Andrew Demcak on Eyeless in Gaza’s Photographs As Memories


I know what you’re thinking: Who? Eyeless in Gaza? Isn’t that an obscure Aldous Huxley novel? Yes, it is an obscure Huxley novel, but also one of the most underrated synth-pop duos to emerge from England in 1981. I first heard Eyeless in Gaza from my friend Diane, who was my pen pal I met through an ad she took out the LA punk ‘zine, Flipside, in 1986. I was an undergrad at CSU Long Beach, taking poetry classes, dying my hair neon fuchsia, wearing all black from head down to my pointy-toed boots. Diane made me a mix cassette tape of Eyeless in Gaza and I absolutely wore it out. What struck me most when I first heard Eyeless in Gaza was the voice of Martyn Bates, the lead singer. He used his vocal chords like an instrument: howling, shrieking, mumbling, singing, whispering. I had never heard anyone use his voice with such a range of complex sounds. And his lyrics were poetry. Eyeless In Gaza had albums with titles like: Red Rust September, Drumming the Beating Heart, and Kodak Ghosts Run Amok. What a vocabulary they used! Eyeless in Gaza was the music of a voice finding itself. And how much that appealed to me! I was still finding my own voice as well: a thread, a connection, a realization.

I remember driving up to Aaron’s Records in Hollywood to locate Eyeless in Gaza’s first album, Photographs as Memories. I parked somewhere off of Melrose Blvd on a bungalow-lined side street. On my walk over to Aaron’s, I found a crumpled wad of money ($21.00, to be exact) on the sidewalk. Oh, lucky day! Import records were so expensive! I was thrilled to locate their album in the import bin and I made my purchase. I rushed home down the Harbor Fwy. I was eighteen, and still living with my parents, but in a separate part of the house with its own bathroom, washer and dryer, and its own entrance (a Dutch door painted bright blue that opened on top and bottom.) It was my own, rent-free, mini bachelor-pad! I couldn’t wait to put the vinyl on my turntable and try out another new toy I had recently purchased: my first vibrator. (If you want to know more about that particular adventure read my novel, If There’s a Heaven Above.)

Immediately my favorite cut from Photographs as Memories was “Speech Rapid Fire,” with its pulsing synth tones and bass drone:

Speech rapid fire, profusion of words.

While you talk liquid fire, spoken, inferred.

Will bent on venom, run rotten with pride.

Yr verbose and yr swollen, broken inside.

License your malice with hidden endeavor,

silence emphatic, boxing clever.

Profile of damage eaten by spite,

yr occasioned to remonstrate, willful insight.

Indignant aptitude, labored and coy,

you are vehement discretion, aimed to annoy.

OK, so that doesn’t make a heck of a lot of sense, but as Robert Bly pointed out: Words need to travel through the brain to reach the heart, but music goes directly inside. This track did it for me. The simple melody, the repetition of language in the lyrics, the driving beat.

As a young gay man during the initial AIDS crisis of the 1980’s, it seemed very important to me at that time to harden myself. It was such a difficult period to be young and gay. Eyeless in Gaza were the kind of artsy, edgy Brit music that I needed. It was definitely not to everyone’s taste. I wore it like a badge, a symbol of my difference. I was not going to be another generic gay boy caught up in the Madonna club scene who got infected with HIV. I rejected the main stream of 80’s gay culture entirely. I had to.

When I listen to Photographs as Memories (on CD) now, I know that Eyeless in Gaza, to me, represented my new freedom, my new isolation. The majesty and terror of that moment crystalized.

Andrew Demcak is an award-winning author & poet. His new book of poetry, Night Chant, is forth-coming from Lethe Press in 2012. Check out his other work here: http://www.andrewdemcak.com & here: http://www.theandrewdemcak23.com He is listening to Wire’s awesome new album Red Barked Tree right now.

Jory Mickelson on The Cure’s Disintegration


Coming Out & Coming Apart

Plainsong

I can feel the heavy wash of synthesizers vibrating their way out from the scratchy foam headphones of my walkman, even though I haven’t played this album on cassette in over a decade.

