By Any Means Necessary: Part 2 by Matt Hart

2)     THE BLOOD BROTHERS, “Camouflage, Camouflage” (with help from GERTRUDE STEIN):

 

I couldn’t see the solar system,
it was camouflaged as a tape loop repeating.
I couldn’t see the glorious meadow,
it was camouflaged as a smashed stain glass window.
I couldn’t see the love and affection,
it was camouflaged as a jungle of erections.
I couldn’t see the skeletal lightning,
it was camouflaged as a young machete.

–The Blood Brothers from “Camouflage, Camouflage”

 

A SOUND

Elephant beaten with candy and little pops and chews all bolts and reckless reckless rats, this is this.

–Gertrude Stein, from Tender Buttons

*****

Exhibit A: Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons.   At the Art Academy of Cincinnati where I teach I often try and connect works of art (and sometimes things other than art) that aren’t actually connected historically, obviously, or AT ALL as a way to remind students that as artists we’re in the business of both seeing the connections that no one else sees, and even better, inventing connections (that aren’t there) to create new and surprising effects/affects.  Recently, I was teaching Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons, and for some reason I had it in my head that it would be a good time to talk about the post-hardcore/screamo band The Blood Brothers as well.  In particular, I had an intuition that their song “Camouflage, Camouflage” from their 2007 album Young Machetes could be used as a lens for thinking about Ms. Stein and a lot else.  What follows is the result of the ensuing collision.

What I’ve always loved about Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons is the way that it deliberately goes about trying to say anything except what it says.  Or as the unsigned introduction (which has always struck me as weird and very Stein in its way) to the Dover edition of Tender Buttons puts it, “[Tender Buttons] revealed Stein to be attacking the denotations of words: while the individual elements of her sentences were familiar, their significance as a whole seemed to have been stripped away.”  And while The Cubist angle on what she’s doing in the poems is clear and instructive, I’m a lot more taken by the idea of a wholly figurative language, one (im)purely made up of connotation, association, euphemism, symbolism—anything other than the practical, obvious and/or ostensible meanings of words—i.e. a language made up of what words point to associatively rather than what the words are/say.

Now that I think of it, this IS the Cubist project—or would be in language in any case.  As one of my visual artist colleagues at the AAC put it recently: The Cubists reorganized perceptual space into conceptual space.  Yep.  And Stein reorganized communicative, tactful and well-organized prose into music and idea, via wildly flung re-orientations of syntax and an even larger idea about making language function only as metaphor!  “Roast potatoes for.”  Or “Elephant beaten with candy and little pops and chews all bolts and reckless reckless rats, this is this.”  In some sense, the meaning(s) of Stein’s text exist(s) in the atmosphere of the words above the page, more than in the words themselves.  Or put another way, Tender Buttons is a text deployed to mean variously, rather than one employed to mean particularly.  It’s as if the pieces with their disorientation and repetition and constant stumbling, stumbling blocks create a kind of camouflage, camouflage (are camouflage for/against) ordinary meaning.  What you see is definitely NOT what you get.  What you hear is a sound: disorienting, delirious, insinuatingly decadent, and definitely “reckless, reckless.”

Exhibit B: The Blood Brothers, “Camouflage, Camouflage”

—but first, the FIRST:

My first encounter with The Blood Brothers was on a mix-CD a student gave me.  The song was “Ambulance vs. Ambulance,” and I remember the bewilderment and thrill I felt listening to it, wondering what primordial meadow of tornadoes these guys had climbed out of.  The first four lines of the song make it wildly (un)clear what we’re in for:

Ambulance X extracts several consultants
from the slow gumming death at the office orifice.
Ambulance Y imprisons the sigh of the recent amputee
and dumps her in the xylophone trees.

Holy shit!  Really, it was like listening to a jigsaw puzzle made of sandpaper putting itself together in mid air while being repeatedly struck by lightning and attacked by packs of wild dogs and feral cats.  Variables and “xylophone trees,” what could be MORE?   AND: How on earth could anyone write a song so simultaneously, disjointed, abrasive and yet tragically melodic?  More crucially, could they do it more than once?  Turns out they could, and they did.  I bought all their records.  But it’s their last album (sadly, their LAST album) 2007’s Young Machetes, which is the perfect collision of nearly unlistenable racket with some of the weirdest, surprise-fueled song structures and the most haunting melodies I’ve ever heard.  From the album’s opener “Set Fire to the Face on Fire” to its last song “Giant Swan” (The Blood Brothers’ quite literal swan song), the album undulates with difficult beauty.

