Scraping Foetus Off The Wheel
JG Thirlwell in 1987, portrait courtesy Richard Kern
This is a guest post written by Graham Rae.
“This isn’t the melody that lingers on/it’s the malady that malingers on.” – Foetus.
Flashbacktrack: for reasons that I am not going to discuss, I was in a great deal of mental and emotional pain in August of 2010. I often found myself listening constantly to the albums Hole (celebrating the 30th anniversary of its release this year) and Nail (30th anniversary next year) by Scraping Foetus Off The Wheel, which I have now been listening to for a quarter of a century. At that time, and others preceding it, these two therapeutic sonic works helped eat my pain and keep me sane. The reasons why they did, and why they will no doubt continue to do so in the skull-suture future, are what I intend to discuss here.
James George Thirlwell, the one-manic band behind Scraping Foetus, was born in Melbourne in Australia in 1960. He spent the first 18 years of his life being down in Down Under, saying that he hated every minute in the country. He attended an all-boy’s Baptist School for twelve years, singing in a choir and playing cello, the school experience a life-scarring one that resonates through a lot of his work to a greater or lesser degree. “I’ve put myself through a deprogramming process so I’ve blocked out most of my childhood, but I remember as I grew up I felt like I didn’t want to be where I was,”(1) he noted later. “I remember getting a bad report card that said my studies were okay but ‘James needs to have more faith’. I was pro-evolution and I’m an atheist to this day.”(2)
Thirlwell flirted with and dropped out of art school, but his disaffection for his art-content-informative (de)formative years soon led him across the ocean to London, where his Scottish mother had studied music. He told his parents he was going there on holiday and quite simply did not return to Australia, which had been his plan all along. He’s rarely been back to the land of his birth since; there are no Antipodean (or Scottish) melodies in his music that I have ever heard. Scorched earth policy from lifestart to teen angst finish.
Finding himself in the post-punk-blitzkrieg soundruins of England’s capital, the displaced Australian got himself a job at Virgin on Oxford Walk, which meant he could keep an ear and eye on the latest musical releases as they came out. After some sonic noodling in a couple of undergroundsound outfits (pragVEC, Nurse With Wound, Come), Thirlwell put out his first Foetus-themed release in January 1981, Foetus Under Glass doing OKFM/Spite Your Face.
Before we go any further, I have to explain something to the Foetus virgins in the audience. In order, apparently, to let the music speak in tongue twisters for itself, Thirlwell has recorded using more Foetus-themed pseudonyms and bandwagons than I would care to remember for three decades, but since 1995 has used Foetus as his main moniker. And what is the significance of that six-letter babybrand? Well, Thirlwell has been known to say with a shy sly wry grin it’s just an embryonic human, and that he likes the connotations of potential. But one thing’s for sure: with this mercurial never-miss-a-beat pimp of the perverse, you can never be quite be sure.
There have only ever been three Scraping Foetus Off The Wheel releases. Of the bizarre and slightly disturbing name, Thirlwell says: “My mental image of that is a foetus being tied to a railway track and being run over by a train and the engineer going, ‘Oh shit, not another!’. It’s a strong image and I like it. The word foetus is great, you know. I love f-o-e-t-u-s. I love the fact the oe is ee. I see it more in an abstract sense. It’s like a vague, abstract term.” (3)
Eventually-just-Foetus’s first few releases were cheaply recorded in London, with tiny numbers pressed for lack of cash, making small raindrop-in-puddle splashes in the British music press. Although he met his several-years-long girlfriend, firespitter No Wave punk provocateur Lydia ‘Lunch’ Koch during this time (more on which later), hanging out with her in a Brixton high rise flat, Thirlwell still wasn’t happy. He had no money, but fortuitously met Stevo of Some Bizzare records through his Virgin job. This sonic-malefactor benefactor offered him unlimited 24-track studio time free, which Thirlwell jumped on, pulling mad 24-to-36-hour shifts to produce a full album and two 12” tracks.
The end result was the album Hole, recorded in May-October 1983 in London. The name shows its composer’s penchant for four-letter one-syllable titles. “You know, each (record title) has triple entendres. Like, say Hole, for example. It can mean hole in a sexual sense, hole as in a hole in the wall, or hole as in the hole that you descend into Hell with.”(4) The recording was originally conceived as a six-song album, with a three-minute rendition of “Clothes Hoist” for the whole of Hole’s first side. “The trouble is that as I worked on the song it started growing into a monster and the others just came from nowhere.”(5)
The second side was to be a five-track suite with the working title of “Foetus Diabolos” (with the Diabolos part of the title recycled in a 1987 Foetus track, “Diabolos in Musica”), but the unlimited studio time and stage-left appearances of four more songs meant that the finished album was now ten songs long. Thirlwell has said that although he can play a few instruments, he is proficient in none of them, and regards the studio itself as his instrument. He literally lives at his New York studio, emanating constant amniotic ultrasoundwaves from his songwomb.
