Promethean Royalty: The Secret Secretaries
By Alan Kaufman.
[Images: Charles Kruger]
I guess it’s fair to ask: what qualifies you, Kaufman, to write about music? You’re a poet, novelist, memoirist, journalist, even an anthologist for Christ sake: but you’re no music critic.
I don’t know. Would seeing Charles Mingus play duets with Thelonious Monk, live, at the Vanguard, count? I was nineteen, drunk on J&B or what we then called James Brown scotch, and sure, I didn’t know that I was seeing two of the mightiest legends in all of Jazz history play just a few feet from my ignorant and snotty nose. But what does that matter: how many of you seen them play live? Or even just remember them, alive?
Or what about getting free passes to the Filmore East from a Hells Angel I knew then – we’re talking about 1971 - who worked the door and got me in to see Miles Davis, chocolate shirtless in red velvet bells and snake-skin kicks, play Sketches of Spain as if for the first time ever in the world, followed by Emerson, Lake and Palmer, and after, I hung with them backstage in a rock God carnival scene that made Almost Famous seem like Toy Story.
Or how about this? Nineteen still (it was a very good year), in Michigan on football try-me scholarship, long haired, ear-ringed, brain corrupted by LSD, I got red-shirted (which means benched for good) then dropped. Began to cruise around with Goldie and Moondog, two local Ann Arbor heads who hipped me to the White Panthers, an armed political pot party formed to free rock activist John Sinclair (sentenced to ten years for a single joint).
I spent a month in their headquarters, crashed on a fold-out sofa that contained a duffel bag packed with weed, which I smoked the way others chew mints, and one day in walked the Panther’s house band, the MC5. Ever heard of them, my musical inquisitors? Heard their great hit: ‘Kick Out the Jams’? Prototype of everything from Pink Floyd to Iggy. We rapped for nights on end. I was backstage at their famous Ann Arbor gig too, the one Beat legend Allen Ginsberg – who someday I’d perform with - rocked out the crowd.
And then I was in England. Dropped in on Granny’s Takes A Trip, His Majesty’s clothiers to The Who and the Rolling Stones, Rod Stewart and the James Gang, who happened to drop by and there we were sitting side by side on little cushioned stools, as long-legged Soho girls in hot pants and teensy jumpers helped us try on patchwork leather kicks and snakeskin shoes, velvet two-toned jackets and embroidered silk shirts. What are you doing tonight around 2, the James Gang asked me? Nothing. Here’s a pass to our after hours club. They were reputedly some of the most ferocious rock and roll guitar gunfighters of all time, wielded their fenders like Cot .45’s. Even the fearsome Winters Brothers, Johnny and Edgar, wouldn’t draw on them. Two days later, ear drums stunned, I crawled out of that club on hand and knees, converted.
And not long after shot up North to Gloucester, to this commune I heard of, and there was sheep and foul communal stews and everything looked Dark Ages-gray. There was this rickety stage in the center of the meadow, just standing there, no one about, garlanded with flowers. Weird. Except that by afternoon of the next day a full blown psychedelic madhouse festival was underway, the meadow packed with thousands of tripping British flower children done up like Dr Pepper Lonely Hearts and some, prefiguring Iggy, like jesters from Bedlam asylum, and then, Pink Floyd took the stage and ripped my cosmos a new rectum.
Should I go on? Acquaintance with Tom Waits, transaction with Bob Dylan’s camp. Also that of Leonard Cohen. Backstage with Patti Smith. Good buds with Tuli Kupferburg of the Fugs. Once knew Buzzy Linhart. Remember him? He rocked Woodstock. I also hobnobbed with Grace Slick on book tour. Appeared on the BBC with Nick Cave.
I’m hella friends with Eric McFadden. Also the stride pianist, Jim Washington. Met Paul Pema, who won the Mongolian Throat Singing Competition in the film Genghis Blues. I once even knew Buck Naked and the Barebottom Boys, the guy who wore a plumber’s plunger on his naked ass when he played, the one on whom the crazy park pigeon man pulled a gun and shot him down for disturbing a bevy of winged rats in San Francisco’s Panhandle.
So what will allow me, then, what will it take, to authorize me to say that tonight, an August night in San Francisco, at the CD release party of a little-known band called Secret Secretaries, I witnessed what I, and what everyone present, immediately grasped to be the birth of a brand new musical phenomenon that some day is going to be so very famous and very important because they will change the face of music culture (and it’s about time someone did).
I laugh to think that a couple of nothings like the White Stripes ever got to where they did, when you see Secret Secretaries who incarnate everything and anything that a generation would want to look like and be.
I mean, just their names: Stellar Cassidy. Nic Burrose. Shye Has Powers. Can I please have a name like that?
And then, the way they look. I mean, Shye Has Powers. Some crazy geneticist took DNA scrapings from the corpse of Janis, Grace Slick’s beautiful face, Patti Smith’s mind and produced this new kind of barefoot Liberty leading the masses under a flag painted with a sunrise. I mean, even just the way her hair falls when she sings:
“Now I’m in red
sippin on tea with the devil himself
Six o clock sharp is what he told me
and boy, is he pretty.
I said ‘How many virgins
did you kill, Mr. Devil?’
‘I got about eighty.’
Then I slit his throat
and I fucked him to death.’
You can see every woman in the room wanting to be her.
Or Stellar Cassidy. God help me. How can anyone anywhere be that cool? It’s not just the look in her heavily mascaraed eyes of an old soul wisdom that already knows everything, right to the apocalyptic end, but she has a huge red dye-tinged nest of gorgeous hair and wears punked out pretty circus rider dresses and slippers. And when she slams the drums with her whole being she summons Kong from out of the mountain. Something dark, hairy and roaring comes crashing through the bush. We all shiver like human sacrifices.
