PRINT December 1997


the Afterlife

THE END OF THE YEAR is supposed to be a time of adding up accomplishments, separating winners from losers, declaring, in a smug, vaguely bored tone of voice, that the year wasn’t a complete waste of time. But a given year is more than anything else time that has passed, that is gone, an occasion that will never return—and in 1997 most of what could have been done wasn’t. Think about it that way and you might find yourself drawn not to ten-bests but to the cut-off, the broken-down, the used-up, the morbid. Never mind what Bill Clinton did or didn’t do in the last twelve months; from this seat on the downbound train, it’s far more interesting to imagine what he’ll be doing when it’s all over. He’ll be fifty-four when he leaves office, facing a future as blank as any pop star’s five years after her last hit. He’ll spend the next twenty years or so as—US senator from Arkansas? From California? Editor of Newsweek? Fixer for the Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere? Stuffed party animal for William Styron, Carly Simon, and the rest of the Martha’s Vineyard crowd?

Bill Clinton may or may not have a future (who would have thought that Strom Thurmond, who in 1948 led the South out of the Democratic convention to protest the party’s first civil rights plank, would still be poisoning our national life almost half a century later?), but it’s taken for granted that pop figures don’t have one, unless they’re willing to perform the same songs in the same way forever. Thus while it’s no fun at all to imagine what Mick Jagger might be doing in ten years, it’s a game with Polly Jean Harvey, but only if you leave the world of pop behind. With termite artists like Harvey—blind creators, boundary-eaters, as Manny Farber defined them in 1962, right about the time the Rolling Stones were forming—it’s impossible to imagine their work into the future, as impossible for the artist as for the fan.

Merely by showing up and doing it all over again, the Rolling Stones leave a hole in the pop atmosphere of 1997, a hole no one else is big enough to fill. In the same way, though, in pop a real creator’s absence can be more powerfully felt than most anyone else’s presence. In ten years, Harvey might be Annie Lennox, a video nightclub singer with an occasional surprise in her; she might be a bar owner, a cultist, or dead. But the bye she took in 1997 casts a longer shadow than Sleater-Kinney’s Dig Me Out, Van Morrison’s The Healing Game, the studied hijinks of Oasis, or even the Spice Girls—right now the most politically potent act on the planet, given that the cultural reaction they embody seems like the principal right-wing check on Tony Blair, who can read pop signs more clearly than Bill Clinton. Polly Harvey is unreadable, but you can’t help trying—that’s what she’s all about. As a presence she’s a black hole. No energy that was on the boards in 1997 was as alluring as her absence.

You can decipher almost any pop music these days as a marketing strategy before you hear it. That’s never been true with Harvey. She appeared naked on the cover of her first album, but as record followed record, it was as if a layer of flesh—flesh as a kind of clothing, a body mask that just gave the illusion of nakedness—was being removed with every new year, until finally with To Bring You My Love, her last full project, she appeared on the cover in a glamorous red dress and in sound was exposed down to her bones. The music had the feel of a lost-and-found pagan ritual, as if the audience it was aimed at were either long gone or yet to come.

Touring at the time, in 1995, Harvey came on stage and left behind the one show I’ve ever seen that was so willed and yet so unstable that only the word “profound” seemed up to it. Dressed in about eight layers of blouses, skirts, underwear, and scarves, she grimaced and whirled with the exaggerated movements and irresistible conviction of a silent-movie actress. She was Valentino’s beautiful wife Natacha Rambova; she was Rambova’s mentor Alla Nazimova, heroine of her own production of Salome, mistress in Hollywood of the Garden of Allah. For a moment you wondered if she could possibly keep all the promises she was making, and then you flinched, certain that she could—including the promise that she could turn you into Lot’s wife, that to gaze upon her for another instant would change you into a pillar of salt. Time passes, occasions that will never return depart as if they had never been, and 1997 may be most memorable because as Harvey stayed off the stage, no one came close to holding her place.

If you read the papers, a sense of absence can overwhelm any presence, waste completely replacing the piling up of wealth and reputation. In the obituaries in 1997, certain generations began to disappear en masse. There was the first wave of the civil rights generation, mostly southern blacks and northern whites who in the ’40s and ’50s risked their lives and their names—their fortunes and their sacred honor, as their precursors put it—for a battle that at the time few believed would ever be really joined, let alone won. And there was the generation that fought the Nazis, or escaped them. “I was not there to witness the worst, only the beginning,” wrote Mary Jayne Gold, who died on October 5 at the age of 88, near Saint-Tropez; in 1940, as a young American heiress in Marseilles, a fancy tourist, she had helped thousands of Jews, among them Marc Chagall, Jacques Lipchitz, and Hannah Arendt, to get out of France. “Even then,” she remembered in her memoirs, “I was sometimes embarrassed into a sort of racialism—like being ashamed of belonging to the human race.” She herself fled France in 1941; on the occasion of her death, a friend told the Associated Press that Gold had “felt that only one year in her life really mattered.” Again it is absence that is the greatest presence: ten, twenty, fifty years from now, who in the United States, who anywhere in the West, will say the same of 1997 for any form of public life?

