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Bikini Kill – The First Two Records – Classic Music Review (Third Wave Series)

“Let fury have the hour, anger can be power,
D’ya know that you can use it?”

—The Clash, “Clampdown”

There have been few musical artists who displayed the courage of their convictions as clearly and consistently as Bikini Kill.

Bikini Kill came out of the Pacific Northwest at a time when the “family values” crap peddled by the GOP and the Christian Coalition had both pundits and average janes questioning whether or not feminism had run its course. The push for the Equal Rights Amendment had pretty much lost its steam; the word “feminist” conjured up an image of a broad with hairy legs spewing hatred towards men and unholy rejection of their essential role in aiding and abetting fruitful multiplying. Why listen to those grumpy bitches when you can guzzle your beer as you watch big tittied cheerleaders smiling for the sideline cameras and feel enormous satisfaction that despite the whines of feminists, America was raising another generation of women who appear to be more than delighted to serve as eye candy for their male masters?

What Bikini Kill did in no uncertain terms is to call bullshit on the patriarchy, bullshit on the death of feminism, bullshit on cultural notions of beauty and womanhood. They expressed the rage of the millions of young women who had experienced sexual abuse and domestic violence and who felt they had no recourse or outlet because society had defined women as “less than,” “hysterical” and “emotional.”  And unlike many of their predecessors in feminism’s first wave (think “abolitionists and suffragists”) and second wave (think “ban the bra and ERA”), they celebrated sexuality as a fundamental form of human expression and connection, regardless of partner gender.

Zooming back in time to the period when they were putting the band together, I would have set the odds of Bikini Kill getting anyone to even listen to them equal to the likelihood of me going down on Donald Trump. Their publicity strategy in that pre-Internet era was limited to feminist zines and word-of-mouth. Their music distribution strategy was confined to DIY cassettes sold at small-venue concerts. While touring, they often slept on the floors and couches offered by friends and admirers. While Tobi Vail came from a family of drummers and had drummed in other punk bands, Kathleen Hanna and Kathi Wilcox were still trying to get their chops down on guitar and bass while breaking in new lead guitarist Billy Karren. That shouldn’t have been too much of an obstacle given the values of the DIY punk scene; after all, The Clash signed a contract with CBS after only six months of existence, at a time when Paul Simonon was still figuring out the bass. The difference, of course, is that The Clash were men; women bands and band members were considered novelties at best, by both the average fan and the male-dominated music industry.

The punch line is that the members of Bikini Kill weren’t interested in a big label contract anyway. Their vision specifically excluded the commercial path to fame and fortune:

They knew from the beginning that Bikini Kill was going to be something special, not a feint at the Top Ten or at bourgeois stability. They had plotted it out carefully in strategy sessions: Their band was going to be a revolution. They would settle for nothing less.

Marcus, Sara. Girls to the Front . HarperCollins e-books. Kindle Edition.

As they describe it in the About page on their website, “Bikini Kill believed that if all girls started bands the world would change. They actively encouraged women and girls to start bands as a means of cultural resistance. Bikini Kill was inspired by seeing Babes in Toyland play live and attempted to incite female participation and build feminist community via the punk scene. They used touring as a way to create an underground network between girls who played music, put on shows and made fanzines. This independent media making and informal network created a forum for multiple female voices to be heard.”

While I guess all that is true, it sounds kind of sterile—and Bikini Kill was anything but sterile. Bikini Kill didn’t just “actively encourage.” Kathleen Hanna got right in your fucking face, challenging girls to stop putting up with the bullshit, to be who the fuck they wanted to be and to let it all out—the abuse, the pain, the dirty little secrets, the devaluation, the constant feeling of insecurity, the sexual frustration with guys who only wanted to bang away and couldn’t find the clit if you surrounded it with flashing lights—all of it.

The “underground network” eventually evolved/morphed/merged into Riot Grrrl, a designation that would be twisted and devalued by mainstream media forces who couldn’t get their heads around a leaderless movement built on collaboration and empowerment. The remarkable story of Riot Grrrl is fully covered in Sara Marcus’ fabulous work, Girls to the Front, The True Story of the Riot Grrrl Revolution. Marcus makes it very clear that building the network involved more than the usual trials and tribulations:

But if the front rows held girls passionately singing along with every song, there seemed to be an equal number of men just behind them who shouted “Show us your tits” and howled “Shut up!” whenever Kathleen paused between songs to talk to the audience. She engaged hostile hecklers, occasionally at length. She wanted everybody’s eyes on the offenders; if they were being abusive, they needed to realize the whole crowd was aware of it, because she knew polite silence too often led to more abuse.

Marcus, Sara. Girls to the Front. HarperCollins e-books. Kindle Edition.

Hate mail, death threats and the constant threat of physical violence were also part of the bargain.

Still, they persisted.

*****

When I’ve played Bikini Kill for friends who had never heard of them, their first reaction is usually, “Whoa! Don’t you think that’s a little raw?” Sometimes they’re referring to the music; sometimes they’re complaining about the production.

The music is raw because it had to be raw. Bikini Kill was trying to launch a revolution, and you’re not going to spark an uprising by playing Bach and reciting Wordsworth. Kathleen Hanna was channeling female rage suppressed by centuries of oppression, anger that rarely saw the light of day. The sound and the lyrics had to be aggressive to shock young women out of hopeless complacency and inspire them to take control of their lives.

The relative rawness of the production was the result of artist preference and indie economics. The First Two Records combines a self-titled EP released in 1992 (6 songs) with the Bikini Kill half (7 songs) of Yeah Yeah Yeah Yeah, a split album shared with the English riot grrrl band Huggy Bear. The EP was produced by Ian MacKaye of Fugazi, who was “completely blown away” (Marcus) by the band when he heard them in D. C. at the end of a cross-country tour. MacKaye tangibly manifested his enthusiasm by offering Bikini Kill free studio time and his services as producer. In contrast, Bikini Kill’s contribution to Yeah Yeah Yeah Yeah was recorded in their rehearsal space on a 4-track machine without producer oversight. Because MacKaye had both the studio experience and the punk credentials, he knew how to produce punk in a way that minimizes aural distractions while maintaining its aggressive orientation; hence, the EP features noticeably better sound quality. However, the songs presented on Yeah Yeah Yeah Yeah have an aural fierceness that serves to complement the jolt-you-out-of-your-seat lyrics.

In the final analysis, I can understand some of the criticisms related to “rawness,” but I also have this nagging feeling that the animus behind many of those complaints come from men who feel terribly threatened by female displays of aggressiveness .  .  . like the jerk who wrote the original Rolling Stone review of the EP:

The EP Bikini Kill has plenty of yowling and moronic nag-unto-vomit tantrums over stock school-of-Sabbath riffage; like almost all noisy bands lately, this one is better at melody than at ugliness but usually opts for ugliness. The Kill also cages its rage in silly editorial doggerel – “YOU! DO! HAVE! RIGHTS!” – instead of letting the rage work on its own.

We will now leave this nutless bastard with his head stuck firmly up his ass and move on to the review.

*****

The EP opens with one of the clearest statements of artistic intent on record. I have this wild fantasy where I imagine Bikini Kill launching their career via a 30-minute prime time riot grrrl reality show with “Double Dare Ya” streaming over the opening credits:

We’re Bikini Kill and we want revolution
Girl-style now!

