December 31st, 2007


The old fools can't get it

What do they think has happened, the old fools, to make them like this?

2007 was the year when two seminal figures from postpunk music turned 50. Nick Cave and Mark E. Smith were both born in 1957. With them, we could say, postpunk music itself turned 50.

Smith and Cave celebrated the irrefutable middleness of their middle age (one has lost his teeth, the other is losing his hair) with two of the year's best singles, both on the same theme: sex, and, specifically, not being able to get any. They could so easily have turned out limp, self-pitying and menopausal, but these records about not getting any sex were hard, manly, weird, funny and sexy. Here they are, then. "Fledermaus Can't Get Enough" by Von Südenfed (Smith's collaboration with Mouse on Mars), followed by "No Pussy Blues" by Grinderman, Nick Cave's version of his hero David Bowie's big, hilarious hard rock mistake, Tin Machine.

Smith has become the W.H. Auden of postpunk, prematurely wrinkled beyond his years. "I've fucked more women than you've ever seen," he told Caitlin Moran in a 1994 interview, but now seems happily married to Eleni, The Fall's keyboard player. "Can't get it now, but I can get it" is his repeated refrain in "Fledermaus". Cave -- also happily married, and bringing up his children in Brighton -- builds his menopausal masterpiece on the refrain "She didn't want to".

The reason these records are sexy is because sex is about desire, and desire is about incompleteness -- you want something you don't have, something outside yourself, something across an important divide. Someone who can always get it, and get it now, can't really evoke that part of sex -- its dynamic uncertainty, its pathetic dependence, its lurch into potential hurt and indignity. The young Nick Cave -- the Cave of the Nick The Stripper video, for instance -- was a bit of a sex god. It's difficult to imagine him finding it difficult to make the girls want to. But, like Samson in reverse, Nick has been made stronger by losing his mane of hair. Stronger, that is, at portraying the essential weakness and vulnerability at the heart of sexual desire.

Their looks show that they're for it: Ash hair, toad hands, prune face dried into lines - How can they ignore it?

But I wonder if there isn't something else, something equally poignant, going on here. Rock music used to use other things (holding hands, for instance) as a metaphor for sex. But now it uses sex as a metaphor for other things. Sex in these records might be a euphemism for a bigger menopause, the menopause of popular music itself, a medium in which the word "mojo" is more likely to evoke a museum-like magazine about the music of a fading baby boom than a vibrant contemporary libido.

It wasn't just their (announced) sexuality which collapsed around Cave and Smith's ears in 2007, it was also the music industry they knew when they were hip priests and insect strippers, that whole world of record shops and physical singles and albums. We could say that as their bodies decayed, so did music's "body", its physical support on plastic, and therefore the distribution and retail system which had spread their seminal postpunk influence (Nick Cave and his bad seed!) all over the world, making these oddballs so oddly fuckable in the first place. In 2006 Tower Records closed down, and in 2007 it was the turn of the Virgin Megastore chain. The management of the LA Virgin Megastore on Sunset Strip said that music sales, which accounted for 70% of their revenue just four years ago, had shrunk to just 40% today. The store is to close in January.

That is where they live: Not here and now, but where all happened once.

One less rock virgin on the strip, then. A couple more fogies complaining that they can't pull any more. The silver lining in the cloud is that maybe sex is sexier when it isn't institutionalized. Maybe the virgins are lovelier when they're actual virgins, not retail chains. Maybe mojo is best when it isn't a magazine. And maybe sex is sexier when you can't always automatically get it.

Well, we shall find out.

(Philip Larkin, The Old Fools)