WINNING LOSERS: A COLLECTION OF HOME RECORDINGS
(SMELLS LIKE RECORDS)
In 1959, after lunch one day, the poet Frank O'Hara founded a movement known as Personism. In the tradition of other great cultural movements--Dada, Fluxus, punk--Personism makes serious points in unserious ways. In Personism: A Manifesto, O'Hara wrote that the movement's aim was to "put the poem . . . between two persons, instead of two pages." He said that he got the idea for Personism when, while writing a poem to a "blond" he was in love with, he realized "that if I wanted to I could use the telephone instead of writing the poem." O'Hara predicted, hopefully, that Personism would be "the death of literature as we know it." Of course, he was wrong. Literature never even noticed that Personism existed.
And yet Personism lives. O'Hara's thread has been picked up (unwittingly, no doubt) by a fellow inhabitant of Massachusetts. Listening to the song "High School" on Lou Barlow's new CD, Winning Losers: A Collection of Home Recordings, it seems conceivable that, for entirely different reasons, Personism may yet be the death of literature. I mean if Frank O'Hara (or Walt Whitman or Arthur Rimbaud or Vladimir Mayakovski, for that matter) had come of age after 1965, he more than likely would have taken up a guitar instead of a pen. And conversely, if Lou Barlow had grown up prior to the Beatles, he might very well have made books instead of records. But the rock stage is a far more powerful and attractive forum than the bookshelf. The next potential generation of American poets is rocking, not writing.
That's not to say that every doofus making rock music is a major poet. Eddie Vedder isn't Whitman or Rimbaud. And Kurt Cobain, for all his promise, didn't stick around long enough to really define himself. As for the plethora of rock stars whose contraptions might or might not make it past the editorial board of a high school literary magazine (Billy Corgan, J. Mascis, Dave Pirner), theirs are the products (contrary to what you may have read recently in these pages about Drag City Records) that will soon be deservedly forgotten. The rock stars who would've made the best poets don't move a lot of units.
Lou Barlow has released numerous albums and EPs and singles, some with his band Sebadoh and some solo, under the name Sentridoh; the new CD is credited to "Louis Barlow's acoustic Sentridoh." (That he was once a member of Dinosaur Jr. seems irrelevant now.) It contains ten songs recorded on a four-track cassette recorder between 1989 and 1993 and features Barlow alone, playing "guitars (4, 5, or 6 strings), percussion, chord organ, piano."
When I listen to Sebadoh I program my CD player to skip all the songs not written by Barlow. His songs--from the anemically anthemic "Gimme Indie Rock" on Rocking the Forest, to the archpop of "The Freed Pig" on Sebadoh III to the aching "Soul and Fire" on Bubble & Scrape--display an embarrassingly honest, self-effacing willingness to reveal what most people and songwriters go to great lengths to conceal.
Barlow writes little autobiographies about subjects as disparate as masturbation, emotional cowardice, and pot smoking with the same disarming mix of intellectualness and dumbness and of artistry and artlessness. His lyrics are more self-critical than those of any other rock songwriter past or present, and his gestures (musically, lyrically, merchandisingly) invariably strive for understatement rather than rock's typical overstatement. Frank O'Hara once wrote about one of his own poems, "It is even in prose, I am a real poet." Winning Losers, too, is in prose.
And while it's easy to target some kind of unseemly human curiosity with Barlow's subject matter, that's not where his punches land. The world isn't reducible or explainable in a Barlow song. On "High School" it enters its protagonist--Barlow, undisguised--as a random hailstorm of irreconcilable words and pictures and it comes out as "nervous diarrhea" and "a little tune on my flute."
The release of this record (I still call them records out of habit, but in this case the word is apt, since Winning Losers comes across more as a record of its creator's moods and interests at a moment in time than as an album of rock songs) raises a question: why did Barlow feel the need to release solo material when he already has a forum, within the context of one of indie rock's most respected bands, for presenting his songs in a seemingly uncompromised form?
Those familiar with Sebadoh know that the group is more like a cooperative arrangement among three solo performers. As composers they have nothing in common except mutual admiration; each member writes and sings his own very distinct songs. And while the songs on Winning Losers would have been perfectly at home on a Sebadoh record, there probably just wasn't enough room for them. Besides, Lou's songs always sounded like they should be off alone somewhere, sulking or skulking or thumbing their noses at something or other, anyway.
On a Sebadoh record, as distinct and separate as Barlow's songs are, they are still Sebadoh songs. But Winning Losers is personal, embarrassing: like rifling through somebody's diary--a sensation reinforced by the lo-fi recording and by Barlow's magnificent, unaffected singing. The songs don't function in the binary encoding of the compact disc but in the shared experience and empathy between Lou and the listener (singular). For their duration, the songs exist "between two persons," like a phone call. It doesn't sound as if Lou meant for this album to be sold in stores. When you listen to Winning Losers, you are being invited into his home, up to his bedroom, where he'll sit on the edge of his bed amid dirty laundry and play you a few new ones on his acoustic guitar. "Want a bong hit?"
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Steve Gullick.