Hey girlfriend
I got a proposition goes something like this:
Dare ya to do what you want
Dare ya to be who you will
Dare ya to cry right out loud
“You get so emotional baby”
Double dare ya, double dare ya, double dare ya

Girl fuckin’ friend yeah
Double dare ya
Double dare ya
Double dare ya

—“Double Dare Ya,” Bikini Kill, The First Two Records

As a TV theme song, it would have crushed “Hey, hey, we’re The Monkees” and represented a significant step forward in human evolution.

The recording is engaging from the get-go, though the form of engagement is somewhat perverse: the first sounds we hear from Bikini Kill are fuck-ups—loud hiss, Kathleen Hanna asking, “Is that supposed to be doing that?” followed by some annoying feedback and guitar buzz from either a wobbly cord or shaky wiring. “Ok, sorry, ok we’re starting now,” Kathleen apologizes, then immediately hits her sweet spot with the opening call to action. While studio chatter and re-starts have become fairly common additions to modern recordings, this isn’t the studied nonchalance of The Beatles in the opening moments of “Taxman,” but an affirmation of the DIY ethic that tells the listening audience, “We’re nothing special—if we can make records, so can you!”

The counter-argument to that assertion is Kathleen Hanna’s vocal, which is pretty special. She is a woman of many voices, a quick-change artist who can change her voice from full-throttled woman to Valley Girl to smart-ass chick in a heartbeat. The first verse quoted above is largely Kathleen at full power, though she effortlessly shifts to “girl talk tone” filled with cheek and guile when flinging the “double dare ya” challenge at her invisible companion. In the second verse, she downshifts from high gear to deliver the line “Gotta listen to what the man says” in a voice dripping with acidic sarcasm. She goes full Valley Girl in the last verse until the subject of women’s rights comes up and she shifts to a bullying tone in the line, “Rights? Rights? YOU-DO-HAVE-RIGHTS!” When Ian MacKaye observed that Kathleen was “dialing it in from somewhere else, like high up” (Marcus), he was speaking factually, not fancifully.

The band is pretty special, too, pumping out the musical energy with a tightness unusual for a relatively new group. Tobi Vail plays the role of conductor, providing comparative newcomers Wilcox and Karen with a solid foundation and displaying enough confidence in them to hold things steady while she throws in a few thrilling drum rolls and syncopated riffs. “Double Dare Ya” is one of the strongest statements of identity I’ve ever heard from a band, a piece that clearly established Bikini Kill as a purveyor of no-bullshit feminist punk.

“Double Dare Ya” bleeds right into “Liar,” where another childhood taunt is used as a challenge. This time, it’s directed to the men who perpetuate rape culture. If you don’t exactly understand what rape culture means, here’s a handy definition from the Women’s Center at Marshall University:

Rape Culture is an environment in which rape is prevalent and in which sexual violence against women is normalized and excused in the media and popular culture. Rape culture is perpetuated through the use of misogynistic language, the objectification of women’s bodies, and the glamorization of sexual violence, thereby creating a society that disregards women’s rights and safety.

Rape Culture affects every woman. The rape of one woman is a degradation, terror, and limitation to all women. Most women and girls limit their behavior because of the existence of rape. Most women and girls live in fear of rape. Men, in general, do not. That’s how rape functions as a powerful means by which the whole female population is held in a subordinate position to the whole male population, even though many men don’t rape, and many women are never victims of rape. This cycle of fear is the legacy of Rape Culture.

The site goes on to list numerous examples of rape culture perpetuation, including:

  • Blaming the victim (“She asked for it!”)
  • Trivializing sexual assault (“Boys will be boys!”)
  • Tolerance of sexual harassment
  • Publicly scrutinizing a victim’s dress, mental state, motives, and history
  • Defining “manhood” as dominant and sexually aggressive
  • Defining “womanhood” as submissive and sexually passive
  • Pressure on women to not appear “cold”
  • Assuming only promiscuous women get raped
  • Refusing to take rape accusations seriously
  • Teaching women to avoid getting raped instead of teaching men not to rape

If that list doesn’t help you understand the rage in Bikini Kill music, nothing will.

After a spot of dissonant feedback and two spirited grunts from Kathleen, she launches into the song by describing two common forms of rape: “Betty’s got the back of her dress all ripped out/Mama’s got her face muffled, twist and shout.” The latter form, of course, involves the religiously-sanctioned form of rape, justified by whatever piece of scripture you have handy that conveniently defines “wife” as “property” and dismisses the notion that rape can within marriage. Kathleen launches into the liar-liar-pants-on-fire taunt, punctuating it with gusto (“You know you’re a goddamn motherfuckin’ liar”). The following six lines will seem repetitious without a lyric sheet: “You profit from the lie/You prophet from the lies.” If you don’t understand how one can profit from the lie of rape culture, you have the examples of Donald Trump and at least two Supreme Court justices to help you connect the dots; given all the sexual scandals involving televangelists and other “fundamentalist Christians,” the connection between profiting and “propheting” should be obvious. The last line in the sequence adds a single word to drive the point home (“You profit from the rape lie”), then Kathleen proceeds to connect rape culture to cultural expressions of masculinity, racism and domestic violence:

Eat meat
Hate blacks
Beat your fucking wife
It’s all the same thing

I would have replaced “eat meat” with “buy guns,” but yeah, it’s all the same fucking thing.

Kathleen reminds us that while men get away with rape by simply denying it, the victim knows that whatever the outcome, she will “stand my whole life on trial.” After a repetition of the profit/prophet sequence, we arrive at the most chilling part of the song, when the guitars disappear, the drums become more insistent and Kathleen sings, “All we are saying is give peace a chance” in a sweet, “feminine” voice over the horrifying screams of a rape victim. The repetition of the first verse and chorus that follows seems superfluous, but I don’t know how else they could have ended the song . . . the screams still ring in your ears . . . and you’re left to face the truth that trying to fight toxic masculinity armed with idealistic slogans and naïve hope simply isn’t going to cut it.

Kathleen seems to channel Kim Deal’s spoken-word intro to “Tony’s Theme” in the introduction to “Carnival,” as the two women share a similar vocal timbre. Kim Deal also wrote about the joys of fairs and carnivals (“Saints” on Last Splash), and both songs express a delightful sense of wickedness in the base enjoyment of an essentially tacky experience. Unsurprisingly, Kathleen provides more juicy details about the “seedy underbelly” of those carnivals that plant themselves in the parking lots of shopping malls to give teen girl shoppers a more thrilling bad girl experience than they can get from run-of-the-mill shoplifting. “This is a song about 16-year old girls giving carnies head for free rides and hits of pot,” recites Kathleen, revealing no shame whatsoever as she repeats “I want to go” three times, like Dorothy wishing herself back to Kansas. If there’s one line that gives Kathleen’s take on carnivals the edge, it’s gotta be “I’ll win that Motley Crue mirror if it fucking kills me!” One could argue that requiring the girls to give head really sucks (man, I love a good pun), but nowhere in the song does it indicate that the carnies are imposing such a requirement. Kathleen wants to go, and she makes it clear that the main obstacle is cost (“But I know it’ll cost $16 now”). Giving a guy a blow job in exchange for weed and the thrill of the Tilt-a-Whirl seems like a fair deal when you ain’t got the dough. It may be naïve, it may be dangerous and she may be prostituting herself (gasp!), but it’s her choice. For those searching for a feminist message in “Carnival,” I think it’s this: “pro-choice means giving women the right to do stupid shit and learn from the experience.” Confession: I learned more from doing stupid shit than I ever learned in high school.

