Gimme Shelter | Music Review | Chicago Reader

Gimme Shelter 

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It would be nice to always be able to present the album or concert review as a completely self-contained unit, a nice symmetrical form independent of what went on outside its frame of reference. For instance: I'm in love with the Japanese psych band Acid Mothers Temple, especially after seeing them play in Chicago twice in one weekend last month, and I wanted to write a concise and shapely love letter that had to do with the rupturing, unreassuring nature of the true psychedelic experience. The evening after the second show, at Reckless Records, I went home and got about halfway through such a piece, then went to bed. When I woke up, the World Trade Center was imploding. I suppose a real professional would have been able to finish the essay more or less on schedule--but to me it would've seemed like crossing a line between "professional" and "living in a complete vacuum."

I've never had much luck with tuning out so-called extraneous information--which is why I feel compelled to point out that psychedelia in its original conception was about letting the world rush in, not about tuning it out. But what has passed for the psychedelic aesthetic for some time now is the antithesis of the original, a sort of laid-back multicolor malaise that borders on terminal. In college, I oh-so wanted to be a hippie, but I couldn't reconcile myself to so much music that sounded so oddly boneless--like a drowsing cat picked up off the couch--or to all of the plain old sitting around that contemporary American hippies seem to do an awful lot of. Surely, I thought, there must be more to counterculture than oodly guitar solos, Frisbee, veggie dogs, and the endless contemplation of hydraulic bongs.

So I reluctantly left the grass gazers and fell in with a crowd fond of grinding No-Doz into a powder and snorting it, but that wasn't satisfying for long either. There it was--I couldn't really pledge allegiance to any subculture with music that ever got familiar enough to breed contempt, be it polite honky blues or three-chord punk. It was the weird stuff, that which would never consent to be mere background music, that rang my bell, and my unreconstructed metalhead reptile brain needed volume and edge: I'll probably believe till I die that Sonic Youth's Bad Moon Rising is a better trip album than anything by the Doors, and that Keiji Haino makes more accurate religious music than, say, those Gregorian chants some people like to use when coming down. On the other hand, I defy any knee-jerk hater of boomer rock to keep standing upright in the face of, say, the version of "Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun" that I found on one of my dad's 1970 Pink Floyd bootlegs, or to deny outright that Don Van Vliet was not a fantasist at all but a gritty realist. What does all of this righteous noise have in common? Maybe it's best encapsulated on another dark-psych favorite of mine, the Velvet Underground's White Light/ White Heat: "And then my mind split open..." SCREEEEEEEECH. Rupture as rapture.

Acid Mothers Temple--more properly known as Acid Mothers Temple & the Melting Paraiso U.F.O.--are the pinnacle of this kind of psychedelia. A loose collective of wandering souls who come together in various configurations to play, led by the monster guitarist Makoto Kawabata, they're ferocious and funny, deeply weird and musically brilliant. At the Hideout, tiny androgynous-looking keyboardist Cotton Casino manned her wired rig as if it were the bridge of an out-of-control spaceship, seemingly oblivious to everything else; bassist Atsushi Tsuyama let loose an unearthly bastardization of throat singing, in a giggly cross between Japanese, English, and maybe Venusian. They spent a healthy portion of the set sending their impressive hair flailing in all directions, but then they'd plunge unexpectedly into eerie and lovely melody inspired by Tsuyama's love of southern France's Occitanian folk music or possibly by the Incredible String Band or vintage Fairport Convention. In hindsight, it occurs to me that what they were doing was exploring myriad ways to translate into music the beauty of flight: sometimes as natural and soft as a bird, sometimes as high-tech and searingly loud as the Concorde.

On Tuesday morning, the shit hit the fan, and I probably should have forgotten all about music. For a while I think I did. Reality and unreality mingled. For a few minutes I was on two phone lines at once--one with my former fiance, who lives in New York, and the other with my editor, trying to fix a flawed metaphor. When I sat down to write, all I could summon about Acid Mothers Temple was a mental picture of them stranded at O'Hare. I wondered what they must be making of all this, and then I projected on them all these notions of mine about epiphany. I'd gotten such a moment of clarity from them, and now I felt it twisted into grotesquerie by epiphany's evil twin--a moment of sheer horror. I had many moments that day that were hopefully as close as I'll ever get to that, as I envisioned the attack from various perspectives (most disturbing of all probably that of passengers on the doomed planes). Epiphany can be rendered in music, but horror cannot, because it's a form of chaos, and music is an act over which the musician can't help but retain some measure of control. No musician, I am fairly sure, has ever made music that can effectively express annihilation.

By nature, neither epiphany nor horror can last, and something must come after--provided there is an "after." How do we come to terms with those fiery crashes now burned into our brains? Candle lighting and flag waving don't in themselves add up to soul-searching, and neither does music, inherently, but at least it has more potential. But what kind of music? As helpless as we all feel, I find that I have less patience than ever for sitting around, be it in pleasant lethargy or depressed numbness. But I do have renewed appreciation for the cultivation of comfort--which is often simply a more urgent form of sitting around. We've been cajoled to please resume the pursuit of the banal and the pleasurable, and hey, it sorta works, however briefly. Among my guilty pleasures are comfort food (I've fattened up the Little Debbie ledgers as well as some, um, personal assets in the past month), comfort vices (smoke 'em if ya got 'em), comfort lit (if the British are so keen on supporting us, can't J.K. Rowling write a little faster?), and certainly comfort music.

On a long train ride to New York a couple weeks ago, one of the first CDs I instinctively reached for was Spacemen 3's Sound of Confusion, and once in, at no point did it make anything other than perfect sense. Cofounder Jason Pierce, aka Jason Spaceman, has always made a point of straining toward the sky; his melancholy hymns and dirgey grinding seemed to me as relevant to the current zeitgeist as Bono's preachy sincerity suddenly does to other, ordinarily sensible members of my profession.

In Spiritualized, Pierce's post-Spacemen 3 band, these efforts have only intensified. The group has actually pursued the record for "highest show on earth," playing 1,136 feet up in Toronto's CN Tower in 1997 and at Windows on the World, the restaurant on the 107th floor of One World Trade Center, in 1998. The group's new fourth album, Let It Come Down, is a cathedral of a record, huge and yet delicate, heavily ornamented--and engineered out the wazoo. It's been picked apart and reassembled and reanalyzed down to the teeniest decay wave--and that's all before the choir and the police sirens get overdubbed. "I'm just trying to find a peace of mind," Pierce mutters on "Out of Sight," a sort of neo-latter-day-Pink Floyd number. But "gravity just keeps on keeping me down."

But as the Handsome Family sings about the soaring towers of the Cologne Cathedral (where "every one of us is swept away like bread crumbs"), Let It Come Down brings only limited comfort. As a singer, Pierce is a bit too stiff to pull off anything resembling real soul, and his arrangements are getting more and more by-the-book. Though he's still passable when he's trying to climb Jacob's ladder, it's the more intimate tunes, like "I Didn't Mean to Hurt You" and "Stop Your Crying," that stand out the most.

In times of trauma, a little pinch of opiate for the masses can come in very handy. But sooner or later it's time for real spiritualizing, which comes by opening the mind rather than trying to cushion it; for the raw pseudoviolence of epiphany, which reveals a place where reassurance may no longer be possible or plausible or even desirable, where the bright lights of the soul are presented rather than merely described. We need to feel gravity's pull, good and hard, to remind ourselves of the sensation of liftoff--of the reason we risk crashing in the first place.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Kevin Westenberg, Suzy Poling.

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