|BLACK SECRET TRICKNOLOGY|
debut album Maxinquaye is the most feted, discussed and misunderstood record
of the moment. Ian Penman steps back from the media feeding frenzy to consider
a music that wreaks havoc with our notions of sex, soul and technology
is a type of transformation"
"May I land my kinky
|TEXT: Ian Penman|
|Paul Gilroy prefaces
his essay "Black Music And The Politics Of Authenticity" with a quote from
Kool G Rap: "My nationality is reality." Gilroy goes on to speak of a (black)
culture "anchored in a continued proximity to the unspeakable terrors of
the slave experience." In the 70s/80s, Bob Marley, say, could sing a song
like "Slave Driver" - and all his songs of Redemption, Freedom, Liberation
- and it could still resonate for a generation near enough to their own
(or their parents') experience of displacement for it to register a certain
knottiness. A lot has happened since then (all too little of it picked
up by the critical media) but if you wanted to sum up the seachange - between
the anchored Then and the splintered Now - that quotation would have to
read: TECHNOLOGY IS MY REALITY.
Forget the centre: the margins are where the signals are coming from. Everything is velocity and disappearance and mutation. And so, if here I set up such oppositions as Marley vs Dub, Concrete Jungle versus Jungle plastique, renewable technology versus ossified pop worship, it is not some infernal plan to do away with the Human (the spirit, the voice) and replace it with the Technological. It is rather to reclaim what is truly human (memory, lack, doubt, danger) through and in technology, when it otherwise threatens to evaporate in the blurry oasis of modern marketing.
In the last few weeks, alongside listening to Tricky's phenomenal new album Maxinquaye, I also found myself preoccupied with Bob Marley (for another article), as well as (finally) reading through Greil Marcus's In The Fascist Bathroom. Once again I encountered the problem I invariably have with Marcus. Much as I love his writing, the objects of his adoration often baffle me, especially when it comes to his attempted negotiation of `politics' in music, specifically a certain strain of worthy, invariably English avatar (Mekons, Gang Of Four, Strummer, Costello; also Bruce Springsteen): a certain strain of spokesperson that some of us have never been swayed by, distrusted as being way literal in its approach, texturally meagre. (At times, reading Marcus's powerful reverence for such people, I've almost felt guilty for preferring a John Martyn or Kate Bush or Brian Eno as my prized definition of wayward Englishness.)
Years ago I had a very earnest conversation with The Pop Group's Mark Stewart after I criticised his group in print for their turn away from fevered mysticism ("We Are All Prostitutes"). He said: but what should you do if you have a political conscience and are engaged in the business of making songs and want your songs to register this conscience? I said - I sketchily described - an Ideal Song in which any political inclination could only be registered as a trace of confusion or ambiguity; that if politics was daily ruined for us by being dully ground out in the language of Authority then any counter-cultural motion must find an entirely new language. He said: well, what examples do you have of this? I had to say: none, really, because what I describe is a dreamed song, and there just aren't any real ones around at the moment. Sorry.
|Last year, when I heard
Tricky's astonishing debut single "Aftermath" (additional vocals: Mark
Stewart), I knew that conversation had somehow come home to roost.
`There just aren't any real ones around' - but over the years, there have been certain landmarks. You probably know the Wire[d] litany by now, but anyway: English (John Martyn, the early Roxy Music of "Bogus Man" etc, Robert Wyatt's Rocky Bottom, mid-period Eno, PiL's Metal Box, AR Kane et al); American (Sly, Miles, Sun Ra, Patti Smith, Tim Buckley); and myriad Other points (dub, etc). It seems to me that one could deconstruct Greil Marcus's text in Fascist Bathroom as much by who and what he leaves out as who and what he ticks off; noticing how, for instance, dub is continually indexed as a purely supplementary presence. He writes about the crucial impact dub has on plodders like The Clash, but he cannot find the words to write about dub, as a force unto itself - and a far more unsettling one than any Rawk Groop. Dub is written of/off as if it were purely and simply a formal musical device which can be lifted and appliquéd willy-nilly for the benefit of his (White) Vanquishing Heroes. But the way it sneaks into and speaks through a text like Marcus's - it echoes like a phantom throughout - is proof in itself of the Other ways it has found to operate. Perhaps dub already has an insidious logic all its own which escapes or exceeds this sort of totalising critical language.
