The Speed At The Heart Of The World’s Most Beautiful Soup Can, The Roar And Burn Of Chopper Wheels In Your Bedroom And The Beatles Going Very Fast: An infinitesimal scratch at the surface of speed in popular art. By Ethan P Miller
I’ve been asked to take you on a mini-odyssey of my interest, wonder and respect of speed, a witching hour scrawl to accompany my song, a musical love letter and filmmaker Joe Denardo’s visual ode to the much-maligned, misunderstood and anti-glamorized (al)chemical.
Speed has, for the most part, remained elusive in the kind of sub-cultural homage and praise as muse or mind expander that marijuana, LSD and of course the oft-romanticized (but extremely tricky to stay on top of) heroin have received fairly regularly over the past six decades. When I pull the curtain just slightly back on some of what I consider to be the most important art and music of the second half of the 20th century I often find that the little Oz, that gear grinder and reality scrambler at the heart of the idea and universal thought and comprehension behind these huge ideas and works is speed.
Let me be clear: many works that I find tremendously important have nothing to do with the use of enhancers and reality changers. I am in no way a believer in the notion that drugs make great art or that artists need to be damaged or in pain or fucked up in some way to truly access the muse or any of that critics’ romance duck-shit. Great art comes from ideas, from a human mind. That mind can function in extraordinary ways be it sober as a judge, drunk as a lord, high as a Peruvian coq, or stoned as the rock of Gibraltar. There is no ‘best’ way to bring ideas from a spark in the deep, dark, exploding black and purple depths of the subconscious into the foremost of our thoughts and from there usher it into the world in a physical form that, at it’s most successful and propulsive, will effect other people and in some cases illuminate and/or change the course of human culture. That said, we can all agree that the use of chemicals, the absence of the same chemicals, the engagement with excess, the lack of sleep or the use of speed, hell, even whether it’s foggy or sunny out the window— all have a very real effect on the thought process and the following perspective that ushers an idea into a fully formed creative work. And in many cases speed has played an exceptional role as lens for the process of great works.
In my casual and rambling investigations of the places where speed was present and played a role in art and creativity in its’ most rewarding forms I have found that the outcome seems to break down into two main categories of expression: 1. ecstatic mania/ momentum, (think of the high speed rhythmic infinity and adrenalized motion of Lou Reed’s white light/ white heat = pure action/ pure feeling) and 2. Ultra connectivity, the artist is lifted into the eye of a great storm, a swirl and tempest so vast and colorful as to be blinding to the point of opacity to the sober viewer. Here the speeding artist views, comprehends and expresses the humanity they’ve found, returns from the big bang with uber-panoramas of the DNA structure of the consciousness of that humanity (in sticking with Lou, think this time about his narrative-song masterpiece ‘Street Hassle’; a few black and white snap-shots of desperate lives projected, reflected and expanded into infinite shades of complex emotion and action, collectively expressing and becoming the damaged consciousness of 1970s America and resonating endlessly.)
Ever wonder why we’re still staring at Warhol’s canned soup? Or why his monotone images of yester-century celebrities still drape, as mighty tapestry, the palace walls of 21st century culture? It is because within them lies one of the most extraordinary examples of ultra-connectivity. A soup can. A Pandora’s box within which broils the whole of the human story from lifting upright onto two legs from the swamp to the writing of this essay, my pounding of a computer keyboard, a device so futuristic and complex and yet already outdated and vintage in comparison to the totality in which present day humans live a life completely dominated by ‘smart’ devices and machines.
Yes, on the surface of Warhol’s famous silk-screen work, it is ‘pop art’ elevating the mundane, the mass-produced, the commercial lifted to the level of high art. The soup can itself is a common thing, a still-life, endowed with the irony of a cheap, simple lunk elevated on a pedestal and sold for millions based on the manipulated intellectual perspective of the viewer. A bold idea at the time, no doubt, but why does it still mesmerize? How does the soup can work as an incredible abstract statement when very little in the history of art has seemingly been more plainly stated on the canvas.
Because one can feel the eye-of-the-storm energy within this simple soup can. Why have we gazed upon it over and over? Why it has become one of the most viewed and greatly discussed works of art in human history? My guess is because of its speed. Because what that work really shows, is the capturing of the eye of the storm of all human history, as mesmerizing a piece of ‘storm’ art as Turner’s great sea paintings or Pollock’s free, looping labyrinths of the sub-psyche.
Warhol’s soup can, monolithically still, yet buzzing at its edges, echoing infinitely in its white spaces, is surrounded with the roar of American culture, especially modernization and industrialization, and then art history, and then human history and finally the birth of human kind. The soup can is the big bang, the apple that tempted Eve, the far end of the Edison bulb filament from which all human life has sprung and continues to flow in a great, endless cycle of energy, neither created nor destroyed— flowing, apple to soup can and all points, all space, all myth, all matter and all things in between: all the same, all energy.
So when Warhol set out to create his masterpiece, to silk screen his Finnegans Wake in a single noun, it is through the lens of speed that he gazed upon his big idea, or rather, through that lens that he gazed upon the storm of the great unconscious and was able to focus, brilliantly, beyond the pure noise and blur of the tempest to show us something extraordinary, beautiful, frightening, horrifying and massive about our story together so far.
Through that lens he tangled with, and untangled his greatest subject and work. The work as it stands, as a final piece, is absolutely humming with the energy of speed, as if it was possessed. The canvas still vibrates with the tipping of Finnegan from his ladder, humanity falling and rising, falling and rising in endless cycle. It is why, when we stand before the soup can, we don’t feel mundane, sleepy or indifferent as should be the normal response to staring at a simplified rendition of a mass-market object of little monetary, spiritual or intellectual value of any kind. Instead we feel the speed, ultra-focus, agitation, vertigo, heat, a vast semi-formless comprehension passing over us like a ghost, the electricity of humanity popping and exploding before us, the human genome from all recorded time twisting and shuffling before us. We feel the air and vibration beneath our body, the first solo flight, the horrors of the holocaust, childhood, true love in a hazy, ancient room, the moment that that bone of carcass became a tool; a gateway to ‘civilization’ as Kubrick showed us through the magical flicker of another lens, we feel industrialization in time-lapse, the fall of Lucifer and the casting out of Adam and Eve, the present, the past and the future combined into one still, focused, speeding monolith.
Had Warhol been creating through the lens of psychedelics or marijuana or some other psyche-enhancer/alterer I believe we would now have a very different work before us than this great, deceptively plain, grandfather clock of an idea that has the ability to carry in it human time and history. Ultra-connectivity, a mania of function, the grandiose on macro, universal scale, the stillness of the ultra-mundane and the improbable miracle of the atom and human gene; one. An extraordinary work of the speeding mind.
Lemmy Kilmister. Perhaps the most well known speed artist. High lord of raw, fast, heavy jams and rock and roll speed incarnate. Lemmy is at the other end of the spectrum of speed expression. In his work, speed simply expresses the great, hurtling, opaque, boiling NOW. Lemmy’s speed expression in art was not a focused, eye of the storm capture, but was much more of a reflection of the mania aspect. Almost every Motörhead song feels like grit, raw energy, adrenaline, base psyche, the basic sub-intellect building blocks of all of our physical human function and psychic pleasure turned up past ten— all the time.
Lemmy’s speed expression is basically the expression of the fundamental beating of the human heart, in this case pounding, fast and at a sustained and deafening rate. His expression is the flash of the pure, blinding sensory experience we feel upon the moment of impact in a car accident, in orgasm, when we are walking along in a daydream and a dog jumps from out of nowhere at us in vicious action, gnashing in a predatory lunge— let’s face it, the history of the universe doesn’t exactly unfold in these moments— our experience is based on adrenaline, fight or flight reflexes, a psychic and physical flashbulb popping and blinding us in a dark room, so that we are bypassing intellect and in most cases any thought at all. We experience pure feel, momentum and reflex.
