MAY 20, 2014
“THIS IS NOT A HOME / This is an apartment,” sings Chuck Cleaver of the Cincinnati band Wussy on “Acetylene,” a song from their fifth album, Attica!, and in those nine words Cleaver manages to capture the life so many people in their 40s and 50s now find themselves unexpectedly living. I’m not talking about the hand-to-mouth existence of working-class Americans who’ve seen the expectation of becoming middle class evaporate. And I’m not talking about the conscious bohemianism affected by the romantic young who, in a few years, will hit the limits of that affectation, decide it’s time to grow up or get serious or whatever they choose to call it, and move on.
What I’m talking about is harder to define, neither particularly romantic nor desperate, suffused with disappointment but not self-pity, marked by taciturn acceptance but not complacency. “When you’re living in a flood plain / It doesn’t take a hard rain / To wash it all away,” is the way the band’s co-leader Lisa Walker defines this existence on “Airborne,” a song from Wussy’s first album, the 2005 Funeral Dress. Maybe blue-collar bohemianism is what you call it if you’re entering middle age and find, without planning it, that you haven’t relegated your interests and passions to hobbies, that those passions are still how you define yourself, that you’re working at a job — and likely more than one — to pay the rent and provide a modicum of stability rather than carving out a career.
None of this is to suggest that Wussy, who formed in 2001 — Cleaver and Walker, the lyricists, singers, and lead guitarists; bassist Mark Messerly; drummer Joe Klug (who replaced original drummer, Dawn Burman, in 2011); and the newest member, John Erhardt, on pedal steel, acoustic, and electric guitars, Cleaver’s colleague in the former Cincinnati band The Ass Ponys — are some sort of cheerleader squad for the lower economic rungs of the creative class. Their music is too sonically expansive, too lyrically empathetic to lend itself to exclusivity. Wussy’s version of rock and roll is the creation of people who are willing to part with neither their copies of The Band nor X’s Wild Gift. It owes a debt to country-infused rock, to punk, to the sonic space and breadth Neil Young creates in his work with Crazy Horse, and, increasingly, to what might be called the erotics of noise — fuzztones, distortion, feedback. Visually, the band — who dress in worn denims, the kind of T’s and work shirts you pick up at thrift stores, Walker and Cleaver’s arms sporting prodigious tattoos — are squarely from that strain of punk that aims to demystify the performer. Taking the stage they collapse the distance between themselves and the people standing a few feet away waiting to hear them play. (At a recent gig in New York City in April, Messerly told two women near the front they couldn’t probably enjoy the show if they had to hold onto their coats, and so he took them and put them safely behind him on a speaker for the duration of the set.) If Wussy announce themselves at all, it’s not as stars or oracles but simply as five people who have hit on the perfect form in which to say whatever they have to say.
Wussy’s version of rock and roll, which can be hard, or as dreamy as something like the Stones’s “Moonlight Mile,” or hard and dreamy at once like Neil Young’s “Like a Hurricane,” betrays none of the nostalgia you typically find in rock and roll directed at an older audience. That version of rock and roll implicitly treats the music as a respite from life, a way of blowing off steam on a Friday night before heading back to the grind of the workweek and family life. For Wussy, the music is inseparable from life, is the very vehicle for examining life, for coming to terms with it, defining its expansiveness and limitations, its trials and its pleasures. In one of the sweetest examples of salaciousness in all rock and roll, Cleaver, on Funeral Dress, directs this charming wolf whistle at his beloved: “Yellow cotton dress / Is beautiful no doubt / But it becomes a motherfucker / when you fill it out.” It’s not, thank God, “Have I Told You Lately That I Love You” or “You Are So Beautiful” or “Wonderful Tonight” (Eric Clapton’s “Too Drunk to Fuck”), or any of the other pap older rock audiences are expected to swallow as age-appropriate love songs. The ardor of “Yellow Cotton Dress” is that much lovelier (and sexier) because it admits the less-than-perfect glories of the physical world, both in the lyric and in Cleaver’s expressive strained falsetto. The other side of that sweetness, the casual kiss-off of “Airborne” — “you did not even send me airborne anyway / why in the world I hung around it’s hard to say” — insists just as strongly on the combined surge of the emotional and physical as the essence of romance and sex.