The relative lightness of “Carnival” disappears in a flash with “Suck My Left One.” With the band in full throttle bash, Kathleen uses three different voices to tell the story: Valley Girl for the bulk of the performance, amped-up Valley Girl for a key transition line and a voice that can only be described as ghoulish for the one-line chorus, “Suck my left one” (though on the second go-round she flips the switch to Valley Girl for the second “one”). The dazzling display of vocal pyrotechnics serves to intensify the meaning in the lyrics, but that meaning is also highly dependent on context. Verse one presents either two blood sisters or two lesbian girls (“sisters” in feminist-speak) in an unidentified mixed-gender environment (“Tell me what the fuck we’re doing here/Why are all the boys acting strange?”). The narrating sister responds with the transition line that urges rebellion against sexual repression: “We’ve got to show them we’re more than queer.” Kathleen then goes ghoulish on the line “Suck my left one,” imbuing that rendition of the line with the sinful evils associated with witchcraft. In the second verse, “sister” is used in the familial sense, but in the context of a father sexually abusing his daughter. When this sister instructs the father to “suck my left one,” the ghoulish voice now communicates the hopeless bitterness of the abused. The third verse establishes the mother as abuse-enabler, supplying the rationale for her hopelessness. Classic maternal messages—“Show a little respect for your father” and “Wait until your father gets home”—now take on a horrifying meaning and explain the daughter’s sullen acceptance (“Fine, fine, fine, fine, fine, fine”). “Suck My Left One” is a tough song to listen to, but hey—Bikini Kill is not for sissies.

In the fascinating documentary The Punk Singer (a film about Kathleen Hanna), Corin Tucker of Heavens to Betsy and Sleater-Kinney fame quotes snippets from “Feels Blind.” When referring to the line “Look at what you have taught me/Your world has taught me nothing,” Corin had this to say: “The way Kathleen delivered that line was so angry; it was so outside the realm of how a young woman was supposed to act—really raw.” Corin’s partner Carrie Brownstein shared similar sentiments about the song with Spin magazine:

I remember being very struck by the lyrics of “Feels Blind,” remembers Wild Flag and Sleater-Kinney guitarist Carrie Brownstein, “‘As a woman I was taught to be hungry / Yeah, we could eat just about anything / We’d even eat your hate up like love.’ It was the first time someone put into words my sense of alienation, the feeling that all of these institutions and stories we’d been taught to hold as sacred had very little to do with my own experiences.”

The song knocks me out, too, especially during the passages when Kathleen abandons the Valley Girl and goes into full belt-out mode in the chorus. That, my friends, is power personified:

All the doves that fly past my eyes
Have a stickiness to their wings
In the doorway of my demise I stand
Encased in the whispers you taught me

How does it feel?
It feels blind
How does it feel?
Well, it feels fuckin’ blind
What have you taught me?
Nothing
Look what you have taught me
Your world has taught me nothing

If you were blind and there was no Braille
There are no boundaries to what I can feel
If you don’t see but were taught
What you saw wasn’t fuckin’ real, yeah

Doves generally symbolize peace and hope, but in a woman’s experience, there’s always a catch that gets in the way of full flight, frequently dashing hope and any sense of inner peace. The “stickiness” consists of all the “yes, buts” and “girls don’t act like that” and disapproving looks by the majority who subscribe to the belief that women by their very nature are limited creatures. The whispers could be a combination of the self-talk women engage in as they encounter a world that bears no resemblance to the illusions painted by mom and dad, or the useless advice from parents and elders trying to get women to passively accept their lot as second-class citizens.

It helps that “Feels Blind” is one of the strongest band performances on the album, and despite a lack of supporting documentary evidence, I’m going to go out on a pretty sturdy limb and tell you that the arrangement bears more than a trace of Pixies influence. The song begins with a lengthy, clean bass solo where Kathi Wilcox channels Kim Deal; the arrangement adopts the soft-loud dynamics the Pixies made famous; the dissonant noise from the guitars would fit nicely into several Pixies song (though I don’t hear any Joey Santiago in the lead guitar). The great differentiator is Kathleen’s stunning vocal performance, an all-time favorite that I call up whenever I need music to clean the crap that has collected in my soul as I navigate through the world of male entitlement.

The EP section of the album ends with “Thurston Hearts the Who,” a live performance where Tobi Vail reads a negative review of a Bikini Kill while Kathleen sings a song (such as it is) about the dangers of identifying yourself with an indie rock idol (in this case, Thurston Moore, lead guitarist of Sonic Youth). Let’s just be polite here, call it an “interesting art piece that could have benefitted from further development and move on to the stuff from Yeah Yeah Yeah Yeah.

The recording quality on Yeah Yeah Yeah Yeah wasn’t the greatest, and the band feels a bit uptight at times, but the grrrls manage to get in more than a few good licks. “White Boy” is a simple, lo-fi, demo-quality production saved by an introductory mini-interview and Kathleen’s bitter, sarcastic response:

[White Boy:]  I don’t think it’s a problem ’cause most of the girls ask for it.

[Kathleen:]  Uh huh, how did they ask for it?

[White Boy:]  The way they act, the way they… I… I can’t say the way they dress because that’s their own personal choice.  Some dumb hos, those slut rocker bitches walking down the street, they’re asking for it, they may deny it, but it’s true.

Translation: White boys are remarkably fortunate that the creator endowed them with psychic powers. The ability to read a girl’s mind—-nay—to know a girl better than she knows herself has come in handy in many a rape defense. In response, Kathleen refuses to pull any punches:

Lay me spread-eagle out on your hill, yeah
Then write a book ’bout how I wanted to die
It’s hard to talk with your dick in my mouth
I will try to scream in pain a little nicer next time

How very thoughtful of her! Kathleen also realized she would get some pushback for calling out our precious, entitled white boys, so with great foresight she included an apology in the song:

I’m so sorry if I’m alienating some of you
Your whole fucking culture alienates me
I can not scream from pain down here on my knees
I’m so sorry that I think!

I’d bet you a million euros that the white boy who appeared in the intro would “read” Kathleen’s response as a woman begging for a man to put her in her place. Guys! Leave the cat-and-mouse shit for Tom and Jerry and grow the fuck up!

“This Is Not a Test” is our assurance that the members of Bikini Kill were indeed human and capable of fucking up. The song’s message takes forever to develop, and when it finally arrives, it’s in the form of adolescent defiance: “You don’t make all the rules!/I know what I’m gonna fucking do/Me and my girlfriends gonna push on through/Riot Grrrl gonna stomp on you.” I really don’t think the riot grrrl movement needed an official rally song, and if they did, this sure as shit wasn’t it. The band is seriously off the mark, struggling with the stop-time moments and unable to maintain a consistent tempo.

Before we get into “Don’t Need You,” I want to go two steps back, highlight a line from “White Boy” and garnish three words with bold type: “I’m sorry if I’m alienating some of you.” Bikini Kill weren’t a group of rabid man-haters; they simply had zero tolerance for assholes of any gender. Kathleen Hanna dated Dave Grohl and later married Adam Horovitz of the Beastie Boys; Tobi Vail dated Cobain; Kathi Wilcox married Guy Picciotto of Fugazi (and obviously, they featured a man on lead guitar). What they collectively rejected were the twin notions of male-as-protector and female-as-dependent, and that’s what “Don’t Need You” is all about:

Don’t need you to say we’re cute
Don’t need you to say we’re alright
Don’t need your atti-fuckin’-tude, boy
Don’t need your kiss goodnight

Wow!
We don’t need you
We don’t need you
Us girls
Don’t need you

Don’t need you to tell us we’re good
Don’t need you tell us we suck
Don’t need your protection
Don’t need your dick to fuck

Wow!
We don’t need you
We don’t need you
Us whores
Don’t need you

Does it scare you
That we don’t need you?

The only men likely to be scared by this message are those who believe that keeping a woman down is essential to masculine identity. Truly secure men would embrace female independence because it’s much more validating when a woman chooses to be with a man instead of just submitting to societal expectations. The band is much tighter on this piece, featuring Tobi pounding away with enthusiasm and establishing a beat so strong that it’s impossible for the others not to fall in line—you get the sense that the group really felt this one.

Kathleen Hanna supported her budding musical career by working as a stripper, a choice that caused some second-wave feminists to feel rather uneasy:

She attended a talk by Andrea Dworkin on the evils of pornography, and she went to a meeting in Seattle of the Feminist Anti-Censorship Task Force (FACT), but she felt out of place at both events. Dworkin, the intellectual architect of an antiporn orthodoxy that was the most well-known strain of feminism at the time, took the view that all sex workers were victims of patriarchy. Kathleen worked as a stripper, and she considered it a choice she had made freely; she liked to tell people that it felt no more degrading than working as a waitress, and it paid a lot better. When she brought this up during the Q&A, Dworkin’s response left Kathleen in tears. “To her, feminism and sex-trade work were diametrically opposed conceptions,” Kathleen recalled. “She said, ‘Oh! I appreciate you coming out and saying this in front of all these people. And I just want to tell you that if you think this experience has not affected you, I want you to know that it’s going to affect the whole rest of your life. You’ll be paying for it forever, blah blah blah.’”

Marcus, Sara. Girls to the Front . HarperCollins e-books. Kindle Edition.

Those were the feminists Camille Paglia called out for having a “Nazi and Stalinist view of art, where art is subordinate to a pre-fab political agenda.” And although I’m not much of a fan of her music, I agree with Paglia that Madonna pretty much destroyed the argument that a woman who chooses to openly manifest her sexuality surrenders her power. In “Jigsaw Youth,” Kathleen defends the right to reject such judgmental dogma and follow your own path:

I can sell my body if I wanna
God knows you’ve already sold your mind
I may sell my body for money sometimes
But you can’t stop the fire that burns inside of me . . .

We know there’s not one way, one light
One stupid truth

Won’t fit your definitions
Don’t fit into your dumb plans
Not into win/lose mentality
Won’t meet your demands

Once again, the band is on fire here, with strong power-chord guitar supporting the equally hard stance in the lyrics. Ironically, Kathleen delivers the song in her Valley Girl style, as if she’s mocking the Andrea Dworkins of the world who considered her a helpless idiot.

The belief that there is more than one path in life available to a woman is given further emphasis in “Resist Psychic Death.” I have no problem with the message of refusing to submit to cultural repression of women (“I will resist with every inch and every breath/I will resist this psychic death”), but the performance feels both stiff and choppy, particularly when the band attempts a tempo change and doesn’t quite pull it off. I can understand why the song earned semi-anthemic status when first introduced, but I don’t think it aged well beyond the urgency of that particular moment.

“Rebel Girl” is probably Bikini Kill’s best-known song, and yes, the version on Pussy Whipped may sound better to those who prefer greater refinement. I like them both because Kathleen Hanna kicks ass on both versions—flipping back and forth between the two as I review the song has been a thoroughly pleasurable experience . . . so much so that I had to wash my fingers before I was able to type this sentence. I will say that the version here has a touch more sassiness to it, a feeling that probably comes from the rougher guitars and less filtering on Tobi’s drums.

The foundation of the song involves two uniquely female behaviors—and I mean learned behaviors, not DNA-programmed behaviors. The first is that women are always checking out other women, and that checking out always starts from a competitive orientation. The second arrives when the emotional intelligence kicks in: the competitive fire cools, we reach out to the former object of our envy and seal the friendship by exchanging clothing. Heterosexual guys don’t really check each other out with the thoroughness manifested by heterosexual women, probably because they’re terrified of being tagged as gay. And I’ve never heard of heterosexual men showing each other their wardrobes and saying, “Oh, you’d look really nice in this oxford button-down.” If a straight guy lends another guy some clothing, you can bet that it’s only because the man in need has vomited all over the duds he was wearing. For women, “I don’t have anything to wear—can I borrow that patterned sleeveless of yours?” is a bonding experience, an affirmation of close friendship. Sharing clothing is also a financial necessity because women’s clothing is far more expensive and most of us can’t afford a new dress every time we want to do some high-class clubbing. You’re not going to lend your special occasion duds to just anyone—you have to trust the borrower enough to have confidence that she won’t return a pile of rags that smell like the floor of an Irish pub.

Now, I don’t have any scientific evidence to support this, but my sense is that because girls are always checking each other out and checking out bodies in particular (ostensibly for fit, but that’s crap), it’s easier and more comfortable for women to take the next step and engage in displays of physical affection (air kisses don’t count). Having armed you with fact and reasonable theory, we can now explore “Rebel Girl.”

The song opens with classic female competitive envy that turns into idol worship in about ten seconds:

That girl thinks she’s the queen of the neighborhood
She’s got the hottest trike in town
That girl, she holds her head up so high
I think I wanna be her best friend, yeah

What motivates Kathleen to take the next step is not the trike but the way “she holds her head up so high.” That orientation might earn her the “stuck-up bitch” label from those who resent her confidence, but for Kathleen, there lies the attraction. The girl expresses confidence and pride—and in the context of the patriarchy, that makes her a rebel.

Rebel girl, rebel girl
Rebel girl you are the queen of my world
Rebel girl, rebel girl
I think I wanna take you home
I wanna try on your clothes, yeag

Here the clothes exchange involves trying on a new identity, something traditional women do on a much larger scale. When her crazy schemes fell flat, Lucy Ricardo’s fallback plan would invariably involve a new dress or hat. India Adams sang, “There’s nothing like a new man to make you feel like a new dress” in “It’s Silk,” underscoring the importance of apparel to self-esteem. Here the girl is trying to assimilate the rebel girl’s confidence by trying on her clothes; the “I think” indicates some trepidation about taking that big step into rebelliousness. Feeling a bit shaky, our heroine feels the need to justify her admiration and literally comes out in favor of total rebellion:

When she talks, I hear the revolution
In her hips, there’s revolution
When she walks, the revolution’s coming
In her kiss, I taste the revolution

Sara Marcus wrote, “With this incantation, the girls raise the shade of the role model, the someone they’ve been longing to see. The intensity of their desire, the power of that projection, conjures her into the room. The invoked apparition sharpens, focuses. They make of each other that girl. They make her themselves.” Viva la fucking revolución!

