Maxima Moralis- Relections from a Healing Mind
Cleveland, Independent Music, and the 1970s
Part V-VI: Pagans + Human Switchboard
by Michael Baker
V. The Pagans: Claustrophobia and Creation
I'll salute the New Wave
And I hope nobody escapes
I'm so bored with the U...S...A...
But what can I do?
The Clash, "I'm So Bored With the USA"
If your sex mechanic's rough you're more than ready
You're an orgasm addict
Johnny want fuckie always and all ways;
He's got the energy, he will amaze
Buzzcocks, "Orgasm Addict"
The Pagans answered Pere Ubu's sprawling aesthetics and serious philosophies with some of America's most vicious music. Where Ubu were meditative monks surveyors of new traditions, and grumpy young men the Pagans were lazy, freeloading artisans, playful imitators: artists who scratched their lyrics and three chords onto sweated-off beer labels. The Pagans, from 1977-1979 after years of playing in basements, abandoned garages, lofts and bars whose owners remembered fondly the grander aspects of Germany's involvement in the Second World War were such a powerful punk rock band that their music, etched with cement and acid onto flimsy 45s, changed the course of musical history. During that period they released a handful of singles, working once with David Thomas, once with a member of the Choir (Denny Carleton); The Pagans at their brightest were Tim Allee on stupendous, steely, and plasticized bass, Mike "Tommy Gunn" Metoff on liquid nitrogen guitar, Brian Hudson on thumping drums and spectacular high hat, and his brother, the leader, singer, writer, Pagans explainer and chronicler, and sometime guitarist, Mike Hudson. They only threw down a few sides, and were sober on even fewer days, but the Pagans rocked hard, savagely, and uncompromisingly, as if Cleveland's future was at stake. And it was.
"I saw it in books, and I read it on TV/ It don't mean nothing to me," screams Hudson, underneath the relentless buzz-saw guitar on their classic anthem, "What's This Shit Called Love," but since, seconds later, he spews, "Somebody help me!", here I am, with my books and CD player and endless cups of Earl Grey, to talk books and media and punk saturation. I'm sure that Marcus is right in Lipstick Traces: Brit punk was influenced by the Situationnistes and their playful disregard for authorities not named Marcuse, their scratched-in sloganeering and graffiti, and their kitchen-table Marxism. Everyone on the internet is right to trace the influence of Beat Poetry and Kerouac and the Bohemian artists of the 1950s for, if nothing else, the embrace of the individual howl, but also, I think, for the Beats' insistence on everything as potential subject matter. The troubled British kids that made up the Mods, the Teds, and the soccer hooligans were more bored than ever. Jon Savage is equally correct in England's Dreaming, emphasizing fashion (dearest Vivienne), British unemployment, and the youth's loss of faith in government. Clinton Heylin acutely traced punk's roots back to Velvets in From Velvets to Voidoids. The punk-ish call to arms of the late Greg Shaw's Bomp fanzine, and of Lenny Kaye's collection of garage Nuggets, mattered. The from-the-rooftops codeine/beer rants of Lester Bangs helped create (real) links between Detroit and NYC. Raw Power, Modern Lovers' first, and Television played crucial roles. The Ramones came straight out of Queens and punched holes in the universe with their sped-up, bubblegum versions of Ziggy Stardust. Rosalind Krauss's undertaking in her (dated) The Originality of the Avant-Garde and Other Modernist Myths finds connections between shock- and tribal art, filtered through Cubist perspectives. Gendron's Between Montmarte and the Mudd Club charts, correctly, the intertwining paths of Parisian cafι concerts, 1950s be-bop and early NYC punk. The glam showmanship and power chords of the NY Dolls and Bowie, the humor of the Dictators, the spoken stylings of Patti Smith, MC5's turn it up, let er rip philosophy, and the rag Punk all helped to establish a currency that could be understood as a series of principles to be easily and democratically copied, then cheaply transmitted.
Cleveland's own Ubu-ians and the Rocket boys, and the by-now well-known leaders or lost legends, like the Mirrors, Electric Eels, Styrene, X-Blank-X, Chronics, Friction, Dead Boys, Laughner's transitory line-ups, and those (really) weird people from Akron, 27 miles south Cramps, Devo, Chrissie Hynde, Robert Quine, Rachel Sweet, Tin Huey, Bizarros, Rubber City Rebels, Ralph Carney, Hammer Damage, Waitresses, Chi-Pig, filmmaker Jim Jarmusch's music experiment, Del-Byzanteens all helped create an explosive exchange of ideas that could quickly become the opening song for your set on Friday night. A Do It Yourself, Learn as You Go aesthetic was established. Wit was replaced by sarcasm, which is cheap irony. This look-at-me-ma irony was simple, direct, brutal, brash, and often charming in a kick-in-the-stomach way. The metaphors and organicity and certitude of Raspberries, and the collagist intimacies of the constantly-evolving Pere Ubu, who exchanged metaphor for hyperbolic hendiadys (two ideas connected by conjunction expressing a single complex idea), seemed hopelessly square and arty, respectively (and respectfully).
