Sunday, February 22, 2009

33 1/3 WON'T DO:

In an attempt to defibrillate this blog back to life and open myself up to the kind of public humiliation that is the hallmark of any failed writer, I herewith present my rejected proposal for Continuum Books' 33 1/3 series of books on notable rock elpees (or ceedees or empeethrees or whatever you want to call them these days). All two fans of my writing will note the projected contributions of two of my favorite nom de roche-auteur multiple personalities, and a prize to be determined will be forwarded to the reader who comes up with the most accurate tally of good reasons why it was merde-canned, rounded down to the nearest hundred.

This Nation’s Saving Grace, by William Ham
Or:
The Persecution and Self-Negation of Nik Rainey, Semi-Hemi-Demi-Professional Rock Critic as Performed by the Members of the Fall Circa 1985 Under the Direction of Mark E. Smith

What really went on there?
We only have this excerpt…
- “Cruisers Creek,” the Fall


From the introduction by editor McChesney Duntz:

“Nik Rainey has disappeared. For most of you, that fact won’t mean a great deal. But for me, a well-respected cultural critic and mentor to literally eight of the nascent pen-pushers in the verdant if heavily-mined field of music criticism, this news has struck me like a medicine ball of grief to the solar plexus of my very being. For it was I who, in my position as Reviews, Margins and Kerning Editor of the late, lamented bi-weekly The Shredded Cone (formerly Blown Tweeter until we discovered that we shared that name with a quarterly journal devoted to budgerigar porn), plucked Rainey out of the cul-de-sac of obscurity following the receipt of an over-the-transom packet of vital, scabrous submissions demonstrating, in admittedly raw form, a passion for the music unseen since the heyday of that one gentleman whose name eludes me for the moment…

…But from passion too often comes estrangement (and from that restraining orders, though that’s a story for another day, presumably one following the expiration of the statute of limitations). Rainey’s work became more infrequent and less coherent, though his exegesis on Andrew Ridgeley (“Does God Walk Among Us, or Merely Behind and to the Left of Us?,” The Plainsville Shopper, July, 2003) remains a minor classic. Finally, he stopped contributing pieces altogether and retreated to a cramped studio apartment in the small Northwest fishing village and methedrine clearing station of Port Winestain, Washington (town motto: “Well, We Tried”). As his mentor, I spoke with him frequently on the phone (my calls invariably greeted with a languid, drawn-out sigh of pleasure and the joyous salutation “Oh, it’s you again”), and gradually came to realize that Rainey was depressed, disillusioned and utterly estranged from the object of the only true desire he ever had – music itself. His conversation came to mirror the downward trajectory of his writing, becoming more halting and less articulate (and given to deep and frequent belching, something rarely utilized in his prose), ultimately ceasing entirely in July, 2006. Wet with concern, I caught the first AirJitney to the coast and tracked down the sanctum of his exile, only to be greeted by the saddest, most stomach-churning sight since the ill-advised sauna I took with Jann Wenner in ’87. Rainey had methodically destroyed his entire collection of rare promos, the priceless memorabilia from a thousand label-sponsored junkets, and every review, interview and free-form haiku he had ever committed to paper. Well… almost. One piece remained. There, soaking up the last of the memory of his wizened old Apple IIC computer, was a single, almost-finished WordPerfect document, an epic screed regarding what he called “the only record I can still listen to with anything resembling enjoyment,” the tenth album by Manchester, England’s long-running post-punk combo The Fall, This Nation’s Saving Grace. Admittedly, I was unfamiliar with this album and, indeed, the band itself (my personal tastes of late running to Perez Prado, Andre Kostelanetz and Phillip Michael Thomas), but, in his mysterious absence, I felt it my duty to rescue what may well be his final message to the world, clean it up a touch for public consumption, and retain the ensuing residuals in the event that he should someday return.

The results have been stringently edited and annotated where necessary by yours truly (me) in the manner of all great “lost” documents. (As it was written on a computer, it sadly lacked some of the qualities of most such documents, a failing I took the liberty of rectifying by printing it out, crumpling several pages, subjecting several more to smoke and/or water damage and losing a few key passages by writing phone numbers or notes to myself on the other side of them and tearing the corners off to put in my wallet, the same wallet which I then arranged to have stolen by an acquaintance of mine, thus approximating its rough authenticity. I fervently believe that is what Nik would have wanted, had he thought about it.)"


