Tagged: Thurston Moore

Kim Gordon at Bigsound: “This is not an essay”

At the end of her opening keynote address to Brisbane music industry conference Bigsound, former Sonic Youth bass player Kim Gordon told a packed theatre of a calamitous acoustic show the band performed in 1991 for Neil Young’s The Bridge School, a non-profit education organisation for children with severe disabilities.

The band, which relied on the fiery interplay between guitarists Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo, had never played acoustically and was performing for a mainstream audience. Fearing disaster, Gordon brought a guitar ready-made to destroy: “I had a feeling things were doomed to fail.”

Halfway through a cover of the New York Dolls’ Personality Crisis, with the band unable to hear themselves onstage, a frustrated Gordon swore into the microphone, smashed the waiting guitar, and walked off. Then she saw the kids in wheelchairs backstage looking horrified, and felt awful. Neil Young’s then-teenaged son Ben, who has cerebral palsy, rolled up to her.

“Everyone has a bad day sometimes,” he said.

Gordon repeatedly told the audience that her address was a poem or incantation, not an essay, and it was: a series of vignettes that interrogated the co-dependent relationship between the artist and the audience, based on a premise by critic Greil Marcus: that artists who submit to the whims of their fans by only giving them more of what they have already accepted are only able to confirm, not to create.

It was a portal into the approach of Sonic Youth who, after emerging from New York’s No Wave scene, slowly built their own bridges to pop through the 1980s. The classic video for Kool Thing saw them flirting with mainstream acceptance, while subverting it. It was a song that had them on the brink of stardom, but which they refused to build on as bands they encouraged and inspired, like Nirvana, rushed past them.

Gordon’s address began in the hippie dream of the ’60s, describing how the communal relationship between artists and audiences was punctured by race riots, the Rolling Stones’ disaster at Altamont, and the Manson murders. The concurrent emergence of a more challenging generation of performers including the Doors, the Velvet Underground and Iggy and the Stooges, she said, effectively deconstructed the idea of popular music as entertainment.

“[Iggy Pop] walking out onto the audience, breaking glass, smearing peanut butter on himself – was this a stage show? Was this rock music or real life? His estrangement of the audience’s expectations created something new. He gave people something they had never seen.”

She later spoke of an infamous Public Image, Ltd concert she attended at New York venue the Ritz in 1981. There, the band played behind a screen, onto which images were projected, obscuring the “stars” as shadowy figures. The audience rioted, throwing chairs at the screen and forcing the band to flee. “For whatever reason, PiL fucked with our heads,” she said. “We were there because of their audacity, but then couldn’t accept what they were offering: it was [either] too much, or too little.”

Her point was that that an audience’s need to be entertained was an artistic dead end. “What is a star? Suspended adulthood? A place beyond good and evil? Someone who you want to believe in? A daredevil? A risk-taker, going to the edge and not falling off – for you?” Was a performance, she added, “transcendence, or just a distraction from daily life, humdrum, pain, humdrum, boredom, humdrum, aloneness? A nice transition that doesn’t end? A day at the beach, a trip to the mountains? An unending kiss, leading to nowhere – or somewhere you never dreamed of?

“That’s what I want to feel when I go see someone play,” she said. “Something fall apart – until it becomes something else.”

First published in The Guardian, 7 September 2016

 

Autoluminescent

A few days ago I bumped into an old friend in the city. He manages a well-known local band here in Brisbane, and he asked me if I’d be prepared to participate in the making of a documentary about the group. He wanted to do something a bit edgier than the standard rock doco, though. “Every documentary I’ve seen lately it’s just a bunch of people saying how great [band/performer X] was,” he said. “It’s really boring.”

He had a point, and I was reminded of it last night when I saw Autoluminescent, Lee-Maree Milburn and Richard Lowenstein’s documentary about former Birthday Party/These Immortal Souls guitarist Rowland S. Howard. The first half of this two-hour film is weighed down with luminaries (not only peers and former bandmates like Nick Cave, Mick Harvey and Phil Calvert but also Henry Rollins, Thurston Moore, Bobby Gillespie, etc, etc) generally crapping on about how great Rowland was.

And that’s validating, sure, but if you’re seeing this film in the first place you probably have some idea of who Rowland S. Howard is and why he mattered. Most likely you already think he’s fabulous. The film survives this slightly creaky beginning mainly due to the late guitarist’s outrageous charisma (with his high cheekbones and extraordinarily brilliant blue eyes, rarely has a dying man looked so beautiful) and the sumptuous direction. If Autoluminescent is sometimes in danger of getting bogged down in its own self-importance, at least it looks great.

The live footage of Howard in action, from all stages of his career, is a particular treat. Wim Wenders, who remembers their appearance in Berlin in 1984 as akin to the arrival of a flock of Siberian Crows, identifies the importance of his stage mannerisms: his peculiar stagger; like someone being constantly knocked off balance, yet remaining in control; wringing the neck of his guitar as he violently jerks it up and down, coaxing from it a blizzard of distortion through a constant, billowing haze of cigarette smoke. Howard was an incredibly distinctive player; as Cave observes, within two notes you always knew who was making that unearthly racket. (More than one of the aforementioned blowhard luminaries wonder if Howard had, in fact, landed from outer space.)

In fact Howard was just a dandy from Melbourne, and the second half of this film is so much more interesting and more moving than the first, as we dig deeper into his family history, his relationships with women and, of course, his declining health. It was never likely that Howard – who died of liver failure at the end of 2009 – would live to see this documentary finished. There are heartbreaking scenes of Howard in hospital towards the end, cradled by his last love, Bianca.

The clear respect Howard had for women (despite an on-off affair with Lydia Lunch while still with his long-time soulmate, Genevieve McGuckin) was repaid with enduring warmth and affection from his former partners. McGuckin, who provides some of the best insights and reminiscences, tears up when she recalls listening to Howard’s final album for the first time, Pop Crimes, only to have him suddenly call into her house and wrap her in his arms. “It was so important to him that I liked it,” she says.

After his long relationship with McGuckin ended in the mid-’90s, due mainly to Howard’s heroin habit – McGuckin was using too, but was ready to clean up before Howard, and resented the “shitty jobs” she had to do in order to get them enough money to score – the ailing guitarist met and married editor Jane Usher. It lasted a couple of years, Usher saying she tried everything to help her partner stay clean, only to find herself “getting into trouble” by the end, forcing her to divorce a man she clearly loved for the sake of her son, who had a close relationship with his stepfather.

Towards the end of the film, a ravaged Howard, who was battling Hep C, reflects on his struggle with addiction. “If you’d asked me five years ago I wouldn’t have said I regretted anything about drugs,” he says, but now all he can see is waste. He confides to McGuckin that he feels “A three-time loser.” By then, interest in his work was skyrocketing. It’s just so sad that he’s not around to see it.