Pew's Anatomy

Staggering on in this way -- building, getting louder, darker, more bestial -- "King Ink" creates its tension through dynamic interplay, snatches of melodies that never resolve, atonal clangs, and offbeat crashes -- all taking place above the heaving polyrhythmic surge. Soon Cave is squawking like a giant maniacal crow. "Wake up up up up up up up uuuup!" He screams for longer than seems humanly possible. Then he huffs "Express yourself!" over and over until the song starts to disintegrate -- the machine collapsing in a caterwaul of bleats and moans and yowls. And, rather suddenly, it's over. For five seconds or so there's a much-valued silence, before the next song ("A Dead Song") begins.

This is, of course, the general formula that lies behind a Birthday Party dirge. For a faster number -- say, the vicious "Big-Jesus-Trash-Can" on Junkyard -- just jam the throttle to full, add a spastic ride cymbal in an accountable time signature, and saxophone that honks like Ornette Coleman or a damaged goose, take cover, and release Mr. Cave from the holding pen. Halfway through you'll find yourself nursing a pleasurable needlelike ache in your temples. Your tongue has grown fur; sweat beads along your upper lip. The world repeatedly tilts in unhealthy angles; supper curdles in your gut. Happy now, you weave your way across the room toward the toilet.

Indeed, the Birthday Party accomplished what's remarkably rare in rock music. Through a furious and complicated -- and often humorous -- exploration of musical form, lyric, and image (as compared to, say, G.G. Allin's rather banal attempts to shock, or to Marilyn Manson's contrived theater of pain), they managed to confront, discomfit, revolt, bring on bouts of motion sickness and/or the runs. They forced the gurgling waste within us out. And in the process, they renewed our faith in the genre's ability to launch a moral critique of a world gone foul. Emesis, not thesis.

Feeling better?
A final hallowed memory: I recall bringing home my first dubbed copy of Junkyard from college for summer break. I planned on spending a tedious two months familiarizing myself with some seriously twisted music that would also, of its own accord, keep my parents away -- much in the way garlic works with vampires, I hoped. That first night at dinner my mother reported to me that whatever racket I was listening to these days was literally making her sick. I grinned, at her and over at Pa munching corn. If I had known then what I do now, I would have invoked the ghost of a recently departed Pew and boldly stated, "What you have heard, Mother, is the anus of culture.

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