The Danger Within
Indie filmmaker Mary Harron once asked Richard Hell if he had any advice for his fans, to which he responded, "One, try to overcome hope. Two, cultivate your most 'shameful' traits. Three, help me." It's hard to read his words as anything other than a three-chord riff on the ancient conflation of punk and suicidal tendencies--he may as well have said, "One, kill yourself. Two, kill yourself. Three, kill me." But the meaning of those last two words is more slippery than that. You wonder, what kind of assistance does Hell want? This is a guy who inspired the whole Blank Generation simply by handling steps one and two on his own. Maybe his final plea is self-reflexive, a moment when he suddenly hears himself talking, stops issuing advice, and discredits everything he just said in order to tell Harron what he really thinks: that anyone who still believes that rock is just about danger needs some serious help.
There's nothing outwardly dangerous about the wiry garage anthems of the Minneapolis trio Bridge Club. Yes, it's true that their former lead singer arm-wrestled a man twice his size and won the heart of a hard-drinking woman during his stint as an Elimidate contestant. And there are rumors that the band's frontman position may soon be filled by talented hip-hop absurdist Ice-Rod, a man known for rapping about slitting his wrists with a bus pass. But in their current three-piece incarnation, they sing about nothing more risqué than proms and go-go boots, and the only time they use the word "blow" is when it's followed by "my mind." None of Hell's shameful traits are cultivated here, and the cheery Blue Cheer vibe of Bridge Club's guitar riffs makes it easy to view that last shot glass as half full, even when it's empty. With their apathy toward nihilism, Hell should be the one to help Bridge Club help themselves, maybe in the service of trashing a hotel room or two--the band projects such an aura of non-prima-donnaism on stage that you suspect they make their own beds at the Motel 6 before the maid comes in.
Yet something about their music, ignited by the spark of '70s punk, still threatens to self-destruct. Current lead singer Joe Werner strikes up a conversation with the band like most people strike up a match. Bill Rammer's bass lines push Werner's levee-breaking howl upward until it crumbles like cracked glass turning back into sand. On the band's excellent new EP, Commander Mandible (Skull Catapult Records), influence from any other era is subsumed into their Me-Decade hustle: Drummer Mike Koch pounds down the made-for-walking stomp of Nancy Sinatra on "Baby's New Boots" and Rammer captures the sugar-pie bass lines of the Four Tops on "Last Year's Prom." But Werner's there all along, chugging and swishing his lyrics, spraying the chorus right back at you, his screech unearthing the angry voice of Detroit from the dead leaves on the dirty ground. He's not just seeing red, and he's not just dressed up in White Stripes--he's singing the blues.
Can such a retro-inspired music implicitly challenge the rock history that heavily informs its sound? "Overwhelmed, it seems, by the mountain of recorded musical history they've inherited," Joe Hagen recently wrote in Newsweek, "the age bracket known as Generation Y... have opted to forsake the subversion of rock and roll (as Jack Black says in the movie School of Rock, 'sticking it to The Man') for harmless, boutique replicas of the past." But Hagen's moldy thesis--The Revolution is Dead/Rock Ain't What It Used to Be--is far more conservative than any of the music he's criticizing. The argument has been used so many times throughout the history of music journalism that blaming a band for not "sticking it to The Man" has become The Man's favorite cause.
Bridge Club may rank with Minneapolis's best "boutique replica" bands precisely because their subversion tactics aren't just bumper stickers slapped down on Werner's tongue. In fact, the garage opener "Gash Hound" makes the best argument for not making an argument. "You're looking like you're Orpheus killing like a Cream Judge," Werner yowls, his hyper-distorted squall pushing teeth-first through the amps. Orpheus and the Cream Judge appear in the liner notes to Bob Dylan's Highway 61 Revisited, where the ever-elusive bard pens an impossible allegory where phony philosophizing makes time stand still. Perhaps this is a form of protest music in itself, a way to pay tribute to Dylan and then use his own shrouded hermeneutical devices against him. On the topic of saying very little, music can say so much.
Flipping back through the old tomes of rock, Bridge Club make the method more important than the message. Within the fuzzy blues explosion of their music, their words serve as symbols, a series of pop-culture ciphers waiting to be decoded by anyone with a hand stamp and a ticket stub. Their songs seem designed to deconstruct language into a rush of sound. And, like Richard Hell's three-step program, their music warns their devotees that every musician doesn't necessarily say--or play--what he means.
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