What is left out of such an account - with its stress on the single white saviour, on the unifying spokesman, on some sweat-browed embodiment of rock's principa ethica - is the possibility that there has always been this entirely Other politico-musical discourse, in which there is no separation between text and texture, human and technology: a music of eerie dis-embodiment, far more in keeping with the mood of the times.
"For this site, calling to us from
beyond memory, is always elsewhere. The site is not the empirical and national
Here of a territory. It is immemorial, and thus also a future".
This Other tradition has always (sometimes bitterly) been suffused with an inherent (sometimes crippling) sense of doubt: doubt that any `public' pronouncement of oppositionality (such as Marcus is fond of) had any real point; and that you rather had to find or reclaim a language of your own - encoded, murky, stellar - from out of the sky or earth where you found yourself, from out of myriad `discredited' pasts or futures. In the 60s and 70s, Sci-fi shamen like Miles, Sly Stone and George Clinton (taking some of their cues from writers like Samuel Delaney and Ishmael Reed) choose this option. If you were anyway going to be consigned to society's margins, then why not speak (in) a marginal tongue? Speak a language which people would have to come to on your terms, not theirs?
|One of the last lines
on Maxinquaye may well express this same idea; excepting/accepting that
- fittingly enough - it is hard to make out exactly what words Tricky emits,
although he does appear to rhyme "From the margins" with "Lost our origins"...
This buried, contrary, cabbalistic tradition - treknology, tricknology, tracknology - finds a demoniac flowering on Maxinquaye. Everything Tricky has listened to in his (two?) years (PJ Harvey and Kate Bush, Prince and Public Enemy and Augustus Pablo) finds itself grafted onto a strange and intoxicating bloom. (If you think Prince and Kate Bush are rather lame advertisements for Otherness, you haven't properly considered Prince's whole `Spooky Electric versus Lovesexy' crack-up, and his transmutation from proper name into unspeakable symbol; or heard the irruption of something like Bush's "Big Stripey Lie": in sum, how such shy, mild, almost malformed beings are transformed into such maleficent creatures in the crucible of the studio.)
An olde-worlde flat-earth icon like Bob Marley fits too snugly into that modern pantheon which Greil Marcus loathes ("We Are The World" etc) but simultaneously reinstates by trying to set up an alternative pantheon of his own. It is a measured humanism which leaves little room for the uncanny in music; and if it does approach this abyssal sonic element (as I think Marcus does, fleetingly, when confronted by something like the terrifying amoral howl of The Sex Pistols; the unassimilable oddness of The Slits; or the skewed polyvalence of Sly's Riot), it has to back off from the full implication, or surrender up the edifice of its working logic.
There was a strange future-shock moment in the 70s when the polar opposites of reggae (earthed, organic, worshipful) and punk (a self-consuming fast white fire of nihilism) commingled. The suffocating logos of journalism tended to detour around this troubling interface in favour of the iconisation of a Joe Strummer and/or a Marley: perhaps it was more than coincidence that at a time of "I am an anti-Christ" the spectre of Godliness was revived in the Jah/Bob nexus, as against a world of demand which was (frighteningly) posited as infinite, unconditional, absolute.
Many of these unresolved and undiagnosed yearnings have haunted the reception of black and white musics in this country (especially with reference to indie's lager-loutish technophobia) ever since. Some of the palest music in the world (One Dove, say) is more inherently in touch with the black digitalised world of tricknology than the whole of the Face-cover/Talkin Loud/Jazzie B nexus of groovy One World vibery. And some of the blackest music in the world (Public Enemy, say) had more in common with the overturnings of punk than 98 per cent of indie whining.
|Tricky (dis)solves such
- the false oppositions set up between technology and humanity, punk and
funk - precisely by ignoring them. What he (and others in Jungle, New Electronica,
etc) do cannot be described as a `retreat' into technology, because his
generation has never been anywhere else.
For some of us the experience of reggae was far more unsettling than a mere alphabetised clutch of Wailers LPs. People get warped by dub and reggae, and they never recover. And there are reasons for this. But the mistake that all too many too-literal critics still make is to keep `music' and `theory' separate. `Theory' is still what the critic cooks up - later - out of the `raw' matter of the Song. But dub unsettles that whole schema.
