(1989, Outer Himalayan)
Published in The Rummage, 12 August 2013
It was a double record set. It cost 7 dollars. It was too much, but Frank Zappa’s name was on it, so I bought it. I took it home and put it on. It was the worst dreck I’d ever heard. I said, ‘They’re not even trying! They’re just playing randomly,’ you know? But I thought, ‘But Frank Zappa produced it, so maybe if I give it another play ….’ I thought, ‘It sounds horrible, but they mean it to sound this way.’ And about the third or fourth time it started to grow on me. At about the fifth or sixth time, I loved it. And the seventh or eighth time, I thought it was the greatest album ever made, and I still do. — Matt Groening on Trout Mask Replica
Therefore, the reader is charged with listening to Rudimentary Peni’s Cacophony at least seven times. Cacophonous it is; more properly, it’s hypostatically polyphonous. Frontman Nick Blinko assumes dramatis personae with relentless, revolting limberness, catatonically flexible — the boneless dissolution of self — and frantic motility. (The instrumentation is equally unfettered and fickle. And composition? Forget it! For instance, one seconds-long song — “A Return to Victorian Values” — consists only of Blinko stating, “Henry was giving his mother a good f-cking.”) If Beefheart pursued the consummation of the blues tradition, Blinko is pursuing the mental anthropology of humanity, our curse cosmogenic in scope, and the underbelly of the psyche, which, as Heraclitus once said, “lusts to be wet.” Blinko’s near-complete derangement (he was committed for seven years — numerological serendipity at its best — after Cacophony spewed itself into the world) is the midwife of this psychological riposte of an album, supersaturate with Blinko’s advanced vision, keen denunciation, and thunderbolted word salads. Think epigrammatic, inappropriate bundles flouncing freeform in a slipshod cocoon. Mental dissolution results in (or, perhaps, colludes with, is steeled on by (see: Ahab)) the total refusal of all barriers — “What’s the use of looking if you don’t see ‘em?” intones Blinko during “The Horrors in the Museum” — permitting a terrible clarity. Not uncoincidentally, this is Heraclitus’ ‘upward-downward path’ in teeming tender unity, ponderously fecund; this is a Cacophony, in which Rudimentary Peni (Grant Brand, b-g; Jon Greville, d; Nick Blinko, vox and e-g) make a ruckus for all those ms(s)-in-a-bottle(s) so-long sealed (one striking snippet: “They took my father, today, 1697”).
But what do these ‘30’ ‘songs’ mean? This cacophony is beyond that, perhaps, as when Blinko claims himself “Anti-anti- / Don’t even believe in nihilism anymore / The problem of induction.” If there is a hermeneutics here, it’s induced but not inductive, instead, forced to be the enfleshed sum-total, overload though that might be. Whence the hypostasis, and hence the connection with H. P. Lovecraft, early 20th-century horror writer of deservedly notorious repute, who understood the human epistemology as one of uppity mythmaking and tough-shelled but vulnerable viscera-frail capacities (“Things have learned to walk that ought to crawl”) in a universe of arcane forces — the Lovecraftian Pantheon — far exceeding human comprehension. It’s Blinko’s fascination with Lovecraft that is the white-and-shining skeleton of Cacophony and the vehicle for his presentation, the torque of his incisive tongues. Blinko identifies himself as the incarnation of the hermeneutical import (“To Nyarlathotep, Mighty Messenger, must all things be told / And He shall put on a semblance of men / The waxen mask and the robe that hides”), the teller of all things to whom “must all things be told.” The very real toll of this project on Blinko is illustrated by the faux-reportage in “New Dark Age” –
Hello, and welcome to Inconclusive Arguments. In today’s conference, we have a psychologist, a guru, an athlete, a freak, a scientist, a dictator, an Anarchist, a mass murderer, a composer, a human vegetable, and a complete outsider. Let’s open the discussion with you. What gives? That look of revelation on the athlete’s face: the complete outsider is the center of attention — Just what is the human vegetable doing to the psychologist? The freak is eating up the mass murderer! Oh my god, terrifying vistas of reality and our position therein are being opened up to us all! This is the worst thing that’s happened to mankind, and in the studio they’ve opted for a new dark age, but your commentator has gone stark raving mad!
Blinko, the complete outsider (elsewhere he calls himself “one semi-unacculturated”), is forced to expropriate all actors in order to engorge and disgorge any accurate ‘messages.’ This may sound like some art punk historiographical slump, but no. It’s gone far past the ‘roll’ — Blinko has the entire script, and Cacophony is the vessel. He’s also conscious of being the stage, assuming Lovecraftian characters with page-turning flippancy, and also singing, stammering, ranting, cavorting, retching, defecating, emitting ghastly vibrato, gnashing his teeth (“A Great Gnashing of Teeth”), and purring (the memorable “Cat”). The performative quality of Cacophony is grotesque; with Blinko so far past the event horizon, this is ruinous realism — remember the woman beaten to death in the name of live theater? ‘One Night Only!’ — where the actor is a victim and the audience are bystanders. Blinko conflates himself with Lovecraft in telling terms (“The sickliest bodies produce the greatest thoughts / Fourth generation teetotaler / Memory man / Muscle-less man / The last of the line with the strangest decline: Lovecraft baby”) as a “memory man,” a powerless repository of cosmological and anthropological awareness. Yet Blinko is also keenly aware of himself as an propagandic inheritor (in the Conradian sense), bleating that he’s “fondling the master’s skull” — foramina impropriety? — by capitalizing on another’s legacy (“One of his coffin nails / For one hundred dollars”). However, perhaps this regurgitated pastiche is the only way for the “herd” (“the herd laughed at my writing”) to stomach — rather than ‘digest’ — Lovecraft’s works, and Blinko provides commentary on Lovecraft’s legacy that’s both derisive and peculiarly ashamed: “Lovecraft lives in Del Rey books / Lovecraft’s rock follies.” But those selfsame ‘rock follies’ are decried by one personality (reminiscent of a continental preparatory school headmaster) in “Twitch.” With that sleek, effortless reversal, Blinko conveys the admirable qualities and purposes of Lovecraft — the integrity of obsession, for ‘passion’ and ‘passive’ derive from the Latin for ‘to suffer, endure, submit’:
Howard Phillips Lovecraft, heaven knows, had a talent for writing which was of no mean proportion, only what he did with this talent was a shame and a caution and an eldritch horror. If he’d only gotten the hell out of his auntie's attic and obtained a job with the federal writer’s project of the WPA, he could have turned out guidebooks that would have been classics and joys to read forever. Only he stayed up there, muffled up to the tip of his long gaunt New England chin against the cold which lay more in his heart than in his thermometer, living on 19 cents worth of beans a day, rewriting (for pennies) the crappy manuscripts of writers whose complete illiteracy would have been a boon to all mankind — ah, but life is a boon! — and producing ghastly, grisly, ghoulish, and horrifying works of his own, as well, of man-eating things which foraged in graveyards, of human-beastie crosses which grew beastlier and beastlier as they grew older, of gibbering Shoggoths and Elder beings which smelt real bad and were always trying to break through thresholds and take over; rugous, squamous, amorphous nasties abetted by thin, gaunt New England eccentrics who dwelt in attics and who were eventually never seen or heard from again. Serve them damn well right, I say. In short, Howard was a twitch, boys and girls, and that’s all there is to it.
Howard (Lovecraft) wasn’t and isn’t the only ‘twitch’ in the room, though Blinko is more shivered than twitchy. Cacophony is not a ‘pretty sight’ — but it is a sight; check. And as with ‘headmaster’ Blinko, opposing personas act to relieve tension and posit reconciliation (a la Heraclitus). Compare the humorous pith of the headmaster, eliciting charm despite a grim subject, with Blinko’s authentic capacity for wiping the smile off of the universe’s face, to bottom out even cute puppies or sunshine in the pit of one’s stomach. Case in point: “Gentlemen prefer blood in this day and age, really,” and “Everyone wants to kill someone, but they don’t,” and, of course, instructions for parenting the titular Lovecraft baby — “Feed it reg’lar / How it grows!” And compare the headmaster’s ginger-beer-sipping, “Ah, but life is a boon!” with Blinko’s sobering appraisal, “The grave is god’s dying plan.”
The peculiar upshot of Cacophony is that the obviously unraveled Blinko unleashes psychological aptitude basically unequaled by Machen or James or Nabokov, forget Lovecraft himself. His incisive social commentary is simply terrifying in its perspicacity: “But science foils our phobias / Noiseless faceless / For faces frighten neighbors.” His reconnaissance of the human psyche is always from an evolutionary perspective (so too with Lovecraft): “Origins unknown out of Africa / Skin change / Psychesame / Fresh prejudice / Collapsing cosmoses dreaming of adrenalin deathrush cosmology / Early earth atmosphere / Ancient death atmosphere / Happenstance.” “Macabre Heritage” — a sort of split-personality roll call for the touchstones of the grotesque and weird — ends with “Poe,” but it begins with “cave art.” And “Zenophobia” aptly connects social terror and hate (that “psychesame fresh prejudice”) with the concretized fear of the unknown — the lack of illumination — the dark, eulogizing or notarizing or celebrating (how you would), “We are gathered here today to pour scorn on inhumanity’s weaknesses and foibles / A fear of cellars, crypts, and caves / Underground hollow / Evacuated lecture theatre / Shadow strewn interior / Abandoned gas house / Topomaniac, genophobia, dispophobia, gymophobia, philophobia, scholophobia, phenophobia, panophobia / Our leader fears the dark / Have a nasty night!” Blinko’s sagacity intends to himself, too, sympathetically accounting for his enfeebled mind (“You don’t need pot to see Pan / You don’t need pot to see Pan / I’m a little girl / I formed a dislike / For killing things which could not fight back”) and yet remaining unapologetic for his inappropriateness (“Rudiments of genteel behavior: ‘Hairy wig.’ ‘Yak!’ ‘You have hit a nerve, Sir’”) even though it is, at the root, a tragic self-consignment (“Send her to Bedlam obnoxious to strangers”).
The political commentary may be how we know Blinko is still ‘rational.’ Rudimentary Peni’s anarcho-punk roots are deliciously unfurled in lines like, “What do you want, the nouveau riche house of Windsor? / The jaded sentimentality of the uninvaded people-person?” “Sickle star hammer stripes / Stripe sickle stars / Hammer star corpse / Knighthoods, lands and refinement for yesterday’s bullies’ derision,” “Alienists alienate alien alienists alienate alien nations,” and “O America, we are not a gun-boat for your lack of diplomacy / As we were, now so shall ye be / Government by the people / By the people fool the people.” It’s jarring to realize that they — and we, the listeners — are occupying 1987 C.E. and Southern Studios; Cacophony feels ancient. There’s even a snide ‘chronistic,’ nay, timely politico-Bardic moment in “Jabbering / Raucous Squawk, Harsh Cackle / Sir Algovale Was Right The Bastard Faulconbridge Speaks” (that’s the song title) from Shakespeare’s King John:
This England never did, nor ever shall,
Lie at the proud foot of a conqueror,
But when it first did help to wound itself.
Now these her princes are come home again,
Come the three corners of the world in arms,
And we shall shock them. Nought shall make us rue
If England to itself do rest but true! (V.vii)
And cue the re-election of Thatcher.
But it’s not politicization that governs Cacophony — it’s cosmic casuistry. The central question, and its cacophonous answer, is whether Lovecraft’s provision is safe to apprehend now that he’s dead. (For Blinko, the mouth is the only sphincter, whether wrought (wreaking) through ‘song’ or ‘Del Ray.’) In “The Loved Dead,” Blinko narrates, “They’ve taken Lovecraft’s lantern jaw off and are embalming him,” concluding that “the adoration of dead personalities is safe fantasia.” Could Blinko believe this, given that Cacophony documents the unmitigated collapse of his haggard, sweaty mind? And yet his final word clarifies what, exactly, is safe — and for whom. As with Lovecraft’s witless scholars who have their conception of the cosmos irreparably shattered, mortals don’t touch what’s on the shelf, and there’s never an exception — surely not “memory man” Blinko. Instead, vindicated is the “immortality of the unobtainable.” For as Heraclitus said, “Immortals are mortal, mortals are immortal: each lives the death of the other, and dies their life.” But the unobtainable? That’s forever.
(2001, Bloody Fist)
Published in The Rummage, 2 September 2013
An early masterpiece from infamous Australian label Bloody Fist, Template’s Drops One is a fractured, swaggering, feral piece of scratchy speedcore, with intricate drums panning in swathes, bright lightning-strike melodies blasting and recoiling, a squealing didgeridoo sample and the obligatory creepy voiceover. Don't try dancing to this one lest you be electrocuted by the accumulated static.
Pithy, cute “Intro” halts a sample to stutter out their name (“The basic template, template, template, template”), stringing along a thread of kitschy samples before closing with a batta-bing gesture. “21%” opens in stark contrast, a cold steel breakcore offering ceaselessly rolling; icy moguls and drippy drums castanet-stamping; mid-range snakes doffing skin after skin; ammunition-spindling Maxims dysregulated and firing in confused bursts; an eminently-timed bridge features a suave voice like Jonathan Schmock as the Chez Quis Maitre D’ in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off: “Did you know that we’ve got 21% of the world’s poker machines in Australia?” Instrumental fills fall into incredible comedic timing, clearing for the aggrandizing alternate affirmation, “Isn’t that incredible? / Yeah.” “21%” takes its time to waggle in a waveform that’s positively calligraphical. “Fully Industrial A” is telephone-throated warping on hold over uptight drum’n’bass constructions; the crunchiest and most melodious track, “Industrial,” sounds, in fact, just barely complacent in the coddle of the industrial age, evolving betwixt rotary pulls and pulse dials; the didgeridoo sounds like an 8-bit bagpipe; with drums like aggies dropped in a crystalline racquetball court slipshod shuffling board. “How’s Work?” is a pied marching band blast; an ant army drum corps marching, a busy signal and busy bee dance senselessly. It’s also the most layered track, with the muffled plopping of an tupperware jug band competing with burnt, ruddy glitching in fifth gear. “How’s Work?” is, as a title choice, the perfect manifestation of Template’s coy, eyebrow-raising not-quite-humor, also evident in their choice of campy sci-fi-rhetorical samples. “Trash” is a hollow pots’n’pans clangor, fun (requisite Oscar The Grouch sample — check), but most one-dimensional. The sounds themselves are intriguing (clatters, gulps, and freeze-frame stammers), but Template excel most via more dynamic compositions.
What does Template drop, exactly? A very-50’s matronly hubby (wearing brown knit, starched collar flared, jaw-to-chest pudge, gratuitous eyebrows, high-forehead, wristwatch, graying) cradles a warhead like a changeling infant, delight and solicitation on his face. This record was explosive — the label relates, "This was also the first Bloody Fist 12″ to feature hard-panned percussion. One irate caller to the Bloody Fist office accused us of ‘selling out’ due to the use of ‘stereo’. It really didn’t take much to sell out in those days." This exceptional novelty stands the test of time — in fact, it’s stronger for it, as the retro components are exponentially retro. As a result, Drops One is an anachronistic jostle between the far-past, the relevant-past, and the presently-past. The Bloody Fist “punk aesthetic” reminds today’s crowds that a small rewind (and more trash, less flash) is obstinate at heart — and durable in legacy.
Published in Unhinged Music, 18 September 2013
'Scorn,' etymologically, originates from the Germanic verb escharnir. Middle English extant, its stern sound can be distended to denote contumely, and, as both verb and noun, its archaic versatility allows singular deployment.
Primitive Man’s debut is ‘scornful’ in this mature, reflexively disreputable sense; not at all glossy or pretentious, its authentic lo-fi sludge is a viscid barrage of mucilaginous sewage and tenacious in addling the listener. Exacting and disquieted composition infest and settle, taunting and daunting the listener by turns and rendering them impotent. Their screams are not dramatic, but instinctively deep; the throat is a mine mined to erosion inward, emitting dust spores and particulate carcinogenics and bats, small creatures clawed, furred, and fending for themselves. (In particular, the vocals of “Stretched Thin” are a glutted crawlspace for maggots and vermin -- vomited leavings.)
Flagship “Scorn” is stingy, with a post-hardcore restraint. It doesn’t wallow -- it courts, letting the steady, stoic drummer and a reeling riff of threatening showmanship swagger. At almost 12 minutes, “Scorn” saddles the listener with heavy yet dynamic dissonant violence. “Rags” has a pulsed pace: the rhythm of maggot mouth hooks in dead tissue or farmers tilling a field. Spelunking guitars trammel through sloughs and kettle bogs and the vaporous wail of feedback. “Antietam,” not missing the chance to reference the cause of corpses, drums militantly and skitters to resemble rifle fire, utilizing a guitar miasma that bears down like ranks advancing. “Antietam” is too uneasy, lumbering in freeform fall, but this creates powerful anxiety and vigilance. “Black Smoke” is unclean, unentire, and unsound, as something buried alive might use up its last breath calling for help. “Lifetime” is a surrealist parade with pressuring cadence and enormous footfalls; teeth and guitar gnashing out aberrant vibrato like dragonfly propellers. With excellent cohesion, “Lifetime” builds to a maelstrom and the climax of the album.
Scorn’s cover (blackletter script and an open border around the theater of operations) depicts an armed extortion, drastically backlit and binary; one man holds another’s head back in a scream by his sockets, pressing a pistol into his mouth like a bit. The mouths and eyes’ sockets -- orifices, holds -- are emphasized in this defiled chiaroscuro (de La Tour meets 1982’s Your Flesh). And the first man, the armed man, wears an ‘australopitchecine’ skull -- ritual mask? face shield? -- ambiguous in the half-light. But the artist has made anatomical errors: while there is mandibular prognathism, the cranium is capacious and lacks supraorbital pronouncement. Whether in the interest of sympathy or parallelism, this offender is no ‘primitive man.’ It’s H. sapiens, and that self-reference is exactly why the fraught, base Scorn is so eloquent.
Published in The Rummage, 1 July 2013
Yank Crime is a blunt object, lurid, arid and wretched in the way that inhospitable terrain is ‘exposed.’ Like their namesake -- the biblical charioteer (guard-cum-annihilator, servant-cum-executor, and arrant-anointed revolutionary) -- Drive Like Jehu lay waste as they go, “for he driveth furiously.” (2 Kings 9:20) Who is Jehu? What sort of ‘driving’ does he do? Jehu is the 10th King of Israel, and the not-quite-perpetrator -- let us say, ‘the cashier’ -- for King Jehoram of Israel and King Ahaziah of Judah, and he “who slew his master.” (2 Kings 9:13) A charioteer-commander, Jehu drives himself and others to (and from) slaughter, and his most memorable drive is over Jezebel’s prone form (after which he takes a ‘snack break’). Although Jehu means “Yahweh is He,” Jehu’s Yahwist agenda is a hypocritical bird-from-the-hand slaughter. Appointed by charismatic Yahwist prophecy to deal against the blasphemous House of Ahab, Jehu had served as Ahab’s bodyguard and was virtually a piece of furniture (as present and as ineffectual) during various Yahwist events (e.g., the spurning of Elijah). Jehu is a saboteur and transgressor on the level with Ahab, but, because he is just such a mechanism, the violence is sanctioned. Disbelievingly zealous, with a sort of raunchy, mindless sternness and a bloodied carte-blanche, Jehu gives ‘due’ tribute to the Assyrians (and since they will later destroy the Kingdom of Israel, it’s not unfair to say that Jehu does the taking and the tasking). Jehu is an executor in the starkest sense; 2 Chronicles recounts: “and he sought Ahaziah: and they caught him.” (22:9) ‘And they caught him.’ Jehu is also a licensed redactor, slaughtering scores of humans on Ahab’s bloodline: “And he said, Take them alive. And they took them alive, and slew them at the pit of the shearing house.” (2 Kings 10:14)
Such an attitude -- desecratory, unheeding, ordained -- is clearly the reference point for Drive Like Jehu’s post-hardcore touchstone Yank Crime. It is an unmitigated, fearless headache of an album that commandeers apheresis on its listener. Blandishing detuned, emetic whinnies from guitars, Drive Like Jehu conquer the post-hardcore roster (re: Nation of Ulysses, Mission of Burma, Husker Du and Rites of Spring) with this effectively unaffected performance. Yank Crime represents a math that marks and flaunts time in the scrappiest and most scrabblingly honest way. This is not processed precision math; rather, an intentionally but unheedingly sharp rhetoric, it slops about with a violent carelessness. And yet how attentive it is! Careful to document their imperfect keening with perfect production (wavering fermatas, drum seizures, soft feedback healds), the band acts from a barefaced downtroddenness that characterizes the best of the punk tradition and that never feels unwarranted when so disgustedly earnest. It is even accusatory -- someone is shamefaced at Yank Crime, and it’s not the band. Similarly, when Jehu incites citizens of Samaria to murder 70 men, women and children related to Ahab, he publicizes their complicity: “He said, Lay ye [the heads] in two heaps at the entering in of the gate. … [and] he went out, and stood, and said to all the people, Ye be righteous: behold, I conspired against my master, and slew him: but who slew all these?” (2 Kings 10:8-9) Like Jehu, accountability does not produce suffering, as when Froberg declaims “This is my cause and my excuse / I'll take the loss but I'll get what I got due,” we know he won’t feel the loss that’s taken. This inviolably insensate thick-skin is invoked terrifyingly throughout the album, as in “Here Come The Rome Plows” (“Dear heart, dear friend / I never been on the receiving end / Not a scratch, not a dent / I never been on the receiving end”) and “Sinews” (“Find yourself an asshole / Knew you could afford / Keep your hands out, cupcake / Find yourself the door”). The sour lyricism is frighteningly obdurate, characterized by a demeaning redundancy (as though educating a dunce) and a laid-bare hypnotism. Froberg’s larynx is rent as he masticates the identically hammered choruses, but the method is not raw, rather, the opposite: it is a singular antiphony, an aside yawned out with precisely overcooked, tireless monomania. Yank Crime is self-flagellation that forces the slaughter-house to watch, but unclassy in a poetic way, like the sparse, brute symmetry of Old English half-lines set half-and-half around a caesura, as when, with ostentatiously retributive voyeurism, Froberg threatens a beating: “Gonna say it with a smile / Gonna say it with a lisp.”
Complex album opener “Here Come the Rome Plows” is a bounding, bombastic track of careening feedback and wagging sawtooth bravado. Drive Like Jehu jostle cries from their guitars with the indelicate forcibleness of rape or torture, and extrapyramidal omissions from the guitar are wrenched out and frankly fraught upon the listener; an unpleasant barrage confident in each uniquely despised sound steps up each indecorous roll or amplifier squawk, force-feeding the listener until the bad-tasting mouth of medicine-taking or vomit. The listener feels vicariously threatened. From a mathy guitar tapestry -- again: not precise math, but violent, wasteful and indecorous math -- a squall of sickling yells elevates the key, plateauing the tension as his crowning yawp creaks above: “Sad to say it’s over now / Here come the Huns / Pick a side or pick a spot / Here come the Rome plows!” Indeed, the Pax Romana legacy is infamous: achieved after lengths of devastation, submission and (anachronistic) bulldozing into homogeneity; peace perpetrated in a sort of vicious blender of Romanization, sensual and brutish. (Compare this with the tamer, syncretically cerebral homogeneity of Hellenization.) But Pax Romana was a process of action, a mindset, and it laid waste. “Rome Plows” makes the apt connection between agendas of victimization and subsequent spectatorship, and vicious collegiate partying: Froberg sings, “Be my date tonight,” and we understand it to be a gladiator match, a Circus Maximus, an activity with a subtextual premise to control or lay fallow. With its unhinged austerity and acerbic concision, “Rome Plows” is a clamping squall of abuse ratcheted up-and-up: from “Step up / Here come” falls the onslaught of “Rome Plows! Rome Plows! Rome Plows! Rome Plows!” like a verb-form invasion notice -- for this is a process, not a noun as the title so cunningly suggests. A held note at 4:30 emulates a lone train whistle or an insistent, terminal horn, and the final barrage coagulates over a minute, mirroring the “Rome Plows!” oi punch of the chorus. Drive Like Jehu expertly saves the worst for last, as “I never been / On the receiving end” outpaces itself into the wreckage.
The fourth track, “Luau,” is the standout, the crudest, most successfully raw song on Yank Crime, a bacchanalian road-racer of inexorably circular hula-hooped impact, with returning bends that strain, orbit, and a bubble up a blue-blooded fatalism. It is also one of Yank Crime’s longest performances at a brooding 9:27 of velocitous pressure (“Aloha! / Suit up!”) and mid-90’s desaturated swaggering lust. There’s a to-the-grindstone executive clarity. The listener is a victim and can barely even breathe against the siren return and return of guitar. “Luau” begins with a sere, desiccated strum and then the drums (acute but deadened -- like an impact, you feel the blow) roping pull strings for buck-and-roll seasickness into a querulous, careening bend. Froberg bursts out “Failures!” These are magnificently vitriolic screams, frothing and disjointed, breaking in the middle and returning to sane melody, ratcheting up and down but indulging a dwelt-on rest beforehand. No less jarring are the soured, crass, unmitigated lyrics: “Let’s get somethin’ straight / ‘Snot for mine, mine, mine, mine!” (with the repetition of ‘mine’ paralleled by guitar pull-strings), “Wait for the rub out / Wait for the purge / Wipe the last ally the fuck off our turf,” even “It’s in the water!” In this hard-bitten landscape, this not-yet-ghosting-town, the scariest thing is that “Luau” is set (here) before the blow falls (here), as described by the raucous, knowing bridge: “It’s in the set up / Yeah, it’s built in / Whatever the getup / Yeah, it's built in.”
Nowhere else do Drive Like Jehu so invoke what’s corrupt about their namesake. Could “Luau” have stopped here, at not even the three-minute mark? Yes, but no: Jehu is not done being not started yet. From the lawnmower torque of a bridge, the threat-level increases with a languid, acute vigilantism (“Aloha! Aloha! Suit up! / Luau, luau, luau, luau!”) and yet this bridge is set off by a crooning, seductive background chorus a la Naked Raygun. It’s hypnotic, endearing and threatening. This moment of anempathy takes Yank Crime from an ‘A-minus’ to an ‘A’ -- this is the artistic decision that makes the song and the album. After the swaggering terror of the bridge, a balderdash drum break foments a regrouping, fuzzy solo crowned with a reprise cry of “Suit up!” Froberg returns to the intra-group threatening, “Forget what you thought / Forget what you heard / Wipe the last ally the fuck off our turf!” and the given-proof bridge, “It’s in the set up / Yeah, it’s built in / Whatever the get up / Yeah, it's built in.” And then, midway, the vitriolic ‘up-the-ante’ last gasp, as Jehu is so apt to give it: “Kill off the tourist and we'll all sleep sound / Cash in their fillings and blow it in town / We'll blow it on rifles, we'll blow it on drinks / Head in the corner, head for the sink.” The lawnmower reprise opens into a spacious, sparse drum solo, with listless guitar under-the-bridge, and a fresh, almost a capella coda: “Aloha! Aloha! Suit up! / Luau, luau, luau, luau!” And that’s still not it! For four more minutes, Jehu provide a harsh, raunchy, knotty instrumental, yet with a clean, uplifting harmonic wash underneath midway, one reminiscent of the background chorus: these are minutes of majestically painful complexity. Although a veritable slosh of decaying guitar motors is unleashed into a dissociated, frenetic reel, the solos remain sharp enough to cut. The exceptional “Luau” is both the most tableaux performance on Yank Crime (as the homing guitar shuttle wends you in, constricting into a motionless mesmerism) and the most unfeigned performance (coldly but almost affectionately boisterous, bursting with organic energy, in the way that only truly broken things can achieve). “Luau” is murderous but not angry, and, thus, terrifying. It’s the staggering, swaggering bravado of dead-end bullying: ordained, fated, prospective. There’s no other way.
Yank Crime’s sole instrumental offering is the midpoint of “New Intro,” a diptych that creases a fold into the album, the slope up proceeding softly, softly, and the other abruptly down into a coal-furnace of feedback shoveled on and tamped to asphyxiative volatility. It’s the first 2 ½ minutes that are remarkable: invoking both a roiling sinister bass a la The Jesus Lizard and a subdued (or perhaps ‘undercooked’) good will a la Pinback, it’s an unexpectedly warm and chiming composition, though artful and wary. Drive Like Jehu drive not always furiously, not always with indiscretion and attitude -- instead, “New Intro” deftly wends out the competitive, businesslike mind of some overwrought arachnid. It is, in paradoxical fact, discretionary and striking. The ‘intro’ to “New Intro” (as it were) displays so much restraint, such dangerous and asymmetric beauty!
“New Math” is a concise (four minutes) but sustaining piece that bolsters Yank Crime approaching its close, even heightening the stakes through candid shortness-of-breath. “New Math” consorts with a lackadaisical, loose fatalism, a sort of underwritten ‘yes-means-no-means-yes: gimme’ ballad: Froberg consents, “Yeah, I’d stoop to that / Sure I would” and repeats it twice as if for both parties. It’s a gruesome vow. From a straining binary guitar riff-raff bounding front-to-back in a straitjacket, the guitar again seems to have a pull-cord, and it’s deployed with near-erotic insistence. An ambient whine from the backing guitar is like the circumference of helicopter propeller touch-down, and returns throughout “New Math” with a fickle engine that deteriorates into protracted wailing squalls. Militaristic drums pile onto this cabalistic current, jarring and jamming between electrodes in starts, the drums terribly regular under the erstwhile barrage. Then, the vocals (and the whole song) are bowled over and down, reeling with a sudden key change, a visceral, staggered impact. Froberg takes a flat tone over his flock of soured guitars, and the whole song wilts nauseatingly, cadaverous and crepuscular, like a droopy paunched eyelid on an old man. From the ‘stooped’ descent, Froberg props his next screams, angling them with a plane protractor upshot: “Yeah, you been had! / Yeah, you been had!” No kidding. Amidst lawn-mower guitars, Froberg attends well to his rite, levelly repeating, “That's how I fixed it / That’s how I fixed it,” then aims a back-to-knuckle with a sharp upward slope: “That’s how I fixed it / That's what I did / That’s how I fixed it / That's what I did!” The braggadocio continues with little Iggy yips and small wild modulations in screams. From a monotonous, crass, terse revelation, the benefit and cost are explained substantially: “And now my knees are spotless / And my legs are crossed / And I needn't spread them / ‘Cause I can afford / Piety / Chastity / Charity / Your company.” It’s a sickening song in that this is the most and all it has to say, and, as Drive Like Jehu often expertly does, “New Math” holds out until the last verse.
“Do You Compute” kerns on a lonelily human morse code of guitar antiphony, yawning projectile-like into the canyon of the song; terrifically paced drums wind up the guitar and launch the dejected yawp “Do you compute!?” with the drums bent back upon themselves in repulsion. Amidst this avalanche of coordination and reckless dispersion, small sharp objects loom out of the woodwork (e.g., the guitar nuances at 2:55 and 3:00). This is a compositional masterpiece from the bottom up, and only the lyrics fall short (in lacking Jehu’s obstreperous grit). It’s the right mix of metronomic water torture and sustained, burbly bends of feedback for electronic detachment: the dilapidated and inescapably lo-fi cyclotronic atmosphere of vintage At the Drive-In (re: “198d”). “Do You Compute” is desperately intimate and not all between the lines, as Froberg cries like a baby, “You weren’t / And it isn’t / And nobody’s listening.”
Otherwise, “Golden Brown” fends for itself with a dementedly grungy acquisitiveness (“I’m just keepin’ off the flies”), “Bullet Train to Vegas” is an irreverent mimetic emetic (“Pull up a tit and suck away / ‘Gonna milk that sacred cow, now!”), and “Hand Over Fist” is a ostentatiously vicious oath of retribution and persecution (“Give ‘em an inch, they'll take a mile”). “Human Interest” creates a schizophrenic rending of attention with music leaning forward and vocals leaning back. This decadent, unexpectedly melodic piece decides on a larger discrepancy between screaming and singing; it’s an elegantly dark tone, almost nu-wave, with some bully bravado: “It’s fair enough, alright.” Right. When the punk frontman sings, why are we so deeply unsettled? [A:] We don’t trust it. It’s like a pre-abusive lull: we’re waiting for the next blow and the ball is inevitably in his court … especially when what’s sung is, “I’d never make you suffer / I know that wouldn't do / And that ain’t practical / And I ain’t through.” What a ballad! And “Super Unison” wavers through spare, leaping drums that fall in waves of tender flailing set against threatening subtext (“It ain't no accident we're better off”) a nadir of angular strumming and a Major-key shoegaze-surprise ringing rise, triumphal and as unassuming, unburdened and freewheeling as Swervedriver’s Mezcal Head.
The bonus track re-release of Yank Crime succeeds in its inclusion of the B-side “Sinews (Original Version)” from a 1992 Headhunter Records compilation (Head Start to Purgatory). Since “Sinews” closed the 1994 release, 2003’s Yank Crime (Bonus Tracks) features “Sinews” (1994) at track 9 and “Sinews (Original Version)” (1992) at track 12. A comparison does not properly yield insight into the band’s process because their songcrafting is so versatile and both versions choose how to be exceptional. Both are a math rock spaghetti spectacle, a sparklingly dark brooding traipse, whispering and patient, intimate and well-documented (e.g., detailed stops on the guitar, detailed timbre of the percussion), with beautiful harmonics and volatile guitar windups bearing an angular and diminished key. The most effective moments in the 1994 cut are two parallel instances of lyrical acting in the first verse, as Froberg steps back from screamed lines with a smallspoken iamb, a revealing, fragile, monologous aside: “Ain't gonna fix your leaks for you / Ain't gonna watch the store / No more.” As he groans out “no more,” the listener experiences sympathy so heartfelt that it cannot even be astonished by the circumstances! Otherwise, the listener is a toy for Jehu, subjected to decadent noise solos and (nearly) ear and nosebleeds. The original take on "Sinews" misses lyrics elaborated in 1994, but remains a successful alternative by wielding guitar lines like thrown stars and lacerating percussion. We see the skeleton of “Sinews,” and what a bared, stark, nakedly wrathful form it is.
Drive Like Jehu was Rick Froberg (vox, e-g), John Reis (e-g, vox), Mike Kennedy (b-g) and Mark Trombino (d), and Yank Crime was their second full-length and last release. It’s an awfully visionary album. Not only is it better than their self-titled debut (how often does that happen?) and awfully disreputable squalor for a major-label debut (how often does that happen?), Yank Crime possesses itself with unwashed and near-unmatched integrity and -- har -- drive. It is a foul slab of sashimi to the cute-sushi-garnish of even David Yow, Steve Albini and Ian McKaye. Remember that, though Jehu drives around both Israel and Judah committing regicide, he can only lead one polity, and he is oiled-up and installed in the nation that’s doomed. Similarly, there is no big-wigging on this terrain; this sort of putridly epileptic craftsmanship was never set to receive grandeur, and Drive Like Jehu know it. They claim with zeal their rule so deservingly dissolute. Yank Crime is unfeignedly the disdainful best at its very, very worst, or, as Jehu sneers at his battlefield betrayals (when asked, in 2 Kings 9:18, “Is it peace?”), “What hast thou to do with peace? Turn thee behind me.”
Published in The Rummage, 29 July 2013
Sean-nós, or ‘old way’ traditional Gaeilge singing, is a disposition to song-crafting, oral history and performance. In the traditional Gaelic homestead, songs were told like stories in intimate, dreary, vigorous settings where contextualization and connection to the human situation was a crucial source of entertainment and worldview. In traditional sean-nós, performers are not asked to ‘sing’ but to ‘say’ a song. The experience consists solely in the telling of the song itself; the singer minimizes himself by pulling down his cap, turning away, covering his face or standing in a dark corner. Sean-nós is a griot-esque tradition of folk histories, and the singer’s job is to be a sensitive, heartfelt curator, finding the sincerest expression and the most responsive approach to a song and then standing it alone. The lyricism and its meter, the narrative syntax and presentation and personality of the piece, are of central importance.
