A Musical Journey with Nicklas: Part 8 – The Foetus Symphony Orchestra Feat. Lydia Lunch – York [First Exit to Brooklyn] – 1997
Ever wonder what the soundtrack to the apocalypse would sound like? The decay and corruption of human civilisation? The Foetus Symphony Orchestra’s five part oratorio York [First Exit to Brooklyn] comes pretty damned close to exactly that.
When I bought this album back in 1997 it was not as a Foetus album but as a Lydia Lunch album. That was in fact how my local record-dealer presented it to me and thus that is how I first listened to it. Does it matter either way? Yes it does! Because your expectations of an album, movie, book or any other artistic experience are all about the context in which you encounter them.
I was vaguely familiar with the works of Jim G Thirlwell through his previous collaborations with Lydia Lunch under the name of Clint Ruin (Stinkfist and Don’t Fear the Reaper) and even though I had a few various foetus eps. However – even though songs like Finely Honed Machine, Sick Minutes, Wash It All Off and Today I Started Slogging again had all more or less caught my ears – I had not really had my big Foetus revelation.
You see – despite all archival evidence – my local record dealer was as usual completely right. York isn’t really a Foetus album at all. It is a Clint Ruin & Lydia Lunch album. Confusing? I know! The archival aspects of Jim G Thirlwell’s discography can be quite confusing and sometimes that is the case with Lydia Lunch too due to all the various collaborations and different bands she’s worked with.
That said; York was recorded live in Brooklyn at The Anchorage – one of the huge cavernous stone pillars that support the Brooklyn Bridge – on July 18 1996 in a one time performance and is centred around a lateral libretto consisting of a narrative written and improvised by Lunch and the sung lyrics are by Thirlwell. The musical score is based on emotive cues and descriptions of form and tempo with short pre-composed themes around which the nine performers improvise.
The title refers to the first subway station in Brooklyn coming from Manhattan – York Street station close to the housing project D.U.M.B.O (Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass) where Lunch and Thirlwell used to live during the late 80s. Much of the narrative and lyrics are thus inspired by their own experiences of the neighbourhood – sometimes said to be the most dangerous part of New York City – and the crimes they witnessed or that was committed against them – by others as well as by themselves.
Whether or not the title is in any way inspired by the novel Last Exist to Brooklyn by Hubert Selby Jr I dare not say but I do like the idea that it might be.
I would advice you to fasten your seatbelts and have some huggy blanket or stuffed animal by your side as we enter into the bleak and horrifying world of York. There are few albums that have the ability to scare the living daylights out of the listener and at first you don’t get that from York either but make no mistake. Black Adonis sneaks up on you with its slow, almost mellow drones of didgeridoo with some distant dissonant saxophones. As you slowly start to get into Lydia’s narrative of despair and desperation it ambushes you about half way through and like a cat playing with it’s prey let you slip away wounded. When Lydia picks up the narrative again with the repeated line: “You live around here?”, it’s like that scene from Taxi Driver when DeNiro repeatedly and with progressing aggression asks the mirror if it’s talking to him and just as Lydia warns you to watch your back Thirlwell jumps in for the kill with a voice that can only come straight out of a bottomless abyss. There is nowhere left to run or hide.
At this point I was quite literally petrified and some subconscious part of my mind was probably considering turning the music off but my body refused to comply. So I was carried along into the Crumpled City with a feeling of being stalked by the predators of an abandoned urban wasteland. Slowly but with an absolute certainty Crumpled City drives you towards the same kind of panic attack that cause rabbits and deer to just stare into the oncoming headlights as the car runs them down splattering their guts and brains all over the highway.
By now you’re probably asking yourself: “Why on earth would anyone not only continue to listen but actually end up loving this?”
And it is indeed a valid question to which I won’t pretend to have an easy answer. But; fear releases a number of hormones into our blood as part of our primal fight or flight response. The two most significant are adrenaline and endorphin. Adrenaline gives us a momentary rush of strength allowing us to run faster or lift heavier objects than we would normally be capable of. Endorphin is the body’s own natural painkiller which can momentarily makes us so impervious to pain that we can actually run on a broken leg. Both these hormones are among the most potent and addictive drugs known to us.
They are mostly what drive daredevils to keep pushing their limits by performing more and more daring stunts well beyond reason. Their audience too is addicted to the same escalation of danger. Why else are we more fascinated by let’s say a tight-rope walker without a safety net than with? Or better yet performing his feat between two skyscrapers. Or even across the Grand Canyon. Because the danger the performers expose themselves to makes it all that much more entertaining. To quote a song by Einstürzende Neubauten: “No Beauty Without Danger.” I won’t elaborate on that statement but do give it some thought and the beauty of York might start to make perfect sense.
The horror of York is of course of a completely different nature though fuelled by the same basic chemistry. It is as implied earlier the horror of the decline and corruption of human civilisation. It is also the horror of over-consumption and the ever growing mountains of waste, human as well as other. It is the horror of those who slipped through the cracks of the white-washed façade of society, without a safety net. It is exactly the kind of horror that lead to increasingly violent crimes, urban riots and the abuse of power accepted in order to suppress and contain it.
“Anyone who is willing to give up a little liberty for a little security deserves neither and will lose both” – Benjamin Franklin. This is of course true but the questions it leaves unanswered are: “Whose liberty? Whose security?”
York offers neither solution nor solace. It offers nothing but the horror and despair, leaving you with the same lack of hope shared by those who live in these slum-like suburbs where criminal gangs become a law unto themselves – much like the Sicilian mafia in their earliest days – effectively waging what can sometimes only be defined as civil-war – mostly lost in the media-static of the latest celebrity scandal, award show, sport event et cetera.
By the time the album was over I was no longer scared as much as I was angry – correction I was furious and depressed – that the world we live in allows a select few to cannibalize on earth’s dwindling resources while at the same time sodomizing the rest.
Yes we may still have a comparatively well-functioning welfare system in Sweden but all it takes is a tear in the safety net …
Unfortunately I could not find the entire album available on YouTube so here are three of the five songs on the album.
Track 1. Black Adonis: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8H9hNrHFFso
Track 3. Puddlin’ Doorway: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ezx5lSyMiPw
Track 4. Egomaniacs with Insecurity Problems: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T3dzUZ8Qq1Y
Av: Nicklas Ekström i Landskrona