She is, bar none, my favorite drummer of all time and I don’t just say that: I’m an old conga enthusiast from way back - personally mamboed with pretty Latinas to Tito Puente live at the Cheetah. She plays the snare and bass in some new way, like a conga, like some manic Ricky Ricardo pounding tribal at the Copa. She is also getting serious personal rhythmic payback for the suburban silence she’s had to endure like a prison sentence in the archipelagos of American oblivion. She’s drumming out the beat of her generation, a war summons to her Recession peers to be more then spectacular, more even then just daring: be really, fatefully beautiful and if the world can’t hack it, fuck ‘em.
Nic Burrose. Face of an angel. Snarling attitude of a low rider. He is the new Lord Byron of dirt core. This guy has known the streets. All the girls sigh and guys grin as he nonchalantly batters eardrums with his satanic guitar elegies. His sound would blow the roof off the Vatican.
OK, so they look great and wonderfully, mischievously hip. So they make you feel the way once upon a time Dylan did or the Stones. Like: how can I be that? And that sad joyous knowledge that you can’t, that what they have is nothing you can buy, learn, Botox, download or mime. True classical coolness is not nature’s version of an ap, but a kind of accidental royalty, a certain je ne sais quoi that makes us all wish we lived for just one Spring in their skins. They are not just young but archetypes. Jungian embodiments of the new look of American music, poets of an urban sensibility so unselfconciously cutting it doesn’t yet even know itself. It just is. The way the Beatles just ‘were’, in the Cavern. The way Dylan just ‘was’, on that first album for John Hammond. The Secret Secretaries are of that cosmic category.
But even given all that, ok, yeah, so? We’re in America, man, living under the corporate hype bigtop. Why confer on Secret Secretaries the unholy halo of rock ‘n’ roll messianic resurrection?
Well, there’s one certain unanimous virtue shared by all Outlaw saints, from Villon to Patti Smith to Cobain and Tupac. It is this: did you mean it? Oh yeah, they fucking meant it, in the way you feel that Secret Secretaries do, and if you don’t know what I mean, think of what Brad Pitt as Achilles says to the little urchin who’s been sent to roust him out of his phenome-sleep between two naked village girls, in order to gird up and face a giant hero-slayer from the opposing army.
“I wouldn’t want to have to go out there to fight someone like that. He’s the biggest man I’ve ever seen,” says the kid, handing Achilles his helmet. Achilles’ cool reply as he pulls the helmet on: “That’s why you will never be immortal.”
In a vast grayeyard of global corporate conformist zombism, Secretary Secretaries are giant-killers. They’re going to slay the ghoulish avatars deadening young people’s eyes. And here’s another sign: in every great band one hears in every line, every lick, the ghosts of all the great bands who came before. They are the repository of what is great in rock ‘n’ roll, and yet different somehow, startling, an advance. They’re so good it scares you into feeling that you’ve heard this once but know in your gut, I never have. Take a song like ‘Observations In The Alley’:
“goddess pulling on panties,
tell me how the hardwood
“be careful when you
whisper into god’s ear
he likes to distort just
what he hears. ‘le
petite mort’ is more
than she bargained for.”
All this delivered up on a mounting hypnotic Sterllar Cassidy drum-slamming beats laid down on a solid wall of Nic Burrose’s guitar rhythm and I’m hearing the Dylan of ‘Like A Rolling Stone.’ No it’s Pearl Jam, it’s Velvet Underground or is it Bowie? All kicking into life with funky shoulder-shrugging hip-hoppy jive. But then, it’s Leonard Cohen meets Sonic Youth. But no… Until you realize, tumbling in their Fender amp tsunami, that it’s Secret Secretaries.
Or their by-now classic standard among those, including me, who follow them like religious freaks from gig to gig - the way once the Dead were loved; an audience, by the way, almost always comprised in some part of the best rising poets in California (they’re turning a whole new generation of versifiers into groupies, the way Jefferson Airplane once did of Brautigan, McClure, DiPrima, Kesey, Ginsberg, Synder):
‘let’s go to the graveyard
and window shop the oldest
let’s go to the graveyard
and contemplate these
And then, you know: it’s Morrison. The Doors. This is Doors, man. The deathly lyrics, and that inflected seductive ironic Halloweeny dead rock star OD’d in a Paris bathtub sound of Shye Power’s beckoning voice. Got it.
No, you don’t. And know it. It’s like the Doors are in the basement but Dramamine’s in the attic. Once again, you’re in the archival Grammy Hall of Fame of America’s greatest rising band: Secret Secretaries. And Powers, Burrose and Cassidy have got you running back and forth between the stacks of albums in your brain, going back to lesser known archeologies like CRIME and forward to Green Day, with a little Rimbaud and Sylvia Plath thrown in for measure.
Reading this, they’d probably think me mad. Some hunchbacked old codger with one eye hanging from the side of his face, accordion-wheezing about Myths and Glories and The Fates. It’s a lot to lay on a young band’s head. But when you’re touched by Prometheus, as Secret Secretaries are, you have no choice but to bring your fire, and tonight, on that stage at Verracocha, an underground theater in the Mission District, Shye Has Powers said: “Hello. We are the Secret Secretaries from San Francisco, California,” and from then on, the audience, me included, simply went mad.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Alan Kaufman’s books include The Outlaw Bible of American Poetry, The Outlaw Bible of American Literature, Jew Boy and Matches. His essays have appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, the Los Angeles Times, Salon, Evergreen Review and many other publications.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, August 13th, 2010.