From 1745 until the mid-1800’s, instruments were banned throughout Ireland during a religious era of zealous intolerance; adapting, people made puirt-à-beul, or ‘mouth music’ to accompany dancers. (Note that the tremulous nasality of the uilleann pipes and the vocal pipes manifest parallel timbres.) Again, lilting ‘mouth music’ does not quite have rhythm, but instead what Heaney called “the pulse.” There is no attempt to conceal the human origin of the sound; breaths are not merely tolerated but incorporated (as with throat singing and all sorts of indigenous musical traditions).
Heaney often spoke about beats as something inorganic and imposed on songs with condescension and concern; in sean-nós, the metrical life of a song is manifested in the “pulse” a singer gives breath to, so while it is true to say that sean-nós is a capella, it is more apt to say that it is unaccompanied, unadorned in its honest human origin.
A two-disc recording of sean-nós master Joe Heaney performing for ethnomusicologists, The Road from Connemara is staidly moving, fragile and robust, spirited and stern, frugal and avid. Diligent, weathered, resolute, even obdurate, Heaney was the aesthetic of Western Ireland incarnate, with a voice hewn of maritime bleakness, his face windward planes of stone, and a thin, tough, reedy frame. The folk circuit of the 50’s and 60’s idolized Heaney — no less so did scholars — yet for his subtle pacing and unmatched sensitivity, Heaney was merely a vessel for his songs. The Road from Connemara is beautiful and devastating. It’s not just the ontological instantiation of songs, small snippets of folklore and anecdotes that Heaney gives breath to — this album and Heaney’s performance encompass the last unadulterated, determined gasp of traditional Connemaran culture.
(2013, Trouble In Mind)
Published in The Rummage, 25 November 2013
Maston’s Shadows sounds like a less-sinister accompaniment to Seurat’s "Sideshow," part twangy musak with a spaghetti twist, part psych-folk magnificently-layered wedding cake. Most songs clock in around 2 minutes, like lovely postcards in washed-out colors with a distinctive aesthetic; for instance, per their song-title choices, see “flutter,” “alabaster” and “strange.” Like an ephemeral polka of a clippity clap, the cadence is empyrean kitsch, magnified and refracted at each level thousandfold until encompassing in scope. Shadows is an album of freakily chipper pomp and circumstance, the flushed and vivid glow of floridly orchestrated jangles, the tangy organ against the bah-bums of tuba and bass drum, the twinkle of xylophone and bright guitar.
Standout “Young Hearts” is a dapper, theramin- and horn-laden cakewalk, possessed by the weird resonance of Davy Graham’s psych-folky guitar and a bell-horned, candelabra-ed, tableclothed parlor shimmy of taxidermic waltz. Frank Maston’s voice shimmers like a dapper, heart-rending lovechild of Ben Gibbard and Fred Neil as he croons, “I know your heart is true, because mine is too,” both bedroom-raw and old fashioned debonair.
Lovely and discordant, Shadows is a time capsule gem (both transcendentally eternal and chintzily dated) wrapped in tissue paper rind ivoried with age, smelling of sunlit attic musk, and sounding soft with the wonky, honest croon of a music box. Both stiltedly arcane and insanely accessible, it’s a bouquet of white peonies, baby’s breath, garlands and heather that waft a hypnotic, phosphorescent vapor. Its suffused production is exceptional: baroque, cinereal and as emotive as their Ziem-esque cover, its sleepy-eyed slit of sun rolling over under the hills among impressionist amaranthine swathes of cloud and ground.
Broadcast on CBS, 21 July 1950
-This is a review of the radio drama Yellow Wake, presented by Escape! & broadcast on CBS, 21 July 1950. Please see “Works Cited: Primary Source.” I own nothing, am a lowly script enthusiast, &c.
-If you would prefer to listen to the drama before reading my review & analysis, find the broadcast on Relic Radio Thrillers at Relic Radio, program no. 156, or click here.
Five Stars, So What?
Despite a conventional and predictable plot, the screenplay and performance of Yellow Wake are phenomenally well-crafted and well-executed. Rather than settle for reduction or generic regurgitation, the screenplay prospects, as it were, in the richness of maritime literary traditions. The structure delivers on moral debt--rather than narrative debt--in despondent lulls and dramatic swells, expertly suiting pace to import. Jonas Love’s hypnotic narrative assonance was obviously tailored to suit William Conrad’s rhythmic, driven, mordant tone and delivery. Further, the script flaunts the foreign poetry of nautical technicalities, the expansion of emotional syntax, and the ruthless concision of active poetic meter. Lastly, the conceptual ‘holds’ are full and the ship (screenplay) is keen with the depth of Biblical superstition, pirate ‘treasure’ tropes, the assertive model of whaling lore, and (vindicated) anti-colonial concerns.
‘Pegleg’ Sanford, a barstool braggart, flaunts artifacts describing a tropical treasure lair and discloses that four jacks on the whaler Congo Queen have agreed to go in with him. Sanford’s not-so-drunk drinking ‘buddy,’ Jonas Love, determines to take the map and codex and thereby extend his own fortunes.
Jonas Love is a knave, a veteran first mate of the slave trade, and a narrator whose impudence and nerve earn the respect of the audience. Yellow Wake opens at the cabin door of the Congo Queen, where Love divulges to Captain Thickstun that he has shot First Mate Sanford and will summarily claim his station on the imminent whaling voyage.
Love’s offhand fervor, brutality and shrewd planning enable him to reel in Sanford’s initial recruits (Johnson, Bigsby, Tannerhill and Olcott). Love commands them in a devious mutiny: the crew is abandoned in whaleboats with salted jerky, and Thickstun is knifed, “fast and sure.” The Congo Queen sails southeasterly, rife with leadership disputes (which are quashed unsympathetically by “Captain Love”) and ripe with a fever to claim their goldmine, half-a-league inland of Punto Mariano, Panama.
The Congo Queen anchored triumphantly on the lee, Love and Johnson march ashore with reforged machetes and provisions for ten days. Sapped by the ruthless incline push against the wall of jungle and the “clouds” of mosquitos in the vaporous damp, Love and Johnson expire at dawn on the seventh day. The violent internal hemorrhaging of ‘Yellow Jack’ reduces them to a febrile delirium, and whether or not Love has, in fact, reached the gold chests and brought a braggart’s “handful” to Johnson’s corpse is inconsequential. Predictably, Love dies, but what remains with the listener is the terrible, reasoning appropriateness of the price paid, and the honest eloquence of Love’s self-reflection leveraged out of him by this cruel satire of x-marks-the-spot circumstance. Beset by a berserk stark lust as his limbs grow a golden patina, the moral recognition that “the devil’s bait on a gilded hook” “will cook out [his] soul and leave [him] poor” is sympathetically lucid.
Two aspects of this otherwise straightforward structure captivate me, and these are components of one screenwriting achievement: the temporal foreshortening of the plot. (1) How is the plot space that precedes the narrative achieved, and how does it affect the audience? (2) How is the structural concision (progressive terminality) of the final act achieved, and how does it affect the audience?
(1) Setting the Stage:
Love is so inexorably charismatic that only after several habituating listens did I start to think about the antecedent Sanford. The narrative extends very far in the plot of the past, and Sanford looms large as a character of impetus, one whom we have never ‘met’ on-air (in some sense, he was taken from us by Love), but one who has engineered the expedition; though Love robs Sanford of the ‘treasure,’ one can couch Yellow Wake as Sanford’s story (and by narrative extrapolation, Sanford’s ‘wake’). The normally exacting, controlling and clever Love finds himself derivative to, not someone else’s riches, but someone else’s terrible fate. The ‘would-be’ element of the story is large, and Love is revealed as a naïve puppet tied by his own suavity and ambition on strings of expectation and fate.
When the audience reflects on Sanford’s absence as precedent to and determinant of the dramatic plot structure, they will see both concrete and conceptual negativity. In the former case, note that circumstances ‘exposited’ by Love receive a vague and partial treatment, which creates an urgent curiosity about what happened in the plot past. (For example: Where did Sanford get the map and chest? Why did he recruit (these) four men on the Congo Queen? What was his relationship with Thickstun? What was his relationship with Love? Did he really shoot first?) In the latter case, note that the circumstances completely unaddressed by Love are those that lead (in)to the narrative future. The veteran audience may be indifferent as Love ‘follows’ his course, persistently determined by the (limited) information he has, until the bitter end. (e.g., Skepticism or, more germanely, fatalism, is ‘undreamt’ of by Love in his lust for the gold. Was Sanford planning to retrieve the chests? Did he know about tropical diseases? Had the treasure already been claimed? Were his sources, inventory, and personal account of the caves falsified? To repeat the most tantalizing question that can be ‘unpacked’ from Sanford’s information in absentia: Was there treasure at all? Love is delirious at the close of Yellow Wake, and it could really be that his quest was ‘all-for-naught.’ It is a delicious thought.)
These unexamined questions involve Sanford’s character, too, both his motivation for bragging to Love (if any), and what his plan might have involved (which, it seems safe to say, is not comparable to the plan Love assumes is Sanford’s intent and which he himself “fixes.” (For example, note that the Congo Queen has one Captain and a crew of 30; since whaleboats are crewed by six men, the Queen contains five boats. In the mutiny, five jacks (Love, Johnson, Bigsby, Tannerhill and Olcott) omit themselves from the whaleboats in order to kill Thickstun and abscond with the Queen. The mutiny is not a positive betrayal -- it is a negating, an omission from duty. Further, Love’s strong assurance has a corrupting influence on his ‘weaker’ recruits: Johnson boasts, “I gave them side meat too -- good hogside to whet their thirst,” and Tannerhill slays his Captain “fast and sure” while honoring Love with a not-taken-for-granted “sir.” The mutiny is a useful citation of character because it is particularly dishonorable, cruel, and piratical. If the audience infers Sanford’s personal feeling for “his berth” (the Congo Queen), his Captain (Thickstun), and his recruits, we infer also that he would not propose to “scuttle the Queen,” he would not betray or harm Thickstun, and he would not exert corrupting and cruel influence over his friends (n.b., Love thinks that Sanford’s recruits would despise him for Sanford’s murder and usurpation in addition to his harsh discipline). Though “whiskey-will” Sanford was a braggart (if Love’s read was correct, which is debatable), these traits belie a liveliness and (potential) transparency positively wholesome when compared to (and/or replaced by) Love’s solipsism.
The precedent set by the ‘presently deceased’ Sanford is created by concrete disclosures from Love that may be partial, biased, deceitful or uninformed (e.g., “Shot, sir. Shot in a brawl. … I shot him in the smoke of his own gun, Captain. In San Francisco, that’s a fair contest”) and by the larger issue of conceptual ‘holes’ (e.g., “Oh, how the fool could have waited I’ll never know. The cache of gold was described in his notes! He’d been to the site from the Caribbean side, yet he sailed halfway around the world because he needed four men … !”), to say nothing of character assumptions (e.g., Love is crueler than Sanford could possibly have been). The overall effect is an expansion of the generative elements of the plot into the narrative past and beyond the audience’s reach, and a determined structural concision as Love’s hand plays itself out.
(2) The Moral:
As we experience the first and second acts, we don’t expect Jonas Love to gain his goldmine and strike out on the next adventure. Though the prose and production are exceptional and the plot is involving, the episode is a high-quality typical episode. When the Congo Queen reaches Panama with only a few minutes remaining in air time, the narrative dallies with shipboard politics, description and scenery, Love driving Johnson, Johnson being driven by Love, &c., &c., more description, more scenery … ! The crawling pace of the screenplay in what it devotes attention to, and how, is not a pre-glory build to wealth and victorious exoneration, and though the audience can sense this, we aren’t sure ‘why’ or ‘what it will mean.’ Though the attitude of the characters is not one of urgency, the narrative time left for Love and Johnson to find the cave and start back to the shipboard crew grows scarcer and scarcer. The plot construction (which extends into the plot past and terminates before the plot future) is marked by such suspenseful constriction of time and potentiality in the third act. The narrative presentation drones on, anempathetically, about the hike, … the hike, … the view.
