Category Archives: The Soundtracks of Our Adolescence

Nostalgia for Harvey’s To Bring You My Love

The other day, while taking my daughter to day camp, I was playing P.J. Harvey’s To Bring You My Love on the car stereo. Released in 1995 during my last year in high school, this album is one that I consistently return to, perhaps my favourite of Harvey’s discography, and unlike so many other albums of that period of my life I feel that it never dates. The ominous riff of the opening and title track, the heretic lyrics that spill across every song, the sinister anger that underlies the album, the story songs about murder and isolation… It’s hard to imagine anyone who cares about music would not like Harvey after hearing this series of tracks.

P.J. Harvey holds a special place in my heart. In grades eleven and twelve I spent a lot of time hanging out at a friend’s apartment (an emancipated minor whose home sadly became a juvie drug-dealing den) listening to Rid of Me over and over while smoking pot and watching Cronenberg films. To Bring You My Love was part of the constant soundtrack of grade 13 (which used to exist in Ontario) and my first year in university. Is This Desire was released in my second year in university and was instrumental in impressing the woman who would eventually become my wife. The story goes like this… I had just bought Is This Desire and dubbed it unto a cassette I could play in my parent’s van. After a late night at a hipster coffee shop I drove a woman I barely knew home. She asked me if I was playing the new P.J. Harvey on the van stereo and, without realizing that Harvey was her favourite musician, I turned it up. Years later we would end up dating but she still remembers this event as the moment that she was attracted to me. Yeah, that’s right, P.J. Harvey was instrumental in determining the course of my life.

But still, after so many albums that have all been brilliant, it is to To Bring You My Love that I keep returning. For those who haven’t listened to it yet the best way to describe its assembled songs and ethos is to think of it as a soundtrack to the works of Flannery O’Connor. And if you are unfamiliar with O’Connor then think of the following: a bunch of sinister songs that are about serial killers, mothers murdering their children, vulnerable women who have been demonized, abandoned, or taken advantage of by itinerant preachers. Come on, Billy: meet the monster.

This album is so essential to my development as a music lover that I am always shocked when someone who claims to care about music is unfamiliar with its existence. It’s a little like discovering a lover of “classical” music is unfamiliar with Beethoven.

To Bring You My Love is the album that first demonstrated Harvey’s breadth as a musician. Before 1995 her albums were paradigm examples of angry post-punk – brilliant examples but only several steps sideways from a garage band. Even then she was influential: Kurt Cobain cited Dry and Rid of Me as influences to the direction Nirvana was taking post-Nevermind. (And recently, probably because of this, Harvey was asked to front Nirvana, filling in for Cobain, for a reunion tour. She declined.) Before To Bring You My Love her work was already influential, and if she had ended her career as only a visceral post-punk musician, or even continued in the same vein, she would still be important. But To Bring You My Love was a transitionary album: the three piece garage band was discarded, Harvey began to incorporate different instruments into the arrangements of songs representing different genres. The distance between Long Snake Moan and Down By The Water is massive in terms of musical genre, but this gap is bridged by the overall theme of the album: an O’Connor southern gothic theme.

Since this album Harvey has produced albums that are not only thematically unified but have been designed to stretch her boundaries as a musician. White Chalk, for example, structured every song around a broken-down upright pianoLet England Shake was not only structured around Harvey’s desire to learn the autoharp but was thematically unified around the working class history of World War One. And, in my opinion, it was To Bring You My Love that signified this transition to a musician that transcended genre categories, an album that left the childhood of post-punk garage anger to embrace a musician adulthood that would be consistently surprising.

Although To Bring You My Love is not Harvey’s greatest album, my love for it is driven by both my nostalgia and my belief that it is her most emblematic: it signalled her decision to become a serious musician more interested in composition than being confined within a particular genre. I remember, for example, being disappointed by her Stories From The City Stories From the Sea because I felt it did not live up to the strength of her previous Is This Desire (the title track of which, I should mention, was the “slow dance” selection for my wedding). And yet, in retrospect, I have come to appreciate the choices she made on that album, her unwillingness to abide by what was expected: the song This Mess We’re In is sung primarily by Thom Yorke, demonstrating that she was more concerned with making a song than performing it – her skill as a composer necessitated, in this one song, her desire to have another voice other than her own take on the lion’s share of the performance.

