Not Your Kind of Music: The Basement Tapes 1995-1999
, August 7th, 2012 11:59
Mental illness and substance abuse problems were as much hip requirements in 90s alternative rock as flannel shirts or Converse trainers. Long before Kurt Cobain ascended to posthumous martyrdom, grunge had made a virtue out of low self-esteem and depressive, nihilistic apathy, and if you didn’t have a heroin habit, you were at least expected to act like you did. “Outsider artists” like Daniel Johnston and Wesley Willis were elevated to cult status, their illness seemingly a badge of their authenticity. In the UK ecstasy culture may have painted a vaguely positive sheen over a generation’s associated drug and mental health issues, but the Manic Street Preachers were still accepted as “4 Real” by a previously sceptical nation after guitarist Richey Edwards indulged in a spot of public self-mutilation, a verdict seemingly confirmed by his eventual disappearance.
Much of this aesthetic was of course a reaction against the “will to power” philosophy propagated by Thatcher and Reagan / Bush over the preceding ten years, as well as the nauseating careerism and dishonesty of most mainstream rock and pop, and the glamorisation of mental instability and addiction in music culture stretches at least as far back as Charlie Parker. Nevertheless, though the stories of Cobain or Edwards are doubtless tragic, they were typical of their times, and there were many like them who came to music as the only way to express their pain and confusion in an alienating, hard-edged, go-getting era, and who found their problems exacerbated by the surrounding culture as a result. Most of them never even achieved a glimpse of fame or notoriety; some of them at least recovered, and moved on with their lives.
Charles Douglas came closer than most to achieving success in music. His teenage band, Vegetarian Meat, released one flop album before splitting, but Douglas found himself signed to Elektra Records as result, aged just nineteen; a solo artist with a glittering career ahead of him. Right? Wrong. This two CD retrospective is a document of just how spectacularly Douglas blew his big chance, containing four albums recorded between 1995 and 1999- though to complete the picture, you also need 1998’s The Lives of Charles Douglas LP, which Broken Horse re-issued separately in 2010, and on which Douglas employs Moe Tucker not only as producer but as drummer, to record the greatest faux-Velvets LP you’ve never heard. Despite hanging out with the likes of Luna, Mercury Rev and the Pixies, and apparently even making a fan of David Bowie, Douglas’s commercial ambitions were thwarted by his own self-sabotage as he descended into a pit of depression, delusional paranoia, alcoholism and cocaine abuse, barely ever leaving his parents’ basement- a dark, damp concrete hole filled with trash and rats, where each of these four LPs were recorded virtually single-handed on his battered 8-track.
Elektra tried to salvage 1995’s Minor Wave by getting Wharton Tiers to remix it, but Tiers apparently hated the album and felt there was no point in trying to polish a turd. I imagine the version presented here isn’t much different from what emerged from Douglas’s fetid basement; all tinny drum machines and cheap synth brass coating generic third division nineties indie rock. ‘King of Industry’ sounds like Pavement, not only due to Douglas’s sub-Malkmus vocals, while ‘Luxury’ could pass muster as an Ultra Vivid Scene b-side. ‘In With the New’ has a stoned, low-key charm, its four-to-the-floor beat and alienated vocals sounding like ‘Blue Monday’ relocated to some backwoods American burg. But mostly Minor Wave sounds like what it is; a young kid trying to make a radio-friendly alt-rock album in the mid-90s, pleasant but hardly diverting, although the dated period clichés are almost charming with hindsight, like the Drew Barrymore referencing ‘Anywhere Right Now’. Elektra turned it down, but released it on A&R man Terry Tolkin’s indie subsidiary No.6 Records, where it sank without trace. And there’d be no point in dredging it back up now, were it not for the tantalising hints of the weirdness to come; the unsettling falsetto vocals on ‘Lullaby’ or the creepy vibrations of ‘Volume and Tone.’
That weirdness would come to full fruition on 1997’s The Burdens of Genius, Douglas’s fucked up outsider masterpiece. Though he was still signed to Elektra at this point, the label point blank refused to release the album when Douglas came up from his basement lair with the tapes, so he put them out himself, cutting 300 CDs and setting up an indie distribution deal. 250 of those CDs were returned unsold. The Burdens of Genius is a very loose concept LP, full of nostalgia for an imaginary early sixties America, all hot rods and hot dogs, surfing and “two girls for every boy” as the Beach Boys had it. The utterly unhinged ‘Drivin’ Around’ is ‘Surfin’ Safari’ via Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, and coming out closer to the Legendary Stardust Cowboy. Two songs pay tribute to Dennis Wilson- the 47-second ‘Dennis Wilson’ and the utterly sinister bad acid trip of ‘Octopus (Cease to Exist)’ which dives deep into the web of connections between the Beach Boys, the Beatles and Charles Manson, and posits that when Wilson drowned he was in fact pulled under by a giant neon octopus- the same one featured in the Beatles song ‘Octopus’s Garden’.
The most immediately noticeable difference between Minor Wave and The Burdens of Genius is in Douglas’s voice; cracked and cocaine-hollowed, it now most resembles the fragile falsetto of Daniel Johnson, a depressed Jonathan Richman or a more hesitant incarnation of Mercury Rev’s Jonathan Donahue. The fact that Douglas was “hanging out” with the Rev at this time is apparent, although musically the songs are far more primitive garage rock than the former band’s baroque pocket symphonies. The childlike nightmare of ‘Spiders and Snakes’ comes closest to their territory, while the wistful melody of ‘The Rabbit Never Gets The Carrot’ is a classic paean to failure. ‘Suicide note,’ with its heartbreaking refrain, “I want to be red instead of blue, you know that it’s true” is a lost masterpiece, out of tune and out of whack and sounding utterly genuine for it. And ‘Living in a Hole’ manages to suggest the Rutles, a grunge Outkast and a PCP-addled Pavement all at the same time. If Minor Wave was a misguided bid for indie-rock stardom, then The Burdens of Genius is the sound of a 21-year-old lost soul making music because it’s all he can do, and out of that desperation comes true art.
On the second disc, The Spiders are Getting Bigger, from the same year, is nearly as good; ‘Thee Hipster’ is nerdy electro-rap that predates LCD Soundsystem by eight years, while the sinister synth drone of ‘Mountains’ almost sounds like the Residents. On ‘Pray to Lord Ganesh’ Douglas develops what becomes something of a trademark; overdubbing his own backing vocals, then speeding them up so they sound like freaky, helium voiced gnomes, agreeing with whatever the lead vocal is saying or just muttering away in the background like a multitude of schizophrenic alternate personalities. Apparently Douglas wanted this song to sound like a happy party record, but in fact it all sounds creepy as hell, like some squalid Manson-cult in the making. Similarly, ‘Success’ was supposedly intended as a hit single, but it’s one of the most messed-up moments on the whole collection, a repeated, slowed-down refrain of “I want to write the songs that stick in your head, stick in your head, stick in your head” echoing through a musical k-hole, presumably trying to bludgeon the listener into submission. And ‘Charles is Back’, a statement about his impending recovery, sounds like Douglas is right at the bottom of the abyss, grinning stupidly as blood pours from his ruined septum. Perhaps best of all is ‘Acid Tripping in the Delta’, an utterly strange, sinister murk that seems to be about a father taking his son on a trip to the Delta, on acid, with heavy kiddie-fiddling overtones.
After this, 1999’s Haunting and Daunting is a comedown. The record contract was long gone by this time- Douglas had dubbed about 60 copies of Spiders onto cassette and left them on record store counters- and a spell in rehab had reined in the drug problem. By his own admission in the highly entertaining and sardonic sleevenotes, Douglas was only making music at this point because he didn’t know what else to do, and was pretty much bored with the whole process. “As soon as I stopped doing drugs, the songs got much more boring” he admits, and while there’s still some freaky fun to be had here- ‘Lovely Knee’ is a standout- it’s mostly pleasant but forgettable, although maybe a certain amount of fatigue has set in for the listener too, after 67 tracks of lo-fi basement recordings.
After one more album- 2001’s Statecraft, not included here- Douglas eventually quit music and went on to become a successful novelist and screenwriter under the name of Alex McAulay. Clean, sober and apparently happy, he probably owes his survival to the fact that the fame he so desperately craved in his early 20s never arrived. But some incredible songs also made it through, and if Minor Wave and Haunting and Daunting sound like perfectly listenable period pieces, then The Burdens of Genius and The Spiders are Getting Bigger are for the ages; timeless encapsulations of youthful frustration and depression, and the outer limits of a drug-warped imagination.