This constriction causes the audience to feel restless, transfixed and febrile. There is a funereal hush about the third (and final) act; it resounds in the foreign landscape, in Love’s deterministic treatment and harsh goading of Johnson, and in structural attention to much of the first day, a little of the sixth day, and even less of the fatal seventh day. But why is the audience on tenterhooks, as it were, for a despicable, antagonistic protagonist? The technical genius of the third act is to break away from the setting (the Congo Queen), trust in character (Love’s confidence seems, for the first time, estimable: rawly overweening), and pacing (incidents to move the plot forward, like trail markings on a map) that the audience was habituated to. While the audience might anticipate (not to say, entertain hope for) Love’s success at the top of the third act, with each passing minute the potential becomes constricted, and at some intersection of narrative dalliance vs. air-time remaining (perhaps at 24:00, on the sixth day: “…and we could see the sea!”) there can be no ‘maybe’; instead, there is a question-mark, and the audience is suspended between disappointment and totally unqualified expectation. We, the audience, are as insecure as the characters are assured (of their windfall), and the final act continues to exploit the discrepancy between audience and character expectations with intensifying emphasis. Love and Johnson are determined and urgent (objectively, we are told that they marched for seven days through a “wall of jungle” with machetes, lugging supplies, with scarce rest), but we feel like they are not (subjectively, we feel like they are stalling out; Conrad’s brooding narration confirms our intuitive feeling: “And we rested. And we ate and we smoked”). We (the audience) are concerned with the urgency of something going on under the surface, but they (the characters) barely acknowledge it and cannot project its repercussion on the present.
It is not so much that Love and Johnson contract Yellow Fever from mosquitos and die; the creeping urgency of the audience’s fear is not plot-related. Johnson could have stabbed Love. A piano could have fallen from the sky. Or, tropical disease could have killed them (as it did). On the surface we find pathology to be as irrelevant as an ACME baby grand; thus, the suspense is not an aspect of plot, though the audience certainly waits for something ‘big’ to happen. It does, in the form of moral closure. And the lesson is not merely ‘bigger’ than any plot twist -- it soundly circumscribes the entire story. This closure occurs not even in Love’s frenzy as he offers Johnson a “handful” of “gold,” or as he rails against his fate (“no! no! NO!”) at the structural conclusion of the final act, but it occurs in 30 seconds of epilogue, as it were, where Love acknowledges that the “devil’s yellow blight” has bested him, and -- crucially -- concedes that he knows why. Conscience is reciprocal, for it must take as well as give, and the involvement of the audience in the re-presentation of this moment, possibly the single defining pivot of the human condition, is the aim and the virtue and the power of theater.
Prose and Delivery:
William Conrad delivers as Jonas Love in a flawless performance. Though the tough rigor of Conrad’s tone seems immutably particular to the actor (Conrad is often cast in roles best served by his powerful vocal aspect), he can evoke masterfully subtle characterizations. The relentless rhythm of Conrad’s performance gives Jonas Love a ‘self-determinacy’ and a dangerous cerebrality. The script succeeds in the latter so assuredly that we understand Love as, not a grasping, self-bemoaning solipsist, but as a man motivated to claim, to (s)take, and to exert his cold lusts with eloquence. The monomaniacal rhythm of Love’s narration operates with a coercive grace that is uncompromised: even as he dies, Love (acknowledges but) will not repent (i.e., such personal arrogance is necessarily whole). In part, this impression results from Conrad’s natural vocal gravitas and his apt portrayal of Jonas Love’s action and psychology, but note that the writing is optimized bedrock for Conrad. Simply put, the script of Yellow Wake is water-tight. The scriptwriting (1) is form-fitted to enable Conrad’s narrative stylization, and, also notably, (2) actualizes even the smallest moments into elucidating characterization.
(1) William Conrad as Jonas Love:
The script is of exceptional quality, and rich in a few prose devices that Conrad excels at delivering. There is a clear metrical preference in the script, with iambs and anapests arranged to increase suspense, or to indicate circularity, oppositions, and monomania in Love’s thought processes. Assonance and consonance are often deployed in a repetitive and rhythmic pattern that mimics the iambic and anapestic metrical conceit, or to bound phrases in unconventional but striking rhythmic patterns. Further, Conrad’s piecemeal compliance with appropriate vocalization (e.g., altered pitching, variable use of appropriate slang and accent) eliminates some phonemes, allowing Conrad to embellish and emphasize voluptuous sounds in key words.
Because words and sounds are the total stimuli provided in an audio drama, it is essential to keep the audience riveted by the relevant content and intriguing quality of just these words and sounds. How effectively a script provides this stimulation is, in my opinion, is the primary dimension by which audio drama should be evaluated.
Following are two excerpts that illustrate the Conrad-optimized devices in Love’s narrative passages and how efficacious these devices are in context.
(a) Excerpt: 05:10
The Congo Queen was three hundred tons between her gibs and her spanker and fleece in the teeth of the wind, a three-masted ship with canvas five high and the smell of ‘er trade in the wood. I beat her to wind’ard, cleared the bay, turned ‘er south and took a fresh wind o’er her stern. Trimmed an’ sailin’ free for the end of Sanford’s rainbow! All I lacked was the name of the men who were in it with ‘im, but I knew they’d show themselves soon enough. They’d be the ones who hated me most.
(a-1) Rhythm and Pacing:
By applying a particular lilting pattern of iambs and anapests, Conrad groups together several sentences within a longer passage. This patterning, combined with variation in tempo and unexpected manipulation of assonance and consonance, creates a suspenseful lulling suspension within the compliant section, both hypnotically rhythmical and uncertainly volatile (thus demanding the listener’s close attention) in its development. Toward the end of the passage, Conrad abandons the pattern, shifting the focus from rhythm to content.
Though not the best example of iambic and anapestic meter in Yellow Wake, this passage employs an almost-mirrored construction (shifting from iambs to anapests) to progressively draw the phrases out into repeating anapests.
(x /) (x /) (x /) (x x /)
The Congo Queen was three hundred tons /
(x /) (x /) (x x /) (x x
between her gibs and her spanker and /
/) (x x /) (x x /) (x /) (x x /)
fleece in the teeth of the wind, a three-masted ship /
(x /) (x x /)
with canvas five high /
(x x /) (x x /) (x x /)
and the smell of ‘er trade in the wood. /
The rigid anapestic rhythm starts to degenerate as Conrad increases his tempo and phrase length:
I beat her to wind’ard, cleared the bay, turned ‘er south and took a fresh wind o’er her stern.
Then he pauses (in contrast with the previous sentence, which relentlessly bears down on the listener) and delivers, with relish, the significance of the passage, pausing throughout:
Trimmed / an’ sailin’ free / for the end of / Sanford’s rainbow!
Conrad uses the “ee” sound presiding in the words of the first sentence to layer on an assonant rhythm and structure. The sound appears so frequently (with only a few syllables separating instances) that a natural rhythm is created. The driving, rhythmic unit “her gibs and her spanker and…” is bookended by an unstressed and a stressed assonance. This stressed assonance on “fleece” is accompanied by the ‘line break’ before the anapestic resolution and by an upward intonation. Conrad’s emphasis on “fleece” is unexpected and riveting, and is borne out by the assonance of “teeth” at the resolution of the following anapest. Lastly, by paralleling the context of the final ee in “three-masted ship” with the earlier “three hundred tons,” the script renews the impact of the assonance even in its final instance. Aspects of Conrad’s delivery are notated below:
The Congo Queen was three hundred tons between [her gibs and her spanker and] fleece in the teeth of the wind, a three-masted ship with canvas five high and the smell of ‘er trade in the wood.
(a-3) Pitch Variation:
As stated above, Conrad places upward intonation on “fleece” (in addition to his treatment of meter and assonance). This particular pitching is one of the most interesting choices in Yellow Wake; if this seems a strange irrelevance to tout, note that Conrad sustains tension throughout his narrative monologues because he is adept at renewing tension precisely at the point where it might have fallen off. The deliberate nuance in his performance is astounding.
(a-4) Abbreviation and Emphasis:
Though it accomplishes little here that I can see, an example of Conrad’s variable abbreviation is his choice of “her” versus “’er” (e.g., “her gibs and her spanker,” “smell of ‘er trade in the wood,” “turned ‘er south”) and “and” versus “an’” (e.g., “and fleece,” “trimmed an’ sailin’ free”). Conrad establishes engaging and thought-provoking contrasts elsewhere with this method; here, it seems mainly to add variety.
(b) Excerpt: 13:25
I let Johnson go ‘cause I needed him; I needed his men to be my crew to sail a ship to fight a jungle to move a mine. I thought I could wait ‘til they came to me but the devil’s bait is a gilded hook; when it catches your flesh, you can’t shake it loose. So I read and reread and traced and retraced in my mind, and it grew and it grew and it grew and it said--GOLD.
(b-1) Rhythm and Pacing:
As described above, the script employs a faux-metrical construction by presenting a complete scheme and then repeating the scheme with an additional syllable; or, presenting a scheme missing the final syllable and then repeating the complete scheme. The swell-and-lull rhythm mimics the motion of the sea and affects a brooding, deliberate tautness in Love’s mind. An example of the engaging effect even the simplest phrase might achieve via iamb, broken anapest (x/xx-) and iamb, complete anapest (x/xx/) is “I needed him / I needed his men.” The most formidable instance of this swelling, driving tension in this script is notated in full below:
(x /) (x x /) (x x /) (x /)
I thought I could wait ‘til they came to me
(x x /) (x /) (x x /) (x /)
but the devil’s bait is a gilded hook;
(x x /) (x x /) (x /) (x x /)
when it catches your flesh, you can’t shake it loose.
(x x /) (x /)(x x /) (x /)(x)
So I read and reread and traced and retraced
(x x /) (x x /) (x x /) (x x /) (- /)
and it grew and it grew and it grew and it said--GOLD.
In this segment, lines 1 and 2 nest a section of oscillating meter within repetitious bookends of [anapest, anapest, iamb, anapest], creating both uncertainty and expectation. Line 3 builds tension by alternating regular metrical patterns, and line 4 employs the relentless anapests so often found before the climax of a passage.
Even prior to the climatic build, Conrad emphasizes sudden structural changes that interrupt or reverse rhythmic precedent to create a dangerous, engaging fickleness, as in the “turnaround” lines below:
(x /) (x x -)
I needed him : iamb , broken anapest
(x /) (x x /)
I needed his men : iamb, complete anapest
(x x /) (x -)
to be my crew : stress on ‘my’ (not ‘be’) reverses the stress pattern of line 1
(x /) (x /)
to sail a ship : iambs and consonance
(x /) (x /) (x)
to fight a jungle : iambs and extra syllable
(x /) (x /)
to move a mine : iambs and consonance
(b-2) Assonance and Consonance:
As shown above, Conrad emphasizes the alliterative consonance of words one syllable apart (“sail a ship” and “move a mine”) creating a discrete unit. Paralleling structures are again paired closely to each other and emphasized with assonance, as with the soft emphasis on “could” and “came” (“thought I could wait ‘til they came to me”) followed by the hard emphasis on “catches” and “can’t” (“when it catches your flesh, you can’t shake it loose”).
(b-3) Pitch Variation:
In the climactic sentence (“So I read and reread and traced and retraced in my mind and it grew and it grew and it grew and it said--GOLD”) Conrad places upward intonation on the repetitive (re)“read,” (re)”traced,” and “grew” and an extended, fluctuating pitch on the long vowel of “GOLD.” The effect is obsessive positivity in describing the progression of Love’s desire and sobriety in describing the object of Love’s desire.
(b-4) Abbreviation and Emphasis:
The power of the vowel emphasis in “GOLD” is established early in this passage. Through the middle of this passage, the “o” sound is deemphasized, either minimized or corrupted with a slang pronunciation to “a.” Notably, “gilded” is drawn out with the same weight that “GOLD” is at the climax, and the juxtaposition of “golden” (substantial), “gilded” (illusory), and “yellow” (evident bastardization) pervades Yellow Wake. Conrad’s treatment of “GOLD” in this passage is not just a vocal device, but also a revelatory insight into Love’s psychology and a congruent thematic motif in the drama. The passage is notated below (i.e. emphasized o, deemphasized o, oo or a, and special theatrical attention):
I let Johnson go ‘cause I needed him; I needed his men to be my crew to sail a ship ta fight a jungle ta move a mine. I thought I could wait ‘til they came ta me but the devil’s bait is a gilded hook; when it catches your flesh, you can’t shake it loose. So I read and reread and traced and retraced in my mind, and it grew and it grew and it grew and it said--GOLD.
