Tears of the Valedictorian
One of my many day jobs is teaching computer classes at the university I attended back in my headier collegiate days. A couple weeks ago, the weird juxtaposition of my clear-headedness and the accelerated talent of my students happened, and we finished our morning session an hour early, leaving me a bounteous lunch break in which to wander the campus like I used to. College to me was a golden fleece that I spied from the deck of the sinking Argo that was my high school spell. For most people, high school was the finest point, one so sharp they vainly attempt to hone their current situation down to a similar nub with golf and shopping or whatever people do. I had to look at it as a runway and fly away.
The first thing I leapt into once I reached the arched promenades and quads was the library: the listening room in the basement where a hapless modern composer wannabe grad student was forced to bend to my curiosity and play record after record of obscure 20th century classical music - I am comfortable with the fact that I may be the only person who looks fondly on time spent in an overlit room in a library basement, listening to someone saw through a Paderewski cello etude, because it was precisely that pretension that I sought. On this extended lunch break (our privileges get more rarified in old age) I trotted into the library to find the listening room had been replaced with a Subway. Travesty! I felt like a part of me died, a little.
Then I heard a cigarette long-haired former me in the back of my mind whisper "PQ2601 .R677" and I shot up the steps to see if this voice was reliable, and there I stood, in the PQ2601 section of the stacks before the now-expanded Antonin Artaud holdings. The Susan Sontag - edited Selected Works was the first book I checked out with my shiny undergrad ID, and was a near constant companion in my backpack. It had a new cover, because once during the torrential downpours we have here, I was darting across the street and promptly got hit by a car running a red-light, sending this book along with everything else flying into the mud in the yard of one of those ubiquitous campus churches. I pulled it off the shelf and flipped to the worn spot demarking The Spurt of Blood, an impossibly absurd play I spent a whole summer analyzing for a class. I used to fuck my girlfriend, and then jump back into this tome in that sweaty un-air-conditioned dorm, basking in humidity-induced madness. It was a glorious summer. One night, under Artaud's spell, I freaked out and ran across campus until I stopped and looked up to see a grey fist of a cloud move in and deliberately swallow the moon. The bottom corner of the page, where the scorpions start spilling out of the nursemaid's swollen vagina bears the artifact of my first spilt espresso. If I ever achieve the cult following I want, I hope some hapless fans seek pilgrimage to this relic. I put the volume back on the shelf and darted back to my class, who sat unsuspecting that the fuse of a long dormant bomb in me had been relit.
I digress in this indulgent tangent because the hyperventilated caterwaul Casey Mercer employs in Frog Eyes brings those heady times back in a flood. Their latest album Tears of the Valedictorian bears the truth that this particular mad dog may not have the bite he did on The Golden River, but then neither do I in regards to my Artaud summer. He is practically whispering on the opener "Idle Songs" and the band's usual carnival organ overload are reduced to a serviceable trot. He gets breathless and does that hoo-HOOo-Hoo stuff that kills me toward the end, but this was more Arcade Fire than it was Season in Hell. Fortunately the rabies kicks in on "Caravan Breakers, They Prey on the Weak and the Old" and all is right. Mercer is one of those often chalked up as an acquired taste, but to me, its more about having a taste for abandon, and if you can't let go, then you never know what you're holding. Frog Eyes is a rather organic thing to my ears, their songs bearing a trace of melody struggling to present itself through the maddening thicket of existence, and that's how everything is.
I didn't realize this until just now, but there is more than a touch of Bauhaus to their sound. Peter Murphy and Mercer might have cut their teeth in the same summer stock theatre of the Damned given that no one else, outside of soul musicians, seems to be this comfortable with histrionics. And it was the Bauhaus song "Antonin Artaud" the only good track off their final missive Burning World that led me to the PQ2601.R667's in the first place, so it comes full circle.
"Reform the Courtyard" starts out like a nice enough Decemberist-ist jaunt but the tidal rush of the bass sends this coal cart careening off the tracks. "The Policy Merchant, The Silver Bay" is a hushed, fucked variant on a ballad over a subliminal acoustic pulse that is a welcome respite in the roller coaster ride through this album and my awakening. "Evil Energy, The Ill Twin of... gets the tilt-o-whirl back in swing though, and its damaged sister "...agle Energy" follows with a stroll through the apocalyptic wasteland that this band generates, with a string section in tow! The album closes with "My Boats They Go" an Ubu-esque (and I mean the band and the play) inversion of "What a Wonderful World" starting out all resplendent and cinematic and quickly dissolving like the foam of reality when doused with the cold water of an opened mind.
After all this, I feel I should go out and do something rash, like set fire to a dog, or go throw chairs through the windows of my house or something - just to prove that the old crazy is still on retainer, but instead I glance at the clock and realize that I'd better eat something before class or I will have an Artaud blood-sugar freakout on my students this afternoon.
Alex V. Cook listens to everything and writes about most of it. His latest book, the snappily titled Louisiana Saturday Night: Looking for a Good Time in South Louisiana's Juke Joints, Honky-Tonks, and Dance Halls is an odyssey from the backwoods bars and small-town dives to the swampside dance halls and converted clapboard barns of a Louisiana Saturday Night. Don't leave Heathrow without it. His first book Darkness Racket and Twang is available from SideCartel. The full effect can be had at alex v cook.com
March sees a greatly expanded reissue of Elliott Smith's most critically acclaimed album Either/Or