How many times, through the ages, will the sublime drama we are creating be performed in unknown tongues, before an audience which is yet to be!" asked Guy Debord in his 1978 film In girum imus nocte et consumimur igni. Debord's question was directed at the legacy of the Lettrist International, his long-extinct faction of artists, drunkards and madmen whose goal was the destruction of postwar French society and the creation of a modern world free of consumerism, rules and prohibitions. The Lettrists believed they could change society through acts of détournement, which they defined as "the theft of aesthetic artifacts from their contexts and their diversion into contexts of one's own creation." The most popular example is taking something as innocuous as a Mark Trail comic strip and rewriting the word balloons to deliver revolutionary slogans or political commentary.
Tied in with this idea of subversive art was the myth of the Northwest Passage. A slightly more slippery concept than détournement, the Northwest Passage boiled down to the belief that you can find an instant route to total change; through a mystical blend of imagination and belief in Art (with a capital A), you could destroy the city that existed and create a new city that represented your own desires. This blend of social criticism, absurdist humor and cargo-cult artiness made for entertaining evenings in the arrondissements of Paris, to be sure, but the movement failed. The Lettrist International broke apart and was quickly forgotten, except by Greil Marcus, whose long-winded account of their aims and actions in his book Lipstick Traces takes a genuinely fascinating story and sucks all the life out of it (oh, how it sucks!).
That's why it is such a surprise to hear the ideas of Guy Debord and his Lettrist International echoing throughout the album Music for a Morning's Work by local group Western Robot. None of the principal members -- Desmond Davis, Ryan Geddes and Andrew Pryor -- admits to knowing anything about Debord or the Lettrists, or to reading Greil Marcus' book. And yet Debord's lament could easily be that of Western Robot, a strange conglomerate of St. Louis-based artists whose medium is music, whose methods are as contrary and irrational as the Lettrists, and whose audience, by the group's admission, does not yet exist. The parallels between the relatively obscure LI and the completely unknown Western Robot are bizarre and compelling, and, ultimately, they resonate with hope for St. Louis' somewhat stagnant music scene and for the dormant LI.
If you haven't heard of Western Robot, it's not your fault. Western Robot is a group of musicians who refuse to be categorized as a band, who are reluctant to play live and who don't want their pictures published. Although they have been writing and playing music together for several years, they have only played in public once, as an 11th-hour addition to the December 2000 Third Lip Cabaret.
Instead of following the accepted route of playing out regularly at one of St. Louis' ever-dwindling number of smaller clubs, Western Robot has devoted the better part of two years to completing the still-unreleased album Music for a Morning's Work with engineer/recorder Chris Deckard. That's right -- two years. Getting the band and the producer together to talk about the ordeal is like pulling teeth. From a clown. While reading Mark Trail comic strips that have been rewritten by French art activists.
The crux of the matter is that the music on the album was inspired by photographs taken from Dr. Stanley Burns' book of archival medical photos A Morning's Work. Each of the 10 songs on the album takes its name from one of the photos, and therefore Western Robot must convince Dr. Burns to permit them to reproduce the necessary photos in their CD booklet so that people can see the inspiration for such songs as "Dead Newborn Baby Held in Obstetrical Forceps" and "Paris Morgue, Observation Area" -- because, you know, people want to see this sort of thing while listening to music. Geddes explains how it all didn't come together as hoped.
"He's [Burns] concerned about how the photographs are presented; he doesn't care about what the music is like. He told me to give him a list of photos we wanted to use and he would get back to me. That was last year. We've left messages at his office and sent some e-mails. At this point, we have implicit rights to use the photographs, but we probably need his OK."
"Yeah, we kind of need it," Davis interjects.
Deckard notes, "I find it interesting that he [Burns] owns the copyright by way of restoring the original images and taking pictures of them. He doesn't own the copyright on the originals; he owns it on the images he took of the images."
This realization prompts Geddes to propose a solution very much in line with the Lettrist International's ideas of détournement: "So we should break into his archive and take our own pictures of his pictures ..."
The tapes go on like that for almost 90 minutes, complete with the band's accusations that Deckard can't record without first mainlining an Asiago-cheese bagel, Deckard's rebuttal that the band wasn't comfortable unless they were naked, and Davis' announcement that Geddes "eats the shit out of pizza," at which point the decision is made that they should just release the album with pictures of pizza.
All of this is entertaining, but what about the music? Simply put, Music for a Morning's Work is the story Lipstick Traces should have been. Marcus took the chaotic story of the Lettrists and linearized it; Western Robot took the anarchic spirit of the Lettrists and ran with it. Careering from the mournful gypsy violin and accordion of "Physician with His Operative Kit" to the hardboiled saxophone noir of "Women Using Opium" (courtesy of Dave Stone, who pops up a couple of times) to "Dead Newborn Baby"'s ridiculous union of heavy-metal guitar and Hammer horror sound effects, Western Robot display an invigorating defiance of categorization. Their music is not quite jazz and not really ethnic, it's not punk, it is not rock & roll and, despite Geddes' unnatural fondness for Yes' Close to the Edge, it is not prog rock. Music for a Morning's Work is a series of détournements, as each of those musical styles is appropriated and reworked to meet Western Robot's artistic needs. The music is intuitive data, meant to convey a specific mood. "The mood of the picture is in each song," says Davis, but Pryor disagrees: "You can create and superimpose your own arbitrary mood, and once that's coupled with the picture, the two are inseparable." The truth is, they're both right. If you have the pictures in front of you while listening to each song, it's easy enough to sense the similarities between the emotions inspired by the photo and those conveyed in the music. But if you don't have the photos, you can't help but create your own worlds to accompany the photos. The music of Western Robot becomes the Northwest Passage, if you are willing to look for it.
And therein lies Western Robot's greatest similarity to the LI, and the real tragedy. Like the LI, Western Robot has fantastic ideas behind its actions, a genuine appreciation of Art and a subversive streak of humor. And just like the LI, only a tiny percentage of people in St. Louis know Western Robot exists. And even if WR figures out a way to release their album without legal repercussions (they are kicking around the idea of simply giving it away to interested parties, thereby circumventing any chance of making a profit off copyrighted material), they suspect the audience for their music is limited: How many people are actively looking for a new world? This leads to the inevitable question: How smart are these guys, investing two years of work in making an album based on images they can't reproduce, knowing they can't afford to manufacture the CDs if they do get permission to use the art, for an audience they believe is no larger than a handful of people?
"We're pretty stupid, but we love it," says Davis with a laugh. "I hope if anyone hears this, they pick up on how often we were naked." With such catchy slogans as that, how can these guys fail?