Saturday, January 30, 2010

Fugazi - "Promises" from the CD 13 Songs

Fugazi 13 Songs coverI commandeered a word for songs like "Promises" and "Sometimes Salvation."

The word was "internalized," and I still use it as a kind of shorthand to describe the way a powerful song can get hardwired into your very guts, when the lyrics and the drum beats and the guitar solos aren't any longer a set of instructions performed by some far away artists, but have instead become a bank of hot buttons touched that activate strong emotions deep down.

A shortcut. Hear the song, feel the joy, feel the pain, some of both if that's what it is.

Of course, I remember when "Promises" became internalized for me. Focus in on this, sixteen, seventeen years ago, but also somehow outside of time, the way that most vivid memories are.

I'm 26 or 27, and therefore still virginal, living in North Miami Beach in the 2/1 rental house with Tim Powell. Door shut for privacy, in my un-air condtioned room, windows open, hot humid July air flowing through the screens behind the jalousies, shortly after the South Florida sun had quit for the day, the early evening a sort of pervasive indigo outside. I'm sure I would hear the chirp of crickets if I didn't have the music turned up so fucking loud. Scrawny chest exposed and sweatslick, my bare feet sometimes scrambling for purchase where my flung perspiration has landed on the ceramic tile, my recently-acquired set of weights lie strewn about me on the floor.

I rock back and forth cyclically, not just in the sympathetic rhythm of the music, but also in the rhythm of my exertions, the concentric contractions and relaxations--pull up, let go, pull up, let go--creating its own cadence of motion.

I guess the personal trainers and kinesiologists tell you that you shouldn't rock back and forth as you do your curls, but what the fuck; I'm new to this, and the simple fact that I am exercising at all is extraordinary enough: I don't worry too much about technique.

That I am in fact exercising as the music blasts forth from the Bose two-ways, instead of just sitting in a chair or lying on my bed, as would be my more natural inclination, can be ascribed to the same reason that most young men engaging in weightlifting then, now, or ever, would cite: I have it in my head that at some point in the future an attractive girl of my acquaintance might notice my more well- developed biceps.

So, a sort of normal and harmless state of affairs, as I watch myself exercise in my mind's timeless eye almost twenty years later, for a young and unattached man, except that the weightlifting self I look upon is most definitely NOT young when you consider him in the light of his virginity, and that the young girl of his acquaintance is not really, when you get down to it, an acquaintance.

Her name is Isabelle, originlly from Montreal or some godforsaken place nearby in the province of Quebec, and to be sure, "acquaintance" is boldly inaccurate in describing her; she is a stripper at "Miami Gold," a decently, though not lavishly, appointed strip club not too terribly far from the North Beach rental house where Tim and I live.

But stripper or no, I am nonetheless impressed, as Isabelle has beautiful brown hair that runs straight down her back, a pretty face with pouty lips, a strong chin, and perhaps most impressively, a good-sized, round ass. She talks to me in a congenial way and allows me to hold her hand when I go to the club and pay to sit with her, and it's all pleasant and exciting for me, especially the parts where she gets naked and bends over in a salacious way.

So as pathetic and sad as it seems to me now, it is undeniable looking back that I had simply found an attractive fantasy preferable to a depressing reality.

And just like it would have been had it been real, Isabelle and I share some similar tastes. One night as we sit in our booth at Miami Gold, in between her recurring dances, she tells me that she had hung out with the members of Voivod back in Canada. Imagine, hanging out with Blackie and Away! And she likes that "Fuck You I Won't Do What You Tell Me" song from Rage Against the Machine. The idea that I might take Isabelle to dinner sometime--which I actually did--or might make Isabelle my first relationship and my first sexual conquest--which I most emphatically did not--becomes a roiling, gestating, evolving concept for me, stoking my libido, and taking a little edge off my long-festering desperation.

So then, back to my room, back to the weights, which I have bought, and have resolved to use, to impress the stripper girl from Canada. Back to Fugazi: I lay on the floor, bringing the bar with its few ten- and five-pound weights down with me. I'd be bench-pressing, but I don't have a bench and make do with the floor. even though I'll have to spread my elbows wide so that I can touch the bar with my chest. My sweaty back slides on the floor as I arch it and push the weights upward, and the first few notes of "Promises"--picked, fuzzed, and in one case deliciously bent--issue from my speakers.

It is a harnessed, beautiful roar. I'm instantly in love with the song, in love with being in love with it, just as I am in love with the idea of being in love with Isabelle.

Maybe you know the deal on Fugazi: Ian MacKaye's second major band, formed after he dissolved Straight Edge traditionalists Minor Threat, songs just full of MacKaye's cathartic bellows, as well as with Guy Picciatto's more guttural and less satisfying exhortations, all of 'em sewn together with a dubwise bass and sheets of skronky guitar noise.

And with a more confessional style of lyrics. Though the genre they perhaps spawned has a very high crap-to-truth ratio, Fugazi were in some senses Emo's progenitor, as they kept punk's harsh soundscapes, but added a contrapuntal melodic element, and most saliently here, dealt frankly with emotions other than anger in their songs.

As you can see in "Promises"
Words and expressions
All these confessions
Of where we stand
How I see you
And you see me
Dedications of symmetry
Together we will be

Promises are shit
We speak the way we breathe
Present air will have to do
Rearrange and see it through

Stupid fucking words
They tangle us in our desires
Free me from this give and take
Free me from this great debate

There were no truer words than when spoken--
Let that stand as it should
There was nothing left when broken
We grab anything when we fall
 Promises are shit
We speak the way we breathe
Present air will have to do
Rearrange and see us through

Stupid fucking words
They tangle us in our desires
Free me from this give and take
Free me from this great debate

You will do what you do
I will do what I do
We will do what we do
Rearrange and see it through

Go where you think you want to go
Do everything
You were sent here for
Fire at will if you hear that call
Touch your hand to the wall at night

Courage is a concept I'll be coming back to in the next post, but for now, let's just say that "Promises" in its original execution--considered separately and apart from any additional ballast I might have weighted the tune down with--bears its traces. The tune's utter frankness, and its not just avoidance of, but complete disavowal of cynicism in the aftermath of a broken relationship is a powerful and rare combination.

It's certainly not surprising that I as an emotionally vulnerable young man found the song moving. If I didn't, as they say, adopt it as my own, I most certainly "internalized" it. "Promises" became the handy musical referent I craved as I sought to fabulize my imagined and hoped-for relationship with Isabelle, as I in paroxysms of loneliness and sexual desperation did the things you do when you convince yourself you're falling in love with a stripper.

While looking back, and carefully clearing away the emotional detritus I still find attached, even after nearly two decades, I can see that MacKaye's song as AllMusic says "examin[es] the pitfalls of trust in relationships of any nature," and most likely chronicles the breakup of a relationship that had started with particular promise for Mr. MacKaye.

Fugazi, Big, Sky Montana, late 80s

Back then, however, no-one suggested to me that it might be dangerous to take meaning of personal import out of a song written from a vantage I had not yet ascended to. Instead, in its honest and clear-eyed view of words once mouthed in earnest passion but transformed to shit, I simply found a self-fulfilling assertion that imparted my fool's errand--even if it were doomed to failure--with, if not a nobility, at least a humanity that I as a socially inept virgin had never experienced before.

I shed some tears listening to "Promises." I stuffed a lot of money into Isabelle's garters. I once stayed at Miami Gold with her, handing the money over as necessary until it closed at 6AM, driving home afterwards through the stark fuzziness of the hangover that's begun before you've even gotten to sleep. And I am here to tell you that there is no weariness like the weariness you feel as you drive home from a bar as the sun rises. I struggled with the difficulty of writing descriptive poetry about a woman whose best feature was probably her rear end. I even got into ELO's awful "Strange Magic"--internalizing it briefly perhaps?--'cause the DJ happened to play it during one of Isabelle's dances.

