(#352: 12 September 1987, 5 weeks)
Track listing: Bad/The Way You Make Me Feel/Speed Demon/Liberian Girl/Just Good Friends/Another Part Of Me/Man In The Mirror/I Just Can't Stop Loving You/Dirty Diana/Smooth Criminal/Leave Me Alone
"Ambition - ambition's a tricky thing, it's like riding a unicycle over a dental floss tightrope over a wilderness of razor blades - ambition can backfire." Matthew Good, "21st Century Living," Avalanche (2003)
It is at about this point that things start to change; when my existence, as I view it now, is merely a series of moments, some good and some terrible, and a whole world ebbs away...
The summer - well, what do I remember of it? Being morbid, wearing black - not all the time, but I remember that - a feeling that I was going to die, that death was in the air. Wasn't this the summer that I heard that Justine, who I had known briefly at Sheridan, who was in my year at White Oaks, a bright and pretty girl, had died of a brain tumor? And I remember walking along in the sunshine, listening to The Chameleons' Strange Times and feeling that Mancunian rain right there with me, that forboding sense of doom.
Not that I had any reason to feel this way, at first.
No, at first it was just noticing that my father was starting to mellow out a bit, to be more easy-going, less bristly and set in his ways. In late August he even read the Melody Maker cover story on Tom Waits and enjoyed it, particularly since (as I can recall) Waits was just making up stuff to amuse himself and the writer. My father usually had no time for any of my UK/US weekly/monthlies, no time for music that wasn't jazz or classical. Waits he'd liked though, introduced to him by a tape from his students back in the 70s, and would play that tape at home, so I too could connect back to a Los Angeles of the Copper Penny and the great phrase "colder than a ticketaker's smile at the Ivar Theater on a Saturday night." Tom Waits meant home, and all the complexities of home.
Then - oh how could I forget this? The Journalist (as I shall call him) at CFNY was hosting a night at the Krush Club, DJing there, and of course I had to be there. Had I already sat at the house on Highfield Road or not? My second year at Ryerson began and I was housesitting, there in Toronto, Ryerson just a streetcar ride away, me with a whole place to myself, though I wasn't there for long. It was a hot end of summer, and the night at the Krush Club - a small place on Kingston Road - meant sleeping over at this house, as there was no way I could see him there and get home on time. My first time away from my parents, and it was for...music. Dancing and music, and him greeting me and kissing me, even (my chin or cheek, awkwardly).
So then - a bright and promising start. I am able to look after myself away from home - yep. I meet The Journalist, who tends to read bits of my letters on the air - oh yes, and while we don't have long to talk, he likes me. I have a second year of Ryerson ahead of me, and how bad can that be?
I do not remember - oh, the irony - if Mom and I started to notice it in August or September. But my father's short-term memory was faulty now. He didn't remember things too well, and it wasn't like him at all to be forgetful or unsure. There were no other symptoms, nothing to tell or show, not in the least. Just that - and the decline was permanent. He was not going to get better, but being who he was, a Stoic, he wasn't going to go see the doctor about it. He could still do the things that were important, he could still drive me to the station in the morning and then go teach at Sheridan. And so he did.
The second year at Ryerson was like being a tiny person walking on a Moebius strip hoping you'd find a way off, or out. The only thing was to keep going. We were all put through our paces in television - a medium I was unsuited for, on either side of the camera. English was taught to us in a haughty way, as if the Augustans and Romantics weren't difficult enough already. And I endured the three-hour version of Lifeboat that was Media Sociology in a windowless screening room in the Film & Photography building every Friday afternoon, after which the weekend loomed, only for the whole thing to start all over again on Monday, with still more work which seemed besides the point of why I wanted to go to Ryerson in the first place - to learn to write. (Perhaps it was sheer foresight that led some to drop out in the first semester a year before, since they knew the dreaded second year was going to be an endless and near pointless trial.)
Yes, Friday afternoon, going to Union Station and listening to the radio or a tape on my Walkman, going home to realize yet again that my father wasn't getting better, but slowly worse.
At this time I didn't pay much attention to Michael Jackson - I didn't get Bad as I figured I would probably hear most of it via the slow drip of singles, but in truth I think I didn't even figure that much. Jackson was always invariably there, somehow, an element of the world, a combination of effort and effortlessness. He was the biggest star on the planet and pretty much could do whatever he wanted, not like us hapless mortals with our scrambles for good seats on the train, eating chocolate to keep our energy going, reading Spy magazine for some sense of perspective...no, Jackson wasn't like me, he seemed to have transcended what most people had to deal with.
Only now can I see that really - really? - he hadn't. But there was no way I, whose life was altering every moment, making me feel as if I was going into a dark place very much by myself, could see the same thing was happening with him, only the death he was frightened of, then resigned to, wasn't his father's but his own. A living death-in-life, a sort of limbo. This version of Jackson wasn't the same as the one from Thriller, which in turn wasn't the same as the one from Off The Wall. I look at him on the cover of Bad and he looks most like...his sister Janet.* And while Janet was able to go off to Minneapolis to work with Jam & Lewis, Michael stuck by Los Angeles and Quincy Jones, though he shares production credits this time. He too has more control, so to speak (he had a raised wooden stage built in the studio so he could sing and dance during recording), and yet on the cover it's not just regular (if such a thing can be imagined) ol' Michael but the figure from the "Bad" video. He looks tough; he's wearing black; yet he looks a bit, well, feminine too, androgynous, even. Even as he's playing the don't-fuck-with-me-pal card, there is something increasingly not quite right going on, and the album explains this, song by song...