The album closes with the comparatively subdued “Outta Me.” This is clearly a demo quality take with an arrangement that needed some work, but the song itself has enough potential to make me wish they would have revisited it. You rarely hear full chord strumming on a Bikini Kill record, and though the sound is scratchy and rough, it demonstrates that the song could have used a full acoustic arrangement a la Ani DiFranco to support the breezy melody while maintaining the bite.

Although the #MeToo movement and the recent upsurge in domestic violence attributed to the world-wide lockdown tell us that the problems women face are as widespread as they were in the early ’90s, no one can say that Bikini Kill did not change lives and raise consciousness despite the limitations of indie distribution. In the documentary The Punk Singer, Kathleen Hanna talked about how her audience was not the music consumer but the teenage girl sitting in her bedroom at night, writing in her diary, wondering why her parents told her “You can be anything you want to be” when her daily life consisted of blocked paths and harsh judgments—judgments that had nothing to with her brains, compassion or the content of her character, but everything to do with her physical appearance. This one-bedroom-at-a-time approach to revolution may seem like a longshot at best, but before you reach that conclusion, I suggest you take a trip over to The Bikini Kill Archive and read the responses to the invitation on that page: “Please add your Bikini Kill story to this blog! It can be totally off the top of your head and doesn’t need to be fancy. Maybe it’s your reaction to a song we wrote, something weird that happened at one of our shows, a personal anecdote or just WHATEVER.” Some of the contributors heard Bikini Kill in their prime, but a surprising number were toddlers in the ’90s and only recently discovered the band. Here are a few of my favorite responses:

  • “Since I was born I was raised to suck in my stomach and not talk until spoken to, Bikini Kill taught me to say fuck it and take no shit from anybody. They still help me through the days and I could thank them every day for it.”
  • “I live and study in the small town in Central Europe where feminism is still some weird concept that many women despise because of the demonizing image of the feminists by the media. But I am doing my best to educate them, I show men why feminism is important to them as well. I am still angry, but I’m making a change with my anger.”
  • “After leaving a violent and psychologically abusive marriage, I crank up BK and it takes all the self-loathing and shame for simply being a woman all away.”
  • “I was sexually molested for several years by a neighbor when I was just a little girl. It tore away my self-respect and confidence at an early age and I was terrified to be around guys who weren’t family. I didn’t know how to channel my anger and shame. Bikini Kill lyrics and Kathleen’s voice also carried me through a very emotionally abusive relationship that I couldn’t find the strength to get out of until I found empowerment through music. I truly love Kathleen for everything she’s done for my mind.”

Pretty powerful stuff, but the one that moved me the most came from a man:

Listening to them opened the door to the Riot Girl movement and I learned about feminism and overall treating women with respect and dignity. It was a confusing time period for me because I didn’t have any father figure and a lot of what I was learning about being a man came from what I saw and read. I believe learning about feminism at such an early age taught me how to be a better man and now a better father for my daughter.

Beautiful . . . and painfully relevant today. We live in a world where misogyny is entrenched, where domestic violence continues unabated, where rape and sexual abuse remain sanctioned by the powers that be. Daughters need all the support they can get to navigate such a confusing and often cruel reality.

Fortunately for daughters (and fathers), Bikini Kill is back, having launched a US tour that was unfortunately suspended by COVID-19 but is now rescheduled for the fall (keep your fingers crossed). Even Rolling Stone has joined the party, publicizing their return in the appropriately-titled article “Bikini Kill Is the Band the World Needs Now” by Brenna Erlich (status: female). I can’t guarantee a splendid time for all, but if you’re lucky enough to scoop up some tickets before they disappear, the experience might just inspire you to do more to make our world a safer place for women.

Go to next review in series: Exile in Guyville, Liz Phair

The Cure – Disintegration – Classic Music Review

As I was reminded after reading the Aaron Cooper-Kendon Luscher I (Don’t) Hate That post on Bearded Gentlemen Music, there aren’t too many bands as polarizing as The Cure.

Well, there’s Oasis. I happen to like Oasis very much, but I can understand how people can be turned off by the Noel-Liam bullshit and their unbridled cockiness. I dismiss the complaints lodged by Oasis-hating Baby Boomers who see them as a.) third-class Beatles imitators or b.) having Beatles-level pretensions. The Gallagher Brothers have openly acknowledged their admiration for The Fab Four, and whenever an old fart tries to tell me they’re trying to imitate The Beatles, I respond coolly, calmly and confidently: “Show me the harmonies.”

It’s harder to nail down why some people abhor The Cure. I’m sure there are a few insecure male assholes who don’t like guys wearing make-up, but that demographic doesn’t seem to be too vocal about it. There are people who can’t stand the sound of Robert Smith’s voice, but that’s a matter of personal taste. Robert Plant is considered one of the greatest lead vocalists in rock history, but I can only stomach him for about five seconds. The two most common charges brought against The Cure are:

  • They’re too goddamned depressing.
  • They’re too goddamned emotional.

They’re too goddamned depressing. It’s true that their earlier “gothic rock” albums were rather gloomy affairs, but you have to consider the world their generation inherited: “NO FUTURE!” Whaddya want, Tony Orlando and Dawn? Those early 80s albums were released during a period of massive unemployment and Margaret Thatcher. That’s enough to depress anyone with a brain. Robert Smith and The Cure chose to explore the phenomena of fragile relationships and existential isolation in the context of a world that forever seems on the brink of self-destruction. That’s not depressing—that’s reality. According to WHO, there are 300 million people who suffer from depression, and Robert Smith happens to be one of them. Depression, like most mental health issues, remains a dirty little secret that makes it all the more difficult to control; hearing someone acknowledge that reality in song forms the all-important message, “You are not alone.” If The Cure sounds depressing to you, you may want to get an emotional intelligence checkup and ask the doctor to run some tests on your empathy levels. I suspect that part of what drives this criticism is the expectation among too large a swathe of the human race that music is something that should cheer you up and make you feel good. Truth: Life is wonderful. Truth: Life sucks. Wait! The ghost of Frank Sinatra just dropped in to leave us a message: “You can’t have one without the other.” Get over it.

They’re too goddamned emotional. Yes, occasionally Robert Smith lapses into the “I fall upon the thorns of life! I bleed!” excess that made T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound hate Shelley with a passion. Sometimes his lyrics feel emotionally indulgent and fail to empathetically connect with the listener. Robert Smith is an introverted, emotional-intuitive kind of guy, so you’re going to get some excessive bleeding from time to time. What I find most impressive about his work is that he is a man who openly shares his emotions, something little boys growing up in masculine societies like the USA and UK are programmed to avoid. The world is in deep doo-doo right now because the dominant players are men whose only recognizable emotion is anger and their M. O. in response to a problem is a defensive denial of any trace of vulnerability so that no one can call them “soft.” Personally, I think a lot of men are confused about the hard-soft thing, believing “hard” is always good and “soft” is always bad. Let me simplify things. Hard cock = good. Hard soul = bad. Soft cock = bad, but I still love you and don’t worry, you’ll get another turn at the plate. Soft soul = beautiful.

