Each Tuesday, FADER editor Matthew Schnipper highlights an underappreciated recent release he thinks we need to know about. This week it’s Moss Icon's Lyburnum Wit's End Liberation Fly LP. Listen to "I'm Back Sleeping or Fucking or Something," and read Schnipper’s thoughts after the jump.
Five weeks before I was born, Black Flag played Philadelphia. Henry Rollins, then their singer for just a year, was wearing black slacks, high top Vans and no shirt. He had a fuzzy beard, though nothing grizzled, and just a few touchstones of his soon to come expansive palette of tattoos. He was made completely of muscles, looking at once sallow and ridiculously toned. One of the songs they played was “Damaged I,” which, recorded, has a length of four minutes—they extend it to ten. It’s a loose performance, the riffs turned into long buzz devoid of much form. Bassist Chuck Dukowski is grossly sweating, ripping at his instrument like he has angry claws. Rollins piledrives through the loose noise, screaming without rhythm and often without words. As potentially oxymoronic as it may sound to clarify such a rudimentary, raw performance as forward-thinking, their grating heaviness and lack of form were without precedent. Though the hardcore scene they were a part of was comparably loud, and maybe equally as aggressive, Black Flag lacked the repetitive structure many of their peers relied on. Bad Brains or SSD, for example, were both fiery and powerful groups, but working within a more solid song structure. Watching videos of Bad Brains live, they were an overwhelming presence, but one that was exceedingly tight. Their ferociousness was in the insane precision they were able to maintain. SSD were powerful almost for power’s sake, giant chugging bass, fast drums and hoarse and quick vocals. Black Flag, instead of packing their songs with precise playing, stretched them into sludge. There may have been a malleable base underneath, but the watery surprise of their live performance is the source of the weird, prescient energy.
I watched this video on YouTube over and over one evening last week because the previous day I’d watched American Hardcore, the documentary about just that. It’s a wide reaching, ambitious film that investigates the roots of hardcore during the Reagan era, how the genre began and evolved, its geographic and gender effects, its causes and effects and its worth and worthlessness. Hardcore is a sprawling genre, as are most, and to sweep it under one rug is a difficult feat, one the filmmakers did mostly ably, sewing together an endless amount of interviews to provide a macro vision of the US’ landscape in the early ’80s. But, most effectively, they show the choicest 40 seconds of a performance I have ever seen—Henry Rollins in Philadelphia punching a fan. It’s excerpted from the full ten-minute performance of “Damaged I,” Rollins rising from rolling around the stage to find himself getting pawed like a cat by an eager audience member. In American Hardcore, they preface this video with Kira Roessler—one-time bass player for Black Flag (and current dialog editor for films, including the new Twilight movie)—talking about how Rollins was often so symbolic for the rage so much of hardcore’s audience needed and anticipated, that many of them literally wanted to hurt him because they thought that was what he wanted. And it may well have been. As the fan taunts him, Rollins never sidesteps or backs away. He sways his torso and fiddles with the microphone chord, never engaging the heckler, but doing nothing to discourage him. When he breaks, it’s swift—not as if he’s finally been broken, but as if he’s simply acquiesced to inevitability. His wild punches look choreographed, his swinging hard in force, but soft in their arc. He doesn’t connect most of the time, but the fan still cowers. Rollins almost doesn’t notice, the idea of a direct target being beside the point of the creation and continuation of smooth action.
On the subway home after watching the Black Flag performance on video, I tried to find a suitable replacement to “Damaged I” to listen to on my iPod. The closest I could find was Moss Icon’s “I’m Back Sleeping or Fucking or Something.” It’s from more than ten years after that Philadelphia performance, but it has a similar unfocused connection to an angry chord. Most people describe Moss Icon as an emo band, and in spirit that may not be wrong. Some of their songs just sound like Modest Mouse. But “I’m Back Sleeping or Fucking or Something” is untethered. I have never understood its lyrics. Here are some of them:
You think that I’ll remember you? Well, all things considered, I do./ I dreamt about that house last night./ You know the black lady told me not to make her sons jealous./ What did I have? Guns and fucking firetrucks./ I wonder if you remember me, I had long blond hair and a stormy smile./ In fact I remember a photograph of me and you./ “I’m back Sheriden.”