The appearance of the songs “Lust For Death,” “I’ll Meet You In Poland Baby,” “Hot Horse,” and “Sick Man” (tracks 2, 3, 4, and 5 respectively, with the aforementioned “Clothes Hoist” being the track marking the opening of the album) during the record’s creation is a very interesting phenomenon. Their inclusion means that the record can basically be split right down the middle: side A (because it was, of course, originally released on vinyl) is an earthbound-and-gagged side, an existential torture garden of earthly delights and frights. Side B is a post-death condemned-to-Hell side, though by some of the material on the flipside you wouldn’t easily or readily be able to tell the difference. Which is the (w)hole point, of course.
“I do subject myself to torture unconsciously a lot of the time, really putting myself through the grinder when I don’t need to. It’s an unconscious thing. I don’t need to torture myself but I do it anyway”(6) – JG Thirlwell.
Hole rolls off with a song entitled “Clothes Hoist.” The opening to side one quotes the 1940 George Raft film They Drive by Night, at least partially: “I like the way you fill out your clothes,” Raft intones, to which Thirlwell adds “I’m gonna soak my head under your hose!” (a line not in the film) to make a rhyming couplet relaying the protagonist’s raw unbridled over-the-top sexual lusts. This also underscores the smoke-and-funhouse-mirrors cartoonish way that sex will be treated in the two songs on the album about desire, this number and “Hot Horse.” In the latter, the Antipodean anarchist adopts the persona of an American southern swampdweller looking for some hot city love, with lyrics reading like a list of humorous, surreal, sleazy analogies for the sexual act: “distempered tuna,” “killin shrimp with a crowbar in a barbed wire canoe,” “foamy filly,” etc.
What is truly incredible about this song (and indeed about both albums) is just how damned American Thirlwell sounds slinging this swinging material. He has, at least to my ear, completely mastered American slang and accents at the time of recording. Both of these albums sound as if the musician jumped from redwhitenblue electro-pop-cultural indoctrination in Australia straight to the USA, with his time in England barely affecting him at all. There is actually only a solitary English slang term on both albums, the word “fags” for cigarettes. Not much of a linguistics legacy for half a decade spent in the country.
Thirlwell’s use of American slang is interesting, in that some of it’s a sort of pastiche of hard-boiled jargon: “da boid gets da boid/I’m shaken but I ain’t stoid - I’m gonna carry on undetoid.” It’s certainly not what you would expect from somebody not raised in America but, insofar as the cliché goes that we are all American now, due to this country’s electronic indoctrination of the rest of the world, it’s pretty much par for the course as far as somebody who loves language and the muscular musicality of words goes.
The young Thirlwell had been well thrilled by the USA’s exported cultural output in all its forms, good and bad and ugly, a natural–born killer-spiller and absorber of Americana; his words and sounds replicate this country’s infinite intricate multitude of rhythms and sayings and adlines and more or less. There is an element of Grand Guignol to both of these albums, of melodramatic boomblast bombast, but it’s all done with a nod and a wink.
“Perhaps it’s as well to remind you here of an early Self Immolation saying: It’s okay to be irresponsible so long as you know you’re being irresponsible. Under such circumstances you can use bits of horrific imagery so long as you know you’re not just flirting with it,”(7) as Thirlwell put it at the time, with Self Immolation being his publishing company and record label for his early Foetus birthings.
“Lust for Death” and “Sick Man” are two peas in a mocking sonic pod. The former song is, of course, a satiric ripping riff on Iggy Pop (it hilariously starts off with the sound of a plane crashing), mocking him for his self-destructive tendencies and supposed lack of poetic literacy: “Never even ever read a word of Rimbaud.” The latter tune, using the 60s Batman TV show theme to hilarious and demented effect, is about Thirlwell’s fellow countryman Nick Cave (Thirlwell co-wrote a song with Cave, “Wings Off Flies,” from the first Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds album), with whom he worked in 1983 with Marc Almond and Lydia Lunch in The Immaculate Consumptive. This was a short-lived three-show-only underground superstar knockabout by the four anarchic artists.
“Sick Man” has a violent Alpha(betic) Male scribe starting bar fights and having the details recorded by a female companion, whom he injures or kills (it’s never explicitly stated) before shooting himself dead in the head. Both songs simultaneously celebrate and flay the clichéd arty-type archetype of the knuckledragger poetic loner musician, the pained, one-dimensional, two-fisted, ledge-edge-dwelling, blood-spilling, booze-drinking tortured soul of myth and legend.
Cave is a couple of years older than Thirlwell, and it seems as if they have both been fascinated by the same clichéd American boozy hard-bard legends as young men. There are certain similarities to their styles and word-presentations back at this period of time that it would take a person far better and more knowledgeable than me to unpick.
