Tuesday 7 February 2023


eleven songs for the hydrogen jukebox

‘everything, even the explosions in the distances might stay as long as they were to no purpose … as long as no one had to die … couldn’t it be that way? only excitement, sound and light, a storm approaching in the summer (to live in a world where that would be the day’s excitement), only kind thunder?’ (Thomas Pynchon, Gravity’s Rainbow)

Introduction: eleven songs

In 2003, I made a performance called Eleven Songs with a friend Katja Wolf, as part of the Goat Island summer school in Chicago. It was in 11 parts. The materials I generated came out of drifting around an area on the South Side of Chicago to consider what remained of things that were no longer there – and where sounds went when they’re not heard anymore. In particular, I was drawn to the Slaughteryards – ‘Packingtown’ – ‘Porkopolis’ – the biggest meat processing site in America which had closed in 1971 after more than 100 years in operation. It was huge - a square mile of scientifically rationalized ‘dis/assembly lines’, in which it was claimed that every part of the pig was used ‘apart from the squeal’. By 1893 1/5th of all Chicago workers were employed there in notoriously appalling conditions. It’s clear it was an extreme place, full of noise and blood and poverty – and the primary air polluter in Illinois for many years.

In Upton Sinclair’s famous book about the Union Stockyards The Jungle (1906), he wrote: ‘One could not stand and watch very long without beginning to deal in symbols and similes, and to hear the hog-squeal of the universe. Was it permitted to believe that there was nowhere on the earth, or above the earth, where they were requited for all this suffering?’

In one of many books about hauntings in Chicago - mysterious presences located in particular places around the city - I came across the story of the pig’s squeal that some people claimed could still be heard in this area.

So, I walked and drifted in search of whatever traces I might find: in particular I was looking for whatever remained of one building. After a great deal of getting lost, eventually I found what I was looking for: or rather the empty space where it once stood …

On the edge of the former Slaughteryards, at 4300 Halsted, an abandoned site that had been the International Amphitheatre - this was where the Beatles had played a concert in 1964, on their 1st national US tour, it was the time of ‘Beatlemania’, the Ed Sullivan show, and so on. A young Lin Hixson was there with her older sister. All she could remember were tiny figures in the distance, she could barely see them – and the incessant screaming. During my research, I discovered that the Beatles were showered with thousands of jelly-beans after a casual remark by George Harrison that had been picked up by the media – it was his ‘favorite snack food’.

They played for 34 minutes – they played 11 songs – and were paid 30,000 dollars.

This same building had been used for big political conventions: during the Cold War era, half of all Democratic & Republican National Conventions had been held there. Including in 1968, the infamous Democratic National Convention – scene of anti-war protestors, the Yippies’ “Festival of Life”, Mayor Daley’s notoriously hard-line police crackdown – conflict between the ‘flower children’ and the ‘pigs’ was broadcast on national TV. Allen Ginsberg, who was there with Jean Genet and William Burroughs, wrote about it. These chaotic and repressive events led to the trial of the so-called Chicago 8 in 1969: a high-profile scapegoating of 8 people indicted for conspiring to incite riots – including Abbie Hoffmann, Tom Haydn, Bobby Seale – all of them were eventually acquitted.

Nothing remained of this huge complex in 2003: just bare earth, some blue and white wild flowers, some footprints in the dried mud: an empty space. It had been bulldozed in the 1990s after playing host to its final events: a Mexican rodeo, and a Halloween season of the ‘world’s largest haunted house’. Now it was just a still point in the turning world: a place of erasure, disappearance, absence – although perhaps its emptiness still contained holes in time-space, after-images, echoes, if one only had the eyes to see and the ears to hear …

On the way back towards the train station to go back to the city, I stopped in a café for a bacon sandwich, a kind of small perverse thank you to all of those pigs. Outside on the wall, a sign which read: ‘the world’s best chili, beef ground daily on premises’. Inside, an old guy called Lou, wearing a rather battered Stetson, was doing animal impressions for the waitress. He would make a noise, and then there’d be a pause while she thought about what it might be. After one particularly mysterious sound from Lou, she thought long and hard, and then finally said: ‘Is it a zebra?’