Pop is a form of public life; maybe that’s why I felt this absence most listening to Meadville, a live album recorded around Europe (Rennes, Amsterdam, Ljubljana, Hilversum) in 1996 by David Thomas, with Keith Moliné and Andy Diagram, a.k.a. Two Pale Boys, on apparatus “generating two or three instrument voices at any one point.” Meadville is stirring, worrisome, a joke, a joke with a constant, spooky undertow, and it’s not even a real album that you can go into a store and buy for $10 or so—it’s attached as a bonus to a five-CD set of the solo albums that Thomas released between 1981 and 1987, when his band, Pere Ubu, was more or less on hiatus, a set sort of pompously called David Thomas, Monster. I don’t know what Meadville means, but I think the reason I’ve played it more than any other music released in 1997 is that when Thomas’ joke is at its best, especially then, the music is all about uncertainty, about dread, a dread that spins the present into the future. Standing on his stages, testifying to The Way the World Looks Now, telling long, tangled shaggy-dog stories about the end of the Enlightenment and mishearing Tammy Wynette’s biggest hit, Thomas is possessed by dread, by the future, because like a reader rushing to the end of Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep but reading the best lines twice, he can neither wait to find out how it turns out nor abandon the pleasure of not knowing, not yet. Listening to Thomas, you don’t hear a career, though he has a long one—that is, you don’t hear a marketing strategy, even though Thomas’ place in the pop market is one of his constant subjects. You hear time passing, you hear time that’s passed, you hear an odd commitment to the art of talking out loud, and a bet that someone might be listening, and might talk back, one of these days.

“Because I’m David Thomas, legend,” he says from the stage, explaining why, at a party filled with rock stars, everyone only wants to talk to him. Assume the party never took place—Thomas carries the moment off. He’s been around long enough. And Thomas appeared as a legend even as his career began, in a tiny Cleveland musical milieu that was all paradox, in the early ’70s at once proto-Dada and postpunk. He fronted an experimental, assaultive, abstract, Seeds-influenced band called Pere Ubu because, I’ve always believed, he looked just like Alfred Jarry’s Ubu woodcuts—and sounded like Ubu at Colonnus. It was pure Modernism: a performance of the end of the world as the best joke of all. Thomas bellowed, he whispered, he came up with the strangest cracker-barrel philosopher-king drawl, he took his words and splayed melodies from old folk songs and the inside moves of the most degraded pop hits. If at first he gave off feral hints of Fatty Arbuckle, as the years went on his Ubu shaded off into fictional characters harder to read: Ignatius Reilly in John Kennedy Toole’s novel A Confederacy of Dunces, Jack Nance’s Henry Spencer in David Lynch’s Eraserhead. By the time he reached his stages in 1996, he had become a creature of wonder, so alive to the possibilities of motion and chance in a word or phrase that any given song he might choose to sing will be less a song than a road, a road out or a road back.

He’s a free man: Pere Ubu never had any hits, so he doesn’t have to sing them. Solo, he sings songs from the band’s recent albums Story of My Life and Ray Gun Suitcase, but they aren’t referents to anything; they’re performed not as selling points but as routes from here to there, from love to death, hit to miss. “I found my thrill/In Nowheresville” might be the dullest, most obvious, most market-tested moment on the record—the only moment that explains itself.

Thomas’ argument is that nothing worth understanding explains itself—he can’t explain why he’s singing or why you’re listening, and his bet is that you can’t either—and that this lack of clarity, though fatal in the market, nevertheless keeps the conversation going, so long as his clues are as good as Raymond Chandler’s, who never worried if a clue led nowhere. Thomas may find a clue, say, in the suburban developer’s slogan “If You Lived Here, You Would Be Home by Now,” locking into its impenetrable weirdness, excavating its mathematical absolutes and its epistemological slipknot, and doing so with a love of repetition for its own sake that only a lifetime in rock ’n’ roll can justify. “Marching on the home of the blues marching on the home of the blues marching on the home of the blues,” he chants, until you can see a whole army behind him, pitchforks waving, torches held high—for weeks I heard the phrase clearly not as “home” but as “House of the Blues,” and believed Thomas was summoning true believers to the destruction of the nightclub chain, city by city, block by block, folk art collection by folk art collection, and now, just as Thomas can only hear “Stand By Your Man” as “Stand By, Earth Man” (the story of why and how is endless), I can’t hear his blues chant any other way. You’re a free listener, Meadville says—you write the songs. But it also says, There are no songs, no hits. What you love most you have misheard. If you lived there you would be here by now. As a matter of fact, you are. But no one else is.

“There goes old man Thomas,” Thomas announces, describing the figure he cuts in his neighborhood, the kids on his street pointing and snickering: “There goes old wheezer.” He breaks into a fit of coughing that’s funny until it goes on too long. He’s placed himself in the audience, pointing and snickering at himself, as, a quarter century after he first stepped out of anonymity, he continues to mimic a pop star, describing from the stage, in indecipherable tones, how Pere Ubu once opened for Kool and the Gang, who could “talk to the ladies”—which, as avant-garde legends, Pere Ubu could never convincingly do. Time dissolves; the subject matter of Meadville is the last twenty-five years as an irrelevance that has prepared the singer for the next year, should there be one. In other words, on my favorite record of 1997, the year barely exists. It is all absence, a waste of passed time, and it performs a queer trick on time: to imagine Thomas ten or twenty years into the future takes no more and no less effort than it does to imagine him just over the line into 1998.

“We did the first record not as a beginning, but as an ending,” Thomas said of Pere Ubu’s 1978 The Modern Dance, in the most moving words I’ve ever read in a press release—it was for Pere Ubu’s 1993 Story of My Life, a record that ends with “Last Will and Testament.” “We wanted to leave an artifact that someone would discover. We were done—we were about to move on to real life.” But it didn’t work out that way, Thomas went on: “We had the misfortune to have a dream and vision at an early age that was too powerful to shake in older life. If you’re young enough and if the vision is strong enough, you will never lose it—like the people who became Communists in the ’30s. They had no alternative but to continue. With us, it’s a similar thing. We saw what rock music should be and could be and nothing less than that would ever do for us.” The true vision always recedes before the visionary; if you lived there already, Thomas says over and over in 1997, you wouldn’t be home by then, but don’t worry about it. Worry about something else.