Song Cycle

The Post-Punk Poet-Singers

Singers who begin as poets, who play no instrument, indeed, who have been known to show disdain for musicianship.... For the possibilities suggested by Punk and its non-musicianist, D.I.Y critique of professional Rock, the poet-singer was of central importance, a point often eluded in discussions of the post-Punk musical climate. Patti Smith, Richard Hell, John Lydon, Mark E Smith, Nick Cave, Michael Stipe, Morrissey: these artists, in composing songs—concocting vocal performances resting somewhere in the space between literature and music—disparate from the composition of a matching instrumental (or at least taking a minor role in the latter) offered a model which contrasted sharply with the template upon which Rock had been based: the singer-songwriter with a guitar. In fact, therein lies the crucial difference between Rock before Punk and Rock after, at least at first, in the heady early days; for the need to compose music which corresponds to the poet-singer's creations impelled the already-present desire of Punk musicians to experiment with Rock, or do away with it.

As this social framework and system of cultural production suggests, the poet-singer is, generally speaking, in a dominant position. In contrast, the singer-songwriter with a guitar, in starting with said instrumental accompaniment, and allowing it to mold his song into a certain shape, all the more likely to match up with what his instrumentalist companions have to contribute, is subordinate. The tonal system the guitar is enveloped in constricts the human voice, wresting it away from its home: the amorphous forms and endlessly-shifting shades of the natural environment. The guitar, or the even-more-cumbersome piano, do not have to be so inhibiting: first, of course, the singer-songwriter never had to play the instrument as it was meant to be played, as has been shown by improvising musicians with their "extended" techniques, methods used over time by every kind of popular musicians as well, just without the elaborate intellectual rationale; second, the growing ability of recording machines to manipulate sound, and the accompanying tendency of artists to allow electronics to guide the entire music-making process, reversed the path initiated by past technological advances. In other words, while the enhanced craftsmanship seen in the viola-violin-cello-contrabass family and the piano and other keyboard instruments impelled an emphasis on tuning systems and notation, the rise of concrète and electronic sound allowed for a new appreciation of timbre. Academic Electro-Acoustic composers, not to mention a host of pop experimentalists, from Joe Meek to W Cullen Hart, have explored the possibilities of this fundamental shift.

Nonetheless, what all of these artists do in a roundabout way, they—and any one else—are also able to do directly, with their voices. The radicalism of the experimental musician, teaching himself to play without privileging the instrument's given tuning, is more reactionary than that of the poet-singer. No matter how masterful their willful exploration of abstract sound, they are unable to escape the knowledge of the notes and octaves which lie beneath their high-flying selves, that they remain experimental even though they are now part of particular traditions, groupings of artists with similar personal canons scattered across the post-industrial cultural realm, each fighting the same old battles, hoping one of these days to win the argument for their own take on a liberated alternative to the repressive classical or popular norms. More important, in joining a long history of European experimental music, for which Futurism remains the crucial starting point, the experimental musician's work suggests that as artists grow enthralled with the possibilities offered by electronic devices—the illusory control over nature they provide—they unwittingly descend into Fascist-like schemes of sped-up, yet reactionary, sociopolitical revolution.

The poet-singers, though, obviously are not beholden to the science behind/ against music. Indeed, they need not be aware of it at all, even as they posit their work as the logical succession of, even an advancement over, past artists. Instead, they resist, or at least strain to avoid the implications of, the course of post-industrial capitalist civilization, and of popular music as it freed itself from Rock's hegemony, both of which in their disdain for meaning and narrative dupe all kinds of artists and intellectuals who fail to understand that the post-modernist rejection of logo-centrism does not entail the embrace of logo-phobia. The poet-singers, beginning as part of a supposedly anti-Rock, experimental movement, ended up reaffirming the power and grace of the art of song, so long as it exists in an open-ended space, not strictly contextualized, safe from the expectations of a particular genre or form, or any sort of restrictive social entity, say, the church, the record label.

Nonetheless, the poet-singers were few in number and overall the attempt to construct a viable alternative, free of the technocratic professionalization Rock had smeared itself with, beyond "entertainment," was an uphill struggle. From its limited beginnings, as a product of English and U S culture, it was subverted from within by the temptation to fall into irony and trivial contrarianism, reflecting the failure to continue the radicalism of the late 1970's-early 1980's and the return to the same, tired Rock routine. Those who approached the Rock tradition with reverence (which is also the respectful, yet excited, willingness to engage in a debate) for example, R.E.M, Morrissey, Swans, Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds, were lost in the morass of those who approached it with blinders, ignorant of the immediate Punk past, and of those who were too clever to care, supposedly free from unwarranted philosophizing, actually just confirming high-modernist fears of technology's debilitating effect on culture: in other words, the simplistic rebellion of "alternative" Rock and the recidivist Indie attempts to maintain a real alternative that never existed, respectively.

