Nate on Black Eyes
‘who have eyes to see, let them see!
who have ears to hear, let them hear!’
Black Eyes—Black Eyes (Dischord, 2003) and Cough (Dischord, 2004)
Before continuing any further, full disclosure: Washington, D.C.’s Black Eyes were responsible for some of the greatest live shows I have ever seen, will ever see. I’m not sure I’ve ever been more moved, frightened, challenged, excited, inspired by a band, its performances and recordings. I have certainly never thrashed anywhere near as hard as I did, without fail, during a Black Eyes set, be it at Charm City Art Space in Baltimore, the Galaxy Hut in Alexandria, upstairs at the Black Cat in D.C., or, in the case of the above picture, Happy Birthday Hideout in Brooklyn. (That’s yours truly below and to the right, Winter 2003, in a horrible red zip-up, the wearing of which must have caused such trauma that I forgot entirely ever owning it, until I recently stumbled across that picture. Incidentally, I think the reason the girl behind me is so far behind me is because by that point, my friend Steve—a New York friend at his first Black Eyes show—was already on his back, between she and me, convulsing, completely overwhelmed, ecstatic. I think the band were two or three songs in.) This band is, to me, the sound of Washington, D.C. (but also of so much more); band is unthinkable outside of the context of city, and vice versa. This band has left traces in my life in a number of different ways. A personal association with Black Eyes was the occasion for one of the very few brushes I’ve ever had with a bona fide punk rock legend. Helping the band load in for a show at the Black Cat in September 2002, I bent over to pick up a bass drum only to be stopped by a gruff voice saying “Oh, I’ll get that one, don’t worry about it.” The voice was that of Henry Rollins. The only scars I have can, in one way or another, be traced back to Black Eyes. In the winter of 2002-3, after hearing and celebrating the test pressing of the band’s debut album with bassist/vocalist Hugh McElroy and his roommate (and having far more red wine than was advisable), a too-fast and too-drunk bike ride from Adams Morgan to Foggy Bottom on treacherously icy streets led to an inevitable wipe-out and a badly cut up right hand and face. Four and a half years later, in DeKalb, Illinois, on tour with a band in which I was one of (ahem) two percussionists—the Black Eyes template taken, by me, as one to strive toward—I was adjusting the height of a cymbal when I loosened its stand’s telescoping boom a bit too much and the edge of the cymbal nailed me right between the eyes, unleashing an impossibly torrential stream of blood from the tiniest (but, I suppose,deepest) cut. Spending time around Black Eyes, in all honesty, taught me most of what I now know about music; the first time that I heard This Heat (‘S.P.Q.R.’, from Deceit) was on a tape in the Black Eyes van, on the way to Soul Veg on Georgia Ave. in D.C. Hugh is the first person who ever played John Fahey for me (the posthumously released Red Cross). Today, I literally can’t imagine my life without either This Heat or John Fahey. How do debts like these ever get paid?
Oh, that’s right. We’re supposed to be talking about a band, one that puts countless others to shame.
Important to convey is the sheer visual force of watching Black Eyes set up, let alone perform. I’m talking complete sensory overload. They were five in number and they could get louder than almost any band I’ve ever seen, featuring two drummers, two bassists (one of whom shared vocal duties, and the other, who on the posthumously-released Cough, traded bass for saxophone), and a guitarist/vocalist. The Southern Records website offers the following list of materials that also found their way into the Black Eyes sound: “…percussion, keyboard, sampler, zurna, hand drum, recorder, slide-whistle, shakers, effects, and so on.” Never has the two-drummer assault been more effective or powerful, or at least not since Karl Burns and Paul Hanley anchored the early-80s iteration of The Fall (the one responsible for the magnificent Hex Enduction Hour). A friend of mine once described the basslines in Black Eyes songs as “upside-down.” It’s impossible to convey, in this mockery of music-journalistic prose, what she meant, but one listen will give a good enough idea.
Those around the band only really knew Black Eyes’ songs by the number assigned to them by the band themselves; at shows, one was more likely to hear screams of “Four!” or “Thirteen!’ and not “Speaking in Tongues”! or “Drums”! (Ok, you were actually likely to hear someone shout that last one, given the sheer amount of percussion at any given show. I probably did once or ten times.) It was only when their albums were released that anyone really realized that the songs had names after all. Their roiling self-titled debut is a polyrhythmic maelstrom: there are countless grooves to get lost in on this record. And they’re weird grooves—they sneak up on you, materializing out of a seemingly formless chaos before locking you in tight. Vocals are alternately screamed and howled and sometimes deliberately indecipherable, focusing one’s attention on the voice as an instrument in and of itself, rather than a means of conveyance (often enough, the voices we’re hearing seem to function as yet another percussive element, another rhythm playing off of all the others). That said, Black Eyes’ cryptic and evocative lyrics can and ought to be sat with on their own, whether ruminations on sexual ambiguity and the lurking treachery of sex (“This kiss is not a poison/This kiss is not a prison/Which position is strictly missionary?/All pointing fingers and no rolling hips”), frenetic warnings against the pitfalls of language (“Some words/if you/use them/enough/lose all/ meaning/enough/enough”), or deflating the discourses of body, language, gender (“Because all the boys on 17th street, they only know one thing/And all the boys on 17th street, they all want the same thing/They used to talk about visibility but they don’t say a thing/And they speak it in the same voice but they don’t say anything”). And this doesn’t even account for the occasional reference to Langston Hughes, Yusuf Komunyakaa, the slave trade, the Bible. I often take care to remind myself of when the first Black Eyes Record came out: April 15, 2003, nearly one month to the day after the invasion and occupation of Iraq began. Although the record had been completed since the previous winter, it in many ways seems preoccupied with a state of war, with the insidious violence of everyday life, the latent content of the American unconscious that was soon to bubble over, and also with the strong sense of paralysis and ineffectuality among America’s progressive elements (including would-be hardcore bands). “This one says watch it burn/Playing with apathy/One-sided fire/With one dimension/This one says burn it down/Playing at unity/One-sided politics/Sell boring records”—so goes “Letter to Raoul Peck (Peck is a Haitian filmmaker, best known for his feature about Patrice Lumumba, the spearhead of African anti-colonialism). Important here is that Black Eyes aren’t prescriptive so much as they are diagnostic, focusing on the fear and anger and uncertainty of that American moment and trying to form even just the beginning of a response to it. And for all the chaos of their music, the band is able to achieve real (pulsating, urgent, danceable) unity. And that sense of cohesion, of some dialectical synthesis of disparate elements, was reflected in the Black Eyes live show, which more often than not ended with band and audience members alike finding any percussive instrument they could and wailing on it with complete abandon.
They also did a killer live cover of Huggy Bear’s “No Sleep.”
With Cough, released just a few months after their unceremonious break-up in May 2004, the band pulled a complete 180, allowing in a considerable amount of space, indulging their own personal love for dub and free jazz. At the risk of sounding pretentious, Cough is a difficult record, not least because of the confidence brimming over in it. It did alienate a number of the people I spoke to about it, people who had enjoyed the post-punk danceability of the self-titled debut and expected more of the same. And even though, through spending time with some of the band’s members, I could understand Cough as a natural progression, it still caught me off-guard. It didn’t take long, however, for the repeated listens that Cough demands to pay off tenfold. The achievements of Black Eyes—in just over three years—have not been matched by any band since, playing any kind of music, and it’s a fool’s errand to try to lump them in with any of their contemporaries (exceptions to this remain largely local and way under the radar, such as fellow D.C. denizens Early Humans and Bloomington, Indiana’s Turn Pale, and even these can’t really compare). Their influences may be canonical enough: This Heat, Archie Shepp, The Ex, The Slits, Fela Kuti, Albert Ayler, The Birthday Party, U-Roy, Don Cherry, but as with any great band, their debt to these artists gets paid obliquely, through a commitment to and practice of the confident experimentation that is common to each of these artists. Black Eyes existed as a band not fully-formed but constantly striving, mutating, five people pushing themselves to a limit most of us weren’t aware of.
Postscript: Hugh McElroy runs D.C.’s Ruffian Records. Former Black Eyes members Daniel and Jacob (guitar/vocals/percussion and bass/saxophone/percussion, respectively) now form 2/3 of Mi Ami, who are poised to release an EP and LP on Quarterstick Records next month, and are touring all over the country this month and next.This entry was posted on Thursday, February 5th, 2009 at 11:00 am and is filed under Uncategorized. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed.