Ever poor wight Cazazza Dan withdrew into his studio. Months passed and none heard tell of his doings, his sayings, his comings and goings, mainly because none was asking, but that is by the by. Today he reemerged from that dank cesspit, and brought forth digital files of various shapes and sizes, he then fell over and had to be taken back inside. Yet the files themselves were retrieved and may now be presented to you, should you want them. Note that wanting the files is considered a sign of abnormality and shall result in the placing of your name in the list of undesirables maintained by Her Majesty’s Government.
Often I am given to alternate between periods of composing and listening, for some reason my brain has to shift gears to do one thing or the other and be successful in doing so. Lately, I have been firmly in listening mode, what compositional efforts have been made in this time amounting to braindead mediocrity (of a sort more acutely felt than in the things I actually publish) and off-cuts that would not be fit even for the vertical spit at the most scummy kebab shop on Middlewood Road. However, actually listening to things lately has been a pleasant experience, with some surprises not only in classical music but in modern pop as well.
No one could be more surprised than I am that Paramore’s recent song “Hard Times” would be on a list of things that I have enjoyed listening to recently. Looking back, like seemingly everyone of a certain generation (mine) today, to the 1980s, the song begins with xylophones and drum machines, before breaking out with a full drum kit, accented staccato bass, and a warm and wetly befuzzed rhythm guitar. The general sound profile is indebted to Cyndi Lauper’s Girls Just Wanna Have Fun (no complaints here), with the occasional shouty outburst replete with dissonant vocal filter reminding you that it’s self-aware retro pop, not primary history. Unlike their other recent single “Told You So”, which has a more stripped down and less characterful sound, “Hard Times” has charm bursting out of its fluffy three-minute walls.
Elsewhere on the pop(ular Western music) scene, I’m delighted to talk about 100 Flowers, a California punk band originally known as The Urinals, members of which would later go on to form the much-maligned, possibly with good reason (I, having not heard this band, cannot comment), Trotsky Icepick. The compilation 100 Years of Pulchritude, which brings together their self-titled debut LP, as well as EPs, singles, and unreleased work from the early to mid 1980s, is one hour long and full of truly original material. Sarcastic lyrics, which attack the establishment and seem to lampoon the usual punk anti-establishment sentiment at the same time, play off of dissonant riffs while maintaining a light, yet somehow rough sound, while tracks like “Mop Dub” show a side of the band’s character which delights in stripping itself of convention totally. That’s not to say these guys are beyond comparison to anyone else, they have a sound all their own, yet they are a product of their times, and share some qualities with their contemporaries MX-80 Sound (before Rich Stim and friends became purveyors of depressingly monotone soft rock around the late ’80s) and the funky, furious Minutemen.
On the classical front, I have been greatly impressed recently by Samuel Barber. Yes, that’s right, the man most people know, if they’re aware of its composer at all, for the ubiquitous funereal strains of the Adagio for Strings, which to my dismay is apparently popular enough that it may suffice to take up an entire CD. There’s nothing wrong with it per se, I was quite moved when it was played at my grandfather’s funeral in January (though likely it had more to do with the impossibly small coffin, which contained the to-be-cremated remains of a man I was not close to but had known all my life, whose voice I would never hear again, sitting in one corner of a room, resting upon a conveyor belt before a small wooden double door into which it would disappear just before the gathering dispersed), but I can only imagine Barber himself would have been quite irritated that of all his works it should be this and this alone that bears him forward into all the futures he cannot live.
To begin with, how about that vigorous, even violent Piano Sonata, Op. 26, coupled on the disc I have by Marc-André Hamelin, and rather more appropriately than you might think, with Ives’s powerhouse Concord Sonata. It would be quite enough to even take the finale, the colourful and leaping Fuga which impresses upon the ear with forceful moto perpetuo, runs to a tense breaking point fortissimo, then eases back into a mysterious dance, calming down just enough to make room for anticipation of the original motif’s big splashy return. But this comes as the exclamation point at the end of three movements of, if not equal ear-grabbiness then something close.
Less brash, more mysterious, shaded, but still retaining a contrapuntal edge, Barber’s compact Summer Music, a wind quintet which plays multiple short repeated sections off against each other, was my gateway back into this composer of which I had previously enjoyed at least a concerto, though I remember not which one, and some miscellany. I owe my friend Zoe a thank you, though she is presently without an internet connection and so cannot see this post, as she was the one to recommend this piece to me in the first place. It is rather a fine light work, nothing spectacular, but in its understated eleven minutes there is plenty to enjoy, including some moments that seem like a modern take on certain elements of the music of Anton Bruckner, strange as it may seem to say so.
Some months ago, I promised my friend Ben that I would proselytise in favour of Stravinsky’s late masterpiece Threni, a choral work setting passages from the Vulgate’s Book of Lamentations. I hadn’t forgotten about my promise exactly, but time seemed to slip away. Between composing Pints of Brine and working on the soundtrack for a game, in addition to trying to get other as yet embryonic projects off the ground, not to mention my ability to write, which comes and goes as inevitably as the Sun rises and sets, yet as unpredictably as the weather shifts from sunshine to storms over the British Isles, had seemingly disintegrated and scattered in the wind — the whole thing was destined to be delayed.
Threni has, I am told, long suffered from poor recordings resulting from lack of rehearsals and a general misunderstanding of the 12-tone technique, not to mention Stravinsky’s idiosyncratic (as in all things) application of it. Yet it’s not only the difficult melodic language which must have foxed musicians in the past, and likely still to this day, but Stravinsky’s return to vocal music of the past, particularly of the Renaissance and of composers like Schütz. His signature punchy, odd-meter rhythms, and the eccentricity of his instrumentation, which exhibits in places a Webern-like sparsity, are couched here in a looking-backwardness that seems better suited to the sort of folks who would ordinarily be performing Bach on period instruments. Perhaps it is no surprise, then, that the best recording I know of should be made by Philippe Herreweghe and the Collegium Vocale Gent.
Herreweghe and the Collegium bring the work’s balance of modern and ancient elements to the fore, the clear anchorage of the canon form giving rise to the most dissonant harmonies and textures. When I first heard the piece in 2010, part of the BBC Proms concert season that year, I could make nothing of it but an unpleasant mess, full of aggressively ugly sounds, shrieks and squawks that seemed interminable. Whether it is that Herreweghe’s take on the piece is more approachable, or simply that my ear has expanded its capacity for strong dissonances, more than likely not an either/or choice but both, probably with a heavy slant toward my own shortcomings. After all, since acquainting myself with works such as Agon (1957), Requiem Canticles (1966), and Variations (1964), I could not have been better prepared to hear the work then than I am now. These days the airy, distant, mysterious harmonies intoning the Hebrew letters ALEPH, BETH, VAU etc. seem to my ear like grand anchorages from which the many canons within the piece set sail, and where I can get attain a good vantage point to “watch” the action.
I recognise that, as usual, I’m talking more about myself than the music, but it would not serve me or my alleged subject well were I to launch into guesswork and start talking of things I know very little about, like Schütz, the great Renaissance polyphonists, worse still the Vulgate and the Hebrew alphabet. Sure it might seem okay if I write my way around those topics so that only a close read will reveal (gulp!) that I have about as solid a handle on any of them as I do quantum mechanics, but good Christ, lads and lasses, what are we about?
In old news, The Hole has been migrated from Soundcloud to YouTube, where it can now be enjoyed in tandem with a black screen like every other video I’ve put on there.
In new news: cowbells. And yes, of course those are contrabassoon chords. (There are some other instrument tracks not pictured here, it’ll be a wonderful surprise!)
I’ve been listening to Ravel, Mahler, and Stravinsky this morning.
First off a comparative listen to two recordings, Martinon and then Boulez, of the Concerto for the left-hand. I find Martinon, whose Ravel I’ve known for many years, quite muddy, although Boulez might even be too clean by that metric. The Martinon recording also has some very noticeable and somewhat distracting splices. Boulez can be a little heavy, especially in the sections that emphasise percussion. Also on Ravel, Placet futile (this listen with Felicity Palmer) from the Mallarmé settings is such a beautiful song, the best of three very fine settings.
Mahler 5, which I’ve warmed to considerably over the past year, in the Gielen recording, is quite something. I think I prefer the even shorter Walter ’47, but this is a good middle ground, avoiding the massive drag so many conductors put on the Adagietto. How Bernstein even manages to drag it out for almost 12 minutes is beyond me.
Lastly Agon, one of my favourites, also conducted by Gielen. This is the most recent of four recordings I own, others by Craft, Volkov, and Rosbaud (my definite favourite of those three), and it is very good. As is often the case (especially with his Mahler) Gielen brings out details that are often buried, and this adds much to the experience. In particular this time around the Pas de deux and Coda took on an effortless beauty I had not heard before.
New awfulness from that “composer” Cazazza Dan. Honestly, I don’t know why we keep advertising this doofus, but here it is anyway, his latest atrocity.
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Burnt Weeny Sandwich is the first posthumous release of Frank Zappa’s career. The Mothers had been disbanded, they were done, finished, ended, through, so through were they that it was thought that their throughness was thorough and final. It turns out not to be the case, since Zappa had apparently made the decision in haste and would then bring the name back all of a sudden just months later. Who knows why, but one might speculate that the Mothers, despite Hot Rats, despite a (shall we say) healthy dose of self-promotion the past few years, still had a higher profile than Zappa himself. You can say that he was the band in the public view, and that’s at least partly true, but what are you without what you are? (…I can resist jokes once in a while, folks…)
“Burt Weenysandwich? What the heck kind of a name is that? Oh, oh, Burnt Weeny Sandwich, I… well, I still don’t get it.” That’s okay, pard, sit a spell and let me spin you a tale to set your back hairs a-twitchin’. Where I was going with that I don’t know, but I’ve got to fill space somehow, and I sure as hell ain’t talkin’ about no music in this here music review. Yes, that’s a Hot Rats callback, and yes, I will redo that one eventually.
The album is a fork in the road. The path not taken was the continuation of the Mothers, an outfit which, you might think it easy to see in hindsight, had possibly done all it could do. I take the view that the Mothers, assuming the banner could continue to absorb more people and change formations as it went on, as Zappa’s later touring bands would do, had many more years ahead of it, eventually arriving at the amorphous absurdity suggested by the name “United Mutations”. Without taking up half the review with pointless speculation as to what would and would not happen in this alternate timeline, let’s just say that things would have been very different.
Under the circumstances, and while it would be absolutely hideous to conflate biographical details with musical output (a musicological crime we are thankfully not often incited to commit when talking about Zappa), it’s easy to see the upbeat, melodic, “optimistic” sounds that make up the music throughout as being incredibly sad, tinged with nostalgia and a sense of loss. But that’s what a combination of hindsight and alcohol will do for your writings on music, folks. At the time Zappa had already given up on sociopolitical commentary, not wishing to be associated with the burgeoning political rock scene, and the mainstay in 1969 was definitely (and perhaps defiantly, too) instrumental music, or songs with lyrics too absurd for anyone to find much of anything in them without looking like a fool, which is a certain kind of serendipity for my purposes in that I can maintain my sappy maudlin approach without a trace of irony and say “what, you see some other way of dancing about this architecture?”
The structure of the album is symmetrical—single track>suite>side break>suite>single track—and in practice almost symmetrical, almost only by virtue of a few minutes’ difference in duration between sides. In this way Zappa returns to Absolutely Free, acknowledging the LP format as a reasonable constraint to be built around rather than an annoyance to be defied. Both albums use suites as their major units of organisation, but where Absolutely Free is all singing, all dancing, Burnt Weeny Sandwich shoves singing to the outermost extremities, in the form of two cover versions of popular doo-wop songs by Four Deuces (WPLJ) and Jackie & the Starlites (Valarie). These two covers, which could be Ruben and the Jets off-cuts (and I don’t mean that negatively), bookend the album, a greeting and a farewell which mark out more of that bittersweet Territory of the End with pleasant cliché.
Both tracks showcase the Mothers as singers. Common throughout Zappa’s line-ups is the expectation that all or most members of the band will have some vocal parts, the ’60s incarnations of the Mothers have some of the finest examples of the group as doublers of voice and instrument. Here more than anywhere in the post-Ray Collins era is his absence felt, this material is exactly his kind of territory, and while Zappa, who was admittedly not much for singing, does a fine enough job, bringing just enough sincerity to his delivery of WPLJ‘s fluffy lyrics, you can’t help but wonder how Collins’s presence might have influenced things. By all accounts it doesn’t seem like Collins himself had much influence so far as exercising his will over the musical direction of the band goes, but his voice lent itself well to particular instrumentations, which Zappa had well prepared to be one of the all-too-often unsung highlights of Freak Out! The difference in instrumentation here, compared even to Ruben, let alone the debut, and discounting the obvious changes of personnel over just a few short years, speaks volumes on Collins’s subtle but central importance to the music making of the Mothers.
WPLJ, despite being musically alien to the rest of the album, sets up a vibe of fun that will be carried on through the first suite and over the side break. First off, sharp material contrast is in the offing with Igor’s Boogie, Phase One, which, along with its respective Phase Two, is just one of many Stravinsky references and tributes Zappa would make throughout his career. Rather than quoting, as he had done previously, melodies of Stravinsky, this time Zappa writes original music in homage to the Russian ex-pat. The music in both Phases points towards L’histoire du soldat (1916), a jaunty ensemble piece with percussion. They are similar in structure to one another, hitting equivalent gestures at equivalent times (handy for light analysis such as this because they’re both the exact same length), such that it is almost accurate to call Phase Two a double (in the sense of the Baroque dance suite, e.g.: Allemande et double) or more properly a variation of Phase One. In keeping with the theme of the End, Stravinsky was coming to the end of his life, and indeed had ceased to compose after around 1968. It doesn’t particularly matter, in fact doesn’t matter at all that this was the case, or if Stravinsky had the chance to hear these brief movements, which are essentially glue for larger works which he might well have found much more interesting, but it is interesting to think what Zappa could have made here had he produced a full suite of this music.
The major pairing on side one is that of the two Holiday in Berlin pieces, which contain music that would later appear in the soundtrack for 200 Motels. The first of the two tracks, the Overture, presents a sequence of three linked melodies which are quite fluffy and pleasant, this is offset by a wilfully vulgar encroachment of dissonance by having certain of the instruments, most notably the double bass on the final melody, shade the melodies in colours borne of playing slightly outside of 12TET. The double bass in particular achieves the remarkable feat of sitting between two chairs without contradiction, lending the whole affair a shimmering, spectral quality.
Holiday in Berlin, Full-Blown, the longest track of the Side One suite, elaborates on the basic sequence shown previously in the Overture, with yet more material that would develop into 200 Motels. The arrangement is much softer, avoids the grand dissonances of its predecessor, and is more given over to the pillowy largesse of Strictly Genteel, which was originally conceived as the finale to 200 Motels. Zappa’s clear desire here, which is another perspective on the same landscapes he painted with Lumpy Gravy, and which he would paint again with 200 Motels, is the total amalgamation of popular and classical music. It’s a theme that dominated Zappa’s early career and one to which he would return—though it’s fair to say he never entirely left—with yet another perspective in his final years.
Full-Blown gives us the second of two guitar solos in the Side One suite, and it is, in my estimation, the better of the two. The first, which is featured on the potentially interesting Theme from Burnt Weeny Sandwich, begins with sharp percussion and baleful bells and other metal percussions which, when I was younger, made me think of a bombed out church lost to some war, and someone shovelling through the rubble, looking for something. The guitar solo slowly fades in over the top of this and the whole thing decidedly becomes sub-Nine Types of Industrial Pollution, a less interesting cousin one is forced to meet and talk with at the Mothers’ Farewell Party. It isn’t bad, but didn’t we have enough of this from not only Nine Types but the guitar-heavy Hot Rats, which had already done more and better than is on offer here? The saving grace is in the final percussion section, which sets up for a smooth transition into Igor’s Boogie, Phase Two. Why couldn’t the rest of the track have been like that?
The finale of the Side One suite is Aybe Sea (easy as one-two-three! C’mon guys, lets sue some motherfuckers!), which is the suite’s summation, with its Stravinskian rhythms, and its tonality, which begins in the same mode as Holiday in Berlin. The piece ends on a cryptic note which builds expectation for Side Two. The use of harpsichord is perhaps at its most striking in this piece, where it is paired and contrasted with the piano, its own future replacement, which, if I was going to take my shamelessly emotionalist reading of the album way back on the fourth paragraph entirely too far, I could say is a microcosm of the entire album: the presentation of past and future in simultaneity. Aybe Sea is, in my estimation, among Zappa’s most beautiful work, in part for its contrasting of past and present in different ways, for example the way in which its harmonies progress towards jazz, while maintaining a neo-Baroque sensibility which underpins the whole thing. Furthermore, the piece offers a real insight to Zappa’s level of control and assuredness as a composer and as an arranger, both of which can be difficult to grasp in some of his best and most esoteric work.
Side Two is dominated by Little House I Used to Live In, a giant edifice which is by turns dazzling and exasperating. Zappa continues from the end of Aybe Sea with a great opening for solo piano which takes the jazz harmonies and removes them from the neo-Baroque context, essentially freeing them up to become somehow unstuck in time. This is followed by the full ensemble playing music from Return of the Son of the Hunchback Duke (possibly the Duke of Prunes following an unfortunate accident in his magic go-kart), a piece the Mothers would play in their concerts around 1969, which is also the source of the main melody of Aybe Sea, though not the rest of that piece. The original Hunchback Duke contrasts the Aybe Sea melody with a march in the diminished scale, which lends a certain Eastern European or even Middle Eastern sensibility to the proceedings, in concert it often transitioned from this into Help, I’m a Rock!, which has a similar tonality. Zappa was keen on folk and traditional music from all over the world, and the musics of East Europe and the Middle East in particular found their way into a fair amount of his music throughout his career. The journey to the east in Little House, however, heads farther on towards India, with a predilection for certain scales and drones which have a quasi-raga quality.
The Duke section ends with a guitar solo, one of the better ones on the album, and moves into a violin solo by Sugarcane Harris, who had previously jammed with Zappa on The Gumbo Variations. Harris’s improvisational style, which is much better in my view than that of Jean Luc Ponty or Jerry Goodman (of Mahavishnu Orchestra fame), mainly because of its being steeped in the blues and not merely in the smug excitation of pentatonic noodling, is not substantial enough to go on for as long as it does here. In fact, I would go so far as to say that the jam session itself is a makeweight, out of place and coming at the expense of the through-composed music that makes up the rest of the suite, which it would have pretend to the throne of King Kong rather than let it continue as it is. Zappa’s delight in editing leads him to slip up in a few places throughout Little House, and this insert is one of the worst of his career. At this point, no matter how good the rest of the side is (and it is mostly very good), the piece is given up to sitting between two chairs, this time with contradiction, and while it might make an interesting mirror to what I said earlier, it’s a shame for the album itself. If you’re curious, try taking a scalpel to the audio and taking out the jam session; it actually flows rather well, but still you would hope for something more.
A brief interlude for winds, vibraphone, guitar, and just a little harpsichord, which sounds like it could be from a film soundtrack, follows the jam session. It is a return, in some ways, to the aesthetics of the first half, but again unstuck in time, the notes seeming to float in the space suggested by the slow, delicate pacing. This leads into a jubilant finale—mostly of drums and a ludicrous synth lead, but also some We’re Only In It for the Money-style sped-up guitar repeating music from earlier portions of the piece—which is perhaps a little too far over to the jam session side of things to really seem like a fitting conclusion. And that is why I said Little House is “by turns dazzling and exasperating”: Zappa seemed to have contrived to undermine the beauty and character and indeed the structural certainty of his composition by attacking it with something wilder, freer, more crude, more vulgar. It is a gesture to be respected for its daring, without which Zappa would not have been Zappa, but I feel that it is also what ultimately renders the piece a collection of great bits rather than a cohesive, self-sufficient work that moves from a beginning to a logical end point. At the same time, Little House concludes with applause, yet another look back to the past in the form of an offer to perform Brown Shoes Don’t Make It, and Zappa’s well known quote “everybody in this room is wearing a uniform and don’t kid yourself.” The move from studio to live points towards Weasels Ripped My Flesh, which was to be the live-music-oriented companion piece to this album, and would also be the last official Mothers release until Ahead of Their Time in 1993—though it is worth noting that the superb and slightly earlier You Can’t Do That On Stage Anymore, Vol. 5‘s first disc is compiled from Mothers concert tapes.
Burnt Weeny Sandwich is a crucial album in the discography. It not only marks the end of an era, but sees the Mothers doing some of their very best work, even if Zappa’s overzealousness at the editing desk serves to undermine it just a little. These flaws, which are concentrated really only in Little House I Used to Live In, do highlight the tense relationship between Zappa and the Mothers, and the way they could sometimes work to each other’s detriment despite their intentions being to do the best work they could. The contradictions and the ironies thus on display are part of what give the album its unique character among a catalogue of uniquely characterful albums, one that we might wish had gone on just a little longer than it had, but no less diminished in stature by its premature end.
“Alternatively, a Man Who Fills Ledgers”
He gets his head out of a bag while the orange-haired kid on the TV flips some Yank coin and says: “I’m thinkin’ Lincoln.” He never saw a bag of crisps so big in all his life and now here he is, gorging himself. A woman’s voice says: “Jesus, you good for nothing, you watching that fucking show again? And stop eating so many crisps, fuck sake.” He puts the bag down now and turns the TV over to some stupid show his mother likes, Trisha or some shit, and leaves the room. Five minutes later his shoes are tap tap tap on cracked patchwork tarmac, same all through this suburb and all the other suburbs and also in town. He doesn’t like it, no good for skateboards and besides batty old bitches are always at you like “Jesus Mary and Joseph!” The fuck are they going to do you daft old cunt? Bollocks to the lot of them, they don’t get it. But when he reaches the corner with the heavy shade from all the trees, he sees blood. Suddenly he’s not so tough. The man with the gun gets into a plateless Jag, all business like, says: “Awight kidda, awight, you tellem fakkin koppaz itz rowlow bawzaggee wot dunnit awight?” He goes to wherever it is people like him go in their plateless Jags, and the Kid is left with the far from immaculate corpse. Rollo Borzaghe, who the fuck? Fuck it, get the police. The police are got. Fuck it. Yeah yeah itz rowlow fakkin bawzaggee innit ya fakkin fiwf nah fakkawf ya fakkin koppa fakk! So the policeman says: “Yoo souwim wot dunnit?” The Kid says: “No, just the wun wot sezzee dunnit.” And the policeman says: “Oo wozzee?” Kid says: “Ee sezzee woz rowlow fakkin bawzaggee.” Policeman says: “Rowlow fakkin bawzaggee?! Fakkin ehw!” And he’s off, a couple of official sounding things in his radio, some reciprocal click click buzz buzz; the car gathers friction and wails off in the direction of the car purportedly driven by Rollo Borzaghe. The Kid returns home, duty for the day done, feels pretty good. And now the news on TV says some policeman was shot and it was Rollo Borzaghe that had done the shooting. That was the second, or third, fourth, fifth, tenth, fuck it, hundredth for all he knew. Borzaghe must keep shooting, it seems to the Kid, why else would he be so vocal, so adamant about claiming the kills for himself? Borzaghe is a compulsive shooter and an exhibitionist, he concludes. But now it’s some music video shit so he goes upstairs and fuck music videos they’re all fucking shit. The Kid sits on his bed and there is nothing to do. “Are you back already, fuck sake!” Yeah yeah fuck sake fuck off. The door was open, now it is closed. He is alone, but he can still hear that fucking music video show, so he puts on his headphones and then he’s away. He’s in two places now, still in one, moving or being moved in the other, a passive, insignificant mote, but then he gets fucking hiccups or hiccough he sometimes hears them say but it isn’t painful, it’s just annoying. He thinks about Rollo Borzaghe and for a minute, under the influence of the environment made unreal by the artifice of music, he can make a connection, a feeling of connectedness between the hiccups and the gunshots, but as soon as he takes the cans off it just seems like something a fucking idiot would come up with. So he plays a video game for all of five minutes because video games are fucking shit. “You gonna sit in there all day, fuck sake!” Door is closed, from behind it the voice gets louder but it peaks fast and gets quieter again like something from classical music but he doesn’t listen to that music just music with a beat a solid beat a rhythm straight square even and absolute no ornament no extras just the beat and the way it consumes everything the way it consumes reality almost and makes the day more than a sequence of events an experience of a different world beyond the physical. Fuck it. He doesn’t philosophise, he’s the Kid, so fuck it. But still music has something, a mystery that refuses be solved, can’t be solved because all it is is sounds right? But he doesn’t really care about music, he never has, it’s the beat, always the beat, but really it needs the other stuff because it’s a process you have to go though, filtering it all out to get to get to the purity of the beat. He doesn’t philosophise. Fuck it. It comes naturally, it’s the kind of thing you find your way into, involuntarily you find yourself doing it because it is somehow relevant to who you are, a process that is singularly linked, or so you think when you’re in that bubble, to you. The Kid goes out for another walk fuck sake. He does not go the way he went to find the body, he doesn’t want to get involved with that. He is already involved but he doesn’t want to become involved personally, he just saw a bloke shooting another bloke and driving away. Actually he only saw the last part, and the man shouting eez rowlow fakkin bawzaggee wot dunnit awight. He found the body, he found the man who put the body where it was, or rather the man who needed to tell someone he was the man who had put it where it was, or that man had found him, and then the police, and that was it. He sent the policeman to his death. No, just gave him some information and he left of his own accord. The policeman had bolted as soon as he’d heard the name Rollo Borzaghe, and it didn’t turn out so well for him. This is not the Kid’s problem. It’s out of his hands. He’s thirty-five and it’s out of his hands. He’s at the office. Secretary says: “One day I’ll be out of here.” He says: “But you’ll be somewhere else just like it, that or you’ll be too old to really enjoy it.” Last night he thought of her, this brightly painted woman, younger than him, and he got an erection. Now, thinking about her age and her inevitable ageing, hip replacements and all, he just wants to take care of her, fuck fucking, just take care of her and provide for her and be there, wherever that is, together in their sunset years. She makes more than he does. She is the secretary of the boss, the boss’s aide and confidant, a woman of scruple and of prudent cogitation upon matters that are practical and which exist physically. She contents herself with the actual in the main, the probable at a stretch, but she will not risk venturing the possible. For this she gets paid, and it’s more than he does. That isn’t something that matters so much, I mean. Fuck it, he’s not a kid any more, no more cheesy fantasies, you work now, you make your money that’s not as much as she does and you get on. Bills. You pay bills and you work to do it. Five days out of every seven are consumed with work. He doesn’t have a choice in this, no one does. He thinks this is a deep thought. He doesn’t know what all else is out there but this for him is a deep thought and even if he could know he was just one in an infinite line, or rather an infinite web stretching out forever… Not forever. But the point is that for him it would not matter, because this is a deep thought as far as he’s concerned. But work is over now. It’s time to go. He exits the building and enters his car, a Ford Escort, old, removed from the digital modcon conspiracy — he thinks of it like that, and that too is a deep thought for him. This is stupid, talk to your friends. He remembers them from school, somehow it all comes back to school, not because they were the best days of his life. Whoever first said your school years are the best days of your life should be strung up and set on fire, or at least shot. No, he remembers them because they are baggage, the accumulated regret and wastefulness, all those things you could have done if you hadn’t been stuck in maths with Mr fucking Flavell. Maths, rigid and boring, or maybe not, it occurs to him as he skims through a doctoral dissertation. And his job now is to fill out ledgers, and there’s nothing more rigid and boring than a ledger. They have two-hundred pages and there are thirty-two lines on each page and each line is divided into six fields of equal width. But they are official, he has that safety net of officiality, even perhaps the appearance, earned only through his studious and diligent work as a filler of ledgers, of officialdom, he may go so far as to one day become an officialism, whatever that means. “I’m on official business!” he says. No one gives a fuck. You’re full of shit and no one gives a fuck. If you were smart neither would you, ledger filling fuck. But he is here filling ledgers every day and always. The physical world and its conspiratorial geographies cannot contain his hereness, he transcends them entirely so that he might fill himself with work like a good Castalian, and how he knows what is meant by that is anybody’s guess, for there is no means by which he might forestall the ledgerial problems that assail him on a daily basis that he might have time for a book other than the ledger, and did he fuck care for literature when he was younger. You don’t even own that book, lucky fucking guess is all that was. Maybe a girl he liked back in the day read it and told him about it. Yeah, maybe it was Big Tit Trisha who used to sit with him in the woods after dark and share the White Lightning she’d flirted some older bloke into getting for her. Never even got a squeeze. Anyway, yeah, real fucking literati there. And who are you to judge, you fucking Nobel laureate fuck. Not that they aren’t too political to matter. Like you’d fucking know. You’re full of shit and no one gives a fuck. But I do, I do. He really does: he demands to be taken seriously. But he doesn’t even command that kind of respect from himself. He is wasting away. It’s a cruel existence but he’s the one you’re the one being cruel to yourself you fucking idiot. “I am cruel to myself.” It’s a hard thing to admit. “This is how it should be.” That’s comforting. His neck cricks and cracks as he tosses his head, pondering the purpose of carrying on with everything the way he is right now. He needs changes, more than that: he needs to make changes. The only possibility right now being clothes. He owns four pairs of socks and one more with holes all over. He goes on sockless through the house he kept after his mother died. At the funeral he had met with a man called Jimmy Jack O’Benny-Benny-Benny, the world’s first test-tube baby, created using an engineered tripartite spermatozoon made up of the best, most desirable genes from three unrelated Benjamins. His mother had been Jimmy Jack’s surrogate, now she was in the ground. See that my grave is kept clean. He thinks of everything in terms of easy touchstones, icons he picked up from places along the path his life happened to take, all readily understood and digested by anyone he might have to use them to communicate with. He is a man for whom associations never transcended the cliché, not even when he had to contend with the death of a loved one. After his mother he carried on with his job, taking overtime when he could, and focused on maintaining the house as if nothing changed or could change. He ate little, coming to resemble an artists’ doll, sometimes even feeling as if he were made of wood. Sundays he would pretend he had become totally inanimate. Over the course of a year he practised the art of avoiding or otherwise denying his own will, trying to turn all of Sunday into a waking dream in which he could unconsciously come under the control of something else, some enlightened being that would make him appear to the world a better man, even if he would never know the secret ways of good men himself. He had no aspirations towards greatness, just to be good would be enough. It didn’t work. It hasn’t worked. He is still here filling out his stupid fucking ledgers. Nothing ever changes but the deepening multiplying wrinkles and the proportionate subtraction of hair from his scalp over time. He feels his destiny is a supreme averageness. He tries to work against it, but most days he thinks to himself I will be a work horse until I die and that’s all he has to keep him going, the antagonist he can rail against in the hidden life of his own mind, separated from reality by the glory of a tragic heroic fiction. He used to have a friend he told about things like this, she never listened, too busy with her own problems, but it was better than being totally alone you fucking idiot. Then she got married to someone who was not him and you know how it is. Meredith, the bitch. Not her fault, she had to go like everyone. People move. He didn’t move. He doesn’t move. He should move, but where. He thought about Rome once, only once and not too long or too deeply, that way it could remain a happy fantasy without the negativity that gets spawned by realism in the shadows of an idea. The house reeks of static. He meets himself halfway on this: everything can change but the house stays as it is. The house remains, it is a constant, an anchorage unbroken by time, situated upon the pole opposite his happy fantasy of Rome. Balance is the key. Nights he sleeps, he is not ascetic when it comes to sleep. He is in a bar with his laptop to do work. His friend from college who is an internet celebrity living in New York now and doesn’t look at all like he remembers is online. This is Ash. Ash types is any1 else here but no response from him or anyone. He can’t type he has been accosted by his grandfather who says kummon al geeyer alliftohm. So they go, he goes, his grandfather goes to his grandfather’s car and he puts his bag and stuff there but he remembers the laptop now is still in the bar so he has to go back and now there are stairs a complicated array of stairs he goes up and down the stairs five times to get into the bar but he gets there and his friend Harry and Harry’s brother Jeremy are there and Jeremy says yuhsteyin fer poowul? Harry says nohmaatuh bakkeh am goowinohm. Jeremy says oraat then seeyuh and Harry goes. There is a woman sitting next to a cardboard cut-out which depicts her in the nude and she is being interviewed by his cousin who does not have a picture of herself by her side. He calls her aside, says have you seen my laptop she says it was on the hood of a car this is unidiomatic but he understands nonetheless where is it now he says she says i dont know and he says god fucking damn it god fucking damn it god fucking damn it and he grabs her and shakes her and says all my work all my work but you dont give a fuck do you no one fucking does fuck you fucking idiot fuck you and she is crying she looks like miley cyrus when she cries and his family is there it doesnt look like them but he knows who they are and the woman who must be his aunt or maybe his cousins older sister his other cousin she says you know what she does you should be ashamed and similar and infers accurately from the tone how he knows he doesnt know but he holds his crying cousin now and he says its okay, its okay, im not mad at you its just im upset about the laptop youre not to blame youre just but she says im just a waste of time im just a waste of time. And she is not crying, she does not look like Miley Cyrus any more. She turns and he sees that she is balding, but when she brushes her hair the baldness goes away. When he gets outside again his grandfather is gone but he does not care. When he wakes up in the morning everything will be fine. When he wakes up in the morning it’s a school day. He goes to school. School is shit. At morning break Jason who is a shithead says: “Yewanner seeyuh majjik trik?” The Kid says: “No.” Jason says: “Dohnt yulaak majjik trikz?” The Kid says: “I like magic tricks but you’re just going to punch me or something.” He is not wrong. He is at a restaurant his friends are there he doesn’t recognise any of them. A peculiar situation he can’t bear to spend too much time thinking about. There is a man whose ebullient exclamations reveal him to be the Evangelist uncle who amazed him when he was younger with his enthusiasm for everything. The man says: “Hello, I am a Christian man!” He asks what everyone wants but he doesn’t appear to be a waiter. The restaurant is allegedly Mexican but all they serve is pizza, what kind of a joke, and the Christian whose name is Christian says: “Oh yeah! You like music don’t you! What music do you like!” There is Groove Armada on the PA, fucking Groove Armada, really? Well, Groove Armada is okay so he says: “I like Groove Armada.” And that’s that because Christians listens only to contemporary Christian rock, he doesn’t even like that fire and brimstone old Christian music they played on organs and shouted at you. Christian’s wife is there, she is Christina, she smiles and says nothing but he knows she wants to tell him all about growing up on a farm in the Midwestern United States. “I’m a farm girl and I do farm girl things” she abrupts into the conversation he wasn’t aware was taking place until now. Meanwhile Christian has joined another table at which sit five Middle Eastern looking men who are receiving a lecture on cigars from a fat Austrian man in a tweed suit and they have a cake. Christian is inspecting the cake, he says: “This cake looks so good!” He proceeds to touch the cake, the men at the table do not seem to care, if even they have noticed his presence at the table. He massages the icing which is thick and looks