You may not know this, dearest Filthy Dreams fanatics, but I’ve occasionally been accused of being long-winded. Rambling. Exhausting. Draining. Just a tad wordy.
In a culture where we have writers and editors tweet-advising us to make articles shorter and more palatable for readers, I tend to do the opposite. I don’t care who likes my articles and I don’t even care who finishes them. To quote comedian Doug Stanhope, “I go on stage, it’s like I’m leading you into battle; you are not all going to be here at the end.” While, unlike Stanhope, I don’t get the distinct pleasure of watching people walk out of a gig, merely knowing that people click off in tired disgust is enough. It’s a winding road and some of you may not make it.
Still, there is something to be said for the benefit of brevity, isn’t there? So with that in mind and with a lengthy list of books I’ve been meaning to review, I wanted to try something different: shutting up a bit. Here, that takes the form of a collection of five mini (ok…mini for Filthy Dreams)-reviews. Sure, the essay as a whole is still long but the bits are short(er). Happy?
Mark Mordue, Boy on Fire: The Young Nick Cave
Since I’ve been absent from this website while chasing him to another continent, it only makes sense to start with a book on Nick Cave. Despite being an avowed Cave stan, I never stopped to consider his creative output through his Australianness beyond his Western Outback film The Proposition and his decidedly dry sense of humor that nobody but fellow Aussies seem to understand. Much of this may have to do with the fact that I know fuck all about Australia. Yet, part of it also relates to the international roster of The Bad Seeds and Nick Cave’s forty decades of roaming around the globe. As Nick deadpans in a mid-90s documentary Straight To You, “In some ways, my life is like…I don’t know if you know this or not…but when you go to a party and you drink too much and you wake up the next day and you just want to go home. I feel like that quite a lot actually, but I don’t really have anywhere to go. Isn’t that sad?”
Despite his own perceived lack of a home (at least at that point), Mark Mordue’s extensive Boy on Fire: The Young Nick Cave places Nick firmly within the context of his Australian upbringing in the country towns of Warracknabeal (where he has proposed, to many’s horror, plopping a statue of himself on a horse as a gift) and Wangaratta, as well as his astronomical rise through Melbourne’s St. Kilda scene with his early band The Boys Next Door that would later evolve into The Birthday Party. Originally intended to be a comprehensive biography of Nick Cave’s life and work up to this point—a prospect that seems to have paralyzed Mordue (understandably), Boy on Fire concludes right as The Birthday Party departs to London in order to kickstart the journey that most of us fanatics already are familiar.
Yet, in his focus on Nick’s early years, Mordue manages to shed light on Nick’s career as a whole. While sure, some of the stories of Nick’s youth we may already know from the man himself–the art school failure, his relationship with the influential doll-faced and voiced Anita Lane who made fragility frightening, the burgeoning heroin habit, Mordue provides more critical analysis than most other biographies of Nick. In particular, Mordue reveals how the landscape of the Australian countryside where Nick grew up pervades his songwriting. Of course, the environment in which Nick exists has always permeated his songs, from the Kafka-esque desperation of The Birthday Party’s drug den derelict London years to the unmistakable Weimar Berlin sounds of “The Carny” to the mad heat and relentless rains of São Paolo to the stone steps of London’s “Brompton Oratory,” and of course, the multiple appearances of Brighton’s Jubilee Street. According to Nick, in Boy on Fire, the Australian landscape also makes its subtle presence known in the willow trees of “Sad Waters” (“a remembrance of a childhood scenario”) and the landscape of the mills and the stacks in “Red Right Hand” (“a reconstructed version of Wangaratta”).
Boy on Fire also reflects on the continued impact of Nick’s family on his work. Naturally, much of this concerns Nick’s father, teacher Colin Cave about whom Nick himself has spoken at length, from his love of literature and education, his obsessive reading of Lolita, and his writing on Ned Kelly. While Colin Cave looms large over Nick’s early life and perhaps more so after his sudden death in a car crash, others make more unexpected appearances like Nick’s maternal grandmother Florence who played the piano. As Nick’s sister Julie explains, “That’s where Nick really first learned the piano…the way Grandma did it. I see it in the way he moves his hands and how it sounds and feels. He still plays like Grandma now. She would have loved it.”
