In my weekly dispatch not so long ago, I’d mentioned that I’d been reading Mitchell Dean’s Governmentality: Power and Rule in Modern Society. This might at first blush seem like an odd choice for summer reading, but you know me: as long as I live, I’ll be immersed in the autodidact’s permanent project of filling in the gaps in my own understanding. The Dean book, if dense, really is superbly lucid. I found it hugely useful, and enjoyed it greatly.
At the time, though, I’d also mentioned a text I’d described as “far and away my favorite in the entire governmentality literature”: a song called “Gee, Officer Krupke,” from the 1957 Broadway musical West Side Story. This wasn’t a throwaway joke. As we’ll see, “Krupke” is such a concise, vivid and memorable encapsulation of governmentality theory that it could readily be used as an introduction to this entire line of thought.
But first, for those of you who don’t generally dork out over such things, it’s probably best to spell out just what it is that I, at least, mean when I use the strange word “governmentality.” As Dean explains, this is a way of thinking about the art of state administration that Michel Foucault first presented in a series of lectures given at the Collège de France in the winter of 1977-78. There’s a specific problem Foucault is trying to address in these lectures, which is how power works in the modern, Western liberal democracy — specifically, how can a state guarantee the compliance of citizens who are at least nominally free, and upon whose ability to act freely the entire economic order is in fact predicated?
As Foucault describes it, the ultimate aim of liberal governmentality is the production of subjects who do not require much in the way of active administration, because they administer themselves. Most of us, most of the time, do not literally have a gun to our head, and yet we continue to act in ways that continuously reproduce and legitimate certain conceptions of State power and our own relation to it. Foucault’s project was to ask just how these conceptions came to be, and how we ourselves came to internalize them.
In order to do this, he undertook a genealogy of the successive ways in which power has been seen to work throughout the history of the West, and the conceptions of citizenship, self and subjectivity that corresponded to each of them. Broadly speaking, the main modes of power he identified were sovereignty, which is the naked power to kill or let live, originally founded in the divine right of kings; discipline, which originates in the detailed training and regulation of human bodies and becomes a series of (predominantly spatial) technologies for the production of docile, compliant and useful subjects; and eventually biopolitical govermentality, which is concerned with maximizing State power by optimizing fertility, longevity and other biological processes at the level of entire populations. In his exegesis, Dean is careful to emphasize that though these modes emerged historically, they aren’t strictly speaking periodizations: liberal power will always consist of some admixture of sovereignty, discipline and biopolitics, though the proportions will shift from state to state, and over time within a single polity.
Just to add a layer of nuance and complexity, in the Collège de France lectures Foucault also contrasted the essentially pastoral model of administration inscribed in the Christian tradition (the “shepherd/flock game”) with an earlier, Greco-Roman model of public virtue that he calls the “city/citizen game.” The distinction is between whether individuals are primarily understood as sentient beings with needs and a potential for wellbeing that must be discovered via the development of detailed knowledge, or as citizens, with freedom, rights and obligations that are negotiated through legal and political processes. The former conception implies a burden of care on the part of a benevolent (“welfare”) State, but also the necessity of submission to that State’s fundamentally paternalistic administration; the latter is perhaps better suited to a political community composed of fully autonomous individuals, but lacks any organic commitment to those who are unable to shift for themselves. The one is total in every sense, a vision of the beloved community that yet patronizes its members; the other is atomized, but also liberating. Autonomy, in other words, both giveth and taketh away. (Dean’s framing of the tradeoff is stark: in a notional society of “juridical and civil equals, there are no grounds for a right to assistance but nor are there grounds to issue commands.”)
And all of these complicated and, at times, fundamentally incompatible ways of constructing subjectivity are interwoven in the contemporary governance of the liberal state, as well as in the institutionalized contestation of the right to govern that we think of as party politics. (In fact, we can understand a great deal about policy — from military conscription and abortion law to subsidized public transit for the elderly and proposed limits on the sizes of sugary soft drinks that can be sold — by trying to identify which historical conception of citizenship it’s appealing to.) The necessity of arriving at some kind of modus vivendi on a day-by-day basis means that in practice this unstable hybrid is patched together, but the fault lines remain and they run deep.
As I read it, anyway, those faults re-emerge whenever society encounters a situation it defines as a “problem.” Different modes of institutional expertise are brought to bear, each of which proposes its own way of framing the problem, and therefore the wisest course of action for its resolution — but again, always with a mind toward restoring society to a condition of self-regulation. So-called nudge theory is perhaps the most recent elaboration of this way of thinking, but the tendency has been evident in Western societies for the better part of a century.
And this brings us to “Gee, Officer Krupke,” as sung by Action, Snowboy, Diesel, A-Rab and Baby John — members of a working-class white street gang called the Jets, whose “turf” occupies a few square blocks of New York City’s Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood. The song is about their encounter with the agent of State power they are most familiar with, NYPD patrolman Krupke, and their sarcastic, exhausted explication to him of the various modes of expertise brought to bear on them as living, breathing exemplars of a social problem.
In “Krupke” we’re not quite at biopolitics yet, concerned as it is with the administration of the processes of life at the scale of entire populations, but just about every other element of governmentality theory is given a turn in the lyrics. In fact, the song is so point-by-point compliant with Foucault’s schema that I’ve half convinced myself he had Stephen Sondheim’s lyrics in mind when he first composed his lectures.
Deeeeeeaaaaar kindly Sergeant Krupke,
You gotta understand,
It’s just our bringin’ upke
That gets us out of hand.
Our mothers all are junkies,
Our fathers all are drunks.
Golly Moses, natcherly we’re punks!
[First, the problem is named. Urban America in the immediate post-war period will be haunted by the specter of the juvenile delinquent — the JD, the punk, the hood. The JD is, by definition, an adolescent (or more distressingly a post-adolescent) with poor impulse control, mired in anomie, addicted to “kicks,” and therefore unregulable and virtually unemployable. Corrupted by a lumpen culture of comic books and dangerously sexual jukebox singles, this figure and his lifeworld are vividly depicted in Hubert Selby’s Last Exit to Brooklyn, amped up to a feverish 11 in Harlan Ellison’s short story collection The Deadly Streets, and of course later parodied by the Ramones.