I was a complete and utter mess, if sometimes possessed by a frantic joy.

For what it's worth, so was she. Over the course of a few phone calls, I gathered that her father had died young or something, so she had created for herself some fucked up version of a born again Christianity that didn't chastise her for the way she picked up spending money. And some Arena football player she'd recently dated had been a complete dick--let's just say abusive--to her.

I suppose it's better to stuff dollar bills into a stripper's garter than to spend those same bills on cocaine, but short of extreme comparisons like that, it's difficult to impart a positive spin onto the desperation of the time, onto the loneliness and the horniness and the naivete that led me to become invested with my money, with my time and with my deepest emotions in a situation that could not ultimately repay them.

I spent eight or ten months going to Miami Gold before the whole rickety construct I'd attempted to fashion broke down, before some shouting, before an early morning phone call where Isabelle told me as if I didn't already suspect that the only reason she ever spoke with me was because of the money, before a good deal of pain and some more of my crying, some of it while "Promises" played, when the naivete finally fucking broke, and waves of repressed sadness simmered upward and it was pretty difficult to keep my soul from breaking apart.

Isabelle's last words to me were pretty much, "fuck you," and let that stand as it should.

But I sometimes wonder where I'd be if I'd shown the indicated discretion and avoided the whole Isabelle episode altogether, if I'd taken the extra money I was starting to make and started playing golf or something instead. As painful and pathetic as it all was, might it be that I would be worse off now, and would be a less able partner in the relationship I have now with Melanie, if the whole stupid thing had never happened?

The immediate impulse is to wish the unpleasant and stupid and painful events of our lives away, but I wonder.

Fugazi - 13 Songs - 13 - Promises.mp3

This file was removed May 22, 2010. If you're still way interested in coming up with a copy of this--and really can't figure out where you might get one--drop me an email and I'm sure I'll be able to figure something out for you.

File Under: We Grab Anything


tad said...

R: My Ghod.... I don't know NEthing about Fugazi, but the lyrics 2 "Promises" R pretty great -- & U just keep getting better. I think this must've bn pretty tough 2 write, it's awfully revealing -- is there NEthing U WON'T write about?
Yr gutsiness is also pretty inspiring. I THINK I'm about 2 commit some kinda music/love&sex reminiscence/nostalgia piece 4 Valentine's Day, & after reading this I don't think I have NEthing 2 B afraid of....
1 other thing: At the store 2nite I had a guy walk in wearing a DWARVES T-shirt, w/ the blood-drenched album cover U posted/censored here awhile back. I about fell over. All I could get out was "Hey, I KNOW that album...." I woulda pointed the guy 2 yr website but it was busy, & he was in a hurry & out the door pretty fast. MayB next time?
Keep crankin em out. All these reviews R gonna make a great book someday.... -- TAD.

rastronomicals said...

Thanks for the kind words, Tad.

While I've been mostly into SF my entire life, the virtues, and necessity, of utter honesty and transparency in one's writing were learned from mainstream writers like John Fante and Charles Bukowski--and from a comic book artist named Chester Brown.

You know, writing a piece like the one for "Promises" is not all that difficult; it's once you've posted that's hard.

I'm more or less a private person, so the feeling I'm battling after I've hit the publish button is one of overexposure. It's nothing so much as like the way I feel the morning after I get hammered at a party. Boy o Boy I wonder what they think of me?

So, no, that part's not easy, but the fact remains that once you've decided to write at all, you're bound to that transparent honesty. Because lying to your audience is tantamount to lying to yourself.

Thanks again Tad

Anonymous said...

After reading much of this, it seems to come across as a little pretentious and uninteresting rambling. Maybe it's just me. I like to hang out with intelligent but down-to-earth folks. This seems a bit lofty, and therefore unenjoyable to read/follow for me.