Private communication became more trustworthy than large-scale networks; the subject is figural, if nervy, exposed, or cut in half. Existence was a joke; flashbacks and histories and schools were no longer trusted; pot was replaced by quantities of beer not seen since V-Day; formal technique and sculpted permanence were replaced by informal gestures and spontaneous immediacies. The punks and all their barbaric crudities, with their unkempt, tasteless, disorderly rabblerousing poses, upset every applecart, farting during Sunday sermons. As with young animals, they wanted competition, to leap nastily into each others' arms; this music was about play: the German word for play (spil) is connected to our spell, a magical incantation, a spiel, a new gospel. Although far from frivolous, these songs hovered over the borderlines between anti-mystical art and brooding games. Add a shared and intense loathing for stadium rock, disco, James Taylor, Prog Rock, and radio, take MAD magazine and Pop Art as your aesthetic touchstones, and you have something that, within three years, could be called Punk, and don't let anyone tell you different, my rapt children: it changed the world for the better.
And what, Holy Moley, did the ferocious and evanescent Pagans bring to this rapidly-commodifying, pogo-ing party? They played their dicks and tits off, that's what. If Ubu initially sought refuge in a Velvet-sy mode of droning and harrowing discordant tenderness, the Pagans simply took the Ramones' two-chord songs and played them with more muscle, more chops, and more verve, featuring a raspy, uncontainable singer angry at his mom, dad, and school. Add unconscious and electrifying lead guitar solos by way of fiery James Williamson or Fred Smith, and throw in a drummer who was all over the place keeping time, jumpstarting the bridges, riffing jazz-like on the choruses and the Pagans woke up the tired sound of 1978 American punk. The songs are elemental, brutish and bouncy, their bony engineering smacking the sounds together: as purposeful, pertinent, and pointed as Pere Ubu's. Tenuously balanced between poles of desires, meanderingly investigatory, and experimental, both bands were brash and bold and not interested in converts or critics, but the Ubuians paid rent (late, of course) at the High Cult Palace of Art, while the Pagans pissed on the busts of Wolfie Mozart, deaf Ludwig, and baby-faced Franz the Fairy.
Starting with the October 1977 recording "Six and Change," featuring Robert Conn nee William Degidio on vocals (a one-off; this was the last time Mike Hudson did not sing), and continuing with the March, 1978 pair "Street Where Nobody Lives" and "What's This Shit Called Love," both the band and the music merged into a locomotive that would not stop for NYC or Chelsea. The revolutionary sounds of Dischord records and their early 80's animus and angst The Teen Idles, Minor Threat, Government Issue, and Youth Brigade were a full two-and-a-half years away. L.A. never mattered much, and was late to the game with the Germs and Dils. The New York scene, by mid-1978, became ossified as fashion designers, the Voice, Interview, Channel Four news, and poseurs moved in, killing the spirit of spontaneity, killing youthful autonomy. The second albums or in many cases the lack thereof by Patti Smith, Television, Blondie, Dictators, The Dolls, Voidoids, and arguably those by the Ramones and Talking Heads, were duller than their debuts. The British, of course, kept it up, because they looked to the future, and instead of cash or sunshine or jobs or Cuyahoga Community College or sleeping with New Jersey's great unwashed, saw Thatcher, Benny Hill, and sterile academic poetry. Nothing compares to the Pistols, Buzzcocks, Joy Division, Clash, Wire, Gang of Four, Adverts, and the Fall, but in 1979, the hardest-rocking group out there was the Pagans.
They recorded a few other songs in late 1978 and summer 1979:"Not Now No Way," "I Juvenile," "Dead End America," "Eyes of Satan," "Don't Leave Me Alone," "I Don't Understand," and "Yeah Yeah" among them. Apathy and alcoholism broke up the band, but they resurfaced in 1983 to (finally) record an entire album, The Pink Album. The early works, collected on Everybody Hates You and Shit Street, still startle and shock: Hudson considers one of the greatest a farewell gesture. The iconography of "Eyes of Satan" is dumb they tried to call Satan and couldn't get through but the music shifts the paradigm of the Ramones, speeding it up, cackling the vocals instead of mumbling, and allowing the drummer time-booming shifts. "Eyes of Satan" has an internal focus; one wonders if any song has ever been recorded with a greater balance of levels, symbolizing perhaps the participatory democracy of punk, yet with zero focus on its outside vistas. The violent and unresolved dialect between the churning rhythms and two off-the-wall guitar flash-solos is an example of Midwest non-academic Post-Modernism, structurally. The bass throbs repetitively, the guitar grinds near our kidneys; in fact, the song, in its tribal impulse, seems at first hackneyed and fragmented, like a ruined quotation from a Clash outtake, but then the repletion gets more insistent, burying itself into itself, before, finally, the contrast and the vividness of the two guitar solos, one built from the other, carries the songs to New Day Rising territory. By reducing subjective figuration, melody, and Pere Ubu's chromatic ambiguity, the song splits apart, ironically mocking its own minimalism. The variation is a release, and then another, and then back to the sludge of Cleveland's basements and Monday's unemployment lines.
