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The Flannel Swaddled Insomniac

CAT POWER’S CHAN MARSHALL AND GHOST WORLD’S ENID COLESLAW (AMONG OTHER POLTERGEISTY GIRLS) ARE LISTENING HARD TO YOUR INNER MURMUR.
DISCUSSED
Free-Floating Gravity, Enid Coleslaw, Gnostic Poltergeists, the Devil, Skip James, Clueless Dorks, Proto-decay, Bollywood Rock!, the March Hare, Lora Logic, Hieroglyphic Allegories, The Age of Irony and Information, Pet Pelicans, Alternatives to Peter Frampton, Phoebe Gloeckner, Creeps’n’slobs, The Virgin Spring, Chick Hearn, Oblivion
by Howard Hampton
Illustration by Tony Millionaire

The Flannel Swaddled Insomniac

Howard Hampton
9 Snaps

LATE SHOW

Half past midnight and a strange, ectoplasmic gust from the TV: an out-of-nowhere, out-of-body sound, a hum of self-effacing displacement. Its source is a stoic, private-worldly vocalist accompanying herself on piano who looks and sounds like nothing so much as the long-lost daughter of Neil Young and Nico—hello, cowgirl in the sandbox. Playing slow, seesaw chords, she feels her way through the music like a nursery-rhyme torch singer, with every careful syllable weighing whether she wants to be found or stay on the lam forever. Each hovering, halting note makes the hour grow much later—as though the singer came from a place where it is always four in the morning, a land of the permanent full moon.

This flannel-swaddled insomniac performs under the name Cat Power, a sobriquet fit for both a cult figure and an occult one, your neighborhood oracle reading life’s intestines as though they were the earliest known form of Braille. Not the sort of act you expect to see on television these or any other days, especially not following Bob Dole on the Late Show with David Letterman less than a week into the invasion of Iraq—a moment of unreconstructed culture shock. This is too quiet, too opaque, too intimate, too abstract: Something recessive and contrary in her voice draws you in and pushes you away in the same breath. “There’s a dream that I see,” she softly insists, and now the TV studio is gone, its place taken by the shadow of an undiscovered country, a new world or a buried one. Words hang in the air like fog over a bog: “Shake this land.” “We all do what we can.” “[N]othing to lose.” “We could all be free / Maybe not….”

The song turns in, doubles back on itself—not as some navel-directed gaze, but a vision shaped like a question mark. Equally striking/intimidating, there’s the sheer concentration of the performance, all of Cat Power’s ageless, free-floating gravity, as though the song’s ellipses harbored great undigested tracts of dark matter. What you hear then is not the sound of a singer singing, addressing an audience, conveying a particular set of meanings or some kind of message, projecting a version of herself outward. Rather, it is her listening hard to some inner murmur, leaning forward, trying to make out what that archaic, unaccountable voice is saying (“The turn of the tide is weathering thee”), patiently waiting for it to answer her.

PHANTOM EMPIRICIST

The stillness in Cat Power’s voice recalls another moment of listening, an absolute attentiveness to the call of the unknown: the scene in Ghost World (2002) where Thora Birch’s Enid puts a blues LP on her tiny record player and encounters Skip James’s “Devil Got My Woman” for the first time. In the span of less than a minute and a half, the movie measures the seismic impact of the song in seven briskly economical shots, a one-way passage from genesis to revelation. Fade-in from black on the phonograph needle as the record spins beneath it. Cut to Enid, fidgeting with her wet hair in front of her medicine cabinet mirror as the first crepuscular guitar notes register; briskly turning off the water, she turns round as James’s voice materializes. Medium shot of the bathroom doorway as she walks toward the sound, the camera dollying back as she takes over the frame, mesmerized. Then a short reverse angle over her towel-draped shoulder, looking at the now-totemic record player. Cut back to a shoulder-high, slow-motion pan over her features as she absorbs the music fully, the image returning to real time but her breathing, her heartbeat, remaining in suspension, as though the song has taken possession of her, but subtly, almost playfully, a hint of a smile passing her lips, her body entered not by some holy (or unholy) spirit but more along the lines of a Gnostic poltergeist. A tighter close-up of the stylus as James moans, “Nothing but the devil changed my baby’s mind.” Dissolve to the time-standing-for-still-life portrait of Enid lounging in front of the player in a thrift-shop print dress, only moving to pick up the needle when the record ends, putting it back in the groove to play it over again as she recrosses her legs and sinks back into her reverie: the vacuum of the world around her made solid and palpable, evidence of another, more interesting universe somewhere out there in the great beyond.