like a dark chocolate cream with his fingertips and digs his fingers into the cake and as his fingers pierce the upper crust and hit the spongy middle he begins to make whinnying sounds through clenched teeth. His lips are turned out almost to the point of folding back over his nose and chin. He picks up handfuls of cake and scrunges it through his fingers. He smothers his face in the rough paste of cake bits he has created with his hands. “Where did you get this! Where did you get this! Who made this!” He whinnies again. “Who made this!” And then everyone is gone and the Kid has a bag which is full of rancid dairy products. A man in a baseball cap and a t-shirt with slogans that change all the time like a highly sophisticated holograph walks by, says “Oh, cream!” and helps himself to a thing of gloopy, acidic double cream. The Kid looks over at the table where Christian had had his way with the cake to find policemen inspecting the remains, he feels like he blinks and then one of them has a key, but the sun is up and it’s time for work. On the street he hears “we’ll be friends forever you cunt” emanating from somewhere he can’t see. The car won’t start, it’s not cold so what the fuck. Generally speaking, this bothers him. But specifically, it’s been half a decade since he missed a day of work, and his perfect record is now to be marred because of a car, and someday a machine is going to be doing his job instead of him. What a fucking. Just take the bus you fucking. Fuck. The bus bothers him, not so much the feeling of excessive proximity to other people and their diseases and other problems but the idea that he is not in control of his own conveyance. The bus driver operates the bus at the behest of the bus company in accordance with the schedule which they determine and the woman next to him is an unapologetic sneezer. Not the driver, but him. The bus is slow and it takes roads he would have avoided. He second guesses the route all the way to his destination. When he gets off he tries to place his mind squarely on work but all he can think about is that he will have to take the bus home. If the only winning move is not to play, fuck it. Yeah fuck it. You begin to see where people like Rollo Borzaghe come from. That’s a real. Fuck it, he’s not the Kid any more, he can’t be fucking around? He wonders why. But now here’s the thing, the office, the ledgers, and for what. A house. Mum’s house, smooth and easy with a microwave for that rare three o’clock awake with no takeaways to speak of and he’d still be at work come eight. That is his life and it is accepted generally, occasional pangs of selfish regret but fuck it, he’s not a kid any more, what’s practical is what’s. But even so, do you not sometimes. He does not. So he’s there now walking past the boss’s secretary and the erections and the hip replacements and the sunset years. We’ll be there, wherever that is. Sometimes he goes online to see if he can self-diagnose autism but he gets sidetracked by complexes and disorders and comes out the other end maybe bipolar maybe schizoid, histrionic, and narcissistic for at least as long as he can remember what those are. O! madam secretary, I adore you. And in his office there is a second desk which is actually the first desk because it isn’t his office, it is Arnie’s. And there sits his good mate Arnie, who is forever nearing retirement and smells of peaches. Arnie makes him nostalgic for the peach pastries they used to sell at the baker’s down the street which is no longer there, and he thinks about wheeling him around when he can no longer walk and just generally being there for the delightful oldster. And it would be nice to sit and read to him in the summer house in June with the birds singing and the trees swaying and fetch him a pipe and brandy and later tuck him in and kiss his liver spotted scalp goodnight. The ledger has its own scent, an array of scents in fact and unlocked over its lifetime as the pages age a little and the ink settles permanently into the leaf, but you have to devote yourself to the ledger to develop the aptitude for scenting it, just being an avid reader of books won’t do, the ledger has its own set of rules. “I am not a moron. I can see how you’d think I was, though, so it’s okay.” When Arnie greets him that is what Arnie says. “No, Arnie, you’re a good bloke.” Arnie says: “Fuck off.” Once Arnie called him a jackaninny and they have maintained that patter ever since. It was the first thing Arnie ever said to him, he’d got the new ledger and an old one mixed up and Arnie said to him: “You fucking plonker, you absolute tit, you bloody jackaninny.” And he said: “I’m sorry Arnie” and Arnie said: “Fucking christ almighty shut up.” Now Arnie reels him in with self-deprecation but he doesn’t mind because he has always been polite to old people quasi-compulsively. And besides, Arnie has been here forever from his perspective. Arnie is ancient and unfathomable like the desert except he also helps you out because he has a way of framing things in words that you don’t really hear very often, like: “Get your fucking oh fuck off.” Arnie knows the ledgers and he fills them quickly. He often takes a while, two or three weeks, but Arnie, a few days and he’s pulling the shrinkwrap off the next one. He never asks about what Arnie puts down, out of respect. Sometimes he thinks he won’t make it, but he believes he will eventually reach Arnie’s level of skill and become the grand old man of ledger filling and he says to Arnie, he says: “Arnie, one day I’m going to be where you are now, carrying on your work and training someone like you train me to fill my shoes when I’m gone.” Arnie says: “I would be very surprised if someone hadn’t done the humane thing and smothered you in your sleep by then.” He says: “Arnie, there’s something I’ve been meaning to ask”, but he’s forty-five and Arnie is no longer there. The boss’s secretary also left and someone else is there now but he never bothered to find out who, and his days are spent alone with the ledgers and that’s okay. He gave up the Sunday meditations or invocations and now he watches films all day. Any kind of film will do, he eschews taste, he doesn’t think about the film he just watched only queues up the next one. It occurs to him that. What. Fuck it. He doesn’t even like films. He didn’t use to like films. He stopped taking Saturday overtime because he started eating less than he was eating already. That’s all and he doesn’t ask why not nor even ask why would I. Questions are too limiting but he doesn’t think about it or question why he doesn’t and he occupies his senses with what’s on the screen. You may imagine him in dirty underwear, unshaven for days, he won’t mind. He is not on a path that will lead him to be like Arnie but he is content with the notion that he will be something and he will fill the ledgers and when it comes time to stop filling ledgers. He doesn’t think about that. And how might my life have been different if something really cool and exciting had happened when I was a kid? is something he thinks about. But not enough to cause him any pain. Back then he would converse with a Frenchman in a café in London, and the Frenchman told him that exposed male nipples are inherently funny. Back then hard work got you where you needed to go. That never happened and he wasn’t there but he was nostalgic for fantasies of that sort and especially things on TV. For example, he used to envy Timmy Turner. At the moment he thinks it might have been something about spies in the French Resistance or Vichy France or even the French Revolution but whatever. What the fuck ever. He loved that phrase, it was so much better than hate him wouldn’t wanna date him. That was a thing only girls got to say (out loud) and maybe he was a little envious. And it wasn’t the one with the satanic school board. Sure is lonely around here. And now in the blue afternoon stretching out with an Ovaltine saying “this is the life.” He has become the kind of person who says “this is the life” while stretching out on the sofa in the afternoon, Ovaltine in hand. He also makes those easing into the chair sounds almost out of a desire to look the part, but to whom is unknown, since no one is watching. Since the incident with his job he has become more relaxed and more paranoid at the same time. What happened was he’d picked out a new ledger and for the first time in his life it was a new ledger, factory fresh and sealed in branded plastic wrapping, and he peeled it off and opened the first page and mother of god it was dog-eared. This was inexcusable. Absolutely inexcusable and more to the point the ledger was now ruined. Either it went to the scissors and lost a page or the fold was smoothed; either it was amputated or it would sit there, as it was now, visibly blemished even to the eye of a casual observer. In any case it would forever bear a symbol of freakishness that was beyond his power to ever truly correct. It was no good, yet one-hundred-and-ninety-nine other good pages were too good to waste. So he took the scissors to it, guided by a magnifying glass, and the deed was done and so finely that no one else would realise. But he would carry the secret disgrace for the rest of his career as a professional ledger filler, and possibly even beyond it. It struck him then that he had been feeling uneasy lately, as if someone had been watching him, peering into his life, snooping around his personal details on as fine a level perhaps as that on which he had performed the secret operation. Maybe this person, this spy, maybe they knew. Maybe. But if they didn’t — if there was no spy! All of this would be so much wasted time and energy, in fact just like the easing into the chair sounds, which he begins to feel were kind of stupid now that he thinks about it, but back to the story: There he was with his little secret safely disposed of in a waste paper basket but lingering still in his mind like a clandestine sex act performed when he was eighteen. He’d given no thought to it back then, but now it seemed to have a weight, a mass he had never before perceived. This outweighed the sheet of paper, which he realised, now that the excitement had died down, counted for two pages, but this realisation just now had rebalanced the scales. Who gave a fuck who he’d fucked back in those days? And why would they — the spy! Oh, you bastard! Yes, that was how it had been: the spy was everywhere, and he she they it was everywhere a-rummaging, looking for the dirt on this innocent filler of ledgers. That absolute. But no matter, mustn’t let personal