Through vacant caverns, taught highways, vast corridors of empty sky; wading in the flotsam of the open-sewer bars that sprout like pustules on the forehead of this American land; they were half-stack turtles, Taurus-pedal falcons, spare-change composers telling stories of the place in space/time they had cornered. These days, the high-desert wind blows through the couplings of radio towers and windmill generators. Rivers run black or red or not at all. The cities of the past and the cities of the future bare witness to a temporal expanse as craggy and unsure as a slice of brown bread on the branch of a high tree. And from the spiraling regurgitations of one cerebral cortex, to the story of a capsized canoe off the coast of isolationist Japan, two psychedelic warriors wrote a dream while staring out the window of a blazing wan.
I met Tom and Colin in the Rec Hall at Rowe Camp and Conference Center in late July 2002. They had been playing as the U$AISAMONSTER for one year or more. I didn’t meet their bodies that day, but I touched their souls through a spiky slice of loudness poetry. “Trippa Bobippa” blasted-off the top of my skull and made manic love to my corpus callosum. I sat quivering and suppressing questions. My skin melted. The experience fulfilled a deep wish, like a myth retold by firelight at exactly the right time. It was music that emerged from my heart, simultaneously living above and below my body, and as complex and terrorizing as a rediscovered bottle of my mother’s ancient milk. Oh the taste! Sweet almond! Human liver paté!
At that minute, the band was only Colin and Tom. They had emerged newly streamlined from a fire tribe 200 deep, like a dog shaved to become a seal. Who knows how many people were actually in that band of “ye olde?” How many records did they release? And when? 1000? 10,000 years ago? I know the “truth,” because I visited their website, which has the answers to these and other exciting questions listed with bullet points. However, to my mind, it’s better to let the tower of their myth stand: a roving band of noise pirates tromping on highways paved by Jimi Hendrix’s guitar acid, a full ship’s compliment nestled in an awkwardly landlocked house in the South Carolina woods. Anarcho-peace-punk-reality-punching-list-lighters were they. But by the power of starlight and arcane ritual, they flared like a match, and 200 ghosts become just 2.
Everyone got that? The band was huge! But the dream was small. Then the band was tiny! But the dreams were bigger than the plains.
Hey look! They’re waking up! Good gods what a mess. They’re totally soaked. Dripping and dropping all over Joshua Tree and married to a big brown van. They look up: two falcons in flight, one circling parallel to the other, both parallel to the earth. Shale crags and Joshua trees to the east and west. Rocky scrub sand rising between Colin’s toes and dancing in Tom’s moccasins. Coyote pushes play on a black box in a silver-lined road case. Sparkling red and green LED orbs switch places. The acetate tenses imperceptibly and the flux flies. Coyote licks the sand from the rollers. Two hundred feet away, houses are lost in the wobbling images of air and road dissolving in space.
Crumble! Spirit brothers sing to careening specks of iron.
Follow crumbled highways made of black stone. (They are issuing a command. Prepare thyself mortal; the things that may yet be require stern stuff.)
Swaths left open where once tall trees had grown. (Not condemning or condoning. There was love in those trees that died, like Bothans, to bring our love to you.)
Painted symbol marks the hidden place. (In our time of reverent modernity, we are mistaken when we believe all the markers of the past are cataloged and accounted for.)
Overgrown pile of robotic waste. (Just as in the future, when all we leave behind will be mysteriously disappearing. Who came before? Who is coming?)
DAH NAH! DAH NAH! (THE RIFF!)
2003. I’m in the Rec Hall again. I returned a CD-R wrapped in blue paper and chopped plastic to Kieran and mumbled my amazement. “Trippa Bobippa” was a roiling caravan of sausage sages flipping on their hot tin roof in 200-degree Moscow. And buttered! But CRUMBLE? The sad exhale of universal wisdom, body bottled, branded, beaten, barred from the inside by macho “reality,” but still shining it’s light through the window? Hell YES! You can’t be truth salesmen. The truth is not for sale. You have to stop buying the truth. Stop buying; start dying. Our only goal to break even? Just break. The crack is how the light gets in. Love love love.