However, it’s not all family trees and Australian nostalgia. For those who want some details about The Boys Next Door, look no further than my favorite discussion of Nick’s hammy delivery on the romantic anthem “Shivers.” Though Nick now thinks his vocals were “over-emoting,” Mick Harvey, his former Boys Next Door, Birthday Party, and Bad Seeds bandmate, exclaims, “When did he stop over-emoting!…Being overblown is a part of Nick’s historical practice.”
It’s why we love him.
Not many alternative (whatever that means) albums from the 1990s aged well in the subsequent years. The grunge era feels dated, with few exceptions like Hole’s Live Through This. Nu-metal can’t wipe off the stink of acne-riddled, hormone-fueled adolescence. And Marilyn Manson is canceled–not to mention looks like a haggard aging drag queen (not that we don’t love aging drag queens, but screeching “Tourniquet” while looking like your goth aunt tends to diminish some of the intimidating charisma).
Somehow, though, of all the popular bands from that decade, Nine Inch Nails’ delightfully sadomasochistic subversion still packs a transgressive punch without feeling as if you have to listen to the album secretly in shame in invisible mode. Which is why it doesn’t seem all that confounding that a recently published book would take a detailed dive into one of the band’s most prominent albums, The Downward Spiral, almost thirty years after its release.
Adam Steiner’s Into The Never: Nine Inch Nails and The Creation of The Downward Spiral is an admirably obsessive examination of The Downward Spiral through, well, just about every angle possible. Now, for me, all I think anyone has to know to fully “get” The Downward Spiral is that it was recorded in the doomed address 10050 Cielo Drive or, as Trent Reznor called it, “Le Pig.” For those of you not as well-versed in notorious murder houses as I am, that’s the location where members of the Manson Family murdered Sharon Tate, Jay Sebring, Wojciech Frykowski, Abigail Folger, and Steven Parent in 1969. Of course, as I’ve admitted on this website previously, I’m an avowed ghoul obsessed with the Manson Family, but it’s hard not to interpret The Downward Spiral’s violence, mob mentality, nihilism, and all those piggies through the lens of the murders that typify America’s descent into its ongoing death trip. Whether or not it was intentional, the house–and its legacy–seeped in.
Steiner delves into this, including the detail that Reznor lugubriously kept the door to 10050 Cielo Drive (yes, the one with Tate’s blood spelling “PIG”), but the book goes much deeper, a spiraling, dizzying, and, at times, exhausting read that manages to trace a similar descent as the narrator on the album. Steiner does so by constructing the book with alternating chapters of closely read analyses of each of the album’s songs, from “Mr. Self Destruct” to “Hurt,” with chapters providing wider context to the album through Trent Reznor’s life, Nine Inch Nails’ musical output, and the American cultural climate of the time. This includes “Big Man With a Gun” violence across America both before and after Columbine, the influence of Reznor’s Rust Belt youth in Mercer, PA, the album’s iconic cover art made by Russell Mills, and how much the narrator of The Downward Spiral is actually Reznor himself–or if the persona on the album eventually (and thankfully not entirely) consumed him.
All of this has the effect of getting closer and closer to the album’s central articulated theme. As Steiner writes, “The Downward Spiral explores the depths of one human being’s capacity for pain and suffering in the face of nihilistic self-annihilation, a descent into his own personal hell.” He continues, “The narrator strips away layers of artifice, shedding metaphorical skins and personal relationships as an emotional drain to pursue his own splintered and fractured idea of becoming a more empowered individual, but this pushes the worst aspects of his nature to the fore until he is confronted by the end zone of nihilistic meaninglessness, coming to terms with the seeming inevitability of his own destruction.”
I mean, what more could you want from an album?
Though the prolific references to Manic Street Preachers and Fight Club become a bit much peppered through the entirety of the book (look–I tend to reference John Waters, David Lynch, Lana Del Rey, and Nick Cave so much so that I know I’ve veered into self-parody so I’m not judgmental), the book ultimately serves as a wonderful reminder of just why The Downward Spiral is so essential for those of us who love self-erasing descents into the void. Plus, it made me revisit the album with a new perspective. And really, isn’t that all you can ask for from a book on an album?
