PJ Harvey’s “Rid of Me”: 21 years later

It’s 1993. You’re young. Kurt Cobain is still alive, but he’s in your periphery; you’re more into the Chicago scene — Jesus Lizard, that sort of thing. You make zines and mail them to friends around the country. One of those friends sends you a cassette of PJ Harvey’s “Rid of Me.”

PJ Harvey - Rid of Me album coverYou know nothing about PJ Harvey. There is no Google, no Wikipedia, no place you can turn to for information. The cassette from your pen pal is hand-labeled, so you don’t even have an album cover or liner notes. You can vaguely picture the poster at the local record store, but you’ve never examined it.

You play the cassette. The first track begins with a muted guitar riff that emphasizes rhythm over melody. She plays low, single-string notes that one could almost play on a drum; the beat is tribal. A woman’s voice sings over the riff, full of restrained anguish.

You are terrible at deciphering lyrics.* But this deficit makes you more attuned to the emotions behind the words; her vocals are just another musical instrument to you, but they carry as much emotional weight as Rachmaninoff’s piano. (In the absence of lyrical comprehension you also tend to project your feelings onto the singers you like.)

Then the drums kick in and all hell breaks loose.

The soft/loud dynamic is more startling than any Nirvana song. Yet it only lasts a few seconds before going back to the muted plucking. Hell breaks loose again during the outro and the song ends with PJ’s distorted soprano and these lyrics are clear enough for you to understand: “Lick my legs, I’m on fire / Lick my legs, of desire.”

WTF was that? “Lick my legs” was so unexpected that you forgive PJ Harvey for rhyming “fire” and “desire.” You play the cassette again. And again. For months. It’s perfect.

PJ Harvey remains a favorite through her 1998 album, “To Bring You My Love.” Now she’s doing the diva thing; she’s not the howling basement caterwauler you once imagined; but that’s okay: you’ve grown up a bit too. You see her once in concert at a large amphitheater as part of a bill with Veruca Salt (!) and she plays only six songs, this tiny figure in a red dress on a huge stage. After that you kind of forget about her.

Fast-forward 21 years and you see this tweet:

https://twitter.com/WeeLaura/status/498651661024653312

It’s PJ Harvey in 1993 on…Jay Leno? You must have missed that the first time around.

You watch, hoping to unravel some of the mysteries of 1993-era PJ Harvey. Somehow it feels as uncomfortable as watching yourself on video. The camera is too close. The vocals are too high in the mix, like on the karaoke of American Idol. The loud/soft dynamic is neutralized. When she sings “Lick my legs” in her throaty, higher register, it almost comes across as farce. Like she knows it’s a weird line sung in a weird voice. When you heard this on your hand-labeled cassette for the first time, that voice sounded otherworldly, not quite human. Now it’s clear that PJ Harvey was Polly Jean Harvey and all too human.

Moments after performing her psychodramatic masterpiece, PJ Harvey sits down with Jay Leno to make small talk about sheep castration. The other guests are comedienne Kathleen Madigan and actor Michael Richards (whom Jay Leno mistakenly calls Michael Kramer.) It’s surreal, as seeing your adolescence repackaged and commercialized always is. You worry that this was PJ Harvey’s first introduction to millions of people and they did not get it. (Today’s analog is St. Vincent’s performance on SNL.) This happened 21 years ago but it still bothers you. This is 100% your problem, not PJ Harvey’s. She moved on many years ago.

Today you accept that instant access to information is mostly a good thing. But you also miss not knowing things. When you had only partial information — a hand-labeled cassette, a scrambled image on a late-night cable channel — your mind filled in the blanks. It was possible that your favorite bands could be apocryphal — projections of your own psyche, not just a humans with guitars. Who could prove otherwise?

You wanted so badly to know everything, but the years of not-knowing may have been the most formative.

 


 

* One time you asked your dad what “correnulate” meant. He said he did not think that was a real word. The lyric you had misheard was “But it’s too late” from Black Sabbath’s “Paranoid” (“I wish I could / But it’s too late”). You went years thinking it was “correnulate” and that you just didn’t know what that word meant.