The form is the concept, eschewing ornamentation, embellishment, effects, and technology, but the function remains unclear. You cannot call the Pagans politicized, nor could you dream of labeling them assembly-line robots in the marketing and production of punk music three fucking singles in three fucking years! but the Pagans did not practice on the same playing field as Pere Ubu. They prefer antithesis, absence, and emotional participation versus Ubu's Modernist syntheses, presence, and cool distance. Pere Ubu seeks origins, causes and effects, and mastery; the Pagans, the punkers, with the 60's minimalist artists Donald Judd, Sol LeWitt, Ellsworth Kelly, Tony Smith, Larry Poons, Dan Flavin, Brice Marden, Carl Andre seek traces of meaning leftover from the emptiness and the exhaustion. There is no amorous excitation of the genitalia here, no Elvis twitching or Rod the Mod grabbing some front-row thang. Where Pere Ubu pre-compositionally had and made choices, with regard to such things as tempo, the length of a solo, and jutting improvisational permutations, punk lacked contingencies, motives, and narratives. Punk disallowed stories that had epiphanic moments; they had a tunnel vision that constricted meaning. The music's foundations became its primary functionalism. Punkers in Britain wished to wash away history, to reduce complexities, to get away from their drunken step-dads. In NYC, Verlaine wanted to be a poet; Thunders, a movie queen; Joey, perma-baked; Patti, a fag hag. The Pagans and the Clash and the Slits wanted less, which was more: they wanted their fables of aggression to ease their pain.
The great Sex Pistol John Lydon claims he wanted to combine the artificial theatrics of the hunchbacked Richard III with his mum's fave, Alice Cooper; that he, the band, and their peers could not sing, play an instrument, or stand on a makeshift stage without profound medications. The late Joe Strummer said that the dispossessed and disenfranchised Rastas, and their minimal rub-a-dub beats were significant contributory gestures of influence. I'm no sociologist, but these scurvy, thieving, rat bastard kids pushed their way through the cracks of society and announced, "You made me, you got me." First generation punks were seldom well-off, well fed, or well-schooled; dressed in clothes piled up during garbage strikes, UK punks were, well, punks. Their narratives were jumpstarted by nihilism, thus offering no mediation between social constructs and artistic desires. Although inchoate and incoherent, punks celebrated their newfound tradition of prophesizing the coming doom. In Pere Ubu's march through art history, they were interested in pre-compositional choice, with illicit drafts, with soon-to-be-expanded jottings, and bombastic beginnings. Punks sought function and foundation, not origins, and their tunnel visions produced alarmingly constrained codes of conduct, chords, and clothes. This could be the fetishism of art, but I think it's rather that the genre itself was so non-improvisatory and amateurish that disparate worlds collided: they reject the bourgeois democracies of pop and the esoteric elitism of Modernism in favor of elemental things. After-beats, not 4/4 time; guitar chords over guitar solos; thuggish bass melodies; drum kits, not the ready-made drum sculptures of Emerson, Fake, and Palmer; dissonance over resolution; minimalism over excess. They stripped our worlds bare, like hungry cheetahs fighting over the carcasses of gazelles.
This could not have happened without the glorious excesses of bands like the Raspberries and their obdurate reliance upon a Western tradition of sympathy, moral rationality, and the steady laws of a natural world, nor its opposite face, Pere Ubu's belief in the validity of an aesthetic tradition based on enlightened reconstitution. The punks, in their Luddite valorization of pogo over disco and Travolta, of safety pins over Calvin Klein, the Litter and the Monks over Pink Floyd, embraced that which they saw, sorrowfully, every morning in cracked mirrors: their scarred, emaciated bodies. The subject is called into question. Health is not a goal; as with Gloomy Gus Nietzsche, disease, solemn convulsions, and discourses on the bodies' rejection of other bodies become political weapons against middle-class conventions of wellness/sickness and freedom/corporeal imprisonment. I have epilepsy on stage; therefore, I am. The State wants blood tests? Here's spit in your eyes.
The subject now diminished, the punks could look without regret, empathy, or sentimentalism at the world, objects floating freely through a series of unrelated accidents. This may not be an ideological coup d'etat, especially given that it was fostered by glue-sniffing half-wits (you love em, you hate em), but these investigations of their worlds, and the unblinking gaze of implosions and decay, are instructive in that the lower class, with a distaste for gender distinctions, and a kicking, non-commercial music, was seeing their messy worlds through the lens of undistorted discourses. It was the diction of the streets, of youth, cultural images of shopkeepers' sons and daughters resonate with unhealthy relationships, motherlessness, and abandoned factories. Fuck the Queen, and her kingdom she couldn't trade in for a horse. History hurts, and that pain never stops.
For popsters, positive plentitude dominates; for Modernists, limits of interpretation exist. The punks lived in the tense rift between those polarities: they fragment earlier metaphors; they laugh at the correspondences in allegory. They ask questions; they de-mystify truth; their stories are about storytelling. They subtract the subject, they are inarticulate; they, as with other minimalists, adopt junk as fodder and primitive gestures over poetry causing crises in meanings. By calling into the open with ferocious passion their apathetic stances towards art and supposed meaning the punks put the burden of interpretation on the audience. They are, however, anti-audience, anti-reason, and anti-theory: they are just there, single motifs, repeated over and over, without definition or connection; punk music, sculpture by Judd, and earthwork art is geometrical, not linear or explosively algebraic; there are no variables, simply literal signatures and permanent object-hood. This art is a renunciation of middle class values and conventions in that it deletes the safety net of endings, change, or multiple exposures.
