Thought For The Day

Thought For The Day
My muse has the right to children.

My muse, a cross between Andy Warhol and Harpo Marx, arrives when an interesting new project is in the offing. He brings a ton of strange information and a couple of gallons of snake oil. I buy his shtick, whatever he's selling. I've learned not to look a gift horse in the mouth.

My muse has the best job in the world. He just has to fly in on those Hermes anklet wings of his, pluck a few notes on his lyre to get my attention (hey, it's a kalimba this time, what gives?) and deliver some gobbledygook: a pep talk, some motivational speech, a prophecy. He pitches himself somewhere between the Delphic oracle and a canny market researcher. Finally, after telling me how, according to his runes, the omens, and the gizzard of a buzzard, I'm ahead of some important demographic trends, he'll read me through a style sheet and reel off a list of tips, rules and guidelines. For the duration of the project these tips will be as binding as the decrees of my sovereign monarch or a post scriptum from Moses.

I've learned, no matter how mad his spiel sounds, to pay attention to my muse. His rules may not make me rich or even put me ahead of the pack, but they'll fire me up about working again, and help my jumble of ideas fall into some sort of pattern. Without my muse I'd just be another confessional singer songwriter strumming out feelings.

Mr Intolerant 1: Yellow
You're in Yellow, one of Tokyo's most famous nightclubs. You're waiting for Shoichi Kajino to take his turn in the DJ booth. Nearby Towa Tei is wearing a white jacket and dark glasses, drinking champagne at a table marked 'reserved'. He will stride through the VIP area grandly in a few minutes, surrounded by fawning acolytes, to begin his set downstairs. You aren't enjoying this at all. For a start, although you're sitting right in front of Shoichi's small sound system, all you can hear is the MIDI 'tickatickatickaticka' of the top frequencies. The bottom frequencies of the music he's playing (is it French club pop?) are all masked by the massive 'boomboomboomboom' of Tei's big room downstairs. You can hear both sound systems at once, which means you can hear nothing.


"He handed me a paperback Boccacio with the dirty bits highlighted in yellow marker."

Even if he doesn't help me sell records, lay chicks, or get into People magazine, my muse tends to be worth listening to. He's a laugh. Once he told me to think hard about mud. He gave me a book by some German poet called 'Smut: An Anatomy of Dirt' and advised me to 'eat a girl right up' and 'cross the line dividing clean from dirty'. The result was 'Hippopotamomus', a soothing album about sex for babies. Another time he gave me a sly look, ran his thumb quizzically across his lips and said 'Think about Japan. Mishima. The place where science fiction meets melodrama. An abandoned school peopled by androgyne adolescents, some time in the near future. Suicide. Endless travel. Shyness and hopeless love.' That turned out to be a trilogy of albums: 'Voyager - Shyness - Timelord'.

Another time he called he handed me the satires of Martial, a paperback Boccacio with the dirty bits highlighted in yellow marker, and a harpsichord. 'Cleave your music to the contours of a sarky little thought, no repetition,' he commanded, handing me a powdered wig he'd borrowed from Pope or Swift. 'O muse,' I sighed admiringly, 'you really take the biscuit! Dean Swift with a Moog! Priceless!' But he was gone, leaving me with the merely mechanical chore of joining the dots and drafting the fine detail.

Then he came one day looking very Drella-like in his campy silver wig and simply said 'Make portraits for money'. I was like, 'Eureka, muse!' because I owed a lot of shekels at the time to Salieri. Shortly after that he flew into New York on an African beadwork replica of Concorde and gave me some spiel about hand-knitted pocket calculators and the whole big Appalachian Casio hoedown thing. Folk me if he wasn't on the Fakelore trail a season before everyone else!

Mr Intolerant 2: Cage
More and more you turn to Cage as your musical luminary. Of course, Cage might have said of your Yellow experience 'Never mind the intention of the creators of the records, never mind even the intentions of the DJs, you should have been listening to the accidental, aleatory music created by the insensitivity of the club's designers, who seem not to care that their big sound system cancels out their small one, but whose mistake should be honoured as a hidden intention.'

But it's unlikely. Cage would have approved, rather, of your premature exit from Yellow, and the peaceful attention you paid to the sound of rain on your friend's umbrella.


'Okay, listen carefully,' said my muse, suddenly serious. 'Style codename: 'Spooky Kabuki'.

When my muse appeared to me the other day in Tokyo, looking a bit broody and sandal-lagged, it was a pleasant surprise, an unexpected expected honour, to say the least. 'What's it to be this time, Muse my old mucker,' I mused aloud, amused and not a little bemused. He slammed a stack of CDs down on the pine tabletop and replied in a Joel Gray tone of campy intrigue.

'I've got a bit of an adventure for you, Momus,' he mewed, a blond M briefing a sissy Bond. 'You'll be going deep cover, left field. What do you know about silk worms on the moon?'

Not a lot, I readily admitted. 'You'll be an expert by the end of the mission, don't worry. How many kabuki plays have you seen?' I could count them on one finger of one hand. I cleared my throat. 'How many Peking operas have you been to?' I was drawing a blank, but I offered the best I could: 'I used to go to a dumpling house on Eldridge Street where they did five dim sum for a dollar. They played this ridiculous, mannered Cantonese opera in there sometimes. It really captured my imagination, like the chance meeting of an acrobat show and a Balinese monkey dance... on the moon!'

'Okay, listen carefully,' said my muse, suddenly serious. 'Style codename: 'Spooky Kabuki'. Put down a whole album of 'spooky kabuki' here in Tokyo using an old $30 Performa for sampling. Get a little toe-tapping musette band going with oboes and Chinese gongs. Mannered and otherworldly, that's the way to go.' (I'm scribbling notes on a napkin.) 'Change your name to Johnny. Sprechgesang wilder than Schoenberg's 'Pierrot Lunaire'. Mix in 1950s rundfunk radio experiments, John Cage, and the mid-1980s Akai-Weill sampler style of Holger Hiller, Andreas Dorau, Der Plan and Pyrolator. Pay particular attention to Hiller tracks like 'Oben Im Eck' and 'Tiny Little Cloud'. Watch 'The Wicker Man' more than a hundred times.

'Jot lyrics that could be the margin doodlings of a Franz Kafka, a Paul Celan or a Bruno Schultz. Sing of soup and snails and pepper and the Alps and animism, make inky poems like Gunther Grass, make loopy paintings like 80s Sigmar Polke. Take 'Going For A Walk With A Line', fill it with shadoks and penguins and lead them over hill and dale like a Pied Piper. Make blobby daubs as austere and private as a hare's blood cross. Scribble silk worms on the moon and snails in a cabbage patch, shoot microfilm of worlds in macrocosm. Be a goofy, spooky little child. Good luck, Momus.'

Mr Intolerant 3: Refusing to learn indifference
In Yellow, as in every cafe and public building and bathroom where pop music is used merely for its ability to regulate mood and to control behaviour, you are the poor soul who can't switch it off in a world where everything is conspiring to make you ignore it. You're sitting there in Wendy's on Omote Sando, actually listening to the 80s muzak they pipe in. It's absurd. And yet to stop listening would somehow be to allow music to slip into irrelevance. Your brain is simply not wired to ignore music, which is why you truly hate every nightclub and cafe where music is used in this insidious, cancerous, stupid way. On the other hand, you can ignore noisy children. On the train to Mito with Shizu, you are completely oblivious to the shrieking kids in the seat behind until Shizu says 'This is unbearable, let's move to the next carriage'. Shizu's brain is hard-wired to prevent her indifference to the distress cries of children, yours is hard-wired to prevent your indifference to the distress cries of music. But at least Shizu doesn't live in a world where children's screams are routinely piped into cafes to ruin her enjoyment of a cup of coffee.


My muse handed me a crumpled scrap of paper. It was a poem. It read:

Two snails cross the flower bed
Of a kitchen garden out by the vast
Red and white television mast.

The purple moon reveals glistening trails.
Petals, slow daggers from a marigold,
Flutter down, threatening soft slimy flesh.

Pausing between hibiscus and forget-me-not,
One mollusc shoots a spear into the other!
They couple tight as a knot...

Just then: the ring tone
Of a drunk man's lost cell phone!

'There, that should get you started. Speak-sing it in the weirdest slithery zithery voice you can muster, with punctuation made of kabuki claves and a drone of humming monks.'

And with that he was gone. He had Fisherspooner and The Hives to inspire before midnight.

"Cultural reproduction begins in a similar way. With smiting."

We know what biological reproduction is. We have a formula for it in the shape of the little poem I was taught in my school lab:

Fertilization is
The fusion of two gametes
To form a zygote

We have a corresponding jingle to describe its sociological corollaries:

First comes love
Then comes marriage
Then comes a baby in a silver carriage

Biological reproduction begins with the mutual crush of two smitten beings, leads with iron-clad certainty to fucking, and ends with twenty years in the police academy of child-rearing.

Cultural reproduction, though a little more mysterious, begins in a similar way. With smiting.

"It's immediately clear we've stepped into another world."

