Holy Poledo, or Redon Redux

Dinosaur Jr. brings the revelatory

OK, this time I’m just going to tell you a story, so sit back, get comfy, and dig it. By the end there’ll be something about music — really …

This one goes back to a time near the end of the fall semester of my junior year of college … so we’re talking about mid-December of ’91, I guess. The setting is the (very) sleepy college town of Brockport, N.Y., nestled on the scenic Erie Canal about 20 miles west of Rochester — specifically, on a stretch of that canal that at least one friend insists is cursed. Seriously.

It seems that when they got around to digging that part of the canal, they came to a bed of something really tough — maybe granite — and had to blast a lot of it out. Well, there sure as shinola wasn’t any OSHA in those days and consequently an awful lot of the Irish laborers who did the digging died in the blasting … right around where Brockport was later built. Well, that friend of mine who told me about this lived up Route 19 in Hamlin — a doomed town if ever there was one — and he always seemed to trail a jangling shadow chain of bad mojo with him everywhere he went, so I figure he ought to know about curses …

But that’s got nothing to do with the story I’m about to tell. This is about the time I had to write a term paper for a class I was taking on 20th Century Art. You have to understand first of all that I was getting burned out on school around this point, and that I’ve never exactly been the most disciplined sort to begin with, so I didn’t start a single paper during my last year or so any sooner than the morning of the day it was due. Well, this class met pretty early in the morning, so I had to write this one the night before, but I did manage to put off any actual writing until that night. Oh, sure, I’d already gone to the library and checked out a pile of books on the artist I’d chosen, and I’d even looked them over a little and thought a bit about what I might say, but pen had not actually touched paper.

So we’ll start the story proper around 10 or so that night, when — true to form — I was killing time in front of the idiot box. Well, it was around then that I began to figure I’d probably better get started. It occurred to me that this was going to be a long night of writing, and that I’d probably need some sustenance. Knowing full well that everything within the town was closed by that time, I realized I would have to make the hike up to Wegman’s, which I’ll explain to you if you’re not from western New York. It’s a chain of what you might call grocery stores, but only if you’re of an inclination to indulge in truly droll understatement. These places are so huge that they are generally not allowed under the zoning laws of smaller towns to be built in the towns themselves, and so they pop up out on the fringes, with the kind of vast, labyrinthine parking lots you expect only to find in the fairytale land of suburban mall-sprawl. However, they exert, by virtue of their vast size and irresistible gravity, a sort of morbid fascination, and they frequently become the de facto cultural centers of town. Another friend of mine had worked out a very funny one-man routine in which the Wegman’s chain stood in for the Empire of the Star Wars films — Danny Wegman being a little too perfect in his role as Darth Vader, and each store exuding the unsettling power of a fully operational Death Star.

Anyway, before I wander too far afield, let us return to me starting to pull on countless layers of woolen winter gear, as by this time all of western New York was frigidly cold and lay under about a foot and a half of snow. At about 10:30, then, I began the trek on foot to gather supplies for my long night’s work. Even taking the usual “short cuts” across the vast open expanse of athletic fields belonging to the college and the local public schools — and then trekking up the weed-covered hillside behind the store to come up near the loading docks — the walk was close to a mile each way. In the peculiar silence that belongs only to snowy fields at night under icy, luminous stars, it certainly seemed longer.

When I finally stepped into the glaring halogen light of the store, I got down to the serious business of stocking up on exactly the sort of vitals that would provide maximum substance and stimulant payoff with a minimum of distracting preparation, while also keeping within the meager budget of a college student. Eat your heart out, Jeff “Frugal Gourmet” Smith:

Wonder bread, 1 loaf
Oscar Mayer bologna, 1 package (OK, this is obviously in my pre-vegetarian days)
French’s yellow mustard, 1 squeeze bottle
Mountain Dew, 1 six-pack of 12-oz. cans
Little Debbie Oatmeal Crème Pies, 1 box of 12

(I don’t know if using these brand names will incur the wrath of Oscar Meyer and his army of intellectual property lawyers, but I think it’s damn funny that MS Word seems to have taken such pity on my disgusting diet that it has seen fit to add an accent to the word “Crème,” as if to grace my meal with some fictional embellishment of class to which it has no right to lay claim. [Does Little Debbie summer on the French Riviera, I wonder …?])

Loading my supplies into my backpack and stoically shouldering the load, I turned back to the north, to my dorm room, and to the long night still ahead. It must have been at least midnight when I got back. Brushing the snow off of my coat and shaking the chill from my bones, I set myself to the business at hand.

It might be worthwhile to speak here of the subject of my paper, Odilon Redon — a French artist who was a contemporary of the Impressionists, though he scorned them, writing, “I have not embarked on the Impressionist boat…because I found its ceiling too low.” He is often lumped in with the Symbolists, but this is something of a misunderstanding — although he shared their affinity for monsters and mythical themes, the manner in which he used those images was completely different. The Symbolists were allegorical, literary in their compositions, while Redon sought only to evoke a sense of delicious mystery, to stir something of the indeterminate feeling of a dream in those who viewed his artwork. In this sense he could perhaps be considered a precursor to the Surrealists — though even that shoe seems to fit him awkwardly, as there is a quasi-religious solemnity and a ruminative beauty to his best work that is breathtaking.

His story is a somewhat familiar one — the child of a once-prominent family that had fallen on hard times, he was raised in almost complete solitude on the family’s estate at Peyrelebade in the French countryside. The sensitive, impressionable boy seems to have been haunted by the ominous shadows of the old mansion well into his young adulthood, because his early work is full of stark contrasts between light and encroaching darkness. Working entirely in black and white — chiefly committing his demons to paper in charcoal drawings — his first few decades as an artist saw him etch out a mélange of strange, nightmarish chimerae, often comical and frightening at the same time, and cast in striking chiaroscuro. Alternately laughing or crying spiders with human faces, immense eyeballs floating over the waters, mystifying spheres and cactus men, and even stranger things than these populated his work. Not surprisingly, the handful of writers and other artists who admired him dubbed him “the Prince of Dreams.”

Then — around 1890 — began the first hesitant murmurings of what must be one of the most dramatic transformations in the history of art, a metamorphosis that was more or less complete by the turn of the century. Redon began working in color, and striking color at that. In occasional oils and more frequent pastels, he began to commit to his canvases such a series of joyous, lurid, overwhelmingly vivid compositions as have never quite been seen elsewhere. With a subjective use of color and shape rivaled only perhaps by Chagall, but still with his own trademark tone which meditatively suggested something of the connection between spirituality and dreams, he created a stunning body of work that is lush and beautiful and — most surprisingly — completely devoid of the obsession with shadows and monsters evinced in his early career. I assume it was in these later years that he wrote a passage in his journal that I came across in researching my paper. It has been committed to my memory ever since: “I speak to those who yield, silently and without the need for sterile explanations, to the secret and mysterious laws of the sensibility of the heart.” This was the artist I wrote about into the ever quieter hours of the night.

Fortunately, the professor for this class was merciful and allowed us to write our papers out by hand if we chose, and so I only had to go through one careful, neat draft. By 5am, I was finally done. I’d eaten all the bologna, about half the loaf of bread, most of the crème pies, and had drunk all but one can of the Mountain Dew — and yes, Gentle Reader, I was very sorry later for these culinary transgressions.

In the meantime, however, I began to fidget around my room, busying myself with some light cleaning and organizing, as I figured that if I allowed myself to go to sleep at this point that I would never wake up in time for my class, which started at 8:30. Well, in about a half hour I’d exhausted those possibilities — my room was about as clean as it was going to get, and the sun still wasn’t up. My roommate was spending the night in his girlfriend’s room, so I grabbed his headphones and decided I would ride out the last little while by listening to something good and stinkin’ loud to keep me awake. Plugging the ‘phones into the stereo that he and I had cobbled together out of both of our systems — which was much too powerful for a 15’X15’ dorm room, by the way, but what did we care if the upstairs neighbors happened not to care for the Butthole Surfers at 100 dB on any given day? — and cranking up the volume, I began to cast about for something that was likely to keep me up for another hour or so until I could go score some coffee and wait for class to start.

It was then that my eye happened to fall upon the copy of Dinosaur Jr.’s You’re Living All Over Me that a friend had recently taped for me. Having heard most of the album in the back seat of a car heading back to Oberlin after a nighttime excursion into Cleveland while visiting another friend the year before, I liked it a lot and was completely jazzed on having finally scored a copy, but hadn’t had the time to dig into it yet. Perfect. I was confident that J. and Lou and Murph would stir up a din turbulent enough to keep me awake for weeks … or so I thought.