 

 

Weaning off Facebook

I’ve known for awhile that Facebook is a net negative in my life. I like keeping up with people I care about, but the people I care most about are not usually the ones dominating my feed.

I still want to be on Facebook. A close high school friend just joined, and I would not have known about another friend’s death without Facebook. It’s also the best place to share photos with family. I just want to be on Facebook much less.

My current solution, since self-control wasn’t working, is to delete the Facebook app from my phone. This way Facebook becomes intentional behavior instead of default behavior: If I want to be on Facebook I have to be in front of a computer and go to the Facebook website.

It sounds really simple and obvious, but it’s worked: I’m now on Facebook about 90% less than I was previously. I log in a few times a day, usually for less than 30 seconds each time, and only on weekdays.

My default, mindless-phone-scrolling behavior now leans heavily toward Twitter, but so far that remains a net positive. And I’m blogging again!

 

One Reason People Are Not More Outraged at NSA Surveillance

My fellow web people will relate to this one.

Several times in my career, someone, usually a senior marketing executive, has asked me whether we can collect the email addresses of everyone who visits the company website. Not “can you set up a form where users submit their email address?” but “does the website do this automatically?”

They were not thinking through the implications of this question. They were not considering that if we could do this, so could every other website, and therefore their email address had already been collected thousands of times.

It’s not that they’re dumb; they just wanted to know if we could send email to our site visitors. And to them, as with most people, technology is a black hole. No one knows how it works.

So, at least on a subconscious level, many people, if not most people, assume that their personal data is being constantly collected.

Which, it turns out, it is.

Mandatory Retirement for Old White Dudes

Baby Boomers have decided to live forever and the net result will be more old white dudes ruining the planet. These old white dudes believe factory smog is a sign of progress, that being called a racist is worse than being a victim of actual racism, and that women should be forced to bear children.

Some of these old white dudes will still hold elected office when I become an old white dude myself. This has to stop.

Maybe it’s because I’m a Gen-Xer with Boomer parents (which tempers my cynicism with over-inflated self-esteem), but I think the younger generations are mostly getting it right.

Image

Source: League of Conservative Voters

So, young people: If you want to accelerate your eventual world takeover (i.e. you don’t want to wait until you’re 60 years old and my generation is still trying to run things at age 80), start now on enacting legislation that forces — or at least entices — old white dudes into retirement at a reasonable age. I’d be cool with age 45 if my retirement package includes free wifi for life, but 65 is probably a tad more realistic.

At the same time, get some more non-old-white-dudes elected. I know you can do it. I have full confidence in you. You have my vote.

Evolve, Punk!

My post last week about heavy metal’s negative influence on punk rock included this:

I get that no band can stay together for any length of time and not want to evolve. I’m all for bands evolving. I’ve stuck with the Flaming Lips all these years. I’ve helped introduce my kids to the Beatles and I love listening to how much they changed in just 10 years.

It turns out I’ve been thinking about this for a long time. This is from a review I wrote 13 years ago of Jello Biafra’s “Live from the Battle in Seattle”:

…I still like the Dead Kennedys all right, and there are some musical numbers on this EP. But these present problems as well. Most rock musicians exceed their usefulness at around age 30 (I intend to retire from rocking on September 27, 2002), and Jello is considerably older than that. On “Live” he covers his own early material (“Let’s Lynch the Landlord,” “Full Metal Jackoff”) and throws in an anti-Microsoft ditty called “Electronic Plantation.” It sounds no different than his collaborations with the members of DOA like 15 years ago. Personally, I want my heroes to evolve. (At least until they’re 30, anyway—then I want them to quit.)

Now that I have passed the 30-year mark and rounded the corner of 40, I laugh at my youthful sentiment that rockers should retire at age 30. (On the other hand, I did indeed retire from rocking in 2002. At least I lived by my principles!) Now, as my kids get older and become increasingly embarrassed of their old man, it’s time to start a Wiggles cover band, or a polka-disco band, or a vaudeville act, or something.

Punk Bands Making Terrible Decisions About Heavy Metal

ImagePunk rock is now firmly established as an aesthetic choice: groups forming today draw from a range of influences, all downloadable from iTunes, and make decisions accordingly. But many punk bands were great because their members had no choice but to play punk rock. Either they were too musically incompetent, or too fucking angry — or both, ideally — to play anything else but three-chord, loud, fast, verse-chorus-verse-chorus anthems. 

But what happened when some of those pre-iTunes punk bands, like, practiced together for a few years? Their musicianship improved. And often their increased competence led to some VERY BAD DECISIONS. And by VERY BAD DECISIONS, I mean heavy metal. 

Don’t get me wrong: metal is fine. Metal, in fact, rules. My first album was Black Sabbath’s “Paranoid.” I still love the metal. But punk rock is a minimal aesthetic and heavy metal is maximal. I don’t know if that’s a word, but I’m going with it. When punk and metal mix, very bad things happen. Let’s explore. 

  1. Bad Brains. Have you listened to the “Black Dots” sessions? Holy shit that was some amazingly tight, fast punk cranked out by very young Rastafarians (!) in 1979. Unfortunately, by 1986, with “I Against I,” they had fully crossed over into “metal virtuoso” territory, and went downhill from there. I would have preferred they went totally reggae, an aesthetic that worked well for the motherfucking Clash. But metal sunk Bad Brains. 
  2. Suicidal Tendencies. The first Suicidal album was a thrash masterpiece of L.A. Chicano rage. The second? Who knows, no one can listen past the first song. And Infectious Grooves? They were the worst of every possible genre compressed into a single terrible band.
  3. Ramones. My first Ramones Album was one of their most metal: “Animal Boy.” My second was the Phil Spector-produced “End of the Century,” which sounds like it was released in 1960. I was very confused about the Ramones for a long time. I did ultimately worship at the shrine of the first three albums, but let’s face it, from “Animal Boy” onward, they were a heavy metal band. 
  4. Circle Jerks. I can listen to the first Circle Jerks album, “Group Sex,” pretty much indefinitely. 14 songs in 15 minutes – damn! The other day I tried listening to their fourth album, “Wonderful,” and did not make it past track three. There is even a metal parody on that album called “American Heavy Metal Weekend” but they don’t seem to realize that the whole fucking album is bad metal parody. 
  5. Green Day. “Dookie” is a pop-punk masterpiece. Their followup, whose title no one can remember*, failed because it had too many guitar solos and metal riffage. Lesson to punks: No one cares how well you can play your guitar! I’m told Green Day remains somewhat popular despite their forays into the dark metal arts. (*Oh right — “Insomniac.”)
  6. Black Flag. I still love Black Flag. Now there are two Black Flag reunion bands touring around. Want to know why the the “unofficial” FLAG will win over the “official” Black Flag? Because Greg Ginn is way too metal and smokes way too much dope. (See also Rollins Band: Metal with the vocals way too high in the mix.)
  7. Dirty Rotten Imbeciles (DRI). I have never knowingly listened to this band but I have a story about them. When I was 14 and getting into punk, I asked my older punk friend to make me a list of albums I should get (at Specs, the now defunct Miami record store that carried vinyl imports and such). One of them said I should get some DRI — “anything but the album ‘Crossover.'” I am pretty sure I know why that is the album to avoid, and what territory it was “crossing over.”

There are many more examples. I will add to this list as I think of them. In the meantime, be punk, or be metal, just don’t be both if you want to not suck. I get that no band can stay together for any length of time and not want to evolve. I’m all for bands evolving. I’ve stuck with the Flaming Lips all these years. I’ve helped introduce my kids to the Beatles and I love listening to how much they changed in just 10 years. But the punk-to-metal thing is not evolution; it’s bastardization, it’s pollution, it’s like when you try to make a kick-ass volcano and you mix baking soda and vinegar, but there’s no explosion: it just kind of foams and dribbles and smells bad.

Pitch: The Last Wingman on Earth

Author’s note: Almost 20 years ago, I graduated from college with a degree in screenwriting. I never sold a screenplay or worked in Hollywood, but the ideas for movies, and the desire to write them, continues to this day. The pitch below — for a slyly feminist buddy comedy — has been gathering dust for a long time. At this point in my life, there is no point sitting on these ideas any longer. So here you go. If you happen to know Aziz or Bill or anyone with a few million bucks, please pass this along. 

VIJAY CHOPRA (Aziz Ansari), a shy computer programmer who co-founded a popular dating website, becomes suddenly rich when Google buys his company. To celebrate, he and his lady-killing business partner/former college roommate, TED WEATHERBEE (Bill Hader), have a night of drunken excess with Google executives in NYC, culminating in a visit to a “LIFE PRESERVATION AGENCY” where Vijay and Ted drunkenly agree to have their remains preserved in the event of their death. (“Hey, all the Google execs do it,” is the line used to pressure them into it.)

Immediately afterward Vijay is abruptly KILLED in a tragic, yet hilarious, accident. (There should be a moment when we think Vijay has died — because anyone who sees the trailer will know he’s going to die — but he hasn’t. Then, moments later, he really does.)

Vijay AWAKES, Austin Powers-style, 500 years in the future, in a society populated entirely by FEMALES. At first the society seems perfect: No war, lots of free massages; the whole word looks like an Anthropologie store.

No-nonsense DR. LISA LEDBETTER explains that 50 years after his death, a pandemic caused humans to stop conceiving male babies. The survivors continued populating the earth via sperm banks but could conceive only more females.

THEY ARE RUNNING OUT OF SPERM AND BELIEVE VIJAY MAY BE HUMANKIND’S LAST HOPE.

(Sophisticated computer programs have identified Vijay’s DNA as “very desirable.”)

The kindly doctors who tend to Vijay are clueless about men and the 21st century. They eventually convince him to provide a sperm sample, but he can’t “perform” in the sterile setting, with crazy 26TH-CENTURY HOLOGRAPHIC EROTICA.

Just as the erotica becomes marginally arousing, a band of MILITANT WOMEN, led by the evil GAIA DEVEREAUX, storms the building and KIDNAPS Vijay. The militants DON’T WANT VIJAY TO BREED. While they argue among themselves whether to kill Vijay, or castrate him and place him in a MAN-ZOO, Vijay draws the sympathies of the alluring militant OLGA HURTADO, who eventually helps him ESCAPE.

Unsure what to do, and intensely lonely, Vijay sneaks into the medical building where he was brought back to life and uses his computer prowess to find and REANIMATE the frozen body of his best bud TED WEATHERBEE (still Bill Hader in old-man makeup) — who died in the plague at age 82.

Ted, the 82-YEAR-OLD WINGMAN, helps Vijay win Olga’s heart, and Vijay and Olga make INTENSELY AWKWARD LOVE (Vijay bumbling and shy; Olga mortified by human penises).

After Vijay and Olga’s consummation, the militants attempt to hunt down the happy couple and Ted. They hide in a series of SAFE HOUSES – each one revealing a new STRATA of the all-female society.

Ted makes an impassioned speech about the meaning of LIFE and LOVE and then promptly DIES OF RICKETS.

Olga and Vijay keep running but are eventually CAPTURED. The militants want to BURN THE HERETICS AT THE STAKE. Dr. LISA LEDBETTER intervenes, and the militants tie her up as well. While tied to the burning stake, Dr. Ledbetter makes some observations and asks Lisa a few questions, e.g., “Are you queasy?” “When was your last menstruation?”

It turns out OLGA IS PREGNANT. When Dr. Ledbetter announces this fact, the less violent militants REVOLT AGAINST GAIA DEVEREAUX and free Olga, Vijay, and Dr. Ledbetter.

With a handheld device, Dr. Ledbetter runs an on-site SONOGRAM and determines that IT’S A BOY! The two factions of society momentarily come together. Olga and Vijay kiss and live happily every after.

Or do they?

Flash-forward 15 years later. Vijay and his NOW-TEENAGE SON have a visitor. It’s OLGA! Coming to see them in the MAN ZOO!

FADE OUT

Alternate ending, to run during credits or as a DVD extra:

Trying to escape a band of militants, Vijay locks himself back into the cryo-freeze chamber, only to awaken an additional 500 YEARS LATER in an ALL-MALE SOCIETY. An ugly man promptly SHOVES A SPEAR THROUGH VIJAY’S HEART.

FADE OUT REDUX