So the expression on the face of this smart, sardonic-cherubic, sub-suburban teenager is as inscrutable as the cadences of James’s measured, doom-scarred seventy-year-old blues. What form of identification is seeping under her skin, into her bones? The song is made of estrangement, a kind so deep and inescapable that it assumes the form of a pitch-bleak serenity. “I’d rather be the devil”—well, what teenager worth her pillar of salt wouldn’t? But there’s something more: the shadow play of the incorporeal and corporeal, the spectral hex cast by James’s voice and way it seems to turn his fatality into venereal flesh. “Devil Got My Woman” is metaphysical poetry as a visceral disease (or unease). Unless the condition is already present there, lying dormant inside your genes or your reality, just waiting to be triggered by a certain chord, a weird shift in rhythm, microtone scraping eardrum like a match on a barn door. Call “Devil Got My Woman” the embodiment of negative pantheism or a love letter from hell, but either way it proffers the lure of the open void. Make a wish: for an infinitely more alive existence or everlasting damnation, merely two sides of the same Janus-Judas coin tossed into the fountain of oblivion. James’s song evokes a world made of loss, doubt, and despondency, which seems to give Enid hope even as it crystallizes her incipient sense of amputation. The music is like the memory of a limb she never realized was missing, an absence that haunts her every dismayed step as she stubbornly trudges the streets, a stalker searching for signs of a life which has so far eluded her.

Enid is on the prowl, but hasn’t figured out what she wants (except that it’s the opposite of everything she’s grown up with). She returns to Seymour, the middle-aged record collector, garden-variety misanthrope, and “clueless dork” who sold her the album with the James track: “Do you have any other records like that?” Steve Buscemi’s Seymour responds to her naïveté with nervous, affectionate incredulity: “There are no other records like that.” And a beautiful, slightly insane friendship is born, the wary love of terminal misfits, a mutual recognition society tenderly blinded by its own desperation. (Both are drawn to eccentric artifacts, dispossessed curios, found anti-art, and a mirror-mirror nostalgia for that which can’t be assimilated by commerciality: “This is like my dream room,” Enid gushes when she’s admitted into his lovingly archived and assembled inner sanctum.) Enid’s an artist who doesn’t know it yet: Filling a notebook with a teenage diary in obsessive pictures, drawings both tossed off and elaborate, hers is a shadow worldview in the making. Staving off boredom amid a landscape of anonymous strip malls, adult bookstores, convenience marts, chain diners, multiplexes, coffee dispensaries, roach motels, and penal colony apartments, she keeps trying on and discarding various masks and costumes: junior miss, greenhaired punk vintage ’77 (cued to the Buzzcocks’ mewling pop smear, “What Do I Get?”), mock vixen (the leather batgirl-catwoman-dominatrix eyewear she wheedles Seymour into buying for her at the porno store).

Ghost World imparts its exquisitely disquieting sense of place in the way it details the impersonal, in the bleakly layered textures of sterility and proto-decay (thirty-one flavors of cul-de-sac), in the use of looming walls that turn the people in front of them into forlorn billboards, desolate pop compositions that feel like photorealist redrawings of sixties Godard and seventies Bresson—feminine/masculine dynamics and stiffly slouching, plaster-cast postures redolent of “The Devil Got My Woman, Probably.” Enid’s quest for something that will help liberate her from her surroundings is set off against vacant slabs of concrete and indifference. When we first glimpse her alone in her Dead-End Street room, she is wearing her graduation gown the night before the ceremony, dancing in front of her portable TV to a wild Indian rock number in a Bollywood video she’s discovered. The song, “Jaan Pehechaan Ho,” suggests a mad scientist’s distillation of every Elvis movie crossed with the impetuous garage mania of, oh, “Wooly Bully.” It’s a spellbound riot of surf guitar, dapper horns, suavely panting vocalists, zany choreography, and frenzied drums. This too is a sign of the difference Enid is after, the soundtrack to a fractured fairy tale, a “there are no others like that” record. She’s this bundle of inchoate impulses and contradictions in search of a grail that will show her the way to become her own author. Indian rock-a-hula and Skip James and Seymour are puzzle pieces in the crazy quilt of associations and affinities she’s putting together, arduously processing knowledge in order to work out her own logic of what it would mean to be free.

POPCORN VOID

Dig out a now-old record, a twelve-inch 45 with a label sporting a cheerful, vaguely ominous picture of a person wearing a huge plastic March Hare head. The needle kisses vintage 1979 vinyl, a tense, insinuating post-punk guitar hook appears, and then a young woman’s voice abruptly plunges into the middle of a lecture or a seduction or a gaping wabbit hole: “But basi-cal-auhhh, we are a-lo-ne / But you better pay attention to detail / Life ain’t gonna show at a retail pri-iiiii-ice.” Who, what, where is this coming from? She sounds like an urban cosmonaut, purposefully moving through the confined spaces of bedsit England with all the pent-up angularity of a Constructivist poster child. “Wake Up” is the nonnegotiable number’s title, but what kind of comrade is this call to arms hoping to find? Lurkers of the world, unite, you have nothing to lose but your chain stores? Maybe, but in any case that doesn’t account for the attraction of opposites running through the song’s blisteringly compressed two and a half minutes like a light brigade charge of ions. Drums and saxophones join the fray; the music keeps shapeshifting, instruments rise up and drop out, bass lockstep gives way to Tinkertoy soprano sax bleats, the singer’s voice serving as both moving target and surface-to-hare missile, a furious center that won’t hold still.

The song married a beside-itself delight straight out of “Jaan Pehechaan Ho” with a sense of unrelenting foreboding—foreclosure—worthy of Skip James, all in the person of an eighteen-year-old singer and saxophonist whose presence was as cryptic as it was emotionally lucid. Hers was the voice of the Cheshire cat that swallowed the canary in a mine shaft. “Warbling” was the term she used for her vocals, and it fit perfectly the sound of someone practicing in front of her mirror the night before her big day, making ready to storm the Winter Palace, single-handedly if necessary.

“I’m a cutoff sort of girl,” went “Quality Crayon Wax O.K.,” the lead track on other side of Essential Logic, the brief, eponymous four-tune EP which promptly vanished into the ranks of quasi-collectable obscurities. (Disney threatened to sue over the March Hare, whom it seems they’d managed to trademark, and the record was pulled out of circulation faster than you can say, “Mister Mike’s Least-Loved Bedtime Tales.”) But the cutoff girl, who had rechristened herself Lora Logic a couple of years earlier as the original sax player for the epochal punk band X-Ray Spex, was hardly daunted. The same year, Essential Logic next made a full-length album for Rough Trade, complete with rerecorded versions of “Wake Up” and “Quality Crayon Wax O.K.,” descriptively enough called Beat Rhythm News. Not as deliriously raw as its predecessor, it more than made up for it in the way Logic sustained, elaborated, and repositioned her ideas over the course of nine brazenly convoluted and mysteriously transparent songs. Though in actuality, they came across less like verse-chorus-verse per se than brain-flexing word-and-sound canvases, hieroglyphic allegories spun out in glottal falsetto and sotto chirp, beautifully irregular collages of timbre pressure drops, alternating currents and tempos, register quick-changes, and instant tonal mood swings.

“We’re in a room,” Lora Logic keened, “it doesn’t matter where.” Everywhere and nowhere, this was the modern world in its all-enveloping, willy-nilly emptiness and glory. In that room, sensations, apprehensions, and aspirations were crushed together like a run-on life sentence in the prison of the social. But inside, the girl cosmonaut took off her helmet and picked up a shovel: She became the archaeologist of her own reality, tunneling into its recesses, excavating a playground beneath the floorboards.

No one in pop music had ever used language quite the way Lora did on Beat Rhythm News—every phrase an adventure in syntax, each drawn or spat-out syllable a tactile tactic, block letter abstractions deployed like battalions engaged in serpentine flanking maneuvers, a churning mix of precocious flair and brilliantly ad hoc poetic technique. An ordinary expression (“Collecting Dust”) might be spun off into a series of topical variations (“Selecting rust…. molesting trust”) on entropy until alchemizing into a looping, phantasmagorical epiphany: “I was just in the bath when I started to laugh / I was cut half in half when I started to laugh.” Something like “Alkaline Loaf in the Area” is on the face of it a straightforward feminist anti-consumer tract (“Small girls must play with dolls,” etc.), but there’s a fundamental oddity to it that resists advancing a formulaic agenda, instead taking pleasure in tiny lyric-sheet homophones (“Will they marry Davis / Or live alone with peat?”) and the bluntly enigmatic way Lora declares, “We don’t have time for love at the moment.” (Triumphal annunciation or defiant regret, take your pick, though as with any Essential Logic number, either/or may not apply, and there is no money-back guarantee.) Consider her fastidious asymmetries and word playfulness as the invisible handwriting on Ghost World’s pointedly blank walls: “World Friction.” “Cheap, strange disorder rules.” “I’m not a thoroughbred puppet.” “His total end in society.” “Wow!! You’re such a lucky boy.” “There’s no hope to be had so I’m only ever me.”

