Stefene Russell

Stefene Russell is St. Louis Magazine’s Culture Editor and a member of Poetry Scores, an arts collective that translates poetry into other media. Intagliata Imprints will publish her chapbook, "Inferna" , on Feburary 15.

Swn y Chwedlonol (The Legendary Sound)

This story starts with a couple of chairs.

The first: a folding steel chair, slid across a recording studio floor in 1966 by the Welsh musician John Cale. He aimed it at a stack of plates. That’s the crashing you hear at about the minute mark in “European Son (to Delmore Schwartz),” the last track on The Velvet Underground & Nico.

The second chair was tiny and silver, probably small enough to set on the palm of your hand. It was given to a Welsh poet in 1568—his name, apparently, went unrecorded—for composing the best awdl (ode) in a strict, formal poetic style called cynghanedd.

That silver chair was a miniature gadair farddol, a bardic chair. In 1176, Rhys ap Gryffydd, Prince of South Wales, held an eisteddfod, a series of music and poetry contests (that literally translates to “sit/be,” but there’s no good translation in English—“arts festival” gets offered up, but what is that in America? Raku pottery and beer and smooth jazz!). When Lord Rhys invited the winning bard to sit at his table, “chairing”  became a verb, at least for Welsh poets. Nearly 850 years later, you can pull up the BBC Wales website in early August and see headlines about the National Eisteddfod, with photographs of the winning poet, and the bardic chair; a new one is made by hand every year. Sometimes it’s tall and thin and almost in the shape of a lyre, other times, short and squat, with armrests and feet like bear paws.

As for John Cale’s folding chair, both he and it were in America where chairs are functional, not ceremonial, and things rarely follow long unbroken lines. America is all about breaking and rejiggering, about moving, about jaggedy fragmented bits that break apart and come back together in interesting ways. So the plates got chaired, not the poet, as chaser to Lou Reed’s elliptical lyrics about Schwartz, a poet broken and drunken, who rejected his elders and “spit on those under 21.” Of course Cale was a European son too, one that broke away from his coal-mining town of Garnant, where he spoke only Welsh until he started grammar school at 7, a place he says “scared,” him in its stillness and entropy. Though he was classically trained in viola (he played with the Welsh Youth Orchestra), he was organizing Fluxus concerts at Goldsmith’s before he was 20. At 21, he fled to New York on a Tanglewood scholarship, and soon found himself playing 18-hour Erik Satie pieces with John Cage and hanging out at Andy Warhol’s Silver Factory with Lou Reed.

It would be hard to diagnose exactly why this is—maybe in response to the tart, Puritan mainstream culture—but America’s music has always had a Dionysian flavor to it. Ragtime, jazz, blues, boogie-woogie, hillbilly music, rock, country, punk, hip-hop, happy hardcore, all of those weirdo tribal San Fran bands of no discernible genre—so much of it is about intoxication, whether with dollar beers or mushrooms, whether you are making the music or listening to it. Though The Velvet Underground stole its name from a seedy paperback about S&M, it’s the drug songs that feel most dangerous and true—“Venus in Furs” feels like a book report compared to “Heroin.” And though the lyrics and percussion describe the opioid experience, that crazy viola drone sprang directly from Cale’s work with minimalist composer La Monte Young and his Theatre of Eternal Music—Young enthusiastically embraced pot, LSD and peyote as part of the creative process. (TEY, also known as the Dream Syndicate, generally smoked up together before they performed.) So it is heroin with a mildly psychedelic afterburn.

In 2010, Popjunkie asked, “Are the Welsh the Most Psychedelic Nation on the Planet?” 

They mention the legendary Meic Stevens (“the Welsh Dylan”), Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci, Super Furry Animals, and Cardiff’s See Monkey Do Monkey label, whose resident bands include The Method, The Broken Vinyl Club, Houdini Dax, The Keys, The Moles and Colorama—all inspired by 1960s garage-ania, and all Welsh (except for The Moles, who hail from Bristol). It didn’t even mention the Rheola psych festival, or the Green Man Festival, or acts that may not yet have been in the public consciousness three years ago—Islet, Cate Le Bon, H. Hawkline (who is now “the Welsh Dylan,” though his theory is that’s because he’s also got a big head of curly hair). Still, watching those YouTube clips, one might find oneself nodding and saying, “Yes, they are the most psychedelic nation.”

