Tag Archives: giving up punk for lent

Moonbeam Over Marin: “California Uber Alles” and Jerry Brown

by Chris Randle

During my transition from a teenager who played competitive Magic: The Gathering to a teenager with dubious facial piercings, I rode the subway downtown to a cavernous vintage store on Queen Street West. The scruffy nave of local music and art in the 1980s, that neighbourhood has since become almost totally gentrified, but it felt like Weimar Berlin after coming from my leafy, ultra-middle-class corner of Toronto. The thrift shop clung on – still does – by hawking beat-up trenchcoats and black punk-band shirts. My favourite T circa Grade 10 featured a militaristic, sinister-looking emblem in lurid colours. The stark text “DEAD KENNEDYS” soon appeared in its owner’s passport photo, although that was a dumb oversight on my part rather than an attempt at radicalizing airport security.

I don’t remember exactly when I became a fan of the band, but I do remember how: “California Uber Alles.” The menace created by East Bay Ray’s guitar (surf rock for the sharks) and Jello Biafra’s manic sneer of a voice was intoxicating. I didn’t follow all the lyrics – I understood they were mocking some long-gone California governor with New Age leanings. Surely he must have been better than Reagan? But I got the joke. The notion of a serenely Zen fascist leader was just plausible enough for its indelible absurdism to work. Hippie hatred unites punks and neoconservatives like nothing else. It only serves the interests of the latter.

Jerry Brown, the DKs’ day-glo Fuhrer, made an unlikely comeback as governor of California this week. My teenage self probably would’ve been nonplussed, but now the news is a delight. That doesn’t have much to do with policy proposals (though Brown will be far, far better on that score than the billionaire cipher he defeated), and it doesn’t make up for the depressing loss of Sen. Russ Feingold in this grim midterm vote. Brown’s return appeals to me on a symbolic, even sentimental level. It implies that hopeless eccentrics can still get elected in a major U.S. state. The governor-to-be has never lived his life as if worried about potential attack ads.

That notorious oddness is sometimes exaggerated, and not just by a certain hardcore anthem. Brown acquired the inescapable nickname “Governor Moonbeam” when he suggested launching California’s own communications satellite – a crazy-sounding idea in the 1970s, a visionary one now. (Like Tony Benn on the left of Britain’s Labour Party, Brown was a starry-eyed futurist.) He did appoint a Beat poet to the California Arts Council, though, and espoused Buddhist economics, and lived in a commune for a time after leaving office. Later he interviewed Noam Chomsky for Spin: “The economists have a word, ‘autarchy,’ which they use to denigrate the notion of local self-reliance.”

It’s not surprising that Jello Biafra praised Brown’s insurgent campaign against Bill Clinton in the 1992 Democratic primary, lamenting the caricature he’d helped create. They had way too much in common. (Maybe Biafra also realized that some conservatives would take the idea of “liberal fascism” all too seriously.) The ’92 Moonbeam backed campaign-finance reform and condemned free-trade deals. If indie rock was succeeding punk as a centre of countercultural attention, he knew the kids better than Jello did; Brown stumped econo, refusing to take contributions higher than $100. Most came through a 1-800 number. He would hold it up during debates, deadpan, like he was selling OK Soda.

This lefty populist nonetheless championed a regressive flat tax designed by supply-side guru Arthur Laffer. That wasn’t especially surprising either. Brown has always been slippery ideologically, yet his weird mysticism makes the fluidity seem authentic, the core of his aura (in Walter Benjamin’s sense). As one right-wing admirer put it: “Nearly every politician dreams of being all things to all people; Brown found a way to treat that inconstancy as an Aquarian virtue.”

He was a contradictory governor of a contradictory state. California, epicentre of the New Left, is also distinguished by the virulence of its right. In Before the Storm, his book about Barry Goldwater and the American conservative movement, Rick Perlstein notes that Orange County alone swelled to 38 John Birch Society chapters, plus a Bircher congressman. When he ran for re-election in 1978, Jerry Brown carried Orange County.

“California Uber Alles” kept moving too. Dead Kennedys recorded an angrier version about Ronald Reagan in 1982, calling it “We’ve Got a Bigger Problem Now.” That could almost pass for contrition by hardcore standards. Numerous covers followed, each one diminishing the original’s effect. Biafra himself remade the song after the recall putsch of Governor Arnold, comic-Nazi accent and all, but Schwarzenegger lacked the earlier targets’ surrealism or extremism; he was just laughable, a celebrity feebly pantomiming the big persona, kind of like Jello Biafra.