Most of Beat Rhythm News has finally made it to CD on the new Kill Rock Stars compilation Fanfare in the Garden, along with assorted Essential Logic singles, B-sides, Lora Logic’s luxuriously squiggly discoid 1982 album Pedigree Charm, and a number of intriguing, unheard recent tracks. Missing for decades, Lora’s heroic teenage incarnation arrives in the Age of Irony and Information not a moment too soon, where she is just as happily not-at-home as ever—the universe is still crumbling, and her music is still a better noise. Eternally probing authority, she’s Dispossessed Girl, puckishly cutting through the cant of “Shabby Abbott” religion whilst trilling “Diesel injection of light / Medieval rejection of life.” But was the former line meant to indicate force-fed uplift or industrialized magic, the latter crabby hatred of the flesh or the coolest possible negation? (Was she baiting a Papal Bull or the church of Pope John Rotten?) There’s such a persistently swarming quality to her Essential Logic music, attacking a question from every cubist angle, limning the streaming consciousness of every “Popcorn Boy” and girl with casual rigor; her point of view always seems to be morphing into some new perspective, changing direction in mid-sentence, reversing the shot. (What does it say about her hermetically hermeneutic, made-up-from-scratch aesthetic that the radically piecemeal “Popcorn Boy” is also a sing-along, and its deconstructive pedigree isn’t out of Beefheart/Roxy Music but childhood faves à la T. Rex and Paul McCartney’s “Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey”?) In “The Order Form,” a resolute human-animal parable worthy of Kafka, our dear little Lora fills out a coupon to buy a pet pelican, so she can stare at him. She gets a self-freeing model instead of an albatross for a necklace, but before the happy-ever-after ending, there’s a moment where she gazes into her crystal ball and sees the bottomless pit. “To the packer, to the dealer,” she warbles innocently, as though tasting blood for the very first time: “Make sure this one’s a squealer.”

GIRL FROM A DIFFERENT WORLD

“Some people think little girls should be seen and not heard” is how Poly Styrene began the spoken intro to X-Ray Spex’s greatest record, and it might provide the preface (or the epilogue) to Phoebe Gloeckner’s impossibly harrowing and tender illustrated novel, The Diary of a Teenage Girl: “But I think, Oh bondage, up yours.” Gloeckner’s meticulously autobiographical 2002 book encompasses a year in the life of Minnie Goetz, who is roughly the age of Poly and Lora when they recorded that song. With entries beginning in March 1976 and concluding in March 1977, it occupies a parallel universe to X-Ray Spex’s quest for I-den-tity, though punk is still a couple of years away from Minnie’s San Francisco: There’s no definitive alternative to Peter Frampton concerts, just glitter-soul Bowie and transvestite runaways living for midnight showings of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. There’s no sign yet of the scene people like Penelope Houston of the Avengers and Debora Iyall of Romeo Void will make, but Minnie is an avatar of their intelligent, acerbic depth perceptions—where desperation and appetite served as home schooling for young ladies with independent miens.

In The Diary of a Teenage Girl, Gloeckner pays incredible attention to detail: It is the same attention that keeps “Little Minnie” alive and in one piece as she passes through a tilted world like an upside-down Victorian lass caught up in a progressively sleazier anti-Wonderland of bad sex, unrequited love, depression, alcohol, and crystal meth. “My introduction to love” sets the downward spiral in disastrous motion:

In all matter-of-factuality, it happened like this:

One night, my mother’s boyfriend, Monroe, let me drink some of his wine. We were sitting on the living room couch. My mother and my sister Gretel had gone to sleep. I got drunk and he kept putting his arm around me. “Look at that silly flannel nightgown,” he said…. “It makes you look like a little girl. But you’re fifteen right now Jesus Christ I can’t believe it it seems like just yesterday that I met you how old were you then? Eleven or twelve, right. Jesus Christ.” He sort of rubbed my breast through my nightgown but I was so surprised by what he was doing that even though I half-felt that it was rude and presumptuous of me to think he was doing this intentionally, I backed away because I didn’t want him to feel how small my breasts were.

