Monday, October 02, 2006

The Skeletons of Spacemen

I'm convinced that Robyn Hitchcock is actually a science fiction writer who doesn't know it yet (even if he never will), which is one of the reasons that I've roped him into contributing two poems to my upcoming anthology Fast Forward 1: Future Fiction from the Cutting Edge. I've been a long time admirer of his stories - both penned and spoken word - as well as his music, for the haunting imagery laced with equal parts absurdism, despair and humor. His lyrics - frequently referencing time travel, the future, outer space, transformation and regeneration (both monstrous and magical) - are evidence of someone who has internalized the iconography of science fiction and reprocessed it as musical pop culture. (And check out the HG Wells reference in 1995's sure-to-please-Jeff-Vandermeer song "Victorian Squid.") The science fiction angle has been in evidence as early as his late 70s band The Soft Boys - who took their name from William S. Burroughs' The Soft Machine - and has carried straight through his career. It's not the basis of my affection, but Hitchcock has that rare ability to weild the surreal as a weapon for uncovering the painfully true in a way that makes you laugh and cry simultaneously. I'm described him before as a combination of Bob Dylan and Doctor Who, and that's as apt a description as any.

Sometimes recording with the Egyptians, sometimes solo, lately Hitchcock has been achieving some very interesting sounds by working with some new collaborators. First there was his team up with Gillian Welch and David Rawlings for 2004's folksy Spooked (concerning which I interviewed him for the March 2006 issue of the Believer). Now, he's recorded with Peter Buck, Scott McCaughey and Bill Rieflin as Robyn Hitchcock and the Venus 3. The result, Ole! Tarantula - with a cover that looks like a sketch of a JW Potter image - is one of his most rocking offerings in years. As he says, "To me, the whole record is sadness cloaked in fun. But under that fun, more sadness."

Naturally, the SF is back, apparent right from the first track "Adventure Rocket Ship."

Adventure Rocket Ship,
the lover and the slave,
the skeletons of spacemen unzipper me with love.
I'm coming for you someday,
as fathful as a mummy discovered in a crator,
Hemaphrodite in style.
You crash upon a star...

As are those wonderfully little bits of nonesense that are Beatles-esque in their ability to sound like pop profundities, like this verse from "Belltown Ramble":

You can walk a square.
You can walk an oblong.
Even just walk straight.
You'll still be standing there.
Though you think you did the job wrong,
you did it great.

But it's actually the last track, "N.Y. Doll," that is my favorite of the CD. An ode to the late Arthur Kane, whom I didn't know much of anything about before looking up his wikipedia page. Kane was in the New York Dolls, who prefigured a lot of both punk and glam rock attitudes in a lot of ways without ever really hitting it big themselves. Forced out of the group after the departure of bandmembers Johnny Thunders and Jerry Nolan, Kane fell into dispair in later life watching a succession of rockers achieve success with styles and attitudes they'd pioneered. Frustrated, he left rock and roll, struggled with drugs and alcohol, destroyed his marriage and even attempted suicide, before eventually joining the Mormons. Late in life, Morrisey reunited the Dolls for his 2004 Meltdown Festival, which coincideded with a rockumentary about Kane's life and brought about a Live reunion CD and DVD on Morrisey's label. But on July 13th, 2004, Kane checked into the hospital with what he thought was flu, was diagnoses with leukemia, and died within two hours. As tragic as this is, having felt bitter and unappreciated for so many years, perhaps this was not such a bad way to go if one must. A bit like Roy Orbeson in that Kane mangaged to regain the limelight after a long absence, and died feeling vindicated/appreciated at what must have been a highlight of his career.

Meanwhile, it seems that Kane's nickname, Killer Kane, was thought to have been paritally inspired by a character in the William Peter Blatty novel, Twinkle Twinkle Killer Kane, later filmed as The Ninth Configuration. Blatty, who wrote the first Excorcist (and the third), wrote & directed a little known almost-masterpiece called The Ninth Configuration, staring Stacy Keach as a psychologist assigned to an asylum in a castle in the pacific northwest full of Vietnam soldiers who are probably faking it, and one very confused astronaut who probably isn't. Scott Wilson plays Captain Billy Cutshaw, who is terrified of dying in space. Keach is the psychologist determined to uncover the reason for his fear. I saw the movie in Film 101 at the University of Virginia, later purchased it on VHS, and have probably watched it 20 or 30 times over the decades, though not in at least 6 years. Anyway, this weird connection between the film and the Dolls, as well as poignant sentiments like the following, make this my favorite song on the CD.

I was the pulse of it all,
but there's always poison to drink alone or share with friends.
One in a million people hit you like a window pane.
Sincerely I remain, Arthur Kane.

Hitchcock says, "I never met Arthur Kane but his story is another example of how precious a life becomes when it's over." Amen. Meanwhile, although I've already recieved Ole! Tarantula in the post from Yep Roc Records, apparently one can still "pre-order" it and receive the limited download "Embryo Twirl."

Incidentally, Blatty once remarked that The Ninth Configuration was the "true sequel" to The Excorcist, and that the astronaut that the sleepwalking Regan warns "You're going to die up there," is in fact The Ninth Configuration's Captain Cutshaw. The skeletons of spacemen indeed...

No comments: