Music

The David Lynch Dilemma

David Lynch is very much like God. I watch his movies the way I look at the creation of the world: most of the time I can’t claim to discern what’s going on, but someone seems to have gone to a great deal of trouble.

There are some movies that require a certain commitment of time to figure out what is going on. David Lynch’s movies, I’ve become convinced, are about trying to figure out what’s going on. And that’s fine, as far as it goes. In its art-for-art’s sake, uber-pretentious, anti-commercial, anti-audience sensibility, Lynch hoists a freak flag that is, upon closer inspection, a fuck you flag. The question, as it is with all challenging art, ultimately must be: is it worth it? His films are odd and unsettling, and they are often unlike anything you’ve ever seen before. And yet: is that enough?

Well…take any of his films, then take away the attractive female characters, their inexorable (contractual?) nudity, and the handful of very brief -- but very brilliant -- scenes, and Lynch’s work seems to be a series of somethings that seek to defy being identified for what they look and smell like. You are left with an oeuvre that seems to separate viewers into three camps: the good (those who claim to “get it”), the bad (those who don’t, or can’t), and the ugly (or, the angry; those who tried to get it, failed, and then, upon repeat viewings, determine that they are unworthy and, most importantly, uninterested).

Consider me ugly. Not angry, but certainly perplexed at the consistent, and reflexive, critical accolades. And let’s acknowledge the fact that Lynch does not merely have fans, he has advocates. Defenders of the faith. Crusaders. As a proponent of acquired taste anomalies running the gamut of high and low culture and all points in between (especially the points in between), I appreciate the allure, and I don’t begrudge it. What I am curious about is, who are these people, and what is it they actually see in these films?

First -- and this may well elucidate my dilemma -- the only Lynch film that has spoken to me, post Elephant Man, is Wild at Heart, which generally seems to be ranked amongst his weaker efforts. For my money, this one could practically be validated by Willem Dafoe alone: Bobby Peru is not only indelibly sinister, sick and hilariously oleaginous, he represents what is best about David Lynch: extreme weirdness in adept (and mercifully brief) quantities. But the movie abounds with minor tour de force performances by all involved, with Nicolas Cage and Laura Dern doing some career-best work, even when their clothes are on. Wonderful supporting work is delivered by a wickedly over-the-top Diane Ladd and a typically sullen (here bordering on docile) Harry Dean Stanton.

But, of course, Blue Velvet is the one that, in order to assert one’s pointy-headed credibility, you have to sanction. I call bullshit. To be sure, I don’t fall in with the camp who loves it, but I also don’t loathe it; I just think it’s…okay. More bad than good, but containing enough intriguing scenes (“Heineken? Fuck that shit! Pabst Blue Ribbon!”) to make it memorable. But still. I saw it in the ‘80s, saw it in the ‘90s and have seen it during this decade, and it’s simply impossible to look past the (typically) improbable -- bordering on intelligence-insulting -- story line, the (typically) maudlin, fifth-rate dialogue, and the ostensibly bold assessment of American sadomasochism that quickly unravels like so much stylized soft porn. Granted, an authentic sense of surreal tension is nailed—then hammered into submission, and Dennis Hopper’s (overboard, over-praised) Frank Booth is scary enough, kind of the like the boogeyman is frightening, despite being fake. In terms of peeling back the layers of plastic conformity of an older (or even contemporary) America, captured in the notable but not revelatory opening scene, it works. That it is considered one of the seminal films of the ‘80s strikes me as disconcerting, akin to the way I’d concede that New Kids on the Block were one of the most successful bands of that decade. Mobs are mobs, even when they are different sizes.

But the mystery train truly goes off the tracks with Lost Highway, the ultimate “you’re with us or against us” entry in the Lynch catalog. For me, it really boils down to two pretty straightforward questions. One, can anyone claim to know what the movie is about? Two, can anyone claim to have actually enjoyed it? Hearing ten different people offer ten different interpretations of a movie is, in one regard, evidence of a successfully engaging work of art. But that sure seems to be setting the bar embarrassingly low for a director with Lynch’s obvious talent. (My personal favorite bent-over-backwards attempt to put lipstick on this pig is the claim that Lost Highway is a highly illusory homage of Ambrose Bierce’s masterful short story “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge”. Even making the exceedingly generous indulgence that this is the case, an adaptation of any classic work of literature should actually be good, shouldn’t it?)

Listen: weirdness for the sake of weirdness is fine, and in shrewdly doled out doses, it can be instructive and enjoyable -- like eating fish eyes, for instance. And I don’t begrudge Lynch one bit for being that one-in-a-billion artist whom remarkable numbers of critics and fans have designated as their go-to guy. My issue lies with the same fans and critics who lazily defend his work by asserting that anyone who doesn’t like it simply doesn’t get it. Remember Gary Larson’s The Far Side cartoons? It was true that if you had to explain one to someone, it was hopeless. However, if you had to explain it, you could; it would lose most of its humor and punch, but virtually every one of them was explicable. In other words, it’s a much more impressive -- and worthwhile -- piece of entertainment if it provokes or even befuddles, but is still, on some level, intelligible.

Granted, all willfully difficult artists will attract ardent (I won’t say fanatical) proponents—to a certain extent, that’s the point of their excessively abstruse vision. Too often, a self-indulgent, or unpersuasive (I won’t say incapable) effort is credited for being authentic because it is impenetrable, and that is where the fans and critics come into play with Lynch. Analysis is unnecessary, it’s already understood that the work is brilliant, and it’s a given that, with Lynch, you are about to see something that confronts your puny, preconceived notions of reality. The less sense it makes, the more adeptly he is revealing how ensnared you are in the linear charade of conventional storytelling. Or the system. Or something. Where this becomes insufferable is when esoteric artistes inherit a priori acquiescence in a fashion too similar to the ideological blank slate politicians count on from their compliant bases. We know how this works: an already-accepted conclusion is invoked, or promoted, and the appraisal (of the product, of the candidate) is liberated from subjective analysis, it’s already understood. Discourse is discarded for absolution in ways that say more about how the viewers view themselves than the film. And perhaps that is, if unconsciously, the entire point?

In the final analysis, I’ll admit that David Lynch is very much like God. I watch his movies the way I look at the creation of the world: most of the time I can’t claim to discern what’s going on, but someone seems to have gone to a great deal of trouble. Beauty, not to mention intelligent design, is always in the brain of the beholder. The question remains: is that enough?

Frank Booth, Bobby Peru and the Mystery Man:

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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