Five articles I am too stupid to write (vol. 1)

by Pip Williams

Hello reader, it’s been a while hasn’t it? Perhaps unsurprisingly, I’m finding it exceedingly hard to write anything currently; turns out three-plus months of debilitating job uncertainty, existential dread, not seeing any of my friends and the potential collapse of the industry I (nominally) work for does not do wonders for one’s penmanship. However, there’s only so much self-flagellating even I can manage, and I thought I should probably put something out for the sake of my sanity if nothing else.

So please find below five short-ish articles that I am too sad, too fidgety or simply too plain stupid to follow to their full realisation. They will be of interest to approximately five people, and for this I can only apologise.

“YEAH!”- Non-musical sounds in music

There’s a bit of received wisdom about musical theatre, which is that its central tenet is when a character is too overwhelmed by emotion to speak, they start singing; the breadth and intensity of the given emotion is such that it defies the spoken word, and only song will do. I’m always interested in the intriguing, tantalising reversal that occasionally happens in recorded music (whether unintentionally or through production wizardry) when the musicality is disrupted and the real world leaks in- when the musician makes a non-musical noise, and when that noise is left in. In other words, when the breadth of emotion is such that they stop singing.

Of course, there are distinctions to be made here; there’s a significant difference between a lo-fi or live recording made pre, say, 1980, when music producing was still in its adolescence and spontaneous moments, mistakes or general non-musical moments were harder to edit out, and music made in the last few decades, where the leaving-in of such moments was more of an artistic decision.

In the former, you were more likely to catch moments of genuine unguarded human expression, analogue glimpses of camaraderie or antipathy. I’ve never heard Paul McCartney’s little chuckle around the 1:21 mark in Maxwell’s Silver Hammer (purportedly caused by John Lennon mooning him from the control room) without smiling a little. Likewise, if you listen very carefully to the Rolling Stones’ Gimme Shelter, backing vocalist Merry Clayton’s voice cracks on the word “murder” around 3:00, and a voice can be vaguely heard in the background going “WHOO!”, adding to the general air of apocalyptic triumph that song so completely embodies.

Because recording was, very broadly speaking, more akin to documenting a live band up until fairly recently, in older recordings you are afforded these insights into the workings of a band or artist; a heartening, humanizing reminder that at the end of the day, you were listening to a person, or a group of people, in a room together, making an artefact that only they were capable of making. That this was not a sacred text or a perfect flower, but human voices, and objects made from wood and wire, joining to make something unique.

Evidently this is a quality we strive to recreate, even in the age of digital production and editing techniques, when all such moments could easily be erased- when it is genuinely possible to create sacred texts and perfect flowers (as it were), for a song to be only the song, clean and finished at the point of delivery. Indeed, you could argue then, with all the available technology, that the inclusion of the messier, more spontaneous human moments in songs is somewhat cynical- an attempt to go “Hey, we’re still just a bunch of dudes, strumming our guitars, calm down everyone”, wilfully ignoring all the equipment at their disposal that would, y’know, make the songs sound better.

So why do we still chase those moments? What is it about Jeff Buckley’s sigh, the ageing Bowie’s stertorous breathing, the creak of Justin Vernon’s guitar that is still so attractive to us? More than a desire for authenticity, I think it’s a desire for intimacy, for inclusion, or at least their illusions.

One of my favourite ever bands is The Mountain Goats, and lead singer/lyricist John Darnielle is no stranger to an occasional “YEAH!” or “HEY!” at impassioned moments (see 1:29, See America Right). I think the result of these is not that we feel impressed by the verité of the production, but that we feel included, part of a gang; we feel we are witnessing a real person in a truly intimate moment, encouraged to feel as they feel. After all, we take songs into our hearts and make them our own, they soundtrack our victories and our heartbreaks, and they lodge in our minds for sometimes our whole lives. The aim of music should not, in my opinion, be perfection, but connection- a sturdy and workable bridge between two islands, rather than a cinema screen showing a picture of an island.

It is nice to feel that you are being touched on the shoulder by a human hand, after all.

“Eat Raw Meat=Blood Drool”- Scary Meat in “Tiger King” and Beyond

I have been a vegetarian for approximately four years now, for entirely moral, or at least squeamish, reasons; I am fond of animals, as a rule, and I dislike seeing docile, trusting creatures being brutalised and killed in appalling conditions, made to live out grotesquely chemically altered existences whilst squashed together in wire cages in piles of their own filth. There are, I think, serious questions we need to ask ourselves as a society about how we treat our fellow creatures, and the planet in general, if we want to keep living on it, and it seems to me that we could do a lot worse than asking why we feel the need to assert dominance over our fellow beasts in such baroque ways and for such small gain.