Lemmy has captured this aspect of speed expression, and indeed this totally present-tense, explosive, pure action part of the human experience as well as anyone in art. It’s not just that he looked like a biker, and in many ways lived like one, his art was the sound and feeling of a whole biker gang roaring into your bedroom and burning out the carpet down to the blackened sub-floor. Frightful, exhilarating, mesmerizing and though there is horror at these psychic Visigoths, you very well may eventually rise from your shelter under the bed and climb on the back of one of their iron horses to go raiding down the highway and leave the quiet ‘everyday’ life behind, social contract in ashes, ripping into the asphalt horizon full throttle for the infinite visceral. Speed.
What about the Beatles? Acid and questionable Indian gurus get the credit for opening the fab four’s collective mind (and popular culture) to psychedelia and exotic spirituality but over half a decade earlier it was speed that was the lens through which they saw the end of their small street in Liverpool give way to the broader world via the all-night bar gigs of Hamburg, their gateway to the universe, both literally and artistically. The world of the night, the world of extreme work ethic, of music pouring over them like an ocean and the little pills that helped them to drink in, in ultra-vivid comprehension, a flood of music and (sub)culture that was blasting over them in nearly 24 hour cycles, every day. These speeding Hamburg nights would be the foundation for the Beatles profound abilities together as a group for the rest of their earth-shaking career.
It’s no coincidence that as the Beatles cut their teeth on the entire young history of rock and roll their minds were wide open and racing a million miles an hour, drinking a raging music river that would become an ocean, aided by speed, cheap beer and gangster’s champagne during all-night, 8 hour sets, physicality pushed beyond normal human limits to work, drink and party almost limitlessly. Speed is the mechanism by which they could surpass the human boundaries of sleep and rejuvenation and the neon wedge propping the trapdoor in the their minds wide open so that they could absorb and retain it all while existing in a warp speed state.
Their mastery of ‘the people’s music,’ the sense of performance and endurance, their 360 degree ears for song, melody and rock and roll, their expression of the lovable but raw edge and expression as a single entity, one band, never four musicians (ok, let’s ignore Abby Road for now to let this point lie) these were all the seeds planted in their speed era. From the dreamy half-sleep of youth and 1950’s British school days to the pungent awakening and entering the world— WIDE awake, mind wide open. A gulp-less swallowing of music, of the world, of life and all it’s possibilities and horizons leading out of the cavernous club back door in the conquered dawn— this moment provided the granite cornerstones for the foundation that would be beneath all else the Beatles built and speed was an integral part of the lens and mechanism of that moment.
Of course, not all combinations of minds and speed are good ones. Many essays have previously documented the horrible outcomes of the wrong mind or wrong population coming into extended contact with speed. Speed enhances the thought and emotional momentum of a mind. An open mind is made more open, a searching mind sees the hidden geography beyond the horizon of the nearest hillside, a loving person finds positives and curiosity in people who would normally be faceless strangers on the street. But the blank mind is easily filled by another’s ideas and motivations and the mind prone to evil is often given momentum and made fearless in the execution of their worst ideas.
My three examples: Warhol, Lemmy and the Beatles are a few rather obvious lodestones of speed art, an almost infinitesimal scratching of the surface on the subject. From there we’re just a hop, skip and a jump to other famous speed creators close to my heart: Kerouac/Cassady/Burroughs/the beats/HST, the revolution in country music in the 60s & 70s fueled by speed, the go-fast chemicals of the punk/ new wave/ no wave movement, Leonard Cohen’s outspoken love of speed, radical 70’s film makers like Fassbinder and John Waters speed edge, speed element in radical feminism, science fiction writing, in dance, in sports, in the White House and on and on. The investigation of the results of the speed lens in art and culture could go on forever. Point is, it is flowing everywhere under post World War II western culture like subterranean lava.
Would these works and cultural events and histories have existed without speed? Perhaps, perhaps not. But they would not have been the same that much is for sure. They WERE made with speed, through that lens, through that perspective and they burn with something we recognize as both an ecstatic and deeply human flare of energy turned up beyond the normal burn rate into something that continues to fascinate, mesmerize and serve our collective story.
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