Xiu Xiu Shoo-Bop
Today's column is on the confessional rock of Xiu Xiu, the now Seattle-based band that plays a surprise Wavelength at the Gladstone Hotel in Toronto this Sunday and in Ottawa and Montreal the two days after that.
Since it was cut from the metro edition version of the story, you might be interested to know that Xiu Xiu (pronounced "shoe shoe") draws its name from Joan Chen's 1999 Chinese film Xiu Xiu: The Sent-Down Girl, about a young woman assigned to rural labour in the Cultural Revolution era who whores herself out to countryside Communist officials in an effort to procure a permit to return to the city. Of course they never give it to her. Jamie Stewart of Xiu Xiu has said they chose the name because the film is so difficult to watch, so free of redemption and resolution, just as he intends his songs to be.
In my piece, this information should have fallen in between the explanation of how the name is pronounced and the bits about Kurt Cobain and Ian Curtis. It links one cultural-revolution reference to another (from the movie to Stewart's favourite book, the Cambodian story with which I begin the piece) and this question of resolution, of finality, should explain why I then begin to talk about suicides, including, later in the piece, those of (RIP) Spalding Gray and Tooker Gomberg this week.
Ah, the newspaperman business.
Xiu Xiu's non-fiction take on all that happened
By CARL WILSON
The Globe & Mail
Thursday, March 11, 2004
"It is one thing to suffer to live, another thing to suffer only to die."
So resolved Cambodian banker Mey Komphot in July, 1975. He had been sent down by the Khmer Rouge to the rice paddies.
And so, he spent his days scrounging for snails and banana leaves; his nights, hearing bodies dragged away outside his hut.
And so, "I decided to give it two years. If nothing had changed, I would commit suicide."
And so his tale is told in 1998's When the War Was Over, by Elizabeth Becker, reportedly the favourite non-fiction book of Jamie Stewart, 32.
And so Stewart's band, Xiu Xiu, first in California's Bay Area and now Seattle, has one prime directive: That its songs be non-fiction.
And so the measlier atrocities he sings about - incest, abuse, abandonment, disgrace - all happened. To past and present Xiu Xiu members, friends, families, even the preschoolers Stewart used to teach.
And so the notorious sticker affixed to 2002 debut Knife Play: "When my mom died, I listened to Henry Cowell, Joy Division, Detroit techno, the Smiths, Takemitsu, Sabbath, gamelan, Black Angels, and Cecil Taylor."
And so you might think the dead mother was Stewart's. She was not. It was the other core member, producer Cory McCulloch, who stocked his mourner's jukebox with modern composition, British mope-pop, Indonesian percussion, free jazz, heavy metal and dance music.
And so Xiu Xiu at its grandest is like all that music at once, though McCulloch omitted Simon and Garfunkel, and the snail's-pace, whispered cover of Tracy Chapman's Fast Car. Stewart has said that 1988 folk-rock hit has it all: story, vagueness, tears. Though it is conspicuously short on gongs and electronic noise explosions.
And so, wait, how do you say Xiu Xiu? It is pronounced like two "shoes."
And so in April comes the 10th anniversary of the day Kurt Cobain kissed a gun in Stewart's newly adopted city. And so, too, in May, the 24th anniversary of Ian Curtis of Joy Division hanging himself in Manchester.
And so 2003's Xiu Xiu CD A Promise concludes with a song titled, in willful bad taste, Ian Curtis Wish List, a plea for an unrequited crush that ends on Stewart shouting, "Jane S., I am kidding! I'm just kidding!"
And so he means, "Is it too late to take it all back?" But knows it is.
And so Xiu Xiu songs forever stop up emotional proclamations with more extreme declarations, "too much information" for polite company. (Internet forums end up debating, "Does Jamie have AIDS?") Its musical mix is a velveteen mess the French would call jolie-laide and Stewart bluntly terms "retarded."
And so when people do not embrace it, they despise it.
And so one female band member got punched after a show. Instruments got stolen.
And so they continue to provoke. In complete sincerity. A Promise is fronted by a nude shot of a male Vietnamese prostitute holding a plastic doll. Stewart, who is bisexual, said he photographed the boy as an alternative to sex. A former social worker, he realized the cover may be exploitive. He chose to find out.
And so now it is 20 years since the release of The Killing Fields, Hollywood's big Cambodia movie, with actor-monologuist Spalding Gray as the U.S. consul.
And so three years later he described the shoot in his one-man film, Swimming to Cambodia, with its prostitutes and its "perfect moments." His other works include Gray's Anatomy, Monster in a Box and Sex and Death to the Age 14. (And now Stewart is writing a book about his own erotic exploits from 6 to 30, Sex Life of Self-Destruction.)
And so Gray, like Xiu Xiu, is famed for baring his traumas. For his notebook and water glass at a desk on a stage. With his patrician gentility, he had a gift for simulating intimacy, no matter how squalid the subject. Maybe it was a matter of perspective. Even on his mother's suicide.
And so he was robbed of his perspective by an eye disease and then hapless surgeons. And perhaps, too, by time, that accumulation of incident beyond all narrative.
And so his last monologue was called Life, Interrupted. He disappeared in January. This week, Gray's anatomy, 62, was found in the East River in Brooklyn, wearing black corduroys. He is presumed to have dived from the ferry deck, not to swim but to sink in the dark waters.
And so the accumulation of incident: Another man last week vanished into another body of water. Tooker Gomberg, 48, is presumed to have jumped from the Angus Macdonald Bridge into Halifax Harbour. He had been out to save the world, an environmental activist in Montreal, city councillor in Edmonton and in one Toronto mayoral election, the sole rival to Mel Lastman on whose lawn he dumped a pile of composted garbage.
And so he was last seen with his bicycle helmet on.
And so, meanwhile, there is a new Xiu Xiu album, Fabulous Muscles. Meanwhile, in 2002, Stewart's father died. Michael Stewart, 57, led San Francisco folk group We Five (You Were On My Mind, No. 1, 1965) and produced hit albums (Billy Joel's Piano Man, 1973). "After a long illness," said the papers. In fact, a suicide.
And so it was that longest illness, life. That imperfect moment.
And so what good is polite company?
And so the last song on the new album is Mike. It begins, "Dad, what was Nigel supposed to do with your body?" It ends, "Pull my finger."
And so Stewart's mother "went crazy." His sister had a girl, to whom he sings an anti-lullaby about the family curse. One of Stewart's preschoolers - "Brian the Vampire" - was being molested by a brother. Fabulous Muscles is less fabulous musically because much of the band quit. This all happened.
And so did this: In that year, Stewart fell in love. In Little Panda McElroy he breathes to her, "I can stop hating my own heart/ I can do it because of you." His first love song.
And so Mey Komphot escaped to Canada in 1979 and survived. The Khmer Rouge fell.
And so, this music hints, if you must try to shoot or stab yourself, also do your best to miss.
It is one thing to suffer to die, another to suffer and live.
Xiu Xiu (just Stewart and McCulloch) appear in Wavelength at the Gladstone in Toronto on Sunday, at Club SAW in Ottawa on Monday, and Tuesday at La Salla Rossa in Montreal.