Reissue Of The Week: Leslie Winer’s When I Hit You – You’ll Feel It

Light In The Attic's new compilation spanning Leslie Winer's criminally slept-on career is near-perfect and a must-listen, says Bernie Brooks

I didn’t know Light In The Attic was releasing When I Hit You – You’ll Feel It, a long overdue, career-spanning compilation of Leslie Winer’s work, until this past Friday. My partner and I listened to it for the first time as we drove to Toledo, Ohio, the following day. Toledo – home to a minor-league baseball team called the Mud Hens, a good zoo, a great art museum in the tradition of corroded Rust Belt cities, and a glass factory – is neither far afield from our home base of Metro Detroit, nor is it a particularly glamorous destination, but this was the first time we’d left our home city in probably 15 months.

The last time was to collect an unattended ergonomic chair we’d purchased by phone from a parking lot in Zeeland, Michigan. So, this excursion felt somewhat monumental and necessary. We were on our way to an exhibition called Supernatural America, which seemed appropriate for reasons that will be apparent later on. As we rumbled along I-75, a wildly loud stretch of crumbling American infrastructure, the road drowned out most everything but the muscular, dub-inflected productions, Winer’s sometimes whisper-quiet musings swallowed up by the din for miles. Every once in a while, we’d catch a line:

"Give me an inch, and I’ll go for your throat."

"I’ve got a skin drum in my heart, it’s going boom boom boom."

"Really nice, despite the sunburn."

"He used to stay up painting in $1200 suits, all night comic books."

"Please don’t become a hoarder, mom."

"Paul sings low, and ‘God Only Knows’, John sings high."

But who is Leslie Winer, anyway? And why should you care? Well, dear reader, let me tell you something:

Leslie Winer is one of the coolest people in the world.

Now, I’m not being shallow or superficial here, because being cool has nothing to do with the shallow or superficial. It’s true that shallow, superficial stuff is sometimes a byproduct of one’s inherent coolness, but ultimately, being cool can’t be fabricated (although that doesn’t necessarily mean it can’t be nurtured). It doesn’t have to do with how handsome or rich or famous you are. If it did, Johnny Depp would be properly cool instead of history’s most cringeworthy try-hard. Which isn’t to say that truly cool folks don’t try hard, but the key thing to note is that whatever they decide to do, it will seem natural. It will fit. They will fit. Whatever it is will flow from them like an extension of the self. To me, that’s what it is to be cool. And Leslie Winer is cool.

Admittedly, I’m a relatively new addition to the Leslie Winer Appreciation Society. I first stumbled across her work in 2018, when she released YMFEES with Jay Glass Dubs on Bokeh Versions. Glass Dubs is one of my favourite artists working today, and Bokeh is one of the top labels, so despite my having no idea who the heck Winer was, it was a no-brainer insta-grip. Needless to say, it knocked me out. YMFEES is represented here by ‘Woodshedded’, the album’s first cut, and this comp’s penultimate. On it, Glass Dubs lays down a rich bed of delay, each element of the track reverberating for an eternity, while Winer gets a little meta: "There’s an organ drone in there, a note that’s held down for the last third of the song or so…"

I’m delighted by the track’s inclusion, it being my introduction to Winer, and just as importantly, to her voice. Winer doesn’t often sing or even sprechgesang. She gruffly whispers, mumbles, intones – all filterless Marlboros like they probably don’t make anymore snubbed out in gravel. Sometimes, you need to work to make out what she’s saying, but it’s always, always worth it.

There’s an incredible feeling that goes along with discovering a new-to-you favourite artist. Every music fan knows it – that sense of wonder and the potential of the unknown as you prepare to dive deep down a rabbit hole of Google searches, Wikipedia, and Discogs. I felt an inkling of it when I heard ‘Woodshedded’ for the first time. It only intensified as the album played out. I needed to know more.

Digging into Winer’s backstory is like tapping a rich vein of folklore. Not to be glib, or to somehow render fantastical an actual life lived by an actual person, but she’s one of those American characters that seems almost mythical, whose life reads like a fiction. The Cliff’s Notes version is this:

Named Baby Girl Maguire at birth, Winer was sold to her adoptive grandmother in a parking lot. After high school, she studied for a while at the School For Visual Arts in New York after a stint at Hartford Art School in Connecticut. At the SVA, she studied with people like Joseph Kosuth and Hannah Wilke, writing softcore porn to cover her bills. She hung with Burroughs as an equal. Before long, she was signed up with Elite Models, shooting with Helmut Newton and the like. Some call her the first supermodel. She thinks that’s bullshit. She lived with Basquiat for a time, off and on. In London, she hung with Leigh Bowery at Taboo. I mean, it goes on and on and on like this. I’m sure you get the picture.

The important thing, for our purposes anyway, is that all along Winer was writing poetry – legit poetry by all accounts. By the early 80s she was playing increasingly instrumental roles in Kevin Mooney’s musical endeavours post his tenure in Adam And The Ants: first, contributing backing vocals in Wide Boy Awake; next, as a central player in Max. Uncredited, Winer played keys, penned lyrics, and the worked up the band’s visual identity. She’d have five daughters with Mooney before they split up. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Before that, London turned grim, Winer and Mooney crossed the Channel and, calling upon a slew of friends, she made Witch.

Witch, released in 1990 as a white label, is incredible. 42 minutes of mutated dub and hip hop, like the best On-U Sound record that On-U Sound didn’t release. Here, it’s represented by a handful of tracks: ‘N1 Ear’, ‘The Boy Who Used 2 Whistle’, ‘Dream 1’, and ‘He Was’. ‘N1 Ear’ is a furious feminist anthem set to a massive, booming drum loop and killer bass line. It’s supremely groovy, straight out of ‘Beat Bop’-era NYC. It sounds like it was recorded in a filthy loft with no hot water. ‘The Boy Who Used 2 Whistle’ rides the same kind of vibe, but it’s made entirely out of rubber. ‘Dream 1’ is a woozy, sea-sick lullaby sort of thing. And ‘He Was’? ‘He Was’ is perfect, high-test dub. Full stop, end of story. It’s languid and mournful and warm. One of those things that feels like it’s about New York. With about a minute to go, these unbelievable swells of something synth-like come in that’ll rip out your heart.

I’m not quoting a lot of lyrics, but know this: I could spend all 1,600 words of this essay quoting lyrics from this record.

Back in Toledo, I’m looking at planchettes and spirit boards. There are trance-induced paintings, artworks based on tragic folklore and ritual magic, symbols everywhere. Looking at them, When I Hit You – You’ll Feel It fresh in my brain, I think about how Winer imbues all these songs with the sense of ritual. They can be rich with portent, as if by speaking things, Winer will make them so. I think about how initially, Winer released Witch as the commercially suicidal "©". That’s right, the copyright symbol. Surrounded by trappings of the occult, it occurs to me that this might be a potent sigil, a claim of ownership. Ownership of the sounds within, of herself. Though she’d discard this alter ego, it still strikes me as a profound gesture, especially for a veteran of the fashion industry: Winer’s identity is her own.

Though she might rebuff the suggestion, the prickly question of identity seems to hang out at the heart of a lot of this work, however enigmatically. Take ‘Dunderhead’, for instance, a track taken from Winer’s Purity Supreme collaboration with Christophe Van Huffel. It’s western-fried and mean, with Winer growling on about her "couple of drops of Indian blood", "a skin drum in [her] heart", the Black Hills, and other general signifiers of Indigenousness that in lesser hands could read as trope-y. Among other things, Winer is part Mi’kmaq, and it’s hard not to get the impression throughout that she’s picking at and around that aspect of her ancestry – of her self.

The more conventionally pretty numbers here are no less gripping, no less transporting. ‘Hold On Postcards’ is a piano-led track featuring Winer reciting postcard notes to loved ones overlaid by a lovely, wistful vocal melody. It’s beautiful and sad, melancholy like the best of Leyland James Kirby’s stuff.

There’s a lot I haven’t talked about. There’s no way I could fit it all in. Hell, there’s a Jon Hassell collaboration on here and I’m only mentioning it now, and in passing. (It rules.) Light In The Attic, as expected, have done a great job cherry-picking from a great catalogue. And they’ve stuck it in a phenomenal package. For folks looking to dip a toe into Leslie Winer’s work, When I Hit You – You’ll Feel It is ideal. But when it comes to music, I’m greedy, and I can’t help but think that Winer deserves more: a massive damn box set. As nice, as nearly perfect as this best-of is, it just isn’t enough. What would be enough? Everything.

Leslie Winer’s music has perennially been a "best kept secret", posted up in the margins, there for people to stumble across when they least expect it. I don’t think Winer minds that much, if at all, but it’d be wonderful if this compilation moves her work to the body of the text where it belongs. And if, as a result, she blows up, finds herself front and centre? Based on ‘This Blank Action’, her stone-cold collaboration with Diamond Version, I think she might look in the mirror and say:

"Congratulations on being a big fuckin’ deal."

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