And so I fell in love. I was in a tizzy. I grabbed Anna Meyer and ran howling mad in a whisper to the meager music rig in the Rug Room. Wheeeeeeeeeee are still alive. Still alive. Still alive. Still alive still alive still alive still alive still alive. Patient symbols. Patient symbols? I hummed the melody I remembered to myself. Being born? Melodies are inarchivable. They change everything about themselves every time, so I struggle to keep the love in my head. It’s just love. Just love. Just love. I can and will do everything to everything be everything. Finally! I got the damn guitar plugged in.
Slowly, miraculously, the gates of heaven parted and we rebirthed the first riff, wet and misshapen but beautiful and ours. Fifteen minutes it took me to get that far, and another five to synch up with Anna. How important it was to hit all the drums at once. How important it was to SLAM the last two hits. DAH NAH! And how joyous to play it over and over and over. Kieran walked in and I got all embarrassed because I had a crush on the song. Our intimate moment together was suddenly plain to see.
Colin was, for me, a new kind of guitar hero and a punk prophet. He poured forth riffs as the gods of the past poured forth the rivers. His guitar was an angelic choir turned up to ELEVEN. He wrote the truth as a rejection of itself, yet also as an affirmation of its purpose by creating text that demonstrates the imperfect self as a word set falling into its own psychotic dissonance. Acerbic and vitriolic words making out with a cliff face, foisted upon a moist ego and dogmatic evil: the rant became transcendent when he saw equal importance in the fragility of pure want and the need to destroy institutional oppression. “Glued to my mind, staring at a flame, dirt on my desk; playing that fast make my old broken bones ache. Riled and wild, rollercoaster runaway freight rails of endless steel bodies: slaughter highways. Fate born of nothing: my favorite subject? My favorite subject is me, plain or buttered.” AND! “All the world’s leaders must die.”
It’s hard to imagine a songwriter being more existential with less deliberation. Here is Colin flinging his ego bullshit into the air as one throws mud to the sky in celebration. The result of his catharsis is that a histrionic political credo about killing the world’s leaders actually seems sane after he temporarily destroys his vanity by exposing it to the light. I say temporarily because he is also wise enough, as demonstrated by the tone of his voice when he says “plain or buttered,” to know that light is also what makes vanity grow.
Please note that, for the sake of conjoining personal narrative with a testament to the band’s virtue, I am skipping effective descriptions of my favorite songs of the albums Wohaw and Sunset at the End of the Industrial Age. Since you asked, they are “Tecumseh” and “Sunset at the End of the Industrial Age.”
Northampton, at the house Kieran and Eli shared by the railroad tracks. In a few hours, Otto would be outside and I would try to be masculine while I shook his hand. You can’t ever take that shit back. Will was tenting in the back yard. What a perfect gathering. Hi Tom. I’m Colin. Oh shit. It’s okay. He had no shirt on. It was 800,000 degrees too hot and his torso was bronzing red, chest hair bleaching blond, scalp radiating something beyond my comprehension, blond dreadlocks as long as the River down his back, standing seven feet-tall. When I stand up just straight, my eyes met his nipples.
I was there to mix a Corndawg record. Rumor had it that I knew Pro Tools pretty good. I still had a crush on his band. A thirsty, brutal crush reset ablaze by a performance at Boston’s The Baseball Tavern; a show which should probably just go ahead and become legendary already. His favorite subject was him. I was there for free, sitting on pins and breathing-in hard in the heat of the pioneer valley. In a few minutes, I thought, I’ll be the pilgrim: a pioneer into a scene I’ve wanted to taste for so long. The gates of heaven opened and sight #1 was a pubic wishing fountain. I took a long drink of the water and tried to steal change with my tongue.
