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The meaning of nonsense

Over the past four decades, a million rock and roll bands have made a hundred million rock and roll records. Some go on to sell millions of copies; some, a few thousand; most, maybe a few dozen cassettes. If, tomorrow, most of the would-be Neil Youngs and Kurt Cobains and Lou Reeds and Paul Westerbergs and Rickie Lee Joneses of this world disappeared forever into day jobs, no one would notice the difference, not even that pimple-faced kid over there wearing the Melvins T-shirt who's listening to the Fall and carrying around his Kiss Army lunch pail. He's got enough records stockpiled for the duration.

It is the cynical impulse that makes one wonder why, every second of every day, someone is picking up a guitar or a pair of drum sticks or a microphone and deciding he or she should form a rock and roll band when every note has been used in every combination in every song ever written. What in God's name is there left to say? And is there any new way to say it? Answers: nothing, and no.

Rock and roll, and especially "punk," was once a medium of frustration (sexual, political, etc.) and rage; it was the ultimate form of arrogance, bands of incorrigibles screaming words at an audience they were convinced hung on their every word and believed in what they did or didn't stand for. The stage was their soapbox, the instruments their medium, the hormones their message.

But lately, rock music means less and less: as we creep toward the millennium, it's becoming increasingly difficult to tell one band from the next as they all try to become the next This or this year's That. Indie-rock is more inbred than the family in Deliverance, a cross-eyed and feckless moron sprung from the loins of an industry that demands sameness.

J. Robbins, singer and guitarist for Jawbox, knows this. A decade ago, he did not even care for rock and roll, avoiding the popular music his high school friends listened to and sang along with, keeping to himself. It wasn't until a few of those friends began making him compilation tapes filled with the sounds of Joy Division and Wire and other English post-punk bands that he even considered the possibilities of rock and roll, and what it might mean to him. As Robbins recalls now, the music coming from those tapes sounded entirely brand-new to him--"as if it was being completely invented right now," he says, not merely some preserved artifact.

"That whole Punk Rock Year Zero thing really appealed to me," Robbins explains, "that thing of you're tired of having culture presented to you as a menu from which you can buy certain items. You just want to say, 'That's ridiculous. I don't have to buy any of these items.' Who's to say anything I make isn't just as valid? If I want to go make a record with my friend and we're beating on washtubs, it can be just as great a record as Led Zeppelin II.

"I think that was the idea, just that it was this thing that wanted to be entirely new and was completely self-justifying. It was a feeling of empowerment."

Not long after that initial experience, Robbins picked up a bass and joined his first band, the Washington, D.C., hard-core band Government Issue that was often produced by Minor Threat's Ian MacKaye (later of indie-rock overlords Fugazi). But his "addiction to play music"--to make it personal, his own--was not fulfilled as a member of the rhythm section; he wanted to play guitar and sing his own words, and knew that friend Kim Coletta owned a bass. So, in 1989, with the addition of drummer Adam Wade (replaced by Zach Barocas in 1992, the same year guitarist Bill Barbot joined), they formed Jawbox and released their debut eponymous album a year later.

Over the next two years, they would release two more albums--Grippe and Novelty, each an extraordinary work--on MacKaye's Dischord label, the bastion of indie-rockness, hipper than a thousand Sub Pops because the bands on Dischord proudly proclaimed their disdain for major labels. Then, last year, Jawbox did the unthinkable and signed with Atlantic Records, Led Zeppelin's label since the fall of Rome. The promise of more money and more time was irresistible for the band, and Jawbox proved it was incorruptible. The band's For Your Own Special Sweetheart, released this spring, is a massive and devastating record.

Jawbox is a great band not because they're saying or doing anything particularly new, but because what they say and do is filled with tremendous passion and conviction; theirs is a brand of music that tugs at you, gnaws at you, gets inside you. It's at once powerful and beautiful, the combination of a whisper and a scream.  

Jawbox is the antithesis of other hip pseudo-indie-rock bands like Superchunk and Pavement, groups that seem to have gotten into rock and roll because they thought it was cool, not because they thought they had anything to say or because they could say it all that interestingly. Pavement and their ilk are hip only to themselves, selfish, concerned with their place in the rock and roll food chain; they're aloof and disdainful, critical and almost mean-spirited, derivative without intent and annoying, so damned above it all. Theirs is pop music played within the quotation marks, rock and roll made by people who probably don't much care for people who make rock and roll.