(2) Instances of Characterization:
(a) “Did He Have One?”
When Love saunters up to Thickstun’s cabin and confides that he, Sanford’s friend, shot him “in a fair contest,” AND took his supplies, AND aims to take his employment, Thickstun is unimpressed with the vulgarity of Love’s action while marking his commanding, assertive arrival as potentially opportune. The dialogue between prospective Mate and Captain is dynamic, slowly resolving expository issues so that the audience is revolted and impressed in stride with Thickstun. Thickstun is a hard man, too, but pragmatic, grounded, and morally decent. Unsurprised, unmoved, but with his sensibilities offended, Thickstun offers an apt counterpoint to Love, by relief, justly indicating the inhumanity of Love’s mental state and actions, and, further, Love’s habit of praying to heartlessness with cool ripostes. Also note the excellent balance between authentic seriousness of tone and an amount of grandiose camp: the audience can analyze the well-crafted prose and thematic motifs in this radio play and roll their eyes in many, many instances.
(b) Falcon Punch!
To parse out which sailors were “Sanford’s men,” Love exhibits “the book with some pages cut out, a false rule chart and an open hatch.” He traps Johnson pocketing the pages and chart, and discloses that Sanford’s plot “is [his], now” and he’ll have Johnson’s cooperation: “what does this mean to us?” Johnson teeters between a shuffling, artless casuistry and being quite evidently caught in the searchlight. Displeased with this cowardice, Love uncoils a backfist punch onto Johnson’s face. First, Love states levelly, “That’s enough of your simpering,” there is a solid beat and, then, a lazy, cavalier backhand staggers Johnson. In this effective moment of characterization, the grasping and cringing Johnson submits at the first stroke of physical enforcement; though in the third act, Johnson is described as a physically impressive man, large and strong, here he has darting eyes, a stammering mouth, and probably flinches from the blow. By contrast, Love is likely fit, but we hear again and again references to his ruthless heart and temperament; like Ahab, Love is embodied by his mental agenda. The foley work perfectly evokes a cruel, offhand expression of dominance in the pause and the simplicity of Love’s strike. Love is that cruel and that cool, and unlike the physically powerful but mentally weak Johnson, he takes for granted his will as bestriding all situations.
(c) Instant Maritime Flavor:
The syntactical conventions of 19th century whaling culture invest Yellow Wake with authenticity and novelty. It is especially salutary for a radio script (which is limited to aural stimuli and typically concise) to be contextualized in a historical setting familiar to the audience; therefore, recognizable dialect, word choice, and historical referencing will evoke a period with great dramatic depth and yet spend minimal broadcast (i.e., plot) time. As an example of the efficacy with which this production uses maritime associations, here is one line from Captain Thickstun: "We the Queen and the rest of my crew hail New Bedford in time, first the Horn and the 60 latitude, God willing."
In less than 10 seconds, this line conveys practical information (they depart San Francisco on the West Coast, round Cape Horn, and arrive at New Bedford on the East Coast) and character information (Thickstun uses ‘the royal we’ for himself and the crew of the Congo Queen, exempting the cruel outsider Jonas Love, and grounds his whaling ambitions in his fervent, hardy, circumspect Protestantism). Further, word choice (“crew,” “hail,” “latitude”) is all that is required to evoke historical authenticity, “God willing” reinforces the intensity of the 19th century whaling trade (e.g., the risk and impost of a whaling lifestyle), and the omissive straightforwardness of Thickstun’s syntax yields both conversationality and succinctness (as is necessary in a drama of fewer than 30 minutes).
Yellow Wake is a richly connotative drama. Below I expound on seven schemas where factual or cultural contribution will enhance both what an audience might apprehend and how an audience might comprehend within this production.
(1) Jonas as Jonah:
“Jonas” is the New Testament Koine Greek form of the Hebrew “Jonah.” The character Jonah figures in the books 2 Kings and Jonah of the Tanakh and books Matthew and Luke of the New Testament, where he is characterized as a prophet of exacting sternness, scorn, sincerity, selfishness, talent and impudence. (Further, the comical elements of Jonah’s reluctance are foiled in Yellow Wake. Though Love is blinded by his domineering ambition rather than his desire for self-preservation, he steers his life toward his death with an insistence that is often “campy.”) Importantly, the name “Jonas” reliably invokes the story of “Jonah and the Whale” for any listeners in the Abrahamic religious traditions or with any cultural exposure to such traditions.
In the story, the Israelite Jonah is commanded to preach Yahweh in Nineveh (the capital of Assyria), but scorning the extension of Yahweh’s benevolence to the Israelites’ traditional enemies, he avoids Nineveh and instead ‘escapes’ on a ship. When violent storms beleaguer the voyage, the sailors draw lots to determine which conscript brought God’s wrath on them, and, of course, Jonah draws the ‘winning’ lot, admits that he is at fault, and assents to be thrown overboard. A divinely-manifested whale saves Jonah’s life by ingesting him, and Jonah gives prayers of thanks for three days, whereupon he is released to preach in Nineveh and assuage God’s vengeance. Though he does so, and appears sincerely grateful to God’s enabling mercy that saved his life, Jonah is so upset about extending God’s mercy to his traditional enemies that he complains to God about this and requests that God take his life (‘for shame!’).
The audience’s familiarity with “Jonah and the Whale” will contribute to structural and functional expectations of the listener. What aspects of the Biblical story are congruent with the plot and characterization in Yellow Wake?
The audience learns that this is Love’s first whaling voyage, as he is normally an officer on slave ships; like Jonah, Love is avoiding what he ‘should’ be doing (… being an OFFICER on a SLAVE SHIP, which is really saying something about character … !) for riches. Further, the riches are, to Love, an escape mechanism (“… new lands!--and gold talks in any of them”). Love broods over his obstacles to adjustment on the Congo Queen, including that “[he] had the whalin’ trade to learn,” but, cleverly, Love and his four recruits plan their mutiny for the unsanctioned ‘pursuit’ of a whale, and once the whaling boats are at sea, they exempt themselves. As per the Biblical story, the whale in this episode serves as an opportunity for escape; the audience wonders, as “Captain Love” and his four seamen continue to Panama, if Jonas Love and his conquest have been spared via the whale or if their deliverance will have a much more appropriate consequence. Jonah’s life is spared and he is pardoned via the whale, but once he has obeyed God and preached in Nineveh he scorns this pardon and asks to be given his death; Love executes his mutiny and he is “trimmed and sailin’ free for the end of Sanford’s rainbow,” but the audience hopes that it will not end well for the charismatic, despicable Love, and expects, because of “Jonah and the Whale” that he will act out self-interest but later scorn this impulse and actually request his own death.
Aside from the emotional and structural congruence borne out in the last act of Yellow Wake, we can ask more complex questions: (a) is Jonas Love pardoned, and how does he repudiate this pardon? (b) is the ‘judgment’ of Love’s death arising from his own request and his proud, vengeful nature, or are outside forces portrayed as sanctioning his request and giving him death? and, lastly, with reference to stories in which there appears is no cure for the overweening nature of a mortal (e.g., Greek tragedies), (c), is there a cure for Jonas Love? was there another resolution to this story that he refused and instead, asked for his death?
Love advertises some of his decisions as evincing fairness (e.g., his covetous and premeditated murder of Sanford: “I shot him in the smoke of his own gun, Captain. In San Francisco, that’s a fair contest”) but takes exception to self-addressing fairness (e.g., Tannerhill agrees that “Johnson’s for us, fair enough,” and Love derides his four “men” as “fools” without acknowledging that he is unfairly fooling them). We could understand Thickstun as pardoning Love by giving him passage, employment and an amount of shipboard power. Unfortunately, consideration of ‘fairness’ is abandoned to practical concern; although Love is “a confessed killer and this is the high seas,” Thickstun uses such a man to level to the crew with his innate cruelty (ironically supposing that oppressing the crew will make sure they know their place, i.e., preclude mutiny). In his sociopathic solipsism, Love continues to utilize other humans one worse than they intend to use him, as indicated by his gaze “to find the starting point: the rock with the face in Sanford’s notes,” a symbolic reminder of Love’s utilitarian will. (Certainly the audience has had enough indications, but it is important that we see Love’s driven, arrogant lust still intact and uncompromising as he debarks onto his “last and main bearing.”)
Love’s death results from self-propulsion within a conditional trajectory set by others (in particular, Sanford) and subscribed to via his own willfulness. Love is not entirely unaware of the closeness of his fate, although this seems to manifest subconsciously (e.g., “ … five killing days,” “now move out or you’ll rot in your tracks”) and his own life as the stake, just so (i.e., “there’s nothing stopping me now”). In a trilateral gesture of complicity, responsibility and ownership, an ailing Love crows, “It’s the cave! Sanford’s cave, Johnson! My cave!” At the end -- the Yellow Wake -- Love acknowledges the justice of his total reprobation, but will not acknowledge an inexorable organization through his fateful journey (i.e., unlike his prior “bow” toward “Fortune’s door” and “the end of Sanford’s rainbow”)). However, such organization is plain and does not require any homage, and thus is the moral closure, lacking until ‘now,’ given. On discovering Johnson’s corpse, Love exclaims, “Lord o’ Mercy! Dead, he is … .” Death is a mercy for Johnson, but not for Love. Love does not repent. And if he could have lived and attained “caskets full of gold” he would have; he recognizes the propriety of the price exacted, but then he must pay up, regardless. With a choice he will not choose. Love does not receive mercy because he would not take it.
Thus there is no cure for Love: his shallow and absolute motivation steers him (mercilessly) to this point, and, further, Love must achieve an x-marks-the-spot position and ‘dig’ into it for the drama to be successful. Yellow Wake must show the confluence of moral recompense and its undeservedness. If tragedy examines consequential, emergent situations, it does not require that the point-of-no-return to fall within the production.
(For instance, in All My Sons by Arthur Miller, faulty aircraft cylinders have already been manufactured, killed pilots, and been investigated. The manufacturers have already been prosecuted. The moral traction of the play emerges from Joe Keller’s insufficient prosecution and exoneration. In the play, Keller learns that he has, in fact, paid for his complicity; though the action and (unlike Yellow Wake) its retribution are in the past, it is the recognition of the consequence that the play reveals.)
(2) Diminutive Names and Connotations:
In maritime superstition and lore, a sailor (or passenger) named “Jonah” is thought to bring bad luck, and any sailor (or passenger) who seems inexplicably concomitant with misfortunate incidents can be termed ‘a Jonah.’ Ironically, Captain Thickstun himself sanctions Jonas Love, knowing full well that he Love killed Sanford with the intention of taking his possessions and station, and that Love is self-serving and self-answering, and, you can bet, will not hesitate to leverage personal gain from rank, reputation and circumstance. The superstition of a “Jonah” derives from the biblical story of “Jonah and the Whale,” where the sailors identify Jonah as their accursed passenger, toss him overboard, and (though not Israelite in nationality, ethnicity or religion) offer sacrifices and prayers to mollify Yahweh. In this story, the sailors draw lots to ‘fix’ the cause, and this passage in Jonah 1:7 (“And they said to one another, ‘Come, let us cast lots, that we may know for whose cause this trouble has come upon us.’ So they cast lots, and the lot fell on Jonah”), is not far afield from the connotations of gambling, scapegoating, allotment, causal determinism and accurate indictment which preside in this production. The men trust to the cognizance of ‘chance’ to reveal the truth of the fault. Thus drawing lots to be cast overboard is a moral gamble -- if you win, then you lose -- and this ironic resonance is invoked throughout Yellow Wake.
Finally, the name Jonah is closely related to the name Jacob, and a diminutive of Jacob is “Jack.” ‘Jack’ can denote a sailor, a knave, a token role (i.e., a piece or a card with a certain signification) in a game, and a resourceful man … among other things. Because Yellow Wake efficiently stresses its wealth of connotations, my analysis considers Love both ‘a Jonah’ and ‘a Jack’ (as discussed below, in several places).