You're Not A Man
And it starts with the title song, "Bad." Sure, it's got A Secret Wish (if Michael didn't know about it, I'm sure Quincy or one of his aides did) in its bones, that snaky, scary sense of menace; but why is he so utterly intent on making sure we know he's bad? (Bad as the opposite of good, in both senses of the meaning.) I guess this means making sure people know he's still real, still of this earth, dancing around an actual subway station and looking tough; but if you have to say it so many times...well, is it true? Or is this some kind of self-talk, wherein if he says he's bad enough times, he'll start to believe it himself? The "whole world" knows he's bad, but does he? The song was inspired by a real incident of a kid who'd gotten out of the ghetto to go to a preppy college, who came back home for Thanksgiving and was killed by the boys he grew up with, out of jealousy. Is that how Jackson perceived the world - not as happy for him, but jealous and angry? Is this would-be royal uneasy wearing the crown?
You're Just A Product Of Loveliness
And what about the world of the Other? Jackson expected perfection from himself, it can only therefore follow he wanted perfection from his Other, but is she real? "The Way You Make Me Feel" comes off as if he is Pygmalion working with sheer will and nothing else - no clay, no prayers - just on will and feeling alone is he singing to this girl about how ecstatic he is, how turned on he is, but there is something a little too mechanical, hemmed in, workmanlike here. Even in the song he talks about working, as if sheer fun and joy and that divine SWOON of love have been packed up and boxed away, and once again in the video (Jackson liked to write songs and imagine the video alongside them, so they're actually part of the songs) he has to prove his manliness by hitting on a girl in the street, yelling and trying to look tough, in a way that would have any right-thinking woman blow him off, pronto. There is nothing sexy about his approach all, and it just reinforces how performed this song feels, how it's not a personal statement as much as a show tune from a musical that would only begin after his death. It is as if his real self, wise and sensitive and so on, has to provide this bluster so others will approve of him. It is sad to note that even after the monumental success of Thriller, Jackson still can't be himself (he is by now someone who knows and understands fame, and is perhaps hiding behind it).
Mind Like A Compass
"Speed Demon" is one of the two songs on the album that was never released as a single, which should tell you how much hay was made of this album (I can only wonder if Epic demanded nine singles, all the better to milk the album all the way into 1989 - amazingly, all nine were hits in the UK, which shows just how popular Bad was). I'm not too sure what this song is about or if it derides or applauds the reckless driver (it's no "You're Gonna Get Yours" by Public Enemy**), but again it's got Propaganda, or rather Art of Noise, as its basis, clanking and pounding away, while Jackson whispers and hisses, like a driver muttering under his breath. "Eat the ticket" is what Jackson is trying to do - take his fame and own it, but his driver gets away and the man-machine is left behind, only wishing he could zoom away, free of all consequences.
Just Like In The Movies
"Liberian Girl" is a perfectly nice song, political in its way (Liberia being founded by freed U.S. slaves) and it is a rare moment of calm and quiet on the record, but what does it say that the video is full of Jackson's friends and pals, only to have him come in at the end, grinning behind the movie camera? He is now the observer and director, and the direction shows most of his friends wondering where the heck he is.*** One way of seeing this is that it's Jackson's world now, and we are all players in it, whether we like it or not. Of course for Jackson I suspect it was a lot of fun, but the kicker is that we see the dancers for the actual video, there is a woman there dancing and speaking Swahili, but the actual song is swiftly cast aside for the murmurings of his friends instead, as if to say that he and his pals are bigger than the music, that hello, I AM FAMOUS NOW, LOOK AT ALL MY FAMOUS FRIENDS. (A few sing along with the song, but not very many.)
You Didn't See Her Eyes On Me
"Just Good Friends" is the other non-single on the album, a duet with Stevie Wonder (originally the album was supposed to be full of duets). It's one of those itchy 'Michael vs. a Rival for the love-of-a-girl' songs that always sound amiable, if not improbable, and it's all "oh we ignore each other in front of others but in secret we can't be more in love" except it's with the same woman, oh dear, a woman who is still making up her mind about which one of them she wants. The level of bonhomie here is that of two senior college pals toying with a freshman girl, and the phrase "say we're just good friends" starts to elasticate and apply to the two men just as much as anything else; there's nothing threatening in the song, but you have to wonder what she will think when she finds out that they are, in effect, manipulating her.
