Monday, 10 January 2011

Pulped life

[a slightly changed version of an article I've written a year ago and published in a Polish magazine called Lampa (issue 1/2/2010), inspired by this piece, of course. So now, when Owen publishes his book, no one will tell I nicked my ideas from him]

Polish pop & punk bands were journalistic, Polish bands were not excelling in great lyrics. This text seeks to overcome this general opinion, and maybe come up with some new views. In the history of popular music of single countries there’s their history written, social, political, intellectual, it conserves the cultural momentum, the language, style, views, customs, morals and consciousness. I initially started writing this text in a reaction to Owen’s two part essay on Pulp - where he was overtly stating this was the best UK band of the 90s and why it was so special – but it was probably the article’s cheekiness and general flamboyancy that made me to rethink whether and why my country, Poland, never had its version of Jarvis Cocker. Because it was probably this band who captured, better than anything from that period, the zeitgeist, drowned in the Brit-pop’s crassness and cockiness, and left victorious this embarrassment that Brit pop was, without fraternization with Blair or participating in the Blur vs. Oasis thing, still topping the UK charts with Common People in 1995.

Through they style-jangling, eclectic, nonchalant (I thought at that time!), but very accessible music they were the most exciting and moving band at the time, touching upon the themes of the class war, patriarchy, inequalities, and managed to do so through very private and idiosyncratic obsessions of its frontman and lyricist, the one and only Mr Cocker. Because really, the lyrics were the most important in this band, although all of us were dancing to the ‘hits’ from Different Class.

Because there they were – and I remember very well when I bought my first of their albums, it was Common People of course, and it was a cassette, and I was thirteen, 1996, initially prompted to buy it allured by the cover and the artwork of it, pictures of the family events, weddings, communal life and this whole ridiculous slogan ‘We just want to be different’ – wondered, why exactly did they mean? I remember the initial awkwardness of my acquaintance with Pulp very well. For a girl who at that time just started reading music press – and it was a good time for the press in the still freshly free Poland, just a year before a first real popcultural magazine started, called “Machina”, a mixture of Face, I-D and Melody Maker, where I first read about William S. Burroughs, Afrika Bambataa and pop art probably – it was quite something. Don’t remember whether I even read a review of Pulp, just there they were, and I remember just being seduced by the title – Different Class. At that time I already knew and was listening to, among others, Portishead, Bjork, Blur, had few important soundtracks, like (forgive me) Trainspotting, after which I started listening to Joy Division and New Order, and at that time, in Poland, believe me, listening to (Whats the Story?) Morning Glory didn’t condemn you to the social inexistence. Au contraire, no one were interested in this music in my school or among my friends. There were just me and tons of cassettes in my room.

After that there was dozens of British bands in my life, discovered and rediscovered. The moment when I realised how much a context of a place from where the band was was decisive. If you’re from Sheffield you don’t play like guys from Glasgow, and definitely not like blokes from Liverpool or Manchester. Pulp were from Sheffield, famous for its industry and brutalist architecture, with the great social experiment that was the Park Hill complex at its front. It was to be the city of the future, there the dreams about the final industrialization were supposed to fulfill, it was a fine transposition of futurist ideas into the every day life. Cabaret Voltaire, Human League (who first performed as the Future!) or Comsat Angels were from there, among others. But Pulp does not wear significant traces of an influence of the local scene. Cocker founded Pulp aged 15, and his natural references were Roxy Music and (I guess) some influences of Bowie, with a vision of a sexy, feminized but not gay, vocalist, inclination to frocks and luxury, and refined pop.

