Songs in the Key of X
It all keeps adding up
I think I’m cracking up
Am I just paranoid?
Green Day, ‘Basket Case’
Paranoia - in the colloquial rather than the clinical sense - preoccupied songwriters in the 1990s. So I decided early on that paranoia would be a theme in my book on alternative rock, and that I would try to be as paranoid as possible while writing it. I would approach my history book the way agent Mulder in the X-Files would tackle a murder mystery. For Mulder, nothing is ever simple – every piece of information is a sign that something else is being hidden, the news that the case is closed is virtually proof that he has come close to uncovering a sinister government plot. So it would be with me.
I think I’m paranoid,
(Garbage, ‘I Think I’m Paranoid’)
My own investigations began with the letter ‘X’. In the 90s, ‘X’ stood for an invisible generation (‘Generation X’), a storehouse of government secrets (‘X-Files’) a hipster clothing label owned by Adam Yauch (‘X-large’), and its sister imprint, presided over by Kim Gordon (‘X-Girl’). Slowly more ‘X’s revealed themselves to me. The decade began with Sonic Youth’s ‘Goo’, whose sleeve is sealed with a kiss (which in typographic terms is an ‘x’) and ended with ‘XTRMNTR’, by Primal Scream – whose 1997 album ‘Vanishing Point’ could also be seen to describe an ‘X’.
I watched an MTV interview with Beck, in which he declared that “the past is a cancelled check.” Ah-ha! I thought. Cancellation is indicated by an ‘X’! I listened to Bikini Kill singing “in her kiss I taste the revolution”. Another ‘x’! I watched the 1990 film of ‘Naked Lunch’ and heard Peter Weller as William Burroughs say that he would ‘Exterminate all rational thought’. Then I bought a copy of an album called ‘Songs in The Key of X’ for 50p in a charity shop in Southampton, which featured Burroughs reading the lyrics of a song by REM. “There must be a connection!” I thought.
I had become paranoid, but did Burroughs himself not declare, in 1970, that “the paranoid is a man who knows a little of what is going on”? Did Primal Scream not remind their fans that "paranoia is total awareness" on the run-off groove of ‘Vanishing Point’?What’s that?
I may be paranoid,
but I’m not an android
(Radiohead, ‘Paranoid Android’)
I began to construct an enormous wall chart so as to lay out the timeline of the book...
...and everytime I identified an ‘x’, I connected it to its closest neighbour with a piece of red cotton.
I quickly moved beyond 'x's to connect other things that resembled one another - words, pictures, motifs from songs and videos. Over time, these red lines built up to the point where they criss-crossed each other. One day, I stood back and realised that each one of these cross-points was itself a ‘Vanishing Point’, and also an ‘X’.
It seemed as though a great secret had been revealed to me, but that no-one else could see it. This made me feel lonely and misunderstood, which actually felt surprisingly good.