Seventh grade, the album out for a year. These over-the-top synthesizers are the beginnings of my teenage angst. Don’t you know I am ratting my hair in rural America?

Pictures of You

Synthesizers give way to the ready and repeated strumming of guitars. The first song was all drowning, but this, this is swimming, kicking my legs, driving me upward.

I am on a school bus and the left side of my face presses into the textured green vinyl seat. The glass rattles in its square metal frames as the bus lurches down a gravel road.

I have stared at this landscape my entire life. It never changes. These mountains and trees and the river are fixed and certain. Geography as a kind of constellation.

Closedown

I am rising close enough to the surface to see how light ripples and distorts.

Not on the bus, but lying on my bed staring up at the ceiling at the poster of Robert Smith’s enormous orange lips. I don’t even know where I could find lipstick in that shade.

I let the music pool underneath me, raise me up, until I am floating just underneath those enormous lips. They consume my field of vision. Why can’t I stop thinking about another man’s lips?

Lovesong

The reedy synthesized flutes and violins. The first clear, undistorted strings of an electric guitar. Is this hopeful or just the memory of feeling hopeful?

This song has played on the radio for twenty years and will still be playing on some soft rock station twenty years from now. In the car, when it comes on the radio, passengers catch me singing along.

Last Dance

Back through the exotic curtain of heavy synth. This song was a placeholder, a resting spot between two others that I my friends and I sing along to.

Only years later do I realize that the lyrics are about recollection. Not nostalgia, but a kind of distorted foreknowledge in retrospect. How to be in the moment again. Even twenty years later. But in that moment with the knowledge that it is twenty years later.

How I lie on that bed thinking I was the only fourteen year old who would ever want to kiss another man, unable to know how many men I would press my lips to.

Lullaby

This is the other song that my friends and I sing along to. My stringy bangs are so long and they resemble a spider’s legs. It was a contest. Who could grow theirs the longest? We all want “skater bangs” even though not one of us owns a skateboard.

Alone in my bed at night, I dream about hands touching me, taking me somewhere that I want to go but have no name for. A drowning hunger.

Fascination Street

If the last track tucked me in at night, this one pushed me out of the house to wander my small town in the dark. I walked miles, looking into the light cast from others’ windows. Each house a solitary stage on which another’s drama played out.

I knew everyone in the town where I grew up, but in the dark, from a distance, all lit up, their lives became fascinating.

Prayers for Rain

The restless build of the song mimicked my own. Too young to drive, too far from a city, and parents who monitored my every move, I paced. I threw myself down on the couch and my bed to try to break apart the monotony of my body. I got back up and paced. I swam in the slow circle of my own adolescence.

In some car, in some city far from here, someone was up to something better. The empty eye of the television gave me glimpses with its long blue stare.

The Same Deep Water as You

Drunken guitars echo slowly through the track, delicious as the moment before a first kiss with someone new. The lyrics spoke to me before I learned how to speak about desire.

To tell another person. To hear another say, “I’m just like you.” The words hover, twist upon the lips, always about to be spoken. Breaking the surface, into the air and light terrifies.

Disintegration

How could I miss all the kissing in this album? Sure, The Cure released “Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me” in 1987, but all the real lip action took place two years later in Disintegration.

My freshman year, during a round of “Stump ‘Em,” (a team based charade challenge) I correctly guessed the title of this album when one of my teammates made a confetti-like motion with his hands. We were accused of cheating. No, I loved the album that much.

Homesick

Robert Smith couldn’t stay up-tempo forever. The slow slide of boozy guitars and stumbling piano accompanies his slurring voice. Having hovered just below the surface, the resolve to rise above wavers and comes apart.

I want to say this song makes me homesick, but it’s a lie. I never want to go back to the suffocating wave of rural, sixteen-year-old existence.

