Graded on a Curve,
The Peter Brötzmann Octet, Machine Gun

We didn’t mean to shoot the water heater.

That water heater was a casualty of war, and its shooting was just one of those things that happens when you’re abruptly levitated out of bed in shock and awe in the form of some ferocious Pharaoh Sanders free jazz skronk playing at maximum volume on your younger brother’s stereo at 10:00 on a hungover Sunday morning, and then proceed to get half drunk and decide it would be a real cool idea to go down to the basement of your parent’s house in Littlestown, Pennsylvania to play a lively game of “Dodge the Ricochet.”

“Dodge the Ricochet” is fun and easy to play and basically involves standing maybe six feet away from a brick wall and then taking potshots at said wall with your dad’s kid-sized .22 caliber “cat” rifle. The rules are simple. You shoot, then duck, because those .22 slugs are coming right back at you.

Not that it’s really possible to dodge a ricocheting bullet; they’re pretty darn fast. It’s more of a case of very quickly covering your balls and contorting yourself into as small a target as possible for that rebounding slug. It’s kinda like playing kamikaze frisbee, only instead of a frisbee you’re playing with live rounds.

Where, you may be wondering, does German saxophonist Peter Brötzmann’s seminal 1968 European free jazz recording Machine Gun come into this? Patience, friend, patience. Suffice it for now to say that Machine Gun is one of the most abrasive, anarchic, and hair-raising free jazz albums to ever set your synapses sizzling like overworked bug zappers. Think yer some kinda hot shit noise aficionado cuz you’ve managed to sit through John Coltrane’s Ascension or Albert Ayler’s Spiritual Unity? I dare you to check out Machine Gun. It makes those free jazz landmarks sound like Duke Ellington in comparison.

From its very start (no warming up for these guys) Machine Gun comes at you like an explosion in an iron foundry full of crashing piledrivers and shrieking grinders, where three guys on saxophone are producing insane sheets of noise and berserk blurts and skronks, each of them following their own individual “sonic energy” muse like the other two guys aren’t even there. Oh yeah, and while they’re each blowing away in total non-syncopation they’re also dodging the sizzling red-hot iron fragments coming from the direction of the two drummers, both of whom also seem oblivious to one another’s presence. You wanna talk free jazz? Machine Gun is the chaotic sound of eight guys in a small studio all playing at odds with one another and is only free to the extent that it managed to escape from an asylum somewhere. And believe me when I tell you the authorities are worried.

Anyway, the point I want to make is my brother brought Brötzmann (along with his pan-European collaborators) down to the basement with us, and I finally figured out what their collective caterwaul is good for. To the extent that Machine Gun’s bedlam provokes involuntary gesticulations, spastic contortions, your normal fight or flight impulses, and even an impending sense of unavoidable doom in all sentient beings straight down the old food chain to radishes, it’s the perfect soundtrack for a friendly game of Dodge the Ricochet. Machine Gun is no mere aural experience; it evokes the same visceral nervous twitches as being shot at. Most people, upon first hearing it, immediately take cover behind the sofa.

But Machine Gun isn’t good only for playing Dodge the Ricochet. It’s also the perfect mood setter for Manchurian Candidate-style brainwashing, harsh interrogations, and blaring at entrenched Islamic terrorists until they toss down their weapons and emerge, demoralized and broken, begging only to hear some Carole King. Machine Gun is not your brain on drugs; no known drug, not even belladonna, could do what Machine Gun does–namely, send infinitely tiny wires through every neural pathway in your body and then activate them, ZAP!–lighting you up like a short-circuiting pinball machine.

I will take this opportunity to note that The Penguin Guide to Jazz afforded Machine Gun a perfect score. I will also take this opportunity to note that the poor fellow who reviewed it promptly developed a severe nervous twitch, quit his job, and retreated to the remotest moors of darkest England where he still resides, naked and hairy as a troglodyte, in a damp cave. The handful of terrified tourists who have run across him have testified that he scuttles about on all fours, communicates only in hoots, and prefers his game (squirrels mostly, which he catches with his hands) raw.

Anyway, to return to the beginning. In all of the excitement of the game my brother and I could hardly be expected to take note of what all those ricochets that weren’t hitting us were, in fact, actually hitting. Your adrenalin is up, and things are happening much too fast. Half the time you’re too busy ducking and dodging, and the rest of the time you’re looking down at yourself to make sure a blood stain isn’t spreading across your Black Flag t-shirt from a bullet hole in the region of your heart.

The game ended when there were no more bullets left to fire, after which we made our way upstairs and proceeded to eat bacon, more bacon, and big bowls of Captain Crunch with Valium Berries.

A week passed. There seemed to be something amiss with the hot water. Our dad went down to the basement to investigate. And returned scratching his head. “I can’t figure it out,” he told mom. “There’s a hole in the water heater. It looks as if somebody SHOT it.” My brother and I kept shut and did our best to look innocent. And in fact we were innocent. Because if anybody was responsible for accidentally assassinating that water heater it was Peter Brötzmann’s Machine Gun. It makes you do bad things, Machine Gun, and if you’re smart you’ll never listen to it.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A

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