Robert Smith had been openly encouraging displays of male vulnerability from the get-go, starting with “Boys Don’t Cry” way back in 1979. Ten years later he was feeling vulnerable again because he was about to turn thirty and believed that all the great rock masterpieces were written before the composers exited their twenties. Though his hypothesis pretty much holds up (depending on how you define a masterpiece), I still thought his dread of turning thirty was a silly, culturally-induced overreaction until I read a quote of his published on Don’t Forget the Songs 365: “The essence of this album is the disgust concerning the loss of the ability to feel profound feelings when you grow older. That’s the disintegration I mean. I’m concerned about it, just as about everybody else I know of my age.” While I personally know several exceptions to that hypothesis, I do know a lot of people (especially those in business) who should be called out for this tendency in strong, Vonnegutian language: “You’ve crawled up your own asshole and died!” Burdened with greed, debts, responsibilities and the nine-to-five, people tend to get serious, and when people get serious, their emotional range tends to shrink to include only reactive anger, frustration and exhaustion.

The approach of what he considered old age triggered Smith’s depression, which in turn gave his writing a sense of urgency peppered with pessimism. He felt very strongly that if he was going to write his magnum opus before the clock ran out he needed to move away from the pop orientation that marked most of the singles as well as the previous album (Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me) and play to his strengths instead. “Write about your experience, write about what you know,” says the archetypal English professor at the start of Creative Writing 101, and Robert Smith experienced the world through the dual lenses of emotional sensitivity and depression.

The result was Disintegration. Most critics (and Smith, to some degree) viewed the sonic flip-flop as a return to the sound of that goth classic, Pornography. Er . . . no. Pornography is an aggressive, in-your-face experience that never lets up; Disintegration is more reflective, more sonically diverse and frequently quite beautiful. As is often the case when attempting to establish atmosphere, the chords are relatively simple throughout, lightly enhanced through slight variants and different voicings. Though there will always be a tendency for some people to interpret Cure music through a unifocal lens of dour and morose, the songs on Disintegration feature a wide range of profound human emotions, and to appreciate that aspect of Disintegration, I would urge listeners to rid themselves of the belief that feelings have to be “either/or.” Haven’t you ever been happy and sad at the same time? Or excited and scared? Why do we cry when the movie has a happy ending? Disintegration is best appreciated when you can hold the notion of simultaneous opposing emotions.

So let’s get on with it! Please note that I’m reviewing the original vinyl release that does not include the bonus tracks on the Elektra CD issued in the United States (“Last Dance” and “Homesick”).

“Plainsong” serves as the overture to Disintegration, establishing the overall mood and tone of the work. Following a rising chorus of cascading wind chimes, a cymbal crash snaps you out of your brief reverie and you immediately find yourself enveloped in the circumambient sound of grand synthesizer and deep, reverberating bass that form the memorable central motif. Though the sheet music will tell you that “Plainsong” is structured around standard pop chords (C, F, G, Am and Dm) played in 4/4 time, the rhythm is anything but metronomic due to a composition that mingles three distinct rhythmic variations: Simon Gallup’s expanding whole-note bass part to establish the foundation; Roger O’Donnell’s use of frequent dotted notes and ties to force the melody beyond the measure; and Boris Williams’ syncopated drum attack that moves on and off the expected beat. The combination of all that rhythmic tension creates leading notes and beats that make for a subtly thrilling musical experience, dramatic without going overboard and surprisingly uplifting. After several measures of that glorious sound, a guitar solo is introduced to the mix, adding a fourth rhythmic pattern featuring bends and miniature slides. Your initial impression is “detuned guitar run through a flanger and a tonal-shifting pedal,” but nope . . . a reliable thread on Gearslutz identifies the instrument as a Fender Bass VI played high up on the fretboard using the fifth and sixth strings. As noted in the thread, this approach gives the solo a unique timbre that I would describe as magical and melancholy, words that also describe the overall feel of the piece. If you still have a hard time believing it’s a bass, watch last year’s live performance at the Sydney Opera House.

The 6-string bass solo begins as a counterpoint to the main melody produced by the synth, but eventually and oh so smoothly introduces fragments of the main melody into the mix while the synthesizer takes a short break. This is the cue for Robert Smith to enter with the lead vocal at the 2:40 mark and your first impulse might be to reach for the volume knob so you can actually hear him. Leave the knob alone. “But I can’t understand what he’s saying!” you protest. LEAVE THE FUCKING KNOB ALONE AND TAKE IN THE FULL EXPERIENCE. The synthesizer now takes center stage with that powerful, alluring motif while the human voice is reduced to a series of faint echoes, slightly distorted snippets of human fragility. You hear fragments of words and partial phrases—“dark,” “rain” “wind,” “end of the world,” “cold,”—and get the impression that the voice is struggling to make itself heard through the distorted meteorology of a storm. As the six-string bass leads us into the fade, shimmery sounds blend with synthesizer and bass to gently guide the music to a tear-inspiring crescendo.

Okay, NOW you can look at the lyrics:

I think it’s dark and it looks like it’s rain, you said
And the wind is blowing like it’s the end of the world, you said
And it’s so cold, it’s like the cold if you were dead
And you smiled for a second

I think I’m old and I’m feeling pain, you said
And it’s all running out like it’s the end of the world, you said
And it’s so cold, it’s like the cold if you were dead
And you smiled for a second

Sometimes you make me feel
Like I’m living at the edge of the world
Like I’m living at the edge of the world
It’s just the way I smile, you said

Well, there you have it—you really didn’t need to read all that, did you? The message was pretty much in the music. The lyrics do illuminate the tendency of Brits to engage in black humor, which would have been difficult to replicate musically within the context of an essentially beautiful composition. The mystery for most people is why Smith’s companion smiles when it’s all dark and dreary. Lucky for you, I have relevant experience in the matter. This is the picture my father selected for the post he wrote about me a few years back:

What am I wearing? Every piece of winter clothing I owned over three layers of whatever I had in the suitcase. What’s that white stuff? Snow! What’s that on my puss? A smile! Yes, I’m smiling, but beneath that smile is a latent murderess plotting the best way to croak my parents for convincing me to accompany them on a winter trip to the frozen tundra of the Midwest so my father could go to a fucking football game! In addition to feeling my sensitive skin crack in a million places due to the relentless cold, I’m feeling rage, resentment and . . . revenge! Then why was I smiling? Because it’s exciting to experience things I don’t normally experience, and feeling snow crunch under my feet was weird and wonderful for this California girl! I hated and loved every minute at the same time! I repeat: feelings are not “either/or.” Human beings are capable of experiencing multiple, contradictory emotions in the same moment, and that capability allows me to feel the range of emotions expressed in “Plainsong,” where the music inspires melancholy, fragility, appreciation (of the sheer beauty), curiosity, and somehow . . . validation . . . for being human . . . for being vulnerable . . . for being full of contradictions.