I remember telling a friend, who will remain nameless, that I was really into The Blood Brothers.  “You like The Blood Brothers?” he immediately shot back in disbelief.  “Yeah” I said, “I think they’re really intense and smart.”  That was when my friend told me the story about when he was on tour with such and so band (again, no need to name ’em) and they played a festival with The Blood Brothers, “It sounded like somebody strangling a cat.  I can’t believe you like that shit.”  Well, believe it.  I am a true believer.  I only wish they were still making records.

“Camouflage, Camouflage,” the fourth track on Young Machetes begins with this almost Surrealist-like game of question/answer between an unidentified interlocutor and someone named Alice (who, interestingly, the speaker-caller-interlocutor—or some entirely different 3rd person—responds FOR.  Alice never speaks):

“Alice, where’s your tongue?”
She said, “Look in the encyclopedia’s ceaseless chatter.”
“Alice, where’s your hair?”
She said, “Look in the sharp of a well-worn butterfly knife.”
“Alice, where’s your teeth?
“She said, “Look at the piano. They’re dangling from every single chord.”
“Alice, where’s your lips?”
“Look in the empires roaring; the tyrants getting so loud and boring.”
“Alice, where’s your man?”
“Look in this black eye written like the o in the word goodbye.”
“Alice, where’s your house?”
“It’s built on the hush of your favorite record’s screeching halt.”
“Alice, where’s your clothes?”
“They’ll be sweet sheets around your eyes when street boars eat you alive!”
“Alice, where’s your swans?”
“Flying in hotel rooms stealing stereos.”

These nearly Robert Desnos-like (Surrealist “Sleeping Fit”) questions and answers drop us like bags of airlifted provisions directly into a world where the jungle of imagery keeps us in the dark about what the actual circumstances here might be.  And yet, the ferocity and “ceaseless chatter” suggests that the dialogue isn’t a bunch of random nonsense.  Rather, it’s purposeful and sure of itself.  And while obviously the syntax here makes total sense, the meaning—absent a clear context—is just as elusive in the branches of the textual trees (the atmosphere of The Blood Brothers’ language) as it is in Stein’s Tender Buttons.

Of course, I can’t help but think here about both Lewis Carroll’s Alice and her hallucinatory trip down the rabbit hole.  Nor can I stop thinking about Stein’s companion Alice B. Toklas, who’s own “autobiography,” aptly named, of course, The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, was written not by Alice B. Toklas, but by Gertrude Stein.  Thus, in the same way that the “caller”/interlocutor in “Camouflage, Camouflage” speaks for Alice, “She said[…] She said […] She said,” Stein herself spoke in place of her own Alice.  Of course Stein’s autobiography of Toklas is necessarily, and on a whole host a levels, a mix of herself and Alice B.—they blend together, become one.  And weirdly, after the first three questions in the lyrics above the “She said”s drop out as well, and the answers suddenly could be anybody speaking, “Look in the empires roaring; the tyrants getting so loud and boring.”  O tyrants.  Perhaps this is Alice finding her voice, or perhaps after the first several answers get squelched by the questioner, Alice’s silence becomes complete…?  But this is only a diversion from what I really want to talk about.

After this opening, the song shifts both in terms of the lyrics themselves and the music, which changes completely 5 times in the song.  That is, the song has five distinctive musical parts, so rather than the typical verse chorus verse chorus verse chorus structure, one gets a series of bridges (or tangents or tantrums or breakdowns) with a chorus.  And yet, the song is really sort of catchy, and the beautiful falsetto, piano section about two thirds of the way through the piece is mesmerizing:

And she says give me one good reason not to empty the heart of all these zeros and ones,
not to smash a telecaster before it births a thousand useless slums.
Love bit you in the throat while you we’re staring at the sea.