My materials today are also in 11 parts: ‘11 songs’. But whereas the Chicago material was about layered temporal strata within one place, and the connections their contiguity seemed to enable, today I’m proposing to hover around a particular moment in time as a mechanism to invite a fleeting gathering of other places, people, events occurring at that same time. So, a spatial drift within a precise temporal frame.

The time is early June 1957, when I was born into a nuclear family in the southern part of central Africa, with scar tissue on my lungs from intra-uterine foetal TB.

In large part the materials I’ve assembled today – including almost all of the images projected behind me - spill out of a copy of LIFE magazine that I found in Chicago in 2003; it’s the edition from the week of my birth. The lead stories concern misgivings about the safety of nuclear tests in the Nevada desert; and the joys of big game hunting in Africa. Elsewhere, and at exactly the same time, in San Francisco Shigeyoshi Murao and Laurence Ferlinghetti of City Lights Books were arrested and charged with obscenity for the distribution of Allen Ginsberg’s Howl - and in Hollywood, at MGM studios, Elvis Presley was shooting Jailhouse Rock. Along with Gillian Welch, and some fragments from her album Time: The Revelator, these are my coordinates and companions on this associational drift. Oh, and my mother …

When I was a kid, I remember two cards my mother had tucked into the corner of her mirror in her bedroom: one was of a young Elvis Presley, from the late 1950s; the other was of George Best, looking like a Beatle. Her name was Brenda. Just before she died in England, I sent her a card from Australia with a Glen Baxter cartoon of a man in a pith helmet sprinting away from a towering volcanic eruption & ducking for cover from the cloud of debris. The caption read - ‘I’ll never forget the first time I met Brenda’. After she died I found it propped up in front of her mirror, between two ivory pigs.

This is for Brenda.

1. I want to sing that rock and roll

I want to sing that rock and roll,
I want to 'lectrify my soul,
'Cause everybody been making a shout
So big and loud, been drowning me out.
I want to sing that rock and roll.

I want to reach that glory land.
I want to shake my savior's hand,
And I want to sing that rock and roll.
I want to 'lectrify my soul,
'Cause everybody been making a shout
So big and loud, been drowning me out.
I want to sing that rock and roll.

I been a-traveling near and far,
But I want to lay down my old guitar,
And I want to sing that rock and roll.
I want to 'lectrify my soul,
'Cause everybody been making a shout
So big and loud, been drowning me out.
I want to sing that rock and roll.
I want to sing that rock and roll.

2. Plumbbob / Priscilla

Operation Plumbbob was a series of 24 nuclear tests conducted at the Nevada Test Site between late May and early October 1957. They included effects tests on military and civilian structures, radiation and bio-medical studies – with bombs placed on tall towers, suspended from high-altitude balloons, and the first ever underground test. One test involved the largest troop manoeuvre ever associated with US nuclear testing: 18,000 military personnel. Another – Hood, on 5 July – was at 74 kt the largest ever atmospheric test in the continental US – 5 times the size of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima. The flash of this thermonuclear device was seen by an airline pilot flying over Hawaii, over 800 miles away.

The radioactive fallout from the Plumbbob tests drifted widely, as far as Oregon and New England.

Priscilla, a 37 kiloton bomb exploded on June 24th 1957,was the fifth in the Plumbbob series. Near Ground Zero at Frenchman Flat were 719 live pigs dressed in specially tailored military uniforms to test the fabrics’ abilities to protect against thermal radiation. Other pigs were placed in pens at varying distances from the epicenter behind large sheets of glass to test the effects of flying debris on ‘living targets’; they were harnessed in such a way as to force them to meet the blast face first, and their eyes were taped open. The explosion was bigger than expected …

Slightly further away were soldiers in trenches, one of whom, Marine Lieutenant Thomas Saffer, wrote a first-hand account: ‘A thunderous rumble like the sound of thousands of stampeding cattle passed directly overhead, pounding the trench line. Accompanying the roar was an intense pressure that pushed me downward. The shock wave was traveling at nearly 400 miles per hour, pushed toward us by the immense energy of the explosion. Overcome by fear, I opened my eyes. I saw that I was being showered with dust, dirt, rocks and debris so thick that I could not see 4 feet in front of me … A light many times brighter than the sun penetrated the thick dust, and I imagined that some evil force was attempting to swallow my body and soul … ”.