Wussy approach rock and roll as people who are past the age when they look to the music for salvation or as a soundtrack for their rebellion. But because they are fans, because this music has long been their chosen vehicle for expression, they test it to see if it can still provide a kind of transcendence, or at least a way of speaking that will make sense of the life around them.
What I’ve been describing here is a band looking for ways to connect its own existence to the music they love; and then the details of that life to the details of the audience’s experience. Which is why it may be weird to say that for those of us in their audience who hear in Wussy’s music some echo of the lives we ourselves are living, they represent the kind of kinship that makes you realize your own alienation from the larger culture.
Deciding, consciously or unconsciously, to opt out of the usual routes of success or responsibility — routes still used to define maturity — invites at least some sense of alienation. It may, at its lowest points, involve envy or even disappointment over what others have that you don’t. More commonly and more persistently, it will mean a sense of perpetually crossed wires, of talking to even those you love across a gulf. I don’t mean the gulf some of us might feel sitting next to the business-suited guy on the subway whose first act on the rush-hour train home is to open his iPad to CNBC’s top stories. And I don’t necessarily mean a political gulf, since this alienation can exist with people with whom you’re politically simpatico.
The gulf I’m taking about is the alienation felt by those of us who watch our contemporaries give themselves over to conformity and deadness in their political and cultural responses. It’s seeing friends with whom you once enjoyed sharing movies or books or music become parents and abdicate any emotional or aesthetic response beyond assuming the role of cultural watchdog. It’s listening to Lolita praised as a useful book because it reminds us to be on the lookout for pedophiles, who seldom look like monsters. It’s spending evenings in which entire conversations are given to home repair or property values. It’s the underlying edge of condescension used to address anyone who hasn’t bought a house or had kids, as if we couldn’t possibly know what being an adult really meant.
Life past 50, maybe past 40, sometimes feels like a continual affirmation of Adorno’s claim that, in the modern age, the subjective and the objective have switched places. Received wisdom passes itself off as an unflinching acceptance of the way things are, while questioning the precepts of work, sex, marriage, art, and politics is dismissed as an expression of adolescent discontent. For me, nothing embodies that dead, unquestioning response as much as NPR, the great progressive soporific, its reporting and commentary all delivered in the calm, Xanax tones that reassure us no problem is too big that it can’t be grasped, and likely solved, simply by assuming the proper civilized and reasoned attitude.
To be fair, no argument for cultural engagement can fail to take into account an economic reality so predatory that most people often have only enough energy to get through their day. You can’t blame folks who are knocking themselves out just to pay the rent for not having time to explore new things. And if the glut that the digital age has fostered — in everything from the availability of political opinion and news sources to the ease of accessing music, books, movies — doesn’t make people abandon all hope of staying up to date, it too often turns keeping up into a sucker’s game of hopping from thing to thing without absorbing anything, or even finding something worth paying attention to. Even without that glut, it’s inevitable that as we get older, whether we’re living mainstream lives or not, we may feel out of tune with the culture, may choose to delve more deeply into what’s given us pleasure in the past, to decide what it is that sustains us. It might be Raymond Chandler or Norman Mailer or Marianne Moore over David Foster Wallace; Howard Hawks or Godard over Wes Anderson; the Beatles or the Velvet Underground or Big Star or Glenn Gould over Arcade Fire or Drake. The trouble comes when people reject the culture without doing the work of engaging with it. Most often, that happens with music.
