Sex as Dialectic

William Wordsworth leaves out of his Preface to Lyrical Ballads any particular approach to physicality, to the body, or to bodily awareness in general. By doing so, he leaves a certain critical door wide open to accusations that both Lyrical Ballads and the rest of his oeuvre lack the visceral quality born of rigorous physicality. When the mind, for example, associates ideas in a state of excitement, Wordsworth seeks to document the process in his poems; yet what the mind is reacting to is (Wordsworth suggests) a kind of perceptive consciousness of the durable permanence of natural forms and the human mind’s chiasmus with them. What about the durable permanence of the human body itself, as Renaissance humanism likes to suggest; or, even better, what about texts and textuality which assumes that the body itself is an idea, and associations and entanglements of bodies are associations and entanglements of ideas as well? This is in Keats’ Odal Cycle, and in Apparition Poems as well, especially in 1070, which forms a palimpsest over Wordsworth’s Solitary Reaper:

I said, “I can’t
even remember
the last time I
was excited, how
can I associate
            She pulled
out a gun, a tube
of oil, and an air
            and it was
a spontaneous
felt, in which we
reaped together—

 It is a backbone of one of the strains of my work, which includes (also) Equations and When You Bit…, that sexuality is not only an expression of our physical selves but also an idea. A tangential thought is that, as is expressed in 1070, the human body itself is an idea, and sex itself can be a kind of physical dialectic.

Neo-Romanticism and the Individual

There is one central Neo-Romantic contradiction which animated the lives of all the Neo-Romantic artists in Philadelphia in the Aughts: we were all engaged with the world around us on as many levels as possible. Yet, to follow through on the quest and the aptitude to create innovative, provocative, and major high art consonant art, we all needed to maintain (sometimes) an extreme degree of solitude as well. I can’t speak for Abby, but for me, the tug between solitude and solitary creation on one side and social and/or sexual engagement on the other was a hard row to hoe. This contradiction is there for all serious artists, but we, all of us, were perhaps more baroque, labyrinthine, and apparitional then other artists at other times, as the smorgasbord we had before was so rich and so tricky. So, we had to flail around and attempt to find as much solidity as we could on as many levels as we could. How solid, for instance, is sex? Is sexuality, in its raw, un-worked forms, something solid or something evanescent? The Nick Drake I placed on IA today, Six Songs, has to do with Comings and Goings, and fleeting glimpses inside the minds of individuals who are all attempting to arrive someplace solid. John Donne, many centuries ago, sashayed towards the realization that he was “traveling through” his lovers. What Abby gives us, in Frozen Warnings, is a sense beyond that of two things: total emotional entropy between two individuals, and a manifest formal/thematic triumph over the insipid Americana of Andrew Wyeth, on his own turf. Abby, in fact, has ways of triumphing over PAFA formalism simply by painting situations as emotionally charged (sometimes sexually also, sometimes not) as possible. The pursuit of passions and emotions in serious art is always solid. It also manages to bridge the gap between solitary worlds of creation and levels of social engagement. Takes us, solidly, to Apparition Poem 1341:

Secrets whispered behind us
have a cheapness to bind us
to liquors, but may blind us
to possibilities of what deep
secrets are lost in pursuit of
an ultimate drunkenness that
reflects off surfaces like dead
fishes at the bottom of filthy
rivers— what goes up most is
just the imperviousness gained
by walking down streets, tipsy,
which I did as I said this to her,
over the Schuylkill, two fishes.

Individuals who live in multiple worlds often do not find it easy to connect. All the Apparition Poems elements— the night, the city, sex, death, drunkenness— coalesce around the vagaries of trying to communicate the incommunicable, which may be incommunicable for practical or for psycho-spiritual reasons. The dry ice I-it here, is matched by Abby’s equivalent of the same in Frozen Warnings. From Center City Philadelphia in the Aughts, we all had to live through a certain amount of dry ice— the city is not a solitary place, even when you need it to be, and it was invasive and intrusive sometimes. Aughts Philly, in fact, had and was a kind of merry-go-round game, which meant that mastering the stops, when to get on and when to get off (so to speak), was a delicate art. Artists need space. Frozen Warnings is given by Abby here a suburban template, but involves urban issues too— what happens when hipster-ism and scenester-ism turn sour, and what sinks in is the gravitas of one’s own isolation? The Neo-Romantic obsession with multi-tiered living is also frustrated by the dynamics of balancing imperatives to join and imperatives to self-isolate as well. So that, our reaction to this dilemma could not be dictated to us by Philadelphia’s architecture; that could only lend rigor to the art we were creating. As to what should constitute the life, we were all more or less on our own, and it remains that way to this day.  

The Story of Eris Temple (EP)

By the spring of 2007, when I wrote and recorded most of the Eris Temple tracks, my life had changed radically from where I had been during the Philly Free School/Highwire Gallery days of 2004/2005. I had finished my MFA in creative writing and was now a University Fellow at Temple University, working towards a PhD in English literature. Because my University Fellowship offered both a stipend and two fellowship years (2006/2007 and 2009/2010), and because my first year was a fellowship year and did not require me to teach, I still had time to write books and music. The other change that spring was that I resumed my relationship with Mary Harju, after several years hiatus. Matt was ensconced at the Eris Temple in North-West Philly (52nd and Cedar), and the Eris Temple basement, where the studio was, was also large enough to hold performances in. To give some idea of how the studio looked: you would descend down a red-painted wooden staircase, into a kind of dungeon lair beneath street level. As per levels: the first, bottom level had Matt’s computer equipment and mixing board on it. Then, upsy daisy (a jump up) to the second, elevated level of the studio, which was large and square-shaped, and where the instruments where kept. Radio Eris rehearsed there, punk bands and noise-industrial bands often played as part of Eris Temple events, and this is where the instrumental portion of recording was done. That means, as those who know recording studios know, that the cables ran between the two levels, which wasn’t always comfortable, rather banana-peel-ish, but who cares. The instrument/sound-booth space had one window, even with the side-yard pavement, facing due south. The ceilings were relatively high, which offset the aura of grunge and “bunker” nicely. The floors were granite slab.

The songs I had written that spring were only a semi-hodge podge. For some reason, I was attracted to the open G tuning, made famous by Ry Cooder and Keith Richards. Salty Waves Of Blue, Rake, and Garden Wall were all written in open G. The way Matt produced Salty Waves Of Blue and Rake, the ambiance owed a lot to Big Star’s #1 Record, particularly Watch the Sunrise. I also noticed that when we recorded She Disowned My Life, with Pete Leonard on drums (who had also drummed for my band The Godheads at CHS), and which was in standard tuning, the mood we caught was some rock music equivalent of the high ceilings and the granite slabs mixed together. It was an aural admixture that had Philadelphia as it looked and felt in it. USA Lite and Feel Like A Man Again were both meant to express different kinds of frustration; as halcyon as much of Aughts Philadelphia was, and as the Eris Temple in all its high-ceiling grunginess was, the Aughts were Bush regime years in the United States and all of us felt that pinch constantly, too. Feel Like A Man Again is more about the social and sexual mores of Aughts Philadelphia, and the sense I often had in the Aughts of characters and situations out of control, beyond the pale; in other words, excess. The dynamic between Aughts Philadelphia and Red America was utterly never-the-twain, and we didn’t necessarily feel, on a day to day basis, that our excesses were being mirrored anywhere else. I’m In Love With A Girl, of course, the Big Star cover, is from an earlier era when Matt lived at 11th and Webster in South Philly. I think it works as an add-on here, to an EP collection which requires some sweetness to balance a general sense of the brackish. As to why this EP took almost ten years to come out; because, as they say, shit happens. Matt and I were going to do more recording in the summer of ’07, but I was preoccupied with poetry, particularly the Dusie chapbook “Kollectiv” and getting my first chapbook Posit ready for publication. Mary and I broke up in September; my first two books, Opera Bufa and Beams, appeared that fall. Quite a year. In the Aughts, they all were.

Neo-Romanticism and Pop

Aughts Philadelphia and Neo-Romanticism are both complex phenomena. They are also separate, and able to be distinguished from each other. Aughts Philadelphia was a social and artistic phenomenon which worked on all the appropriate levels— not only what artists created, but what people wore, what drugs they took, who they slept with, and how far they were willing to distinguish themselves as individuals. All these compartments, for Aughts Philadelphia, are filled with an outrageous sense of fertility and expansiveness. Neo-Romanticism, the group I was part of, works as a subset (and, in many ways, merely a subset) of Aughts Philadelphia, and is and was driven by specific intentions, impulses, proclivities, and talents. Artists from other scenes/contexts need to understand: Philadelphia is a Gemini city. What this means in practice is very specific: if you expect to come to Philly and hear from the entire cultural community a cohesive narrative about Aughts Philadelphia, or about the Philly Free School and Neo-Romanticism, you can forget about it. Just like the architecture, Philadelphia art scenesters are quite wacky and all over the place, quite Gemini, about who is who and what’s what in Philadelphia art, or even just about different social scenes in Philly at different times. Expect cohesion in Philadelphia, and some “twin” will derail you. Back to us: did Neo-Romanticism have our own unique protocol of dealing with Pop? We did and, oddly enough, in the baroque, expansive spirit of our architecture, it was not by any means entirely dismissive. Abby and I were both rock musicians, and public ones. It’s not just that: while Abby was painting her masterpieces in the mid-Aughts, more people in Philly knew her as a rock princess with The Bad News Bats (she played keyboards and sang) then as a painter. Pop, for us, was just one more level or tier to be explored among the many tiers and levels built into our brains; as in Apparition Poem 1647:

She told me I love boy/girl poems, love
scenes in them based on a deep degeneracy
inherited from too much heat around my
genitals, as manifest in tangents I could only
see if I was getting laid. She told me this as
I was getting laid in such a way that any notion

of telling was subsumed in an ass as stately as
a mansion, which I filled with the liquid
cobwebs of my imagination. There was grass
outside being smoked in a car in which another
boy/girl scenario played out in a brunette giving
a fine performance of Bolero in her movements,

and I immediately flashed back to the deep
genitals of my first girlfriend and the way she
used to implore God’s help at certain moments,
who was certainly watching this. That’s it, that’s
the whole spiel I have on boy/girl poems and
why they are hated by the dry dunces who love them.

The brunette is Natalie Wood in Splendor in the Grass; and what I was going for is a sense, a visionary sense, of imagery melding into tactile reality (sex) and then back into imagery again. All as a spoof (sort of) of academic feminism; all to show that wherever you are and whatever you think you know about humanity, the sex will out. For Abby and I, an engagement with Pop levels like rock music was at least partly about sex, and eroticism. Rock music is all about emotions, and ambiance. The track I recorded at the Eris Temple in 2007, She Disowned My Life, has in it what the best Bats stuff from the mid-Aughts had, which Abby partly wrote; a warped sense of space, of musical time segmented off in odd ways, in odd orders, to create a kind of sound composition which shimmered against the confines of linearity and rote, mechanical, corporate rock music. The Eris Temple cut is, of course, influenced by Big Star’s Radio City (Alex Chilton lived, literally, in an art gallery), and the sense of making rock music from as pure a place as possible, which is also true of The Vapors, and its odd, cerebral mind-games. As per us and literally Pop, like Warhol, Rauschenberg, and later Koons; we had a mixed bag Philadelphia Gemini reaction to the lot of it. Abby, a genius-as-pure-painter if there ever was one, was unimpressed with Warhol’s paintings, but we all found Warhol’s movies amusing and intermittently provocative. This I heard Abby say; I never heard her on Koons. If I had to place any Pop chips down, I would place them on the likes of Beauty #2 and such. It’s also worth saying that the cover of The Vapors, here shown, is no slouch as a work of Pop Art; as are many of the photos we all took in the Aughts, which will show up again here shortly. 

Neo-Romanticism and the Academy

As per Neo-Romanticism and the Academy: we will have to be both in it and out of it forever. The in/out dichotomy could express beleaguered avant-gardism or half (or a third or quarter) academicism; but, because Neo-Romanticism has a hinge both to philosophy and literary theory on high levels, both of which flourish (usually) only in academic contexts, and because I went to Penn and Abby to PAFA, we will never properly be “street” (as we could be) in Philadelphia, New York, or anywhere else. The more aesthetically valid version of academicism we espouse is our version of classicism— of historical awareness which dotes on an elite handful of already elite achievements, specifically in English Romanticism and French Neo-Classicism. Yet, looking at Meeting Halfway, Abby’s boldest statement of queer intentionality, and how classicism is balanced by an imperative to be intimate, sexual, and provocatively so, we can see how Philadelphia’s architecture insisted on a multi-leveled, multi-tiered approach, so that we as artists could be, at least partly, of the street as of the Academy. Call it Neo-Romanticism’s nod to Mannerism, or just a major high art consonant Wall of Sound; and this whole syndrome, of balancing a plethora of imperatives, including raw, frank sexuality, and a classicist dedication to elite forms, is also played out provocatively in Apparition Poem 1649:

Oh you guys, you guys are tough.
I came here to write about some
thing, but now that I came, I can’t
come to a decision about what I

came for. What? You said I can’t
do this? You said it’s not possible
because it’s a violation and not a
moving one? It’s true, you guys

are tough. You know I have tried,
at different times, to please you in
little ways, but this one time I had
this student that was giving me head

and she stopped in the middle to tell
me that I had good taste and you had
bad taste, and I’ll admit it, I believed
her. She was your student too, maybe

you’ve seen her around. She’s the one
with the scarves and the jewelry and
the jewels and the courtesy to give the
teachers head who deserve it. Do you?

Fayette Street in Conshohocken manifests a willingness to transgress, and so do we. When themes and forms are juxtaposed in unlikely ways (City Hall, Center City Philly), we demonstrate an extremely rugged sense of individualism, as does our body of work. Neither Abby nor I were working with any kind of dossier to guide our creativity; we were under the architectural spell we were under, and winging it. Getting classicist hands dirty the right way round; the buildings insisted on it (Liberty Place Towers). Or, you could call it formal rigor with a socially relevant edge; creating spaces for our audience where beauty and sexuality themselves could be provocative issues, ditto aesthetic formality. Posit these constituent elements to Neo-Romanticism in chiasmus with the Academy, and what emerges (to be honest) is something very indeterminate. Or, the ambiguity between the Academy and Neo-Romanticism has inhering in it the tension between formality and thematic provocation, beauty and conceptuality, that (owing to an inferior relationship to form) the twentieth century in literature and visual art never particularly bothered to deal with as the Romantics and Neo-Classicists did in the nineteenth. The twentieth century, backwards and sideways, in Neo-Romanticism, is all about what in our work is conceptual, including concepts of forms, and why we have chosen to employ aesthetic formality the way we have. In the aftermath of the glut of post-modern conceptuality in the last fifty years, daring to be formally beautiful and socially relevant simultaneously is its own gambit. Walks down the right Philadelphia streets will show anyone that Philadelphia’s spaces are constantly doing these tricks, between usefulness and ravishment, what is serviceable and what is sumptuous, all in a time/space continuum spanning a number of centuries. What our architecture revealed to us is a game much more grandiose and all-encompassing then most of the twentieth century in our disciplines dared to imagine— a way of taking raw sex, raw beauty, and weaving it through with the right kind of conceptuality so that we’ve got all the way from Ingres to Warhol, all the way from Keats to Pynchon covered. Yet, a certainly class of artists will call historical awareness and gravitas academic— and our half-immersion in academic contexts makes the association difficult to avoid completely.

How Long Can This Go On

For years, I have been haunted by Big Star’s Radio City,” and different approaches to addressing it. There are few rock masterpieces as strange, or as resistant to interpretation— from the songs’ skewered structures, to the odd production tricks employed to create unique guitar tones, everything about the album (first released in 1974) spells “quirk.” Yet, “Radio City” also balances contradictions— quirky as it is, it is also one of the most viscerally powerful rock productions of all time. The first time I heard “Radio City,” in the summer of 1995, I was disappointed— I wanted it to be as baroque and Beatles-consonant as “3rd/Sister Lovers.” It took several months to splinter itself beneath my skin— once it was there, I couldn’t get it out. “3rd/Sister Lovers” is much easier to write about— it presents a coherent narrative, and a distinct musical ambience to accompany it. As “Radio City” ricochets and careens wildly all over the place, it constantly destabilizes attempts to pin it down. One of the more obvious hinges to interpretation is, in songs like “What’s Goin’ Ahn,” the seeds of “3rd” being planted— how dead sonic spaces, pauses, push/pull tempo lurches, and general entropic sluggishness make Big Star sound dangerously close not just to disorder but to complete disintegration. Jagged edges animate and “load” the album— songs, like “Life is White,” have an abrupt and blunt lack of politeness and politesse. Big Star have mistakenly been labeled “power pop,” owing to Radio City’s most famous track, “September Gurls”— but, in the context of “Radio City,” the song’s pristine and polished formalist perfection (though even “September Gurls” is sharp and jagged in execution) is sui generis. What Alex Chilton’s modus operandi seems to be is to turn conventional pop song structures on their heads, thus unsettling expectations engendered by “#1 Record,” Big Star’s straightforwardly pop-classicist debut outing, which peaked with “Thirteen” and the now TV-famous “In the Street.” That’s the keynote of Chilton’s “Radio City” aesthetic ethos— destabilization, in its most rock-artful form. 

As has been said, “Radio City” makes for a jarring (even irritating) first listen. Chilton’s musical vocabulary, by this time, was extensive— not only is his usage of arpeggios and arpeggiated guitar runs sophisticated and complex, Chilton shows himself the equal of Jimmy Page in demonstrating mastery of electric guitar tonal ranges, owing to pick-up choices (Chilton has his own post-Claptonian “woman tone”) and microphone placement. “Radio City” is, despite its surface recalcitrance and among other things, a wonderful showcase for rock guitar playing. The tones Chilton tends to favor are trebly ones— musical shades which lean towards the “light” and sharp (set against Page’s dark-toned heaviness). It is also the case that, however ragged and jagged the album is, the songs have enough hooks to qualify as a form of (albeit deconstructive and borderline absurdist) pop— not just “September Gurls,” but the catchy verse-chorus-verse structure of “Mod Lang,” “You Get What You Deserve,” and Andy Hummel’s “Way Out West.” Chilton throws in everything but the kitchen sink, and makes as definitive and rebellious a musical statement as he possibly can. The big problem in writing effectively about “Radio City” is not the music, where Chilton’s aims are comprehensible, but the lyrics— lyrically, “Radio City” is not just scattershot, but gonzo enough that Chilton was clearly also enjoying poking fun at the deep and bathetic self-pity of early Seventies singer-songwriters like James Taylor, Cat Stevens, Joni Mitchell, and Leonard Cohen. There are memorable lines hidden in this grab-bag approach— “She tells the men “go to hell”/ And where that’s at/ Is where I’m comin from,” from “She’s a Mover,” or “You’re gonna die/ Yes, you’re gonna die/ Right now” from “Daisy Glaze” (another track which hints at the imminent psychosis of “3rd”)— but a central thematic gist in “Radio City” is elusive. It’s intriguing that Chilton anticipates certain strains of allusive post-modern art by stealing song titles, which could then be seen to turn the Big Star songs into palimpsests— “What’s Goin’ Ahn” from Marvin Gaye, “She’s a Mover” from the Sir Douglas Quintet. Chilton also misspells things, ostensibly to be bratty and punkish— “September Gurls,” rather than “Girls,” “Morpha Too,” etc. The album as a gestalt reveals a cohesive Chilton persona— the rock auteur as enfant terrible, determined not only to destabilize but to destroy his audience’s preconceived notions as to what rock music could be— Piero Manzoni with a Gibson Firebird.

