Evening Will Come: A Monthly Journal of Poetics (Music Feature—Issue 40, April 2014)

Albert Transom
Excerpt from Garageland


Garageland presents a chronological reading-through both of Friedrich Nietzsche’s published literary corpus and of The Clash’s recorded songbook. Every entry has precisely as many words as there are seconds in a given Clash song. Echoing Matsuo Bashō’s classic haibun fusion of prose flourishes and lyric pauses, each entry gets followed by a haiku-like passage. The overall manuscript examines what it would mean to read Nietzsche’s diffusive books the way that listeners “read” eclectic pop albums. It probes the philosophical legacy of punk as we move further from punk’s particular historical origins.

Spanish Bombs

If awards meant anything, then The Clash would have won big for “Spanish Bombs.” Still you tend not to think in terms of awards, dramatic breakthroughs, conclusive summations. You recognize that each bit of knowledge, each methodological advancement, occurs incrementally, “piece by separate piece,” however much its elated discoverer seems to have reached a “final end.” Pacing yourself accordingly, you admire forms that synthesize disparate capacities, as in Nietzsche’s preconditions for “the thinker,” who assimilates: “fantasy, the leap upward, abstraction, desensualization, invention, presentiment, induction, dialectics, deduction, critique, complication of material, impersonal mode of thought, contemplativeness and comprehensiveness, and not least of all, justice and love toward everything present.” Again, “Spanish Bombs” succeeds on all such accounts, suggesting why music polls predicted The Clash would dominate the 80s (another stupid category of recognition, though more self-consciously speculative than most). So here imagine “Spanish Bombs” as taking just an incremental step, as establishing the vantage from which subsequent songwriters would graft present transnational crisis onto poignant mid-century provincial sketch; would fuse tonight’s tourist junket at the disco casino to resounding hillside cries of “free the people”; would place dawning, mournful acknowledgment of an oppressive epoch’s youth “nipped in the bud” amid a disorienting transcription of newfound liberties. But of course this moment doesn’t happen. Even dawn, in one of Nietzsche’s concise formulations, consists primarily of slow cures. Joe modestly launches his lyric masterpiece on Europe2TV, telling the live Parisian audience, in passable French, that this song is “pour vos parents y mes parents.” Mick substitutes, for perfectly pitched chord sequence and backup vocals on the studio recording, an affectionate extemporaneous guitar accompanying every hoarse line of Joe’s. Topper, in the London Calling era, stitches disparate temporal planes so seamlessly you almost don’t notice. Poignant organ closes out the album track. Palmolive (Paloma Romero) flickers as somebody you should say more about. This year’s songwriting Grammy goes to Chris Cross’s “Sailing.”  [318]

blue beneath snowy slopes in summer

butterflies flirting might make this aroma

rocks grouped, shaded, like a family

The Right Profile

Nietzsche’s Gay Science opens with proud self-differentiation from “all robust squares,” with a convalescent’s exuberance at emerging “newborn…more ticklish and malicious…more childlike and yet a hundred times subtler than one has ever been before.” Health, in Nietzsche’s subsequent corpus, gets defined not as immaculate remove from any pressing threats, but as a demonstrated ability to overcome imminent destruction. The attraction of the imperfect, of the poet who owes fame “much more to his ultimate incapacity than to his ample strength,” teaches that while dissatisfaction, incompletion, failure remain generic/asymptotic components of collective human experience, achievement, where it does occur, appears inherently personal, fractured through the encounter with toll-taking fate, sporting a broken nose. And given that no “health as such” exists, but only “innumerable healths of the body,” with each premised upon different talents, deprivations, private phantasms and personal goals, moral philosophy, in Nietzsche’s view, needs to depart from idealizing or prescriptive tendencies, to collate an infinite variety of unprecedented findings concerning idiosyncratic loves, envies, cruelties. Among such “cyclopic” projects (all embodied experience as cyclopic project) you place this Clash character sketch. Here “The Right Profile” also stands for sister songs “Hateful” and “Jimmy Jazz,” but with sharper focus on Montgomery Clift’s queer, partially disfigured, enduringly alluring body. No longer playing the part of transcendent, self-explicating punks, The Clash pick up Monty’s post-accident, Janus-faced personhood as emblematic of a perspectivist enquiry, of newfound potential for “infinite interpretations.” This song’s opening chords suggest how a pocketwatch might sound had it been invented by the city of New Orleans, had our most objective-seeming measurements not hinged upon concealed displacement of personal and communal vantage. Joe’s scene-establishing “Say, where did I see this guy,” his stuttering recognition “That that’s Montgomery Clift, honey,” confirm good prose gets written in war with poetry, through “rapprochements, reconciliations for a moment…then a sudden leap back and laughter.” Comic horns prompt propulsive description (“Hustlers rustle and pimps pimp the beat”) celebrating the singular state of being (of always again becoming) iconic, multifarious Monty—even as a stupefied public cries: “Is he alright?” “What’s he like?” “He sure look funny.”  [353]