Music continues to be the prime cultural vehicle each generation uses to identify itself. It’s also the means each generation uses, no matter how hypocritically, to proclaim its superiority over succeeding generations. Nothing has ever summed up that attitude like the installment of Garry Trudeau’s Doonesbury that ran in Sunday papers on August 26, 1979, in which Mark, the radical DJ, is ordered by his station manager to play more disco. “Let’s start out with the Village People’s ‘YMCA’ and Donna Summer’s ‘Bad Girls,’” he says, “two exciting testaments to the social sensibilities of disco. One of them is about meeting adolescent homosexuals in a public gymnasium, and the other is a celebration of prostitution.” A strip to make William Bennett or Donald Wildmon smile. Trudeau is telling us that the drugs and sex he and his contemporaries engaged in was about changing the world. This new stuff? It’s just hookers and queers cruising the showers.
That’s what I think of whenever I hear anyone over 30 — hell, sometimes anyone over 25 — who can’t react to Miley Cyrus without fretting about cultural appropriation or alleging that she’s allowing herself to be pimped out by men. That was the assumption of Sinead O’Connor’s horrendous open letter to Cyrus, a bit of condescension in line with the tone Joan Baez took toward Madonna in her 1987 memoir. (“What will happen to you, baby child, when the spotlights dim and the morning sunlight finds your eyes red from weeping?” Retching yet?) They would rather dismiss Cyrus as a dumb, manipulated slut than take a chance on listening to the dreaming, drifting sound of “My Darlin’,” her duet with Future, where the oddness of the lyrics (“we gon’ make a movie, a movie / and it’s gon’ be in 3D, in 3D”) come at us through an echoey reverb and suggest the unrealized ambitions of lovers looking to write their love large across the sky.
I’m not trying to play the hip oldster. I don’t recognize a lot of bands I hear young people name, and I’m not about to pretend that all of current pop is for me. But I can’t be the only person over 50 who thinks of rock and roll as something more than the way it’s treated in a current TV ad, a dusty LP in the attic that allows you to relive some memories before you pop a Cialis and bone the Mrs.
Wussy makes music for those of us who don’t want to listen to a goddamn Shawn Colvin CD, or so-called world music (which is often less about being a fan — like Chuck Cleaver’s factory-worker dad bringing home Afrobeat LPs just because he dug it — than it is about showing yourself to be a good, globally minded liberal), or the unbearable whiteness of Lake Street Dive.
Attica! starts with a memory of how rock and roll called to us as teenagers. The song is “Teenage Wasteland,” and the title is taken, of course, from The Who’s “Baba O’Riley.” Walker’s voice is at the back of the mix, coming out of the shimmer of memory and the shimmer of guitars trying to replicate the synthesizers that open “Baba.” Walker is at a distance. We’re hearing her the way she remembers hearing The Who’s song, coming out of a transistor radio while she stands in a cornfield. Listening to her voice lift, as if it could bust right through the tinny sound and reach through the speakers, a spirit made flesh, when she sings about how “the kick of the drums lined up with the beat of your heart,” you remember what it was like to hear that Classic Rock war horse for the first time. This is a band recalling us to the moment when hearing the right song can make us feel as if “for one short breath / it sounds like the world is ending / exploding in space / and beginning again so far away.” It’s the miracle of finding a connection to a song or a band whose “misery sounds so much like ours, so far away.” It brings you immediately back to the way we received rock and roll as solitary adolescents, as if the songs were radio transmissions from a resistance we hadn’t dared to hope existed.
Though Wussy strikes me as being too modest to think they are making music of the stature they sing about in “Teenage Wasteland,” the elation of Attica! is hearing a band connect with the listener on that heart-stopping level, feeling that a band is speaking for you, that they understand what Lester Bangs called “your own private, entirely circumscribed situation’s many pains and few ecstasies.” Wussy doesn’t achieve that by trading in fantasies of teenage rebellion or in the phony we’re-all-in-this together gestures of arena rock. They achieve it through a set of songs that, one after another, present recognizable details of lives being lived at this moment: “Surrounded by the things / accumulated here,” Cleaver sings of that apartment that can never be a home. The despair in his voice, the realization that the artifacts around him, gathered lovingly or haphazardly, don’t add up to a life, can do you in, make you want to hide from the song as fully as Cleaver has exposed himself to it. “You’re the drink / you’re the drug / you’re the bug that’s alive inside of me,” is the way, in “Bug,” Walker lays out the essence of a toxic and intoxicating relationship. The band is capable of nostalgia, particularly in Walker’s quieter numbers, like “Halloween” and “North Sea Girls,” if only in the sound that seems to come from some place of remembered peace.
