Friday, July 20, 2012

No Direct Line From My Brain To My Heart

Langhoff Unpublished: Proposal to write a 33 1/3 book about Half Japanese's 1/2 Gentlemen/Not Beasts (Even in rejection, they are very pleasant and polite, and Jad has been very kind.)

The album starts with a cymbal and a snare -- on the beats, keeping the pace, firing off a martial 16th-note rhythm, funk as though conducted by a drum major. Second time around someone -- a cat? a vibration in the air? -- starts messing with a guitar. Third time around the guitar explodes.

Not literally; that’d make for a very short song, and Half Japanese’s “No Direct Line From My Brain To My Heart” lasts all of two minutes. No, there’s definitely a human manipulating strings here. That said, David Fair’s guitar explosion differs from, say, Jimmy Page’s riff in Led Zeppelin’s “Communication Breakdown”, or even from Ron Asheton’s elongated howls in the Stooges’ meltdown “L.A. Blues”. Those explosions intimate a chaos in the air, threatening, storm clouds gathered and relative humidity 100%, but our faith in the players’ skill keeps the storm right on the edge of possibility. In the hands of a skilled player, guitar chaos can maintain 100% humidity for minutes at a time, threatening torrents without actually breaking down into a deluge. Such implied chaos is thrilling and it makes your hairs prick up.

David’s guitar on “No Direct Line” washes away any threat or thrill. The guitar part doesn’t know what it’s doing, so it tries to do everything, changing too much to be a riff but repeating itself too much for a solo. Notes land on the beats or maybe not, mostly as anticlimactic fills in the spaces between David’s shout-singing. Though the decisions governing David’s note choices remain obscure, he keeps droning back to a G-sharp and its lower A. These two notes would outline a lovely four-major-seven chord in the guitar beginner’s key of E, but here’s the thing -- we have no idea how, or whether, David tuned his guitar. To be fair, David’s got music theory on his side. From his manifesto “How to Play Guitar”: “Tuning the guitar is kind of a ridiculous notion. If you have to wind the tuning pegs to just a certain place, that implies that every other place would be wrong. But that absurd. How could it be wrong? It’s your guitar and you’re the one playing it.”

To end the song, David and his funky drummer, younger brother Jad Fair, speed up and play a barrage of fast, dry notes. (David again: “If you want to play fast move your hand fast and if you want to play slower move your hand slower.”) David’s grand finale is that same G-sharp we’ve been hearing throughout the song, followed by the low E an octave down. Resolution! Although in context the note sounds just as random as all the others; only the spaces around the E tell us this is the end.

If the guitars of Page and Asheton were sustained storm warnings, David’s guitar is your damp and crummy life after the deluge. A while back, after a summer storm had knocked out most of our county’s power for days, people began to notice that McDonald’s had its lights on. The place was soon full of cranky refugees, tramping mud and jockeying for outlets and Wi-Fi. If anyone bothered making eye contact, it was the blank expression of a sociopath jonesing for your seat. A revelation from the Global North: this is how the world will end. Not with neighbor helping neighbor, not even with thunderdomes or hunger games, but with slop, tedium, self-absorption, and breathtakingly inadequate customer service.

You say you want a communication breakdown? Listen to Half Japanese.


Specifically, listen to the Maryland band’s first album, ½ Gentlemen/Not Beasts. It’s a monument of DIY music, notoriously the only debut album that was also a three-album box set. It’s also unfathomable as a consumer product. Released in 1980 on the British upstart label Armageddon, ½ Gentlemen compiled 48 songs plus two hard-to-parse live sets from a virtually unknown band. Up until that year, the Fair brothers had recorded, taped, pressed, and sold short bursts of music through ads in places like Trouser Press and NY Rocker, rock magazines friendly to the underground. Their label 50 Skidillion Watts was basically synonymous with “self-released”, and Half Japanese was its only act. Though the band reached a surprising number of people through magazine ads, it’s not like they were part of a distribution network or sold in stores. Who did Armageddon imagine would buy their box set?

Especially when they sounded like... what? “One-take learning-our-chords musicianship and vocals that make Jonathan Richman sound like Vaughan Monroe,” suggested Village Voice critic Robert Christgau in a C+ review. “Noisesome, wild, nude, and more basic than toast... the decade’s first essential document,” remembered early supporter Byron Coley in a 1988 SPIN. “I still haven’t been able to listen... all the way through,” said the Voice’s Lester Bangs in his piece “A Reasonable Guide to Horrible Noise”, right before he praised Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music yet again. All true except the C+!