November 2001. I'm on tour with Stereo Total. Our punishing schedule provides just one free day. The tour-planning gods in their wisdom have ordained that our holiday should fall on Halloween, in Cleveland. I propose to Brezel, Francoise and Lee, our tour manager, that we take a little trip to Oberlin, an hour's drive along the lakeshore, to visit the legendary liberal arts college. They're game, so off we go.

Within minutes of our arrival in the charming little country town we see a poster for a show by The Gongs. It's a layout diagram, drawn and lettered in a spidery hand, a sort of ethnographic fig. 1 showing the connections between 'viteo, speeker electronich, log, gong, ssyinthischzizer' and 'stringed inst'. 'Electronic music concert, Wilder Main, Wed. 8pm', it says. That's tonight.

After horsing around too long at a Holiday Inn, we arrive at the campus late and ask some students the way to Wilder Main. 'Oh, you're going to Peter's thing?' It's straight ahead, a faded wooden-floored hall. We take our places cross-legged on the floor.

It's immediately clear we've stepped into another world, a happening stranger, quieter, more private, sensitive and absurdly folky than our own rambunctious, rabble-rousing shows.

At the left there's the 'viteo screen': people larking about in a room. Low on the stage, behind a defensive screen of glassy window panes, playing very quietly and with fascinating intensity, sit The Gongs. A girl wearing a sort of pink and white bunny costume wanders about issuing imperious instructions. Two boys sit on the floor, playing arcane stringed and electronic instruments: chucky, banjo, several 'guys' (homemade miniature guitars) and a modular analogue synthesizer. From the ceiling hangs a log, from which are suspended gongs of varying sizes. From time to time these are struck, lending an eerie, earnest, oriental flavour to the proceedings. At the end of the show the group members climb slowly, ceremonially, one by one, into hollow boxes to be wheeled off into the wings by the bunny dominatrix.

The music is as original as the presentation. There's singing and guitar playing, but it's far from any sort of recognisable indie sound. Just when you think you catch the odd whiff of the weirder experiments of Low and Pavement, or lyrics like early Devo or Wire, it turns into Harry Partch singing the lyrics of Li Po to the microtonal accompaniment of his own hand-built instruments, or the lapidary alpine glockenspiel sounds of Webern's 'Five Pieces For Orchestra'.

Mr Intolerant 4: E Mail To A Ballerina
You're corresponding with a classical ballerina. You tell her that Meredith Monk (whose 'Book of Days' you've been watching on video) is one of your favourite choreographers, although, like Pina Bausch, her work often doesn't look much like dance. (It's odd, you also trust most the musicians whose work doesn't much sound like music.) You find yourself writing: 'I envy the fact that you live in a world completely untouched by popular culture. If I ask myself whether the world would be a worse place without pop music, for instance, I can't answer with a clear yes.' After all, there would still be baroque music, ethnographic music, avant garde classical music. More than enough to love.

You've been unimpressed by the photos of the jubilation in Kabul after the lifting of the Taliban's prohibition on music. How long, you wonder cynically, before Kabul is just another place where the European scale and the tickytickytick of sequenced rhythm tracks eclipse not only the local music culture, but also the truly musical sounds of 'no-music': the call to prayer, the click of beads, the jingle of coins, the sudden harsh electric solo of a passing baby taxi? The success of American culture, you muse, is just the extreme form of the paradox of human culture itself. No matter how much talent and skill it took Americans (and humans) to get to the top of the heap, it's the very efficiency of their forms, and their tendency to sterilize and extinguish all others, which makes their dominance so toxic.


It's hard to imagine that people as young as The Gongs have already staked out such idiosyncratic musical terrain for themselves. It took me ten years of 'optimising my profile' (trying to be mainstream) before I dared to 'optimise my marginality' (realising it was a lot more fun just being damned weird).

As always when smitten, I feel a weird combination of utter freshness and deja vu. The Gongs are the group I knew must exist somewhere. I dreamed of them in my essay 'The Invisible Opera Company of Tibet', a title borrowed from Daevid Allen of the original Gong. I predicted their style in my song 'Tape Recorder Man' when I made the Dylan figure sing to the Alan Lomax character: 'Tape recorder man, this I won't forget, this is folk musique concrete!' And yet this is the group I never expected to find in real life, least of all on Halloween in a small town in Ohio. ('Ah, you fool, but where else? And when else?' whispers my muse.)

At the end I introduce the Oberliners to my friends the Berliners and we exchange e mail addresses. Up close, these electronic music majors seem tight-knit and impossibly fresh-faced. They're called Clara, Peter, Stefan and Gregory. They must all be about 21.