But I would say: well, no. That’s the wrong word. The sonic markers may be similar (e.g., what pop critics love to call “swirling guitars”) but the spirit is completely different. The Holy Modal Rounders, the first band to describe itself as “psychedelic,” would attest that this phrase means drug music. In fact, the band’s original name was the Total Modal Rounders—a really stoned friend thought it was “Holy” and they liked that name better.

The Super Furry Animals have stated that their mind-expander of choice is the same as most “Northern European males”—beer. And in the case of SFA’s frontman Gruff Rhys, myth: he traipsed off to a Welsh colony in Patagonia to find his long-lost, poncho-wearing, folk-singing uncle, Rene Griffiths, and made a movie about it, Separardo! Last summer, he started a second film, American Interior, winding his way through the Midwest, playing music, interviewing people, and tracing the path of his distant relative, John Evans, who came to the U.S. in search of a tribe of “Welsh Indians,” rumored to be descendants of the Welsh prince Madoc. (We should also add that Gruff Rhys’ dad, Ioan Bowen Rees, was a white robe druid of the Gorsedd of Bards—that is, the collective of poets that’s long been a part of the National Eisteddfod.) Though Cate Le Bon’s been compared to Nico, there’s nothing in her catalog (that I’ve heard anyway) that radiates the weariness and burned-out hedonism of wrapping oneself in foil and sniffing magic markers in the Chelsea Hotel. Le Bon grew up on a farm in Penboyr, West Wales, and says she writes songs “about the sea, matters of the heart and animals—or a mish-mash of all three.”  Her songs can be dark and strange—her first record, Me Oh My, was originally called Dead Pets—but it is the vibrant darkness of the natural world, where dead things have their logical relation to the living things, and terror is in response, say, to the terrible sublime of the sea. The original wave of psychedelia sprang out of American coastal cities, like the East Village of the Holy Modal Rounders, or Owsley’s San Francisco. It was, in the parlance of the time, kind of a head trip, more thought than felt. (It was psyche-delic, after all.) Death was abstract; existential crises arrived during bad trips from iffy acid brewed in some whiskery guy’s bathtub.

For those who think I’m dissing American psychedelia, I’ll send you a screen shot of my music collection to prove otherwise. I’m just making a distinction. The argument I’m making here is similar to the one Emily Gould made in her essay for The Awl, “Barbara Comyns is Not Anyone on Acid.”  Comyns was a British painter and novelist, born in Bidford-on-Avon in 1907, and was still covered with the fairy dust of the Edwardian era, and that is the source of what sounds strange to a modern ear. As Gould notes:

“The acid part is a cop-out; her voice is clear and direct, even when describing surreal or hyperreal situations, and her crisp descriptions are not kaleidoscopic or druggy in the least.”

So perhaps if American psych is Dionysian, Welsh psych-pop is Orphic. They both call up from the underworld, but Welsh psychedelia’s not so much about pot epiphanies or machine elves; like Barbara Comyns, it too speaks clearly and directly. It drawns on the bardic chair and John Cale’s folding chair crashing into plates, eisteddfodau and punk rock, Welsh and English. It’s the sound of Huw Jones singing “Dŵr,” a song about the Llyn Celyn reservoir, which drowned the Tryweryn Valley in 1965 to provide water to Liverpool. It is the loopy organ riffs on H. Hawkline’s The Strange Uses of Ox Gall. It is protesters sitting on Trefechan bridge in February of 1963 to campaign for a bilingual country. It’s Meic Williams singing “Y Brawd Houdini,” in the’ 60s, and Super Furry Animals singing it in the ’90s. It is a tinny little transistor radio on a beach, playing records pressed by Cwmni Sain, all sung in Welsh. It’s what was wiped out by the two hours’ silence that recently descended on Radio Cymru, the result of a showdown between the BBC and the Welsh musician’s union, Eos. It is not a soundtrack for approaching the peephole of the kaleidoscope, like in America. It the sound of an unbroken line that goes back so far it makes your head feel kind of weird to think about it, and your heart too. A kind of weirdness that calls for a sober heart and a sober head. So many strata of lives and stories and songs, uncountable, yet always teetering on the brink of being lost.