Thus, the repeated returns to the music of the post-Punk poet-singers, especially those central to English Punk-era music: the aforementioned Lydon and Smith, as well as Ian Curtis of Joy Division, Ian McCulloch of Echo and The Bunnymen, Howard Devoto of Magazine, Mark Stewart, Jon King of Gang of Four, Colin Newman of Wire, and Julian Cope. Crucial U.S artists, besides the aforementioned Smith, Hell, and Stipe, include Lydia Lunch, Diamanda Galás, The B-52's, Vanessa Briscoe of Pylon, The Residents, and David Thomas of Pere Ubu. Michael Gira of Swans, as well as The Mekons, Sun City Girls, Jandek, Keiji Haino, and Sonic Youth, though none fit the poet-singer mold exactly, are also essential to understanding the liberated musical voice of recent times. But further evocative still are Nick Cave, an Australian expatriate who played a role in both English and German Punk-era scenes, and yet over time became less of a poet-singer in the strict sense, especially in writing songs at the piano; and Morrissey, whose relationship to Punk was from the outset of his career uncertain, if not awkward. Both artists exemplify and counter fundamental characteristics of the entire Punk-Indie era, reminding us that any artist's personal history allows for all sorts of deviations from the norms we necessarily speak of when addressing the sociopolitical and philosophical implications of the negationist transformation of the late 1970's.

February 2005

The Art of Song, Part One

The post-Punk poet-singers force us to reconsider, perhaps study in depth for the first time, the very definition of song. Those songwriters whose work, in its complexity, nuance, and scope, we tend to think of as more literary than what we expect of traditional song have certainly faced just as much scorn and dismissal as appreciation and begrudging respect. Listeners who want songs fitting into certain categories—love songs, witty and whimsical pop, agit-prop, psychedelia, ballads and folklore, the dark themes of Goth, Industrial, and the fringes of Heavy Metal—greet the oblique creations of post-Punk poet-singers with claims of pretentiousness, while those with a literary background have difficulty taking the written word seriously when it must conform to the boundaries imposed by musical shapes.

A useful starting point in understanding the art of song is the concept of intermedia. No, not multimedia. The difference? The latter is, to be frank, too nice, too optimistic, the kind of idea used by well-intentioned art teachers and curators still feeling pangs of doubt about devoting any time and effort to modern art at all. Multimedia assumes that the meeting of media entails no conflict, no messiness or complications. In other words, when you mix media, think only of what you do, never what you don't do; everything is gained, nothing is lost. Intermedia, in contrast, suggests that the bringing together of different media does not occur without a give-and-take, indeed a struggle, both among the media in question and before the fact, between the artist on one hand and the varied media on the other: for, assuming that intermedia is a challenge, the media will assert pressure on the artist, encouraging him to come back to the relatively well-delineated practices of a medium in and of itself. The clarion call of tradition.

Intermedia is a zero-sum game—if a songwriter naively expected to receive respect from both writers and musicians. Nonetheless, song does give artistic weight to literature that otherwise would not have much of a place, just as it allows one to create music without having any formal training or technique-prowess. Making words musical means they command attention in a way they would not by themselves, while musical words stand out in a composition like a sore thumb or a rare gem, distracting attention from the surrounding "pure" music - and often we thank goodness for that!

Looking at the principal post-Punk poet-singers with regard to the art of song, and its relationship to the concept of intermedia, we also begin to fathom the relationship between literature and music. Both Morrissey and Nick Cave butt heads against the confines of song, showing time and again that it does not allow a multimedia-like mastery-melding of literature and music—no, more a temptation to fall into the imperialistic desire to do so, and thus lose one's focus on the actual, intermedia task at hand. Morrissey begs the question, what is the relationship between song and music? while Nick Cave allows us to explore the relationship between song and literature, which is not to say that the opposite is also not the case, just that Morrissey has been in the position of putting songs to music with considerably less-open structures, less experimental and not especially welcome to Morrissey's own radical approach to song. Yet it nearly goes without saying that Morrissey wants such restrictions placed upon him, all the better to craft songs that live up to the example of his idols, the "girl" singers of 1960's British pop and the flamboyant stars of 1970's Glam Rock. Nick Cave, on the other hand, has worked with musicians more in accord with his own approach yet has strived to create a written oeuvre on top of, expanding upon, his songs. Thus the two are not polar-opposites, standing on the same point at other ends of the spectrum. Morrissey has not envisioned constructing his own music to accompany his songs (though one does wonder what would have resulted!), while Nick Cave attempted a fairly conventional piece at modern literature with his novel, And the Ass Saw an Angel.

