November 26, 2002

Mission of Burma: The benefits of rocking over time

In one of his introductions to Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, James Agee described the book as a work of fury, not a work of art. Art, in fact, was a mark of acceptance - a sign that a work had been drained of its ability to excite and disrupt its audience; he hoped his book could avoid such a fate. He offered a test for those unsure of the difference: get a stereo (phonograph was his word) capable of playing at an extreme volume. Then sit down and listen to something. "But I don't mean just sit down and listen," Agee wrote. "I mean this: Turn it on as loud as you can get it. Then get down on the floor and jam your ear as close into the loudspeaker as you can get it and stay there, breathing as lightly as possible, and not moving, and neither eating nor smoking nor drinking. Concentrate everything you can into hearing and into your body. You won't hear it nicely. If it hurts you, be glad of it." I'm not sure what Agee meant here; I'm not sure Agee knew what he meant here (he just might have been drunk when he wrote it). We're obviously meant to draw something from the experience, but we're not supposed to like the music, at least not enough to think of it as a work of art. If it's undeveloped as an exercise in criticism, there's still something striking about it as an approach to music. "As near as you will ever get, you are inside the music; not only inside it, you are it; your body is no longer your shape and your substance, it is the shape and substance of the music."

A Mission of Burma concert is as close as an audience will ever come to jamming their collective ear to a speaker. Ever since their unfortunate break-up in 1983, their pioneering art-punk has been influencing bands and, like so many other posthumous legends, selling better than it ever did during their career. Word has also spread about their live shows, always reputed to be the band's real strength. Mission of Burma understood, in a way that no other band before them ever did, how important volume was to a performance. There were, to be sure, various traditional rock and roll bands that supposedly liked their music loud and fast, but never enough to make volume a genuine aesthetic choice. Mission of Burma shows were punishing, enveloping the audience in waves of noise - generated both by the instruments on stage and the tape-bender stationed at the back of the venue - that made the concerts something truly visceral: heads throbbed, ears hurt, and fists waved in response. It was possible to feel the music rattling through you, just like Agee suggested, and while it's hard to explain what made this so appealing, audiences prescient enough to hear them in the early 80's knew that they were part of a privileged few, despite (or perhaps because of) the punishment of the concert. Nobody took more punishment than the members of the band, however, and their premature dissolution was caused by guitar player Roger Miller's severe case of tinnitus, a ringing in the ears, that prevented him from touring.

Nobody knows why the band started performing together again in January after nineteen dormant years. The decision to call their current tour the Inexplicable Tour suggests that the band members themselves don't know. At any rate it's a brave decision; not just any band would be willing to perform in front of an entire generation that knows them only through whispered indie rock legend and more popular acts, like Moby and REM, that ripped off their songs. It restarts the old debate about printing the truth or the legend. Judging by their efforts at the Metro on Friday night, though, there is no divergence between the truth and the legend - I can comfortably print both. Even after all this time, Mission of Burma's live show is everything it's reputed to be: a raucous, bruising, and brilliant affair.

Even given their short career, Mission of Burma was never overly prolific. They produced, in the four years they were together, one single, one EP, Signals, Calls, and Marches, and one full album, Vs. A live album of unreleased material, The Horrible Truth About Burma, was released two years after their break-up. That left, all told, only about thirty-five songs, which for post-punk brethren like the Minutemen and Husker Du was a Tuesday afternoon's work in the studio. While consistently worth listening to - and largely responsible for the band's reputation - the albums can't showcase Mission of Burma. Given the demands of the studio album, where the volume is controlled, and the melodies tend to be a little more structured, the innovative features of the band's live show can't be included. I realized this two songs into the first set Friday night, when Miller launched into the opening of "Trem Two," an unmistakable progression of minor chords that tape-head Bob Weston, who replaced original member Martin Swope on the current tour, looped together with shivers of distortion to create an overpowering sound. It was complimented by the drums and bass, which, if this is any indication of how loud Miller's guitar was, rattled the walls and the floor but could scarcely be heard.

What made the song so appealing was not the extreme volume - something that god-forsaken metal acts never realized - but the effect that the volume has; people reflexively nodded along as a jittery melody fought its way out of the noise, instantly grabbing hold. That's why the word visceral - usually a nonsense adjective in the world of music criticism - actually has some validity in this instance. The sound was ferocious, and listening to it meant standing your ground, adjusting to the volume, seeking out the melody, and taking it all in. It's an approach that's unafraid to make demands of the listener, and the long instrumental portions of songs like "All World Cowboy Romance" and "Einstein's Day" rewarded only those willing to make the effort. Even some of bass player Clint Conley's more straightforward and popular compositions - classics like "Academy Fight Song," and "That's When I Reach for My Revolver" - are similarly demanding works of barely controlled fury, a fact that became even clearer after hearing Friday night's cacophonous live versions.

Certainly such a performance isn't for everyone, but I was surprised at the diversity of the Metro's crowd. Current and former music geeks - ranging in age from eighteen to fifty - turned up for the show. A number of people, in between sets, told stories about seeing the band in the early eighties (they only played in Chicago three times, but played dozens of shows in their native Boston). For a band that had taken twenty years off, they have kept a vibrant fan base, including a great many young people who never guessed they would ever get a chance to see the band live. They occasionally took a break to acknowledge this, like when Miller joked, "This'll be funny: this next one is an old one," or when drummer Peter Prescott deadpanned after a series of equipment problems, "If you want to hear us play a good set, wait another twenty years." Hopefully Miller, who plays with a set of gun-range earphones on his head to protect what's left of his hearing, will be able to carry on until then. Given that the handful of concerts they've played this year will only enhance their mystique, I wouldn't bet against the existence of an audience for them sometime in 2022.