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Dial M for Motherfucker

With its Swearline, the arts collective Lucky Pierre found that if you invite people to curse, the abuse will pour in.

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The recently, lamentably deceased Allen Walker Read--etymologist, lexicographer, and author of an unexpurgated compendium of 1920s bathroom graffiti--once said: "That anyone should pass up the well-established colloquial words of the language and have recourse to the Latin 'defecate,' 'urinate,' and 'have sexual intercourse,' is indicative of grave mental health."

The local art collective Lucky Pierre tends to agree. Last September it launched the Lucky Pierre Swearline, the premise of which is simple: dial the toll-free local number, wait for the beep, then paint a verbal blue streak for one minute. Swearline business cards bearing the phone number (773-989-5955), an invitation, and a large f*ck you floating above a bland photo of a futon and rubber tree plant have been left in bars, bathrooms, and hotel Bibles, coaxing impressive blasphemies out of the bored, annoyed, and liquor fueled. The hundreds of messages left so far represent every possible swearing style, from adolescent scat infatuation to groin-pulling insinuation. Some are brief, some are epic, and some are in another language (one screed was finally identified as Polish). After the Swearline closes, on Labor Day, all will be burned to CD and placed in a jukebox, allowing listeners to select tracks with such titles as "Your Mama," "Shitting," and "Rape Your Ears."

The comic aspect of the project is apparent to the Lucky Pierreans, but it's not their ultimate focus. "We don't want it to be a one-liner," says group member Bill Talsma. Known for performances that dissect media and culture, Lucky Pierre usually interacts with a live crowd. The phone line is a departure, but it does address another of the collective's obsessions: documentation. A previous project, Lucky Pierre Speaks Urban Format Radio 2002--wherein the company members and 40 friends spent a day listening to B-96 on headphones and repeating everything they heard--was recorded on 24 CDs. But the Swearline is their first attempt to gain perspective from people outside the art crowd.

"We're definitely interested in trying to get more out into the world," says member Tyler Myers, "so this project has people who are not necessarily the ironic participant who knows exactly the ins and outs of what they're participating in. Not because we wish to get people in a trap and therefore make fun of them, like Jackass. We don't want to do that at all--but we would rather have people who are a little more genuine in their participation."

Listening to .wav files of the calls on the Lucky Pierre Web site (www.luckypierre.org) it's apparent that some callers have stumbled onto the Swearline blind--"I don't know what the fuck all this fuckin' swear shit is," said one, "but I just lost my job and I'm feeling shitty so I thought I'd give just give you a fuckin' thing or two. Fuckin' fuck." Many others, however, are clearly in on the game. One contributor offered the following ode:

"Fucking fuck. Fuckin' fuckin' whore shit. Cunt twat fucking shit asshole. Jesus Christ on a fuckin' metal dildo fucking shit. God fucking dammit. Mother fuckin' queer suckin' fuck shit fuck. Poo bellied shit head kabob fuckin' turd sack. Fuckin' gonad gieyed ass eatin' butt eatin' fuck shit eatin' eat a fuckin' bag of flyin' dicks you fuckin' whore fuck shit god dammit fuckin' group. Jesus fuckin' Christ. Fuckin' last fuckin' cunt fuckin' ah ahh fuck."

Historical research has been performed on swearing, but not very thoroughly. While plenty of scholars have preserved the works of Virgil and Cicero, only a few bothered to jot down the vulgar graffiti of Pompeii's brothels and bathhouses ("Cacator cave malum, aut si contempseris, habeas Iovem iratum." Translation: "Watch it, you who shit in this place! May you have Jove's anger if you ignore this.") Even H.L. Mencken, in his wonderful 1919 book The American Language, refers only to the "unutterable four-letter words," and makes mention of nothing stronger than "son of a bitch." Contemporary dirty-word researchers like Geoffrey Hughes and Jesse Sheidlower--authors of Swearing: A Social History of Foul Language, Oaths, and Profanity in English and The F-Word, respectively--are largely dependent on literary records rather than spoken-word transcripts when discussing cussing styles of days gone by. Fortunately, all three could rely on less shy researchers like Read and Vance Randolph, who reported on swearing during the 20s and 30s.

Randolph is justifiably praised for his collection of Ozarkian folkways in such books as Ozark Magic and Folklore but is probably better known for his anthologies of Ozarkian folktales--truthfully, off-color jokes--like Pissing in the Snow. Through tales of unfaithful wives, well-hung field hands, and incestuous couplings ("Why, Brother, you're even better than Paw!" "Yup, that's what Maw always says!"), Randolph not only faithfully preserved his tale-tellers' speech patterns but also such curios as Ozarkian slang for penises (Jemsons) and vaginas (twitchets). He made no apologies for indelicacy. "Translate a vernacular legend into the language of the schools, and it is no longer a folktale," he wrote. "An honest folklorist cannot substitute feces for shit, or write copulate when his informant says fuck, diddle, roger, or tread. Why should one employ such a noun as penis if the narrator prefers pecker, horn, Jemson, or tallywhacker?"

Read followed suit in the southwestern United States in 1928, unblushingly collecting bathroom graffiti--as raw a form of folk expression as can be had--from public restrooms while on vacation. He printed the results in 1935 (in a limited edition) as Lexical Evidence of Epigraphy in Western North America: A Glossarial Study of the Low Element in the English Vocabulary. The book proved that the stiff-collared and spatted gents of the 10s and 20s didn't limit themselves to expletives of "thunderation" and "by cracky." Witness, from 1928:

Oh, cunt, oh, cunt, thou slimy Slit

All covered with hair, besmithered with shit

Like a polecat's ass thou smelleth bad

But oh cunt thou must be had.

Read explained the power of profanity in primitive terms. The notion of taboo, he argues, has changed in focus from that which is sacred to that which is vulgar, sexual, or scatological. The bad words, as it were, are fallen angels. Wrote Read: "These words cannot even be called 'sub-standard,' because, although they may rarely or never be externalized, they perform a function for speakers of standard English by serving as scapegoats, ministering to the deep-rooted need for symbols of the forbidden. They carnalize a certain emotion and thus leave the remainder of the language free from it." He continues: "Obscenity is an artificially created product and finds its strongest bulwark in those 'right-minded people' who preserve its sanctity by the hush in their own usage and by their training of the young.... When one refrains from using the stigmatized words, one is not ignoring the taboo but is actively abetting it."

In the art world, taboos were actively preserved by the more famous obscenity trials, although obscenity is generally a misnomer when applied to art utilizing profanity, especially in the case of works not designed to appeal to prurient interest. These are the pieces that can, in the words of Lenny Bruce, "tear off a piece of ass with class." According to critics of such stuff, the problem is not with the art, only the "bad" words contained therein. Yet in literature the best-known battles seem oddly overwrought. The naughtiest word shows up in Ulysses only twice, and not for nearly 800 pages. Holden Caulfield rants about the fuck yous scrawled everywhere in the world, but Salinger is able to plaster Catcher in the Rye with only six.

Contemporary readers may be forgiven for wondering what all the excitement was about, especially now that one can readily buy titles like Inga Muscio and Betty Dodson's Cunt: A Declaration of Independence, Robert Lasner's For Fucks Sake, and Arthur Nersesian's The Fuck-up. When the hubbub abated and public mores liberalized, the dirty words lost their power and became a few among many, mere bricks and mortar holding together the larger structure. The society-shaking literary battles appear to be dying out, though book bannings continue to crop up scattershot across the country, the province of uptight PTAs and nervous principals.

In music the historical record is just as spotty, the freedom of many previous generations having been ruthlessly squooshed by those infamous party poopers, the Victorians. In 1992 the Baltimore Consort recorded an album titled The Art of the Bawdy Song--perhaps the first classical music recording requiring a parental warning sticker--culled from early broadsides of naughty odes and ballads. In these 17th- and 18th-century tunes, ribald situations are not gigglingly alluded to, but rather raunchily illustrated by choice words:

My Lady's Coachman John, be'ng married to her Maid,

her ladyship did here on't and to him thus she said.

"I never had a wench so handsome in my life,

so prithee therefore tell me how got you such a wife."

John star'd her in the face, and Answer'd very blunt

"e'en as my Lord got you." "How's that?" "Why by the cunt."

Later Victorian song collections carefully gelded such items of their naughty bits. Not a terribly respectful tribute to their creators, including exceedingly able English classical composers like Henry Purcell and John Blow.

Folklorist John Avery Lomax encountered the same sort of resistance as he commended miles of southern songs and stories to acetate. Among innumerable tame versions of "John Henry" and "Midnight Special," Lomax attempted to preserve earthier folk songs, no matter how "crude or vulgar." He said so in a letter mailed out to the nation's prisons and was met with chilly silence or exclamations of outrage from wardens who frowned at the thought of using the U.S. mail to transport such verbiage. But one song made the cut, and was recorded in 1936: Jimmie Strothers's "Poontang Little, Poontang Small." Though bereft of excessive profanity, with lyrics like "Put my dress above my knees / Gonna give my poontang to who I please / Oh my babe took my salty thing," it strangely garnered a Delta signification in the Library of Congress Folk Archive card catalog, identifying it as erotica.

As the 20th century progressed, the battle for free profane speech was ghettoized, restricted primarily to art and comedy. While Ulysses and Lady Chatterley's Lover stand as the literary cases, where spoken dirty words were concerned, comedy dominated. But while Lenny Bruce actually dissected and discussed profanity and free speech--opening the door for George Carlin, Richard Pryor, and Bill Hicks--one winces to imagine him pining away in the pokey to make the world safe for Andrew "Dice" Clay to yell "Suck my cock, bitch!" in a crowded theater.

In art, bad language seems to come and go as a way to challenge the squares, who would no doubt be offended if they ever worked up the interest to attend a glossolalian avant-garde event such as Fiona Banner's Turner Prize-winning Arsewoman in Wonderland, a transcription of the events and dialogue of a hard-core porn flick covering a wall in large pink type. Artists who dabble in such unshocking shockaroos are generally, and understandably, denigrated for their puerility; the bad boys are rarely bad, at heart mewing pussycats dabbling in tactics that offend only Rudy Giuliani. But the Swearline rejects this contrived controversy by inviting its callers to become their own scatmongers.

So, with comedy and art accounted for, what about the thing that gives spoken profanity its real power: sweaty, unreasoning, vein-popping rage? "One thing that we found with this piece," says Talsma, is that "the majority of the calls that come in are rooted in anger. People call up, and whether they know us or not, they're directing their anger toward us." This fury is well represented by the many threats left on the Swearline, expressing the callers' desire to hunt down this "Lucky Pierre," kill him, and sexually invade his ears and other orifices. Talsma doesn't take it too seriously: "It's not an anger that would ever be realized. It's a totally benign anger."

Reviewing the Swearline's transcripts, that benignity is palpable. Cusswords are often wielded clumsily and self-consciously, or are anesthetized into dull repetitions of the big two--shit and fuck--by most contributors. With a few exceptions--such as the friend of Talsma's sister who threatened to "shine his fist up" and kick his "candy ass," and the fellow who violently critiqued the rubber plant and futon on the Swearline business card--there is little soul or power in the individual performances.

Yet encouraging the callers to participate, produce, and carefully choose their fighting words suggests an interesting question: Can one wield profanity deftly? If we have comedians to make us laugh and tragedians to make us cry, why are there no professional "angerdians" to craft pique and spleen into sculptures of verbal flame? The Asiatic style of speechifying incorporates bombast and vitriol, yet even among demagogues few noteworthy speeches featuring profanity come to mind. We have generations of angry young writers, directors, artists, and poets, yet few create thoroughly profane works. Swearing sound sculptures are possible, though largely relegated to the underground recording market and mostly appreciated for their cruelly comedic aspects.

For potency, phone prank recordings are a good place to start, though one has to burrow through much witlessness before discovering the sadistically skin-peeling original: the legendary Tube Bar tapes. Sometime in the mid-70s, two phone pranksters known as the Bum Bar Bastards trolled New Jersey and New York bars for victims, mercilessly taunting the callees until they exploded. The initial pranks were mildly amusing, usually involving a request for the bar owner to page Bill Loney or Hugh Doosh. Then the Bastards stumbled across Louis "Red" Deutsch, owner of the Tube Bar in Jersey City.

Red was a tough guy--hard as a chunk of marble. If there's such a thing as a reverse castrato, Red was it, his voice a gravelly echo of an older, meaner time. Red was not amused when he caught on (though the number of pages he made for Sal Lami and Al Caholic before he did so is remarkable). Sounding like a mob enforcer prepared to chisel out a stool pigeon's teeth, Red allowed no doubts as to the validity of his fury:

"Why you lousy motherfucker cocksucker, you'd fuck your own mother for a nickel, you sonuvabitch, you're a motherfucker and a cocksucker....

"Why don't you come down, you motherfucker cocksucker? I'll open your belly up and show you all the black stuff you got in there! You motherfucker cocksucker! You haven't got the nerve to come down, you sonuvabitch! Be down you motherfucker! Fuck you and your mother, you sonuvabitch!"

Later, on the west coast, young punks Eddie Lee Sausage and Mitchell D. captured the squalid and hellish lives of Pete and Ray, their near-psychotic, alcoholic neighbors, who regularly lit and lunged into each other in the apartment next door. First amusing, then frightening, the "Shut Up, Little Man!" recordings gradually become hypnotic in their blistering effect and inventively hateful bile. We all learned the grammatical mechanics of shit! when dad first smashed his finger with a hammer in front of us, but wherefrom did the eternally lubed Ray develop the rondelet pattern of "If you wanna talk to me, then shut your fucking mouth! Shut your fucking mouth, you cocksucker! You goddamned piece of fucking shit! Shut your fucking mouth! God damned asshole motherfucker! You ain't a human being, you're a fucking dog, and I despise you! I despise any fucking dog like you!"

The unwitting collaboration of experimental music group Negativland and DJ Casey Kasem--a brilliant intercutting of Kasem spewing boiling acid at incompetent underlings with a karaoke version of U2's "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For"--is another masterpiece of anger. As the sound of thunder is measured by the silence before it, Kasem's ordinarily mealy voice sounds like the wrath of God whenever he veers from his usual script:

"OK, I want a goddamned concerted effort to come out of a record that isn't an up-tempo record every time I do a goddamned death dedication! This is the last goddamned time--I want somebody to use his fucking brains to not come out of a goddamned record that is, uh, that's up-tempo and I've gotta talk about a fucking dog dying!"

The difference between these and the Swearline, of course, is the setup. Caught at their worst or provoked to explosion, the exploitation of Pete, Ray, Casey, and Red may allow us to admire their "performances," but doesn't let us strictly call it art. Lucky Pierre, on the other hand, has an appreciation of and interest in humiliation, but the choice to be exploited is left up to the callers. In a funny way, Lucky Pierre might be said to be putting smut back into the mouths of the people.

"On a cultural level," says Talsma, "it's not transgressive to swear and it's not transgressive to invite that kind of behavior, but what might be transgressive is on the psychological end and the cultural end of what people are saying. What are they choosing to reveal?" Certainly nothing complimentary. The Swearline contains some amusingly profane drum solos, a la Pete, Ray, and Red, but many calls evince a dreary sameness, reflective of the dull patterns of invective learned from too many Tarantino flicks. It says much about their--and our--cultural prejudices when the absolute worst thing they can imagine calling someone is a faggot or a cunt.

In art, and in free speech in general, the fight for the right to profanity is annoying for even the most ardent advocate. It's a skirmish in the larger war. But, deliciously, both sides fight because neither wants the words to diminish in power.

Some argue that there's no defense for an artwork that is purely obscene; others will defend to the death Lucky Pierre's right to record hours of profane boozehound babble. But the war isn't just about the offending artist's right to express him or herself; the First Amendment is not solely a toy of the art crowd. If nothing else, Lucky Pierre has made the loud and clear point that--in the wake of Ari Fleischer's post-September 11 comment that Americans "need to watch what they say, watch what they do"--all Americans enjoy the right to speak freely.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Ken Wilson.

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