3) JAWBREAKER, “Ache”: “I believe in desperate acts./The kind that make me look stupid.”
The first time I heard Jawbreaker, my own jaw hit the floor. And broke.
It was 1995 and the track was “The Boat Dreams from the Hill,” the opener on their 1994 masterpiece, 24 Hour Revenge Therapy.
The song erupts out of nowhere with a full-throttle drum fill, followed by the punch of guitars, and then, after a few measures of intro, singer/guitarist/song-writer Blake Schwarzenbach’s voice, which sounds like it’s from another planet—one where even boats get “thirsty,” pining for the day they’ll get to be their real, true selves. Verse 1 and the pre-chorus go like this:
Boat on a hill, never going to sea.
Anchored to a fixer upper’s dream.
This boat is beat, never gonna be a boat now.
Thirsty, sees the sea from high on ice plant.
He keeps patching it and painting.
Thinking about his pension plan.
But the boat is out to pasture.
Seems it never had a chance.
Every single song on 24 Hour Revenge Therapy is GREAT. Period. It’s one massive collision of sound after another, and yet it’s really beautiful, too. The lyrics are not only smart, heartfelt and poetic, but INTERESTING AS POETRY! “Thirsty, sees the sea from high on ice plant” is an incredible line, with its play on “sees” and “sea”, and its repetition of the long “e” sounds, followed by the “i”s/eyes of “high” and “ice plant”—the latter a wonderfully concrete (and yet totally ambiguous) detail/attraction.
Truly, 24 Hour Revenge Therapy is one of my favorite records of any genre and one I come back to over and over again. However, what struck me immediately, before I’d even listened to the whole record, and certainly before I’d become familiar with the songs’ sonic subtleties, was Schwarzenbach’s aforementioned voice. Hearing it was literally the beginning of the end of my own time as the singer in a whole bunch of bands. For years I’d been working to increase my vocal range and improve my technique—taking voice lessons and even half-heartedly studying music theory. What a disaster. My singing got smoother; my pitch was better; I could hold notes for longer, BUT my VOICE got worse. I was following too much the rules.
Listening to Jawbreaker I am always reminded that I’ve never really cared about—that is, I’ve never really liked listening to—“good” singing. In fact, I like best the voices that crack and strain and squeal out at the edges—out at the limits, beyond which, is silence. As Schwarzenbach himself would put it years after Jawbreaker had broken up and he’d started another great band, Jets to Brazil: “Note to self: No one cares, your voice is average” (from “I Typed for Miles,” Orange Rhyming Dictionary).
In many (though not all) genres of music—and in poetry, too—the best Voices are the ordinary/real ones (or the ones that can convince us of their ordinary realness), the ones frayed around the edges that sing by any means necessary. “I lost my voice. Hope I didn’t break it” Schwarzenbach writes in “In Sadding Around” the final song on 24 Hour Revenge Therapy.
The sentiment suggests that I HOPE I didn’t, but I might’ve, if that’s what it took. In 1992, Schwarzenbach even did a European tour with Jawbreaker, knowing full-well that he needed surgery to remove a vocal polyp that was causing him not only to lose his voice on stage, but a lot of pain as well. Had the polyp burst or lodged in his throat, the condition could’ve potentially been fatal. In any case, the polyp was removed before 24 Hour Revenge Therapy was recorded, but suffice it to say, the singer’s voice had been through the ringer, and it heightens the expressive effect of the singing. One can hear how hard he’s working. The word of the day is “tension”. It sounds like the chords might break at any second.
Additionally, on 24 Hour Revenge Therapy, the lead vocal isn’t laid on top of the music, it is the music and an integral moving part of the electrical storm of the whole: a voice simultaneously shredded, expressive, intimate and Romantic. Before listening to this Jawbreaker, I’d never heard a voice so stretched to the limits (and yet so impassioned, sincere, and weirdly melodic) as Schwarzenbach’s is on this record, and I don’t think I’ve heard such a voice since. Schwarzenbach sounds like a bird the size of a lion being forced through the holes of a small kitchen colander. Oddly, it’s one of the most human sounds I’ve ever heard—intentionally/unintentionally gorgeous, full of joy, full of despair.