"We" Are "The World"
Speaking of manipulation, there's the disconcerting "Another Part Of Me" - a kind of sequel to the "We Are The World" Jackson co-wrote with Lionel Richie, a happy end to the album that hasn't even finished yet. It does end the weird Captain EO short that he did in '86, wherein Jackson is spreading love and joy throughout the universe, and this is the Captain's anthem. The royal "we" appears here again, as if us being just another part of him means that we really are part of the MJ Army whether we like it or not. "This is our planet/You're one of us" is just plain creepy if you're not a diehard fan though, in which case you are all too eager to help send out the message of a "major love" - one that is bound to happen through destiny ("the planets are linin' up"), so why resist? On the other hand, if we're just another part of him, does that mean that the reverse is true - that he's just another part of us, the listeners? Not that I can tell, but the next song is kind of an answer.
A Selfish Kind Of Love
"Man In The Mirror" is the one moment where Jackson can look out at others, perhaps less fortunate than him, and decide that he has to make the world a better place, and where better than to start with himself? I hate to put it this way, but changing yourself should take place somewhere outside the bathroom/bedroom or wherever the mirror is; think of how easy it was for Narcissus to look at his reflection and not change, and how easy it was for Jackson to look and look and change himself superficially, endlessly self-conscious and worried and anxious about how he appeared from a young age. No wonder the girls in my high school (and others across the globe) identified with Jackson and loved him unreservedly - he worried and fretted about his skin and features and so on as much as us, he self-monitored himself far more than even the vainest boy.
(Those boys who didn't like him then because they were into hard rock or political bands like Gang of Four or The Clash, who looked down on Jackson and his fans, for being too girly - they were there in my high school for sure, and oh how I wish I could quote directly from my journal about how ignorant they were, how they understood nothing about music if they didn't at least respect Jackson.)
There is a pathos here that he could and could not change, that maybe his longing to grow up here and give a damn for others was always going to be secondary to his need to become perfect. Yet perfection, as Plath said, is terrible and cannot have children. This is often heard as the ultimate Jackson song/message, but even a choir coming in at the end (Simon Cowell has been chasing this song ever since it came out, to no damn effect, it's safe to say) can't take away from the strain and self-involvement here. (Telling himself it's going to feel real good, like a trainer saying he'll feel better once the diet/regimen kicks in.) "Make that change" he says to himself/us in the end (if we're part of him, then we have to change too) - and the song, gospel and heartfelt, dissolves into fairy dust. It is one hell of a song on many layers, as if we are caught up in the room full of mirrors, not sure exactly where Jackson is, close or far away.
Hee! Hee! Hee!
"I Just Can't Stop Loving You" is a pretty enough song, with more than a nod to The Lexicon Of Love, but the love presented here seems to be running the show, the master to the two puppets. This is not the grown-up responsible love of, say, George Benson, but the star-crossed love of two kids who are caught up in romance - maybe the idea of romance, more than the actual thing. "You know how I feel/I won't stop until/I hear your voice saying "I do." is a little overwhelming though, as if this great love is all or nothing, as if this is the one chance for love, that the two don't know what they will do if this doesn't work. All is perfection, again, or it is nothing, and real love, love that actually likes imperfections and peculiarities, doesn't work this way. Again, this is a love song written by someone who thinks he knows what love is, but has yet to truly get his feet wet in it, let alone dive in. There is a reason Jackson's fanbase was kids - the songs here are oddly two-dimensional, pure and sweet in their way but utterly flat in others, compelling and memorable but also separated from actual life.
For Those Who Have Prestige
"Dirty Diana" is as unreal as the previous song - how is it that this woman wasn't screened or removed by Jackson's entourage? Why is this sexual predator of a woman so interested in a man who clearly has no interest in her? The whole set up - including the "baby" he forgot to phone - sounds utterly hysterical (Jackson's voice here is particularly harsh) and is a sign that there's trouble in store alright. (The Diana here isn't Diana Ross, though I've been told there are stories...) What would Jackson do with a woman who had her own desires and urges, a woman who would be more than an object to love, a living doll? According to this he'd shriek and run away, more or less. That this is the "rock" song on the album is something of an insult too, as if rock was all about pushy groupies and girls who are bitches, who just want to latch on to someone famous to make themselves famous. Even as the most famous man in the world, Jackson can't defend himself against one woman - and seemingly has no protection from her, even if it is (as I suspect) all in his mind.
Dad Gone It!
"Smooth Criminal" is a song that may be inspired by the then-recent Los Angeles serial killer, but it seems to me that there is something a little...personal going on here too. Not just that Jackson took a CPR course where the dummy he had to practice on would be asked "Annie are you okay?" but that the killer here comes in through the window. As a child Jackson slept with his bedroom window open, which his father noticed; in order to teach him a lesson, he slipped through the window one night, wearing a mask, and woke Jackson up; the scared child learned never to sleep with the window open, and I think that fright stayed within Jackson, long, long after the lesson. Annie may or may not be okay, but Jackson's obsession with her and the crime means we never do find out if she lives. That such a fierce and violent song - in the future there will be blood on the dancefloor, but here it's on the carpet - leaves us hanging brings us to Annie's (and Jackson's) anxiety. Make one mistake and you're near dead; the girl is the subject, there is no trying to understand the villain, save that he is "smooth" - as smooth and faultless as Jackson himself while dancing. It seems obvious to me that Jackson is trying to exorcise himself of his fright, that in some way he is Annie, but this is not somehow going to really help. It is a fixated song and you've got to wonder at what place the narrator is - I mean, is he a first responder? Is he a neighbor? There is a kind of remove here that makes this a cold comfort of a song.
