Saturday, 8 August 2009

Bateman Blog 006: Looking For A Non-Existent Feeling

In light of the ‘Our Band Could BBQ Your Life’ all-(two)-dayer at Brixton Windmill this weekend I decided that now would be the perfect opportunity to indulge in a little ‘this is why I love the greatest band that no one’s ever heard of’ piece. If someone ever gets round to writing ‘Our Band Could Be Your Life 2: The 90s’ they should call it ‘Looking For A Non-Existent Feeling’ and make the first band in it J-Church. Michael Azzerad also wrote the ‘official’ Nirvana biography, and if Nirvana were the apotheosis of American indie rock’s inevitable ascent to the mainstream and beyond, then J-Church were the working band (well, one of the many, it’s true) who stayed the earthly course; who, ironically, kept the indie rock flag flying by virtue of their general lack of success. They jammed econo right to the very end. Nirvana is Hindu for enlightened state of mind with mystical/philosophical connotations; J-Church is public transport - a San Francisco light rail line. I think that says it all.

Lance Hahn was J-Church, even though they were a 3-piece (and, in their final line-up, briefly a 4-piece). Lance was also Cringer and Cilantro. He wrote an e-newsletter called 'It's not a living, it's a life' about the records he was listening to (and selling), and the books he was reading, and the films he'd watched. It was boring and frequently pretentious. He was from Hawaii, lived in Los Angeles and San Francisco in the 90s and moved to Austin, Texas at the beginning of the 21st Century, where he died in October 2007 of kidney failure. He was quite fat.

J-Church peaked with their first album, Quetzalcoatl (named after the ‘feathered snake’, the Mexican god) and the song Good Judge of Character, about a whore (about a voyeur flirting with and fantasising about the dark side), when John Peel once heralded it on his radio show sometime in the early 90s. That was the closest they got to mainstream success. That said, Lance, though only in his early 40s when he died, made music (J-Church, Honeybear Records – his label that mainly existed to release obscure J-Church records – and selling 7-inches by other obscure bands) his living and his life.

It's pretty much impossible to count how many records J-Church released, never mind the number of songs they recorded and the personal anecdotes and books Lance read that inspired them. They're the only band I've ever heard of who included suggested reading lists in their record sleeves – a pompous self-indulgence maybe, but also an example of how making physical records was once a way for people who embraced a certain view of the world (or at least pop culture) to communicate with one another. In my mind there's no doubt that Lance Hahn wrote some of the greatest songs ever about solitude and futility in life that expressed a warmth and sense of community (in loneliness or ennui) rather than anger or depression.

I respected Hahn most for the fact that he literally wrote a soundtrack to his own life. It may not be a great canon of work; it may be quantity over quality (in comparison, Ryan Adams is a perfectionist) but you truly get a sense of who he was from his songs. The lack of theatricality or adventure added to its charm. Watching Michael Jackson's memorial service on TV it was jarring to see my generation's finest performer's 11 year old daughter speak of her grief at losing her father. I'd come to imagine his children as masked figurines in MJ's very own atrocity exhibition. The very real grief she displayed hammered home the reality of the rather uncomfortable voyeurism we, the great unwashed, indulge in over our garishly glittering stars of print and screen. He was a faded pop star but he was also a father who did fatherly (weirdly fatherly) things with his children. J-Church do not compare in brilliance to Michael Jackson. But they had something he never had - normality - and Lance Hahn fashioned his own averageness into an almost constant stream of lo-fi consciousness, via a series of bedroom-operated 'record labels' from the US to the UK, Germany, Italy, Australia and Japan. People didn't buy J-Church records because they were captivated by their unique talent but because they were a peculiar type of record collector who liked the songs, the song titles, the humour and pathos, the record sleeves - the whole imperfect package.

Music’s never been escapism for me; rather, it’s been a way of engaging with the world and articulating how I feel about my experiences. Songs are a bit like constellations I think, in that if you look at a writer’s body of work you can trace an outline of who they are/were from it. The smaller the canon the more brilliant certain stars may shine but the vaguer the constellation. There were quite a few dull stars in Hahn’s constellation (and a few that were dead the moment they burst into existence) but there were also some that really shone in the tiny, alternative galaxy in which (and for whom) they were written. The list below is by no means exhaustive, merely a mix tape of my favourite J Church moments, all part of a very clear constellation the majority of us know all too well – the small victories, the minor letdowns, the flush times and the lean times, the nostalgia and the aging pains (physical and mental), the way we’re fashioned by family, friends, work and not knowing what tomorrow has in store for us.

November (from Camels, Spilled Coronas and the Sound of Mariachi Bands) – ‘As the rain falls hard it falls on the people waiting for the bus home / No matter who you are, you feel the same when you're wet, cold and alone’.

Favorite Phrase (from Camels, Spilled Coronas and the Sound of Mariachi Bands) – ‘You're telling me that you're leaving… / …And then I feel the hem of your dress / And the warmth of your breath on the back of my neck / So come to bed, turn out the light / And let's fuck just one last time’

Tide of Fate (from Nostalgic for Nothing) – ‘Nothing's moving, Nothing's breathing, Nothing's changing, It's sorrow / Nothing's ever gonna make me plan tomorrow / I could sleep under open skies if I'm back at work by Monday / Swim against the tide of fate if I'm back at work by Monday’

Sleep (from Nostalgic for Nothing) – ‘Someone is sleeping on my street, I step over them because I need my coffee / Someone is playing in the hall, I hope they don't grow up at all and burn my house down’

Why I Liked Bikini Kill (from Prophylaxis and The Precession of Simulacra, The Map Preceeds the Territory) – ‘This song is in defence of and in tribute to a great band’

To The Moon (from Travels in Hyper-Reality) – ‘I've never wanted to go to the moon or grow too old too soon / Now you're talking like it's something special to do’

New York Times Book Review (from One Mississippi) – ‘I wish I was an international sensation, I'd blame these words on a bad translation / …The sky is full of lots of things,Evil dreams and the coming rain / Rain must be true, I read it in a New York Times book review’

Leni Riefenstahl’s Tinderbox (from One Mississippi) – ‘There is no time to redefine Leni Riefenstahl / Ignorance may be her only crime / Forget the Führer, Forget the images / Art for art's sake is a lie’

Simple Gesture (from The Drama of Alienation and Whorehouse: Songs and Stories) – ‘I've had three apartments since I last saw you / I kept your letters, Your hate mail, I kept too / …I saw hail for the first time late last night, / All I can say is I'm glad I was inside / re-read your letters so I could feel sad / For the first time they didn't make me think of times we had’

Waiting on the Ground (from Arbor Vitae) - Everyone's singing the white boy blues, Haven't they heard the news? / You can't get away with that attitude until you've paid your dues / Playing in basements and playing in clubs, Playing wherever you can / Touring the States eight hours a day in a shitty, fucked up, rental van / Feeling like crap and eating shit, Living on next to nothing / Go back home to your shitty job, I don't feel that I owe you anything’

Faye Wong (from Altamont '99) – ‘I harboured the usual expectations of Hong Kong as a glamorous and exciting place. I found it to be no big deal. I wasn’t very happy because I didn’t speak Cantonese and had no friends’.

Panama (from Nostalgic for Nothing) – ‘Did you ever think that Cripple Creek could be still at night? / A million broken stereos are stars in the sky / The one thing I will always hear is the constant ringing that's in my ears / It reminds me of the stars in your eyes’

Tricky (from Palestine) – ‘I want a cheese and mushroom omelette / I want a microwave oven’

1 comment:

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