Tuesday, June 26, 2012

On the Road with Ruin

While The Road to Ruin was the second LP from the Ramones, another punk band, in the next decade, provided music as punchy as the New York suburban kids but with a considerably heftier lyrical and spiritual impact. Philadelphia's quintet wove a Buddhist message within an artistic tapestry enmeshed into hardcore. My first post about Ruin juxtaposed their stance in the '80s with how guitarist-founder Glenn Wallis has moved along an increasingly unsparing interrogation of what we call the buddha-dharma, which recently he dubs Speculative Non-Buddhism. Today's entry looks not at (x-)Buddhism's "shell game," but the now-Dr. Wallis' band's sonic outreach. These paired posts reveal what I've been unable to find much of elsewhere online: how Buddhism and punk ignite.

We first hear Ruin's path to dharma in 1982's flexi-disc singles "Twilight" and "Phenomenal Expression" in Terminal! Magazine. These sound, as flexies did, as if their hometown Flyers used them for pucks. Still, you notice why Ruin stood out even them. This pair reminds me of Husker Du's early singles before they signed with SST. The latter song of Ruin is short even by punk standards: 45 seconds of atomic meltdown. As the titles hint, there's a gleam amid the gloom. The glimmers of melody and lyrical insight may elude casual listeners, but both bands hint at maturity within hardcore's slamming compression.

1983 found the band with two songs on Get off My Back: A Philly Hardcore Compilation. These cannot be found online, so I cannot comment on "Love Dog" or "Proof" in its first version. Still, from hearing it later on 1985's "White Rabbit" promo demo cassette, it's easy to understand why "Proof" was re-recorded twice more. It focuses their sound more intensely, and the hardcore expectations of barked vocals and hammered delivery are seasoned with mood shifts and starts and stops. It's a more physical song, and this helps. There's a splendid video of the band bobbing heads in unison around their drummer (not sure if it was Richard Hutchins, or Pete Della Pelle who replaced him), as they unite in generous obeisance to their common cause. The love they share for their music can be felt.

The previous year, their first LP, He Ho, appeared. I wish I could review this as it was meant to be received, but I can only reconstruct most of this from equivalent live tapes at XPN radio and a St. Mary's 1997 concert, both available via Freedom Has No Bounds. As a band interview at The Worst Horse Buddhist pop-culture site documents, this album was primitive compared to what they wanted to get down on tape. "Rule Worshiper" stands out most. As it's the only one I can access on both a Fiat Lux studio and remastered version, it appears that this song on its reissue on the long-deleted 1996 anthology Songs of Ruin and Reverie has been edited into a sudden fadeout, which hones the power of this sharply defined attack on the titular fealty.

For me, the songs (I'm handicapped by live versions and not studio ones) hold up by the standards of what must have been a no-budget, mid-80s tiny indie release. Taking up Leonard Cohen's "Master Song" and the Rolling Stones' "Play with Fire" demonstrates Ruin's proverbial range of influences beyond the MC5, Stooges, Clash, Ramones, and Motorhead nods their "Worst Horse" interview credits. Commendable as such touchstones remain, I'm enticed by a subtly artsier side that appears to bury the jackhammer patterns of the Buzzcocks within the staccato tempos of Wire--these may reflect what I want to hear; these two endure as my own exemplars of how punk could challenge its formula.

Unlike the musicians in the previous paragraph (even if some albums had to be burrowed out from imports six thousand miles away in very few stores), Ruin might never stay on a road, at least on a blacktop far enough west closer to me. Given the smoke signals and rattle patter of what passed for communicating the appeal of what could remain very regional music back then--as the pages of Touch& Go (anthology reviewed by me) display for '79-'83 (oddly overlapping my undergrad years)--the welcome a band received in its hometown might be utterly unknown a state away.

My hometown band X sung about this as the "unheard music." Bob Mould in his recent See A Little Light (memoir reviewed by me) movingly tells of how the Huskers moved from town to town, setting up a presence, sleeping on couches, talking to the local college radio station perhaps (I worked at mine, KXLU), and seeking out like-minded outliers, the kids who hung out in record stores, who read existentialism, who didn't fit in. I'd like to think Ruin attracted some of the same, across the continent from where SST came to dominate the local L.A./O.C. scene, as hereabouts hardcore became, well...

