"Do you always have to offend everyone?" So ran a comment anonymous, of course on a piece I’d written for an undergrad creative writing class, a piss take on the Our Father titled "Our Father II." This was in the early ’90s, when I was still planning my escape from junior college and the burbs. Another classmate suggested that I "try going on a fishing trip or getting laid or something" so I could "write something positive for a change."
During this time in my life, Unsane (Matador, 1991), the eponymous debut by the East Village meat grinders, was in heavy rotation on my turntable, the cover displayed upright on the stereo cabinet: a man on the subway tracks, his head neatly severed by the downtown train. In an era rife with rawboned noise rock, the record was the ne plus ultra of anger and aggression: as violent and uncompromising as golden-age Slayer, but more immediate and less mythical. Whereas Slayer sang about historical creeps Ed Gein and Josef Mengele, Unsane’s Chris Spencer screamed his throat raw about that guy, right there, sitting across the aisle from you with an ice pick in his pocket, staring. Musically, he somehow managed to take the country staple Fender Telecaster and wring the twang out of it, giving it a metal-on-metal screech like that subway train with its brakes locked.
Years later, after logging a decent amount of coitus and fishing trips, I had lost neither my predilection for the aggro or for Unsane. I’d wander around the SF State campus stressed, thinking deep collegiate thoughts, scowling, and muttering to myself, borderline Trenchcoat Mafia and preselective serotonin reuptake inhibitors. I got into a philosophical argument with a poet visiting one of my classes. She was heavily into Zen and read a few poems about sweaty horses and wild roses. They were well crafted and praiseworthy but raised hackles when their author, all blissed out on Mill Valley and whole grain, contended that the purpose of poetry is to convey beauty. That’s an option, sure, but what about ugly? If the only purpose of art is to strive for beauty, what separates it from a Cover Girl commercial, from the consistent mainstream message that things, such as they are, are not as they should be? "Beauty is truth, truth beauty," John Keats wrote in "Ode on a Grecian Urn." I prefer the adage "Beauty is only skin-deep, but ugly goes to the bone." Sure, the Lorax speaks for the trees, but who will speak for the twisted, ugly, and bitter?
It’s a rhetorical question, of course. Three albums not counting singles and greatest-hits comps and four labels later, Unsane are back with Visqueen on Ipecac, with its cover of a body wrapped in plastic sheeting and dumped in a meadow. Over the course of its career, the band has toured relentlessly, including an opening stint with Slayer; lost a drummer to a heroin overdose; and inspired dozens of noise bands, some the real deal, others merely aping it. In February 1998, Spencer was attacked by four people in Amsterdam and needed emergency surgery for internal bleeding. So while you can look at the photos on Unsane’s site and see the band members smiling and horsing around, their recordings are decidedly missing that "good day, sunshine" vibe. They’ve been there, and they’ve seen it. "This city is packed full of lowlifes," Spencer sings over a forlorn harmonica on the ominously titled "This Stops at the River," "and all I can see in your eyes is fear."
It can be argued that there’s a certain homogeneity in Unsane’s fixation on the shady side of the street. "I know it’s only pain / I know it’s all the same," Spencer reveals in a moment of self-awareness. Both Keats and my classroom visitor had it right and they both had it wrong. Zen isn’t a hippie chill pill; it’s about seeing clearly what’s there. This is the picture, Pollyanna. This is the whole thing. You live in the city; there are no more truffula trees. There are no more barbaloots in their barbaloot suits. There’s a boot on your car, rent’s due, the phone’s been disconnected, and there’s a junkie sitting on the curb, shooting up in his foot.
There are things you can count on in this world, and that same, punishing Unsane sound, with minor variations, will be there when you need release. Keats died of tuberculosis at 25, coughing up blood. If "beauty is truth, truth beauty," then either his death was a lie or all the death and blood and bodies wrapped in Visqueen have some kind of underlying beauty. There is an aesthetic in violence and fear that forms a more satisfying whole than roses and Grecian urns alone. What does an urn hold, after all, but ashes? *
With 400 Blows and Mouth of the Architect
Tues/5, 9 p.m., $10
Bottom of the Hill
1233 17th St., SF