Wednesday February 5th 2020
By Joe Hill
Ezra Pound famously said that artists are the antennae of the human race. The artist is someone who receives the psychic vibrations of the species, and then sends out information about what is being received.
This places many artists in an often adversarial role against culture, as just in the same way an antennae doesn’t discriminate against signal content, true artists do not discriminate against the messages received from humanity or culture, even if those messages are antithetical to a cultural paradigm. However, cultures are informational genes, or memes, which are always trying to preserve older information and will therefore take any necessary step towards self-preservation, such as attacking artists who bring negative vibrations to the forefront of consciousness.
This is why great art is usually so heavily attacked by cultural participants, because of its effectiveness at destroying an existing cultural meme. James Joyce’s Ulysses was banned in a number of countries, being labelled ‘obscene’ for dispensing the Victorian ethic that civilized persons have no sexual urges, particularly women. Some might remember in the ’90s how heavily The Simpsons was criticized for its ‘vulgarity’. In the 1960s many popular rock and roll groups were associated with devil worship, and on and on.
Art in many ways carries a responsibility to deliver the audience from a point of ignorance to a point of awareness. Art should liberate the soul from pain, and vanquish the traumas of the time. This brings me to an obscure, brilliant, and haunting album by musician, John Frusciante.
For those unfamiliar, John Frusciante is the journeyman virtuoso guitar player who has had a series of on and off again stints playing as a member of Red Hot Chilli Peppers. After the tragic death of their founding guitar player, Hillel Slovak, original members Anthony Kiedis and Flea found an 18 year old prodigy in John Frusciante as a replacement. Frusciante quickly grew to becoming not just a replacement, but an integral key to their musical growth and popular success, culminating in the release of the band’s 1991 album Blood Sugar Sex Magik, and its hit song, Under the Bridge.
This success would ultimately send Frusciante into an existential crisis and mark his first departure from the group. It was during this period of hermitism that John would polish and release his debut solo record, Niandra Lades and Usually Just a T-Shirt, in 1994.
Niandra is an interesting album for many reasons. On the surface, it has an impenetrable quality and density. Lyrics such as, “Your pussy’s glued to a building on fire/ I paint my mind just ’cause I’m alive,” which lead into a face melting guitar solo, generally sum up the bizarre nature of the work. The second disc of the album, Usually Just a T-Shirt, brings the avante garde inclination to a maximum, constantly weaving between dizzying guitar melodies overlaid with backwards guitar solos and more lyrics like, “A dove is a glove/ That I wear in my heart.”
Frusciante’s solo album debuted to little attention and was forgotten about as quickly as it was noticed. Most who have only glanced at the work have simply written it off as, ‘drugs are bad.’ However, when seen as an expression of a cultural state of the time, far more illuminating revelations appear.
“At the time I felt like I was being pushed around and told what to do, and that my relationship with my art was suffering from this drive to be successful by everybody else,” said Frusciante about writing the album.
For many sensitive people, this feeling of losing yourself to the hollow emptiness of capitalist values is quite familiar.
“I think it’s interesting that you can hear the decline I was going on inside. I think that those last two songs on [the record] are the best songs on the record, but at the same time, you know, it’s very sad because I hear that it sounds like a person falling apart, or it sounds like somebody about to kill themselves or something,” stated John in a Q&A with fans.
Niandra LaDes and Usually Just a T-Shirt drew major inspiration from Marcel Duchamp. The cover of the album is a still from a movie Frusciante’s girlfriend at the time was making, in which Frusciante plays Niandra LaDes, a character based off of Marcel Duchamp’s alter ego, Rrose Selavy, shown left.
Marcel Duchamp was a French-American painter and sculptor, most associated with the art styles of Dada and Cubism. Cubism was a stratospheric departure from the naturalistic accuracy of Impressionist style which had dominated in the late 19th century in painting. It is not a coincidence that Cubism arrived around the same time the telegraph and radio were reaching the mainstream.
In Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, Marshall McLuhan wrote of cubism that, “Instead of the specialized illusion of the third dimension on canvas, cubism sets up an interplay of planes and contradiction or dramatic conflict of patterns, lights, textures that ‘drives home the message’ by involvement.”
McLuhan continued, “Cubism, by giving the inside and outside, the top, bottom, back, and front and side rest, in two dimensions, drops the illusion of perspective in favor of instant sensory awareness of the whole.” This is reflected in Marcel Duchamp’s painting, Sad Young Man in a Train, shown to the right.
In this context of receiving the totality of an image all at once, from all times, all sides, all feelings, all places, much in the way cubism set out to do, the knot of Niandra LaDes begins to unwind.