Don't Come Lovin' Me
Anyone who bought the vinyl or tape of Bad would have "Smooth Criminal" as their uneasy ending, but those who got the cd were left with the shove of "Leave Me Alone." The song is one of him rejecting a girl - she has deceived him, and he just wants her to leave him alone; but the video shows a world of conjecture and rumor as a fairground ride, one through Jackson's own brain, a ride he seems to enjoy a great deal; in this world there is nothing but versions of himself, stories about him, an arrogance that is underneath the whole shebang, as the "real" Michael throws off his chains at the end, standing up and looking a little more alive and lively than a doll. Like so much of the music on Bad, it's memorable without really being lovable or attractive; "Leave Me Alone" especially comes off as mean - instead of attacking the press in a song, he attacks a girl, who I guess stands for the media, one way or another. My sympathy for Jackson lessened when I saw how bonkers this video was, how Danny-Thomas-in-Kojak-complaint-sheets**** he comes off - when you're the biggest star on the planet, things are going to be said about you. It's best to ignore them, but Jackson only validates the press, somehow, through this video. Shouldn't he be...above all this?
Bad is all about how he has no way of getting out of himself, truly uniting with an Other, that he is now "Michael Jackson" and such a singular creation is of course going to be paranoid, fearful, excessively romantic and yet scared of others, the embodiment of someone who really does think he can have his cake and eat it too. Eat the ticket; dress up as whatever he wants to be, put on personas, as a way of hiding his real, actual self, which only pops up now and then here, as his increasingly nerve-wracking squeals and squeaks attest to his stress and strain. As if he is a machine that needs oiling, a machine that is clearly going to do what it wants and it wants, in the end, to be left alone. It is hard to know just where the real Jackson is, and reading his brother Jermaine talk about how childlike he is, how innocent, is hard to square against this largely violent and angry album. Jackson is approaching - or is he? - adulthood here, turning 29 as the album appears, and you'd think someone who just wanted to be left alone would...go away. After the tour, the videos, the huge success of Bad, he could've just retired, but as Larkin said of The Beatles, there was no way to come down; but if this is success, then it doesn't sound as if Jackson is handling it well, and the music isn't as fresh as Thriller, either. There's a lot to be said for ending a band before it goes stale and predictable, but an individual can't break up; Jackson had no choice but to keep going, if only to satisfy others' and his own ambitions, which were huge.
As you can see, I don't think listening to Bad would have helped me one bit in late '87; listening to the audible struggles of Jackson, and his eventual regression...my ear was attuned to other things, and my sympathy for a star of his stature was short, at least then. I was becoming something other, bearing down, watching my father's illness worsen, and all calamities and shocks of the outside world were pathetic fallacies, trying and failing to be scarier than what faced me every morning and evening across the dinner table.
(Doesn't he look like Billy Mackenzie, if only a bit?)
And that includes the break-up of The Smiths, an event I remember as terrible and yet inevitable; I know a little more now about how it happened, how Marr went off for a break and just didn't come back, and August was a long month as everyone (I assumed) waited for the album. The pause on the rollercoaster as it reaches the peak, before descending, and the decade ends, in various twists and turns...
I don't know exactly how I felt about Strangeways, Here We Come at the time; grief being my default emotion now, if I felt anything, and now that grief spread out to cover The Smiths. I knew Marr was itchy to get on to new pastures, I knew they had an unmanagable singer/lyricist, but once I heard this it was screamingly obvious that this was as far as they could go. Maybe it was the violence of the thing that threw me off, or the repeated deaths, but Strangeways, Here We Come was and still is a beautiful but deathly thing, and it permeates the album like a perfume...
The Land That We Stand On
"A Rush And A Push And The Land Is Ours" starts with a piano (huh?) and a...ghost? A reincarnated criminal, hanged a year and a half ago, and boom he seems to come back to his old house. The past is coming back to claim the present, drag it back, to make the future like the present? Already the usual chronology is messed with, and the politics of the title are muffled by the dreaded presence of love..."Leave me alone" is echoed here, only now the loved one is pleaded to, the returned one sucombs to love ("lerv") at the end as if it was an anesthetic. "Troubled Joe" has been in love before - maybe the cause of his hanging? - and "don't mention love" - the whole damn thing is starting again. Remember that Moebius strip? Well, here it is again...