The blast shattered windows at the control point 14 miles away, and blew swinging doors from their hinges. The mushroom cloud rose quickly to more than 40,000 feet.

I was less than 3 weeks old.

3. A little hoarse

A few weeks earlier, on the second day of shooting Jailhouse Rock, 22-year old Elvis Presley was working on Alex Romero’s prison cell dance sequence. He threw himself into it with such abandon that he swallowed one of the temporary caps for his teeth as he was sliding down a pole. Elvis told the assistant director that he thought he could feel something rattling around in his chest. A doctor was called, but he told Elvis it was all in his imagination; he was fine. Everyone scrabbled around on the floor looking for the cap, but with no success. An hour or so later, Elvis said, ‘You know that scratch that I think I feel. It’s moved. It’s over to the left now’. ‘No, no, it’s all in your mind’. ‘It’s in my mind, is it? Listen to this’. He breathed out and you could hear a whistling sound.

It turned out that Elvis had aspirated the cap, which had lodged in his lung. The next day a surgeon removed it. ’We got it’, he said, ‘we just had to – we had to part the vocal chords and put the tool through and get in the lung. Then the damn thing broke in two, and we had to get one piece out, and then … the other’.

Elvis was a little hoarse for a couple of days.

4. Sea-journey on the highway (Howl)

angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night […]

back yard green tree cemetery dawns, wine drunkenness over the rooftops, storefront borough of teahead joyride neon blinking traffic light, sun and moon and tree vibrations in the roaring winter dusks of Brooklyn, ashcan rantings and kind king light of mind

who chained themselves to subways for the endless ride from Battery to holy Bronx on Benzedrine until the noise of wheels and children brought them down shuddering mouth-wracked and battered bleak of brain all drained of brilliance in the drear light of Zoo […]

who sank all night in submarine light of Bickford’s floated out and sat through the stale beer afternoon in desolate Fugazzi’s, listening to the crack of doom on the hydrogen jukebox […]

aaah, while you are not safe I am not safe, and now you’re really in the total animal soup of time […]

in my dreams you walk dripping from a sea-journey on the highway across America in tears to the door of my cottage in the Western night

5. Just in case

The Japanese-American photographer George Yoshitake was one of a number of civilian photographers employed by the military to document the nuclear tests in Nevada, and later in the South Pacific. In a New York Times interview earlier this year, George (now 82, and one of the few test site photographers still alive) remembers: ‘In Nevada we were maybe 5 or 6 miles away, and we could see the shock waves rolling across the valley floor, the dust being kicked up. We were prepared for the blast when it came, and we could feel its heat when it came about 10 or 15 seconds afterwards. At that time I thought it was only a job and I really didn’t give it much thought’.

'One afternoon I was at Lookout Mountain right here in Hollywood, and I got a call from a Woody Mark. He said: `George, I need you out here tomorrow for a special test'. I got there that night and he said: `Tomorrow morning you're going to go out with five other guys and you're going to be standing at ground zero'. I said, `Ground zero?' He said. `Yeah, but the bomb's gonna go off 10,000 feet above you.' I said, `Well, what kind of protective gear am I going to have?' He said, `None'.

'I remember I had a baseball hat, so I wore that just in case'.

6. Elvis Presley Blues

I was thinking that night about Elvis
Day that he died, day that he died
I was thinking that night about Elvis
Day that he died, day that he died
Just a country boy that combed his hair
He put on a shirt his mother made and he went on the air

And he shook it like a chorus girl
He shook it like a Harlem queen
He shook it like a midnight rambler, baby,
Like you never seen / Like you never seen / Never seen

I was thinking that night about Elvis
Day that he died, day that he died
I was thinking that night about Elvis
Day that he died, day that he died
How he took it all out of black and white
Grabbed his wand in the other hand and he held on tight

