DECEMBER 29, 2018
JEFF JACKSON’S many-layered novel, Destroy All Monsters, shares a title with the obscure yet seminal proto-punk/noise-rock group from Detroit, named in turn after Destroy All Monsters (1968), the ninth film in the Godzilla franchise. This kaiju (literally “strange beast”) film is notable for several reasons. It is the last film in the Godzilla series with the participation of all the so-called “four fathers of Godzilla”: Ishirō Honda (director), Tomoyuki Tanaka (producer), Eiji Tsuburaya (special effects) and Akira Ifukube (composer and creator of Godzilla’s iconic roar). The film also had more monsters (11!) than any Godzilla feature up until that point. The reason for this excess, and for reuniting the creative dream team, was the trend of declining ticket sales for monster movies, partially due to competition from television. The studio had plans to end the series in grand fashion, and the premise they gave screenwriters Honda and Takeshi Kimura was straightforward: “show all the monsters.”
In order to deploy such an array of kaiju, the writers came up with the idea of Monster Island, a kind of preserve where all of Earth’s giant monsters could be safely studied by UN scientists in the year 1999. Naturally this is a recipe for disaster, as a race of alluring female aliens called the Kilaaks use mind-control devices on the monsters, which begin destroying major Earth cities (tellingly, in the five nation-states to have acquired nuclear weapons by 1968): New York, Moscow, Beijing, Paris, and London, in preparation for an attack on Tokyo. When humanity fights back by destroying the mind-control transmitter, the Kilaaks let loose King Ghidorah, setting up an epic showdown between the three-headed space dragon and the other monsters of Earth.
It was one of Honda’s most internationally successful offerings, and by 1974, the film had captured the imagination of a group of artists at the University of Michigan. The original lineup of the band Destroy All Monsters consisted of visual artists Mike Kelley, Jim Shaw, and Niagara, along with photographer and filmmaker Cary Loren. The band’s appreciation for the Japanese B-movie, and other creature features, is indicative of the trajectory of rock music during the period. In the liner notes to the three-CD box set Destroy All Monsters: 1974-1976, released on the label founded by Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore, Mike Kelley writes:
Jim named the band. There was not much argument about it. The film, Destroy All Monsters, was loved by us all. It was “the ultimate monster party,” the meeting of every Japanese monster on Monster Island to battle it out. This cacophony of bestial battle was what we were after.
There’s an obvious connection to punk, here, a genre consisting of overlapping youth movements that have embraced, to varying degrees, speed, DIY simplicity, rejection of the mainstream, irreverence, and a fascination with violence.
The members of Destroy All Monsters, for their part, had no musical training when they formed the band, except for Cary Loren, who had slight experience playing guitar. Their instruments consisted of the cheapest guitar they could find at Kmart, a used drum machine, cheap electric organs, faulty PA systems and tape recorders, cans, amplified squeeze toys, and numerous speakers set up to produce feedback. Kelley admired the Art Ensemble of Chicago’s use of bird calls, rattles, and toy sounds that when amplified “could be an atomic explosion.” Their first “gig,” which took place at a comic book convention, consisted of the opening of Black Sabbath’s “Iron Man” combined with feedback, which they repeated until thrown out.
If the early music of Destroy All Monsters wasn’t quite listenable, Jeff Jackson’s novel is compulsively readable, with the driving energy one would expect from “the last rock novel.” Jackson’s Destroy All Monsters is also intricately connected to both its filmic and musical precursors. Like Godzilla and Destroy All Monsters, Jackson’s novel is a kind of mutant, featuring a world that is recognizable, but not quite our own. Consider the premise: across the United States, musicians are being killed in a series of connected shootings, in what becomes described as an “epidemic.” The city of Arcadia, where much of the action takes place, is home to a once-thriving music scene whose members struggle to respond to the killings. Arcadia is a bleak collection of “dormant establishments” and “shuttered stores,” with a “ragged downtown.” As Xenie, one of the novel’s central characters, describes the changes Arcadia has undergone, she could be describing the real-life circumstances of many American cities:
Over the past three years, the economy tanked and the wheelchair factory shut down. The Carmelite Rifles moved away to cash in on their success, and it wasn’t long before several of the city’s best musicians followed their lead, betting their fortunes lay elsewhere. The scene’s heyday faded like a dull mirage.
Compare the plight of Arcadia to another passage in the liner notes to the Destroy All Monsters box set: “Detroit, like all of the other industrial cities of the Midwest had died an ignoble death. But Detroit still had its cultural pride; it was still ‘Rock City’ (to quote Kiss).” And another: “Detroit’s economy had collapsed and taken with it its radical culture. Detroit was a dead city.” While Detroit is synonymous here with both Rock City and a dead city, in the world of the novel Arcadia is known as “Kill City.” This is also a nod to Michigander Iggy Pop — the musical self-harm pioneer said to have invented the stage-dive (in Detroit, no less) — who recorded an album called Kill City with James Williamson of The Stooges.
In the text of the novel, “KILL CITY” appears in capitals, either carved or spray-painted in “stylized block letters.” Though this doesn’t happen in the book, I find it easy to imagine the letters showing up as knuckle tattoos.
— What’s Kill City? Edie whispers.
— Haven’t you heard? Flo says. It’s gone viral.
The above is one of many cryptic exchanges concerning the deadly virus or epidemic. But what is the nature of the epidemic, and what is its source? The mystery is connected to the novel’s title, which leaves its own unanswered questions. The phrase “destroy all monsters” is an imperative, but spoken by whom? And who are the monsters in this scenario — the musicians across the country who are murdered seemingly at random, or the ones committing the murders? The latter share a common vacant expression, and are occasionally referred to as “zombies.” A musician named Florian muses that the killers might be “true believers in pursuit of some ideal they can feel but can’t name” or that they “represent the true essence of the audience.” The comparison to zombies hearkens back to the mind-control devices used in Destroy All Monsters (1968), but the Godzilla film is of little help as to the title’s meaning. The group Destroy All Monsters, by their own admission, wanted to destroy convention, shock the unsuspecting, and push music in a new direction. Their innovative use of castoff equipment, static, and theatrics achieved something profound, if only briefly. One clue as to who in the novel should be destroyed, according to Xenie’s point of view, surfaces below.
— It’s not just the local bands, she says. There’s so much lifeless music everywhere and it keeps multiplying. It’s polluting everything.
— These bands are poisoning something that used to be meaningful, she says. Their music is actually toxic.
— Nobody wants to talk about any connection between the bands that have been targeted, she says, but most of them have been terrible.
According to Xenie, the threatening epidemic is music of poor quality, meaning that the killers are a kind of corrective measure to a cultural decline. She thinks of the past as a time when music was pure and authentic, without the need for public validation. Xenie laments that she “listened less and less” despite her accumulation of “huge amounts of music” and her “access to almost everything.” This should sound familiar to readers in 2018, as the rise of the internet, file sharing, and streaming services continue to restructure the music industry and the broader cultural landscape. Xenie claims that this accumulation of music has “tainted” even the great albums, now rendered “worthless like all the others” and “just more noise.” An epigraph to part two of the novel, “The Echoes,” is instructive in this regard. In a bit of Nabokovian misdirection, a quote attributed to “Vivian Darkbloom” reads: “To the novice, the voices of the dead sound like static. It takes a patient ear to discern their musical murmurings, which resolve with infinite slowness, like the notes in a strange and shimmering chord.”
Noise, like the epidemic, is either the sickness or the cure. Mike Kelley, notably, describes punk’s arrival in Los Angeles in the late 1970s as the former: “The scene was primarily Glam oriented when Punk hit, like a disease — a British germ that infected everyone overnight. One day there was no Punk, the next day the city was crawling with torn-clothed, safety-pinned spike heads.” Jeff Jackson’s Destroy All Monsters delivers a similar sensation, combining the deformed sound of an obscure, proto-punk band with the energy of a monster movie battle royal. It maintains a cryptic intrigue, while pursuing the possibilities open to the novel as a form, particularly its ability to incorporate elements from other media. The novel’s use of an A-side and B-side structure is both suited to a warped rock novel, and another reason to reread the work. Whereas mysterious deaths occur because “the killers wanted music to matter again,” Jackson’s book itself is an interrogation of our culture (digital and otherwise), and a successful attempt to make the novel matter again. Destroy All Monsters is a double-sided work looking in two directions at once: toward a history of rock music, and toward the future of the novel.
Brooks Sterritt is a writer whose work has appeared in The Believer, Vice, Subtropics, the New Republic, and other publications. He is a doctoral candidate in English at the University of Illinois, Chicago.