Suffice to say Thirlwell is demythtifying a penscratcher chest-thumper image he knows to be garbage, and yet being utterly enthralled by it at the same time, in both Australian and idealized tortured American sonic poet form. His songs are both an exorcism and an embracing of his own self-destructive tendencies by displacing them onto other artists. He’s also leveling who he sees to be his two main rivals, one Australian, one American, in the “greatest hard-living poet” stakes, staking his youthful claim to a right to artistic acknowledgement and respect. I wonder what Cave thought about the song, I must admit. For all I know, it may have been a private joke between them.
The last tune left on side one, “I’ll Meet You In Poland, Baby,” is a somber song about the start of WWII, invoking Hitler, Stalin, the invasion of Poland in 1939, and Case White, the German assault on occupied Yugoslavia in 1943, using Hitler’s betrayal as a metaphor for a relationship. Starkly anomalous on this side of the record (and indeed on the record in general), it’s the first song on both albums, though hardly the last, to invoke the specter of a world conflagration that had been over for less than four decades at the time of recording. It invokes the world of constant struggle on both albums, and as such is a revealing precursor to much of Nail’s material.
“I can’t shut off my ears to that infernal internal refrain!” – Foetus.
Side two starts as it means to go on, with the character Thirlwell is portraying (who is inseparable to me from the artist himself, though with some qualifications to that statement) is going, going gone to Hell with no chance of escape. Thirlwell’s religious background comes through loud and clear from right at the start, where he announces “I’m pure at heart, but salvation ain’t enough/I’m destined to live on the Street of Shame.”
The next song, “Satan Place,” picks up the concept and runs off madly laughing with it. This is one of my own personal all-time favorite songs, and one that I find incredibly uplifting: the agonized antagonized protagonist is riding the wild surf in the bowels of the earth, complete with hilarious Surfaris “Wipe Out” riff-lift. “I’m knock-knock-knockin’ on death’s door/do you remember where you’ve seen this cadaver before?/this swan-song’s floating on a watery grave/BLOW YOUR BRAINS OUT BABY!!” (all lyrical capitalizations in songs by Thirlwell) he intones humorously.
This actually demonstrates another writing tic or trick or two of his. He will re-contextualize old song titles (“Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” by Bob Dylan here – of course, he has to remove the ‘Heaven’ reference because he’s gone south of that imaginary place) for humor and scathing effect; he also plays with phrases like “swan-song” and makes it about a real dead floating swan. It’s very nicely done all round and betrays a restless, never-stopping intellect, constantly playing with words, laying them down, slaying them, resurrecting them for insurrection, doing what it wants with them.
Which actually brings us to an incredibly important facet of these albums, to me at least: the humor that is threaded through both of them, of a type which Thirlwell has referred to as “sad funny.”(8) Though the man who created these stunning and challenging works was clearly in a great deal of mental and emotional pain, he is still able to laugh about it all, which is, of course, the only sane and sensible reaction to an insane and insensible insensitive world and existence. I mean, who the Hell else would think to turn a lament about heading into purgatory into a bloody surf song?
Without jet black humor these two albums would be not only much darker and colder than they already are, but they would come off as bursts of arty angry angsty melodrama that would be much more difficult to take. Not being able to take himself 100% seriously is a savvy move from Thirlwell, making his work much more palatable and giving it much more longevity. This was one thing that always attracted me and helped me through things: no matter if Foetus was going through literal Hell, he could always still laugh about it and come out the other side eventually.
“White Knuckles,” the third song on side two, isn’t so much about post-death damnation as it is about corporeal punishment, both mental and emotional, in the context of a hands-themed song. It contains the lyric “I CAN‘T GET RID OF THIS EMOTIONAL SHIT!!!,” with “shit” here being the only expletive on both albums (I don’t count “bastard” as it has a valid non-expletive meaning). Thirlwell barely ever uses swearwords. I can only think of one incident of the word ‘fuck’ in the music of his I have heard, but as he’s so damned prolific, so prolifically damned, and there’s so much of his stuff I haven’t heard, that hardly means anything. The Devil is still making work for idle hands in this song, though, and it ends with singsong hee-hee rhyming chant from a demon-possessed character in the 1983 splatter movie Evil Dead, so he’s still in the grip of inescapable forever and ever amends-making purgatory.
Jumping from low sleaze to high art, as Thirlwell sometimes does, “Water Torture” (sonic kin to “Immigrant Song” by Led Zeppelin) immediately quotes Ulysses by James Joyce (“The SNOT-GREEN SEA, the SCROTUM-TIGHTENING SEA,” standardizing Joyce’s idiosyncratic spellings of ‘snotgreen’ and ‘scrotumtightening’) to let us know that the damned nation the gagging protagonist is eternally inhabiting is still a watery one. The song instantly starts off with some grinding pounding demented pianosmashery, like Jerry Lee Lewis having an epileptic fit being thrown onto the ivories.
