Wire’s initial three albums have long been favorites of mine, especially the first and the third. The debut album, Pink Flag, employed punk minimalism and acidity with a slyly absurd literal-ism, while completely throwing out punk’s reliance on traditional rock n’ roll song structure. It’s fast and fun and leaves you off kilter in a way you don’t quite get at first. The third album, 154, is to me the consummate post-punk album, more so than say the usual suggestions of something by the Gang of Four, Joy Division or Pere Ubu. It’s polished and often desolate art rock (cold synths, existentialism, ambient sound) punctuated with aching, expansive melody. There is also something positively medieval about the proceedings that I dig. But it doesn’t feel like something different than punk, or a reaction against it either. It has all the naive purity and earnestness intact (yes, punk is actually very earnest music). Punk Floyd I’ve heard it called. (Also, somehow music like this was making the top 40 in Britain, which basically shows you what a failure public broadcasting is in this country.)
Right, so I regard the music very highly. In fact I had given it to my wife last weekend to listen to on her journey to and from NoVA for a Calligraphy workshop. She had requested that I wow her with some albums she wasn’t overly familiar with, but were in her wheelhouse. Alongside Mercury Rev, the Boo Radleys, 808 State and others I can’t remember, I included Wire’s 154. She liked it okay, although I probably got a stronger reaction from their second, Chairs Missing.
Those selections remained in the car during the week, and none really seemed to draw their usual charge. No joy. Except for 154 – especially for yesterday, Maunday Thursday, and today, Good Friday – it was clearly the only acceptable choice in the car. On Thursday the opening track, I Should Have Known Better (which was the radio single, I believe), seemed too bitter to hear, and I skipped around, mainly settling in with the “pop” numbers the 15th and Map Ref. 41 °N 93°W and the majestic A Touching Display. But today, though it’s not of my favorite tracks, only I Should Have Known Better was right. The other songs were wrong. I listened to it once and a half on my way to the noon Good Friday Service.
Good Friday is a special service for me (I know, for you too right?). Six years ago I had a moment at the liturgy when I felt my longing for Jesus shift from raw need to belief. I felt the full weight of my burden, all my pain and sin, and then suddenly I felt the collective weight of the congregation’s. I started to suffocate and choke, knowing how futile it all was, just for these 200 people in this one church. On the periphery was the world and before I was crushed, it all was lifted and there was emptiness and then release. I understood perfectly the need for Jesus, and then actually felt him there with me, us.
Anyway, today’s service progressed with no great emotion. I was antsy to get back to work. The Assistant Rector was preaching today. He’s a pretty mellow soul, and his sermons show great kindness and empathy. He’s famous for interpolating song lyrics into the sermons, usually 70’s stuff like Fleetwood Mac, James Taylor, and the Eagles, or maybe dipping into 80’s U2. I like it best when he weaves in Bruce Springsteen. Solid 70s and 80s AM radio staples, you dig? The crux of the sermon was the “could of, should of, would ofs” that haunt our lives. A song was offered for each. I don’t remember the examples of “could” or “should”, busy as I was scrapping myself off the floor from the the “should have” example. Which was Wire’s I Should Have Known Better! When I heard him recite the lyrics from the pulpit, my eyes grew wet and my heart loud.
You have to understand, for music geeks or punkers, Wire’s I Should Have Known Better is by no means a “deep cut.” And in the UK, if you are of a certain age, you’d have heard it on the radio a bit, I guess in, 1979. But I think maybe he and I and maybe, just maybe, one or two others were the only people in church this Holy Week that have ever heard the song. And I’ve never heard the preacher reference anything remotely punk or from college radio, the “80’s underground” or anything like that (not that it matters, although him being a Wire fan certainly adds a new layer!). And c’mon, even if I was listening to Emmylou Harris on repeat before the service, and he dropped a reference, I would still be pretty amazed. But I Should Have Known Better?! There is no language in my lungs!
I think he was using to song to illustrate the disappointment of relationships gone awry. The bitterness and desolation that the “should haves” leave us with.
