Posts from 22nd August 2001

22
Aug 01

THE CITY OF SOUND – Stephen Troussé gets carsick on the road with Paul Morley and Kylie Minogue

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WORDS AND MUSIC
A HISTORY OF POP IN THE SHAPE OF A CITY
BLOOMSBURY, £12.99, ISBN: 0747557780

If an ideal pop journal were to give me 1,864 words to take a tour of Paul Morley’s new ‘history of pop in the shape of a city’, there might be any number of routes I could take.

a) I could write the latest chapter in my ongoing essay on the embarrassment of fandom, titled, in the fashion of Nicholson Baker’s ‘U & I’, ‘Em’n’Me’. Following chapters where I creep-out Morley on an LBC phone-in in the 1980s, write him a betrayed-fan letter about his column in ‘Esquire’ in the 90s and interview him following publication of his memoir in 2000 (only to fail to write the interview up), this might be the chapter where we have a tiff.

b) I could chart a list of co-ordinates in the irresistible Morleyian cartography, locating W&M as the missing link between Chuck Eddy’s ‘Accidental Evolution of Rock and Roll’ and David Thomson’s ‘Warren Beatty and Desert Eyes’; between Camden Joy’s ‘The Last Rock Star Book or Liz Phair: a rant’ and Jacques Derrida’s ‘The Post Card’; between Lester Bangs’ ‘Blondie’ and Chris. Marker’s ‘Immemory’ or between Charlie Gillett’s ‘The Sound of the City’ and Jorge Luis Borges’ ‘Labyrinths’.

c) I could write a dutiful consumer report sensibly explaining how W&M is an idiosyncratic history of avant-pop from Satie to Kylie via John Cage, Brian Eno and Kraftwerk, which you might like if you were already a fan of the music writing of Richard Meltzer and David Toop.

All of these journeys would be more or less scenic, but I’m not sure how useful they would be, in the context of this particular journal, this particular conversation. And because W&M is about, among other things, negotiating the exhausting vertigo of The Arbitrary, usefulness might be our best guide. So I’ve resolved to spend my words thinking about the point of writing pop histories.

W&M begins with two tracks: Alvin Lucier’s obscure ‘I am sitting in a room’ and Kylie’s lucid ‘Can’t get you out of my head’. Morley’s history is the tale of falling down – or digging – the timetunnel that connects the two.

Well, you might lose patience with this story right here: it’s clear it isn’t going to be any straightforward, plausibly causal trip down memory lane. More like being taken for a ride by an errant cabbie via the spooked suburbs of some joker’s soundhoard. If we’re used to the idea these days that histories make sense through genre (and pop histories, from ‘The Sound of the City’ to ‘The People’s Music’ most often partake of tragedy or elegy), then Morley is making a pitch for sci-fi. This is a story that wants to go down rabbit-holes, through looking-glasses, via wormholes to possible futures – pop history as written by Lewis Carroll, Phil Dick and Steve Erickson.

Except it’s not so far-fetched. The best review of W&M would be if some clever bastard tracked down Lucier’s 1969 recording and mashed it up into a 21st century deconstructed Kylie instrumental. Don’t the best bootlegs make vivid what is implied in the most interesting criticism: that meaning or value is less a question of weighing up, marking and filing, but rather… making unlikely introductions across space-time and genre, seeing what chafes, what rubs up the right way, what sparks fly? Maybe if such a bootleg existed it might make clear whether W&M is formulating a genuinely fruitful equation or is just so much dry humping.

While we can enjoy even the most frivolous bootlegs for their daft novelty or disposable cheek, Morley has to gamble on our investment in his story, our suspension of disbelief, for over 300 pages. So he spends a lot of time talking up the tale he is about to tell, trailing a mysterioso mix of murder, magic and the weather, ‘an adventure in sound, in history, in love, in legend’. Our establishing shot finds Kylie, pretty much as she is styled in the video to ‘Can’t get you of my head’, cruising down an autobahn of dreams towards her – and our – destiny. It’s a classic noir beginning: you might think of Janet Leigh, full of high hopes at the start of ‘Psycho’, Oedipa Maas swept along into the paranoia of San Narciso or even lovely Rita’s route down Mulholland Dr.

You might… and you might be disappointed. From a provocative premise, the story takes a turn as listless as its chapter headings (‘Chapter 2: The journey continues’, ‘Chapter 3: The journey continues, ‘Chapter 4: The journey continues’). The compelling knots of narrative are smoothed over and the book becomes a kind of blog of recorded and unrecorded time, as linear as a motorway, as inevitable as teleology. To illustrate how up to her ears she is in history, Morley reveals a tattoo on the nape of the Kylieneck, a microdot in which is inscribed the history of words and music, from the first rumblings of the trogs to the release of ‘Now… 50’. Kylie meets some interesting folks along the way (John Cage, Steve Reich, La Monte Young, Kraftwerk, Merzbow), there are some good jokes (1963: the White Stripes release ‘Elephant’) and there are some marvellous set-pieces (Morley on Tangerine Dream, on Simon Fuller, on ‘Metal Machine Music’), but the story lacks lustre, grows thin with list. If this essay were to have a soundtrack, the song for this paragraph would be St Etienne’s ‘Like a Motorway’: ‘dull, grey and long’.

It dawns on us that the terminus of Kylie’s teleocruise is Popopolis, as we now dream it: an eternal city which has forgotten how to forget, where all that was solid has fractured into frisky pixels, where someone is inventing postmicrohouse at the same time as someone else is discovering Son House, a city where geography is history and history is geography. Where the tunnel between Kylie and Alvin is a curious tube ride across town rather than cryptohistorical causality.

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