“Cosmic Lightning” LP + DVD (Drag City Records 378)
The Shit-Fi project is premised upon the notion that traditional punk historiography is fundamentally not punk. It focuses on the stars, reproducing the dichotomy between artists and fans against which punk militated. Most likely, anyone reading this has already faced real conditions (with or without sober senses) and defenestrated Lipstick Traces, along with a hundred other more-or-less inferior but less philosophic attempts to tell punk’s history. Now, was John Henry Timmis IV punk? I suppose one’s answer relates to another premise of Shit-Fi: historiography conditions the way we listen to music, even if unconsciously. Context is everything. In the end, most will say that music is music and it has objective qualities that render our judgments of its value timeless. Of course I don’t believe that to be the case, but whether JTIV was a punk rocker is something we can answer from thirty years’ distance in a way he, and the handful of people who heard him back then, probably could not. This distance allows us to appreciate how Timmis’s outsider status, from punk and from society at large, reveals the stories punk often tells itself about itself to be artifice.
Anyway, this is supposed to be a short review, so I’ll cut to the chase: JTIV is the Henry Darger of punk. The person responsible for this release called him an “antisocial megalomaniac,” which is quite apt. (Most punks, I think, probably display some degree of this paradoxical quality.) Timmis fancied himself a film-maker—his one claim to fame was his Guinness record-setting 85-hour film, much of which consisted of him reading a 4,080-page poem or sleeping, as far as I can tell—which meant that, as totally forgotten no-count sociopaths go, he managed to document what he was up to pretty well. This LP includes a DVD that confirms his status as an outsider artist; you probably won’t watch it often, but it’s welcome as a piece of the puzzle. Still, the real reason we’re here is the music. And, oh my, the sublime fuzz. The music…
“Death Trip,” from his impossibly rare first 45 turned a few heads when it appeared on v/a “Staring Down the Barrel” LP a few years back. (The longer version of this review, if I ever finish it, includes a disquisition on how JTIV could not have appeared on a “Killed by Death”-style compilation until the stock of rarities was exhausted even though the compilers had been aware of him for almost 15 years already—exactly because he didn’t fit in snugly with the revisionist history of punk the rarity compilations offered.) This one is the most traditionally punk tune here inna Detroit/introspective-thug vein, but with guitar heroics galore. What a riff, man. “Death Trip” was the B side of JTIV’s first single; the A side, “Waiting for the CTA,” is a satire of “Waiting for My Man.” If I may be permitted to wax philosophical for another moment, I would say that JTIV, who struggled with addiction, in this song quite rightly pointed to the addictive aspects of mundanity and predictability in everyday life. We crave the means to keep our lives smoothly regulated and get annoyed at the failings of those means instead of focusing on the poverty of such a regulated life. A very few of us create art that transcends that impoverished everyday life. A number of these transcendent artists, who not coincidentally often struggle with drug and alcohol addiction, are labeled insane, like Timmis.
Timmis’s brutal honesty makes his songs highly compelling. Though he may have thought that the character his songs portrayed was a fiction, his own antisocial tendencies, reinforced by an unhappy stay in a sanitarium (chronicled in the songs “In the Can” and “Out of the Can”), show that he was actually revealing quite a bit about his inner demons. “Destructo Rock,” a 7-minute fuzz epic, is particularly unsettling, as it recounts a homicidal/suicidal fantasy. One begins to wonder if, as I believe happened to GG Allin, JTIV’s performing persona took over and erased whatever residue of his private personality existed. That he did so in utter obscurity, often performing (and filming himself) in front of a few close pals and folks he had hired rather than in front of fans, makes the whole affair seem even more deranged—and intriguing. And yet, this sort of thing—playing for oneself and one’s close friends—is what we punks do. Punk has always been concerned with the destruction of the falsity inherent to the construction of a persona for the sake of performance—it’s just that in this case it seems that destruction proceeded in reverse, so the performance persona subsumed, overwhelmed the individual. So, in the final accounting, most will say that it doesn’t matter what one labels a record like this, but, concerned as I am with the perpetuation of punk, warts and all, it does matter what a record like this says about punks. That we seem to have found room for Timmis in our annals some three decades later commends us.