In an attempt to break the lung crushing weight of my life, I tell my best friend that I might be bisexual the same night I taught her how to smoke. A full moon in July. Smoking on the same field where I used to play Little League, in the same park where I learned how to swim, my life in the shadow of those unmovable peaks.

Untitled

The song opens with an accordion or at least the synthesizer’s approximation of an accordion. Robert Smith’s voice is gentle, but sure. He tells us, “never quite said what I wanted to say to you. Never quite managed the words to explain to you…”

I managed to come out to a few people at the age of sixteen, but I waited another three years for that kiss.

I too wonder what I have managed to say as the cassette clicks off.

Jory M. Mickelson’s work has appeared in Free Verse, Oranges & Sardines, Knockout, New Mexico Poetry Review and other print and online journals. He is the winner of the 2011 Academy of American Poets Prize at the University of Idaho. He’s the nonfiction editor of the literary journal 5×5 (www.5x5litmag.org) and blogs about writing and queer life at Literary Magpie (www.jorymickelson.blogspot.com).

David Dombrosky on Tori Amos’s From the Choirgirl Hotel

Throughout the past 20 years of my life, I have held a special place in my heart for Tori Amos. In addition to being an insanely talented musician with a distinctive voice, she has a wonderful tendency to reinvent her sound with each successive album. Correspondingly, I find that I usually need to spend a few weeks listening to her discs from start to finish before determining how I feel about it.

This is my process with her work now and was my process with her music back in 1998 when she released her fourth solo album From the Choirgirl Hotel. At that time in my life, I was a wee bit busy holding down three jobs in the York-Lancaster area of Pennsylvania; so I didn’t have a chance to really listen to the disc until late summer. I had decided to pack up my life and move to Atlanta, Georgia in order to find work in arts administration. So I loaded up my car and drove off into the summer sun with a deliciously dark album to cool me on my journey.

She’s addicted to nicotine patches… From the first line of the first song, I was hooked. I have always been enamored with Tori Amos’ ability to write clever, powerful songs with enough mystery to leave you trying to unveil their secrets. I’m a lyrics slut. It’s true. I put out for intriguing, funny and heartbreaking lyrics. For me, From the Choirgirl Hotel is a lyrical orgy. I think the Tori-est way for me to talk about this disc’s power and relevance is to explore it all lyrically. Don’t worry. I’ll be gentle.

She’s convinced she could hold back a glacier / But she couldn’t keep Baby alive / Doubting that there’s a woman in there somewhere / Here, here here… – “Spark”

1998 gave us two albums exploring both sides of the birth coin. Madonna’s Ray of Light reveled in the joyous event of giving birth, while Amos’ From the Choirgirl Hotel delved into the psychological terrain of a woman wrestling with the ramifications of miscarrying a child. While Madge was running around getting all Kabbalah on us, Tori was digging through some serious wreckage:

…then the baby came / before I found / the magic how / to keep her happy /
I never was the fantasy / of what you want / wanted me to be /
Don’t judge me so harsh little girl / so you got a playboy mommy… – “Playboy Mommy”

At that particular time in my life, I shrugged off the trappings of adolescence and college to begin my rebirth as a single guppie (aka gay urban professional) in the big city.

Brother lover bougainvillea / My vine twists around your need – “Cruel”

Like many young people starting off on life without the safety net of family or school, my first year in Atlanta was wrought with need – money, community, professional respect, love, desire, a sense of identity, etc. When Amos talks about the album, she often mentions how she envisions the songs as this group of people living their lives in a fictional hotel. As this disc held a dominant presence in the soundtrack to “urban queer” rite of passage, each track felt like a different aspect of me at that point in time.

Many of these aspects would make an appearance within a single night on the town. I would start by getting into my club “drag” – prep, leather, glam-rock – whatever I thought would bring me the most attention.

She’s your Cocaine / She’s got you shaving your legs / you can suck anything / 
but you know you wanna be me / put on your makeup boy / you’re your favorite stranger /
and we all like to watch / So shimmy once and do it again – “She’s Your Cocaine”

Then I would hit the bars and clubs to dance, tease the animals, and perhaps make a connection. If I headed to The Eagle, then the DJ would always spin the remix to Tori’s “Raspberry Swirl” to get me in the mood.