Hair Brushed And Parted
"I Started Something I Couldn't Finish" is one mindnumbing T.Rextastic song that doesn't and can't end. It is played with absolute relish, Morrissey narrating a story that gets worse and worse the more it's examined - the hell, what is a "three word gesture"? What tradition is being adhered to? There is no way of knowing, the song swirls and swirls around as if it's Infinite Jest arriving ten years early, the narrator is chiding himself for...well, what does he do? What are these ventures, what are "gilded beams" (arms? legs?)...it all leads to the point of no damn return - "And now eighteen months' hard-labour seems...fair enough." It's early, too early for an album to peak, but if Morrissey and Marr regard this as their best album, it's because they went there, to the absolute point, beyond which there is what, silence? That the narrator isn't sure about what he has done, and wants to do it again - typical him, he messed it up the first time - is scarily echoed by Morrissey's own voice asking the producer, Stephen Street, if he wanted to do the song again. I remember reading a review of this album and the writer being chilled by this question. As with "Smooth Criminal" I wonder just what the hell is going on here, but at least the narrator is the predator, the tried and judged and convicted - though he blames "Tradition" for what he does and with that "fair enough"...judges that Tradition to be worth that much. It's hard to get out of this song and on to the next one, but here goes...
Maybe In The Next World
"Death Of A Disco Dancer" is bleak, looking at the disco euphoria from the viewpoint of one who didn't participate, didn't believe in the "love peace and harmony" it promised, and it seemed extraordinarily sour to me at the time - was it some kind of comment on the chill that AIDS was causing? "I never talk to my neighbour" - he lives right next to this dying person, and won't get involved. The music piles up and piles up, Morrissey plays piano, and the band sound as if they too are going, fracturing...there is a kind of exhaustion inherent in this album (there's a picture of a very tired Marr in the cd booklet). Or are these deaths the result of more violence? With the immanent explosion of Acid House and illegal raves around the corner, it's as if Morrissey is already closing the curtains saying, nope, The Smiths aren't going to be part of that.
I Know It's Serious
"Girlfriend In A Coma" is just too close to write about, in retrospect; but I will try.
Even here, in the hospital, with this sweet air of a song, there is an admission of violent feelings - "there are times when I could have 'strangled' her" - and it is a brief song, as it needs to be. It is serious, and the narrator's ambivalence is completely understandable. The agonizing question as to whether she will pull through is, eventually, no.
Again, there is no way out of this, and its being a single meant I heard it a lot on CFNY, whether I wanted to or not.
"Stop Me If You Think You've Heard This One Before" is a wry smile of a song, incredible cartoon violence ("He broke my spleen/He broke my knees/And then he really laid into me") painted as a regular occurrence, the whole song somehow wide and narrow at the same time, again swirling about and free, if only for a moment, and here we are in the hospital again, in out patients, with the patched up narrator getting drunk, unable to stop himself from telling this story, just as other tales here keep repeating ("Tradition") of their own volition. I sometimes think this album happened to The Smiths, as much as they created it...and there is love, waning, on the decrease, love that never seems to be there and real, as unreliable as Jackson's is unreal. The song halts and pauses and then stops, as if seeing the edge of the cliff.
Another False Alarm
"Last Night I Dreamt That Somebody Loved Me" is maudlin, sure, but if this is romance, it is in vain, the arms are not real, and the long intro of crowd noises and music serves to show how indifferent to the world the narrator is, and vice versa. It is an old story and it goes on (again, "Tradition") and here the narrator is a prisoner of longing and desire, the fierce slashes at the end of strings and band are like whiplashes, as if this is a punishment, as much as any actual imprisonment. Morrissey sings it in his best 50s style - immediately I can see the intensity here matched by the natives of my own Los Angeles, the lowriders who approve of the sadness, the sincerity, the absoluteness here.
I May Feel Slightly Sad
"Unhappy Birthday" is a spiteful song to...who? I must have figured it was Thatcher at the time - weren't all songs like this about her? But no, this is personal - and just as adolescent, if I can put it that way, as Jackson, only with more violence - he has been rejected, threatens to kill his dog, then kills himself - all the while thinking of the Other's death, which is deserved because s/he is "evil." This is an interesting song, but I didn't really see the point of it, save that it is the flipside of the previous song - here he is after an affair and he is dumped and miserable and maybe actually dead, who knows, and as for Morrissey - I can't really pretend this isn't him, here - well, what did he expect? And does this song apply to the fickle audience, with The Smiths breaking up and saying well, too bad, we tried our best but you never accepted us? Endings and more endings abound here, as if the whole band know, unconsciously, that this will be their last album....
What Makes Most People Feel Happy
And after the next song, well, where can they go? "Paint A Vulgar Picture" is about a dead pop star (paging Altered Images) that is being exploited by an all too happy record company; the star's life is lamented by a fan, who wonders "You could have said no/If you'd wanted to/And could have walked away...couldn't you?" The music business interferes with music, the label cheats the public, the boy ("just a child from those ugly new houses" - the house I lived in was only ten years old) dances at home and is a fawning, boring figure the star encounters, but not as awful as the industry folks and sycophants that seem to have conspired in the star's death. The narrator holds on to the purity of that dancing, that feeling, which cannot be commodified or branded, as much as the record company would love to be able to do - the star is the "true love" which is only perfect in death, in virtual sainthood. The trials of being a star were too much ("Please the press in Belgium!") and the rewards too few "sadly THIS was your life." The Smiths attempted to manage themselves, and thus had to deal with all of this head-on, and Morrissey's capriciousness/lack of enthusiasm for promotion was one of the reasons they didn't, couldn't continue. But in the star system, not everyone can say no, and here are The Smiths presenting Jackson's own future, though no one was to know it...
Stay Home Be Bored
"Death At One's Elbow" must have seemed like a good idea to Morrissey at the time, but with the harmonica and train rhythms it just seems like a weak leftover from Meat Is Murder and the death is punctuated by a...belch? As if this really is something old and done and done - this is the story that is told again and again, until it is unbelievable. Morrissey even sings "It's crap I KNOW" as if even he knows this is a load of melodramatic hooey.
This Is My Time
"I Won't Share You" is a love song to...the band? The audience? Johnny Marr plays a found instrument beautifully, and the song - for once on this album - has no death, no violence, no bitterness. Life just "tends to come and go" and the zeal and ambition of Morrissey are paired with Marr's lovely air..."This is my time" echoes Jackson's "All is going my way" from "Leave Me Alone" - but instead of rejection there is acceptance, commitment, attachment...and then the album leaves us, with those dreams and drive of the band's as a gift to the listener. Is the "we" in the title the band, the listeners, the subjects of these songs? The title grounds it in Manchester, as if The Smiths would be lost without that grounding, unable to really conquer the world and not lose themselves in the process.
As sad as it was to learn about the end of The Smiths, this album didn't make me feel - now that I have heard it again - well, contented. It was a confirmation that the world wasn't a peaceful or harmonious place, that death lurked around corners, and the beauty of the music could only make that somewhat bearable. The whole thing was a Punch and Judy show, in effect, and I needed something that would give me something to go on. Something that could help me get off the Moebius strip.
I think you already know what that album is.
In times when you feel embattled, as if you have to fight every day, especially if you know some of those fights are going to be lost - you need music that is most definitely on your side, music that somehow knows and understands.
Music that knows what it's like to hear questions that were only unthinkable a few months previous, if only because the person asking knew the answers - then.
In the fall of '87, this was me, and Document was indefatigably my album. I don't have any memory of buying it, or first listening to it, or talking about it with others, though of course I did all those things - it got to me so quickly, immediately, that I must have felt, outside of any logic, that I was the only person at Ryerson listening to it, who was really getting it, in need of it. That is the myopia of grief, I know, but that is how it felt.
Better, Best To Rearrange
"Finest Worksong" is that labor, that getting up in the dark, talking to yourself, bearing up and holding on, just as the bass slinks and the guitars haul the song up what seems like an endless hill. And here is Stipe as the leader, pleading us to take our instinct "by the reins" as if we are horses led the wrong way, that "what we want and what we need" have been messed up, all is confusion, and only in throwing Thoreau and getting out of the library and rearranging things - by doing, not reading - is anything really going to change. The contemplation of the previous album is now action - the pastoral is now urban. I listen to this as I walk through those fancy places in the morning, everyone walking in time. "The time to rise has been engaged" - how much is this like "Rise"? How solid a song is this, for me to cling to as everything is indeed fault-ridden, ugly, and so many seem to be okay with it? There is only one way through this, Stipe is telling me - to listen to my instinct, to keep going. Isn't that what my father is doing?
The dignity in doing what you have to do, the work being thankless, unnoticed, regular to everyone else.
An Annotated History
"Welcome To The Occupation" is openly political - in Reagan's America, "confusion, primitive and wild" is everywhere, "freedom reigns supreme" and that word "fire" appears for the first time. The world is on fire, the government is breaking the law, a man even says he broke the law to uphold the law. If Stipe pleads that you listen to him, it's only because the yuppie paradise and end-of-history folks would never protest, would only say, along with Reagan, "Well...."***** The occupation being two things, the job and the invasion, the takeover, the exploitation. The blur of the news and the awful governance of a nation...the song flips and flops, taking that confusion and straightening it out, laying it out plain.
Look Who Bought The Myth
"Exhuming McCarthy" is Occupy Wall Street long before it happened - "vested interests, united ties, landed gentry, rationalize" being an ideal if wordy banner. "By jingo, b(u)y America!" The Wall Street yuppie walks on coals, sharpens his attitude and mouth, Patrick Bateman looms. The Cold War will not end, the business of war continues, and McCarthy/PMRC attack the decency of the public, with just one voice - the actual historical voice of Joseph Welch asking McCarthy himself "At long last, have you left no sense of decency?" Morrissey himself might shake his head at the naivete of such a question, but in the US there is a rawness and freshness that can be damn unsettling but has a fundamental openness about it, and that openness is what I responded to so strongly (and still do) in Document. The violence here is of the government, of Wall Street ("Greed is good") and how many saw the crash of October coming - I couldn't, though I wasn't all that surprised - and not think, hmm, that was overdue. The obscenity of a government wailing on about rock lyrics when it was up to much, much worse things...(And how weirdly refreshing it is to hear a typewriter, and how apt that Prince be quoted in the backing vocals, the sardonic horn breaks, the neat mechanical beat mimicing the precision of that "business acumen.") Meet me at the book burning, indeed.
