The 'Days Between Stations' columns, Interview magazine 1992-2008: The summer-of-love generation reaches the White House. So do their kids.
" . . . meanwhile a tipsy blond woman plays Sixties songs on the jukebox and choogles frantically out of rhythm. Then she has another drink. A couple of guys in suits stand around. I have my last drink for the evening... The blond woman sits two seats away yelling at me, 'Purple haze! Is in my brain!' She says over and over, angrily, 'I was there, I was there, man. I was a child of the Sixties."
So wrote Steve Erickson—the novelist from whose first book, Days Between Stations, I took the title for this column—on his encounter with Tipper Gore in a Manhattan bar in the midst of election year 1988. Well, really it's Erickson's fantasy of running into Tipper Gore, from his 1989 book on the campaign, Leap Year: A Political Journey. Later Tipper shows up in Erickson's hotel room ("You're gonna cry! Ninety-six tears!" she screams at him. "You gonna cry, cry cry cry!"), which gives Erickson a chance to wheel Al into the picture. Looking for his wife, the senator comes up to Erickson's room and sizes up the scribbler. "You're a writer no one's ever heard of," Gore says, "and I'm two years older than you, probably younger than some of your best friends, and someday I'm going to be president of the United States."
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As they say, close enough for rock 'n' roll. Soon the Clintons and the Gores should be sitting around the White House listening to the special deluxe four-CD Rhino Monterey International Pop Festival: June 16-17-18 1967 boxed set ("I was there, man"), while at the other end of the place Chelsea and the Gore kids are pumping PJ Harvey and Babes in Toyland and Sonic Youth and Nirvana and Th Faith Healers. While their parents lick their Elvis stamps and get all misty-eyed over Janis Joplin emoting on that great Monterey version of "Ball and Chain," you can picture their children trying to keep up with Roxanne as she shouts helplessly out of the maelstrom of Th Faith Healers' generational slam "Hippy Hole" (on the group's first album, Lido, on Elektra/Too Pure): "… LOOK AT THE FLOWERS, TAKE SOME OF THIS, SHIT FOR HOURS!" Fabulous. Th Faith Healers—a London band who say the "e" from their "The" was stolen by Thee Hypnotics—might as well be singing about the Monterey Pop Festival.
On the other hand, Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth is a lot closer to Hillary's age than she is to Chelsea's—who's to say Hillary won't be the one to turn Chelsea on to "Death Valley '69"? Or that Bill won't hear the noise one day as he passes Chelsea's bedroom, sneak back later, pick up a few discs, and kill the night filling the federal bench while in the background SY's Thurston Moore snaps off "Youth Against Fascism"? "I believe Anita Hill," President Clinton sings along to himself, automatically. "That judge'll rot in hell."
The truth is, people aren't moved according to musical clichés, they're moved by what they hear—and for that matter you can't get all misty-eyed over Janis Joplin's Monterey version of "Ball and Chain": she won't let you. She will let you hear Kat Bjelland of Babes in Toyland screeching "Pull my legs apart," though; she'll let you hear Kim Gordon chanting "I'll take off your dress/ I'll shake off your flesh," or how Kurt Cobain stumbles to the chorus of Nirvana's "Lithium," or how Roxanne gets her head above the flash flood of "Hippy Hole." And she'll let you understand how far Polly Harvey of PJ Harvey is from getting hold of the voice she wants.
On the PJ Harvey album, Dry (Indigo/Island), Polly Harvey's music—with two guys backing her on drums and bass, this twenty-two-year-old Englishwoman writes, sings, and plays guitar—is all about going to extremes, but it doesn't get there. Harvey comes closest with "Dress," because here she finds the biggest beat. Elsewhere, as on "Sheela-Na-Gig"—it's named for the Celtic carving of a woman pulling open the huge lips of her vagina, Harvey has to explain in every interview—you're aware of how written the music is, how self-conscious, how distanced. It's not exactly news that wearing one's heart on one's sleeve has never topped the U.K. fashion charts, but if as long ago as 1977 Margaret Drabble was writing that people were becoming "more ironic, more cynical, more amused by more things and less touched by anything," her words define a sensibility Polly Harvey has inherited, like straight hair she'll always have to curl. To not sing this way is what she wants; if she gets what she wants it'll be partly because Janis Joplin once defined what going to extremes is worth.
"Ball and Chain," as Janis Joplin, as a member of Big Brother & the Holding Company, sang it at Monterey in 1967, is the only irreducible piece of music she ever recorded, and up against it everything else anyone has ever officially put out with her name on it is a joke. The song, borrowed from blues woman Willie Mae Thornton, was Joplin's big number, the extravaganza. One minute into this performance and she's not wearing her heart on her sleeve: all of her internal organs are draped over her body like a hideous new skin. Blood seeps through her pores; stigmata break out all over, making signs no one can read. By marshaling an array of blues and soul mannerisms, she contrives an act that in certain moments—and you can hear them coming—ceases to be any kind of act at all. The means of illusion produce the real, and the real is horrible, but so vivid you couldn't turn away to save your life, or the singer's. It's no fun: there's an instant in the last chorus of the performance when Joplin's voice goes… somewhere else, and it's simply not credible that the music then ends with an ordinary flourish people can cheer for. How did she get back?
Well, as everybody knows, she didn't. But there are openings in Kat Bjelland's screams, in the demented, blank momentum Roxanne gets in "Hippy Hole," or in the way Kim Gordon flatly surrenders to "I Wanna Be Your Dog" on the Confusion Is Sex album, where the same question comes up.
There's going to be a great need for extremism in the next few years, as a new government moves with care and caution: extremism in art, certainly, but more than that in public discourse, as a form of honesty. So in my fantasy, as in Steve Erickson's, Tipper Gore and everyone else in the White House have their roles in a great national drama. Bill passes Chelsea's room. "What the hell is she listening to?" he says to Hillary. "'I'll take off your dress, I'll shake off your flesh'?” Chelsea passes her parents' room and with Joplin’s sound coming out from under the door hears it happening: "What the fuck," she says, "are they listening to?”
Originally published in Interview Magazine, January 1993.