Notes, Hoaxes, and Jokes: Silkworm's 'Lifestyle' - "Contempt"

Photo courtesy of Jim Newberry.

Lifestyle's sun-kissed opening track finds our heroes in languid mood, contemplating foreign climes and foreign bodies.



Label: Touch and Go
US Release Date: 2000-08-08

With a brief and elegant run of notes, bassist Tim Midyett gently announces the opening of "Contempt", the first track on Silkworm's Lifestyle, the album which is the subject of this 12-week, one track a week, Between the Grooves series. It's so slight that a listener still settling down after dropping the needle might miss it. And then suddenly, all at once, the rest of the band including Andy Cohen, the singer on "Contempt", join in. However, the vibe here is unusual. If Silkworm have a reputation (and that is meant in the most speculative sense of the conditional, i.e., “Does Silkworm’s music have a general reputation?"), then perhaps it is as a dude's band, a point noted by fan Dan Mohr in Seth Pomeroy's 2013 Silkworm documentary Couldn't You Wait?, a treasure of a film and a source we'll turn to more than once in the coming weeks. Silkworm: Three dudes who make dude music. Big guitars. Big drums. Songs about World War II. Songs about life on the road. Songs about Julius Caesar. Music to go with steaks and beer. For goodness sake, Tim Midyett is even the inventor of a delicious, world class meat rub. Dudes!

In that context, albeit a disputable one, "Contempt" is immediately  incongruous. "Do you like my thighs and my feet? / Oh yes my dear / You're heavenly," coos Andy. "You're the finest girl to ever visit Capri." This is the same Andy Cohen who opened the album Firewater with a bark of, "No more simple tunes / No more easy poon." As previously noted: Dudes. Here though, his usual, gruffish singing voice is replaced by something delicate. He sounds more like his fellow Silkworm lead singer, Tim, but much softer still. Feminine in fact. And then there's that opening exchange -- it is an exchange -- about his heavenly thighs. Our narrator is a woman.

The music rolls along leisurely, mid-paced, the Silkworm norm of bass, drums, and guitar shot through with prettifying organ played by Brett Grossman. Maybe it is encouraged by the mention of Capri, but the feeling is of warmth, of sunlight, and clear blue seas. "It's the last time I'll ever leave home / Because my memory is here in Rome," continues Andy, "And now I'm loose, after a vicious afternoon," his voice a sigh of plaintive ennui. The title of the song gives a clue; our narrator's problem soon becomes clear: "I used to think you were a man / The American turned the screw / Keep away from me / I'll keep away from you." Somewhere between Capri and Rome, a relationship has fractured and, judging by the harshness of the language, irreparably so.

"Contempt" takes the 1963 Jean-Luc Godard movie of the same name (Le Mépris) as its source text. Starring Brigitte Bardot (she of lovely lovely thighs and feet), Michel Piccoli (her husband, the one who used to be a man), and Jack Palance (that ugly American), it tells the story of the marriage of Paul and Camille, and more particularly its sharp ending. Jeremy Prokosch, an American movie producer, is currently shooting a movie adaptation of Homer's Odyssey on the island of Capri. Directed by Fritz Lang, playing himself in Contempt, the production has run into difficulties. Lang's artistic vision for the movie conflicts with Prokosch's cheap commercial concerns, and so the latter asks Paul to come to Capri to rewrite the script. From almost the moment the offer arrives it comes between Paul and Camille. And when they meet Prokosch, a tower of hubris bordering on malevolence, matters quickly escalate and their relationship degenerates. To get a slightly frivolous idea of what Contempt is like, conjure up the most stereotypically French movie you can imagine which isn't A Bout de Souffle. Characters, always passionate or studiedly indifferent, seem to be on the verge of existential crises as a matter of course and they deliver lines like, "I've noticed the more we doubt, the more we cling to a false lucidity, in hope of rationalizing what feelings have made murky." The movie (Contempt) is a masterpiece, a high watermark of post-war culture.

"Contempt" however is not a simple crib of its source, slavishly duplicating its story or themes. Indeed the inadequate synopsis above relates more of the plot than the song does. Andy Cohen uses movies as lyrical inspiration elsewhere in the Silkworm discography, most notably in the song "Ice Station Zebra" on the album Developer, and in both the cases the outcome is the same in that what we get is a completely new text. The song quotes very specific details from Contempt. For example, in addition to "Capri" and "Rome" our narrator later mentions "Fritz Lang" and "Homer". By including some clear aspects of the source and omitting others what we get is a vivid picture of a particular world, but one skewed and different from that of the movie. Indeed by leaving certain features absent and by refusing to offer a facsimile of the plot, intriguing gaps are left which the listener herself must fill in. Furthermore the embellishments upon the movie and its characters, which the song makes, have a warping effect that pushes the relationship between movie and song well beyond that of original and copy or source and translation. For example, Jack Palance pulls many grins and grimaces in Contempt, but enigmatically describing the American as wearing "a rictus of pain", as the narrator of "Contempt" does, creates an impression separate from anything in the movie. Knowing Contempt does not provide all the answers to "Contempt".

It is a perfect opening track. Its strangeness sets the listener up for what is to come in the rest of Lifestyle. The lyrics are obtuse. Andy's delivery is different from usual. I mean, he’s playing Brigitte Bardot! "Contempt" doesn't even have a guitar solo, and Silkworm are a band with serious weaponry in that department. The track sustains its mood of tender and agreeable melancholy, as described above, right to the end, punctuated only by a well judged, lolloping piano solo by Brett Grossman before the final verse; any more tightly wound or any looser and it wouldn't have fitted. This strange story of a shattered relationship is poignant, but never doleful. Any hint of despondency is immediately overtaken by the drama and intrigue of the picture that the narrator creates. By starting out on foreign territory - musically, lyrically, and literally in Rome and on Capri - "Contempt" reminds us that with Silkworm nothing is ever really usual and that our journey through Lifestyle could take us anywhere.

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