Do Not Read: (Algorithms: I jiggered this mix method from David Moulton’s book Total Recording. Put a sine-wave generator in an Aux track. Play the song and sweep the frequency of the generator down until you find the spot where it resonates best with the bass instrument playing the I. Multiply and divide by 2 repeatedly to make a table of frequency centers for the key of the song in all musical octaves. Do the same process for the fifth above the key. You will use these tables, for the key and the fifth above the key, to apply additive equalization to every track.
Apply VERY narrow boosts of 6-8 dB on the fifth and corresponding octaves, and 3-8 dB on the key and corresponding octaves. Apply to all instruments. A few general rules: it produces unfavorable timbre if one overlaps equal boosts of the same frequency on multiple tracks; the bass instrument wants the fifth accentuated far more than the key; vocals want very little of this treatment at all; avoid boosting so much you can hear a tone, unless you are one of those types. This technique is most appropriate for songs that do not modulate key (though one can always automate a DAW equalizer to compensate for modulation, doing do is doubly tedious, because one must, in addition to programming the proper simultaneous movement of an equalizer’s filters, generate a new table of roots and fifths for the new key), or songs that have recorded punk as fuck. Richer microphones and better recording techniques tend to like subtractive EQ for eliminating bad resonance, because, though it will compromise the complexity of recorded timbre, it does so to achieve a purer, more natural-sounding harmony. The goal of narrow-additive EQ is to, in essence, force the instruments in the tune to resonate more, and in key. This creates a recording that makes it’s studio-ness obvious. When EQ of this type is placed in a processing chain before compression, it creates a soft, harmonious, and highly listenable bed.)
That part you didn’t read explains how I came to mix Space Programs. But I’m getting ahead of myself. All these words and I haven’t properly spoken about why anyone should care.
The USAISAMONSTER is the greatest band ever. I’m not writing ironically, sarcastically, or hyperbolically. I don’t believe in objectivity, and I don’t claim to fully understand the band. I haven’t listened to all their songs (all of Weedblood for example), and I don’t believe that they are as virtuous or majestic or brilliant or dangerous or prolific or worthy of the title I’m bestowing as Springsteen, U2, the Beatles, the Swans, Ray Charles, Public enemy, Irving Berlin, or Beethoven. But fuck all that. This is the letter of a true believer. “Greatest” isn’t a quality. It is the sensation of love objection. Though it is related, it is not dependant on greatness.
Not to discount the value of greatness; they were nearly Great. The band’s reach was world wide (they went around the world ten times as total unknowns. As I write this, they touring Europe to give thanks for years of exchange, and to play the six new songs from their upcoming last record), their music incomparable and incompatible, their art always in progress and never mastered. Sometimes they shut their third eye and hung a mirror inside the lid, gazing longingly at a psychotic hot mess of grizzly bears on Technicolor swing sets. Other times they opened the cover of a leather-bound America and set out in the field, like wise men teaching us to see the spirit of the land, to find water, to remember Polly Watson, or rekindle the fires of the Yurok. They played guitars, feet-keys, drums and voices with the same functions, same purpose of action, but shifting clarity. The drums could carry melody, and the guitar might make the beat. The tension of the band reaching beyond the limits of our imaginations and never perfecting its art is great in and of itself. The only thing actually stopping the band from greatness was a lack of largess, and one cannot blame a band so authentically weird for not gripping the attention of the masses.
The virtue of the USAISAMONSTER, the reason that I love them so, is that they played music of the fringe. But I’m talking about the fringe on a great jacket, not the fringe of society. This fringe originates in Pre-European America, it is fluid, in love with gravity, absolutely not austere, opposed to nothing, there to share but hard to come by, pleasing to those against seizing, far from the mainlines but linked to the common thread: a true alternative to the styles we know and understand. USA ISA posed a challenge to everybody, never got it exactly right, never entirely beautiful, and never successfully ugly. They were completely alive. They belonged to the listener, but were free to all. You and USA ISA cohabitated with art in progress. You lived beyond chance – there was no chance for us – but lived for love. Our only goal: to break even. Born in total love, they were young gods.