I don’t mean to pit one subculture against another, hippie politician versus punk warbler. That game is boring. (We won’t even mention the H-word.) Fraught, tangled lineage is a more accurate framework. My friend Jonny Dovercourt once argued that indie rockers hate hippies because “they remind us of our embarrassing younger selves…Indie kids are descended from punks, who are descended from hippies.” A “crushing sense of disappointment” has been passed down through each semi-failed movement. Maybe he was right. What else could Dead Kennedys’ name signify? Groovy RFK, tribune of the ’60s New Politics, bleeding out at Nixon’s victory party.

During his rambling acceptance speech this week, Jerry Brown said: “While I’m really into this politics thing, I still carry with me that missionary zeal to transform the world…I’m hoping and praying that this breakdown that we’ve been witnessing paves the way for a breakthrough.” I could close by quoting my blog comrade here: “Punk is easy, adulthood is hard.” But I’ll be mercurial and cite Crass instead: “I’m the same old monkey in the same old zoo / Same old message trying to get through.”

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“Hawaiian Baby” by The Spinanes (1992)

by Carl Wilson

(The subtitle up top says, “Untimely talk,” so I thought, let’s go for it with an 18-year-old indie-rock single, obscure and yet still venerated enough in mixtape-type-cult circles not to be any special discovery. It was just on my mind this week. In the midst of doing it I learned it wasn’t as “untimely” as I’d thought, as Rebecca Gates is on the verge of finishing her first album in 9 years, partly recorded at Hotel2Tango in Montreal. Exciting.)

(By the way, this post is lengthy, but it will be a lot more worthwhile if you also listen to the embedded songs.)

What is this odd, enchanting tune by long-defunct Portland duo The Spinanes, from a time when “underground” was just turning into “indie rock,” as you almost hear happening here between chords? (In another song they had the line, “Have you given up punk for Lent?” This is how that might sound.) Is it a breakup song? A song about infidelity?

It’s surely somebody gumming up the works of love, willfully or by helpless reflex. But its viewpoint is so interior as to yield not much more than a hint at how the process the singer’s going through – perhaps that of going through a shoebox full of mementos – resolves. Or whether it does.

Rebecca Gates wrote, sang and played guitar on all Spinanes songs (she should be honored as a guitar hero who anticipated Sleater-Kinney and Marnie Stern); the only other member was drummer Scott Plouf, and by the third and final Spinanes album, the salty and soulful Arches and Aisles, he had left (to join Built to Spill). But this was long before that.

Plouf is vital to their harder-rocking songs but mostly in the background here. Is it coincidence the drums become prominent only when the singer’s most challenging and direct with her partner – the man (we’ll assume, from internal cues) who plays “you,” likewise mainly peripheral? This is less a duo than most Spinanes songs. It isn’t really the voice of one person to another. Maybe the chorus, with its full rock drumming, is the only thing she says aloud, and the rest is inner monologue, talking to “you” in her head.

The guy’s been on a trip and brought her back a kitschy, ’90s-sounding gift, a postcard of an out-of-place Santa Claus in sunny Hawaii, “with a baby.” We never know if she likes or hates it – funny? not funny? “please don’t mention babies to me right now”?

She stands in the “back screen door,” half-watching him do domestic things, while she’s mentally “writing love letters to others.” They move apartments. They go out for a family dinner and on the way she’s watching for a moment, and a mailbox, to send the transgressive note (more, I think, nudging the door of an affair than having really opened it yet?).

When she tries to explain to herself why – “just for kicks,” “just because it’s cool on [her] skin” – they seem like phrases she’s only trying out. They’re not-quite-right alibis for fleeing whatever is keeping her from genuine contact with “you,” for an intimacy breakdown (“can’t you hear me? … can’t you feel it?”) that seems to have struck like weather, like flu, an immune-deficiency inherent to passion even, rather than a particular grievance. The guitar sound gradually swells, distorts; chords test their harmonic boundaries; as if in a world growing bigger but also less controlled, more jagged.

Which is what makes this a song that, for all its specific and eccentric detail, everybody knows: It’s about the persistent mismatch of romantic love to everyday life. “It’s my heart, and it doesn’t fit yours” – it could be a blunt personal assessment. But all the displacement of feelings into and out of objects in the lyrics makes you ask what is this “it” that is the heart. Is the cause socially constructed, personal-psychological, biologically innate? Early-90s-preoccupying questions about gender/sex and essence/choice come to mind.