‘Jack’ also denotes a device of mechanical capability. As emphasized in Yellow Wake, Love is a literate, detail-oriented, and decisive ‘planner’ with a methodical mind. His abilities, capacities and natural centrifugation are contrasted with “whiskey-will” Sanford’s ill-considered boasting and the impotence of his “four men” (n.b., of these, only Sanford and Tannerhill can read). Incongruously, Love also lavishes description upon his own anxieties, and “desperation,” and the stakes -- but he narrates with such control and such sharp, ruthless dignity that it is hard believe him emotionally vulnerable -- he’s merely self-involved, period, and this trait emerges at every opportunity. Similarly, Love boasts, but only inwardly or in a calculated social move; unlike Sanford, Love is abstruse and cunning, and keeps his cards close to his chest.
Textual and cartographic literacy are evidence of Love’s capability as a singularly superior leader (“I’ve got nine points of the law right here on this table: this map, and this book, and the know-how”). These skills provide the backdrop for another instance of Love’s characterization as a resourceful manipulator, as when Love sets a trap of false papers for the credulous, illiterate Johnson, then concedes, “I’ll read it to you, but listen well.” Love mollifies the crew on the Panamanian lee with a “worthless half of a map” showing irrelevant territory … and they are fooled (!) despite (!) being previously informed on the mapped location of the cave). Other than Captain Thickstun, “Captain Love” is the only character to reference navigational coordinates, and with more flair and detail: compare Thickstun’s remark (“the 60 latitude, God willing”) with Love’s lecture to his unlearned recruits (“We’re approximately 12 degrees, 30 minutes north, by 82 degrees, 40 minutes west. See where that puts us? Not over 4 degrees off the coast of Panama, see?”). Lastly, Love frequently describes dimension and quantity, like a surveyor, tactician or financier, noting the stowage of the Congo Queen and converting the dimensions of the stipulated “caskets full of gold” into a mantra. (Not figuratively but literally caskets –- get it?)
From Johnson’s gleeful yipping about Love’s perspicacity (“Oh, clockwork, Love, that’s what it is! I’ve got to hand it to you”) and Love’s order to kill Thickstun “fast and sure,” we appraise the “clockwork” Love as achieving control over his quest. Always circumspect, Love expects his own mechanicity and maneuvering to determine outcomes (“Our next stop is Panama, man! Golden Panama!”), yet as the ‘wake’ (see below) unfolds, Love’s “clockwork” is revealed as structurally compromised and justly banished from “a land green black” (i.e., swallowed up in feverish growth, rotting from the inside). Is Love not acting on Sanford’s ‘orders’? Has he not made a catastrophic assumption about the integrity of “Sanford’s plan”? And is Love not, truly, aptly, deservedly, Sanford’s “legal heir” to the terrible spoils of anti-colonial retribution?
(4) Yellow Fever:
Love and Johnson die from the mosquito-transmitted Yellow Fever virus. An individual who contracts Yellow Fever is subject to one or two phases of symptoms. Some individuals only suffer the first (nontoxic) phase and subsequently recover their health, but other individuals will only seem to recover before entering a second (toxic) phase. The second phase is potentially lethal: of unvaccinated Panamanian canal workers, 50% of toxic-phase patients died within two weeks of contraction. The first phase is characterized by fever and aches (especially in the joints; Yellow Fever is also known as Breakbone Fever). The second phase occurs in victims whose liver is infected by the virus, and results in brilliant yellow jaundice and violent febrile delirium. In fatal cases, the liver shuts down entirely and internal hemorrhaging produces bleeding from all orifices (e.g., “you’re droolin’ black, Johnson”).
I want to note a factual mistake in the screenplay, though it is justified for the sake of situational irony: the toxic phase has a gradual pathogenesis and typically includes days (even weeks) of symptom presentation before death occurs. Technically, Johnson and Love should have had some days of evident and debilitating pains and fever, followed by remission, followed by the toxic phase and a drawn-out (rather than abrupt) symptom course and death. Despite Yellow Wake incorrectly placing the second phase concurrent with the first, the symptom onset for the first phase is timed correctly. Further, since Yellow Fever symptoms appear within three to six days of transmission, the irony is enhanced by the likelihood that Love and Johnson contracted the virus on their first “killing” day, and therefore their assumed progress toward and desirous hope for the “caskets full of gold” was doomed throughout the trek and simply not yet (horribly) apparent.
Whiskey is known as ‘the water of life’ and yet figures as a death knell in Yellow Wake. Predisposition to liver damage (i.e., from alcohol consumption) disposes Love and Johnson to the toxicity of Yellow Fever. Although Sanford’s thirst is understood as ‘the death of him’ (i.e., Thickstun says, “I warned him,” and, although outraged at Love’s calculated murder, does understand Sanford’s predilection to drinking and bragging as the determining factor in his death -- as though, in the rough dockside culture of advantage-taking, Sanford was asking for ‘it’), the sobriety of Love’s cunning requires him to drink in association with Sanford. Love’s maneuvering is revealed as naïve and fatal; in this very concrete example, whiskey, the means of Sanford’s “fair” murder, contributes to Love’s reflexive, reciprocal, retributive death.
(5) Yellow Jack:
Interestingly, another name for Yellow Fever is “Yellow Jack.” I don’t know if this name emerged from the requirement of sailing to Panama (‘Jack’ as sailor), a pre-virology accusation against the terrible mystery of transmission (a ‘Jack’ as a knave, maybe also with the implication of sexual indiscretion?) or from the display of a quarantine flag on vessels contaminated with Yellow Fever victims. A ‘jack’ is a small flag displayed on the bow of a warship, and a yellow-colored jack was used to ‘wave away’ the routine customs protocol for trading ships. How … ‘coincidental’ … that this yellow jack (because of endemic “Yellow Jack”) stipulates quarantine, and thus gains a ship unquestioned customs clearance. In fact, if ‘hypothetical’ pirates returning from an abundantly rich Drake lair ‘hypothetically’ had “gold for ballast,” they might inconspicuously sail into “new lands” where “gold talks” without interference …. (So much for that.) Yellow Wake excels at the ironic touch. How appropriate that the misfortunate Yellow Jack betrays the naively ambitious Love (and Johnson). “Our bow like a finger points toward Fortune’s door!” -- yes, it is true; how terribly prescient.
Also note the affinity between “yellowness” and cowardice. The lack of information regarding Sanford’s motivation (in planning to pursue the gold horde with four men on the Congo Queen and bragging to Jonas Love) again becomes relevant. Love is assured that he is in control of the mission (“I fixed Sanford’s plan with my own”) and will gain straightforwardly by it (“Sanford’s cave, Johnson! My cave! … I’ve found it!”). In one reading we can imagine Sanford as luckily unaware, having made it to the site without falling ill, and planning to fetch his riches via the Congo Queen; in this reading he brags transparently and, in a neat reversal, Love takes Sanford’s potential gains (fateful misfortune) and loses everything by them (not to mention, has to know himself bested). In another reading, we can imagine Sanford as falsifying his information in order to dissemble with either his four recruits or with Love; this seems unlikely, though the hypothesis of such a patent plot by Sanford cannot be discarded (which is in itself intriguing: how little the audience ‘knows’ when the given is a second-hand interpretation (by a hubristic sociopath!) of a drunk man’s boasting …). The final reading for Sanford’s psychology is that he is scared to make the trek through the mountains again (or never did, and falsified the notes as a false testament to his bravery); scared to use a vessel and men he is familiar with (“we the Queen”) to coordinate the lifting of the gold (i.e., because mutiny would be the soundest option for actually retrieving the gold, but ensues issues of conscience and duty); even scared to own a suspicious amount of wealth. As Love incredulously muses, “[How and why did Sanford wait?] He’d been to the site […] yet he sailed halfway around the world because he needed four men … !” It is psychologically plausible that “whiskey-will Sanford” was a boaster of the “dull and effeminate” age rather than the man-of-war that Love embodies. Why would Sanford have waited? Why would he choose such underwhelming colleagues? Was Sanford merely “yellow?” If so, how ironic that Love actively, determinedly, and so un-“nobly” manhandled his own fortune into position (x-marks-the-spot), and though far from a coward, becomes (literally) yellow!
(6) Yellow, Green, Black:
These colors appear throughout the script as thematic motifs lush with the duality of life and death. This is (all) for gold, yet the only gold claimed by Love and Johnson is the patina of jaundice. After setting course, “Captain” Love lauds “Panama!--a land green black with tropic growth and our treasure cradled in a mountain nest on her backbone!” Here “green” and “black” are indicators of thriving, pulsing, nurturing life, but as the characters’ (mis)fortune develops, the land is depreciated as “a green snare” and black blood leaks from Johnson’s hemorrhaging body. This sinister trinity is the revelation of Love’s ambition: gilded patina (“painting me gold”), consuming hypertrophy and exuded “rot.”
Some Panamanian communities celebrate the festival of Carnaval with the ritual of the Congo Queen. It is an odd conglomeration of indigenous and colonial practice. Carnaval, itself European in origin, is an expressive, role-reversal experience for Panamanian slaves to parody and rebel against their Spanish overlords (often illegally self-made horders, i.e., pirates). The Congo Queen, a woman chosen from the reveling populace, performs a fight against ‘the Major Devil’ (who is personific of Spanish oppression) and banishes him.
Love exhibits a grasping piracy, a colonial literacy, suavity and sensibility, and an obsession with repression, oppression and dimensional control. He engineers a murder and a mutiny in order to claim treasure; he has an education; he is a capable officer of the slave trade, and, further, recognized for his unconditional cruelty; and he is a driven sociopath concerned only with mechanics of control, coordinates, cartography, and amount of gain (e.g., “certain great chests of two feet deep, three broad and four long”). Additionally, it should be noted that the treasure Love seeks to claim was horded by the “noble” Drake’s slaves (“he keepeth a hundred slaves at least in the mines”).
In the thematic motif of “clockwork” against “the Congo Queen,” we see Love’s selfish, overlording mechanicity banished -- not destroyed, precisely (because Love does not repent) but banished, cleared, as per a ‘wake’ (see below)). Carnaval reverses the prescripts of social determinism, instead serving up chaotic but reasoned (e.g., much deserved) comeuppance. From this perspective, Love and Johnson’s rest on “the sixth day” (where they watch the masts of ‘their’ (pirated) ship, the Congo Queen, “wav[ing] gently” at them) compounds a sinister awareness of the Queen -- she’s waving ‘good-bye’ to an enemy about to meet his deserved, unsuspected fate.
The Big Question and its Bigger Answer:
(1) The Yellow Wake:
The success of this drama emerges in large part from the connotative depth of the components involved. Similarly, a title as simple as Yellow Wake is layered with conceptual and cultural import, plot and character relevance, and, further, receives clear foundational reference throughout the script as though fully-inclusive of multiple interpretations -- indeed, all salient interpretations.
(a-1) Wake: informed by culture:
Firstly, it should be noted that “wake” is the term for the Irish vigilance-and-tribute ritual dedicated to a deceased relative. Observance rites for the dead are a feature of all societies of the human species -- but note that this isn’t the Panamanian cultural reference it might have been; it is an explicitly Irish (and insular maritime culture) term, and carries a cultural association with a specific libation: whiskey (e.g., see James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake). Secondly, the wake is falsely construed as emerging from medieval stereotypes a) impure metal drinking cups (e.g., poisoning-by-accumulation), b) reliance on ‘stimulant’ liquors (e.g. ,whiskey and brandy), or, c), both. The lore purports that the wake began as a period of days in which an intoxicated person was ‘laid out’ and watched with solicitude by his family in hopes that he might ‘wake’ up. Though a ‘historical rumor,’ this connotation of ‘wake’ should be recognized as associated and relevant here (e.g., again, comorbidity of impure, intoxicating metals and intoxicating whiskey).
(a-2) Wake: informed by semantics:
A “wake” can be understood as the liminal space between something and nothing in which in which the consequence of a forced clearing is experienced.
(b) If there is are deceased humans in Yellow Wake, whose wake is it? If there is a consequence of a force, what is understood in the wake of that force?
