When one of the members of April Smith’s band, the Great Picture Show, hauls a small suitcase up on the stage and turns it into a rhythm instrument, slapping it and hitting it with a tambourine, he connects the show to a whole tradition of American displacement and weirdness.
April Smith, whose recent single I can’t stop hearing in my head and whistling to myself, clearly falls into the sub genre of indie-inflected Billie Holiday followers, of young white women jazz singers, like Norah Jones, but there’s also a pop sensibility and, with the make-shift instrument, a connection to this other, reoccurring element of American music. We saw it a lot with the “freak folk” side of indie music, this injection of strangeness. Sometimes it was a weird voice, a weird look, weird religious references or references to secret histories, weird stage settings or costume design, though maybe the most common thing was the weird instrument. In some cases this is a common instrument that just isn’t used in pop music, like Bob Dylan’s recent use of the accordion or Joanna Newsome’s harp, and other times it’s stranger. Other times it’s like an instrument you might find moldering in the attic next to Civil War photos, somehow always known and never, historical and imaginary, familiar and so profoundly freakish.
Tom Waits specializes in exuberantly using strange instruments and strange things as instruments: the calliope! glockenspiel! harmonium and chromelodeon! chairs, brake drums and Indonesian seed pods, battery-operated bullhorns and pianos hit with 2x4s! He started doing this with the album Swordfishtrombones, which, obviously, is named for exactly the kind of instrument that doesn’t exist but which, if it did, would be found with owl-eaten mouse carcasses filling the horn end and covered in dust in the attic where the one-legged German immigrant and Union vet would have left it when the band broke up in 1884 and he had to skip town with the sister of one of his wives.
Waits, when he talks about his use of strange sounds, tries to emphasize the diverseness of music, and question what counts as music, and to make a point about the richness of natural sound.
“I remember I was doing Swordfishtrombones,” he says, “and somebody took a stool – a metal stool – and started dragging it across the studio floor to move it out of the way. And I said, ‘That’s really thrilling. Do that again and abundantly and carefully and repeatedly, please.'”
There’s a sense, here, that the weird instrument is like the musical equivalent of the noble savage. And there’s something American about that. There’s also, I think, especially with some of the freak folk stuff I find to be annoying and trying too hard, this idea that the make-shift musical instruments bestow an authentic “something” upon the proceedings. That lo-fi and makeshift is always better, always realer. There is something else to these instruments too, though, something I like a lot and something that made me like April Smith and the Great Picture Show more when I saw the man beating on the little suitcase. It’s the sense of displacement, of strangeness. Of mystery. The sense that America is, finally, weird and exciting and unknown.
Greil Marcus, writing about Bob Dylan’s Basement Tapes and the idea of an “old, weird America,” says this element of American music is “an insistence that against every assurance to the contrary, America itself [is] a mystery.”
There is, most of the time and in most fields of American rhetoric, in music and also politics and 12th grade social studies, American studies, the way we normally talk and in our collective memory, the idea that America is simple. It is knowable and known and uncomplicated. It can be incorporated into a political message or dismissed by a suburban kid who has spent a semester abroad. It is simple enough, already so known and intimately familiar, that it doesn’t even have to be discussed except for some code words and waves, the names of types and some icons. Marcus says this is the “known history” that, when a weird instrument is played, just dissolves.
“There is,” he writes, “a theme: displacement, restlessness, homelessness, the comic worry of ‘a people,’ as Constance Rourke wrote of Americans as they were when the Civil War began, ‘unacquainted with themselves, strange to the land, unshaped as a nation.'”
America is a strange place and we are, still, “strange to the land.” There’s a temptation to sanitize America, to scrub it up for conventions, but this a place where rich and powerful men like William Randolph Hearst go a little crazy and build nonsensical castles. This is a place where fortunes have been made on the manufacture of dynamite, and moguls like Howard Hughes become recluses worried about germs and send out underlings to look for clean blood and bring back a sandwich at 2 a.m. This is where old Quaker heretics have their skulls dug up by newspaper editors and inspire poets to imagine new, American religions, where preachers can make millions on TV, where there are Bibles in every hotel and every state has sites of failed utopias, and former cults and communes.
It’s cacophony, and, as President James Buchanan once said, cacophony is the “sound of democracy.”
America is a weird, weird place, where high school math teachers devote their retirements to trying to debunk Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity and Einstein’s brain is kept in a glass jar. This is a place where lives are still shaped by what’s on the radio. Whole cities of people are out on the interstate and tent communities of registered sex offenders have formed under bridges. We invented jazz and the Klu Klux Klan. We invented the six-shooter and the celebrity impersonator, support groups and happy hour, slam poetry and art exhibits in airports. This is a place where slaves could buy themselves and then go on to own others. We annually reenact Civil War battles, complete with cannons and puffs of dirt and smoke set to explode in fields. One of our greatest books is about a whale. Another’s about fishing for Marlin.
This is fantastic, though, and so much more interesting and fascinating than the flattened version that most of us have in our heads. It’s easy to turn America into a jingle, a slick, 30-second spot with a message that’s crisp and actionable. When we say, as we are always saying, what America means, we make it simple and leave the clutter and confusion, the contradictions and craziness. But America is also cacophony. America sounds weird.
And that cacophony, it seems to me, can be invoked with a swordfishtrombone. Displacement might be best played on upside-down plastic paint tubs, or a chair, an old calliope, a Sarrusaphone or a Stroh violin, which is like a violin with a horn appendage attatched. That mystery and weirdness, the familiar that’s strange and still unshaped and the known that’s forgotten but yet felt like the uneasy echo of a fiery, sin-centered sermon, might well fit into the little suitcase that travels with April Smith and the Great Picture Show, getting hauled up on stage and slapped to the beat of a joyous, catchy, quirky song.