issues impact the work and all that. Yet he could not quite distance his mind from thoughts of espionage and sabotage: some cunt had fucked up the fucking ledger and fucking hell if he was going to stand for it. No fucking way. So he sat there for an hour or maybe two in contemplation of revenge, he was about to give up, but then, then it hit him. He likes that phrase, he hears it often on TV. Yes, he knew what his course of action would be. He took up his pen and turned his attention to the new ledger’s third, now first page, and on the first line with its six evenly spaced fields he wrote I KNOW WHO YOU ARE just like that in big block capitals so that there was no chance of their remaining unacknowledged. He thought that would be enough, to let him know that he knew and that he knew more than he might expect. He decided on he because he believed that only a man would be boring and petty enough to take this kind of an interest in him or in his, let’s face it, absolutely tedious work with the ledgers. No one else would or could give a fuck, not really, not on a level that encouraged that kind of behaviour. But who knows (or gives a shit)? But was it enough, this I KNOW WHO YOU ARE, was it enough and was it all of what he could say? He was sure that, given enough time to properly consider it all, he could think of plenty more to say and that was worth saying. Over the course of the following month he filled two ledgers at two-hundred pages each with a long stream of anti-He invective broken up only by the physical limitations of the medium in which he worked. He is a sissy boy. He dreams of fondling small children but is too much of a pussy to actually do it. He eats shit out of homeless men’s bumholes and sometimes it isn’t even theirs. He enjoys watching professional wrestling because he wants to be thrown around and dominated by big sweaty men. He masturbates to clips of Dora the Explorer. When he watches porn he likes to imagine he is the woman and he says “oh yeah daddy that is so big” under his breath while his mother is in the other room. He loves to fantasise about being a woman and he would crossdress if he wasn’t so fat and disgusting and ashamed of his hideous freak body. He can’t handle real life so he invents fantasy lives for himself in which he is popular and famous and well liked by everyone and has kinky sex adventures everywhere he goes but this will never happen because he is a complete fuck up and a born loser whose every day is spent either fighting back tears or letting them flow and pretending they are actually from deepthroating medium-sized groups of men in the backs of sleazy clubs he’s never had the balls to actually go to even when his friends are going but actually he doesn’t even have friends the miserable puling cunt and his entire life is one big attempt to avoid everything like the stupid pussy faggot bitch he is. He mixes the colours in his Neapolitan ice cream which he still eats because he is a baby. And so on. Eventually he started to become redundant in his accusations, for example calling him some variation on paedophile (pederast, nonce, kiddy fiddler, child molester, cradle robber, Ginsberg etc.) around forty times over the course of this colourful diatribe, yet it was the spirit of vehemence not the breadth depth or even veracity of slander that was crucial in this endeavour, it was the belief and the strength of the belief that made it worthwhile as an undertaking. And until the ledgers were filed he was perfectly safe. But then they were filed. Then they were filed and then he was fired. He was probably on the verge of being replaced by a computer anyway, so what the fuck. Almost everyone in the office was at a loss for words when he stormed out with a small box of personal belongings singing “bud bud ding ding two-ninety-nine, I saw a paki on a washing line,” a rhyme remembered with a fondness which is derived more from nostalgia, and a real nostalgia replete with all the bittersweet crap that comes with it, than from any fondness for the lyrics, because he’d first heard it from a friend of his who had died young, and those were the days and that kind of miserable shit. A man said, stiffly chinned and just quick enough for him to still be in proximity to hear it: “Awfully chipper for a man who just got the sack,” this man not at a loss for words despite the storming and the rhyming and their reception indicating that they were alarmingly inappropriate for an administrative environment. He shouted back: “All together that comes to seven, boom boom boom, all together that comes to seven, that little paki flew off to heaven!” That wasn’t even how the song went. And now here he is reclining on the sofa, his Ovaltine as yet untouched and rapidly approaching the point on the scale of tepidity beyond which it will irrevocably become unfit to drink. It seems he has been a compulsive improviser of tableaux vivants for some time now, but he had never particularly considered it before, since their purpose was essentially to allow him a state, a condition of being in which he could consider things. But now, catching himself in this for what he reckons to be the first time, he is struck with a sudden fascination for automatic processes performed by living creatures, and, naturally, breathing. He considers the possibility of the induction of euphoric states by the temporary but prolonged cessation of respiration, and before leaving the hospital he asks the doctor: “How’d it go?” This pattern of bizarre interests continues down through tarot, and specifically the potential for creating erotic fiction featuring personifications of the major arcana, the Hanged Man and the Empress, III and XII, thus also the Emperor, figuring prominently in grand celestial orgies, for astrology was also on the list and he conflates disciplines freely, through cryptozoology and kaballah to the fortune-telling potential of pop-up toaster disassembly, in which the circuitry is analysed according to rules that seem to change without any recourse to any system of logic save that pernicious one that sits in the back of his head insisting that no matter what he must be believe himself to be correct. These obsessions, in truth more passing fancies, yield no work but bear him safely to the age of seventy-three, by which time they have given way to more lecherous, yet almost completely inactive pursuits. He can no longer achieve an erection, so the blood his penis refuses is sent upward to the mouth and his mouth forms an H that is the catalyst, like a key in the ignition of a car it sets everything else going and he says “Hell’s bells!” Whenever he is confronted with photography, static or in motion, of a comely lass, as he has taken to calling them these days, he says “Hell’s bells!” He has become the kind of man who unironically exclaims “Hell’s bells!” upon seeing the perky brown nipples sitting agog at the end of those tan round mounds of fat on the chest of a Japanese woman who, hell’s bells, is thirty years of age but could scarce be reckoned by aught but a connoisseur to be a day beyond a ripe sixteen. “Bloody marvellous, those Japs!” Ah, but the shame of it, I have the will yet my John Thomas will not be moved! Such is age, but Hell’s bells if she isn’t something! Over time he comes to add a laugh, possibly unconsciously, which sounds like an asthmatic donkey attempting an impression of heavy drilling machinery: “Eheheheheh!” This of varying duration and oomph depending on the determined comeliness of the lass in question. So it comes to pass that one day, out on the town, stick in hand and betweeded in a change-jingler’s get-up of a suit, he swaggers his way across the square that dominates the upper end of Fargate, up past Charnel House and on towards Devonshire Quarter, and spies, between the fountains before the steps of City Hall, a lass of considerable comeliness. She is wearing what he identifies as a club dress, bearing cleavage and midriff through an interstice of lucid mesh, the former of which looks fit to burst at any moment. He sucks at his teeth and says to himself “Hell’s bells!” He wanders over to the fountains, pleased to find her without party in this space between two suggestive jets of water, all the while making quiet little oho oohoo chuckles to himself, and says: “Hell’s bells, what a treat you are.” And she says: “You what you dodgy fucker.” And he says: “Let’s you and I find a bench where I can bend you over for a bit of spank and twank.” And she says: “What the fuck mate.” And he says: “Ooh, yes, look at those. I see you’re a bit pokey in the mams, my dear. Nothing to be embarrassed about!” And she says: “Jesus you senile old cunt, fuck off.” But he is advancing now, left eyebrow slightly higher than the right and with his tongue hooked up around the uppermost side of the right corner of his mouth, eyes moving in tiny shifts from one breast to the other to the cleavage and then reversing this sequence, repeating and getting faster each time, and he is hunching his way towards the centre of that space which begins to seem more secluded to him with each funereal step. “Hell’s bells! Ehehehehehhehehhh!” As of yet the focus of his raging flaccidity is unsure as to whether she should laugh, cry, scream, get up and run, or what. “Hell’s bells! Ehhhheehehehehhgh!” He is upon her all ungainly and she is recoiling and between the fountains the only sound that can be heard is the defunctive wheezy gasping of hell’s bells eheheheheh, eheh, heh, ehechehellzzubelghllhhehehechheheghegehhhch
What happened to The Zappa Reviews? Same shit that always happens with me: something else came up. In this case it was a kind of assault from all fronts on my ability to continue working on it, at least for a time. Not only did my computer break down, I agreed to join a small team of friends, operating as a writer and a composer, to help create a game. Now, hang on, how did I work on this stuff if I didn’t have a computer? Well, I did, kind of. I had permission to use someone else’s computer for this work until I could get a new computer (mission accomplished on that front), and yes, I could have used it to continue writing The Zappa Reviews as well, but I chose not to because I didn’t feel comfortable hogging someone else’s property to work on what is basically a hobby as opposed to an actual responsibility. I don’t think what I’m doing here is particularly important, but I take the creative stuff I do seriously and I put a lot of time and effort into hopefully making something good out of it, so I hope you’ll forgive the over-seriousness of this opening.
So my computer broke down and I got a job, that’s all fine and well, but I stopped writing the reviews regularly some time before either of those things happened. Why? Well, as the now dropped subtitle of this essay/article/whatever (I’m kind of embarrassed to call my writings essays since that, to me, implies some sort of intellectual rigour definitely not in evidence in my work) says, I “hit the ideological wall.” I went into the project all gung ho about sorting out Zappa’s position in the context of the 20th century and the present day, I talked about “logical lenses” through which I would get at the core of his philosophy and all that kind of stuff. At its inception, it was a project built on lofty goals and ambitious talk, and my desire and determination to live up to those ideals resulted in probably the best writing I’ve ever done. I’m particularly proud of my review of Lumpy Gravy, in which I tried my damnedest to grasp the character of a very complicated album and somewhat succeeded, tying the textual and musical content together on some level with the album’s cultural context, not exactly in a neat fashion, but in a way that seemed to work. The biggest failures so far are probably the reviews of We’re Only In It for the Money and Hot Rats. Both times I gave up talking about the content and settled for something less, a negation of my professed responsibility to document and dissect their contents, I excused myself for that intellectual laziness and just said “hey, what can I do?” In the latter case I feel like I came across particularly bitchy, possibly because I had gotten out of the swing of things and had forced myself to write a new entry even though I wasn’t really “feeling it.” I stooped to lazy attacks against people who despise Frank Zappa yet love that album, because I placed my personal taste on a pedestal above attempting any real analysis of the musical content, and those attacks might have had grains of truth to them, but they served collectively as a piss poor excuse to do anything but properly address the album itself. To be fair, I’m no musicologist, I don’t know shit from sugar when it comes to music theory, and there’s no way I could have provided an insightful critique of what’s actually going on from note to note, chord to chord, in the music, but then I never stated musical analysis to be my goal, and I should have looked instead at the musical climate in which the album was released, how it affected the development of jazz fusion, Zappa’s relationship with jazz etc. Instead I just made cop-out after cop-out, and I find that inexcusable when I look back on it today.
The ideological wall. That’s a concept that hasn’t really fully formed in my head. The phrase appeared there two days ago, when I first had the idea to write this, and it hasn’t really explained itself or opened itself up to much in the way interrogation, or maybe I have once again been lazy and just not really contemplated it. I think the initial appeal of it was that it is a phrase that sounds like something a smart person would write, and you know I really want to look good in the eyes of a bunch of near total strangers who might be feeling generous with their time of an evening. As far as I understand the inner workings of my own mind (which is to say not very well) I think the gist of it is that when confronted with reality, an ideologue is faced with the choice of either tempering their ideology, renouncing ideology, or ramping up confirmation bias to the point that only things that absolutely agree with the ideology are taken into account. The last of these is how you end up with people like Ben “Frank Zappa was a Marxist” Watson, whose work in my view is basically the feminist glaciology of music criticism. But I’m not going to trash Mr Watson, at least not too much, because this piece is all about trashing myself, baby, so let’s carry on with that.
Of the above trichotomy, whether legitimate or false, I eventually chose the second option, the rejection of ideology. Prior to this actually quite recent turn of events, I didn’t feel comfortable with continuing the project. I was in a kind of limbo, not knowing how I wanted to approach future reviews, and I felt it was fairly ridiculous to carry on with it under the false pretence of still believing that it was possible to complete it as it was originally intended to be completed. By that, I mean that I don’t feel, neither as I am writing this nor as I have been thinking about the project over the past year or so, that it is possible to see it through to a conclusion. I can certainly work my way from album to album, eventually arriving at Civilization Phaze III and nominally coming to a conclusion, but I can’t work all that into the ultimate service of a point before the fact. I didn’t even get to the 1970s in my chronological progression through Zappa’s discography and I already realised that was a problem. In fact, if you look back through all the reviews I have so far completed, it’s pretty obvious that this approach was never going to work unless I ignored things that didn’t fit into the view I wanted to hold up. That’s not to say I went into it thinking “I’m going to show it this way,” because I like to think I can be more intellectually honest and nuanced in my work than that. I did intend, as I went on into the mid-70s, when Zappa, continuing to do what he had been doing all through his ’60s career, would begin to run afoul of both the progressive left and the religious right, to debunk some of the myths about him as a person, e.g.: that he was a racist, a misogynist, a homophobe, and so on. I still want to go through with that, because I think the level of misinformation out there about him is staggering, and it’s kind of insane to think that there isn’t much in the way of a rational backlash against it. Even with those goals in mind, I wasn’t interested in starting with the conclusion and writing everything around it.
So, where to now? First off, as an extension of my earlier apology for intellectual laziness which I make not only to my readers (if indeed there still are any) but to myself, I would like to re-review both We’re Only In It for the Money and Hot Rats. I really dropped the ball on those two, and I knew this soon after I had written them. At first, regarding WOIIFTM, I had chosen to press on because I felt that it was better to complete a first draft of the entire series, then go back and take stock of what worked and what didn’t. Now, with so much time having passed, I feel like it’s better to just go ahead and make the change now, and start from scratch. I won’t be replacing my failures in some kind of revisionist history of my work, I’ve always been a warts and all kind of guy when it comes to work and to talking about my work, and I think it’s better for my mistakes to be acknowledged and accessible than it is to pretend they never happened. As for the rest of the series, I think the most important thing to bear in mind is that, as I progressed along the initial run, I became entrenched to some degree in starting work on each review worrying about how I was going to tie it in to what had come before it, it got to the point that I didn’t even enjoy listening to the albums any more (granted, later on that’s going to happen from time to time and for entirely different reasons) and the whole thing became a chore rather inadvertently. I’m going to try from now on to treat each review as its own thing, not to angle for this or that, anticipating only when necessary, rather than as if I’m writing a travelogue about my journeys from place to place.
So there you have it, in case you (yes, you!) were wondering what the hell I’ve been doing. That’s it. Really. There’s nothing else to say. I’m done. Go on, go. Please. Stop touching me.
Fuck joke endings.
or The Importance of Doing What You Can with What You’ve Got
Today, after many years of technical ignorance, mishaps, and probably one or two cases of wilfully doing things wrong, I finally have a computer that is truly ready for the big time. With this machine, its solid state drive housing a 64-bit operating system, I can finally make use of more than 4 GB of RAM in my Cubase projects. What does this mean in practice? Essentially it means that where previously I could maybe load up five (at a stretch) high quality instruments for use at any given time, I can now load up ten, twenty, thirty or more such instruments and use them all at once. Compared to the total short span of my life so far, this is something I have wanted for a very long time, but when I look back on myself the best part of ten years ago, when Cazazza Dan was born and I started work on my first album, The Salad, with dreams of being a great and prolific maker of music both on and off the computer, I realise that I have been, up to this point, unready for that kind of responsibility.
Many composers who are just starting out (I should stress that I am focusing solely on people like me, who have not gone to school for music but have instead come to it on their own through self-guided study, as I do not wish to speculate on curricula about which I know next to nothing) whether they write on paper at the piano or use scorewriter software, or, like me, a DAW with piano roll functionality, are coming to music creation with certain expectations. First of all, they expect, perhaps in arrogance, perhaps in hope, to be good from the start. This is explained simply enough, at least in the west, by our culture of instant gratification. Kids have grown or are growing up with smartphones, laptops, the internet, downloads, streaming etc. and are used to getting things however, wherever, and whenever they want. This is just a fact of modern life, modern youth, and it was the same for me. My mother was by no means an early adopter of personal computers and the internet, I don’t think we had a computer until I was six years old, and it wasn’t exactly great for gaming or anything like that, even by the now primitive standards of the era. But that was twenty years ago, I’ve spent twenty years of my life with computer technology, I have embraced it, I am practically, by the standards of 1950s science fiction, a transhuman wired into a global network of information, monitors a second pair of eyes, mice and keyboards and console controllers extensions of my physical limbs into a parallel oceanic world of raw data. A touch poetic, no doubt, but this is, more or less, the situation of the modern child, the modern young adult, hell, in many cases even the modern middle aged person.
Is this a bad thing? I don’t think so. The internet and the technology with which we access it have given us unprecedented access to the sum total of human knowledge, and this, ultimately, if we steer a liberal course through the grand and ever present oil spill of propaganda and ideology which seems, alarmingly, to grow exponentially by the day, we will continue to benefit from and prosper by this greatest of resources. No, it is not a bad thing, but what it does is to facilitate entitlement. Entitlement is rampant in modern western society, generally among people who do not wish to put any effort into obtaining the things to which the believe they are entitled, and this is also true for young composers. I remember, some time ago, on a forum, witnessing a young “composer” state quite boldly that he did not wish to study music. Now, this is perhaps a counter intuitive example, for, people who know me will ask, did I not do the same? Well, yes and no. There is studying in the sense of taking piano lessons, taking courses in musicology, or composition, or orchestration, or whatever, and then there is studying in the sense of listening, of seeking out and absorbing as much musical information as possible, of learning by doing, not by reading, of immersion in the physical experience of music and so forth. Neither of these, so far as I can see, is better or worse than the other, they both require a lot of dedication and discipline, their results will vary depending on the characteristics of the student. That much is obvious. My choice was the latter of the two, and despite presenting considerable difficulties to get off the ground for a number of years, it has served me well as far as my own personal approach to composition goes. In the case of the young composer who wished not to study, well, his own work was not very good, as one might expect, but crucially he could not progress beyond his not-very-goodness because any sort of effort or dedication to the craft of composition was pre-emptively shut down in his thinking. He had built a Trumpesque border wall between himself and we (dare I say) more enlightened people, and was quite literally making us pay for it with our ears.