“I just had a backyard coathanger job from the/SINNER SORTER, SOUL ABORTER,” Thirlwell wails with queasy, uneasy bleak black humor. According to the Baptist tenets he was abrasively raised and razed with, Thirlwell knows he is going to Hell and never coming back, and he’s trying to give us an inkling of what his own personal vision of his suffering would be like, if he truly fully believed in it. It’s actually very depressing, in a way, to think that the (in)human (disg)race is still teaching this kind of horrifying fear-and-loathing-and-guilt-inducing filth to innocent unimpressed impressionable children right now.
These albums are made by a man under unendurable pressure and torture from within himself, from all angles, self-medicating by producing black angel’s death songs to try and sing himself to some sort of comfort and sleep, perchance to dream of ending unending pain and forever-horror forever.
By the last song on the album, “Cold Day In Hell,” the musician’s self-abused muse has accepted the fact that he cannot escape his damned fate; all Hell breaks loose, but he can’t break loose of Hell, and will be pushed and punished there over and over again for all eternity and beyond. “Crucifixion is my addiction” he intones soberly, somberly, but again uses humor to lighten his and our load: “When it’s one man against the world/I shouldn’t have so much time to complain,” he notes, now resigned to his inescapable eternal place in the afterlife.
“Who wants to get po-faced about a po-faced condition?” (9) as he wisely punned in an interview at the time of the album’s release. Indeed. Life is just so damned tragic that sometimes you have to just laugh at it, even if it is just literal gallows humor, of the type here, to survive it with any degree of sanity left intact.
After Hole, misadventure brother Thirlwell fell down another sonic rabbit Hole and landed right back at square zero, ground zero of his own pain and pathologies, ending up with a genuine classic album at the same time…
“This is a war universe. War all the time. That is its nature” – William S Burroughs.
“I’m so close to this record - it’s like I’ve cut off a leg and put it in the record stamper,” (10) Thirlwell announced of Nail, recorded in London in 1985 and released the same year, his follow-up album to Hole. Of the title he said: “Nail, I mean, a coffin nail, a stigmata nail, a nail you hammer.” (11) Where Hole had been a recording leap forward for him, using 24 tracks for the first time instead of just eight, as he had on his previous records, Nail was another technological leap forward, with the string parts being sequenced on a Fairlight computer, and live percussion. Thirlwell stays completely up-to-date with recording technologies, and has done for decades.
Which brings me to something that has to be said.
This man is a genuine genius, a Mozart-level of musician.
I don’t say that lightly, or jokingly. In a world where any idiot can be called a genius by their slackjaw schlock-awed fanbase, Thirlwell truly qualifies for that appealing and appalling appellation, which is both a blessing and a curse. A blessing in that he makes a constant stream of incredible music of all kinds, but a curse in that he never seems able to enjoy the fruits of his sonic labors, and so never stops looking for the next musical hit and fix.
“You have to have some self-esteem, which is something that I pretty much don’t have. The amount of satisfaction I get out of, say, two-and-a-half years of work…I get like ten minutes of satisfaction then I have to move on. I wish I could wallow in it and relish it for a while, but unfortunately I can’t,” he noted in1995 interview (12). This partly explains why he is so prolific.
Of his artistic methodology, Thirlwell once said: “Problem-solving thing is the dichotomy between catharsis and picking a scab. Sometimes it works for me and sometimes it doesn’t. I’d probably go into a McDonalds with an AK-47 if I wasn’t doing this.” (13) You’d like to hope there’s a bit of joking overstatement in there, but it seems very clear that Mr. Thirlwell is also “tortured artist” archetypecast, angry and pained and violently stormtossed internally, and he quite simply needs to make music.
It’s no joke, and you would hope that life has gotten easier for him to bear in the eighteen years since he said that. It has to have. It can’t have gotten any bleaker, and he doesn’t seem to be as hermetically sealed as he once was for years, even trading the odd friendly email here and there, or talking to his fans on Facebook.
Might be a good idea just to stay out of McDonald’s in New York, though, just in case.
“The new LP that I’ve just completed is a concept album all about oppression, and the various forms of oppression, trying to itemize them, and, you know, as a result analyze them, and see how it can be sort of escaped from…” – JG Thirlwell.
Thirlwell’s self-mutilating analogy about how he feels about the record is very telling, and totally appropriate. Nail is an album full of violence and hubble-bubble hemoglobin (blood and its shedding appear constantly on both albums) and death and pain and suffering and murder and mind control and madness and badness and booze. It’s a much slower, more depressive, beat-up work than its relatively (musically) upbeat predecessor, visiting some of the darkest and grimmest hollow caustic corners of the 20th century – the death camps, serial murders, cults – in one huge agonized scream of consciousness from start to finish.
