Rise Above #1: Distractions, Diarists, and Autodidacts

Posted by on June 11, 2013

mike w rise above #1

Transcendent music is found in every genre, like the holy in the everyday. It all comes down to paying attention to your life, and to be aware of what you are seeing and hearing. Why do songs still matter long after they have been used to sell cars or deodorant? We hold on so tightly to the songs and artists that speak to us in visceral ways that not only could you rewrite my words with  different artist’s names, or be so outraged at the ones I drop that you feel mugged. Music is the fast lane to our higher fearlessness. What does it mean, then to Rise Above? Above what? Mike Woods’ Rise Above column will ask those questions, talk about some of this, maybe none of it. Answers? Don’t be silly.


On a bootleg from 1985, The Replacements play a version of “Unsatisfied” that is as full of passion, brittle painful, raging honesty. It is the best take of that classic I’ve ever heard. At the end, about two or three people clapped politely. Paul Westerberg, having just aired out a long whisper of the sad, scary and beautiful, spits out sarcastically, “Oh, C’mon!” Maybe there were only five or six people in the bar that night, and maybe they were all there for the ‘Mats typical drunken shtick, but they were witnesses to one of those moments that can happen at any time if you pay attention: moments when music transcends sound and becomes something inexpressible, though somehow remaining recognizable.

Paul Westerberg (Photo credit, Marc Norberg)Like listening to George Jones, Lightning Bolt, Black Breath, Henry Flynt, Alexi Murdoch, or hunting down rare Henry Miller and Ernie Kovaks DVDs: what Westerberg, along with Peetie Wheatstraw, Barbeque Bob, Devotchka or Tindersticks, have in common is what I think makes music so vital: they sing as if the know that there is something really beautiful out there for the grabbing, but damn if there isn’t something mean in this world or inside ourselves keeping us from seeing it. Or if not always mean, then certainly distracted.

I’ve always been interested in diarists, autodidacts, basement tapes, outsider artists (though the latter term has been co-opted and patronized by art dealers); people whose visions are never discovered in their lifetime of dull jobs, homelessness, hospitals, parenting. I’m not talking one-hit wonders, who only had one idea and milk it forever on QVC, but someone whose burned, in an interior life that was rich and daring, but who may not have had the ambition or breaks or talent to really pull it off and fit in.

I think of artists like those on Norton Records, that holy label that digs for arcane truths, finding records by people who took the implied rebellion and freedom of rock deadly serious. Artists like Ron Haydock and Jack Starr, like Hasil Atkins, who believed every word Elvis and Jerry Lee sang, and cranked out hardcore rockabilly in his mountain shack in West Virginia, as true a believer as that Japanese soldier who hid out in the jungle until found in the 1907’s, still thinking World War II was going on. He played guitar, and had a drum and cymbal strapped to his back, because he assumed that the songs he heard on the radio were the work of just one man.  These artists bought the idea that music was a call to fearlessness, a wake-up call with soul. That they remain hidden for years, barely respected by friends, or were laughed at with irony, they had Vision.

“Here we come, we’re comin’ fast/all the others are in the past!”

So rages the opening lines of The Green Fuz‘s eponymous and sole single, after a menacing, recorded- down-the-hall-in-the-asylum intro riff. The singer, insistent and snotty, the vocals announce a new force to be reckoned with, a band with a lot to say, so don’t be a sissy and turn away. An insane drum break, part Moon, part Marching band error, completes the assault. They were probably just a local band that cut a single, like many did in the ‘60’s. I found their song on the Pebbles, Volume 2 comp, and have not been able to get very far with more information. I do know that the Green Fuz, led by a then 15 Randy Alvey, recorded this song in a restaurant made of stone in North Texas, which may account for its lo-fi glory. The song was later covered by The Cramps on their album Psychedelic Jungle, and is mentioned in a barely-read novel by Pagan Kennedy. That is nice for its legacy, but the original grabbed on to my scalp and did not let go for weeks. “We’re The Green Fuz”, crudely played, sung and recorded, is one of the most shocking songs I’ve ever heard. It has an energy and a hubris that implies Vision.

Artists release music to us, and we may never hear some of them again, except when reminded of them by assholes like me who think other people are desperate for good music and need my advice. But if they fade out, did they fail? Is the victory in making the music, taking that stand, or in the hearing of the music by as many people as possible? What happens when an audience disappears, and you still have something to say? What happens when people hang on your every word, and then suddenly don’t?

The fury of inspiration, of just doing it,  made and remade every night since we first tried to imitate Birdsongs from our caves, was invoked and injected the night these teens recorded that song.

And then, silence. Or should I say, then the silence continued. Desire living in a vacuum and waiting to burst is what the best music is all about; it has to be said, even if no one hears it. I’m consoled by fantasies of seeing them live back then; did they really think they were the next Big Thing? I like to think they did feel that way, and kept on feeling it even when they either left music, or degraded to playing lounges and amusement parks.

Where does the energy go next, when you find your voice, and no one listens?

“He that gets hurt/Will be he who has stalled.”—Bob Dylan

5 you need: new Iceage, new record from The Body on the way, Sean Lennon’s massive, duo, anything on Southern Lord, and a couple of massive OM dub remixes from Drag City.