Tag Archives: Rolling Stone

O Adele

23 Nov

 

 

 

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O Adele

Marketplace fatale

Painted empress

Contralto divine

Watchful gaze from Target endcaps

Assorted displays, strategically placed

Exclusive bounties everlasting

Observing commerce

Participating

Surrounding

Dominating

Squired home in plastic

Anticipation

 

O Adele

Rolling Stone

Countenance vexed

Neck, Winsletian

Face scrubbed mortal

Thou speakest in voices two:

One wrings tears from august pearls

Cushions midlife minivan misery

Comforts captives lost between teenage walls

The other brays hearty

In Tottenham strains

The language of dockworkers

And washwomen

Rutting in puddles of porter

Splashed with tobacco

Stained in the blood of sailors

 

O Adele

Butter-lunged siren tart

Crestfallen

Skyfallen

Thine cradled words envelop

An ever-present current

As we shop for poinsettias

Purchase petrol and cigarettes

Scroll numbly through clickbait

Go Macho on the Del Taco No. 4

Splash ourselves in fragrance

Chase smiles in fleeting symphonies

 

O Adele

You sing of love

But does love exist without you?

O Adele

You sing of dreams

But are we not your dream?

Did we ever know 21?

Or feel the depths of 25?

Had we ever said hello

‘Til you acknowledged us in kind?

 

O Adele

Thank goodness you’re here

Our world is in turmoil

Our goodwill shattered

All hope is gone

Lead us

Guide us

Bring us home

 

O Adele

Wait

Your album’s not on Spotify?

Huh

Hm

Well

Fuck you, then.

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Ask a Shredder, Vol. 1

9 Sep

EDITOR’S NOTE: Most metal fans remember Foäm — if they remember the group at all — as one of the genre’s cruelest tragedies. Their 1986 debut, Soaked to the Elbowz (Atlantic), was roundly hailed as a landmark achievement, even by the persnickety Rolling Stone (“In a toothless season of Ozzy’s blank ‘Shot in the Dark,’” declared Frederic Braunstein, “Soaked stands tall, a refreshingly edgy clamor.”) The majority of praise, however, was reserved for Foäm’s lead guitarist , 24-year-old Angus Blastt (real name: Brandon Corr), a fleet-fingered virtuoso favorably compared to Yngwie Malmsteen, Joe Satriani, and Tommy Bolin — “schooled in blues, fluent in showman shriek,” as one critic put it.

To promote the album, Atlantic arranged for Blastt to contribute a monthly column to Circus magazine, in which he responded to reader mail and reflected on his growing fame as his band embarked on its first major American tour. “Ask a Shredder” soon became the periodical’s most popular feature.

It all came to an unfortunate end in May 1987, when, during sessions for Foäm’s much-ballyhooed Soaked follow-up, Blastt was involved in a severe automobile accident. Contrary to popular rumor, no illicit substances were involved. Not that Blastt could have denied such spurious allegations: by the time paramedics arrived, he’d slipped into a coma. Eyewitnesses claimed that his final conscious words in the 20th century were “Rage, rage, against the dying of the light,” which was not only a Dylan Thomas passage, but also the chorus to “Gnaw’n Bonez (Hollywood),” Foäm’s newest single.

Blastt’s family prayed daily for his eventual return. His parents, Mitchell and Gretchen, kept vigil at his bedside for two decades and change, despite Mitchell’s failing health. In 2001 he was diagnosed with cancer. Six painful years later, he quietly slipped away, leaving Gretchen to watch over their only son alone. Meanwhile, the world turned and changed as Angus soundly slept.

Then, on April 19, 2009, he stirred. Opened his eyes. Felt a rampage of memories and emotions. The last conscious seconds of his near-fatal crash returned with violent clarity. His first impulse was to brush glass fragments from his hair. But he couldn’t move his arms, and, as he later discovered, the baldness so prevalent on his mother’s side had finally claimed him as well. At some point someone had shaved it all off, anyway, saving him the trouble.

He was alarmed to awaken in a hospital bed, and outright despondent to learn that he’d missed 23 years of his life. Yet he was determined to persevere. After 16 months of intensive therapy, he regained limited use of his arms, although he was never to walk again.

Returning to his mother’s house, he discovered, in the entry closet, an unopened mailbag of “Ask a Shredder” correspondence. Although Circus was no more, and Foäm were largely forgotten, Angus Blastt resolved to respond to every single letter.

This is the first in an ongoing series.

**************************

January 9, 1987

Hey Angus!!!! I’m 16 and when I was younger I thought WASP was awesome—but then I heard you guys and saw what rock and roll really is!!!! Dood you guys make WASP look like you know whats…it starts with p and ends with y and you eat it in the middle!!!! Anyway…I was wondering how you guys got your ideas for guitar solos and all that…esp. the 1 on “Shondi’s Revenge”…that one BURNS!!!! Anyways…thanks man!!!!

Eric Swan
Ann Arbor, MI

**************************

September 8, 2010

Eric:

First, I’d be remiss if I didn’t apologize for the unconscionable delay. Unfortunately — and perhaps you’ll recall or have at least read about it — I was comatose from May 5, 1987, until April of last year. My parents fretted over my deterioration, fearing I’d be a vegetable if I ever regained consciousness. But through the grace of God, I survived, with most of my faculties intact. It hurts to type for extended periods, but I’ll manage.

Miss my father, though. He passed on a few years back and I never got the chance to tell him how much I loved him. I hope both your parents are still around. Do you believe in an afterlife, Eric? I find that the concept brings me much-needed comfort and peace.

You’ll likely be surprised to hear from me. I’m not sure if this is even the right address, or if it can be forwarded. I haven’t kept abreast of developments in post-office technology (by the way: computers — who knew?). Mail service was abysmal in my day. But I figured, “What the hell?”

Do you even remember Foäm? It feels like a zillion years ago, even to me. It’s a shame we were reduced to heavy metal’s novelty campfire booga-booga. I was just listening to our first album today; I’d forgotten just how good it was. Aside from the keyboards, it doesn’t sound dated at all. Maybe someone’ll put it back in print, add some of the demos we’d worked up for the second album, which — trivia bonus! — we’d planned to call Pass the Torture. Silly pun, I know, but those were the times.

Anyway, I already feel like I’m rambling, but this is the first opportunity I’ve had to express my thoughts on paper in quite a while. I’m still getting used to the world outside. Like, redboxes. I mean, wow. Talk about a mind-blower. You drive up, feed it your credit card, and out pops a movie on a little disc. I’m sure I don’t have to tell you, but I remember when VCRs were all the rage — and expensive! And if you wanted to watch movies at home, you had to go to video stores and hope they had what you wanted. Now everything’s out there and there’s plenty of it. Don’t even get me started on this Internet. To think of all the money I blew on pornography in magazine form…just kidding! You’ve got to have a sense of humor in my condition, Eric. It’s the only thing that keeps you from breaking down in huge pools of doom. Hmmm. Huge Pools of Doom. How’s that for an album title?

How old are you now, Eric? About 39-40? It’s funny, but I have this vision of you on your 40th birthday, engulfed in a loving brood: a dedicated wife, maybe someone you met in college while studying Philosophy. You have two daughters and a son. The oldest girl is 13. Her eyes dance in sync with the candles on your cake. She watches expectantly as you welcome another year in your own stoic way. What must she be thinking as she observes this ritual, which by now has become commonplace to you. Or do you still find joy in this annual fete? Tell me: have you retained that sense of wonder? Do you still even listen to music? Do you follow the latest sounds, or do you cling to your generation’s heroes as the last gasp of authenticity? Do you punch past your daughter’s Katy Perry while driving your hybrid to the mall? Do you chide your son for calling Papa Roach metal, when the metal you knew was so pure and true it had yet to be butt-fucked in a dirty train yard? Do you ever exhume your copy of Soaked to the Elbowz, cue up “Shondi’s Revenge,” and announce, “Yeah, now this is music” over your children’s embarrassed protests? I hope you still listen to all that your ears can take. It’s a healthy sign, I think.

Speaking of “Shondi’s Revenge,” you ask in your letter how I came up with the solo. But before I answer, let me just say that the guys in W.A.S.P. were cool to Foäm. Blackie was older than most of us, so we couldn’t help but respect him. Chris Holmes — he may have been a fuck-up in other respects, but I never doubted his chops. So while I’m honored that you dug what we did, pitting us against each other is unfair. They’d fallen out of favor by that time; we were just the next lucky suckers in line. It’s a precarious achievement, the top, and you never cling to it for long.

As weird as it sounds, I’m sorry Foäm couldn’t succeed without me. I wish they could have rebounded from what happened and continued making music. I’m proud of what we accomplished — no matter how insignificant it may be in the overall culture — but those guys had so much more to say. Even if they were wheezing along on their umpteenth lineup through a sorry string of sunken state fairs and sad-wracked taverns into comic oblivion, I would have much rather seen a slow downward drift than an anticlimactic hairpin plummet, although the latter is admittedly more metal.

But, yes, “Shondi’s Revenge.” It’s embarrassing to admit this, but Shondi was the actual name of a Minnesota transplant that turned tricks on Fountain and Vine circa 1982. Another time, a wilder life. As the father of a 26-year-old (!) daughter (born “Rikki,” though I understand she goes by “Theresa” now — which is cool with me, since many of those metal names rusted with age) myself, I certainly don’t condone that lifestyle today.

Anyway, Shondi had this john with the unlikely name of Patrick. He was an abusive putz, always knocking the ladies around. Real tough guy. Well, one night he stung her painted cheek one time too many and she loosed a universe of unholy shit on his sorry ass. Slashed him up bad, covered him in street smiles, put the prick in the hospital. You remember the line “With every swipe of the knife / I regain what I lost so hard and long ago”? That was Shondi to a “t” — or an “s,” if you like. She was like a sister to Foäm. We thanked her on the record, ’cause she helped finance the demos that got us the Atlantic deal. I wonder if she’s still around. Damn. So many people in my past tense, vanished to the blackest sea.

As for the solo, well, that was the sound of gratitude. Pure and simple. Relief that she was part of our lives, that she watched over us, slipped us a burger now and then when we got tired of spackling Wonder bread with Crisco. It’s also the sound of a summer night in ’76, fireworks punching potholes in the sky. It’s the hands of Mary Louise Hewitt combing undying love through your hair as you listened to Aerosmith’s “You See Me Crying” and hoped the orchestra never stopped, because Aerosmith liked to end albums with ballads and you couldn’t handle silence; you wanted the moment, the feeling, in perpetuity. Those walls, that bedroom, the frilly lace at a bedspread’s tip. You throw everything in, Eric, and you pray it comes out in a voice that’s distinctly yours.

Well, as much as I’ve enjoyed answering your letter, I suppose I should wrap it up. No encore for the wicked, ha ha, just a final bow after the song you came to hear. I hope you’re happy and successful, and that you’ve never forgotten to hear the music.

May all your days be later
May your nights be even better
And may your life be blessed with zest
Sincerely,
Ask a Shredder

“We Don’t Have Enough Data”: Negativland’s “Helter Stupid” 20 Years Later

21 Dec

The following story is true. Except where it’s not. But that’s OK, because the line between fact and fiction, especially in the hands of a compliant media, can be a tenuous one.

Here’s what we know for sure: On the evening of Thursday, February 18, 1988, the bodies of 41-year-old Bernard Brom; his wife, Paulette; 14-year-old daughter, Diane; and nine-year-old, Rick; were discovered in their home in the Cascade Township suburb near Rochester, Minnesota. Searching the basement, police recovered the murder weapon: a blood-spattered timber axe. Two members of the Brom family remained unaccounted for: 16-year-old David, a sophomore at Lourdes Roman Catholic High School, and his older brother, Joe, who at 19 no longer lived at home.

After interviewing students and questioning the elder Brom, investigators turned their attention to his still-missing brother. “One student said he [David] was having trouble with his dad because of a tape he had bought,” Olmsted County Sheriff Charles Von Wald reported, “and he didn’t want him listening to it.” David had last been seen around 5:30 p.m. Thursday evening, shortly before school counselors alerted authorities to potential trouble at the Brom home. There’d been disturbing rumors circulating around campus that day. At 8:45 the following morning, David was cornered at a post office and taken into custody. Newspaper accounts made note of the teenager’s “dyed punk haircut” as a means to explain the contrast between the pleasant, friendly boy described by peers and neighbors and the desperate fugitive he had become.

With its enticing elements of true-crime intrigue, the story broke nationally, and Von Wald’s quote, reprinted in The New York Times, would inspire one of the most effective media hoaxes ever perpetrated by a band.

Roughly a month after the Brom murders, the San Francisco Bay Area-based experimental collective Negativland nixed plans for a national tour to support their Escape from Noise album, released the previous fall. The disc’s controversial highlight was the hilarious “Christianity Is Stupid,” a sound collage of music and a “found” 1967 sermon delivered by the Reverend Estus Pirkle, the thrust of whose cracker harangue was the inflammatory “Christianity is stupid. Communism is good. Give up!” After nearly a decade spent compiling jagged patchworks of voice and melody, often hacked and re-spliced into devastating commentaries on American culture, Negativland were old hands at manipulating the blur between truth and fantasy, which they were preparing to prove on an epic scale.

The band’s reasons for canceling its tour were primarily financial. Ho-hum. But when the Brom story broke, Negativland incorporated its storyline into theirs. With a fanciful flourish and a bogus press release distributed through their label, SST, the unidentified contentious tape described by Wald became Escape from Noise, with an emphasis on “Christianity Is Stupid.” (Interestingly, it was later alleged but never confirmed that David Brom was on SST’s mailing list. Even if true, Brom’s familiarity with Negativland would be pure speculation.) As a result, the group was prevented from hitting the road by a man identified in the release as “Federal Authority Dick Jordan,” pending an investigation into a possible connection between the song and the homicide.

The author in a vintage tee he seldom wears in public.

Naturally, the music press devoured the story, hounding the group for elaboration. Negativland played along but revealed nothing. Most reporters were stymied, anyway. They couldn’t find anyone to corroborate the claims made in the release, in large part because they couldn’t reach “Federal Authority Dick Jordan,” and that’s because “Federal Authority Dick Jordan” wasn’t a real person.

James Walsh, however, was. Walsh was a reporter covering the Brom case for the Minneapolis Star Tribune, and not once had he come across any mention of the band. His interest piqued, he began digging, but got nowhere, thanks to a gag order placed on the band by attorney Hal Stakke, who was cut from the same cloth as Federal Authority Dick Jordan. The ruse was becoming complicated; Negativland had to keep making people up.

But despite Stakke’s best nonexistent efforts, the half-baked story just wouldn’t die. The band wasn’t safe from scrutiny even in its own Bay Area home base. Capitalizing on the local angle, CBS television affiliate KPIX contacted the group, which couldn’t resist this level of exposure, and sent field reporter Hal Eisner to conduct an interview. The resulting package maintained the Brom connection and neatly weaved it into the pulpy pantheon of “popular music as manipulator of minds” yarns, equating “Christianity Is Stupid” with Richard Ramirez’s love of AC/DC, Charles Manson’s murderous interpretation of The Beatles’ White Album, and the role played by Ozzy Osbourne’s “Suicide Solution” in widespread teenage self-immolation. The San Francisco Chronicle responded with its own take on the tale, as did The Village Voice.

Meanwhile, in the real world, David Brom had undergone psychiatric evaluation and was sent to the Oaks Treatment Center in Austin, Texas. He waited at this storied facility for troubled youth as the Minnesota Court of Appeals discussed reversing the district court’s ruling to try Brown as a juvenile. The three-judge panel voted unanimously in favor of reversal and ordered the teenager two weeks after his 17th birthday in October 1988 to stand trial as an adult on four counts of first-degree murder. As for Negativland, they had grown weary of the unending media assault. When the Chronicle revisited the scandal, its interview requests were met with the following:

As to our uncertain association with the Brom case, we think it’s foolish and will not comment on it no further. For a while during interviews we made comments to the press and found that we were so misquoted and events were so misstated to fit the editor’s need to grab attention and the editor’s need to abbreviate that we will make no more statements whatsoever. Sensationalism reigns.

That penultimate part was almost true. Negativland did have one last statement to make, in the one form of media they could actually control.

An album.

Released in 1989, Helter Stupid stands, still, as a damning criticism of the popular press, especially its willingness to pursue titillating angles on the flimsiest of evidence with nary a hint of skepticism. It explores the ugly truth beneath that veneer of objectivity: that at heart even those seeming bastions of calm sobriety are human. Like all of us, they too are susceptible to sensational explanations. Certainly, music has the power to move us, to ignite our passions and fuel our wrath. Could David Brom’s relationship with his father have been strained by, of all things, a song? Perhaps, although the rift was likely deeper than a simple generational clash. But could it have driven him to homicide? Probably not. Yet, somehow, that’s a lot easier to accept than something more mundane and messy — that David Brom was a fucked-up kid who murdered his family for reasons we will never fathom, and there’s no real point in analyzing it beyond that, or in trivializing it as a puzzle piece in a dubious cultural narrative.

The album is split into two parts. “Helter Stupid” comprises two tracks and roughly 22 minutes, with the remainder devoted to “Dick Vaughn Presents…The Perfect Cut,” a deliciously cynical skewering of the calculated marketing formulas driving commercial radio, particularly the classic pop/rock formats then assuming airwave dominance, and a slap at how empty consumerism shapes our ambitions (a teenage girl outlines her bubble-headed future in “White Rabbit and a Dog Named Gidget,” over a loop of the Brothers Johnson’s “Strawberry Letter 23”). Murder, nostalgia and soulless pipe dreams: Nos. 1-3 with a bullet on the American Top 40.

Despite our self-image as a civilized, evolved species, our appetite for and morbid fascination with violence is frightening. We can’t get enough of the shit, with all of its attendant clichés and voodoo. “Helter Stupid” opens with a tease of backward masking, that supposedly sinister recording parlor trick responsible for sending many a straight-A student with a penchant for W.A.S.P. to the penitentiary or an early grave. A wail of sirens underpins a catalog of songs and lyrics, most belonging to the Rolling Stones, those malodorous masterminds behind “Their Satanic Majesties Request” and other bad-boy shenanigan slabs — and historically charged with malicious intent. Of course, they’re all just songs; we’re the ones who give them their import and heft, and we tend to dismiss the authors’ protestations to the contrary. For whatever reason, our takes are more valid than theirs.

A hoarse voice barks, “Louder and faster! Louder and faster!” between ancient blasts of Lenny Bruce in full holy-roller mode (“Religions, Inc.”). (Curiously, one of that bit’s targets, Oral Roberts, made headlines some three years earlier for extorting millions from his flock on their fear that God would otherwise “call him home.”) Then comes the kicker: a saucy orator devilishly slurping the verbal viscera off a tawdry teaser: “It’s a week of psychopaths, murderers and werewolves! Murdering, marauding maniacs! This marvelous week of murder begins when you’re dead, a malicious tale about a maniac with a deadly eye for murder! All this begins Monday on Channel 7’s 3:30 movie!” Naturally, it makes a sweet sonic lead-in to the played-straight KPIX broadcast, with its authoritative caressing of an equally seamy storyline.

A ringing telephone links the prologue to the meat of the title track. On the other end is a man identifying himself as a Rolling Stone correspondent seeking comment on the Brom case. (Helter Stupid’s liner notes spell his name “Tom Krotenmacher”; a search of the magazine’s online database yielded no articles by anyone with that or a similar name. There is, however, Portland-based writer Tom Krattenmaker, author of the recent Onward Christian Athletes: Turning Ballparks Into Pulpits and Players Into Preachers and a former reporter for The Orange County Register and Associated Press.) “Can you tell me, off the record,” he asks hopefully, “is there any backward masking on ‘Christianity Is Stupid’?” What follows is a cool dig at the phenomenon using subliminal messages in advertising; an engineer rewinds a commercial spot for Al’s House of Meat only to hear “Their child is the child of evil!” and “Little David is all grown up. Too bad for the cause of good!” It brings up an interesting point: We’ve known of these ploys for decades, but do we ever hold Coca-Cola or Lipton Tea responsible for corrupting our subconscious?

A ’70s pop-piano hook perfectly mocks the typical stentorian television-news theme, transforming what should be a serious analysis of the day’s events into a freewheeling discotheque of decadence. The question is posed: “Journalism or sensationalism?” And how effortlessly does one bleed into the other? What follows a flurry of sound bites from the late John Lennon, whose own life ended in murder, and Charles Manson, who claimed that Lennon’s band, The Beatles, foretold of a coming race-war Armageddon within the grooves of their White Album, is an expert manipulation of the KPIX story. The segment turns over on itself until anchorman Dave McElhatton hints at his own news team’s complicity: “This isn’t the first time someone has tried to blame a death on [field reporter] Hal Eisner. A Los Angeles couple claimed their son committed suicide while listening to a Hal Eisner story. The judge in that case ruled there was no proof that our report was responsible for the boy’s death.” Negativland strategically stabs the word “stupid” throughout, to reject hoary theories regarding popular music’s role in the instigation of violent crimes.

Twenty years later, the band’s disclaimer within Helter Stupid’s sleeve is as agonizingly true as the day it was penned. “Somewhere beneath the media representation of the Brom murders is an inexplicable human tragedy,” it reads. “Our act of creating a false association with such a tragedy will remain open to ethical interpretation.” I know my own opinion of the record has always been conflicted, although I can’t deny its importance as a cultural document.

On one hand, it’s a flaming evisceration of the news media, using its own commentary to condemn its practices. These figures are worthy of our scorn, for their blind, blown-dried pursuit of a juicy non-story despite its disturbing dearth of supporting evidence. On the other hand, I guess I would have to ask why Negativland would willingly insert itself into such a horrible story to prove a journalistic shortcoming so few of us find surprising. How much of this lesson in morality was fueled by simple opportunism? Did they honestly believe their actions would be received in the same spirit once it ventured past a fan base familiar with their modus operandi? Did they not realize it could be misunderstood by someone in a position to give it mainstream exposure? On the other other hand, my God, man, do your research! On the other other other hand…

Well, one could vacillate like this for decades and never reach a satisfactory consensus. There are no answers, just more questions. Why did David Brom murder his family? I don’t know. How do I feel about what Negativland did? I don’t know. In the end, Helter Stupid is more than a two-sided album, for it deftly captures what most albums cannot: the ugliness of our culture, in an accurate snapshot of America at a very specific moment in history, yet one with sins anyone would recognize as eternal: exploitation, sensationalism, consumerism, and calculated, crass commercialism.

Negativland’s Mark Hosler was still defending the record in 2001, after confronting a Brom contemporary at a party in Olympia, Wash. He wrote:

I did mention to him that as much as we always realized that we WERE exploiting a real human tragedy, we were interested in dealing with how the media works and the media’s *representation* of the events. Not “the truth.” And that good art doesn’t have to be “nice” to be good art. …I am still very proud of that record we made, but this whole discussion was unsettling, to say the least! Did we cross a line we now wished we hadn’t? If not, did we come close? … [I]t was all an experiment in the media to see what would happen — and then when it blew up into something bigger than we imagined, we tried to do something creative and responsible with the unexpected direction the whole thing took.

Perhaps what’s strangest about this strange little tale is the vitality of the experiment. Despite authoring it from vapor, the band quickly lost control of it, and it was soon too powerful to stop. Although they knew no one associated with the Brom murders and had no connection to it in any capacity, they inadvertently joined it forever. As the years have passed, with an ever-growing gulf (where rumor and conjecture take tangible shape) between the tragedy and the modern day, the Negativland hoax has become a twisted version of the truth. In fact, there are people absolutely certain of its veracity. After two decades, its allure remains irresistible.

Negativland continues to record and court controversy. They followed Helter Stupid in 1991 with a release that grabbed even more press coverage than the Brom case: the U2 EP, riddled with enough manipulated samples of the beloved Irish band to prompt a lawsuit from Island Records. More notoriety arrived with 1997’s Dispepsi, a sharp evisceration of soft-drink companies. Their most recent album, Thigmotactic, was issued in 2008, following the savage No Business (2005), which tackled issues of copyright infringement and the music industry’s response to technology, and demonstrated that age had not dulled the Negativland stiletto. According to their Web site, last updated in February (a Myspace page is regularly maintained, but no recent news has been added), the group is touring “It’s All in Your Head FM,” “a two-hour live performance concerned entirely with God, religion and our supernaturally spiced obsessions with both.”

Meanwhile, David Brom remains where he’s been since October 16, 1989, 13 days after being sentenced to three consecutive life terms (one concurrent) on four counts of murder. Known in the Statewide Supervision System as OID 14684, he’s incarcerated at the Minnesota Correctional Facility in Stillwater. At 38, he’s now spent most of his life behind bars. His boyish good looks have softened into middle age, his face wider, his once fashionably feathery locks shorn to receded stubble atop his head. He wears the disturbing smile of someone oblivious to the pain he caused as a child, when he reduced his family to urban-legend grist and turned them from living, loving beings into true-crime statistics for pulp sheets and bedtime stories. It’s the visage of a man who’s right where he belongs.

Introduction from “Can’t Stop the ‘Chaaah…'”

9 Aug

Poster for the 2007 Robert Pasternak exhibition, "Drawing Breath: Intuitive Figure Drawings"

Originally published October 31, 2007, on my since-abandoned Myspace blog.

Breathing has played an integral role in rock’s development since the very beginning. It’s safe to say that the form was, indeed, shaped by the constant, rhythmic intake of life-giving oxygen. One can’t imagine “Rocket 88,” widely acknowledged in melodic annals as the first true rock ‘n’ roll record, had neither Ike Turner nor his Kings of Rhythm (and, conversely, Sam Phillips — breathing is just as important for non-musicians as well) been inhaling and/or exhaling. In fact, Ike recalled to Mojo in 2000, “Only cat that wasn’t [breathing] was the motherfucker we sang about” — an automobile, the Olds 88, which lacks the necessary circulation and genetic architecture.

Unsurprisingly, this sparked a trend that continues to the modern day. Musicologists may challenge the legitimacy of genres and artists — often violently so — but most concur that the best music is recorded by breathers. Of course, many breathers eventually become non-breathers, the fate that befell one-half of the Fab Four, generally considered to have been the greatest and most revolutionary breathing band of all time. But months of careful research have concluded that both John Lennon and George Harrison were, in truth, oxygen-dependent during the sessions that yielded Double Fantasy and Brainwashed, respectively.

Breath, or the lack thereof, has been a perennial subject for songwriters. Jerry Lee Lewis recorded the hit “Breathless” in 1958, but, despite rumors to the contrary, was inhaling and exhaling freely in the studio (“Lotta thangs The Killah don’t do, killah,” he confessed in 1988 over a Coca-Cola. “One of ’em is, I don’t not breathe.”), as were The Corrs in 2000. The only artist to have successfully acetated a song called “Breathless” while reportedly not breathing is Shankar Mahadevan, in 1998. However, since he’s still alive, we can assume this wasn’t a permanent condition.

One of the most famous (and staunch) advocates of breath were, of course, Pink Floyd, all of whom had been breathing since the 1940s. But it wasn’t until the mid-’60s, with the rise of Swinging London, that breathing became an important statement. “After marijuana and LSD, the natural high of breath seemed, well, natural, didn’t it?” Roger Waters explained to Rolling Stone in 1973, shortly after the release of his paean to breath, Dark Side of the Moon. “Besides, it was cheap to the point of free, although abundance and abuse could make you light-headed.”

“Most people think Dark Side is about insanity, the crisis of aging, the passage of time, things of that nature — critics especially,” he elaborated for Q in 1987. “But it’s not. It’s about what a powerful sensation breathing is. It’s got a fucking song called ‘Breathe,’ don’t it? ‘Breathe, breathe in the air/Don’t be afraid to care.’ That’s me saying, ‘Open your passages and let it all in. Air is wonderful.’ I tried a bit of the song earlier on a Ron Geesin album called The Body, but no one took it seriously, cos most of it was tape loops of yobbos farting and belching, and who wants to breathe that? Later we say, ‘Shorter of breath/and one day closer to death.’ I’m warning people, ‘This is what happens if you stop.’ As for [‘The Great Gig in the Sky’], Rick [Wright] told Clare [Torry], ‘Explode with the joy of breath.’ ”

David Gilmour agreed in a recent documentary for the BBC. “It was us who made breathing acceptable again, in the ’70s,” he said. “Look how many people were using their noses and mouths on a regular basis. They were breathing up a storm, among other things.”

Indeed, the ’70s proved to be boon years for breathers of all stripes. More people were breathing than ever before. But one artist in particular was about to turn the lessons of Floyd into an art form. In 1975, for the first time in rock ‘n’ roll history, someone audibly breathed on record: “Round and Round,” the penultimate track on Aerosmith’s Toys in the Attic. It’s a galloping electric assault whose only respite arrives when Steven Tyler invades a welcome hush with the harsh release of a whispered “chaaahhhh…” “The music was just so dense and heavy, I felt like people needed a breather, literally,” Tyler later explained. “I did it on ‘Uncle Salty’ too.” It became a Tyler trademark of sorts, thus inspiring what’s known as the hard-rock or metal “chaaaahhhh…,” evoking ominous images of screeching ravens, churning skies, and jagged vistas.

The “chaaaahhh…” school eventually split into innumerable camps, including the New Wave “CHA!” (see Big Country, et al), a curt call that mocked the bacchanalian excess of ’70s rock. “Elongating the word was unnecessary,” Mark Mothersbaugh said in 1981. “It represented the dinosaur that rock had become. We kept it short and simple, returning the music to its roots in short, ebullient bursts of breath. No one needs to breathe that much or that hard. That’s not where we were coming from. Treat it like a sneeze. Do it, finish it, then proceed to the next idea. It’s a motto Devo still observes to this day.” In fact, the brisk cracks and snaps featured in the band’s classic “Whip It” were a demonstration of this new ideal.

But, whatever its history, whatever its long-term effect, one thing is clear as mountain air: breathing and music are inseparable. One is impossible without the other. Much like rock itself, the act of breathing is here to stay. And as long as musicians continue to breathe, it will never die.