The problematic of juvenile delinquency and its management will become one of the main obsessions of American mass media and government alike, in the years before the civil rights movement, the Vietnam War and the emergence of a putatively “New Left” furnished them with more urgent concerns.]
ACTION AND JETS
Gee Officer Krupke, we’re very upset;
We never had the love that ev’ry child oughta get.
We ain’t no delinquents,
Deep down inside us there is good!
There is good!
There is good, there is good,
There is untapped good!
Like inside, the worst of us is good!
[Again, as a distinctly liberal art of management, governmentality is concerned with the production of subjects whose behavior does not require detailed administration by the State, because they self-administer. The events of the play will demonstrate that the State clearly still has quite some way to go toward achieving this goal, but the seeds of a nascent social contract are already present in the Jets’ protest that they are good. Far from rejecting the State’s claim to a legitimate interest in their behavior, they here express the desire to be recuperated as usefully contributing members of society.
The Jets further propose that the question of delinquency will be decided on the terrain of the social, a sphere of human activity discovered by the West during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Though conditioned by State power and the dynamics of an economy which is itself conceived of as natural and autonomous, the social is properly external to these. The contours of the social can most clearly be discerned at the scale of individual families, hence the Jets’ insistence on the significance of familial dynamics in explaining their failure to conform.]
That’s a touchin’ good story.
Lemme tell it to the world!
Just tell it to the Judge!
[The extension of governmentality into everyday life requires the deployment of multiple registers of specialized technical expertise, typically the sort of expertise that devises categories or taxonomies of human behavior and assigns people to them; Foucault calls this “power/knowledge.”
The usual domains of this power/knowledge are medicine and public health, psychiatry, economics and law, each of which has a distinct way of conceiving of the human subject and the field of its interactions with other subjects. Are we most usefully thought of as biological bodies with a capacity for organic health or illness (and a vulnerability to contagion), economic actors with material interests, or citizens with rights and obligations under law?
This latter, legal (or, to be properly Foucauldian about it, “juridical”) register of knowledge constitutes a framework of collective agreements for the formal specification and detailed regulation of the permissible limits of human behavior. As certain decisions the Jets make as individuals and as a collective mean that they are perpetually running afoul of these limits, the New York City juvenile justice system is the primary institution of expert knowledge they encounter in their lives, and therefore the first they invoke in their quest for resolution of their delinquent status.]
Dear kindly Judge, your Honor,
My parents treat me rough.
With all the marijuana,
They won’t give me a puff.
They didn’t wanna have me,
But somehow I was had.
Leapin’ lizards! That’s why I’m so bad!
[Note the acknowledgement that the individual delinquent may well be the issue of an unplanned pregnancy. By implication, delinquency as a phenomenon can be understood as the consequence of a failure of State policy at multiple levels, i.e. both the failure to integrate a meaningful family-planning curriculum into secondary education, and to distribute or otherwise guarantee access to contraceptives and other necessary resources. This is a presentiment of the quintessential biopolitical concern for scaled management of the processes of life.]
DIESEL (as JUDGE)
Officer Krupke, you’re really a square;
This boy don’t need a judge, he needs a analyst’s care!
It’s just his neurosis that oughta be curbed.
He’s psychologic’ly disturbed!
[In the first of a series of reframings — or alternately, evasions of responsibility — that will characterize the Jets’ encounters with the bearers of expert knowledge, the Judge finds that the law provides him with inadequate tools to manage delinquency. He rejects the notion, indeed, that this is a collective problem at all, suggesting instead that both the roots of delinquency and effective responses to it can best be discovered by undertaking the treatment of individual psychopathology.
Note that the vowels in both Diesel’s pastiche of the Judge and the Jets’ response should be sounded as a front-rising diphthong, i.e. coibed/distoibed. This is a once-distinct and broadly-recognizable New York City accent that is now rapidly disappearing.]
We’re disturbed, we’re disturbed,
We’re the most disturbed,
Like we’re psychologic’ly disturbed.
DIESEL (spoken, as JUDGE)
Hear ye, hear ye! In the opinion of this court, this child is depraved on account he ain’t had a normal home.
[In speech act theory, this is what is known as a “performative utterance.” That the Judge prefaces his comments with a command to hear and then literally pronounces sentence is what makes it effective. Still more intriguingly to me, the notion that there exist sequences of words so potent that uttering them properly and under the correct conditions is all it takes to do work in the world is at best only quasi-rational. It makes certain kinds of speech — here, legal speech — akin to magickal operations intended to manifest change in accordance with Will.]
Hey, I’m depraved on account I’m deprived!
DIESEL (as JUDGE)
So take him to a headshrinker!
My father is a bastard,
My ma’s an S.O.B.
My grandpa’s always plastered,
My grandma pushes tea.
My sister wears a mustache,
My brother wears a dress.
Goodness gracious, that’s why I’m a mess!
A-RAB (as PSYCHIATRIST)
Officer Krupke, you’re really a slob.
This boy don’t need a doctor, just a good honest job.
Society’s played him a terrible trick,
And sociologic’ly he’s sick!
[The Psychiatrist downplays the significance of multiple traumas in the childhood household — the stigma of illegitimacy; substance abuse, addictive behavior and exposure to the narcoeconomy; and unresolved issues of gender presentation and conformity — arguing instead that delinquency needs to be understood as a symptom of market failure. Only by participating in and usefully contributing to the economy will the former delinquent find himself redeemed.]
I am sick!
We are sick, we are sick,
We are sick, sick, sick,
Like we’re sociologically sick!
A-RAB (as PSYCHIATRIST)
In my opinion, this child don’t need to have his head shrunk at all. Juvenile delinquency is purely a social disease!
Hey, I got a social disease!
[A bit of wordplay here: “social disease” is a common 1950s euphemism for sexually-transmitted disease. Action is delighted because the term implies institutional recognition and/or validation of his sexually active status.]
A-RAB (as PSYCHIATRIST)
So take him to a social worker!
[Decisively denying a still-Freudian psychiatry’s applicability to the problem at hand, the analyst recommends instead that the delinquent’s situation be addressed by a case worker specifically tasked by the benevolent welfare State to perform outreach and propose interventions in the city’s economically-deprived communities.]
Dear kindly social worker,
They say go earn a buck.
Like be a soda jerker,
Which means like be a schmuck.
It’s not I’m anti-social,
I’m only anti-work.
Gloryosky! That’s why I’m a jerk!
[Though as written, this passage rhymes earn a buck with be a schmuck, it was offensively (if effectively) bowdlerized for Hollywood as make some dough/be a schmo.]
BABY JOHN (as SOCIAL WORKER)
Officer Krupke, you’ve done it again.
This boy don’t need a job, he needs a year in the pen!
It ain’t just a question of misunderstood;
Deep down inside him, he’s no good!
[The delinquent, reasonably enough, is starkly dissatisfied with the low-status, entry-level service jobs that are the only ones available to him in the post-industrial economy. The social worker, on the other hand, having gone to all the trouble of gathering information about available positions, is disgusted with this refusal of personal responsibility, and concludes that the delinquent’s problems are so severe that they can only be resolved by his being sentenced to a penitentiary — the paradigmatic disciplinary space.
This brings us full circle: if delinquency can neither be resolved via socioeconomic provision, nor through the psychiatric care of the individual delinquent, juridical sanction may be the only arrow society has in its quiver. The cost of this reframing, however, is that if the delinquent can neither be constructed as an unwell body or a disadvantaged economic actor, he can only be understood as a more-or-less willful transgressor of the social order. Action, of course, sees this clearly, recognizing that…]
I’m no good!
We’re no good, we’re no good!
We’re no earthly good,
Like the best of us is no damn good!
DIESEL (as JUDGE)
The trouble is he’s crazy.
A-RAB (as PSYCHIATRIST)
The trouble is he drinks.
BABY JOHN (as SOCIAL WORKER)
The trouble is he’s lazy.
The trouble is he stinks.
The trouble is he’s growing.
The trouble is he’s grown.
ALL, as CHORUS LINE
Krupke, we got troubles of our own!
Gee, Officer Krupke,
We’re down on our knees,
‘Cause no one wants a fella with a social disease.
Gee, Officer Krupke,
What are we to do?
Gee, Officer Krupke,
See what I mean? It’s all in there! One or two other songs from West Side Story are almost as good — my other favorite, “America,” is about postcolonial subjectivity, the subaltern’s daily experience of the metropole and the politics of differential infrastructural development — but “Krupke” really does explain how this particular mode of power works in an incredibly efficient way.
There’s something refreshing, too, in the fact that by mocking the way they’re framed by these successive agents of authority — as alternately unwell bodies to be treated, unfairly deprived economic actors to be restored by gainful employment, and finally as criminals to be disposed of by the State’s corrective apparatus — what the putatively ignorant Jets are really doing is rejecting the State’s right to define them at all. Maybe there is no “problem of juvenile delinquency” after all, they appear to be saying, and on this history at least appears to have borne them out.
Some of you may remember that I’m lucky enough to count among my friends the members of the legendary Philadelphia-based hardcore band RUIN. Not too long ago, they wrote to let me know they’ve got a double-disc, fully-remastered retrospective coming out on
Alternative Tentacles SOUTHERN LORD!!! later on this year — and did me the honor of asking me to write liner notes for the release. With their permission, I share them with you here.
You and I, we enjoy a prerogative that very few of the several billion human beings who walked the Earth before us could possibly have imagined. Most of us have ready to hand, at this very moment, a machine that’s capable of siphoning a train of modulated pulses from the ether and turning those pulses into the organized sound we call music. We can pluck down music literally from the very air, across all boundaries of human time and space and culture: as much as we want, whatever we want, whenever we want it.
It’s the long dreamt-of celestial jukebox. Just about anyone who feels the itch can plumb the depths of the Cole Porter songbook alongside Ella Fitzgerald, explore the mysteries of Arvo Pärt, or queue up an hour of obscure Throbbing Gristle releases at will, complete with alternate takes. They can turn the entire Trojan Records catalogue into a playlist with a few keystrokes, encounter the name “Ros Sereysothea” for the very first time, do a quick copy & paste and be listening to her five seconds later. (You’re welcome, by the way.)
It’s all very effortless, is what I’m getting at. Now this is a truly wonderful thing, for those of us for whom music frames, shapes and maybe even defines the way we respond to the things which happen in our lives. It’s a gift of all-but-inconceivable value.
But maybe, just maybe, it means that music doesn’t weigh quite as much as it used to. It doesn’t mean exactly the same thing. How could it, when each new piece of music you hear is acquired with very little investment of effort, at effectively zero incremental cost?
I want to take you somewhere else.
Welcome to Philadelphia, 1985. These were bad years in America — the mid-Reagan years. Evil little shits like James Watt, Phyllis Schlafly, Oliver North and Grover Norquist were busy laying the groundwork for the titanic clusterfuck we’ve since inherited, each in their own way. The center hadn’t held, and the cracks were evident everywhere. The temporarily ascendent Japanese (always “the Japanese,” as though the entire country were a single monolithic hive entity, burrowing its way beetlelike through the moribund US economy) were buying up American landmarks like Columbia Pictures and Rockefeller Center. Never mind that they were being taken for a ride. It was the optics of the thing that counted — all those drab salarymen, cash in hand, standing athwart the monuments of American cultural supremacy.
The official media papered over this and the many other hints that the American Century had come to a premature end with jingoistic schmaltz like Red Dawn and Rambo. Like the actual invasion of Grenada, these were overtly intended to reignite the national mojo, restore the sense of limitless power and the serene belief in the justice of its cause the nation had lost after Vietnam. Even at the time, they seemed pathetic.
And then there was AIDS. Nobody quite knew what caused it yet, so no matter who we were, we brought biohazard protocols to bed along with our partners — those, and more fear than is quite healthy for the growth of anything supposed to be founded in love. It was that, or get the virus, waste away and die. That happened, too. The anti-retroviral cocktail was still years away. (Ronald Reagan couldn’t even bring himself to utter the word “AIDS” in public until 1986.)
In all this gloom, voices with any experience of opposition or of building an oppositional culture were in perilously short supply. The Black Panthers, of course, had long been hunted to extinction; other prominent Sixties radicals, notably Jerry Rubin and Jane Fonda, wasted precisely zero time in announcing to all concerned that hell yes they were selling out, and to the highest bidder they could possibly land. And still others retreated into the thankless, unglamorous, constant and not particularly public work of ensuring that some kind of solidarity-based infrastructure survived through the long cold years of neglect.
If the mid-Eighties were grim years for America, they were harder still for Philadelphia. The local vibes were just ugly. There had been a time when you could credibly name Philly alongside New York and Chicago and Los Angeles, but by the end of the Seventies those days were irretrievably gone. The industrial base on which the city’s economic vitality had depended for over a century had evaporated, seemingly overnight; as the factories went, so went the jobs, leaving black and white working people eyeing each other warily across a shrinking pile of scraps.
And of course there were those pleased to exploit this unease for their own benefit, notably a former police chief named Frank Rizzo, who as mayor in the late Seventies ran the city with a fascist swagger his core constituency just ate up. (During a period of more than usual civil unrest in 1969, then-commissioner Rizzo famously attended a gala ball with a nightstick thrust in his cummerbund. Any exploration of the Freudian implications thereof is left as an exercise for the reader.) Though he was out of office by ’79, Rizzo set the tone for the decade of Philly politics that followed; from him, the mayoralty passed first to the anodyne Bill Green, then to a nonentity named W. Wilson Goode. Briefly and justly celebrated as the first black mayor of this majority African-American town, Goode was soon enough notorious for standing passively by during what remains the only bombing of an American city by its own police force. An entire neighborhood of family rowhouses burned to the ground. Eleven people died. Five of them were children.
This was the city we came of age in: a city consuming itself in slow motion, like some particularly shabby and low-rent version of Samuel Delany’s Bellona. It called forth the most intense feelings of dread and love and confusion, but offered very little in the way of anything to channel them into. If you were between the ages of, say, twelve and twenty-five at the time, things were especially surreal, because the official culture available to you didn’t reflect any of this. You got Quincy scripts founded in the murderous, elemental badness of mohawked ne’er-do-wells. You got Larry “Bud” Melman. You got a double shot of the Hooters on WMMR.
It was maddening. You felt x’d out of existence. So you, we, did what all the others who felt the same way were learning to do at about the same time, in cities from Osaka to Helsinki: we made do, we made shift and we made culture of our own.
Actual concert venues were out of the question, on grounds of amateurishness and lack of pull both. Like other local punk scenes, then, the Philly milieu was cobbled together around a loose network of lodge halls, steak shops and church cellars, not to mention private dwellings from frat houses to out-and-out squats. (I saw Circle of Shit play to a crowd of seven, in a dirt-floored basement halfway to Upper Darby. That particular moldering funk of West Philadelphia earth is in my nostrils as I write these words, thirty years removed in time and the full reach of the Atlantic away.)
Commercial airtime, similarly off-limits — though thankfully Philadelphia was relatively well provisioned with noncommercial outlets willing to play the occasional Gang of Four side, and keep a channel open. Eternally manic Lee Paris hosted “Yesterday’s Now Music Today” on the University of Pennsylvania radio station, and that was good. Drexel’s WKDU was arguably even better, but their signal was weak — any more than twenty blocks or so from their transmitter, you’d literally have to walk your radio around the room to find a spot where whatever music was coming out of the speaker could be heard over the static.
You couldn’t just hear a song on the radio and then go buy it. Before Chaos Records opened up, later on, this was a city of two million souls that offered but one place you could have any hope of reliably finding punk rock records: specifically, the milkcrate sitting in the concrete dust and mouse droppings on the floor against the back wall of the basement of Third Street Jazz. I admit that I did once, inexplicably, turn up a French Stiff Little Fingers EP at the Sam Goody in the Gallery — but otherwise you went to Third Street, you braved the sneers of the jazzbo staff and you brought home whatever they happened to have in that crate.
There was no media coverage to speak of, save for a sole, entirely risible profile in Philadelphia magazine. We made ‘zines instead: shitty missives Xeroxed after hours at a parent’s office, chock full of record reviews, “political” rants and terrible poetry. These we left in tottering stacks at shows, in piles beside the cash register of whatever oddball retail store would have them.
And beside all of this, and above it, and under it, and through it, some among us made the music that tied it all together.
History lesson, Part III. The Philly punk scene was always harder to get a handle on than some others that come to mind. Neither as mired in blue-collar machismo as the second-wave NYC scene then coalescing around CBGB’s Sunday matinees, nor as (self?)righteous as the Dischord-centric DC community, Philadelphia threw nothing but curveballs. McRad, the Dead Milkmen, Pagan Babies, Scram: none of them quite fit the template, somehow. They were too weird, too goofy, too unpredictable, too hard to fit into the categories that were already then beginning to solidify.
Which brings us at last to Ruin.
Originally active from 1982 to 1986, in its early lineup Ruin was a five-piece unit, often described to the unaware as a “Buddhist hardcore band.” (You see what I mean about not fitting easily into the established categories.) In that time they released just two albums: the definitive blast of 1984’s He-Ho and the somewhat more polished Fiat Lux of 1986. An additional few tracks trickled out on compilations like the much-loved Get Off My Back, We’re Doing It Ourselves and the obscure, cassette-only Welcome Worlds, before eventually being reissued on Blackhole’s comprehensive Songs of Reverie and Ruin. One or two cuts, like “The Rain Comes Down,” remain uncaptured. But that’s the recorded output. That’s it.
This leaves us with twenty-six songs, of which four are covers. This is not an unreasonable tally for a hardcore band of the era — Minor Threat’s Complete Discography, for example, which sure enough does what it says on the tin, similarly clocks in at a mere 26 tracks — but it’s not in absolute terms very much at all. And yet it’s in those relatively few tracks that everything happens. You hear a bunch of kids throw themselves headfirst at Philadelphia, and America, and even at 1984, intent not on simply beating themselves against the membranes that contain them but on breaking the fuck through. They are, I say it again, kids, who have nevertheless understood or intuited something critical about what it means to live this life in this container or vehicle we call a body, something that most people never fully internalize at any age. They’re not going to tell you what that thing is. They’re going to enact it. And they’re going to take you along with them.
If you were lucky enough to see them play, you never forgot it. There were rugs. There were, no lie, candles. The band filtered onto the stage dressed in white from head to toe. The message was unmistakable: whatever it was you were about to witness, it wasn’t going to be yet another clutch of Black Flag wannabes, sounding off about their petty beefs with still pettier authorities.
One New York City Christmas many years ago, an ex-girlfriend took me to midnight mass at the cathedral church of St. John the Divine. Neither one of us was religious, was a believer of any kind, but we went for the fellowship and the warmth and the sheer ritualistic spectacle of it. That Christmas Eve glows in my memory as a soft haze of light and song and incense from the thurible. And for the first time in my life I understood what a cathedral is — what any church is supposed to be, really, in the layout of its nave and the arrangement of its parts. It’s a runway for God, complete with landing lights and air traffic control.
I’m going to risk sounding unbearably pretentious by arguing to you that this is more or less what Ruin was trying to do on stage. They were trying to create a bubble of space and time in which musicians and audience alike could experience something heightened, something preverbal, something that words can only ever fail. I would argue to you, further, that they succeeded: not completely, but reliably enough, and for as long as ten or fifteen minutes at a stretch. Ten or fifteen minutes spent outside your name, cut loose from your ego and that collection of regrets, fears and desires you call a self, pummeled this way and that by the crowd’s Brownian churn: not such a bad ROI for a few bucks at the door.
Could you have experienced something similar at another band’s gig? Similar, sure…but not quite the same. Ruin were, and are, astonishingly physical performers, even by the standards of hardcore punk. They brought a commitment and an intensity of focus to the act of playing music before a crowd that I have only very rarely encountered. Most schools of Buddhism place great importance on each of us being fully present in this moment, neither caught up in retrospection nor immobilized with thoughts of what is yet to come. You wouldn’t have needed to know the first thing about the band or its members to see the impact of this way of thinking on their music. It was all right there.
And here we come to the question of ancestry. You can learn a lot about how a band sees itself by its choice of covers — what it thinks it’s doing, what line of descent it wishes to claim as its own. I can promise you that in the Philadelphia of the mid-Eighties, Leonard Cohen was not a major presence on the punk hit parade, that in some quarters even covering “White Rabbit” could be read as a dangerous concession to hippie lamery. By wearing these influences on their collective sleeve, the members of Ruin were declaring their independence from the petty doctrinaire bullshit that so often characterized that scene, despite its manifest weirdness, and in fact hobbles all scenes and always will. That declaration said, “You go on ahead and draw your lines.” It said, “We come from a place where those lines add up to nothing.” Ultimately it implied you’d be welcome in that place, too, if you didn’t mind letting go of your need for lineation.
A cover song is what literary critics might call “intertextuality,” and what most of us would call “a conversation.” Ruin’s records were having a conversation with other musics. But — and this is important — not just other musics. If you were prepared to let them, these conversations unfolded in ways you just weren’t primed to expect from punk rock. They were drilling straight through Jefferson Airplane to Lewis Carroll, and right through him even to the ontological weirdness that animated his greatest work. Similarly, Leonard Cohen was just an inn and a place to rest for the night on the way to Basho.
When you place so much emphasis on the ones that came before, you also imply that someone will come after. Somebody will come along to discover your work and claim it for their own. Maybe not as a gig flier stapled to a telephone pole and left to fade in the wind and rain. Maybe not as an older sister’s taped-over Elton John cassette, band logo lovingly crosshatched onto the label in smeared blue Bic, passed hand-to-hand in secret like high school samizdat. But maybe in ways that could barely be imagined at the time of creation. As a well-formed uniform resource indicator fully compliant with the https scheme, for example, which is to say: an emailed link.
So what does this music mean, in a world where music is something you stream from Spotify on a whim, rather than wrest from a maddeningly wavering college-radio signal? What does a fierce insistence on being present in this moment mean, when the very next moment could as easily hold Daft Punk or Palestrina or just as likely a leap out of the music app altogether?
One way to answer might be to say that in pressing “play,” you’re listening to the air of a different time and a different place. This is essentially a historical document, in other words — though perhaps one with a certain uncomfortable resonance for us, now that we once again find ourselves come upon hard times. The contemporary listener may not have lived through the Philadelphia of the mid-1980s, goes this line of thinking, but Frank Rizzos and Gary Heidniks and Budd Dwyers turn out to be sadly archetypal characters, so music forged in their time and place has as much claim to resonance and permanent relevance as any other ever penned.
Another way of answering would position these songs as a reminder that everything that means anything comes with a weight and a cost. This is not to say that meaningful things need to be joyless and self-serious. It just means that their realization invariably required some investment of human effort, whether that be a few late nights up writing, a strain on the vocal cords, a wrenched shoulder, or half a lifetime outside of the main current of human fellowship. This is music that asks its listener to sit still with the fact of that cost, if one can sit still inside a cyclone. I wish more music were like that, but the fact that these songs even exist is and will have to be enough.
A piece republished on my old v-2 site in 2003 and creakingly old even then, having originally been written for a magazine called neo my ex-wife and I published in Seattle circa 1994. It is soooooo Nineties in its framings and formal concerns, but kinda fun nevertheless. Enjoy!
Returning slowly to ordinary consciousness as you stagger out onto the sidewalk at quarter to two in the morning, you find yourself with a pair of gonging eardrums, hands covered in the fluid seeping from torn blisters. The high-pitched scream in your ears is the predictable aftermath of a show; the blisters were suffered (you can only surmise) while hammering on a 55-gallon oil drum with a crowbar.
It’s the blisters – and the stench of cordite and adrenaline and fear that still hovers in your nostrils – that testify to the fact that what you’ve just seen is anything but the average rock’n’roll show. You’ve survived your first encounter with ¡Tchkung!
Recipe for a ¡Tchkung! show: a little May 1968 guerrilla street theater, a few touches from Survival Research Laboratories, a surprising amount from the contemporary French circus, maybe a pinch of Leni Riefenstahl – and not very much at all from the hallowed iconographic menu of rock.
Oh, sure, there’s some people playing musical instruments up on a stage, and there’s a pretty light show flickering over them. But that’s about where the resemblance ends. ¡Tchkung! uses a variety of techniques to break down the wall between performer and audience, sideshow pyrotechnicians and roving self-piercers among them. There’s no identifiable boundary between observation and participation – here’s where the comparison to SRL comes in: you can either choose to join in the chaos or back away to a putatively safe distance. The experience almost manages to revivify the use-worn phrase “in your face.”