Radio City” is demanding, repays attentive listening, but also goes out of its way to repel casual listeners— by opening the album with an ornate but convoluted and slow-building track (“O My Soul”), Chilton ensures that his audience will either focus on what they are hearing or turn the album off. Commercially, “Radio City” was never given much of a chance anyway— released with a shoddy, haphazard distribution deal, even the presence of the radio-worthy “September Gurls” couldn’t salvage a respectable chart position for RC. It seems, to get to the heart of the matter, that there are two “Radio City” realities to deal with— how the album sounds on first listen, and how “Radio City” sounds once it is safely and ineluctably under your skin. If “Radio City” has enough of a hook in you to lure you in several times, Chilton’s jagged edges not only begin to make sense, what on first listen sounds merely blunt and disruptive reveals levels and layers of genuine emotional engagement. No other rock masterpiece album is so extreme— snide and cold from a distance, warm and passionately engaged up close. Hearing “Radio City” the right way all depends on your willingness to play Chilton’s game, as he dares you to get cranky, get bored or run away. The surface/depth tensions in “Radio City” are stark; a hunk of ice decoying as much warmth as a work of popular art can hold. By playing odd musical and lyrical angles, Chilton also decoys a firm and unshakable commitment to levels of raw passion and emotional authenticity which, more than anything else over a long period of time, are what “Radio City” evokes. Generations of Amer-Indie veneration vouch for this. 

Echoes of Mannerism in Neo-Romanticism

The hinge from Neo-Romanticism to Mannerism, also, is a reasonably blatant one. Our whole approach to art— more is more, rather then less is more— features exaggerated portions and warped perspectives, even amidst the elaborate formality and architectural hi-jinx. Abby and I both share a perspective, which recurs regularly, that there is or can be something inherently funny or absurd about complexity, and that the multiplication of tangents from a work of art should include tangents the basis of which are absurdity and Dada and Duchamp. With the rejection of simplicity, of course, comes the realization that if we are not to appear too stentorian or heavy-handed, a light touch can be as effective as a sturm und drang one. The Walls Have Ears, here, has in-built the Mannerist tensions around queerness and bisexuality; behind that, the idea that sexuality itself, as both an ideal and an idea, is inherently Mannerist. It brings out in individuals, always, what is warped and/or perverse, not to mention exaggerated, in them; and because the formality of the painting is, as ever, masterful, and because queerness is a serious theme to be addressed, audiences can choose to take The Walls Have Ears as an exercise in painterly absurdism or not. Coloration issues— everything bathed in piss-yellow (Serrano?)(Piss Dykes?)— opens a vista that, when Neo-Romanticism builds into its constructs a sense of absurdity, Mannerist exaggerates aid and abet us towards a realization that the Philadelphia architecture, kitchen sink approach can yield the right dividends. Or Apparition Poem 1327:

She said, you want Sister
Lovers, you son of a bitch,
pouted on a beige couch in
Plastic City, I said, I want
Sister Lovers, but I’m not
a son of a bitch, and I can
prove it (I drooled slightly),
took it out and we made
such spectacular love that
the couch turned blue from
our intensity, but I had to
wear a mask because I’d
been warned that this girl
was, herself, a son of a bitch

Neo-Romanticism is, take it or leave it, pretty free and easy about sex and sexual intercourse. Just as Philadelphia architecture is pretty free and easy about co-opting your space and thrusting its symmetries into your brain. Not to mention that the ambiance in Aughts Philadelphia which we all lived through was largely about free and easy sex. This poem starts from a ground that the two figures in the poem appear to be either very stoned, or bimbos, possibly porn stars (or actors), and then sets the game in motion which it wants to set. It’s about straight sex too, which (to be frank) I feel might be ready to make a comeback. The Dada level is how goofy the exaggerations are, towards a sense that every conceivable imperative to aesthetic excess is served, other than the number of lines in the poem. Apparition Poems only has a handful of sonnets in it, and sonnets as a poetic form are usually the enemies of the Mannerist (sonnets think small, stay confined), but that’s part of the game here. And the fact that both The Walls Have Ears and 1327 “have game” and play games is one of the reasons Neo-Romanticism is contemporary and ready to compete right now. Because the whole twentieth century is always showing up in the paintings and poems sideways, and at odd angles, audiences won’t need to feel disappointed that they are falling into a trough of anything backwards seeming or retrograde. This is true, particularly because the free and easy approach to carnality is rather advanced, and executed with a sense of borderline-disjointed looseness. What can I say? All those years our architecture was dictating our art, it also pulled off the neat trick of freeing Philly’s bedroom antics, which were considerable in all circles, both when masks were necessary and when they were not.