About Bangs’s taste in horrible noise: For its reputation as unlistenable water torture, Metal Machine Music actually fades into the background very nicely. I’ve played it as a sleep aid, and an early listening experiment with my infant son did not end in tears. People are used to accepting sustained noise as art. We might not put on Krzystof Perderecki’s albums too often, but we’ve heard his music play the role of “disturbing squawl” in enough movies that it seems intentional. If your job has ever included a dot matrix printer or an espresso machine, microtonal noise violence starts making a whole lot of sense. Bangs said of MMM, “Sounded great in midwestern suburbs, but kinda unnecessary in NYC.” Take it from me -- midwestern suburbs have gotten louder.

Even so, when I first heard ½ Gentlemen in a midwestern college town, it refused to fade into the background. Refused to do much of anything, really. The album’s whole sound was one big refusal: to engage, to terrify, to learn instruments, to create a compelling reason to listen. Tripping through the canon with the aid of the SPIN Alternative Record Guide, I’d recently fallen for the guitar noise of Sonny Sharrock and Glenn Branca -- beautiful anguished jazz skronk and massed droning guitar choirs, respectively. The guide told me to buy ½ Gentlemen; the Fair brothers “seemed to take more pleasure from the acts of singing and playing than any rock band before or since,” wrote Craig Marks. So at my first opportunity I snatched up the 1993 CD reissue on T.E.C. Tones -- impressive enough, though not the original gorgeous vinyl box set -- and became thoroughly confused.

This was partly T.E.C.’s fault. My copy mixed up the labels on the two CDs, with disc A labelled “B” and vice versa. I didn’t figure this out for at least a week. At first I was never certain which song was playing. The cover of Springsteen’s “10th Avenue Freeze Out” kept yelling “I’m sorry!” Was that part of the point? Was it even supposed to be a cover?

Even after it registered that, oh yes, there was a song on disc B yelping “10th Avenue freeze out!!!” over chicken scratch guitar, confusion lingered. I also blame Education. See, I was a music student, and that junior year I’d read two mind-altering books, Greil Marcus’s Mystery Train and A Guide to Schenkerian Analysis, a textbook synopsis of the theoretical work of Heinrich Schenker. Both thinkers made me cry -- Marcus for his visionary affirmation of the rock music I loved, and Schenker because he was a didactic asshole who convinced me I was wrong about life. (Life, music, what’s the difference?) Both also made a lot of sense. But neither had anything to do with Half Japanese and all their refusals. I couldn’t imagine reading the myths of America in this anti-music, let alone deriving a convincing Ursatz.

I couldn’t even imagine deriving that most fundamental musical hook, pleasure. Sharrock and Branca may have been out there, but their guitars sang with tangible beauty and they evoked ideas beyond themselves, whether tumultuous sadness or steely superstructures. Half Japanese evoked nothing beyond two guys switching off on guitars and drums, moving their hands fast when they wanted to play fast. Their guitars sounded drab and unadorned. Maybe most important for music student me, you couldn’t tell whether they knew what they were doing. My peers didn’t always share my affection for John Cage and Public Enemy, but at least we could all agree their anti-music intended its refusals. Half Japanese made anti-music because they couldn’t make anything else. If amateurism was the point I couldn’t relate.

After listening for a while, confusing myself, confusing my roommate (who called them “those Japanese guys”), and getting totally into Rent, I filed the album away. Not for me, not now, I figured. In the years that followed I’d see ½ Gentlemen while rearranging my CD shelves and it’d remind me of college, sort of like the Schenker textbook or geopolitical board games. And then, 13 years after I’d given up on it, I played ½ Gentlemen out of curiosity for one of my favorite music fans, as another experiment, and he taught me to fall in love with it.

By then Zack had outgrown Metal Machine Music; he was four years old.


“I don’t wanna go to preschool!”

Zack and I had a routine while we drove a half hour across the county. He’d scowl out the window, sucking his thumb furiously, and repeat his refusal like a mantra. I’d ply him with questions about what he did at preschool -- “Do you eat delicious food? Do you get to ride bikes? Do you play with Logan?” -- and then ask him whether he could expect the same today. He could, we agreed, but that didn’t settle the matter.

“I don’t wanna go to preschool!”

The whole thing became a ritual of discontent and reassurance, our way of grasping the universal human realities of suffering, insecurity, and boring commutes. We had other mantras. We’d count buses; we’d remember that “IHOP” meant pancakes and “OTB” meant horses. And we’d listen to music. At the time, I was following my wife’s system of listening to my albums alphabetically, letter by letter, which had led to some surprises. Zack really liked Diamanda Galas’s hard-rock shriekfest “Skótoseme” -- “that crazy lady,” we called her at first -- but dismissed the Holy Modal Rounders, who I’d assumed (hoped?) would be a big hit.