Followers Of Chaos, Out Of Control
"Disturbance At The Heron House" could be a fancy term for the White House again, the government, the "meeting of great and simple" who are "trying to tell us something we don't know." Except these people are stampeding, mindless, standing for "liberty and honor" and too taken up with themselves to realize that the audience of this panicked meeting at the monument already know what has gone wrong, have seen it from the start, and cannot be told anything. It is all out in the open, just as the main melody returns to itself, these people of the Heron House can only sense themselves, can only serve themselves, and any chaos that happens is really more their fault than anyone else's - a nation looks to the government, who plead plausible denial, forgetfulness, honor over everything...
Not Quite Right
I had no idea who Wire were at this time, besides the band that did the New-Orderish "A Head" that got some CFNY airplay. So "Strange" is always this version for me, frenzied and anxious and garage rocky, with something - God knows what - happening that cannot be accounted for, something new and scary. This album is a documentary of how things were, and if "Michael's nervous" well then that hen's just going to come out. When all hell's breaking loose, there is value in this kind of chant, handclappy description of a place too bright, too real, unreal...
Offer Me Solutions, Offer Me Alternatives
The rollercoaster is going down the incline and there's no stopping it. "It's The End Of The World As We Know It And I Feel Fine" is the fictive movie that starts with an earthquake and keeps right on going. The world as something indestructible, despite everything; giddy and joyous at seeing the world - this terrible world of deception and arrogance - coming to an end. There is no point in being miserable all the time; with the chaos out of control, something good can happen, the possibilities are out there, and Lenny Bruce, long dead, isn't afraid; "listen to yourself churn" is one thing, but "no fear cavalier steering clear" is another. This probably sounded like a big fun word salad to me at the time, but this is language liberating itself, the promise that if this world is ending, well, that is fine, that something has been let loose, and "feeling pretty psyched!" is the result. The plea for "Time I had some time alone" is a constant, as being in the eye of the hurricane, surrounded by the debris and mess, feeling it get closer, is too much. In late '87 everything felt extreme to me, too much, and this song stood for a plunge into and then out of the world. R.E.M. are not afraid, and thus I trust them...
To Occupy My Time
"The One I Love" is again too close to me for comfort; I wish this wasn't so, and yet that moment is yet to come - but for now, this is the agonized fire of the lover who is using others (how anyone could mistake this song for a love song when it refers to Others as props, I don't know). "This one goes out" sounds like a radio dedication, and that of course made it - along with the huge hook that Buck plays with utter fierceness - a huge song, the song that brought them to the world, an anti-love song that roughs up any idea of "left...behiiiiiiiind" as being at all sentimental. FIRRRRRRREEEEEEUUUUUUGHHHHHHHH, FIIIIIIIIIIIIIRRRRREEEEAAAAAAAAAAAAUUUUUUUUUUUGHH!!" it ends, collapsing in the ashes of whatever is left, the "another prop....has occupied my time" bringing us back to the occupation, the usage, the wastage, the power games, oh how could anyone find this romantic? And yet it rose in the US charts, to nestle right in there with Whitney Houston and Belinda Carlisle. R.E.M. got a foot in the chart door, and many others would follow******...
Shake The Rug
"Fireplace" is a song I just flat-out didn't understand at the time; this was one of the things I loved about R.E.M. though, that they were never too clear, even if it was now a lot easier to hear what Stipe was singing. I got that it was about simplicity, about cleaning and clearing in a world that could be crazy, in times that were indeed crazy. "Hang up your chairs to better sweep, clear the floor to dance" comes from Mother Ann Lee, the leader of the Shakers, a native of Manchester who moved to the US and considered herself to be holy, a healer, perhaps even the return of Jesus (Morrissey may have ideas about himself, MJ too, but not these). She was the main female Shaker, and the destruction here - with Los Lobos' Steve Berlin on saxophone as a caustic commentary - is one of starting anew, rejecting the material, throwing everything into the fireplace, including the walls themselves. Simplicity ("Simple Gifts" is a Shaker hymn, used by Aaron Copland for Appalachian Spring) is one thing, but take that American impulse too far and there's your crazy, crazy world in a nutshell (the nutshells being on the carpet that's emptied into the fireplace). And all this to a near waltz, dizzying, swirling...
"Lightnin' Hopkins" wasn't someone I knew about in the fall of '87, but for this song; rough, funky, Stipe with extra lemon in his voice, and even now I hear a world sketched out, a musician armed with his music in the "lowlands timberlands badland birdland" - the heys and energy, the roughness of life not painted as bleak but as endless and challenging, the song oddly close to hip-hop. "When I lay myself to sleep, pray that I don't go too deep" Stipe sings, anticipating Edie Brickell, and that American openness which can lead to insomnia*******, restlessness, the flatlands that never end. Again, you have to keep going, the American experience is vast, my father was proof of that - born in small-town prairie, a farmboy, who dreamt himself off the farm, who knew badlands and Birdland, who would tell me about being in Georgia, where R.E.M. were from...but I digress...