Genesis P-Orridge, Nonbinary: A Memoir
I’ll admit, the title of Genesis P-Orridge’s (I’m going with simply P-Orridge here rather than Breyer P-Orridge out of deference for the credit on the book) posthumously published memoir, Nonbinary, gave me pause. Not because Genesis didn’t devote h/er life to breaking down any and all binaries s/he could—not only gender but between the self and the other, the natural and artificial, and many others. But, nonbinary now has become less about the destruction of repressive societal structures that would limit the possibilities of existence. Instead, like queer (what does that word even mean anymore anyway?), nonbinary has been subsumed into the plethora of heavily policed labels currently flourishing in our current climate of identity obsession, a climate beloved by activists and corporations alike. In this context, I feared Nonbinary would be an attempt to shove P-Orridge’s true radicality (and I mean true, not simply what clickbait headlines like to term as “radical”), not to mention a few “problematic” qualities, into a narrative that would be more beneficial to 2021’s queer politics.
Thankfully, it didn’t. Rather than trying to contextualize P-Orridge into a politic in which s/he never quite fit anyway, Nonbinary exists as a roadmap for other devoted deviants to, as Burroughs would say, “short-circuit control.” Aptly, the memoir opens with Genesis’s first meeting with Burroughs himself, traveling to his “surprisingly small apartment” and being horrified by his “life-size cardboard cutout of Mick Jagger” (as if Burroughs wasn’t a hero already!).
This introduces a theme that runs throughout the memoir of lineages of artistry, influence, and inspiration. In particular, cut-up masters Burroughs and Gysin were the filth elders that helped give P-Orridge the push to refuse to see the boundaries between art and life, as well as live outside the socially constructed norms invented long before we were born. As P-Orridge writes, “By age seventeen, I had a revelation that life and art were inseparable. Indivisible. To really know what was going on around you, you had to locate ‘control’ and those entities with a vested interest in maintaining their tight grasp on it. And then you had to take it apart as best you could. You had to cut it up. Break it into pieces and reveal the ugly interior. Once you decide to devote your life to this cut-up technique, it joyfully contaminates every aspect of your life. A kind of truth virus. And, for me, it remains the only reliable filter through which to observe this earth and the overriding culture with any hope of accuracy.”
Does part of this quote shock you? Me too. If you didn’t notice, it’s the use of the first person. After Genesis P-Orridge and Lady Jaye Breyer become the third being, “BREYER P-ORRIDGE,” through their Pandrogeny project, “I” had, until now, disappeared entirely from P-Orridge’s speech and writing. However, the memoir seems to switch between “I” and “we” for no rhyme or reason. Genesis’s peculiar and enigmatic way of speaking, with all h/er “thee”’s and “coum”’s, is also fairly absent. I can only assume this points to a struggle for h/er collaborator Tim Mohr to create a text that, at once, captured h/er unique voice and was legible and comprehensible for anyone who (unlike me) isn’t all that interested in wading through Thee Psychick Bible.
From h/er school days to meeting Lady Jaye and embarking on the Pandrogeny project, Nonbinary covers territory that the fanatical may already know (or may have read through a vastly different perspective in Gen’s former collaborator and Throbbing Gristle bandmate Cosey Fanni Tutti’s memoir Art Sex Music). It’s not as if Gen was ever withholding in talking about h/er experiences or points of view. Yet, the book’s value rests in, as s/he nods to with h/er interaction with Burroughs, a kind of posthumous mentorship. As Gen traces h/er influences, s/he, through Nonbinary, is setting h/erself up to be just that for the readers. S/he explains, “When you’ve got a terminal illness, you think about what your legacy might be. Our only answer is, we would hope that it would inspire people to see that they can live a life totally as they would like it to unfold.”
Because of this, I found the last few chapters thoroughly moving in which Gen switches from h/er remembrances to become a kind of lunatic motivational speaker, offering advice to artists and those who would want to live, as David Lynch would say, the art life. And it’s not bad advice! As s/he encourages, “There’s always a way. You don’t need resources. You don’t need money. You just need to have an idea that’s strong enough, and that you feel strongly enough about, that you will go against everybody else to say or to put into practice. Please go out and try to change the fucking world. End gender. Break sex. Short-circuit control.”
Andrew Hankinson, Don’t Applaud. Either Laugh or Don’t. (At the Comedy Cellar.)
Speaking of inspiration, one of my biggest that I don’t often talk about all that much here on Filthy Dreams is standup comedy. That’s right. I know standup, with all its offensive potential, isn’t all that beloved in some circles at the moment. However, the timing, the boundary-pushing, the increasingly unpopular art of satire all remain ongoing influences on my writing.
That being said, no, I haven’t watched Chappelle’s new special, and no, unlike seemingly every other critic, I don’t have an opinion about it until I do. But, speaking of Dave, I saw him perform in the mid-2000s as a bright-eyed and bushy-tailed NYU undergraduate student. Attending the late show at the Comedy Cellar on MacDougal Street where I spent much of my college days watching comedians like Bonnie MacFarlane, Patrice O’Neal, Jim Norton, Keith Robinson, Dave Attell, Colin Quinn, Robert Kelly, and many more, Chappelle appeared in the wee hours as an unannounced guest, chainsmoking post-Bloomberg’s smoking ban and telling jokes about Michael Jackson. At first, it was thrilling, especially at the height of his Chappelle’s Show fame. Then, time wore on…and on and on. A thirty-minute set turned into an hour and he was still going (and going and going). Eventually, in the early morning, I had to admit defeat and bolt. This isn’t a criticism. Standup comedy, like drag, should have its punishing moments. And why not be held hostage at the Comedy Cellar?
Andrew Hankinson’s Don’t Applaud. Either Laugh or Don’t. (At the Comedy Cellar.) traces the history of this storied New York comedy club through the voices of its owner, workers, and the many comedians that seem to call the place home, including many of the folks I previously mentioned. Organized in reverse chronological order, the book opens with Louis CK’s not-so-popular yet not-so-unpopular-either return to the club after his masturbatory proclivities became public (though, according to the book and pretty much anyone you’ll talk to in New York, everyone knew it already). Along with weathering a flurry of outrage by “platforming” Louis, the book delves into a number of transgressions made by comedians onstage that also became fodder for online outrage and debate, depicting how time and again the club has committed itself, sometimes to its own detriment, to resisting calls to inhibit the freedom of its comedians. Is this right or not? That’s for you to decide. For me, I don’t want to live in a place where people can’t try out tasteless jokes and at least, suffer the consequences, only to attempt to do it again.
For those who are sick of the free speech/cancel culture/whatever you want to call it debate, the book offers much more than that. It’s also an oral history about a community of misfits that band together over trying to make people laugh, even in the face of tragedies like, for instance, 9/11. Don’t Applaud. Either Laugh or Don’t. is also wonderfully gossipy, including a perfect tidbit about Kendall Roy…I mean Donald Trump Jr….getting hit in the head with a pint glass one night at the club and Big Daddy Trump coming to his rescue.
Plus, if you want to hear a group of adults–quite successful and famous ones, might I add–argue over the placement of a table a few inches from where it previously sat, then this is the book for you.
Sam Tallent, Running the Light
Speaking of standup, I get all my book recommendations from the Doug Stanhope Podcast. Ok, maybe not all, but some. Enough. The ones that matter, at least. Which brings me to Sam Tallent’s Running the Light.
Running the Light is a fictional novel that follows greased-up, washed-up, has-been/perhaps never-quite-been road comic Billy Ray Schafer as he careens his way through a week of gigs in appropriately dingy and depressing bars and clubs (our favorite!). With a sense of wayward and substance-addled velocity that Hunter S. Thompson could appreciate, Tallent depicts Schafer as a trashed and trashy mess, the drunk at the bar you desperately don’t want to sit next to, but you do want to watch from afar and are later a little saddened to see crashed headfirst into a tree in the bar’s parking lot. The coke and booze breath wafts from the page.
Though I read this novel earlier this year, Running the Light has been on my mind ever since I heard about Norm MacDonald’s passing. Norm appears in the latter part of the novel, a successful comic who understands Schafer’s wasted (literally) talent and has a soft spot for the fallen star. In fact, Tallent penned the novel with such realism that I had to question whether my memory of Norm talking in the greenroom with Schafer was, in fact, true. It wasn’t.
Despite being a ridiculous and flawed character, Schafer allows Tallent to reveal the personal toll and ruins of a life lived on the road as he meets up with his estranged son and ex-wife. Yet Tallent clearly also showcases an affection for the disappearing road comic, a career and lifestyle that has fallen by the wayside as comics increasingly make their living remotely through podcasts and Patreons. But at what cost? Better drugs?! Stability? Yeuck!
And like all good novels about comedy should, Running the Light’s closing bit ends with a bang.