In honor of Alex Chilton’s passing, we’d like to publish this article written by Joshua Ellis. This article appeared in Coilhouse Issue 04. You can also view a PDF of this article, by a strange twist of fate, over at the official Pixies website. It’s not an article about him, or The Pixies, per se. However, we’ve been wanting to publish this article on our blog for a while now, and this feels like the right moment to do so. This article speaks to the heart of why we’re all here together. What’s that song? / I’m in love / With that song…
I have this memory, and I’m not sure if it’s even real–or if it’s real, if it’s cobbled together from a half-dozen memories, fragments of things that happened over the course of a year or two that began the summer before I started high school, in 1991.
In this memory, I’m sitting in the basement of a girl named Sara, who pronounced her name “Saah-rah” and had purple hair and smoked clove cigarettes. I didn’t know Sara very well, but she was part of a small collective of freaks and weirdos that I had congregated to when I moved that summer from my ancestral home of north Texas to the small mountain town of Hamilton, Montana.
I’m sitting in Sara’s basement with my friends: Jeremy, the pretty guy who wears big black woolen overcoats and Jamaican tam o’ shanters in bright yellow and red and green, and seems to have unlimited access to the panties of every single girl in the Bitterroot Valley; Wade, who perpetually sports Birkenstock loafers that look like inflated bladders and drives a white Volkswagen Beetle covered in Grateful Dead stickers; Nate, who is one of the best guitarists I’ve ever met and is a huge aficionado of what will later come to be known as “extreme” sports, like bouncing down jagged rock faces on a beat-up skateboard deck; Sarah and her sister, Jenny, who are both fond of dropping random giggly non sequiturs into the conversation when stoned.
They’re all here, or some of them, or none of them. We’re sitting in the dark, talking bohemian bullshit, maybe smoking pot. It’s the kind of night that gets put on endless repeat when you’re young and strange and condemned to spend your adolescence in some far-flung desolate shithole like Hamilton, Montana, where you can’t lose yourself in the noise or happily become part of it, the way you can in New York or Seattle or Los Angeles or Chicago.
I’m not as cool as they are. I don’t know about cool shit. I’m just this uptight kid from J. R. Ewing Land who talks too much, still wears Bugle Boy button-downs and M. C. Hammer pants, and has only the dimmest idea that there’s some entire world out there of cool shit that I know nothing about. I own a Jane’s Addiction album and I’ve vaguely heard of the Sex Pistols.
And in this memory, Sara gets up and puts a cassette tape into her boom box. It’s a time traveler from 1984, beaten and scuffed, with the inevitable broken-off cassette door, so you just slap the tape in and hope that the tape head keeps it from falling out, which will cause the relentless motors to chew the tape and unspool it like the entrails of a slaughtered pig. Sara slaps the tape in and hits play.
This song comes out–a slow beat, big and echoing, then a bass playing eighth notes, and then a guitar, dreamy and vibrating. It sounds like what I imagine sunrise on a beach would be like, like what I imagine doing heroin would be like, like what I imagine sex in a dark room with that awesome girl you lie awake and dream of meeting would be like. I haven’t experienced any of these things–yet.
And then a voice, a high husky man’s voice, gentle over the music.
Cease to resist, given my good-byes
Drive my car into the o-o-sha-hah-hahn
You think I’m dead, but I sail away
On a wave of mutilation, wave of mutilation
Wave of mutilation
“What is this?” I ask. Sara shrugs.
“It’s the Pixies,” she says in this memory that may not even be real, or maybe didn’t happen this way at all. “The song’s called ‘Wave of Mutilation.’ This is the U.K. Surf Mix. The real version is faster and louder.”
“I’ve never heard of them,” I said. “I’ve never heard this.”
“They’re pretty cool,” Sara says. “I think they’re from, like, Boston.”
I nod. Pretty cool.
* * *
In his 1989 book Lipstick Traces, music journalist and historian Greil Marcus attempts to draw a direct connection between the British punk movement of the late seventies and the heretical, mystical Christian sects like the fraticelli and the Brethren of the Free Spirit that haunted Europe for the thousand years of the Dark Ages. It’s a weird postmodern book, and Marcus travels some tortured roads … but as Johnny Lydon is quoted as saying on the book’s back cover, he’s not wrong, either.
There are lots of parallels between mysticism and the counterculture. In the Dark Ages, in a pre-mass-media world, being a mystic was countercultural; it was the equivalent of growing your hair long and joining a band in 1965, or sculpting your hair into strange shapes and joining a band in 1976, or growing a goofy beard and joining a dubstep laptop collective in 2009. Going against the Church was punk as fuck in the eleventh century. (In Lipstick Traces, Marcus makes an amusing parallel between Lydon, singer of the Sex Pistols, and John of Leyden, the Anabaptist heretic who took over the city of Münster in Germany and turned it into an anti-Church stronghold for a year. Leyden was captured and put to death on January 22, 1536 … almost 442 years to the day before the Sex Pistols’ final gig at Winterland in San Francisco. See? I told you it was a weird book.)
The initiation rituals are pretty similar, too: standing around in a dark room that reeks of incense while people in bizarre clothing play strange music at you. I’m only half-kidding, here; part of the process of becoming either a cultural freak or a mystic is being taken out of one’s comfort zone, having one’s notions of normality eroded away by deeply liminal experiences. Going out into the Black Forest and being initiated into the Mysteries by a bunch of demented, hairy cenobites is one form of liminal experience; doing acid and listening to pounding, digital, screeching noise with a pack of creepy pale weirdos is another, but the core experience is nearly the same. (In fact, if you’re a European electronic music fan, you can actually have both experiences simultaneously.)
And once you gaze into the abyss, the abyss gazes back at you, shakes its head, and gives you fashion tips. Whether it’s a hair shirt and self-inflicted whiplashes across the back for the militant fourth-century flagellant or bondage pants, polychrome hair, and household items punctured through the extremities for the twenty-first-century global party kid, the end result is the same: you are explicitly marking yourself as outside the norm as being the Other. There’s no going back.
In Marshall McLuhan’s world (and this is McLuhan’s world; you and I just live in it), the road to enlightenment is less paved with spiritualism and more with pop culture. For the post-war generations, transcendence and personal revolution are inextricably tied to mass media like subversive literature, underground films, dirty-ass rock and roll and hip-hop and electronica. For most humans who live in the First World now, there is no Dark Night of the Soul; there’s merely that moment when you read that book or see that movie or, as in my case, hear that song, and you’re suddenly made aware of all of the possible cultural architectures that you can live in, if you choose.
* * *
For me, in high school, the road of excess was rock and roll, combined with the emergent cyberpunk literature of William Gibson and Bruce Sterling and John Shirley. I read Gibson’s Neuromancer the way an older generation read Kerouac’s On the Road. I didn’t see it as a fun sci-fi novel; I saw it as a blueprint for a world I wanted to live in. In my countercultural utopia, the world was run by punks with leather jackets and permanent data connections wired into their brains, hanging out in Nippophile bars, drinking whiskey and piracetam cocktails, secretly controlling the flow of information in the world via their sticker-laden laptops while listening to utterly synthetic music on their chunky audiophile headphones. My future had a soundtrack by Nine Inch Nails and Massive Attack.
That probably sounds laughable in retrospect, but in the nineties, being a subversive computer freak put you on the raw bleeding edge of culture. I ended up writing for Mondo 2000, which, as Neil Gaiman once pointed out to me, was the hippest magazine in the world for about six months, and which served as a sort of neon bible for the cyberpunk set. Mondo was a glossy, globally-distributed magazine, but back in those days, before the ubiquity of the Net, it was also hard to get your hands on if you lived outside the central urban cores of the United States … which made it even more valuable, more like samizdat, subversive literature passed from person to person.
When I was a teenager, I would read every scant issue of Mondo I could get my hands on from cover to cover twenty or thirty times. (The fact that Mondo’s publishing schedule was about as erratic as Lindsay Lohan on an eight-ball of strawberry-flavored Peruvian flake didn’t help matters, either.) I would load up freeware fractal generation software on my aging 486 PC, set it to color-cycling mode, and listen to Lords of Acid tracks I’d managed to dub from other people’s CDs, desperately wishing I was anywhere but the Hee Haw purgatory to which I’d been relegated.
* * *
I think that a lot of the value of counterculture, in the days before the Net crept into every square inch of the human experience, was the scarcity of it, the mystery. It’s hard to remember that before this decade, it could be downright difficult to find music that wasn’t on major labels or films that weren’t put out by big Hollywood studios or books from small presses. You couldn’t walk into your local Wal-Mart and pick up a Revolting Cocks album, and there was no such thing as Amazon or iTunes; if you were into anything weird and different, your options were severely limited.
Every few months, my friends and I would drive from Hamilton up to Missoula, the nearest college town, to stock up on the shit we couldn’t get in our small town: indie rock albums and copies of Alternative Press or Raygun or Mondo 2000, Cure T-shirts, Violent Femmes posters … all the trinkets and signifiers of the underground that were so tantalizingly unavailable to us most of the time.
All of this stuff wasn’t just enjoyed for its own sake, of course. It also served as a form of social capital and a way of recognizing like-minded individuals. The ancient Christians painted fish on their chests as a way of recognizing one another; my generation had Joy Division T-shirts. If you walked around with a copy of Naked Lunch or an issue of Sandman, it marked you as a vector of the cool, a person who could be relied upon to bring new weird shit to the collective table. You were a source not only of companionship and conversation, but fucking awesome mix tapes.
(Media is, of course, how Christianity spread before Constantine made it the official religion of Rome and the councils of Nicaea codified and defined the texts of the Bible. The New Testament was the original viral text, passed hand-to-hand and mouth-to-ear by and within the bored middle class of the triumphal Empire. One can only imagine jaded Roman teenagers gathering together under cover of darkness to talk about the new God and the promise of eternal life, a sort of incredibly straight-faced, sexless, Footloose-town-elders early model of teenage wildlife.)
Jeremy and Wade and Sara and Sarah and I were as much a taste tribe as anything else. We bonded mainly because we liked anything weird and outré and offensive, anything that served as an alternative to the bland, dumb shit that most people liked. And we made emotional connections, but they piggybacked on those initial matches in cultural taste.
Almost twenty years on, I’m still that way; I’ll talk to anybody sitting at the coffee shop with a Grant Morrison comic in their hands or a Tom Waits T-shirt. What Nick Hornby said in High Fidelity is absolutely true of me: I mostly like people not because of who they are, but because of what they like.
If that sounds shallow, think of it this way: in some sense, your choices in media consumption suggest a lot about who you are and what you believe. Give me twenty minutes with a person’s music collection and I can probably guess a certain amount about their politics, their outlook on life, and whether I could stand to be stuck on a desert island with them.
I have a friend whose litmus test for dating girls is that he plays Tom Waits at them. If they don’t like it or don’t get it, he says, he knows there’s no way they’re compatible. And he’s right, more often than not. Greil Marcus once said that rock and roll is an arena of moral choices, and that’s goddamn right. As much as I have faith in anything, I have faith in that.
Never trust anybody who doesn’t like Rain Dogs.
* * *
These days, I know who the Pixies are. I know the names of the band members, the bulleted outline of the band’s history, why they broke up (right around the time I was sitting in that basement, in point of fact), and why they got back together. I know about their side projects and solo albums. I have their entire recorded catalog, including B-sides and rarities (such as the aforementioned U.K. Surf Mix of “Wave of Mutilation”), and a couple of live albums, which I keep mainly for archival purposes, as I don’t generally dig live albums.
I know these things partially because I’m an obsessive music geek, but also because, like everybody else in the post-industrial world, I have instant access to nearly limitless information about almost any topic I choose to explore. The Pixies aren’t even one of my favorite bands, though I dig them. But one day a few months ago, I thought, Hmm, I don’t have enough Pixies on my iPod, and went and bought a bunch of their stuff on Amazon, and (I admit it) torrented the more obscure stuff. I sat and read their Wikipedia and Allmusic.com entries while the MP3s downloaded, because I’m that kind of person.
If I wanted to, I could probably follow their lead singer, Charles Thompson (aka Black Francis when he’s with the Pixies and Frank Black when he’s not) on Twitter if he’s got an account, and get e-mails in my inbox if they play within a few hundred miles of where I live or release new material or appear on late night TV shows. Thousands of people work for the promise of billions of dollars to create extremely complex network systems that allow me to do this. It’s really kind of miraculous, particularly if you belong to my generation or an earlier one and still remember when none of this was possible.