In time they will send me their CD and I will realise that I have one clear duty -- to release this record if it's the last thing I do. In accordance with culture's harsh laws, I must reproduce and then die.

"Oliver is the 'fangler'. Sir John is the 'mangler'."

Flash forward to June 2002. The make-or-break month for American Patchwork. The month my label tours America, the month we release two records I love to distraction and admire unreservedly: AmPatch 004, 'Rob Reich' by The Gongs, and AmPatch 003, 'Shakestation' by Super Madrigal Brothers.

Oliver Cobol and Sir John Fashion Flesh (or Adam and John, as they're known to the registrars of births, deaths and marriages in Atlanta and Detroit) are the Super Madrigal Brothers, two men in their early 20s who have never met and yet, thanks to the internet and the US Postal Service, now comprise the two halves of Super Madrigal Brothers, a musical project which renders the airs and plaints of the Renaissance in the charming 8 bit sound of the Nintendo Gameboy.

Oliver is the 'fangler', choosing late medieval humanist melodies by Dowland, Campion, King Henry VIII and others and recasting them in the blips and bleeps belonging to our familiar mustachio'd plumber-hero trotting up endless platforms towards his Mushroom Kingdom. Sir John is the 'mangler', messing with the very fabric of space-time, slowing, stretching and stitching the music like a reversible jacket, melting it like a Salvador Dali clock. Together they've struck a balance between melody and madness, creating a wormhole back to a jaggy digital rendering of The Bard and making the record which, I honestly believe, cannot fail to win my plucky, stricken little label a place on the Map of Glory forever.

Mr Intolerant 5: Shopping
Not only are you increasingly convinced that a world without pop music would not necessarily be a worse one, you are also beginning to wonder if a world without shopping might not be better attuned to the way you live and work.

You talk of 'the muse' in a way Homer or Shakespeare might have recognised. They would not, however, have recognised your need to make a little shrink-wrapped plastic object which can be displayed to strangers in a shop, and even less would they understand that your vocation, your life's work, would depend on this little plastic object attracting enough curious buyers to pay for its manufacture, distribution and promotion. Homer and Shakespeare made their work to satisfy the gods, the community, or the royal court, not to produce packaged media.

You've just received sales figures for the first two American Patchwork releases. Phiiliip has so far sold 396 little plastic objects and Rroland 257. You add to your dismay at the failure of shopping to support your artists a sense of guilt at leading them towards shopping in the first place, as if it would ennoble their lives and fill their work with purpose. Rroland, for example, was formerly more like a shaman than a 'recording artist' - he really did make his music to invoke previous incarnations, not to make plastic and card objects which could sit, neglected, in shops. The Gongs have so far made their music as part of their Oberlin College course requirements. In leading them towards tacky record shops and shitty rock clubs, are you leading them to a better or a worse place?

You yourself are currently feeding your muse thanks to money from a museum (MOCA, which has paid you an advance for a commissioned artwork) rather than shopping. Perhaps it's time to become intolerant of shopping itself: a mode of consumption invoking a mode of production in which complexity, originality, soul and adventure are not only not required, but seem sometimes to be actual handicaps.


"I will fight like a wounded pirate, no, like a vicious spitting wildcat, no, like a parent."

Without AmPatch I might very well have attempted a 'Shakestation' or a 'Rob Reich' myself. But I know the results wouldn't have come anywhere near the extremity, excitement and conceptual purity of these two releases. I'll be touring the US with SuperMad and The Gongs -- as well as original patchsters Phiiliip and, on some west coast dates, Rroland -- through June and July because, although AmPatch sales so far have been pitifully small and it seems likely that, without a reversal of fortunes, my label will be forced to close before 2003 in the face of mounting debt, I am nevertheless completely fired up and missionary about these releases, and absolutely will not let them sink into the tar pit of mean-spirited, curmudgeonly indifference. They are altogether too wonderful to wither on the vine of apathy, or be poisoned by those widespread airborne toxins -- disdain for originality, disdain for adventure, disdain for music itself.

I will fight like a wounded pirate, no, like a vicious spitting wildcat, no, like a parent whose children are threatened, to get these records heard. I will lash out like a tigress protecting her litter of cubs, struggle fiercely for your attention, more fiercely than I fight for my own records. For, while I can tolerate your indifference to me (to fight it would be mere narcissism), I cannot and will not tolerate your indifference to my descendants, my wards, my discoveries.

You will see that culture, just like nature, can be red in tooth and claw. I know now the irrational pride and aggression of the biological parent. My muse has the right to children, and our children have the right to live.

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