Hence, To Bring You My Love represented Harvey’s shift into the category of song composer over and above song performer. Similar patterns can be observed amongst her male contemporaries, such as Nick Cave who she briefly dated. But while Cave continues to receive multiple accolades for his skills in composition and production, Harvey still dances on the margins. And I listen to the emergence of this margin dancing whenever I replay To Bring You My Love – from its opening low register guitar riffs to its concluding haunting organ chords.

Damn you Michael Gira

Part of my late highschool soundtrack was Swans.  I was introduced to them by way of their 1994 album, The Great Annihilator, which was their temporary (har har) “swan song” – what with it being the last classic Swans line up of Gira and Jarboe.  Since it was released by Invisible Records (later to be reclaimed by Gira’s own Young Gods label), and because I was then a Pigface fan and into anything Invisible released, I dubbed it from a friend and then listened to it over and over and over.  I remained a Swans fan for years, slowly accumulating their past discography, and was extremely excited when Gira rebooted them in 2012 with The Seer.  Lord, I was such a fan that I followed Gira and Jarboe’s side projects.  And three years before The Seer was released, right before I defended my doctorate, one of the last live shows I attended (I’ve actually lost interest in seeing bands live because I’m getting lazy) was a Gira solo performance – preceded by James Blake – at the Drake in Toronto.

All of this is to say that it is massively disappointing when an essential part of your adolescent, and indeed post-adolescent, soundtrack is undermined by the reality that your beloved artist is a fucker.  Here, in case my readers are unaware, I’m talking about the recent statements made by Larkin Grimm, a musician formerly part of the Young Gods family, about how Gira raped her years back.  And then, because she was upset about being raped (because apparently she shouldn’t have been), dropped her from his label.

Look, I know that there’s a school of thought out there that says we should separate the work of art from the artist – maybe following a death of the author line of thought – and I really get that.  We talk about the same thing in critical thinking, warning students about circumstantial ad hominems and how, regardless of a person’s circumstances and interests, it is fallacious to use this as an excuse not to judge an argument on its own merits.  So maybe dismissing Gira’s music because of these rape accusations, and that they are most probably (according to an inference from the best explanation) not baseless allegations, is some kind of ad hominem art criticism.  Obviously there are a lot of artists I enjoy who did extremely problematic things in their life times – and obviously I don’t think Tolstoy’s work should be dismissed because he was an abusive patriarchal asshole – but when it comes to artists in the present, and not dead assholes whose work now stands over and above their dismal lives, I cannot help but find it difficult to separate their work from their practices and commitments.  Take Burzum, for example: the first time I heard them, before I was given a name to look up or told about Varg Vikernes, I thought the music was brilliant… But the moment I learned about Vikernes’ beliefs and activities there was no way I could stomach the music no matter how interesting it was (though, confession time, I have a guilty soft spot for Chelsea Wolfe’s cover of “Black Spell of Destruction” – is this liberalism because it’s slightly removed, thus allowing me to avoid the epistemic fallacy?) because Varg’s a fucking fascist.  So yeah, my desire to listen to Swans now, which has been part of playlist for twenty years, has utterly evaporated.

I want to pause here, because I suspect I’m going to get a random google-warrior wandering onto this post chastising me about believing in these so-called “allegations”, and explain why Larkin Grimm’s accusations are convincing.  Leaving aside the fact that, despite what MRAs falsely maintain, false rape accusations aren’t endemic – that is, while they do happen they are statistically miniscule – an inference to the best explanation should lead us to believe Grimm’s account over Gira’s denial.  First of all, Grimm has nothing to gain from making this accusation: it came out, years later, because she had accused someone else of sexual harassment and realized that, in order to be consistent, she should be open about Gira even though, if she had made it to “get” something (because in the mind of the rape denier these claims are made to get things, whatever these things are) then it would have made much more sense to make it when she was dropped from Gira’s label rather than, as is consistent with rape victims who have been victimized by people they respected, living with the trauma and making excuses for the rapist; since she made this statement about Gira she has been re-victimized by the typical rape-sheltering abuse of online fans of Gira – why the hell would anyone that? – which anyone with half-a-brain would know would happen the moment such an accusation is made.  Men in position of power, even if it is in a small corner of indie fandom, are able to count on fans leaping to their defense.  Grimm’s silence for years is consistent with the profile of a woman who experienced the trauma of victimization and was scared to speak out about a man who wielded a certain amount of power in the indie music community of which she was a part.  The only argument that undermines the fact that she wouldn’t be aware of this cost-benefit analysis is some bullshit appeal to female hysteria, and fuck that.

Secondly, Gira’s second statement regarding Grimm’s accusations is pretty bloody revealing.  Earlier, supported by his partner, Gira referred to Grimm’s accusations as a “slanderous lie” and went to great lengths to deny any form of sexual encounter with Grimm, implying that she was obsessed with him, that he was a poor beleaguered dude dealing with a fangirl, and that no sort of sexual interaction happened.  And then suddenly he makes another statement, undermining his previous claims, that there was an intimate encounter… That sort of resembles precisely what Grimm claimed only that it was consensual and he didn’t rape her when she was sleeping.  Of course his current statement spins it so that it was just a romantic tryst, but it’s pretty telling that he initially denied this but is now providing a distorted non-rapey version of her “slanderous” story.  Good Lord, now he even agrees with Larkin that he said “this doesn’t feel right” in the moment of rape, only with him it’s not rape but a consensual affair.  This is seriously creepy.

Okay, with the inference to the best explanation out of the way, back to the problem of listening to Swans in the wake of this event.  When I was kid getting into all of these indie and underground bands, one of the things that drew me to them was that, unlike the shitty mainstream music, they were cool.  But it’s not very cool to think about the artist behind the music raping women when they sleep – that is the very essence, and violently so, of lame – just as it is not cool to realize that an artist is committed to a fascist politics.  Hell, I stopped finding Thurston Moore cool when he cheated on Kim Gordon in such a way that he ended up looking like a creepy old dude, and the only reason I still find Sonic Youth to be cool is because of Kim Gordon and not because of Thurston Moore. And thinking of Gira as a rapey dude is far worse than this; it renders his music obnoxious.  He ends up being the same as all those sad mainstream fuckers who take advantage of their groupies because they believe they have the right to use women who like their work.

Part of me wants to believe that I can listen to Michael Gira’s work pre-2008, and thus still appreciate the old Swans catalogue, since it is prior to the moment where he “allegedly” raped Grimm.  Sadly, but far less sad for me than it is for women like Grimm who have had to deal with this bullshit for years, this part of my life’s soundtrack has been irrevocably ruined.  As one of my good friends texted me upon hearing about this controversy: “I feel like it’s a matter of time before basically all of the male artists I like will turn out to be scumbag rapists.”  Yeah, who next?

Remembering Sonic Youth

I picked up Kim Gordon’s memoir, Girl In A Band, from the library today and am already half finished… which is something of a surprise because I usually find autobiographies and biographies difficult to read quickly, especially if they’re about artists/musicians rather than historical figures such as Mao, Lenin, or Luxemburg.  My enjoyment of the memoir, in retrospect, isn’t really that surprising.  Sonic Youth is one of the bands I have followed since I was twelve, and whose albums I return to time and time again, and many of the other bands I followed were bands that were connected to, influenced, or cited by Sonic Youth.  (For example, I got into Bikini Kill because Gordon was something of a rock-and-roll godmother to Kathleen Hanna.)

