David Keenan has recently published a book on Faber, a piece of fiction called "This Is Memorial Device" which I have bought and look forward reading. As part of his media round he talked to that national treasure and bastion of indie journalism John Doran at The Quietus. It's a highly entertaining podcast and I listened to it from start to finish not just once, but twice. Just to make entirely sure I understood where Keenan was coming from.
I don't have much time for the Coil, NWW and Current 93 axis which Keenan celebrates in "England's Hidden Reverse" (which book has been reissued and is available at Strange Attractor Press who have another paperback edition available in June this year). I guess I'm inspired by the idea of health - psychic, physical and psychological well-being. That doesn't square with Industrial music.
And, again speaking personally, rarely does that music manage some detente with the holy. It has to travel so far round the world in the wrong direction before glimpsing the sun on the horizon of night. David played a really excellent track by Whitehouse "Cruise (Force The Truth)" - which is as good an example of this as any. It may be, in part, because the acerbic, angry voice and twisted lyrics become "so much noise" - and what we hear is nought but the soul of man.
How music abets health, is food for the weary soul, is something I need to explore in writing more. The axe I want to grind here and now is a different one though. Listening to Keenan, and in fact Doran too, two monuments of the "underground" got me to thinking about psychological strategies that these self-appointed mavens deploy.
Keenan talks revealingly, when he discusses Whitehouse (the highlight of the interview) about how William Bennett "jams signals" - that's to say plays a strategic hand in such a way that it negates criticism. How can the groop pitch their message to disable resistance so as to ride through the receptive barriers: "It's boring" - hardly. "It hurts my ears" - it's supposed to. "It sounds a bit funny and a little ridiculous" - like Punch and Judy, yeah? "I feel awkward listening to it" - that's the point. It's a very combative way to engage people - but that's the staple procedure of Modern Art, to sidestep defenses and overpower our senses.
In the same way Whitehouse "jam signals" Keenan's own cultural power-move could be described thus:
Diogenes, visited by Alexander The Great and who tells this world-conquering general that he should get out of his light. And by celebrating the music he does, the bracing, local, individualistic anti-commercial skronk, Keenan is saying "I'm Diogenes, I'm the high-priest of Airdrie, who are you?" And, yes, it's a good move. It's also a move which, on the peripheries, in Glasgow (or indeed Cambridge or Somerset - scenes I've covered) is almost vital. If you aren't operating in New York, Los Angeles, London, Paris or Tokyo you practically HAVE to take this position if you're going to carve yourself the psychic space you need to survive. Strategic opposition and an inversion of the idea of a dominant culture makes sense in those geographical contexts.
However, whether it's a move the "underground" is sensible playing en masse I question. Here's a glossary of useful concepts:
Obscurity (buzzing with buzzwords today) - that's a concept I long ago stopped giving any credence to. That something is obscure does not in any way denote it has cultural value. Try selling your own "obscure" records and you should figure this one out quickly.
Good taste. Doran himself raised this with Keenan who, tellingly, seemed to miss the point of the question which was that Doran was implying the very existence of good taste ought to be controversial. In Glasgow good taste is something (perhaps refreshingly?) people don't question. For instance, upon Doran's inquiry about the validity of good taste Keenan proceeds to hold up Throbbing Gristle as an example of good taste as opposed to Echo and the Bunnymen who (according to Biba Kopf) are in bad taste. But this is still conceiving good taste as a concept in a positive way (it is confused - so just listen to it) in fact Doran meant that yes Throbbing Gristle are in fact good taste - in the sense that they are "approved"- Throbbing Gristle are canonical and therefore need to be questioned.
Canonical. How really valuable is the canonical as a concept? As a notion this is embraced unquestioningly in Scotland - probably because as a nation it isn't swamped by cultures like it is here in London. There's still a space for a counter-culture (or two...) in Scotland. But canons should be looked at askance - and by the same measure things which are "commercial" should really be understood at face value on their own merits (the gist of my Lost 100 Rock Albums of the Seventies book) - indeed something like the NWW list should probably be given no more credence than the scribbling on the back of a postcard. It should be valid as only someone's historical idea of a canon, and no more.
Seminal. The seminal is another concept tied up in all this which feels like something Keenan doesn't really scrutinize. The seminal had its validity in that era when we were all fumbling around in a fog of ignorance - when those leads to the talismans of deeper past were really valuable and illuminating. But with everything laid out as it is on a big buffet - not so much. Keenan is long on how things are influential. Frankly I long for the simplicity of the times when that was even conceivable.
As much as any other obsessive record collector I wish Keenan were right about the implicit cultural value of certain recordings but I guess I don't have that monomaniacal belief in some music's inherent superiority. Certainly I feel some things much more acutely than others but I've come to accept that that's my thing... It's almost certainly my loss to be a victim of subjectivity but as a result the bittersweet truth is that, I believe, saying "I'm Diogenes" in the act of building a cult from opposition and obscurity is no longer meaningful. The modern condition in this era of narrow-casting allows one to do no more than embrace one's own idiosyncratic isolation and be at peace with it.