Nick Rombes wrote well a few years ago about punk's rapid implosion from 1974-'82. I note that T&G and Professor Rombes' own A Cultural Dictionary of Punk (reviewed by me) nearly coincide with their terminus. Ruin, however, crafted its blend starting when critics and listeners like me (and Rombes perhaps as a contemporary) had pushed away as sour whatever artistic integrity had curdled into punk conformity. The Minutemen and Huskers (for me the most visible, as they shifted to SST and could be found gigging around here and their records could be bought) expanded their horizon of what punk could mean less as the corrosion of conformity and more as personal liberation.

This draws me back to Ruin's coming-of-age. By the mid-'80s, Ruin had taken what few punks took seriously--a path to freedom along lines of transformation less by political or gender confrontation, more by a religiously faithful path. I'd heard vaguely a few punks had found Krishna, as Eleanor Henderson's recent novel Ten Thousand Saints (reviewed by me) dramatizes in the second term of Reagan. But nobody I listened to or talked to tried to align a spiritual search with a musical one. My encounters with the world of the intellect, like my musical forays, were largely solitary, autodidact. So, I used to wonder, as I took on the tensions and aspirations comprising my own Irish Catholic upbringing during this uneasy time, how the music I played could show me literary and personal role models, guides out of my own confusion. Music had started this for me, long before I found the Mekons annotated their vinyl and the Crass anthology I'd bravely sought out filled its paper sleeves.

It's difficult to know if listeners could make out paeans to dharma anymore than anarchists memorized what Brits shouted out in angry spatter, or Americans chanted in hoarse cries. On vinyl or in concert, without a lyric sheet committed to rote recall, I was often left clueless about the "message" as the "medium" blasted my admittedly fragile ears, so much I (carless anyway, riding my bike around, taking the bus, bumming rides, the thin kid on grants and fellowships, worried more about a GPA and passing scrutiny than scoring tickets) rarely went to shows, and ruined my hearing cranking up headphones in a grad school dorm or a rented apartment, dissertation looming, qualifying/ language/ oral exams over me, a personal life careening into an unwisely chosen relationship amidst a climate of economic straits, ideological rants, and the hothouse climate of doctoral programs in literature, obsessed with nouveaux French varietals. Meanwhile I tackled Old and Middle English, Shakespeare, Milton, Richardson, Eliots, Joyce, Beckett, and this year's model of impenetrable, translated, thick theorists vs. close readings of verse. Teaching remedial or frosh comp, grading blue books, dealing with pampered and/or poorly-prepped undergrads often left me nearly response-less as a weary reader, with always more to pick up by my desk, on the bus, in my apartment or co-op bed.

I include my own encounter, as (post-)punk played steadily during this decade. Grad school began with British Marxists and post-structuralist myth; Jacobeans and "ordinary language philosophy" in less than everyday prose. Ten years earlier, I had to leave the town where I'd been happiest, when my parents moved. As part of my childhood was spent happily wandering the blasted heaths and scrubby chaparral around what would be the final lemon groves in the county, I lamented what I'd come back to. First draft of this blog entry, I was reviewing Hari Kunzru's Gods Without Men. Early on, Nicky, as dissolute English rocker, flees the pressure to perform in the Westside manse-studio. He drives out past where I was raised, oddly at my cheeriest as a boy, if pale in smog and heat. I lived north of the last town in L.A. County on the border of the nation's largest county, arid east way past the Eastside.

"LA faded into a thankless dead landscape. You couldn't call it a desert, really. It was waste ground, the city's backyard, a dump for all the ugly things it didn't want to look at." (26) Yet amid the "valley of the dirt people," as the Inland Empire's denigrated, before millions filled tracts and big-box malls full of junk from the warehouses there that distribute junk from the ports which comes from China, I found it pleased me to explore once dusty spaces. We all love where we dreamed, the music we first heard--even if 93 KHJ Boss Radio and "White Rabbit" over and over, more than "Play with Fire." For me a jackrabbit was a glimpse, a coyote a fact, a smudgepot the winter night's heavy orchard scent.