Somehow I did manage to nod off after all, despite the throbbing, clanging buzz of songs like “Sludge Feast” and “Little Fury Things” pumping directly into my ears. The odd thing is that I did wake up toward the end of the album, in the moment of calm that announces the beginning of then-bassist Lou Barlow’s lo-fi tape collage “Poledo.” I have rarely had occasion, before or since, in this life or probably in any other, to be so utterly disoriented or filled with something akin to religious terror. My brain was in a murky, fuzzy state to begin with, having gotten only 20 minutes of sleep and being completely fried on electric green caffeine-water, and I’m sure my subterranean junk food feast didn’t help either, but I feel there was something more that nearly erased the line between this world and … some other one. Maybe it was the specter of Odilon Redon’s hallucinatory artwork hovering wraith-like in my exhausted dreams, or some residue of the spaces opened up in my soul by those vast, snowy expanses and the clear starry skies suspended over them. I don’t know, but to hear that song for the first time in that state was nothing short of revelatory.

This 5-minute and 40-second soundscape plays like a poor man’s Divine Comedy, with Lou as Virgil leading the hapless listener’s Dante on a strange and unsettling tour through the unseen. I find it hard not to imagine Lou sitting in his claustrophobic, dimly-lit bedroom for hours on end, hunched over his “2 crappy tape recorders” (as listed on the album credits) and meticulously piecing together this harrowing, berserk vision of the soul. If Steve Reich had done the score for Jacob’s Ladder, something like this might have come about.

The first thing you hear are five seconds of something eerie (strings? organ?) intoning one endless, droning chord that seems to have been overdubbed repeatedly and out of phase so that it shimmers and warbles like an old 78. Then begins the closest thing to a song in the piece, probably a composition of Lou’s that he decided wouldn’t stand up on its own and that ended up getting absorbed into “Poledo” as a sort of mise en scene. It consists entirely of his ghostly, deadpan voice intoning quatrains of foreboding doom over dark chords (played on what I later found out was his ukulele) that are dropped in an odd, skittish rhythm that skips and swings in an off-balance fashion. Many of those verses, and the profound horror they hint at, still haunt the periphery of my mind like trapped spirits:

Walking weakness
Hope I die without a sound
I’m a good little boy
With my feet nailed to the ground

I know I’m guilty
My stomach always hurts
Milking your attention
For the little that it’s worth

Eventually this dirge begins to falter and slips into a shambolic, almost drunken-sounding improvisation on the uke which is interrupted just at its point of collapse by “Poledo’”s rudest surprise — an abrupt explosion of deafening static and tape hiss that almost, but doesn’t quite, mask the blood-curdling, tortured screams underneath. Perhaps this is a musique concrete announcement of our arrival at the gates of Hell, but it ends as suddenly as it began and then another song is trying to break through to us. Now we’re listening to an old Philco radio and trying to pull in a transmission from Purgatory or Limbo — a lilting, melancholy jazz waltz with lyrics that are, if anything, even more cryptic and ominous:

I don’t see
I don’t feel
Like every little moron
I think nothing’s real

He doesn’t live
There’s no evil hand
Only this great power
We misunderstand

So please relax
Take the pain
Laugh out loud
When you forget your name

The reception is bad, the sound even fainter, more remote and laden with ghostly echo, and other voices continually break in over it like radio interruptions on an overcast day, or like damned spirits fighting with each other to get a message through the line, which is how it felt to me at the time…an incredibly frightening sensation straight out of Poltergeist.

After a while, a voice declaims, “Now,” and the droning orchestra of the doomed that opened the piece comes back, proceeds to keen on for another two minutes, and then simply stops. The hypnotic repetition and the queasy, lurching feel of the tape loop creates an uneasy open space for the cumulative effect of “Poledo” to sink in deep and take hold. That first time I heard it, I was completely awake by then, shaken to my core and scared someplace deeper than I’d ever been scared before, and when it was over, all I could do was stare in thunderous stillness at the dawning grey beginning to push its fingers though my window blinds, while the hokey (but suddenly comfortingly mundane) cover of Peter Frampton’s “Show Me The Way” that closes the album began to play in the headphones. I barely heard it, though — by that time I was somewhere far away, feeling strangely removed from my own body, waiting for the familiar ground of my day-to-day life to position itself gradually back under my feet.