Sunday, April 28, 2013

LETTER FROM NYC: SLACKED OFF, column
Melody Maker, May 30 1992

by Simon Reynolds


Last year, the cult movie in America was Slacker: a low-budget snapshot of the drifting, shiftless, decentred life of the twentysomething hangers-on and burn-outs who inhabit the bohemian fringes of the University of Austin, Texas. The film's 28 year old writer/director, Richard Linklater first became aware of the slacker phenomenon when bumming around college towns in the US. Laterally mobile, slackers have rejected careerism and devoted themselves to "daydreaming as productive activity". Drifting through Austin's summer streets, Linklater's camera bumps into a hundred of these ne'er-do-wells, eavesdropping on their bizarre monologues and debates (usually concerning conspiracy theory, crackpot mysticism, or elaborate validations of their own apathy), and observing their peculiar rites.

Slackers are beatniks without the whooping, joyous get-up-and-go, hippies without the hope, punks without the will-to-power. But "beat" is probably the best parallel, since Kerouac's term meant both exhausted and beatifically blissed-out. Travel was a quest for satori, the sublime moment. But slackers are shagged out before they even step out the door: they experience satori by wandering listlessly through their own neighbourhood, flitting through TV channels in search of absurdity, or trawling the kitschy detritus of dead pop culture.

As well as the movie, there's an amusing book about the poignant plight of twentysomethings who never got on the career ladder (Generation X by Doug Coupland, Abacus), and even an art movement (installations that mostly consist of
random accretions of refuse, kitschy flotsam and personal souvenirs). American slackerdom is very similar to our own (post-Thatcher, somewhat beleagured) "dole culture", not least in that it's where all interesting bands spawn from. One scene in the film takes place in an Austin club, where a band engage in slovenly performance art in front of an audience of six pals. And there's a cameo performance from Theresa ex-Butthole, as a unhinged deadbeat trying to score drug money by flogging what she claims is Madonna's cervical smear specimen (complete with a pubic hair). And of course, the whole slacker sensibility was prefigured years ago in indie rock. Dinosaur Jr, Butthole Surfers, Sonic Youth, all trailblazed the slacker mix of kitsch and mysticism, the fascination with extremists and psychos; Daydream Nation was almost the last word about the lifestyle, unmoored drifting taken to the brink of schizophrenia.

In fact, it was just the beginning. Nirvana are slackerhood gone mainstream (Cobain's narcolepsy is THE slacker disease). Mercury Rev's Yerself Is Steam and Pavement's Slanted and Enchanted are masterpiece crystallisations of the sensibility, reality as viewed thru the off-kilter kaleidoscope eyes of folk who've slipped outside the schedules of productive life. Rev and Pavement both share an uncanny affinity with the Krautrock of Faust, Amon DuuL II and Can: drivelling streams of semi-consciousness, found sounds, haphazard hotch-potched stylistic jump-cuts, deadpan wit confounded by kosmic noise, blissful bafflement. And there's more of this stuff coming thru: look out for Unrest, whose Imperial f.f.r.r. combines oblique, translucent dream-pop with a bizarre gamut of pop kultur obsessions. As American bands cotton onto the "when
you're awake you're still in a dream" vibe of post-Valentine noise (MBV are real hip here, and starting to influence a whole new breed of US bands), slacker rock is going to get even weirder and wired-er.

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