Graded on a Curve:
U.S. Maple,
Talker

Good morning, class. I was going to open today’s lecture with a long and rambling monologue about the time I burned a casino in Montreux to the ground with a flare gun, but why don’t we just charge into today’s lecture instead. Show of hands if you’ve heard of U.S. Maple. Okay, I see a few. Now, show of hands if you’ve actually listened to U.S. Maple. Kudos to you, woman in the back row wearing the Melt-Banana T-shirt. You get to skip next week’s lecture on The Collected Works of Grand Funk Railroad. Now before we start, does anyone mind if I light up a Marlboro in this clearly marked No Smoking lecture hall? Congratulations, guy in the iconic Kangol hat. I’ll expect a 15-page analysis of No Trend’s Tritonian Nash-Vegas Polyester Complex by next Tuesday.

The rest of you sit back while I tell you about perhaps the most innovative band of the late 20th and early 21st Centuries. On first listen—excuse me while I shake myself up a stiff martini—the now defunct Chicago quartet seemed to be playing a radically skewed improvisational noise rock akin to free jazz. But—and I see Melt-Banana’s shaking her head no—they weren’t, were they? In fact, they were doing just the opposite. Every one of their disjointed songs was meticulously constructed down to the tiniest detail. The problem is they sound wrong. Songs are supposed to have a beginning, middle, and end. But if you listen to a U.S. Maple song, the beginning may be in the middle and the end may be in the beginning and the middle may be in the other room sleeping one off. And to go one step further, parts of the beginning, middle, and end may be incorporated into the middle, end, and beginning. Are you following me? Yes, woman in the “ironic” Toto T-shirt, you may be excused for reasons of vertigo.

Now why would U.S. Maple do such a thing? Out of sheer polymorphous perversity? Because they wanted to be damn sure they never sold more than six albums? No, they were out to destroy rock music as we know it. Yes, you heard me right! The bastards! The pricks! People! Calm down! Stop shaking your fists in impotent rage! I’m as disgusted as you are! But wait; let’s give this quartet of anarchic apostates a chance to explain themselves before we burn them at the sacred stake of Sammy Hagar. According to vocalist Al Johnson, U.S. Maple’s goal was to “to erase Rock and Roll entirely from our collective minds, then set out to devise a working method for reorganizing Rock and Roll], keeping what we [felt were] its most important core elements.”

Suffice it to say, manifestly stoned guy in Second Row, U.S. Maple’s idea of reorganization was not of the run-of-the-mill corporate variety. It did not entail giving those losers in Pink Floyd the pink slip. Nor did U.S. Maple consider such trivial factors as melody and conventional song structure “important core elements.” And you can hear the results in 1999’s Talker, the third of the band’s five LPs. It’s… well… it’s easier to say what it isn’t. It’s not catchy. It’s not jingly jangly, hypnotic or heavy. It’s pure science, and this is not a science course. I despise science, as does the guy in row four in a pink Mohawk with the horrified look on his face. Don’t sweat it, kid, no discussions of geoscience here. Now lose the Mohawk. Time to rejoin the human race.

But, BUT! I do listen to U.S. Maple’s scientist rock, love it in fact, and the reason is our old friend Al Johnson. Johnson was my kind of guy. He didn’t sing or scream like he was mad at his girlfriend or play bugle like the guy who used to front Cows. No, he made all manner of aberrant noises. He did a good bit of hissing, like The Human Snake escaped from a traveling circus sideshow. And when he wasn’t hissing, he was groaning, producing spittle, warbling, gargling sand, and speaking in tongues. He even employed the human language on occasion, although it can be hard to tell what he’s saying because elocution isn’t his thing, And here’s the amazing part—as is the case with the band, none of what came out of his mouth was the result of spontaneous inspiration. Johnson notated every last particle of spittle on paper, using an arcane methodology of his own devising. He wasn’t insane—he was reading from a script.

But how could I have come this far without introducing the other members of the band? You, girl in the Metallica hoodie who last week after class confided to me she’s a big Styx fan, why didn’t you stop me at some point? Let’s see: Mark Shippy played what he called “high guitar.” What’s a high guitar? My guitar-playing genius pal Dennis Davis says Shippy’s playing brings to mind “a Tom Verlaine who time traveled from 1977 to today, bought a digital delay pedal, and was figuring out how to use it.” Then we have Todd Rittman on “low guitar,” whose playing had more muscle, making up for the fact that the band said fuck a bass player. Finally, we have Pat Samson on drums. Say hello to the class, Pat!

Geesh, look at the clock! Looks like I won’t have time to tell you about the night Sparks’ Ron Mael hit me in the head with a cue ball in a fight at a biker bar outside Des Moines, Iowa. But let me just say in closing—we can count ourselves lucky other bands didn’t follow U.S. Maple down the rabbit hole to rock and roll ruin. Then again, the only band that might have given it a go was Sonic Youth, and who would have cared save some insufferable art-rock loft dwellers. But try to imagine a deconstructed “Dust in the Wind.” It would have made scrambled eggs of rock’s deepest meditation on mortality and cast a permanent pall over my teen years.

Next week’s lesson—the occult meaning of the Blue Öyster Cult logo. Class dismissed!

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A

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