They also say a bunch of random things that are difficult to discern because there is a lot of feedback and the singer is mumbling. The “chorus” comes in next and it’s just total screaming and cymbal beating. The verses are a jumble with each member seeming to play independently of the other with the only directive to be as pissed as possible. But really it was the flippancy of the title that was always most striking, a peculiar FYI to some potentially inquisitive party. “I’m back sleeping or fucking or something,” none more likely than the other, all equally level. What’s “something?” Everything? Nothing? Sex and naps are different last I checked. Either way, it’s not your concern because I’m not around.
I listened to this song on repeat on the train for a half an hour, air drummed it, aggro mock drum fills making for some rinkydink Fight Club shit. Truth it, I never really got in any fight. I used to have occasional beef with this kid Tyler when I was in first grade or so. I remember having a scuffle with him, he mostly won. He probably weighed 50 percent more than me at that point. We quashed, though. In the New England fall, we used to collect bags of acorns and throw them at each other, all the neighborhood kids in a friendly fight. Connecticut had a lot of acorns. After his team ran out of giant grocery bags of them, Tyler picked up a good-sized stick and hurled that. My back was turned and it hit me in the head. It hurt and I wanted to kill him. I chased him across the yard and he ran home. At that point I either realized that I was profusely bleeding or that I was in serious pain and went home. My mom, a nurse, put a pink washcloth on it and took me to the doctor. He said I didn’t need stitches, which was probably wrong, as the crazy scab that took resident in my scalp was like a junky bird’s nest. But I survived. I don’t remember much about how any of that felt except for that if I had caught Tyler before my brains slipped out my skull I probably would have maimed him. That’s maybe the only time my endorphins were set to pound anyone and it’s a particular feeling. I think that’s how the lady on the subway who punched me on Friday probably felt. I had my back to her, but heard some light hullabaloo, then turned around as she began yelling at a retirement age, slightly scared seeming woman. Just after this, another very tell woman of about 40 put the initial yelling woman into a crazy headlock and starting pulling her hair. I saw this and could only think of the scalping that happens in Last of the Mohicans. The yelling woman was punching the scalper and it was ridiculous and no one was doing anything, so I got between them, yelling “Stop! Stop! Stop!” and the came apart, my friend Brian trying to hold back the yeller and me facing towards the scalper who was looking past me, through me, saying the yeller picked the wrong lady to fuck with. Then I turned around and the yeller hurled at me with her fist and connected with my collarbone. She was yelling “Get the fuck out of my way!” The scalper was happy to reconnect with her. I figured if they really wanted to be that stupid, fuck them they can beat each other up all day. Then the train stopped and I got out, the yeller got out and we didn’t look at each other. I didn’t feel adrenaline, just stupidity, both for me and her.
I’ve been watching that Black Flag video over and over like it holds the secrets of life. My friend Felipe was trying to understand why I like it and I think he figured it out. Aesthetically he can understand an inclination to enjoy something as strong but barren as Black Flag or Moss Icon, but it’s the performance that gives him pause. “It’s like performance art,” he says. “Not cause people aren’t enjoying it, but because they are all essentially watching Rollins break down.” There is a part in Rollins Black Flag tour diary book Get in the Van where he talks about cutting up his arms with a piece of wood so he can feel pain. It’s perverse and frightening but also thrilling. That desire is completely absent in me, and it’s captivating to imagine it could be so omnipresent in someone else that lacking an audience to provide that counter energy, a working substitute is yourself. I’m not interested in the actual follow-through of pain, but the moments before and after are invigorating enough that maybe they’re worth it so long as you get to be an appreciative bystander.