The opening instrumental track is called, with characteristic twisted humor, “Theme From Pigdom Come.” By Nail, the composer has coalesced his dispirited spirit and faded jaded flesh into one half-spent badly burned entity; no longer is he going to Hell, he is now there, and Hell turns out to be all the beautiful agonies of nothing more or less than the pigsty of life itself. “Theme” sounds like a pompous bombastic soundtrack for some self-torture-porn-cum-fascist-rally film, Leni Riefenstahl done for slit-belly laughs, triumph of the swill. It also showcases the first appearance of a porcine theme that runs right through the album.
The second song, “The Throne of Agony,” is a straight-up classic. The start of the song finds him making a “collect call to no-one at all,” which I take to be references to being lonely and alienated and having nobody to talk to, as well as to talking to God and getting no answer. The latter is reinforced by the use of the first recontextualized song title on the album, “Hello Central! Give Me No Man’s Land.” This 1918 composition—a hit for Al Jolson—is a war song where a young child is trying to get his father on the phone, except that his father has died fighting on the Western Front in WWI; “like Christ hollering for Papa with the lines cut,” to quote Charles Bukowski. So for Thirlwell God is dead, he has nobody to talk to for help, and he is in fun-damn-mental despair and emotional disrepair.
The Mission: Impossible theme tune slinks and tinkles mockingly through the background of this song, with that impossible mission being existence itself. Any ruminations on Satan from Hole have now mostly been replaced by a shadowy pantheistic cabal of torturing deities: “the dark Gods boint my evil SOUL,” he moans. Out of the afterlife frying pan and into the still-alive fire! This song is a pained poet (he shows his literary side again by paraphrasing Shakespeare) sitting drinking thinking pouring out words and drinks and more words, free-association from a dissociated man: “Pour another glass of liquid clear/KING ALCOHOL/Drinking hard to not remember what I’d just as soon forget/String around the finger…ROPE around my NECK/You always HATE the one you LOVE/Time dies when you’re havin’ fun/I’m gonna change my name…I’m changin’ trains…(kill me baby)”
There is a tiny moment on “Throne” that could serve as a microcosm for the theme of the album itself. “Complainin bout ma campaign against personal decency/I got no excuses/Just rules wrapped in barbed wire, laced with busted glass/Yeah I’m the one who gave the sandwich to Mama Cass,” (had to sneak in another joke to show Thirlwell is still using black humor to therapeutic effect), he sings. But when he wails “I got no excuses,” the “I” is him literally screaming.
You can’t get any more succinct than that, and that sort of detail is what makes these two works of stark magnetic ruined beauty great. There is just something about the man’s voice on this song that reaches deep inside me and soothes me when I listen to it, even though it’s incredibly trapped and tortured. If you’re still listening after that baptism by ire, there’s plenty more angst and anger and anarchy and energy to come.
The third song is just a four-second blast of noise entitled “!” Let’s move on…
…to “Pigswill” (which starts with the sound of a fire extinguisher that will never be enough to quell the psyche-fire material contained within), a sick and dark and sleazy and horrible song about a couple cruising for young hitchhikers before fucking and murdering them. This song was inspired by trips Thirlwell took up and down the West Coast, which he hated. Now the title, of course, is a pun on ‘pigs will fly,’ as well as being the word for pig food. Only in this song our oinky porky pals will also destroy, stagger, murder, and climb. This song continues, and makes more explicit, the loose pig theme of the album.
Where it comes from is rendered very explicit in a later song, “Di-1-9026,” which is about Charles Manson, with the song title being the ironic death-themed phone number for the Spahn Ranch (apparently erroneous, according to contemporary sources), where Charlie holed up with his loser loner kids waiting dementedly for the race war…and a recording contract.
“String up the piggies and let ‘em have it/It’s the pigs’ turn now to try the cross/SLIT THEIR SOFT WHITE UNDERBELLIES…WE’LL LET ‘EM KNOW WHO’S BOSS/The pigs are gonna taste the knife—10050 CIELO DRIVE/When the chosen few arrive/NO-ONE GETS OUTA HERE ALIVE…DEATH TO THE PIGS,” he howls on the most manic song on the album. He is referring, of course, to the notorious Tate-LaBianca murders, where Manson’s braindrained acolytes murdered Sharon Tate and others in 1969, writing “PIG” in blood on Tate’s door, and “DEATH TO THE PIGS” in blood on the LaBianca home’s wall.