Dub's sub-sonic echo is no mere FX - it is the effect proper of a certain subjective view of the world: the dark sonic mirror reflection of Rasta's phantasmal worldview. Dub versions are the shavings of(f) the certainty of (Western) technology as the unmediated reproduction of a singer's performance. Dub was a breakthrough because the seam of its recording was turned inside out for us to hear and exult in, when we had previously been used to the `re' of recording being repressed, recessed, as though it really were just a re-presentation of something that already existed in its own right. Dub messes big time with such notions of uncorrupted temporality. Wearing a dubble face, neither future nor past, dub is simultaneously a past and future trace: of music as both memory or futurity, authentic emotion and technological parasitism. Dub's tricknology is a form of magic which does indeed make people disappear, leaving behind only their context, their trace, their outline. (Where does the singer's voice go, when it is erased from the dub track?) It makes of the voice not a self possession but a dispossession - a `re'-possession by the studio, detoured through the hidden circuits of the recording console. Maxinquaye is one magnificent flowering of this generational ingestion of the smoky logic of dub.
"I've just been given a book which
describes singers as people who string lines across geography and history.
What a marvellous way to think about what singers do."
Tricky isn't stranded either side
of any random divide between archaic Song and neoteric Texture: on Maxinquaye
both seem to come from the same distant pulse. On "Black Steel" he shoves
Public Enemy through a scree of PJ Harvey. On "Ponderosa" he mixes gamelan
and Special Brew. On "Hell Is Round The Corner" he sieves the whole so-called
Bristol vibe through a healthy dose of paranoia. On "Abbaon Fat Track"
he injects BritFunk with an unhealthy dose of Donald Goines's Dopefiend.
On "Strugglin" he sounds like an African griot relayed through Tom Waits's
more Partched inscapes. On "Pumpkin" he jettisons audible meaning altogether.
|On Maxinquaye, Tricky
sounds like ghosts from another solar system. Not so much fear of a black
planet as fear of a planet left behind - fear of the space and silence
out there, which is internalised into this odd, liminal, multi-layered
music. Tricky whispers, he doesn't scream, and it's all the more unsettling
(politically as well as aesthetically) for that. He has adroitly staged
his inaugural ceremony as a disappearance, a mutation, a street-political
sideswipe and a polysexual put-on.
When he appears, there are four of him, at least. He is a horseman, a pleasure tyrant, a thought thief, a shapeshifter - his singing "I" dissolved and left to float over troubled waters. Even the name is double or triple (it's his name - except when it isn't - as well as the group's) and no matter what the track, there is always some Other voice (Martika, Mark Stewart) floating about as ballast.
All the pieces so far written about Tricky (and his close confreres Massive) tend to reproduce a certain quandary: to wit, how can such coarse, workaday fellows be responsible for such unearthly beauty? But this is to misunderstand the nature of both the Song and its technology. The Song is - via the `kinky machine' of recording technology - a spell-like concentration of wish, awe, loss and trouble: it is our modern magick: a means of invocation or evocation, a malicious or heart-melting voodoo. On Maxinquaye Tricky has made (of) himself a machine capable of projecting a whole galaxy/phalanx of contradictory personae. "And as I grow, I grow collective..."
"Moreover, he is a channeler of contamination,
particularly when it comes to linguistic pollutants such as `cuss words'."
The eroticism of Maxinquaye is startling. If most rap (or `slack' DJ-ing) is stuck at a level of sexual projection which inevitably steers towards either misogyny or frivolity, Maxinquaye balances out its askew extremities ("69 degrees/My head's between her knees") with a most un-rap-like polysexuality, whereby Tricky (the rude bwoy) is always cancelled out by Martika or some other other. (Thus, in the midst of Maxinquaye's filthiest, murkiest track we get what may well be the first recorded mention in such circles of "The pre-menstrual cycle".) If rap is sometimes all too present, Tricky stages a disappearing Trick, and the shock of the words sung becomes disassociated from their singer, who fades away, leaving a stand-in persona or ghost to mouth them. You can't pin him down from song to song - he is a latterday Trickster figure, pulling our (signifying) chains. Taking the Michael. Having us on.
"They guarded the knowledge of genealogies
and the complex `praise names' attached to every surname."
"And later on, maybe, I'll tell you
my real name."
It is fairly obvious after a few spins through the infected micro-cosmos of Maxinquaye that Tricky knows more than he is letting on. Knows, as in: a secret knowledge he quite rightly fears to name. This silent discourse echoes around Maxinquaye as a kind of rhythmic ebb or evaporation, voices trailing in and out, never settling on one definite past or present: "Confused by different memories/Details of Asian remedies..."
We may read that Tricky shies away from `theorising' about his work, but this may just be the sane response of a man suddenly confronted by the representatives of a music press desperate to slot everything into its lazily reductive `Bristol as the new Seattle' strap-line. Besides which, the opposition won't stand: Maxinquaye is a work of theory. There is nothing theory can say that is not already embedded in this wily, uncanny text. (Tricky even helpfully
|sings so: "I think ahead
of you/I think instead of you..." Perhaps it would be more accurate to
say that Tricky is unwilling to S-P-E-L-L out to interviewers stuff which
he has already toiled long and hard to find the correct way of saying on
Maxinquaye. Anyone with even a cursory knowledge of certain Gnostic, magickal
and African traditions will know that it is considered foolhardy, dangerous
even, to spell out to one's inferiors things for which the maker has already
found an effective formula.
My brain thinks bomb like/Beware
of our appetite..."
Maxinquaye is like an inventory (just as There's A Riot Goin' On was before it) of what happens to a revolutionary class when it subsumes or sublimates or sublimes its `failure' into a kind of resplendent sub-cultural closure. Spooky and frightened, sexy and freaked-out -blood in the eyes, goat-pain on the breath - bullets start chasin', meanings start elidin'. The fear that permeates Maxinquaye is one side of a mood the reverse of which is a poisonous revelry/reverie: with all the time in the world to kill, this `revolutionary class' succumbs to all the numb repetition enchantments of music, drugs, sex, booze, satellite/video; until the "I" becomes utterly dissolute; until you can no longer tell who you...
Tricky adopts the same personae as the (g)riot Sly Stone: pimp, sadist, freak, struggler, seer. Truth be told, maybe "nationality" never was such a sure thing to hang a life on: it was always shaky, fragile, limned with the spectres of its own imminent dissolution.
"Strugglin'... with the remains."
The place where all this comes together most evocatively is across the monumental expanse that is "Aftermath", with its encrypted meditation on a politics of aftermath. It is the LP's pivot in more ways than one, in which all voices become equal in the endless replay/relay of the technological ether; in which anything can come back to haunt you, in which anything can become haunted. Just as Voodoo redeploys harmless images of Catholic saints, so Tricky plus Martika plus Mark Stewart use a David Cassidy lyric, no less, to essay ontological uncertainty: "How can I be sure? In a world... that's constantly changing?" And slip samples from Blade Runner and David Sylvian/Japan into the mix. David Cassidy, David Sylvian, Blade Runner all assume equal weight/lessness in the circuits of the night.
The Blade Runner sample is particularly noteworthy. In a song that may (or may not) be about the relationship between mother and son (and therefore: legacy, continuity, memory) the decisive expression of this theme is the sampled quote from Blade Runner. "Lemme tell you about my mother!" Anyone who knows the scene from which this is lifted will already be aware of the `irony' (although that is too paltry a word for this staged reverberation) at work here: the voice belongs to a replicant - half-man half-technology, and devoid of memory (and thus legacy, continuity, memory...).
Is it merely coincidence that the Sylvian quote and the Blade Runner lift converge in the same song? "Ghosts"... Replicants? Electricity has made us all angels. Technology (from psychoanalysis to surveillance) has made us all ghosts. The replicant ("Your eyes resemble mine...") is a speaking void. The scary thing about "Aftermath" is that it suggests that nowadays, We All Are. Speaking voids, made up only of scraps and citations... contaminated by other people's memories... adrift...
Maxinquaye releases this ghost-talk of technology, the babble of the wires, plugs sex and drugs and future shock into the circuit... and lets the circuits sing. There's a whole new riot of meaning here, just waiting to be heard.
You can see the digital edition here (but you have to pay to read it)
|analyze me (Tricky)|