Thursday, July 10, 2014

DB'S Song of the Day (day 191): "IN THE FLAT FIELD" (1980) Bauhaus

Daniel Ash, Peter Murphy, David J, Kevin Haskins

Tomorrow, July 11, is the birthday of Peter Murphy, sometime frontman for Bauhaus in their brief run, 1979-83, at the outset of Goth music. My introduction to their work was in 1983 due to their appearance—playing the darkly riveting “Bela Lugosi’s Dead”—in the film The Hunger. In fact, that opening sequence, with shots fixed on Murphy intercut with David Bowie and Catherine Deneuve, as clubbing vampires, dispatching some unsuspecting victim, was worth the rest of the film, a dull “stylish” affair brought to us by Tony Scott. Needless to say I was deeply disappointed with the film but that opening was what I retained as I walked out into the daylight of Chestnut Street in Philadelphia.

Friends—art students or recently graduated from the Academy of Fine Arts—laid some Bauhaus tracks on me on tapes. I remember “Kick in the Eye” and “God in an Alcove”—both from the debut album, In the Flat Field, and the single version of “Spirit,” as well as—my favorite—“All We Ever Wanted Was Everything.”  I liked the latter two better than the former two, so I bought The Sky’s Gone Out (1982) first. Then, I think, the last album, Burning from the Inside (1983), which I actually preferred even though Murphy is not so much a presence on it. The ascendancy of Daniel Ash led me to follow him in the band Love and Rockets (for a couple albums at least), which was everyone in Bauhaus but for Murphy. So the last I heard of Murphy was what came first: In the Flat Field, my third Bauhaus purchase and the one that caused me to realize it's too Goth for me. The second side I don’t play very often, I can tell you.

But today’s song is the title track and is to me the quintessential Bauhaus song. It boasts some odd aural effects, some great thrashing guitar, frenzied vocals, indecipherably opaque lyrics, a grab you by the throat or bite you in the throat energy that makes Murphy, at the mic, seem like the Walking Dead wraith that was born when Ziggy Stardust died. Glam rock taught the members of Bauhaus a lot, but it’s not an influence that dwarfs them. They are better than most glam bands. They create textures and shifts that finally realize the high art or high concept procedures of the genre.

“In the Flat Field” is smoking hot thanks to David J's very melodic bass and Daniel Ash's unearthly guitar noises, and it's literate in a way that is almost appalling. What kind of line is “Between spunk-stained sheet / And odorous whim”? Murphy’s sense of line is somewhat atrophied by vocabulary. He lets words do things with other words to create effects that do manage to convey meaning but the style of that meaning is lurid, a hothouse growth. “And force my slender thin and lean / In this solemn place of fill wetting dreams / Of black matted lace, of pregnant cows / As life maps out onto my brow / The card is lowered in index turn / Into my filing cabinet hemispheres spurn.” Uh yeah.

The kick of the song is in the vociferous scream “I get bored, I do get bored in the flat field.” My take on that, such as it is, comes from identifying this guy, with his index cards and filing cabinets, as a writer, a poet. The associative, even glossolalic, quality of the verses give us a glimpse of how cranked up this guy’s inner demons are. But the real tension comes from the utter boredom he feels with regard to “the flat field”—which is to say daily life, the quotidian doldrums, the “stale, flat, and unprofitable” “uses of this world” that Hamlet decries.

Meanwhile, the spunk and the pregnant cows, and the somewhat puerile lyric “Yin and Yang lumber punch / Go taste a tart then eat my lunch,” to say nothing of those “Piccadilly whores,” all contribute to a sense of sexual ennui, a blasé realization that even sex and drugs are “flat.” “Where is the string that Theseus laid / Find me out this labyrinth place.” A nice mythological touch, there. Theseus managed to escape the labyrinth of Daedalus (which contained the Minotaur that Theseus slew) by means of a thread given him by Ariadne. It led him to the exit. Murphy is calling for something similar to lead him forth from his own labyrinth, the complicated processes of his own cranium. The light that maps out onto his brow may be inspiration, but I take it that the way he drops the card into his filing cabinet indicates that it’s just another try at lyrical profundity.

Where the profundity does come forth is in the final verse:

In my yearn for some cerebral fix
Transfer me to that solid plain
Hammer me into blazen pain
Moulding shapes no shame to waste
Moulding shapes no shame to waste
And drag me there with deafening haste.

“My yearn for some cerebral fix”—wonderful! The “fix” could be a drug, could be an operation on his brain, could be some very thinky idea. Something (anything!) that gets the gray matter working. And the yearning becomes bodily with “hammer me into blazen pain” (I feel like Polonius: “that’s good, ‘blazen pain’ is good.”). He’s becoming simply a substance, a stuff to be hammered and molded—and the shapes that he assumes in this process (like the stuff that ends up on the cutting-room floor) is no shame to waste. You’ve got to break eggs to make an omelette. So “drag me there in deafening haste.” Amen, but where? Anywhere but that flat field—he wants to be transferred to “that solid plain.” I wonder if that’s related to Frank Black’s “abstract plain.”

Dragged down to hell, perhaps? Wherever it is, the churning rhythm of this song sounds like it's dragging us all there. Murphy is a very flamboyant singer, mimicking that yearning catch in the voice that Bowie exploits so well, particularly in his glam era stuff. But Murphy is more morose than Bowie ever is. The sound of Bauhaus is dense with a kind of tragic inertia, as though all are struggling to “walk away in sin” and not quite making it. You might well conceive of some ne’er-do-well undergoing eternal punishment in Hades. That’s it: Bauhaus is the house band for Pluto’s palace.

Into the chasm gaping we

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