Dot Wiggin Band – Ready! Get! Go! (Alternative Tentacles)
By Scott Creney
I’m going to take the time to write about this record specifically, because it is so, so wonderful that it deserves to be talked about on its own terms, as its own thing, but this music keeps stirring up so many thoughts in my head. I promise you, I will get to the album.
First off, I have a confession to make: I wasn’t expecting much. If you have The Shaggs’ Philosophy Of The World on CD, like I do, then you remember the later recordings tacked on, you know, after the band had ‘learned to play’ (a phrase like that is so problematic and weighed down by all kinds of patriarchal horseshit that I can barely bring myself to type it, I threw some quote marks around it, but I still feel conflicted enough to write this parenthetical aside, such is my revulsion about ‘outsider music’ [ugh] as it concerns artistic agency), and they sounded like, you know, just another band.
So when Everett asked me to review the Dot Wiggin Band album, I braced myself. Don’t expect The Shaggs. Accept it for what it is. Try and find something positive to say for christ’s sake.
Which is a conversation I imagine Jake Cleland having with himself one day down the road (except for the part about The Shaggs, of course—who’s going to ask him to review something that sounds like that?). The point being, every critic has a little bias in them, a willingness to say something they don’t necessarily believe in b/c they think there’s a good reason for it. For some critics, this involves issues of status or money. For this critic, it involves the greatness of The Shaggs, a band that is so sacred to me, so beyond reproach, that it becomes a moral imperative to never cast darkness upon it. As long as there are muddle-headed people who laugh at The Shaggs, or call them ‘the worst band of all time’, or say they couldn’t play their instruments, I will NEVER say a bad word about anything related to that band. Hell, I can even think of nice things to say about New Hampshire.
So there was never any possibility of me writing a bad review. Even if it wasn’t anything special, I could still think of good things to say, I could talk around the record’s limitations. This is Dorothy fucking Wiggin, we’re talking about.
This is her first record since The Shaggs. Here’s the story of how the album got made. No point in me writing it all over again. This isn’t an essay for a college class, and I don’t write for a website that wants their writers to be as dull as the people who run it.
Forty plus years and she hasn’t missed a missed beat. Goddamn. And when I say ‘missed’, I need to be clear, I don’t think The Shaggs ever played a wrong note in their recorded lives. That’s how they wrote the goddamn songs. That’s how they heard them in their heads. And folks who snicker at them are not different than the people who snicker at Beefheart, Free Jazz, or Jackson Pollack, the musical equivalent of ‘My kid could paint that shit’.
Of course, Beefheart et al get a way higher percentage of respect, at the very least are given a benefit of doubt re: creative intention, than three females from rural New England get. Go fucking figure.
The appeal about The Shaggs, the reason people love this music so much and will continue to love it, isn’t because of the strangeness—yeah, hearing a radical de(con)struction of rock tradition is an exciting thrill, but you can’t love destruction and strangeness. You can have one hell of a brief fling, whether over an evening of a handful of months, or scattered furtive wrestling matches, but you can’t get a true warm glow of love that lasts forever out of it. And to me The Shaggs are true love forever. It never gets boring. It never gets old.
So the point I’m taking my sweet-ass time in getting to here is this: People love The Shaggs because of the sweet humanity at the core of the music. It moves them. When I looked out a cold gray window and silently wept while ‘What Are Parents’ played, it wasn’t b/c of the differentness of the music. It was the universality and depth of the emotions involved. And that’s something that Beefheart rarely, if ever, got close to.
Anyway, music can’t be wrong just b/c it differs from accepted notions of what is right. And for people who would say that you can’t deconstruct unless it’s deliberate, I turn the question around and ask, ‘How free can you be if you’re choosing to be free?’ The point being, both questions are kind of horseshit questions. If it’s artistically legitimate to deliberately remove one’s self from tradition w/o sacrificing credibility, then it’s just as legit to be inadvertently radical. Period. Anyone who say otherwise is just betraying their prejudices regarding gender/class/race/education/etc.
Yeah, yeah, yeah, that’s The Shaggs. We know all about The Shaggs. What about the Dot Wiggin Band?
Almost there. One more extra-curricular idea to go. Bear with me (I’ll give you a sneak preview though—this record’s fucking great).
But first, let’s talk about success. The way you define success says a great deal about the way you see the world. It’s pretty easy to define in sports—Super Bowl champion, gold medal winner—a little less so when it comes to art. There seem to be two ways we (and when I say we, I’m basically talking music sites and the people who follow/participate in them) define artistic success—money and legacy. And we live in a weird time where when it comes to contemporary art, that is to say music etc. being made RIGHT NOW, we place a hell of a lot more value on popularity than we do on art. If it’s popular it must be good, goes the reasoning. But that’s what happens when opinion is reached by consensus. Homogeny in discourse breeds homogeny in art. Lockstep in discourse creates lockstep in art. A lack of deviation and creativity in—you get the idea.
What is success? Is it Richard Marx, whose first eight US singles made the Top 5? Or is it Arthur Russell, whose music barely made the record store during his lifetime? Who is more listened to today? Who will be listened to 10 years from now? Who will be listened to a hundred years from now?
I wonder what the guy from Clap Your Hand Say Yeah! is doing right now. Or Jens Lekman. For that matter, I wonder what the members of Perfect Pussy will be doing 10 years from now. I wonder if anyone will still be listening to their music. I wonder if they care.
In all the talk about Chris Ott’s rant, there’s probably one thing we can all agree on: in a capitalist society, the intersection of Art and Commerce is always going to be messy and problematic. Anyone who pretends otherwise, or insists there’s no problem, is just fooling themselves.
The artist doesn’t triumph win by making shitloads of money—that’s winning the game on somebody else’s terms, and is no more satisfying than winning the lottery. The reason lottery winners blow their money isn’t b/c their poor, or even stupid. It’s b/c deep down they feel like they don’t deserve it, that they did nothing to earn it. Winning the lottery is a curse.
The artist wins when their art lasts forever, beyond the flux & constant cycling of the marketplace. If people listen to your songs after you’re no longer there to play them, after there’s no one being paid to sell them, then the marketplace can’t touch you. The endurance of The Shaggs’ music—an endurance that this new record not only reinforces, but is so good that it proves the depth of that album was not an accident, not some kind of fluke—suggests that Dot Wiggin has achieved a success most artists will never know. It also suggests that a life lived outside the spotlight, without success as defined in contemporary America (i.e. money—shitloads of it), may actually be more worthwhile, more meaningful, and ultimately more rewarding, than a life lived under the white-light murdering heat of endlessly chattering celebrity. Dot Wiggin has made, and now continues to make, music that will most likely last forever. Money can’t buy that kind of success. And money damn sure can’t define it.
And just to be clear, this isn’t something I make happen. It isn’t something you make happen. It isn’t something P4k, or Chris Ott, or Everett True, or even Dot Wiggin make happen. The work decides if the work will last. If it offers something to people, they will find it. And if the time comes when it no longer speaks to people, then it will become silent—sometimes to return, sometimes not.
There’s an easy listening station just outside of Athens, Georgia. It’s the only tolerable thing on the radio around here, and since living in a college town means everywhere you go is a 10-minute drive away, you tend to listen to a lot of radio—it could take a week just to listen to one CD. Anyway, this station, whose slogan is the unbearably hilarious ‘Music To Your Years’, plays a lot of old music. And if you squint your ears just right, you can pretend you’re in a David Lynch film or something (except, oddly enough, when they play ‘Blue Velvet’, which is another essay for another time). There’s a few songs they play which I find especially haunting/creepy/moving. One is ‘Sugar Town’, a song I first heard at two in the morning on a St. Louis am radio station after having slept once in the past 36 hours—a stolen 30 minutes on a leather seat in a Barnes & Noble.
And this one, by the adorably/improbably named (born in Kentucky, so there you go) Skeeter Davis.
Which, wouldn’t you know it, is the last song on Ready! Get! Go! A cover every bit as heart-breaking and tear-jerking as the original, you can imagine why she chose it. It could have been one of her own. And it’s why the notion of The Shaggs being outsiders, or some kind of idiot-savants, is so wrong. Same with the album title. You can imagine it was inspired by Ready Steady Go! (the UK tv show, not the Generation X song, I think it’s safe to assume), or more likely when kids are playing and say Ready! Set! Go!, so why change it? The outsider music person will say it’s b/c she messed up, or didn’t know any better. I say she changed it b/c she wanted to.
So I’m pleased to say that Ready! Get! Go! is nothing less than brilliant, a wonderful album from start to finish. A record that can stand beside The Shaggs, and in places even goes beyond it. Like when I heard ‘Speed Limit 2’. Holy shit. Or a song like ‘If I Could Be Your Hero’, which is as odd and moving as ‘I’m So Happy When You Near’, spiritual off-kilter cousins. These are songs to bring tears to your eyes, and joy to your heart, that manage to be simultaneously emotionally affecting and totally unique. And if you don’t like it, as the song says, “You can go to H-E-L-L-O GOODBYE”.
Look, we can poo-poo originality all we want and say there’s nothing new under the sun. Me, I hear scared children clutching their blankets when I hear that shit, but that’s just me. If we’re going to spend 80 years on this planet going in endless circles & rotations, we at least deserve to be surprised once in a while, to be exposed to something unexpected. And over the course of civilization, creative endeavors have been the most dependable place to find it (maybe b/c it’s got the word creative right there in its name?). There’s nothing surprising, or exciting, about somebody doing something I’ve heard a million times before. And if you’re into that, instead of writing about Speedy Ortiz maybe you should start covering grade school piano recitals, b/c in terms of creativity they’re pretty much the same goddamn thing. Though granted, I’d rather listen to Helium than Chopin too, so…
Anyone can sound like Cap’n Jazz. There’s never been anyone who could sound like this. It’s one of the greatest albums ever made by anyone, and people will be playing it long after we sleep in our graves. People go on about how life isn’t fair. But death is always fair. It might be the only thing that’s fair. You and I don’t mean shit compared to eternity. The sooner we get out of the way, the sooner the rest of humanity can catch up. Keep pairing up those chromosomes and maybe in a hundred years we’ll be that much closer to a better world. A place of sympathy and understanding, of fellowship and empathy—in a world such as this the music of Dot Wiggins will be sung in every church and school and basement show in what used to be the United States of America.