Now, I returned, staying but half-a-mile from where I'd grown up, to begin my program in English literature. A small fan blew. I studied Gawain as the local college station played the Dead Kennedys and the temperature hit 108 outside in Claremont and my rented room was where I paced and typed and translated, my fingers staining the pages with sweat. The English Civil War boomed again within the small print of one of many used Penguins, next to my Pearl. The clock radio transmitted whatever eclectic playlists the local d.j.'s played, often under an influence. A year later, M.A. in hand, I was off to UCLA. Living at the once-Paul Robeson socialist, now overtaken by Chinese grad students, ramshackle co-op, the weather eased, the climate changed. In Orwell's year come to pass, a Ph.D. hovered, a Grail for my medievalist-modernist self, seeking meaning between glosses and footnotes.

Meanwhile, what was Ruin up to? The Philly punk archive Freedom Has No Bounds takes its name from a Ruin lyric; find them all at the link via the band's website. In this already long article I will spare you the English major's exegesis of particular songs, but check at "Freedom" for how Ruin covers a song I long ago (the age of, what, six, seven?) tired of from endless AM let alone FM radio blare, "White Rabbit." Lysergic swirl fits Ruin's embrace of letting their songs lag and roam, away from hardcore's hurry into more guitar solos (brief, I assure you) by Glenn and his brother Damon. "Proof" from the promo cassette sounds as if the Flyers skated on it, and "Life After Life" suffers from a noise annoys production on an understandably lo-fi format, long before such became hip.

On the video stream embedded on the band's website, Vosco Thomas Adams' vocals resemble the DK's Jello Biafra; Ruin gravitates towards lurching and swaying on much of 1986's Fiat Lux. Small world: as I started UCLA, a guy I met the first night told me he'd dated Jello's sister. As with the Dead Kennedys, earnest bands wearied of packaging intelligent commentary within restrictive structures. If punk--political or spiritual--meant to encourage us towards freedom, how could it pressure us, as hearers, concertgoers, fans, to conform to a mohawked, leather-jacketed identikit?

To its credit, Ruin realized this impasse on its own road. Last Days of Man on Earth offers (links to other Ruin songs on this side are sadly as of this writing dead; everything's out-of-print in this impermanent realm) a portal to hear this band's best work. It's preceded at "Last Days" by what may be (given the limits of retrieval) my favorite song of theirs, the single "By the By." Catchier, as if Pere Ubu's electronic squeals warped into Vosco's muffled, stomped-on, muttered staccato as it alternates with more-Jelloish bellow. The postpunk, edgier, nagging riff merits applause, and the band charges forward in an unpredictable, call-and-response tune that I play over and over. Mission of Burma, as I noted in my previous review, comes to mind as a parallel for where Ruin roamed next.

As for this and the album that followed, their recordings, even altered into a digitally compromised state through files to laptop to headphones, open up far more the melodic vision the band found to expand their consciousness on their second full-length record. I detect hints of Misfits and Motorhead, maybe a bit of Minutemen. I'm biased towards bass, and I sense more seeps up from the mix of Cordy Swope's playing in the later work by his band, which seeks a hard rock, less punk orientation paralleling the move of many "college rock" ensembles during that pre-grunge decade.

While rapid in time, Fiat Lux slows in space. They push into wider terrain, eager to play off textures and voices that swoop in and draw back. The approach favors intensity, but akin sometimes to mainstream rock in its decision to ease up on hardcore habits and to embrace accessible if still rushed and loud sounds. "Hero" was covered a decade later by Superchunk and this up-tempo anthem's well matched to the latter group, who (two songs by the Verlaines!) know good music, along with equally attentive devotees Yo La Tengo. Here's hoping Hoboken's trio considers Ruin on their next album--for all I don't know, YLT may have played a song in one of their audience-request concerts.

