A Pacifier for PBW: Robert Ashley, 1975, Straight Abstractin'
(Dear MP, so as to never betray the titular Breath)
UNCLASSICS 2: Robert Ashley, Private Parts
"When he is alone, he forgets sometimes to walk; he just moves."
For me, the early 90s will always be about two things: perennially chapped lips and the Blizzard of Mortality (just came up with that). I was a neurotic child, but it was only then - in the midst of the very earliest strains of adolescence - that I experienced the humorous psychic upgrade of being able to actually conceptualize my own obsessiveness in addition to being it. If you get my meaning. Point is, I thought about death constantly and just assumed that everyone else did, too; someone did me an unfortunate injustice by actually pointing out that No Mike, you are just obsessively morbid. (Thanks, Mom!) Anyway, the holy men didn't help, but Samuel Beckett eventually did; I don't have any of those books I got at that weird shop with the Egyptian figures outside anymore, and eventually, I heard Private Parts.
Ashley's legacy with "pop" (read here: non-classical) listeners is probably "Automatic Writing," seven minutes of which was excerpted for the OHM early electronic music compilation. It's an amazing piece of music; what I personally always loved about it was its unsettling nearness: close mic'd manipulated vocals that sound like spit hitting a fryer, or the mixed blessing of a salamander's tail tickling your ear. I'll talk about sex another day.
Private Parts, whose two 20something-minute-long pieces bookend Ashley's "television opera" Perfect Lives is none of that, and it's also none of what I take to be the relative tedium of his other operas. Mom used to give me meditation tapes during the Bliz. of Mort., but I'd turn them off (they were lame); "the light" and "pyramids" are actually pretty stressful, it turns out.
Private Parts IS a meditation record though, insofar as offers an experience that doesn't combat thought - a dumb goal, if you ask me - but one that takes thought at a manageable speed, with reigns. Just Ashley's passive, conversational monotone slipping in and out of rhythm with polite tablas, the absolutely intoxicating shlock of "Blue" Gene Tyranny's new age parlor-room piano rolls and the wash of synth strings. The crux: thinking happens too fast - or, too fast for us to record - the regularity of conceptual lilypads and leapfrogging is a mixed blessing. Private Parts is a stream of consciousness narrative screwed to a crawl; you get each idea, one by one, in illogical succession. Sensibly, then, it provides equal room for the abstract - "I am a city of habits" - and the mundane - "the sculptor has made the horse look stupid"; sometimes they embrace in clumsy eurekas: "the camera is obsessed with what it sees: the park, the ragged edge; nothing moves except the edge / the edge moves; it's as if there is no other place."
If Private Parts is ever dull - which it isn't, to me - it's because it seems to stretch for Placid Yogic Meaning and the faux-poeticism of monolithic statements; still, Ashley slips enough humanity into the narrative to remind you that hell yeah, this is just earth, and it's always at least mildly funny, and it's boring, and it's wonderful; the main character in "The Park" sitting on his hotel bed, drinking whiskey from a plastic glass: "he thought to himself, if I were from the big town, I'd be calm and debonair; the big town doesn't send its riff raff out."
Lou Reed's asinine motivational epigram - "between thought and expression lasts a lifetime" - never seemed more accurate, more accidentally meaningful. Private Parts is important to me because it's a meditation record that never leaves the ground; the words are soothing and linear; each tiny space between thoughts is protracted in time. Ashley even acknowledges it: "Thus they came to make a great division between that which was impermenant and that which was permanent... On the permanent side of this great division of reality is a notion they referred to as 'space,' and by that term, they meant nether conceptual space or space as given by our senses. They meant connections. They decided that such space is irreducible and not transitory, and that it exists as long as one is alive. They wondered, naturally, what becomes of it."
Me with Private Parts, 10 years old, finally calm, stroking my chubby chin:
"His idea is that death always takes one by surprise. Always. There is no way to prepare. He imagines absolute awareness on the other side; he wonders, as we all do, how it comes to you that you are dead. We were distracted by the fluid right edge."