backing towards the reverse, part two: a review

March 20, 2016 at 3:33 pm | Posted in musings | Leave a comment
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David Keenan – England’s Hidden Reverse (revised and expanded edition, 464 pages, Strange Attractor Press)

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[Editor’s note: in order to make full sense of the below, the reader is advised to consult part one here before proceeding.]

…so the hefty tome arrives and an unexpected cross-country train journey affords me the time to give it a close reading.

The new forward, as advertised, is a written version of the lecture ‘Crime Calls For Night’ which I discussed in part one.  Fixing it to the page does it no favours, unfortunately, and there is little point discussing it further for two reasons.  Firstly, what was good in it before remains so, as does what was questionable.  Secondly, its argument is largely unsupported by the text that follows (the book’s hook is ‘England’s lunatic tradition’ (page 284), the lecture’s is ‘night time imagery’ (page VII) – they ain’t the same).  It’s post-hoc, tacked on.

That said, it might surprise you that I was hoping for more of this in the book itself.  I have been largely negative in my account so far, true, but stuff like this on Whitehouse:

Let’s attempt to look this thing in the face, as much as we can, without any filter of ideology or explanation or ‘understanding’. (page XIII)

is pretty invigorating.  I was hoping for something polemical but deeply personal, impressionistic but rigorous, something that might have me hurling the book across the room in fury or welling up with tears of recognition.  Something inspiring that would leave me fizzing with ideas of my own.  Tall order, maybe, but given Keenan’s chops and unbeatable subject matter – the unnatural histories of Coil, Nurse With Wound and Current 93 – it was entirely possible.

But nope.  Instead what we get is A Very Long List Of All The Things That Happened.  For fuck’s sake, I thought with rising dismay, this is just another bloody music book: 400 pages of painstakingly researched explanation and ‘understanding’.

Do any of these beats sound familiar?  Guy grows up a misfit, moves away, finds a crowd/purpose, fierce early work, arguments about money/credits/romantic entanglements, drink and drugs, artistic development and lengthy accounts of the ‘mature’ work (with scholarly asides on influences and collaborators), happy accidents in the studio, fortuitous meetings and so on.  All these gongs are bonged in the usual order determined by the ritual, like a bored gamelan orchestra calling the court in for lunch.  You’ll be amazed to learn that this time was unique and that things will never be the same again too, of course.

On one level, I understand that this is a daft criticism to make.  It’s like moaning that you’ve seen it all before whenever an artist daubs pigment onto a canvas using a brush to depict a figure – Gah!  It’s just a painting – but Keenan’s trad fan/critic ‘definitive’ approach robs the subject of its enviable magic.

For example, Keenan largely keeps himself out of it and, as such, a lot of total bollocks passes without any editorial comment aside from the mildest, bathetic rebuke.  When, at one point, Coil decide to only start recording on equinoxes and solstices Keenan dares to describe this nonsense as ‘arbitrary’ – ooh!  Meow, eh?  Absenting yourself might be journalistic best practice (I dunno, is it?) but this wasn’t advertised as an oral history.  Frequent, spirited challenges would have been illuminating, entertaining – inspiring even (see Bangs vs. Reed).  I was expecting to disagree at points, but I was genuinely shocked at it being a grind.

Finishing the book I found I’d made a couple of pages of notes towards this review, a short list of artists and releases to check out and one or two triggered memories (apologies to anyone else who was at the 1991 Current 93/Death in June/Sol Invictus show in New Cross that gets mentioned – I was the kid front left who coughed all the way through it.  I even climbed up onto the stage at one point so I could sit down).  Not much, is it?  Keenan isn’t a bad writer, the topic is important and clearly a huge amount of work has been done.  I was up for it, despite reservations – I am regularly inspired by music writing, that’s the reason I do it myself.  So what went wrong here?

Part of the answer is summed up in this quote about David Tibet by the horror writer Thomas Ligotti (pages 383-384):

To talk about Tibet’s work in aesthetic terms is relevant only to a limited extent.  Like other artists whose work is in an expressionist vein … you can take or leave him, but he absolutely stands above criticism because he is completely true to his visions, beliefs, obsessions, whatever you want to call the substance of his songs … It’s simply that Tibet is working in another realm entirely.  He’s alone in what he does, and that makes any evaluation of him in the conventional terms of music or literature beside the point.

I think this is bang on, indeed I’ve said similar things myself about the limits of criticism when it comes to those driven to create within what I call the no-audience underground, and that ‘pffft’ sound you can hear is the shrivelling of Keenan’s project, irreparably punctured by Ligotti’s point.  It’s so damaging I’m surprised he put it in, to be honest.  Tibet and friends may not be judged on their musicianship or material success (though both are mentioned) but the very form of the book itself could not be more conventional.  If your subject matter is working in another realm a ‘then they did this’ music bio approach is never going to capture what is special about them.

The other, larger, part of the answer occurred to me as I was laughing at a throwaway joke from Steven Stapleton, deadpanned as he explains his fixation on Perez Prado (page 344):

I don’t dance – my hat would fall off.

Despite Keenan’s silly whining in The Wire magazine, in between the original publication of the book and its reissue it is not the underground that has died – it thrives – but the critic.  The human centipede three-way of ‘artist – critic/gatekeeper – fan’ has been irrevocably unstitched by the internet and social media.  No one needs to eat that shit anymore.  New relationships, new, flexible ways of looking are available.  Yet the critic doesn’t want to dance because their hat would fall off.  That hat means a lot – wearing it allows them to publish books, write columns for magazines and appear on panels at prestigious industry events no matter how stilted or inappropriate these strategies appear to those really engaging with what is happening.

I have a colleague here at RFM who can barely keep a hat on his head – plenty have been trampled under his almost perpetual footwork.  Commenting on a draft of part one he said:

For my money Keenan’s voice (along with others… there’s loads of them) has grown tired. The whole meta-rock critic thing is dead, dead, dead.

then, pausing only to pinch my cheek and grab a bunch of tapes from the review pile, he shimmied back onto the dance floor.  Ha, I thought – fug lifting, head starting to nod again – couldn’t agree more.

—ooOoo—

Strange Attractor Press

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