posted & written by Caroline Picard

Back in January, a lovely serial publication 33.3 opened itself up to submissions. I submitted something, which I’ve included here; while I knew it was long shot, I took such pleasure in the crafting of said piece that it became a worthy task in and of itself. There are a host of reasons why it would not be published in the stable of 33.3’s books – for instance, I am talking about a band that no one knows about, or the fact that I am proposing a band of which I am a part. I like to think, however, that it’s worth reading all the same, and perhaps for those same reasons. Like apartment galleries, small independent, raggedy-anne rock groups have cropped up all over the place. Like crab grass – and with the internet what it is, those same bands have managed to squeeze out the larger infrastructure of Sony and Virgin Records: bastions of an older music-business-archetype made of people who still hope to make money at what they do. The alternative route, the route of basement record labels, like small presses, like non-traditional art venues press out out the older infrastructure because not a single soul is doing it for any kind of profit. In fact, many of the gleaming xerox-copy bands that tour the country are going into debt – to buy the van, for instance. So. To that end, I supply my proposal, applaude 33.3 and the world at large for its astonishing self-sacrificing individuals who make such idiosyncractic practice reach any kind of audience whatever.

Many thanks, 33.3 for wading through the (likely five foot deep) spread of proposals.

phone-call-contras

33.3 Proposal : Thee Iran Contras: The Murderbirds : “s/t”

FROM THE SHADOW COMES THE MOUSTACHE

There was a point at which I became an adult. While hardly perceptible, the moment nevertheless passed, and I along with it so that at once I found myself on the other side of a bridge. It was as if I stood in a new country, for with this new footing, I saw, as they were, the old tropes I’d taken for granted in my youth.
I recalled an instant in Peter Pan. Like Wendy, we meet him chasing after his shadow—a naughty thing that seems to have run off without warning, presumably leaving Peter in an existential Purgatory. He chases his shadow into the room of a sleeping girl, Wendy. He wakes her up and eventually, she helps him sew his shadow to the tips of his feet; he will not lose his shadow again. It is fixed. In the film the scene is less than three minutes, the shadow more an excuse for the characters to meet than anything (it seemed to me before) of real significance. It is forgettable. At least it was to me at six, lying on the floor of our living room. As an adult, however, the scene has gathered potency and, to my mind, is one of the most revealing scenes in the whole tale.
Peter Pan is a boy who doesn’t have to grow up, lives in Never-Never Land as a leader of other like-minded boys. Locked in a state of self-imposed exile, the feral children must stay children in order to remain free from the trappings of the world. They cannot reach puberty. Consequently, Peter is asexual: his shadow has split away from him. It takes the enchantment of a young girl, herself on the cusp of puberty, to rouse Peter’s lust. Unknowingly, she calls the inkling of desire to the foreground of his consciousness, and with a tender skill and compassion, Wendy calls Peter back into the world of humanity. She brings him back into time.
I propose a book about The Murderbirds, an album recorded last summer in Oakland California, in the cottage of a carpenter who lives kitty-corner to a halfway house. As an infrequent triangle player, he hosted Thee Iran Contras for a weekend, disappointed when his guests refused the elaborate breakfasts he’d prepared, “Because they were afraid I’d ask them to pay for groceries,” he said, mournful.
I am in this band. I am the only girl, now woman—a tambourine player and, along with Ben Young, a singer. I was not, however, present this last recording.falmouth

My mother used to call the Contras my “lost boys.”
My brother, eight years older, has sustained an elusive suspicion for the seven years we’ve recorded together.
My sister, an opera singer, suffered when I told her I’d joined a band in college. I could tell she thought it would pass as a fad, but her anxiety increased as I regularly called home with news of new gigs, borrowing the banter of my bandmates and talking at length about our collective greatness. For her, the band represented the cruel potential of fate: to have passed her over so many time, despite rigorous training, to show me favor, the youngest sibling without an ounce of musical ability or training. When she and her husband came to a show, “Loft of Love” in 2002, I watched relief relax her face. Peter Heyneman, our loyal drummer, was beating a set of bandstand drums we’d found in the trash with fly swatters.
We have always been immensely pleased with style.

