By John Duncan Talbird.
I became aware of Polly Jean Harvey in 1993 when I first saw the video for her song “50 Ft Queenie” on MTV’s 120 Minutes. I was blown away. She was simultaneously petite and huge, dangerous and feminine, just like Juliette Lewis in Natural Born Killers which would come out the following year. But unlike Oliver Stone’s heroine, she wasn’t a cartoon. She was the real deal. And the sound! She led a power trio, played a slashing guitar that borrowed from the blues, sixties-era garage rock, punk, and her hero, Captain Beefheart. Her band – with Steve Vaughan on bass, Rob Ellis on truly gigantic-sounding drums – tiptoed along an invisible line between chaos and control. They threatened to lose tempo, but didn’t. It would turn out that this song, and the album it came off of, 1993’s Rid of Me, were recorded by Steve Albini, American hero of the rock underground, the front man of Big Black and Shellac, and producer of such classic postpunk albums as the Pixies’ Surfer Rosa (1988), the Jesus Lizard and Urge Overkill early records, and Nirvana’s In Utero (1993) among many others. This was actually her second album, it turned out, after her 1992 debut, Dry. She has released seven other records since then and received seven Grammy nominations among other accolades including an MBE from the British royal crown. The most recent album, The Hope Six Demolition Project, came out of a collaboration with photojournalist and filmmaker Seamus Murphy who made twelve short films corresponding to each track on her previous record, Let England Shake (2011). A new documentary directed by Murphy, A Dog Called Money, charts the making of Hope Six.
A Dog Called Money opens on the dirty face of a boy, street sounds in the background. We are separated from him by glass. He smiles and stares at us, nose pressed against the pane, and then we cut to a bombed-out theater, exploratory sounds of organ. We hear Polly Jean Harvey in voiceover say, “I’ve heard twenty years ago you could pay to get into the cinema with bullets.” As Harvey then breaks into song, we see further seemingly fragmentary images and then cut to a black screen where we are informed by title card that “PJ Harvey accompanied photojournalist Seamus Murphy on his trips to Kosovo, Afghanistan and Washington DC. She kept a notebook of immediate impressions which later became songs and an album. Work he made from Syria, Macedonia and America during the period of their collaboration also features in the film.” We cut to Harvey walking through the streets of Kabul, reading in voiceover from her notebook – words describing what she sees in fragmentary fashion much like the opening images, much like prose poetry – and then to another title card: “The album was recorded in a specially constructed room in the basement of Somerset House in London.” This is just barely four minutes into the film and all the exposition we’ll get or need.
The album was recorded over five weeks in this special room behind one-way, sound-proof glass as an art installation. The public could come in to watch and hear the work being made, but the band would not be able to hear or see them. Murphy filmed the entire five weeks and the recording process is the only chronology of the film. We go to Kabul, go to Kosovo, go to DC, back to Kabul, to Syria, to a Trump rally in America, many of these locations without title cards to situate us. We soon stop caring where we are, mostly being able to figure out via context. The music grounds us, the lyrics often commenting on what we – what Harvey, what Murphy’s camera – see in other locations. The director has said that the goal was to “be journalistic, not journalists.” One thing about which I was struck by watching the film was how journalism too often makes image subservient to word. Photographs very seldom even appear in magazines or on internet news sites without subheadings telling us what we’re seeing. But A Dog Called Money gives the journalistic image back its ambiguity and possibly points out the lie, or at least the naivete, of the so-called objectivity of journalism. A picture might be worth a thousand words, but which words. And in what order?
When I first heard and saw PJ Harvey, I pigeonholed her as a dangerous songwriter, a femme fatale appropriating all the macho bullshit of rock and roll, an artist in the tradition of Patti Smith or Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon. And she is that. However, as she now resides comfortably in middle age, I see that she’s also much more than that. She’s an impresario and an experimenter who thinks like an artist, not simply a musician, who thinks in terms of exploration and craft rather than genre or medium. No wonder her recent collaborations with Murphy are so rich. So have been her frequent collaborations with another multi-instrumentalist, John Parish. Or that composer of murder ballads Nick Cave who, in a sense, is her aesthetic soulmate (they tried romance, but it didn’t stick). Check out the Netflix noir-historical crime show Peaky Blinders which uses music by both artists as soundtrack to get a sense of how they channel something very dark which might seem made up and melodramatic, but is really just the daily news. And that’s probably the crux of Harvey’s history as an artist which is becoming clearer with every album and even more so with this recent documentary. Critics have pointed out how “political” her recent music is. But maybe they’re just catching up. Any female artist who dares to be as dark as Harvey is, who dares to make that darkness beautiful, who seizes power traditionally regarded as “male” (hard! loud! abrasive!) is engaged in political art.