Compared to Pavement and Superchunk, two bands that put the "over" in overrated, Jawbox is a hurricane in a thimble--complex, emotional, revolutionary, a band that joined the fight for the right reasons. For Your Own Special Sweetheart is Novelty and Grippe fleshed out, brutal guitar riffs and delicate harmonies hung upon songs that wouldn't sound wrong coming from the likes of Bob Mould. The record is, as a whole, something of a perfect mess, leaping from a haunting song like "Savory" to a blistering rocker like "Breathe" effortlessly, shifting moods like Elizabeth Wurtzel without her Prozac.

"It's weird, but we want to make this really noisy music, but we want it to be beautiful, too," Robbins says. "I don't know exactly how it happened but it just sort of came up as this kind of modus operandi. I don't know what it is, but it's just this idea to try and get two extremes together in the same music, and even to achieve one by means of the other.

"It's the idea of having these sheets of noise and the way that sort of discordant kind of chords and voicings work to create--and here's a word that gets used too much--but the way it makes these kinds of textures. The sound of things is really important to us...I love that idea that music is a language."

In his essay "Why Do Songs Have Words?" British rock critic Simon Frith wrote that "sociologists of pop have been so concerned with [lyrical content, truth, and realism] that they have neglected to analyze the way in which songs are about themselves, about language." That is, the audience--record-buyers, casual fans, critics, other musicians--so often concern themselves with what the artist is saying that the way it's being said is forgotten--that there is indeed language to be found in the notes, not just the words.

There's so much importance placed upon the literal interpretation, we tend to forget that, sometimes, words in rock and roll don't mean jack: they are intentional abstractions, fragments of sentences and scattered words there to ground the song, make it more human, but not necessarily to give it any more meaning. That's left to the listener, who can fill in the blanks and interpret the words, imbuing them with his or her own private sadness, rage, or glee.

Once the song leaves the songwriter's pen and goes onto paper and is then transferred to DAT and then leaves the grooves of the vinyl or the surface of the CD and flows out of the speakers, it belongs entirely to the audience. Otherwise, how else could someone like Eddie Vedder become a "spokesman" to the audience that would embrace him? He is all but unintelligible behind the arena-rock, his words an indecipherable collage from which Pearl Jam's fans pick and choose their "meanings" to suit their whims. Sometimes, a song's just about being a song, that's all.

Robbins likens Jawbox's approach to lyric-writing to crafting poetry--stringing together concrete words for ambiguous effect. (This is a band that excerpts William Carlos Williams' poem "The Seafarer" in its opening song.) As far as Robbins is concerned, there's no such thing as misinterpretation: "If someone wants to internalize the song or think about it that much, then their interpretation is a valid one," he explains. "It's cool sometimes to hear how those words and that music kind of gets internalized by people."

Of all the songs on For Your Own Special Sweetheart, only "Ls/Mft," a coldly told violent tale of domestic violence, opens itself to easily specific interpretation: "Her pain subsides," Robbins sings, "he only wants a quiet mind / Control is the prize / A different mark for every time he thought he'd been defied." The rest are far more oblique songs about relationships, age-old love-hate songs deconstructed till they could be about almost anything.

When Jawbox released its second album, Novelty, in 1991, and failed to include a lyric sheet, the band received dozens of letters from angry fans wanting to know what they were hiding. But Robbins was trying to discourage their audience from scrutinizing the lyrics away from the music. They are of a whole, two elements dependent upon each other--without the words, the music might as well be jazz; without the music, the words lose their visceral impact. It's the combination of both that gives music its greatest impact and importance, the intangible creation that springs from the merging of human voice and inhuman sound. Without a catchy melody, the world would have laughed its head off at "she loves you, yeah yeah yeah."  

"There are some terrible lyrics that, because the song does something to me, not only do I forgive the terrible lyrics, but I would throw a lot of weight behind a lyric as obvious as 'I want you' or something," Robbins says. "I love that there's so many different meanings that are possible because someone wanted to interpret a song personally. But if I hear a band and I feel like they don't mean it--whatever it is--I get really bummed out. No matter how well-crafted a song might be, if they don't mean it, I don't respond to it.

"People have the expectation that the lyrics are going to impart something. But it is a whole song, and willful ambiguity is not a bad thing."

Jawbox performs November 3 at Trees. Jon Spencer Blues Explosion will headline, and Poster Children and Baboon open.


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