Like many, in the year before Gordon released her memoir, I was slightly devastated by the end of Kim Gordon and Thurston Moore’s marriage, which of course signalled the end of Sonic Youth.  The memoir speaks to all of this, placing Gordon’s experience as a founding member of Sonic Youth and the eventual end of that experience, in the context of multiple art and music scenes.  Most importantly, it makes me want to listen to all of my Sonic Youth albums again – and to go out and download those albums that I only possessed on cassette (given away a year ago with all of my cassettes to the local Goodwill).  Indeed, after reading the first five chapters while my daughter was watching television, I pulled out the first Sonic Youth album I could find on my CD shelf (Washing Machine) and put it on so that my daughter, who loves rock and roll (her words, in fact, like the Joan Jett song: “I love rock and roll!”), could dance out her energy.

Up until eighth grade, my music tastes were formed by the artists in my parents’ and my friends’ parents’ record collections.  I didn’t like most of what I heard on the radio station and instead, like my two best friends, spent all of my time listening to the Beatles, Dylan, Zeppelin, Aretha Franklin, Jimi Hendrix, and other 1960s/70s artists.  A slight exception was made, in sixth and seventh grade, for Guns and Roses, but I never saved up my allowance money to buy Appetite for Destruction – I just liked playing air guitar to “Sweet Child of Mine” and that was about it.  But in eighth grade, when my best friend’s older brothers were getting into “cool” contemporary music, I started getting into contemporary bands and musicians that excited me more than the music I’d simply absorbed from my parents’ generation.  One of the first three albums I bought that was not from the 60s/70s was Goo.  (The other two, and I can’t remember which of the three I bought first, were the Cure’s Disintegration and Public Enemy’s Fear Of A Black Planet.)

Sonic Youth thus occupies an important place in my music-developmental education; they dominated the soundtrack of my teenage years.  Like, for example, when I finally made the jump from cassettes to CDs (can’t recall if it was 10th or 11th grade) and Sonic Youth formed the bridge of this jump: Dirty was my last (non-dubbed) cassette, Experimental Jet Set was my first CD.  For a while I would get Sonic Youth albums as birthday presents each year.

(Weird thing is, I never saw them in concert.  Back in those days I saw a lot of bands in concert, even taking trips to Toronto to see the ones that wouldn’t play London Ontario, but I missed out on Sonic Youth.  I’m not precisely sure why I failed to see them in concert, why they were no more than a soundtrack and there was no encounter with the metaphorical man behind the curtain.)

Since my musical interests were located in Sonic Youth, I never cared too much about Nirvana.  When Nevermind took the radio stations by storm, and everyone was talking about “alternative music” and “grunge”, I had already been listening to Goo for months so I was less impressed.  I had even heard Bleach, thanks to that friend’s older brothers, and was not really that excited.  I was more excited by the Jesus Lizard, and kind of saw this Nirvana garage band revival as something that was derivative Sonic Youth, who I preferred.  This isn’t to say I disliked Nirvana, but only that I liked Dirty more than In Utero – and that the latter is important to me only insofar as it introduced me to Steve Albini, and thus Big Black and Shellac.

In many ways, Sonic Youth typified the dissonance of my teenaged years and paralleled my interests.  When I got into Burroughs and Ginsberg, as a lot of high school kids looking for “cool” literature did, I was excited to discover that Sonic Youth possessed similar interests.  And later, in the early days of university, when I began to follow the avant garde noise music that my city possessed some historical cache in promoting (the Nihilist Spasm Band of the 1960s/70s being significant in this regard) I was shocked to discover that London’s “No Music Festival” was frequented by Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo.

I would also like to think that Sonic Youth’s place in my adolescent soundtrack contributed to the politics I would eventually adopt.  While I’m not under the impression that they were a bunch of communists pursuing revolution – nor do I really care since I appreciate them primarily for their music – there was that line of Gordon’s in “Kool Thing” that intrigued my twelve year old self: “are you gonna liberate us girls from male white corporate oppression?”  And that question, like so much of Sonic Youth, seemed pretty fucking cool.