But if you need further proof, consider the following. The band wrote “No More Forever,” which is comprised of what Wagner and Angus Young once agreed is nothing less than the greatest riff ever written.
Now is when I bring up Space Programs. Specifically, I want to talk about the pinnacle of Tom’s songwriting as it has been brought to bear on record thus far&. The song “Tulsa” not only epitomizes the focal point of all his songs, the recitation of obscure histories as keys to a Tolkien-inspired paradise, it uses avant-garde music as an allegory for it’s dissection and reassembly of the concept of knowledge. (Whoa.) Tom relates three stories in a single, deliberate narrative. There is no beginning to the story because he starts by saying “I have a friend in Tulsa, OK.” which tells the listener that the story is already in progress. With his choice of synthesizer sounds and their chipper inflections, he sets himself up as a Wise Man bestowing the fruit of his years on eager pupils, avoiding cliché by relating his story in the casual manner of one telling an anecdote over a kitchen card game.
The last time he was there, his friend, a Muskogee Creek woman at a basement rock show, made a fire and discussed paranormal phenomena, stimulating his imagination, keeping him from sleep. Through the night he lay awake, recalling her grandfather cursing white men, hearing distant women laugh, his eyes locked on a hanging photograph. The picture was of Mose Wiley, and Tom stayed awake reading an article in which the man described the way of life he knew as a youth, and that is now mostly forgotten. Tom sings his story over a repeating synth/guitar counterpoint. The song affects astonishment because it is not about its product, but with its strident presentation is clearly worth the telling. It is about knowing, but not knowing what for. It operates without the guiding Capitalist principle that there is value inherent in knowledge. Value is connected with Want as a defining attribute of the ability to produce. What Tom deliberately leaves out is what a narrative like this one is supposed to produce: the Truth. The significance of knowledge, Tom suggests, is just beyond comprehension, because it only exists when we cease dividing it into categories like Truth or Of Value. Without these categories, knowledge is too vast for humans. Then Tom gives us a mantra. “Sometime, I’m sure; I’m really quite sure that the ob-scure images have a great significance. Ice burg tip, the hull of the ship: there’s an awful lot of love that’s got to make a little difference.” We can’t rely on our knowledge, he says. The Wisdom of the Wise Man is that we must allow our knowledge the freedom not to do, but to let love make the difference, because it is all that ever has. There is no end to the story, just the massive unfolding of implication.
Career Retrospective!: Man is the Bastard on mushrooms instead of crack; psychedelic punks play squealing anti-groove madness; psychobabble and Black Elk Speaks; the call of the wind and the voice of the water; strong and wise like a lesson, and it’s hard to listen; vision farther than far; no-wave nonsense; then I mixed Space Programs (what a fucking blast); the uber-rawk experience; double the size, double the fun; pieces of timber visible from the ice-bridge; prog as fuck; chanting chanteuse; flower child playing orca chorus; monitor-lizard king on speed; the wise man’s Staff of the Punx; story songs written by distortion; drunken brawl on the deep sea trawl; genre is useless; combos are useless; live sights; recorded slights. They are dead in the future. They will die no more forever.
I’ve never written a eulogy before. I don’t think, now that I’m tits-deep in this one, that they are very useful. I’m not listening to this bald, bedecked-in-black jackass with the tears anymore. I’m quietly remembering myself and my loved one, and what I’d like to remember but don’t, and also what I’m going to remember one day, but don’t right now. I made the whole thing up. But it really happened. My favorite subject is me, plain or buttered.
I’m dry as a bone. The rock at the headland of Calypso’s island is stained white under the salt of my tears. I love you I’ll miss you. And thanks to you, I’ll keep up the fight. I’ll see the stars when my eyes stop at the orange sky. I’ll see the wave of darkness running with wolves on the highway when the western power fails. I’ll use my third eye as a mirror to signal the jet ways: it’s time to be hawks again. I will remember Tecumseh, Joseph, the Okeepa, the manatee, the vipers and snipers in the corner shoveling shit. The love. Forever.
The Usaisamonster releases records through Load Records.
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