The best recordings sound the most startling after they've been buried for a while. Once played out, they're filed away -- entombed -- in the record collection, forgotten while attention is paid to some hot little number that's more "current." Forget about the old, for it is tired, nothing but a scrap from another time. But while it's in the dungeon, a curious transformation is taking place. These remnants are not lifeless, not entirely dormant. They're curing, maturing, and as they sit there longer, they're shifting themselves into the history bin, where, once exhumed, they can be heard with a new set of eardrums.
Just as often, some of your most cherished records, while in their cocoon, turn to crap. A new set of eardrums and a different set of circumstances can ruin a record: "I loved that? That's the most insipid piece of shit I've ever heard! Was I that stupid when I was 23?" Well, yes, chances are, you were.
Then there are the recordings that'll never sit right, will continue to flummox us from start to finish, regardless of when we last heard them, last dismissed them, last filed them away. These are the recordings that transcend notions of good and bad, transcend the idea of quality.
The music of St. Louis legends the Screamin' Mee-Mees falls firmly into this camp. Their total output over the last 28 years has included a few full-lengths, a half-dozen 45s, a single Bruce Cole solo release and a trail of dumbfounding recordings so insane and stupid and far gone that, heard either when recorded in the early and mid-'70s or today, they are, to put it mildly, confusing -- pure noise spit out of a basement in Ferguson by souls so enamoured of the unlimited potential of no-holds-barred rock that the notion of practice and structure and musicianship seemed totally beside-the-point.
Funky Donkey, the wondrous 1973 Laclede Towne free-jazz session that's just been reissued -- and chronicled in a Radar Station love letter last week -- is one-half of the improvisational-reissue puzzle; the Screamin' Mee-Mees and Hot Scott Fischer's Warp Sessions 1973, an explosion of rock so far gone that it's timeless, is the other. It sounds just as messy in the 21st century as it did in the 20th.
Maybe it's Fischer's gargling. (Is it beer? Is it whiskey?) Or maybe it's his bellowing, "I am nothing! I try to be something. I am nothing!" Or backing "vocalist" Bruce Cole's cackling, "We have come in force to unite extraplanetary perceptions." Probably it's a combination of these, and other goofy pronouncements that makes Warp Sessions such a curious and essential document of chaos.
The Screamin' Mee-Mees were/are Bruce Cole and Jon Ashline. Were they visual artists, perhaps they'd be considered "outsider artists" by snobs interested in making the distinction between "schooled" and "self-taught," but because in rock the only schooling involves ingesting heavy amounts of booze and drugs and then strapping on a guitar or sitting behind a drum kit, there's no such thing as inside or outside. Let's just say that the Mee-Mees would never add a string section to their work, would never consider recording anywhere but in the basement and would never ever record on anything other than recycled quarter-inch reel-to-reel tapes (two of them; Cole's guitar and Ashline's drums were recorded live onto one, which was then fed, with Cole playing along on bass, onto the other -- et voilà, you've got a Mee-Mees recording).
Warp Sessions: Music created with guitar, drumstick and bottle, whistle, cheap toy piano and lots of furious, wailing chaos. Purely improvised, the recording is the evil twin of Funky Donkey; where the latter was created by expert musicians seeking to be released from linear structure, Warp was created by musicians whose knowledge of their instruments consisted, it seems, only of an appreciation of the fact that, if you strike these guitar strings, or hit this bottle, or open this mouth (that of Hot Scott Fischer, who wrote for Creem when Lester Bangs was the editor), a loud noise will come out, and if you strike these instruments simultaneously, it sounds pretty cool. The recording is totally in the moment.
"Does it sound like we rehearsed?" laughs Cole from his Ferguson home at the mere suggestion of the notion. "Hell no, we didn't rehearse. We just turned on the tape and did it. We never really rehearsed. We were just down there drinking and messing around."
"Down there" is the legendary Basement studio where the Mee-Mees recorded their watershed "Live from the Basement" EP in the mid-'70s, along with their two full-lengths, 1992's Clutching Hand Monster Mitt and '96's Nude Invisible Foot Phenomenon. Those have a structure, even if it is half-assed. Warp doesn't.
"Oh man," adds Cole. "If you think that's bad, you should here the stuff we did after this one. It makes Warp Sessions sound like the Beatles." Cole says these later sessions may be released by the same label, Slippy Town, that released the most recent.
"Soon we will accompany our universes in a struggle for survival against the unknown," mumbles Cole during "I Am Nothing." What the hell is he talking about? The answer comes a moment later: "Auuiiiiyyyyuhhuhhhuhh! Uhh! Uhh! Ayyyeeeuhhh!"