Alea Balzer talks to journalist, critic and experimental music obsessive David Keenan about his debut novel This Is Memorial Device.
When is life the equivalent of music, except in memory, except in dreams? Can you be alive for the moment in the moment or is it always retrospectively that you understand the magic of it? In his debut novel, David Keenan chronicles the ritual of looking back, capturing the energy of fleeing towards the future and the vertigo of falling backward into the past.
Set in small town Scotland, This Is Memorial Device takes place as series of first-person accounts at the time and retrospectively from those associated with the post-punk scene in the late-’70s to the mid-’80s. It is based around the town’s central experimental band Memorial Device, tracking the vortex of activities that sprung up in the wake of punk’s failed promise of revolution; the bands they were in, the art they were making, the self-destruction, and the moments when they felt alive and at the centre of something.
In what has been called ‘Lanarkshire magic realism’, Keenan has relocated Scottish myth and local lore to the territory of council estates. Here it’s found on paper rounds and in dingy flats above chip shops. The occult current is revealed in the forms of secret stone circles built on the outskirts of town Airdrie, and in the distant drones of dreams recorded with forehead contact microphones.
“One of the points I wanted to make with the book was that you can find this kind of magic in areas that might seem un-magical, that might not have the sort of aura that’s normally associated with supernatural things,” explains Keenen over Skype from his home in Glasgow. He speaks volubly, with a lyrical Scottish accent, on a compelling array of subjects that span Japanese experimental music, transgressive types, the mythologist Joseph Campbell and the function of magic, all of which somehow manage to converge either literally or thematically in his book.
The novel is Keenan’s attempt to get close to the psychic reality of his hometown – a place everyone else thinks is “a dump; a horror show; an asylum.” Airdrie has one of the least mobile populations of any town in the UK, he explains: “there’s an incredible accumulation of memory there – a psychic weight if you like.
“I thought the magical hallucinatory aspect was actually more true to the reality of it but also how you remember these things. How you recall them and the curative factor of memory. How memory conflates and confuses and hallucinates itself”.
Emerging out of the punk movement in the latter half of the ‘70s, post-punk embraced experimentalism, drawing influences from literature, art, and critical theory. As Keenan explains, a big thing about post-punk in general was an urge to disseminate alternate information at all costs. “To me the post-punk explosion wasn’t just about music and that’s the thing with the book, it’s not all about music and ultimately it’s not really about music, it’s just all the different ways that these people were exploding off into all these different areas and they were given permission by post-punk if you like, they were given permission for a programme of self-liberation”.
After ritually destroying his earlier works, This Is Memorial Device is Keenan’s first published novel. Keenan recalls previous attempts at writing fiction; “when I started to work on my first novel in my early-thirties it was dreadful, really excruciating. I decided I was going to keep writing through it, and at the end I was going to get rid of it and start again. So I spent two years writing this wretched book then I deleted the file and my computer broke down so I smashed it up so it could never be retrieved again. I think it was a vital process in becoming a writer.”
Keenan has been working as a music journalist since he was a teenager, he ran the record store and label Volcanic Tongue, and has written a comprehensive biography of “esoteric underground’ bands Coil, Nurse With Wound and Current 93 entitled England’s Hidden Reverse. Keenan’s esoteric interests are evident throughout This Is Memorial Device and extend to the book’s structure, which he explains was influenced by concepts of Jewish mysticism and William S. Burroughs’ Cities of the Red Night. He suggests the book could be considered an act of necromancy like a Shakespearian incantation – “We’re going to raise the dead with this.”
Groups like Suicide and The Pin Group, experimental musicians like John Fahey and German free jazzers circulate through This Is Memorial Device alongside fictional bands that seem like they did exist but maybe you just didn’t know about them: The Tunnel (heavy ritualists), Glass Sarcophagus (legendary industrial-porn star led noise duo), The Beguiled (poetry, no wave and a black leather glove) and Relate (a performance art synth-pop duo with two lovers who both looked like Leigh Bowery). And, most importantly, the monolithic drone rock band Memorial Device, the best band you never heard.
Keenan has made a career out of chronicling the underground, outsider artists and music made on the fringes. He admits he’s an artistic purist: “I think when you write, you should take a pen and you stab it into your damn vein and write with the blood. I believe in the visions of the individual or nothing else and I still demand that from art and music.”
In a conversation about sound collecting for the Barcelona Museum of Contemporary Art, William Bennett, founder of the notorious power-electronics group Whitehouse, described the influence of cultural seclusion on his work, having grown up with no means to listen to music. Instead, he would read about it in books and magazines, imagining what this music sounded like. Bennett elaborates: “When I was finally able to hear stuff at the age of about 16 or so, I was deeply disappointed at music’s failure to live up to my grandiose expectations.”
Keenan explores a similar notion of seclusion in This Is Memorial Device. “These people were so cut off in the ‘70s and ‘80s. There were no record shops unless you went into Glasgow, and a lot of people never left Airdrie. You would read Sounds or NME and you would totally imagine what these groups sounded like. ‘They must sound crazy, they must sound totally insane.’ So you would go away and make this music that you thought everyone else was making but when you actually heard the music you would realise you had outrun them completely, your vision was a thousand times more uncompromising and intense and revolutionary than what you thought you were copying and I love that.”
This concept of post-punk as a conduit for self-liberation that Keenan describes is explored by various characters who attempt to set themselves free from the past, or at least reconcile with it in captivating ways. Robert Mulligan, a noise musician who works at a hamburger processing plant and lives with his mother, believes he might be trapped in the amniotic night. Subverting any notions of an inherent state of nostalgia for the womb, Mulligan describes the trauma of birth as a strange suspended death-in-life of the foetus after the waters break but before it takes its first breath. Keenan says he wanted to disrupt the idea of a blissful floating oneness with the mother. “There’s this idea of oneness with the universe that hippies are very fond of and people who do psychedelic drugs often talk about, and I understand that, but they talk about it as if it’s uncomplicated and beautiful and immediately enlightening. Actually, I think a genuine experience of oneness can be absolutely terrifying. That’s the amniotic night to me, the way that this oneness can be both liberating and terrifying.”
Another character, Monika Lawson, comes up with walking cures, walking the distance between feelings and memories to reconcile with the past and walk it into the future. Keenan, a walker himself, expands; “She says walking’s like handwriting. So the movement of your life becomes a form of choreography, hieroglyphics that can only be read with suitable distance. From beyond our earth maybe, from beyond our lifetime”. It’s that handwriting that we are reading in This Is Memorial Device. And of course, he adds, “we are all literally walking into the future but you can also walk back into the past.”
Ultimately this impulse is what the book seeks to explore. Keenan characterises it as “a struggle between nostalgia and saying these things are magical but also being able to move on, walk a new path into the future. How hard it is sometimes but having to do it. You know because the nature of reality, the nature of love, the nature of all these things is ceaseless, endless change”.
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