As your mind clears, you review the events of the evening. You can barely remember how you felt just a few hours ago, so total has been your immersion in the mood of the show.
You do remember getting into the opening acts, a bagpipe ensemble and a Taiko drumming group, and being disappointed that more people in the crowd didn’t seem to be paying attention. The Taiko drummers in particular impressed you with their sense of barely-contained energies, and you wanted them to go on longer. But that desire was forgotten as ¡Tchkung! took the stage, amid the martial clang of found percussion and a sudden cacophony of voices and instruments.
How many were up there, anyway? Six, seven? They launched immediately into a grinding dirge, and everything else was swept away.
A torchlight procession wends its way down from the stage, around the club and back again; drums and sheet metal are tossed into the audience, along with tools and rough pieces of rebar for use as strikers. The action is acentric: there’s stuff going on up there, yeah, but there’s a knot of people twenty feet away watching a man eat fire. Right above you, a woman is shoving a needle through her lip with an expression of calm concentration made more exquisite by the total clamor on all sides. And where you’d expect a mosh pit to be, people who have never met each other – some in full bodypaint – are locking arms and dancing in a circle like medieval peasants at Beltane.
You’re encouraged to participate in this laying on of hands.
It occurs to me that I haven’t said much about the music. In this, I join a growing line of reviewers, who have tended to talk about the “barrage” of “damage” and “ritual”, but not about tunes. So far, music has been surprisingly secondary to any discussion of ¡Tchkung!, whether you’re talking about their live presentation or their self-titled debut CD (Belltown Records). It’s not because the music is bad – very much the contrary – but because the experience seems to be so much larger than just the songs.
They collude in giving this impression, too. The CD insert gives none of the standard information about the personnel of the band, the instruments or samples deployed, the lyrics. Instead, what you find upon opening the booklet is a veritable smorgasbord of left-antiauthoritarian thought, with elements recognizably derived from the IWW, the Situationists, the Diggers and Luddites, French theory circa Baudrillard…
Some of it doesn’t hang together very well: this is one of the only places I’ve ever seen ecofeminist and pagan thought juxtaposed with the macho deep ecology of Dave Foreman. And what would Kropotkin make of Terence McKenna? I appreciate ¡Tchkung!’s desire to turn their audience on to the wellsprings of their thought – but you do get the feeling that most of the other verbiage would be unnecessary if the music did its job.
OK, then: the music itself. If you’ve just gotta have a label, you might put ¡Tchkung! in the political wing of the percussive, assaultive school of sound known as “industrial.” This would make them classmates of the Lower East Side’s Missing Foundation and the Bay Area’s Sharkbait. There also seems to be a little bit of the anti-statism and anti-Christianity of the seminal, and annoying, British anarchist band Crass. What all of these bands share musically despite their many differences is a deep appreciation of harshly rhythmic noise, found percussion, and the use of slogans (all too often shouted from bullhorns) as lyrics.
You needn’t consider ¡Tchkung! to be hemmed in by this description, because they do have the makings of a sound that would far transcend the limitations of the genre. Where other bands of this genre dig themselves a rut of anger and monotony, ¡Tchkung!’s music has elements that compel genuine feeling and memory, whether the haunting, soulful keening of an extraordinary female vocalist, the weird Dreamtime warblings of a didgeridoo, or the chain-gang cadences of a worker’s blues. Where they’ve fallen down so far is in the successful integration of these elements into a focused whole, and in fact their CD will make you think you’re listening to a compilation album.
And listening to ¡Tchkung! at home is difficult anyway. Our society is structured in such a way that, for most people, it’s next to impossible to devote time to music exclusively, and so you wind up listening most while taking care of other tasks. We listen while driving, washing the dishes, making love – but how often do you just sit back in an otherwise silent environment and savor music? Getting the most out of a song like the otherworldly invocation “Io Lilith,” requires just such attention.
Then there’s the undeniable fact that most of these cuts evolved as soundtracks to live performance art – participatory and unscripted, but performance nonetheless. They can seem inchoate and incomplete without their complement of live activity. That they still succeed as well as they do is evidence that there’s some talent involved, but it is a sore point. They need to figure out how to have the performance of the music itself be the show.
I have seen bands that have mastered this. One I particularly remember launched into a song about a homeless Vietnam veteran living and dying on Venice Beach. All I really remember of the evening is this song, with its visceral thrum of bass and drums beneath the parallel wailing of sax and singer. The sound conveyed with absolute precision and fidelity an oppressive sense of narrowing options and failing hopes — and somehow found an affirmation of possibility at the bottom of the well. This is something that the unadorned three-piece wasn’t necessarily capable of; it’s my belief that it was the room they made for the swooping, lacerating sax that took them over the edge into transcendence.
That’s what I’m looking for. I’m not suggesting that it can be found simply by grafting a sax or a second drum kit onto the rock unit; neither do I believe that it can be forced by the wholesale, disrespectful adaptation of instrumentation or time signatures from other cultures. I think it comes in the fusion, the cross-fertilization, the creative recombination of elements.
We’re not limited anymore, in either the tactics or tools with which we approach making music. Punk rock famously urged us to Do It Ourselves. Hip-hop gave us the ideology of the sample; minimalism allowed us to derive structure from repetition of a few simple elements. Industrial taught us to explore the textures of noise and “world music” brought the planet’s entire history and heritage of musical experience to our immediate awareness. And digital technology means that whether it’s Ella Fitzgerald, Erik Satie, the throat-singers of Tuva, or a squealing circular saw we’re learning from, the lessons are as accessible as the nearest disc player.
So rise the new hybrid forms, born of new experiences: Parisian hip-hop, Gregorian ambient, Nipponese grindcore. Township jive touches down in Queens and Brazilian kids find out that speedmetal works especially well in Portuguese. It may not be exactly what McLuhan meant by the “global village,” but it’s as close as we’re likely to know.
I expect amazing things.
The musicians send forth waves of sound to break and crash over the audience; the response is immediate, sending bodies surging about like a throng of urchin dervishes. Sweatslick flesh presses in on you from every side, beyond individuality or gender. There’s an erotic charge in the air here, but also a palpable thanatos, a will to death and destruction that pulls on you like an undertow. Over the pounding beat, one of the singers is giving voice to a full, almost Old Testament wailing, a shriek of hopeless grief that recalls Diamanda Galas. It’s obviously a very intense and meaningful moment for her; the intensity comes across but much of her meaning is lost to you.
The air is thick with pheromones. The contrasts of the moment are dizzying: the singer’s grief, the exhilaration of losing yourself to the bodies on either side of you, the feral sexuality and the sense of loss.
They’re out on tour as I write, these offspring of Neubauten and Noam Chomsky, playing their harsh sounds out there in the American Night. I try to imagine them in Idaho, on this first night of the State Fair, mounting their full onslaught for what could be a room of fifteen, and fail.
I just can’t picture ritual percussion and onstage piercing playing real well in Boise. But maybe the world is changing faster than I think. According to a band member — the band speaks collectively or not at all — “the ranting and raving, they could take or leave, but they’ll stay through it just to hear the music.” I have to admit I’m surprised; after all, what will a nation used to Pantera and Snoop Doggy Dogg make of ¡Tchkung!, a band whose live sound could fairly be described as a discourse on the 1934 General Strike fused to the squeal of sawblade on aluminum?
But they’re not having too tough of a time getting their point across to audiences, and at that there is something appealingly homespun about them, something wholesome and (they’d hate it) deeply American. It’s a spirit somewhere between the Boston Tea Party and Andy Hardy shouting, “Hey, kids! Let’s put on a show!” None of which probably sounds terribly inviting, but I mean it as a compliment.
Avowedly anti-music-business, ¡Tchkung! claims “we’re doing something wrong if we get famous.” At the same time, they face the central dilemma of our mediated age — one never successfully negotiated by veterans of the punk rock moment such as Fugazi or Bad Religion: what happens when a subculture reaches critical mass?
If you believe in your message, naturally you want it to reach as many minds as you can. The way to those minds is through the gate of mass communications, and the gatekeeper is the big bad Media Biz. Because even such radically decentered communications tools as the Internet or the ‘zine scene speak to their own elites: a map of signals traffic along either of these networks would burn brightly over Hoboken, Berkeley and Georgetown, while leaving Jersey City, East Oakland or Anacostia dark.
The sad fact is that it’s the people who already have “access to tools and information” and power who know how to find relatively obscure artifacts like a ¡Tchkung! CD. Only the mass media have the ability to introject information into every fissure and crevice of our society. It’s a race and class and even cultural dilemma that ¡Tchkung! is sure to face head-on if they’re serious about getting their message across to the people who would benefit the most from a little self-empowerment.
The noise goes on and on and ON and you just want it to come to a climax or at least some sort of closure. After a while, you become aware that the stage is mostly empty, that the musicians are packing up their gear, and you’re not really sure at what point the show “ended.” The hammering din hasn’t let up in the least, and there’s still a good number of people locked into ecstatic dance.
Some perverse instinct compels you to wait it out, to see just how long it takes the crowd to ramp down from its ecstatic high. And so you wait and watch for things to end. But this show doesn’t; it just tapers off into guttering flames and one last screech of feedback, as dazed survivors reel across a dancefloor littered with “industrial” debris and shrapnel.
Seeing ¡Tchkung! left me feeling painfully ambivalent. On the one hand, here’s this band with a ton of energy, an awesome array of tactics to keep the audience involved, and (in the abstract, at least) politics I have little argument with. Those qualities have all proved vanishingly hard to come by in contemporary music. But what they have in sincerity, commitment, and intensity, they lack in focus and yes, discipline.
Because sometimes less really is more. Or more to the point: sometimes the energy that can sustain a show for three and a half hours at a given level could be used in more structured ways to produce a more vivid total effect in half that time. I know part of ¡Tchkung!’s intent is for each show to provide a door for the influx of chaos into the world — to create a temporary autonomous zone in which Anything Could Happen. But as it is, the Anything all too easily becomes boredom. And I resented it; the whole experience had raised a particular sort of energy in me — and then done nothing with it.
What did I want them to do with that energy? What might I have done with it myself? Alternately, what might I have done if only it was asked of me in that interval before the showbuzz wore off? Part of the problem here is that ¡Tchkung! is playing with fire, in more ways than the merely literal. The piercing, the firebreathing, the dervish-dancing, the relentless rhythms: these are all shamanic techniques for the alteration of consciousness, and there is no doubt but that they work. In their original contexts, they are all used by people undertaking specific initiatory journeys, when guided by others steeped in the traditions of their use. Of course, none of these conditions obtains at a ¡Tchkung! show. What happens when you put several hundred people into a suggestible state, in an environment filled with extraordinarily powerful signs of no fixed meaning?
¡Tchkung! obviously hopes that people will be empowered by the experience, moved to take back their lives from the entanglement of economic, social, religious, and political strictures that now binds us all. I share this hope, but I’m not so sanguine about the chances of such a mass transformation occurring spontaneously as the result of a three-hour carnival of noise. I could be wrong: for all I know, that’s the only way it could happen. But I’d bet against it.
¡Tchkung! is a band I like enough to come down hard on. They are a long way from where they need to be, I think, maybe even from where they want to be. And it sometimes seems — for an entity that presents itself as a musical group — that their music is entirely beside the point. But if they fall short on these counts it’s only because they have set their sights far higher than other acts you’ll see on the very same stages. They don’t seem particularly interested in providing an entertainment experience to an audience of passive consumers, which in itself is unusual for a band. They do seem interested in provoking the spontaneous creation of a community of desire, using any technique at hand. ¡Tchkung! wants you to determine the shape and direction of your own life. Despite some doubts about their tactics, there can be no higher goal, whether for a book, a speech, a magazine…or a rock band.
Which is true, and also the name of the previously unknown Velvet Underground song unearthed last month and just about immediately seeded on the net. (Here’s the direct link; go thou and download, if you haven’t already.)
Let me reiterate that, so we can savor it together: previously unknown Velvet Underground song. One of five tracks that have come to light here, in the so-called “Gymnasium” set – including the first known performance of “Sister Ray,” in a filthygritty version clocking in at nineteen full minutes.
I haven’t written this up yet – various other things on my mind – but this is epochal. In my world, this is already the equivalent of watching flabbergasted as previously-lost dialogues of Plato suddenly turn up on eBay: an occasion for loving exegesis, for delight in seeing how the new fragment fits into the known canon. And it would be even if the material didn’t totally howl…which it does.
This is the Velvets as primitivist garage band, circa ’67, a sound you’ll no doubt be familiar with from Disc 3 of Peel Slowly and See. It’s raw, propulsive stuff, with none of the overlay of Warholiana that Nico brought to the proceedings; to my ear, the glorious, metronomic crunch and thud of the Mo Tucker/John Cale rhythm section makes out best under circumstances like these. Or is that “thud and crunch”?
Either way: fuck me, basically. A new Velvets song, and it’s a keeper, something I’m (appropriately enough, I suppose) happy to think of as an early 40th birthday present. That’s just the pure niceness, and the secret generosity at the core of the world speaking.
So, again – and I know I say this as if I’ve just figured it out for the first time, but I believe that this is something always worth reinscribing – one of the magnificent things about living in one of Earth’s great cities is that there’s something on just about every single night of the week, no matter what or how obscure your taste.
Any serious metropolitan area is such an almighty catchment basin for talent and interest that the odds of finding something you’ll like are in your favor, and this is true even if your predilections run to “difficult” media. I really cherish spaces dedicated to such minor tastes, which always share a certain common otaku vibe, no matter how institutionally serious they are, no matter what city they happen to be rooted in.
In New York, this means venues like Printed Matter, Storefront for Art and Architecture, Anthology Film Archives, or the late, much-lamented Tonic at the more institutional end of the scale, and sundry others still more grassrootsy and nomadic.
The space we went to last night was definitely one of the latter. Issue Project Room, relocated in the relatively recent past to a former factory building in lovely Gowanus, is basically a single blind room deeper and taller than it is wide, roofed with craquelured old beams, provisioned with a grid of suspended speakers, and lit (for performance, anyway) solely by flickering candlelight: the ideal environment for an evening of immersive minimal music.
This is head music, to be honest. What you would have seen, had you poked your head through Issue’s front door around quarter to midnight, was thirty-odd people sitting or lying on the floor, journeying inside themselves with nary a booty shaking. This is clearly not to everybody’s liking on a
Saturday Friday night, but it suited us to a T.
My own clear favorite of the three acts on the bill was Brooklynite James Elliott, performing under the name Ateleia. If you can imagine a region of sound roughly described by a less evil Scorn, a heavier My Bloody Valentine, and a Growing with actual beats, well, somewhere in there is where you’ll find Ateleia.
All of which implies, correctly, that Elliot’s music is something that you really have to experience live to get the full impact; as with Growing, we snapped up the discs he had on offer, and found on getting home that even a decent sound system did the music no justice. (Both technically and because I do try to be a good neighbor, I just couldn’t push things Heavy enough.)
It’s being able to act on that imperative to witness the live and unmediated performance that makes me so grateful to live in a place that supports spaces like Issue – and, of course, so acutely concerned that the economics of real estate are making it more and more difficult for places like this to survive in New York. They’re the true laboratories, playgrounds and test sites of creativity – and any city deserving of the name had damn well better make sure it can provide for them, lest it become a net consumer of culture, rather than a producer.
The perspective of the Sampler Suite is the vertical section of the city: we are offered a look underground, at the sewers, the inner workings of the city, at urban history, at what lies buried beneath the surface, at ruins that reveal glimpses of history – like the Scarlatti quotation in the Allemande or a chorale evocative of the Baroque in the Gigue. As digital memory, the sampler is an ideal vehicle for human memory. It brings us the sounds of cities such as Berlin, New York, Tokyo or St. Petersburg: industrial noise (or what might be taken for it – the sounds produced when music is electronically transformed), subcultural “noise” and the sounds of history – like the scratchy recordings from the 1920s and ’30s in the Chaconne, which preserve the memory of the Jewish cantorial tradition, a vocal culture that has long ceased to be accessible in this form.
…an unexpected half-hour to shop at the notorious timesink called Jim Hanley’s Universe, where I picked up two volumes of Brian Wood’s DMZ, Jason Lutes‘s Berlin: City of Stones, the first ish of Tsutomu Nihei’s nihiltastic BLAME! (thanks, George!), and – calloo callay – the looooong-anticipated League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Black Dossier. On its very day of release. Score!
You’d think that’s enough popkultur glee for one day. Nej.
Somebody namechecked Owen Hatherly in comments here yesterday – I confess I wasn’t familiar with the name, but that’s what Google’s for, right? Two clicks later and I’m happily kneedeep in the man’s reflections on Communist couture from Huey and Angela to Erich (Honecker, that is). Yes.
Bonus: I followed up – counter to his intentions, I am sure – on Owen’s dissection of Black Box Recorder, a band I’d previously not heard of and whose gorgeous chilly pop spaces I’ve now spent an hour binge-downloading. (Did you really think I’d be able to resist an act with songs named, e.g., “The English Motorway System” and “British Racing Green”?) Latent fascist tendencies be damned: hello, delicious.
Before I forget: Nurri and I got ourselves over to the NY Art Book Fair yesterday, which was as totally great as you’d imagine it would be. I picked up obvious jouissance-bait like Topologies: The Urban Utopia in France, 1960-1970, a Sarai reader on The Cities of Everyday Life and – surprise surprise, given my recent fascination with all things A’dam – a slim, elegant and entirely inspiring volume called Provo: Amsterdam’s Anarchist Revolt.
But what I really wanted to buy, and just couldn’t justify, was a limited edition art book of photos of the Velvet Underground, featuring bespoke essays by Jonathan Richman, William Gibson, Jack Womack (!) and others. The Gibson and Womack essays, particularly, explain everything. Everything.
Gibson’s piece has a gorgeous passage in which he describes hearing The Velvet Underground and Nico for the first time in the same summer that Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band came out, and in which it was not yet at all clear that “Sgt. Pepper would become, well, Sgt. Pepper.” The man goes on to drop one of those trademark density bombs, this one with a yield of galactic-level whoah, at least for me: imagine a world in which The Velvet Underground and Nico had been the one that broke big. (That Gibson goes on to imply that our own 2007 is in fact indistinguishable from such a world’s, us simply having taken the long, slow way here, did nothing to lessen the Keanu-grade impact.)
And so that’s how I thought of us on waking up this morning: as happy citizens of the Banana millennium; as celebrants, truly, of all tomorrow’s parties. Happy October. : . )