“Rude and presumptious of me” is the heartbreaker, because the moral seriousness behind its mixture of literary formality and adolescent self-doubt seems so true to an embryonic voice trying to find itself, an in-way-over-her-head girl who out of sheer necessity is forced to become more mature than all the pathetic arrested-development cases—partying mother, creepish pseudo-stepfathers, the old shrink who helpfully gives her a vibrator to work off her sexual frustrations—posing as adults around her.

“A succession of jerks, assholes, criminals, creeps’n’slobs” is how R. Crumb characterized a goodly portion of them in his adoring introduction to Gloeckner’s A Child’s Life, a 1998 collection of her comics and artwork, many of whose drawn-from-life stories served as a rough punk draft for her Diary. An accomplished medical illustrator by trade, Gloeckner poetically dissects emotional states by combining disparate forms in a dense, overlapping manner—documentary novel, diagrammatic comic book panels, exquisitely crafted drawings (“The left side of my room;She’s strong but I know I beat the fucking shit out of her”), floor plans, lists (Little Minnie’s favorite movie: The Virgin Spring), doodles, scraps—all planted like so many sleeper cells in her conspiracy of the evocative. There’s no division of things into melodrama and the mundane, horror or longing, intensity and ennui, shame or euphoria: It all coexists in The Diary of a Teenage Girl’s “hipknifing whirl” as it does in damaged life, which is to say, life which hasn’t been socially or artistically sanitized for your sensibilities’ protection.

There are dual impulses at work in Gloeckner: to put you in the most immediate proximity to Minnie’s world, but also to see it in calm, philosophical perspective—seeing it from inside and outside at every juncture. But Diary neither seems fictionalized nor confessional as such, instead possessed of an unstinting devotion to simply getting things right, to doing justice to the meta-incongruities that crop up in the most unlikely and unjust places. (In the midst of a nightmarishly abused lost weekend on quaaludes, she reports having a grilled cheese sandwich that is the best melt-in-the-mouth thing she has ever tasted.) In contrast to a snapshot memoir like A. J. Albany’s recent Low Down: Junk, Jazz, and Other Fairy Tales from Childhood, the picturesque squalor is seen through less of a self-conscious “Tunnel Rat” viewfinder. As steely lovely as Albany’s book is, there is a whiff of hardboiled romanticism—the sentimentality of the would-be unsentimental—to its short sharp shock effects. You believe nearly every word of Low Down, yet it seems to weigh what the audience might be thinking, composing part of itself for the tourist trade, guiding the straight reader through a convincingly waxy museum of Hollywood lowlife. Diary doesn’t feel like it’s picking at old wounds or aestheticizing them, either, attempting some theraputic catharsis to get all that trauma out of her system. (Signing the 1993 comic “Fun Things to Do with Little Girls” as “Phoebe ‘Never gets over anything’ Gloeckner,” she used her earlier works to binge and purge all that well-earned rage.) It’s presented and framed with only its own terms in mind, using the languages of comix and coming-of-age as a springboard into an emancipation from the constraints of those preset languages, a head-down dive as far into pure experience as she can go.

“Disarmament, I give my arm to you,” Lora Logic sang from her own city of lost and found children, “[d]isenchantment, I made this chant for you.” Just as Gloeckner’s book is a gift to Minnie from her future self, Essential Logic’s music was a letter to the person Lora would become, perhaps the reflective woman “Under the Great City,” the sensible exile who will not be found out. On Cat Power’s You Are Free, “Maybe Not” is followed by “Names,” recalling missing-in-action casualties from the warzone of growing up. The song is suffused with regret, yet also with wonder and awe at the things we endure and sometimes prevail over in the course of trauma: Some are destroyed or just vanish, but Cat Power lived to tell. At the end of Ghost World, Enid Coleslaw gets on an out-of-service bus and disappears into the unknowable. In each of these misfit-girl works, the cost and worth of listening for that implacable inner warble is revealed, the immense difficulties of finding, cultivating, and holding on to it are made manifest. They are aimed not at the world at large but at their own private constituencies, all the few or the many Minnies and Enids and those maladjusted fellow travelers Enid ruefully refers to as “our people.” The tables are thus turned on the world at large, which is consigned to its very own “popcorn machine,” to borrow the late Chick Hearn’s pet phrase for oblivion (Enid: “Smothered in delicious yellow chemical sludge”). Escaping assorted fates worse than death, our heroines pursue a dream of freedom, the sound of their own voices. Out of the popcorn machine and into the line of fire, exceptional girls will heed the call of Lora Logic from long ago and once upon a time: “We are born in flames.”

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