Vertical Slit

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"Slit and Pre-Slit" LP (Smudge SR 01)

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By now many have surely noticed the increasing interest in the peculiar formation that was the Columbus underground rock scene of the 1970s and 1980s. If Mike Rep and the Quotas’s “Rocket to Nowhere”—the most aptly titled record of all time—is the lodestone to which fascination with the roots of this scene was initially drawn,* Vertical Slit’s “Slit and Pre-Slit” has long been the talisman, the mysterious record that one knew existed and suspected was the explanatory key that would reveal how to fix not just Columbus but perhaps Ohio and even the United States into a historical accounting of punk’s emergence in what I call “the long 1970s.”** Upon finally hearing this record, I am not sure that it reveals the keys to mysteries; instead, we can be grateful that it actually creates more mysteries for us. This record is unlike any other. Its original pressing size of 100 copies had mundane causes, but where the obscurity (and hence fetishism) of it seemed to turn on its unobtainable material character, in listening to it, the obscurity strikes me as embedded in the music too. It wasn’t just that one couldn’t find the record, it’s that once one found it and heard it, what one heard was nearly void of referents. In time, of course, punk and industrial and noise and UK DIY, and even bedroom psych and folk that preceded or coincided with it, would all echo it, giving it a strong premonitory and otherworldly quality, even as none of these forms in general took any influence from it. Is it a Rosetta Stone of underground music of the post-1960s, pre-punk moment?

Two approaches to writing about music exist in tension with each other, with partisans of each easy to find even though most writers experience the tension themselves in the writing process and find it in the final product, myself included: to listen as closely, as deeply as possible (this is what I termed the phenomenological approach in writing about Bone Awl); or to look outside the record to its milieu, its conditions of production, its contingent place in history, with the assumption that no record will ever reveal the explanation of its making sensuously even though clues are embedded in the sensual experience of looking, listening, touching, etc. My own approach has lately been to think that as one reaches an impasse, a conundrum about music or any other cultural product, the best action would be to switch modes of analysis: if you cannot figure out why a record sounds the way it sounds, stop listening to it; if you cannot figure out why a band emerged in a certain place at a certain time, listen to the record. Although I have never held in my hands an original of “Slit and Pre-Slit,” this reissue makes me wonder if this record proves my analytic approach utterly right or horrendously wrong. Or both.

To listen to it begs a certain unlearning, a deconditioning, so that when one hears what sounds like “industrial” or “UK DIY” elements, one does not think those concepts, those forms, those formations. But even beyond that initial work one can imaginatively pursue, the record is constantly defamiliarizing the listener. It sounds like one has walked in on the middle of something already in progress; one leaves before it’s over, not quite sure what one has witnessed. It sounds like one is flipping the dial on a radio that catches broadcasts of never-before-heard songs by unknown and unknowable bands. It is disjointed, inchoate, desultory, as flipping through the dial would be, but it has a feeling of spatial and temporal disorientation and dislocation, so that one comes to feel that these mysterious radio stations may not be broadcasting from the same time and place the listener inhabits. But they are not totally unfamiliar either.

So much music prior to punk that I call proto-punk—because I feel it has sonic connections and affinities with punk (and in some cases political and personal ones too***)—shares atmospheric qualities that might not have been perceived as such until punk’s emergence revealed them retrospectively to be qualities related to material conditions of this music’s making, which were transformed by the infrastructure and ethos—the “infrastructure of feeling,” to use a phrase coined by geographer Ruthie Gilmore—of punk. Thus, lone teenage bedroom music-makers were just that until a door opened and they were no longer alone. Then the bedroom and the loneliness became the aesthetic, not the materiality. What sounds like claustrophobia now may not have seemed to be so confining and restricting until another possibility was on offer. That possibility is what punk allowed.

No band, no matter how introverted or claustrophobic, even “real people” music, exists in a vacuum. This was true in the 1970s. The Velvets were clearly on the Columbus radar from 1974 to 1977, the period in which this record was recorded. (It includes a cover of Lou Reed’s heartbreaking “The Bed”). So too were other bands now considered classic. Oft-repeated stories have Jim Shepard, the visionary behind Vertical Slit, giving copies of the LP to Brian Eno and David Bowie, among others. Yet the current moment in historiography of the underground shows that even if Shepard thought he was in the constellation that had Eno, Reed, Cale, and Bowie as its brightest-burning stars, he was firmly on the ground, among others who similarly placed their sights on the sky, unaware until later that such a company of stargazers existed, some emitting bright light of their own.

What strikes me overall about the sound and the material circumstances of this record, and other, less legendary outliers from the era, is the tension between introversion and claustrophobia and the retrospective feeling of pregnant possibility they evoke. We now know what came next, a cultural explosion, an explosion whereby the political combustion of the 1960s was recapitulated in a new social field, in many ways drained of its political energies and capacities. Yet these bands could not have known that to be the case. Instead, a feeling of shackling, closure, and perhaps even lethargy characterized their lonesome music. How odd: the United States, so vast and wide-open both in geography and in the mythology it tells itself about itself, would produce sounds befitting sedentary, go-nowhere anchorites. Perhaps it is the openness of the country that conduces to loneliness. As one of the first punk bands in England to release an independent record, Puncture, said, “You can’t rocknroll in a council flat.” But you sure as hell can rocknroll when no one else is around to hear its volume and complain. But not being heard is also exactly not the point of playing rocknroll. This paradox is what the sound of “Slit and Pre-Slit” embodies; it is also the paradox, the straitjacket, that the punk explosion would end.

Sheer aggression, an emotion not much visible on this record, and violence—its multiform practice—nonetheless sit at the heart of what it means to be American, far more than the spacious skies and amber waves of state-subsidized grain. There is a violence in loneliness, in isolation. By logic it must be directed, transferred inwardly. But it may also coexist with creative fecundity. So many songwriters who destroy their bodies slowly with hard living, hard drinking, hard drugging and/or quickly in suicide also produce some of their best work at nadirs. The same goes for bands and for larger and more complex social organizations, like cities. Columbus, Ohio, in the long 1970s experienced what can be described only as the disorganized violence of capital accumulation with less pain than some of its neighboring cities. The explanation for the productivity of the music scene, as represented by Mike Rep, Jim Shepard, Ron House, and others, may be easily found by looking at the context. At one, grand, scale, it seems clear how “Slit and Pre-Slit,” so singular and unexpected, nonetheless fits in with broad trends, attaches neatly at a notch in a timeline. The comforting appeal, the ease, of teleology in this narrative is palpable. At another, smaller, scale, the LP defies explanation, defies situating. There is no inexorable causal chain from “Slit and Pre-Slit” to punk rock. What came after in Columbus, by Shepard and others, some of which sounds nearly as fascinating as this record, may not find any worthy explanation in demographics, economics, politics, geography. Instead, one should listen closely, deeply to this record, aware that its ambience of possibility could just as well have led in other directions yet to be charted.

* With catalytic aids: Forced Exposure, Johan Kugelberg, Drunken Fish, Siltbreeze Records and blog, Terminal Boredom, Collectorscum, my own writing, and a variety of other fans, zines, labels, and sites.

** Why interest in this scene, and more broadly in kindred basement psych and other oddities of that decade, is swelling in the moment of subsequent history most similar to the 1970s economically is something about which speculation will have to wait. One might also consider the reciprocal relationship between present-day electronic interconnectivity and the desire to find yesterday’s outliers and isolates.

*** Note that this stance is quite different from the cynical, fundamental misreading of Shit-Fi one finds here.