And he shook it like a hurricane
He shook it like to make it break
He shook it like a holy roller, baby
With his soul at stake / With his soul at stake

When he shook it and he rang like silver
He shook it and he shine like gold
He shook it and he beat that steam drill, baby
Well bless my soul, what's a-wrong with me?
I’m itching like a man on a fuzzy tree, on a fuzzy tree – fuzzy tree

7. ‘Language & themes’

The American Library Association reports that, over the last 20 years or so, the themes in books that are most likely to arouse the greatest number of complaints are – in descending order – sexual explicitness, offensive language, occultism and Satanism, promotion of homosexuality, violence, anti-family values, and subject matter offensive to religion.

Titles that recur at the head of the list of so-called ‘dangerous’ books are: Slaughterhouse Five, by Kurt Vonnegut (promoting deviant sexual behaviour, sexually explicit); Catcher in the Rye, by JD Salinger (sexual references, undermines morality); John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath (vulgar language), and Of Mice & Men (filth); Harry Potter by JK Rowling (anti-Christian Satanism); I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou (language & themes); Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye (language).

Two classics that have made recent lists are Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales (lewdness), and Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night (teaching alternative lifestyles).

8. Open secret

The Sheahans were just one of the families unwittingly caught up in the Nevada nuclear tests. They’d been mining silver at Groom Range since the 1890s, in an area the military conceived of as ‘largely unpopulated’. In the early 1950s, they had a visit from a ‘polite’ man from the Atomic Energy Commission who told them that there would be some testing at nearby Yucca Flats. The Sheahans had just built a new hundred thousand dollar mill.

One night before dawn their house shook, the front door burst open, and several windows shattered.

Some months into the tests, some AEC men arrived to tell the Sheahans there may be some danger from radioactive fallout; they left monitoring equipment for the family to take samples after the blasts. The clouds kept coming, like rainstorms sweeping over the valley, except that dust rather than water fell. The Sheahans began to see cattle with silver-dollar-sized white spots on their backs, found dead animals with the same white spots, and noticed wildlife becoming scarcer.

On one occasion Dan Sheahan encountered a herd of wild horses that had wandered on to his land, with their eyes burnt out, empty sockets left by a blast.

A year later, the airforce began strafing the Sheahan property with planes. Then one day, during lunch, a high-explosive incendiary bomb hit the mill and blew it up.

After Dan and Martha Sheahan both died of cancer, their sons continued to try to work the mine until 1984, when the land was suddenly declared off-limits for ‘national security reasons’. 89,000 acres of Nevada public land – 144 square miles – was forcibly closed, creating a buffer zone: a zone of invisibility, insulating what is now Area 51, purportedly the site of so-called ‘Black Projects’. Formally, to this day, this area ‘doesn’t exist’ - it’s literally ’ob-scene’ / off-stage; although of course it’s an ‘open secret’, and it’s there for all to see on Google Earth …

9. Whichaway to turn

Someday my baby, when I am a man,
and others have taught me the best that they can
they'll sell me a suit, they
ll cut off my hair
And send me to work in tall buildings

Meanwhile, over at the MGM studios in Hollywood in early June 1957, Elvis was being interviewed by a journalist during a break in filming.

In the first few weeks in LA he’d met Glenn Ford, John Ford, Yul Brynner, Kim Novak, and Robert Mitchum. One evening in Elvis’s penthouse apartment at the Beverley Wilshere, Sammy Davis Jnr. had scared the hell out of Elvis with his impression of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.

So it's goodbye to the sunshine, goodbye to the dew
goodbye to the flowers, and goodbye to you
I'm off to the subway, I must not be late
m going to work in tall buildings

At MGM Elvis had been given Clark Gable’s dressing rooms; and while he talked to the columnist, Joe Hyams, he ate his lunch. A bowl of gravy, a bowl of mashed potatoes, nine slices of well-done bacon, two pints of milk, a large glass of tomato juice, a lettuce salad, six slices of bread, and four pats of butter.

