The Magnetic Age

Thursday, July 23rd, 2009 by Kostis Kourelis

David Thomas, the singer of the legendary Cleveland punk band Pere Ubu has written one of the finest essays on rock music. Thomas takes two ballads, “The Wreck of Old 97” and “Dead Man’s Curve,” and constructs a narrative explaining the fundamentals of American music. It all has to do with the Magnetic Age that started in 1877 when Thomas Edison invented the microphone and culminated with Elvis Presley (“the Homer of the Inarticulate Age”). “The Wreck of Old 97” is a ballad inspired by the 1903 train wreck in Virginia (photo above). The earliest version of the song was recorded in 1924 and it has since been sang by everyone, including Woody Guthrie, Johny Cash and Hank Williams. “Dead Man’s Curve” is a ballad written in 1964 by the rock duo Jan and Dean, who preceded the Beach Boys in creating surf music. The ballad describes another wreck, half a century later, taking place with a car. The technical heroism of the two songs corresponds to the technical craft (magnetic electronics) of recorded music, “a dialogue inside the blurred zone between soundscape and landscape.” Thomas asserts that the Magnetic Age is another way of saying the American Age and it unites seemingly unrelated individuals like Edison and Elvis or Eisenhower and Kerouac.

Thomas is not simply retelling a generic version of America’s love for speed, cars and trains but constructs a paradigm through which to interpret rock music. In the spirit of art critic Clement Greenberg, Thomas brings attention to the materiality of the medium. Dan Graham (see Rock My Religion posting) placed punk’s origins in the religious experiments of Protestant America. Thomas places punk’s origins of the magnetic medium–the microphone, the vinyl record, the hi-fi system, the speakers, and the space inside our ears. I’ve been thinking a lot about the texture of dissonance and distortion that characterizes the project of punk archaeology. I have been listening to a lot of Sonic Youth lately–especially their brilliant new album, Eternal– and I’ve been reading David Brownes’ Goodbye 20th Century: A Biography of Sonic Youth (2008). I’ve also just received a library copy of another interesting new book, David Sheppard’s On Some Faraway Beach: The Life and Times of Brian Eno (2009). Eno is truly the glue between the Magnetic Age and punk. In 1977, Eno collaborated with David Bowie in the album Heroes, the final record of the Berlin trilogy. It includes the song “Sons of the Silent Age.” I wonder if the Magnetic Age and the Silent Age are not but synonyms of the same mechanical predicament.

David Thomas’ essay is called “Destiny in My Right Hand,” and it appeared in The Rose & the Briar: Death, Love and Liberty in the American Ballad, ed. Sean Wilentz and Greil Marcus (2005), pp. 161-174. The book contains 23 essays interpreting some of the most fundamental American ballads. The authors range from R. Crumb to Luc Sante and Sarah Vowell. While reading this book, it’s mandatory to listen to a parallel CD with the songs under discussion. I’ve been reading The Rose & the Briar on-and-off since 2005 and just hit David Thomas’s essay.

Sonic Youth and Pere Ubu are the inheritors of the Magnetic Age. David Thomas does not talk about punk in his essay, although he credits Dead Man’s Curve with a dose of “punk snottiness.” On the dissonate end of the Magnetic Age, see my earlier posting on Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music. I have just listened to Thurston Moore’s solo project Trees Outside the Academy (2007). The CD inner sleeve contains many pictures from Moore’s youth. Among them, you see a teenage Moore strapped with headphones listening to Metal Machine Music (left). Now, in the 21st century, we should have witnessed the full demise of the Magnetic Age by the Digital Age. Nevertheless, old rockers like Sonic Youth, and even younger ones like Jack White (note his new band, Dead Weathers) remain purists in the Greenbergean sense. Craftsmanship of the Magnetic Age (i.e. the 8-track recorder) seems to have endured in the Digital Age, which might after all be a mere Post-Magnetic Age that claims an ironic self-referential stance to its predecessor.

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