If I was still naïve enough to believe in conspiracies, I'd say the reason that you, an alt-weekly reader, don't possess a copy of ex-Dead Kennedy frontman Jello Biafra's seventh spoken word album, Machine Gun in the Clown's Hand (Alternative Tentacles Records), is because the so-called "alternative" media is now nothing more than a big corporate tax write-off, and devoting more than a capsule review to what is today's most significant countercultural message would smack of brazen dissent.
But clearly, that's not the case. After all, this is a free country, and as free slaves, we have every right to head down to our local independent record store and buy a rebel album with gorgeous, hilarious cover artwork by Chuck Sperry depicting both Osama Bin Laden and Dubya made up like Ronald McDonald. (Dubya is especially funny, with his Mickey Mouse ears, M-16 and choke-in-case-of-emergency pretzel necklace.)
Not everyone is amused. The store manager scoffed when I brought Machine Gun to the register. "Two bar codes?" he said. "That's so subversive." I caught myself from saying something like, "The double bar codes are meant to wreak havoc within the Wal-Mart inventory system," because it quickly dawned on me that Wal-Mart would never sell something produced by Alternative Tentacles. So why is Biafra trying to screw with independent stores?
He's not, of course, just as he's not out to win the hearts and minds of conservatives with his spoken word efforts. Instead, he seeks to reawaken the impulse toward reform that's remained dormant since the 1980s, when this country decided it had had enough of reform and longed for an era of retrenchment. It arrived, and the entire generation of slackers that came of age during Reagan's Howdy Doody time is a casualty of a cultural war. Turned off by free love and free market excess alike, we pay our $100-per-month digital cable bill and watch an expensively made B-movie called The Matrix for the 100th time, because it's the closest thing to a countercultural gesture we'll ever know. Let freedom ring and ka-ching!
Well, Machine Gun will light a fire under your ass--that is, if you're not too busy laughing it off. Charismatic without being corny, articulate without being condescending, Biafra tackles all the news that's unfit to print: the faked energy crisis, corporate crime, the war on civil rights, Florida's electoral sham, the myth of Nader's spoiler role and the much-needed canonization of Joey Ramone. He does it with a refreshing sense of humor that's mostly absent from the preachings of scholars like Chomsky, Nader and Zinn (all of whom have recently released albums on Alternative Tentacles). And it's contagious; be careful or you'll find yourself using terms like "Bushcroft," "Ashcrack" and "Osama bin Werewolf" during your cocktail conversations--or worse, in your workplace conversations.
Recorded live in various cities--Calgary, Alberta; Memphis; San Francisco; and Tallahassee, Fla. (once known as "the Berkeley of the South") --Machine Gun is more of an audio book than a collection of spoken word "pieces." You'll need a couple hours to get through its entirety. It might help to down a few beers while you listen in order to numb some of the despair his message ultimately brings. But don't fret. "12 Steps to Corporate Free Sobriety" will galvanize you in a way no other call-to-arms can. It's time to kick out the clowns and confiscate their weapons. See you at the rallies.
Meanwhile, Godspeed You! Black Emperor seems to have hoarded an impressive amount of the American military's unexploded ordnance, which is what the title of the post-rock band's new album, Yanqui U.X.O. (Constellation), supposedly "means." But GY!BE isn't merely stockpiling; in fact, the Canadian nine-piece group (cello, French horn, drums, three guitars, two basses and violin) uses those landmines--at least symbolically--to provide context for what can be deemed instrumental protest songs.
The packaging is more direct. The band's name is nowhere on the album, and rather than a track listing, we're treated to a hand-scrawled diagram tracing the links between major media conglomerates like BMG, Sony and Time Warner and the manufacture of U.S. weaponry. The inner sleeve offers some obscure criticism of Ariel Sharon's violent policies and the suggestion "to avoid giving money to predatory retailers and superstores."
Maybe this album can be filed under "New Age." If so, it's veteran alt-rock producer Steve Albini's first foray into that disreputable genre.
Five epic tracks constitute what is an effort to simulate in terms of music our warring nation's collective dream of death. After all, until the draft is reinstated, it's someone else's cannon fodder, not our own. It's when our own young men start coming home in bags that the dream ends and the nightmare of reality begins. And that's also when GY!BE's music ceases to be prophetic and instead becomes documentarian.
The two-part opener, "09-15-00," (a reference to a major Israeli incursion into Palestine) holds a mirror up to the dream so we can simultaneously acknowledge its wretched beauty and understand that it's scary as hell. "Rocket Fall on Rocket Falls" is perhaps GY!BE's most full-throttle song ever, with thudding, apocalyptic drums to satisfy any stoner-rock lovers hoping for some straight-up rock action. The two-part closer, "Motherfucker=Redeemer," is arguably the album's most ambient section, its droning violins sounding like wind shear off a bomber jet's metal fuselage.
Determined, driven, diabolical, GY!BE pushes its minimalist compositions to their breaking points. The raw instrumentation gives the songs a timeless feel; this album could've been recorded anytime in the last century--or in the future. What's more, this music hints toward a scenario that Biafra's words warn us against. Listening to these albums back to back puts the fear in me, reminding me that whatever I'm doing to resist the notion of war as "winnable" probably isn't enough.
Real art can never entertain; it can only instruct--not by preaching--but by causing you to ask questions. Biafra and Black Emperor have posed some serious questions, and the answers I'm finding ain't pretty.
Howdy Doody time is over.