My opinions in this piece, then, will be coming from a certain ethical standpoint. But I have always been interested in the way in which, even in a largely carnivorous society, images of raw meat are still used to unsettle and disconcert us in film, television and art.

I was really struck by this watching Netflix’s Tiger King (if you can remember the heady days when that was the main thing we were discussing this lockdown); decorating the edges of the lurid, almost Jacobean tale of excess, hatred and murder was a chorus of caged wild animals- gorgeous, glossy tigers prowling their cages with inscrutable expressions, periodically tearing into vast, bloody hunks of meat tossed to them. They serve as a constant reminder that, despite what their captors are telling us, very few of the grisly and bizarre actions committed in the show are truly in their interest. A moving and bleak coda at the end emphasises this; a tearful Joe Exotic reflects that his actions have saved not one wild animal, that he may actually have been depriving them of their needs all along.

I find, then, the repeated shots of raw meat and feasting an interesting visual leitmotif; how little there is that separates these vicious, opportunistic humans from the animals they claim to be protecting (at least tigers are more honest about their taste for blood). Indeed, how little there is separating the nasty, private bloody stuff inside us all from the outside world; all creatures, I’d imagine, look the same if you turn them inside out- and we can don all the ridiculous trousers and outlandish mannerisms we like, ultimately we are all one mistake away from being raw meat.

Meat, and the normalised act of hunting and murder that it represents, is simply a useful cipher for our essential inhumanity. One of my recent lockdown watches was Ted Kotcheff’s fantastic psychological thriller of 1971, Wake In Fright, a beer and sweat-drenched examination of toxic masculinity set in the Australian outback. It’s an intense and blackly funny watch, walking a constant tightrope between macho posturing and outright brutality, and for me, its most horrifying scene saw our protagonist (Gary Bond) accompanying a group of locals on a drunken night-time hunting trip; using only the headlights of their van, they chase kangaroos around the arid landscape, whooping and firing shots straight into these poor creatures, whose terrified, hysterical eyes flash mutely in the lights of the car. When they’ve killed enough of them, they remove the animals’ testicles as trophies, jeering and waving them in each other’s faces (all of this made a million times worse by the fact that, as I later discovered, real kangaroos were shot during this scene). It is a classic third-act turning point; after this, our protagonist can never go back to his old life. Like the poor dead ‘roos, he had the choice either to stare blindly into the headlights or to take charge, and, by dismembering the animal, he proves his masculinity and changes as a person forever. In Kotcheff’s film, meat equals men, and by choosing to turn a living creature into meat, Bond’s character parts with an essential element of his humanity.

All of this is taken to its logical conclusion, I think, in Julia Ducournau’s 2016 film Raw, one of my favourite horror films ever (though also one of the most unpleasant experiences I’ve ever had in a cinema). In this, Justine, a timid, vegetarian college student, transforms into an insatiable carnivore after being forced to eat a rabbit kidney as part of a hazing ceremony, her tastes moving inexorably from raw chicken to human flesh, which she will obtain by any means necessary. As an exploration of hunger, of the adolescent desire for conformity and the strangeness of burgeoning sexual appetite, it is remarkably, viscerally effective. Desire makes animals of us all, it suggests, and the search for identity as a young person can make us strangers to ourselves and others. By eating meat, Justine crosses the line from innocence to experience; the blood and viscera of the film is a macabre metaphor for the mess and complication of human emotion, and the fine lines between lust and something a lot more primal and messy.

Even if we are still fundamentally a society of meat-eaters, the fact remains that we are scared of meat. We are scared of meat because, as previously stated, we know we are meat. We are a hairdo and a t-shirt away from the butcher’s hook. To quote that most eminent of fictional butchers Sweeney Todd- “The history of the world, my sweet/…Is who gets eaten and who gets to eat!”

“How Young Fathers Broke My Heart” (after David Foster Wallace)

In his 1994 essay How Tracy Austin Broke My Heart, David Foster Wallace, reviewing tennis player Tracy Austin’s autobiography, laments the disparity between her near-transcendent athleticism on the court (he uses the Greek term techne, “the state in which Austin’s mastery of craft facilitated a communion with the gods themselves”) and the “numbing…inanimate” nature of her prose writing; “it communicates no real feeling and so gives us no sense of a conscious person”. He concludes with the thesis that, as spectators, “who are not divinely gifted as athletes,” we are the only ones fully able to articulate or describe the god-given gifts of others, “not because blindness and dumbness are the price of the gift, but because they are its essence.”