Scraping Foetus live performances from the time of Nail were just Thirlwell scream-singing to a taped backing track. As Richard Kern, the erotic photographer/filmmaker whose infamous Deathtripping films included a couple of Thirlwell cameos, and who accompanied the musician on tour, put it: “For one of the Japanese shows I had to find ten taxi doors that were hung on stage. For another one I had to get ten pig heads. Jim would sing while holding a baseball bat and he’d bang on things occasionally.” (15) Smoky, deranged publicity shots bear surreal, bemused, confused witness to Thirlwell’s pig-headedness from this time.
In “Throne,” as in “Sick Man,” the man in the male-female relationship here ends up injuring/killing (here it feels more final) the woman he is traveling round with. As he puts it: “Left him John Hancock in her blood on that SWEATY PINK SHEET/That bloodstain’s BURNIN BURNIN BURNIN BURNIN hole in him meat/Smearin PIGSWILL with her pants on the white plaster wall with menstrual blood…” The Manson parallels are obvious, and what’s clear is that the image of writing in blood, either an artist’s or somebody else’s, is something that was burnin burnin burnin burnin hole in Thirlwell’s brain and heart and art back at that time.
For any intense poet, it can seem as if they’re literally writing with and writhing in their own blood; more so with somebody who likens his record to cutting off his limb and putting it in a record stamper. Sanguinary scribbling is a dramatic image, almost overly dramatic, nearly teenage in its intensity, but dark stark visceral and powerful nonetheless. “His life’s an open book scribbled in his own blood,” he writes of the drunken violent poet in “Sick Man.” What’s really interesting is how “Sick Man” and “Pigswill” are almost carbon copies of each other, right down to images of writing in blood and the woman in the relationship being injured/killed by the violent man. Though of course the protagonist in “Pigswill” is not a writer, not a creator; he’s a destroyer who can still write powerful messy messages (including his signature, which could also just be his signature murderous modus operandi) in hemoglobin anyway.
“Sick Man” and “Pigswill” are the only two songs on both albums where you have a male-female relationship of any kind (no other kinds of interpersonal human relationships are mentioned anywhere here, except for a brief, mocking mention of having a mother), and neither of them are loving in any way. For the rest of the time you have an alienated man writing about death and damnation and mutilation and murder from a viewpoint that could almost be construed as solipsistic if viewed from the wrong angle. What saves these songs from being totally self-absorbed is the compassion for the suffering of others (if not of self – Thirlwell comes across as very self-loathing on these two works, and others of his), and his examinations thereof.
What’s especially perplexing about these two songs, and the loser loner demeanor of the albums in general, is that Thirlwell was dating Lydia Lunch all through the period when Hole and Nail (Lunch recently named the latter online as one of her all-time favorite albums) were recorded. He met her in London in 1982, during the Australian band Birthday Party’s first European tour, when he was doing their press, and dated her for years after that, moving with her to New York (where he still lives) in 1983 and living with her.
Which is what makes the relationship aspects on these two albums so strange.
Lunch is an interesting, notorious, controversial, contentious person. Tragically abused as a child by her father, something which clearly deeply scarred her, she wrote a disturbing sex tourist travelogue named Paradoxia: A Predator’s Diary, in 1997, about her European and American erotic misadventures with all sorts and any number of men and underage boys. Thirlwell (named on her acknowledgements page as one of “those who have withstood the test of my insanity”) is amongst them, his name in the text cunningly disguised by using the Enigma-code-level complexity of the initials ‘J.G.’
Paradoxia is confessional literature, as its subtitle suggests. Of meeting her Australian beau, she writes: “Set out to steal his celibacy…His tortured genius wrestling libido. Decided to commit date rape. Fed him vodka and codeine to ease the pain.” (16) She notes “It was the first relationship I’d had where intimacy didn’t equate with violation.” (17) But even though she adores Thirlwell, she cannot stop having sex with constant random strangers and friends of theirs, driven by her sadly insatiable, pathological, abuse-fed hyper-sexuality, telling him everything and everybody she does, which “forced him into the voyeur’s peephole.” (18)
Of their combined energies and creativity (they collaborated together on and off until 1996) she says, tellingly: “Both consumed with the art of self-flagellating confessionals, melodramatic operettas, musical Grand Guignol…A variety of grotesque performances, the scope of whose horrific beauty is best left to the textbooks.” (19) Whilst I’m obviously not going to try and delve into any psychological explanations of this union (“A marriage made in the emergency ward,” as a later Foetus tune would put it), or try to dig too deep into a relationship I know little about, the dynamics are interesting.
Suffice to say, they’re still friends to this day. Thirlwell obviously didn’t find it too bad an experience, though Lunch said he needed therapy by the end of their time together. But, in a nutshell, that was Thirlwell’s main relationship all through the making of these albums, and the degree to which this positively or negatively affected their production is anybody’s guess. It’s just a talking point, is all.