What was folk arty in Pere Ubu sentimental geography of homeland, warm-hearted security of the melting pot, crafted elegies for communal activities has turned inside out in punk music, a world without polyrhythms, choruses, or festive activities, without democratic or moral precepts. As opposed to the orchestrated lack of improvisation found in the music of the Raspberries, within Pere Ubu were dense and difficult jungles of randomness, dreaming of meanings. By the late 1970s, and in particular within the tornadic vortices of the miniature songs of the Pagans, illusions and emotions and colors and identities vanished, replaced by grid-like, repeated monotones. And we who attempted to preserve our communities and our houses of cards were like egocentric Thoreau in his cabin as the punks bayed at its door. He wrote, "They seemed to me to be rudimental, burrowing men, still standing on their defense, awaiting their transformation. Sometimes one came near to my window, attracted by my light, barked a vulpine curse at me, and then retreated."
Within the cultural division created by the record companies at this time, the DIY work made for peanuts by the artists themselves was marginalized by the corporate desire to alienate the artist even more. 19th Century technology and mass production ensured that an original artifact's aura was submerged by klieg lights and t-shirt details. The replaced image of the live event with the millionth pressing of Tony Orlando's newest prefab hit also ensured that the message got buried. I think what the punks perhaps revolutionarily understood was that they knew they were going to be alienated from power, property, and production, forever, so they could at least describe that exile with barking contempt, as if that understanding not their descriptions and preservations of experience was the next best thing. It is called learning. It forms humanity. It is why culture matters: the forces that own and control and codify can never tell us not to stick a broken beer bottle across our chests, mocking health, sanity, and Jesus all at once. Of course, once said forces discovered that Joey Ramone was sexy, and that Paul Weller could really emote, they the record companies wished to fetter those core elements, to lend the sheen of respectability. It's called business. Did anyone really think that Siouxsie was going to be the next Prime Minister?
But true art goes back into steep holes without ladders and creates substantial stuff that counters these organizing, controlling forces. Consciousness is determined by materialism, but materialism can also flow upward, unlocking the grip of greed and uniformity. These things never happened to the Pagans. They took class struggles as a given locked impotently in class stratifications and used that anger and fracturing tension as meat for their harrowing vignettes. No intrinsic relations exist between the objective and subjective worlds; their unequivocal and iconoclastic brevity distorts, but differs from the superimposed, artistic juxtapositions in Pere Ubu's music, a music that ironically hammers on the sidewalks with thematic interrelatedness. Pere Ubu gives lessons against over-familiarity, using ambiguities and discontinuities to reveal diversified narratives. The punks move inside, turn off the lights, and simply punch you in your ears. Musical conformity and continuity are used to hide the nothingness of their messages. The relentlessly debunking Pagans, obsessive, compulsive, and with prodigious energy, conjure blissful breeding grounds without breeders. Their impact and reach are negligible; their oeuvre even more so. The songs that do remain, like "Yeah Yeah," "She's a Cadaver," and "Dead End America," feature an elusive blending of organic motion and negative style. These songs rule and obey, are mechanically self grounding, and remain self-generatively pleasurable. The oppressive arbitrariness of style has been replaced with the explicit power of collective refusal and resistance. The music is simple, reductive, disinterested, disregardful of the inessential, and, paradoxically, within the prison house of its two chords, emancipatory.
VI. Human Switchboard: The Jargon of Authenticity
When you start spinning stories
I know I'll be here bye bye bye.
Human Switchboard, "I Can Walk Alone"
The Raspberries sang songs about love to their potential, smiling, bedazzled conquests; Pere Ubu sang songs to us, hymns of High Art; the Pagans sang to themselves and for themselves, hoping for free beers; Human Switchboard, the extraordinary musical comet, sang to each other, with clenched fists and furrowed brows. The power-pop-sters loved changelessness, antiquated history, and the bright moon on cloudless evenings; the avant-garagists lived in and for the mire, that they could transform it to glittery, mechanical substantiality; the punks prowled the streets, like Baudelaire, laughing at the excrement; these new wavers, Human Switchnboard, lived for last call, so they could pack their bare-bones equipment and argue about whose pad they would crash at. The Raspberries were the summer, the Ubus, the autumn, the Pagans, the winter, and the Switchboard was early spring, huddled near the lake at three in the morning, crafting their next set list. The band's history, biographies, and discographies are as simple to recapitulate as their musical virtues are hard to describe.
Leader, singer, guitarist, and co-songwriter Robert Pfeifer was from Cleveland, a product of Slovenian heritage and Cleveland's parochial school system. He met future co-writer, organist, singer, record store co-owner, and lover Myrna Marcarian, from upstate New York, at Syracuse, where Pfeifer's musical paragon, Loud Reed, met Sterling Morrison in the same dormitory hall of said football school, in the early 60's. Ron Metz, the superb drummer, was a Cleveland neighbor of Pfeifer's; all three moved to Kent, Ohio around 1977, a mere seven years after the State-sanctioned murder of children on their way to their Art History final exams. The twenty-minute separation from Cleveland was crucial: the music breathes more, is almost (darkly) bucolic at times, with a sense of 1960s retro murkiness to it, which, coupled with Myrna's garagey organ, Bob's love of the Velvets art-drone, and Ron's punkish assault on the drums, allowed the Human Switchboard (a perfect name that suggests their stance towards their aesthetics) to be not members of a scene, or imitators, or teachers of a code of conduct, or re-writers of music's history, but rather be simply themselves: runic, expressive, poppy, quirky, gutsy, novel, and unafraid of clichιs that work. Human Switchboard's name cleverly suggests a sci-fi synthesis between two impossibilities, human emotions and techno-engineering, but it also suggests the psyche and heart laid bare, able to be tinkered upon, if not improved. They may have been America's first new wave band, a band more intent on searching within themselves with multiple chords and screwdrivers than searching for noisy crowds and their praising audience.