As the musical structure of the song shifts and churns in surprising ways, the lyrics continue to assert themselves, but not quite, in a dense foliage of skateboards and nightgowns, and “mansions with fences full-grown,” “streetlights in crooked rows,” “false applause and camouflage.”  In other words, like Stein’s Tender Buttons these lyrics say everything other than what they say.  But to make the example totally explicit, check out the song’s final salvo (which I quoted at the very beginning of the section and just sort of let hang there):

I couldn’t see the solar system,
it was camouflaged as a tape loop repeating.
I couldn’t see the glorious meadow,
it was camouflaged as a smashed stain glass window.
I couldn’t see the love and affection,
it was camouflaged as a jungle of erections.
I couldn’t see the skeletal lightning,
it was camouflaged as a young machete.

Here The Blood Brothers just come right out and say what it is they’ve been demonstrating all along: Every image in the song is camouflaged/disguised as something else, which is itself another camouflage/disguise.  Anything we’re told is right in front of us, “hair”  “teeth” “the sky” (etc.) we can’t actually see (instead we get a “butterfly knife,” “piano chords,” and “a contortionist” respectively), and anything that we should be able to see is disguised as something else, blending in, for example, with a “a tape loop repeating,” “a jungle of erections” or a “young machete” (and what the hell’s a “young machete” anyway?). Throughout the entire song, the REAL behind the real will not stand up.  The world of the song is a world of mis-dis-appearance.  Obviously, Stein’s project in Tender Buttons has an air of this as well, although whereas The Blood Brothers are working in terms of imagery to get us to a place of pure connotation and metaphor—saying it super-“slant” (my apologies to Emily Dickinson) and else-ways and other, up there on Mars—Stein is working largely with and against (misusing and abusing) traditional syntax, grammar and poetic structure to disorient and deploy language in terms of its shadows’ shadows and fractures rather than as a full-frontal denotative and coherent presence.

The really interesting thing to me is that both “Camouflage, Camouflage” and Tender Buttons remind us to be on the lookout, that language is FULL of possibilities—mysterious charms, slippery slopes and most importantly of all dangerous depths.  To use the old cliché, you can’t judge a book by its cover, and neither can you judge a word by the meaning attached to its denotative surface.  Using words one always must contend with the fact that they mean both because of us and in spite of our best efforts to limit and control them.  Something is always revealed in their use, and something (maybe a lot) is always hidden.

~~~

 

*****

from Sermons and Lectures Both Blank and Relentless

I find myself a talking trap and you a message maybe
It goes in throes and starts and fits     The rest of the rest,
but a demolition derby     My gals with a fever     My brother
with a cast     Something’s up    A smoke    Or busy signal
Nobody answers in the Paradise Lost     The pair of dice said
Snake Eyes, and the players backed off     John fell down
in the street and cut his lip     Paul, a saint, ate fish and chips
“The sixty page manuscript is cheating,” he said in a tailspin
Unless it’s a rocket both blank and relentless     Eric paid
for everything     I feel badly for the girls without insurance
Never should you eat the tongue sandwich in your mouth
Never the roasted tomato in your coat     The lesson today
Wylie Dufresne     Your friend so delicious, and also the blowhole
who was washing our car     We should have had him picture this,
but we didn’t     Later dancing, it never even occurred to us
A puzzled panther     I am not     Though monkey-wrenched
I often think determinism or indeterminism when the question is
coherence     A parking garage in Bloomington, Indiana
1989     It was something     Autumn and freezing, we huddled
under blankets     The guitars out of tune, so it made me want to cry
with joy joy joy for noise noise noise     Now, twenty-one years later
in a gallery in Chelsea we’re sitting on the floor    Listening
like weirdos to the walls fraught with tracing      What I love
is erasing, so strung out and sexy, where I’ll go before I glow
on my whole life depending     My whole mind taken
with the shadows never-ending, the game of chance
as it knocks out the champ     That moment
when the mouths like hatchlings open up
to a big black negative negative

Matt Hart is the author of the poetry collections Who’s Who Vivid (Slope Editions, 2006), Wolf Face (H_NGM_N BKS 2010), and Light-Headed (BlazeVOX, 2011). A fourth collection Sermons and Lectures Both Blank and Relentless will be published by Typecast in 2012.  He lives in Cincinnati, where he is a co-founder and the editor-in-chief of Forklift, Ohio: A Journal of Poetry, Cooking, & Light Industrial Safety and the Poet-in-Resistance at the Art Academy of Cincinnati.  He makes noise and recites poems in the band TRAVEL.

Questions, compliments, (hopefully not) complaints? Contact Jackie Clark: jackie [at] coldfrontmag [dot] com.