I am not your senorita / I am not from your tribe / if you want inside her / well, /
boy you better make her raspberry swirl – “Raspberry Swirl”

Often, I would make a connection, although I usually ended up realizing that it was a forced connection rather than a real one.

Met him in a Hotel / Met him in a Hotel / you say he’s the biggest thing / there’ll be this year /
I guess that what I’m seeking / I guess that what I’m seeking / isn’t here – “Hotel”

On rare occasions, legitimate connections were made…and lost two weeks later. I couldn’t help it. I was a young Aries. Of course, I would always build the loss up to be more than it was. Drama queen.

Had a Northern lad / well not exactly had / he moved like the sunset / god who painted that – “Northern Lad”

During this metamorphic stage in my life, I discovered that I was HIV+. Invulnerability is a beautiful thing, until you realize that it doesn’t exist. So it was now my turn to delve into the wreckage. For many months, I railed against the gods and acted as if Fate had snipped my thread.

I know we’re dying / and there’s no sign of a parachute / we scream in cathedrals /
why can’t it be beautiful / why does there / gotta be a sacrifice – “Iieee”

But in the end, humor and friendship brought me through to the other side of the looking glass.

Stickers licked on lunch boxes / worshipping David Cassidy /
yeah I mooned him once on Donna’s box / she’s still in recovery – “Jackie’s Strength”

If you had told me when I first bought From the Choirgirl Hotel that this album was going to be the soundtrack for arguably the most pivotal year in my life. I would have either sat down to study it like a survival handbook or requested to swap it out for some fluffier fare like Ray of Light.

I suppose it’s a good thing that life isn’t that prescient. We cloak ourselves in the music we need when we realize that we need it.

David Dombrosky is a nonprofit consultant, arts manager, technophile, and pop culturalist desperately awaiting the next episodes of True Blood and So You Think You Can Dance at his home in Pittsburgh, PA.

Bill Beverly on Neil Young’s Everybody Knows This is Nowhere


Neil Young’s second record, Everybody Knows This is Nowhere, was never a big hit. No hit singles; it never cracked the top thirty. My reverence for it stems from my belief that when I was young, it was my father’s favorite record. About this I may be right or not. Everybody Knows This is Nowhere resided in a group of vinyl 12-inch records leaning in the bottom shelf of the home-built bookcases in the living room. Our tomcat used them as a scratching post; each jacket had its shredded corner. Among these records, tattered by claws and by use, I always took Everybody Knows to be king. Even against The Band and Abbey Road and I Never Loved A Man The Way I Love You, it sounded like king.

“Cinnamon Girl” opens Everybody Knows This is Nowhere. You know it – a handclap and a galvanized stomp and a riff and a boyish longing. Like Van Morrison’s “Wild Night,” it’s a kinetic, anticipatory pop song. It is about being swept up; it sweeps you up. It is strange, short, three verses, no chorus, and the bridge comes at the end: “Ma, send me money now, I’m gonna make it somehow, I need another chance / You see your baby loves to dance.” Clumsy, confused, ecstatic. Presently the song ends, but is followed by an ominous web of knifing notes, a harbinger.

The muse in “Cinnamon Girl” is the first of the songs of mythic women who frame the record. The other two, “Down by the River” and “Cowgirl in the Sand,” Young wrote in the throes of a 103-degree fever, legend has it. In each, Young rides the barroom crunch of the band Crazy Horse. These have been described as jam songs – an injustice, for often this term means fussy, annoying, virtuosic. These are not. They are fastidiously rhythmic, tense, uncluttered; here is where was born Young’s reputation as the one-note soloist (apocryphal; all the solos feature at least two notes). There’s a great ambivalence here; over Young’s cracked falsetto (“Down by the river / I shot my baby”) arches a trellis of lilting ooh la la la las. Those ooh la la la las seemed forbidden, delicious, to me as a youngster; how could a song about murdering a lover bathe itself in such pleasure?

Closing Side One, it lasts nine minutes; “Cowgirl in the Sand,” which ends Side Two, runs ten and a half. It opens with a hushed, hollow guitar meditation that echoes “Running Dry,” the dirge that precedes it. Then, like a bomb, Young’s electric guitar goes off – towering, cobwebbed, one of the great power chords in our language. “Hello, cowgirl in the sand / Is this place at your command?” he begins; these awkward, shimmering lines show up in Denis Johnson’s classic story “Emergency,” about a charismatic stoner with the ability to make everything come out right (“I save lives,” he explains). Like “Cinnamon Girl,” the song has three verses, each about forty seconds long. The rest is the click of a rhythm guitar and Young in the other speaker, sawing, stuttering, screaming, holding off the puzzles of romance with the sure light of the amp.

Back then, before the CD came to town, sequential listening meant you’d renewed your vows. I mean, you played a side, and when it ended, you got up; you crossed the room to the turntable; your roommate grumbled Dude, put on some Seger; in this caesura, you either put on some Seger or you flipped the record. You had that choice. The eight or ten or fourteen songs – gabba gabba hey – didn’t all play in a row. You didn’t have a remote, a two-year contract on your phone. Tom Petty, like Young a maker of musical aphorisms, cracked on the passing of this custom midway through his 1989 record Full Moon Fever, where he reminds CD listeners that “those listening on cassettes or records will have to stand up or sit down and turn over the record or tape” and thanks them for their patience.

These dual side-closers are the best enticements I know to keep going. And I asked my father, midway through this writing, if I was right. Was it, as I had remembered, his favorite? He looked dubious. “You know,” I said, and rattled off the songs. He nodded. “Well, that’s a pretty good record,” he said at last.

Bill Beverly lives in Hyattsville, Maryland, with his wife and daughter. His book On the Lam: Narratives of Flight in J. Edgar Hoover’s America is available from University Press of Mississippi. He’s @BillBeverly on Twitter. He teaches at Trinity College in Washington, DC.

Julie E. Bloemeke on Neil Diamond’s Greatest Hits Volume 1


Neil Diamond: Beyond Girl, You’ll Be a Woman Soon

Yes, I know. Neil Diamond of Pulp Fiction, The Jazz Singer. Neil Diamond of “Red, Red Wine” before UB40 UB40-ed it. Neil Diamond of the groaner “Turn on Your Heartlight.” Neil Diamond of leather jacket and motorcycles and–dun dun dun– “Sweet Caroline.” But in the turbulence of being 14, the way I saw Neil Diamond was a kind of salvation, a voice that made me question words and their layers of meaning, that taught me something about empowerment, surprise and re-thinking the expected.

Neal Diamond’s Greatest Hits Volume 1, on cassette (more on that in a minute) was one of the first music purchases I made in my early teen years. (And, Greatest Hits it had to be given that I was paying with an allowance, and therefore could not buy all of Neil’s repertoire.) By then, I had listened to him for as long as I could remember, playing his records on our living room turntable. But always I was competing with the open space to hear him, turning up the volume over the phone ringing, the cats chasing, my younger brother buzzing through.

When Christmas 1986 arrived, everything changed. I unwrapped my first Walkman, not realizing then how my experience of listening to music would forever alter. I would no longer compete for sound space; I would no longer pick up and drop the needle over this song and that. Instead, listening would become about the trajectory of the album, the journey of following an emotion from one song to the next. And, with headphones, with a cassette, I realized I could drown out the voices in the front seat, the television in the other room. I could take my music on a walk, into my bed. I could take Neil with me wherever I went: his lyrics, his voice, his guitar.

This way of experiencing music allowed a new intimacy, spurred in me a curiosity that made me want to know more, listen deeper, decipher. I now had the power to pause and rewind just enough to re-hear a word or phrase, finally able to attempt to make out some of Diamond’s lyrics. Was he singing Soolaimon? (Which, I later learned, can mean “hello,” “goodbye” “welcome” and “peace be with you.”) And who were those people that he named in “Done too Soon,” Henri is that—Rousseau?—and Sholom Aleichem?

I began to realize that all along, I had not just loved his voice, the strum of his guitar, the way he sing/shouts to the audience. Now I realized that I had fallen for the words he chose too. I turned his lyrics over, seeing layers of meanings, discovering them in multiple ways. They raised questions, spoke to a part of me that I was too young to yet define myself.

It was heady, empowering, and to me felt defiant, bold.

Every time I heard “Shiloh” I was more intrigued. After years of assuming the song was about a girlfriend—“young girl with fire, something said she understood. I wanted to fly. She made me feel like I could”—I began to listen closer. Who was this “only friend you can find, there in your mind?’ Was this an alternate version of himself? A future self? A pretend friend from childhood? A future lover? God? Was it all of them? Was this possible?

And, in the experience of listening to one song after the next, I began to realize that there was a play in the ordering of the songs too. “Shiloh” was between the preaching revival language of “Brother Love’s Traveling Salvation Show” and “Holly Holy,” a song with psalm-like cadence, parable references and biblical language: song of songs, the reference to seeds, a lame man that walks. The songs together were a trinity, another connection to the spiritual, something that spoke to me and made me want to listen to them in a row, again and again, and to question even further: What was the story of all of this? What was this saying about faith, messages, spiritual journey?

Other tracks grabbed me with this same sense of curiosity. I wanted to learn all of the biographical references in “Done Too Soon.” I wanted to know what it meant, what it felt like, from “Stones,” to “ache for love and get good stones.” (Of course, I later learned all too well.) Over the years, I realized I had learned the story behind most of the names from “Done to Soon”—from Bogart to Mozart to A.E. Poe (Tricky, Neil). But as I went back to look at the lyrics I realized that there were a few that I did not know. For example, in my teenage years I had always assumed that Gunga Din was a person, as most of the references in the song are. In writing this I discovered that it’s actually the title of a Kipling poem. (Apparently I need to revisit Kipling.) But there it was, waiting even now, a years-long secret from Diamond, a poem–literally in itself–set to be discovered in a list of names. And, as a poet myself, I cannot help but think it a kind of gift, a soolaimon, from Neil.

And while Neil’s music spoke to me in this way of poetry, he also got to me, still gets to me, in a very primal emotional way as well. There was something compelling, comforting, freeing and subversive about him that I could not get enough of. His voice, heavy with longing, suggestion, wistfulness, power, and sentimentia—Liam Rector’s term for the dementia of sentiment—took me back to places in my freer, simpler childhood self, took me to places where I was trying to discover who I was and who I would become. When I heard “Song Sung Blue” I was again six, spinning in an avocado shag-carpeted living room, when I heard “I am…I said” I was walking, outside, in the dark of winter, shouting the lyrics to the air after a teenage fight with my parents. No one may have heard but the trees, or, yes, Neil, the chair, but for then, it was enough.

Of course I knew, even at 14, that loving Neil Diamond was not a popular choice. It still isn’t. But carrying his cassettes in my backpack, in my purse, meant I had to admit him, share him, reveal him. While most of my friends were turning to U2, A-ha, Run DMC, Echo and the Bunnymen, Cutting Crew, Motley Crue, Led Zeppelin, the Bangles and Corey Hart, I was humming the lyrics of “Soolaimon” and wondering about this God who inspires a woman to “dance for the sun.”

Neil was my way of cleaving away from others and into who I was. He was unusual, and as a 14-year-old girl listening to songs that had been released before I was born, so was I. By admitting my affection for Neil, I was also beginning to grow into my own identity, to admit that I wholeheartedly embraced listening to him, despite the strange looks and comments. When I felt powerless, alone, confused, there was “Holly Holy” to reassure me. When I began to fall in love with poetry, ever deeper into words, there was “Play Me”: “Words that rang in me, rhyme that sprang from me…and what was right/became me.” And somehow, in his lyrics, his gravelly voice, I felt understood, transcended from an age of turbulence and drama. And in that, part of Neil, his words, became me.

I was a girl who loved Neil Diamond. I am a woman that still does. And I think I may be hoping that perhaps there is another reading of him out there, beyond the heartlight, the jazz singer, that red, read?, wine.

Soolaimon, Neil Diamond.

Soolaimon indeed.

Julie E. Bloemeke is a poet and mother of two young children. Her poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in Pebble Lake Review, Ouroboros Review, and Mason’s Road as well as the anthologies: Lavanderia: A Mixed Load of Women, Wash, and Word, Obama-Mentum, The List Anthology and The Southern Poetry Anthology of Georgia Poets. She was a finalist in the 2001 Arts & Letters poetry competition and was awarded first place in the Spring 2010 Atlanta Writer’s Club poetry contest. She graduated with her MFA in poetry from Bennington and is currently working on her first manuscript. So far, there are no poems about Neil Diamond. So far.


Matthew Hittinger on P.J. Harvey’s Is This Desire?

AND THERE WAS TROUBLE TAKING PLACE

Ah, 1998. A big year for me. Half-way through college. Getting serious about writing poetry. I had just experienced a year of coming into an adult consciousness and skin to which I still feel connected. It was the year of first deaths, both my grandmothers dead on the same day, one year apart. It was the year of first love with another boy. It was the year that brought us the spiritual Madonna on her Ray of Light album. But I’m not going to write about my diva here, how the lyrics of “Mer-Girl” still haunt me (and where you’ll find Madonna at her most poetic, the standard to which I hold her, which leads to chronic frustration when she opts for the clichéd lyrics of so many of her tunes). No, I’m going to write about a different album that came out that year, one that imposed itself on my creative, poetic mind more than any other during those years: PJ Harvey’s Is This Desire?

I lived off campus by this point, in my own apartment, across from one of the lone independent music stores in town called Play It Again. All the CDs were shelved in these wooden hand-made units that were just tall enough to slip a jewel case in, and where you could spend hours browsing imports and rare EPs and maxi-singles. It’s where I went on Tuesdays to get my latest album releases.

Is This Desire? came out that Autumn, I remember that clearly, the crisp air, the leaves turning. If Madonna was my spring-summer record of 1998, PJ was my autumn-winter record, and not just because the track “My Beautiful Leah” has that prolonged listing of the Autumn months: “I swear you would remember / Black hair, brown eyes / Late September…October…November…December…” And every year I have to listen to it when the leaves start turning, when that first hint of chill enters the air, when our layers return and the darkness comes early. It’s a ritual, like reading H.D.’s Trilogy every year on Christmas Eve.

What draws me to this album: the poetic lyrics, the heavy bass, the raw vocals. The women featured in so many of the tracks have an empowered sorrow that’s intoxicating: from the opening lyrics “My first name Angelene / prettiest mess you’ve ever seen” (“Angelene”) to the dual Catherines: “Catherine de Barra / you’ve murdered my thinking” (“Catherine”) and Saint Catherine of the Wheel:

Catherine liked high places
High up on the hills
A place for making noises
Noises like the whales
Here she built a chapel with
Her image on the wall
A place where she could rest and
A place where she could wash
and listen to the wind blow

She dreamt of children’s voices
And torture on the wheel… (“The Wind”)

To the missing beautiful Leah, “Did you see her walking? /Did she come around here, Sir?” and “Even as I held her / She went out looking for someone / looking for someone” (“My Beautiful Leah”) to these lyrics from “A Perfect Day Elise”:

He got lucky got lucky one time
Hitting with the gin in room 509
She turned her back on him, facing the frame
Said “Listen, Joe, don’t you come here again.”