My boyfriends admitted outright disapproval.
Because, I suppose, they see the band as a threat of some kind. In fact the scenario is reversed. It was I who sustained an unconscious androgyny. Just as it was I who would never grow up. It is as if I flew into the house on Colonial Avenue in Annapolis Maryland, perched on the eaves and waited for one of the inhabitants to notice me. And when they did I tried to beat them up, and when they thought that was funny, we started playing music. Playing music grew me up.

You may want this to be a story about sex, but it is not. Or if it is, it is indirectly so, and perhaps in the way that all of life is about some combination of lust and a desire for intimacy, those inclinations are essentially pulled by another pole of simultaneous and unavoidable individualism. All blessings and curses at once. Therefore the book I propose is not a series of confessions by a 20-year-old virgin. Nor is it a host of sexual escapades that come of sleeping with bandmates. Rather, it is a piece about a boisterous enterpise, the mythos we created together, and how that funneled into the final making of The Murderbirds—what is the final album. It is about the responsibility we all have to make stories and independent culture. Through these people, I learned about happiness for the first time, and for the first time cherished my position as a woman among men.
Last August, Knoxville residents Ben and Tara Young came to California for the first time. Upon arriving, Ben (a liar) took his wife on a tour of the town, boasting his knowledge of the city. They ended up in the Tenderloin—what is probably the only sketchy neighborhood in San Francisco. There they were propositioned by their first transvestite and ate at a Chinese-vegetarian-cult restaurant.
The Murderbirds incorporates about half of the band. It is quieter than most of our albums and primarily acoustic. Ben Young sings about how terrifying California is with the other, traditionally less vocal members of the band. It’s a little anti-climactic, the anti-hero of albums.
*
Over the seven years that Thee Iran Contras have been recording, we have put out 22 albums. There are over 12 alleged members, 8 core members and at any given time as many as 3 of those core members might be missing. In each instance, and at variant locations from Maryland, to California, to Chicago to Tennessee, we make up songs in an improvised, collaborative fashion. Peter Speer, Moog player and Label, records each take, every failed attempt, and every bit of gold. He edits his favorite songs and releases albums. The band, in turn, memorizes the albums for later performances. Through this process, we have built a collective mythos, establishing along with it an exponential sense of meaning.  In order to portray that, I would share some of the stories about the band members. Stories, which I believe, the public would like.
The book would feature an extended interview with Peter Speer, as well as short stories that interrupt an otherwise journalistic account of how The Murderbirds was recorded. Peter Speer runs a Xerox copy Colonial Recordings out of his basement in Brooklyn. His father and older sister regularly take him aside to suggest that he set the music aside, offering him Burberry coats and shiny shoes and Brylcream. They do not see the merit of his practice. Without it, however, we would have no stories. Peter Speer points to the substantive meaning behind such forgettables. We make meaning for ourselves. We make up songs about gnomes and men on stilts and sneaky fat and facial hair options. We can’t help it.
murderbirds Human beings necessarily do this; we necessarily fall in love and bind ourselves to a variety of created fictions. To share these fictions is to create a family; it is an imperfect and vulgar family, certainly, but it is nevertheless a family. To document these efforts, to log them and reinforce them with public appearances is an act of defiance. It is an act of independence. Making music is not about being famous. It is about participating with humanity in one of the most basic ways we can.  Just as independent presses are important bastions of alternative non-stream culture, so independent labels and music, the rough cuts and Xerox copies, express a different, non-commercial, value system. One that is dedicated to the present just as it is dedicated to philos.
Without this family, I would have lost something. I would not be the same sort of woman, but likely a woman inclined towards Sarah Jessica Parker feminism. Happily, I am one instead who believes in the emphatic and joyous shaking of fists. One who picks fights in the style of Baudelaire, with joy and mortality mixed up at once.

This is a band that, for all intents and purposes, ought not to be remembered. The music is ephemeral, the shows more about performance and, even, a fleeting kind of activism, than anything else. Bands like these are not supposed to go down in the canon of history. Rather, they are recalled through oral tales told by mothers, fathers, and grandparents in the late hours of the evening: the hours when the imaginations of children are most susceptible to fancy.
Bands like Thee Iran Contras celebrate a non-commercial camaraderie. I think you should accept this proposal because, the music industry is changing, and the old Sony and Oasis hogs are being forced to slow down their operations because the Internet has become a new site for small-time distribution. Colonial Records might not be the most famous independent label, but for that reason it is an example of something peculiar to our times.  A book like this reminds everyone that music is worth making for its own sake, not for all the glossy photos one may or may not be exhibited in. There are no eating disorders in this story.

