the curious case of myself a living torch
Somewhere around 1990 or 1991 we got woke.* That is, sometime in the early 1990’s, guitarist Eric Schulz (aka Harlan T Bobo), bassist Chris “Troy” Green (RIP), drummer Christopher Fisher, and I, performing in San Francisco as Darke County, became more broadly aware and sensitized to the political and cultural struggles going on around us, locally and degrees beyond. In a city like San Francisco, where diversity is the norm and homogeneity the exception, these struggles were evident to the open eye and open mind.
*As efforts mount to own, villainize or incapacitate the word and its underlying concept — a rising socio-political awareness — I'll double down; I believe it is the right word here.
LN CAVENDER PHOTO
It wasn’t that we changed identity then our song craft to fit. Rather, our songwriting led us organically to a new identity. We were trending, inevitably it seemed, toward a perspective broader than what Eric, Troy and I had carried with us from Ohio just two years earlier. It happens to all travelers, I suppose: an expanding awareness, a willingness to see the human condition from previously unexamined angles, newfound compassions and empathies emerge. After much discussion and debate, most of it hilarious in hindsight, we settled on an identity represented by a surprisingly inflammatory, overly wordy phrase: Myself a Living Torch.
Myself a Living Torch! This was our new band name.
(Hey, I suppose we’re all fortunate that Playboys of the Blessed Virgin didn’t win our little election; it was on the list and actually fairly near the top. And I still harbor a soft spot for one of the other candidates; The Merry Widows could have been deviously delicious. Oh, the possibilities!)
Our conversion wasn’t met with universal approval. In fact, most of our Darke County followers blanched. One went so far as to tell me, straight up, the new name was a massive mistake. “The most pretentious band name I’ve ever heard,” he proclaimed, as if trying to save us all from a grave error.
I explained that our new nom du groupe de musique was actually a phrase lifted directly from the acclaimed and controversial 1936 first-person novel Death on the Installment Plan by French writer Louis-Ferdinand Céline. It comes from a passage wherein things are going particularly sour for adolescent, prone-to-pathos Ferdinand in one of his many and various employment episodes, this one repairing tears in the fabric of a shabby hot air balloon:
“It was an awful chore … Especially because I used the carbide lamp so as to see what I was doing … which was pretty risky down there in the cellar … with all those adhesives … that are always lousy with benzene … It was trickling around all over the place … I could see myself a living torch!”
The scene, like so many others in the book, exemplifies Ferdinand’s indignity with being the butt of yet another of life’s seemingly endless parade of practical jokes. Essentially, the entire very long tale is a perpetual description of nothing less than his miserable, ill-fated state amid a squalid existence of debt, desperation and despair — and more messy, awkward sexual activity than would seem to be healthy, or even desirable, regardless of one’s appetite. So, as it relates to our band name, the reference is one of self-deprecation, not self-aggrandizement, you see. It was a darkly funny retort to the fates, I insisted, a nod to a revolutionary literary work. My critic wasn't moved.
Nonetheless, the name stuck. And perhaps from a pop music marketing perspective the change was indeed a critical misstep. When we recorded at Brilliant Studios in 1992, our producer’s business partner steadfastly refused to participate, almost entirely because of his aversion to our name. Really! In his view we were hopelessly hamstrung by an unfortunate combination of four words. Whereas, prior to our name change — and the Gulf War, I might add — this same producer, and his same business partner, were eager to bring us into the studio, capture our sound, and push us toward the golden hued horizon of major label A&R — all in a speculative deal, no less. Alas, blood-for-oil and the specter of war drained their enthusiasm. (Or was that just a convenient excuse?) And our own naive insistence on our new direction eventually withered the spec deal into yet one more spoonful of oblivion’s bitter dust.
But, but, but...
From an artistic standpoint, in my admittedly biased view, time and events have served only to validate the music and the name. Any individual who speaks against the abuse of power, who steps out onto the fragile limb of resistance, who dares to challenge normative complacencies, to explore the frontiers of human experience and consciousness, regardless of the scale of these acts, is metaphorically a “living torch” — not just illuminating the way for others, but risking his or her own figurative immolation with every gesture. And what is the art life, if it is to have any consequential meaning, other than a series of trials where each step takes the creator further into the flame of humility? The phrase “myself a living torch” is simply shorthand for “I am the willing and sometimes unwitting fool reporting back from the hellish conditions of life’s brutality, into which I have just been hurled. But oh, I will fight to the last breath and be richer for the ordeal.” Myself a Living Torch is a melodramatic conceit of humanity’s stubborn resiliency. I have to say now, the more I think about it, the more I like it! Revolution is essential to the soul!
