Devil Doll

Or there’s always this method, she posted, adding a link to the trailer for Devil Doll, an old MGM horror from 1936. Born of a revenge crazed mind, the screen said. The strangest story ever told. Lionel Barrymore looking twisted, Maureen O’Sullivan looking innocent, Robert Grieg looking quite unlike a butler. Will you dare believe what your eyes behold? it asks. I can’t remember why she posted this.

But it reminded me of a very noisy band from the very weird Basel, Switzerland scene in the late 80’s. The band was called Fluid Mask and they released a huge mess of a double album called, I think, Fluid Mask. I thought it was pretty great. You wouldn’t. Well, a few of you might, but most of you would have pulled it off the turntable and frisbeed it off my balcony as far as it would go. Jazz fans, rock fans, no matter. It just irritated everybody.

I foolishly sold that album for too much money a long time ago.  I am a greedy man. I sold it even though Fluid Mask had a song called Devil Doll that was a favorite of mine. It’s not on YouTube. One night when I should have been doing something constructive I looked and looked. I gave up on the thing. I have had zillions of records and CDs and cassettes and memories that I used to have but are gone now. Music is ephemeral like that. The Night Chicago Died stays in your head forever, but something you really really liked vanishes. You may live your life never recalling them. Or someone will show a trailer from an old movie and the connection is made and you find yourself craving a tune from your past life. I could hear it in my head, Devil Doll, just enough to whet my appetite. But obscurities from the long lost analog era might as well have never existed. There’s a whole decade of underground music that has disappeared that way. Records we listened to every day till we wore them out that will probably never ever appear in digital form, at least not in my lifetime. Not on CD, not even MP3. They’re sitting in boxes in storage bins between paperback books and your Playboys you don’t want the kids to see, good as gone.  Perhaps they’ll become collectible someday. Perhaps not. Not all tastes become hip again in a few generations. Hip kids treasuring Christopher Cross LPs ain’t likely ever to appreciate the noise we listened to.

Then a few weeks ago I dug out a box of mix tapes I’d forgotten about. I made these tapes so long ago that we didn’t even call them mix tapes. They were the much less hip sounding compilation tapes. Like compilation albums. We made them pretending we were putting together our own personalized LP. We weren’t pretending we were the hippest freaking DJ on the block. That idea had not yet crept into the punk rock ethos. Rock critics weren’t the sad, nerdy things they are today, nor record collectors the height of cool. In fact DJs were guys with shows on college radio stations who played your record or didn’t if they were pricks, which a lot of them were. College sophomores feeling that first rush of fame and importance, rarely to be followed by a second. College station programmers could be the most pompous little fucks you ever met. I recall resisting the urge to smack a few. There’s nothing like being dissed–we didn’t call it dissing then either, we called it being shit on–by an obnoxious little fuck who couldn’t defend himself in a food fight, let alone in the pit. But we knew the most obnoxious of them would all be sell out lawyers or failures at everything in a decade or so and then eventually bitter old Republicans, and of course we needed to have our records played so we were unfailingly polite. They weren’t all like that though. Some were like real people. Some could even play an instrument. Rarely well, but it at least they tried.

Anyway, I was thrilled to discover that on one particularly interesting compilation tape full of music I only sometimes remembered was this “Devil Doll” in all its hapless, noisy, weirdo glory. Onetwothreefourfivesixseveneightnineteneleventwelve slammed the beat, kick and tom and snare bashed like a jack hammer, repeated four times in quick succession, bass and guitar in unison, singer howling…then stop, and in comes an oddly soaring melodic figure, rising, the singer, uh, singing, then after a bit back to the jack hammer riff, then back to the soaring…this goes on and on back and forth and stops suddenly and like I said you’d hate it. But it sure makes me feel good. I can’t explain these things. I can’t explain why perfectly intelligent people can stand Abba, but they do. I can’t explain why the crowd went mad for Kenny G at the Playboy Jazz Festival either. We all have our inexplicable favorites. At least I give in to mine in the privacy of my own home, and not in front of God and Hef and everybody at the Hollywood Bowl.

Anyway, I was so excited to find Devil Doll on that tape I jacked up the volume loud enough to bother our hipster neighbors out on their sundeck. They looked up briefly from their iPhones. There he goes again they texted each other. Let’s go inside. They went inside. When the music ended abruptly in a crescendo of post punk sturm und drang I rewound the tape and eventually found the beginning of the song again. (It’s while rewinding to find a song again that cassette technology begins to lose its nostalgic sheen.) What a crazy tune. What crazy times those were. Nobody makes music like this anymore. And even if they did no one would be stupid enough to put out their album. And this was a double album. Two platters full of this. An hour and a half of noise and abandon. Their fans back then would now retreat into their Steely Dan reissues. Their kids would find it distasteful. My wife found it too loud. I think she liked the music. Just not at one in the morning. I turned it down. Had to. Headphones aren’t an option anymore. Must protect my sensitive ears. I once listened through headphones to Anthony Braxton blowing out his spleen on Impressions and when it ended there was an out of tune piccolo somewhere. It was my ears. The ringing finally stopped but I threw out my headphones. So now I listen to Fluid Mask at a nice volume. Sigh….

I’m not made for these gentler times. Of course I wrote this while listening to Stan Getz, but never mind.

“Devil Doll” in Spanish…certainly one of the worst movie posters ever. Not that this essay is about the Spanish version of Devil Doll, but you try finding a picture of an obscure Swiss noise band no one remembers anymore.

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