One morning we listened to ½ Gentlemen. I’d postponed Half Japanese for as long as I could, but the H’s were drying up and my I’s were a wasteland. (Even I wouldn’t subject a preschooler to Ice Cube, and Orfeo Records’ Idolos del Rock Argentino comp isn’t as cool as you think it’d be, trust me.) Once again I’d forgotten that A was B and B was A, so instead of “No Direct Line” we heard “Funky Broadway Melody”, which has no melody. Some sources change the “Melody” to “Medley”, but it’s not one of those either.

Jad plays a muddy, mutating riff, as though he’s heard Wilson Pickett’s “Funky Broadway” and is trying to sop up every instrument’s part with his guitar. It’s a claustrophobic sound, no space anywhere. Dissonant high notes squiggle over the droning A minor riff, David hits the drums hard on the fours, and Jad yelps about dancing with a bunch of stoners, until the police show up and arrest everyone for disturbing the peace. In court, Jad tries to reason his way out of a hundred-dollar fine by explaining, “JUDGE, it’s JUST FUNKY!” The song ends with random scritches and thumps, as though guitar and drums are tumbling down a giant Plinko board. I considered turning on NPR, but curiosity got the better of me.

“What do you think of these guys?”


“They sound kind of silly, don’t they?”

“Can we hear it again?”

This was unexpected, but sure, we could hear it again. The second time raised some questions: “Why does Papa got a brand new bag?” “Why can’t he stand himself?” “What’s a mojo?” (The answer to each: “He’s saying what a good dancer he is.”) And during that Plinko-board ending, “What are they DOING???” (“They’re figuring out how to end the song.”) He wanted to listen to it again. Pretty soon he wanted to listen to the next song, “I’m Sorry”, and then just those two songs in a row. This lasted the rest of the car ride, and the car ride home, and then we listened to those two songs on repeat for the next few weeks, whenever we were in the car. Sometimes we’d move on to the other songs -- he insisted we endure those two interminable live sets, programmed as a track apiece -- but we always returned to “Funky Broadway” and “I’m Sorry” and our litany of questions and answers.

I didn’t understand this new ritual. Like any NPR-listening first-time parent, I tried psychoanalyzing my son. Did Half Japanese, like Where the Wild Things Are, allow him to live some vicarious savagery? Did they give him something unique to hold onto during the loneliest stretches of preschool, the nap times during which he could never fall asleep, hoping I’d appear at the door to pick him up early? My probing questions (“Why do you like these guys?”) unearthed appropriately profound answers (“I don’t know,” “Good”) and more thumb-sucking. My normally vivacious son shut down around preschool, and Half Japanese’s refusals seemed to speak to his refusals, but figuring out their shared language was like deciphering cave paintings. So we listened again.

The more we listened, the more I heard. For amateurs who didn’t know what they were doing, the Fair brothers made their songs sound wildly different from one another. If “Funky Broadway” was beginners’ funk, “I’m Sorry” was beginners’ new wave, its spiky monotone stomp evoking skinny ties and robotic dances. But here’s the other thing: after repeated listens, I was no longer certain the “amateur” tag applied. The brothers had a way with words, especially Jad, whose “It happened on a MONday! / On a MONday!” tag in “I’m Sorry” was as catchy as anything on oldies radio. The brothers’ guitar maximalism made up for what they lacked in precision -- Jad’s riff plus lead lines in “Funky Broadway” reminded me of Robert Johnson only, you know, dissonant. (Which may have made them more interesting, actually.) As we ventured into the rest of this vast album -- into covers of Dylan and Buddy Holly, minimalist electro-acoustic instrumentals, multiple versions of the same songs -- it felt unfathomable again, but musically unfathomable. Was there a bottom to this thing?

My boy eventually graduated preschool. He loves school and Star Wars and Lady Gaga, but he still likes to put on ½ Gentlemen from time to time. Me too. His fandom gave me the great gift of appreciation, and like any monumental artwork that we learn to appreciate, ½ Gentlemen has altered my outlook on music and life (what’s the difference?) in a bunch of little ways, maybe even in some big ways, but certainly in unpredictable ways. No direct line from my brain to my heart, indeed. This is appropriate, since ½ Gentlemen is itself a work of and about fandom. The Fair brothers wrote songs about their favorite musicians -- Patti Smith, Yoko Ono, the Shaggs, and, in a very conflicted way, the Beatles. In fact, you can read this album as an ode to fandom, an epic about coming to terms with the tropes and heroes of rock ‘n’ roll. It’s got father-killing, anxiety of influence, and lots and lots of girls.

First, though, you have to learn how to read it.

Chapter 1: Battle of the Bands
(The Songs)

Chapter 2: Bogue Millionaires/Cool Millionaires
(Selling Noise Pt. 1)

Chapter 3: Till Victory
(Selling Noise Pt. 2)

Chapter 4: Shy Around Girls
(Indie Rock Romance)

Chapter 5: Rave On

Chapter 6: No More Beatle Mania
(Punk and Tradition)

Chapter 7: Tangled Up In Blue

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