The first EP, from 1977, was produced by David Thomas, who helped the Pagans in the same capacity. These are variously called the "Fly-In Sessions," or simply, The Human Switchboard EP; finding copies take notes children, and listen as Grandpa talks about selling vinyl from the hatches of a Hondas is easier than finding Jimmy Hoffa's unripe corpse. They did more demos in 1978 and 1979, and played tons of gigs, in Akron and Kent, principally. In 1980, they released a live album exactly who was managing this? entitled, entrancingly, Human Switchboard Live. IRS signed them, and in 1981 Human Switchboard released their one album, the marvelous Who's Landing in My Hanger, recorded at Paul Hamann's Painesville, Ohio studio, SUMA, the site of a few Pagan recordings and, of course, the first Pere Ubu albums. Hamann, who produced and engineered Ubu as well, is a legend, the most important unknown figure in Cleveland musical history (like Jim Dickinson in Memphis). Hamann also played bass on half the cuts on Switchboard's album, allowing bassists Doug Morgan and Steve Calabria a few turns each. A year later ROIR released a live cassette (we used to buy these things), and the band went on to work on some striking demos for Polydor in late 1983, which demand release, as much as their earlier work demands re-release.
Human Switchboard broke up in 1984, soon after headlining at CBGB's (they must have seen the bathrooms), a club they had headlined many times before, in a city they had been adored by, listened to, and copied many times before. Pfeifer released a solo effort with the clever title After Words in 1987, on Passport, with Metz, Myrna, Funkadelic's Bernie Worrell, Dimitri Shostakovich, Jr.(!), Voidoid's Ivan Julian, and Dave Schramm helping out; Pfeifer later co-wrote half the songs on Alice Cooper's 1991 LP Hey Stoopid. He runs his own music-based company that concentrates on Internet technology like wireless video games, with such clients as Metallica in L.A., where for a decade or so Pfeifer was a heavy-duty mucky muck record executive, leading Hollywood Records, owned by Walt Disney, the evil empire itself. Myrna, in 1989, offered up a touching and oddball EP, Human Touch, and early in 2004 put out a striking and wistful and folksy and tender album with her new band, Ruby on the Vine. Metz in the NYC metro area, like Myrna worked with the Schramms for years, and now works with David Schramm in the music business.
If the Raspberries bridged the Who with the Power Pop Revival of the early 1980s, and if Pere Ubu bridged the Mississippian hoodoo of Beefheart with noisters like Sonic Youth, and if the Pagans bridged the Williamson led-Stooges with the DC Hardcore movement, Human Switchboard bridged late Velvets to the darkly baroque Twee and Lo-fi indie movements of the 1980s, bands like Field Mice, Violent Femmes, Cardinal, Hope Blister, Beat Happening, Pastels, and Young Marble Giants. Their music was a linking device in Pop Cult. Retrospectively, in 1976, the Modern Lovers released their eponymous debut, songs recorded three years earlier and bursting with puckish melodics, circular guitar riffs, swirling keyboards, and the edgy, enervating vocals of Jonathan Richman. Off-beat, addled songs like "Dignified and Old" and "I'm Straight" fit comfortably with the Switchboard's pared-down centers of localized gravity. Around the same time bootlegs of the Velvets were circulating in northeast Ohio, thanks in part to Charlie Beasley, later a friend to the Feelies, a band that matters in this discussion of confluence and influence.
The legendary and lost fourth Velvet Underground album for MGM which showed up officially in the mid-1980s featured such simplified, art-less and contemplative ballads as "Stephanie Says," "Temptation in Your Heart," and "One of These Days," each of which would have fit into the burgeoning aesthetics of a movement that retaliated against the harsh tunnel vision of experimental atonality of punk music. The clip clop drumming of Wire, the organ from the Knickerbockers and Question Mark and the Mysterians, Dave Davies's non-pyrotechnic guitar work, the Who Sells Out's simultaneous celebration and dismissal of all things commercial, Mick Jagger's pleas he didn't know how old that groupie was the recitative singing of Lou Reed, the atmospheric sound expressionism of later Joy Division, the fierce intelligence of Dylan, the left field brute force of Elvis Costello (an early Human Switchboard fan) and his great Attractions, the Waitresses (with whom they shared sensibilities) and their talky, ironic guy/gal songs about love, Ziggy Stardust's sense of theatrical style, and the herky-jerky artsy-ness of the Talking Heads play roles here as well. If not directly, then of course indirectly. Myrna and Bob didn't operate the coolest record store south of Cleveland simply for profit: they really dug the music out there, past, present and future.