When Im retired, my life is my own
I made all the payments, it's time to go home
and wonder what happened betwixt and between
when I went to work in tall buildings

'I don’t feel like I’m property’, Elvis told Hyams. ‘I can’t get it into my head that I’m property. People tell me you can’t do this or that, but I don’t listen to them. Ain’t nobody can tell you how to run your life. I do what I want. I can’t change, and I won’t change … If I had to drop it all I could, but I wouldn’t like it … I get lonely as hell sometimes. A lot of times I feel miserable - don’t know whichaway to turn …’

So it's goodbye to the sunshine, goodbye to the dew
goodbye to the flowers, and goodbye to you
I'm off to the subway, I must not be late
m going to work in tall buildings
10. Visitations
In the night, the door to my room swings open oh so slowly and in comes my mother, looking elegant and much younger than she was when she died over 20 years ago. She is pretending to be a ghost. She creeps towards me playing the game of spooking her kid. She jumps on top of me on the bed, making ridiculous theatrical ghoul noises, oohs and aahs, and we wrestle. For a moment, I'm genuinely frightened and try to bite her, my heart pumping. After a moment, we pause. My head comes up from under the covers, our eyes meet, and I realise it's a game.

'Hello love', she says, sitting up, smiling. 'I'm a ghost'.

When I wake up in the morning, the door is still open ...
A few nights later, we’re creeping alongside a wall at night, hand in hand, in silence. We don't want to be caught, and are walking quietly but freely on the grass. The wall goes on and on. We keep going where we are going. Then a small warm animal noise in the darkness in front of us: horse breath. We stop.

To one side - the direction we are heading - a group of horsemen are gathering quietly: they look like hussars in uniform, their swords are drawn, the horses' flanks catch the low light. The brief flare of a brass cuirasse, the glint of an eye. The horses paw the ground.

Then to the other side - the direction from which we've come - other horsemen walk slowly into the half-light, like actors quietly taking their place on the stage, their swords also at the ready. Gradually the numbers grow until all are present.

A silent stand-off, as the horses fidget; tiny sounds of metal, bits and blade. The calm before some sort of storm in this field of intersecting gazes.
We are caught in the middle, looking one way then the other. The confrontation is nothing to do with us, but we have no choice but to be there as it unfolds around us. Witnesses.

We wait. No one makes a move.

11. Silver vision (I dream a highway back to you)

I'm an indisguisable shade of twilight
Any second now I'm gonna turn myself on
In the blue display of the cool cathode ray
I dream a highway back to you.

Hang overhead from all directions
Radiation from the porcelain light
Blind and blistered by the morning white
I dream a highway back to you.

Sunday morning at the diner
Hollywood trembles on the verge of tears
I watched the waitress for a thousand years
Saw a wheel within a wheel, heard a call within a call
I dreamed a highway back to you.

Step into the light, poor Lazarus
Don't lie alone behind the window shade
Let me see the mark death made
I dream a highway back to you.

What will sustain us through the winter?
Where did last year’s lessons go?
Walk me out into the rain and snow
A silver vision come molest my soul
I dream a highway back to you.

Goodnight. Thank you for coming.

Material drawn from Rebecca Solnit’s Savage Dreams; Peter Guralnick’s biography of Elvis Presley, Last Train to Memphis; from Allen Ginsberg’s Howl; Peter Kuran’s How to Photograph an Atomic Bomb; Bill Morgan & Nancy J Peters (eds), Howl on Trial; Upton Sinclair's The Jungle; Catherine Caufield, Multiple Exposures; Gillian Welch’s Time: The Revelator, and her version of John Hartford’s ‘In Tall Buildings’.

Images from Life magazine, June 1957, and elsewhere.

Big thanks to Sue for singing with me ...

A version of these texts was first presented as a solo performance-presentation as part of 'The Doers, The Dreamers, The Drifters' at Islington Mills, Salford, on 6 November 2010. The festival was curated by Swen Steinhauser and Laura Mansfield, and supported by ACE, Salford University and Islington Mills. For further details, see here

Later versions of these materials were also presented at an AHRC network symposium 'Representing Environmental Change', The Anatomy Theatre, King's College London (May 2011); and as part of the PSi cluster symposium 'Encounters in Synchronous Time' at Bios in Athens, Greece (November 2011)

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