I should say something about appropriation. Harvey is a white Westerner. Her collaborators are mostly white Westerners (and, on this album, as on most of her work, all men). Some controversy has sprung up in the wake of the video from Harvey’s song, “The Community of Hope,” the opening track on The Hope Six Demolition Project. The song and all of the images from the official video are present in A Dog Called Money. Harvey and Murphy took a tour of DC from the wealthy and mostly white neighborhood of Georgetown to the poor and mostly black neighborhood of Anacostia just six-and-a-half miles away. Harvey speaks in voiceover: “I heard that there’s no metro in Georgetown because they don’t want blacks to reach their neighborhood.” She visits young people in the street of Anacostia, some who rap for the camera, one who apparently really has a dog called Money. They visit a black Pentecostal church. Apparently, Murphy went back later without Harvey, filmed the church, played the minister Harvey’s rough take of her song, and the choir sang the chorus for the video, and now the movie: “In the community of hope!” And then the final repeating line, the fadeout: “They’re gonna put a Walmart here!” According to the minister, they didn’t realize the song was ironically presenting the proposed Walmart (the deal ultimately fell through) and Harvey has been criticized by both local politicians and critics for cultural appropriation. There is another scene in the film where a group of Muslim men engage in a chant which then becomes a Harvey song too which may get similar reactions from some. I felt a little uncomfortable in both moments. Is it because there is something legitimately wrong in these acts of appropriation or has liberal politics and their accompanying rules for engaging difference just socialized me to feel this way? It’s unclear, but these debates are not new. Both Paul Simon and David Byrne faced similar criticism decades ago. Filmmakers as various as Werner Herzog and Wes Anderson have also been criticized for this. And there is a contingent of writers and critics these days who apparently believe that novelists should only tell stories from the point of view of people who look like themselves. I can’t really buy into this purity test, both for the limitations it seems to place on art, but also because of its fascistic subtext disguised as liberalism. I would hope that most artists exercise cultural sensitivity, but most art not entirely autobiographical appropriates someone else’s point-of-view. If it didn’t, we wouldn’t need those statements at the front of novels that tells us that the “Names, characters, places, and incidents are the product of the author’s imagination” to legally protect writers from being sued.
And maybe this is one way that PJ Harvey has found journalism and travel to not only be an inspiration, but a useful mode. Journalists are seldom criticized or silenced for cultural appropriation. The mostly white reporters for The New York Times and The Washington Post travel anywhere in the world they want to go, they follow “the story,” they report what they see. These reporters usually have interpreters, guides who lead them into these places. Harvey and Murphy had a guide too, Washington Post reporter Paul Schwartzman who didn’t know that he was giving a “windshield tour” to a famous rock star. Schwartzman, as he wrote in his own article about the experience, has been writing about DC for more than a decade. But he, too, needed a guide when he was first introduced to its poor and working-class neighborhoods. His guide was the former mayor of DC, Marion Barry. Does white Paul Schwartzman’s ten years as a DC reporter make him an authority on the black neighborhood of Anacostia? Does his introduction to that world by black mayor Marion Barry give him credibility? It’s true that we might not “know” Anacostia after listening to PJ Harvey’s song any more than we know Kabul by watching Murphy’s film or know North Korea by reading The New York Times. But how well can we know any other person anyway, even the people we live next door to? All art, all writing, all composition is an attempt to simply connect with at least one other person. That person might be a filthy boy on the other side of a pane of glass, he might speak a different language than us, but when he smiles we think we know what he’s trying to say.
John Talbird is the author of the chapbook, A Modicum of Mankind (Nortre Maar). His novel The World Out There will be released in 2020 by Madville Publishing, and his fiction and essays have appeared or are forthcoming in Ploughshares, Grain, The Literary Review, Ambit, Potomac Review, North Dakota Quarterly and many others. He lives in Queens, NY and is an English professor at Queensborough Community College-CUNY.