The most important event in 1922 was the chance encounter between Walter Benjamin and Theodore Adorno, the soon to become left-wing cultural critics, authors of intense, impassioned pleas for and against popular culture, and architects and members of the influential Frankfurt School. Adorno hated television, radio, the possibility of poetry after Auschwitz, art books with their pale reproductions of Goya and Caravaggio; Benjamin, mystical, self-exiling, searching, is more relevant here, as a flaneur, he who poetically walks the streets late at night, looks for intersecting boundaries, and lives in-between these gray areas: night/day, urban/agrarian, authentic/copy, past/present, inside buildings/streets. Both critics and their post-modern aesthetics celebrate provisionality, contingencies, and incoherence. Modern capitalistic societies, through mass production or soporific kitsch, elevate order over disorder, preferring sturdy texts by competent white males with a Platinum Visa Cards. Benjamin, in particular, celebrates the new working class, the unconscious, the multiple connections of allegory, challenging ideologies, the night life, and urban disintegration. The apocalyptic counterculture of Pere Ubu and the unprejudiced populist art of the Punks play roles here, as do each of their notions of Global Village, clans and sects, and the dehumanization of blank pages, filled with nonsense, lunatic parodies, and art that is ephemeral.
The new wave movement in particular the artists who reject the tiresome Art for Art's Sake (lack of) crisis of Faith in addition to putting the grimly grinning subject back into the song, also rejected any large scale attempts at definition. The crucial crisis of a post-War generation, brilliantly first voiced by philosopher Jean Franηois Lyotard, is, who decides what knowledge is. He sought to reject the "grand narratives" of Western Civilization technology, science, democracy, Christianity, Romanticism, capitalism, logic and replace them with local gestures, human contact, visual reality, and smaller narratives that could, or should, be unoriginal, primitive, ill-formed, noisy, and functionally alert to the subject. If the punks sought to dismantle the Modernist houses of ruined beauty with noise and grunts and nihilism, the other approach is much simpler: Human Switchboard and other post-punk new wavers were walking around with books of poetry, well-thumbed books of philosophy, possibly postcards of Arbus and Edvard Munch, thinking about the world, but living in smaller communities. Participation, relationships, anti-elitist options, rejection of hierarchies, distrust of gods, saxophone solos, and a lack of musical climaxes mark this music, and we are better off for it.
Human Switchboard rejects large-scale ambition, lyrically, musically, and aesthetically. They seek to de-legitimatize romance, with no baleful wails, but rather with muttered asides, raised eyebrows, and brief cryptic self-accusations. These songs remind the listener of Pinter plays that evoke buried anger through silence, or of Mamet's circuitous, lost characters, who, by repeatedly questioning others con men, cheats, the wounded discover only their cloudy selves (and always way too late). Human Switchboard songs detail partial events through tones of anxiety and resignation. The fables are unstable, non-sequential, off-Off Broadway, theatrically, and revolve around the difference between a Subject singing to an Other who, because of temporal displacement and thwarted desires, has actually become a lower case object himself, an it. That rift between Being and non-Being, much documented in every art form since the late 1940s, is seen in American Pop Song for the first extended time: the members define love through its tormenting absence.
This is not to say that the songs are laboratories, rooms of theoretical dissection and hypothetical posturing. The brilliant and brittle songs are, moreover, direct rebukes of the tyrannical bullying of the punks' worldview concerning human relations, challenging the closed world of punk convention and its style of singing, and the failure of promised introductions to songs. Human Switchboard preferred guitar solos to power chords, melody to sonic romp. At the same time, however, the music reflects the uneasiness the participants feel in adopting punk DIY strictures while rejecting the budding genre's innermost musical forms. If you move into a building built by a member of the Bauhaus, you are not allowed to add embellishing ornamentation to the faηade; Human Switchboard boldly adopted and kicked out punk rock, simultaneously. For all the songs' faltering hesitancies they also exhibit a repressing exclusivity this is my p'tι, and I will cry if I want to but it was no longer punk music: there was fire, independence of mind, spirited embrace of alternative literate models, and a keen desire to create something radically new: music about people, not cut-outs, about ideas not slogans.
Human Switchboard jump-started indie rock for the 1980s. The successive stages of their songs seem to move from timidity and assurance and back, as the bonds of an increasingly-remote society fade, forcing the music's inmates into their tenuous world of primal bonding. The sexual politics feature a dynamic process, of the possible triumph of female desire and the subject's attempt to reconstruct things. As in sonatas, the masculine (singer, words, guitars) introduces a dominant strand that is counter-pointed by the feminine, and her frailer voice, her unsteady exclamations, the punctuating organ fills adding tension for tension's sake. For the listener, these songs are akin to seeing a relationship through a one-way mirror. Welcome to reality TV. What a soundtrack.
The music is often languorous, dilatory, in search of momentum; this casual pose towards dynamic climaxes has many precedents, and many of them are pop bands built, sonically, from keyboards up: East Coast garage; Sonny and Cher and their ironic posturing; Traffic; the guitar/organ melding of Pearls Before Swine; the genius of Dylan and his talk-talk-talk; the pub rock of Kevin Coyne and Graham Parker; the child-like folkies, Modern Lovers; Reed's mid-70's soloing; the rapid urgencies of early Costello; the antic, spastic Talking Heads. The organ in and of itself brings fresh, boisterous hues to Pfeifer's obvious celebration of darkness. Cheesy, circusy, jazzy, the organs are also acidic, non-slick, and polyphonic. The notes are querulous, inquisitive, like the lyrics, and the sounds are, like the songs, creative, youthfully exuberant, tick-tock-ing with the beat of real people in a real world. They provide vibrato and sustain, and against Pfeifer's breaking vocals and his brittle guitar work, lend the songs considerable depth and tension. This is profoundly personal songwriting and playing, both in its handling of relational disorientation and the love of night jobs. The Raspberries were provincial, but lordly; Pere Ubu impudent and irreverent; the Pagans rejected sobriety and reason; Human Switchboard, and most American New Wave music, sought staying power in the nobility of simple efforts, in the potential greatness of the battered heart. As it was, in Cleveland at least, no template existed for this type of minor key magnanimity, so the rules were made up as the band went along. The easels are scratched, tentative, painted over, with the band discarding anything that suggests strength, permanence, or relational certitude. These delicate lullabies were not chiseled, but whispered, breathlessly.
