Entertainment Through Stomach-aches: Suicide, Keith Rowe, Masayuki Takayanagi

Out of Nick Hornby’s 31 significant pop songs, there are four that I’d claim reasonable familiarity with, and two that I actually like. And the only one of those that I was curious to hear his thoughts on is Suicide’s “Frankie Teardrop,” which didn’t make it on to the cd that comes with the book, even though there was plenty of room left and I can’t imagine the licensing would have been too expensive. (I couldn’t have resisted, anyway.) Of course there’s a reason, which is that Hornby feels differently about “Frankie” than about the other tunes:

I need no convincing that life is scary. I’m forty-four, and it has got quite scary enough already–I don’t need anyone trying to jolt me out of my complacency. Friends have started to die of incurable diseases, leaving loved ones, in some cases young children, behind. My son has been diagnosed with a severe disability [autism], and I don’t know what the future holds for him. And, of course, at any moment there is the possibility that some lunatic will fly a plane into my house, or a nuclear power plant….So let me find complacency and safety where I can, and please forgive me if I don’t want to hear “Frankie Teardrop” right now.

I’m going to ignore the pathos (some would say bathos) here, other than to note that I’m not a fan, and just say that this is a pretty strong reaction to a shock-horror story complete with screaming about a Vietnam veteran shooting his wife, kids, and self over a minimal synthesizer pulse. It’s not pleasant, but even the first time I heard it I thought it was dull–listen to “Cheree” and “Rocket USA” off the album for better results.

What I don’t get is that the “song” works on the level of an exploitation flick (if you can believe it, Bruce Springsteen is supposedly a fan), so a more understandable response would be distaste, not repulsion or fear. I can see that Hornby might not want to hear it for the same reason I don’t want to watch Michael Haneke or Takashi Miike movies, but the thing shouldn’t pose the sort of moral threat he attributes to it. It’s possible there’s some past association or memory, or simply a visceral fear implanted by Alan Vega’s loud screeching, but this is a secondary effect; primarily, it’s like wanting to avoid the sound of jackhammers. I don’t want to listen to Suicide when I have a headache or when I’m stressed, but even less do I want to listen to DJ Scud.

Since it’s difficult to make music representational, the associations one has with it tend to be on the level of pure physiological or conditioned effect: major chords equal happy, sine waves equal pain, Yamaha DX-7′s equal 1980′s, etc., etc. This is why Throbbing Gristle‘s music never reached the disturbing heights it had pretenses towards: gross-out lyrics over thin synthesizers only at most have the association of mild nausea. If you want raw, elegaic emotion, Shayne Carter and Peter Jefferies’ “Randolph’s Going Home” has it in rare doses, but the sadness isn’t painful. Neither is “Frankie,” which is less effective emotionally as well.

Consequently, as you reach towards representation in less idiomatic areas, as clicheed associations become less accessible, physiology becomes paramount. Penderecki’s “Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima” doesn’t make it onto the stereo too often because it induces acute nausea in me and others (those damn frequencies), but the work is effectively symbolic rather than representational; you could call it “Threnody for Your Long-Suffering Stomach” and its effect on me wouldn’t differ. The association with the historical event is secondary, and requires conscious effort to appreciate, an effort which would be easier to make if my innards didn’t feel so attenuated.

Keith Rowe has spent decades in the free-improv ensemble AMM, who always maintained that there was a strong political side to their work. Drummer Eddie Prevost has been the most vocal about it, but there’s one quote of Rowe’s on his solo album Harsh that addresses these particular issues:

I wanted the CD to become more of a statement about “harshness”, rather than merely a “recording” of a performance. A music that reflects something about the harshness of the lives of the majority of the world’s people, economic harshness, political harshness, cultural harshness. A music that presents questions about taste, the nature of performance, technique, an arena of problems rather than solutions. Where we find long sections of unrelenting, constant, enduring, unforgiving sound, the grinding functionality of unformulated techniques, often unpleasant.

This is actually fairly complicated. The album is pretty damn harsh (the three pieces are called “Quite”, “Very”, and “Extremely”), but those who are going to find it unpleasant are (a) going to be those least familiar with this sort of music and therefore least likely to pick the album up, and (b) are those least likely to make the representational connection with other sorts of “harshness” in the first place, since Rowe’s harshness will be so unpleasant for them. As for me, I like the disc (when I don’t have a headache), but the problems it presents to me are concertedly aesthetic.

In contrast, there is another solo guitar album that has a very different effect on me: Masayuki Takayanagi’s Inanimate Nature. From what I gather (I don’t speak Japanese), Takayanagi had prickly, outspoken political and aesthetic views not dissimilar to Rowe’s, but the “emotional noise projection” of Inanimate Nature is something else entirely. It doesn’t make me physically ill, but the album gives off such an ineffable bad vibe (without any noticeable abuse of volume or frequencies) that I’m usually in a noticeably worse mood after I finish listening to it. It presumably goes under the physiological rubric, but the impact is so primarily mental that for non-eliminativists it could easily move into the realm of the metaphysical. It’s a rare effect that deserves investigation and I think it’s a great album anyway, but please forgive me if I don’t want to hear Inanimate Nature right now.