It is an idea that any of us who have lamented our shortcomings in a field we are interested in will recognise. I have more or less come to terms with the fact that I will never be in a successful band and that I am doomed instead to write painfully earnest, meticulously referenced think-pieces about albums, in place of what Wallace/Greek tragedians refer to as techne. But it lingers, this feeling that understanding and appreciation (not that I’m wholly confident I possess either of those things) must lead to skill- to quote Fran from Black Books, “I must be musical, I have hundreds of CDs.”

It is hard, then, to quell a little bitterness whenever an artist or band capable of creating beautiful art, of recording sounds, words, atmospheres one can never possibly hope to emulate, fails to perfectly articulate their artistic MO. I’m a massive fan of Young Fathers, for example- I think they make music of stunning intelligence and emotional impact; I think they create intricate, twisted pop music, at once perfectly controlled and demonically wild; I think Cocoa Sugar is undoubtedly one of the best albums of the last five years or so and should be recognised more as such. And I remember hearing them in a KEXP interview last year, shrugging their way through an exchange with one of KEXP’s deathly serious, weirdly adolescent-looking presenters, describing their recording process as “Being more strict. Being more focused on what was actually gonna make the song”, and “It’s for the whatever it is at the end, so it’s worth it.” Guys! I just came up with “perfectly controlled and demonically wild”! Come on!

Of course I’m being flippant. There is a massive amount of uncomfortable snobbery in Foster Wallace’s implication that it is some kind of heroic tragedy that some of us write better than we run, and there’s something more than a little weird about the implication that you can’t be good at sports (or in this case writing songs) and articulate about it, that it is a biological one-or-the-other situation, because that just sounds like the sour grapes of the school nerd (and don’t get me wrong, they’re grapes I’ve eaten all too often).

My own bitterness aside, there is no reason why even the most gifted composers and lyricists should be able to dissect their own work, in the way that I enjoy dissecting theirs. The fact is that it’s ALL articulation- the whole point of a song, one could argue, is to condense emotion down to the smallest possible surface area. That’s why we like it- because we are stupid, and because we cannot express ourselves with such precision, because we spend our whole lives trying, failing, trying again to say the things we mean- “In my view, nothing’s ever given away” (Young Fathers, In My View), when coupled with extraordinary delivery and a siren synth, says much more about resignation and heartbreak than I can ever hope to out of my stupid fallible mouth.

It’s an inherently expressive art form, it can’t help but articulate things, shape feelings, or at least signify them. To quote David Lynch, when asked to talk about his films, “The film IS the talking!”

It is a sad side-effect of talk-show/interview culture that not only are you, as an artist, expected to pour your soul, your time and energy into the making of art, into writing, arranging and producing an album or a single or a film, but you are then expected to go on an endless junket and analyse it, and with a smile on your face. It’s a deeply unfair demand; very few people, I’d wager, get into songwriting for the academia or the critical debate. And besides, music is something so personal, so cathartic, so specifically the product of certain mysterious alchemies that, yes, I can never hope to replicate, that to reveal too many of its workings would arguably spoil it. I actually don’t want to know that Matty Healy thinks Notes On A Conditional Form is about “anxiety, violence and unattainable beauty”, or that Daniel Merriweather thinks Red is about “the blindness of war”; those are both actually quite annoying things to say, and I’d like to get on with enjoying the bangers in peace, if you please.

What am I trying to say here? I’m not sure really. It’s easy for people like me to be snobby, to be disappointed when transcendence doesn’t translate to linguistic flare. But that’s very much why I’m sitting at a laptop in my pyjamas on a Tuesday morning and Young Fathers get to go to the Mercury Awards.

Live and let live, I suppose.

Listening To Scott Walker on Planes

Insofar as I believe I have the capacity to surprise any of the five people who may still be reading this self-indulgent nonsense, I’m sure it’ll surprise none of them to learn that I’m a massive fan of the work of Scott Walker. Yes, I love all the eerie 60s crooner stuff, the heartbroken vignettes with cathedral-echo vocals, the soaring Jacques Brel covers, but really, when you get down to it, I like the weird later stuff. I’m all about the trilogy of noise and discord that is Tilt, The Drift and Bisch Bosch. Give me the lyrics culled from war-crimes trials; give me the atonal strings and industrial noise; give me the beef-punching assault on the aural faculties. I love it all, in all its near-unlistenable glory.

