Part I: THE OMEN
People hand me scraps of paper. Sometimes napkins. I’d say about 1/4 of the slobs that walk into the library for information, which is about 1/4 of the total visiting population, don’t say anything at first, they hand me their crumpled little piece of paper and wait.
On Friday I got one from a senile old man wearing what senile old men wear, grey sweaters with zippers. It said “TINNITUS.” All Caps.
“Is this an author’s last name?”
He laughs. “No, no, no… it’s a disease, an illness. One in four people have it on the whole planet. Most don’t know it.”
I find the American Tinnitus Association site (www.ata.org). I print him some info including the FAQs. The first says there is absolutely no cure for this awful disease. The second says what it is:
Tinnitus is the medical term for the perception of sound in one or both ears or in the head when no external sound is present. It is often referred to as “ringing in the ears,” although some people hear hissing, roaring, whistling, chirping or clicking.
“Oh yeah. I’ve got this,” I say.
“See? I told you.”
I didn’t know there was a word for it, but now I know. When it’s really quiet, I hear a very gentle buzz like the sound of a far off highway or humidifier. I get him a book on hearing disorders and say “Have a nice day.” He doesn’t hear me and stumbles away into his world of hissing and echoes, a world I’m destined to be part of one day. It is my destiny for I’m already halfway there. If I leave the city and the sound of my lovely Major Deegan, I get headaches so bad I can’t sleep.
That little slip of paper was an omen, the bad kind.
PART II: THE POST-OMEN BEGINNING
Because today, after a few days of swelling, my head is ready to explode. It’s been getting tighter and tighter and I can’t get it loose. I’ve got the Tinnitus real bad. Roky Erickson bad. It started on Friday night at the Whitney Museum. Orphan and Thurston Moore and Kim Gordon and Yellow Tears all with their own version of noise. Orphan killed. The bands were set up in the gutted coffee shop in the same large room as the Museum gift shop. When Orphan started playing, the looks of horror in the bookshop were priceless. One was from some asshole in a Black Flag T-shirt. He should be shot because he failed to understand Orphan is Chuck Dukowski bass leads and good steady drums with some black metal screaming over the top.
Kim Gordon rubbed her guitar against the walls and pillars of the museum and her legs and her amp. She was very sensual with her noise. At one point during the fifteen minute set, she sat spread eagle behind her amp and pulled the guitar back and forth like a dildo. Thurston was to her left on his knees bending an acoustic guitar and I think fiddling with knobs. His guitar had a shiv in it so it buzzed more the usual buzz. Yellow Tears were on last and they are a “noise” band. I put it in quotes because it’s the genre. I won’t try to write about them because I wouldn’t know what to write. I have no background in that music, but the people there sure got horny for it. Some of them were frothing at the mouth and pumping their fists in the air like a sweaty Italian with tribal tattoos at a Nine Inch Nails show.
PART III: THE SECOND ACT BRIDGE
Then. Drinking. Work. All I hear is beeping and I walk around like a crazy person trying to find the beep. Drinking. Drinking. Very little sleep. Queens to interview a metal band. This is maybe when the problem got worse. I was interviewing the band in their living room and they wanted to play a few songs to finish up practice.
As we went downstairs.
“You want ear plugs?”
“Nah. I’m alright.”
“We all wear earplugs.”
“Really? Is it that loud?”
One of them comes downstairs after all of us and just before they started playing says to the others, “Did you give him earplugs?”
“I’ll be alright. I’ll put my hat on.”
“Yea, put your hat on.”
Fuck, they were loud. Motorhead loud. I didn’t really notice the echo swarm in my head until I got home after Wrestlemania in Brooklyn. And now I can’t get my head to shut up. At work I still hear a beeping sound. In my living room I hear cell phones ringing and everyone looks at me like an idiot when I say, “You’re phones ringing, dude.” There’s no phone ringing.
It’s gotten so bad I can’t tell what’s real or what’s fake. This morning I heard showtunes coming from next door and a pounding coming from above. I think the upstairs neighbors got a treadmill. I hope it was a treadmill or this Tinnitus is worse than I thought.
Sometimes it’s the sound of the Theremin from “Good Vibrations” for an hour or so.
PART IV: THE POINT IS ROKY
During this time, I’ve found some solace in the new Roky Erickson album True Love Cast Out All Evil. Roky Erickson heard so many voices and noises in his head he used to have all his radios and televisions turned on to drown them out. I’m not there yet, but we’ll see. I’ve been very excited about this album and now that’s it’s here I can say it is very great. My favorite thing is it’s construction from beginning to end. Most of these songs are re-recorded versions of old demos and songs Roky has had lying around for years, but it works as an album. It’s his first one of those in about 14 years, so instead of ignoring the fact that he was absolutely insane and out of his fucking mind during his mainstream recording dark age, the album acknowledges it. It might even relish it.
The first, “Devotional Number One” is a recording Roky’s mom made when he was in Rusk State Maximum Security Prison For The Criminally Insane after being arrested for weed in 1969. There are few better lyrics in the history of rock in this song: “Jesus is not a hallucinogenic mushroom.” I love the choice to have this as the first song. When the short “Ain’t Blues Too Sad” comes in with all it’s professional sounding glory, it’s a good feeling. It’s a triumph for the mad underdog.
Next is the single “Goodbye Sweet Dreams” and it’s a seemingly overproduced poppy+sappy =pappy song but there is a very weird whine behind the entire mix. It sounds like a finger on a wine glass. To me, it means Roky is not completely together as much as the press release or record label would have you believe. Instead of letting his insanity interfere with making music, he’s incorporating the two. Going back to “Good Vibrations,” it’s a pop song with an unsettling whine lurching in the shadows.
Usually, there is no shortage of odd sounds in Roky songs because they are all recorded in weird places. Since the majority of Roky Erickson’s music I listen to (Never Say Goodbye and Gremlins Have Pictures) is recorded as a demo, outside, in a hospital or a living room, I’ve gotten used to the style. So some of the songs on this album are shocking in how well they are produced. I guess I’m not used to Roky’s voice so clear and with so many instruments and layers. I’m not a snob, though, as much as I’d like to think so. A good song is a good song. “Be And Bring Me Home” is good with all the production. Even one of my absolute favorites “John Lawman” is good. For the first twenty seconds, the faraway guitar sounds identical (might be the same one) from the version I know from Gremlins with Pictures, until the new song plows over the top. Roky’s voice gets some effects, but it doesn’t sound overly cheesy like it probably should. This is again due to the fact that a good song is a good song. And a song with the only lyrics being repeated are: “I kill people all day long/ I sing my song/ ‘cus I’m John Lawman” is a classic song. Mark it down in rock canon classic. The song ends with a bunch of studio noises. Maybe they found a way to hook up a microphone to record the inside of Roky’s head. Thank you 21st Century.
So the album continues and another classic Roky song is redone, “Birds’d Crash.” The guys in Okkervil River are pretty good with it, they don’t miss the big hook and I appreciate it. I equate this song to the Elevators’ best “Splash 1.” It ends with some fuzz and birds chirping and a crappy recorded demo of Roky in his house with all the weird background noises. Instead of telling the world, HERE HE IS, ROKY ERICKSON, THE MAN WHO WROTE “YOU’RE GONNA MISS ME” in all his PRODUCED STUDIO GLORY BACK AFTER 14 YEARS, the album ends with a scratchy demo called “God is Everywhere.” It’s a prayer. It’s hopeful. Some studio strings are laid over the top at the end, but it doesn’t kill the buzz for me. Roky is crazy and he’s back. He’s taking his meds and he’s on the road and he’s not hearing as many voices as usual.
This song paired with the opener lead me to believe Roky Erickson writes the most pure or righteous religious songs I know. I think it’s because when he’s singing about God or the Devil, he’s singing about them like they are sitting there in the room with him instead of up in the clouds or in some abstract place. And it’s because he has sat in his living room with the devil and god and a vampire and Abe Lincoln. He’s good friends with all of them.