I wonder if YLT during their annual Hanukkah charity concerts (see my bio review) has paid tribute to Cohen's "Famous Blue Raincoat"? Ruin delivers a solid version, and for me, being vaguely familiar with the surprising hit (at least in what used to pass as alternative radio) of Jennifer Warnes way back around the late '80s of this song, I liked hearing Ruin's assertive response to its sensitive but defiant declamations. "Proof" gets a third try, but the file on "Last" does not include this as far as I can tell; the numbered tracks appear one shy of the discography via the band's website. I would have liked to hear this in a better-than-hockey puck material manifestation of its metaphysical teaching.

Side two of Fiat Lux opens with the lighter (if barely) tone of "China," with a chorus of "dig a hole" and what may be a piano imitating a "Chopsticks"-type progression. It's refreshing to find the band allowing some humor coming into what can be a fierce, committed mode of delivering an uncompromising mission. The lyrics page shows their mindset, and it's maturing into doubt. Their eponymous song "Ruin" finds Vosco growling his band's name, and this harsher reproach balances nods, as with an inclusion of "White Rabbit," towards a broader appeal. "Great Divide" returns to a more hard rock place, and the Stooges' "Real Good Time" hastens the LP to its close in a more partying mood than the philosophical content of the bulk of this album hastening enlightenment.

A 1997 reunion after a decade's disbanding finds the band opening a live concert with a propulsive instrumental that's one of their best songs. Rings for weeks in my head. You can hear it via Ruin's Soundlift sampler page. It reminds me of a less histrionic Killing Joke riff entangled with the confident clanging exuberance of industrialized, gritty, barking Wire in their early '00s incarnation.

So, that's Ruin on records' road. I wonder what a producer like Steve Albini or Bob Weston could have done with their talent. Link to the Buddhist entry previously posted on my blog for more overlap and excursions into the band's ideological and phenomenological shakeups--especially from the band's founding member, Glenn Wallis.  Earlier this month, one year on at S N-B, he explained:

Really, this project is an extension of Ruin. I have dropped hints about it all over the site. I also have lots of veiled references to punk rock and rock n’roll in all four of my books. I always told my bandmates: “this has nothing to do with music!” The punKoan, then, is: with what does it have to do?

I invite you to find out more, as I do. I commend them for their ambition, and I await (perhaps without fulfillment in this incarnation) a pristine presentation of what they sounded like on records.

I suppose shortcomings contain their own moral. A lesson learned--we seek a sound and a pleasure that eludes our grasp. While I lament the absence of CDs and the demise of an anthology that from the few songs I can find appears to noticeably sweeten the sound and force open its dimensions, the links above enable you to brave the entrance and meet the band's invitation to reorient your life (as I mark another anniversary/ birthday-week among my family and dearest friends up north, who all love raucous music, if not the same bands!) around a band that could be your life--if a life lived depends on waking up to another outlook, stance, defiant possibility for "phenomenal expression."

[Photo c/o "Worst Horse" of Ruin "with sparklers": Damon left, stage diver center, Glenn right.]


Anonymous said...

Blog author: please send me your mailing address and I'll send you a Songs of Reverie and Ruin cd which contains all of the bands material.

Fionnchú said...

Anon, can you send me first an e-mail so I can send you my address? I appreciate your kind offer. fionnmaccu at aol dot com is my e-mail. Looking forward to hearing from you, as this is the only way I can communicate so far...

Anonymous said...

Hello, Fiunnchu. Hope the CD made it safely. Come see the band live if you can. I know it's a treck but you seem adventurous! Peace. D.

Sat, August 31, 2013
Doors: 8:00 pm / Show: 8:30 pm
Union Transfer
Philadelphia, PA

Fionnchú said...

It made it, and I was playing it again today, with thanks galore. It has staying power, and sounds so much better than the streamed songs I could cobble together before it. I would like to write a review to pitch to PopMatters for their music blog. They do not accept reviews of "old" albums themselves, but perhaps I can slip in one under a different slot on their site. Best wishes with the reunion concert; I can't likely afford the trip to Philly; if I can submit a review, that's one way I can contribute to the occasion, and in spirit, I will cheer you all on. Thanks once again to you and the band, which earns another chance to make an impact.