Steve Albini, who recorded most of the record, definitely deserves some credit here. His well-known hatred of the human voice and his tendency to bury the vocals (making them just one of the instruments rather than a sound in the lead out front) has a lot to do with the strained sound here. It’s as if Schwarzenbach’s having to work extra hard not to be drowned out by his own guitar, Chris Bauermeister’s bass and Adam Pfahler’s drums. As a result, there’s a feeling of incredible longing throughout the entire record, an urgent desire to be heard over the din one’s own biological/cultural/personal racket. The voice sings directly, desperately to anyone who will hear it.
However, in addition to making me thinking about “voice” (both technically/tonally and BIG PICTURE aesthetically/artistically), one of the songs on 24 Hour Revenge Therapy that’s had a huge impact on me as a writer is “Ache,” especially the opening lines “I believe in desperate acts./The kind that make me look stupid.”
These lines are with me every time I sit down to write, every time I walk into a classroom to teach, every time I give a reading. In fact, I think of these lines as one of the two or three most important guiding principles of my writing practice.
Implied by the lyric is a willingness to do something foolish, absurd, even reckless as a means of self-making. Or put another way, it’s a reminder that sometimes (at least in art) doing something absolutely the WRONG way (that is, wrong by everyone else’s—and maybe, too, one’s own—standards) is the only/best way to do it RIGHT (in terms of one’s own urgent weirdness). One doesn’t commit desperate acts TO look stupid. Rather one believes that desperate acts will lead to and yield something, which is not only not stupid, but potentially the greatest thing ever.
For me, being a writer is about sitting down everyday and trying to write a poem. I never know what I’m going to write about. I engage with the process to see where it leads me. Sometimes it’s into a poem where I’m able to figure out exactly what’s on my mind that I had NO IDEA about. Suddenly, it’s a really good day.
Still, other times, most times, the process leads into a wall. And what happens in that case? Nothing. I don’t die. No one else dies. The clouds still float. The ice cubes form in the tray in the freezer. I try again tomorrow.
The point is that every artist has to be willing to FAIL, to do something stupid, and at the same time BELIEVE sincerely that doing something stupid/reckless (Hello to you, too, Dean Young!) will either immediately, or eventually, yield NON-STUPID—CRUCIAL, MARVELOUS, TERRIFIC results. To really write a poem—to make any sort of art—is to take a leap of faith. Truly, all the poems that have already been written are the foundation for contemporary poetic practice, and yet, if one merely/only (and oh so craftily) imitates and emulates those poems, nothing happens. I believe in desperate acts—the kind that make me and the kind that make me look (as in paying a different kind of attention to myself, other people, experience, etc). There’s nothing stupid about it, and yet it isn’t technical/rational either.
Somehow one has to get around (work through/undermine) what one knows, reads, has been taught—HAS COME TO EXPECT—and do something SURPRISING! UNEXPECTED! And this can’t be taught. No amount of craft alone will make it happen. To write a poem is to do something nearly alchemical—to take the ordinary, communicative language that we all share—poets and non-poets alike—and use it to create something wildly extraordinary, expressive, alive…out of this world and of this world, both at the very same time.
from Sermons and Lectures Both Blank and Relentless
It is already written, but let it be again Consistency
has never been a value I cherish No desire whatsoever
to fit into a system, a theoretical description except in certain
instants Today the rules I set to use Tomorrow
I will break them Or not Fuck you, fuck me, fuck a duck
blue sky I don’t care, so I don’t try But I do so I do
See the pattern Contradiction I love life because
it doesn’t make sense Human life especially
This seems real to me The opposite’s terrific, too
Whatever works works Let us erase it
The heavens may fall, or the floor drop out
My latest position is the face of a wolf
You put it on your head, and it bites you
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.
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