I’m re-posting this review, which was originally posted on this site, inspired I guess by the not-so-recent and well substantiated rumor that 33 1/3 is currently accepting proposals for new books. The deadline is midnight on December 31st, and if you want to read more guidelines, go here.

posted by Caroline Picard

33 1/3
is a series of pocket-sized books, each volume focusing on a single album. This is the seventeenth installment of our attempt to read all 57 (and counting) of these things, and to scribble some impressions of
each. As always, please keep in mind that it’s always just one writer’s opinion, often skewed, and somewhat ill-informed. Accuracy is ensured as time permits. For the full introduction, check out the first installment and read the others here. On to the demi-tomes!

Part 17: Reign In Blood by D.X. Ferris

reviewed by Chris Estey

If you’re into metal, Slayer are inarguably the kings. As Ferris, a Cleveland Scene and Alternative Press
scribe, argues well of the Four Horsemen of 80s heaviness — also including Metallica, Megadeth, and Anthrax — Slayer was the band that persevered with undiminished respect from fans and metal-friendly
critics alike. A more casual observer of the scene might wonder why …And Justice For All or Peace Sells … But Who’s Buying didn’t come out first as 33 1/3 assessments, as they have great behind-the-album stories, being all caught up in the angsty drama that is the Metallica and (Metallica ex-guitarist and Megadeth founder) Dave Mustaine world, but Slayer is the band that perversely fascinated rock
critics of the time.

Their interest was spurred, at least in part, by the Laibach-like allegations of possible fascism (the opening cut on Reign is sometimes perceived as a glorification of Josef Mengele) and the then current fear of a band otherwise so extreme and unrelenting in its lyrics, cover art, public image, and the music itself put fear into the hearts of casual and more mainstream rock fans. (The flirting with the skinhead milieu was accidental — bassist Tom Araya was born in Chile, identified with his background, and “Angel of Death” was as much an endorsement of concentration camp medical experiments as Randy Newman’s hick-baiting “Rednecks” would be an expression of support for George W. Bush.) Those other three new wave-of-American metal groups were more melodic, less caustic in every way, no matter how dark or angry or fast they played. Slayer simply did it darker, much harder and weirder, and without any sense of humor or easier topical reference points. (For example, “Jesus Saves” was probably the most blasphemous song recorded until this point; save perhaps the Feederz’ “Jesus Entering From The Rear,” but that was art-hardcore and had a much more limited audience.)

This brings up one of the interesting topics the book addresses: the lyrics sung by Araya (who also plays bass) on Reign are written by Jeff Hanneman and Kerry King, but Araya has never publicly rebelled against his Catholic upbringing. Ferris asserts that the imagery in Slayer’s songs are theater, whether they concern bloody personal vengeance or the end of the world. But a hatred for religious hypocrisy is something the band doesn’t seem too shy to express inside or outside the songs, and this rings true with their pissed off fans. Ferris thoughtfully relates how Rick Rubin brought the band on board his label Def Jam, though he himself is of the mystical persuasion and Slayer seem almost Objectivist in their hatred of most spirituality.
Another interesting note presented brilliantly in this book is the story of transgressive artist Larry Carroll’s LP cover art, and how the band came to approve it — the disparity between the artist’s NYC post-punk career and their Los Angeles metal values comes together when a band member’s mother hates what Carroll did, causing them to use it.

With Reign In Blood, recorded mostly before Rubin even got involved (though blessed the project with his ferocious mid-80s buzz even if only by osmosis and some occasional fierce in-studio commands), a strict 29:00 minute anomaly in heavy metal in its time, and adeptly captured on the boards by Andy Wallace (who would go on to doing the same for Nevermind), everything in this genre evolved. This was my first Slayer record and it was completely unique to me at the time, but I have friends who disagree with Ferris and argue that this album wasn’t all that much different from their previous two, recorded before they signed on with Rubin. (They also seem peeved at the amount of typos and redundancies of quote content, but that’s what metal guys are like: Due to the righteous example of their over-the-top technical mastery, a real Slayer fan is never going to put up with any kind of sloppiness.) I still think Ferris does a noble job, conducting
informative interviews and letting us get a good glimpse of the personalities of a band which usually seems like the most inimical on the planet. In fact, it sort of makes me wonder if his humanizing of
the group is what bothers my buddies the most.