The eighth track of Niandra LaDes, Running Away Into You, is a great example of the album’s artistic connection to cubism. The lyrics, “Drive up and down through water/ Live where you’re poor/ Between snores/ And sighing babies go to work,” accentuate this concept of immediate totality. The ups and downs of life are experienced in a complete immersion of context/ total environment (water), poverty in somnambulism, being both infant and adult at the same time. “If the sun could melt like snow…While running away into you.” Frusciante is trying to jam a complete experience of life into 2 minutes and 13 seconds (fitting in the age of Twitter and Snapchat, no?), but not without reason, as noted, this is a message being received. The first lyric, ‘drive’ is sped up from intelligibility to lost dissolution. This effect is due to speed. The same effect is produced on the lyric, ‘work’, to the point where it becomes akin to vapour, in the air but nothing, until it transforms to a noise similar to dialup internet striving to make a connection. There’s a duality in this song. The speedup effect of the music can almost be viewed as an antagonist to the protagonist lyricist being destroyed and dissolved by the speedup effect.
“Mental breakdown of varying degrees is the very common result of uprooting and inundation with new information and endless new patterns of information,” wrote McLuhan in 1964’s Understanding Media. “In this electric age we see ourselves being translated more and more into the form of information, moving toward the technological extension of consciousness.”
While the end product of our electric technologies might be the extension of our consciousness into a virtual environment, the current consequences of this process is the dissolution of identity and ego. On the internet you float around the world at the speed of light, in and out of other ideas and other minds, completely lacking solidity.
“On all electric media, the sender is sent, that is the message…when you move at the speed of light [with electric technologies] you do not have a private identity, and when you don’t have a private identity, or rather when you don’t have a body, you don’t relate to natural law,” said McLuhan.
Could this sudden immersion in an electric field environment be the reason behind so many peoples’ feelings of depression and anxiety? Much has been made about social media and its relation to mental health, but the focus has mostly been on the content of the media. McLuhan would argue this anxiety is a natural byproduct of the medium of electric technologies, as they inherently remove a sense of solidity, regardless of what we’re doing content-wise with these technologies.
Untitled #8, from the second half of the record, is my favourite track from the album, and I think one which adds to McLuhan’s take on the electric consequences on individual psyche. In this song the only sense of ‘John Frusciante’ we have is through the guitar, which is somewhat cautiously wandering through a forest of spirits. Again, we have a protagonist, the steady, solid rhythmic guitar, facing an antagonist, the discarnate beings moving the guitar, occupying and manipulating the environment of experience.
I’m not claiming Frusciante was aware of the intellectual connection between his work and Marshall McLuhan’s theories on media ecology, but that awareness isn’t necessary for the connection to be true.
“The only person who dare encounter the unknown, the new, directly, is the artist. Artists in any age are experts in direct encounter with the present. What the pop artists are telling us you see, is that the environment itself has now become a work of art…What they’re desperately trying to tell us is…we live now in a new kind of world, we are now responsible for the environment, we’re not responsible for the contents of the museum. The artist is the only person who is prepared to face the present and therefore to tell us about the future… The artist does it because he’s prepared to use his senses as scientific instruments instead of just using them as pick-up devices for his own satisfaction. He is engaged in a critique of satisfaction, he’s willing to put aside or reject all satisfaction in order to discover and probe. And they report their probings and findings in all sorts of grotesque designs,” proclaimed McLuhan.
In this light, Niandra LaDes and Usually Just a T-Shirt can be viewed as a scientific foray into the unknown psychic reconfiguration of the species, only picked up by conscious artists. “Unfastened belts on your heart/ And I’ve never been very smart/ But I connect you with your shadow,” sang a young Frusciante on the album’s second last track, Untitled #11. And here Frusciante agrees: the ‘smart’, ‘rational’, ‘intellectual’ communication isn’t necessary because the connection to the ‘shadow’ or fundamental issue at hand has been communicated successfully. If listened to from start to finish, Niandra LaDes and Usually Just a T-Shirt, poignantly, beautifully, and grotesquely articulates the new psychic environment which all humans globally must contend with everyday, whether they are aware of it or not.
“Those songs are sad for the same reason that they’re good,” said Frusciante. “I’m proud that I went through it and I’m proud that those songs are what they are.” As he should be.
We all must eventually confront the existential angst which is partnered to our forgone death. But now in the electric age, we confront death as an environment, as a way of life, leaving our bodies unconsciously and somnambulistically meandering across unknown psychic vistas. Niandra Lades and Usually Just a T-Shirt can serve as a tool in our chest to remind ourselves of the consequences of doing so recklessly and that we must strive to answer this superspace with a form of eternal solidarity.