Being the kind of bookish, or, as Lunch describes him, “reserved, sensitive, introspective” (20) man that he was/is, he obviously had to make an extra huge effort to jump out of his sheltered-life shell upon emigrating to England and then America. It’s never easy moving anywhere, but to somebody moving from twelve years of an all-boy’s Baptist school to post-punk England, life must have been incredibly culture-shocking and suddenly scary and unbelievably freeform and exhilarating. His self-reinvented hyper-macho appearance from the time betrays this, all sneers and sunglasses and motorbike teeshirts and cowboy boots cool-armoring his gangly frame, the exact opposite extreme from a timid Baptist schoolboy. He had to jump 100 miles just to get an inch past his old strictures-of-the-scriptures conditioning.
And you don’t get much further from that than a hard-living, hard-drinking, chain-smoking, edge-dwelling pained poet, like the type contained on the last song on the first side, “Descent Into The Inferno.” This song, the first of Thirlwell’s I encountered in 1988, seeing it on a taped 1985 performance from the English TV show The Tube (eternal thanks to Chris Milne for that), was originally known as “Descent Into LA,” a city Thirlwell visited and hated. It’s another ‘agonized poet trapped in partly-self-inflicted Hell’ song, and, of course, one analogy is to Dante’s Divine Comedy. Thirlwell himself is trapped dead center of the ninth circle, drunk and angry and depressed, trying and failing once again to hack his way out of his misery with his double-edged wordswords.
“Another hungover morning/In the bottom of the Black Lagoon/Purgatory disguised as a room with a view/I used to be in Heaven looking down…now I know the inferno from the inside,” he wearily blearily sighs, alternately identifying himself during the song as the titular Creature From the Black Lagoon; Satan cast out of a lost paradise; then as “human waste…FALLEN into the ABYSS like a roach in a trap.” In the same (opened) vein as “The Throne of Agony,” “Descent” gives us a framework of a drunken poet languishing in anguish, and writing down some of the humorous-cum-horrendous stuff and nonsense that comes to mind. “It isn’t very pretty what a town without pity can do,” he sadly sagely notes of his sorry self-oppressed wrecksistential saga, a line which is the tagline for the hilariously disgusting 1977 John Waters sleazefest Desperate Living (itself referencing the 1961 Gene Pitney song “Town Without Pity”). So he jumps right out of his skin and mind and into…
“Enter the Exterminator” (once again starting with the sound of an ineffectual-at-horror-destroying fire extinguisher) is without doubt the grimmest and most difficult of the songs on either album. In it Thirlwell puts himself in the thin holed shoes of a Jew waiting to die in a concentration camp. It’s a ballsy, determined, mad method-acting-and-writing move, of a type that few would have the moxie to pull off, or even try.
“Futility’s a luxury when you sleep in blood sperm vomit and piss,” he depressingly and disturbingly observes, to an ever-quickening-through-fear heartbeat-beat threaded through the song. The whole of Nail is basically Thirlwell trying on different costumes from the sick dark corners of the 20th century for size, with him being wound and dagger, victim and executioner, a vampire of his own heart, and reporting back on what he finds inside and outside.
“I feel we should immerse ourselves in the most destructive element, ourselves, and swim” – JG Ballard.
“Mass existence is the cause of my problems/Gotta choose between suicide and genocide/I’ve been impaled by the skins of six million Jews/I’d join the Ku Klux Klan just to get the uniform – or a good night’s sleep,” the (de)composer sings on “Cold Day In Hell,” Hole’s last song. He is tortured by the knowledge of what the human race can do to itself, and is trying to explore and explode the parameters of that inhumanity so he can grasp and try to transcend it.
He has to wade through blood and soil and thunder and shit and spit and bodies slit and split open like meaningless pig carcasses to do so. On playing mass murderers and dictators, he said: “That’s an analogy for taking the weight of the world on your shoulders, trying to get inside the mind of such a figure, work out how he’s thinking, feeling the desperation that might drive him to such acts.” (21) Of course, that’ll never work, but you can’t fault him for it anyway.
It all makes for good theater of war.
The sense of fear and foreboding generated by “Exterminator” is quite incredible, with lines of beautifully horrible, stark poetry as a baby cries disturbingly in the background, a reminder of innocence tragically lost: “High school memories, once a folly, are now reality due to sheer/LACK OF PRESENT…EACH EXPERIENCE BECOMES MY EPILOGUE.” It’s an incredibly bleak, insufferable suffering song, as befits its subject matter, and Thirlwell does not flinch from pushing the lyrical envelope: “They’re giving birth to ORPHANS/BLACK JEW GLUE…see who set the homefires burning, see who set the husbands burning.”
