas, Boston, Chicago, and that group-- made up ironically of Yank army brats in Britain-- that stole the best imperial name of all in the name of counterculture sold back to us masses, America.

I never Vaselined my hair, and I never had a suit to slash. My interest in punk remained less obvious on the surface. Looking at me, it was not my exterior that changed, and we had a rule against long hair (touching the ears) at our school anyway. Still, I welcomed a movement that beneath its posturing and commercialism encouraged individualism and intellectualism. This often becomes overlooked with the manufactured outrage and the calculated commodification that overtook punk as it had the beats and flower children, but as Shane and Siouxsie attest, it allowed them to force an entry into such moribund terrain as Irish trad and Weimar schlock to marry the rebellion of youth with the freshness of subversive times too long stereotyped. My generation may not have succeeded in overturning the hype machine that wound up with their own marketing innovations such as grunge, the just-raped look of Flashdance, Vans, Emily's Strange, Bust and Bitch on the news stands, Riot Grrls, and Nu-Wave KROQ marketed as a format as predictable as Jim Ladd or Westwood One's once-hippie FM.

But, then I think about my students today from the barrio. They stroll into class, wearing shirts from the latest tour of The Cure, tying Morrissey lyrics to the poetry we study, or prancing about with facial hair and mascara. Last spring, a woman older than me was a transgendered post-op, son of an angry Navy vet. With both sexes multiply pierced, men and women from all over the world into rap, hardcore, or techno, I wonder what Oscar Wilde, not to mention later Irish-British layabouts who got off their taut asses to shake music up for my teens, barely out of teens themselves, would make of them all. I think he'd be amused, taken a bit aback, and flattered.

Photos: No, that's not the missus. It's the striking cover of Siouxsie's new album "Mantaray." Sydney O'Meara's snap of Shane, circa 1977 reading his own fanzine "Bondage," as the cover of Joe Cleary's "Outrageous Fortune". It's the only way I could download this shot.

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