The Greasy Strangler seems to have been largely dismissed as an oddball novelty, but it might be the most innovative film ever.
The first time I watched the film it seemed easy just to classify it as “weird” and move on. But as I thought more about it and then rewatched, I realized how incomplete that description was.
David Lynch makes weird movies. John Waters, Harmony Korine and Giuseppe Andrews make weird movies. And what makes them so weird is that those movies exist within our consensus reality but contain elements that do not belong. They are incongruous and inexplicable.
There is nothing incongruous or inexplicable about The Greasy Strangler. All of its characters and situations work according to the logic of the reality it is based in, which is not the same as the one we are watching it from. In this way the film is more akin to fantasy than surrealism.
Even the motivations of the characters are atypical of human psychology, but become perversely reasonable when considered from the alien psychology of the films reality.
If the film were merely weird, it would be a barely interesting side note in the wide world of strange cinema. But it is not merely weird. It is a highly constructed fantasy world with complex interconnected truths of its own. In fact, it is probably a better fantasy world than the one’s detailed in the most popular fantasy works.
For example, Lord of the Rings is barely fantasy at all. It is just medieval earth with most of the humans replaced by different shaped beings with mostly the same behaviors and motivations of human beings. A little dash of classic literary magicalism, and Wa-La, the greatest fantasy franchise of all time.
Except it is not really that fantastic at all. It is what most classic literature is, a morality tale told through caricatures. And as such it is full of elements which make it mostly indistinguishable from our reality. Morality tales must remain mostly realist in order for the morals to be evident.
There is no moral point to The Greasy Strangler. There is no lesson and no metaphor on the human condition. It is therefore untethered from reality in ways most of what we call fantasy really isn’t. The absolute lack of a message or any social import whatsoever free it from the constraints of normative consensus reality.
Which may itself be a very powerful lesson and metaphor on something. Art? Fuck if I know.
But i do know it transcends weirdness to do something film and art rarely does, which is to snub reality in its entirety and create something completely outside of it.
Anybody can make weird films. Nobody ever makes films that are completely irreverent of reality altogether. There is something brilliant in that. Next level shit.
I get the feeling the film was largely ignored because it was dismissed as novelty oddness. At the same time I also get the feeling that someday it will be an historically important film for having not just bent the relationship between art and reality, but separating the two altogether.
In 1995 one of my best friends asked me to drive him to the airport. Since he had a nicer car and the airport was out of town, I drove him in that. Another mutual friend joined. His trip was an extended stay in South America where he had chased his college freshman sweetheart, so he was not planning to be back for a long time, and as such bequeathed us the remainder of his weed stash. After dropping him off we decided to take the long way home, twisting our way through Des Moines and its outlying areas. We were young, free and high as fuck. Somewhere in our journeys through human cemeteries, industrial graveyards and parks and lakes we started going through the cassettes in the car. One was labeled Beastie Boys/John Frusciante, and although we had never heard of the latter, the Beastie Boys was a definite go. Then at some point the tape flipped and so baffled and entranced were we, that it was several songs before we were even able to share our amazement and befuddlement at what was happening to our ears and minds.
For the next few years I worshiped that album. It was so profoundly brilliant and different, while also technically simple, that I never tired of it, even after listening to it repeatedly. I would borrow my friends four track cassette recorders and attempt to replicate that sound and that feeling, and attempt which never bore success. Yet it was where I cut my teeth in the recording and writing process and its inspiration as a piece of audio art was massive in my own musical formation.
In March 1994, when the album came out on Rick Rubin’s Def Jam Records, Frusciante had terminated his role in the Red Hot Chili Peppers and was living in severe disorder with a profound heroin habit. However he maintains that the album, despite its baffling surrealism, was made before his addiction took over his life. With the exception of Running Away Into You, the album was recorded during 1991-92 on the Blood, Sugar, Sex, Magic tour.
“I wrote [the record] because I was in a really big place in my head—it was a huge, spiritual place telling me what to do. As long as I’m obeying those forces, it’s always going to be meaningful. I could be playing guitar and I could say ‘Play something that sucks,’ and if I’m in that place, it’s gonna be great. And it has nothing to do with me, except in ways that can’t be understood.”
in 1997, two years after I first heard John’s first solo album, I found out that he was going to be playing in a place an hour away from where I lived. I did not own a car and the weather was pretty nasty, so hitchhiking was not an option, so I eventually talked my mom into taking me to a college town bar to see a junkie play strange songs. And as it turned out, we both had a great time. John was just recovering from his addiction and he stood on the stage like he was there to haunt it. He seemed too far gone and broken to have even made it up there, but when his brilliant guitar playing began, followed by the existential caterwauling of his emotionally overloaded vocals, he came right to life. I cannot recall all of the details of that night. I remember ‘Your Smile Is A Rifle’ and Nirvana’s ‘Moist Vagina’ from the setlist. It was part of some touring funk thing called NutFest. Yet although I cannot remember the details, I can remember the feeling vividly. I can remember tears of what I think were joy. When I recall that night to memory I am not flooded with scenes and sounds and facts, but with a more pure sense of abandonment, bliss and longing.
Frusciante released a second album, Smile From the Streets You Hold, earlier that same year, reportedly for drug money. While the album does not have the purity and innocence of Niandra, it does still carry a sense of internal crisis, desperation and self-abandonment that could be felt in the first album. It is not even close to its predecessor, yet it is still a much better album than what RHCP or most mainstream rock in general were doing at the time, by light years. It is harsh and incomplete, but it is also honest and apologetic in a tragically authentic way.
After this Frusciante sobered up and continued recording solo albums, and while they are definitely interesting albums, none of them have the emotional/spiritual force of the first few. They are tame by the standards of Niandra and Smile, and do not carry the same sense of bizarre, tragic immediacy.
I continued enjoying Niandra and giving his new albums a chance. During my years in retail I found that most people could not tolerate the vocals for long, so if I had some browsers straggling too casually for too long, I would throw the album on to quicken their purchase or departure so I could sneak down to the basement and sneak a toke. Before long he rejoined RHCP and I was initially impressed. Yet after a few more albums that received heavy rotation everywhere all of the time managed to suck all of the life out of that bands music for me. And even though none of his more recent works has ever touched me the way his early stuff did, I still cherish all of that great music from his early period both solo and with RHCP, and am glad he finally got out of the latter (hopefully) for good.
“I’m forever near a stereo saying, ‘What the fuck is this garbage?’ And the answer is always the Red Hot Chili Peppers.” -Nick Cave
Before I get into why the album is still brilliant, let me comment briefly on some specific songs.
As Can Be – The opening track begins with a frenzied string blitzkrieg, a loose weave of crisis melodies, and then sort of settles into a vulgar love song once the lyrics kick in, with lead guitars winding throughout like frantic bumble bees carrying streamers.
My Smile Is A Rifle – What begins as an experiment in melancholy quickly evolves into an even deeper musical misanthropy, like a lost coffin rocking in the waves of an alien ocean. The opening lyrics, in contrast is a message of strange silver linings. The vocals descend into utter madness and one cannot be sure if he is being playful of making a cry for help. The pitch shifting, screeching and squealing is the vocal opposite of American Idol, removing all flash and skill and replacing it with pure emotional dadaism.
Head (Beach Arab) – Combining harp-like melodies below frantically picked notes soaring over brilliantly sophmoric solos, the song blazes a path through you before you can figure out what it has evoked in you.
Big Takeover – This Ren Faire rendition of the Bad Brains classic manages to use frenzied layers to make up for the lack of pace of the original, and in doing so becomes its own song, just as powerful as the original.
Curtains – The image of curtains suggested in the title befits the surrealist drama of this simple piano/vocal ballad. Its absurdist lyrics make sense on a level that cannot be comprehended outside of the context of the music and album as a whole. Building throughout, the song almost becomes a standard Daniel Johnston rocker, before twinkling out in a sprinkle of high piano notes.
Running Away Into You – This is one of the most brilliant pieces of music ever committed to recording. A tale of lust and love and longing and everything in between, it uses reverse tracks, loops, speed and pitch shifts and a bunch of other audio novelties to paint a portrait of desire through a chaotic kaleidoscope of symbolic sounds for the emotional highs and lows of romance.
Mascara – Essentially a standard acoustic rocker from the onset, the song later takes on a far stranger shape of a circus sideshow, and continues to twist back and forth between the two feelings that leaves you a bit discombobulated like riding the aural Tea Cups at a musical amusement park. Eventually ending with a lyric about underwear full of blood and a pretty guitar outro.
Been Insane – This song is kind of a baseline for the entire Niandra LaDes half of the album. A multi-layer acoustic rocker with elements of both standard rock alternating against Syd Barrett surreality.
Skin Blues – An instrumental showcase of soaring stringed sonics. The closest my own experiments ever came to Frusciante level are a really cheap version of this.
Your Pussy’s Glued To A Building On Fire – The most inappropriate lullabye ever written, or the most colorful love song ever penned? Both. And more. Highly suggestive gives way to the overall contextual frameworks and becomes highly evocative of a range of emotional and spiritual longings instead. So good, it actually is repeated in a different but similar version right after the first concludes. “YOU LITTLE DUCK HOUSE!!!!”
Blood On My Neck From Success – This is the song Kurt Cobain would likely wished he had wrote himself. The confession of a musician coming to terms with the ugliness and hypocrisy of creative fame, it is all threadbare and barely manages to hold itself together, which is exactly how John was feeling at the time. Yet no amount of saying that in straightforward terms could ever explain it like this song.
Ten to Butter Blood Voodoo – The final song from the first half of the Niandra LaDes portion feels lost and far away. It is like the Flaming Lips, if Wayne Coyne became a manic depressive guitar god who ditched the rest of his band and decided to write a song that said ‘fuck you’ to his whole life.
The tracks from here on belong to the second part of the album, Usually Nothing But A T-Shirt. The songs themselves vary in length, complexity or any other binding codes. They are listed only by their track numbers, and where vocals are employed, it is rarely with any credence to the traditions of singing. Where there are discernible lyrics, they bend and break into fragile poems never meant to be read by anyone else. These are snapshots of the unanswered questions inside the mind of a young artist and shaman. They are delicate, beautiful and at times eerily creepy. These songs blend together to form a sort of meditation on the elasticity of human emotions, or as a spiritual seance to call up the inner truths we are most afraid of. I will not go into a track-by-track analysis because they are not meant to be taken that way, and there is more to be said of them as a whole than as individual pieces. Which is how Frusciante intended the whole album.
So then why is this album just as poignant today as when it was first conceived, and maybe even more so? As I have explained in the past, we are a society living only on the surface of our own reality, rapidly consuming explicit messages while denying the underlying implicit information that underlies them. Niandra LaDes and Usually Nothing But A T-Shirt is a refutation of this shallow view of reality. It eschews literal interpretation. Its explicit presentation is meaningless collection of low quality noise. An attempt to understand the work on any kind of empirical basis would only render it more confusing and meaningless. It defies the literalism of our scientistically materialist culture.
Today’s popular music is all show and no substance, comparatively. Any attempts to day to be so wrecklessly experimental would be done in the sterile setting of academic aesthetics, based on preconceived forms and pieced together with the precision of mathematical axioms. No artist would dare be brave enough, even in the case that they were inclined, to make such a messy piece of art. It’s beauty is not just in it’s imperfection, but in its seeming ignorance that attempting to make a perfect piece of art is something that should be taken seriously by the artist.
Our culture is steeped in a dogma of technical precision and direct messages. Niandra LaDes and Usually Just A T-Shirt is the opposite of the values underlying our society. It caters to nothing, begs nobody’s approval and only says anything to those willing to work out the interpretations for themselves. While our society on the surface spoon feeds us bite sized truths, this album makes you wiggle out every little illumination on your own, but never promises to reveal any final answers about itself. It is not what it is. It is the unique experience of everyone who listens to it. It is tarot deck of audio archetypes for the emotional and spiritual truths that give us each our own meaning and purpose in life. It is musical shamanism lovingly and painstakingly delivered from the depths of one mans psyche. It is monumental work of art and a forgiving and fragile childhood-like heresy of the unexamined dogmas we hold dear.
My interest in the philosophical implications of chaos and order were piqued in 1998 when I first read The Principia Discordia, a humorous book produced by an absurdist religion based on an arcane bit of Greek mythology. Discordianism is the faux worship of Eris, goddess of chaos, and while it is thought by many to be a merely satirical piece of surrealist art, its metaphors resonate on a level of great truth. Yet it would be difficult to understand these truths if one were to hold onto the mainstream misconception of chaos and were unable to distinguish it from disorder.
Let me explain the difference in the most basic terms possible.
Chaos is a large grocery store with every ingredient ever imagined from which an endless amount of possible food combinations could be used to create unique meals.
Order is the shopping list, the recipe and the process of prepping and cooking. And sometimes you get a tasty meal.
Disorder is when you get something else. Disorder is when the meal is inedible or poisonous or burns the kitchen down in the process.
Disorder is what happens when the conversion of chaos to order goes awry. Which becomes more likely each and every time you apply order, and becomes a certainty when you apply it destructively (more on destructive vs. creative order below). Disorder, distinct from chaos, is usually what people actually mean when they use the term chaos. However, the failure to be able to distinguish means that people react to disorder by attempting to bandage the wounds it creates with a misapplication of order.
Let us examine the Principia Discordia’s retelling of that arcane Greek myth:
THE MYTH OF THE APPLE OF DISCORD It seems that Zeus was preparing a wedding banquet for Peleus and Thetis and did not want to invite Eris because of Her reputation as a trouble maker.
This made Eris angry, and so She fashioned an apple of pure gold and inscribed upon it KALLISTI (“To The Prettiest One”) and on the day of the fete She rolled it into the banquet hall and then left to be alone and joyously partake of a hot dog.
Now, three of the invited goddesses, Athena, Hera, and Aphrodite, each immediately claimed it to belong to herself because of the inscription. And they started fighting, and they started throwing punch all over the place and everything.
Finally Zeus calmed things down and declared that an arbitrator must be selected, which was a reasonable suggestion, and all agreed. He sent them to a shepherd of Troy, whose name was Paris because his mother had had a lot of gaul and had married a Frenchman; but each of the sneaky goddesses tried to outwit the others by going early and offering a bribe to Paris.
Athena offered him Heroic War Victories, Hera offered him Great Wealth, and Aphrodite offered him the Most Beautiful Woman on Earth. Being a healthy young Trojan lad, Paris promptly accepted Aphrodite’s bribe and she got the apple and he got screwed.
As she had promised, she maneuvered earthly happenings so that Paris could have Helen (the Helen) then living with her husband Menelaus, King of Sparta. Anyway, everyone knows that the Trojan War followed when Sparta demanded their Queen back and that the Trojan War is said to be The First War among men.
The point here is that by being selective about the guest list, an act of order on Zeus’ part, the conditions were set for the disorder that was the first major imperialist war in our written history. An ever-increasing trend that has done little to enrich our existence.
Perhaps you are familiar with the adage that a butterfly flapping its wings in Brazil could lead to a hurricane halfway across the world. This is known in chaos theory as the Butterfly Effect. It essentially describes the interconnectedness between all things and how even the slightest action could snowball or lead into much greater ones.
Yet we are a universe in motion and have little choice but to remain active. This is why Discordianism suggests that we do not create a dichotomy between chaos and order, but between the creative and the destructive. It is thought that creative chaos is more favorable than destructive order. Yet if we wished to apply this knowledge to our actions, the subjective area where creative/destructive are defined is still problematic.
However, this problem is simple to solve so long as we define the two aspects relative to the theory, and not necessarily with linguistic preciseness. Creativity is that which seeks to enrich the individual (and perhaps others) without intruding upon or limiting the choices of others. Destruction is that which seeks to enrich the individual (and perhaps others) by intruding upon or limiting the choices of others. Creativity requires and nurtures self-discipline. Destruction seeks control. The cost of that control often comes in the form of disorder. Or at least that is how it would be experienced by everybody outside of the destructive force.
It is therefore authority over others which is the destructive force of the universe. Authority is often recognized falsely as a valid attempt at order. But true order, that which is not just a conduit for disorder, comes only from voluntary cooperation and mutual consent. The opposite of mutual and voluntary is aggressive, which takes the forms of force, coercion or compulsion. Our existence as individuals is a strong indicator that whatever our meaning and purpose in this existence are derived from must have something to do with that individuality. When authority organizes force to impede on individuality it doesn’t just violate the meaning and purpose of the individual and existence, it leads us down the destructive path to disorder.
Yet because we have misunderstood all of this, because we have created a false dichotomy between order and chaos and have failed to distinguish between the latter and disorder, we have become blind to our own predicament. As the disorder spawned by our faulty outlook increases, so does entropy. There must be some limit to how much entropy reality can contain. So besides being a philosophical nuisance, the misleading ideologies surrounding these terms and concepts, may actually pose a threat to our existence. We have seen this on a smaller scale. The empires of the past have fallen, such as Rome, collapsing under their own weight. Yet a danger much greater than nation states could befall us. The advancement of our knowledge and technology and other tools of order continues to increase exponentially. The resulting disorder which may follow in the collapse of all of this order may pose a threat to existence itself.
While it is not a certainty in any empirical sense, authority could theoretically collapse our entire universe. Not just in the physical sense, but in the sense that we are conscious beings whose ability to bend our nature to accommodate authority could at some point result in a critical mass. That critical mass might be a psychic implosion of our sentient consciousness, or it might just drive us mad enough to destroy ourselves through desperate attempts to correct our trajectory with yet more destructive acts of order.
Authority is not just the enemy of an individual. It is the enemy of ALL individuals. While it may currently only have the power to damage us one at a time, or in isolated groups, it could very well snowball into a disorderly frenzy of entropy which causes the heat death collapse of our universe, metaphorically or literally. There is a threshold where they become indistinguishable.
Before we can begin to correct the problem we must understand it. And to understand it we must first understand its most basic terms. Familiarize yourself with the distinguishing characteristics of the three terms as I have presented them. Think in them and speak in them and act accordingly to them. See if it doesn’t change your entire worldview. And share them. This one seed of knowledge may be the most important lesson for humanity, a species at the cusp of its own maturity. Peering into the uncertainty of that future is perhaps frightening. Which is why we tend to avoid it at any cost. But we may not always have that luxury.
The favoring of order over chaos, of authority over anarchy, is that final attachment to our immaturity. It is like the fear we face when we first leave our parents home. Yet there comes a time to leave behind certainty and security and head out into the vast possibilities of our own individuality. And even though we may fumble and make great mistakes, we will also be learning and adapting and evolving as individuals. Authority may have been a useful tool for fashioning creative order from chaos, but at some point it becomes a detriment. This is where humanity stands. We can step out from under the safety blanket of authoritarian ideologies and accept the consequences of the learning process, or we can rot in our parents basement while we bleed the household dry with our refusal to seek independence.
Embrace chaos, for in it lies all possibilities, great and tragic. Yet with an attachment to destructive order alone, there is no doubt what the outcome will be for our universe as well as our species and everything else within it. Do not let fear or ignorance keep you dependent on authority and its intrinsic tendency towards disorder.
I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.