“Keep the Home-Fires Burning” is a patriotic WWI British song from 1914. Thirlwell slyly slides it into the lyrics, then comes up with a shocking play on it to emphasize the absolute insanity and horror of the Nazi death camps. From here the album moves to “Di-1-9026,” which we have discussed already, so we’ll just move on. I don’t much like this song anyway, finding it the weakest on the record.
The next two songs up, “The Overture From Pigdom Come” (a reprise of “Theme”), and “Private War,” are both instrumentals, so we can skip forward to the incredible last blast track, “Anything (Viva!).” Starting off a throbbing sonic barrage that literally sounds like mortar shells being lobbed towards the unprepared assailed listener, this song finds Thirlwell unbelievably angry and ready for the private personal war he has been cryptically alluding to in using the recontextualized titles of war songs from either side of the Atlantic, as well as directly in “Exterminator.” He’s beyond fed up with everything, enraged, engaged in his eternal internal war on anything and everything and nothing, and not about to back down, a “Tobacco chompin’ soldier of misfortune in that battle they call life.” He’s ready to do or die trying.
This is one of the most powerful, overwhelming pieces of music I have ever heard, and the combination of Thirlwell’s just-plain-scary incredibly powerful vocals (when he is screaming “GET OUT OF MY WAAAAAAAYYYYY!!!!” it sounds like the demon from The Exorcist is on loco motive vocals, and that’s not too far-fetched a simile to use) and the clatter and bang and batter and clang of the percussions tolling the repercussions of the toiling rage-swarmed man’s actions or inactions on existential distractions literally make my hair stand on end.
“Descent into the Inferno” tells us “GORY GLORY HALLELUJAH…You get what’s comin’ to ya,” black-humorously paraphrasing the 1861 Civil War composition “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” “Run the gauntlet north and south/March on up to the cannon’s mouth/And say I can do any goddamn thing I want,” Thirlwell fearlessly sneers and rants towards the end of “Anything,” letting us know in no uncertain terms he has finally pulled free of the seemingly inescapable black hole of his past paths and pain and is truly fully his own hard-won hard-on-waving man, ready to go in whatever direction he pleases. He’s had it with getting it from both sides, he’s had it with getting grief without relief from brain and body and spirit, from this life and the next, had enough of being shot by both sides on the run to the outside of everything, had enough of genocides, suicides, homicides, self-slavery advocators and abolitionists, north and south, mortal and immortal, moral and immoral, God and Satan, clean and dirty, good and evil, celibate and sex-gorged, clever and stupid, right and wrong, singer and song, drunk and sober, manic and depressive, and he’s leading a final ecstatic victorious charge of the life brigade in the uncivil war of his entire existence.
Does he win?
Do any of us win?
Let me know if you find out.
Which pretty much brings us home. There is a lot more to these albums, and to James George Thirlwell’s career, than I have discussed. I did not talk about the fact he does his own excellent artwork, on these two releases and all his other ones. I didn’t mention the superb music much, preferring to talk more about themes running through the albums and (some of) his lyrical tropes and traits. He’s a self-taught human tuning fork who can basically produce any musical style under the sun when in the studio; doing the music for the Cartoon Network animated series The Venture Bros., as he does, he is often called on to do so.
It still amazes me that both Hole and Nail were recorded by one man in his early-to-mid-20s in a studio by himself, with a lot to say and an endlessly hungry impatient fistwaver artistic monkey on his back to feed. Which is still the case – he literally never stops making music, constantly running off round the world to, say, record the sound of sand dunes in Oman because, well, it’s just what he does because of who and what he is. I just wanted to paint a broad picture of the sonic virtues of these two excellent albums, and maybe interest some readers who have not heard of the huge body of work of this peerless, tireless musician. If I do that I will have succeeded in what I set out to do, and repaid the debt I feel I owe to these two works in particular.
1) NME interview, 9/21/1985.
2) Dazed Digital interview, 8/15/2013.
3) Stiletto #24 interview, 6/24/1985.
4) Off the Record interview, 7/12/1995.
5) Melody Maker interview, 10/13/1984.
6) Stiletto #24 interview, 6/24/1985.
7) NME interview, 3/17/1984.
8) Off the Record interview, 7/12/1995.
9) NME interview, 3/17/1984.
10) NME interview, 9/21/1985.
11) Off the Record interview, 7/12/1995.
12) Off the Record interview, 7/12/1995.
13) Seconds #35 interview, 1995.
14) The Sound of Progress documentary, 1988.
15) Richard Kern in an email to the author, 1/9/2011.
16) Lydia Lunch, Paradoxia, P129, 1997.
17) Lydia Lunch, Paradoxia, P130, 1997.
18) Lydia Lunch, Paradoxia, P130, 1997.
19) Lydia Lunch, Paradoxia, P130, 1997.
20) Lydia Lunch, Paradoxia, P130, 1997.
21) NME interview, 3/17/1984.
This has been a guest post written by Graham Rae.