Memory Malfunkshun

Even before the dawning of Corona Time, the present age was marked by its inward-looking obsessions—selfie, blog, podcast, Facebook, Twitter. The desire to eat the carefully prepared supper must wait until the urge to Instagram has been gratified. “Sharing” is a form of self-curation.

Even as many make movies, take photos, write in their journals in order to capture their impressions of the surreal present, they are also indulging in the curatorial pleasures of retrospect. My mother has started writing her memoirs. Even as store shelves are plundered of stock and the stock market collapses, there is a groundswell of stock-taking.

I turned fifty-five on Tuesday. In “normal” times that would also have been tax day, but the Corona crisis has pushed back the deadline for annual involuntary donations to the Pentagon. I’m in infinitely regressive retrospective mood.

I have been reading the newspaper more often and more slowly: the Süddeutsche Zeitung on-line; the real broadsheet of the Anderson Valley Advertiser (“America’s Last Newspaper”) in its Special Plague Edition that arrived this week having returned to its full 12-page format of yore; and the New York Times, still delivered to the doorstep. The last of these dwindles in size, too, but in contrast to the AVA, the Times rarely fails to disappoint. Many have been my vows to cancel my subscription, but I can’t bring myself to do it.

Last week the Times printed a boosting review by chief popular music critic Jon Pareles—often a bright spot in these shrinking pages—of Gigaton, the new album from famed Seattle-based band, Pearl Jam. Given that the Pacific Trident Fleet has its homeport just twenty-five miles west of Seattle, the album’s title carries an ominous—one might say apocalyptically explosive—message. There are greater threats to humanity than Corona. Geo-political tensions augmented by the virus only increase the chances of imminent extinction. The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists set their Doomsday Clock at 100 seconds in January, even before the Corona crises took hold in this country. Oh, for the days when the temporal distance from annihilation was measured in minutes not seconds, soon to tick down from triple to double digits.

The opener of Gigaton is called “Who Ever Said” and, after an epigram of spectral electronics is interrupted by guitar blasts, comes at you with irresistible force. At the start of the video the fragile planet earth spins against empty black space to this ethereal space music—the disharmony of the sphere. Then the music hurtles forward like a nuclear locomotive, its chugging guitar riff emitting exhilarating radiation. Like a missile, the video image rushes low over wild terrain.

The first words from lead singer Eddie Vedder’s mouth are “Drowning in their dissertation”—a timely line for all those grad students wondering why they should soldier on. Next we hear of “random speakers in my mind”—an apt description of the tortures of Zoom. Within a few seconds the songs has effected a surgical strike on the technological nerve centers of civilization and the mind. Before long Vedder comes to his moral: “It’s all delivery” — another direct hit on the world as we know it, from ICBMs to Amazon.

Vedder’s refrain is: “Whoever said it’s all been said/gave up on satisfaction.” That’s an invitation to look back on things.

It all comes across as prescient. What doesn’t these days?

As Pareles notes in his review, there is a retrospective glow to Pearl Jam’s latest offering, even if it burns with forward pressing desire: “The lyrics often touch on the idea of acknowledging and learning from the past but not being mired in it, and of trying to transcend a dire present moment.”

Pearl Jam’s high energy music of the future and past got me thinking back, too. Before Pearl Jam was formed in 1990, two of two of its founding members, bassist Jeff Ament and guitarist Stone Gossard, began playing with a band called Malfunkshun led by Andy Wood. This remarkable figure, a kind of prophet of Seattle alternative rock, died of a drug overdose thirty years ago last month, and, as happens to visionaries that depart too early, has been venerated and mythologized. In the aftermath Wood’s death Ament and Gossard continued on their musical path in Pearl Jam.

I went to high school with Wood on Bainbridge Island in the Puget Sound, a piece of wooded rock between Seattle and the Tridents. I didn’t know Andy that well, but had a couple of classes with him, and gave him a lift a few times in my 1965 Ford Fairlane when I saw him walking along the then-rural routes of the island. He loved to flaunt his wit—spontaneous, irreverent, flirtatious, given to the arch non sequitur that often wasn’t really a non sequitur at all. His eyes twinkled, danced, his cherubic cheeks shone. He wore his blond hair long when few, if any Bainbridge boys did. Without seeming to crave attention, he was always eager for humorous, even coyly philosophical exchange, though given his avowed desire to be a star, he must have have had a fundamental need to be seen and heard.

Yesterday I started into the documentary Malfunkshun: The Andrew Wood Story, a warming tribute full of interesting footage and interviews with fellow Seattle musicians and Wood’s family—beginning with a voice-over of his father’s 1990 eulogy, and continually returning to his mother and brothers.

I pulled out my senior high school annual from 1983 to see if I could find Andy in it. He was a year behind me, but among the juniors there is no photo of him. But he is listed in the index, which sent me to page 164. There I found a picture of the judges’ panel for a school “Gong Show.” His name is listed in the caption and the three other members are there at the judges table, but Wood leans out of the frame, only his backside and studded belt buckle visible.

While Andy didn’t submit a photo to the 1983 annual, he did for his senior year. My sister sent me photo of that photo: amongst the mid-1980s suburban Seattle norm, he jumps off the page.)

Before the eventual Pearl Jammers joined Malfunkshun, the group was—if increasingly unreliable memory serves—made up of his older brother Kevin on guitar and another Bainbridge kid named Regan Hagar on drums. I heard them play just once on Bainbridge at a high school talent show which must have taken place in the early spring of 1983. For that event I played the piano for a friend of mine who sang “When Sonny Gets Blue.” That gives you a sense of the kind of fare an offer that evening: standard stuff.

Until Malfunkshun. The band came out with Andy in full performance mode even before he started singing—lashing the audience with his jibes and jokes, unexpected and exuberantly “inappropriate.” Andy was in full Kiss-like make-up, a kinetic performing force. Was he wearing a kind of officer’s brocaded jacket with epaulets? That’s what I see, but I’m sure any memory I have of that Malfunkshun appearance has been refigured and reconstructed from later images.

I don’t remember what the song was, or its lyric, but I do remember that it was ear-splitting. Parents in the audience covered their ears and looked around in apparent outrage.

Kevin Wood launched into a guitar solo and wouldn’t stop.

All the other participants had kept to within the time limit of four or five minutes. But Malfunkshun would not leave the stage. Their first battering epic gave way to a second. The organizers looked in from the wings perplexed, their evening not just kidnapped, but under siege from these long-haired desperadoes.

Eventually, the plug was pulled and the trio was left miming its barrage on stage, Andy singing into the dead mike while his mates hammered at their muted instruments. The curtain was pulled shut, but I remember Andy pushing through it and assuming a mock heroic pose then taking a grandiose bow. Gong Show, indeed. That flamboyant final tableau could be a figment of my imagination, too. But that is how I remember him—making his history on Bainbridge Island, lofting his deafening Love Rock hymn to whoever he found in front of him.

DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His latest book is Sex, Death, and Minuets: Anna Magdalena Bach and Her Musical NotebooksHe can be reached at  dgyearsley@gmail.com

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