A Thumbnail Sketch
What is that noise? Sleigh bells, a mandolin? A slow and rustic thing, but wise. "Standing on the shoulders of giants leaves me cold." Throw Thoreau. "King Of Birds" is as pastoral as this album gets, the two Stipe voices weaving in and out, the hundred million birds soar over the world. "A kingdom for a voice - " how to give a voice to something so natural and spectaular? Stipe's voice says "everybody hit the ground" as if those birds are swooping to see you, but there is no fear here, just a sense of the bigness of the world, a regard. "Old man don't lay so still, you're not yet young there's time to teach" - and with that line, this album is mine, my father not old or young (57), with still some time to teach. He is not still, though some would have him be like that, but on he went, on he goes, with his point to point observations. His ability to teach falling back to the 60s, the 50s...time is starting to warp, and yet the birds soar and fly...just as Stipe's voice roughly fades...
And of course it doesn't end nicely, but this is my experience. The fire comes back as not a fireplace but a firehouse, behind which "the heathens rage" - drunks who are there, ranting on to the boy and girl who gather to listen, "firehouse" just a moment away from "White House." The Oddfellows preach and drink and there is an uneasy sense that no one is really in charge, that the "blood and rum" are mixed up, that behind the nobility there is something ugly, the "pearl" from Pee Wee's mouth being a rough one at best, and Stipe's AAKCCKKCCCCCAAAAKKKKAAAKKKACCKK" at the end is admirably real, straight, he means it.
Michael just wants a girl/the press to leave him alone, The Smiths are possessive and ambitious, but R.E.M.? They have brought us into a world that is theirs, beautiful and harsh and chaotic. As the days darkened, I felt close to this state, the sudden value of things, people, views becoming dimmer and yet more vivid my sense of everything shifting, as the daughter of a man whose life was, I knew it, coming to a close, though I didn't know when.
(Though I did not listen to it as intensely in the fall of '87, 10,000 Maniacs' In My Tribe is a modest rejoinder to all of these albums, the hapless SAD-light-box-needing "Like The Weather" a paradoxically warm song, audible tea and sympathy; "What's The Matter Here" addressing child abuse and the conscience of the witness; "Hey Jack Kerouac" looking at the Beat Boys and their own chaos - this genteel and gentle album was an antidote to much of the extremity of the time, and deserves to be mentioned.)
In the meantime, I dutifully attended classes, did assignments, became grimly determined to finish everything, as I could already tell I did not want to get an incomplete and have to repeat anything. A huge windstorm hit England, the stock market crashed, and my own grades were as ever okay, though I was, throughout this, against it too, beginning to find my voice. I wrote to The Journalist and reassured him that the music scene was not dull or boring, that often these seemingly blah times were proof that something was bubbling under, not visible but there. Even in my perpetual grind I could sense it; I read about it enough in Melody Maker, and R.E.M.'s breakthrough was proof that a lot of people wanted something else. (The Journalist was not shy about criticizing the UK charts, which is in part why I liked him.) I had to have that belief to get through, through a period which I can still only remember in moments, flashes, as reality became increasingly unbearable, but inescapable. Under such pressure, the real and true stand out, flawed as they can be, and perfection is too exhausting to pursue. Such was my life, and I wonder now how many others were going through the near exact thing as me. I could not see them at the time though I can now.
Next up: what is love?
*I may as well say here I did get Control, and yet I am not sure if Michael felt any pressure to top it; considering he had to top Thriller, I'm sure he didn't think about it all that much. But I do like Control more than Bad.
**I can only wonder what would have happened had Chuck D ever met Michael; it's kind of hard to imagine him listening to Yo! Bum Rush The Show, though Bad is not that far away from it, really.
***"I am, as always, overwhelmed with movie fantasies. I think of that old stand-by, the star buildup where the camera wends its way through the crowded ballroom as the collectively murmured "Where is the Contessa?" plays on the lips of all assembled. Finally the camera stops on a woman, facing the other way, her creamy nape and lush hair. "Contessa," someone says. She turns around - it's Her! - her first close-up. "Yes?" she answers, unmindful of her own compelling presence." - David Rakoff, "In New England Everyone Calls You Dave," Fraud
****In an episode of Kojak, former captain Danny Thomas tries to prove he has authority by complaining about scrap paper he found in the wastebasket. No one is impressed, just as I'm not impressed by Jackson's taking out his (justifiable) anger at the press on yet another fictional girl.
*****In the spring of 1988 I would visit the Vietnam Memorial in Washington D.C. listening to this song and began to cry at the line "all your fallen heroes."
******Well-known kitchen god Alton Brown was the director of photography for this song's video, in which Michael Stipe doesn't dance at all, and gives no emotional clues to the song's meaning.
*******When Michael Jackson was preparing for the never-to-be series of London concerts, he was being given medicine that would help him with his insomnia by mimicing sleep, giving him the feeling of being refreshed and relaxed, and he did indeed sleep, but even had this been his only problem, he wouldn't have been able to continue for much longer, as what the body craves is actual sleep, not drug-induced fake sleep. A body needs to recuperate and regenerate, and it can only do this with ...R.E.M. sleep, so the brain can fix itself up. (No idea, by the way, if listening to R.E.M. would have prolonged Jackson's life, but who knows?)