His is perhaps an egregious example, one which, had I not witnessed it for myself, I could scarce believe was not satire. But the desire for instant gratification among young composers manifests itself more pronouncedly in the conflict between scale and scope of composition and the broadness of lack thereof of the composer’s point of view. To use myself as an example, we can return once more to The Salad. It was 2007, I was a bright faced little shit with my copy of Reason 4 and my new computer, far superior to the ailing old thing bought back around the turn of the century. I had saved up from my short-lived career as an IT technician for a new computer which I would use primarily to shoot highly detailed masses of polygons in the face in glorious 1080p, but as I worked that job, my passion for computers waned quite naturally in deference to my indefatigable love of music, and I ended up using the computer in the main for quite different purposes. It took me about six months of what I thought of as “hard work” (in reality I had no true conception of this) to create my first album, and I had decided to be very ambitious with it. First of all, I reasoned, most albums were about an hour long these days, so my album should be an hour long. Then I reasoned that the mark of greatness, the calling card of any truly great composer was the production of a long piece of music, so my album should contain a 30 minute epic. These two things I achieved, but for all the fuss I had made over them, they did not actually contribute anything vital to the album. They were in fact milestones signifying nothing; I had toiled, in a kind of ambling, confused, possibly adorably stupid way, to reach them, only to find that they were achievements of the least meaningful kind. It took me a couple of years to come to that realisation, but it was a valuable one containing lessons which I would, perhaps unfortunately, not actually learn for year another year or two.
We can see similar examples in the admitted ambitions of other beginners. They want to write Requiem Masses in D minor, and lay bare their souls upon the mysteries of life and death, to treat with the greatest solemnity the human condition, and their music shall be heard and it shall speak to the heart of man and unite humanity in brotherhood and love and all this lofty stuff which, let’s be real, they only think about because they’ve heard it way too often whenever some gasbag with a podium occasions a lecture on Beethoven, Bach, Mozart, and whoever else, perhaps Mahler or Shostakovich, maybe Tchaikovsky. If this kind of rhetoric was at least tempered by passionate speech in favour of letting music stand on its own, this misguided loftiness might not be so endemic, but it is here and we must deal with it. So, these poor kids, with their copies of MuseScore and their balloon-like egos, get to work writing their big themes and plotting their big schemes and jerking it to their big dreams, and then a week, a month, three months pass and they don’t have much of anything but a ramshackle collection of fragments and no clue of how stitch them together. This is what we call overreaching one’s grasp.
There are plenty of examples of overreaching as a composer that I can give you from my own past. Here’s just one. I once sought to create a “Mass of Music,” a grand humanist equivalent of the great Christian choral works, but where they praised God I would denounce God and praise man in His place, I would set texts on the beauty of human achievement, it would be two hours long and so life affirming as to make everyone cry tears of joy upon hearing it, and I would have a humanist cathedral of sorts erected to play this piece and other pieces like it. Fortunately for me, unlike Scriabin, who sought to do something not too dissimilar with his unfinished Mysterium, I didn’t get much beyond the title. Why? Because it was just too damn big. I tooled around with the concept for a while, but eventually decided it was better to, you know, do what I could with what I had available to me. That turned out to be a burgeoning musical mind and (skipping a couple of years of my sordid musical history) a computer that could handle trios and quartets and the like. These things, limited by different factors, complemented each other at first, but ultimately the former was bound to outgrow the latter. In pieces such as Urgynes, Oat, Frozen Bob’s Estranged Wife etc., I had expanded quite massively my understanding of sequencing and of the extended possibilities of sampled instruments versus their physical counterparts. In some cases I had written music for three instruments that might require seven or more to play in live performance. This expansion of understanding, and in turn transgression and defeat of the then present limitations of my musical thinking, meant that I came to desire a broader canvas, to be able to take the “more with less” approach and apply it on a grand, or at least grander scale. However, had I jumped the gun and gotten what I wanted even a year ago, when I released my most recent composition, Problem Zero, and shortly before my old computer breathed its last, I would not have been ready.
Just now, as I prepared to conclude this essay or article or whatever it might ultimately be, I caught myself typing a paragraph which read eerily like the script for some kind of infomercial for a holistic wellness product. As so often happens with me, I am remedying that embarrassment by moving away from the actual topic and delivering a meta-conclusion in which I attempt to talk about talking about a thing and how difficult it is while simultaneously trying to avoid sounding like I’m having a whinge about being able to sit around writing bullshit for other people to read on the internet. I also start writing run-on sentences, cracking jokes at my own expense, and resorting to that kind of glib, hip, gotcha snark that writers of our time use far, far too much in general. It is a testament to my own abilities, or lack thereof, that my conclusion should consist of this. Yes, in that sense what a fine way this is to end a too-long text on the benefits of discovering and acknowledging one’s limitations.
Here we have two composers, American eccentrics we might think of as existing at best on the extreme periphery of mainstream public consciousness, fiercely devoted to their own particular conceptions of music, possessed of the belief that something in their immediate musical environments stinks. Such vague statements make the conflict a toss up between two equals — and it should be noted that as far as compositional prowess and quality of work goes I am here treating that equality as a given — but to go beyond the surface is to recognise that the question of Partch versus Zappa is the question of idealism versus realism.
Partch, for all his pragmatism — as shown during his somewhat legendary hobo years — very much exemplifies the idealism, the romanticism of the American maverick, a man who would rather accept odd writing and speaking appointments while riding the rails in poverty than ever commit himself to the mundanity of the daily grind. His life was spent in the service of music, and perhaps more importantly in the service of fighting a perceived conspiracy against just intonation, which he believed was more pure, more vital than the sterile, clinical equal temperament which dominates western music.
Partch goes against the grain, not only of modern music, but of western music as we think of it in general; he is a traditionalist in the extreme, and in many ways the only true primitivist composer of the 20th century. He forsakes the western aesthetics that developed over the course of some millennia anno domini and looks instead to Ancient Greece, conceiving of a “corporeal music” which is a complete work of sound, movement, and drama. In some ways he can be compared to Wagner, who sought the complete synthesis of music and drama, yet Partch strips his music entirely of any romantic conception of drama, returning instead to an erstwhile forgotten past of ritual, invocation, and procession.
In pursuit of his ideals, fuelled by his dedication to this conception of music, Partch created an environment, a culture which would support its continued existence, but his staunch position against the broader musical world — which was content to kowtow to a system of wilful musical ignorance — made that environment a totally insular one. His music is written in a 43-tone scale of his own invention, and performances require the use of his own invented instruments, many of which are unique, fragile, and either very difficult or very costly to reproduce. The physicality of his music is strong, but the same cannot be said when it comes to the means of production, and his refusal to entertain 12TET may ultimately remove his music from the stage for good.
Zappa is in many ways the polar opposite of Partch. While they may both be viewed as outsiders of equal extremity and eccentricity, Zappa was perfectly happy to engage with the systems and cultures which he personally disparaged, and would often delight in doing both simultaneously — to play the game to his advantage at the same time that he was disdainfully mocking it. It could be simplified, though it may be gross to do so, down to this: Zappa is equal parts Stravinsky and Lenny Bruce: a composer, a man of business, able to make his way by composing and performing alone; a satirist, a transgressor, observing from a distance but then engaging directly, often uniquely with the target of his mockery.
Yet his irreverence towards the establishment, both in classical and popular music, did not extend to a general aversion to hundreds of years of western musical development, nor was it total. Zappa, despite his reputation as a hard-edged, acerbic man for whom disdain was the closest thing to praise it was possible to muster, was a lover of all kinds of music. Rather than disliking any one genre or style or tradition, his only professed dislike was that of mediocrity, which he felt was abundant in all areas at all times, and his responses in interviews, as well as his numerous guest DJ appearances on radio, showcase a broad and deep knowledge of and a passion for the music of the world in general.
If Partch is music’s greatest primitivist, it is reasonable to suggest Zappa for the title of its greatest post-modernist. Everything is fair game in Zappa’s music, from unabashedly sappy pop tunes to intensely complicated chromatic figures, from the augmentation of western and eastern music to a search for and investigation of the potential applications of computers and sampling in the creation of entirely new forms and styles. He was able to make of his body of work a microcosm of the musical world, but also to imbue it with his unique perspective. This is mirrored in his choice of musical collaborators over the years, who would come from backgrounds as diverse as pop, rock, jazz, classical music, Romani folk music, Indian classical music, and Tuvan throat singing. What might possibly have been his ultimate goal, the synthesis of all those things into a bold and unique “omnistyle,” he was clearly approaching with his final works.
Unlike Partch, Zappa, by reconciling his own musical vision with the tools and techniques of modern western music, was able to craft a readily translatable and arrangeable body of work, much like Johann Sebastian Bach, which ensured the permeation of his work into many different areas of music in futurity. Today his works are performed by orchestras, chamber ensembles (including HIP ensembles), jazz groups, big bands, solo performers, rock bands, and electronic outfits around the world, and there is no sign of this stopping any time soon, in fact much the opposite appears to be happening. Zappa may not have cared about being remembered, but some twenty-odd years after his death, his work has done nothing but flourish and spread, and this because he chose not to isolate himself from the music of his time.