It’s almost impossible not to know everything about anything you dig now; the temptation to exhaustively research your personal galaxy of interests is irresistible, and so is the temptation to share your obsession with the world, thanks to the magic of cheap hosting and free blog software.
You’d think, as an obsessive geek, that I’d find this wonderful. At the risk of sounding terribly uncool, I mostly find it incredibly tiresome. Maybe I’m just not obsessive enough about the things I’m obsessed over. I mean, I love Tom Waits, but I don’t go out and search Etsy for portraits of Waits made from macramé or colored macaroni; I don’t troll the MP3 blogs for Tom Waits/Lady Gaga mashups; I don’t collect JPGs of old Waits concert posters from the seventies and set them as the wallpaper on all my computers and my iPhone. Maybe it’s because I don’t like the idea of blowing through all of the mystique that surrounds Waits … or maybe it’s just because I just don’t feel like kicking the shit out of a dead horse.
(This is why I can barely read a lot of popular geek blogs anymore; if I see one more fucking post about obscure Disneyland trivia, the best restaurant to get dim sum between 42nd and 44th Streets in Manhattan, the top seven hottest chicks Michael J. Fox dated during the second season of Family Ties, or steampunk objets d’art made out of fucking bacon, I’m going to lose my shit and rage like the goddamn Cloverfield monster. I swear to God, I will. I mean, for fuck’s sake, don’t people ever just get tired of feeding their inner autistic?)
I tend to believe that the Internet has actually killed the concept of a counterculture. Instead, we have what my buddy Warren Ellis calls a monoculture. “Go out to your street corner,” he says in his remarkable comic book Transmetropolitan. “You’ll probably see McDonald’s, MTV on a screen somewhere, a Gap clothes store. Go out to a street corner in London and you’ll see the same thing. Same in Prague, same in Sao Paolo, Grozny, and Hobart. That’s what a monoculture is. It’s everywhere, and it’s all the same. And it takes up alien cultures and digests them and shits them out in a homogenous building-block shape that fits seamlessly into the vast blank wall of the monoculture. This is the future. This is what we built.”
In a monoculture, it’s impossible to create any subculture that stands in opposition to the mainstream … because the mainstream simply appropriates it. I’m not talking about appropriation in the corporate/capitalist sense, where the signifiers of alternative culture are used to sell everything from German cars to Tom’s of Maine toothpaste. That’s nothing new. What’s weird about the monoculture is that it actually embraces subcultures and makes them part of the global mainstream at a far greater speed than has ever been achieved before. Even anti-consumerism is acceptable; check out the circulation of Adbusters in any given month.
Put it another way: it’s impossible to be weird anymore, because being weird is generally acceptable, and if something is generally acceptable, it is, by definition, not weird.
The tattoo and body modification culture is one great example. It’s easy to forget that twenty years ago, having your arms sleeved in ink was really weird. It was pretty much the province of bikers and convicts and punkers who didn’t expect to ever hold a straight job. The same held for piercings. I was still getting shit in the early nineties for having a single earring (in my left ear, because according to the commonly held wisdom back then, having an earring in your right ear meant you were queer; and in 1991, being called queer was still a reason to throw fists, at least where I lived–something else that has, by and large, changed dramatically). The only people with facial piercings were circus freaks.
Now, everybody has tattoos and piercings, including my mom. The tattoo parlor has gone from being in the back alley of the worst part of town to being a high-end boutique affair. Sorority girls have full back tattoos and clit piercings and still manage to be completely dull.
You may be thinking, “Yeah, but that always happens. I mean, it used to be weird for men to have long hair, too.” True. But tattoos have been around for a very long time, and in the West at least there has never been a period when tattoos were so generally culturally acceptable. Nor was it ever as acceptable for Caucasians to sport dreads and mohawks, or dye spots into their hair … at the same time that it’s totally hip to wear your hair like a fifties’ businessman or a sixties’ acid dealer or a seventies’ band roadie or a eighties’ yuppie. It’s as acceptable for women to dress in halter tops and corsets as it is for them to wear ankle-length floral print dresses, or a combination of both. What we are seeing, for maybe the first time in history, is a world in which everything is acceptable.