To say that the fringe is the place from which Wussy makes music is not to suggest that the band is working from some sort of demimonde infatuated with its own grunginess. These songs are about people accepting the territory in which they have landed, staking it out as a means of defining it, recognizing its limits while not giving up on the possibility of transforming emotion. Like X or Chicago’s Eleventh Dream Day, bands that explore similar territory, Wussy has a couple at its heart, in this case, a former couple. Cleaver and Walker, together for the first five or six years of the band’s existence, are now friends and collaborators clearly very much in tune. The advantage of that isn’t so much confessional as freeing. When you’ve been through the arc of an entire relationship with someone and can still enjoy being with that person, let alone working with him or her, you’re able to speak honestly. The quiet melancholy of “Acetylene” is belied by the wish at its heart (“Baby, we could burn so free / If only you would turn your acetylene on me”), the desire to feel something other than disappointment so strong it means even accepting hurt. In “Gene, I Dream,” Cleaver posits the hardness of these lines: “There’s the blood / and there’s the prints / from where she laid you out / and played you out and left the evidence,” against the longing of the lines “Gene, I dreamed / that life outside of here / Is so much more amazing / Than either one of us / Could ever imagine.” He’s joined on those lines by Walker in one of their peculiar harmonies. Together their voices are less the merging of two into one than two voices proceeding forward, two intermittently intertwining lines. As they do on the final verse of the incandescent “To the Lightning,” which includes the album’s finest lines, “Bide your time / And when the time arises / Rise and shine / And let me go,” the formal beauty of the words’ internal echoes matching the emotional beauty of acceptance of loss in that last line.
Just because Cleaver and Walker write lyrics that are worth listening to doesn’t mean Wussy is one of those bands best appreciated by English majors. All five members have a hand in creating the music for the lyrics. (Attica! was produced by the band and by John Curley, of the Afghan Whigs.) There is, on Attica!, courtesy of Walker’s mandolin and Erhardt’s pedal steel, a strong undertow of Americana. Even stronger, as on their previous album Strawberry, is a willingness to find the noise within the structure of the songs, the freedom to be discordant or to use the sound to suggest the almost physical contours of the space the song occupies. Often that space recalls the vast weight and scope of Crazy Horse, while the discordance can suggest an earthier Sonic Youth, one stripped of its boho pretenses.
It all comes together on the album closer “Beautiful,” which begins as a tale of a stray cigarette burning a house to the ground and, from the bleakest lyric — “abandoned on the sidewalk / while the sirens and the pirates picked our bones” — wrests a gorgeous affirmation. “I’m not the monster that I once was,” Cleaver and Walker sing, “20 years ago I was more beautiful than I am today.” What are we to make of those lines, the shy admission of past culpability in the first, the pride of having been changed by experience in the second; the beauty of youth associated with monstrousness, the empathy of experience with decay? Too smart to empty those words of mystery, too in love with the mystery to even want to, Wussy leaves us to ponder them while, in the last minute of the song, they allow the music to talk for them. The guitars rage and chime, the most delicate clip-clops of percussion make their way through the sheets of noise. This is the becalmed realization of the epic space the music has been headed to all along. As you listen to Wussy head out into the noise, with the plainness of a Westerner declaring his job is done and riding into the sunset, you feel anything but abandoned. What you’re left with is the sense of hard, honest work still to be done, the lives people have chosen to make for themselves on the margins suddenly as vast and unexplored as the prairie.