Who is usually founding bands? Funnily enough, unlike Britain, in Poland it was rather kids from intelligentsia, with an access to family libraries and at least small financial security. Not in UK, as we know. But Cocker was hardly a working class hero. He had it written on his face he was a good student, a well read teacher’s favorite, who attended music lessons and were active in the school theatre. But he clearly wanted a success. And where the hell is a success and the access to the ladies if not in the realm of rock music. If you watch the very early videos of Pulp with Jarvis, included on the post-split Hits dvd, what you see is an incredibly tall, eccentric, quirky, nonchalant, black-humoured but perfectly aware of his uniqueness pretty boy in oversized glasses, whose every gesture, every whim on his face, seem to be perfectly directed, so perfectly it suggest his fragile and embittered ego. He desperately wants to be different, fucking Andy Warhol, combined with Bowie, and more Scott Walker than Bryan Ferry, and what not, and he will be restless and ruthlessly focused where he only wants to. He is like Cary Grant in Bringing Up a Baby – but whereas there only we, the audience knew he may be clumsy, but he’s pretty fucking hot, he’s a bloody Cary Grant after all! – this boy already is perfectly aware how bloody charismatic and special he is and how he will use it to his advantage in the music world. And what a spectacle of a man he is - and he knows it, even when he’s doing his grocery shopping. But look at him again, and then look at him a few years later. Jarvis wasn't a typical frontman, with his carefully staged video and gig persona, with his ridiculous height, thinness, overly long arms and may have appeared as even grotesque. (then we learned there was some heroine involved to this thinnes later). He looks like a Daddy Long Legs, isnt he, so fragile he would be thrown with a slight blow of a wind. If you look like that, you feel uneasy, uncomfortable, you stand out. There's no easy option for sexiness for you, you have to invent yourself. Hence the queer-but-straight, peculiar stage motion of Jarvis, his cabaret, theatrical characteristic "pointing" hands gestures, his studied as-if drunken/stoned manner of dancing, that seem like a parody of conventional male sexiness, but delivered together with this deep, baritone voice becomes Ueber-sexy...
On the Sheffield Band video, sitting together with his band mates, he seems very uncomfortable. They all, the band, love Sheffield, they really do – isn’t Sheffield a beautiful place? he asks rhetorically, equally rhetorically admitting he will never move to London. Ha bloody ha. His mind is already nowhere else.

I’m unfortunately not patient enough with describing frocks and style, if you want this, go to Jon Savage and England’s Dreaming – let me then release my inclination for sublimation and focus on the message. The message was truly ambivalent. It is hard just to put Jarvis strivings into the box of a prole resentment, because it was so much more. Pulp is a band of oppositions. Yes, of course, he was perfectly interested in making a career and fucking other bands’ chicks, but show me a 90s frontman actually more interested in the destinies of women? And with an equivalent of the quiet, but assured presence of Candida Doyle on the keyboards (somewhat a balance to the Jarvis’s flamboyancy). Another paradox is of course the nostalgia. Cheap nylon outfits, general atmosphere of tawdriness, that later was changed for the more expensive, but still far from luxurious 1930s-meet-1970s colorful shirts, velvet suits and pencil skirts. Nostalgic salubrious sound vs the epic rock, mechanical motorik referring to the Sheffield bands tradition and the sentimental balladry; cockiness and shyness. The sentimentalism, self obsessed and sexy, reeking with boredom, disappointment, resentment, inequalities, decadence, ennui, deviations, alienation, hedonism, despair. And compassion. All those girls and women dwelling those songs, from the early Little Girl, repeating the theme of a young woman, pushed into a marriage & children, and then deteriorating in a house in the suburbs. My favorite song from the early underrated 1987 Freaks album is I want you, with a metaphor of an old lover, who wants to “keep her and throw himself away” (is there a more beautiful metaphor of love?). “You could look like anyone else, If that’s what you want to do”, but she cant, he can’t look at her in any other way. Guilt, frustration, sick love, fear of love, are leitmotivs of the early Pulp. In Life must be so wonderful Jarvis continues over the sad destiny of his ex, who left the town and didn’t quite gain the success elsewhere, who he is mocking, bored to the degree he need not to even pretend anymore.

I have a quite unexplainable liking for Freaks, which are relentlessly bleak, one-note, monotonous album on boredom, unsatisfying sex and title’s “death of emotions”. Unlike other Pulp albums, there’s no playfulness, nearly no skips (apart from I Want You and What You See maybe) toward any other form or other kind of human interaction. There’re certainly pieces of art that doesn’t bring any hope, but the songs on Freaks are also badly written and produced and there’s perhaps no forgiving for that. Still, I can’t fully recover after subsequent listenings of Life must so wonderful, where there’s clear there’s something genuinely wrong with the world and our relationships. There must be a difference between sheer wallowing in our unhappiness and real unhappiness, which is total and absolute shiteness. There’s certainly a difference between acknowledging that your relationship or lack thereof is shit and eg., that people are cruel, and eg. rape and kill each other. Because one can just leave said relationship, paying probably with a few months of feeling shit or having a depression, but surely, things like politics fucking over generations after generations or mass murder are worse.

But the catastrophe of relationships in Cocker’s lyrics are not only a fault of the imperfect nature of an individual, not only of the male desire, which in the end must say “goodbye” even to a nicest and most sympathetic girl and look for another conquest, to avoid the suffocating emptiness. Or rather this emptiness takes place in a specific space: in cage-like, stuffy flats, without perspectives, among stupid and insignificant dreams, among passive women and frustrated men. The characters are usually from the lower social classes, who had a chance to have/taste some of a “better life”, which often ends in a total failure. All this is filtered through an openly misogynistic, self-ironic, monologueing hero, who is mocking his own pretension to grandeur and megalomania, which is also a side effect of a class-induced resentment. There’s no, apart from the Freaks, real misogyny in Jarvis’ lyrics, who was raised by and surrounded by women, the father left the house, and Jarvis frequently admitted he’s actually more interested in a woman’s psychic life. The misery, lack of chances and helplessness of women is a frequent theme there.

Jarvis also were fascinated by Scott Walker, who produced finally the We Love Life, album “nobody bought”, as Jarvis later said, and the whim, mysteriousness, grandiosity of his music is definitely present there, if not the most in the fragmented, whining, painful baritone of the frontman, nonchalant and full of authentic despair. These are lyrics about sex in a smaller city, like all that joyful forgetfulness of Razzmatazz or Babies. But no irony – irony was a clichéd du rigeur of the past few decades and enough of that. Jarvis’ hero may be truly a bastard, when he’s blagueing that “I wanna give you children and you might be my girlfriend”, but aren’t the alternative destinies of those girls actually much, much worse? All those stupid things, they don’t work anymore, leave hope you who cross the line of growing up & entering the society. The thing is all that is raconted from a proper perspective of time (“well it happened years ago”), and is actually told by a slightly lecherous thirty year old man, who really probably doesn’t give a fuck since a long time. Sweetness is still there though, and real sympathy.

My favorite album or rather group of songs come from This Is Hardcore recorded after the astonishing success of the Different Class. This is one of the saddest albums ever, also an album of the lost chances – made more commercial than intended, it has become a spectacular band’s suicide. Its really like in this Frederic Beigbeder book, 99 Francs, the peak of the celebrity culture, this is a nightmare of a fulfilled dream of money and fame, drowned in drugs and alcohol, with incredible 30 minutes opera (masterpiece!) of the title song and written as if from the other side, hilariously funny Help the Aged, with Jarvis flying on a wheelchair to another galactic, like in Tarkovsky's Solaris mixed with Monty Python Flying Circus. Fetishism, crime, suicide, hardcore pornography, drugs (there was heroine around, so did Jarvis get a near-death overdose or a nasty trip?), jokes about death (but you're dead already, aren't you?). Yikes indeed. This is hardcore is a post coital, post sexual, post libido, post mortem pure dreadness, that gives me shivers & a serious twist in my stomach.

Moreover, it's everything Freaks wanted to be but could never become. This is an album of an unmatched power, a hangover & existential haze encapsulated, it’s freak Hollywood drama, Billy Wilder’s Sunset Blvd, Hitchcockian thriller with his women fixation (the projection of desire specifically Hitchcockian here!), cinema noir, showered with modern decadence, vanity, emptiness that can only come with a career in show business. This is a depiction of Jarvis Cocker’s state of mind after a year or two of taking advantage of finally getting on the top, of constant shagging anything that moves and partying hard. It nearly killed him, psychically, but there’s something great in the way he’s subliming it. Interesting, how eg. Bowie was embracing it (although it nearly killed him too, as we know at the end of the Station to Station there's nothing short of a goodbye-to-life declaration) and found himself much more inclined to hedonist pleasures, and actually never produced anything as dread-invoking as This is Hardcore - there's never such a menace, such desire-turned-something-terrible thing. It’s truly spectacular, pushed to the utmost degree, Twin Peaks/Mulholland Drive luxurious atmosphere of dread, like you were on a Eyes Wide Shut party, going straight to hell.

Truth is that is has to come to that, and it requires shitloads of hard work just as much as partying and immense self confidence, which comes after years of giving way too much fuck. And then you realize it doesn’t matter.

Pulp - Help The Aged
Załadowane przez: Pulp. - Odkryj inne klipy wideo.

Then Cocker got married, left for Paris, had a child, recorded a weak solo album, got divorced, produced among other things, Charlotte Gainsbourg album, recorded another solo album, whose highlight song is called I Never Said I Was Deep. Slightly disappointed by the first one, I actually begun to find the joyful embitterment of the second one fun. Well, he didn’t lose the classiness or sense of humor, naturlich, but the erotic neuroticism of Pulp is long passé.

So if I mourn something lacking within Polish (music) culture, is its not enough of literacy. The lack of striving to express their frustrations in an enough of a literate way. We limited ourselves to one-dimensional punk screaming/whining how special-but-nobody-knows-about-it songs that mostly sounded like cheap plagiarism over the Western bands. We seemed condemned to the music secondariness, so what about some lyrics experimentation? Sure there were frustrations, tons of them, but no one cared to put them into an artistic, poetic way. Yes, Im more than furious with how things went in Poland, because we have such a wonderful poetic tradition, such original literature, especially after 1945. What has happened with it, why it didint infiltrate the popular music?

Do we need and why, a Polish Jarvis? why do I miss such a figure in Polish cultural landscape? Why don’t we have equally nonchalant, whimsical, eclectic music, non-stripped of emotions? I’ll pass the general esthetical dependency of Polish popular music from the foreign, which condemns us to be eternal epigones. Lets focus on the layer of expression, ideology even. All music has its own esthetical ideology, Jarvis’ ideology was some projects from the past, filtered through his personal obsessions. Well, it is better not to mention our ideology. Polish bands, in result of those, and not the other, historical conditioning, had to, first of all, fight with the mythological SYSTEM, ‘komuna’, and didn’t have time or possibility to develop the esthetical or lyrical issues.

There’s also too big difference between our perception of socialism, obviously. Big assemblies, tradition of militancy, “classlessness” of the 30 years of the after-war period in UK, and then Thatcherism, strikes, when the industry was being destroyed are quite a different thing than the assemblies in Poland, under a quite different flag, or a general atmosphere of hopelessness, bleakness and greyness, especially of the last two decades of Peoples Republic. Maybe comparing the histories of our countries is idiotic in general. But hey, when I listen to Pulp, I still regret not having this chance. That the most popular songs in Poland have to necessary be bloody protest songs; and that we always, as a nation, preferred Clash to Sex Pistols. [well, a book called Generacja by Robert Jarosz, dismantles this image, but it came out a year after I’ve written this]. Class war, well, was something completely different here, was incorporated within the rotten ideology of late communism. Polish artist just couldn’t look at the socialist equality with hope. We also do not have a strong working class artist tradition, very few of the artists, maybe more among writers, belonged to the working class, art always being a domain of intelligentsia, who had privileged access to knowledge, books, education.

Funnily enough, when another self-proclaimed dandy, Paul Weller of the Style Council, wanted to show the bleakness of Thatcherism, he came nowhere else than to the grey Warsaw and shot Walls came tumbling down there in 1985. Now we watch this clip on youtube and proudly show it to our foreign friends, because Warsaw has become this really hip place. To me Warsaw is real, true punk. Ian Curtis knew what he was doing (although he probably meant Bowie’s Warszawa more). But funny that there’s no a Bowie song called “Berlin”, but there’s Warszawa. Still, people treat us as a living museum of communism (but people, go to neighbouring Ukraine for this purpose), whereas an ideal of contemporary Poland is a fucking small entrepreneur. Because maybe one of the problems of the culture in Poland under communism is that obviously it wasn’t socialist enough, and was basically as divided as anywhere else. Also dandyism as a way of life never actually found its way or tradition in Poland and died with the romantic poets.

Another thing is our level of consciousness. Young people coming to the festivals like Jarocin dreamed mostly of getting pissed and having sex in the bushes, they thought of the freedom and emancipation as well, but not knowing how it actually should’ve looked like. Punk in Poland was still v much about filth and vomiting, there were Solidarity, but all that was immersed in the omnipresent Polish Catholicism, and the progressive or anarchic circles already were seeing it all going toward right winged nationalism and capitalism. If we had lyrics about love, sex, unfulfillment, maybe paradoxically it only happened in the texts of one band, simple Teenage Love Alternative, then T.Love, whose frontman, Muniek, born in the same year as Jarvis (1963), is one of little working class born musicians in PL, who wasn’t ashamed to write about love. Muniek emancipated himself and gained a success comparable to Jarvis. Some also say that the more contemporary, 00s band, Cool Kids of Death (named after St Etienne song, of course!) was a late heir of Pulp. Their songs are fulfilled with similar resentment, unfulfilment, aspirationism. But whenever Pulp wanted to get there (and was getting there), CKOD were singing somngs of self-hating slackers. T. Love and CKOD sung a wish ablout collectivity, that never really happened, failed youth collectivities, refusal, hopelessness – CKOD coming from Lodz, a fallen working class city, no wonder etc etc.

WE never loved life, or ourselves, for that matter. Pity. Because this comparison between cultures and histories shouldn’t go towards revengeful or regretful jealousy really. But there was and are cultural complexes in us Poles that we unsuccesfully are trying to heal through similarly inept methods, like shock capitalism, privatisation, self denial or denying that the previous system had anything worthwhile in itself.

This is a far more complicated story and I'm not going to finish it right now, the story continues…

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