The song that followed “Plainsong” had to be somewhat more upbeat while not straying too far beyond the established mood, and “Pictures of You,” featuring a solid rock beat integrating the chimes, shimmery synth and the now-familiar phenomenon of a six-string bass guitar, certainly fits the bill by retaining textural continuity. The deviations from “Plainsong” are equally important, particularly the presence of an additional guitar and a generally assertive, passionate vocal from Robert Smith. The structure of the song is built around a drone in the key of A, established largely in the six verses that employ an A major/D major chord pattern. Six verses with the same chord pattern might seem like a recipe for dullsville, but Smith takes advantage of the melodic freedom inherent in the drone to vary the melody as well as the length of the verses. While the song has no chorus, there is a bridge after verse five where the pattern shifts to E major-D major to highlight the ever-present sense of “if only” in a Robert Smith composition. Robert! Remember the immortal words of Piaf! Je ne regrette RIEN! And though the seventh verse seems pretty much repeats the baseline melody, the chord pattern shifts to include a B minor chord in the second position and an A major voicing with C# at the root. This balance of stability (the drone) and variation (subtle changes) results in a song that flows so beautifully that when it’s over it hardly feels like you spent seven minutes and twenty-eight seconds of your life listening to it.

The lyrics take on greater importance than they did in “Plainsong,” with Robert Smith’s photograph-inspired reverie traversing the vital moments in a cherished relationship now lost. The first verse establishes both the power and danger of photographic memories:

I’ve been looking so long at these pictures of you
That I almost believe that they’re real
I’ve been living so long with my pictures of you
That I almost believe that the pictures
Are all I can feel

As alluring and comforting as an old picture might be, a photograph cannot possibly be “real” because human beings change; relationships often founder when one or both parties hang on to a picture of the other that exists only in a glorified past. The next four verses all begin with the word “remembering,” and it is only natural that most enduring images of a relationship are moments of shared vulnerability when the mask falls and the pain of inauthenticity bursts from within:

Remembering you running soft through the night
You were bigger and brighter and whiter than snow
And screamed at the make-believe
Screamed at the sky
And you finally found all your courage
To let it all go

Robert’s “if only” regret has to do with his inability to find the right words to connect with his companion in that moment of vulnerability. While I think his desire to help is admirable, self-blame isn’t likely to help matters much. In the end, I think Smith realizes that his pictures were the obstacle—his picture of himself as a wannabe savior and his picture of her as a person who needed what he had to offer:

There was nothing in the world
That I ever wanted more
Than to feel you deep in my heart
There was nothing in the world
That I ever wanted more
Than to never feel the breaking apart
All my pictures of you

Yes, “all my pictures of you” proved to be the problem.

“Closedown” continues the instrumental pattern of synth-bass-six-string bass and the musical pattern of a drone in the key of A, with B minor supplying the complement instead of D major. What’s different is the urgency of the rhythm section, with Boris Williams and Simon Gallup multiplying the beats to provide tension-filled contrast to the longer notes from the synth. The urgency expressed in the music is reflected in Smith’s limited lyrics, with the opening line “I’m running out of time” reminding the listener that the motivation behind Disintegration was his fear of getting old and cynical (or, “Out of step and closing down,” as he puts it in the second line). “Closedown” feels like the explanatory soliloquy you find in many a Shakespeare play—the extended aside that reveals the character’s true motives. As such, it serves as an essential piece of the composition.

I’m not so sure I’d use the word “essential” to describe “Lovesong,” though. The only virtue of the song that I can identify is that it puts those people who define The Cure as dark and depressing in somewhat of a bind, but other than the satisfaction of that “nyah, nyah” moment, it’s pretty much a garden-variety love song designed to appeal to the sentimental masses. The music is “wimpy 1980’s disco,” best served when the dancers need a break from the fake intensity of “Stayin’ Alive.” In the interest of fully disclosing any biases, my favorite love song is the Foo Fighters’ “Everlong,” the very opposite of the wet noodle sound of “Lovesong.”

Whether the song is an anti-tribute to Smith’s “druggy past” (not so much of a past, since it was reported he was using psychedelics during the development of Disintegration) or memories of a recurring nightmare (somewhat more likely), Robert Smith’s performance on “Lullaby” confirms his thespian ability to enter the soul of a character—in this case, a little boy who draws enormous pleasure from the fantasy of being eaten by an enormous spider. This isn’t as far-fetched a fantasy as it seems: a quick thumb-through of the endings to the tales peddled by the Brothers Grimm will tell you that many “bedtime stories” were designed to scare the shit out of kids so they would be more likely to obey their sadistic parents. From Wikipedia:

The Grimms’ legacy contains legends, novellas, and folk stories, the vast majority of which were not intended as children’s tales. Von Armin was deeply concerned about the content of some of the tales, such as those that showed children being eaten, and suggested that they be removed. Instead, the brothers added an introduction with cautionary advice that parents steer children toward age-appropriate stories. Despite von Armin’s unease, none of the tales were eliminated from the collection, in the brothers’ belief that all the tales were of value and reflected inherent cultural qualities. Furthermore, the stories were didactic in nature at a time when discipline relied on fear, according to scholar Linda Dégh, who explains that tales such as “Little Red Riding Hood” and “Hansel and Gretel” were written as “warning tales” for children.

It could have been worse, I guess—several of the originals were sanitized for publication. The original “Snow White” features the Queen ordering a lackey to kill the kid and bring home her lungs and liver so she could feast on them; “The Goose Girl” describes a “servant being stripped naked and pushed into a barrel studded with sharp nails pointing inwards and then rolled down the street.” Smith seems to be more of a Grimm purist than a Disney re-inventor, and the delight he expresses when the spider’s “arms are all around me and his tongue in my eyes,” captures the thrill that many people experience during a great horror flick. What really excites the kid is he can tune in tomorrow, same time, same place and watch it all over again!

And I know that in the morning I will wake up
In the shivering cold
And the Spiderman is always hungry

I guess when FDR said, “We have nothing to fear but fear itself,” half the country replied, “But we like to be scared!” Talk about holding contradictory feelings! “Lullaby” not only reaffirms that theme but does so with tongue-in-cheek playfulness. Most of the music follows another two-chord pattern (C# to A) with a shift to F# minor to A major in the coda, but the guitar plays the A7 chord, adding a touch of laid-back blues to caution the listener not to take the song too seriously.

“Fascination Street” is Robert Smith’s ironic ode to Bourbon Street. “I was getting ready to go there and I thought: what the fuck do I think I’m going to find? It’s about the incredulity that I could still be fooled into looking for a perfect moment” (Songfacts). Well, if your idea of a perfect evening is watching drunken broads display their tits on balconies and drinking Jello shooters, Bourbon Street is a plausible possibility, but Robert Smith doesn’t seem like that kind of guy. What he does manage to do with assistance from his mates is create an edgy, heart-throbbing soundscape held together by one of the most memorable bass parts on record. While the synths and guitars add the colorful decor, Simon Gallup’s bass captures the delightfully naughty motivations of the gawkers and barhoppers as they stroll down the street where anything goes. Smith does an equally commendable job of identifying the dynamics that drive this burst of carpe diem, a desire to let the puritanic world go to hell while also making sure you’re suitably dressed for the occasion:

Yeah I like you in that
Like I like you to scream
But if you open your mouth
Then I can’t be responsible
For quite what goes in
Or to care what comes out
So just pull on your hair
Just pull on your pout
And let’s move to the beat
Like we know that it’s over
If you slip going under
Slip over my shoulder
So just pull on your face
Just pull on your feet
And let’s hit opening time
Down on Fascination Street

Confirming the suspicions of long-time readers of this blog, yes, “Fascination Street” appears frequently on my fuck playlists.

My nominee for best intro on Disintegration goes to the oft-ignored “Prayers for Rain.” The song opens with a bagpipe-like drone that gradually builds to a supporting volume for the one, then two guitars playing a treble-heavy arpeggio in Am, Bm and D with random splashes of synth and piano in deep background. At about the thirty-three second mark you hear a sound building in the distance then WHAM! your ears are filled with stereophonic bass and synth at maximum volume. What follows is a consistent repetition of the chord pattern spiced with synth strings and six-string bass that will continue with appropriate enhancements throughout Robert Smith’s vocal. The lyrics describe one shitty relationship:

You shatter me your grip on me a hold on me
So dull it kills
You stifle me
Infectious sense of
Hopelessness and prayers for rain 

This is a classic case of a black hole affair where one party gets sucked into the other’s depression. Some depressives can be quite manipulative with their poor-me-I’m-a-victim stories, making the partner feel somehow responsible for their problem. As Smith notes, the impact on the partner is devastating (“I suffocate/I breathe in dirt”) and potentially toxic. You can find plenty of good and bad advice on the Internet on how to cope with your loved one’s depression, and it was wise of Smith not to go there. “Prayers for Rain” focuses on the real-life experience involving the collateral damage suffered by the partner, and Smith does an excellent job through the lyrics and his semi-narrated vocal to draw attention to that particular dynamic.

As the next track opens with the sound of falling rain followed by a burst of thunder, we can reasonably assume that prayers were answered and that there is some sort of connection between “Prayers for Rain” and “The Same Deep Water As You.” Robert Smith told Oor Magazine that the song “is about the expectations people have of you and how you can never live up to those expectations.” Barbara Ellen of NME came to pretty much the same conclusion: “‘The Same Deep Water'” is about somebody admitting that he is not up to ‘her’ depth of emotion and loyalty.” Those interpretations are confirmed in the opening verse, but the dominant metaphors involve the complex metaphor of water (life, death, journey, cleansing) as well as the confusion frequently triggered by unspoken feelings:

Kiss me goodbye, pushing out before I sleep
Can’t you see I try?
But swimming the same deep water as you is hard
‘The shallow drowned lose less than we,’ you breathe
The strangest twist upon your lips
And we shall be together
And we shall be together

The narrator is like the boatman pushing out to sea, alone; sleep is defined as an act of separation. Though he tries to imbue himself with her appreciation of “deep love,” it doesn’t seem that they’re on the same page. The “shallow drowned” line is a reminder of the risk and reward of a deeper love; it’s as if she is admonishing the narrator to try harder. He can’t fathom (sorry, that’s a horrible pun) her message, largely because it’s communicated in metaphors and facial expressions. It seems like she has some sort of arcane knowledge he struggles to divine, but it’s more likely that these two are not the kinds of partners who can communicate volumes with a fleeting glance. The repetition of the line “And we shall be together” feels like his insistence that their differences can be glossed over—after all, didn’t they just have great sex? He returns to that “proof” of intimacy in the closing verse:

I will kiss you, I will kiss you
I will kiss you forever on nights like this
I will kiss you, I will kiss you
And we shall be together

This is one relationship in serious trouble. Even the greatest fuck in the world won’t save it.

The agony of the song lies in the hard-learned lesson that you can be in a relationship and still feel terribly alone. The narrator can pretend all he wants, but his inability to interpret the meaning of “the strangest twist upon your lips,” combined with her inability or unwillingness to communicate in ways he can understand form a separation that guarantees they will eventually drift apart. And that’s what’s so painful—so close, yet so far; so pleasurable, so disappointing. The music is beautifully supportive of this agonizing dynamic, a slow dirge drenched in distance-creating reverb. “The Same Water As You” may be the longest song on Disintegration, but it is a tightly-crafted composition with palpable mood and poetically economical lyrics.

The guitar that dominates the opening of “Disintegration” and remains present throughout the song features a tone that eerily sounds like the ghost of Duane Eddy, and it’s fascinating to hear how that sound survived the decades and works perfectly in the band least likely to revive “Rebel Rouser.” Critical musing aside, the guitar is part of a fast-moving soundscape revolving around the unchanging chord pattern of C, D, Em, Em7 (the key is E minor). Repetitive chord patterns tend to be the stuff of “talkin’ blues” songs; here they provide Robert Smith a platform for his “scream against everything falling apart, and my right to quit with it when I want to.” (Oom interview) He describes his relationship with the music business, with his mates and with his fan base using the same language he uses in songs about relationships, but “Disintegration” is more-oriented towards “this is what I want/don’t want” than “what do we want/don’t want”:

But I never said I would stay to the end
So I leave you with babies and hoping for frequency
Screaming like this in the hope of the secrecy
Screaming me over and over and over

I leave you with photographs, pictures of trickery
Stains on the carpet and stains on the scenery
Songs about happiness murmured in dreams
When we both of us knew how the ending would be . . .

And now that I know that I’m breaking to pieces
I’ll pull out my heart and I’ll feed it to anyone
I’m crying for sympathy, crocodile’s cry
For the love of the crowd
And the three cheers from everyone

What’s curious about this title track is that it contradicts his own definition of “disintegration” in the context of the album: “the disgust concerning the loss of the ability to feel profound feelings when you grow older.” This is about his disintegration, and it’s a chosen disintegration—an act of rebellion against the bullshit, the lack of privacy and the enormous strain to meet other people’s expectations. Though there are many songs where rock stars bitch about their horrible lives in luxury suites and the cruel strain of obtaining pussy on demand, Robert Smith’s rant is far more personal and emotionally authentic. At the end of the song, I want to cry out, “Good for you! Free at last!” And because he uses the language of interpersonal relationships to describe his predicament, his fuck-all solution reminds listeners that we all have “the right to quit with it” (a bad relationship) when we want to.

The vinyl album closer begins with the sound of grandma’s church organ playing a few introductory measures before Boris kicks grandma the hell out of the studio with the pounding of his toms (don’t worry, grandma’s okay and she’ll come back for the coda). The music that responds to his cue features a simple descending guitar riff with a hummable melody, helping to balance the intensity of the drums and creating space for Robert Smith’s closing reflections. I don’t think I’ve heard too many closing tracks that summarize an album’s themes as well as “Untitled,” so I will quote in full:

Hopelessly drift
In the eyes of the ghost again
Down on my knees
And my hands in the air again

Pushing my face in the memory of you again
But I never know if it’s real
Never know how I wanted to feel
Never quite said what I wanted to say to you

Never quite managed the words to explain to you
Never quite knew how to make them believable
And now the time has gone
Another time undone

Hopelessly fighting the devil
Futility
Feeling the monster
Climb deeper inside of me

Feeling him gnawing my heart away
Hungrily
I’ll never lose this pain
Never dream of you again

The sense of unstable identity. Our complex relationship with memories. The sheer difficulty of emotional communication. The cruel passing of time. The demons inside. The pain of loss. These are all part and parcel of being human, including—no, especially—the endless contradictions. “Without Contraries is no progression. Attraction and Repulsion, Reason and Energy, Love and Hate, are necessary to Human existence.” Blake’s argument from The Marriage of Heaven and Hell could easily be applied to the essential meaning of Disintegration.

Life is heaven, life is hell, get over it and enjoy the ride.

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