stepped on a collarbone or something

three coyotes laugh, stand up, merge

shed door open with water gushing

Lost in the Supermarket

As with “Spanish Bombs,” a downer lyric’s sweet, here lullaby-like sound. Topper’s lightning snare paces this apparently mid-tempo track. Paul’s bass traces its melody with a dark, clear line. That great gear-grinding background. Still, even though Nietzsche has not yet introduced his “pathos of distance” concept, The Gay Science’s “Noble and common” distinction could prompt some uncomfortable questions concerning one of your favorite Clash songs—questions anticipated by the obvious gripes: does the band demean everyday people’s desires? Does this lament of crass commercialism point to punk’s idle, Romantic, reactive streak, rather than towards any proactive construction of egalitarian social institutions? Does Joe place his lyrics in Mick’s voice to conceal his own class difference, and/or because he senses that the condescending tone better suits his Rock Star-inclined songwriting partner? But try out a different tack, starting from the grocery store context, from Nietzsche’s hyperbolic claim that any prevailing “discontent with existence” derives from “some great dietary mistake.” The coupon clippings, the giant hit albums, the subsequent empty beer bottles of which Mick sings seem to confirm such a prognosis. Punk itself could be said to intensify/exploit an enervated sensibility, rather than to cure it. Listening to pipes in the walls, to neighbor’s long-distance calls (acknowledge Mick’s glorious soaring on this phrase), doesn’t free one from loneliness. Likewise, most punk singers, most pop singers, do not redeem us from demeaning circumstance, but instead recall Nietzsche’s (again ridiculous) characterization of “Indian gurus” as strategically vegetarian, prescribing a diet that will “create and increase the need that they are in a position to satisfy.” How does Joe avoid this hypocritical outcome? By bringing in Mick, by commiserating, sharing. This song, conventionally considered a cry of isolated discontent, actually offers one of the band’s most moving duets. “One,” as Nietzsche’s “Multiplication table” entry suggests, “cannot prove his case, but two are irrefutable.” Micky Gallagher’s organ continues becoming ever more discernable. So a different pathos of distance attained, an unsuspected “luxury of sentiment,” a squandering of accumulated empathy from a workaholic, for now inseparable band, which perhaps we all should be.  [347]

far down canyon seen from peaks

long fallen pine smashed many places

blond family barefoot on the water


Given Joe’s galvanizing “Ha! Gitalong-gitalong” passages (prompting Topper, on Fridays, to fling back orange beret, subsequently chuck his sticks), given Paul tall, all in black, grooving from perfect tripod posture, given Mick’s amped delivery for the “Voices in your head” section (Mick always telegraphs when he has a good line coming), forget everything you’ve said, quite unfairly, about punk. First admit infinite distance from punk’s combustible time and place (pessimistic epoch, oppressive state). Clarify your personal, partisan, perhaps apolitical interest in how punk channels acute social animus into broader calls for humanity to revolt against itself, to pause on its presumed trajectory, to follow examples of proto-punk philosophers Diogenes, Emerson, Thoreau, Nietzsche not by absorbing specific doctrine, but by deciding to “take time,” to “follow your own self faithfully.” From this perspective, address the clampdown. Here The Clash’s more astute listeners long since have stepped beyond parochial claims that this song prioritizes any one struggle: say with Nazism, capitalist dominance, Labour’s complicity. Instead, Joe’s masterful collage provides myriad points of access, of defiant traction, for an audience facing the likely prospect of growing up, calming, itself contributing to the clampdown. Ok, but track the more complicated concern with intention/causality “Clampdown” poses. Recall Nietzsche’s distinction between the “driving force” of pent-up energy, dictating our fate with unstoppable momentum, and the negligible “directing force” of choice, of purpose, which we mistake as autonomous will guiding our every action. Note that old age only crystallizes a clampdown predestined by explosive youth, by our own punk powder-keg status—attaching not to the most propitious cause, but to the closest burning fuse. Sense the clampdown coming even as we resist the clampdown. Recognize the near impossibility of remaining one who “loves to stand still.” Then acknowledge your Epicurean streak, your need for the walled-in garden, the sole place that allows you to spin “long thread.” Stoics might swallow “slivers of glass and scorpions without nausea,” putting on a good show, whereas you keep rewatching the part when Joe pivots, sprints with Mick and Paul to the mic, everybody shouting “What are we gonna do now?”  [350]

dull mountain haze for a day

buzzing ear on hot steep climb

tired, drifting ahead of this walk

The Guns of Brixton

Science, The Gay Science suggests, traces its origin back to magicians, alchemists, astrologers, witches promising much more than they could deliver, if only so “anything at all might be fulfilled in the realm of knowledge.” Punk bands define themselves amid a burgeoning fashion scene, a bold display of subcultural identity still awaiting its broader articulation. And Paul, earning his first song credit, starts by returning to Ivan, The Harder They Come’s protagonist. Picture Ivan as Dionysian aesthetician, directing (not really driving) his commandeered white convertible around (not across) the golf course, forgoing escape in pursuit of pleasure: spinning, laughing, thrilled to find himself that rare hunted fugitive who keeps dressing better. Ivan, close to embodying conflicted, random nihilism, instead triumphs through dreamy, discontinuous celebration of appearance for its own sake, through pre-/post-rational plot twists culminating in a deus ex machina that lifts him into the constellations—star of film within the film. Paul’s defiant lyric may reach for something similar. Paul, perhaps due to his lean frame, his stylistic flair and charismatic stage presence, gets pushed first to the precipice of punk’s photogenic afterlife. One never knows when Paul is playing “Paul,” whether or not to assign depth to this very ambiguity. Paul, like Ivan, simply rolls forward. Paul, like Nietzsche, recognizes that insight only can originate through the cultivation of disparate strengths (impulses “to doubt, to negate, to wait”), each of which, on its own, resembles poison. Here “Guns of Brixton’s” pervasive paranoia, with its substitution of a threat for a chorus, awaits some unforeseeable synthesis, just as Nietzsche anticipates a sweeping confluence of science, art and practical wisdom that will make present-day scholars, physicians, legislators look like “paltry relics of ancient times.” For now, Paul’s song, again echoing Nietzsche’s books, operates under the sign of “evil,” as do all forces embodying the rejuvenative new. Subsequently The Clash sound forever different.  [312]

river flows against self between islands

fishermen point Fank to still waters

herons seem to play with cloud