GET ONE THING STRAIGHT: Peg Simone does not live in a Technicolor projection. She travels in the shadows of Kinetoscopic flickers from Edison's Black Maria. Her work exists off the map, within unidentified terrain: black and white photographs of someone else's dead relatives; mildewed cellars splintered with the shards of discolored Mason jars; moth-eaten, unopened steamer trunks; upturned spinning wheels of midnight Oldsmobile fatalities; sepia-toned text from newspaper insulation, rendered illegible by time and flour-paste glue; drunken cruelty; ageless suffering. Her guitar and voice are an uneasy yet inseparable marriage of resilience, despair, heartbreak, and sometimes a deep, subterranean wrath. She is the bride in the yellowed dress with the wilted bouquet at the death-grin altar of Dia de los Muertos.
She is a member of Jonathan Kane's massed-guitar ensemble February, in which a thunderous platoon of musicians grit their teeth and grind out wordless, instrumental riffs. Kane's correct assessment: Peg has plenty of stage presence, stomp and swagger. Yet solo, she is the diametric opposite. Hers is the voice of countless Others. She has beautifully absorbed and conveyed the mysterious, pan-generational confabulations of poet Holly Anderson, starting with 2009's Secrets from the Storm. It's a coarsely woven shroud of devastating ambiguity and haunting obscurity; recitations rumble while aggro-distressed dobro and ruthless guitar slides. Peg and Holly's second collaborative effort is even more daring and provocative: 2012's Witch Tree Road is so heavily soaked in baptismal awe, shuddering reverb and tortured guitar that it puts far more "experimental" acts to shame.
Once, on a premonitory whim, it was suggested that Peg undertake a drastic and lengthy reinterpretation of "When the Levee Breaks," popularized in deafening bombast by Led Zeppelin (on 1969's "ZoSo") but originally written and recorded in 1929 by Kansas Joe McCoy and Memphis Minnie. She was shocked because she had been considering such a thing. (ESP is real.) Her version approaches 23 minutes. It's a marvel of hypnotic, repetitive momentum, with a lengthy aural reverie written by Anderson. The cumulative effect is that of luxuriating and drowning in a slowly churning whirlpool of honey, vinegar, roses and blood. It sounds like a rare gem that patiently spent unknown geologic eras just waiting to be admired. Peg's voice is a torrid whisper, punctuated by gasps that abandon the listener to solitary contemplation, to wonder whether she's celebrating or mourning; praying or seducing.
Kane's onslaught may owe a debt to the guitar armies of Rhys Chatham, but Peg Simone gives voice to the India-inked words and dog-eared pages of Southern iconoclasts like Flannery O'Connor and Harry Crews, authors that trafficked in grim humor, survivalist irony and simmering conflict. From these texts arise a determination to both fight and embrace the absurd, and if these are a few of Peg Simone's dead muses, it's reasonably safe to say that, in giving their spirits voice, she is their muse as well. In 2012 she recorded another extended hallucination, this time based on The Devil's Treasure, a short story by (living) author, Paris Review contributor and Guggenheim Fellow, Mary Gaitskill. When Peg presented the finished version to Gaitskill, the author was beyond pleased: She was astonished. Gaitskill exclaimed, "Did I write this?!" Such are the transformative powers of a blues sorceress.
Does "the blues" even retain import as a genre? Does it reside in Dan Aykroyd's House of Blues franchises, McDonald's-esque in their synchronized dive into the lowest depth of mediocrity? Not a single fratboy stumbling along the cryogenically preserved corpse of today's Beale St. could tolerate a moment of Peg Simone's most accessible music. Taken to extremes, her hideously graceful and delicately horrific interpretation of The Devil's Treasure makes the heartiest participant squirm in unease and discomfort. Play it for a drunken jock that has mistaken Beale St. for Bourbon St. and his head will explode.
In it, a child descends into damnation as her loved ones are tortured, mutilated, and fed through meat grinders, while sexual depravity, suffering and deeply explicit torment attack her at each resigned step toward Satan. "Their mother sang them to their Shepherd. And then Ginger went looking for Hell. She went straight to the backyard and found the trapdoor that led to Hell. It wasn't hard to open; the stairwell down was clean and well lit."
So, the genre extends beyond definition and comprehension. What does it all mean, where did it originate and where will it go? Legend ascribes one Charley Patton as the Patriarch and pater familias of the blues. Born in 1891, he was a ne'er-do-well in a Mississippi sharecropping community ruled by one Will Dockery. Codified now, it's worth the occasional reminder that the blues was a raucous, socially unacceptable, profane entertainment for roadhouses, whorehouses and similarly drunken dens of iniquity. These musicians also scraped with vigorous force at the constraints of the religious community, sometimes with inherent contradictions. Between bouts of debauchery, Patton wrote church music.
It doesnít matter. No one will ever know the true origins of the blues. Charley Patton was merely the Homer of his time, the keeper of stories and songs passed down from time immemorial. He happened to be the first guy to inadvertently access the newfangled "Electrically Recorded!" process, just as Homer was the first to write down the stories of his ancestors (and it is worth noting that the works of Homer were bequeathed from generation to generation as songs). So, if we don't know where the blues started, it's fair enough to avoid conjecture as to where they might end.
This is heretical, but it might be that the blues mostly died in Chicago when they went electric and eschewed quirky individualism for generic laziness. Wolf and Waters, okay. But then it's a long, slow death-spiral that splatters against the pavement with Blues Brothers 2000 (taking some epic talent from Stax down with it). Listen to the country blues of the Three Blinds: McTell, Jefferson and Williamson. The differentiation is so stark that they might have arrived, in turn, from Venus, Mars and Saturn. Of course the genre didn't die, despite misplaced and strenuous efforts from the likes of Eric Clapton. Whenever you see shaky and granular film of Jimi Hendrix playing his guitar behind his back or with his teeth, watch closely for the reincarnation of Charley Patton as it peeks through the ages.
Rock 'n' roll channels the blues quite poorly when reflexive, e.g., The Fabulous Thunderbirds, but occasionally with painful divination when unconsciously instinctive. Take Joy Division, a band that undoubtedly never listened to the blues in their lives, neither then nor in the subsequent eons in which they tottered along as New Order. But within the Joy Division song "Dead Souls," there is something so harrowing, genuine and completely lacking in affectation that it stabs cold chills through marrow. Ian Curtis intones in a futile effort to explain, "Dead souls, they keep calling me, they keep calling me," until he can no longer tolerate the pain and starts desperately screaming, over and over, "They keep CALLING ME!!" In her own attenuated manner, Peg Simone conveys a similarly excruciatingly private yet public plea, a call for some meager degree of salvation, even if she knows in her innermost recesses it may never arrive.
There are all sorts of other examples of blues iconoclasts. One: The Great Koonaklaster, John Fahey. As a young musician and 78 RPM album fetishist of the nth degree, Fahey rediscovered the long forgotten bluesman Bukka White, who was toiling away in his cantankerous twilight at a filling station in Aberdeen, Mississippi. Fahey got White a record deal, and launched a career of his own as well. Fahey was a world-class blues scholar, and much of what we know about Charley Patton comes directly from Fahey's research in the early 1960s.
Yet while Fahey the guitarist was influenced by bluesmen like White, Patton, and Skip James, he equally absorbed Bela Bartok, Javanese Gamelan, Gregorian chants, Tibetan drones and French musique concrèt. When the blues purists rebelled, he kicked against the pricks, and not in the Biblical sense. When the staid folkies mewled and whinged that he was becoming too aggressive, Fahey shoved avant-garde tape collage down their throats. For John Fahey, it wasn't a matter of adapt or perish. For him, the blues were the center of a constantly expanding musical universe.
Even within a shawl of familiarity, it's difficult to discern whether or not Peg Simone is happy inside. Sometimes one gleans that she is full of silent ghosts and wordless apparitions and mute phantasms, and that her only outlet or means of self-preservation is to give these phantoms a voice, to allow them to slowly seep out of her person, in a cold sweat of emotional ectoplasm. Her music is a peculiar series of links in an earthbound chain: a florid, organic, botanical graft of dread and eroticism; detail and despair; the ancient future and the inevitable past. These are the blues as Faulknerian dystopia, in which yesterday is an opaque fiction, the future is nothing but vague, sepia-glazed memories, and the present is an unblinking stare into the abyss.
We amble through a gauzy, gray, tubercular existence of digital isolation and media-engorged banality, in which a thousand channels of infomercial sermons reassure us that we each possess unique individuality thanks to iPad uniformity, touch-screen homogeneity and shoulder-to-shoulder anonymity. Social Networking is a suppurating oxymoron. We now lower our heads not in humble piety but abject stupidity, pecking at digital devices like brainless chickens in a global barnyard. These bodies will stagger aimlessly even after their necks have been cleaved by the axe.
Nearly a century after the Great Migration, we now pack into the grimy yet air-conditioned subway or tube instead of a constant line of sweltering train cars hauled by coal-belching, north-bound locomotives. However, the need to transcend existence and its various oppressions is as necessary as ever. If the blues are meant to maintain that long journey from the semi-enslaved misery of Dockery Farms to the age of magnetic-rail bullet trains and supersonic, trans-planetary conformity, weíre going to need poetic clairvoyants and legitimate mediums like Peg Simone to guide the way. Otherwise, forlorn on the platform as the train pulls away, Robert Johnson has already predicted our fate, and what we stand to lose. As the train leaves the station, he writes, there are two lights on behind. The blue light is our blues, and the red light is our mind: our collective mind.
Secrets from the Storm
Radium/Table of the Elements
Guitar lines gather and mass like a blue sky filling with storm clouds. A flicker of lightning here and there, a steady thump of thunder in the distance, coming closer and closer. It takes awhile, so long, in fact, that you can almost be lulled by the patterns that form, the bits of sun that fight through the thickening shadows, the way the air crisps, the breeze playing the leaves like a zither. And the voice, like a ghost, or the radio late, late at night, echoing from an old rusty car in an abandoned junkyard, the dials twisted to an obscure AM frequency.
Secrets from the Storm is a unique collaboration between singer-songwriter (and guitarist for Jonathan Kane’s February) Peg Simone and writer Holly Anderson. Poetic shards of raw-knuckled memoir are inspired by everything from the Harry Crews novel The Gospel Singer to Memphis Minnie. The epic opener “Levee/1927” goes far beyond its sources – Memphis Minnie and Led Zeppelin – by turning its premise into a gripping tour-de-force of penumbral willies, sepulchural gasps, sensual jellyroll swagger, and bristling slide guitar that flashes up like a steel wolf trap in the moonlight, by turns furtive and brutal, as if the Velvet Underground had taken Albert King as a mentor instead of Andy Warhol.
“Heightened by the epic baptismal immersion of 'Levee/1927,' Peg Simone sing-speaks ghostly and shadowy narratives from the alluvial marshes of the human flood-plain.”
“A lot of new music boasts of a good time, but it ends up being the same caffeinated sugar water in a fancy plastic bottle, completely lacking in nutrients, life, and anything that’s good for you. Peg Simone’s new music begins from pure places like poetry, the spoken word, the human breath, feedback, the mystical side of folk and blues, and the effect is icy water coming off the mountain, tasting of soil, rock and organic matter; you want to drink it and let it drip
down your neck.”
Black Francis (The Pixies)