By meditating on the figure, and by examining relationships up close and impersonal, Human Switchboard adopts a prismatic perspective for their nascent artistic ideology. At times, because of their intense inwardness, the band embodies a lawlessness that rivals punks, but they easily transcend the by-now commercial codification of the "rules." By relying on cinematic quick jumps and visual pungency, Human Switchboard seeks low-key opulence, with an anti-boogie beat; the songs meanderingly groove in a melodic embrace of space, not claustrophobia. They are self-conscious ready-mades of evanescent emotions, like posters of last week's French Film Festival or snapshots of crumpled Dear John letters in a wastebasket. Borrowing and drastically broadening Factory Records' founder Anthony Wilson's distinction between punk and post-punk self-awareness, I suggest pop-sters purr, "Fuck Me," avantists growl, "Fuck the Rules," punks spit, "Fuck You," post-punks anxiously mutter, "We're Fucked," but New Wavers laughingly croon, "We're Fucked Unless ."
By staring at the human form and its cubist proximities to others, Human Switchboard, as with the Beats, Dylan, and Scorsese, and painter Eric Fischl, trace assemblages of individual portraits, denying sturdy architecture; they prefer organic shapes over separating patterns; they dig the spontaneous, the memoir, the anti-mystical. The songs speak directly, even if based upon the triadic concerns of the three principals. As if each kept a diary, not principles, the band members fed off those intimacies. There are ambivalent stances about truncated events, moveable emotions, and, because the concerns are non-global, the songs have compact and decodable endings. These great songs lack depth, but stretch horizontally, over level and lone sands. They are post-modern miniatures of human beings, like the sculpted, bronzed matchstick figures by Giacometti: the more that you take away, the more is revealed.
The songs chronicle urban and urbane love, a love that never screams, neither in pain or joy. They are elegant, humorous, muted, savvy, and literate; what they lack in smoldering fires, they more than make up in the steely firmness found in the residual embers. Listening to Marcarian and Pfeifer trade off understated asides as they move in and out of their worl, a sort of Kiss Me, Kate for hipsters. In fact, within this tension lies the unfulfilled promise of their music. The music and the performances on the early EP's, and at times on the record, Who's Landing in My Hangar, never seem certain of resolution, which is part and parcel of their mystique and purpose: in their closed world, small pockets of affirmation matter, not grand finales or concluding climaxes. They deny the power of Pere Ubu's unmasking of the world and the Pagans' destructive urges: in this tiny world of bedrooms and bars, the post-modern Human Switchboard erase boundaries, deny centrality to male hierarchies, laugh at notions of self knowledge, and dislodge notions of commercial viability. As Pfeifer once told me, Albee's fierce Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is a model for some of these songs; it's easier for Pfeifer to write about politically and philosophically important issues through the perspective of a couple people simply talking about their everyday lives. As with the word cleave, which simultaneously embodies its own definitional antonym, Human Switchboard members wish to cling to one another as they cut each other away.
The songs on Who's Landing in my Hangar are witty, simple, edgy, and physical: you can almost hold each jagged one in your hands. They are raw, bootleggy in both execution and production; somber and blackish in tone, they are sacred/profane realistic experiments about temporarily lifted spirits, last week's successful relational moment, and the inadequacies of modern materials. Myrna's dusky voice and Ernie Krivda's expert sax pose inviting questions and possibilities for a secret embrace; Bob's heavy-lidded vocals, filtering out morning light, push the songs along a tense anti-emotional concord. Whereas Myna's singing and playing are additives of warmth and color, Pfeifer steers the songs toward monochromatic worlds of no illusions. The songs simultaneously seem anti-formal, ragged, immediate and shapely, swirling and connected to one another. There is much pleading here: organ notes that never really match the melody, guitar that frantically seeks releases, singing that is understatedly halting, and themes of struggling love. The expression of the emotions here does not seem therapeutic. These dramas contain no hysteria; union and communion are distant memories. The songs seem to be seeking a higher psychic state, but the participants are stuck, like all of us, in the everyday. The songs portray trains of thoughts that never get mediated or transferred. These songs are the moments before immediate waking: the people and sentiments and setting are familiar, but everything seems instinctual, drives between the conscious and the unconscious.
As brittle, compositionally and lyrically, as these songs are there are still many moments of quiet loveliness. Although the songs suggest independence, they also suggest the importance of giving advice and staying friends: We are alone, but where is the Free Clinic? Where is the best breakfast in town? In many of the songs the relationship here single and separate people living in the same bedroom commemorates a subdued background of shadowy figures with failing energies. The lyrics criticize one another and themselves; they find fault in love, in lust, in loss. Many of these songs are about regret and disillusionment with the characters' belief in each another after, say, seeing an ex-lover's legs spread for another. In many cases, the non-idealized portraits are well aware of the limits of love but, please, please, please baby, one more careless night. It is the aim of Human Switchboard to celebrate the dull vulgarities of love, to dissect the corpses of each other. Although deformed by it, love, and the attendant sympathies for the outcasts, the miserable, the damaged, embodies the failures of everything else in the world; but the attitude could be Sophocles' or Shelley's or Seinfeld's: in battles of the sexes you must tell the truth. There is beautiful fruit that comes from dying trees.