Not to everybody, of course. There are still vast swaths of humanity both within and without the monoculture who profess outrage over the “moral” decline of Western civilization–Islamic and Christian conservatives, mostly. But by and large, the monoculture ignores these people, partially because they don’t tend to be particularly good consumers, and therefore are largely invisible to the capitalism that drives the monoculture, and partially because they’re just not a whole lot of fun. “Fuck ‘em if they can’t take a joke” seems to be our collective postmodernist motto.
In fact, in some sense, these people make up the only real counterculture left, rejecting and rejected by society, free of what Neal Stephenson once called the American “cult of irony” and marginalized by their unwillingness or inability to get into the global groove. As John Walker Lindh proved a few years ago, the only real way to irrevocably piss off your parents and your society anymore is to go halfway around the world and start blowing shit up in the name of one god or another.
* * *
A few months ago, I stumbled falling-down drunk into the Double Down Saloon here in Las Vegas. The Double Down–which advertises itself as “The Happiest Place on Earth”–is Vegas’s only real punk bar. Up until a few years ago, they showed hardcore anime tentacle porn on the TVs in the place, and pool cue bar brawls were a dime a dozen.
It was a Saturday night, which meant loud hardcore. I stood there with a Red Stripe in my hand, numbly taking in the spectacle of a local band fronted by a cute girl barely out of her teens, blasting out a wall of high-speed sound that probably would have been mistaken for a demonic infestation in an earlier age.
Watching these kids bring the rock–kids who were probably still in grade school when Joe Strummer and Joey Ramone went to the great gig in the sky–I felt this sense of total cultural displacement. There was absolutely nothing rebellious about what they were doing–which isn’t to say that the kids aren’t passionate about making the big noise anymore, but that doing so is no longer an act of personal revolution. Nowadays, being in a punk band is like being in a reading circle or a church group or a chess group: a fun way to spend a few nights a week, not the act of a bunch of anarchists spitting in the face of convention.
In that moment, I felt like a time traveler from 1991, a sad remnant of the pre-Internet days, when wearing Doc Martens with the laces undone and dumping Manic Panic in your hair and reading controversial novels was a way of distancing yourself from everything that was dull and normal about society. I realized that my revolution was long over … not because we’d lost, but because we’d won. We’d remade the world in our image, and the world didn’t care about us anymore. My teenage fantasy of a world connected by global networks and controlled by badass nerds, a world where subcultures and musical forms and narratives rise and fall quicker than the tides, has become the reality … and, as it always is, it’s so much less interesting than I imagined it to be.
And why not? As Grant Morrison once said, “Pop, like Chronos the Titan, always eats its own darlings.” The tragedy of the edge is that it keeps moving, and no matter how you try, it will always leave you behind. You can’t be the coolest forever. Eventually, you’ll become the cranky old fuck sitting in the back of the club, muttering about how the kids don’t know jack about punk rock. You can’t fight it. I certainly couldn’t.
Even the Double Down, that legendary bastion of Vegas punk rock culture, has opened a franchise in New York, and these days the bloody pool cues and the porn are gone, replaced by wide-eyed tourists who wandered over from the Hard Rock Casino down the street to catch a little rough trade. It’s still a great bar, but it’s as much a museum to a dead and dying culture as it is anything else.
But I still believe that rock and roll can change the world–if not the world at large, at least your own personal world. That moment of discovery–the first time you hear that song, read that book, watch that movie–is still powerful, even if the mystery has been dimmed a bit by the all-seeing eye of the Net.
Right now, as you read this, some kid in some basement somewhere is hearing the Pixies–or the Arcade Fire or the Avett Brothers or the Stooges or J-Dilla or Animal Collective–for the first time, and his head is blowing off his fucking shoulders. That, at least, hasn’t changed, and I don’t think it ever will.
I think Paul Westerberg described it best in an old Replacements song called “Alex Chilton,” after the Big Star and Box Tops singer.
Children by the millions
Wait for Alex Chilton
To come around
They say, I’m in love
What’s that song?
I’m in love
With that song
The set was over; the kids started breaking down their gear. As they walked by me, I nodded my approval, but they just blinked at me. Great, some old nerd digs us. Whatever.
So I did what any self-respecting veteran of the culture wars would do. I finished my beer, popped on my earbuds, put an old Soul Coughing album on my iPhone, and slipped out into the heat of the Las Vegas night.
And Twittered about it, all the way home.