Then there are John Lydon and Mark E Smith, who do not beg any questions, only demand close rapt attention, because each have achieved a perfect combination of literature and music; in the relationship they had with their musician partners, created the ideal template for song. With Lydon, it came fleetingly in Public Image Ltd., at its early peak; for Smith, persistently (for better or worse) throughout his career. In both cases, singers who are amateurs, at least according to any standard attempting to gauge a singer's mastery-control over his voice, and, unlike Cave and Morrissey, neither look up to and emulate past singers nor seem to want to add anything to any sort of political or philosophical discussion, nevertheless achieve what the art of song is perhaps most of all meant to do: provide a forum for the improvised, half-formed or inchoate thoughts constantly taking up so much space in our heads, which if not forced to meet up with a movement-line of sound we also find floating about up there, would never take shape at all.

December 2005


Visual artists and writers have also explored the space between literature and music. For the Dadaist pioneers (notably, Hugo Ball and Kurt Schwitters) and subsequent followers of the art of sound-poetry, new combinations of phonetic syllables constituted scores for musical vocal performances. Coming from a literary or visual-art background, as so many of them have, perhaps made inevitable a bias in favor of devising the texts first. The musical part of the piece would, compared to the literary part, struggle to find its form. Literary non-sense flowing out, musical non-sense a result of the voice constricting itself to the words on the page. Henri Chopin and other later practitioners of sound-poetry understood this problem, beginning with sounds (or, rather, the voice) instead of texsts, and ending up creating what was essentially musique conrète. Still, from such a perspective, we fail to see the potential of singing, improvised in the moment, without a text concocted beforehand.

Such an approach to singing need not result in a word-less piece. After all, to return to the example of the sound-poets... who is to say that their texts (to use an example that is obvious given the subject at hand, "Gadji Beri Bimba," Ball's sound-poem adapted by Talking Heads as "I Zimbra" on Fear of Music) did not feature words? Instead, they could be, simply, new words. Give them meaning if you'd like. Why not? In other words, we have here not word-less singing; rather, it is word-forming singing. With nothing to say... actually, the singer probably has much to say, but has not prepared anything, or does not know how his thoughts will take shape when forced to conform to the music he is to accompany. Yet, he goes forth. The music goes on, and they need a singer.

Such situations have occurred countless times in popular music. The significant case, though, where the situation was apparent to the listener—transparent—is that of early R.E.M. Following the melodic line, perhaps imagined beforehand in his mind, perhaps improvised after starting with a tone, a phrase, a description of an image or scene, or some sort of combination of these, words are used in a seemingly "non-sense" way, much like in sound-poetry; and sometimes Michael Stipe does not even go so far, is content with word-forming singing. And yet often he does make the words into a cohesive whole for him, and for the listener, though of course what the listener and what the artist have in mind sometimes end up being quite different. Nonetheless, because of this intuitive approach, a mystery remains in Stipe's songs from that period. Unfortunately, many of the group's followers of the time did not see in this word-forming singing an invitation to re-think their understanding of song, perhaps even to delve into the practice themselves; instead, the "distiples" sought hidden meanings in the words, as if the mere complexity and strenuousness of the process of uncovering the lyrics ensured the significance of what they would eventually find there.

On the subject of popular music in the Rock era, we cannot avoid an aspect of listening that is one of those curious phenomena we all experience, yet rarely dwell upon, to consider its deeper meaning: the inability to make out what the singer is saying. If there are no lyrics in the liner notes, no matter how hard one tries, he will come across numerous lines in a favorite song he simply cannot figure out. Such is the nature of the human voice when it ceases to be merely "verbal," becomes "musical": speeding up, fluctuating wildly in pitch, and thus sometimes missing or adding a syllable, mispronouncing, slurring, etc. As Jennifer Herrema of Royal Trux enthusiastically prefers, a singer may not include the lyrics, so that the listener will make up his own when he cannot, or never tried to, decipher them.

But, alas, at such a point, we are back again at the approach of the "distiples," straining to disclose the meaning of words whose principal role is not literary, but musical. The appeal of word-less singing, which for the "distiples" laid in their devotion to understanding the obscured words, actually comes from its musical value, the nuance it allows the singer. We do not want sound-poetry, where the text is supreme; we want poetry-sound, where melody and timbre reign, where the demands of our language as we know it do not dictate the course of the musical line, where words already extant may be in the process of enunciation, but also may not be, staying in some nascent form, and thus highly evocative to the listener, who is hearing expression of a different kind. More abstract, some might say. Yet maybe more "primitive" also. Morrissey usually has something specific to say, but on occasion the emotions boil over and he resorts to word-forming singing, as on "The Headmaster Ritual" or "Rubber Ring." Meredith Monk's entire oeuvre has been an exploration of word-forming singing; while, looking for recent examples, we note "Shattered Skull," the best of Excepter's earlier work, and John Fell Ryan's vocals on "One More Try" and "Lypse," as well as the Panda Bear record Young Prayer. Animal Collective's Campfire Songs presents a beguiling combination of "regular" singing and word-forming singing. Perhaps such singing originated from words, but the sharp lines of clear enunciation have been blurred; such an approach we could call word-devolving singing. But, no... the words dissolving into abstract sound, when they reach the listener's ears, once again take shape, perhaps into new words, or clusters of sound evocative of words, or merely sounds suggesting certain emotions and intentions.

February 2006

The Art of Song, Part Two

To take the perspective counter to the options considered above; opposed to, or perhaps disinterested in, the idea of the non-musicianist singer, of the art of song being an intermedia discipline, of poetry-sound.... The pleasures of composing songs come from the singer forcing himself to contort to the music. Yes, sound-poetry not poetry-sound. Both the words, and the music they accompany, reign supreme over the sound of the voice itself. In some cases, the singer-songwriter is a musician, or at least takes a commanding role in the composition of the backing music, for example, Don Van Vliet or Joni Mitchell. In such cases, the singer develops the song in tandem with its accompaniment, so that a conflict does not arise between the two tasks, or the conflict becomes the central drama of the music, both in its composition and the final result. Both Van Vliet and Mitchell welcomed the challenge presented by tight, closed, complex music, pushed themselves and their collaborators further, culminating respectively with Lick My Decals Off, Baby [1970] and The Hissing of Summer Lawns [1975]. Again, we could take the intermedia perspective and ask what would result from the bifurcation of these artists' interests. "Spoken word" Captain Beefheart? A Joni Michell film score or no-vocals Jazz album or solo-guitar performances? Fine possibilities, surely, but again such questions only betray a certain discomfort with the intermedia nature of song-composing. Those who bemoan the lack of literary value in the words of, say, Black Sabbath or Van Halen only let us know that they regret their own lack of appreciation of fine literature—they can't tell Livy from Lucian, or Donald Barthelme from Frederick Barthelme. Meanwhile, the classical-music enthusiast who condescendingly approves of any hint of music-notation-complexity in popular or experimental musics just makes an ass of himself.

Further exploring the norms of song composing/ vocalizing.... As our pop-culture fables relate, Bob Dylan rejected Folk for Rock, and fans of his early work complained that they could not hear the words, that Rock appealed only to teen-age simpletons. But in fact, Dylan was just as much rejecting Folk in favor of Blues as he was Folk for Rock. He did so not just in occasionally using the common Blues lyrical structure (A.A.B) but more importantly in looking for freer structures, more-open spaces, for his poetry to occupy. Dylan entrances his listeners because no-one else allows the listener to suspend his awareness of the strictures of song, of its particular method of intermedia, as effectively as he does. No-one put to music so many statements of principle, elaborate tales, devastatingly-evocative images, or poignant recountings of simple emotions and conscious-altering moments. Far from encouraging the model of the singer-songwriter with a guitar, Dylan suggests the need to challenge musical norms, persistently and even recklessly, as seen in his repeated re-workings in live performances of the same, timeless songs, even if the different versions falter, making us mutter to ourselves, "same, tired songs," instead.

Rock's historians have tried to explain, in various ways, the influence various pre-Punk artists had on their progeny. For example, they say that The Velvet Underground ventured into the world of avant-garde art, and addressed subjects most shied away from; The Stooges played Hard Rock aggressively—ferociously, even—and yet manged to be more experimental with regard to basic Rock forms than most contemporaneous "progressive" bands. David Bowie codified a tradition of deviance from the Rock norm based upon these two groups. Bowie as well as Brian Eno, Jobriath, and others questioned the accepted standards of "normal" sexual behavior and personas. Big Star and Neil Young played Rock as if its Psychedelic, Heavy Metal, and "progressive" variants had never existed. But if one wanted to go further, and attempt a singular explanation for the inspiration, the models, these aforementioned artists and a host of others (Sparks, T Rex, Roxy Music, The New York Dolls, Robert Wyatt, Kraftwerk, Can, Nico, Captain Beefheart) offered to future artists, that explanation would rest with the human voice. All of the singers in question here refused the commodified path open to them. At the same time that many Rock groups busied themselves with bastardized versions of the Blues, these deviants only had to look a few years back to those Blues-Rock records Dylan had made to see how mediocre, how dreadfully boring, Rock had become. In the mainstream of the time, even the singers who rightly stood out - Robert Plant and Elton John, Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen, John Fogerty and Stevie Wonder, Tom Waits and Todd Rundgren, Richard Thompson and Nick Drake - still did not galvanize their listeners, their co-artists, as Little Richard, Ray Charles, Elvis Presley, Howlin' Wolf, James Brown, The Beatles, and Bob Dylan had done in the period, 1954-1967. Few were ready for another revolution like that launched by these earlier lodestars. But some were. They would create the music collectivized as Punk/ post-Punk. For which they had their forebearers.

March 2008