(So: Why a picture of a cowboy? Why is LOVE spelled in “letters scrawled across the bottom,” as if by a child?)

This brings us to the strangest turn, the one that makes this song especially worth talking about. Suddenly we’re out drinking and we’re not sure if any of the characters, even the narrator, is out with us. “Graeme’s down at the bar, teaching hardships…” And then the vocal doubles and someone sings, “Verlaines, Verlaines, Verlaines, Verlaines…” What is that doing there?

When I first heard “Hawaiian Baby” in the late ’90s, I took the reference to the French Symbolist poet Paul Verlaine to signify that Graeme (boyfriend, rival or third party) was a student type, tossing “Verlaines” around with masculine pretension, almost like a drug with his drink (valiums, valiums, valiums). But later, having caught up a bit on New Zealand rock, I realized it was an almost-direct quote (heard as if from a distance) from this song: The Verlaines‘ “Death and the Maiden” (a single from 1983).

It’s the band’s best-known song, and its anthem for obvious reasons. Gates has just pluralized “Verlaine” to “Verlaines” – a cute band-to-band tribute (Stephen Malkmus of Pavement in the same period lifted a cadence from “Maiden” for the verse of “Box Elder”), but again, what’s it doing in the middle of this emotionally precise song?

“Graeme” who’s “down” at the bar seems to be Graeme Downs, lead singer of The Verlaines. So maybe our narrator’s at a show, and the “teaching” is in song. While I don’t know the Verlaines’ repertoire well enough to detect further references (I was more into the Clean, 3Ds, Chills, Peter Jeffries, Chris Knox, of the NZ scene), the off-kilter syntax of “sex and cigarettes and slow-sad says he” points to “Slow Sad Love Song,” a wild gorgeous Downs composition from 1987’s Bird-Dog:

Am I wrong to hear traces in the main chord progression there (before it goes so beautifully off the rails) of the chords to “Hawaiian Baby”? Suddenly what we have seems less a breakup or cheating song than … an answer song.

The two Verlaines songs both come from trad literary-romantic POV’s (see Downs’ former Flying Nun labelmate Matthew Bannister’s extensive scholarly paper on Downs’ poète maudit persona and its dissonances): In “Maiden,” he’s kissing off a hoity-toity acquaintance who’s always dropping names and theories: “You’re just too obscure for me.” If he sticks around, “We’ll look like Death and the Maiden” – the dark vice-ridden rocker sucked dry by the duality of feminine clinging/feminine Eros – or she’ll “end up like Rimbaud, get shot by [his lover] Verlaine, Verlaine, Verlaine, Verlaine…” (Though since Downs is the real name-dropper here, and it’s his band name, you have to allow for irony.)

By contrast “Slow Sad” features a guy who’s been crushed by a girl who “had me well-read… beautifully put down,” and has flopped into his pitiful little bedsit to die.

They’re well-drawn portraits of the male side of a romantic split, with women getting blamed for holding too much power or too little, with at least mock-violent consequences.

“Hawaiian Baby” is a revision of that bohemo-vinist underground guff from the indie-feminist side of the looking glass. Yes, Gates’ protagonist will accept blame. She doesn’t justify herself, except with rationalizations that survive barely a few measures. (The worst we can charge her boyfriend with is tacky taste in postcards.) Sure, sure, it’s not you, it’s me. But unlike Downs’ women, her “me” is a three-dimensional perplexed person whose power is in several senses beyond her.

(On the other hand, I have no idea why the distant vocal also intones, “six days, six days” – any suggestions?) *Later: See comments!

One of the most generous pleasures of “Hawaiian Baby” is the girl-group “la la la” that enters on the chorus, but it also seems incongruous in its sweet conventionality of language and lilt. It makes me question this suddenly simplified “heart” talk – too Cosmo, too advice-column. As if to say, don’t confuse hard truths with easy outs.

Or perhaps to say it’s impossible not to resort finally, amid complexity, to cliché: Gates’ protagonist may be saying what she has to say to dig herself out of the mud hole, or to counter the mud one lover or another is now “slinging” at her. You could take the closer – “someone does it just because/ it’s not on their skin” – with its indeterminate pronoun, as “I do it because I can’t feel it” or “you do it because you can’t hear me,” or both: “It’s not you or me.”

Where this hole came from, the one that cannot find a heart to fit – that part’s a mystery. The song only knows it’s not solved by labeling villains and victims, or volunteering to play those parts: That’s just a picture someone brought here from somewhere.

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