Though the seeds were planted in earlier songs such as “Airport Lounge Waltz” and “Make a Wish,” the first recorded songs to signal the completion of our transition from Darke County’s romantic, Americana-at-midnight troubadours to MaLT’s noisy provocateurs of the personal politic were “Do Big Men Really Run the World?” and “The Future So Bright and Gold” (initially titled “Desperate”). Recording in early 1991 at the late Tom Mallon’s 350 Bryant Studio, both are untempered pleas from the trenches of desperation, aching for inspiration and connection amid a climate instead thriving on oppression and de-humanization. Both mark a move from Darke County’s debonair twang to a form riding the edge of anger and aggression, both directed at redemption and a higher plane of wisdom. Once these songs were finished, we felt like we had no choice but to evolve.
“Do Big Men Really Run the World?” b/w “The Future So Bright and Gold”
(1991 demo versions)
If you say this is all too serious for pop music, you could surely be right. Who, in their hard-earned free time, wants to stare down the polished boot of the oppressor? Who in a tidy state of sanity wants to catapult headlong in the abyss to see just where it ends? Such frivolities are the domain of academia, philosophy and critique — staples in a milieu of tedium, nitpicking and thick glasses, yeah. But, by and large, it ain’t for rock music consumers. Is it even smart to be that smart?
But then there are those of us who, due to whatever (faulty) wiring arrangement, just can’t seem to get enough of life’s perversity. Some of us simply cannot help ourselves; the core of the mystery is too seductive, and we are repeatedly led toward the flame, and against better judgement reach toward the glowing hot ember.
Such is the curious case of Myself a Living Torch. Will its music ever align with cultural consciousness? Will the poison arrow of Cupid’s devious love ever find its fleshy mark? Only time and events will tell.
Meanwhile, we are left with the artifacts. And only to consider and practice a measure of amateur anthropology...
Never before published, and here unveiled for the first time to eyes outside the inner circle is the Myself a Living Torch Manifesto, likely written at the time of the name change (warning: contains profanity and radical ideology):
In an attempt to codify and convey their intentions, this absurdist word collage, obviously an extension of the manifesto, was constructed as a stand-in for the traditional band bio in MaLT's initial, late 1991 / early 1992 press kit:
• BLEAK ROMANTICISM • EXISTENTIAL PATHOS • VELVET
• METAPHYSICAL NATURALISM • BLACK COMEDY
• PERSONAL REVOLUTION • THE POLITICS OF LIVING • PERSONAL SCALE
• LUST • COSMOLOGICALLY HYPNOTIC AND MOODY • GODSPEED
• MARRIAGE OF GOOD AND EVIL
• MEANING OF LOVE AND ROLE OF SEX IN A FAILING, DEPERSONALIZED CULTURE
• CATHARSIS • CELEBRITY NAME DROPPING • CATHARSIS
• UNIVERSAL ARMS • ZEALOTS FOR POPULAR MISCHIEF • PROVOCATION WITH APLOMB
• ARCH-DISCO ANTI-SURF ROCK-A-BILLY JAZZ COUNTRY TANGO DOCU-DRAMA
• SEARCH FOR DIGNITY AMID COMPROMISE, MEDIOCRITY AND DREAD
• CORRUPTION • LIFE AS RELIGION • ASTRAL HARLOTRY • DRINK
• WHAT’S MY GENDER ROLE? • WHITE COLLAR CRIME • CRIME
• MODERN URBAN ROMANCE • NOIR • SEX CLOWN • MONEY
• A GREENER, SEXIER WORLD
• GENERAL NARCISSISM • RELATIVE REALITY • CHOICE
• SURREALISM IN CALIFORNIA • LA LUNA • ENVIRONMENTALISM OF THE SOUL
• CASTING INTO PERDITION SANCTIMONIOUS MORAL OPPRESSORS
• TIME TRAVEL • SADO-MASOCHISM FOR FUN AND PROFIT • SEXUAL PSYCHOLOGY
• SYMPATHY AND IRREVERENCE
In grand mal conclusion, I point toward the re-release of Citizen Self, MaLT’s quixotic, if earnest, 1992 6-song EP, executed with bravery against the will of our producer’s business partner and available now on Bandcamp with limited free streaming and digital download — as well as in the physical realm on original edition CD and cassette. Yes, you read that correctly: HXPRO Chromium Dioxide hi-bias cassette tapes! Still in shrink wrap, this original made-in-1992-America stock has been unearthed and pushed back out into the light of day.
6-song EP streaming worldwide; available on CD and cassette.