I first got into Walker through a 10-hour coach journey (well, two 10-hour coach journeys). I was heading up to Edinburgh with a show in 2015 or 2016, and, with characteristic financial acumen, decided to take the coach there and back (and no, I’ve not since learned from this mistake). To pass the time, I decided I’d get into an artist I wasn’t familiar with, and my cousin, a seasoned experimental music expert, recommended me Walker.

I worked dutifully through Scott and Scott 4, and was bemused by Climate Of Hunter (I’ve reappraised it since and it’s actually a beautiful piece of work, but the folly of youth, eh), but it was Tilt and The Drift which really captured my imagination. The fact that both sounded like soundtracks to horror films that didn’t exist yet; that sometimes a quality like the sun rising over a city broke through the darkness; the fact that Walker’s voice, grandiose and despairing, rich and weeping, underpinned it all like a narration from a documentary about the apocalypse. As said, they are terribly difficult albums to listen to, and I’d be lying if I said my love of Walker wasn’t fuelled by a certain contrariness on my part, but there is such high drama, such gleeful darkness, and such eldritch poetry in those albums that it’s impossible, in my mind, not to at least have your head turned by them.

I think coaches played an integral part of my fandom. I don’t know whether you’ve ever been on a 10-hour coach journey, but it does induce a certain kind of mental unrest, as well as near-inevitable dehydration, sweatiness and constipation, added to which the constant rumble of engines, the noise of the road and the assorted noises of one’s travelling companions. I remember I had my headphones turned right down, because I am a good fellow passenger and I have shit headphones, drifting in and out of consciousness as we passed through the glowing motorway night, with Tilt pushing itself into my tired earholes. It’s not what Walker intended (probably), but it turned it into a sort of immersive experience, somewhere between a podcast and a lucid dream; the humming of the engines bled into and mingled with the low rumbles of strings and synths; Walker’s strange and disconcerting lyrics (“The good news/You cannot refuse/The bad news/Is there is no news”) vague as whispers, troubling as rumours, fading into and out of clarity. The distinctions between songs blurred; I questioned whether I’d heard any of it right, whether it was actually all just one long song, whether actually I was imagining it all, found myself straining for any hint of cohesion or meaning. And I think that added to it all; instead of a perfect, finished artefact that I sat down with in silence and contemplated on some intellectual level, it became a part of the wider world, a commentary in action, a mystery that I had to unravel myself. Those later albums are difficult listens, yes, but I’m glad my first encounter with them was not too focused, too academic- as you may be able to guess, I’m a very boring person and given to over-analysis; but in the coach atmosphere, those albums became a sort of claustrophobic fever-dream that I kind of just had to deal with, that I had to imagine my own stories for. And as they are predominantly atmospheric pieces, nightmarish, free-flowing slabs of work that hit you in a very primal place, I don’t think that’s a bad thing at all.

Last year I was about to fly back to London from a holiday in Prague when I heard Walker had died at the age of 76. I was oddly upset by this news; he was a reclusive, unhappy maverick who changed the face of music forever, both experimental and mainstream, his influence extending from Sunn O))) to Jarvis Cocker, and he’d massively influenced my thinking about music and sound since discovering him. I’d sorely miss him.

So, dozing uncomfortably off on a delayed, sweaty flight from Vaclav Havel airport, jets rumbling, children crying at the other end of the plane, I put on Tilt once again and let Walker’s drones and whispers mingle with the drones and whispers of the outside world; the dark mystery of that strange man’s work bled into the ambient noise of the world he’d just left, and I hoped for a second that all of us, myself, the groaning plane, the unlistenable music, were all a part of heaven’s discordant symphony.

Why I Don’t Like Bret Easton Ellis

Again, surprise surprise, I know. I was going to save this one up for whenever B.E.E next did something crass, but I have bills to pay and word counts to ignore, so no time like the present.

Also full disclosure, I have read two of Bret’s novels- American Psycho, which I loathed, and Less Than Zero, which I loathed slightly less- I’ve listened to some of his podcast and I had an unhealthy phase last year of reading every promo interview he did for his “essay collection” White, because all of them seemed so fantastically, narcissistically annoying that it was a bit like watching some sort of horrible sitcom (his interview in the New Yorker with Isaac Chotiner is a sort of comic masterpiece).

So basically I don’t know anything, and I’m willing to have my mind changed (maybe). But I also think he’s the symptom of something quite dangerous that, especially now, it might do us some good to reflect on.

It’s not just that his books (yes, the two of them I’ve read, granted) are sickeningly, graphically violent; it’s not just that they are full of brutal misogyny and the casual flinging-about of racist slurs; it’s not that they’re full of vapid people saying vapid things and talking about Armani for five fucking pages; it’s not even that, in interviews, he comes off as the worst kind of whinging, over-privileged, middle-aged white dude who’s angry because millennials don’t think he’s cool anymore; fundamentally, I don’t like Bret Easton Ellis because I think he’s a coward.