White sun scattered all over the sea
He could think of nothing but her name, ‘Elise’
God is the sweat running down his back
The water soaked her blonde hair black

All these women seem to be illumined “under electric light” and it’s that industrial glow that makes them beautiful. Like in “Joy” where we shift from the first person of “Angelene” to the third person of “Joy was her name / A life un-wed / Thirty years old / Never danced a step” and in “No Girl So Sweet” shouting “How much more can you take from me? / I’d like to take you inside my head / I’d like to take you inside of me.”

At times I felt the album was describing my inner state: “My hair longer than it’s ever been” (“The Sky Lit Up”) as I had grown out my hair to my shoulders in an act of defiance over the short hairdos I found on gay men, and as I entered into my college obsession with Goddess culture and the ritual of Venus renewing herself yearly, that image of Botticelli’s Goddess on the seashell propelling my need for longer tresses.

My favorite track to this day is “The Garden” with its cymbal-ticking beginning and heavy bass. In all these songs about women, the song stands out as it has two men at its center. I see it as a revision, no Adam and Eve present as you would expect with such a song title, but a revised story trafficking in Biblical myth while extending it someplace else. It starts with a “he” that I couldn’t help but picture as me “walking in the garden” of the newly found sexuality open to me, “walking in the night” in the confusion of being alone with that, joined “by another with his lips” that first lover, who says:

‘Won’t you come and be my lover?’
‘Let me give you a little kiss?’
and he came, knelt down before him
and fell upon his knees
said, ‘I will give you gold and mountains
if you stay a while with me…”

Who are these men? Adam and Satan? Two angels? Lucifer tempting Christ? The kneeling down before him still gives me that sexual charge. And the song described how I felt losing that first love, “and he walked a little farther, and he found he was alone.” “There was trouble / taking place” pretty much summed up my psyche that year, coming to terms with death, with love, with love for another man and coming to terms with my sexuality, with love lost. I was “looking at my song-bird,” “looking at his wings” trying to find the words in my own poems to describe this new me, looking at these new wings and not knowing how to fly.

The lyrics are probably her most literary, the vocals her known raw bleats coupled with a new haunting whisper and despair-filled melodic tone. On many of the tracks you have a vocal singing and then a vocal chanting the same lyrics, sometimes in sync, oftentimes layering over each other, sometimes one preceding the other (as in “The Wind”). The sound has at times an industrial vibe, like machines caught in a synchronous loop, coupled with a heavy bleeding bass like in “Joy” or an electronic undercurrent like in “No Girl So Sweet”, and at times propelled by a simple instrument, like the piano in “The River” or the strumming guitar of “Angelene.”

The album art work and sleeve featured both her printed and handwritten lyrics (none of her other albums at the time did) and her hand-written notes about the instrumentation and chords for the songs. There’s a tantalizing list of songs recorded, in “Like” columns to decide what goes on the album, treating us to the titles of many of the record’s B-sides, like “The Bay” and “Rebecca” and “Nina in Sorrow.” I was so obsessed, I even re-wrote the lyrics to “Angelene” as an assignment for my creative writing class changing the title to “Magdalene” imagining that famous Mary of the Bible as I imagine PJ would (the song “The River” makes me think of Mary and Joseph, thanks to PJ posing next to a huge mural of them, Mary on donkey, in the album artwork), with lines like “It lays open like a road” changed to “Legs open like a road” and something about a crown of thorns piercing her thighs through her robes…

Is This Desire? It’s an album I turn to when I need a taste of the sublime, that terrible beauty found in the harsh reality of a woman wronged, of obsessive devotion , of a woman disappeared. It’s an album that reminds me of those months where I was constructing my identity, rejecting stereotypes about being gay that didn’t fit with my understanding of my self or who I wanted to be. It’s an album that helped teach me how to inhabit another skin in a dramatic monologue, how to use an image. It’s an album that helped teach me how to be a poet.



Matthew Hittinger is the author of the chapbooks Platos de Sal, Narcissus Resists, and Pear Slip, winner of the Spire 2006 Chapbook Award. You can follow his blog and read more of his work here.