The frank self-revelations here expose the inner limitations of desire and suggest, partially, why without this music I can't imagine, for better or worse, the Violent Femmes or the Strokes but the cohesive and coherent songs themselves are often more compelling than anything else at this time in America. Some of the early singles and unreleased demos and EP projects show youthful musicians who maturely sacrifice or compromise technique for expressive value. These are basement raps about dry humping cigarette machines, about saying no, about losing intellectual inclinations. These songs are triumphs over catastrophe. The early songs, like "I Gotta Know," "In My Room," and "Shale It, Boys," are early attempts at finding room for the three participants' musical energies inside four-minute worlds. They often retreat from melody, and Myrna's talents are submerged; it isn't until the album itself that the greatness of consistency kicks in, so much so that for years, NYC rock critics like Robert Christgau, Ira Robbins, Barbara O'Dair, and (Perfect Sound Forever's own) Jason Gross have all publicly and privately extolled the band's many virtues. The Beastie Boys proclaimed their love of the band on TV; Mark Lanegan and Chris Cornell, two early advocates and architects of the Seattle Scene (the G-spot) are also fans of Human Switchboard.
And who can blame any of them? Included among the virtues are the hard-rocking songs: midway through the second chorus on each of these propulsive, thumping songs, pushed always ahead by Metz's turn-back-attentive drumming, are inspiring moments of simple rock glee, breakneck tempos and squawking glories liberating themselves from the constraints of the twelve-bar form. These provocative songs, with or without the dynamics of a guitar or sax solo episode, test the thematic figure's ability to maintain composure as it descends into flushed grooves of wooly commotion. They are lively tableaux, rangy, unfashionable, irresistible, giving off dramatic spells from their own hollering greatness. The songs may be about relational dislocation but more often than not, they are boisterous and youthful effusions of musical possibilities. These sturdy rockers are the work of a mature and competent band; they are stolid, pointed, and persuasive, and their gaze is fixed upon the skyline of the Velvet's Manhattan and the favorite bars of the Kinks. The accent is on conscientious urban moodiness and punk dynamics, colored by Metz's appropriately indignant drumming and Marcarian's sentimental tinges of merrymaking: the title song, "No Heart," "I Can Walk Alone," and "(I Used to) Believe in You," all strike pitch perfect balance between 1960s garage pop and the quasi-blues clamoring of the artsy, fragile side of such stalwart models as Reed, Richman, and Costello. And Human Switchboard did it within the uncompromising vein of conformity. They rework the songs until they're so compact that melody is often replaced by sophisticated abstractions of energy, warmth, and power. These songs resonate for hours, well after the last club patron has weavily departed, satisfied.
But the real masterpiece on Who's Landing in my Hangar is the fifth song of ten, the perplexing non-rocker/rocker "Refrigerator Door," a seven and half minute entry into a world of love and coldness, of transitory, perplexing moments, of dashed expectations and broken promises. The music that grounds these breakups and seedy bars and old newspapers and 4AM cigarettes is a bluesy dirge, lacking percussion and melody, for the most part. The drama is played out between Myna's quiet keyboards and her repeated wordlessness, punctuated by "la-la-las," and Bob's complacent spoken words, his Slovenian hectoring, his narrative of cut up memories, his lamenting/teasing, and his terse and tense solo guitar. This song needs its own liquor license.
Called the punk "Stairway to Heaven" by Kurt Cobain the man also profoundly responsible for Pere Ubu's Box Set seeing the light of day "Refrigerator Door" is about memory, and compromise, its lovers talking different languages: Marcarian's hopeful bursts of wordlessness are slapped together with Pfeifer's grappling-with-sense (list making; defining what's in the apartment) and his past/present confusion (his ancestors' language; past nights in a bar told in the present). "Refrigerator Door" is the sleeping bear the rest of Who's Landing in my Hangar warily approaches, or avoids. The Human Switchboard aesthetic sonically tenebrous, lyrically fraught with receding, relational anonymity is here: churning, muscular, in and out, looking for small comforts. The memories of the participants here and elsewhere in their discography are protective devices against decay, time, and Cleveland. Memory is a good prison. Absence is an emanation of power.
On the extraordinary Who's Landing in my Hangar, Human Switchboard characterize fearful repression's inextricable link with existence. There are no more statues of leaders or saints, no churches open twenty-four hours a day. The composition and performance of these songs was a transitory engagement with others in the band: these are unafraid, ordinary loners, ready to freely admit blunders. By the end of the album, they had digested the highs and lows of romance; they could look upon love and art and admit that the past does not stand still, like the frozen and perfect characters on Keats's Grecian urn. All memories have become traces of doubt, and although not courageous or communal, these songs are miniature elegiac histories of prior authentic moments. They describe each of us, from behind and from below.
|MAIN PAGE||ARTICLES||STAFF/FAVORITE MUSIC||LINKS|