Everyone dies or is (will be) dead in Yellow Wake. The only survivor is the vessel Congo Queen, which Tannerhill, Bigsby and Olcott will have to land rather than scuttle (if they want to live until they swing for mutiny). (Love’s reassurance to the crew resigned to the Queen is “you’ll get your share when we open the trail, me and Johnson” -- and if not, precisely, ‘reassuring,’ … this is ‘assuring.’) Yellow Wake is expositive and not extrapolative: because the plot is based on the exposition of Sanford’s artefact(s) (Love takes Sanford’s artifacts) and the exposition of Sanford’s compatriots (Love takes Sanford’s recruits), any objective plot-summary pays almost as much attention (posthumously) to Sanford’s actions and discoveries as to Love’s ruthless command of the treasure-hunt follow-through. The “fast and sure” disposal of Captain Thickstun, the incidental wasting deaths of 25 crew members (“…and I’d like to see the face of the first thirsty man!”), and the presumed trial of Tannerhill, Bigsby, and Olcott yields no narrative or emotional reaction, whether they are resolved (Thickstun), presumed (crew), or possible (Tannerhill, Bigsby and Olcott). Though the drama involves these characters during its development, they are increasingly evident sidelines to the proportionally increased focus on the stakes of Sanford’s/Love’s ‘treasure.’ Though we could think of this as ‘everyone’s wake’ (because everyone dies or will be dead) as a consequence of Sanford’s “whiskey-will” and Love’s heartlessness, the emotional and narrative through-line moves from Sanford’s whole map and Sanford soon dead, to Johnson and Love, dead and with the map in two halves.
(b-1) Is this a wake for Sanford?
In the ending credits of Yellow Wake (and its citation (i.e., on RadioGOLDINdex)), John Hoyt is credited as the voice-actor playing Sanford…but Sanford is dead and does not figure himself in the on-air drama. Perhaps Sanford had a role in an earlier draft , but whether mistake or intention, the credit for Sanford is justified from a dramatis personae standpoint.
(b-2) Is this a wake for Johnson?
Johnson has been a truculent follower and impotent leader throughout the drama, but in the third act of Yellow Wake his pitiable reduction may cultivate audience sympathy. Like a pack animal, Johnson is driven ruthlessly for “five killing days.” On the sixth day, Love encourages him with a malignant gusto (“we can’t be more than a day away”), and on the seventh day we see him as a pitiable stuck ox under the load of Love’s fervor. Johnson’s hemorrhaging demeanor is visceral, grotesque, and lost, conveyed with an awful efficacy through pack-animal referents: “his big bloody eyes cast up the trail.”
Upon landing, “the rock with a face in Sanford’s notes” is cited as an early landmark Love recognizes: yet if there is a human face in the terrain, it is Johnson. Interestingly, a description of Johnson is provided for the first time in this sequence, as Love seems to generously and genuinely lament his wreckage: “The great bearded Johnson, with the strength of two men; he spent his strength with harboring hate and he fell to blithering.” After Johnson’s whining throughout the drama, a study of dependability and power is surprising to the listener and has the effect of creating compassion (i.e., not merely pity) for Johnson. We’ve only seen Johnson under the strain and sway of Love -- perhaps he’d be a genial and sturdy person not under pressure. (Also note: “blithering,” rather than the cleanly derogatory “blathering” (which seems to be what Love means to convey) is less unkind, does not deprive credibility from Johnson’s delirium ‘for what it is,’ and has more closely resembles ‘withering.’ Johnson is a hollow shell of the moral and physical stature we did not realize he had.) Pitiable delirium, too, shows Johnson as, essentially, a committed whaler; while Love hallucinates on the subject of gold, Johnson dreams, fragile and febrile, of “a thousand barrels of sperm oil,” imagines that “Captain” Love is Captain Thickstun, and wavers like a creaking vessel, “Chop the lines, she’s sounding, she’s sounding.” Love is “burn[ed] up” but Johnson is dragged (more peacefully? -- certainly, less directly) into the depths with the imaginary whales he pursues.
It is a terrible image of terrible indifference: Love scorns Johnson in order to spur him on, threatening callously, “Fall and you’ll rot in your tracks.” On the seventh day, Johnson is rotting in his tracks even before he’s physically fallen; Love says, conversationally, “You’re droolin’ black,” and we know that Johnson is consumed by the fever. Further, Johnson’s illiteracy emphasizes his puny mental stature beside Love’s exacting mind; Johnson is bequeathed, “fair enough,” “a worthless half of a map,” while Love has “[e]very bearing and distance to the final pace memorized from a thousand readings.” Yet Love is beaten in that “final pace,” falling in a self-aware delirium, “bile [burning,]” “soul [cooking],” “paint[ed]” gold; mercifully, Johnson falls before, and he dreams of whales.
However, a ‘we’re in it together’ sentiment is evinced within the final act. Love’s derision of “the fools, and Johnson, too” parses Johnson as a foolish individual. Interestingly, Love often dispenses with possible pronouns as he and Johnson travel through the jungle (e.g., “It’s a trap!” and, “Ah, the bugs. Heat. Green snare!”), and on the pivotal sixth day, Love uses singular plural pronouns to describe himself and Johnson with an unprecedented sense of accord and abidedness: “The sea breeze caught us and cooled our brow, the jungle’s wet head, and we rested. And we ate and we smoked.” Representation of the men as ships also promotes psychological unity -- these are two sailors on a taxing journey: “We’ve hacked half a day and we’re not a cable’s length from the sea;” “I say belay it and rest;” “Tomorrow we’ll get our second wind;” and “I don’t feel schooner-rig myself.” Finally, Love’s forcefulness is softened with only-too-true encouragement when he urges, “Another day at most, Johnson;” yes, that’s quite true.
On the seventh day, Love crosses the ‘moral event horizon’ when he abandons Johnson: “You’re through, Johnson. I’m movin’ on. The rock’s in sight. I’ve no time for you, now.” At this point, Love’s ailing condition and imminent death does not show in his voice, but note that as soon as Love commits to leave Johnson, he mentions that he can ‘see’ the cave (i.e., in delirium? Or as punishment? He’s stepped across the final threshold of moral turpitude.). Regardless of whether they’ve reached the cave or not, this confluence is morally significant and no coincidence. Love sounds ‘fine,’ intact, and up to his usual ruthlessness when he leaves the fallen Johnson, but in his next statement (“There! There! It’s the cave! Johnson! It’s the cave!”) the timbre of his voice has deepened and lurches with a lustful abandonment. In this moment, the audience knows that Love has lost his iron-grip; a sudden descent follows on its heels (“Sanford’s cave, Johnson! My cave! I found it! I’ve found it!”).
In a regressive eagerness we hear Love running consumptively, maniacally. Love retreats through the clearing, the “mountain nest,” to where Johnson has fallen. If the distance from ‘cave’ to Johnson’s body is indeed 50 paces, Love runs fleetly for a dying man, perhaps in a berserk assertion, like a ‘last fit.’ Love shares his “gold” in a symbolic (even perversely symbolic) gesture (“I brought back a handful”) despite the fact that he has had no time to retrieve gold from “great chests” so “ponderous heavy.” Is Love’s “handful” of gold merely his hand? Is he extending his hand to Johnson? Then a chilling moment; Love is affected, and his voice descends to a terrible mulish bari: “Dead, he is. Dead of the fever. And yellow as gold. He face, his hands … all … yellow … as GOLD.” (Note that the reverent treatment of “GOLD” is identical to Love’s earlier description of his lustful obsession.) Chilling.
I would posit that Johnson might be at, or even enabling of, the ‘wake,’ because, in the literal wake of Johnson’s pitiable death, Love’s monologue is the ‘sealing’ dramatic action, the climax in its totality. And without Love’s monologue, the drama would be incomplete.
(b-3) Is this a wake for Love?
As per Love’s obsession with dimensions and measurement, clockwork and determinism, he is reduced to his rightful comeuppance at “the end of Sanford’s rainbow.” Especially following the obligatory and campy cry of anguish (“no -- no! no! -- NOOO”) Love’s closing monologue is necessary to cinch the human drama. In a gesture toward moral closure, Love unsteadily breathes, “It’s the devil’s / bait / on a gilded hook. / This fever’s the devil’s breath. / I can feel it, now. Boilin’ up my bile … Painting me gold. Aye! It’ll cook out my soul and leave me poor … This fever, this devil’s yellow blight.” This moment is the durance and encapsulation of a wake, and Love’s (own) eulogy.
Love is an endearing narrator though a callous and cruel person. The audience knows Love is BAD, but still LIKES him; the former is a character-centric valence and the latter is an audience-centric valence. By ascribing both depravity and its ethical recompense for Love, Yellow Wake sanctions its audience to enjoy liking Love for his badness, without the burden of guilt. The builds and the lulls and the predictability (though all engaging) are surpassedly contextualized by the starkly appropriated appropriateness, the moral roundness of this moment. If there was one ‘yellow wake’ where form fits function -- this is it. It is the culmination of everything for Love and for the audience. It is a profoundly matter-of-fact, almost gratifying experience, … for both of us. Or, as Love leers to Johnson, “caskets full of gold.”
(b) Wake and blight: a clearing
As ‘the Major Devil’ of Carnaval, Love and Johnson are reduced to gilded skeletons, contemporary manifestations for pirate lore, and “we, the Queen” proves to be a “Jolly Roger” after all. In the tropics, their bodies will decay, in fact, be consumed in death (as they already were by death) in short order; the path hewn by them, their destruction, ruthlessness, and brandishing, will grow over in short order; and it is a hypertrophic chaos toward, on behalf of, restoration of just (“fair”) order. Love and Johnson are not so much destroyed by a virus transmitted by mosquitoes as consumed by the consequence of their greed, and they are not so much consumed by the effect of their greed as eliminated by the natural forces that they were exposed to in the context of their driven greed, and they are not so much eliminated by natural forces (i.e., ‘elimination’ connotes other-consciousness and other-agency) but cleared from the realization of that greed. Panama, for all its density of life and intense, pulsing anthropomorphization (“a cave in a mountain nest on her backbone;” “the rock with the face in Sanford’s notes”), is an unconscious, unfeeling, desolate, and bleak field of play. Ironically, the vehicle of real justice (i.e., with a just intentionality) is the “Jolly Roger” herself, the Congo Queen. In Yellow Wake, the fate (the ‘wake,’ the clearing) is omnipresent, and the audience has the immense satisfaction of watching it determinedly play out.
Yellow Wake as cited on radioGOLDINdex:
7277. Escape. July 21, 1950. CBS net origination, AFRTS rebroadcast. "Yellow Wake". An exciting story about a fabulous treasure hidden in the Panamanian jungles, and the ruthless men who try to get it. Two public service announcements and the AFRTS music fill have been deleted. Paul Frees, Bud Nelson (writer), William N. Robson (producer, director), William Conrad, John Hoyt, John Dehner, Will Geer, Stacy Harris, Harry Bartell, George Opperman Jr., Ivan Ditmars (organist). 26:10. Audio condition: Very good to excellent. Incomplete.
Driscoll, James F. "Jonah." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 8. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1910. Web. 2 Jan. 2013. Link.
Drolet, Patricia Lund. "The Congo Ritual of Northeastern Panama: An Afro-American Expressive Structure of Cultural Adaptation." Ph.D. dissertation, University of Illinois, Urbana, 1980.
Grainger, Roger. "Wake." Macmillan Encyclopedia of Death and Dying. 2002. Encyclopedia.com. Web. 2 Jan. 2013.
Harper, Douglas. "Jack." Online Etymology Dictionary. 2001-2012. Web. 2 Jan. 2013. Link.
Hayes, Christine. "Alternative Visions: Esther, Ruth, and Jonah." Open Yale Courses. Religious Studies 145: Introduction to the Hebrew Bible, 2012. Web. 02 Jan. 2013. Link.
Joyce, James. Finnegan's Wake. New York: Viking Compass, 1959. Print.
Miller, Arthur. All My Sons: A Drama in Three Acts. New York: Penguin, 2000. Print.
"Moral Event Horizon." TVTropes.org. TV Tropes Foundation, L.L.C. Web. 03 Jan. 2013. Link.
Tidell, J. B. "Jonah." The Bible Book By Book: A Manual. Waco, TX: Baylor UP, 1916. Biblos.com. Web. 02 Jan. 2013. Link.
thanks for reading