I think, as an artist, it’s the worst kind of creative cowardice to ask your audience to sit with pages upon pages (and God almighty American Psycho is long) of moral emptiness and stomach-churning violence (often directed at female bodies) and then to more or less shrug and go “see ya then”. To point at the flaws and failings and latent mental anguish of a whole culture, of a whole generation, and basically go “OOH THAT’S PRETTY NASTY ISN’T IT?”.

And yes, it’s a valid and interesting thesis that Thatcher/Reganite economics cultivated an ethos of rampant consumption and acquisition in the 80s, and caused a kind of moral vacuum where people cared more about things than humans, and murderous psychosis could go unnoticed; and yes, I’m all for fiction that examines the relationships between class, masculinity, wealth and mental health (and it is clear that Ellis can write, when he wants to, very affectingly about depression and loneliness)- but the question for me is what do we do next? It is for me the question that defines art, that sets it apart from anything else, and why I believe it is genuinely important societally; it is a set of tools through which we understand our situation. It allows us the space to imagine things differently, to consider the possibility of redemption. And I’m not saying I don’t like Ellis because his novels don’t have happy endings, lord knows I’m all for tragedy; but even Crime And Punishment had Sonya, had an example of what a good person might look like, and what being a good person might mean in relation to the rest of the novel. To bludgeon your reader with the horror and emptiness of the world and then just say “this is not an exit, we’ve all learned nothing” (I paraphrase slightly) seems to me to reek of self-satisfied “oh dear”ism of the highest order.

I wrote earlier about David Foster Wallace, who had a long-standing literary beef with Ellis, and who stated in a 1993 interview re: American Psycho:

“If what’s always distinguished bad writing… is also a description of today’s world, then bad writing becomes an ingenious mimesis of a bad world. If readers simply believe the world is stupid and shallow and mean, then Ellis can write a mean shallow stupid novel that becomes a mordant deadpan commentary on the badness of everything”

Well quite. And Ellis’ interview persona seems to bear this general smug nihilism out; he refers to my generation as “Generation Wuss”, has no qualms with being called a misogynist- “So you’re a misogynist- so what?…Does that make your art less interesting? I don’t think so.” (Guardian interview, 2010). He’s repeatedly called the left’s reaction to the election of Donald Trump “hysterical”. All of which again seems, to me, to point to a general attitude of “ooh this is bad isn’t it?”, in which the right are saying bad things, the left is overreacting, and the problem with both is that they’re not cool enough to not give a shit, like Bret here.

Why am I picking a fight with Ellis then? He’s not done anything lately, has he? No he hasn’t, but at a moment when a lot of rich writers seem to be getting very upset indeed that they can no longer say whatever the hell they like, he seems like an interesting person to bring up. A lot of the current rage over what’s being referred to as cancel culture seems to stem from a similar view that to care is somehow hysterical; that because I am very rich and award-winning it’s only fair that I’m allowed to say whatever I like and if you don’t agree you’re a bloody SQUARE and compromising my very expensive PLATFORM and stop asking questions please. Ellis is angry with “Generation Wuss” because, unlike him, they come from a generation where actually we expect something more than “ingenious mimesis” (i.e,  nasty characters saying nasty things because they’re nasty people). Where we actually expect some answers. That rather than being made to sit with rich psychopaths for 500 pages and then telling us it was all meaningless, we want to be given tools we can work with. In a fascinating recent Twitter thread, priest and author Rachel Mann compared the generational disparity in views on cancel culture to the Biblical story of Abraham and Isaac, where we, the children, are being told to trust the old man with the knife- except we no longer believe that there is a God giving the old man instructions. We see only an older person with a knife, telling us they know better. And the problem is we just don’t buy that anymore.

Times are dark, yes. Everything is very bad and confusing, certainly. But as artists it is our job, right now, I believe, to imagine what it might look like to be a good person in relation to that. Not even a good person necessarily; an active person, an engaged person, an interested person. A person with opinions. A person with beliefs. A person who loves something. A person with stories to tell and the desire to tell them to other persons.

We cannot be the people who sat in the pain and the vacuum and said “oh dear”. We can be braver than that.  

I’ll round off this whole ludicrous exercise with another Foster Wallace quote, if I may:

In dark times, the definition of good art would seem to be art that locates and applies CPR to those elements of what’s human and magical that still live and glow despite the times’ darkness.

Good thing he stuck to the writing and not tennis.