The Culture Bunker
by William Ham
illustration by Robert Zammarchi
A most obsequious hello to you all. No, no new stilted bulletins have issued forth from my subterranean bluessick home in a while, but I can explain. I just don’t feel like it, that’s all. There are more important fish to scale, cut, gut and fry, maybe even garnish with a little metaphorical lemon this month. Besides, I’m sure you fine, handsome readers have better things to do than listen to me whine about being temporarily rendered quadriplegic in a minor three-cart pileup at the miniature golf course. And I’m positive you don’t need to be bothered with the fact that as a result I’m reduced to typing this entire column out with my nose. So I won’t bore you with it. Not even the part about having no medical insurance and having to have my delicate spinal surgery performed by a dental school dropout. No doubt you have your own problems. So I’ll just cut to the chase, not that I can actually chase anything in my present condition. Sniff. Sorry. The whole of western culture awaits my freelance spleen, so let me get to it, alright? I don’t need your, choke, sympathy.
Okay. A month or so ago, one of my above-ground operatives dropped down a copy of the new Pearl Jam album for my consideration and possible review. Unfortunately, it was a vinyl copy (some of our older readers might recall this phenomenon – I believe it was introduced as a means to enable the listener to fit his/her music collection in pizza boxes, thus obviating the need for cardboard-recycling bins), which presented me with a curious conundrum. My associates and I struggled with it for some time, trying with no lack of sweat to shove it really hard into the CD player, to no avail. Finally we were able to devise a makeshift turntable with the aid of a snaggle-toothed cat and 20,000 watts of electrical current pumped through it in such a way that it ran around exactly 33 1/3 times a minute. It worked like a charm, despite the lack of fidelity (in the interests of good taste, I won’t tell you where the sound came out) and the odd smell of broiled feline that still permeates the Bunker.
But I got to hear the record and I was most pleased. I must admit I used to sneer up my nose at this band, considering them just a buncha lugubrious arena rockers in Goodwill gear, haphazardly making lucre as filthy as it comes from the ever-gullible pubescent public, sucking unquestionably from the corporate teat like Romulus and Remus in flannel. (Forgive the pretentious mythology reference – I was only looking for an excuse to use the word “teat” in that sentence.) Ultimately, I managed to get past my knee-jerk indie prejudices and really listen to what was going on. And damned if these guys aren’t just a fine rock ‘n’ roll band, with a balance of power, finesse and sensitivity (not to mention that scary bastard integrity – remember U2, boys) that’s hard to achieve in this day and age. And Vitalogy, as if you need me to tell you, may be their best album to date; it’s conceptually and thematically tight, with not a bad song in the bunch. Hell, even the filler’s pretty cool. But I gotta say, I’ve listened to this LP at least half-a-dozen times already, and I couldn’t shake the feeling that some fundamental ingredient is lacking, some weird void in the overall rockin’ gestalt of the thing. I pondered this problem for weeks (well, okay, three minutes), and then, like an alterna-thunderbolt, it hit me: Not enough angst!
You may think I’m being facetious. Well, whatever on earth would make you think that? Look, it should be obvious by now that the days when the charts were packed with cheery, upbeat anthems like, I dunno, “The Ballad of the Green Berets” or something, are long gone. Misery, ambivalence and violence, psychic and otherwise, are the order of the day (and it doesn’t even come with fries – ho ho, you get that? “Order?” “Fries?” Oh, leave me alone, my nose is aching). Angst is everywhere nowadays – I even read somewhere that Ace of Base’s The Sign is in point of fact a concept album about the lack of decent Swedish cuisine and the resulting collective inner turmoil (for more on this, see “The Meatball is a Concept by Which We Measure Our Pain” by David Fricke in the next Rolling Stone), which makes it even more depressing than we thought. At the same time, things in anno domini ’95 are looking so bleak – murder, suicide, fires, floods and that seven-headed serpent that’s been outside my window for the past week singing the complete score from Showboat, just like it said in Revelations or maybe it was Good Housekeeping – that our self-appointed avatars of screeching malaise aren’t, in my opinion, going far enough. I mean, really, Trent Reznor? The guy’s nauseatingly blissful if you ask me.
No, what we need is somebody who’ll take the mantle of morose misery and square it, cube it even – the times demand nothing less. So here’s my vision: a new wave (sorry) of bands, emerging from the garages and rehearsal spaces of our greed-and-peasant land, expectorating their millennial bile over a relentless jackhammer beat and accompanied by buzzsaw guitars – no, that’s not enough either, why not trash the music stores altogether and use real jackhammers and buzzsaws? Then you could get Sears and True Value to underwrite your tours! Yeah, this is falling into place toot sweet. And instead of your usual attempts to poeticize the horror with verse-chorus-verse lyricism (just a waste of time in our post-literate society), just scream, shriek, and moan incoherently. (I can’t wait to peruse the lyric sheets – “‘AAAAAHHHHH-uhhhhhllllghhhh/ akkkklllgggrrrugh’ – copyright 1995, incomprehensible screeches reprinted by permission”). And think of the mass spasms that would be their concerts – no one would be allowed into the mosh pits without blunt instruments, in fact the management could hand them out at the door! You may think this is all idle speculation, but I’m telling ya we’re already part way there, even amongst the formerly innocuous – for example, y’know that Cranberries song where What’s-Her-Name emits all those annoying hiccuping wails? Well, just remove all those distracting socially-conscious words from the rest of the song, extend her insensate caterwauling to three-and-a-half minutes, turn the rest of the band up to eleven and their talent down to nil-point-one, and you’ve got yourself a pop hit for the impending apocalypse, simple as that! Think of the possibilities! Diamanda Galas’d be easy listening! Teenage Jesus and the Jerks’d be classic rock! And when you’re ready to doze, just flip the radio to ‘GBH and Metal Machine Music will be there to lull you into dogged-out slumber! Soon enough, even the established acts would follow suit and we’d finally have music that truly reflects our times.
(It occurs to me that I came to a similar conclusion in my first piece for this illustrious rag some months ago – but that was just speculative fiction, whereas this is a demand, a mandate that we all should heed, and the fact that I have meandered into the same thicket more than once should underscore the urgency of that assignation. Besides, it’s not as if Lester Bangs never repeated himself. Hey, you try coming up with something new every month, especially with your proboscis.)
So that’s this reporter’s ever-humble opinion. Now if somebody would only post a copy of this to Vedder and the gang, maybe they could follow up their masterwork with something that’ll finally liberate us all from the tyranny of Ticketmaster, the Republican Congress and neurotic blow-hards like me once and for all. Either that or we could all hold our breaths and wait for the inevitable Citizen Dick reunion. And with that, I’d best wind this up. My neck is permanently crooked, my nostrils are starting to resemble Judd Nelson’s and The Waterdance is coming on the cable. That oughta cheer me up. Later.