Not much to add to that… other than the fact that McChesney Duntz is as delusional as he is arrogant, has his facts wrong 50% of the time and is matched in his misreadings of rock history only by his misapprehensions of personal history. My approach to This Nation’s Saving Grace, perhaps the greatest of the many, many albums released under the Fall banner, can be best synopsized as “Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung meets Pale Fire.” You know the drill: young(ish), doomed talent leaves behind unfinished opus; older, fading talent acquires opus and imposes his own agenda upon it. Writing through the character of Nik Rainey (whose biography is a somewhat exaggerated version of my own), I intend to delve deep into the sustained brilliance of the album, its anomalous place in both the pop world of its moment (proposed chapter title: “1985 – It Was the Best of Times, Oh No It Fucking Wasn’t”) and the career of the Fall itself (never before nor since had they produced an album that balanced accessibility and eccentricity so adroitly), and the utter slipperiness of the work in question. This last is key to the structure and design of this book. I am using the differing takes of two fictional rock critics as my vehicle because a) the Fall are commonly thought of as a “critics’ band,” favored above all by that most fervent species of arch-fan, and b) because no two Fall fans can seem to agree on what, exactly, Mark E. Smith is on about most of the time. Cryptic allusions are strewn around their songs like discarded fag-ends (Google, for example, the term “Thule Group” from this album’s “Gut of the Quantifier” and half-a-dozen eye-popping possibilities jump out!), the English language is twisted, muttered and muffled, and the whole enterprise is overlaid with what could be called “sarcastic surrealism” – and yet, somehow, the best of it makes perfect sense. Trying to articulate what it means and why it means so much to certain of us, well, therein lies the challenge.

Like the protagonist of this story, TNSG arrived in my life during a particularly rough patch of my adolescence, served as that clich├ęd-but-still-powerful beacon of musical and creative inspiration, made me hear and see things differently. As the years passed (and lord, have they passed), it came clear that it represented the same thing in the continuum of the Fall’s recorded output as it did the moment of my life that it first came to my attention – that delicious moment when raw, shambling materials began to coalesce into something skilled and powerful, when suddenly one is able to walk it like you talk it with a purposeful stride; a moment which becomes all the more important once you realize that it’s bound not to last. Favored bands, like people, are built for decline. The Fall went from this apex to a slicker, simpler sound, made a couple of swipes at commercial success, then began lurching wildly in all manner of willfully perverse directions, still capable of brilliance but often lapsing into a comic/pathetic caricature of its younger, better self. And sadly, I (and, by extension, Nik Rainey) can relate all too well. McChesney Duntz would too, if he dismounted his quasi-intellectual high horse long enough to take a long, hard look at the landscape.

All of which sounds a mite depressing, I admit. Which is why it behooves me to emphasize that (as I hope the italicized fragment above demonstrates) the main adjective I want this book to be is funny. A satirical probe of the rock critics’ (plural) mind, the silliness that goes hand in hand with the joys and epiphanies of loving music, and the self-effacing chuckles that any right-thinking music writer must feel when he looks back at some of his wilder swings and misses. Every inflated moment of pretension in the tale is there to be deflated with a well-placed pinprick. This is what the Fall do best when they’re firing on all cylinders as they do here, and this is what I hope to approximate and pay tribute to in the writing of this book.

The structure: sixteen chapters, one for each of the eleven tracks on the original U.K. release, in order, and five more (corresponding to the contemporaneous single and EP tracks that have been appended to the currently-available CD) interspersed throughout. As TNSG is as well-structured as any album in the Fall’s catalogue (complete with opening and closing theme), the progression and internal musical/lyrical content of the songs correspond to the progression and gradual disintegration of the “author” (and the constant annotations and interpolations by the “editor” throughout wind up telling its own story). Briefly and sketchily: “Mansion” (intro); “Bombast” (statement of intent – the author rails against his foes and lessers); “Barmy” (the author as teenage eccentric); “Petty (Thief) Lout” (interlude #1 – portrait of the author as a half-hearted suburban delinquent); “What You Need” (the author reflects on his ambitions); “Couldn’t Get Ahead” (interlude #2 – frustrations); “Spoilt Victorian Child” (a journey through the dystopian wonderland of mid-80s British pop fandom); “L.A.” (the first taste of success, with all the excess that implies); “Cruisers Creek” (interlude #3 – the worst party ever attended); “Gut of the Quantifier” (the first strains of disillusionment); “Vixen” (interlude #4 – female trouble); “My New House” (domesticity briefly achieved); “Rollin’ Dany” (interlude #5 – losing the plot, the author as [damaged] man about [the wrong] town); “Paint Work” (collapse – dream/hallucination sequence); “I Am Damo Suzuki” (the ultimate personality crisis); “To Nkroachment: Yarbles” (the end[?] of the story, the author resigning himself to his fate, which remains in question, since, as in Pale Fire, the last line remains unwritten).

There’s more, of course (and at 25-35,000 words, there damn well better be), but I’m coming dangerously close to my 2,000-word limit here, so I’ll cut this short. I think this book would fit in well with some of the more fictionally-oriented volumes in the 33 1/3 series (Joe Pernice’s and John Darnielle’s come to mind), but with a structure and a tone unique to the project. I have been gathering up background materials for some time to add depth to these examinations, and am even starting to put out feelers for access to the then-members of the band, including (fingers crossed) Mark E. Smith himself (and if you’re at all familiar with Dave Simpson’s book The Fallen, you can imagine what a daunting task all that can be). I would certainly be willing to do whatever it takes to get the word out about the book (readings, interviews, tireless self-promotion in any available venue, skywriting) should the opportunity arise. And if you’re somehow intrigued and want to hear more, I’d be happy to rabbit on at length about it.