The Cacophonous Cathari of Popular and Unpopular Music
“I am the voice whose sound is manifold”
The Thunder, Perfect Mind
“Christ is the imagination, at times terrible, irrational, incendiary, and beautiful; in short, Godlike.”
Nick Cave – The Flesh Made Word
Music appears to many as the most authentic art form – even superior to that of the image. The cultural, political and religious significance of simulacra that can muddy the waters of judgement seem to hinder less the mercurial nature of pure and absolute sound. Although from time to time, the high pitched and hysterical cry of “cultural appropriation,” or the odd media and religious fatwa is cast out onto the world by various opposing mobs clutching their virtual pitchforks, torches or rocks in an attempt to once again re-balance the official script of what William S. Burroughs, a self confessed Manichean, termed “The Reality Studio“. The assorted past media frenzies targeting the Blues, Jazz and its diverse bastard offspring have all been well documented; almost every outburst has been focussed on the sinister hypnotic mind control of imaginary fragile adolescents everywhere, conveniently forgetting that their own culturally innate morality may be doing exactly the same, thereby eschewing the other, more passionate facet of music – the Dionysian and liberating power of rhythm and melody on the psyche, whether played by a battered old slide guitar or digital synthesiser.
Musical sound is an aesthetic experience that can whisper to one’s own dark depths, allowing the shackles of reality to momentarily slip off this mortal coil and the mind to take flight. As the artist tends to interpret reality through his, or her, own individual vision; filtering even ingrained traditions and symbols, giving to them new life and terrible aspects, it is little wonder that many musicians/singers/songwriters of a heretical bent have chosen to clothe their flights and insights in music. These crooning heretics do not only come from the murky and obscure fringes of popular culture, such as David Tibet’s wonderfully eccentric, haunting and achingly personal Current 93 whose many albums inspired by the many personal and ecstatic Apocalyptic visions by Tibet have featured an avant garde alumni, from the more famous Nick Cave and Marc Almond, to lesser known fringe figures as Baby Dee, Douglas Pearce and the ever iconoclastic Boyd Rice, but even everyone’s favourite androgenous spaceman, David Bowie, has dabbled with these alarming ideas tumbling from the stages of the world’s largest stadiums.
Nick Cave has spent his career revelling in the blood soaked, genocidal tales of the Old Testament, as well as the hard time forgiveness of the New with the thumping passion of a Baptist preacher, yet the setting for his fiery stories is not the Levant, but often the Deep South. Cave comprehends the power of myths as much as the Gnostics did; by reinterpreting the Bible through the legendary figures and spirit of blues, gospel and rock ‘n roll in his early songs, Cave created his own particular universe. It is in the essay, The Flesh Made Word, that Cave discusses his inspiration for his lyrics in both The Birthday Party and the Bad Seeds; from a demiurgic despot of a God, swatting humanity in a jealous rage, to the ghostly Man of Sorrows glowing with creativity that haunts the Gospels. It is that dualism between a violently profane deity, and a gentler form of creation that shows Cave to be aligned with the heretics.
Heresy has often been the playground of musical outsiders, such as Sabbath Assembly: a band who have dedicated their output to blending the distinct apocalyptic theology of the hymns and beliefs of the sixties cult, The Process Church of The Final Judgement into a groovy mix of psychedelic heavy rock, folk, spirituals and the dirge-like devotional hymns. The cult lived on the edge of hippiedom and whose ideas encompassed a heady Gnostic mix of Judaism, Christianity and Luciferianism all done with a distinct and radically unique graphic sensibility, as explored in the Feral House book, LOVE, SEX, FEAR, DEATH with writing by former member Timothy Wylie and Process Church obsessive Genesis P. Orridge, who also features on Sabbath Assembly’s second album, Ye Are Gods. The music is a powerful and unsettling sonic trip into the mind of cult-like behaviour and the end of idealism.
And then there’s Boyd Rice.
Just mentioning him can make seemingly intelligent people of all persuasions lose all sense of humour, froth at the mouth, and have you struck off social networking Christmas cards lists before you have finished uttering your sentence. I do not know if there has been a more reviled, divisive yet innovative character inhabiting popular cultural soundscape. The legends that surround Rice, and that he surrounds himself with, are at the very least more interesting than the typical turgid rockstar trivia. I won’t go into his private quirks as, I have never met the man personally, and the net is awash with the usual accusations and deification ad nauseum. Go search and be offended, if that is your kink.
Love him, or loathe him, there is no denying Rice’s peculiar and precise influence on the state of modern music, from pushing the frontiers of what was possible within musical genres, to being the guy that Tarantino went to when putting together the soundtrack for Pulp Fiction. Yes, it is because of Rice that most of you know Dick Dale’s Misirlou. He also produced a Black Album while the now tired old Metallica were still scribbling skulls into their school books, created his own instrument, the Roto Guitar, and has had a four hour documentary by film maker, Larry Wessel, made about his life.
Rice’s musical output hints at his alchemical obsession with the dual nature of man, a form of psychological Gnosticism. The majority of his work as seminal noise outfit NON and his infamous live shows, more a form of aural assault as a deprogramming ritual than purely passive entertainment, express the troubled and vicious quality in man that so many seek, in vain, to destroy. His other work, for example, the band Spell with ex-member of the Scottish pop band Strawberry Switchblade – Rose McDowall, point a lighter and more playful side to the character, while his ambient works give the listener an almost, dare I say, transcendental feeling. Either that or they will make you go postal one day when you least expect it.
It is just this juxtaposition between the light and the dark that, the Hip Priest of Gnosticism, Carl Jung explored in his visionary work Septem Sermones ad Mortuos, a piece that seems to have a profound influence on Rice’s work, quoting directly from it on the Scorpion Wind album, Heaven Sent. Boyd Rice has always done exactly what he wants to do, and does not care if you like it or not, and that singular point in a world of ever increasing mediocrity is, in itself, laudable.
Oftentimes, the media takes an element of the lore and blows up an explicit political point of view without taking into context, the whole Gnostic mythos. The singer/songwriter Tori Amos, the daughter of a Methodist minister, declared herself a Gnostic after reading the so-called Gnostic Gospels discovered in Nag Hammadi in 1948, and the media leapt on her 2005 album, The Beekeeper as a springboard for her feminist ideals, as the Gospels show a remarkably different soteriology to mainstream Christianity in the form of the figure of Sophia, or Holy Wisdom, and the companion, or syzygy, of Christ. In turn, by transforming Gnosticism into a political soundbite, the media neglected the most intrinsic part of what the Gnostic philosophy imparts, that the world is an illusion of adversity and anguish; a veil of tears, spun into being by malevolent forces in order to trap the divine sparks from finding their way by to the holy alien source of everything. This unpalatable and bleak side of Gnosticism, in a society where massage parlours provide “happy endings” and self-help volumes clutter up the aisle of bookshops everywhere with their ultimately depressing delusion of selling you control over the chaos that is modern life, is perhaps why this peculiar philosophy is always lurking at the edges of culture in the shadows.
The artist has to scream a little louder to be heard.
And howl they do.