I SHOULD HAVE KNOWN BETTER
In an act of contrition / I lay down by your side/ It’s not your place to comment/ On my state of distress/ For this is for real/ I’ve tears in my eyes/ Am I laughing or crying?/ I suggest I’m not lying/ I haven’t found a measure yet to/ Calibrate my displeasure yet so/ To ignore my warning/ Could be your folly/ The judgement is harsh/ I offer no plea/ Valuing the vengeance which you treasure/ I’ve redefined the meaning of vendetta/ The procession’s disordered/ You protect your possessions/ In light of your actions/ I question your love/ May I make an observation/ Your bite is worse than my aggression/ I should have known better/ I should have known better/ Than to become a target/ Albeit a target which moves/ No offer of terms or concessions/ For statements or confessions/ You don’t feel warm, I pass close by/ You shiver, I whisper/ Excuse me, what’s your problem?/ Oh, I see I should have known better
On the way out, I mumbled my disbelief to the preacher, and he gave me a hug. Our Rector, listening and somewhat amazed, then told me he had a dream about me the night before. I was driving us in a car in through the snow, all the while looking at my mobile device. He was terrified of an accident, but I apparently got us to the destination perfectly safe. I mumbled something lame about being an excellent driver and stumbled out onto the sidewalk were the light was too bright. Of course, I immediately went to the car and listened to song several times. Shell-shocked and upon home, I asked my wife to help me understand what God was saying to me. I get really confused by things like this. It become apparent to us that the song must be a dialogue between myself and Christ.
Valuing the vengeance
which you treasure
I’ve redefined the
meaning of vendetta
I think its like this: part of me still thinks I need to be punished for my past, and that God should damn me. Or at least “the world” should. I want it actually, sometimes; a leveling. But God honors that vengeance I deserve upon Christ. And He in turn has redefined the meaning of vendetta: he has it out for me, yes, but to save, not to punish. That is the redefinition.
The procession’s disordered
You protect your possessions
In light of your actions
I question your love
May I make an observation
Your bite is worse than my aggression
This first verse reflects the disordered love God shows to me, to us — disordered in that it is against his own law and holiness. I’m not sure if I am questioning God’s love foolishly, or if he is seeing the one-way nature of his love set against my doubtfulness and hopelessness… Clearly though, the observation is God’s: My “bite,” my is far worse than God’s aggression. I hear the philosopher and aphorist Emil Cioran in this line, who says, “When we cannot be delivered from ourselves, we delight in devouring ourselves”. I think of my periodic insomnia, my brain beating out its tattoo of “doomed, doomed, doomed.” Yet what I believe my punishment should be is not what He has in mind. The truth for us all, but a message I sorely need to hear.
In an act of contrition
I lay down by your side
It’s not your place to comment
On my state of distress
For this is for real
I’ve tears in my eyes
Am I laughing or crying?
I suggest I’m not lying
I haven’t found a measure yet to
Calibrate my displeasure yet so
To ignore my warning
Could be your folly
The judgement is harsh
I offer no plea
Going back to the beginning of the song… I think I am speaking in the first verse. I am here in church as an act of contrition, yet I am not ready or willing to really hear God’s word for me. I feel like my state is beyond God’s help, my feelings are a paroxysm and real, but am mostly in confusion. Perhaps God is speaking of his failure to find a way in which I/we will actually listen to his law! He has tried everything, both putative and rewarding, and we are as stone. Or maybe I am speaking from my “lost years” about my utter disappointment in my life. In any case, I come to God knowing I am beyond him, and cannot account for myself.
I should have known better
I should have known better
Than to become a target
Albeit a target which moves
No offer of terms or concessions
For statements or confessions
You don’t feel warm, I pass close by
You shiver, I whisper
Excuse me, what’s your problem?
Oh, I see
I should have known better
“I should have known better…”, this is my life, the endless litany of my thoughts of the past. Cleaving closely to the sermon’s and Wire’s meaning I think. I come to church, to His dwelling place, but I can’t feel his Spirit. Again, in my vanity, I want to argue with God, to negotiate and argue over my salvation. Finally, I have to believe the last verse is God’s, delivered in wry humor.
In some ways belief in all the terrible things I see lurking in the future, in my ruin, gives me the semblance of power. Like I know how it really is. God, of course, has other plans. He knows me as his beloved creation and puts aside my doubt and depression and self-recrimination. Judas cries out in Jesus Christ Superstar, “Please don’t say I’m damned for all time!,” but of course his death wish is splatted all over his crime. We find comfort in our desolation, in the surety of our “damnedness.” In some way, we actually want our sin to cover us and not Jesus’ blood. We cry out for justice against ourselves, but Jesus has dropped the charges! He has satisfied God’s and even our own need for retribution, and indeed, really has it out for us.
And I think the random dream has a meaning that really speaks to this too: I might begin to place more trust in my decisions, my judgement and my navigation. Not fully, of course, but also without the constant need to second-guess whether God is there behind the scenes, patiently guiding me, even in the midst of my distraction and horror. If I listen I can hear him on the dash speakers, not despite of the skronky guitar noise, but through it. Hallelujah!
Now if only I could figure out what this song means: