Sometimes items materialize that bring a tear to the eye of the aging hipster, flooding him with that most sentimental of emotions: nostalgia. The recently issued Shimmydisc four-CD box set Box of Bongwater is just such an item. It's everything you could want out of a box, and Bongwater were everything I could want out of a band. Not only did they rock, but they were smarter than you--and let's remember, bands don't have to be dumb to rock.
Bongwater spanned the halcyon days between '87 and '92, when there still seemed to be a golden glow around punk rock, and Nirvana/Geffen had yet to become the headstone on its grave. Minneapolis hardcore label Amphetamine Reptile was young and good, Chicago's Touch & Go imprint was the vanguard, and the majors were still the enemy (at least till '91). Those were good days, and the first couple of Bongwater records, awash in a fuzz of atmospherics, made one feel better about the break-up of Kramer's previous band, Shockabilly.
Bongwater only came into their own, however, when Ann Magnuson left the smug world of N.Y.C. performance art (read: Spalding Gray) behind and, in between L.A. sitcom try-outs, made the world of Bongwater a pulpit for her devastatingly funny critiques of the world that we're too "serious" and post-"all that" to see anymore. Their magnum opus, Power of Pussy, is easily one of the best explorations of feminist and sexual struggle that rock will ever produce. Through a series of songs, stories, and spoken word interludes, Bongwater challenges the very real dynamics of sexual identity. As Magnuson assumes various identities, the way we perceive women's sexual nature, and how this gets misconstrued by male desire, grows increasingly funny and sad, as the truth becomes more and more apparent: we all end up trapped by roles that never fit to begin with, roles which, now more than ever, alienate us from one another.
For Kramer to produce music and songs which embody and extend all this is testament to Bongwater's greatness. That this could go over the heads of half their audience, who loved Bongwater just because they were "funny and rocked," only furthers their appeal. That the bands of the now will never make me ache the way "Folksong" off of Power of Pussy does, explains why I'm the grumbling crank I am today.
Bongwater's spiritual godmother was Yoko Ono. Back before "grunge rock," there was a record that sounded like the first PiL album as sung by Diamanda Galas--the debut Plastic Ono Band LP. The first track, "Why," has John Lennon sounding like Keith Levene and James Williamson simultaneously--and if this doesn't sound like a marriage you'd want to hear, then put this article down and go read Spin or something. John would never have produced guitar sounds like this without Yoko's input. Yoko Ono was a worthy artist and a member of a punk rock art enclave called Fluxus before she met Lennon. She was shrieking in a free jazz concert with Ornette Coleman in '68; and we should always praise her for leading Lennon to the primal scream of both the "Don't Worry Kyoko" single and the Plastic Ono Band.
As Yoko's career progressed, two things happened: her feminist concerns became the focal point of her records, and her music lost much of its expressionistic power. It used to seem to me that this dilution came through the influence of Lennon's pop talents and the development of her "musical" abilities. "Lennon took a perfectly good avant-garde artist and ruined her with his mainstream cultural sensibilities," I used to cry. Her third and fourth records made me sob over the lack of the noise and wailing I had grown to love. Later I came to understand that we can't scream in the face of the world forever, and that with age and experience we feel the need to communicate. This doesn't make for great records, though, and while I saluted Yoko's sexual liberation, I still missed the noise.
In the records of Babes in Toyland I got the noise back in spades. Kat Bjelland's shrieking caterwaul and guitar histrionics put the best of Yoko's world together. In Kat's world, the liberation is not in specific gender politics, but in specific personal power. We always know who's empowered here, and Kat always speaks to singular responsibility, never to simple sexual paradigms. That some guy fucked her over is his goddam fault, and not an example of "male" irresponsibility. Of course he's losing as a result of his mistakes--and boy, will he ever fucking regret it, forever and ever amen. Relationships are anguish to us all, and Kat's hard/soft vocal technique, going from soft coo to rippling shriek in the course of a word, is the sonic equivalent of exactly this anguish. Her strained guitar chords and throbbing riffs mirror this too; but her softer voice was as beautiful and peaceful as her screams were harsh and powerful. Listen to Babes' Fontanelle and let your ears and your heart bleed.
So yeah, I'm looking for anguish and rage done with intelligence. That may be in short supply these days, but I ain't calling it quits. I've still got my records, and there's always Sleater-Kinney....