South Of Heaven

By Ann Marlowe

“I bought Black Flag’s Damaged and Fred Frith’s solo guitar record on the same day about 10 years ago and wondered why they weren’t, or couldn’t be, the same band” God Is My Co-Pilot auteur Craig Flanagin helps explain his tweaked guitar and the 34 short-as-life, tempo-blending songs on the band’s self-produced I Am Not This Body. (The Making of Americans, P.O. Box 20871, Tompkins Sq Station, NYC 10009). But that doesn’t account for the opening ditty about fist-fucking (“I’ve got a special name for you/when I’m up to my wrist/I’ll call yr name & you’re going to come”), illustrated on the inner sleeve with Craig’s line drawings of cats, or maybe monkeys. Seems kind of cutte when yelped by perky gamine Sharon Topper, less cute if you know the words were written by the stocky, six-something Craig. His fists are pretty large.

And then there are the religious songs-about visitations, angels, God always watching, and “Joan,” as in of Arc. “So many times you’ve met the compassionate gaze of Christ/Now you see only your own eyes looking back at you” is nearly lost in a speedmetal assault, but an earlier question rings out high and clear: “Why did Joan recant?” This one must be for everyone who thought the band’s name was a hipster joke. On the CD you can hear all the lyrics you guessed at live, and you can get confused. Crucifixes, upside-down and not, have co-existed happily with heavy metal for years, and Madonna and Prince patched sex and God more subversively in the ’80s; still, taking God seriously rocks the avant-garde boat.

And there’s no doubt that this is the weather-beaten veessel that the band is piloting. Putting Black Flag and Fred Frith together is newish, but both sounds have been around for a while. A typical Co-Pilot song switches off between declamatory sections in which the lyrics are the point-prose that would be called pared down if it were in a book, double meanings seeping out of each flat American phrase-and this band’s equivalent of a funky break: a speedy, instrumental jam that makes you want to pogo just as it ends. Their classic New York no-wavisms, along with Topper’s bratty and precise delivery, have provoked snide remarks to the effect that there already was a band called Teenage Jesus and the Jerks.

“I guess they haven’t listened to the words,” retorts Craig. He can get away with off-the-cuff remarks like “Counterpoint itself is not a signifier, nor is a minor key a signifier” because he still looks more like the skinhead he was when the band began than the Yalie he was before that. Topper, the band’s charismatic pleasure principle, favors the young Audrey Hepburn, detourned in ensembles redolent of Gargoyle Mechanique or Williamsburg soirees.

Although the trademark Co-Pilot performance is skittish and experimental, you can always hear the three rehearsals a week. They’re as earnest in their own way as say, Helmet, although they seem to be having fun when they play. Not that this is an easy band to have fun with. The shortness of the songs fucks up the play-applaud band/audience symbiosis-you feel stupid clapping or yelling after 80 seconds of music. You feel stupid applauding a lot of designedly angry bands, too, and it’s worth considering that despite their overlay or playfulness, Co-Pilot are as angry as any teenage jerks. Craig explains, “We don’t want to give people what they already know they want.” But once everyone knows a band does only short songs, don’t they come to hear a bunch of short songs? Isn’t that pretty predictable? Craig counters that, you can also hear the pieces as one long song, broken by pauses, though this is more likely live. On their two earlier EPs and the new LP, the songs emerge as a series of cuts made in time, rather than the creation of a space.

In a sense, though, Craig’s right. Behind God Is My Co-Pilot’s voracious inventiveness, monotony threatens: the one long song that remains the same. Using the same musical tools to figure a visitation and anal sex mangles feelings that aren’t supposed to even touch; but it also threatens to flatten the emotional landscape. This dilemma is what’s really new about God Is My Co-Pilot. They don’t deliver a Transcendental Rock Experience, but they’re good enough that you wonder why. Much less than aspiring to rock godhead, they don’t even want to be a rock band-among other sins, they find rock sexist, and by rock they mean the Beatles rather than the Rolling Stones. For these clever musical guerrillas, forgoing rock means avoiding stupidity and despised formulas. They may have missed the reason that rock counts as culture and politics. Maybe when they’re ready to out themselves as a rock band, they’ll play with no caution-the art with which rock enlarges the world.

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